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.

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.

 

 

 

I Can’t Decide if I have Free Will

130926_SCI_freewill01_double.jpg.CROP.original-original

Image courtesy of Slate.com

For the last few weeks, I have been ironically struggling with the idea of Free Will and whether or not I actually have it.  It seems odd, at least, to be wavering on the decision that I have a decision to make, but, alas, that’s what’s been happening.

Let me break down my choices for you.

First, there is the philosophy of libertarian free will which states that I, as an agent, have complete free will.  It takes into account that there are events that may influence my choice, but, ultimately, my choices are my own.  For example, I can choose to hit a baseball with my bat, however, I did not make the choice to throw the ball.  And, the choice to hit it or not is not based on anything but my own will – there are no prior events or decisions that led me to that choice. And, this philosophy also gives you room to have made a different choice given the same situation, a fantasy we all fancy at one time or another.

Then there is the opposite, known as determinism, which states that all choices are the result of prior causes – known or unknown.  In other words, free will is an illusion. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, is a big proponent of this, as many other scientists are across many different disciplines. You can read Sam’s book, Free Will, which is a short, but enlightening read, or you can see him speak about it here.  He essentially lays out the case that your brain is making decisions before you’re even conscious of the decision.  Here’s one example he uses – think of a famous actor.  Think of another.  Now another.  Did you choose Sylvester Stallone?  You certainly know who he is, so why was he not presented as a choice?  Surely, your brain made the decision, for some reason, to not present him to you as an option.

(What I am not including here is fatalism which is a more extreme version of determinism that basically asks why you should make any decisions since shit is just gonna happen anyway, so you may as well just ride the wave.)

Then there is a third option known as compatibilism.  Compatibilism is basically a combination of libertarian free will and determinism.  It states that, although the choice is yours, your will is not.  Your will is determined (as determinism also states) by things like genetics, culture, nature, economics, etc., but the decision to act is yours.  As an example, you had no choice but to be homosexual, but you can choose how to express it or not express it at all.

They are all interesting choices and after thinking about it, I have ruled out libertarian free will.  It is really hard to see a world where our choices are not influenced in some way and we have complete control over them.  When given a choice, we don’t always do what we should – we eat bad food even though we know we shouldn’t, we smoke cigarettes, drink too much, etc., but we also have all the years of baggage and history that have shaped our minds in such a way that our consciousness limits our choices because that is what it is trained to do.  Students sit in assigned seats because teachers make them do so.  Because of that conditioning, those students go to college and sit in the same seat every time even though they aren’t assigned.

Of course, the problem with not having free will is that it gives an excuse to people who commit heinous crimes, which is pretty much what determinism does.  It states that all actions, all decisions, are determined by previous causes.  And, you can easily see how this is possible.  How many times have we heard about a mass murderer who was abused or was bullied? In some cases, they have physiological defects or brain damage or tumors that affect inhibitions.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be punished, it just means that we should react differently.  Rather than feel anger or the need for revenge, determinism says that we should feel compassion because, if you think about it, if you switched places with that person and experienced exactly what they did, would you have made the same choices?  Determinism says, if all is equal, that you would.

Compatibilism is a cushy, yet wishy-washy choice.  I keep thinking that the reason I lean towards this philosophy is because I want to feel like I have some free will and that since I don’t know the “unknown causes” behind determinism, that I can take responsibility for some of what I do. But, this just seems like another way of defining libertarianism.

For a better explanation of Free Will vs. Determinism, see this fantastic video.
Crash Course Philosophy #24

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?

 

This Mockingbird Don’t Sing

northernmockingbird

Behold the Northern Mockingbird.  You can identify him by his long, dark tail feathers,  gray body and white stripes across his wings when he unfolds them.  Even when you can’t see him, you will know he’s there when you hear the calls of a dozen or more birds sung in rapid succession from a singular source at one of the topmost parts of the tallest tree for hours at a time. A wondrous feat of which some are not enamored, especially since this singing can oftentimes start at midnight and go well into the wee hours of the morning.  i have a few living in my immediate area, so believe ne when I say that the mockingbird is relentless.

Speaking of relentless…

These birds are fucking crazy and I’m not just saying that because of the audible mockery.  They are actual brutal defenders of their territory, the likes of which I have seldom seen (but, I’m also sheltered).  I saw my local mockingbird chase a squirrel throughout my yard and across the street, endlessly dive-bombing the poor rodent until he was able to get his fluffy tail tucked under an Elephant Ear Hosta.  This was not a one-time occurrence, either. How did that squirrel offend? I do not know.

The mockingbird (who I think I should actually name) attacks the usual suspects, too.  Robins do not stand a chance.  He will go right for them, screeching like a banshee as he heads at them, beak first into a puff of brown and gray feathers.  The robins do not stand a chance, but they put up a decent fight.  They always end up separating and no one gets hurt, apparently coming to a new understanding of one another.

I even saw a mockingbird chase a trio of crows from a nearby rooftop.  Each crow was easily three to four times the size of the little gray ogre, but you’d be damned wrong if you bet any crow flicked him away like a sparrow.  Nope, those crows flew away, mockingbird in tow, cawing as they fled the scene of whatever crime they had committed.

So, you’re probably asking – “What is the point of this post?”. None. None at all. It was just what I was thinking at the time.

Divorce is Messy

divorce1

Divorce is messy. When two people have been together, sharing every breath, every movement, every word, with one another for years, even decades, how easy can it be to separate? It cannot be easy.

But, that s not the divorce I’m talking about. I’m talking about the divorce from reality. I’m talking about the people who believe the Earth is flat. Never mind other conspiracy theories like chemtrails, the moon landing or 9/11, because this one takes the freakin’ cake. The belief that we are living on a plane rather than a sphere takes a certain level of ignorance that is hard to find.  And, to find a bunch of people (even if it’s 1,000) who all believe this nonsense is scary. I have to ask myself what I would say to a person who admitted to me that they believe the world we live on is flat.

I would hope to be civil to them and try to explain to them all of the reason why they are misguided, but, that type of argument doesn’t seem to work too well in this day and age. There is a conscious effort to make the masses less educated and more ignorant, in my opinion, and I’m not alone. Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University, is actually studying agnotology, the study of ignorance. The effort to indoctrinate people into a state of ignorance is used from big business all the way to the government, but let’s not confuse that with things we can actually prove about our world, like those things proven by science.

Sure, scientific estimates can change, because we can only formulate models based on the data we have.  The beautiful thing about science is that when we get more information, we can change the model and, therefore, allow for the possibility of another, more accurate answer to the question.  Science deniers see this as a bad thing so they cite something like “Pluto used to be a planet, but now it’s not, so what good is science when they change their minds so much”.  This ignores the fact that Pluto is still there no matter what the fuck we call it and that it was found through scientific discovery and not because some mythical being whispered it into someone’s ear. But, i digress…

Let me get back to the Flat Earthers because this is one of those things that they can easily prove on their own without having to “trust” anyone else and that is why this is so fucking aggravating.

Ok, you morons, here are 10 easy ways you can tell for yourself that the Earth is not flat (as provided by Popular Science magazine):

  1. The phases of the Moon
  2. Ships and the horizon
  3. Varying Star constellations
  4. Shadows
  5. Seeing Farther form Higher up
  6. Ride a plane
  7. Other planets
  8. Time zones
  9. The center of gravity
  10. Images from space

Hawaii, Kentucky and Paris

HawaiiBeaches-28There are many conflicting opinions about Trump pulling the US out of the Paris Accord, that much is evident.  For the record, I think it was dumb and unnecessary to disavow a nonbinding agreement under any terms since we can pretty much make up the rules as we go along, but, hey, that’s only logical.  Logic gets lost on people sometimes.

That hasn’t stopped leaders in state and local governments from doing the right thing.  Hawaii actually became the first state to sign on to the accord.  While others, like California, have stated they will still shoot for the goals President Obama laid out, the groundswell of support for the accord is not something that should be ignored.  In other words, all hope is not lost.

There is no doubt among thinking people who believe climate change is real and it is caused by human activity.  If you doubt this, you are clearly bucking the opinions of the majority of scientists.  I’m not going into the actual science or the debate that ensues from deniers, and I’m not going to even give any credence to those arguments by laying them out.  I just want you to think on this question:

How many of you believe that the gases that contribute to global warming are not harmful? How many of you would survive sucking on a tailpipe or inhaling large concentrations of methane? How many of you think that the black smoke coming out of coal plants is good for our survival?

Apparently, not even the Kentucky Coal Museum believes coal is a good idea.  Think about that.

Trump’s anti-climate change agenda is a farce and should be fought.  This is not a battle to save the planet, it is a battle to save the human race.