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 own 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 is brought up in introductory philosophy classes generally, an epistemological (having to do with knowledge) quandary: 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, 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.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Blaise Pascal!

Blaise Pascal, crayon drawing by Jean Domat, c. 1649, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Blaise Pascal, born on June 19th, 1623 in Auvergne, France, was a mathematician, philosopher, physicist, scientist, theologian, inventor, and writer.

This polymath was so talented in so many areas that any one of them could have kept his memory and influence alive to this day. Steven West writes in Philosophize This that we could ‘feel completely inadequate when we learn that he invented the calculator (yes, the calculator) at age 18.’ David Simpson writes in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘In mathematics, he was an early pioneer in the fields of game theory and probability theory. In philosophy, he was an early pioneer in existentialism. As a writer on theology and religion, he was a defender of Christianity.’ Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon write for Encyclopædia Britannica, ‘He laid the foundation for the modern theory of probabilities, formulated what came to be known as Pascal’s principle of pressure, and propagated a religious doctrine that taught the experience of God through the heart rather than through reason.’

Pascal’s Wager is probably his best-known idea, keeping his name alive in popular culture as well as among scholars. The argument can be summarized thusly: You can believe in God, or not believe in God. When it comes to the effect of the state of your belief on your possible eternal afterlife, if you don’t believe in God, you may very well be damned for all eternity. But if you do believe in God, you may achieve salvation. When it comes to the effect of your state of belief on your life here on Earth, whether or not you believe in God, your life will not be affected hugely. We’re all constrained as a matter of course by cultural expectations and codes of behavior, after all. The religious constraints we might find inconvenient and even tedious sometimes don’t, generally, significantly burden your life more than any others, while the practice of religion can add a great deal of meaning and satisfaction to life. Since we stand to gain much more than we might lose, all in all, it’s the most logical and therefore best bet to believe in God.

Now Pascal is an extremely intelligent man, and he knows belief is something you can’t just flip on like a light switch. That’s why he advises that the prudent person will choose to believe in God for the reasons described above and then behave as if they believed it. With enough acts of piety, religious study, and time among other virtuous and true believers, they are bound to end up believers themselves. This is very insightful psychologically: it accords well with what we now know about how the brain works, and his ‘fake it till you make it’ belief formation process is very like modern cognitive behavior therapy. Enact the change you wish to see in your mind, and your mind will follow, or to use modern terminology in common use, your brain will be ‘rewired’.

I’ve heard many people object to Pascal’s Wager on the grounds that they think religion does have too many negative effects to accept that the wager in favor of God-belief is a good bet. To ignore what your reason tells you about how unlikely it is that anything exists outside of the natural world, and that contradictions within and among the scriptures of the world indicate that none of them are divinely inspired, and so on, makes you a traitor to reason and critical thinking and science. It undermines your ability to perceive and understand the real world on its own terms. And betraying your own powers of reason, so that you can feel safe about an afterlife that no-one can demonstrate happens anyway, infantilizes you by subjugating your critical thinking to your superstitious fears.

I don’t buy the first objection anymore, though I once found it convincing. After all, few are better at reasoning and critical thinking than Pascal. His formidable powers of reason don’t appear undermined in any serious way overall considering his incredible lifetime achievements in mathematics, physics, logic, practical invention, and science. Choosing to believe in God clearly doesn’t seem to hamper his intellect one bit.

I still object to the Wager, but on these grounds: I think Pascal, unjustifiably, assumes too much when constructing his argument in the first place. Why, for example, bet on the idea that God would even be pleased by and liable to reward belief in him, even if eventually sincere, when it originates in this sort of self-serving calculation? Why not assume instead that God, if he exists, would reward honesty itself, whether in believers or nonbelievers, so long as their state of belief results from good faith efforts to seek truth? This seems, to me, more in line with the inclinations of the creator of a rational, ordered universe, the ultimate expression of reason, which in turn requires fearless, honest inquiry if it’s to be known, understood, and appreciated in the fullest way possible.

But this wager is just one relatively minor result of Pascal’s exploration of this fascinating world, and given his pioneering inquiries in the areas that would later be known as probability theory and game theory, it’s not surprising that, in brainstorming, he came up with this possible solution to the problems of belief vs. reason. And whether or not he got it right, it’s long captured the public imagination and really does make us think, as he’s done exquisitely during, and throughout the centuries after, his all-too-short life.

Learn more about the great Blaise Pascal:

Blaise Pascal – by Desmond Clarke for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) – by David Simpson for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

Blaise Pascal: French Philosopher and Scientist – by Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon for Encyclopædia Britannica

Pascal’s Wager and – +EV your way to success!! – by Steven West, Philosophize This!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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 a few years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh, Scotland. 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 all Americans interested in basic economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy. You likely have as well, since here you are reading a birthday tribute to Adam Smith! The Wealth of Nations is considered the 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. And, I think there are enough people promoting his Wealth of Nations as, like, the best thing ever; you can find plenty to read about that on the internet.

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.

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who is by no means an expert. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are (including himelf, he’s an excellent and compelling writer), 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

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, Jun 9, 2016 for The Atlantic

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

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Why Shouldn’t We Compel Them to Come In? Locke, the Enlightenment, and the Debate over Religious Toleration, by Nicholas Jolley

Religious Liberty, at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, 1876

Most people in the West today unreflectively accept the need for religious toleration. Of course, if pressed, they will admit that toleration, like freedom of speech, can’t be absolute; there must be some limits. Suppose, for example, that my religion calls for human sacrifice every Sunday; no one will think that such a religion should be tolerated. Again, if pressed, people will agree that there are difficult cases: to take an issue that troubled John Locke, suppose that my religion demands allegiance to a foreign power. We may think that reasonable people can disagree over such cases. But the fact that there are these problem cases doesn’t shake people’s commitment to the principle of religious toleration.

We tend to be so wedded to this principle that we can easily forget how seductive the case for intolerance can be. Consider, for instance, a person who says with an authoritative air: “I know that my religion is the true one and that yours is completely false. I also know you will go to hell if you don’t convert to my religion.” Wouldn’t it be an act of charity on his part to convert you, by force if necessary, to the religion that will ensure your happiness in the afterlife? Here one might adapt an example given by that champion of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, for another purpose. A police officer sees a person trying to cross a bridge that he knows to be unsafe. According to Mill, it’s not an unwarranted interference with the person’s liberty for the officer to use force to prevent him or her from stepping on to the bridge; he knows, after all, that the bridge is unsafe and he knows that the person doesn’t want to fall into the river. One might take a similar line in the religious case: I know that John’s religion is leading him to hell, and I know that that’s not where he wishes to end up. Theologians in the Western tradition such as Augustine have argued for intolerance along these lines, and they have buttressed their argument by appealing to the biblical text: “Compel them to come in.”

Modern liberals are likely to respond that the appeal to Mill’s example is unfair, for the analogy is far from exact. For one thing, Mill builds into his example the assumption that there is no time to warn the person about the danger of the bridge; presumably, if there were time to warn him, then other things being equal, Mill would admit that there was no case for coercion. More importantly, one might argue that no one really knows, or can know, that the doctrines of revealed religion are true; acceptance of such doctrines depends on accepting the accounts of witnesses who may be unreliable or whose words may have been misinterpreted down the ages.

The idea that no one can know the claims of revealed religion are true is the basis for one of Locke’s main strategies of argument for religious toleration. The strategy is a powerful one, but it is open to a couple of objections. First, Locke sets the bar for knowledge very high: he allows little to count as knowledge that isn’t on a par with mathematical demonstration. By his lights, in the bridge example, even the policeman doesn’t strictly know that the bridge is unsafe. Further, even if the champion of intolerance concedes that he doesn’t strictly know his religion to be true, he may still say that he has very strong support for his beliefs, and that this level of support justifies him in coercing others. So the kind of case that Locke makes here may not be conclusive.

Fortunately, Locke has other strings to his bow. One intriguing argument turns on the nature of belief and its relation to the will. Suppose that the champion of intolerance says to the unbeliever: “You ought to believe the articles of my faith” (e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity). It seems apt for the unbeliever to reply to such a claim by saying: “It’s not in my power to believe this doctrine. You misunderstand the nature of belief. Belief is not a voluntary action like switching on a light. Rather, belief is more like falling in love; it’s something that happens to you.” One might then plug in the Kantian principle implicitly accepted by Locke: ought implies can. If belief is not in my power, and ought implies can, then I can have no obligation to believe the proposition in question.

This can seem like a powerful reply to the advocate of intolerance, but again, unfortunately, it’s not conclusive. For the advocate may say: “I agree that belief is not directly under your voluntary control, but I maintain that it is indirectly so. True, you can’t just switch on belief, but it’s in your power to do things that will result, or are likely to result, in your coming to believe.” Pascal, for instance, thought that though we can’t just believe at will, we can do things such as going to Mass and mixing with the congregation of the faithful that will have the effect of producing belief; faith, he thought, is catching. And then the intolerant person is in a position to make a case for religious persecution on the part of the state: there should be penalties for non-attendance at church so that people are induced to attend and at least to give a hearing to the teachings of the state-approved religion. This was the argument put to Locke by his opponent, Jonas Proast. Locke seeks to reply to this argument by saying that sincere religious belief can’t be produced in this way, and that it’s only sincere religious belief that is acceptable to God. Whether this reply to Proast is successful is a controversial issue among philosophers who have studied the debate. And the issue isn’t a narrowly academic one: it should be of interest to all those who seek to defend the values of the Enlightenment today.

This essay was originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

~ Nicholas Jolley is Research Professor and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He has also taught at the University of California, San Diego, and Syracuse University. He is the author of a number of books for OUP, including Toleration and Understanding in Locke (2017), and Locke’s Touchy Subjects: Materialism and Immortality (2015).

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

When Philosophy Needed Muslims, Jews and Christians Alike, by Peter Adamson

From The Three Philosophers, attributed to Giorgione, ca. early 1500’s. It likely portrays a young Italian philosopher, Averroes, and Plato

If you were asked to name the most important philosopher of 10th-century Baghdad, you would presumably not hesitate to say ‘al-Farabi’. He’s one of the few thinkers of the Islamic world known to non-specialists, deservedly so given his ambitious reworking of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics and political philosophy. But if you were yourself a resident of 10th-century Baghdad, you might more likely think of Yahya ibn ‘Adi. He is hardly a household name now, but was mentioned by the historian al-Mas‘udi as the only significant teacher of Aristotelian philosophy in his day. But ibn ‘Adi is not just a good example of how fame wanes across the centuries. He is also a fine illustration of the inter-religious nature of philosophy in the Islamic world.

Ibn ‘Adi was a Christian, as were most of the members of the group of philosophers who wrote commentaries on Aristotle at this time in Baghdad. The Muslim al-Farabi, who was apparently ibn ‘Adi’s teacher, was an exception to the rule. Completing the ecumenical picture, ibn ‘Adi was involved in an exchange of letters with a Jewish scholar named Ibn Abi Sa‘id al-Mawsili, who wrote to him with questions about Aristotle’s philosophy that he was hoping to have cleared up. Admittedly, Baghdad was an exceptional place, the capital of empire and thus a melting pot that drew scholars from all over the Islamic world. But philosophy was an interfaith phenomenon in other times and places too. The best example is surely Islamic Spain, celebrated for its culture of convivencia (‘living together’). Two of the greatest medieval thinkers, the Muslim Averroes and the Jew Maimonides, were rough contemporaries who both hailed from al-Andalus. After Toledo fell into the hands of the Christians, the Jew Avendauth collaborated with the Christian Gundisalvi to translate a work by the Muslim thinker Avicenna from Arabic into Latin.

That last example is a revealing one. Philosophy in these times often involved representatives of different faiths because it often presupposed translation. Hardly any philosophers of the Islamic world could read Greek, not even Averroes, the greatest commentator on Aristotle. He and other Muslim enthusiasts for Hellenic wisdom had to rely on translations, which had mostly been executed by Christians in the 8th to 10th centuries. Knowledge of Greek had been maintained by Christian scholars in Byzantine Syria, which explains why Muslim patrons turned to Christians to render works by Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen and many other ancient thinkers into Arabic. Thus the very existence of Hellenic-inspired philosophy in the Islamic world was a manifestation of inter-religious cooperation.

All of which is not to say that the Islamic world was free of inter-religious dispute. On the contrary, it seems that one reason those Muslim patrons were interested in Aristotle was that his logic would give them the tools to keep up with Christian opponents in theological debate. A vivid example is provided by al-Kindi, the first Muslim thinker to draw on Hellenic sources. He wrote a short refutation of the Trinity in which he used Greek logic to argue that God must be wholly one, not one and three – mentioning that Christian readers should be able to follow the argument, given their familiarity with logical concepts. A nice twist to the story is that we know of this refutation only thanks to the aforementioned ibn ‘Adi, who quoted al-Kindi in order then to rebut his attack on the Christian dogma.

While men such as al-Kindi were appropriating Greek ideas to defend Islam and attack Christianity, others disapproved of the importation of these same ideas into Muslim culture: al-Kindi responded to unnamed critics who deplored the use of pagan philosophy, and the founder of the Christian Baghdad school got into a public dispute with a Muslim grammarian over the usefulness of Aristotle’s logic. The grammarian mocked the pretensions of the Christian Aristotelians, and delighted in pointing out that all this logic had not prevented them from believing that God can somehow be both one and three.

Still, it remains the case that philosophy and the sciences more generally offered a kind of meeting point or neutral ground for intellectuals of different faiths. Muslims, Christians and Jews who shared an interest in Aristotle’s metaphysics or the medical theories of Galen read each others’ commentaries and elaborations on the Hellenic tradition. This is shown even by the disputes that they had with one another: using Greek logic to debate the Trinity implicitly suggested that this was a topic that could be resolved by appeal to reason. And many of the thinkers mentioned above argued that philosophy offered the best resource for the interpretation of sacred texts, whether the Torah, the Christian Bible, or the Quran. So it is no coincidence that in the Muslim al-Kindi, the Christian ibn ‘Adi, and the Jew Maimonides, the One God of Abrahamic tradition bears a striking resemblance to the god of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Their shared enterprise as elite philosophers meant that they had more in common with one another than they did with most of their co-religionists.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is the author of several books, including The Arabic Plotinus (2002) and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi (2007) and Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016), and hosts the History of Philosophy podcast. (Bio credit: Aeon)

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

A Politic of Forgiveness and Responsibility, by Dylan Flint

“Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities” Lamentations 5:7

Whether or not we buy the metaphysical presuppositions of this passage from the Bible, and others like it, we cannot deny that we do not choose the household we are born into nor can we choose our country of birth.

To put it bluntly, I did not choose to be American.

I moved to China in the midst of an ugly election and considered, like many others, going (in my case staying) abroad if a certain candidate was elected. Well, he was elected, and I probably won’t stay abroad. But, then again, I do not know what the future holds.

Living in China during this election cycle has caused me a great deal of reflection surrounding three things: the sociopolitical climate of my new home, the shortcomings of democracy, and what it means to be an American.

In many ways, China is ahead of us. For starters, they’ve already had their experiment with communism and thrown it out as no good. In America, however (pardon the metaphor) we seem rather stuck, unable to do our business or get off the pot. Yet, in many other ways, China seems centuries behind. The current government at times easily reminds us of something out of the Dark Ages: complete centralized authoritative rule, shadow policy making, the imprisoning and beating of dissenting artists, and a hell-bent policy of eliminating any hint of revolution. And while the beheadings aren’t held in the square, China currently executes more of its citizens than any other nation in the world.(1)

While we are quick to lament, and rightly so, I can not deny that it works. In fact, I have never seen so many happy people in my life.

Cyber-threats, terrorism, misinformation, hacked elections, these are all non-issues. At least, not ones felt by ordinary citizens. With closed borders, the great firewall, and a state-run media, this is the reality.

And what about crime? Likewise, it is a non-issue.

But why is this so?

One can cite the fact that the government wastes trillions of renminbi (RMB) on new construction projects, many of which will never see the light of day, simply so people can stay employed. While I do not deny this contributes to the low crime rate, I feel I have struck something deeper — something ingrained in the social fabric of the people. In China, there are no second chances. I have found the concept of forgiveness to be a strangely western, strangely Christian idea.

When I asked a group of Chinese students, aged 20–35, about the private prison system in America, many agreed that it was unjust and that rehabilitation has fallen behind cheap labor and profit in priority. But when I asked those same students if they would invite a convict back into their lives after they had served their time, I was shocked by the fiercely absolute “No” I received. Not one of them said they would hire the person if they owned a company, and many suggested they wouldn’t even associate with the person. Even if the person was a child when they committed the offense, the answer was still the same. The verdict was in: if you did something that landed you in jail, you are forever an outsider. It is no wonder people don’t commit crimes.

While I found this to be a bit cruel, I had to remember that outside Christendom this is the way things work. And I am starting to realize that forgiveness comes at quite the cost.

Higher principles are not cheap. They demand a lot from us.

Last year, when Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to more than a million refugees, she was doing so because it was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, the tangible consequences appear to have been devastating. Whether the rate of terror has actually increased due to the influx of refugees, or politicians are merely fanning flames of xenophobia, it doesn’t seem to matter much. Regardless of who is responsible, the country is in turmoil.

Now, I would like to believe that, given enough time, Merkel’s good graces will be rewarded. However, it is hard to see such a thing outside the classroom. All I can see is sensible people living in fear, opportunistic politicians cashing in, and daily injustices committed against those who seek refuge.(2) This is a spotty resume for “doing the right thing”, to say the least. But beyond this, I think there is a real lesson here. I think we must realize what it is our higher principles ask us to overcome.

We have to understand that this growing alt-right protectionist polemic that passed Brexit, put Donald Trump in office, and may put out Angela Merkel is not all based on false news, rhetoric, and politics of fear. Despite what I am about to say going against everything I was taught by Hollywood, the reality is that foreigners wreak havoc on familiar social norms, dissent is painful to bear, tolerance is exhausting, criminals hardly ever learn from their mistakes, and our enemies know to hit us where it hurts: they take advantage of our good graces, making a mockery of our higher principles. Free trade, open borders, second chances, all of it attracts exploitation.

When taking one honest, good-long-look at China, it is not hard to see the draw of a massive one party system with closed borders that censures the media and silences civil unrest at all costs.(3) It is so peaceful here. And while the harmony may be faux, there is real solidarity. Despite all the problems China faces (and they are immense), the sentiment of the people is that we are all in this together — we are all Chinese.

It pains me to admit that this sense of identity is gone in America, if there ever was such a thing. Despite the few radical god-fearing patriots, the sentiment of American solidarity — the home to pioneers of freedom, people who believed they could build the future they wanted for themselves, the shining beacon of hope for the tired, hungry, and poor of the world — is completely gone.

Maybe I envision America’s past as does a child who reads a storybook, and maybe I see China through the eyes of a foreigner, but I still believe free people can come together of their own volition, and that this is somehow better than the alternatives. However, I would be lying if I said this belief isn’t constantly being challenged by everything around me, or that I have never considered its outright abandonment. In fact, it may be worth asking ourselves why it is we even have this belief. What is this something extra that makes it better if we make decisions for ourselves, and come together on our own, instead of someone one else forcing this upon us?

This very same question is to be found, incidentally enough, in the history of Christianity. There the question takes on the form: why is conversion in the heart better than conversion through coercion?

Many Christian philosophers, Pierre Bayle comes to mind, have argued that this is just clearly so — that only a true conversion takes place if it happens in the heart of man, not merely in his outward demonstrations. But this argument, though I agree with its conclusions, often ends with an appeal to the “natural light” of reason. In other words, a conversion in the heart is just obviously better. But, absent this vague intuition, it is hard to see why.

I’ve always believed the ends to never justify the means… but, if God is the end, it could hardly matter how you got there. After all, you arrived at God.

*     *     *

Benjamin Franklin once said, “those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

As a juvenile, I believed this quote to be expounding the sagacity of the libertarian. Now, as an adult, I see it more as a proclamation, or rather a warning, of the insecurity of a democracy. On the one hand, if essential liberties are lost, then the entire system collapses. On the other, if an individual wishes to relinquish his liberty in exchange for some relief from the anxiety that that liberty expounds upon him, then he loses his place in that system. In other words, everyone must believe in it for the system to work. What a frail thing indeed. That is, unless we take ‘belief’ to mean something other than it does in its pejorative sense. In any event, if I were not a talented, energetic, young Aristotelian who stood to gain from toppling monarchs, it would be hard to see why anyone would want to buy into such a thing.

It could be rebutted that a democracy ensures against corruption, and I would reply that profit-seeking corporations are running America. It could be replied that a democracy represents the people, and I would say then that the last honest politician was shot in the head. It could be said that a democracy ensures against the homogeneity of opinion and the stagnation of ideas, and I would say we are overrun with opinion and everyone’s “good” ideas. It could be said that democracy encourages progress, and I would say America is behind a lot of the world. It could be said that democracy and religious freedom go hand-in-hand, and I would say purchasing good vibes at a megachurch hardly constitutes unabated spiritual development. It could be said that only in a democracy do we get to choose our leader, and I would say that over half the voting populous didn’t select America’s current president.

Now to be sure, charges against democracy are nothing new. Plato famously argued in his masterpiece Republic that the next logical step after the beautiful, multifarious democracy was tyranny. And it isn’t because some tyrant comes and takes our kingdom: it is because we give rise to the tyrant. This is simply the natural consequence of our desires playing the part of the ruler in the political organism that is the state. So the story goes: our customs and values diminish from generation to generation because, in a democracy, the father is on equal ground with the son; when things go wrong, as they are bound to, we desperately elect a leader who promises to continue to give us everything we wish for. But the thing is, because we have destroyed our values in the relativism that cohabits with democracy, the leader lacks that which it takes to be a good leader. The beautiful tragedy runs its course, and we become slaves to the tyrant — the embodiment of our passions — in his wild pursuit to save us.

But let be also known that Plato likewise believed in something called the Form of the Good: a metaphysical force which has the power to transform the natural world, including its natural consequences.

While I do not doubt that this is a hard notion for people to understand, let alone believe in, I find it compelling. And the reason why is I have been transformed, if not by it, then by something similar. See, the thing I can not deny, no matter how bad things get in America and how good things get for me in China, is that I have been given a second chance — a second chance I did not deserve.

*     *     *

As a heroin addict in my early 20’s, I tore through the lives of others. In my wild pursuit for pleasure and comfort, I abused my freedom just as much as America is being abused today. My family, my community, my society, my culture, have now all forgiven me, and my debt for this is insurmountable. But it isn’t a debt I don begrudgingly.

I moved to China to repay a debt to my father — to become my own man: a self-sufficient man who under his own propensities can nurture and provide for himself and others — and it is becoming one of the defining experiences of my life. The process of going back over our lives — our histories — and making right our wrongs, is one of great beauty, tremendous insight, and strengthening of soul. It is not a journey of dread. It is the path we want to be on, and, for me, it all began with a choice, a free choice.

Now, I am compelled by this path. It is not by force that I am compelled, but by a sense of moral duty. I am beginning to see what a life of service means, and it is something I really want. I want to repay my family, my community, my country, my western ethos, which gave me another chance at life.

I was once asked as an undergraduate what the Form of the Good meant to me, and for the first time I have a genuine answer: being able to implement your own ideas and to have the consequences be of benefit — to see the lives of other people improve by your hand. It is hard to imagine such a thing flowering and reaching its fullest fruition in a country that stifles free expression and assembly.

The spirit of the west — freedom of conscience, forgiveness, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom to influence, self-governance — is sick and dying, but it is not dead. Being able to believe what you want, to say what you want, to think what you want, to go after what you want, and to fall flat on your face, but then to be given a second chance, the means of redemption, the opportunity to really learn, and then to see it all work — to see yourself become a positive force in the lives of others — that, that is worth saving.

But I am fully aware that unless one has shared this experience, it is hard to see how they could reach the same conclusion. In other words, it is hard to see why ordinary people should buy into these higher principles if they don’t immediately benefit from them.

I recently read that chaos, insecurity, anxiety, complaining, deceit, and rhetoric are not signs that a democracy is failing. Rather, these are signs a democracy is working —that this is a democracy in action.

Maybe it is the case that we don’t need everyone to be convinced. Maybe the system need only produce a few good men — maybe even only one. I take some solace in the idea.

*     *     *

So why then is it better if conversion takes place in the heart? If answers must be given, this is because once the Father dies, it can live on in the Son, and the Son can one day pass on the torch. Absent this internalization, it is hard to imagine a thing surviving once our father leaves us.

And, after all has been said, what does it mean to be an American? For me, it means having the freedom to become influential in the lives of others, for better or for worse. It means taking part in a socio-political environment where goodness at least has the potential to reach its highest expression.

But what will happen to us? Will a democracy give rise to a tyrant, a few good men, or to a philosopher king? This I obviously do not know, but since I have recovered from my passions, and things are beginning to fall into their proper place, I am hopeful, nay faithful, that the same thing can happen to her.

Despite the fact my generation is being handed a broken country, I assume the responsibility it entails. I forgive my father’s transgressions. I forgive my country’s mistakes. And I, of my own volition, compelled by moral duty, seek a life in politics.

It is true I never chose to be American. But today, I do.

1)  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_China

2) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39096833

3) I have in mind Tiananmen Square June, 4th 1989.

*A version of this essay was originally published by Chosenmag.com in April 2017

~ Dylan Flint is a Seattle native with deep ties to the Pacific Northwest. He has been writing continuously ever since getting sober in 2013. He has written on a wide range of topics, from spirituality and addiction to politics and poetry, but everything has always had a philosophical bent. Philosophy is not only dear to Dylan, he considers it a part of himself–an “expression of his soul” to use his own words. Dylan received his BA in philosophy from the University of Washington in 2015. Since graduating he has spent time in Germany at the University of Tubingen, and for this past year, he has been teaching English in China’s Jiangsu province. When he isn’t reading and writing, Dylan enjoys skiing, hiking, traveling and generally being outdoors. This fall he plans to return to the Pacific Northwest. He has been accepted to the philosophy masters program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. After he completes this program, he plans to pursue a PhD in philosophy and dreams of one day being a philosophy professor so he can share his love with the next generation of thinkers. To follow Dylan’s thoughts and experiences along the way, you can check out his blog at www.medium.com/@aphilosophersquarrel or on Instagram @aphilosophersquarrel

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Bertrand Russell Got Stoicism Seriously Wrong, by Massimo Pigliucci

I’m an admirer of Bertrand Russell in some ways, and not in others. For one, I, too, have discovered over time that Russell had gotten some things very wrong about some philosophers and their ideas, and had to overcome some of the prejudices his History of Philosophy had instilled in me. Thanks for the defense of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci! This essay serves as a good introduction to Stoicism as well.

How to Be a Stoic

IMG_8246When I was growing up in Italy, the very first book of philosophy I ever laid hands on was by Bertrand Russell. Well, to be exact, it wasn’t a book of philosophy, but about a philosopher: his autobiography. From then on, I went to read Why I am Not a Christian, which solidified my own misgivings (as a teenager) about the Catholic faith I was brought up with. And of course soon afterwards I read Russell’s famous History of Western Philosophy. I realized even then that this was no neutral historical survey of the philosophical canon, but rather a highly opinionated personal take on more than two millennia of philosophizing. But I was a teenager, with little or no previous knowledge of philosophy, opinionated was fun! Recently, however, a viewer of my YouTube channel asked me what I thought about Russell’s harsh criticism of Stoicism. I couldn’t…

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