Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Friendship, ancient and modern

August 24, 2017

David Andreatta, a newspaper columnist, wrote that a true friend is somebody you would enjoy having a beer with, and who also would help you move.

Tim Madigan, co-author of the forthcoming Friendship and Happiness, once said to me that a true friend is someone who would visit you more than once if you were in a hospital or hospice.

But in ancient times, the ideal of friendship was that friends would literally sacrifice their lives for one another.

The most famous example is the story of Damon and Pythias, supposedly based on historical fact.  Damon was sentenced to death on charges of plotting against the tyrant of the Greek city of Syracuse, in Sicily, but asked for leave to go home first to attend the funeral of his father.   His friend Pythias volunteered to be a hostage to be executed in Damon’s place if he did not return.

Damon was late, and the tyrant, mocking Pythias for his trust, was about to execute him, when Damon appeared.   He had been kidnapped by pirates, and was able to escape only at the last minute. The tyrant was so touched that he spared their lives.

A.C. Grayling, in his book Friendship (2013), tells a story of an even deeper friendship, the medieval story of the knights Amys and Amylion.   Amys perjured himself in order to save the life of his friend, and, as punishment, was stricken with leprosy. Years later Amylion was told in a dream that he could cure his friend by bathing him in the blood of his children.   He did so, Amys was cured and the children were miraculously restored to life.

I read Friendship over a period of several months as part of a philosophy reading group hosted by Paul Mitacek.   I do not recommend it.  It is rambling, and does not come to interesting conclusions.

But it did raise interesting questions to talk about. Can bad people be friends? Do friends put up with each others’ faults or try to correct them? Do similar or dissimilar people make the best friends?  And just how important is friendship to us today?

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Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die

August 6, 2017

The idea that most people have of the Epicurean teaching is, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”   The idea most people have of what an Epicurean is like, is the Petronius character in Quo Vadis

Petronius lives for pleasure.  He eats the finest delicacies, sips the finest wines, sniffs the most fragrant perfumes, surrounds himself with beautiful flowers and works of art, listens to beautiful music and has sex with beautiful slave women.

For fun, Petronius pretends to flatter the Emperor Nero while really ridiculing him.   When Nero catches on, he calmly commits suicide, with style.

Click to enlarge

It’s true that the philosopher Epicurus taught that pleasure is the highest good.   But he said real pleasure comes from appreciating whatever it is you have.   His idea was, “Eat plain bread and vegetables, drink plain water and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”

His idea was to make yourself bulletproof against unhappiness by not wanting things you can’t have and by not wanting things that really wouldn’t make you happy anyway.

There are three kinds of desires, he taught: (1) natural and necessary desires, such as food, shelter, etc.; (2) natural but unnecessary desires, such as for rich food, and (3) vain desires, such as for power, wealth or fame.

Courage, justice and moderation, the basic Greek virtues, are not valuable in themselves, according to Epicurus, but because they are necessary to happiness.   Justice consists of neither harming other people nor allowing them to harm you.   The best life is quiet and obscure.

Our present-day economy is based on precisely the kind of thinking that Epicurus wants to rescue us from.   American consumers’ desire for possessions, pleasure and status keeps the economy going, but doesn’t make us happy.   We can learn from Epicurus.

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Some sayings of Epicurus

August 6, 2017

The blessed and important nature knows no trouble nor causes trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger or favor. For all such things exist only in the mind.

Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.

Epicurus

It is not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently and honorably and justly, nor again to live a life of prudence, honor and justice without living pleasantly.  And the man who does not possess the pleasant life, is not living prudently and honorably and justify, and the man who does not possess the virtuous life cannot possibly live pleasantly.

No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the means which produce some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasure.

Infinite time contains no greater pleasure than limited time, if one measures by reason the limits of pleasure.

He who has learned the limits of life knows that, that which removes the pain of want and makes the whole of life complete, is easy to obtain, so that there is no need for actions that involve competition.

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Richard Ford: ‘Who needs friends?’

April 23, 2017

[Update 4/24/2017]  My afterthoughts are in boldface italics below.

Richard Ford

The American novelist Richard Ford, in a book excerpt published in The Guardian, says he doesn’t have any close friends and is happy to have it that way.

He wrote that he has a general sense of good will toward everybody, but doesn’t count on any individual very much.  That’s okay with him, because he doesn’t want anybody to count on anything from him, beyond basic decent behavior.

He criticized philosophers’ ideas of friendship and went on to write—

If I could have a better, more realistic and functioning model for friendship, what would it be?

I wouldn’t like it if it was that I had to be similar to my friend – in temperament, in wit and wits, in interests, experience, age and gender.

It could not be that I’d be willing freely to unpack in front of my friend all my life’s many shames and miscalculations (matters that can be outsourced with therapy or just stuffed).

It would not be that I’d have to always get along with my friend, or even always wish him well (just not wish him ill).  He need not think my shames weren’t shameful.

It would not be that my friend and I have to agree about what constitutes good and bad in the world. He need not feel required to do for me what I can’t do for myself.

I would not have to be willing to take a bullet for him, to have his back, to be there for him, or even renounce something I deeply desire so that he can have it.

I would not have to be always candid or capable of delivering hard truths. (Although I might do it anyway.)

And it could not be that I never complain to my friend, or about my friend – to his face or behind his back.

Friendship ought to be understood as always supplementary in nature. Thus our friends should be as easy to forgive as our enemies.

And as with all things, friendship need not promise to last forever, but only so long as it allows us the freedoms we would want to have without it.

Maybe it is that friendship should do for us what a great novel can (and a novel might of course do it better): reconcile us to life as it is, and make us more real to ourselves. 

In other words, friendship ought not short-circuit one’s faculties for critical thinking and personal preference.  Though to ask this of friendship might be to ask the impossible.

Source: Richard Ford | The Guardian

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How to be antifragile

April 18, 2017

Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (1)

April 13, 2017

What follows is notes for the first part of a talk for the Rochester Russell Forum scheduled at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., Rochester, NY, at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 13.

Neoliberalism is the philosophy that economic freedom is the primary freedom, economic growth is the primary goal of society and the for-profit corporation is the ideal form of organization.

It is the justification for privatization, deregulation and the economic austerity currently being imposed on governments by lenders.

Neoliberalism has its roots in classical liberalism, which arose in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Classic liberals said that the purpose of government is to protect human rights, including religious, intellectual, political and economic freedom.   They fought the absolute power of kings and the privileges of aristocrats and demanded the right of individuals to determine their own fates.

Classical liberalism came to be supplanted in the early 20th century by a belief that government regulation and welfare could, if well thought out, enhance human freedom by giving individuals more choices.   A graduate of a public school or university, for example, has more options than a person unable to afford an education, so taxing the public to pay for public schools and universities would be a form of liberation.

Neoliberalism is a backlash against social liberalism.  Neoliberalism affirms that freedom of enterprise is the only important freedom.   Its well-known adherents include Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman.

It came into widespread acceptance in the 1980s, as a reaction against the manifest failures of central economic planning and as a way to break the political gridlock of the welfare state.  Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were both strongly influenced by the neoliberals.

Neoliberalism’s strongest adherents are to be found among economists, journalists, financiers, Silicon Valley executives and right-of-center parties in the English-speaking world and western Europe, and in international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and European Central Bank, which enforce neoliberal policies on debtor countries.

It is more of an implicit philosophy than a credo, a series of assumptions that has come to permeate our society.

What follows is my attempt to understand the logic behind these assumptions.

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Ancient Greece and the meaning of democracy

February 22, 2017

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What is democracy?  Does democracy consist of free elections?  Is democracy based on inalienable human rights?  Is a democracy a government of laws and not of men?  Does democracy require political parties, checks and balances and separation of church and state?

The classicist Paul Cartledge pointed out in his new book, DEMOCRACY: A Life (2016), that ancient Athens and the other Greek city-states lacked all these things.   Yet, he argued, it was they who best represented the ideal of democracy and we Americans and British who have fallen away from it.

Democracy in ancient Greece had a complicated history.  Cartledge derived from the fragmentary historical record how the common people over time wrested power from kings, aristocrats and the rich.

At the high tide of democracy, the main governing bodies were Assemblies were chosen at random, by lot, as juries are today.

The Athenian Assembly had a membership of up to 5,000 to 6,000, chosen from a citizenry of about 30,000, and they all met for important decisions.

The Assembly met almost continuously; it passed laws, set policy, tried important legal cases and decided on whether to exile (ostracize) troublesome citizens and politicians.

The Assembly did elect an administrative Council of 500 as well as generals and treasurers.  Other governmental positions, including juries for minor cases, were chosen by lot.

There was no bright line dividing the legislative, executive and judicial function.   An Athenian citizen might propose a military action in the Assembly one day and be named to command the troops to carry out that action.

There was virtually no limit to the power of the Assembly.  You could call it a tyranny of the majority.  You could even call it a dictatorship of the proletariat.

But you couldn’t deny that the people of Athens and the other democratic Greek cities ruled themselves in a way that contemporary Americans and Britishers don’t come close to doing.

Aristotle defined democracy as the rule of the poor (meaning workers) and oligarchy as the rule of the rich (meaning property-owners who don’t do manual labor).   Any Athenian in the time of Pericles would call the modern USA and UK oligarchies, based on the influence of the rich on public policy and the lack of participation by the mass of the citizenry.

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Half full or half empty?

February 19, 2017

sf-existential-42-900x1709-webVia simonandfinn.

The hobo ethical code of 1889

January 1, 2017

hbo-code-1024x586

Hoboes were itinerant workers who traveled illegally by freight car, and gathered in camps called “hobo jungles”.   Most respectable people looked down on them.   This formal ethical code was adopted at the Hobo National Convention of 1889.

1.  Decide your own life; don’t let another person run or rule you.

2.  When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.

3.  Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.

4.  Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.

5.  When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.

6.  Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.

7.  When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.

8.  Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.

9.  If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.

10.  Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.

11.  When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.

12.  Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.

13.  Do not allow other hobos to molest children; expose all molesters to authorities…they are the worst garbage to infest any society.

14.  Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.

15.  Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.

Source: BRKTrail

Words to live by.

The mind-body problem hotline

December 18, 2016

Source: xkcd: Trapped

Murray Bookchin and the Rojava revolution

September 30, 2016

I first heard of Murray Bookchin when I read that his philosophy had been adopted by the Kurdish fighters in Syria.

kurdistan-cock01_3805_01The Kurds are the only faction in the current struggles in the Middle East that I root for.

The Kurds of Rojava in northern Syria fight ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, while defending themselves against the Syria government.

They practice religious freedom and shelter persecuted ethnic minorities, including Assyrians and Turkmen, and religious minorities, including Christians.  They recognize equal rights for women.

Abdullah Ocalan, the leader and co-founder of the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, was a Communist and a nationalist leader who fought to create an independent Kurdish state.

After his arrest in 1999, he read Bookchin and adopted a philosophy he called “democratic confederalism,” which he thought would enable the Kurdish people to achieve freedom and true democracy on a local basis while remaining within the borders of Turkey.

Ocalan’s followers in Syria have adopted his ideas.  The Turkish government sees them as a threat and has them under an economic blockade.

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The Ecology of Freedom: epilogue

September 30, 2016

THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).  Epilogue.  This concludes my chapter-by-chapter review of Murray Bookchin’s great work, which I began last April.  I could and should have completed this project in a few weeks.   But the exercise was worth doing from my standpoint, and I will be pleased if I have stimulated interest in Bookchin’s ideas.

Western philosophers, from the ancient Greeks to the European Renaissance, maintained that human values should be rooted in nature.  Their problem, according to Murray Bookchin, was that they called upon an external factor—God, Spirit, what Henri Bergson later called the “vital force” to bring them together.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The truth is, according to Bookchin, that no external factor is necessary.   Mutualism, self-organization, freedom and awareness are present in nature, and evidently were latent in the universe from the very beginning.  Matter has self-organizing properties that cause it to become more complex.  Life has self-organizing properties that generate fertility, complexity and interdependence.

The evolution of life is as much a matter of developing new forms that fit in with the whole as it is competition between individuals and species.

Some biologists think that the biosphere itself is like a huge organism, which is able to regulate its internal processes and keep itself in balance.

The cruelty of nature is exaggerated, Bookchin wrote.  Wolves bringing down a sick or aged caribou is part of the cycle of life.  There is nothing in the natural world that is comparable to organized human warfare.

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Murray Bookchin: an ecological society

September 29, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).  Doing this has been harder and taken longer than I expected.  The effort is worthwhile for me, but I fear I am not doing justice to the breadth and depth of Bookchin’s thought.  I hope videos and links will partly make up for this lack.

chapter twelve – an ecological society

In previous chapters, Murray Bookchin explained his ideas about humanity’s original organic societies, which were family-based clans in which everyone was valued, everyone contributed what they could and there supposedly was neither coercion nor selfish individualism.

