Candy is Dandy, but Liquor is Quicker

I’ve said before that ethics is the only philosophy that matters. And I still think that’s true. It is. But that has nothing to do with the fact that studying ethics is so damn boring! There’s really not much to it. There are what? maybe a half dozen or so ethical theories out there that we deal with. There’s Utilitarianism, Egoism, Kantianism, Relativism, Virtue Ethics, and Divine Command theory. Sure, there are different versions — strong/weak, rule/act — but there’s pretty much nothing much to do after you’ve learned the various moral theories. Which makes it pretty easy when you think of it. Unlike all those ‘nobody’s ever really going to know for sure, so what we’re really trying to find is the most plausible answer’ business, ethics is pretty much on the ground. Real solutions for real people. No one really knows whether God exists or not, or if we live in a world of appearances or things-in-themselves (ugh!), but we all know the choice between whether we should cheat on our wife or tell the “dancer” that we really don’t want that table dance (but then, are lapdances really cheating?) or whether or not we should beat the shit out of that neighbor kid who won’t turn down his car stereo at three in the morning (or beat the tarnation out of the guy at the library with the most obnoxious ringtone ever). Look, if we see a drowning guy and we’re the only guy who can save him, and our options are to jump in and save him, or keep the $38 New Balance shoes that we just bought (for a good price) at Big 5 dry, we wouldn’t be surprised if everyone thought were a douche for not wanting to get our shoes wet. And ethics goes just about like this all the time: situation pops up, ethical dilemma, refer to handbook, apply applicable ethical theory, and volia! problem solved. Works even quicker on sitcoms. And that’s the way it’s worked for centuries. Centuries. Oh sure, every so often they’ll trot out something new like Rawl’s “veil of ignorance”, but really, any utilitarian can get you similar results without having to forget what race you are or how much money you have. It’s all fine and dandy how it works, but it’s just so damn boring!!!! Which brings me to a class I had some time ago. It was a class on intutionism. If you’re not familiar, like all of ethics, intuitionism asks ‘what is good?’. Here’s my attempt to nutshell something that is impossibly unnutshellable: G.E. Moore argued that the term ‘good’ meaning moral good, is undefinable. So, if we try to say that good (in the ethical sense) means something or is equal to a quality like ‘pleasure’, then our problem is, is that what is pleasuarble is not always good. Doing heroin is certainly pleasurable, but most people would agree that it is not ‘good’. Pleasure is a quality that is not common to all ‘good’ things. Moore likened the attempt to define good to an attempt to define the color yellow. To describe yellow, most of us would name yellow things such as bananas or taxicabs, or point to something yellow like a person with Hepatitis C. According to Moore, we can’t define what yellow is. We know ‘yellow’ intuitively. The same goes for what is ‘good’. I’m not bringing this up in order to discuss the merits of the theory, other than to say that this theory is just about the easiest thing to understand without having any ability whatsoever to explain how I do. And that doesn’t make for a very exciting theory. What I did learn that quarter, however, is exactly how to make an otherwise boring topic like ethics interesting… Alcohol. Yep. Get liquored up before class. I remember that, on one occasion, I had partaken a bit of the liqiud happiness before class (the one on intuitionism I mentioned before), and the class was marvelous! I can’t really remember what we discussed, or what I may have said (except for the fact that I thought that everything everyone said was funny), but I remember that, at least for that moment, intuitionism was the most interesting topic on the planet, and that everyone should be so lucky to have the opportunity to discuss something so fascinating. So, whenever I watch COPS, I think (now) that it’s not that these poor drunken bar brawlers are the stupid hicks that everyone thinks that they are. In fact, one could argue that they’re learned philosophers (and not just in the way that every drunk guy becomes an instant philosopher). It’s that they’ve figured out how to make moral conflicts, like bar brawling much more interesting! Morality is better (or at least funner) when you’re under the influence! No wonder so many thought experiments have to do with using drugs.

Intergalactic Botanists Will Swallow Your Soul

To rid myself of that Murray Head song “One Night In Bangkok”, I decided that I would do a little bit of TV watchin’. I was in a kind-of 1980s, Cold War-era flicks mood, so I started the night by watching a little bit of Red Dawn. I breezed through Wargames, and was lamenting the fact that I didn’t have Gotcha! on DVD. I was listening to “99 Luft Balloons” and was trying to remember which 80s compilation CD had “Der Kommissar” on it, when I glanced over at my DVD shelf and spotted ET. ET: the Extra-Terrestrial is perhaps the film of my generation. Who could not like the story of the lovable, non-threatening little alien from a billion light years away? And given the fact that the year ET was released, 1982, saw the release of a decidedly un-friendly alien movie, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, it’s easy to see why people flocked to see the cuddlier alien movie. For what it’s worth, I like The Thing. I’m assuming that everyone with eyes that see and ears that hear has either seen or heard about this movie. But, if you haven’t: a well-meaning, adorable, intergalactic horticulturist gets so caught up in looking at the local earth fauna that his ride home ditches him. The newly homeless fellow stumbles upon a nice suburban family (who are neither afraid of falling victim to a face-hugger nor worried about their new alien friend subjecting them to the time-honored alien tradition of probing), he squats for awhile with the middle child of the family, a boy named Elliott. Eventually the celestial traveler and his young companion jimmy up a subspace communication device and ET’s peeps swing back ’round to pick him up. All’s well that ends well. Some people see a heart-warming tale of the power of love and friendship. Others see a parable (or is it allegory?) of the story of Christ. Me, I see one of the worst moral offenders in film history. Assuming that the ethics of 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant apply to visiting aliens, this little bundle of interstellar joy has some explaining to do about his behavior. Kant’s moral philosophy is primarily concerned with two objectives: 1) moral principles that have universal applicability, and 2) our acts are performed from obligation — no matter the consequences. The first formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative states that we undertake no act that cannot at the same time be made universal law (or something like that). The way I see it, this one isn’t really a problem. Well, not yet. It’s Kant’s second formulation that has my finger pointing at this so-called friend to all children. Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative holds that we are to treat others as ends in themselves, that is, we are not to use others are a mere means to our own ends. So, say I want to rob a bank. I don’t have a car, but you do. I ask you to drive me over to the bank while I step in to go take care of some “things”. While I’m in the bank, I knock over the joint. I didn’t tell you why I was going or what I was going to do once I got there. I merely used you for your car. So, according to Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative, I have used you as a mere means to my ends. And that’s morally wrong. And that, using Elliott as a mere means to his ends, is precisely what that alien did. A test for whether we are being used as someone else’s means to their ends is whether we have entered into an agreement with that person freely and knowingly (meaning we weren’t coerced or forced). Now I know, you say that it was Elliott who pursued ET. This is true. He did lure ET into his house with Reece’s Pieces. And Elliott did assume responsibility for the alien. But, I think that Elliott did this unaware of what assuming responsibility for ET fully meant. What ET did, was not allowing Elliott to take care of him — he literally bonded his life to Elliott’s! Maybe there’s another version of the movie where ET sits Elliott down and explains what “taking responsibility” means where he comes from; but I doubt that, in Elliott’s mind, that “responsibility” meant feeling hunger when ET was hungry, or feeling sleepy when ET was sleepy. Nor do I think that Elliott signed on to experience drunkenness when ET decided to go on a bender, or to sexually assault a female classmate under ET’s mind control. Worse yet, ET’s life bonding nearly killed Elliott when ET decided that I was better to die than to live in earth (real subtle, Spielberg!). Not to mention, that Elliott was, what? Twelve at the most? Could a child of that age really have made a competent decision to endanger the lives of himself and his family and have his house ransacked by the feds all in an effort to make a phone call?!? I think not! I think that even Kant had a point where a kid is too young to make decisions that no only affect him, but the universe as a whole. And while we’re at it, I don’t think that back on ET’s planet that they would have welcomed such an interruption of their lives. I don’t think that almost getting a kid shot by an FBI guy (yes, I’m using the original theatrical release) is something that we want to say is universalable. Some people watch ET and see a movie that they want to share with their childern and their grandchildren. I see a movie I’d only show to a kid that I didn’t like (which reminds me, I think that I’ll invite that Dante over for popcorn and some DVDs).

Did You Know That If You Fold A $20 Bill…?!?!

