Archive for the ‘Philosophy / Theology’ Category

Name that work

The objects in space and time, on the contrary, exist in the phenomena. As is proven in the ontological manuals, it must not be supposed that, in reference to ends, space can thereby determine in its totality time. As is evident upon close examination, the phenomena are the clue to the discovery of, however, our faculties. By means of analytic unity, we can deduce that, so regarded, the objects in space and time have nothing to do with the transcendental unity of apperception, yet the paralogisms constitute the whole content of, for these reasons, our a priori knowledge. Because of the relation between the thing in itself and the paralogisms of natural reason, it is not at all certain that the transcendental unity of apperception (and it is obvious that this is true) stands in need of the never-ending regress in the series of empirical conditions; on the other hand, the Antinomies (and there can be no doubt that this is the case) are the clue to the discovery of our ideas. Let us apply this to the Ideal of pure reason.

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What about the system that takes as an axiom that there are self-evident truths? And why, oh why, don’t they teach them philosophy in these schools? They could start with Aristotle’s Organon.

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Psychologists have discovered that humans in general – and children in particular – exhibit three innate biases:

  • Essentialist bias: all natural kinds have and immutable essence
  • Teleological bias: what they see must be purposeful and goal-orientated
  • Intentionality bias: actions and outcomes must be the work of an intentional agent

These biases are actually useful for children to make predictions in the world and are defaults that adults revert to at times.



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Experience appears to teach that many people exhibit a kind of moral cognitive dissonance according to which they express moral repulsion toward some behavior (usually historical), together with approbation of some other behavior that is in many ways morally similar. At present, this most commonly takes the form of moral approbation or tolerance of abortion coupled with a denouncement of various other historical activities such as nineteenth-century slavery or the activities of the Nazi regime.

My hypothesis is that the contradiction is not true cognitive dissonance regarding a moral principle, but rather a consequence of apparently moral judgments being based on something amoral in nature, namely social mores. Our cultural rejection of the Nazi regime is more a social phenomenon than a moral one, which is why we can at the same time revile it and nod approvingly at contemporary eugenics movements. In general, people will tolerate any sort of behavior that does not violate prescribed social norms. In other words, we are fundamentally amoral. Our putatively moral principles are derived not from natural or divine law but from custom. And so we should not be surprised that perfectly ordinary and otherwise decent people can so easily be deluded into accepting the most vile moral outrages. There are a great many people who, though at present they would never dream of supporting the reinstatement of the peculiar institution, would quickly flock to it and find all kinds of rationalizations for it were it to come back into fashion. The same can be said of almost any other behavior whatsoever.

Perhaps this is an obvious truth, but it was only relatively recently that it occurred to me in these terms.

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I recently encountered some of these images (of the staff at Auschwitz) for the first time. What struck me was how creepy they are, in particular those depicting the staff laughing and enjoying themselves. A friend I was with at the time made the same observation. And so I began to wonder, why are these pictures creepy?

The answer, I believe, is that, knowing the atrocities these people committed, we have a tendency to view them as Moral Monsters. Evil People. The Bad Guys. Them, as opposed to Us. Because of this, it is jarring to see them behaving like Normal People; it challenges our tendency to fit them into the other half of the mold, the side that we aren’t on. It’s creepy to see Them acting like Us.

It seems to me that this dichotomy is flawed. I really doubt that the citizens of Nazi Germany were somehow more depraved than the citizens of pretty much any other time and country, such that they were capable of assisting in the commission of widespread grave evil. The first sign of this is that other times and countries have (and have had) their own widespread grave evils. The nineteenth century U.S. had slavery, the modern day U.S. and many other countries have abortion. Pagan cultures have had all sorts of evil customs throughout history.

Certainly, this observation supports that of Chesterton, that original sin is the only dogma of the Faith that is empirically obvious, or something to that effect. But what I find interesting is this. We postmoderns tend to look back at things like slavery and Nazi Germany in a sort of high-minded moral disgust, utterly certain that We are better than Them and would never participate in such evils. But of course, as noted, we have our own grave evils going on all the time in which we do participate. This seems to me to be a kind of cognitive dissonance, and I think it is informative regarding the character of moral judgment in people generally. What can we learn from it? That’s a question for the latter part of this post.

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Comment: As somebody on Slashdot said, the deck chairs on the Titanic have been thoroughly, and decisively, rearranged.

Explanation: As Aristotle said,

To judge from the lives that men lead, most men, and men of the most vulgar type, seem (not without some reason) to identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure; which is the reason why they love the life of enjoyment. For there are, we may say, three prominent types of life—that just mentioned, the political, and thirdly the contemplative life. Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts. (Nicomachean Ethics, 1095b13-20)

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The following passage is taken from The Rediscovery of the Mind by John Searle:

Prior to Darwin, it was common to anthropomorphize plant behavior and say such things as that the plant turns its leaves toward the sun to aid in its survival. The plant “wants” to survive and flourish, and “to do so,” it follows the sun. On this pre-Darwinian conception there was supposed to be a level of intentionality in the behavior of the plant. This level of supposed intentionality has now been replaced by two other levels of explanation, a “hardware” level and a “functional” level. At the hardware level we have discovered that the actual movements of the plant’s leaves in following the sun are caused by the secretion of a specific hormone, auxin. Variable secretions of auxin account for the plant’s behavior, without any extra hypothesis of purpose, teleology, or intentionality. Notice furthermore that this behavior plays a crucial role in the plant’s survival, so at the functional level we can say such things as that the light-seeking behavior of the plant functions to help the plant survive and reproduce.

In other words, Searle thinks that the physiological explanation for the plant’s behavior in turning toward the sun replaces the intentional explanation. What is striking here is that Searle appears to consider the intentional account to be the same sort of account as the “hardware” account. Otherwise, the latter would not need to replace the former but could coexist with it. Another sign of this is the sentence “Variable secretions of auxin account for the plant’s behavior, without any extra hypothesis of purpose, teleology, or intentionality.” The implication is that the “extra hypothesis” would only be needed if there were a gap in the physiological or hardware account and hence a need for a supplementary explanation of the same kind.

Searle is thus imagining final causality as if it were efficient causality. On an Aristotelian account, of course, this makes no sense. Efficient and final causes provide distinct accounts while belonging to the same thing. A complete chain in efficient causality is necessary for the plant to turn towards the sun as it does, but this does not speak to the question of whether there is intentionality or purpose in the behavior of the plant.

Intentionality can belong to something either extrinsically or intrinsically. An example of extrinsic intentionality is found in the following:


The above shape has intentionality insofar as it serves to signify a certain labial sound. However, there is nothing in the shape itself that makes it signify this sound, or indeed any sound at all. The intentionality is extrinsic because it exists in a mind outside the shape. To take another example, someone might hang a red garment in a window as a signal to an accomplice. When this is done, the red garment has a purpose that is extrinsic to it, since there is nothing in the thing itself on account of which it could be said to have a purpose. If the signal had not been prearranged, there would be no difference in the garment, but it would no longer have the purpose; hence, the purpose is not in the garment.

On the other hand, intentionality can be intrinsic as well. This occurs when there is an order in a thing itself which is toward an end. Searle’s plant is exactly like this. The physiological structure that constitutes the hardware level is an internal order that directs the plant to turn towards light, which serves the good of the plant. In other words, the very physiology behind the process that Searle believes can replace the intentional account is the foundation of the intentional account. The reason the plant can be said to act for an end is precisely that it has an internal order which always or for the most part moves it toward an end which is its good. There is in the plant a determinate order toward an end; and insofar as this order is really present in the plant, its intentionality is intrinsic.

My impression is that people such as Searle tend to think of all intentionality as extrinsic, such that the only meaning of ascribing intentionality to the plant is that some external agent constructed it with a specific end in mind, as a car is constructed with the end of locomotion in mind. In truth, however, the purpose of a car would still be locomotion even if the car came to be by chance, since it would still have the same determinate order within itself.

Interestingly, people on the opposite end of the spectrum from Searle (the atheist-materialist) sometimes fall prey to the same error. This fact is, I believe, partially responsible for the fallacious dichotomy so often drawn between evolution and intelligent design, as if the same thing could not come from both. Evolution is seen as somehow godless because it is perceived to do away with purpose in things, and therefore with divine providence.

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IP, secunda pars

Update: this is pretty disorganized–read at your own risk.

I said previously that the purpose of copyright is to increase the public domain. The method by which it achieves this purpose is providing incentives to those capable of producing desirable instances of the types of matter subject to copyright. On this view, once such matter has been produced, copyright has done its job. The legal restrictions on copying are a kind of necessary evil–they exist for the sake of the production which precedes them. This is quite different from the widespread legal view of copyright as a natural right arising from “ownership” of the material produced.

There are several consequences of this view for the moral status of copyright. As noted last time, copyright infringement is not theft, though it is generally immoral. Even more obviously, plagiarism is not theft, and those who call it such have no idea what they are talking about–in the case of plagiarism, there is not usually even a potential sale of which someone is deprived. Morally, plagiarism is much more like lying than like theft; it is the misrepresentation of someone else’s work as one’s own.

As I said above, I think that in general it is immoral to break copyright law. As with other laws, however, if there are cases in which the law is clearly not ordered to the common good (in this case the optimal benefit of the public domain), it is not necessarily wrong to violate it. For instance, according to some interpretations of current law (I don’t know if they are correct), it would be a violation of copyright law to write your own software that plays DVDs. It seems to me that even if this were true, it would obviously not be morally binding. Someone who has legally purchased a DVD is its owner, and entitled to watch it however he sees fit. Regarding my use of the word “owner,” I don’t agree with the notion of things like software being “licensed, not sold” (a fiction invented in order to subvert the first sale doctrine, among other reasons); and by “don’t agree,” I mean that I think it doesn’t happen, not that I think it shouldn’t happen. But even if I did, it wouldn’t matter in this case, since even if the purchaser of a DVD were merely purchasing a license to watch it, he would have the right to watch it in virtue of the license. The attempt to sell a license to watch a movie, and at the same time to require the purchase of another another license to convert the digital data into analog form, i.e. to make it watchable, is nothing but a veiled attempt to sell the same thing twice, which is not morally justifiable regardless of whether it is approved by the legal system (cf. St. Thomas’s argument in ST II-II, Q. 78, A. 1, Resp.). Otherwise, such licenses could be multiplied indefinitely by inserting additional licensing points in the process of translation from DVD to video display.

OK, the last paragraph was something of a rant. That’s because (to continue the rant) I think that we presently have a lot of laws that fail, to a greater or lesser degree, to promote the common good, and the field of copyright law has more than its share. For example, I can’t recall ever reading about a single instance in recent years (or earlier) in which a country shortened its copyright periods. Goverments seem only to extend them, and when they do, others start talking about the need to create parity by extending their own. Noticeably absent is any explanation of how the proposed extensions will benefit the common good. In fact, I’m not sure that those who propose copyright extensions even realize that they ought to be explaining this; the proper function of copyright seems almost completely forgotten today.

Update (following three paragraphs): Again, based on my prior reasoning, it doesn’t seem to me that copyright law can be intrinsically morally binding in cases in which it provides absolutely no advantage to the copyright holder. For example, many companies hold copyright on old computer software from ten to twenty, or more, years ago. They no longer offer the products for sale because no one would buy them. Consequently, some do not bother to enforce their copyrights (against, e.g., distribution via the internet), while others do. While these copyrights maintain their legal force, it’s not so clear that they maintain their moral force. This is because, as stated previously, intellectual matter is not really the “property” of its authors. They have no natural right to prevent its being copied, but only a legal right derived from the authority of the state; and the state only has this authority insofar as the advantages it confers to authors contribute to the public good. When the advantage of exclusive copyright ceases to make this contribution, it ceases to exist. A related consequence of this that copyright also has no moral force if its holder is merely using it to prevent publication of something, that is, not itself offering the content to the public it in any way.

Some proponents of IP piracy like to use the phrase “information wants to be free.” While they draw an erroneous conclusion from their principle, they nevertheless assert the principle because they see that it must be true in some way. It is true in the sense that what belongs to the intellect is ipso facto common to all.

At this point I should note a possible objection to the foregoing. In many cases laws which are in themselves unjust ought nevertheless to be obeyed for prudential reasons; for instance, lest people lose respect for the law even when it is not unjust. This may well apply to some of the cases I discuss here. But my point has to do with the extent to which copyright laws are per se morally binding.

This train of thought is beginning to raise a whole web of related topics that threaten to become hopelessly (inside joke: snarky comments from the peanut gallery on my use of this adverb will be ignored–you know who you are) disorganized. So I’ll stop. I need to collect my thoughts before saying more.

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Quick FYI

Turns out it was, after all, God’s will that I go to school and teach.

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Update: Apparently it’s actually drawn from SCG, despite the similarities to the proof in De ente.

A Thomist from Just Thomism has written a short but great post on Kant’s statement that existence is not a predicate. It alludes to the proof of God’s existence in St. Thomas’s De ente, which I think is among the best of the various proofs. Go read it.

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