Friday, December 18, 2009


by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Today I was thinking about what kind of obligations we have as Christians, given the call to imitate Christ and the reality of our sinfulness. Remember when we were in middle school and the trend was to wear a "WWJD" bracelet? ("What Would Jesus Do")... After a while I kind of thought it was a God-awful idea, because there are a lot of reasons why we either shouldn't or cannot respond the way Jesus does or did. For instance, if I walked into a church today and saw a market or even a Starbucks in the foyer, I would certainly not walk around turning over tables and coffee grinders. Some things Jesus does because He has authority- divine authority. And if I have a realistic self-conception I'll recognize when I actually ought not do what Jesus would.

But I also consider the whole "fallen world" thing and it creates tension, in my mind anyway, with doing what Jesus would... because, unlike Him, I am one of the fallen creatures, part of the problem. I don't just pick up the pieces, I shatter the glass. So my obligations extend into a realm that God's never do-- like asking for forgiveness, being repentant, and changing.

That spills over into what Christine Swanton calls "constraints" on virtue. Since I am not omnipotent or omnipresent, and I'm really imperfect, there are limits to what I can expect of myself. Here's an example: I have told my child I will take her to the zoo on Saturday; come Saturday morning, my in laws decide to drop in and ask that I show them around town for a bit. It looks like I have obligations as a mother to fulfill my promise and obligations as a daughter-in-law to be kind and hospitable. Swanton says that in cases like this, we must recognize our constraints and come up with creative solutions that may not "hit the target" both ways (accomplish the fulfillment of the promise or being ideally hospitable. Today I was thinking about how our fallenness and the fallenness of others can act as a constraint... If someone is a victim of abuse, it seems reasonable that that imposes a limit on the kind of love the victim can show the abuser, because she cannot just continue on in a relationship with the abuser as if nothing is wrong. In fact, how much is she actually obligated to love that person considering the emotional and maybe physical constraints on virtue in that case?

Tonight, I watched Invictus, a movie about Nelson Mandela in the 1990s. Despite the fact that he had spent 18 years in prison under the Afrikaners, after having emerged and then become president, he refused to fight his former enemies. He worked to draw them into "the new South Africa." I just kept thinking, wouldn't we all have thought it reasonable for him to throw these guys in jail or try to yank them out of high power political positions? But instead, he kept saying that greatness requires more of us than we expect of ourselves. And throughout the movie, that's exactly what happened-- in this nation virtually wartorn by the apartheid, suddenly people were working together and learning to forgive one another. It was like he helped people tap into this superpower within to rise above normal human limits and do more than seems obligatory, sui generis.

Maybe what was happening was an act of grace. Maybe we can actually expect more of ourselves than we're obligated to give if we rely on a little divine infusion of grace to do what we normally just know we can't. Maybe Henley was both right and wrong-- I am the captain of my soul, but I always need the wind in my sails and the current at my back.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Adams on Virtue for the Sinner, 10/30/09

Today I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Robert Adams of UNC Chapel Hill give a lecture entitled "Virtue for the Sinner." He responded to two objections to virtue theory, one articulated by Karl Barth questioning the value of virtue, and the other being the empirical evidence of psychology against the existence of real virtues.

It is important to understand, Adams implies, the viewpoint of Barth in rejecting the value of intrinsic goodness of virtue. Barth asserts that God the Son is concerned only with obedience to the Father and that his actions all align with this one overarching goal. So perhaps the virtues would only suffice to describe dispositions tending to produce the sort of actions which, ultimately, are valuable in that they defer to God's commands. But Adams wants to argue here that Christian ethics is not simply an account of good actions, but rather of good agents-- what kind of people we are, what kind of precursors to action our intentions and desires and thoughts are. "God cares about obedience for the sake of love, and not the other way around," he says, citing the commandments which Jesus states as of chief importance. Perhaps virtue produces obligation; perhaps being the kind of person which God would have us be, a person who "images" his Son, Adams might say, will result in our feeling a self-obligation of the Korsgaardian strand to act in accordance with certain moral laws. Just a thought. Anyway, Adams also refers to the passage in which Jesus says, "I have no longer called you slaves but I have called you friends" as one which supports that thesis that God is not concerned with our being useful, that is, producing actions which are beneficial, but rather with our relation to Him and the sort of men and women we are. I think this is a pretty biblical account of virtue.

However, a point which Dr. Pruss raised after the lecture got me thinking: Is love a virtue or an action? I am inclined to call it an action rather than a disposition, because while we certainly have dispositions that make us apt to care about people, the caring for them is a reality only when it is in action. And maybe that action can be as slight as considering their interests broadly; for instance, at this very moment I am doing nothing to love my mother, but I also am taking into account my relationship with her in a broad way by not posting examples in ethical dilemmas which draw on her personal life or even in my refraining from using foul language at which she might be embarrassed if she read this. And in a sense, because I care about her, I am doing the kind of work I think she would be proud of, and in so doing maybe caring for her in some small way. In any case, the caring for her is wrapped up in practical realms of action.

Then, in Adams' reply to the second prong of the arguments against virtue, he grants that the kind of virtue we have is clearly fragile. It falters in cases of social pressure to act in ways adverse to our virtues. So, he says, we may not have the virtue perfectly but we can still be virtuous in that way. A trait does not have to be so robust to be excellent that it never fails in any circumstance. We cannot learn to live well simply by learning to live under general ethical rules, he says, for our virtues are just not permanent. But we can try and persist in certain virtues, extend them over ourselves and our future selves (to put it in terms of Parfit's view of identity which I think is a relevant one here). So in conclusion, there is a chance of virtue even for the sinner.

P.S. I started reading a book called Intellectual Appetites by Griffiths that I highly recommend to any Christian seeking understanding and knowledge. :)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thoughts on "Taking Ourselves Seriously and Getting It Right"

I just read Frankfurt's Taking Ourselves Seriously and Getting It Right, and I think he does get a lot of things right. But I have qualms with his rejection of objective realism because I think he actually sneaks in an objective value at the end. He says, "Nothing is inherently either worthy or unworthy of being loved"-- so what's the big deal with loving itself?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thoughts on Death, Christianity, and Nietzsche

Nietzsche criticizes Christians for being magnetically drawn to suffering and death, arguing that in longing for another world, Christians are giving up the will to life and actually willing death.

I was on a plane yesterday and I couldn't help but think of this. I always get those jittery feelings in my stomach during take-off and brace myself for the possibility of a crash ending in death (this is bizarre, I know...). Anyway, I went through the usual argument I put forth for myself on airplanes-- that I cannot rationally fear death because it opens the door to life in heaven, and heaven is essentially infinitely better than life here (that's the defeater for "fomo": fear of missing out). But I stopped myself in the middle of my premises this time, because Nietzsche, who has moved in to the upstairs of my brain recently, said that I was willing death for myself. My relationship with Nietzsche is a strange one; I really appreciate his criticisms of Christians because I think they are largely right, but I'm also constantly trying to explain and defend real Christianity to him, because most of the time it doesn't really conflict with what he's saying.

So am I willing death by desiring heaven? I'm going to argue no. There are two reasons for this: first, if I believe what Jesus said about the importance of sharing the gospel, then my life on earth has a mission with high stakes, and second, there is an aspect of being human and being fallen that makes for a different knowledge of God than the angels have.

The first point refers to the great commision, when Jesus says, "Go and make disciples of all nations." We are meant to tell the millions of people who don't know God about Him. If we don't, if we really will to die, salvation terminates with this small group of Christians who believe right now, and we are essentially willing the eternal death of the rest of the world. Jesus Himself demonstrates the importance of an earthly life with His coming down into the world and spending time revealing the Father to men. Teachers spend time in the classroom not to relearn the material, but to pass it on, and they value time in the classroom because presumably they realize that they are the best medium for the transfer of vital information. If everyone who had an education went on to his or her own trade or field and no one went into teaching, we would lose the chance of education for younger generations all together, and that's absurd. So we stay on earth while we can; we will our own lives, because we realize that we are teachers and what we're teaching the whole entire world desperately needs.

