Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The value of the impersonal

Moving my car into the garage, I overheard a delighted Miami Cuban-American celebrating the retirement of Fidel Castro from his positions as Commander in Chief, Head of the Council of State (i..e, President) and Head of the Council of Ministers (i.e., Prime Minister).
Explaining his joy, he opined, "When you have a dictator who has ruled for 49 years, who has done more damage than Hitler, than Mussolini, than Stalin...."
This is like those who compare Bush to Hitler. Goodness and badness (or evilness) are graded values. Even if Castro was or is bad, there may have been a worse person or two.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Blame the dead German

On a number of blogs, particularly those of an entrenched Christian flavor (see, for instance, Faith and Theolobloggy, written by a philosopher who ought to know better), one can learn the contents of Northern Illinois murderer Steven Kazmierczak's package to his former paramour. He sent her money, a cell phone she had wanted, a holster and bullets, a textbook on serial murderers and—wait for it—a copy of Nietzsche's The Antichrist.
Clearly, the argument goes, it is the influence of Nietzsche, a notorious atheist and the original author of "God is dead!" that led to the killing spree. After all, Nietzsche denied that the traditional Judaeo-Christian dichotomy of good and evil was meaningful, looked down on Christian virtues such as pity—among other things, he was suspicious of any emotion that might gather joy out of the suffering of another—and instead celebrated power and the Graeco-Roman conceptions of virtue, as characterized as what a noble man would do. And, moreover, they claim, it is his atheism and the fact that the philosophers who teach this drivel to students are themselves anti-religious, atheistic and, in particular, anti-Christian. Thus, as I told my introductory students today, apparently philosophy has killed again.
A lot could be said about how wrong you have to get Nietzsche to think that his conception of the √úbermensch would be a fellow to walk into a classroom and open fire—Nietzsche's views are unpleasant and he has a nasty word to say about almost every group and every individual he has ever met, but serial killing and mass-murder suicides wouldn't really have been on the books for him; his hero was Napoleon and the Renaissance princes, not the purveyors of random killings.
And a lot could be said about the fallacy of false cause in this very argument. For instance, why isn't the textbook about serial killers more relevant to his psychology at the time of the killings? Why is the mere fact that he had a relatively innocuous book and sent it to his girlfriend evidence that there is a causal relation between that and his having opened fire?
And we could talk about how none of the students I have made read selections from The Genealogy of Morals have ever gone on a rampage. Or why people are able to read Genesis and Deuteronomy and Kings and the rest of the historical books of the Bible, in which men are often praised or barely chided for actions that are pretty morally horrendous without taking away from it wholly amoral lessons.
But I am more interested in the implication that philosophers are the real demons here. As I discussed with the much more intelligent and well-spoken fellow across the foyer from me in my office, there are two big things that you might think of philosophy doing. They are not wholly unrelated.
Philosophy can be a handmaiden to other disciplines and projects. Thus, philosophy can serve theology, or it can help us to understand the rational underpinnings of the state as it does in political philosophy, or of the law as in legal philosophy, et cetera.
Alternatively, philosophy can be seen as a critical or even skeptical concern, stripping away the beliefs we have until we get to bedrock, upon which we can stand with rational self-respect, and from which we can do the building that I spoke of above. Indeed, before philosophy can be a handmaiden, it must strip off the accretion of unjustified beliefs; to do this it has to shake a student up and challenge her. So, introductory and general philosophy classes have to be critical.
From a practical and pedagogical standpoint, you have to face students where they are. It just so happens—contrary to the picture painted by the cultural warriors—that most students are pretty complacent and convinced (if only because they have never thought about any of their positions) theists. And most of them in the United States are Christian.
When I face a class, I can—and do, for what it's worth—provide them with the tools to criticize atheism and agnosticism. But this is not challenging them, nor does it teach them that they have to earn their own beliefs and learn to enter into the space of reasons for themselves. After all, telling them that others have unjustified beliefs doesn't help them see why they should justify their own unless I show them to be in the same situation with regard to their own beliefs. (And I am not paid to teach apologetics.)
So, although I myself have the deepest respect for religious belief and don't count myself as an atheist nor even as a Humanist unless you mean the company of Erasmus and Nicholas Cusanus and Michel de Montaigne (no matter how often I get Humanist links on my blog), I am simply not doing my job unless I challenge my students' beliefs and them themselves, by making them face arguments uncongenial to Christianity or theism or even traditional morality. I am not supposed to be comforting them, after all. I have to make them read Hume and Nietzsche and other skeptics and doubters.
Now, I suppose we could have a higher (?) education system in which commonly held beliefs were never challenged and unreasoned and unreasonable faith was always celebrated. In fact, I believe the Taliban runs some schools of that sort. But, that won't keep murders from happening. It wasn't Nietzsche who opened fire, it was Kazmierczak. And, while I don't believe all ideas are harmless, it wasn't some poor sap teaching philosophy who put the idea in his head.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

