The first thing that confronted us on our return to Long Island, after eleven months away, was a rat in the sofa. More precisely, the nest, remnants, and droppings of what was most likely a rat (the squirrel hypothesis had a moment in the sun). The rat had obviously come into the house during the winter and made a nice little home for itself; much the same thing had happened five years earlier. We had even left a large supply of cat food for it to feed on—and its little ones too, in all probability. The home was a pocket sized hole in the cushioning, carefully constructed, quite cozy looking–with bits of stuffing torn out and mingling with the dried droppings behind the sofa. Cathy was highly displeased, not to say disgusted, and wanted to spend the night in the car, in case our guest felt like returning. But she relented, firmly closing the bedroom door instead. The next day I cleaned up the mess with brush and pan and lugged the heavy sofa outside, to be picked up by the town. You expect some animal inconvenience in Mastic—but rats in the sofa?
I just finished re-reading Kingsley Amis’s first novel. If you haven’t read it, you should. It is the most anti-literary literary tour de force ever. The language is flawless while flaunting its “inelegance”. It reminds me of J.L.Austin’s style: challenging you to find a mistake, while grammatically impeccable. It is designed to intimidate and amuse. Yet the Amis novel manages to find, amidst the pseuds and bastards, the liars and creeps, a vein of morality that is completely authentic and totally unselfadvertising. Jim is no one’s idea of a saint, but he’s a better specimen of humanity than those deemed his betters. Notably, Gore-Urquhart, the richest and poshest of the lot, is the most discerning and decent man in the book–and has the most in common with the “common” Jim. Kingsley is off to the side, stoically amused, pulling faces of his own, laying down those sentences that don’t seem to care whether they end elegantly but always do.
The topic this week was ethical egoism. What a terrible theory it is! An action is right if and only if it’s in your own self interest. That means that helping others, with no benefit to self, is immoral. Rubbish. Particularly pathetic is the argument that apparently atruistic actions are really egoistic, since you get pleasure from doing good. This just conflates the object of a want with its consequences. You might as well argue that economic actions, like buying a television, are really altruistic, because someone else benefits, namely the people you buy it from. Motives are of several kinds: egoistic, altruistic, malicious, and self-destructive.
So far this term I’ve dispatched the three most popular ethical theories in America today–relativism, divine command theory, and egoism. It wasn’t difficult work. So people go through their lives with ethical ideas that are patently erroneous. A few classes in high school would suffice to put them right, but somehow it never happens. You aren’t supposed to criticize people’s ethical opinions. That’s sad.
My ontology seminar dealt with a paper by Chomsky about physics. He argues that since Newton the mechanical philosophy had to be abandoned, because of the remote operation of gravity, and that physics presents us with mysteries that mark our cognitive limits. As Hume observed, Newton drew the veil on some of nature’s mysteries only to reveal the deeper mysteries of nature. I find this view very congenial: not only is free will a mystery, or consciousness, but also a physical force like gravity. I think myself that mass, electricity and magnetism are pretty mysterious—we know only their manifestations. Physics tells us only the dispositional and structural properties of matter, not its intrinsic nature—as Russell long ago argued. Mysteries lurk everywhere, even in our “hardest” science. Since I regard consciousness as a form of matter, it isn’t surprising that it should be mysterious—since matter in general is mysterious. (This isn’t to say that the science isn’t perfectly ok, so far as it goes.)
In my ethics class divine command theory went the way of ethical relativism. There was some squirming from the students as God was removed from the grounds of ethics. Actually, I respect DC theory more than relativism, despite my atheism, because at least it’s a theory with some philosophically interesting aspects, and not simply a confusion of the descriptive and the normative. The problem with it is that you cannot base moral principles on a stipulation, no matter who the stipulating authority might be. That would make morality entirely arbitrary—as if it were like driving on the right rather than the left. God commands us to keep our promises because it is right to do so; it’s not that it’s right because he commands it (would it be right to break our promises on God’s say-so?). Socrates’ “Euthyphro argument”, that the gods love the holy because it’s holy and not because they love it—or that God commands the good because it is the good and not because he commands it—is one of the best arguments ever produced. It shows the power of clear analytical thought. What is amazing is that after over two thousand years his incontrovertible point hasn’t yet sunk in to everyone’s mind—with so many people still thinking that morality results from God’s naked will. God doesn’t create the good; herecognizes it (assuming he exists).
My review of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought just appeared in the New York Review of Books. There has been a three year hiatus since I last wrote for them, owing to the fact that the editors and I were at loggerheads over the philosophical content of a (positive) review I wrote of a book by Vincent Descombes on cognitive science and philosophy. The review was never published. The Pinker book is not very philosophical, so we haven’t had that kind of trouble this time. People do find pure philosophy very difficult, and writing about it for the general public is always a challenge. Anyway, the book is vintage Pinker—though I do have some reservations about the substance of some of the chapters. Check out the chapters on verbs and obscenity, in particular.
The US Open has given us some amazing tennis, with Roger Federer in his all-black tux outfit delivering his usual display of athletic and aesthetic brilliance. (I love that guy.) Novak Djokovic (I call him No-Joke) gave a marvelous impression of Sharapova and Nadal serving last night: she with her prissy jig and high bounces, he with his swerving sprint and the fussing with socks and shorts (needlessly plucking them from his crack before every serve). He’s a bloody good player, too, the young Serb—but also quite the comedian. My prediction: Fed and Djok in the final—the former wins. I find that watching tennis improves my game, by motor osmosis I guess. Yesterday I unleashed a distinctly Federerian backhand—at least that’s what it felt like.
Thanks to people for their comments. I agree that Soros’ success in predicting the markets sits ill with his Popperian suspicion of inductive knowledge of the future. I think we need to distinguish context-sensitivity in ethics from ethical relativism: in some contexts it may be right to break a promise, say, though not in others; but this has no tendency to show that what is right varies with what cultures take to be right (on this see any introductory ethics text, e.g. Julia Driver’s Ethics: The Fundamentals). As to my views on consciousness and the brain, I refer you to my many publications on that subject—no need to repeat old stuff here. Walking on water: I’ve always liked that story (“I believe”). Maybe Jesus was wearing some especially buoyant sandals at the time of the feat. A proto-paddle-boarder, I like to think. I saw a picture of my old friend Jennifer Anniston the other day, looking lovely, upright on a paddleboard—so even the stars are doing it.
I just finished the first week of the new semester. I’m teaching a course on ethics that I’ve never taught before, starting with ethical relativism. To my surprise, the students put up no resistance to the criticisms I made of relativism–despite the fact that students always tend to be relativists. I like to think they saw the force of reason and quietly abandoned their earlier beliefs. Maybe I’ve created a group of sensible moral universalists who can spread the message far and wide. Relativism is dead! Next is divine command theory, the attempt to base right and wrong in God’s will. Surely some of them believe that view, as so many people do. I wonder how they will respond when god-based ethics also collapses in front of them. I’m looking forward to the demolition. I’m sure God will approve–since he is at least not confused. If God did exist, wouldn’t he doubt his own existence?
I’ve been reading The Age of Fallibility by George Soros. It’s nice to see that a big-shot financier and philanthropist has such a genuine interest in philosophy, and recognizes its importance. The faults in his philosophy stem mainly from his adherence to Karl Popper’s concept of the open society. It’s quite wrong to think that an open (i.e. good) society is defined as one that acknowledges the limits of human knowledge. We are perfectly justified in the confidence we place in science and indeed in our basic political values (freedom, tolerance, equality, etc); and this confidence does nothing to diminish our openness. By contrast, medieval Europe stressed the unknowability of God’s nature and the limits of the human intellect, yet was as closed and repressive as can be. The difference between open and closed societies cannot be defined in a value-neutral way–as in the Popperian criterion of acknowledged fallibility. It must be defined by the specific values held, not by the way they are held–tentatively or confidently.
I’ve done a good bit of paddle-boarding this week, venturing into waves while standing. Altogether I’ve put in about twenty hours of practice and can now stay upright in rough water. I’ve even surfed some small waves here in Miami. People stare at me as if I’m walking on water. “Is that hard?” they ask. Yeah, I reply–takes a bit of practice. No one ever asks me if they can have a go. They just can’t bear the thought of falling embarrassingly over–as I have quite a few times. Consequently, they never learn anything.