Along with taxes and the Kardashians’ domination of popular culture, there’s no avoiding the end.
I don’t need a syllogism to inform me of my eventual end. Anyone with a grandma or a goldfish knows all mortal beings will die.
You know, I don’t think people are even afraid of death. Or even of dying. I think what scares people most about death is the idea that they no longer exist. The idea that the world will be deprived of our presence. Permanently.
That we won’t be here forever.
But You don’t need to actually die to know what that feels like. To know what the world feels like without you in it.
That feeling is just a computer glitch away.
I couldn’t log onto Facebook.
It wasn’t just me. No one could.
Just “error” messages.
I couldn’t update my status, post or “like” anything. I couldn’t like this funny meme:
These days, to exist in any full sense of the word, EVERYONE knows one must have an online presence. To know anything about or to interact in any meaningful way with the world, one must be on the internet.
I post, therefore I am.
The French philosopher Rene Descartes wanted to determine how can he be sure that he exists. Descartes concludes, since he is able to question his own existence, that he is, at the very least, a thinking being. A being that thinks, Descartes declares, exists. Descartes writes:
And as I observed that in the words I think, hence I am, there is nothing at all which gives me assurance of their truth beyond this, that I see very clearly that in order to think it is necessary to exist…
If existence in the modern world is (necessarily) dependent on one’s ability to post one’s Facebook status, then I, at least for a day, did not exist.
It’s not just John Lennon who knows what it’s like to be dead.
Well, actually, neither do I. I spent the day checking my gmail.
…. and then there’s always tumblr.
Rene Descartes. Discourse On Method. 2004 . NY: Barnes and Noble Books. p. 25.
I’ve been doing this philosophy thing for a while, now. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
I’m much better at philosophizing than I am at playing basketball or Scrabble.
I think better than I dance.
I’m better at talking about Hume than I am at gourmet cooking.
I’m pretty good at doing something with minimal money-making potential.
That doesn’t bother me, though. You see, philosophers don’t get into philosophy for it’s money making prospects – they do it because they love it.
We are indeed lovers of wisdom.
That kind of bugs me.
I used to get frustrated in my philosophy classes. I read Plato and Aristotle. I read Descartes. I read Hume and Kant.
De Beauvoir. Marx. Locke. Mill.
They’re all dead now.
I would sit and think how distant philosophy seemed from anything contemporary. Nothing related to how the world is now. It seemed that right now didn’t matter as much as back then. How so many philosophers seemed to hold anything popular with a fair amount of contempt.
Ancient philosophers are the only ones who know how to think.
That never worked for me.
I promised myself that when I graduated, I would write the book that I always wanted to read. I thought if there was anyone out there who thought like me, we’d find each other across the internet. We’d prove that philosophical thought didn’t stop with Socrates.
We would become a movement.
We would become a new Vienna Circle.
So I wrote a book.
I started a blog and a Facebook page.
I was to be a fisher of supermen.
It’s been a few years since then. Things are pretty much the same as they were when I started. I’m not the Oprah Winfrey of philosophy.
If I’m to believe one of my former professors, it has to do with the fact that I lack proper philosophical street cred. That is to say, philosophers think that the only people qualified to speak (or at least write) about philosophy have a PhD.
Philosophers can be kind of stingy with their wisdom.
A philosophical velvet rope.
Apparently, breaking into professional philosophy is harder than getting into Studio 54.
Alvin Plantinga is the new Steve Rubell.
The thing is, there are plenty of non-professionals writing and speaking about all sorts of topics in books, on TV, and all over the internet. Some are pretty successful.
Could it be that no one is interested in philosophy?
No. that can’t be it. I refuse to believe that it’s that no one is interested in philosophy. There are still philosophy departments on college campuses and plenty of philosophy blogs out there.
Not as many blogs as the number devoted to celebrity gossip, but they’re out there.
My blog is one of them.
There’s a problem, though.
There’s no new Vienna Circle.
All I’ve accomplished is Vienna solipsism.
One thing I have noticed is that everybody else’s stuff seems to have what my stuff lacks – an opinion.
Their stuff has a point of view.
When I write, I try to be topical. I try to humorous and down-to-earth, but it’s not connecting to my an (any) audience.
I barely have 100 likes on my Facebook page.
There are pages devoted to characters from the movie Jaws that have more likes than my page.
So it can’t be that difficult to get a like or two.
See, I think my problem is that I’ve been playing things too safe. I’m stuck on that old habit of writing that one becomes accustomed to when in college.
That damned impartial writing. My writing is passive when it should be active. I write “One” instead of “I”. I say “One may conclude” instead of “I think that”.
I try to write about philosophy but I’ve been trying to do it impartially. That ultimately is impossible to do.
My writing doesn’t have a voice.
It makes for boring philosophy. A boring blog.
A boring Facebook page.
I know philosophy is grounded in reason and analytical but that shouldn’t exclude taking a position on anything. Kant definitely thought deontological ethics was the way to go. And there was no convincing Ayn Rand that objectivism might not work even while she collected social security.
Bertrand Russell had an ontology, but he also wrote what he thought about damn-near everything else. Russell wrote his opinions on other philosophers and other philosophical schools of thought. He wrote on topics ranging from politics, religion, international affairs, to marriage and sex.
Generally speaking, it’s good not to lie to people.
Most people aren’t very good at it and if you make a habit out of lying to people you’re likely to end up getting caught in a web of your own lies. Your lies, as the Blue Fairy would say, become as plain as the nose on your face.
Lying isn’t just wrong according to the Bible (which is bad enough as it is) but if you’re a fan of Immanuel Kant the act of lying is a big no-no.
To quote Kant from his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, “lying is no bueno.”
Of course, as with anything else we’re not supposed to do, like premarital sex, serial arson, or liking Nickleback on Facebook, an admonition to not do something has never stopped anyone from doing anything in the real or make-believe world. And rrally, if you watch enough TV you might think that lying is the necessary evil glue that binds fictional universes together.
…or at least habitual lying makes Don Draper sexy.
In fact, when a fictional character lies it often reveals a greater truth. Even if the liar has no idea that’s what they just did.
If you make it your mission to become an observer of fictional liars and fictitious lies, you’ll soon discover that after binge watching three seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead, basic cable’s ratings powerhouse, the show (ostensibly) about zombies, is a veritable Whack-A-Mole Ô of primetime lying. After spending approximately one and a half days of my life watching zombie chow-downs and survivor shenanigans, I compiled this short list of lies (in no particular order):
Lori lies to Shane about who is the father of her baby.
Morgan lies to himself into thinking that he will be able to shoot his reanimated wife.
Shane lies to everybody about what really happened to Otis.
Guillermo lies to Rick about his “ferocious” dogs.
Shane is lying to himself about his “love” for Lori (it’s so obvious).
Daryl lies to that vato dude about what happened to the guy who pissed him off (Nobody pissed him off. It was actually Merle’s severed hand).
The governor lies to the people of Woodbury about what really happened to the National Guardsmen.
Shane lies to Lori about Rick’s “death” (Wait. That may have not been a lie as much as it was wishful thinking. Or a mistake. Whatever).
Randall lies about merely watching the two girls getting gang-raped in front of their father (we all know that Randall is a shifty slime ball who probably fully participated in the girls’ rape).
Randall lies to Carl that he is a good guy.
Jim lies to Jacqui when she discovers that he’s been bitten by a walker.
The Governor lies to the people of Woodbury about what kind of person he really is.
Glenn lies to Merle about who is at the prison.
The Governor lies about what happened to the helicopter pilot.
Maggie (initially) lies to Glenn about her attraction to him.
Shane lies to Dale when Dale catches Shane pointing his gut at Rick.
Axel lies about why he is in prison.
The Governor lies to Andrea about his true intentions after his “truce” with Rick.
Tomas lies to Rick when he “accidentally” takes a swipe at Rick’s head (Tomas tells Rick “shit happens”. Rick agrees with Tomas and then cleaves him in the head with a machete).
Milton (unsuccessfully) lies to the Governor about not knowing about Andrea’s trip the prison.
Milton (unsuccessfully) lies to the Governor about not knowing who burned the walkers in the pit.
Andrea lies to Michonne when she denies that she chose sex with the Governor over their friendship.
Rick fails to inform the group that they are all infected with the zombie virus (this is a lie of omission, but a lie nonetheless).
Shane lies to Rick about “banging” a high school P.E. coach (we all know Shane was lying).
Shane lies to Rick about playing nice-nice after their fight (after they failed to successfully abandon Randall).
Shane lies to Rick so he can lure Rick into the woods so he can kill him.
Shane lies to Carol about his sympathies for Carol after Sophia’s funeral.
Shane lies to Randall to lure him into the woods so he can kill him.
My God, Shane does a lot of lying.
Shane is not as big a liar as Don Draper. But then, what fictional character is?
For those who are inclined to view their television through an ethical lens, Shane Walsh demonstrates why Kant tells us that lying is wrong. Namely, that lying violates the Categorical Imperative. Kant tells us that before we perform any act, that:
I only ask myself: Can I will that my maxim become a universal law? If not, it must be rejected, not because of any disadvantage accruing to myself, or even to others, but because it cannot enter as a principle into a possible enactment of universal law, and reason extorts me from an immediate respect for such legislation.
Kant also says that we cannot treat others as mere means to our ends. Kant writes:
… every rational being exists as a end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will. In his actions, whether they are directed towards himself or toward other rational beings, he must always be regarded at the same time as an end… Man, however, is not a thing, and thus not something to be used merely as a means; he must always be regarded as an end in himself.
You see, Kant tells us that lying (Kant calls “false promises”) is morally wrong because no matter how well-intended our intentions may be, telling lies inevitably leads to some greater moral evil. Kant writes:
Would I be content that my maxim of extricating myself from difficulty by a false promise should hold as a universal law for myself as well as for others? And I could say to myself that everyone may make a false promise… Immediately I see that I could will the lie but not a universal law to lie. For with such a law there would be no promises at all, inasmuch as it would be futile to make a pretense of my intention in regard to future actions to those who would not believe this pretense… Thus my maxim would necessarily destroy itself as soon as it was made a universal law.
In short, Kant says if everybody lies, then no one would believe anyone.
And for all his lies, this is how Shane ends up:
Kant would call that retributive justice.
Shane Walsh is an example of what happens when someone lies. Despite the fact the Shane believed his intentions were good, the consequences of Shane’s lies proved that even the best intentioned lie can have disastrous effects. People can get hurt.
And if you are Randall or Otis, people get killed.
… well actually, if you’re Otis, Shane will shoot you in the kneecap, leave you to the zombies, and then lie to everyone about how you really died.
A funny thing about lies.
Even though Kant tells us that all lies are inevitably bad, sometimes when someone lies something weird happens: in the middle of the lie is the truth.
Not just a kind of truth, but THE TRUTH.
The kind of truth-telling lie that reveals how sinister someone truly is.
In the season three (episode three) “Arrow On the Doorpost”, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and The Governor (David Morrissey) meet to discuss terms for a treaty following an attack on The Governor’s stronghold in Woodbury.
Wait, this is out of context:
You see, this dude, Merle Dixon, kidnapped two of Rick’s friends, Glenn and Maggie, and so Rick and a few of his people went to Woodbury to rescue them and – well, let’s say things went badly enough to require a cease fire between the two survivalist factions.
Ok. So, the meeting between Rick and The Governor pretty much goes nowhere (although Rick agrees to one condition for a peaceful settlement: he agrees hand over one of his men (actually it was a woman) in exchange for peace). But when each man returns to his camp, The Governor and Rick do the exact same thing: they lie.
The Governor tells Andrea – wait –
Ok, Andrea used to be in Rick’s group, but she was separated from the group when Hershel’s farm (I’m not explaining, just follow along) is overrun by the living dead. Andrea is rescued by Michonne, the nearly-mute, katana-wielding, dreadlocked, badass, who, while she was in Woodbury, got suspicious of The Governor’s motives and skipped town.
Oh yeah, when she returned to Woodbury, she stuck her katana through the skull of Penny, The Governor’s zombified daughter.
… and she also stabbed out The Governor’s eye.
Folks, if you aren’t watching this TV show, you should be.
Get the plot so far?
Ok. So, The Governor tells Andrea that he and Rick have agreed to let bygones be bygones and as long as Rick’s people stay on their side, things between both groups will be hunky dory. But, when out of earshot of Andrea, The Governor tells his men his real plan – that he intends to kill Rick, Michonne, and everyone else in Rick’s group.
We expect The Governor to lie because he’s a bad guy. He does not let the audience down.
But, when Rick returns to his group he tells his fellow survivors that The Governor intends to killeveryone in Rick’s group.
The Governor did not tell Rick this.
But by lying, Rick reveals The Governor’s true intentions.
Rick does lie, but in a strange way, Rick tells something like a Gettier truth: he’s right about The Governor.
But only accidentally so.*
This all makes me wonder: was Rick aware that he was telling his group the truth?
Or was it Rick’s intention to get his people gunned-up to kill The Governor no matter what settlement the two men had reached regarding the attack on Woodbury? Although it would tickle my philosophical soul pink to see it, I’m thinking that a deep, philosophical analysis of Rick Grimes’ motivations isn’t going to be had anytime soon.
Well, not since Andrea died, anyway.
I get the feeling she was the only character who had any idea who Edmund Gettier was.
Oops. Spoiler alert.
* For more information on misapplying the concept of Gettier problems, see my previous post “99 Problems and Gettier Ain’t One”.
Sources: Immanuel Kant. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. 1997 . Second edition. Trans. Lewis White Beck. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. pp. 19, 45-6
A few Saturdays ago, I was listening to a show called Radiolab.
It’s a pretty good show.
The topic that week was language.
They talked about Shakespeare, and how children and hearing-impaired people learn to speak. They even talked about rats and their inability to tie together concepts like “blue” and “to the left”. Nowhere in the entire hour-long show did I hear the words “philosophy of language”. No Frege. No Russell. No Saul Kripke. No Hillary Putnam. No Ludwig Wittgenstein. Not a peep about the Vienna Circle.
Yes. There is such a thing as philosophy of language.
Philosophers have opinions about everything.
I was a little disappointed. And for some strange reason, I kind of felt left out. After all, what’s the point of taking a philosophy of language class if NPR won’t even discuss the topic?
I guess I should have figured that no one would mention philosophy of language on the show. When most people think of language (if anyone ever thinks of language at all) I thinking that very few people ever think about the fact that philosophers have anything to say about it. And really, I can’t fault the folks at Radiolab for omitting philosophy of language. They want people to listen to the show.
Other disciplines offer us explanations for the way the world works, but sometimes, even in the most disciplined of disciplines, we get confused about what we really mean when we say something or even about what we are thinking about. Philosophers of language aim to clear up our confusion over language and make clear the things we are thinking about.
Remember: we think of our world in terms of language. If we’re confused about concepts (we think about) or meaning (of the words that we speak), our beliefs about the world (aka reality) won’t do us much good.
Because those beliefs might be wrong.
Despite what NPR might have us believe, language isn’t just about acquisition or how many words William Shakespeare invented.
By the way, Shakespeare invented a lot of words.
If you’ve ever used the words uncomfortable, unreal, or lonely, you can thank Bill Shakespeare.
Language isn’t merely the proper usage of syntax and grammar. Language is also about meaning. It’s about what we are talking about. It’s about having the proper the correct thoughts about what we are thinking about.
There’s more to a simple phrase like “Clark Kent is Superman” than you might know.
Ok, let’s take the statement “The present king of France is bald”. First, we can see that we’ve made a claim about the king of France. Ok, now what do we mean when we say that the present king of France is bald? Well, we might ask if what we’ve said is true or false.
That’s because everything we say is either true or false*.
So, for the statement “The present king of France is bald” to be true, there must be a king of France, he must be bald, and he must be sitting on the throne right now. If we wanted to say this philosopher-like, we’d say something like this:
There is a X such that: X is the king of France and X is bald. And, for all Y, if Y is the king of France, then Y is identical to X.
The folks at NPR may have neglected to mention it, but language is about definite descriptions, propositions, sense, reference, sense-data, rigid designators, language games, signifieds and signifiers.
Oh man, wait a minute, why am I explaining any of this?
It won’t do you any good when you’re listening to NPR, anyway.
I snapped this picture a couple of years ago. Nothing extraordinary, really. Just a picture of average-looking waves on a beach.
Since ¾ of the world is covered with water, the sight of waves on a beach is an extremely common thing.
Yet, the view from such an ordinary shore, watching the unspectacular tide rolling in and out, always gets me thinking.
Even looking at a photo taken a couple of years ago gets me in the thinking mood.
In the philosophical mood.
I think of the vastness of the ocean. Of the water. And of all the millions, even billions of file forms populating the depths.
I think of how all those lives play a part in the life of the ocean, and how each of those lives plays a part in my life, and the circle of life on the planet Earth.
Looking at the waves, I think how, of all the possible worlds in the universe, I am here: how I am on this one, covered with water, not too close, yet not to far from our life-giving Sun. how unlikely it was that any life, let alone for my life, to exist.
I see the tranquility of the waves and how peaceful it looks from the shore; how it all looks from a view on the beach.
I think of my part in all of it.
My obligation to others – human and non-human. To the other people standing on the beach, looking out at the ocean, wondering about the life beneath the waves, their place in the universe, and about all those other people standing on the beach thousands of miles away.