Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Was Mike Pence a Hero? Is there hope for America?

June 22, 2022

Now Mike Pence is called a hero — for shrinking back from the greatest crime in U.S. history. He’s credited with saving the country, which in a sense is actually true. Had Trump’s coup plot succeeded, that would have blown up America.

Pence as Vice President presided over Congress’s electoral vote certification. Trump wanted him to just throw out Biden votes. That Pence even considered this was crazy. At least he was sane enough (unlike many in Trump’s circle) to finally refuse. Pence realized it couldn’t be legal for one person to decide the presidency. (He’d also be re-electing himself VP.)*

At 2:24 PM on January 6, after being begged to call off the dogs, Trump instead unleashed a tweet cursing out Pence. Further enflaming the mob already baying “Hang Mike Pence!” It came within forty feet of him.

Aides tried to evacuate Pence from the besieged Capitol, but he insisted on staying to complete the election formalities. For that at least Pence does merit praise.

But if he really had moral courage, he’d denounce Trump for January 6. He still won’t, despite his own near-death experience. Calling the whole thing just a small difference of opinion. Because he still fantasizes a presidential nomination — by the Trump cult party — that would still actually rather see Pence dead than president.

In a rational world, the January 6 committee’s fact-based presentation would be like a Heimlich maneuver upchucking Trump from our body politic. His crimes make Nixon’s Watergate transgressions look like jaywalking in comparison. Republicans ultimately did upchuck Nixon, but are circling the wagons around Trump. The hearings, instead of opening their eyes, further enrage them against the truth tellers. (My own puny efforts will change no minds.) Trump-sucking election deniers are winning GOP primaries. The Texas Republican party has voted not to recognize Biden as president.

In a recent poll, about half of Americans opined that our democracy is in grave peril. Mostly Democrats, I assumed. Wrong! Both parties were evenly split. So only around half of Democrats see the threat. While half of Republicans (swallowing Trump’s lies) imagine it comes from Democrats.

But Republicans don’t believe in democracy anyway. Not if it means losing elections. They’ll stop at nothing to prevent it. They’re now empowering GOP election officials to throw out lawful votes. If Republicans control Congress after 2024, they’ll do that. And if all else fails, there will be a repeat of January 6 — with more guns.

Prosecuting Trump for his coup attempt apparently hinges on intent — whether he knew his election fraud claims were lies, or actually believed them. Maybe a dicey point when it comes to a mentality so sick. Perhaps his defective mind did convince itself — and he should plead “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

The Justice Department understands that prosecuting Trump would pour gasoline on what’s already our political conflagration. And could backfire if he gets off. Those are grave considerations. But his return to power would be worse. If prosecution might forestall that, let it be our gotterdammerung.

Yet it’s doubtful America’s democracy can still be saved. The necessary sense of national togetherness among citizens has been shredded. Likewise our democratic ideals, when the country just yawns at Trump’s shocking assault upon them.

Perhaps there’s this slim hope: that his death might lance the boil and open a restorative path.

* If the VP had that power, Al Gore would have liked to know it when he presided over the count for the 2000 election — decided by 537 genuinely disputed votes in just one state. Trump’s idea of Pence messing with the electoral vote was cooked up by law professor John Eastman, and even he apparently realized it was illegal. The plot also included sending fake electoral vote certificates to Congress — talk about ballot fraud!

Menthol Madness

June 20, 2022

A proposed FDA ban on menthol cigarettes is being hailed as a victory for health and civil rights advocates both. Because methols are particularly favored by Black American smokers (85% use menthols), 40,000 of whom die annually of smoking related illnesses. A rate higher than for whites, who tend to smoke less.

A local newspaper commentary favoring the ban says “[t]he history of menthol cigarettes is a history of racial injustice,” and lashes the tobacco industry, opposing the measure, as deceptively self-interested. And it’s true it has aggressively marketed methols to Blacks in particular.

We’ve long known that tobacco is unhealthy, yet it remains legal. Are menthol cigarettes more unhealthy than regular ones? No! Nothing makes menthols, puff for puff, more dangerous. The problem is that they’re more pleasurable, hence people smoke more. Especially Blacks.

So the government wants to tell them: you can’t smoke menthols, which you prefer, but can only smoke regular cigarettes, which you like less. That’s how we’re protecting your health!

