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What is Philosophy?

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Inspired by this post that I discovered on my favorite website, The Browser.

I am arrogant enough to think I can answer this question in a way that is unique.

The science of philosophy is a methodological study of how we use information to form arguments or opinions.

You can break philosophy down into metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, etc. but at the end of the day, you are still going to be exploring and critiquing the methodologies used to explore those problems, and if you are not, you are not really “doing” philosophy as a science. Ultimately, all these separate branches of philosophy just form schools of thought that have developed through the use of the philosophical method of inquiry.

I’m willing to admit my definition seems biased toward epistemology as a sort of higher form of philosophy, and probably much of that has to do with my own fierce belief in empiricism. I ultimately believe that you can’t approach ethical or metaphysical questions in a non- empirical way and draw any meaningful conclusions. In many ways, metaphysics and empirical knowledge are just two sides of the same coin, with empirical science constantly chipping away at what we consider to be metaphysical (of course, empiricism never seems to make any significant progress in relation to the size of the metaphysical problem set). Metaphysics occasionally fights back and reclaims large swathes of empirical knowledge, as we find out we didn’t know quite so much as we thought we did. I see empiricism as the act of refining and defining, while skepticism is the act of negating and boundary blurring. You can’t be a true empiricist without a large amount of skepticism, and it is no accident that skepticism often pushes problems into the realm of the metaphysical.

Granted, this could be entirely personal, but I don’t consider most religious doctrine to be philosophical (Buddhism being the notable exception, but I don’t consider Buddhism a religion per se, and I will admit to not knowing as much as I should about Hinduism or Islam. My understanding of Islam is that it suffers from the same conceit as the other Abrahamic religions: there is only one God, this book is his word, and if you can’t believe that, you might as well go home).

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Categories: Philosophy

Thinking In More Than One Dimension

September 11, 2011 Leave a comment

As a child, I was obsessed with the idea of limits, and taking things to their limits. Onward, forward, full speed ahead. I wanted to be a grown up, tomorrow could never come soon enough. Is it my birthday yet? I bet if I kept trying, I could be stronger, faster, smarter than anyone.

As a teenager, I began to understand that there were some times and places within social interactions and interpersonal relationships that called for restraint. I mistakenly believed I had shattered past some limit, left civilization behind me in the dust, and I was lost, wandering some strange frontier that other people did not understand or feel any inclination to explore… maybe they were all cowards; cowards who never dared.

As an adult, I have come to appreciate the benefits of nuance and finesse. Where once there was a forward-backwards dichotomy, I am now aware of all the other directions available to me: up, down, left, right, and I am learning to maneuver through them skillfully even as I fight off the constant disorientation forced upon me by that one dimension outside my own control: ubiquitous and elusive time, which seems to march ever-forward at a steady, unrelenting pace, begging no forgiveness and putting my own misguided adolescent exertions to shame.

Categories: Philosophy

Criticism

August 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Does all cultural criticism suffer from a problem of perspective: today’s critic is yesterday’s crusader? Culture is by the people, and when those people get old, there are new people who begin to make their own mark upon that culture. So much criticism can essentially be boiled down to: “things aren’t the same anymore… it used to be like this, but now it is different, and the old way was kind of better.” Of course, I admit that it can cut both ways. I guess the new generation has its own critiques that indict the old ways and imply the inevitable supremacy of the new. It is the same liberal/conservative split that we see throughout society.

Is the critique always the underdog? Or is underdog status relational to the critique’s positioning (being “inside” or “outside” the norm) within society? What about in situations where there is no established mainstream, i.e. critiquing two parallel subcultures of equal following?

Is it conservative to critique religious fundamentalists because they are the “outsider” in todays culture (or are they not the outsiders)? Atheists? Unitarians? Mormons? Westboro Baptists? Is today’s mainstream society so socially liberal that modern social conservatives are actually a progressive insurgency for change?

It also seems to me that there is more criticism of the conservative variety than the liberal, i.e. more old people complaining about young people than vice versa. This could be a reflection of demographics (there are more young people), the liberalization of society, or maybe more so the complacency of today’s liberals with the social order (having nothing to really bitch about, or better things to do than bitch). How much do the bourgeois pleasures of the global neoliberal marketplace placate today’s young radicals? Do the youth of today care more about creation than critique, and if so, is this a phenomena that is unique to our time, constant throughout history, or cyclical?

Self-determinism has been a distinctly American value throughout the county’s history. From the babyboom generation onward, American’s have enjoyed the material wealth and associated privilege required to shape their world and future into whatever they may imagine. If this is a liberal attitude, the ability to create something new and actualize one’s dreams, it would seem that criticism would find little respite within the cadre of artists and visionaries that set the cultural agenda.

Categories: Art, Culture, Philosophy

Joseph Epstein on the American Novel

August 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Joseph Epstein reviewing “The Cambridge History of the American Novel” in the Wall Street Journal:

Only 40 or 50 years ago, English departments attracted men and women who wrote books of general intellectual interest and had names known outside the academy—Perry Miller, Aileen Ward, Walter Jackson Bate, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Joseph Wood Krutch, Lionel Trilling, one could name a dozen or so others—but no longer.

I’m not familiar with any of those names, which of course speaks more of me than Epstein. Perhaps I am a victim of the academic evisceration and pedagogical over-extension that Epstein describes.

With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today. The most lauded novelists in “The Cambridge History of the American Novel” tend to be those, in the words of another of its contributors, who are “staging a critique of ‘America’ and its imperial project.” Thus such secondary writers as Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow are in these pages vaunted well beyond their literary worth.

Bring on the barbarians, I say. Ginsberg and Vonnegut were among the authors that spoke to me in high school and made me interested in books. To somehow deride them because of their politics is to miss the point: art is a reflection of the people and times that create it. I am sure that My Antonia and The Great Gatsby spoke to Epstein because they addressed the world of his time. The lessons in its pages had already been lived, digested, absorbed, and processed by the society that I was born into, a society whose young people became interested in a different set of questions and ideas than the ones puzzled over by Epstein and my grandparents. The commodification of the American Dream is merely hinted at in Gatsby, but it is at the forefront of everything that has been written since Ginsberg, et. al.

Epstein’s assessment of the modern English department is correct, but the correlation between the practices he maligns and the declining enrollment rates in American English departments lends no proof to any chain of causation, one way or the other. Book lovers still find their way into English departments, and they also find there way into Econ departments as necessitated by the realities of our changing society. The collected popular memes of postmodernism do not lend themselves very well to the type of canonical English department that Epstein reminisces over, the type where art’s meaning is conceived only within the mind of the artist and the audience’s role is to find this “correct” meaning rather than bring their own experiences into the process.

“The Cambridge History of the American Novel” could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities.

Sadly, this is the case. When did popular culture and consumer culture become synonymous? Epstein’s “40 years ago” sounds about right, but has consumerism so permeated our society that all cultural output is now corrupted by it, and made unworthy of comparison to what came before? Unable to be compared, perhaps, but certainly not unworthy.

I do sympathize with Epstein here, because culture has become commercialized and it is something that is discomforting. But the quality that Epstein pines for is a subjective value, and within the current paradigm of postmodern thought that dominates today’s youth culture, subjectivity is inauthentic, a type of “anti-quality”. Within the current commercial structure of the cultural world, today’s more enlightened and informed consumers have not felt intellectually hamstrung by their enjoyment and relation with commercial art. Instead they embrace the diversity of choice that commercial art engenders, while simultaneously being aware of the subversive influence that capitalism has upon it (an influence that permeates every facet of society, of which there is no escaping, and of which Epstein’s generation [and perhaps several after it] was not viscerally aware in the same way that today’s youth are).

Self-preservation is the primary objective of existence, but in and of itself it is a process that takes place completely within a subjective conception of personalized reality. There is an ideal that is beyond the subjectiveness of our personal realities and narratives, and that ideal is called Truth. Truth is not what we generally consider “something that is true” such as that “Today is Sunday” is a true statement; the Truth I am talking about are the immutable laws of the multiverse. Human language may not even be able to explain them, nor our minds to even understand them, but all of our thoughts and actions are informed by our own conception of what Truth really is, and by striving towards this ideal, we can approach it even without ever getting there or knowing where we are going. In mathematical terms, existence is the limit as time approaches Truth.

Living only for one’s own preservation and without respect to Truth is what creates the ennui, the existentialism angst that pecks at our minds. We try to ignore this angst by giving our senses stimulus, but this can only temporarily bring us respite, for these stimuli are temporary, and the angst itself is a spiritual issue into which we are born, and over the course of our lives we struggle with. The angst exists as a condition of existence, it comes from the same place as Truth: somewhere beyond our perceptual frame.

The best we can hope to do with our lives is to respect the Truth. Understand that Truth is something outside of us, towards which we can only approximate. As the only ideal, Truth is unattainable, but at the same time it is a worthy exercise to try and attain it. To be engaged in this world is to be on the quest for truth; to hide away inside of ourselves is to turn away from truth and to be disengaged from reality.

If Truth doesn’t make sense to you, substitute in God, infinity, whatever marker you use within your own mind.

Truth is everything. Reality is an approximation of the Truth. Our lives are experiences within reality.

What is true? The only thing I know for certain is that our current conception of reality and existence will end in something we call death. Everyone knows this, but is afraid to acknowledge it. The only thing guaranteed in this life is our demise.

Categories: Philosophy

Conservatism and Human Exceptionalism

This post is going to be more for the benefit of myself than my viewers, but I am going to publish it anyway and hope that I get some feedback while I work out the kinks in my theories.

The entire conservative movement is based on the idea of homosapien exceptionalism.

Humanity itself is seen by conservatives as a oft-times devinely created being, and each human life is by extension seen as a philosophical end in and of itself.This is a viewpoint that is in accord with Humanism, which first came into the canon of Western thought around the time of Christianity’s reformation, and in turned paved the way towards Liberalism.

I look at the philosophical evolution of Humanism into Liberalism as social egressions from tyranny and the rule of man, in the same tradition as what we now call the Progressive movement. The relentless social march towards enfranchisement, self determination, and ultimately spiritual enlightenment has always been obstructed by the entrenched interests of the old order, who use there position of power and privilege to extract economic rent from the outgroups. The questioning of this system is ultimately what has driven mankind to struggle against it, and this drive to question is also the essential action that defines Scientific Skepticism.

I believe that scientific skepticism is currently incompatible with homosapien exceptionalism, insofar as homosapien exceptionalism is itself a distinctive philosophy from Humanism. My reasoning for this is that, based on science, we have evolved from lower lifeforms through processes known as natural selection, and that carbon-based life itself has little conceptual difference from computer code: we are simply a set of behavioral instructions that have been let lose to evolve within the operating environment of our universe.

If a human life is somehow demarcated as “special”, or rather as an end in and of itself, where do we draw the line as to what constitutes a human? Is it some special gene or cognitive function? Because in either case, we share many genes with chimpanzees and many cognitive functions with them as well. Furthmore, there would have had to be some sort of evolutionary threshold that was crossed which would differentiate the exceptional man from the unexceptional animal.

Or if you prefer to think that ALL lifeforms have some form of sanctity, we are undeniably living in a horrendously immoral universe.

I personally am more of an agnostic nihilist when it comes to ethics and morality, but I am also comfortable arguing from the aforementioned “all life is sacred” position; that all life has a certain type of sanctity and is philosophically an end in and of itself (most likely my affinity for Buddhism plays a role in my comfort with this position) follows logic. But the exceptionalism of homosapiens is logically impossible: we are either as worthless as bacteria, or bacteria are as mighty as us. To assume otherwise is to believe that there is some type of evolutionary threshold that must be attained before life is sacred, which I cannot prove to be, but believe to be, impossible, because of the genetic subtleties and nuances of different human beings, and at the same time the relative similarities between the different species.

Categories: Philosophy

Pragmatic Libertarianism

The following post was inspired by these two articles.

Joseph Stiglitz: The Evils of Unregulated Capitalism

Anthony Gregory: Why the Left Fears Libertarianism 

The above two pieces are not necessarily diametrically opposed to one another, but reading them on the same day made me reflect on the sorry state of discourse between contemporary liberals and classical liberals. If you boil it down to a single defining characteristic, it is the socialist welfare state that divides the two, and nothing more. I look at the development of the modern social welfare state as a centuries-long process of negotiation and compromise between the classes of society. The current socialist democratic makeup of the developed world is the result of this (often violent) negotiation process, and it represents a sociopolitical equilibrium that will continue to shift as time marches forward. I say all of this without making any normative statements as to whether or not such a equilibrium is preferable to any other hypothetical states of equilibrium. Libertarianism makes the case that an equilibrium can exist at a point with much less government power and less consolidation of authority, and that such an equilibrium would be a “better” place to be as a society. Essentially, Libertarians are making the argument that Pareto-efficient social outcomes exist at some point where there is dramatically less government intervention in society. I am not going to comment on that statement for now, and instead go back to the articles that inspired this post, but keep this sociopolitical equilibrium model in mind.

Gregory makes some interesting points about how much the popular left has maligned libertarianism since the onset of the Obama presidency and subsequent rise of the tea party. He also does a great job of pointing out the Obama’s failures: not ending the wars, selling out to the big corporations in both health care and financial system reform, and just generally being more of the same (what else should we expect from a major party candidate?).

Joseph Stiglitz, fighting from the other corner, has a remarkably simple and coherent plan for fixing the economy: end the wars, rein in military and drug costs, and raise taxes on the rich. I can get behind that 100%. Maybe that doesn’t really make me a “real Libertarian” like I purport myself to be, but the fact of the matter is that such policy would be much more libertarian than our current policy of corporate welfare and endless intervention in the affairs of other countries.

Yeah, the rich should pay some more taxes… they have been sucking off the public’s teat forever, maybe its time for them to give a little back. I am not ideologically Libertarian because Libertarian is the best political ideology and all other ideologies are inferior; I am Libertarian because I believe that people should be free to live their lives unencumbered by the constraints imposed upon them by political, religious, and cultural institutions. I believe that, as long as we are not depriving other people of their own right to be weird, we should be as weird as we want to be. My personal philosophy is actually inherently progressive. Maybe I am really a Marxist; if you know your history, it is kind of hard not to be. I think there is a mountain of evidence that the monied classes have been systematically abusing our democratic system for their own personal benefit… for at least 30 years, perhaps closer to 300, or 3000… its hard to know exactly how far to go back, but if Libertarians were to look at the tenets of Liberalism that inspired their own philosophy of freedom, they would see that Liberalism and the Enlightenment were about giving power and choice to the people. The Liberal revolutions that brought us the American Revolution, French Revolution, and countless other political and social movements were an inherently democratizing and enfranchising process. It is a process that has been taking place all over the world, and has yet to reach its culmination.

Today’s libertarians need to consider their end game: is a libertarian utopia, even if hypothetically achievable, even sustainable? Can the equilibrium that they believe in even exist? I unabashedly believe we need more libertarian-minded reforms in this country, but I also am skeptical that a pure libertarian equilibrium exists. If we are only concerned with Pareto-efficient outcomes, I think there are a number of things that can be accomplished within the democratic socialist framework of our countries institutions. This is where I have an ideological split with “fundmentalist libertarians”, who would never use the corrupted means of government power to establish an end that is marginally more libertarian. Would it be worth it to spend $1 trillion dollars on a national project that delivered clean and cheap fusion energy to every household in North America? If it guaranteed that we wouldn’t need a foreign policy centered around the invasion of energy-rich countries, I say such a project is a net-gain for Libertarianism (as well as practically every single person on Earth).

The reality is that there is no such thing as a free market, and consequentially there are a huge number of goods and services that are misprovisioned. If you accept the hypothesis that “pure libertarianism” is unfeasible, or at the very least unworkable (and I actually think most people who identify as Libertarian recognize the futility of their ideological affiliation, but are like me and stick to their guns because they believe marginal steps towards libertarian principles are what this country and the world need), it is only a logical extension that such an aforementioned “Manhattan Project” for energy is a good idea.

Ideology is always a mistake. It blinds us to the facts. It doesn’t really matter from which angle you are coming from; if you believe in an idea in and of itself as an end in and of itself, you are abandoning any pretext of objectiveness. You are using bi-variable equations to explain phenomena that take place in four dimensions, and your model will ultimately fail.