Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Why Does Philosophy Matter?

Lately in class, I have had moments where I just want to take the philosopher who we are reading, shake him around, and ask him why he thinks he knows everything. Sometimes the purely practical side of me wonders why it really matters what humans were like in the state of nature, because whether we were self- interested or perfectly moral, we still are where we are today. I can tend to be pretty cynical, but I wanted to try to challenge my own cynicism and figure out why philosophy does and should matter in today's society.

I don't think that we will ever know what really lies in human nature, and what is the one general basis that everyone's motivations fall into. However, the importance lies in the search for these answers, not in the finding of them. Maybe these philosopher's really believed they knew the absolute truths in the world, but either way they push us to think about our own role in society, and the kind of people we want to be as well as the kind of world we want to live in. Maybe if the Hobbesian idea of humans being purely self- interested seems ridiculous and infuriating, it can push someone to try to prove that they are not only self- interested. Or maybe an admittance that this is within our natures can make people more aware to be careful not to let it win over their morality. They always say that it is important to understand history to try to prevent it from being repeated, and the same is true for philosophy. It is important to study the famous philosophical theories so that by better understanding each other, there can be more tolerance.

Philosophy sometimes seems like a rationally organized guessing game, which makes me naturally want to resist it, but I need to instead use these philosophies to help me to examine myself. That is the whole purpose of the Search program, to help you search for values, and although these philosophers sometimes seem like arrogant little jerks, they do help me evaluate my own values.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rousseau Challenges Hobbes

Hobbes argues that it is crucial for man to strive to live in a society in order to avoid the State of Nature, “an unbearable state of utter distrust [where] men are equal to one another and there is no power able to force men to cooperate.” In order to live well, he stresses the importance of not only belonging to a society, but to a society in which a “Sovereign must have absolute authority.” Hobbes also suggests that everything man does “is motivated solely by [his or her] desire to better [his or her] own situations,” thus concluding that man’s self interest comes before all else.

After reading about Rousseau and his ideas, I believe that he would argue with many of Hobbes’ beliefs. Firstly, Rousseau says that any “man who stands in the dependence of another is no longer a man.” This statement can reasonably leave one to infer that Rousseau would not agree with Hobbes’ adamant belief that a “Sovereign must be ceded absolute authority if society is to survive.” Rather, he would disapprove of the existence of a society in the first place. Rousseau believes that when a man enters into a society he or she will lose his or her identity as a man, and rather become merely a citizen. To Rousseau, a society means a loss of freedom and independence. Those who succumb to the fake fa├žade of a society are surely bound to become corrupted.

Though Rousseau believes that “the individual human being and his or her happiness [ought] to be prized above all else,” Rousseau would probably find Hobbes’ pessimistic notion that all men are innately selfish to be both offensive and a result of that individual’s encounter with a corrupt society. Rousseau is very much an advocate of “the inner goodness in [each man].” However he does recognize that each man will suffer from moments of weakness and “become unjust and wicked in [his or her] actions.” Rousseau suggests that when a man enters a society he becomes transformed and can easily become carried away “by the passions and prejudices of men.” As individuals, man is “free and good” but when influenced by the pressures of society, man is prone to lose sight of his or her moral compass.


The State of Nature

Yesterday we discussed diametrically opposed views of human nature; one where humans are only self- interested, and the others where humans are moral and work for the interests of their conjugal families as well. I had trouble accepting the fact that both cannot be true. I often struggle with theories of philosophy because I hate categorizing and having to make exclusive choices. Philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke who seem to understand the world in simple terms often baffle me, because at this point in life I sometimes don't understand people's motivations at all.

Humans seem to have complexly rooted motivations and interests that can sometimes not be explained. My mind instantly travels to horrible occurrences in history such as the Holocaust. Most people stood by and did nothing to help those being persecuted, which would seem to support Hobbes' idea that humans are innately self- interested above all else. It was in the interest of their personal safety to not stand up and say anything. However, I think this is too simplistic an answer for the reason why, because it does not account for the extremes. How can Hobbes' theory on human nature account for the people who did stand up and try to help others, while risking their own lives? How can his theory account for those who were remorseful, and felt deeply ashamed of their part in the atrocities?

