A Philosophy of Progress

In one of my previous posts I discussed my understanding of relativism and why I dislike it.  Today I am going to write about a general feeling that I have which I believe is extremely important in the way I approach philosophy.

I waffle a lot on which philosophies that I subscribe to.  I like existentialism, I like Heidegger, I like pragmatism, and sometimes I feel like my different ideas may tangle each other up.  I would say though that a factor that underpins all the philosophies I like is that they change – or at least, they give an account of change.  They don’t allow for absolute eternal knowledge, but they also allow for us to improve and better ourselves.  They are continuously progressive – they don’t ever finish but advocate continuous engagement with the process of change itself.

I think that it is this inclination towards “progressive” philosophy that is in many ways responsible for the spirit of my disagreement with philosophies such as relativism and dogmatism.  Both relativism and dogmatism often seem to advocate static approaches to the world – one way to live, or shutting down conversation by treating differing opinions as irresolvable.  Its not even that I think that opinions are necessarily resolvable, but I am firmly against abandoning the progress of change that is conversation.

I think that in many ways my study of philosophy is really a study of how I should change my beliefs over time – discovering the right way to progress.

Let me know what you think, and thank you for reading.

Ryan Workman

World and Self

For her undergraduate thesis project one of my friends wrote a play on the theme of identity (which you can view here).  She later gave a presentation about this play to elucidate its academic content, and one of the things she talked about was her interest in the examination of self.  She proposed that the examination of self is challenging because the observer is also the object, and therefore the observer changes itself in the act of observing.  This is in contrast to the observer observing objects, because the object is theoretically static.

I think that she pointed out a very interesting problem, but one that can be taken further then she took it.  One of the divides in philosophy is idealism vs. realism.  Idealism holds that reality is mental, while realism holds that reality is independent of mind.  It is dangerous to make sweeping statements of any sort on this topic, but since this is my philosophy blog and not an academic peer reviewed paper I’m going to make one anyway: I do not think that we can meaningfully think about the world other then the world as our own experience – this means that the only reality we can know is a mental one (broadly speaking).  From this position it then follows that all reality is subject to the same problem pointed out by my friend: to examine something is to change it, because everything that you know is an extension of your own being.

I’ll expand on my last claim.  Imagine that you see a tree.  My claim is that everything that you know about the tree is your experience of it.  All the tree is to you is your sight, your smell, your taste, your touch, and your thoughts.  Here we are tempted to ascribe these properties to the tree.  When we feel the roughness of the bark we think that the roughness is possessed by the tree, and its flavour, and that our thoughts are about the tree.  My proposal though is that these properties are dependent on you.  The tree does not have an “objective” appearance; it always has an appearance to someone.  There is some ambiguity I have not resolved.  For example, we all have similar experiences of a tree, so it seems that there is an objective object that is fixed for all of us to experience.  My claim them that any experience of the world is an experience of ourselves to some degree.

In conjunction with Ashley’s claim, what this means is that to examine the world is to change it, to the degree that it is ourselves that we are examining.  To dwell on the roughness of the bark of a tree is to change the experience.

Thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman

Why Relativism sticks in my Craw

My philosophical views are unstable.  I am constantly examining, developing, and changing the way in which I understand the world.  My allegiances shift.  Not long ago I would probably have described myself as a moral realist, now I am more inclined to call myself an existentialist/someone who likes whatever Heidegger was talking about.  Given the instability of my beliefs, I find it somewhat surprising that I have remained mostly steadfast in my opposition to relativism (a school of thought that, in my experience, seems to be somewhat prevalent in today’s North American society).

In this post I am not aiming to comprehensively examine the philosophical framework of relativists.  I do have a fairly strong background in moral philosophy (for an undergraduate), but I have read very little relativistic philosophy.  To be fair though, I believe most people who identify as relativists that I’ve met probably have less philosophical background on the subject then I do.  This post is in response to those people I have encountered, as opposed to relativist philosophers.

