I Drink Bleach During Office Hours : On the Superfluous Nature of Philosophy

Why? I’m not asking why in some sort of abstract sense, like why is chocolate tasty? or why the electric slide was fun to do for about five minutes back in the early 90s? I’m asking why? Why? Maybe I’m getting William James (or God forbid Wittgenstein) all on everybody, but more and more lately I’ve been asking, why are philosophers so caught up in all those things that don’t matter?!? I know that I’ve stepped in a big one here. I used the word “matter”. Using “matter”, I’ve learned, unless you’re talking about form or substance, or all that Aristotle madness, as in ‘why does learning this matter?’ is forbidden. “Matter”, “useful”, or “this doesn’t mean anything to anyone outside of this classroom”, are not a part of the recognized philosophic nomenclature. They are words and phrases that should not emanate from the mouths of philosophy students. But they do, and there’s a reason for that. Unless there’s, when you get to the gates of heaven, a big test where you’re asked to explain Kant’s transendental idealism, sorry to say, a great deal of what is learned in a classroom is forgotten, let alone not used once a student leaves the classroom and hits the street. So much of what we learn, the complaint goes, is simply put: superfluous. There’s alot of stuff, but it’s just that — stuff. Philosophers spend too much time overcomplicating what is ordinarily easy stuff. Don’t believe me? Thought so. Let me give an example, the Thought Experiment. Here’s one we’re all familiar with: You find yourself on an alien world. On this alien world, you find a substance which shares, by all appearances, the same chemical composition as the substance that we call water. Now, on this planet, that water-like substance is called ‘xyz’. The point is that we are trying to figure out whether any two things are the same because they share the same name, or because they share the same properties. Somehow this distinction is supposed to matter to us when we think about reference of moral theories like intuitionism. I get it. But, I also get that you can just ask that question instead of weaving some takes fifteen minutes to explain the situation thought experiment that often confuses more than it explains. To be honest, I call that substance who the fuck cares. It’s water. It’s not molybdenum and it’s not bleach. You can drink it and you won’t die. Ok, now I’ve done it. I’ve not only dropped an “f”, but I’ve also made three serious epistemic claims:

1) I know there is no worth posing thought experiements (or the

thought experiment’s crappier cousin, the possible world scenerio.

2) After examination, I’ve concluded that I know that posing said

thought experiments is worthless.

and, 3) I know what does, in fact, matter.

To answer #1, I say that I do think that there are some questions that we can figure out by way of thought experiements (more on that later). As for #2, Sometimes, yes. And for #3, I am not so bold as to say that I know what’s all that matters. I can say, however, I know what matters for me, as well as I believe that this is how far anyone else can make this claim. Perhaps this suggests that determining what matters is more a matter of consensus.

Oh damn! I didn’t mean to say that. I sure as hell don’t want to pull in consensus. I’m just as uncomfortable as any professional philosopher is with placing important philosophical claims (and truths) up for public referendum. Man, where was I? Was I anywhere?

Oh yes, what matters. I know that students, as a rule, are nothing more than a pack of Eeyores -we bitch and moan because most of us don’t want to do the work. This may seem like a fair assessment of what I am writing her, but I assure you that this is not in fact what I am up to. I think that one of the biggest turn-offs to philosophy is the fact that so much of it is, well…pedantic. It’s so much about so much that sometimes we should ask whether the question at hand really needs to be asked. Thought experiments become philosophical Frankensteins — instead of constructing the monster, we should be asking whether we should be constructing him at all. I think what I really offer is a word of caution. And my caution is this: don’t get too bogged down in the argument or constructing the perfect scenerio by with to demonstrate the idea. Don’t lose the question in the argument. And, don’t forget asking why we’re asking is just as important as asking the question itself. Perhaps we can stray away from words like matter, and embrace words like relevance (but then that just opens up another can of worms, doesn’t it?).

Perhaps what I am really asking is what do I want philosophy to do? What am I looking for? My fear, I realize is that we end up stuck in a morass of arguments, ending up so deep that I’ve (we’ve) lost sight of what we’re here to do. I’m hearing the words forest for the trees, here. It’s like talking so much that you forget what you were talking about.

