Thursday, November 28, 2019

How we determine what is correct

Here's some trilemmas.

Trilemma 1

Consider the following proposal:

  1. Everyone who actually contributes to the project will be recognized as having equal status to the other contributors.
  2. Everyone with contributor status will be given equal power to help determine the right path.
  3. The current power structure will remain the same.

They cannot all be true. Which statement will be rejected?

Trilemma 2

Consider the following statements:

  1. We can solve any question of power distribution regarding how we determine the right path.
  2. We have the motivation to do good by solving such questions.
  3. There is an open question of this type.

They cannot all be true. Which statement will be rejected?

Trilemma 3

Consider the following statements:

  1. The rightness of the path is self-justifying or uses a circle tying back to itself.
  2. The rightness of the path depends on a fixed point outside itself.
  3. The rightness of the path depends on an infinite regress of points.

Are these the same or different?

Friday, September 20, 2019

Quotes: On deep reading, writing, and meaning

Annie Murphy Paul ("Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer," Time, June 03, 2013):

The deep reader, protected from distractions and attuned to the nuances of language, enters a state that psychologist Victor Nell, in a study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens to a hypnotic trance. Nell found that when readers are enjoying the experience the most, the pace of their reading actually slows. The combination of fast, fluent decoding of words and slow, unhurried progress on the page gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions. It gives them time to establish an intimate relationship with the author, the two of them engaged in an extended and ardent conversation like people falling in love.

This is not reading as many young people are coming to know it. Their reading is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls 'carnal reading' and 'spiritual reading.' If we allow our offspring to believe carnal reading is all there is — if we don’t open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice — we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter. And we will have deprived them of an elevating and enlightening experience that will enlarge them as people.

William Poundstone (Labyrinths of Reason:  Paradox, Puzzles and the Frailty of Knowledge, New York: Anchor Books, 1988. p. 200):

Most rational people do not ponder Newbold's and Levitov's cases long before rejecting them. To say exactly why we reject them is something else. Susan Sontag defined intelligence as a "taste in ideas." It is difficult to codify that taste.

Fernando Pessoa (The Book of Disquiet. Edited by Maria Jose de Lancastre. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. London: Serpent's Tail, 1991 (a collection of writings that were unorganized upon Pessoa's death in 1935). p. 258):

To say things! To know how to say things! To know how to exist through the written voice and the intellectual image! That's what life is about: the rest is just men and women, imagined love and fictitious vanities, excuses born of poor digestion and forgetting, people squirming beneath the great abstract boulder of a meaningless blue sky, the way insects do when you lift a stone.

Aline Kilmer, (quoted by the AP, quoted in The Week, Feb. 5, 2016. p. 19):

Many excellent words are ruined by too definite a knowledge of their meaning.

Akwaeke Emezi. Freshwater. Grove Press, 2018):

We don’t have to swallow our work or be afraid that it’s too deviant to do well; there is, in fact, no canon we cannot touch. Even when seized by a thousand fears, we can make strange and wonderful things simply for the sake of the strange and the wonderful, we can create without permission, we can write into the unknown.

Mallarme (quoted in Anatole Broyard (d. 1990). Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir. New York: Carol Southern Books, 1993. p. 32):

If a person of average intelligence and insufficient literary preparation opens one of my books and pretends to enjoy it, there has been a mistake. Things must be returned to their places.

Uzma Aslam Khan (The Geometry of God, Clockroot Books, 2009. Kindle location 1718):

Until now we were stepping outside the box the lines were loose. But now Nana wants to follow the laws he wants a legal ghazal [poem]. While we think of one Nana says, 'Everyone understands love through the images of love like the bulbul and the rose or the hunted bird or eye lashes like daggers or we have made up our own. But a ghazal in English is illegal!'

Willis Elliott (Flow of Flesh, Reach of Spirit: Thinksheets of a Contrarian Christian. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. p. 114):

Your 'soul,' by which here I mean your interiority, is compounded of all the conversations you’ve ever had — with other human beings, with God, and with yourself. That’s only one angle from which to describe your soul, but it’s a vital one, theoretically developed by social-psychologist George Herbert Mead (as the social origin of consciousness), and clinically tested and developed by a man I studied with, Hugh Missildine (as 'the child of the past within'). Mead died before I could get to him, but he got to me through his writings. Both men have been important in the shaping of my understanding of interiority and thus in my devising the Thinksheet genre.

James Baldwin, quoted in The San Diego Union-Tribune which was then quoted by The Week, July 28, 2017, p. 17:

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read."

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Quotes: We understand through word, image, sound

"Seneca believed...arguments are like eels: however logical, they may slip from the mind's weak grasp unless fixed there by imagery and style."

Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy, Vintage Books, 2000. p 92.

"The magic of words still remains for me. I prefer them to ideas.
Chicago newspaperman Ben Hecht, quoted by Ron Powers, in The Beast, the Eunuch, and the Glass-Eyed Child. New York: Anchor Books, 1990. p xvii.

"Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in the types and images. It (the world) will not receive it in any other fashion."

Gospel of Philip

"I realized that only in music could I find the answer I was seeking to the questions of the previous evening. Argument I could follow, it weighed with me, yet I could decide nothing from it.
Fred Hoyle. October the First is Too Late. Connecticut: Fawcett, 1966, 1968. p 156.

"But I think everyone should have a little philosophy, Thomas said. It helps, a little. It helps. It is good. It is about half as good as music.
Donald Barthelme. The Dead Father. New York: Pocket Books, 1975. p 76.

What do we want more than knowledge?

"Why should workers become intellectuals? I find it hard to imagine a less attractive prospect than a society made up of intellectuals," said Christopher Lasch.

Intellectual projects may not even be able to achieve what they set out to do. Knowledge is, first of all, not necessarily the final goal. Sometimes the goal of knowledge is to find a better goal.

"This, then," said Soren Kierkegaard, "is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.

Knowledge is also fragile and elusive. It dies a little bit in the process of coming into being.

"The forceps of our minds," said H. G. Wells, "are clumsy things and crush the truth a little in the course of taking hold of it."

In which case, said Parker J. Palmer, we must reconnect with the truth as it is known before the mind even grasps it, as "every time we get in touch with the truth source we carry within, there is net moral gain for all concerned. Even if we fail to follow its guidance fully, we are nudged a bit further in that direction. And the next time we are conflicted between inner truth and outer reality, it becomes harder to forget or deny that we have an inner teacher who wants to lay a claim on our lives."

We may still have to engage in our intellectual projects, but at least we understand their proper limits — that is, where the academic exercise ends and where we begin.

"Many academic examinations fall into this category, in which it is psychologically healthier for the student to realize that he is required to take the examination and he doesn't like it, and to study for it with that realization in mind. The damage to his integrity comes," as Rollo May explained, "when he tries to persuade himself that he does like it."


Christopher Lasch. The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1984. p. 27.

Johannes Climacus (Soren Kierkegaard), Philosophical Fragments, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, 1985. p 37.

H. G. Wells, quoted in, quoted in The Week, June 14, 2013, p. 19.

Parker J. Palmer. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. p. 19.

Rollo May, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1972. p 103.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

On Harry G. Frankfurt's 'The Importance of What We Care About'

The Importance of What We Care About (book cover) by Harry G. Frankfurt

The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt collected thirteen essays in The Importance of What We Care About (1988). The first twelve are reprints, and the thirteenth is new. He reprinted them in chronological order with only a brief preface, so it is a challenge to see how they are related as a body of things one might importantly care about. I imagine that a chronological presentation of his work is useful to inform us about his evolution as a philosopher but not necessarily useful to introduce us to any particular topic or drive home any particular thesis.

In the Preface, he says he's focused on "metaphysics or...the philosophy of mind — for instance, how we are to conceptualize ourselves as persons, and what defines the identities we achieve." He's interested in free will, and not just in the context of moral choices.

The thirteen essays are in academic language that is generally difficult to read. Here's what they are about.

"Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility" (1969)

His position is: "A person may well be morally responsible for what he has done even though he could not have done otherwise." More specifically, a man who faces a threat if he does not perform a certain action is unable to act otherwise, but if he had coincidentally already decided to perform that action anyway for reasons of his own, he is still morally responsible, according to Frankfurt. "We often do, to be sure, excuse people for what they have done when they tell us (and we believe them) that they could not have done otherwise. But this is because we assume that what they tell us [about the threat or coercion] serves to explain why they did what they did."

"Freedom of the will and the concept of a person" (1971)

Humans (and some non-human animals) are entities that merge mind and body, and lamentably there is no word for this. Humans are unique because we have "second-order desires," that is, we can want to want something. [Typically: We want to eat dessert, and we wish we wanted to eat something healthy.] It is for a person to be "concerned with the desirability of his desires themselves"; it is "the question of what his will is to be." Reason is a prerequisite to "becoming critically aware of his own will and of forming volitions of the second order," and these second-order desires — driven by reason and will — have to do with "the essence of being a person."

In this essay, he argues that it's possible to have free will even in a deterministic universe. Some outside force might determine whether one "enjoys or fails to enjoy freedom of the will." In that case, though, two people (the person and the outside force) might be morally responsible for the person's choices.

"Coercion and moral responsibility" (1973)

He discusses "cases of coercion in which the victim is made to perform an action, by being provided with a certain kind of motive for doing so," such that "the victim is not to be regarded as morally responsible for what he has been coerced into doing." He notes that "threats" and "offers" are similar in that they create a motive, but a threat dangles a "penalty" while an offer dangles a "benefit." People who are threatened may still be morally responsible for their choice. "Coercion" is something more because it makes the person no longer morally responsible. This has something to do with the severity of the threat, such that "the person would act reasonably in submitting" to the threat. "This requirement can only be satisfied when the threat appeals to desires or motives which are beyond the victim's ability to control, or when the victim is convinced that this is the case." When a threat is severe enough, the victim "cannot prevent his desire to avoid the penalty in question from determining his response," unless, that is, he's got some exceptional virtues or powers. In that case, he "performs not merely rightly...but with a certain heroic quality." He ends by claiming that "only another person can coerce us, or interfere with our social or political freedom," and we "tend, of course, to be more resentful" of such personal interactions than of mere environmental constraints. Nonetheless, our environment may deprive us of free will; the deprivation of free will does not require the interference of another person.

"Three concepts of free action" (1975)

This essay, written while he was teaching at Rockefeller, is a response to a 1975 essay of the same title by Don Locke. Frankfurt mentions Locke's example of two hijacked pilots who are ordered to fly to Cuba, one who does so because he is afraid he'll be killed, the other who follows orders gladly because he has a mistress in Havana. This is a strange example to illustrate the subtleties of coercion. If we were in need of an example, slavery and rape are far more common in the real world, and the perpetrator often tries to make the victim feel guilty for submitting to the coercion (e.g. because — so the perpetrator conveys — that is what the victim secretly wants, or would have done anyway, or is all they're good for, or...) These problems, not men's helicopter fantasies, are something we actually already care about. This is why diversity in philosophy departments is so important.

Frankfurt discusses cases in which a person feels conflicted about his choice. The hypothetical person claims "that what he did was not something he really wanted to do, or that it was not something he really wanted to do." He might, for example, have picked the lesser of two evils.

A person is "active with respect to his own desires when he identifies himself with them." If his identification of himself with his desires is what drives his action, then he is "active" with respect to those actions. "Without such identification," Frankfurt says, "the person is a passive bystander to his desires and to what he does..." Second-order desires cannot be passive. They are active by their nature; a person is always identified with his second-order desires.

"Identification and externality" (1977)

What's the difference, he asks, "between the sort of thing that goes on when a person raises his arm (say, to give a signal) and the sort of thing that happens when a person's arm rises (say, because of a muscular spasm) without his raising it?" [This is one of the very last topics I would have considered including in a book titled The Importance of What We Care About. but here it is.] And, for that matter, "to some of the thoughts that occur in our minds, as to some of the events in our bodies, we are mere passive bystanders. Thus there are obsessional thoughts, whose provenances may be obscure and of which we cannot rid ourselves; thoughts that strike us unexpectedly out of the blue; and thoughts that run willy-nilly through our heads." We experience these things passively; we are not identified with them.

"The problem of action" (1978)

Our understanding of "action" centers on "the contrast between what an agent does and what merely happens to him." Actions may have causes, but they need not have causes of any particular type. He talks about "purposive" behavior that involves course corrections to achieve some goal.

"The importance of what we care about" (1982)

Here's the title essay of the book. It's the most readable essay up to this point, indicating, to me, his evolution as a writer. It marks a turning point in his writing style.

He identifies "what to believe" (epistemology), "how to behave" (ethics), and "what to care about" (his interest).

"...for most of us, the requirements of ethics are not the only things we care about. Even people who care a great deal about morality generally care still more about other things. They may care more, for instance, about their own personal projects, about certain individuals and groups, and perhaps about various ideals to which they accord commanding authority in their lives but which need not be particularly of an ethical nature. There is nothing distinctively moral, for instance, about such ideals as being steadfastly loyal to a family tradition, or selflessly pursuing mathematical truth, or devoting oneself to some type of connoisseurship."

And what does it mean to be important? The concept is "fundamental" and runs into "circularity" when he tries to define it. Something is important if it makes a "difference at all" to something else, probably an important difference.

"A person who cares about something is, as it were, invested in it. He identifies himself with what he cares about in the sense that he makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending upon whether what he cares about is diminished or enhanced. Thus he concerns himself with what concerns it, giving particular attention to such things and directing his behavior accordingly. Insofar as the person's life is in whole or in part devoted to anything, rather than being merely a sequence of events whose themes and structures he makes no effort to fashion, it is devoted to this."

A person's caring cannot be fleeting, or else it would appear no different from an "impulse. He would not in any proper sense be guiding or directing himself at all." Also, "when a person cares about something, it may be entirely up to him both that he cares about it and that he cares about it as much as he does." And: "The formation of a person's will is most fundamentally a matter of his coming to care about certain things, and of his coming to care about some of them more than about others."

He closes with these lines: "When a person makes something important to himself, accordingly, the situation resembles an instance of divine agape at least in a certain respect. The person does not care about the object because its worthiness commands that he do so. On the other hand, the worthiness of the activity of caring commands that he choose an object which he will be able to care about." I don't know from agape, but this sounds like normal post-breakup advice to me. If someone refuses your energy, stop thinking about them and give your energy to someone who wants it.

"What we are morally responsible for" (1983)

He's still arguing that a person may be morally responsible, even if he can't act otherwise, when he "acts as he does for reasons of his own, rather than simply because no other alternative is open to him."

"Necessity and desire" (1984)

Here, Frankfurt claims that "desires" sometimes take precedence over "needs." A terminally ill patient might choose a "pleasure cruise" on his bucket list rather than yet another surgery. He thinks that we must also consider "the value of what [something] is needed for" rather than the mere fact that it is needed.

A "volitional need" depends on something that's wanted. If the desire is voluntary, the volitional need is "free"; if the desire is involuntary (for example, "especially intense or difficult to control" or "ineradicably persistent" even if mild), the volitional need is "constrained."

He makes this interesting comment at the end: "Our feeling that it is incumbent upon us to assist a person in need tends to become somewhat attenuated when the need is essentially derivative from that person's desire. This may be because the hardening of desire into necessity strikes us as an analogue of 'bad faith,' so that we suspect the person in question of being unable to control his desire only because he does not really want to do so."

"On bullshit" (1986)

This essay is famous, so I shall not say much about it here. It maintains that bullshit is a type of deception that, unlike lying, doesn't intend to make a truth claim. "For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.

"Equality as a moral ideal" (1987)

Regarding the distribution of wealth, what matters morally "is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough. He believes that an undue focus on economic equality "tends to divert a person's attention away from endeavoring to discover...what he himself really cares about and what will actually satisfy him." On a different tack, in times of scarcity, there are moral questions about the best distribution of resources: "perhaps it is worse to prolong the process of starvation for a short time than to terminate quickly the agony of starving to death." He also applies this argument to the educational rights of a hypothetical disabled child, saying that making a choice to help a disabled child even when it might adversely affect an abled child isn't about "providing people [in this case, the disabled child] with as much as others. It pertains rather to the urgency of the needs of people who do not have enough."

"Identification and wholeheartedness" (1987)

He muses on the difference between "mind" and "consciousness." For example: "one way of being unconscious is to be asleep. But even while they are asleep, animals respond to visual, auditory, tactile, and other stimuli. Otherwise it would be difficult to wake them up."

It gets more productive here: "We are ceaselessly alert to the danger that there may be discrepancies between what we wish to be (or what we wish to seem to be) and how we actually appear to others and to ourselves." Also: "Our hearts are at best divided, and they may even not be in what we are doing at all." To the extent that we are "moved to act by something other than what we really want," we're passive, because "we are moved by a force that is not fully our own."

A "second-order volition" is a choice about what desire you want to motivate you.

"When the decision is made without reservation, the commitment it entails is decisive. Then the person no longer holds himself apart from the desire to which he has committed himself. It is no longer unsettled or uncertain whether the object of that desire — that is, what he wants — is what he really wants. The decision determines what the person really wants by making the desire on which he decides fully his own. To this extent the person, in making a decision by which he identifies with a desire, constitutes himself. The pertinent desire no longer in any way external to him."

Also, choosing to identify with one of two desires "is not necessarily to eliminate the conflict between those desires, or even to reduce its severity, but to alter its nature." The person's commitment "eliminates the conflict as to which of these desires he prefers to be his motive. The conflict between the desires" — "which remains — is in this way transformed into a conflict between one of them and the person who has identified himself with its rival. The person is no longer uncertain which side he is on, in the conflict between the two desires, and the persistence of this conflict need not subvert or diminish the wholeheartedness of his commitment to the desire with which he identifies."

"Rationality and the unthinkable" (1988)

This is the final essay, written for this book, that serves as the conclusion, I suppose.

A challenge of utilitarianism is that "anything might at some point be morally imperative." As with atheism, "nothing can be ruled out in advance." A utilitarian can't commit to principles of personal integrity and "can form no stable conception of his own moral identity." [Apart from utilitarianism, anyway.] There do need to be some limits on what is thinkable; "the set of actions that are unthinkable for a person specify the limits of what the person can will to do. It defines his essence as a volitional creature." People who will do anything "if the price is right" have "no essential nature at all." Our will, which regards "what we are unable to bring ourselves to do," sometimes compels us to act in a way that seems on the surface to be irrational ("against [our] judgment") but that is just where "the rationality of a person may in part reside."

And so finally we see what Frankfurt cares about.

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 shapes their personality.

“You pile up associations the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself," said Louise Bourgeois, "is a form of architecture.”

The mind builds a house as the body does: brick by brick.

"Cathedral thinking," according to Kimberly Nicholas, is "collectively working toward a transcendent purpose we may or may not live to see accomplished but that will outlive us all."

Actual Cathedrals of Learning

Steven Connor in The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing (2019):

"Universities have a fondness for these structures, which sometimes, as with the Uniersity of London's Senate House, impractically and overheatingly house libraries. Berkeley's Sather Tower, a campanile whose carillon still plays regularly, houses fossils of animals retrieved from the tar pits of California, as though to figure the transformation of life into stone and then stone into the second life of knowing. When I first visited the University of Pittsburgh I thought the name 'Cathedral of Learning' given to the 160-metre (535-ft) structure that dominates the campus must be an affectionate joke. But that indeed has been its official name since the first class was held in it in 1931. It is in fact only the fourth tallest educational building in the world, after the main building of the Moscow State University, the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower in Tokyo (so named because its curved shape, resembling a bud, seed or pair of praying hands, suggests a nurturing structure for those it contains) and the helical Mode Gakuen Spiral Towers in Nagoya."


"In medieval Europe," wrote Paul Von Ward, "the soaring edifices that eventually evolved into the Gothic cathedral emphasized religion's otherworldly focus. Its vertical character stressed the hierarchy of concepts on which the church was organized and by which it was controlled."


In 1933, Peter Wessel Zapffe wrote in his essay "The Last Messiah" (trans. Gisle R. Tangenes):

The mechanism of anchoring also serves from early childhood; parents, home, the street become matters of course to the child and give it a sense of assurance. This sphere of experience is the first, and perhaps the happiest, protection against the cosmos that we ever get to know in life...

* * *

Any culture is a great, rounded system of anchorings, built on foundational firmaments, the basic cultural ideas. The average person makes do with the collective firmaments, the personality is building for himself, the person of character has finished his construction, more or less grounded on the inherited, collective main firmaments (God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the law of life, the people, the future). The closer to main firmaments a certain carrying element is, the more perilous it is to touch. Here a direct protection is normally established by means of penal codes and threats of prosecution (inquisition, censorship, the Conservative approach to life).

The carrying capacity of each segment either depends on its fictitious nature having not been seen through yet, or else on its being recognised as necessary anyway. Hence the religious education in schools, which even atheists support because they know no other way to bring children into social ways of response.

Whenever people realise the fictitiousness or redundancy of the segments, they will strive to replace them with new ones (‘the limited duration of Truths’) – and whence flows all the spiritual and cultural strife which, along with economic competition, forms the dynamic content of world history.

* * *

The very foundational firmaments are rarely replaced without great social spasms and a risk of complete dissolution (reformation, revolution)."

You can anchor your learning to something in another culture. Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty wrote in 1988: "The fear that we will lose our own way, our own voice, by being swallowed up in the maelstrom of relativism, is a paranoid one; we may still make moral judgments, value judgments, while listening with openness to alternate worldviews. The fear that we will be unable to learn, deeply and personally, the classics of other peoples is equally unfoudned; such classics are no harder than Homer for us to learn. The 'common core' of our curriculum is entirely arbitrary; if you dig deeply enough from any spot on the surface of the earth, you will reach the center."


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.

What if your academic 'cathedral' doesn't represent your reality?

The American philosopher William James wrote in Pragmatism (1907) that a student ("a graduate of some Western college") had recently submitted a thesis to him that complained that philosophy classrooms required students "to open relations with a universe entirely distinct from the one you left behind you in the street. The two were supposed, he said, to have so little to do with each other, that you could not possibly occupy your mind with them at the same time. The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is a multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful, and perplexed. The world to which your philosophy-professor introduces you is simple, clean and noble. The contradictions of real life are absent from it. Its architecture is classic. Principles of reason trace its outlines, logical necessities cement its parts. Purity and dignity are what it most expresses. It is a kind of marble temple shining on a hill." In this way, philosophy fails to explain or to make "an account of this actual world" and instead makes "a substitute for it, a remedy, a way of escape." Philosophy's cathedral is built as an "addition" upon the "intolerably confused and gothic character" of the real-world building that was already there; philosophy is "a classic sanctuary in which the rationalist fancy may take refuge."


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

Louise Bourgeois, quoted in the dedication to Carmen Maria Machado. In the Dream House: A Memoir. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2019.

Kimberly Nicholas. Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World. New York: Putnam, 2021.

Paul Von Ward. Gods, Genes, and Consciousness: Nonhuman intervention in human history. Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads Publishing Co., 2004. p. 334.

"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.

Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. Other Peoples’ Myths: The Cave of Echoes. (1988) Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995. p. 144.

"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.

William James. Pragmatism. pp. 21-22.

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.