Talk about racial injustice. Remember how crack cocaine (popular among Blacks) entailed much harsher penalties than powdered stuff (favored by whites)? Here it’s the product favored by Blacks being outlawed, while the version mostly used by whites remains perfectly legal. And as if Blacks aren’t already disproportionately incarcerated, how many will be jailed for violating a menthol ban?

We seem to realize that banning tobacco and alcohol won’t fly, even though they’re more dangerous than many other substances we do outlaw. Now we’re going to ban a tobacco product on grounds of popularity. The whole picture makes no sense. Nobody should be punished for their personal choice to use any of these things.

Alternatives to capitalism?

June 12, 2022

Denounce “capitalism” or the market economy all you want – but what’s your alternative? This system was not foisted on us. Rather, it’s the natural paradigm for human economic relationships; everything else is an attempt to impose some artificial one. Stone age people had a market economy – trading flints for pelts, for instance, at an exchange rate they’d negotiate.

The invention of money made things a whole lot easier. Yet some people demonize money (“the root of all evil”) and the whole concept of selling anything for money (not to mention that bugbear, “profit”). They fantasize instead a “sharing economy” – you share your flints with me, and I share my pelts with you.

Indeed, such sharing too is fundamental to human nature. We share a lot, especially among friends and family. Among strangers, not so much – we are altruistic, but only up to a point. That greatly limits the scope for a “sharing economy.” You may persuade your pal to share some flints, but will have a tough time cajoling GM to share its cars. In fact, how would cars get made at all in a “sharing economy?”

The great beauty of a money/market economy is that all the contributions of the many disparate people needed to produce a car get rationally and efficiently organized, via everyone in the picture being compensated for what they provide, out of the money you pay for the car. Otherwise – no cars. Nor pretty much anything else you buy.

So a “sharing economy” would be fine, as long as you’re happy living in a cave sharing flints and pelts.

Of course, the real-world alternative to a capitalist, market economy has been socialism, where the government does everything. And I say “has been” because few apart from Bernie Sanders still think this is a good idea. Turns out that absent a profit motive, with the associated impetus to satisfy customers, you get East Germany’s Trabant car rather than West Germany’s BMW.  And also a government too powerful for its own good (or yours). “Democratic socialism” has proven an oxymoron; whatever you can say about Cuba, or Venezuela, “democratic” ain’t one of them (unless you torture the word’s meaning, as socialists will do).

However, there’s another conceivable alternative – worker cooperatives – businesses owned by their employees, bridging the divide between capital and labor. Nothing incompatible here with market economics or even capitalism. And the profits go to those who produced them, nowhere else. What’s not to love?

Actually, we’ve gone partway toward that model, with many employees owning stock in their companies, especially in 401k plans; and pension funds have huge shareholdings. Yet we’ve seen very few firms owned outright by their workers.

You might wonder why workers in a plant being closed don’t just organize to buy and run it themselves, so they can keep their jobs. Well, plants get closed for economic reasons. Workers won’t ship their own jobs overseas, but wishing won’t make them and their products competitive in the global market. Workers investing their own hard-earned money in a struggling business is not a great idea.

But what about a thriving one? Employees pooling funds to take over, say, Delta Airlines, might be theoretically conceivable, but the sum required would be daunting. And even a seemingly healthy firm might not be a sound long-term investment. The world changes. Too many people have put their nest-eggs in their own employers’ stock that plummets. Enron was a prime example. Not to mention the managerial problems, with big conflicts of interest, that employee ownership would entail.

Guess we’re pretty much stuck with plain old capitalism. Boo hoo; but it’s raised global average real dollar incomes five-fold in the last century, lifting billions out of poverty. Maybe not such a bad system when you really think about it.

Meantime, a kind of “sharing economy” is emerging in the form of enterprises like Uber and Airbnb – people sharing their cars and homes. Of course they don’t do it altruistically, but for money. Thus this actually highlights the true virtue of free market economics – people finding ways to create value for other people, and thereby benefiting themselves. What’s not to love?

Libertarianism: a crazy idea?

June 4, 2022

I’ve always considered myself basically libertarian. Recently I read Libertarianism: A Primer, by David Boaz. Published in 1997 — it might seem an artifact from a distant past.

