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.

Monday, March 25, 2013

But why would you want to know that? or, why do my religious beliefs matter to you?

Several times a month, in a conversation that has nothing to do with religion, I get asked whether I believe in God or not. I get asked this by people who are theists and people who are atheists. Maybe this happens to a lot of people, but I suspect that I am asked for three—interrelated—reasons. 

First, you don't have to know me very well or even in person to know that I am curmudgeonly and contrary. I am critical. I criticize religious believers—something agnostics and atheists pick up on—and I criticize atheists and agnostics—something religious believers pick up on. So, people see criticism and think that means we are on the same team. 

But, as I was telling students just this week, I am as likely to criticize you because I agree with you but I think your arguments are bad, as I am to criticize you because I think your conclusions are wrong. I would rather disagree with someone but respect her reasons than agree when the reasons are bad. (At least, I aim for that.)

I wouldn't want to follow him in every way, but the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, as committed a Christian as there may ever have been, joined an atheists' group precisely because he thought they took their beliefs more seriously and with more thought than his coreligionists.

Second, I teach philosophy. (I strive to be a philosopher, but like happiness for Aristotle, that is an accomplishment of a whole life.) Many people make assumptions about what it means to care about philosophy. Surely, if I care about philosophy, they think, I must be an atheist. There is something silly in that assumption, since the long history of philosophy is filled with believers of some sort, even if only in the God of the philosophers. Of course, they also assume I must be a liberal or progressive. And, that isn't quite right either, at least not in the full political senses.

Third—and I think this is what is usually going on—this question works as a proxy. 

People who tend toward the non-theistic side are sometimes using this question to guarantee that another person is rational or logical or believes in science. Of course, we all know or should know that religion and rationality or logic or belief in science are not inconsistent. If you think they are, you have to explain people like Georges Lemaître, just to give one example. And, if you think that belief in science makes one rational, to stick with examples from cosmology, you will have to explain Sir Fred Hoyle.

People who tend toward the theistic side are often using this question to gauge their interlocutor's morality. "Do you believe in God?" functions like "Do you believe in right and wrong?", "Do you think morality is objective?", etc. Of course, we don't have to work too hard to find a slew of examples of immoral theists. (For those atheists, who might want to jump in here, there is plenty of evil on the godless side, too.) And, much of the greatest parts of the Western and Eastern intellectual traditions have worked—both in theistic and atheistic strains—to demonstrate that a morality derived wholly from the existence or commands of a God is something less than morality.

Whatever the real meaning of the question, the rolling of the eyes that begins if I actually try to explain what I believe shows that my interlocutor rarely wants to know.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A thought on public intellectuals

We should always be suspicious of the "public intellectual," the thinker or philosopher or critical thinker who enters too easily into the public sphere. For my own part—unless someone is willing to pay me to be one—I believe there is a necessary tension between being an intellectual and being a public figure. 

Of course, Socrates was a sort of public figure, but not a figure of influence in the government or in the shadows of government. He was as much a figure of ridicule and revulsion to the general public as a figure respected. Diogenes played much the same role. When Plato attempted to put himself in league with power, implementing his picture of the ideal state in Syracuse, it was a massive failure.

Montaigne undertook the great intellectual labors of the Essays not when he was still engaged in public life, but having closed himself up in his tower. Nietzsche is right to characterize the intellectual as a lover of the desert, as a kind of ascetic who has the humility of a mother nurturing her child, the child—or idea—for whom she lives. 

When the intellectual enters the public sphere too often you end up with Heidegger giving philosophical justifications for the great spiritual awakening he saw in Nazism, or the famous trahison de les clercs in which intellectual elites found themselves justifying the horrors of Stalinism. You get the theater of Christopher Hitchens—who thought himself a disciple of Orwell?—forgetting his own excoriation of Pinochet and welcoming the invasion of Iraq and helping to usher in a strengthened national security state. Speaking of Pinochet, you had the spectacle of Chicago-trained economists fomenting a revolution and welcoming a dictatorial state, all in the name of freedom. Of course, you also had Friedrich Hayek pronouncing that very state one of the freest he'd seen—no word of the thousands who were freed by being murdered. You have American intellectuals, both left and right, arguing that really torture of terrorists is justified by the common good or that drone warfare isn't problematic because, well, even if they aren't terrorists yet, those innocents who may be killed would be in the future. You get professors who praise el Che with no mention of his methods or the necessity of a continuing revolution. And, you get professors who argue that, when gays and lesbians are murdered in the Arab world, it's the Arab world that is the real victim—of Western imperialism and something called the Gay International—and not the people being killed; anyway, their blood is somehow on the hands of gays in the West. 

