American Contempt

US Capitol Building under repair, Washington DC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Like so many others, I’m deeply disturbed, and yes, frightened, by the recent diatribe by the President of the United States against the legitimacy and patriotism of four United States Congresswomen, and by those who support his remarks. My native country has long been a beacon of hope and a refuge for those around the world who rejoice that there’s a country, founded and built by immigration, which is dedicated to universal principles of human rights. That beacon is currently being dimmed by the mud of hatred, bigotry, and distrust being flung around with wild abandon in this dark and dangerous time. These recent remarks of the President are the most egregious example of this, no less because of the enormous responsibility entrusted in him to represent all United States citizens and all who its laws protect.

In response, I make these points:

  1. Every United States citizen, with the exception of Native Americans and a few others, is either themselves, or a descendant of, people who did not ‘go back’ to their countries of origin to ‘fix’ them. (This is true of the President of the United States as well, whose own grandfather was a recent immigrant.) They elected, instead, to settle in the United States to build a better life for themselves, their families, and their posterity. A relative few have also made efforts to make things better in the countries of their ancestry or origin in some way, such as through charitable organizations or sending money to help their extended families, but most have dedicated themselves entirely to the fortunes and future of their adopted country. The ‘go back’ sentiment, therefore, is an expression of contempt for every citizen, as well as every legal resident and aspiring citizen-to-be of the United States.
  2. With the exception of those made through corruption and the outsize influence of monied special interests, every United States law and policy adopted or reformed is the result of the belief of citizens that the United States government is not doing right by its citizens in some way, and is not yet fully fulfilling its mission laid out in its Declaration of Independence or its Constitution. Whether those beliefs are correct or not is a matter of debate, not a question of ‘hating’ the United States. If it is, then the current President hates the United States, since he ran on a platform that its government was doing all manner of things wrong, and that it was a ‘swamp’ in need of reform. To advocate change and reform is what United States citizens do as a matter of course, from the American Revolution onwards. The idea that elected members of the United States government are ‘vicious’ for trying to change current laws or policies, as their constituents voted them in to do, is an expression of contempt for the United States’ democratic-republican system of government set up in the Constitution and reformed by its citizens through amendments over its history.
  3. Nearly every wave of immigration to the United States was met with hostility by many descendants of immigrants, though by no means all. These hostiles had grown complacent and entitled in their belief that the United States was their exclusive domain, though they descended from people who had been there for a very short time compared to the citizens of nearly every nation on earth. They attempted to justify their hostility on religious grounds, promoting hatred for Catholics, Jews, and others; on grounds of ethnicity or nationality, promoting hatred for Italians, Irish, and others; on racial grounds, promoting hatred for African, Asiatic, and other peoples; and on charges that immigrants were taking their jobs, promoting hatred for anyone new who competed with them in the job market. This sort of self-righteous, entitled, lazy-minded, hard-hearted bigotry, sadly, continues today, though many of these previously hated groups of people are now appreciated for their unique contributions and hard work in making the United States among the most dynamic nations on earth. The sentiment expressed in the idea that a foreign-born Congresswomen should be ‘sent back’ though she’s now a citizen through hers and her family’s efforts, and that three of these Congresswomen are ‘originally’ from elsewhere because their ancestors were, expresses the same contempt for immigrants and descendants of immigrants as the Know-Nothings, the Ku-Klux-Klan, the National Alliance, and all other groups and individuals who have characterized their fellow Americans as permanent outsiders because of their religion, ethnicity, original or ancestral nationality, or race, rather than their status as citizens or their desire and their efforts to make the United States their chosen home.

I may add to this as I have more time to reflect and write on these matters. I thank you, friends, for your patience in reading this, as I attempt to relieve my mind and soothe my heart a bit by putting these thoughts in writing.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!

Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, published, 1891, Image retrieved from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-107756, public domainIn the course of my journey following the life of Frederick Douglass in 2016, I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit the place in New York City where he may have first met the great Ida B. Wells. It was late 1892, and the fiery young newspaperwoman had published her controversial piece of investigative journalism in the New York Age on June 25, 1892. It was expanded and published as a pamphlet later that year as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites. And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women. But Wells (born in Mississippi on July 16th, 1862) would change all that. In early 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched after a dispute between themselves and white owners of a rival business. She was outraged and began an investigation of the practice and history of lynching.

When Wells wrote Southern Horrors, she had already been an activist and writer promoting black rights for many years. In 1884, she resisted being forced out of the first class train car into the ‘colored car’; she later sued the train company, won the first suit, then lost on appeal. This incident (which echoes Douglass’ train protest in 1841) led to many other lawsuits, articles, and activism against anti-black laws and social practices. In 1892, her investigation of lynching revealed to Wells that lynching was far from just vengeance for rape or other violent crimes; it served as vengeance for or a public warning against alleged insubordination or impertinence, petty crimes, idleness, drunkenness, and so on. It was also put to such uses as eliminating business competition (as was the case for Wells’ friends), getting rid of inconvenient owners of coveted land, or scapegoating black people for the crimes of others. She discovered that lynchings were not all that rare, either, and came to the conclusion that they constituted a form of social control that replaced the terrorism (the system of coercion which included whippings, deprivations, rape, and threats of being sold ‘down the river’) of slavery.

Douglass was inspired and energized by Wells’ writing and anti-lynching work, and his letter in praise of Southern Horrors served as the pamphlet’s introduction. He visited her in New York City where she was living for a little while as a writer for and part owner of the New York Age, which was (probably) published at the site I visited in Harlem. I also visited a second site that happened to be associated with Wells two days after my New York visit: she delivered one of her hard-hitting speeches in her speaking tour following the publication of Southern Horrors at Tremont Temple in Boston on Feb 13th, 1893.

Education was another driving force in her life. Her first job was as a teacher at age 14, and she taught for many years, over time supplementing her teaching with journalism, writing and editing for the Evening Star, The Living Way, and the Free Speech and Headlight. Another of her most controversial, consciousness-raising articles was published in 1891 in the Free Speech about the conditions in black schools: the poor quality of the buildings which housed them, and of the education and morals of the teachers and school boards who administered them. She was not fired outright, but the school refused to hire her for the next school year. She then went on to work full-time for the newspaper, promoting the Free Speech from city to city and writing articles along the way, until the Free Speech‘s offices and printing press were destroyed by angry whites after the publication of her ‘Lynch Law’ piece. Adversity only served to strengthen Wells’ resolve, each attack causing her to re-double her efforts on behalf of her people.

Wells went on to have a long and distinguished career in writing, investigative journalism, and activism for black rights and women’s suffrage. She worked with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, toured the United States and Europe as a speaker and activist, founded Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club, served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among many other things.

For a long time, Wells thought of marriage and romantic relationships as oppressive, where women were expected to defer to men and flatter their vanity. But one day, she met a man who must have made her feel very differently, an attorney, writer, and fellow advocate for black rights named Ferdinand Barnett. She married him and they raised four children.

If I ever manage to accomplish the tiniest fraction of what she did in my own life, I would consider myself a great success!

Here are some excellent resources for learning more about the brilliant and irrepressible Ida B. Wells:

Barnett, Ida Wells (1862-1931) ~ by Tyina Steptoe for BlackPast.org

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. ~ by Ida B. Wells, Ed. Alfred Duster. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider, The History Chicks podcast episode 51

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by the editors of Encyclopædia Britannica

Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice ~ by Jennifer McBride for Webster University’s website.

New York Age ~ by Heather Martin for the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases ~ by Ida B. Wells (1892) via Project Gutenberg

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Why Spinoza, Why Now? Essay Two, by Charles Saunders

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

A Reason to Believe
Spinoza’s Explication of the Many Facets of the Divinity
In Ethics Part One – Concerning God

Plus, a Challenge for the Reader – Pascal’s Wager with a 21st Century Twist

(Find Part One here)

Spinoza’s convention of the Triumvirate of Substance/god/Nature as synonymous interchangeable parts will be adhered to throughout this essay.

On our contemporary scene, where arguments for or against the existence of God are quietly receding into the background, the question of why to re-introduce the nearly ancient Pascal’s Wager concerning the existence of God, even with a so-called twenty-first-century twist, might appear as nothing more than a quaint anachronism.

Nevertheless, since it meanwhile appears evident that the significance and import of Spinoza’s designation of Substantia sive Deus sive Natura (Substance or God or Nature) as the cornerstone of his masterwork, and precisely why the Ethics and the subject matter of ‘Part One – Concerning God’ has not received its due as the most accurate depiction of the undeniable existence and nature of the Divinity, it is now the time to re-visit Pascal’s appellation and Spinoza’s assertion.

Pascal’s Wager is an argument in philosophy presented by the seventeenth-century French philosopher, mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623–62). It posits that humans bet with their lives that God either exists or does not.

Summary of Pascal’s Wager: Believing in God has an infinite expected utility. Not believing in God has a finite gain or negative expected utility. Believing in God has a much higher expected utility than not believing in God. You should do that which has the higher expected utility.

In the vernacular- If one acts as if God exists and God does exist, then that person wins the wager. If one acts as if God does not exist and God does exist then that person loses for eternity. Therefore, we should make our wager that God does exist.

Brief Capsule – Contemporary Science in Support of Substance/God/Nature?

Everything which we have so far learned from the application of the scientific method about the extended universe tends toward supporting Spinoza’s concept of the one substance which constitutes the being of and beyond that which serves as the cause of everything. This assertion of Spinoza is often referred to as Substance Monism. His specific version of this theory is that Substance or God or Nature is the immanent cause of all creation. Nothing exists outside of God. This is very challenging to grasp. Spinoza employed this triumvirate terminology to amplify and make explicit that the three terms enfold and envelope one into the other to form one being: Totius Facies Universi, or The Face of the Universe.

Milky Way, by Unsplash, Creative Commons via Pixabay, cropped

Meanwhile, in the scientific recounting, life as we know it began with the weirdly named Big Bang Theory, which posits that all objects in the known universe emanated from one source. This source originated in an unimaginably huge detonation which exploded from its compressed state and transformed itself into all of the matter and the dark matter which taken together account for all that is visible, invisible, and measurable: galaxies, constellations, solar systems, planets, and people.

Each of these objects, considered individually, is comprised of concatenations of elements in the atomic table. That is, the chemical composition and physical exchanges of energy are all replicated from the outer reaches of the cosmos, down to the deepest depths of the oceans.

The chemical composition of gaseous matter present during the birth of stars and the molecular chemical structure of the cause of life forms on earth stand in direct relation. They can be said to be constituted as one contiguous whole. That is exactly how Spinoza described the Facies totius universi, or Face of the Entire Universe. Spinoza put it this way in Part 2; given time, the similitude will become clear.

PROP. XXVIII. Every individual thing, or everything which is finite and has a conditioned existence, cannot exist or be conditioned to act, unless it be conditioned for existence and action by a cause other than itself, which also is finite, and has a conditioned existence ; and likewise this cause cannot in its turn exist, or be conditioned to act, unless it be conditioned for existence and action by another cause, which also is finite, and has a conditioned existence, and so on to infinity.

Along with similar atomic and molecular elements, all life forms further share the source of their inception: unimaginably potent pressure and energy, fueled by either fission or fusion.

The Big Bang, which for our purposes can be considered at the very least as the proximate cause of the universe, begat the matter which forms virtually each and every elemental structure to include all of the heavenly bodies and all planetary life forms.

Long before it would have been conceived possible, Spinoza intuited one self-caused substance which could not be conceived of as other than existing, and which further must be understood to comprise a state of infinite being. This essentially pairs Spinoza’s contention with what science describes as the makeup of the elements in the universe.

If the enormity of the size of the known universe can be somehow captured and reflected upon by the individual human mind, one thought and understanding emerges and remains inescapable.

This thought is not ephemeral or phantasmagorical; it lies in the formation and presence in the human mind of the concept which takes the form of an adequate idea. That idea is of one eternal substance; essentially this is God. The type of thinking required to entertain these thoughts, which we can term expansive.

What that indicates is that to effectively imagine, before the mind’s-eye, a facsimile of the expanded universe, we need to suspend disbelief and allow our perspective to enlarge. This might sound farfetched, but in a relaxed setting, an individual can expand the range of their thinking.

Spinoza maintained that every adequate idea in the human mind exists only because of its correlate, an existing object in extension. Every idea in our minds effectively exists by mirroring objective reality.

In Spinoza’s description of reality, this reflexive interaction between our thoughts and our experience in the world comprises the source of the self-evident truth. Once we can become comfortable with this method of seeing our minds at work, the possibilities to explore and understand more about the nature of our lives becomes doable.

Spinoza’s bequest to us lends us the ability to realize that human perception is not inherently flawed. It simply needs to be recognized, embraced, honed, and developed to its fullest extent.

Further, the ability of an individual person to encapsulate God’s essence within its individuality in the form of an idea in the mind is the only proof required for the existence of God. If we can understand it adequately, then it [God] exists. This may sound like foolish nonsense, but it is not.