And Boaz starts off saying libertarianism is (was) resonating with more and more people. But lately, it’s mostly become a dark perversion of itself, the word “freedom” fetishized by a deranged political right that no longer even believes in democracy. Their idea of “freedom” is to refuse mask wearing and vaccination, and allowing anyone to buy military assault weapons.

Actually violating libertarianism’s core idea of freedom to act as one chooses — provided no one else is harmed. Today’s vocal “freedom” lovers exposing others to potential infection (and shooting) certainly harms them.

Libertarianism assumes we have natural rights to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Where do they come from? The Declaration of Independence said the “creator.” But nonesuch exists. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously called the idea of natural rights “nonsense on stilts.”

But imagine a world with just one person, John. Obviously John is free to act as he pleases. Then Sue shows up. By what right could Sue interfere with John’s liberty? That is the real question posed by the concept of natural rights. Not what’s the basis for John’s rights, but rather what’s the basis for anyone trumping them? If John’s rights are somehow debatable, surely that’s more true of a right to negate them. And this is always the issue regarding natural rights — not what justifies them, but what can justify their denial.

Boaz stressed the centrality of property rights. All liberty really equates to the right to own and enjoy the use of property. Without that, there isn’t much of anything you can freely do; making freedom meaningless.

Proudhon declared “property is theft,” and some indeed deem the whole idea of property problematic because some have more and others less. Romanticizing an imagined utopia where there is no “property” and everything is shared in common. A friend of mine thinks the solution to inequality and poverty is simple, with no need for economic growth. Humanity as a whole has enough wealth. Just (!) distribute it more equally.

But recall John and Sue. Similarly, the issue isn’t John’s right to his property, but the right of anyone else — Sue, the government, “society” — to dispossess John and grab control of his property.

Some (like my friend) do try to justify that by invoking some supposed greater good. Perhaps even John’s own good. But consider the arrogance of thinking you know what’s best for other people. Libertarianism is a stance of humility vis-a-vis other people. Unlike the “nanny state,” libertarians recognize that people differ in their wants and needs and what serves them; of which they themselves are the best judges. Furthermore, when government involves itself in so many matters, putting them all in the public square, that’s a recipe for conflict. A public square so thick with issues is a key cause of our political polarization.

Boaz argues that much government activity exceeds enumerated constitutional powers. He omits mention of the power to regulate interstate commerce, which has been interpreted quite broadly to cover all that. But anyhow, hasn’t this horse long ago left the barn? Making Boaz’s libertarianism seem a quaint if not irrelevant idea?

And government’s growth wasn’t usurpation. Voters have mostly welcomed government action, sold as improving lives and preventing harms. Even under Reagan and Thatcher, governments actually grew.

True, eliminating this or that government program or regulatory scheme would always harm some people. A full libertarian rollback would entail much harm. But — that harm would be dwarfed by the benefits in terms of greater overall societal wealth, enjoyed by most citizens. Simply put, less restriction on economic activity means more scope for wealth creation. But that foregone boon is invisible to the public when thinking about government activity.

Here’s a small example. Governments require licenses for innumerable professions, not just doctors and lawyers, but hairdressers, real estate agents, interior decorators, cosmetologists, and a zillion others. Sure, all justified to protect the public, and without licensing there would be horror stories. But the true main impetus for such licensing is that those professions want to stifle competition, and enlist government to do it for them. Eliminating the licensing would open up vast opportunities for more people to earn money and innovate to provide services to consumers, who would benefit from wider choices and lower prices. All that would far outweigh the occasional horror stories.

And here’s a bigger case in point: drug prohibition. Does it prevent harms from drug use? Maybe the tiniest bit. But even if it stopped all drug use, that benefit would still be dwarfed by the vast incalculable harm drug prohibition visits upon society. All the lives destroyed by incarceration, neighborhoods shattered by violence, all the corruption. America’s drug war creates murderous criminality in other countries too (a big cause of our immigration problems).

Imagine if we just stopped making drugs illegal. All those harms would go away. That would be a libertarian approach. Maybe not so crazy after all.

Ode to Joy

May 24, 2022

My wife and I visited the Benelux countries — our much anticipated first foreign trip in 2-1/2 years. My biggest takeaway impression: a civilization whose main business is living the good life. What we strove two million years to achieve. The soundtrack playing in my head was Beethoven’s rhapsodic Ode to Joy — the European Union’s anthem.

Bastogne War Memorial

Seeing all those people out enjoying themselves, relaxing in cafes, and so forth, I realized that some experienced, as children, the Nazi occupation. We visited Luxembourg’s American military cemetery, and Bastogne’s war memorial and museum, both monuments to the horrific Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, the Germans’ last great effort to turn back the invading allies, with 76,890 U.S. casualties.

These sites evoked strong emotions. Mindful that both our fathers took part in that American effort to save civilization. And mindful that now, not so far away, dark history is repeating, Russia’s Ukraine invasion replicating so much of the Nazi nightmare. Both wars insane.

Amsterdam is a bicycle city. Sidewalks divided between bike and pedestrian lanes, and one quickly learns that’s an inviolate border. Those bikers go fast. And the streets are lined with bicycle parking areas, filled with bikes as far as the eye can see.

Our second day there we saw the Van Gogh Museum. I realized to what a degree bodily sensations were shaping my experience. The day before, we’d visited the zoo, a lot of walking; and then I’d taken a long solo walk after. My legs were sore, with lower back discomfort too. At 74 my stamina is waning. There was also a dull shoulder ache, don’t know where that came from. Meantime, the night before, I’d taken a sleeping pill — I’ve found that doing that just once on long trips combats jet lag. But it does leave me a bit woolly-headed in the morning. So at breakfast I had a coffee (very rare for me), thinking the caffeine would be salutary. Also two glasses of juice. Yet around 10 o’clock I was feeling awfully thirsty. Looking ahead, having had a big breakfast, I knew I’d eat no lunch, but decided I’d have a coke. And for the next couple hours, almost obsessively looked forward to it. Furthermore, I was much overdue for pooping. So — all that going on bodily dominated my brain activity.

When we finally got to the museum cafe, and I could sit down, that first sip of cold coke was sublime. And I was glad my wife wanted to remain there a while and write.

As to Van Gogh, I was struck less by the art than by the human story. Here was a poor schlub who enjoyed zero success, recognition, or happiness in his short life. I wondered how he’d feel if he could see this solemn temple honoring him! Posthumously, his paintings might well have been forgotten as junk; their artistic merit not actually so obvious. Perhaps it was the psychodrama of cutting off his ear that made the difference. A brilliant career move.

Outside a Brussels bookstore. No, they did not have mine!

In Brussels, our daughter popped over from London and met us for dinner. Only two hours by train! She’s living there now, wrapping up a Masters at University College London, and starting a nice job at an NGO in education development. Plus a boyfriend moving in. I’m in awe at how splendidly she’s doing (forgive the immodesty). And that my wife and I created this person.

The next day we three hiked to the Magritte Museum. Belgium’s Rene Magritte (1898-1967) was a leading surrealist painter. I’ve always found his works enigmatically compelling; in my own surrealist days (early ’70s), I copied one (“Collective Invention”) in hommage, and it still hangs above my desk.

The museum visit was also especially a pilgrimage for me because I so remembered my first date with my wife-to-be. Walking her back from the lunch, I was still undecided whether this young thing possessed sufficient substance. Then she asked me my favorite artist.

“Collective Invention”

“Magritte,” I replied. Haughtily saying to myself, “This callow little girl won’t know what I’m talking about.”

But she did. Knew all about Magritte.

And then I said to myself: “Ooooohhhhh . . . .”

Cue: Ode to Joy.

Trillions and Trillions

May 16, 2022

No, this is not about government spending. It’s galaxies.

PBS’s “Nova” science series recently had a program about the universe, with casual mention of trillions of galaxies. I was like, “Wait, what?” Trillions?

Carl Sagan never actually said “Billions and billions,” the phrase associated with him. Anyhow, I had long understood that our Milky Way Galaxy has around 100 billion stars; more recently bumped up to 200 billion. Now the same Nova program says 400 billion. I don’t know where those additional 200 billion came from. Not exactly a rounding error.

I had also been under the impression that galaxies number something like a hundred billion. All these numbers in the billions I could get my head around — sort of.

