Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sex and religion

Two unrelated quotations that I feel like bringing to your attention.

The first is from this disappointing essay by Michel Houellebecq. The essay starts off rather promisingly. I particularly liked, but did not really understand, this paragraph on Cartesian dualism:
Designed expressly to quarantine problems without content (God, the human soul, etc.), the category of spirit experienced a tumultuous decline, marked by various attempts to give it a semblance of real existence. Some attempts, like Kantianism, were grandiose; others, like psychology, were miserable.
This has a sort of Wittgensteinian ring to it, but I'm not sure how or whether it could be cashed out.

Less intriguing is the end of the essay:
Only the promise of physical immortality, made possible by technology, could once again make religion possible. What Comte helps us see is that such a religion — a religion for immortals — is still necessary.
Not only do I not see what physical immortality has to do with religion, but I had thought that Houellebecq's own The Possibility of an Island had shown this well.

The second quotation is from Anscombe:
To marry is not to enter into a pact of mutual complicity in no matter what sexual activity upon one another's bodies.
This is not all that marriage is, but I'm not sure that it isn't part of it. I like the idea of "a pact of mutual complicity" anyway.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tigers all the way down

McMahan has an interesting response to his critics here. He responds to four kinds of criticism:
1. If predators were to disappear from a certain geographical region, herbivore populations in that area would rapidly expand, depleting edible vegetation, and thereby ultimately producing more deaths of among herbivores from starvation or disease than would otherwise have been caused by predators. And starvation and disease normally involve more suffering than being quickly dispatched by a predator.

2. Should human beings be the first to go?

3. What about the suffering of plants?

4. What about bacteria, viruses, and insects?
With the exception of a concern with insects, the last three objections are (it seems to me) stupid. But apparently they have been made often, so McMahan is probably right to respond to them. His response to the first objection is that he already addressed this and argued, basically, that we should phase out carnivores only if we can do so without doing more harm than good. Saying that we cannot do so does not prove him wrong. It does potentially make the whole exercise a bit pointless, but McMahan has a response to this. Speaking of people who make this objection, he writes:
If they are right, my article may present an interesting thought experiment that might have prompted us to reflect on our values (though it didn’t), but it is essentially devoid of practical significance.
So, how does the article make us reflect on our values? Or rather, what do we see when we reflect? McMahan's values seem to be both anthropocentric (I think he would accept this) and utilitarian in a pretty straightforward, Benthamite sense (I think he would accept this too). Mine, I find, are much less anthropocentric and more religious/aesthetic/Nietzschean. So perhaps his article has value because of the clarificatory role it can play.

At the end of this new article he writes:
What’s particularly disheartening is that their comments are greatly outnumbered by those that make no reference to my arguments and never touch on a point of substance, but instead consist entirely of insults and invective. If you take your own moral beliefs seriously, the way to respond to a challenge to them is to make sure you understand the challenge and then to try to refute the arguments for it. If you can’t answer the challenge except by mocking the challenger, how can you retain your confidence in your own beliefs?
This sounds like the kind of thing that Cora Diamond responded to in her paper "Anything but Argument?" It also reminds me of the question of foundationalism. McMahan seems to want rational justification of our moral beliefs all the way down. But that's not possible. Arguments start with premises, and these cannot all be proved by yet more arguments whose premises are in turn supported by sound arguments, etc. So we have to start somewhere. McMahan seems to start with the ideas that pain is bad and pleasure is good, although in this case his focus is on the badness of pain. But it's very hard to say what pain is, or what pleasure is. And all sorts of bad things seem to exist that are not pain (grief, despair, loneliness, regret, itching, frustration, anger, injury, insult, etc. etc.). If we define 'pain' as 'bad feeling' then many of these things might count as pains, but the word 'bad' is surely hard to define. And do we really have a good understanding of what exactly a feeling is? I'm sure that attempts to reduce the concept of pain to something that fits a naturalistic ontology (such as the opposite of preference satisfaction) have been made, but it seems like a hopeless project to me. (I realize that I should do some reading before making a final verdict on the matter.) If the goodness of the natural world more or less as it is is as obvious to someone as the badness of pain is to McMahan, then how can that person respond to his arguments without insults and invective? What can be said except: "Are you blind?" We could try taking him to a zoo, or giving him some good books to read, but I wouldn't have much hope that such things would make a difference to him.

So he's disheartened and I'm disheartened. Maybe it's time to talk about something else.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Against nature

It won't die! Matt has some good comments there, especially this one:
if someone said to me that it should not be pursued because it was "against nature," I certainly would not find it obvious that this was wrong. I would want to know a lot more about what was being claimed before I would say whether I agreed, of course, just like with any other ethical slogan.
The post to which Matt is responding says that McMahan considers various objections to his argument and that:
Among the weakest of these are the idea that implementing his proposal - even with the specific provisos he gives - would mean “playing God”, or acting “against nature”. Such lines of argument have a host of absurd implications: for instance, one might just as well use them to condemn morally innocuous practices like contraception or vaccination. They are therefore quite easily dismissed.
It is not charitable to interpret reference to "playing God" as meaning some argument that implies the wrongness of vaccinations. What is going on here?

It's partly cultural, I think. A lot of philosophy, especially in England, is done by people who are openly contemptuous of religion and who have (or display) little to no understanding of it in any but its crudest forms.

It's also partly a matter of the superficiality of most contemporary moral philosophy. Although this too might be more a question of fashion than depth. Suggest that a world without tigers might be a good thing and you are provocative. Suggest that a world without contraception might be a good thing and you are an idiot. The two are connected. It is because of the perceived miraculousness of life that contraception (and all sex that excludes this miracle by design) is regarded by some as wrong. It is my perception of tigers as miraculous that makes me incapable of taking McMahan's argument seriously. In fact, taking it seriously (which seems to be what has to be done in order to get others to stop agreeing with it) can itself be regarded as an insult to nature, in the same way that taking racist arguments seriously is an insult to humanity in general and racial minorities in particular.

Two things: 1. I am not myself against contraception, but I think the argument that Anscombe makes against it (e.g. here) is interesting (and need not be Catholic or Christian--I think a Nietzschean version could be developed). 2. There is an awful lot of misunderstanding of the idea that wrong things are against nature.

Breyers ice cream advertises itself as "all natural," seemingly presupposing that this is a good thing. One might infer that artificial, or partly artificial ice cream, is not so good. You would be right, but is the point generalizable? Is opera singing morally bad? I suspect that much of it is (consider the word 'diva'--and, of course, there are male equivalents), but not because it is a form of art. Laptops are not evil just because they don't grow on trees. But no one thinks they are. Anscombe thinks contraception is evil because it is an insult to the value of life. Laptops and opera are no such thing. Is phasing out tigers? Well, it isn't an insult to the value of human life, but it does seem somewhat unappreciative of the work of the immortal hand and eye that framed the tiger's fearful symmetry. The seeming impossibility of appreciating Blake's poem while taking McMahan's argument seriously (combined, I suppose, with the obvious goodness of Blake's poem) is the kind of thing that makes me reject the argument and be depressed by it.

What does respect for life require? What is due? What is called for? Those are hard questions. But answering them requires appreciation of good things, and sensitivity. And they are not distinct from the questions, "What is life?" and "What is the value of life?", just as the question "Is torture ever all right?" quickly became "What is torture?" Ontology requires sensitivity too. And, as I've hinted, I don't trust people who can't appreciate a poem or a tiger to think well about value.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The question of the moment

There's a very interesting interview with Michel Houellebecq here. He mentions Coetzee, Iggy Pop, Dostoevsky, and H. P. Lovecraft. He confirms (at the end of the interview) my view that he is a Romantic. He also says that no reviewer has mentioned the last part of The Possibility of an Island, or perhaps the difference between this and his other writing. It's almost as if he hasn't read my essay on him, which would not be a surprise since even I could not find it online. (I created a bunch of web pages which were then all moved to new addresses, with new design and, as far as I can see, some re-writing. Oh well.)

Anyway, I recommend his book on Lovecraft, his first novel (translated as Whatever), and The Elementary Particles.

Does New Jersey moral philosophy corrupt youth?

There's an interesting sense of tension in the part of Hans-Johann Glock's What is Analytic Philosophy? that deals with ethics. This is not Glock's fault: for one thing, he's largely reporting on the views of others; for another, the tension is simply there among the phenomena that philosophers should try to make sense of; and for yet another, Glock is well aware that matters are not straightforward here. But he doesn't get into what might appear to be a paradox to which he draws attention, so I will try to say something about it here.

On p. 197 Glock writes that:
A German philosopher, it seems, is not expected to muster nine arguments for and ten against any given position, but to utter profound wisdoms, preferably wisdoms which are in line with a shared communal ethos.
This might well sound like mockery, and I think it is intended to. But Glock cuts the laughter short. The ridiculous German philosopher is contrasted with Peter Singer who, according to Glock's account, favors killing hemophiliac infants even though, as adults, they are likely to "find life definitely worth living," because they will be a burden to their parents and because the parents could probably have a healthier and happier child instead if they decided to 'replace' the hemophiliac one. I take it that Singer does not support killing sick babies against their parents' wishes, but that he thinks (or thought once upon a time) that parents who decided to kill a sick child in order to replace it with a healthier one were making a wise decision, assuming that doing so would be possible, legal, etc.

Glock identifies such a view, whether or not Singer still holds it (or even if he never did), as "a particular failure of rationality." The failure in question is:
the failure to reconsider one's premises in the light of unpalatable consequences, and the tendency to seek refuge instead in self-serving animadversions against 'orthodox' or 'conventional' morality and 'lay' intuitions. [p. 198]
Glock goes on to contrast "the characteristically serious air of Germanophone moral philosophy" with the "gung-ho spirit," "cavalier spirit," and "exquisitely bad taste" of "some analytic philosophers working in applied ethics."

He then gives a fictional example to illustrate the kind of far-fetched thought experiment favored by such ethicists, and remarks:
There may be a place for casuistry; but that place is in the consideration of genuine moral dilemmas, dilemmas that could confront minimally decent and sane human agents. In this kind of casuistry, by contrast, moral problems seem to be treated mainly as an excuse for trying out one's pet theory or showing how clever one is.
So is the profound German moral philosopher all right after all? Apparently not: "a philosophy the methods and results of which are predetermined by prior practical commitments is wishful thinking at best, and deceitful rhetoric at worst."

So our moral commitments should not be so fixed that they are immune to rational criticism, but if reasoning about morals leads to "unpalatable" conclusions, then we have reasoned badly. What is and is not palatable, I take it, is to be determined by what lies within the sphere of minimal decency and sanity.

This is far from rigid or specific, so I can easily imagine many philosophers refusing to take it seriously. But it seems quite right to me. The problem is that proving this kind of position right seems to be impossible, and it is not universally accepted. People like Singer and McMahan, it seems to me, sometimes stray beyond the limits of the sane and the minimally decent. And instead of a universal outcry, or a (bored, embarrassed, or angry) refusal to engage with their work, they are given attention, money, honors, etc.

Is it their work that is changing the general sense of what is decent and sane, or is it because this sense is already changing that we pay so much respectful attention to their work?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

All the heavy metal in the world

There seems to be something I'm not getting that everyone else gets. Matt at The Consternation of Philosophy (which looks like a good blog) writes:
McMahan’s piece is rich and challenging, raising a lot of important issues. He questions, for example, whether ‘species’ is a morally relevant category: “The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species.” With this, I agree; we talk about animal species as a convenient way of carving up nature and organizing our biological knowledge, but it doesn’t seem terribly important to morality. (This isn’t to deny anything about human exceptionalism; I would think that if anything makes humans special morally, it’s not something that depends essentially on our species membership. That is, you can still think humans have intrinsic dignity even if you don’t think that that dignity depends on our being a member of Homo sapiens.)
Why doesn't species, kind, or type count for morality? The idea seems to be that members of the species homo sapiens might have special dignity, but they have this because of their individual properties, not because they are members of that species. Is that it? But then it becomes hard to argue for human rights rather than, say, the rights of rational beings. And what if all the heavy metal in the world disappeared, or all the late medieval art? Wouldn't that be a shame, and not only because this song and that song and this painting had gone? Wouldn't the loss of the kinds be a bad thing? If the Welsh language disappears, is that not a shame just because the line between Welsh and,say, Cornish is blurry or somewhat arbitrary? Some French people look French. Is it irrational to think it would be a shame if that kind of face disappeared? For that matter, is the identity of an individual (a complete set of rabbit parts, for instance) not just as arbitrary as the identity of a species? I don't get it.

No lions, no tigers, no bears, Oh joy!

This first point is likely to seem irrelevant, but I wonder if it isn't revealing. McMahan writes that: "some of us, for reasons I have never understood, do go to the trouble to paint their vestigial claws a sanguinary hue." I.e. some people, overwhelmingly women, paint their nails. Am I alone in being annoyed by this? It seems to combine patronizing sexism with a failed attempt at Gradgrind-as-Socrates humour. The robot that does not understand human ways points out, with a kindly laugh, how foolish we all are. Are we really expected to laugh? Is anyone alive really mystified by decoration?

Later, McMahan writes that: "There is no reason to suppose that a species has special sanctity simply because it arose in the natural process of evolution." Yes there is. Evolution takes a long time. This time can be regarded as a kind of investment, an investment that will be wasted if the species in question is killed off or allowed to die out. That is, as Ronald Dworkin puts it, a cosmic shame. A species designed and created in a lab can be re-designed and re-created just as easily. This might not be much of an argument, but Dworkin is trying to capture widespread intuitions. I think he is at least partly successful. McMahan is here basically rejecting these intuitions, but moral dialogue becomes impossible if too many such intuitions are rejected or not shared in the first place.

Wisely, McMahan brings up the likely objection that our choosing which species get to survive and which die out would be "playing God." He has two responses to this:
One is that it singles out deliberate, morally-motivated action for special condemnation, while implicitly sanctioning morally neutral action that foreseeably has the same effects as long as those effects are not intended. One plays God, for example, if one administers a lethal injection to a patient at her own request in order to end her agony, but not if one gives her a largely ineffective analgesic only to mitigate the agony, though knowing that it will kill her as a side effect. But it is hard to believe that any self-respecting deity would be impressed by the distinction. If the first act encroaches on divine prerogatives, the second does as well.
I think this is wrong. A kidnapper who toys with his prisoner, reveling in the power to kill or not, plays God. The doing-and-allowing distinction need not come into it. To play God is, it seems to me, to make decisions that one has no right to make. Another example would be the Nazi officer played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List who enjoys shooting prisoners in his camp, deciding who lives a bit longer and who dies right away. This is playing God. Anyway, what about McMahan’s example?

Lethal injections are opposed by many religious believers because they believe that God has forbidden killing the innocent. Giving a lethal injection for reasons unrelated to its lethality would likely be frowned upon by such people too. McMahan seems to have the doctrine of double effect in mind here, so perhaps I should spell out what this doctrine says: First, do nothing that is forbidden. Secondly, allowed actions (such as giving an anesthetic) that have the same effects as forbidden actions are not necessarily forbidden so long as: a) neither the means nor the end is forbidden, b) the likely good effects outweigh the likely bad effects. Giving an anesthetic is usually allowed as a means, and relieving suffering is usually considered OK as an end, but whether the good of ending a patient’s suffering outweighs the bad of that patient’s dying is controversial. It is not clear to me what a theist should say about such a case. What they do say varies, of course. What any of this has to do with playing God or engineering the extinction of tigers is another matter. Let me try to figure it out.

The proposal, I take it, is that we choose between carrying on destroying species willy nilly and destroying them in a more thoughtful way. The obvious falseness of this dichotomy suggests that McMahan is kidding (and there can be no doubt that he is against the current destruction), but let’s assume for the sake of argument, or for the sake of his joke, that he is not. If someone opposes the targeted extinction on the grounds that this would be playing God in a way that falls foul of the doctrine of double effect, would they be right? Is logging, for instance, forbidden? No. Is the reason why people cut down trees (profit) considered evil by most religions? No. Does the rationally expected good outweigh the rationally expected bad? No. So according to the doctrine of double effect, it looks as though destroying the environment by cutting down lots of trees is not allowed. Willy nilly extinction is no better than targeted extinction. It is not the case, therefore, that targeted extinction is wrong on account of its involving playing God as McMahan understands this idea (as I understand his understanding of it). Targeted extinction and willy nilly extinction are wrong for the same reason.

It looks as though McMahan needs his second response, therefore, which he regards as: "simple and decisive. It is that there is no deity whose prerogatives we might usurp. To the extent that these matters are up to anyone, they are up to us alone."

I agree that there is no deity. But it does not follow (that I am right or) that there are no limits on what we may do or on what decisions we may take. So if we reject the concept of playing God on the ground that there is no God, we can always instead use the concept of "what used to be called ‘playing God’" and get the same results. My argument for this concept is an appeal to intuitions. Not a strong argument, but ultimately the best we can ever do in ethics. Or so it seems to me.

Back to McMahan:
Another equally unpersuasive objection to the suggestion that we ought to eliminate carnivorism if we could do so without major ecological disruption is that this would be “against Nature.” This slogan also has a long history of deployment in crusades to ensure that human cultures remain primitive. And like the appeal to the sovereignty of a deity, it too presupposes an indefensible metaphysics. Nature is not a purposive agent, much less a wise one.
This is obscure. McMahan’s apparent meaning is that people who complain that this or that is against nature (or Nature) believe that nature is a wise and purposive agent. But no one believes this. Some believe that nature expresses God’s will, and that God is a wise and purposive agent. If we take this idea to have been refuted by McMahan’s assertion that it is false, then we are left with some speculation to do as to what people might mean when they say that something is against nature. Some just mean they don’t like it, some mean it is artificial (and they don’t like artificial things, perhaps because they don’t trust them), and some mean simply that it is wrong. For some people, “against nature” means “contrary to human nature,” which means “in violation of the laws governing how human beings ought to live,” which means “wrong.” It is hard to see what the metaphysics here is supposed to be, let alone why it would be indefensible.

Finally, McMahan’s conclusion:
Here, then, is where matters stand thus far. It would be good to prevent the vast suffering and countless violent deaths caused by predation. There is therefore one reason to think that it would be instrumentally good if predatory animal species were to become extinct and be replaced by new herbivorous species, provided that this could occur without ecological upheaval involving more harm than would be prevented by the end of predation. The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species. I am therefore inclined to embrace the heretical conclusion that we have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species, and I await the usual fate of heretics when this article is opened to comment.
The key sentence here is this: “The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species.” Where we draw the line between lions and tigers is arbitrary, so (?) lions and tigers as such cannot be sacred. I’m not at all sure that this is what he means, but it’s what he seems to be getting at here:
the idea that individual animal species have value in themselves is less obvious. What, after all, are species? According to Darwin, they “are merely artificial combinations made for convenience.” They are collections of individuals distinguished by biologists that shade into one another over time and sometimes blur together even among contemporaneous individuals, as in the case of ring species. There are no universally agreed criteria for their individuation. In practice, the most commonly invoked criterion is the capacity for interbreeding, yet this is well known to be imperfect and to entail intransitivities of classification when applied to ring species. Nor has it ever been satisfactorily explained why a special sort of value should inhere in a collection of individuals simply by virtue of their ability to produce fertile offspring. If it is good, as I think it is, that animal life should continue, then it is instrumentally good that some animals can breed with one another. But I can see no reason to suppose that donkeys, as a group, have a special impersonal value that mules lack.

(The superiority of donkeys over mules is evident to me, and I do not mean that I prefer donkeys (although of course I do). But I should leave that aside.)

Artificial combinations made for convenience can still be convenient, so I see no reason to discount them. And then why can’t we regard such a grouping as sacred, especially since ‘sacred’ is being used here to express an intuition, not in a very technical or literal sense? Is it irrational to love donkeys but not mules? Why can’t the members of an artificial category be sacred (in Dworkin’s sense of the word)? Indeed, Dworkin counts works of art as sacred, and that is a notoriously tricky category.

Three points in conclusion: 1. McMahan seems to want to be impersonal (his preferred term for ‘sacredness’ is ‘impersonal value’, he claims not to get nail polish, he is dismissive of great literature and religious impulses, etc.), 2. He makes some arguments that seem rather weak, 3. His article has the potential to be a great work of satire, but it seems not to be intended this way. The second point is neither here nor there, since both bad arguments and disagreement about which arguments are bad are very common. What interests me are the first and third points, which make me feel that McMahan and I are almost members of different species. Disconcerting and depressing. But if it is satire, then I applaud the idea, if not the execution.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The argument from tigers

[UPDATE: This isn't a defense of theism or religion. If that's what you're looking for, you've got the wrong argument from tigers. Feel free to look around while you're here though. For more on my views on religion, click on the "religion" label to the right. In brief, I'm an atheist but not an evangelical one.

UPDATE: This isn't an argument for vegetarianism either. Roughly speaking, it's an argument for tigers. And it's an argument from tigers. Basically: tigers, therefore tigers, or: tigers are awesome, therefore it is good that there should be tigers. This probably sounds silly, but it's a response to an argument to the effect that it might be good if tigers did not exist. My response is that this is absurd, and evidently so to anyone with a proper understanding of what tigers are. For more, read on below.]

Jeff McMahan has an article in which he argues "that we have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species." Spiros calls it "terrific and provocative." It is not terrific, and what it provokes in me is a kind of grinding despair. It would be all too easy to have an animated, "Ah, but that's precisely where you're wrong!" kind of discussion of this piece. It would be impossible to have what I would consider a serious discussion of it, except as pathological. Stephen Mulhall might offer a very insightful analysis of just what is wrong with this kind of thinking (in fact I think he has already addressed McMahan's work in The Wounded Animal), but I don't see how it could be taken seriously as a piece of thinking. This (i.e. what I have just written) is not an argument, of course, but I'm not sure how to argue with something like this.

Early analytic philosophy was connected with modernism. I wonder whether it has degenerated into a form of post-modernism, something essentially playful (see the jokey end of McMahan's essay: "I await the usual fate of heretics when this article is opened to comment"), essentially unserious.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Greater love for his country hath no man than this, that he damage it to save money

Two bumper stickers next to each other on a car I was driving behind yesterday: "God Bless America" and "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less."

It's not really surprising to see this combination, I suppose. The "drill here" movement consists mostly of conservative (or right of center) people, and the same crowd is more likely to want to say "God bless America." Not because people on the left hate America (although some might) or don't believe in God (although perhaps less of them do) but because people on the left are more likely, I think, to see no reason why God would not, or should not, bless all the world. He made it, after all (allegedly). From a religious perspective it makes no sense (that I can see) to think that God would or should prefer one country to any other, unless one believes in the kind of providentialism that sees imperialism, slavery, genocide, and terrorism as expressions of God's will. In that case, one might see the USA's superpower status as evidence that God prefers the USA to other countries. But what would that imply about God's attitude toward Sudan or North Korea, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan? There are people who think that God allowed slavery in the US because He is biased in favour of white people, but this has to be filed under "crackpot ideas" along with the idea that He allowed the 9/11 attacks on a financial institution and the Pentagon because He hates, not capitalism or militarism (which would make a sick kind of sense), but because He hates American tolerance of gay people. This makes no sense.

"God bless America" makes sense if it's not taken to exclude "God bless France," "God bless Sudan," etc. etc. But then why say it? Maybe because you love the part of the world that you know and want to express this love, without meaning thereby that other parts of the world are less worthy. That seems OK to me.

But then, if you love this part of the planet, why would you want people to drill more for oil here, especially when we have been reminded so recently and so forcefully what damage this can do? Well, we know the answer: so we can pay less for gas. Someone who thinks this way cannot be loving America as a physical place. He (the driver was a young man) must mean something else. The freedom to drill for oil, perhaps. The lifestyle associated with the USA, perhaps, which heavily involves driving. The people who live in the US, perhaps, and their financial well-being.

So does "God bless America" then mean something like God bless freedom, God bless driving, God bless our wallets? It isn't impossible that there is some coherent thought here. And I think only dialogue can discover the truth. But it's hard to resist the suspicion that the sentiment is no more articulate than this:

Some people laughingly reject this attitude as moronic. Others happily embrace it, without necessarily denying that there is something rather unthinking about it. Is its expression nonsense? I don't know. But there can't be much rational debate about it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The blogocentric predicament

I've mentioned before that one aspect of Wittgensteinian philosophy is purely critical. I think bursting bubbles is sometimes useful, but you need to pick the bubbles carefully: some aren't worth the time and some are more substantial than they look. But one temptation with a blog is to seek out houses of cards to knock down. That's the predicament I want to avoid. So I'm glad that Wes Alwan pointed out that my response to one of his posts was misleading, unfair, or both. The main point I had wanted to make was that he was perhaps more Wittgensteinian than he realized, but the way I wrote it was more like, "You're wrong!" My bad, and thanks to Wes for being so generous in his response.

But some criticism can be constructive, I hope, (or perhaps engagement is more what I have in mind) and when someone freely admits that they have a problem, it might be OK to attempt a solution. This, for instance, caught my attention. For a long time I have wanted to see a dialogue between Wittgenstein and Heidegger, or Wittgensteinians and Heideggerians, that treats W and H as each having something to say that is worth taking seriously without that something being the same. At the very least their ways of saying it are different, and I can't believe that this isn't significant. Perhaps Sean D. Kelly's work is an opportunity for that kind of dialogue to happen. I don't expect him to start reading what I write, of course, but I can at least think about what he writes and respond to it here.

Kelly is interested in "the gratitude one feels in the presence of a gift without a giver." One problem in connection with this comes out in a discussion he has had with Charles Spinosa:
The issue that Charles and I are discussing is whether one can feel gratitude without feeling it as gratitude towards someone or something. I think you can and that you ought to hold onto this possibility. Charles thinks that one sometimes does, if I understand him correctly, but that this is a weaker and less impressive experience of the divine. We can hope for more.
Kelly comments on his disagreement with Spinosa as follows:
The disagreement, then, is partly about the phenomenology itself but partly also about what matters in it. In the basic case of the gratitude one feels in the presence of things revealed as wonderful, for example, it is hard for me to see what it adds to say that the gratitude is experienced as directed toward some entity. The phenomenon of gratitude as I experience it in these instances is deep and abiding, and it is gratitude for something that feels as though it was given to me rather than produced by me. But to say that it feels as though it was given to me by someone or something seems to me to be adding something more, and I’m not sure what aspect of the phenomenon this more picks out. But moreover, I think this is a good position to be in, rather than something to be bemoaned.
He refers to this gratitude as something that one feels, as a mood, as a phenomenon, and as something that one experiences. There isn't much that one could disagree with there, but I wonder what Wittgenstein might say about it. He would certainly warn against treating such gratitude as a phenomenon that one might understand better by focusing one's attention on it, as if it were a kind of thing or mental entity that could be scrutinized internally. Kelly does not make this mistake, but he might come too close to it for Wittgensteinian comfort.

I think Wittgenstein would distinguish between experiences by looking at how they are described. Basically, if the descriptions are the same then the experiences are the same. I'm pretty sure some investigation might be necessary to avoid mistakes in cases where the description is very thin or, in the opposite case, very poetical. Two people who say "It's painful" are not necessarily having the same experience. And if one person says "I feel completely safe" and another says "I feel at one with everything," they might in fact be having the very same experience. Looking at the context, asking them to elaborate, and seeing whether they consider their experiences to be the same or different would be relevant.

This is close to what Kelly does. He looks at how various people through history have described similar(-sounding) experiences and considers the historical and cultural context. He also returns to his own expression of his thoughts and adds complications as necessary. This is all in line with what I think Wittgenstein would consider the right approach to take.

And yet I still feel that his focus would be slightly different (for better or worse). Perhaps this is too crude or jargony, but the kind of experience of gratitude that Kelly describes is (I think) what Wittgenstein might call the experience of the dawning of an aspect. Nothing changes yet everything now seems wonderful or amazing or like a tremendous gift. This wonder is itself something we might wonder at or about. But the thing to do then is to express it and then, if there is anything left to be done, look at this expression. Is it adequate? This is a question for the person who has had the experience to answer, just as in Freudian therapy it is for the patient to say whether the analyst's diagnosis is correct. There is no way to judge the correctness of a form of expression objectively. Which is why talk of description of a phenomenon is potentially misleading.

It is not at all clear to me that Kelly has been misled in any way. Nor is it clear that Wittgenstein's approach (so far as I can even tell what that would be) is better than a Heideggerian approach. The two seem very similar, in fact, yet there is a different feel or flavour (however slight) to each. And if Kelly is finding that one is not completely satisfactory, perhaps he should try the other. The truly Wittgensteinian approach, I suppose, would be the one that brings peace. But saying that is hardly helpful! Or would even the late Wittgenstein recommend silence in such cases?

I'll have to think about this some more.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Between science and semantics

I'm trying to write something about what philosophy is or should be, but I keep distracting myself. Sometimes these distractions are productive though. For instance, Wes Alwan has two interesting posts at The Partially Examined Life. In one, he complains about "the oh-so-common, Wittgenstein-inspired claim that philosophy is just a matter of confusion about language."

His response to this claim is this:
It shouldn’t need saying that there’s a difference between linguistic and conceptual definitions, or that every system of knowledge rests on unproven axioms or assumptions — mathematics, logic, and science as much as philosophy. That’s why philosophical “meta discussions” about these fields — and knowledge in general — become genuinely interesting and problematic (rather than merely a matter of linguistic confusion or semantics), even while we know that that these problems don’t bear on their practical application:

"In the same way, we are not going to throw out math, logic, or ethics just because meta discussions of those topics seem to constantly get us into trouble. Hume would have approved retaining science, math, logic and ethics regardless of their respective foundational problems. But he would have simply smiled if someone rushed to him with a dictionary in hand to tell him that the problem of induction is all just a matter of definitions."
(The last part of this is a quotation from Massimo Pigliucci, at Rationally Speaking.)

Wittgenstein did not think that philosophy is "just" a matter of confusion about language. To say so is to misunderstand how important he thought language is. One fairly common way to ask the question "What is x?" is to ask "What do we talk about when we talk about x?" This, roughly speaking, is Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical questions: if we want to know what something is and cannot do so without philosophy, then we should look at how we talk about x. This is at least as much about x as it is about language.

I don't know what a "conceptual definition" is, but Wittgenstein does not deny that such things might exist, or that they might be different from the definitions of words (if that is what "linguistic definitions" are).

The claim about unproven axioms seems very Wittgensteinian (see On Certainty), so I'm not sure what the claim here is meant to be. Wittgenstein certainly never suggests "throwing out" logic, maths, or ethics because they lack foundations! Au contraire. Nor does he suggest that dictionaries can solve philosophical problems.

He did think that philosophical problems are pseudo-problems, but he had very specific ideas about what was and what was not a philosophical problem. Somewhere there is a list of the questions that Karl Popper proposed as genuine problems in philosophy, and to at least most of them, if not all, Wittgenstein replied not that it was a pseudo-problem but that it was a problem that belonged to some other discipline. He identifies philosophy with something like synthetic a priori claims. Only Kantians need disagree with his rejection of these.

The other post that caught my eye was this one on Stephen Hawking's claim that "philosophy is dead." In response, Alwan writes that:
we should really ask people what Hawking and his ilk think of literature and the humanities in general. “I am only interested in the hard sciences and everything else is squishy and impractical and insufficiently number-ish” is not an argument. It simply reflects an orientation toward activities that are as far away from social concerns as possible. It’s what we associate with being a nerd, and in a sense these sorts of pseudo-philosophical Papal Bulls by the popularizers of science are simply the ultimate revenge of the nerds.

Worse, they are a rejection of interiority, a rejection of the idea that reflection is a worthwhile endeavor. Our own thoughts and feelings cannot be “data”; me must concentrate only on empirical objects.
(I've corrected a possibly telling typo that suggests Alwan was thinking of Richard Dawkins as he was writing about Hawking--an understandable association.)

If I can be squishy (or is it slippery?) for a minute, I'd like to read this as identifying philosophy as one of the humanities, and as identifying the humanities with a concern with interiority, with things that cannot be data, such as thoughts and feelings. I like this identification--I'm not trying to pin something bad on Alwan.

It is because of the squishiness involved that philosophy cannot be a scientific or quasi-scientific discipline or enterprise. It can't really be a discipline at all if that means having a well-defined problem-set and techniques for solving these problems. That's why there are no real philosophical problems. It seems to me, therefore, that Alwan rejects a possibly Wittgenstein-inspired straw man (does anyone really think the thoughts he rejects?--maybe, but I hope not) while really agreeing with Wittgenstein, at least approximately.

He ends with this:
These instincts — to the absoluteness of certain standpoints and the promise of an end to questioning and, by fiat, a complete picture of the world — are in fact the instincts of fundamentalist religion. That’s why I see this as just another battle between fundamentalists demanding certainty — whose obsession with their counterpart Christian and Islamic fundamentalists is telling — and people (religious or not) who want to suspend judgment for the sake of thinking about things. Abandoning the need for the promise of completeness, to an end to inquiry, would be just as much a truer form of atheism as it is a truer form of faith.
Which I think is a good expression of the truer kind of thinking/living that Wittgenstein sought.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Et tu?

In section 98 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche refers to Julius Caesar as Shakespeare's "best tragedy" and sings the praises of Brutus for having the courage to kill his friend for the sake of a higher ideal: political freedom--"Or," Nietzsche asks, "was political freedom only a symbol for something inexpressible?"

But it's hard to feel this admiration for Brutus while Caesar is being stabbed, or while Mark Anthony is making his famous speech, or when we see Rome collapse into civil war. Brutus has good intentions, but is Caesar's pride really such a big deal? The play is generally considered to be political, partly for obvious (and undeniable) reasons, and partly because of the historical circumstances in England when it was written. But it seems to have a religious aspect too, if we think of Caesar as the Pope. Has he (or his office) become too proud or ambitious? If so, what should we do about it?

Brutus reasons that we should rebel, but in this he is influenced by Cassius, and the power of the human mind to reason well is questioned by Shakespeare. Caesar, one character says, prides himself on hating flattery, so to flatter him you just have to tell him that he hates flatterers, and he laps it up. No one, we might infer, is immune from this kind of thing. Nor can we know the future. See Cassius in Act I scene iii: "I know not what may fall [i.e. what may happen in the future as a result of the proposed course of action]; I like it not." This is a sort of nutshell version of anti-consequentialism. Caesar's assassination is done with the intention of bringing about a better Rome, but it appears to fail. (But appearances can be deceptive, as Cassius' committing suicide because he mistakenly thinks his friend Titinius has been captured shows.)

The lesson appears to me to be that noble intentions are not enough. We cannot use reason to know what is right but must instead go by such things as faith and feeling. This is why Brutus is a tragic hero, not just a hero. Like Cassius (and Hamlet?) "He thinks too much: such men are dangerous," as Caesar puts it (speaking of Cassius). Ambition is bad, as Macbeth shows, but the best response might be forbearance. We cannot know the future (see Macbeth), or elsewhere in space (see Othello), or what happened in the past (see Hamlet), so we have too little knowledge to be able to act wisely on the basis of our own reason. If the Pope gets ideas above his station, we should patiently let him get on with it, not rebel. Or so Shakespeare can be interpreted as implying.

But what if the clash is not between faith/feeling (which tell us not to kill) and reason, but between acting and not acting? In Hamlet, Hamlet's faith that his father has risen and told him to kill (which reminds me of another Father or Lord who is believed to have risen from the dead and given commandments to the living) allies with his sense that things in Denmark are going badly, so that he must choose between mental suffering and taking arms against a sea of troubles. Once he has some proof that his father's ghost was not merely a hallucination he acts, with tragic results. It seems to me that it is not the delay that causes the tragedy so much as it is the path of bloody action that he decides to take. Mental suffering might drive him insane, but then he isn't exactly better off taking the other course. Hamlet studied at Wittenberg, Luther's university, and, like Cassius and Brutus, was something of a philosopher. Shakespeare seems to admire intelligence and thinking, but to emphasize the downside of both.

Perhaps he was anti-Lutheran. Or perhaps he just saw humanity as caught in a tragic position.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Not the creepy kind, but the film by Tarkovsky. I think the title could equally be something like "Tracker" or even "Ranger," since it's about a stalker in the sense of a deer-stalker. But it's not deer he leads people to.

The movie is a religious allegory posing as a science-fiction story. It starts out looking very ugly, which is surprising for a Tarkovsky film, but you should watch at least up till "Part Two" before giving up on it. Tarkovsky uses light and colour in a way that is, I suppose, symbolic, but seems to me to have almost literal meaning. If gestures are "the natural language of all peoples" (Augustine as quoted in Philosophical Investigations) then perhaps other natural phenomena can be thought of as having meaning. Whether by nature or convention, light has come to have a more or less common meaning in works from Plato's Republic to Larkin's "High Windows," and it is in this sense that Tarkovsky uses it.

The film reminded me a little of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which I liked but didn't love. McCarthy's message seems to be that no matter how bad things get, it is still possible to keep alive the flame of faith/hope/charity and that, as an act of this faith/hope/charity, it is passed on from one generation to the next. The same message is delivered in the movie (and perhaps the book) No Country for Old Men (most obviously at the end, in the story of the dream about a man's father and a fire). But it's not very satisfying to be told to keep hope alive, or to be shown someone who manages to do so more or less by luck. The Road wouldn't work as a story if the man and boy were eaten by strangers. There can't be any luck in religion. Imagine Wittgenstein talking about feeling safe no matter what, and then running through no man's land with bullets whistling past his ears. Not being shot proves nothing, unless God is just a big magic shield. You have to be safe despite getting shot, despite being killed.

Stalker might not quite give us this, but (like The Brothers Karamazov and Andrei Rublev) it tries to show what a faithful life might look like despite all kinds of problems, including various corrupt forms of religion, without such a life seeming stupid, evil, or only contingently successful.

Five stars.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mind what you say

I had some thoughts yesterday about the gods and wonder, etc., but didn't write them down and have now forgotten them completely. So I'm inclined to put thoughts here even if they are not yet even half-baked, just in case I lose ideas that might have potential. So...

I was thinking today about God and other minds, but not in the sense that belief in the existence of God might be justified in the same kind of way that belief in other minds is. Rather, I think that other minds don't exist. A mind is not a thing that exists. The same goes for souls, God, and what it is like to be a bat. These, if they are anything at all, are not objects, whether objects of knowledge or objects that can properly be said to exist. No more than pain is an object or kind of object.

