I’m Not Saying It Was the Ship Owner but It Was the Ship Owner

The world is a pretty weird place.

In a world governed by natural laws and physics, some things defy logical explanation.

A two-headed anything.

Ball lightning.

Sister Wives. 

 

 

This is a two-headed calf:

 

2 headed calf

 

 

Weird.

This is Sister Wives.

 

 

 

 

Seriously, can someone explain the appeal of this show to me.

 

Ordinary events on planet Earth may seem strange enough to the casual observer, but when things get really weird, earthlings often look to the sky for explanations (and maybe for a little bit of comfort) for everyday weirdness of life here on planet Earth.

Some people look to the heavens for God.

Some people look for aliens.

 

 

ALIENS.

ALIENS.

 

 

Lots of folks are into aliens.

Lots of ’em.

Maybe too many.

 

 

AND NOT JUST GUYS WHO LOOK LIKE THIS, EITHER.

AND NOT JUST GUYS WHO LOOK LIKE THIS, EITHER.

 

Whether we’re talking about flying saucers,

 

 

images flying saucer

 

 

Mysterious lights,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or alien abductions,

 

 

alien abduction

 

 

We’re talking about these guys.

 

 

 

ALIENS.

ALIENS.

 

 

Whether you believe we’ve been visited by benevolent E.T.s, evil reptilians infiltrating world governments, malevolent xenomorphs, or in little green men…

 

 

marvin the martian

 

 

Or even your own first-hand account of an encounter with anal-probing, intergalactic sex perverts,

 

 

IMAGE UNAVAILABLE

 

 

We’re hooked on tales of human encounters with alien visitors.

 

images oh wait it's aliens

 

 

Did you know that half of all Americans believe life exists on other planets?

And a quarter of all Americans believe that Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials.

 

 

NOT JUST GUYS THAT LOOK LIKE THIS, EITHER.

NOT JUST GUYS THAT LOOK LIKE THIS, EITHER.

 

 

I’m a philosopher.

 

Philosophers, by nature, are supposed to be into philosophy.

 

We’re not supposed to be into aliens.

 

We look to the sky only when we’re contemplating the meaning of life and the universe.

We definitely don’t look to the sky for something like this:

 

 

images grey alien

 

 

I have to admit, I’m not too familiar of any alien philosophers other than the great Vulcan philosopher Surak.

 

THIS IS SURAK. HE'S THE GUY WHO CAME UP WITH THAT VULCANS HAVE TO BE ALL LOGICAL SORT-OF THING.

THIS IS SURAK. HE’S THE GUY WHO CAME UP WITH THAT VULCANS HAVE TO BE ALL LOGICAL SORT-OF THING.

 

 

 

If you look around (especially on the internet) there’s plenty of evidence that Earth has indeed been visited by aliens. From first-hand encounters to film footage of aliens. Stories of the alien spacecraft crash at Roswell, crop circles, cattle mutilations, unexplained phenomena, and ancient texts and monuments it’s fairly reasonable to conclude that some of the things that cannot be explained can be explained if we consider the possibility that the explanation is that Earth has been visited by extraterrestrial life.

 

 

 

but it was aliens

 

 

The possibility that Earth has not only been visited, but that aliens have played and continue to play an active role in human events, explains the popularity of shows like Art Bell’s Coast To Coast, films like E.T., the Star Trek franchise, the Predator series, and the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The search for extraterrestrial life is the reason behind SETI. It’s the reason why NASA wants to send a manned mission to Mars.

And it’s the reason why I know when exploring a space colony that has suddenly and inexplicably lost contact with Earth to stay clear of anything that looks even remotely like this:

 

 

images facehugger

 

 

 

Besides, if aliens aren’t real how does anyone explain this?

 

 

 

images alien autopsy

 

 

Stroll the aisles of any bookstore (if you can find an actual bookstore) and you’ll find books full of testimonials of alien sightings, contacts, and abductions. Really, you don’t even need to leave the comfort of your own home to find material about aliens. A Google search of the word “alien” will yield enough web stuff to keep a person busy for days.

 

Stories of alien contact, like the account of Travis Walton, who claims he was abducted by aliens in November, 1975, are compelling if not convincing testimony that claims of alien encounters.

 

 

images travis walton

 

 

 

With the exception of a few obvious hoaxes, we must admit that evidence gives us reason at least to question whether we are alone in the universe and wonder if any intelligent life has indeed visited Earth.

 

 

 

images but if not aliens

 

 

Ok, I know what the assholes experts will say sure, there’s a lot of “evidence” for believing in the existence of non-earthling beings, but when it comes to down to reliable evidence, most evidence of alien visitations is un-definitive at best and downright suspect at worst. Evidence is either purely anecdotal or the worst shaky-cam footage since Cloverfield.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weird stories of cow mutilations and anal probing may make for entertaining television, but for many these accounts remain subject to skepticism.

 

What we want is proof.

 

 

ACTUAL PHOTOGRAPH OF AN ALIEN LIFE FORM

ACTUAL PHOTOGRAPH OF AN ALIEN LIFE FORM

 

 

And if you’re a philosopher, our beliefs not only demand proof; they demand justification.

You see, even if I find someone’s evidence of an alien sighting, encounter or abduction convincing, I may still have no business believing what they say. I don’t just have to take into account the fact that I believe their claim, I have to think about what reasons (i.e. justification) I have for believing the claim.

 

As a philosopher I must demand more evidence better evidence.

Certainly more evidence than some stories and bad camera work.

As a philosopher, I’m not allowed to simply say,

 

 

 

i don't know. therefore aliens

 

 

According to the English philosopher William Clifford (1845-1879) I am accountable not only for my beliefs but also for my justification of my beliefs.

 

 

 

This is William Clifford.

 

 

ALL YOU FOLKS WHO BELIEVE IN ALIENS: SEND YOUR HATE MAIL TO THIS GUY

ALL YOU FOLKS WHO BELIEVE IN ALIENS: SEND YOUR HATE MAIL TO THIS GUY

 

 

In his famous (well, famous of you’re a philosopher) essay a “Ethics of Belief”, William Clifford states:

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

Clifford states that our beliefs are important because what we believe influences our actions. In Clifford’s essay, a ship owner believes that his ship is seaworthy when in reality it is not. The ship sets sail into stormy waters and is lost at sea. Everyone on board dies.

 

 

PERHAPS THE SHIP OWNER ASSUMED HIS BOAT WOULD BE OUT TO SEA FOR ONLY A THREE HOUR TOUR

PERHAPS THE SHIP OWNER ASSUMED HIS BOAT WOULD BE OUT TO SEA FOR ONLY A THREE HOUR TOUR

 

 

Worse yet, all the ship’s cargo is lost.

 

 

The problem, Clifford says, is that ship owner, despite his belief that his ship was capable of completing the voyage, had based his belief on bad evidence.* The ship owner has no epistemological right to believe that his ship was seaworthy. His belief wasn’t justified.

 

Ok, I know I’m truncating the hell out of Clifford’s essay, which is why you should read it.

 

 

reading is fundamental

 

 

In the case of Clifford’s ship owner, a belief based on insufficient evidence cost lives. We can clearly see the detrimental effect our beliefs have on our actions and potentially on the lives of others, but what about a belief in aliens? Is believing in the existence of extraterrestrial life even if the evidence for believing in such is insufficient necessarily harmful to anyone?

 

 

it was aliens

 

 

 

Surely, believing in aliens would not influence any sane person anyone to send a sea un-worthy ship into stormy weather (unless I assumed that aliens would rescue the crew and cargo). If I believe that aliens exist, even based on the flimsiest of evidence, who does my belief hurt? Am I allowed to believe some things despite the fact that my evidence may be lacking?

 

 

because aliens

 

 

The short answer is no. Even our trivial beliefs matter. Clifford says that it’s wrong to hold any belief based on insufficient evidence.

Morally wrong.

 

Because even a seemingly insignificant belief can influence the way we act.

 

Perhaps even in possibly dangerous ways.

 

 

WARNING: HYPOTHETICAL SITUATION AHEAD

WARNING: HYPOTHETICAL SITUATION AHEAD

 

 

Lets say that there is someone who believes that not only do aliens exist and have invaded Earth, but that aliens have successfully infiltrated the world’s governments and alien-human hybrids are hell-bent on destroying humanity. The person who believes this has based his beliefs on photographs like this:

 

 

images blurry alien photo

 

 

And like this:

 

 

face on mars

 

 

These pictures, he argues, are evidence of an full-scale alien invasion of Earth. Based on his evidence he has decided to wage a one-man war against the alien invaders.

Now, let me say this each of those photos can be used to make a compelling argument for the existence of alien life. But can these photos provide enough sufficient evidence to support the belief in alien life on Earth?

Remember, “evidence” of anything can be found on the internet.

 

Don’t forget that the internet is where photoshop lives.

 

Given the fact that his “evidence” consists of nothing more than blurry photographs or testimony supplied by a questionable (and often unverifiable) sources.

 

 

NO. THIS ISN’T EVIDENCE EITHER

NO. THIS ISN’T EVIDENCE EITHER

 

 

Because your undeniable evidence may be just another example of

 

 

 

images photoshop

 

 

Let’s face it folks, most “evidence” of terrestrial alien activity would not stand up to even the most basic epistemic scrutiny, let alone the kind of epistemological evidential proof that a philosopher requires. The kind of evidential proof that Clifford says everyone should require.

 

And if the evidence is insufficient, we cannot subscribe to a belief.

There is no good reason to believe what we believe.

 

 

not even aliens can explain this BS

 

 

We might not be aware of how beliefs negatively influence how we act.

 

If someone who believes the Earth has been overrun by malevolent, otherworldly beings acts violently against those he believes are the interspecies enemies of mankind, most of us would agree that his actions would not be the right (morally correct) thing to do.

 

 

it's the aliens

 

 

We can’t just say that the evidence seems true or that we have faith that our belief is true despite evidence that contradicts our beliefs.

 

 

SO FAR AS I KNOW, THIS GUY’S PARENTS ARE 100 PERCENT HUMAN

SO FAR AS I KNOW, THIS GUY’S PARENTS ARE 100 PERCENT HUMAN

 

 

Perhaps if that individual had questioned the veracity of his beliefs he would not have acted so violently.

 

 IN JAIL NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU SCREAM

IN JAIL NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU SCREAM

 

When we believe based on insufficient evidence we are deprived of truth, of how things truly are. And when we do not see things as they are, we can’t make correct moral decisions. This may seem a trivial concern, but it really means a lot. And not just to philosophers.

Beliefs grounded on a sturdy foundation are more likely to be true than false. Acting on true beliefs tends to deliver better results for us and for other people.

 

 

  THIS GUY IS SMILING BECAUSE ALL OF BELIEFS ARE BASED ON SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE.

THIS GUY IS SMILING BECAUSE ALL OF BELIEFS ARE BASED ON SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE.

 

 

You see, the point really isn’t whether we believe in aliens. Or invisible pink unicorns. Or clairvoyance. Or whatever. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t believe that there is life on other planets. Chances are there is. What we should be aware of is that the consequences of holding some beliefs isn’t entirely harmless. Our beliefs influence what we do and when we act, our actions are subject to ethical evaluation.

 

But then….

 

 

who needs facts when you have opinion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*If you’re interested in reading Clifford’s full essay, “Ethics of Belief” (who isn‘t?), you can access it on the web just about anywhere. Seriously, all you need to do is type “William Clifford” into any search engine and “Ethics of Belief” is certain to pop up. But if you don’t want to do the search, click on the link here:

http://myweb.lmu.edu/tshanahan/Clifford-Ethics_of_Belief.html

 

 

 

* While I was cruising the internet procrastinating researching this post, I came across this article. It seems that I may be too eager to dismiss belief in the supernatural and otherworldly things. Check it out for yourself and decide if the article is convincing.

http://nautil.us/issue/16/nothingness/why-we-cant-rule-out-bigfoot?utm_content=buffer6a3ae&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

 

 

SOURCES:

 

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/21/alien-poll_n_3473852.html

http://myweb.lmu.edu/tshanahan/Clifford-Ethics_of_Belief.html

 

 

 

99 Problems and Gettier Ain’t One

Have you ever been right about something and had no idea that you were?

You didn’t know that you knew?

You might have said you made a lucky guess or blessed by divine intervention or divine insight or you had a “gut feeling”.

You might have even said you had an intuition.

Unless that philosopher is Immanuel Kant. He would tell you an intuition is something completely different.*

and now for something completely different

 

If you asked another philosopher (besides Kant), he might suggest that what you had experienced a Gettier example.

Sometimes they’re called Gettier problems.

that’s when you’re right about something but you’re only accidentally right about it — that’s a Gettier problem.

I once made a T-shirt. It said this:

DSCN1351

 

 

I thought it was funny at the time.
If you’re wondering why I’ve bothered to ask if anyone has ever been accidentally right about something it’s because yes, philosophers think about this stuff.

And if you’re curious to know the name of the philosopher that started philsophers thinking about this stuff, his name is Edmund Gettier.

Remember: his name is Edmund Gettier

 

edmund gettier

 

Gettier’s motivation was that he wanted to know if our truth claims are justified – oh wait, I just used some jargon.

And as my expository writing professor once said, never introduce jargon without explaining your terms.

Or did the MLA Handbook say that?

Ok, first. A “truth claim” is a statement we make about the world (or some state of affairs in the world). For instance, if I say that it is raining outside, or I claim that chewing gum does lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight, or that I know why the caged bird sings, or I know the way to San Jose, I am making a claim about something (or some state of affairs) in the world. Gettier’s point, or mission, if you will, was to determine how we are justified in saying we know something or that we know that our claim is true.

You see, Gettier knew, as we all do, that we live in a world where people make lucky guesses or are just accidentally right. Gettier wanted to figure out how we deal with (epistemologically speaking) lucky guesses, coincidences, or when our truth claims just happen to be true.

It’s possible that our truth claims (or as every other person who’s not a philosophcer calls them, “beliefs”) are both true and justified, but we can’t really say that we know that to be the case.

Ok, let me put it this way: Some of our beliefs are justified and true, but they do not count as “knowledge”. That is to say, we can’t say that we know (or absolutely certain that) this or that statement is true. In his essay, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” (1963), Gettier asks how can our beliefs be true and justified but not knowledge?

Philosophers say for a truth claim to qualify as knowledge it must meet three criteria:

1. X (the truth claim) must be true
2. I believe X is true
3. I am entitled (or justified) in believing that X is true

Is this making sense so far?

If it doesn’t I’m explaining it correctly.

Ok, let’s use an example:
You’re driving in your car. You turn on the radio.

Ten bonus points if you know what song I just quoted.

You glance out of your window and you see a field full of white, billowy creatures you assume are sheep. You think you see sheep because they’re white, they’re fluffy, and they appear to be grazing in a field – which is exactly what you’d expect sheep to be doing in a field.

THIS IS ANOTHER T-SHIRT I MADE. I THOUGHT IT WAS FUNNY, TOO.

THIS IS ANOTHER T-SHIRT I MADE. I THOUGHT IT WAS FUNNY, TOO.

 

But, if you were in the field, you’d see that you weren’t looking at sheep at all. You were actually looking at a pack of unusually large and very hairy bichon frise dogs.

So you’re wrong. You didn’t see sheep. You can’t say you know there are sheep in the field.

