Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

A recent experience with a Julian Baggini audiobook about the virtues of atheism made me wonder: What does the narrator think of all this?

This particular title is not read by the author, but by someone who I suppose may be a professional voice artist of some kind. At any rate, she’s not necessarily in the business of publicly denouncing religion. I have no idea what her beliefs are. She may be a devout Christian. She’s just making a living by reading someone else’s words aloud.

So what’s going through her mind, while she reads aloud someone else’s words, if they happen to conflict sharply with her established beliefs?

The case Baggini’s making for atheism, after all, is pretty strong, and many of the most obvious religious objections and complaints are rebutted effectively. To be clear, I have no reason to assume anything about what this particular narrator believes, but if someone in her position were devout, and held a prejudice against atheists born of ignorance, and was encountering this defence for the first time, and she suddenly can’t avoid taking it all on board because it’s her job to read it and speak it out loud, in its entirely, clearly and articulately…

…would she learn something from it?

I’m obviously not suggesting that simply encountering an atheistic line of reasoning is enough to guarantee immediate conversion, but it seems like there’d be a good chance that some of it would have to stick. Given how often fundamentalists seem determined to repeat the same tired old nonsense which has been debunked long, long ago, it seems like many of the objections to atheism and evolution and basic science could be overcome if only people would pay attention.

Clearly, someone working as a professional voice artist has little choice but to pay attention. Could an experience like that make her rethink her philosophy?

Maybe there’s an interesting project to be attempted here. Atheists and believers could each put together a brief tract that argues one particular point of contention as thoroughly as possible – then, someone (or a number of people) from the other camp produces a decent-quality audio version of their arguments, adding sincerity and appropriate inflection as much as possible, so that the strongest knock-down arguments of their adversaries are absolutely unavoidable in their own minds. The recordings could be shared, and maybe the readers could discuss whether they felt they learned anything from it, whether any new perspective was added by having to play devil’s advocate, so to speak.

Is Chesterton in the public domain yet? I’ve been meaning to read some of his non-fiction. Maybe I could do something for Librivox.

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(This is kind of a Roman Railway post.)

Every so often, I decide it’s time to revisit something that I know just makes me happy.

Here’s a couple of YouTube videos that exemplify what I mean. This one’s got a guy playing music from Peanuts on the piano to a roomful of old people:



And this one’s got a guy called Matt doing a silly dance all over the world:



Both these things make a mixture of feelings well up in me. Joy, hope, optimism for the future, delight at the beauty that’s possible in the world. That kind of thing. It’s a happy, positive, self-reinforcing delight.

Of course, there are other kinds of delight that are less well intentioned. Every good action movie needs a good come-uppance, where we take pleasure not just in the positive outcome for the good guys, but in the much-deserved suffering of the villains. If the bad guy isn’t frustrated, furious, or dead at the end of it all, why bother?

I think this second kind of delight, while common and understandable, is morally problematic. I’m not sure that outwardly exhibiting pleasure directly stemming from someone else’s distress is ever actually okay.

I don’t mean to casually label basically everyone on the planet as a monster, here. The urge to revel in an opponent’s defeat is a very strong one, and a very human one. You probably don’t have to go back very far in this blog to find examples of me being just as guilty of it as anyone. It’s far from the worst thing you can do.

But still, I’m not sure it’s ever the right thing to do. Taking pleasure from someone else’s negative emotions might be something we should, in every instance, strive to avoid. It’s beneath us as compassionate human beings.

One particular example of the uglier side of joy, which springs most easily to my mind, is the malicious glee that repeatedly emerges from certain quarters every time a news story about Margaret Thatcher’s failing health emerges. There are plenty who find pleasure in these facts, and have long since announced the excitement with which they’re anticipating the week-long street party when she finally dies.

I don’t agree with any of Thatcher’s politics, but the crowing over her eventual passing just seems unnecessary and vile. There’s nothing positive about it to celebrate; it’s not like her despotic hold over us is finally being broken, or the things she did which you disagree with will somehow be undone. Another human consciousness will simply cease to be, and another woman (who you also probably don’t like very much) will mourn the loss of her mother.

She might be close, but Margaret Thatcher’s not the ultimate right-wing boogey-man. Let’s bring this one all the way. It’s time to talk Hitler.

Was it a good thing when Hitler died?

Millions were filled with joy when they heard the news, and it’d be insane to begrudge them that. It wasn’t just one man’s death they were celebrating; it was the prospect of an end to a war that had killed millions over the course of too many years. They were delighted by the prospect of being able to live again in safety, of not having to live under a brutal Nazi regime, of no longer having to live in terror regarding the fates of their loved ones. There was a lot to celebrate when Hitler died.

Its consequences were joyful, of course. But the death of a man itself? I still say there’s no joy in that.

Many of those millions would disagree. They’d have been thrilled to be rid of him, not just for the hope of peace that ensued. And I can’t criticise anyone too harshly for that. None of my loved ones have ever been torn apart by shrapnel or taken away and gassed. I can’t condemn anyone for finding a grim satisfaction knowing Hitler was dead, or even outright jubilation that the bastard finally got what was coming to him. Of course I can see their point.

But still I think there’s a better way to be. A more positive way to approach the world. And while I’m not so unreasonable as to chastise anyone who can’t get there immediately, and can understand entirely why the catharsis of schadenfreude might sometimes feel necessary, I think this better way is always worth aspiring to.

Take heart from the positive. Move on from the negative.

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Yes. This. Entirely, wholly this.

In case you’re experiencing problems with the graphic, it’s a quote attributed to Neil deGrasse Tyson:

I am driven by two main philosophies: know more about the world than I knew yesterday, and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

Have you done both of these things today?

If not, get cracking. See where it takes you.

(nabbed from Atheism Resource)

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Any objectivists out there? I’ve ingested Ayn Rand in quantities far beyond the Recommended Lifetime Allowance for a human adult, in my indecisive and politically experimental past (as if I were now informed and confident in my political opinions), and I still see her ideas referenced quite often in political discourse – and not always with disparagement and contempt.

One of the main features of her schtick is the idea of selfishness, as a much maligned and underrated quality which is in fact the key to humanity’s salvation. Acting in personal, individual self-interest is about the highest good to which you can aspire, in her writings.

This is obviously counter-intuitive, in a way, but there’s a more sophisticated support for it than you might think. There are (at least) two distinct things that might be meant by proclaiming the moral superiority of acting with self-interest.

She might be saying that we should all simply be looking out for ourselves; that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and there’s no room for compassion for anyone else; that everything you can ever expect to achieve for yourself, you’re going to have to claim at somebody else’s expense; that life is zero-sum.

Or, perhaps she was fine with a spirit of community and partnership and shared humanity and cooperation and pulling together and solidarity… but also believed, as a matter of fact, that the most efficient way to run an economy is for everyone to act selfishly; for nobody to try to decide what’s best for everyone else, and force people to act accordingly; for people to look out solely for their own affairs, and let the ensuing market forces arrange things optimally.

It seems clear from her writing that this second interpretation is what Rand intended. It’s strongly asserted in her novels that people acting in their own self-interest make the situation better for everyone than it would be if people acted differently, particularly if they were to put deliberate effort into making things “fair”.

Here’s the thing. Assuming that modern objectivists don’t make the rather tedious claim that selfishness is an intrinsic good – something self-evidently moral and virtuous, and to hell with all notions that community and interaction are an important part of our humanity – there’s now an implicit empirical question, of whether these claims about the efficacy of self-interested behaviour are actually true.

This “doing whatever suits you under the justification that it’ll all work out best for everyone that way” scheme. Philosophy aside, does it work?

It’s something that rarely seems to get discussed by objectivists and Rand fans. Or maybe I’m just not paying attention. But it’s a claim I’m doubtful of, and the potential pot-holes in which don’t seem to get a lot of play among the people who cling to the basic idea, but often forget that the end which justifies it all is meant to be compassion for other people.

Does it really all hang together? Are people rational enough that they’re not going to be significantly duped as to what their own best interests are? Will there not be any problems when hiding law-breaking activity is cheaper (and thus a more self-interestedly beneficial option) than simply obeying the law? Or when lobbying for a change in the law is more cost-effective than having the pesky laws there to obey in the first place? Are there times when leaving people free to act in their own interest wouldn’t simply encourage a flourishing and democratic exchange between everyone but, heaven forfend, might give a select and fortunate few the chance to fuck the rest of us over?

There’s an important question for objectivism in this. I’m not going to answer it now. I’m only here because I didn’t want to waste even more time on Kongregate today before my lunch is ready. But it’s worth asking.

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Ooh, PZ’s found a right one here. The Atlasphere is a site for dating and networking, aimed at fans of Ayn Rand.

If you’re chuckling or cringing right now, either is probably an appropriate response.

I’m not sure I’ve discussed my own feelings on Ayn Rand on this blog before, so this seems as good a time as any. I read The Fountainhead in my late teens or early twenties, and was sufficiently engaged by the story-telling and intrigued by the philosophy at the time that I read Atlas Shrugged not long after. This experience is one I recall describing as like “having my brains repeatedly smashed out with a slice of lemon wrapped round a large objectivist brick”.

Her philosophy isn’t so utterly braindead and without merit that it’s not often interesting to discuss, and I certainly don’t immediately back away from anyone claiming to have enjoyed Rand’s work in general. But there’s a cadre of particularly devoted followers who very noticeably take it too far.

You should contact me if you are a skinny woman. If your words are a meaningful progression of concepts rather than a series of vocalizations induced by your spinal cord for the purpose of complementing my tone of voice. If you’ve seen the meatbot, the walking automaton, the pod-people, the dense, glazy-eyed substrate through which living organisms such as myself must escape to reach air and sunlight.

That’s the kind of thing I mean, taken from this article about the dating service from a few years ago. Even if I was convinced objectivism really stood up, I wouldn’t want anything to do with this crowd. I’ll take human empathy over grammatical competence any day.

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So, you know how Occam’s Razor says that, all other things being equal, you should place more trust in the simpler explanation to some unknown problem?

Atheists often use this to highlight the untenability of the God hypothesis. The origins of God are at least as mysterious and enigmatic as those of the Universe, and his very existence is a massive, unfounded assumption which can just as easily be done away with.

Some theists, however, try to claim that “God did it” is itself the most parsimonious explanation for everything, and therefore the preferred explanation. But just because it can be enunciated in fewer syllables that any grand unifying theory of physics, doesn’t make it simpler in any important sense.

It seems like there’s a corresponding misunderstanding in politics, in this discussion of a group of political protestors opposing the government’s decision “to cut social benefits and slash public payrolls”. The media described these people getting angry at government cuts as “anarchists”.

David Boaz notes an obvious objection:

“Odd anarchists,” I harrumphed, who “object to the state reducing its size, scope, and power.”

His point might seem obvious on the face of it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the media was being overly casual here in throwing the label around, as it often seems to in the case of any kinds of protests. But I would suggest that there’s a similar misunderstanding going on here as in the case of the “God did it” theists.

A simple explanation for the universe isn’t just a matter of cramming it into as short a sentence as possible, and anarchism isn’t always in favour of stripping away any aspect of government at any given moment.

More than just being opposed to government, anarchists are opposed to authority in all forms, and in particular the oppression of the poor and disenfranchised by the rich and powerful. If the government is going to be there, taxing its citizens and upholding capitalism and the rule of law, then cutting back on the social programs that benefit the poor is not necessarily a step toward decreasing government power and levelling class inequality. It may even make things worse.

Yes, in an ideal system, anarchists would not want these state welfare programmes to exist, because they wouldn’t want there to be a state. But given the system that continues to impose itself, and the lack of other options available to the working classes who are still being taxed and having their state provisions taking away, I don’t think most anarchists would herald these kinds of austerity measures as an important step toward equality. (Or, if they do, I’m decidedly less likely to join them in their political philosophy anytime soon.)

A shorter sentence doesn’t necessarily make for a more parsimonious explanation, and the government doing less to help people doesn’t always mean that the imposition of authority is any less.

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– There has now been a lot of research into this, and the bottom line is that your mobile phone won’t give you cancer.

– “Show me the sausages“. I’m going to start using that line in every philosophical discussion I ever have now, even if it’s totally inappropriate. (via PZ Myers)

– Nice quote from a prominent conservative radio host. As Ed observes, it’s all about small government with the American right.

– Remember: these people are not racist. So don’t go making that mistake.

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

Although I’ve decided, at least for the moment, that I’m not an anarchist, and am fairly sure that there can be some inherent value to a centralised state, I’m still fascinated by the discussion.

I tend to find myself sympathising a great deal with anarchists on almost all points, and agreeing with just about everything except the ultimate conclusion.

A post I read recently on the ideological similarities between atheism and anarchism got me thinking about this again. If I were to base an estimate on my own limited experience rather than actual data, I’d guess that atheists are over-represented among anarchists. And it’s clear that some political philosophies are much more prevalent than others among the atheist and/or skeptical community.

One thing I notice about the arguments on the side of anarchism is that they all tend to be profoundly humanistic. They give a tremendous amount of credit to the potential for people to do good. If you can’t share that idea to some extent, you’re not going to be a very happy atheist.

I wonder if, in ten years’ time, I’ll have shaken off the last vestiges of authority and gone full-on crazy anarcho-liberal, or whether I’ll have swerved way back in the other direction.

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Yeah, so atheism again.

It’s still interesting and important, even if I’ve been drifting somewhat lately, toward other topics on which I’m even less qualified to comment.

And even aside from the occasional appalling and criminal outrage to get angry about, there are still things that wind me up about the ongoing religion discussion.

Here’s the question that’s been bothering me lately:

Why is atheism the only position you can take, in just about any category or field of knowledge, where people think that you must be claiming 100% absolute certainty?

I still regularly hear people banging on about how being agnostic is the only really rational position to take (as if it were mutually exclusive with atheism anyway), because you can’t be sure there’s no God, you can’t know absolutely everything about it, so it must only be intellectually honest to maintain a neutral middle ground.

I’m over-using the italics again already. It happens when I’m annoyed, and this is bollocks of an annoying nature.

I don’t believe in any god. I’m an atheist. There you go.

The idea that I must be 100% certain to make such a claim is entirely without precedent in all other areas of debate. If you expect me to simply stop at saying I’m an “agnostic”, or “undecided”, or “I don’t know” unless I’ve scanned every cubic micron of the cosmos and made absolutely certain there’s no deity hiding behind the dark matter… then why doesn’t this carry over into any other kind of idea or belief?

I’m also a capitalist. Although I’m iffy on exactly where I stand with regard to regulations, broadly speaking I support the idea of a free market economy.

But nobody’s ever told me that, unless I examine a detailed model of every single possible government based on common ownership of the means of production and determined empirically that no form of socialism could ever possibly be better for society, I shouldn’t use a word like “capitalist” which implies such absolute certainty, and insisted that I keep to the I-don’t-know middle ground.

I’m not a monarchist. I don’t support the idea of all political power being heritable and possessed by a single individual.

But I haven’t utterly ruled out every imaginable arrangement within this paradigm, and made absolutely sure that not one of them could ever possibly be functional as a system of government. And nobody would expect me to.

I am of the opinion that the bar of chocolate I’m about to eat doesn’t have any dogshit in. But have I even checked? Shouldn’t I really be ambivalent on the matter? Doesn’t arrogantly declaring “It’s just a chocolate bar, it’s got chocolate in it” imply an awful lot of certainty about the universe that I just don’t have a right to claim?

Well, no. It’s just what I reckon. It seems to make sense. If you want to prove me wrong, fine, maybe I’ll reconsider. But it looks to me like a chocolate bar. And it looks to me like there’s no god.

Not every religious person claims to be 100% irrevocably sure of their faith. But how many of them identify as “agnostic” rather than “Christian”, say, for the sake of intellectual rigour?

Sometimes we just reckon stuff. We could be wrong, but it’s what we think, and we’re waiting on a reason to change our minds.

Anyone else get bothered by this?

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Induction is a problem. I’m sure you often find this to be the case as you try to conduct your day-to-day life but are thwarted by the pesky induction problem at every turn.

But what is the induction problem?

No, it’s not an unproven mathematical theorem regarding the social rejection of a variable number of aquatic fowl – that’s the “n-duck-shun problem”.

No, it’s not a command for summoning a sinister puppet from 1980s’ kids TV and the Polish sci-fi author who penned Solaris – that’s “Induction: Pob/Lem“.

No, it’s not an anagram for “End to bulimic porn!” Well… it is, but that’s not really relevant.

The induction problem is, in fact, one of those fiddly questions about how we can ever really know anything, of the sort that only seems to bother philosophers.

As far as I’m aware, it’s not of grave concern to, for instance, many of the scientists who are out there learning new stuff and not worrying too much about whether it’s metaphysically possible for them to be doing it.

It’s possible I’m letting my personal sarcastic biases sneak in before I’ve even finished the set-up for the discussion.

There is actually an interesting question at the base of this all, though, if you’re as interested as I am by things like systems of formalised logic.

Induction is a very useful thing. It lets us draw conclusions about how the world works, without needing to rely on absolute and inviolate syllogisms. It’s all very well knowing that all triangles have three sides, knowing that Jeff is a triangle, and deducing that Jeff has three sides. But not everything we learn is arranged in such a way.

A triangle having three sides is something that’s true by definition, but what about other truths that aren’t tautological? “Cats miaow” is a widely recognised truth, and doesn’t rely on deductive reasoning as above. It’s based on observation of the world. We’ve seen lots of cats miaowing, and decided that it’s something that happens as a general rule.

But how do we justify assuming that, just because cats have miaowed in the past, all cats will continue to miaow in the future? It’s a fairly pedestrian idea that cat #92387563 might turn out to miaow just like all the others, but it’s not certain. A cat could be mute, or dead, or asleep, or ADORABLE, or otherwise not in a state to miaow. We know many cats do miaow, but we don’t conclude that all of them must.

(You could start being more specific – narrow it down to “live cats miaow”, then “live, awake cats miaow”, and so on – but you’d have to account for so many technical possibilities you’d end up with something that says nothing more than “cats miaow, except the ones that don’t”.)

There are some things, though, which we really do expect to hold true always – but without any more solid a basis for this except that they’ve always held true in the past. The laws of physics are one example. Our understanding of the universe on a scientific level depends on the idea that gravity, say, will keep on working exactly how it always has, indefinitely, even if the cat’s asleep. How do we justify this?

…It’s taken this much waffle to get around to asking the question, and I’m having to pause while I try and figure out what my answer is.

And I think I’m going to have to side with those scientists I mentioned up there. I’m just not convinced it’s worth worrying about.

I don’t mean there shouldn’t be anybody worrying about such things. There can certainly be value to thinking up new ways of thinking about how we think. There are some eventual logical conclusions lurking behind our everyday assumptions, which can only be teased out by this kind of careful and pedantic philosophical thinking, and which can provide a valuable new perspective on some things we take for granted. And at the very least, a lot of the associated thought experiments are entertainingly head-bendy. (I’ll let you look into the ideas behind “grue” and “bleen” or the Gettier problem on your own time.)

I’m just not going to worry about it, or let it undermine my continued assumptions that the world functions in certain consistent ways unless directly evidenced otherwise. So far, assuming the validity of inductive reasoning has seemed to work pretty well – and yes, I know that would be an example of inductive reasoning itself, to conclude that it’s likely to continue working just because it has in the past, and so it would be circular to claim that I’ve proved anything this way.

So I haven’t proved anything to the satisfaction of some philosophers. Somehow I think I’m going to be okay with that. You keep worrying about how there’s no guarantee that any of our established laws on which the Universe runs will have any meaning tomorrow. We’ll be over here sending rockets to fucking Mars.

(Sorry, philosophers. Love your work, really. Just not when people think I should drop everything and start panicking because I could just be a brain in a vat and existential angst is the only truly rational response.)

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