Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

One of my favorite parts of the Christian mythos* is that God becomes one of us. Christianity can be—and in its most dualistic forms, usually is—extremely negative about the world and about the body. Nietzsche was right to see nihilism in the tendency to put all hope in another world, separate to and better than this world of sin, and to focus on the inner person—the soul, the spirit—in opposition to the outer person—the body physically present in this world.
The Christmas story, though, should be a story about God entering the world, becoming immanent, and making everything around us and every one of us, sacred. So, among the viewings of A Christmas Story, downing of rum balls (and cocktails), the meat pie we are trying for the first time, and the inevitable sadness-tinged foggy nostalgia, I'm going to try to remember that each one of us is pretty damned amazing—and worthy of dignity—and this world is a wonderful place—or I have an obligation to make it so.
So, Merry Christmas, all of you!

*Stories can have value whether they are true or not, so at least for the next few days, I'm not interested in whether this is just a myth or a true one.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A few thoughts about ownership and self-ownership

In the normal sense of "own," if own something I am able to sell it and once I sell it I no longer have any claim over it or how it can be used. Having sold it, I have no interest in it, since I sell my interest in it when I sell it.
There are strange sorts of cases where a piece of property cannot be sold, where it is limited by an entailment, and where the master or mistress of the property can only benefit from its production during his or her lifetime. Think of Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey. I think our intuitions about these kinds of cases are to say that no individual owns the property, but that it is owned by a family, held in trust by an individual. If I am wrong about what our intuitions are in these sorts of cases, I don't think I am wrong to say that they are not normal, standard cases of ownership.
Also, in the normal sense of "own," a person is one of the things—or the only one?—that I cannot be said to own. Of course, it took humans a long time to discover this, but that doesn't make it any less true.
Now, there is a special kind of ownership going back to at least John Locke in the Second Treatise and adopted by liberals and libertarians since, a notion of self-ownership. It is this idea that because I own myself and my labor, that I can come to own property. Self-ownership is supposed to be the foundation for all other sorts of ownership.
The problem I see is that self-ownership just isn't ownership. Or, at least, it doesn't share the essential characteristics of ownership. And, since it is not the same as the normal notion of ownership, it cannot serve as a basis for it.
Namely, I cannot sell myself. I can sell my labor. I can enter into contracts. But I cannot sell myself in such a way that I become wholly the property of another human being and cease to have any interest in myself. I cannot alienate myself in the same way that I can alienate any piece of genuine property. Having sold my labor or my time, I always and everywhere maintain rights over myself. If I own myself—or if I have a property in myself—it is not the normal sort of ownership or property.
And, if it is a general truth that a person cannot be owned, then a person cannot be owned, even by himself.
In other words, whatever we mean when we say that we own ourselves it is not what we mean when we say that we own a house—it might be close to what we mean when that house is an entailed property, all of whose benefits we enjoy, but which we cannot alienate and hold in trust. And, since the two notions of property ownership differ in their essentials, they cannot serve as grounds one for the other.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The narcissism of self-forgiveness

Students, friends, columns and essays I read talk about the need for people to forgive themselves. Sometimes this comes from a spiritual—though not religious—place. Sometimes it is parroting something heard in therapy or counseling. Sometimes it is repeating something remembered from a self-help book or an episode of Oprah or Dr Phil.
Wherever it comes from, it looks like it rests on an error, and a pernicious one. I will readily agree that people sometimes need to overcome their guilt. But, if it's true that you shouldn't feel guilty, then there is nothing to forgive. You don't need to be forgiven, you need to adjust your views. Similarly, people often need to learn not to feel shame about certain things. But, shame isn't overcome by forgiveness. It's overcome by changing what one thinks is worthy of shame. (And, there are things worthy of shame, just not a lot of the ones we grow up believing to be shameful.)
Forgiveness is something that can only be given by the person whom we have offended. And, it must be asked—begged—of them. 
There is something strange about saying that I have offended myself. How would I give offense to myself? There are times when I may have hurt myself, but even there the notion of self-forgiveness is mistaken. Or so it seems to me.
Forgiveness is a two-person relation and necessarily non-reflexive. It is also a relation tied to other relations I cannot bear to myself. If I've harmed myself, I need to resolve not to do it again, but I can't forgive myself just as I cannot carry out any kind of reparation to myself, simply because I am one person and not two. How would I beg forgiveness of myself? How would I apologize? How would I make it up to myself? What reparation to myself would I propose? 
Even so, I'm not so worried about people concerned about forgiving themselves when they have harmed themselves. This is because what people often mean in forgiving themselves is forgiving themselves for the offense they have given to others. As long as I can forgive myself, they think, it doesn't matter that I don't make it up to those I have offended. It doesn't matter that I don't apologize, that I don't have their forgiveness. All that really matters is that I have forgiven myself. 
I am able, they say, to absolve myself of all my faults. And, thus do even justified guilt and shame disappear. Because, at the end of the day, all that matters is that I can live with myself. 
There's as much narcissism here as in attempting to be one's own (best) friend. 

Monday, November 25, 2013


Last week, I lost my paternal grandmother. She had suffered from dementia for a long time and, in all honestly, I hadn't seen her in quite a while. So, while I was sad I was not overwhelmed, nor do I have any right to be.
More than a sense of grief, what the death reminded me of is a sense of aloneness, of solitude. And, not only because I found out because my mom saw the obituary online.
I was never close to my father's family growing up. They are a very close-knit family, but one whose closeness was centered on the church--and their church was the Lutheran one (Missouri Synod) and I was raised Catholic.
My parents divorced when I was two, my father moved away, and my only regular contact with his family was going to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners alone. I was one little kid at celebrations with people I barely knew and no touchstone, no person there that I knew well and could latch on to. In fairness, my grandma tried, but there was too much absence to make up for.
And, that's what my deep problem is. I have no ability to interact with groups. I can teach a class, but that is a different sort of thing; that is performance and I have a very specific role. Pedagogy isn't sociality.
I can't do one-to-many socialization. I couldn't do it then, and I can't do it now. And, so I can't feel a member of a group or comfortable with one, however that group is defined and however natural my membership in it might be. The closest I ever get is feeling connected to someone who is a member of a group, but that's not quite the same thing. And, other possible connections recognize the unease; it's not an attractive characteristic. (This unease has been attractive to a few people in my life and gained me a friend or two and one amazing partner.)
And, so I feel alone. And, usually, alone in a crowd.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Why I'm not an (a)theist

There is an assumption in some circles that all rational people should be atheists. That all who profess philosophy should be is even more widely held. But I can't bring myself to that anti-credo.

To deny the existence of a thing (or a being), I have to be able to understand what that thing is, to have some fairly clear idea of what it would be for it to exist. I have a fairly good idea of what it would be for unicorns to exist. I understand what they are supposed to be like, what their biology looks like, their strange predilection for virgins, and all the rest. Similarly, I have a good idea what it would be for Zeus to exist. I know what his story is supposed to be, I know how he is supposed to have originated, I know his strengths and weaknesses, I know of his marital strife, his lusts.

So, I know what I am saying in denying the existence of unicorns or Zeus. And, I know what I would be saying in denying that Jesus existed--I think he did--or in denying that Muhammad received revelations from Gabriel or that Joseph Smith translated any golden plates.

But, I don't know what I would be denying the existence of God, full stop. I don't think atheism is, after all, just denying one more god in addition to all the others I freely deny.

I'm not just being precious here. I don't know what it means to say there is a Being who is the ground of all being. I don't know what it means to say that there is a Being that is outside of and utterly different to the universe, yet is the cause of the universe. I don't know what it is to say that God is both good and tolerant of all the suffering in the world--after all, His ways are mysterious.

There is a long tradition in the monotheistic religions of saying that what we say of God is said by analogy or metaphorically or, at least, predicated of God in a different sense to the secondary sense in which we predicate goodness or knowledge or anything else of beings in the world--here is the realm of the via negativa, the mystics, even Aquinas. This is just to say that we cannot understand God.

But saying that is tantamount to saying the claims of theism, taken literally, are a kind of nonsense--Unsinn. I don't mean that in a necessarily pejorative sense. Nonsense can be good, nonsense can be useful, nonsense can be evocative. We may need nonsense. Perhaps art is, in some ways, nonsense. But nonsense can't be true.

And, it can't be false, either. A negation sign doesn't make nonsense into sense.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Can you have the bells without the believers?

Richard Dawkins and I have something in common (almost). He considers himself a cultural Anglican and I consider myself a cultural Catholic. For both of us, a world in which there were no churches would be a world in which there were something important missing. At the very least, there would be an aesthetic loss, but there would also be a loss of a sense—he seems to be saying, and I would agree—of what the Western identity has been. 
I imagine I am a little more invested in my cultural Catholicism than Dawkins is in his Anglicanism. More than considering going into a church, I regularly go to the chapel near my office after classes and I engage in other practices rooted in my tradition. But that's not the point I want to make.
Rather, it is that being a cultural Catholic or Anglican or member of another tradition requires that there be committed members of the same tradition. Of course, Dawkins is in a slightly different situation, since his aesthetic comfort is state-supported. But, even in that case, and even if he is right that many Anglicans don't actually believe anymore, when there are no more believers, the churches will be just museums and the sepulchers—as Nietzsche's madman had it—of the dead God. That is not quite the same thing as a functioning church to which you have a cultural affinity, any more than an altarpiece in a museum is the same thing as an altarpiece in a church. Having been divorced from its purpose, it loses some of its meaning. There's no contradiction in being a non-believing, though culturally-entwined, member of a tradition. There might be something elitist about it, maybe it causes a tension, maybe it might even be bittersweet.
But my point is that being a cultural Anglican or Catholic does place a kind of restriction on one. Since what you love relies on committed others, they deserve respect. You can't run around with and cross-promote the work of people who claim that religion poisons everything, a la Hitchens; or, that those who pray are no more stable than those who believe God can be contacted by talking into a hair dryer, a la Harris; or, that all religion is a delusion, a la Dennett (and Freud); and, you can't claim that people ought to lose their jobs because they take their religion seriously, as Dawkins himself has—though that was with a person who believes a religion for which Dawkins has no affinity. 
That is, contrary to the program of many New Atheists, if you value what religion has given your society and even want to see it stick around, you can't deride the people who actually believe it—and create what you like.


Monday, September 09, 2013

A small question about the grammar of "pain"

I am in pain. I have the same persistent dull ache I have had in my elbow since the beginning of the summer when I began a new workout routine with a new workout partner. The pain is strong enough—so maybe not a dull ache—that it makes sleeping difficult. 
But, in the process of watching an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I forget the pain. The mixture of laughter at juvenile humor and wondering whether this isn't just a picture of human nature at its unvarnished core comes to the fore in my mind.
At the end of the episode, as I begin to get ready for bed, I again begin to think about my elbow and I notice the pain again.
A question presents itself: Would we say that I was in pain during the show? (This is a question about what we would say about the mental state, not a question about what science tells us about the operation of my nervous system and brain.) 

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Beauty and supervenience

On Monday, I will be lecturing on Plato, as I do near the beginning of each semester. There's something a little like the liturgical year about teaching: the same material comes up again and again, in the same order. And, that can be immensely boring or it can bear me along in a reassuring rhythm, especially when I see something new—with my own eyes or, usually, through the eyes of my undergraduates.
My standard way to introduce students to the theory of Forms is to have them think about beautiful things and what such things have in common that could make them beautiful. This raises a few issues, since most of my students claim to believe that beauty is subjective—they have to be pushed to see that they don't actually judge it this way—and I always have a student or two who wishes to reduce beauty to symmetry or an evolutionary compulsion. 
But, I was also thinking about beauty with regard to one of my other courses this semester. In some ways, no matter how all analogies may limp, beauty seems a near perfect example of a supervenient property, thus an apt case for explaining that notion, as well as multiple realizability, to my philosophy of mind students. 
There's little question (to me) that the beauty of a piece of music or a face or a painting is determined by its physical properties. I know that this is not accepted by all in aesthetics, but it's near enough to true for me. And, any change in the beauty qua beauty of an object would have to mean a change in that object's physical properties. But, a full catalog of the physical properties of Mozart's Requiem or Michelangelo's David would not capture its beauty. There's just no reducing beauty to the physical, for all the determination by the physical. And, it should be obvious that there are many different ways to achieve beauty. So, this looks to me like an easier entree into the concepts of supervenience and multiple realizability than just hitting them with the mental supervening on the physical.
I'm sure introducing these notions through this example will lead to undreamt of nightmares of explication, but in this I have hope.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Am Anfang

Another school year begins. As I start another ethics class, I've been thinking about the strange—and off-putting—way that so much ethics is taught in colleges and universities. 
Courses too often have three components: 1) An episodic and ungrounded trip through the history of theoretical ethics; 2) A series of outlandish ethical dilemmas, ostensibly to evaluate and criticize intuitions and the positions of those ethical theories; and, 3) A short series of practical applications to issues like abortion and torture.
Most textbooks and readers follow something like this plan, as do most introductory courses. It seems to me—even when I am doing the same damned thing—that this misses on almost all cylinders.
It's very important not to lead students into the genealogical fallacy, but teaching Aristotle without talking about what sort of society 4th-century BC Athens was leaves the students utterly flustered. From there, of course, you have to talk about the way a virtue ethics might be divorced from its context, or better yet married to a new one, but you can't treat theories as ex nihilo. Too often, though, we do. When students can't see what made the categorical imperative live for Kant, there is little hope they can see what might make it live for them.
Then, we ask them questions about fat men trapped in caves, or runaway trolleys, or—Heavens forfend!—unconscious violinists and people seeds. We ask them what their intuitions are in such cases, ignoring the fact that no one has untutored intuitions in these cases. We treat intuitions as if they were themselves ex nihilo, while we really know that we gain them in experience. And, I have just had no experience with people seeds, so whatever my intuitions are they are intuitions about people or seeds.  We act as if there were deep underlying principles for each of a person's moral judgments, when we also think that what we are trying to do is provide such principles. When we do this, we ask them to think that ethics and philosophy is pure and utter bullshit. Then we are surprised when they think it is.
Finally, we try to ground this whole project in talking about controversial issues. But, we talk about the same ones all the time. Who really wants to talk more about abortion in a classroom? How many more times can we rehash the same substandard articles on same sex marriage? Or, animal rights? And, we act as if the issues that we are talking about the most central ones in a human life. But, I am not getting abortions most of the time. That is not where my attitude to human life is made most clear. So, we teach them that ethics, if it can be made about anything, only applies at the edges of life, not in their everyday lived lives.
I don't always think that the teaching of philosophy should try to be useful. Mostly, I think it shouldn't. But ethics is one place where it must be about the real world and the common life. And, I think we fail at that. Or, at least I do most of the time.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

When will Snowden comment on civil liberties in the Russian Federation?

I am not one of those people who think that Edward Snowden had a moral obligation to stay in the United States and face criminal charges for his leaking. Yes, to stay and face the music when one opposes a government one sees as immoral might be heroic, but no one has an obligation to be a hero. And, criticism from a position of exile is not worthless for that reason. And, I do think that there are deep problems with our rapid approach to Panopticon, not to mention our military and pseudo-military adventures around the world, and the continuation of Guantanamo.
However, Snowden seems to have taken himself as some sort of warrior against the all-encompassing surveillance state and against the erosion of civil liberties. If that is the position he wants to take and he wants to be taken seriously as something more than just someone who has localized problems with the United States, that limits his options.
You can't accept asylum in the Russian Federation if what you oppose is the surveillance state, if what you are fighting for is civil liberties. Russia is governed by a former spymaster who continues to use the surveillance powers he learned, who regularly imprisons his political opponents, and strips them of all their assets, for whom a personal enemy is ipso facto, an enemy of the state. I know this is the point at which Snowden's defenders will crow about Bradley Manning, but for all the possible injustice in that case the parallel is a bad one. It is much more as if, having won the election, Obama had charges filed against Romney, imprisoned him, and took his fortune. Just last week, a Putin opponent running for mayor of Moscow was convicted on trumped-up charges so that he cannot run for office. This is where our warrior for openness and civil rights and liberties will be living, a country in which being "pro-gay" comes with a prison sentence, in which gay tourists are now being detained, in which any non-governmental organization with any foreign contact is shut down as a tool of foreign governments.
Of course, Russia wasn't his intended destination, but the records of China, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela with respect to openness, civil liberties, and freedom of the press are not much better. In the end, it looks like Snowden and his defenders care about abuses to the degree they are carried out by the United States. When others do the same or worse, it matters not at all. 
I do await his brave statements about the evils of Russian society, but I assume I wait in vain.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Thoughts on guilt and the divine ledger-keeper

One of the things about having drunk deeply of the font of Catholicism and being obsessive-compulsive—and not the fun, party conversation sort—is that you get to feel guilty a lot, even when you know you shouldn't. The old moral theologians called it scrupulosity.
A religious sense of guilt assumes a god, a god who keeps track of our transgressions, and is at least disappointed in us if we fail to match his expectations. (The fact that this sense of guilt can survive the death of the religious metaphysics that underpins it is fascinating, but a topic for another day.)
Of course, the god of the Abrahamic religions—God—is just such a being. God, unlike the God-of-the-Philosophers, is a person who enters into relationships with humans, a person who cares about humans. Only such a god could give believers the solace they derive from religion; only such a god could inspire devotion in worshipers.
But it is worth considering what kind of person this god is portrayed as being. God is supposed to be a being who not only concerns Himself with every human in creation, but who keeps track of everything each of them does. We are told that God keeps a book in which are listed all the deeds, both good and bad, of all people. God remembers all transgressions and forgives them only when forgiveness is requested, repentance is genuine, and penance is done. Even worse, in Christianity, we are told that God has given to humanity—the humanity that He set up to fail in the Garden—a set of rules and requirements that they can never fulfill because of their own depravity. (Judaism and Islam at least—if it is better—take humanity to be perfectible and perfectly capable of following God's law; of course, failing to do so then is entirely one's own responsibility.) God looks like a super-Santa Claus, though somewhat more sinister, since His punishments and rewards are eternal even as His ways are inscrutable.
There are so many questions that can be lodged here. But, I only want to ask one type. What would we say of a friend or a relative who kept a detailed list of every transgression? Who never forgave one unless it was specifically mentioned in an apology and was then paid for? Who, in fact, used her mental energies to keep such a catalog? Who, even better, intentionally set goals that she knew we could not meet, all in order to show how much we rely on her? This would not be a good person. It would not be a person you would want to know. It would be a petty person. And, I don't think we would take such a person to be one who was concerned with us in any laudable way. If I remember how my partner upset me ten years ago, that is not praiseworthy, it does not demonstrate the strength of my love or my concern. It shows me to be a pretty horrible sort of person.
Now, I know that the ways of God are mysterious, but what reason—other than fear of punishment or hope of reward, i.e., egoism—would make one praise a being who was portrayed as so petty?

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Gay porn, feminism, and the search for universal explanations

Occasionally, I get into a discussion with one of my feminist friends about pornography. There is a line among some feminists—traced back through the work of Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin—that all pornography is inherently misogynistic. And, relying on the speech act theory of JL Austin, that is doesn't really deserve the protection afforded free speech, because it isn't an expression of an opinion or a view; it's a performative, an act of oppression of women.
Usually, at this point, I bring up porn that doesn't involve any women: gay porn. I ask, "But of course, gay porn can't be about oppressing women, because there aren't any women involved." If you're naive, as I am, you might think this is a slam-dunk. 
But, I have been told many times that this is just a mistake on my part, because of course one of the men in any pornographic scene is the oppressed woman. I fail to see—perhaps because of my position as a man—the way in which this sex is gendered.
For the time, I will leave aside the way that this is extremely homophobic and hetero-normative. I will even ignore the fact that it gets (male) homosexuality entirely wrong and assumes that it can be understood theoretically without any discussion with people who have experience of it. I will even leave aside the way it is generally offensive to be asked whether one is "the woman" or "the man" in a relationship and the way that this view of gay porn and—with it—male homosexuality reflects that same way of thinking. What could I possibly answer from experience when truths flow down to me from the heights of theory? (At least, I will leave these questions aside for now.)
There might be many problems with gay porn, but why think the right way to think about them is in terms of a masculine/feminine dichotomy? Isn't this just a case of seeing a world only through the perspective of one's preferred theory?
The real problem underlying this is a tendency to think that every fact and situation and relationship in the world can be understood through one privileged lens, that every phenomenon can be unlocked if only one has the perfect key. 
In this case, the world may be understood only through gender. Once we understand gender the world is made clear, with the appropriate translation into gender.
But, I remember well sitting through (part of) a seminar with a Marxist geographer—his theory was Marxist, his life was high bourgeois—who believed that gender and race didn't matter, because only class was important.
There are others who believe that once we understand racial relations, everything is clear. Today, I read a blog that (jokingly?) explained dating in terms of markets. In biology, you hear those who tell you that all will be revealed once evolution is fully understood; there is a subset who believe that selection alone is the important force in evolution. In neuroscience and, sadly, philosophy, you hear many people who tell you that once we have a full neuroscience, we will have no more need for the humanities or probably for our humanity.
It is surely a natural drive to think that one thing can explain everything of interest, but this just turns us all into so many confused Casaubons. It will probably turn out that the world and the human world are much more complex than any one discipline or theory. 
Pursue your favored theory at will, but don't assume that it will explain everything; to think so is probably to be as simple as your worldview is simplistic. As Bishop Butler put it: Every thing is what it is, and not another thing.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Secularists have to do better

There's a pernicious style of argumentation among many secularists. You see it in the works of the New Atheists, you see it in this piece by David Brooks justifying the coup in Egypt—and, if you do the right substitutions justifying every possible coup; Pinochet or the return of the Shah, anyone?—and, in a recent series of tweets from Joyce Carol Oates. These are only examples. I hear it from students. I hear it from people who take themselves to be educated and enlightened. It is very much in vogue among a certain set.
The argument—I guess it is really a claim substituting for an argument—is that religious believers are mentally defective, delusional, incapable of rational thought; or, that they are immoral, necessarily misogynistic, barbaric. And, because of this, one cannot trust them to teach or govern or take any other important roles. 
Sometimes this strategy is aimed at all religious believers indiscriminately. Sometimes only at those one particularly disdains. Usually, these days that means Muslims.
I have an interest in the survival of secular government. And, Islamists scare the hell out of me; I know what happens to me in their ideal state. Pace some particularly strident thinkers—Sam Harris and Niall Ferguson come to mind—I think that there is a difference between Islam and Islamism. But as an accused member of the Homosexual International, and as a philosopher, I have no doubt that Islamism and its parallels in Christianity and Hinduism and even in Buddhism some places must be opposed and defeated, not least because I get killed in many of those views.
But you can't do this practically or while maintaining intellectual honesty, by claiming that all serious religious believers are defective in someway. Secularism needs defending, but it needs defending on its merits, not through ad hominem or through a baseless assertion that secularists and atheists really just are better. 