Like now.

WHAT IS INCONSISTENTISM? (my lips may promise, but my heart is a whore)

First off, the subtitle of this post “my lips may promise, but my heart is a whore”, is a line from a nine inch nails song (from the incredibly kick-ass EP broken. If you haven’t listened to it, I stongly suggest that you do). I include that line because I want to establish early that that sentiment is exactly what Inconsistentism is not. Inconsistentism is not a theory that condones nor promotes the practice of freewheeling philosophy. It is not a do whatever feels right system of thought. My intention here is to lay out a system that, given the human inability to remain consistently consistent, allows one to accept our foibles and carry on in a manner that allow us to function in society without the worry of remaining consistent. Shall we begin? What got me started was watching The Big Lebowski. I was sitting at home, on the sofa next to my sleeping cockapoo, when I started thinking about how this was supposed to be a “philosophic” movie. I had personally found that many of my fellow students enjoyed the movie (although I suspect that few actually found any philosophic significance in it. The Big Lebowski is a stoner movie, pure and simple). But, seeing though I don’t smoke the weed, I was sitting at home acually trying to think of the movie philosophically. So, I thought, this movie is supposed to be nihilist. And naturally, I asked, is Lebowski nihilist? I thought no, he isn’t. That’s because Lebowski doesn’t live according to any rules. A nihilist may say that they reject conventions (such as common morality), but in denying that he believes in anything, he is exspousing a belief that he believes in nothing. Kind of how some people say that atheism is a religion in itself. The Dude doesn’t live according to any ethic or dogma — he simply “abides”. I then thought that there was something funny about the characters who were identified as “nihilists”. They were cartoonish, bafoonish. And that’s what struck me. The nihilists were ridiculous. I suddenly began to see what other people saw all those years that I (too) claimed nihliism as my ethic. Think about this: Does anyone remember the mid-90s besides me? Well, somewhere around 1994 or so, the world first experienced Marilyn Manson. Within a couple of years, there were Manson clones populating the local gallerias scowling and moping outside the Hot Topic and Spencer’s Gifts stores all across America. And what did people do when they saw these would-be teenage diablolists? They laughed. Not out of fear, mind you but because the whole get-up was ridiculous! These kids were convinced that they could live a lifestyle that was, in the real world, unpracticable. There was no way on earth that they would be able to maintain that level of malcontentedness for years on end. And many, realizing that they could not maintain that level of consistency, after a short while, gave it up. I know, I was one of them. But that’s the problem, not just with nihilism, but with philosophy in general. It tends to force us where we not only may not want to go, but where we cannot go. Theories often reflect what or how we want the world to be — and for some, they want elegant, logically correct theories. They don’t want messiness. They want consistency. Consistency is the gold standard for philosophic theories. In order for a philosophic theory to be taken seriously, it must be consistent, or at least enable us to act in a constsient manner. I may be wrong, I may say, but at least I’m consistent. Consistency is how I, the philosopher, measure my ideas against what may be mere opinions. But, as philosophers, we — no, you must battle the persistent charge of inconsistency. But the real deal is that some theories are easier said than done. Emphasizing consistency may force us into places where, as a matter of practice, we may not want to go. Life, unfortunately, is filled with situations that may pressure us into giving up our beloved consistency in favor o f an actual, practical soultion. But, the philosopher, in the face of life’s messiness, demands something that life is not — consistency. And because of messiness is true of life — the philosopher will always be off the mark. That is where Inconsistentism comes in. Inconsistentism simply states that we are aware that life sometimes forces us to act in an inconsistent manner. Instead of rejecting this reality or forcing consistency, inconsistentism embraces this fact and moves on. It allows, in the face of forced consistency, for options. The presiding principle of Inconsistentism is, what I call, “the Curve Ball Effect”, which stated is this: life throws us curveballs, and sometimes we must act accordingly. Occasionally, we must break with our formulas in order to act. But, let’s stop here. Like I said at the outset, the idea of Inconsistentism is not to go about making things up as we go along. There is nothing willy-nilly or freewheeling about Inconsistentism. It’s not “shopping” for any theory that works. The appearance of “shopping” belies what is, in truth, a workable and practicable theory. Let me give an example: In political science, we learn that the Constitution is the “supreme law of the land”. That is, any and every state or federal law has to jive with the Constitution if it is to be enacted. But, not all laws follow the Constitution in a literal fashion. There is, in politics, the notion that a law, although not constitutionally exact, operates in the “spirit” of the law, meaning that, although the law may appear to be something than constitutionally based, it is, on further inspection, exactly in accordance with the ends that the Constitution seeks to achieve. Case in point: Nowhere in the Constitution does any person possess an explicit right to privacy. But, the Supreme Court has decided, that although the Constitution is does not explicitly grant such a right, one exists ,and legislation recognizing and protecting the right to privacy are constitutional. This is so,because the laws operate according to the “spirit” expressed in the 9th and 10th Amendments. So, I offer a theory that operates according to the “spirit” of philosophic theory. My point is not to ignore theory completely, all of our actions, beliefs, etc. are guided by some principle, and we should act according to that principle most of the time. However, we shouldn’t be so tied to dogma that we are unable to render decisions that may turn out to be best for ourselves and others. My point is to have a theory that guides actions rather than dictates them. Consequently, Inconsistentism allows for the major philosophic no-no of holding two contradicting beliefs simultaneously. (And you’re not crazy, and you’re not bullshitting yourself). But since this is still at the time of this writing an underdeveloped theory, I will set aside defending how this is so, and merely insist that is it possible.