But, behind a barn in the field there was an actual flock of sheep. You didn’t see the real sheep, but your were accidentally correct in saying there are sheep in the field.

Just by dumb luck or coincidence you made a true statement.

Do you kinda get it, now?

So if I say that I believe that it is raining outside and I want to say I am justified in believing that it is, using the three criteria, this is how I determine justification:

I look outside my window.
I see that the ground outdoors is wet.
I see that there is precipitation falling from the sky.
I smell rain and I hear rain falling against the window and on my roof and I notice that the water stain on my is ceiling bigger than it was before it started raining.
And I recall that the local Accuweather  forecast predicted rain.

Based on science (the weather forecast) and my own observation, I conclude that:

1. It is true that it is raining
2. I believe that it is raining
3. I am justified in believing that it is raining

Simple enough, right?

Well, no. because sometimes, as anyone who has ever panicked because I thought that I they saw a hooded man lurking in the closet when it was just a pile of clothes and a hat can tell you, sometimes we aren’t accidentally right. We should want to rely on more than lucky guesses or accidental truths for knowledge. If we rely on dumb luck we can’t say that we actually know — we lack real knowledge.

It might not seem all that important but justification matters.

If I think that my (otherwise indoor) cat has escaped and is outside roaming about the neighborhood, I want to know, before I start to look for him, if I am justified in believing that my cat has escaped from my house. So, I ask myself how do I know my cat is outdoors?

I decide to make checklist:

I don’t see my cat in the house.
I saw something (I’m assuming an animal) approximately the size and color of my cat outside darting through the bushes next to my neighbor’s parked car
May cat is not responding when I call his name
(actually, my cat never responds to his name. if anyone has any tips for teaching a cat to respond to his name, please let me know).
My cat has escaped from the house several times and each time he’s escaped I found him in the bushes.

 

THIS IS MY CAT. IF HE WASN'T SUCH AN ESCAPE ARTIST HE'D BE ADORABLE.

THIS IS MY CAT. IF HE WASN’T SUCH AN ESCAPE ARTIST HE’D BE ADORABLE.

 

So far, so good. I have enough evidence to believe that my cat is outside in my neighbor’s bushes.

But there’s a problem.

Saw this coming, right?

My cat is outdoors but he’s not in the bushes like I believed. I didn’t see my cat at all. What I saw dart into the bushes wasn’t my cat but a small, cat-sized chupacabra. My cat is actually hiding from the goat sucker underneath my neighbor’s car which is parked next to the bushes. According to Edmund Gettier I didn’t really know that my cat was outside– it was a lucky guess that I was right.

If this is the case, I’m free to say I know my cat is outdoors.

But, often times my cat isn’t outdoors at all. He’s napping under my bed.

If this is the case I was not entitled to believe my cat was outdoors; I did not possess knowledge.

This might not seem all that important but it really is. When we think about our beliefs about major issues like climate change, or claims about enemy combatants or that a “rogue” state possesses weapons of mass destruction, or even our beliefs about the extent of our own knowledge, we want to make sure that we are justified in believing that global temperatures are rising or that a nation possesses a potentially threatening nuclear or chemical arsenal or even that we know that we exist. We want to truly know. We want to make sure that our beliefs aren’t mere lucky guesses, but firmly based on – OH MY GOD, THERE’S A FREAKING CHUPACABRA IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD!!!!

 

 

 
* If you’re curious about Kant’s definition of an intuition, check out sec.1 (A21/B36) of the Transcendental Aesthetic in Kant’s Critique of Pure reason. I can’t tell you which translation of Kant’s Critique is best or that you’ll enjoy reading it (you probably won‘t), but if you can explain to me (in 2 paragraphs or less) what they hell Kant is writing about let me know. Seriously, let me know. Email your answer to miskatoniccoed@gmail.com.

Remember: 2 paragraphs or less.

 

 

Sources:
Richard Feldman. Epistemology. 2003. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Edmund Gettier “Is Justfied True Belief Knowledge?” 1963.

I’ve Got Oprah Winfrey On My Mind (to be sung to the old Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer jingle)

I’m not ashamed to admit that I adore Oprah. You don’t even have to say her last name, you just have to say “Oprah”, and everyone will know exactly to whom your voice refers. And of those souls around the world who have not yet heard of Oprah, they should — and they will. Earlier this year, Oprah hosted a series of programs called “Best Life Ever!”. An episode that aired January 5, 2009, was about weight. Oprah told us that weight isn’t just a physical issue. Our inability to contro our eating stems from a lack of love (bet you didn’t know that!). We must learn to love ourselves before we can shed the pounds (and as we all know, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all). I remember this quote, “The overweight you doesn’t stand before you craving food. It’s craving love”. The idea behind the episode is that what we think, in particular, what we feel about ourselves, influences how we act. This statement is a no-brainer. Oprah says that the cure for our food-induced self-destruction is this: You have to change your mind before you change your body. This, at first glance, seems like another duh statement. But, look at what she says. Immediately, several questions pop up. 1) what does the statement mean? 2) Does it mean that we must change what we believe about ourselves? 3) Is it possible to change beliefs in the way that Oprah suggests that we should? 4) Is she saying that we can make ourselves believe something? 5) So, for Oprah, is belief an act of will? I thought that, since I had no reason to assume that Oprah was insisting that changing one’s beliefs is an act of will, what she was suggesting was a tactic that is a little milder, like Pascal’s wager. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested that we can acquire a belief in God by way of a “wager”. Pascal asks, what have we got to lose by believing in God? Pascal says, if we believe in God, and there is none, then no harm no foul. We don’t lose anything. But, if we believe in God and he does exist, then all the better. We are rewarded with eternal salvation. The idea is that your belief in God is prudential — it is in our best interest to do so. This may be what Oprah means — not as it pertains to God — but in what we believe in/about ourselves. It is precisely ourselves that changing one’s mind is supposed to fix. This is why I suspect that Oprah’s edit is more forceful that Pascal’s wager. Many dieters and addiction specialists know that, to change or end an addiction, compulsive behavior, or bad habit, such as smoking, gambling or overeating, one must change one’s mindset (in addition to changing behavior). This may require throwing out our entire belief system or at least our beliefs that have to do with ourselves. This is the mechanism behind 12-step programs and rehab. As George Clinton famously said, “free your mind and your ass will follow”. Again, a bit of a duh. We can say that this is a rehash of the mind-body issue. Descartes said that the world (reality) appears to him as he perceives it. Which is why Descartes employed his method of doubt to discern what he could accept as true (what he believed) about himself and the world. So, it seems that Oprah is suggesting that I must change what I believe if I want to gain contro of myself and my life. Perfectly Cartesian. But, there’s a problem. It is this: If I believe or say that I think that I believe that I cannot lose weight, this is because I hold that I am helpless against my own lack of willpower. Therefore, I will not lose weight. My behavior confirms my belief. I cannot stop myself, so I will not lose weight. Oprah says that this cycle will continue so long as I do not change my mind. I must stop telling myself that I cannot lose weight. But how do I do that? She says that I must stop accepting that I cannot. This appears to be a true (using the term colloquially) statement. It’s certainly anecdotally true, and may even be psychologically true. It may even be empirically true. But there’s something dubious about Oprah’s claim. When you start looking deeper at many of Oprah’s claims, the stink of dubiosity begins to rise. The problem may be this: Oprah is simply guilty of using a poor choice of words or worse yet, she is guilty of non-specificity. When we say that we’ve changed or are going to change our mind, we’re talking about what we think, believe or feel. We tend to use these words interchangably, but they are not the same (at least not philosophically). I suspect that this is what is going on here. This kind of word-switching is what is creating the problem. On it’s face, Oprah’s sentiment sounds wonderful and better yet, actually practicable. But, when we look at what the statement means, it gives us no means for actually solving our problem. It’s nothing