Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Puzzling Ideas of the Postmodern Age

There many ideas that puzzle me in the post-modern age in which we live.  Some are merely common, while others have achieved the status of orthodoxy--almost like a secular catechism of sorts.  Here I list some ideas that came to my mind as I sat before the computer:

Right and wrong are entirely constructs of the human will (except when I am talking to someone on the opposite side of political spectrum, who is morally reprehensible).

Good and evil are entirely constructs of the human will (except when I am talking to someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum, who is the embodiment of evil).

Sexual proclivities and behaviors are not at all constructs of the human will, but gender is entirely a construct of the human will.

No one has the right to judge anyone else (except for me, when I judge that you should never judge anyone else).

There is no ultimate truth (except for this statement, which is an ultimate truth).

All religions are equally good.

All religions are equally bad.

All religions are the same.

Religion is absolutely nothing more than an attempt to control people.  Done.  Next!

Beauty is entirely a construct of the human will (unless you like something that disgusts me, in which case beauty is more than merely a construct of the human will).

There is no self (although ‘I’ have no idea to ‘whom’ ‘I’ am speaking when ‘I’ say this).

There is a Higher Energy (although I really don’t know exactly what I mean by this).

We are on the verge of destroying the Earth (even though the twelve-mile wide rock from space sixty-five million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs failed to destroy it, as we can see by looking out the window right now).

Human beings are a virus (I don’t know what this means outside of being an acceptable way to express misanthropy and self-hatred).

Everyone is out to get you (maybe you’re right if you’re that important, which you probably aren’t).

Violence is always wrong (even when we’re dealing with murderers).

We should have radical diversity (unless it is of viewpoints).

Killing human fetuses is a sacred and inviolable choice, but the state should outlaw incandescent light bulbs.

Pretty much everything is racist, unless you are of the opinion that white people are uniquely racist, which is not racist at all.

Having children is selfish (can you believe the nerve of your parents?!).

Humans are nothing more than animals.  Snore.

There is no meaning to life (but I would never kill myself--not sure why not).

All we need is love.

Among others.  Wish to dispute my take on them?  Wish to add something to my list?  Please do!

Un-Defining Marriage and Having to Make a Judgment

So I have just gotten done grading a whole batch of papers on the same-sex marriage (SSM) debate.  On the whole, I am completely unimpressed.  There is no serious thinking happening here.  It is clear that students who oppose it are simply terrified to let the professor know it.  Those who support it don’t have any idea what the arguments are, and so their opinions lack focus and end up being little more than expressions of emotion.

I am not so sure that we have re-defined marriage so much as completely un-defined it.  We simply do not know as a culture what marriage is any longer.  We think we do, but we really don’t.  I will show that this is the case in what follows.

This is the proposition that is currently guiding this debate:

L1:  People who love each other ought to be able to marry.

The claim is that anyone who denies this is a hateful bigot.

It is obvious that L1 is hopelessly flawed.  First and most obviously, we wish to exclude children from marrying adults.  This is generally understood, but for clarity, let’s introduce L2:

L2:  Only adults who love each other ought to be able to marry.

Now, let’s think seriously for a second.  Are you ok with the United States government officially recognizing polygamous unions?  This would inevitably happen with some Mormon break-away sects and with Muslims.  Maybe you are fine with polygamy.  Do you have a limit on how many husbands I can have?  Is four too many?  Ten?  Thirty?  Drawing a line beyond one partner has a strong ring of arbitrariness about it, so maybe we ought to abandon polygamy.  Let’s propose:

L3:  Only two adults who love each other ought to be able to marry.

If you like L3, know that you will be accused of religious bigotry, Islamophobia, and imposing your beliefs onto others.  But let’s continue.  You know that it will happen that a brother and sister wish to marry.  Would you allow it?  Perhaps not.  We propose:

L4:  Only two unrelated adults who love each other ought to be able to marry.

But why deny this to the siblings?  Perhaps you worry that they will produce strange offspring.  But they have sterilized themselves to parry precisely this objection.  Are you now imposing your arbitrary prejudices onto them?  You find it repulsive, but does that mean that you would deny them their rights?  What if two brothers wished to marry?  A father and son?  A mother and daughter?  Don’t laugh!  Don’t think that mockery gets us out of this mess.  You know that truth is stranger than fiction and that there are principles that we must clarify.

My point here is this:  Unless you abandon the entire notion of marriage altogether, you are required to formulate a principle of marriage.  And I guarantee you, when you commit to one, you will be accused of closed-mindedness, bigotry, and forcing your values onto somebody else.  But now that you have read this post, you can no longer avoid this issue unless you abandon intellectual integrity itself. 

