Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

PZ Myers, The Happy Atheist

April 2, 2014

Unknown-1I’ve read the major atheist books – Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens – which might be called “combative.” Some feel the confrontational stance disserves the cause. I’m of two minds. True, telling believers “you’re idiots” is not helpful. But religious thought has been so powerful for so long (with such bad consequences) that assertive dissent seems well justified.

PZ Meyers (that’s how he spells his name), in The Happy Atheist, pulls no punches, laying on the scorn; but he does it in an easy, breezy, good humored manner. UnknownBooks debunking religion go all the way back to Tom Paine, but Myers does it well, not content with just making the obvious points.

For example, it’s clear that ideas of Heaven and Hell are rooted in fear of death and chafing at unfairness in life. Myers, however, digs down to dissect these beliefs, showing how incoherent they actually are. A Hell where people are tortured forever? Myers notes that souls have no bodies and hence no pain receptors. But even ignoring that, such sustained agony would soon disintegrate one’s psyche, and continuing to torture an insensate husk would be pointless. Maybe an omnipotent deity could get around that; but how does this sadism square with the idea of a loving and forgiving God? Unknown-2While punishment as a deterrent makes sense, souls in Hell have no way to get back in God’s good graces, so what is the point? And, as Myers puts it, in your brief earthly life you get to guess which faith is true, and if you guess wrong, it’s billions of years of horrific suffering. “That’s insane,” he writes.

Undoubtedly, “Hell” is the creation of people full of bitterness toward other people; such a belief is an insult to God.

Myers similarly unpacks the idea of Heaven. The problem is that desires and dreams are what life is about. Fulfill them all, and where does that leave you? In “a kind of retirement home where everyone is waiting to die. Waiting forever.” images-1Alternatively, believers might cast Heaven as some sort of “pure bliss, pure joy . . . unadulterated rapturous ecstasy . . . the crack cocaine vision of afterlife.” Tempting, perhaps, but this isn’t any kind of worthwhile existence either.

As Myers says, death is an end, that “deserves all the sorrow that the living bring to it, but the absurd attempts of believers to soften it with lies are a contemptible disservice to the life that is over.” Religion actually makes a mockery of death’s seriousness.

One chapter is headed, “What Dreadful Price Must We Pay to Be Atheists?” Of course Myers is being facetious; but apropos the book’s title, many religionists do think atheists must be miserable misfits with something awry in their heads, unable to accept God’s love and all the happiness it confers. But atheists reject religion for one simple reason: it isn’t true. Trying to make oneself believe lies is no recipe for contentment. If believers get happiness from their faith, it’s a false paradise (I’ll refrain from saying “fool’s paradise”). Freeing ourselves from falsehood, and looking life’s truth fearlessly in the eye, is a recipe for happiness. That’s why atheists aren’t the afflicted lost souls believers think they are.

In fact, I know people who were tormented by their religion, struggling to square all its circles, that no prodigies of ratiocination could ever achieve. Only when they were able to extricate themselves from that briar patch could they finally feel at peace with their existence.

imagesIt’s true it comes to an end. But a fairy tale of immortality doesn’t alter that. I’ve noticed that people who insist they’re Heaven bound are in no hurry to go. However, knowing there’s no afterlife makes me appreciate this one all the more profoundly. In an impersonal cosmos with no god, life is an almost miraculous gift. Disgruntlement at not having more would be absurd. I am happy with what I’ve got.

 

Pleasantville: A Subversive Allegory

March 14, 2014

“Pleasantville” was a 1998 film starring a young Tobey Maguire as Dave, a high schooler whom his popular slutty sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) considers a hopeless dork. He fixates on re-runs of a bland 1950s family TV show, “Pleasantville.”

Enter Don Knotts as a mysterious TV repairman who, long story short, zaps Dave and Jennifer into the black-and-white world of Pleasantville, slotting them into the roles of that family’s kids.

UnknownIn Pleasantville it never rains, the high school basketball team never loses (never misses a shot), and sex never occurs. It’s not necessary because the town is frozen in time, as are its inhabitants, never having been younger than they are now, hence they didn’t have to be conceived. (This is unstated, but inferred.) Also, Pleasantville is the entirety of existence. Outside its borders there is nothing.

Dave and Jennifer manage to find the repairman on their TV, and beg to go back home. The repairman only agrees to think about it. But meantime, Jennifer alters her character’s chaste relationship with her boyfriend. In “Lover’s Lane,” they have sex.

Thus begins the shattering of Pleasantville’s stasis. Unknown-1Other kids follow to Lover’s Lane. Then, suddenly, inconspicuously at first, amid the black-and-white, a flower blooms into color!

Of course it spreads, this metaphor for change, knowledge, and liberation. Soon, some of the kids themselves are turning colorized. The basketball team loses.

Unknown-2The Mom remarks she doesn’t know what goes on in Lover’s Lane. So Jennifer gives her The Talk: “When two people love each other . . . .” Mom, shocked, says “George [her husband] would never do anything like that!” But Jennifer explains that a woman even by herself . . . . and next thing, Mom is in the bathtub on a self-discovery voyage.

The result is so explosive that a tree by the house bursts into flame. imagesThere’d never been a fire in Pleasantville, and the firemen don’t know what to do. Dave shows them, and puts the fire out, becoming the town hero. This gets him a girlfriend, Margaret, who’d been someone else’s – further rocking the town’s seemingly eternal verities.

Its still mainly black-and-white population sees the colorized minority as a threat to its way of life, and conflict brews, even turning violent. In one scene, Margaret’s ex-boyfriend accosts the pair and ends with a taunt about “your colored girlfriend.” Soon we see a shopkeeper putting up a sign: NO COLOREDS.images-1

To the film’s credit, having made the point, it doesn’t belabor this riff. Indeed, I found the movie hilarious, but in a marvelously droll, understated way. A real masterpiece of cinematic art.

I also saw it as a political allegory, for fairly obvious reasons. There’s even a book-burning scene. But it was more than political. When the repairman finally reappears, Dave has changed his mind, and wants to stay in Pleasantville. But now he’s told he and his sister have messed the place up and must leave. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” Dave protests. “Oh yes you did,” the repairmen replies – and shows a replay of Dave biting into a big red apple.Unknown-3

But Dave refuses expulsion from his newfound paradise. He turns off the TV, and with it, the repairman.

I’ve always loathed the Adam and Eve story. Never mind the atrocious idea of punishing unborn generations for a sin committed by others; and even the idea, more vile still, that someone had to be tortured to death to expiate that sin; but what was this so-called “sin?” Effectively, seeking knowledge. That’s no sin. It’s our great virtue. If there’s a God who’d punish this, our response should be not obedience but rebellion.

Apparently the makers of “Pleasantville” thought so too.

Of course, the revolution triumphs. In the end, all Pleasantville emerges into glorious color. And there is a world outside it (where Jennifer, reformed, goes off to college, to get more knowledge).

And the repairman is never heard from again.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Film Review

February 27, 2014

imagesOK, so we’re a little behind in reviewing flicks, and this one dates from the eighties. But we thought we had to see it because it’s such an iconic classic (also, I’d used a line from it in a prior blog post; though it turns out the line wasn’t exactly in the movie).

For similar reasons we also recently viewed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That was quite lame and we bailed long before the end. But Bill and Ted was, well, excellent, dudes.

If you’ve ever wanted to catch Socrates and Sigmund Freud images-5trying to pick up chicks in a mall, this film’s for you.

So Bill and Ted are these loser high school dudes, into playing music, though without proper instruments (or talent), about to flunk history, which is majorly a bummer because Ted’s dad will then pack him off to military school, in Alaska. What they need is a classic deus ex machina, which indeed is exactly what turns up, in the form of one Rufus (played by George Carlin) from the 27th century, by time machine, to save their asses, because their music-to-be is, like, the foundation of the whole future civilization; but that requires acing their final history report and thus staying together.

Napoleon Bowling

Napoleon — Dynamite Bowler

So Rufus sends them in another time machine (in the form of a telephone booth – showing how archaic this movie is) to round up a gang of historical biggies – Billy the Kid, Socrates, Genghis Khan, Beethoven, Napoleon, Freud, Joan of Arc (not Noah’s wife), and Lincoln – to jazz up the lads’ history report.

If this sounds pretty idiotic, it is. A highbrow cinematic experience Bill and Ted is not. But the film, and its makers, to their credit, were not trying to be something they weren’t. Yet it displays considerable panache and is genuinely funny.

Of course, the adventures through history are hokey to the max, and include some obligatory close shaves with various murderous baddies. Socrates, Lincoln, et al, seem only mildly nonplussed at being whisked into this mayhem; they cheerfully get with the program and even do their bits in Bill and Ted’s eventual history report, presented on stage in the school auditorium. The peroration of Lincoln’s Gettysburg-like address is the immortal line, “Party on, Dudes!” images-1

Plausibility is somewhat lacking. At least they didn’t have Socrates and Genghis speaking English.

With which Bill and Ted themselves are none too fluent. The film has some fun with their ignorant mispronunciations, like “Frood” for Freud and “So-craits” for Socrates. images-4But the joke is on us when the latter corrects them and says his name not as “SOCK-ra-teez” but “So-CRAH-tess” – probably more authentic.

The movie also has fun with the paradoxes of time travel. Early on, Bill and Ted meet their time-traveling selves of a few hours hence. But later, when they duly do arrive back at that scene, they don’t seem to remember it; yet of course they deliver the same lines they’d already heard.

Better yet, at a critical juncture, the lads need Ted’s father’s keys. But he’d lost them. Well, no problem – they can just go, in the time machine, back to get the keys before they went missing. However, they’re running late, and realize they can do it afterwards – go back later, get the keys, and hide them behind a signboard where they can find them now. And sure enough, they look behind the signboard, and there are the keys.

But they’d better remember to go back later and put them there. The film ends without telling us whether they did. But, of course, they must have.

We give this film four stars. images-6

The Inequality Obsession

February 3, 2014

imagesContinuing my discussion of George Kennan’s book (see previous post), he also addressed inequality.  So have I (here, here, and here; maybe thus my own obsession). And we recently viewed ex-Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s film, Inequality For All. See how open-minded I am? It’s actually a good film and I’m in sympathy with much of it. I’ll discuss it in a separate post.

George Kennan said nothing has been more “totally disproved by actual experience than the assumption that if a few people could be prevented from living well everyone would live better.” This derived from his observing (as a diplomat) communist countries, where eliminating the rich was accompanied by impoverishing the rest. Yet that poverty was, for most people, made endurable by its being widely shared. And, after communism’s collapse, anyone’s effort to better their situation through enterprise was widely resented and opposed, as illegitimate.

UnknownI was reminded of the old Russian tale of the peasant granted one wish – with the proviso that whatever he got, his neighbor would get double. After long thought, the peasant says: “Take out one eye!” That psychology is relevant to the inequality obsession.

Is it unjust for one person to have more than another? Some seem to think so, or at least talk that way. But if the concept of justice means anything, it means outcomes earned and deserved, rather than meted out arbitrarily – and pure egalitarianism would entail the latter rather than the former. I recognize that there’s inevitably some element of luck in outcomes; but egalitarian obsessives seem unwilling to recognize an element of deservingness; that a person who works harder and/or smarter and lives more prudently should be richer.

images-1In fact, there’s a widespread idea (here’s an example) that wealth and deservingness are inversely correlated – that not only don’t the rich deserve what they have, it’s actually the fruit of evil. All the more reason to see redistribution as social justice.

However, while of course a few people are thieves, most rich folks get their money through making a societal contribution of one sort or another. Unknown-1When you buy a yogurt at the grocery, you’re not ripped off; you’re getting something worth more to you than the price paid (or else you wouldn’t buy it). The grocer, and the yogurt maker (and everyone else involved, e.g., in transporting it), who give you this boon, profit justly. That’s the reality of most economic transactions and relations.

images-3We recently saw a TV documentary showing all that goes into manufacturing a certain monster truck. So many people working with such skill and attention to detail, to make sure that truck will do its job safely and well. It was really impressive. If they earn good pay, and their company earns good profits, they deserve it. This is the true face of business. It’s why all the rantings about the “evils of capitalism,” and the idea that wealth is obtained at the expense of the poor or society, miss the mark. The businesses you get yogurt from don’t profit at your expense, but by satisfying your needs and wants. Same for the truck manufacturer.

Inequality is rising not because more people are becoming poor, but because more are becoming rich; in particular, more very rich. That’s not a problem as long as everyone has a decent living standard. This we can achieve without exterminating great wealth. Indeed, the wealthy pay a disproportionate share of taxes that fund the social safety net.

