Thank’s for you effort, Mr. Brooks

Opinion | How to Destroy Truth – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

But this is not what I’d hoped for. You exaggerate the gulf between fact and value here. The stories that animate our lives are mere propaganda when they are not based in fact. Critical thinking and propositional knowledge are relevant here. Critical thinking is also crucial to getting conceptual clarity about the values that animate us. Absent this, our values are hollow and easily co-opted by demagogues (witness the conflation of liberty with self indulgence on the right).

Would that we did emphasize critical thinking in our educational system. We don’t, we emphasize algebra. We do give lip service to critical thinking as an “infused outcome” across the curriculum. Imagine if we did this with math, or reasoning with numbers. We could have English teachers handle geometry and Sociologists comment on the factoring of polynomials (it’s divide and conquer, just like colonialism).

The result of our neglect of critical thinking beyond applications in math and the hard sciences is a population of people who think reasoning is irrelevant outside these realms. And now we know what politics looks like for such a miseducated population.

Getting Clear on Truth and Rationality

Let’s start with the modest metaphysical assumption that we all live on planet Earth. This means we have a shared reality. One that is populated with various and sundry objects (or better, containing stuff that can be divided in to objects in any number of ways). This is the realm of objects, or the objective world. As embodied creatures, we are among the objects populating the objective realm. But in addition to being objects we are also subjects. As subjects, we have some limited experience of the world. Our experience is the one thing we are directly aware of, so no additional assumptions are invoked here. But there is one further small metaphysical leap of faith in presuming that we have experience of our shared reality. We could all live on planet Earth and yet be irrevocably plugged in to virtual reality machines, lacking any experience of the reality we share. But let us take that additional leap as well and assume that we have limited and fallible experience of a shared reality. Absent this step, we can not hope to communicate, understand each other, or interact at all.

As subjects, our experience of the world is limited by our perspectives. Further our impressions and beliefs are liable to be distorted by biases and other intellectual bad habits. So, one thing we can all recognize about being subjects is that our impressions, beliefs and opinions are fallible. We are limited and imperfect in ways that make error quite possible. That’s just life as a subject, having subjective impressions and beliefs means being fallible. Fortunately, we can always expand the basis of evidence we reason from by sharing our impressions and beliefs with each other. And we can improve the reliability of our reasoning by cultivating the intellectual habits that steer us away from biased and distorted beliefs. This is the point of critical thinking.

To say our impressions and beliefs are subjective is not to say they are always biased, distorted or false. Belief is always in the subjective realm because beliefs belong to subjects. And this is all it means to say that belief is subjective. But our beliefs are representations of our shared reality and it remains possible for many of our beliefs to accurately reflect what is going on in the world of objects. That is, our subjective beliefs can be objectively true. All it is for a belief to be true is for it to represent some aspect of the objective world the way it is.

Note that we as subjects are part of the objective world. So, my beliefs about your beliefs are beliefs about an aspect of the objective world and they can be true or false, accurate or inaccurate. No subject can ever completely understand another simply because the nature of being a subject doesn’t allow for one person to fully occupy the mind of another. But we can share quite a bit of our subjectivity through human communication, at least if we are clear in our expression and charitable in our listening.

As subjects, it is generally good for us to have true beliefs and avoid false beliefs. When we have true beliefs, we are more capable of acting effectively, achieving goals, avoiding hazards, and generally having a good time. I suppose this is a value statement, but not the sort of value statements anyone is likely to dispute. This much of the value of having true beliefs comes along with being subjects who have needs and goals in a world full of objects (and subjects) than can be helpful or harmful to us. So, special cases aside, it’s good to have true beliefs.

For your beliefs to be rational, or reasonable, is just for them to be held on the basis of the best reasons. Good reasons are reasons that that are truth oriented. This much is just definitional. All it means for your belief to be rational or reasonable is for it to be oriented towards truth, or held for the most truth-oriented reasons. This much should make it clear why it is good to be rational. Being rational is more likely to get you true beliefs and true beliefs are good because they help you act effectively, achieve your goals, avoid hazards and such. To be reasonable, in the literal sense of the word, is to be amenable to reason. That is, the reasonable person is the person who forms or revises beliefs by yielding to the best reasons. To be a rational believer is pretty much the same thing.

[It’s worth noting that the words “rational” and “reasonable” can also refer to choosing or acting in ways that maximize your values and interests generally, not just towards true belief. Words are often ambiguous. The way to be comfortable with ambiguity is to get clear on how words are being used and track the various usages. Talk of rational or reasonable belief can reliably be understood as truth oriented simply because to believe something is to take it to be true].