The oft-invoked reference point is grains of sand. Of course, a star is rather bigger than a sand grain. And if there are, say, a hundred billion galaxies, averaging a hundred billion stars each, that would be ten thousand billion billion, or ten trillion billion, or ten sextillion stars. And that’s way more than all the sand grains on earth.

But — if galaxies number not in the billions but trillionsthat finally blows fuses in my brain. That would mean stars in the septillions. Numbers beyond sextillion I cannot register. And, indeed, Nova’s mention of trillions of galaxies does seem to be the current scientific thinking.

Googling about this also revealed that — forget sand grains — the number of stars in the universe is also roughly comparable to the number of molecules in ten drops of water. Which tells us that molecules are really really really small.

And by the way, the universe is 13.8 billion years old, which might seem a big number too. But apparently it’s actually still in its infancy, its lifespan is reckoned to be at least 100 billion years. Maybe a trillion.

But if the universe’s size, and these time scales, seem ultra-humongous, and the size of molecules ultra-small, that’s only from the perspective of our own size and lifespans. There is no universal standard of reference that says the universe is “large” or molecules “small.” In fact, those are meaningless statements. The cosmos just is what it is.

Though it is hard to envision getting trillions of galaxies out of a Big Bang that started smaller than a molecule. But I find it harder still to imagine that galactic vastness was created by some sort of pre-existing intelligent entity (never mind the question of where she came from). Seems like too much work even for an “omnipotent” god.

Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming”

May 5, 2022

As is typical for me with such books, I was far more engaged with the story of Michelle Obama’s early life, when she was an ordinary normal person, than with the too-familiar chronicle of her time in the spotlight.

Particularly striking was the portrayal of her mother during Michelle’s childhood, living in a tiny apartment with limited income (and a husband succumbing to illness); and eternal diligent frugality, endeavoring mightily so the family could have decent lives. For all the challenges, she managed it very well. We can fail to appreciate what a blessing even such modestly lived lives entail — the great achievement of modern civilization. And reading this understatedly heroic account of Michelle Obama’s mother in her thirties, I was cognizant this woman did wind up living in the White House.

One shocker: On page 307 Michelle explains that though residing there rent-free, they had to cover all other living expenses. “We got an itemized bill each month for every food item and roll of toilet paper.” They were charged for every guest staying overnight or sharing a meal. And since of course the White House upheld world-class standards, it was not cheap. A person of modest means, if elected president, could not afford it. This should be changed.

Michelle writes about her campaigning in Iowa during its 2008 presidential primary. Her first real taste of personal politicking. Constantly asked: how odd does it feel for a Harvard-educated Chicago Black woman talking to roomfuls of mostly white Iowans? She “bristled because the question was so antithetical to what I was experiencing and what the people I was meeting seemed to be experiencing, too.” Not racial or cultural tension but shared commonalities. She’d started out believing a Black man could not be elected president, but changed her opinion.

Reading this account, I had to remind myself it was just fourteen years ago. But it feels like she’s writing about a different planet. Sure, we had hot issues, conflicts, divisions. Yet we were a positive thinking nation of goodwill, civility, decency, even open-mindedness. Of sanity. Back then, I’d never have imagined how a single rotten person could wreck so much of that.

I recall commentator Van Jones querying, “When do the antibodies kick in?” It turns out our national immune system, protecting our civic health (as illustrated in Becoming), was compromised, perhaps ripe for the infection. We managed to survive it — barely—for the moment. Whether we ever recover to full health remains very doubtful.

I did not vote for Obama. I was proud to vote for John McCain. Remember his beautifully gracious concession speech? But there were tears in my eyes too when Obama’s victory was declared and the TV showed a middle-aged Chicago Black woman jumping up and down shouting, “God bless America! God bless America!”

Well, there is no God. We’re on our own. For two centuries the better angels of our nature were advancing. Now they’re battered, bruised, bloodied.

Hell of a Book

April 28, 2022

Hell of a Book — that’s the title — by Jason Mott — is actually two different novels coexisting uneasily within one cover.

One is a semi-comical first-person account of the author/narrator’s book tour. He’s Black, but that seems only incidental. There’s a segment with a grotesque caricature of his “media trainer” discussing the imperative to avoid making this a “race book,” about the Black experience.

The other interwoven novel is a race book, about the Black experience.

Does this taco-and-spaghetti combo work? I’m not sure. The race book centers upon a kid who strove for literal invisibility as a way to stay safe. His father became victim of a particularly senseless police shooting. The kid himself is later shot too, and shows up in the author tour book — as a ghost haunting the protagonist.

However, while the two seem clearly the same kid, there’s never any line drawn between the dual father-and-son shootings. Not even by the kid’s widowed mother. I found this puzzling and unsettling.

Elements that might be called magical realism are somewhat accounted for by the author/narrator saying often that he has a “condition,” which is an overactive imagination, so he can’t always tell what’s real or not. This produces much tongue-in-cheekiness, mixing David Foster Wallace style satire and self-parody, and a dollop of Hunter Thompson Fear and Loathing, with what are also actually some pretty heavy reflections, even philosophical ones. Yet much is also keystone cops type stuff. Leaving me unsure how to take the whole thing.

One scene on an airplane has the author asked to sign a book for a fellow passenger. Who turns out to be — or appears to be — the film actor Nicholas Cage. “Oh please,” I said to myself, bracing for more slapstick. And then . . . from Cage’s mouth spill all sorts of surreal and thought-provoking profundities. It’s that kind of book.

For most of it, we understand that the novel we’re reading differs from the protagonist’s eponymous one. It seems its narrator was really bugged by something, which propelled the writing, and which his novel is about. That’s left vague until near the end it’s finally revealed to be his mother’s death. This too I found somewhat disorienting, because the novel in my hands still seemed mainly about racial injustice. The mother’s death (from a stroke), however it may have affected her son (not evident, through most of the text), didn’t have much to do with anything, in terms of this book’s contents.

And meantime, the silliness eventually ceasing, the race book takes over, with the tone become all serious. Overly so, I’d say; even maudlin, oppressive. Long before the end, I’d gotten the point, and had had enough. Though the book tour crashes and burns, the race book’s last few dozen pages, rather than building to a climax, add nothing.

There’s much about “the talk,” that Black parents must give their children, and all that sort of thing. Sorry if that sounds supercilious. I myself have railed about police violence, and the whole larger issue of how non-whites fit in America. But as far as books are concerned, it’s been done. A lot. Ta-Nehisi Coates and so forth. Maybe it’s fair to say there can’t be enough books of that kind. But the problem for an author is how to write one that’s not just yet another in a long parade of such race books. Mott tackles that problem in an idiosyncratic way. Leavening the unavoidable tendentiousness with flakier fare. Again, I’m not sure it works.

And forgive me for this too. I am indeed fully cognizant of what non-white Americans endure. But this book reads, to me, like it’s set in some dichotomous, literally segregated alternate reality where suffering and injustice are experienced solely by non-whites. With no recognition that these are human universals. That white lives . . . .

Is the Self an Illusion? What can that even mean?

April 24, 2022

Jay Garfield’s book, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self, argues that the “self” is an illusion, and letting it go enables living better, more moral lives. He discussed this with James Shaheen (editor of Tricycle: a Buddhist Review) in a podcast. (Here, with a transcript:

Transcending the self is a Buddhist idea. My wife, who’s been exploring Buddhist philosophy, pointed me to the podcast, knowing my own perspective differs.

The self is a key philosophical problem. We know much about how the brain works, in terms of neuron functioning, processing information, and so on. Which must be the generator of consciousness. But how, exactly? Science doesn’t (yet) have a clear explanation. And while we know consciousness is a real phenomenon, the self is more problematic still. A “meta-consciousness” by which we experience the contents of consciousness. What makes one feel there’s a self in there, a captain at the helm, making choices and decisions, experiencing things? What is experiencing, really?

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio casts a perception as a representation constructed by the brain, with another representation of your self perceiving that representation. And yet a further one of “you” knowing you perceive it. An endless recursion? This does lead some thinkers to posit the self being an illusion. That when you drill down there’s no “there” there. But what exactly does this mean? Even if the self is not really there in some concrete explainable sense, that we can put a finger on, nevertheless our experience of living, with a self at its core, also is a real phenomenon. Something we do experience, even if we can’t explain how.

If you see a ghost, that may be an illusion. But your seeing it is a real event; something that happened in your brain. You can convince yourself there was no ghost, but not that the experience wasn’t real. Similarly, can you convince yourself you have no self?

