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Evacuation: an Existential Exercise October 23, 2007

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

Sometimes Heidegger’s notion of “thrownness” (Geworfenheit) seems more useful than at other times (although he saw it as a permanent existential condition of relating to the world, and not as an exceptional situation)–or perhaps it is just a very useful metaphor: Here we are, in San Diego, in the midst of the Firestorm 2007, with fires burning to the north, and fires burning to the south, waiting to see if we will have to evacuate. It is a reality that is thrust upon us, or we are “thrown” into it, we have to react in some way or other, and all we can do is choose how to relate to it. We have neighbors who choose to ignore it, taking a chance that postponing to deal with evacuation issues will pay off, if there is no mandatory evacuation—but then they are gambling with the risk of total loss. Are they fatalists, or just oblivious? Does it give them peace of mind, or is it a prime example of bad faith? All over Southern California people have made such choices over the past 48+ hours. Some chose to ignore the peril; others packed up well ahead of time. Some of them can now return to undamaged homes, and others have nothing to return to. I’m not saying that one choice is necessarily wiser than the other, at all times—the anguish of packing up may be disproportionate to the actual danger level. Four years ago we were evacuated under similar circumstances; our house was saved by fire fighters, and we only had to spend 36 hours away from home. So it looked, and felt, like a happy ending story—but it left us changed forever. Because in the five hours before we were evacuated, we had been packing up, filling two cars with as much as we could of the things that meant the most to us—which was about a fifth of everything in the house we cared about. So we had to make some choices, about our priorities. What do you bring, if you’re a family with pets, and two cars, other than  each other and the absolute necessities? We, the scholars, gaze in panic at our library, collected over 30, 40, maybe 50 years, annotated books, dog-eared old friends—which books do we bring, and which do we leave behind? Some of us have music collections, CDs, LPs, maybe even 78s, each one acquired with pride, or inherited. We all have family photos, and they are heavy and take up a lot of space. Maybe we have family keepsakes, worth nothing on eBay, but a world of value to us. Old Uncle Ed’s wonderful painting of a horse in a meadow, Grandma’s high school diploma, Great Grandma’s quilt, the kids’ boxes of artwork…and some of us are true collectors, holding pieces of culture from another time in trust for the future. The mantra is these days, “Don’t worry about your house and possessions, they can all be replaced!” And indeed, some people’s possessions are replaceable, every one of them—the flat screen TV, the faux suede couch, the newly remodeled kitchen. But not everything can be replaced; some things are, objectively, the last ones or the only ones of their kind,. Some things contain the essence of who we are, things that reflect our shifting self-images as we have grown and changed. Preparing for evacuation becomes an existential exercise: Who are you really? What, among these stacks and piles of things accumulated over the years epitomizes you more than anything else? What might—if the two carloads end up being everything you own on this planet—you later reproach yourself for having forgotten, or deselected? Things that can be turned into cash? Things you love? Things that are unique? Things that meant something to loved ones who are no longer alive? Because as much as we’d like to think that we’re exclusively cerebral, it just ain’t so. We’re physical beings in a physical world, and we like stuff…

            And yet, this agonizing existential exercise is certainly preferable to the scenario where you don’t have time to make any choices at all: the 5-minute warning of the mandatory evacuation, the “Nothing but the clothes on their backs” kind of situation. And being able to keep two carloads of stuff plus loved ones and pets is by far preferable to losing everything. Yes, we can agree on that. And people around town this evening aren’t just philosophizing about this, they are living their losses and their choices. But as a human experience, the “thrownness” (in a loose sense) of the evacuation situation brings certain things into relief: The choices that we make, if fortunate enough to have a few hours of warning, can perhaps give us a brief glimpse into a deeper self—the part of us we choose to carry into our future.


Philosophy and Popular Culture October 18, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Science.

Philosophy has a difficult relationship with popular culture. According to Stephen Asma, that is not because of a cultural bias toward old, dead, white guys or an elitist disdain for matters that ordinary people find interesting. Instead, it is because philosophy:

“is in an extremely self-reflexive relationship with its own history, and it requires highly disciplined, systematic, abstract conceptualization, a skill that does not come easily to most people.”

He argues that books such as those in Open Court’s series on popular culture and philosophy (e.g. The Simpsons and Philosophy) do not really enlighten the reader about pop culture, but provide enjoyable access to perennial philosophical issues. Pop culture is in service to philosophy, making the medicine go down easily, rather than philosophy in service to pop culture.

His snarkish (and I think mistaken) comments about Cultural Studies suggest that he thinks there is something superior about philosophers rigorously sticking to core philosophical issues and analysis even when rooting around in the sediments of popular taste.

But why cannot disciplined, systematic philosophical thought help make sense of ordinary life? After all, science requires disciplined, systematic thought but there are lots of examples of bestselling books on science that illuminate some dimension of our lives. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Stephen J. Gould’s books on evolution, Chaos by James Glieck, Oliver Saks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat are among the many popular books on science that immediately come to mind.

Why is their no similar list in philosophy? (Harry Frankfurt’s Bullshit is an exception, but the title sells itself.)

I suspect it is because popular science books do not try to get readers to do science–they report and tell stories. Why is there no parallel in philosophy? Is it because philosophers don’t like to report and tell stories?

Culture and Passion October 13, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Political Philosophy.

This article by famed Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek says some very interesting things: (1) China recently legislated about who can or cannot be reincarnated in Tibet, so in a roundabout way religion has found its way back into official China. But what kind of religion? The kind that will make the citizens comply, and (2)  China has realized that “unbridled capitalism” works better than political force and threats as a deconstruction of traditional values. But more importantly, Zizek does a cultural critique of the West (“the sophisticates”) when we laugh at China regulating the afterlife, and condemn the Taliban for blowing up ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. Zizek, a “Lacanian postmodern” culture critic, sees the Western “sophisticates” as the ones with the problem (even though he includes himself): Our participation in cultural traditions has become precisely that, a cultural phenomenon rather that a phenomenon of passion:

“The significant issue for the West here is not Buddhas and lamas, but what we mean when we refer to “culture.” All human sciences are turning into a branch of cultural studies. While there are of course many religious believers in the West, especially in the United States, vast numbers of our societal elite follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores of our tradition only out of respect for the “lifestyle” of the community to which we belong: Christmas trees in shopping centers every December; neighborhood Easter egg hunts; Passover dinners celebrated by nonbelieving Jews.

“Culture” has commonly become the name for all those things we practice without really taking seriously. And this is why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians” with a “medieval mindset”: They dare to take their beliefs seriously. Today, we seem to see the ultimate threat to culture as coming from those who live immediately in their culture, who lack the proper distance.”

So somehow, fundamentalists are more “authentic” than Western “sophisticates”?  For one thing, Zizek doesn’t take into consideration that some of us Westerners actually do take our cultures seriously, and think that some secular Western political and, yes, cultural traditions are worth celebrating, teaching, and in some cases dying for. (When I said something similar in a previous blog, a student accused me of being biased. Am I biased? You bet I am, in favor of systems that value human dignity, over systems that don’t.) And the reason why some of us call the fundamentalist mindset medieval is not because they take their beliefs seriously, but because they don’t allow for others to have different beliefs, to the point of beheading the unbelievers.  He calls the Chinese attempt to legislate reincarnation a purely political move, which of course it is. But likewise he sees all our respect for other cultures as just a way to manage the political consequences of coexisting different mindsets. Here he forgets that we “sophisticates” actually don’t respect all other cultures, unless we are ethical relativists (and if we are, then we don’t criticize the Taliban, either)—our “culture” teaches us that cultures who respect other cultures are to be respected. Otherwise, they’re fair game for our criticism. So is Zizek sympathizing with terrorists? It looks to me as if this is merely an intellectual (and very witty) exercise, in the old Down-With-Capitalism-and-the-Degenerate-Capitalists vein, flirting with the forbidden: the ways of the fundamentalist terrorist. But what are we then supposed to be passionate about? The Postmodernist doesn’t say…

Sigh October 9, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Science.

When will people stop making arguments like this?

“But the materialists have two problems. Their certainty of victory is, for the moment, a leap of faith. There is no clear scientific consensus on how the brain produces the higher functions we call being human. And, second, the great mystery, the ultimate hard question, remains: How does matter produce mind, how can it? Irrespective of religious belief, immaterialism cannot easily be dismissed. What is the nature of what I am thinking and feeling now? To tell me that it is all a by-product of my brain is to tell me nothing. What I am is at least as real as the chair I am sitting on, and what I am seems to be immaterial.”

This is simple nonsense. The fact that a research program is relatively new and incomplete is not evidence that some alternative hypothesis must be true–especially when there is substantial evidence supporting the research program and no evidence supporting the alternative hypothesis.

Cognitive science and neuroscience continue to make empirically testable hypotheses and have explained a variety of complex mental functions, though a complete explanation of consciousness is still elusive. The alternative, that there is some sort of “soul” that explains mental functioning, has generated few empirically-testable hypotheses, those that have been tested have failed the test, and the hypothesis itself borders on the incoherent. No one has ever suggested a remotely plausible answer to the question of how a non-physical substance can causally interact with a physical substance.

Confidence in materialism (or physicalism) is not based on faith but on evidence. It is a plain fact that mental states are exactly correlated with a range of specific brain events. Although a correlation between mind and body does not guarantee a causal relationship, if physicalism were false, this correlation would be an utter mystery. Furthermore, the causal relationship has been established with regard to a variety of mental functions.

Give it up already.

Talking Snakes October 2, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science, Teaching.

It is irritating and sad that in the 21st Century professors have to spend time in the college classroom explaining that snakes can’t talk. It is frightening that a professor can be fired for it. 

That is apparently what happened to a community college instructor in Iowa, who claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted. The story is here. (And check out the update at the bottom. The video is hilarious.)

Stories like this make research like this important. There is some evidence that rigid adherence to dogma can be explained by underdevelopment of the frontal lobes of the brain.

“Do extremism and an unconditional adherence to religious dogma result from a failure of a portion of the frontal lobe to fully develop or, if fully developed, to activate? Studies suggest that faithful adherence to a single reasoning strategy on tests such as the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test means that parts of the frontal lobes are inactive, have failed to fully develop, or have even been damaged. Thus, unqualified disdain for divergent beliefs,for personal interpretation, and for creative theories like Darwin’s theory of evolution, may indeed have, at least a partial, biological explanation: a reduced utilization of that section of the brain which has played such a vital role in humanity’s creative advances—the frontal lobes.”

Of course it took a lot of imagination for people to come up with stories about talking snakes. But wouldn’t it be interesting to update it a bit?