Rationality is not a kind of human imposed authority over what is true or what we should believe. Rationality does not dictate such things. The only thing that is authoritative concerning what we should believe is how things are in our shared reality. To believe something is to take it to be true. To believe rationally is just to believe in a way that targets the truth well. To believe irrationally is a way of missing the target of belief. Rational belief isn’t guaranteed to hit the target of truth. But irrational belief involves a kind of unforced error.

What is true doesn’t belong to anyone. No subject gets to dictate or decide what is objectively the case, except in the very limited respect where a person decides what to do, how to understand things, and who to be. As a subject, I have this much power over our shared reality and no more. So there is no “my truth” or “your truth.” There is just the truth, which includes what we do, how we understand things, who we are, our willingness or reluctance to appreciate the truth, and whatever consequences follow from this.

We’ve made two assumptions here. Namely that we have a shared reality and that we each have limited and fallible experience of that reality. To this we’ve added a few definitional remarks about truth, rationality, reason, belief, subjectivity and objectivity. And we’ve reasoned a bit on the basis of these things. In the definitional remarks I’ve tried to lay out standard philosophical usage clearly and straightforwardly.

Confusions about truth, rationality, subjectivity and objectivity abound in our culture at the moment. Many will be tempted to object to what I’ve laid out here on the grounds that people are free to define these notions as they please. In a sense, people are free to do so. Nobody has the power to prevent it. But to insist on defining things as we like amounts to the privatization and commodification of language, with the primary result of undermining our capacity to communicate with one another and understand each other in the limited ways that are open to us. I am no fan of such hyper-individualism. We already have capitalism run amuck even without such linguistic intellectual property. While we could quibble about how to define truth and rationality, the only result of this would be to talk about something else instead. Something other than how we stand as subjects to each other and our shared reality.

The reason it is good to understand truth, rationality etc. in the manner I’ve laid out here is that it facilitates clearer communication and understanding of our diverse experiences and diverse ways of thinking. This allows us to cooperatively improve our ways of thinking and our limited grasp of the truth. And as a result of this, we are empowered to act more effectively, avoid hazards in our interactions, and appreciate each other more significantly.

From Skepticism to Inquiry

One of the hazards of teaching philosophers like Descartes and Hume is that some students are too willing to embrace the skeptical claims and sit content with not being able to know. The idea that “It’s all just a matter of the individual’s subjective opinion” can be powerfully appealing to people who haven’t yet figured many things out and feel a bit overwhelmed with competing claims to truth. It also feeds into our society’s hyper-individualism and distorted conceptions of liberty. Many people feel they are in familiar and comfortable territory when what to believe can be reduced to nothing more than a consumer choice, a matter of personal taste, 

But this uncritical skepticism or subjectivism is not reasonable. That is, it serves as a way of not taking reasons seriously. It amounts to rejecting the project of inquiry, which unavoidably comes with the perilous risk of getting things wrong and finding reasons to change your mind. 

If we are going to take inquiry seriously, we might start by noting that while we have some clever arguments for skeptical claims from Hume, we also have some very impressive examples of successfully figuring things out in the recent history of science and technology. This means we have problems. And this is exactly how most philosophers regard skeptical arguments in epistemology. Hume gives us the problem of induction, that is, the problem of figuring out why and how empirical inquiry works (in a way that is responsive to the worries Hume raises). Problems are not points where we give up, they are points where we look for new ways to frame issues, new arguments to consider, or previously unnoticed problems in arguments we’ve found persuasive. Problems in philosophy are data points, not resting places.

So at the outset of this chapter I offer one way of approaching philosophy of science: Let’s look at our most successful knowledge producing practices and see just how we gain knowledge using these practices. This has the potential to explain how we can know in a way that isn’t as vulnerable to our prior skeptical worries. So, in this chapter, we’ll see Carl Popper answering Hume in just such a manner. And then Kuhn offering a more sophisticated development of Popper’s approach in a way that is sensitive to the historical development of science.

Note to Jack

One of the joys of having an open-source text out there is occasionally getting pleasantly surprised with who it reaches. Glad you’re finding my Intro worthwhile. In an introduction to philosophy I’d rather hope to raise more interesting issues than I settle. It’s very gratifying to see you’ve latched on to some good questions here. Wish more of my students would read this closely.

So, you’re raising a question concerning the epistemology of value. How can we know what is good, or in the case of works of art, what is beautiful or has aesthetic value (let’s not assume these are the same thing). It might look like things are easier in the case of knowing what is good for your friend. You can ask your friend. But that might just be a starting point. Most of us don’t have perfect self-knowledge. Often enough, we are masters of self-deception. To take a pretty clear case, if your friend is a drug addict, he might tell you quite earnestly that what is good for him is a bag of dope. And he’d probably be wrong. So, there are challenging “how do you know?” questions concerning what is best for the people we love as well.

Before we get to the “how do you know?” question, though, let’s consider some data points. In both the case of your friends and works of art, it does seem we can inquire into what is best and come to have a decent appreciation of what is best. I think the text had a link to Khatia Buniatishvili playing Rachmaninov.

Khatia Buniatishvili plays Piano Concerto No. 2 by S. Rachmaninov – YouTu

Even if you are not a fan of classical music, you can probably appreciate the artistry of her playing. If you are a fan, you may have a more refined appreciation of what counts as great musicianship in this tradition. This isn’t something Buniatishvili gets to decide for herself (any more than the drug addict gets to decide for himself that another dose of herion is what’s best for him). 

Classical music is a good case to consider because it seems pretty clear that what is good is not totally subjective but determined in good measure by standards of excellence adopted in that musical tradition. Still, a great interpreter of Rachmaninov like Buniatishvili isn’t just slavishly adhering to those aesthetic standards. Rather she is articulating, refining and shaping those standards of excellence. She is adding something new of her own that complements and further develops the aesthetic values of the tradition. So perhaps, this is one view anyway, aesthetic value is created, but not arbitrary or subjective. We might have a hard time resolving our disagreements about who is the greatest blues guitarist, but it is clearly and objectively not me.

We have similar data points in loving relationships between people. Granted lots of relationships are dysfunctional and won’t be so helpful here. Frankfurt argues that self-love is loving what you love. This view is based on the idea that what is good for you is a function of what you love. But then we aren’t infallible judges of what we love. Sometimes your friend or mate knows better than you what is best for you. So, I might fancy the idea of owning another motorcycle at the ripe age of 57, but my wife sees better that this doesn’t cohere so well overall with the things I love (including her, of course). 

So, what I’m submitting as data points here are cases where people do have a pretty good appreciation for what is good or best, and these look like cases where our standards of excellence aren’t entirely subjective. And yet, as you astutely point out, our standard methods of rational inquiry into what is true don’t appear to be all that helpful. I don’t arrive at the “true” view of what is a great classical music performance, or whether it would be good for me to buy a Harley, through any process of inductive or deductive reasoning. This is beginning to look like a serious epistemic quandary.

So here is one suggestion. Perhaps we when are looking into what is best (in ethics, meaning in life or aesthetics) we aren’t looking into what is true. We are just looking into what is best. There may be kinds of understanding we can aspire to that aren’t exactly knowledge (since knowledge aims at truth). It may be that we can grasp, aspire to, or appreciate standards of excellence that aren’t merely subjective or totally up to us, but at the same time aren’t real entities in the world where we can have knowledge of truths. 

[Note here that having knowledge of truths itself looks to depend on standards of excellence that can’t be easily captured in terms of inquiring into truths. We can say quite a bit about what it is to have a good justifying reason for holding a belief. But here epistemology is just as normative as ethics or aesthetics. It’s not like our standards of excellence in inquiry are objectively existing things in the world about which we can have true beliefs. And yet we can pretty clearly get things wrong when it comes to justifying our beliefs (witness QAnon).]

So, the suggestion here is that there is space to explore between things being subjective, or up to us, and things being real, out there in the world where we can inquire into truths about them. I’d point you to Christine Korsgaard as one scholarly source to explore along these lines.

Finally, here’s another suggestion. Perhaps values are real, including moral values, the good life, and aesthetic values. Perhaps there are truths to discover here, but reasoning (deductive or inductive) is just one of the tools at our disposal for getting at these truths. There is also evidence. Sometimes your best and only reason for believing something is that you’ve witnessed it. In the case of Buniatishvili’s musicianship, she has, through the course of her training, been shown what excellent classical piano playing sounds like and she has developed a keen ear for this kind of excellence. In the case of typical moral maturation, we are shown some evidence when as children we are asked how we’d feel if someone treated us like that (or even more vividly when someone does treat us like that).

Hope you weren’t looking for an easy answer here Jack. When you get past the introduction, things only get more, well, complicated or interesting, depending on your sensibility.

Best,Russ

Against Cruelty

A popular view in our culture is that people who do wrong should be punished as a matter of retribution. Retribution is holding a person responsible by treating them according to the standard they set for themselves in their wrong action. But then we don’t steal the car thief’s car, we sent him to prison. Prison seems like the more humane alternative to raping the rapist and you generally can’t defraud the fraudster who would be broke without his ill gotten gains. But prison is still pretty severe punishment since it not only costs the wrong doer a significant chunk of their life, but given the way we have set things up, a prison sentence grants the convicted very few realistic paths back into the social order.

