Tuesday, August 26, 2008

strange bedfellows

I can’t speak for everyone, but for myself I do not believe in substantial forms and hence find myself rejecting all types of hylomorphism in ontology.

Many of my friends share this rejection of hylomorphism as either a description or an explanation of phenomena.

What I find interesting and puzzling is that many of my religiously serious friends (and I count myself as religiously serious) who reject substantial forms with all the hylomorphic implications nevertheless retain it in their dualistic view of human persons. I should be a little more precise: either their substantial dualistic views of human persons or their advert of the medieval “soul is the form of the body” views.

I will not go so far as to say that this is inconsistent. It’s not. But it does strike me as odd.

Perhaps there are independent reasons to think that something like hylomorphism is required in the case of human beings but not so in the case of all other natural phenomena. (Human beings are supernatural phenomena? I don’t quite get that if that is indeed a possible response.)

Friday, August 15, 2008

why Descartes' criterion of doubt is awesome

I don’t know how many times I’ve read Descartes’ Meditations. I’ve definitely read it more than any other philosophical text so far, and I love it (and hate it) every time. It’s amazing to think about how much of an impact that short treatise has made on academic philosophy in particular and on intellectual culture in general.

The criterion of doubt continues to capture my interest, as well as I think any epistemologically minded reader of Descartes.

I think Descartes tied it to a completely implausible theory of mind, whereby the cognizer is endowed by God with an extremely powerful doxastic will. Perhaps Descartes was able to exercise his will such that he was able to disbelieve obvious perceptual appearance propositions or even mathematical propositions. I can’t.

See this post for what I think motivated Descartes to affirm such a strong doxastic voluntarism.

However, I think it would be premature to jettison the criterion of doubt on the implausibility of the overly strong Cartesian will. There’s a way to think about and deeply appreciate the criterion of doubt that has lasting salutary effects on one’s philosophical temper.

Here’s how it goes. Even though, pace Descartes, I am not able to disbelieve at will some of the beliefs that are forced upon me (such as ordinary sense perceptual beliefs), I can nevertheless engage in epistemic empathy combined with a little make-believe. I can imagine what it would be like to fail to hold a belief in question. A little further, I can imagine what it would be like for me to live without a belief in question.

Perhaps an example is in order.

I currently believe that there is a God. This is a fairly strong belief over which I do not exercise direct control, either to believe or disbelieve. There are things that could happen to me (some of which I might be able to initiate in some sense which might qualify as very indirect control) that would alter the strength of the belief or perhaps vanquish it altogether, but the important point to note is that these scenarios involve something happening to my beliefs.

Even though I do not exercise direct control over this belief, I can nevertheless imagine myself and my life without belief in the existence of God. Many things would change; many would remain exactly as they are. In this respect, I can bring about a kind of empathy and identification with that version of myself. I prefer the way I am now (and the way reality is, if my current representation is true), but I also don’t recoil at the picture that is formed on the basis of the thought experiment of the alternative.

Back to the criterion of doubt and the possible salutary effects...

Even though Descartes is wrong to connect the criterion of doubt with his view of the cognitive will, the criterion is useful in that it is an aid towards epistemic humility.

If one can imagine, consider, and form a lively picture about the alternative epistemic commitments one might bear (and manage not to recoil), I think one is better off, on the whole, in terms of one’s intellectual virtues of fair-mindedness, intellectual charity, and accurate self-assessment of one’s own epistemic justification. This becomes important and evident when one actually encounters someone else whose beliefs differ markedly on a range of issues, some of which might be quite important. If one has already exercised this practice of “otherness” on oneself and also found that imaginary “self-other” not to be so foreign after all, then the extension of charity should be one of degree, not of kind, when one encounters another person who might initially strike one as “other.”

I guess in a weird kind of way, the criterion of doubt can be mobilized into an epistemic counterpart of the Golden Rule.

All of this is consistent with having epistemic commitments. This need not be an inevitable precursor to skepticism, relativism, anti-realism, or fill-in-your-favorite-bad-blank-ism (though I have to admit that I really like skepticism).

And if the criterion is one aid, one type of exercise, in forming the habits and dispositions of epistemic humility, then I’m all for it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

from the "This, I Believe" Series on NPR

Finding Equality Through Logic

Weekend Edition Sunday, August 3, 2008

“This, I Believe” Series

by Yvette Doss

[Yvette Doss works in fundraising for Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Ind. A native of Los Angeles, she was founding editor of an alternative paper and a Latino zine. Doss has written for the Los Angeles Times, Ms. Magazine and NPR.]

I believe that you can take control of your destiny through the power of philosophy.

The turning point for me was the day I learned that the questions I had about religion, morals, inequality and injustice in the world were not only acceptable questions, but questions to be encouraged. Great minds — like Plato and Descartes — had spent countless hours pondering life’s mysteries throughout the ages.

I realized that my mind, the mind of a misfit half-Mexican teenage girl living in an immigrant neighborhood in L.A., could ponder those mysteries, too. The fact that my best friend dropped out of school at age 16 to have a baby, or that few of my neighbors had college educations, did not exclude me from the conversation of the ages.

I believe the act of philosophical thinking is not the exclusive domain of the privileged, the moneyed, the old or the accomplished.

I lived in a household run by a single mother, and I moved around from neighborhood to neighborhood, from new school to new school. There were gangs, crime and substandard schools to contend with in my pocket of southeast Los Angeles. I struggled with finding my place in a world that, though imperfect, was the closest thing I had to home. But I had big questions on my mind, too.

Did my challenging circumstances mean that I should only think about the difficulty of day-to-day existence? Why couldn’t I wonder about the larger questions in life, like, “Why are we here? Does it have to be this way? What if there isn’t a God?” And most importantly: “Was I destined to accept my lot in life just because I was born with fewer advantages than those luckier than I?”

The crisp pages of the books I cracked open each night and read until I fell asleep with a flashlight tucked under my arm told me otherwise.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said.

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” said Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Simone de Beauvoir shared: “I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for the truth; and the truth rewarded me.”

Descartes and Hume validated my questioning of dogmatic religious belief. I was connected to the larger world of ideas through the simple act of opening those books.

Thanks to philosophers, my new friends, I considered my thoughts worth expressing. And later, when I tried my hand at writing, I experienced the joy of seeing my thoughts fill a page.

I believe the wisdom of the ages helped me see beyond my station in life, helped me imagine a world in which I mattered. Philosophy gave me permission to use my mind and the inspiration to aim high in my goals for myself. Philosophy allowed me to dare to imagine a world in which man can reason his way to justice, women can choose their life’s course, and the poor can lift themselves out of the gutter.

Philosophy taught me that logic makes equals of us all.

[Independently produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.]