And time can do so much (I promise it's not just philosophical)

I am always hard-pressed to find situations in which philosophical reflection seems to have gotten things right—just ask my students or my partner how often I am able to provide a compelling argument in favor of a philosophical account—but one area in which it seems that a lot of different philosophers from different traditions and places and times have gotten things right is in their consideration of time.
While I was trying to motivate skepticism last week, a number of my students brought up the objection that at least they knew that they were a certain age or that they had lived a certain amount of time or something along those lines as evidence against the possibility of a Cartesian evil demon or a mass-simulation in which we all exist or a mere part of which we all are.
But, I countered, our experience of time, an experience that seems to have very little to do with the time of the physicists, is utterly subjective.
"Tell me, does this hour spent thinking about Descartes feel like the same amount of time as an hour hanging out with your friends? As you age, too," I said, "you will begin to see that decades can pass as if they were just a day or a few weeks."
In my own life this was brought home to me both by my realization that I have now lived in San Diego for five years and by a number of contacts by old, high school friends in the last week. I graduated from Huntington North (there was no Huntington South or East or West) almost 17 years ago.
But mostly it was made real to me by a note I received from my dearest college friend, a woman who in some ways played the role of a Beatrice for me, though I am no Dante. It seems like it was yesterday or at most a few weeks ago that I would sit on her sofa bed in the dorm that had once been mine, while she made me tea and talked about the intricacies of the Russian military rank system or interesting issues in paleography, or when we would walk around St Joseph's and St Mary's lake through the Indiana snow or across the way to St Mary's College, playing at being intellectuals and—I think, at least—in a kind of sweet and innocent love. She wrote to tell me of the return of a mass, not malignant, but life-altering nonetheless. And, I was reminded that so much time has passed and I tasted that bitter flavor of the long-ago and longed for past that the Greeks called nostalgia.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

For the (Congressional) record

I don't care if Roger Clemens used steroids or HGH, though he is doing a really good job of portraying 'roid rage.
But I do wonder whether the House and Senate might perhaps have better things to worry about. I don't understand what drug use in professional sports has to do with government reform or the House Committee thereof.
But I do know that we have a huge trade deficit, a huge budget deficit, a burgeoning national debt, are fighting war on two fronts and occasionally threatening another front or two, are (probably) torturing detainees—it's okay, Scalia assures the BBC—suffering through a mortgage crisis and the beginning of a recession, and lobbyists are writing most of our legislation in exchange for treating our Congressmen and Senators more or less the way that Larry Craig wanted to treat that nice policeman in the Minneapolis airport bathroom.
Baseball doesn't really matter; it isn't America's pastime anymore and we aren't talking about a game that is played for enjoyment but for profit and I am personally offended that my tax dollars are being spent to figure out whether just some or all of the multi-millionaires who are baseball stars are shooting up.

What I do

I'm not a particularly good philosopher. At least I wouldn't claim to be. But there are days standing in front of 40 young adults when I feel like the father of philosophy himself. Of course, it is not that I am like him in his reputation or greatness. Rather I am like Socrates in front of an Athenian jury on the day of his trial.
I say relatively absurd things, things that go right against common sense (some of them are things I even believe), things that make my students relatively unhappy. I try to convince them that they don't really know what they think they do and that, although it is of the greatest import that they give reasons for their beliefs—something that they are barely convinced of themselves—their beliefs are largely baseless. Then, like Socrates himself, I tell them that though they are unhappy, I am really making them happy.
Today, in the midst of an explanation of why Lord Russell thought that we were, after all, justified in thinking that the material world exists after two weeks of force-feeding them skepticism, one of the students muttered, "Jesus". I had to reply that He wouldn't be able to help them, at least in understanding Russell; they just didn't get along after Russell wrote Why I Am Not a Christian.
One of these days my coffee is going to taste of Hemlock.