Monthly Archives: May 2010

Philosophical Jokes and Embellishments

Most people are surprised to hear there’s such a thing as philosophical humor, since most philosophy and philosophers, with a few exceptions, seem humorless. Well, it may just be a way of keeping their sanity, but some people in philosophy do have a sense of humor and can poke fun at themselves. Here I offer a few examples of philosophical humor, with some embellishment to bring out the more subtle points of each joke. (These are jokes that have been floating around the philosophy-blogosphere; their original authorship is mostly unknown.)

I do not suggest that most readers of this blog need help understanding the point of the joke. I’m sure that most of you do not. But I feel that even philosophical jokes have multiple levels of meaning and can be instructive. (Hopefully this is not a case of someone elaborating a joke to make it humorless!)
Look for the bracketed commentary: [xx]

First I have a set of fairly obvious jokes that don’t require much elaboration. But being an incurable elaborator, I shall elaborate a little.

Easy & Obvious Jokes:

Dean, to the physics department: “Why do I always have to give you guys so much money, for laboratories and expensive equipment and stuff? Why couldn’t you be like the math department? All they need is money for pencils, paper and waste-paper baskets? Or even better, why aren’t you like the philosophy department? All they need are pencils and paper.”

[In Mathematics they keep only that work which passes muster, theorems which can be proved. The rest is thrown in the waste basket. But in philosophy everything is kept; nothing is rejected as unworthy of attention. Nothing is thrown away, so there’s no need for waste baskets.
Actually this is a bit unfair to the discipline of philosophy. All ideas and theories might be discussed; but some are rejected in favor of others which stand the tests of logic, reason, and evidence better. But it is true that philosophy lacks the clear criteria of proof that’s found in mathematics and the general methodology of the sciences; and too much attention is devoted to ideas and theories which should have been discarded.]
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The First Law of Philosophy: For every philosopher, there exists an equal and opposite philosopher.
The Second Law of Philosophy: They’re both wrong.

[This plays on the principle of dynamic physics that each action has an equal reaction, and pokes fun at the fact that for every philosophical proposition one can find a contrary proposition, and for every philosophical theory and equal, opposing theory. Philosophical disagreements seem without end; and most often there are no clear and objective criteria for evaluating those competing theories. In so far as philosophical consensus is lacking, all philosophical theories are wrong, but philosophers never seem to stop talking. This is often the criticism that scientists bring against philosophy. There’s some truth to it; but it tends to over-simply the issues. Consensus among scientific and mathematical professionals is not as pure and complete as they like to believe; and philosophers are not completely lost in a maze of competing ideas and theories. Philosophers actually manage to reach some agreement, make some progress on specific issues, and make positive contributions to a number of other disciplines, including science and mathematics.]

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What is Mind? It does not matter.
What is Matter? Never mind.

[Bertrand Russell attributed this one to his grandmother, in his autobiography. It’s a good rejoinder to the classical metaphysical propositions asserting the dual nature of reality: mental and material. Much time, effort, and print have been expended by philosophers in trying to state the nature of matter and mind, and the relation between the two realms. This is a problem best left to the relevant sciences, which have made great progress in providing meaningful answers. On the contrary, metaphysical speculation seems to go nowhere. Hence, many of us are inclined to repeat the response to the metaphysical question: it doesn’t matter and never mind!]
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The second set is a little more demanding. My exposition might have a point here.

Moderate Difficulty:

A man was walking in the mountains just enjoying the scenery when he stepped too close to the edge of the mountain and started to fall. In desperation he reached out and grabbed a limb of a gnarly old tree hanging onto the side of the cliff. Full of fear he assessed his situation. He was about 100 feet down a shear cliff and about 900 feet from the floor of the canyon below. If he should slip again he’d plummet to his death.

Full of fear, he cries out, “Help me!”

But there was no answer. Again and again he cried out but to no avail.

Finally he yelled, “Is anybody up there?”

A deep voice replied, “Yes, I’m up here.”
“Who is it?”
“It’s the Lord”
“Can you help me?”
“Yes, I can help.”
“Help me!”
“Let go.”
Looking around the man became full of panic. “What?!?!”
“Let go. I will catch you.”

“Uh… Is there anybody else up there?

[Here we have the “test of faith.” In this case, the desperate man was not sure that should he let go he would be saved from sure death by the Lord. He may not even have been sure that the voice which responded to his cry for help was that of the Lord. The man lacks faith in the Lord, or at least in the presence of the Lord. Like many of us, he wants some empirical evidence of an effective rescuer. He could be a rational skeptic, unlike the man of faith who is prepared to make Kierkegaard’s leap of faith despite it’s having no rational grounds at all. Do we let go and trust in God or do we ask whether there’s “anybody else up there”? Most of us secular-minded types would continue yelling for help.]
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A very religious man lived right next door to an atheist. While the religious man prayed day in, day out, and was constantly on his knees in communion with his Lord, the atheist never even looked twice at a church. However, the atheist’s life was good, he had a well-paying job and a beautiful wife, and his children were healthy and good-natured, whereas the pious man’s job was strenuous and his wages were low, his wife was getting fatter every day and his kids wouldn’t give him the time of the day.

So one day, deep in prayer as usual, he raised his eyes towards heaven and asked, “Oh God, I honor you every day, I ask your advice for every problem and confess to you my every sin. Yet my neighbor, who doesn’t even believe in you and certainly never prays, seems blessed with every happiness, while I go poor and suffer many an indignity. Why is this?”

And a great voice was heard from above,
BECAUSE HE DOESN’T BOTHER ME ALL THE TIME!”

[The heathen and non-believers among us love this one. People of religions faith, not so much. But the joke also oversimplifies the faith of religious folks. Many of them do not see their faith as a prudent one which will yield good material results in this life. This is not why they value their faith in God. But some do. I have occasionally joked that if God exists, he would prefer skeptics and atheists to the pious folks. The latter tend to bother him with their petitions and adorations. On the other hand, the skeptics and non-believers tend to be more interesting and entertaining for Him. He prefers a good game of chess to the constant “hosanna” from the pious believers. After all, eternity is a long, long time; and things can get boring even for God.]

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When I was young I badly wanted a new, red, Schwinn bicycle in the local store window. But my parents were poor and could not afford to buy it for me. So, being a good Catholic, I recited special prayers each night for that bicycle. After months of diligent praying and not getting my bike, I set aside my prayers and thought long and hard on the problem. Finally I realized that God doesn’t work that way. I had to get the bicycle myself. So after carefully planning my move so as not to get caught, I stole that beautiful, Schwinn bicycle. Then I prayed to God for forgiveness.

[Are prayers answered? It depends on the prayer. How does God work? In mysterious ways, of course. Because of my history of poverty and longing for shiny, new bicycles -- which I never got -- I really enjoyed this one. I was a Catholic kid, but not able to improvise as the boy in this story. It was only after seeing this joke that I really understood that old bumper sticker that many Christians had on their cars: “CHRISTIANS ARE NOT PERFECT, JUST FORGIVEN.” Part of Christian teaching is that the redemptive work of Christ is necessary because humans are weak and cannot avoid sin. Humans need the grace that comes from Christ in order to be saved. Good works alone are insufficient; you need faith, grace, and forgiveness from God. The boy in the story realized this quite well, and got his bicycle in the bargain!]
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Overheard outside the lecture hall: I passed my ethics exam today. I cheated!

