Monday, November 23, 2015

How to stop trying to be a zombie

Samkhya is one of six orthodox schools in the Vedic tradition of Indian philosophy. It is associated with the Yoga tradition. Yoga is a meditative discipline that is not primarily concerned with attempting to bend the human body into the shape of a pretzel.

Samkhya is usually counted as a dualistic philosophy. When we think of dualism in the West we think of RenĂ© Descartes, who was a substance dualist. Descartes held that there are two kinds of things in the world: Mind and Matter. It's tempting to try to appropriate Asian philosophical notions to Western categories, but caution is warranted. For one thing, substance dualism seems to encounter a serious problem. For it seems as though our minds and bodies interact in various ways, e.g. with physical events (like hitting one's thumb with a hammer) causing mental events (like pain). But it's hard to see how a physical event can have any effect on the mind unless the mind is also a physical thing.

The dualism we find in Samkhya is a dualism between Purusha and Prakriti- between the subject of experience and all of the possible objects of experience. Purusha is the Self, which is identified with consciousness. This is not intentional consciousness- consciousness of this thing or that. It is pure consciousness. The assumption here is that, if we withdraw our attention from all objects of consciousness, a pure, or object-less, consciousness will remain. This is Self-Realization, and it is the goal of Yoga.

Prakriti, on the other hand, consists of all the possible objects of consciousness: Rocks, trees, penguins, #2 pencils, and so on. But according to Samkhya, the mind is also among the objects of consciousness. In addition to being conscious of the external world, I am also conscious of my own mind and its contents. Of course, this is not a novel claim. What is novel is that Samkhya ends up with a different division than the one we find in Descartes. It posits no distinction between mind and body; instead it distinguishes between consciousness and the body-mind. Thus Samkhya appears to be in rough agreement with the materialist tradition in Western philosophy by placing mind and body in the same category.

Samkhya takes the mind to have the ability to discriminate environmental phenomena (e.g. telling the difference between red and green light), focus attention, and control bodily movements- all of the functions normally associated with what has been called the “easy problem of consciousness.” However, according to Samkhya, the mind is not actually conscious. The body-mind, without Purusha, is what some Western philosophers have referred to as a philosophical zombie: It would be capable of performing all of the usual functions of a human being, without their being accompanied by any conscious experience. Conscious experience is made possible by Purusha.

(My reference to zombies may cause some of my readers to compare Samkhya's dualism to property dualism. Property dualism does not suppose that mind and body are separate substances; it insists instead on a distinction between mental and physical properties. There is much to be said about this comparison, but I cannot explore it here.)

Think of Prakriti, the world of experience and particularly the mind, as being like a machine that is functioning in a dark room. Now imagine a light drawing near to the machine. This light represents Purusha, the Self- it is consciousness, and it illuminates the machine of the mind. Shining in the light of consciousness, the mind appears to be conscious. It thinks, “I am the light.” But this is a mistake. At best, the mind only participates in consciousness, giving it concrete expression. Hence a Sanskrit term for mind, “citta,” which as I understand it - I am no Sanskrit scholar - refers to reified consciousness, or consciousness made concrete, as opposed to the “pure” or “root” consciousness (cit) of Purusha.

All of this is interesting theory, but problems lurk, particularly if we suppose that Samkhya's dualism is a form of substance dualism. There does not seem to be any problem here with mind-body interaction, since mind and body fall under the same category in Samkhya. But the interaction problem seems to emerge at a different level- as a problem with the interaction of consciousness and the body-mind. The analogy I have used of the light shining on the machine- which is rooted in an analogy made in the classic Yoga literature- suggests that we should understand the conscious light of Purusha as interacting causally with an otherwise-unconscious Prakriti. It seems to me that this is not possible if Purusha and Prakriti turn out to be different substances.

However, it seems to me that Samkhya need not embrace substance dualism. The distinction it makes between Purusha and Prakriti is a practical one, and the practice in which it is grounded is the practice of yoga. Samkhya, like much of Indian philosophy, is concerned to give an analysis of the human condition and in particular, of human suffering and the means to remedy it. (Its account competes with the one given by Buddhism, which insists on the nonexistence of any transcendental self.)

