The Confucius Assignment

•January 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Every once in awhile, I write an assignment that I’m especially pleased with. This is one that I wrote for my Ethics’s students’ first paper, and I received the the papers today. I like it for two reasons: first, because it provides an important lesson on the use of texts in a community, and second, because it requires students to use Confucius’s Analects to deal with a problem that is personal and for which they are the true expert.

Ethics Essay # 1: A Letter to a Community Leader

The Common Text

A “common text” is the name we give to a book (or other text) that nearly everyone in a designated community has read, is expected to read, and gives some kind of value. The community may be a small one: your family may its favorite movies or books that everyone is familiar with, and members of the family may gently reinforce morals or lessons by referring to those texts. A workplace or other institution may have a “creed,” plus it’s policies and inside jokes. Some colleges assign a “common text” to all of its first-year students, to encourage all students to have conversations about ideas.

An “authoritative common text” is like a common text, but with the additional feature that more or less everyone in the community is expected—and sometimes required—to believe in or accept the truth and morality of the text. This text, and how a community uses it, can often define a culture. The value of the text is to provide a common worldview, a place to agree even when people disagree on other things, a tool for law and education, a context to build stories, a sense of cultural identity…

Since the formal acceptance of Christianity into the Roman Empire in 313 ad, the Holy Bible served as the authoritative common text throughout most of Europe for more than 1400 years. After that, many European nations (and former European colonies, such as the United States), adopted constitutions that were based on “human rights” and divorced themselves from the authority of the Bible. Even still, most citizens considered the Holy Bible as an authoritative text, even if people should now be granted the right to choose which religion they ascribe to.

With the first Islamic State, founded by Muhammad in Medina in 622ad, the Quran has come to serve as the authoritative common texts for nearly all Arabic nations. The influence of the Arabic text expanded as well, being adopted by former Arabic colonies or through trade throughout northern and eastern Africa, Persia, India, and Malaysia. Today, many nations still hold the Quran as its authoritative common text.

Most nations today have adopted human-rights based constitutions, largely based on the constitutions of France and the United States. Not everyone believes these texts are flawless, but everyone understands that the law is based on this text above all others. All authoritative common texts need to derive their authority from some source, whether real or fictional. So long as the people believe the source, it is authoritative. It the case of the Holy Bible and Quran, this authority comes from God. In the case of most constitutions, this authority comes from “We the People,” and requires validation through a vote.

Enter Confucius: Since The Analects were composed about 2,500 years ago, many Confucian dynasties have adopted the Analects as an authoritative common text. Every Emperor was expected to know and follow it. Every government official, such as their versions of mayors, governors, senators, and so forth, were chosen not based on a vote, but based on how well they understood The Analects and how well they could apply it to real-life problems. The Emperor’s advisors were all the best Confucian scholars in the country, and they provided advice to the Emperor by writing papers and giving speeches that were based on the teachings of the Analects. “Confucianism” is not a religion. It is a set of political and moral beliefs with a few mystical elements. However, the Chinese civilization has treated the Analects with at least as much reverence as the Quran or Holy Bible ever has been by Islamic and Christian nations.

Your Assignment: A Letter to your Community Leader.

Your assignment is to write a letter, from you to one of your community leaders. Your goal is to provide respectful advice on how they could be a better and more moral leader. This should be someone to who you are acquainted—perhaps a church leader, a parent, a neighborhood spokesperson, your manager at work, or a teacher. An alderman is probably too distant, unless you have met them. Unless you have special connections, someone like Mayor Emmanuel or Presidents Obama and Trump are certainly too distant. We are adding one fiction to this scenario: we’re going to pretend that Confucius’ Analects are the authoritative common text for your community and the nation, and that both you and your reader (1) have read the Analects, (2) believe that a effective and moral person follow the Analects above all other texts, and (3) desires to be effective and moral. Consider the community leader’s behaviors and actions, and consider the text of the Analects. Using specific passages of the Analects¸ your assignment is to teach the community leader how they have failed and how they can improve

My Oath as a Philosophy Teacher

•August 23, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I know nothing. But I want to know. And I want to instill this paradigm in my students.

If I have faith in anything, it is in the validity of conditional statements: if this is true, then that is true. But the conditional statement, too, should be examined and questioned.

I also have faith in the power of critically reading difficult texts, writing, and discussion, in the cultivation of a broad, sharp, and developed mind. This too should be examined and questioned.

But to be a philosopher is to retain faith in these, even while they are doubted.

I will take no positions and advocate no beliefs beyond this.

I will pursue knowledge. I will investigate what my students believe, and work with them to discover the logical conclusions of those beliefs. I will assist my students in their pursuit of knowledge.

