Book review: The View from Nowhere

The View from Nowhere
by Thomas Nagel (1986)

Objectivity is a distinguishing feature of intelligent beings, our ability to conceive the world not only from our own point of view, not only through that of others, but from an outside point of view that is no one’s in particular.  Our ability to see the world both subjectively and objectively introduces a duality in the soul.  For example, I realize from the objective perspective that my own personal concerns are of little ultimate concern (to the universe as a whole or even to the human race), and such a realization can be demoralizing.

Nagel has great appreciation for the objective view, crediting it, or at least the striving for greater approximation to it, as an important feature to science and ethics.  Nevertheless, he thinks the objective view, the view from nowhere, is necessarily incomplete and that the subjective view has its own legitimacy in a properly integrated human consciousness.  There can be no supremacy for one view or the other and no complete reconciliation, but philosophy can help manage the unavoidable tension.

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We should aspire to mediocrity

Half of people fail to attain average.

Life isn’t fair.  We would like it to be true that most people are good at something, that weaknesses in one area are usually countered by strengths in another and vice versa.  Hence the popularity of the stereotypes of the dumb jock, the ditsy blonde, the physically-socially inept nerd, and so forth.  I more often find that talents go together, a weak but positive correlation.  Of course, if organization A selects for beauty and organization B for intelligence, the average member of B will be smarter but uglier than the average member of A, but that’s not the proper comparison.  It may nevertheless be true, if unfair, that, for example, for the whole population pretty girls tend to be a bit smarter and vice versa.

When I brought home my first baby girl, I resolved to devote myself to her utterly and be an excellent father.  Since then, I’ve tried very hard to raise my girls well, but honestly I’m at best an average father.  The thing is, every new father says the same thing to himself, every father earnestly tries, and every father learns that doing right for your children is actually very hard.  The right thing is often unclear.  I’ve been sometimes too strict, sometimes too permissive; the more one fears one excess, the more likely one is to fall into the other.  The more one is alert to problems in one area, the more one is apt to overlook problems in another.  If I am an average father, then I’m pleased, because average is pretty good.

Like all physicists, I went into my field wanting to do exceptional things, but I clearly have not been able to operate at the level of my colleagues at my university.  To be fair, when I look at what they’ve done–in research, advising, teaching, and community outreach–the average physics professor is pretty impressive.  Then again, the average farmer, fireman, nurse practitioner, airline pilot, kindergarten teacher, marine, veterinarian, priest, electrician, or secretary in the physics department (seriously, they make the department run) is pretty impressive, when you stop to really think about it.  It is with careers like it is with parenthood (although less important).  Nobody wants to be a screw-up.  Everybody has a very strong incentive to give it their best effort.  To achieve average is pretty good.

Of course, there are screw-ups.  We’ve all known some.  But it would be sad for us to base our sense of self-worth on the contrast with them.  Then we would come to want them to be screw-ups.

I don’t think that popular entertainment–television and movies–does a good enough job preparing people for a life of mediocrity.  Sure, movies will often begin with the hero consigned to apparent mediocrity, so that he shares our own insecurities.  But usually he finds his secret calling, the calling that makes him successful and important to more than just a few.  I fear that some screw-ups have wasted their lives in fantasy from the idea of a secret calling.

One can have a satisfying life as an average man or woman.  Average means (or should mean) being able to make enough money to support a family, being able to cook well enough to feed them, being creative enough to invent stories and games to entertain one’s own children, and so forth.  Your children and their children will remember you, and then you will be forgotten.

It is enough.

Book review: Patriarcha, a Defense of the Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Liberty of the People

Patriarcha: a Defense of the Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Liberty of the People
by Sir Robert Filmer (1680)

Filmer’s great defense of absolute monarchy deserves to be known aside from its role as John Locke’s punching bag.  Filmer deals with a foundational problem in political philosophy and proposes a compelling solution.

What are the types of authority, and where do they come from?  Everyone before the French Revolution recognized parental authority–the authority of fathers over their children, as one type of authority.  Uncontroversial, rooted directly in nature, it is in some ways the gold standard of legitimate authority.  Then there is the political authority of government, which–while kings were often thought of as relating analogously to parents–was often considered distinct.  In the pluralist and traditionalist social order of the Middle Ages, these were only two of a bewildering array of authorities, each with its own historically contingent jurisdiction, all held to be legitimate by the fact of their establishment.  The Middle Ages lacked the concept of sovereignty as Bodin and his successors understood it.  Thus early modern political philosophers were left with the problem (which medievals would have regarded as misguided) of explaining who is really in charge.  Filmer’s rhetorical opponents are mostly the Jesuits Bellarmine and Suarez who foolishly claimed that sovereignty resides in “the people” who then delegate it to their ostensible rulers but may take it back should those rulers prove obnoxious.  Perhaps the Jesuits’ goal was to vindicate the medieval practice of recognizing all settled forms.  Perhaps, as Filmer says, the goal was to reduce the authority of kings to be benefit of the pope.  Regardless, such a doctrine could only encourage democratic rebellion.

Filmer ably demolishes the claim that government can rest on the consent of the people.  There is simply no way to get from free individuals to legitimately ruled subjects.  What right would the majority have to compel the minority?  Even if unanimity could be achieved, why would people continue to be bound with it?  And would one not need unanimous consent of the entire human race to establish a government?  If any group may at any time decide to be a people for political purposes, we must accept endless fragmentation.  If not, how can separate kingdoms be justified?  And how could consent at some time in the past bind anyone in the present?  If one says that sons are bound by the decisions of their fathers, than one has already accepted Filmer’s patriarchal principle; the social contract is an extraneous extra hypothesis, and Occam’s razor cuts it away.  Authority that requires consent is no authority at all.

Filmer claims, on the contrary, that there is no second type of authority.  There is the natural, paternal authority that everyone recognizes, and there is nothing else.  Filmer draws his historical data from Scripture and Greek and Roman history, but modern knowledge of tribal peoples also lends some credibility to Filmer’s hypothesis.  Start with a rule that fathers have authority over their children and older brothers over younger brothers, stipulate that these relations carry over to adulthood and that authority is transitive, allow families to grow and multiply, and soon one has a tribal structure.  And the chieftain of a large tribe has all the properties of a king.

Filmer also attacks the confusion, still popular today, that laws can be higher than the ruling authority and bind it.  There is no such thing as rule of law, although there can be rule by law, law being a means that subjects may know their ruler’s pleasure.  Laws cannot (and Filmer says should not) cover all unusual cases and in any case always require interpretation.  And while binding the king with laws sounds good in the abstract, in practice the people are pleased with the king’s ability to sidestep procedural justice and issue pardons.

Note that Filmer makes no claim that Charles I was personally the senior descendent of Adam.  He freely admits that monarchical power has been achieved historically by a variety of messy means, and that no one today really knows the proper natural hierarchy.  It doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that Charles’s authority is that of a father, and since the paternal relationship is natural, its authority is not ours to decide.  To give an analogy, we recognize that sometimes a man can become a father artificially, by adoption.  However, no man can decide to become a father as far as provision goes but not discipline, or vice versa, because the role of father is fixed.  One either takes it one whole and entire or not at all.

Filmer was perhaps more a man of the 17th century than he knew.  The great century of Descartes was a time of bold and brilliant (but often incorrect) simplifications.  Filmer finds that one can save the appearances of political theory using only the basic atom of authority, the father-son bond.  A remarkable achievement if the appearances are truly saved.  However, if medieval monarchs did not claim the sort of power that Filmer grants them, we may wonder if he has explained the monarchy or constructed something new.  And there is no mention of the authority of the Church, which is divinely sanctioned but clearly independent of paternity.

Book review: The Direction of Time

The Direction of Time
by Hans Reichenbach (1956)

Reichenbach died before writing the final chapter of this book, but the unfinished manuscript was edited and published by his widow, Maria.  The topic is our experience of the flow of time and the asymmetry between past and future.  The mystery, recognized for centuries, is that the laws of mechanics contain no such asymmetry.  They can equally well be run backward as forward.  This has led some philosophers to deny that causality, as opposed to correlation, is a real feature of the world.  However, the identification of causality with temporal succession is not the classical position, but that of Hume.  We pre-modern philosophers thus have little investment in an intrinsic past/future asymmetry, and can watch with disinterested curiosity what physics does to the concept.

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retaliation and inclusiveness

Jason Richwine, contributing to Quillette, writes

The model that says “government censorship = bad; non-governmental censorship = good” is not sustainable. I believe that free speech should be a cultural value for the same reason it is a legal right—namely, that an open discussion is valuable.  But censors will eventually turn this logic around. They will argue that if it’s right and good for private actors to persecute people for their “wrong” views, then surely it is also right and good for the government to do it…

In the long run, the rights of a free people are sustained not by laws, but by a cultural consensus that places real value on freedom. That’s why the “spirit of free speech” is so important to revive. Debate people vigorously, but don’t try to silence them. Don’t try to prevent others from hearing what they have to say. Don’t try to get people fired from their jobs or shunned by their friends and colleagues.