Secondly, and I'm not as sure that this one holds up such that it could stand alone as a reason, we relate to God differently as fallen beings than as perfect ones. The longer I live, the more aware I become of my own wretchedness, to put it bluntly. Even if I am trying to become a better person, the harder I try, the more I realize how deeply sunk I am and how far I have to go to really "be better." It's like going to the hospital for a headache and the doctor telling you that you have a brain tumor; it doesn't preclude your chances of getting well but it definitely makes the process harder.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More on Relations

As I was reading Chisolm's "The Myth of the Given" today, I stumbled upon another reason for thinking that properties are relations. Part of Chisolm's argument validating self-justified beliefs actually included an attempt to rule out the necessity of relating things to other things outside themselves. He says:

"Common to both 'pragmatism' and 'idealism' ... is the view that to think about a thing, or to interpret or conceptualize it, and hence to have a belief about it, is essentially to relate the thing to other things, actual or possible, and therefore to 'refer beyond it.' It is this view which we must oppose..." (Chisolm in Sosa's Epistemology Anthology, 89)

Chisolm tries to establish that these relations only come up when we state the belief aloud; for instance, once I say "this appears white," then I am implying references to things like other people using the word "white" for the same experience, other events which cause statements about "white," etc. So, he says, the relations expressed in justification do not really matter for a person's belief about the experience of being appeared to whitely.

This seems intuitively refutable, because I learn to define by distinguishing. I learn what white is by distinguishing it from other colors. The content of my beliefs and knowledge (I actually don't think I have any of the real stuff at this point), entail these relations. My feeling a smooth surface necessarily involves my body and the surface, if I hear birds outside the window there must be both birds and air in which the sound can travel and ears or some sort of mechanism for the hearer. When I see green, there is not only my perception of green- there is me, the light, and the surface instantiating the green. Nothing comes in isolation. At least I think not... but then we must posit God as at least two persons.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Whether claims of knowledge with low epistemic standards are bullshit.

I was joking with Gideon yesterday about epistemic standards of knowledge and he made a claim that he knew I would do well on my philosophy of religion paper. I argued that he had insufficient justification to claim that knowledge. There was certain evidence inaccessible to him at the time he asserted that I would do well-- he was unaware that I would try to stay up all night and so the end of my paper would be reflective of my exhaustion, he was unaware of the cat at Diane's house distracting us, and perhaps he is generally unaware that although in class I may sound like I have coherent thoughts, my paper writing skills are less than impressive. Is Gideon's statement that he knows I'll do well on my paper "bullshit"?

My intuitions said it was precisely the kind of corner-cutting Frankfurt describes in the example of the modern architect up against the architect of Notre Dame cathedral. He puts up a grand statement, much like an aesthetically pleasing building, without studying the details, analogous to learning the trade of building-making. So Gideon's statement is bullshit (no offense, friend :) ).

But Gideon has come back with this reply: while his epistemic standards for knowledge are low, he is still respecting some sort of justification scheme for knowledge, whereas true bullshit has absolutely no regard for the truth. So on this view, Gideon would have to tell me something with misleading implicatures for it to be bullshit.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Kenoticism, Relational Essence, and the Mutability of God

I've been reading about Kenotic Christology this weekend, the view that in coming to earth, Jesus emptied Himself of certain attributes like omnipotence, omniscience- those things which are incompatible with human existence. Defining divinity proves to be a difficult task for kenoticism, because if Christ is really fully divine but at the same time has really emptied Himself of powers we usually associate with divine attributes, either we must concede that Christ is not fully divine, or we must modify those attributes which we call "divine."

I think the latter makes a lot of sense- for instance, to say that the divine attribute "omnipotence" must be understood as possibly self-limiting. If Jesus does not express His omnipotence while human, but lays it aside in an act of self-limitation, then perhaps preserving His divinity means tweaking the definition of being "all powerful" to something like this: God is all-powerful except when He limits His own power.

Obviously this has implications for what we have traditionally called the "immutability" of God; if God can put aside His omnipotence for a time and then re-assume it, doesn't this signal change within God? Aquinas, addressing God's changelessness, says, "Because God understands and loves Himself, in that respect they said that God moves Himself; not, however, as movement and change belong to a thing existing in potentiality, as we now speak of change and movement" (Prima Pars, Q. 9, Art. 1). So if God is moving Himself maybe this does not represent a true change in potential within God. I'm not so convinced this works, though, because in Jesus it still looks like His omnipotence is hovering in a potential rather than actual state. Which is okay, because kenoticists gladly grant the changeability in God.

Here's another interesting move prompted by Aquinas: if the divine essence is a relation between persons of the trinity, then Jesus' self limitation may be a temporary change of His attributes, but one which does not change the relation of Father to Son and Spirit to Son and Father to Spirit which is the divine essence. In Article 1, Question 39 of the Prima Pars, Aquinas discusses distinctions between persons of the Trinity but concedes that the divine essence is a relation:

"in creatures relations are accidental, whereas in God they are the divine essence itself. Thence it follows that in God essence is not really distinct from person, and yet that the persons are really distinguished from each other. For person signifies relation as subsisting in the divine nature."

So a distinction between the Father and the Son in terms of the actuality of their omnipotence would not be problem for divine attributes which kenoticism would have to solve; instead, the kenoticist could say that the attributes which Christ gives up in self-limitation do not rob Him of any divinity, because divinity is that relation between Christ and the other persons of the trinity which is not altered by His coming to earth as a man.

Enter Hans Urs von Balthasar: in his book on the descent of Christ into hell, he argues that on "Holy Saturday" Christ was really forsaken by the Father. Writing on von Balthasar, Edward T. Oakes argues that we cannot ignore "the transformation inside the Godhead itself that occurred when the Son of God descended as a dead man to be among the dead" (Oakes, "He descended into hell: The Depths of God's Self-Emptying Love on Holy Saturday in the Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar" 238). If von Balthasar is right and Holy Saturday was a real event of "Godforsakenness" inside the Trinity, then we are still forced to concede the mutability of God even under Aquinas' conception of divine essence.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Humility and Grace

A friend once told me that she did philosophy because it cultivates the virtues of humility and grace. I hope this is true.

Today was a strange experience for me, perhaps a crux in my education. Two of the most brilliant scholars and interesting people I know sat with me at a table and raised pressing questions about the various books I elected to read on account of their timelessness and renown. Seeking to elicit more than a general knowledge of the texts, they led me up to the crossroads where authors and characters and ideas and eras meet and asked me to describe the ground upon which we were standing... the terrain from Thomas Aquinas to Thomas a Kempis, the birthplace of Medea and the distance between Euripedes' account of feminism and the feminist culture of today, the characteristics of the middle ground on which Ovid and Chaucer stand... I'm still hacking my way through the brush on whether or not Chesterton's critique of the suicide of thought is fair to Nietzsche.

My habits of mind still lack rigor and vibrancy and capacity to ignite light bulbs between thoughts. I left the room feeling like a kindergarten graduate in a world full of highschoolers. I am so grateful to have their company and for their willingness to prod me along until I learn to walk at their speed. My education has only just begun.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why We Are Philosophers

I'm hesitant to post this for fear of sounding like a starry-eyed undergrad or a pedantic moralizer who thinks there are still remnants of human telos to be arrived at. But from a recent conversation with a friend who's also shaking in her boots about graduate school, I have hope that I am not alone here... so, here goes:

I was recently startled when I heard the criteria which graduate schools in Philosophy are now in the habit of using to select their students. In fact, if I had walked into the room five minutes in to one of these conversations and perhaps been confused of my whereabouts, the items on this list of criteria would have assured me that I had accidentally walked into the University's business school.

Not to be nitpicky or idealistic or na├»ve, but Philosophy must be wary of functioning like an ordinary trade. To hear Philosophers talk of “marketability” and “tenure-track jobs” with such gravity raises the army of hairs on my skin (I’m talking here about non-utilitarian and non-consequentialist philosophers). Of course, the Philosopher should not be wise in some ethereal sense and a complete buffoon on the streets; but to have spent one’s entire life searching for “wisdom,” and come out living as ordinarily as one’s neighbor with a bachelor’s in entrepreneurship smells fishy—and that rotten scent stirs up serious doubt in me concerning the current real work being done in Philosophy.

Now from the inside, or at least the 7th or 8th concentric circle from the core, I am confident that good work is taking place in Philosophy. The last three Philosophers I recently heard giving lectures all acknowledged that they spent years of study in another trade before realizing that their heads were always in books of another sort, that is to say, substantive books that answer questions better than anyone in their laboratories or factories ever could. That says to me first, that some Philosophers are writing work of import for real human life, second, that a good handful of current Philosophers stepped on the path with a genuine motive to pursue wisdom, and third, that they’ve found the practice of Philosophy worth sharing with both the contemporary public and future generations. These are three evidences that we have grounds for hope.

