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The Authority of Tradition = A Cause for Anti-Intellectualism and the Disbelieving of Experts

download-1As someone who calls himself a Jamesian before all other eponyms, I typically have and for the most part respect people’s right to believe whatever religious claims they want to believe. Given the limits of reason itself, I think the Will to Believe is the best argument for God’s existence there could be. For the most part, these claims have little bearing upon my reality. I get on with others even if they consider my non-Christian thinking blasphemy, and only sometimes do people really get self-righteous enough in thinking their view of the cosmos through religion is so truth-apt that all others most convert to it. We all know that Christianity has gone through this, and perhaps those around you have demanded conformity from you. You may be dissenting for scientific reasons and the like. On a whole, I am neither harmed by group A claiming Hinduism is true, Group B claiming Buddhism is true, or Group C claiming that Christianity is true.

Next, if I were to think long and hard as a philosopher would the world be better off without Christianity? I cannot deny the Church’s role in protecting and insulating belief with Aristotle and Plato. I cannot deny the role these theories have had on the lack of our scientific imagination. At the same time, I cannot imagine philosophy’s history without engagement with Christianity; it’s so constitutive of what philosophy came to be. In fact, I find myself being humbled by just how daunting of a question Christianity’s legacy is both to moral reform on some things that seem positive like the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Dorothy Day’s work on organized labor within Catholicism, and the feeling that these are sometimes more exceptions than they are the rule. Hence, my ambivalence to religion. Still, perhaps the most cautiously optimistic version of my ambivalence is to let live and let live.

Then, one moves to the American Southeast on the West Coast of Georgia, and one sees already how badly the students are prepared for academic study at a four-year university. They refuse the most basic scientific facts because they’ve not heard them, or come from such a cultural background that they are suffused with the belief in adhering to religious truth regardless of the powers of human reason. Conservatism and Christianity become bedfellows down here that normal interaction with everyday people is taxing along the fault lines exposed by that alliance. Let me give you an example.

As soon as people know I am a philosopher, they immediately want validation about either Trump’s politics or some type of science denialism whether it is epidemiologists and lockdowns or geophysicists and climate change. When confronted like this, I politely say, “Oh what in their scientific models do you disagree with?” I get strange looks and move on. It’s an easy out, but it also goes over their heads. If they caught on, then they’d know what I am doing. I’m exposing these science denialists to the lack of actual disagreement with what scientists are claiming. If it gets heated beyond that, then I say whose work? Certainly you have a scientist in mind that you disagree with. “All of ‘em.” That’s not a precise answer narrowing down on a specific claim of someone’s research. Don’t we think that we should be disagreeing with someone’s aspect of the work you don’t like?

Now, what is plainly obvious to me may not be visible in bad faith to another. I see spurious ambiguous claims. I see nobody bothering to learn even the basic facts of virology (or whatever science they must in order to make actual real disagreements) and what the media has claimed on behalf of scientists trying to do the legwork is often badly reported. It’s still there, however. You may be asking: what does this have to do with religion?

Down here, the political interests of the wealthy and the rich are inextricably linked to their cosmic vision of the world, a certain type of Christianity that sees the Earth as given to us by God and our right of sovereignty over it despite our best scientific findings saying how we treat it are harmful to us and cumulatively to our future generations. However, the demands of capitalism and God are measured only with respect to the present. Christianity becomes, as it were, suffused in the ruling ideology of the American South. The implication and effect is the most danger religion poses to human beings, the pure belief in authority over and against the democratic power of achieving scientific consensus by reproducing the effects of someone else’s scientific findings. Science can be verified by more than just myself. By contrast, Christianity has long since modeled its truth simply based on the revelation of prophecy and confirmation of miracles from the authority of what is written. People prejudge the Bible worthy of their assent and then consider the revelation and insight thus gained as the basis of knowing reality. They socialize their children into accepting positions merely from the respect of authority alone. In its very structure, Christianity (and many other religions) demand of people what my philosophical heart can never surrender. From this angle, the culture wars are merely the after effect of traditional sources of authority no longer commanding widespread authority.

Christianity instills the belief that true trusted knowledge can only come from revelation and the authority of tradition. Since scientific experts like virologists suggest things that are harmful to tradition – like our economic way of life – then everyday people immediately distrust science. I find this ludicrous to say the least. Denying the aid and help of scientific experts is to think that one’s own opinion about tradition is as equal to the work of a scientific expert. That’s very foolish.

The tension is even more glaring when I think of William James’s want to defend the everyday ordinary experience of religion with such openness so as to prevent the biases of learned men from contaminating the understanding of what everyday people experienced religiously. James came from a place of radical empiricism about individualist experience. You listen to what someone has experienced and you allow for that rich qualitative report to be true. He let others be and reported only what they told them. However, the question here is does James and my own Jamesian sensibilities permit too much of religion? Scattered amongst its benefits diamonds may be, but the overwhelming effect I see it has on the possibility to educate Southern minds may be entirely damaging on such a general level that even if someone were to say there are benefits of the Christian left or Christianity to motivate a modicum of Leftist change, such a modicum (at least in the South) cannot compare to the overwhelmingly damaging conditions for anti-intellectualism and anti-science I and my many professor friends have experienced directly in the classroom.

For the moment, I have adopted a practical stance to treat all religions like pieces of artwork. You may love Goya’s paintings. I do not know if they are good. I tend to dislike the dark hues of his composition. However, my aesthetic dislike of Goya is in no way a reason for me to refuse them any space in a museum. Following this analogy, the claims of religion, even from those I find abhorrent, cannot call for their censure, but must be included in the religions that make up our shared cultural space in American life. I’ve even tilted my reading of James to think this is a conclusion that follows upon the heels of his radical empiricism of religion. This turns all religions into a form of aesthetics (an implication not many are willing to accept). Now, while this practical neutrality is, I think, one way to ensure why Congress should never make explicit laws establishing a church or favoring any one particular religion, people in the United States often do favor Christianity explicitly and implicitly. It’s hard not to favor your own beliefs when most of the surrounding culture does accept them. The question comes in when we must think long and hard about whether or not we should maintain this practical stance of neutrality in our private and personal lives (especially as educators).

As a pragmatist, I admit there will be a time when the dangers of a religious belief may harm the experience of others. In cases of the alliance of Conservative politics and Christian religious belief, there are times when the two domains cross over in a Venn diagram. I give pause to that practical neutrality at that point. If socializing people in a religion makes them more inclined to accept sources of authority, then such religious mindsets may be readily more inclined to accept an authoritarian government that espouses their religious values while also they in honoring that authority seek to violate the practical neutrality to which we should all treat each other. In this way, Christianity never fully adopts the practical neutrality that an empirical philosophy of religion calls for. In other words, I should make the leap a bit farther and show that with the empirical philosophy of religion we should also think of aesthetics as guiding an ontological explanation to say what religions truly are, a series of habits, rituals, and beliefs that incline our minds to act in a certain being-in-the-world way; it is not a true conception of what reality is, but how we are and act in reality. Metaphysics is, then, simply a speculative conceptualization of aesthetic practices of a particular religion that some Christians call theodicies and apologetics. Two immediate consequences follow:

1. Scientific disagreement cannot occur since science reports about what is whereas aesthetics guides us how to feel and comport ourselves; it does not and cannot give us a report about what is, but only how one is faring.

2. Aesthetics are only useful if they give us some conception of how we ought to be. Thus, religions can be evaluated in just how much their aesthetics impacts the democratic living alongside others.

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Meeting and Corresponding Briefly with Ursula K. Le Guin

I want to tell you a story. It’s brief. The briefest encounters in life can be the most intense. This is the story of my correspondence and meeting with Ursula K. Le Guin.

A Wizard of Earthsea was my first foray into fantasy that I read in 7th grade. Years earlier, I fell in love with Willow, Krull, and every high fantasy cartoon out there. I counted it twice on the 6-books-a-year-sheet we filled out in middle school for book reports. Mrs. McCullough who filed these records away about the book reports we did never noticed, and I presented on it in 8th grade in Mr. Cavalier’s class as well as counting the entire Earthsea cycle. In Mr. Cavalier’s class, we had to design license plates about us as readers, and I came up with Sci-Fi Guy as my license plate. I drew a dragon confronting a night. The dragon was a mixture of the Magic the Gathering Card: Shivan Dragon and what I imagined Le Guin’s Dragon of Pendor in A Wizard of Earthsea to resemble. At this time, I am devouring the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, reading Dark Horse Comics, and spending way too much money on West End Games Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game.

After I graduated university with my undergraduate degree in 2004, I had come up with a magick system based partly on true names. I had envisioned writing a story with the metaphysics of it all worked out. I made up a system and then began to plot out the story.

The first part of learning magick consists in learning the names that summon and bind. This is called The First—the Language of Naming. Next, wizards learn the words of making and change. This is called The Second—the Language of Making. More spiritually inclined wizards learned from Druidic Ecomancers long ago there is still also another part to learning magick. This is The Third, the ability to listen to the unfolding unity of all relations and to hear in one’s heart being and intuition the language of naming and change. It’s in the Third where Balance of the Source is heard, where it breathes, flows, recedes. Breath, magick, creation—all relations meet in the stillness of this place.

Next, Wizards exist in three stages of complexity. Beginners cast with gesture and invocation of the language of naming and making aloud. Intermediate wizards spellcast with gestures. Lastly, wizards of ultimate power can simply think the language of naming and making.

I worried, however, that my magick system skated too close to A Wizard of Earthsea. At the time, I had only developed the First and the Second. The setting was Macamora. In addition, I read somewhere that if you wrote Le Guin a poem, she would write one of these postcards back to you. In that letter and poem, I confessed to a more Eastern mentality of spiritual practice. Even to this day, I go through bouts with the practice of zazen, and she wisely told me what I needed to hear that became my novel published last year. Her words for me were thus,

Dear Ed,

I expect that as you work on your system and as you embody it in stories, it will continue to develop—and may begin to surprise you by developing in ways you didn’t expect or can’t control. Control is in fact a dangerous illusion—as you know from your discipline of zazen! –In any case, I wish you much delight in your inventions—and thank you for the poem!

I wish you all the best from Gont and Havnor to Thoragin and Shard Cytol (Places pictured below on the first map of the world I was beginning to create that I mentioned in the letter to her)

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After that, the project of creative writing puttered out. Out of steam, I was working jobs, making rent, and living with Ashley before we were married. It was a time of trying to master Kant’s writings. I imagined of being a philosophy professor. Then, I got into Simon Fraser University’s MA program in 2006 and put down my pen to become a philosopher.

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Then, Ursula K. Le Guin announced she would attend to the International Writers Festival in October 2008. She was coming to Vancouver, BC! On the day of tickets, I bailed on attending Kathleen Akin’s morning Philosophy of Mind Seminar. I lived on Burnaby Mountain on the Eastern edge of Vancouver proper in a part called Burnaby. I woke up at 6:00 AM. I had to take the bus to get to Granville Island. The ticket office would only sell Le Guin tickets at either 7 or 8 AM. It would take nearly two hours to get there by bus. I trucked it on out there. I was the very first in line. I was not going to miss this.

The night of the event. I could not contain myself and in my absentmindedness, which as stereotypes of philosophy professors go is pretty true, I realized I did not have a copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. It is the most important book to me, maybe even to this day save what William James has written, and I didn’t own a copy! In haste, my wife and I stopped by Chapters, the Canadian version of Barnes’n Noble. I wanted one of the older covers to A Wizard of Earthsea. She had to sign that book. It couldn’t be any other book in the Earthsea Cycle. It had to be A Wizard of Earthsea. I settled on this book below. I asked her two questions that night (I will take those two questions with me to the grave as not everything personal should be shared). I told her what her writing meant to a young man with an alcoholic mother and what coming of age story meant. I can say a lot here; I cried at her. She touched my left hand and signed it: “For Ed.”

I did not write again. I tried my hand at a few short stories. They never became anything. Vancouver was about surviving an analytic philosophy department while having my heart in the completely wrong place–Continental and American philosophy. I applied to Southern Illinois University’s Ph.D. program, got in, got funding, and set to work on an adventure. Meanwhile, the map of Macamora resided in my mind. One night in Carbondale, Illinois I finally finished the outward islands and redrew it about the same time I was helping out with Carbondale’s Alateen Group that met about a block from my house.

When my wife got really sick during my Ph.D., I started to write once again, and picked up the story of Macamora and those places mentioned on Le Guin’s postcard (pictured below). Originally, the story was about a girl wizard who were the glamours of a boy to learn magick. The Archmage was called the Prime Magus, just as in Flight of the Ravenhawk. Some places like the Icetorn Sea and Zalanthas appear on both maps. Sunona the Last Enchantress made it to about 36 pages. Then, I scrapped it, regarded the dream of being a novelist and a writer as silly. On this map, which I still own, you can see Shard Cytol and Thoragin in the Center Ring.

Map 1

My dissertation and preliminary (comprehensive) exams took up an entire summer. I finished my Ph.D. in four years and more than likely ruffled feathers of a few academic egos along the way. Ashley was sick, and I had to finish. During the dissertation, however, I learned what it meant to write 61,000 words. The dissertation is a transitional piece; it’s the first professional work you write as a scholar and it’s the last thing you write as a student. The dissertation lurks in between. I could not have written a novel before learning what disciplined writing meant. Eventually, the dissertation and additional papers I developed out of it became my first solo book.

During my Ph.D. the system of magick still burnt in my mind brilliantly. From time to time, I would pull out that book and remember one of my dreams. Next, I would pull out old Mage the Ascension supplements and read them for fun. There were gamers in town, but none of them wanted anything to do with me. My emotions were scattered. I was not my best, but I got through it with the one person who mattered the most—Ashley.

Fast forward two years from my Ph.D, My wife and I are living in Cleveland now. She had taken a job at Baldwin Wallace University, and I had secured a job being a full-time youth counselor in Bay Village. The pay was abysmal but it beat being a scrapping-together-to-make-ends-meet philosophy jobs between Akron, Kent State, and other nearby universities. Then, this job did not pan out, and so I was left in the middle of Berea Ohio. In this transition, I started to write and finally put pen to paper. Flight of the Ravenhawk emerged. I made it to about 38,000 words and sent it to small presses looking for novellas. It took two years of rejections before someone snagged me.

As close as Ken Stikkers read my dissertation, Ms. Corrine Anderson did the same with the novella, yet she saw the book I did not. She pointed out missed details, story hooks, things to develop, and scenes that could be told. The novella went from 38,000 to about 52,000 words. The sequel – The Rise of the Azure Spire – is now at 73,000 words and is nearly done. After receiving her advice and a contract, I had moved from Cleveland and taken up a position as Lecturer at Savannah State University, an HBCU on the Eastern Edge of Savannah.

68750702_931720500511414_7294694058935451648_nAnd so it was that after 6 years, three scholarly books and a bunch of peer-reviewed articles I found my stride to draw out the map below. If you read Flight of the Ravenhawk you’ll see some influence. For all the worry, Le Guin was right. The story took on a life of its own. I have more races than Earthsea. There are a few religions and vying interpretations about magick that lend itself to the question of an Empire Building while also speculations about what nature is. This came out, largely, from engaging Robert Corrington’s work at one academic conference. My practice of zazen is embodied in the characters’ lives. I realized that writing fantasy is just doing speculative metaphysics but without the need to justify those speculations as one does when reading Hegel or Whitehead.

Map 2

I named the new world, Apeiron. Philosophers will recognize that this term is taken from Anaximander, one of the early Pre-Socratic philosophers. As with all the Pre-Socratics, we only have fragments of their writing. In short, we have other people quoting what they said, but have no works attributed to any of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. Apeiron means unlimited, boundless, or that which has no limit. Given that Apeiron has no limit to me as the writer and creator, it exists with no limits. As I comeback to it, even now tonight finishing up a combat scene, the world still has no limits. The name is fitting especially as a philosopher I have made decisions philosophically about the world, something I think Le Guin did with Taoism in Earthsea. For those who do not know, Le Guin wrote a poetic version of the Tao Te Ching and attempted to retell it in English. It’s not a translation, but her impression of its core, fleshed out, worked over, and shall I dare say—beautiful. Philosophy can infect even the telling of fantasy: another lesson Le Guin taught me by example, but not in person.

How has philosophy shaped fantasy?

The Elves are Emersonian about nature. The Dwarves are Stoics. Necromancers are that bad interpretation of Nietzsche that sees persons as exercising their will-to-power without regard to anything outside of that exercise. I have not decided what humans are and that relates to the question Scheler asked in his The Human Place and the Cosmos. The question ‘What are human persons?’ strikes me as it did him, so in writing about human beings fictionally, they are most fascinating and terrifying. In the end, philosophy and my own emergence as a scholar gave me the confidence to complete this novel. However, one cannot proceed without noting those that have backed him, my darling wife Ashley, the masterful Ms. Corrine Anderson, my editor, and the muse to whom I owe in spirit, Ursula K. Le Guin. I am sad that I never wrote her again, and that I never could share what became of those words etched into my soul like a Mindkeeper’s rune. She died a year before Flight of the Ravenhawk came out.

Thank you for listening to my story of my story and how one of the briefest encounters in word and person transformed me so.

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Randall Auxier and Radical Empiricism

Recently, I watched this video whereupon Randall Auxier made a claim that radical empiricism (RE hereafter) is a methodology only, suggestive of a norm for how to philosophize. It’s in the first few minutes of the video. I do not like how RE is explained.

While this is true trivially (not that he is wrong), if understood purely as a norm for philosophizing, RE looses its ontological force. RE’s impetus is a critique of other systems between empiricism and rationalism precisely because the metaphysical implication to pay attention to lived-experience is all there is. In this way, RE is both a norm, but more importantly a metaphysics of experience pure and simple–a metaphysics of relations. For James, its a postulate, a method, and a metaphysics as described in James’s The Meaning of Truth. However, this metaphysical import cannot be ignored as it is reinforced by being a method, a postulate, and a metaphysics all at the same time. 

There is good reason, however, to give the metaphysical side of RE some priority whenever RE is explained. Without the metaphysical import, there would be no norm whereas by contrast anyone can adopt any norm and be in the grip of it without the metaphysics. To put it analogously, one is not a Husserlian for the method of doing phenomenology without the implication of his later transcendental idealism; one is not a Heideggerian for hermeneutic method alone with seriously finding flaw in Husserl’s transcendental project. The positions are interpreted as rising and falling based on their metaphysical merits. In other words, the metaphysical implication of method is the reason for its adoption, not the other way way around. Likewise, one is committed to RE because the world grows, changes, creatures evolve, and our ability to know the world is also circumscribed by those same natural and evolutionary-based processes that are constantly ongoing.

Now, Auxier could be understood as invoking his own version of RE to which such faithfulness of its development in James is not an issue for him. On this, it’s less clear. Moreover, the metaphysical import of RE’s adoption may be entirely avoided due to the non-philosophers attending this lecture. Barring that these two intentions are not present in the first few minutes of the video, Auxier is misleading only in the sense that he underplays the value of why RE is adopted in the first place.

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The Inherent Tensions of Two Projects

Everything I write is experimental. As per example, I have read through the bulk of Brightman’s later metaphysics, Bertocci, and some commentaries on Brightman from the 40s. In doing so, I have been dwelling in Brightman’s personalist idealism for the better part of the last year. When I did this, I did not expect to be using two peer-reviewed papers as launching points for a comparative work between Brightman and Scheler. However, it seemed to me that these two philosophers were compatible in that each has something the other lacks. Brightman offers more powerful moral principles than Scheler; Scheler offers an analysis of intentional feeling that constitutes an element of our affective life that fixes Brightman’s over-intellectualized deontology. I am making a synthesis out of these two. Let’s call this my first project.

In this first project, Scheler is definitely akin to the early realists of the Munich Circle. To say that is to claim that Scheler believes that essences are mind-independent truths about reality that forces the issue of their ontological status. They constitute our mental acts immanently. This belief seems at first a commitment of method, yet Scheler is definitely against idealism. To read Scheler into Brightman as a personalist idealist is to smooth over edges and turn Scheler inside out. The price I am paying, however, is high since much of what William James claims about idealism from A Pluralistic Universe has stuck in my mind for years.

7_9The second project is a reading of James’s philosophy of religion. Initially, this book was about religious toleration in light of his very coherent pluralism. The book maintained that seeing pluralism in light of radical empiricism is the only true way of understanding James. Then, the manuscript seems to be changing to a more general treatment of James’s philosophy of religion as I keep highlighting the presence of radical empiricism as a way to get James right concerning his post 1896 philosophy. In the treatment of religion, James and I are vague, mystics, and there’s a contempt for organized religion for something a bit more process-oriented and slightly agnostic.

