Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Kant Says Libertarians Suck

     Hi everyone, once again thank you for visiting my humble blog.  Knowing that a handful of people read this is very helpful in inspiring me to write.  Before I continue and discuss Kant I'd like to share with you an experience I had.  Obviously, I have a natural affinity to philosophy generally but sometimes I encounter ideas that are so powerful that they permanently change how I think.  There are only a handful of philosophers that have had this effect on me in any profound way: Rousseau, Hume, and Aristotle.  It's hard to explain without sounding cheezy but the impact is so strong when it happens that I think it is indistinguishable from what a theist would call a religious experience. 
Reading Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals is giving me this experience almost every night I read it.  I'll probably regret saying this but last night I was so moved by what I read I was almost in tears!  Crazy isn't it?  How can philosophy have that much of an emotional impact?  I don't know.  I have no explanation...therefore god.  Now I go through the day waiting for the moment that I get to read more Kant.  There must be something wrong with me!  Anyway, lets talk about Kant, shall we?

Ends in Themselves:  Alternative Formulation of the Universal Law

     I can't remember exactly were I left off last time I wrote about Kant but lets pick up with his idea of "ends in themselves".  The basic idea is this: there are some things that have intrinsic value; that is, they are not pursued as a means to some other end but are pursued for their own sake.  Consider money:  Do we pursue money just to have it? (usually not)  Money is pursued because it is a means to some other end; maybe something material like food, shelter, an ipad2, or for a feeling of security.  Money has no intrinsic value; we seek it because it allows us to obtain other ends.  On the other hand consider "happiness":  Do we pursue happiness as a means to some other end?  Probably not.  Happiness is desirable in itself; it has intrinsic value.  As Kant would say, it is an end in itself.
So far so good.  Next Kant tells us that people are also ends in themselves; that is, they have value in themselves and there is value in their own aspirations (i.e., ends).   Because people are ends in themselves we can never use them as means to an end to which they don't consent.  This is a common argument against slavery, for instance; people are being forcibly prevented from pursuing their own ends and are being used as a means to someone else's end. 
In our modern ethical framework this idea is fairly standard (thanks to Kant).  But Kant takes his argument one step further and says that if we are going to have a supreme practical principle of morality then it must be one that is directed at an end (i.e., something with intrinsic value) common to every person.   What could possibly meet this requirement?  For Kant, the only end with intrinsic value that can be held in common for all is that of humanity.  From this idea he derives another formulation of the Universal Law: Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end
I think it's important that he includes humanity as an end it itself as a consideration in our actions rather than simply treating individuals as ends in themselves.  This is what I really love about the formulation.  Consider what morality would look like if we didn't have the stipulation about treating humanity as a common end in itself:  in this case all moral laws are negative; that is, they are restrictions on interfering with the lives others (without consent).  For instance, most of the laws will take the form, of "do not restrict people from accumulating wealth; do not force people into labour; do not steal others' property, do not harm others, and so on. 
Now consider the implications of having the additional consideration of harmonizing with humanity as an end in itself--not simply avoiding conflict with it.  Now we can include social obligations.  For instance because charity is in harmony with humanity as an end in itself it now becomes a moral duty.  We can even argue that (and many have) most of what are now considered basic human rights arises from this notion of harmony with humanity as an end in itself (i.e., humanity has intrinsic value). 

Kant and Libertarianism
     I'm interested to know how Libertarians would respond to this Kantian idea (well, I know what they think, but I'm wondering what arguments they can provide).  Libertarians prefer Kant-lite.  They just don't want anybody interfering with their rights (usually to accumulate and hold onto property and wealth); they don't want any responsibilities except to themselves (reminds me of some kids in kindergarten).  This is why they are so opposed to taxation; because by taking their money someone is interfering with them as ends in themselves; but a Kantian, I think, would feel a moral duty to give some of their wealth to causes that improve humanity.  A Libertarian reply is that, "ok, we'll give to charity, if/when we feel like it but government isn't the best mechanism for these sorts of things". 
Maybe they're right, but I'm having difficulty envisioning a less dysfunctional alternative. 
Libertarians like to argue that charity should be voluntary and thus should not be a moral duty and especially not a legal duty (via taxation).  I'm sympathetic to Kant, that we do have moral duty to help those in need, especially when we are in a position to; this duty is in harmony with advancing humanity as an ultimate end.  But I guess you could argue that your personal desires and rights are more important than those of all of humanity...Ah! The compassion!  I think it would be a very interesting study to see how much the average self-identified Libertarian actually gives to charity (both as a percentage of income and actual value) compared to other self-identified groups.  If someone knows of such a study, let me know. 
In defense of the Libertarians I suppose at the end of the day it is a naked assertion that humanity has intrinsic value but it's a pretty harsh moral landscape if we don't adopt this position.  Also--logic alert! this is not an argument!--suppose we assert the opposite is true:  try saying out loud, "humanity has no value"...go ahead! do it!  I'll wait.  Doesn't that just strike you as wrong?  Not that emotional responses mean anything but when I say it, it doesn't sit well with me; it makes me feel like I would if I farted really loud really during a a moment of silence at a funeral service.  

As an aside, in experimental ethical philosophy this phenomena is known as the "Yuck" factor.  It applies to situations where we can't point to what it is about an act that makes it wrong yet it incites some sort of feeling of moral revulsion in us.  And if I were a theist I'd end with...and therefore, god exists.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dueling with Dualism Part 1

Is The Fundamental Level of Reality Divided into Mind and Body?  Or Are Mind and Body Two Aspects of an Even More Fundamental Reality?
     The answer to this question is the key distinction between Descartes and Spinoza.  Lets unpack the two positions:  In the Dualist view (Descartes) anything that exists is either an extended substance (Body) or a thinking substance (Mind).  There is nothing more fundamental than these two types of substance; that is to say Mind and Body are not properties of some more fundamental substance.  All properties either inhere in the substances of Mind or Body.

Descartes' Position
     So how do we know there isn't a more fundamental level of existence?  The reason is that these two categories are conceptually distinct:  if something is a body then we can identify it as such without appeal to anything beyond the properties of Body, the same is true of Mind.  For example,  consider the table in front of you:  every single property you can attribute to the table (shape, extension, texture, weight, etc...) is a property of Body.  We do not (and indeed cannot) invoke any properties of Mind to identify the table as being a body.  In another case consider how you would identify your own mind:  any property that you would use to identify your mind as your own mind (thought, imagination, feelings, etc...) is a property of Mind and not of Body (body's don't think).  Because of this feature of "self-conception", substances are conceptually distinct from each other--they are conceptually walled off from each other.  To repeat:  to identify a substance as a substance I should not need to refer to properties other than those properties which pertain to that particular substance.
     So why does Descartes think that all existing things are made up of either Mind or Body?  Because these notions are conceptually distinct/walled off from each other.  But there is an important assumption here that Descartes makes: that a substance can have only one attribute (for Mind it is thought and for Body it is extension).  Lets ignore for a moment that humans--by Descartes own admission--seem to possess both and ask if this is a good assumption.  This is the angle from which Spinoza attacks Descartes.

Spinoza vs Descartes
      Spinoza is an uber-rationalist which means that for every fact in the world, there must be an explanation, otherwise we cannot claim to know if a fact is true.  This principle of Spinoza's rationalism is called "the Principle of Sufficient Reason" (PSR).  But the demand for explanations doesn't end there; Spinoza also applies the PSR to facts about non-existence.  For instance, if something doesn't exist, we need to provide a sufficient reason to explain why it can't exist.
     So lets get back to Descartes assertion that a substance can only have one attribute.  Spinoza rejects Descartes assumption because he hasn't given sufficient reason for which we should believe this.  Spinoza argues that we have no reason to suppose that a substance couldn't possess 2 or more attributes.  Just because thought and extension are conceptually distinct notions doesn't mean that a thing could not possess both.  Another way to look at is, just because two things are conceptually different doesn't necessarily imply that they constitute two different substances.
     This argument is partly how Spinoza advances his own position of Monism.  So, what's Monism?  In Spinoza's case it is the idea that Mind and Body are just two of many possible aspects of the one and only substance.  Since there is no sufficient reason to show that a substance can't have more than one attribute, Monism the logical conclusion.  
      Well, that's half the argument.  The other half concerns why Monism must be the case, because simply showing that something is a possibility isn't grounds for its truth.  But I will leave that argument for next time.  For now, I'll end with a few random comments on what Monism is for Spinoza:  
    The one substance in which all things inhere is God.  But this is not some mystical and/or anthropomorphized god who (magically) lives outside of time and space and is not subject to the laws of the natural world.  God, for Spinoza, is nature.  God is not some entity that partakes in Nature either.  The two are one and the same.  Nature is the substance of which all things are properties, or modes.   Nature has an absolute infinite number of attributes of which Mind and Body are but two.  Because Spinoza's views were basically philosophical naturalism, Spinoza didn't publish his work during his lifetime because he knew he'd probably end up dying the death for his views.  Instead he had his friends publish his works after his death.

Meet Spinoza

Rambling Intro (As Usual)   
     Ok, out with the Descartes, and in with the Spinoza.  I want to see if I can start to break down a little bit of Spinoza's metaphysics a) to see if I understand it and b) to help satiate my readers' voracious appetite for 17th Century metaphysics.  As usual I will begin with a couple of random tangents.  
     I'll begin with the word "metaphysics".  As I was writing my little intro I realized that for most people outside of philosophy "metaphysics" means something completely different from what is meant in philosophy.  The origin of the world come from a book Aristotle wrote "Ta meta ta physica" meaning "after the physics".  It is speculated that the book was so titled because it was meant to be read after his students had mastered the book "Physica".  Interestingly metaphysics as it is used in today's vernacular is more akin to its meaning in the 17th Century and the medieval period.  But more on that later, lets return to what philosophers mean. They mean "the study of the underlying nature of the physical world".  Metaphysics seeks to ask questions about "ultimate reality".  
      Back in the day, before we had our modern atomic theory of matter there was no empirical way to examine the ultimate nature of "things".  The only resource was rational reflection.  Descartes, for example, in his Meditations concluded that everything is ultimately made of one of 2 types of substance: "Mind" and "Booty".  Many of the issues that arose in the pre-atomic era have left the realm of speculative philosophy and are now studied in the realm of physics (until the late 19th Century-- "natural philosophy").  To some people this means that metaphysics is dead but there are many questions about ultimate reality that can't be known empirically (through scientific investigation), such as the nature of time and space, the nature of causation, the nature of mental properties, the nature of identity, and the metaphysical/ontological status of concepts (such as numbers).   I'm not going to talk about those here, first, because I know very little about it and second, my main concern is Spinoza's metaphysics.

A Little About Spinoza
     Most importantly Spinoza was a Jew, which meant he had horns and was involved in plots to take over the world.   Surprisingly, there were other important things about Spinoza too.  His lineage was to the Jewish community in Spain, which at the time had been under the noble Inquisition for over 100 years (I still don't understand why people insist on separating Church and State...).  The Jews were given a "choice", they could convert to Catholicism, leave Spain (but you couldn't bring any of your possessions or gold), or die the death.  Spinoza's family oddly chose to leave Spain and move to Portugal where they stayed for a short period of time until the same policies were enacted (I really can't figure out why people get so up tight about wanting Church and State to be separate).  Finally, they moved to Amsterdam where Jews were more or less allowed to practice freely.  Spinoza was born in Amsterdam.
     Understandably the Jewish community in Amsterdam was quite strict.  They were trying to resurrect a culture that had been virtually destroyed over the last 100 years or more; there wasn't much tolerance for alternative views to the orthodoxy of the community (irony?).  Anyway, Spinoza being the smart guy he was, after studying at the rabbinical school, had difficulty reconciling all the contradictions and superstition in the Bible.  
     At age 23 he was excommunicated from the community.  Stop.  Think about that for a second.  The elders of the community gave him many opportunities to recant but he chose to stick to his (rational) ideas.  Just as a Jew in Spain could not, on a dime, dismiss all his beliefs to become Catholic, Spinoza could not "unbelieve" what he believed; he could not even pretend to.  Being excommunicated was no small matter in those days.  Community was everything.  It meant he was forever banished from the community in which he had been raised, he had to give up his business (lens crafter), and his friends and family were never allowed to talk to him...ever!  EVER!   He had to start life all over again, alone.  Imagine giving all that up at 23 for an idea.  Mind.  Blasting.

Spinoza vs Descartes
     Spinoza was a student of Descartes' philosophy and even published a book about Cartesian philosophy.  When he published his book on Descartes, he made it clear that he was only explaining Descartes' philosophy and that the work did not represent his own ideas.  Spinoza was aware that his own ideas would be too radical for the Calvinist authorities.  Spinoza wanted to apply rationalism beyond the point of Descartes' Dualist conclusion; he wanted Monism.  Spinoza's method was to apply Descartes' own premises and method to his Dualist conclusion to show that it was premature to stop at "Mind" and "Boogy" as the two ultimate substances of reality.  Instead, Spinoza concluded that there is only one substance and it has an infinite number of attributes, of which Mind and Booty are only two.

Key Terms
     Before we look at Spinoza's arguments lets do a quick review of key terms as they are used in the context of metaphysics.  Lets begin with "substance".  Substance is the thing out of which all reality is composed.  Another way to look at it is Substances have properties but aren't properties of some other thing.  Imagine yourself back in the pre-atomic era and you're teaching a Cartesian philosophy class (Go ahead! Imagine!).  You're discussing properties, such as texture, colour, taste, sound, mental properties and so on.  Some annoying kid in your  class keeps asking, "but were do they come from?'.  You reply, "well, physical properties come from extension and mental properties come from thought.  That annoying kid then asks, "but where do extension and thought come from"?  To which you reply "from Body and Mind".  "But were do Body and Mind come from?" he whines.  If you are a Cartesian philosopher you tell him that that's the end of the line for his questions.  The regress ends there--Body and Mind just exist; they are ultimate reality, all properties inhere in one of those 2 substances.  (Well...actually, God creates and sustains them, but we won't complicate things right now.)
     The next important term is "attribute".   An attribute is a) the principle property common to all finite things composed of one of the 2 types of substance.  For instance the attribute belonging to Body is extension.  Anything that is a body must be extended, otherwise it is not a body.  Of course the attribute of Mind is thought.   Attributes have 2 functions for our purposes:  First we can identify what type of substance we are talking about if we know its principle attribute.  For example, if I know something is extended then it follows that the something is comprised of the substance "Body".   The second function of an attribute is it is that thing through which modes come about.
     In a way, modes are to attributes as attributes are to substance.  Modes arise out of primary attributes.  A mode is a property of a substance that isn't necessary for it's existence.  Think of them as secondary properties.  For example, you can have an extended body without colour, but you can't have a body without extension.  Also, as I have said, secondary properties/modes arise out of primary attributes.  A body will be perceived as having a certain colour depending on the arrangement of its extension (surface qualities).  In other words, modes depend on primary attributes for their existence.
     To summarize, we can think of Substances, primary attributes, and modes as existing in a hierarchical structure with modes relying on primary attributes for their existence; primary attributes relying on Substance for their existence, and Substances just are (or rely on God for existence, which we'll address later).

