Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

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

moralRealism1

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Another way of looking at things

April 5, 2016

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.

remakingsociety369096Of 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.

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In search of the transcendent

March 31, 2016

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

March 31, 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.

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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Do you need religion to give your life meaning?

March 31, 2016

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.

PhilipKitcherLifeAfterFaith41M561fKDdL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_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.

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The power of expecting the worst

March 6, 2016

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.

seneca.stoic8a8ddc1cc5c35a3327bf8b87fda787e6This 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.

LINK

Why Stoicism is one of the best mind hacks ever by Lary Wallace for Aeon.

The problem with reductionism

February 21, 2016

nontrivial_subfieldSource: Abstruse Goose.

The enemies of the good

February 18, 2016

In politics, it is often true that—

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

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.

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Albert Camus on happiness and love

February 14, 2016

wendycamus

Source: Albert Camus on Happiness and Love Illustrated by Wendy McNaughton on Brain Pickings

Happiness and maturity: scarcer than you think

January 17, 2016

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).

We live in the world that Henry Kissinger made

December 28, 2015

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.

Grandin.KissingersShadowHistorian 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.

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Good and evil, right and wrong

December 20, 2015

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.

Our place in history and time

December 13, 2015

This is from a post on the Wait But Why web site.

Time-G-e1419172691756

Philosophers and welders

November 22, 2015

… 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.

==Senator Marco Rubio in the 4th GOP debate

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.

education-in-liberal-artsEveryone 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.

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The large philosophical idea collider

November 9, 2015

philosophyNewsNetwork1 (more…)

Two resolutions I made early in life

September 13, 2015

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.

Jurgen Habermas and his three tests of truth

September 10, 2015

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.

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

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?

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Book notes on Jurgen Habermas

September 10, 2015

This is an archive of my notes written over the years on the works of the philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

THE SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION OF THE PUBLIC SPHERE: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society by Jurgen Habermas (1962) translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick J. Lawrence (1989)

I read this book as part of an informal seminar organized by my friend Paul Mitacek.  I don’t claim to have fully understood it.  Habermas wrote in a highly abstract style, but his style was not an attempt to obfuscate, but rather to integrate complex ideas.

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

Habermas’s subject was the evolution of what’s considered public and what’s considered private.  His focus was on Germany, France and Britain, which I found interesting because it showed that the changes he described were not specific to the United States.

In the age of absolute monarchs, Habermas wrote, royalty lived their lives as a public spectacle, while the common people lived private lives in obscurity.  What we now think of as the public sphere arose in the mercantile middle class—hence “a category of bourgeois society.”

Merchants organized shared newsletters and foreign correspondents to get accurate information about business conditions.  Out of this evolved the press as we know it, which reported on politics and culture.  Coffee houses in Britain, salons in France and Germany provided means by which middle-class and upper-class people could meet, talk freely and form public opinion, which in the 18th century was a new concept.  There arose an ideal of governance based on free public discussion and exchange of ideas.

Advocates of democracy in the 19th century hoped that the mass of the people could be assimilated to this ideal. Instead the mass media arose, and the mass public became passive consumers of culture.

Ordinary people only to got to choose which newspaper or magazine to read, which political party to vote for and which soft drink to consume, but communication was downward, not upward.

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Meaninglessness, horror and philosophy

August 8, 2015

fig,black,mens,ffffff

My friend Hal Bauer called my attention to a radio interview with a young philosopher named Eugene Thacker, author of In the Dust of This Planet: the Horror of Philosophy, Volume I.

Thacker, a self-described pessimist and nihilist, thinks that horror fiction—in which nothing makes sense and something bad can happen at any moment—is a good guide to the modern predicament of living in a meaningless world.

My argument with Thacker is that he treats meaningless as a fact, and I think meaninglessness is a choice.

The old Greek and Roman philosophers were not concerned about meaninglessness.  To them, the purpose of philosophy was to teach you how to endure hardship, pain and death, with dignity and without whining.

Christianity created meaning.   The Christian church taught people they were actors a drama that extended from birth to the afterlife, and from Creation to the Last Judgment.

