Our topic this week is the philosophy of history. There are different ways the word ‘history’ might be defined, so we had better start out by defining our terms. For example, you could define history as the sum total of past events. But that’s not how historians or even philosophers of history would define it. The problem with that definition is that it encompasses every single event that has so far happened in the Universe – from the big bang to the emergence of humankind and everything in between. We do sometimes talk about history in this broad and inclusive sense, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.
We're gearing up to record our third annual Dionysus Awards Show. This will be the third year in a row that we have given out Dionysus Awards for the most philosophically interesting movies of the year. We're seeking nominations from you, our listeners. Submit a nomination to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with information on how to reach you, in case we want to include you and your nomination on our final broadcast. Please submit your nomination by January 9th, so that we have ample time to sort through them all and decides which ones we want to include in our awards show.
This year, the Dionysus Awards show work a little differently than in the past. Instead of a live broadcast from the studios of KALW, we will "pre-produce" the show. That will give us far more freedom to pick and choose movies and to include clips and other sound elements in the episode. We plan, by the way, to market the show to the entire public radio system as a stand-alone, pre-Oscar special. it's going to be great fun and a great episode. And we'd love to have you be part of the action. So step up to the microphone, and nominate the movies that you found most philosophically interesting for 2010. You can also include philosophically interesting blasts from the past if nothing from the current crop strikes your fancy -- but we're more likely to include movies from the past year than older movies.
Don't just tell us what movies you liked, though, be sure to tell us why you liked it and why, in particular, you found it philosophically compelling.
Let me make it clear that a movie can doesn't have to be explicitly philosophical in the way that, say, Inception is in order to count as philosophically compelling. Indeed, some movies that try too hard and too laboriously to be philosophically interesting sometimes just don't work as movies at all. As long as the movie is both good as a movie and fruitfully looked at through the lens of philosophy, it's a plausible candidate for a Dionysus Award.
So join the fun and submit a nomination! You can do so by sending an e-mail to email@example.com. You can also leave a comment here on our blog or over on our Facebook page -- though those are by nature more public, of course. No matter where you submit your nomination, make sure that we can get in touch with about it if you think you might like to talk about it on the air with us.
We'll be recording and editing the program during the last couple of weeks of January, for broadcast sometime early mid February -- beginning February 13th on KALW and our other regular affiliates and hopefully right up until the time of the Oscars on other stations around the country.
While licking a pot, six-year-old Tim asks: "Papa, how can we be sure that everything is not a dream?" His father admits he has no idea.Tim says "Well, I don't think everything is a dream, ‘cause in a dream people wouldn't go around asking if it was a dream."
That’s an example from Gareth Matthews, a philosopher who has gotten interested in the idea that children are natural philosophers; they ask interesting philosophical questions and come up with interesting answers.
This week’s program was recorded at the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children.We talk with the founder and director, Jana Mohr Lone, about the work of the Center.But for most of the program, we talk to fourth-graders about identity, personal identity, the mind and the body and the nature of happiness.
Confronted with issues like the ship of Theseus, what to say about brain transplants, whether the mind is the brain, and whether happiness is a feeling or something more complicated, the children come up with a range of responses that pretty much corresponds to the solutions philosophers have offered.
Our topic his week is the power of thought. Human thought is an amazing thing. It has given us science, literature, morality, and last -- but certainly not least -- philosophy. Thought even has the power to create new realities. And I’m not primarily thinking of literature and the arts or even of technology. I’m thinking of the entire social world. Every size social reality from clubs to nations and every thing in between is a creation of the human mind, of human thought in particular. They all exist because we simply think them into existence.
Of course, the mind is not all sweetness and light. Besides all the things I just mentioned, it has also given us superstition, slavery, and war. But that just makes the nature and power of human thought all the more puzzling. The mind that spent millennium after millennium, mired in archaic social formations, in the grips of irrational superstitions is the very same mind, with the very same powers of thought, as the mind that produced science, philosophy, and art. Our goal is to understand just what human thought is such that it produces both the science and superstition, both democracy and slavery.
So let’s start at the beginning and ask just what thoughts are in the first place. When you ask the person in the street, like our roving philosophical reporter did, she or he is liable tell you that thoughts are that little voice inside your head -- where that means inside the brain, if the person is a materialist and inside the mind, if person is a dualist. But we’re trying to figure out what thoughts are, not where they are. If we’re going to understand the power of thought, we need to first understand the different kinds of thoughts and how each different kind works.
Take a simple thing like the belief that there is beer in the fridge. That’s a thought. But it’s only one kind of thought. And suppose that you want a beer. That’s a thought too. But a different kind of thought – a desire. Beliefs represent, or misrepresent, how things are in the world. They are the kinds of things that can be true or false. Hopefully our beliefs are more true than false. If our beliefs are false, the rational thing to do is change our beliefs to match the world. Desires, on the other hand, don’t represent how the world is. We don’t say that my desire to have a beer is false just because I don’t have one. But we do say that my desire is unsatisfied, when you want a beer, but don’t have one. The way to satisfy a desire is not to change it, but to change the world. That’s where a third kind of thought comes in – intentions. If you believe there’s a beer in the fridge and you really want a beer, then maybe you will form a new kind of thought – an intention. An intention is the kind of thing that can make you get off your duff and walk over to the refrigerator and get a beer. Or not -- if you’re a weak willed, lazy sort.
Now we really want to understand the power of thought and what it actually does in the world we have to to understand how beliefs manage to represent, or misrepresent, the way the world is; how desires manage to set forth ways the world might become; and how intentions move us to act to actually change the world. That may seem like a very tall order, but it’s a little more simple than it might at first seem, because beliefs, desires, and intentions are built out the same basic building blocks -- just put together in different ways. In particular, they are all built out of concepts or ideas. My belief that there is beer in the fridge, my desire to drink a beer, and my intention to go and get a beer all involve the concept or idea of beer, for example. So we can make a start on understanding the power of thought by thinking about the nature of concept or ideas, where they come from, and the different ways they can be put together to create such a wide-variety of thoughts. And once we’ve got a handle on that, we can think more about the different things that different kinds of thoughts do.
Unfortunately, that’s probably more than John and I can handle on our own – especially in a one hour radio show. But luckily for us, we’ll have help in the form of Steven Pinker, the world-renown author of an amazing series of books about the human mind – including his most recent, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window on Human Nature. Should be a fun hour.
Isn’t it a bit odd that philosophers disagree? Consider Ken and I. We’re both a reasonably well-educated, fairly intelligent, pretty perceptive, not overly neurotic philosophers. Why shouldn’t we agree about everything?
We need to distinguish between apparent and real disagreements.Suppose Ken says lima beans taste good, and I say that he’s wrong, lima beans taste bad.It seems there is no real disagreement here, just differing tastes.We only have real disagreement when two people hold opinions that cannot both be true.
Exactly where to draw the line isn’t so clear.Lima beans: differing tastes, or is there a fact of the matter whether they taste good or not?One might say there are subjective facts: they taste good to Ken, but not to me.Tasting good is not a property of lima beans, but a relation between lima beans and a person, a subject; they taste good to some people, but not to others.Our ordinary way of expressing subjective facts often disguises them as objective facts:Lima beans taste good.No they don’t.
How about disagreement on aesthetic issues.Dickens is a deep an interesting author?No he’s not; he’s a nineteenth century hack.Subjective, or objective?Jane Austen is a better author than Dickens?No she’s not!Is there a fact of the matter?
How about the abortion debate.It’s sort of puzzling, because intelligent people and learned people look at the same facts and draw opposite conclusions.But maybe the conclusions aren’t really opposite.Maybe one party is really just saying, “we really really disapprove of abortions and don't like them at all,” and the other party is saying, “we don't mind them all that much.” There's no real disagreement, just different taste.Or maybe they are not really looking at the same facts.Maybe those on one side or the other are ignoring important facts, like souls, or like the slippery and conventional nature of all classifications, even attributes like being a person, or committing murder?
So knowing what is a real and what is only an apparent disagreement is itself a philosophical problem, or a bunch of them, and rich source of disagreement.
But take a case where there is no question but that we are dealing with an objective fact.Suppose Ken and I each have a clear view of a certain tree. Suppose we are both reasonably well educated about trees but not real experts. Ken says it’s a cedar, I say it’s a redwood.Should we each lower the confidence we put in our own conclusion, on the grounds that an equally good judge has come to an opposite one?
That seems reasonable, but suppose I have carefully considered the matter.The bark looks like a redwood.The needles don’t quite look like a redwood, could be a cedar. Ken did the same.Now if I take Ken’s view into account, it seem I am just taking the same evidence into account that I already did, but weakening the conclusion.What’s rational about that?
Perhaps it’s not the very same evidence.I am adding the evidence that Ken came to a different conclusion.Think of it this way.We are both fallible devices for getting at the truth.When I came to the conclusion it was a redwood tree, that was based on the results of the device nearest at hand --- my own mind.But now I can take account of the result of a different device Ken’s mind.If the devices agree, it’s like the old advice, measure twice, cut once.But if they disagree, it’s best not to cut until you’ve considered the matter further.
But, if I measure a length twice, and come up with different results, common sense suggests the true length may be somewhere in between.Measure a third time, or split the difference.But the tree is either a redwood or a cedar.The fact that Ken and I come to different conclusions is really not evidence that it’s some kind of hybrid.Unless I think Ken has consulted evidence I haven’t, or knows more about trees than I do, his conclusion really doesn’t seem to provide me with any new information at all.Well, perhaps it shows that we aren’t really peers, and one of knows more than the other?But which one?
The issues here are more complex than meet the eye.There is in fact a large and growing disagreement about how rational people should treat peer disagreement.I’ve gotten to the limits of what I know about this debate, but following tomorrow’s program, I’ll know a lot more.I think.
This week’s topic is Reading, Narrative, and the Self. I suppose everybody has a pretty good idea of what each of those things, taken individually, means. Reading is something that most people do. A good narrative -- or story, to use a less fancy term -- is something most people enjoy. And a self is something everybody has. But I think I need to explain what reading, narrative, and the self have to do with each other. I’ll take them in reverse order, starting with the self.
Everybody has a self. Or maybe it would be better to say that everybody is a self. But what exactly is a self, anyway? The answer to that question depends on who you talk to. Psychologists, for example, tend to think of the self in terms of the particular set of attributes a person most strongly identifies with – those attributes that define who and what he or she is in the world. But we philosophers tend to think of the self less in terms of particular attributes, and more as the underlying agent or thinker who possesses the kinds of attributes that define the self in the psychologist’s sense.
We’re going to be concerned with both senses of the self at various stages of this week’s episode. Let’s start with the self in the psychologist’s sense. The self in that sense is not just given to us in advance as something fixed and determinate. The self in that sense has somehow to be “constructed” out of materials that our society and culture make available.
It may sound absurd -- or at the very least so very post modern -- to call the self a social construct. The self, it would seem, could exist even without society and culture. But whether that’s absurd or not really depends on what notion of self you are talking about. When I say that the self is a social construct, I really have in mind only the psychologist’s notion of self. But the self in the philosopher’s sense – the thing that underlies the psychologist's self – that definitely isn’t a social construction. In fact, I think the self in the philosopher’s sense is the thing that does the constructing, not the thing that gets constructed.
Now here’s where narrative begins to come in. Narrative helps us to make sense of our selves. One way we understand ourselves is by narrating ourselves, telling ourselves stories in which we figure as prominent characters. Think of a son who inherits the family business. In trying to make sense of his life, his choices, his situation, he narrates his life as an episode in a great drama, stretching backwards in time over multiple generations. But the stories that we tell ourselves aren’t just about relating the present to the past. They also look to the future. They help shape our choices and decisions. We try to make our narratives true, by trying to become what we've told ourselves we are.
I don’t mean to make it sound like we're prisoners of the stories we tell ourselves, or the ones we inherit from our family, or our culture. We have the freedom to reject the narratives that our society or culture or family offer up. But we can’t make sense of ourselves or even plan for the future without some background narrative in place. We don’t really have a choice about that. It’s part of the human predicament.
And now it should be easier to appreciate what the third topic on our list of three – namely, reading -- has to do with the other two. Great works of literature are rich storehouses of narrative possibilities. In real life, we only get one time through. We get one chance to narratively construct a self. But the great works of literature can expose us to thousands of experiments in narrative self-construction. So who better to help us with this trio of topics – reading, narrative, and the self -- than someone steeped in the theory of literary narratives. That's Josh Landy from Stanford University, where he co-directs the Literature and Philosophy Initiative.
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Civil disobedience is a great tradition.Particularly in America, where we have Thoreau, who refused to pay a poll tax, because the money supported the Mexican War and the Fugitive Slave Law.Then, there’s Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.And the Viet-Nam War protester.But then, as philosophers, we must ask, what exactly is civil disobedience?Suppose Henry Thoreau and Henry Schmo both refuse to pay their poll tax.Thoreau does it for the noble reasons you mentioned, but Henry Schmo does it because he’d rather spend the money at the pub.They're both disobeying a civil law; they're both, in a literal sense, civilly disobedient.What’s the difference?Just that Henry has good intentions?
Thoreau was trying to influence policy; his non-payment a speech act.Is that the important difference? What if Thoreau’s grouchy uncommunicative cousin Larry Thoreau didn’t pay his poll tax, either.He also didn’t want to support the fugitive slave law and the Mexican war, but he didn’t tell anyone why. So it wasn’t really a speech act, no attempt at communication.The war and the slave act made him sick; he couldn’t bear to pay his taxes, so he didn’t.Still seems kind of admirable.But no speech was involved. Is that Civil Disobedience?
Well, Civil disobedience clearly isn't a scientifically precise concept.I can’t give you a definition.But I bet we can list some traits that a paradigm case of civil disobedience will have.For one thing, it will be a refusal to obey or follow a law that is itself unjust, like the law against making salt that Gandhi broke, or a law that supports unjust policies, like the poll tax.That’s a start, but it doesn’t tell us the difference between famous Henry and grouchy Larry.
Gandhi and Thoreau weren’t just disobeying the law, but protesting law and policy by doing so publicly.Their acts were of speech as well as disobedience.They were done openly, and they didn’t attempt to escape punishment.The same for draft-card burners, and those who sat in at shops that refused to serve blacks.So grouchy Larry Thoreau gets eliminated, at least as a paradigm civil disobeyer.That doesn’t mean we can’t admire him.
To continue with our paradigm, usually we have in mind non-violent activities, like sit-ins and marches.And of course there is the intent is to change things; to get the law repealed, or the policy changed.
Putting it all together, a paradigm act of civil disobedience includes:Disobeying or refusing to follow a law or policy believed to be unjust, or supportive of injustice, publicly and non-violently, with the intent of drawing attention to the law and policy, and getting it changed.
That leads to the next question.We admire all those people we mentioned --- Thoreau, Gandhi, King, the student boycotters in the Civil rights movement, and so on.Does that mean that they were right to break the law?How can it be right to break the law?
We, the admirers, think the laws or policies were unjust.How about a crowd non-violently blocking the entrance to an abortion clinic?I don’t happen to think the laws allowing abortion are unjust.But these people do.Does that make them morally right?
We admire those who protest the laws we think are unjust.But we're all part of a democracy full of people with very different values.We're supposed to settle things by voting, or having our representatives in legislatures and congress vote.But any law or policy on a controversial issue is going to go against someone’s deeply held beliefs.Does that give them the moral right to disobey it?That would create chaos.
Other things being equal, it seems in a society like ours, where there are other remedies, like voting and taking things to the courts, those methods should be tried first.But other things aren’t always equal.Time may be of the essence in setting the injustice right, but courts take time --- and money.Sometimes it seems civil disobedience has to be a first resort, not a last resort, because it's the only way to make anyone care about an unjust policy in time to do anything about it.
That doesn’t exactly solve all the issue or answer all the questions. Luckily, Ken and I will be joined byKimberley Brownlee, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Manchester, to help think things through. I hope you join us!
If you think about it, reality comes in many levels, each level involving different kinds of things, having different kinds of properties. Perhaps most people would think of things like dirt at the bottom level, then us at the next level, and the sky at the highest level. But philosophers have a different, more abstract concept of levels of reality. Here are some examples:
• You and I---or at least our bodies--- along with tables and chairs and cities and towns and planets. This is what philosophers call the level of medium size objects. This level of reality is what most of our lives are concerned with. The sorts of things we can perceive with our senses, and so forth.
• Contrast that with a level called quantum reality. Objects like quarks that we can’t see, having properties like spin that we can barely make sense of.
• On the level just above quantum physics, we find electrons and atoms; then there’s the level of chemical facts, where you have chemicals and bonds; then the level of biology, where you have cells.
• Higher levels too, like maybe involving minds, societies, nations…
• And there are angels and God… and numbers for that matter. So we’ve got lots of levels!
Intuitively each level has a characteristic kind of object, characteristic kinds of properties and facts, and usually a different profession for people that study or work with it: quantum physicists, solid-state physicists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, sociologists. Nearer the top, mathematicians and theologians. And then, at least according to Aristotle, at the very top: philoophers. He put philosophers there because we think about Being --- that is, the whole shebang, and we try to figure out how the different levels are related. Most contemporary philosophers feel more in the middle than at the top. And their approach to the issue of levels of reality focuses on the topic of reduction.
We can set God and the angels aside; philosophers who believe in them aren’t likely to suppose they are reducible to something else, and those who don’t believe in them don’t worry about their reducibility either. We can also set numbers aside, since neither Ken nor I have any firm ideas about them. Then, physicalists like Ken and I both tend to be, think that the rest must be one big reality, physical reality. Facts about chemicals really are just facts about atoms and electrons, and they are really just facts about subatomic particles, or whatever else turns out to be at the bottom. And the same with biology and chemistry; psychology and biology; sociology and psychology.
The divisions are based on how humans interact with the different phenomena, the tools we use, the interests we have, and, of course, the National Science Foundation budgets involved. and Ultimately, metaphysically, philohically, there is just one reality, matter in motion --- or whatever quantum physicists replace matter with, or whatever they replace motion with.
One might think of this as depressing and mysterious. I don’t feel like a complex of quarks. Of course, there is another theory. It’s the competitor to Reductionism. It’s called Emergence. That’s the idea that each level in some way emerges from the one below, under certain conditions. And when emergence happens, truly new objects, properties, and facts are involved.
One might favor reductionism over emergence on the basis that in some cases, the reductions though not yet discovered, are in principle to be had. Biologists have known since Mendel that something, which they called `genes', are responsible for inherited characteristics. But for a long time, there were debates about whether genes could really be explained by physical and chemical properties. Many biologists thought that genes could never be fully explained just in terms of physics and chemistry. They thought, in other words, genes were emergent, and not reducible. But with the discovery of DNA and the development of molecular biology, we know this isn't so. The structure that Watson and Crick discovered has allowed scientists to explain how genes work without appealing to anything but the principles and properties of physics and chemistry.
If everywhere some philosophers see emergence, scientists will eventually provide reductions, emergence will just be another idea in the dust-bin called the history of philosophy. But that grand result would require a biological understanding of consciousness and all the other mental phenomena. Should would-be physicalists like Ken and I really be so confident of that? Is it so obvious that it even makes sense?
Luckily we have an expert on all of this to help us think about it, Tim O’Connor, author of Theism and Ultimate Explanation.
I’m really happy universities exist, and that they support philosophy departments, and seem to think I do something useful.But the longer I have spent in universities, the more I've become familiar with the vast differences in schools and departments, the complexity of funding, how different things are done in other universities, particularly those in other lands… and, frankly, the less I have a feel for what universities are really supposed to be.Here are four issues around which my doubts and confusions cluster.
Research versus teaching.At Stanford we charge the undergraduates a lot of money.We draw the best students in the world --- or at least as good any others.But at Stanford, and Harvard, and the University of California, and all the other elite universities, we all know that research is the main criteria for hiring and promotion.So what is a university?A teaching institution?Or a big research lab with some students around the edges?
Academy or Laboratory?I tend to see the university on the model of the philosophy and other humanities departments.After all, our heritage goes back to Plato’s academy, perhaps the first university-like thing in the Western tradition.We think about hard intellectual problems and teach students to think.But when you’ve been around a university as long as I have, and chaired the department as both Ken and I have, and sat through countless committee meetings with colleagues from all over the insititution, you have to adopt a larger perspective.The place is a sprawling megalith, and the paradigm model is not thinkers in a library or seminar but scientists in a lab, funded by government or industry, competing with others for the next round of grants and prizes.
Who owns the university?Whose university is it, anyway?To whom do we answer?Officially, we are a corporation, so the Trustees are in charge.But as a non-profit corporation, do we answer to a higher authority?If so, what is it?The needs of the world?Of the nation?Of something more abstract, like Knowledge or Truth?And who are the final arbiters of how we conduct our mission?The faculty?The alumni?The students?And what is the administration’s job?To convey the deep wisdom of the faculty to the Trustees?The Trustees for the most part are practical people in touch with the wider world.Maybe our mission should be to translate the Trustees vision to the university’s work force --- like you and me.
Finally the future of universities like Stanford and Berkeley and all of the ones we're familiar with for that matter leaves me mystified.Traditionally, universities whatever else they are, are a place.They provide a place where books and faculty and labs and students can all be together, and reap the benefits of being together.Will that continue to be important with the changes wrought by the internet?There are already internet universities.Are they the wave of the future?Will Stanford and Berkeley and UCLA and Cal State San Francisco become dinosaurs in a great new world of distributed universities, whose libraries and classrooms are just U-R-L's on the internet?
So, we’ll have lots to talk about with our guest, the Stanford provost, the philosophy department’s very own John Etchemendy.We’ll start by asking him just how he sees the university --- a school with researchers around the edge, or a big lab with students around the edge.
Please contact Ken & John by email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have an angle to add to any of the upcoming topics on Philosophy Talk, or if you have suggestions for future topics. You could be a guest caller on the air!
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