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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: philosophy, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 306
1. Coffee tasting with Aristotle

Imagine a possible world where you are having coffee with … Aristotle! You begin exchanging views on how you like the coffee; you examine its qualities – it is bitter, hot, aromatic, etc. It tastes to you this way or this other way. But how do you make these perceptual judgments? It might seem obvious to say that it is via the senses we are endowed with. Which senses though? How many senses are involved in coffee tasting? And how many senses do we have in all?

The question of how many senses we have is far from being of interest to philosophers only; perhaps surprisingly, it appears to be at the forefront of our thinking – so much so that it was even made the topic of an episode of the BBC comedy program QI. Yet, it is a question that is very difficult to answer. Neurologists, computer scientists and philosophers alike are divided on what the right answer might be. 5? 7? 22? Uncertainty prevails.

Even if the number of the senses is a question for future research to settle, it is in fact as old as rational thought. Aristotle raised it, argued about it, and even illuminated the problem, setting the stage for future generations to investigate it. Aristotle’s views are almost invariably the point of departure of current discussions, and get mentioned in what one might think unlikely places, such as the Harvard Medical School blog, the John Hopkins University Press blog, and QI. “Why did they teach me they are five?” says Alan Davies on the QI panel. “Because Aristotle said it,” replies Stephen Fry in an eye blink. (Probably) the senses are in fact more than the five Aristotle identified, but his views remain very much a point of departure in our thinking about this topic.

Aristotle thought the senses are five because there are five types of perceptible properties in the world to be experienced. This criterion for individuating the senses has had a very longstanding influence, in many domains including for example the visual arts.

Yet, something as ‘mundane’ as coffee tasting generates one of the most challenging philosophical questions, and not only for Aristotle. As you are enjoying your cup of coffee, you appreciate its flavor with your senses of taste and smell: this is one experience and not two, even if two senses are involved. So how do senses do this? For Aristotle, no sense can by itself enable the perceiver to receive input of more than one modality, precisely because uni-modal sensitivity is what according to Aristotle identifies uniquely each sense. On the other hand, it would be of no use to the perceiving subject to have two different types of perceptual input delivered by two different senses simultaneously, but as two distinct perceptual contents. If this were the case, the difficulty would remain unsolved. In which way would the subject make a perceptual judgment (e.g. about the flavor of the coffee), given that not one of the senses could operate outside its own special perceptual domain, but perceptual judgment presupposes discriminating, comparing, binding, etc. different types of perceptual input? One might think that perceptual judgments are made at the conceptual rather than perceptual level. Aristotle (and Plato) however would reject this explanation because they seek an account of animal perception that generalizes to all species and is not only applicable to human beings. In sum, for Aristotle to deliver a unified multimodal perceptual content the senses need to somehow cooperate and gain access in some way to each other’s special domain. But how do they do this?

Linard, Les cinq sens
Linard, Les cinq sens. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A sixth sense? Is that the solution? Is this what Aristotle means when talking about the ‘common’ sense? There cannot be room for a sixth sense in Aristotle’s theory of perception, for as we have seen each sense is individuated by the special type of perceptible quality it is sensitive to, and of these types there are only five in the world. There is no sixth type of perceptible quality that the common sense would be sensitive to. (And even if there were a sixth sense so individuated, this would not solve the problem of delivering multimodal content to the perceiver, because the sixth sense would be sensitive only to its own special type of perceptibles). The way forward is then to investigate how modally different perceptual contents, each delivered by one sense, can be somehow unified, in such a way that my perceptual experience of coffee may be bitter and hot at once. But how can bitter and hot be unified?

Modeling (metaphysically) of how the senses cooperate to deliver to the perceiving subject unified but complex perceptual content is another breakthrough Aristotle made in his theory of perception. But it is much less known than his criterion for the senses’ individuation. In fact, Aristotle is often thought to have given an ad hoc and unsatisfactory solution to the problem of multimodal binding (of which tasting the coffee’s flavor is an instance), by postulating that there is a ‘common’ sense that somehow enables the subject to perform all the perceptual functions that the five sense singly cannot do. It is timely to take a departure form this received view which does not pay justice to Aristotle’s insights. Investigating Aristotle’s thoughts on complex perceptual content (often scattered among his various works, which adds to the interpretative challenge) reveals a much richer theory of perception that it is by and large thought he has.

If the number of the senses is a difficult question to address, how the senses combine their contents is an even harder one. Aristotle’s answer to it deserves at least as much attention as his views on the number of the senses currently receive in scholarly as well as ‘popular’ culture.

Headline image credit: Coffee. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

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2. The construction of the Cartesian System as a rival to the Scholastic Summa

René Descartes wrote his third book, Principles of Philosophy, as something of a rival to scholastic textbooks. He prided himself in ‘that those who have not yet learned the philosophy of the schools will learn it more easily from this book than from their teachers, because by the same means they will learn to scorn it, and even the most mediocre teachers will be capable of teaching my philosophy by means of this book alone’ (Descartes to Marin Mersenne, December 1640).

Still, what Descartes produced was inadequate for the task. The topics of scholastic textbooks ranged much more broadly than those of Descartes’ Principles; they usually had four-part arrangements mirroring the structure of the collegiate curriculum, divided as they typically were into logic, ethics, physics, and metaphysics.

But Descartes produced at best only what could be called a general metaphysics and a partial physics.

Knowing what a scholastic course in physics would look like, Descartes understood that he needed to write at least two further parts to his Principles of Philosophy: a fifth part on living things, i.e., animals and plants, and a sixth part on man. And he did not issue what would be called a particular metaphysics.

Portrait of René Descartes by Frans Hans. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Descartes, of course, saw himself as presenting Cartesian metaphysics as well as physics, both the roots and trunk of his tree of philosophy.

But from the point of view of school texts, the metaphysical elements of physics (general metaphysics) that Descartes discussed—such as the principles of bodies: matter, form, and privation; causation; motion: generation and corruption, growth and diminution; place, void, infinity, and time—were usually taught at the beginning of the course on physics.

The scholastic course on metaphysics—particular metaphysics—dealt with other topics, not discussed directly in the Principles, such as: being, existence, and essence; unity, quantity, and individuation; truth and falsity; good and evil.

Such courses usually ended up with questions about knowledge of God, names or attributes of God, God’s will and power, and God’s goodness.

Thus the Principles of Philosophy by itself was not sufficient as a text for the standard course in metaphysics. And Descartes also did not produce texts in ethics or logic for his followers to use or to teach from.

These must have been perceived as glaring deficiencies in the Cartesian program and in the aspiration to replace Aristotelian philosophy in the schools.

So the Cartesians rushed in to fill the voids. One could mention their attempts to complete the physics—Louis de la Forge’s additions to the Treatise on Man, for example—or to produce more conventional-looking metaphysics—such as Johann Clauberg’s later editions of his Ontosophia or Baruch Spinoza’s Metaphysical Thoughts.

Cartesians in the 17th century began to supplement the Principles and to produce the kinds of texts not normally associated with their intellectual movement, that is treatises on ethics and logic, the most prominent of the latter being the Port-Royal Logic (Paris, 1662).

By the end of the 17th century, the Cartesians, having lost many battles, ulti­mately won the war against the Scholastics.

The attempt to publish a Cartesian textbook that would mirror what was taught in the schools culminated in the famous multi-volume works of Pierre-Sylvain Régis and of Antoine Le Grand.

The Franciscan friar Le Grand initially published a popular version of Descartes’ philosophy in the form of a scholastic textbook, expanding it in the 1670s and 1680s; the work, Institution of Philosophy, was then translated into English together with other texts of Le Grand and published as An Entire Body of Philosophy according to the Principles of the famous Renate Descartes (London, 1694).

On the Continent, Régis issued his General System According to the Principles of Descartes at about the same time (Amsterdam, 1691), having had difficulties receiving permission to publish. Ultimately, Régis’ oddly unsystematic (and very often un-Cartesian) System set the standard for Cartesian textbooks.

By the end of the 17th century, the Cartesians, having lost many battles, ulti­mately won the war against the Scholastics. The changes in the contents of textbooks from the scholastic Summa at beginning of the 17th century to the Cartesian System at the end can enable one to demonstrate the full range of the attempted Cartesian revolution whose scope was not limited to physics (narrowly conceived) and its epistemology, but included logic, ethics, physics (more broadly conceived), and metaphysics.

Headline image credit: Dispute of Queen Cristina Vasa and René Descartes, by Nils Forsberg (1842-1934) after Pierre-Louis Dumesnil the Younger (1698-1781). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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3. The vision of Confucius

To understand China, it is essential to understand Confucianism. There are many teachings of Confucianist tradition, but before we can truly understand them, it is important to look at the vision Confucius himself had. In this excerpt below from Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction, Daniel K. Gardner discusses the future the teacher behind the ideas imagined.

Confucius imagined a future where social harmony and sage rulership would once again prevail. It was a vision of the future that looked heavily to the past. Convinced that a golden age had been fully realized in China’s known history, Confucius thought it necessary to turn to that history, to the political institutions, the social relations, the ideals of personal cultivation that he believed prevailed in the early Zhou period, in order to piece together a vision to serve for all times. Here a comparison with Plato, who lived a few decades after the death of Confucius, is instructive. Like Confucius, Plato was eager to improve on contemporary political and social life. But unlike Confucius, he did not believe that the past offered up a normative model for the present. In constructing his ideal society in the Republic, Plato resorted much less to reconstruction of the past than to philosophical reflection and intellectual dialogue with others.

This is not to say, of course, that Confucius did not engage in philosophical reflection and dialogue with others. But it was the past, and learning from it, that especially consumed him. This learning took the form of studying received texts, especially the Book of Odes and the Book of History. He explains to his disciples:

“The Odes can be a source of inspiration and a basis for evaluation; they can help you to get on with others and to give proper expression to grievances. In the home, they teach you about how to serve your father, and in public life they teach you about how to serve your lord”.

The frequent references to verses from the Odes and to stories and legends from the History indicate Confucius’s deep admiration for these texts in particular and the values, the ritual practices, the legends, and the institutions recorded in them.

But books were not the sole source of Confucius’s knowledge about the past. The oral tradition was a source of instructive ancient lore for him as well. Myths and stories about the legendary sage kings Yao, Shun, and Yu; about Kings Wen and Wu and the Duke of Zhou, who founded the Zhou and inaugurated an age of extraordinary social and political harmony; and about famous or infamous rulers and officials like Bo Yi, Duke Huan of Qi, Guan Zhong, and Liuxia Hui—all mentioned by Confucius in the Analects—would have supplemented what he learned from texts and served to provide a fuller picture of the past.

Ma Lin - Emperor Yao" by Ma Lin - National Palace Museum, Taipei. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Ma Lin – Emperor Yao” by Ma Lin – National Palace Museum, Taipei. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Still another source of knowledge for Confucius, interestingly, was the behavior of his contemporaries. In observing them, he would select out for praise those manners and practices that struck him as consistent with the cultural norms of the early Zhou and for condemnation those that in his view were contributing to the Zhou decline. The Analects shows him railing against clever speech, glibness, ingratiating appearances, affectation of respect, servility to authority, courage unaccompanied by a sense of right, and single-minded pursuit of worldly success—behavior he found prevalent among contemporaries and that he identified with the moral deterioration of the Zhou. To reverse such deterioration, people had to learn again to be genuinely respectful in dealing with others, slow in speech and quick in action, trustworthy and true to their word, openly but gently critical of friends, families, and rulers who strayed from the proper path, free of resentment when poor, free of arrogance when rich, and faithful to the sacred three-year mourning period for parents, which to Confucius’s great chagrin, had fallen into disuse. In sum, they had to relearn the ritual behavior that had created the harmonious society of the early Zhou.

That Confucius’s characterization of the period as a golden age may have been an idealization is irrelevant. Continuity with a “golden age” lent his vision greater authority and legitimacy, and such continuity validated the rites and practices he advocated. This desire for historical authority and legitimacy—during a period of disrupture and chaos—may help to explain Confucius’s eagerness to present himself as a mere transmitter, a lover of the ancients. Indeed, the Master’s insistence on mere transmission notwithstanding, there can be little doubt that from his study and reconstruction of the early Zhou period he forged an innovative—and enduring—sociopolitical vision. Still, in his presentation of himself as reliant on the past, nothing but a transmitter of what had been, Confucius established what would become something of a cultural template in China. Grand innovation that broke entirely with the past was not much prized in the pre-modern Chinese tradition. A Jackson Pollock who consciously and proudly rejected artistic precedent, for example, would not be acclaimed the creative genius in China that he was in the West. Great writers, great thinkers, and great artists were considered great precisely because they had mastered the tradition—the best ideas and techniques of the past. They learned to be great by linking themselves to past greats and by fully absorbing their styles and techniques. Of course, mere imitation was hardly sufficient; imitation could never be slavish. One had to add something creative, something entirely of one’s own, to mastery of the past.