The cause of suffering, according to Samkhya, is the association of Purusha, the conscious Self, with the body-mind. Though we are the subjects of experience, we mistakenly identify with the objects of our experience- with our mental life, with our bodies, and to some extent with the people and things we take to be ours. We are conscious beings who are, in a sense, trying to be something that is unconscious. We are trying to be zombies, and this is painful. The dualism of Samkhya is committed to nothing more than the possibility of psychologically disassociating ourselves from mental and physical objects. This disassociation begins when we notice that there is, at least, a conceptual distinction that can be made between ourselves and the objects of our experience, and it finds its fruition in yoga practice.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Further Reading:

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, tr. Vivekananda

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Why we should lie about Santa

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”       ~1 Corinthians 13:11

I once believed that lying to children about Santa was morally wrong but I no longer do. Cynics find much good in Santa-culture, our mass media-corporate retail complex deploys the lie seasonally, it fuels the perpetual acquisitiveness a flourishing economy requires. But I seek benefits beyond the materialistic. Propagating the Santa story is among the most instructional, least harmful deceptions we can share with our kids that will teach them not to believe what people tell them on trust-alone. It is a culturally-transmitted misbelief with adaptive, epistemic, and ethical value.

I’m not talking about the Santa myth as allegory, where Santa represents loving kindness. Myths are just stories that may or may not be true and, hey, they are entertaining and connect people. But we can teach the values and limits of hope, love, and charity more clearly without help from Santa. The story to which I refer goes like this: Santa exists, not merely in concept or the imagination. He watches, judges, and visits our homes on Christmas Eve and rewards good children with gifts, etc. There isn’t a shred of evidence for Santa, in actuality, and no adult really believes in him. It is a mighty powerful myth, as besieged parents of 2 to 7 year-olds know. We present it as literally true to children so that we can manipulate their thoughts and actions.

Most Americans report believing in Santa when they were children. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey finds that one-fifth of Americans say they are the parent or guardian of a child in their household who believes in Santa, and 69% will pretend that Santa visits their home this Christmas Eve. Parents even pretend to believe this when kids are dubious: “One-in-five parents whose children do not believe in Santa (18%) say they will pretend to get a visit from Santa this year, as do 22% of those who are not the parents or guardians of minor children in their household.”

We do this because we don’t really think that telling this story is wrong, but it is a lie. Despite the cold logical consistency of deontologists who rebuke us for lying to genocidal or otherwise depraved persons, we don’t accept that all lying is wrong. In fact, lying to children is especially good for them. Much can be learned from this episode in their young lives at so little cost. The Santa story is not the worst lie we can teach children, it is also not the best. This conspiracy of elders which kids must contend with exercises their nascent rationality and autonomy. It primes them for questioning all of the stories people tell.

Children don’t have much choice about what to believe, they are poor discerners of fact from fiction. But children are future autonomous, moral agents and this is especially why we should lie to them before they are fully-fledged, so that their filters and shields emerge early as they become rational. The world is filled with deceptions, we do them a great service with this benign story. Children are well-adapted to believe that parents are looking out for their interests but need to learn that even these people are not reliable truth-tellers. People who love us and seek our best-interests will deceive us, sincerely, even if they are well-intentioned but ignorant, short-sighted, or misguided. True love and truth telling are uncorrelated.

Could we get the benefits if we told them Santa was make-believe at the outset? Perhaps, but this lie is so systematic, accessible, widespread we are fools not to take advantage of it. By age 10 most people don’t believe it, they realize and accept that they have been deceived for egotistical reasons. As parents and teachers, when we discuss the implications of Santa with mature children we can show them, rather than merely tell them, that they cannot just accept what others assert. The Santa story is corrosive to the faith and confidence we extend too readily to loved ones and authority figures. It also exemplifies the imaginative power of the human intellect in preserving the appearance of truth in a problematic story, however much we wish it were true. The Santa story as a plausible hypothesis fails when we test it. Use it to show children how to check the math. If Santa spends only 5 seconds visiting each of say 20 million homes, he spends well over 3 years delivering presents. We derive a result inconsistent with his legendary 24-hour delivery time-frame. Reindeer cannot travel that fast, etc. The story falls apart.

By the age of 10, with this one myth, children may learn much. People speak falsely, deliberately. The people whom you ought to trust most will deceive you if they believe that it benefits you or us to do so. If people who love you will lie to you, for whatever reasons, then you can’t accept that whatever they tell you is true or even that it is what they themselves believe. No people are reliably honest. All of us have had, and probably still have, widely-held beliefs regardless of whether they are true. Also from the Pew study: Roughly three-quarters of adults (73%) say they believe Jesus was born of a virgin. Among the religiously unaffiliated, 32% believe it.

Voltaire warns us:
'Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.'
Teaching a misbelief that makes children sensitive to inconsistencies in character, testimony, evidence, math and logic is morally permissible. The Santa story does all of this. Deceiving kids about Santa is prosocial. Use it to probe the limits of honesty, integrity, compassion. Once exposed, the Santa myth is an antidote to the totalitarian trap of traditional, authoritarian, faith-based thinking.

Pass it on.

Scott Merlino
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Markets fail. So what?

In welfare economics, a market failure is when the competitive price system fails to allocate resources efficiently, where this usually refers to a violation of Pareto optimality. This means there are unexploited ways to make some people better off without making anyone worse off. If, for example, the market systematically underprices a good because some of the costs associated with its provision are externalized on the public, that’s a market failure. If the market under-provides a good because there isn’t a good way to prevent free riders, that’s a market failure.

A very common strategy of argument is to identify a market failure and then suggest a government intervention designed to address it. For example, the standard microeconomic analysis of public goods provision suggests that things like lighthouses would be under-provided by the market because of people’s propensity to free ride. Someone might notice that ships need lighthouses and build with the hope of signing up paying users, but this arrangement would certainly fail because lighthouses are non-excludable and non-rivalrous. None of the ship owners would pay for the service. If we’re going to have lighthouses, we need the government to provide them.

But market processes aren’t the only kinds that fail to secure an efficient outcome. Theories of government failure developed among public choice economists in response to the assumption that in a case where a market process has failed, a government decision-making process will correct it. This is closely aligned with the assumption that government actors are genuinely benevolent and reliably motivated to pursue the common good. Public choice theory shows that you can generate better predictions of government behavior by assuming that people holding government offices are people of normal good will and largely motivated by self-interest.

Just like there are several well-theorized sources and examples of market failure (e.g., externalities and public goods), there are likewise several well-theorized sources and examples of government failure. In cases of corruption, government officials use their control of public resources to advance their private ends. An official may be in charge of some project and solicit bribes in exchange for granting the government contract supporting it. The problem here isn’t that it’s immoral, though it is. The problem is that extending a contract on the basis of someone’s willingness to provide a bribe will almost certainly violate Pareto optimality. Public choice theorists argue that ineffective monitoring regularly permits politicians to benefit themselves at the expense of the public. Individual losses among the public may be quite small. In fact, that they are small explains the ineffective monitoring since their losses escape their notice. Therefore, their ignorance about who it is best for them to vote for, what policies are best for them to support, or who might be taking advantage of them is rational. But in the aggregate, their total losses will tend to be much greater than the benefit the politician consumes in the form of rents.

This dynamic of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs also figures into accounts of regulatory capture. When political actors have a great deal of discretionary power, this generates powerful incentives for an industry to use whatever means available to influence the decision-making process. They might convince regulatory agencies to permit certain profit-enhancing externalities or provide economic protection from foreign or domestic competitors. These high stakes provide incentives to win influence that are much stronger than anything that would induce an individual citizen to organize with others to help keep the regulatory agency’s activities in line with the public interest.

So governments fail, too. We should, therefore, be on guard against committing the Nirvana fallacy. The following syllogism makes the mistake in the Nirvana fallacy pretty obvious:
 1. In a range of circumstances, markets constrained by interventionist policies administered by morally and informationally perfect people would have better outcomes than markets free of any interventions. 
2. In those circumstances, actually implementing those interventionist policies administered by morally and informationally perfect people would have better outcomes than the market free of any interventions. 
3. Therefore, we should implement the interventionist policies.
Obviously, 3 does not follow from 1 and 2.

This lesson, and even many sources of government failure, was acknowledged by, of all people, Cambridge welfare economist A.C. Pigou, who is the patron saint of market failure theorists. As early as 1912 in Wealth and Welfare, he wrote
“It is not sufficient to contrast the imperfect adjustments of unfettered private enterprise with the best adjustments that economists in their studies can imagine. For we cannot expect that any State authority will attain, or even whole-heartedly seek, that ideal. Such authorities are liable alike to ignorance, to sectional pressure, and to personal corruption by private interest.”
Again, markets fail. But even when they do – even when real-world markets do not meet the standard modeling assumptions that ensure perfect competition and Pareto optimality – government intervention may make things worse. The government is, at best, another tool societies can sometimes use to good effect. It is not a Deus ex machina that societies can rely upon to swoop in and bring about a happy ending.

The possibility of government failure should militate against the tendency to compare the reality of unregulated markets with an idealized implementation of government control in order to argue for interventionist public policy. That isn’t the choice that’s available to us. Instead, we have to choose between the messy real-world outcomes of unregulated markets and the messy real-world outcomes of regulated markets.

Examples of messy real-world institutional arrangements might actually surprise some economists in the way outcomes sometimes do not cooperate with standard microeconomic models. Return to the lighthouses. In 1820 about 75% of lighthouses on the English coast were built and operated by private parties because they could effectively limit access to their service by tying its use to entry into harbors. There, berths were excludable and fees were easy to collect. This example may suggest a sort of market resiliency where cooperative solutions to market failures emerge without government intervention because novel solutions are incentivized by mutual gains from trade.

Government failures generally don’t have this natural self-correcting feature, which may make them more serious. To correct a government failure there must be someone with the insight to devise a solution and the benevolence, courage and skill to see it through in the face of highly motivated political opposition. But politics eats up people like this for breakfast.

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, November 2, 2015

Kant’s Dove, Neurath’s Ship, and Archimedes’ Point

Kant: The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.

Neurath: We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support.

Descartes: Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and immovable; so, also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable.

I would like to examine our capacity for ‘original’ thought in light of these three passages.

Assume that an original thought will take the form of a counterfactual.
  • If there were unicorns Amelia would be pleased.
  • If nudity were unexceptionable the world would be a better place.
Regarding the first, we get our concept of a kind of animal the same way we do our name for it, from our encounters with the animals.

But our encounters are (alas!) wholly lacking in unicorns.

So, while ‘dolphin’ is our name for dolphins, ‘unicorn’ is not our name for unicorns.

We have no name for unicorns.

Nor do we have a concept of unicorn. And since we have no concept of unicorn we cannot understand what the counterfactual expresses.

This, of course, seems manifestly nuts: “I understand what the counterfactual means perfectly well. Even Amelia understands it, and she’s only five.”

Actually, you don’t.

The concept ‘unicorn’ would be of a particular kind of animal; but that kind is over the modal horizon from us. And since our cognitive capacities are rooted in our encounters with the actual, it’s over our cognitive horizon too.

If the sentence expresses a thought, it’s a completely general one about animals vaguely like horses with a single horn in the middle of their forehead, etc. But that’s not a thought about unicorns.

The second example is where the constraints on thought really kick in.

The rationale for nudism lies in its preferred name: ‘Naturism’. Being naked, or at least not much caring whether anyone is naked or not, would be more natural to human beings. And if we acted more naturally, the evils deriving from entrenched oppressive conventions would appear less ineluctable.

As it happens, physical modesty, including the wearing of clothing, is a cultural universal. The best explanation for this universality is its presence in the cultural toolkit of that group of ‘behaviorally modern’ humans from which all present-day humans are descended.

This cultural toolkit has formed the human social world in which we live, and in which the developmental psychology of every human being for at least the last 50,000 years was formed. Clothing appears to be implicated in the control of sexual clues, and thus of sexual arousal, in the absence of a human estrus cycle.

But that’s not all. However skimpy, clothing has one universal feature: it has always been more than merely functional. Clothing involves aesthetic decisions in such a way as to make the wearer distinctive. It is self-adornment. And it is a particular kind of human person who finds a need to self-adorn.

How we dress does not just express certain facts. Our way of dressing can constitute what is expressed: facts about ourselves, our views about the world and about our relations to others. Clothing is a convention constitutive of important features of our humanity which would simply not exist without it.

While I generally disapprove of rhetorical questions, the force of these considerations demands one:

From what Archimedean point does the advocate of naturism advance his preference?

The naturist’s standpoint has to be the same as the rest of us. Thus he cannot after all be indifferent to whether people are clothed or not. Such preference is, like Amelia’s for unicorns, over the cognitive horizon.

This again seems manifestly nuts. Of course he can prefer that we be naturists.

This confuses the thought that we can be naturists with a completely general thought about creatures vaguely like us, with a different deep cultural history, different constitutive conventions, a different developmental psychology, etc. They could be naturists.

But that’s not a thought about us.

Naturism advocates commit what should be known as the ‘Kant’s Dove’ Fallacy. They pay so much attention to an unwanted feature of a state of affairs that they fail to realize that a change in that feature would not improve the state of affairs, but undermine it – and with it would go their capacity to disvalue the feature.

Suppose that behaviorally modern humans had adopted other arrangements. After all, nothing is less ‘natural’ than clothing. Likewise for other deep conventions. Then exactly the same human beings – members of the species homo sapiens – may have come to exist, the same gametes producing the same token zygotes, etc. But those individuals could not share our goals, our ways of flourishing, our values.

Nor we theirs – even though they would, in some sense, be us.

A misconceived Platonism ignores the particular, definite sort of creatures we are, and aspires to the status of bodiless pure minds. We are not bodiless pure minds but social creatures with a particular concrete history. That history sets limits to what we can think of, what we can value.

But we shouldn’t bemoan this fact, since our possessing some concrete history or other is also the condition of the possibility of our thinking, or of valuing, anything.

We’re all stuck here together on Neurath’s Ship. Don’t try to take apart too much at one time.

Take a lesson from the coherence of utopian projects of all sorts.

And for the Original Position as well.

Thomas Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, October 26, 2015

What makes people good at philosophy?

This week we asked faculty of the Sacramento State Philosophy Department the following question:

Is there such a thing as philosophical aptitude, intelligence or ability? If so, what is it? If not, what accounts for one person being a better philosopher than another?

Here's what they said.

Thomas Pyne

I’m not sure whether the ‘aptitude, intelligence, or ability’ that characterize many of the philosophers I most admire is not in fact a disability – at least in other social situations.

The philosophers I most admire seem immune to intellectual fashion and common sense.

Common sense serves no purpose in philosophy, at least in metaphysics. After all, common sense is a metaphysics – and a dubious one, given its origins in meeting our survival needs rather than truth-tracking. Or it is the superseded metaphysics of 500 years ago.

It is very difficult to swim against the tide of intellectual fashion: What All the Top Men (Top Men!) Think. But if you’re going to be a philosopher, and not just a philosophicalizing careerist, you must. (While many philosophers think that they’re Bucking Received Wisdom, they’re often just aligning with a more ‘inner circle’ thread of it.)

What I find difficult to fathom is how it is that those philosophers who, while they understand the intellectual fashions of their time (all too well!), just don’t seem to feel the pressure at all: the Leibnizes, Wittgensteins, Roderick Chisolms, David Lewises, and Elizabeth Anscombes.

This inability to ‘get’ what other people intuitively get is why philosophers are so frequently torn apart by mobs or executed by the authorities.

It’s why no one will have sex with us.

Kevin Vandergriff

At a minimum, the goals of philosophy are conceptual clarification, the disentangling of complex questions, and the careful examination of alternative approaches. Rational argumentation is the major tool used to accomplish these goals. So, the better someone is at rational argumentation, the better a philosopher they will be.

 Now, if we wanted to measure whether someone is ‘better’ than someone else at rational argumentation, then I suppose we would have to try to identify what it is about our brains; our primary tool for rational argumentation; that best explains why someone is as skilled at rational argumentation as they are. No doubt intelligence, or aptitude is in the explanatory pool of competing explanations.

 Assuming intelligence is the best explanation for what makes someone as skilled at rational argumentation as they are, we still need a measuring apparatus for determining intelligence in the domain of rational argumentation. Here we can look to IQ tests, but it is controversial whether intelligence is one thing or many things. I tend to favor the view that intelligence is many things and I favor the following list of different intelligences:
Linguistic Intelligence
Logical and Mathematical Ability
Spatial Intelligence
Musical Intelligence
Bodily Kinesthetic Intelligence
Interpersonal Intelligence
Intrapersonal Intelligence
Naturalist Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence
I neither know how exactly philosophical intelligence as filtered through ones talent for rational argumentation fits into these categories, nor what different scores in each of these areas indicates about one’s own philosophical intelligence.

Daniel Gluch

I don’t believe in philosophical intelligence. However, I also don’t believe that intelligence and ability are the same thing. Often times what we consider intelligence is a mix of confidence and talkativeness, but that has little to do with one's ability to seek after truth.

There are a number of traits that make people able to do philosophy well. Everyone holds these traits in varying degrees and can get better or worse at them over time, which explains varying ability to do philosophy, both between different people and different time-slices of ourselves at one time or another.
  • Representing the argument/perspective of another in its best light, and that the truth may be found there. 
  • Acknowledging that your perspective may not be where the truth is.
  • Clearly presenting your argument in a manner that promotes its understanding, 
  • Looking at problems from new perspectives or paradigms.
While this is far from an exhaustive list, doing these well will undeniably make someone a good philosopher whether they practice analytic, continental, or unorthodox philosophy.

Vadim Keyser

Philosophers tussle with information. I don’t think this “intelligence” or “ability” is unique to philosophy. In fact, I’d argue that any discipline is about organizing and reorganizing information.

Philosophy places strong emphasis on the methods behind this “information process”. In fact, when you put away all of the philosophical perspectives, you still have the philosophical methodology, which is applicable to any discipline. When we do philosophy we re-create, re-structure, criticize, and generate information. These are all analytical skills. The methodological processes can go deeper (e.g., deductive and inductive systems). But these general skills make philosophy a careful, methodological discipline. I think that evaluating the quality of philosophical intelligence reduces to evaluating the level of analytical care taken in the methodological process.

A relevant question: When you have two philosophers side by side, how can you tell which one is a better philosopher? Simple: Have them argue and then ask a third philosopher; and then argue with that third philosopher. Continue ad infinitum.

Scott Merlino

Philosophically intelligent (PI) persons seek knowledge and are above average at acquiring it. Such people do this well by analyzing concepts and reasoning about specific issues in light of evidence and logical argument. PI is measurable, we could assess a person’s ability to frame and test arguments about specific issues by their correct use of inductive and deductive logic. The ability to make good judgments using logic, in my opinion, would be diagnostic of PI. By ‘diagnostic’ I mean whatever distinguishes PI from other forms of intelligence. PI is the above average ability and willingness in people who have it to apply deductive and inductive logic to problem-solving.

PI, like wisdom, is an effect not a cause. Factors contributing to PI are having an inquisitive personality, a disposition to seek truth, question authority and the status quo. Such people seek clarity in language and use evidence and argument rather than insight or revelation to resolve conceptual and practical issues. Is one born with PI or is it learned? Yes.

This account fails to include all and only philosophers. We should not seek to exclude the non-philosophically inclined among us who nevertheless have high PI. My description is biased towards analytical philosophy, one weakness is that some beloved philosophers won’t score well on the PI scale whom many of us would nevertheless want to call high PI individuals. Nietzsche and Sartre might come out much less philosophically intelligent than would Hume or Quine. The quality of their logical arguments distinguishes them.

Christina Bellon

Ability – that one is able to do x, entails one has the capacity or power to do x.

Aptitude – when doing x, one does x more or less proficiently, competently, effectively.

Inclination – willingness or disposition to do x.

I think there is something we might call philosophical ability for which humans demonstrate a range of aptitudes. I think this philosophical ability is the ability to think about thinking. More specifically, to think about others’ and one’s own thinking – to ask oneself, consider possible answers for, and evaluate these answers against the evidence in the world (inner and outer), “What do I believe and why do I believe it?” In other words, philosophical ability is a meta-ability. As cognition, it’s meta-cognitive. In this sense, logic is a system for thinking about thinking.

As with other capacities, the degree to which one is inclined to think philosophically, the comfort one has doing so, and the skill level one displays, are the result of several factors, not least of which include opportunity, encouragement, and practice. As with other capacities (perceptive, experiential, imaginative, linguistic, rhythmic, etc.), individuals display a range of inclination to cultivate it. Those who succeed in philosophy, just as those who succeed in dance or design, are likely those who have the right combination of aptitude and inclination to cultivate their respective ability.

Not everyone will match Kant or De Beauvoir, but everyone would benefit from a little more opportunity, encouragement, and practice doing philosophy… beginning in kindergarten.

Matthew Howery

Philosophy is the practice of humility in the face of our very existence and experiences. To the extent that we are willing to be wrong, willing to look at and carefully judge opposing viewpoints, and willing to follow where reason leads us, we are acting and living philosophically.

This love of wisdom is an active love. It is the active pursuit of wisdom and truth, often in direct opposition to some of our most strongly held beliefs. The humility of the philosopher allows us to never be too certain that we are correct in our assessment and understanding of the world. This same humility is that which allows us to approach others not like ourselves and listen to their stories, their values, and their experiences of the world.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, philosophy is the sharing of knowledge. The love of wisdom solely for oneself is indistinguishable from greed. The better philosopher is the individual who is willing to pass on what he or she has learned, to give the gift of Eudaimonia as well as the passion to pursue it to others. The extent to which we accomplish this humility and sharing is our philosophical ability.

Jonathan Chen

I have to disagree with Matthew that philosophy is a humbling experience.

First, I should say that philosophy is not for everyone (pity), and should be reserved for a superior class of individuals. It is quite obvious to me that the elite philosophers, including myself, are those holding esteemed positions at prestigious universities and who have published countless papers that only our fandom follows. As a half-human half-bologna race, we are enhanced only by our ability to forget the origin of philosophical inquiry (I can’t quite remember what this is because I have transcended such nonsense, but a layman once told me that philosophy begins with awe. She believed that philosophical ability should be a faculty of the heart, and that an eagerness to learn about the nature of our world was sufficient to becoming a philosopher. Ha! What a fool!).

We philosophers extend our research into fields so disconnected from humanity and its needs that our knowledge is no longer accessible to anyone besides other half-human half-bologna elitists. My sole purpose as a philosopher is to perpetuate this trend, and my contribution to humanity is no different. For my efforts, some of the laymen refer to me as the “armchair philosopher.” I’m not quite sure why they decided on this name for me, but given my superiority over them, I can only imagine it means, “Sovereign, beautiful sovereign!!”

Randy Mayes

Philosophers are people who are made uncomfortable by comfortableness. Their value to society is their ability to notice when we have become too satisfied with our beliefs and practices, and to provide us with a perspective from which they may be reasonably called into question. This is why Socrates remains- even for those who have little use for his views- the beau ideal of philosophical ability and intelligence.

What sort of person is this?

First, a good philosopher is more self-aware than the average human. This is what is required to be able to notice when his belief is comforting, when it feels familiar, when it satisfies his biases, when it makes it easier to get along with people he loves.

Second, a result of the first, a good philosopher is habitually skeptical of her own reasoning. She is constantly haunted by the sense that "this is too easy." Skill in reasoning is important in philosophy, but no moreso than in any other intellectual endeavor. Rationality is something else. It's the tendency to scrutinize the outputs of easy and comfortable modes of thinking. It's what Frederick Shane's Cognitive Reflection Test was designed to measure.