I return, though, to my critique. Once upon a time, (and this part matters only so long as you are not a presentist or physicalist), we fell in love with learning. Looking back as the sophisticated minds with which we are now identical, we may not describe it that way, but at some point we clearly all took the road untraveled by our peers and locked ourselves in our rooms and read or wrote or researched for hours. Maybe it was an entirely intellectual falling-in-love, reflectively endorsed by reason at each step; perhaps it was a perpetual parched feeling in the throat of the mind; or a subconscious “why” that no one weeded out of your two-year-old self, naturally and gallingly curious. At any rate, somewhere we all committed to this vague concept of a quest to “figure things out,” instead of making millions—because if there is any logician in you, and I assume there is, you know that you could drop the beleaguered life of the mind and channel your genius to get rich quick. And furthermore, we probably fell in love with some philosopher, reading his or her book late into the night, falling asleep with it in arms rather than letting it go to the bedside table like all the rest.

The way one was drawn down the path of philosophical inquiry was by some teacher—be it daimon or author or roommate or professor. And Socrates, on the other side of that, chose the pupils which he dragged along his dialogue; instead of a premed weed-out class, he perhaps carefully watched to see who made it through the entire argument about pastry-baking. And Plato chose Aristotle and Bentham chose Mill and Rawls chose Korsgaard, and so on. My professors continually encourage me to find a Philosopher in particular under whom I’d like to work; but why are schools not taking this into primary order consideration? The admissions committees which appear to be looking for product-producing, prolific students over those whom they wish to bring up in the field are comprised of Philosophers—the ones (again, utilitarians, please pay no attention here) who should be taking very seriously to whom they want to hand the baton.

I recognize that this is a new age, that Philosophy is not what it was fifty years ago, much less two thousand years ago. But I appeal to the Philosopher in each of us that fell in love with doing what we do, and ask that we consider that the nature of our field is such that it should differ from (dare I say supersede) all other branches of education, because we are the truth-seekers, we are the culture shapers and the culture analysts, we are the miners sweaty and grimy from digging through the rubble and the archeologists trying to piece back together a fragmented history and a confused picture of humanity. So let us create, rather than conform to, the culture of our day; perhaps evaluate its capitalistic drive before altogether acting as though we are capitalists, and hearken back to why we are Philosophers.

Friday, September 25, 2009

David Solomon 9-25-09

Dr. David Solomon, director of the center for ethics at the University of Notre Dame, came to Baylor and delivered a lecture on "The Moral Troubles of Medicine" which both enlightened and disturbed me.

Enlightened, because his analysis of contemporary medicine illuminated some roots of key ethical dilemmas we're facing today, such as "when does life begin and end?" and "what is the appropriate role of the doctor in a doctor-patient relationship?" Solomon pointed out that with the leaps and bounds medicine took in the 20th century, our association of health with the good life rocketed through the roof-- other values we thought necessary for the good life were "grabbed up" by medicine. Solomon, taking us back to the "old days," reminded us of the time when the kids who sat in the back of the class and use their pencils and paper as airborne weapons to launch at their fellow students used to be smacked with a paddle. Now we diagnose them with attention defecit and send them to the nurse for drugs. The anecdote is laughable, but all too true.

This week, Nietzsche seems to be following me around everywhere I go! Surely when he proposed health and sickness as new standards of value he did not intend to limit this to physical health. But when scientific breakthroughs offer medical solutions to human problems as basic as depression, behavioral issues, when we have labeled the alcoholic as "diseased," it's clear that health has trumped the other values on our "wanted" list. We've jumped at the chance to secure the good life for ourselves by means of surefire, empirically tested methods.

But this puts an enormous amount of pressure on doctors; the doctor-patient relationship is continually corroded by the lopsided moral dependency of the patient on the diagnoser. Doctors, Solomon says, have taken the place of religious figures in our personal lives; we expect them not only to prescribe us with the right meds but to tell us whether we should take them or not. (Hello, moral ought. Welcome to Hillcrest Medical Hospital. Dr. Jones will be taking care of you today.)