I think that the reason I have such difficulty with relativist thinking is because of the way that they interpret humility.  I wrote my undergraduate thesis on humility – I think that humility is an integral aspect of the pursuit of knowledge.  It is important that we are open to the ideas of others and do not close ourselves off from what they have to say.  Relativists seem to be great champions of humility; they often argue that we should not judge the beliefs of others from our own framework.  However, the way that they are interpreting humility is significantly different from the way that I am thinking of it.
Humility as I define it is a progressive activity.  You are humble so that you are able to process more of the world.  You should avoid arrogance so that you are more receptive to experience.  I think of what we believe as a continuously developing process, and by engaging in critical discussion both you and the person you are talking to can develop and strengthen your understandings.
Relativism, in contrast, seems to treat beliefs as static and irresolvable.  In several discussions I’ve had in the past I’ve received variations of the following comment, “that may be true from your framework, but not from theirs” (usually on the topic of religion).  The basic conclusion of this line of thinking seems to be that cross-framework conversation and critique is pointless.
I am not committed to the idea that there is a single “truth” of which we should all be trying to gain an understanding.  I admit to the possibility that “truth” may not be absolute but instead variable between individuals.  I strongly believe though that belief development is a positive activity – it is more valuable to engage in conversation with those who disagree with us then those who agree.  Conversation is how we find the flaws in our beliefs and how we develop our ideas.   We probably won’t come to consensus, but we should not refrain from disagreement and argument because we won’t reach consensus.  The activity itself seems valuable to me, not arrogant.
Thank you for reading,
Ryan Workman

A God-Fearing Metaphysics

In several of my articles I’ve talked about how our understanding of “good” and “evil” seems to be tied to Christianity.  I am now going to explore the relation between our metaphysics and Christianity.

 

One of the philosophers that I’ve had the hardest time understanding is Nietzsche.  I’ve spent a lot of time and effort reading Heidegger, Hegel, Plato, and other ancient philosophers, but eventually I came to some kind of understanding.  It is only in the past few weeks though that I feel I’ve begun to understand Nietzsche.

 

In one of his most famous lines, Nietzsche has a madman declare that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” (It has its own wiki, if you want to read the rest of the quote: link).  When I first read this line, I took it at mostly face value.  I thought that Nietzsche was declaring that in our pursuit of science and understanding the world that we’d driven out the space required to believe in god and just hadn’t realized it yet.  I also feel fairly safe in saying that this is how I think much of the non-philosophical world understands the quote.  However, in light of some recent conversations, I have begun to re-evaluate my understanding of the scope of Nietzsche’s attack.

 

Nietzsche is an advocate of a philosophical view called perspectivism.  The core of perspectivism, as I understand it, is the idea that we all know the world from a certain point of view.  Moreover, and this is where we get into the scope of Nietzsche’s attack, objectivity is impossible.  This idea ran counter to most philosophical thinking up to Nietzsche.  When Nietzsche declares that “god is dead”, he is not just declaring the death of god but also the death of objective metaphysics.  Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, theologians, they had different philosophies but they all believed that there was a real world to have knowledge about, and that that we should strive to understand this objective reality.  Nietzsche rejects the idea of a real world, of a single truth. He rejects what was the then-standard grounding of reason.

 

Reason and perception are tricky issues, because we have nothing to validate them with but themselves.  Most metaphysics before Nietzsche assumed that reason and perceptions were of something.  In a recent conversation one person put it like this “Nietzsche went out into the desert (looking at reason) and declared “there is nothing.””  It is interesting to compare Nietzsche to Kierkegaard.  Kierkegaard’s philosophy, despite extolling the virtue of believing in god, has some remarkable similarities to Nietzsche.  Kierkegaard went into the same desert as Nietzsche by recognizing the unfounded nature of our beliefs.  Kierkegaard then basically declares that God exists because otherwise life is not worth living.  He is not, however, making this claim in any rational kind of way, he is not appealing to a universal truth.  His claim is actually extremely Nietzschian, he believes in god because that is what makes his life better (will to power).