I worry about retributive punishment. It frequently functions as a thin morally righteous veil over vengeful motives. In principle, retribution is treating the wrong doer the way he deserves to be treated. Retribution, in principle, is entirely about what is just for the wrongdoer. Revenge differs in that it is about the victims and evening the score. But in practice we get these things mixed up. And punishment is often enough about satisfying our sense of righteousness when we identify with the victims of crime. The desire for revenge, I think, is best understood as a fight or flight response after the fact. We are horrified at the evil act of the wrong doer and feel a powerful emotional impulse to hit back, even though there is no longer any ongoing fight.

The Russian/Armenian tile setter that did my bathroom several years ago commented in conversation that “When the fight is over, you stop swinging your arms.” Wise words, I think. My worry about retribution/revenge is that it mainly serves as an indulgence of our own cruel impulses. We have a whole media machinery set up to whip up our outrage at the wrong doings of fellow citizens (it’s called the local TV news). And politicians are quick to capitalize on our fear of crime with get tough on crime measures. But getting tough on crime doesn’t bring crime down, it only sates our lust for vengeance. Crime statistics since the crime ridden 70s show clearly that dramatic reductions in crime are not correlated with “get tough” measures. Crime has fallen years ahead of “get tough” measures in many places and crime has remained intransigent in other places that have gotten tough. One of the leading hypotheses in the ongoing mystery concerning why crime has fallen so dramatically since the 70s it that it’s a salutary effect of removing lead from paint. 

We have an immediate sense of our freedom to make choices and a deep sense that people should be held accountable for these. But we also know full well that our choices are influenced in ways we don’t always appreciate. The choices we make, for instance, are heavily influenced by the options we see as open to us. Consider that crime rates overall among black men are higher than among white men, but crime rates among employed black men are about the same as crime rates among employed white men. Unemployment does predispose people towards crime. Race doesn’t. Among the most significant aspects of systemic racism in America is racial disparity in pay and employment opportunities.

People with decent characters sometimes make bad choices. Punishing them won’t often make them into better people. Though it might make them into worse people. The cruel impulses that lay beneath the veils of retribution and “personal responsibility” do a great deal of damage in our society, and most often to people who have very little power to begin with.

My caution about the cruel impulse to punish is not an argument for letting dangerous evil doers go free with no consequences. There are other models for criminal justice that would be more effective at protecting society and cultivating more peaceable, responsible and productive citizens. One is the public health model. Society should be protected from dangerous individuals. But we can do this by treating dangerous criminals in the same manner we treat people with dangerous infectious diseases. Prison should be like quarantine, unpleasant when necessary, but making it unpleasant isn’t the point. There are ways to protect society from criminal danger that aren’t cruel. But indulging cruel impulses doesn’t do anyone any good.

Note on Russell’s “Value of Philosophy”

We humans are very prone to suffer from a psychological predicament we might call “the security blanket paradox.” We know the world is full of hazards and like passengers after a shipwreck we tend to latch on to something for a sense of safety. We might cling to a possession, another person, our cherished beliefs, or any combination of these. The American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce speaks of doubt and uncertainty as uncomfortable anxiety-producing states. This would help explain why we tend to cling, even desperately, to beliefs we find comforting. This clinging strategy, however, leads us into a predicament that becomes clear once we notice that having a security blanket just gives us one more thing to worry about. In addition to worrying about our own safety, we now also have to worry about our security blanket getting lost or damaged. The asset becomes a liability. The clinging strategy for dealing with uncertainty and fear becomes counterproductive.

While not calling it by this name, Russell describes the intellectual consequences of the security blanket paradox vividly:

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason. . . The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests. . . In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins.

The primary value of philosophy according to Russell is that it loosens the grip of uncritically held opinion and opens the mind to a liberating range of new possibilities to explore..

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. . . Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Here we are faced with a stark choice between the feeling of safety we might derive from clinging to opinions we are accustomed to and the liberation that comes with loosening our grip on these in order to explore new ideas. The paradox of the security blanket should make it clear what choice we should consider rational. Russell, of course, compellingly affirms choosing the liberty of free and open inquiry.

