Posts Tagged ‘socrates’

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. (more…)

McCain, Obama And The Philosophy of Lies

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil,” Socrates

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a lie is 1. A false statement deliberately presented as being true, or 2. Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression. This, ironically, makes lies a lot more concrete than the truth, philosophically speaking, which is a much harder quantity to pin down.

McCain Campaign Lies

McCain Campaign Lies

Why has John McCain, the self-annointed “straight talker,” resorted to lying? It’s a simple question and one that’s impossible to answer without some inside information. But if we’re to have any hope of understanding McCain and guessing his future actions it’s worth trying to figure it out.

If you’re interested in knowing what McCain is accused of lying about, the Democratic Party has established “Count the Lies” a chronicle of “independent, nonpartisan” fact checks “debunking John McCain’s lies and distortions.” Even some conservatives have tutted at McCain’s recent stoops. Even Karl Rove (!!), as reported in the Christian Science Monitor, of all places, has said that “McCain has gone, in some of his ads, similarly one step too far in sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the 100 percent truth test.” If you’re a Republican presidential candidate and Karl Rove is accusing you of distorting the truth, you know you’re a big fat liar… or a pawn in another one of Rove’s despicable schemes.

John McCain with President Bush

John McCain with President Bush

(This is a bit of a digression, but the Salon published a very interesting piece back in January asking why in all of the election coverage of John McCain’s losing primary bid in 2000 no journalist had mentioned who it was that smeared John McCain so successfully that he lost. The answer, of course, George Bush and Karl Rove…)

Perhaps we can find in our children the unadulterated origin of the impulse to lie. My son, now 4-years old, has just begun to lie. His reasons are transparent: He lies either to get something he wants (usually cookies, candy, or toys), or to avoid something he doesn’t want (typically to take responsibility for a transgression). McCain’s lies seem to fall squarely in the first category. As a “maverick, outsider” it suited him to talk straight. But as an establishment insider, it’s much more effective for him to lie. He’s always wanted power and success, and now that lying seems to offer the best path to victory, he’s adopted it with the same zeal he once reserved for honesty. The tactic is all the more successful because, in Obama, he seems to be up against a candidate who has some genuine integrity — a terrible handicap against smear tactics.

What does this tell us about the kind of president McCain would make?

Politicians the world over resort to lies, many of them relatively successful leaders. Lying in itself isn’t a guarantee of poor government and lousy leadership. Although Bush has overused and abused this privilege, the security of a country, for instance, relies to some extent on the ability of its government to keep secrets from its enemies, which also means keeping secrets from its people.

In order to understand the degree of concern we should have about McCain’s lies, we really need to consider what his goals will be as president. We can then assume that he will lie to achieve them.

And given that McCain has dropped most if not all of his firmly held political beliefs in order to gain the highest office, one can only assume that his primary goal as president will be to consolidate his power and popularity — in other words, he’ll lie in order to keep the conservative political base as happy as possible. That’s a scary thought.

Footnote - What about Palin?

What about Palin? She’s a big fat liar, too, and a scary character in her own right. The Times has an extensive piece on her political MO. Not a pretty picture. Here’s a quote from Laura Chase who was Palin’s campaign manager during her first bid for mayor:

“I’m still proud of Sarah,” she says, “but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”

Related posts from around the web:

McCain Lies Again - But McCain is still airing ads telling the same lie. He has also still not retracted his lie on The View when he point blank said that Palin has refused all earmarks as governor. I cannot remember a candidate for president telling such …

Romney: McCain Lies - So Rove has declared McCain’s campaign overly harsh and Romney has declared it deceitful. I honestly have no idea how that sort of criticism from those people is possible to recover from.

