Are we ethically obliged to help North Korea? – Dee

I personally think we do have an obligation to help in cases where we have the knowledge and the power to help. I don’t believe those conditions are met in this case. Helping another sovereign country, particularly a hostile one, with a contrasting ideology, is a tricky proposition. If you send aid, are you propping up a government that is arguably harmful to its own people? If you agitate for social change, are you making things worse? Outside of providing immediate humanitarian aid in the event of a natural disaster, there’s little that can be done without becoming ensnared in politics and controversy. It is entirely unclear to me what “help” means in this situation.

Generally, I find that there are always people close to home who need help. Even in First World countries, there are people who are homeless and hungry. Even in Western Democracies there are people oppressed, unfairly imprisoned, etcetera. There’s a certain arrogance and hypocrisy in us being so quick to assume we can solve other people’s problems when we’ve done so little to solve our own.

Irredeemable Location to Live

Here’s a philosophy of life question for you: I live somewhere unappealing and cannot leave for the next 3-5 months, give or take. Some people are lucky enough to live their lives as a constant adventure; I want to be the same, but I am not so lucky. How does one deal with the reality of curtailed social circles, zero culture, no adventure, and ultimate boredom?

Why are some people living as they should, while many more are not?

From an existentialist point of view, your experience is what you make of it, regardless of circumstances. For a person in the right frame of mind, 3-5 months without external distractions could be a wonderful opportunity. You could: Learn an instrument. Learn a foreign language. Teach yourself programming. Write a book. Study philosophy. Meditate. Come up with a complete plan for the next five years of your life. Build up your strength. Pray and fast, etc.

In short, you could give yourself all the preparation you need to make sure the next phase of your life is a glorious adventure. Conversely, if you’d rather seize the current moment, you could make it your goal to make one good friend, or to ask one beautiful stranger out on a date, or to discover one hidden secret about your unbeloved home.

No matter where you go, you will always take yourself with you. It may be that you are most afraid of spending the time with yourself and discovering who you really are. If you approach this time with imagination and discipline, there will be no excuse for being bored a single minute in the next 3-5 months. I recommend reading Sartre’s *No Exit* for more on this point of view.

Sartre and Hotel California

I have to write about an existentialist philosophy/argument that is in the song Hotel California (the Eagles). The song is my stimuli for my paper, in which I have to oppose two philosophical arguments. Do you know how this song relates to existentialism? – MC

Sartre wrote a famous existentialist play called No Exit. The theme is that three people die, and their afterlife is spent in a room of a generic hotel. What makes the play existentialist is that Sartre guides us to see that each person is avoiding making real choices for his or her own personal reasons. They avoided responsibility for their own choices in life, and now seemed poised to do the same throughout all eternity. They have created their own hell through refusing to acknowledge their existential freedom to shape their own destinies.

Hotel California can be seen as another version of the hotel in No Exit. The hotel is a metaphor for Los Angeles, and the aimless, undirected drifting that people do there. They are distracted by materialism, but fail to make existential choices.

I completely understand your point; that for Sartre that choice would always be there, there is no ‘impossible’ in relation to living authentically, that is is just choice. However, do you feel that in the context of our very modern society that it may be harder? Do you think we may have progressed into a more inauthentic contemporary world? Or a world where authenticity maybe almost valued- in some respects? – Natasha

I’m not convinced that it’s any easier or harder to live authentically now than in any other era. Being “Real” always takes a great deal of willpower. Think of the Inquisition, or of McCarthyism, or the Cultural Revolution. Think of Janucz Korchak and his children singing on the way to the death camps (WWII). It’s hard to claim our own era is more inimical to authenticity than any other.

I do think that one peculiar feature of modern times, however, is the overwhelming prevalence of fake authenticity –where the appearance or the pursuit of what is “authentic” becomes itself a locus of artificiality. That’s probably a side effect of commercialization, wherein “realness” or the convincing illusion of it becomes a commodity that can be profitably monetized.

That said, it’s also worth noting that one can be authentic even when playing a set role –think about any truly great actor.

For these and other reasons, I personally lean away from Sartre’s authentic/bad-faith dichotomy. In my own rendering of existentialism, the key tension is between being true (authentic, as it were) to your own self-identity and being a productive member of a functional larger community –two ends which are each positive in themselves, but which continually and inevitably come into conflict.

As a Christian existentialist, I resolve this tension in a religious context: “Develop your talents, and put them to work in service to others” –a gospel-inspired synthesis of individuality and community.

In regards to Sartre and Heidegger to what extent to do you think it is existentially possible to be ‘authentic’ in our modern society? Do you think it is possible to live in contemporary society without acts of what Sartre deems ‘bad-faith’? – Natasha

From Sartre’s perspective, “is it possible” would the wrong wording. No matter the circumstances or context –i.e. modern society –it is always possible to be authentic or inauthentic. It is always a choice that you are unable to avoid.

What we might rather say is that modern society discourages and punishes authenticity –that being authentic has momentous consequences for both the individual and the surrounding society. Therefore most of us assess the consequences and choose inauthenticity. It is still, however, a choice. You can always be authentic and damn the consequences.

I was thinking about this very question recently. I currently work in a business environment –the height of an inauthentic context. One of my co-workers is leaving the job, and many people are genuinely distressed to see him go, despite the fact that he has made very little effort to win friends during his time here. I think the reason people are affected is because my coworker is an authentic personality –his real self, more or less –even in a context that does not encourage that. It certainly hasn’t made his time here easier, but it does demonstrates Sartre’s contention that authenticity is always available if you choose to embrace it.

It is said that mathematical axioms are neither true or false, but that they infers/imply their conclusions, and this is said by those with formalist leanings .


Will you not agree that if this is true, then it means that mathematics is based on unsound arguments if the axioms so used are false. And rarely do mathematical physicist check to see whether their axioms are true, rather they device a theory that fits(predicts) experiments(think Bohr model of the atom). It seem science uses this kind of reasoning a lot. There are no point particles nor isolated systems as envisioned by Newtons laws, yet these are foundations of classical mechanics. So there seem to be something false used to deduce something true. It seems unsound reasoning is pervasive in science, and I ask why should it be an issue especially in religious arguments? Why can’t we construct religious arguments using some hypothesis regardless of its truth.
–Johnson Mafoko

This is a much more interesting and complex question than your first. The basic concept is something I’ve studied for years, but unfortunately it is less straightforward than it seems at first.

You’re actually talking about two separate things, axiomatic systems and modeling.

In terms of the first, axioms are the starting point for any formal system. They are not considered “true” or “false” because truth is defined in relationship to the axioms.

When you say something is “true” in a formal system, what you really mean is that it is at least as guaranteed as the axioms.

In the case of mathematical systems such as Euclidian geometry, there is no necessary claim that the objects of the system have any physical reality, they exist only within the conceptual space defined by the axioms.

Physics, however, adds an additional claim that a given mathematical system “models” something real in the physical universe. In other words, if the mathematical system describes a certain numerical relationship between a triangle and a square, the claim is that a physical object in the shape of a triangle would have the same relationship with a physical object in the shape of a square.

It’s never a perfect match, and there is no way to definitively prove that the physical system follows all the same rules as it’s mathematical sibling. All that can be done is show by experiment that the measurements predicted by the mathematical system mirror the actual results produced by testing the physical system.

The advantage to all of this is that understanding the mathematical system allows you to make useful predictions about the physical system. For instance, the development of calculus allowed people to aim cannons with much greater accuracy. It was the practical results that convinced people of calculus’ worth, not because they had a metaphysical belief in infinitesimals. People tend to speak of scientific discoveries as if they were solid eternal truths, but what they really are is sets of tested, reliable, useful predictions.

Let me return to your query of why you can’t start from an unsure axiom and build towards a true conclusion when constructing a religious argument. You can certainly build a mathematics-like axiomatic theory of religion –many philosophers have done so. But none have had much success in showing that their system is a testable, reliable analog of the observable world.

