Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The world outside our heads

July 31, 2015

Matthew Crawford’s new book, THE WORLD BEYOND YOUR HEAD: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, is a good follow-up to Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries.

Crawford attacks what he calls “freedomism”—the idea that individuals can or should be free not only of external coercion, but of external influence of any kind.

This is the philosophy of thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant, who sought to free people from the moral authority of kings and priests.

51YMx.crawford.worldbeyondyourheadThe fact is, Crawford said, is that human beings are born into a world of people and things which are objectively real, and which can be understood only after a long period of learning and apprenticeship.

The fact that one’s individual desires do not, in and of themselves, change things is the first thing a baby learns, but which 21st century Americans sometimes forget.

Crawford makes custom motorcycle components as a business.  His work involves individual creativity, but is based on mastery of pre-existing knowledge of materials and technique, and is expressed in solving real-world problems.  He feels validated only when a customer—especially one who understands motorcycles—willingly pays his bill.

In different parts of the book, he discusses techniques by which people master arts and vocations—hockey player, martial arts fighter, short-order cook, glassblower, motorcycle rider, racing car driver.

Masters in all these fields have the ability to focus their attention on what is important, and to train their reactions, in ways that can’t necessarily be articulated, so that they respond appropriately to the situation at hand.

For Crawford, we are what we pay attention to.  Freedom consists in the right to choose to focus our attention on worthy objects.

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The worlds inside our heads

July 31, 2015

Somebody once wrote that the most embarrassing of all studies was intellectual history, because it shows how the ideas that you take as simple common sense were once new and implausible, and the agendas of the people who argued for them.

This was my feeling after reading Charles Taylor’s  2004 book, MODERN SOCIAL IMAGINARIES, as part of an informal study group organized by my friend Paul Mitacek.

It is the story of how Western people once believed and then stopped believing that they were embedded in a divine hierarchy resting on the animal world and lowest human beings, and reaching up to Heaven in a great chain of being.

It also is the story of how Western people once believed and then stopped believing that society is something pre-existing, which people are born into and have to serve as best they can.

Taylor traced the steps by which we came to the present predominant believe, that society consists of separate and independent individuals and exists for their benefit rather than the other way around.

He calls these beliefs “imaginaries” because they form the background of how we perceive our world–a perception that only partly matches up to objective reality, but which we take for granted.

I found his book illuminating and disturbing because it showed me how many of the things I believe in are based on assumptions I can’t prove.

Taylor.Imaginaries978-0We modern Americans take for granted, for example, that religion has to do with individual morality and that each person has the right to choose their own religion.

But for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the worship of the gods was something they had to do to avoid the gods’ wrath and seek the gods’ blessings.  The gods didn’t care what individuals thought about them, only that they perform the rituals correctly.  That is why the pagan Romans couldn’t understand the Christians’ refusal to burn incense for the Emperor.

The Hebrew Bible has some teachings about individual morality, but nothing about individual salvation or an afterlife.  Israel as a whole either worshipped God or strayed after false gods, and the nation was rewarded or punished accordingly.

Christianity changed this.   Christians believed they would be rewarded or punished in the afterlife based on their individual faith and works, and that lip service to religion wasn’t enough.  Protestantism took this tendency further.  Then freethinkers and rationalists, rather than assuming morality came from religion, questioned religious dogmas and practices in the name of morality.

Many individual Americans and Europeans believe that the ultimate basis of morality is a transcendent religious belief, but American and European societies are not organized around this belief.  Taylor for this reason calls our society “secular”—not because it is hostile to religion, but because it is neutral to religion.

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Do animals have the same rights as humans?

May 14, 2015

If a firefighter died going into a burning building to save a human baby, I would regard that firefighter as a hero.

If a firefighter died going into a burning building to save a puppy or kitten, I would regard that firefighter as a tragic victim of bad judgment.

animal_rights_by_animebigboy-d393s4vNow, from the cosmic point of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, it could be argued that, from the cosmic point of view, there is not all that much difference between a kitten, a puppy and a human baby.  But I don’t have the cosmic view.  I have the human view.

To say this, however, is not a sufficient answer to the animal rights warriors when they talk about cruelty to animals, especially the systematic cruelty of today’s industrial agriculture—chickens, cows and pigs forced to spend their entire lives in cages.

You are a typical egg-laying chicken in America, and this is your life: You’re trapped in a cage with six to eight hens, each given less than a square foot of space to roost and sleep in.  The cages rise five high and run thousands long in a warehouse without windows or skylights.

You see and smell nothing from the moment of your birth but the shit coming down through the open slats of the battery cages above you.  It coats your feathers and becomes a second skin; by the time you’re plucked from your cage for slaughter, your bones and wings breaking in the grasp of harried workers, you look less like a hen than an oil-spill duck, blackened by years of droppings.

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‘You need to think about death five minutes a day’

April 25, 2015

festival1A writer named Eric Weiner visited the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan, and was suddenly overcome by shortness of breath, dizziness and numbness in the hands and feet.  Fearing a heart attack or worse, he visited a physician name Dr. Karma Ura, who told him he suffered a panic attack.

“You need to think about death for five minutes every day,” Ura replied. “It will cure you.”

“How?” I said, dumbfounded.

“It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we want or seen our children grow. This is what is troubling you.”

“But why would I want to think about something so depressing?”

“Rich people in the West, they have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things. This is a problem. This is the human condition. We have to be ready for the moment we cease to exist.”

via BBC

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What happened to our dreams of freedom?

April 24, 2015

The Trap: F*** You, Buddy

Adam Curtis makes documentaries for the British Broadcasting Corporation that are remarkable for revealing hidden connections and bringing out the unexpected consequences of ideas.  His weakness is that he sometimes connects dots that, in my opinion, are not connected in actuality.  His strengths and weaknesses are apparent in his three-part series, “The Trap.”

The first two parts of the series show the working out of the ideas of three brilliant economists.

Friedrich A. Hayek believed that governmental power is dangerous and counterproductive.  It is better, he thought, to allow the economy to be regulated by an automatic system, the free market.

John Nash of the RAND Corporation saw human beings as selfish and suspicious, but, for that very reason, predictable.  He worked out the implications of “prisoner’s dilemma” situations, in which rational people are unable to cooperate for their mutual benefit because they cannot trust each other.

The USA and USSR could not give up atomic weapons because neither could trust the other not to cheat.  Instead the road to peace supposedly was for each to be armed to the teeth and ready at retaliate as soon as they were attacked.  Because each could predict the other’s behavior, the situation supposedly was stable.

James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, was the creator of “public choice” theory.  He asserted that politicians and administrators are selfish beings who worked to their own advantage and not the public whom they supposedly served.  Idealistic politicians and officials are the most dangerous, in this view, because they could not be controlled.

Curtis documented how these ideas played out under Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her successors.  Many governmental functions were sub-contracted to private companies.  Since government employees, according to public choice theory, could not be trusted to exercise their own judgment, they were given incentives to meet measurable targets.

The idea was that this is liberating because people are not subjected to the arbitrary personal judgments of people over them, but to objective and neutral measurements.

This kind of thinking is also playing out today in U.S. corporate and government administration.  The result is a micro-management that diminishes individual freedom.  And it doesn’t work.   The incentive is to figure out ways of meeting the target which is a different thing from doing your job well.

Curtis asserted that psychological studies show that the only people who behave according to the Nash-Buchanan theory are economists and psychopaths.  That is an exaggeration.

There is a measure of truth in what Nash, Buchanan and also Hayek say.  The problem is that human beings are diverse and complex, neither altruists nor selfish calculating machines, and no one-dimensional theory can sum them up.

The Trap: The Lonely Robot

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Confucius on how to learn wisdom

April 19, 2015

tumblr_nls2znK41O1r0o12to1_500Source: Tragedy Series.

Adam Curtis and machines of loving grace

April 17, 2015

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace is a remarkable three-part documentary film series made by Adam Curtis for the BBC.

He explores the consequences of looking at the economy, at nature and at human nature as an self-regulating cybernetic-like system, governed by automatic feedback, without the need for human thought.

Thinking this way make people assume that political action is futile and it is better to stand aside and let things come into adjustment automatically.  This is profoundly anti-democratic.  Also, it doesn’t work.

Love and Power is about the idea that the economic system will come to a desirable equilibrium based on individual self-interest without outside regulation.

He reports on Ayn Rand and her attempt to set up a utopian community based on the virtue of selfishness, and on Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who internalized the values of Ayn Rand.

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The battleline between good and evil

March 15, 2015

quote-the-battleline-between-good-and-evil-runs-through-the-heart-of-every-man-aleksandr-solzhenitsyn-174264

I believe there is such a thing as goodness, which is devotion to human flourishing in myself and others, and I believe there is such a thing as badness, which is the human weaknesses that prevent people from serving the good.

I also believe there is such a thing as evil, which is hatred of the good.

There are such things as good countries, which allow their people to flourish, and there are bad countries, where corruption, privilege and power without accountability prevent human flourishing.

And there are such things as evil regimes, such as those of Hitler and Stalin, which kill and torment people for no real reason except pure malice.

The ISIS regime and its allies such as Boko Haram in Nigeria seem to be pure evil, although they may attract followers who don’t realize what they’re getting into until it is too late.  If I could push a button and blow up all the ISIS leaders while sparing innocent human life, I certainly would do so.

At the same time, I recognize that the seeds of the ISIS atrocities and of almost every other bad and evil human action exist within myself.   I have never wanted to set anybody on fire or slowly saw anyone’s head off at the neck, and I have never fantasized about it, but I have thought and done things that, in their small way, were just as pointlessly malicious.

To recognize the evil in myself is not to deny or mitigate the evil of ISIS.   It is to recognize the truth of what Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer, once said, which is that the battleline between good and evil does not run between nations nor between individuals, but through the heart of every human being.

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Vaccination and the pro-life philosophy

February 27, 2015

VaxExemptionsThe basic argument of the anti-abortion movement is that the right to life is more important than the right to choose.

I agree with that argument.  My freedom of choice ends where the threat to your life begins.

My disagreement with the anti-abortion movement is over when human life begins.  I agree with the older Christian philosophy which Dante expressed in the Divine Comedy, that conception creates a vegetable soul, capable of growth, which develops into an animal soul, capable of movement, and only later becomes a human soul, capable of understanding.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that anyone committed to the right to life philosophy would deny that there is a right of parents to withhold vaccination or life-saving medical treatment from children.

The right of the child to live is more important than the right of the parent to choose.  And in this case, there is no question as to what constitutes a human life.

How should you spend your life?

January 24, 2015

Weeks-block-LIFE1

The chart shows the life on a typical American, arranged on a grid of 52 weeks and 90 years.  It seems pretty optimistic.  I retired at age 62, but not many Americans today will be able to afford to do that.

The question arises: How do you spend all these weeks?

Venn1Being able to ask this question shows what a privilege it is to be a middle-class Americans.  Many people in the world have no time for anything except trying to survive and helping their loved ones to survive.

LINK

Your Life in Weeks by Tim Burton on Wait But Why.

The problem of free will

January 18, 2015

free-will-debate-image

I believe in free will.  I can’t say what it is, but I believe in it.

comic-freewillPhysical and chemical reactions are governed by scientific laws.  Living things are governed by biological laws.  A virus, a bacterium, a tree and an earthworm are all alive, but they don’t make choices.  A housefly has freedom of motion, but does it have free will?

Does a mouse have free will?  If you knew everything there was to know about a mouse, could you predict what it was going to do?  How about a dog or cat?  How about us?

If free will exists, how and when did it arise in biological evolution?  When I decide things, it is for a reason—sometimes a reason of which I was not conscious at the time.  Does that mean my decisions are not free?  Suppose I made decisions at random (whatever random means).  Would that make them free?

comic2-897Religious people believe that human beings have souls—a supernatural quality independent of biological evolution.  Would that change things?  Would beings with souls do things that are neither caused nor at random?