The two projects contradict each other. I am not an idealist per se, yet the first project is an experiment in trying to found the best version of personalist ethics between two theistic philosophers, which would involve an idealism. The second treats religion as a form of aesthetics and limits our ability to do metaphysics entirely. Instead, the Jamesian can only be an empiricist. In this way, I think of James as a soft naturalist, one whose only ontological principle is that if we can be in relation to an phenomenon, then it has the status of being equally real. Radical empiricism is, then, much like Marvin Farber’s project of naturalizing phenomenology. This is not a nominalism, but a processive realist (what I called a participatory realism in the first solo book). Relations are the only thing that exist, which can also allow for the irreducible complexity of thought and thing, subject and object, mind and world. These two poles fold into each other, creating one complex and ongoing dynamism that is never captured in previous philosophical frameworks before James.

So the only thing I can say with respect to the tensions inherent in the two books when placed side by side is that writing philosophy is always experimental. In fact, some of my pieces establish trajectories that future efforts undermine.

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The Journal of Controversial Ideas?

Philosophical ideas can have concrete consequences about how one is perceived in the larger profession. Defending some conclusions, some argue, comes at a professional cost to reputation, which can have some unintended consequences professionally and socially. To allay this fear several philosophers have founded the Journal of Controversial Ideas. The idea is simple. The editors have created a journal where anonymous submissions have been encouraged. They have an outlined procedure for this and everything.

Others worry that anonymous philosophy will be an excuse to argue racist or sexist ideas. Because there’s no consequence to views that are not encouraged others can say and defend whatever they want. Of course, we have to wait and see if that will really happen. The journal is now out, and the larger question is: What will editorial oversight will look like?

Still, I have reservations about this journal.

Part of being a philosopher is coming to terms with the ideas you defend, weighing in on a given problem, and putting your reasons out there. Putting your reasons out there mirrors the dialogical encounter we have in the philosophy seminar room back in graduate school. Back then, there was a pecking order and you had to experiment with the momentary or developed insight you were working with. Much like an art critique in an art studio class where everyone puts up their work on the wall for everyone to view, philosophers in graduate school to their post-Ph.D. world all do this with their ideas. Instead of a wall of everyone’s work at some particular stage, we write journal articles, op-eds, book chapters, give talks, and invite others to read our work. We risk ourselves to be put under scrutiny, and that only works if people take ownership of their ideas. In fact, anything less than that seems unphilosophical to me.

All ideas are philosophically controversial. This is a consequence of human beings being incongruent with their thinking. You simply have to own that part of being a philosopher.

Of course, perhaps being political with philosophical ideas has become more entrenched. As our social world has become more polarized maybe there are some philosophical debates that were had historically that we cannot have. Think about that, however. I imagine that if one approved of Emerson’s criticism of Communion that can have some consequence. Think about the consequence it had for him. Think about John Stuart Mill’s defense of a woman’s right to vote. Think about the consequence it had for him. I bring these two examples precisely because brave and good philosophical thinking takes ownership of one’s own ideas. Without that ownership, people can act irresponsibly.

So if you are a pragmatist about truth, then own it. If you are a dualist about mind, then own it. If you are theist, own it. If you disagree with classical theism, own it. If you agree only with the philosopher’s God or the mystic’s ineffable Godhead, then own it. If you believe in subjective morality, own it. If you change your minds about these matters because someone changed your mind (which requires you to write philosophy with a talent for being tentative and open to revision in one’s thinking), then own that too. In all of this, do it as you. James once remarked about the importance of knowing a person’s philosophy, it tells you what type of person you are dealing with.

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Why Michael Huemer’s Arguments Don’t Add Anything to the Discussion of the Left Nor the Right

download-10In responding to Huemer and traveling into the far reaches of Conservative blogosphere, I want to write as if addressing Conservatives–something he says Leftists don’t do in his most recent post at Fake Nous. While I will not convince everyone in such an address, my efforts are in the spirit of philosophy. I want to show how a logical reconstruction of Huemer’s characterizations of the Left do not succeed.

Laying Bare the Presuppositions

First, some definitions. In my reconstruction, I will not refer to SJWs, as I have come to know this label as a filter for what one should not pay attention to in conservative circles. SJW sets up the ad hominem poisoning the well fallacy where once that label is used, you are not required to think anything the particular SJW claims is true. Now clearly, you might say: Isn’t that the point of coming to the Conservative blogosphere…to receive the conservative take? Yes, partly. However, if people are interested in truth-seeking more than partisan politics, then avoiding fallacies is a prerequisite for reasoning about the Left and also my criticism of a philosopher on the Right. In poisoning the well, you have prejudged the premises before seeing the conclusion; you don’t even regard the argument as plausible. In meeting right-based thinkers in the Conservative blogosphere, hopefully you see that my effort is genuinely interested in truth-seeking. Let the arguments fall where they may.

At first, Huemer is very honest that he is not interested in seeing whether certain leftist theories are true. In fact, he is not going to play that game comparing his interest in that discussion to flat earth belief. I can only say at this point if someone doesn’t want to assess leftist claims as true, then one is avoiding a good opportunity to advance the cause for Right. In addition, if someone is not taking leftist claims seriously and trying to determine whether they are truth-apt, one is not looking at the evidence they do provide. It’s much easier to see it as ideology (I’ll show this is false a bit later). If one could very much show that there are no unfair political structures, that oppression does not exist, and that the normative claims of the left fail on moral objectivist grounds, then the conservative victory would be sweeter. Failing to do this, Huemer attempts to lump all leftists together in a poisoned well label of the type of SJW he thinks exists (SJA and SJTs). I intend to show that this is also guilty of avoiding a deeper conversation to which Conservative blogosphere should aim.

Finally, the function of calling SJW’s a form of ideology is a half-truth. I am willing to admit that both Leftists and Rightist politics are filled with people who offer no supporting reasons for their political beliefs, yet I also see why Huemer wants to avoid the various leftist theoretical claims. Ideologies are just blindly accepted. By contrast, philosophy seeks to evaluate the reasons and conclusions of someone’s position. For this reason, it’s easier to lump the complexity of leftist theories together and represent them as an ideology than it is to see their overall logical complexity and nuance. As philosophers, however, we have a duty to parse out the supporting reasons, even if they are implicit to an ideology and assess them logically. In effect, by calling these views a form of ideology, Huemer is abandoning the work we must do as philosophers to see the complexity present. Let me give you an example. A libertarian and a natural law theorist might find common ground on one issue as conservative positions. However, these positions are not just “conservative ideology,” and it would be unfair to think both approaches the same internal to conservatism more generally.

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To remedy the function of labels, I propose to use Left-based Theorist (LBT) and Huemer’s name. My readers should know that LBT’s are as complex as the many theoretical positions that underlie the right. An LBT may be said to have some of the commitments Huemer outlines. Oftentimes, LBTs advance the interests of an identity category: race, sex, gender, class, or other systems of oppression. Moreover, sometimes they have common interests between them and attempt to work intersectionally. They do so by holding certain normative beliefs based on overall theoretical assumptions and premises that inform those beliefs, which not all are in agreement with either the interests of other groups or taken together. Since Huemer is shifting the analysis about how advancing these interests work internal to other LBTs functions as an ideology, Huemer is passing the buck on the overall complexity of Leftist academic culture and thinking philosophically about LBTs in an irresponsible fashion.

Let’s take a look at what his claims are exactly:

For Huemer outlines the work of LBTs with respect to both (i) and (ii) below:

(i) working to preserve a social group (the ‘social justice subculture’, if you will), and

(ii) promoting their own social status within that group.

An Argument By Analogy as to Why Huemer’s Analysis is Bad

 This argument and its strategy are extremely bad for conservatives and leftists alike. Forget for now that I have shown why we should think about starting with analyzing leftist claims as theoretically true, even if we find they are not (or me with conservative claims). Suppose I were to practice logical substitution for SJTs and put some label like CJW (Conservative Justice Warriors) in its place. Let me reproduce Huemers claims (i) and (ii) for CJWs.

(i) working to preserve a social group (the ‘conservative justice subculture’, if you will), and

(ii) promoting their own social status within that group.

At this point, the very purpose of reading the Conservative blogosphere is simply part of the ideology machine, and Huemer’s own argument is an attempt to preserve the cohesion of conservative politics and increase his status in that group. Via logical substitution, the psychologizing and sociologizing motivations doesn’t do anything to advance our understanding for either the Left or the Right. It just trades in sloppy generalizations. Huemer is not interested in promoting understanding. Let’s see what happens when we practice this logical substitution for the same category in all the alleged forms of evidence he offers.

Huemer’s Alleged Reasons for Going This Route

Let us cite Huemer directly from his section of the essay Preaching to the Choir.

“If you look at SJT writings (which I’ve looked at some of), you’ll notice that they tend to presuppose a far-left, identity-politics ideology. They almost never give arguments that could be expected to appeal to a conservative, a libertarian, a moderate, a reasonable undecided person, or even a leftist of a different variety.”

This is problematic on its face since we do not know what Huemer has read beyond one example. We do not know who he has in mind to make this generalizations, and if he has only “looked at some of” leftist works, this lack of precision is not very convincing on its face. How could it be? It’s at this point he should be showing us how these presuppositions function. As someone on the left, I want to know that I haven’t made an argument to include those with whom I am opposing. One might wonder how to characterize this effort then? By coming to the Conservative blogosphere with this response, I am functioning against his accusation.

Next, yes somewhat on linguistic evidence. Academic work is written to other academics and not to be digestible to a popular audience. Some work is written in that direction and appealing to the Conservative blogosphere’s readers is an interesting rhetorical strategy to suggest that yes, academic work – left or right – is simply exclusionary due to its erudite nature. It’s interesting that Huemer ignores this as a tendency of academia and makes it about academic work on the Left more narrowly than the criticism could hold. For example, Kate Manne’s book, Down Girl contains very clear passages about why we might want to evaluate feminist commitments as true. It engages with clarity, so Huemer really only has one example to stand on here because there is good and bad writing on the Left and I assume the same holds true on the Right.

In addition to not really supplying a good enough sample of leftist writings, you are then told that LBTs ignore objectivity and rationality. On this, Huemer writes,

There’s a pretty good overlap between far-left theorists (including SJT’s) and people who criticize ideals of objectivity and rationality. I think rationality and objectivity are necessary if one wants to benefit society. However, they are not needed — indeed, they are a hindrance — if one’s aim is to preserve one’s preferred ideology regardless of the truth, or to signal one’s loyalty to a social group.

In this passage, we are not told again who ignores objectivity and rationality. We neither know how Huemer means objectivity and rationality or how it is that these far-leftists, whoever they are, ignore rationality and objectivity. This claim is so vacuous that there’s no ground apart from Huemer’s assertion of it being true. Moreover, since Huemer began with the claim of ideology, he can help himself to this oversimplification without supplying evidence for how it is true that far-leftists ignore objectivity and rationality. I mean perhaps you disagree with Michelle Alexander’s analysis of mass incarceration, but she does supply evidence for her conclusions. And again, she writes very clearly.

What’s more, let’s take a look once again via logical substitution to see the effect such generalization of ignoring objectivity and rationality would have on CJWs. We would get the following:

There’s a pretty good overlap between far-RIGHT theorists (including CJW’s) and people who criticize ideals of objectivity and rationality. I think rationality and objectivity are necessary if one wants to benefit society. However, they are not needed — indeed, they are a hindrance — if one’s aim is to preserve one’s preferred ideology regardless of the truth, or to signal one’s loyalty to a social group.

If you do not like the fact that lobbing around ambiguously-charged words like objectivity and rationality, then you may think, dear reader, that Mr. Huemer owes you and me more. Finding what I do not agree with equal to ignoring how Huemer assumes objectivity and rationality to operate at large as a basis for rejecting others is an odd strategy. Does he mean that leftists do not appeal to any rationality whatsoever like utilitarian reasoning or what Kant meant by practical rationality? Does he mean that classical Marxism is irrational, or that Foucaultian historical analyses of power don’t work? At this point, there are a few implicit premises that he needs to outline for clarity’s sake. It would help also if his comments were more nuances about whom he meant on the left.

This lack of precision of whom he has in mind on the left also dovetails with his charge that LBT’s are inconsistent with their stated values. Again, such a criticism only really matters if we can identify the theorist in question, not just pointing to some normative commitment like feminism and Islam and affirmative action. To be in tension with or contradiction with one’s stated values is a clear logical reason why someone should not listen to another person. Both Huemer, I, and the readers of the Conservative blogosphere can all attest to that. If you’re interested in truth-seeking, then you have to accept that inconsistency is either a prelude to contradiction or possibly pointing out a contradiction that needs fixed if the theorist in question is to be listened to at all. The same also holds for doing good philosophy, no matter where someone is. You need to know the who, not just some ostensible example a person on the left may or may not have.

Status Hierarchy Concerns

Yes, somewhat, I agree trivially. On the Left, there is the phenomenon of status-climbing. This matters not so much for the Left as also being part of any group. That climbing had to do with how medievally organized the feudal systems of academia are in general. Consider the following realities and status concern that may accompany them:

(a) the review of one’s academic work by one’s department, college, and deans signing off on tenure and promotion portfolios;

(b) the junior or senior positioning of faculty in relation to those who control their career and fate (this might be a reason also for scholarly insularity half the time);

(c) how tenure and promotion are handled at your university—given I was at a teaching-intensive HBCU, the metric for any possible promotion would weigh effective teaching more so than research output whereas by contrast Huemer’s position in a research philosophy department will weigh research output heavier than teaching;

(d) the social approval about what types of normative claims may be acceptable research and methods employed in light of the larger commitments of academic societies and the larger discipline I am part of again in relation to my rank as either junior faculty, contingent faculty, or mid-to-senior level professor.

My point is simply (a) through (d) would hold for any conservative or liberally-minded academic department alike. I won’t deny that these social pressures exist in institutions and academic societies. They very much well exist in more leftist weights due to the overwhelming leftist nature of academia, yet these mechanisms exist in all cultures, not just woke leftist cultures. Let me give an example with a thought experiment.