Oh no, it's already 3am.  I'll have to get into the meat of the argument tomorrow.  Good night!


Thursday, September 22, 2011

How to Teach Formal Logic in Texas

    It's probably because there's an exam next week, but quite a few students come in for my office hours for the logic class that I TA.  For those of you who aren't familiar with doing formal logic proofs  they are mechanical, at least at the basic level. Think of it as math.  You have rules, and as long as you apply the right rules to the correct instances of "sentences" you will eventually solve the proof. 
    The most common issue that students have when they first encounter formal logic is they want to ask "why" a rule works the way it does.  But in doing proofs there is no real "why".  It's kind of like asking "why do I write the number "4" after I see the sentence "2+2".  That's just what the rules of the "+" symbol dictate, you combine the two values.  You don't question the rule, you just follow it.  Of course we've sort of internalized the abstract notions of numbers and arithmetic symbols, so it's not quite as strange for most people as manipulating letters with logic symbols.  Dealing with purely abstract meaningless symbols and operators is bewildering to just about everyone when they start learning formal logic.
   In logic we have a rule called "modus ponens".  It goes like this: if you have an instance of a formula that looks like this "p ---> q", and you have an instance of "p" you get to write down "q" in your proof. Often students struggle with this because they get hung up on the "why".  And no matter how many times you tell them "that's just the rule", they are still somewhat bewildered.  You write "q" because that's what the "-->" symbol tells you to do.
    So why am I telling you all this?  Well, I had a moment of pedagogic insight while I was teaching.  As with most good ideas, it happened by accident.  Since I am hardwired for sarcasm (for better or for worse) as we were doing the proofs, whenever a student asked a "why" question about how the rules work I'd say, "because yesterday I had a dream that sweet baby jesus flew down from heaven and told me that if I ever see 'p --> q' and I have 'p' then I should also write 'q'".  "He told me it was a law from god himself, and that I should not question it, but have faith in his perfection and goodness."  After about the 3rd time an amazing thing happened...they started applying the rule without asking "why" and were able to do the proofs!  Of course after the 3rd time I said "Mohamed came to me in my dream" to deflect any possible mobs with torches and pitch forks (and I'm an equal opportunity ridiculer).

   Anyway, if you're ever teaching formal logic in Texas, that's how you dooz it!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Do I Have to Do What I Know Is Right? (Part 2)


     Lets do a quick and dirty summary of where we are so far in Kant's argument regarding obligations to act morally when we know what the correct moral action is.  When we left off Kant had made the case that some things are ends in themselves; in ordinary language we say that some things have intrinsic value.  An example might be "love".   We don't seek love as a means to some other end, but we seek love because it has a value in itself.  In Kant-speak, it is an end in itself.  Another thing that is an end in itself is a human.  Because a human has intrinsic value they are an end in themselves and thus ought not to be treated as a means to another's end.  In other words, every person has their own private ends and it is morally wrong for another to interfere with their ends by using them as a means to some end that is not their own.  If we want to oversimplify we can simply say, it is wrong to use people as a means to your ends.

Argument from Badassery?
     But why should we accept that I cannot use other people as means to my ends?  What if I'm just that much more of a badass?  Or maybe I'm really sneaky and am good at tricking people into doing my bidding (at an auction)?  Here comes the tricky part! Who needs the rational part! (Kant) I doooooooooooooo!  The reason why we ought to respect others as ends in themselves is because this is exactly what every rational person would want for themselves.  Suppose I decide that since I'm such a badass that I'm going to treat all the gehly men as means to my end of being king of the wooooooooooooooooorld!  If I am acting rationally then I must admit that my actions should be a law: whoever is the baddest badass can treat others as means.  The problem is if another badass comes along who is an even bigger badass than me..I now become a means to his ends.  This makes me saaaaad.  "But I don't want to pursue your means", I might lament, "I want to pursue mine!" 

Argument from Mutually Assured Freedom
     So you see, a rational creature can only guarantee his/her long-term ability to freely pursue their own ends if they advocate that others have the freedom (USA! USA! USA!) to pursue their own.  In fact, I might even want to ensure that the freedom (USA! USA! USA!) of others is protected to ensure my own is also protected.  Because every rational creature will want to ensure their ability to be treated as ends in themselves, it becomes a universal maxim, on practical grounds, that persons should be treated as ends in themselves and never as means to an end.  It is interesting that we not only derive our freedom from this idea but it is also the "supreme limiting condition of every [person's] freedom of action".  Kant formulates the law this way:

Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

2nd Formulation of the CI
     Its important to note that this law of ends, when we apply it to determining a moral action (should) yield exactly the same law as the Categorical Imperative (Principle of Universalization); thus this "ends" law is referred to as "the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative".   Lets apply it to the now familiar money lending situation and see what results.
    Recall that for this situation you are in need of a loan and the only way you know you can secure the loan is to promise that you'll pay it back in x amount of time.  The thing is you know that you'll never be able to pay the loan back.  If we employ the 2nd formulation of CI, is it moral for you to make a "lying promise"?  Your ends are to obtain the money for whatever reason.  But the lender has ends too and he is an end in himself (he's got his own plans/hopes/dreams).  If you make a lying promise you are using him as a means to your ends which the lender does not share.  The man whom you are using for your own means certainly would not agree to lending you money if he had full information of your intentions.  Again, you are using him as a means to an end which he does not share and to which he does not consent.  So in this simple example we see that the second formulation of the CI produces the same conclusions that we'd find if we'd used the 1st formulation.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Do I Have to Do What I Know Is Right? (Part 1)

Intro Ramble: The Purpose of Philosophy in Morality

     It's funny how things work sometimes.  After making my last post--"What Philosophy Is and Isn't"--I encountered the following passage in Kant regarding the role of philosophy (in ethics, anyway):
It is here that she [i.e., philosophy] has to show her purity as the authoress of her own laws--not
as the mouthpiece of laws whispered to her by some implanted sense [i.e., intuition] or by who      knows what tutelary nature [divine inspiration], all of which laws together, though they may          always be better than nothing, can never furnish us with principles dictated by reason.

     Now it is quite obvious that everything happens for a reason and god made Kant insert this passage back in the Enlightenment so that one day I would read it at just the right time.  There are no coincidences people!  Ok, all metaphysics aside, lets take a quick lookie-loo at what this passage is talking about.  Hopefully my use of the handy dandy parentheses have already made the meaning clear.  Basically, Kant wants to show that morality stems from reason, and reason alone.  Morality cannot come from some person claiming to have intuition about what is right.  If this were the case we'd quickly descend into a moral relativism of the worst kind.  Nor can morality come from someone claiming divine inspiration.  If this were the case we would have no rational reason to follow the laws, we'd only follow them out of fear of sanction.  Moral laws must come from reason because the fact that they come from reason gives them authority.
     Think about it for a second.  Suppose you are not sure how you should act in a particular situation.  Your faculty of reason--that is, rationality--tells you to act one way but you have inclinations toward a different course of action.  Suppose you choose to act on your inclinations: does it make any sense to say you acted in a morally correct way because "it felt right" even though you have a perfectly rational reason to act the other way?  Basically you are admitting that, in this case, acting irrationally is the moral thing to do.  This is a very tough case to make!
     Now if we take your method as a general principle for er'body to make moral decisions willy nilly (this is a technical term) based on how they feel, we're going to get into some trouble.  Now decisions are based on feeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelings but feelings aren't consistent but ephemeral; no universal laws could ever be derived from this method.  This method of making moral decisions and rules cannot work...nope.  (But I just feel it in my bones, I know I'm right!...I have a really good sense for these things!) Shut up.  (No, but my psychic told me I have a gift!  I'm speeeeeeeeeeecial!)
      I can't help it.  I have to share what Kant says about what happens when we appeal to intuition and such, it's way too good not to share:

     [...]for human reason in its weariness is fain to rest upon this pillow and in a dream of sweet illusions (which lead it to embrace a cloud in mistake of Juno) to foist into the place of morality some misbegotten mongrel patched up from limbs of very varied ancestry and looking like anything you please, only not like virtue, to him who has once beheld her in her true shape.