I will not accept or reject any of their conclusions, no matter how lovely or repulsive, no matter how right or wrong they seem to me–so long as they pursue them calmly and reflectively with the goal of knowledge and good judgment in mind. I will only make judgments on whether their conclusions follow from their premises, whether they follow necessarily or probably, whether they have been honest with the validity or strength of their conclusions, and whether their starting point began with a critical questioning of their initial positions.

This is my philosophy teacher’s oath. And it too should be questioned.


Playing and Experimenting

•May 25, 2016 • Leave a Comment

What is the difference between playing and experimenting? The first is what children do, and the second is what scientists do. But we can talk about a child experimenting, sometimes at the same time that we can describe them as playing. And we can talk about a scientist playing, at the same time that they are experimenting, or preparing to experiment.

When we experiment, we are trying to see what things lead to what. And we experiment on something for which we do not have complete control or knowledge: something that keeps its secrets hidden until we do the right thing. When we play, our goal is perhaps indefinable. But when a child keeps playing at the same thing for too long, they get bored. Why do they get bored? “Because they have been doing it for so long” is not an explanation: that is merely a statement of fact. What was it about the length that ended their interest? Perhaps that they no longer could see how they could learn.

Perhaps the difference is this. An experiment is pre-meditated. Play is improvised.

Some thoughts on the origin of spirituality from a naturalist’s perspective

•May 25, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Observation 1: A significant portion of humanity has expressed some feeling of spirituality. This has been expressed in radically varying ways across time, culture, and class. It is possible that many people were simply adopting the views of their culture’s traditions and felt nothing deep: that they would be non-feeling atheists if their parents and other associates were non-feeling atheists. But without doubt, authentic expressions of spirituality have been and are present throughout every division of humanity.

Observation 2: Many people talk about having spiritually fullfilling or spiritually unsatisfying lives, and this can change throughout the course of one’s life. Certain practices and outlooks can stimulate that fulfillment, and other practices can separate us from having it.

Naturalistic Assumption (or Induction): There are no spirits or spiritual entities or phenomenon in existence. (This is induced from a variety of arguments, that I am not presenting now. Therefore, this can be taken as having the weight of an assumption for the sake of this argument)

If one believes in the naturalistic assumption, and accepts the two observations (I think one must accept the two observations), then one must still offer an explanation for why Observations 1 and 2 exist. This cannot be called idiotic or delusional–since even if those were true, it would not be an explanation. Rather, there must be something about the private human experience with the world, and their understanding of their relationship with the world, that gives birth to both the ideas and the deep feelings.

Practicing Wittgenstein and Updating Spinoza

•May 25, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I have been studying Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations over the past few days and trying to come to grips with its method and arguments. Yet, I was never given a proper introduction to his writings in any of my philosophy courses. I read his first major book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as an undergrad (or tried–I had to skip the formal logic sections), but I only read through the Philosophical Investigations for the first time late last summer and fall. It is a unique book in its style, posing a large number of connecting claims, but without clearly providing an argument. 

His style has been described as one of unraveling or demonstrating problems conventional modes of doing philosophy and within various philosophical claims. One of his most infamous claims is that philosophy cannot be done, more or less. Our language is nowhere near as pure as it needs to be in order for us to describe, or even think, of a proper philosophical problem. “For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday,” he states in his Philosophical Investigations (section 39). 

I see Wittgenstein’s project in the Philosophical Investigations as essentially being an updated Humean-Kantian critique of our modes of reason, but taking it even further. If Hume’s skepticism demonstrated the impossibility of engaging in a metaphysics of some pure reality, and Kant demonstrated that a metaphysics is possible only as an examination of how a mind necessarily constructs a conceivable and perceivable world, then Wittgenstein is demonstrating how the ways in which we use language determine the sorts of things we can and cannot say— and when it comes to metaphysics or other philosophical problems, it turns out we can’t do much. His first book, the idiosyncratic Tractatus,” performed a similar task to Kant’s work: creating a system or framework to show how language is used. But his Philosophical Investigations has a contrary goal: to show us not only that no ethical or metaphysical system can be spoken of with any grounding, but also that we can’t speak about philosophy at all without speaking non-sense. All that philosophy can do is show us how our language fails to talk about these things.

To consider the implications of this anti-philosophy claim, it is critical that we understand “philosophy” and “ethics” not merely as they are discussed within the discipline of philosophy, but any time a philosophical or ethical claim is made. What counts as a philosophical or ethical claim? Many things, in fact, within our day-to-day living. Anything that depends on a metaphysical distinction, or a moral claim that depends on concepts of good or evil. Take for example an argument about abortion: “the child’s life begins at conception.” Or the contrary claim, “the fetus is not a person.” What do we mean by person? What do we mean by ‘life?” Both of these arguments for and against abortion depend on metaphysical and moral distinctions, and both are providing a status to things that mean different things depending on how the word is used. There is no “real” thing called “personhood” or “life.” And so we may agree with one argument on aesthetic grounds, or make some initial arbitrary assumptions about ethical entities, but we can’t soundly claim there is some non-arbitrary ethical grounding for either side of the ethical argument. (That’s not to say arguments can’t be made soundly, but they can’t take the ethical route.)

In short, Wittgenstein’s Investigations would mean that philosophical systems like Spinoza’s do not carry any weight, and do not, in fact, mean anything. 

Yet, in my attempt to write my philosophy, I cannot help but to describe and understand the world in a way that looks distinctly Spinozian. 

I am not striving to think like Spinoza. The reason I am so fascinated with Spinoza is that his Ethics is so in line with my own way of thought. I think about something, believe it is my own idea that I haven’t encountered before, write it down, and later will read something deep within the pages of Spinoza’s Ethics that mirrors my statements. I did in fact read the whole Ethics 13 years ago, but I can’t say I retained much. Perhaps it altered my mind so deeply that I don’t need to recall Spinoza: I simply think my own thoughts, and it is Spinoza, or some version of it.
Wittgenstein is a skeptic. And I consider myself a skeptic as well. Spinoza is not a skeptic. Yes, he was critical about a lot of things, and was skeptical about plenty of traditional ideas. But he was not skeptical about our ability to reason about nature in order to know God and acquire true knowledge (or some measure of it). In other words, he was not a philosophical skeptic, who had some anti-systematic system to demonstrate the difficulty of doing metaphysics. Spinoza was in many ways the opposite of what he sometimes appeared– an atheist obsessed with God, a denier of free will who attempted to show the way to freedom, a fierce critic of traditional religion who considered Jesus as a teacher of the Word of God–but I can only accept that he is a skeptic in some heavily contextualized way. 

To come back around: my goal is to write a philosophy book–even if it is bad–that lays out my view of the world, for the sake of understanding my own mind better, and because I believe it will be of value to others. But my view is so very Spinozistic. I also am working with about 350 years of additional philosophy, science, and culture, including some monumental criticisms from philosophers about how we do philosophy. 

My question is, if we apply a Wittgensteinian critique to my Spinozistic framework, what do we get?

The Wittgenstein scholar David Stern argues for a three-stage method that Wittgenstein utilizes again and again throughout the PI. 

  First, a classic or current position is given. This could be a quote from Augustine, or a paraphrase of a common philosophical position or an interpretation of a naive position.

Second, Wittgentein builds a scenario directly from the description in which the description is accurate. However, the scenario is always bizarre. In some cases, Stern describes it as a Samuel Beckett-like absurdist scenario. It seems Wittgenstein does this both to highlight how the previous position is distinct, and to show how it is inaccurate.

Third, Wittgenstein’s obversation that the position of the first stage is inadequate, and why. 

 It is important to note that there are many different readings by various, and this is just one. The likely reason for this plethora of interpretations is that Wittgenstein does not use a single voice. It is dialectical in its nature, with one voice positing some traditional position, then a critique stimulating a review of that position. But these voices are not labeled, and perhaps none of them can actually be taken as Wittgenstein’s “final” voice. Perhaps the point is that the closest to “truth” we can get is simply in showing how all the various positions fail, are incomplete, or only complete I specific situations. 

So, I wonder, what would it be like to present my philosophy not in the axioms and propositions of Spinoza’s Ethics, but in the dialectical manner of Wittgenstein’s Philsophical Investigations? What are our current naive positions? How do we understand the world? How is our understanding of the world prohibiting us from other understandings of the world? 

I wish my book not to be a lecture, but a companion to recognizing our ignorance, the illusions that all our thought depends on, and the ability to see the world in a variety of contrary ways simultaneously or in succession…and as a result, bringing us closer to the truth, though we can never obtain it.

Musings about ethics, colliding ethics within communities of different levels, and ethic-games

•May 21, 2016 • Leave a Comment

How should we hold our ethical theories? Is it ethical to be committed to ethical theories? I’ve met people who say that everyone should choose the ethical theory that is “right for them,” or that everyone should decide their ethics for themself. But there are principles that some would count as ethical that others count as unethical, and ethical principles that cause harm to other people, to animals, life, and the world. There are ethical principles that affect the world and which others believe it is affecting negatively. So this principle seems like something we should reject.

On the other hand, there are people who believe their ethical theory should be everyone’s ethical theory: or that a certain set of principles should be everyone’s set of principles. And that if those principles are not adhered to, then violators should be punished. Sometimes severely. If there was only one possible candidate for such an ethical theory, then perhaps there may be some truth here. But regardless of that statement’s truth, we certainly live in a world in which there are countless competing ethical theories that each claim to be the correct one. So this principle too seems like one we should reject.

Communities–from communities as small as a small circle of friends, neighborhoods, and businessess–to communities that are much larger, such as large cities, provinces, nations, the global community of people, the global community of sensing creatures (most animals), the global community of living things, and the global community of all terrestrial things (including oceans, rock formations, atmosphere)–require an ethical system in which to persist well, sustainably.

Are your ethics important to you? Do you believe they are important to you, and to your community? Are they part of your identity? If yes, then should we not accept that others have the same relationship with their ethics? Even if their ethics seem wrong and vile to us.

A society’s ethics are different than the individual ethics of members in that society. Some of us say, “if a culture has a set of ethics that appears wrong to us, we shouldn’t judge.” But what if that culture’s ethics permits the mutilation of an adolescent girl’s genitalia? What about her ethics? And if someone at the age of 14 accepts or rejects a set of ethics, are we in agreement that she is capable of making the decision not only for her self, but for her future self too? (And is the future self the same as the past self–yes and no. See Part III: Life as a river).

To have a set of ethical principles is not the same thing as acting in accordance with them. On its surface, a well functioning society depends not on an agreement in ethical principles, but on the agreement of people acting according to a set of ethical principles.

What would it be like to have an ethical system in which it is ethical to adhere to a set of community ethics that runs counter to one’s personal ethics? Is this necessarily an immoral principle? Even if it were the case, it cannot be valid in every situation: there must be some moral justification for violating a law that one sees as unjust. But how do we determine what is unjust? Only by whether or not it conflicts with one’s own ethical theory? As a general rule this means: my individual ethics trump the ethics of a community. But if that is justified, then we justify whenever anyone believes their evil acts are morally justified. It excuses much of immoral behavior, except insofar as as a person violates their own well defined ethics. And the only way a community or jury could determine if someone violates their own ethics is if the accused admits they have a different set of ethics or if they kept some record of their ethical values.

Wittgenstein on “language-games.” Depending on how one interprets his “Philosophical Investigations,” Wittgenstein may be saying something like this: there is no single way in which one can understand how language works for all of language. Rather, language is used differently in different cases, and they have their own sets of overlapping rules. Even the same word can operate according to different logical rules in different situations. 

“Don’t let it bother you that languages (2) and (8) consist only of orders. If you want to say that they are therefore incomplete, ask yourself whether our own language is complete–whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in to it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be regarded as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses with extensions from various periods, and all this surrounded by a multitude of new suburbs with straight and regular streets and uniform houses.” 

Perhaps we need to think about global and community ethics like Wittgenstein sometimes talks about language: that in different situations, ethics works according to different sets of rules, and yet they are all ethical systems that do not contradict one another from a logical perspective, even though something can legitimately said to be good from one perspective and evil or bad from another perspective.

Part III: Causal Rivers

•May 18, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Our connection to the world is dependent on how we choose to see it. Sensory perception does not provide us with information about how the world is organized or how one thing affects another. For that, we depend on concepts about how things are related to each other, judgments, and the organization of concepts. Most things we perceive with the senses are attached to a concept we hold: I see an object and immediately associate it with “coffee cup,” I see another and I associate it with “chair.” These concepts are described in language, and it is through the language that we think and organize our world. However, for one who has a scientific understanding of the world, an individual can exercise imagination in conjunction with one’s knowledge and understanding in order to conceive (not perceive) the world in a different light: a light in which the nature of things appears radically different. Is this a more “true” way? I am not sure. But it is an alternative way, and one that shines light on truth in a different way that the sort of immediate naive way that we encounter the world when we are not reflecting like this. And so even if no single view is “more true,” the holding of both ways simultaneously brings us closer to the truth. 

Is an organism’s body a real thing, or is it better understood as a concept for something that is not a distinct thing?