I once read Dante’s The Divine Comedy as part of a reading group, and was saw how Dante gave every little thing that he encountered a theological significance, a metaphysical significance and a moral significance.  It would be wonderful to see things that way, I thought.

The disappearance of this significance is hard on people who can’t believe in Christianity, but who’ve grown up in a civilization formed by Christianity.

Thacker tries to get this back through the study of occult philosophy, which does indeed give things metaphysical and magical significance.

There may well be “hidden worlds” as occult philosophers believe.  If you think, as I do, that everything that exists is the result of impersonal natural laws and of the decisions of sentient beings, then the occult is the realm of natural laws and sentient beings we don’t know about.

The problem with occult philosophy, as opposed to empirical science, is that it provides no criteria for distinguishing truth about the “hidden world” from meaningless gobbledegook.

In science, if the experiment doesn’t work or the prediction doesn’t come about, the theory is not true—or at least is subject to doubt.  In occult philosophy, the only criterion is whether it rings true to you personally.

If you can’t believe in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any of the other established religions, I recommend you took at the classic Greek and Roman philosophers.  Broadly speaking, they were concerned with happiness, not with meaningfulness, and they pursued happiness in two ways.

One was to learn to appreciate life’s blessings, however small, and to not make yourself unhappy wishing things could be different from what they were.  The other was to live your life in such a way that you could look back on it with justified satisfaction at having done your duty.

LINKS

In The Dust of This Planet – Radiolab.

Playing: In the Dust of This Planet.

In the Dust of This Planet: an excerpt from the book.

The Sight of a Mangled Corpse, an interview with Eugene Thacker.

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Right, wrong and the “wrong” side of history

August 5, 2015

When Leon Trotsky was in exile the Soviet Union after losing his power struggle with Joseph Stalin, he still led a tiny splinter group.  He expelled dissidents from the group, saying he had consigned them “to the dust bin of history.”

Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky

There are certain unstated assumptions in that remark, and in any statement about the right or wrong side of history.   The assumptions are that (1) the course of history is predictable, (2) the outcome of history is just and (3) being on the winning side proves you were right.

I disagree with all these assumptions.  I don’t think the course of history is predictable. I don’t think the outcome of history is necessarily just and I don’t think being a winner proves you are right.

Just to be clear, I agree that gay couples ought to enjoy the same rights as straight married couples.  I think this is a question of right and wrong, not of the right or wrong side of history.  However, I don’t think that people who were slower to see this than I was should be fired from their jobs or driven out of business merely because of their personal opinions.

But gay marriage is not the topic of this post.  The topic is why philosophies of history are bad guides to moral and ethical philosophy.

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Donating fetal tissue for science is pro-life

August 4, 2015

tissue-gateI can understand being opposed to abortion under any circumstances, although I respectfully disagree.

But granted that abortion is legal, I don’t see any additional harm that is done by donating the fetal issue for use in scientific research.

Suppose somebody is the victim of a homicide.  Suppose the victim’s loved ones donate the victim’s organs for transplants or medical research.  Does that sanction homicide?

Suppose a convict on death row decided to become an organ donor.  Does honoring the convict’s wishes imply endorsement of the death penalty?

I’m an organ donor myself, and although the idea of my carcass being cut up by medical students has its gruesome side, I won’t be around to see it.

A friend of mine, also an organ donor, said she likes the idea of literally living on after death in someone’s heart.  In fact, most organ donations are used for research and medical education, but this, too, is a good contribution.

Likewise, I can see how a woman, having had an abortion, can take consolation in the thought that the tissue of the fetus can be used in scientific research.

If Planned Parenthood helps her do that, it is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Such research could save human lives.  It is pro-life.

LINKS

Wing-nut conspiracy theorists have done it again: The truth about the Planned Parenthood hoax revealed by Bob Cesca for Salon.

The Memification of Planned Parenthood by Robert Tracinski for The Federalist.

Fetal-Tissue Research and the Long Fight to Defund Planned Parenthood by Julie Ravner for The Atlantic.

Fetal tissue research has been with us a long time — and it’s saved lives by “Hunter” for Daily Kos.  [Added later]

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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