Doctors, in turn, are fleeing this weighty responsibility, one which they have in no way been trained to carry. Med school classes don't make sure every obstetrician reads Peter Singer on the status of a fetus before she graduates. My friend's mom's oncologist did not want to make the call on whether after two years of chemotherapy beating up her body and producing few desired results, she should try a new drug or accept that her time had come.

This affects liberal democracy (or perhaps liberal democracy affects it), argues Solomon, because we are committed to the "membership" property. All members of our society have unalienable rights to happiness and unquestionable dignity; so who's in and who's out? Once we start questioning who merits membership, we all feel threatened; if the elderly lady down the street is "useless" and a "burden" on society (utilitarians and consequentialists ike Peter Singer and Michael Tooley are actually claiming this, not a joke...), then at what age will I be like her and be thrown out of the club? The prestige of medicine, says Solomon, can lead us t other confusions of value. The strong man trumps the weak. The net product of a country of healthy citizens is greater than the net value of a country with large populations of elderly, indigents, babies...Nietzsche, meet capitalism.

Solomon argues that we need an arena for all members of the community to come together and have meaningful discussion on these basic ethical issues in place of lugging the sack of them into our doctors' offices and hospitals. What do we want? What do we need for human flourishing? Dr. Solomon suggests that the philosophy of psychology Anscombe called for to pave the way for a fresh look at ethics has been done in the last 50 years-- perhaps we are ready to start recovering moral philosophy.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


In the beginning of the Theaetetus, Socrates says, "There is nothing but motion, which has two forms, one active and the other passive, both in endless number..." I am wondering if the Aquinas/Aristotelean camp might actually converge with the Augustinian/Platonist camp on such a point as this one. Is not God, at least to Aquinas, the Prime mover, unmoved? He would be 100% active then, and all being and good would then also be, in lesser and varying degrees, active. If we take seriously the idea that the Trinity is constantly giving and receiving, maybe God is also participating in the passive receipt and thus our receiving is not a deprivation of good but another aspect in which we bear the image of God.

Returning to the claim about motion, I think even 21stC science has proven this right, because we are yet to see anything at temperature 0 Kelvin, which would signify a state of absolutely no motion. If even the atoms are always in motion, and we are composed of atoms, we too are probably always caught up in some sort of motion, whether receiving or initiating it.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Identity of a Fetus

"Let x be the fetus in my past that grew into me. Here is a valid Aristotelian argument (though Aristotle himself would probably deny (4)).
1. (Premise) The identity of a bodily organ depends on the identity of the individual whose organ it is, so that if A is c's unshared heart (sharing occurs in the case of Siamese twins), and B is d's unshared heart, and c and d are distinct individuals, then A and B are distinct organs.
2. (Premise) x has exactly one heart, hx, and it is unshared.
3. (Premise) I have exactly one heart, hI, and it is unshared.
4. (Premise) hx=hI.
Therefore, I am x. (By 1-4) The controversial premises are (1) and (4)."
Dr. Pruss

I think that if the identity of the organ (heart, in this case) depends on the identity of the individual of whose organ it is, then we must already know with whom the individual is identical. So for x and I, I must be identical with x in the first place for hx to = hI. Imagine that we decide that I am not identical with myself as a fetus; then my fetus' heart belongs to myself as a fetus, and my heart now belongs to me as I am now. Then, my fetus' heart is not identical with my heart. So the argument doesn't seem to prove anything not contained in the first premise.

Also, to whom the organ belongs can get tricky when talking about transplants. If at t1, hI belonged to me, and I decide to have a heart transplant from organ donor J, then at t2 I have hJ. Does hJ now belong to me and therefore is hI? Will hI then be identified with another person? How do we determine belonging with mobile organs?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Freedom Puzzle

I started reading Augustine's "On the Free Choice of the Will" on a crowded "combi" (Peruvian bus) yesterday. This part puzzles me:

"All wicked people, just like good people, desire to live without fear. The difference is that the good, desiring this, turn their love away from things that cannot be possessed without the fear of losing them." (1.4)

To untangle that, I thought of an example; a wicked man chases after money, but money, as it is essentially a tool for exchange, is something he is likely to lose (and given our current economic situation I think we Americans can agree on this assumption). So the man who loves money shows intemperate desire and it is intemperate because it's a risky kind of love. This sounds a little Stoic to me. Now imagine loving something which is impossible to lose. We cannot imagine this well in light of the fact that we all die... But say a good person loves her child and is promised by some omniscient source that she will never lose that child. She might not guard her child in public places like most parents or be protective of her in her teenage years.