Imagine an ordinary tub of water, calm and flat. No current or variations in pressure. Is there one body of water within that tub, or many? With our intellect, we can imagine the left half as distinct from the right half, and each of those halves divided further, and so on. Or we can divide the water in a different way, conceiving the shape of a cat within the water, and only that water that would compose the cat. (Or start my imagining a regular cat, or a ‘meet-bone-fur cat’ submerged in the water, then imagine all the molecules of the ‘meet-bone-fur cat’ turned into water. You are now thinking of a water cat.) The matter within the water cat is not the same matter as outside the water cat. There are different water molecules within the water cat and without. And using this as a model, we understand that there are infinite water objects and shapes within this tub. There is one shape for the “all-water-in-tub:” one shape that is identical to the sum total of all the water in the tub. But for all other divisions, there are a functionally infinite variety. There are even an infinite variety of shapes that compose 99% of the water, since there are an infinite groupings of 1%. They are composed of exactly similar molecules, but not identical molecules: they do not share identity.

Now imagine a river, with all the molecules moving at the same rate and velocity down a perfectly straight channel, such as a canal. This is never the actual situation–it would require magic–but we start here conceptually.  If all the molecules are moving together, then a water cat in this river maintains its consistency. If we let lose some of the magical binding and water molecules move more naturally, then the water cat loses its consistency as quickly as it does in the river. But now introduce a current, or an eddy, a ripple, or wave: some case in which some water moves at a different velocity–a different speed or direction. The molecules in that current are no different than the molecules outside the current. And molecules enter the current as others leave. The important thing about the current is that the current can be identified as a currentbecause some molecules are moving together in a more determinate way than the molecules outside that current. Identity arises from molecules moving together, not from something distinct or permanent in the current. Think of watching a bonfire, or the fire in a fire place: tendrils of flame come into existence and out, almost too quickly for us to recognize them as distinct things. But they are distinct things–only they move very quickly.

To remind us of our question: how is the body of a living organism like that of the tendril of a flame or the current in a river? Is the body merely a slow moving tendril?

One might say, “but all these things, like the water cat, are not real things. Even though they have their distinct locations and divided the water molecules between those that are internal to the thing and external to the thing, the thing’s distinct existence is dependent on a mind conceiving of it. There is nothing within the body of water that grants existence to the thing. Furthermore, even though we can imagine the water as still, and some molecules being within the thing and others external, there is still a movement within the molecules. And if the molecules that gave shape to the water cat could somehow be tagged and colored without changing its material composition, so that the water cat were visible and recognizable as a cat, we would see that its existence were only fleeting. For the inherent vibrations of water molecules would slowly shake the form of the water cat, and it would slowly disperse, until the water cat were evenly distributed throughout the entire tub, losing all sense of identity.”

This is a fair way of looking at things. It is dependent on a choice of what is meant by “real.” The water cat has material composition. It has a shape. And so if “real” depends on having material existence and form, then the water cat fulfills the necessary conditions for being real. So why would one say it isn’t real? The only option is that the water cat cannot be distinguished from the water around it in the way we normally distinguish objects from the matter around it. There is a coffee cup on my desk. The surface of the coffee cup is entirely surrounded by air, coffee, and my desk.  (We normally say the coffee is inside the coffee cup, but does the coffee cup include the concave recess usually filled with air? In other words, is the coffee cup made mostly of air? Or is the coffee cup just the ceramic body? When we say, “the cup has coffee in it,” do we actually mean the coffee is inside the cup, or is this just a broken convention of our speech?)

But how different is this than any other thing that we encounter? Most things we encounter, we encounter because they move slowly. There is a coffee mug in front of me. It is given to me as a single, stable object. I have owned this coffee mug for about one year, and it looks almost exactly the same as it did when I removed it from its packaging. If I don’t accidentally drop it, it may last years and years. And if preserved well, it could possibly last hundreds or thousands of years. But in all this time, it is still in a slow process of decay. The mug came into existence at some mug factory, built and processed from its composite form. At some point, the clay that it was melded possibly in a large pool or block or some other homogeneous substance from which dozens or hundreds of other mugs were eventually crafted.

In short, the coffee cup as it sits on my desk is simply a instant in a long-lasting river of material causes and effects. At this point in the mug’s existence, the “water” of the river, ie, the shape and form of the ceramic material, is calm, and it looks static to us. But the streams of causation extend back to the beginning of all things, and slowly, without purpose or design, came together: the moment when the mug is given as the mug is now seen as different rivers joining together to form one. And this stream persists through time, still changing, slowly becoming more fragile as bonds loosen and the structure becomes more imperceptibly more brittle over time. And at some point, the cup will come apart, and that is when rivers divide and the mug loses its individuality.

This is just a slower decay than that of the water cat slowly dispersing.

Now we take this conceptual model and move from the relatively slow moving causal river of a coffee mug to the swifter river of a living organism. And we can use our own bodies as a model for this, since the relevant features are common among most species…