In business ethics classes, students are supposed to become what they are studying. Ethical. In light of this miraculous transformation, Upstate College is cancelling the study of zoology, veterinary science, biology, mathematics, philosophy and modern languages – though admittedly too late to prevent the emergence of exotic animals, protozoa, equations, Platonic Concepts and sweet incomprehensible murmurings from assorted classrooms.
This course will use film to discuss philosophy, and philosophy to discuss film. Many of the film selections will be science fiction because, despite the name, that genre of film tends to be an exploration of philosophical and even theological questions.
Rationale for Including the Written Word
Written philosophy, fiction, and literature will also feature prominently in the course because those who are the most literate tend to have the most insightful, interesting things to say about what they are viewing, and also to understand what they are viewing better. Many directors of meaningful films assume that their art house audiences are readers who are used to applying themselves assiduously to intellectually demanding tasks, thinking about what they are engaged with, are comfortable with ambiguity, and do not expect easy answers.
There was an attempt in the 1990s to argue that students who did not read were just “differently” literate – they were “media savvy.” This idea turned out to be chimerical and not supported by the facts. Continue reading
In an interview with Joe Rogan, Sean Carroll claims that of all the physicists on earth, there are perhaps one hundred who will admit to being interested in what the equations of quantum mechanics imply about what actually exists and the nature of physical reality. Showing too much interest can jeopardize a physicist’s career, and render him nearly unemployable if he specializes in that area.
The remaining physicists are happy to use the equations of QM without worrying about what they actually mean. Thus, they have memorized a set of algorithms and they become living proof of the truth that an algorithm, a set of instructions to answer well-defined questions, can be followed with no real understanding. This, unfortunately, is the case in the majority of mathematics classes, where students mechanically follow the equations while failing to understand what they actually doing or what the equations really mean. Students who never develop beyond this are incapable of making new discoveries or becoming real mathematicians. Just as someone could hypothetically follow driving directions, getting to the programmed destination, while having no idea where he was doing to end up.
Could this failure of imagination and interest be why nothing much has happened in physics for nearly a hundred years, compared with the early twentieth century and the rise of relativity and QM? Things like Higgs Boson, the God particle, were postulated long ago (1964) and merely experimentally confirmed with the collider.
Naturalism, physicalism, and materialism are synonyms. They are names for a truncated metaphysics that omits any notion of transcendence and divinity. Someone might try to take dualism seriously without God; a dualism that posits material reality, and consciousness as a separate substance with its own substantial reality. But this would mean recognizing that there is something nonphysical and invisible that cannot be explained by science and operates in independence from purely physical forces. In other words, a spiritual reality. Most materialists recognize this and have been leery of even using the word “consciousness.” At the present moment, for some reason, some percentage of analytic philosophers are willing to use David Chalmers’ phrase “the hard problem” to refer to the puzzle of how subjective awareness could arise from the lump of meat in a sentient creature’s head. Positing a giant mystery at the center of human existence is a dangerous game for a materialist. They will find the hard problem to be an indigestible lump that spells the death knell for their physicalist complacency. By accepting that it is a problem at all, they are effectively admitting defeat. If the hard problem were a gift, they would be wise to return to sender. Daniel Dennett puts it thus: “I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.” Continue reading
Plato suggested that if a person were to be cut open a homunculus, a lion and a many-headed beast would be revealed. These creatures represent the three different kinds of soul (psyche) out of which someone is composed. In Greek they are Logos, Thumos, and Epithumia.
Logos (reason) is symbolized by a little person.
Either God, the divine, the supernatural, and the transcendent exist or they do not. If they do not, then what is left is alternatively called “naturalism, physicalism, or materialism.” These are all synonyms and they imply that all that really ultimately exists are atoms and molecules. A naturalistic universe is one that can be fully described by science, at least in principle. If something cannot be measured and quantified, it is not objectively true and should be eliminated from one’s ontology, in this view.
- Naturalism is irretrievably nihilistic. If naturalism is true, then value does not exist. Value cannot be measured. And neither can beauty, love, or goodness. None of those things can be measured or even clearly defined. Quotation from Anna Karenina, Part 4, Chapter 10:
‘But,’ said Sergey Ivanovitch, smiling subtly, and addressing Karenin, ‘one must allow that to weigh all the advantages and disadvantages of classical and scientific studies is a difficult task, and the question which form of education was to be preferred would not have been so quickly and conclusively decided if there had not been in favour of classical education, as you expressed it just now, its moral—disons le mot—anti-nihilist influence.’
‘If it had not been for the distinctive property of antinihilistic influence on the side of classical studies, we should have considered the subject more, have weighed the arguments on both sides,’ said Sergey Ivanovitch with a subtle smile, ‘we should have given elbow-room to both tendencies. But now we know that these little pills of classical learning possess the medicinal property of anti-nihilism, and we boldly prescribe them to our patients.… But what if they had no such medicinal property?’ he wound up humorously. Continue reading
No matter which class I am teaching, for quite some time the first reading assigned has been an article on Goedel’s Theorem. The reason is to emphasize that any attempt to make an axiomatic system of any moderate complexity consistent and complete (able to determine whether any statement within the system is either true or false) will fail. This is because, at least when it comes to mathematics, Goedelian propositions will be generated by the system that are true, can be seen to be true, but are not provable. Goedel’s stand-in for all such propositions is the statement “this statement is not provable within this axiomatic system.” If this statement is true, then it is not provable. If it were to be false, and was provable, then it would again be proved that it is not provable, since you would have just proved a statement that says it is unprovable! I add to this that the axioms upon which axiomatic systems are based are by definition, not provable, their truth being self-evident. So, axiomatic systems contain unprovable truths coming and going.
When teaching ethics, after covering Gödel, the first thing I do is to point out our intuitive understanding of the truth and validity of reciprocity/justice/fairness. If someone were to give you a cup of your favorite coffee at the appropriate time and you were to punch them in the face, barring some convoluted back story, this would be grossly unjust. The truth of reciprocity is captured by phrases like “one good turn deserves another” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In practice, no normal person doubts the truth of that notion.
Fairness and reciprocity are axiomatically true. Their truth is self-evident. If anyone claims to doubt their truth, this person is almost certainly a liar and a hypocrite, at least on this topic. When this hypothetical person approaches another in a spirit of friendliness and politeness, only to be greeted with unbridled rudeness and hostility, he is likely to feel offended or at least to question the mental stability of the other person.
Ludwig Wittgenstein had some sensible things to say on topics like these. He spends a few pages of his aphoristic writings wondering what it would mean to be mistaken that one was speaking or writing in English. There is not really a standard of certainty that goes beyond knowing such a thing. Part of his point is to throw a monkey wrench into the useless, theoretical musings of his analytic philosophy contemporaries. Continue reading
Materialism and the mechanistic world-view – the idea that the everything is a machine operating in terms of mindless, mechanical forces – has severe nihilistic implications. An alternative to this view is that the universe is alive, and that consciousness permeates it – a view called ‘panpsychism.” When his wife began to think that panpsychism might be true, Sam Harris, a famous anti-religion atheist. initially told her to remain silent about her views in case she lost all street cred. When she asked scientists she knew their own views, it turned out that many of them were also secret believers in panpsychism.
The fact that Annaka Harris and the scientists thought it necessary to lie by omission is troubling. It shows that science, as a human activity, can suffer from the usual human tendencies, one of which is the desire to belong to a group and to reach for social status. Groups define themselves by who they exclude as much as their positive beliefs, and they reward with the maintenance or increase of status and punish by demotion those who dissent. Hence, the creation of orthodoxies.
Another oft-commented upon human tendency is the desire to have something to worship. If religion is abandoned, a religious attitude will usually simply be taken towards something non-religious. Communism was atheistic so the Russians simply worshipped Stalin instead, and the Chinese turned Mao Zedong into a demi-God in their imaginations. I have met an engineer with such reverence for science and his own status as a scientist that he is tremendously conceited about his ability to think about philosophical, or any other, topics beyond the scope of his expertise. He definitely seems to see himself as a priest of science – an idea that Francis Bacon, credited with contributing to “the scientific method” actually championed, including the idea that scientists should wear special robes to distinguish themselves from hoi polloi. Continue reading
“Michael” writes: “Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other.”
Logically, this could be because all events are free or because all events are determined. It seems likely that the writer thinks all events are causally determined.
Presumably by “events” the writer includes “actions.” However, without the concept of freedom there are no actions per se. Actions are performed by an actor, an agent who is a center of decision-making. In determinism, there are no agents. There is only a series of “sequences of events” – a constant stream beginning when time began and ending when the physical universe ceases to exist. Each event is the result of a prior event in mechanical fashion, and each event will cause some future event. Continue reading
Cosmic justice: infantile and nihilistic
Social class, home environment, genetics and other factors all contribute to differences between individuals. People differ in looks, height, income, social status, morality, various kinds of intelligence and athleticism, musical ability, industriousness, discipline, and nearly every other human characteristic. Differences in culture, history, and geography generate differences between groups. Being born into a culture that emphasizes hard work, education, conscientiousness, and thrift is a tremendous advantage.
“Social justice” advocates describe the resulting disparate achievements as “inequalities” with the suggestion that these represent some kind of injustice. Unequal achievement is treated as though it must be the result of discrimination, “privilege” or some other unfairness, while it is in fact the inevitable consequence of differences between individuals and groups. These differences will exist no matter how a society is organized barring a race to the bottom where the laziest, least talented individuals set the bar and every achievement that surpassed that pitiful measure got confiscated and distributed – removing any incentive to do anything much at all. Continue reading