People often do things that endanger their own safety or standard of living for others, which makes me want to believe there is something more inside of each of us, some kind of moral being like Locke suggests. However, the cynical side of me sees that when analyzing most relationships and deeds you can find at least a flicker of personal benefit for whoever is partaking. Human nature is not easy to decipher, especially in light of scientific and psychological research over the varying affects of genes and environment. I choose to believe that neither Hobbes nor Locke is completely correct, and that there is room for both ideas when trying to decipher the very nature of human beings.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Human Self Interest

Today in class we discussed Hobbe’s theory of human motivation. In his view, everything man done is motivated solely on his or her self interest. He claims that self interest is an innate quality man possesses, and that even seemingly good intentions are unintentionally spurred from selfishness. Thus, a man who does a good action only does so in order to benefit from the positive way it makes him or her feel. So if every man is innately selfish, is the only morally adequate individual Jesus? I don’t think so.
According to this argument, man is even acting in a selfish manner when he or she is grieving for the loss of a loved one. When one mourns for another’s death he or she is trying to grasp the reality that he or she will never see that person again during his or her worldly existence. Hobbe’s would most likely say that an individual is acting selfishly because he or she should be celebrating the life of the deceased and be rejoicing that his or her loved one is in a better place verses feeling sorry for themselves and thinking about how his or her life will be different without that individual. He supports this idea when he discusses the motivation behind adults caring for their children, he says that it “can be explicated in terms of adults’ own self-interest” because adults enjoy the sense of obligation and dependence that they receive from helping the child stay alive.
Perhaps Hobbes isn’t insinuating that a selfish man is a bad man, but he does make the reader question his or her motives. While I agree with Hobbes that deep down individual actions are induced by self interest, I believe that an individual can be selfish yet more humane, both at the same time. For example, a mom who chooses to die so that her child can live cannot be promoting her own self-interest. Hobbes would probably say that the mother acted out of self interest because she couldn’t deal with the pain of losing and living without her child; however, her choice to die and experience the unknown in order to let her child live is both the more self sacrificing, and less appealing option.
This situation would also contradict Hobbes’ opinion that human beings are reasonable. The mother’s choice to die for her child is defiantly the irrational option. However, everyday, humans allow their reasons to supersede their emotions. Emotions can blind one’s rationale.


Sunday, September 20, 2009


In his third meditation, Descartes seeks to prove that simple truths exist through the idea of an Infinite Being. Because he could not independently conjure the thought of such a thing, he concludes that something of greater reality must have been its origin. But as he transitions into this proof, his definition of God as an infinite substance reminded me of the discussion from the first meditation on composite ideas. He defines God as the infinite substance that he and this idea were created from, but in this statement, the idea of God is identified as a composition of his idea of a substance and infinity, two components that do not both prove adventitious.

Descartes claims that he could not fathom this infinite substance, yet he can obviously fathom a substance, considering he proves himself one in meditation two. The true thing he cannot understand is the idea of infinity. If he would have considered that he could not picture an infinitely cute teddy bear, Descartes would have had to realize that this absurdly adorable bear must have put the idea into his mind, proving the existence of a supreme stuffed bear. Therefore, the adventitious part of an Infinite Being is not the idea of a being but the fact that it has the quality of being infinite. Then, by Descartes reasoning, the only logical conclusion is to then claim that “I” came from something infinite. If we are considering composite ideas, then any infinite _____ could be the adventitious idea that leads to our innate idea of infinity. What leap then obligates “me” to say that the infinite thing was a being, and not an infinite duration of time in combination with an infinitesimally small singularity containing an infinite amount of energy?

Instead, Descartes immediately applies the idea of infinity to his own qualities of a “substance.” He defines God as, “a certain substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful.” This originates from his flawed assumption that because he is a substance that “thinks”, “knows”, and has “intellect”, the infinite substance that he imagines must be a "conscious" thing like him. Although he is a thinking thing, this does not mean that his thought, knowledge, intelligence, and the rest of his substance are any more than a series of chemical reactions. If this were true, infinite intelligence and supreme power would then translate into the existence of an infinitely large interaction of matter and energy (intelligence) along with the existence of infinite force such as gravitons, gluons, photons, and bosons (power). Theoretically, both of these situations are just as plausible as Descartes' theory of God and are widely accepted in physics and mathematics today. Seeing "substance" as this collection of matter and energy, the infinite thing that he thinks of would then be better explained by theories such as the big bang or m-theory, proving nothing about a conscious or supremely intelligent being. Therefore, in my mind, his proof does nothing more than use his preconceived belief in God to prove God, something he himself notes as unconvincing in his letter of dedication.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

To Each His Own

Everyone perceives the world in a different way, but, how different are these perceptions? It is impossible to look through the lenses of another’s eyes, so how do we know that the images we observe are the same images seen by our peers?
Universally, society agrees that the sky is blue, however, how do we know that the color we recognize as blue isn’t the same color that another identifies as green? When a group of children are asked what his or her favorite color is, it is very unlikely that each student will simultaneously agree that their favorite color is red. Thus, we would reasonably conclude that each student’s favorite color varies because every man has different preferences. However, it is possible that each student’s favorite color is that very shade of red and rather the students do not realize it because they associate this shade with another name. This concept can be applied to every aspect of human experience; taste, smells, shapes, perceptions of beauty and ugliness etc. One individual might consider a circle to be the same shape that another believes is a square. Descartes says that we can all agree that there is no such thing as a circular square, but really, how do we know?
Decartes chooses a piece of wax to be examined because it is universally familiar and understood. He uses the wax as an example to show that physical things can be understood by inspecting them with the mind rather than relying solely on the senses. Decartes argues that when we see a piece of wax, its color, figure, [and] size, are apparent (to the sight),” and is “hard and cold” to the touch (85). He presumes that everyone perceives this piece of wax the same way.
Descartes suspicion that our creator has designed us in a way that we are constantly misled would support this notion that the understanding on the external world is unique to each man. All things must be doubted, even the most elementary concepts if our senses can not be trusted. Perhaps an evil genius is manipulating our minds and to each, really is his own.


These set of pictures show how colors might be perceived differently by different people.

Descartes, Existence, and God

What is existence? Descartes thought, therefore he was. His existence is the existence of the self, an elusive part of man separate from the physical world. But Descartes' existence is not as far separated from the corporeal as one might think. Descartes essentiality frames human existence as the presence of thought. However, as his meditations exemplify, human thought can seldom escape the confines of our physical world. Descartes' conception of knowledge and imagination does not allow for spontaneous thought. He asserts that "nothing can come from nothing," which helps form the basis of his proof of God. Where do our thoughts come from then? They must come from either the physical world or from God.

Descartes assumes that God must exist, for his visions of a God of infinite proportions and power could have come from none other than an ultimately powerful God. But even the traits to which Descartes' ascribes his God are traits of man or of worldly relationships, (Descartes lists independence, intelligence, power, and substance) manifested without flaw and unified in one existence in the person of God. Without the physical universe, Descartes’ would be without hope of understanding even his God. Thus as characterized by Descartes, the very thought of God depends upon the physical world. On the surface, this may seem to render his proof of God useless. I find however, the thought of a God understood through the world we live in—that world to which we ourselves are tied by our bodies-- just as appealing.

As I stated before, thought must come from God or from the physical world. If even our notion of God is requiring of our understanding the physical world, thought can be considered inseparable from the physical world. Truth is often seen as something greater than this world. Instead, we find it an integral part of it. While this might serve to alarm some or damage grand notions of transcending truth, knowledge, or good, I find it comforting to think that there might be a truth in this world, accessible to all of us should we be wary of our eyes and careful in our thoughts. So what is existence yet again? It is the inhabitation of this world by thinking creatures, an existence that Descartes’ God shares.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Not Necessarily Faith In God

I would always remember the interesting pictures Dr. J drew on the board in class which illustrated the essence of faith and works. I can’t agree more with the way she explained Luther’s point that deep inside everyone’s heart, there is a part that was evil by nature and by no means could we fix it by ourselves. The only way to deal with it is leave it to God. Once people believe in God, God will come to fix that evil part for them through their faith in Him. While Luther held his point that faith is the only way that leads to righteousness and salvation, he also pointed out that few people actually had faith. Most people would prefer good works to faith, for that seems more essential for the well being of the community they are living in. And the reason was also illustrated by the other half of the picture which said people do good works in order to make up for their bad deeds before.

Personally I am more prone to a more practical way of benefiting society because the life we are living today is different. I would rather become virtuous by doing good works and this is probably the case for the majority of people in today’s society. When fewer and fewer people are willing to be selfless to serve other people heart and soul, it is more necessary that we behave accordingly, just like the example of Virginia’s car accident and community service. When something takes place out of our control, we just need to do something else to compensate for it.

Although everyone wants to be practical, we still can’t ignore the importance of faith. While faith is very important in terms of making us better people, it doesn’t necessarily need to be faith in God. People from unreligious countries can also be virtuous with their faiths in something else. For example, I’m from China where most people are atheist and don’t have a belief in God. However, as China has an extensive and profound culture with a long history behind it, there have always been a number of philosophical reflections and moral standards that guide our people in all ages. For instance, Confucianism, one of the most popular and most widely acknowledged philosophies in China, provides people with many ethical rules to follow in order to make it a better community. It is not a religion, for it does not promote the belief in God. It teaches people to take responsibilities for all kinds of relationships they are involved in, such as the relationship between sovereign and subject, parent and child, elder and younger, husband and wife, and friend and friend. Within these relationships, almost all moralities are included such as filial piety, loyalty, honesty, etc. For example, people have to take responsibilities to take care of their parents when they are old because it is their parents who brought them up and it is like a debt that they should pay back. It is the love and the sense of responsibility in their minds that drive them to do so, and by doing so they naturally benefit the community as a whole. Although these people don’t have faith in God, they have faith in something else. It is their faiths in the love and gratitude for their parents that direct them to do good works. In this case, they still fit in Luther’s definition of good people.

Other examples such as helping a disable person doesn’t really mean you were born to help this kind of people. Rather it’s because you would find it unacceptable if that person were you or they were your family members. Not wanting that person’s family to feel sad and fearing that you might one day be in that situation, you decide to help him so as to also make you feel better. This kind of “selfishness” is actually a human nature that belongs to us. We can’t call it evil because we were born with it and can’t get rid of it in whatever ways. But the good thing is that we have faith in being moral and responsible at least to people who are related to us, and thus, we would be willing to help those who might one day be ourselves.

I always believe that faith is a crucial part of a human being in that it not only guides people in their behaviors but also constrains and moderates people. Everyone should have a faith in order to enlighten their spiritualities. The faith doesn’t necessarily need to be faith in God because faith in whatever suitable objects will have some effect on them. I also believe that most people already have faith within their minds. It simply isn’t the faith in God. Their faiths are those which are more practical and useful in today’s society and if they carry on with them, our society will continue to be better.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Luther, Machiavelli, and American Democracy

When I first opened my syllabus and found that we were reading Luther’s On Christian Liberty right after Machiavelli’s Prince, I was struck by how dissimilar the two works seemed at the time. Of course, I was not surprised to find many differences in writing style and subject matter between the two. I was, however, interested to discover that Luther and Machiavelli focus extensively on the same topic: namely, whether the appearance of “x” is more important than the actuality of “x”.

This dilemma is addressed clearly by Machiavelli, who argues that “a prince should…show himself a lover of the virtues, giving recognition to virtuous men”(91), but he must always be willing to abandon those virtues when necessary for the survival of his state. In other words, the appearance of possessing virtue is more important than actually possessing virtue. It is clear that this willingness to adapt to the circumstances is the key to political success in Machiavelli’s eyes, and I find it difficult to refute him. Politics, in my opinion, is nothing other than a game of appearances, especially in a democracy. As Virginia states in her post, we are given the responsibility to direct our government, yet it is frightening how easily and quietly we are fooled into the empty appearance of being politically informed.

On the other hand, Luther argues that possessing internal faith is incomparably more important than having the appearance of righteousness, which comes from the performance of good works. (This may seem like a comparison of apples to oranges, but bear with me). Luther writes that “nothing makes a man good except faith, or evil except unbelief”(42), no matter how many times he may attempt to prove his goodness through works. In Luther’s eyes, the man with the greatest outward appearance of righteousness is damned if he lacks real faith.

On Tuesday, when we discussed Christians who believe that simply going to church absolves them of all sins, it was clear that many of us seem to agree with Luther. The class consensus was that it is not easy to be a true Christian. Now, looking again at the efficacy of appearances on the general public in our democracy it seems clear to me that we must apply the same principles. Participation in American democracy may be the birthright of all citizens, but to do so intelligently and responsibly is not a simple task. Appearing virtuous may be more important for our politicians than actually being virtuous, but it is the duty of American citizens to make sure that they do not succeed in masking their true goals.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Conference on "Philosophy for Children" at the U of Memphis

This weekend (Friday, September 11-Saturday, September 12), the University of Memphis Philosophy Department will be hosting a conference entitled Keeping the Child in Mind: A Conference about Philosophy for Children. (You can read more about the conference and see a schedule of speakers and topics by clicking that link.)

Here's a short description:
Philosophy is often thought to be an arcane subject, suitable only for adults. The idea that children can engage in philosophical reflection conflicts with a long-standing view that children are "emotional," "appetitive," and "irrational." There is a growing consensus among philosophers and educators, however, that children are natural philosophers. Their abundant curiosity, their propensity for asking questions, and their flexible minds, predispose them toward philosophical questions. With adequate encouragement and a student centered curriculum, they can develop the critical thinking skills characteristic of philosophic thought and move from mere consumers of information to reflective and autonomous thinkers.

The goal of
Keeping the Child in Mind: A Conference About Philosophy for Children is to stimulate discussion of the theory and practice of Philosophy for Children and, in turn, to develop effective ways to introduce philosophy into pre-college classrooms in Memphis.

The Philosophy Department at the University of Memphis also runs a program called "Philosophical Horizons" that has been introducing philosophy to students in Memphis city schools.

All students are encouraged to attend the conference this weekend.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Modern Machiavellianism

Yesterday in class we tried to apply Machiavellianism to modern day issues, such as the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When thinking about possible blog posts over these issues, it occurred to me that we had been too literal in our application of Machiavelli to modern times. Machiavelli's political theories are still relevant today, but just not so easy to recognize where this relevance lies. Where his ideas can be best applied are in the theories over pampering, because it is my belief that how we are programmed to perceive the world and especially the political world is a form of pampering to keep the "principality" of the United States stable.

All the major news stations claim to be unbiased and to give a balanced and informative report on major issues. From my experience watching various news channels, I do not find this to be true. All I hear for the most part is political rhetoric and accusations. I could very clearly tell you how the left and the right both feel about the proposed Health Care plan, but I honestly do not think I would have much to say if you asked me to go into detail about what the plan actually entails. These news channels give us the pampering of believing we hold knowledge and are informed citizens, while really just feeding us comfort or fear with a spoon.

We are fed images of terrorists and enemies out to get us, and while these issues do need to be addressed, how many perceive these issues is rank with fear and close mindedness of the difference between "us and them", rather than attempts at understanding that could lead to better solutions. This manipulation extends to the types of issues that receive the most coverage. If you asked the average news watcher what the largest ongoing conflict is, most would probably mention Israel and Palestine or other conflicts that more directly affect the US and its interests. Few would mention conflicts such as the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has been called the World War of Africa and is the deadliest conflict since World War II.

Much worse than the selective nature of news coverage is the changing focus I have noticed over recent years. Celebrity gossip and entertainment news have been creeping into political news sources more and more. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy trashy celebrity magazines so I am part of the problem, but it is going too far when I turn on CNN and hear about Britney Spears' latest scandal. This obsession with scandal and celebrity has begun to influence the way we perceive politicians as well. Sometime it seems like we care more about politician's personal and sex lives than about whether they are doing their job well. This points to a lack of political awareness in the US, because what it says is that since we don't really understand the issues we will instead choose politicians by how moral they appear. It is no coincidence that all presidents seem to make a show of being the perfect church-going family, because without this act their jobs would not survive.

The media quietly manipulates what people see and what they care about. They cannot be blamed entirely, because I do believe people have free will and that the news channels show what they think people are interested in. Even so, the media's pampering of Americans leads its citizens to focus on issues in ways that completely miss the point. Whether this is done to promote patriotism, for a bureaucratic agenda or otherwise, it does seem to keep our country stable as Machiavelli's theories predicted it would. But this is a different time, and there are costs for this stability which must be considered.