Third, as Tom Pyne observes, there is a kind of social and emotional retardation typical of philosophical intelligence: we are unembarrassed by the stupidity of our questions and the apparent impracticality of our concerns. In general, to be a good philosopher you can't care very much what people think about you at all, good or ill.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Meaning, happiness and the good life

Let's say you are a successful novelist. In fact, Wikipedia describes you as the author of an entire genre: the Philosopical Bodice Ripper, steamy romances that explore philosophical ideas with surprising depth and subtlety. It is a form you have entirely mastered, and it is earning you a tidy living. You have a devoted readership and you take real satisfaction in exposing the fans of romantic fiction to philosophy. Still, there is a part of you that wants more.

>>>Fast forward >>>

For the last five grueling years you have been working on the great American philosophical novel: The Rigid Designation. You care more intensely about this project than all of your previous work combined. But it is undeniably a source of enormous frustration and anxiety. You are working at the absolute limit of your creative potential and experiencing disappointment far more often and more intensely than success. You do not know if you can finish; and even if you do, you have no idea how it will be received.

One night, over a bottle of Glenlivet, you are waxing nostalgic about your previous life to your good friend Piotr, who has heard it all one too many times: Just toss that damned manuscript into the fire, delete the file, and go back to doing what what you do best!

And, perhaps surprisingly, you agree. You really would be a happier person if you were to do exactly as Piotr advised. Perhaps not immediately afterwards, but soon. You still feel that way the next morning as you log into your computer.

What do you do?


What do we want from life?

Well, lots of stuff, of course. But at a basic level, I say there are only two things: happiness and meaning.

What is happiness? Easy. Your life is happy to the extent that you are feeling good, both in it and about it. There are lots of different ways of feeling good: joy, hope, gratitude, contentment, elation, inspiration, affection, a panoply of sensual pleasures. They all count. Somehow.

What is meaning? Easy again. Your life has meaning to the extent that you are doing things you care about. Generally speaking, you care when you have a sense of purpose, commitment to personal goals, the wellbeing of family and friends, to discovery, to creation, to work, to serving a higher cause, like God or country.

Ok, clear enough so far, but not too interesting. Nobody denies that meaning and happiness are fine things, and we all agree that anyone with plenty of both is very lucky indeed.

But I said that meaning and happiness are basic. By this I mean that they are distinct ends. We desire them both, but we do not seek one simply as a means to achieving the other.

This is more interesting because it contradicts conventional wisdom, which is based on a strong and widely felt intuition that happiness is, almost by definition, the summum bonum of every self-interested person. According to this view, whatever we want in life (power, freedom, safety, love, respect, and meaning) we want because we believe it will contribute to our happiness.

Put differently, it is to deny the quite plausible view that the only reason we would ever want a more meaningful life is that we think we will be happier as a result. It is to assert that someone may rationally opt for a more meaningful life knowing full well that it will come at the expense of her personal happiness.

Now, in fact, many others disagree with the conventional view, but they typically need to play a wild card to say why. For example, one common way of arguing against it is to point to altruism: people willingly sacrifice their own happiness for the benefit of others. The problem with that gambit is that many of those we are trying to convince think of altruistic behavior either as an illusion, or as fundamentally irrational. I don’t, but I also don't want to get mired in the debate. So what I say here I mean to be understood strictly within the framework of rational self-interest.

Consider a related but slightly different implication of the conventional view:

No rational person would refuse to do something that would reduce the meaning in her life if she were convinced that doing so would result in greater personal happiness.

This is not really a strict implication of the view, as you might always have other options. But you get the gist; I won't complicate the thought with a bunch of qualifications.

This, I think, is more easily shown to be false. To see why, let's return to you.


Did you delete the file?

I don't know, but that is enough to make my point.

You might have. In this case, you would indeed be exchanging a more meaningful life for a happier one. That does not seem irrational and it is obviously consistent with the conventional view.

But, then again, you might not. You might have decided to keep toiling away in all your unhappiness and frustration, not in hope of some greater happiness to be achieved later, but simply because it is a more meaningful activity to you now. In this case you have expressed, contrary to the conventional view, a reflective preference for a less happy, but more meaningful life.

The Happiness Fundamentalist rejoins:

1. But if you decide to stay at it, it can only be because the thought of quitting makes you unhappy.

No. The thought of quitting does make you unhappy, but it is not an adequate explanation of your decision either way. For you sincerely believe this unhappiness would dissipate were you to return to your old life.

2. Well, then deciding to keep at it may be understandable, but it is surely irrational.

Maybe. But we'll need an argument. And we won't be listening if yours just stipulates that happiness is the only thing that truly matters. Because we think we just proved that it ain't.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, October 4, 2015

She ain’t no Rosa Parks

Conservative Christians would have us believe that Rowan County, KY, Clerk Kim Davis is the new Rosa Parks – the Rosa Parks for this century’s fight against the oppression of the faithful. Not only is she no Rosa Parks, she’s got much more in common with those Rosa Parks resisted. In both word and deed, but for the beard, Davis is more ayatollah than freedom rider.

Rosa Parks, for those who forgot, was an African American woman arrested for failing to give up her seat on a public transit bus to a white person. Second class citizen, pays her fare, must sit at the back, and sometimes give up her seat, standing with groceries, on tired feet, in case a white person wanted to sit. Not optional. Not “please give these seats to the disabled and elderly,” where any able young person who doesn’t is rightly judged a jerk. Rosa Parks – as a matter of law –suffered nowhere near ‘separate but equal’ service in the presence of whites. She defied the law which commanded her thus. She resisted the power of state officials to deny her equality. She rejected their abuse of authority to deny her a right equal to the whites to whom she had to yield. 

Kim Davis is no Rosa Parks. Davis is a public official, vested with the power of government to carry out vital functions for the people of Rowan County. Not for some of the people – ALL of the people. She is vested with authority to uphold county, state, and federal laws. Not some laws, at her discretion, which correspond with her personal convictions – ALL those laws. She is free to believe what she likes about gays and lesbians and homosexual marriage. The First Amendment enshrines this freedom for her as for every private citizen, as a matter of personal conscience. The First Amendment burdens government to ensure individuals are protected in the enjoyment of their civil liberties regardless of their faith or lack of it. It protects her and the people of Rowan County in the enjoyment of that same freedom. Among those civil liberties is the liberty to marry. Heterosexual residents of Rowan County have enjoyed that right for a while now. Homosexual residents of Rowan County are now able to enjoy that same civil liberty. Except for Kim Davis.

By denying same sex couples the issuance of marriage licenses, she uses the power of her office to deny them that liberty. The power to issue marriage licenses is a governmental power, not a personal power. It is an authority vested in the office, not in her person. It is a power subject to the county, state, and federal law. It is not her personal power to decide the nature of the law or the constitution. Her personal convictions are not the measure of the law. Her conduct as an official, vested with the authority of the government, is to ensure that the residents of Rowan County enjoy their civil liberties free from religious burden. Her use of this authority to enforce her personal convictions – religious or otherwise – should be rejected as resoundingly as was that of those who denied Rosa Parks.

Enter the new ayatollahs. America deeply identifies as a Christian country. Most of the citizenry identify as Christian. This leads some people – many in positions of governmental power – to believe that their faith should guide their actions, should be a basis for law and policy, and should be the basis for their discretionary use of their authority. Their faith. Creating and applying law accordingly. We must live according to their faith. Our enjoyment of our liberties, according to their faith. These are the new ayatollahs, American-style. They come professing individual rights, citing the constitution, claiming liberty for all, according to their faith. Their Jesus tells them that homosexuality is an abomination. But there’s another Jesus, who eats with the lepers and washes their dead, unafraid that his faith will be tainted by those whom he aids. That Jesus does not deny fish and bread to the hungry even as they are sinners. That Jesus bakes a wedding cake for a gay couple, unafraid that their choices define his own.

The founding constitutionalists were deeply religious. But they were near enough to the corrosive conjoining of religion with political power to recognize individual personal liberty required a strict separation of religious conviction from government authority. They crafted a nation in which it mattered not whether one had faith. Theirs was a vision wherein individuals enjoy equally the freedom to determine their own lives according to their private convictions. If it’s a Christian country, it’s also among the remarkably few to demand that religious conviction remain a matter of private conscience, not a directive of public policy. It matters not whether the entire citizenry enjoys the same faith. It matters only that county clerks, as with all public officials enacting governmental authority, not demand the rest of the citizenry conform to their conscience.

Some say Davis has a right not to be made to violate her faith. True. But she does not have a right to do it in her official capacity as county clerk. No one has a right to be a county clerk. She can adhere to and worship as she believes. In her official capacity as county clerk, it is her responsibility – yes, I said her RESPONSIBILITY – to ensure that the residents of Rowan County are not denied their civil liberties because of someone else’s – including her own – personal convictions to the contrary.

Issue the marriage licenses. That is her responsibility. And, if she cannot reconcile her conscience with her official duty, perhaps she should follow the example of Apostle Matthew who could no longer render unto Caesar, could no longer reconcile his duty as tax collector with his faith. The burden of his faith was his to bear, not his co-workers, not his fellow citizens, not the government to accommodate his public office to his private conscience.

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State