 

Nietzsche was not an existentialist, but he was one of the most important philosophers for informing existentialist thinking.  Nietzsche killed God, the existentialists figured out what do in a post-god world.

 

Thank you for reading.  If you have any questions, oppositions, or praise, please leave a comment.

 

Ryan

Being Good, Being Evil

This post heralds back to my previous examination on good in my post on politics: What does Ryan want in a politician?

I previously proposed that when we (North Americans) use words such as “good”, or “evil”, that we do so with a very Christian conception.  That is, we think of it almost as a property – good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell.  I do not mean that we think of it in those exact terms, but that we take it as kind of an infusion: do enough good and you’re a good person, do enough bad and you’re a bad person.  Also, good and bad we treat as indelible properties – stealing is bad, charity is good, etc.  I previously examined good, and explained that by “good” I really mean “should”.  Now I am going to examine the question of whether individuals can be good or evil.

Let’s look at the possibility of an “evil” man, because that’s what I feel like exploring.  To take what seems to me one of the most classic of examples, I would say that many people would say that Hitler was evil.  Hitler was responsible for some of the worst acts in human history, so if there is a man worthy of being called “evil” he seems a good candidate.  What exactly are we saying when we call Hitler evil?  Given my previous definition of good, I would say what we’re doing is pointing out specific acts that he did which are incredibly far from what any person should ever do.  We are saying that he did not do as he should have in his life.  However, we’re not judging every action he ever took.  I personally have no idea what Hitler did before he became dictator/mass murderer, but I’m guessing that he didn’t spend every waking moment plotting how to hurt small animals.  I’m guessing he had people that he loved, people that he cared for.  So when we call him evil, we’re not saying that he was evil in every action that he ever took.  We are speaking about a very specific set of actions which almost completely define his place in history.

From this framework I would argue that people are not “good” or “evil” but that they do good or evil things.  When we say “Hitler was evil” what we really mean is “Hitler did some terrible deeds.”  Let me be clear, I still think that our deeds are our responsibility.  I just would argue that “good” and “evil” are not properties of our being, only properties of our actions in relation to “should” and “should not.”

Thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman

What are the odds? Looking at random chance

Today I am going to write about something a little bit different.  I’m going to be examining the way that I believe we intuitively understand random chance.

There is a TV show that I used to watch called Community, which plays around a lot with structure and style.  In one episode the group of friends in the show were trying to decide who would go get the pizza from the deliveryman.  To settle the issue they decided to roll a die.  The episode proceeds to show six different scenarios based on which character went down to get the pizza (alternate universes).  Then, for the final scenario, one character catches the die and points out that the system was a trick proposed by the seventh member of the group to ensure that he didn’t have to go down to get the pizza.  At the end, the story is moralized something along the lines that by not rolling the die the characters remove random chance from their lives.  I propose that this is sort of how we intuitively think about random chance – not that we necessarily believe in alternate universes, but that there’s this kind of special moment where things could go either way.  What I would like to propose is that this conceptualization is flawed.

At the level we can perceive I am fairly comfortable saying that our universe appears to be deterministic.  If our universe is deterministic, if you had all the relevant information on the coin and the conditions in which it was flipped you would know which side it was going to land on.  An impossible level of evidence to actually collect, but an idea that is quite possible to conceptualize.  The coin lands on the side that it does for reasons (the force put into the flip, the weight, the wind, etc).  The side that a coin lands on is determined by the conditions in which it was flipped.

It is inaccurate, I therefore argue, to understand 50% as the chance that the coin will land heads or tails.  Instead, 50% is a representation of us making low information guesses about the future.  The outcome will be as it will be, % are our representation of our low information estimation of the outcome.

Thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman