All posts filed under: Philosophy

The Problem of Credulity

What is credulity, and what – if anything – is wrong with it? And if credulity is a fault, might it be a fault not only of judgment but also of character? These questions strike me as important, in the light of certain recent events, but they are also surprisingly hard to answer. We know roughly what credulity is: a tendency to give too much credence to certain claims or appearances; to be too ready to believe things we should not believe. Hence, someone who is habitually taken in by con-artists is prone to believe the stories used to part him from his money. Someone who tends to believe insincere apologies is too ready to believe that those apologising are sorry for what they have done. We could come up with any number of examples. But is there any more to be said, other than that it is a disposition to be irrational? If we want to be pedantic, we could say that these examples also illustrate incredulity. Being too ready to believe that the …

The Tyranny of the Subjective

We are living in socially and politically bewildering times. One of the reasons for this is the sheer number of other people’s lives we are touched by on account of exponential developments in communications. The early 21st Century – perhaps specifically the second decade of it – will, I suspect, be remembered for the centrality of the subjective narrative, or what has become known as the ‘lived experience.’ There is nothing wrong with a flourishing of narratives, per se. We all have our stories to tell and, now more than ever, the means with which to tell them. We must, however, remain vigilant. The proliferation of this aspect of the social ecosystem impacts other areas, and granting the subjective narrative sacred status diminishes the power of other important ways of understanding the world. In a recent post for Arc Digital, Ryan Huber argued that the emphasis placed on personal experience in political activism, such as the role high school students are playing as commentators in the gun control debate, comes at the expense of an emphasis …

The Wizard and the Prophet: On Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari

In The Wizard and the Prophet (2018), Charles C. Mann maintains that intellectual life in the 21st century is defined by a civil war between Wizards, who believe that technology will save us, and Prophets, who see various kinds of disaster on the horizon: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.” Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), is a Wizard. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), is a Prophet. At its best, Enlightenment Now reads like one of those gratitude journals self-help authors tell us to keep: “Today I am thankful for . …

Our Search for Meaning and the Dangers of Possession

“There is no such thing as not worshipping,” wrote novelist David Foster Wallace. “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” G. Jung would have wholeheartedly agreed. He posited that psychic life is motivated by a religious instinct as fundamental as any other, and that this instinct causes us to seek meaning. “The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not?” Jung wrote in his autobiography. “That is the telling question of his life.”1 There is empirical evidence that backs up Jung’s idea of a religious instinct. Researchers have found that the less religious people are, the more likely they are to believe in UFOs. “The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active,” writes psychology professor Clay Routledge, in The New York Times. He notes that belief in aliens and UFOs appears to be associated with a need to find meaning. Jung felt that traditional religions could provide an adequate means of relating to the infinite where the believer …

Liberalism Can Succeed

[This is Part II of a two-part review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. You can read Part I here] If we’re already at the point where liberal citizens cannot remember what our regime is supposed to protect — the individual and her natural rights to self-determination — what do we do? Answer: remind them what it is to be one, and why the individual is the pearl of greatest price. If we want to stand athwart the march toward illiberalism, moreover, and are so bold as to try to reverse its course, restoring confidence in the justice and wisdom of liberal practices and philosophy, what do we do? Answer: respond to liberalism’s critics, whether Deneen, the postmodernists, or the illiberal regimes abroad. After all, our preference for Western liberalism over these rivals is not enough to exonerate it from their critiques. We must respond to them, urgently, so that thoughtful Westerners who have lost confidence in the project, or at least its coherence, may find it once again. In a pair of essays on this …

Has Liberalism Failed?

Fascism failed. Communism failed. The last of the three major political philosophies that clashed through the twentieth century—Liberalism—still stands. It won, whether by force of arms or argument, but is now in retreat. Regimes once liberal have recently become authoritarian; more ominously, Americans have become impatient with liberal procedures and compromises. Many of its proponents argue that these setbacks are temporary, problems to be solved by certain adjustments of policy, rhetoric, or leadership. In Why Liberalism Failed, however, Patrick Deneen argues forcefully that the problems are congenital. Liberalism was bound to fail in the end as a politics because it was doomed from the beginning by its philosophy. In this dire judgment he agrees with a whole host of present critics. Notable among them are resurgent global rivals to liberalism’s postwar world-order: Xi Jinping’s China, Putin’s Russia, Khameini’s Iran. But the critics are also domestic. In universities sustained by liberal values, ironically, postmodernists have been declaring liberalism a failure since at least 1968—sometimes for the same reasons as the foreign rivals. Deneen agrees with their …

The Discomforts of Being a Utilitarian

I recently answered the nine questions that make up The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. My result: “You are very utilitarian! You might be Peter Singer.” This provoked a complacent smile followed by a quick look around to ensure that nobody else had seen this result on my monitor. After all, outright utilitarians still risk being thought of as profoundly disturbed, or at least deeply misguided. It’s easy to see why: according to my answers, there are at least some (highly unusual) circumstances where I would support the torture of an innocent person or the mass deployment of political oppression. Choosing the most utilitarian responses to these scenarios involves great discomfort. It is like being placed on a debating team and asked to defend a position you abhor. The idea of actually torturing individuals or oppressing dissent evokes a sense of disgust in me – and yet the scenarios in these dilemmas compel me not only to say such acts are permissible, they’re obligatory. Biting bullets is almost always uncomfortable, which goes a long way in explaining …

Becoming What One Is

The predicament of the individual living in a modern Western society is a strange one. Events that transpire around the world and large-scale societal changes seem to be far beyond the control of any single person. This leaves the individual in a situation where he, because he is unable to affect the course of current events, is left wondering what is happening to the society he lives in. I am one of those individuals. I live in the small country of Finland. Finland has traditionally been resistant to changes in the outside world, which tend to reach us much later compared to our Western neighbors, and with diminished strength. There are exceptions, however. Thanks to the wonderful powers of the Internet, events that transpire thousands of miles away can sweep across national borders and oceans in no time at all. The #MeToo movement is a good example. It is also an example of how strange the world has become thanks to the power of social media, not just socially and politically, but psychologically as well. …

The Ethical Case for Conservation

The conservation of nature is an ethical imperative. Every sentient being’s welfare – human or non-human – should be taken into account in our moral considerations. As a young conservationist enthralled by the natural world throughout my life, it is thrilling to see these ideas becoming commonplace. It is now easy to hear them voiced in one form or another in almost every discussion regarding the use of natural resources, deforestation, meat consumption, trophy hunting, or any other topic that touches animal welfare or environmental issues. In spite of the immense challenges conservation still faces, this development is evidence of a positive cultural revolution, and heralds the moral advancement of our global society. However, part of the reason these ideas spread so quickly is that they proliferate like memes. That means that while they run fast, they often run shallow. When asked if a given forest should become a reserve, or if we ought to gather resources to aid an endangered species, many people fall back on assertions about the intrinsic value of the entity …

The Failed Hero’s Journey

There is no more quintessential a model of the failed hero than Elliot Rodger. Rodger, a young man who was promised the world, turned against it when it failed to provide him with eros, love, and romance. His open hand reaching for the future became a fist clenched in opposition, an inversion of the successful hero story. Consumed with jealousy, resentment, and a rejection of the very notion of a healthy human being, Rodger indiscriminately murdered three men in his apartment, and three women at a sorority house. At twenty-two years old, he had chosen to end his life in bitter disappointment, choosing malevolent violence and suicide over the hope of continual and incremental improvement. Carl Jung understood that those who ultimately reject life itself have failed to experience the archetypal ‘hero’s journey’. To Jung, every single young person who leaves their parents’ home and forages into the world has taken the path of the hero, whether they know it or not. A hero’s journey is simply the departure from comfort, warring against the chaos …