Obama Campaign Launches Ad Hitting McCain’s Lies As “Dishonorable” - We’ve been waiting for it, and here it is: The Obama campaign launches its first ad hitting McCain for his lying and his mendacious adver-sleazements and slamming his campaign as “disgraceful” and “dishonorable”: …

McCain Lies About Obama’s Health Plan- JUST THE FACTS! - In our ongoing efforts to expose Senator McCain’s lies about Senator Obama’s policies, we need to look at the McCain campaigns lies and then provide some “straight talk” about the facts. McCain claimed that Obama’s health care plan … (more…)

Comebacks: Britney and Me

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

Britney Spears accepts the award for Best Pop Video for “Piece of Me” at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Britney Spears accepts the award for Best Pop Video for “Piece of Me” at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

On Sunday evening, my 15-year old daughter, typically guileless, made a bid to watch MTV’s video music awards. “No way,” was the answer, “You have school tomorrow.” (She’s in tenth grade, and supposed to be making a strong start in a new school.) “But we watched it last year,” she replied, “Remember we saw Britney Spears…”

This sent me to the computer because I knew I’d blogged about Britney’s woeful performance at last year’s VMAs. With the help of the blog and my wife’s clam-like mind we recalled that we’d TiVo’d Britney’s debacle instead of watching it live. All of which is to say that my daughter went to bed on time and that this is a blog post about comebacks.

Charles Austin - Atlanta Olympic Gold

Charles Austin - Atlanta Olympic Gold

I’m back from the time vortex of school vacation. It feels strange to be blogging again. Having been out of the mix for a few weeks, I’m afraid that I’ve lost something or that some essential capacity has become stunted. The “me” of then seems more capable than the “me” of now. I feel a little bit like I imagine Charles Austin feels. Austin won the gold medal for the high jump at the Atlanta Olympics. When we couldn’t watch the VMAs last night (alas, our TiVo attempt this year resulted in two and a half hours of silent gray screen; don’t ask me how that happened) we watched a TiVo’d Austin trying to break the world high jump record for a 40-year old on the David Letterman show. We were all rooting for him as his shirt tipped the bar off its stays. “Tuck your shirt in!” I shouted at the screen.

Britney apparently made a successful return to popstardom on Sunday night, winning three awards. And while I cared momentarily about Austin’s high jump attempt, the objective distance I have about Britney’s success or failure as a pop star (I could care less) allows me to burrow in to the philosophical aspects of success and redemption.

Put simply, in and of itself it ultimately doesn’t matter whether we succeed or fail, whether we make a successful comeback or not. If Austin had broken the high jump record for a 40-year old, someone eventually would have outjumped him, or not. Austin will eventually pass on and those who know him will pass on. Britney will stop making music videos. And this blog post will get archived off to tape, never to be read again.

Ambitions, successes, failures, comebacks are all idealized narratives that we create or consume to accompany events that fill time. They exist in conceptual space, but not as real objects. The most obvious example of a counter-narrative is this: If someone prevails in a competition, others must lose. Letterman asked Austin about his three Olympic bids — gold in one, and what about the other two? “Not so good.” Not so good for Austin, but great for the guys who won golds in those competitions, and not so good for the other competitors the time Austin won.

This perspective can have a very freeing impact. Today I can sit down and write what I want to write because ultimately it won’t matter what I write. And even today right now it doesn’t matter.

Socrates - The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

Socrates - The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

But inner and outer narratives often keep us going. More so it seems in modern life we care about the narrative of life and experience life less in itself and more in the abstract. Which brings us back to Socrates, and, for once, it brings me strangely into apparent opposition with Socrates, who said “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

However, onto this I would like to paste the narrative that Socrates had in mind the kind of reflection that brings us deeper into reality rather than further from it… (more…)

The Philosophy of Skepticism

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

On the value of skepticism in philosophy and life.

Philosophy blog: George Bush skepticism infallibility white house politics iraq warPhilosophy requires skepticism. Without the urge to doubt or question our immediate experience we cannot understand it. To Socrates, the ultimate knowing was knowing that he knew nothing. This idea, so central to the process of finding firm conceptual ground, has been taken up again and again by philosophers. A good philosopher has to be scrupulously skeptical, particularly of his own ideas. Bad philosophers tend to be bad because they have lousy ideas or because they’re not skeptical enough –

Philosophy blog: arthur Schopenhauer die welt will amstellung world as will and representation criticism of hegel schelling fichteSchopenhauer, in his World As Will And Representation, spectacularly criticizes his contemporary, Hegel, for instance, because he saw Hegel as a self-aggrandizing mystic rather than a real philosopher. Here’s a sample of Schopenhauer’s delightful vitriol: “What was senseless and without meaning at once took refuge in obscure exposition and language. Fichte was the first to grasp and make use of this privilege; Schelling at best equaled him in this, and a host of hungry scribblers without intellect or honesty soon surpassed them both. But the greatest effrontery in serving up sheer nonsense, in scrabbling together senseless and maddening webs of words, such as had previously been heard only in madhouses, finally appeared in Hegel.”Philosophy blog: Hegel Schopenhauer criticism

In one of those curious NY Times pieces that hovers between information and advice, like a girl enjoying the attentions of two suitors while delicately avoiding a commitment to either, the NY Times reports on the desirability of skepticism as an asset for business leaders. The article points out that executives tend not to be as skeptical as they should be, causing them to fall on their noses more often than they should. The piece checks off a few reasons why this might be so:

1. If an executive doesn’t know the facts, he or she can’t make good decisions.

2. Hearing about the facts means being accessible and open to bad news.

3. Sometimes it’s not enough to be approachable and you need to go looking for bad news.

In everyday life, so long as we’re careful to understand the basis of our skepticism, skepticism can provide us with a helpful perspective on things. Socrates founded his skepticism on the sound philosophical ground that he knew only that he knew nothing. Such a fundamental skepticism would quickly prove impractical as we’re trying to get through the day. “Do I exist?” may be an eminently reasonable question when we first wake up, but it won’t get us into the bathroom to brush our teeth. Instead, there will be some things that it makes sense to be very skeptical about and others that we can pretty much accept at face value.

It makes sense to be skeptical of the e-mail from a complete stranger promising us a share of a vast fortune. And less sense to be skeptical about whether our schools should be teaching intelligent design.

But back to the reasons an executive may not always be as skeptical as he should be: I would add a fourth imperative to the Times’ ad hoc list — an executive may not want to admit that he is wrong. After all, he’s been making the decisions and setting the strategy, a change in direction often demonstrates that some of those prior decisions or plans were flawed. Letting go of the idea of one’s infallibility can be tough for the person in charge.

Clear thinking absolutely requires an acceptance of one’s fallibility. In my own life I’ve learned from my wife that I’m nearly always wrong. This sense of supreme fallibility has helped me immensely in my marriage. As a manager in the business world, I learned over the course of several years that my own ideas could always be improved upon; another valuable lesson.

Philosophy blog: george bush naked running across white house lawn cartoon skepticism politics philosophy presidencyAs we wade on through this election year, I fear that we’re being too hard on the candidates as they make mistakes. The hypercritical election process, during which every statement is parsed and critiqued, only serves to drive the poor hopefuls toward the alluring but false embrace of purported infallibility. Don’t we want a president who, as the most important executive in the country, can feel comfortable with his or her fallibility?

In Iraq, two bomb attacks today killed 19. President Bush, the current national executive, had this to say yesterday about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: “By helping these young democracies grow in freedom and prosperity, we’ll lay the foundation of peace for generations to come.” (more…)

Internal Conflict: Obama, Bloomberg, Google - Whose Side Are You On?

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Exploring the idea of rightness and wrongness in intent and deed.

Philosophy blog: Barack Obama JFK John Kennedy Nikita Khrushchev politics negotiation weak intellectual election Berlin wall cuba bay of pigsNY Times Op-Ed contributers Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins serve up an interesting history of President JFK’s face-off with Nikita Khrushchev. If we accept their account, JFK fared poorly in the exchange because Khrushchev went on the offensive and handily routed the ill-prepared young president in their one-on-one meetings. Thrall and Wilkins indicate that it was during these meetings that Khrushchev formed a critical impression of JFK as an immature and weak leader, an impression that in part lead to his subsequent decisions to build the Berlin wall and establish a missile base in Cuba.

We’re being drawn to review this period of history because Obama has often quoted Kennedy’s view on negotiating with hostile powers, as expressed in his inaugural address: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” The question being asked — if Obama, also young and arguably less tested than Kennedy, is so taken with Kennedy’s philosophy, would he make the same mistake?

Philosophy blog: gun control michael bloomberg nyc georgia wallace jay Mayor Michael Bloomberg will testify in court during the hearing of the city’s lawsuit against a Georgia gun-shop. The city claims that guns sold in the south too easily make their way into the hands of bad actors (no pun intended) who then use them to inflict harm in New York City. It’s clear from the story that this particular gun shop owner — Jay Wallace — isn’t prepared to give up without a fight and has fashioned his case quite cleverly to present himself as David against Bloomberg’s Goliath.

Philosophy blog: Eric Schmidt Google Yahoo advertising internet on-line revenue anti-trustAnd in the high stakes world of Internet search engines and on-line advertising (ten years ago, who would have thunk it?) Google is set to defend a proposed deal that would have Yahoo! license and use Google’s superior ad technology. (The backdrop being that Yahoo! has resisted Microsoft’s attempts to buy it — this deal with Google would add about $1 billion a year to Yahoo!’s coffers.) There are rumblings that Google’s deal with Yahoo! would be anti-competitive and fall foul of anti-trust legislation. Google claims to have found a way to fashion the deal so that it won’t. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not at all coincidentally, as a Google Ad Sense and Ad Words participant I just received an e-mail from Google telling me that they now place ads from qualified third-parties. Effectively, they’ve started to do for others what they propose that Yahoo! will do for them… Smart strategy for avoiding anti-trust accusations.)

These three stories present internal conflicts for me, and perhaps some intrinsic philosophical conflicts between ideals and reality.

I want to believe that John F. Kennedy was the better man, the better person, I believe he had more good intent that Khrushchev. But in the wiles and wills of international political maneuvering, Khrushchev had him beat hands down. I want to believe that Obama wouldn’t make the same mistake if he sat down with Kim Yung Il or Assad, but I realize that part of Obama’s charm is that he’s not cunning. (I do hope he’s smart enough and strong enough not to sit down until he’s sure that the right ground has been prepared.) I believe that Obama is a better person than Clinton or McCain; hence, my desire to believe he’s better able to run the country.
Philosophy blog: the death of socrates crito debt of cockI want to believe that Bloomberg is fighting the right fight against those who sell guns. I like Bloomberg. He seems to have all around good intentions. But in this situation, maybe he’s misjudged. Maybe Jay Wallace isn’t the right guy to go after, or maybe Jay Wallace is just better at crafting a sympathetic image.

And even though Google has become such an all-dominant behemoth, I can’t help having a soft spot for a company that has the motto — “Do no evil…” I’m rooting for them against the anti-trust watchdogs.

Sadly, life isn’t fair. Bad people do win.

His fellow Greeks trumped up charges against Socrates and he went on his way with a draught of hemlock. His dying words? “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?” Now, show me a better man. (more…)

The Plastic Mind: A Touch of Wisdom

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Bill Clinton and dumb ideas, memory loss and wisdom, and enhancing mental sharpness.

Philosophy blog: Plato wisdom knowledge nothing“A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.

Brain researchers should be studying Bill Clinton; Bill is a smart man, by all accounts. Why then does he sometimes say stupid things? As Hillary battles on against the odds, Bill, speaking off the cuff outside Lynn’s Paradise Cafe in Louisville Kentucky, said that not counting the votes in Michigan and Florida would be dumb, even though the states were disenfranchised prior to their primaries, and despite the fact that Obama didn’t campaign in either state and took himself off the ballot in one.

Brain researchers have in fact been finding that, Bill Clinton’s apparent example to the contrary, older minds may well be wiser minds. Aging brains pay more attention to what may seem to be extraneous information, mulling over it and absorbing it much better than younger minds. This seems to indicate that younger minds tend to power through information happily dispensing with seemingly spurious data, sticking to the highways. Whereas older minds have learned that the journey itself can be as informative and valuable as the destination.

(I’m quite prepared to believe that Bill Clinton has as much fun with his illogical statements as he does with his logical ones. He doesn’t really expect anyone other than those blindly partisan to his wife’s cause to agree with him, but he doesn’t really care. Why he doesn’t really care is a much more interesting question, and I can only hazard guesses.)

Philosophy blog: brain research mind matter diet exercise wisdom age youth processing informationOther scientific evidence points to the benefits of activities that improve brain function. Exercise, diet, mental stimulation, engaged and engaging social and family contacts — all can contribute to our ability to stay sharp. As the article points out, and as I’ve written about here before, the idea that the brain inevitably declines and can’t grow new cells or forge new pathways has been debunked and cast aside. A very exciting turn, and one that can give us some optimism in these times of dumbness in high places.
As Socrates said and as Plato reported, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” This seems in keeping with the concept that as the brain gets older it is less likely to discard seemingly irrelevant information. It understands better that wisdom comes through accepting fallibility, rejecting absolute knowledge.

Philosophy blog: Bill Clinton Michigan Florida primary challenge Hillary votes delegates Obama contestSocrates was also saying that we can never know anything. We can only perceive and infer. To claim absolute knowledge is to posture, to attempt to overpower someone with the assertion of knowing.

Bill Clinton cannot know what the voters in Florida and Michigan would have done if the delegates from those primaries were to be seated and the candidates campaigned accordingly. He can only posture and infer. While it’s understandably frustrating for Hillary to have perhaps missed out on a couple of wins and some delegates from those states, it is far from fair for her to convert this frustration into a claim of victory.

Related posts from around the Internet:

Alzheimers Plaques And Tangles

Why Brain Fitness Training Works to Combat Cognitive Decline

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. (more…)

The Philosophy of Deceit

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

On lying, fibbing, tricking and kidding.

Philosophy blog: candy wrapper four year old sonMy four year-old son is learning the nuances of deceit. When he’s caught claiming that he didn’t eat that piece of candy you said he couldn’t have he says he was “just joking.” His deceptions have a straightforward purpose — to get something that he wants which would otherwise be denied him, or to avoid responsibility for something that would incur his parents’ displeasure. Transparent and predictable, his lies seem to come with the territory of being human. He’s learning about the commodity of untruth, and its cost.

One would think that by the time a person has grown to adulthood he or she has learned that obvious, easily uncovered untruths have little value and come at a high cost, especially when you live in the public eye.

Philosophy blog: Hillary Rodham Clinton lies untruths gas tax dissemblingHillary Clinton, one can presume, must understand, abstractly at least, the high cost of silly lies. And yet she trots them out as if she were a four year-old. (I’m not exculpating Barack Obama, but his lies at least seem to be in keeping with his general philosophy and purpose, whereas Clinton’s sometimes confound us with their preposterous posturing.) Claiming to George Stephanopolous, for instance, that her support for summer gas tax relief was something other than just political pandering insults the intelligence of those who would vote for her.

Recent research into the psychology of lying suggests that people lie to deceive others or to deceive themselves. This research also suggests that lying to deceive oneself has an aspirational quality — the student who inflates his grade point average aspires to that grade point average, and, more often than not, will get closer to it over time.

Very often politicians lie because they aspire to be right. They lie to defend a position because they believe in their ability to hold correct positions. Hillary Clinton desperately wants to believe that her aspiration to the presidency is legitimate. Beyond anything else, a victory would validate her sense of her right to be center stage — politically and personally. When someone fights so desperately to win, it gives us a window into what they feel they have to lose.

Philosophically, deceit is a simple concept — the presentation of untruth in place of truth. We can quibble about what we mean by truth, about whether anything can be completely objective, but this is hairsplitting. When a student says his grade point average is 3.7 when it is really 3.1 this is deceit.

And deceit isn’t confined to humans. The natural world abounds with deceit. Animals camouflage, impersonate, dissemble, trick… all with the aim of staying alive or furthering their genes.

Philosophy blog: socrates lies sophistry truthEarly philosophers such as Socrates and Plato focused a great deal of attention on the mechanics of deception and the antidote of reason. They did this because they felt that too often people were deceived by illogic. Clear, unfettered truth was the primary battleground of their philosophy.

Amazingly, many hundreds of years later, despite great advances in so many fields, we still don’t teach our children the fundamentals of logic and reason as a matter of course. Until today, until right now, I’ve thought that this was simply an oversight. But I wonder now whether the battle that Socrates started isn’t still underway. Perhaps it’s a battle of humanity for humanity.

Here we have highly educated people fibbing like four year-olds. In Socrates’ day, the sophists were aware of their deceptions, and they succeeded because people wanted to believe them. Just so today, the Clintons of the world know that they’re dissembling, but people want to believe them. We like rhetoric. We like to think that the world might be something other than what it is. Reality is hard. The truth is unsavory. Let’s go for a drive…

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. (more…)

The Philosophy of Reason

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787).What is reason?

I’ve probably written about fifty posts already on this blog, but it occurred to me just yesterday that I have yet to write about “reason.” Since the name of the blog is and since it’s my stated goal to analyze subjects of interest from a rational perspective, I think I should correct the omission.

We can encapsulate the realm of reason as follows: Reason involves the logical manipulation of abstract concepts.

To unpack this: “Reason” itself is an abstract concept that describes a mental process. This mental process is what happens when we use logic to explore and analyze other abstract concepts. “Logic” is the consistent application of definitive rules (it’s also an abstract concept).

So, when we take any set of defined rules and apply them consistently to analyze ideas, we are using reason.

Notice, we’ve said nothing about whether the rules reflect reality. Neither have we said anything about whether the ideas being analyzed reflect reality. Reason doesn’t require real objects. But as we evolved the rational faculty we first apprehended reason through our interaction with the real world, because that’s our primary and immediate point of reference. The real world also provides us with myriad situations that can be abstracted and anaylzed through reason. Reason is what we do to some extent and with varying degress of success day in day out just to stay alive.

When I was a boy I used to enjoy logic puzzles. Many of them conjured up odd worlds populated by fanciful tribes (one springs to mind about three different groups that sometimes, always or never told the truth). After setting out the rules of the imaginary world and posing a problem, the puzzles left the puzzler to figure out a rational solution. The unspoken dictat being that if the puzzler applied logic, he would find a definite solution.

In real life, we often find ourselves presented with problems or challenges for which no definite solution exists. Either the set of concepts is incomplete or the rule set to be applied isn’t definitive.

Here are some examples from current news stories:

Tightening Business’s Financial LifelineCredit available to US business apparently shrank by an unprecedented 9% since August, perhaps pressaging a recession. The story and the information set reveal that it is impossible to deduce rationally whether the credit shrink indicates that a recession is nigh. The history that connects previous credit shrinks to recessions hasn’t established a definitive causal link, the circumstances surrounding the current credit shrink are unique, and the actions that people and institutions will take in response to the credit shrink are undetermined. But rationally we can say that we have cause to be concerned about a recession given the news about a credit shrink.

Ehud Olmert, George W Bush, Mahmoud Abbas (left to right) at White House - 28/11/2007After the latest round of middle-east peace talks ended with a commitment from both sides to work toward peace in ‘08 and a two state status quo, Ehud Olmert is quoted as saying: “If the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then the State of Israel is finished.” Olmert asserts this as rational fact, but he is inferring a future event by comparison to a similar set of circumstances. He is probably correct to draw the comparison, and he may be making a reasonable guess about the outcome, but the categorical tenor of his statement leans on emotion rather than logic.

Bill Clinton Asserts that he opposed the Iraq warBill Clinton this week said that he opposed the Iraq war from the start. Records of his statements at the time indicate that he spoke in favor of completing WMD inspections rather than rushing to war. Clinton recalls that he didn’t speak out more plainly because it would have been inappropriate for a former president to question the military decisions of an acting president. Clinton could be recalling correctly and his statement may be true. Or he may be deliberately mistating his former position on the war in which case his statement would be false. But he may also be mistaken in his recollection, in which case his statement would be false in fact, but true in its own internal logic (derived from his faulty recollection). We cannot know which is the case unless Clinton kept some kind of definitive record of his true position on the war at the time.

The elusiveness of definitive information and fully understood conditions means that when it comes to real life we’re often working with approximations and likelihoods. We don’t know that something will happen (like a recession) but we try to deduce the likelihood and weigh the risks or benefits of certain actions in the face of this likelihood. This, I believe, leads to a very common mistake. When we’re faced with incomplete information, we often replace questions of “what is likely” with “what is possible.”

A striking example of this is religious belief. Religious belief is a matter of faith. We don’t have enough information to draw a rational conclusion about whether a god or supreme being exists or doesn’t exist. When many people argue about religion, they invert this logic to say that we don’t have enough information to draw the rational conclusion that a god or supreme being doesn’t exist. That’s true, but just because the two statements are true doesn’t mean that they infer the same likelihood of god’s existence.

Frog on MoonLet’s put it this way: If I claim that a large frog lives on the far side of the moon, you cannot prove that I am wrong, but you can demonstrate with a very high degree of likelihood that I am wrong. I can also say that can’t prove that the frog doesn’t exist, and while this is true, I can’t demonstrate it with the same high degree of likelihood.

After a simple review of the world’s greatest conflicts we quickly determine that they are not caused by insolubly complex problems but by the refusal of people to engage in thoughtful, rational debate and problem-solving. (more…)

Torture, Courage, and Cowardice

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

The New York Times article today on Secret U.S. Endorsement of Severe Interrogations is both appalling and fascinating in its thorough exposure of the administration’s dogged efforts to encourage and enable the CIA to use a wide range and combination of brutal interrogation techniques without having to worry about their legality. But beyond the pertinent questions of what constitutes torture and in what ways the administration blurred the line between branches of government, and, once again, abused its executive power, I was struck by the universal themes of courage and cowardice that sprang out of the circumstances of the story.

The Times reports on a White House meeting involving James Comey, deputy attorney general: “Mr. Comey stated that “no lawyer” would endorse Mr. Yoo’s justification for the N.S.A. program, Mr. Addington demurred, saying he was a lawyer and found it convincing. Mr. Comey shot back: “No good lawyer,” according to someone present.”

Sitting at home reading the newspaper or watching events on TV it’s easy to regard the administration as laughable and not worthy of respect. But to be in its midst, as Comey was, surrounded by powerful supporters of the White House, with your job on the line, his boldness took real courage.

The Times also reports that within the circle of unswervingly loyal Bush insiders “there was a sense that Comey was a wimp” on national security matters.

I’m reminded of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. In criticizing Comey’s moral stance, the administration defines a specific instance of “courage” as the ability to follow through on severe methods of interrogation in order to get valuable information. Socrates would never let them get away with that kind of rhetorical sleight of hand.

It’s notable that at no point in the several years that this story has been unfolding has the administration appeared to betray any compunction about using severe interrogation methods. This may be an extreme thing to say, but one gets the impression that the administration does not view the detainees as human or deserving of human rights, and, therefore, feels that torturing the detainees couldn’t possibly be inhuman.

And perhaps this is their true perspective. It would explain a great deal.

Let’s suppose for a moment that some within the administration don’t feel that the detainees retain any human rights; that any form of torture is justified if it achieves results. Is this a form of cowardice? Is it courageous?

Courage and cowardice are concepts. They have meaning only as formulated through mental processes. A tree is not courageous because it holds fast against the wind (unless it appears in a poem, at which point it becomes a conceptual tree).

The concept of courage is directly opposed to the concept of cowardice. And the concept of courage has as its root two other concepts — fear or an awareness of risk, and strength — holding one’s course despite the fear. Fear is a direct emotional response to a situation of real or perceived danger. Strength or resistence to fear is a result of our conscious faculty, holding back our natural urge to give in to the fear, the power of the conscious mind to control our more immediate fight or flight responses.

Cowardice, in contrast, arises from the concepts of fear and capitulation. We feel fear, we are aware that we do not want to or should not give in to the fear, yet we give in to it anyway.

Going back to my working premise that maybe some in the administration don’t view the detainees as deserving of human rights. If this is correct, then to condone and enable torture of the detainees requires no courage on their part. But neither is it, in itself, cowardly. (Since they are not, in holding this stance, capiltulating to any fear; they feel no fear of the consequences of this approach.)

However, at the risk of extending my conjecture too far, the perspective I’m presuming exists in Cheney and others itself rests on cowardice. — Whenever we decide on a course of action and act, we risk error. If we don’t recognize the possibility for error, it is because we are afraid we will have to admit our failure. Refusing to admit failure, of course, is a hallmark of the current administration. This then, is cowardice at a deeper level.

To build this logic back up: The White House chooses to pursue a policy of severe interrogation that denies the detainees their human rights. The White House refuses to accept that this premise and the course of action being followed may be wrong. In refusing to accept that it may be wrong, the White House acts out of cowardice.

Others in the story betray a more simple and obvious form of cowardice: Gonzalez and Yoo, for instance, who defend the administration’s tactics for their own ends, to please their masters, or just so they don’t have to say ‘no.’


The Philosophy of Existence

Sunday, September 9th, 2007

Gautama Buddha

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

(Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.)

If we reject received ideas and observe and analyze the world around us we gain insight that reflects the only truth we have — our own impressions. This doesn’t mean we should ignore everyone else, our mental and emotional reactions can provide valuable impressions, too. But we should not simply accept without first deciding whether we can reasonably agree.

We can be skeptical about our impressions, too. We can logically conclude that none of our impressions are reliable, that we can’t be sure that the world exists. But, as Schopenhauer concluded (in The World as Will and Representation), what do we gain by such a conclusion? What do we have to gain from saying that we can’t believe in anything? This conclusion leads us to a dead end.

If we accept that our impressions are indeed impressions, that they are, for the most part, not fictions, then we have a place to work from. We can begin to analyze which of our impressions seem more reliable, more complete, more reasonable. We can discuss our impressions with others and find out whether they share the same impressions. We can form hypotheses based on our impressions and see whether we can validate these hypotheses. When we accept an impression as an impression, a whole world of potential understanding opens up.Plato - The Broad

With his theory of forms or Ideas Plato recognized that in order to hypothesize and analyze we use abstract concepts. Whenever we think about something in general terms (chairs as opposed to “this chair I’m sitting on”) we use abstract concepts. (As I think about this, as I have before, I conclude that consciousness is the ability to manipulate abstract concepts.) So what are the forms or concepts that shape our existence?

This question has nagged at people for thousands of years. But given what we know about the world (through observation and analysis) we can now set out the answer!

It’s important to go back to Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s philosophy made great strides in identifying the principles or abstract concepts through which we can understand our existence. He recognized that our impressions of existence come to us through what he called a “fourfold root.” The fourfold root was the three dimensions of space and time (or causality).

All of our impressions concur with the idea that space has three dimensions and that things exist through time governed by the principle of cause and effect.

What Schopenhauer didn’t understand (because not enough was known at the time of the way that the universe evolves over time) was that the earth and heaves weren’t a fixed and static thing, that our existence follows after a whole long stream of prior events. We now know a great deal about that string of events. We can see back in time by looking out into space, and by digging through the layers of earth beneath our feet. We have a great deal of insight into the evolution of the universe.

This insight into the evolution of the universe adds to Schopenhauer’s principles. It tells us that existence isn’t static. That the matter in the universe consists of energy. And that energy changes from one form to another.

So what is the principle by which the evolution of existence has lead to our existence? As I describe in my book, the principle is one of persistence: The more likely a form is to persist, the more likely it is to remain in existence.

This applies to the persistence of fundamental particles, cosmological systems, molecules, and life.