Monday, July 01, 2013

The Father of Lies: Evil, the Devil, and Us

There’s a line you hear from traditional Christians quite often. They will tell you the Devil is real. And, that when you say he isn’t that’s exactly what he wants, because he wants you not to fear him, not to be on guard against the lion that walks about waiting to devour the believer. And, when you aren’t on guard, that is when evil can triumph.
To deny the real existence of the Devil as a being is still a heresy for most Christians. His existence is affirmed in the catechisms of the Catholic and many other Churches.
There’s something a little brilliant about the notion of the Devil. To see a being like the Devil is to affirm that there is real evil in the world. This is not something that every tradition has seen. Many religions have some shady gods or demigods or spirits—Loki or Hades or Coyote or the Tempter or Opposer (haShatan) or many others—but they aren’t purely evil. And, often they exist in worlds where there’s not much notion of evil.
It can be hard to see from our point of view, but the notion of evil has not been and isn’t universal. When you read Homer, you see enemies, but they are no more evil than the gods are good. Hector is Achilles’ enemy, and he hates him for killing Patroclus, but he isn’t evil. There is no moral judgment of the sort that could make that distinction. Even when we come to a figure like Socrates, he cannot conceive that someone could see something as bad and yet choose it.
The discovery of real evil is an advance in thinking about humanity. Whatever Nietzsche may say about how we should feel about birds of prey, it is good to recognize we live in a world—yes, of mostly grays—but in which the full negation of good has a place. In this sense, then, the Devil is an advance in understanding the world.
But that advance comes at a cost in terms of our own self-understanding. The Devil is both a recognition that there is evil and a placing of that evil outside ourselves. It isn’t humans that are evil; they are led astray, tempted, suggested to, by an outside evil force. 
There is a danger in giving up the Devil—maybe a greater danger than that of giving up God. The danger is that we lose sight of evil. And, this happens in some of the more shallow presentations and lazy acceptances of relativism. 
“What they do over there, or what we used to do here or [less often] what we currently do isn’t evil,” we are tempted to say. “It’s just the way we do things.”
That is a mistake.
But, there’s an equal danger in hypostasizing or reifying that evil into an external being, a Devil. If we are seriously self-reflective and, sometimes I am too seriously self-reflective, we all recognize that there are dark places in us, spots of evil. Some of us have more and some of us have less; some of us can control them better, some of us worse; some of us barely see them, some of us are aware of them all of the time. But, they are there. Inside us. 
Denying the wisdom the idea of the Devil represents may well lead us to forget the real evil that is around us, but believing in the Devil is as likely to make us oblivious to the evil within.
The world would be easier if there were no evil, and life would be easier if the source of evil were outside us. But neither the world nor life are easy.

Monday, June 17, 2013

How Margaret Cho made me think about lazy dualism

At some point, every man has been told to think with his head rather than, well, his dick. Watching a long and not always funny bit by Margaret Cho about her own genitals made me think about this. As she went on and on about parts I neither possess nor have much experience with, I was thinking both how strange it would be for me suddenly to find myself in possession of a vulva and how that would affect at least some of my thoughts. (At this point, I was also thinking about Thomas Nagel and Madonna.) 
That is not, of course, to say that it is strange to be a woman, but to say—what is probably obvious—that I have always experienced the world as a male. And, this doesn't mean just being treated as a boy and now a man by others, it also means having a certain sort of body, a body with which I am constantly in contact and in which and through which I experience the world, through which and in which I think. It would be strange for me to have a woman's body. 
I'm not going to argue that this means that there is something essentially different in the thoughts of men and women; that gets the scope of my concern wrong. I began thinking about this in terms of sex, but the issue is more fine-grained. It's not that my thinking has always occurred in a particular kind of body; it has always occurred in this body. (Obviously, it has also always occurred in a body.)
For the good old substance dualists, the body had very little to do with thought, at best serving as an ancillary for gathering materials. But, almost no one (at least among philosophers) still holds on to substance dualism. We are all, or mostly, some sort of physicalist now.
But, at least some physicalists seem implicitly to accept something like the old dualism. Consider the way that futurists and transhumanists argue that we will be able to live forever as computer programs or cyborgs or something else yet to be envisioned. Or, even the way in which both Daniel Dennett and Derek Parfit—intending ultimately to undercut our notions of personal identity—among others, place the kernel of our existence in a psychological continuity that is located wholly within the brain. 
They ask: Where would I be if my brain were transplanted into the body of my partner and his were transplanted into my body? The assumption is that it is obvious that I would be wherever my brain is, because that is what would have psychological continuity with me. But this assumes that my psyche is divorced from the rest of my body and resides fully within my brain, that the composition of my body matters not at all to my mind or my thought processes.
They ask: What should we say if there were an exact replica of our brains in a computer or if our brains were in a vat but our body was at a distance? Won't we be able to survive bodily death if we only upload before then?
The same assumptions underlie these sorts of question. And, they exhibit a dualism—a lazy brain/body dualism—that is perhaps more problematic than good old Descartes'. He may have thought that the mind was a non-material substance, but at least he thought that (somehow) that mind permeated the entire body. Now we have a view where the mind exists in a throne-room, connected to the body only contingently. This ignores, in a way that one who wants to be naturalistic, the way in which our cognition—not to say all cognition—is embodied.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Risky behavior, victims, dirty boys, and the way we talk about HIV

At least a few times a year, I get to have the seroconversion conversation with a friend. There's nothing novel or unique about that. It's common enough for gay men my age and it has been since I came out. I'm right in that age group so that when I came out, HIV and AIDS were already major and established parts of the community. They were facts of life and of death.
When I opened a gay magazine—they were still relevant then—almost all the ads were for viatical settlement companies. They hadn't yet been taken over by pharmaceutical ads. The older guys who took me out to bars and showed me the ropes were few and far between, since so many of them had died, and they both taught me to assume anyone I would have sex with was positive and to expect that there was a good chance that I would be someday.
We've come a long, long way since then. For many people, a diagnosis is more like a diagnosis of diabetes than the death sentence it once was; yes, you will have to take medication for the rest of your life, but it won't be the thing that kills you and your life expectancy most likely won't be affected.
But, some of the same attitudes hang around, attitudes that are damaging to all of us.
All too often, when someone tells me that he has found out that he is positive, he will tell a story—it might be one that he believes, it might even be true—about the very unlikely way in which he got it. This will usually involve some practice for which there is a theoretical risk but no—or almost no—actual documented cases of infection. It will be a story about a tiny scratch in the mouth, chapped skin, or something else. Why do people do this?
We tell these stories and convince ourselves of their truth because we hold onto a dichotomy of those who are victims of the disease, those who got it accidentally or through extreme circumstances and thus are innocent; and, those who deserve it, whose own decisions and actions are the reason they became infected. Yes, there are people who had no causal role in their infection and there are those who have challenged fate (not that this means they deserve anything), but this dichotomy misses the great reality in the middle. 
Whether positive or negative, anyone who has been sexually active has done something risky at some point. I'm old enough to remember when a huge effort was made to eroticize safer sex, an effort that was doomed to failure, because even the most anonymous, meaningless sexual encounter is a moment of intimacy. Sex is often about pleasure, but that doesn't mean that even hedonistic sexual acts are not about a connection with another person. The introduction of a condom or any other barrier necessarily limits that intimacy. And, almost everyone has chosen pleasure—because we also have to face that unsafe sexual practices feel better—and intimacy and risk over safer but less intimate and less pleasurable practices.
We all do this or have done this sometime; Apollo has a hard time winning when Dionysius is offering us so much more. And, some of us have been lucky and some of us have been unlucky. 
To admit this is to admit that we've been stupid and if we've gotten something because of that our decisions had a role there. We aren't victims; we were involved. 
But, it also involves admitting that if we haven't gotten something, luck had a lot to do with that. No one deserves their bad luck. So, no one deserves to be infected or sick.
In other words, to admit this means to admit that the world is much more complex than we like to tell ourselves.
All of this also means that we have to overcome another really horrible dichotomy: clean and dirty. You aren't virtuous or perfect or clean because you have avoided some infection. If you are sexually active, the odds are that you are lucky or you might be the one person who is perfectly responsible in every situation (and who has never been lied to by a partner or friend). And, you aren't vicious or a slut or dirty because you became infected. You may have made bad choices or one bad choice—or you may not have, maybe you just trusted someone you shouldn't have—and you weren't so lucky.
To see these attitudes hanging around after all these years is more than disheartening; overcoming them is necessary for loving ourselves and loving one another.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Why should Pride be respectable?

Every year about this time, the same sort of debate arises about the evils of Pride. See, for instance, Patrick Range McDonald's takedown of LA Pride. 
There are those who see Pride as outmoded, as childish, as a celebration of all that is wrong with the gay world—and it is mostly about what is wrong with gay men, there is little worry about Dykes on Bikes. It's go-go boys and muscle queens (and drag queens) drinking and drugging and grinding up on one another. It's immature and sexualized and—American puritanism being what it is—sinful and shameful.
The other half, an old high school buddy, and the author at last year's Pride.
It should be, they say, a celebration of all our heroes. The piece above picks out Bayard Rustin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others. It leaves out good old Alan Turing, maybe because he was proud of the sex part of his sexuality. We should come together to reflect and share and work towards equality. In short, Pride should be both a political event and an opportunity to put our best face forward.
Of course, much of this discourse directly parallels that of the people who show up at Pride events to protest against the evil, slutty gays. It often goes further to say that we end up being treated as degenerates because of how degenerate we are. No one ever seems to see that this is the "if she didn't want to be raped she shouldn't have dressed that way" argument. So, it seems that when I get called "faggot" because I am walking the dog with my partner, I should blame Pride events. 
If only we were more respectable, we would be more respected. Thus it always is with minorities; we are supposed to make ourselves presentable to others, so they won't beat us up or fire us. But, why? There's a lot to celebrate in gay history—sometimes I think less in the gay present, but I am a curmudgeon—composers, authors, artists, philosophers, scientists, adventurers, the founder of Boy Scouting, .... 
But that isn't what Pride is primarily about (and it hasn't been for a long time). Pride is a party. It might not be the kind of party everyone wants to attend, but it's still a party. And, it's a party for the community, not for others. I don't get a say in what goes on in other cultural celebrations; they don't get a say in what goes on in mine. It isn't about them (or equality or other political goals), it's about us. 
And, it is about a bunch of drag queens and hustlers and old queens who wanted to be allowed to drink and grind and whatever in a bar in New York many years ago. That is, about some people who wanted to be allowed to be perverts. 
There is plenty of time to be rational and political and attend whatever HRC or homocon event you want to. This is time to leave Apollo and get a little Dionysian. 

If you want to argue that Pride has been co-opted by corporate America and that is a bad thing, you will get a sympathetic hearing from me. Just don't tell me that it has to be something the Cleavers would have found wholesome and edifying.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The faith without which not

We all assume that human perceptual and conceptual apparatuses are sufficient to a large understanding of the world in which we find ourselves. The only people who deny this are radical skeptics—and they can only deny it, as it were, in the lecture hall—and the insane. But, this is a matter of faith. At the very least it is a matter of faith for the vast, vast majority of us who never reflect on just how unlikely this should be.
It is undeniable that our minds allow us to function very well in the world, but other animals have quite different perceptual abilities (bats, dolphins, dogs, just to name three easy examples) and may lack much of anything that we would countenance as a conceptual scheme. And, they get along quite well in the world, too. That is, they get by without having minds that model the world correctly, by our lights. What reason do we have, then, to think that our abilities are the ones that are able to hit upon the truth?
If we are theists—as, for instance, Alvin Plantinga is fond of saying—we can ground our minds in the God who gave them to us. We then do have the problem that this God gave us minds that find as much evidence against the existence of a personal God as they do for it. 
But, if we aren't theists or are wary of supporting claims by pointing to God's role, we have an apparent problem, for—again channeling Plantinga—natural selection selects for survival aptitude, not veracity. The most useful conceptual apparatus need not be the one that gets at the world correctly. In fact, it might often be survival apt to get the world wrong, to impute agency where there is none in order better to avoid predators when they are present, for example. Whatever forces act in addition to selection are at play in evolution—and I am no selectionist—do we have reason to believe that they would pressure the mind to match the world? And, do we have much strong reason to think that minds such as ours, which appear to have gone well beyond our mere survival needs, have reached truths when they have gone beyond? We shouldn't forget that humans have invented some pretty amazing—and false—ontologies in their short time on earth.
If true, it is an amazing thing that when consciousness arises it is able to become conscious of the universe in which it has arisen. And, we cannot help but believe that it is so able. But it is worthwhile now and again to reflect on just what a leap of faith this belief is for most of us.

Monday, June 03, 2013

The philosophers' ailment

Many philosophers have a nasty habit that is best thought of as a kind of illness. Maybe some therapy would help.
It isn't new. You can see it at least as far back as der Wiener Kreis, in the work of Carnap, sometimes Russell and Frege, even Wittgenstein. Dennett and the Churchlands exhibit it in philosophy of mind, and any number of ethicists seem to be suffering from it as they read studies in neuroscience and psychology and evolutionary biology.
A lot of us probably catch it in graduate school where it attaches either to a sense of inadequacy or admiration for people practicing other real disciplines. Its hold is strengthened in those conversations where social acquaintances tell us they can't figure out why anyone would be paid to shovel such meaningless bullshit and those moments when students ask us when they will ever use what we are talking about.
Its symptoms are such an overwhelming deference to scientists that one soon loses any sense of what exactly philosophy is supposed to be, as well as an inability to see that philosophy can ever do anything—has done anything in the two-and-a-half millennia it's been knocking around—except clear up a few minor confusions in the hallways of the people who really understand the universe and its inhabitants, the scientists
Ultimately, it leads to a kind of hard-on for science that the infected philosopher is no longer able to see any value that philosophy and its tools and methods and questions might offer, not least because she has given up the idea of value to science.
For example, here a philosopher decides that we cannot know whether literature has any value because the psychologists haven't done enough experiments yet, ignoring his own realization that literature might just be too complex to study by means of a set of laboratory experiments, and further ignoring that he has said nothing—as several commenters noted—about what makes literature good, or what moral improvement might be like, or whether we could even analyze morality by means of psychological experiments. He's too much in thrall of psychology to see that he has decided not to do philosophy or even be critical about the methods of the social sciences or question whether the right sorts of questions are being asked.
Of course, it must be sad to be engaged in a discipline that you think is no more than the handmaid of all the other—legitimate?—ones, but that's only half the problem. When students see this and when administrators see it, is it any wonder at all that philosophy gets shunted aside and cut with all the other humanities? When you give up on your own discipline, you shouldn't be amazed when others do as well.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Why would you want to get married? In praise of old wineskins.

Last night I got to play faculty spouse at a party celebrating the other half's promotion to full professor. I don't always do well at these events. I am not generally comfortable in groups and I tend to get into heated arguments with other academics. But if the crowd and my BAC are just right, I can be quite the wit. Last night, all was good.
As the evening was drawing to a close, I was talking to a visiting Scots academic and her partner. We began talking about the intricacies of American law, the relations among the various branches of the federal government and between the federal and State governments, the end of common-law marriage, and the laws and cases regarding same-sex marriage. My Scots interlocutor, having told me that marriage was, after all, a worn-out institution, asked why we had gotten married—of course, she and her (male) partner had not. Was it because we felt we had to? Was it to prove a political point? Was it a statement about rights? What reason could we have had beyond the practical reasons?
I'm not sure that she was ready when I asked her what reasons there might be beyond the "practical" ones. We got married largely for all those practical reasons. I suppose this sounds strange. To me it is the only one that makes sense in a secular setting.
There is a discourse that is shared both by those who reject marriage as hopelessly outmoded and by those marriage advocates who too often take themselves to speak for the gay and lesbian community that sees marriage as primarily about a particular picture of a romantic relationship, a particular image of love. It is all tuxedos and white dresses and cakes and, ..., well you know the rest.
But of course civil marriage is a contract, one we have inherited from the Romans as much as from anyone. And contracts are about practical purposes. 
I don't need to be married to validate my love—and the highest title I can bestow on the other half isn't "spouse" or "husband"; it's "friend." There is love and romance in our relationship, but the marriage didn't create that and isn't, primarily, about that.
Nor does being married define our relationship. I am married because the contract allows us better to pursue many of our practical goals; and, the contract provides an impetus to continue to work on those goals together.  And, within the framework of that contract, the relationship itself can be worked out in a number of ways.
Marriage may be an old institution, but to see that it has played out in any number of horrible ways in the past doesn't mean that the outlines of the contract cannot be put to good use. You can have the frame without filling it in in exactly the same ways. Sometimes it might make sense to put new wine in old skins.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A question about race and social construction

