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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.

multifarious
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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.

The Problem of (Divine) Evil

I recently read an article by philosopher David Lewis about the problem of evil that is arguably as creative and insightful as his work in metaphysics and epistemology. The title of the article is Divine Evil and it was published in the book Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life (much preferred to the recent flurry of atheist literature). Here I wish to spell out the arguments that Lewis sets forth in that article, mixing my own comments in throughout.

Evil and Punishment

Traditionally, the problem of evil has focused on moral and natural evil that God fails to prevent. An omnipotent, omniscient, all-benevolent, being could and would prevent creatures from (1) inflicting harm on each other and from (2) non-human harm that results from diseases and natural disasters. But since these evils do exist and are not prevented, God–understood as an omnipotent, omniscient, all-benevolent being–cannot or probably does not exist. This is the traditional argument that has received much attention throughout intellectual history. According to Lewis, there is an aspect of the problem of evil that has been neglected by theologians and philosophers of religion:  the problem of divine evil. This problem relates to the traditional problem of evil in that its focus is on the existence of evil. But instead of questioning why God fails to prevent evil, the problem of divine evil focuses on God himself as an active and direct perpetrator of evil.

For Lewis, God perpetrates evil when he willingly and knowingly condemns people to Hell for eternity, submitting them to an infinite amount of pain and suffering. Because the punishment of Hell is eternal, God inflicts more pain and suffering on one individual than the sum total of pain and suffering induced by the most heinous crimes in the history of humankind. Of course, God doesn’t send just one person to Hell but–according to the scriptures–most people. For Lewis, God appears not as a loving father but as a divine dictator whose evil far surpasses that of the likes of Hitler and Stalin. But perhaps there is a way to save God from this gross comparison. The question is whether or not there is a way to justify eternal damnation.

For starters, it will not suffice to talk about corrective behavioral measures and the hope of change. While human penal systems may occasionally justify their actions by reference to arguments about the success of behavioral reform, the eternal nature of Hell makes this point irrelevant. From what we can gather from scriptural evidence and from traditional church doctrines, Hell (as opposed to something like Purgatory) is not meant as a means for moral cleansing i.e. as a way for us to improve our moral character before being accepted into the presence of God. And since Hell is eternal, it cannot be. Hell allows for no second chances. And thus no consequentialist or forward-looking theory of punishment will help the theist here.

Perhaps Hell can be justified on the grounds that God requires some form of retribution: humans should be punished for their wrongdoing just because wrongdoers morally deserve to be punished regardless of future consequences. But consider again how we go about deliberating about our own penal systems. To the extent that we take seriously retributive theories of punishment, we generally seem to think that justice requires that the punishment be directly proportional to the crime. But what moral crime could merit eternal pain and suffering? The answer is that there is no such crime because only a finite amount of wrongdoing is possible in any given human life and thus, according to a just distribution of punishment, only a finite amount of punishment is permissible. Thus, Hell also fails to be justified on a backward-looking or retributive theory of punishment.

What about free will?

The doctrine of free will has been the theodicy of choice for theists since theodicies were first sought after. Why does God fail to prevent evil? Because moral evil results from our capacity to choose freely. And God thought that a world with free will and the possibility for evil was preferable to a world with neither. Although it is difficult to see how this response could satisfy the existence of natural evil, let us leave that aside. Could the free will response work here in the case of divine evil: perhaps God gives all of us an opportunity to meet the requirements for salvation (whatever they are), ultimately leaving it up to us to choose whether or not we want to accept or reject his offer?

This response is problematic on several levels. First, some theological traditions clearly reject any role that we might play in our own salvation. According to these traditions, God only offers salvation to a select few. Or, to put it differently, he offers it to all, but only opens the hearts and minds of some to accept. Second, it is quite evident that not all of us do in fact get an opportunity to meet the requirements for salvation. Many Christian traditions hold that the belief in or the acceptance of Christ as your savior and Lord are the requirements for salvation. But this means that millions of past and present individuals–due to environmental factors beyond their control–never had and never will have a genuine opportunity to hear, let alone accept, the Gospel. Without this opportunity, free will makes no difference.

Lewis also questions the free will response on the grounds that it presumes that incompatibilist freedom–the sort of freedom that can only exist if determinism is false–is of supreme value. In other words, it presumes that it would have been worse if God set up the causal conditions of the universe in such a way so that all of his creatures would eventually accept his gift. But why think this: why think that incompatibilist freedom is of such value that it is worth the eternal and extraordinary torment of a great many souls? Lewis states,

Imagine two worlds. In one of these, actions are produced by psychological states, themselves caused by prior psychological conditions and by the pressures of the environment, those conditions and environments in turn being caused by earlier circumstances, all in accordance with the conditions philosophers introduce to allow for compatibilist freedom. In the second world, just the same actions are performed, but in accordance with your favorite incompatibilist account. Why should we think of the second world as a great advance on the first? In what, precisely, does its superiority reside? If you are inclined to think, as I do, that there is no superiority to be found…you will think that God could have settled for a world with compatibilist freedom and that he could have set things up so as to keep his creatures out of trouble.

Even if we think that incompatibilist freedom is of supreme value, there still remains a question about why God could not have set up things differently. For example, he could have left incompatibilist freedom intact while going to greater lengths to reveal himself (along with those elusive conditions for salvation). “Assuming we have to make a choice, why must it be made through a glass darkly? Once again, God seems negligent, at best.”

Universal Salvation: limiting and eliminating punishment

Because of the problems relating to eternal damnation, some theists have opted for a different understanding of Hell. Perhaps Hell is not eternal but temporary. Perhaps God induces finite, rather than infinite, pain and suffering, ceasing the torment once the person has converted (seen the error of his ways).

Lewis finds the prospect of limited punishment mysterious for various reasons. First, there is the simple point of saying that God could have saved himself the trouble of limited punishment by setting up the causal conditions of the universe so that resisters didn’t go astray in the first place. Of course, this argument will only be convincing to those who are willing to sacrifice incompatibilist freedom, but again, how valuable is incompatibilist freedom?

Second, why would an omnipotent being have to convert someone through torture rather than, as Lewis suggests, displays of magnificence? Or why not through a rational dialogue? Perhaps such methods will not be guaranteed to convert, but then neither is torture or the threat thereof.

Finally, doesn’t it show a defect in God’s character if he has to stoop to the level of a political or religious dictator by forcing assent via the threat of pain? And how genuine would a conversion under duress even be? Rather than excusing God for perpetrating evil, the idea of limited punishment only serves to show that he does.

The only plausible way then for the theist to save God from perpetrating evil is to adopt some form of universal salvation in which everyone is saved, not because they eventually repent, but because God himself is not “disposed to punish any of his creatures.” But is this a viable option for Christians? Lewis does not think it is.

Christianity, according to both key scriptural passages and tradition, rests upon a redemption of some kind: Christ came down to earth in order to die for the purpose of redeeming us from something. Usually this “something” has been thought to be eternal punishment. But if universalism is true, there is no such thing as that. And if the modified universalism just espoused is true, there is no such thing as limited punishment either. So what exactly did Christ save us from?

Perhaps the answer is this: all of us would have been punished (eternally or temporally) if not for the sacrifice of Christ. But because Christ sacrificed himself, he saved all of us from punishment. In other words, Christ made universalism true. And because God is not disposed to punish his creatures, he willingly sent Christ to die.

But this doesn’t make any sense: if God, in all his goodness, is not disposed to punish his creatures, then there would seemingly be no need for Christ to save them from such a fatal end in the first place. According to the universalist, Christ’s death means that everyone–from the saintliest to the most devilish, from Gandhi to Hitler–is instantly saved. But saved from what? The goodness of God? For Lewis, the universalist does not have a ready response to this, at least not without jettisoning much of scripture and tradition.

Thought of the Day: Being Angry With God

Many people who believe in God sometimes say they are angry with God, usually as a result of something bad happening in their lives. This seems like an odd sentiment given that most of these same people also believe that God has their best interests in mind, that his grand over-arching plans are sometimes hidden to us, and that eventually everything will work out for the good (at least for believers). So I sometimes wonder if being “angry with God” should not be understood as anger directed at some divine being out there, but as anger directed at society (or those immediately surrounding us) for leading one to believe in a conception of God that is inconsistent with one’s experiences.

The Negative Side of Philosophy

07/16/2010 2 comments

There are many benefits to a philosophical eduction: clear thinking, practical wisdom, even improved virtue. But perhaps the most important benefit is that of freedom, the sort of freedom that results from the elimination of the limits placed on us by our cultural environment. The study of philosophy, probably more so than any other discourse, allows one to transcend his or her culture, on a local and national level. It allows one to step outside one’s immediate placement in a particular society and critique it. But not everything that results from such transcendence is beneficial. Here I wish to spell out the other side of the coin, the not-so-good consequences of a philosophical eduction and the transcendence that it brings.

The more I study philosophy, the more estranged I become from the social values of my culture and the familial values that I grew up with. While many have long noted the benefits of such estrangement–it may allow one to better give an honest and fair critique of one’s own society–there are negative aspects that often go unmentioned. For instance, I no longer share many of the religious, political, or moral beliefs and values of my friends and family. Such estrangement makes it exceedingly more difficult to relate to them and enjoy their company. And while it may be possible to ignore such differences and find common ground, doing so usually leads to shallow and, ultimately, undesirable relationships.

Furthermore, I no longer understand many of my own culture’s values. I do not understand the ambition for monetary riches and upper-class status that drives the often superficial, capitalistic United States. It is no longer a matter of indifference for me that people feel the need to drive luxury vehicles, have the latest house furnishings, own expensive attire, and are embarrassed if seen with something less. Such actions and values appear to me foolish at best, immoral at worst. Such estrangement leaves me feeling like a foreigner in my own country. Such estrangement leaves me cynical.

Moreover, there are certain moral and political problems that I was once naive to that have become impossible to ignore. I am no longer naive to the problems of social and distributive justice: its becomes more and more difficult for me to take seriously the claims that the successful morally deserve their fruits and the unsuccessful deserve their pains (the assumption resting behind that old American dream). But such a view is so ingrained within the American mind that I find myself always at a distance from my country and its most cherished beliefs and values. And insofar as such beliefs and values have gained a foothold in the lives of those who are closest to me, it becomes all the more difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with them. Change, as they say, disrupts relationships. Philosophy (I say) provides the change.

There is also the problem that arises when there exists a gap between one’s own interests and one’s culture’s interests.  To study philosophy is to undertake a topic or set of topics that your culture neither knows about nor cares about. Chess players, poets, and historians will understand this sentiment. Although it was not always like this, philosophy is no longer a primary value in an education. America is the country of business, a subject often at odds with philosophical reflection. This leaves one feeling more and more isolated from other people, more and more distant from the everyday, more and more unable to relate to and partake in those particular actions and belief systems that are deemed appropriate by society. Some of these experiences may be unique to me, but I doubt all of them are.

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