When responding to speech we don’t like, a useful guideline is to ask ourselves, “Am I disagreeing, or am I retaliating? Am I trying to persuade, or am I trying to silence?”

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Materialism done right: my review of Aristotle’s Revenge in one post

The original posts at the Orthosphere are here, here, and here.

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On divine simplicity

The classical theist says that because God is simple, all of His properties are identical with each other and with His divinity.

The skeptic replies that this is not possible, because some divine properties, such as omnipotence, are essential, while others, such as being my creator and knowing it, are contingent.

The classical theist replies that only God’s real properties are identical, and His being my creator is only a Cambridge property.

Does this reply work?

Certainly that God is my creator is a Cambridge property; it’s really a fact about me, or about the relationship between the two of us.  But what about God’s willing to create me and knowing that He has done so?  Those seem to be internal properties of God, facts of the world distinct from that of my actual existence as a creature.

I think the debate over divine simplicity becomes clearer if we introduce the concept of a state.  The state of a system is its location in the space of its possible ways of being.  State space has a close connection to classical philosophy’s concept of potency.  Suppose I have a machine that can act on its environment in either of two ways.  How to explain that it is acting in one way rather than the other?  Usually by invoking the internal state of the machine.  It seems we are trying to do the same thing with God.  God could have created either world A or world B.  How to explain that God in fact created world A?  Because He is Himself in state God-A, which we call in plain English “having decided to create world A”.

Classical theists do not agree.  They say that God is pure act, so His state space is a single point.  Does that not destroy His ability to act contingently?  Only if the only way for God to perform a contingent act is to be in a contingent state.  Admittedly, this is the way we usually think about beings behaving in non-necessary ways, but I know of no logical requirement that it must be so.  Would God’s actions then be reduced to bare, unexplainable facts?  Perhaps, but introducing internal states into God doesn’t solve this problem.  Consider, how did God get into state God-A?  Perhaps He just is in that state.  But then we have the a brute fact just like before; we have only relocated it into God rather than into His contingent action.  Shall we say that God is in state God-A because He put Himself there?  That is to say, in a very literal sense, that God “made up His mind”?  But how did God perform this action, itself a contingent action?  If it is because of the contingent state He was in?  But this would be a circular explanation.  But if God can perform one contingent action not in virtue of being in a contingent state–making up His mind–then why not just drop the step of making up His mind and allow Him to create contingently without introducing internal states into the Godhead?

The skeptic might object that this doesn’t work for God’s knowledge of His contingent acts.  To be in a particular mental state of knowing world A exists is simply what it means to know world A exists.  If we eliminate God’s state space, can He still be said to have knowledge of creation at all?  The skeptic will grant that our predication of knowledge in God is analogical and so not identical to knowledge as we experience it, but does this not stretch things too far, so that absent particularized intentional mental states one cannot speak of knowledge at all?  This is certainly true for cases we know in which the object exists independently of the subject.  However, it has often been suggested that God’s relation to His creatures is more closely analogous to our relation to our thoughts.  Our thoughts have no existence outside of us, and indeed there is no meaningful distinction between my knowledge of my thoughts and my thoughts themselves.

To put it another way, if we must find a home for the property of God’s knowing my existence, the classical theist would put it in myself rather than in God.

Some advantages of this formulation.  If God’s knowledge of the world is not distinct from the world, then that God cannot be mistaken is not only a metaphysical truth, but a logical truth.  There are no two things to correspond, so no failure of correspondence possible even in thought.  Similarly, if God’s willing the world to exist is not distinct from its existence, then it is logically impossible, not only metaphysically impossible, for His will to be frustrated.  Thirdly, we can make better sense of the believer’s expectations toward judgement.  The believer knows that in life his spiritual and moral state is objectively ambiguous, yet he anticipates and fears the day God will pronounce judgement on him as a resolution of his spiritual state, the conclusion of his narrative that assigns an overall significance to the whole.  How can God’s judgement serve this role if it is merely an outside opinion?  Indeed, when faced with a true mixture of good and bad, such as we all are, a truly wise and just outside opinion would not resolve the ambiguity but would recognize it.  Suppose instead that God’s judgment is not a property of Him–not a case of His “making up His mind”–but a property of the judged soul.  Then the sense of an intrinsic resolution begins to make sense.