The Veil of Perception

John Locke, from England, and Irishman Bishop Berkeley were famous 17th-18th century empiricists. Being that these philosophers examined how one can know things, they were epistemologists, while propounding different metaphysical systems to explain their positions.

Locke felt that observation via the senses constituted the primary way one acquires information about the external world. Berkeley, on the other hand, felt that what one knows comes about as a result of one’s own ideas, rather than knowledge being based on an external substance. While both being empiricists, Locke would be classified as a materialist, while Berkeley is an idealist.

Locke’s Blank Slate and the Veil of Perception

Locke believed that the object of perception was an external substance. Each person when beginning their life possess’ a mind that is a Tabula Rasa or blank slate. According to Locke, when one is born there are no innate ideas, and therefore the information perceived is not based on rational principles, although reason does play a role in formulating knowledge.

Locke’s philosophy holds that there is a sort of correspondencebetween external things and one’s ideas. This correspondence leads to the supposition that Locke was a representational realist. Representational realism is the concept that one’s sensations contain a representation of the things being sensed.

For Locke, to perceive something external to the senses implies representational realism; otherwise how else can one know external corporeal substances? This representational realism led to what is referred to in philosophical circles as the veil of perception, that is things are not seen as they are in themselves. This is because there is a “veil” which one cannot penetrate, because the thing perceived exists independent of sensation. This concept had dire implications.

Berkeley’s Idealism: To Be is To Be Perceived

Berkeley, and idealist, criticized Locke. He considered himself to be a harbinger of common sense. He felt that Lockean materialism was flawed and resulted in extreme skepticism. With representational realism matter is never known as it is in itself, and this fact led to skepticism, because the question became how can someone know anything about the world at all, (e.g., external substances), if what one perceives is not a perception of the thing in itself?

According to Berkeley, the only thing that one knows are ideas. Berkeley claimed that something only truly exists when it is perceived. This is referred to in his dictum “to be is to be perceived” (e.g., esse est percipi). He believed that without something being perceived, one cannot say anything about it existing, or even say it exists at all! After all, he thought, the way one understands a substance is that it is something that exists independent of the senses.

If it does exist independent of the senses, how can one know the substance as it exists in itself? This leads to extreme skepticism according to Berkeley because one cannot know if matter indeed exists, since one doesn’t perceive matter directly (e.g., the problem of the veil of perception). For if something exists independent of the senses, then one is saying that one really doesn’t know anything about the substance as it exists in itself, (e.g., independent of the senses).

Berkeley solution is that one’s thoughts are composed of ideas, that substance cannot be perceived. The veil becomes an impenetrable blanket. Locke is defeated by this supposition by Berkeley that what one knows about the world are only ideas, that is one’s own ideas. Ultimately this brings up the problem that if one isn’t there to perceive it, does it cease to exist, since ones perceptions are only one’s own ideas.

Many are familiar with this philosophical paradox where if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to perceive it, does it make a sound? If matter is simply reducible to ideas then when the ideas are not received one can’t say the event, in this case the tree, exists at all. Therefore there is no “falling” of the tree, and there can be no sound.

Berkeley’s Idealism and God

Berkeley ostensibly solves this quandary of whether things really exist by using his position on ideas as an argument for God. Berkeley was critical of Locke because God was not a necessary component of his philosophy.

For Locke, spirit is not necessary in the formulation of perception, where all that was important were external substances for perception. Berkeley replied to these perceived shortcomings of the veil of perception by saying that all things do exist at all times. They exist because God perceives everything in the world at all times, and therefore everything continues to exist always (e.g., as spirit). One philosophy professor of mine referred to this as “God putting ideas in our heads”.

In reference to Berkeley’s philosophy, Dr. Samuel Johnson once kicked a heavy stone and exclaimed, “I refute it thus!” Yet ultimately this refutes nothing (e.g., it could just be the “idea” of pain in kicking the “rock”).

Resources:

The Empiricists An Anchor Book – Doubleday: 1961.

Honderich, Ted, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford 1995.

What Were Socrates’ Last Words?

Socrates lived 469 BC–399 BC, and was a classical Greek philosopher often credited with being the originator of western philosophy. His teachings are comprised in a collection of dialogues, compiled by Platowhere Socrates is engaged in a dialectic or Socratic Method (e.g., an analytic discussion) with others.

Socrates had many famous dialogues, and Crito is one that dealt with the idea of fealty toward government, and served as a precursor to social contract theory. Although justice is ideally the will of the people, the justness of an action is not always symmetrical with the will of the people.

Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory is the theory that the authority of government is derived from voluntary agreement (or consent) among all of its people to form a political community whose responsibility it is to obey the laws passed by a government, which serve to contribute to the public good.

People are obligated to adhere to these laws because first, all are protected, and second, one has an obligation to serve the state since the state represents the will of all it’s citizens. Famous social contract theorists include the philosophers Hobbes and Rousseau.

Crito’s Plea for Socrates to Escape Execution

In Plato’s dialogue, titled Crito, Socrates has been condemned to death. Under the terms of Socrates’ confinement, he finds that he has the ability to easily escape. His friend Crito argues that his death would be such a loss to to the world, and it was important for such a wise man as himself to live. Also, Crito tells him that he should try to live, because they don’t want him to die, and they care for him.

Crito further says that it will reflect poorly on him and Socrates’ other friends if they did not act to save him, and indeed do not save him. Surprisingly enough Socrates argues that he must not try and escape, even though he is able, even to save his life. His argument regarding his obligation to follow the dictates of the state forms the basis for social contract theory, and therefore one’s allegiance to the state.

