The Evolution of Reflection

Here are some notes of something I’ve been working on lately.
First we know truth
The world unfolds before our eyes, and we understand it.  We know things in themselves, we understand right and wrong, we know the reality of god and science and angels.  We are the most gifted of philosophers; we tread the world as godly epicenters of knowledge.  This is how we come into being.
In this state we say many things, all of us.  We speak with absolute authority on politics, on relationships, on good and evil.  We spout ethics and metaphysics, and endless epistemology.  We all say different things, but we say it in the same way.
There are no statements that can be made about the content of this state, because the various forms that it takes change with the times.  Those in this state can also make no meaningful observations about the nature of their state, because they do not perceive themselves to be in any sort of state at all.  Those in this state readily judge the state of others however; those who disagree are taken to be in the dark.
Thus we all come into existence as dogmatists.
This state can perpetuate for an entire lifetime.  Those living in the truth have no need to seek beyond it.  However, this state is fragile.  The dogmatist’s world does not always act as it should, and this shakes the dogmatist.  People disagree, predictions fail, and proclamations are treated with ridicule.  The dogmatist struggles to shore up the fractures and cracks (and can do so for a very long time), but with the right conspiracy of circumstances their world collapses.
The once-dogmatist is confronted with ambiguity and doubt.  They no longer know themselves or their world.  They are lost.
There are a number of moves that the once-dogmatist’s makes from here, but they all share the same form.  They can become nihilists, solipsists, relativists, among other options.  The commonality is that they become obsessed with the limits of their own experiences.  They become the Lost.
The Lost’s dogmatism has been destroyed in the face of plurality.  They lose belief in truth – the world becomes opaque smog, an insubstantial illusion.  The Lost however cannot accept this, and so they struggle with themselves.  They endlessly chase their own tail, because though they disbelieve the world they are continuously drawn back to it.  They turn away, only to find that it lies around them in all directions.  They fight to reject it, but in the rejection only find more of what they seek to avoid.
The Lost can give an account of the Dogmatist’s circumstance.  Dogmatists are united in their mistaken assertiveness.  The dogmatist is inevitably wrong because they dare to assert right.  The dogmatist is only wrong in the loosest sense though, since there is no ‘right.’  To the Lost the dogmatist is naïve, striding boldly through a life given shape by nothing but the Dogmatist’s own certainty.  Some of the Lost fight the Dogmatists, some of them condescendingly humour them, but they see the fight as ultimately futile.  The dogmatists perceive themselves to be playing the highest stakes game, while the Lost can find the activity as nothing more then an idle game.  On the other hand, the Lost have nothing to lose, so while the Dogmatist is stronger they can only fight the war defensively – the Lost can pull the dogmatist down, but the dogmatist cannot make the Lost like themselves.
Thus say the Lost, on their relation to dogmatists.
But what of the world of the Lost?
The Lost can only define their world against the Dogmatists – the Dogmatists believed in Truth.  The Lost, having discarded Truth, are left with nothing.
The Lost’s state is inherently unstable – it is a perpetual inner struggle to turn away from the world, but the world is infinitely present in every direction.  This instability can fall back into dogmatism, but it can also take on a new form: the form of the Explorer.
The Explorer returns to the world with new eyes.  They again take the world as existent, but they do not take it as obvious.  Explorers no longer thinks that their thoughts are reality itself, but instead take all experience as someone to delve into.  The views of the Explorers are in a perpetual state of flux.
The Explorer can characterize both the Lost and the Dogmatist.  The Dogmatist is a slave to appearances – they take that which the world first gives them as the one and only truth.  Their opinions transition at random from Truth to Truth as dictated by chance and circumstance.
The Lost are those who have abandoned the world.  They do not take their experiences to be of anything, and yet they are trapped in their own existence which continuously denies their own reasoning. 

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Is Lying Ok (part 1)?

Kant famously said that it would be right to let someone be murdered if the alternative was that you told a lie.  This extreme anti-consequential-ism is one of the primary reasons that people find Kant unpalatable (at least in my experience).  This does raise an interesting question – how immoral is lying?

Hegel has an amusing note on truth in the Phenomenology of Spirit.  He speaks of those who attempt to issue the commandment: ‘everyone ought to speak the truth.’  He says ‘the condition will at once be admitted: if he knows the truth.’  This, Hegel summarizes, makes Truth ‘contingent on whether I know it, and can convince myself of it; and the truth and falsehood ought to be spoken just as everyone happens to know, mean, and understand it.’ (Reason and Lawgiver, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit)

So, should we speak Truth?  As Hegel points out, this is really a different question – should we speak what we think is the truth?

What are the stakes in this question?  Why is it better to tell the truth?  Kant gives an answer – if everyone lied, we would live in a world where lying didn’t work.  For those who don’t buy into his framework this answer shouldn’t be very satisfying.  In terms of consequentiallism I would say that lying is considered immoral because it often harms others (we don’t usually lie in such a way that we intentionally harm ourselves, though lies can definitely come back to haunt us.)  However, I think that saying that lying harms others ignores the complexity of actually saying what actually counts as a lie.  If someone casually asks me how I am and I feel like shit, am I wrong if I tell them simply ‘I’m good’?  To take a more morally loaded scenario, what if you found out that your friend was gay, and his strict catholic father asked you about his sexual inclination?  I think most people would feel a much stronger sense of duty towards their friend then towards not lying.

This is all somewhat dancing around the question of whether lying is wrong however.  That I can find fringe cases where lying is beneficial for those involved doesn’t really address the principle that we shouldn’t lie in general (just as we shouldn’t murder, in general).  Is there any inherent aspect negative aspect to all lies?  It cannot be because failing to speak the truth is a crime, because that is really to say that ignorance is a crime.  The definition of lying must therefore have to do with intention – someone lies when they speak contrary to their actual beliefs.  This contrariness cannot be the exploration of alternative ideas, but instead must stem from an intention to deceive.

Is deception inherently wrong?  We have already covered how it does not have universally negative results, nor does it require hostility towards the deceived.  If lying is to be truly wrong, then it must be the intention to deceive alone that is responsible.  So, is it wrong to intentionally deceive?

… this post has gotten quite long, so you’ll need to find out NEXT TIME!

Thanks for reading ^_^


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Women and Children First?

(See comment at end)

Chivalry enjoys an odd position in today’s society.  I would say that it is politically correct at least in public to espouse that there is little substantial difference between genders.  There is an ongoing  debate between those who say that there are (statistical) non-physical differences between men and women and those who say that there are not, but by my judgement this is mainly an academic debate – I’m pretty sure most people on both sides of the issue still support equality of rights.

My conception of modern day chivalry is that it is a notion of how men should treat women.  I think this usually manifests in behaviors such as opening doors, refraining from returning play-hitting, paying for dinner, and acting as a protector in times of danger.  Many (though not all) of these behaviors fall in the purview of general politeness if applied to both genders – the one that stands out the most is the protection clause.

I remember one of my friends saying one day that he considered himself old-fashioned-ly chivalrous.  Though his tone came across as somewhat self-deprecating, I did not feel that he considered this a negative thing – he seemed to me to be acknowledging that his position probably went against what is today considered politically correct.

Honestly I think chivalry is somewhat just putting a nice word to the fact that heterosexual men pay more attention to being nice to women (not that there is anything wrong with such an inclination, its just that chivalry complicates the subject).

That aside though, I think most who are engaged in the conversation of women equality do believe in the importance of protecting women – not because of inherent inequality, but because of societal norms that disadvantage and sometimes endanger women.

This brings me to the topic I wanted to talk about – the notion of saving women and children first.  This is not an official law, but I do think it is a noteworthy motto in today’s society (I would be surprised, in applicable emergency situations such as shipwrecks and escaping burning buildings, if it did not at least come to the minds of those involved).

I don’t think that the children aspect needs much exploration.  The more interesting aspect is whether women should be saved first.

The kind of emergency situation where this question is raised tosses out a lot of the complexity of whether women need additional protection in society.  The question is reduced to the more direct issue of whether women’s lives should be saved before the lives of men.  I’m inclined to say that there is no particular reason that woman should be saved first.  The question is usually posed as one of self-sacrifice, it is those in danger who are choosing who gets to be in the life boats, or who gets to get out first.  Woman first is not an imperative aimed at women (it is not saying that ‘I, as a woman, must save myself).  It is an imperative that men should sacrifice themselves to save women.  Men, the agents, save the women, who are acted upon.

I don’t think that there is a good answer to questions like ‘who should die and who should live in this emergency.’  I think that the ‘women first’ adage springs from a societal inclination to make men the actors in the scenario.  I wouldn’t say that it is a ‘bad answer’, given that there are no good one’s in that kind of situation, but I wouldn’t say that it really carries any moral truth to it.

Let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman

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The Philisophical Canon

One of the big challenges in philosophy is choosing what to read.  I’ve said before that one aspect of philosophy that is different from science is that philosophers don’t go out of style – Plato is still read today despite the hundreds of thousands of works written more recently.  Whether science is right to disregard its early theorists is a question worthy of its own post, but never throwing out material creates its own problems.

One of feminist theory’s interesting contributions to philosophy is articulating the importance of paying attention to norms.  One of these norms in philosophy is its philosophical canon – the works that are and are not read.  There is too much philosophy to read all of it, at least in a meaningful way (I’ve been reading Hegel’s Phenomenology for about five months of accumulated time and have barely past the half-way mark).  As a beginner, there is no real way of discriminating between the different works except for trusting in the judgement of your peers and instructors.  This can lead to the problematic situation where certain ideas are unjustly ignored.

So… what should we do about this?  I don’t think there is a knock down solution of any sort – it is one of our limitations that we can only process so much information.  We can not make a truly informed decision on how to justly distribute our attention between different authors.  I think that, ultimately, it is one of the many things that we need to be aware of as we go about our philosophical activities.  The works that we read are usually of high quality, but there are many political and societal aspects to what we do and do not read.

Let me know what you think,


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Neitzche’s Morality

I’m reluctant to write on Nietzsche because there is a very high chance that anything I say will be wrong.  But what else do I advocate then live and learn, so onward!

Nietzsche is one of the most ambiguous philosophers in existence.  He regularly contradicts himself, he criticizes anything and everything, and his work is unsystematic and poetic.  These traits can make it quite fun to read his work, but they do not lend themselves to straightforward interpretation.  That being said, I do think that I have at least a tenuous grasp of one of his most famous lines of thought – his ideas and conceptions of morality.

Nietzsche is generally considered to be a anti-realist on the subject of morality.  He thinks that morality is something that we make up, a non-empirical fantasy.  Another way of putting it is that he thinks that you can fully explain someones morality by looking at their lives; our morality are codes that are ‘good’ for us in the sense that they benefit us.  Nietzsche rails against ‘slave morality’, slave morality being the moral codes adapted by the herd.  This slave morality probably aligns with morality as most north American’s today think of it – be nice to people, be humble, don’t be greedy, etc.  In short, it is the morality of the church.  Nietzsche thought that this kind of morality was a morality that was good for weak people, and that they used this morality to constrain strong people who would be much better off acting otherwise then dictated by this slave morality.  Thus he issued a call to action of sorts.  He proposed a different kind of morality, his ‘will to power’.

I’m going to leave aside talking about moral realism for the moment – I’ve touched on the topic several times recently.  What I instead want to look at is Nietzsche’s proposed moral system, one that emphasizes greatness over kindness.

Though Nietzsche was proposing this system in opposition to what he perceived to be a majority morality, by my current conception of his system I think that it is much more compelling then many will probably first think.  Is it better to live a great life or a kind life?  Though I think I’m inclined towards the second, I cannot help but hesitate.  Human existence seems like it would be quite bland without excellence (though it would likewise be rather unbearable without kindness).  Nietzsche’s system does not eliminate kindness, he is advocating that the great not allow themselves be tied down.  Greatness, I must say, has its own unique pull that kindness does not bring to the table.  In the end I don’t think I could subscribe to it, but it isn’t a simple choice.

Morality is not usually considered a matter of personal benefit – that is what differentiates Nietzsche’s meta-ethics from more traditional ethics.  I think, though, that even within the traditional normative ethics framework there is space to argue the value of greatness.

Let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman

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On Church and Philosophy

When I was younger I regularly attended the United Church with my family.  I currently find myself unable to enjoy the church experience, despite it having many elements that I enjoy.  Some churches are very dogmatic, but the United Church is not like that – by my judgement the majority of members do not actually believe any classical church dogma.  Those who do believe in god at all mostly believe in a very ‘soft’ kind of god, god somehow being the universe or energy or something like that.  Almost no one takes the stories of the bible literally, they are instead used more as a lever or tool to explore ideas relevant to the lives of the community.  Community is the majority of what the church is, a center for people to interact.  It is a group of people who come together to talk about life, eat cookies, and participate in fun activities – if the word church is taken out it sounds like it should be a really good community for me.  It is really rather unfortunate for me that I have some fairly significant internal barriers that make it difficult for me to participate.

The major barrier for me is that I feel that the church setup creates many untouchables.  Even given how progressive the church my family attends is, the whole community feels like a landmine to me. They sing songs praising amazing god, there are conservatives who take god literally, and the main source of teaching is the bible.  The bible is not taken literally, it is treated as a book of moral stories.  Though I think it is true that many of the stories in the bible can be swung in positive ways, there is no particular reason it has any corner on the market for meaningfulness – except for tradition.  Thus we get into what I find to be the paradoxical nature of the church community – it is sustained by tradition, but also stunted.  If the church abandoned its dedication to that which actually makes it a church and instead just focused on exploring ideas directly pertinent to the community it would lose the coherence that makes churches a unique community in the first place.

Let me know what you think about church communities,

Ryan Workman

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