For instance, in the Hindu religion, they believe in a system of karma where good deeds and bad deeds lead to rebirth in a better or worse existence. However, there is no good way to test the theory of karma, since one cannot –at least to my knowledge –reliably establish whether a given person is the reborn version of another one.

I myself am deeply interested in creating a testable, reliable theory of morality that aligns with my religious and metaphysical commitments. But it is far from being an easy task.

Just recently saw the following argument in a logic book: all lions are herbivores all zebras are lions ————– therefore all zebras are herbivores this seems to be logically valid syllogism, but it is disturbing.

I have been reading your site, and there is somewhere you said a conclusion can logical valid but unsound. Is the following argument valid but unsound? I am not sure about what unsound arguments mean? Can you please clarify this for me. – Johnson Mafoko

Yes, that is a valid, unsound argument. The structure is good, but the content is bad. This is the case even though the conclusion is correct.

The way it works is this:

Invalid means the structure is bad. There are no benefits to an invalid argument, the premises have no meaningful connection to the conclusion.

Valid means the structure is good. If an argument is valid, it means the conclusion is at least as good as the premises. So if you put in true premises, you get a true conclusion. However, it doesn’t mean that if you put in false premises you get a false conclusion. In logic, false premises can lead to any conclusion, even when the argument structure is valid.

Sound means that the argument is valid and that the premises are true. A sound argument will guarantee a true conclusion. It is the only type of argument that guarantees a true conclusion.

Please note that only “formal” arguments –the kind of very artificial, highly structured arguments found in logic books and dealing only with unambiguously true or false statements –can be either valid or sound. (Different terms are used for less formal arguments).

I have existentialist leanings and see myself as a humanist. As a Christian I have had a problem reconciling these three philosophies…

…Thank you for making the attempt. I like it. My question
concerns Paul Tillich’s critic of pure existentialism, stating that
our use of language is universal and points to essentialism. He argues
that Christianity is comprises a dynamic between essentialism and
existentialism. You need both. You can’t separate the two. Is it
really possible to state existence proceeds essence when we worship a
universal Christ, historically grounded? Hope you can make sense of my
confused thoughts. – Eric

Here’s the short version of the answer: Christian existentialism must be understood as distinct from the more familiar atheist existentialism of a Sartre or Camus. I would describe it as follows: In (and only in) the context of a relationship with God through Christ, no essential constraints of law, morality or identity are absolutely binding.

So in atheist existentialism, your existential freedom is absolute, but in Christian existentialism, it is your relationship with God that is absolute, and your existential freedom stems from that relationship. You can look at is as a recasting of the classic Christian belief that servitude to Christ is freedom from the world –i.e. “My yoke is easy…”

Hope that helps. My response is original, but heavily influenced by Kierkegaard, particularly “Fear and Trembling”.

Is conscious experience an epiphenomenon of the brain?

Hello,
I would like to find out how you could answer the following question:
Is conscious experience an epiphenomenon of the brain?

I’ve dealt with this question several times before, but I’ll gladly address it again. Epiphenomenalism is the idea that mental phenomena –thoughts, feelings, acts of will –do not cause physical actions, but are only a response to them. I think I have deliberately moved my arm, but in fact my arm moved as a physical reaction to electrical signals in my brain, my thoughts did not cause it, but only observe it.

The motivation behind the development of epiphenomenalism is the difficulty of explaining the connection between the mental and the physical. Even today, there is no known explicit mechanism by which my act of will translates into a motion of my arm.

Yet epiphenomenalism is easy to debunk. It presents itself as an explanation of a mystery in the world, but all it really does is deny that that mystery takes place in the first place. It does not have any positive explanatory value.

The best argument for epiphenomenalism I think, is the argument from fiction. If I read a book, it is possible for me to get so deeply involved in the story that I feel as though it is happening to me in the moment. Even though I the reader do nothing to influence the events of the story, the skill of the writer makes me feel as though I am making the choices that in reality are being made by the character (really by the author).

Yet the metaphor of the book requires that the text has been prewritten, and that the shape of the narrative reflects the will of the author. No random assortment of letters on a page would have the power to create that same illusion of agency. In the same way, no plausible purely physical, unwilled sequence of events has yet be proposed that can explain, for example, why my physical body is sitting here, making motions with my hands that precisely produce this specific email that my mind believes itself to be composing.

Again, let’s say I’m the dictator of a small country. I decree that statues should be erected in my image nationwide, and poems written to commemorate me that should be chiseled into the pedestals. Epiphenomenalism has no explanation for why these statues and specific combinations of words subsequently appear all around the country –if not in response to my dictatorial willing that it should so happen. It’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination to call it a pure physical coincidence. At most, the adherent of epiphenomenalism can claim that all this directed complexity could theoretically spontaneously appear physically through some as yet undiscovered mechanism. Yet all that does is exchange one mystery for another.

The great mass of humanity is obstinately and blindly stuck in a repetitive consumerist dynamic

Q: Thank you for replying. I must say, your goodwill and faith in people is quite admirable.

I agree that a shift towards creative / artistic production is something of great value and represents a positive destiny for human beings. The great problem that we face however, is that there is a significant percentage of the human population that is truly vacuous, inane and can see no benefit in creativity. I do not speak solely about artistic production, as creativity. Any pursuit which requires a person to imagine, plan, develop, strategise and do in order to achieve a goal or actually make something has got to be positive (obviously not so much if that goal involves violence or cruelty). It’s about self determination, and then positive action in a purposeful direction I suppose.

 The great mass of humanity however is obstinately, and blindly stuck in a repetitive consumerist dynamic, that can only be sated with newer, bigger, more.  These are the Philistines. These are the people who litter our beautiful countryside with McDonalds and KFC  refuse, who live for generations on Welfare payments quite proudly, or conversely who stockpile fortunes and steal from hard working creative producers. They are different, but the same, they need each other.

 Some humans are above this dynamic to a certain extent (we all must participate at some level, consciously or not,) and living truthfully. If our consumerist culture hides a search for meaning, well that just confirms my opinion that many people are vacuous and inane. After several centuries of good living standards, one would hope that the lucky amongst us (the Westernised world for want of a better description) would have arrived at a nobler and greater expression of the meaning of our lives.

We haven’t. Instead, we are becoming more spoilt, more spoon fed, more demanding. Everything is false. People “give to charity” from their credit cards, instead of helping their neighbour who may be struggling .

I am being somewhat polemical, as obviously, this is not always true. There are pockets of resistance, which naturally, the dominant culture attempts to subsume, and then mass produce the results to increase profit.

Whilst the majority continues to sleep, and fails to dig beneath the gloss and artifice, the idiocy of human beings will only increase.

I think human beings are deliberately dumb, until they are forced from their ignorance, and then they begin to wise up.

For now, the fact that “good men are doing nothing”, to me, makes us evil.

In answer to your question; What should people spend their time and resources on?

I would say people should spend more time getting their hands dirty growing food, walking  or cycling  to work,  creating community projects, asking serious questions of their municipal councillors, raising funds  instead of demanding funding, refusing to purchase the next big thing, taking a risk, laughing at the deliberately ignorant, being outspoken,  and less time gossiping about The Voice (guilty as charged), purchasing processed foods, spraying Monsanto chemicals all over the countryside, and dumbly believing that what they see and hear on mainstream news is actually anywhere near the truth of the matter.

Whatever happens, I have a feeling that soon enough the truth will be revealed. There will be those who are capable of handling it, and there will be those who simply cannot.

Michaela

A: I wouldn’t say that I see human beings as intrinsically either good or evil, but as capable of manifesting both.  The question then becomes how can the good be promoted (because in my experience, suppressing the evil is counterproductive as an approach).

The chief problem is this.  In the sea of thought, most people are not swimmers.  They need a boat –i.e., a elaborated system of beliefs and structures –to keep them from drowning.  Even when a cultural system is “sinking”, people won’t abandon it unless they feel confident they can transfer to a new boat (another system) that will float.

That’s the current situation with relationship to consumerism.  We all know that boat is sinking, yet in the absence of a workable alternative, people cling ever more desperately to what they know.  Accordingly, my emphasis on the Arts is only partly because of my own love of them –I also think they have the potential to serve as the foundation for a more healthy socioeconomic system.

Why do we continue to evade the truth? …Are we dumb or are we evil?

Everyone in the Western World and beyond knows that we hold the key to personal/societal/cultural/financial transformation. We know that everything we do is wrong. Instead of going out and doing exactly what we should, ie stop spending, stop our vacuous pursuits (Plastic surgery springs to mind), stop supporting imperialistic expansionist ideals, we proceed to have larger, more ostentatious weddings, speak in ever more inane rhetorical loops and ignore more steadfastly all
the blatant signs of truth. (Collapse).

Are we dumb, or are we evil?

Michaela Crompton

I’ve found that any persistent negative behavior generally has some legitimate meaning behind it, no matter how worthless it may seem on the surface.

 In this case, I think that the excesses of our consumerist culture hide a well-disguised search for meaning.  By reducing everything to a fiscal value, we impose an order on the world that gives us (the illusion of) lives that make sense.
To cut to the heart of the matter, people never stop doing wrong things because they learn those things are wrong –they stop doing them only in the case that they learn ways of being that are better.  I think it’s ultimately more effective to make ambitious steps to bring new positive things into the world then to try directly to eliminate the old negative things.  You’ve asked why people don’t “stop spending, stop our vacuous pursuits, stop supporting imperialistic [expansionism], [stop having] larger, more ostentatious weddings, [stop speaking] in ever more inane rhetorical loops and [stop ignoring] more steadfastly all the blatant signs of truth.”  But what do you expect them to start doing once they stop all that?  What, in your estimation, is a valid pursuit?  What speech is substantive, not inane?  What should people expend –if not money –their time and resources on?
This is a real question.  For instance, my current efforts are aimed towards shifting our society away from materialistic consumption, and towards artistic production, because in my view, that represents the positive destiny for human beings.  But there may be other legitimate answers to that question as well.

Beauty in Art

If you’ve been following our series, we’re looking at whether War can be eliminated and the economy revived through the creation of a system that combines the competitive aspects of Sport, the objectivity of Science, and the non-materialist orientation of Art.  Back before the holidays we made a start on a synthesis by examining aesthetics (a topic closely associated with art) that are native to Sport and Science.

Our prior discussion gave us two possible aesthetics to base our new system upon. (It also raised a question: Why, if there are aesthetics native to both Sport and Science, do we need a new system at all? The answer is that aesthetics are not primary in either Sport or Science. In Sport, winning is more important than Beauty; No coach was ever fired for ugly wins, or retained for beautiful losses. In Science, results are more important that Beauty. Given the choice, a beautiful theory is always preferred, but in many cases the ugly theory is all that is available.) For full effectiveness, we would like our new aesthetic to have a large area of overlap with one is traditionally considered of high value in the world of Art. In other words, we want to create an aesthetic that is as clearly defined as those of Sport and Science, but that also covers the commonly acclaimed great works of Art.

As different as are Sport and Science, their associated aesthetics actually have a certain level of similarity. Both start with a high level of challenge, in Sport, the challenging opponent or athletic task, in Science, the challenging dataset. Both require success to be distinguished, in Sport by athletic grace, in Science by insight-granting simplicity. Both rely on an element of integrity. In Sport, an accusation of cheating, steroid use, or game-throwing will tarnish an otherwise beautiful moment. In Science, the use of faked or manipulated data and egregious “fudge factors” destroys a beautiful theory. Given these parallels, the obvious next step is to see if any analogs to these factors –“Challenge,” “Grace” and “Integrity” –exist in the world of Art.

Beauty in Science

Part of a continuing series on how to combine Art, Science and Sport to create a hybrid capable of replacing War. 

Like Beauty in Sport, Beauty in Science also proves easier to define and understand than Beauty in Art, particularly with an example of the contrast between an “ugly” theory and a “beautiful” theory. Towards this end, consider the historical attempt to understand the motion of the planets in the nighttime sky. For centuries, the dominant theory in the West was that all the planets orbited around the Earth in concentric circles. A elegant idea in conception, it turned into a very ugly theory when put into practice, for the simple reason that it did not match well with the observed data. When actual observations of the night sky were compared with the geocentric model, it seemed as though sometimes the planets were reversing direction and moving backwards, speeding up and slowing down, or simply not appearing where they were supposed to. So in order to keep the theory alive, the idea of “epicycles” was invented, smaller circular paths that interacted with the larger orbits and caused all the observed eccentricities.

What made this an ugly theory was partly that it was hugely complex, hard to understand, and frequently inaccurate, and partly that it was filled to the brim with what is often called “fudge factor,” numbers and calculations added for the specific purpose of getting the data to come out right, but without any larger justification or explanation. In the case of the geocentric theory, there was no explanation for the epicycles, or how big they were, or how many of them there might be. They were added solely to make the larger theory less flagrantly wrong all the time.

In contrast, the eventual heliocentric theory of the solar system was a very beautiful theory. It is simple, and easy to understand. It can be explaned in a single sentence, which even most non-scientists can understand: “All planets move around the sun (in orbits that are shaped like ellipses with the sun at one focal point).” It matches all the observed data with a high degree of accuracy, and without any need for “fudge factors.” In addition, it makes clear previously unsuspected new insights. For instance, the variability in the speed of the planets is completely predictable from the observation that a line between the sun and any given planet will trace out an equal area in an equal amount of time for any portion of its orbit, a result that could never have been suspected in the “ugly” theory.

If we generalize the scientific aesthetic in the same way that we generalized the athletic aesthetic, we derive something like this: Beauty in Science is a theory that brings order, simplicity, new insights and consistently correct predictions to a complex, challenging, and previously impossible to understand dataset, and that does so without either manipulating the original data or adding unexplained, unmotivated factors into the calculations to force them to match the observations.

Next Week: Back to Art

Beauty in Sport

To recapitulate our project, the goal is to combine Art, Science and Sport to create a hybrid capable of replacing War.  But is there a way to do this without just creating some Frankenstein-like assemblage with none of the strengths of any of its parents?

Instead of cobbling this institutions together, maybe a better approach is to look at ways they already reflect each other at a deeper level.  For that reason, this week’s post has the unusual title of “Beauty in Sport”.

The aesthetic of Sport is found in its purest form not in any hybrid “pretty” sport, but rather in the most “ugly” and bare-knuckled of gladitorial athletic contests –sports such as American football. Beauty in football, for example, is an underrated player on an outmatched team scoring the winning touchdown in the game’s final seconds seemingly without effort, despite the full overwhelming force of the opposing team. That is the moment that football fans live for –at least when it ends in their team’s favor. It is an easy scenario to grasp, and can be generalized as follows: Beauty in Sport is a clean, graceful victory over visibly overwhelming odds.

Given that the goal in every sporting event is a clean victory (meaning one where no one cheats, and everyone plays their best) , the real variable factor here is the level of difficulty, as intensified by things such as being outmatched, losing a key player, or being in the final seconds of the game, and as existing in dynamic tension with the grace of the triumph. A good real-life example is provided by Kerri Strug’s memorable last performance in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. As an Olympic competition, the level of challenge was already at a peak, but it increased by several orders of magnitude when Strug injured her leg shortly before her final vault. Normally she would have dropped out of contention in favor of letting her leg heal, but her teammates were relying on her final vault to secure their shot at winning the gold medals. When she soldiered through to complete a nearly flawless vault, and then subsequently collapsed in pain, the contrast between the grace of her performance and the obvious difficulty of having achieved it on a bad leg combined to create a moment of memorable athletic Beauty.

Next Week: Beauty in Science