In the recent dustup involving Jason Richwine, his work at Heritage, and his dissertation at Harvard, there has been a good deal of head-shaking by conservatives and serious thinkers who want to remind us that, whatever orthodoxy may now prevail, race is real and there are real and enduring differences among the races. And, this is to be expected if we take evolution seriously. For instance, here you can see a long argument about enduring differences between Australian Aborigines, Ashkenazis, and others.
But, of course, that seems perfectly reasonable. Here we have two communities that have been isolated either by geography or by religion, such that they have continued to marry within their communities. To draw from such groups a conclusion that all racial discourse is glomming onto something real in the world and that we can expect real differences to continue according to those other racial classifications is to change the subject entirely.
When people—at least people who are careful about these things—claim that race is socially constructed, they aren't talking about Australian Aborigines, Ashkenazis, the Aymara, or other groups that are and continue to be genetically, if not geographically, isolated. They are talking about the strange groups we talk about when we pretend as if Whites were a unified group—do the real Caucasians count, as people worried after the recent Boston bombings or should we go back to the characterizations of a century ago when southern Europeans and the Irish didn't always count—or when we decide that Obama is Black and not White, like his mother. They are talking about the fact that we conveniently ignore the European ancestors of almost anyone descended from American slaves, or the African ancestors of a good number of people who think of themselves as White. They are talking about treating Hispanics as a racial group. And, in doing that, they are pointing out that much of our racial discourse is socially constructed. 
Until you give an account of the shared ethnic or racial heritage of the peoples of Iberia and all of Latin America—all of whom are called Hispanic and who include people of many different European heritages, various Native groups, Middle Easterners, Ashkenazis and Sephardis, and East Asians—you are just going to have to admit that much of this discourse is little better than bullshit. And, let's keep in mind that this is the group that Richwine was talking about. 
Just as a side note, a good number of Hispanics never discover that they are Hispanic until they come to the United States. It is an identity and a grouping peculiar to our way of thinking. My own partner loves to tell of when he was told that he was Hispanic upon coming as an exchange student to Ohio. Prior to that, he would have thought he was Argentine, or ethnically Italian. But here, he is a Hispanic. We treat a linguistic group—and the descendants of that linguistic group—as a racial group. That's not serious science and it shouldn't be informing public policy.
There may well be real differences among various groups of humans. This should be no surprise. But how much difference this can make in a world that is not isolated, in which heritages are seriously mixed, is unclear. And, what differences there are will only be found at a level of description much more fine-grained than the one that informs our racial discourse. 

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Untimely thoughts about social media

Several years ago, I deleted Facebook. After several months, I had to come back. Or, rather, I came back because I realized that I lost all social contact once it couldn’t be mediated through the site. That made me sad, but I figured it was the way things work now. 

After a few recent experiences, I am going to do something very close to deleting it again. Last week, I winnowed down my list of connections by more than a fifth, eliminating both people to whom I really don’t feel a connection and people to whom I do—or did—feel connected, but who had chosen never to make any real-world connection to me or toward whom I had made the same choice. That is, there are lots of people that I could very easily call up, or who could call me up—or text, given my terror of the phone—to do something, but with whom that never happens. We live in the same city or nearly, but our connection is watching one another live through the mediation of a computer screen. There were also quite a few people with whom I have talked about how great it would be to get together if ever we are in the same city; when that opportunity has actually presented itself, we have seen neither hide nor hair of the other. Sometimes the fault has been mine, sometimes theirs. We’ve been within blocks of one another, but after a decade of talk, ignored each other.

At least one of the people I had “unfriended” then engaged me in conversation about how that felt. And, I thought, we don’t do anything, you don’t care about our lack of connection, but somehow when we can’t look at each others postings, there is the moment when the pain is too great. The way it was put was that it was a hit to the ego when our virtual connection ended.

Just this week a friend—not a close friend, but more than an acquaintance—ended his life, though so many of us were witnessing his life through the medium of social media. We were connected, but not connected at all.

I am a bit of a curmudgeon. This is true. But, I remember when being a friend meant a good deal more than liking a status or leaving a snarky comment or even a clever one. I miss that. And, I sort of wonder why we let Facebook take that from us. Or, why we gave it up. But, for the most part, we did. And, that makes me sad.

I should say that a lot of things make me sad. I have basically two states: sad and lonely. And, Facebook feeds both of them. Seeing what people are doing without me doesn’t make me feel happier or more connected. Is this a problem with me? Absolutely. But, I doubt that I am alone. 

Anyway, I am reminded that Facebook makes me sadder and lonelier than I would be if no one were connecting with me—and I am pretty sure that without it, my phone and email won’t be full of messages. So, starting this weekend, I am going to be deleting most of my connections. But, this doesn’t mean in any way that those connections don’t matter to me. Instead, it is largely because those connections do matter. But I want real connections—like Aristotle, I believe that friendship is essential to the good life, but ersatz friendship is no more friendship than masturbation is sex.

I am going to be keeping family; professional connections; people from high school, college, and grad school; and people who live on other continents or far, far away. (Were it not for them, I would delete the whole thing.) I hope that I will still have contact with the rest of you. But, I’d really like that contact to occur in person. Even if it doesn’t, you will be in my thoughts. My email will stay the same, my phone number will be the same, my blog will still be here, and I will still be on Twitter at @tylerhower. But, Facebook will be mostly gone. 

Sunday, May 05, 2013

When a right becomes a duty

I've a had few conversations recently that have come around to the question of whether we want to or are going to have children.  When I answer that we aren't going to, I get a number of responses—and so does the other half—but responses that seem to circle around either the idea that it is selfish for us not to have children or that our lives don't have much meaning if we don't prepare another generation.

At the ends of these conversations, I always end up feeling bad, but not because I think I am selfish as much as bad because that's the way I am pictured. And, because it is now coming to be an assumption that a couple that has been together for a long time has to have children.

The recent dustup about Niall Ferguson's comments on Keynes' supposed lack of concern about the future because of his homosexuality—for a good discussion, see this—has got me thinking more about this.

It is strange to me that so many gay men have begun to drink deeply the arguments offered by social conservatives that a relationship is only of value if it is a relationship that has children. Or, maybe it isn't strange; maybe it just saddens me. 

To be clear, I think it is great if people—gay or straight—want to have children and I like children. I cannot wait to see our new nephew this summer. But it doesn't follow from that that I must want them for myself. To see value in something is not the same thing as believing that I must, therefore, have it. That would be a kind of selfishness, it seems.

There are many reasons why we aren't going to be having children. Whatever the evolutionary-psychologist types may like to say, my genes just don't want to reproduce. Or, if they do, they aren't doing a very good job of recruiting my conscious mind. I don't particularly care whether my line continues—it has some spotty parts—and my brother-in-law is taking care of the other family's line. Both of us are involved very heavily in the formation of the next generations; we do care about the future and the people of that future. We just don't particularly care that our genes continue or that we raise one or more members for that future. 

There is the very large issue that, especially if what is desired is a biological child, the cost of the necessary arrangements and procedures puts it beyond members of our economic class. When you get paid to think, you don't get paid very much. That's why the characters on shows like The New Normal aren't lecturing about non-realist conceptions of the self or strategies of resistance to military governments. 

But, perhaps what makes me saddest is the notion—a bad one and one actually seen by Keynes—that a life cannot have value in itself. That is, there seems to be some idea that a life only has value in its production of another generation. But of course—and here I am paraphrasing Keynes, channelling a little bit of Nietzsche, and expressing the sort of old-style conservativism that values the here and now—the value of that generation would only be in its production of another. And, the value of that generation only in its production of another. There is no value, because it is always just over the next generational hillock. But, that's just nihilism.

I don't think I live my life only for myself and I don't think it makes me selfish not to want my own children—I also don't see how it could be selfishness, since that implies looking only at my interests and ignoring the interests of another, but who is this other with interests?—but I also don't see how what should be a right (the having and raising of children by those who want and will love them) has somehow turned into a duty. 

