Sunday, January 23, 2011

Living on a prayer

One of last semester's students, a seminarian finishing what used to be called "philosophy" in the seminary, sent me an email today in which he told me:
  1. He enjoyed my class very much; and,
  2. He had put my name on a list of recommended instructors for other seminarians finishing their actual philosophy requirements; so,
  3. I would be getting a lot more seminarians in my classes; and,
  4. He hoped that this would lead to my conversion to Catholicism.
Had he told me that he hoped that I would convert from my life of sin or my skepticism or any number of other things, I might have understood, but now I find myself wondering what beliefs he thinks I have or what I may have said in a survey class on the philosophy of mind—other than that appeals to God don't help one in philosophy—that led him to believe that I was raised in no religion or another religion. 

I mean, I could return to Catholicism in some sense, but I couldn't be converted to it. Why did he think that I chided him one day outside class on his lack of knowledge of Aquinas? 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

One half of an exchange

I received a message from a former student and current acquaintance today asking me whether he ought to be worried about 2012, specifically because of concerns about the Mayan calendar. On one hand, I was a little disappointed that he would take this seriously at all, but not all that surprised given the way our minds work, the general level of superstition—including my own beloved ones—and the hype that the media gives to every worry.

So here was my response:

Well, for one thing, the Mayan calendar was cyclical. The fact that it ends is supposed to mean in fact that it just begins over, not that the world ends. For another thing, if we are to think of the Mayans as somehow prescient, they didn't foresee their own downfall or at least the general downfall of their culture, they didn't seem to foresee the much later coming of Europeans, etc. So, I'm not sure, even if they were predicting the end of the world—and they weren't—they really weren't the best at predicting the future, even the immediate future, so I'm not sure they should get much more credence than the Tarot readers on El Cajon Boulevard.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On questions of value

In the period between semesters, I spend free moments—a moment is free if and only if it is not occupied by responding in the negative to some request to raise a grade, ignoring a request from someone to crash a course or explaining why it really did matter to a final grade that the papers were not turned in or were not the work of the student—thinking about issues that I have discussed in class and that I would like to discuss differently. Because most of my classes, even the ones that are more focused and at a higher level, are really introductory classes and have between twenty and forty students, much discussion must be perfunctory. And, yet, I think we touch on a number of issues that provide food for thought. They certainly do for me and I hope that they do for at least some of my students.
With all that introduction out of the way, I was thinking about the canned version of existentialism that I give my students. Honestly, I think I do a pretty good job with existentialism, if only because I do best on views that are a little or a lot pessimistic. In particular, I was thinking about the notion of value and the existentialist claim that our lives can have no objective value, because there is no value giver outside ourselves to give such a value. 
Now, in class, I make clear that this assumes that there is no God, but I offer them the consideration of Nagel's that even the existence of God could not give our lives value for us but only for God, unless we made a subjective decision to take that value as our own. And, then we are able to move on—and back in time—to Kierkegaard.
But, with all the recent talk by relative crazies like Ron Paul about the need to get away from fiat money and back onto the gold standard, because gold, unlike paper money has an intrinsic value, I have been thinking more generally about the relation between intrinsic and objective value. Of course, these are not quite the same notion of value. Something is intrinsically valuable, if it is valuable in and of itself, and not for some other thing of value that it can be used to obtain and something is objectively valuable just in case it is valuable independently of whether it is in fact valued. For what it's worth, gold is neither of these—it has been subjectively valued for most of human history but it is not inconceivable that it not be so valued, as More considered in his Utopia, and it is almost always valued for other things that it can be used to get, such as food and shelter—but that might be a discussion for another day. Gold, however, like any commodity inessential for human life seems to be valuable only because of contingent historical facts.
What I started to wonder was whether there was anything that might truly be said to be either objectively or intrinsically valuable, that is, valuable in and of itself and entirely independently of whether anyone actually does value it. And, perhaps because I come after the existentialists, but I am not sure that there is any such thing.