It seems that loving involves risk when it is a deep sort of loving. And that risk seems to come from attaching ourselves to something outside ourselves- something over which we have no control. But if we are certain that we will never lose the object of our love, i.e. that we will always possess it, that surely we are in control of that which we possess. Risk is eliminated.

Imagine God loving mortal souls He could not lose. In no way do I think that God is attached to us in a way as though He's in need of us or something we possess. But I do think He willfully put Himself at risk of losing a "beloved" in making us the sort of free beings that can run to or away from Him. And I wouldn't want Him to do it any other way; His love for me, in fact, astounds me more because He so loves me and my fellow wandering creatures that He "cries" at the loss of one of us.

But this leads me back to the question of death and whether values that are specifically mortal (essentially lose-able) are of a sort which cannot be had if they cannot be lost in death. If I want to acknowledge immortal values as having worth that surpasses mortal values, then here I have to concede that love of something we will not lose is good and the love of something we might lose is worse.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


An idea: what if the universe is made up of nothing more than relations?

For example, we say that there is a color "blue." We know blue is not an actual substance but instead a certain wavelength of light which, when it hits our eye, causes certain rods and cones to change shape and then registers as "blue" in our minds. (Interesting sidenote: found out from my biology teacher that if we do not have the experience of seeing a color before a certain age as a child, we will never register that color- i.e. we will literally be color blind. They did an experiment with kittens and raised them for a few months in a room of only vertical lines, and then when they let them out of the room, they would run off of edges and stairs and one even ran off a cliff because they could not register a horizontal line!) Anyway, the main point being that blue is simply a certain relation of a wavelength of light to our eyes.

If you try to imagine the world as the atoms and space which really compose it, this becomes clearer. What I perceive as the difference between the air and my chair is due to a different relation of protons, neutrons, and electrons to each other; the electrons in the chair are arranged such that they deflect light in a way those in the air do not, and because there are more electrons on the same path or "orbital" in each atom of the chair, the atom is less likely to react with other atoms and so the chair is a "hard" surface to our touch. Everything is defined in relation to something else. Even protons and electrons are "charges"-- which means that they interact in a certain way with one another, attracting and repelling. The only thing that makes me me and not my mom, physically, is the difference in arrangement of atoms that make up me.

So what if everything really can be broken down to a simple relationship? What if Platonic forms really do constitute the universe and all the forms are just essentially relational?

To me, this makes sense because I believe that God is a Triune God. If God is essentially relational- giving, receiving, loving- then all images of and participations in Him should be relational as well. And if we think of the world in this way, then the Stoic ideal of a man "se ipse contentus est" (content in himself with himself), limits a person. If the universe is relational, then our being human-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-potential (MacIntyre) is relational, and interaction with others and external forces as well as personal interaction within oneself trumps aloneness or self-sufficiency.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Nussbaum: Immortal Mortals

In Chapter 6 of Therapy of Desire, Martha Nussbaum shows that Epicurus' argument for the irrationality of the fear of death is an incomplete one. Its weakness lies in the characterization of temporal values as invalid, for if we actually follow the arguments of Lucretius and Epicurus to their logical ends, as Nussbaum does, they too affirm mortal values. On the one hand, Lucretius admonishes us to re-evaluate the worth we assign to temporal goods; we need to recognize that our own finitude will frustrate our desires for such goods to last eternally. On the other hand, Nussbaum points out that "this is not what the mortal being usually attempts" (330). Instead, it is a matter of whether we can rationally value something with its end in sight. For as humans, we often fear that our present projects will be emptied of their meaning if cut short by death. But why should temporal ends deter us from imputing value on those projects?
Nussbaum suggests, although neither Epicurus nor Lucretius explicitly put forth this argument, that we embrace mortal values because they are precisely the sort of goods which cannot be had by immortals. For example, she says that the Greek gods cannot possess the virtue of courage displayed by Achilles, since they are impervious to death. Likewise, love and friendship develop over a period of time rather than being feelings realized from one moment to the next. But then, she implies that a friendship in which one party is not able to sacrifice herself for the other lacks a certain depth.
My question is not whether time affects our values but whether a temporal end is essential in their worth. In the instance of friendship: imagine that one friend cares for the other in such a way that she is willing to sacrifice anything for her, including her life, but she is never presented with the opportunity to lay down her life for her friend. Does this imply that her love for her friend is not as valuable? Certainly I can love my friend deeply and even sacrifice portions of my own life- my time, for instance- without giving away my life. So we can assign value to things that we appreciate as mortals even if we end up being immortal.
Nussbaum indicates that without ends, activities we treasure become objects of our boredom. However, I would argue that we do have the capacity for gratitude of the "same old, same old." I hope I never stop admiring the sunset, though it passes through my window everyday.
Certainly there are values which we would deem unconditional were we to know that they were eternal. Even Lucretius' theory proves this point- he says that humans should esteem the universe, rather than particular individual lives of which it is constituted.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

On "On Bullshit"

Today I went to the bookstore to try to keep my mind from summer atrophy. I picked up Harry Frankfurt’s little (and I mean that literally—fits in my palm) book On Bullshit. For anyone who’s seen “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” the title conjures up pictures of a beach house on Long Island and a game of cards with a bunch of old misers. Unfortunately, the sunshine state isn’t delivering today, so not only am I lacking an ice cold glass of lemonade in my right hand, but there is no warm sunshine or cool breeze outside to make me feel like I am sitting there next to Maconnahay when he calls out “buuuullshit, mama!” in that Texan drawl.
So back to Frankfurt: he’s separating out the bullshit from lies and he points out that “we may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire” (50). I think he’s right. Why is that? He leaves it up to the reader to solve the little puzzle.
Here’s my guess. Frankfurt describes the bullshitter as someone who isn’t concerned with the “truth-value” of his statements but rather makes them with a view to his own ends. The street vendor in Lima who tries to sell me a fake Lacoste hat is not concerned with whether or not the hat is authentically Lacoste—he just wants my money. He does not chiefly intend to deceive me. So I’m not enraged with the vendor because I don’t perceive him as a threat to my understanding of reality. The liar may con me into believing something false; the bullshitter is up to something less serious. And if I were shrewd enough, perhaps I could still find the truth somewhere in the bullshit (while the truth is usually much harder to find in a lie, since a lie must hide the truth).
I think that we fundamentally care about knowing the truth. No one wants to live her life mistaken about reality. And while bullshit tends to steer us away from reality, it always leaves the interpretation open to us. The Cheerios ad suggests that the cereal reduces cholesterol, it does not promise it can lower mine—that would be my assumption. But a prescription drug that guarantees to lower cholesterol and fails to do so is deceiving. In the first case, my false belief is partially due to the bullshit, but I am also responsible for my own inference. In the second, my false belief is entirely due to the lie. I don’t want false beliefs; so while bullshit in some instances can lead a careless observer to a false belief, lies are much more offensive because they are intended to lead even the attentive observer to a false belief. And I think what we value more than anything in our beliefs is that they are true.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Not so prolific me.

Today I was wandering around some webpages like the Leiter reports and University of Chicago's Law school blog, and I visited the website of one of my professors and stumbled onto his blog. He posts nearly every weekday at 7:07 am- in 2008 he wrote 323 posts! Needless to say I was really impressed, not only by the consistancy and frequency, but also by the serious quality of each post-- sound and articulate arguments, concise, to the point. I became aware of the wide-eyed expression on my own face as I leafed through them. Reading posts from April and March, I recognized ideas from discussions and readings in our class and really felt privileged to have studied with this professor and great thinker.

Anyway, I can't imagine being able to produce so many good thoughts much less being so disciplined as to post everyday; but I think it would be worthwhile to have an outlet for some philosophical musings! And I should be in the habit of writing as much as reading to avoid mental edema. Can't promise that I won't be embarrassed of these thoughts in 30 years. I'll just have to take them with a grain of salt like Nietzsche and concede that they were a few threads to be woven into the tapestry of my thought over time.