Yet the obsession over inequality is not mainly a concern for the welfare of the poor. It is instead all about the rich. Lefties cannot stand it that they, with all their social consciousness and moral virtue, have less wealth, and consequently less power and influence, than benighted toads who (they think) are ethically inferior and get rich through grubby commerce. images-4To quote Kennan: “one cannot evade the occasional suspicion that it is not such much sympathy for the underdog that inspires much of this critical enthusiasm as a desire to tear down those who preempt the pinnacles of status to which they themselves aspire.”

(To be continued)

Benjamin Franklin: Reason versus Romanticism

January 17, 2014

UnknownToday is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday.

Impressed by Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio, I thought I’d read his Benjamin Franklin – though familiar enough with the subject that another immersion might have seemed redundant. Not so.

Franklin was actually at one time the world’s most famous scientist. We all know the kite story. I’d recently read somewhere that it’s a myth; that Franklin wrote hypothetically about it but never actually tried it. Isaacson convincingly puts that to rest. Franklin was not an armchair theorist but a “hands on” scientist who loved tinkering and experimenting.

Painting by Benjamin West

Painting by Benjamin West

And the kite experiment was in fact very important, as it changed our understanding about electricity. Its immediate practical application was the lightning rod, a huge boon to mankind that made Franklin a global hero. But, more significant, as Isaacson explains, electricity was a curiosity when Franklin came to it; he left it a science.

This would have been enough to immortalize anyone. But Franklin was also a prolific writer – Isaacson says he was the best in the colonies. He also served as postmaster for them all, cutting a letter’s delivery time between New York and Philadelphia to one day (!). imagesAnd somehow Franklin also found time to spearhead foundation of America’s first lending library; a volunteer fire-fighting system; a militia system; a hospital; a police force; and the University of Pennsylvania – America’s first non-sectarian college.

In the latter effort, and the others, Franklin, ever the practical man, had scant use for religion. We constantly hear America was founded as a “Christian nation.” The founders would have gagged at that, as their intent was quite the opposite – Unknownto get as far as possible from the old world of dogmatic religion married to state power. Yes, you can find selected quotes giving lip service to conventional pieties – but Jefferson also wrote privately calling religion a form of insanity, and Washington apparently never in his life penned the name “Christ.”

“Deism” was the word of choice, to eschew formal religion while avoiding the dicey term “atheist.” And in those times, quitting God entirely was an intellectual leap very few could manage. Yet the only “religious” belief Franklin really held was to do good by others. And he it was who put “self evident” into the draft Declaration of Independence (in place of “sacred and undeniable”) – thus changing a religious slant to an assertion of Enlightenment rationalism.

Of course, I haven’t even touched upon Franklin’s greatest role: in public affairs as revolutionary, diplomat, and constitution maker. Isaacson quotes the French statesman Turgot: “He snatched lightning from the sky and the scepters from tyrants.”

As some of the civic initiatives noted above show, Franklin was a great one for creating associations, always believing more can be accomplished when people work together. images-1And he was really the progenitor of the greatest association ever: The United States of America. As early as 1754 the “Albany Plan of Union” was conceived by Franklin (who promoted it with our first and most famous political cartoon). That plan incorporated an innovative political invention of his: federalism.

Isaacson’s summation is eloquent. Franklin represents one of two main intellectual currents: reverencing down-to-earth middle class virtues (industry, honesty, temperance, sociability), versus despising them in favor of supposedly more profound and transcendent aspirations. It is Franklin’s Enlightenment ethos versus the romanticism that followed; reason versus feeling; head against heart. Not only have Franklin’s bourgeois values been mocked by sophisticate critics, but also his worldly metaphysics, by those spinning loftier spiritual confections (out of nothing, of course).

Mundane and even simplistic though Franklin’s philosophy might ostensibly seem, Isaacson instead sees something very deep indeed. Always eschewing lofty pretensions, Franklin’s insight grasped the core of what truly mattered: quality of life for the ordinary person. Everything he preached and did was aimed at that. And it was this Franklinism that built, very much through the assiduous personal efforts and influence of the man himself, our American society, so wonderfully conducive, above all others, to that worthy end.

images-4Well, after reading all this, mostly lying out in my lounge chair*, I say to myself that like Franklin I ought to get off my duff and do something.

Maybe tomorrow.

* I wrote this last summer; I have a backlog of blog posts.

Nietzsche, Romanticism, Reason, Nazism, and Squished Worms

December 31, 2013

imagesThe other day in the post office I saw two caregivers wheeling severely disabled people – and I do mean severely. Such sights are disturbing to me, like seeing squished worms is disturbing. But my second thought was that these people were not squished – to the contrary. I doubt they were even capable of having any kind of lives, but our society does its damnedest for them. Maybe it doesn’t make sense from a strict utilitarian standpoint. But we do it anyway, because we consider it a moral imperative. I exited the post office feeling very good about our society.

Russell

Russell

Shortly after, I happened to read an article about Bertrand Russell and his attributing Nazism to German philosophical antecedents. The article actually criticized Russell’s analysis. But in any case, a basic point should be clear: We’re often told that the Holocaust was the (perhaps inevitable) end product of The Enlightenment’s “cult of reason.” Yet in fact, the Holocaust was not the child of Enlightenment philosophy, but of the reaction to it – romanticism – not the cult of reason but of feeling, the cult of abjuring rationality.

Of course, Nietzsche’s name was prominent in the article, whose author sort of defended him against Russell’s critique.

Nietzsche Nietzsche Nietzsche Nietzsche

Nietzsche Nietzsche
Nietzsche Nietzsche

Though dressed up in a lot of grandiosity and histrionics, what Nietzsche was really all about was the supposed moral rightness of squishing worms – or, rather, human beings, some of whose lives he deemed worth less than others, and hence they should be victimized by their betters. The article’s author denied that Nietzsche was necessarily thinking of himself as one of his superior beings. I don’t see how that matters. This is still a crock of garbage; the antithesis of humanist Enlightenment rationalism. And one can easily see how such bad ideas get you to Nazism, squishing people like those I saw in the post office, and of course a great many others, whose lives were considered unworthy in exactly the Nietzschean sense, who were thus exterminated not merely from expediency but as a positively right thing to do.

images-2But, to be fair, I too believe that some people should be killed. Like the Nazi leaders hanged at Nuremburg.

Book Review: The Koran

December 21, 2013

UnknownHaving enjoyed great success with his first book, The Bible, God followed up (after a gap of centuries; writer’s block?) with The Koran.

I am cognizant that Muslims hold the book sacred. But all ideas offered in the public square should be subject to critical examination. This does not mean disrespecting people holding the ideas; the issue instead is what others should think. Thus, after reading it, I present my objective review of The Koran.

Muslims consider it God’s (Allah’s) word, transmitted to the prophet Mohammad, over two decades. Mohammad preached it but wrote down little or nothing; followers compiled the book after his death. It’s not a sequel to The Bible; indeed, a very different book. Whereas The Bible was written mainly in the third person, The Koran is mostly in the first person, with God directly addressing the reader (or hearer). images-4And while The Bible is full of narrative story-telling, The Koran is mainly exhortation. It does rehash some biblical stories, like Noah, Joseph, and (especially) Moses*, but only in disjointed bits and pieces interspersed among other matter.

We are often told the book’s poetic language (in Arabic) is beautiful. I can’t say; I read a translation by N.J. Dawood (Penguin edition) and if there was linguistic beauty it didn’t come through. But I will say the book could have used a good editor. It’s way overlong, completely disorganized, and numbingly repetitive.

The Koran sets forth a lot of rules, such as for inheritance and marriage; but unfortunately doesn’t deign to explain any rationales for them, so they come across as rather arbitrary. A widow must wait four months and ten days before making the scene again. Four months might seem reasonable, but why the ten days? God doesn’t tell us.

Curiously, while stating that some verses have precise meaning, the book does acknowledge opacity in others, whose explanation unbelievers will maliciously demand – “But no one knows its meaning except God.” (3:8) (It’s a mystery, you see; just get with the program.)

images-5Christians may be pleased to see some praise of Jesus as a prophet; but the author denies paternity, saying “God forbid” he should have had a son. And while The Koran does talk a lot about treating others fairly and kindly, it certainly doesn’t incorporate Jesus’s message. Turn the other cheek? No – “If anyone attacks you, attack him as he attacked you.” (2:194) And “Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it.” (2:216) And “If you do not go to war, [God] will punish you sternly.” (9:39)

Religion of peace? I  think not.

But mainly the author pounds away relentlessly on two basic themes: (1) how great he is; and especially (2) unbelievers are “evil-doers” who will be punished severely.

images-6As to the first, he claims omniscience and omni-potence; he knows all, and can do anything. It’s mostly braggadocio; much more telling than showing. He insists he is greatly to be feared. “Fear God” is repeated endlessly. And yet he also repeatedly says he’s merciful and forgiving; it’s even okay to break his rules, if you have a reasonable excuse.

But the one thing he’s unforgiving about is unbelief. This he hammers on so compulsively – unbelievers will get “woeful punishment,” “grievous punishment,” etc. – that he can’t go very long without bringing it up, sometimes irrelevantly while talking about something else. images-3“Unbelievers will be punished” – that’s The Koran in a nutshell. It’s kind of bizarre, really, con-sidering all the awful atrocities people commit – the “foulest deeds” can be forgiven, if you fear God – while he positively obsesses over disbelief. This is “thought crime” par excellence. In a rational appraisal, surely a mere personal belief (or disbelief), even if mistaken, cannot be the most heinous of human crimes.

Joe Schmoe

Joe Schmoe

I’m not a trained psychiatrist, but all of this smacks of a monumental insecurity complex. Why else the unrelenting assertions of his greatness and power, the “Fear God” refrain, and especially the fanatical concern over people’s belief? Why even create a book like this? Why would he care? If omniscient God knows he exists, and can smite anyone with a finger flick, what difference does it make whether Joe Schmoe believes it? If God is so great, we humans would be as vermin to him. Sane people don’t obsess over whether termites believe they exist and fear them.

Of course, The Koran was given through Mohammad as God’s mouthpiece. And if God’s obsession with disbelief makes no sense, it would have made perfect sense for Mohammad, who was literally fighting a war to put his new religion across among a skeptical people. In fact, The Koran sometimes acknowledges how hearers scoff at what Mohammad is saying; the answer (again) is that they will burn. Mohammad’s role also explains, of course, all the book’s exhortations to battle.

The Koran asserts, at various points, that the book itself is such a marvel that no human could have produced any of it. I would say it’s so uninspired and uninspiring that no god could have produced it. imagesJust like The Bible, the book can be understood only as the self-interested work of its very human authors, not of some deity who, if he did do it, would be absurd. To believe he’s behind these books is an insult to God.

* At least Joseph Smith, in the Book of Mormon, made up new stories.

What is it Like to be a Bat? A Cat? Or Me?

December 15, 2013

imagesI’ve written before about the problem of the “self.” What is it like to be a bat? was the title of a famous article by philosopher Thomas Nagel. All sentient creatures experience life – that’s what sentient means – but how does that work? For a bat, it’s so different that we have a hard time imagining what it’s like, to the bat.

I have a better idea of what it’s like being a cat, having long lived with one; still, his interior life is very alien to my own. But never mind bats and cats. What is it like to be me?

Hume

Hume

This I ought to know. But David Hume said no amount of introspection enabled him to catch hold of his “self.” And I have repeated his experiment (continually) with the same result. The problem is using the self to seek the self. Like using a flashlight to find light. images-1Hard as I try to grasp the true essence of being me, it slithers away like jelly.

I’ve also written about free will. Sam Harris wrote a book against it – but was his writing it not an act of free will? There’s a big difference between activities like that and quotidian everyday life. My choreography of motions in showering is exceedingly complex. And of course I’m conscious during it. But that doesn’t seem required, the motions are on automatic pilot, while my mind can be elsewhere. Like on another Humean attempt to fathom my self while it’s doing the shower routine. (Yet my free will could have chosen not to shower.)

Experiments have shown that the brain forms an intention to act milliseconds before one is consciously aware of it. This has bugged me no end. I try to beat it. images-4When I’m ready to get out of bed, I’ll try to do it precisely when I consciously decide, not when some uncon-scious process pre-decides. And it’s impossible! No matter how much conscious concentration I muster, I can never feel I’ve trumped that interior system. I’ll lie there, knowing it’s lurking, waiting to spring its decision on me. If I say “Now!” and get up, what made it happen at that particular microsecond? Me, or it? Even if I decide I’ll get up on the count of three, and do it, didn’t the decision to count to three at that moment precede my conscious awareness? Sam Harris would say this proves there’s no free will. However, I could have chosen to stay in bed.

We know what pain and pleasure are. But the true nature of these “qualia” is similarly elusive. images-5What is it like to experience eating a cookie? Or having sex? It’s in the mind where the pleasure takes place. And we not only have experiences and thoughts, but thoughts about them, attending to them. So when I have sex, I try to make sure I experience the experiencing of it; to reify it by, at the same time, visualizing that I’m doing the things I’m doing. As though watching myself doing them, with another part of me, apart from the part doing them. So that it’s being experienced on more than one level.

However, as this suggests, there’s a recursiveness here, a loop that cannot be closed. Unknown-1The problem once more is Hume’s: the attempt to unify experience with the self that does the experiencing. And is that even enough? Don’t you need a further experiencer that experiences the experiencing? And so on endlessly? So on what level do I truly experience anything? That’s why I struggle with the Nagelian question of what it’s like to be me.

Cookies, and sex, produce complex sets of sensory inputs, and why do our brains do a pleasure response, whereas some other set of inputs produces a very different response? That might seem an easy question: evolution has programmed our brains to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli, as adaptations, for survivability, to make us seek or avoid those respective stimuli. Calories (and sex) were good for survival and reproduction; pain (from injury), bad. So could a brain be reprogrammed to change those pre-installed responses? Of course; we do it all the time. images-6Some people somehow even get reprogrammed to feel whipping as pleasurable.

What is it like to be such a person? Almost as mysterious to me as what it’s like to be a bat.

So I sit here trying to truly understand who wrote that last sentence, really. We could go on like this all day, as better minds than mine have done, with no better result (or hardly any better).

But at least I understand the problem. At least I think so. Whatever “think” means. And whoever “I” is.

Robert Nozick and a Socialist Libertarianism

December 2, 2013

UnknownThe late philosopher Robert Nozick authored a classic libertarian text, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Subsequently, he didn’t exactly recant it, but did decide its viewpoint was incomplete.

In an essay, The Zigzag of Politics (in his book, The Examined Life), Nozick begins by noting that democratic institutions and liberties are not only about government; they “express and symbolize, in a pointed and official way, our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction.” That’s what we express in voting; we do it not because we expect to affect the outcome, or even because the outcome itself is so important. images-1What’s more important is our membership in, commitment to, and honoring of this social arrangement of ours. Voting isn’t just a utilitarian act, it’s a public sacrament.

That’s why I keep saying “democracy” isn’t merely elections; it’s a culture, a way of life. Elections don’t create that, they reflect it. We see the lesson again and again. In Egypt, it was a lack of such democratic culture that caused Morsi to behave as he did; and caused the subsequent rotten behavior of his ousters.

Nozick says his previous libertarian position didn’t adequately incorporate the way politics is not just politics, but also symbolic, images-3a temple wherein we give expression to our civic togetherness. The purist libertarian would limit government to doing only what enables people to freely flourish, and otherwise leaving them alone. So if your social conscience moves you to support a certain project, recognize that others have a right not to; it should be funded voluntarily, not by coerced taxation. But Nozick now says this “would not constitute society’s solemn marking and symbolic validation of the importance and centrality of those ties of concern and solidarity.” The point is “to speak solemnly in everyone’s name, in the name of society, about what it holds dear.” And while a particular individual may prefer to speak only for himself, that’s not compatible with living in society, which sometimes must speak for all.

Nozick goes on to suggest some work-arounds, like allowing a program’s “conscientious objectors” to opt out of the associated taxation, provided they pay compensatory taxes to fund something else.

I could scarcely take that seriously. And I found the rest of Nozick’s argument unpersuasive, especially in light of the modern realities of society and government.

My libertarianism is not anti-social. Indeed, you might call it “socialist libertarianism,” imagesnot because it incorporates anything of socialist economics, but rather recognition of our being profoundly social animals. (David Brooks, in his book The Social Animal, regretted that the world “socialist” was already taken, by the left.)

Why did we invent society, and support it? Not because “society” is some greater entity to which we must bow down and subordinate ourselves. That pernicious idea is at the heart of all collectivist ideologies. No – it’s because society serves us, its individual members, enabling us to realize most fully our human qualities, including our human need to interact with our fellows. Empowering this is, again, the basic limited role of government, says the libertarian.