After all, who or what would do the convincing? Who or what would now hold the belief that the self is an illusion? Saying “I have no self” makes no sense because if true, there would be no “I.”

Yet Garfield, in denying the reality of selves, says “we’re more like roles than we are like actors.” An interesting formulation — however, actors perform roles, following a script. And much of our behavior is actually like that, almost robotic even. Garfield may, if anything, be understating that when he says “we do have these moments of nonegocentric consciousness.” Implying at least moments when an “egocentric” self is in operation.

He also says, “You want your intentions to be caused by your beliefs and your values.” And: “we need to free ourselves from the illusion of transcendental freedom in order to appreciate the kind of freedom that we do have, namely, the ability, very often (my emphasis!), to act in accordance with our intentions and values.”

That doesn’t sound like an absence of self. It’s not fully engaged all the time; we’re often on automatic pilot (probably necessary for sanity). Yet the self is often fully engaged, and that is crucial to one’s lived experience.

While Garfield does, as quoted above, recognize we sometimes act with intentionality, he sees that as a problem: “we focus on the self, and that self is this independent substantial thing different from everything else, free from causality and all that stuff, and that allows us permission to take our own narrow self-interest as motivating. And that’s permission to ignore the demands of morality.”

Wait — what? Sure, having a self does entail motivation to serve its own interests. But that does not trump everything else, and morality is a separate realm of consideration. And it’s precisely because you have a sense of self, and understand what that’s like, that you understand other people have it too, and hence have their own rightful interests. While Garfield says your self puts you at the center of the moral universe, and others at the periphery, that doesn’t make them count for nothing. And evolution imbued us with basic instincts for justice and empathy — constituent parts of our sense of self. Indeed, for most people, acting ethically is actually self-serving because it makes them feel good. So the self is not antithetical to morality.

Garfield’s morality argument fails for another basic reason. Morality is of course all about how one treats others. But if nobody has a self, then who cares how they’re treated? Why would it matter? Without selves, the whole idea of morality is meaningless.

More fundamentally still, without a self, why even bother to live? Garfield intones, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Saying “we don’t have a self that we have to protect . . . that we have to be afraid of losing. And that is freedom from illusion.”

People do fear loss-of-self — that is, dying — because the self is ultimately all we’ve got. There can be no sort of meaning to life except as experienced via the self. It evolved to make creatures care what happens to them, so they’ll strive to avoid injury, pain, and death. That’s a very real fact of life, an evolutionary adaptation. Calling it an illusion seems a meaningless semantic exercise.

It does appear Garfield is hung up semantically on the word “self.” Because he does advocate a conception of “personhood” — urging readers “to reject the notion that their identity is that of a self and to accept that it’s the identity of a person.” And how do those two concepts differ? “Personhood” he characterizes as embedded in a “very vast and complex and often invisible web of conventions that brings us into existence, not some kind of prior metaphysical fact” (whatever that might mean). Or: an “ever evolving set of psychophysical processes in constant open interaction with the world . . . we exist only as nodes in this interdependent web.”

All true except for the word “only.” We are indeed enmeshed deeply in society and the world, but I would actually say that ultimately we exist only as consciousnesses in the workings of our brains. Without that we might exist in a bare physical sense, but wouldn’t know it. Put differently, we have both interior lives and exterior ones, and through former we experience the latter. All the embeddedness Garfield talks about could not be navigated and negotiated without a self to do it with.

He deems somehow relevant here an analogy to a woman wanting to see his college. He shows her various buildings, facilities, lawns, etc. She responds, “No, I didn’t want to see buildings and lawns. I wanted to see the college.” But there is no such thing, Garfield comments; “And if you think there is such a thing, you have a profound misunderstanding of what a college is.” He elaborates what constitutes a “college,” and says “it’s just like that with the person and the self.” But even if you cannot point to a concrete thing and say, that’s a college, still the word has a clear meaning, it’s a concept word. Surely Garfield’s college analogy does nothing to demonstrate that the word “person” denotes something real while “self” does not — even if those concepts differ. Which is doubtful. More semantic games here.

And there’s another fundamental problem. Buddhism vaunts the supposed benefits when you transcend your self. But what “you” are they talking about? The only “you” that can perform this supposedly beneficial mental jiu-jitsu is your self. And it’s only your self that can experience the desirable state of being that you’re supposed to thereby attain. If the self is illusory, wouldn’t that desirable state be likewise illusory (if not doubly so)? The very idea of happiness or contentment makes no sense without a self.

And suppose you actually could somehow eliminate your self? It would seem like a lobotomy. What would be left? You might be quiet and peaceful — like lobotomized people. But the “you” would be gone.

Freedom from illusion is central to my own outlook. Only on the basis of reality can one live an authentically meaningful life. Free from illusions — like God, and immortality. But if you truly posit that you have no self, how can anything about life matter to you? If nobody has a self, then nothing can matter at all.

How Do We Know Right From Wrong?

April 9, 2022

Emails between Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Ginni (Mrs. Clarence) Thomas, recently revealed, strategized to overturn the 2020 election. Meadows called it “a fight of good versus evil.”

Did he really believe that? He’s a very intelligent man. Moral judgments can differ. Today’s two American parties each believes itself battling for good against evil. Many Russians view their Ukraine invasion that way. How do we know what’s really right?

In the big picture of human history, we’ve actually made much moral progress, people in general are better than they once were, with societal norms improving. Though of course we’re still far from perfect, often misjudging right versus wrong.

Some might say it’s all subjective, there are no moral verities or absolutes. All just arbitrary human constructs. That seems nihilistic. While it is true no moral guidelines are built into the fabric of the Universe, and we’re on our own constructing them, that doesn’t mean it’s arbitrary. We can use our reasoning minds to apply some compelling basic precepts.

Call the first factualism. There is such a thing as reality, as truth and falsity, and they matter. Judgments premised on falsehoods can only result in unintended outcomes. You cannot get moral clarity from muddled facts. Only by dealing with actual reality can we hope to do right.

Biden’s election was not fraudulent. Ukraine is not a nest of Nazis. Those are facts.

“Wishing doesn’t make it so” is folk wisdom. Yet many people believe things because it suits them. Lincoln used to say, “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have? Four! Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” But we’ve got a lot of five-legged dogs running around, and those who love them. And others who benefit from that.

Thus one key factual matter is people’s motives, with great bearing on assessing their moral claims. Get the motives wrong and you’re in trouble. Is Putin really motivated to “denazify” Ukraine? Was Trump motivated to protect American election integrity? Or to subvert it, to stay in office and, especially, to avoid facing the humiliation of losing?

My wife and I have been reading together a book discussing the philosophy of pragmatism expounded by William James and John Dewey. It saw a person’s beliefs as valid not based on mirroring reality but, rather, if the beliefs somehow work for the person. Mainly, this was an effort trying to justify belief in God. But religion, grounded in a fundamentally false construct of reality, can only lead us into a moral wilderness, as history has repeatedly proven. Russia’s church totally backs Putin’s regime and its “godly” war.

So facts are fundamental. Also fundamental is the question, what makes rightness? Again, no such concept is built into existence. But we can start by realizing that ultimately the only thing that can matter is the feelings of beings that feel. Thus rightness consists in what promotes happiness and curbs suffering. And in this accounting, all people stand equally. A corollary is that all have rights to decide some things for themselves. The principle might be called humanism or universalism.

It’s not instinctual, for us evolutionarily tribalistic humans, programmed to view different folks very differently. Nazis believed they were serving the greater good by purging people deemed inferior (which also violated factualism). Putin too speaks of “purifying” Russian society by ridding it of — well, its factualists.

There’s also the perennial conundrum about ends justifying means. A strict utilitarianism — “the greatest good for the greatest number” — might sanction anything that increases the overall quantum of wellbeing even if creating some suffering. Justifying, say, killing someone to harvest their organs to save multiple others. But that contravenes the principle of all people equal in worth, with rights over their lives; no way to maximize overall happiness. Who’d want to live in a society where your organs can be taken?

Some Trumpers who plotted what was really a coup engaged in ends-justifying-meansism. Willing to torture truth and torpedo democracy in order to keep Trump in office. Even if you thought those ends worthy, surely the means were inimical to the greater good, again flouting both factualism and the principle that all people (including Democrats, and their votes) stand equally. Yet many Republicans continue down that road.

Honor factual reality. Honor individual human dignity. That’s how to tell right from wrong.