Epistemic Inconsistency and Lying About Santa

santa lieIf we accept the goal of epistemology, then we’re concerned with finding the conditions that describe when we should accept some beliefs over others. We look for principles of justification. In this way, epistemology is normative and descriptive; it gives us a thick analysis of beliefs.

One principle I think useful is called Ockham’s razor. Ockham’s razor stipulates that we should not posit entities in explanation needlessly. When the simpler explanation is possible, we should go with the simpler one over the more complicated one. During medieval times, there was a debate about whether or not the planets were pushed by angels or if God is so powerful, he could create planets that moved under their own power. Ockham’s razor would stipulate we should accept the latter over the former.

Now think about Christmas. On Facebook, I am waking up to family and friends all claiming that Santa came, yet some of these people are also philosophers and scientists with whom I would think find Ockham’s razor useful—if not true. These philosophers and scientists are placing gifts under the tree and then telling their children that Santa came.

For these philosophers and scientists, there’s a bit of inconsistency between the roles of parent and philosopher-scientist. If they ultimately thought that their children should be forming true beliefs about the world based on evidence, then philosophy/science-parents should teach their children about Ockham’s razor. When they do, children are faced with two competing interpretations of Christmas morning. Either Santa brought those gifts or parents bought them and placed them there. Accordingly, we know what we should believe since as adults we’re all in on the joke.

There’s a real problem in the United States with a lack of scientific knowledge informing policy and opinion. A National Science Foundation survey in 2014 found that of those 2200 Americans surveyed, 1 in 4 believed that the sun revolved around the Earth. More than that, we all participate in the collective lie about Santa. There’s no real benefit to lying to our kids other than the jealously we all have about their innocence. At that point, we might as well tell them that Frodo is real, being a Jedi is possible, and that their cousin is Kryptonian. These lies would at least be entertaining, yet what makes this type of lying wrong (and lying about Santa) is that these lies violate Ockham’s razor. I am not on rapport with reality if I think that Santa is real or that being a Jedi is possible. In effect, philosophy-science parents this morning are in tension and contradiction with what they find valuable (if they accept Ockham’s razor) on some practical or epistemological grounds and parenting.

Next, consider the ethics of lying. Is it right to lie collectively to children about non-entities that don’t exist? Without straying too much into religion, I will only focus on Santa’s existence. Generally, lying is at least prima facie wrong. As a deontological principle, the thought is we betray the rationality and autonomy of another when we lie to them. Under a consequentialist ethic, lying is more complicated because we could justify some white lies because no damage really results from them, and lying about Santa tends to fall in this category. Yet what if the harm is in not teaching children the truth about the world?

Consider again the NSF survey from above. Some Americans believe the Earth is flat, or any number of weirdly false claims about the world. They are false because those beliefs are not in rapport with what’s real, and one way to describe what’s real reliably is through teaching our children what’s scientifically accurate and in accordance with Ockham’s razor. It’s immoral then to lie about Santa Claus.


My Review of The Last Jedi (Spoilers Everywhere)

download-1Concerning The Last Jedi, I will spell out a few disappointments before giving my own philosophical take and embrace of the original trilogy. There are several initial disappointments.

First, I am disappointed with Snoke. We know nothing about this villain, and we were slightly invested in him from Episode 7: The Force Awakens. The internet was filled with speculation about his identity, how he survived and his relationship to the Sith and the Dark Side, and the Emperor.

Initially, the Emperor set up the Empire with a Dark Side theocracy at its center. Without the Force, it would collapse, and this was a theme Timothy Zahn explored in the Heir to the Empire Trilogy (1991) and other expanded universe sources picked up, e.g., Dark Empire (1997) graphic novels. From what I have seen of the First Order, the idea remains the same. Force-users hold the reins of power, and the First Order and the Empire are instantiations of the Dark Side where those reins of power become more than just metaphors.

Second, the Star Wars universe has developed technologies that have some rationale for their existence in the fictional setting. Weapons hurl energy bolts against other ships and we see turrets, turbolaser batteries, missiles and the like. When Vice Admiral Holdo rams the ship into the fleet, I do not think this is technologically feasible in this fictional setting. This tactic renders the very idea of modified freighters or capital ships with large weapons useless. Why build such ships and fleets if you are just going to ram capital ships slags of metal into fleet formations?

