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Cautionary Tales June 28, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events.
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With all the talk of Iran as part of the axis of evil, about to acquire nuclear weapons, calling for the destruction of Israel, etc. it is important to remember that these accusations are coming from the Bush administration and their stooges in the mainstream media, the same folks that gave us the Iraq War, weapons of mass destruction, and mission accomplished.

We have ample reason to be suspicious of their claims.

As usual, Juan Cole gives us a more nuanced perspective.


Need a Liberating Narrative? Don’t Forget the Whip! June 26, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture.
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From Largier’s history of flagellation:

“…his desire to be chained and beaten betrayed, in its ugliness, a dream just as poetic as other men’s desire to go to Venice or to keep a mistress”.

Is it fantasy or subterranean lust? These are not mutually exclusive explanations.

Radical Hope and the Atheist’s Dilemma June 21, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Ethics, Philosophy.

Radical Hope is the ability to maintain hope in a meaningful existence even when one’s existence has lost all meaning. It is hope that goes beyond one’s ability to formulate an idea of what one hopes for.

In his new book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, philosopher Jonathan Lear uses the idea of radical hope to explain how human beings confront the cataclysmic loss of traditional ways of life. The subject of this case study is the Crow nation, a migratory tribe dependent on hunting buffalo and defending their hunting grounds who, when the buffalo disappeared from the plains, lost not only their means of material support but their entire conception of how to live a meaningful life.

The leader of the Crow nation, Plenty Coups, told his biographer: “But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened.” On Lear’s interpretation, this statement “After this, nothing happened” means that actions that define who and what one is were no longer possible so “the very acts themselves have ceased to make sense.” As Charles Taylor points out in his review of the book, “There are no alternative careers waiting for an ex-warrior; he probably has a wife and children, but what does it mean to be a father if you can’t hand on the skills of a warrior?” Nothing could happen because no way forward could be concretely envisioned.

Yet, Plenty Coups was able to conceptualize and communicate an ideal of personal courage that would enable the Crow to respond to almost any possible future. Plenty Coups had dreamed of an apocalyptic future for his people, but in that dream his people were promised a future so long as they emulated the Chickadee-person, an iconic figure in Crow mythology whose key attribute is the ability to listen to others and learn from them. Plenty Coups was able to communicate this new ideal of courage in the face of the unknown exemplified by the Chickadee-person, and it would give the Crow the flexibility to create new definitions of a meaningful life despite their inability to conceptualize their future. Something would bring about the fulfillment of the prophecy in the dream though they knew not what. This is radical hope.

Lear’s book is interesting because it contains a deep understanding of courage. To confront the unknown with intelligence and openness without lashing out in anger or engaging in consoling illusions is a kind of courage too often ignored. Lear contrasts Plenty Coups’ actions with those of the Sioux Nation under Sitting Bull, who rested their hopes on a savior who would punish white people and enable them to return to their old ways. Unlike the Crow, the Sioux turned away from the future in favor of a past that could never return.

Lear’s book is interesting also because it casts light on the origins and persistence of religion. Most human beings throughout most of history have either faced circumstances such as those that confronted the Crow nation, or have seen themselves as vulnerable to such devastating loss. Most human beings, I imagine, have felt intensely the need for radical hope and have turned to religion to supply it.Of course, most religions attempt to fill in the unknown with particular doctrines and conceptions of God. To the extent these doctrines become formulae for belief and consoling illusions, their adherents fail to exhibit the courage that radical hope demands of us.  Yet, many religious folks are quite aware of the radical uncertainty of their beliefs and persistently acknowledge this uncertainty in their lives. The motive of religious belief is radical hope, even if in practice the hope often devolves into ordinary special pleading.

In recent years, books pointing out the irrationality of religious belief, by writers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, have received a great deal of deserved attention. These are important books that prosecute compelling arguments for atheism. However, these arguments miss this important dimension of radical hope. Radical hope is irrational because it cannot rest on evidence. But its irrationality is beside the point, because it expresses the human need to confront uncertainty with courage. It is not obvious that atheism offers anything like radical hope. Atheism demands that we be rational but then cannot articulate a crucial human capacity that is beyond reason.  Until it is able to encourage the motives that enable radical hope and the courage such hope demands of us, atheism is likely to remain a minority taste.

Ignorance on Parade June 16, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events.
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We Americans think of ourselves as hard-headed realists. Our technological prowess and economic power is testimony to the way we deal with the nuts and bolts of the world as it really is, carefully examining the facts before acting. Maybe there is some truth to this self conception—we certainly are committed to techno-science as a way of life and success in this endeavor requires a commitment to understanding how the world works.  

Or is this commitment to the facts now consigned to the dustbin of history?

 On June 5th, we were treated to quite a spectacle in mystery mongering—a debate between the exalted Republican candidates for President of our technologically advanced, scientifically sophisticated nation. 

One question put to these worthies was “Do you believe in evolution?” Like first-graders eager to impress their teacher, three of them (Tancredo, Brownbeck, and Huckabee) rushed to assure the audience that they did not. Of course, the theory of evolution is as well established as anything in science, and rejecting evolutionary theory would entail throwing out a good deal of physics, substantial portions of astronomy and geology, not to mention much of biology and bio-chemistry. For a brief summary of why opposition to evolutionary theory is nonsense see this. 

On more mundane matters of state, when asked whether he thought it was a mistake for the U.S. to invade Iraq, candidate Romney replied: 

“If you’re saying let’s turn back the clock, and Saddam Hussein had opened up his country to IAEA inspectors, and they’d come in and they’d found that there were no weapons of mass destruction, had Saddam Hussein, therefore, not violated United Nations resolutions, we wouldn’t be in the conflict we’re in. But he didn’t do those things, and we knew what we knew at the point we made the decision to get in.” 

Unfortunately, Romney is factually challenged. Weapons inspectors from the UN had been in Iraq for months reporting on Iraqi compliance with UN weapons mandates and discovered no weapons of mass destruction.  (The IAEA report is here)  On a matter of crucial interest to our national security, an obvious and well-known fact seems to have escaped the attention of the former Governor of Massachusetts. 

Rudy Giuliani, responding to the same question about the justification for the war in Iraq said,

 “And the problem is that we see Iraq in a vacuum. Iraq should not be seen in a vacuum. Iraq is part of the overall terrorist war against the United States.”

 Once again, facts are not in evidence here. There was no connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorists or any other known threat. Although there is now an “organization” called Al Quaeda in Iraq, experts on terrorism largely agree that, though dangerous, they play a minor role in the overall picture of violence in Iraq. (For a summary see this.) 

Of course, perhaps we ought not to worry about politicians misleading the public. After all, don’t we have a press corps that is doggedly determined to get to the truth about matters of public import? Unfortunately, the press doesn’t seem up to the task. As Fairness in Accuracy and Media reports, Republican candidates are seldom called to account for the liberties they take with the truth. 

If you are entertained by these mythomaniacs, you ought to catch Tony Snow’s act. Snow, President Bush’s Press Secretary, in reacting to the recent bombing of the mosque in Samarra on Tuesday said “It does fit a pattern that we see throughout the region, which is that when you see things moving towards success, or when you see signs of success, that there are acts of violence.”  

As Orwell’s 1984 reminds us: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.”

The Soprano Bots June 12, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture.
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After much deliberation, I have decided that I am OK with the cut-to-black ending of the Sopranos. Yes, it was manipulative and writer/director David Chase gave a big middle finger to the fans who wanted a climactic, definitive end in this final episode. Yet, despite appearances, there was narrative closure.

The Sopranos was never about justice or whether Tony, the anti-hero, is going to come out on top or get what he deserves. It was about the grip that a particular culture–the Italian mafia in America–has on people who grow up in it and the effects of that culture on their psyche.

The question that the series poses is not whether Tony will live or die but whether anyone embedded in that peculiar, toxic mix of family loyalty, nostalgia, tribal affiliation, violence, and greed striving to achieve the American Dream can ever gain enough perspective to escape. Much of the narrative of this season was devoted to answering that question, and the answer we are given in the final episode is a resounding no.

Meadow, Tony’s daughter, was on her way to medical school but abruptly decides to get a law degree in order to defend Italian-Americans like her Dad who are rousted by the Feds–in other words she wants to be a mob lawyer. AJ, Tony’s son, depressed but inspired by idealistic though juvenile worries about the state of the world, decides to join the Army, but ends up taking a job as gofer for a producer of porn movies. Carmella is back to remodeling houses thinking that will allay her doubts about Tony’s ability to provide financial security. All are sucked back into the maelstrom of mob life that brings them little but grief.

The die was cast for this narrative of cultural determinism in the penultimate episode, when Tony’s long-term participation in psychotherapy comes to an abrupt end. Dr. Amalfi, worried that new research suggesting that psychotherapy encourages psychopaths makes her complicit in Tony’s crimes, summarily cuts off his weekly therapy sessions.

Therapy represents Tony’s only opportunity for self-understanding, though it never was particularly effective. When that is terminated, cultural determinism is allowed to run its course. Self-understanding (though not necessarily psychotherapy) is the only path to freedom for all of us. Without it we are all robotic reproductions of our past.

Of course, it is not as if nothing has changed. Tony’s loyal lieutenants are dead, in a coma, or headed off the deep end. His connections to his childhood and his old neighborhood are fading. He will soon be under indictment. Gone are the lavish dinners in Italian restaurants with expensive wine and sycophantic visits from the owner. He ends up with his immediate family in a cheap Jersey diner eating onion rings–an American saga of assimilation gone awry.

Even while he and his family remain in the grip of mafia culture ,it is collapsing around them, because no culture based on greed and violence can flourish.

So the Sopranos are doomed to the continual repetition of a faded past. “Don’t Stop Believing,” the song by Journey that plays over the final scene, is appropriate accompaniment though it is often bad advice.

On second thought perhaps the show is about justice. 

Richard Rorty Has Died June 10, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Philosophy.

Richard Rorty has died. 

I am saddened by his death. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I have spent countless hours reading his work and grappling with his arguments. He has influenced me deeply. 

Rorty devoted much of his intellectual life to showing that philosophy is not discovering timeless, ultimate truths but is inevitably situated in its cultural and historical moment. On that point, I am convinced Rorty was right, just as I am convinced that we are social creatures all the way down, another of Rorty’s themes. 

I remain unconvinced that we can do without metaphysical beliefs or that we can imagine something like a post-philosophical culture. And although I admire his commitment to liberalism and studied with interest his version of it, I think it is “weak tea”, insufficiently robust to withstand the forces that threaten liberalism. 

If he leaves us with one thought, it is that a quaking uncertainty about our foundational beliefs is necessary for the health of philosophy as well as culture. His work is a model of how to live intellectually with that uncertainty. He is indeed a legitimate heir to Socrates.

May he rest in peace. 

A discussion of his legacy is on-going over at Crooked Timber.

Imitation is the Mother of Intelligence June 8, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.

According to a Washington Post article, “What Were They Thinking? More Than We Knew”, dogs have been shown to be able to imitate atypical actions of other dogs. I am not completely surprised at the findings, only at the courage to publish (we all know about the Clever Hans curse). I had the privilege of watching our beloved wonder dog over 12 years expanding her comprehension-vocabulary and “tricks” with things we never taught her, but which she observed, remembered, and imitated. An alien intelligence, right there by the fireplace! Why is it so important to have established that dogs can imitate each other? Because it is one of the true tests of intelligence: having a Theory of Mind, an understanding of “Other Minds:” Brian Hare of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology says, “This suggests they can actually think about your intention — they can look for explanations of your behavior and make inferences about what you are thinking.”

As a philosophy student a couple of centuries ago I was told that (1) only humans can think, (2) only humans can feel, and (3) only humans have morals. Over the years I started doubting first one, then the other, and lastly the third one; and animal behaviorists and neurologists are now showing us what anecdotal evidence has hinted at all along (which was enough for Darwin), that many animals have rudimentary logical thinking, complex emotional reactions, and even some form of community awareness (if we want to call that “moral” is another question). Apes have been shown to have self-awareness through the mirror self-recognition test, and dolphins and elephants have been added to that list. And now…could dogs be joining the club? The question is, can you imitate what someone else is doing, deliberately, without knowing that you are doing it? In other words, does it imply self-awareness? Skeptics say no, we’re falling for the old anthropomorphizing trick again, dogs are automata working on pure instinct, and if we call dogs self-aware, then we’ve watered down the concept of self-awareness. But as David Hume said in the 18th century, if it quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, guess what? Well, not in those exact words, but he did say that if animals display the same kind of behavior that humans do under certain circumstances, and we call the human behavior intelligent, there is no reason why we shouldn’t use the same terms when describing animal behavior. Although it’s a little too soon to declare that dogs ought to have the right to vote and to receive a basic education …This story takes us in two directions: one toward epistemology, and the other toward ethics.

What Was in Plato’s Kitchen? June 6, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Ethics, Food and Drink, Philosophy.

According to Plato, taking pleasure in food is the enemy of philosophy and of culture–a hindrance to reason.

“In order then that disease might not quickly destroy us, and lest our mortal race should perish without fulfilling its end–intending to provide against this, the gods made what is called the lower belly, to be a receptacle for the superfluous meat and drink, and formed the convolution of the bowels, so that the food might be prevented from passing quickly through and compelling the body to require more food, thus producing insatiable gluttony and making the whole race an enemy to philosophy and culture, and rebellious against the divinest element within us.” (Timaeus, 72e-73a)

But, as this article from the Columbia Journalism Review makes clear, food and its pleasures influence almost every aspect of life–economics, the environment, ethical choices, not to mention the aesthetics of everyday life. There is ample food for thought here.

So what must have been in Plato’s kitchen that gave him such a fright? A bad hunk of lamb? A wayward bottle of retzina encountered at a tender age? Perhaps a forbidden slave girl that got him into trouble?

Philosophy is the occasion for endless speculation.

The Noble Hoax? June 2, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Is there such a thing as a good lie? A lie that breaks rules of personal and professional ethics for a good cause? Utilitarians among us will say Yes, the end justifies the means, but even utilitarians are cautious about the ramifications of the lies if they don’t have the anticipated good consequences. There’s a long tradition in philosophy for debating the question of the Noble Lie, so let’s talk about the most recent story: The Dutch revelation of the television network BNN’s kidney hoax. Maybe you’ve heard about the outrageously poor taste of a Dutch television game show that featured a dying patient, and patients with impending kidney failure competing for her kidneys. Now the broadcaster has revealed that it was, in fact, a hoax. The “dying patient” is a healthy actress; the three patients hoping for her kidneys are, in fact, kidney-failure patients, but in on the hoax. So what was the point? Supposedly a noble one: to make the Dutch public aware of the plight of patients dying while waiting for organs—a fate that was suffered by the network founder himself.  Organ donors are fewer than ever in the Netherlands, and the network wanted to make a moral point, by creating a fake scenario in order to engender a real wave of compassion. Lots of moral issues here: Is the hoax in any way defensible, as a shock device? Is it  acceptable for a network to fool its audience? And from a strictly utilitarian point of view: What about the backlash? People don’t like to be fooled. Is this another Cry Wolf story?

The 50 Years War June 2, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events.

With all the excuses used to justify the war in Iraq–removing Saddam, destroying WMD, promoting democracy–and all the prevarication about when it will end–when the terrorists (Sunni, Shia, Baathist, Al Quaeda?) are defeated, “we’ll stand down when the Iraqi army stands up”–the plain fact that the mainstream media occasionally reports but largely ignores is the ongoing construction of permanent U.S. military bases.

I’ll leave it to speculation why the mainstream media buries this seemingly relevant issue. But now we know the purpose of the bases. According to President Bush, Iraq is the new Korea.

Permanent occupation has been the goal all along.