All posts filed under: Philosophy

Religions, Nations, and Other Useful Fictions

In the age of Neo-Darwinian synthesis between natural selection and Mendelian genetics, it appears increasingly impossible to give credence to any idea metaphysical, spiritual, or religious. The dualism of Rene Descartes—a world reduced to machinery and a separate soul, to “measure and number” combined with Christian theology—was the origin of our modern worldview. But it has been entirely exorcised, emptied of soul and Christianity, respecting only the machine underneath. It has become common sense to consider the human subject as little more than a machine, or a computer. Subjectivity itself is a curse, expelled by theories in the philosophy of mind such as Daniel Dennett’s inclination to consider consciousness itself “an illusion.” Sam Harris has said that “consciousness is the only thing that cannot possibly be an illusion.” Harris is right, but Dennett understands more clearly the stakes for materialist philosophy. As the world grows more mechanical, religious inclination is produced from the merciless rack of empiricism and positivism. New ways of contextualizing religious belief have emerged from the tradition of Christian existentialism, which dates …

Is There Anybody In There?—Derek Parfit’s Criticism of the Self

Dedicated to the Memory of Connor O’Callaghan The recent passing of a very good friend of mine, to whom this article is dedicated, has prompted me to reflect more deeply on certain philosophical questions about who were are and what really matters. Few contemporary philosophers have done more to challenge conventional answers to such questions than Derek Parfit, who tragically passed away on January 1, 2017. Though his work was not as widely known by the general public as other intellectual luminaries, his brilliant philosophical insights and imagination deserve a wider audience. This article on Parfit’s criticism of the self and personal identity is intended to make a small contribution to that goal. Parfit’s work divided into two related set of concerns. Firstly, Parfit was concerned with the perplexing question of the self and personal identity. Do we have self? If so, what is it? Does the self possess any value? And so on. His philosophical examination of these issues were presented in seminal works such as his 1971 paper “Personal Identity” and his now …

Is Service-Learning a Disservice to Philosophy?

Karl Marx once groused that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” He might have been pleased to learn that some philosophers now teach, and advocate for, courses that contain significant activist elements. Pedagogy that includes service projects outside the classroom are often denominated “service-learning.” One variation currently being piloted, “Engaged Philosophy,” gives students autonomy over planning, implementing, and writing about a service project of their choice.1 The Engaged Philosophy website showcases successful projects. For example: Vanessa made crafts and sold them to raise money for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She also collected scarves for the homeless and tied them around trees in downtown Minneapolis. Two students worked with local Starbucks managers to get their coffee shops to compost and have clearer recycling signs. Two students brought dogs from a local shelter, Indigo Rescue, to campus during midterms to help students relieve stress. They also collected money for the shelter and raised awareness about dog adoption. Although service-learning has yet to become mainstream …

Understanding and Misunderstanding ‘Dog-Whistling’

Accusations of ‘dog-whistling‘ are commonplace in contemporary politics. Politicians and pundits regularly accuse each other of using apparently benign words and phrases to conceal dreadful meanings. It is, however, chiefly the Left that accuses that Right of dog-whistling, and mostly to disclose and denounce the supposed racism lurking in conservative language. President Trump is a lightning rod for such accusations, which have, however, also struck politicans in Australia and the United Kingdom.  But in spite of the ubiquity of these accusations, it is not clear what dog-whistling is. We might understand dog-whistling as a form of coded communication, by which a political leader passes a secret message to a specific audience without the larger public picking up what he means. Or we might see it as a form of strategic ambiguity by which a speaker allows different constituencies to understand him in different ways. Considered yet another way, dog-whistling could appear as a kind of subliminal method of activating listeners’ unconscious prejudices. Philosopher Jennifer Saul is developing a fruitful analysis of dog-whistling, which she breaks …

Does Progress Exist?

I should start with a caveat. This article discusses an issue which reaches well beyond the scope of a couple of thousand words or so, and as such will provoke questions and challenges which cannot be addressed within these limits. The argument presented, being downstream of some more fundamental principles not covered here, is necessarily incomplete, and therefore I don’t mean to present it as a slam-dunk refutation of progress (it falls well short of that), but merely as a curio; a piece of argumentation that hopefully amuses even as you conjure ways to disagree with it. Moreover, contrary to the ‘anti-progress’ tenor of much that follows, I actually mean to provide a template that allows for more effective innovation—a consequence that I hope will become clear by the end of the piece. So, does progress exist? Clearly I’m going to argue that it does not, since otherwise this would be a pretty redundant piece. However I should point out up front that this isn’t to say that things can’t get better, and haven’t been …

Why Should We Be Good?

Today we are witnessing an irrepressible and admirable pushback against the specters of ‘cultural relativism’ and moral ‘nihilism.’ On the Right, thinkers such as Patrick Deneen and Jordan Peterson have responded to an increasingly cynical postmodern culture by arguing for a return to traditionalist and/or local values. More centrist thinkers such as Steven Pinker and Sam Harris have argued for a return to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on using reason and its handmaiden, empirical science, to develop an ever more objective set of ethical norms. And even on the far-Left, radical thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have levelled scathing attacks against postmodern relativism and ‘totalitarian’ identity politics, calling for a return to ethics properly understood: Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere. For many observers and critics, this is a wholly positive development since both have the corrosive effect of undermining ethical certainty. I think there are two motivations behind this disdain for relativism and moral nihilism: one of which is negative …

What Jordan Peterson Gets Wrong About the Beatitudes

During an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast The Rogan Experience in January, Jordan Peterson turned to the beatitudes offered by Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. The unhelpful notion that the meek would inherit the earth, Peterson explained, rests on a misunderstanding of what Christ actually said: …“Meek” [πραΰς] is not a good translation, or the word has moved in the 300 years [sic] or so since it was translated. What it means is this: ‘Those who have swords, and know how to use them, but keep them sheathed, shall inherit the world’…that’s a big difference.”1 Let it be said at the outset that I like this image of an effective person. It is a very definite image. To paraphrase Peterson, it is a person who has taken the time to become dangerous, who is dangerous, and who won’t be a victim of mayhem because they’ve got a bit of mayhem inside themselves. The problem isn’t with this idea of effectual personhood. The problem is that Peterson is claiming that the Bible endorses the same …

‘Cultural Marxism’ Explained and Re-Evaluated

It has become a common trope to decry the prevalence of ‘Cultural Marxism’ in the academy as well as in wider Western culture. Jordan Peterson has gone so far as to say that Cultural Marxism threatens the very bedrock of Western civilization. Although the concept gets thrown around quite a lot in contemporary discourse, it is rarely defined in clear terms. And when it is defined, too often it is caricatured for ideological purposes by both the Left and Right. Although any attempt to explain and evaluate a contested phenomenon like Cultural Marxism is bound to be biased to some extent, a reasoned re-assessment uncoupled from polemic is overdue. Although ‘Cultural Marxism’ is in no sense a monolithic entity (we might be better off speaking of Cultural Marxisms), what defines it as a social theory, essentially, is a certain theoretical presupposition: that culture (ideas, religious beliefs, values, etc.) is in the last instance determined by one’s position in a class or social hierarchy. Or, in Marxist terms, the superstructure (in this case, what I am …

The Indispensable Study of Inescapable Matters

Philosophy is not merely practical; it is the most practical discipline of all. Indeed, philosophy is so practical that it is indispensable. To know why, it is necessary to know what philosophy is. In the Western tradition, philosophy is subdivided into five branches: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. Metaphysics is the starting point of any individual’s entire corpus of knowledge. Metaphysics begins with the axioms at the base of knowledge, and encompasses ideas pertaining to the basic nature of the world. These ideas include existence, consciousness, and their relation; entity, identity, attribute, change, and action; the nature of causality; and the nature and extent of free will. In short, metaphysics develops explicitly the basic concepts that are implicit in the very concept of knowledge. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, that is, the method of knowing. Epistemology addresses how to take the evidence of your senses and form concepts, statements, sequences of statements, and a corpus of knowledge that is organized, non-contradictory, readily applicable to new situations, and conducive to the discovery of new …

Post-Postmodernism on the Left

Postmodernism has never been as unpopular as it is today, especially on the right of the political spectrum. Often, conservative critics can be heard to blame left-wing ‘postmodern neo-Marxists’ and ‘cultural Marxism’ for the emergence of a vitriolic identity politics that eschews a commitment to truth, reason, and dialogue. Left-wing postmodernists are seen as undermining truth, reason, and dialogue by criticizing these values as ideological ‘myths’ designed to reinforce white male privilege, Western colonialism, and so on. The specter of left-wing postmodernism is also invoked as one of the forces undermining the confidence of the West, leading us to submit to dangerous and illiberal groups around the globe. Some even go so far as to claim that, in allegedly promoting a fundamentally collectivist philosophy qua the Soviet Union, left-wing postmodernists are proto-Totalitarians waiting for their opportunity to quash all dissent. On this reading, the philosophy which guides the utterances of a transsexual rights activist in the United States and a Maoist revolutionary in China, are one and the same and just as dangerous in principle: …