This page describes my own philosophical background and standpoint on a number of topics in philosophy. I thought that it might be useful for anyone who decides to visit this blog, just as a matter of introduction. In my experience, sometimes in the depths of some deeper debate it can be difficult to tell exactly where someone else is coming from, and people you thought you radically disagreed with actually have far more in common with you than you originally thought. To that end, I think laying my own views out (at least as they currently stand) could help anyone who comes here have an idea of the background that my discussions will be based upon. I will divide this page by overall philosophical topic:

Metaphysics:

Ontology- (For those less acquainted with philosophical jargon, ‘ontology’ refers to the most general questions about what differentiates things that exist from things that don’t. It is also speculation about whether ‘existence’ is a category or a property, and if it is a property then what sort of property it is). Personally I think one major division that contemporary philosophers need to abandon is the seemingly black-and-white distinction between things that exist and things that don’t. I have always found this stark division baffling, particularly in a field that seems to be able to take any seemingly obvious distinction and find some way to explain why it really represents a spectrum, often with what I must grudgingly admit are rather persuasive arguments. But in this particular instance it seems to me that many philosophers have been desperate to preserve a simple, bipartite division between “things that exist” and “things that do not exist” with no gray area. In my view one of the few things that Descartes can reasonably be said to have gotten right is his division into ‘modes of Being,’ with formal contradictions such as (P ^ ~P) being the only propositions that refer to absolutely nothing and are therefore meaningless. Even mythical creatures such as unicorns, however, seem to me to have some degree of existence, insofar as they exist as ideas in the minds of people that can be referred to and possess commonly accepted properties (i.e. being a horse with a big horn poking out of its head). My primary motivation for viewing ‘existence’ as a spectrum, rather than a hard and fast division, has been Daniel Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ and his article “Real Patterns.” Dennett’s theory of mind and the attribution of beliefs and desires has been criticized as too vague; his response has been to hilight other entities in the world (such as centers of gravity) that seem to have real consequences (or show ‘real patterns’) but obviously do not ‘exist’ in as tangible a sense as tables and chairs. Personally I find this response brilliant, but I think it is only feasible if we are to allow that ontological categories are a spectrum from lower to higher levels of existence, rather than a simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ division. What this would imply about the status of mind remains, in my opinion, an open question.

Philosophy of Mind- My own view of the mind is, at heart, to throw up my hands and say I have absolutely no idea; I find the conclusions of radical eliminative materialists such as Paul Churchland to be utterly appalling but I have no inclination to accept Dualism either, whether in a Cartesian vein or in its spiffy new ‘supervenience’ formulation (the ‘supervenience’ relation being one which I find deeply mysterious). Personally I think that some brand of functionalism is in order and I am particularly attracted to Ruth Garrett Millikan’s Teleological Functionalist account, which accounts for intentionality (the ‘aboutness’ of mental states) in terms of biological categories and the theory of evolution. My only complaint with Millikan’s account is that I do not see how teleology (‘goal directedness’) at the biological level can really be accounted for without making it a more fundamental part of our ontology, which I personally have no problem with but I suspect many contemporary philosophers would be unsupportive of such a suggestion.

Speaking of final causality, I am personally a big fan of ‘antiquated’ Aristotelian ideas about the fundamental categories of matter; I think essentialist accounts of the properties of matter have far more to be said in their favor than modern philosophers have let on. I also absolutely loathe nominalism (the idea that there are not ‘real’ sets of properties or essences that all the particular members of a class share, but only general names that we apply to many things) in all of its forms and consider it the greatest error made in modern intellectual history. I think that the debate between Realism, Conceptualism and Nominalism is actually what underlies nearly all of the subsequent debates in philosophy, and I think that if more attention were paid to this admittedly dry and boring, but very important debate, far more work could be done in other areas.

Philosophy of Religion- The philosophy of religion was in fact what first got me interested in philosophy in the first place; almost six years ago, at a time in my life when I was far more pious than I currently am, I picked up “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Philosophy” at a nearby bookstore. The book was easy to read and at the time I thought a little philosophical background might be useful for the sake of explaining, defending and better understanding my own religious beliefs. Rather sadly (to me at least, undoubtedly some of my more secular friends or readers would be thrilled to hear this) my personal religiosity has waned somewhat in recent years. I will not have this interpreted in the irritating vein of many contemporary ‘free thinkers’ I’ve read, who will push the idiotic “smart people don’t believe in God” schtick as far as it will go, the fact that some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known (or most of us have known, or read for that matter) notwithstanding. Instead I will briefly account for this simply by using St. Anselm’s phrase “faith seeking understanding.” The “seeking understanding” part of my conviction grew, in time, to be the part that gave me the most joy and which I found most interesting. The “faith” aspect, on the other hand, was part of a far more personal and introspective religious experience I had. Sadly, over the years, as I witnessed Church scandal after Church scandal, and encountered my own problems with the institution, such as beuracratic ineptitude, Priests and Ministers who nothing less than deserted their flocks, and the extreme pressure and guilt labored upon me by overly Conservative fellowship groups (people whine about Roman Catholics ‘making you feel guilty all the time;’ in my opinion they have absolutely nothing on Calvinist Presbyterians) this personal experience was more or less washed away. Being honest, I hope that one day my former spirituality returns. But at this point in my young life, I no longer have any particular certainty as to what the ulatimate state of affairs is, and have become thoroughly exhausted by even bothering to wonder about the question.

For that reason, philosophy of religion, which was once my primary interest, has receded to the back burner. I consider the great Medieval religious philosophers (such as Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas etc.) as well as their Middle Eastern (Avicenna etc.) and Eastern (Gautama Siddhartha, Lao Tzu etc.) men of genius and I absolutely loathe the way that contemporary philosophers and ‘intellectuals’ condescendingly dismiss their systematic philosophical systems as archaic frameworks from a benighted, bygone age. But when I see contemporary screaming matches between Atheists and Fundamentalists over ‘Intelligent Design’ and ‘Evolution’ or prayer in public schools I typically feel nothing more than disgust. As far as I can tell, all of the greatest historical atrocities attributed to religious people (i.e. the Crusades) or irreligious people (i.e. the persecution of Christians by Stalin’s Atheist government) have one thing in common, which is that their purpetrators were just so certain that they were making society a better place- hopefully the idiots on either side of the “Religion vs. Atheism” debate will realize that screaming, name-calling and moral judgments (as well as violence) have never been effective tools at internally improving a society. What is an effective tool is honest discussion and desire to know the truth- which is in the spirit of philosophy in the first place.

Epistemology-

I don’t have much to say about my epistemological views because to be blunt, I hate this particular area of philosophy. This may seem like a strange (or foreboding) thing to say, since so much of modern philosophy has been directed at analyzing problems from an epistemic standpoint of justified beliefs. But in my opinion, epistemology is, in my experience, highly overrated, particularly by the advocates of verificationism and scientism that was something of the rage several decades ago and still holds a powerful sway in the analytic tradition. I’ll make my discussion of my dislike for this area brief; in the first place epistemology seems to me to have a giant self-reference problem. If we’re trying to come up with an overall theory of what ‘knowledge’ is and what justifies true beliefs, then we must ask how we’re going to ‘know’ which particular theoretical framework is the best one to adopt. And any such ‘knowledge’ seems, to me, to need to be capable of transcending human limits of understanding, such that an attempt to provide a fully accounted for theory of knowledge is impossible. On the other hand, it almost seems like such a theory would depend upon a ‘phenomenological’ approach of analyzing the experience of knowledge from the inside (which I’m not too keen on either); this latter method at least preserves what I think is common in the experience of ‘knowledge,’ which is a certain qualitative state that accompanies it. In other words there seems to be something intuitive in our grasp of concepts such that when we ‘know’ something we can’t always explain exactly what we mean, but there’s an intuitive sense in which we’ve ‘got it,’ and this accompanying sense is ultimately what inspires us to call some beliefs ‘knowledge’ and others ‘opinions.’ In either event I’m not particularly pleased with the results, which is one reason that I dislike this particular area.

But the more important reason why I’m not keen on epistemology is because I have often seen it used as an attempt to undercut metaphysics, and in so doing many philosophers (in my opinion) simply do very bad metaphysics. The verificationists are an excellent example of this; in arguing, as they did, that the only meaningful propositions are ones that can be known through empirical testing, they denied for themselves any means of justifying their own perspective (since such a justification would rely upon a more general metaphysical outlook that would have to be defended by philosophical arguments rather than scientific data) and therefore rendered their otherwise useful and rather plausible outlook incoherent. As far as I’ve seen, metaphysics and epistemology are two sides of the same coin; one can no more do away with one of them than one could destroy Venus and preserve ‘the morning star.’ The connection between the two is not always obvious (and often has to do with the aforementioned debate between Realism, Nominalism and Conceptualism and the relation of universals to particulars) but it becomes far more evident in areas such as philosophy of perception, where talk of ‘sensations’ vs. ‘sense data’ can often make one forget what is even being talked about (which is why Idealist arguments, for a long time, seemed so plausible). At the end of the day, I believe that metaphysics and epistemology are intimately connected; one simply cannot exist without the other. I think abandoning the attempt to rule out certain subjects of discussion a priori or focusing on providing more systematic metaphysics would be a better use of time for contemporary philosophers, and I think a certain distancing from the epistemological approach to particular questions is in order to make this happen.

Ethics-

My discussion of ethics is primarily focused on the opposition to all subjectivist ethical theories, such as egoism, emotivism, and most of all moral relativism, a view that I hate and the criticism of which will play a large part in many of my posts. Primarily my dislike for ethical subjectivism stems from a very liberal education that (in my opinion) irrationally considered moral offense of any kind (including condemnation of rape, murder or international tragedies such as the Holocaust) as betraying lack of sophistication or some sort of prejudice. Additionally, having sociology as a minor has exposed me to a wide variety of ‘structuralist,’ ‘social constructionist’ and ‘postmodernist’ ideas that sneer at the suggestion that some sets of values are objectively superior to others, and years of being at the blunt end of this snarky condescension has caused me to personally detest the framework from which it arises. I also consider relativist ethics to be harmful to society; though I am not ordinarily prone to agree with radical conservatives of any kind, I do believe that, protestations of ‘enlightened’ intellectuals aside, there is some relation between the upsurge in school shootings, infidelity and divorce (among other moral failings) in my generation and my country and the widespread prominence of the view that any moral viewpoint is just as good as any other, with no overall objective difference among them. I am simply not optimistic enough to buy the apologetic of modern social theorists in this vein; a general consensus that moral values are irrelevant, or worthless even as a matter of mere discussion, seems to me to lead, through logical necessity, to the inevitable ‘watering down’ of popular conscience, and all of the social ills with which this is associated. Insofar as relativism leads to this, and also betrays the very spirit of philosophical inquiry, I despise the viewpoint and think it ought to be utterly discredited and cast back into the intellectual gutters from whence it first slithered out.

On the other hand, while affirming a moderate moral realism, I believe that an overall ethical theory must ultimately depend upon one’s metaphysics. ‘Populist’ ethical theories that set their moral commands in terms of widespread human inclination or conscious agreement, or consequentialist views that try to use the natural human aversion to pain and desire for pleasure, are in my opinion little more than slightly stronger varieties of relativism, which say absolutely nothing about what really constitutes ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ actions, and thus are not particularly good improvements in my book. Personally I think that an ethical account that makes reference to natural ‘function’ defined in terms of evolution, while also incorporating a more Aristotelian framework that makes ‘goal directedness’ inherent to matter (as well as the Aristotelian ‘Virtue Ethics’ perspective of focusing not on Good Action in isolation, but at what constitues a Good Life overall) is the best bet for understanding a real, tangible basis for normative judgments. Explaining this view will require a lengthy foray into metaphysics which can only be made through later posts.

These views constitute my current opinions on the philosophical topics with which I am most interested. Personally I would like to learn more about continental philosophy and the ‘phenomenological’ approach to understanding human experience; I also know that in time some (or all) of these views may change. This represents the current starting point for the blog; thoughtful comments and insightful points certainly have the potential to alter it!


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