When There Is No More Room In Hell, Philosophers Will Walk the Earth

I’VE BEEN THINKING a lot lately about metaphysics. No really, this is not a set up for some sick joke. I have, really. I’ve been going through my old philosophy books, and reading old notes from my classes… but I have no real idea why.

 

Funny I should throw in the word “real” since I’ve just mentioned that I’ve been stuck on metaphysics.

 

I know that some of it has to do with this PBS program about the father of the dude from that group eels. He, the father that is, worked in physics, and his big contribution to the world of physics (and to Star Trek fans everywhere) was the theory of possible worlds. Now, there’s this possible worlds thought experiment that has to do with a cat in a box. You stick the cat in the box, and then you put some radioactive stuff in there with it. You can’t see the cat and you don’t know when the radioactive material is going to be released, and so we don’t know whether the cat is alive or dead.

Soooo…. ( long story short ) in some possible world the cat is both alive and dead.

Yes. I just described Schrodinger’s Cat.

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This got me thinking… What does it mean to exist?

 

I think that most people, myself included, go around asking questions about existence in the “why” form — meaning we ask why is life, why about our own particular life and so on.

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To be honest, I haven’t really met anyone outside of a philosophy class ever ask what does it mean to say that something “exists”.

I figure that, for most folks, that, the “what” part — is something we (not philosophers) kind of take for granted. We see things and we say that  or this “exists” and that things we don’t see don’t exist.

I may be making a big positivist boo-boo here, but play along for the sake of example.

 

The problem, it seems — at least the philosophical problem — is that the word “exist” is both loaded and muddy. When we ask “what is existence?”, “what does it mean to ‘exist’?”, our questions and unfortunately our arguments tend to get us bogged down in semantics rather than actually getting to the subject at hand.

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This often is the point when some of us throw up our hands and simply stop discussing the issue altogether. But the hassle of agreeing on definitions shouldn’t stop us from finding definitions that we all can agree on.

 

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Believe it or not, it is important that we do.

 

So, what do we think of when we think about existence?

 

thinking about existence

 

We tend to think of “exists” in terms of what “is”. For better or for worse, when we speak of the world around us, we tend to speak of existence in human terms, that is, things exist in contrast to us.

xall-about-me

 

Being the semi-curious devil that I am, I looked in the dictionary to see what the experts at Random House had to say about existence. And, no surprise, the definition included the phrase, ” to have life or animation”. That seemed mighty odd to me.

Of course to answer the question “what is existence?” is not something that we’d like to answer too broadly. There is an inclination to think of the answer as more nuanced than we’d like to think that it is. Perhaps the right way of thinking of existence is in terms of us.

We can say that we humans (and some higher animals) “exist” everything else just “is”.

 

1216528-cartoon-of-a-thinking-vampire-rock-royalty-free-vector-illustration

PRETTY SURE THIS IS WHAT A ROCK’S THOUGHTS LOOKS LIKE

When we use a  word “existence”, it seems to shuttle in more than just being here and accounted for. There are social, biological, scientific, psychological, philosophical, and even colloquial meanings to the word “exist”.

 

two men conversing

SURE, YOU’RE A THINKING, BREATHING, CARBON-BASED LIFE FORM. BUT WHAT ARE THE SOCIO-POLITICAL RAMIFICATIONS OF YOUR CLAIM OF EXISTENCE, BOB?

I may claim that I politely raised my hand all class, and the professor acted as if I didn’t “exist” or I may say that my existence would be ruined if my guy left me, or I may say that my dog  or trees or planets or minds or thoughts “exist”… but once again, I feel that when I say “I exist” that I’ve somehow changed the rules. I’m speaking of more than just flowers and trees. I am more than my here-ness; more than my social position or my capacity to think.

Wow, that sounds a little Tyler Durden. I am more than my khakis.

 

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Whoops.

Ah! There I go again — closing myself up in the humans only box. Worse than that, I’m getting the feeling that I’m casting my net too narrowly. I feel that what I am doing is limiting existence to all that can exist here with us.

I promised myself that I would only mention possible worlds and not possible entities. I don’t want to talk of Pegasus or corpulent men in doorways.

 

pegasus

NO CORPULENT PEGASUSES, EITHER

I want to speak of something more concrete. What I am after, ultimately, is to find a meaning that will help us here and now — there are too many problems to consider in the world where we reside than to get away from the issue by talking about Zeus and his brother or round squares.

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I was watching Land of the Dead awhile back. While I was sitting, watching Big Daddy and his zombie gang raid Pittsburgh, digging on Asia Argento (and Simon Baker, too), I started thinking about existence. I thought about how, like Schrodinger’s dead/alive cat, these zombies were beings that were both alive and dead.

That led me to the thought: do zombies exist?

 

Knowing that the answer wasn’t exactly the kind that you’d answer with an immediate yes or no, I realized that to get an answer I required a thought experiment.

 

So, let’s say that I’m somewhere near Monroesville, PA circa 1978. Hordes of the undead have descended on the local mall. Looking up from my beer I’ve been chugging at the Brown Derby, my philosophical mind starts to  think: I know that the recently reanimated are not “alive” (at least not in the medical sense), but do they exist?

 

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MAYBE ZOMBIES KNOW IT’S MILLER TIME

 

Descartes famously said “Cogito, ergo sum” — I think, therefore I am. If Descartes was able to think, he reasons, he is assured of his own existence.Descartes could not even doubt that his own existence, since there was, at the very least some thing that doubted its existence. As long as he possessed the capacity for thought, Descartes says, he was (and we are) assured of his/our own existence.

 

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Well, it’s obvious with a zombie where this Descartes’ idea goes awry. A zombie does not think. There is no “I” to consider or even to deny its own existence.

Funny that the zombie lacks the one thing that Descartes says is necessary for proof that one exists: thought. A zombie, however, possesses all of the other qualities Descartes says are illusory — locomotion, sight, hearing, touch, and an insatiable desire to eat human flesh….

 

Now, would Descartes suggest that we deny that a zombie exists? Especially if that zombie is busy gnawing on your brain?

 

tarman2

EXACTLY THE WRONG MOMENT TO DENY THAT A ZOMBIE EXISTS

 

Wait, I’m mixing my zombie mythos. So far, I’ve been following George A. Romero’s rules of zombiedom. It’s Dan O’ Bannon’s zombies who eat brains. Sorry for the mix-up.

 

So, if I take Descartes at all seriously  (something that I try to not do), a zombie does not think, it does not “am”. And lacking the capacity for thought, a zombie is not a rational being. The zombie  is not different than a dog or any other mere beast that lacks the capacity for rational thought.

 

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PRETTY SURE THIS IS WHAT A DOG’S THOUGHTS LOOK LIKE

 

The philosophical implication of zombies — and I don’t think that Descartes would disagree, is this:

  • Zombies do not think. Therefore, a zombie does not “am” in the Cartesian sense of existence.  

 

  • Because a zombie does not think, it lacks the capacity for rational thought.

  • And, because a zombie lacks the capacity for rational thought, zombies have no soul (only rational beings have souls).
  • This means that we are free to do with zombies as we please.

 

We are not dealing with persons, but with beings who hold no more metaphysical (or moral) significance for us than a machine. So, when in Shaun of the Dead, zombies are being used to push shopping carts or as contestants on game shows, it’s perfectly alright. That’s what they are there for. They’re mere machines — really no different from a clock or a stereo.

Or a cat, if you’re Descartes.

According to this (mis)interpretation of Descartes, zombies are just like a soulless stereo ….that just so happen to stink and rot and turn putrid.

 

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ZOMBIES ALWAYS HAVE THE BEST BEATS

But this didn’t sound quite right to me, so I decided to put Descartes to the side. But, just when I was throwing out Descartes (something I’ve said we should do for years), I had an ah-ha (not the 80s Europop band) moment.

Maybe we shouldn’t confirm the existence of a zombie using Descartes, after all.

And, if you kinda-sorta look at existence sans Descartes, then zombies become the ultimate philosophical conundrum.

I started to think: if a zombie doesn’t “am”, then how does a zombie truly philosophically exists?

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I think I have an idea how.

Bear with me, here.

Even though we know that a mere beast lacks the capacity for higher mental function, we don’t discount a mere beast from our moral consideration. A dog may be just a dog, but we still treat it with care. it exists, if only barely enough for us to care about its well being.

The same holds, I think, for zombies.

zombie-thinking

A zombie may lack the capacity for rational thought, but then, so do many human beings. We would not accept treating humans who lack rational thought in any way that we please. We feel a moral obligation for humans who are not rational, perhaps even because they lack normal mental function.

 

We certainly wouldn’t claim that a mentally disabled or comatose person is not a Cartesian “am”.

That is to say, a zombie don’t cogito, we can’t completely throw them out of of our consideration.

 

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WE SHOULDN’T DO THIS TO ANYONE, EVEN IF IT’S A ZOMBIE THAT WANTS TO EAT OUR FLESH

I concluded that a zombie is a philosophical walking contradiction — it is a being that is alive and dead. But, more importantly zombies exist, in a sort of half-assed, crudely construed, not-Cartesian sense.

So, what purpose did my thought experiment serve? What it did was this: A zombie is an extreme if not impossible example that forces us to think about existence. We need not look to a zombie flick to find and contemplate questions of existence. Any of us may at any point find either ourselves or someone that we care about sustained through artificial means. Sometimes, as in the case of “brain death”, we are unable to determine whether a person is truly alive or dead. A person may be a little bit of both.

 

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Likewise, as artificial intelligence advances, we may have to ask if a being that “exists” in cyberspace is alive or not a living being. Would an artificial intelligence am? To be honest, I really don’t know.

I don’t know if I even asked the right question let alone actually got anywhere near answering it.

 

In the end, I think that what I’ve done is found a way to rattle on about zombies and got to say that Asia Argento is hot.

 

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Which, by the way, she is.

Why I Am A Secular Christian

I don’t believe in God. I know that, as a philosopher, that statement, in and of itself, can be a dangerous one to make. It might be assumed that, by saying that I don’t believe in God that I am also (implicitly) stating that I not only believe that there is no God, but also saying that I know that there is no God. And to that charge, I plead gulity. I will say, without reservation, that I both believe that there is no God, and know that there is no such thing as God. Of course, we (myself included) refer to an omnicompetent being (called God), and that for some, he is as real as you and I. My point, and I want to make this point clearly and quicky, is not to debate the evidence for or against the existence of a supreme divine being — nor am I interested in taking up the various metaphysical and epistemological debates associated with declaring that I know that there is no God. Those arguments are for the real philosophers, and they can, frankly argue those points ’til the cows come home. My point is a little closer to home. I’ve heard it said that, if there is no God, then there is no morality. That is, without an ultimate measure (and one might say punishment) for rightness and wrongness, there is no reason to act morally. In a world without God, it is said, all is justified and all is permitted. Likewise, as an atheist, I am often accused of lacking morality. Well, perhaps this is a bit extreme — and I might say that such a charge is easily disproven — anyone who claims that an atheist lacks any moral sense should ask himself how he walked away from the conversation with his wallet firmly planted in his pocket and with all of his limbs. But, the accusation is there — atheists are often asked to justify from where their morality comes from. Until some time ago, I used to say that my moral base was rooted in egoism. Egoism is the moral theory that states that all acts are morally correct if the act benefits the actor. That is, if I do what is good for me, then I am acting morally. I had embraced egoism, and had justified my decisions, even those that appeared to be in accordance with another moral theory, as being in line with egoism, but looking a lot like kantianism or utilitarianism. I realized that I had embraced egoism because I had felt that my atheism precluded my embracing any objective moral theory. But, whenever I was asked my (ethical) positions on various moral topics, my ethical views were always solidly rooted in what could only be best described as Christian ethics. I often found myself quoting (or at least paraphrasing) Jesus whenever I laid down my ethical views. But I was an atheist. How could I reconcile my lack of belief with my morality? That’s when I came to a startling conclusion: what I was, or rather what I am, is a secular Christian. I know what the first objection may be (as well as it should be): how can a person claim to be a Christian yet claim that there is no God. You cannot separate one from the other. And to that point, I concede. I am not claiming to be a Christian. The first word I use is secular. That word is used first because secularism is the overriding quality of my ethics. I am still a committed atheist. I believe that we can find morality without God, and I believe that, as rational beings, mankind possesses the ability to act in a good (or bad) manner. Secondly, one may say that what I am doing is playing a game of semantics. I am trying to disguise humanism as something other than what it is. My belief in man’s capacity to do right and wrong and find truth are the principles of humanism. The humanist, like myself, rejects religion’s role in the public sphere. And like the humanist, I tend to look to worldly things (like “common sense” or even logic) for moral guidance rather than getting down on my knees and praying for divine guidance. But unlike the humanist, I have recognized the part that the Christian ethic plays in my life. Like many people in the West, I was raised within a society that was based (whether I liked it or not) on the Christian ethic — in particular, the Protestant ethic. My moral choices have always been made through the prism of Christianity. I think that it is important to make an important distinction here: what makes the Christian a Christian is his belief. He believes that there is a God who loves him and looks after him. He believes that there is a God that will reward him with eternal grace for his beliefs. His ethics are grounded in his belief in God. And this is where the Christian and I part ways. My ethics are grounded in a choice to follow rather than believe that the word of God is true. Bertrand Russell wrote,” it may be not belief but feeling that makes religion: a feeling which, when brought into the sphere of belief, may involve the conviction that this or that is good, but may, if it remains untouched by the intellect, be only a feeling and yet be dominant in action”. If what Russell says is true, then I may accept the word of Christ as feeling, yet not commit to his words as belief. So I ask, even if we do not believe in the Bible (as the word of God) or reject the divinity of Christ, what should stop us from embracing Christianity as a set of ethics and not as a set of beliefs? (That is, if I take my moral choices as a matter of what I feel rather than what I believe?) I feel that the ethics as written in the Bible (the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, etc.) are moral rules that are more conductive to living a good life. There is no need ( other than the Bible itself telling me so) to accept the notion that the Bible was composed by a celestial inspired hand or that Jesus was indeed the son of God.