Assume for a second that the Fictional Society of Thomistic scholars was founded in the late 1800s. Imagine that they still met, and that some departments have senior scholars that are part of the Fictional Society of Thomistic scholars. This would mean that the FSTS is a proving ground for any younger scholar supervised by the older senior scholars. Given that this society is relevant to one’s work and success as a scholar of Thomas Aquinas’s writings, the younger generation must tow party lines and only engage in topics that are found interesting and approved by the older generations. You can work on St. Thomas, but not dismissive of that same power structure surrounding that scholarship. Thomistic scholars are on a whole more conservative than English departments as a whole, the type of work one could do in the FSTS would be narrow, conservative, and above all else perhaps approved by our fictional CJWs than LBTs.

So let me just start by saying that this phenomenon adds nothing new to the discussion about what to do about leftist theories, whether or not oppression is true, or whether or not some particular idea is true or false. These same psychological and sociological mechanisms for approval exist on the whole as human beings, yet it adds nothing to assessing the particular claims about leftist theorists.

Huemer gives us a few cases to think about with more precision than he has been offering the entire essay, but again, I want to add that they add nothing new. When he speaks of Democratic Presidential candidates appealing to their liberal base, Huemer is right. At the same time, however, I live in Georgia and I watched each Republican nomination for governors try and out-conservative each other in their political ads for the Republican nomination. Focusing on in-group and out-group perceptions adds understanding, but as far as whether or not LBTs are any worse for wear because of it is plagued by the fact that all in-groups have such mechanisms.

Concluding Remarks

Huemer’s generalizations are imprecise, lack concrete specificity, and tend to oversimplify the complexity of what he is targeting. If you’re a conservative and wonder about academic leftist culture, then Huemer’s piece adds nothing new to the generalizations already operating within conservative circles. While I would maintain a great many of these generalizations are false, someone like Huemer could have added more clarity for conservative readers because of his presence in the academy. However, he does not address these larger issues reliably, but trades in glib phrases, ambiguous charges, and cherry-picked examples. The function of the piece may be to confirm your own biases, but it will not advance any understanding of the complexity of the left. As a piece of philosophy, it doesn’t succeed.

As a piece of public philosophy, which may judge a bit lighter than doing good philosophy, Huemer abandons philosophical analysis and the tools we can bring together to solve problems. He writes about the insularity of one academic population and passes that off as if it were deeply insightful when in truth such social and psychological mechanisms operate in any academic organization regardless of their leftist or right-based ideology.

The most devastating angle of the piece is that by reducing the complexity of leftist theories in the beginning he can help himself to the charge of groupthink at the very end. In this way, Huemer does not want to entertain any nuanced claim or see it as true as philosophers should conduct themselves at all times, but simply critique the oversimplification. In short, he helps himself willingly to a strawman and then sees, perhaps, his leftist philosophy colleagues as trying to outdo each other rather than doing good philosophy one just happens to disagree with. This is not an unconscious mistake, but explicitly stated in the very beginning. By ignoring the rationality of his opponents, Huemer can appeal to you dear reader that they are not rational while also not showing you why such leftist theories are false at all. It’s an empty claim then if no evidence is advanced but only asserted.

I did not come here to convince you, dear reader, that I am right on political matters. I only came to assess an argument of a fellow philosopher. Hopefully, you can see that what needs to happen in the future. The ability to represent another’s point of view logically is a prerequisite for true understanding. The dearth of civility that no longer exists in politics is a byproduct of a lack of engagement and generalization symptomatic of Huemer’s commitments here. Some of us read the Conservative blogosphere, National Review, or The American Conservative because we are interested in understanding you. I am not saying you have to read things you disagree with as I do, but I am saying that the complexity of another’s position can only be handled by reconstructing and interpreting another person’s argument accurately. To trade in generalizations invites bad reasoning, so we should all follow this norm: specific criticisms for specific ideas and theories. When Huemer says that leftists do not argue or that they ignore objectivity and rationality, so we do not have to argue with them (yet they clearly do). Huemer does not argue against them either. He merely retrenches the divide and becomes guilty of doing the one thing he said the Left doesn’t do. A bit odd, I must say.

 

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Scott Holland on Whitman’s Radical Soul of Democracy

Scott Holland wrote the following and I want to put this here. It’s where Whitman may have received inspiration for his poetic religion of democracy. Since I have not read Elias Hicks, it may be worth checking out.

As a boy his parents took him to Quaker meetings to experience the rhetorical performances and spiritual insights of the preacher Elias Hicks. The teachings of Hicks reemphasized the Quaker affirmation of the “Inner Light.” He taught all had an inner light through which the divine shines. He worried the Quakers in New York and Pennsylvania were becoming too Protestant. They were becoming more interested in the proper practices of Christ-worship than in being Christ-like. Thus, he called for a return to the spirituality of the Inner Light which all have in their interior lives.

Whitman considered Hick’s theology of the Inner Light a mystical and radical democracy of the soul that freed people from churchly creeds, moral codes, and theological dogmas in the same way Jeffersonian democracy freed citizens from political totalitarianisms. This democracy of the soul and the state found very fruitful expression in William Penn’s Holy Experiment in the colony of Pennsylvania. Quite unlike John Winthrop’s theocratic longings in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts, Penn’s Quaker woods invited Friends, Mennonites, Brethren, Jews, Catholics, Native Americans, animists, agnostics, Schwinkenfelders, and Swedenborgians into the commonwealth in quest of the common good.

Holland, S. (2014). The Poet, Theopoetics, and Theopolitics. CrossCurrents, 64(4), 496–508. doi:10.1111/cros.12101

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Cracking Open Some Walt Whitman

download-8In light of distracting myself, I was trying to find some words of comfort not from philosophy, but from poetry. In the American tradition of Emerson, the poetic soul and the philosophical soul are actually one and the same, so I opened up a copy of Leaves of Grass. Then, it hit me. Consider Walt Whitman’s 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass. 

This is what you shall do. Love the earth and sun and the animals. Despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks. Stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others. Hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people. Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any number of men. Go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young and with mothers of families. Read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life. Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book. Dismiss whatever insults your own soul. And your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency. Not only in its words but in silent lines of its lips and face. And between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.

I love these words. Whitman’s America is one in which we live in accordance with nature. It’s an America where we despise riches and greed and are openly generous to those who are vulnerable and to whom in spirit we take our hat off to them. In welcoming all others, it’s an America where we create together (not afraid of difference), perhaps respecting the stupid and the crazy as much as loving the art they create. We should hate tyrants. We should not put God before this wellspring of egalitarian spirit to which such an idea may motivate us, and by associating freely with all classes, we may dampen or abolish the stringent boundaries of class between the possibility of democratic community. We hark back to Emerson’s The American Scholar (1837) and found possibilities for ourselves to challenge ideas in the American spirit that echoes with Socratic vibrancy.

Then, Whitman gets more private, talking about dismissing what insults one’s soul. We should try to live and let live. We should also not retreat from the world of the body where the body electric meets the contours of life and energy. Instead, asceticism should be avoided as a conception of public life is readily emerging in these practical lines. In the 21st century, we call this tribalism through self-reinforcing social media. In trying to bring us all closer together, the internet has made us all feel alone and finding company not with those that challenge us, but with  The private person is embodied where much of our own possibilities of action and self-respect emerge by loving ourselves enough to know the very contours that have shaped it and continue to do so.

One could very well speculate that the ethos of these words culminates in a wish for peace between the North and South. Whitman may have wanted a type of affective sympathy or transcending fellow-feeling such that what we find in one person may be found in all. Consider part 20 of Songs of Myself, “In all people I see myself, none more and not one barleycorn less. And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.” One might venture to say that the individual body electric’s own health and respect reflects in Whitman the macrocosm not in any religious sense, but in a creatively spiritual bond of deeply held belief in democratic public life, a type of civic religion. In this very civic religion, we find lacking today as the institutions that should serve us no longer do being polarized even against the advice of public health experts and the competency of the highest office of the land is found derailed by pompous anti-intellectualism of a TV reality-star narcissist. The body-politic in this poetic civic religion contains “multitudes,” the poetic realization of our shared relationality and vulnerability to which the power of democratic spirit can organize and meet.

So return to Whitman. Put down the philosophy texts for a change and if you will experiment deeply in the possibility that even poets can be read philosophically.

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Tenets of My Account of Ethical Personalism

Ethical personalism is a tradition with many contributions, and like all -isms, what I mean may differ from those grouped in this tradition. Mainly, I take my cue from the phenomenological and existential personalists. Examples include Brightman, Scheler, Buber, Levinas, and King. All of those listed eschew any formalism in ethics, so to put ethical personalism into propositional form and in essence “formalize” the position is a bit weird for me (There’s a reason why Scheler’s magnum opus includes the term “Nonformalism” in its title). However, the advantage is that we can spell out the major contribution this tradition makes in ethics, and why these thinkers had the insight right both about community and the individual.

Let’s call these the tenets of my ethical personalism. Moreover, I use the term property below to designate relational properties. A relational property P is never a concept extricated outside of time and space from being in relation to some other entity in time and space. Instead, Property P emerges in a field of relations R within the horizon of time and space. For example, the transcendental property of a person is always transcending finitude, an ethos of a community is always in relation to the possibility of true understanding of value from where it is actually located in the context of those situations that habituate how communities understand valuing more generally. Moreover, these relational properties exist as open eddies. There are currents of value that constitute our present field of possibility and persons manifest value into being because we are free and inhabit a world of pre-existing meanings we inherited. We are free to respond to those understood habituate evaluations and practices.

1. The Transcendental Property of the Person: All persons exist in a state of transcendence such that persons are the only bearers of ethical value because they realize and manifest values. In this value-realization may be said to be a type of power given that from possessing the capacity to relate as intentional beings (phenomenologically speaking) persons transcend their own finitude by realizing value that may outlast themselves. These values are then attached in relation to deeds, objects, and institutions. The fact is no person ought to be de-personalized and rendered into an object or should ever be treated as inferior. When people treat other persons as inferior, they deny the transcendental capacity of the person to act freely and create value. This is the core of any personalism.

2. The Interrelation Property of All Persons: All persons have their origin only in relation to others, and this establishes the ontological truth of a mutual interdependence from which all communities and societies assume for their possibility, even if they are in philosophical denial of this interdependence (e.g., political libertarianism). This property is constantly being created as we walk in our lives in constant relations to all others we come into contact with. It also follows that the others always have an absolute value of dignity because all others are also transcendental following (1). One defect of Brightman’s ethical personalism is that he has no principles for how values manifest in communities to which both Scheler’s community of love and King’s Beloved Community are answers to this defect.

3. Ethical Community Property: Given the truth of (1) and (2), the community and environment bear directly on the possibility of what the highest values can be expressed by a community, even if the community in question defy the true hierarchy of values suggested by Scheler and Brightman (and personalism more generally). Societies can only manifest values according to how they have habituated their citizens. As Aristotle understood long ago, the culture one surrounds oneself with has a direct bearing on how people can express what they take to be of the highest value, even if they are wrong. For example, a capitalist society might ask its elderly to sacrifice themselves during a pandemic for the economy. And in that society, an ethos of values are understood and commonly saturate the intersubjective and habituated understanding of values in that community.  In our case during the COVID-19 economy, the United States in Georgia has different rules for quarantining from county to county. Our elected leaders do not want to hinder the economy. According to personalism, then, we can see if the highest value our community values is in accordance with 1! As we find ourselves in Georgia, such a capitalist society renders the person substitutable to the interest of a mechanical society that reduces the dignity of persons for the economy. As Scheler put it in Ressentiment, contemporary societies wrongly find themselves propagating an ethos in which life values are substituted for instrumental values. We should choose to hoist up the conditions under which life is favorable for all rather than reducing people down to being cogs in the wheel of the economic engine.

4. Givenness and Rational Reflection Property of Values: Given that there are two sides of moral knowledge, I have since divided the properties the sides of phenomenological givenness on the one hand and the rational reflection about their possibility on the other hand.

A. Value Givenness Property: Values are given to all persons in affective intentionality, what some have called emotive intuitionism. In each feeling act there corresponds a type of value-quality. These values in relation to each other form value-rankings, and some are more conducive to the absolute value and dignity of the person than other feelings. There are no pure intuitions without being given to feeling acts.

B: Rational Coherence Property: When values are formulated into what we ought to do, further theoretical reflection can test our intuitions about what we ought to do; this is a test of coherence. In Scheler, our intuitions are given a lot of phenomenological weight. I am suspicious of this blind phenomenological authority of affective intentionality. Instead, values take the form of interrelated evaluative claims that may be, then, systematized to cohere together and their coherence then reflects the overall order of intelligibility about moral life.

C: Existential Standpoint of Agapic Love: Insofar as one takes up agapic love as standpoint in relation to what is given as valuable, then the hight values in A and discovered in B are possible. Love is not a value itself, but a standpoint occupied by the person in which insight of A occurs and it forms habits guiding rational reflection to see if the insight of A is coherent, thus applying the test of B. There may be other versions of personalism that do not require love cut all the way down ontologically into the person, but my version does. As all the personalists that serve as inspiration in my account are Jewish and Christian in the list of the tradition, then there is a common Abrahamic core. I also take my cue from King when he says that love is our creative power to restore broken communities. The more individuals choose love, the more societies may find in themselves the power to see the highest value of the dignity of persons on both the interperonal ethical level and in making and passing laws on the political level.

5. Deflationary Property of Deontological Principles: In recognizing what we ought to do, insofar as one can in principle say their action corresponds to the overall coherence of all principles derived from the rational coherence of the moral laws discovered in moral experience, then a person can be said to be doing the right thing. Many versions of ethical theory require a strict commitment to one interpretation of a moral principle, and a great deal of ink in ethics has been spilt on claiming this way or that way honors the insight of the principle in question. In my personalism, I view moral principles as deflationary since persons are limited in knowing if we have captured correctly all the moral principles that may be derived and discovered both by intuition and reflection about the lives of persons. We must also occupy a place of intellectual humility to be open to the fact that there may be better applications and interpretations of those same moral principles and shifting context-dependency must embrace Ross’s defeasability of duties. This humility is especially important as human societies evolve with many technological changes that are introduced faster than our ethical attention to those technologies can be anticipated.

 

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COVID-19 and the Problem of Evil

depressed man sitting in the tunnel

OUR PRESENT EXPERIENCE AS AMERICANS

Yesterday, 400 Americans died. The day before that 200+ Americans died. I am told the numbers will only get worse. COVID-19 is a festering wound. The United States is bleeding out. We are losing our loved ones. For this reason, we can all judge COVID-19 as unwanted and evil.

We might also distinguish what type of evil COVID-19 is. Unnaturally evil things come from persons. The man that orders genocide is an agent of evil. That evil comes from us. Next and like COVID-19, natural evil comes from natural processes through which we cannot control. These include earthquakes, tsunamis, and viruses.

How do we understand our cosmic position in life? Are these deaths and this illness part of some Divine Plan? If God exists, then did 400 Americans have to die yesterday? If God doesn’t exist, then what is the point of this suffering?

The fault line of this virus reveals itself in many ways. It cleaves between the overly-saturated Christian nation and those that cannot but pose the previous questions. Moreover, it does not follow that one is un-Christian for asking them. Indeed, a healthy dose of skepticism and intellectual curiosity can be empowering religiously.

SOME ENTRANCES INTO THE PROBLEM 

The type of person who doesn’t want to think about the point of suffering might just assert: Believe in God’s plan. In this way, the religiously-minded theist doubles down her bet that God’s plan is good. God is morally perfect. Therefore, we must trust in Him. We do not need to know all aspects of that plan. We must have faith. All suffering in this gamble is redemptive. There’s a point to it, even if I cannot see it. Let’s call this the faith answer.

For many of us, the faith answer answer only pushes aside the issue. Philosophically, such an answer is like deferring payments on a car loan. You will have this thought about the problem of evil in the future. For now, such an answer avoids thinking through the concept of God transmitted down to us in classical theism and God’s relationship to the present. Consider the following statement of the problem of evil. It’s taken from M. Tooley’s 2002 formulation of the problem of evil.

THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

  1. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil (including COVID-19).
  2. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists (including COVID-19).
  3. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil (including COVID-19).
  4. Evil exists (COVID-19 is making people sick and causing death).
  5. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
  6. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

Premises 1, 2, and 3 are all attributes of God under classical theism. To restate that point, classical theism holds that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and morally perfect.

Premise 5 is as we philosophers say, “Doing all the work for us in the above argument.” As a person, we have some insight into what it is to be an agent and act in this world. As a person, we have some insight into what knowing about the world entails, and as a person, we have insight into values enough to all agree that COVID-19 is an undesirable evil. If we as a person see it as such, then if we had the ability, certainly we would act to prevent COVID-19. God as a person would seem to be the same as we are. Wait? COVID-19 is still going on. America, Italy, China, and Korea have all lost loved ones and continue to suffer.

Premise 5 moves us into an existential quandary. The presence of evil in the world contradicts what we would do about it, and analogically, we cannot understand how it’s possible to keep believing in a God whose agency can do something about it. In this way, evil throws us back upon ourselves and cracks open the faith answer. We snap back upon ourselves in reflection light a rubber band, broken and alone in a world where everything around has lost its magic. In fact, the magic we thought might be there becomes morally questionable. Any rational and morally-informed person would never wish COVID-19 on the world just as much as one would never wish others to suffer other plagues. Through our values and capacity of being a person, we can call into question any alleged plan that requires such evil.

Existentially, we can be moved to atheism. Traditionally, philosophers like to call this an epistemic problem since someone might consider they find belief in God now unreasonable. However, compartmentalizing the problem of evil as an epistemic problem robs it of power. More than that, the above argument poses a challenge to how you as a person may wish to proceed onward in the deepest marrows of your existential being. A Jamesian might say, the problem of evil cuts all the way deep down into our will-to-believe. Your two choices seem to be between reasserting faith or atheism. Is that the only way left?

THEISTIC FINITISM AND RECONSIDERING PREMISE 5

Actually, no. Edgar S. Brightman showed us that perhaps Premise 5 is right. Wait a minute, Dr. Hackett, didn’t you just say that Premise 5 is doing the work for us and that we either believe or not. Well, logically that’s not entirely true. You can also look at the problem of evil as not only a challenge to the reasonableness of why we should believe in God, but also as a meditation on the power or capacities of God. The problem of evil shows that God might not have one or all three of those capacities to prevent evil. The problem might be classical theism. Along these lines, the problem of evil reveals a problem with viewing the concept of God through classical theism. The problem of evil says nothing about how different versions of theism can be reconciled with the presence of evil in the world.

According to Brightman, God’s will is limited and it is called theistic finitism. In this view, God cannot do much about some evils like COVID-19. In this view, God calls us to serve others and aid him in bringing about a better world where we confront evil with love. This view of God leaves Him less powerful than traditional conceptions. However, it is a logical possibility and one can still believe. If God requires our help in this world, then God suffers alongside us, and arguably, if God is a bit more finite, then God is more relatable as a person. The faith view might be helped by theistic finitism.

Of course, one might explore an understanding of the Divine that rejects classical theism completely. One such view might be that God is in nature, and that we reject the division between Creator and created nature. Instead, we find God throughout the cosmos within nature. Such a view we might call pantheism, and therefore the point of our suffering is rendered as sharing in Nature that is divine. I don’t know how one might understand suffering and evil with pantheism completely. I have not thought that through. Maybe, we might be comforted by thinking like Taoists. Philosophical Taoism situates all processes as containing a positive/negative binary as expressions of the unfolding complementary forces of yin and yang. These aspects of an ordered intelligence circulate as part of all beings. Evil is one complementary part of a process to what is good also. There is suffering in the world as much as there is joy.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

So to conclude, the problem of evil should be understood as giving us three options:

  1. The Faith Answer
  2. Atheism
  3. A rejection of classical theism and the speculative proposal of some conception that may avoid the problem of evil or at least reconcile itself with the presence of evil.

Many will not like my advice on ignoring the Faith Answer for the logically coherent 2 and 3. Hear me out. The Faith Answer produces wills so passive to the suffering of the world that sometimes, people who hold such faith with classical theism will subordinate their striving to an acceptance of that suffering rather than realize the inherent freedom human beings possess to surmount challenges, even if those challenges seem daunting. Nietzsche may be partly right. Such a person has a will-to-nothing. Rather than shirk back from COVID-19, we should see COVID-19 as posing an existential challenge to us. We get to prioritize our methods of care. We can freely think about how we might organize our response differently next time. We might even think about how much time and energy we might research about COVID-19. In short, we should not just accept the presence of evil and trust in God. There may be times where our agency alongside others should strive to be better and challenges should be met with our inherent freedom to respond to them.

Many will not like that option 3 is so wide open. As a philosopher familiar with the history of metaphysics and how religions vary widely across the spectrum of human belief, there are many options. These could include radical unorthodox theologies like process theology or theistic finitism. Indeed, there might be ways of thinking about God I have not anticipated in this short meditation. That’s the point, however. The problem of evil opens us up to rethink an old idea that might not serve us pragmatically as other ideas about God and suffering.