Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category
I recently finished reading MIND & COSMOS: Why the Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly Wrong by Thomas Nagel. If I only read or thought about politics, I’d go crazy.
The book reminds me of a saying of the late, great H.L. Mencken, who once wrote that when you try to combine science and religion, you wind up with something that isn’t really scientific and isn’t really religious.
While Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains the origin of species, including the human species, Thomas Nagel pointed out that it does not explain the origin of life, consciousness, human reason or morality.
He hopes for a new theory that will not only explain all these things, but give them meaning. He is not a religious believer, and he looking for things in science that are to be found in art, literature and religious and spiritual practice.
His basic argument is the improbability and implausibility that human life as we know it could ever arise from the blind working of physical and chemical laws.
The problem with the argument from improbability is that in an infinite, or near-infinite, universe, anything that is possible, however improbable, will happen not once, but many times.
And the problem with the argument from implausibility is that most modern people already accept scientific conclusions that are highly implausible in terms of common sense—for example, I would find it hard to believe the earth goes around the sun, let alone the Big Bang and expanding universe, if I had not been taught so in school.
- Don’t build your life on illusions,
- Don’t build your opinion on hypotheses,
- Don’t build your style on imitation,
- Don’t build your image on lies,
- Don’t build your respect on fear,
- Don’t build your dreams on others’ nightmares,
- Don’t build your friendships on benefits,
- Don’t build your heroism on foolish acts,
- Don’t build your kingdom on the backs of the poor,
- Don’t build your palace on the soft sands of injustice.
I saw this movie a week or so ago. I liked it a lot. It is about the untutored Indian genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and how the famous British mathematician, G.H. Hardy, invited him to study with him at Cambridge University in England.
It begins with an epigraph quoting Bertrand Russell:
Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.
The movie shows the interesting and quirky characters of Ramanujan and Hardy as interesting and quirky characters, products of two very different cultures, and the backgrounds of life in Madras, India, in the early 1910s and in Cambridge during World War One.
The two men represented very different ways of knowing. Ramanujan, the deeply religious Hindu, saw things holistically, as a kind of mystic vision. The movie shows him in his job as clerk, writing in the sum of a column of numbers without adding them up, yet getting the correct figure.
G.H. Hardy was an atheist. He didn’t believe in anything that couldn’t be proved. Ramanujan didn’t want to bother with proofs. He thought Hardy should just be able to see that his mathematical discoveries were right.
After all, his theorems appeared to work. You can use the Pythagorean Theorum for estimating measurements without knowing Euclid’s proof. Except, according to the movie, there was at least one occasion in which Ramanujan was wrong.
Mathematics is an example of a reality that is intangible, yet real. For Ramanujan, the study of mathematics was a kind of spiritual discipline.
He made a great sacrifice for his love of mathematics. As a high-caste Hindu, he was considered defiled for crossing the ocean. He separated from his wife, whom he deeply loved. He had a hard time sticking to his vegetarian diet, and he suffered from the damp, cold English winters. Eventually he caught tuberculosis and nearly died. In fact, he did die, at the age of 32, shortly after he returned to India.
One good thing about life today is that institutions such as Cambridge are sensitive to cultural differences. A contemporary Ramanujan would be provided with food that he could eat.
Bertrand Russell is a minor character in the movie, and it is interesting to see him in the prime of life, with dark hair and a dark mustache, and not the elderly, white-haired image I hold in my mind.
Update: This was originally posted on March 31, 2016. Robert Heineman replied on June 6, 2016. His reply can be found in the comment thread. Click on this for his original talk.
A RESPONSE TO ROBERT HEINEMAN
By Philip Ebersole
My friend Dr. Robert A. Heineman gave a talk to the Rochester Russell Forum on March 10, 2016, saying that modern philosophy is a failure to the extend that it denies the reality of the “transcendent.”