And, you get the phenomenon of Dawkins, et al., mischaracterizing theism and ignoring two thousand years of argument so they might fill auditoria. 

Of course, public intellectuals do sometimes do great good. Orwell surely did, Russell may have. But the temptation to publicity is a temptation to power, to reputation, to opinion, even the temptation to be a figure, maybe a controversial one. And, a pursuit of the truth and a pursuit of the expression of that truth—whether it be in the interests of power or not—is almost always going to make one unpopular.

You can be a public figure or you can be an intellectual, but it is damned hard to be both. 

Monday, March 04, 2013

On being called a faggot: or, a few thoughts on hate speech

Since it was a summery weekend, last night we went to get an ice cream cone at a shop in our neighborhood, ironically named Mariposa. Because we have no damned sense, we also took the dog with us. At almost seven years old, he still can't sit still at a restaurant or café and he is always overcome by the excitement of an adventure with his gentlemen.

We were walking back, when we heard a woman behind us asking—telling—us to get out of the way, because she and her preteen son and her husband or boyfriend or whatever were riding their BMX bikes on the sidewalk. That's a pet peeve of mine, but the rules to which those on bicycles are responsive are mysteries to me. As they passed, the man called out, "mariquis," one of the various options for calling someone a faggot in Mexican Spanish. It would have been better in a narrative sense if he'd chosen, "mariposa."

Surely this man thought he was being clever or something. He wasn't being brave, as he chose to call us faggots in a language he assumed we didn't understand. Of course, I understand more than enough to know when I've been called a name; and, Fernando simply responded to him in much more educated, if not more genteel, Spanish. His wife or girlfriend had the sense to tell him not to do it again, but probably only because we understood; I fear it wasn't real shame.

And, there are things I could say about what it means to be a man in your 30s riding a BMX on the sidewalk. I could say something about his parenting. I could say something about his general demeanor and whether he could ever have anything to fear from scary homosexuals. I have said all those things and will say them again, but not here.

Neither Fernando nor I are regularly called names. We don't generally fit the uneducated stereotype of gay men. I mean, we do fit several stereotypes, but only ones that are obvious to gay men or those who know them. We've had things yelled at us a few times, but usually only when we are together or together with the dog. That makes things a little more obvious.

When it does happen, my hackles quickly raise. I get angry and, sometimes, afraid. (Anger always rises most quickly in me.) And, shortly thereafter I become very sad: sad because someone would say it, sad because that's the way that person feels, sad because of the way society is, sad. That is to say that it has an effect, a very real effect, and not one—stoic though I may try to be—I can control. 

I am generally opposed to the regulation of speech. I think hate speech is morally repugnant, but I think it should be legally allowed and protected. But, I also think that when people argue for the protection of all speech they belittle the real suffering that hate speech causes—I'm no victim here, this is something that happens on occasion to me, for others it can be a regular feature of life—and that is a mistake. 

Too often, when we defend the absolute freedom of speech, we act as if no real harm is done by it. This is just an example of a more general problem with arguing about morality and the law abstractly, without paying attention to the actual lives involved. It is more choosing principles over people. 

This can be easy in this case, because most of those who argue for the protection of hate speech never feel its sting. I'll reiterate that I think hate speech should be protected, but it should be protected in spite of the harm it does, not because it doesn't do any harm.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Intellectual vices: certainty

Occasionally, I try to explain why it is that I didn't go through with seminary. The reasons are legion, but the kicker was that I didn't any longer have the sort of faith that would be required for one to climb into a pulpit. When I say this I usually get a look that says that I'm weird or I'm just being self-deprecating. I am weird and, when I'm not being pedantic, I tend to put myself down. That's not all that's going on in this case.

What I mean is that I lacked the certainty required for a job teaching that faith or any other. This is in spite of my real affection for the faith in which I was raised.

It might be that I am just, as Nietzsche said, making a necessity out of virtue as all ascetics do; but, certainty seems to me to be almost always an intellectual vice. And, to be clear, it is as rampant in those who claim no faith, as in those who do.

I suppose certainty—like the vices of passion—might be well-suited for practical concerns, but the certain mind is a closed mind. Having certainty there is no more need for questioning. And, no more need for discussion. (And, as Mill might have said, no more need to remind ourselves why we believe as we do, in the first place. For this reason, though there are some moral precepts that I am almost certain of, even these need constant defense and justification.) Only proselytizing and judging those who differ are called for.

This might be why an avowal of certainty kills my interest in conversation. Maybe, I'm actually being virtuous.

Or maybe I'm just unable to see the certain truths.