[Cheating on an ethics exam? Isn’t that a paradox? Didn’t the course teach that student anything? These are questions that we raise when we think of a course in ethics as providing some moral training, or at least raising the moral consciousness of the students. Seeing an ethics course in this light, we would not expect a student to cheat on his exam. But this assumes too much. A course in ethics most often is a course in ethical theories and principles. The exercises of the course are intellectual ones; not ones in moral training. If students gain in moral consciousness, it is a side product of their primary lessons. Likely, those students who do well in the exam demonstrate only some intellectual progress, and not necessarily moral progress. But most people continue to think that an academic course in ethics does involve some form of moral training or moral awakening. Hence, the statement above sounds funny and paradoxical.]
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A philosophy professor walks in to give his class their final. Placing his chair on his desk the professor instructs the class, “Using every applicable thing you’ve learned in this course, prove to me that this chair DOES NOT EXIST.”
So, pencils are writing and erasers are erasing, students are preparing to embark on novels proving that this chair doesn’t exist, except for one student. He spends thirty seconds writing his answer, then quickly turns in his final to the astonishment of his peers.
Time goes by, and the day comes when all the students get their final grades…and to the amazement of the class, the student who only wrote for thirty seconds gets the highest grade in the class.
His answer to the question: “What chair?”

[This is a clever one. How do you prove that something, like the chair on the desk, does not exist? Simply asking “what chair?” does not prove anything. So there’s more going on here.
All philosophy students know that one way to question ordinary existence of something is to focus on the meaning of “exists.” What do we mean when we affirm that X exists? Well, if X is there before me, and I can see and touch it, it exists. But what if I don’t perceive it? Most of us would reply, well you need to get your perceptual faculties checked; because the chair is there on the professor’s desk, whether you see it or not. But some philosophers have argued in favor of the counter-intuitive proposition that “to be is to be perceived” (Bishop Berkeley: esse est percipi). “To exist” is defined as “to be perceived.” The bright and quick student was probably applying this Berkeleian principle in his answer: What chair? I see no chair; therefore it does not exist. This was an exercise in Berkeley’s Idealism.]
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The jokes in the third set are such that you must be familiar with some of what philosophers say and do to get the full implication of the joke.

For the sophisticated:

A boy is about to go on his first date, and is nervous about what to talk about. He asks his father for advice. The father replies: “My son, there are three subjects that always work. These are food, family, and philosophy.”
The boy picks up his date and they go to a soda fountain. Ice cream sodas in front of them, they stare at each other for a long time, as the boy’s nervousness builds. He remembers his father’s advice, and chooses the first topic. He asks the girl: “Do you like potato pancakes?” She says “No,” and the silence returns.
After a few more uncomfortable minutes, the boy thinks of his father’s suggestion and turns to the second item on the list. He asks, “Do you have a brother?” Again, the girl says “No” and there is silence once again.
The boy then plays his last card. He thinks of his father’s advice and asks the girl the following question:
“If you had a brother, would he like potato pancakes?”

[It is hard to say whether the young man impressed his date. Likely not, and if she agreed to see him again, he would be advised to abandon the philosophical tactic. But his hypothetical statement about a hypothetical brother directs attention to the way that philosophers and writers often proceed. In order to explore an issue they often set up hypothetical situations and try to learn the implications: if Jesus did return and tried to help the poor, downtrodden people, what would religious leaders do? (Dostoevsky takes up this hypothetical in his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, and concludes that Jesus would be imprisoned as a troublemaker.)

Bertrand Russell and G. Frege present the following hypothetical: Suppose there’s a barber in the village who shaves every man who does not shave himself. Does the barber shave himself? Yes, then he does not. No, then he does. This is a little puzzle in formal logic.

By analogy, does the non-existent brother like potato pancakes? We can excuse the girl if she ended that first date early.

Philosophers dealing with the logic of language often assert counter-factuals (contrary to fact situations) and try to draw the relevant implications. A recent example of the statement: “The current king of France is bald.” Do we say that this statement is false or true? If false, then it follows that the king has a full head of hair, which in turn implies the false statement that he exists. If we say that it is true, then the false statement follows that a bald fellow exists and is currently the king of France. The original statement is a coherent one which is either true or false; but either evaluating it as true or as false entails a falsehood. So we’re stuck and don’t know what to say about that perfectly coherent proposition: “The king of France is bald.” Hence, the paradox of the counter-factual proposition.]

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Descartes is sitting in a bar, having a drink. The bartender asks him if he would like another. “I think not,” he says and vanishes in a puff of logic.

[Most students of philosophy recognized this one as playing on Descartes famous Cogito, ergo sum argument: I think, therefore I am. In other words, given that I have some conscious thought (even a state of doubt), I exist as a thinking being. Then if you deny the antecedent, denial of the consequent seems to follow. I do not think, thus I do not exist. However, this is a logical fallacy, as anyone who has had a basic course in logic knows; and it is not clear that Descartes ever asserted denial of the antecedent of his Cogito argument. The joke is good in that it stimulates some thinking about Descartes’ tactics in his famous work.]
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The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was in a café working at his craft when a waitress approached him: “Can I get you something to drink, Monsieur Sartre?”

Sartre replied, “Yes, I’d like a cup of coffee with sugar, but no cream”.

Nodding agreement, the waitress walked off to fill the order and Sartre returned to his writing. A few minutes later, however, the waitress returned and said, “I’m sorry, Monsieur Sartre, we are all out of cream — how about with no milk?”

[This is a subtle one, folks. It requires reference to one theme of Sartre’s philosophy, that of the concept of ‘nothing’ in his work Being and Nothingness. Sartre, along with some of the Germans, e.g. Martin Heidegger, often wrote of nothing as if it were a something. If you delve into certain styles of metaphysics and theology, you will find the writer talking about nothingness as if it constituted a special category of reality. It is in this spirit that we should interpret the waitresses question: “We’re out of cream, how about coffee with no milk?”
We ordinary mortals might think that coffee without cream is exactly the same as coffee without milk: namely, black coffee. However, those philosophers who probe deep reality will argue that ‘no cream’ signifies a different reality from ‘no milk.’ Maybe the joke is on them.

With apologies to Lewis Carroll: Nobody unlocked the doors to the office this morning. Nobody must have the keys to the office. How did he get them? That person, nobody, surely gets around! ---- Maybe I’m missing something about the Heideggerian-Sartrean style of metaphysics!]
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Uneasy about ‘Language’ and ‘Thought’ as Entities

Recently someone asked me to look at an essay entitled “Language and the World.” Below I include some of my initial reaction to the idea, expressed in the essay, that we can talk meaningfully about the relation between the world and abstractions like “language” and “thought.”

Language, as an abstraction is just that: an abstract concept. Language does not have a separate and independent existence. It ‘grows’ out of the fact that there are cultures or groups of people who speak a language. In other words, language-using creatures (persons) and groups of people (cultures) come first, then we reflect on this phenomenon and refer to an abstract entity, namely, the “language” that they speak, e.g. English, Spanish, Latin, Russian, Chinese, etc. People speak specific languages, not language in general. If asked to do so, we can identify and describe specific languages; but I would be hard pressed to identify and describe this mysterious ‘entity’ called language in general.

So the question as to the relation between language and the world is for me a confusing question. Are we asking about the relationship between language-using-cultures and the world? Are we asking about the relationship between the world and specific languages, e.g. that between the world and Spanish? “Language,” as a general, abstract term, does not refer to a real entity that could have any identifiable relationship with the world, whatever that would mean.

Yes, I’m aware of the many philosophers who have spoken of the relationship between language and the world, e.g. Heidegger, Wittgenstein (of the Tractatus period), Nietzsche, and many others. I have read some of them and thought I understood what they meant, but now I’m not so sure. An analytical philosophers of the 20th century, A.C. Danto, even spoke of philosophy as occupying the space between language and the world, adding another questionable entity, ‘philosophy,’ into the mix. I read, enjoyed, and thought I understood what he was getting at. But now I’m not so sure.

