It can be especially interesting to have truths brought to your attention that have been staring you in the face but that went unrecognized. A friend of mine did this for me some years ago, and it was the degree of nihilism to be found in many modern movies.
Nihilism can be complete, and the characters in a movie or novel occupy a bleak world with no redeeming features. Such films and novels are a lie. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, pointed out in Man’s Search for Meaning that even death camps, which he experienced himself, contain elements of humanity and inspiration; kindness and self-sacrifice, dignity and a lack of despair when faced with the worst. It is possible to kill and torture people, to maltreat, starve, and freeze them, but you cannot necessarily kill the thing that makes them less despicable than you; at least not in all of them. Goodness and light are not always found where it might be expected. There are kind guards and cruel fellow prisoners such as kapos (prisoner functionary) who were recruited by the guards to supervise fellow prisoners, reducing the need for non-Jewish soldiers.
Or the nihilism can involve being expected to overlook grossly immoral actions of the main characters all in the name of “fun.” The nihilism is not complete – the hero falls in love, pets a puppy, and refrains from hitting someone – but it is still so conspicuous that in real life you would never forget it or overlook it. Continue reading
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the putative “Sage of Königsberg,” in a rare moment of lyricism states “Two things fill the mind with ever new and ever increasing admiration and awe, the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Like the laws of physics governing the heavens, Kant’s “moral law” is to apply universally and without exception, and both are discovered via reason.
Kant has a “duty” theory of morality called “deontology.” His moral philosophy is explicitly antagonistic to utilitarianism and Aristotle, the other main moral theories taught in most contemporary English-speaking university departments.
With regard to Aristotle, what analytic philosophers have come to call “virtue ethics,” Kant objects that Aristotle’s traditional view of ethics as a theory about how to live a flourishing life – eudaimonia – literally having a good indwelling spirit – is incompatible with morality. Kant radically reduces the scope of “ethics,” life and how to live it, down to “morality,” the right treatment of oneself and others narrowly conceived. Continue reading
Man is a tragic being because he belongs to two realms – the heavenly and the earthly. The difference corresponds to the Biblical injunction “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and the things that are God’s to God.”
Much of the moral vision in the Gospels is a counsel of perfection and applies to the heavenly. Heavenly ethics have an aspirational and inspiring aspect and can only be followed partially and in some instances. For instance, “if someone slaps you on one cheek, don’t stop that person from slapping you on the other cheek. If someone wants to take your coat, don’t try to keep back your shirt.” The impulse to slap someone back when they have slapped you is almost overwhelming. When not in the heat of the moment, it can seem like a simple thing. In reality not acting on this impulse is rare and extremely difficult. If it were not, earthly existence would be relatively paradisaical. The urge is ego driven. Recently, I had to let someone have the last word in a dispute about the merits of a particular writer who I regard as morally obnoxious. Rajani Kanth writes:
“How would world religions be different if women were their inspirations, and not men? Indeed, would ‘religion’, as we know it, even exist? Would a woman Buddha have forsaken family and loved ones to seek an arid, abstract ‘enlightenment’ abroad? Would a Jane Christ let herself suffer crucifixion, or might she have intelligently compromised with the ‘enemy’? Would ‘enemies’ even exist in their discourse? Would women have built the Bomb, and used it? Would they have fought two global wars, not to mention a quadrillion smaller ones? Would they have practiced genocide? In sum, could it be that a woman’s world, if she were permitted to wish it into existence, would be somewhat different than ours?” Continue reading
The best and most famous physicists of the twentieth century were by definition superlatively imaginative and creative individuals. The theories they espoused were about a mechanistic and deterministic world. But the source of their inspired theories was neither of those things. Spirit exists in the sphere of subjectivity, allowing free agents to intervene in the objective world of things. Human beings, and other sentient creatures, are not objects and they are not things. They have an objective aspect but what makes them special and significant is their interior – cut off from and invisible to the world of science.
Physics examines only exteriors. Quantum mechanics concerns atoms, photons, electrons, and subatomic particles. Whitehead speculated that even these items might have some minimal interiors which avoids the idea that consciousness somehow emerges from purely physical sources in the form of emergent complexity; a superadded epiphenomenal thing coming from matter. Continue reading
Analytic philosophy is by the far the dominant tradition in the English-speaking world and many countries in Europe at this point, with a handful of “continental” schools, but in either case, atheism and materialism are taken for granted. The way Plato was taught, like the way my professors taught everything else, sucked the significance out, examined arguments out of context, and generally made Plato seem like a no-good philosopher. It was not until I had written my dissertation and been granted my PhD that I read Plato’s Republic for myself, because it seemed ridiculous not to have read it – like an English major being unfamiliar with Hamlet. It was a revelation and I was overjoyed to find such a congenial mind. Like Dostoevsky, who has been described as continuing the dialogues of Plato, I had found a friend.
While aware that some of my other friendships have ended, the one philosophical friendship I started to suspect would last forever was my love of Plato. However, my fairly recent discovery of Nikolai Berdyaev had me wondering how devoted I could remain to Plato. A Russian friend, hearing me describe one of my philosophical views, noted that it sounded like Berdyaev and recommended him to me. When another friend started taking a strong interest too, my new friendship with Berdyaev began, often feeling like I was entering into a dialogue with my future self, as Berdyaev extended some of my own thoughts into new domains.
The solution to my newly acquired doubts about Plato has been to step outside the description of reality found in Plato’s allegory of the cave, and to look to the Phaedrus, for an extension of the Platonic vision of spiritual and metaphysical realities that is more congenial to Berdyaev’s insights.  Continue reading
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.
From Tom Stoppard’s play “The Hard Problem”
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.