But that may conflict with other things that our social consciences may, per Nozick, want government to do, which entail restricting and coercing people (or taxing them, also coercive). Of course, nobody much wants it restricting, coercing, and taxing him. But doing it to others . . . this is where the libertarian becomes very cautious and skeptical.

It’s all well and good to talk about noble minded projects of social solidarity, as Nozick does; Unknown-2but in the real world, opening this door lets in not only saints and angels but a host of creepy crawlies. I’m actually all for the social solidarity of helping the less fortunate, but the problem is that, like the Staten Island ferry of the old political joke, this drags in behind it a huge load of garbage.* And special interests know how to exploit this, much better than do the needy.

But Nozick seems to be writing from Mount Olympus images-2(or the proverbial ivory tower; he did teach). My own ideology, as I’ve explained, is an ideology of reality – that is, I let my understandings of reality shape my beliefs, rather than vice versa. And the salient reality I see in the modern world is government grown vastly in its size, scope of operations, and role in society. We may indeed want a government and politics that give symbolic and solemn expression to our social solidarity – but haven’t we now gotten rather more of it than we’ve bargained for? Unknown-1Surely the role for government that Nozick is talking about is not in deficiency. It is hugely in surplus, so very hugely that this – not a need to express social solidarity – is the greatest challenge facing us today. That being so, libertarianism is the only reasonable position.

* As the ward boss explained to the worried neophyte candidate at the bottom of the ticket, “Al Smith is the ferry. You’re the garbage.”

Albany Peace Project: Peace Through Magical Thinking

November 18, 2013

I recently reviewed Steven Pinker’s excellent book about why violence is declining. But one thing he failed to take into account was the power of wishing it.

My friend Frank Zollo alerted me to the local Albany Peace Project (APP; click here), pushing three of my buttons: pacifism, supernaturalism, and pseudoscience. A perfect trifecta. Unknown

I’m no war lover; I hate war. But I also hate pacifism because it’s an empty sanctimony that only serves to evade the real and difficult issues human conflict entails. As the one-time pacifist Christopher Hitchens eventually came to realize, there are things worth fighting for (and against); and pacifism would make the world safe for non-pacifists willing to use violence to gain their ends.

APP manages to compound the misguidedness of pacifism by adding paranormal nonsense and pseudoscience. APP is seeking participants “to meditate/pray/focus intention together for 15 minutes a day for the month of January 2014 while sending peaceful intentions to the City of Albany.” APP expects this will reduce crime rates, and plans to conduct research to document this. Its website says dozens of studies, many published in peer reviewed journals, suggest that meditation by a “small amount (sic) of people” positively affects an entire population.images

One example promin-ently discussed is a 9/11 10th anniversary “peace experiment” which was “especially beautiful” because “it began with a bilateral forgiveness ceremony.” Participants beamed “healing inten-tions” to lower violence in two Afghan provinces. And guess what? Attacks and casualties subsequently went down! Post hoc ergo propter hoc!

Translation: “after which, therefore because of which” — one of the commonest thinking errors. X happening after Y doesn’t mean Yimages-3 caused X. In the Afghan case, if violence decreased after the prayer fest, that doesn’t prove the latter caused it; you’d have to investigate what might have changed in the military/strategic situation. Duh.

A similar case discussed on APP’s website was Sri Lanka’s long vicious civil war, whose violence was allegedly reduced by a 2008 “peace intention experiment.” But possibly an intensive 2008-09 military offensive, that crushed the rebels, ended the war, and pacified the country, also had something to do with it.

APP cites a host of other studies, supposedly also documenting mental doings reducing violence. They are bogus, prima facie. images-6Invariably studies like this are shown to be faulty, often simply from the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, as in the examples above, and sometimes from simple fraud. That was true of a famous study purporting to show that praying for heart patients improved their outcomes. It was phony. (So was a study claiming prayer helped in-vitro fertilization; one con man responsible went to prison.)

Much though people have long striven mightily to produce such a result, there has never been any scientifically valid evidence for any sort of extrasensory or paranormal phenomenon. Nothing happening in your brain can have any effects outside the confines of your skull. Period. Only actions can do so. images-1

I am an optimist and do believe that positive thinking leads to better action. But that’s not the same as wishful thinking. Belief that praying for peace will bring it about is wishful thinking. The world does not work that way. Unknown-1


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