Oh! Snap! Wicka! Wicka! Wicka! Wut?  I'd give my left testicle to write half as well as that! (Ok, you could argue his sentences are a little long...)

The Relationship Between Duty, Morality, and Reason

     So, up until now Kant has focused on showing that we can determine the universal principle of morality by asking whether a particular action we will is universalizable.  Whatever passes this test qualifies as a universal moral maxim according to which we ought to act.  Now that we know what we ought to do, the next question is, it is a necessary law for all rational beings to act on what we ought to do?  In other words if we know what the morally correct action is, are we, as rational agents, obligated to act on it?
      Before we answer this problem it might be helpful to quickly review, by example, how we can determine the moral law.  Suppose I'm in a tough financial situation and I want to borrow some money.  I know that I'm not going to be able to repay the money, but the only way I'm going to get a loan is if I say (falsely) that I will repay the loan.  How do I determine if this is morally permissible? Well, we run our maxim (not the magazine!) through the universalization test (AKA the Categorical Imperative).  I ask, what would happen if I willed my behaviour to be a universal law for all?  If I make it a universal rule that everybody who needs to borrow money can lie about repaying the money what will happen?
     What will happen is that people who lend money will cease to lend money based on promises to repay.  The notion of a promise will have no meaning.  People making promises in this situation will receive only laughter in response to their request.  For people to lend money there has to be a norm (standard behaviour) or truth telling in the culture.  If you universalized your particular behaviour, no one would be able to borrow money with just a promise to repay.  Your behaviour is not universalizable and so we must universalize the opposite maxim, that people who borrow money must keep their promises to repay.

The Will...Vas is Das?
     Ok, so now we know what the moral thing to do is.  As rational creatures, do we have to do it?  Kant says yes, and here's his argument:  First we begin with a definition of will.  A will is the power/faculty by which we self-determine our actions according to notions of laws.  In plain English I think this means the will is my motivation for action; however it should be viewed as distinct from inclinations, instinct, and physiological urges.  The will is somehow above all that, not to say it can't sometimes be inline with those other elements that bring about appetite-driven behaviour.  The key notion it seems is that through the will we can "self-will" behaviour and overcome instincts, character, etc....  For example, take someone who really wants to eat ice cream.  Their inclination is to eat it, but they are not captive to this impulse; they can exercise their will to not eat the ice cream.
     Our will is always directed at some end.  Our will is not necessarily good, it can be directed at both good and bad actions.  However, when the end at which our will is directed comes about through reason, it must be equally valid for all rational things, viz, it has equal moral merit.  Hold on a second!  Couldn't we argue that I could use my reason to direct my will toward nefarious ends?  Would these wicked ends have equal validity too?  Kant would say that any nefarious ends did not come about through reason, but inclination and/or self-interest.  Of course we can use our reason to achieve evil ends but reason cannot choose evil ends.  Reason operates according to the categorical imperative, and evil ends are not universalizable.
      Where are we so far?  We know that the will gives us the power of self-determination; the will is always directed at some end; and when the will is directed at an end which came about through reason, that end is equally valid for all rational beings.  This last point is central to Kant's ethics.  We must give equal weight to the rational ends of any rational creature.  Simply put, er'body on this planet has an equal right to pursue their personal ends so long as they are universalizable.  As we have seen, an end is not universalizable if it prevents others from pursuing their ends.
     To illustrate lets quickly revisit the money borrowing scenario.  If you lie and say that you will pay the money back but don't and then will this norm to be universalized, nobody else will be able to borrow money (because lenders no longer take people at their word).  Your action has interfered with other people whose end might require they borrow money based on a promise, but now they can't.  Why do you have to be so selfish? Sheesh! Now look what you've done!
     Of course some actions won't have an effect either way on interfering with other people attaining their ends.  In cases such as these all we can say is that they are not the subject matter of morality.  So, if you're struggling to determine whether you should watch Jersey Shore or Big Brother, this has no bearing on somebody else attaining their ends;  you can do whatever you want--Kant doesn't care.   The moral content of these actions is as vacuous as the intellectual content of the shows I mentioned.
Humans as Ends in Themselves

     The next step in Kants argument is to (pretty much) assert that if we suppose there is an entity whose existence has intrinsic absolute value then from this entity, which is an end in itself we can derive determinate laws.  This is a little tricky so let me restate it.  Take for example "compassion".  Compassion has value in itself.  We don't display compassion as means to an end; we don't seek to be compassionate to achieve any further goal.  Compassion is an end in itself.  Because it is an end itself it has value "built into" it.
     From the idea of something having intrinsic value (i.e., it is an end in itself) Kant argues that it can be the ground of a possible categorical imperative--something like, "we should endeavor to be compassionate".  We don't endeavor to be compassionate to fulfill some other end, we simply ought to pursue being compassionate because it is a (good) end in itself.
     Humans are also ends in themselves.  They have intrinsic value.  They ought not be used for arbitrary means to achieving someone else's ends (without consent).  Anytime my actions affect another person I have to consider them as ends in themselves.  This doesn't mean that another person can never help another attain some goal, only that the helper has to have full information and grant consent to helping.  I can't use power to force people to do things that I want (my ends) because I am not treating them as ends in themselves but as means to my ends.   A significant part of our modern ethical ideas comes from this Kantian notion of treating all people equally as ends in themselves.

Up to hear we've talked about the relationship between morality and reason.  We still haven't finished talking about how Kant moves from saying morality springs from reason to it is our duty to do what reason dictates.  This seems as good a place as any to take a break.  I'll address the other part tomorrow.  It's 4am and I should get some rest.  Stop using me as a means to your end of philosophical knowledge!  Oh, wait.  Knowledge is a good in itself and I have a duty to make it available...

Good night!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What the Crap Is Philosophy?

     This entry was prompted by a conversation I had with a good friend the other day.  Out of the conversation it became quite evident that outside of my ivory tower the unwashed masses have a misconception of the very important world...nay...universe-changing work that philosophers do.   I was actually surprised at how worked up  I got (very unphilosophical of me to do so) by some of the misconceptions; so much so that as a response I ended up composing this short essay on my ideas of what philosophy is and what it isn't.  This is by no means an all inclusive account, and to some degree (I'll admit it) it is a somewhat idealized account but I think it captures that for which philosophy and philosophers strive.

      In your note you made some other points about philosophy and people's motivations. I'd first like to clarify a misunderstanding of what philosophy is. "Philo" means "love", "sophia" is "knowledge" or "wisdom". A philosopher is one who loves knowledge and/or wisdom. From this it is important to understand that a good philosopher isn't committed to a particular position. A good philosopher seeks truth, and much like a good scientist, can use a provisional hypothesis as a starting point for that pursuit. If that hypothesis falls pray to counter argument or contradiction then we either rework it or reject it. If you study the history of any philosopher you will see that his early ideas are often very different from his later ideas. You will not find a philosopher who began with a position and stuck to it despite objections and conter-examples. This is dogmatism and belongs to the realm of fanaticism and religion not philosophy.
       Another misconception about philosophy is that we just argue with logic to prove a point. This is nominally true but does not capture the enterprise of philosophy. To use the tools of argument and the rules of logic purely for the purpose of dogmatically defending a point belongs to the realm of sophistry, the origins of modern lawyers (In ancient Greece “sophist” was a derogatory term used against those who were employed by the rich to use their skills in argumentation to argue for the rich and powerful). Lawyers are not concerned with truth but with winning their arguments. Conversely, philosophers are concerned with truth and use argument to test the strength of hypotheses. If a hypothesis doesn't withstand argument we modify it or reject it. Once again if you study the history of any philosopher you will see this is what happens. This is a formal practice in both philosophy and science. You publish a paper. Your peers criticize it in written form, you try to reply to the criticisms. If you can't reply then you modify or reject the hypothesis. This happens all the time.
      It is quite possible that you disagree with the methods of philosophy, but that is another philosophical matter (you can actually take courses on the philosophy of philosophy) probably under the rubric of epistemology. The bottom line is this: in philosophy, as in most disciplines there is a consensus on what counts as evidence, what counts as correct argument form (formal logic). You could argue that this excludes other purported ways of knowing such as “faith”, intuition, or really really, really strong belief. That's fine, but generally these other methods haven't proven themselves as fruitful as those accepted within philosophy and have therefore been long ago discarded as an acceptable norm in a philosophical argument.
      Regarding your comment about the motives of others and their concern for truth, Hume would agree with you, and so would many psychological studies. It even has its own term in psychology: motivated reasoning. Most people begin with a position and when they are subjected to countervailing evidence, rather than modifying their position as we would expect, they reject the evidence and further entrench themselves in their view. This is because most people are emotionally attached to their position, not the quest for truth. Their beliefs define who they are and releasing a central belief is painful and is an admission of fault. Philosophers aren't emotionally committed to any particular beliefs. We are committed to a method and we are committed to approaching truth as best as can be expected from fallible humans.
      Regarding the everyday person's interest in philosophy, I am going to disagree with your assessment that most people aren't interested. Anytime you see a long string of comments on someones facebook page, blog, or hear a passionate discussion, you can bet that it involves a philosophical issue. Just because the issue wasn't raised in a classroom does not preclude it from being philosophy. Now, of course not everyone is interested in every area of philosophy but everyone has some philosophical curiosity and inclination, otherwise they wouldn't be human. Most people are concerned with the original question of classical philosophy, which is "what does it mean to live a good live"? (i.e. what are the necessary conditions).
      So, to summarize good philosophy (again, as with science) is not a competition about who's right and who's wrong; it is about a commitment to a method of inquiry and a commitment to seeking truth. You might disagree with the deliberate methods of logic and hypothesis testing for choosing one set of beliefs over another but seeing who can scream louder has yet to yield better results.
     Finally, to repeat, I will always be grateful to you if, when I am unclear in my explanations, that you let me know where and (if possible) why, and I'll do my best to improve my explanation...
     Thanks for reading my blog...it actually means a lot to me to have you read it,


Friday, September 16, 2011

Is it Always Immoral to Commit Suicide?

This is a short reflection I wrote for my Kant Seminar:    

     Kant argues that making false promises and committing suicide are both contrary to the Categorical Imperative because they are non-universalizable. To demonstrate both acts are immoral he employs to both acts an argument strategy which I will call the Argument from Unintelligibility. Essentially the argument is that when universalization leads to the unintelligibility of a concept, the maxim that produced the unintelligibility cannot be universalized. The argument seems to work better in regards to false promises than on the prohibition of suicide. First, I will examine his arguments against false promises and suicide; then I will examine its weaknesses when applied to suicide.
To demonstrate that we should not act on a maxim that permits false promises Kant presents the Argument from Unintelligibility. The main argument is:

  1. The utility and intelligibility of false promises rely on the existence of true promises.
  2. If the notion of a false promise is rendered unintelligible, it cannot achieve the end for which it is intended (to deceive/extricate oneself from an obligation).
  3. If we universalize the maxim that it is permissible to make false promises in order to extricate oneself from and uncomfortable situation/obligation then the notion of a false promise will be rendered unintelligible.
  4. Therefore universalizing this maxim will create a world in which our maxim prevents us from the achieving the very end we seek to accomplish by means of a false promise.

The basic idea is that by universalizing the norm of false promises we end up with a contradiction: a promise to comply with a future obligation only has weight in a society were it is the norm to uphold promises. If the norm is that people to do not uphold promises, then a promise is devoid of its common sense meaning. A false promise only functions in a society where there is a norm to uphold promises. So, if we universalize the norm of not upholding promises, promises become meaningless.
In 397-8 Kant makes the assertion that we have a moral duty to preserve our own lives. Later, in 422 he offers an argument that resembles the Argument from Unintelligibility to support his assertion. To set up the argument Kant asks us to suppose there is a person who's life is full of so much misfortune and misery that out of self-love they decide it is best to end their life. Is this person duty bound to continue living? In order to answer this we need to see if we can universalized the maxim “from self-love I make it my principle to shorten my life if its continuance threatens more evil than it promises pleasure”.
In universalizing this principle Kant recapitulates something similar to the Argument from Unintelligibility with the addition of a requirement that this principle of self-love should also be a principle of nature.

  1. The function of self-love is to keep us living.
  2. If we universalized the principle of “self-love allows suicide” then self-love would not keep us living.
  3. If self-love did not keep up living then this would contradict (1).
  4. The laws of nature cannot lead to contradictions.
  5. Therefore, we cannot commit suicide out of self-love because it cannot be universalized.
  6. Therefore, committing suicide out of self-love is not inline with the categorical imperative.
The main problem with applying the Argument from Unintelligibility to a prohibition on suicide is the assumption that the function of self-love is to “stimulate the furtherance of life”. It is not clear that (1) is true. It is equally plausible to say that the function of self-love commits us to a life of dignity. In this interpretation we can envision situations where there is no prospect of a life of dignity thus self-love might serve to compel us to end our life. Consider someone who has been in a horrible accident and as a consequence is completely paralyzed, cannot live apart from on life support, has difficulty communicating, is in and out of consciousness, and is in constant pain. It is difficult to see how this might be considered a life of dignity. Self-love, interpreted as a life of dignity might compel us to say that this person's duty is to end their life, or at the very least, it is an option for them.
Kant's possible reply could be that such a conception of the function of self-love is not actually self-love. This is not a particularly strong reply because in some sense it becomes a semantic argument. The key problem for Kant is that he has not demonstrated that a concept of self-love cannot preclude the notion of life with dignity.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Is It Ever OK To Lie?

Kant on Lying


     Recall that in Kant's moral philosophy acting morally is a matter of acting out of duty to the moral law.  Let's break that down.  First, the moral law (AKA the Categorical Imperative) as I'm sure you all recall is "I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law".  In everyday language we would say that I should only act in a way that the principle according to which I acted could be willed as a universal law for er'body.  Second, we encounter the concept of duty.  As Kant conceives it, an action out of duty is one that is devoid of considerations of personal interest (will I gain from this?) and inclination (is my action guided by an emotion such as  sympathy?).  An action out of duty also doesn't take into consideration desired outcomes; action out of duty is action that is only concerned with abiding by what is morally correct--regardless of circumstance.  If your intentions are good then you will act out of duty to the moral law, and thus your action is morally praiseworthy.  The only consideration we make when judging the moral worth of an action if its intent was good (i.e. in line with the Categorical Imperative).

The Categorical Imperative (CI) and Not Keeping Promises

     The next step in Kant's project is to go from a general principle of action--the CI--and try to derive particular rules of action.  One of the examples he uses as a derivation is a prohibition on making promises you don't intend to keep.  The intent of this section is two-fold:  The first is to give an example of a particular moral law, and second it to demonstrate why and how we should make moral decisions.  Lets see how it works:
     Suppose you're at someone's party...a friend of a friend.  You're not particularly fond of this person because they won't cater to your Bieber Fever and like a lot of people they are oblivious to your dislike of them.  Er'body's been sippin' on juice and gin and feeling quite jovial.  After listening to this person go off on some tangent that smacks of Dualism they say, "my dear, you absolutely must bring your girlfriend/boyfriend over for dinner some time, my husband Laurence is a smashing good cook. Is that all right, what?"  Now aside from the fact that they used a grammatical form that irks you and speak with a really annoying British accent, you really have no desire to go over for dinner.  Social convention might dictate that you agree to the dinner date even though you have not intention of actually going. Is it ok to make a promise without the intention of keeping it?  Do you really want to kill this person's buzz?
     Kant distinguishes two ways to consider the dilemma: prudence and duty.  The first is to consider whether it is prudent to make a false promise.  To do this we have to consider if my making the false promise might in the end cause for you a more uncomfortable situation.  Maybe a few months later you bump into the hostess and she demands to know why you haven't kept the dinner plans, and proceeds to "put it on blast" on facebook that you are a false promiser!
     So maybe you have calculate that the outcome of making a false promise might put you in a more uncomfortable situation that the one you're already in.  Based on this calculation you decide it is more prudent to act on the maxim that "one should not make a promise unless one intends to keep it".   The problem with this conclusion is that you have based your action and maxim on fear of consequences--not on what is moral.  You are only declining the invite because in your calculations the consequences of not making a promise that you won't keep now are less severe than the consequences in the future of not keeping the promise.  Essentially your decision is based on the outcome that is most convenient to you:  If in the future you were in a similar situation but predicted that making the false promise would extricate you from the inconvenience of the situation and lead to fewer inconveniences then you would choose to make the false promise.  If this is the case your maxim is actually: whenever telling a false promise will get me out of a pickle I should do so.
     The other point that Kant is trying to elucidate here is that reasoning in such a way depends upon a shaky prediction about future outcomes.  There are thousands of ways we can go wrong in predicting what might happen.
     In the case of acting out of duty you suppose there is a moral law:  you should not make promises you don't intend to keep.  In this case when you act counter the law it is never good because the goodness of your action isn't attached to the (potential) outcomes but to your acting for the sake your duty (to follow the law).
     Lets return to the first case where we chose our action based on outcome.  What happens if we apply the CI to cases where it is more prudent to make a false promise?  That is to say, what happens when we universalize this behaviour...what result do we get?  We get a law that says, "er'body can make promises they don't intend to keep if it will get them out of a pickle".   The problem that arises when we universalize the maxim is that now I have eliminated the possibility of promises. 
     Wicka! Wicka! Rewind!  Basically, if er'body in the house gettin' tipsy knows that when people are asked to make a promise, they will not keep it if they think they can get out of it with less inconvenience than keeping it.  Now, anytime someone promises to do something, the promisee will assume the promiser isn't going to do it.  This renders useless the concept of a promise and leads to a world where no one keeps promises and no one  believes anyone who makes a promise.  Did I just explain that 3 different ways?  I must be getting sleepy.  Accordion to Kant this demonstrates that we should base our behavioural decisions on what is consistent with the CI, not what is prudent.  
     His other point is that prudential reasoning depends on us knowing future events.  Because not er'body is sweet baby jesus this is not going to be possible.  The consequences of our actions are not discernible or if they are it is only in a very limited sense. 

Counter Example

     It all sounds good and dandy until we consider a counter example.  Because I'm fading in and out of consciousness I will confine myself to the one that is most commonly brought up.  Suppose you live in Nazi Germany and are harbouring Jews (with horns).  The gestapo knocks on your door and says "eef ve ask you ver is ze jew, do you promees to tell?".  According to Kant's rules we can't consider consequences of our actions when we act out of duty to the moral law.  To act morally is to act according to the moral law regardless of circumstances.  We are obligated to follow the particular maxim of not making false promises.  Kant might reply that although you have turned the Jews (with the horns) over to the Gestapo you didn't harm them (assuming the Jews meet their most likely fate).  You are not morally responsible for what the Gestapo does to them--that moral judgment is on the Gestapo agents.
     The natural response to this situation is to say that Kant's system leads us to a position that is morally repugnant for most people.  Maybe we need to consider more than just adherence to the CI and intentions in calculating the morality of an action.  Maybe we need to consider the circumstances under which we make our decisions.  Or maybe we need to calculate the moral worth of an action based on the amount of pain and suffering it avoids or on the amount of happiness it produces.  All of these solutions have their own problems which I won't go into.
     Anyway, can you think of a way out for Kant without giving up the CI and his idea that moral actions arise out of the intent of an action not its consequences?

By the By, is it wrong to tell people that a blog entry with be the greatest thing they'll ever read and then it isn't?  But what if it's to get them to learn philosophy?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What Can A Pain in Your Butt Teach You About Metaphysics?

This section of the sixth and final meditation is for me the most interesting and raises the most philosophical issues.  I still remember when I first encountered it 12 years ago in my second philosophy class.

Arguments For What My Senses Can and Can't Tell Me About the World and Myself

     There is nothing that my own nature teaches me more vividly than that I have a body, and that when I feel pain there is something wrong with the body, and that when I am hungry or thirsty the body needs food and drink, on so on.  So, I should not doubt there is some truth in this.

     The basic argument here is that sensations such as pain demonstrate that humans are a composite of Mind and Body.  The fact that we can perceive sensations that belong to Body in our minds is evidence for the Mind-Body hypothesis of humans.  We are not Minds that are merely present in a Body "as a sailor is present in a ship".  If this were the case we wouldn't feel any of the sensations we do.  A sailor doesn't feel pain when his ship bumps into a rock, he only perceives it by sight and understands what has happened via the intellect.  Yet we have in intimate awareness of sensations, that are not purely intellectual understandings, when we bump into a pointy object, for example.  The same goes for hunger and thirst which are not just intellectual concepts when we feel them.
     We are also aware that there are other bodies around us that produce in us sensations of heat, smell, sound, colour, taste, etc...  We also know that we have an aversion to some of these sensations, like the smell of rotten eggs; and we have attraction to others, like the taste of pizza.
     Of course sometimes what our senses tell us about the world can sometimes be false.  In this case I'm not talking about optical illusions and such, but that the way in which information about the world comes in through the senses shapes the way we think the world is structured.  Take for example the sensation of heat:  Is there actually a thing "heat" which I am perceiving?  It's kind of interesting to think about.  In everyday language we still say, "that's hot" but our scientific understanding of the world contradicts this idea.  
     This is where Descartes really got it right.  On the Aristotelian view, objects that were hot contained an essence, "hotness" (not the kind that some chicks have--another kind) and when we feel heat we are somehow perceiving a thing/essence "hotness".  Descartes on the other hand had a mechanistic view of the world.  Although the idea of heat as being average kinetic energy hadn't been discovered yet Descartes had an idea that was very close.  His idea was that the particles that made up a body were rotating very quickly and these particles interacted with nerve endings which sent a signal up the neural pathways to the part of the brain which was the interface with the mind.  For Descartes (and any modern person) we know that if I were to perform an autopsy of a hot object, I would never find any thing I could point to and call "heat".  As a general explanation it's quite amazing how close to being right he was.  
      So here's the cool part.  Suppose I stub my toe (again) on the "Gotdamned" chair again.  According to Descartes the pain I feel does not exist in my toe, but in my mind.  Of course it sure doesn't feel that way but again this is a case where the way our senses function to perceive the world causes us to draw false conclusions about the world.  Pain is not a property of Body.  Pain (a sensation) is a property of Mind, thus the pain is a consequence of an interaction with Body but the pain itself is not in mah toe.  If I cut the nerve route from my toe to my brain/Mind, I would have no sensation of pain.  Pain is really our brain/Mind telling us "there is damage to sector 7G".
     In the Aristotelian view the pain actually exists in the toe.  It's really there, just as properties of mass and shape are.  As an aside, I think it's kind of interesting that despite centuries of science we still speak of the world in the Aristotelian sense.  I guess you could make an pragmatic argument for speaking of the world in an Aristotelian way.  It'd be quite a mouthful if every time you stubbed your toe you said, "Got damn particles in that chair collided with the particles in my toe, which initiated a chain reaction to the part of my brain that is the interface with my mind and produced a sensation that I call 'pain'".
     The bottom line is that the purpose of sensory perception is not necessarily to tell us how the world actually is but to help us navigate the world by informing us what is beneficial and what is harmful.  I think this is a really important philosophical point and one that even everyday people misunderstand (say it ain't so!).  The issue is whether the world exactly resembles the way we perceive it.  Within philosophy of perception and epistemology there are some that say that there is no way to know because we can never step outside of what we perceive in the "theater of mind" and there those that says there is a one to one relationship...and as you might expect the bulk of people's opinion is somewhere in between.       
     Descartes answer is that our perceptions of Body resemble the modes of Body that are necessary (size, shape, extension, mass); however this is not the case in the other modes of Body.  In the case of the non-necessary modes of Body (eg., scent, colour, texture, etc...), there is something (structure perhaps) in the body that produces in us as sensation of a property, but the property we perceive doesn't resemble the property in the Body that caused it--although it is not ruled out as a logical possibility. 
     This is a little bit complicated but bear with me: Lets take colour for example.  Suppose I'm looking at a purple cup.  Is the cup actually purple (an essence) or is there something about the structure of the the cup that produces in me the perception of purple?  Does "purpleness" fly from the cup into my eye?  Probably not.  Descartes gets this right too:  We know that the surface atoms of the cup are structured in such a way as to absorb all wavelengths of light except purple; it's not really purple as in, the atoms are all coloured purple.   
     So, because of the structure of the cup, light of only 1 wavelength of reaches my eyes.  Now, is the light that reaches my eyes actually purple?  No, it's just light waves at a certain frequency.  It just so happens that when my eyes receive light at this particular frequency it produces a certain nerve impulse that produces in my Mind the (phenomenal) sensation of purple.  Had the light waves been traveling at a different frequency, it would have resulted in slightly different nerve impulses which would have produced in my Mind a different phenomena of colour.  
      Also, if my brain were structured slightly differently, maybe the wavelength that now produces in me the colour purple might produce in me the colour red.  This raises a tangential issue, which is that when it comes to these secondary modes there is no way to know if one person's experience "purple" isn't another person's experience "green".  The things is, it doesn't matter so long as we all make the same distinctions and call it the same thing.  
     Now lets try to relate this all back to our starting point, that our senses don't necessarily tell us about the world as it is but tell us instead how we should best navigate our world.  Lets go back to the subject of "pain".   Through faulty reasoning I may come to the conclusion that the "Got Damned chair" I stubbed my toe on has something in it that is "pain" that is now in my toe, or that a fire has something in it that is heat.  But fire is not made of any thing called heat any more than my toe is has something in it called pain.  Nevertheless, my sensory perception of my interaction with these entities tells me that I should avoid striking the chair with my toe and should not put my hand (or any part of me for that matter) in the flame--unless it is into the feh-laaaaaames of passion.

But If God's So Good, How Come Sometimes Our Senses Tell Us to Do the Wrong Thing?
     Descartes realizes he has a little problem if he is going to simultaneously hold that a) god isn't a deceiver; b) that he wired us (are there wires in clay?) in such a way were we can be deceived about the world; and c) sometimes it seems that our sense perceptions of the world lead us to the wrong course of action.   Descartes explanation is that although there are situations that can arise where our reaction to a stimulus isn't the best one, the fact is that most of the time it will be.  God wired us in the way that will bring about the best response to deal with situations that will most frequently occur.
     Here's an example:  Suppose you have a wound on your finger and you need to put some sort of disinfectant on it and this disinfectant stings upon application.  The problem is that your sensory system, whenever you put the disinfectant on says "ARUGA! ARUGA! ARUGA! We are sensing pain.  Begin evasive maneuvers immediately!"  Our sensory system is giving us a message that is actually detrimental to us in this particular circumstance.  
     Descartes would concede that this is true but that more often than not moving your limb away from things that cause the sensation of pain is a good thing and will preserve your life and health longer.  Therefore god's still a good guy after all.  I think this is a pretty good argument and if we substitute "natural selection" for "god" we have a good modern argument.  Ta! Da! 

Well, That Just Smacks of Dualism!

     A long time ago I  read a humour piece in a local newspaper (this was pre-internet).  The article was entitled something like,  "Random Interjections to Throw Into Any Conversations That Will Make You Sound Smart".  Anyway, as you might gather from the title, the author, with humour intent, had come up with a list of lines you could say to make yourself sound smart.  "Well, that just smacks of dualism!" was one of them.  Ok, somehow explaining things takes all the humour out of them...lets get back to philosophy...


     Ok, so what is Dualism? Simply put it is the philosophy that all disagreements should be resolved by means of a dual.  I kid! I kid!  I really should stop with all the jokes, I stand to lose all five of my readers.
     The truth is that the typical Joe on the street is a dualist.  Shoot, now I can't say that without wanting to make some terrible pun.  Ok, reset button.  A dualist is someone who believes that the mind and the body are distinct "substances" which somehow get united in humans.  Before I get into the implications of this view, I want to sketch out how Descartes argues for it.  And before I do that I will ever so briefly review the philosophical context in which Descartes came up with his view.

Philosophical Context

     The notion that mind and body are distinct entities is still quite common amongst the unwashed masses of today (guess if I'm a dualist or not!) but at the time Descartes wrote there was no such view at the time (Platonism had fallen out of fashion).  The prevailing view was the scholastic view, which arose out of Aristotelian thought.  Essentially the idea was that every class of thing was an individual substance.  For instance, an oak tree was one type of substance while a cat was an entirely different type of substance.  Substance for the scholastics is a thing's essence; and every class of thing has a unique essence.  
     Not so for Descartes.  In his view the form of matter is simply different expressions extension, such as shape and size.  Mind does not have the qualities of physical things (body) so therefore it is a separate substance.  For the scholastics Mind (aka "soul") was something that arose out of the form of matter.  The form that matter takes when it forms a human brings about a soul/mind (although, in the special case of humans, it required an act of god--usually two waves of his magic wand, three for some people).  For Descartes the mind doesn't require a body, but for the scholastics the mind does.

Arguments for the Existence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction Between Body and Mind

     Ok, enough about the Aristotelian view; out with the old and in with the new, I say!  Some of Descartes arguments rely--actually most--on previous sections where he "proves" the existence of a perfectly good, all powerful god, and that anything he perceives clearly and distinctly must be true (Doctrine of "Clear and Distinct").  The really strange thing is that for the existence of god he uses 2 crap arguments: "The Craftsman" argument and a modified version of the ontological argument which had been dismissed back in the 11th Century when St. Anselm first came up with it.  Even Descartes' contemporaries couldn't understand why he used it.  Anyway, basically it's a crap argument but if you're interested here's a good discussion of it it along with its objections. 
This blog will not be party to crappy arguments!  Anyway, the validity of dualism doesn't depend of there being a god but for fun we'll temporarily suspend judgment and grant Descartes his assumptions. 

Arguments for the Existence of Material Things
Argument 1 The Imagination:   Descartes argues that (and I'm not sure I completely understand his argument) that we can derive the existence of the body from the fact that we have an imagination.  The first step in this argument is to differentiate between the imagination and "pure understanding".  To demonstrate/define these two qualities Descartes uses the following example:  When you imagine a triangle you not only understand the concept of "triange", i.e., that it is a figure with 3 connected lines whose 3 interior angles equal 180 degrees, but you also have in your "mind's eye" an image of a figure with 3 sides.   The same is true if we want to imagine a pentagon.  We have both an understanding of what that concept is comprised of and we have an image of it in our minds eye.  Now try to imagine a chiliagon--a thousand sided figure:  You understand that the concept of a chiliagon has 1000 sides and 1000 interior angles but try as you might you cannot accurately imagine a chiliagon  You might be able to imagine something resembling a chiliagon but there's no way that you could distinguish it in your mind from a 999 sided polygon.  
     The fact that we there are things that we can understand conceptually with our "pure understanding" that we can't imagine is evidence that these two abilities are distinct.   Also, Descartes asserts that the ability to understand something is necessary to the conception of "mind" (in the sense that he is a mind) but that the ability to imagine something is not necessary--it is a mode of Mind.  In other words, I can still be a thinking thing without being able to imagine, but I can't be a thinking thing without the ability to understand things.   We could contest that we may think we understand things when if fact we don't (kind of like how I feel about his whole argument).  I know from taking logic and math classes that many times I thought I understood a concept only to discover that I hadn't.  Did I cease to become a thinking thing?  Maybe.  Did I lose my Mind? Yes.  I'm not sure if this is a real or relevant problem for Descartes so we'll leave it at that. 
     "But so what?" you ask, "so what if "pure understanding" and the imagination aren't the same, and that one is necessary to Mind and the other isn't.  To be honest I'm asking the same thing but lets see where this goes...
     One reason this distinction is important, although it's not relevant to proving the existence of physical things, is that it is an argument for his metaphysics.  Recall that for Descartes there are only 2 basic substances in the universe: Extension (body) and Mind.  Some properties are intrinsic to a substance and some are not.  In the case of Mind, thought is necessary and intrinsic, but imagination is not; nevertheless it is a possible property/mode of Mind only--not Body.  An analogy with Body would be that all bodies have mass, but not all bodies have colour.   Mass is a necessary property and colour is not.
     Ok, back to how this imagination-understanding distinction can prove the existence of Descartes' body.  This is the part of the argument that I either don't understand or it just doesn't make sense.  I'll let you judge for yourself.  Here are the exact words (maybe you can explain what I don't understand):

"When the mind understands it in some way turns toward itself and inspects one of the ideas which are within it; but when it imagines, it turns toward the body and looks at something in the body which conforms to an idea understood by the mind or perceived by the senses.  I can, as I say, easily understand that this is how imagination comes about, if the body exists; since there is no other equally suitable way of explaining imagination that comes to mind."

      My interpretation is this:  in Descartes' metaphysics of Mind and Body, Mind can only have properties of thoughts, that is to say, it cannot have any properties that belong to Body (such as extension, size, mass, movement, shape).  The only way that it can have content about bodies, upon which to apply understanding, is if it is somehow connected to a body.  Essentially, Descartes' argument is that imagination is a product of the special union of Mind and Body that is a human.  Because in humans the substance of Mind is magically linked to Body, properties that belong only to Body can be smuggled into the content of our Minds (in the form of our imagination)...clearly there is "no other equally suitable way of explaining imagination [...]"!  After all that work, Descartes in the next line decides that this is not definitive proof of his having a body but it is "only a probability".  So, how then can we prove the existence of the body, and other bodies for that matter?  The suspense is killing you, I know!

Argument 2  Argument for the Existence of Body From Sensory Perception
     When we began the whole skeptical enterprise we used several arguments (dream/evil demon/fallibility of the senses) to call into question the information we derive from our senses our bodies (that I have vascular arms, a strapping chest, chiseled abs, etc...) and other bodies, so how might appealing to sensory information help us in proving we have a physical body?       
     We begin with some observations about sensory information:  a) through sensory perception we have a clearer and more distinct impression of the modes of Body (primary ones as well as colour, scent, pain, etc...) than we do with our imaginations; b) the ideas which enter my mind via sensory perception are recalcitrant to my will (I cannot will them to go away, to change, or to appear);  c) I can never separate myself from the body that I call mine; d) I feel all my appetites, emotions, pain, hunger, thirst because of (what I perceive to be) my body.
     In regards to (d) how can I explain that I feel sensation in the body I call my own but not in bodies I don't call my own?  This may seem like a silly question but it actually brings us to an important issue regarding the location of sensations--specifically secondary modes of Body.  And, surprisingly (?), the solving of this quandary will help us with our argument to both prove both the existence our own bodies and other "object" bodies.  
     First Descartes repeats that the different modes (properties) of Mind only pertain to thought and ideas and the different properties of Body only pertain to body.  From this premise we can reason that the causes of my ideas that arise out of sensory perceptions must be either a substance that is Body or it must coming from God.  This is because Mind does not, by definition, have the properties (modes) of physical things...and presumably God can do or be whatever he wants (Duh!). 
     But how are we to know if the source of our sensory perceptions are God or corporeal objects?  Soooooooo simple.  You see, we know 2 things: that sometimes our senses deceive us, and that god is not a deceiver.  Since god is not a deceiver "it is quite clear that he does not transmit the ideas to me directly from himself, or indirectly, via some creature which contains the objective reality of the ideas [...]".  If god were transmitting to me directly from his control tower in outer space there would never be any mistakes because god is perfect and, furthermore, would not deceive us (even though he could if he wanted too...that rascal!).  Therefore corporeal things exist.  Git it?

     This seems a good a place as any to take a break and let y'all digest those mind blasting arguments.  The next entry I want to focus on Descartes explanation of pain which is quite interesting and raises a lot of issues about the nature of consciousness.  By the by, I apologize for the haphazard uses/interchanging of Body/Extension and properties/modes.  I hope it didn't cloud things too much.  Descartes uses Body and Extension interchangeably and he usually uses "mode" in lieu of "property".  They mean the same thing but there is a reason why Descartes avoids using "property".  In the Aristotelian framework they used (because academic work was all in Latin at that time) "proprium" which is the root of the English "property".  In order to avoid readers conflating the two models he used "mode".  There you go.  Nice little lesson in Etymology on top of an entry about Descartes.  I'm just too good to my readers!

To my Philoso-friends, please correct me where you think I have misinterpreted arguments...thanks