These questions have practical consequences.  If I think that I exercise free choice, I take responsibility for my actions and try to improve.  If I think my actions are predetermined, maybe I do and maybe I don’t.

dilbert-free-willPossibly the most radical philosophical proponent of free will was Jean-Paul Sartre, who taught that human beings are completely free to choose, with no excuses.  “Man [sic] is condemned to be free,” Sartre taught.  “Condemned” is an appropriate word if Sartre is right in saying there are no objective criteria that make a decision right or wrong, and all decisions are at bottom arbitrary.

Sartre praised authentic persons who wholeheartedly commit themselves to a set of values, which they have chosen arbitrarily but live up to without hypocrisy.

By his standards, I’m not an authentic person.  My belief in free will is selective.

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John Stuart Mill on knowing both sides

December 13, 2014

john stuart millHe who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.  His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. 

But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion … 

Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations.  

He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them … he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

==John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

 

A lesser good is good, but a lesser evil is still evil

November 3, 2014

There is a thin but important line between saying that half a loaf is better than none, and saying that the lesser evil is better than the greater evil.

Vote-Chop-LegCircumstances alter cases, and there are tragic situations when the lesser evil is the only choice.   But people of good will should not allow themselves to be trapped into accepting lesser-evil-ism as a general rule of life.

The best may be the enemy of the good, but the lesser evil also is the enemy of the good.

When you settle for the lesser good, you still have good.  Achieving lesser goods may bring you step-by-step to the greater good you hoped for.

When you settle for the lesser evil, you still have evil.  Accepting lesser evils will bring you step-by-step to the greater evil you feared.

Unilateral disarmament in the war of ideas

September 10, 2014

The struggle against the radical Muslim jihadis, as in the Cold War against Communism, is more than a struggle for power.  It also is a war of ideas.

We Americans have disarmed ourselves in that war.  We don’t advocate foundational American ideas—the ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address—because we no longer have confidence in them.

We are so paralyzed by our internal culture conflicts that our official spokesmen dare not speak of religious or moral principles.   About the only ideals they can uphold unequivocally are feminism, gay rights and recycling.

Andrew Doran reported, in an article in the current issue of The American Conservative, reported on how this played out.  His article is largely based on interviews with two Army offices he calls Joseph and Brian about their service in Afghanistan.

“We lacked the confidence even to say, ‘You may not rape little boys.’  All we had to offer was administration and technology, and they sensed this.”

AmericanConservative2014.0910Cover-125x160Joseph believes that, in a peculiar way, this parallels America’s institutional system. “We have no consensus either. Nobody can agree on any normative reason to do anything,” he says. “So we default to an institutional structure.  Our tribalism is institutional. Afghanistan was an encounter between these two systems.  The first lieutenant leading a foot patrol stands square at the pressure point between these two tribal systems: one fluid, personal and violent; the other rigid, impersonal and violent.  A quarter mile away from any soldier is a guy in a grape hut who wants to cut his head off.  Nine thousand miles away is a guy in an air-conditioned room with video screens contemplating his pension who wants to drop a bomb on the guy in the grape hut.”

[snip]

“We were there writing checks and shooting people,” says Joseph.  “It was as incoherent to me as it was to the Afghans. But building a soccer field isn’t building a civilization.  The foundations for civilization, for reason, for the common good, for law, for science—all of it was missing.  It’s still missing and no one seems to have a sense of how to build it.”

[snip]

“The Afghans wanted to talk to us about what we value,” says Joseph, “But we had to censor ourselves.”  They both recall the Afghan perception of Americans, largely shaped by the entertainment industry.  “They thought we all lived in porno films,” Brian says with a chuckle. “One time they asked if I prayed. When I said ‘Yes,’ they laughed because they thought I was joking.”  America’s institutional culture did nothing to alter this impression.

“If I’d been part of the British navy in the 19th century,” says Joseph, “civilizing would’ve been part of our mission. But for us, it was dialoguing about nothing, about projects, using words that mean nothing—sustainability, dynamism, governance, implementation, transparent, relevant, outreach, consolidate, force multiplier, cross-pollinate, trust-gap, legitimacy, capitalize, mobilize, incentivize, mandate, aftermathing, liaisoning, conflict-mapping, indices, unity of action. You see what I mean—the antiseptic, PowerPoint sociology speech.”

There are two ways a confident civilization spreads its values.  One is by conquest, as was done by the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Spanish and, to a lesser extent, other European colonial powers.  The other is by setting an example of a way of life that others want to imitate.  The American way of life once had a strong appeal to the world’s peoples, and there is still an afterglow from that.

I don’t think we Americans are capable, at present, of spreading our civilizational values either by conquest (which I do not advocate) or by example.  The answer to al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS and like movements will have to be in the best traditions of Muslim civilization itself.

Click on Absurd in Afghanistan: the Islamic world needs Avicenna, not America to read the entire article by Andrew Doran in The American Conservative.  (Hat tip to Robert Heineman)

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Paul Graham’s greatest hits

August 17, 2014
Paul Graham

Paul Graham

PAUL GRAHAM is a computer programmer, venture capitalist and essayist in the Boston area, who publishes his writings on his web site.

Most of his writing is about start-up companies and why they succeed or fail, but occasionally he writes on subjects of general interest, and I find these essays both interesting and wise.  Here are my favorites.

Why Nerds Are Unpopular

What You Can’t Say

Made in USA

What You’ll Wish You’d Known

How to Do What You Love

Is It Worth Being Wise?

Two Types of Judgment

You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss

Lies We Tell Kids

The Top Idea in Your Mind

The Acceleration of Addictiveness

Russia’s ‘Eurasianism': a challenge to democracy?

August 5, 2014

Eurasia 2

Vladimir Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union would not have the economic or military strength of the United States or the European Union.  Its significance may be otherwise—an ideological rallying point to those who reject Western liberalism.

Liberalism in this context means more than the ideas of the New Deal Democrats in the United States.  It means the whole modern movement toward increasing freedom, reason and tolerance, fostered by free-market capitalism, free scientific inquiry, free elections and respect for human rights.

These ideas are so taken for granted in the USA that we Americans forget that many people in the world give priority to other values—community, tradition, national solidarity, cultural identity and obedience to legitimate authority.   This is not limited to the countries of Putin’s Eurasian Union.

The appeal of anti-liberal philosophies is strengthened when Washington justifies invasion of foreign countries and unchecked corporate rule in the name of freedom and democracy.

China, the central Asian countries and Iran share an interest in the economic integration of the interior of Eurasia.   Construction of railroads and pipelines will inevitably draw these countries closer together.  But they also have in common political philosophies that reject individualism and value stability and unity, whether in the name of China’s Confucian-style Communism or Iran’s religious law, and this also will draw them closer together and away from the influence of the USA.

By the same token, to the extent that freedom, reason, tolerance and the other values of the modern world have appeal, people and nations will draw away from the Eurasian Union and toward the values of the European Union and the USA.

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Three philosophies for hard times ahead

July 27, 2014

John Michael Greer, author of several books about the consequences of peaking of world oil supplies, thinks progress is a consoling illusion.  He does not believe there is anything about the nature of things that guarantees that this generation will be better off than the previous one, or that future generations will be better off than this one.

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

He writes a weekly web log, The Archdruid Report, which is one of the Blogs I Like.  In a recent post, he points to better and more enduring philosophies.

There is the Epicurean philosophy, which teaches you to be grateful for life’s blessings and not to wish for more than you have.  Epicurus did not teach the Playboy Philosophy.  He was a laborer who worked hard to support his aged parents, and who only enjoyed leisure late in life when his followers bought him a house and garden.

There is the Stoic philosophy, which doesn’t bother about happiness at all, but only acting constructively and with integrity no matter what the circumstances.   A Stoic would agree with one of my mother’s favorite sayings, “Expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed.”  Stoicism provides a grim satisfaction that comes from not having expectations and from not basing happiness or self-respect on anything that someone else can take away from him.

The third philosophy, to which Greer adheres, is the Platonist philosophy, which is that our world is a a shadow of a divine order, which, when glimpsed and understood, makes everything make sense.

I am more of an Epicurean than a Stoic, and not a Platonist at all.  That is not to say I deny the truth of Platonism and other religious philosophies.  It is that I have not had the religious and spiritual experiences that I read about, and that people I know tell me about, and I cannot say anything one way or the other.

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Why I wouldn’t want to live forever

July 20, 2014

[This is the draft of a lay sermon given at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., on July 20, 2014]

I remember lying in a hospital bed some 20 years ago after having had a pre-cancerous lobe of my right lung removed.  I got to thinking that this body part was not going to regenerate and that, in fact, the warranty had expired on many of my body parts.

Lying there in the bed, I began to fantasize about what it would be like if this wasn’t so—if I didn’t have to grow old and die, if I could live indefinitely, in vigorous physical and mental health, like  Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long or Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint Germain.

life's.clockI imagined having infinite time to do everything I ever had dreamed of doing.  I could read every book I ever wanted to read.  I could study every subject I was ever interested in, and could master every skill I lacked.  I could travel and see every sight I ever wanted to see.  There would be nothing I could not do—that is, if I were capable of doing it and willing to do the work.

I tried to imagine my future life for 50 or 100 or 200 years into the future and, to my surprise, I couldn’t imagine a future that I would like.

 There are only two things I know with certainty about the future.  One is that it will not be like the present.  The other is that I can’t predict it.  I am amazed at the transformations that have taken place during my lifetime.  None of the changes that I expected in my youth have come about, but things that I took for granted have been utterly transformed.  Sometimes it seems to me that the only things that haven’t changed are the structures of economic and political power.

The future brings the challenge of having to adapt to change.  Learning new things is delightful when it is voluntary.  I delight in things new technology makes possible—my blog, for example.  At the same time I am happy to be old and retired, and to be in a position in which I don’t have to master new knowledge and skills that I’m not interested in.

The worst thing about living forever would be that I would leave my friends behind.  If you live long enough—I haven’t yet lived to that point myself—you see all your contemporaries disappear, one by one.  I have made newer and younger friends, but to me, at age 77, a “young” friend is someone in their 40s or 50s.  I don’t really share the experience and thinking of the new generation.

If I lived long enough, not only everyone that I loved and cared about were gone, but everything that I loved and cared about would be no more.

The world during my lifetime has changed in many ways that I don’t understand and can’t relate to, from the music to the technology to the manners and morals. What would it be like in 50 or 100 or 200 years from now?  I would be as alienated as someone from the 18th or 19th century in the world today.

I am curious to know the future.  The far future would be an interesting place to visit.  But I’m not sure I would want to live there.

What would be the point of living so long if I lived it as a grouchy old man? I already find myself talking much too much about how different things are today from the way they used to be.

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How to be a conservative liberal socialist

July 15, 2014

By Leszek Kolakowski.

Motto: “Please step forward to the rear!” This is an approximate translation of a request I once heard on a tram-car in Warsaw. I propose it as a slogan for the mighty International that will never exist.

A Conservative Believes:

1. That in human life there never have been and never will be improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils; thus, in considering each project of reform and amelioration, its price has to be assessed.

Put another way, innumerable evils are compatible, i.e., we can suffer them comprehensively and simultaneously; but many goods limit or cancel each other, and therefore we will never enjoy them fully at the same time.

A society in which there is no equality and no liberty of any kind is perfectly possible, yet a social order combining total equality and freedom is not. The same applies to the compatibility of planning and the principle of autonomy, to security and technical progress.

Put yet another way, there is no happy ending in human history.

2. That we do not know the extent to which various traditional forms of social life—families, rituals, nations, religious communities—are indispensable if life in a society is to be tolerable or even possible. There are no grounds for believing that when we destroy these forms, or brand them as irrational, we increase the chance of happiness, peace, security, or freedom.

We have no certain knowledge of what might occur if, for example, the monogamous family was abrogated, or if the time-honored custom of burying the dead were to give way to the rational recycling of corpses for industrial purposes. But we would do well to expect the worst.

3. That the idee fixe of the Enlightenment–that envy, vanity, greed, and aggression are all caused by the deficiencies of social institutions and that they will be swept away once these institutions are reformed– is not only utterly incredible and contrary to all experience, but is highly dangerous.

How on earth did all these institutions arise if they were so contrary to the true nature of man? To hope that we can institutionalize brotherhood, love, and altruism is already to have a reliable blueprint for despotism.

A Liberal Believes:

1. That the ancient idea that the purpose of the State is security still remains valid. It remains valid even if the notion of “security” is expanded to include not only the protection of persons and property by means of the law, but also various provisions of insurance: that people should not starve if they are jobless; that the poor should not be condemned to die through lack of medical help; that children should have free access to education–all these are also part of security.

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Thoughts about youth and age

July 13, 2014

 

youth old age plato calm and happy nature

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The pitfall of relying on intelligence and logic

July 10, 2014

Last week a blogger called Avery Penarrun wrote:

Smart people have a problem, especially although not only when you put them in large groups.   That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize nearly anything.  [snip]

If you know all the constraints and weights – with perfect precision – then you can use logic to find the perfect answer.  But when you don’t, which is always, there’s a pretty good chance your logic will lead you very, very far astray.

Most people find this out pretty early on in life, because their logic is imperfect and fails them often.  But really, really smart computer geek types may not ever find it out.

Click on The Curse of Smart People for his complete post.   It is, of course, not an argument for replacing reason with gut feeling, but against over-confidence and in favor of frequent reality checks.

Non-moral arguments for humane goals

June 26, 2014

History professor Eric Rauchway pointed out how progressives advocate humane policies based on strictly economic criteria.

Back in the early 1900s, Charles Beard noted that merely to tell Americans that their factories were injuring workers more wantonly than those of any other country would fail to move a nation so fixated on profit.

You had, he said and I’m paraphrasing, because I’m not able to look it up at the moment, to tell the American people that it was inefficient to keep killing workers – that it was a waste of human capital, an unproductive use of resources.

This rhetorical tactic aims at moral ends by appealing to a venal calculus.  Like the commuter who rescued his fellow-citizen from a train track because he didn’t want to be late to work, maybe we will rescue our public goods from disruption – not because it’s the right thing to do, but because we won’t profit if we don’t.

via Crooked Timber.

I hear this kind of rhetoric  liberals today.  They concede the moral high ground to their opponents and then argue that their policies would be a better way of achieving non-liberal goals – for example, that health care reform would be a good way to help balance the federal budget.

One problem is that this type of argument is not always valid.   The larger problem is that when it is, it is not convincing to people committed to the view that the harshest policies are always the most realistic

The difference between Communism and fascism

June 10, 2014

MaoTens of millions of people died in China in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a result of Mao Zedong’s failed policies and his refusal to acknowledge they were failures.

I said his policies were failures, but from Mao’s standpoint, maybe they weren’t.  Like Stalin’s agricultural collectivization policies in the 1930s, they have have caused death and suffering, but they enabled the government to tighten its grip over the nation’s food supply and its population.

adolf-hitlerSome scholars think that Stalin and Mao caused the deaths of more than beings than Hitler did.   It is impossible to say for certain because the historical record was suppressed.

Why, then, does Hitler stand alone as a symbol of evil?  I think that one reason is that Hitler is a defeated enemy.  If Nazi Germany had won the Second World War, and if there were a powerful government in existence today that was the heir of Hitler’s regime, there would still be apologists for Hitler.

638519-stalinThe other reason is the difference between the appeal of fascism and Communism.  Fascists for the most part are racists, elitists and thugs.  Communists for the most part are defenders of labor rights and civil rights.

Throughout the 20th century, members of the American Communist Party became disillusioned when they discovered that Communist regimes in fact suppress labor rights and civil liberties.   I never heard of a member of the American Nazi Party becoming disillusioned because they discovered the Nazis were insufficiently racists and thuggish.

I don’t think that Communists—the ones outside actual Communist countries—are as bad as fascists.  Many have fought courageously for civil rights, labor rights and other things I believe in myself.  The worst you can say of them is that they have been willfully blind to horrible things.

But Communism is the more insidious ideology.   It is one thing to recruit racists and thugs to defend a cruel totalitarian dictatorship.   It is a far worse thing to persuade people who believe in democracy and workers’ rights to justify the crimes of a totalitarian dictatorship.

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.


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