What Is the Question “What Are Women For?” For?
February 18, 2012

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...

The Dude (via Wikipedia)

Now that everyone’s gotten in their shots at James Poulos (including my friend Lisa McIntire, who I think wins the award for both aplomb and bile), I’d like to skip ahead to his follow-up column and zero in on what seems like one of the more toxic premises undergirding this whole exercise (emphasis mine):

Women are largely freer than ever to pursue their life plans without the burden of a moral obligation to center their activity and their ambitions around exercising their unique reproductive capabilities.

Yet the story doesn’t end there. We still argue and wonder about which life plans to choose in a civilization that has greatly and productively loosened the once-intense moral link between women’s fecundity and women’s lives as unique individuals. And one area in which patriarchal dominance has persisted is in privileging some kinds of human pursuits over others. Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger have disapprovingly warned of the apparently natural propensity of men to fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.

Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality. I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men. But this sort of insight is far more circumspect and modest than the central principles of virtually all social conservatives.

While I was in Israel, I heard a Hasidic rabbi — new Hasidic, mind you, with an acoustic guitar and all the affectations of a totally chillaxed SoCal beach bro — make a very similar argument. His intention was to demonstrate to us that the convention of identifying God with the male pronoun “He” wasn’t really sexist or patriarchal, because all it did was link God to the male creator energy. The universe, he argued, had a distinctly female creation energy, which was great for women, because it meant that they were intrinsically closer to their creator — God — than us guys, who don’t hold within ourselves as much of the female creation energy.

According to Rabbi Jack Johnson, the reason why men observe Shabbat — during which time Jews are forbidden from participating in any act of creation — is to become, in a sense, more female, and therefore more receptive to God’s male creation energy. Women don’t have as difficult a time doing this, because they’re already predisposed, but — unfortunately, says the good Rabbi at this point — modern women have absorbed more of the male creator energy in recent years as they’ve taken a greater participatory role in politics, business, and other profane worldly affairs.

I don’t think I’m quite doing justice to how well the Rabbi framed this fundamentally conservative argument in the liberal-values-friendly vocabulary of hippie-dippie-dom. Lucky for us, he betrayed himself by blurting out the word “unfortunately,” thereby disclosing what the real implications of this worldview were. If women want to stay close to God all week — the way men try to get close to God from Friday evening through Saturday afternoon — then they need to abstain from icky male creator acts. You leave all the politicking, horse trading, art-making and craft-working to us menfolk, sweetie. That way it won’t soil your special connection with The Ultimate Manfolkperson.

Thus we see closeness to God become a consolation prize to be awarded to that underclass which Rabbi Duderino wishes barred — either by social convention or other means — from having any direct agency in worldly affairs. Poulos, along with the philosophers he enlists in his cause, appears to be making the same argument. Difference may not presume or ordain inequality, but I’d love to hear what makes this preferred state of affairs anything but deeply unequal.

UPDATE: Elias Isquith (whose blog you should be reading, if you aren’t already) tweets:

some men think if they turn up the “Madonna” and down the “Whore” in their Madonna/Whore complex, they’re feminists

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Blueprints to the Universe
February 13, 2012

In which Slate pulls an old classic out of the archives of the now-defunct Lingua Franca magazine. The topic: an enigmatic millionaire and amateur philosopher who, under the pseudonym “A.M. Monius,” wrote an audacious metaphysical treatise called “Coming to Understanding.” From the article:

“Coming to Understanding” is a remarkable document. As Ermanno Bencivenga observes in his review, in its sheer temerity the work resembles such philosophical landmarks as René Descartes’s Meditations, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. (Bencivenga describes it as “a self-standing piece of reflection which asks to be judged on its own merit.”) With few citations and nary a footnote, the manuscript seeks to provide “a large-scale account of reality, its origin, purpose, and how it hangs together.” The questions it engages are grand: Does reality have a purpose? Why are things intelligible at all?

As a work of metaphysics, “Coming to Understanding” picks up where science leaves off. The purview of science is the world of “contingent beings”—things that might not have existed, or might have been otherwise, such as you, me, electrons, mountains, and the law of gravity. Science strives to explain the nature, properties, and causes of these contingent beings, which as a whole make up our physical reality.
But science does not and cannot explain why there are contingent beings in the first place. That is a question for metaphysics: Why do contingent beings exist? Or, put plainly, why is there something rather than nothing?

In answering that question, A.M. Monius laid out a new vision of the underlying architecture of reality:

“Coming to Understanding” proposes replacing the theists’ God with reality as a whole, or Being. It also advocates replacing God’s personal intention (that contingent beings come to love God) with an impersonal, fundamental good (that contingent beings come to understand the form of Being). Having made these substitutions, A.M. Monius reaches the following conclusion: “Contingent being exists for the sake of the coming to understanding of the form of Being Itself by contingent being.” In other words, “the central theme of the whole drama of reality” is that beings like you and me and A.M. Monius come to understand the purpose and structure of reality.

And as it happens, the purpose and structure of reality are precisely what A.M. Monius has on offer. In sophisticated detail, the last two-thirds of “Coming to Understanding” are devoted to a discussion of categories similar to Aristotle’s, such as the Universal, the Particular, the Spatio-temporal, and the Cognizable. A.M. Monius believes that these categories demarcate the fundamental types of Being and—in light of their interrelations—suggest the purpose of contingent being.

Silly? Maybe a little bit. But what makes A.M. Monius such an intriguing figure — both to myself and, I think, his critics in academia — is his ambition and fearlessness; his willingness to look silly for the sake of answering really big questions. If there are many contemporary analytic philosophers out there who share Monius’ temerity, I haven’t encountered them.* (That said, if you do know of any, please leave their names in the comments.) Maybe it took a precocious amateur to do what no sane, reputation-conscious academic would ever attempt.

I often miss these grand projects, unrepentant skeptic that I may be. Regardless of whether you think they describe anything true about the universe — regardless, in fact, of whether you believe there’s any such thing as a metaphysical fact — they at least give you a different lens through which to view the world. Think of it as accidental phenomenology.

*Some philosophy nerds would probably point to On What Matters, but Parfit’s subject matter there is limited to ethics.

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Mind and God
December 5, 2011

For all you New Atheists out there, a little compare and contrast exercise. Tell me if you think this proof makes sense:

  1. My mind is identical to certain neurochemical processes in the brain.
  2. We have observed these neurochemical processes, and have verified that they exist.
  3. Therefore, my mind exists.

If that one sounds valid, how about this one?

  1. God is identical to the whole of nature.
  2. We have observed the whole of nature, and verified that it exists.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

I can think of two objections to the second proof. The first is that a lot of modern theists might not be able to sign onto our working definition of God. Fair enough, but I should note that our pantheistic account is not wholly without precedent — Baruch Spinoza believed in deus sive natura (God or nature) as interchangeable properties, and much of Eastern philosophy contains roughly analogous concepts. (Replace “God” with “tao,” and the proof still holds.)

The second, stickier objection is that “God” in this proof has a form, but not much content. (Same goes for tao.) We can point to physical properties we believe to be correlated with God as much as we’d like, but the deity’s most important properties are entirely spiritual. So demonstrating the existence of certain physical phenomena that we’d expect to exist in a God-created universe really tells us absolutely nothing.

So for atheists who believe in the existence of their own minds, here’s the dilemma: why does that rebuttal apply to the second proof, but not the first?

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On Godless Theology
November 26, 2011

Guys, I dunno about this:

It’s important to understand that atheists scare religious people not because we’re different, in other words, but because our beliefs do literally threaten their own. We don’t simply present ourselves as another religious group whose beliefs can be kept to ourselves. We openly and unabashedly argue that religion is toxic and we’d like to see it end, just as we believe sexism and racism are toxic and should end.

My first thought on reading something like the above is that I must be pretty shitty at being an atheist. For one thing, I’m terrible at scaring religious people, even when I wear my black turtleneck and talk about how heaven is a lie and death is the end of existence. (It does not help that I am not a very intimidating dude.)

But then, maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I certainly don’t “openly and unabashedly” call for the death of religion, like good atheists are supposed to. That’s probably because I openly and unabashedly don’t care whether or not people believe in God.

Really, the whole New Atheist “death to religion” push seems like a case of misdirected priorities to me. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the history of Communism and watching The Big Lebowski, it’s that people don’t need religion as an excuse to do shitty things to each other. Religious people don’t even have a monopoly on banning abortion!

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that religious claims are false, and people shouldn’t be teaching their children lies as a means of controlling them. To that, I again say: “Eh.” It really depends on the character of the religious claim being made. People shouldn’t have to grow to adulthood thinking that the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs died because they got left off the ark (the world is actually 8,000 years old, and dinosaurs died because they were too awesome for this fallen world). But most religious claims — indeed, the most popular and important ones — are metaphysical in nature. They don’t concern facts in this world, but the other world. You know, that one.

You can call claims about that world “lies,” but I prefer to think of them as “fictions.” A lie is a verifiably false claim — false in the sense that it contradicts a fact. But what is the nature of a “fact” that takes place outside of the physical world? On what grounds do you call a claim about that world “false?”

The standard atheist response here is that such a world doesn’t exist. “There is something beyond the material world” is a false claim, and any subsequent claim that takes that one as a premise is also false. Which, sure, okay. The only problem with that argument is that most of the people making it don’t seem to really believe it.

(more…)

Wittgenblogging: The Sixth Proposition, Part 2
November 30, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein 2
Image by Christiaan Tonnis via Flickr

(Part 1 is here.)

Okay. So. In the last few pages of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein finally gets around to tying up some of the nagging loose ends. Stuff like ethics, aesthetics, God, life, and death. As far as the first three go, whether or not you think Wittgenstein believes they exist sort of depends on what you think “exists” means. Are they a part of the world? No. Do they interact directly with the world? No. (“God does not reveal himself in the world.”) However, they seem to interact in some with the will. (Which, itself, doesn’t really interact with the world except to the extent that it influences your body’s behavior. “[T]here is no logical connexion between the will and the world,” says Wittgenstein.)

That doesn’t mean that these matters are irrelevant. After all, the will — the self — is the “limit of the world,” as we discovered the last time around. What changes the limit of the world, Wittgenstein writes, makes it “an altogether different world. […] The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” This fits in with his earlier expressed affinity for solipsism, compounded when he says that, “at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end.”

So what are ethics and aesthetics, exactly? To Wittgenstein, they’re transcendental properties that are “higher” than logical propositions. That’s why neither ethics nor aesthetics can actually be put into words or logical propositions. It’s also worth noting Wittgenstein’s construction of how good is good and bad is bad: “There must indeed be some kind of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but they must reside in the action itself.” Skepticism of the existence of God or ethical laws is “nonsensical,” because “it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked.” Asking a question requires being able to formulate a proposition.

For Wittgenstein, that’s pretty much it. There is no discussion to be had about the nature of God, or beauty, or right and wrong. And that’s where I hesitate to jump aboard. It seems to me that these things aren’t so much transcendental properties that act upon the self as properties of the self. We build them as much as they build us, and as such it is within our power to change them. Therein lies the value of asking questions about these things and formulating propositions: we can refine those questions and propositions. We can make them more internally consistent and we can make them better for us. The questions may not strictly have what Wittgenstein would call sense, but they do have some utility.

Wittgenblogging: Proposition 4 and the Cartesian Circle
November 11, 2010

Meditationes de prima philosophia - Renatus Ca...
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Peter highlights one of the more intriguing findings of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ fourth proposition, regarding the slipperiness of trying to describe or prove logic itself. Logic is the underlying framework of the universe; you can’t construct a proof to demonstrate the validity of logic, or precisely describe logic itself, because doing so would require stepping outside of logic. That’s not something we’re capable of. Peter has a good analogy:

Sort of how I can’t really tell you what it’s like to be alive, because both you and I would have to be dead first to actually comprehend the contrast.

I first encountered the problem of how to demonstrate that logic or reason were useful tools for understanding the universe in Descartes’ Meditations. Early on in the Meditations, Descartes decides that if he can’t be certain of the validity of his perception, then reason is all he has to rely on. But then he starts asking himself why he has any reason to think that reason itself is reliable, and the result is the painfully contorted piece of reasoning we call the Cartesian Circle.

It goes like this:

  1. Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive (meaning, essentially, can hold in my mind and understand wholly from a mental picture) is true.
  2. I know that my clear and distinct perceptions are accurate because they are given to me by God, and God is not a deceiver.
  3. I know God exists because I can clearly and distinctly perceive Him. I just imagine a perfect, infinite being, and understand that it is more perfect for something to exist than to not exist.

I don’t think I need to spell out the problems here. And it shouldn’t be hard to see why I prefer Wittgenstein’s far more elegant answer to the question: “How do we know reason itself is valid?”

Wittgenblogging: The Third Proposition
October 17, 2010

Please read Peter’s thoughts on the second proposition. What he writes about the gestalt of knowledge is quite true, and I’ve found myself doing it a bit too. As Wittgenstein delves more into the philosophy of language—a subject I unwisely elected not to take in college, going for philosophy of mind instead—he loses me in a thicket of expressions, symbols, propositions, variable, propositional variables, and so on. But his thoughts on what can be understood and articulated—and therefore, for our purposes, exist—has been extremely helpful. I’m starting to embrace Wittgenstein’s view that what we call “metaphysics” is more a sort of confusion over what language is capable of expressing.

On that note, I found the first few passages in the third proposition a lot more engaging than the rest, which mostly concerned itself with the heavy-duty philosophy of language that is both beyond my ken and not directly relevant to my own philosophical project.

In the early going, Wittgenstein attempts to explain why, when discussing and describing things, we’re limited to discussing and describing them logically. That’s the sort of suggestion that’s bound to make a lot of people bristle; more than once I’ve heard proponents of mystical views about the universe defend these views by insisting that you can’t critique them logically, because they exist outside of logic. To which Wittgenstein says:

3. A logical picture of facts is a thought.

[…]

3.031 It used to be said that God could create anything except what would be contrary to the laws of logic. The truth is that we could not say what an ‘illogical’ world would look like.

3.032 It is as impossible to represent in language anything that ‘contradicts logic’ as it is in geometry to represent by its coordinations a figure that contradicts the laws of space, or to give the coordinates of a point that does not exist.

One obvious objection one might raise: People say illogical things all the time! It’s not very hard. For example, if I say, “Boris Yeltsin is the pineapple of my green space” (surely the first time that has ever been said), that seems, on the face of it, like an illogical proposition. But it also doesn’t really express anything, which is why you can’t form a mental picture of it. Now apply that same reasoning to a sentence like, “We are all one, because spirit is everything.” It sure sounds like that means something. Does it?

I’m curious to hear what Peter thinks about Wittgenstein’s definition of a “thought.” Surely his discipline—cognitive neuroscience—has a thing or two to say on the topic.

Wittgenblogging: The Second Proposition
October 10, 2010

Here we go. Right around halfway through the second proposition—which is a good eight or nine times longer than the first—things start to get complicated.

Here Wittgenstein introduces several new concepts into his list of the constituent parts of the universe. In the last proposition we got facts and things (AKA objects). Now we also have:

  • States of affairs: Arrangements of objects in some definitive relationship to one another. All possible states of affairs are encoded into the relevant objects regardless of whether or not those states occur.
  • Form: ”The possibility of structure.” I think of form as the distinguishing characteristics by which we can organize objects. So for example, color is a form because we can identify commonalities between different objects based on their proximity on the spectrum of color. Time is one because it is one of the major organizing principles of our experience, but doesn’t appear to have any substance to it. Speaking of which:
  • Substance: ”What subsists independently of what is the case.” Also: “Objects make up the substance of the world.” I think substance is that which is empirically observed and not really open to interpretation.
  • Pictures: Models of reality we construct in our heads, be they accurate or inaccurate.
  • Sense: That which a picture represents. “The agreement or disagreement of its sense with reality constitutes its truth or falsity.”

But what strikes me most about the second proposition isn’t what Wittgenstein identifies as constituting reality, but what he  excludes. For example, Wittgenstein writes that, “It is essential to things that they should be possible constituents of states of affairs.” And also: “The sum-total of reality is the world.” This “reality” doesn’t include anything like values, God, or any other sort of metaphysical propositions.

And here’s something else: Wittgenstein argues that pictures, even if they are not intended to correspond with the world as it actually is, most still borrow some form from them. So, as he says in the last line of the second proposition: “There are no pictures that are true a priori.” That leaves me with the question: Does Wittgenstein think all a priori reasoning is impossible? Or just pictures?

Thanks for your response to my last question. Did Kant's a priori have any influence on how Christians perceive their God? For instance, everyone (to my knowledge) in the old testament perceives God through one of the five senses, however I doubt all Christians still claim to experience their God that way. I would ask a Christian this, but I live in Vermont so no one I know is religious.
October 8, 2010

Well, I’m really the wrong person to ask if you’re looking for the opinion of a Christian. But most of the accounts I’ve heard and read from other Christians tend to rely on some sort of a posteriori evidence, be it an external event they’re convinced was caused by God, or just the sensation of His presence (I’m calling this a posteriori because these folks have the phenomenological experience of some external force acting upon them, regardless of whether or not that is actually what’s going on).

On the other hand, maybe claims like, “I was lost until I found God” could be taken to be a priori, because it could mean that these particular individuals found within themselves, entirely through self-reflection, that lack which could only be mitigated by a divine presence. But then again, saying that you’re unfulfilled without God doesn’t imply the existence of God—it could just as easily mean that you’re doomed to be permanently unfulfilled. There’s another step somewhere in there.

So I don’t really know. The only truly a priori argument I can think of for the existence of God—in the Kantian sense, unless I’m mistaken, though this predates Kant—is Descarte’s proof. But Descarte’s proof is a total mess, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to emulate it.

I guess I’ll open this up to the believers in my readership. Not just the Christians, but anyone who places faith in the divine. Are you basing that faith off of external evidence, personal reflection, or some combination of the two?

How could a Deity display its omnipotence?
October 4, 2010

Wow, that is … a very difficult question.

I think this question might actually be a good example of why the concept of an omnipotent being is logically incoherent. It’s sort of a variation on the old, “Could God make a boulder so heavy he couldn’t move it?” question. Presumably, an omnipotent being would have some way of conclusively demonstrating His omnipotence, but the manner in which He would do so eludes me.

Certainly, none of the miracles in the Bible could, in isolation, be taken as proof of omnipotence. As the Oxford logic professor Alfred Ayer points out in Language, Truth and Logic, verifiable phenomena demonstrate only themselves, and not any metaphysical properties you might want to associate with them. So, for example, if we had definitive proof that the Biblical parting of the Red Sea did, in fact, occur, and that there was no other readily available naturalistic explanation for that phenomenon, you might be tempted to say that it was a miracle and proved the existence of God. But all that it really proves is that there exists something we don’t yet understand which caused something else to happen. If the word “God” is exhausted by the definition “that which parted the Red Sea,” then yes, its existence is undeniable. But it doesn’t follow that this entity is omnipotent, or even sentient.

So perhaps the only way to directly experience the existence of an omnipotent God is to be that God.

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