He went on to explain his ideas of how hierarchy arose through priesthoods and warrior bands, and the permutations of hierarchy through human history, and how universal religious and philosophical ideals arose as both a product of hierarchy and a reaction against it.

In this, his final chapter, he outlined his hopes for a future society which embodies the best ideals and practices of the original organic society and the newer universal ideals.

He didn’t provide a detailed outline of an ideal anarchist society not a strategy for bringing such a society into being.

Rather he provided a way of thinking that leads me to question my assumptions about what the world has to be like and to realize that things have to be the way they are now.

A good society rejects the idea that humanity and nature are antagonistic, Bookchin wrote.  Although the idea that humanity is nature made conscious is only a figure of speech, it is the case that individual human nature is rooted in biological nature and human society is rooted in ecological nature.

Down through history, underneath the layers of domination, there have been “layered membranes” of freedom and community, he wrote.  We need a modern vision of freedom that is intentional and not based on tradition and custom, although it will be hard to improve on the virtues of pre-literate societies.

Civilization historically has rested on scarcity, so that the freedom of the elite rested on the labor of the many.   From scarcity arose the notion of contract, so that people could protect themselves from being cheater of their fair share.

Pre-literate societies rejected the idea of contract as the basis of society, Bookchin wrote.  When you live in fear of being short-changed, you short-change others.

He said we should cease to identify freedom with domination.   We should admire Michelangelo, not Gilgamesh, Achilles, Joshua and Julius Caesar.

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Bertrand Russell on belief in God

August 11, 2016

LINK

Is There a God? by Bertrand Russell (1952)

Murray Bookchin: two images of technology

July 8, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).

chapter nine – two images of technology.

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin examined the current disillusionment with the idea of technological progress.  This is something fairly new, he noted.  In the early 20th century, even radicals such as Woody Guthrie celebrated giant engineering feats such as Boulder Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

There is a big difference, he wrote, between the ancient ideal of the good life and the modern ideal of the abundant life.

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle believed that the good life was an ethical and balanced life lived within limits and within community.  A skilled craftsman, according to Aristotle, had understood well not only how to do his work, but the reason and purpose for his work.

Modern industrial production is the opposite.  It defines efficiency in terms of quantity and cost.  Workers are not required to understand their work, only to follow instructions.  “Living well” is defined as consumption and material comfort apart from work.  Industrial workers, unlike laborers in preceding ages, do not sing work songs.

Bookchin said the modern industrial system is not a result of technology.  It is a result of peasants being uprooted from the land and their communities, and having no choice but to work for merchants and capitalists.  Originally this was done by piecework in the home, but “factors” insisted in assembling workers in common workplaces so that they could be better controlled.

Industrial technology developed to fit the already-existing factory system, Bookchin said.  Mindless labor is not a product of mechanization, he wrote; it is part of a process of subordination and control.

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Bertrand Russell speaks to the future

June 24, 2016

Looking for meaning in all the wrong places

June 24, 2016

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.

Nagel9780199919758(RGB)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.

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Murray Bookchin: from saints to sellers

June 24, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin

bookchin-endquote

chapter eight – from saints to sellers

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin traced the history of peasant revolts, starting with one recorded in Egypt in 2500 BC and continuing through peasant revolts in ancient Egypt and Sumeria, helot revolts in ancient Sparta, slave revolts in ancient Rome and peasant revolts in the European Middle Ages.

Based on my reading, I can say that what he wrote was also true of peasant revolts in Russia, China and probably other civilizations as well.

He wrote that all these rebels destroyed, first of all, records of taxation, mortgages, other debt and legal records, and secondly, treasure.

The rebels deeply resented the transubstantiation of tangible wealth, such as grain, livestock, wine and cloth, into symbolic wealth, such as golden utensils, jewelry, intricate works of art and rich furnishings and palaces, which were manifestations of domination.

In the politics of ancient Rome, Bookchin wrote, commoners demanded redistribution of land, cancellation of debts and greater equality before the law.  This is not too different from what the Occupy Wall Street movement demanded.

He devoted most of the chapter to the rebels of the European Middle Ages who, unlike the rebels of ancient times, had ideals of a better society which they derived from Christianity.

These ideals included (1) the tradition of the first Christians, who were poor and owned all things in common, (2) the ideal that all human beings are equal in the sight of God, (3) the idea that God’s law is superior to human law and (4) the hope of a better and more just world in the End Times.

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A king’s commandments to his son

June 19, 2016
  • 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.

Source: Nusaireyat.

Ramanujan: ‘the man who knew infinity’

June 11, 2016

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.

In search of the transcendent (update)

June 7, 2016

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.

Dr. Robert A. Heineman

Dr. Robert A. Heineman

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.

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The failure of philosophy in a secular age

June 7, 2016
Bob-Heineman-W

Dr. Robert A. Heineman

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 PolicyThe 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
Alfred University

PhilipKitcherLifeAfterFaith41M561fKDdL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_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.

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Murray Bookchin: the legacy of domination

May 11, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin, which I’m doing in order to help myself understand it better.  I’m interested in Bookchin’s philosophy of social ecology, which seems like a kind of socialism without government or libertarianism without corporations.

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chapter five: the legacy of domination

Murray Bookchin believed that human beings first lived in what he called “organic societies”.  They lived more or less in harmony with nature and with each other.  They were “matricentric”—not ruled by women, but reflecting the motherly values of home and hearth.

By the time of ancient Israel and ancient Greece, patriarchy came into its own.  Israelite and Greek fathers had complete authority over their grown sons, including the right to banish and disinherit them for disobedience.

Women were taught the virtues of renunication, modesty and obedience, lest they become like Eve, Pandora or Circe.   They were regarded as sources of temptation, and were taught the virtues of renunciation, modesty and obedience.

In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh exercised the absolute authority of a patriarch, not only over a clan but over a whole nation.   The book of Genesis told how Joseph, Pharaoh’s agent, collected and distributed food, and had food surpluses stored up so they would be available in hard times.

This became the typical pattern for the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world.  People became convinced they could not get along without a government to provide for them, Bookchin wrote.

The same attitude persists today, he added.  People think freedom is choosing the right form of government.  They do not question the need for government.

Ancient Athens was the shining exception to this, he wrote.

It is true the Athenians were patriarchal.  They did not accept slaves, former slaves, women or foreigners as equals, so were every other people they knew about.  But among themselves, they regarded each other as competent, self-reliant individuals, capable of self-management and management of public affairs.

Everything was decided in public assemblies, and the people who decided were the ones who carried out the decisions, including decisions regarding peace and war.

This represented an advance over the primitive organic societies, Bookchin wrote, because Athenian society was created and maintained intentionally and with full awareness, as the Funeral Oration of Pericles showed.

The oration was the equivalent of the Gettysburg address, paying tribute to Athenian soldiers who died in the war with Sparta.   Pericles said Athenians honored the right of the individual to strive for excellence in his own way, and they fought just as bravely as those who submitted to regimentation and hierarchy.

But many Athenian thinkers, including Thucydides, who recorded Pericles’ oration, regarded freedom and democracy as a form of chaos, and chose order instead.

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Murray Bookchin: the concept of social ecology

April 20, 2016

This is part of a chapter by chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005)

chapter one: the concept of social ecology.

The Ecology of Freedom begins with an account of Norse mythology and how the Vikings saw the world’s precarious balance.  There was Asgaard, the celestial domain of the gods above; Midgard, where human beings lived on the earth; and Niffleheim, the dark, icy domain of giants, dwarves and the dead.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_These domains were linked by the great World Tree, which was sustained by a magic fountain that infused it continually with life.  Odin, the god of wisdom, and his mighty son Thor kept the great wolf Fenris, and the great serpent of Midgard and the hostile giants at bay.   They enforced the keeping of oaths and treaties and invited the bravest of warriors to dine with them in Valhalla.

Odin attained wisdom from drinking of the waters of the World Tree, but the price he had to pay was the sacrifice of an eye.  So his wisdom was a one-eyed wisdom, like that of modern science, which reveals the scientific laws that govern the world, but blinds us to the uniqueness of each individual thing, especially living things.

Order began to break down when the gods tortured the witch Gullveig, the maker of gold, to make her reveal her secrets.  Corruption, treachery and greed began to rule the world.  Warriors sought gold and forgot their blood oaths.

The end will be Ragnarok, a war in which the giants, Fenris the wold and the great serpent will destroy humanity and the gods and make the universe a void of cold and darkness.

In one version, that is the end.  In another, gods and humans will regenerate, learn from their mistakes and live in joy.

Modern scientific knowledge, according to Bookchin, gives us the possibilities both of Ragnarok or a world of joy.  It depends on whether we have a one-eyed or a two-eyed wisdom.

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A dialogue on morality

April 14, 2016

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