Friday, April 5, 2019

Forming the cathedral


Years ago, I was struck by a comment by Richard Foreman: "I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and 'cathedral-like' structure of the highly educated and articulate personality — a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West." The very concept of "the West," and certainly the privileging of it, is of course worthy of debate, but that's not what drew my attention. I was attracted to the more general ideas that the scholar has a personal mission to absorb as much information as possible; that, to give shape and purpose and attainability to that mission, the scholar might propose some cultural definition of what information is "theirs" in some sense, i.e. what they can realistically hope to absorb and contribute to and what subject matter they have a responsibility to; and that the result of this effort is that their acquired learning, unique to them as an individual, becomes like a cathedral, a mix of form and function, and it forms their personality.


One might want to study everything broadly. Howard Bloom calls it "'omnology,' a field dedicated to the most zoomed-out cross-disciplinary search for knowledge." For most people, however, this is generally not a reasonable or useful goal. You can't build a beautiful cathedral out of Anything and Everything.


Veering in another direction, one might have a hyperfocused interest in just one subject and hope that everyone else wants to discuss the same thing. Amitai Etzioni calls this a "megalogue." Among "moral megalogues," as he wrote in 2009, "Recent issues have included the legitimacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and whether gay couples can legally marry. In earlier decades, women's rights and minority rights were topics of such discussions. Megalogues involve millions of members of a society exchanging views with one another at workplaces, during family gatherings, in the media, and at public events. They are often contentious and passionate, and, while they have no clear beginning or endpoint, they tend to lead to changes in a society's culture and its members' behavior." James M. Gustafson said that "participation in a serious moral dialogue moving toward consensus is more important than the consensus itself...[because] participation in moral discourse deepens, broadens, and extends [people's] capacity to make responsible moral judgments."

Data bank

A more modern idea is that a giant data trove of beliefs and thoughts could be used to reconstruct a human personality and give it life inside a robot. This is a bit different from the idea of a cathedral, because, while a building designed for worship pays homage to a larger tradition, a personality data bank pays homage only to oneself.


Richard Foreman. Quoted in "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" by Nicholas Carr. The Atlantic. July/August 2008. p. 63.

"Grand Inquisitor" by Nando Pelusi, on the work of Howard Bloom, author of The Lucifer Principle and Global Brain. Psychology Today, January/February 2008, p. 41.

"Get Rich Now." Amitai Etzioni. Excerpted from The New Republic (June 17, 2009). Reprinted in UTNE Reader (Jan-Feb 2010), p. 41.

James M. Gustafson. "The Church: A Community of Moral Discourse." in The Church as Moral Decision-Maker (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1970), pp. 83-95. Quoted in James Calvin Davis. In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues that Divide Us. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. pp. 168-169.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Four ways philosophy can fail to point toward a better future

Every philosopher wants truth, and most aspire to some form of fairness and equality as they understand those concepts. But does philosophy succeed in making the world a better place? Here's several ways it can fail to achieve its goal.

1. Everyone cares, but the philosopher can't offer a practical road forward

Peter Levine pointed out in 2013 that many thinkers can envision a better society but can't explain how to get there.

Either Rawls did not take responsibility for changing the world, or he hoped to change it by the following roundabout strategy: first develop a theory of the best possible society by means of academic scholarship, primarily addressed to colleagues and advanced students, and then popularize (or let someone else popularize) the results so that they might influence public opinion and thereby change influential popular votes. I see no evidence that this strategy had any impact, despite Rawls’s enormous prestige in the academy. Public policy in the United States is less Rawlsian than it was in 1970, and liberal activists and leaders who share some of his principles rarely look to him for arguments or guidance. Nor has any other political philosopher had more success than Rawls or his followers and interpreters. This is not a refutation of Rawls’s philosophy, which may be correct on its own terms. I am not a pragmatist who thinks that the only justification of intellectual work is its impact, what William James used to call its 'cash value.' A theory can have intrinsic merit. I would, however, assert that Rawls and his colleagues are no longer writing in the same genre as Plato, Machiavelli, Hamilton, and Madison (and many in-between). Contemporary academic political philosophy does not offer a path to a better society but only an indication of what one would be like. It is a highway without the on-ramp."

Philosophy that isn't actionable arguably doesn't inspire others to action, and, realizing this, the philosopher may not be optimistic about ever reaching the future they have so carefully imagined.

2. Everyone cares, but there is no answer to be found

The novelist Erich Maria Remarque pointed out in 1957 that, if there were a One True Philosophy, the project of philosophy would have already come to an end, just as the discovery of a working medicine generally puts all the snake oil salesmen out of business.

"I walk over to the shelves that contain the works on religion and philosophy. They are Arthur Bauer's pride. Here he has, collected in one place, pretty much everything that humanity has thought in a couple of thousand years about the meaning of life, and so it should be possible for a couple of hundred thousand marks to become adequately informed on the subject — for even less really, let us say for twenty or thirty thousand marks; for if the meaning of life were knowable, a single book should suffice. But where is it? I glance up and down the rows. The section is very extensive, and this suddenly makes me distrustful. It seems to me that with truth and the meaning of life the situation is the same as with hair tonics — each firm praises its own as the only satisfactory one, and yet Georg Kroll, who has tried them all, still has a bald head just as he should have known from the beginning he would have. If there were a hair tonic that really grew hair, there would only be that one and all the others would long ago have gone out of business."

3. The philosopher cares, but no one else does

The English literary critic John Rodker wrote in 1926:

“It is impossible to tell the truth so that it is understood and not be believed, said Blake, but to-day, in the general slackening of all standards, truth, however much understood, has less moral force than it ever had. So that, although some individual be affected to raving point or another utterly blasted, the mass has no use for it, and writing, searching for an absolute truth, goes on at the side of all other activities but influencing them less and less.”

As quoted by Rodker, Blake meant: If people really grasped what the truth meant, they'd believe it. It's like understanding that food and sunshine is good: to be exposed to it is to appreciate its value. Rodker challenged this (albeit from a sideways angle) by observing that people seem to understand the truth, and perhaps therefore they believe it, yet they do not act upon it. This presents a challenge for the philosopher.

4. Not even the philosopher cares

About a decade after Rodker, Ernst Cassirer proposed a reason for this failure of philosophy. He thought it was too wrapped up in making predictions about the future and in accepting fate.

"As soon as philosophy no longer trusts its own power, as soon as it gives way to a merely passive attitude, it can no longer fulfill its most important educational task. It cannot teach man how to develop his active faculties in order to form his individual and social life. A philosophy that indulges in somber predictions about the decline and the inevitable destruction of human culture, a philosophy whose whole attention is focused on the Geworfenheit, the Being-thrown of man [as coined by Heidegger, in reference to accepting one’s fate], can no longer do its duty."

Philosophy has to trust its own power, in Cassirer's words. It needs to teach people how to develop themselves to become active members of society. The philosopher has to care about this potential of philosophy, or no one else will.

How valuable are ideas?

Ideas are a prerequisite to reasoned, planned action. Ideas on their own, however, if not followed by action, are so cheap and prolific as to be nearly meaningless and almost — by definition — useless. Everyone generates ideas. Some jot down keywords in notebooks. Others inflate them to small articles (like this one) that can be shared. Still others write and teach books of philosophy. But none of this achieves its full potential value if it doesn't also somehow lead to action or show others how they can take action. I wrote about this for LinkedIn: "Your old notes aren't exactly 'clutter'​ (but you might still want to throw them out)."

Violence is imaginable; call it by its names

Reflecting on the paintings of Francisco Goya, Sebastian Smee referred to the painter's "insistence on the stupendous, the monstrous, the scarcely creditable stupidity of human beings."

Smee had seen Goya's paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where they remained on temporary exhibition at the time of his article's publication. Smee is from Sydney, where he knew one of the murder victims in a recent hostage crisis. As he wrote in the Boston Globe in January 2015, he didn't know whether to describe the killer as bumbling idiot. He noted that people tend to use words like "tragedy" and "nightmare" — "uncomfortably heavy, or weirdly abstract" — rather than words that "in many ways feel more accurate. Senseless. Idiotic. Pathetic. Grotesque. Feebleminded beyond belief." People struggle to explain "the Boston Marathon bombing, the insane massacre of 132 schoolchildren that took place in Pakistan on the same day as the two deaths in Sydney, the slaughter of 20 small children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary, the routine, virtually random executions that take place in our inner cities daily, or — more dismally breaking news — the eye-rubbingly futile murders that took place at a satirical newspaper in Paris" earlier that week. None of it is "unimaginable." Goya imagined it in all its "remorseless, terrifying stupidity."

In Goya's paintings, too, we see that "reason is conspicuous only be its absence," and what we have instead is "sheer derangement. Monstrous folly." In Goya's paintings, Smee wrote, we have "a visceral registration of that which is most putrid and pitiful about humans," and we may begin to think that the proper response to atrocities is "not so much to shine the light of reason on them, the better to understand and digest them, but rather to swear never to come to terms with them, never to tolerate them."

How can we declare our intolerance to violence?

Here's one idea. In April 2019, Umair Haque wrote for Medium that the terms "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" represent "some of the most important and vital ideas and concepts in human history, crucial to the functioning of democracies, the rule of law, and the institutions of civilized societies." Those concepts mark where we "began to understand how to genuinely coexist as a world — where the red lines of democracy and civilization lie." When U.S. leaders, believing in American exceptionalism, do not employ these terms to criticize U.S. policies, "we are also saying three things. We are above history. We are above the world. And we are beyond morality. But all those are forms of folly, ignorance, and stupidity — which have come back to collapse our very own society."

After reading these two pieces, I draw my conclusion: It is rational to describe senseless violence in weighty terms — "tragedy" and "nightmare" (Smee), "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" (Haque). Anyone who fails to use such concepts to rationally criticize oneself and one's society has lapsed into the irrational realm — "Senseless. Idiotic. Pathetic. Grotesque. Feebleminded" (Smee), "folly, ignorance, and stupidity" (Haque). While such ignorance may not be the original cause of the violence, it is surely the consequence of not recognizing the significance of the violence. It is the vacuum that violence leaves behind when we do not respond properly. I agree with Smee's conclusion that we must resolve to resist or avoid future violence, and that this is more important than absorbing the meaning of past violence; however, I think that reason can be used in the service of the former as well as the latter.


Peter Levine. We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Erich Maria Remarque. The Black Obelisk (1957). USA: Crest, 1958. pp. 90-91.

John Rodker. The Future of Futurism. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, Ltd. 1926. pp. 23-24.

Ernst Cassirer. Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935-1945. Donald Phillip Verene, ed. (1979) New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. p. 230.

Sebastian Smee. "Atrocity exhibition." Boston Globe. January 11, 2015.

Umair Haque. "The Fascists Are Winning Because Americans are Too Dumb (or Too Afraid) to Call Out Fascism." Medium. April 9, 2019.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Does philosophy matter?

William James:

"The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one."
William James. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, together with four related essays selected from The Meaning of Truth. New York: Longmans, Green and Co. 23rd printing, 1959. Original copyright 1907. p. 50.

Daniel C. Dennett:

"Science does not answer all good questions. Neither does philosophy. But for that very reason the phenomena of not need to be protected from science--or from the sort of demystifying philosophical investigation we are embarking on. * * * Looking on the bright side, let us remind ourselves of what has happened in the wake of earlier demystifications. We find no diminution of wonder; on the contrary, we find deeper beauties and more dazzling visions of the complexity of the universe than the protects of mystery ever conceived. The "magic" of earlier visions was, for the most part, a cover-up for frank failures of imagination, a boring dodge enshrined in the concept of a deus ex machina."
Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 1991. 22, 25.

Edwin Tenney Brewster:

"Common sense, science, and philosophy are, then, three different levels of insight into the nature of the universe. ... Thus far, on the whole, philosophy has been rather less successful than its partners. There remains, however, still a fourth method of acquiring information, which does not belong anywhere in the common-sense-science-philosophy series--the method of theology. Theology employs the same free speculation as the other three. It rejects its failures in the same fashion. But its test of truth is neither workability, nor the facts of nature, nor inner consistency, but conformity to some datum assumed as already fixed. This ultimate authority is, of course, widely diverse for different theologies. ... But always and everywhere the theological method of discovering truth assumes that some one or more persons know something important about the universe which the rest of mankind cannot possibly discover for themselves."
Edwin Tenney Brewster. The Understanding of Religion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1923. p 66.

Jonathan Lear:

"In the Sophoclean universe there are only two possibilities: either one relies rigidly on human reason or one submits to a divine realm. In neither position is there room for philosophy, that peculiarly thoughtful response to awe."
Jonathan Lear. Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. p. 51.

Jonathan Glover:

"There is room for philosophers who specialize in highly abstract questions and treat them as self-contained. But if this became the norm, there would be a loss. It would stop philosophy making difficulties for Belief. It would also stop philosophy making a difference to anyone's life. The voice of Socrates would trouble people no more."
Jonathan Glover. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Yale University Press, 2001 (originally 1999). p 377.

Jordan Peterson on gender quotas in politics (article in the National Post, Dec. 11, 2018)

Jordan Peterson published an opinion piece, "The gender scandal – in Scandinavia and Canada," in Canada's National Post on Dec. 11, 2018.

Focusing on just one or two of my points of disagreement, I sent this letter to the newspaper, which they published in their Dec. 18 issue. Here's a blurry image of the paper...

...and a transcript of my letter.

"Jordan Peterson wants Cabinet members to be selected based on their competence level. Their genders would then reflect those of the MPs overall, he claims, citing what he believes to be statistical likelihood.

Peterson didn’t define “competence;” presumably it needs to come in a special political flavor, distinct from what is valued in, say, construction workers. Nor did he claim that a politician's competence is unchangeable and scientifically measurable. Nor did he provide any reason to accept this mysterious trait as the Cabinet's sole qualification.

He also undercut his own argument by pointing out how a distribution curve works. Violent criminals are far more likely to be men, he says. Why, then, isn't it mathematically possible that the best politicians might typically be women?

To make his point, he needed to show that the 10 percent of MPs ranked as the most 'competent' are indeed a mix of women and men who reflect the gender balance of their peer MPs, and that these aren’t the people Justin Trudeau picked."

Online comments

In the online comments, one reader accused me of playing at being "deliberately obtuse" in my failure to understand what ought to be the "obvious" definition of political competence. (I don't think it's obvious at all, and if I am obtuse, it is surely accidental.) This reader also accused me of being sarcastic (nothing in my letter is sarcastic) and of having "cherry-picked" my responses (well, yes, when the original opinion article is 2,100 words and my response can only be about 8 percent as long, I have to drastically limit what I respond to). Another reader complained that there's no way to rank MPs by their competence level. (Yes; that's exactly my point. Peterson didn't define what he means by competence; we don't know if this unnamed trait is scientifically measurable; and, without ranking each MP's competence level, he can't prove his point.)

Additional points

My letter to the editor was only about 165 words due to the length restrictions. If I'd had more space, I could have made many more points about Peterson's article.

To begin with, Peterson's tone is full of dismissive snark. He uses phrases like “Game over” and “Get it?” to provoke debate with the “neo-Marxist leftist postmodern” “politically correct” “utopians” who are “radically and loudly insist[ing]” things for reasons like because it's 2015 and who, he says, are "appalling" and "wrong." This language is not informational. It is just off-putting.

More substantially:

I was most interested in "Part Two (Canada)," which I perceive as the main argument toward which Part One builds. Part Two has the following flaws.

First, he proposes the possibility that “competence is the most important factor” for anyone who works in federal government, then assumes this to be true. He does not even define what he means by competence, though he mentions it in the same breath with “intelligence” and “conscientiousness” (whether to identify it with those virtues or to distinguish it from them, I can’t tell). Let me suggest another important trait for politicians: personal experience that matches their constituents'. For example, when the government sets policy about maternity leave, it is good if many of the decision-makers have themselves previously given birth, because that is a relevant life experience that allows them to readily understand the issues. Abstract forms of intelligence/conscientiousness/competence do not substitute for that life experience. For similar reasons, maturity and career experience are valuable in politicians. Many 20-year-olds are highly "competent" but they aren't quite ready for political leadership. So I don’t accept Peterson’s assumption that “competence is the most important factor” in politicians.

It is especially nonsense since the first half of the article—“Part One (Scandinavia)”—discusses how men and women self-report different personality traits. Statistically, “men are less agreeable,” Peterson reports, while women are “more people.” It seems to me that being people-oriented, sympathetic, and motivated to reach agreement are great assets in a politician. Rearranging the elements of his own argument could result in the very different proposal that women make better politicians.

To use a visual illustration more common to a math class: Imagine you want to select a handful of the highest-quality M&Ms from a bag. Before you begin your selection process, someone throws out all the blue ones. Does it matter? It shouldn't, because for your practical purposes, all the M&Ms taste the same anyway. They are all adequate for the purpose of being eaten. But suppose there really is a quality difference, and what if all the blue ones are inferior—"less agreeable" to you? Then it doesn't matter if they were thrown out. In fact, it speeds up your task because you don't have to waste time on them. I am not comparing humans to M&Ms; I am using M&Ms as a mathematical illustration to remove some of the feeling and assumptions. And I am not saying that male politicians are inferior to female politicians; I am pointing out that Jordan Peterson made a comment that suggested that they might be, which undercuts his argument because, if it were true, it would affect the mathematical outcome.

He makes an attempt to explain distribution curves. He says: When comparing any randomly selected man and woman, the more “aggressive” individual is probably the man, but not always. The chance of it being the man is only 60%-40%. Which is to say that most humans are not especially aggressive at all. There are some outliers, though—violent criminals—and these are nearly always men. Since he realizes this, I am surprised he misses its implications for identifying the most highly qualified MP. If the most dangerous criminals are nearly always male, isn’t it possible (by the same mathematical rule) that extremely qualified politicians are nearly always female?

Second, he hasn’t argued that Cabinet members need a level of competence beyond what most MPs have. Presumably and hopefully, MPs already have the competence needed to do their own job. If Cabinet members need something extra-special, he needs to explain what that is. It's relevant because he's asking us to consider the statistical likelihood of an MP having that something-special.

Related to that, he claims: “The possibility of identifying a competent person increases as the pool of available candidates increases.” This sounds logical, but as a practical matter it isn’t obviously meaningfully true for this particular scenario. Having a pool of one dozen, three hundred, or five thousand MPs may not increase the numbers of the exceedingly competent among them who have the je ne sais quoi to become Cabinet members. Maybe a few are dumb as rocks, maybe a few are luminaries. But I imagine they are, on average, simply the sorts of people who like to work in politics and who get voted in, and I suspect that most of them are fairly reasonable Cabinet material. If Trudeau needs to pick 17 out of some 88 women MPs and 18 out of 250 men MPs to form his Cabinet, I’m sure he can find reasonable choices. Jordan Peterson is worried that the best people for the job are languishing in the pool of untapped men MPs. He hasn’t convinced me because he doesn’t have a good definition of what makes someone best for the job. Maybe some of those untapped men have an extra IQ point or an extra smidgen of "conscientiousness" over the rest of the people who got tapped? So? The men might also lack the specific life experiences, career histories, and personality traits of the women MPs who got picked. They didn't have to fight sexism all their lives to get elected. What exactly is being ranked here? Lots of complex things. He isn't recognizing that.

And never mind that a PM surely has political reasons for choosing his/her inner circle. It's not just about who's intellectually or theoretically competent, but about who is like-minded, loyal, powerful, charismatic, networked, emotionally stable, won't be an embarrassment, and works well with all the other people who are being picked. These traits control whether everyone — as individuals and as a group — is competent in their ability to get stuff done. Getting stuff done is very important to a PM, and its practical importance will not change or diminish just because Peterson thinks raw IQ matters the most. Politicians will never choose their inner circle based on IQ tests alone—which suggests that IQ isn't the definition of political competence.

Third, Peterson rehashes one of the usual arguments against affirmative action, which is that you can’t hire people who aren’t in the hiring pipeline to begin with. The usual pro-affirmative action rejoinder is that you can make an effort to broaden your awareness of who is really in the pipeline and make an effort to reach out to them and even help set the stage for the long-term so everyone has better options in the future. Peterson misses the point that, when the PM establishes that the Cabinet should be half women, he’s setting expectations for how he wants government to run and implicitly suggesting that he’d like Canadians to elect more women MPs in the future (which, if it came to pass, would render this whole “problem” of Cabinet over/underrepresentation moot).

Fourth, I am confused why Peterson refers to Trudeau as “the absolute poster boy for…privilege” yet also says he doesn’t believe that “straight white men" enjoy privilege that is “generally undeserved.” Peterson says he doesn’t “assume” that such “patriarchy” exists, which I interpret as a euphemism for his not believing in it at all. Yet, having said he doesn’t believe in it, he then says that Trudeau benefits from it, and furthermore that Trudeau shouldn’t share it with women in an attempt to level the playing field. Go figure.

Fifth... his final paragraph is nothing more than a hostile, self-contradictory comment telling women that they don't experience real sexism today and also that they don't deserve their political positions and should be ashamed of their personal advancement.

The first section of the article, "Part One (Scandinavia)," also has its problems.

  • Peterson describes a study method for identifying gender differences: self-reporting and self-description. He says these study results reveal what men and women "are." That is a leap. Self-reporting can have limited accuracy. People are more than what they know or choose to report. He should have stuck to more precise language, e.g. men's and women's "self-understanding," throughout the article.
  • He notes that these studies find a greater gulf in men's and women's personality differences in nations with more gender-equitable policies. He says this is odd, but doesn't propose a hypothesis for it. (It would have been easy to propose an off-the-cuff hypothesis. Mine is: Maybe people engage with their own gender identity differently depending on how egalitarian their society is?) Having no explanation for this, Peterson seems to think (for no apparent reason) that it supports the idea that at least some important gender personality differences are biologically determined, and he seems to think this is a victory over the idea that gender is a social construct. It is not the win he thinks it is. Gender can have biological and social inputs—so? What is the complaint? What is he winning? Who is he conquering?
  • While it is reasonable to assume that physical sex (including genes, hormones, anatomy, reproductive history, sexual habits, and so forth) affects personality, Peterson didn't specify whether these studies considered these factors. Did these studies compare transgender people with cisgender people? Or, chemically castrated prostate cancer patients with younger men? Or...? Peterson just said the studies were about "men and women." Which means the studies might have accidentally revealed the social construct aspects of gender as much as they revealed anything about physical sex.
  • He speaks about these studies in aggregate. There's no link or citation by which I could look up any of these studies if I wanted to.
  • He's worried about some “large-scale experiments aimed at...eliminat[ing] gender identity among young children” and I don't even know who advocates that or what he's talking about. Sounds like a straw man.