Thus when you go into a museum gallery to view pre-modern Chinese landscapes, one hanging next to another, they appear at first blush to be quite similar. With closer inspection, however, you find that this artist developed a new sort of brush stroke, and that one a new use of ink-wash, and this one a new style of depicting trees and their vegetation. Now that your eye is becoming trained, more sensitive, it sees the subtle differences in the landscape paintings, with their range of masterful techniques an expression. But even as it sees the differences, it recognizes that the paintings evolved out of a common landscape tradition, in which artists built consciously on the achievements of past masters.

Featured image credit: “Altar of Confucius (7360546688)” by Francisco Anzola – Altar of Confucius. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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4. Questioning the question: religion and rationality

We all know that asking questions is important. Asking the right questions is at the heart of most intellectual activity. Questions must be encouraged. We all know this.

But are there any questions which may not be asked? Questions which should not be asked? Although many a young undergraduate might initially say “No! Never! All questions must be encouraged!”

I think most thoughtful people will realise there is a little more to it than that. There are, for example, statements which present themselves in all the innocent garb of questions, but which smuggle in nasty and false assertions, such as the phrase “why are blond people intellectually inferior to dark people?” There are questions which mould the questioner, such as “will I feel better if I arrange for this other person to be silenced?”

Questions can serve horrible purposes: they can focus the mind down a channel of horror, such as, “what is the quickest way to bulldoze this village?” Even more extreme examples could be given; they make it clear that not all statements that appear to be questions are primarily questions at all, and not all questions are innocent.

Once you start to think it through, it becomes clear that every question you can ask, just like every other type of utterance you can make, is not a simple self-contained thing, but a connector to all sorts of related assumptions and projects, some of them far from morally neutral. This makes it not just possible, but sometimes important and a matter of honour and duty, not just to refuse to answer, but to raise an objection to the question itself. More precisely, one objects to the assumptions that lie behind the question, and which have rendered the question objectionable.

Tell me, my daughters … which of you shall we say doth love us most?", King Lear, W. Shakespeare.
“Tell me, my daughters … which of you shall we say doth love us most?”, King Lear, W. Shakespeare. (Cordelia Disinherited by John Rogers Herbert. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Have you stopped beating your children?”

“Tell me, my daughters … which of you shall we say doth love us most?”

“How do you reconcile your rationality with your religious faith?”

In all three cases the question renders any honest person speechless.

But in the first case, if the question is pressed, and I am hauled up before the judge in a court of law, then I will protest, at length and forcefully, that I never did beat my children in the first place. And in the second case, if the question is pressed, then a loving daughter may choose to handle what comes of her silence, and show her love by her behaviour. And if the third question is pressed, then I might explain, as patiently as I could, that the attitude of the questioner is as deeply distorted here as it is in the other two cases, and I will add that my faith was never divorced from my rationality in the first place, and that being required to explain this is like being required to explain that you are honest.

Now we have arrived at the point of this blog, which is not, I will come clean, the general issue of questioning the question, but the specific issue of public discourse in the area of religion. But the two are closely related, because I am interested in focussing attention on where the issue of questioning the question really lies.

The issue is not, “are there questions which are objectionable?” (I think we already settled that), nor is it, “let’s have some intellectual amusement unpicking what is objectionable about this or that ill-posed question which we find it easy to tell is ill-posed.” No, the heart of this issue is, what about the fact that there may be questions which are in fact ignorant and domineering in themselves as questions — like “have you stopped beating your children?” — but which we don’t recognise as such, because of the unquestioned assumptions of our culture and the intellectual habits it promotes.

The third example above is the one which invites the reader to explore this. Is that question objectionable or not?

I will give two reactions: first a subjective one, then the beginnings of an objective one. Subjectively, the question, and others like it such as, “how do you reconcile science and religion?” make me feel every bit as queasy as the “beating your children” one. The hollow feeling of having been pigeonholed before you can open your mouth, of being in the presence of someone whose mental landscape does not even allow the garden where you live, the feeling of being treated like dirt, it is all there.

Now, objectively, are these feelings of mine a sign of trouble in me, or a sign of trouble in our wider culture? I invite reflections. Here I will offer three.

First, my reaction is strong because rationality is a deeply ingrained part of my very identity; it is every bit as important to me as it is to anyone else, so that to face a presumption of guilt in this area is to face a great injustice. Secondly, though, religion is a broad phenomenon, having bad (terrible, horrendous) parts and good (wonderful, beautiful) parts, so the question might be a muddled attempt to ask, “what type of religion is going on in you?” It still remains a suspicious question, like “are you honest?” but in view of the nastiness of bad religion, perhaps we have to live with it, and allow that people will need to ask, to get some reassurance.

Having said that, (and thirdly) we can only make a reply if there is enough oxygen in the room–that is, if the questioner does not come over like an inquisitor who has already made up his mind. The question needs to be, in effect, “I realise that we are both rational; would you unpack for me the way that rationality pans out for you?” We need the questioner at least to be open to the idea that willingness to recognize God in personal terms can be a thoroughly rational thing to do, in a similar sense that recognizing other humans as consciously willing agents is a thoroughly rational thing to do. In both cases, it requires a willingness that is in tune with reason, not unreason, but which is larger than reason, as a chord is larger than a single note.

Headline image: King Lear: Cordelia’s Farewell by Edwin Austin Abbey, 1898. Public domain via WikiArt

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5. 10 reasons why it is good to be good

The first question of moral philosophy, going back to Plato, is “how ought I to live my life?”. Perhaps the second, following close on the heels of the first, can be taken to be “ought I to live morally or not?”, assuming that one can “get away with” being immoral. Another, more familiar way of phrasing this second question is “why be moral?”, where this is elliptical for something like, “will it be good for me and my life to be moral, or would I be better off being immoral, as long as I can get away with it?”.

Bringing together the ancient Greek conception of happiness with a modern conception of self-respect, it turns out to be bad to be a bad person, while in fact, it is good to be a good person. Here are some reasons why:

(1)   Because being bad is bad. Some have thought that being bad or immoral can be good for a person, especially when we can “get away with it”, but there are some good reasons for thinking this is false. The most important reason is that being bad or immoral is self-disrespecting and it is hard to imagine being happy without self-respect. Here’s one quick argument:

Being moral (or good) is necessary for having self-respect.
Self-respect is necessary for happiness.
Therefore, being good is necessary for happiness.

Of course, a full defense of this syllogism would require more than can be given in a blog post, but hopefully, it isn’t too hard to see the ways in which lying, cheating, and stealing – or being immoral in general – is incompatible with having genuine self-respect. (Of course, cheaters may think they have self-respect, but do you really think Lance Armstrong was a man of self-respect, whatever he may have thought of himself?)

(2)   Because it is the only way to have a chance at having self-respect. We can only have self-respect if we respect who we actually are, we can’t if we only respect some false image of ourselves. So, self-respect requires self-knowledge. And only people who can make just and fair self-assessments can have self-knowledge. And only just and fair people, good, moral people can make just and fair self-assessments. (This is a very compacted version of a long argument.)

(3)   Because being good lets you see what is truly of value in the world. Part of what being good requires is that good people know what is good in the world and what is not. Bad people have bad values, good people have good values. Having good values means valuing what deserves to be valued and not valuing what does not deserve to be valued.

(4)   Because a recent study of West Point cadets reveals that cadets with mixed motivations – some selfish, instrumental, and career-oriented, while others are “intrinsic” and responsive to the value of the job itself – do not perform as well cadets whose motivations are not mixed and are purely intrinsic. (See “The Secret of Effective Motivation”)

Plato and Aristotle, from the Palazzo Pontifici, Vatican. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Plato and Aristotle, from the Palazzo Pontifici, Vatican. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

(5)   Because being good means taking good care of yourself. It doesn’t mean that you are the most important thing in the world, or that nothing is more important than you. But, in normal circumstances, it does give you permission to take better care of yourself and your loved ones than complete strangers.

(6)   Because being good means that while you can be passionate, you can choose what you are passionate about; it means that you don’t let your emotions, desires, wants, and needs “get the better of you” and “make” you do things that you later regret. It gives you true grit.

(7)   Because being good means that you will be courageous and brave, in the face of danger and pain and social rejection. It gives you the ability to speak truth to power and “fight the good fight”. It helps you assess risk, spot traps, and seize opportunities. It helps you be successful.

(8)   Because being good means that you will be wise as you can be when you are old and grey. Deep wisdom may not be open to everyone, since some simply might not have the intellectual wherewithal for it. (Think of someone with severe cognitive disabilities.) But we can all, of course, be as wise as it is possible for us to be. This won’t happen, however, by accident. Wise people have to be able to perspicuously see into the “heart of the matter”, and this won’t happen unless we care about the right things. And we won’t care about the right things unless we have good values, so being good will help make us be as wise as we can be.

(9)   Because being good means that we are lovers of the good and, if we are lucky, it means that we will be loved by those who are themselves good. And being lovers of the good means that we become good at loving what is good, to the best of our ability. So, being good makes us become good lovers. And it is good to be a good lover, isn’t it? And good lovers who value what is good are more likely to be loved in return by people who also love the good. What could be better than being loved well by a good person who is your beloved?

(10)   Because of 1-9 above, only good people can live truly happy lives. Only good people live the Good Life.

Headline image credit: Diogenes and Plato by Mattia Preti 1649. Capitoline Museums. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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6. Nick Bostrom on artificial intelligence

From mechanical turks to science fiction novels, our mobile phones to The Terminator, we’ve long been fascinated by machine intelligence and its potential — both good and bad. We spoke to philosopher Nick Bostrom, author of Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, about a number of pressing questions surrounding artificial intelligence and its potential impact on society.

Are we living with artificial intelligence today?

Mostly we have only specialized AIs – AIs that can play chess, or rank search engine results, or transcribe speech, or do logistics and inventory management, for example. Many of these systems achieve super-human performance on narrowly defined tasks, but they lack general intelligence.

There are also experimental systems that have fully general intelligence and learning ability, but they are so extremely slow and inefficient that they are useless for any practical purpose.

AI researchers sometimes complain that as soon as something actually works, it ceases to be called ‘AI’. Some of the techniques used in routine software and robotics applications were once exciting frontiers in artificial intelligence research.

What risk would the rise of a superintelligence pose?

It would pose existential risks – that is to say, it could threaten human extinction and the destruction of our long-term potential to realize a cosmically valuable future.

Would a superintelligent artificial intelligence be evil?

Hopefully it will not be! But it turns out that most final goals an artificial agent might have would result in the destruction of humanity and almost everything we value, if the agent were capable enough to fully achieve those goals. It’s not that most of these goals are evil in themselves, but that they would entail sub-goals that are incompatible with human survival.

For example, consider a superintelligent agent that wanted to maximize the number of paperclips in existence, and that was powerful enough to get its way. It might then want to eliminate humans to prevent us from switching if off (since that would reduce the number of paperclips that are built). It might also want to use the atoms in our bodies to build more paperclips.

Most possible final goals, it seems, would have similar implications to this example. So a big part of the challenge ahead is to identify a final goal that would truly be beneficial for humanity, and then to figure out a way to build the first superintelligence so that it has such an exceptional final goal. How to do this is not yet known (though we do now know that several superficially plausible approaches would not work, which is at least a little bit of progress).

How long have we got before a machine becomes superintelligent?

Nobody knows. In an opinion survey we did of AI experts, we found a median view that there was a 50% probability of human-level machine intelligence being developed by mid-century. But there is a great deal of uncertainty around that – it could happen much sooner, or much later. Instead of thinking in terms of some particular year, we need to be thinking in terms of probability distributed across a wide range of possible arrival dates.

So would this be like Terminator?

There is what I call a “good-story bias” that limits what kind of scenarios can be explored in novels and movies: only ones that are entertaining. This set may not overlap much with the group of scenarios that are probable.

For example, in a story, there usually have to be humanlike protagonists, a few of which play a pivotal role, facing a series of increasingly difficult challenges, and the whole thing has to take enough time to allow interesting plot complications to unfold. Maybe there is a small team of humans, each with different skills, which has to overcome some interpersonal difficulties in order to collaborate to defeat an apparently invincible machine which nevertheless turns out to have one fatal flaw (probably related to some sort of emotional hang-up).

One kind of scenario that one would not see on the big screen is one in which nothing unusual happens until all of a sudden we are all dead and then the Earth is turned into a big computer that performs some esoteric computation for the next billion years. But something like that is far more likely than a platoon of square-jawed men fighting off a robot army with machine guns.

Futuristic man. © Vladislav Ociacia via iStock.
Futuristic man. © Vladislav Ociacia via iStock.

If machines became more powerful than humans, couldn’t we just end it by pulling the plug? Removing the batteries?

It is worth noting that even systems that have no independent will and no ability to plan can be hard for us to switch off. Where is the off-switch to the entire Internet?

A free-roaming superintelligent agent would presumably be able to anticipate that humans might attempt to switch it off and, if it didn’t want that to happen, take precautions to guard against that eventuality. By contrast to the plans that are made by AIs in Hollywood movies – which plans are actually thought up by humans and designed to maximize plot satisfaction – the plans created by a real superintelligence would very likely work. If the other Great Apes start to feel that we are encroaching on their territory, couldn’t they just bash our skulls in? Would they stand a much better chance if every human had a little off-switch at the back of our necks?

So should we stop building robots?

The concern that I focus on in the book has nothing in particular to do with robotics. It is not in the body that the danger lies, but in the mind that a future machine intelligence may possess. Where there is a superintelligent will, there can most likely be found a way. For instance, a superintelligence that initially lacks means to directly affect the physical world may be able to manipulate humans to do its bidding or to give it access to the means to develop its own technological infrastructure.

One might then ask whether we should stop building AIs? That question seems to me somewhat idle, since there is no prospect of us actually doing so. There are strong incentives to make incremental advances along many different pathways that eventually may contribute to machine intelligence – software engineering, neuroscience, statistics, hardware design, machine learning, and robotics – and these fields involve large numbers of people from all over the world.

To what extent have we already yielded control over our fate to technology?

The human species has never been in control of its destiny. Different groups of humans have been going about their business, pursuing their various and sometimes conflicting goals. The resulting trajectory of global technological and economic development has come about without much global coordination and long-term planning, and almost entirely without any concern for the ultimate fate of humanity.

Picture a school bus accelerating down a mountain road, full of quibbling and carousing kids. That is humanity. But if we look towards the front, we see that the driver’s seat is empty.

Featured image credit: Humanrobo. Photo by The Global Panorama, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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7. Why study paradoxes?

Why should you study paradoxes? The easiest way to answer this question is with a story:

In 2002 I was attending a conference on self-reference in Copenhagen, Denmark. During one of the breaks I got a chance to chat with Raymond Smullyan, who is amongst other things an accomplished magician, a distinguished mathematical logician, and perhaps the most well-known popularizer of `Knight and Knave’ (K&K) puzzles.

K&K puzzles involve an imaginary island populated by two tribes: the Knights and the Knaves. Knights always tell the truth, and Knaves always lie (further, members of both tribes are forbidden to engage in activities that might lead to paradoxes or situations that break these rules). Other than their linguistic behavior, there is nothing that distinguishes Knights from Knaves.

Typically, K&K puzzles involve trying to answer questions based on assertions made by, or questions answered by, an inhabitant of the island. For example, a classic K&K puzzle involves meeting an islander at a fork in the road, where one path leads to riches and success and the other leads to pain and ruin. You are allowed to ask the islander one question, after which you must pick a path. Not knowing to which tribe the islander belongs, and hence whether she will lie or tell the truth, what question should you ask?

(Answer: You should ask “Which path would someone from the other tribe say was the one leading to riches and success?”, and then take the path not indicated by the islander).

Back to Copenhagen in 2002: Seizing my chance, I challenged Smullyan with the following K&K puzzle, of my own devising:

There is a nightclub on the island of Knights and Knaves, known as the Prime Club. The Prime Club has one strict rule: the number of occupants in the club must be a prime number at all times.

Pythagoras paradox.png
Pythagoras paradox, by Jan Arkesteijn (own work). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Prime Club also has strict bouncers (who stand outside the doors and do not count as occupants) enforcing this rule. In addition, a strange tradition has become customary at the Prime Club: Every so often the occupants form a conga line, and sing a song. The first lyric of the song is:

“At least one of us in the club is a Knave.”

and is sung by the first person in the line. The second lyric of the song is:

“At least two of us in the club are Knaves.”

and is sung by the second person in the line. The third person (if there is one) sings:

“At least three of us in the club are Knaves.”

And so on down the line, until everyone has sung a verse.

One day you walk by the club, and hear the song being sung. How many people are in the club?

Smullyan’s immediate response to this puzzle was something like “That can’t be solved – there isn’t enough information”. But he then stood alone in the corner of the reception area for about five minutes, thinking, before returning to confidently (and correctly, of course) answer “Two!”

I won’t spoil things by giving away the solution – I’ll leave that mystery for interested readers to solve on their own. (Hint: if the song is sung with any other prime number of islanders in the club, a paradox results!) I will note that the song is equivalent to a more formal construction involving a list of sentences of the form:

At least one of sentences S1 – Sn is false.

At least two of sentences S1 – Sn is false.


At least n of sentences S1 – Sn is false.

The point of this story isn’t to brag about having stumped a famous logician (even for a mere five minutes), although I admit that this episode (not only stumping Smullyan, but meeting him in the first place) is still one of the highlights of my academic career.

Frances MacDonald - A Paradox 1905.jpg
Frances MacDonald – A Paradox 1905, by Frances MacDonald McNair. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Instead, the story, and the puzzle at the center of it, illustrates the reasons why I find paradoxes so fascinating and worthy of serious intellectual effort. The standard story regarding why paradoxes are so important is that, although they are sometimes silly in-and-of-themselves, paradoxes indicate that there is something deeply flawed in our understanding of some basic philosophical notion (truth, in the case of the semantic paradoxes linked to K&K puzzles).

Another reason for their popularity is that they are a lot of fun. Both of these are really good reasons for thinking deeply about paradoxes. But neither is the real reason why I find them so fascinating. The real reason I find paradoxes so captivating is that they are much more mathematically complicated, and as a result much more mathematically interesting, than standard accounts (which typically equate paradoxes with the presence of some sort of circularity) might have you believe.

The Prime Club puzzle demonstrates that whether a particular collection of sentences is or is not paradoxical can depend on all sorts of surprising mathematical properties, such as whether there is an even or odd number of sentences in the collection, or whether the number of sentences in the collection is prime or composite, or all sorts of even weirder and more surprising conditions.

Other examples demonstrate that whether a construction (or, equivalently, a K&K story) is paradoxical can depend on whether the referential relation involved in the construction (i.e. the relation that holds between two sentences if one refers to the other) is symmetric, or is transitive.

The paradoxicality of still another type of construction, involving infinitely many sentences, depends on whether cofinitely many of the sentences each refer to cofinitely many of the other sentences in the construction (a set is cofinite if its complement is finite). And this only scratches the surface!

The more I think about and work on paradoxes, the more I marvel at how complicated the mathematical conditions for generating paradoxes are: it takes a lot more than the mere presence of circularity to generate a mathematical or semantic paradox, and stating exactly what is minimally required is still too difficult a question to answer precisely. And that’s why I work on paradoxes: their surprising mathematical complexity and mathematical beauty. Fortunately for me, there is still a lot of work remains to be done, and a lot of complexity and beauty remaining to be discovered.

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8. The unfinished fable of the sparrows

Owls and robots. Nature and computers. It might seem like these two things don’t belong in the same place, but The Unfinished Fable of the Sparrows (in an extract from Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence) sheds light on a particular problem: what if we used our highly capable brains to build machines that surpassed our general intelligence?

It was the nest-building season, but after days of long hard work, the sparrows sat in the evening glow, relaxing and chirping away.

“We are all so small and weak. Imagine how easy life would be if we had an owl who could help us build our nests!”

“Yes!” said another. “And we could use it to look after our elderly and our young.”

“It could give us advice and keep an eye out for the neighborhood cat,” added a third.

Then Pastus, the elder-bird, spoke: “Let us send out scouts in all directions and try to find an abandoned owlet somewhere, or maybe an egg. A crow chick might also do, or a baby weasel. This could be the best thing that ever happened to us, at least since the opening of the Pavilion of Unlimited Grain in yonder backyard.”

The flock was exhilarated, and sparrows everywhere started chirping at the top of their lungs.

Only Scronkfinkle, a one-eyed sparrow with a fretful temperament, was unconvinced of the wisdom of the endeavor. Quoth he: “This will surely be our undoing. Should we not give some thought to the art of owl-domestication and owl-taming first, before we bring such a creature into our midst?”

Replied Pastus: “Taming an owl sounds like an exceedingly difficult thing to do. It will be difficult enough to find an owl egg. So let us start there. After we have succeeded in raising an owl, then we can think about taking on this other challenge.”

“There is a flaw in that plan!” squeaked Scronkfinkle; but his protests were in vain as the flock had already lifted off to start implementing the directives set out by Pastus.

Just two or three sparrows remained behind. Together they began to try to work out how owls might be tamed or domesticated. They soon realized that Pastus had been right: this was an exceedingly difficult challenge, especially in the absence of an actual owl to practice on. Nevertheless they pressed on as best they could, constantly fearing that the flock might return with an owl egg before a solution to the control problem had been found.

Headline image credit: Chestnut Sparrow by Lip Kee. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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9. Moral pluralism and the dismay of Amy Kane

There’s a scene in the movie High Noon that seems to me to capture an essential feature of our moral lives. Actually, it’s not the entire scene. It’s one moment really, two shots — a facial expression and a movement of the head of Grace Kelly.

The part she’s playing is that of Amy Kane, the wife of Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper). Amy Kane is a Quaker, and as such is opposed to violence of any kind. Indeed, she tells Kane she will marry him only if he resigns as marshal of Hadleyville and vows to put down his guns forever. He agrees. But shortly after the wedding Kane learns that four villains have plans to terrorize the town, and he comes to think it is he who must try to stop them. He picks up his guns in preparation to meet the villains, and in so doing breaks his vow to Amy.

Unrelenting in her passivism, Amy decides to leave Will. She boards the noon train out of town. Then she hears gunfire, and, just as the train is about to depart, she disembarks and rushes back. Meanwhile, Kane is battling the villains. He manages to kill two of them, but the remaining two have him cornered. It looks like the end for Kane. Then one of them falls.

Amy has picked up a gun and shot him in the back.

We briefly glimpse Amy’s face immediately after she has pulled the trigger. She is distraught, stricken. When the camera angle changes to a view from behind, we see her head fall with great sadness under the weight of what she’s done.

What’s going on with Amy at that moment? It’s possible, I suppose, that she believes she shouldn’t have shot the villain, that she let her emotions run away with her, that she thinks she did the wrong thing. But I doubt that’s it. More likely is that when Amy heard the gunshots she decided that the right thing for her to do was return to town and help her husband in his desperate fight. But why then is Amy dismayed? If she performed the action she thought was right, shouldn’t she feel only moral contentment with what she has done?

Studio publicity still of Grace Kelly for the film Rear Window (1954). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Studio publicity still of Grace Kelly for the film Rear Window (1954). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Grace Kelly could have played it differently. She could have whooped with delight at having offed the bad guy, perhaps dropping some “hasta la vista”-like catchphrase along the way. Or she could have set her ample square jaw in grim determination and gone after the remaining villain, signaling to us her decision to discard namby-pamby pacifism for the robust alternative of visceral western justice. But Amy Kane’s actual reaction is psychologically more plausible — and morally more interesting. While she believes she’s done what she had to do, she’s still dismayed. Why?

What Amy’s reaction shows, I believe, is that morality is pluralist, not monist.

Monistic moral theories tell us that there is one and only one ultimate moral end. If monism is true, in every situation it will always be at least theoretically possible to justify the right course of action by showing that everything of fundamental moral importance supports it. Jeremy Bentham is an example of a moral monist.

He held that pleasure is the single ultimate end. Another example is Immanuel Kant, who held that the single base for all of morality is the Categorical Imperative. According to monists,successful moral justification will always ends at a single point (even if they disagree among themselves about what that point is).

Pluralist moral theories, in contrast, hold that there is a multitude of basic moral principles that can come into conflict with each other. David Hume and W.D. Ross were both moral pluralists. They believed that various kinds of moral conflict can arise — justice can conflict with beneficence, keeping a promise can conflict with obeying the law, courage can conflict with prudence — and that there are no underlying rules that explain how such conflicts are to be resolved.

If Hume and Ross are right and pluralism is true, even after you have given the best justification for a course of action that it is possible to give, you may sometimes have to acknowledge that to follow that course will be to act in conflict with something of fundamental moral importance. Your best justification may fail to make all of the moral ends meet.

With that understanding of monism and pluralism on board, let’s now return to Grace Kelly as Amy Kane. Let’s return to the moment her righteous killing of the bad guy causes her to bow her head in moral remorse.

If we assume monism, Amy’s response will seem paradoxical, weird, in some way inappropriate. If there is one and only one ultimate end, then to think that a course of action is right will be to think that everything of fundamental importance supports it. And it would be paradoxical or weird — inappropriate in some way — for someone to regret doing something in line with everything of fundamental moral importance. If the moral justification of an action ends at a single point, then what could the point be of feeling remorse for doing it?