Thursday, May 02, 2013

On the cruelty of love

Rhode Island today became the tenth State to legally recognize same-sex marriage. Before the ink had dried on the law, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence had issued a letter to the faithful of Rhode Island. In it, he reiterates the Church's teaching on homosexuality ("same sex attraction" is one of the ickiest phrases possible and I think that is its intent) both as orientation and as action. He also reiterates that the Church loves its homosexual members. The Catechism itself says that there must be no unjust discrimination against homosexuals.

But this is a strange sort of love. On the one hand, the Church teaches that all homosexual activity is "intrinsically disordered," while recognizing that for most gay men and lesbians their orientation is deep-seated (even though the inclination is itself is, in the words of the Catechism "objectively disordered" and "a trial").

The story is that there is a large group of people for whom this inclination is deep-seated—I think, the Catechism almost wants to say "innate," but for the deep problem this causes and which is not actually avoided—but that this inclination means that they are disordered, broken, at the very center of their affective being. (Since this disorder has been around in almost all cultures through time, one might almost think that God gives some people this inclination.) But, having told them this, and essentially recognizing that there is no way that this brokenness can be fixed and they may never act in any way on this afflictive inclination—and, according to the last pope, they are so broke that they may not be ordained—we nonetheless love them.

The love that tells me how horrible I am and then pulls me to its bosom is, in many ways, worse than the hate that just tells me I'm horrible. And, really, once you've taken this position, what discrimination would be unjust? Given the intrinsic disorder, wouldn't almost all discrimination be just?

It is a hard and ever harder thing to even think of this as part of my cultural identity, but to lose it is to lose so much.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Questioning Dennett's narrative self

I've spent part of this week thinking about Daniel Dennett's account of the self as narrative and, at the moment, am reading Roger Scruton's The Face of God, where he deals with accounts of the self as a perspective, inspired by Thomas Nagel.

Thinking about this recalls a puzzle that I have long had about Dennett's account of both the self—to which I am sympathetic—and consciousness—less so. Roughly, he believes that the self is a narrative—a story or a web spun out of words. I like this idea. It is supposed to be authorless, that is, he does not think there is some particular faculty or authority or homunculus that is putting the narrative together. I can understand this idea. It is as if it were a story being written by committee or better one written as a party game, with each person adding a line or two. 

But, here I start to get confused. The narrative self, like the web of a spider or the dam of a beaver or the bower of a male bower bird, is supposed to be part of a survival strategy. It is spun as a presentation and representation of my____ (I hesitate to say "self") to make sense of my____ and to make my____ understood to others. This mutual understanding is necessary for success: for planning, for cooperation, for mating, etc. 

But this means that there is something that must understand it. What is this thing? It seems that it has to be a thing with a perspective. I can understand that the system—like the termites in a termite mound, says Dennett—creates the narrative without any guiding intelligence, but it presents the narrative to something. And, it seems that it is this something for which the narrative is the strategy.

Again, he compares the narrative self to a blip on a radar screen: a representation of the location of a boat that allows the captain of the boat to steer it successfully. But, in that sort of case, it is the boat (and the captain, really) who matter, not the blip. The blip is a tool for the captain in his project of protecting the boat. If the narrative is a strategy, isn't the thing for which it is the strategy, i.e., the audience to whom the narrative is presented the thing about which we are concerned? And, since, unlike the case of the termite mound, there is a perspective had by that thing, isn't that really what we mean by the self?

And, once we are there, why not think whatever has the perspective is also the selector of the bits of the narrative, the thing that decides to include and exclude items from it—as he thinks the narrative is edited but without an editor? Why not just then go to a full blown self?

There are, I think, similar issues in the account of a non-centralized consciousness.

Monday, April 29, 2013

That's just semantics! (But isn't it all?)

Earlier today I was involved in several discussions about whether it was best to describe this as "gay bashing," or something else. There's no value in rehashing all the issues here, but I was arguing that it is bad pragmatically and ethically to characterize all anti-homosexual opinion or statements as "gay bashing," in much the same way that denying—as most Christians do—that Muslims will go to Heaven is "Muslim bashing." (I know the issues are not exactly parallel.) And, I think that doing this denigrates the experiences of those who have been bashed. Besides, I think taking the mantle of victimhood is to fight from a place of weakness.

One of the most important things that these discussions reminded me of was that pace Plato, philosophical training does not prepare one for political discussions, let alone political power. At least in the system we have, the practice of making distinctions—and that's what philosophers do—is not all that appreciated (or, probably, helpful).

But, the other thing that came back to me was that when distinctions are made, the most common move is to say, "That's just semantics." I think we must learn this move from some well-meaning high school teacher who wants to teach us that there are real distinctions and then there are ones that are merely semantic. You know, ones that are just playing around with words. There are facts and there are words. There is a world and there is a representation of it.

Apart from the fact that this claim falls flat from those who have just been arguing that it is very important that legal same-sex relationships be termed "marriage"—isn't that just semantics, too—there is a deeper, almost existential problem with this.

One might have all sorts of things to say about human nature, but almost anyone has to admit that one of the most amazing things about us, if it is not the defining characteristic, is that we are semantic beasts. We live in a web of language. As Dan Dennett puts it, we weave narrative selves throughout our lives. We interact with one another through and in terms of language. We understand ourselves through our discussions with others (and with ourselves), through our diaries and journals and blogs. For Christ's sake, we tattoo words on our bodies and engrave them on buildings and put them on our clothes. The Abrahamic religions have God speaking the universe into existence and the first man beginning his career by giving names to all the animals. Christians (following the Stoics) worship the Word of God.

We spend all the time talking and texting and writing and reading and singing words, words, words. 

And, alone (?) among the animals, we look for meaning in our lives and in the world. Nietzsche got it right when he said that we were so terrified of a life devoid of meaning that we will take anything, including the Void, as our meaning. We create meaning, we search for meaning, we need meaning. And, we put it into words.

So, when someone says that a disagreement is semantic, or just about meaning, or just about words, she seems to be saying that the disagreement isn't real or isn't about the world. But, what can be more real that the way in which we do and must encounter and think about and represent the world. 

Yes, it's semantics, because it all is.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Unrealized parallels

When two self-radicalized Chechen Muslims in Boston killed three and injured hundreds, many pundits of all stripes, from conservatives to Tea Party-types to New Atheists, immediately moved to condemn Islam and Muslims and Caucasians—in the original sense—and question whether we should be allowing so many Muslims or Caucasians into the country. We hear once again that we live in a world where it is our worldview against theirs.
Today, once again, close to a hundred people were killed and many other hundreds were seriously injured in a factory in Bangladesh, known to management (it seems) to have been unsafe. The workers were called in to work anyway, because the need to produce cheap clothes for the American and European and other markets was taken to outweigh the risks. Though it seems that the factory failed even Bangladesh's safety standards those standards are not enforced. In short, these people were killed by unregulated capitalism. I await a call that we put a stop to such unregulated capitalism. But I suspect I won't hear it.
If the action of a few Muslims colors all members of the faith, why doesn't the action of many more capitalists call into question that faith? And, why do we never think about our involvement in the practices that led to these deaths?

Can I steal what you don't want and won't miss?

I am walking in your garden one day in late spring where I notice a very beautiful camellia. When I see it, I remember your having told me about it in the past: how you had first spotted one like it on a trip to Japan, how you hadn’t been able to get it out of your mind after your return, how you had finally found a nursery stateside that sold the same varietal in the same color, how you had paid an exorbitant amount to have this very bush shipped to your home, how you have cared for it, how proud you are of it.
Looking at the plant, I have to admit that it is a very desirable plant. I also notice that it’s covered in new growth. I can tell that you prune it back every year, but you haven’t gotten to it yet this year. So, the new growth that you would normally cut off and discard is still on the plant. Since I know a thing or two about starting plants from cuttings, I get my pocket knife out and cut three pieces off the bush and put them in my jacket pocket. I don’t think to mention it to you.
At home, I am able successfully to start two plants from the cuttings I have taken. Now, without the cost or effort, I have the same bush you have. 
Some questions: 
Have I harmed you in any way? If so, what is the nature of the harm?
Does it matter that I didn’t ask you? 
Would it be different if I waited and took the cuttings from your trash? 
Do I owe you anything for the cuttings that you would otherwise have   discarded?
Are the questions different if I instead take a cutting from a public bush? From one in a commercial nursery?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Some thoughts about Dawkins' latest insertion of his mouth into his foot

Richard Dawkins has gotten caught suggesting that religious believers have such absurd beliefs that they oughtn't have respectable jobs. Of course, he has replied that it was all a misunderstanding, here.

Some thoughts;

  1. He clearly did say that the journalist should not have a job because of his theological beliefs. That is the worst sort of witch-hunt thinking. As in, gays can't be hired because they will recruit or atheists can't because they will undermine morality. But when Dawkins does it, it's in the service of truth.
  2. When he was called out for this, he claims that he must have been misunderstood. That is the classic non-apology.
  3. He claims to be fascinated by the fact that people can hold irrational beliefs in one area and not in others. Perhaps, then, he should read some of the vast psychological and cognitive science literature on this very topic, or think about the way logicians adopt non-standard logics because of this phenomenon. Except that might be too much like the science he claims to like but can't be bothered to do.
  4. He consistently confuses truth and rationality. Whether beliefs are rational or not is a different question to whether they are true. A belief set can be mostly false, but rational. Similarly, a belief set could be mostly true and irrational. He could learn about that, but it might be too difficult.
  5. If he really wants to call into question the contributions of religious believers, he might want to give up on the Big Bang, too, since it is the result of the work of a Belgian priest.
  6. He seems to believe that his belief set is both fully true and fully rational. Such self-congratulation is the very mark of the dogmatist, not the intellectual and certainly not the scientist.
  7. His foundation is called the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. He has put what he cares most about front and center.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Apologies and explanations

I should preface this by saying I'm not a particularly good person. I try and I fail. Sometimes, I don't try. And, often when I fail I do not apologize in the way that I should. And, that is another failing, another failing for which I should beg forgiveness.

Begging forgiveness is something that we have been losing as a society. Whether we are talking about politicians and pundits—that class that has so many opinions that each of them is nigh to worthless—apologizing for leading the United States into the Iraq war; or Bill Clinton apologizing for signing DADT and DOMA; students apologizing for cheating on tests or papers; government officials apologizing for not providing the public with services or for cheating on their spouses or stealing funds; servers and store managers apologizing for overcharging customers; or just your run-of-the-mill apology after a less-than-ideal human interaction, we have lost the very kernel of what it means to apologize.

Our mea culpas aren't mea culpas anymore. This is just because they don't stop with—or often even involve—a claim of fault. They are explanations: with the information we had, the Iraq war looked necessary; given the position of the country at the time, DADT and DOMA were the best options, anyway look at how bad Jesse Helms was; I am under a lot of pressure this semester and I don't really understand what plagiarism means; we have to prioritize governments services and that concern of yours for the better part of a decade matters a lot to me, but I'd have to convince others and they aren't convinced; I cheated because I was under so much stress loving America; ....

The method is to explain the circumstances so that the aggrieved will see that, were she in the same situation, she would have done the same thing. Rather than apologizing, we explain. We want the injured to understand and we seem to believe the old saw that to understand all is to forgive all.

We also in this way ignored the injured. I suppose the dead in Iraq don't matter; those whose lives were destroyed by DADT aren't really important; etc., because can't you see how my hands were tied?

But to explain is not to ask forgiveness; it is really the opposite. It is to say that really I didn't do anything wrong. Maybe it is the latent Catholicism in me, but I was taught long ago that when you ask someone—God or man—to forgive you, you don't explain, at least not in the first instance. There is something deeply suspect in trying to do that. You say that you are sorry. You are sorry because you did something wrong. And, you will strive not to do it again. And, you will make up the injury as much as possible. The confessional isn't the place for rationalization.

At that point—but only when asked for or when forgiveness has really been offered—does it make sense to explain. Of course I should try to see how, as an aggrieved person, I might well have done the same thing. But, when the person who has injured me demands that I do, they aren't asking for forgiveness. Instead, they are trumpeting their own moral rectitude, harmed only by circumstances. And, they are demanding that I understand and, so, forgive.

In a real request for forgiveness, there is the risk that one won't be forgiven. But all genuinely worthy activities include risk.

In the guise of self-knowledge—we say that people have engaged in a lot of soul searching—people hide their own mistakes behind exculpatory explanations. And, then we call them brave for realizing and admitting their mistakes.

Asking for forgiveness takes courage. Explanations that are really excuses take none.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mateo's conceptual apparatus, or why a trip to the park is work

We took Mateo for a long walk among the squirrels, birds, museums, merchants, playgoers, tourists, flâneurs, and others in Balboa Park this Sunday. After an hour or so, we headed back to my truck. As we were walking, we started talking about the dog's mind and, in particular, whether he has concepts and what they might be like.

I know that there are still people around who like to say that when we think about the minds of (non-human) animals we should not think about the minds of dogs, since they are not the product purely of natural selection but also of a concerted effort at artificial selection or, at least, that dogs and humans have selected each other in various ways. And, of course, it is extremely important not to anthropomorphize. It is extremely easy to impute to our pets a mental life that they almost certainly do not have. But, they have some mental life—in Nagel's phrase, there is something it is like to be them—and they are animals, so a consideration of dogs does give us a consideration of what sort of mental life non-human animals can have.

This isn't the place and mine is not the mind to attempt an exhaustive account of canine mentality, but a few things came up in our walk. So, just a few things that seem certain:
  • Insofar as concepts are categories, dogs have concepts. They are able to recategorize objects. When we say, "bird," to Mateo, he looks for a bird and when he finds it, he points. Having spotted a cat—something we tell him to look for with "kitty"—he will continue to look if the prompt was "bird." As with these words, with many others: "ball," "chiche," "baby," "bone," etc.
  • And, these categories are general. Many different birds fall under the concept he associates with "bird."
  • They are able to associate their concepts/categories with linguistic items, with words and with other signs and gestures. Apart from words, dogs can be commanded—as the Trappists are said to have done—via hand signal. Mateo, for instance, responds to a finger snap as he does to the command "sit," at least when I snap my fingers. His other owner is incapable of that.
  • The same concept can be associated or understood from more than one linguistic expression or other sort of sign. Not only does Mateo sit at "sit," and finger-snaps, but also at "sentate." 
  • The fact that we use words to communicate with dogs does not—cannot—support any claim that their concepts are coextensive with ours. Mateo associates something with "bird," but it seems that ducks and cranes are not within the extension of whatever concept/category he is using. He has some concept and it is associated with a word, but it is not our concept.
  • They have both particular and general concepts. Apart from the sort of concept mentioned above, Mateo also understands names. Of course, he comes at the call of his own name as well as a small number of nicknames, such as "Tater" and "M," but he also knows our names, the name of my mother, and the name of my mother's dog. That is, if you ask him to look for "Tyler," he will search for me.
  • They seem to have at least a basic concept of negation. "That's not your ball," sends him to back on a search. 
Of course, whatever we say about the conceptual apparatus of dogs, we have to steer between two different dangers. We shouldn't attribute to them too complex, abstract, or recursive a system. There are surely very many thoughts that I can entertain—and that I like to act as if Mateo can—that are beyond his abilities. It may very well be that much of this complexity is tightly connected to linguistic ability.  He doesn't reflect, he doesn't think about numbers, he doesn't worry about the meaning of life, he doesn't think about whether he will be remembered—even if he makes a concerted effort to make sure he is remembered in the moment.

But, at the same time, it is a fatal objection to any account of concept possession or the mind to exclude animals. We do, as the Churchlands would have it, need to watch out for the infralinguistic catastrophe.  There is something going on in his hard head and it is of a kind, if not of the same degree, as what is going on in mine.