The general insight that emerges is that we have not replaced the traditional understanding of marriage with something else; rather, we simply eliminated that understanding, and we are currently hoping that nobody notices and that nobody causes any trouble.  But somebody will cause trouble, and we will have to have an answer.

We can no longer dismiss people simply for drawing some kind of a line now that we know that we have to draw one, as well.  So who’s in, and who’s out?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Thinking in Shades of Gray

How many times have I heard it?  “I’m not like you (guys).  You think in terms of black and white.  I think in terms of shades of gray.”  I can safely assume that my interlocutor thinks of himself as more sophisticated than I.  He can appreciate subtleties and nuances that my dogmatic and inflexible mind misses.  Yet it is just a shallow pretension that is evidence that the facts are actually the other way around.

The truth is that some matters require thinking in terms of black and white, and some require thinking in terms of shades of gray.  In logic, the first kind of thinking is called ‘deductive’ reasoning, and the second is called ‘inductive’ reasoning.

A deductive argument could be this:  Mike owns a Sportster.  All Sportsters are Harleys.  Therefore, Mike owns a Harley.  This argument has perfect form, so we call it ‘valid.’  Validity is like pregnancy—it’s there, or it isn’t.  There is no sliding scale.

An inductive argument could be this:  No shark of which I am aware from every source of knowledge in my life has ever been able to fly.  Therefore, no sharks can fly.  These arguments can be strong or weak, and there is a sliding scale of strength, hence shades of grey.

I have noticed two tendencies among people who claim to think in terms of only shades of gray.  The first is a blatant hypocrisy—it is inevitable that this gray-thinking interlocutor has starkly black-and-white thinking on a wide variety of issues, and sees everyone on the other sides of those issues as evil/stupid/mistaken/dangerous/etc.  It’s just that on the issue under discussion at the moment, it is convenient to assert the gray-thought admonition.  The second is obscurantist thinking—it creates a fuzzy target to deflect intellectual criticism of one’s position.  I conclude that thinking in only these gray terms is both unethical and anti-intellectual.

This is the correct advice:  Think in terms of shades of grey at the appropriate times, and think in terms of black and white at the appropriate times.  That is the real wisdom for the accomplished mind.  Now sign up for my fall semester logic class!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Forcing My Beliefs Onto You

Countless people have asserted the following proposition to me:
F:  It is always morally wrong to force one’s beliefs onto someone else.
I will argue that F is false.
Consider the following:
W:  It is always morally wrong to rape, torture, and kill children solely for the sake of one’s personal sexual enjoyment.
You almost certainly agree with me that W is true.  If you do not, there is nothing I can say to you.
Because of the moral seriousness of the behavior described in W, if W is true, then the following two propositions are true:
P:  It is obligatory to prevent—forcefully, if necessary—people from raping, torturing, and killing children solely for the sake of their personal enjoyment.
S:  It is obligatory to serve punishment—forcefully, if necessary—to people who rape, torture, and kill children solely for the sake of their own sexual enjoyment.
Now:  If F is true, then P and S are false, since both P and S are instances of forcing one’s beliefs onto someone else.  Since P and S follow reasonably from W, then the affirmation of F is also the denial of W.  The consequence of all this is that, if you affirm F, then you are also affirming not-W:
Not-W:  It is not the case that it is always morally wrong to rape, torture, and kill children solely for the sake of one’s personal enjoyment.
So, if you accept W, then you must reject F.
But what if you really like F?  What to do?  Perhaps you may deny either P or S.  As long as you affirm at least one of them, however, then my conclusion follows, since only one of either P or S will save the inference. 
Perhaps you may deny both P and S.  Yet the moves from W to P and S are eminently reasonable, and denying both of them would require some extraordinary argumentation.  Perhaps you can give it.
You could deny W, but it is most implausible to affirm F and deny W.  This is because both F and W make moral claims, and the moral claim in W is in a far more certain position than the one in F.
You could argue that rejecting F would lead to all kinds of abuses.  That is irrelevant, since the abuse of a principle does not condemn the principle itself to falsehood.
So I conclude that F is obviously false, and that therefore its opposite is clearly true:
Not-F:  It is not the case that it is always wrong to force one’s beliefs onto someone else.
Indeed, sometimes morality requires that you do so.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

God-Blob: The Higher-Power Dilemma

In recent years, an enormous number of my students have been claiming to believe in a Higher Power and affirm that they are spiritual, but not religious.  Here I share some thoughts on the object of their belief.

‘Power’ is the ability to do work, or possession of control or command over others.  It can mean authority or ascendency.

‘Higher’ is a comparative, and as such is a relation.  Relations require at least two relata (things about which the relation is to hold). 

Let H stand for, ‘A Higher Power exists.’

Most people who assert H mean to distinguish it clearly from the following:

G:  God exists.

The first thing to notice is that since ‘higher’ is a comparative, H is really incomplete, and so the question arises, “Higher than what?”  It would be like saying, “Mike is taller.”  Taller than he was in the past?  Taller than you?  We need more information.

Let’s take the relata of ‘higher’ to be the power in question, on the one hand, and humans on the other.  This is what I believe most people mean when they affirm H.  Then we are affirming:

H2:  A power higher than humans exists.

If ‘power’ is used in the sense of ‘the ability to do work,’ then we are saying that an ability to do work higher than humans exists. 

This is ambiguous.  It could mean:

H2A:  An ability to do work exists that is higher than any human ability to do work.

Or it could mean:

H2B:  An ability to do work exists that is higher than human beings are.

H2A is a meaningful sentence, but is trivially true.  No one disputes it.  H2B, on the other hand, isn’t true (and it isn’t false, either) because it possesses no clear meaning.  There is no clear sense of ‘higher’ that makes sense of saying that an ability is higher than a human being.  It would be much like saying that yellow is taller than Bob.

The dilemma:  If H2 is what is meant by ‘a Higher Power exists,’ then ‘a Higher Power exists’ is either trivially true or meaningless.

Sometimes by ‘power’ people mean to say ‘energy.’  Energy is the exertion of power.  Then we are saying that an exertion of power higher than humans exists.  Again, if this makes sense, then it is trivially true.  Everyone, without exception, already believes that there are powers in existence greater than any powers that humans can exert.  Indeed, there is nothing at all incompatible between this claim and a thorough-going and consistent atheism.  And, similar to the above, if one cannot properly compare an exertion of power to a human being in terms of higher and lower, then it is meaningless.

If ‘power’ means ‘possession of command over others’ or ‘authority,’ then we have:

H3:  An Authority exists that is higher than human beings.


H3A:  An Authority exists that is higher than any authority that humans possess.

H3B:  An Authority exists that is higher than any human.

H3A is meaningful and not at all trivially true.  It is therefore a significant claim; however, if H3A is true, what is to prevent a person from simply affirming G?  Maybe he is averse to monotheism.  One could affirm instead:

G2:  God exists or Gods exist.

That would avoid the problem.  Certainly most, although not all, who affirm H do not wish to affirm G2.

H3B is meaningless for the same reason that H2B is.

So here is the dilemma:  If one takes ‘Higher Power’ to mean ‘an Authority higher than humans,’ then the statement will lead either to some form of theism, or it will be meaningless.

And now, my ultimate conclusion:

When someone affirms that a Higher Power exists, that person is doing one of the following three things:  
1)       He is affirming a triviality.
2)      He is actually affirming some form of theism.
3)      He is saying something meaningless.

My suggestion:  If you are truly committed to the existence of a Higher Power then, in order to avoid triviality and meaninglessness, affirm some form of theism.   There is a variety of theisms out there, including monotheism, deism, polytheism, and so on.  That is your next adventure.  On the other hand, you could stop affirming that there is a Higher Power and adopt a form of atheism.  I am of the opinion that you will have to make some kind of a decision here, because without some form of commitment, you are left in an intellectually untenable position.

What motivates this Higher Power movement?  I believe that it represents a reluctance to make a commitment.  Many people are horrified to commit to the existence of a God for whatever reasons.  They are also horrified to commit to the idea that there is no God.  Both theism and atheism scare them, yet they don’t adopt agnosticism, either.  The Higher Power allows people to appear as if they are making a commitment without their having to make an actual commitment that subjects them to intellectual criticism, since no one knows exactly what they are affirming in any case.  The benefit of this strategy is either that you will always be right, or that you will never be wrong.  The cost of this strategy is either that you will be affirming a triviality, or that you will be affirming something that is meaningless. 
The picture that has developed in my mind over the years of talking to people about this Higher Power is that of what I call the “God-blob.”  The God-blob is kind of like a smiling, fluffy cloud.  It doesn’t judge people.  It just loves people.  It never criticizes anybody.  It feels really good, and likes to make us feel really good.   And then we die, and then we just enter its happy fluffiness like the teddy bear jumping into a pile of dryer sheets.

Our ideas should not be unnecessarily fluffy.  They should be as clear as possible.  This is why I am intellectually dissatisfied with merely ‘a Higher Power exists.’

My solution:  Affirm God’s existence.  The Supreme Being exists, and is not a God-blob.  Worship God and adopt both a spiritual AND a religious attitude toward our Creator.