Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Woody Allen cast as a Dostoyevsky villain

February 9, 2014

Woody Allen’s ex-partner, Mia Farrow, and estranged son, Ronan Farrow, have revived accusations that he raped his seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dyan Fallow, some 21 years ago.  After having read Robert B. Weide’s analysis of the case, I think the accusations (not charges, because prosecutors never filed charges) are unproved.

woody.allen.nihilistGrace Olmstead, writing for the American Conservative, thinks he probably is guilty because this is the kind of thing that an atheistic nihilist would be likely to do.  She compared him to Dostoyevsky’s fictional Svidrigailov from Crime and Punishment who raped a mute 15=year-old girl because, as another Dostoyevsky character said, if God does not exist, all is permitted.  Other writers suspend judgment on Allen’s guilt, but say his philosophy is a justification for child abuse.

What do these writers say about the child abuse perpetrated by priests of the Roman Catholic Church, who were then protected by the church?  Were they atheists and nihilists?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think you can tell much about what people would do by the creeds to which they pay lip service.

LINKS

The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast by Robert B. Weide for The Daily Beast.

Defending the Case Against Woody Allen by Grace Olmstead for the American Conservative.

Woody Allen, Nihilist by Damon Linker for This Week.  Hat tip to Rod Dreher.

UN Report Blasts Catholic Church for Systematic Child Abuse Coverup, an interview of Kirsten Sandberg, chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, on the Real News Network.

I know that there are celebrities who’ve gotten away with sexual abuse of children for years.  I also know from personal acquaintance that innocent people can be falsely accused as a byproduct of martial or child custody disputes.  Based on what I’ve read, I think that Allen’s guilt has not been established, and that he is entitled to a presumption of innocence.

On not believing in the supernatural

February 1, 2014

I don’t believe in ghosts, spirits or the occult.   But I thought The Boy Who Was Possessed Remembers and The Devil and Latoya Ammons posts and comment threads from Rod Dreher’s web log were extremely interesting.  They consist of first-person accounts by people, including freethinkers and rationalists, of seemingly supernatural phenomena they couldn’t otherwise explain.  I think Dreher is right to say that paranormal experiences are much more common than most people are willing to let on.

When I encounter something I can’t explain, my reaction is to say that this is something I can’t explain, and suspend judgment.   Some statistician said that a million things happen to the average human being in the course of a month (I don’t know the basis for this) and therefore it would not be surprising if once a month something happened that the odds were a million to one against.  The video above shows that even the highly improbable can be true

Then, too, the ability of human beings to process sensory input into perception of reality is a more complicated process than we realize, and most human cognition takes place below the level of consciousness.  When things emerge into consciousness from our unconscious minds, it can do strange things to our perception.  I have often awakened from strange dreams, and mistaken the dreams for reality until I get my mind together.

Yet, for all this, I admit I don’t have a logical basis for not rejecting the possibility that the supernatural is real.  I believe that everything that happens is either the blind working of natural laws or the actions of sentient beings.   The supernatural, if it exists, would be the working of natural laws and actions of sentient beings that I don’t know about.

The late Carl Sagan said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.   Yet what constitutes an extraordinary claim?  And just what kind of extraordinary evidence would satisfy him?  To the vast majority of human beings in history, and billions in the world today, the existence of ghosts and spirits is taken for granted.  Darwin’s theory, quantum theory and string theory would be regarded as the extraordinary claim.

Scientists try to make sense of the universe.  The great wisdom teachers of the world’s great religions try to give meaning to human life.  I think the occult is probably false, and, if true, to be avoided, because, to the extent that the world really is governed by arbitrary and irrational magical forces, it is a waste of time for human beings to try to make sense of life.

Are great geniuses above morality?

January 26, 2014

I recently posted a review of a biography of Steve Jobs, the founder Apple Computer, who was a brilliant entrepreneur and industrial designer, but who was a self-centered person who showed no consideration for anyone else, including his closest family, except to the degree that they helped him achieve his purposes.

Recently I finished reading a historical novel about the great German writer and thinker, Wolfgang von Goethe, another selfish genius who achieved great things, but treated other people only as means to his fulfillment as a creator of great works of literature.

Jobs and Goethe, through the force of their intellects and personalities, were able to create a circle of admirers to accepted that they were above the rules that bind ordinary people.

Is this true?  Do great genius or great achievement justify wrongdoing?  Many philosophers have thought so.  The great German philosopher Hegel, for example, thought that “world-historical” figures such as Napoleon set their own rules.

I don’t agree.  I don’t think that being born with great talents creates an entitlement to break laws and treat people badly, any more than does being born to great wealth.

I think great achievers deserve to be honored for their achievements, even though their personal behavior is reprehensible, but that does not excuse bad personal behavior.  I think, for example, that the filmmaker Roman Polanski deserves to be honored for making great movies such as “The Pianist,” but I don’t think his achievements as a filmmaker give him immunity for having committed rape. [1]

I don’t think there is any contradiction between being a genius and being a good person.  But very few people are geniuses, and genuinely good human beings (as opposed to “nice people) are not all that common, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there aren’t many who have both qualities.

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Competition: its benefits and its pitfalls

January 7, 2014

four-arenas-competition1Science fiction writer David Brin wrote recently society works best when there is competition—competition in the marketplace to make the best products at the lowest price, competition in elections to see which politician can best serve the aims of the public, competition between scientists to make new discoveries and argue for new theories, and competition between lawyers to make sure all sides of a case get a fair hearing.

That is a great ideal.  The problem is to make it work as intended.

A society such as he describes is something new in history.  Most complex civilizations in history were organized from the top down—with government monopolies, hereditary monarchs, religion (or political) dogma and no such thing as impartial law.

Jonathan Rauch in his 1992 book, The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Modern Japan, noted the contrast between the USA and hierarchical Japan:

It was [John] Locke, followed by Adam Smith and others, who first built the theory of liberal social mechanisms – public processes, like voting or trading or performing experiments, in which no one gets special personal authority (no kings, no dictators, no high priests or oracles) and no one in particular gets to control the outcome.  In the liberal scheme of things, no matter who you are, your vote is just a vote, your dollar is just a dollar, and your experiment had better work when anyone else tries it.  Moreover, there is no last election, last trade, or last hypothesis.  America is John Locke’s country.

The problem is how to create the conditions in which competition works for the benefit of society.  As Brin noted, the kind of competition he described can take place only within a legal governmental framework that gives protection against fraud and force.  To say that rules and regulations are incompatible with the free market is the same as saying that referees are incompatible with basketball.

Rules and regulations do not work unless a majority are willing to obey them.  Unenforceable laws are not merely useless, they are harmful.   Laws are no substitute for a basic ethic of honesty and fair play.

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Aristotle on virtue and happiness

November 24, 2013

Aristotle

It is our choice of good and evil that determines our character, not our opinions about good and evil.
 
We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence therefore is not an act but a habit.

Every decision we make, and every action we do, has an effect on the kind of people that we are.  The wise are mindful of what they do.  Otherwise they wind up being the kind of people they don’t like.

Aristotle pointed out that all other things being equal, people of strong moral character are happier than people of bad moral character.  As I look around, this seems obviously true.  Good character is not a guarantee of happiness.  But if you do have an inner moral compass, you will not be swept away by good fortune and will be less likely to be crushed by bad fortune.  You won’t have to make excuses to yourself for what you do.  Your self-esteem won’t be based on anything that somebody has the power to take away from you.  You can look back on your life in old age with justified satisfaction.

This isn’t the only reason for trying to lead an upright life, but I think it is a good one.

What Americans can learn from Chinese sages

November 10, 2013

Michael Puett’s course on Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory is the third most popular undergraduate course at Harvard University, behind only Introduction to Economics and Introduction to Computer Science.  Christine Gross-Loh wrote in The Atlantic about some of the insights the students gain.

§§§

The smallest actions have the most profound ramifications.  Confucius, Mencius, and other Chinese philosophers taught that the most mundane actions can have a ripple effect, and Puett urges his students to become more self-aware, to notice how even the most quotidian acts—holding open the door for someone, smiling at the grocery clerk—change the course of the day by affecting how we feel.

Grossloh_ChinesePhilosophy_PostThat rush of good feeling that comes after a daily run, the inspiring conversation with a good friend, or the momentary flash of anger that arises when someone cuts in front of us in line—what could they have to do with big life matters? 

Everything, actually.  From a Chinese philosophical point of view, these small daily experiences provide us endless opportunities to understand ourselves. When we notice and understand what makes us tick, react, feel joyful or angry, we develop a better sense of who we are that helps us when approaching new situations.

Mencius, a late Confucian thinker (4th century B.C.E.), taught that if you cultivate your better nature in these small ways, you can become an extraordinary person with an incredible influence, altering your own life as well as that of those around you, until finally “you can turn the whole world in the palm of your hand.” (more…)

Nine life lessons from Australia’s Tim Minchin

October 27, 2013

Tim Minchin is a highly regarded Australian musician, composer, songwriter, actor, comedian and writer.   I’d never heard of him until I came across this summary on the Inspired Acceptance web log of Minchin’s nine life lessons.  They are from an address he gave to the University of Western Australia in Queensland on receiving an honorary degree.

1.  You don’t have to have a dream.  Work on whatever is in front of you.  Be careful of long-term dreams.  If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out of the corner of your eye.

2.  Don’t seek happiness.  Happiness is like an orgasm.  If you think about it too much it goes away.  Keep busy and aim to make someone else happy and you may get some as a side effect.

3.  Remember it’s all luck.  Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for you successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you compassionate.  Empathy is intuitive but it is also something you can work on intellectually.

4.  Exercise.  Take care of your body, you’re going to need it.  Most of you Mob are going to live to nearly 100 and even the poorest of you will achieve a level of wealth that most humans throughout history could never dream of.  And this long, luxurious life of yours is going to make you depressed.  But don’t despair.  Tthere is an inverse correlation between exercise and depression. Run!

5.  Be hard on your opinions.  We must think critical and not just about the ideas of others.  Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out on the verandah and hit them with a cricket bat.  Be intellectually rigorous.

6.  Be a teacher.  Teachers and the most admirable and important people in the world.  Even if you’re not a teacher, be a teacher.  Share your ideas.  Don’t take for granted your education. Rejoice in what you learn and spray it.

7.  Define yourself by what you love.  We have a tendency to define ourselves in opposition to stuff. But try to also express your passion for things you love.  Be demonstrative in your praise of those you admire.  Be pro-stuff, not just anti-stuff

8.  Respect people with less power than you.  I don’t care if you’re the most powerful Cat in the room. I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful… So there!

9.  Don’t rush.  You don’t need to already know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.  Most people I know who were sure of their career path at 20 are now having mid-life crises.

Click on Tim Minchin – Occasional Address to read the full text.

Ian Welsh on the way of thinking we need

October 25, 2013
blog_welshIan_4606

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh, whose blog link is on my Blogs I Like page, wrote four excellent posts this week on the current economic and political situation and how we should think about it.

They are all worth reading in their entirety, along with the comment threads, but here are some highlights, with links.

The preferred business model today is to make it so that no one owns anything: everything is unbundled, instead of owning it, you lease or rent it and the moment you can’t pay it all goes away.  This is what “cloud” computing is about: a revenue stream. Lose your revenue, lose everything.  Ownership of DNA sequences, ownership of seeds, effective ownership of your intellectual property because it appears in someone else’s pipe (like Google using people’s endorsements without compensating them), you will own nothing, and all surplus value you produce in excess of what you need to (barely) survive will be taken from you.

To put it another way, the current business model is value stripping.

via Baseline Predictions for the next Sixty Odd Years.

We’re going to hit the wall.  We’re going to have fight a dystopic panopticon police state in which ordinary people are not allowed to own anything of real value, let alone keep any of the real value they create.  We’re going to do this while the environment comes apart, while we get battered by “extreme weather events”, droughts, water shortages and hunger.

That’s the baseline scenario.  That’s what we have to be ready to deal with, to change as much as we can, to radically mitigate to save hundreds of millions or billions of lives, and to make billions of lives good, instead of meaningless existential hells.

via Baseline Predictions for the next Sixty Odd Years.

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Thoughts: Your Best Friends and Worst Enemies

October 20, 2013

philebersole:

Getting control of my thoughts—or rather disconnecting my sense of self from my thoughts—is a big thing in my own life.   I could easily make myself miserable by wanting things that I can’t have and that wouldn’t make me happy if I did have them.  Or by letting myself be eaten up by resentments over things that I can’t do anything about and that don’t matter to begin with.

Originally posted on A Way in the Woods:

Maybe you don’t have any trouble with your thoughts, but I do. Thoughts pop into my mind without my permission faster than a mosquito bites my skin on a sweltering summer afternoon. And, equally without my permission.

Descartes, father of modern philosophy, pointed to both the distinguishing characteristic of human beings and to the biggest curse of human beings when he made his famous statement, “I think. Therefore, I am.”

The fact that you and I can think, reflect on the past, imagine the future, even to be conscious of our own consciousness is what distinguishes humans from all other animals. The fact that you and I can think, reflect and so often regret the past, imagine and so often fear the future, even to be unconscious of our own capacity to be conscious is the biggest curse humans live with and so try to escape from almost continually.

In…

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G.K. Chesterton on the fallacy of success

October 13, 2013
G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton, journalist, essayist and author of the Father Brown detective stories, wrote the following in 1909 about books purporting to give the secrets of success.

These writers profess to tell the ordinary man … … how, if he is a grocer, he may become a sporting yachtsman; how, if he is a tenth-rate journalist, he may become a peer; and how, if he is a German Jew, he may become an Anglo-Saxon.  This is a definite and business-like proposal, and I really think that the people who buy these books (if any people do buy them) have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back. 

Nobody would dare to publish a book about electricity which literally told one nothing about electricity; no one would dare to publish an article on botany which showed that the writer did not know which end of a plant grew in the earth.  Yet our modern world is full of books about Success and successful people which literally contain no kind of idea, and scarcely any kind of verbal sense.

It is perfectly obvious that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books) there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding.  One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating.  Both are much too simple to require any literary explanation. 

If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so.  If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist-player, or play with marked cards.  You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist.  But you cannot want a book about Success.

After pointing out some ridiculous examples of the genre, Chesterton concluded:

Let us hope that we shall all live to see these absurd books about Success covered with a proper derision and neglect. They do not teach people to be successful, but they do teach people to be snobbish; they do spread a sort of evil poetry of worldliness. The Puritans are always denouncing books that inflame lust; what shall we say of books that inflame the viler passions of avarice and pride?

A hundred years ago we had the ideal of the Industrious Apprentice; boys were told that by thrift and work they would all become Lord Mayors.  This was fallacious, but it was manly, and had a minimum of moral truth.  In our society, temperance will not help a poor man to enrich himself, but it may help him to respect himself.  Good work will not make him a rich man, but good work may make him a good workman. The Industrious Apprentice rose by virtues few and narrow indeed, but still virtues.

But what shall we say of the gospel preached to the new Industrious Apprentice; the Apprentice who rises not by his virtues, but avowedly by his vices?

Click on The Fallacy of Success to read the whole essay and All Things Considered for a collection of Chesterton essays.

Hat tips to Mustapha Abiola and kottke.org


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