He unfortunately did not provide a good five-cent definition of “transcendent,” so I resorted to my old Webster’s dictionary. Here is what I found:
TRANSCENDENT: (1) exceeding usual limits, (2) extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience, (3) beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge, (4) transcending the universe or material existence.
I would not deny that there are forces, entities and laws not only beyond ordinary experience, but beyond all possible experience and knowledge. Our knowledge is a drop, as William James is quoted as saying, and our ignorance is an ocean.
My question is: How do you philosophize about something that is beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge and transcends the universe itself? My second question is: What relevance would things beyond all possible knowledge and experience have to me and the people I know?
Dr. Heineman looks for answers in the findings and limitations of modern science. He makes three points.
First, he argues that contemporary science has produced concepts such as “quantum entanglement” that appear to defy logic and certainly defy common sense, but appear to fit the facts.
It may be, as the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane said, that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.
Second, he argues there are certain questions that science can’t answer and may never be able to answer.
I think this is true, and important to keep in mind. Dr. Heineman is very right to push back against reductionist arguments that claim metaphysical questions can be answered in terms of chemistry and physics.
Scientific inquiry reveals much that is important about how things work and that is relevant to philosophical understanding – for example, about how brain activity and brain chemistry are correlated with human thought and emotion.
But neurology and biochemistry do not explain how my experience of being a conscious, thinking, decision-making human being arises from brain activity. In fact, I can’t define what an explanation would consist of.
Third, he argues that the structure of mathematics is an example of transcendence. The Pythagorean Theorem is not tangible. It is not part of everyday human experience. Yet it is objectively real, not a human creation like literature. Mathematicians are continually making new discoveries that other mathematicians verify.
Robert Heineman is professor of political science at Alfred University. He is the author of several books, including Authority and the Liberal Tradition and (with W.T. Bluhm) Ethics and Public Policy. The following is his notes for a talk to the Rochester Russell Forum on March 10, 2016, at Writers & Books Literary Center in Rochester, NY.
This was originally posted on March 13, 2016.
By Dr. Robert Heineman
This evening I propose to engage the claims of the secular humanists that there is no “transcendent” reality in the world. My argument moves beyond positions of this sort that take religion as their opponent, as does Philip Kitcher in his recent book Life After Faith.
I shall argue that not only is the transcendent existent, but that it has been recognized as such by major thinkers in the western tradition. What has happened, unfortunately, is that the advances of science and the ideological dominance of academic philosophers have diverted serious intellectual analysis of who we are and where we are located in the universe from a proper framework.
Briefly in terms of western intellectual tradition, for the Greeks science and philosophy were intertwined to the benefit of both. Following this period the dominance of the Catholic Church imposed a form of transcendental thought on the western world for at least a millennium.
The Enlightenment witnessed the development of tremendous scientific advances led by Isaac Newton, and as a direct corollary those of a philosophical bent constructed major theoretical systems that reflected their belief that all thought had the characteristics of scientific systems.
In this effort the empirical drive of especially English thinkers drove philosophy away from the assumption of universal transcendental axioms toward the narrower confines of logic, language analysis, and quantitative formulations.
George Sabine notes the special importance of advances in mathematics and the move toward a precision of thought beyond the ruminations of classical Greece. This approach in his words constructed “the principles by means of which systematic inference can construct a completely rational system of theorems.”
The result was an era of “demonstrative systems” of thought that dominated the 17th and 18th centuries that sought a comprehensiveness and logical rigor that was seen as paralleling the “dazzling progress” in the sciences between Galileo and Newton.
This focus has in many ways disabled philosophy as an encompassing framework, both interpretive and analytic, for human beings living in the twenty-first century. While science continues to project the existence of universals beyond the tangible, philosophers have become ideologically attuned to the empirical as the sole source of truth.
As Quentin Meillassoux has put it contemporary philosophy is witnessing the “religionizing of reason“ in contrast to the progressive rationalization of religion during the hey-day of Greek philosophy.
Murray Bookchin is a leading anarchist thinker whose work I had never thought about until I learned that he is, of all things, respected by the Kurdish people in the Middle East.
The Kurds have struggled for decades for independence for decades against the governments of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. They are the most effective fighters in their region against the Islamic State and the successors to Al Qaeda in their region.
In all this, they have not engaged in acts of terrorism against civilians. They respect the rights of women, and even have women in their fighting forces. Although mostly Sunni Muslims, they gave refuge to people of all religions, including Christians, who suffer religious persecution.
Of course all this does not necessarily stem from their admiration for Murray Bookchin, but I am intrigued that this American thinker finds admirers in admirable people in a (to me) unlikely part of the world.
Bookchin is an anarchist, which means that he is opposed both to capitalism and to state socialism, a point of view I have come to share, late in life. Some other anarchist writers I admire, and have posted about, are David Graeber and James C. Scott.
I just finished reading Bookchin’s Remaking Society, a quick and readable, but somewhat superficial, outline of his views. I have started reading his earlier and longer book, The Ecology of Freedom: the emergence and dissolution of hierarchy, which is more detailed and profound, but more difficult to follow.
Bookchin is opposed to hierarchy as such. He thinks all domination is connected – political domination, economic domination, racism, patriarchy and the domination of nature.
His ideal is the “organic” society, in which people cooperate voluntarily for their mutual benefit, and seek to understand natural processes rather than override them.
He thinks organic societies existed in pre-historic times. Tribes based on kinship worked together for the benefit of all. Persons of superior ability became leaders, but not rulers. They had prestige, but not the power to coerce. Men and women had different functions, but neither ruled the other.
Their principle, he said, the equal treatment of unequals, which sound to me very like the Marxian principle of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. Our present capitalist society, he said, is based on the opposite principle – the unequal treatment of equals.
In LIFE AFTER FAITH: The Case for Secular Humanism (2014), Philip Kitcher argues that religion is not necessary to lead a happy, meaningful and ethical life.
His argument is obviously true, as far as it goes. I know of many people, through personal aquaintence and reading who aren’t in the least religious, but are happy, wise and good.
But there also are saints and heroes whose religious faith enables them to go beyond what average human nature is capable of, as well as many seemingly ordinary people for whom faith is a source of quiet serenity and unpretentious goodness.
Others are hurt by their religion. Their faith fails them in times of crisis. Or they are tormented by a sense of sin because they can’t obey certain rules or accept certain beliefs.
Religion certainly makes life more dramatic.
If I believed, and internalized the belief, that my life was a high-stakes test, leading to either eternal bliss with God or eternal pain without God, my life would be much more intense and meaningful than it is now, but not better.
I would have to struggle to stop myself from thinking about why a merciful and loving God would condemn people to infinite pain for sins committed during a finite life or, even worse, for choosing the wrong creed.
One way to have the satisfactions of religion without being chained to harsh dogmas is through what Kitcher calls “refined religion,” such as Unitarian Universalism, Ethical Culture or Reformed Judaism.
“Refined religion” puts theology on the same level as art, literature, philosophy and science—part of a treasury of human wisdom on which we can draw as needed.
“Refined religion” is not far from Kitcher’s own “soft atheism”, which doesn’t claim that science and philosophy have all the answers and which sees much of value in religious tradition, but sees no basis for affirming that religious beliefs are objectively true.
He admits that both refined religion and secular humanism are weak tea compared to the powerful emotions evoked by the great religious traditions and rituals.
But the great religions traditions have thousands of years’ head start, he wrote; there is no reason in principle why secular humanism cannot evolve rituals and traditions that are just as compelling.
One of my mother’s favorite sayings was, “Expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed.” Over the years I’ve come to realize how powerful this saying is. If you are mentally prepared for the worst, it won’t crush you when and if it comes. And if the worst doesn’t come, you feel happy and grateful that it didn’t.
The Stoics said the same thing more than 2,000 years ago.
Any misfortune ‘that lies outside the sphere of choice’ should be considered an opportunity to strengthen our resolve, not an excuse to weaken it.
This is one of the truly great mind-hacks ever devised, this willingness to convert adversity to opportunity, and it’s part of what Seneca was extolling when he wrote what he would say to one whose spirit has never been tempered or tested by hardship: ‘You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you were capable of, not even you yourself.’
We do ourselves an immense favor when we consider adversity an opportunity to make this discovery – and, in the discovery, to enhance what we find there.
Another shrewdly resourceful Stoic mind-hack is what William B Irvine – in his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009) – has given the name ‘negative visualization’.
By keeping the very worst that can happen in our heads constantly, the Stoics tell us, we immunize ourselves from the dangers of too much so-called ‘positive thinking’, a product of the mind that believes a realistic accounting of the world can lead only to despair.
Only by envisioning the bad can we truly appreciate the good; gratitude does not arrive when we take things for granted. It’s precisely this gratitude that leaves us content to cede control of what the world has already removed from our control anyway.
Source: Lary Wallace – Aeon
Stoicism won’t tell you what your duty is or what your goal in life should be. The danger of Stoicism is that that it can tempt you into passivity or indifference as a way of avoiding unhappiness.
But if you have goals or duties, the ability to make yourself indifferent to what happens to you or what people do to you is a very great power to help you accomplish them.
While extreme Stoicism requires heroism, anyone can train themselves to be unhappy because of things that, in the long run, don’t really matter.
Why Stoicism is one of the best mind hacks ever by Lary Wallace for Aeon.
In politics, it is often true that—
If you’re not satisfied with anything less than perfection, you might forfeit the lesser good.
But we need to remember it also is true that—
The lesser evil is the enemy of the good.
If you’re always willing to accept the lesser evil, you will never get anything good.
Source: Albert Camus on Happiness and Love Illustrated by Wendy McNaughton on Brain Pickings
Andre Malraux once asked a Catholic priest what he had learned about people in 50 years of listening to confessions. The priest replied that (1) people are much more unhappy than you would expect and (2) there is no such thing as an adult.
I thought about this when I read a blog post entitled How Bad Are Things? by a psychiatrist named Scott Alexander. However bad things are, it’s highly unlikely you’re the only one (of whatever it is).
When U.S. forces bombed and then invaded Cambodia in 1970, many Americans were shocked, both at the mass slaughter of bystanders and at the fact that it was done without a declaration of war. Nowadays such actions have come to be regarded as normal.
Historian Greg Grandin, in his new book, KISSINGER’S SHADOW: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, says the normalization of military aggression and mass killing of civilians is due to the influence of Henry Kissinger, not just as national security adviser and secretary of state under the Nixon and Ford administrations, but as an influential public intellectual and elder statesman.
Kissinger’s bloody record includes the prolonging of the Vietnam conflict, the carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos, support for Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor and massacres of minorities and dissidents, the overthrow of the democratically-elected Allende government in Chile, sponsorship of South American death squads through Operation Condor, support for white mercenaries fighting African liberation movements and much else.
But U.S. military interventions, covert actions and war crimes did not begin with Kissinger nor, for that matter, with the Cold War, nor are such things unique to the United States.
The real significance of Kissinger, according to Grandin, was that he, more than anyone else, was responsible for the overcoming of the “Vietnam syndrome” – the idea that U.S. use of force should be restrained by morality, law and prudence, and that so many Americans have come, without realizing it, to accept Kissinger’s philosophy of power.
Kissinger was an admirer of the German philosopher and historian Oswald Spengler, who believed that civilizations rise when they have powerful leaders whose understanding is based on sound instinct and intuition. Spengler believed they decline when leaders limit themselves to sterile reasoning and empirical fact.
While Spengler believed that Western civilization was in a state of irreversible decline, Kissinger thought that this could be reversed by statesmen with the strength of will to ignore the “fact men” and impose their vision on reality.
