Kant the Fanatic

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.

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Königsberg

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

The Counsel of Perfection and Moral Creativity

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.”[1]

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.”[2] 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? 1Indeed, 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

Reconciling Plato and Berdyaev via the Phaedrus

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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. [1] Continue reading

Can Evolutionary Biology and Naturalism Provide a Foundation for Morality?

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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 2way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.”[1] Continue reading

Belief vs Knowledge and Plato’s Tripartite Soul

Plato suggested that if a person were to be cut open a homunculus,[1] 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.

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Logos (reason) is symbolized by a little person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If God’s Plan Is For Us To Determine Our Own Plan, Why Do We Need God? The Bullet-Point Version

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.’

‘Undoubtedly.’

‘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

Morality and Intuitions of Metaphysical Truths

1No 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

Evolution 2.0 by Perry Marshall

Evolution 2.0 by Perry Marshall

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

Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?

Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?

1“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

Social Justice: an Analysis

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.

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Thomas Sowell

“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