Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Abstract mysticism

This is an abstract I'm working on for a conference paper. A previous version of it was unsuccessful, so I've revised it, but perhaps not enough. I'm working with a 500-word limit, so I can't add anything unless I also take something else away. Any suggestions, though, would be welcome.
Mysticism, perhaps for good reason, is something of a dirty word in philosophy, but I think that something that has gone by this name is necessary for ethics or moral philosophy. My goal in this paper is to explain this thesis, clarifying what I mean by ‘mysticism’, and exploring some of the advantages and disadvantages of mysticism in ethics. Not surprisingly, mysticism is associated with religious views on ethical issues, and these are often conservative. One danger of appeals to the mystical is that they can seem to justify the irrational and evil prejudices of people on the right wing. Another danger is that they might seem to justify nothing at all, or perhaps anything whatever. But I should first define mysticism.

In her essay on “Contraception and Chastity,” Elizabeth Anscombe claims that the sense that casual sex dishonors the body is a mystical perception. She also says that the sense that leaving dead bodies out with the trash shows a lack of proper respect is mystical too. It seems to me that Leon Kass has exactly the same kind of perception in mind when he talks about the “wisdom of repugnance.” He asks rhetorically in his essay on that subject: “Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or murdering another human being?”

I do not know whether Kass really means to imply that having sex with animals is worse than rape and murder as he might seem to (I doubt it), but my goal is not to defend the specific values that Anscombe (a Catholic) and Kass (a one-time member of George W. Bush’s government) support. Rather, I am interested in the limits of rational argument that Kass points out. These limits can be seen by liberal and progressive thinkers as well as conservative ones. I would argue, for instance, that the idea that human beings have natural rights is a mystical one. The same might be said about the very idea of a moral law.

This kind of “mystical perception” or “wisdom of repugnance” obviously depends on a certain kind of emotional response, but it is not thereby non-rational. Indeed, someone who put his dead or dying mother out with the rubbish would be regarded as highly irrational, precisely because (or insofar as) he saw nothing wrong with doing so. Moral reasoning typically begins from certain data, such as the badness of pain, the value of human life, the desirability of autonomy, and so on. Our perception that such things are indeed good or bad, however, is hard to justify empirically or logically. Instead it rests on a kind of emotional response. People who lack this kind of basic emotional orientation to the world would strike us as alien and hard, if not impossible, to reason with. In this sense reason and emotion are intertwined.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Elevate me

Jean Kazez says:
The good of religion It goes back to Keith Richards's book. Over and over again, he talks about the "elevation" he feels from making one out of many--one sound in a band with many members. This is a term also used by Jonathan Haidt, who references Barbara Ehrenreich's book about the lost art of dancing in the streets. We can't all be Keith Richards, but anyone can become a member of a church--and then the "band" is huge, crossing boundaries of both space and time.

But wait--why do you need a church for that? Why isn't there sufficient elevation in going to rock concerts or political rallies or baseball games? It's different, because a church (but not a stadium) is a place in which people deal with the passage of time (marked by holidays) and the major events of life--birth, marriage, illness, death. Contingently, though not of necessity, churches are in the time/birth/death business because they are places run by priests who have contact with the powers that supposedly govern such things.

The new atheist attitude is that the whole edifice of religion should come falling down because there aren't any gods. But then you'd lose all the good. As I see it: better for religion to evolve in a rational direction, not vanish entirely. That view is the main thing that makes me a not-new atheist, and it has nothing to do with "accommodationism" about science and religion.
The second paragraph reminds me of the end of Larkin's "Church Going":
I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
I think Kazez and Larkin are excellent on why there might be a need for church, but actually going to church does not (in my experience) provide the kind of elevation that Richards talks about. This elevation seems to come from a kind of communal art, although 'art' might be too grand a term for it. I think it would include the joy that a Cleveland Browns fan recently described to me of chanting "Asshole" in unison with a whole stadium at a hated former player. It certainly includes this kind of singing, etc. at a football/soccer match. But that has nothing to do with marriage, birth, and death. We still tend to go to church (or turn to religion in some form) for those things.

So how do we bring the things we care about (the Browns, the birth of a baby, etc.) together with church and/or religion? I'm not sure that a more rational form of religion is the answer. The best lack all conviction/The worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats said. (This seems to apply to politics as well as religion, and is almost explicitly given as a common reason for not voting for the clearly better presidential candidate in the US.) So we need to make the worst more rational (which people are constantly trying to do, without much success) and the best more passionate (which means finding something they can get passionate about).

Which is a bit like saying we need a new god, or only a god can save us now. Also like Nietzsche's madman's "I seek God, I seek God." It seems to keep being said. Which means, not to end on too much of a downer, that hope remains alive.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Do I know what I'm doing?

In my last post I wrote that "We know what we are doing not only better than others know but in a different way. In fact, we know with such certainty that it almost makes no sense to say that we know it. But the chalk example shows that we can be wrong, and so knowledge claims do make sense. There is something that could be true or false, something to know or fail to know." I'm not happy with this for various reasons. It sounds too much like a kind of Wittgensteinian theory to me, and I don't think it's all that true to how we use the word 'know.'

"I know what I'm doing" is usually a defensive remark made to counter a suggestion either that you are incompetent or that your goal is not a wise one. It might be said in answer to "Are you sure you want to climb that ladder in this high wind?" or "Isn't that too much salt?" It isn't something you would normally say unless challenged. So it isn't a simple statement of fact.

What is a fact is that we are normally perfectly able to say what we are doing and that what we say is authoritative. Am I playing a tune with the squeaky pump, or pumping water with it, or murdering the Nazis hiding inside the house? There is a sense in which only I know the answer to this or, rather, there can be circumstances in which only I know the answer. Sometimes the evidence will make it very clear what I was doing, but sometimes it won't.

Performing an action is like acting (in charades, say). Sometimes we need the actor to tell us what s/he (can we invent the word 'acter' so that we don't have to say actor/actress any more?) was doing. But then there is no possibility of a mistake on the actor's part.

If the meaning of, or reason for, your movements is obscure to others then you can remove this mystery by telling them what you are (or at least take yourself to be) doing. In that sense you know what you are doing. But you don't know in the sense of having found out. Nor do you know in the sense that your belief is by definition true. So it might be best not to say that people have knowledge in such cases. As long as we don't get too preachy in the face of perfectly functional cases of ordinary use.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Blind vision

John McDowell asks an interesting question in his "What is the Content of an Intention in Action?" If Anscombe is right that "I do what happens," then how can she also say that "my knowledge is independent of what actually happens" so that I can know that I am writing "I am a fool" on a chalkboard even if my eyes are shut? (See here for the relevant passage from Anscombe.)

Anscombe's point is that if someone asks what you are doing, you don't have to stop and look in order to answer the question. You know what you are doing non-observationally. But what if the board has been cleaned with something that prevents the chalk from making a mark? Then how could I know I was writing anything, rather than merely trying to write something, if my eyes are shut?

Anscombe says that in such cases the mistake lies in the performance, not the judgment. McDowell insists that: "it is surely wrong to suppose Anscombe's claim to be writing 'I am a fool' on the blackboard can express knowledge if those words are not getting written on the blackboard."

She might be said to have knowledge of what she takes herself to be doing, but if we say this then it sounds as though we might always have to actually check in order to be sure that we really are doing what we think we are doing (in other cases, as well as the blindfold-type case). And this is both unfashionably dualistic and absurd. We know what we are doing not only better than others know but in a different way. In fact, we know with such certainty that it almost makes no sense to say that we know it. But the chalk example shows that we can be wrong, and so knowledge claims do make sense. There is something that could be true or false, something to know or fail to know.

The problem with what Anscombe says, it seems to me, lies in her assertion that her knowledge would be the same in the case where she is writing and in the case where, unbeknown to her, something has gone wrong in the performance of her action. Her belief or certainty might be the same, but in one case she knows only what she means to do, not what she is doing. So it's odd to say that her knowledge is the same in both cases. Should we say that her mental state is the same, but that in one case it is not knowledge? That doesn't sound quite right either.

It's important to stay on Anscombe's side, though, otherwise we seem to be left saying that we don't know what we are doing most of the time (unless we neurotically look and see), just as we might in other philosophical debates say that it is not reality that horrifies some people but only putative reality, or that we don't really hear motorcycles but only sounds that we interpret as motorcycles. Sometimes it is hard to know what one is hearing or doing, but excessive focus on these exceptional cases make bad metaphysics.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Never understand

I decided to read and blog about this piece on autism and philosophy before I saw that Matthew Pianalto had already done so and that it was largely about Wittgenstein. It's hard to see past the wrongness about Wittgenstein. He was not "awkward and unskilled in social intercourse." On the contrary, he could be very charming. What he was is rude, which is not the same thing. My sense is that he was perfectly capable of getting along at a superficial level with people he probably thought of as superficial, but that he had a very low tolerance of what he regarded as bullshit when talking with people from whom he expected more, such as philosophers. I'm pretty sure that it's false (or at least misleading) to say that:
Wittgenstein, we know, came up with his preliminary model of language while studying court reports of a car accident in Paris during the war.
Wittgenstein heard about these court reports, but it's not as if he studied them. Anyway, almost everything about Wittgenstein seems at least slightly wrong in this kind of way, and sometimes Martin (the author of the article) seems to admit that he doesn't much care whether he gets Wittgenstein right or wrong: "I am probably misreading the text here — if I have understood it correctly, I must be misreading it. But ..." Sigh/grr.

We can probably never understand another human being so well that they are incapable of surprising us. But we can understand well enough to get along with people, which is the main thing. I don't think too many philosophers would deny these banalities. Least of all Wittgenstein.

(I can't get my youtube link to work properly, so click here for video entertainment.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Philosophy & Animal Life V

In Hacking's very nice conclusion to the book he writes:
Cavell notes that both Costello and Diamond are horrified not only by what is done to animals but also by the widespread indifference of the humanity that eats them. He invites us to think of two different visions of the world. Quite so, but it also comes down to innumerable minutiae, whose effect may differ from attentive person to attentive person (p. 148)
I take it that the indifferent are the inattentive, who elsewhere are called blind. But I take it also that one can be attentive without becoming vegan (Costello isn't, for instance) or even completely vegetarian (one might eat only humanely raised and slaughtered animals, perhaps). And there could be degrees of attentiveness, rather than just two categories of people: the attentive and the inattentive. Perhaps this would explain some people's going further than others towards pure veganism, though I doubt it could be the whole story.

In response to McDowell's suggestion that we talk of "putative reality" rather than "reality" (since we might not share Costello's reaction to it), Hacking writes:
Perhaps we should speak not of the difficulty of reality but of the difficulty of experienced reality, of reality as experienced. This allows Elizabeth Costello her horror at the meat industry, the reality as she experiences it. It excludes the madman in his cabin because delusions are not reality as experienced, even if they are as painful to the deluded man as any experience he has ever had. (p. 153)
The point is that "putative reality" might be a delusion, and Costello does not seem to be deluded, even if we don't react as she does. This seems like a good idea, although there could be trouble ahead if we start trying to distinguish between reality as experienced and reality as it is in itself. Can't we understand why the reality might cause her to react that way even if we do not react that way ourselves?

On Hughes's poem about the photograph, Hacking points out that the men died at Gallipoli, which is still remembered as a tragedy, in a war that has an important part in British, Australian, and Canadian mythology. (For a right-of-center view of what it meant, see Larkin's poem MCMXIV. For a left-of-center view see The Pogues singing about Gallipoli.) It could be that some sense of this mythology is necessary to appreciate the full force of Hughes' poem.

Finally, Hacking questions why Diamond should count instances of goodness or beauty as difficulties of reality, and the question is worth asking. But it's only such instances that throw us that Diamond is talking about, as I read her. Most goodness and beauty is not like this. I would think that difficulties of reality are wherever you find them--whatever you find hard to live with or make sense of (as long as you are not deluded) might count as such a difficulty. Diamond says that in at least one case of goodness "what is capable of astonishing one is its incomprehensibility" (quoted on pp. 166-167). Hacking says that, "Her point is that we cannot comprehend it by 'taking it apart.'" (p. 167). He wants to say that we can simply wonder at such goodness, without (also) wondering at our inability to comprehend it. But I'm not so sure. I'm not sure whether there is any real disagreement between Diamond and Hacking on this point, but I'm also not sure that Hacking has got it quite right either (nor that I have, of course). To call something wonderful is very close to calling it incomprehensible. So wondering at something's incomprehensibility is like wondering at its wonderfulness. It's almost the same thing, only squared or intensified. But if Hacking exclaims "Wonderful!" at some act of generosity and Diamond gasps "Incomprehensible!" do they really have the same appreciation of it? Hacking seems to have in mind a reaction that is not a difficulty of reality, that does not upset the normal flow of one's life, whereas Diamond seems to have something potentially transformative in mind. I don't know.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Philosophy & Animal Life IV

Four striking things that McDowell says:

1. Cavell "concludes that the idea of seeing something as something is not helpful here because if we frame Diamond's thinking in terms of aspect seeing, we do not give proper weight to the fact that for her other animals simply are our fellows, not things we can see as our fellows if we can achieve an aspect switch" (pp. 127-128).  But I suspect Diamond would accept the possibility that someone might fail to see an animal as a fellow being and then, perhaps quite suddenly, start to see it as one.  And that the same thing could happen with a human being.  Doesn't Scrooge come to see his employees differently, to see them as human beings?  The duck-rabbit might not be helpful, because it seems too much like a toy or game, but I think aspect seeing is relevant (and I think Cavell recognizes this).

2. If "one views animals as Diamond does, one would have to see sending them to be turned into food, however friendly one's previous relations with them were, as a betrayal" (pp. 130-131).  Maybe, but I wonder.  Stephen Mulhall talks about the way animals are treated in the little house on the prairie stories.  Must such farmers be regarded as betraying their animals if they take them to be slaughtered, or slaughter them themselves?

3. Costello's "response is over the top" (p. 134), and "does not give such questions [as in what sense factory farming is like the Holocaust] the care they need" (p. 131).  This sounds a bit like saying that she needs to calm down.  Which is understandable, but jars a little nevertheless.

4. A different poem would have been harder for Ted Hughes to write (p. 132).  Would it?  How easy or hard was the first one to write?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Philosophy & Animal Life III

(I just lost about an hour's worth of thoughts on Cavell's essay.  What follows will be truncated and written while grumpy.)

Cavell wonders whether it might be possible to "suffer" (p. 93) from a kind of blindness in respect to non-human animals, in the way that one can be blind to the humanity of other human beings.  I think the answer is No.  There might be kinds of mental handicap that make one incapable of seeing others as human beings, but otherwise failure to recognize someone as human, to treat them as a human being, is a moral failing.  It is not something from which one suffers.  Everyone knows that animals can, for instance, see, be sane, be loved, care for their young, fear for their lives, and so on.  There is no therefore (...they have rights, or ...they should not be eaten, say), but the kind of blindness Cavell has in mind seems like a kind of bad faith, nothing more.

On p. 108 Cavell talks of different realms, seemingly meaning the human and the animal realms.  He compares the difference with that between the human realm and the divine.  I find this unhelpful, partly because I don't recognize any such thing as the divine realm.  But also because, like Cavell, I want to acknowledge a host of differences and similarities between human and non-human animals.  Talk of separate realms seems to downplay the similarities and make something like a metaphysical truth (something platonic or God's eye) of the differences.

He goes on to talk about the comparison of modern farms and Nazi death camps made by both Heidegger and Elizabeth Costello.  He questions whether anyone not crazed could make such a comparison.  I think they could.  It's true that there are obvious and crucial differences, and that making the comparison risks insulting the victims of Nazi genocide.  But ignoring the similarities also risks being insensitive to what they suffered.  Remembering the Holocaust means (to my mind) thinking that we must never let such a thing happen again.  And that means being alive to what is such a thing, perhaps even being extra sensitive to it.  And feeling horror when we come across such a thing.  Factory farms are not the same thing, but you don't have to be mad to find them too close for comfort.

Finally, on p. 122 and p. 124 Cavell talks about why he has not become a vegetarian, and connects this with the idea that vegetarianism is something like a self-righteous distancing of oneself from the rest of humanity.  Orwell said something similar, I believe.  This might be a reason not to insist that one's hosts go out of their way to serve one only vegetarian food.  It might be a reason not to go on about one's vegetarianism.  But I don't see how one could read Diamond's work, or Coetzee's (including works he has endorsed), and come away thinking that this is what motivates (or even constitutes) their vegetarianism.                  

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Philosophy & Animal Life II

Three thoughts about Cora Diamond's essay on the difficulty of reality and the difficulty of philosophy:

1. It's really hard to summarize what she says or does in this essay.

2. The difficulties of reality that she uses as examples are interestingly related to Wittgenstein's examples in the Lecture on Ethics. They are these: a poem by Ted Hughes about a photograph of men who died (later) in the First World War, Coetzee's presentation of Elizabeth Costello's woundedness because of what we do to animals, the almost wrong impossibility of beauty and wonder at an act of kindness, and something like the experience of separateness from others. These examples are themselves hard to summarize or pin down, and it is no accident that Diamond uses references to literature, to "poetry, in a broad sense of the term," (p. 56) to help get her ideas across. They are not easy to articulate. It is not really clear whether the examples are poetry or experience, in fact. The first example is said to be "a poem" (p. 43). The second is complex but includes "a set of lectures" (p. 46). The third (after a section named "Deflection") is introduced simply as "Beauty and Goodness," and here the first example is described as involving (not being) a poem, and the second as involving "the horror of what we do to animals" (p. 60). So, as far as I can see, the examples involve a kind of mix or blurring or blending together of experiences and the poetry (in a broad sense) that captures or expresses these experiences. This is the kind of thing, I think, that the early Wittgenstein called nonsense. That name seems inadequate, but does have the virtue of making clear that it is hard to make sense of this stuff. Diamond's point, if she can be said to have just one, is that you could go mad thinking about these things. It might not all be nonsense, but it is far from being good, plain sense either.

Another aspect of her point (can a point have aspects?--one for each angel dancing on it, perhaps) is that there is a plain understanding of each example that is perfectly easy to understand: those men were alive when the picture was taken but now they are dead, Costello feels bad about the meat industry, some things are beautiful and some people are good, and some people are skeptical about other minds (or something like that). This understanding is often preferred by philosophers, makes the problems involved easy to solve or even invisible completely, and misses the point every time.

3. Diamond ends with a paragraph that might become famous for these sentences:
A language, a form of thought, cannot (we may be told) get things right or wrong, fit or fail to fit reality; it can only be more or less useful. What I want to end with is not exactly a response to that: it is to note how much that coming apart of thought and reality belongs to flesh and blood.
The coming apart in question is the difficulty of reality, the seeming impossibility of thinking things we nevertheless experience. Diamond links this with skepticism, and hence philosophy, but also with poetry and with, not just human, but bodily (flesh and blood, which can mean both meat and real) existence. It might be tempting to say that philosophy is a problem for which poetry is the answer, but Diamond's work clearly belongs to philosophy and is hardly beside the point.

Finally, Peter Hacker says some interesting things about experience here. I quite like his response to the whole question of "What is it like to be a bat?" Elsewhere he has written that we do know what it is like: rather like what it is to be a mouse, only with wings and in-built sonar. This is a nice answer, but it isn't as friendly to wondering as it might be. Could a Ted Hughes accept this answer as the whole truth? And could a Hacker appreciate the poems of a Ted Hughes? If not then he is missing something.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Philosophy & Animal Life I

What a great book! It's fun to imagine teaching a course based on this and Stephen Mulhall's book, along with The Lives of Animals and some other readings too, probably. It's also fun to see how each author responds to the others and, in some cases, to the discomfort of being a non-vegetarian in such company (I would be uncomfortable too). I want to try to write at least something about each part of the book, starting with the introduction by Cary Wolfe.

Wolfe provides a fine introduction that brings Derrida into the mix as well. I didn't find this all that helpful, but then I don't understand Derrida very well. (Generally he seems to want to say: "That's not quite right. There's something you're missing out, but I can't really tell you what it is." And this might well be true, but reading his way of trying to gesture at what is being missed never helps me very much, possibly because I don't spend enough time on it.)

What struck me most was this bit: "when Diamond affirms Costello's assertion that "I know what it's like to be a corpse," Derrida's response would be, "No, you don't. Only the other does, ..." (p. 23). I don't know how to read this except as saying that, according to Derrida, one cannot know what it is like to be a corpse. And that sounds too metaphysical for my taste. If anyone knows what it is like to be a corpse it isn't from time served as a corpse or from reading richly detailed descriptions of the experience of being dead. So it would (seem to me to) be reasonable to ask Costello or Diamond "How on earth do you know that?" or "What can you possibly mean?" And I wouldn't be surprised if they had interesting answers to those questions. But to say (relatively) simply, "No, you don't," appears to take what they mean as both straightforward in meaning and false. It might be the latter, but I don't see how it could be the former.

I might now accuse myself of making exactly the same mistake with Derrida or Wolfe, but it's less obvious (to me) that they couldn't be mistaken here. Also, Wolfe is suggesting a reading of Costello, according to which Costello is less worth reading than I had thought. This makes Wolfe less worth reading, too, since what he offers is a commentary on her text. Costello, on the other hand, gives us a commentary on death and animals, which are still interesting subjects even if Costello gets them wrong.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Anscombe's Moral Philosophy

Ever since I chose not to use a stock photograph of something or other and went with my favourite colours for the cover instead, I've been dreading what the new book might look like. So I'm very relieved that the design people have done such a nice job.

I also can't believe how generous Cora Diamond has been with the comment she's provided:
"A splendid book on a remarkable thinker, whose writings on ethics are deeply controversial. Richter makes clear the power and enduring interest of Anscombe's ideas. His reading is distinguished by sympathetic insight and sharp critical intelligence, making the book essential reading for anyone interested in ethics."—Cora Diamond, University of Virginia

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Moral (anti-)foundationalism

One of the more annoying questions that comes up in philosophy of religion and debates between evangelical new atheists and salesman-slick theists is "What is morality based on?" It seems obvious to me that it isn't based on anything. But I don't think a connection between this and foundationalism in epistemology had occurred to me until a day or two ago. Foundationalists typically want to base knowledge (or knowledge claims) on either sense-data-type givens ("I seem to see a red patch," etc.) or else a priori truths such as "A = A."

Perhaps this is blindingly obvious (and perhaps I've even read or written about it before and simply forgotten), but I think the thought is new to me that the former is like the utilitarian idea that ethics should be (or is) based on pain's feeling bad (and pleasure's feeling good, although this seems like a different kind of claim, a less seemingly intelligible one), while the latter is like the Kantian idea that ethics can be given a rational foundation. Which suggests there could be a moral version of Wittgenstein's anti-foundationalism.

How would that go? It would reject utilitarianism and Kantianism so far as they claim to be justifications of what we already believe. It would not reject them as recommendations about what we ought to do or believe. And it would reject them as justifications by showing that they fail to do what they set out to do, perhaps because nothing ever could intelligibly provide a justificatory foundation for what they purport to justify.

And there would be a misleading, pseudo-Wittgensteinian alternative that tried to base ethics on some language-game or form of life (or the planet we live on). It might be a bit tedious but probably wouldn't be too hard to work out how all this would go. The key idea, I (like to) think, is that recognizing that the space of reasons is curved does not mean (and means not) thinking of this space as round. That is, it is not that the foundation (or edge of space) is of a different kind than we had imagined. It is, rather (or at least more), that there is no foundation (or edge). If your spade is turned, the important thing is that it turns, not that it hits something rock hard.

But it would be reasonable to ask what I mean by all these metaphors and whether what I mean is actually true.

Monday, November 8, 2010


In connection with writing about religious experiences recently it occurred to me that Wittgenstein says some interesting things about them in his Lecture on Ethics. He describes three kinds of experiences in order to get across what he means by 'ethics' and goes on to connect them with kinds of religious experience and expression.

Wittgenstein begins the lecture with an odd kind of definition of his key term. He says he is going to use Moore's "explanation" of ethics as "the general enquiry into what is good," but then immediately says he is going to use 'Ethics' in a wider sense than this. He says that the clearest possible understanding of what he means by 'Ethics' can be got by his giving a collection of "more or less synonymous expressions," so that an overall impression will be created, similar to the kind of impression Galton produced when he made a composite photograph. Galton's technique is dodgy in two ways: it isn't reliable (the results can be manipulated by choosing particular people to include or exclude, for instance, and his attempts to reveal a facial type of this or that criminal (e.g. murderer, thief, etc.) were apparently unsuccessful), and it is connected with racism. Galton considered the Chinese to be racially superior to Africans, for instance, and the point of his technique is to produce a kind of literal racial stereotype. Nevertheless, it seems that the technique can be effective: see here, for instance. And the idea of family resemblance seems generally harmless. (Wittgenstein's thinking here is reminiscent of the disagreement between Berkeley and Locke on abstract ideas. Does Galton disprove Berkeley's claim that "nothing abstract or general can be made really to exist"?)

Ethics, Wittgenstein says, has to do with absolute value, absolute goodness, absolute importance, and so on, as distinct from merely relative (means-end) value, etc. Since this is not a matter of fact (it is not a scientific fact that this or that has absolute value or is absolutely good), it is a matter of feeling. So Wittgenstein talks about experiences he has that make him want to use such expressions as "absolute value" and so on. There is a direct link between the experience or feeling and the expression (form of words) used to express it. The experience is what is expressed by or in the expression. So although we're talking about psychology, we are also talking about grammar.

Wittgenstein has one experience that he associates above all with ethics as he means it, namely the feeling of wonder that the world should exist at all. But he has a couple of others too: the feeling of being absolutely safe (which reminds me of Socrates' saying that a good person cannot be harmed--that being poisoned to death is somehow not really suffering any harm) and the feeling of guilt.

Each of these experiences also has a religious form of expression, he suggests:
For the first of them is, I believe, exactly what people were referring to when they said that God had created the world; and the experience of absolute safety has been described by saying that we feel safe in the hands of God. A third experience of the same kind is that of feeling guilty and again this was described by the phrase that God disapproves of our conduct.
But if the form of expression is inseparable from what is expressed, as I suggested, then how can a religious and a non-religious form of words refer to exactly the same thing? I think we have to leave open the possibility that when the words are different the experience is different. But just as different definitions of 'ethics' can share a family resemblance, so too can different expressions of ethical or religious experiences. In that case, having 'religious' experiences does not commit one to being religious--the experience can be translated into different language.

Religion offers a way to tie these experiences together, and to other beliefs, feelings, etc., in away that might help you make sense of the world, of life. But it also ties you, or so it seems, to certain texts, forms of words, rituals, and so on, that might seem tired or incredible. If the 'metaphor' used to express these real experiences has become dead, then there is reason to reject it. Then the challenge becomes how to talk or think about these experiences, and how to connect them with the rest of your life. This is a challenge we cannot meet, according to Wittgenstein (and never could, even within religion): "the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless." But unless we just don't think about these supremely valuable experiences (assuming we have them, or have had them), then we have no option but to at least think nonsense. Our lives, at least on the inside, will then consist in part of a hopeless running against the walls of language. And what is this if not a form of creative expression, of art?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Is God good?

Edward Feser writes:
The Euthyphro dilemma goes like this: God commands us to do what is good. But is something good simply because God commands it, or does He command it because it is already good? If we take the first option, then it seems we are committed to the possibility that God could make it good for us to torture babies just for fun, simply by commanding it. If we take the second option, then it seems we are committed to saying that there is a standard of goodness independent of God, to which He refers us when He commands. Neither option seems a good one from the point of view of theism. The first makes morality arbitrary, and the claim that God is good completely trivial. The second conflicts with the core theistic claims that God is the ultimate cause of all things, and in particular the source of all goodness. So, we have a problem, right?

Actually, we don’t, because the dilemma is a false one
So far so good, unless you don't like the last sentence, but it's what you might expect a theist to say. He goes on to say:
The actual situation, ..., is this. What is good or bad for us is determined by the ends set for us by our nature, and ..., that means that there are certain things that are good or bad for us absolutely, which even God could not change (since God’s power does not extend to doing what is self-contradictory). Now God, given the perfection of His intellect, can in principle only ever command in accordance with reason, and thus God could never command us to do what is bad for us. Hence the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is ruled out: God can never command us to torture babies for fun, because torturing babies for fun is the sort of thing that, given our nature, can never in principle be good for us. But the essences that determine the ends of things – our ends, and for that matter the end of reason too as inherently directed toward the true and the good – do not exist independently of God. Rather, ..., they pre-exist in the divine intellect as the ideas or archetypes by reference to which God creates. Hence the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is also ruled out.
I wonder what "good" means here. In what sense could torturing babies for fun never be good for us? I don't think Feser means it could never be fun, although that might be true. I think he means that people who take pleasure in such things thereby stray from the proper path for human beings. But what makes this path proper? The answer to that seems to have to do with the essences that pre-exist in the divine intellect. But why should anyone care about them? This includes God. Why does he create by reference to them? Does he have any choice about doing so? Or is the idea that he has a choice but realizes that doing so is the best choice to make and therefore makes that choice, i.e. creates by reference to these archetypes? Or does he choose (or create) the archetypes themselves? In which case we can ask whether he chooses/creates them because they are good, or vice versa. The problem looks to have been pushed inside the divine intellect, not solved.

Feser goes on:
Keep in mind also that, ..., the metaphysics underlying the arguments for classical theism lead to the conclusion that God is not one good thing among others but rather Goodness Itself. Given divine simplicity, that means that what we think of as the distinctive goodness of a human being, the distinctive goodness of a tree, the distinctive goodness of a fish, and so on – each associated with a distinct essence – all exist in an undifferentiated way in the Goodness that is God.
If God is goodness (I assume this is what "Goodness Itself" means) then, as I think Leibniz worried, it doesn't seem to make sense to praise or thank him for being good. Doing so would be like praising chocolate for being chocolatey. That does make a kind of sense, I think: it is an expression of love. But I don't think that's what Feser wants. And if God is goodness, then 'good' means 'godly,' and God's commands are good by definition (because they are commands of or pertaining to God, i.e. goodness). This might be the best way to go (other than dropping God-talk completely). To suggest that God(-as-goodness) might have commanded something bad makes no sense. It would be like saying that red might have been blue. Of course we might have called torturing babies for fun 'good,' but then 'good' would simply have meant what we mean by 'bad.'

So I think the best options are either atheism, in which case we are stuck with the question of what we ought to do, and defining God as goodness, in which case we should probably drop all talk of "the divine intellect" (because how could goodness have an intellect?) and, while God's commands can never be bad, we still have the question of what we ought to do. We should do what is good, or godly, but what is that? God knows.

Seeing is believing

I remember reading a lot about sense perception as an undergraduate but not much since then. What follows might be hopelessly naive, therefore, but perhaps every blog post should be taken to be not yet fully worked out. Anyway, here goes.

It seems to me that there is a sense in which seeing is believing. Not to believe what you (think you) see involves an act of telling oneself that it is not real, which takes some conscious effort. And what is real is often determined by the senses, so that if something looks like one thing but is really another this means that, while to the eyes it may be a duck (or whatever), to the other senses (or to the eyes at another time, or from another angle, or in a different light) it is clearly a wooden model (or whatever). There is, then, a logical or grammatical connection between reality and sense experience: 'real' means something about sense experience.

Other things get called real too, but there is often controversy or mystery about their reality (are numbers real?, are universals?, is love?, etc.) and the claim that they are real usually (always?) comes back to our experience and making sense of it as best we can. But experience is not all sense experience. I mentioned love, which is not one simple feeling but involves various feelings, and pain is another well known example. There is no simple way to check for reality in the case of these experiences.

Take pain, for instance. If someone complains of being in pain then we usually believe them, but not always. If they have a wound then we would probably stop doubting. But in many cases we have to decide on very little evidence whether someone is malingering or not, insane or not, exaggerating or not. Sometimes we even have to decide (or might wonder, anyway) whether our own experience counts as pain or not. Feelings are not the kind of things you can fix clearly in your inner sights, as it were (at least not always); they can be very indistinct, fleeting, in flux. Another question is knowing what the right word for any particular feeling might be. What do other people call this? Or, given that there isn't really a 'this', just a sort of sea-surface of subjectivity, Do I have the right to call this 'pain' (or 'love' or whatever)? Should I suck it up and get back to work? Should I stop talking about it? Will this feeling last or fade away? There is no knowing--you have to make a decision, or at least act. You go back to work or you take to your bed, etc.

Sometimes these experiences are symptoms of something else, giving you reason to draw a kind of conclusion. I have pain in my arm, therefore maybe I'm having a heart attack. That kind of thing. But pain is certainly not always evidence of any problem beyond the pain itself. You have a headache, you cannot doubt that you have a headache (without denying your own sanity to the extent that you abandon all hope of rational thought), but you have no reason to conclude that you therefore might have a head wound. In the case of love, you might doubt whether the feeling is really love (or is it a crush?, or lust?, or is there even any such thing as true love?, etc.), but you cannot seriously doubt that you have some strong feeling. And it isn't evidence of anything, i.e. of the existence of anything outside of you.

When it comes to religious experience (and here I am getting to my point at last), people seem to want to treat it on the model of sensory experience. It is often said that there is an argument for the existence of God that goes: I (and/or others) have had an experience as of God, therefore God (probably) exists. It is then pointed out what a terrible argument this is, because it does nothing to prove that these experiences are not hallucinations or something of the sort.

But this objection treats the argument as if it were a claim to a kind of sense experience, which would then make God the kind of thing, a content of the world, that he is not meant to be. So it might seem better to treat religious experience as more like the experience of pain or love. The problem then is how this gives anyone a reason to believe in the existence of something outside the subject. And the answer to that would come back to our need to make sense of our experiences. Grammatically, feelings of love have an object (while feelings of pain do not). Love is of this or that person or thing. Pain is in something, but is not intentional, is not of or for or about anything.

I'm not sure there is a grammar of religious experience, but (if there is) it's more like love than pain. If you've had the experience you cannot doubt that you have had it. And it is typically an experience as of God (or "the One"). You can write it off as something less meaningful than it seemed at the time, or as something like a hallucination, but this takes work. Whether such effort is worthwhile depends on what best enables you to make sense of your experiences as a whole. And that is going to vary from person to person and over time, as experiences come and go.

Which might not be much of a thesis, but is an attempt to explain why I'm dissatisfied with standard treatments of the argument from religious experience. It isn't as bad an argument as non-theists typically think, but it also isn't anything like a rational proof that everyone should accept.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Browne study

I had thought of blogging on this response to the Browne Report on higher education in England and Wales (I don't think it applies to Scotland, but I could be wrong), but I had nothing to say except: "Well said!" Now Eric Schliesser has attacked the response, so I can decide how right or wrong he is about it.

Schliesser has eight critical comments on Collini's response to Browne, starting with an unnumbered parenthetical one:
(What's wrong with Ryan-air, by the way?)

1. It romanticizes the past and treats younger colleagues in stereotypical fashion.

2. For the life of me I can't understand why (other than naked self-interest, fear, and ideology) folk are so eager to endorse what is one of the most paternalistic and condescending documents I have read in a long time.

3. To treat students as near children might explain why Collini sees no point to "student satisfaction."

4. Collini notes in passing, but does not reflect on the fact, that the removal of block grants will limit the degree of flexibility to university administrators. I think this is a good thing

5. It is especially noteworthy that Collini is so focused on defending university education as a public good that he has not noted how regressive the current system is. Poor folk (who do not tend to go to university) are subsidizing the education of the middle (and upper) classes.

6. Finally, the market gets disparaged a priori. Yet, the most envied and admired university system is the one in the US. It has, of course, many flaws (that we regularly debate here), but one of the features that has made it thrive is the constant competition and emulation among all kinds of universities.

7. There is a kind of pessimistic undertone that does no justice to the facts. As if the Humanities cannot thrive in these new circumstances!

Ryan-air is a cheap airline that offers notoriously poor service. Unless I'm thinking of a different airline, they actually boast about their poor service (no free toilets in flight, etc.) in order to encourage the belief that they have cut costs to the minimum in order to be able to keep fares low. Collini's point is that this is not what we want universities to do. What he fears, I imagine, is that Oxford and Cambridge (and maybe one or two others) will remain elite while every other university affected will become something like the University of Phoenix.

1. Collini simplifies to make a point, but I think he does have a point about academic culture. I will simplify too in an attempt to make much the same point. There used to be professors who cared primarily about teaching and reading. No doubt there was some dead wood too. But to get rid of the dead wood, administrators have required that everyone publish all the time. A lot of rubbish gets published, and a lot of time is spent producing this rubbish that ought to have been spent on reading and teaching.

2. The point about paternalism is prompted by Collini's analogy of students choosing courses with children choosing candy: they know what they want, he believes, but not what is good for them. Students vary, of course. When I was an undergraduate I chose the courses that sounded most interesting to me. Others chose the courses that were reputed to be the most difficult. But many choose only what seems easiest or most likely to lead to gainful employment. Hence many undergraduates study Business, even though they might be much better off studying something else and learning about business through direct experience or an MBA program taken later in life. Our highest earning alumni (at VMI) are English majors who went on to become lawyers, but English is still regarded as being a recipe for relative poverty. Sometimes students surely do need to be told what they should take. Not because they are children, but because, by definition of their status, they lack the expertise to know what it is important for them to learn about the subjects they are studying.

3. Student satisfaction would be relatively easy to achieve not by teaching students well but by doing such things as the following: emphasizing one's English accent, dropping highlights from one's CV into lectures, telling students that they are very smart, telling them that the course is challenging, telling them lots of jokes, saying things they don't understand so as to create the impression that you are smart, and so on. Being tall, male, and good-looking supposedly helps too. High grades and easy assignments are obvious ways to keep the customers happy too. Some students will tend to see through such tactics, especially if they are employed crudely, but many will not. And how can the ignorant, who are still learning a subject, judge how well they are learning it relative to how well they could be learning it from a better teacher? How can they know if the facts they are being taught are out of date, for instance? Student evaluations of teaching are important, it seems to me, or at least somewhat valuable, but unpopular courses should not all be scrapped, nor unpopular teachers fired.

4. I have no idea whether administrative flexibility, or the lack thereof, is good or bad. If we want a good market in higher education, though, I would think variety would be a good thing. A lack of flexibility for administrators would seem likely to work against this ideal. But I could well be missing the point.

5. I don't know how regressive the current British system is. Rich kids go to university more than poor kids do, but their parents also pay more in taxes. Would the poor be better off if they had less access to higher education? Surely not. I like the fact that poor kids in Britain can (or used to) go to the very best universities in the country, and not just in a handful of cases. If these universities charge ever higher fees (as seems likely) this will cease to be the case, if it hasn't already done so.

6. Is the US system the most envied and admired in the world? I don't know. Should it be? That would be even harder to determine. I think people admire the fact that so many people in the US go to college, although the number who graduate from four-year colleges is not as impressive relative to Britain as it used to be, I understand. The percentage might even be lower (although a typical BA in Britain takes only three years). The quality of research faculty in the US is also admired, which stems from US schools having lots of money to lure the best minds from other countries and ensure that the best US minds stay here. This wealth appears to come from alumni donations, which are the result of a kind of brand loyalty that does not exist in the UK. I don't see how this shows that "the market" should not be disparaged (although I'm not saying it should be either).

7. The humanities are already under attack (see Middlesex philosophy, for instance). The proposal is to cut their funding. How would this make them thrive? Of course they might survive, and probably will. But there is no freshman comp or western civ in traditional British universities. If there are few English majors, why will universities keep their English departments going? I expect most will, because there will continue to be demand. But not as many will. There are bound to be more Middlesex-type cases.

I hope I'm wrong, but most of this seems obvious to me and, apparently, to most other people who have read and agree with Collini's piece. The bottom line, I continue to think, is Browne bad, Collini good.

How long is the meter-stick?

Kelly Dean Jolley's paper "Mensurable Confusion?" seems important. At least, it does to me now that I've read it all. It is presented as a response to a paper by Heather Gert that I didn't know, and as a defense of a kind of orthodoxy in Wittgenstein interpretation, so it didn't strike me as essential reading right away. There's also the fact that the first word of the title looks like a typo for 'measurable'--turns out 'mensurable' is a real word and means exactly the same thing in this context as 'measurable,' which is also a real word. But if you get past all this, the paper has some important things to say.

For instance, Jolley says that some people ignore Wittgenstein's methodological remarks and that others make the mistake of treating these remarks as somehow distinct from his philosophical remarks. He suggests that Gert is guilty of the latter mistake, and I think I have been too if it is a mistake.

So why not make this distinction? Jolley notes that in the Tractatus and the Investigations the methodological remarks come amid other remarks, not at the beginning, because they should be understood as part of the same project as the other remarks, the project of dealing with philosophical problems as Wittgenstein understands them.

Following Cavell (generally a good idea), Jolley takes PI 128 (“If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them”) not to be saying that such theses would be commonsensical and therefore too obvious to debate. He takes the agreement here to be the kind referred to in PI 241: not agreement in opinions but in form of life.

I wonder what exactly this means. I certainly don't take Wittgenstein to be a common sense philosopher in the way that Moore is. And to understand Wittgenstein's methodological remarks you need to understand what he means by 'philosophy' and 'philosophical problems'. But to identify remarks such as 128 as methodological one has to make some distinction between methodological and other remarks. And Wittgenstein does (or did) elsewhere talk about his remarks as "boring truisms" and said (I think, in the Lectures on Religious Belief) that if anyone disagreed with something he said that he would take it back. So at some time (perhaps before he finished the PI) he seems to have thought something like PI 128 taken in the supposedly wrong way.

If philosophy consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose, and these reminders consist of grammatical remarks such as "every rod has a length," then it seems to me that there is a sense in which Wittgensteinian 'theses' would be commonsensical. Perhaps PI 128 can also be taken in Cavell's way, but it doesn't look as though that can be the only correct interpretation. I will have to think about this some more though.

By the way, according to Yahoo! Answers:
Originally the meter was 1/10,000,000 of the distance from the equator to the north pole, along the meridion passing through Paris. In 1960 the meter was defined as 1,650,763.73 wavelengths of the orange-red emission line in the electromagnetic spectrum of the krypton-86 atom in a vacuum. In 1983 the meter became how far light traveled in a vacuum in 1/299 792 458 of a second, officially. But this is hard to set up, so in practice, the meter is now 1,579,800.298728 wavelengths of helium-neon laser light in a vacuum, easily measured in your average home garage.

The meter was originally defined by French Scientists when the metric system was created (during the French Revolution, late eighteenth century). The meter was defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole on the meridian passing through Paris. They actually attempted to measure this distance, using a mix of geometric calculation and direct measurement, and the result was surprising accurate, within a millimeter. They made a silver bar of that length they calculated, and this was the standard meter, stored in Paris. Over the years international standards committees re-evaluted the meter. Another standard bar was made in 1889, this time made of an alloy of platinum and iridium. But any metal bar was not stable; it shrank and expanded with temperature and pressure, and it was losing metal atoms and gaining impurity atoms. This did not matter until modern technology demanded a more stable standard. So in 1960 an international scientific conference first chose laser light as the basis for the official meter length, set to match the original meter. Thus the meter in the new SI system was first defined using wavelengths of light, and today is defined as the distance light travels in a few billionths of a second, as stated above.
If this is right then the standard meter might or might not be a meter long, and in fact is not exactly one meter long any more. Not to mention the fact that there have been two different standard meters. Wittgenstein's point remains intact though. The point is that "This is a meter long" means different things when said of a sample that defines what "a meter long" means and when said of anything else. In the first case you are specifying a rule, in the second you are making a claim about the world, applying that rule. I hope I'm right about at least this much.