Must we remain forever uncertain about philosophical matters? Russell does hold that some philosophical questions appear to be unanswerable (at least by us). But he doesn’t say this about every philosophical issue. In fact, he gives credit to philosophical successes for the birth of various branches of the sciences. Many of the philosophical questions we care most deeply about, however – like whether our lives are significant, whether there is objective value that transcends our subjective interests – sometimes seem to be unsolvable and so remain perennial philosophical concerns. But we shouldn’t be too certain about this either. Russell is hardly the final authority on what in philosophy is or isn’t resolvable. Keep in mind that Russell was writing 100 years ago and a lot has happened in philosophy in the mean time (not in small part thanks to Russell’s own definitive contributions). Problems that looked unsolvable to the best experts a hundred years ago often look quite solvable by current experts. The sciences are no different in this regard. The structure of DNA would not have been considered knowable fairly recently. That there was such a structure to discover could not even have been conceivable prior to Mendel and Darwin (and here we are only talking 150 years ago).

Further, it is often possible to make real progress in understanding issues even when they can’t be definitively settled. We can often rule out many potential answers to philosophical questions even when we can’t narrow things down to a single correct answer. And we can learn a great deal about the implications of and challenges for the possible answers that remain.

Suppose we can’t settle some philosophical issue. Does that tell us that there is not right answer? No. That is not to say that every issue has a right answer. There is no answer to the issue of whether chocolate is better than vanilla, for instance. But when we can’t settle an issue this often just tells us something about our own limitations. There may still be a specific right answer; we just can’t tell conclusively what it is. It’s easy to appreciate this point with a non-philosophical issue. Perhaps we can’t know whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets. But surely there is or there isn’t intelligent life on other planets. This question obviously has a right answer, we just haven’t been able to figure out which it is. Similarly, we may never establish whether or not humans have free will, but, at least once we are clear about what we mean by “free will”, there must be some fact of the matter. It would be intellectually arrogant of us to think that a question has no right answer just because we aren’t able to figure out what that answer is.

Student Comments on Russell’s “Value of Philosophy”

As Bertrand Russell believes, critical thinking of unanswerable (by us) questions can open our minds to more numerous ideas rather than accepting whatever society pushes onto us, avoiding becoming drones to the whims of whoever arbitrarily determines what stuff is. But, we aren’t the only ones who will ponder these questions. Breakthroughs by someone analyzing issues that seemingly can’t have definitive knowledge could assist some future philosopher to find the next psychology, astronomy, neuroscience, etc. At least that is my ramble on the question, feel free to correct me if anything seemed incoherent.

I agree very much with Bertrand Russell in the reading. I think that broadly, philosophy addresses questions that many people take for granted or dismiss as superfluous. Concepts such as the meaning of life, the source of morals, and the definition of beauty are all concepts that we incorporate in our lives extensively—from thinking about our futures, to judging actions, to criticizing a painting. Yet, many of us take these concepts for granted and never really examine what actually makes them.

Russell Bertrand points out in his chapter “What is the value of Philosophy?” that philosophy enriches the lives of the individual through freeing the mind from confined thought, and by shifting the focus off oneself and instead onto the world around them. Bertrand also suggests that the “instinctive man” who does not study philosophy will sooner or later have his worldview shattered, due to clinging on to comforting beliefs that reduce the anxious state of doubt. One simply cannont be right all the time about everything; therefore, we cannot possibly expect all our personal beliefs on the world to be correct. Exploring alternative answers to questions gives a more secure view of the world around us, because if we know all the possibilites our worlds cannot be shattered. 

In Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy” we are given explanations that philosophy is not to seek the right answers, but rather to expand our thoughts on the questions we want answers to. To me this also means that the answer may not always be found and that is something to be comfortable with. I find it to be selfish is we are always want a complete answer to things that simply cannot and maybe will not be acquired.

The purpose that philosophy has for me is to help me have an open mind and learn to accept that what I believe will be different to others in the different controversial topics that will emerge in life. 

Well according to Russell, the aim of philosophy isn’t to find definitive answers but to ask the questions. Philosophy sparks the curiosity of how that answer came to be and even the question itself. And in doing so, expands and feeds the brain like food to the body. That’s where philosophy holds its value, if nobody debates the answers and questions, then we would be stuck not knowing if the answers and questions are the right or wrong questions and IF there is even a right or wrong. 

From what I gathered from Russells paper is the aim is to not cling to any one idea as the answer to everything and do not close an idea just because obtainable evidence proves that the idea is wrong. Keep an open mind and explore idea’s whether they seem logically provable or not. Understand that we do not have the answers to everything. By accepting this will we begin to gain knowledge and pursue ideas outside of the confines of matter of fact issues.  

Russell goes onto say that philosophy should aim to open our minds up to possibilities. That we become so closed up with our beliefs and ways, and we fall into this paradox called a “security blanket.” Philosophy should allow us to be willing to consider new ideas, and we will have decide to use what makes us “secure” and what people believe they know, to find an answer. It makes our choices clear. And although not all philosophical questions are answerable, we must become unprejudiced to full understand these questions. I am curious on when we define a question to be unanswerable? Many people have answers to these questions…so when do we know to choose the right one, and how will we know its actually correct?

From what I understood, Russell see’s the value of philosophy by opening up the door of reason. Philosophy supported my ones belief or assumptions may lead to some evidence which would be some kind of scientific findings, but without the concrete evidence, it’s all philosophical. Philosophy leads to studies of questions through careful analyzing but with no real answer. Thus leading to the limitations on your mind and in a sense a common ground to agree to disagree. It’s all in a sense of gaining more knowledge.

Russell explains that knowledge is possible through philosophy, and through philosophy a lot can be discovered. It’s not always about having scientific evidence to support your belief but it’s about having a higher level of understanding of what you believe or a new avenue of thinking towards your belief. Russell explains that it’s the outcome or your interactions with someone through your belief is where the value comes in. In a way, it creates an identity of who you are because you are acting upon your knowledge and understanding. Thus leads to a higher value because it’s coming from a personal and heart felt place. Now if someone challenges you on that, it leads to contemplations which forces you to enlarge your imagination and think outside of the box, which then leads to more knowledge which is better for everyone.

After reading this, I believe that Russell views philosophy as an important way of thinking that one must use to address any beliefs, issues and/or ideas. Philosophy is taking possible answers into question. It is to question if a claim is true and to determine why it is or isn’t true. Philosophy questions the way all things are and how they work. All claims need evidence to be true or untrue. I also believe that with questioning claims comes confusion. Claims can be either “relative to meaning or open to interpretation.” The arguments and questioning don’t have any meaning but to get knowledge from investigating a claim and to or to not find evidence to back up the claim. The point is to come to a conclusion. To provide validity and confidence when supporting a claim is ideally an important goal.

From my understanding of the text, Russell’s value of philosophy comes from rational and critical thinking through the state of an open mind. Bertrand Russell aims philosophy primarily on knowledge and complete understanding of our selves as well as the rest of the world. The process in which he describes philosophy is through the logistics of one’s expression of opinions through solidified evidence. Philosophy is obtaining more knowledge through thorough examination of the purpose of our convictions reason to formulate a discussion with our minds in a rational way. Russell explains that philosophy opens our minds to more thoughtful observation and clear reasoning. When we allow ourselves to be set apart from dogmatic beliefs and prejudice judgement, we open our minds to new possibilities and better relations with people because of a different level of knowledge that sustains our minds to be more rational and understanding. By examining the way we think and challenging it with a different conception of knowledge we are unlocking the true greatness of life. The values of philosophy are the desire for the truth in a way that is ethical, factual and just.

Russell writes about the value of philosophy being found in the goods of the mind and only those that are apathetic can be persuaded that the study isn’t a waste of time. He talks about how philosophy is to be studied, not to find the definite answers but for the questions themselves. Since this process expands our perception or our image of the ideas being researched, our intellect and imagination is enriched and unproved opinions are diminished. It appears that Russell believed that when we connect with the universe it creates a union and that greatness is the result, manifesting the highest good; therefore the most important value of philosophy, according to Russell. 

From reading the text, I understood that Russell believes philosophy is a beginning to reasoning. Philosophy would be the initial action of critical thinking, but with clearly disregarding any proclaimed truths, customs, or natures of life we might currently perceive to be true. In terms of value, it affects every idea behind our being. Every time you ask why, and cannot find a reason within our social norms or immediate logic, you use philosophy to look past what might be a “reasonable” or “logical” answer and find truth or an idea bigger than what was previously believe. 

To me, it seems that Russell values philosophy for keeping the sense of wonder alive and differentiating philosophically inclined thinker away from the “practical” man. He goes on two sum up that philosophy is not used for getting definitive answers, infact hes goes on to say how it rarely provides you with definitive answers, but for the sake of enriching our intellectual imagination which Russell seems to find more valuable than finding real definitive answers to questions.

Based on the reading, I believe Russell see’s philosophy as the building blocks for reasoning. By asking philosophical questions and wondering about the existence of things, morality, ethics, so on and so forth… You begin the process of discovery. However, once physical evidence is found to support any large claims like these, it then branches out into a scientific category, finding more evidence until that question becomes a fact to society supported by science. Why Philosophy differs from science, is there are no definitive answers, it is the curiosity which drives the need to find a definitive answer and to gain knowledge overall. The way I understood it to be is that Philosphy is not about having exact evidence to support your beliefs, but to achieve the highest level of understanding and to analyze every situation in critical ways from all different angles. 

Based on my understanding of the text, Russell sees the value of philosophy as the perpetual and exponential exploration of human inquiry. It is the practice of opening the door of reason and reaching beyond one’s first and personal reactions/opinions and exploring an infinite number of discoveries. Philosophy is, I believe, the only branch of study in which a concrete answer is not desirable and by asking one question, five more questions present themselves, and five more after that. It is the only branch wherein finding an actual concrete answer is not necessarily desirable nor possible. I also infer from Russell’s writing that he believes philosophy to be a tool that can be used for a pattern of logical thought – examining all situations from all angles is simply a tool for day to day problem solving.

People are prone to hang onto ideas or things that they find comforting. This can be beneficial, since by name it provides a sense of security. However the problem is that clinging to a belief simply because of the familiarity creates ignorance. Russell states that a man who lives a life “imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense” sees the world as “definite, finite, obvious”. Those lines and the rest of the seventh paragraph really sum up the value of philosophy in my opinion. Philosophy allows us to see and understand different ways of thinking and removes us from the standard customs. Philosophy is intended to remove that security blanket. In doing so, we “diminish our feeling of certainty as to what things are” and we “greatly increase our knowledge as to what they may be”. While I thought the rest of the paper made great points, I found that this section most clearly and accurately showed the value in philosophy.

Problems in Western Philosophy

The big discoveries in philosophy are more often problems than new ideas. People have been thinking about philosophical issues forever and philosophers have entertained a super-abundance of seemingly good ideas. But it is the problems that force reckonings where we can begin to sort the seemingly good ideas from the probably good ideas. The history of philosophy isn’t the history of this person’s (probably culturally laden) way of seeing things or that person’s (probably also culturally laden) other perspective. It’s the story of discovering significant problems that force reckonings. What we learn is which ideas fit together well and which ones don’t. We seldom get to prove just which idea is correct. But we often get to prove that you can’t fit this idea together with those ideas. Dialectical inquiry is the slow and fallible process of learning from our mistakes. One of arduously seeking out the puzzle pieces that fit together, mostly by figuring out which ones don’t.

Philosophy is not cultural indoctrination or indoctrination of any sort. People who think philosophy is too Western and European have missed the point of philosophy in the Western European tradition. What makes this a tradition of inquiry, rather than merely a tradition of instilling and perpetuating Western European perspectives and values, is that this is a tradition of learning from mistakes. This is the central kernel of the Socratic dialectical tradition.

Subjecting cultural biases to ruthless and systematic critical evaluation is the one sure way to transcend them. The more competing perspectives we can bring into this process the better. But we have to understand up front that affirmation of those diverse perspectives is not what inquiry is about. For the dialectical process to work, all perspectives have to be open to critical analysis. I suppose this takes some courage, but the stakes aren’t very high. The worst that can happen is that you might discover you were mistaken. And the only penalty for this is that you get to shed a mistake and maybe move on to something better (or maybe just to another mistake).

There are good charges of cultural bias to be raised against many Western European philosophers and to a healthy extent, they have already been raised by other Western European philosophers. Anyone who has new good complaints of cultural bias is certainly welcome to join the party. Just know that in doing so you are joining the philosophical tradition that has emerged from the West, not rejecting it. And you are helping to enrich that tradition, bringing it closer yet to a tradition of just plain human inquiry.

Cancel Culture

Cancel culture has taken lots of criticism recently, and in so far as cancel culture means hastily judging people without trying to understand them, I’m on board. But for the same reason I worry about the hastiness of canceling cancel culture. Cancel culture is usually seen as in the cause of things like anti-racism. Given this context, its worth scrutinizing what is going on with white fear of cancel culture.

White people have a great deal to learn from people who experience racism and similar forms of prejudice and injustice. There is no need for that to involve the hasty judgment or feeling hastily judged. But then we have to consider how many people of all sorts are liable to feel quickly judged by the mere assertion of a perspective that challenges their own. This is a failure of critical thinking, a failure to be open to reasons and evidence, willing to evaluate them on their own merits. So called “cancel culture” may be driven as much by over-sensitivity to hearing a challenge to your view as it is by actually being attacked in some way. Worse, the over-sensitivity and the attacking re-enforce each other.

Cancel culture is what happens when beliefs and opinions are treated as matters of personal identity and personal subjective perspective rather than just as ideas that can be inquired into. When we self-identify with our point of view, potentially helpful criticism will be experienced as personal attack. Now critical thinking has been displaced by personal conflict.