Behaviorism would be closer to the truth than realism about these things, but (or, partly, because) behaviorism is obviously false. I am not of the opinion that he is in pain, but my attitude is an attitude toward a being in pain. Or something like that. And these attitudes are a matter not only of behavior but of how something is experienced.

Perhaps this is all just what Wittgenstein said already.

This is what I get for saying I didn't want to do any philosophy of mind.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Is Morrissey racist?


You could read his remark that "You can't help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies" as a description of unwanted feelings that arise when you think about the abuse of animals in China (his remark came after these words: "Did you see the thing on the news about their treatment of animals and animal welfare? Absolutely horrific"), but he has refused to distance himself from the feeling he described, and he has a history of this sort of thing. There's not much else to say except a) we probably all have racial prejudices of some kind, at some level, b) at least he denies being a racist rather than proudly or defiantly insisting on it, and c) the whole thing reminded me of "Curtain" by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, which consists of "400kg lobsters, 30kg bullfrogs, 30kg snakes, 20kg eels, and iron wire." The animals were impaled live on the wire and left to die. But, of course, this is two people, not the whole nation of China, and other artists, from other countries, have done similar things. Yuck.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

No God only religion

Sean Kelly raises an interesting question at All Things Shining: what is religion?

Discussing a character from a David Foster Wallace story he writes
The center of religious feeling for this character is a kind of magic – the ability to believe that things one cannot verify empirically nevertheless are the case. But somehow this seems to miss the phenomenon that’s interesting. At least it misses the phenomenon that Homer describes, and that I see as in some sense or another running through various later expressions of the sacred.

As I see it, the center of Homer’s phenomenon is a kind of wonder, and occasionally gratitude, that things are as they are. When a Homeric character is overwhelmed with this kind of wonder, and immediately feels gratitude for the events at hand, then Homer describes the situation in terms of the presence of a god. This phenomenon seems to me to have literally nothing to do with the magic of believing that there’s a leprechaun behind the rock even though every time you look he’s not there. And the question whether we should feel grateful when good things happen or whether we should feel indifferent – because we know it is simply a matter of luck – seems to me more of a question about what sense of ourselves we aspire to than a question about whether all truths are empirically verifiable or not.
This seems true (as far as it can seem true to someone who doesn't remember reading the story), although I think we need a new word instead of 'wonder.' I think my feeling that I must eat the apples from my apple tree was religious. I've also had experiences that I can't describe except as religious, and these weren't feelings of wonder or gratitude--the feeling was jointly that everything was all right and that God was present or everything was one (I think these expressions do equally well at expressing the feeling, but it's been a while since I had the feeling). This is close enough to what others report that I think it's a pretty common kind of feeling, and I hope you know what I mean. I assume it's the kind of thing that Wittgenstein had in mind in the Lecture on Ethics.

It's a strange kind of feeling anyway. According to some very amateurish research I did once in high school, it can be induced by such methods as sensory deprivation and suspension from straps. So having it proves nothing at all. But it's hard not to be affected at all by this kind of thing, simply to dismiss it as a curious hallucination. And then the task is to find a way to respect it without giving in to sentimental metaphysics.

Anyone who ever had a heart...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

No more heroes

One of the echoes that I hear in Coetzee's Slow Man involves the novel's hero, Paul Rayment, whose name reminds me of Paul Raymond, a sort of English Hugh Hefner. I hear the echo but ignore it, assuming that it is accidental. But I started to wonder whether I was missing something when I saw this story in the Telegraph, which refers to Raymond as a "hero."

So what did he do that was so heroic? There's this:
For all his manifest faults and unappealing characteristics, I began to see him as an unexpectedly heroic figure. There was something admirable about the dogged yet stylish way in which he challenged the authorities and the old, often hypocritical assumptions. His first major brush with controversy came in April 1958 when he opened the Revuebar, located in the heart of Soho, an area traditionally associated with the commercial exploitation of sex. Among Britain’s first strip-clubs, it cunningly sidestepped the rules on nudes having to remain static. Raymond did so by making the Revuebar a private members’ club instead of a conventional theatre. Since the delights of striptease had hitherto been almost inaccessible, his club attracted a sizeable membership list before it had even opened.
and this:
Through his battle with the authorities, which continued for well over a decade, Raymond played a pivotal but largely unacknowledged role in the erosion of stifling censorship and the establishment of the so-called ‘Permissive Society’ in Britain during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Motivated by commercial self-interest that masqueraded as staunch libertarian principle, he challenged the police, judiciary and press. Successive court cases, one of which could have led to him being gaoled, enabled him to push the skin trade — be it strip-shows, magazines or theatre shows — from the margins into the mainstream.
And, finally, this:
Nor is there any denying the courage with which he faced his adversaries.

Nowhere was this more apparent than during an 18-month period when he found himself the target of an extortion plot, involving what appeared to be the IRA, who set fire to his house, sabotaged his wife’s car and threatened to kill his family. Using the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to obtain closed police files that contained transcripts of tapped telephone conversations between Raymond and the plotters. “This is your executioner speaking…,” ran one of many threatening messages left for him. Raymond’s ability to emerge from such a terrifying experience with his sanity and sense of humour intact was a testament to his impressive resilience.
I'm glad he wasn't killed by the IRA, but I don't think this is enough to make him a hero.

Commercial self-interest is not the motive of a hero, and the sex industry is surely not the career-choice of heroes either. Depending on what exactly is meant by the expression, the permissive society may or may not be a good thing, but I don't think we can count Raymond as a social reformer.

He doesn't belong in this song, which (also inappropriately) makes me think of Hot Pockets: