Television Killed The Film Star

The past few months I have been watching television shows to no end. I used to prefer film to television but I think it’s the other way around now. Films tend to get more money for production which consequentially results in higher quality productions. They also don’t take as much dedication as television shows: you can watch a film in one to two hours whereas shows consist of entire seasons (which are usually 12 + hours long).

Those are the reasons for why I used to prefer films. But now I find the dedication that shows demand to be exceedingly rewarding. Character development and plot lines can be so much more thoroughly developed in shows than in films. I love “getting to know” the characters over a long period of time. It makes for a more enjoyable experience. The production quality of shows has also went way up in the past number of years. This is especially true of shows produced by the likes of Showtime and Starz. Most of the shows I enjoy come from those companies. Television shows on cable and the major networks suffer from content restrictions. Showtime and Starz (and others like HBO) do not. I like my shows to include some blood, profanity, and sex jokes. Not because they are preferable in and of themselves necessarily (although that may be the case with sex jokes) but because they make for a more adult-oriented experience (darker and more complex themes and characters and so on). The only current show that I regularly watch that is produced by a major network is The Office (US). Interestingly enough, it may be my favorite show ever made, although I admit that shows of different colors and stripes can be difficult to compare. My other favorites are not for the faint of heart:

Dexter: a show about a serial killer who hunts other serial kills and murderers.

Spartacus: historical epic about the trials and tribulations of, well, Spartacus and company and the events leading to the Third Servile War.

Californication: a sex comedy about a man whose romantic troubles lead him to drown himself in alcohol and sex.

Shameless: a comedy-drama about a poor Chicago suburban family that tries to survive without parental guidance or parental help of any kind.

Romantic Pluralism

03/09/2011 4 comments

What makes someone romantically attracted to someone else? Usually the answer is broken down into two types of attraction: attraction to one’s physical features and to one’s personality. But this answer seems to leave out important factors that play large roles in romance. Take intelligence for example. Intelligence is not a physical feature but it doesn’t seem to be a feature of one’s personality either. The same seems true of the interests we have. If I like baseball and you like baseball, we share something in common. This commonality will likely make us more attracted to one another. But you liking baseball has nothing to do with your physical features or your personality. The same also seems true of our beliefs. Few would deny the relevancy of beliefs to the romantic attraction one feels toward another. The sharing of political and/or religious beliefs is often listed as top among the factors one considers when looking for a romantic partner. These are often “deal breaker” issues. But beliefs are neither part of one’s physical features nor one’s personality. It is possible, of course, that your interests and your beliefs flow out from your personality. Perhaps people with a certain personality type XYZ are more likely to have interests and beliefs of the sort XYZ whereas people with personality ABC are more likely to have interests and beliefs of the sort ABC. But this is far from obvious. And even if true, there would still be no necessary connection between one’s interests and beliefs on the one hand and one’s personality on the other. There would be no contradiction in having personality XYZ and have beliefs ABC. The problem seems to be that we lack a coherent conception of “personality.” Physical attraction is a very important and indispensable part of romance, but it is not difficult to understand what we mean by it (although admittedly there are various features involved here as well). “Personality” by contrast seems to be a muddle of conceptions, a melting pot where we throw everything non-physical into. This is a mistake because it paints a picture of romance that is all-too simplistic: it paints a picture that does not line up with the complex situation we find in experience.

So what is “personality” if not a conglomeration of all non-physical features of a person? Personality traits usually look like the following: shy, boisterous, kind, sarcastic, generous, petty, hot-tempered, goofy, stern, introvert, extrovert, and so on. These are important features that make up a person but they are only one slice of a multifarious pie. Physical features also make up a part of that pie. But so do things like intelligence, interests, beliefs, desires, and values.

The complexity of this view becomes apparent when we realize that different people weigh these factors differently. Different people will slice up the pie in various ways. If you place high priority on sharing similar beliefs, you will not be attracted to someone with starkly different ones. But beliefs for you may also take a back-seat to your interests or your values. In this case, you may not care very much if you share beliefs with this other person so long as your values are similar. Perhaps you are diametrically opposed with regards to your political beliefs, but the important thing is that you both place great value on political awareness. Other people place great weight on physical attractiveness, at times sacrificing some of the other factors for it.