Third, when Holdo smashes the enemy fleet, the First Order had enough ships to encompass the fleeing ships three-dimensionally on the aft, port, and starboard formations. Much like the mistake of the fleet in Starship Troopers (1997) who clustered their ships around the planet to be beaten up by insectoid races hurling asteroids, the First Order failed fleet tactics 101.

Fourth, Finn is not very developed, and probably represents the most creative origin for a Star Wars character ever despite the writers lack of developing him. He is a stormtrooper brainwashed from birth who grows a conscience, and he obeys that moral conscience to flee from the insipid evil of the First Order. There’s some speculation that he grew a conscience in tune with the Force in some way. Notice Ren’s attention to him in the opening sequence, and we see him take up a lightsaber against Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. In both films, Finn winds up trying to flee from battles he cannot runaway from (a possible analogy to millennial feelings about being born and thrust into the legacies of austerity and neoliberalism). In the heat of conflict, he finds his moral resolve, but only when his friends are in danger. His only practical function seems to be to know layout of Star Destroyers, Imperial bases, and has an extensive knowledge of tactics. However, this is not a very impressive reason for him to be kept around. His character has untapped potential and should be developed further than he is.

Luke’s character rejects everything that came before. He grew wise to the hubris of the Jedi at the height of their power. Luke is critical of the Jedi allowing Darth Sidious to grow in power right in front of them. Luke is rejecting the orthodoxy of tradition. Such tradition breeds hubris and mortal certitude. Yoda seems to agree, and in rejecting tradition, Luke’s refusal to teach Rey looks like the right call. She already has power enough to renew in orthropraxy what Luke rejects in orthodoxy. Yoda reminds Luke, our students succeed and exceed the charges of their masters. That’s the curse of all masters. When Luke is confronted by Yoda’s Force-ghost, he’s already on his way to burn sacred texts and teachings of the Jedi. Yoda calls down lightning to drive Luke’s point home, but also in refusing Rey, the Force and something like the Jedi will survive. Yoda and Luke fade away in The Force Awakens to inaugurate new adventures. images-1

In Buddhism, sometimes monks will burn sacred texts in front of their students. It’s very easy for the young and devoted to attach themselves to the possession of a sacred teaching rather than focusing on the right conduct such teachings should bring about in those that study them. In this way, both Luke and Yoda recover a pragmatic and existential orientation to what it means to be spiritual, religious, and in this case, Jedi, and they see this renewal of purpose to the Jedi in Rey. Rey also seems to embody a more complementary idea of the Force than what seemed a separation between good and evil from before.

Rey is the cosmic balance to Ren’s raw power. Snoke reveals that he thought Luke was Ren’s equal in power, and here the Force seems to have chosen a nobody-Jakku-born spacerat to bear that responsibility. Rey and Kylo overthrow Snoke and in their cooperation, Rey pleads with Kylo not to go in the direction of the First Order. He asks her to join them, and she pleads with him to stop. Their interaction embodies the ebb and flow of a complementary universe rather than the earlier dogmatic black and white, light and dark absolutism of the hero’s journey me and those older than me grew up with. In some ways, this might resemble a millennial retelling of the Star Wars mythos from a younger generation that seems to reject organized religion for both science or spirituality. For me, this retelling of the Force is more Tao than the rigid orthodoxy of an inherited Judeo-Christian (Jedi vs. Sith) dogmatism (I’ve talked about this before over at Philpercs).

Like the Tao, Rey seems to be fluid with respect to the Light and the Dark. When she goes into the Dark Side hole on Ahch-To, she is looking for answers about her parents. In her vision, her image is reflected back in a nearly endless mirror until she sees her own reflection staring back at her. One possible interpretation could be that she has no parents, and that she may well be a clone—a copy of a copy of a copy.* Of course, this only holds if we maintain a very literal interpretation the nearly endless mirror scene. The Dark Side cave warned Luke about his possible folly. Another interpretation might be to figure out what the Dark Side warning is. Perhaps, she expends so much energy on her parents that she loses sight of herself—a more likely interpretation, I think.

The Last Jedi succeeds more than it fails, however. First, I like the more nuanced understanding of the Force. Today’s youth is more cynical, more appreciative of context, and the directors are capitalizing on these more contemporary (and sensible) attitudes. As a moral theorist, contextual details matter more than adherence to rigid uncompromising moral principles that oversimplify moral understanding and nuance. At least, this describes my theoretical commitments regarding morality. In Episode 7 and 8, the morality of the Force is not as dogmatic as in the original trilogy. In the original trilogy, Star Wars suffers from what Terry Gilliam said of fantasy in an interview several years ago. “Fantasy isn’t just a jolly escape. It’s an escape, but into something far more extreme than reality, or normality. It’s where things are more beautiful and more wondrous and more terrifying. You move into a world of conflicting extremes.” In fantasy, good and evil can acquire more poignant and manifest roles in everyday life.

The fact that fantastic fiction can oversimplify conflicting extremes is a reason why I do not accept Dan Fincke’s interpretion of The Last Jedi over at Patheos. He’s sees Nietzsche’s critique of dualistic morality in The Last Jedi everywhere (where in this essay it should be understood perhaps as embracing a more virtue-oriented approach to Jedis, or understanding the transition away from deontological rigidity to a more Taoistic metaphysics undergirding the Force). While I am sympathetic, Fincke ignores the metaphysical truth of the conflicting extremes in the original trilogy and the role that fantasy embodied rather than imposing our own philosophical views and finding confirmation of them in the original trilogy. We should understand the contrast provided by both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi and the ultimate philosophical departure concerning those conflicting extremes. We are moving away from those extremes, or at the very least as a culture we are seeing uncompromising rigidity and tradition in a negative light, especially regarding the Trumpist era of politics.

The Last Jedi speaks directly to Millennials about the uncompromising rigidity of tradition when Rose interferes with the Finn’s impending heroic sacrifice. Finn is about to take the speeder directly into battering ram cannon on the planet Crait. Rose flies right into his speeder preventing that sacrifice. Nearly dying, she looks up to Finn. She says that what makes us different is our ability not just destroy what’s in front of us, but what we find worthy to love. At this moment, the multicultural Disney ABC franchise is speaking to our contemporary climate, and I am glad they went there. So much hate has funneled out of the White House that citing the difference between love and hate is a necessary message. The earlier franchise romanticized violence in the oversimplifying extreme of calling for its necessity, and perhaps the love/hate distinction is this generation’s conflicting extreme.

Finally, we should talk a little bit about Luke Skywalker. If I were writing a roleplaying supplement, I’d make a new Force power and call it “Astral Projective Illusion,” and require Affect Mind and Projective Telepathy as its prerequisites. Luke projects himself across the galaxy, and everyone can see him. He’s not an illusion as much as we might think of a soft light hologram like we encounter in the X-men’s Danger Room. Poe Dameron, Leia, Hux, and Ren all see him. The illusion buys time for the rest of the resistance to escape, and Rey levitates rocks with the Force. Everyone witnesses her power and Luke’s power. The Force, then, is known and celebrated in the tale of Luke’s sacrifice again. Luke becomes the very legend Luke didn’t want himself to be.

Luke sees the Jedi complicit in the rise of the Dark Side Force Users. In fact, he stands over Kylo Ren momentarily thinking he should strike him down. This scene is told in three different tales borrowing from the narrative strategy of the Kurosawa’s Rashômon. In this Japanese samurai film, the same tale is told from three fluid perspectives, and this living fluidity of the encounter that turns Kylo and causes Luke to doubt himself eventually is a powerful tool. In Rian Johnson’s cinematic Star Wars tale, The Last Jedi is still a postmodern eclectic collage of cinematic influences.

*I owe this insight to the science fiction fantasy writer Casey Matthews.


Scheler and Vulnerability

imagesThe insight I find remarkably refreshing in Scheler is that values are given in intentional feeling. There’s no good (such as knowledge or friendship), person, or deed that’s not given-as-felt. Each good, person, or deed is encountered in terms of its value quality precisely because Scheler discovered the phenomenological reality of values resided in correlated feeling acts.

The implication of this view is that all felt aspects of experience and what can be experienced (all intended objects) are shot through with value. Like a drop of ink in water, the feeling acts always correspond to value qualities. For me, it also explains the content of what intuitions target. Moral intuitions track the feeling acts and intuitive content of them. They are given immediately.

Accordingly, there’s a hierarchy of varying degrees of givenness of feeling acts and values. The more endurable values are permanent, less transient. The more endurable values are intrinsically whole and less divisible. From these two working assumptions, Scheler posits that the highest feeling are spiritual feelings and the highest value is the dignity of persons given in religious holy values. That’s the contentious realm of Scheler’s more controversial claim. The really ethical implies an adherence to religious values. In this post, I do have a suggestion to rethink that hierarchy such that the religious and holy domain of values and feeling may not be the highest. Instead, they are just cultural regions in which values of vulnerability manifest the most. Let me explain.

Consider in Christianity that the Gospels contain an entire social ethic that addresses the marginalized, the poor, the unclean (as opposed to the Pharisees code of cleanliness). In Buddhism, our more natural and enlightened state is one in which we are spontaneously responsive to the suffering of others. What’s phenomenologically salient is that the absolute dignity of persons are given as wholly valuable, unique, but also vulnerable. Morality tracks self-other relationships and the various ways in which persons appear valuable simultaneously appear as vulnerable.

Religions, on their own, are attempts to address the existential realities of our suffering. They address what I call the aesthetics of suffering. With this in mind, the entire orthropraxy of religion consists of recognizing the vulnerability of the other, not just its singular unique transcendence found in the face-to-face encounter. Instead, Levinasian transcendence is undergirded by vulnerability, and while not all vulnerability can be eradicated (such as our mortality or suffering bodily disease), human action can contribute to or lessen institutional and intrapersonal vulnerability. We can realize more love into the world and foster conditions that can arrest willing exploitation and objectification of others that contributes to transgressing the other.

Of course, I will not get into the role religion has had both positive and negative effects on transgressing vulnerability and its history. My only intention in this post is to explain how we might reconcile what Scheler and Levinas find redeemable in religious phenomenological talk, and highlight (at the very least) what Scheler might be doing with putting personalist values within the sphere of the Holy. In a functional sense, it makes sense that religions are the place most responsive to the absolute dignity of persons. However, like most things, human beings are very good at exploiting vulnerability and “ruining a good thing.” There are plenty of instances in which religion is used as a way to gain advantage and power over others and sometimes it can be a sincere attempt to address the suffering of others.

From Husserl to James as Phenomenological Exemplar

wizard 9When I first started to read William James phenomenologically, I had felt as if I had discovered a strategy to reconcile the many deep tensions in James’s thought and this reading of James explains my departure from Husserl. I had come to Southern Illinois University to study Husserl with Anthony Steinbock, and in Steinbock’s phenomenology, I found also a set of concerns I had long attended to in my own private philosophizing the desire for transcendence in understanding God and values. As I attended his phenomenological research groups at his new center, seminars, and invited lectures, I discovered what Steinbock had already known. In Scheler’s phenomenology, both these concerns became one, and around this time Steinbock authored Phenomenology and Mysticism: The Verticality of Religious Experience.

I have never liked this book. First, it seems as if Steinbock ignores the very ontology of objects of religious phenomenology for the want of pure description. For that reason, he’s open to nominalistic objections as to what he is doing. Second, his caricature of ethics in that book regards ethical reflection as domain-specific, more applied than theoretical, and third, his descriptions of religious feeling were always too quick. He dances around St. Teresa of Avila and her work to even give her a fair reading—let alone the other mystics. He does that because his point is to drive home how mysticism is all rooted in a type of intentionality much different than horizontal intentionality. He uncritically seemed to adopt Scheler’s framework without again asking the question about the metaphysical status of concepts in that framework—which was the subject of my continuing reflections on the metaphysics of value. God and value were just given in ways that other phenomena are not, which sneaks in the supernaturalism of value into a spatial metaphor and then closes off the need to engage in any need for more proof for those concepts and their existence—let alone the biases of seeing the Divine only as the Abrahamic religions report. In effect, Steinbock tried to do too much with too little.

Regardless of the defects of Steinbock’s analysis, I found Scheler because of that work, and how the absolute givenness of the Holy was the absolute dignity of persons. Religion became a cultural mode of possibility for understanding how values were experienced, but it remains largely unaddressed in Scheler’s work (and what I found in Steinbock at the time in 2009) It set up more questions than answers and isolated some more tensions in my thought. Steinbock also once again uncritically adopted a Schelerian framework in his Moral Emotions: Reclaiming Evidence of the Heart (2014) as it adopted Scheler’s affective intentionality and value-rankings without explicit attention to the ontological indeterminacy of values nor a decent ontology of persona and agency. Again, the tension surfaced again between uncritically assuming the existence of what Steinbock described versus the need to explore and further refine the ontology of moral experience from what we wished it included. This is the tension between the everyday and unconcealed, the banal natural attitude and the givenness turned supernatural. In effect, Steinbock is religious with phenomenology, and this corrupted how I was both first taught phenomenology and to which I would then find solace in James’s thought. For James, however, this tension is out in the open in the very promise of his thought.

To this day, the largest tension in me is the religious and the natural, the mystical and the scientific and how these distinctions entwine with value within experience. For James, all of these possibilities can be given in experience (an unnerving point to the more familiar analytic work on James in people like Richard Gale), yet unlike Steinbock,, James is honest about the limits of experience. If something is given-as-Holy, then that’s reason to regard it as given-as-Holy. However, one does not uncritically assume that is evidence enough. Steinbock takes intuitive givenness as the need not to go further in ontological exploration. For this reason alone, we should see James a correction to phenomenology and to Husserlian and Steinbockian phenomenology in particular. The natural and the scientific are possibilities we can choose to relate and even experiment to see if the choice of a given possibility, a possible belief to navigate the world as a future rule or habit will be useful and facilitate our interactions with the world and others. In this reconciliation, I posit that the person is a set of dynamic intentional relations and to explore how the possible objects of intentionality will facilitate experience in the various intersubjective ways we relate to the world: socially, politically, morally, mystically, and scientifically.

Jamesian thought (and in this case radical empiricism) put the relationally concrete back into the transcendental subject I had adopted for the longest time. However, this move also opened up doors to how much of phenomenology do I give up when I open the pragmatic shutters. Is the transcendental subject now a methodologically sound posit? What elements of a person are rightly in flux, and what parts are not in that much flux and relatively-stable over time? Are there are any features of James’s theory of self that are assumed to be a transcendental precondition of pragmatic processing of experience?

For the most part, I see both Jamesian pragmatism and Schelerian rooted phenomenology as mutually reinforcing. Both possess a vocabulary of habits or functionalizing essences that activate in experiencing x, and it’s this process of experiencing various essences where one can make a fruitful synthesis between the two. Let me explain (or at least attempt to explain…blog posts are ways to explore thoughts).

Pragmatic phenomenology pays attention to how an object is given within the socio-political and socio-historical circumstance of praxis such givenness will illuminate. In this first move, what’s given is not a static phenomenon, but more like an event. In other words, pragmatism restores a bit of activity to the inertia of phenomenology. Since phenomenology is pure description of the act-object intentional relationship of consciousness, once description is over, the aim of phenomenology is over. On these grounds, then, pragmatism returns the inertia of description to matters of praxis and confirms in a cheeky-way why Peirce may have been more right about phenomenology-as-firstness. The phenomenon is not just given to us as passive intentional subjects (which I think is my problem with phenomenology on a general level) but an event in which the whole field of a person is given in terms of the possibilities realized through action. Concepts arise from this action (or interaction), and phenomenological description is attending to how the subject comes aware of how the concepts become constituted in praxis, not how they are solely given.

It’s for this reason many phenomenologists can become enamored only with how a phenomena is intended in consciousness, but never extricate philosophical wonder to see that as just one overall sliver of experience. For me, James’s repudiation of rationalism comes very close to reasons we shouldn’t be Husserlian phenomenologists (and also marks the reasons why we can only be mystics, but never adopting of one creed over another), though honestly that’s only in spirit but not a fair reading of his varying degrees of static and genetic phenomenology (a point I owe to Tony’s scholarship). Moreover, is this not the Heideggerian/Merleau-Pontyian correction to Husserlian transcendental phenomenology? Shouldn’t we get outside consciousness to embody and enjoin the concrete modalities of action to givenness itself? Phenomenology in an attempt not to isolate itself from concreteness sometimes removes us farther away from that concreteness than the straightforward honesty of Jamesian radical empiricism.