Monthly Archives: October 2011

Can the Dead Walk?

A participant of a Zombie walk, Asbury Park NJ...

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While George Romero introduced zombies to movie goers years ago, the fascination with the walking dead continues to grow like a zombie horde. While it is fun to watch the fictional zombies, it might be wondered whether or not the dead can really walk.

While “science” based zombies are standard zombies of most movies, there is also the classic supernatural zombie. These zombies are driven by supernatural forces rather than mysterious radiation or some sort of super virus. For example, the zombies I use in my Pathfinder campaigns are corpses that are possessed by unintelligent evil spirits of negative energy. Obviously, these zombies are make believe and are almost certainly not the sort of thing that could exist in this world. That said, if there is a supernatural aspect to this world (which seems rather unlikely) then supernatural zombies might be possible. I am, of course, inclined to think that they are not-mainly because of the lack of evidence.

As might be imagined, “science” based zombies would seem to have the best chance of being possible. It is also worth considering the possibility of what can be called a corpse suit. A corpse suit is a dead body that is “worn” by another living organism that moves it about, using it as protection or camouflage. Plants, insects and fungus have (in fiction, including several of my Call of Cthuhu adventures) been cast in such a role. While no known organism does this with human bodies, it does not seem like an impossibility. Of course, this sort of thing would not be a zombie in the strict sense. After all, the dead body is not walking itself but is being manipulated like a puppet.

One common cause of the “science” zombies is a virus or other such agent that re-animates (usually after killing). For example, my own Nightsiders (specifically “Dead Island”-not to be confused with the recent video game that uses the same name and basic plot) features a zombie agent that was being developed as a weapon. While an agent that causes people to act in zombie like ways certainly seems possible (as vividly portrayed in 28 Days Later), these people would not be zombies in the sense of being the walking dead for the obvious reason that they are not actually dead.

As might be imagined, the main challenge with creating the walking dead is getting a corpse to move under its own power. If the body is completely dead, then it would seem rather unlikely that it would be able to do so. After all, the dead nerve cells would not be able to direct the dead muscle cells to fire. Presumably the dead muscle cells could not fire, even if somehow signaled to do so by undead nerves.

One way around this, other than imagining some sort of undead cellular activity that is somehow not life (which might seem a bit supernatural), is to cheat a bit and allow for zombies that are partially alive. If parts of the brain, nervous system and muscles could remain alive (or were re-started after death) then a zombie of sorts would seem to be possible. After all, there could be enough neural guidance and muscle power left to move the mostly dead body around under its own power. This could, perhaps, be accomplished by a virus or bacteria that was rather selective.

Merely having a mobile mostly dead corpse would, of course, still not be quite enough. After all, the sort of zombie we are looking for does more than just lie on the table and twitch. It pursues the living and is presumably driven by an endless hunger for their brains.

Getting that sort of zombie seems rather tricky. After all the zombie would need enough mental functionality to be able to recognize and pursue the living yet be lacking enough so as to be a zombie (which are suppose to be unintelligent). The zombie would, of course, also need the motivation to hunt the living. Mere hunger would, of course, not be enough-otherwise zombies would just eat whatever they could find and would not be totally fixated on humans.

This challenge could be overcome by imagining that the agent that creates the zombie modifies the nervous system in such a way that the zombie behavior is created. There are, of course, diseases (such as rabies) that affect behavior and there are fungi that radically impact behavior (albeit primarily in insects rather than humans). However, there is enough of a precedent to provide a foundation for the imagination. Throw in the hypothesis that the agent was developed for military purposes and it would seem that we have a winner.

Thus it would seem that zombies (of a sort) are possible.  Happy Halloween.

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Talking Philosophy Statistics 2

About 18 months ago, I posted some information about the numbers of people who visit the Talking Philosophy blog.

So here are some updated figures. In the last year, Talking Philosophy has attracted:

358,684 unique visitors

who have made:

1,048,955 visits


2,845,100 separate pages.

So, many thanks to all our bloggers. (Except me – I’ve been hopelessly absent, which, come to think of it, might explain why the blog has become more popular…).

Popular Practical Metaphysics

Meditation 117: Popular Practical Metaphysics

Knowing my interest in practical metaphysics, a friend suggested I search Google for it. Much to my surprise, I saw many sites devoted to the subject. There are differences, however, between my ‘philosophical’ approach and the more ‘spiritual’ approaches I saw on the web. What these sites have in common is a faith or belief in metaphysical principles as absolute truths. Possessing these truths, it is said, has beneficial practical consequences for a person’s life.

What will the practitioner receive by taking in metaphysical principles and letting them transform her or his life? Many benefits are claimed. They will help you become a vegetarian, stop smoking and never suffer another cold. It also enables you to visualize and affirm outcomes that you desire. The idea is that by a kind of sympathetic quantum magic, the world will provide what you need for an abundant life if you can just want it in the right way.

On the internet, practical metaphysics is identified with spiritual practice and truth. Spiritual “truths” are, in fact, metaphysical assertions that go beyond logic or mere sense perception. The sites express a connection between practical metaphysics and a Divine Mind, God, Universal Spirit or Cosmic Consciousness. In this view, prayer or meditation is a kind of metaphysical work. The sort of things one learns are like those taught by Swedenborg, the great spirit-seer of old. We will learn about unseen powers and how to commune with them. We will attain unity with God or Universal Spirit, overcoming the otherness that haunts our embodied existence. We will learn to program our minds to make the most of our lives. Practical metaphysics teaches that there is a reality that goes far beyond the world we experience in daily life. We come to know this reality more through spiritual practices than abstract teachings. We are to intuit or directly experience metaphysical “truths”, but such experiences cannot be described in mere words.

Popular practical metaphysics falls into the category of “self-help” strategies that have a spiritual component. The claims of the web sites take advantage of the second and third principles of “philosophical” practical metaphysics, but deny the first. The first principle is that we cannot prove or disprove the truth of metaphysical claims either through empirical research or logical demonstration. The second and third are that we have to adopt some metaphysical beliefs and that some of these will have practical consequences for our lives. These consequences play out by shaping attitudes, patterns of feelings and kinds of actions. They influence everyday behavior. How they do so will depend upon the theory one adopts.

For example, one approach is to distinguish a Higher and a Lower Self, access the Higher Self, leave the Lower Self behind and attain enlightenment. Another approach is to leave the Self altogether, both Higher and Lower, as as distraction from the Pure Light. Taking one path or the other will lead in different directions and arrive in difference places, or, mystically speaking, in the same place. Still, it is a choice whether to take one path or wander aimlessly about in life. A metaphysical stance can come from within or without. It can be refused altogether, but even a refusal to play the metaphysical game is itself a metaphysical stance. Perhaps one of the things that makes the human species unique is precisely the insatiable human appetite for metaphysical ideas.

Popular practical metaphysics has a wide ranging idea of what constitutes metaphysics. It includes occult magical practices, parapsychology, hypnosis, quantum physics, psychic contact with spirits and sympathetic magic. We can learn to experience the spirit world and influence the Universal or Cosmic Mind. These are heady thoughts that do not directly contradict Pure Reason. (They are not logically impossible.) Nevertheless, Kant was right to restrict Pure Reason to the world of sense perception and causal reasoning. There is no check upon our ideas once we leave behind all thought of the empirical world. From my “philosophical” point of view, what we find on the web about ‘Practical Metaphysics’ are assertions that metaphysical claims are knowable. On my view, we can adopt such claims but are unable to prove their truth conclusively.

Implicit in popular practical metaphysics is the idea there that we can have knowledge of metaphysical truths and principles and that they can be taught. Most of the sites invite the reader to sign up for a course that will make all things clear. Therefore, in the background is the thought that some people have a privileged knowledge of metaphysical reality, and that this knowledge can be conveyed to others who lack it. Yet the web sites do not all agree about the constitution of Metaphysical Reality. It seems to go unnoticed that one metaphysical system may totally contradict another and that there is no common yardstick by which to measure both. The appeal to experience is also an interesting feature of popular practical metaphysics. It is needed because when I impart metaphysical truths to another, I have to admit that they cannot be known in ordinary ways. The proof has to be in the experience. Does your life improve? Does a metaphysical belief put your heart at rest? Is your soul in less pain? Does it give you comfort regarding a loved one’s death or peace in the middle of the night? Does it help you find meaning in your suffering, in your unhappy childhood, in your troublesome marriage, etc.? Does it make your illness or loneliness or blindness more bearable? Does it help you to have compassion for others? Does it give you the courage to withstand multiple failures, and keep trying? There is no doubting the power of belief, but the honest thing to say here is “Your money back if you are not fully satisfied.”

Ethics of Protesting

This shows two Science Park High School studen...

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This past year has witnessed many protests ranging from those in the Middle East to the latest Occupy protests that are spreading around the world. Most recently Melissa Brookstone of the Tea Party Nation decided to get in on the protesting by calling on America’s small business owners to take the following pledge:

I, an American small business owner, part of the class that produces the vast majority of real, wealth producing jobs in this country, hereby resolve that I will not hire a single person until this war against business and my country is stopped.

This is being presented as an act of protest rather than as being an attempt to damage the American economy more in an attempt to lower Obama’s chances of being re-elected in 2012. Rather than debate this issue, I will, instead assume (for the sake of the discussion) that this is an act of protest. Likewise, I will take the Occupiers as being engaged in an act of protest rather than attributing to them any sinister motives.

In some cases protests raise little in the way of ethical concerns. To be specific, a protest that does not cause any meaningful harm or interference can generally be regarded as morally inoffensive. For example, if a group of people peacefully assemble on private property and make a statement of protest against some perceived injustice, that would most likely be morally inoffensive. However, some protests do cause actual harm or interference and this would tend to make them of greater moral concern.

For example, the Occupy protestors occupy areas and thus interfere with access on the part of other people. Police are often deployed in response to the protestors and this uses up police resources. As another example, people who protest by going on strike or by boycotting a business can do harm to that business (and the employees of that business). As a third example, if small business owners decide to take Brookstone’s pledge, they would presumably be harming the people they would have otherwise hired.

In the case of protests that interfere with others, these can clearly be such that they violate other people’s legitimate rights. For example, if protestors occupy a park, then other people are denied access to do what they would otherwise do. As another example, if protestors occupy a business, they are interfering with the rights of the owner and the employees.  As such, these sorts of protests would seem to require some moral justification.

One rather obvious and sensible standard is that the harm done by the protest should be proportional to the harm that is being protested. It also should go without saying that the harm needs to be real rather than merely imagined or a fabrication. Another reasonable standard is that there should not be a less harmful redress available that could be reasonably expected to solve the problem. After all, if the conflict can be resolved with less harm by these means, that would certainly seem to be the right (and sensible) thing to do. A third standard worth considering is whether or not the harm of the protest is suffered primarily by the target of the protest or by others. After all, protesting a wrong by  primarily  harming  people who are innocent of wrongdoing (or who are less significantly less responsible than others) would certainly seem to merely create more wrongs than it would protest them.

To use a simple example, imagine that a student fails my class because s/he never does the work and then disrupts my office hours and classes with shouts of “LaBossiere is unfair!” This  would seem to be unacceptable. After all, the harm was self-inflicted and would hardly warrant interfering with the education of other students (who had no role in the student’s failure). Also, there is an established process for disputing grades that do not require such behavior.

In the case of protests that are boycotts or non-hiring protests, these would seem to be well within the rights of the individuals involved in said protests. After all, I am under no special moral obligation to patronize a business or, if I owned a business, to employ anyone. As such, these protests would seem to fall clearly withing the realm of being morally acceptable (although there could be some exceptions).

That said, it does seem reasonable to hold that a person could be acting within his/her rights, yet still be acting unfairly and thus perhaps in a way that is at least somewhat wrong. Such protests, it would seem, could still be evaluated by the suggested standards given above.

For example, suppose that people are protesting a business that practices racial discrimination (such as giving minorities worse rates on loans simply because they are minorities). Provided that the protest is aimed primarily at the decision makers and the harm inflicted is in balance with the offense (for example, boycotting the company as opposed to fire bombing their offices), then the protest would seem to be morally acceptable (and perhaps laudable).

As another example, suppose that people are protesting an oil  company that has poor environmental practices. The protestors focus on not patronizing the independently owned gas stations (which follow the rules regarding the environment) that fall under the brand name of the company and end up putting some of them out of business, but this has almost no impact on the parent company’s bottom line. In this case, there would certainly be some very reasonable doubts about the morality of such protests.

As a final example, consider the call to not hire people to protest the alleged war on business and America. Even if it is assumed that such a war exists this sort of protest would seem to inflict the actual harm on the innocent potential employees rather than the alleged perpetrators of the war. To use an analogy, this would seem to be like protesting against a business not by boycotting or protesting that business, but by going after individual employees in the hopes that the protest would someone impact the business.  Also, there is a clear means of redress in regards to this problem, namely the upcoming elections. As such, this sort of protest would seem morally dubious (at best).

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Can Everyone be Wealthy?

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman (the tattoo, not the person)/

It is sometimes asked whether or not everyone can be wealthy. This depends, obviously enough, on what is meant by “wealthy.” Determining what “wealthy” means requires sorting out the nature of wealth.

As might be imagined, there is a fair amount of debate about the true nature of  personal wealth.  While this oversimplifies things, a fairly standard view of wealth is that it consists of the net economic value of a person’s assets minus their liabilities. To be a bit more specific, these assets typically include possessions (cars, guns, art, computers, books, appliances, and so on), monetary resources (cash, for example) and capital resources. Not everyone buys into the stock view, of course. For example, Emma Goldman claimed that “real wealth consists in things of utility and beauty, in things that help to create strong, beautiful bodies and surroundings inspiring to live in. But if man is doomed to wind cotton around a spool, or dig coal, or build roads for thirty years of his life, there can be no talk of wealth.” As another example, some thinkers include non-economic goods (such as knowledge) within the realm of wealth. To keep thing simple and within our current economic system, I will limit the discussion to the “stock” account of wealth (that is, economic assets).

In our current economic system, it is obviously not the case that everyone is wealthy. When this fact is brought up, some folks like to claim that even the poor of today are wealthier than the wealthy of the past. In some ways, this is true. After all, the typically poor person in North America or the United Kingdom has possessions that not even the greatest pharaoh or Caesar possessed (such as a microwave oven). In many other ways, this is not true. After all, a wealthy noble of the past would have land, structures, gold, art, and so on that would make him a wealthy man even today. Also, there is the obvious fact that there are poor people today who are as poor as the poorest people in human history in that they possess just the tatters on their backs and just enough food to not die (at least for the moment). In any case, the fact that the sum total of wealth of humanity is greater now than in the past (even taking into account that there are so many more of us) does not tell us much beyond that (such as whether the current distribution is just or whether we can all be wealthy or not).

Getting back to the main subject, what needs to be determined is what is meant by “wealthy.” As noted above, I am limiting my discussion to economic wealth, but a bit more needs to be said.

In some ways, wealth can be seen as being analogous to height. A person has height if they have any vertical measurement at all. Likewise, a person has wealth if she has any economic assets in excess of her liabilities. This could be as little as a single penny or as much as billions of dollars. Obviously, everyone could (in theory) have wealth, just as everyone can have height. But, of course, a person is not wealthy just because s/he has wealth, no more than a person is tall simply because s/he has height. On the other side, lacking wealth is described as being destitute and lacking height is described as being short.

Continuing the analogy, being wealthy or wealthier  can be seen as analogous to being tall or taller. Being tall means having more height than average  and being taller than another means having more height than that person. Likewise being wealthy would seem to mean having more wealth than average and being wealthier than another means having more wealth than that person. If this view is correct, then we cannot all be wealthy anymore than we can all be tall. Obviously, we could all have the same height or the same wealth, but the terms “tall” and “wealthy” would have no application in these cases. As such, we cannot all be wealthy-if we had the same amount of wealth, then no one would be wealthy.

It could be contended that being wealthy is not a matter of comparison to the wealth of other people, but rather a matter of having economic assets that meet a specified level. Depending on how that level was specified, then everyone could (in theory) be wealthy. Of course, the question of whether or not such a level should be considered wealthy or not would be a matter of debate.

It might be contended that focusing on whether or not everyone can be wealthy is not as important (or interesting) as the question of whether or not everyone can be well-off in the sense of having adequate resources for a healthy and meaningful existence. This is, of course, a subject for another time.

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Example Failure

Men inspecting wreckage of first Toronto airpl...

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For years I have been making use of a plane crash example to illustrate the moral distinction between killing people and letting people die and the results have always been the same, at least until this past week. Before getting to that, I will briefly present the examples.

I usually open my discussion of utilitarianism by noting that people tend to have utilitarian intuitions in many cases, such as those involving emergency medial treatment. My stock example is as follows:

“Imagine that you are the only available doctor on an island when a plane crashes with six people on board. You have no idea who these people are-they literally fell from the sky. Examining the people, you know that if you try to save the badly injured pilot, you will lose 3-4 of the others for sure. But, if you allow the pilot to die, you are certain you can save at least four of the passengers, maybe even five. What do you do?”

As you might suspect, everyone always says something like “save the five because five is more than one.”

When transitioning to my discussion of rule-deontology, I make the point that sometimes our intuitions seem to steer us away from just the consequences to also considering the action itself. To illustrate this intuition, I change the story just a bit:

“Imagine that you are the only available doctor on an island when a plane crashes with five people on board. You have no idea who these people are-they literally fell from the sky. To save them, you need a lot of blood and you need it fast. Coincidentally, Ted the hermit has come in for his yearly checkup. Ted has no friends or relatives and no one checks up on him. By a truly amazing coincidence Ted’s blood type means that he can donate to all five people. Unfortunately, getting enough blood to save all five will kill Ted. What do you do?”

For years, my students have said that killing Ted even to save five people would be wrong and I fully expected my current students  to give the same answer. But, rather than the usual “that would be wrong”, I was met with silence. So, I asked again and two students said that they’d drain Ted. When I said that this was the first class that ever said that, the reply was “times have changed.”

I’m not quite sure what the significance of this might be, but it was certainly interesting.

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53% & Life is Not Fair

As I noted in my previous post, Erick Erickson recently started a movement in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The occupiers have as a slogan that they are the 99%. To counter this, Erickson hit on the idea of the 53%. This is the percentage of Americans who pay the federal income tax. His message is that complaints should cease, people should not blaming Wall Street, and people should pay their taxes.

During an interview on CNN Erickson responded to the criticisms of the Occupiers by asserting that life is not fair. He also made this point in his post:

Well, these people apparently forgot that life is not fair and are demanding the government intervene to legislate that life suddenly become fair. They are claiming to be the “99%” against the evil 1% of rich people who work on Wall Street. They are posting pictures to a website holding up their sob stories. Some are terribly tragic, but most? Boo-freakin’-hoo. Life is not, never has been, and never will be fair.

While Erickson does not actually present a developed argument, he seems to be contending that the Occupiers are in error regarding their protest and their desire to change the economic and political system. They are in error, as he seems to see it, because they supposedly want to make things fair and this will never occur. I am not sure if he means that unfairness is a matter of necessity in the sense that fairness is a logical or practical impossibility. However, it seems to suffice to take his claim at face value, namely that life will never be fair.

Interestingly, his response to this is rather like that of the Stoics and reminds me of what James Stockdale wrote about the story of Job: life is not fair and this is something we simply must deal with.

As a runner and martial artist, I have long found Stoicism appealing. However, there is the question about whether or not Erickson is right.

To steal a bit from Thomas Hobbes, life can be divided up into two main domains: the natural world and the artificial world. The natural world consists of all the natural thinks, such as streams, rocks, planets, animals, humans and so on. The artificial world is the domain of what we humans create and includes our social and political structures, including the economy.

The natural world is clearly not fair in the sense that natural processes do not consistently bring about what people (and animals) actually deserve. The just and unjust are killed in earthquakes, the wise and the fools perish of cancer, the good drown as readily as the bad, the kind are consumed in fire as swiftly as the cruel. As I say to my students, stuff just happens and deserving has nothing to do with it (to steal a bit from Unforgiven). As far as the evidence indicates, justice and fairness are lacking in the purely natural world.

This fact does, of course, cause some thinkers to raise the problem of evil in regards to God. After all, if there is supposed to be an omniscient, omnipotent and good God, then we would expect there be to justice in the natural world. It need not be a perfect world (as Leibniz argued), but such a being should surely be up to providing a fair world. There are, of course, various replies to this problem of evil-but none of them really seem to adequately solve the problem. One stock reply is that God balances the books in the afterlife, which hardly explains why He does not get the book keeping done properly here. The most reasonable inferences from the evidence are that either God does not exist or God is lacking perfection in power, knowledge or goodness.

In regards to the natural world, I agree with Erickson-life in the natural world is clearly not fair and this will almost certainly never change. It would be the height of foolishness to protest against this. Rather, wisdom lies in trying to mitigate the situation through preparations, technology, and good decision making.

However, as noted above, we are not merely creatures of the natural world who must live in a world not of our making. We are also the creators of the artificial world-that of society, politics, economics and so on. While this domain is obviously shaped by the natural world, it is a human construct and it is within our collective power. As such, whether our institutions are fair or not seems to be a matter of choice. Since we create and sustain them, it would seem to follow that we can change unfair aspects to be more fair. To think that our creations are beyond our control and that we simply have to live under their unchanging ways is to fall victim to the fallacy of reification.

To use an obvious analogy, imagine that I ran my classes in a way comparable to our economic system. For example, while students could work hard to get good grades, the grades also could be bought or acquired in other ways (like family influence or via connections). Also, the students would have access to the class material and my time on a non-equal basis (well off and well connected students would have the most, while the poor students would have far, far less). Imagine that some students complained that it was unfair. If I replied “life is not fair”, that would be absurd. After all, the class is under my control-I could just as easily make the class fair in the sense that the grade each student receives is  primarily dependent on their effort and ability. The same could be done with our economic system. After all, it was not forged by the hand of God and dropped from the sky. Nor is it ruled by unbreakable laws of nature. True, people do like to talk as if the economic system is an entity in its own right that follows immutable laws-but this is no more true of our economic system than it is true of my classes. The rules are ours to change, be they fair or unfair. As such, to say that life is not fair is merely an expression of a problem rather than a refutation of criticism of unfairness. Naturally, it could be argued that it is right to be unfair, but that seems to be absurd.

To forestall an obvious mistaken  reply, unfairness and inequality are different things: it can be completely fair to have an unequal distribution of goods. To go back to the class analogy, it can obviously be just and fair for students to have various grades-provided that the grades are based on merit. In fact, it would be unfair for students to get the same grades regardless of effort and accomplishments. To use another obvious analogy, a race can also be fair and yet end with an unequal distribution of awards. After all, not everyone can be first-just the best runner.  People often “confuse” calls for fairness with calls for equal distribution (often as an intentional part of a straw man attack) but they are not the same thing at all.

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Protect Life Act

Abortion Rights banner

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Abortion is a matter of seemingly endless moral and political debate. In the latest round, the Republican controlled House has passed the Protect Life Act. Two of the main aspects of the act include preventing federal money from being used in health care plans that cover abortion and to allow health care workers to refuse to perform abortions. This includes cases in which an abortion is medically necessary to save a woman’s life.

The first aspect of the act seems to be at least partially a solution in search of a problem. The Affordable Care Act (known by the dysphemism “Obamacare”) already prevents public money separate from private insurance payments covering abortion. However, the is a common misconception (intentionally fueled) that “Obamacare” pays for abortions.

The act goes beyond this in an attempt to restrict coverage of abortion. The bill, if made into a law, would forbid women from buying private insurance plans including abortion coverage. This is, of course, limited to purchases made through a state health care exchange.

The main justification for this aspect of the bill is that the Republican backers claim that taxpayer dollars should not go to abortions. Of course, the bill goes beyond that and attempts to restrict women’s choices.

On the face of it, the justification has a certain appeal. After all, in a democratic (or republican) system, the taxpayers have a right to decide where their tax dollars are spent (and also to have a role in decisions in general-if only via representatives). As such, if the majority of Americans are opposed to having tax dollars go to abortion, then it would be presumably correct to not provide such funding. Majority rule and all that would serve as the moral justification. This would, of course, entail that the same principle should apply uniformly. So, for example, if the citizens did not want subsidies going to corporations or did not want to fun capital punishment, then such things should not be allowed.

In the case of abortion, most Americans hold that it should be legal. While this does not entail that they want to fund abortions, it would seem to indicate that abortion rights are accepted by the majority of Americans. As such, attempting to restrict these rights under the guise of keeping taxpayer money from funding abortion would seem to be somewhat deceptive. After all, it is one thing to prevent public money from being used and it is quite another to forbid women from buying private insurance with their own money. It is especially ironic given the Republican mantras about the free market and individual choice.

Also, if most Americans favor the legality of abortion and the Republican backers of the bill are claiming that they are right to impose restrictions based on the fact that some people are morally opposed to abortion, then it would seem to follow that anything that is morally opposed should not be funded. This would include capital punishment, war, the drug war and so on. In fact, it seems likely that very little would be left with public funding. Naturally, it could be argued that the moral opposition would need to be significant, but even under that condition capital punishment and many other things could no longer be funded with public money. Perhaps this would be a good thing-but I am reasonable sure that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans would be willing to accept this a general principle.

Perhaps the most controversial component of the bill is that health care workers who morally oppose abortion will have the legal right to refuse to perform abortions-even when doing so is medically necessary to prevent the death of the woman. Currently hospitals are legally required to perform abortions when doing so is medically necessary to saving the life of the woman.  Some Catholic hospitals have been breaking the existing law for years.

On the one hand, a strong case can be made for allowing health care workers to decline performing an abortion on moral grounds. After all, a law that compels people to perform what they regard as an immoral action (such as fighting in war or paying taxes to support a war or what they regard as an unjust system) would seem to be well worth both moral and legal scrutiny. This matter has, of course, been addressed in regards to civil disobedience and the question of what a person should do when his/her conscience conflicts with the laws of the state.

In the case of non-emergency procedures, I am certainly sympathetic to the view that health care workers with strong moral beliefs should not be forced to engage in what they regard as an immoral action (most likely murder). Likewise, I am sympathetic to people who refuse to fight in war or support the state on the grounds that they regard the killing  (or murder) of human beings as immoral.

On the other hand, a strong case can be made that professionals are obligated to perform their jobs even when doing so goes against their conscience. For example, a nurse who is opposed to drug use would not seem to have the right to refuse to treat a victim of a self-inflicted drug overdose of illegal drugs. As another example, a police officer who thinks that homosexuality is an abomination would not seem to have the right to refuse to protect a homosexual who is being beaten to death.

In the case of emergency procedures, a very strong case can be made that such procedures should be performed. On utilitarian grounds, performing such procedures would seem to be right. After all, the most likely result of not performing the procedure is that the woman and the fetus both die. The procedure would at least save the life of one person, which would presumably be a good action. To use an analogy, imagine that a child has been rigged with a terrorist bomb and is running at a woman. The bomb cannot be removed in time and will detonate in seconds. A soldier or police officer is nearby and can stop the child-but only by shooting her. The woman can, of course, scream to the soldier/officer that she would rather die with her child. However, it would not seem wicked of the soldier or officer to take the shot if the woman did not forbid it.

It can, of course, be argued that this is not a utilitarian matter but a matter of the action itself being right or wrong. If it is assumed that abortion is wrong because it is killing, it would seem to follow that not helping the woman would also be wrong-after all, this would cause her death.

At this point it is natural to bring up the stock distinction between killing and letting die. In the case of the woman, the medical care provider would be letting her die rather than killing the other being (which may or may not be a person). In general, our moral intuitions tend to indicate that killing is worse than letting die, which could be taken as a point in favor of allowing health care providers to let women die rather than perform an abortion. However, since the being will also die anyway (in most cases) it would seem that refusing to save the woman would (as noted above) merely double the number of deaths rather than do something that would be morally commendable. This could even be argued on the same moral basis as triage. In this case, the act could be seen not as killing the being, but saving the mother rather than allowing two patients to die. To use an analogy, if a mother and child were brought to a hospital and both were dying and the doctor knew that her choice was between saving the mother or letting both die while she worked to futilely save the child, then the right thing to do would seem to be to save the mother. Expending pointless effort on a child that could not be saved while letting the mother die would not be noble or good. Rather it would be a wrongful decision that would kill the mother.  As such, this provision is clearly immoral.

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The Heidegger and his McGilchrist

I’ve been reading Iain McGilchrist’s book The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world, and I wanted to blog about it. I’m going to be reviewing it for a journal. Here are some of my main thoughts so far…
This book, it seems to me, isn’t just a brilliant work; it’s an event. McGilchrist not only lays out a startling, novel account of the importance of the right hemisphere of the brain; he turns this into a gripping and dizzying account of the trajectory of the whole of human (but especially of western) civilisation, and offers in the course of this the most powerful argument penned by any living author of the importance of the arts and humanities. An argument – helpfully, by a scientist — for how and why the arts and the humanities offer an entire different and essential way of visioning (and reclaiming) our world, and for how and why science alone cannot do this but endlessly risks being part of an imperial take-over of the world by the scientistic world-picture that naturally emerges from the left hemisphere of the brain once it is off the leash.
The ‘master’ of the title is the right hemisphere; the ‘emissary’, the left. McGilchrist’s basic thesis is that most neurological events and processes need to begin (with the ability to assimilate — to see — the new) and end (with the ability to relate, vitally, humanly, and as a part of a whole(s)) with the right hemisphere. That the left hemisphere is essentially there to be the right hemisphere’s servant or emissary. But that the left hemisphere, with its great capacity not only for analysis but also for denial, is reluctant to give back to the right hemisphere the power it is lent with the result that, increasingly, and especially over the last 200 years, the master has been betrayed by its emissary. (N.B. It is crucial to appreciate that McGilchrist is NOT particularly committed to the nowadays-somewhat-ill-reputed view that the two hemispheres are above all the locations for different things or even different activities…That, he suggests, is itself an overly left-brained way of seeing the brain… What McGilchrist thinks centrally differentiates the two hemispheres is precisely rather: their ways of seeing, their styles…)
McGilchrist sees the (increasingly-dominant) left hemisphere world-view as seeing the world as if from the perspective, as we might put it, not even of a brain in a vat, but of a left hemisphere of a brain alone in a vat… We are in danger, then, of being even worse off than Descartes would have it.
Here is a remarkable passage from the latter part of the book, from which the reader will be able to get a sense of the scale of McGilchrist’s ambition hereabouts, and a scent of the grand originality with which, to a very large extent, remarkably, he delivers on it:

“[W]hat if the left hemisphere were able to externalise and make concrete its own workings – so that the realm of the actually existing things apart from the mind consisted to a large extent of its own projections? Then the ontological primacy of right-hemisphere experience would be outflanked, since it would be delivering – not ‘the Other’, but what was already the world as processed by the left hemisphere. It would make it hard, and perhaps in time impossible, for the right hemisphere to escape from the hall of mirrors, to reach out to something that truly was ‘Other’ than, beyond, the human mind. // In essence this was the achievement of the Industrial Revolution.” (p.386)

Building on broadly Heideggerian thinking here, McGilchrist takes the measure of the world-picture that the left hemisphere has delivered to us. The re-grounding that the right hemisphere could bring, by way of reconnecting us to life on Earth (as with other ways in which it could do so, for instance via the arts, or via religion), is according to McGilchrist increasingly closed off to us, with the left hemisphere’s changing the very character of the Earth to be something like a ‘standing-reserve’ of ‘resources’ – one giant filling-station, to employ Heidegger’s terrifyingly apposite metaphor – and moreover one increasingly and actively patterned into the form of invariance, of mechanicity, of straight lines, of lifelessness, and at best (!) of ‘management’ of all this and of ‘nature’ itself. The fabric of the world is becoming fabricated, such that even the mirror ‘of nature’ no longer appears to us natural…

This book has already proved enormously controversial. (For example, Anthony Grayling somewhat slated it, in The Literary Review: . This is somewhat ironic, given the magnificent defence mounted in the book of the humanities, when juxtaposed with Grayling’s attempted launch recently of his own ‘New College of the Humanities’; it seems to me that Grayling hasn’t got the hang of McGilchrist’s book…) This controversiality is hardly surprising, for many reasons, but above all because the book goes against the grain. By saying that, I don’t mean for a minute to deny that the book has been appreciated by leading figures in neuroscience: such as Ramachandran, Panksepp, Hellige, Kesselring, Schore, Bynum, Zeman, Feinberg, Trimble, and Lishman. No; rather, my point is that the forces of the left hemisphere, deeply-culturally-hegemonic, are bound to resist it and indeed in many cases to have a profound difficulty comprehending it at all. As already intimated above: McGilchrist suggests that the very way we come to understand the right and left hemispheres is itself among the topoi distorted by our left-hemisphere-dominated world-view. (Thus for instance the way that the right hemisphere has for so long been deemed the ‘minor’ hemisphere.) He argues that there is a spiralling ‘dialectical’ relationship between the way in which our brain both limits and facilitates the way we ‘take’ the world, and between the way that the world’s (changing) nature influences but can constrain the way in which our brain is, and thus the way in which our brain both limits and facilitates…

The ‘foundation’ of the work, in neurology, may offer an unusual bridgehead, a way into our culture and in particular into the world of science, that historically most such defences and articulations of humanity as opposed to the dominance of technology etc. have lacked, however much (consider for instance the project of Hegel) they may have coveted it. As I shall shortly explain, however, McGilchrist’s authority and knowledge as a neurologist (and as a psychiatrist) may end up being a double-edged sword.

The master and his emissary is a work of extraordinary erudition. McGilchrist seems to be a polymath, who has managed to feel his way into a vast array of different ‘literatures’ (The book’s bibliography is so huge that the publishers refused to include most of it in the paperback version, and one has to go online to a special full bibliography to check many of the references). One of his influences is Lakoff and Johnson; he leans on their account of metaphor, and explores further its implications, thus expanding the account intimated by them in their masterly Philosophy in the flesh. This is congenial to me. (Like McGilchrist, I would be inclined to kindly draw a veil over those fairly-numerous moments in which the content of their important book is patently deformed by a grandstanding scientific imperialism.) I also warmed to McGilchrist’s hostility to much else of ‘Cognitive Science’: there is a powerful argument in the first Part of the book against the disastrous and ubiquitous ‘information-processor’ metaphor for the mind. McGilchrist shows how ‘information’ is a concept that only suits the left hemisphere, not the right. Again: McGilchrist in effect suggests that it is as if the brain that much mainstream Cog.Sci. envats is in fact only half a brain, and not even the most crucial half…
But McGilchrist’s greatest influence of all, also explored in a novel way in the first half of the book, is phenomenology in general, and Heidegger in particular. McGilchrist frequently in this book plays emissary to Heidegger, his ‘master’…
I mean that metaphor in a tongue-in-cheek way, just to raise perhaps a wry and friendly smile; but I also mean it somewhat in earnest. I had a niggling sense, repeatedly, as I read this book, that McGilchrist’s way of working is actually rather less ‘right-hemispherical’ than is that of his great heroes, who he often explicates to us grippingly in the course of the work: Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Scheler, Merleau-Ponty, Heraclitus, Goethe, Wordsworth, Blake, and (above all) Heidegger. To give a key for-instance; there is an obvious danger that his neuro-story involves a homuncular fallacy. For most of the book, McGilchrist writes almost as if the left and right hemispheres really were separate people, with intentions, wills, personalities, etc.
True, McGilchrist does deal with this point reflectively and explicitly at some length in the book on more than one occasion (see especially pp.98-99), pointing out that one perhaps in his game cannot escape having some model or other, and that the available alternatives are either the machine or the person (We might add also: the text, as in Ricoeur). He submits that the model of the person is far more accurate for something that on its own does have the capacity to form intentions, have goals, have values, sustain attention, etc. . Nevertheless, the extent to which McGilchrist buys into this ‘model’ could I think be regarded as dangerous: For, by splitting the human by hemisphere, he risks in the process occluding the very (holistic etc.) insights that he wishes to underpin. . .
It would be possible to give examples of undue left-brainedness in The master and his emissary even in relation to McGilchrist’s ‘master’, Heidegger. For instance, one might worry that when McGilchrist says, very helpfully (p.151), that truth is a process or a progress more than it is an object, still he does not go as far as Heidegger’s own analysis does: for Heidegger ultimately stresses that truth is what he calls an event rather than a process, because he takes a process to be something that takes place in time, whilst the event of truth is internally related to the very possibility of temporality and thus is that which facilitates a temporal sequence in which any process might take place.
One might also highlight McGilchrist’ss perhaps-regrettable failure to consider the contribution made by much of the growing political resistance to industrial-growthism etc. (e.g. it might have been worthwhile for him to have looked at the green movement, and/or perhaps at organisations such as ‘La Via Campesina’, the international peasant movement with 400 million members), a contribution that powerfully manifests the kind of thinking and being that he wants to recommend.
The great remaining objection others are likely to bring against McGilchrist’s work is probably that his detailed neuro-story is not needed in order to give his account of human civilisation and of the grave threat which it is now under, In other words, that there is (allegedly) insufficient connection between the first Part of McGilchrist’s book (which focuses primarily on the brain and on philosophy) and the second Part (which tells us a new history of the present). In other words, that the term ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ in the end function for McGilchrist largely metaphorically, rather than literally. At the very end of the book – the quotation that follows consists of its final two paragraphs — McGilchrist deals with this objection extremely disarmingly:

“If it could eventually be shown…that the two major ways, not just of thinking, but of being in the world, are not related to the two cerebral hemispheres, I would be surprised, but not unhappy. Ultimately what I have tried to point to is that the apparently separate ‘functions’ in each hemisphere fit together intelligently to form in each case a single coherent entity; that there are, not just currents here and there in the history of ideas, but consistent ways of being that persist across the history of the Western world, that are fundamentally opposed, though complementary, in what they reveal to us; and that the hemispheres of the brain can be seen as, at the very least, a metaphor for these… // What [Goethe’s Faust, Schopenhauer, Bergson, Scheler and Kant] all point to is the fundamentally divided nature of mental experience. When one puts that together with the fact that the brain is divided into two relatively independent chunks which just happen broadly to mirror the very dichotomies that are being pointed to – alienation versus engagement, abstraction versus incarnation, the categorical versus the unique, the general versus the particular, the part versus the whole, and so on – it seems like a metaphor that might have some literal truth. But if it turns out to be ‘just’ a metaphor, I will be content. I have a high regard for metaphor. It is how we come to understand the world.” (Pp.461-2; cf. also p.7).

Again following Lakoff and Johnson as well as various great literary authors, then, McGilchrist to the end defends the absolute importance of metaphor (a phenomenon which only the right brain understands), and moreover of metaphor that remains metaphorical, and does not have to be ‘cashed out’. This could be a partial answer also to my worry, expressed above, about the ‘reification’ of the left and right brains into quasi-homunculi. It will however still leave a nagging twinge with some readers about how necessary all the detail about the brain in the early part of the book was to the real ‘cash-value’ of it: the account of these two, coherent, different ways of being in and molding (or not) the world, that comes to a head in the brilliant account (offered in the final 100 pages of the book) of the growing triumph of the left hemisphere in the Industrial Revolution, Modernism and Post-Modernism. All I can say in response to this worry is: read the book. For me, McGilchrist actually does a remarkable delicate job of ensuring that there is a genuinely historical dimension to his story of the faculties: for example, he has a fascinating discussion in Chapter 7, “Imitation and the evolution of culture”, of the possible biological routes through which neurology may respond to culture. The routes through which the very structure of the brain may be substantially responsive to and molded by — and not merely foundational for — the fabric of any given culture. That discussion crucially feeds into the story he then tells of the development of Western culture as a kind of battle of the hemispheres.
Whether what McGilchrist is telling us is a set of fascinating scientific truths about the brain, or a metaphorical history of the present inhabiting the reasons why the human race has reached the desperate near-ecocidal condition it now inhabits (and why it is – why we are — in denial about this), or both, what I found in reading his book is that there are gems on virtually every page, and that, whether or not it is ‘just’ a metaphor, the way of thinking and of seeing that McGilchrist here offers is itself compelling, rich, and fertile.
I’d be interested to know what other readers of this blog and of this book make of it.

53% and Envy

Wall Street Sign. Author: Ramy Majouji

Image via Wikipedia

Erick Erickson recently started a movement in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The occupiers have as a slogan that they are the 99%. To counter this, Erickson hit on the idea of the 53%. This is the percentage of Americans who pay the federal income tax. His message is that complaints should cease, people should not blaming Wall Street, and people should pay their taxes.

For those who might think that 47% of Americans are just skipping out on taxes, the people who do not pay do so for two main reasons. The first is that the tax laws (such as the cuts under Bush) are such that about half of these people end up with no owed tax. The second is that the other half are so poor that after exemptions and the standard deduction they owe no taxes.

I happened to see Erickson being interviewed on CNN and found his remarks very interesting. He did make a valid point in claiming that although the Occupiers talk about the 99%, they do not actually represent 99% of  Americans. This is, of course, true of any political group since there is virtually no issue on which Americans have 100% agreement. Of course, this also means that his 53% folks also do not speak for all Americans (or even most).

Erickson seemed to be trying to make the point that his collected anecdotes from the 53% somehow refute the Occupiers. However, this seems to be questionable reasoning. In general, the folks in this movement note how they have jobs and pay taxes. However, the fact that they claim to be doing okay does not seem to show that the Occupiers do not have legitimate points. After all, if people organized to raise concerns about crime having some people say “I have not been a victim of crime” does not show there is not a problem.

Erickson did make a fairly stock accusation, namely that the Occupiers are motivated by envy. He seemed to regard this as showing that they are in error. However, this sort of reasoning is fallacious and can be regarded as an ad homimen. This method is so common that I think it deserves its own distinct name as a fallacy. Naturally, I suggest that it be called Accusation of Envy or perhaps Refutation by Envy. It has the following form:

  • Premise 1: Person P makes critical claim C about X.
  • Premise 2: P is accused of envy (typically in regards to X).
  • Conclusion: Therefore claim C is false.

Obviously enough, whether a person is envious or not has no bearing on the truth of the claims s/he makes. Even if, for example, the Occupiers are envious of the employed and the wealthy and even if this is their sole motivation, it does not follow that the criticisms they make are thus in error. The following example should nicely illustrate that this “reasoning” is flawed:

  • Sam: “When tyrants oppress their people and commit genocide, they are acting wrongly.”
  • Sally: “Why you are just envious of tyrants. So you are wrong. They are acting rightly.”

Naturally, the question of whether someone is jealous or not can be a point of interest. However, this is a matter of fact rather than a point of logic and is, as noted above, irrelevant to the truth or falsity of claims made by the allegedly jealous person.

Thus, Erickson’s charge of envy has no logical weight in this matter. I do, however, thank him for giving me the idea to write up this “new” fallacy.

In another post I will address his remark about life not being fair.

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