Moreover, it is implausible to suppose that these various factors of attractiveness are completely independent from one another. Very often the physical attractiveness of another person will increase if it is found that they share similar interests or beliefs with yourself. It is also possible that physical attraction could be so great that it leads to a convergence of interests and beliefs. Furthermore, the pie that we initially slice up–by assigning different percentages to the different factors–will likely change with experience. Perhaps we start with physical attraction taking up half the pie, but as we age that portion may slowly give way to the other factors. Or the reverse may happen. I suspect that all logically possible scenarios (the various possible pies and their development over time) have had or do have counterparts in the actual world.

So what is the best possible pie? I don’t know. I don’t even know if there is a best possible pie. Some pies are probably better than others: a view that places one hundred percent priority on physical attractiveness will not be as good a view as one that disperses each factor more evenly. This is because any view that places all priority on physical attractiveness will not capture the complexity of goods that people contain. People are more than their looks and to only value looks is to overlook an important feature of persons. Romantic pluralism is thus about two different things: the plurality of factors involved in romantic attractiveness and the plurality of possible pie distributions that are equally good.

People are complex. We should not expect the reasons for attraction to be any less so.

Categories: Philosophy Tags: ,

Condensed Thoughts

1) According to one thinker, the best evidence we have that our current understanding of space and matter are incomplete is the existence of consciousness. Consciousness is somehow non-spatial yet it must be contained in space (unless we propose that it exists is some other dimension). Contrary to current thought then, perhaps consciousness is not non-spatial. We only think that it is because our current understanding of space is incomplete. Matter is also a problem. Somehow matter has the power to produce consciousness: it has certain conscious-causing properties. But we haven’t the slightest idea how this is possible. Hearts and kidneys are also organs that are made up of cellular material but they don’t produce consciousness. Only brains, as far as we know, have this power. But brains are just as material as anything else. So we must not fully understand what matter is if our current understanding of it cannot explain how it has this power.

2) “Certainty” seems to have at least two meanings: one psychological and one philosophical. In some contexts certainty is but a mere psychological state, one that bears no relation to what one knows or a thing’s truth-value. For instance, two thinkers can be equally certain about mutually exclusive claims (the sun will rise tomorrow vs. two suns will rise tomorrow). Here certainty is just a confidence level in the truth of some claim. One can be more or less certain.

Certainty also plays a role in some theories of knowledge. These theories hold that knowledge can be obtained if and only if there are arguments that logically rule out all possible alternatives except one. On this account, certainty about some proposition is just another way of saying that that proposition cannot possibly be false. If some proposition cannot be false, then one is certain about the truth of that proposition. And on some accounts, only if one is certain can one have knowledge. Here certainty cannot be more or less. Having certainty is just being able to logically rule out all the alternatives.

3) One of the reasons why I cannot frequently watch and listen to political media is because at least ninety percent of what is said is spent attacking or defending against the outrageous claims made by others from across the spectrum. This is how it goes. Mike makes some overly harsh or unjustified claim. Rather than ignoring the claim, Rachel from the rival news organization feels compelled to comment on it–most likely because it serves as an easy target and thus as easy political points by straw-manning the opposition–but possibly because she wants to stand up for what she sees as the morally right thing to do. Twenty minutes of that particular show is then spent on demonstrating the obvious falsity or inappropriateness of said claim (which usually involves hiring a guest commentator to help further spell out the obvious). Mike has a few ways he could respond: by (1)  rescinding or apologizing for his claim, (2)  clarifying his claim, or (3) ignoring Rachel’s comments entirely, awaiting for the day when Rachel (or someone of her political party) makes an outrageous claim for him to trash. Usually the last option is taken.

