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.