Last Christmas, as a part of my holiday reading, I read the Warren Commission Report. That’s because there’s nothing that says season’s greetings quite like reading about the Kennedy Assassination. Although it pretty much kills the joy of Christmas, it’s utterly fascinating to read about how Oswald single-handedly planned and executed the murder of our 35th president. Maybe execute is a wrong choice of words. Now, I was reading the Warren Commission Report, not only because I thought it would make for interesting reading ( it did), but also because I’m also a conspiracy theory nut. All the while I was reading, I was thinking about the various theories (some more plausible than others) about the Kennedy Assassination. There are a couple of problems, though. I think that with a few of them, the plots to kill the president are so expansive that a person would discover that every American who was living at the time played a part in the assassination. It made me feel sorry for the President. It’s like everyone else was in on a joke and didn’t tell him. One hell of a punchline, though. Since I’ve vowed that I will never pay for anything that I can see for free on the internet, I was watching one of our more popular 9/11 conspiracy theory flicks. I’m not going to say exactly what the movie was, only that to say that the title sounded a little like Loose Change. I was watching, and really trying (hard) to believe what they were saying. But somehow, the philosopher inside me got the better of me and I started thinking “Ockham’s Razor”. I started thinking all sorts of crazy thoughts like ‘this really seems a little far-fetched’ and ‘wow, if this goes as deep as they say, I think that I might be an Illuminati!’. This not the way to think when you’re being told that World Trade 7 ws brought down by way of controlled demolition (I’m not saying that it wasn’t). But when your list of conspiritors includes the Tri-Lateral Commission, Council on Foreign Relations, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, Bohemian Grove, half the cast from The Real World season 5, and the Jolly Green Giant, your conspiracies tend to get a little… top heavy. William of Ockham, for which Ockham’s Razor is named, stated that, when we are to choose between competing theories (to explain scientific or philosophical claims or theories), that the simplier of the two theories is the one to be preferred. The point of Ockham’s sentiment is that we need not, when we are in the business of explaining a given phenomena, cast our nets too broadly and pull in more theories or entities than we need. (Those who agree with Quine’s need for “desert landscapes” most certainly appreciate this sentiment). And conspiracy theories are literally a slum (to use Quine again) of any manifestation and/or conjunction of evildoers than anyone with an active imagination can think of. Although Ockham’s Razor is more a rule of thumb than a hard metaphysical claim (it merely suggests that we consider the simplest solution first, and does not rule out the possibility that a more complex theory may be the answer), it is important to know that there is such a thing as a theory becoming so complex that it collapses under its own weight. Unfortunately, those who peddle conspiracies tend to neglect this point. There is such a thing as a conspiracy becoming too big. When your conspiracy about events that happened 7 and a half years ago involve things that happened seven hundred years ago (and involves nearly as many people), it might be time to (at least) tidy up your theory. Which brings me to another point. While I’m slamming conspiracy theories (and I’m not saying that they don’t happen), I realized that there is a particular tactic that conspiracy theorists use to “win” arguments. This is one that I learned in poly sci: argumentum ad ignorantiam. This is how you play this one: I tell you that there was no plane that hit the Pentagon. You disagree. I say prove that there wasn’t . You say there’s a big hole in the side of the building– you’re guessing plane-sized. I say, so? where’s the plane parts — don’t see ’em, do ya? You say, well, no. Ah-ha! I proclaim. I won. You’re stupid and a puppet of the New World Order! What did I just do? Obviously I didn’t actually win any argument. I didn’t need to. The fact that you couldn’t conjure up any evidence to prove me wrong meant that I was right. Argumentum ad ignorantiam. It’s like saying that aliens bulit the pyramids. I ask you to prove that I’m wrong. Can you? Exactamundo! I know that, by saying this, that I’m probably not going to be asked to guest on Coast to Coast anytime soon, but to satisfy the screaming philosopher in my head, I had to say something. I guess I’ll go turn in my foil hat now.

The Creepiest Song…Ever!

“I gave a girl a ride in my wagon” opens one of the most creepiest songs ever written in the history of the pop era. For those who don’t know, that statement is the opening line from the 1975 diddy “Chevy Van” by Sammy Johns. Clocking in at a mellow two minutes, fifty-nine seconds, the adventure of a young man, a loose hitchhiker, and their, well, let’s say (alleged) “encounter”, was (as it is said) a typical portrait of the free-lovin’ easy-goin’ days of the ’70s. Whatever. The song goes a little like this: Boy drives shaggin’ wagon, boy picks up hot hitchhiking chick, hot hitchhiking chick immediately and inexplicably loses consciousness, when she awakens, she is struck by the overwhelming desire to take the shaggin’ waggon’s captain “by the hand” and do him. After their moments of love, boy drops the hitchhiker off somewhere south of BFE, and never sees her again. At least until the paternity suit ( I added that). What I find truly interesting about the song is in the chorus. Free-wheelin’ Sammy makes the statement, “she’s gonna love me in my chevy van (and that’s alright with me)”. Hold on, I think, let’s back this one up. “She’s gonna love me in my chevy van”?!? One, that’s a pretty big statement to make, and two, I thought, that sounds like a mighty big EPISTEMIC claim. She’s “gonna” love you? Well, how exactly does he know she will? Maybe he just picked up Susan Atkins? But, Sammy makes the claim that she’s “gonna” love him. Two minutes and fifty-nine seconds worth of claiming. And once again I ask how does he know for sure? I’m almost certain that his explanation will fall along the lines of something like this: ‘Well, whenever I picked up hitchhikers before, they always give it up to me. So I assumed that this chick would be no different. Hey, at least I didn’t charge her for gas money!’ Leaving the comment about gas money aside, what Sammy’s answer is, is straight up induction. We do this kind of thinking all the time. Based on past experiences, we make assumptions about how a present (or future) situation will be. Hume’s famous example was stating that the sun will come up tomorrow. We say this because we have observed in the past that the sun comes up every morning, so we assume that tomorrow will be no different. We say the sun will come up tomorrow. And most of the time this kind of thinking works. You can assume, based on prior experience, that a hitchhiker will have sex with you. But there’s the glitch: This works until we run into a situation where our line of reasoning is wrong and the present or the future doesn’t resemble the past (and this folks, is the problem of induction!). So, let’s say that Sammy wants to make the claim that his sleeping? passed out? riding companion will in fact share her love with him. How does he know that she will? How can Sammy say that he is justified in believing that she will? Enter epistemology 101: knowledge as justified true belief. We know that Sammy believes that the hitchhiker will make love to him (it sounds so silly using the term “make love”, doesn’t it?), but we get the sense that Sammy wants more than to merely believe that claim; he wants to be justified in doing so. To say that we truly “know” something means more than to say that we believe either this or that claim. We would want to say that we also have proper reasons for believing what we believe, or justification. Justification is important because (epistemically speaking) justification makes it more likely that our beliefs are true (or at least more likely to be true). I think that it goes without saying why we want true beliefs. But, in a nutshell, true (or TRUE, or True — depending on how much you want to emphasize the concept) are our foundations for knowledge. If we had no true beliefs, then well… you don’t want to know. All I can say is that there would be no American Idol (and nobody would like that). This, justified true belief, that is, is the traditional view of knowledge. It’s this: 1) s believes p 2) p is true 3) s has good reason (justification) to believe p. 1,2 &3 are necessary conditions for knowledge. Which means if we ain’t got all three, we don’t know. So, how can Sammy go from merely believing that his hitchhiking sleeping beauty is going to sex him up to saying that he knows that she will? Well, by employing a method for justification of course! Let’s look at two of my faves coherentism and reliabilism. According to coherentism, a belief is true if it coheres (or is consistent with) our other held beliefs (what we already believe to be true). So for example, Sammy sees the hitchhiker on the side of the road. His system of held beliefs may include the following: — I drive a sweet chevy van — Hippy chicks esp. hitchhiking ones, are easy — Chicks dig dudes with sweet chevy vans — Chicks who sleep with moonlight dancing off of their hair, wake up and take you by the hand will want to have sex with you, seriously. Sammy’s belief, “she’s gonna love me in my chevy van” which is to say, ‘I believe that this chick will have sex with me’ seems to cohere with his other beliefs (in fact, you could say that Sammy hit the jackpot). But there’s a problem here. The truth of Sammy’s belief relies on Sammy’s other beliefs. Sammy may be wrong. He may have an entire system of false beliefs. In that case, even if his belief was true (in virtue if his other beliefs), he is not justified in making the claim that his belief is true. So what’s Sammy to do? He can use another means of justification. Let’s try reliabilism. The reliabilist (is that right?) says, sure the coherentist has his thoughts to rely on, but that’s the problem in itself. We need something more. If you got whacked on the head so hard that everything you saw had dancing elves around it, no matter whether the dancing elves fit consistently into every belief you had about the world, your “true” statements would not be true (by virtue of the fact that there are no dancing elves). So, the reliabilist says, we need more. Justification, he says, is determined by the reliability of the process by which we form our beliefs. So, instead of relying on other beliefs, the reliabilist uses memory, good reasoning, introspection, etc. to arrive at beilefs that are true or more likely to be true. We can’t justify our beliefs by mere guesses, or by our emotions or what we want to be true. So, if Sammy was of sound mind and body (i.e. he hadn’t smoked too much of the “reefer”), then given the reliability of his belief-forming processes, Sammy is likely to produce true beliefs. And justified in claiming the likelihood of his beliefs being true. All said and done, I think that Sammy did smoke too much of the locoweed, drove nowhere picked up nobody, and made the whole thing up. Just proving that there’s a reason why they call it dope.

I tried SO hard to like this movie

With the exception of the films of Coleman Francis, I’m willing to watch just about anything , and usually I’ll find something worth liking about them — whether it’s the fact that Hugh Jackman is nearly always entertaining, or a wacky title sequence. There’s always something. Did I forget to mention that I usually find something worth liking? I know that there are movies that everyone else is supposed to like, and then there are films that only certain people are supposed to like ( supposedly the difference is that everyone else watches “movies” and only certain people watch films or worse yet, the cinema). So I was watching this movie called Pi. It’s directed (and written, I think), by Darren Aronofsky, who is currently enjoying some fame for his Oscar nominated movie The Wrestler. Since I had already seen his other movie, the heart-warming Requiem for a Dream, I decided that I must see more films by this guy! And that was Pi. I guess, for those who haven’t seen it, Pi is about this dude who’s really good at math who decides that he wants to figure out the math behind the stock market. Eventually, as all smart math guys do, he goes a little nuts, and ends up drilling himself in the head. Really, that’s the plot. I thought that, since I’m into philosophy n’ all, that I would like it. Two reasons: 1) it’s in black and white (and black and white automatically means quality), and 2) because it looked like a movie that people who are into philosophy would like. There’s a list, you know. There really is. It’s a list of things that philosophy people are supposed to be “into”. We’re supposed to like Woody Allen movies (except for Antz that’s a no-go for me), Monty Python flicks ( you’re supposed to be able to recite dialogue from these), Coen Brothers movies, jazz music, and “fair trade” coffee. I also think that any movie written by Steve Martin (except for The Jerk) is supposed to be somewhere on that list. They’re supposed to be stuff that are infused with all sorts of deep meaning and philosophic subtexts. Which is why pedestrian level philosophers like Star Trek. In Gene Roddenberry’s universe there isno such thing as subtlety. It’s all whack you over the head with a crowbar — and the point of philosophy is that not everyone gets this stuff. Which, I guess is where the philosophic rubber hits the road. At least that’s what the assholes believe, anyway. But the cold, harsh reality is, is that movies like Pi are damned hard to watch. It’s not that I didn’t get it, either. Oh I got it. Look, Being John Malkovich isn’t so much difficult to understand than it is hard to pay attention to if you have anything resembling a sense of boredom. And by the way, would Catherine Keener please stop playing the smart-talking, intellectually superior ( to you), chick?!? The plain truth is, is that Super Troopers is not only more entertaining than most “philosophic” movies — but it also probably is philosophically better for you. I swear that there is a difference between a movie that is just on its own smart (like the social commentary in the original Night of the Living Dead), and a movie that comes off like it is some sort of philosophy lesson (like Vanilla Sky). I’m not going to say exactly where I think this movie fits,but even now I keep thinking that I really should have liked Pi. While I’m writing this, I’m really thinking, wondering if there actually is some sort of philosopher profile that, once I join the ranks of THEM, I will automatically assume? Are there traits (or qualities, if that’s the way you roll) that I must necessarily have as a philosopher? If so what are they? A tendency to rattle on about things that no one else cares about? The ability to talk for ten straight minutes without ever answering the question that I was asked? Will I lose my ability to talk to normal people?!?!? Of course, half of what I’m saying is in jest (well, except for the not liking the movie Pi no matter how hard I’ve tried to). But, I think that there’s something more going on than this all being about a matter of taste. Without going into some sort of really overcomplicated postmodern take on high and low culture, there is a perception that there are things that everybody else likes and other things that only 0ther people like. That’s kind of messed up.