Spinoza said that ‘…the finite demonstrates clearly the existence of the infinite.’ This fundamental understanding is ours for the taking. The time and strenuous mental energy which must be exerted to accomplish this understanding on our parts is a given and a necessity.

At the point in time when God’s essence and existence become clear in our minds, it will hit like the proverbial ton of bricks. But it will feel most welcome indeed.

This is not a religious experience.

Rather, it consists in the recognition of the marvelous interconnection in a world where we reside inside a huge dome of breathable oxygen and walk each day on an orb rotating at thousands of miles per hour while this same orb is hurtling through space at enormous speed. And what do we feel? Nothing whatsoever; in fact, we believe that when we stop moving that we are standing still.

Micro-evolution, in terms of the human mind and its capacity to self-reflect and to contemplate the origins of life itself, began to develop long ago. At some point in human evolution, we discovered within us what evolved into an innate skill to intuitively see through our extended world and to grasp intuitively the essence of substance itself. The concept of substance is not a picture which we can form in our minds, but rather an intuitional grasp.

This innate capability resides in a state of potential in every person born on this planet, regardless of geography, ethnicity, or cultural affinity.

Spinoza called this capability scientia intuitiva, or intuitive understanding. We may simply refer to it as understanding God as we stand in awe at the immensity of life.

More layers of complexity within Substance

It must be readily admitted that substance/God/nature remains indeed a strange concept. Positing something that is the cause of everything else in the universe while at the same time insisting that it is the cause of itself, and further has no observable presence in any object and can only be grasped indirectly through intuition, can certainly be viewed as difficult to comprehend.

The term substance has always been with us throughout the history of ideas, and has been employed as an attempt to capture in a single word something which is difficult to speak about or to clearly comprehend.

Spinoza chose it quite consciously to serve as the bedrock of his entire ontological and metaphysical structure. As such, it is up to each of us to struggle to capture his usage and intended meaning.

How can a person-less, non-judgmental God make any difference in our lives?

If, as Spinoza maintains, there is no persona or purpose in God, some might say that there now remains no need to speak of any type of god or substance whatsoever.

And so, the question must arise: why did Spinoza, a person who wrote only with single-minded purpose, begin his Ethics with a book chapter entitled ‘Concerning God’? If there is no one to pray to or to judge us or to ask for intercession, why bother pushing the point?

The answer must be that Spinoza realized that no other concept can replace this true encapsulation-in-identity of Nature and of God and of Substance displayed in the magnitude and incomparable beauty of the totality of creation. The moniker God, when placed before each human mind, is a concept so lofty that Spinoza consciously employed it to capture our undivided attention and our total respect. After all of the elapsed time since religiosity first became called into question, and once all religious ceremony and even organized religion itself falls away,

God/Substance/Nature remains alive and functioning as a necessary cause in each of us. We can know this and feel it in real time. And yes, we can feel reverent about human life, which we all share, and about this cosmos in which we live.

Artist’s logarithmic scale conception of the observable universe with the Solar System, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

To be capable of grasping this significance and of internalizing its relevance in our lives may be the task of a lifetime, but this twist, as it were on the biblical notion of God, must still deserve our obeisance and love and obedience, even though this God has no persona, no anger, and no judgment, and requires nothing whatsoever from us. The arising of life on earth and our evolution from a salamander, 50,000,000 years ago, into today’s mindful person is a testimony in itself to the mystery and wonder in our universe.

Our next question must then become; what proof is there of this god’s existence, and how must we approach our understanding of the cause of itself to make it relevant in our lives?

The answer to this is strange and more than a bit bewildering at first because, in fact, we humans and our conatus or self-assertive impulse, serves as that demonstration. That is, our striving to sustain ourselves both as individuals and as a community, coupled with our innate cognitive function termed natural light of reason or guided intelligence, are the beginnings of the awareness of and proof of the existence of an intelligence and a self-instigated operability of universal procreation, maintenance, and regeneration.

What Spinoza recognized in his own intelligence and ability to contemplate the nature of God’s essence was that that capability, in and of itself, indicated that our adequate ideas must be sourced in the divine intelligence which brought virtually everything to life.

At some point, Spinoza realized that what he was thinking about the extent of the universe and the cause of the shaping of the world around him were not the products of his imagination. He saw that his thoughts were a mirror of what actually exists out there in space/eternity. What his mind was experiencing was a mirroring effect; a facsimile of everything in God’s creation.

Spinoza insisted that denying the existence and reality of God is tantamount to denying our own existence. Yes, this is difficult to understand, and no, it is not a threat or a put-down. It is an invitation to set our lives on a trajectory which leads to peace of mind and acquiescence to the necessity of what drives our micro-evolution forward.

In other words, because our ideas, when clearly and distinctly understood, must always have as their source an entity from which an image in our minds is formulated, then those ideas can only come from something everlasting and eternal and real. That source or object is and only can be God.

And now we have reached the place where a summary of what has been suggested must be joined with a recognition of our own mortality to formulate a Pascalian Wager with a 21st-Century Twist.

One more piece of information on recent discoveries in cosmology and astrophysics.

Scientists, in their never-ending quest to discover the origin of the universe, have detected a disturbing pattern in the subatomic radio-sonic waves which first emanated from the cosmic dust from the Big Bang. There remains an as-yet-indeterminate in nature yet measurable ‘noise’, an echo amidst the residue of the birth of our system which permeates virtually everywhere yet is not sourced from our cosmos. It has led them to begin to postulate a very real potential for alternative universes, juxtaposed in some form of arrangement with our own.

If this is the case, then this discovery supports Spinoza’s assertion that Substance/God/Nature is self-caused, eternal and truly infinite. Let us then summarize what this means to each one of us and why we should accept the affirmative side of this 21st-century wager.

Assume that there is no life after death, no reincarnation, no heavenly reward. This may indeed indicate that for us, our reward does not come after death. Perhaps our piece of eternity consists solely and completely in our lifetimes. So, the wager involves living our lives as if this day and every other one that we may have is our reward. The ‘Gift of Life’ is what Spinoza’s God has bequeathed to us.

This means that our responsibility lies, not in demeaning our existence or complaining about the poverty and disease and inequality we see, but rather to look for and to discover those most positive elements in life. All of the literally billions of happy people who take comfort in their families and the joys felt by being a part of each another’s community, village, city, and nation. If life is our gift then let your wager fall on the side that demands that you make the most of your time here while cheerfully accepting your responsibility to make a positive contribution during your stay on this marvelous planet.

After all, the choice is up to each one of us: shall we take this wager, with a twist, and believe in and act in obedience to our better nature, that little voice which we all hear and which tells us to do the right thing?

There is no time to waste. Now is the time to remember and honor the virtually millions of people who have come before us throughout the millennia. Those who courageously paved our way forward.

Now it is our turn to do our part to consciously work to further this human evolution!

Semper Sapere Aude! (Always Dare to Know!)

Charles M. Saunders

(The bulk of this essay is abridged from ‘To Discern Divinity’- A Discussion and Interpolation of Spinoza’s Ethics Part One – Concerning God by C. M. Saunders, 2016)
Free Download- charlessaunders5.academia.edu

The Logic Behind Spinoza’s Substance in its Simplicity and Irreducibility

This excerpt is from Baruch Spinoza and Western Democracy
Joseph Dunner (1955, The Philosophical Library,15 East 40th Street, New York, 16, N.Y.), pp. 40-41

“…if we assume, the plurality of self-created, self-sufficient substances, God becomes but one of “first causes”, one of many gods, and all His attributes of omnipotence and infinity fall by the wayside.

Indeed, the very notion of a plurality of substances destroys the whole concept of substance. For if we assume the existence of two substances, as Descartes in his distinction between the mental and physical world did, either both substances are caused by a force outside of them, which is contrary to the definition of substance as caused by itself, or one is caused by the other, which again contradicts the definition and makes of substance a finite thing restricted in space and time. Consequently, there can be only one substance which can be defined as causa sui  [Cause of itself], and nothing can exist independent of this one and only substance. This unique substance Spinoza calls Deus sive Natura, God or Nature, implying that only God possesses infinite attributes and that nothing else can exist distinguishable from God and capable of delimiting and modifying Him. If only the theologians could have freed themselves from all anthropomorphic and anthropocentric fixations, making God a sort of super-man throned in the sky, they might have realized that Spinoza had given world humanity the most rational and most unfailing God concept ever conceived in history.”

These words from Joseph Dunner were positioned last in this essay both to emphasize the brevity and clarity of his depiction of the Nature of Spinoza’s Substance, and to serve as a takeaway for the reader.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Happy Birthday, Aimé Césaire!

Aimé Fernand David Césaire, photo credit manomerci.comAimé-Fernand-David Césaire was a poet, playwright, philosopher, and politician from Martinique. In his long life (he was born on June 26, 1913, and died April 17, 2008), Césaire accomplished much in each of these roles, a rare feat as the disparate talents required for each rarely coincide in one person.

In turn mayor of Fort-de-France, deputy to the French National Assembly for Martinique, and President of the Regional Council of Martinique, this prolific writer and intellectual was also co-founder of Négritude, a ‘literary movement of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that began among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris as a protest against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation.’ (Encyclopædia Britannica). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Négritude as ‘the self-affirmation of black peoples, or the affirmation of the values of civilization of something defined as “the black world” as an answer to the question “what are we in this white world?”’. The term was chosen so as to be provocative, a way of re-claiming the word nègre which had become a racial slur, while simultaneously shocking those who heard or read it into paying attention. Through his philosophy, political writing, and especially his poetry and plays, the world pays attention still.

Learn more about the great Aimé Césaire:

Aime Cesaire: Martinician Author and Politician ~ by the editors of Encyclopædia Britannica

Aimé Fernand Césaire, 1913–2008 ~ by Meredith Goldsmith for The Poetry Foundation

Aimé Fernand David Césaire (1913-2008) ~ by Sylvia Lovina Chidi, as chapter 1 of The Greatest Black Achievers in History 

Négritude ~ by Souleymane Bachir Diagne for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my undergraduate education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations, which presented an epistemological quandary, often comes up in introductory philosophy classes: given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine (born on June 25th, 1908), there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

Learn more about the great W.V.O. Quine:

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92 ~ by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for The New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

Willard Van Orman Quine ~ by Peter Hylton for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science ~ by Robert Sinclair for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician ~ Website by Douglas B. Quine, W.V.O. Quine’s son

Willard Van Orman Quine ~ by Luke Mastin for The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine ~ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Freedom and Judgment, Part 2, by Sean Agius

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Within the conclusion of a previous article titled ‘Freedom and Judgement,’ I implied that certain factors such as mental health, culture, and family, knowledge, and so on play a decisive role in determining the actions that one chooses to perform. In this article (which will be very creatively titled ‘Freedom and Judgement Part II’), I shall further expand upon this notion – concluding that the said factors, though singularly acting only as behavioural influences, in unison act as determiners – ultimately rendering one’s actions equally as determined as those of a rabies sufferer, consequentially demanding a rethink of the manner in which we judge other people’s moral value.

(Please note that since this article shall be utilising a case study described within the first article, it is highly recommended that one reads the said article before this one; otherwise, you may expend the majority of your mental energy trying to figure out who this ‘Paul’ character is.)

The first and most obvious factor in this regard, besides physical illness, is mental illness. Returning to the case study, let Paul suffer from schizophrenia instead of rabies. Having neglected to take his medication, he became convinced that everyone was prepared to murder him and thus acted in what was, in his mind, self-defense. Guessing again, I would say that, based on this information, our judgment of Paul has again become significantly more lenient since, due to his mental illness, he is not deemed fully responsible for his actions.

The mental illness variable also, however, begs a re-analysis of the sociopathic version of Paul. At face value, the cases may seem distinct, but the concept is at its core identical – how brain chemistry (which one usually bears little control over) influences actions. In essence, Paul did not choose to suffer from either schizophrenia or sociopathy. In the case of the latter, Paul has no choice but to suffer from brain dysfunctions that force him to thirst for blood.

Now one may still criticise this version of Paul, arguing that in spite of his lack of freedom from his desire, his actions were still his own. The vast majority of those people, though, probably never suffered from mental illness. As those who have or do suffer could tell you that the abstract possibility of doing or not doing something does not necessarily translate to an actual ability to do so. An illness (both physical and mental) by definition implies the lack of freedom from that which one suffers from, whether that be due to cholesterol in the case of somebody who suffers from heart disease or brain functions for somebody who suffers from mental illnesses. This is why someone with depression cannot just get out of the bed, or an OCD-sufferer just stop washing their hands. They suffer from a disease, caused by external forces outside of their realm of control, which compels them to act in the manner that they do. Sociopathy is similarly classified as a mental illness within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and therefore like OCD or depression equally influential in compelling the sufferer (in this case Paul) to act in the manner that he does.

(Important note: the inclusion of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and OCD is in no way meant to liken sufferers from such disorders to murderers, but only to highlight the role that brain chemistry plays in determining actions.)

The point, however, still stands that such dispositions are not alone sufficient to render an action as determined. Not all sociopaths, after all, go on violent rampages. Furthermore, even if we do concede that certain actions are influenced by brain function, what about the first scenario – Paul the gangster? The case is seemingly rather clear-cut. Surely his action were not determined as he held full control over both his mental and physical capacities! There may however be one determining aspect which Paul (or anybody else for that matter) holds no control over – his circumstances, which though alone acting simply as influencers, in unison morph into determiners.

The first factors that come into play in this regard are cultural and familial backgrounds. That is how culture and family play a role in influencing aspects of an individual. For example, South Americans are significantly more likely to be football fans than North Americans for whom the sport is not as ingrained within the culture. The same can be said about individuals whose family either love or hate
the sport. It is somewhat absurd to conceive of the majority of North and South Americans choosing such disparate tastes independent of influential factors such as familial and cultural sensibilities which affect joys and annoyances.

If there are any North American football fan readers right now they are probably clutching on their LA Galaxy shirts screaming I’m North American and I’m a football fan! I don’t even call it soccer!’ The angry North American fan makes a salient point, not about the football/soccer argument, that I remain agnostic upon. The point here is that although culture and family could influence behaviour, they are not strict determinants.

Prior to tackling said issue however, I would like to highlight a few more influencing factors, the first of which being one’s life experiences. Life experience plays a significant influential role in our decision-making process – a dog-attack victim is for example significantly less likely to choose to enter a dog park than a non-victim.

Furthermore, since one attains knowledge predominantly through their life experiences (nobody is after all born knowing how to walk, talk, calculate complex sums or philosophise the concept of determinism), life experience plays an additional influencing role in this regard. Let us consider weight loss as an example, though weight-loss requires a large amount of will power from the loser’s end, it is nonetheless influenced by circumstances outside of one’s realm of control. Perhaps one was influenced to lose weight after learning about a new type of diet that motivated their interest, or by a personal trainer who proved the utility of exercise, or even by one’s knowledge of the simplest dietary concept of diets in/out, which though obvious to most is not an innately knowable concept. This, therefore, highlights the influential role that knowledge attained through life experience plays in influencing behaviour (as well as providing some half-decent dietary advice).

Another factor that was already touched upon but deserves further discussion is the role that neural chemistry plays in influencing decisions. Science has already proven what a major influential role the brain in general plays. Baba Shiv, a neural researcher, has shown that neuromodulators such as dopamine, serotonin, cortisol and so on have a significant effect upon who we are and the choices we make, even to the extent that one may be bound by said neuromodulators to make alternative decision in the morning and evening of the same day. The famous case of Phineas Gage further sustains this idea. After suffering a devastating head injury, Gage, a previously polite and respectful individual, began to display personality shifts – exhibiting animalistic behaviours such as irritability, impatience and so on. This was, it was hypothesised, due to the said brain injury which mainly affected his prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with behavioural control).

Though the neurobiological link between the brain/neuromodulators and decision making seems concrete, there remain two apparent flaws to the deterministic argument: firstly, the fact that the discussed factors are influencers, not determinants; and secondly, the presence of choice. I shall begin by tackling the latter; the choice-based counterargument to determinism is a particularly pertinent one because it proves the theoretical possibility of a series of alternative end results occurring due to choices made by the agent, the term choice being the supposed checkmate. Whilst I accept this concept, I nonetheless sustain that one may bare the capacity for choice and yet conversely still not be free, even though it may initially sound like an oxymoron.

The theoretical capacity to choose to perform an action does not necessarily equate to free will. Whilst it is true that we make conscious decisions every day, we are often unaware of the forces that negate our freedom to act alternatively, thus producing alternative results.

To properly explain this distinction an analogy would be appropriate; if Tim makes a conscious choice to walk right rather than left, he may initially seem like a free being. Imagine, however, that unbeknownst to Tim, a stealthy sniper stalked him from a rooftop with strict orders to shoot on sight as he began to walk left. In this scenario, whilst it is true that Tim does possess the capacity to choose, he is in no way free. The sniper’s presence relegates alternative actions strictly within the abstract realm – although Tim theoretically bore the ability to choose to walk left instead of right, concretely he was never truly free to do so, only to choose to try and do so. Freedom, therefore, equates to not only the presence of choice but simultaneously the concrete possibility of an alternative result being possible.

Dominoes waiting to fall… by Enoch Lai at the English language Wikipedia, free to share under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

This smoothly brings us back to the first objection to the deterministic world view, that the aforementioned factors (culture, family, knowledge, neuromodulators and so on) influence rather than determine our choices. Choice and freedom do not, however, equate to one another; whilst it is therefore true that one’s capacity to make choices is not eliminated, said factors do nonetheless serve to inhibit alternative results strictly within the realm of the abstract in the same manner (albeit less overt) as the sniper. The choices one makes are ultimately attributable to an intricate causal chain consisting of factors which, in their singularity, serve simply as influencers but in their aggregate bare a similar deterministic effect to that of a domino push.

The result of a domino-effect is fully attributable to circumstance – the positioning of the dominoes, the velocity of the push, the angle of contact and so on. Said factors alone only influence the push’s result but when added together form a causal pattern which absolutely and infinitely determines its results. Identically, an action is equally as causally determined by context, this context being the sum total of one’s circumstance – culture, family, life experience, neuromodulators and so on which together form the same type of deterministic chain of causality as that of the domino push. Whilst it was therefore theoretically possible for Paul to have gone on a peaceful stroll rather than a mass murder spree, said possibility is a strictly abstract one. No less relevant than the abstract possibility of an alternative domino push result. If one were to somehow accurately replicate Paul’s circumstances it would, like the domino push, produce the identical determined results in infinitum.

The two remaining masochistically-inclined readers may at this point be wondering what the point of this article is. Is it to claim that terrorists, murderers, and the like should be left to roam the streets uninterrupted, spreading their destruction in any manner they see fit? To any concerned citizen, I assure you that this is not the case. The rejection of freedom does not equate to the rejection of consequence. Take the multiple faces of Paul as an example – regardless of the determining factors behind the violent outbreak, Paul’s consequential physical detainment serves an obvious and practical function, whether that be to prevent further harm upon others or to deter similar actions. Though the rejection of freedom does not equate to a consequence-free world it should equate to a judgment-free one.

Justice et Inégalité – Les Plateaux de la Balance, by Frachet, 2010, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

To be clear, what I refer to as a judgement-free world does not translate to a nihilistic one in which everybody is trapped in a prison of meaninglessness, unable to judge something as good, or bad or anything else for that matter. Indeed judging the world around us is as natural as breathing, impossible not to do. The ability to judge murder as bad and charity as good is, for example, an integral facet of a healthy outlook which should be maintained for the benefit of society as a whole. Whilst determinism does not render judging the action of murder as fruitless it does render the judgment of the person performing the action to be.

If we are to adopt a deterministic worldview – postulating that actions are determined by a context outside of one’s scope of control, the line of difference that we draw between the rabid version of Paul and its alternatives is a false one. Due to the aforementioned factors which determine one’s choices, the sociopathic or gangster versions of Paul are no less victims of circumstance than the rabid one or anybody else for that matter. Whilst it is therefore proper to condemn the act of killing, one holds no basis for judging the person performing the action (or any other action for that matter). If there is one effect that I hope this article has upon the readers it would be to compel them to think twice before passing judgment upon others, as all other factors being equal they themselves would be determined to act identically. In many ways, everybody is simply a victim of circumstance, determined by context. Who knows perhaps this shift in mentality may even produce some positive effects – forming a more accepting and just society in which one is not defined by their mistakes or punished for them eternally.

– Sean Agius

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume some years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days. I also encountered his ideas regularly in my undergraduate studies in moral philosophy.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much everyone who’s interested at least in the basics of economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy, and had read excerpts as well as a lot of commentary on it. The Wealth of Nations is considered a foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

adam smith_s grave in canongate kirkyard, edinburgh, scotland, 2017 amy cools

Adam Smith’s grave in Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who not an expert on Smith’s life and thought. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are, and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) ~ Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy ~ by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth ~ Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like ~ Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Dennis Rasmussen on Hume and Smith and his book The Infidel and the Professor ~ with Russ Roberts for EconTalk

Enlightenment ~ William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism ~ Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith ~ Dennis C. Rasmussen for The Atlantic

The Real Adam Smith ~ by Paul Sagar for Aeon

The Theory of Moral Sentiments ~ Adam Smith, first published in 1759

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!