Conspiracy “Theories”

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Those who choose to believe in the existence of “secret” societies with global agendas often make appeals to “evidence”. They often reject any form of reasoning against such beliefs by repeated appeals to “evidence”. These appeals are never articulate and are more often then not followed not by reasoning in support of this or that “theory”, but by a link to a YouTube video or some other internet “resource” that somehow carries the weight of “proof”. Those of us who reject this pseudo-reasoning, no matter how articulate, are more often than not dismissed as “close-minded”.

What happens in this “open mind” when it chooses to believe that secret societies lurk in the shadows, plotting global domination, political assassinations and what-not?

The answer is simply: Ignorance. Profound ignorance of what it means to have a “theory“, to have a well-articulated belief, deep ignorance of what constitutes evidence, a spectacular blindness to the nuances of the idea of truth and, finally, a catastrophic misunderstanding of what it means to be in the possession of knowledge.

This is what this “open mind” does:

1. A “theory” is accepted which sounds plausible. The problem is, this is not a theory at all, for there is nothing that can falsify it. Each argument against it encounters the similar answer: “but it is secret – how do YOU know that this is not the case?”

2. A “belief” is formed without regard as to its truth. This sort of belief is assumed to be true based on the “evidence”. How is this “evidence” considered?

3. What this “open mind” considers “evidence” is actually made “evidence” by the force of the pre-accepted belief in a non-theory. The circularity alone should alert an inquiring mind that something is off here.

The path to knowledge (however tenuous) must flow only in this direction: Falsifiable theory > Verifiable Evidence > Informed Belief > Tentative Knowledge (that can grow in force only by continuously re-assessing the reasons for believing).

The weak link here is “Evidence” > Its force is pre-supposed by an already accepted belief that re-enforces itself through an apparent cohesion with pre-accepted evidence. And on and on this goes in annoyingly boring cycles of self-serving affirmations.

A good analogy here is a paranoid person who believes that everyone is out to “get” him: every behavior of everyone is then interpreted in terms of persecution. This cohesiveness gives and illusion of “truth”. But truth requires one more element for its survival: correspondence (with reality). This is always absent in conspiracy theories. This is why we call them ‘crack-pot’.

Authenticity

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In the NYT article titled “The Gospel According to Me” (Simon Critchley & Jamieson Webster)

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/29/the-gospel-according-to-me/?_r=0

the authors bring our attention to the currently popular notion of “authenticity”, the idea that one ought to “be oneself”. Realizing “who I truly am” is seen as a value, as something I ought to pursue in an effort to transcend the pressures of work, family, relationships, the world in general. 

“The booming self-help industry, not to mention the cash cow of New Age spirituality, has one message: be authentic! Charming as American optimism may be, its 21st-century incarnation as the search for authenticity deserves pause. The power of this new version of the American dream can be felt through the stridency of its imperatives: Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being!”

The authors conclude that “at the heart of the ethic of authenticity is a profound selfishness and callous disregard of others.”

Here is the account of Authenticity as encountered in existential philosophy:

Authenticity 

(From the article “Existentialism” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

By what standard are we to think our efforts “to be,” our manner of being a self? If such standards traditionally derive from the essence that a particular thing instantiates—this hammer is a good one if it instantiates what a hammer is supposed to be—and if there is nothing that a human being is, by its essence, supposed to be, can the meaning of existence at all be thought? Existentialism arises with the collapse of the idea that philosophy can provide substantive norms for existing, ones that specify particular ways of life. Nevertheless, there remains the distinction between what I do “as” myself and as “anyone,” so in this sense existing is something at which I can succeed or fail. Authenticity—in German, Eigentlichkeit—names that attitude in which I engage in my projects as my own (eigen).

What this means can perhaps be brought out by considering moral evaluations. In keeping my promise I act in accord with duty; and if I keep it because it is my duty, I also act morally (according to Kant) because I am acting for the sake of duty. But existentially there is still a further evaluation to be made. My moral act is inauthentic if, in keeping my promise for the sake of duty, I do so because that is what “one” does (what “moral people” do). But I can do the same thing authentically if, in keeping my promise for the sake of duty, acting this way is something I choose as my own, something to which, apart from its social sanction, I commit myself. Similarly, doing the right thing from a fixed and stable character—which virtue ethics considers a condition of the good—is not beyond the reach of existential evaluation: such character may simply be a product of my tendency to “do what one does,” including feeling “the right way” about things and betaking myself in appropriate ways as one is expected to do. But such character might also be a reflection of my choice of myself, acommitment I make to be a person of this sort. In both cases I have succeeded in being good; only in the latter case, however, have I succeeded in being myself.

Thus the norm of authenticity refers to a kind of “transparency” with regard to my situation, a recognition that I am a being who can be responsible for who I am. In choosing in light of this norm I can be said to recover myself from alienation, from my absorption in the anonymous “one-self” that characterizes me in my everyday engagement in the world. Authenticity thus indicates a certain kind of integrity—not that of a pre-given whole, an identity waiting to be discovered, but that of a project to which I can either commit myself (and thus “become” what it entails) or else simply occupy for a time, inauthentically drifting in and out of various affairs. Some writers have taken this notion a step further, arguing that the measure of an authentic life lies in the integrity of a narrative, that to be a self is to constitute a story in which a kind of wholeness prevails, to be the author of oneself as a unique individual (Nehamas 1998; Ricoeur 1992). In contrast, the inauthentic life would be one without such integrity, one in which I allow my life-story to be dictated by the world. Be that as it may, it is clear that one can commit oneself to a life of chamealeon-like variety, as does Don Juan in Kierkegaard’s version of the legend. Even interpreted narratively, then, the norm of authenticity remains a formal one. As with Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, one cannot tell who is authentic by looking at the content of their lives. 

Thus the norm of authenticity refers to a kind of “transparency” with regard to my situation, a recognition that I am a being who can be responsible for who I am. In choosing in light of this norm I can be said to recover myself from alienation, from my absorption in the anonymous “one-self” that characterizes me in my everyday engagement in the world. Authenticity thus indicates a certain kind of integrity—not that of a pre-given whole, an identity waiting to be discovered, but that of a project to which I can either commit myself (and thus “become” what it entails) or else simply occupy for a time, inauthentically drifting in and out of various affairs. Some writers have taken this notion a step further, arguing that the measure of an authentic life lies in the integrity of a narrative, that to be a self is to constitute a story in which a kind of wholeness prevails, to be the author of oneself as a unique individual (Nehamas 1998; Ricoeur 1992). In contrast, the inauthentic life would be one without such integrity, one in which I allow my life-story to be dictated by the world. Be that as it may, it is clear that one can commit oneself to a life of chamealeon-like variety, as does Don Juan in Kierkegaard’s version of the legend. Even interpreted narratively, then, the norm of authenticity remains a formal one. As with Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, one cannot tell who is authentic by looking at the content of their lives. 

Authenticity defines a condition on self-making: do I succeed in making myself, or will who I am merely be a function of the roles I find myself in? Thus to be authentic can also be thought as a way of being autonomous. In choosing “resolutely”—that is, in commiting myself to a certain course of action, a certain way of being in the world—I have given myself the rule that belongs to the role I come to adopt. The inauthentic person, in contrast, merely occupies such a role, and may do so “irresolutely,” without commitment. Being a father authentically does not necessarily make me a better father, but what it means to be a father has become explicitly my concern. It is here that existentialism locates the singularity of existence and identifies what is irreducible in the first-person stance. At the same time, authenticity does not hold out some specific way of life as a norm; that is, it does not distinguish between the projects that I might choose. Instead, it governs the manner in which I am engaged in such projects—either as “my own” or as “what one does,” transparently or opaquely.

Thus existentialism’s focus on authenticity leads to a distinctive stance toward ethics and value-theory generally. The possibility of authenticity is a mark of my freedom, and it is through freedom that existentialism approaches questions of value, leading to many of its most recognizable doctrines.

 

Philosophy Through Literature: Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata”

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In 1887, Count Leo Tolstoy, in a concert at his country estate, heard Beethoven’s wild and sensual “Kreutzer Sonata”. Tolstoy biographer, Henri Troyat, writes: “Tolstoy listened with tears in his eyes; then, during the presto, unable to control himself, he rose and went to the window where, gazing at the starry sky, he stifled a sob. “

Tolstoy heard “The Kreutzer Sonata” again later, in Moscow, in the company of an actor and a painter and suggested to them that each create a work of art inspired by the sonata. Only Tolstoy did.

Tolstoy’s novella “The Kreutzer Sonata” is a powerful, distressing story. Its publication, at the beginning of the 1890s, was a significant intellectual event around the world. It set off an explosive debate in Europe, America, and Asia on matters that were then called the “sexual question” and the “woman problem.” Its provocative rejoinders to these debates stirred widespread condemnation from all sides, as well as fervent admiration. Moreover, almost everywhere (including the United States), The Kreutzer Sonata was censored or forbidden as “indecent literature.”

Studying a work of literature is somewhat of a departure from the usual analysis of arguments and ideas philosophy engages in. The world does not only give itself to us through argument. The complexities of the human condition are often shown to us through music, literature and visual arts. Through varied means of artistic expression they open themselves to both aesthetic and intellectual analysis.

Kreutzer Sonata is difficult. Not because Tolstoy is a difficult writer, he is one of the giants of world literature – reading him is a joy for anyone with “the palate” for literature. It is the story’s content with its enduring potential to puzzle, fascinate, disturb, anger and ultimately to show to us, through the unflinching honesty of a great artist, the complexities of relationships, sex, marriage in their cultural and religious contexts.

I recommend the Pevear&Volokhonsky translation -http://www.amazon.com/Death-Ilyich-Stories-Vintage-Classics/dp/0307388867/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1372614050&sr=1-1&keywords=death+of+ivan+ilyich+and+other+stories

Free e-texts can also be found on line. Here is one recommendation:

http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/tolstoy/kreutzer.pdf

For those who wish to try and experience the story in all its dimensions, including its inspiration, I strongly recommend listening to Beethoven’s sonata: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9YowLzeC0c before reading the novella.

Much has been written about Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” over the years. Many readings of it are possible, but two of them stand out as great examples of the modern take on it. Contemporary feminist writer, Andrea Dworkin, writes about it in “Intercourse” (1987) in the chapter titled “Repulsion” (graphic language warning).  It can be found here: http://www.feminish.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Intercourse-Andrea-Dworkin-pdf.pdf

While some may not fully agree with Dworkin’s reading of Tolstoy, her analysis is powerful , relevant and interesting.

Another literary critique of Tolstoy’s novella can be found in J.M. Coetzee’s “Doubling the Point” in the chapter titled “Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky (1985)”. It can be found here:http://mfs.uchicago.edu/public/institutes/2012/Disgrace/prereadings/Confession_And_Double_Thoughts.pdf (pages 193-205)

Epicureanism

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From Michael Palmer’s (“Looking at Philosophy”)

The philosophy of Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) is known (not surprisingly) as Epicureanism. If today the term hints of gluttony, debauchery, and bacchanalian orgies, that is not Epicurus’s fault but the fault of some of his Roman interpreters. Epicurus himself led a life of sobriety and simplicity: eating bread, cheese, and olives; drinking a bit of wine; napping in his hammock; and enjoying conversation with his friends while strolling through his garden. He died with dignity and courage after a painful, protracted disease.

…Epicurus believed that the goal of life was happiness, [and] happiness he equated simply with pleasure. No act should be undertaken except for the pleasure in which it results, and no act should be rejected except for the pain that it produces. This belief provoked Epicurus to analyze the different kinds of pleasure. There are two kinds of desire, hence, two kinds of pleasure as a result of gratifying those desires: natural desire (which has two sub-classes) and vain desire:

I. Natural desire

A. Necessary (e.g., desire for food and sleep)

B. Unnecessary (e.g., desire for sex)

II. Vain desire (e.g., desire for decorative clothing or exotic food)

Natural necessary desires must be satisfied and are usually easy to satisfy. They result in a good deal of pleasure and in very few painful consequences. Vain desires do not need to be satisfied and are not easy to satisfy. Because there are no natural limits to them, they tend to become obsessive and lead to very painful consequences.

The desire for sex is natural but usually can be overcome; and when it can be, it should be, because satisfaction of the sexual drive gives intense pleasure, and all intense emotional states are dangerous. Also, the desire for sex puts people in relationships that are usually ultimately more painful than pleasant and that are often extremely painful.

One of the natural and necessary desires to which Epicurus pays a great deal of attention is the desire for repose. This term is to be understood both physically and psychically. The truly good person (i.e., the one who experiences the most pleasure) is the one who, having overcome all unnecessary desires, gratifies necessary desires in the most moderate way possible, leaves plenty of time for physical an mental repose, and is free from worry.

Notice that Epicurus’s definition of pleasure is negative; that is, pleasure is the absence of pain. It is this negative definition that prevents Epicurus from falling into a crass sensualism. The trouble with this definition is that, taken to its logical extremity, the absence of life is better than any life at all (a conclusion Freud also came to in his text Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where he claimed that behind the “pleasure principle” is Thanatos, the death instinct).

This deduction is a bit ironic because Epicurus himself claimed that his philosophy dispelled the fear of death. Democritus’s atomism led Epicurus to believe that death was merely the absence of sensation and consciousness; therefore, there could be no sensation of consciousness of death to fear. “So long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.”

Some of Epicurus’s Roman followers interpreted “pleasure” quite differently, defining it as a positive titillation. It is because of these extremists that today Epicureanism is often associated with sensualistic hedonism. Sickly Epicurus, swinging in his hammock, would have disapproved. (Though not harshly. Polemics cause agitation, which is painful.)

Epicurus’s theory never constituted a major philosophical movement, but he had disciples in both Greece and Rome for a number of centuries. His most famous follower was the Roman Lucretius, who, in the first century B.C.E., wrote a long poem, On the Nature of Things, expounding the philosophy of his master. It is through Lucretius’s poem that many readers have been introduced to the thoughts of Epicurus.

………..

Enjoy this modern take on Epicurus:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=…

 

Christine Korsgaard’s “Sources of Normativity”

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The Normative Question

In the Introduction chapter of “The Sources of Normativity”, (1996) Christine Korsgaard writes:

…”We all know in a general way how and why we were taught to follow moral rules, and that it would be impossible for us to get on together if we didn’t do something along these lines. We are social animals, so probably the whole thing has a biological basis. So what’s missing here, that makes us seek a philosophical ‘foundation’?

The answer lies in the fact that ethical standards are normative. They do not merely describe a way in which we in fact regulate our conduct. They make claims on us; they command, oblige, recommend, or guide. Or at least, when we invoke them, we make claims on one another. When I say that an action is right I am saying that you ought to do it; when I say that something is good I am recommending it as worthy of your choice. The same is true of the other concepts for which we seek philosophical foundations. Concepts like knowledge, beauty, and meaning, as well as virtue and justice, all have a normative dimension, for they tell us what to think, what to like, what to say, what to do, and what to be. And it is the force of these normative claims – the right of these concepts to give laws to us – that we want to understand.

And in ethics, the question can become urgent, for the day will come, for most of us, when what morality commands, obliges, or recommends is hard: that we share decisions with people whose intelligence or integrity don’t inspire our confidence; that we assume grave responsibilities to which we feel inadequate; that we sacrifice our lives, or voluntarily relinquish what makes them sweet. And then the question – why? – will press, and rightly so. Why should I be moral? This is not, as H.A. Pritchard supposed, a misguided request for a demonstration that morality is in our interest (although that may be one answer to the question.) It is a call for philosophy, the examination of life. Even those who are convinced that ‘it is right’ must be in itself a sufficient reason for action may request an account of rightness which this conviction will survive.”

…”When we seek a philosophical foundation for morality we are not looking merely for an explanation of moral practices. We are asking what justifies the claims that morality makes on us. This is what I am calling the ‘normative question’.”

In this meeting we will look into philosophical foundations of moral obligation, following Korsgaard’s interpretation of four major attempts to provide an account of it. Korsgaard does not reject these accounts, but concludes that they are all true:

1. Voluntarism (Pufendorf and Hobbes) – “normativity must spring from the commands of a legislator. A good legislator commands us to do only what is in any case a good idea to do, but the bare fact that an action is a good idea cannot make it a requirement. For that, it must be made law by someone in a position to command us. As we saw, that view is true. What it describes is the relation in which we stand to ourselves. The fact that we must act in the light of reflection gives us a double nature. The thinking self has the power to command the acting self, and it is only its command that can make action obligatory. A good thinking self commands the acting self only to do what is good, but the acting self must in any case do what it says.”

2. Realism (Nagel) – “Realists like Nagel think that reasons are intrinsically normative entities, and that what we should do when a desire presents itself is to look at it more objectively, to see whether it is such an entity [a reason to act]. This view is also true. What it describes is the activity of the thinking self as it assesses the impulses that present themselves to us, the legislative proposals of our nature.”

3. Reflective Endorsement (Hume, B. Williams) – “Reflection has the power to compel obedience, and to punish us for disobedience. It  is in turn bound to govern us by laws that are good.”

4. Autonomy (Kant) –  Together these facts yield the conclusion that the relation of the thinking self to the acting self is the relation of legitimate authority. That is to say, the necessity of acting in the light of reflection makes us authorities over ourselves. And in so far as we have authority over ourselves, we can make laws for ourselves, and those laws will be normative. So Kant’s view is also true. Autonomy is the source of obligation.”

Korsgaard concludes that nothing can be normative unless we place a value upon ourselves, unless we endorse our own nature:

“Reflection reveals to us that the normativity of our values springs from the fact that we are animals of a certain kind, autonomous moral animals. That is, in the Aristotelian sense, our human form.”

“The Cold Equations” by Tom Goodwin

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In this meeting we continue to explore moral questions. The “vehicle”, this time, is a short SciFi story “The Cold Equations” written by Tom Godwin in 1954.

Despite the fact that this group is concerned with philosophy, we turn again this meeting to fiction literature for our preparatory material. The reading, The Cold Equations, is an acclaimed science fiction short story which should prove fertile for consideration of value theory. The Twilight Zone episode of the same name (linked below) is based on the story. Enjoy either, or both.

The story presents a circumstance in which a moral decision must be made, and is made according to a set of rules that purportedly justify the decision. After you’ve read / viewed the story, ask yourself not only whether or not the decision made is the right one, but, also, whether or not such a set of rules as are applied is the right sort that one should use for such decisions.

Link to the story:

http://www.spacewesterns.com/articles/105/

Link to the Twilight Zone episode “The Cold Equations”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znXcEn4iZ4E

Philosophy in Fiction

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“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a short story written by Ursula Le Guin. The story won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1974. It is a haunting philosophical parable with themes of happiness and sacrifice, which asks the reader to fully engage with difficult questions of ethics and morality.

The story’s last sentence would mark an excellent starting point for any philosophical discussion of ethics:

“But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

The full text of the story is available here:

http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/dunnweb/rprnts.omelas.pdf

Mind and Cosmos – Thomas Nagel

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“Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False”.

To say that the title of Nagel’s new work is controversial would be a serious understatement. Nagel, however, offers us a lot more than just a flashy title: his ideas are are bold and, some might say, even revolutionary. They are certainly deserving of consideration and discussion.

An excellent summary of Nagel’s ideas, together with some critique, can be found in Allen Orr’s review available here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/feb/07/awaiting-new-darwin/?pagination=false

Additional info:

From The New York Review of Books “Awaiting a New Darwin”by Allen Orr:

“The history of science is partly the history of an idea that is by now so familiar that it no longer astounds: the universe, including our own existence, can be explained by the interactions of little bits of matter. We scientists are in the business of discovering the laws that characterize this matter. We do so, to some extent at least, by a kind of reduction. The stuff of biology, for instance, can be reduced to chemistry and the stuff of chemistry can be reduced to physics.

Thomas Nagel has never been at ease with this view. Nagel, University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, is one of our most distinguished philosophers. He is perhaps best known for his 1974 paper, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” a modern classic in the philosophy of mind. In that paper, Nagel argued that reductionist, materialist accounts of the mind leave some things unexplained. And one of those things is what it would actually feel like to be, say, a bat, a creature that navigates its environment via the odd (to us) sense of echolocation. To Nagel, then, reductionist attempts to ground everything in matter fail partly for a reason that couldn’t be any nearer to us: subjective experience. While not denying that our conscious experiences have everything to do with brains, neurons, and matter, Nagel finds it hard to see how these experiences can be fully reduced with the conceptual tools of physical science.”

From Amazon.com Book Description:

The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such.

Nagel’s skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic.

In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility.