The Great Personality Test

I think I’m fairly smart. Someone once told me that I “look smart”. This is not a compliment. I also had a friend that told me that I have a way about me that puts other people at ease. In short, I have a “Great Personality”. … and we all know what that means. Earlier this year, First Lady, Michelle Obama, made Maxim magazine’s hot chicks list. Ok, she was in the 90s, but, hey she made the list. Former supermodel and wife of David Bowie, Iman said the she was going to be honest about the whole Michelle Obama thing. She said, and I’m taking some liberties in recalling this, that the First Lady is not all that, and that she is an “interesting” looking woman. Iman polished the insult by adding that, more importantly, Michelle Obama is very intelligent — and that, in the long run, that’s what’s important. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what Iman meant. If you have a list of hot chicks, Michelle Obama does not belong on that list — even if her guns are spectacular. Hot chick lists, let’s face it, are basically a list of chicks that a guy (and I guess some ladies, if they are so inclined) whack it to. A really tall black chick with big biceps and an underbite I would guess wouldn’t pop up in a list that includes the likes of Scarlet Johansson and Megan Fox. What we’re talking about, whether we say someone is hot, smokin’, fine, tight, the bees knees or the cat’s pajamas, or just plain “f”-able, is beautiful. And as usual, philosophers will stick their noses into any subject on which one can form an opinion. The science of beauty is no exception. The arena of philosophy that deals with beauty and what is beautiful is called aesthetics. When philosophers speak about beauty it’s usually in discussions about art, music, or nature, or (even) the sciences or the beauty in a theory. When Bertrand Russell wrote about mathematics, he wrote mathematics, “rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold an austere… without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music…” . The beauty of mathematics, for Russell, is found in the symmetry and consistency of things like a math equation. Now, I realize that I have stepped into the glass house and locking the door behind me, but if one looked at Mr. Russell, one would not wonder why he felt as such. I suppose that many a philosophy professor has, on the first day of class, surveyed his class, knowing which students are destined to become philosophy majors. I would guess that it’s safe to assume that the good looking students are there for the credits. And that we are truly flabbergasted when they are not. Which, may in my case, explain why not one, but three of my philosophy professors recommended that I become a philosophy major (winking emoticon). There is all sorts of philosophy talk about beauty when it comes to art, or music, or even the beauty of math or science. But what about people? …Which makes me think of our latest pop cultural encounter with Britain’s Got Talent second runner-up and recent freak-out participant, Susan Boyle. Unfortunate Sue has been described as “unique”, “talented”, “special”, “endearing”, and so on. The thing is, is that people are attempting to find something complimentary to say about a woman in a culture where most of any compliments payed to anyone is focused primarily on one’s looks. Since she’s not … we must find something nice to say. Hence, Susan Boyle is “great”, or the half-assed insult a “plain jane”. In a Star Magazine article from May 4, 2009, the article was entitled “What A Voice!”. The article even featured a digitized “make-over” of Susan Boyle if she decides (oh, please do!) to change her image. But, the emphasis on her voice made me think of what Iman said. We can say to Susan Boyle, “At least you have your voice, because in the long run, that’s what’s important”. (What’s funny is that in that same issue, there was an article about IndyCar racer, Danica Patrick, who was featured in a bikini. I don’t think that the article contained anything about her racig record or anything about IndyCar racing in general. The point of the feature is that Danica Patrick is hot.)If one is so inclined, pay attention to how the entertainment press speaks about Susan Boyle. Her looks become the 500 lb. gorilla in the room. At times, they speak of her appearance as one would speak of someone with a handicap or birth defect. (Susan “overcomes” the odds and “triumphs”. What odds, I wonder?) They show digitized “before and after” photos like the before and after photographs are displayed on informercials about little kids in Central America after they get surgery on their cleft palates. It’s kind of sickening. But strangely, alot of philosophy is mum on the matter. That doesn’t mean that it’s not discussed. There is plenty of talk about what or who we consider beautiful. But it seems that the old pros to whom we often refer are strangely silent about beauty and people. Maybe it’s because, unlike our thoughts on the nature of reality or whether utlitarianism or Kantianism are viable moral theories, judging how we look, whether we are considered “beautiful” or not, is kind of personal. That is, beauty, unlike the way we’d like to think of our philosophy, is a matter of taste. It’s what you think that matters — but not in the quatifiable, logically sound, way that philosophers like their theories — it’s gut reactions, it’s… what or who you like, and there’s absolutely no logic to be found in that. We can’t say with certainty that our belief that such and such or whoever is beautiful is true. Enevitably, someone will disagree with our choice. When we talk about beauty, it affects us in a way that our beliefs do not. You can be the smartest, most talented guy in the world (and you’ve figured out how to get around Hume’s problem of induction), voted five times– in a row– the funniest fellow on earth, but if you look like Joseph Merrick, chances are you won’t be dating much (especially if you happen to be of the female persuasion). When it comes to the perceptions and judgments of others, we can obscure our beliefs in ways that we cannot when it comes to our appearance. We can hide our atheism in a crowd of Christians, but hiding your face, unless one has religious reasons for doing so, is slightly more difficult. Beauty, being a matter of taste and as we all know, is a matter of contrasts. That is, things tend to be judged in accordance to something else. Something that is beautiful is more pleasing than some other thing. So, if Bertrand Russell were to look at any standard derivation next to my own theory of inconsistentism, it’s fairly obvious which one would be more pleasing to his eye. But, when we say something is more pleasing, what we may be suggesting that something is better than something else. When we say something is better, we imply that something is good (one thing is gooder than another thing). Good, according to the philosopher, is something that is not merely physical, but is something that is transcendent. The mere pleasures associated with the corporeal are often favored less than those goods that go beyond the transitory physical world. Aristotle famously wrote that a life devoted exclusively to physical pleasure is the life of beasts. (it’s worth noting that Aristotle wrote “exclusively” devoted to pleasure). We know that, by reading Plato, Kant, Mill, and the like, that what is good is not always what is pleasurable. This suggests that, if beauty is associated with some good (I really should be using a capital G when writing good), that what is beautiful may not always be what is pleasing to the eye. If anyone remembers high school algebra ( I do, I took it twice), quadratic equations are most displeasing to the eye. If we were to ask Russell, we could bet that he would see nothing but pure beauty. Good, as it is thought of philosophically, involves some sort of ultimate end, purpose or function. It’s easy to see this when we think of art. Although we may disagree what is art, or which art is beautiful, we can agree that when we look at a piece of art, we have in our minds some list of qualities that we use to judge the merits of a particular piece of work. We may look for symmetry or overall composition. We look at color, or how closely the piece reflects reality. If I say that I judge the artistic merit of a particular piece of art on how it represents reality, I am saying that I am judging how closely the piece comes to showing the world as it really is. What I am looking for is how accurately the piece tells the truth. And we know, of course, that Truth is Good. Truth is an element of the Good. And good art,if it is Good then, it must be truthful. Any truth contributes to the overall, collective good (oops, Good). Plato’s Republic, bk. III has Socrates explaining how the arts must be taught to bring about the ideal society. Socrates says that art, music, poetry, education, exercise (among other things) must be taught correctly if society is to foster the right characteristics in its citizens. (These characteristics include moderation, courage, and truthfulness). On the topic of music, Socrates states that is important to teach the right kind of music, “Because rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul… and they make a man graceful in he is correctly reared, if not, the opposite… the man properly raised on rhythm and harmony would have the sharpest sense for what’s been left out and what isn’t a fine product or craft or what isn’t a fine product of nature…” According Plato (or Socrates, whichever one you believed actually existed), a man who is raised on the right art is a better perciever of what is Good. This ability contributes to the soul. A good judge of what is Good has an enhanced soul, a Good soul. This, of course, allows us to infer that a person who lives life philosophically is, in the Platonic sense, a beautiful person, even if, according to our standards, they are not. Other philosophers, such as Nietzsche, made a similar connection between art and the soul. Art, says Fred, binds the emotion and rational spirits within man (oops, Man) together. From Plato to Marx, art serves a social/political function. “Beautiful” art enhances the individual. But what about people? Beauty in art, from the artist’s perspective, is meant to illicit an response. Most likely, the desires response is emotional. (I really can’t imagine any artist who wanted exclusively physical repsonses from his audience. Oh, wait. I may have thought of one. One may be the late Bob Flannigan. There’s no way you can look at what he did and not react physically). Anyway, where was I? Was I anywhere? If an artist wants to cull an emotional response from his audience, he knows that the reaction will enevitably be varied and relative. “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure”, they say. But, that’s what we want to avoid in philosophy — Relativity. Relativity negates the notion of innate goodness (or truth), which is exactly what we are speaking of when we look for the Good. What the philosopher looks for is some quality that is universally applicable (transcendental ideals or forms, if you prefer), or at least something near consistent. But art or whatever we’re looking at that can, in one man stir his emotions while leaving another man stoically unaffected is not what we want. It doesn’t help us to answer the question. If we regard beauty in the way that the artist takes his art, then what we deal with is mere felt responses, we get good, but only in the material sense — not the higher, transcendent, capital G good that we’re looking for! Maybe that’s the problem. If we look at the biological function of beauty, we see that beauty or appealingness serves the purposes of reproduction. I heard on the news that there is a greenery that houses a flower called a “corpse flower”. It is set to bloom sometime this week. The smell of the flower, they say, is akin to the smell of rotting flesh. That smell, although cringe inducing to us, is the sweet smell of honey to the various incects that catch a whiff of the aroma and are drawn to it. The smell is how the flower attracts bugs that will aid in its reproduction. We don’t like the smell (and anyone who does seriously needs to get checked out). But the smell is not for us. It’s to get a response out of another animal. The smell’s please-a-bility is relative to what kind of species you are. The same may be for beauty. That is, it isn’t a matter of goodness (unless you consider reproduction a Good), but a matter of taste. Perhaps the intrinsic goodness of beauty is that it facilitates a greater goodness, namely that finding Angelina Jolie smokin’ hot contributes to the propagation of the human species. I know that this is something of a look to the biology (i.e. reductionist) answer. And I know that reductionist answers (or explanations, as I say), do little if anything to satisfy the philosophic heart of the questions we are attempting to answer. But, really, it’s the best I can do. If it’s any consolation, as someone who sports one of those terrific personalities, I’d personally like to think that there is something that is intrinsic to beauty that is beyond one’s mere physical appearance. That there is indeed, such a thing as a beautiful soul.

It’s Fun To Do Bad Things

The great sage Oprah Winfrey says that the #6 thing that she knows for sure is “what you believe has more power thsn what you dream or wish or hope for. You become what you believe”. One morning, while I was eating my bowl of peanut butter crunch, I watched the local news cover a story about a little boy who, along with his little kid buddy, stole his grandmother’s car and went for a joyride. Eventually, the pair was stopped by the local fuzz. When the boy was questioned as to what possessed him to take his grandma’s car, he simply stated, “It’s fun to do bad things”. It amazed me that a seven year old kid had already come to the revelation that it iis, indeed fun to do bad things. This is what this kid believes. If you ask a psychiatrist, they’ll try to convince you that, by the time that a child reaches the age of seven, a professional mind shrinker can tell which children are destined for a life of crime. That’s what they say. I usually take such forecasts with a grain of salt. But in the case of that kid, I wholeheartedly believed that that kid was going to end up in the poke much sooner than later. After I stopped laughing about a seven year old child declaring that doing bad things is “fun”, I thought, ‘wait a minute. This kid stated a belief. He said that he believes that it is fun to do bad things!’. Obviously, most people would find something wrong about what the kid said. But why? Then I thought about Oprah’s #6 thing she knows for sure. It strikes us as wrong because we believe, although we do not often expressly say so, that what we believe has to do with who we are. Who we are, in turn, affects how we act. In short, what we believe affects how we act. When we say that we believe any thing (a proposition, an idea, etc), we often ask why do we believe one thing as opposed to another. What we are looking for when we ask this question of ourselves is a reason why we would accept a particular belief as true. We want justification for our beliefs. If our beliefs are justified, we are entitled to hold them. We think that our justified beliefs are true or more than likely to be true than not. This is essentially what Oprah is saying when she says that a belief “has more power” than a wish or hope. We often wish or hope for things that we know are based on shoddy evidence. Wishes and hopes often are unrealistic. (I was going to give an example concerning a wish and why I became a philosophy major, but I don’t think that to reveal it here would be appropriate. But trust me, it was very unrealistic). Beliefs carry an idea of truth, or that they represent some thing in the real world. If we look at the matter psychologically, we know the axiom that we become what we believe (unless you’re Andy Warhol, and you believe that we become what other people think that we are). So, if what we believe (by way of justification) is true (or more likely to be true — perhaps necessarily so), then what we believe has power. So say, that I believe that it is fun to do bad things. What’s the problem with believing that? I say that I am not a philosopher, not interested in philosophy (it’s a bunch of bullshit anyway), and that whether or not I hold justified beliefs is of no consequence. In the real world, I say, none of that philosophy crap really matters. So there. If I say to the epistemologist that I don’t care about justifying my beliefs, can he still “get” me on what I believe? Am I still committing a wrong in believing that it’s fun to do bad things? Unfortunately he can. The thing is, is that when we consider our beliefs, actions, etc, from a philosophical point of view, we rarely look at it from one side. That is to say, our beliefs in God and the afterlife are rarely strictly ontological issues. Our belief or lack of a belief in a supreme deity affects our moral choices as well. Likewise, our beliefs and whether we are justified in believing them not only carry an epistemic burden, but also a moral burden as well. What we believe affects how we act, and how we act is a question of morality. If we look at Oprah’s statement, “what you believe has more power…”, and we think about what we think of when we use words like “power”, it’s easy to see that words like “power” have moral implications. If we are going to endow something with force, it must not only be epistemically accounted for, but morally justified as well. Our actions carry force. When we act, we affect not just ourselves, but others. A child who goes for a joyride in his grandmother’s car affected (and potentially affected) the lives of all of those who were involved: the children, the grandmother, the police who chased the duo, anybody on the street who may have been hit during the chase, and so on. When those childern took the car, they were not only acting physically, but morally. A better example of how this works is William Clifford’s story of the shipowner who reasoned that his ship was seaworthy despite the fact that his ship was old, needed repairs, and had always made it back home. The shipowner believed that his ship was safe in the face of evidence that it was not. As expected, the ship sank, and people were killed. The shipowner was not only unjustified epistemically, he had committed a moral wrong for believing that his ship was seaworthy when it was not. The shipowner, according to Clifford, had no justification for believing that the ship would sail without incident. He had based his wrong belief on inadequate evidence (namely that his ship needed repairs and was old…). If asked, he could offer us no good reason why he believed his ship could make the journey. So, Clifford says, the act of believing in a wrong belief is wrong. This is, because what we believe leads to action. Clifford says, “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”. I think that what Clifford says is true. If the way or what I believe is connected to how I act, then is I believe in things that are wrong, I am certain to act accordingly. My neighbor sometimes stands on her driveway and stares down the neighborhood. If I were the paranoid type, I could believe that my neighbor is stalking me. But, other than the fact that I see my neighbor standing on her driveway, do I have evidence for believing that she is indeed stalking me? No. Not really. Besides the fact that she can make an equal claim about my always staring at her (after all, how would I know that she’s always looking at my house if I’m not also staring at hers?), I have no compelling evidence that she’s maddogging me and what I do. What I found more amazing is the fact that Hollywood is filled with Clifford-esque situations! I was watching the movie Jaws last Saturday. I know that Beetlejuice said that The Exorcist gets funnier with each viewing, but my choice is definitely Jaws. That whole Quint telling the story about the USS Indianapolis being torpedoed and the survivors getting eaten by sharks is just plain funny. Don’t get me wrong, it is a horrific story, but the whole Jack Sparrow delivery takes any of the tragedy out of it. (If you want to see a pretty funny riff on that scene, I suggest checking out the Fox comedy Get A Life, starring Chris Elliott. In an episode, he gets stuck in a homemade submarine with his dad in a bathtub, and launches into Robert Shaw’s monologue. It’s freaking hillarious.) Anyway. Chief Brody, based on the fact that a local swimmer has been chomped by something bigger than a goldfish, wants to close the local beach. He has adequate evidence for believing that there is a killer shark patrolling the waters off of Amity Island. Namely, the death of Chrissy, the local girl, and the very much in public eating of Alex Kintner by said shark. The mayor wants to say that the girl was killed in a boating accident. The mayor also believes that the shark that is caught by some fishermen is the shark that killed the boy (but he refuses to agree to an autopsy of the shark). Chief Brody, Quint, and that dude that Richard Dreyfuss played — I think it was Matt something, decide to kill the shark. That’s a little besides the point, but the point is, is that Chief Brody believed that there was a great white shark that had made the waters off of Amity Island it’s feeding ground. He was right. He had adequate evidence for believing so. And, we know that, so far as the moral highground goes, Brody definintely has it. Sticking with the nautical theme, the same goes for the crew of the USS Caine in the film The Caine Mutiny. Captain Queeg, played by Humprey Bogart, is clearly out of his mind. The executive officers decide, after a series of increasingly disturbing events, to find a way to relieve Queeg of his command. After Queeg nearly loses the Caine in a storm, the officers decide to forcefully take command of the vessel. Even though they faced courtmartial, they knew that their belief — that Queeg was batshit insane — was right. They had more than enough evidence for believing that Queeg was mentally unstable. Additionally, they had a moral duty to take the ship from Queeg. If they allowed Queeg to keep command of his ship, the lives of the crew were in danger. This movie has a really cool ending. They totally diss Fred Mac Murray. This dude throws a drink in his face and all of the guys walk out like he was a dishonored Klingon. They should have kicked his ass! Ok, that’s great — if we’re right. But being right isn’t always the case. Our beliefs are flat wrong more often than we’d like to admit.Unfortunately, like when we’re right, we also act on our beliefs when we’re wrong. In George A Romero’s Day of the Dead, the character Rhodes, after having spent what we can presume to be years in an underground bunker, is more than a little mad. He begins to suspect that the scientists are acting against the interests of Rhodes and his men. Does he really have any evidence to believe this? No, he does not. Rhodes becomes so wrapped-up in his paranoia, that he kills several of the scientists and facilitates the breech of the facility by a horde of flesh-eating zombies. As a result of Rhodes’ wrong beliefs, many people die. By the way, stay CLEAR of the re-make of Day of the Dead. Awful! In the Cohen bros. flick, Burn After Reading, Linda Litzke (played by Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (played by Brad Pitt), believe that the disk found in the ladies’ dressing room of Hardbodies gym, contains top secret information. Chad reasons that the fact that there are department heads’ names and dates that it obviously means that the information is classified (it’s not. It’s the notes for a book that is being written by Osborne Cox, played by John Malkovich). The “evidence” they have for believing that the disk has secret info is scant — it’s Chad’s assumption (problem 1). Believing that the disk has information that may be of some interest to other parties, they attempt to pass it along to the Russians. This makes matters worse. The fact that they’re wrong eventually leads to the death of one of the pair. I’m not going to say which one, but it’s the one who starred in other films such as Legends of the Fall and Interview With the Vampire. This is what Clifford was getting at when he condemned our holding beliefs on insufficient evidence. In the worst-case scenerio, people get killed. When those people die, they die because we failed to believe what is true. Their deaths are on us because we failed epistemically and morally. And so, we bear a doubly heavy burden. So, what does this mean about Oprah’s advice, “what you believe has more power than what you dream or wish or hope for. You become what you believe”? What it means, is that it is true that our beliefs have a moral obligation that we owe to others. If we believe the wrong things, even if doing it is fun, we are responsible for others who may be hurt or affected by our actions. Lastly, the reason why we must believe only what we are morally entitled to believe is obvious when we look at those who do wrong and believe that it is good to do so. Those are the people that we should not aspire to be. We should, when we look at them, remind ourselves that those individuals are not… well, they’re not good people. A person who believes that it is fun to do bad things will more than likely end up on the bad side of life. And that’s not much fun in the long run, is it?