Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Nietzsche and the Psychology of the Weak

By Hanno

Nietzsche does not believe in truth. There is no 'way the world is,' discoverable by reason' or by any other method. Instead, there are perspectives, ways of viewing the world, or interpretations. And if there is no way the world is, then there is no sense in critiquing ways of understanding the world for not being 'truthful' or matching up with the way the world is. For Nietzsche, your beliefs say more about you then they do about the world. So one can always fruitfully ask whenever someone tells you what they believe: what does this say about them? Nietzsche has deep insight to the darker parts of the human mind, and thus what he finds is not necessarily comfortable or nice. It turns out that many of our prized views are shaped by psychological forces that are not pretty.

Thus, for example, a question about the existence of God turns into a question about the psychology of the believer (or non-believer): what psychological needs make some people believe in such a thing? Kant's adherence to an inflexible moral scheme is not a feature of some moral truth, but rather a feature of Kant's psychology: Why is it that Kant needs morals to be absolute? And Hume's adherence to a flexible moral scheme raises the same kind of question. It, too, is not a feature of some moral truth, but rather flows from Hume's own psychology. It is psychology that shapes beliefs, not the world.

Nietzsche also thinks that physiology shapes psychology. A sickly body is the cause of the sickly mind. We do not choose interpretations or our psychological makeup. It is all determined by our physical well being.

It is also the case that on his view, modern man is man in decline. Weak, effeminate, and above all, sickly. He envisions a war between strong and weak natures, a battle of values, centuries old, roman warrior vs Jewish/Christian, Bird of Prey/Sheep, and the Jewish/Christian value scheme has won. But the scheme is not a choice, the people's value scheme is a product of their psychology and physiology. With the victory of the masses comes the decay of mind and body. Make no mistake about it (and the people who love Nietzsche always get this wrong), the sheep won. There are no more strong birds of prey. We are the sheep. Anyone who thinks he is not is sadly deluded, and more sick than anyone else.

If there is no truth, there still are perspectives that are better than others. On what basis? Psychology. Some perspectives flow from psychological strength and health, others from weakness and sickliness. Nietzsche will then rail against some perspectives, but never because they are not true. Always, it is because they are the product of sick minds.

The principle sickness is spite, vengefulness, which is created by the consciousness of impotence. Find monstrous rage, anywhere in the world, and you will find people who are conscious of their lack of power. But there is more to the story, and this is very important: They let their lack of power define who they are, and the way they see the world. It gnaws at them. They cannot let it go. It is the outcasts in high school who are bitterly resentful at the way they are treated by the social hierarchy, and let that define who they are, so that their very value system is framed as an antithesis for the popular, that they view themselves superior because they recognize the stupidity of the social elite (and they may well be! Truth is not the issue!). Or the popular themselves who need to feel superior to others, a need which manifests itself by putting down the people they hate with a kind of viciousness that shocks, always answerable to deep insecurity. It is people in Palestine, who define themselves though the losing struggle with Israel, alway, always aware that they have lost every battle in the decades long war. It is the people in Israel, who define themselves as a people under siege (doe not that very conception come with it the consciousness of the lack of power?). It is the people in the American South, who remember the civil war, their loss being the defining moment of their culture, and it shapes a hatred for those who won. Etc., etc., etc. From serious politics to trivial social arrangements, the rage comes from the same place: awareness of the lack of power, and that lack defining who they are. The story is the same, because the cause is the same: vengeful spite shaping a perspective, a world view, psychology shaping their interpretation of the world.

The need to feel superior, to demonstrate superiority, is itself the product of the feeling of inferiority, a psychological need. The weak are defined by that need. They may in some ways appear strong. But it is only an appearance. The truly strong can let things go, have no need to feel special, no need to demonstrate superiority. They may do things that hurt others, but are not wracked by guilt about such things, nor do such things as a reaction. If they do something wrong, they learn from it, and move on.

Next: morality

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nietzsche and Me

by Hanno

When I first began my philosophical studies ages ago at the University of Texas (Hook Em!), three philosophers gripped my attention: Plato, Nietzsche and Parmenides. With any true love, an ember always remains long after the fire burns out. I never lost my love of Plato, nor Parmenides, and I will always be in the debt of Paul Woodruff, Professor of Philosophy and Classics at UT, for having introduced me to both. Nietzsche on the other hand...

It was late great philosopher Louis Mackey who, in a course called 'God and Man' made me read Niezsche for the first time. Niezsche's challenge to conventional morality, his joyful maliciousness, and his love of individualism, of turning things upside down, all griped the young Hanno. I began a serious study of his work, but quickly found myself reading, but not understanding. I spent an entire summer working my way through Niezsche's 'Beyond Good and Evil' as well as other pieces, and while I a was amused, I was not any the wiser. I felt the content disappear the closer I read.

And I became disenchanted with just what I was reading. The abolition of morality as a value scheme sounds fine when you do not like the rules of morality, but when you think about its consequences, it is uncomfortable at best. Mackey told me once that there was no need to worry about 'what if everyone thought like that,' because not everyone would think like that. Only those who can challenge morality are able to do so, and the vast numbers of people are closer to sheep, living in the way only sheep can live. While that makes some sense, I began to fear the non-sheep among us, and that fear was greater than my youthful chaffing under the rules I did not ask for and did not particularly like. After I read other philosophers, like Hume, I began to see those rules as far more important than I understood before. I turned from Nietzsche, and I studied him only in passing while in Graduate school.

But I never left him entirely. When I taught my first Introduction to Philosophy, I was able to choose any works and any theme whatsoever to teach. Much to my surprise, I choose Nietzsche as part of the course, and it has stayed there for 20 years. In the beginning, I loved the reaction he got, but my lectures were empty. I could not teach for more than 1 week in him, as I ran out of things to say. I remember one test question I asked was 'Nietzsche sure is fun to read, but is there anything to what he is saying?' The question itself shows how dismissively I took his writing. Yet I still taught him, and read him.

I did learn in graduate school (from the noted Nietzsche scholar Alexander Nahamas), that there was more to what I read than I thought, but it still seems awful, and false. Nietzsche, I was told, did not believe in truth at all, but in perspectives. He was no a relativist, however, as he believed that some perspectives are better than others. All value was the product of an perspective, of an interpretation of the world, and there was no way around this. The critique of morality lies not on its being false (that would be inconsistent), but in its origin, which was the product of weak, sickly minds, the sheep huddled together for protection. Maybe, I thought. But what serious alternatives are there? The values of the wolf? Indeed, it seemed as if Nietzsche wanted us to return to some barbaric warrior ethos. A moral scheme that raping and pillaging and using/destroying the weak seems straightforwardly misguided. But was that what Nietzsche was advocating? To be sure, many read him that way.

I will in the coming weeks try to make sense of some of Nietzsche's writing, and show that there is more to his view than the idiotic love of 'strength,' whatever that may mean. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Allegory: A Recipe

When baked in a brick oven with some melted thought, given a few splashes of intertextual reading, this pizza makes a delicious and tantalizing meal. The Philo, which has a complex neo-platonic flavor to it, accentuates the Augustine and Aquinas nicely. The Augustine is pleasantly existential and retains its characteristically fresh, clean literalism. The important point in working with Aquinas, as with all medieval flavors, is to let the flavors enliven one another through varied forms of taste; otherwise it will burn and the beautiful flavor will be spoiled. You will need:

1 Creation of the World by Philo of Alexandria
1 Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas
1 Confessions by St. Augustine of Hippo
1 Additional Creation Story (preferably the revised standard version of the Holy
3 Medium sized attributes of Allegory:

1.) An abstraction in the guise of concrete image. An attempt to evok
a dual interest, one in
the events, characters, and settings presented, and the
other in the ideas they are intended
to convey or the significance they bear.

2.) Its abstract correlatives are clearly discernible and are consisten in their relationships
with the personifications or symbols which represent them in
the surface plot
3.) The philosophical thesis thus acted out is of wide applicability to human experience

In the beginning, thoroughly wash your Philo of any Greek contaminants and place it along side your story of creation. Take the first day to sketch out in your mind nearly all the ingredients from the creation story separating ‘heaven’, ‘earth’, ‘darkness’, ‘the deep’, ‘spirit’, ‘waters’ and ‘light’ from Genesis 1:1-3. This framework is important as we begin to turn these incorporeal ideas into corporeal substance for our sauce.[1] Since one cannot create a good imitation without a good model, do not skimp on this portion of the recipe. The creation story can be served cold from the literal sense of the words, but the flavors most fully emerge when its contents are abstracted in such a way that the ingredients rise above the subtlety of the literal text.

Once this step is accomplished, we will use the next five days to create the cosmological sauce for our pizza. Note: pay close attention to the number of ingredients used as your final prodcut may become disordered, and there is no beauty in disorder. For the sake of harmony, let’s use four different ingredients: neo-platonic, philosophical allegorical, symbolic, and mathematical. Mix these four ingredients together into a bowl and heat under the light of intellect for approximately six minutes. To ensure quality of the sauce, periodically verify the sauce with your external senses; it follows by necessity that if the sauce is visible then it must have been created properly.[2] Once the sauce is heated if there is an excessive amount of indiscernible allegory in the dish, not just a rich creation story, carefully pour it into an abstraction of numerical hermeneutics, bring to a boil, and reduce until a richer allegory is formed. A superior Philo sauce is slightly bland upon first taste but gradually builds flavor upon successive tasting, and should be palatable to those served.

Next take 1 cup Augustine and ½ cup creation story and mix together in a medium sauce pan. Once the dough is in a ball, begin kneading it with your hands. Allow the dough to stick to your hands and let it shape you insomuch as you shape the dough. Roll the dough into a roughly 10" round, like stretching out the firmament of the Book as a skin. Use a pie pin to pound or stretch the dough into an unformed spiritual entity.[3] Take into consideration that an unformed spiritual entity is more excellent than a formed corporeal entity.[4]

As you place the dough onto a baking stone, let the dough form itself into place by its own gravity. It you have implanted the proper amount of goodwill and love into the dough it should transform from unordered restlessness into a rested order. Please note that everyone’s dough will look different. Take ¼ cup of allegorical analysis and drizzle it over the dough. A ¼ cup will retain a thicker crust and make the dough more autobiographical. If you wish to have a thinner, less applicable dough of human experience use ½ cup of allegorical analysis. A good Augustine dough will have a hint of neo-Platonism, the zest of spiritual allegory, and a tang of literal existential.

With the dough in place take the prepared Philo sauce, which should be still be warm from the light of intellect, and spread it over the Augustine dough. The sauce should lie just above the surface of the dough and create dual interest in the sauce as well as the dough.

Finally, take some blocks of finely selected Aquinas cheese (literal, spiritual, allegorical, moral, and anagogical sense) and begin shredding them for application. At first you may object to use so many cheeses but once applied they will fit logically into the pizza. First, stuff the literal cheese into the crust of the pizza and softly pinch down the edges to tuck it into the dough. Once you have soundly placed the literal cheese into the dough, sprinkle 1/3 cup spiritual cheese over the top of the sauce covering the remaining pizza. Again, taking the spiritual cheese, (note: the spiritual cheese has a threefold flavor and each one is distinct) top off the rest of the pizza with thin shavings of allegorical, moral, and anagogical cheese.[5]

Next put the pizza in the oven and let the light of the All-Mighty’s intellect melt the cheeses into one seemingly gelatinous form. Although the layers of cheese you see before your eyes is of one substance, upon the first bite an explosion of flavor will burst forth.

When removing the hot pizza stone from the oven, be careful not to set it on a cold surface, or the stone will crack. While you devour the pizza with unfettered delight realize that all commentary is allegorical interpretation, an attaching of ideas to the structure of poetic or religious imagery. The instant that any critic (or student of hermeneutics) permits him/herself to make a genuine comment about a poem he/she has begun to allegorize. Commentary thus looks at literature or religious texts as, in its formal phase, a potential allegory of events and ideas.[6]

[1] Philo of Alexandria, A Creation of the World. Pg. 5

[2] Ibid. pg. 3

[3] St. Augustine of Hippo. The Confessions. pg. 309

[4] Ibid pg. 309

[5] St. Thomas Aquinas. The Summa Theologica. Pg. 16

[6] Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton University Press: Princeton. 1971 pg. 139


Monday, September 14, 2009

Harry Potter and Plato

By Hanno

There are two desires in man that lead to evil in the Harry Potter series. The first, obviously, is the fear of death, personified by you-know-who. But the other, perhaps less noted, is the abuse of power. In fact, power itself becomes a greater and greater concern as the series continues. This is exemplified in 5th book by the extremely evil Delores Umbridge, who will to do anything for power, including ordering Dementors to attack the young Harry, using the cutting curse to teach someone their place and using the torture curse as a means of interrogation. She is portrayed as sadistic, enjoying the fear she inspires, and the pain she inflicts, both in book 5 and in book 7. Like any true power seeking bureaucrat (similar to Percy Weasley), she seems willing to do anything as long as it increases her power. When the Ministry is Anti-you-know-who, she is too, and when the Ministry is Pro-you-know-who, she is too. And when she has that power, she is ruthless in pursuit of both her own and the ministry's goals. And like any true power seeking bureaucrat, she seeks to enlarge her authority when anyone trumps hers. It is a personal affront, humiliating, to have anyone overrule her. Step by step, she becomes in book 5 the ultimate authority at Hogwarts, getting the power she craves.

To a smaller degree, this concern with power plays itself out with Harry's relationship to the Ministry of Magic: The ministry wants to use Harry for its own purposes, and when Harry is reluctant, it uses the threat of force to make him comply. Harry's anger at this misuse of power is a minor part of the work, but it is a consistent theme. Harry's distaste is supposed to mirror our own at governments that play politics with important issues, that use a variety of threats to make people do their bidding. This culminates in the Ministry of Magic using those powers to institute anti-Muggle legislation, similar in scope and depth to the anti-Jewish laws in Nazi Germany, surely not by accident. The wizard world is to be Mugglefrei.

All this leads to Albus Dumbledore. Repeatedly in the books, Wizards are shocked that Dumbledore never became the Minster of Magic. Why this never happened is never explained, until the 7th book. The usual explanations people give are that he, in essence, wants to stay in his ivory tower, that he is too gifted a wizard to concern himself, or be interested in, the daily grind of governance. But it turns out that this is not the case.

In the 7th book, the dead Dumbledore comes back visit Harry after Harry 'dies.' And in that, we learn something of Dumbledore's past that was described earlier in the book: Dumbledore made friends with another powerful wizard, Grindelwald, who has plans to take over the muggle world for their own good. Dumbledore is gripped by this view, persuades himself that they could do great things. He revels and enjoys losing himself in this vision. He suppresses his intuitive grasp of his new friends more evil side, and plans the take over of the world. In doing so, Dumbledore forgets his real responsibility, to take care of his little sister, who as a child had been abused by some muggle boys, and never was the same again. When his brother confronts him, a fight breaks out, and Dumbledore's sister is dead.

This is meant to show us, as Dumbledore says, that Dumbledore, too, has a taste for power, that he too, is drawn to its misuse. He wanted to rule the world, he enjoyed thing about having that kind of power, and he loved it so much, he did not take care of his responsibilities. He says "I had proven, as a young man, that power was my weakness and my temptation. It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who never sought it." Indeed, he says as well, "I was offered the post of Minster of Magic not once, but several times. I had learned that I was not to be trusted with power." For Rowling, the desire for power, ambition, is a source of great evil. The people to trust, therefore, are those who do not have this desire. It is Harry who does not have it, and it is Harry who we can trust.

Plato, long ago in his masterpiece The Republic, writes of similar issues. He wanted to show that it is always best to be just. A just ruler, Plato argues, does not rule for his own glory, or for his own interest. Money and honor are not what the truly just person seeks. "Good people won't be willing to rule for the sake of either money or honor.... They won't rule for the sake of honor, because they aren't ambitious honor-lovers."(Rep. 347b-c) Ambition, like with Unbridge and the young Dumbledore, can lead people to do unjust things. Instead, good people "approach ruling not as a good, nor as something to be enjoyed, but as something necessary." Indeed, in a city of good men, "the citizens would fight not to rule, just as they do now in order to rule."(Rep. 347d) A short while later, he writes "perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who never sought it." (Okay, that was not really Plato, but Rowlings. But Plato could have written the exact same thing. Well, in Ancient Greek. Translated of course.)

The Harry Potter books tell us to be suspicious of if not downright hostile towards people who want power. Plato argued for the same point in his Republic.

Everybody Knows

Sometimes I'm interviewed by newspapers, and they ask me the meaning of my songs. And if the interviewers are French, they ask the meaning of meaning. This is my platform
- Leonard Cohen

Lately I have been listening to my Leonard Cohen collection and have become nostalgic for the darker decade of my childhood, the 1980s. The cynicism that oozes from the Leonard Cohen hit “Everybody Knows” is inherent in the song’s title. Written at the end of the decade, one politically dominated by the Republicans and marked by the collapse of popularized televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, “Everybody Knows” is Leonard Cohen’s tribute to America’s decaying religious and political figures - vocalized behind a sardonic smile. As the first decade of the 21st century winds to a close, I can't help but feel that the song remains the same. Wait, that was Zeppelin in 1976...well, history repeats itself or just insert some cyclical history cliche [here].

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over

The war Cohen is referring to is the Iran-Iraq war which ended in August of 1988. At the same time, Cohen’s allegorical sauce conjures associations with the domestic political war that ended when Republican George H. Bush defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis for the presidency.

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Michael Dukakis supported cutting the military budget and sought to scale back nuclear war. He is quoted as saying, “The way to stop the arms race is to stop building and testing nuclear weapons.” At the time, the estimates from the Iran-Iraq war reported 1.5 million people dead from the conflict. War has no winners.

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

In the 1988 election, Bush took advantage of his association with Reagan to propel his campaign to victory. At the same time, Iran-Iraq conflict was being fueled by outside interests: in its war effort, Iran was supported by Syria and Libya, and received much of its weaponry from North Korea and China, as well as from covert arms transactions from the United States. Iraq enjoyed much wider support, both among Arab and Western nations: the Soviet Union was its largest supplier of arms. Ultimately, Western Europe and the United States supported Iraq in response to Iranian attacks on Kuwaiti oil tankers traveling in the Persian Gulf.

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

Although the election brought about new leadership in Bush, Americans were faced with yet another Republican who echoed the policies of the Reagan Administration. A wealthy Texan, George H. Bush ran behind the slogan of “Read my lips – No new taxes.” Riding the coat tails of the Reagan Administration, which increased the budget deficit and saw high unemployment rates, Bush promised to unburden working class America. At the end of the Iran-Iraq conflict the material cost of the war--running into billions of dollars--drained the two countries' economies. America, China, and North Korea continued to improve economically.

That's how it goes

Bush later reneged on his tax promise. In fact, he signed the largest tax increase in history. Both Iran and Iraq emerged from the war financially, militarily, and as a people in much, much worse shape than they been in when they entered it.

Everybody knows
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking

The televangelist scandals began rocking the nation around 1988 as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker were convicted of crimes ranging from fraud to solicitation of a prostitute. The PTL had blown through $158 million of their ministry's donations.

Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

On the political front, a special commission appointed by President Reagan to investigate the Iranian arms deal released its findings: Reagan admitted that his administration traded arms for hostages, but asserted that the result was due to faulty execution. The original strategy was to improve relations with Iran but it deteriorated in its implementation into trading arms for hostages. As for the televangelist scandals, Bakker’s jury found him guilty on 24 counts, and he received a 45-year sentence along with a $500,000 fine. Bakker claimed from the beginning that his downfall had been orchestrated by enemies inside and outside his ministry.

Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose

Everybody knows

With millions of American bilked out of their dollars by false promises made by Bush and the televangelists, the economy hit a recession. Dazed and confused from Reagan era promises of a better America, people were left with 6.2% unemployment rates instead of the sweet and beautiful life they were promised.

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you've been faithful

“The Jimmy Swaggart Telecast” attracted eight million viewers and earned $150 million annually at its height. In 1986, Swaggart took great joy in defrocking fellow Assemblies of God minister Marvin Gorman when Gorman conducted an extramarital affair with one of his parishioners. The following year, the PTL Ministry collapsed as Jim Bakker was paving the way for Swaggart's fall; Gorman paid a private detective to take photos of Swaggart with his Louisiana prostitute.

Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet

Without your clothes

Swaggart eventually confessed.

And everybody knows
Everybody knows, everybody knows

That's how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows, everybody knows

That's how it goes

Everybody knows

He was Jerry Lee Lewis' cousin after all.

And everybody knows that it's now or never
Everybody knows that it's me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you've done a line or two

In 1985, crack cocaine came into existence in the middle of Reagan’s war on drugs. While politicians battled the drug wars on one station, televangelists like Jim Bakker were preaching eternal redemption through Jesus while maintaining their energy through illegal drug use. In an interview with Larry King, Jim Bakker stated, “I would work three and four days with hardly any sleep, and finally my nervous system collapsed, and so the doctor put me on tranquilizers which set me up like a cat on a hot tin roof. And I couldn't live with them or without them.”

Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe's still pickin' cotton
For your ribbons and bows

And everybody knows

In September 1988, a group called "Americans for Bush" launched negative attack ads against Bush's presidential opponent Michael Dukakis. The ads used the example of Willie Horton, an African-American Massachusetts convict who was released from prison on a weekend furlough while Dukakis served as Governor of Massachusetts. Horton used his furlough to travel to Maryland, where he assaulted a couple and raped a woman. The ads were attacked as demonizing African-Americans to further the Republican Political Party.

And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast

1988 saw the rise of the AIDS epidemic and a national spotlight on the disease. Cohen alludes to this specifically in an interview in which he states, “The plague in the most physical sense is AIDS. But there's another kind of plague going on too, of which AIDS is one of the symptoms. If indeed disease does have ultimately a psychic origin, then there's a plague of alienation and separation and lassitude and panic; a sense of not being in control.” In 1988 Prozac was introduced as an anti-depressant.

Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead

But there's gonna be a meter on your bed That will disclose What everybody knows

The scare of AIDS sparked widespread concern over the promiscuity that was famous in the 1980s. Coming to pass were times of easy monetary redemption through Jim Bakker and the PTL, as well as the innocence of sex without protection or consequence.

And everybody knows that you're in trouble
Everybody knows what you've been through

From the bloody cross on top of Calvary

To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it's coming apart

Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows

And everybody knows

The proverbial wheels were coming off the wagon in the late 80’s, between the PTL scandal of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart’s infidelity, Reagan’s involvement in supplying weapons to Iran, Bush’s false promises in his campaign, and a general swirling of economic downturn. Leonard Cohen exhaled a sigh of heavy pessimism as the American people watched, incapable of enacting change. But then again…

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes

Everybody knows
Oh everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Alix and Counterfactuals

by Hanno

A while ago, I asked folks on Facebook what they would like me to blog about. I got this response from an old friend Alix from college:
Is it important that we know about things that we do not see? I suppose this is a human version of the tree falling in the forest. The girls were interested to talk last night about what would have happened had we simply walked by the restaurant and not gone in: would all of these people said the same things? Would the music have been different? Does it matter?
This is an interesting question... so interesting, one might write a dissertation on it, or an article. (See The Truth about Possibility and Necessity" and "What if? Modality and History,” History and Theory 38 (1999)). The initial question is quite broad, and would include more than the counterfactual claim the girls were asking. I argued in both the dissertation and the article that we need to use the facts we know and the rules about how systems transform to answer these questions, always recognizing that many systems are so complex that either no answer can really be given, or the answers are so speculative so as to not be worth the effort. Chaos theory makes such answers all the more tricky, as tiny but imperceptible changes in a system may alter it drastically, so that our predicting what would have happened had something different take place may be even more complex.

First, a techincal detail" A claim like "If x had happened, y would have happened" is called a counterfactual conditional. All sentences of the form "If ____, then ___" are conditionals, and in counterfactuals, the initial claim, called the antecedent, is false, and hence against the facts. To claim that something would have happened is quite strong, and usually unwarranted, but not always. The example I use in my article concerns the last play of a football game, as time runs out. Suppose a field goal wins the game, and suppose the kicker misses. It seems quite true that "If the kicker had made the field goal, they would have won." But suppose the missed field goal takes place very early in the game. It is easy to see that the choices the coaches made would be very different, and then that the whole game would have unfolded differently, and hence the claim no longer seems obviously true.

That example also shows an important part of the truth of the statement. The counterfactual needs to be "connected" in some way to the consequent of the conditional. It would make little sense to say "If I had blown my nose at 2:00 am, they would have won the game" because there is no connection between my blowing my nose, and the game being won. Now, perhaps that is wrong, and my blowing my nose has some sort of magical connection to the team winning the game. But in that case, we re-establish the connection, and hence still demand, if the counterfactual is true, some type of connection must exist between the antecedent and the consequent. This connection need not be causal, but it must exist.

It seems also true for a counterfactual to be relevant, the antecedent must be in fact possible, and also tied to choices, possibilities. Suppose we consider the following: "If Lee had a machine gun, he would have won the battle of Gettysburg." This may be true, but no one cares until, and this is the key point, someone shows that he might have had a machine gun at the battle. Suppose, for example, he had a weapons research project going, and were close to creating the first machine gun. then suddenly the counterfactual has new life. Now it becomes interesting.

So let's take a look at the original counterfactual:
The girls were interested to talk last night about what would have happened had we simply walked by the restaurant and not gone in: would all of these people said the same things? Would the music have been different?

It is easy to see that things may well have been different, or roughly the same. If their entrance were remarkable in any way, then someone may well not have said something had they not entered. If someone, for example, had said "Look at those shoes!" then it is extremely likely that had they not entered, that comment would not have been made, and people would not have have said the same things. It is aslo possible, but less likely, that the rest of the conversation may have veered on tangents totally different from the original conversation. That is, the shoes led to a general discussion of shoes, fashion, and on to God knows what (Does He? Does God know what you would have talked about had your daughter not gone into the restaurant?) So it seems possible that had they not entered, some conversations would have been quite different. If, on the other hand, little note was made of their entrance, then it is unlikely that things would have gone differently.

Does this matter? In my article on history, I show that counterfactuals and other modal claims (claims about what might have been, and what would have been) are extremely important to the way we understand the world. Despite their high BS potential, we judge people, characters, events in history and cause and effect using counterfactual claims, claims like "If McClellan had attacked at Antietam, he would have won the battle and the war" is widely held to be true, and a key reason historians hold his generalship in low regards: he could have attacked, he did not, and if he had, it would have been successful. Let us not debate whether all these are true, but note: if they were all true, it gives us ground to judge McClellan. This is no mere matter of academia, it lead to McCLellan's dismissal, because Lincoln thought so, too.

I doubt anything so serious hangs on whether or not your girls entered the restaurant. But the general question, can things we do not see matter, the answer is 'yes.' We take them quite seriously. We even use them in law courts to determine the guilt, innocence and depth of just punishment.

Btw, I just saw that my article is now part of a graduate course in political science at McGill: http://www.mcgill.ca/files/politicalscience/course06_poli432.pdf

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Idealism and Closure has been nominated!

Updating a previous posting, Jerome's blogpost, Idealism and Closure, has been nominated for the 3 Quarks Daily 2009 Philosophy Prize! Go vote for him to make the top 20. Results of the voting round (the top twenty most voted for posts) will be posted on the main page on September 8, 2009. Winners of the contest, as decided by Daniel C. Dennett, will be announced on September 22, 2009.

VOTE HERE (Scroll down to "MSU Philosophy Club: Philosophy and Video Games: Idealism and Closure")