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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Mayonnaise and Beer

I came across this today, and thought it worth sharing – and very appropo:

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in
front of him. When the class began, wordlessly, he picked up a very
large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls.

He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it
was. So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them
into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the
open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if
the jar was full. They agreed it was. The professor next picked up a
box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up
everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students
responded with an unanimous “yes.” The professor then produced two
cans of beer from under the table and poured the entire contents into
the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students
laughed.

“Now,” said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you to
recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the
important things–your family, your children, your health, your
friends, your favorite passions–things that if everything else was
lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles
are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car.
The sand is everything else–the small stuff. If you put the sand into
the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the golf
balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on
the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are
important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your
happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups.
Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18. There will always be
time to clean the house, and fix the disposal. “Take care of the golf
balls first, the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The
rest is just sand.”

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the beer
represented.

The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It just goes to show you
that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a
couple of beers.”

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This is a story I came across.  I think maybe it puts alot of things in perspective.

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A cheerful girl with bouncy golden curls was almost five. Waiting with her mother at the checkout stand, she saw them: a circle of glistening white pearls in a pink foil box. “Oh please, Mommy. Can I have them? Please, Mommy, please!”

Quickly the mother checked the back of the little foil box and then looked back into the pleading blue eyes of her little girl’s upturned face. “A dollar ninety-five. That’s almost $2.00. If you really want them, I’ll
think of some extra chores for you and in no time you can save enough money to buy them for yourself. Your birthday’s only a week away and you might get another crisp dollar bill from grandma.”

As soon as Jenny got home, she emptied her penny bank and counted out 17 pennies. After dinner, she did more than her share of chores and she went to the neighbor and asked if she could pick dandelions for ten cents. On her birthday, Grandma did give her another new dollar bill and at last she had enough money to buy the necklace.

Jenny loved her pearls. They made her feel dressed up and grown up. She wore them everywhere–Sunday school, kindergarten, even to bed. The only time she took them off was when she went swimming or had a
bubble bath. Mother said if they got wet, they might turn her neck green.

Jenny had a very loving daddy and every night when she was ready for bed, he would stop whatever he was doing and come upstairs to read her a story. One night when he finished the story, he asked Jenny, “Do you love me?”

“Oh yes, Daddy. You know that I love you.”

“Then give me your pearls.”

“Oh, Daddy, not my pearls. But you can have Princess– the white horse from my collection. The one with the pink tail. Remember, Daddy? The one you gave me. She’s my favorite.”

“That’s okay, Honey. Daddy loves you. Good night.” And he brushed her cheek with a kiss.

About a week later, after the story time, Jenny’s daddy asked again, “Do you love me?”

” Daddy, you know I love you.”

“Then give me your pearls.”

“Oh Daddy, not my pearls. But you can have my babydoll. The brand new one I got for my birthday. She is so beautiful and you can have the yellow blanket that matches her sleeper.”

“That’s okay. Sleep well. God bless you, little one. Daddy loves you.” And as always, he brushed her cheek with a gentle kiss.

A few nights later when her daddy came in, Jenny was sitting on her bed with her legs crossed Indian-style. As he came close, he noticed her chin was trembling and one silent tear rolled down her cheek. “What is it, Jenny? What’s the matter?”

Jenny didn’t say anything but lifted her little hand up to her daddy. And, when she opened it, there was her little pearl necklace. With a little quiver, she finally said, “Here, Daddy. It’s for you.”

With tears gathering in his own eyes, Jenny’s kind daddy reached out with one hand to take the dime-store necklace, and with the other hand he reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue velvet case with a strand of beautiful genuine pearls. He had had them all the time. He was just waiting for her to give up the dime-store stuff so he could give her genuine treasure.

Question- what imitations are we holding onto that stops us from receiving God’s genuine treasures?

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As someone that has always been intrigued with the nature of the human mind, and how it interacts, it seems a bit normal to talk about morality. After all, once we understand that beliefs need rationality, and harmonization with other beliefs, it’s only natural to begin that journey toward how we define “good” or “moral”.  But wow does this open a can of worms.

First, just the thought of trying to pursue “good”. I was trying to get some kind of generalization of how we use that word and its absolutely boggling:

He’s a good hockey player.
That movie was very good.
It’s good that he got rewarded for his good deeds.
Charity is good.
This ice cream is very good.

All of these are totally different from each other. Certainly saying someone is a good hockey player is different than saying that ice cream is good. It almost seems that this the word has some kind of different meaning within context, yet it is the same word.  I got to thinking that there are lots of words like “good” also. How about great, bad, best, right and wrong.  All of these words seem to have a very nebulous meaning, yet we hardly give them a second thought when we utter them in conversation. And others seem to understand!

But, we need to know such things so we can get a handle on morality and ethics. If we cant understand and use these things, then we cant possibly  understand what ethics are.

Many people, for instance use the terms “ethics” and “morality” completely differently. I am not so certain that there is any difference, really. Think about it. Don’t we tend to use ethics when we want to refer to some sort of professional conduct? For instance we talk of corporate management’s ethics, or medical ethics or legal ethics.  But as soon as we begin to talk about individuals, that word switches to morals.  He has the highest moral standard. His morals are beyond reproach.  So, to be honest, I think that ethics are simply professional morals. So I will address them as such.

So in order for us to talk about “morality”, it presumes that we accept this nebulous thing we refer to as “good”, and its relatives, “bad”, “right”, “wrong”, and other vapor words.  There is no inherent meaning in these words, if you think about it. Yes, there are definitions, but philosophically, we get into some pretty hot water thinking about the words themselves…they seem to not have any kind of meaning unless there is relevant context.  This, then becomes difficult, because of the very state of nothingness of the words.

If I say “Honesty is good”, what am I saying?  Well, you may think that I am endorsing honesty, which may be true. But that evaluative word says absolutely nothing about anything behind that statement. I am simply “cheering” honesty.  If I say “Abortion is wrong”, again I am not stating anything factual, only that I do not endorse it. This is significantly different than saying “He is a good man”.  The fact is that we use these words far too often to mean absolutely nothing.

Where I’d like to get to, is what is “good” from a rational sense (remember I am a rationalist for the most part).  It seems that where ever we go, we come to the conclusion that what is good seems to  be a matter of individual endorsement, individual state of mind, or cultural deployment. However, I came across some writings of an ancient philosopher that may be of help to us. He was for me.

Aristotle wrote extensively about the conditions under which moral responsibility may be ascribed to individual agents, the nature of the virtues and vices involved in moral evaluation, and the methods of achieving happiness in human life. In essence, a glass of wine, a car, a restaurant and a person are “good” when simply they “hit the target of their purpose”.   I won’t even begin to try to explain the ramifications of this, for they are tremendously complex, but I can tell you that this seems the most rational of thoughts. At issue, of course, is this nebulous idea of “purpose”.  We certainly intuitively know it, but is it conditional? Is it subjective? Is it based on our culture, upbringing, experiences?  Probably. My idea of a good red wine might very well differ from yours, but there may be a red wine that we both agree is “good”.  We might agree that serial killer Ted Bundy was not good for many reasons, and we might agree that Jesus Christ was good. But would we agree that Bill Clinton was a good president?  Would we agree that Susan Sarandon is a good actress?  Think about it, when you go to defend your stance on these, your first top is to set the parameters of purpose, although we usually start that process by saying something like “well..my criteria for being a good… actress, president, bottle of wine, etc… is ……..”. And thus we go into the purpose diatribe.

This gets to be even more challenging as we try to extend “goodness” to people. Because, how do you define the purpose of a person?  AHA.  Well, we will table that discussion until after my next philosophical examination….the philosophical basis for God.

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Reality and Rational Thought

I must admit to being a closet philosopher. It adds to my geekiness, and maybe even endures me to certain people. But for most I’m sure I seem more like a bore. Yes, thank you, I do sometimes just sit around thinking. Maybe you do the same thing…but you call it letting your mind wander, or just “wonderin”.

My beautiful and brillant daughter is a philosopher, and has been one longer than I can remember. She is now a philsophy major in college. Now, me, being the kind of Father that takes an interest in his children’s endeavors, I enjoy finally being able to not, well, apologize for being a closet philsopher. After all, when my oldest son was in school, and he wanted to talk business and marketing, I enjoyed researching and reading things that he was studying also. So all the better for me that daughter-san ended up majoring in one of my hidden passions.

Philosophy has a way about it. While you can go to school, and major in it, at which time you have a set curriculum that teaches key conceptual things and all that, we in the non-collegiate world, can choose to start in philosophy about anywhere we want. What it does require however, is great patience and to be willing to throw up just about anything that you believe as a target to be shot down by yourself. Doesn’t THAT sound impressive? It’s not. But it serves a purpose by letting me start writing my own journey on things without any kind of judgement on anyone’s part but my own 🙂

In beginning to grasp the “art” of philosophy (well I dont THINK its a science, but that might be argued), one must begin somewhere. My first steps began with trying to approach the idea of what philosophy is all about…wisdom and knowledge, for its very etomology means “love of knowledge or wisdom”. I like to always begin endeavors trying my best to define the scope of what I am attempting to pursue. And with philosophy it seems there are many roads and forks and all kinds of diversions. So my first idea to pursue was to understand what knowledge really is. What does it mean to really “know” something and is that really what knowledge is? The answers to those two questions might not be the same.

To me, knowledge is a bit like what one attains, not about what it is. Knowledge can be compared to scoring in a basketball game. When you play the game the attainment is to score. (we ill put aside a discussion here about the goal of basketball so that we dont confuse things). But in basketball the attainment objective is to score, much like our attainment is to have knowledge. In basketball, in order to score we must shoot…which is the activity on which scoring is based. In philosophy, belief is the activity that allows us to attain knowledge. Now just as there are bad shots that lead to no score in our game, similarly bad beliefs lead to no knowledge. So, in essence, knowledge is attained through well-founded, true beliefs.

Now its very interesting when we begin to talk about our beliefs. Anton Chekov once wrote that “Man is what he believes”. Perhaps more poignantly, Michel de Montaigne said “Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know”. So, in order to know ourselves better we should examine our beliefs on a regular basis, and see how we’re stacking up. Some beliefs we really dont need to examine, others we do, which I will discuss momentarily. One thing is very clear to me however: our actions as human beings are most definitely coincident with both our desires and our beliefs. And, many of us have false beliefs. And as I said above, it gains us nothing in our quest for knowledge, if we hold on to those false beliefs. So self-appraisement should be held in the highest value.

If you think this not to be true, take just a moment and think of all the things in your lifetime that you once believed, but do not believe any more. Oh yes you have them. Something as simple as thinking 8 x 7 is 58 when it is really 56. Or thinking, perhaps, that the stork brought your brother or sister. Now, where would you be today, if you still held on to those false beliefs? Well, in the former case you’d have a very short career as an accountant, and in the latter…well, certainly you wouldn’t be living life the way you do today. Think also of all the things that we encouter in our every day lives that ask us to believe them? Newscasters, radio talk show hosts, statisticians, marketing professionals, advertisers… the list goes on and on. It is of penultimate importance that we be able to understand the beliefs we hold, how we got them, and what keeps us there. Otherwise, we can be manipulated too easily.

Now, as I had gotten this far, I felt pretty good. Everything seemed to click. The next step however seemed to be the hardest to get through. This is where it may begin to get boring. I am chronicling my own steps through all this, and maybe your own steps are different which is fine. But armed with my thoughts that “beliefs are the nuggets that lead to knowledge”, and convinced that I needed to get a better handle on my beliefs, I now began to research what is involved in challenging my beliefs, and figuring out exactly how one comes to decide, finally, that a belief is “true” or “held”. This turns out not to be an easy path.

Now, my formal education is in the science and mathematics disciplines. So this of course is where I started. Things in math and science, most of the time are stated in either propositions (math) or hypotheses (science). My first inclination was to apply this approach to beliefs. That is, state a belief and then simply find the proof. This meant that there must be valid kinds of proof that are acceptable. For instance, physical properties of the universe, mathematical laws of geometry and algebra… these all seemed good starting points. And for some beliefs, they are. I believe, for instance that 3+2 = 5. I also believe that 2 + 3 =5. Why? Conceptually I can put three things with two things and count them to get 5 things… i.e. sense perception. And my understanding of the commutative law of addition further completes this exercise. However, other things arent quite that simple.

For instance, we hear claims (broadcast beliefs) everyday that challenge us to believe or disbelieve them. Now, we wont get into “bias” here, because the philosopher takes care never to be biased (haha). However, if you are like me, when a belief is thrust upon you, the first tendency you have is to critically examine it. This seemed fairly obvious to me, so I began to research this. This technique, is a formal discipline in philosophy called skepticism. In our world today, the “skeptic” seems to get a bad rap. But in ancient times, skepticism was a desired virtue. However, the idea of skepticism among philosophers, seems to differ than our general meaning of it. Let me digress momentarily for purposes of a more enlightened convergence.

Now the skeptic seeks to ask us some very challenging questions to which there don’t seem to be quick answers. There IS a reason for this, because in so doing, we can find ourselves painted into a corner and this always causes us to dig deeper. In essence, the skeptic lives to ask us why we have any of the beliefs we have…that is, he wants empirically to get answers to how we “know” the beliefs we have are true. In so doing, this seems to cause us to go into different directions than we once would.

For example, lets pursue an exercise where we divide what we believe into three basic arbitrary categories: the past, the present, and the future. This seems reasonable yes? In the past we believe that people fought in World War II, or that John Kennedy was assasinated ro that you had bacon and eggs for breakfast a few hours ago. Now if we follow the path that the skeptic leads, there are basic questions we must answer. These questions fall into two categories: source skepticism, and radical skepticism.

So if we examine the simple “past” belief that John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 skepticism would first ask this how this belief is true? Now some of us may have lived in 1963 and remembered this event happening, watching it on TV and reading it in the papers. Others of us, arent old enough to have been there, but none the less believe this to be true because we have read about it in history books, or our parents have told us about it.

But you see, the skeptic isnt satisfied. He wants to ask if those elements of support of your belief are indeed true or not? In this case, our support of our belief comes from two sources: our memory (if we were there), or the testimony (and thus the memory) of others that were there. Now, how do we know, as true, that memory is ever reliable? Not if its sometimes reliable, or mostly reliable, but if it is EVER reliable. We could argue that many times we have taken our shoes off, or put our keys down, or drove home from work, and in each case we recall that our memory hasnt failed us. But hold on. In order for us to recall this, we are relying on our memory, which is exactly the things we are trying to prove. Well, what about my wife, who can testify to the fact that I always remember where my keys are…oh wait..that doesnt work either because she’s relying on her memory to validate it! This “circular reasoning” is invalid because the voracity of the thing we are proving seems cant be proven in an unbiased way, without employing the very thing we are trying to prove!

And we dont get much further with the testimony of others either! Why? Because as soon as we set them up for support of their belief they must call upon their memory to tell us, and we’re back to square one. What’s worse, is that we pretty much have put a dent in ever believing anything, reliably, thats in the past. Using similar logic, we have trouble with the present also! If we think about “present” beliefs, things like “I believe its raining”, or “My investments are doing well”, we run into similar kinds of things. We rely on testimony of others, or, in some cases, we rely on sensory perceptions. Now we actually wonder at this point.. can those be trusted? Are they reliable? Well, we fall into the same trap. How do I know what I saw is reliable? Well, I have to rely on memory to give me that feedback. I see a car coming down the road. How do I know that it is a car? Well I’ve seen a car before and … yeah there we are again.

Now from a pure absolute truth, it seems rather embarassing doesn’t it. But then that is the skeptic’s viewpoint, not really to make us feel silly I dont think. But to do two things: point us in a direction that we CAN actually salvage our beliefs (YAY), and two, allow us to learn something in the process. During this revelation, I came across what is known as the “5-minute hypothesis”. It is a classic philosophical problem, and one that you may have even thought of. This particular variation, is from 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russel. And it sets forth this belief statement:

“The entire universe sprang into existence from nothing a mere 5 minutes ago, exactly as it then was, apparent fossils in the ground, wrinkles on people’s faces, and other signs of age all intantly formed and thoroughly deceptive.”

If you are like me, this seems like udder nonsense. It flies in the face of everything you believe…and yet. Yet, looking back, there isnt one shred of evidence we can apply here to prove this belief wrong. Now before you completely give up on this, remember I said that there were things we’d learn. Well, the first is that we dont have to believe this, because thats really not what the radical skeptic wants us to do at all. What he asserts is that your beliefs commit you to a position that it IS false, but how in the world would you ever “prove” it. Perhaps that IS the lesson?? Yes, it is. As much as we try, we cannot come up with any good evidence that our most basic belief-forming mechanisms are ever reliable. Now I will dig us out of this I believe, but its important to realize here that we should all be just a little bit less dogmatic about our beliefs from now on!

However this still didnt get me where I needed to be. If you think about it, this line of thinking really begins to fall down quite a bit. There is an intuition in all of us to realize things that seem correct, and things that dont. And, I certainly believe that it is normal for us all the be skeptical (maybe not as much as the ancients), but there has to be something there in between. Many of our beliefs we can prove to our satisfaction with the most basic of things. For instance, a group of philosophers called “empiricists” claim that sense experience is the ultimate beginning for all beliefs. From their perspective, if you cant see, touch, feel, smell or hear it, then that belief is unproven, at best. Rationalists claim that the starting point for all beliefs is not the senses, but reason. But then how do you define reason? Maybe we dont have to.

Here is a case worthy of thinking about. Suppose you are outside with your kids. You see one of them hit a ball with the bat. The ball goes sailing with good velocity, and is aimed at your neighbor’s window. You hear a crash and see the window fall into many pieces. Now, what just happened. The empiricist can “see” and “hear” the bat hit the ball. He can “see” the flight of the ball. The empiricst can “see” and “hear” the ball hit the window. The empiricist can “see” and “hear” the window pieces fall down. But. the empiricist is sensorily blinded to the fact the that ball “caused” the window to break. So the belief that a ball going at velocity hitting a window will break it, isnt something that the empiricist can justify, but is something a rationalist can, because he looks at rational concepts called “causation” or “cause and effect”. This cant be seen, so the empiricist cannot justify it.

If we look to another direction I find a slightly different group of thinkers called “Evidentialists”. Now lawyers and, indeed, many of us think this was. They will certainly own up to rational beliefs, like the ball and window. But they want to know where those beliefs come from. Ok, thats seems reasonable. In other words, I will allow you to believe something, strictly based on rational thought, but give me evidence that supports it. Those things need to be either facts or evidences that are “self-evident” (i.e. no proof of their belief is necessary). evident to our senses (much like the empiricist), or some combination of both of these that can be logically deduced.  In essence, we can rationally state any belief, but the evidentialist says “Ok, whats your proof for that”.

It seems that many of us live our belief-lives this way (well at least partly).  But I can’t get around the fact that EVERY belief we hold can be “proved”.  I believe that I love my wife. Can I prove it?  Well, some people will say so, by my actions, but thats not “proof”. There is no sensory perception proof. In fact, belief in “love” isnt provable.  But yet we all believe in it.

So what I am moved to belief, is that there MUST be something else other than pure evidentialism. And I came across it recently in a proposition known as the “Principle of Belief Conservation”.  This particular principle gives us the reasonability to believe unprovable things, but also is rational enough to allow for our own skepticism.  The principle is as follows:

For any proposition P:  If

1. Taking a certain cognitive stance toward P (for example believing it, rejecting it, or withholding judgement) would require rejecting or doubting a VAST number of our current beliefs,

2. We have no independent positive reason to reject or doubt all those other beliefs, and

3. You have no compelling reason to take up that cognitive stance toward P,

then it is more rational for you NOT to take that cognitive stance toward P.
Now, this seems to be a very proper approach to approaching most of our beliefs I think. For instance, if you think about the “5-minute hyporthesis” we presented earlier, and apply the above Rational postulate, you’ll see that we get to the point where it is rational for us NOT to believe it.  There are 3 cognitive approaches we can take with the 5-minute hypothesis: we can accept it, reserve judgement, or reject it. But as you go through each position of the propostition, its easy to see:

1) If we accept the 5-minute hypothesis, it WOULD cause us to have to disrupt a radical number of our beliefs,

2) We have no independing or positive reason to reject or doubt our beliefs,

3) There is no compelling reason for us to aceept the 5-minute hypothesis,

therefore it is rational that we do NOT accept the 5-minute hypothesis.  Using this same logic for the other cognitive stances, we see that the only proper rational approach is to reject it.

 I will leave this with you for pondering.  My next pursuit is that troublesome are we call ethics and morality, or simply, what is good?

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