more than flowery self-affirmation claptrap dressed in a nicely tailored, but empty suit. Before we do anything, we have to figure out what we are working with. Figuring out whether we are dealing with thoughts, emotions, or beliefs is crucial to whether we can follow Oprah’s advice at all. Since feelings do us absolutely no good when things philosophically, we must throw that out. Let’s assume that Oprah feels the same way about emotions as philosophers do (it’s not that they don’t have their place — it’s just that they don’t here). Let’s assume that Oprah wants us to change either our beilefs or what we think. If I say that I think something, I realize first off, that I can think of nearly anything. I can think that the sky is orange, or that I am 5’1, or that I will find a unicorn that knows and can sing the entire Donovan songbook, or that I will get a Ph.D in philosophy (hey, it could happen). But my thoughts can be anything that comes to my mind. They need not be true or actualizable. My thoughts need not be “thought through”. Unfortunately, my thoughts can and are often wrong. They are merely whatever I can conceive of in my mind. I could change my mind, but there is no obligation that changing my mind has to changing my body. I think that what Oprah is going for is something stronger — that if I change my mind, it will necessarily lead me to change my body. If that is what she is asking us to do, then what we must change are our beliefs. What I think differs from what I believe in that my beliefs are the thinks (if you will) that I am entitled to. My beliefs are connected (necessarily) to the idea of Truth. My beliefs cannot be any old thing or some willy-nilly notion. I must be justified, or have a good reason, for believing (a think) before I can call any think a belief. Without adequate evidence or unless something is analytically true ( I suspect that some will claim that what Oprah says is), I am not entitled to believe anything. Ok, this is what Oprah wants us to do, but the question that confronts us here is can we actually do what she wants us to do? Maybe not. There is a problem with what she is saying. The problem is two-fold: 1) Oprah is being vague (although one might say that the problem is ambiguity). Because we don’t know what Oprah is saying, we must make alot of assumptions (the only thing that I took away from my logic 300 class is that we don’t assume anything unless we have to). Oprah’s directive lacks clarity and definitude. Even though we might assume the she wants us to change our beliefs (as opposed to changing thoughts), we don’t really know. We’re not clear on what we’re doing because we’re not clear on what we’re doing (this may sound like a confusing duh, but it is really a sailent point to our discussion). 2) it’s impossible. If we are merely changing thoughts, Oprah’s advice is easy. But, if we are changing beliefs, then we might run into a problem. Namely, beliefs are not so easy to change. We cannot force ourselves to believe something, even if believing so will be better for us in the long run. Beliefs cannot be willed. Unlike body movements or thoughts that I can change by deliberate action, I cannot do so with beliefs. Truth is a necessary element to belief. What is true must also reflect what is. I cannot will what is true or what is not true. My beliefs aren’t the product of decision-making. If I accept one belief as true, but I have an opposing belief, I cannot accept both as true (lest I dare contradict of the Law Of Non-Contradiction). If I take both as true, I am guilty of self-deception. Worse yet, if I take contradictory beliefs to be true, I may be delusional or endulging in the worst kind of bullshitting (I could make a pretty good argument that this is exactly what Oprah requires one to do to follow her advice in the first place). The problem is, is that she doesn’t tell us either way. Our solution is to close our eyes, hold our noses, pick one (thought or belief) and hope for the best. While I’m on the subject over whether we should be dealing with what we think or with what we believe, I just thought of the tons of advice out there urging people to “think”. I, myself, own a T-shirt bearing the quote, “Think: It’s not illegal yet” (come to think of it, I think George Clinton said that, too!). I recall that the commedianne Janeane Garofalo used to sport a tattoo bearing the word “Think” on her wrist. After thinking about all this Oprah, I think that our emphasis on thinking is a part of why we’re having so much trouble with what we’re doing. Perhaps the city of Baltimore had the better idea with its billboard campaign that urged the citizens of the city to “Believe”. I think, perhaps, that believing is better than thinking. I wonder what Oprah would say about that?

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?

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.