Why are people skeptical?
This is a rather odd but very interesting question. First, is it a philosophical question? I'm not sure that it is. Certainly, it seems true that in the Western philosophical tradition, skepticism is a normal, even a preferred, stance. And this comes at least in great part from people like Socrates, who (as far as we know) preferred death to being prevented from questioning his contemporary customs and beliefs. For more on that, take a look at this recent book: Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson, by Jennifer Hecht.
This might conceivably answer a question about the origins of a skeptical tradition, but I don't think it answers the general question of why people are skeptical. One could cite animal studies showing that rats, cats, monkeys, and other animals seek out new and unfamiliar stimuli... in other words, that we all get bored and want something new; and that this might imply the beginnings of skepticism, i.e., the rejection of the old for the new.
But even more interesting, I think, are some recent results in human development relating to infant development and to moral development. First, you might look at:
Gopnik, A. and A. Meltzoff (1987). "The development of categorization in the second year and its relation to other cognitive and linguistic developments." Child Development 58: 1523-1531.
Gopnik, A. and D. M. Sobel (2000). "Detecting Blickets: How Young Children Use Information about Novel Causal Powers in Categorization and Induction." Child Development 71(5): 1205-1222.
Piaget, J. (1978). The grasp of consciousness. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
Zelazo, P. D. (1999). Language, levels of consciousness, and the development of intentional action. Developing theories of intention: social understanding and self-control. P. D. Zelazo, J. W. Ostington and D. R. Olson: 95-117.
Zelazo explicitly relates development to increasing 'degrees', to use a metaphor, of recursive self-consciousness. That is, child development only occurs because children become more and more able to, in effect, not merely be aware of, but to critique, to criticize, themselves... and so to alter thinking, emotional responses, and behavior. Piaget might easily be read the same way, I believe.
As far as moral development goes, you might look at Dawson on Kohlberg: Dawson, T. L. (2002). "New tools, new insights: Kohlberg's moral judgement stages revisited." International Journal of Behavioral Development 26(2): 154-166. A fascinating paper, which among other things, indicates that 'an important prerequisite of moral development is direct and repeated experience with moral conflict in social contexts'. Thus to progress morally, it seems, one must be forced to question one's beliefs.
As you can see, then, skepticism is useful, perhaps essential, in intellectual, emotional, and moral development.
Steven Ravett Brown
How to we learn philosophy or understand it?
and Ady asked:
How do we learn?
and Bill asked:
Can you provide a brief dialogue (discussion) about "how we learn" from the philosophical positions of a rationalist, feminist and scientist?
On one level we "learn" philosophy in the same way as we learn any other humanities subject, by reading, thinking and rehearsing ideas in our own words. But there are differences. Whereas the student of literature, say, doesn't have to write novels, plays or poems to be a successful student, the student of philosophy does, to some extent at least, have to "do" philosophy. That is, s/he has to evaluate arguments, assess their cogency, attempt to justify opinions. You could argue that the student of literature is studying how to respond to literary texts in the same way as the student of philosophy is studying how to respond to philosophical texts, but the difference is that the focus for the literature student is the text itself, whereas the focus for the philosophy student is the philosophical issue dealt with in the text. The philosophy text is assessed by its success in elucidating the issue. So, how do we learn philosophy? By reading philosophy texts and evaluating them critically. There is no substitute for that.
How do we understand philosophy or anything else, for that matter? This takes us straight to difficult philosophical questions (as well as to questions that are the province of psychology). What is the conceptual connection between the concept of learning and the concept of understanding? Can we have learning without understanding? This is likely to take us into normative areas, to questions of value, of relative worth. We can learn things by rote without understanding them. We can understand how items of information relate to one another without understanding the significance of the whole structure. So, neither learning or understanding are all-or-nothing concepts: in many cases, at least, we can be said to have learned something or to have understood something a bit, to some extent, partially, in a way, etc.
How should we think of understanding? As a psychological state, something going on in the mind or brain? Or should we think of it in more behavioural terms: you can be said to have understood something when you can behave appropriately or utter the right sentences? Can we ascribe understanding to others in the same way and with the same meaning as we ascribe it to ourselves? These are questions that take us into the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language.
To understand "learning" we would need to be clear about what we mean by "understanding". To be clear about "understanding" we would need to understand the meaning of "meaning", including the kinds of meaning that are conveyed by language and especially by sentences expressing propositions that such and such is the case, that point to external objects. We would then have to be clear about the relationship between the meaning of these sentences and the beliefs of the person who utters them, and then about the connection between beliefs, thoughts and whatever private experiences occur in the speaker's mind. From there we could think about the mind/ brain issues, and the ultimate connection between brain states and meaning and understanding.
There's a range of theoretical attitudes at each stage. Some people would be interested in establishing a scientific, physical, causal connection between external objects and internal brain states, and therefore in either explaining concepts like learning and understanding in physical terms (or in eliminating them from the discussion entirely, as remnants of a discredited "folk" psychology). Others would emphasise social and conventional factors, and might perhaps look at the different ways in which we can be said to learn and understand things, both within and between different cultures. For example, we talk about paintings, myths and sunsets having meaning, as well as words and sentences. They might be interested in not reducing meaning, learning and understanding to any one psychological or physical process. They might link scientific or reductive approaches to meaning and understanding to issues of ideology and power. Some feminists, amongst others, might take this approach.
As for rationalism, its perspective on learning and understanding would emphasise innate knowledge and cognitive capacities with which we are born, as opposed to the information that we acquire through our senses. This might be expressed in term of specific capacities of the brain. Even if we reject the notion of innate knowledge, we might still agree that the ability to learn and understand depends on such capacities. But this would not be equivalent to saying that learning and understanding were identical with them.
A rationalist perspective might also emphasise analytical understanding that is, understanding the internal relations of ideas and the logical implications of concepts, and using deductive, rather than inductive, inference.
What is the first philosophical question?
and Rachelle asked:
My professor asked me to find the first philosophical question.
and Warwin asked:
Why is, "Who am I?" the first philosophical question?
What do you think your teacher was trying to do when he/she asked you this question? I'm sure he/she didn't want a factual answer, if such a thing could be found how would you go about discovering what the historically first philosophical question was? Well, first of all you'd need to know what a philosophical question is. And I think that's the point of your teacher's question. He/she wants you to think about how philosophical inquiry might begin.
So, what is a philosophical question? They are usually very general questions about some basic aspect of reality and our existence. Why does anything exist at all? Is there a god? Who am I? Just look at the questions asked (and answers) on this site, and you'll know what a philosophical question is.
Then, think about how people could have begun asking such questions. Philosophy is about wonder, so what do you find most puzzling about the world? The first philosophical question is where philosophy begins for you, before you have studied any philosophy.
And you might also have a look at writings by presocratic philosophers, to see what kinds of questions the people who were the first (at least in the West) to start thinking about these things had. Are they similar to the questions you have? Why or why not?
The notion that there has to be a first philosophical question suggests that knowledge and understanding must be built up systematically from a foundation of certainty. For Descartes this was certainty about our own existence. The cogito ergo sum (I am thinking, therefore I am) argument was supposed to prove that as long as I am thinking I can be certain of my own existence. The problem then was to move from this private certainty about my own mental experience to certainty about the external world outside my mind. So, Descartes' question was not "Who am I?" but "What can I know for certain?" The "I" there was defined as a thinking thing.
If we take a reversed perspective, and assume the existence of the external world, the question becomes "How do I know what I think?" This is because the assumption that I have a certain and privileged access to my own mind, falters when we consider that our thoughts are at least partly individuated by the facts about the objects they refer to, i.e. facts in the external world. If we don't know enough about the facts to be able to distinguish between one object and another, or between one substance and another, then we could be having identical psychological experiences whilst having what must be two different thoughts or beliefs, whose truth conditions are bound to be different. The relationship between the propositions that express the thoughts or beliefs and the private mental experience is in question. In could be that what we mean by our mind is at least partially determined by facts about the external world. Therefore, the question "How do I know what I think" is very relevant.
Whatever we decide, it seems to me that the questions about the possibility of self-knowledge have to precede the question "Who am I?" because I might not be able to answer that if my self-knowledge is unreliable.
Plainly the first philosophical question is the first one you're asking. This would be your individual first philosophical question.
Historically it seems as if the ancient Greek philosophers started all philosophy by asking "What is the origin (Greek: arche) of all?", or as Nietzsche put it in his Philosophy During the Tragic Age of the Greeks: "Greek philosophy seems to begin with a preposterous idea, with the proposition that water is the origin and mother-womb of all things".
More interesting than the chronological aspect of this "first question" is its qualitative one.
If there is any justifiable "first philosophical question" in this respect, then I think we can agree with Heidegger to term the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", originally recorded (surely being asked much earlier) by Leibniz as the fundamental and widest possible question of philosophy (An introduction to Metaphysics, 1). It is the core of the branch of philosophy called ontology, or the study of existence and existence is undoubtedly the precondition for anything else, including asking questions.
Wow, guys, that's some professor you've got. Now, my first question is, why should I do your homework for you? My next question is, what does "first" mean? First in time, in importance, in interest, in profundity? Next, how does anyone know what the "first" question is? Did someone write them all down in order, 2000 years ago? Or was there an opinion poll of philosophers? And why should we believe anyone who says they know what the first question is, or was, or will be? Or should be?
Steven Ravett Brown
I am currently taking a philosophy class for children. We have to make a manual for a children's book. The book is Rainbow Fish. Some of the topics I picked are Beauty What makes something beautiful? Sharing How much do we share? Friendship what makes someone a friend? If someone is untrustworthy are they still a friend? I am having a hard time making up philosophical questions regarding the topics of friendship, beauty and sharing. Any advice?
I am a teacher in a Montessori nursery school, working with children from 2 years about 4. They are a bit young for philosophical enquiry, most of them, but I did my degree in Philosophy and so am interested in Philosophy with Children.
I have had some involvement with SAPERE (http://www.sapere.net), the British association for Philosophy with Children. An associated organization, Dialogueworks (http://www.dialogueworks.co.uk), produces a resource called Storywise that gives ideas for how to use selected picture books as stimuli for Philosophy with Children.
I always understood that it was normal in Philosophy with Children to ask the children to formulate questions that interest them, so I'm not sure quite why you need to concern yourself with making up too many of the questions. Which questions would be most effective will depend very much on the age of the children you are teaching, which you do not state in your question.
Here are a few questions that occur to me as I read through The Rainbow Fish. Most of them are not abstract philosophical questions, but you might want to start from more practical questions that the children can answer by reflecting on their own experience, and gradually move to larger, more abstract issues.
Friendship: Would you want to play with a proud and silent person (as the Rainbow Fish is described at the beginning of the story)?
Why did the incident with the little blue fish suddenly make the other fish stop wanting to play with Rainbow Fish? (couldn't they see before how proud and haughty he was?).
"Why doesn't anybody like me?" Rainbow Fish asks the starfish. Why don't they like him?
(All these questions are about what qualities are likeable, the qualities of a good friend, and how they can be recognized.)
Beauty: Why is Rainbow Fish beautiful? Is Rainbow Fish beautiful? Rainbow Fish is male. Can males (male fish? men? boys?) be beautiful?
(All these questions are about what qualities make something beautiful, and how we decide whether something is beautiful.)
Sharing: Should Rainbow Fish have to give everyone presents in order to win their friendship?
Rainbow Fish is not actually sharing his scales, but giving them away giving away his most prized possessions. Can we become happy by giving away our possessions?
(These questions are about why sharing, or perhaps generosity, is valued, and why we should share.)
