Monday, October 27, 2008

V for Violence

by Hanno

I was disturbed by several features of "V for Vendetta." I found the movie to glorify not just violence, but torture. And then it made revolution to be a non-violent wonderful thing (you can't have a Hollywood movie without a happy ending, can you?). But one of the main arguments against revolution is that they are indeed bloody, uncertain, violent and ugly. The romaticization of revolution has a huge effect: it allows for easy justifications. Hence we can look at a functioning society with less freedom we would like (hey, that sounds like ours) and raise start dropping the "R" word, as if its an easy solution to whatever problem. But it isnt. Revolutions are dirty, messy affairs where lots and lots of innocent people get killed, and lots of guilty ones, too. Hobbes knew this well, which is why he was against the whole idea. No, if a movie is to tackle the problem of fascism and revolution, lets have a real look at it, not the Hollywood version. This of course is compounded by celbrating the violence of V himself. And why? Would the violence have been justified if V had not been tortured? If the state had not created the crisis of the bioterrorist attacks? If we just had the all powerful fascist state, but people got there without coersion, would that justify V's violence? (ah, the first interesting question!)

But that was not what I wanted to talk about. Instead, it was the torture of Evey. According to the film, her torture makes her free. Listen to that as I repeat it: through torture, she becomes free. And she becomes free because she doesn't fear death anymore. She is unafraid. OK, let me make this clear: Torture does NOT make people unafraid. It breaks them, and makes them always afraid. Torture does not make people free. It robs them of their humanity. It may make you realize there are worse things than dieing, but that it not necessarily a good thing, and leads to suicide. People at Auschwitz were not free because they realized they would rather throw themselves onto the electric fence than live another day. In short, violence is not a way to overcome existential angst.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Possible Worlds II

We were talking about possible worlds being relative to other possible worlds, not relevant, and this is a technical term.

First, for most philosophers, all possible worlds are relative to all possible worlds. This has a consequence that it is governed by a formal logical system called S-5. If not all worlds are possible to all possible worlds, then weaker systems of logic govern our inferences. This is precisely what Kripke showed in his published work in the 1950's, when he was 18(!).

It follows in S-5 that anything which is possibly necessary is actually necessary. this has been used to prove God's existence in a version of the Ontological argument. God, if he exists, has the property of being a necessary being. It is possible that there is a God. Therefore, it is possible that a necessary being exists. By S-5, God is actually necessary, and and since anything which is necessary is true, God exists in this world, too.

Other philosophers deny that all possible worlds are possible relative to all possible worlds. Aristotle might not have existed. So there is a world at which there is no Aristotle. At that world, is it possible that Aristotle's son existed? What does it mean to say that some non-existent thing might have existed? In response to these kinds of questions, they deny the universal connection between possible worlds. Worlds in which Aristotle exists are not possible from worlds in which Aristotle does not exist, though the reverse does not hold. If that is right, the logic of modality is not S-5, but something weaker (S-4, for those who are counting) and it no longer follows that just because something is possible that it is necessarily possible, nor does it follow that something that is possibly necessary is actually necessary.

I am looking at my car. It is possible for it to start. But is it necessarily possible for it to start? On one way of looking at things, no, because it is possible for the engine block to be totally ruined. Spelling that out in possible worlds means some possible worlds are not possible from all possible worlds. It is possible that Aristotle exists. But is it necessarily possible? What if human beings never develop? What if the world blew up before humans ever appear on the world stage? Then there would still be a possible world in which Aristotle exists ("Aristotle might have existed" is true), but that world would not be relatively possible from worlds where the world blows up before humans arrive on the scene. Hence we can say Aristotle could not exist if the world blew up before humans arrive on the scene, even though he might exist in other circumstances.

Hope that helps.

I was going to post more on the metaphysics of modality, but ce side tracked me. Blame him. Will try to do that Monday.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Political Philosophy and Human Nature in V for Vendetta

People should not fear their governments. Governments should fear their people.

"Political Philosophy and Human Nature in V for Vendetta"

A presentation by Matthew A. Butkus, PhD

Friday, October 24, 2008

2:00 - 5:00 PM

Hardtner 128

Presented by the McNeese State University Philosophy Club

Monday, October 20, 2008

Possible Worlds

by Hanno

On the way out of last weeks meeting, Robert asked me about possible worlds. Todd, Lord Matt and I were using the notion of a possible world in the previous weeks discussion, but we did not say much about them. So here goes:

A possible world is a complete way the world might have been. Suppose you could have been a rock star. Then there is a possible world at which you are in fact a rock star. That part is easy, and gives us a way to think about what might have been. But what are possible worlds?

The first philosopher to use possible worlds was Leibniz, long ago. He used them in part to answer the problem of evil: This is "the best of all possible worlds" and hence a good God would naturally chose this one to being into existence. For Leibniz, possible worlds were ideas in the mind of God. Imagine Him going through each of the ways the world might have been. When he finally reaches the best of all of them, he chooses to make that one real. Philosophers call that "actualizing" or "instantiating" that world. So this is the only real world, but the others exist as ideas in the mind of God. When you say "I could have been a rock star" you are saying that there is an idea in the mind of God, and in that idea, you are a rock star. Unfortunately, that world was not the best of all possible worlds, and hence you are actually stuck with only dreams.

Possible worlds lay dormant as a philosophical tool until revived by Saul Kripke in the 1950's and 60's. In order to deal with a difficult problem in Modal Logic (defining validity, and hence providing a semantics, for those curious), he reintroduced the notion of a possible world. Pressed later on their metaphysical stauts, Kripke said that a possible world simply was a counterfactual situation. A counterfactual is a conditional (if-then claim) where the antecedent is false. Example: If Germany had won the war, blah blah blah. That stipulates a possible world where Germany did win the war. On his view, these do not exist as ideas in the mind of God, or any where else. However, if possible worlds do not exist, in what way do they make modal claims true?

Enter David Lewis. Lewis (and I'm not making this up) was reading a work of science fiction in which someone creates a new invention which allows people to travel to other possible worlds. Inspired by this, Lewis defends what he calls "Modal Realism," the view that other possible worlds exist exactly like this one, just in a different space-time. Real people, real situations. What happens in those other worlds makes our claim about what might have been true. Our world is the actual world for us, but our world is a possible world for them, and their world is their actual world. For anything that you think might have been, there is a world, which exists just like this one, where that actually happened.

Actualism is the view that the only thing that exists is the actual world, and actualists reject Lewis's views. More next week, if there is any interest.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Jerome uncovered this gem. In this series Jonathan Miller explores the origins of atheism and and his own lack of belief.

Shadows of Doubt

Jonathan Miller visits the absent Twin Towers to consider the religious implications of 9/11 and meets Arthur Miller and the philosopher Colin McGinn. He searches for evidence of the first 'unbelievers' in Ancient Greece and examines some of the modern theories around why people have always tended to believe in mythology and magic.

Noughts and Crosses

With the domination of Christianity from 500 AD, Jonathan Miller wonders how disbelief began to re-emerge in the 15th and 16th centuries. He discovers that division within the Church played a more powerful role than the scientific discoveries of the period. He also visits Paris, the home of the 18th century atheist, Baron D'Holbach, and shows how politically dangerous it was to undermine the religious faith of the masses.

The Final Hour

The history of disbelief continues with the ideas of self-taught philosopher Thomas Paine, the revolutionary studies of geology and the evolutionary theories of Darwin. Jonathan Miller looks at the Freudian view that religion is a 'thought disorder'. He also examines his motivation behind making the series touching on the issues of death and the religious fanaticism of the 21st century.

On Humility

By Hanno

I did promise to have a new post each Monday. I failed. Sue me.

Last week, we engaged had a discussion about humility. What is humility? Is it a virtue or a vice? Are people being humble when they give glory to God?

Normally, you cannot do philosophy by dictionary. A dictionary definition tells us how we use words, and there is no truth that is uncovered by simply showing how we use a word. moreover, people may use a word in one way, but the philosophical impact of the concept may lie in a different place. Be all that as it may, I find it useful in the present circumstance to think about the dictionary definition. To be humble is to have a low estimate of one's importance. The other connections we were making to humility seem to follow loosely from this definition.

Hence giving glory to God is an act of humility in a way: you are saying I did nothing, it was all God's doing, which is why He gets the glory, not me. But 1) most people who say this are basking in the glory while saying it. Then it becomes at best an empty gesture, even if in some sense heartfelt. 2) Conceiving of yourself as the instrument of God's will is not humility. True, he could have used someone else as his instrument. But that only marginally lowers the importance of the actor. In fact, conceiving of yourself as the instrument of God raises your importance in another way: you are like a prophet! God choose you! Your god given talents make you special, and special in a divine way, as it is God's power that you have and use. Being God's tool makes you almost divine. Giving God the glory is false humility.

Nietzsche criticizes humility for two reasons. The first is that we value humility not because it is good to be humble, but because lack of humility makes unimportant people feel bad about themselves, and creates rage and depression amongst them. Even if true, saying "I am smarter, stronger, faster, prettier than you" makes other people feel bad, rocks the boat, offends the herd. Valuing "I am worthless, unimportant" is the value scheme of the slave.

The second criticism he makes is far deeper: Valuing claims like "I am worthless" strips life itself of value. To live, to value life, you must think positively of this life. The humble monk, sitting in his hut, does not live life, he denies it, denies life has value. The monk does this for a variety of reasons, but the main Christian one is to see this life as a punishment for our sins. If so, reveling in life is reveling in our punishment, turning it from punishment to reward. Humility is essential to thinking of this life as a punishment. Humility is thus life-denying.

So is that right? And even if it is right, are there true virtues to humility? If so, what?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Function and Sex

By Hanno

As I'm grading several papers on Aristotle's function argument, it occurs to me that we take the basics of his argument very seriously in a variety of contexts, and always assume the basic Greek worldview. It was basic to the Greek way of thinking that every thing, every species, every action has a unique function. Aristotle and others then use knowledge of that unique function to determine what a good instance of that thing may be. Many people still use the basics of that view when it comes to sex, and this has profound implications for the ethics of sex. But the assumption seems flat out wrong, and hence the ethics based on the function argument seems poor at best.

Aristotle argued that the word good is always contextual, getting its meaning from the noun it modified, and the noun gets its meaning by its particular function. So, a pianist is someone that plays the piano, and a good pianist is one that plays the piano well. When you find the unique function of an object, you can then understand what a "good" object maybe, be it a piano player, or a car.

He argued that the function of man is not mere nutrition and growth, because these attributes are shared with plants, and so are not man's unique function. He argued that sense perception and movement are not man's function, because these are shared with animals. Man's unique function is the use of reason, hence the function of man is to reason, and a good man reason's well, both in practical life as well as in the contemplative life.

The immediate effect of the argument is to place an emphasis on reason, and on the unique characteristics of man, separating him from being an animal. Hence those features of human existence that we share with animals are downgraded, and acting like animals is a bad thing. And if its a bad thing, then anything which takes us away from our rational, human nature is degrading and very bad.

If this argument is not right, then it is very easy to see why some philosophers (like Kant) holds that sex is inherently degrading, reducing us to animals, and hence morally reprehensible. Sex might be necessary to keep the species going, but not good in itself, not to be valued as anything except useful for procreation. (Of course it follows that if sex is valuable for its unique function, and the only function it has that is truly unique is procreation, that good sex is reproductive sex. You may think you have had good sex before, but if it did not produce offspring, you are wrong. And you might have thought that sex that cause a child was not all that, but again, you would be wrong. The best sex, according to this argument, is one where a child is conceived.)

We might grant that procreation is the only unique function sex has, but it is obvious sex has many other functions that are not unique. You might think, for example, that it brings couples closer. Everyone must grant other actions can do that as well, so it is not the unique function, but few can deny that it can also have that effect as well.

Here, then, is the question: Why would the obvious uniqueness of one function make the others irrelevant, or even elevate the unique function? Why is value tied to the unique function? Why cannot we attach meaning and hence value to any purpose we give to any act or person? Then, no longer accepting to split between animal and human, as we no longer accept the function argument, we need no longer look at our animalistic nature with horror and dread. Deny that the only function which counts is the unique function, and off we go with a very different conception of value and ethics. So what justifies the assumption either that function is unique or that only the unique function is the one that counts?