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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International Ethics
November 12, 2010

Sergio Vieira de Mello
Image via Wikipedia

So right now I’m working my way through the first half of Samantha Power’s excellent book Sergio. It’s a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello (pictured), who the back cover describes as “a charismatic peacemaker and troubleshooter with the United Nations.” Oh, and also, “a ‘cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy.’”

Vieira de Mello himself is a fascinating tour guide, but what makes his story relevant — and not merely compelling — is that his career took him through the slow, painful birth of our current world order. From 1969 to his death in 2003, he watched the bipolar world disappear, Westphalian sovereignty begin to mutate and erode, humanitarianism’s role in foreign affairs change, and terrorism rear its ugly head.

One thing that I think makes Vieira de Mello a particularly good guide to these issues is his philosophical background. He actually juggled his UN duties with earning a doctorate at the Sorbonne, and it’s clear that he made an effort to integrate what he learned about academic philosophy into his thinking on the UN’s mission. It seems that he didn’t have a choice: Power quotes a letter he wrote while taking undergraduate courses at the Sorbonne in which he says he would “never abandon philosophy,” and that, “to do philosophy is to have it in your blood and to do what very few will do — to both be a man and to think everywhere and always.”

Unfortunately, we only get little snippets of his philosophical writing on problems related to foreign policy. Early on, there’s a passing reference to intersubjectivity (in phenomenology, the perception of another as a subject rather than an object) as the basis for dealing with foreign powers. And a little later, we learn that his doctoral dissertation, called “Philosophical History and Real History: The Relevance of Kant’s Political Thought in Current Times,” he argued for a global Kantian “federation of states” that would not breach the sovereignty of other states unless their internal political instability proved to be an international threat.

I mostly picked up this book due to my deepening interest in international relations, but the philosophical angle is an intriguing one. I’m used to thinking about ethics in terms of how individual actors interact with one another, but states are not individual actors in the same way people are. Creating a just society is one thing; imagining just arbitration between societies that are just to varying degrees is another. But when I try to think of philosophers who have addressed this head-on, it’s hard to name any. I know Kant talked about international relations, but I haven’t read the source material itself. I think Kymlicka talked a little about it too.

Who else? Help me out, fellow philosophy nerds.

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?

Nietzsche Blogging: Homer’s Contest
August 23, 2010

The Death of Socrates
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I’m about 30 pages into The Portable Nietzsche now, and a few prominent themes are already becoming pretty obvious. The most obvious one: Nietzsche loves himself some Greeks. Homer, of course, gets a major shout out in “Homer’s Contest,” but the German philosopher’s greatest affinity seems to be for the Athenian philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and so on.

It turns out that Nietzsche likes the ancients for a lot of the same reasons I do: he takes issue with the utilitarian, enlightenment-era notion of aggregate pleasure or utility as an ultimate moral end. Nietzsche sees truth as a worthwhile end in and of itself, not to mention excellence.

I’m completely onboard with truth as an end, but on the fence regarding virtue and excellence. Or, to put it more accurately, I think virtue and excellence are fine things, but that it’s nonsensical to think of them as something that could put you above other persons in any morally relevant sense. I’m not sure how I feel about the second formulation from Kant’s categorical imperative (the part that says: never treat others as means, always treat them as ends in and of themselves) as a set in stone law ad absurdum, but I think there’s considerable merit to it as a general rule of thumb.

Nietzsche clearly disagrees. To him, the lives of the vast majority of humankind are valuable only to the extent to which they serve as means for the truly virtuous, excellent people. Or as he puts it, when discussing why we have civilization: “The hope is that with the preservation of so many blanks one may also protect a few in whom humanity culminates.”

To my delicate liberal sensibilities, the idea of calling any person a simple “blank” with no moral weight of their own is morally repugnant. But what little I know of Nietzsche’s work suggests this will grow into a major preoccupation of his, and I’m interested to see how he develops it.

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If Atheism Is Inherently Amoral, Theism Is Too
July 8, 2010

Republican candidate Mitch Daniels
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This has been bouncing around Twitter a bit: an interview with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (pictured) in which he says:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.

That’s certainly not a novel argument. I’ve sure you’ve all heard some version of it before. But it is a decidedly ugly one, and something tells me that most of the people who make it haven’t thought through the full implications of what they’re suggesting. Taken to its logical conclusion, Daniels’ argument concludes that the whole concept of “morality” is meaningless.

In order to explain why, let me first make a few reasonable suppositions about the nature of Daniels’ own faith. First: he’s most likely a monotheist. If he thinks that atheism has no moral foundation, that suggests he thinks morality comes from God, or that, at the very least, the relationship between God and objective moral goodness is such that if there is no God, there is no morality.

I’d also wager that Daniels is a Christian, which means this morality is connected to an incentive system: if you do good things, God sends you to heaven, and if you do bad things, he sends you to Hell. As for the relationship between morality and that incentive structure, you could claim:

  • Good deeds are good because you are rewarded with eternal paradise.
  • You are rewarded with eternal paradise because of deeds that are good prior to the reward.

The first option suggests that good deeds are good for purely self-interested reasons, in which case morality is reducible to that which is in your long-term self-interest. But I don’t think that’s what Daniels meant. If I were a betting man (though, of course, gambling is a sin), I would wager that Daniels believes good deeds are good because God has deemed them good, and as a result he rewards people who do good deeds.*

The problem is that, by instituting this flawless incentive system, God pretty much makes morality irrelevant. Because, again, if you know that eternal bliss is the reward for good behavior, and eternal torture is the punishment for bad behavior, then rational self-interest dictates that you engage in good behavior as much as possible. Except rational self-interest doesn’t seem like a very good criteria for what constitutes a moral act, because it means someone could be extremely morally upright without using any sort of moral reasoning or intuition. The difference between a good person and an evil person ends up just being a matter of having the right information and knowing how to hustle.

Now, you could argue that a true Christian is one who is aware that he will receive an eternal reward in heaven but doesn’t consider that a motivating factor when it comes to his own good deeds. But that seems pretty implausible, given that we’re not always totally aware of our own motives—and besides, if that is the case, then it would seem that the threshold for what constitutes a good deed is ludicrously high. It might even mean that the only person capable of truly virtuous acts is the atheist—and he’s likely disqualified from eternal bliss anyway.

In a situation like this, probably the best thing is to be aware of the existence of a God who prescribes certain good actions and proscribes certain bad ones, but remain unaware of the existence of heaven until after your death. In which case, according to Daniels, pretty much every Christian in the world is screwed.

The other option is to concede that it is possible to have some kind of non-theistic moral framework which, broadly speaking, overlaps with theistic moral intuitions. In which case, congratulations! You’ve just admitted there’s such a thing as moral atheism.

*Philosophy nerd footnote: The near-identical question “Is piety good because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love piety because it is good?” is what sparked Plato’s famous dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro. My metaethics professor argued that this was the first metaethical debate in philosophy.

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