Philosophy for Dummies

death-of-socratesWhen I tell some people that I am studying philosophy they, understandably, assume I want to be a Philosophy teacher. I think it would be cool to get my Master’s and become a teacher, but I have no illusions that it will actually happen. I do enjoy studying the subject of philosophy because it engages my critical thinking skills, which is something we are not taught to do often enough. This leads to a population that is woefully unprepared to discuss and answer the big questions. Sometimes we purposefully avoid knowledge, but sometimes we are willfully ignorant.

Philosophy is the study of knowledge, reality or our existence. We have those types of discussions every day without even knowing it, so philosophy shouldn’t be treated as some sort of esoteric study. It’s not about knowing who Hobbes, Camus or Aquinas are, it’s about understanding what contributions they made to our public discourse, or just knowing that they simply made an argument at all. Maybe that argument is something you agree with now or maybe it’s simply a point of view you cannot accept, but if you cannot accept it, you must have a reason for it. That would require critical thinking.

So, breaking down the major philosophical questions would probably help exemplify what I’m getting at.

Knowledge or “Epistemology”

What do you actually know and how do you know it? These are big questions, especially in the age of “fake news”. Putting aside the whole effort of getting fed information through memes, blogs and articles that cite anonymous sources, we seem to accept information willingly if it confirms to our biases or we reject it if it is contrary to our beliefs.

The biggest epistemological question that has been around for thousands of years is what people believe versus what they know in regard to the existence of a divine being. Sure, people may believe in something, but do they actually know it? This is a different question than whether or not there is a god or gods (as explained below under “Metaphysics”) because the epistemological question addresses knowledge. For those that claim to know divinity exists, philosophers and critical thinkers ask what their rationale is for that confidence and how can they prove it so that others may also share their in what they claim to know? I’m not going to get into too much detail around agnosticism and atheism here, but they are two different concepts. Agnosticism is “without knowledge” while atheism is “without belief in a god or gods”. To give a more relatable example, I will use one that the folks at The Atheist Experience use often because it really delivers.

Given a jar full of gum balls, one may believe there are an odd number (and have a 50% chance of being correct), or you can count them and know that there actually are 53 of them. So, I can be agnostic as to how many gum balls there are (if I don’t count them), but still be a believer in the odd amount, In terms of religion, as an agnostic atheist, I do not believe there are any gods (atheism), but I certainly don’t know it to be true (agnosticism).

Take, as an example, also, eyewitness testimony. People can be convinced that they know the perpetrator of a crime, yet, studies show consistently that eyewitnesses and memory are not reliable. One might believe they know the guilty party, but science may proves otherwise through something like DNA tests.

There are countless other arguments we make based on our beliefs versus our knowledge. Among them are the existence of life on other planets, Sasquatch, angels and ghosts.

For more on epistemology, look up Aristotle, known to be the Father of modern science.

Morals or “Ethics”

Moral problems hit us in big ways every day. When we discuss reproduction rights or homosexuality, as a culture, we are discussing moral issues. People who protest the death penalty may be doing so on moral grounds. Perhaps, you see someone at work acting in a way that rubs you the wrong way because you are making a moral judgement on that person. Maybe you think nothing of a person parked in a parking spot reserved for physically disabled people or expectant mothers, but maybe you are. Perhaps, you get angry when someone talks too loud in a restaurant or maybe you don’t. These are all potentially moral questions.

The famous example of our moral elasticity is the Trolley Problem. The scenario is that a runaway trolley is barreling down the tracks and it’s coming to a fork. You have control over the switch and can send that trolley to the left or the right. On the left track is a single person and on the left is a group of people. Who would you save? Most people would try and find a way out of the problem, but, eventually, most would want to save the most people they can, so they choose to save the group. Now, imagine that the group of people are drug dealers and the single person is a father of five small children. How does that change your thought process?

Another part of ethical philosophy is the question of nature versus nurture. Psychologists and other social scientists study this question as well. Where do we get our morals? Are they from our learned experiences or from evolution? Philosophy weighs in on this as well.

Aristotle wrote Nichomachean Ethics, if you want to try that one out, but other philosophers who have tackled ethics and that you may know are Plato (in Euthyphro, et al), Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham. In “Euthyphro”, Plato addressed the question of divine command theory. The question there is whether or not something is moral because a god commands it. Interesting read and great argument. Bentham argued that morality is based on more utilitarian means, or, the more moral choice choice is the one that does the most good for the most people and causes the least suffering for the least amount of people. You can agree or disagree, but that’s the whole point of philosophy.

Metaphysics

Anyone that know philosophy will tell you that metaphysics is the place to go for a lot of our most pressing and profound discussions. This is the field where big ticket items like free will and existentialism, the existence of god and the nature of our reality are debated. Aristotle himself called this the “first philosophy” with good reason. Metaphysics is a huge circle with many circles within.

I’ve written about the concept of free will and determinism before. The idea that we do not have free will can upset some people, but it is an important conversation to have when dealing with topics such as mental illness and crime. In order to try and find a solution to a problem, we have to try and understand the reason why it exists. For people that are mentally ill or are lifetime criminals, we have to wonder whether or not they are pre-disposed to a certain behavior that conflicts with social norms so we can find out how to deal with it. This is where the marriage of critical thinking and science is most important. We use the scientific method to gather data that we use to draw conclusions.

The nature of our reality is a huge philosophical question. Folks Like Nick Bostrom believe we live in a simulation. Think about that for a second. Rather, read his paper.

Descartes once said about our existence, “I think, therefore, I am”. This is the quintessential argument for consciousness that almost everyone has heard before. But, is it true? Do people in comas think? If not, then do they exist?  It’s a good question that philosophers can debate over.

Lastly metaphysics attempts to answer the “god” questions. Does one or many exist? Is it possible to know (see above under Epistemology)? Does the divine insert themselves into society and humanity or do they not? Every Sunday, I think, these questions are asked and there are different answers based on the religion and sect. We are all trying to figure it out.

In Conclusion

Philosophers are not flakes who talk about things that no one else talks about. They try to make sense of the big questions by debating with those that disagree with them. A good skeptic will always change their mind given new, more enlightening information, and that is what a philosopher is. A good skeptic. So, hug a skeptic today.

Anti-Abortion Laws Are Attacks On Freedom Itself

Much is in the news about recent laws in Alabama, Georgia and Ohio that greatly restrict a woman’s right to choose whether or not they can have an abortion. It is not difficult to see how these draconian laws are being compared to the images evoked in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale in which a quasi-religious, totalitarian government reduces women to a mere means to an end, rather than a person with feelings, opinions and agency. Social media has erupted, rightfully so, with disdain for the establishment patriarchy, the rights of women to reproductive freedom as well as the right to be free from religious doctrine disguised as government legislation. These are all important and completely valid concerns and arguments, but what may be getting lost in all those pleas is that this is also a very personal attack on freedom itself.

In 1971, moral philosopher, Judith Jarvis Thomson, wrote a compelling essay called “A Defense of Abortion” which outlines the argument for on-demand abortion. I highly suggest you read it yourself since I will not be able to summarize her masterful arguments and do them justice. In that essay, she grants that a “fetus is a person from the moment of conception” in order to redirect the argument to where it should actually be – body autonomy. Using the metaphor of an “unconscious violist” in need of a life-saving blood transfusion, she proposes the thought experiment that you are taken against your will and hooked up to the violinist for nine long months in order to save his life, regardless of the risk to your own. Ultimately, the moral questions Thomson raises in this essay are answered simply by writing “I have argued that you are not morally required to spend nine months in bed, sustaining the life of the violinist…”, but the lesson we should glean is that she is also stating that we should have complete autonomy over our own bodies. She states that a woman is granting the fetus permission to use her body and the woman should ultimately be the one to exercise her agency – her ability to make free choice.

This concept is not new in American history. Thomas Jefferson, when drafting the Declaration of Independence, added the words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

He and the American Revolutionaries understood that the people of the Americas needed to be free from government involvement in their personal lives, to have agency. In the First Amendment, it clearly states in regard to religious freedom, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. In the Fourth Amendment, they declared the right of all “persons, houses, papers and affects” against unreasonable search and seizure. Jefferson himself said in the case of Howell vs. Netherland (1770):

Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.

But, let’s forget for a moment what other people have said and really think about what we are condoning when we say that it is alright for one person to claim agency over another because that is what these laws are doing. They are saying to women, to all of us, that the government knows what to do with your body better than you do and they have the right to enforce their will upon you.

They are nullifying your agency. They are declaring control over your body and taking away your choices. They are closing doors of opportunity and putting you on a path that is not your choosing.

Is it unfair to make the slippery slope argument? How can you argue that it isn’t except to say to yourself “they would never do that” – whatever that is. If the government is dictating to a woman that they must give up nine months of their lives to be hooked up to the “unconscious violist” inside of them, then think of all the things they can now empower themselves to do to anyone at any time for any reason. As an example, here are some of the 613 commandments from the Old Testament.

    1. Men must not shave the hair off the sides of their head — Lev. 19:27
    2. Men must not shave their beards with a razor — Lev. 19:27
    3. Men must not wear women’s clothing — Deut. 22:5
    4. Women must not wear men’s clothing — Deut. 22:5
    5. Not to tattoo the skin — Lev. 19:28
    6. Not to tear the skin in mourning — Deut. 14:1
    7. Not to make a bald spot in mourning — Deut. 14:1
    8. To circumcise all males on the eighth day after their birth — Gen. 17:10
    9. To have children with one’s wife — Gen. 1:28
    10. The rapist must marry his victim if she is unwed — Deut. 22:29

With the exception of #9 and #10, how many of these are worse than forcing a woman to have an unwanted pregnancy? None. So what could stop the government from forcing circumcision? Outlaw tattoos? Dictate the clothes you wear (like Atwood’s Handmaids)?

These anti-abortion laws are actually a worst case scenario when you compare them to the first eight items listed. In fact, how much worse can it be after we have told women that they can no longer decide how their bodies are to be used? If not for the institutional patriarchy, what could possibly stop women in power from ordering the sterilization of men due to grievances such as unpaid alimony and child care payments?

What could prevent another group of any philosophical leaning to impose their will upon your person? What if the followers of someone like philosopher John Harris, the author of “The Survival Lottery”, had complete power and decided that you are now eligible to be forced to give up your life if it could save others? That’s right. You don’t have a choice. Your name is put into a computer and if the algorithm says you are the perfect match to save someone else’s life, then you are plucked off the street and put on the operating table to give up a few organs for a complete stranger even if it kills you.

The body you have is uniquely yours. No one can know how you feel because they do not have your sensations. They cannot know how you think because they do not have your brain. Yet, other people are making a decision for you without any regard for your feelings or thoughts and they are doing so without any culpability of their own. You will be the only one that suffers the consequences of a decision that was made for you. This is about more than reproductive freedom. This is about all freedom. Join the revolution.

Atheist, Not by Choice

When folks find out that I’m an atheist, some ask “How can you not believe in God?” My answer is simple.  Because I don’t have proof that there is one. And, I’m not sure which one I should believe in even if i chose the path of believing without proof.

This is kind of a cheap answer in that I don’t believe there really ever can be sufficient proof to warrant a belief in a god or gods.  Unfortunately, “faith is not a true path to truth”, as Matt Dillahunty says and, like him, I prefer to believe as many true things as possible. After all, you can believe anything on faith if you want to.  Take, for example, the belief in Hindu gods versus the Abrahamic god.  Who is to say who is right or wrong when you place all your eggs in the “faith” basket?

I’m not going to get into all of the arguments for or against believing in a god because it’s been done a million times in a million different places, so the point of this post is to just say that I am an atheist and it’s not really my choice.

Science is the only way to measure the real world and, to the best of my knowledge, there is no other way that has proven to be reliable. In time, scientific theories change based on the data, but that’s real data that is observed in the known universe. Since I live in the known universe, I kinda have to go where the evidence takes me. I’m not afraid to say “I don’t know” to the answers of life’s biggest mysteries or create answers of my own where existentialism guides me. Can we ever know what happened before the Big Bang? I don’t know if we can, however, can I know the meaning of life?  Sure, I can.  It’s my life and I can ascribe whatever meaning I want to it.

What about the afterlife?  Do I have an answer for that?  Nope, I don’t. And you may, but it’s not necessarily correct. It may shock you to learn that it doesn’t matter to me, either.  After all, which afterlife is correct? Will I go to hell for being a non-believer?  If so, which one? Is it Naraka or the H-E-double hockey sticks, fire and brimstone, Christian Hell?  Or, maybe I’ll be reincarnated as he Buddhists believe?  No evidence is available for any of them, so the odds are is that someone has to get it wrong.

The other argument is that theists give me is that without a god, where do I get my morality from?  How can I be a moral human being?  Well, I am.  And, I’m not sure why, but I tend to agree with some scientists who believe our morals come from the fact that we are social animals.  We have developed social contracts, implicitly and innately, because it benefits us as a species.  Killing one of our own is counterproductive to species survival.  We simply have to get along to survive.  For the 1% of folks who are psychotic or sociopathic – well, they are an anomaly. All species have them.  That’s what accounts for albinos (not to say albinos are psychotic or bad in any way). Plus, the morality of a god can always be questioned.  The Judeo-Christian Bible has a god who does nothing to dissuade us from slavery and thinks homosexuals should be killed.  As a species, we’ve largely moved past those ideals (although, I have to acknowledge that some of us have not).

When asked about his morality, Penn Jillette – famous magician, libertarian and atheist – has said that he has raped exactly as many people as he has wanted to. None. Zero.  I can say the same and I made that decision without the need to consult a holy book to see if it is right or wrong.  I am sympathetic towards others and, more so, I am empathetic.  I can relate to their pain and suffering as well as their joy and elation.  No god has told me how to do that and it cannot be proven those one has instilled those qualities within me.

Of course, I can blindly agree to worship a god, and I can select which one I want to adore and prostrate myself before.  But, still, not making a choice is a choice in itself.  Most religious folks, and I mean “most” and not “all” don’t make the choice themselves.  Their selection is based on upbringing or geography.  I find it very rare, although possible, that a baby brought up in a Southern Baptist household in Alabama would ever choose to be a Sikh or Jain.  Likewise, I don’t see a child growing up in Calcutta choosing to be a Calvinist. For me, I don’t feel that I really need to make a decision, ultimately, so I am an atheist but not by choice.

 

 

 

Meditation is not Prayer

meditation

I recently had a nice, civil conversation with a Christian friend of mine and he mentioned that he prays regularly and that he saw no difference between meditation and prayer. As a mindfulness practitioner, I felt I had to correct him, but it got me thinking how many people also believe this?

The conversation began when we were discussing the mass shootings that have plagued the US in the last few years and how I thought that “thoughts and prayers” had become more of a meme than a serious call to action. He disagreed, of course, saying that it is perfectly reasonable to pray for guidance and for the souls of those who were slain unnecessarily.  I disagreed and didn’t do so humbly.

Prayer, by my definition, is an appeal to a supernatural force to intervene.  Oftentimes, prayer is an appeal for some sort of advantage to yourself, like praying for health of a loved one or to win a sports contest.  Even the idea of “praying for strength” to cope with some hardship is a long distance call to a supernatural being from the supplicant. It’s purely a plea to something (or someone) external.

Meditation is different.  To meditate, you are not attempting to garner the attention of some mythical being in order to improve yourself or your situation.  The idea of meditation is to look inward, and to muster your own capacity for overcoming suffering by summoning compassion and equanimity. The goal of meditation is to learn how to be a part of the experiences that transpire around you and to accept that you have a role. You are really reaching deep within to find a way to handle the misfortunes of a chaotic world by being mindful.

What is mindfulness then?  It is simply being present – in the now.  The benefit of that is that you are able to assess the present through fresh eyes by ceasing ruminations of the past and eliminating any compulsion to predict the future.  Let’s face it, we simply have no control over what has happened already and what may or may not happen in the future.  The only thing we can control is what is happening now, specifically how we react to our happenstance, for better or for worse.

Whether you pray or meditate during a crisis, such as a relative or loved one becoming afflicted with a serious illness, neither method will actually cure the sickness.  I think both a pray-er and a meditator know that, although, some televangelists would likely tell you otherwise.  Prayer summons the power of a god and that god can heal all afflictions, they say, but I don’t believe this is what the majority of religious people believe.  The difference would be that there is a sort of hypocrisy about prayer that makes is shallow.  If you believe in a god, you most likely believe that god has a “plan”, that he “works in mysterious ways” and that he “only gives us what we can handle”.  If that’s so, then your god most likely gave your loved one a deadly illness that you are asking him to undo through kneeling down and showing him that you love him (and trust him).  Reversing his decision by healing your loved one would make him either fallible or a sadist. That is a problem for the pious.

Meditators accept their fates and prepare for it by living a life of compassion and understanding.  A meditator would be bedside, recounting memories, reading a book, listening to music or whatever makes their loved one comfortable in the moment.  There would be no thought or expression of pain to come. Even if the moment comes where their loved one dies, the meditator accepts the impermanence of this life and doesn’t mourn for the end of it, but, instead, celebrates the end of suffering.

I can’t think of a better way to deal with life’s twists and turns, to be honest.  I don’t want to worry about what my afterlife will bring since I don’t really have any idea that it actually exists, but I do want to effectively cope with each moment that I know that I am alive – I can see, touch, smell. taste and hear.  I can do good not my wishing for some celestial being to intercede, but by practicing a life of mindfulness, compassion and appreciation of the well-being of myself and others.

Also, when I find the strength to overcome suffering, I kinda want to take credit for it myself.

 

Modern Day Milgram

milgram

In 1961, Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram, developed an experiment to test how people would react to authority.  In his test, he set up a device that simulated an electric shock that was delivered to people (“learner”) who incorrectly answered questions that were asked by a “teacher”.  The “teacher” was actually the test subject and the person being shocked was an actor who suffered no damage because there was no actual shock.

As the “learner” answered each question incorrectly, the “teacher”would increase the power of the shock.  At 150 volts, the “learner” began to cry out that he had a heart problem and he wasn’t feeling well.  At that point, the test subject had a choice to continue despite the increasing complaints or to stop despite incessant urging from the person leading the experiment who sat right next to them.

An entire 45 minute documentary can be found here. To save you a little time, I’ll tell you that 65% of the “teachers” (26 of 40) went all the way to 450 volts despite the cries of the “learner”.  So, they continued to inflict pain on another human being for the sole reason that an authority figure told them to do so.

Of course, there were a lot of questions about the ethics of this experiment and that the all of the test subjects were white men, but, hey, that was the 1960’s for you. But it does make one ponder the impact of authority over a person and whether or not they will give up their morality, their sense of right and wrong, if they are told to do so.  Obvious connections to Nazi soldiers were made in this experiment which was actually the point to begin with.

In this day and age, are we subject to the same drive – to please an authority figure to the degree that we would shun responsibility for hurting another human being?

In 2006, there was the famous Mount Washington Strip Search scam where a prank caller called a fast food restaurant posing as a police office and convinced a pair of adults to strip search a teenager and then engage in sexual molestation. The adults never even saw the actual person giving them instructions to demean and abuse this underage girl, yet they did it anyway.

Now, expand that a thousand-fold and think to yourself how similar distasteful and potentially illegal acts could be performed by unwilling people if they were commanded by a President or other elected official.  How about if someone like the Pope or some other high-ranking religious official told you to do something you would normally find abhorrent?  Would you toss away your own personal morals and ethics to please that authority figure?

Would you?

Joel Osteen is a Douche

Joel-Osteen-heckled

Ask me why I’m an atheist and I can cite a bunch of reason why, but one of them is because of the snake-oil salesmen like Peter Popoff and Joel Osteen that preach to loving masses who empty their wallets for them.  What the believers get in return is nothing more than stolen wisdom.

With the disaster of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Osteen had the doors to his church closed until there was a public outcry.  He claimed it was flooded, but it seemed a little peculiar to me that he suddenly had a change of heart and let the flooded few into his palace.  His ultimate excuse was that no one asked. Hence, Joel Osteen is a douche.

This is the guy who is quoted as saying:

We need to show mercy. I mean, because as much mercy as you show people, that’s the mercy you’re going to be receiving.

Apparently, mercy needs to be requested by the city of Houston before it is granted.  It’s not enough that a natural disaster that expels people out of their homes, kills loved ones, and destroys the lives of hundreds of thousands that mercy needs to be given.  In Osteen’s view, it needs to be asked for.

He also said “If you give, you will be blessed.”  Apparently, that only applies to the people who dump cash in his pocket and not to him.  Douche.

 

We Are Not a Puddle

puddle

The picture above is of a puddle.  It was formed by the simple act of water, either rain or some other means, of filling in a hole.  See how it fits snugly in the hole?  Well, guess what?  That hole was not created for that puddle any more than the Universe was created for us.

For some who cling to religion, they believe that the Universe was “fine tuned” for human beings and that that fact proves that an Intelligent Designer exists.  Well, I dispute that and state unequivocally that we are just not that important. In fact, human beings have existed for mere seconds in the span of time, so if the Universe was made for us, then we should have come by long, long ago.

You can also drill down further to just the Earth.  If our lovely planet was “designed” just for us, then why is most of it inhospitable to our life form?  Our blue marble is 71% water, in which we cannot survive.  Of the land that remains, we cannot survive extreme heat or cold.  So, deserts and the poles are off-limits.

What about space?  In our solar system alone, only one planet has human life.  All the others are either too hot or too cold, and none of them have the atmosphere we need to survive.  We just could not breathe.  Breathing is, um, necessary.

Outside of our solar system, we have discovered around 3500 planets, none of which we can even get to quite yet.  And, of those 3500, it is estimated that only around 30 of them are ones that we are optimistic about when it comes to supporting human life.

So, how “fine tuned” is this Universe for us, really?