Given that there are a limited number of profit-producing news stories–and given that the political media is now a ferocious animal that never sleeps–the resort to this pattern of commenting on the outrageous is  more than frequent. What else, after all, could they focus on? Well, lots of things. But again, those things don’t earn them ratings. So the political media ends up propagating the same vicious cycle, the result being that political discussion becomes linked in the minds of the ordinary viewer with something akin to religious warfare.

Words That Inspire

I am feeling quite melancholic at the moment, mostly due to romantic inclinations that have plagued me as of late and of which I cannot escape. At times like these I seek words that inspire, words that make me feel whole again, words that will make my own troubles seem distant and of little importance. These words will make little sense–and for that reason will likely be of little interest–to the reader as they do not address or reference any particular problems that have come before me (who would be interested in that anyways?) But they do meet the criteria that I have set forth above, namely, of inspiration and wholeness. Here I quote for you one of my favorite philosophical passages I have yet to read. This is a piece of meta-philosophy (fancy talk for philosophical reflections on the nature and purpose of philosophy) but what is said here is applicable to all argumentation, and as such is applicable to all academic disciplines and to the way we go about discourse in general with the people we care about most. From the pen of Robert Nozick, a man whose career was cut all-too short given his rare brilliance:

I, too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book, even, to bring reading to stop…

Familiar questions impel this essay: Does life have meaning? Are there objective ethical truths? Do we have free will? What is the nature of our identity as selves? Must our knowledge and understanding stay within fixed limits? These questions moved me, and others, to enter the study of philosophy. I care what their answers are. While such other philosophical intricacies as whether sets or numbers exist can be fun for a time, they do not make us tremble.

Our various questions stem from one: how are we valuable and precious? Consider the issue of free will, for example. Often, philosophers treat this as a question about punishment and responsibility: how can we punish someone for an action, or hold him responsible, if it was causally determined, eventually by factors going back to before his birth, hence outside his control? My concerns with free will, however, is not rooted in a desire to punish people or hold them responsible, or even to be held responsible myself. Without free will we seem diminished, merely the playthings of external causes. Our value seems undercut…

My concern is not only intense but directed. I want (to be able) to conclude that we are worthwhile and precious. But this bias does not mean I refuse to follow philosophical reason where it leads. Fortunately, two factors help me avoid conclusions of valuelessness. No philosophical argument forces us to accept its (unpleasant) conclusions; instead, we always can pursue the philosophical task of uncovering the argument’s defects…The second factor is an optional stop rule. I do not stop the philosophical reasoning until it leads me where I want to go; then I stop…

When a philosopher sees that premisses [sic] he accepts logically imply a conclusion he has rejected until now, he faces a choice: he may accept this conclusion, or reject one of the previously accepted premisses, or even postpone the decision about which to do. His choice will depend upon which is greater, the degree of his commitment to the various premisses or the degree of his commitment to denying the conclusion. It is implausible that these are independent of how strongly he wants certain things to be true…

We may wonder whether a philosophy with a foregone conclusion can have any value at all. That a philosophy aims at a conclusion, though, does not guarantee it will reach it. We learn something of value in discovering that our goal can be reached. Since also the general aim will not determine the precise character of the conclusion reached, and since the very purpose of reaching may be worthwhile itself, we need not devalue a philosophical inquiry that is teleologically directed…

A philosopher’s seriousness is judged by the quality of his arguments. Children think an argument involves raised voices, anger, negative emotion. To argue with someone is to attempt to push him around verbally. But a philosophical argument isn’t like that–is it?…

A philosophical argument is an attempt to get someone to believe something, whether he wants to believe it or not. A successful philosophical argument, a strong argument, forces someone to a belief.

Though philosophy is carried on as a coercive activity, the penalty philosophers wield is, after all, rather weak. If the other person is willing to bear the label of “irrational” or “having the worse arguments,” he can skip away happily maintaining his previous belief. He will be trailed, of course, by the philosopher furiously hurling philosophical imprecations: “What do you mean, you’re willing to be irrational? You shouldn’t be irrational because…” And although the philosopher is embarrassed by his inability to complete this sentence in a noncircular fashion–he can only produce reasons for accepting reasons–still, he is unwilling to let his adversary go.

Wouldn’t it be better if philosophical arguments left the person no possible answer at all, reducing him to impotent silence? Even then, he might sit there silently, smiling, Buddhalike. Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies…Yet, as with other physical threats…he can choose defiance.

Why are philosophers intent on forcing others to believe things? Is that a nice way to behave toward someone?…[This] does not fit the original motivation for studying or entering philosophy. That motivation is puzzlement, curiosity, a desire to understand, not a desire to produce uniformity of belief.

Rant of the Moment: War and Taxes

11/13/2010 1 comment

I don’t always have an essays worth of thoughts on a particular topic. Even if I do, I don’t always have the time or effort to write long, thought-out, sometimes drawn-out essays. Sometimes this is due to laziness and sometimes this is due to the fact that I would rather write short soundbites about multiple topics than a long exposé on one. The rant of the moment serves that purpose. I call it a “rant” because I plan on focusing my attention on arguments or positions that annoy me or that I think are wrong or misguided in some way and because the briefness of these comments will not usually allow for comprehensive analysis. Whether or not this will actually end up being a weekly thing, a monthly thing, or a one-time thing, remains to be seen. So let me begin with:

1) The War Tax: why exactly is there no war tax in the United States? What is a war tax? It is as it sounds: a tax that is placed upon the people of a particular society when they are at war. The purpose of a war tax is, I would argue, threefold. First, to pay for the war. Wars cost billions of dollars in today’s currency and the money needs to come from somewhere. To be sure, some of the taxpayer dollars already goes to pay for military research, personnel, and so on. But that money is meant to cover the cost of a standing army at peacetime. The second purpose for a war tax is a matter of civil responsibility: a tax will ensure that the entire society plays its part in the war. Wars are fought by countries–or so one would think–not by distant so-called “volunteer” armies. This leads to the third reason: complacency. It becomes too easy for the citizens of a nation to not only start a war but let it drag on indefinitely if the war has no tangible influence on their lives (out of sight, out of mind). This is a recipe for mass injustice. I suspect that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would either never have started or would have already seen their end if a war tax would have been in place. At the very least, there would certainly be a much greater call, from both sides of the political spectrum, to end these wars and a much greater hesitancy when contemplating new ones. My proposal: 10% increase to all income taxes during wartime (and perhaps an increase in or implementation of a federal sales tax) .

2) While I’m on the topic, let me address one more issue relating to the military. As insinuated above, is there, and has there ever been, such a thing as a volunteer military? We certainly like to think so. It makes us feel good when we think those killed and those injured in war were not coerced into serving but acted freely. But how free is it when the majority of those serving are from poor backgrounds? How free is it when someone sees military service as their only legitimate chance at a college education? Why aren’t the rich, preppy Harvard graduates signing up? If it was truly voluntary, shouldn’t we expect a roughly equal demographic distribution?

3) Why does it seem that when the public hears the word “philosophy” they either hear Socrates, Nietzsche, or Ayn Rand? WTF? I like Socrates, but guess what, he wrote nothing. Nietzsche seems to be talking nonsense most the time. And while I don’t know much about Rand (other than her atheistic libertarianism and the mysterious linkage between her and Objectivism, which seems to me to break down to views accepted and made famous by those long before her) I will bow to the satirical, yet very insightful Philosophical Lexicon: 

rand, n. An angry tirade occasioned by mistaking philosophical disagreement for a personal attack and/or evidence of unspeakable moral corruption. “When I questioned his second premise, he flew into a rand.” Also, to attack or stigmatise through a rand. “When I defended socialised medicine, I was randed as a communist.”

4) I recently learned that Sam Harris, famed atheist author, released a book entitled The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Without having read the book, but having read about it, I want to make a few tentative comments. First, I am a big fan of making philosophy accessible to the masses, so I praise Harris for that. Second, and less praiseworthy, the moment I read the subtitle, an uncontrollable “ugh” or more like a “guh” came out. Why do these atheistic thinkers have to be so scientistic, by which I mean an adherence to the idea that all phenomena are reducible to science? Two problems immediately stand out (and have always stood out since this type of project was attempted). (1) Science can’t answer why one ought to act morally in the first place, but perhaps even more importantly (2) it can’t, by itself, determine the moral worth of an action (it can’t determine the rightness or wrongness of any given action). From my understanding, Harris is a utilitarian, which helps him address (2). But even then it’s not science that determines human values but science + utilitarianism (an ethical theory that is itself not grounded in science).

Consider the following scenario: a young woman was kidnapped and tortured by some monstrous villain last week. Fortunately, she was saved recently and is now in the hospital just about to undergo physical and psychological examination. Now, I think we can agree that the villain’s actions were evil, immoral, wrong,  morally impermissible, and so on. But how can we tell? Well, let’s bring in the scientists. They examine her. They determine that while undergoing torture she was in immense physical pain. They also determine that she is likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. So was the villain’s action wrong? Yes, they say. So no need for the  moralists to come in? Not at all. Bedazzled by their confidence, I pose to them the following question: You were able to determine, by knowledge of what happened, that she underwent immense physical and emotional pain, but where in your analysis was the wrongness? I then go on to explain to them the Is-Ought Problem, about how empirical facts are not sufficient in determining the rightness or wrongness of an action. I then ask them one more question: why did you think the villain had committed a wrong action? Well, they say, because he harmed her and its wrong to harm someone in that way. Their response was rather vague but I left it at that.

So what did these scientists mean by saying that it was wrong to harm someone in that way? Being scientists who enjoy quantification, I suspect that they meant that the villainous actions were wrong because they caused the women immense pain and suffering. And when you act in such a way so as to create more pain than pleasure (or happiness or desire-satisfaction), you act wrongly. But they could have meant something else. They could have meant that  the young woman’s rights were violated and that, in itself, is what made the action wrong. Or perhaps they were focusing less on what happened to the woman and more on the negative character of the villain: his actions were wrong because they were produced by a malevolent character. Or perhaps they had more than one of these responses in mind. These responses are all derived from moral theories: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, respectively. So while science could potentially help determine the moral worth of an action–by measuring pain states for instance–determining which theory is ultimately correct/incorrect or most plausible/implausible does not seem to be within science’s grasp. To think so is to make a categorical mistake. It is to make a false reduction. But ethics is no more reducible to science than history (think World War II) is to quantum mechanics.

There are other types of value as well, like epistemological values and aesthetic values, which certainly can’t be determined by science either. In fact, it has long been argued by some 20th century thinkers that science is guided and even grounded in our values. Reason and observation is not sufficient in determining theory choice, so the argument goes. What ultimately determines theory choice once the data is in is our values, values like simplicity, coherence, and what some have called the elegance or beauty of a theory. It is these values that allow us to choose between two theories that are otherwise consistent with the data.

Political Polls: Their Influence and Unreliability

I have long supposed that political polls (1) had the power to affect the results of an election and (2) that they were specious. An article that suggests that these points are true: Polls gone wild.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

Facebook Facade

10/14/2010 2 comments

I have too many Facebook friends. Not in number but in diversity. I have too many friends from too many different backgrounds who know me in such vastly different ways that I can no longer honestly and enjoyably partake in the social networking extravaganza. I own many masks and rarely do I show them all to any one person. Rarely do I even show a few. With every friend added, the limitations on what is appropriate to say become tighter and tighter. Now the box is closed so tight I can hardly say anything worth mentioning. I could join in with the “Just finished my homework” club or the “Just got back from Taco Bell” groupies and all the other one-hundred thousand unenlightening, uninteresting, yet uncontroversial bull-crap messages that people feel the need to share. Or I could just remain silent, waiting for that rare thought to seep through the many filters I am now forced to put them through. Facebook was fun once, back when the only friends I had were those that knew my darker side, those that would not be offended or surprised to hear what wretched beliefs I hold. Oh well, I guess that’s why I have this blog.

Categories: Miscellaneous Tags: