Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tolstoy on Progress

This is taken from chapter III of Tolstoy’s A Confession,

“That faith took with me the common form it assumes with the majority of educated people of our day. It was expressed by the word, “progress.” It then appeared to me that this word meant something. I did not as yet understand that, being tormented (like every live man) by the question how it is best for me to live, in my answer, “live in conformity with progress,” I was replying as a man in a boat would do if when carried along by wind and waves he replied to what for him was the chief and only question. “whither to steer,” by saying, “we are being carried somewhere.”

I’ve been interrupted by this word, “progress” over my life. People would ask me, “don’t you want something better with your life?” And I always wondered, what do you mean by better? Better assumes good, can you tell me what is the good? The effective definition of progress is a product of the cultural ethos, and it changed between places and generations. People should more often stop to think and realize that this unexamined definition of progress carries their lives somewhere, and though it may seem to be a good place, that’s the ethos speaking and it doesn’t always tell the truth. The ethos informs our moral intuitions all the time, and in a world that is absolutely convinced that moral intuitions are authoritative the people will continue to mindlessly follow the ethos.

Tolstoy seems to realize that the fleeting satisfaction from progress and the universality of it. Intrinsic suffering isn’t a psychological disorder called depression, it is the inherent consequence of not seeking what is good. We seek things, they make us feel nice, and then it goes away because it is realized that they were meaningless. So we are not filled. Progress is a convention which doesn’t bare fruit. We all suffer because we are unwilling to seriously seek an answer to what the purpose of life is. Instead of engaging with this uncritically held assumption, we fall back on progress. It is the death of meaning and of us.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Suicide of Robin Williams

Robin Williams passed away yesterday by act of suicide. He was a man who brought a lot of people a lot of happiness through the art of acting. I’ll always remember him particularly as the voice of the Genie in Aladdin and as Mrs. Doubtfire.

One should wonder what makes a human being want to take his own life. How does one get put in a place where when given the choice between living and not living, he chooses not living? What causes one to see not living as a superior state to living?

It seems to me that for not living to be preferable one must be in a state of suffering. We all have things that we like in life – values – but for death to be preferable the suffering or disvalue of life has to overwhelm the values. But what kind of suffering might be great enough to overwhelm our values and make us want to quit altogether?

One answer is by extrinsic suffering. We see this in the world, where as an alternative to pain one takes his own life. Perhaps you have a disease that eats you from the inside. Or perhaps you’re on Death Row in the middle ages, and the method of execution is especially agonizing. It seems to me that most of us have a point of physical suffering beyond which death is preferable – that eventually we want to be put out of our misery.

This doesn’t account for the high rates of modern day developed world suicides, and it certainly can’t be understood in light of Robin Williams’ wealth. There must be another kind of suffering.

Intrinsic suffering is internal torture. It is suffering in the mind. It is the mind split against itself in contradiction of its being. When our minds are fragmented, experience becomes empty of meaning. What used to bring us joy dissipates into the emptiness. To escape meaninglessness, the act of suicide is undertaken.


Regarding suicide as the result of meaninglessness, I’m always reminded of David Foster Wallace’s famous, “this is water” speech. The gist: power of interpretation exists prior to experience, so choose how to look at things.

The only thing that is Capital T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it… You get to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

This is postmodernism in a nutshell, and he heralds it as the deep truth of a liberal arts education – it’s all a matter of interpretation. What he misses is that recognizing interpretation is not the end of philosophy, but the beginning. The next question is the doorway into epistemology – How do I know? Is there any absolute that transcends personal interpretation?

David Foster Wallace of course committed suicide back in 2008.

The 12 Commandments

Here’s a new one – the Ten Commandments aren’t in the bible. Well, there are commandments, but they’re never labeled as 10 in the bible. In fact, there is merely a list of commandments which different groups have aggregated into 10 in order to fit the 10 commandment tradition.

  1. Self-identification of God (protestants and Catholics do not acknowledge)
  2. Don’t worship other gods
    (Jews and Catholics combine #2 and #3)
  3. Don’t create graven images
  4. Don’t misuse God’s name
  5. Observe Sabbath
  6. Honor parents
  7. Don’t murder
  8. Don’t commit adultery
  9. Don’t steal
  10. Don’t bear false witness
  11. Don’t covet another’s wife
    (Jews and Protestants combine #11 and #12)
  12. Don’t covet another’s property


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

C.S. Lewis on God’s Rationality

A quote from C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain:

“meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, ‘God can.’ It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”

Hat tip goes to Doug Wilson.