I don't know the book Rainbow Fish. However, you have already identified the themes. You also have a couple of good questions on each of the themes. How do you go on from there?
There are several ways. Firstly, you could look at a philosophical account of each of your themes. What issues get raised? What are the difficulties? Then you need to try to devise a set of questions that will lead children to asking, and attempting to answer, these questions.
I always think that the best way to get a good, flowing set of questions is to start in the concrete either the text of the book itself, or in the lives of the children (or both). Look for the problematic there. What difficulties or puzzles did the characters in the book have with (say) friendship? What experience do the children have of friendship and what difficulties might arise? Then you can gradually ask a series of questions that moves from these particularities towards more general and abstract questions.
Of course, another way to devise your questions is to look at the examples of manuals that have already been written, and to modify and adapt them. Look for the general principles that seem to lie behind the way they were put together, and use them in your own task. I'm not sure what access you have to these, though.
Friendship: what makes someone a good friend? A bad friend? Who is your best friend and why? What makes someone trustworthy? Think about examples. (e.g. if I steal someone's toy and my friend tells the teacher, is she being a bad friend? why or why not?)
Sharing: What kinds of things do we share? With whom? Do we share different things with different people? Why might we not want to share things with someone? You can link this to questions about friends. What do we share with friends? Again examples might be helpful.
Beauty: different kinds of things that are beautiful flowers, pictures, people.... words, sounds, images.... Is a flower beautiful in the same way as a picture of a flower? Is a real thing more beautiful than a picture? What makes a person beautiful? Why do we like beautiful things?
Friendship gives rise to several important questions in normative ethics. What special duties are owed to friends? If I have a choice between helping a friend and helping a stranger, where the stranger needs help more than the friend does, whom should I help?
Sharing: How far does our duty to share extend? If I have plenty of food, and others around me are starving, then most people think I should share some of my food with them. But how much? Do I have to keep giving until I'm as hungry as they are? Or where do I draw the line?
A young boy of eleven who was full of life and talent was tragically knocked down and killed the other day. Everything happens for a reason and I believe that. However, I am having great difficulty in understanding this reason. Do you have any answers?
I sympathise with your feelings, but find it difficult to understand what is meant by, "Everything happens for a reason". I hazard a guess that you are referring to some sort of spiritual reason, as the physical reason for the tragedy could probably be explained by the events and conditions leading up to the fatality. A long time ago my wife and I lost a daughter at the tender age of seven; the reason was obvious, she contracted a virus which attacked her brain and led to three years of deterioration until she died. No one could do anything about it, even the most advanced medical care at the time. Are we to say that all this was sufficient reason for our daughter to die? If we wish to close the book on it, the answer is yes. However, if our world view involves a spiritual or mystic dimension the answer is no. It is this latter view which I believe your question addresses.
The christian religion offers comfort through the belief that God is in complete control over all things, and can supply sufficient reason for anything that happens. You may say that there is nothing in this concept to allay concerns and grief, when an explanation is required for taking the life of a child. However, we are dealing with a spiritual matter, and to come to terms with spiritual matters we have to rid ourselves of preconceived secular notions received from the society in which we are brought up. One of these notions is the idea that all humans are entitled to a designated life span. Many derive this idea from the christian concept of three score years and ten; anything beyond this is a bonus, anything less and the person has, in some way been cheated: the terms 'unjust' and 'unfair' are often used. For example, why should David live to the age of ninety and Peter die at sixty, particularly as David was a chain smoker and heavy drinker, and Peter neither smoked nor drank. Of course, by worldly standards such a thing is grossly unfair.
Perhaps, then, when society draws a line in the sand, and declares that humans are all 'entitled' to reach the age of, say, seventy, people are likely to be disappointed or angry when a loved one, or close friend, is seemingly unfairly cheated out of their entitled life-span, and particularly when the victim is a child. As we tend to recognise degrees of fairness, the more years lost below the deadline and the more unfair the situation. Seen as unfair for a person to die at sixty, it is more unfair at forty, and grossly unfair at the age of eleven. This notion of receiving what we believe we are entitled to causes great confusion within society, and in the broader concept, between nations. The general beliefs are, that we are entitled to a roof over our heads, we are entitled to food, clothes, warmth, a comfortable retirement, a peaceful existence, etc.. A world view like this causes great concern and agonizing over reasons when a tragedy occurs.
Yet, people who hold secular views, as well as those who hold spiritual views, believe that we live within the bounds of natural law; stepping outside that law we suffer the consequences. My mother was killed on the road when she ran from the back of a parked vehicle into the path of a car travelling at 30 mph. The 'reason' for her death was obvious, natural law does not allow elderly ladies who collide with heavy vehicles moving at 30 mph. to survive. Followers of religion pose a strong argument when they point out that God, having given us the laws we live by cannot keep intervening to change them for specific events: when He does, they are called miracles. Why miracles should be granted in some cases but not in the majority of others is beyond me. But as many things that happen in this world are beyond me this is not unusual.
Perhaps this answer still leaves you confused, but it may help to bear in mind that we have still a great deal to discover about the world, our origins, the purposes of life, and whether indeed this life we lead is the be all and end all of our existence.
I feel for you, Laura, especially if you were close to the boy.
There are two ways that we can take the phrase "everything happens for a reason". It can mean "everything happens for a purpose", or it can mean "everything that happens is caused".
In my view, the second version is true, but the first is not. For everything to have a purpose, it all would have to happen under the guidance of a being that can have intentions and make plans. If one believes in a certain sort of God, then one can go along with this. But if one doesn't believe in God, or one believes in a God that does not keep an eye on every event in the universe and plan each of them towards some purpose, then it is not true that everything happens for a reason (purpose).
However, if one believes that all events have causes one of the basic assumptions of science then everything does happen for a reason (because it was caused). This tragic event had numerous causes, I imagine inattention on one or more people's part, distractions, unusual conditions I don't know exactly what they are. But the death of the boy was not planned by anyone or anything, and in that sense it is just a tragic and horrible accident.
The question you ask (although you do not mention God) is a very personal and particular version of the much wider question of evil. See Derek's question on this page for a wider version of it, and my answer there.
With so much cruelty and suffering in both the animal and human world, it makes it very difficult to believe in a loving, caring God. The insect world there are horrors where eggs are inserted into another creature and when they hatch they eat their victim alive from the inside. Why too are the poorer countries always victim of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes etc? Is it really just a matter of survival in a world of uncontrolled chaos where there does not appear to have a infrastructure of any lasting security and that the inevitable is oblivion? No religious superficial "God works in mysterious ways" answers please!
You pose the question of whether it is possible for both evil and God to exist. As you say, God has to be seen as loving and caring (benevolent or all-good) to get the problem going. He also needs to be all-knowing (omniscient) so that he knows there is evil in the world, and all-powerful (omnipotent) so that he could do something about it, for the problem to really bite.
So, one solution is to deny one or more of these attributes of God. He could still be loving and caring if he either didn't know about the things you list, or he knew but lacked the power to stop them.
Since your examples of evil are natural not causes by human action the defence against the argument that evil rules out the existence of God that relies on God having given people free will, which they can then misuse, is not available.
The "God works in mysterious ways" defence is not necessarily superficial, I don't think. If God is omniscient, it may be that he can see a greater good arising from the evil you mention, and the fact that we are very limited in our knowledge means that we can't. I don't buy this argument, mind, but I think it is a respectable attempt.
You probably won't like Leibniz' related argument any more either. He claims that God created the best of all possible worlds. That is, this world has evil in it, but there is less evil than in any other world it would have been possible to create, and more good (you need the last part to avoid the question "why not just create a world with only rocks in it?"). Voltaire's book Candide is an excellent fictional ridiculing of this idea.
Well if you want to approach it from the religious viewpoint, you might look up the literature on "the problem of pain". There's lots of it, from St. Augustine on through a millennium or so. But as far as I can tell, given that you assume a benevolent, "good", god of some sort, you either have to be a fairly straightforward sadist (and maintain that being a sadist is good), or say, one way or another, "god works in mysterious ways". The "mysterious" could be in its ultimate aim, in its the definition of "good", and so forth, but that's what it amounts to, given the assumption of "goodness" (which I have happily put in scare quotes).
Speaking as an atheist, I think that your picture of "a world of uncontrolled chaos where there does not appear to have a infrastructure of any lasting security and that the inevitable is oblivion" is not too badly off the mark, if a bit exaggerated. After all, to take just one example, the global warming which we're experiencing now is rather directly due to human efforts. So we are in a sense in control, and could be very much more so if we could get it together. I'd say that the sooner we stop relying on the "goodness" of whatever god happens to be at the top of the current opinion poll this century, and get cracking on maintaining our environment ourselves, the sooner we'll be able to reduce the amount of "chaos" (which of course will never completely go away) and clean things up a bit.
Steven Ravett Brown
The difficulty you refer to is known as the Problem of Evil, although it should really be called the Problem of Suffering. Part of the problem is reconciling God's various properties: omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection, etc. If he could prevent suffering, why doesn't he, if he is morally perfect? Religious justifications of suffering are called theodicies. One theodicy argues that God gave humans free will so that we could be like him, autonomously choosing to do good rather than evil. But since he gave us genuine free will, without any biasing in favour of good, we can, and do, choose often to do evil. In the long run, the argument implies, humanity will choose the path of righteousness. There are several difficulties associated with this argument. One is that it doesn't deal with the suffering caused by natural phenomena, such as earthquakes. Another is that it implies that morality and God are independent: God is not the source of goodness. This undermines some of the arguments for the existence of God.
The "God moves in mysterious ways" response certainly is irritating. Could a morally perfect God be as devious (and slow) as God is often portrayed as being? Some of the theodicies imply that he allows mass suffering in order for a few people to exhibit outstanding courage and charity, and to inspire thereby. This suggests that God does not have a high respect for either innocence or life.
But perhaps we are wrong to look at the question from a short-term human perspective. Personally, I think we should not assume that the human race is as good as it gets. We are likely to be wiped out by a disaster event at some point, but some animal species will survive; eventually it is possible that a different highly intelligent species will emerge, also capable of morality (and philosophy). It might have no place for the idea of God, but it might itself be a little more angelic. Even then, it probably won't last!
What is holy?
We often think that holy means greatness, goodness, sacred, a tipping of the divine into the human, or as a way of understanding the glory of god. And yet the word 'Holy' finds it's root in the Hebrew equivalent kadesh, which expresses the notion of being separated from, or elevated above and at the same time a dedication to. Holy is the special (ultimately ethical) relation to what is separated from me.
But how is it possible to maintain a relation to something that remains separate? Isn't a relation a notion that implies a meeting a union (if only partial) of two terms? This is correct only so long as we confine ourselves to a thinking that maintains the reality only of what is immediate, of what is present, before us, a relation that holds between the is-ness of things. The concept of relation is one which applies to knowledge, we understand things through relations. Relations are a tool we use to comprehend. Whereas the Holy forces us to think about what is absent, that can never be present or fully before us, that escapes knowledge and comprehension. Hence the relation enabled by the holy is no ordinary relation, it is a relation that must maintain or even create make possible the difference and separateness of the terms.
The holy would be what Levinas calls a relation without relation, that is, a relation that does not have the characteristics or defining parameters of a relation. How is this possible? Levinas suggests that it is possible in ethical terms, which in his sense of the word is the meeting of two people face-to-face, without that other person being reduced into any prejudices or previous ideas I may have, but is encounter with that which is irreducible to me any knowledge I may have; in other words with that which is separate from me and maintains this status through our interaction. For Levinas, ethics is responding to this person's needs and wants, providing for their physical subsistence. The Holy is simply the responsibility for the other person, the Holy is ethics.
An interesting question, which has been debated a fair amount. You might take a look at these:
Eliade, M. (1961). The sacred and the profane. New York, NY, Harper & Row.
Frazer, J. G. (1951). The golden bough: a study in magic and religion. New York, NY, The Macmillan Company.
James, W. (1968). The varieties of religious experience: a study in human nature. New York, Collier Books.
They are classics in the field of comparative religion.
Steven Ravett Brown
I am an undergraduate philosophy student who hopes to attend a graduate school next fall. Last term I took up an independent study, and wrote a paper in which I presented a point that I couldn't quite convey to the two philosophy professors in my department whom I have developed relationships with. I think that they see my argument as an evasion, a sidestepping of metaphysics, and yet it seems to me that it is important and must be addressed. I don't imagine that my argument is original, but I would very much like to know what philosopher(s) have made it before or taken it seriously, so that I might explore the idea further and find a better way to express it (unless every sees it as an evasion!).
It is simply this: No one can deny a proposition that they do not understand. For example: If I encounter someone who maintains that square triangles exist, it can not be the case that they are referring to two-dimensional polygons that have both three and four sides, for that is a contradictory expression.
Well without seeing the paper it's hard to comment. Offhand, I'd say that if you showed something like that to me, I'd want to be (and you to be) very very clear on what you think "understand" means. If you're claiming that we (or the "genius") have direct access to the world, to truth, then perhaps you're saying something metaphysical... maybe. But on the face of it, all you're saying is something psychological, which is pretty trivial, isn't it. And even given direct access, you'd have to be very careful about simple mistakes, illusions, etc. Further, what do you mean, really? That no one can meaningfully deny such a proposition, right? Because certainly I can deny anything I like. Ok, now what does "meaningfully" mean? Something like, a denial is worthless unless you understand. Ok... now what? Is a denial meaningless? No. Then you mean something like, we should place no credence on it, it has no useful function, right? But all that is merely psychological, or at best has something to do with verification, which is an epistemological issue.
It seems to me that the only way you're going to relate this to metaphysics is to become a Platonist of some sort, so that you can say that in order to understand something you have access to a world of ideal forms or essences. Then you can make epistemology a branch of metaphysics. If you really want to go this route, you might check out Edmund Husserl; he felt somewhat the same way. But he spent a lot of time denying that he was a Platonist, without convincing many people. However, I think that his approach may be what you're really looking for. Speaking for myself, I think that he was radically mistaken, and I'm not the only one who has that opinion (really, I should say, "who has come to that conclusion"). But look him up.
Steven Ravett Brown
Descartes believes that animals have no souls, and presumably no inner lives. Yet one can observe behavior in animals which seems to suggest that they do in fact experience emotions. How might Descartes attempt to reconcile his theories about animals with empirical evidence that seems to refute them? Do you think he could do this successfully?
I agree that animals do seem to behave in ways that suggest they experience emotions. My dog certainly appears happy, ashamed, angry. He also twitches and yelps in his sleep, as if dreaming. If you take a dualist view of mental states, then we are in the same position with regard to animal mental states as we are to another person's: we may infer that their behaviour is in response to internal experiences similar to our own, but they might be zombies or, as Descartes said of animals, automata. Descartes, of course, associated the mind with the immaterial and immortal soul, and this prejudiced him against animals (also androids and aliens). By definition, there could not be empirical evidence for the existence of the soul other than, in the case of our own, our private mental experience (which is the foundation of all empirical evidence, according to Descartes). I do not know how Descartes could have made a distinction between inferring other minds from human behaviour and inferring animal minds from their behaviour.
The mind-brain identity theory is the opposite of Cartesian dualism, but only in some ways. Most identity theorists and other materialists are, like Descartes, internalists. Internalists hold that mentaL states are located inside us (in the brain, for example) and are possessed by us in a way that gives us a direct, privileged access to them. There are many problems associated with this view, some of which were emphasised by the Behaviourists and by Wittgenstein. Your question implies that you are thinking of emotions as private, internal experiences.
An alternative view, externalism, holds that the meaning of mental state terms is at least partly located outside of the person (or animal), in objects in the world around us. If this view is correct, then when we say a person "experiences an emotion", the phrase indicates more than just a internal private experience. This mean, amongst other things, that we cannot reduce emotions, and other mental states, to brain activity (you cannot point to an MRI scan and say "That's anger"), nor to any kind of internal mechanism, human or otherwise.
We certainly do have subjective experiences. Does my dog? Yes, I think so. To me, he is person-like, and this means that I credit him with emotions and some at least of the other baggage that goes with believing that others experience emotions too. It would be hard to separate the external, behavioural, social and moral elements of emotion concepts from any subjective phenomena there might happen to be.
I am enrolled in a class about Gender and Politics. In it we read books about people who use constructivists or postmodern methods of analysis to show how institutions create the concept of "gender", "natural," "male" and "female". I think that even though it is important to know the nature of those concepts, postmodernism can be taken to ridiculous extremes. Most of the writers insist that most, if not, all of what we think about ourselves is a social construct. I understand how this can be used as a tool to get rid of ideologies based on bigotry, but I also think it is damaging to blame psychology, and science in general as well as economics for the evils of society. As I stated earlier even though it can do good it can also harm by negating the possibility of real knowledge about our surroundings. If they insist in the use of the subject of social constructs then it reaches a point where everything is excusable, because there was no agency involved in the process of making decisions.
[...] I also wanted to know how, if is possible at all, one can reconcile the concepts of responsibility, the concept of good and bad and postmodernism. I would like to know if you could recommend a few critiques of postmodernism. I hope that my request is not too demanding. I hope to hear from you soon.
Your request is, actually, extremely demanding. I will answer you here briefly... but I cannot possibly do justice to this issue in this forum. Anything I can say here can only be a very rough approximation to what I'd consider a reasonable argument. But, given that caveat, I'll proceed. So... I agree with you about postmodernism as usually presented. That is, as "cultural relativism" for morality, ethics, construction of concepts, and so forth, it is, in my very strong opinion (and I'm not alone, as you will see) basically a form of nihilism. The problem here, that is, the problem for one, like myself, holding this position yet sympathetic to many of postmodernism's motivations, is that postmodernism is in part a response to very real inequities: toward women, toward minorities, and so forth... and it is certainly correct that social factors enter into, to varying extents, such concepts as gender.
But to address those inequities by claiming that the culture (let us say, as a rough categorization) which possesses them, or people within that culture, are motivated solely by considerations of power and of status (and there's no doubt that those are very powerful motivations for many) is to denigrate both the culture and those within it who are attempting to act morally. In addition, to claim that one can toss out one set of values and substitute others because all values are ultimately equal is simply to claim that there are no values, merely whatever considerations move one at the moment. This has been argued, indeed... and it is nihilism, or at best the reduction of values to those of animals. On the other hand, there is certainly a point to publicizing the inequities which do exist.
Thus, I regard such social constructivism not as philosophy but at best as rhetoric; and as such its proper venue is not academia but literature, popular magazines, works of art, and so forth. And indeed, many writers in the field employ those latter venues, quite appropriately, in my opinion. One might, against this, argue that art, for example, is a form of philosophy... and indeed that has been argued. However I don't agree with that viewpoint; but I simply don't have the space to follow that up here (and there are those who explicitly attempt to straddle the gap, e.g., Derrida, J. (1993). Memoirs of the blind: the self-portrait and other ruins. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press... a wonderful book; but I'd argue that it isn't philosophy).
So one problem with my point of view is of course to specifically state why I hold this position. Another problem is to present a reasonable alternative. Instead of doing those things, I'm going to give you some references that argue those issues tremendously better than I could in this limited space.
Why, then, deny cultural relativism? Well, what if we can show, or at least present a strong case, that there are some cultures whose values are objectively bad? What could that mean? Well, what if people in those cultures holding those values simply do worse than those who do not, and worse than people in other cultures who do not? Wouldn't that be a good argument that those values are just wrong? I mean, if people holding a certain set of values are poorer, more diseased, etc., than people in comparably wealthy cultures, with comparable resources, but different values, then we'd at least have to entertain the possibility that there was something wrong with the former values, wouldn't we? So look at these (and of course they have lists of references to lead you further):
Edgerton, R. B. (1992). Sick societies: challenging the myth of primitive harmony. New York, The Free Press.
Gintis, H. (2003). "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Altruism: Genes, Culture, and the Internalization of Norms." Journal of Theoretical Biology 220(4): 407-418.
Harrison, L. E. and S. P. Huntington, Eds. (2000). Culture matters: how values shape human progress. New York, NY, Basic Books.
Lopez, S. R. and P. J. Guarnaccia (2000). "Cultural psychopathology: uncovering the social world of mental illness." Annual Review of Psychology 51: 571-598.
Now, what alternative positions to relativism are there? Well, first, there's always my favorite book relating to truth: Kitcher, P. (1993). The advancement of science; science without legend, objectivity without illusions. New York, NY, Oxford University Press.
And here are some more readings on naturalizing morality:
Held, V. (1998). Whose agenda? Ethics versus cognitive science. L. May, M. Friedman and A. Clark. Cambridge, The MIT Press: 69-87.
Jackman, H. (1999). "Prudential arguments, naturalized epistemology, and the Will to Believe." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 35(1): 1-37.
May, L., M. Friedman, et al. (1998). Mind and morals: essays on cognitive science and ethics. Boston, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Rachels, J. (1986). The elements of moral philosophy. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.
Annis, D. B. (1978). "A contextualist theory of epistemic justification." American Philosophical Quarterly 15(3): 213-219.
Clark, A. (1998). Connectionism, moral cognition, and collaborative problem solving. L. May, M. Friedman and A. Clark. Cambridge, The MIT Press: 109-128.
Dewey, J. (1988). Human nature and conduct. 1922. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press.
Flanagan, O. (1991). Varieties of moral personality: ethics and psychological realism. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
Gintis, H., S. Bowles, et al. (2003). "Explaining altruistic behavior in humans." Evolution and Human Behavior 24: 153-172.
Henderson, D. K. (1994). "Epistemic competence and contextualist epistemology: why contextualism is not just the poor person's coherentism." The Journal of Philosophy 91(12): 627-649.
Johnson, M. (1993). Moral imagination: implications of cognitive science for ethics. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.
Nussbaum, M. C. (1988)."Non-relative virtues: an Aristotelian approach." P. A. French, T. E. J. Uehling and H. K. Wettstein. Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press. 13: 32-53.
Williams, B. (1985). Ethics and the limits of philosophy. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
All the above is just the tip of a huge iceberg of controversy and writings, pro and con, on this subject. This is why I started with my initial disclaimer.
Steven Ravett Brown
I have watched the Movie 'The Grey Zone' about the Sonderkomandos in the concentration camps during World War II. There is one question that stands out from all the others: What is the destiny of mankind when horrors and man's inhumanity to man still exists today?
If you are asking for a prediction I can't give you one, and given what is important in your question is the issues it forces us to confront it is probably best that I cannot.
What are these issues? Let me try to unpack them. I haven't seen the film, but I believe the phrase 'The Grey Zone' originates with Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, it's a chapter title from his book The Drowned and the Saved, a chapter concerned with the Sonderkommandos (SK) or the Jewish groups who maintained the death camps, who while themselves prisoners were 'responsible' for the running of the ovens and gas chambers. Responsible is in scare quotes here because for Levi these Jews represent the crossing over into the grey zone, where our need and our ability to judge falters. Can we even ascribe responsibility to these people? Certainly they would have been killed if they refused but then they were killed anyway (so that they would not be able testify as to what had occurred) So why did they do what they did? why didn't they rebel, or face death rather than collaborate with the Nazis? Surely they were criminals just as much as the Nazis were.
Conceiving and organising the squads was however, according to Levi National Socialism's most demonic crime. This institution represented an attempt to shift on to others specifically the victims the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence. The Grey Zone has subtle and shifting borders, such that ordinary black and white concepts of right and wrong fail to apply, to such an extent that Levi tells us: I believe that no one is authorised to judge them, not those who lived through the experience of the Lager and even less those who did not live through it.
But maybe the implications of the possibility of the SK are more worrying than placing us in a grey zone of moral judgement, in the face of the desolation of the holocaust maybe a revolution in our thought is called for:
The Holocaust demands interrogation and calls everything into question. Traditional ideas and acquired values, philosophical systems and social theories all must be revised in the shadow of Birkenau. Novelists and politicians, poets and moralists, theologians and scholars all feel compelled to examine their consciences with regard to the holocaust. Not to do so would mean to live a lie.
That's the demand we are confronted with at the gates of the death camps: that Auschwitz and Birkenau could happen means that they can happen again, and they are more likely to happen, if things carry on in the same way they did before the holocaust. Of course, as you recognise the horror is still with us, genocides repeat themselves and with it repeat the demand of Auschwitz: Not to let this happen again. Maybe we are not trying hard enough to follow this new categorical imperative ( T.W. Adorno's phrase).
Given the fact that we keep repeating our mistakes, refusing to learn from the demand of Auschwitz may lead you to conclude that the destiny of mankind is to destroy itself. But this would be still to remain within the mode of thinking that we need to overcome. That is, if by destiny you mean some determinate history, some necessary outcome of human affairs, and a predictable conclusion. For this kind of thinking this idea of destiny is what drove (under various guises) the perpetrators of the twentieth century worst atrocities.
The Holocaust calls into question the sense of destiny; there are no longer any certainties. Further respecting the demand of Auschwitz i.e. rethinking our ways of talking about the world, of space and time, of interacting, of treating other people, of writing, of organising society, means that we cannot predict what will be the outcome. Right now we cannot say what a post-holocaust thinking would be. Auschwitz has shown us that anything can happen, and we have to be prepared for that. (This is one reason why I can't offer a prediction.)
Although exactly how we can be prepared for the unexpected seems like a contradiction, maybe that's just the kind of situation we find ourselves in after Auschwitz: to be alert, wakeful or to maintain what Levinas (an important thinker on these questions) calls an absolute insomnia toward a future which is completely unpredictable.
Levinas has argued that a person has an infinite responsibility to an other person, that is to whoever happens to come along. When faced with this Other I am obliged to help to give the Other what ever (s)he needs. Of course part of the risk in this ethic of absolute insomnia is that after Auschwitz, I can never be sure what the other is. After Auschwitz it is no longer possible to tell the difference between gods and monsters anything can happen but this time that's another reason why I can't offer a prediction, but what ever happens, this time we cannot escape our responsibility for it.
If we think of a ball bouncing, then we stop thinking about it, and then we think again of the ball bouncing, has the ball being bouncing the whole time?
Hopefully you mean "has the ball we were thinking about" been bouncing... Well I'm really not sure why I'm answering this... look. Suppose you think of (i.e., visualize, rather than merely, for example, read the first sentence above) a ball bouncing. Ok. Then you stop. For how long? A millisecond, a minute, an hour, a week, 10 years? What does "stop" mean? Completely switch consciousness to other experiences? The answer is: if you stop (in that sense) for a very short interval, then the neural processes realizing the experience you're having (visualizing the ball) may not have had time to completely stop, to dissipate, to realize something else. So if you switch back really fast, probably on the order of at most about 1/2 second, you might be able to claim that the "ball", i.e., the visualization of the ball, has in some sense continued. Otherwise, no.
Steven Ravett Brown
Suppose you ask me to think of a ball that has been bouncing for a while. It would be absurd to think that in order to do this, I have to picture the ball as it starts to bounce, then return to my mental image of the bouncing ball some time later.
When we consider the nature of thinking, we are tempted to think of it as simply picturing, using imaginary coloured pencils or paints on my mental drawing paper. But that can't be right. I can make the ball red by putting red in the picture, but I can't make the ball heavy or light by putting 'heavy' or 'light' in the picture. (As an exercise, think how you one actually might try to do this: picture a man, grimacing with effort as he holds the ball. What makes this picture, a picture of a heavy ball rather than a picture of a very weak man?)
Similarly, my mental picture of a ball that has been bouncing a long time might have paint flaking off, the surface of the ball badly scuffed, and so on. But these marks alone do not suffice to mean 'a ball that has been bouncing for a long time'. Obviously, there are other ways in which the ball could have been marked in this way.
What makes my image of the ball what it is, what gives the ball I am thinking about its qualities depends on the verbal description I would be prepared to give.
But here's a reason for second thoughts. While I was typing the last sentence, I started a tune in my head,
A very old friend
came by today
'cause he was telling everyone in town
of the love that he just found...
As I concentrate on continuing to write, did Elvis Presley stop singing or did the tune merely fade into the background? I stop writing and notice that I have now reached the second verse,
He talked and talked
and I heard him say
that she had the longest, blackest hair
prettiest green eyes anywhere...
This looks like an empirical question. How would one devise an experiment to decide, one way or the other? Come to think of it, why can't I start a mental ball bouncing to mark the passing seconds, '1 bounce, 2 bounce, 3 bounce...' and return to discover that it took just 12 seconds to finish this sentence? Doesn't that show that I can make my mental ball bounce when I'm not attending to it?
What does that prove? Nothing. All it shows is that to think about a ball bouncing is not the same as bouncing a mental ball. One can think about a ball bouncing without conjuring up any image of a ball, just as one can run a mental tape of a bouncing ball or Elvis without thinking about a ball or about Elvis.
What do you think of the following question?
"Memory: Is there a more fragile human faculty? Without it, what are we? It is the only record we have of who we were and what we want to become. Take it away and only a spiritless machine is left, free of conviction, free of purpose."
Memory provides the narrative structure to our lives whereby we (re)claim and presume our identity. Take away the memories and the answer to the basic question of identity 'who am I?' is very hard to answer.
And of course in a wider cultural sense memory is an important reference point: forgetting our history or letting the past die is an injustice to the victims, sufferers of actions that have a direct relation to the present (wouldn't ignoring the testimonies of holocaust survivors give National Socialism a posthumous victory? Isn't there then a duty to remember?).
Memory is the capacity to carry the past in the present to unite time and identity in a consciousness in a 'now', such that my life is understood as a continuity of events, maintained in the container of the 'I'. Take this away and all we have left is as you say, a spiritless machine and yet it seems that I could have had any other memories and still be me. For example I have a memory of my dinner, but that memory could have been different if I had decided to go fishing today. My memories seem to be contingent, they could have been anything. How does this harmonise with the claim that memories make us who we are?
Is that account really what happens or all that happens? Doesn't the question of memory answer not 'Who am I' but 'What am I'?
Imagine a case of an amnesic asking us 'who am I?' we try to answer the person in terms of what they do, where they live, their family relations, there achievements. That is we try to answer the question of who by responding in terms of what, in terms of events, Memory constructs a life for consciousness. But is the who question saturated by the what? In other word 'Does consciousness exhaust the notion of subjectivity?' (This is a question raised by Levinas.)
Is there something about us that escapes the unity of consciousness, that is not continuous, in memory that escapes the confines of the present?
Levinas thinks so and he thinks he can locate it in the ethical responsibility I have regarding other people, a responsibility that cannot be transferred or assumed by anyone else. Levinas' basic idea is this: I am who I am due to the fact that there is no one else able to take my place in the world, a fact that is generated in being singled out to answer to the other person's needs and wants. It is this singularity that is essentially mine and makes me, me.
Being a subject for Levinas means being subjected, being held responsible, to the point of dying for the other. As a responsible subject I am not for myself, not enclosed in the structures of time and identity of memory and consciousness, but am for-the-other. Being for-the-other means that there is no self or I' of self-identifying consciousness. It means ultimately that I am not even at the origins (the base, the ground floor) of myself. What makes me me is beyond, outside the realm of memory of recall of any past that could be maintained in the present. the other precedes and makes possible my subjectivity.
Here we have a situation where meaning, purpose and conviction is entirely separate from memory we are no longer spiritless machines, at the mercy of contingent experience but the very embodiment of spirituality.
What did the great thinkers think about heart and mind? How did they distinguish between subjects related to heart and mind?
This is an interesting question but one that can be taken in different ways. What is the mind? That is a long-standing philosophical topic, still very much debated. What is the heart? Well, on one level it is obviously a physical organ, and it's not more complicated than that. Unlike the mind, the heart isn't said to have an additional kind of property: it isn't thought to be conscious, and it is no longer thought to be the site of the emotions. So the heart is straightforwardly a physical object, no different in principle from the liver or the kidneys.
However, we do still talk about the heart in connection with the emotions, but only metaphorically. It is not to be taken literally. In this usage, the heart symbolises passions, especially love. That's why heart shapes are associated with love. In the middle ages some people believed that there was an image of your loved one in your heart. Anatomy (in the seventeenth century) put paid to that idea, but we have the remains of it in our use of silver or gold lockets to keep a photo of a loved one in. If the heart was for the passions, such as love, the mind was for the more rational, cognitive activities.When love is so important to us, it is somehow appropriate to associate it with the organ that keeps us alive and that pumps blood around our bodies in order to get oxygen to our brains. It represents how vital and central love is.
You asked about great thinkers. Well, the seventeenth century French philosopher Descartes was someone who helped to make anatomy respectable. By associating the mind with the non-physical soul, he left what was left of us, our bodies, as purely physical things that can be examined when we are dead and our souls/ minds have departed. Resurrection will involve just our immaterial souls/ minds, so it won't matter if our bodies are cut up.
For Descartes, the emotions that had once been associated with the heart are just mental states in other words, they belong to the mind, not the heart. They are private, subjective experiences inside us as are, he thought, beliefs, desires, intentions, sensations and all other mental states. This is a view that still causes debates in philosophy. Is it true that we know our own emotions first and best, that we have a special privileged access to them because they are inside us, in our minds (or, as materialists think, in our brains)? Or are emotions not so much private experiences as concepts, involving at least some reference to external things such as behaviour?
Take love. When we tell someone that we love them, are we simply reporting an internal experience (a feeling), or are we making a statement which means, in part at least, that we will behave towards them in certain ways? Aren't we implying all sorts of beliefs, intentions and desires (that will depend on the context of the relationship): e,g, that we believe s/he is nice, attractive, smart; that we intend to see him or her as much as we can; that want more physical intimacy?
It's a complex concept. That is why we have to be very cautious when scientists (on TV programmes and elsewhere) tell us that they have located love in the brain. That is just as absurd, really, as locating it in the heart. Just because certain brain chemicals and certain neuronal regions are activated at certain moments, it doesn't mean that they equal love, anymore than your heart going 'boom-didi-boom' does. The term "love" can be used in many, many varied situations ("I love my partner", "I love chocolate biscuits", "I love it when the teacher forgets to set an assignment") do they all have the same brain state associated with them? It's hardly likely. Can't I love my partner even when I'm not actually thinking about her? Love is a concept, not any one kind of event. You won't find it "in" my mind (because you won't find my mind!), nor in my brain, nor in my heart.
If love was a purely private or internal experience, no-one could ever correct a partner who swears love: "I don't care what you say, you don't love me. I know because you don't phone, you don't give me flowers, you never give me compliments, you're just not there for me!" Surely, third person evidence of that kind can over-rule the first person assertion of love?