I have an analogous problem with talk about ‘thought’ as something that may or may not exist independently of the language user who expresses it. Along the same line, I have a problem with worries or questions about the nature of thought: What is thought? What is the stuff of thought? Again, it seems to me that we’re dealing with an abstraction. Persons, or creatures capable of thought exist. Because we have evolved as creatures that can reflect on things, mull things over, and talk about it, we make reference to something called “thought.” It is only because there are such creatures, i.e., thinking persons — and the cultures they create — that we concoct the general notion “thought.” “I have many thoughts on the subject” can be restated “I have thought much about the subject.” The verbal terms (to think, to have thought about ..) seems primary. Later we concoct the substantive “thought” and then worry as to how this ‘entity’ relates to language or to the world.

I don’t mean to imply that all talk in terms of substantives (“language,” “thought”) lacks any useful application. I’m just expressing my unease with the tendency to use this talk of substantives as an excuse for quickly directing attention to a variety of metaphysical and ontological quandaries. Maybe we should look first at how we come to talk in this somewhat odd way.

Wittgenstein Contra a Presupposition of Dualism

“Talk about behavior and talk about mental states are just two different ways of talking, each of which has practical application in appropriate circumstance; but they should not be interpreted as indicative of a dualistic view of personality.”

Paraphrasing an obscure Wittgensteinian scholar.

Most people who think about the question regarding human personality tend to adopt a dualistic view of humans in which the physical-corporeal aspect is distinct from the mental aspect. This seems to be the intuitive view about our existence in the world; after all, what we think, feel, imagine, dream and so on is surely a different process from our overt behavior, whether that behavior is physical behavior (action, movement) or linguistic behavior (our talking, writing, singing, etc.). Who would deny that I often do not express my thoughts or feelings? Who would deny that often what I do or say does not express what I think or feel? Nobody, it seems, from which many people draw the conclusion that dualism is correct: humans have both a physical and a mental aspect; and these are separate realities. The evidence can seem overwhelming.

But some philosophers have argued that the case for dualism is far from conclusive. There are a variety of ways of countering dualism. Some counter-arguments seek direct refutation of the dualist thesis; but some are modest attempts to raise doubts about some aspect of dualism. Before looking at one such modest questioning of dualism by Ludwig Wittgenstein, let us review some reasons for thinking that dualism is the true view of human personality.

We often find ourselves in situations in which we doubt that a person’s overt behavior accurately indicates what they’re really thinking. For example, we’re wise to be skeptical about the statements of an automobile salesman trying to sell us a new car or a politician trying to sell us on his candidacy. Are they being honest? Do their words really represent their thinking? What motives are they keeping hidden from us? Another example we can cite is the world of stage or film acting; surely we know that a good actor on the stage can make us believe that he really experiences specific feelings and emotions: an actress despairing over the loss of child is not really a woman in despair over the loss of a child. She is an actress skilled at simulating that situation for the audience. An actor who acts as somebody who believes his life is in danger is not really a person whose life is in danger. He is someone skilled at making the audience accept that situation as happening in the play. The point is that nobody denies that there are many situations in which we distinguish sharply between a person’s overt behavior and the person’s actual thoughts, feelings, motives; and these are situations in which we would deny that the observed behavior indicates the thoughts, feelings, or motives that are behind the overt behavior.

These kinds of situations can be presented as evidence for the dualist philosophy, which distinguishes between overt behavior and the mental life. According to the dualist, these two ‘realms’ might correspond in some way, but are separate realms of reality. Furthermore, except for a subject’s own report about his mental state, any knowledge we might acquire about another person’s mental state comes indirectly, by way of inference. We observe the overt behavior and infer the internal mental state; e.g., your telling me that you’re hungry allows me to infer that you really feel hunger pangs, although you could be fooling me.

On the other side we find the materialists and behaviorists who are skeptical about a philosophy which attributes dual reality to human personality. There are a variety of reasons for such skepticism, the chief among them being that the relevant sciences can account for human experience without positing a separate mental realm. The skeptics urge that we take a closer look at the doctrine that humans are have dual character, physical and mental. Furthermore, they question, if not reject, the idea that a subject’s overt behavior is an indication of the internal, mental reality; for example, they deny that ordinarily we infer that a person experiences pain from his behavior indicative of someone feeling pain. According to the philosophical ‘behaviorist’ perspective, in ordinary circumstances, a person exhibiting pain behavior is a person in pain.

In twentieth century philosophy two names which we can cite as philosophers who take this perspective are Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle. However, their philosophical perspective should be kept distinct from the school of psychological behaviorism (e.g., John Watson, B.F. Skinner). Nevertheless, we can surely see a ‘behaviorist’ perspective in Gilbert Ryle’s argument rejecting the “ghost in the machine” and his general thesis in his book, The Concept of Mind, which undermines the relevance of mental processes underlying overt behavior. Likewise, the philosophical position implied by Wittgenstein’s reflections in the Philosophical Investigations seems to promote a ‘behaviorist’ perspective. In this context we can better understand Wittgenstein’s remarks questioning the tendency of the dualist to assume a sharp distinction between talk about inner mental processes and talk about overt behavior.

We find Wittgenstein doing this in Part II, Section V of the Philosophical Investigations. Here Wittgenstein presents a few remarks which can be read as an argument undermining the assumption that observation of a person’s overt behavior is always distinct from what we say about that person’s corresponding mental state; for example, when we observe a man exhibiting pain behavior (he grimaces and cries out) we observe only his behavior and then infer this mental state: his experiencing pain. Wittgenstein’s point is that in ordinary circumstances observation of pain behavior is the same as our observing a person in pain. In short, Wittgenstein raises doubts about the thesis of a dichotomy between our statements of a person’s overt behavior and our statements about a person’s mental states.

Wittgenstein’s style in presenting his arguments is cryptic and not always transparent. So I offer my attempt at a close interpretation and paraphrasing of Wittgenstein’s thesis.

He begins by remarking on the example of a moving point of light on a screen, and exclaims that one can draw a variety of consequences from the behavior of that point of light, depending on those aspects of its behavior that interest us. We might be interested in the velocity with which it moves, or in the path that it takes; or the number and frequency of stops that it makes. In short, the consequences we draw about the light’s behavior depends on how we our focus our attention. We’re selective in our observations taking only some parts of the light’s behavior as relevant and ignoring other aspects. Then he brings in the analogy to the observation of a person’s behavior. As with our observing the behavior of the point of light, so with our observation of a person’s behavior, we can draw a variety of inferences depending on our selective attention. For example, a tourist guide might recite some information about the place we’re visiting, while he seems to find something else humorous. As tourists we would likely ignore the behavior indicating that he finds something to be humorous, and just focus on the information he gives. But if we were a team evaluating his job performance, we might focus on his distracting ‘tics’ of humor or other indicators that he is bored. The inference we draw is not one about the information which he recites, but about the way he recites the information. We draw an inference, not about the place being visited, but about his qualifications to act as a guide.

At this point, Wittgenstein raises the obvious question:
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Then psychology treats of behavior, not of mind. – What do psychologists record? — What do they observe? Isn’t it the behavior of human beings, in particular their utterances? But these are not about behavior.

(Philosophical Investigations, trans. By G.E.M. Anscombe, Macmillan Company, 1953, p. 179)
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If the data recorded by psychologists are not “about behavior,” what are they about? Wittgenstein’s suggestion is that they are about the person’s state of mind.
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“I noticed that he was out of humour.” Is this a report about his behavior or his state of mind? (“The sky looks threatening”; is this about the present or the future?) Both; not side-by-side, however, but about the one via the other.

(ibid., p. 179)
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The description of behavior is our way of describing someone’s pain. When we make reference to his behavior we also make reference to his pain, in the same way our description of the sky as threatening is a way of predicting a storm. In short, this is how we talk about his mental state, his feeling of pain.
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A doctor asks: “How is he feeling?” the nurse says: “He is groaning”. A report on his behavior. But need there be any question for them whether the groaning is really genuine, is really the expression of anything? Might they not, for example, draw the conclusion “if he groans, we must give him more analgesic” — without suppressing a middle term? Isn’t the point the service to which they put the description of behavior?

(ibid., p. 179)
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Here Wittgenstein raises doubts about our inclination to separate observation about overt behavior from remarks about mental states. Ordinarily, when I observe someone groaning, I observe that he is in pain. The pain behavior does not represent internal pain; it is what we understand as a person in pain.
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“But then they make a tacit presupposition.” Then what we do in our language-game always rests on a tacit presupposition.

(ibid., p. 179)
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Do we have a “tacit presupposition” working here? Do we presuppose that this behavior represents internally felt pain? Wittgenstein asks that we consider whether our language-game of pain description rests on that presupposition. But the presupposition is part of the dualistic way of thinking. Maybe we should not assume that our way of talking is based on a presupposition.

Next he asks that we consider a case in which talk of a ‘presupposition’ makes good sense. This may lead us to think that in ordinary talk we presuppose a connection between behavior and mental state:
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I describe a psychological experiment: the apparatus, the questions of the experimenter, the actions and replies of the subject — and then I say that is a scene in a play. –Now everything is different. So it will be said: If this experiment were described in the same way in a book on psychology, then the behavior described would be understood as the expression of something mental just because it is presupposed that the subject is not taking us in, hasn’t learnt the replies by heart, and other things of the kind. —So we are making a presupposition?
Should we ever really express ourselves like this: “Naturally I am presupposing that . . . .”? — Or do we not do so only because the other person already knows that?

Doesn’t a presupposition imply a doubt? And doubt may be entirely lacking. Doubting has an end.

(ibid., p. 180)
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His point is that in ordinary circumstances we simply don’t doubt that a person exhibiting pain behavior is a case of a person in pain. Doubt is entirely lacking; but the notion that we presuppose a connection rests on the notion that there might be doubt about the connection, i.e., the notion that doubt has a place. But in ordinary circumstances doubt does not have a place. By noting that ordinarily this ‘presupposition’ business does not even apply, Wittgenstein suggests that implied dualism between our talk of behavior and talk about mental states may not even apply.

He follows with a comparison of our dualistic talk regarding behavior and mental states with the philosophical dualism between physical objects and sense-impressions.
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It is like the relation: physical object — sense-impressions. Here we have two different language-games and a complicated relation between them. — If you try to reduce their relations to a simple formula you go wrong.

(ibid., p. 180)
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Wittgenstein’s point is that, like the two different language games of physical objects and sense-impressions, which cannot be reduced to a simple relation of sense-impression representing a corresponding physical object (as sense-datum theories tried to do), talk of overt behavior and that of mental states are two language-games which cannot be reduced to a simple relationship of behavior (utterance) representing the mental state. The relationship between them is much more complicated.

But doesn’t this imply a dualistic framework? Only in the sense that can talk about behavior and we can talk about mental states. For the suggestion of a dualism (if that suggestion lurks here) only concerns language-games, i.e., only concerns the various ways we talk about behavior and mental states. And the way we talk about these may or may not reflect a dualistic reality of human personality.

Wittgenstein’s remarks in this section (Part II, Section V) of the Philosophical Investigations do not ostensibly advance a philosophical behaviorism. At most, his remarks raise interesting questions about some of the assumptions of the dualist regarding our talk about behavior and our talk about mental states. The argument that he makes is one that, if successful, undermines some important premises of the dualist thesis.

Arizona and the Menace of Ethnic Studies?

What gives in Arizona? First they reject the celebration of Martin Luther King Day; then the Arizona legislators submit a tough law targeting all who appear to be illegal immigrants; and now Governor Jan Brewer has signed a bill prohibiting the Tucson school district from offering certain types of ethnic studies in the high schools.

The Associated Press reported that the measure signed Tuesday (5/11/2010) prohibits classes that advocate ethnic solidarity, that are designed primarily for students of a particular race or that promote resentment toward a certain ethnic group. The courses prohibited include courses in African-American studies, Mexican-American studies and Native-American studies, which have been offered by the Tucson Unified School District (Associated Press story, 5/11/2010, by Jonathan J. Cooper). The justification is that such courses, while teaching ethnic solidarity, encourage resentment toward other groups. According to state schools chief, Tom Horne, these programs promote “ethnic chauvinism.” Moreover, some students who don’t belong to the ethnic group at issue have reported that they experienced antagonism by instructors and students.

These are some of the reasons given for the prohibition of such courses. But I would argue that there are plenty of reasons on the other side; many of us hold that such courses provide enough benefit to students that far outweigh the putative liabilities. Let’s consider the issue in more detail and try to see things from the perspective of the Arizona politicians. But before that, I have a few personal remarks to show that I don’t have a bias against the state of Arizona.

Arizona has always seemed a decent enough state. I love the natural beauty, the rugged desert landscape, and the incomparable Grand Canyon area. I have relatives and friends who live in Arizona, and the people generally seem friendly and intelligent. An Arizona State patrolman once went beyond the call of duty to help me and my wife when we had been involved in an automobile accident. So I retain positive feelings toward the Arizona law enforcement community; and I continue to believe that Arizona is a great state and largely populated by good people. However, next time I visit the state I must remember to take my passport along.

In light of the many positive qualities of the state, the actions of Arizona politicians are curious, to say the least. It is not an exaggeration to say that they appear to be antagonistic toward racial and ethnic minorities. For a time Arizona politicians refused to honor the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King; thus giving insult to African-Americans and anyone who valued the work and progress of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Lately they have cited the facts of real trouble with drug cartels, violence, and drug smuggling at the border with Mexico to justify a new law requiring that anyone who “appears to be here illegally” provide documents proving their legal right to walk the earth inside the borders of the United States. “Appear to be here illegally”: I wonder what that could mean? Guess which ethnic groups that law targets? It surely won’t be all those northern Europeans and Canadians who might have overstayed their student or work visas. (You can bet there are plenty of those people in Arizona.) No, the targets will be poor, working class people who appear Mexican or Central American.

Returning to the ethnic studies issue, why forbid Native-American Studies? The various groups of Native-Americans in and around Arizona (Navajo, Hopi, Apache, etc.), who have probably suffered the longest at the hands of the more powerful white, European invaders, will likely wonder what they have done recently to be included in the group of undesirables. (?)

I have spent many years in class rooms of all sorts: elementary and secondary schools in Colorado, technical training in the U.S. Air Force; college courses in all levels of study in colleges and universities in California, and finally technical courses offered by governmental agencies and private corporations. But I have never had the privilege of an ethnic studies course of any kind. So I cannot speak from experience. I have neither gained any educational benefit nor suffered any ethnically inspired distortion of facts or values in such classes. In my high school days, ethnic studies courses did not exist. During the later periods of my college and university studies, ethnic studies courses were in their early phase; they were available but not too prominent in the college curricula. I was too busy with my formal and technical courses necessary to attaining my degrees; thus, I was not able to take advantage of any ethnic studies offered. But I surely would have profited from learning more about our history and social realities, studies which do not shy away from the ugly facts of such history and social reality.

Based on conversations with those who have taken such courses and recalling my reading about the experiences of others, I would say that students gain much educational benefit and do not suffer the alleged negative consequences (distortion of history and hostility to the oppressors of past periods of history) from such studies. Yes, I have heard from some white students who felt they were in hostile territory when they entered such classes and who experienced some resentment, even hostility, by the ethnic group in the course. But I have also heard from other students, of all ethnic backgrounds and races, who were grateful for such instruction because they learned much concerning the history of inter-ethnic and inter-racial interactions, tensions, oppression of one group by another and such. Surely, you would not argue that it is beneficial to keep people ignorant about those facts of our history?

During my high school years, history and social studies classes did not even mention my ethnic group; Mexican Americans and other Hispanics were invisible in the acceptable history and social studies taught at our schools. I don’t even recall that much, if any, mention was made of African-Americans (“Negros,” in the 1950s) or of the Native Americans (“Indians,” in the 1950s). History was taught as if the only important players were white males (mostly of Europeans descent) and that they alone contributed to our great nation. Furthermore; American History was taught as if everything our country did was admirable and noble. All ugly facts and periods of American history were simply neglected. We learned little or nothing about the treatment of Native Americans, the destruction of entire cultures, our country’s acceptance and promotion of slavery for many decades prior to Emancipation in the 1860s, and our long history of racism, bigotry, and oppression of minorities, not to mention the oppression of women. Those things simply did not contribute to patriotism and good citizenship, so those facts were simply ignored. Of course, there weren’t any suggestions that our country carried on unjust wars against other nations and that our government and international corporations contributed to the oppression and poverty in other countries. This simply did not happen according to the wisdom of the educational establishment of the time.

Maybe that kind of official bias in education is part of what the political establishment in Arizona is trying to revive. Don’t mention those bad parts of American history! After all, ethnic studies courses bring out those unsavory, ugly aspects of American history. Consider that Native-American studies will emphasize the experience of Native Americans since the invasion of Europeans, contrary to official versions of history which tell students about the heroic European explorers who discovered this part of the world and opened it up to European exploration, settlement, “civilization,” and enduring exploitation. The experience of the Native-Americans, whose cultures were destroyed, is not a happy one, and it is not one which puts American History in a flattering light. So maybe we should go easy on these Native-American studies, Arizona suggests. The intended purpose of such courses might be good; admittedly they attempt to give some understanding of the experience of Native-Americans and foster pride in being a member of that besieged group. But in the process, they also stimulate resentment against those who treated Americans in such a brutal fashion, so the Arizona politician tells us. This is the type of thing that we should either ignore or ‘whitewash’ in some way.

We can imagine similar remarks made regarding African-American studies and Mexican-American studies (sometime called “Chicano studies”). African-American studies focus too much attention on the institution of slavery, the struggle of human beings to escape slavery and to gain some measure of civil rights. This, in turn, focuses too much attention on the failings of our laws and institutions until the recent past. It is best not to spend too much time there. Mexican studies courses also spend too much time talking about ethnic bigotry and injustice of the past; and recent efforts to improve the lot of Hispanic minorities. Again, this underscores too much the extent to which society and our institutions have not succeeded in treating everyone justly, regardless of ethnicity and skin color. This could inspire resentment with regards to past practices and the oppressors of those times. This is not good for our contemporary society.

Better to bypass all that! While we’re on the subject, maybe we should take a closer look at those courses which emphasize the experience of women and the Feminist movement. After all, our wonderful country did not see fit to grant women the right to vote until the 1920s. Surely that fact does not inspire patriotism and greater love for country. Better sweep all that under the rug! So speak the Arizona political establishment.

Trying to give some credit to this perspective of the Arizona politicians, we might add that we should not subject naïve young students to the harsh disillusion that might result from learning the facts of history and social relations. After all, many young and impressionable students, including some of minority ethnic groups, have bought completely the myths and white-washed history that the ‘patriotic’ establishment promotes. You have surely heard the main points of this mythical history: American promotes freedom and opportunity for all; America is the best society in the world; in our international relations, we only try to bring freedom to others nations. In short, American has always done what is good and continues to do only what is good. This is the version of history promoted by Ronald Reagan and repeated by the likes of G.W. Bush. People who have bought into such myth might be confused and hurt if they’re exposed to the types of things taught in Ethnic studies courses. So it is better, for the good of all concerned, to avoid such courses. Surely, we should not endorse such courses in our educational system.

But doesn’t all this begin to resemble regimes that rewrite history and keep people ignorant about that which can hurt the established order? Isn’t this the type of thing one would expect in the old Soviet Union or in some totalitarian theocracy where all must think only the State-approved thoughts, or risk annihilation?

The study of Ethnic Courses does not result in people who are subversives and antagonistic to our democratic form of government. Such study, like all legitimate education, results in people who are informed and operate on the basis of realism and enlightenment. If that represents a threat to the Arizona political establishment, maybe it is time that the good people of Arizona take a closer look at the types of individuals they elect to office.

Mark Twain’s Little Bessie & The Problem of Evil

I thought of posting something on the problem of evil. It is a problem I have studied and thought much about; eventually I will post some of my thoughts on the issue. But presently I thought that a piece from Mark Twain would do. He was a master at presenting hard philosophical, social issues by way of sympathetic and interesting characters. In this case, he uses a precocious young girl, Bessie, to present a number of issues regarding the traditional attempt to explain why bad things happen in light of a faith that a good, all-powerful God is in control.

Enjoy and think about the difficulties that Bessie’s mother encounters when she gives her standard replies to the child’s probing questions.

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Little Bessie would assist providence…”, from the writings of Mark Twain:

Little Bessie was nearly three years old. She was a good child, and not shallow, not frivolous, but meditative and thoughtful, and much given to thinking out the reasons of things and trying to make them harmonize with results. One day she said:

“Mama, why is there so much pain and sorrow and suffering? What is it all for?”

It was an easy question, and Mama had no difficulty answering it:
“It is for our good, my child. In his wisdom and mercy the Lord sends us these afflictions to discipline us and make us better.”

“Is it He that sends them?”

“Yes.”

“Does He send all of them, Mama?”

“Yes dear, all of them. None of them comes by accident. He alone sends them, and always out of love for us and to make us better.”

“Isn’t it strange?”

“Strange? Why no, I have never thought of it in that way. I have not heard anyone call it strange before. It has always seemed natural and right to me, and wise and most kindly and merciful.”

“Who first thought of it like that, Mama? Was it you?”

“Oh no, child, I was taught it.”

“Who taught you so, Mama?”

“Why really, I don’t know — I can’t remember. My mother, I suppose, or the preacher. But it’s a thing that everybody knows.”

“Well anyway, it does seem strange. Did He give Billy Norris the typhus?”

“Yes.”

“What for?”

“Why to discipline him and make him good.”

“But he died, Mama, and so it couldn’t make him good.”

“Well, then, I suppose it was for some other reason. We know it was a good reason, whatever it was.”

“What do you think it was?”

“Oh, you ask so many questions! I think it was to discipline his parents.”

“Well then, it wasn’t fair, Mama. Why should his life be taken away for their sake, when he wasn’t doing anything?”

“Oh, I don’t know! I only know it was for a good and wise and merciful reason.”

“What reason, Mama?”

“I think … I think … well, it was a judgment; it was to punish them for some sin they had committed.”

“But he was the one that was punished, Mama. Was that right?”

“Certainly, certainly. The Lord does nothing that isn’t right and wise and merciful. You can’t understand these thing now, dear, but when you are grown up you will understand them, and then you will see that they are just and wise.”

(After a pause:)

“Did He make the roof fall in on the stranger that was trying to save the crippled old woman from the fire, Mama?”

“Yes, my child. Wait! Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. I only know it was to discipline some one, or to be a judgment upon somebody, or to show His power.”

“That drunken man that stuck a pitchfork into Mrs. Welch’s baby when …”

“Never mind about it, you needn’t go into particulars; it was to discipline the child — that much is certain, anyway.”

“Mama, Mr. Burgess said in his sermon that billions of little creatures are sent into us to give us cholera, and typhoid, and lockjaw and more than a thousand and other sicknesses and — Mama, does He send them?”

“Oh certainly, child, certainly. Of course.”

“What for?”

“Oh, to discipline us! Haven’t I told you so, over and over again?”

“It’s awful cruel, Mama! And silly! And if I….”

“Hush, oh hush! Do you want to bring the lightning?”

“You know the lightning did come last week, Mama, and struck the new church, and burnt it down. Was it to discipline the church?”

(Wearily) “Oh, I suppose so.”

“But it killed a hog that wasn’t doing anything. Was it to discipline the hog, Mama?”

“Dear child, don’t you want to run out and play awhile? If you would like to ….”

“Mama, only think! Mr. Hollister says there isn’t a bird or fish or reptile or any other animal that hasn’t got an enemy that Providence has sent to bite it and chase it and pester it and kill it and suck its blood and discipline it and make it good and religious. Is it true, Mother — because if it is true why did Mr. Hollister laugh at it?”

“That Hollister is a scandalous person, and I don’t want you to listen to anything he says.”

“Why Mama, he is very interesting, and I think he tries to be good. He says the wasps catch spiders and cram them down into their nests in the ground — alive, Mama! — and there they live and suffer days and days and days, and the hungry little wasps chewing their legs and gnawing into their bellies all the time, to make them good and religious and praise God for his infinite mercies. I think Mr. Hollister is just lovely, and ever so kind; for when I asked him if he would treat a spider like that he said he hoped to be damned if he would; and then he — Dear Mama, have you fainted! I will run and bring help! Now this comes of staying in town in this hot weather.”

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Obviously Mark Twain held a low opinion of the standard, Christian attempts to explain the reality of evil and suffering in a world created and controlled by an all-powerful, perfectly good deity.

Robert Wright and “The Rose Mary Woods Stretch”

Much of Robert Wright’s thesis in his latest book, The Evolution of God, invites comparison to a famous case of stretching to make a weak case seem credible. This is the famous “Rose Mary Woods Stretch.”

Some of you might remember this from Watergate fame. But for those unfamiliar with it: Rose Mary Woods was President Richard Nixon’s personal secretary during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. Apparently Nixon and his aids (Haldeman, Erlichmann, Mitchell) decided to place the blame on Rose Mary for some of the 18.5 minutes blanked out of the crucial, taped conversation between Nixon and his staff, which likely incriminated Nixon himself. Poor Rose Mary, ever loyal to her masters, agreed to take the blame for erasing five minutes of that tape. But in order to demonstrate to reporters how she accidentally erased the tape, she had to show how — while sitting at her desk and having to answer the telephone — she could have stretched and twisted so that her foot still reached the controls of the dictating machine several feet away. Poor Rose Mary had to stretch and twist herself in ways seldom seen outside of circus acrobatics. Of course, the people of the press were very skeptical that she really could have accidentally erased the tape. (Later investigations identified five to nine separate erasures.)

I see Wright as performing the equivalent to the “Rose Mary Woods Stretch” in trying to show that “God evolved,” that history really discloses a moral order in the universe, and that this objective moral order is evidence for some kind of divinity.

But first let us look at a tactic that Wright uses in the closing pages of his book in an effort to bolster his claim for a “scientific” argument for the reality of a transcendent deity.

Would you be impressed by an argument for the reasonableness of belief in God based on an analogy between the reality of electrons and that of God? The argument simply stated is that if we believe in the reality of electrons, which presumably we do, then we have as much reason for believing in the existence of God. This is precisely what Robert Wright argues in the AFTERWORD of his book The Evolution of God. Obviously, the analogy is weak and does very little to justify belief in God; but Wright and others think otherwise. So let us take a close look at this analogical argument.

In the “Afterword,” on pages 446-448, Wright lays out his analogy between subatomic physics and theology, which rests on the thesis (evolution of morality and God) which he has argued in the main body of his book. [Please excuse the extended quote; but I want to show the full effect of Wright’s way of proceeding.]
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“It’s a bedrock idea of modern physics that, even if you define “ultimate reality” as the ultimate scientific reality — the most fundamental truths of physics — ultimate reality isn’t something you can clearly conceive.” (Electrons as particles? Electrons as waves?) “Sometimes it’s more useful to think of them as particles; sometimes it’s more useful to think of them as waves. Conceiving of them as either is incomplete, yet conceiving of them as both is … well, inconceivable. (446)
“(If we can’t conceive of an electron accurately, what are our chances of getting God right?) The good news is that the hopelessness of figuring out exactly what something is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Apparently some things are just inconceivable — and yet are things nonetheless.” (447)

“At least, some physicists believe electrons are things. The fact that nobody’s actually seen an electron, and that trying to imagine one ties our minds in knots, has led some physicists and philosophers of science to wonder whether it’s even accurate to say that electrons do exist. You could say that with electrons, as with God, there are believers and there are skeptics. (447)

“The believers believe there’s something out there — some “thing” in some sense of the word “thing” – that corresponds to the word “electron”; and that, though the best we can do is conceive of this “thing” imperfectly, even misleadingly, conceiving of it that way makes more sense than not conceiving of it at all. They believe in electrons while professing their inability to really “know” what an electron is. You might say they believe in electrons even while lacking proof that electrons exist.

“Many of these physicists, while holding that imperfectly conceiving subatomic reality is a valid form of knowledge, wouldn’t approve if you tried to perform a similar maneuver in a theological context. If you said you believe in God, even while acknowledging that you have no clear idea what God is —and that you can’t even really prove God per se exists — they would say your belief has no foundation.

“Yet what exactly is the difference between the logic of their belief in electrons and the logic of a belief in God? The perceive patterns in the physical world — such as the behavior of electricity — and posit a source of these patterns and call that source the “electron.” A believer in God perceives patterns in the moral world (or, at least, moral patterns in the physical world) and posits a source of these patterns and calls the source “God.” (447) “God is that unknown thing that is the source of the moral order, the reason there is a moral dimension to life on Earth and a moral direction to time on Earth; “God” is responsible for the fact that life is sentient, capable of good and bad feelings, and hence morally significant; “God” is responsible for the evolutionary system that placed highly sentient life on a trajectory toward the good, or at least toward tests that offered the opportunity and incentive to realize the good; in the process “God” gave each of us a moral axis around which to organize our lives, should we choose to (447-48) Being human, we will always conceive of the source of this moral order in misleadingly crude ways, but then again you could say the same thing about conceiving electrons. So you’ll do with the source of moral order what physicists do with a subatomic source of the physical order, such as an electron — try to think about it the best you can, and fail. This, at least, is one modern, scientifically informed argument that could be deployed by the believer in God.

(448)
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Here we have Wright’s use of an analogy between the idea of an electron in sub-atomic physics and the idea of “God” in theology to argue for God’s existence. It is true that he attempts to “weasel out” with the final sentence by stating this as an argument “that could be deployed by the believer…” Whether Wright subscribes completely to this argument or not, he clearly claims that scientists’ acceptance of the reality of electrons is analogous to believers’ acceptance of the reality of God. In short, despite his puzzling qualification, Wright endorses this analogical argument.

There are a number of specific points in Wright’s analogy that simply cry out for criticism. Exposing all these would require a complete paper. Presently, we can note that an electron, like a photon, in subatomic physics serves a specific function. There are many phenomena which we could not explain without reference to electrons; and quantum physicists can measure the energy levels of electrons and photons to incredible degrees of accuracy. Electrons and photons are not mere hypothetical entities; but represent scientific conceptualizing of sub-atomic physical forces and dynamics, which nobody questions. It is true our ordinary intuitions and terms (e.g. object, continuous motion) result in paradoxes when we try to apply them to this sub-atomic realm. But entire sciences and technologies are based on the reality of electrons and photons. By contrast, none of this applies to the concept of a deity, even in a loose analogy.

In what follows, I shall mention a small, unscientific survey which I conducted and then try to show that Wright’s general thesis in The Evolution of God, in much a case of Wright engaging in his own version of the “Rosemary Woods Stretch.”

At weekly Friday lunch meeting of retired college instructors, an engineer, and an artist, I posed this question: What you think of an analogy that Robert Wright uses to try to show that, if we believe in the reality of electrons, we should also accept the reality of God?

The group — which included two college science instructors (physical sciences, life sciences), one anthropology instructor, a retired philosophy instructor, an engineer, and a professional artist — were unanimous in rejecting the analogy as remotely close to a reasonable argument for belief in God. “Phony-baloney,” seemed to be the consensus. The retired philosophy instructor was particularly critical, submitting this email reply to my question:

“The analogy is so poor it shows that those who bring it up are either ignorant if how analogies operate as inductive proofs, or know nothing about the history of science which deals directly with electrons. What do they think moves along electrical circuits, lights up televisions, etc.? Where is the physical evidence for God, comparatively speaking?”

According to Wright, the physical evidence for God lies in that objective moral order in history which he claims to have found. The analogy works if you agree with Wright that it is only on the basis of transcendent order – hence, a transcendent designer of that order — that moral phenomena in the world can be explained. But, he never makes a good case for saying that morality can only be explained this way; and he does not even come close to making good a persuasive case for an objective moral order disclosed in history. We could allow, as some have noted, that if we look at some aspects of history (but only some aspects) like the advance of women’s rights or the general recognition that humans have a right not to be enslaved, then we could grant that some parts of history suggest limited moral progress. But there are many other aspects of history which suggest the contrary (history of warfare, the horrendous technology of war, genocides of the twentieth century, continued poverty, suffering, and oppression in large parts of the world while people in other parts enjoy luxury and physical comfort, etc.). But even if you ignore these discouraging aspects of history (as Wright does in his book), you shall be hard pressed to find that Wright provides a good case for his conclusion that morality can only be explained by positing a God, i.e, a real, objective supernatural “Logos.” Hence, his analogy between electrons and God does not even come close to supporting belief in God.

Having closely read Wright’s book, I’m impressed by the tactics that he employs: the stretching and twisting of concepts and terminology, the repeated equivocation on “God” and God (Daniel Dennett remarked that Wright constantly commits the use-mention fallacy throughout his book), the selective reading of early periods of religious history, emphasizing those aspects which served his purpose and ignoring everything else.

Because of such considerations, I find that Wright performs his version of the “Rose Mary Woods Stretch” as he tries to show that the same God has evolved through history, that history really discloses a moral order in the universe, and that this objective moral order is evidence for some kind of divinity. Then, not content with this bizarre twisting and stretching, he throws in that really weak and mostly irrelevant analogy between electrons and God. Like the press said about Rose Mary’s stretch, I say about Wright’s twisting and stretching: It is not very believable! I say this even if we concede that by arguing for his peculiar brand of theism Wright has not shown himself to be crazy.

“You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it.”

(459)

But that is faint praise, to say the least.

Ah, Mr. Robert Wright! He wants so badly to say he believes; but seems embarrassed by it. So in the end all he can say is that you don’t have to be crazy to believe.

My reply: No you don’t have to be crazy, but it helps if you let your intellectual conscience fall asleep and buy into sloppy, somewhat primitive, philosophical thinking.

A View of Humanism: Humanity Without Crutches

Recently I have had several people express curiosity about humanism. “What is humanism?” they ask. Off course, there’s a great deal of information available on the internet. Any search engine will turn up detailed information on and definitions of humanism. There are many websites dedicated to a variety of humanistic organizations. A few include the American Humanist Association,Corliss Lamont Website, and Paul Kurtz’s Council for Secular Humanism site. People who call themselves humanists come in a range of variety, from the secular humanist who is often an agnostic or atheist to the more inclusive type of humanist, such as many in the Unitarian Church, which even includes believers in some form of deity. The internet even gives you access to ‘Humanist Manifestos,’ of which my favorite is the first one composed in 1933. However, It refers to humanism as a religion, which many of us contemporary humanists would deny.

Because of the great amount of information floating about in the net on humanism, much of which might be confusing to someone trying to learn just a few basics about humanism, I have tried to summarize my view of humanism. Hopefully, this will not add to the reader’s confusion.
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HUMANISM: (my personal view of humanism)

Humanism is simply a general philosophy of life which focuses on human reality and bases knowledge of our world on reason and the methods of science. In most forms, it rejects the theism of the major religions (belief in a deity who plays an active role in human life) and supernaturalism, or the belief in an otherworld, a reality separate from the natural reality, the world disclosed by science, ordinary experience and rational inquiry.

Some general points of this view of humanism include the following:

• humans are on their own; i.e., they build their world for better or worse, without any reliance on deities or the supernatural; and
• we gain knowledge of our world and our existence by our experience, use of reason, and use of scientific methods;
• such knowledge informs us that we have evolved into somewhat-intelligent, somewhat-rational beings in a physical environment, a world partly brought about by natural, evolutionary processes and partly created by cultural and historical processes.
• we lack knowledge of “supernatural realm”, including all gods, angels, or demons of much traditional religious culture.

Historically, humanistic thought focused on human reality instead of realm of God and theology.

• It dealt with human achievement, the sciences and the arts, human society and secular values.
• It left “other worldly” concerns to the churchmen, theologians, mystics and astrologers.
• The precursors of modern science: rationalism (the view that the human mind alone, without divine assistance, can discover truth) and empiricism (the view that careful observation and study of nature are the ways of learning about our world) involved elements of a naturalistic, humanistic philosophy.

Generally, humanism implies a secular, naturalistic perspective on reality:

• It focuses on this life: on happiness, fulfillment and meaning to be found in this life, not in some other-worldly paradise.

Critical Humanism” or “Rational Humanism” implies a philosophy of critical thought that aims to explain reality, human reality and experience on the basis of reason, factual evidence, and scientific method, and not on the basis of religious faith or ancient scriptures.

Humanistic moral values include the following:
• Intellectual honesty – search for truth and understanding within a rational context;
• Concern with justice and fairness – moral imperatives that respect the value and dignity of human individuals;
• Moral evaluation of actions and policies based on the consequences of those actions; e.g. Utilitarian principles such as greatest happiness for the greatest number as a way of working to minimize suffering, hunger, deprivation and the disparity between rich and poor;
• Personal happiness by way of continuous striving, progress and achievement.

Humanity within a natural context . . . That’s all we have; that’s all we can really know.

The reality that we (human beings) can know and experience is comprised of the
natural realm, featuring natural processes, disclosed by physics, chemistry, geology and astronomy; the evolution of life and higher intelligence on this planet; the workings of the brain and the emergence of minds; the micro-universe disclosed by quantum physics, and so on;
and the cultural/social realm, a world brought about by human work, human thinking, historical and cultural processes.

This includes science, technology, engineering, the arts, literature, philosophies, religions, god(s), political states, governments, war, social institutions, laws, conventions, moralities, myths, legends, so on & so on….

This reality (created by human culture) also includes all “religious products” of human thought, work and experience (including mystical experience): religious doctrines, holy scriptures, so called “divine revelation,” and even the deity himself along with all other deities found in countless religious cultures.

Illegal Immigration: Just a Legal Issue?

As an Hispanic child growing up in Northern New Mexico in the 1940s I recall being surprised one day on hearing my Aunt Josefina say to my grandparents that, contrary to what they thought, we were “Americanos” too, just like the ‘gringos’ and ‘gabachos’ in and around our little village. “¡También somos Americanos!” (We’re also Americans!), I shouted my brother. We had believed all along that the “Americanos” were those big, well-to-do white people who spoke a strange language; but now we were those guys too. What a revelation! Now, why would identification as American sound surprising to people who had lived for multiple generations in that part of the country?

I thought about this as the news about Arizona’s tough immigration law was breaking, inspiring action and reaction around the country. New Mexico is not Arizona, but a next-door neighbor with a different history; but coincidentally, Arizona, like New Mexico, was not admitted into the union until 1912.

I do not have a solution for our difficult illegal immigration problem, and I seriously doubt that anyone else has the answer. A complete sealing of the border is not a practical possibility, and draconian laws against anyone likely to be undocumented (like Arizona has proposed) will also likely fail and produce unacceptable consequences. Immigration is a problem for the federal government; eventually Congress will get around to passing legislation which hopefully will at least be a partial solution to the problem, maybe something similar to legislation of the 1980s which granted a path to legal residency and eventually allowed naturalization to millions of undocumented people already in the country.

But the problem of mass migration of people, with or without proper documentation, is an historical problem and a worldwide problem. Surely it is not one special to the United States. Consider the immigration problems that Western European countries also face. As long as certain regions are poverty-stricken and offer few prospects for a decent standard of life and other regions offer better opportunities for desperate people, there will be migrations of peoples.

But let me return briefly to my family’s situation in New Mexico in the first half of the twentieth century. Why would my grandparents, my brother and I be surprised to hear that we were Americans too? After all, we were not new comers to New Mexico, far from it as our family lines went back to the time of Oñate’s original entry into the region back in 1598. My guess is that part of the answer is historical and part is linguistic. My grandparents were born in the territory of New Mexico before it officially became a state (47th in the union ) in 1912. Citizenship supposedly came for the residents with statehood. But my grandparents were descendants of people who had lived in the area for several centuries and who had been vanquished by the invading U.S. Army in 1846. For these people the “Americanos” were the invaders and the foreigners. It took a major change in perspective to see themselves as “Americanos.” Furthermore, my grandparents’ people spoke Spanish; the Americanos spoke English. Even the name “Americano” was not typically understood as designating a citizen of the United States, but more as designating those outsiders who conquered us and took over. My grandfather participated in his community as a Justice of the Peace and voted in U.S. elections; but he did not see himself as an “Americano.” Our family, except for a younger son who joined the military, spoke Spanish primarily and exclusively. We were dark skinned, poor working class, Spanish-speaking people. We would have been primary targets or for Arizona-Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio’s deputies, out searching for those who do not look “American.”

So what does this have to do with illegal immigration and smuggling across the border with Mexico today? Don’t the United States and individual States on the border have not only the right but the obligation to protect the border and enforce immigration laws? Don’t all countries, including Mexico, do this? Doesn’t Arizona, over-run by illegal immigrants and drug smugglers, and having to deal directly with the violence and social cost of all this, have the right to legislate relevant laws and take steps to protect its citizens?

The answers to the last three questions is “yes,” the U.S. and individual States do the right and obligation to take legal steps to deal with illegal immigration and other violations of the national border. But when we acknowledge this we should not oversimplify the problem and think that legislation and tough enforcement will solve the problem. It won’t; and even defining the “social problem” is problematic. Contrary to what our ‘super-patriots’ contend, the problem is not simply one of legality and enforcement of the law.

But, what does the situation of my ancestors and grandparents in New Mexico have to do with the problem of illegal immigration today?

Historically, the immigration problem in the Southwestern U.S. must be understood in the context of three-to-four centuries of interaction between the peoples of that region of the world, original pre-Columbian Americans (the real “Americans”); the invaders from Europe, Spaniards, English, French, and other European colonial nations. From these came the people of mixed-ethnicities and races, people who became the Central Americans and Mexicans, residing for centuries in Central America, Mexico and even in North America (those parts later conquered by the United States). During this period there were always invasions by superior military powers, redefining of borders, mass migrations and mass re-definitions for peoples. For much of this period national borders might have defined where the territory of one nation ended and that of another started; but they did not prevent people from their natural and historical migrations and travels.

After the U.S. invasion and conquering of Texas and the southwest, Spanish-speaking people in those areas (Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, California, etc.) consisted of long-time natives (like my grandparents) whose families can be traced back to the 1700s and later immigrants to the area, who attained legal residency and eventually were naturalized as citizens; and finally the later immigrants who migrated to the U.S. without the legal documentation. Many of these assimilated to the North American culture, adopted English as their primary language (in some cases, as their only language) and became full-fledged U.S. citizens. Others retained many aspects of their Hispanic culture (in California and New Mexico, for example) or Mexican culture, speaking Spanish as their primary language. The attitudes toward illegal immigration and undocumented immigrants coming across the border with Mexico of these people vary, with some agreeing with the establishment classes that tougher enforcement of immigration laws are needed, especially when the criminal problem of drug smuggling is considered. But among these people (as among other groups) there are those who tend to have more feeling for the human element of the problem. This is more noticeably the case among those who have been recent immigrants themselves or have closely associated with the struggles of the poverty-stricken immigrating from south of the border.

When we take into consideration the human element, we’re likely to emphasize that undocumented immigrants are mostly just human beings trying to improve their lives and that of their families, humans who have reluctantly left their homes, families, and friends to migrate to a different part of the world (which may not welcome them) in order to survive and hopefully flourish, something that all humans desire. When we take the human element into consideration we’re likely to emphasize the difference between honest, hard-working people just looking for better prospects in life and the criminals who exploit and prey on the weak in all societies, including the societies of immigrants themselves. When we take the human element into account we’re likely to oppose draconian laws which turn all poor, unfortunate, undocumented individuals into criminals to be treated the same as the drug smugglers, violent felons, and cheaters among the immigrant population.

When we take into account the human element we’re likely to focus on questions of moral justice and dignity of the individual, and not just the question of violation of immigration law. Recognition of the narrow legality involved and the need for nations to enforce their immigration laws does not tell us anything about broader questions of universal justice and morality. For someone conscientious about the philosophical and moral questions, what justification is there for policies that give preferential treatment to some segments of humanity and exclude others from the comfort and rewards of a more organized, prosperous society? We are likely to say to the law-and-order person: “All right, so you’re straight about the legality of the problem, but what about the morality? In other words, the problem of illegal immigration is not simply one about ‘justice’ in a legal sense, but ‘justice’ in a moral sense. Draconian laws like those instituted in Arizona don’t help at all in this matter.

Our law-and-order citizens may insist that the only relevant question concerns the fact that so many immigrants are “illegales” (i.e., persons do not have proper documentation for legal entry). So the only relevant issue concerns legality, not morality? We can imagine the same proposition advanced by someone defending the state laws at the time of legal slavery in the South: all that counts is the fact that this Negro is the property of the slave owner; i.e., all that counts is the legality of the situation, not the morality. At a later period of Europe’s history, we could imagine a citizen of the Third Reich in Germany arguing that the only relevant issue when confronted with Jewish people being shipped to the “work” camps was the legal issue: German laws had been passed requiring this relocation of Jewish people. The question of the justice and human dignity was set aside as a secondary question. Does a similar situation apply to our illegal immigrants today?

Historically, we can ask how the policies of the U.S. government in relation to poor countries in our hemisphere have affected the economic status of those countries, and affected the living conditions that afflict the majority of people in those countries. It would be comforting to believe that our country has always done well in this respect, contributing positively, not only to economic growth, but also to rising living standards in those countries. But studies of the problem might lead us to contrary conclusions, and might lead us to conclude the policies of our government and our international corporations have contributed to the bad economic and social conditions that compel people to migrate to richer nations, whether they have legal admission or not. Furthermore, we should not overlook the periods in our history when immigration from Mexico and Central America has been encouraged by employers, both farming and non-farming employers, eager to have a good supply of cheap labor.

It is true that the federal government should reform immigration laws and do a better job of controlling our borders (not just the one with Mexico). The United States has to do a better job of controlling illegal immigration and a better job of reducing the entry and presence of criminals, drug smugglers, and terrorists. But doing this should not require that we treat others who simply seek work and a better life as sub-humans, unworthy of the ordinary values of human dignity and fair play.