One major argument against a supra-rational (meaning beyond rationality), as opposed to a perfectly rational God, is that a supra-rational God constitutes an incomprehensible God – an unknowable God. This view isn’t false because of this, but it conflicts with all the major theistic religions all of which claim that we not only can, but have a moral responsibility to know God. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all affirm this.

I am always more impressed by C.S. Lewis as a writer than as a thinker. In the quote he elegantly communicates a difficult philosophical idea that the theologians who precede Lewis struggle to articulate. On the other hand, the idea so original it was named after him, the Lewis Trilemma (liar, lunatic, or lord), is embarrassingly weak.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Mom Jailed for Leaving 9 Year Old Alone

Being a new parent, this is one of the things I worry about the most:

A North Augusta mother is in jail after witnesses say she left her nine-year-old daughter at a nearby park, for hours at a time, more than once.
The mother, Debra Harrell has been booked for unlawful conduct towards a child.

I do not worry about leaving my 9-year old child at a park, I worry about the inanity of public perception having very real consequences for parents – even leading to their children being taken away or being imprisoned.

What is important to remember in this story, is that the relevant question is, “should a parent be imprisoned for leaving their child at a park?” not, “is leaving a child at a park a good idea?”. Some of the comments mentioned in the story don’t get at the relevant question, but rather the second one. This sounds like social desirability bias to me.

"I understand the mom may have been in a difficult situation, not having someone to watch the child, but at the same time, you've got to find somebody,"

"what if a man would have came and just snatched her because you have all kinds of trucks that come up in here so you really don't know."

"you cannot just leave your child alone at a public place, especially. This day and time, you never know who's around. Good, bad, it's just not safe."

Everybody knows that in “this day and time” you can never be too safe. But the normal logic of risk says that you can. Safety is a spectrum, and we trade off safety every day, even with our children. Parks are generally safe places, and they don’t become much safer because a parent is sitting on a bench texting 25 feet away. Kidnappings are extremely rare, and when they do occur, it is almost always a separated parent unhappy with the child custody terms. It is hard to believe that this child was in any real danger. It is realistic to believe that the child would more likely die in the car on the way to the park than be kidnapped by a stranger at the park.

I don’t know if leaving a 9 year old at a park for a few hours alone is a good idea. It depends on the child, and it depends on the park, and it depends on the life situation. There are many relevant variables which news stories and judgmental parents don’t get to see the specifics of. One reason I would never leave my 9 year old at the park is not because actual safety, but because public perception is often far departed from reality. That puts every child and parent in danger, ironically, from the child protection people.

Here is Reason’s article on the same story.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The GM Tumor Study, and Monsanto’s Weird Love of Pesticides

Here is a solid criticism of a story going around that a study linked genetically modified corn to tumors in rats. It reminds me of how we are only willing to dig beneath the top layer of stories we don’t want to accept, and accept stories at face value if we like them.

The only part I have to quarrel with is the vague economics at the end,

“On the other hand, GM technology can be used, as Monsanto has done, simply to allow farmers to use more pesticides, which doesn’t seem to benefit anyone other than the pesticide producers.”

Why would Monsanto use more pesticides that they have to pay pesticide producers for if it doesn’t increase demand for their product? It is one thing to say that some big companies do bad things for profit, it is another to say that big companies just like poisoning people for no reason (and are even willing to pay to do so).

If Monsanto doesn’t pay for the pesticides, then the pesticide producers are. Why is it profitable to have Monsanto use your product for free?

No matter how you slice it, adding more to your product (like pesticides to crops) has to increase demand to be profitable. If it increases demand, might there be a reason why? Perhaps it has something to do with bugs which are filled with natural toxins eating crops, reducing supply, and making food more expensive.

But these people… you just attach Monsanto to some good/evil story and they’ll eat it up every time.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Lysander Spooner on Occupational Licensing

Speaking of licensing, someone once said,

"no one has yet ever dared advocate, in direct terms, so monstrous a principle as that the rich ought to be protected by law from the competition of the poor".