But Amy’s reaction is perfectly explicable if we take her to have a plurality of potentially-conflicting basic moral commitments. Moral pluralists will explain that Amy has decided that in this situation saving Kane from the villains has a fundamental moral importance that overrides the prohibition on killing, even while she continues to believe that there is something fundamentally morally terrible about killing. For pluralists, there is nothing strange about feeling remorse toward acting against something one takes to be of fundamental moral importance.

Indeed, feeling remorse in such a situation is just what we should expect. This is why we take Amy’s response to be apt, not paradoxical or weird. We think that she, like most of us, holds a plurality of fundamental moral commitments, one of which she rightly acted on even though it meant having to violate another.

The upshot is this. If you think Grace Kelly played the scene right — and if you think High Noon captures something about our moral lives that “hasta la vista”-type movies do not — then you ought to believe in moral pluralism.

Headline image: General Store Sepia Toned Wild West Town. © BCFC via iStock

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10. Happiness and high school humanities

I got a request this past year from my friends at Boston Green Academy (BGA) to help them consider their Humanities 4 curriculum, which focuses on philosophies, especially around happiness. This was a tough request for me, and certainly not one I had considered before. There aren’t any titles I can think of that say “Philosophy: Happiness” on their covers to pull me directly down this path.

But as I thought about it, I got more and more excited about how this topic is tackled in the YA world. The first set of books I considered were titles that dealt with “the meaning of life” in a variety of ways. Titles like Nothing by Janne Teller, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass, and one of my personal favorites, The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp give lots of food for thought about where we expend our energy and the wisdom of how we prioritize our attention in life.

 teller nothing 213x300 Happiness and high school humanities    maas jeremyfink 201x300 Happiness and high school humanities    tharp spectacularnow 199x300 Happiness and high school humanities

This, of course, led to stories about facing challenges and finding happiness despite (or because) of the circumstances in our lives.  So we pulled texts like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, and Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, which all deal with characters finding ways to deal with and even prosper alongside difficult circumstances.

green faultinourstars Happiness and high school humanities     vizzini kindofFunnyStory 204x300 Happiness and high school humanities     stork marcelo 195x300 Happiness and high school humanities

Then we happened upon a set of titles that raise questions about whether you can be “happy” if you are or are not being yourself. We pulled segments of titles like Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Tina’s Mouth by Keshni Kashyap, American-Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and Rapture Practice, which I’ve talked about here before.

openly straight Happiness and high school humanities     saenz aristotleanddante 199x300 Happiness and high school humanities     keshni tinasmouth 234x300 Happiness and high school humanities     hartzler rapturepractice 203x300 Happiness and high school humanities

And then there were a world of nonfiction possibilities, those written for young people and those not — picture books by Demi about various figures, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas about work and play, and any number of great series texts about philosophers and religions and such.

So I guess the (happy) moral of this story is that it was much easier than I thought to revisit old texts with these new eyes of philosophies of happiness. I left the work feeling as though every text is about this very important topic in one way or another, and I can’t wait to see how the BGA curriculum around it continues to evolve!

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11. Ethical issues in managing the current Ebola crisis

Until the current epidemic, Ebola was largely regarded as not a Western problem. Although fearsome, Ebola seemed contained to remote corners of Africa, far from major international airports. We are now learning the hard way that Ebola is not—and indeed was never—just someone else’s problem. Yes, this outbreak is different: it originated in West Africa, at the border of three countries, where the transportation infrastructure was better developed, and was well under way before it was recognized. But we should have understood that we are “all in this together” for Ebola, as for any, infectious disease.

Understanding that we were profoundly wrong about Ebola can help us to see ethical considerations that should shape how we go forward. Here, I have space just to outline two: reciprocity and fairness.

In the aftermath of the global SARS epidemic that spread to Canada, the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto produced a touchstone document for pandemic planning, Stand on Guard for Thee, which highlights reciprocity as a value. When health care workers take risks to protect us all, we owe them special concern if they are harmed. Dr. Bruce Ribner, speaking on ABC, described Emory University Hospital as willing to take two US health care workers who became infected abroad because they believed these workers deserved the best available treatment for the risks they took for humanitarian ends. Calls to ban the return of US workers—or treatment in the United States of other infected front-line workers—forget that contagious diseases do not occur in a vacuum. Even Ann Coulter recognized, in her own unwitting way, that we owe support to first responders for the burdens they undertake for us all when she excoriated Dr. Kent Brantly for humanitarian work abroad rather than in the United States.

We too often fail to recognize that all the health care and public health workers at risk in the Ebola epidemic—and many have died—are owed duties of special concern. Yet unlike health care workers at Emory, health care workers on the front lines in Africa must make do with limited equipment under circumstances in which it is very difficult for them to be safe, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. As we go forward we must remember the importance of providing adequately for these workers and for workers in the next predictable epidemics — not just for Americans who are able to return to the US for care. Supporting these workers means providing immediate care for those who fall ill, as well as ongoing care for them and their families if they die or are not longer able to work. But this is not all; health care workers on the front lines can be supported by efforts to minimize disease spread—for example conducting burials to minimize risks of infection from the dead—as well as unceasing attention to the development of public health infrastructures so that risks can be swiftly identified and contained and care can be delivered as safely as possible.

Ebola in West Africa. Three humanitarian experts and six specialists in dangerous infectious diseases of the European Mobile Lab project have been deployed on the ground, with a mobile laboratory unit to help accelerate diagnoses. © EMLab, European Commission DG ECHO, EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection. CC BY-ND 2.0 via European Commission DG ECHO Flickr.
Ebola in West Africa. Three humanitarian experts and six specialists in dangerous infectious diseases of the European Mobile Lab project have been deployed on the ground, with a mobile laboratory unit to help accelerate diagnoses. © EMLab, European Commission DG ECHO, EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection. CC BY-ND 2.0 via European Commission DG ECHO Flickr.

Fairness requires treating others as we would like to be treated ourselves. A way of thinking about what is fair is to ask what we would want done if we did not know our position under the circumstances at hand. In a classic of political philosophy, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls suggested the thought experiment of asking what principles of justice we would be willing to accept for a society in which we were to live, if we didn’t know anything about ourselves except that we would be somewhere in that society. Infectious disease confronts us all with an actual possibility of the Rawlsian thought experiment. We are all enmeshed in a web of infectious organisms, potential vectors to one another and hence potential victims, too. We never know at any given point in time whether we will be victim, vector, or both. It’s as though we were all on a giant airplane, not knowing who might cough, or spit, or bleed, what to whom, and when. So we need to ask what would be fair under these brute facts of human interconnectedness.

At a minimum, we need to ask what would be fair about the allocation of Ebola treatments, both before and if they become validated and more widely available. Ethical issues such as informed consent and exploitation of vulnerable populations in testing of experimental medicines certainly matter but should not obscure that fairness does, too, whether we view the medications as experimental or last-ditch treatment. Should limited supplies be administered to the worst off? Are these the sickest, most impoverished, or those subjected to the greatest risks, especially risks of injustice? Or, should limited supplies be directed where they might do the most good—where health care workers are deeply fearful and abandoning patients, or where we need to encourage people who have been exposed to be monitored and isolated if needed?

These questions of fairness occur in the broader context of medicine development and distribution. ZMAPP (the experimental monoclonal antibody administered on a compassionate use basis to the two Americans) was jointly developed by the US government, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and a few very small companies. Ebola has not drawn a great deal of drug development attention; indeed, infectious diseases more generally have not drawn their fair share of attention from Big Pharma, as least as measured by the global burden of disease.

WHO has declared the Ebola epidemic an international emergency and is convening ethics experts to consider such questions as whether and how the experimental treatment administered to the two Americans should be made available to others. I expect that the values of reciprocity and fairness will surface in these discussions. Let us hope they do, and that their import is remembered beyond the immediate emergency.

Headline Image credit: Ebola virus virion. Created by CDC microbiologist Cynthia Goldsmith, this colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealed some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library, #10816 . Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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12. Why metaphor matters

By James Grant

Plato famously said that there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. But with respect to one aspect of poetry, namely metaphor, many contemporary philosophers have made peace with the poets. In their view, we need metaphor. Without it, many truths would be inexpressible and unknowable. For example, we cannot describe feelings and sensations adequately without it. Take Gerard Manley Hopkins’s exceptionally powerful metaphor of despair:

selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless,
thoughts against thoughts in groans grind.

How else could precisely this kind of mood be expressed? Describing how things appear to our senses is also thought to require metaphor, as when we speak of the silken sound of a harp, the warm colours of a Titian, and the bold or jolly flavour of a wine.  Science advances by the use of metaphors – of the mind as a computer, of electricity as a current, or of the atom as a solar system. And metaphysical and religious truths are often thought to be inexpressible in literal language. Plato condemned poets for claiming to provide knowledge they did not have. But if these philosophers are right, there is at least one poetic use of language that is needed for the communication of many truths.

In my view, however, this is the wrong way to defend the value of metaphor. Comparisons may well be indispensable for communication in many situations. We convey the unfamiliar by likening it to the familiar. But many hold that it is specifically metaphor – and no other kind of comparison – that is indispensable. Metaphor tells us things the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ never could. If true, this would be fascinating. It would reveal the limits of what is expressible in literal language. But no one has come close to giving a good argument for it. And in any case, metaphor does not have to be an indispensable means to knowledge in order to be as valuable as we take it to be.

Metaphor may not tell us anything that couldn’t be expressed by other means. But good metaphors have many other effects on readers than making them grasp some bit of information, and these are often precisely the effects the metaphor-user wants to have. There is far more to the effective use of language than transmitting information. My particular interest is in how art critics use metaphor to help us appreciate paintings, architecture, music, and other artworks. There are many reasons why metaphor matters, but art criticism reveals two reasons of particular importance.


Take this passage from John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. Ruskin describes arriving in Venice by boat and seeing ‘the long ranges of columned palaces,—each with its black boat moored at the portal,—each with its image cast down, beneath its feet, upon that green pavement which every breeze broke into new fantasies of rich tessellation’, and observing how ‘the front of the Ducal palace, flushed with its sanguine veins, looks to the snowy dome of Our Lady of Salvation’.

One thing Ruskin’s metaphors do is describe the waters of Venice and the Ducal palace at an extraordinary level of specificity. There are many ways water looks when breezes blow across its surface. There are fewer ways it looks when breezes blow across its surface and make it look like something broken into many pieces. And there are still fewer ways it looks when breezes blow across its surface and make it look like something broken into pieces forming a rich mosaic with the colours of Venetian palaces and a greenish tint. Ruskin’s metaphor communicates that the waters of Venice look like that. The metaphor of the Ducal palace as ‘flushed with its sanguine veins’ likewise narrows the possible appearances considerably. Characterizing appearances very specifically is of particular use to art critics, as they often want to articulate the specific appearance an artwork presents.

A second thing metaphors like Ruskin’s do is cause readers to imagine seeing what he describes. We naturally tend to picture the palace or the water on hearing Ruskin’s metaphor. This function of metaphor has often been noted: George Orwell, for instance, writes that ‘a newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image’.

Why do novel metaphors evoke images? Precisely because they are novel uses of words. To understand them, we cannot rely on our knowledge of the literal meanings of the words alone. We often have to employ imagination. To understand Ruskin’s metaphor, we try to imagine seeing water that looks like a broken mosaic. If we manage this, we know the kind of look that he is attributing to the water.

Imagining a thing is often needed to appreciate that thing. Knowing facts about it is often not enough by itself. Accurately imagining Hopkins’s despondency, or the experience of arriving in Venice by boat, gives us some appreciation of these experiences. By enabling us to imagine accurately and specifically, metaphor is exceptionally well suited to enhancing our appreciation of what it describes.

James Grant is a Tutorial Fellow in Philosophy at Exeter College, Oxford. He is the author of The Critical Imagination.

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Image credit: Hermann Herzog: Venetian canal, by Bonhams. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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13. What is consciousness?

By Ted Honderich

The philosopher Descartes set out to escape doubt and to find certainties. From the premise that he was thinking, even if falsely, he argued to what he took to be the certain conclusion that he existed. Cogito ergo sum. He is as well known for concluding that consciousness is not physical. Your being conscious right now is not an objective physical fact. It has a nature quite unlike that of the chair you are sitting on. Your consciousness is different in kind from objectively physical neural states and events in your head.

This mind-body dualism persists. It is not only a belief or attitude in religion or spirituality. It is concealed in standard cognitive science or computerism. The fundamental attraction of dualism is that we are convinced, since we have a hold on it, that consciousness is different. There really is a difference in kind between you and the chair you are sitting on, not a factitious difference.

But there is an awful difficulty. Consciousness has physical effects. Arms move because of desires, bullets come out of guns because of intentions. How could such indubitably physical events have causes that are not physical at all, for a start not in space?

Some philosophers used to accomodate the fact that movements have physical causes by saying conscious desires and intentions aren’t themselves causal but they go along with brain events. Epiphenomenalism is true. Conscious beliefs themselves do not explain your stepping out of the way of joggers. But epiphenomenalism is now believed only in remote parts of Australia, where the sun is very hot. I know only one epiphenomenalist in London, sometimes seen among the good atheists in Conway Hall.

A decent theory or analysis of consciousness will also have the recommendation of answering a clear question. It will proceed from an adequate initial clarification of a subject. The present great divergence in theories of consciousness is mainly owed to people talking about different things. Some include what others call the unconscious mind.

Crystal mind By Nevit Dilmen (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But there are also the criteria for a good theory. We have two already — a good theory will make consciousness different and it will make consciousness itself effective. In fact consciousness is to us not just different, but mysterious, more than elusive. It is such that philosopher Colin McGinn has said before now that we humans have no more chance of understanding it than a chimp has of doing quantum mechanics.

There’s a lot to the new theory of Actualism, starting with a clarification of ordinary consciousness in the primary or core sense as something called actual consciousness. Think along with me just of one good piece of the theory. Think of one part or side or group of elements of ordinary consciousness. Think of consciousness in ordinary perception — say seeing — as against consciousness in just thinking and wanting. Call it perceptual consciousness. What is it for you to perceptually conscious now, as we say, of the room you’re in? Being aware of it, not thinking about it or something in it? Well, the fact is not some internal thing about you. It’s for a room to exist.

It’s for a piece of a subjective physical world to exist out there in space — yours. That is something dependent both on the objective physical world out there and also on you neurally. A subjective physical world’s being dependent on something in you, of course, doesn’t take it out of space out there or deprive it of other counterparts of the characteristics you can assemble of the objective physical world. What is actual with perceptual consciousness is not a representation of a world — stuff called sense data or qualia or mental paint — whatever is the case with cognitive and affective consciousness.

That’s just a good start on Actualism. It makes consciousness different. It doesn’t reduce consciousness to something that has no effects. It also involves a large fact of subjectivity, indeed of what you can call individuality or personal identity, even living a life. One more criterion of a good theory is naturalism — being true to science. It is also philosophy, which is greater concentration on the logic of ordinary intelligence, thinking about facts rather than getting them. Actualism also helps a little with human standing, that motive of believers in free will as against determinism.

Ted Honderich is Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London. He edited The Oxford Companion to Philosophy and has written about determinism and freedom, social ends and political means, and even himself in Philosopher: A Kind of Life. He recently published Actual Consciousness.

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14. Approaching peak skepticism

This is the third in a four-part series on Christian epistemology titled “Radical faith meets radical doubt: a Christian epistemology for skeptics” by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

By John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

We are near, it seems, “peak skepticism.” We all know that the sweetest character in the movie we’re watching will turn out to be the serial killer. We all know that the stranger in the good suit and the great hair is up to something sinister. We all know that the honey-voiced therapist or the soothing guru or the brave leader of the heroic little NGO will turn out to be a fraud, embezzling here or seducing there.

“I read it on the Internet” became a rueful joke as quickly as there was an Internet. Politicians are all liars, priests are all pedophiles, professors are all blowhards: you can’t trust anyone or anything.

Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga shrugs off the contemporary storm of frightening doubt, however, with the robust common sense of his Frisian forebears:

Such Christian thinkers as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Kuyper…recognize that there aren’t any certain foundations of the sort Descartes sought—or, if there are, they are exceedingly slim, and there is no way to transfer their certainty to our important non-foundational beliefs about material objects, the past, other persons, and the like. This is a stance that requires a certain epistemic hardihood: there is, indeed, such a thing as truth; the stakes are, indeed, very high (it matters greatly whether you believe the truth); but there is no way to be sure that you have the truth; there is no sure and certain method of attaining truth by starting from beliefs about which you can’t be mistaken and moving infallibly to the rest of your beliefs. Furthermore, many others reject what seems to you to be most important. This is life under uncertainty, life under epistemic risk and fallibility. I believe a thousand things, and many of them are things others—others of great acuity and seriousness—do not believe. Indeed, many of the beliefs that mean the most to me are of that sort. I realize I can be seriously, dreadfully, fatally wrong, and wrong about what it is enormously important to be right. That is simply the human condition: my response must be finally, “Here I stand; this is the way the world looks to me.”

Thomas Reid

Thomas Reid. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In this attitude Plantinga follows in the cheerful train of Thomas Reid, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher. In his several epistemological books, Reid devotes a great deal of energy to demolishing what he sees to be a misguided approach to knowledge, which he terms the “Way of Ideas.” Unfortunately for standard-brand modern philosophy, and even for most of the rest of us non-philosophers, the Way of Ideas is not merely some odd little branch but the main trunk of epistemology from Descartes and Locke forward to Kant.

The Way of Ideas, roughly speaking, is the basic scheme of perception by which the things “out there” somehow cause us to have ideas of them in our minds, and thus we form appropriate beliefs about them. Reid contends, startlingly, that this scheme fails to illuminate what is actually happening. In fact, Reid pulverizes this scheme as simply incoherent—an understanding so basic that most of us take it for granted, even if we could not actually explain it. The “problem of the external world” remains intractable. We just don’t know how we reliably get “in here” (in our minds) what is “out there” (in the world).

Having set aside the Way of Ideas, Reid then stuns the reader again with this declaration: “I do not attempt to substitute any other theory in [its] place.” Reid asserts instead that it is a “mystery” how we form beliefs about the world that actually do seem to correspond to the world as it is. (Our beliefs do seem to have the virtue of helping us negotiate that world pretty well.)

The philosopher who has followed Reid to this point now might well be aghast. “What?” she might sputter. “You have destroyed the main scheme of modern Western epistemology only to say that you don’t have anything better to offer in its place? What kind of philosopher are you?”

“A Christian one,” Reid might reply. For Reid takes great comfort in trusting God for creating the world such that human beings seem eminently well equipped to apprehend and live in it. Reid encourages readers therefore to thank God for this provision, this “bounty of heaven,” and to obey God in confidence that God continues to provide the means (including the epistemic means) to do so. Furthermore, Reid affirms, any other position than grateful acceptance of the fact that we believe the way we do just because that is the way we are is not just intellectually untenable, but (almost biblically) foolish.

Thus Thomas Reid dispenses with modern hubris on the one side and postmodern despair on the other. To those who would say, “I am certain I now sit upon this chair,” Reid would reply, “Good luck proving that.” To those who would say, “You just think you’re sitting in a chair now, but in fact you could be anyone, anywhere, just imagining you are you sitting in a chair,” he would simply snort and perhaps chastise them for their ingratitude for the knowledge they have gained so effortlessly by the grace of God.

Having acknowledged the foolishness of claiming certainty, Reid places the burden of proof, then, where it belongs: on the radical skeptic who has to show why we should doubt what seems so immediately evident, rather than on the believer who has to show why one ought to believe what seems effortless to believe. Darkness, Reid writes, is heavy upon all epistemological investigations. We know through our own action that we are efficient causes of things; we know God is, too. More than this, however, we cannot say, since we cannot peer into the essences of things. Reid commends to us all sorts of inquiries, including scientific ones, but we will always be stymied at some level by the four-year-old’s incessant question: “Yes, but why?” Such explanations always come back to questions of efficient causation, and human reason simply cannot lay bare the way things are in themselves so as to see how things do cause each other to be this or that way.

Reid’s contemporary and countryman David Hume therefore was right on this score, Reid allows. But unlike Hume—very much unlike Hume—Reid is cheerful about us carrying on anyway with the practically reliable beliefs we generally do form, as God wants us to do. Far from being paralyzed by epistemological doubt, therefore, Reid offers all of us a thankful epistemology of trust and obedience.

But do Christians need to resort to such a breathtakingly bold response to the deep skepticism of our times? My last post offers an answer.

John G. Stackhouse Jr. is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology.

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15. Rebooting Philosophy

By Luciano Floridi

When we use a computer, its performance seems to degrade progressively. This is not a mere impression. An old version of Firefox, the free Web browser, was infamous for its “memory leaks”: it would consume increasing amounts of memory to the detriment of other programs. Bugs in the software actually do slow down the system. We all know what the solution is: reboot. We restart the computer, the memory is reset, and the performance is restored, until the bugs slow it down again.

Philosophy is a bit like a computer with a memory leak. It starts well, dealing with significant and serious issues that matter to anyone. Yet, in time, its very success slows it down. Philosophy begins to care more about philosophers’ questions than philosophical ones, consuming increasing amount of intellectual attention. Scholasticism is the ultimate freezing of the system, the equivalent of Windows’ “blue screen of death”; so many resources are devoted to internal issues that no external input can be processed anymore, and the system stops. The world may be undergoing a revolution, but the philosophical discourse remains detached and utterly oblivious. Time to reboot the system.

Philosophical “rebooting” moments are rare. They are usually prompted by major transformations in the surrounding reality. Since the nineties, I have been arguing that we are witnessing one of those moments. It now seems obvious, even to the most conservative person, that we are experiencing a turning point in our history. The information revolution is profoundly changing every aspect of our lives, quickly and relentlessly. The list is known but worth recalling: education and entertainment, communication and commerce, love and hate, politics and conflicts, culture and health, … feel free to add your preferred topics; they are all transformed by technologies that have the recording and processing of information as their core functions. Meanwhile, philosophy is degrading into self-referential discussions on irrelevancies.

The result of a philosophical rebooting today can only be beneficial. Digital technologies are not just tools merely modifying how we deal with the world, like the wheel or the engine. They are above all formatting systems, which increasingly affect how we understand the world, how we relate to it, how we see ourselves, and how we interact with each other.

The ‘Fourth Revolution’ betrays what I believe to be one of the topics that deserves our full intellectual attention today. The idea is quite simple. Three scientific revolutions have had great impact on how we see ourselves. In changing our understanding of the external world they also modified our self-understanding. After the Copernican revolution, the heliocentric cosmology displaced the Earth and hence humanity from the centre of the universe. The Darwinian revolution showed that all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors through natural selection, thus displacing humanity from the centre of the biological kingdom. And following Freud, we acknowledge nowadays that the mind is also unconscious. So we are not immobile, at the centre of the universe, we are not unnaturally separate and diverse from the rest of the animal kingdom, and we are very far from being minds entirely transparent to ourselves. One may easily question the value of this classic picture. After all, Freud was the first to interpret these three revolutions as part of a single process of reassessment of human nature and his perspective was blatantly self-serving. But replace Freud with cognitive science or neuroscience, and we can still find the framework useful to explain our strong impression that something very significant and profound has recently happened to our self-understanding.

Since the fifties, computer science and digital technologies have been changing our conception of who we are. In many respects, we are discovering that we are not standalone entities, but rather interconnected informational agents, sharing with other biological agents and engineered artefacts a global environment ultimately made of information, the infosphere. If we need a champion for the fourth revolution this should definitely be Alan Turing.

The fourth revolution offers a historical opportunity to rethink our exceptionalism in at least two ways. Our intelligent behaviour is confronted by the smart behaviour of engineered artefacts, which can be adaptively more successful in the infosphere. Our free behaviour is confronted by the predictability and manipulability of our choices, and by the development of artificial autonomy. Digital technologies sometimes seem to know more about our wishes than we do. We need philosophy to make sense of the radical changes brought about by the information revolution. And we need it to be at its best, for the difficulties we are facing are challenging. Clearly, we need to reboot philosophy now.

Luciano Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, and Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford. He was recently appointed as ethics advisor to Google. His most recent book is The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality.

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Image credit: Alan Turing Statue at Bletchley Park. By Ian Petticrew. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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16. Practical wisdom and why we need to value it


By David Blockley

“Some people who do not possess theoretical knowledge are more effective in action (especially if they are experienced) than others who do possess it.”

Aristotle was referring, in his Nicomachean Ethics, to an attribute called practical wisdom – a quality that many modern engineers have – but our western intellectual tradition has completely lost sight of. I will describe briefly what Aristotle wrote about practical wisdom, argue for its recognition and celebration and state that we need consciously to utilise it as we face up to the uncertainties inherent in the engineering challenges of climate change.

Necessarily what follows is a simplified account of complex and profound ideas. Aristotle saw five ways of arriving at the truth – he called them art (ars, techne), science (episteme), intuition (nous), wisdom (sophia), and practical wisdom – sometimes translated as prudence (phronesis). Ars or techne (from which we get the words art and technical, technique and technology) was concerned with production but not action. Art had a productive state, truly reasoned, with an end (i.e. a product) other than itself (e.g. a building). It was not just a set of activities and skills of craftsman but included the arts of the mind and what we would now call the fine arts. The Greeks did not distinguish the fine arts as the work of an inspired individual – that came only after the Renaissance. So techne as the modern idea of mere technique or rule-following was only one part of what Aristotle was referring to.

Episteme (from which we get the word epistemology or knowledge) was of necessity and eternal; it is knowledge that cannot come into being or cease to be; it is demonstrable and teachable and depends on first principles. Later, when combined with Christianity, episteme as eternal, universal, context-free knowledge has profoundly influenced western thought and is at the heart of debates between science and religion. Intuition or nous was a state of mind that apprehends these first principles and we could think of it as our modern notion of intelligence or intellect. Wisdom or sophia was the most finished form of knowledge – a combination of nous and episteme.

Aristotle thought there were two kinds of virtues, the intellectual and the moral. Practical wisdom or phronesis was an intellectual virtue of perceiving and understanding in effective ways and acting benevolently and beneficently. It was not an art and necessarily involved ethics, not static but always changing, individual but also social and cultural. As an illustration of the quotation at the head of this article, Aristotle even referred to people who thought Anaxagoras and Thales were examples of men with exceptional, marvelous, profound but useless knowledge because their search was not for human goods.

Aristotle thought of human activity in three categories praxis, poeisis (from which we get the word poetry), and theoria (contemplation – from which we get the word theory). The intellectual faculties required were phronesis for praxis, techne for poiesis, and sophia and nous for theoria.

Sculpture of Aristotle at the Louvre Museum, Eric Gaba, CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Sculpture of Aristotle at the Louvre Museum. Photo by Eric Gaba, CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

It is important to understand that theoria had total priority because sophia and nous were considered to be universal, necessary and eternal but the others are variable, finite, contingent and hence uncertain and thus inferior.

What did Aristotle actually mean when he referred to phronesis? As I see it phronesis is a means towards an end arrived at through moral virtue. It is concerned with “the capacity for determining what is good for both the individual and the community”. It is a virtue and a competence, an ability to deliberate rightly about what is good in general, about discerning and judging what is true and right but it excludes specific competences (like deliberating about how to build a bridge or how to make a person healthy). It is purposeful, contextual but not rule-following. It is not routine or even well-trained behaviour but rather intentional conduct based on tacit knowledge and experience, using longer time horizons than usual, and considering more aspects, more ways of knowing, more viewpoints, coupled with an ability to generalise beyond narrow subject areas. Phronesis was not considered a science by Aristotle because it is variable and context dependent. It was not an art because it is about action and generically different from production. Art is production that aims at an end other than itself. Action is a continuous process of doing well and an end in itself in so far as being well done it contributes to the good life.

Christopher Long argues that an ontology (the philosophy of being or nature of existence) directed by phronesis rather than sophia (as it currently is) would be ethical; would question normative values; would not seek refuge in the eternal but be embedded in the world and be capable of critically considering the historico-ethical-political conditions under which it is deployed. Its goal would not be eternal context-free truth but finite context-dependent truth. Phronesis is an excellence (arête) and capable of determining the ends. The difference between phronesis and techne echoes that between sophia and episteme. Just as sophia must not just understand things that follow from first principles but also things that must be true, so phronesis must not just determine itself towards the ends but as arête must determine the ends as good. Whereas sophia knows the truth through nous, phronesis must rely on moral virtues from lived experience.

In the 20th century quantum mechanics required sophia to change and to recognise that we cannot escape uncertainty. Derek Sellman writes that a phronimo will recognise not knowing our competencies, i.e. not knowing what we know, and not knowing our uncompetencies, i.e. not knowing what we do not know. He states that a longing for phronesis “is really a longing for a world in which people honestly and capably strive to act rightly and to avoid harm,” and he thinks it is a longing for praxis.

In summary I think that one way (and perhaps the only way) of dealing with the ‘wicked’ uncertainties we face in the future, such as the effects of climate change, is through collaborative ‘learning together’ informed by the recognition, appreciation, and exercise of practical wisdom.

Professor Blockley is an engineer and an academic scientist. He has been Head of the Department of Civil Engineering and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol. He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Structural Engineers, and the Royal Society of Arts. He has written four books including Engineering: A Very Short Introduction and Bridges: The science and art of the world’s most inspiring structures.

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday, subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS., and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook.

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17. John Calvin’s prophetic calling and the memory

By Jon Balserak

What is the self, and how is it formed? In the case of Calvin, we might be given a glimpse at an answer if we consider the context from which he came. Calvin was part of a society that was still profoundly memorial in character; he lived with the vestiges of that medieval culture that’s discussed so brilliantly by Frances Yates and Mary Carruthers — a society which committed classical and Christian corpora to remembrance and whose self-identity was, in a large part, shaped and informed by memory. Understanding his society may help us to understand not only Calvin but, more specifically, something of his prophetic self-consciousness.

To explore this further, I might call to memory that wonderful story told by Carruthers of Heloise’s responding to her friends when they were trying to dissuade her from entering the convent. Heloise responded to them by citing the words of Cornelia from Lucan’s poem, “Pharsalia”. Carruthers explains that Heloise had not only memorized Cornelia’s lament but had so imbibed it that it, as set down in words by Lucan, helped her explain her own feelings and in fact constituted part of her constructed self. Lucan’s words, filling her mind and being memorized and absorbed through the medieval method of reading, helped Heloise give expression to her own emotional state and, being called upon at a moment of such personal anguish, represented something of who she was; they helped form and give expression to her self-identity. The account, and Carruthers’s interpretation of it, is so fascinating because it raises such interesting questions about how self-identity is shaped. Was a medieval man or woman in some sense the accumulation of the thoughts and experiences about which he or she had been reading? Is that how Heloise’s behaviour should be interpreted?

John Calvin by Hans Holbein the Younger. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

John Calvin by Hans Holbein the Younger. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Does this teach us anything about Calvin’s self-conception? One can imagine that if Calvin memorized and deeply imbibed the Christian corpus, particularly the prophetic books, that perhaps this affected his self-identity; that it was his perceptive matrix when he looked both at the world and at himself. To dig deeper, we might examine briefly one of Calvin’s experiences. One thinks, for instance, of his account of being stopped in his tracks by Guillaume Farel in Geneva in 1536. He recounts that Farel, when he learned that Calvin was in Geneva, came and urged him to stay and help with the reforming of the church. Farel employed such earnestness, Calvin explains, that he felt stricken with a divine terror which compelled him to stop his travels and stay in Geneva. The account reads not unlike the calling of an Old Testament prophet, such as Isaiah’s recorded in Isaiah 6 (it reads, incidentally, like the calling of John Knox as well). So what is one to make of this? This account was written in the early 1550s. It was written by one whose memory was, by this point in his life, saturated with the language of the prophetic authors. Indeed, it might be noted that Calvin claims in numerous places in his writings that his life is like the prophet David’s; that his times are a “mirror” of the prophets’ age. So is all of this the depiction of his constructed self spilling out of his memory, just as it was with Heloise?

The question is actually an incredibly fascinating one: how is the self formed? Does one construct one’s ‘self’ in a deliberate, self-conscious manner? What is so interesting, in relation to Calvin and the story just recounted, is not merely that he seems to have interpreted this episode in his life as a divine calling — so important was it, in fact, that he rehearsed it in his preface to his commentary on the Psalms, the one document in which he gives anything like a personal account of his calling to the ministry in fairly unambiguous language — but that his account should be crafted after the manner of Old Testament prophets descriptions of their callings. That is what is so intriguing and important here. It is true, as I have just said, that he wrote this many years after the event and it seems most probably to have been something which he did exercise some care over. All of that is true. But none of this takes anything away from the fact that Calvin, when he wanted to tell the story of his calling, used imagery from the prophetic books to do so. He could easily have mentioned many things or adopted various methods for explaining the way in which God called him into divine service, but he didn’t choose other methods, he turned to the prophets.

Why did he do this? Surely the answer to that question is complicated. But equally certain, it seems to me, is the fact that his ingesting of the prophetic writings represents a likely element in such an answer. For if, as Carruthers argues, memory is the matrix of perception, then Calvin’s matrix was profoundly biblical and, especially, prophetic. Naturally, much could be said by way of explaining why he interpreted this episode in his life in the way that he did. But the fact that his mind turned towards this prophetic trope says an immense amount about Calvin and the resource by which he interpreted himself and his life.

Jon Balserak is currently Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Bristol. He is an historian of Renaissance and Early Modern Europe, particularly France and the Swiss Confederation. He also works on textual scholarship, electronic editing and digital editions. His latest book is John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet (OUP, 2014).

To learn more about John Calvin’s idea of the self, read “The ‘I’ of Calvin,” the first chapter of John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet, available via Oxford Scholarship Online. Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO) is a vast and rapidly-expanding research library. Launched in 2003 with four subject modules, Oxford Scholarship Online is now available in 20 subject areas and has grown to be one of the leading academic research resources in the world. Oxford Scholarship Online offers full-text access to academic monographs from key disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, science, medicine, and law, providing quick and easy access to award-winning Oxford University Press scholarship.

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18. Theodicy in dialogue

By Mark S. M. Scott

Imagine for a moment that through a special act of divine providence God assembled the greatest theologians throughout time to sit around a theological round table to solve the problem of evil. You would have many of the usual suspects: Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth. You would have the mystics: Gregory of Nyssa, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Ávila, and Thomas Merton. You would have the scholastics: Anselm, Peter Lombard, Bonaventure, and John Duns Scotus. You would have the newcomers: Jürgen Moltmann, Sarah Coakley, and Miroslav Volf. You might even have some unknown names and faces. Feel free to place your favorite theologian around the table. With these diverse and dynamic minds, you could expect to have a spirited conversation.

If you were to moderate the discussion around our massive oak table you would have the daunting task of keeping pace with these agile intellects and perhaps of negotiating a few inflated egos. It might be difficult to get a word in edgewise. Augustine would be affable and loquacious. Aquinas would be precise and ponderous. Luther would be humorous and polemical. But where would Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254) fit in, the greatest theologian of Eastern Christianity? What would he say about the problem of evil? All agree he deserves an honored seat at the table, but often others around the table suck all the oxygen out of the room, leaving little air for his profound insights, particularly on the problem of evil, which anticipate later developments while also reflecting his distinctive intellectual milieu. Let’s imagine how the conversation might go.

Disputa di Santo Stefano fra i Dottori nel Sinedrio by Vittore Carpaccio [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Disputa di Santo Stefano fra i Dottori nel Sinedrio by Vittore Carpaccio [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Aquinas: “Welcome all. I’ve been asked to begin our discussion. Let me say first that the problem of evil represents the most formidable conceptual challenge to theism.”

Augustine: “I agree, but the problem’s resolved once we realize that evil doesn’t exist per se, like a malevolent substance, it’s simply the privation of the good. At any rate, God doesn’t create evil, we do, and God eventually brings good out of evil, so evil doesn’t have the final say.”

Sarah Coakley: “It can’t be settled that easily. I’m suspicious of grand theological narratives that simplify conceptual complexities. Let’s retrieve some neglected voices on the problem.”

Gregory of Nazianzus: “I’ve written a theological poem about it that I’d like to share.”

Basil of Caesarea: “Please don’t. I can’t sit through another one of your theological poems.”

Gregory of Nazianzus: “Fine. I’m out of here. I didn’t want to come in the first place.”

Jürgen Moltmann: “That was a little rude, Basil, you know Greg’s sensitive, especially about his theological poetry, but let’s get back to the topic at hand. We can’t answer the theodicy question in this life, but we can’t discard it either. All we can do is turn to the God who suffers with, from, and for the world for solidarity with us in our suffering. Only the suffering God can help.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Karl Rahner: “The problem of evil is a fundamental question of human existence.”

John of the Cross: “I have endured many dark nights agonizing over it.”

Julian of Norwich: “Fear not, brother John, all will be well.”

John Calvin: “Not for those predestined to the fires of hell, but that’s part of the mystery of divine providence, which is inviolable, so in a refined theological sense, all will be well.”

Julian of Norwich: “I think we have different visions of what wellness means.”

Martin Luther: “You’re all crazy casuists. We’re probing into the deeps of divine mystery. We’re way out of our depth. We’re just small, sinful worms: we can’t possibly solve these riddles.”

F. D. W. Schleiermacher: “Settle down, Martin, we’re just talking. What do you think, Karl?”

Karl Barth and Karl Rahner (simultaneously): “Which Karl?”

Miroslav Volf: “Let’s give the Karls a pass. We heard enough from them last time, and we want to make room for others. Barth would probably just talk about ‘nothingness’ anyway.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Origen, you’ve been quiet, and you haven’t touched your food, what are your thoughts on the problem of evil? Won’t you give us the benefit of your deep erudition?”

Origen. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Origen. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Origen: “I’ve often pondered the question of the justice of divine providence, especially when I observe the unfair conditions people inherit at birth. Some suffer more than others for no apparent reason, and some are born with major disadvantages, such as blindness or poverty.”

Dorthee Sölle: “I appreciate your attentiveness to the lived experience of suffering, Origen, and not just the theoretical problem of how to reconcile divine goodness and omnipotence with evil.”

Gregory of Nyssa: “Me too, but how do you account for the disparity of fortunes in the world? How do you preserve cosmic coherence in the face of so much injustice and misfortune?”

Origen: “I’ll tell you a plausible story that brings many of these theological threads together. Before the dawn of space and time, God created disembodied rational minds, including us. We existed in perfect harmony and happiness until through either neglect or temptation or both we drifted away from God. Since all reality participated in God’s goodness, we were in danger of drifting out of existence altogether the further we strayed from our original goodness, so God, in his benevolence, created the cosmos to catch us and to enable our ascent back to God. Our lot in life, therefore, reflects the degree of our precosmic fall, which preserves divine justice. The world, you see, exists as a schoolroom and hospital for fallen souls to return to God. Eventually, all may return to God, since the end is like the beginning, but not until undergoing spiritual transformation. We must all traverse the stages of purification, illumination, and union, both here and in the afterlife, until our journey back to God is complete and God will be all in all.”

John Hick: “That makes perfect sense to me.”

Irenaeus: “Should you really be here, John? That’s a little far out there for me, Origen.”

Athanasius: “Origen clearly has a complex, subtle mind that doesn’t lend itself to simplification. It’s a trait of Alexandrian thinkers, who are among the best theologians in church history.”

John Chrysostom: “Spare me.”

Augustine: “I think I see what Origen means, especially about the origin and ontological status of evil and God’s goodness. It’s not too far from my thoughts, except for his speculative flights.”

Thomas Aquinas: “Our time is up. We haven’t solved the problem of evil, but we seem confident that God ultimately brings good out of evil, however dire things seem, and that’s a start.”

Francis of Assisi: “Let’s end in prayer.”

Thank goodness Hans Urs von Balthasar asked for Origen’s opinion, since I doubt he would have offered it otherwise. What our imaginary theological roundtable and fictitious dialogue reveals, hopefully, is that there are a variety of voices in theology that speak to the problem of evil. Some, such as Augustine and Aquinas, are well known. Others, such as Origen, have been neglected, partly because of his complicated reception, and partly because of the subtlety and originality of his thought.

 Mark Scott is an Arthur J. Ennis Postdoctoral Fellow at Villanova University. He has published on the problem of evil in numerous peer-reviewed journals in addition to his book Journey Back to God: Origen on the Problem of Evil.

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19. The Actuality of the Theologico-Political

The Actuality of the Theologico-Political conference starts at Birkbeck, London, today:

Today’s (post) political thought has been turned into an ethics and a legal philosophy. The business of politics is supposed to promote moral values and ethical policies which are reached either through a discursive will formation (human rights, humanitarianism, freedom etc.) or through the language of rights (original positions, striking a balance between individual rights and community goods, rights as trumps etc.).

Religion can help to revive the political, to re-politicize politics: it can help the construction of new political subjects who break out of the ethico-legal entanglement and ground a new collective space. In early Christianity, the communities of believers created the ecclesia, a new form of collectivity. Asimilar role was played in early Islam by the umma. Paraphrasing Kierkegaard, one can say that we need today the theologico-political suspension of the legal-ethical.


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20. The point of view of the universe

By Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer

We are constantly making decisions about what we ought to do. We have to make up our own minds, but does that mean that whatever we choose is right? Often we make decisions from a limited or biased perspective.

The nineteen century utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick thought that it is possible for us to reach, by means of reasoning, an objective standpoint that is detached from our own perspective. He called it “the point of view of the universe”. We used this phrase as the title of our book, which is a defense of Sidgwick’s general approach to ethics and to utilitarianism. On one important problem we suggest a correction that we believe makes it possible to overcome a difficulty that greatly troubled him.

We argue that reason is capable of presenting us with objective, impartial, non-natural reasons for action. We agree with Sidgwick that only the presupposition that reasons are objective enables us to make sense of the disagreements we have with other people about what we ought to do, and the way in which we respond to them by presenting them with reasons for our views. Those who deny that we can have objective reasons for action claim that all reasons for action start from desires or preferences.

If we were to accept this view, we would also have to accept that if we have no preferences about the welfare of distant strangers, or of animals, or of future generations, then we have no reason to do anything to help them, or to avoid harming them (as, for example, we are harming future generations by continuing to emit greenhouse gases). We hold that people do have reasons to help distant strangers, animals, and future generations, irrespective of our preferences regarding their welfare.

Henry_SidgwickIf objective moral reasoning is possible, how does it get started?  Sidgwick’s answer is, in brief, that it starts with a self-evident intuition. He does not mean by this, however, the intuitions of what he calls “common sense morality.”  To see what he does mean, we must draw a distinction between intuitions that are self-evident truths of reason, and a very different kind of intuition. This distinction will become clearer if we look at an objection to the idea of moral intuition as a source of moral truth.

Sidgwick was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, so it is not surprising that already in his time the objection was raised that an evolutionary view of the origins of our moral judgments would completely discredit them. Sidgwick denied that any theory of the origins of our capacity for making moral judgments could discredit the very idea of morality, because he thought that no matter what the origin of our moral judgments, we will still have to decide what we ought to do, and answering that question is a worthwhile enterprise.

On the other hand, he agreed that some accounts of the origins of particular moral judgments might suggest that they are unlikely to be true, and therefore discredit them. We defend this important insight, and press it further. Many of our common and widely shared moral intuitions are the outcome of evolutionary selection, but the fact that they helped our ancestors to survive and reproduce does not show them to be true.

This might be taken as a ground for skepticism about morality as a whole, but our capacity for reasoning saves morality from this skeptical critique. The ability to reason has, of course, evolved, and clearly confers evolutionary advantages on those who possess it, but it does so by making it possible for us to discover the truth about our world, and this includes the discovery of some non-natural moral truths.

Sidgwick thought that his greatest work was a failure because it concluded by accepting that both egoism and universal benevolence were rational. Yet they pointed to different conclusions about what we ought to do. We argue that the evolutionary critique of some moral intuitions can be applied to egoism, but not to universal benevolence. The principle of universal benevolence can be seen as self-evident, once we understand that our own good is, from “the point of view of the universe” of no more importance than the similar good of anyone else. This is a rational insight, not an evolved moral intuition.

In this way, we resolve the so-called “dualism of practical reason.” This leaves us  with a utilitarian reason for action that can be presented in the form of a utilitarian principle: we ought to maximize the good generally.

What  is this good thing that we should maximize? Is my having a positive attitude towards something enough to make bringing it about good for me? Preference utilitarians have argued that it is, and one of us has, for many years, been well-known as a representative of that view.

Sidgwick, however, rejected such theories, arguing that the good must be, not what I actually desire but what I would desire if I were thinking rationally. He then develops the view that the only things that it is rational to desire for themselves are desirable mental states, or pleasure, and the absence of pain.

For those who hold that practical reasoning must start from desires, it is hard to understand the idea of what it would be rational to desire – or at least, that idea can be understood only in relation to other desires that the agent may have, so as to produce a greater harmony of desire.

This leads to a desire-based theory of the good.

One of us, for many years, became well-known as a defender of one such desire-based theory, namely preference utilitarianism. But if reason can take us to a more universal perspective, then we can understand the claim that it would be rational for us to desire some goods, even if we have no present desire for them. On that basis, it becomes more plausible to argue for the view that the good consists in having certain mental states, rather than in the satisfaction of desires or preferences.

Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek is a Polish utilitarian philosopher, working as an assistant professor at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Lodz. Peter Singer is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne; in 2005 Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer are authors of The Point of View of the Universe.

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Image credit: Henry Sidgwick. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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21. Philippines pork barrel scam and contending ideologies of accountability

By Garry Rodan

When Benigno Aquino III was elected Philippine President in 2010, combating entrenched corruption was uppermost on his projected reform agenda. Hitherto, it has been unclear what the full extent and nature of reform ambitions of his administration might be. The issue has now been forced by ramifications from whistleblowers’ exposure of an alleged US$224 scam involving discretionary funds by Congress representatives. Fallout has already put some prominent Senators in the hot seat, but will deeper and more systemic reforms follow?

A crucial but often overlooked factor shaping prospects for reform in the Philippines, and elsewhere, is contestation over the meaning and purposes of accountability. Accountability means different things to different people. Even authoritarian rulers increasingly lay claim to it. Therefore, whether it is liberal, moral or democratic ideology that exerts greatest reform influence matters greatly.

Liberal accountability champions legal, constitutional, and contractual institutions to restrain the ability of state agencies to violate the political authority of the individual. Moral accountability ideologues emphasize how official practices must be guided by a moral code, invoking religious, monarchical ethnic, nationalist, and other externally constituted political authority. Democratic accountability ideologies are premised on the notion that official action at all levels should be subject to sanction, either directly or indirectly, in a manner promoting popular sovereignty.

Anti-corruption movements usually involve coalitions incorporating all three ideologies. However, governments tend to be least responsive to democratic ideologies because their reforms are directed at fundamental power relations. The evolving controversy in the Philippines is likely to again bear this out.

Dollars in envelope

What whistleblowers exposed in July 2013 was an alleged scam masterminded by business figure Janet Lim Napoles. Money was siphoned from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), or ‘pork barrel’ as it is popularly known, providing members of Congress with substantial discretionary project funding.

This funding has been integral to political patronage and corruption in the Philippines, precisely why ruling elites have hitherto resolutely defended PDAF despite many scandals and controversies linked to it.

However, public reaction to this scam was on a massive scale. Social and mass media probing and campaigning combined with the ‘Million People March’ in Manila’s Rizal Park involving a series of protests starting in August 2013. After initially defending PDAF despite his anti-corruption platform, Aquino announced PDAF’s abolition. Subsequently, the Supreme Court reversed three earlier rulings to unanimously declare the PDAF unconstitutional for violating the separation of powers principle.

Then, on 1 April 2014, the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB) announced it found probable cause to indict three opposition senators – including the powerful Juan Ponce Enrile, who served as Justice Secretary and Defense Minister under Marcos and Senate President from 2008 until June 2013 – for plunder and multiple counts of graft for kickbacks or commissions channeled through bogus non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

These are the Philippines’ first senatorial indictments for plunder, conviction for which can lead to life imprisonment. Napoles and various state officials and employees of NGOs face similar charges. Aquino’s rhetoric about instituting clean and accountable governance is translating into action. But which ideologies are exerting greatest influence and what are the implications?

Moral ideology influences were evident under Aquino even before the abolition of PDAF through new appointments to enhance the integrity of key institutions. Conchita Morales, selected by the President in mid-2011 as the new Ombudsman, was strongly endorsed by Catholic Church leaders. Aquino also appointed Heidi Mendoza as a commissioner to the Commission of Audit. Mendoza played a vital whistleblower role leading to the resignation of the previous Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and was depicted by the Church as a moral role model for Christians.

However, there have been many episodes in the past where authorities have selectively pruned ‘bad apples,’ but with a focus on those from competing political or economic orchards. Will Aquino this time go beyond appeals to moral ideology and intra-elite combat to progress liberal institutional reform?

The accused senators ask why they have been singled out from 40 named criminally liable following the whistleblowers’ claims, inferring political persecution. Yet if continuing investigations lead to charges against people closer to the administration it would indicate not. In a clear alignment with liberal ideology, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma recently raised expectations of such a change: ‘We are a government of laws, not of men. Let rule of law take its course.’

The jury is still out too on just how substantive the institutional change to the PDAF will prove. The President’s own pork barrel lump sum appropriations in the national budget are unaltered, despite public calls for it too to go. Indeed, some argue the President is now even more powerful a pork dispenser through de facto PDAF concentration in his hands.

PDAF’s abolition is also in a transitional phase with the 2014 budget taking account of existing PDAF commitments. The P25-billion PDAF was directed to the major public funding implementing agencies incorporating these commitments on a line item basis. There is a risk, though, that a precedent has been set for legislators’ pet projects to be negotiated with departmental heads in private rather than scrutinized in the legislature.

Certainly the coalition for change is building. Alongside popular forces, internationally competitive globalized elements of the Philippines bourgeoisie are a growing support base for liberal accountability ideology. Yet longstanding inaction on corruption reflects entrenched power structures inside and outside Congress antithetical to the routine and institutionalized promotion of liberal and, especially, democratic accountability.

Thus, while the instigation of official action on the pork barrel scam following the whistleblowers’ actions is testimony to the power of public mobilizations and campaigns, there are serious obstacles to more effective accountability institutionalization promoting popular sovereignty.

Acute concentrations of wealth and social power in the Philippines not only affect relationships between public officials and some elites, they also fundamentally constrain political competition. Oligarchs enjoy massive electoral resource advantages including the capacity for vote buying and other questionable campaign strategies. Outright intimidation, including extrajudicial killings of some of the most concerted opponents of elite rule and vested interests, remains widespread.

Therefore, parallel with popular anti-pork demands is yet another push for Congress to pass enabling law to finally give effect to the provision in the 1987 Constitution to ban political dynasties. The proliferation of political dynasties and corruption has been mutually reinforcing. Congressional dominance by wealthy elites and political clans shapes the laws overseen by officials, the appointment of those officials and, in turn, the culture and practices of public institutions.

When Congress resumes sessions in May, it will have before it the first Anti-Dynasty Bill to have passed the committee level. Public mood has made it more difficult for the rich and powerful in Congress to be as dismissive as previously of such reform attempts. The prospects of the current Bill passing are nevertheless dim but the struggle for democratic accountability will continue.

Garry Rodan is Professor of Politics & International Studies at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, Australia and the co-author (with Caroline Hughes) of The Politics of Accountability in Southeast Asia: The Dominance of Moral Ideologies.

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22. Derrida on the madness of our time


By Simon Glendinning

In 1994 Jacques Derrida participated in a seminar in Capri under the title “Religion”. Derrida himself thought “religion” might be a good word, perhaps the best word for thinking about our time, our “today”. It belongs, Derrida suggested, to the “absolute anachrony” of our time. Religion? Isn’t it that old thing that we moderns had thought had gone away, the thing that really does not belong in our time? And yet, so it seems, it is still alive and well.

Alive and well in a modern world increasingly marked by the death of God. How could this be?

A revival of religion is particularly surprising, perhaps even shocking, for those who thought it was all over for religion, for those who “believed naively that an alternative opposed religion”. This alternative would be the very heart of Europe’s modernity: “reason, Enlightenment, science, criticism (Marxist criticisms, Nietzschean genealogy, Freudian psychoanalysis)”. What is modernity if it is not an alternative opposed to religion, a movement in history destined to put an end to religion?

Derrida’s contribution to the seminar attempted to re-think this old “secularisation thesis”. He attempted to outline “an entirely different schema”, one which would be up to thinking the meaning and significance of a return of religion in our time, and capable of making sense of the new “fundamentalisms” that are, he suggested, “at work in all religions” today. And here, in 1994, Derrida drew special attention to what he called “Islamism”, carefully disassociating it from Islam: Islamism is not to be confused with Islam – but is always liable to be confused with it since it “operates in [its] name”.

Before making further steps Derrida noted that the group of philosophers he was in discussion with at the Capri seminar might themselves share a commitment thought to be opposed to religion: “an unreserved taste, if not an unconditional preference, for what in politics, is called republican democracy as a universalizable model.”

This taste or preference in politics is itself inseparable from “a commitment…to the enlightened virtue of public space. [A uniquely European achievement which consists in] emancipating [public space] from all external power (non-lay, non-secular), for example from religious dogmatism, orthodoxy or authority.” And hence, this commitment – the commitment to making decisions without recourse to religious revelation or religious authority – might itself seem to be part of the “modernity” that the revival of religion would seem to challenge.

But Derrida refused to present this commitment as one belonging to “an enemy of religion”. It does not have to be understood as a commitment opposed to religion. In fact, and surely to the surprise of many believers and non-believers alike, he argued for seeing how the preference for republican political secularity is essentially connected to a thesis in Kant on the relation between morality – what it means to make decisions and conduct oneself morally as a human being – and, precisely, religion. A link that will make this European public space both secular and (specifically) Christian.

secular sacred

It is a thesis in Kant that Derrida attempted to use as an astonishing interpretive key to the question of religion and the religious revival today, a key also to the character of radicalised fundamentalisms which, in 1994, he already saw developing in the geo-political relations between this European Christianity and the other great monotheisms, Judaism and Islam.

The Kantian thesis could not be more simple, but Derrida asks us to “measure without flinching” the implications of it. If we follow Kant we will have to accept that Christian revelation teaches us something essential about the very idea of morality: “in order to conduct oneself in a moral manner, one must act as though God did not exist or no longer concerned himself with our salvation.” The crucial point here is that decisions on right conduct should not be made on the basis of any assumption that, by acting in a certain way, we are doing God’s will. The Christian is thus the one who “no longer turns towards God at the moment of acting in good faith”. In short, the good Christian, the Christian acting in good faith, is precisely the one who must decide in a fundamentally secular way. And so Derrida asked, regarding Kant’s thesis, “is it not also, at the core of its content, Nietzsche’s thesis”: that God is dead?

Derrida does not understate it: this thesis – the thesis that Christians are those who are called to endure the death of God in the world – tells us “something about the history of the world – nothing less.”

“Is this not another way of saying that Christianity can only answer to its moral calling and morality, to its Christian calling, if it endures in this world, in phenomenal history, the death of God, well beyond the figures of the Passion?… Judaism and Islam would thus be perhaps the last two monotheisms to revolt against everything that, in the Christianising of our world, signifies the death of God, two non-pagan monotheisms that do not accept death any more than multiplicity in God (the Passion, the Trinity etc), two monotheisms still alien enough at the heart of Greco-Christian, Pagano-Christian Europe that signifies the death of God, by recalling at all costs that “monotheism” signifies no less faith in the One, and in the living One, than belief in a single God.”

And what is the effect of this conflict among the monothesisms? With the Christianising of our world – globalization as “globalatinization” as Derrida put it – we are beginning to see nothing less than “an infinite spiral of outbidding, a maddening instability” in the dimension of revolt and mutual strangeness between these religions of the book. This scene is, Derrida suggests, the focal point of “the madness of our time”.

Simon Glendinning is a Reader in European Philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the author of Derrida: A Very Short Introduction.

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday, subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS, and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook.

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23. Torture: what’s race got to do with it?

By Rebecca Gordon

June is Torture Awareness Month, so this seems like a good time to consider some difficult aspects of torture people in the United States might need to be aware of. Sadly, this country has a long history of involvement with torture, both in its military adventures abroad and within its borders. A complete understanding of that history requires recognizing that US torture practices have been forged in the furnace of white supremacy. Indeed the connection between torture and race on this continent began long before the formation of the nation itself.

Every torture regime identifies a group or groups of people whom it is legally and/or morally permissible to torture. To the ancient Romans and Greeks, only slaves were legitimate targets. As Hannah Arendt has observed, the Greeks in particular considered the compulsion to speak under torture a terrible affront to the liberty of a free person.

The activity of identifying a group as an acceptable torture target simultaneously signals and confirms the non-human status of its members. In Pinochet’s Chile, torture targets were called “humanoids” to distinguish them from actual human beings. In other places they are called “cockroaches,” or “worms.” In Brazil’s military dictatorship, people living on city streets suffered fates worse than those of the pickled frogs dissected in high school labs. They were swept up and used to demonstrate torture techniques in classes for police cadets. They were practice dummies.

In the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib, we see naked men cowering like prey before snarling dogs. In one of the most famous, we see a man who has been assigned a dog’s status, on all fours, collared and led on a leash by the US Army Reservist Lynndie England. As theologian William Cavanaugh has observed, it becomes easier to believe that that torture victims are not people when we treat them like dogs. Furthermore, the very vileness of torture reinforces the vileness of the prisoner in the minds of the public. Surely a “good” government such as our own could only be driven to such extremes by a terrible, inhuman enemy.

Witness Against Torture: Detainees, Forward. Photo by Justin Norman. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via shriekingtree Flickr.

Witness Against Torture: Detainees, Forward. Photo by Justin Norman. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via shriekingtree Flickr.

So what’s race got to do with it? In this country, the groups whom it is permissible to torture have historically been identified primarily by their race. The history of US torture begins with European settlers’ designation of the native peoples of this continent and of enslaved Africans as subhuman savages. Slaves—almost exclusively persons of African descent—are treated as literally less than human in Article 1 of the US Constitution; for purposes of apportioning representation in the House of Representatives to the various states, a slave was to count as three-fifths of a person. “Indians not taxed” didn’t count as persons at all. Members of both groups fell into categories of persons who might be tortured with impunity.

Institutionalized abuses that were ordinary practice among slaveholders—whipping, shackling, branding and other mutilations—were both common and legal. Nor were such practices incidental to the institution of chattel slavery. Rather, they were central to slavery’s fundamental rationale: the belief that enslaved African beings were not entirely human. As would happen centuries later in the US “war on terror,” the practice of torture actually ratified the prevailing belief in Africans’ inferiority. For surely no true human being would accept such degradation. Equally surely, good Christians would only be moved to such beastly behavior because they were confronted by beasts.

Nor did state-sanctioned torture of African Americans end with emancipation. The institution of lynching continued from the end of the Civil War well into the 20th century, with a resurgence during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Lynching, in addition to its culminating murder by hanging or burning, often involved whippings, and castration of male victims, prior to death. Lynching served the usual purpose of institutionalized state torture—that is, the establishment and maintenance of the power of white authorities over Black populations. In many places in this country, lynchings were treated as popular entertainment. They were not only permitted but encouraged by local officials, who often participated themselves. The practice even developed a collateral form of popular art: photographs of lynchings decorated many postcards printed in the early part of the 20th century.

US torture in the “war on terror” has displayed its own racial dynamic, although this may not be obvious at first glance. Those tortured in the conduct of this “war” are identified in the public imagination as a particular kind of terrorist. They are Muslims. Some efforts have been made in political rhetoric to distinguish “Islamists” and “Islamofascists” from ordinary “good Muslims,” but a relationship to Islam remains the key identifier. But isn’t “Muslim” a religious, rather than racial, category? Not for most Americans, for whom Islam is a mysterious and foreign force, associated with dark people from dark places. Like “Hindoo,” which was at one time a racial category for US census purposes, in the American mind, the term “Muslim” often conflates religion with race.

There is another important locus of institutionalized state torture in this country, and it, too, is a deeply racialized practice. Abuse and torture—including rape, sexual humiliation, beatings, prolonged exposure to extremes of heat and cold—are routine in US prisons. Many people are beginning to recognize that solitary confinement—presently suffered by at least 80,000 people in US prisons and immigrant detention centers—is also a profound, psychosis-inducing form of torture. Of the more than two million prisoners in the United States today, roughly 60 percent are people of color, while almost three-quarters of prison guards are white.

Fortunately, we can end institutionalized state torture in this country. I encourage readers to donate to, or better yet, get involved with the work of one of these excellent organizations: National Religious Campaign against Torture; Witness against Torture; School of the Americas Watch.

Rebecca Gordon received her B.A. from Reed College and her M.Div. and Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory from Graduate Theological Union. She teaches in the Department of Philosophy and for the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Letters From Nicaragua, Cruel and Usual: How Welfare “Reform” Punishes Poor People, and Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States.

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24. From Communism to Capitalism

Just out from Bloomsbury, Michel Henry's From Communism to Capitalism: Theory of a Catastrophe (translated by Scott Davidson):

Both a unique witness of transformative events in the late 20th century, and a prescient analysis of our present economic crises from a major French philosopher, Michel Henry's From Communism to Capitalism adds an important economic dimension to his earlier social critique. It begins by tracing the collapse of communist regimes back to their failure to implement Marx's original insights into the irreplaceable value of the living individual. Henry goes on to apply this same criticism to the surviving capitalist economic systems, portending their eventual and inevitable collapse.

The influence of Michel Henry's radical revision of phenomenological thought is only now beginning to be felt in full force, and this edition is the first English translation of his major engagement with socio-economic questions. From Communism to Capitalism reinterprets politics and economics in light of the failure of socialism and the pervasiveness of global capitalism, and Henry subjects both to critique on the basis of his own philosophy of life. His notion of the individual is one that, as subjective affect, subtends both Marxist collectivism and liberalism simultaneously. In addition to providing a crucial economic elaboration of Henry's influential social critiques, this work provides a context for understanding the 2008 financial shock and offers important insights into the political motivations behind the 'Arab spring'.

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25. Sam Falconer: fantastic editorial science illustrations

Post by Heather Ryerson


The Pleasure

Memory Place

Space Colonization

Sam Falconer’s fantastic illustrations reflect science and the human experience through digital, collage, and hand-painted textures. His clever scenes provoke philosophical thought while quickly getting to the heart of a story. His editorial illustrations regularly feature in top publications such as The Guardian, The Washington Post, and New Scientist magazine.

Check out more illustrations on his portfolio website.

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