Reasons only work when people are sensitive to the force of the reason. Many people feel the force of people trying to persuade them much more strongly than the force of the reasons and evidence. When this happens people feel coerced and of course we all resist feeling coerced. In this context, an unreasonable belief might be clung to all the more tightly as one thing stable in the face of an onslaught. A bit of ground to hold in a fight. It is the social context of attack and parry that leads to impasse. Reasoning always does its work from within.  To be reasonable people, we need to be open to reasons. This won’t happen when we feel coerced.

Here’s another approach, the one recommended by philosophy and science: When you share an opinion, you are putting an idea on the table. Fine, there’s an idea. It can be examined on its own merits. That idea being one you rather like doesn’t mean that you are being scrutinized, probed or attacked when others raise concerns or objections. To the contrary, you are being given new evidence and argument to consider. You can use that to improve your point of view.

With good critical thinking skills, there is no need to feel particularly attached to this view or that. Your confidence and sense-of-self become rooted in your ability to figure things out and correct course when you are mistaken, not in your attachment to some view or ideology you have uncritically deemed good.

Insightful editorial over the weekend:

Opinion | The Science of Changing Someone’s Mind – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Another Moral Relativism Post (and DCT for good measure)

Cultural norms often go far beyond morality. Morality has nothing to say, for instance, about whether men should grow beards or women should wear veils or makeup. So what is accepted or disapproved of in a culture often is not a matter of moral significance. 

Next, cultures vary in how they express things that do matter morally. Morality may give us a reason for expressing our regard when we meet someone, but it doesn’t specify whether you should do this with a handshake or a bow. Morality may give us a reason for following the rules of the road that keep us safe, but it doesn’t specify whether you should drive on the right or left side. Lots of cultural norms are matters of convention. But these are often just different ways of achieving the same morally good results. 

And next, it is certainly possible for cultural norms to get morality wrong. I can’t make axe murdering morally fine just by saying so. Neither can a whole bunch of people that constitute a culture. Of course we can’t just judge a culture by the standards of our own culture and thereby hope to get morality right. Where there is a moral difference, the problem might be with our own culture. But our grounds for objecting to a culturally endorsed practice might be more principled than just “that’s not the way we do things around here.”

Many cultures, for instance, are pretty hard on people who are gay. This included ours not so very long ago (and still does today far too often). But we have moved in the direction of being more respectful of gay people for fundamentally moral reasons (our more homo-phobic standards of the past certainly didn’t move us in this direction). More and more people have come to see that we lack any moral justification for discriminating against gay people. And the moral problem with doing so is not so hard to see by exercising our moral imaginations (imagine what it would be like for your love to be forbidden).

And DCT

Ah, good. The first thing I want to point out is that it doesn’t sound like you are a Divine command theorist. You are taking morality to be grounded in God’s nature, God’s goodness. And you are understanding his commands and communicating truths that hold not just because God says so, but because God is good. So you are taking morality to be grounded in something other than mere say so and offering a kind of theological moral realism.

Now, do we really need God to tell us murder is wrong in order to get the point. I don’t think so. And I don’t think Christianity requires this idea either. Christianity has that we were created in the image of the Divine. This suggest that having a perhaps limited and imperfect moral conscience is part of our nature (I doubt being created in the image of the Divine is meant to suggest that God needs to clip his toe nails from time to time).

Further, the idea that we have a God given moral conscience of our own is much more in line with Christian ethics than DCT. If our motivation for doing the right thing is just that God says so (perhaps backed up with the threat of hellfire and damnation), the morality is mere prudence or self interest. But Jesus teaches love for our fellow man. The only way this makes sense as a moral teaching is if our moral motivation is internal, where we have our own reasons for being good (our own loving regard for the value of our fellow humans). The morality Jesus recommends isn’t just a matter of following rules or obeying orders. 

Righteousness

I’ll have to research this one, but I’m pretty sure Nietzsche would count righteousness, the sense that bad must absolutely be punished. as a sublimated impulse to cruelty, a diseased manifestation of the will to power. Righteousness gives one’s urge to hurt others the veneer of moral respectability. Members of diverse factions in our society are afflicted with righteousness. Nietzsche would be quick to call out the righteousness of many religious believers. Today, the righteousness of deluded Trump supporters would draw his notice as well.

The big hazard of a strong sense of righteousness is the high stakes of faulty judgment. The person with a strong sense of righteousness knows full well they’ve wished harm on those they’ve perceived to be bad. If it turns out their perception was wrong and they’ve wished ill on undeserving parties, then they, the righteous, have done serious wrong themselves. And the righteous are already signed on to the agonizing suffering of the bad.

Given the high stakes of getting it wrong, the righteous have a strong incentive to never back down. And so stubbornness is born of righteousness. And the cruel are highly committed.