Posts Tagged ‘david-brooks’

Philosophy, Morality And Wind-Bags

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

I have been stirred from my cave by reading a piece of Spring madness by David Brooks. With the catchy headline The End of Philosophy Brooks turns out a column of such ill-reasoned sophistry that it roused me from my long hiatus.

In the first two sentences Brooks manages to diss Socrates while he incorrectly describes what Socrates was all about. That’s unforgivable for someone writing for the Times and I wonder what his editor was thinking in publishing it.

In the tradition of all good sophists, Brooks’ real target turns out not to be philosophy nor Socrates but rational morality. Brooks argues that morality derives from subjective impressions, myriad emotional responses to the many situations we encounter that all add up to judgments of good and bad.

But it’s not until we reach the last paragraph that we find out just why Brooks has embarked on this particular Op Ed assault.

“Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Ah, so you don’t have to explain things as long as you feel them.

This is not an attack on philosophy or rational morality, it is an attack on reason, an attack on science, and, by association, an attack on the man who leads our country, Barack Obama, a man of intellect and reason who has declared that he will return science to a rightful place of prominence in our decision making.

Brooks’s piece is good-old American conservatism masquerading as learned philosophical analysis.

Brooks says that Socrates believed “moral thinking” to be “mostly a matter of reason and deliberation.” Well, yes, that would be moral thinking wouldn’t it. Moral feeling would be something else, right? A nice sophist twist.

But what did Socrates really do that Brooks is so afraid of? Socrates tried to encourage people to examine their feelings as a way of understanding whether they were really valid feelings, or just learned biases and prejudices. Isn’t this essential to living as a conscious and sensible human being. If not, we could just defend any action or moral judgment by saying “that’s what I feel, I don’t need to examine it.”

I don’t disagree that we tend to judge and act from an accummulated store of moral impressions, but that ignores the fact that moral strides, great and small, come through reflection and bold conviction. The person who reflects on his or her past actions and decides that he must change. The activist who speaks out in eloquent defense of a new morality (e.g., abolishing slavery) and persuades people to the reason and rightness of his cause.

Moral code is painted in broad brush strokes. For the most part we agree on the way these strokes are painted. But we can only disagree or change our moral code by engaging in a rational debate, either with ourselves or as a society.

Finally, morality as a concept, which Socrates encouraged people to seek for themselves, does indeed have an objective basis. Whether we like it or not, our fundamental moral objective is to continue to persist as individuals, as a society, as a species, and as an integrated part of the universe. As we progress morally over time we tend to come closer to this objective standard.

Normal, Abnormal, Exceptional

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

On the philosophy of The Incredibles, Tiger Woods, and the conceptual founder of the world wide web.

Philosophy blog: Super-hero sonMy wife just introduced our four-year-old son to The Incredibles (he’s going through a super-hero phase). As the movie played today I was struck by the question raised by Mr. Incredible about his son Dash. To paraphrase: he asked his wife (Elastigirl) why Dash shouldn’t be allowed to celebrate his incredible speed by going out for sports. (In the movie it’s because they’re in the super-hero protection program.) The question got me in mind of norms and deviations from those norms.

Modern society often gets twisted up in the idea that we’re all equal but we should still revere exceptional ability.

David Brooks writes a drooling piece about Tiger Woods (the golfer). The piece is a great example of the uneasy path we walk when thinking about those with great talent or ability. It’s difficult not to be impressed and somewhat in awe of Tiger Woods’ talent. But would we accept the premise that Tiger Woods has more value as a human being than someone without his talent and determination?

Philosophy blog: Paul Otlet organization of all printed material in the worldEven when we’re dead and gone people go back to review our contribution to this our that. As is happening with Paul Otlet who dreamed up the Internet before computers had been invented. Otlet imagined a world wide interconnection of nodes that would allow people to share libraries of information and exchange messages.

Does it matter that Otlet’s ideas may have prefigured those that resulted in the actual world wide web? Did Otlet’s ideas actually influence anyone who eventually began the real internet? Or does this just happen to make a plausible and interesting story?

It’s hard to accept that we are neither the true owners of our own successes, nor the architects of our failures. And then at the same time, since no-one and no-thing can lay claim to owning our success or failures, we have no better recourse than to claim them for ourselves.

Philosophy blog: Tiger Woods US Open Golf Winner exceptional golfer

Same Sex Marriage, Political Terrorists, And Unidentified Ants

Friday, May 16th, 2008

On the importance and unimportance of naming things.

Philosophy blog: new ants in houston without nameA new kind of ant has descended on the coastal belt outside Houston. The ant beats out other pests for food, is a prodigious reproducer, and has no known enemies (except the homeowners and exterminators who live on the coastal belt outside Houston). But there’s one thing this new ant lacks that other ants have — a bone fide name. (Locals call them running ants, but there’s as yet no official scientific name.)

But, when it comes down to it, whether those hordes of tiny insects have a name or not must seem irrelevant when they’re infesting your yard.

David Brooks picked up on the idea that Obama, obliquely criticized by Bush’s speech in Israel to the Knesset, may not have intended to espouse a philosophy of appeasing terrorists. To his credit, Brooks contacted Obama and asked him to explain more about his foreign policy ideas, and, in particular, his ideas about handling the likes of Hezbollah.

That’s where the credit ends. Brooks sounds a little like Bush in his instinctive response to Obama’s remarks. And just as ill informed and naive about the history of diplomacy. As I wrote yesterday, when it comes to achieving peace, there’s no progress without communication of some sort or another.

“Does Obama believe that even the most intractable enemies can be pacified with diplomacy?” Brooks asks. “Is Obama naïve enough to think that an extremist ideological organization like Hezbollah can be mollified with a less corrupt patronage system and some electoral reform?” (I’ve inverted the sequence of these two quotes.)

Philosophy blog: Barack Obama Bush Israel Brooks Hezbollah TerrorismThrough the seventies, eighties, and nineties, when the Provisional IRA (the IRA) carried out apparently endless campaigns of violence against other Irish citizens, the British army, and British citizens, there seemed to be no way to reach a peaceable conclusion. For a very long time, the British trotted out the line that they wouldn’t have anything to do with terrorists. And what happened in the end? In 2005, after much discussion and compromise on both sides, the IRA renounced violence. The political wing of the IRA has been integrated into Irish politics.

Is Obama naive, or are those who refuse to talk naive?

And although the courts in California have decided that gays can wed, anti-gay wedders society (epitomized by Randy Thomasson, head of Campaign for Children and Families) now seek an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

What do these three stories have in common? you may be wondering. Well, it strikes me that from a philosophical perspective these three stories pivot on the naming of something.

  • The new ants have no name. This somehow makes them seem more threatening.
  • Bush and others, having slapped a terrorist sticker on an organization, want to use this label to rule out anything that might be seen as legitimizing that group’s concerns.
  • And the brouhaha over gay marriage seems to be more about nomenclature than practicalities. Not that there aren’t practicalities to be debated, there are, of course, but the emotion seems to derive from whether the label “marriage” can be applied to a same sex union.

Philosophy blog: same sex marriage no named ants talking to terroristsBut here we have the really difficult question, do names matter, philosophically speaking. Psychologically, they clearly do. But if we can narrow a concept and label it have we achieved anything more or less than narrowing a concept and labeling it?

There are two answers: Without names or labels for concepts we can’t discuss anything, we can’t communicate. But without qualifications to those names and labels, and careful use, we risk encamping behind words that evoke emotion but not reason.

The Philosophy of Conviction

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

On George Bush in Israel, video game workouts, and predictions of neural Buddhism.

Philosophy blog: George Bush Neural Buddhist belief conviction war iran iraq israel middle eastIn a bold and boldly quirky opinion, David Brooks predicts that current research into the workings of the mind will lead toward more widespread acceptance of the spiritual concepts of Buddhism, and away from adherence to the textual “patina of different religions.”

This research has shown, says Brooks, that the mind “does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.”

I can’t help but quote his pivotal paragraph whole:

“First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.”

I think that Brooks may have gone a little loopy. Not because what he’s saying is nutty, but he’s saying it without any seeming objectivity or pause for reflection.

To parse and unpack adequate individual responses to each of Brooks statements in his opinion would take many posts. So I’ll focus on the aspect of his opinion that represents a common thread: Conviction. Brooks writes as if he is convinced of his opinion. He writes as if others will be convinced of the research findings. And he writes as if a person who has a sense of the interrelated self, or inherent morality, or the sacred, or God, will necessarily have a belief in those same things in spite of or despite a more nuanced understanding or wherefrom and why those senses derive.

Philosophy blog: Nintendo Wii Mii Fitness virtual realitySure, we operate less like machines than people once thought, but that doesn’t mean that life in all its rich emotion and subjectivity is inevitably mysterious and unknowable, sacred and spiritual. Just because life has evolved to include psychological and physiological responses that evoke transcendent sensory experiences, doesn’t prove that our perception of those transcendent experiences is evidence of something inexplicable.

Video games provide a case in point. Nintendo’s Wii and Wii Fitness take new steps into the realm of virtual reality. As reviewed, Wii Fitness does a good enough job of simulating a fitness regime that people found it winningly good at doing what it set out to do. The human mind nimbly assimilates virtual or perceived realities into its overall perception of the real world. This isn’t surprising. The mind needs to be able to do this in order for us to imagine different scenarios, to predict and plan.

George Bush, still president, still persisting in his perception of himself as a leader, and a leader of some weight, has said this week in Israel that talking to Iran and Syria would be like talking to Hitler.

Again, I feel I should quote him in full:

“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

I was left wondering on what level Bush believes this. Surely he can’t believe that anyone who would seek to talk to hostile and dangerous leaders would expect to convince them they were wrong with some “ingenious argument.” Does he believe that’s what they would try to do? Surely not. No. Not even someone as apparently ignorant and deluded as Bush.

(One would of course expect to try to convince them that they have more to gain by peaceable coexistence than by continued hostility. This is not ingenious, it’s just common sense.)

Philosophy blog: George Bush addresses knesset israeli parliament on middle east trip invokes hitler to defend policyBush’s difficulties in perceiving accurate versions of reality reveal something about what makes the human mind successful or unsuccessful in guiding us through our lives. As we’ve discussed, we need to be able to use our imagination to conceive of different versions of current and future reality, to assess possibilities and outcomes. But we also need to be able to accept as more concrete the versions that carry more rational weight. This won’t always yield truth, but it will more often than not yield truth.

Bush seems to be able to conjure up a version of reality and attach his belief to it, regardless of evidence to the contrary. This is perhaps his greatest deficiency. He wanted to believe in the link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein so badly that he ignored all the signs that it was a fiction. He wanted to believe in rapid and easy success in Iraq so passionately that he failed to plan for the more likely scenario that it would be a long, hard, bloody war. He wanted to believe that Hurricane Katrina was a local disaster and required a local response, despite evidence to the contrary, with deadly and horrific results.

Bush is not alone; many leaders delude themselves, as do many of us less prominent citizens. The trouble is that Bush has deluded many others, too, and continues to do just that.

Footnote: As has been noted elsewhere, Bush’s reference to Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the words of an American Senator (attributed by some to William Borah) are hardly new material. Rumsfeld was spouting the same fear-mongering rhetoric back in 2006.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor a rational, science-based explanation of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

The Philosophy of Philanthropy

Friday, March 21st, 2008

Or, how not to be a misanthrope.

Philosophy Blog: Richard Branson, Tony Blair, Larry Page, Jimmy Wales, BVI Global WarmingOK, so Richard Branson owns, among other things, not one but two Caribbean islands. I learned this as I read that he recently brought together a bunch of other wealthy and influential people (Larry Page of Google, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister) to his British Virgin Islands retreat to get them thinking about what can be done to end or control global warming. There’s money in it for them if they can find a commercially viable way to reduce global warming gases or produce an alternate source of greener energy, but the intent also seems to be on some level genuinely philanthropic.

Philosophy Blog: Bill Drayton Social EntrepreneurDavid Brooks writes about the socially conscious entrepreneurs, wealthy, smart venture capital types who have begun to take a hard-nosed business approach to tackling the world’s ills. Brooks proposes that the trend toward disaggregated problem solving and syndicated solutions is not only a sign of the times, but a trend worth fostering. Let them give it a go, he argues. And, by the way, they won’t take no for an answer.

Contrast this with the behavior of the top bankers who have been making money hand over fist profiting from the risky securities that now threaten to bring down the financial markets. They keep the money they’ve made ramping up the risk, even if they share in the losses of the moment. The NY Times proposes that these profiteers should have “more skin in the game,” (Krugman argues that the markets should be better regulated.)

Philosophy blog: Bill Gates Philanthropy Philanthropist FoundationBrooks notes that Microsoft’s Bill Gates “fits neatly” into the category of business-like philanthropists. But Microsoft’s wealth, and therefore Bill Gates’ wealth, it could be argued, has been accumulated through selling overpriced, under-performing software to a captive market. It’s nice that Gates is redistributing this wealth in socially-conscious ways. And he worked hard and demonstrated great skills in getting Microsoft where it is today. All credit to him. But the same single-minded determination to drive profit reveals itself in Gates just as it does in the Wall Street bankers. Microsoft is fiercely competitive, fastidiously greedy and has been sued for it.

All of which is a preamble to the question: Why are we philanthropic? And the counter-question, how do we stop being misanthropic?

Gates and Branson provide interesting studies. Both have turned their talents and accumulated wealth toward helping the world, but neither of them seemed to feel compelled to spread the joy on their way to accumulating that wealth. (Gates developed Windows not Linux, for instance.)

Having vast wealth obviously removes the hurdle of financing one’s philanthropic ideas. But one also needs a charitable mindset, a desire to help people. Surely wealth doesn’t do that for you? Otherwise we’d have far more philanthropists in the world.

A good proportion of us, perhaps most of us, tend toward the non-philanthropic, if not the downright misanthropic. I personally like the concept of helping people, for instance, far more than you would think if you looked at what I actually do for other people.

The answer seems to be insight, vision and belief. Branson, Gates and others of their ilk have taken advantage of the kind of perspective that you get when you’re at the top of the heap. If you’re in that position and choose to take in the view you can see a good deal further than the guy at the bottom of the hill, and you have a sense that since you climbed the hill, if you see something you want to change, you can do that, too.

For us mere mortals, a remedy for misathropy then may be to scramble our way up to the top of a nearby hillock (metaphorically speaking,) and cast about for something we might want to change.

Branson cleverly brought his guests to the Virgin Islands to remove them from the hustle of everyday life. By removing other influences, he allowed them to receive new ideas, to focus on his question about what they could do to save the world.

Seems like a pretty good idea to me, even if we can’t get to the Virgin Islands. And with that thought in mind, since it’s Friday and the second day of Spring, with blue, if cool, skies overhead, I think I’ll head off to my own private island somewhere between the kitchen table and the back door, to contemplate what I can do to solve the problems of humankind.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

Sameness And Change

Friday, January 4th, 2008

On the philosophy of newness.

news in kenyaWhen I turned on my radio at the start of the new year and listened to the litany of tragic news from around the world (most notably in Kenya and Pakistan), it crossed my mind to wonder whether things ever really change. Even a relatively tame story about the desire of some Scots to separate from England saddened me because it struck me as the undoing of a unifying force. Countries merge and split. People war and feud. The world over we repeat our mistakes from one generation to the next. Or do we?

Barak Obama victory in IowaThat Barak Obama won Iowa’s Democratic primary yesterday is in itself momentous. That he won it with a unifying, hopeful message is inspirational. Barak believes in change. When I read Paul Krugman’s recent opinion that Obama was naiive in thinking that he could bring together the opposing voices in the country to achieve valuable progress, it gave me pause. Maybe Krugman was right, I thought, maybe Obama is naiive. But last night when I checked in and saw that Obama had won in Iowa, and this morning as I thought about what he’d done to win, I began to believe that Krugman is mistaken. From a position of weakness, the optimist can do little to sway cynical and self-interested entities (like drug companies). But from a position of power, with a strength of conviction and a willingness to exert influence, the optimist can achieve more than the pessimist could ever dream of.

It is only by looking at the way things shift over time that we can discern whether change and progress is really possible. That the radio reports attacks and riots doesn’t mean we’re living in a world of irretrievable conflict and violence. It means that there is still conflict and violence, for sure. But we need to compare this period to past periods to understand whether things are now worse, better or the same.

mike huckabeeTo take a small example: My daughter is fourteen. I could not imagine sending her out to work. But a hundred years ago (and even still in some parts of the world) children much younger were sent out to work.

Slavery, racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, bloody crusades, religious intolerance, capital punishment (in all states except Texas)… These things aren’t gone but they’re diminished, more globally deplored.

What we need to guard against is pessimism and relapse. David Brooks tells us not to be afraid that Huckabee won the Republican race in Iowa. Why should we not be afraid, I ask? Here is a man who doesn’t believe in evolution. This is a relapse that should make us not just afraid but determined to do whatever we can to stop him from prevailing in his quest to lead the country.

What We Don’t Know…

Friday, October 26th, 2007

Is it ‘what we don’t know can’t hurt us,’ or ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you?’ I’m not sure. Let me look it up…  Hmmm, still not sure. I found both versions out there, and no origin. I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

But David Brooks’ Op-Ed today “The Outsourced Brain“ got me wondering about the harm of not knowing. Brooks recently installed a GPS system in his car and now can’t live without it. He lets iTunes select his music, and he finds himself wedded to his Blackberry. Brooks, tongue in cheek, professes oneness with the idea of an outsourced brain, but clearly remains ambivalent on the matter.

He makes an interesting point: “I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less.”

Last night, my wife and I went to our son’s pre-school to hear a little from his classroom teachers about the learning environment. It’s a Montessori school, and we both marvelled at the teachers’ efforts to make the learning process organic, tactile and structured. Each activity aims to add a specific strut or pillar to the incremental development of the child’s understanding of the world.

Listening to the teachers at my son’s school it seemed incontrovertibly right that children should learn from first principles how the world works, including the world of abstract concepts. If we don’t understand the foundations of abstract thought as they relate to the world around us, we can never have a solid rational understanding of life and existence. Going through life without that understanding seems a bit like tying one arm behind your back for a game of tennis. (The arm you would usually hold the racket with!)

Unlearning things in later life or dispensing with the regular exercising of pieces of knowing or know-how for the sake of efficiency perhaps isn’t such a big deal. Outsourcing navigational worries to a GPS system (which will navigate a whole lot better than most of us,) for instance, doesn’t seem problematic.

But as the old adage about art goes: You have to know the rules before you can break them. When technology allows or encourages us to avoid knowledge or understanding that seems like not such a good thing. Using a calculator is fine, then, as long as you understand the computations it’s performing for you. But if your only interface with the art of navigation is a GPS system, that seems to be a problem.Unlaunched GPS satellite on display at the San Diego Aerospace museum

(Incidentally, I just learned for the first time that GPS systems use relativistic calculations to account for time dilation. When I found this out (I was helping my daughter research her Physics homework on Doppler effects) I reeled at the depths of specialized knowledge embedded into a device that will soon seem like an everyday driver’s tool.)

But what about some of the common and seemingly innocuous holes in our collective understanding? How many of us know where our electricty is generated, and by what means? How many of us know the source of our local water supply and potential risks posed to it? And what happens when technology becomes unavailable or breaks down? Do we wait for someone to fix it, or do we have the wherewithall to get on without it?

You’ll be relieved to hear that all of this leads me somewhere. It’s to this: We can’t outsource to our school-teachers the importance of understanding the world from first principles. This is perhaps the most important reason for adults and parents to remain in touch with a direct and comprehensive understanding of the world, rather than divesting this understanding to gadgets and gizmos.

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