Friday, November 26, 2010

Reason to Philosophize

Let me first begin by making the case against philosophy quite clear. I don’t immerse myself in philosophical circles; I don’t hang around fellow philosophers or make a whole lot of social relations with philosophers. So I’m well aware of the way that we’re perceived among non-philosophers. They see our crazy theories (philosophers are probably proportionally more likely to believe that the world doesn’t exist), they listen to our tedious nit picking (the distinction between the existence of free will and the believing perception of free will is practically trivial) and they endure our rambling arguments (the last time I had a philosophical discussion that stayed on topic was on the 12th of Never).

And in the end, what have they endured for? Not an answer, certainly. It’s the rare philosopher who feels like he can come up with an answer, and it’s a rarer philosopher still who gets many people to believe his answer. The basic philosophy courses I took followed this standard model: we’d read the works of the greatest philosophers of all Western History, then we’d spend a week explaining in thorough detail why they were wrong. It’s almost like those Tibetan sand drawings: the monks spend months meticulously creating them for the sole purpose of brushing them away in the space of a few seconds.

So for most people, philosophy appears to be an abstract process for discussing bullshit, with no tangible end in sight the majority of the time. Even assuming that some people can come up with really useful philosophical ideas, like advocating empiricism and thus leading to the development of science, most of us are just wankers, right?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Happiness and Society

When we say we want to make a better society, how do we judge ourselves? A classic economic one is standard of living. If a nation's standard of living goes up over time relative to other nations, then it's doing a good job relative to other nations. Similarly, policies which would improve standard of living are good policies, and policies that would decrease standard of living are bad policies. Some economists choose to go with GDP, since it's simpler to understand and also buttresses notions of free enterprise. Still other people believe that a good society is a society with a high voting rate, or low inequality, or happy people. I'm not sure what we should judge our success based on, but I wanted to address for the moment the idea of trying to make a happy society.

On the one hand, the notion is tempting. It leaves open the idea that people can have their own ways of reaching happiness, allowing for acceptance of the idea that we are all individuals. On the other hand, it also allows us to note that there are some things that almost all human beings find make them happier, and there's some stuff that doesn't seem to be very effective at all at making us happy. It seems, for instance, that material acquisition doesn't really make us happy, and that love actually does. If these things are generally true, that would certainly seem that happiness is not necessarily going to be well served by improving general econometrics. I look forward to seeing what comes out of the burgeoning field of happiness research, but call me a skeptic with regards to using happiness as the important metric for a well run society.

A thought on the necessity of philosophies

Do we need to explain everything in order to explain something? I'm not sure if philosophers really consider this question often (possibly because in the end they tend to love explaining everything), but I imagine that most people don't think we do. For instance, you shouldn't need a metaphysical grounding to run the economy, right? You just need to study economics. Or you don't need a theory of epistemology in order to do science, you just need to know science. Maybe that's correct; we humans are common enough in our metaphysical beliefs that a lot of work can be done on our common assumptions without really hashing them out. Maybe not, though...

A brief note further

In some ways, I feel that this blog is becoming a heavy weight because I expect too much of myself. Most of my philosophy is done talking to people, where my opinions can change radically throughout the course of a conversation, and even over the passage of time. However, I've been treating each of these blog posts as an essay. Take the previous one on education and reality. I wrote that one for about two hours, editing it more than I did school papers. If anyone is a regular reader of this blog, they'll notice that my output is very small. I think that's in part because of the enormous amount of time and effort I put into writing them. It becomes chore like.

Another aspect is that I feel pressured to have an argument to hand. Maybe it's because of the lack of a conversation format where I'm just expostulating about some topic or another, but I feel like I haven't told you how to think by the end of a post, I've let you down. That's something I'm not used to, and I'm not sure if I like it. It doesn't fit with the way I think. I always aim for the conversation, not the answers. It helps that I don't think there are answers in the first place, so they're not worth shooting for. But either way, I always feel a little false when I come down with a firm opinion about some topic or another, because I don't feel certain. I never feel certain; that's the joy and wonder of philosophy. I don't know the answers, and I don't think I ever will. I revel in being able to argue with myself. To present a defense of utilitarianism while at the same time jumping in with reasons I think it's wrong, just to dive in again with reasons I think it's right. Or to do that with education, or happiness (a topic that'll be coming up soon). It's always my joy to be undecided, and I feel like my format heretofore has been robbing me of that delightful indecision.

I've been finding it to be the case that this blog isn't going to work well as a conversation (that's on me: I need to entice you guys here in order to talk in the first place before a conversation can start). So my original intent of using it to put forth and argument, and then join in on the feeding frenzy of people tearing it apart isn't going to fly in the near term. So I'm going to change the way I work with this blog. It's going to be less formal argumentation, more personal thought. I hope to not feel as obligated to present a coherent argument and more obligated to share more interesting questions.

This looser sort of mulling will require shorter posts, which will be hard on me (I'm the same way talking; I love to ramble). But shorter posts will keep me more on target, and prevent things from getting muddled in a jumble of thoughts falling on top of each other. I can't say I hope that you all enjoy the changes that shall come, as I don't know if I even have steady readers. But I hope that I will enjoy the different format, and I hope I can write more frequently in the near future.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Education and Reality

Imagine you're alive in medieval Europe. For centuries the Church has had a free hand in determining dogma in schools. It has taught that the Earth is the center of the universe because God values it and us so much. We are the most important part of creation, so of course we're the center. Imagine that there's this new theory bouncing around, championed by some Italian scientist that actually, the Sun is the center of the solar system, and you can see from various measures and tests that this is true. Do you not wish that you could at least get your side aired? At least give the solar-centric view a fair chance and let people decide for themselves?

Transport yourself to the present, and make a leap of imagination: let's pretend you believe in creationism. Or in Lost Cause theory of the Civil War, or something similarly thought you be false by the general academic establishment. You see around you a system devoted to teaching impressionable children a falsehood. In the case of the creationists, the system is teaching children a blasphemous falsehood; one that brings them farther away from the truth and from God. In the case of the Lost Causers, the system is teaching children to hate their heritage and the culture that you admire. Either way, the stakes are high. What do you do? Judging from current events and history, you get on the school board or textbook selection committees and campaign to get the truth into the schools. You look for textbooks or teachers or lesson plans that at the very least include your side with the mainstream stuff so that the kids can have a chance of forming their own opinions.

Certainly, if you assume that you believe in creationism, it's not hard to sympathize with someone trying to get it taught in schools. But we (I'm assuming a (American) liberal audience here, since that's my background and my inclination) feel very frustrated with those who try to push falsehoods or beliefs as possible facts in our school system. Why can't they just teach their kids what they like on their own time? Why do they have to spread their views to everyone else? My question is, why don't we ever ask that question of ourselves? Instead of thinking there's something wrong with the other side, maybe we should be asking if there's something wrong with a standardized, compulsory and public school system which forces us to decide on one thing as a culture to teach our children.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Government by the People

Not sure if this is going to end up being a long post or a short one, since it's really more about a question than any sort of answer. And probably a question that a decent bit of empirical research could solve, but hey, we're all about a priori here. What I wanted to know was whether or not Americans are really polarizing, as many commenters would have us believe, or whether we're actually getting a political discourse which accurately represents how diverse Americans really are. Start at about 1:20. Specifically the sections about polarization and why.

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  Jimmy Carter here isn't specifically talking about the American people when he says Washington is polarizing, but the way Brian Williams walks from that point to the next about how people think Barack Obama is a Muslim illustrates how people move from the one view to the other. I wonder if that's correct.

What if, as a possibility, America has always been a diverse place. The history of this country would lend some credence to that idea, given that in the past we have actually had a Civil War due to what people felt at the time to be irreconcilable differences. And perhaps it's because I don't have proper perspective (being an American obviously tints my perceptions of Americans), but I feel like we've got a pretty strong history of loud public debate and discussion, from the Civil Rights movement to the anti-war movement to the Beer Summit to any number of other issues. Of course, many things we should be discussing and debating don't get debated productively, but the conversation has always been there. One gets the feeling that there are many different Americas, many different perspectives on what our society should look like, and many different constituencies making up the nation. Further, one gets the feeling that we've always been this way.

But how does that match with what seem to be facts about increasing political polarization in government? It seems like we as a nation managed to get on so much more smoothly in the past.* If it's true that we didn't use to be so starkly divided, then why are we seeing that transition, especially if it's also true that America has always been a place of diverse viewpoints?

It seems possible to me that what we're seeing is not an increasing polarization, but an increasing democratization. It's no secret that the America of the past was a much worse democracy than the one of the present. Say what you like about increases in campaign contributions, President Carter, but I find it hard to believe that increasing contributions could balance out the fact that more Americans feel more free to vote than even just fifty years ago. It was less than one hundred years ago that women got the vote, and just one hundred and fifty years ago more than half of the population of South Carolina was enslaved. By any reasonable metric, more people are more free and more able to be part of the citizenry than in the past. And maybe that this increase in democratization is causing more diverse elements of America to be represented.

Further than this, I feel like the internet is also an important engine of democratization. People are able to get involved with like minded activists in a way that was prohibitively hard in the past. Many of us know of someone who never was significantly involved in politics before who has taken up with it because of the increasing availability of information. Of course, it may be that people are only listening to people they already agree with, but that doesn't change the fact that they seem to be getting more involved.

So, what does this mean for polarization? Well, if the politically active group of America's past all looked pretty much the same (and this is true. They tended to be rich white males who voted in rich white males who in turn campaigned to win the votes of more rich white males), then you'd expect them to be able to make deals and compromise with each other; it was more the case that cultures and values were aligned, and it was just a matter of effectively executing those values in government. But now, if we're getting the kind Government by the People that truly represents America as the diverse and large nation that it is, you'd see a withering of compromise, a growth of polarization. The various polities that are flexing their political muscles just might not feel they have enough in common with each other to work together. They'd feel like those who rule in government are a "them" and not an "us". Which is pretty much what you see these days (and what I remember seeing when Bush was in office). Maybe the culture wars and the high flown rhetoric and the rank stubbornness are not signs of American being polarized by some kind of media or corporate interest. Maybe they're signs of America showing its true diverse colors. Maybe we're a nation where some people believe in witchcraft, some people believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories, some people believe that Bush went to war in Iraq to finish his dad's business, some people believe that Obama is a Muslim. Maybe our great challenge as a growing democracy is going to be finding a way to bring all those people into the same room and convince them their interests are aligned. The dedicated class of career politicians are listening to us, now, trying their damnedest to give us what we want. We should probably try and figure out what that might be.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Moral Urgency

Encountering moral problems is an inherent facet of living in a society of more than two people. People will do things that other people will think are bad. It doesn't seem likely that there is a chance of this ever changing, though certainly the things people do to each other will change. For example, while there are certainly still many modern and horrifying instances of slavery, our civilization has decided in the mainstream that slavery is an unambiguous wrong (though the definition of slavery hasn't really been agreed upon)*. That means that for our enlightened selves, leveling judgment upon slavers is easy; they're wrong and they can't be allowed to do it. If someone started rounding up black people and put them to work without pay and with threat of pain and death for leaving their post, we'd send the police around to arrest the slaver. The question of what we should do in the face of such moral evil doesn't seem hard to answer at all: it must be stopped. But what happens if the societal agreement is not nearly so cohesive as the one we now have against slavery?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bear with me

I'm having a hard time putting my thoughts in defense of philosophy into words. You may now take a moment to laugh and comment that you'd have a hard time defending such a hobby, too. You have an inkling of what I'm up against ;) But I shall have something to present to you that I can be proud of. Just wait.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Brief World Cup note

Given the Netherlands win, I can now realistically hope for a Netherlands v Germany final. Just need Germany to beat Spain and Argentina, which isn't impossible but it'll be a rough fight for them. I'd be surprised if Uruguay could stop the Netherlands from getting to the final. Here's hoping for Germany!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Most Basic Philosophy Question

I'm not sure if this actually would be the most basic philosophy question (a more basic one might be "Why do philosophy in the first place?") but it is certainly a fundamental one: namely, do we even ask our questions the right way?

If you read a bit further in the link to the trolley car problems that I put up, then you'll notice that there is a lot of discussion on exactly why the moral answer changes through apparently irrelevant changes in the question. For example, quoting wikipedia:
Unger also considers cases which are more complex than the original trolley problem, involving more than just two results. In one such case, it is possible to do something which will (a) save the five and kill four (passengers of one or more trolleys and/or the hammock-sleeper), (b) save the five and kill three, (c) save the five and kill two, (d) save the five and kill one, or (e) do nothing and let five die. Most naïve subjects presented with this sort of case, claims Unger, will choose (d), to save the five by killing one, even if this course of action involves doing something very similar to killing the fat man, as in Thomson's case above.
What's interesting about this difference is that most people will avoid choosing to kill the fat man above when the choices are phrased as being between killing the fat man or letting 5 die. But when you phrase the question this way, with a continuum of answers, people seem to choose killing the fat man (or a situation analogous to killing the fat man). Does the moral calculus change? Not from what I can see. But the answers do.

As the wikipedia article states, Unger draws the conclusion that these questions don't enlighten moral questions, but rather just explore psychology. I don't think we need abandon the philosophical merit of these discussions (after all, there's an argument for the idea that morality is derived from the way human beings are inclined to treat each other and wish to be treated by others), but Unger's problem is illuminating. When we do philosophy, we often try to seek at deep truths. We do this by trying to discover a pertinent question and drive towards it, isolating it and discovering why it's important. Philosophy is packed full of such thought games, ranging from the trolley car problem to discussions about what it would mean to copy one's self and how that relates to the identity of the mind.* But all these thought games, while allowing us to drive deep at an aspect of a problem, have another aspect which we need to keep in mind as philosophical inquirers: the limitation of perspective.