Tag Archives: philosophy

Zombies take over philosophy departments!


Based on a survey of approximately 1,000 professional philosophers in 99 philosophy departments of North America, Europe, and Australasia:

ZOMBIES

Conceivable but not metaphysically possible: 36 percent

Metaphysically possible: 23 percent

Inconceivable: 16 percent

Other: 25 percent

The “other” is taxing my imagination.

Source: David Chalmers and David Bourget, “What Do Philosophers Believe?,” Philosophical Studies, quoted in The Philosophers’ Magazine, 1st Quarter 2014

‘still frantically concerned…to keep thought separate from the exigencies of the flesh’


quotation by Steven Shaviro from tiredshoes.tumblr.com

from tiredshoes.tumblr.com

Compare what Shaviro says with the information on Pietro Torrigiani’s marble bust “Christ the Savior.” Consider physicality and materiality, and wonder about the default modes of anti-materiality and anti-physicality within Western culture and sub-cultures.

Living well is not a gift from God (but the ability to live well is): Seneca on God & wisdom


I should start with three quick notes on Seneca’s relevance in Christian history because some background will give reasons for considering his writings as relevant to thinking about God.

First, a general assessment of Seneca’s point of view in relation to Christianity:

His [Seneca’s] writings represent Stoicism at its best and have been much studied by Christian apologists for the similarities as well as the contrasts of their moral teaching with the Gospel ethic.  — The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

Second, John Calvin’s interest in Seneca:

In 1532 he [John Calvin] issued a Latin commentary on Seneca’s ‘De Clementia’. — The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

And third, a translator’s note on Seneca’s importance to four Christian thinkers:

While scholars and schoolmasters in the century following continued to condemn Seneca, early Christians were taking to this kindred spirit among pagan writers, so many of who ideas and attitudes they felt able to adopt and share. Anthologies were made of him and he was frequently quoted by such writers as Jerome, Lactantius and Augustine. Tertullian called him saepe noster, ‘often one of us’.  — Robin Campbell, in the introduction to his translation of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic

Furthermore, as Campbell also notes, Dante frequently quotes Seneca.

So, as I was recently reading Seneca’s Letter XC, I came across something that helped me think about what God does and what God doesn’t do for humans.

In a way, the following passage sounds like an overview of the biblical book of Proverbs.

From Seneca’s Letter XC, as translated by Campbell:

“Who can doubt, my dear Lucilius, that life is the gift of the immortal gods, but that living well is the gift of philosophy? A corollary of this would be the certain conclusion that our debt to philosophy is greater than the debt we owe to the gods (by just so much as a good life is more of a blessing than, simply, life) had it not been for the fact that philosophy itself was something borrowed by the gods. They have given no one the present of a knowledge of philosophy, but everyone the means of acquiring it. For if they had made philosophy a blessing, given to all and sundry, if we were born in a state of moral enlightenment, wisdom would have been deprived of the best thing about her — that she isn’t one of the things which fortune either gives us or doesn’t. As things are, there is about wisdom a nobility and magnificence in the fact that she doesn’t just fall to a person’s lot, that each man owes her to his own efforts, that one doesn’t go to anyone other than oneself to find her. What would have have worth looking up to in philosophy if she were handed out free?

“Philosophy has the single task of discovering the truth about the divine and human worlds. The religious conscience, the sense of duty, justice and all the rest of the close-knit, interdependent ‘company of virtues’, never leave her side. Philosophy has taught men to worship what is divine, to love what is human, telling us that with the gods belong authority, and among human beings fellowship.”

My takeaway:

Life is a gift from God. Living well is a gift of philosophy. Philosophy is also a gift from God, and philosophy has taught us to worship “what is divine.” But living well is not a gift from God. We must engage philosophy to learn how to live well.

The Penguin Classics edition of Letters from a Stoic, selected, introduced, and translated by Robin Campbell

“Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell

Context for the humanities: quotations recently discovered inside a book


AAAAA Quotations AAA

Perception Is Prediction


Colin Foote Burch:

I think the following look at perception has everything to do with several areas of our daily lives: relationships, work, management, leadership, psychological insight, creativity, fine arts, and many more.

Originally posted on darth adorno:

Here are four features of perception to consider:

1. Perception is transactional: perceptions can only be studied in terms of the transactions in which they can be observed.   There is no separate, divisible event of perception; the act of perception occurs within transactions between humans and humans, humans and objects and objects and humans.  Context is everything.

2. Perception is rooted in a personal behavioral center: perceiving is always done by a particular person from her own unique position in space and time and with her own combination of experiences, needs and set of transactions.  For example what does the perceiver want or need from the perceived event?  Perception is rooted in desire.

3. Perception is an externalization: each of us, through perceiving, creates a psychological environment which we believe exists independent of the experience.

4. Perception is more about controlling the environment than taking in sense stimuli.  Perception is most…

View original 14 more words

Can you rest in skepticism? Nope. Kant.


“Skepticism is a resting place for human reason, where it can reflect on its dogmatic wanderings. But it is no dwelling place for permanent settlement. Simply to acquiesce in skepticism can never suffice to overcome the restlessness of reason.”  – Immanuel Kant  (h/t to Fide Dubitandum)

My journey through alternative values


T.J. Maxx was unsettling. I wasn’t shopping. I was traveling through an alternative universe of value, or through too many alternatives to previously held values. The store provides a place to buy good stuff at low prices, yet each appealing price tag is attached to an unappealing reality about the product: “This used to be considered really valuable. It wasn’t.”

This T.S. Sullivant cartoon, entitled "No Doubt," was published in Life magazine on September 29, 1898.  This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

This T.S. Sullivant cartoon, entitled “No Doubt,” was published in Life magazine on September 29, 1898. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Kill the mystery!


“The Cartesian only recognizes or is satisfied with the existence of rational systems, and so he both denies and aims to eradicate all that is unsystematic. The Cartesian defines the human being as two systems, mind and body, both impersonally rational but with no connection to each other. The Cartesian modern philosopher incoherently both denies the reality of and aims to eradicate the disorder of the being with language. He tends not to come to terms with, much less attempt to account for, the reality of human alienation. He will not acknowledge that man is a stranger in the cosmos.” — Peter Augustine Lawler, in Postmodernism Rightly Understood: The Return to Realism in American Thought

Paradoxes for Better Living, 7


English: Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on...

“Paradox is the intellectual life’s authentic pathos, and just as only great souls are prone to passions, so only great thinkers are prone to what I call paradoxes, which are nothing but grand thoughts still wanting completion.”  — Soren Kierkegaard, in his Journals

Paradoxes for Better Living, 6


Soren Kierkegaard studying“Perhaps someone…inclined to fix his attention upon the outstanding individual who suffered at the hands of the public, may be of the opinion that such an ordeal is a great misfortune. I cannot at all agree with such an opinion, for anyone who really wishes to be helped to attain the highest is in fact benefited by undergoing such a misfortune, and must rather desire it, even though people may be led to revolt.” — Soren Kierkegaard, in The Present Age

Paradoxes for Better Living, 5


Portrait of Pascal

Portrait of Pascal (Photo: Wikipedia)

“The two faculties which should help people be wise and perceptive, the senses and reason, are engaged in a constant battle, in which one tries to deceive the other. The senses trick reason by only showing the outward appearance of things, rather than their inner reality. And this deception is worsened when the emotions disturb the senses.” — Blaise Pascal, Penseés (No. 45)

Scientific convention and grammatical convention


“…scientific convention decides whether an eel shall be a fish or a snake, and grammatical convention determines what experiences shall be called objects and what shall be called events or actions.” — A. Watts, in The Way of Zen, quoted in Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century by Neil Postman

A language to open the world to us


“…this change from closed to open language is also a passage from a closed to an open world, for our world — the concrete world in which we live — does not come to us as something independent of language; we do not construct a language independently and then add it on to experience; our world transpires within language. Consequently, the essential openness of the language that we have to use for the purposes of life means that the world of our experience is correspondingly open. And that the world should lie open to us is the real and concrete meaning of freedom to which we aspire.” — William Barrett, writing about Wittgenstein, in The Illusion of Technique

The case for an intangible mind or soul


In my previous post, I questioned the existence of the “heart” in the context of Christianity. I’m not talking abou the blood-pumping organ here but rather something that is more like the central desiring and imagining aspect of a human. I questioned the existence of the “heart” by excerpting a newspaper article about the experiences of a man who suffered permanent brain damage following the removal of a turmor. The details of the man’s life, before and after surgery, seemed to leave little space for the “heart” to operate without a brain (or little space for a “heart” to exist without specific brain circuits). However, I also included a link to Alvin Plantinga’s review of Thomas Nagel’s new book, which critiques “materialistic naturalism” from an atheistic perspective.

I didn’t intend to slam the door too strongly on the possibility of an intangible element of humans, only to question to quick-and-easy assumptions of Christianspeak, which is shot through, for good or ill, with the language of Platonism and Cartesian dualism.

If there’s an easily understandable counterpoint to materialistic naturalism, it appeared yesterday on the Huffington Post site, written by Kelly Bulkeley, who has a PhD in psychology and is tagged as a “psychologist of religion” and a “dream researcher.”

Bulkeley focuses part of his post on the book A Portrait of the Brain by Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology. The otherwise excellent book, in Bulkeley’s opinion, falls apart in the final chapter, when Zeman opts against mind in favor of brain. Bulkeley writes,

In the preceding paragraphs, Zeman acknowledges that philosophers like Thomas Nagel, Colin McGinn and David Chalmers have raised devastating critical questions about physicalism that he cannot refute.  Yet he decides to accept physicalism anyway, based on what he calls a “hunch,” a strong “intuition,” and something he “suspect(s)” about the crypto-religious beliefs of those who do not accept physicalism. 

Bulkeley makes some interesting points. Read his entire article here.

Where’s the ‘heart’? The brain’s role in belief, feeling, and decision-making


I remember Bishop Lawrence saying something like this: the heart desires and the will justifies. Or, maybe it was, the heart desires, the mind rationalizes, the will actualizes. Something along those lines. Desire for something comes first, rationalization/justification second, and then actualization.  

This thing called the “heart” in Christian circles — it is not the organ that pumps blood but rather an inner orientation toward something or some things. In Christianspeak, the “heart” is the most crucial part of the person, the desiring element of us, the ultimate guide underneath the surface of belief and behavior.

But that point of view seems less and less of an adequate explanation of reality. Consider the following true story from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Elliot had a small tumour cut from his cortex near the brain’s frontal lobe.  He had been a model father and husband, holding down an important management job  in a large corporation and was active in his church. But the operation changed  everything.

Elliot’s IQ stayed the same – testing in the smartest 3 per cent – but, after  surgery, he was incapable of  decision. Normal life became impossible. Routine  tasks that should take 10 minutes now took hours. Elliot endlessly deliberated  over irrelevant details: whether to use a blue or black pen, what radio station  to listen to and where to park his car. When contemplating lunch, he carefully  considered each restaurant’s menu, seating and lighting, and then drove to each  place to see how busy it was. But  Elliot still couldn’t decide where to eat.  His indecision was pathological.

Elliot was soon sacked. A series of new businesses failed and a con man  forced him into bankruptcy. His wife divorced him. The tax office began  investigating him. He moved back with his parents. As neurologist Antonio  Damasio put it: “Elliot emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable  to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social  matters.”

But why was Elliot suddenly incapable of making good decisions? What had  happened to his brain? Damasio’s first insight occurred while talking to Elliot  about the tragic turn his life had taken. “He was always controlled,” Damasio  remembers, “always describing scenes as a dispassionate, uninvolved spectator.  Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the  protagonist …  I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation  with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.” Elliot’s friends and  family confirmed Damasio’s observations: ever since his surgery, he had seemed  strangely devoid of emotion, numb to the tragic turn his own life had taken.

Now consider the above: Elliot cannot make decisions because of something that happened in his brain, not in his “heart.” His emotions have been neutralized because of something that happened in his brain, not in his “heart.”

To make proactively good or bad moral decisions, to have good or bad feelings toward God, to decide any number of things related to expressing or living one’s faith — all of these critical elements of spirituality are no longer available to him as a result of a problem with his brain.

These observations should give any believer pause. What do you mean when you say “heart”? Could it be there’s no “ghost in the machine,” no intangible presence attached to our biological organism? Could it be our “spiritual experiences” are tricks of the brain?

If nothing else, Elliot’s story should change the language of devotional life and church communal life. “Heart” should no longer be treated as an intangible part of reality but rather as a metaphor for brain functions.

Furthermore, why are apologetics still grounded in abstract arguments rather than critical assessments of facts? Can we really look at new research without considering its implications? Can we really just make broad-brush statements about “chronological snobbery” and “materialistic naturalism” when Western Christians constantly benefit from medical and technological advances from research based in the naturalist point of view? (Even when there are reasonable, contemporary critiques of that point of view.)

Read the rest of the story about Elliot and comment below.

Persuasion cannot happen without a supporting culture


This is a little dense, but read closely. The underlying point should intrigue anyone who tries to persuade others of unseen realities.

“Metaphysical questions and beliefs are technologically barren and are therefore neither part of the analytical effort nor an element of science. As an organ of culture they are an extension of the mythical core….

“Metaphyiscal questions and beliefs reveal an aspect of human existence not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs… The idea of proof, introduced into metaphysics, arises from a confusion of two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world: the technological and the mythical….

“Myth cannot be reached by persuasion; persuasion belongs to a different area of interpersonal communication, that is, to an area in which the criteria of technological resilience of judgments have their force….

“The sense of continuity in relation to tradition may, but need not, help mythical consciousness. There is always a reason which needs to be revealed in the permanence of myths and the inertia of conservatism. Values are transmitted only through social inheritance, that is, thanks to a radiation of authoritative tradition. The inheritance of myths is the inheritance of values which myths impose….”

– Leszek Kolakowski, in The Presence of Myth

The limits of knowledge


A healthy understanding of the limits of knowledge should not be a license to ignore or degrade knowledge.

When Blaise Pascal said, “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it,” he said so with strong, well-demonstrated successes in his appropriation of reason. In other words, he successfully used and synthesized knowledge.

If you can think it . . .


“Language makes thought, as much as it is made by thought. Thought inhabits language and language is its body.”

— Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language, translation by Hugh J. Silverman