09 September 2003
Paper One: Promises of Deliberation
Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean? subtitles itself as an introduction to philosophy. Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, by John R. Burr and Milton Goldinger, makes a similar claim. Each text lends their pages to what amounts to a flashbulb’s moment of light on several issues, all with countless layers of solutions and opinions to explore. Burr and Goldinger succeed repeatedly in their presenting of balanced points on their chosen topics. Although Nagel’s text is primary seen through his mind’s eye, he is still able to give a mostly balanced coverage of philosophical issues. In both cases, the men champion their similar cause of promoting philosophical discussion. Like them, we all hope for eventual societal reaction to the issues that make philosophy such an important part of everything we say and do.
Our focus this afternoon is the Burr and Goldinger text. This anthology addresses both the salty and the novice philosopher in a can’t-put-it-down crash course on what it is to think about issues in the mind set and lingo of philosophy. Six introductions set the tone for discussions on Freedom and Determinism, God and Religion, Morality and Society, State and Society, and Mind and Body. Nagel takes a stab at some of these same issues, so we can dip into his ideas briefly as we visit the Burr and Goldinger essays.
The Freedom and Determinism chapter is a collection of nine essays broaching the issues and conflicts we face as thinking folk. The twist in this chapter is the problem we face in determining how to define or recognize those issues.
Determinists and Libertarians both agree that forces out of our hands determine the actions of man. It is the fundamental differences in that determination process that presses the groups to debate. Libertarians and Determinists disagree about how to define our status as thinking folk. They also disagree about how to scrutinize moral implications of actions and their causes.
A Libertarian is the one you’ll find in the court room telling the jury that the rapist is not morally (or personally) at fault; it was his childhood that made him do it; a kind of historically motivated finger-pointing. Intentionally or not, Nagel summarizes the Libertarian conclusions about poor behavior perfectly when he calls the robber of your Glenn Gould records a “kind of natural disaster,” (54). A not-anyone’s-fault-just-deal-with-it kind of approach to social malformation.
Determinists also believe that the man’s poor judgment or lack of self-control was a foregone conclusion. To them the actions were predictable based on the much less personal practice of a nearly scientific cause and reaction system. Nagel tells us about Determinism verses Free Will in What Does It All Mean? (50-52). He points out that if Determinism were true, Free Will would be out the window. There is hard and soft Determinism too, but the depth of their arguments is outside the scope of this paper, and probable stretches the charity of this audience’s patience.
In the next chapter Burr and Goldinger bravely open the subject of religion to the floor (104). Perhaps no other philosophical debate is so passionately argued. People have died over their convictions about God and Religion.
The argument is simple. Can one prove or disprove God either scientifically or through historical text? Both sides of the issue lay claim to some matter of proof. Burr and Goldinger claim that in light of modern science, religion is a remnant of ancient superstition (104). They attempt to present the reader with several authoritative examples arguing on both sides of the debate.
With the same passion that Cressy Morrison is arguing a scientific corroboration for God’s existence in Seven Reasons Why a Scientist Believes in God (Burr/Goldinger 105, 108-111), The Improbability of God by Richard Dawkins (Burr/Goldinger 105, 112-117) is balking at the idea of creationism and voting for evolution. It would take seven semesters to make a dent in this subject’s key points. Entire lives have been committed to, lived, and lost defending just one.
Morality and Society came next. This chapter put a name on several of the thought processes and criticisms I have been through, used, tolerated, talked about, or have been labeled myself. The job I had before Naval Aviator was as an English Teacher in Japan for the Japanese Embassy. My wife and I lived in a town about the size of a normal University campus; we were the only gaijin ‘foreigners’ for 40 miles. If there is any way to pound relativism into an American’s skull, it is to plop them down into a foreign environment and leave them there to survive local style. “When in Rome,” we learned to say, and shook our heads.
Sociological Relativism, as defined by Burr and Goldinger on page 180, became intimately familiar in my life before college. During the first Gulf War, I was an enlisted sailor on an aircraft carrier. We visited several Middle-Eastern, African, and Mediterranean port cities. Realizing that different folks have a different end game in mind helps you realize the reason they play the game differently. The different needs of a society can dictate how they form their social and religious practices to guide them toward meeting those needs.
Sadly, I see Ethical Absolutism nearly everywhere I go. Brandie and I call it Americanism and xenophobia when we see it at home or overseas. Once in Pensacola, Florida, a young boy was next to me looking at books in the language section. At ten or eleven, he probably was not at the age where he would be studying language in school, not in North West Florida anyway. His father was yelling for him from across the store in a voice reserved for yelling across the stadium. The boy looked defeated when found. “Put that %$#@ down Jimmy,” we both looked up, Jimmy dropped the Spanish for Dummies book on the floor. “You don’t need that %$#@, if it ain’t English, it’s ain’t gonna do you no good anyhow!” His Dad grabbed his arm and looked at me as if I would understand. I said, “Jim, you don’t have to live here the rest of your life.” Brandie, who insisted we stay inside for another 45 minutes in case his Dad was waiting outside for me, promptly slapped me on the back of my head. I am an Ethical Relativist.
Egoism made itself familiar to the Frey family vernacular as Eddy Hascalism before I knew how to drive a car. World politicians could practice Utilitarianism if they were not so bogged down by Egoism. Formalism strays from reality by assuming that all people are bound by the idea of reciprocating kindness. These varsity teammates of mass-population philosophy, Egoism and Hedonism, line up to guarantee the failure of Formalism, and sadly enough Utilitarianism too.
Here in Guam there is a philosophical debate raging right now about the caribou population making themselves comfortable on the U.S. Naval Magazine property down south. Locals want the Magazine to leave them alone, Naval Officials see the beasts (and I mean that zoologically) as a nuisances and a danger to safe operation. Their ramming of fuel trucks, for example, is a bad idea in a Naval Magazine loaded with enough kegs of powder for two fleets and three wars. It is the “People or Penguins” article by William Baxter with a different cast (Burr/Goldinger 182, 217-222). Unless you side with the locals that is.
More close to home in this chapter was the Michael Levin article about torture (Burr/Goldinger 183, 255-257). I have personal experience in this department. All U.S. Navy pilots go through an entirely too long Hell called SERE School the summer desert of California or the winter of Northern Maine depending on where you are going to operate. The unclassified part is that they beat the snot out of you in exchange for cooperation. When you graduate, you are medically disqualified from flying until mental and physical evaluation certifies recovery. It is not even nice to think about. Having seen torture from both sides, I can see its use for saving lives.
The State and Society introduction gives the reader a taste of what it is to debate over not just an issue, but also a single reference made during one. Peace talks of major wars have broken down for less. The marriage of State and Society is plainly one that philosophy has been dealing with since one cave dweller told the others he was in charge of the fire that winter. The first political argument of all time probably started in that cave when Thag asked Mog what he meant by “in charge.” And so fundamental political philosophical debate was born.
Burr and Goldinger begin their fundamental political philosophical by addressing Thag’s linguistically motivated question in terms of the proposition “All men are created equal” (269). Wives across the globe ask their husbands “what exactly do you mean by that” all the time. Any serious person cannot ignore the importance of linguistic acrobatics. As Academics, we recognize that those who think they are “serious” do not often consider this sort of philosophy serious business.
It is serious business. The modern government who is held responsible for deciding on a national level how we will read “All mean are created equal,” or any other words for that matter. Lawyers spend their lives trying to officially define what has already been said.
Nagel speaks about the responsibility of government in his Justice chapter. He asserts, “opportunities should be open to those who are qualified and it is clearly a good thing when governments try to enforce such equality of opportunity” (77).
Several templates for government and social order are described. Plato, Marx, and a litany of other influential minds made the cut (270). Capitalism, feminism, socialism, democracy, monarchy, anarchism, and their offshoots all get touched upon. These all have issues so deep that no light will shine on any one long enough to make it possible in real world terms. The anarchist wants no government, but probably does not complain about having his mail delivered on the road they paved for him. The Capitalist thinks it is all about profit, but is likely to enjoy the picnic at the park as much as the next person is. The self-appointed feminist voice for all women, Helen E. Longino (Burr/Goldinger 275), made my wife so angry that she wanted to write her a letter of womanhood revocation. Brandie cannot stand pornography either, but thinks that women who try to speak for all women are generally not doing what they say they are. Interestingly, the pornography debate could have taken place in almost any of these chapters.
A.C. Grayling in Why a High Society Is a Free Society, wants to convince us that peace through mind-altering drugs is a good bet (Burr/Goldinger 277). It may work in Amsterdam, it will not work here. We may lack the social maturity to handle completely uncontrolled freedom and then callousness to prosecute the criminals of that freedom with an effective deterrent. The problem with his paper is the same problem we all have when making an argument. We tend to leave out any points that do not make our case stronger.
Maybe the most publicly recognizable philosophy found is in the Mind and Body chapter (370). The debate over what is real and what is is. Do you think that I am? Am I thinking for myself that you are? These all prompt a quick raised eyebrow from Bachelor of Science colleagues and usually a question about drug use. They are however, the most interesting questions out there to most. The since the beginning the silver screen has prostituted this philosophy for entertainment, exploration, and usually handsome profit.
Materialism and/or Dualism and/or its children Interactionism and Epiphenomenalism play some role in every human’s (and some would say everything’s) idea about who/what they are and what they are doing here in the first place.
Throwing around the –isms of the debate does not change the basic principles therein. What exactly are we doing here, if there is a we and not just a me, whoever that is, is at the core of this fascinating conflict. The ideas presented in this debate are similar to the hurdles we faced in the God and Religion essays. Every response to questions about how we know we exists, how we know we are here, and the like, can be countered with a never-ending stream of “whys”. Similar to living with a two-year old.
Appropriately, the last section is Knowledge and Science. Another pilot at work asked me why I was studying philosophy. “With that,” he said dryly, “you can teach…or…teach.” “That’s what they said when I studied Literature in college,” I replied, referring to our equal status in career fields. “How’d that Aerodynamics degree work out for you?” I added. Gabe holds the same view as most men in my current profession I have met with engineering, aero, or “hard” degrees. They, like Burr and Goldinger explain, think of knowledge “as a necessary means” to an end. Not as a value in and of itself (441).
Science’s role in the proof and disproof of axioms would segue nicely with the God and Religion essays. Truth and its acceptance as fact are promised to be covered by Sextus Empiricus (446). Like the Mind and Body chapter, we are asked what exactly we are basing our belief in something -anything- on. At some point, you have to break it down to fact or truth and even that is eventually debatable and even perishable (446-447).
John Hospers in the “Puzzles and Problems” section covers logical possibility and impossibility. His principle ideas have also been flayed out in Hollywood. Time travel and the paradox of dual existence is Hospers’ argument against its possibility (Burr/Goldinger 446, 505-508). Hospers proves that philosophical debate plays a vital role the beginning stages even thinking about of invention.
Of the six sections, some were definitely more intriguing that others. Some of the subject matter appeared to overlap or be better suited to other subjects. That could have been by design though. Reading them as separate entities, and realizing the remarkable similarity in the root values of each helps the novice thinker understand philosophy’s reach. It would be half-truth to say I agree with all of the authors in the six sections presented in the Burr and Goldinger text. It is wholly true to say I evaluated them each on their merit before deciding my position.
Burr, John Roy, ed, and Milton Goldinger, ed. Philosophy and Contemporary Issues. 9th ed.
New Jersey: Pearson, Prentice Hall, 2003.
Nagel, Thomas. What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy. New York: