Unleash the beast

Ah, ah. You had in mind Marshawn Lynch (Go, Bears!). But you would be wrong.

For several years I studied philosophy in college, a subject that I found liberating, just as the author of this piece for the New York Times does. It can be at times dense, frustrating, illustrative, insightful, and, believe it or not, damn interesting in itself. But, with the author, I felt the academic philosopher caged, insulated, and too often unavailable to ordinary lives. I like this excerpt from the linked essay:

But I think the key difference between science and philosophy is that we need the results of science more than we need everyone in the body politic “doing science.” By contrast, we need everyone “doing philosophy” more than we need the results of philosophy.

Amen. A good read, by the way.

Amor fati

I came across the above phrase in reading a new book by philosopher David Blacker, The Falling Rate of Learning*. While education serves as a proxy to illustrate what ails us, Blacker presents a disquieting look at the folly of trying to fix an essentially dysfunctional system, the one in which we all live. In revealing the bad news, he suggests that we embrace, or love, fate, much like the ancient Greeks and Romans, who believed that shit happens, the result of some tangle between two or more gods. Thus, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Blacker argues that instead of wasting our time and energy working within the system to produce different outcomes, however laudable the effort and intended objectives, we should acknowledge the obvious—that those who benefit from the status quo have far too much power to allow for change that would benefit the Rest of Us. He writes:

…rather than wishing it [the capitalist system] away as we normally do via various psychological stratagems, we would do well truly to respect the overwhelming power of our situation and adopt a fatalism-inflected pedagogy of opportunism, one that watches, waits and seizes the moment when it arrives.

Can’t wait? Good luck with “the struggle.”


*The book’s title borrows from Mr. Marx, who argued that in the capitalist system there is a “tendency of the rate of profit to fall.” Indeed, Marx appears on nearly every page, though Blacker stops short of ideological purity. Marx offered prescient critiques of capitalism, but his prescriptions are either sparse or wrong.

I sometimes wonder…

After reading this exchange between two philosophers on the topic of atheism, I wonder why I took up philosophy in college. Consider this excerpt from Alvin Plantinga, a philosopher who believes in God, which sets him apart from most of his philosophical brothers and sisters:

…In fact, given materialism and evolution, it follows that our belief-producing faculties are not reliable.

Here’s why. If a belief is as likely to be false as to be true, we’d have to say the probability that any particular belief is true is about 50 percent. Now suppose we had a total of 100 independent beliefs (of course, we have many more). Remember that the probability that all of a group of beliefs are true is the multiplication of all their individual probabilities. Even if we set a fairly low bar for reliability — say, that at least two-thirds (67 percent) of our beliefs are true — our overall reliability, given materialism and evolution, is exceedingly low: something like .0004. So if you accept both materialism and evolution, you have good reason to believe that your belief-producing faculties are not reliable.

But to believe that is to fall into a total skepticism, which leaves you with no reason to accept any of your beliefs (including your beliefs in materialism and evolution!). The only sensible course is to give up the claim leading to this conclusion: that both materialism and evolution are true. Maybe you can hold one or the other, but not both.

So if you’re an atheist simply because you accept materialism, maintaining your atheism means you have to give up your belief that evolution is true. Another way to put it: The belief that both materialism and evolution are true is self-refuting. It shoots itself in the foot. Therefore it can’t rationally be held.

This strikes me as all wrong, but the philosophical chops to prove my case have long since departed.

Societies of one—random thoughts

It is perhaps in our nature, those who engage the news and politics in general, to find fault with just about everything. The attitude recognizes no partisan boundaries.

The news, of course, is relentless and infinite. As a New York Times subscriber I can simply glance at the digital headlines to see problems everywhere. This morning’s sample attests:

  • Photo Trove Is Said to Show Widespread Torture in Syria

  • States Cutting Weeks of Aid to the Jobless

  • Food Banks Anticipate Impact of Cuts to Food Stamps

  • Former Virginia Governor and His Wife Are Indicted

Ah, but suppose I viewed the pages through different filters. Could someone vitally interested in food, for example, mentally block out the headlines that disturb? The Times has a section devoted to “dining and wine.” It’s chock full of recipes, restaurant reviews, and seemingly endless stories of wines from all over the world. That should keep one busy.

Or, perhaps I’m suddenly obsessed with music of all genres. The Times does not disappoint. The paper has many sections having little, if anything, to do with problems of the world, unless you’re troubled by the antics of Justin Bieber or the string section of the New York Philharmonic.

There are certainly less serious publications with an online presence. The once proud Seattle Post-Intelligencer has transformed itself from a once-competitive newspaper delivered to my door each morning to a portal for voyeurs, featuring constant slideshows of cheerleaders and movie celebrities and weird people doing weird things. Not much there to boil one’s political blood.

I can only imagine that there are people in the world who possess Pollyannaish blinders. Their minds filter out the wrong and let in only the right. If such people exist, they probably don’t subscribe to the New York Times or read other newspapers or consult their local television news.

The Internet has enabled, if not encouraged, the politically ignorant. One can focus on one’s passion or obsession at the exclusion of all else. Certainly the “series of tubes” has changed us.

When I was growing up nearly every doorstep, or porch, or driveway, or front lawn received a daily newspaper tossed with troubled accuracy by a boy on a bicycle. In the Bay Area that was my home households could choose from an array of publications, but almost all chose at least one. In the evening the television was tuned to a national news program delivered by one of three networks; this was long before cable. If I dare say so, the consumption of “the news” provided a largely common experience, the stuff of society.

Now we are divided by ignorance, the default mode, since it’s nearly impossible to find commonality even in the news. Accounts of events differ, depending on ideology. If there was ever objectivity in reporting, it vanished long ago. Today each of us sees the world through blinkered eyes, and my world is not yours.

How, then, to function as a Great Society when we are all societies of one, replete with personal Weltanschauungs and disparate interests marinated in ignorance? Margaret Thatcher may have been right, but sardonically so.

We may thus understand the apparent need of political leaders to embrace ritual and ceremony. Jointly singing the Star-spangled Banner or reciting the Pledge are intended to unite, even if the venues in which they’re practiced are either sports arenas or tiny city council chambers, the former decidedly apolitical and the latter sparsely attended.

Yet, history records grand efforts to corral the masses into giant spaces, from the circuses of Rome and the spectacles of Hitler to modern Olympics and the Super Bowl (Go, Hawks). The noble aspirations of the commonweal give way to the pernicious and trivial.

Ironically, the libertarian impulse for individual freedom can find expression only after concerted efforts by the many to thwart  oppression by a few. Those who rail against actions to keep the rabble in line exhort us to organize, protest, and resist—en masse. It is they who imagine a critical mass of voluntary associations overcoming the power of plutocrats and politicians.

Herein lies a conundrum. How does one achieve such a critical mass amidst societies of one? You may appeal to my moral sensibilities, but if I’m not open to your entreaties because I am otherwise distracted, then your efforts will have been in vain. Now multiply the arrangement by millions and you will readily appreciate the enormity of the task before you. More likely than not, our consent to the status quo has been ably manufactured.

Besides, there is no rabble with which to reckon. The jury remains out on whether or not this is a good thing.


Accounting for taste

A few posts ago I offered my reactions to a symphonic debut. It was Become Ocean, a new composition by John Luther Adams commissioned and performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. I came away less than impressed. The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross loved it. However, it seems fruitless to argue about aesthetics. We either like something or we don’t.

Maybe not.

Philosophers have been debating the good, the bad, and the ugly for thousands of years. A current philosopher weighs in with this recent essay in the New York Times. Who’s better, he asks, Mozart or the Beatles? He writes:

Centuries of unresolved philosophical debate show that there is, in fact, little hope of refuting someone who insists on a thoroughly relativist view of art. We should not expect, for example, to provide a definition of beauty (or some other criterion of artistic excellence) that we can use to prove to all doubters that, say, Mozart’s 40th Symphony is objectively superior as art to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But in practice there is no need for such a proof, since hardly anyone really holds the relativist view. We may say, “You can’t argue about taste,” but when it comes to art we care about, we almost always do.

Think about popular artists you like, say Bruce Springsteen or, god forbid, Justin Bieber. (I don’t know anyone who likes the latter, but judging by the Internet, millions do.) Should we be sharing a few brews around a table some evening, the conversation could turn to this or that singer or band. In arguing for our favorites we may throw out various criteria for our judgments. Perhaps Bruce really captures a certain spirit, a sense of American angst. Or Justin “rocks.” After a gallon or two of libations, we may have gone through a rather extended list of artists, generally divided between those who “suck” and those who “are, like, way cool.”

The point philosopher Gary Gutting makes is that when we invoke criteria to distinguish between performers of a particular genre, say pop, we are implicitly recognizing elements of taste that can be applied to disputes between genres. Gutting:

…given the standards fans use to show that their favorites are superior, we can typically show by those same standards that works of high art are overall superior to works of popular art. If the Beatles are better than the Stones in complexity, originality, emotional impact, and intellectual content, then Mozart’s operas are, by those standards, superior to the Beatles’ songs.

I concur. Just don’t ask me why.

On the eve of my least favorite holiday

I loathe July 4, not the idea of revolution, but our bombastic celebration of collective ignorance. I would be speaking of mindless flag-waving and, of course, personal explosions, blatantly illegal in acquisition and display. Why collective ignorance? Because those who practice maddening mayhem know so little of history and, in particular, the themes of our political forefathers. They just like to make noise, the louder the better, dude.

Yesterday my wife and I had our eyes examined as part of an annual routine. One of the office workers lives in Marysville (Wash.), where we used to live. She volunteered that the pyrotechnic scofflaws had begun the week before, having purchased super-explosive fireworks from the adjacent Indian reservation. She dreads tomorrow night, as we once did as former residents of what I have long called ‘an ugly, dysfunctional burg.’ There will be bombs bursting in air and next door and in the streets out front. Next day’s aftermath will resemble a city destroyed. What a mess.

But leave it to a philosopher to wax, well, philosophically on revolutionary matters on the approaching holiday. Writing for the New York Times, Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting exposes the illogic of the Tea Party and others of the extreme right, which would largely define our current Republican Party.

The Tea Party’s case against Obama stalls in the face of his historical analysis.  Specifically, the analysis poses a dilemma to which they have no good response.  If, on the one hand, they reject Obama’s claim of the indispensable role of government intervention, then they must also reject many of the defining achievements of our revolutionary heritage, which clearly required such action.

Gutting goes further in suggesting we abandon revolution as an antidote to an unsatisfactory government. He concludes:

There is, in fact, no good case for a revolutionary challenge to our government.  Both the far right and the far left should give up the romantic fantasy of revolution and take up, with the president, the challenge of actually governing this country.

That’s a very tall order, governing America. So many feral cats to herd. Unfortunately, thousands of them occupy legislative seats, having been elected by the dastard detonators of the Fourth.