The Importance of Acting Ethically

Socrates has an obligation to bring up his children and educate them to be ethical. If Socrates does not set a good example for his children, then he will be doing an injustice to them. In fact Socrates would be setting a bad example for all people if he fled.

It matters nothing whether what the state does is right, but rather the state must be obeyed by virtue of being the state even if the state represents the collective injustice of its citizens.

According to Socrates, to not follow the rules of the state one is to commit a great evil. As a result of the evil actions against Socrates, he is not entitled to an evil (e.g., escaping) act against the state. If he stays and is executed, he is a victim not of the injustice of the law, but rather the injustice of Athenian citizens, and history will judge them as unjust if they are so – this is not for Socrates to judge.

For Socrates, a decision to disregard the law and escape threatens to overthrow the law in Athenian society. Socrates talks about how by the excellence of the state he was conceived and educated. His marriage and children demonstrated his satisfaction with the state. Socrates believed that agreeing to be married in the state, his decision to birth and raise his children born in the state, and all other benefits of being a citizen, created an obligation to follow the laws of the state.

Virtue and Obeying the Dictates of the State

According to Socrates, if he was unhappy with the state, then he could have left and lived somewhere else prior to his arrest. And if he does leave now that he is condemned to death, other states will look on him with a suspicious eye, as the supposedly virtuous philosopher who ran away and therefore acting unjustly.

Like Socrates, under social contract theory, all are obligated to obey the dictates of the state. This is because the state represents the will of the people to consent to the rules of the state in order to be protected. In order for the will of the people to be respected the government mandates must be followed even if the rulers act unjustly. To follow the dictates of the state is to act ethically and morally according to Socrates.

Resources:

Honderich, Ted, Ed. The Oxford Companion To Philosophy Oxford University Press: Oxford 1995.

Jowett, B., M.A. The Dialogues of Plato. Volume One. Random House Inc.: New York 1937.

Informal Logic and the Ad Hominem Fallacy


There are many types of logical fallacies one discovers when talking about critical thinking. Some rely on formal logic such as the enthymeme or rhetorical syllogism, and others rely on what are called informal fallacies. These are fallacies not based directly on logic but rather often deal with emotions or what could be referred to as sleights of hand. One informal fallacy that has a lot of variation is called the Ad Hominem fallacy which mean literally “against the man.” Here are the main variations of the Ad Hominem fallacies.

 Ad Hominem Abusive

This fallacy is the best known of the Ad Hominem fallacies. This informal logical fallacy attacks the person rather than an individual’s personal position. An example of the Ad Hominem fallacy is the following: Henry cannot have any good ideas about financial planning because Henry is a drunk. The argument tells one nothing useful about whether Henry is a competent financial planner or not but rather attacks him personally to discredit him.

Ad Hominem Circumstantial.

This too is an attack on ones character but is less direct than the Ad Hominem abusive. An example of this might be “union support raising the workers` wages will most likely increase the pay of the labor union representatives.” The implication is that the union representative efforts to increase labor pay is only because the union representative wants to pad their own pockets.

Ad Hominem “Tu Quoque” or “you too” fallacy.

One might argue for example that one shouldn’t steal. Some may cheat on their taxes. A father might tell his son that it is wrong to steal. His son might say back to him that “you steal on your taxes so who are you to tell me about stealing?” The assertion by the son is that since dad does it it is ok for him to do it. Yet this ignores the fact that stealing is wrong in any circumstances.

Ad Hominem Inconsistency

An example might be when a politician claims that there should be no new taxes. Yet later in ones career that same person might vote to raise taxes. Such a person might be accused of being unreliable and even not worthy of trust. This ignores the fact that the financial circumstances of the country may have changed and therefore at this time raising taxes may have been prudent and warranted. Yet with this fallacy the implication can be that the politician is untrustworthy or ever dishonest.

Ad Hominem Poisoning the Well.

Someone might claim that such and such homosexual “in this case doesn’t have AIDS”. The insinuation here is that being homosexual (especially this homosexual) is associated with AIDS. While the claim does not directly say this person has ever been exposed to AIDS, an association is drawn between this individual and AIDS. This can be used to further attack ones character.

Positive Ad Hominem Fallacy.

Just as someone’s integrity can be attacked by the Ad Hominem, the Ad Hominem can (theoretically) also be used to establish virtue. For example one might say that so and so goes to church every Sunday and therefore it is unlikely that the person falsified accounting entries at the company where the accused is the controller. But anyone is capable of falsifying accounting entries, even those that go to church.

Sources:

  • Copi, Irving, and Cohen, Carl. Introduction to Logic. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998.
  • Hurley, Patrick. A Concise introduction to Logic. Belmont: Wadsworth 2000.

What is the Nature of Reality?

Metaphysics refers to the nature of reality. There are a lot of misunderstandings about what metaphysics is and what it stands for. Some people think metaphysics refers to new age religions. Others think metaphysics is only about God.The word metaphysics literally means beyond physics. This word coined encompassed Aristotle’s work which did not fit in with his writings on nature.

Idealism and Materialism

The study of metaphysics has become a vast enterprise where things are not always the way they seem. Often in studying metaphysics one is drawn into quandaries and paradox. Metaphysics is generally broken down into idealism and materialism; that which actually is real are either ideas or matter and not both (i.e., matter and ideas are dissimilar, discrete, entities).

There are problems with both these conceptions of reality. With idealism one’s perceptions and understanding of the world are intangible and rely on often fleeting ideas. On the other hand materialism is that which is real is material, but this falls into a quandary between matter and spirit, where matter is deterministic but the spirit is free.

Other Problems With Idealism and Materialism

Another problem, referred to as the veil of perception, is that if matter is something that one perceives, then how can one really know that matter exists as we perceive it if it exists independent of the senses, and the only way one can know it is through the senses? This is one argument for idealism. Further if one can not see the thing as it exists in itself, how can one know it exists at all? This is a natural outgrowth of the problem of the veil of perception.

Yet if all is ideas, then how can one account for the seeming permanence and stability in the world? Also, if all that one perceives are ideas, then if no one is there to perceive them, then the ideas cannot exist (e.g., if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?). According to idealism, there is no access to reality apart from what the mind provides us with.

What is Monism and Pluralism?

One common question metaphysics addresses is is reality monistic or pluralistic. Monism is the idea that everything is essentially one. An argument against monism is that how can something be one thing only, and yet be constantly changing as things appear to do in the world? A similar problem with pluralism, where there is more than one state of reality; if things are varied in nature then how can one find anything essential?

Metaphysics addresses many problems when examining the nature of reality. Much change has occurred since Aristotle’s writings beyond nature served as a place holder. Whether that which is essential is matter or ideas, or if monism or pluralism more adequately explain reality, metaphysics has been a source of much debate when examining what one means by reality, as well as what reality truly is.

References

Honderich, T. (Ed.) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford 1995

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Problem of Perception. Retrieved on July, 10, 2011 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-problem/#3.1

Marx’s Communist Revolution


According to Karl Marx, the revolution of the worker or proletariat is a natural outcome brought about by the acquired consciousness of the proletariat and the economic pressures of capitalism. In the unfolding of history (according to Marx, Historical Materialism), a time will arise where the bourgeoisie (e.g., the landed class) would be overthrown by the proletariat (e.g., the landless class).

While communism marks the end of the age of decadent capitalism according to Marx, another viewpoint accepted by Marx is that throughClass Struggle revolution can be achieved. With the efforts of the landless class the capitalist bosses would be overthrown and a worker’s paradise would ensue.

The Metaphysics of History

Marx’s Historical Materialism, like Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit”, shows an unfolding of history. In Hegel’s view, spirit or mind is instrumental in the unfolding of history, but according to Marx, matter is the driving force behind history(1). While there is controversy surrounding what Hegel meant by spirit or mind in the context of his phenomenology, there is little doubt what Marx meant by materialism(2). When Marx is talking about matter, he is referring to the raw stuff of which things are made.

The important thing with matter is one’s relation to this matter, especially matter shaped by the proletariat, that is robbed by the capitalist bosses. Matter drives history through the continual myriad transformations of matter, and in the days of capitalism, the types of production determine social relations, and more specifically individual thought.

Historical Materialism(3)

There are two basic metaphysical positions one can take, one being that that which constitutes the essence of reality are ideas, and the other, that which is most basic or essential is matter. In idealism, ideas are thought to be dependent on someone or something having the ideas. Without the subject nothing can be said to exist. This is not a problem for Marx. Marx’s theory is that matter exists whether someone is there to perceive it or not.

Everything that is thought of as mind or spirit is driven by matter according to Marx. Under capitalism the thoughts we have, the zeitgeist of a particular era, are all dependent on the modes of production(4). As the modes of production change, so do the social relations, and these relations change unceasingly. Our relation to matter determines our understanding of the world, and the way we understand each other.

Marx gives the example of commodity fetishism, where consumers desire certain material goods. These goods become a commodity, and because of this they seem to have intrinsic value. The commodity becomes almost a living thing. The commodity is reified(5). Marx gives the example that gold has no intrinsic value, but its desirability for the purchase of things gives it value, as it seems in itself. This commodity takes on a life of its own, becoming a source of affluence and power, and is no longer simply matter.

Communist Revolution and the Class Struggle View

The primary problem with Marx’s theory of revolution is that on the one hand the transformations in the material relations are constantly driving the unfolding of history (i.e., Historical Materialism). Eventually capitalism results in monopolies, and ultimately world monopoly; then comes revolution, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. On the other hand what role does class struggle play in the equation? For if the end of revolution is not necessary, and rather the cries of injustice result in substantial benefit for the worker, then how can communist revolution be essential or even be claimed to be important?

Further, not only is the class struggle view a problem for Marx’s theory of revolution, but there are also more practical considerations. If revolution is inevitable, then would it be necessary for people to “struggle” to overthrow the government? Also, if struggle is required, then it seems the material (i.e., social) relations of the productive forces do not drive history at all, and therefore do not lead to an inevitable communist revolution. It is impossible to have it both ways.

Marx’s Utopia

The disagreeable solution is that revolution can happen in intransigent capitalist countries, but only as the result of sustained class struggle. It is conceivable in a world proletariat revolution, that the revolution could be smashed. It is also conceivable that capitalism could evolve into something more beneficent because of worker’s pressure on the capitalists, delaying or denying communist revolution. After a revolution, a communist paradise then would not necessarily follow (perhaps because of some lack of ideological purity), and this viewpoint would be useful in demonstrating how such repressive regimes likeStalin or Pol Pot could come out of communist revolution.

The argument then can be made that communist revolution is not always a good thing, which Marx would most certainly reject. Marx’s theory of historical materialism and the promise of a coming paradise is then relegated to little more than a well intentioned fantasy. Even the reductionist materialist position of communists is called into question.

Endnotes

1 Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General” Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved on August 13, 2011 from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/hegel.htm

2 Karl Marx, , “Afterward to the Second German Edition [Abstract]”

Capital Volume 1, Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved on August 13, 2011 from http://www.marxists.org/subject/dialectics/marx-engels/capital-afterward.htm 

3 Mick Brookes, “Historical Materialism” Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved on August 13, 2011 from http://www.marxist.com/History-old/historicalMaterialism.htm

4 MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms. Marxists Internet Archives. Retrieved on August 13, 2011 from http://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/m/o.htm#mode-production

5 Reification. Retrieved on August 13, 2011 from http://it.stlawu.edu/~global/glossary/reification.a.html

Paradigms of Evolution and Material Force

The nature of self determines not only ones attitude toward the world, but how one constructs such a world that aligns with ones imperatives. With physical change through evolution, comes functional change in morphology, social relations and individuality, all of which drives history. With evolutionary fitness the species survives to pass on its genetic endowment. Modern science has found strong evidence for evolution. When evolution occurs, the species change due to environmental pressures. When individuals do not become adaptive, fail to reproduce, they are eliminated from the gene pool. Through changes in the species’ genus, future species bears little resemblance to the original form. Not only is the physical structure effected by material pressure, but also changes come about in the dynamic of life of an individual species, or the telos driven individual life.

The Varieties of Evolutionary Change

Evolution is not particular to the physical change in the species. Any change in physical structure has a corresponding change in function of the species, be its historical path, or its individual life. All mutations that result in the ability of the species to be adaptive, results from environmental pressure on the physical aspect of the species. Whether this change is genetic-morphological, quasi-historical or personal,  this continuum all depends on the material pressures on the physical structure of the species, but is manifested in different ways.

These three approaches, our biological history, our socio-cultural history and our personal life journey are not incompatible. One can see them all as ones being reaching out, in some sort of telos, toward a better more fulfilled existence. Can one only take the materialist scientific view of evolution? To reduce change to simply the physical structure of the species, ignores the contribution of these material forces to society and personality. When one ignores the contribution of material forces on society and personality, one must also ignore the result of primary material effect on physical structure. All three, the genetic-morphological, the quasi-historical and the telos driven life, each in turn, begin with the material forces.

As the changes in the body are driven by the material forces, so too does ones psyche find the way to transmute these changes in physical form and the implication for changes in function. The increase in the mass of the frontal cortex of the human brain has enabled it to survive, but also it has made itself acutely aware of others.

If a species is to survive, then a social structure must be developed that enhances evolutionary fitness, for example through availability of resources to the favored, including food, shelter, and the ability to procreate. To enable this complexity in society necessitates the differentiation of individuals in different skills and skill levels. The success of the social organ, is dependent on the health and adaptiveness, where it results in a sort of gestalt. These dynamics drive how the world is organized, and how the virtues of the individuals are driven by material forces.

Hegels Quasi-Historical Evolution

In the quasi-historical approach, Hegels book, The Phenomenology of Spirit addresses the problem of how spirit evolves as a result of changes in social structure. When the individual encounters another, only then can the individual become self-conscious. This interaction builds into a sort of social genealogy of history, which eventually leads to the highest achievements in human history, according to Hegel; religion, philosophy and art.

This unfolding of history relies on certain logic, where there is a stasis, conflict, and then through resolution another period of stasis. This logic of Hegels history, results in different successive social moments where one finds themselves, as well as providing a quasi-historical view of how change comes about socially.

It might be asked how logic can transmute history into progressive phases, resulting in newly unique positions in history. While Hegels in his logic may not address how logic formalizes history, the transitions that Hegel talks about, like his history as a whole, comes about through a harmonious state, followed by a creative tension, which result in a new harmonious state. Such is the nature of change where successive moments resolve into new ones. Historically, moments respond to change in the environment, whether it be the primary effect of the material forces on the genetic-morphology of the species, or the social groupings, which enable and disable genetic fitness of a people.

While Hegels phenomenology of spirit spans human history, the change in physical functioning is minimal over the course of human history, so in speciation the changes are minimal. But the social sphere where the spirit acts, function is defined in the unfolding of history, manifests itself nominally as the result of environmental pressure that are driven by material forces.

Freud and Functionalism

Freud writes about the Id, the Ego and the Superego (Internet, 2010). As the social inclination of a species can be driven by the superego, so can the function of the species, sometimes referred to as the spiritual aspect,  be driven by the material demands, where environmental pressures can change function. Freud talks about the id, which is the most primal impulse, which is moderated by the ego where the superego acts socially. The id drives or is driven by the impulses, including the sexual impulse, which results in procreation and the passing on of the genetic endowment. Also of primary importance is the death instinct or thanatos, which can prevent another from passing on their genetic endowment. These impulses are driven by material forces. The sex impulse is the most primal of the individual drives according to Freud. Without the drive to procreate, a species would cease to exist. The force of the instinct for procreation is the most fundamental of the genetic behaviors that drive fitness.

While often in the occidental tradition when one speaks of spirit, one thinks of a ghostly existence or an immaterial structure that drives behavior. But if the basis for spirit is the result of material forces where form drives function, then the way of behavior, personality and social structure can become that which is adaptive.

Aurobindos Gnosticism and Individual Telos

Similar to Hegel, but an evolution, which takes place in a lifetime, is Aurobindos Gnosticism (Sourcebook, 1957) . This telos driven life unlike Hegel, which is descriptive of the unfolding of human spirit, Aurobindos evolution results in a freeing of consciousness, which too has an impact on social relations, and social relations can help a species survive. While Hegel is descriptive, Aurobindo is proscriptive as the divine life, where a fully actualized existence is possible in ones lifetime. A gnostic life brings about personal accountability and benefits the species through altruism.

Aurobindo asserts that there is an evolution of spirit. In his work The Life Divine it is possible for one to become enlightened in ones lifetime. One does not need to wait to achieve the divine in another transcendental realm. As the individual changes so does the spiritual consciousness. When one is fully realized, then one becomes fully free to act, can therefore make positive adaptive change, which improves adaptive fitness. When action is based on altruism, this increases the fitness of the species as a whole and ensures the species survival.

Whether talking about the evolution of speciation and morphology in the science of evolution, the evolution where form determines function, or the social relations of the history is spirit, all depend on the environmental pressure brought to bear by the material forces. There is no need to exclude one from the other, but rather when evaluating them individually, realize that the span of time, which they act, vary.

The material forces drives history from the explosion of the stars to the birth of life and evolution of species. The existence of human history and individual development forms an ever spiraling up of the human potential in a sort of telos. All are driven by the material forces. All enhance the adaptation of the species to the environmental forces and therefore are part and parcel of adaptive change.

Weltanschauung and Social Darwinism

As scientism permeates Occidental societies, scientific explanation for social behavior have been reduced to Social Darwinism. Spencer took a different tack when describing evolution. Spencer asserted that not only was competition natural interspecies, but that evolution operated as well at the intraspecies level. Survival of the fittest was adapted to explain competition and fitness in Occidental culture (Internet, 2004).

Only when a species, or a segment of the species maintains fitness, can the species survive. There are different worldviews that serve to be adaptive, either cooperative or competitive. In order for a species to survive, it must be more adaptive than other species. While societies that are most cooperative are the most stable, the pressures of the aggressiveness of competitive societies most often result in the destruction of the cooperative cultures.

Sometimes fitness is defined by the power elite as survival of the fittest where the assertion is made that those who are most fit are the power elite. In bastardization of Darwins evolution, competitive attitudes between species are subverted to mean intraspecies competition for survival. This hoarding of the material wealth by the power elite results in greater fitness for the power elite and less so for those who lack adequate access to resources.

In order for the power elite to maintain its grasp on material wealth, the ideas of the ruling class are inculcated by all classes, and this adoption insures that the ruling class maintains its prerogatives. It may be maintained by the power elite that those that constitute this advantaged class, are somehow superior than the lower classes. Ostensibly this intraspecies evolution can weed out those members of society who lack fitness, thus strengthening the social organs as a whole. Unfortunately, such a society often ends up consuming itself, because of its own ideology.

The worldview in such a society adopts the prerogatives of the power elite as their own, and therefore the worldview that is adopted may serve it well in a developing industrial age; but when society shifts into a post-industrial stage, the asserted prerogatives of the power elite become little more than self-serving platitudes. The invisible hand of capitalism, which benefits all (Smith, 2008), becomes the closed fist.

The dynamic of history laid out by Hegel, illustrates the changes that come about in social relations, which determine the birth, growth and death of a moment of historical change, where a decaying society often finds itself either prone to collapse or in revolution as Marx asserts. The particular channeling of the material forces that drive the social relations, determine the Weltanschauung of its citizens and of a culture and the world. At the fall of an empire; through the leadership of the individual, as a savior or destroyer, depends on the culture that preceded it, and what ideology that was embraced. Only then, through transformation in the social relations, adapted in response to the demands of the material forces, can the species maintain fitness and avoid extinction.

Randomness in the Paradigms of Evolution

The question may come up when examining this formulation of change and adaptation, that is physical change, socio-historical change, and an individuals life legacy, one might ask if there can be free consciousness. While the universe seems to depend on constant physical laws, the unfolding of change seems to be of a potential of infinite variety. This becomes possible because of the random nature of change, which can manifest itself in a multivariate number of ways.

With the determinate nature of the laws that drive the universe, the randomness of the outcome of these material pressures result in every new and unique species with different functions, quasi-historical characteristics and distinctive individual functioning within the life community. Just as we cannot find a common thread in determining the coming physical change in the species, neither can one determine where the social construct of history or the individual consciousness and leadership will lead.

Works cited

A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy (1957) Aurobindo. edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishan and Charles A. Moore Princeton University Press: Princeton.  Pages 599-609

 Darwin, Charles. (2002)  The Origin of the Species Retrieved on January 14, 2013 from  http://darwin-online.org.uk/contents.html#origin

 Hegel, G.W.F. (1997) The Phenomenology of Spirit Translated by A. V. Miller, Oxford University Press

 Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010) Sigmund Freud. Retrieved on January 14. 2013 from  http://www.iep.utm.edu/freud/

 Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008) Adam Smith. Retrieved on January 22, 2013 from http://www.iep.utm.edu/smith/

 Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2004) Herbert Spencer. Retrieved on January 22, 2013 from http://www.iep.utm.edu/spencer/

The Dialectic of Knowledge


The communist revolutionary forces in China defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s forces and instituted a communist government in 1949. With the overthrow of Kai-shek, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung) assumed control.[1]Mao was a masterful strategist and also an insightful tactician. According to Mao only through “practice”, whether one’s own practice, or through the practice of some other historical figure, can one acquire knowledge. In Mao’s essay “On Practice”[2] he discusses how to act effectively.

Like communists in general, Mao believed that that which was most essential and truly real was matter. According to materialists, the impact of matter on the world drives history. This unfolding of history, and ones impact on it, is determined by an effective interplay between oneself and the changing world. An effective dialectic between one and the world determines ones effectiveness in action.

Theories About the Dialectical Process

The use of forms of the dialectic have a long history. The idea of a dialectic comes early with the Socratic Method.[3] Plato’s dialectic, examined opinion to arrive at truth. Through examination of someone’s position, Socrates would dissect the position and then dispassionately deconstruct it. This was brought about by a give and take dialogue where principles are necessarily derived or discarded based on logical conclusions or contradictions.

While Plato used his dialectic to prove or disprove the truth of someones position, Hegel, an idealist, found that the unfolding of history as spirit, was engaged in a sort of dialectic.[4] While this was not the dialectic of Plato, Hegel’s dialectic theory based on his logical theories, rather than reconciling individuals political and social beliefs like Plato, through history was found a resolution of problems on a grand scale. Unlike materialist communism, Hegel’s grand scheme followed the history of spirit or mind rather than matter coming to know itself through ever expanding knowledge.

Marx, a student of Hegel, rather than embracing Hegel’s idealism, dismissed it. Marx transformed Hegel’s idealism of history, to the physicality of existence. The result was that because of the centrality of matter, the revolutionary change in the productive forces under capitalism was constantly transforming social relations. Marx was a philosopher of action and felt that the academic study of philosophy was largely useless, because it was not applicable to the material conditions in day to day life.

Mao’s Epistemology

Mao, a materialist like Marx, in his essay “On Practice”, develops a system of engagement with the world that is made relevant by one’s ability to effect change, and therefore change the world. Like Marx, Mao thought that if philosophy was to be important, it had to be more than an academic exercise. Mao took Marx’s position of matter driving history, to developing a way of engaging the world, and by doing so he develops a theory of knowledge (e.g., epistemology) which he characterizes as the true scientific method. Mao calls this method the “dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge”.

Mao eschewed empiricism (knowledge based on experience) as being useless in itself. This was because acquired sensory knowledge was subjective, and therefore the perceiver was unable to bring about change. According to Maoist theory, one must instead have a direct, outward looking orientation. Like other rationalists, Mao believed knowledge based on rational principles, is the only reliable way of knowing the world. Mao believed that knowledge ultimately is based on sense perception, but was only useful when it was transformed into rational knowledge, and only then could it be used effectively. How this transition from empirical to rational principles occurred is a matter of debate.

Mao embraced science, and his epistemology, like the scientific method, is if it works (produces useful results) then it is knowledge. If one engages in simply abstract thought without any real word testing, then the truth of one’s philosophical position is unproven. It is necessary for knowledge to be honed in matter, through the application of learned principles in the driven world.

The Importance of the Dialectical Process

According to Mao, only through encounters with the external world can one attain knowledge, and one can not have knowledge until they engage the world. When something does not work effectively, then the strategy is modified until it is effective, and then what is brought about is the advancement of truth.

The dialectical process has been important throughout the history of philosophy. Different philosophers have different ideas about what is essential in a dialectical system. Where one is talking about idealism or materialism, history or ethics, a dialectical system is about the advancement of dynamic knowledge in the personal or public sphere. Whether such order, as shown by dialectics, really exists in the world, or rather is a construct of human logic is uncertain. One can look at the uncertainty of quantum mechanics or the seeming randomness of evolution, and wonder.

Notes

1 Cucchisi, Jennifer Lynn. The Causes and Effects of the Chinese Civil War, 1927-1949. Master’s Thesis Seton Hall University: New Jersey. (2002) http://domapp01.shu.edu/depts/uc/apps/libraryrepository.nsf/resourceid/D907B53FF4DF604F85256E2300524545/$File/Cucchisi-Jennifer-Lynn_Master.pdf?Open

2 Mao Tse-Tung. On Practice: On the Relation Between Knowledge and Practice, Between Knowing and Doing. 1937

Retrieved on September 7, 2011 from http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_16.htm

3 “ The question-and-answer method of philosophizing (dialectic) used by Socrates in Plato’s early dialogues (e.g., Euthyphro} often in conjunction with pretended ignorance (Socratic Irony), whereby a self-professed expert’s over-confident claim to knowledge is subverted.” Ted Honderich ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995. Socratic Method Page 837.

4 Excerpt from Hegel for Beginners. Retrieved on September 9, 2011 from http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/help/easy.htm

Utilitarianism and the Categorical Imperative

While both Mill’s consequentialist Principle of Utility and Kant’s deontological Categorical Imperative seem both to have ethical import, the applicability of each depends on the situation to which they are applied. Utilitarianism is that the goodness or rightness of an ethic in question, depends on the desirability of its consequences.

On the other hand is the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, where according to Kant the value of a maxim that holds categorically or universally (e.g., the Categorical Imperative), depends on one acting out of duty (e.g., Deontologically). If an act is moral, then it must hold categorically, as understood through reason (i.e., one must not steal, because to steal would result in nothing belonging to anyone – respect for private property being a maxim or law that holds categorically using reason). While both these principles seem vitally important, how is one to decide which is paramount when their ethical proscriptions overlap?

Mill’s Utilitarianism

Mill’s ethical system is consequentialist, that is the value of the ethical act depends on the consequences. Mill’s system depends on the Principle of Utility. According to the principle of utility, the desire that people share is the desire to be happy. And to be happy depends on how much pleasure one can have in their life. Something is ethical by maximizing happiness (e.g., pleasure), in the greatest good for the greatest number. Mill’s system has been criticized as being hedonistic, (e.g., the base pleasures being the highest good) but in fact other pleasures besides the sensual pleasures are included. Lucidity in thought can result in pleasure. Or loving another can bring pleasure as well.

One unfortunate byproduct of utilitarianism is that when one wants to maximize happiness for the greatest number, this often is to the detriment of the minority. Being that this is so, the rights of certain individuals can suffer.

For example, say one was misbooked on a ship of sadists, and they weren’t a sadist. In order to maximize happiness (e.g., pleasure), one must allow oneself to be abused in order to make the majority happy. So the question that becomes apparent, when looking at Kant’s and Mill’s ethical systems; where do rights of others end and the rights of the individual begin?

Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Kant’s categorical imperative takes a contrary view. In conformity with the first formulation of the categorical imperative (i.e., one must always act in such a way that the principle in which one acts holds categorically or universally), is the second formulation of the categorical imperative, where Kant states that none should be treated simply as a means, but also as an end in themselves, where the principle of how one acts holds universally as well. What Kant is saying is that not treating someone as a means refers to not denying the rights of another. In others words not treating someone as a means to an end, but rather respecting their autonomy.

By one being an end in themselves, one can consent to being used in which case ones autonomy is not violated. For example a bank robber might think they are justified in robbing a bank, because the outcome for instance is that the bank robber parent can buy their children food. Yet one is not treating the teller as an end in themselves, because the teller has no option but to obey and doesn’t part with the money willingly.

Why are Rights Important?

Freedom may be abridged by the principle of utility. Yet according to the founders of the constitution this freedom is not abridged as a right of the state, because rights are god given, not something that can be bestowed on autonomous beings. In the case of free speech rights, rights are based on the principle that in order for there to be a just society, all speech must be respected. Yet how is one to balance the safety of the public at large with the right of the individual (i.e., free speech?).

The best way, and one of the safeguards of free speech, is to ensure that the society one lives in is a just society, where everyone’s rights are protected. For example the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s led by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, would not have happened at all if the rights of African-Americans were first protected.

In the US, it is generally felt that non-violent demonstrations are acceptable, or at least tolerable. This has become the norm as a sort of compromise between the destruction and violence that can come from demonstrations and the respect for free speech.

References:

Honderich, Ted Ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press 1995.

May, Larry et al., Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach. Third Edition. Pearson Education, Inc. 2002.

Moore, Booke Noel., Steward, Robert Michael., Moral Philosophy: A Comprehensive Introduction. Mayfield Publishing Company, California State University, Chico 1994.

Descartes’ Dualism and the Mind/Body Problem

Descartes formulated the cogito, the idea that because one thinks, they must necessarily exist (“I think therefore I am”). This assertion forms the foundation for his system proving that our sensory perceptions are reliable. This fact is essential for science. Nevertheless there are problems with his system, and there are serious consequences that follow from his propositions.

Descartes is one of the most influential thinkers of modern time. He lived from March 31,1596 – February 11, 1650, and was not only an innovator in philosophy, but also made important contributions to mathematics and physics.

Descartes Rationalism

Descartes was a rationalist. Rationalism is the idea that real knowledge can only be known through reason. This position is not as popular today as empiricism (e.g., the idea that things can only be known through experience). Yet even today there is a tension in science between the rationalist and the empiricist positions. For example it is not known how much of human behavior is innate (e.g., based on rational principles), or is learned (e.g., empirical).

According to Descartes reason exists in the mind independent of the body. The mind according to the rationalist lives on after the body perishes. The body is corporeal and is therefore temporal and spatial. On the other hand the mind is atemporal and aspatial.

According to Descartes knowledge is only reliable if it can be understood through reason by the mind. Knowledge that is known through the body, the five senses, cannot be relied on at all. Examples might be the illusion of water in a desert, or as Descartes states, how do one know that what is perceived is in fact reliable since one may be in fact sleeping? The movie, The Matrix, borrows from this idea of the senses being unreliable. The worldly action in the movie is actually the result of ideas being pumped into the protagonists brain by machines.

The Importance of Descartes Cogito

Descartes wanted to find a way where one can know the sensations of the world are not misleading. Previous to Descartes were the medieval philosophers known as the scholastics. Descartes did not agree with this philosophy; he believed it was the result of unbridled speculative reason, and as a result, he believed that it was unnecessarily complex. So not only could experience be misleading, but unbridled rational speculation was a threat too.

Descartes was a skeptic, and his system set out to reject anything that can’t be determined necessarily veritable. Under this maxim, everything that could possibly be denied as being veritable would in fact be discarded. Descartes thought that this would address the problem of the scholastics, who came to conclusions that did not inerrantly follow from their propositions, as well as the empiricists, who were subject to being mislead by the senses.

The thing that one is most certain of is that one exists. How do people know they exist? People know they exist because they think. Therefore, one has the Cartesian Cogito – “I think therefore I am.” It is impossible to think without existing, that is that which exists necessarily follows from the premise of thought. This is the foundation of Descartes’ system.

He further explains by asserting that one has an idea of perfection for those whom are flawed. How can something flawed conceive of something perfect? The only answer is that which is known through reason is in fact perfect. And how could anything that exists that is perfect be other than God? This is referred to as the Cosmological Argument and serves as what has historically been an effective proof for the existence of God.

If God exists and God is perfect then God would not deceive, so one can know that what one perceives is, at least in some instances, reliable, that is God does not practice deception. Descartes goes on later in his Meditations to buttress his position that what is perceived is reliable.

Cartesian Theory and the Mind/Body Problem

The mind/body problem is also called the problem of dualism. Descartes believed that since the mind is atemporal and aspatial, it is indestructible. Only that which exists in time and is extended in space is destructible. This is why, according to rationalists, reason is innate and everlasting, while knowledge according to the empiricists, is learned over time. Descartes’ position on rationalism formed the foundation for the reliability of science. The emphasis became the scientific rational mind acting on the inert substances of the world. This formed the basis for experimentation.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that Descartes position was epistemological (e.g., based on a theory of knowledge). While his theory was useful, the question becomes apparent that does this idea, the cogito which is useful, really describe reality (e.g., Metaphysics)? This then is the fatal flaw in Descartes’ system. While the cogito is useful epistemologically, is it warranted metaphysically? And if not, then how can one say his system is reasonable at all?

The metaphysical problem with Descartes’ position is known as “The Mind/Body Problem.” How can an aspatial and atemporal mind interface with a spatial and temporal body? To this day, an adequate explanation has not be found to explain this relationship. Descartes himself claimed that the mind interfaces with the body through the Pineal Gland, but he never adequately explained how they interact.

Cartesian Theory and Environmental Degradation

Objectification in science has led to many scientific proofs, but has divorced one from a integral relationship with the world. In considering the foreign inert bodies of the world (including animals) as unimportant and only useful, many of the excesses of technology have resulted in environmental degradation. It is hard to find value in something that does not have a mind and thus cannot think, and is not able to make moral judgments, and therefore cannot be a moral entity worthy of protection.

Sources:

The Rationalists, Discourse on Great Thinkers. Doubleday 1974.

Honderich, Ted. Ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Are Atheists Moral?

Can atheists be moral? It is often thought that an atheist, one who does not recognize the dominion of God, or God at all for that matter, somehow cannot act ethically. One fundamental question is, if one does not recognize the laws of the Ten Commandments as commands from God, then is there a basis for being a moral individual?

Yet there are other criteria to be moral. Philosophical ethics propounds many ethical theories based on rational principles. Examples of these include Utilitarianism, where that which is ethical is that which brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. Another example is Kantianism, which relies on such dictums as the Categorical Imperative where principles are universalized as maxims that hold true categorically.

Not surprisingly, there are many arguments in ethics about what constitutes moral principles, and what theory should be adopted, but according to Christian theists, one must accept the commands of God as interminable, that this position is not open to debate. Are the moral teachings of the Abrahamic religions beyond doubt? Is it possible to question such a position? Is fealty to God necessary for one to be moral? Does the existence of God ensure morality in the world? Socrates, who was executed for among other things impiety, addresses this issue in the Socratic dialogue the Euthyphro.

One charge against him, Socrates states, was that “I invent new gods and deny the existence of old ones”. Because of this charge, Socrates is especially interested in what constitutes piety. Talking to his friend, the theologian Euthyphro, Euthyphro tells him that he is pursuing his father for murder. A field laborer in a fit of drunken passion slew one of his father’s domestic servants. His father bound him hand and foot and threw him into a ditch. A messenger was sent to a diviner by Euthyphro’s father to inquire what he was to do with the laborer. Before the messenger returned the laborer had died of exposure.

Socrates curious about this, wondered if the ethical principles gleaned from this event might be useful in his defense, wondering if Euthyphro was right to seek out his father for murder. Would the instructions from the diviner, have made a difference as to whether Euthyphro’s actions were pious or not? Euthyphro gives a definition of piety, as “that which is dear to the gods and impiety is that which is not dear to them”.

Socrates asks “the point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods” The preceding argument’s is a formulation is what is called the Divine Command Theory. According to Divine Command Theory, if something is not holy, and not moral in itself, but only if God commands it to be holy. A question can be raised that if something is moral in itself, does an ethical act require God to make it ethical? If it is true that God is needed to make something holy, then it seems God could command anything to be holy, which seems counterintuitive. On the other hand if something is ethical in itself then what is the role of God?

If God is not necessary to determine whether some act is ethical or not (i.e., a thing as moral in itself instead or being moral because God commands it), then what role does God have in this context? With the Divine Command Theory, God’s role in rooting out evil is unclear. Yet some might argue that because God gives one free will, one is free to not obey his commandments, and therefore suffer the consequences of sin, but this provides no insight into the direct role God plays in morality.

The atheist may claim, from a philosophical standpoint, that belief in God is not sufficient to determine ones moral being. The philosophical positions propounded by different philosophers regarding ethics are not settled issues either. Finding what is ethical can be elusive. Assumptions about ones certainty, about ones own ethical being or actions may be at the very least misguided, whether philosophical or religious. Nevertheless, The Divine Command Theory propounded by Socrates, casts doubt on the idea that only those that believe in God can be ethical, and furthermore can anyone make the claim to being ethical at all?

A more important question must be asked then what constitutes ethics? An even more radical question must be asked is, is ethics possible at all? Is there a basis for one to act ethically? All feel they can act ethically but what supposition must be adopted to insure that an act is ethical, and if one cannot be found, then what is the basis for saying one is a moral being? Finally the question must be asked that if there is no supposition to support the claim of some act being ethical, then is ethics simply a social construct? Furthermore if the virtue of ethical acts is simply a social construct, then can different people have different ethical systems and therefore are these ethical systems strictly subjective? Such issues are problems for a unified system of ethics.