Kissinger, according to Grandin, believed that power was a dynamic process. The only way a nation could maintain power was to participate in the struggle for power. A nation whose leaders stayed on the sidelines would only become weak.
The trouble with thinking of the world in terms of a struggle between good and evil is that you forget the difference between right and wrong.
Or, to put it another way, the danger of total commitment to fighting evil in the world is that you lose sight of the potential for evil in yourself.
… make higher education faster and easier to access, especially vocational training. For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.
Marco Rubio is mistaken about the purpose of studying philosophy. The purpose is not mainly to earn a big salary as a professional philosopher. It is to give student a broader perspective on life. This is important for everyone, whether a welder or a United States Senator.
Everyone has a philosophy, whether they know it or not. Everyone operates on certain assumptions about how you know what’s true and what’s false, and what’s right and what’s wrong. Some people get their basic assumptions about life from parents, teachers or religion. Some get them from peers. All too many get them from the mass media.
The study of philosophy helps you to look at your assumptions and decide how well they stand up. It helps you to understand the assumptions of people different from you and where they’re coming from.
And it gives you a kind of cosmic perspective that helps you escape the limits of the here and now. It can be a kind of spiritual practice.
Once the study of the liberal arts—including philosophy—was reserved for the upper classes to give them the perspective they needed to be successful rulers. Education for the lower classes, what there was of it, consisted of basic literacy and vocational skills.
With the rise of democracy, many Americans had the dream that the kind of education once limited to the aristocracy could be made available to everyone. Thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey believed that American citizens could not be both ignorant and free.
That’s why Americans established free public schools and free or cheap public universities. It was also a reason for the eight-hour work day and five-day work week—to give people time and energy to engage in something else besides labor.
I fear we’re reverting to the older idea—liberal education for the elite, vocational education for the masses.
I resolved never to make make myself unhappy about things that don’t really matter.
I resolved never to base my sense of self-esteem on anything somebody else had the power to take away from me.
These are notes for my talk to the Rochester Russell Forum at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., Rochester, NY on Thursday, September 10, 2015
One of the things that Bertrand Russell wrestled with all his life with a theory of knowledge—how we can know anything for sure. It is a question we have discussed in different ways at the Russell Forum.
I plan to discuss some ideas of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas that have helped me understand these questions better —specifically, his idea that there are different kinds of knowledge, each with their specific tests for validity.
Jurgen Habermas is the grand old man of German philosophy. He is now in his 80s, and occupies the same position in German intellectual life as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey did in British and American intellectual life at that point in their lives. Habermas by the way was an admirer of the American pragmatists.
He served his philosophical apprenticeship as a member of the Frankfurt School – the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt – which sought to develop ideas of Hegel and Karl Marx.
Max Horkheimer, the director of the Frankfurt school, believed (like John Dewey, but unlike Bertrand Russell) that philosophy was not a separate academic discipline, over and above the natural and social sciences, but rather must be integrated with and draw on all of them.
Neither did the Frankfurt school believe that philosophy could be separated from the times and the social setting of philosophers. Its members believed in something they called Critical Theory, which showed how the ideas of any given time were a product of a historical process.
The Frankfurt school transplanted itself to New York City during the Nazi era, and its leaders, like many cultivated Europeans before them, were horrified by the vulgar industrialized American culture. They thought that Americans in their way were just as manipulated by propaganda and just as lacking in independent thought as Germans under Hitler.
Horkheimer and his follower Theodore W. Adorno wrote a treatise called The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which I haven’t read, but in which I understand that he said that the ideals of reason and science, developed during the 18th century Enlightenment, have failed. They have been turned against themselves, and merely resulted in new methods of oppression and social control.
But, as Habermas said, if we are all products of our particular society and historical era, and if the public opinion is controlled by the manipulation of the powers that be, how it is possible from something such as Critical Theory to have any objective validity? How is it possible that any progress or improvement takes place at all?