Monthly Archives: March 2008

Being human: take two

In an earlier post, I tried to get at a Heideggarian “definition” of the being of humans. I don’t think I did a very good job, so I am going to try again, taking some cues from William Blattner’s excellent reader’s guide on Being and Time.

Proximally and for the most part we are immersed in the word. The importance of this observation is hidden from the philosophical tradition, because it has been focused on the self-consciousness and moral accountability, in which we experiences ourselves as distinct from the world and others. Heidegger’s phenomenological approach to the self focuses first on a basic form of self-disclosure: I am what matters to me. Seen thus, I cannot disentangle myself from those around me and the world in which I live. In a phrase, we are being-in-the-world.

Thus, according to Heidegger, the philosophical tradition since Descartes has been fundamentally misguided on what it means to be a human. We are not res cogitans, locked behind the theater of our head, looking out at the world from behind a subjective veil, but rather, we are fundamentally familiar with the world. This familiarity is the basic constitution of being-in-the-world, and thus, the basic constitution of humans. If I understand Heidegger right, self-consciousness, intentionality, and all those phenomena of modern philosophy are, if anything at all, residual and derivative from the more basic familiarity with the world. They result when we are in a reflective mood, stepped away from the world, utilizing the modern cognitive faculties evolution has given us. Otherwise, we “reside amidst” the world.

This might all sound like phenomenological mumbo-jumbo, and I agree that it can sound kind of arbitrary, but if you understand Heidegger’s reaction to the western “History of being”, as he calls it, you will realize that this mumbo-jumbo is really a sophisticated methodology for getting at the root phenomena of human activity. By dismissing the subject-object paradigm as irrelevant for phenomenology, Heidegger recasts the subject matter of philosophical inquiry and sets the stage for fruitful hermeneutic interpretation. And that is all Heidegger essentially is, an interpretation. He didn’t really “get at” the phenomena in any systematic way, due to the circular constraints of interpretation, but I feel like that merely makes his philosophical project open and dynamic, as opposed to stale and rigid. He acknowledged the circularity involved in trying to uncover the ontology of being, but this is no matter, because humans already have a “pre-ontological” understanding of being. It is the goal of phenomenology to articulate this pre-ontological understanding into a conceptual form in order to uncover the salient features of the phenomena of being.

Heidegger is satisfied with mere “descriptive phenomenology” for a simple reason: to look for anything else, would be to presuppose a form of psychologism, which states that the structure of meaning is a real, causal property of minds and/or the world. However, if this isn’t the case, and meaning isn’t going to be uncovered in any “deep structures”, or combinatory semantics, then all that can be done with meaning is description. To do otherwise, would be to try and complete some form of constructive theorizing. Meaning isn’t something “produced” by minds, which can be understood by general theorization, but rather, meaning-structures are latent in experience, and the only proper way to get at their ontology is through some sort of interpretation. That interpretation doesn’t necessarily have to be Heideggerian, but Heidegger did a pretty good job of laying down the essential phenomena of being, at least when it comes to human Daseins. And for that I am grateful.

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"Respecting" Religious Beliefs?

Lots of bloggers have been commenting on this paper by Simon Blackburn, called “Religion and Respect”. Everyone seems to be commenting on one paragraph in particular:

We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds.

Most bloggers that I have seen commenting on the Blackburn paper seem to disagree with him on this particular point, and I thought I would share my opinion. To start off, one blogger said:

This is where I take issue with Blackburn’s stance. Blackburn cannot respect a person who holds a false belief, because he operates under the assumption that if someone believes something different than he does, then she must be wrong.

I think Lindsey completely misses Blackburn’s point in the quoted paragraph above. He wasn’t saying that he doesn’t respect religious people, but rather he can’t respect someone in a “thicker sense”. I take this thicker sense to mean that he can’t respect someone for holding an irrational belief, not that he can’t respect them at all. After all, he says: “We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one.” On this point I agree with Blackburn and I can’t understand the antagonism towards this paragraph. If someone told you that they believed a celestial teapot was orbiting Jupiter and it was impossible to verify that it existed, would you respect that person for holding that belief? No, you would think it was irrational to hold such a belief and for precisely that reason, you could not respect them for holding the belief. This doesn’t mean that you don’t respect them for other reasons, such as being moral or intelligent in other areas of inquiry. It is just that on that particular matter, you wouldn’t respect their specific philosophical beliefs and I think the analogy holds for the belief in God.

Let me come right out and say it, as an atheist, I think that it is irrational to hold a belief in any sort of deity. I think that atheism is the default position on whether or not there are any Gods and therefor it requires some intellectual leap, whether provided through indoctrination or some more subjective thought process, to believe in a god. I believe that either way, this thought process is erroneous and irrational, leading to a belief that is very likely to be false. This is why I have to disagree with blogger Lindsey when she says:

Personally, I respect a person (and the part of that person) who I think legitimately came to believe what she did, or is being sincere and honest about what she believes and for what reasons she believes. That sort of belief I can respect, regardless of whether or not I agree with it. It’s the type of respect I have for my atheist and agnostic friends. I don’t agree with them, but I don’t have to. I recognize that they have some good reasons to believe what they do (even if those reasons doesn’t sway my own beliefs). That’s the type of respect that is important to have. It’s about appreciating how a person came to have her set of beliefs, and how she lives out those beliefs. Is she being honest with herself? Is she living out her beliefs with integrity? That is what counts.

Going back to the celestial teapot, one of my favorite examples, does it make sense to respect the “part of the person” that believes in something that can’t be verified in any way? Clearly, it is irrational to believe in the teapot, so why should I respect the part of the person responsible for instilling them with an irrational belief? The only way to counter Blackburn’s point here is to argue that believing in a deity is rational, and I think you will inevitably fail in this regard, for numerous reasons. As I said above, atheism is the default position when it comes to believing in a god, and any deviation from the default must be seen as irrational.

There is, of course, a difference between tolerating an irrational belief and respecting it. Obviously, I tolerate people who believe in irrational metaphysical beings, but I don’t see any reason why I should respect those beliefs, in the sense of intellectual respect. If I sincerely believe that it takes an irrational thought process to come to believe in something, how can I respect that process in the 21st century?

In summary, I can respect a theist for many different reasons, but I can’t respect them on account of them holding an irrational belief. The only way that I could respect someone on account of their holding a belief in a deity, is if they provided an account of their intellectual thought process that wasn’t grounded in subjectivity or irrationality. This is a debate I would willingly have, so if anyone wants to argue that believing in a deity is not irrational, go ahead. Until I am convinced otherwise, I will agree with Blackburn.

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“Respecting” Religious Beliefs?

Lots of bloggers have been commenting on this paper by Simon Blackburn, called “Religion and Respect”. Everyone seems to be commenting on one paragraph in particular:

We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds.

Most bloggers that I have seen commenting on the Blackburn paper seem to disagree with him on this particular point, and I thought I would share my opinion. To start off, one blogger said:

This is where I take issue with Blackburn’s stance. Blackburn cannot respect a person who holds a false belief, because he operates under the assumption that if someone believes something different than he does, then she must be wrong.

I think Lindsey completely misses Blackburn’s point in the quoted paragraph above. He wasn’t saying that he doesn’t respect religious people, but rather he can’t respect someone in a “thicker sense”. I take this thicker sense to mean that he can’t respect someone for holding an irrational belief, not that he can’t respect them at all. After all, he says: “We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one.” On this point I agree with Blackburn and I can’t understand the antagonism towards this paragraph. If someone told you that they believed a celestial teapot was orbiting Jupiter and it was impossible to verify that it existed, would you respect that person for holding that belief? No, you would think it was irrational to hold such a belief and for precisely that reason, you could not respect them for holding the belief. This doesn’t mean that you don’t respect them for other reasons, such as being moral or intelligent in other areas of inquiry. It is just that on that particular matter, you wouldn’t respect their specific philosophical beliefs and I think the analogy holds for the belief in God.

Let me come right out and say it, as an atheist, I think that it is irrational to hold a belief in any sort of deity. I think that atheism is the default position on whether or not there are any Gods and therefor it requires some intellectual leap, whether provided through indoctrination or some more subjective thought process, to believe in a god. I believe that either way, this thought process is erroneous and irrational, leading to a belief that is very likely to be false. This is why I have to disagree with blogger Lindsey when she says:

Personally, I respect a person (and the part of that person) who I think legitimately came to believe what she did, or is being sincere and honest about what she believes and for what reasons she believes. That sort of belief I can respect, regardless of whether or not I agree with it. It’s the type of respect I have for my atheist and agnostic friends. I don’t agree with them, but I don’t have to. I recognize that they have some good reasons to believe what they do (even if those reasons doesn’t sway my own beliefs). That’s the type of respect that is important to have. It’s about appreciating how a person came to have her set of beliefs, and how she lives out those beliefs. Is she being honest with herself? Is she living out her beliefs with integrity? That is what counts.

Going back to the celestial teapot, one of my favorite examples, does it make sense to respect the “part of the person” that believes in something that can’t be verified in any way? Clearly, it is irrational to believe in the teapot, so why should I respect the part of the person responsible for instilling them with an irrational belief? The only way to counter Blackburn’s point here is to argue that believing in a deity is rational, and I think you will inevitably fail in this regard, for numerous reasons. As I said above, atheism is the default position when it comes to believing in a god, and any deviation from the default must be seen as irrational.

There is, of course, a difference between tolerating an irrational belief and respecting it. Obviously, I tolerate people who believe in irrational metaphysical beings, but I don’t see any reason why I should respect those beliefs, in the sense of intellectual respect. If I sincerely believe that it takes an irrational thought process to come to believe in something, how can I respect that process in the 21st century?

In summary, I can respect a theist for many different reasons, but I can’t respect them on account of them holding an irrational belief. The only way that I could respect someone on account of their holding a belief in a deity, is if they provided an account of their intellectual thought process that wasn’t grounded in subjectivity or irrationality. This is a debate I would willingly have, so if anyone wants to argue that believing in a deity is not irrational, go ahead. Until I am convinced otherwise, I will agree with Blackburn.

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Reconciling Direct Realism?

Sometimes I sit in class and think about the nature of perception and reality. That sounds cliche, but I often find myself wondering whether I am really perceiving the professor as they give a lecture. What am I looking at? Am I merely perceiving representations, or ideas, in my head, or am I really looking at the external world? How can I reconcile the fact that visual information from the environment must be filtered through my nervous system before it is perceived with the sensation that I am directly looking at the world. On one hand, the representational theory of perception makes sense because it seems like there is always going to be this “gap” between my perception and reality, mediated through my sensory organs. On the other hand, it makes evolutionary sense that animals would develop a direct perceptual system in order to save cognitive resources. “Perception is cheap, representation is expensive.”

So what am I looking at when I perceive the world? Ideas in my head or real objects? James Gibson proposed a solution that he thought solved these dualistic paradoxes when he came up with the concept of the ambient optic array. Light is bouncing all around the environment, reflecting information about surfaces and textures, eventually settling into invariant “visual angles”. It is the information in this ambient optic array that we perceive. We don’t perceive the world. We don’t perceive representations in our head, projected onto a Cartesian theater. We directly pickup information from the invariant visual angles of light in the ambient optic array.

This is a mind/body/world system. It embedded and embodied. It is confusing to talk about sense-data stimulating the retina, and the brain “perceiving” this data, as if it was projected onto our cortex and the mind just mysteriously “reads” the data. This leads to conceptual muddles such as mind/body dualism and the representational theory of perception. Gibson thought it made more sense to talk about a ecologically embedded perceptual system picking up information directly from the environment. The distinction between this information pickup and the representational theory of perception is subtle. The difference lies in the fact that with the representational theory there is this impossible divide between between “internal” world of the mind and the “external” physical world. Somehow information crosses this metaphysical gap. Gibson thought it was much more parsimonious and evolutionarily sound to talk about perception in terms of direct pickup by a holistic agent in the environment. The information in the ambient optic array is structurally isomorphic to the firings of the nervous system, which is embedded in a whole body, capable of moving about in the world. By utilizing this ecological approach to perception, Gibson was able to drop the conceptual muddle of a “mind” perceiving ideas driven by the sense organs, but rather, a Self perceiving the environment through invariant structures in the light reflected in the environment. This is why the phenomenology of perception always puts the environment “out there”, in the world, as opposed to “inside” the internal chambers of the mind.

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Berkeley, Idealism, and Heidegger

In his Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues, Bishop Berkely famously argued that matter did not exist. Only ideas in the mind. Idealism was born. What was he arguing against? He was primarily arguing against the representationalist dualism of Descartes and Locke, that claimed that the mind consists of representations of the external world. He thought that such a representationalist paradigm leads to skepticism because it is possible that our representations don’t correspond to any reality. Berkeley had several arguments against this representationalist philosophy, but what is more interesting is his argument against those who deny the premises of representationalism. To this, Berkeley offered what is sometimes called the “master argument”:

… I am content to put the whole upon this issue; if you can but conceive it possible for one extended moveable substance, or in general, for any one idea or any thing like an idea, to exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving it, I shall readily give up the cause…. But say you, surely there is nothing easier than to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and no body by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it: but what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your mind certain ideas which you call books and trees, and at the same time omitting to frame the idea of any one that may perceive them? But do not you your self perceive or think of them all the while? This therefore is nothing to the purpose: it only shows you have the power of imagining or forming ideas in your mind; but it doth not shew that you can conceive it possible, the objects of your thought may exist without the mind: to make out this, it is necessary that you conceive them existing unconceived or unthought of, which is a manifest repugnancy. When we do our utmost to conceive the existence of external bodies, we are all the while only contemplating our own ideas. But the mind taking no notice of itself, is deluded to think it can and doth conceive bodies existing unthought of or without the mind; though at the same time they are apprehended by or exist in it self.

So, while this argument was designed to work if you are a direct realist, what happens when you deny the framework of direct/indirect realism? I can’t help but view this argument through a Heideggarian lens and wonder what Philonous would say to someone who denied the subject/object distinction and thus the perceiving ego altogether. I think Heidegger would have denied the premises upon which Berkeley’s argument stood. If you deny that humans have subjective minds that perceive the world, then it doesn’t matter whether the “world” perceived is immaterial or not. Heidegger would still go with the parsimonious, scientific materialism but what matters is that the world of humans is imbued with significance through the pragmatic interactions of everyday life. The subjective mental realm that Berkeley works with is primarily a metaphorical holdover from the popular philosophy of the times. Berkeley couldn’t help but frame his philosophy in terms of a mental subject interacting with the world, either material or immaterial. However, thanks to 20th century thinkers like Heidegger giving us a new vocabulary to work with, the philosophical problems of the 17th century seem antiquated in the same way that ptolemaic astronomy is outdated to modern astronomers.

So, it isn’t that Berekey’s argument are wrong per se, it is just that the philosophical framework that they rest upon has been cast aside in favor of new metaphors and vocabularies.

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The Contingency of Language

I love Richard Rorty. A lot. That is why I am devoting this post to quoting some juicy sections from the first chapter of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.

We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.

The world does not speak. Only we do.

From our point of view, explaining the success of science, or the desirability of political liberalism, by talk of “fitting the world” or “expressing human nature” is like explaining why opium makes you sleep by talking about its dormitive power.

Interesting philosophy is rarely an examination of the pros and cons of a thesis. Usually, it is implicitly or explicitly, a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things.

To see the history of language, and thus of the arts, the sciences, and the moral sense, as the history of metaphor is to drop the picture of the human mind, or human languages, becoming better and better suited to the purposes for which God or Nature designed them, for example, able to express more and more meanings or to represent more and more facts.

The line of thought common to Blumenberg, Nietzsche, Freud, and Davidson suggests that we try to get to the point where we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi-divinity, where we treat everything – our language , our conscience, our community – as a product of time and chance. To reach this point would be, in Freud’s words, to “treat chance as worth of determining our fate.”

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