Welcome to the latest incarnation of Maverick Philosopher. This post will remain at the top of the queue to give new and some old readers an idea of what this site is and isn't, what goes on here, and what is not permitted to go on here. Like the site itself, this introductory page is under permanent construction and reconstruction. It will take shape bit by bit over the coming weeks and months.
1. Why 'Maverick Philosopher'? Since I am a philosopher and what is done here is mainly philosophy, it is appropriate that 'philosopher' be in the title. As for 'maverick,' this word derives from the name of the Texas lawyer Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870) who for a time was a rancher who ran cattle that bore no brand. These unbranded animals of his came to be known as mavericks. The term was then extended to cover any unbranded stock and later any person who holds himself aloof from the herd, bears no 'brand,' resists classification, strives to be independent in his thinking or mode of living, is religiously or politically unaffiliated, and the like. (Cf. Robert Hendrickson, QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, p. 473.)
If you lack identity, you are a nonentity. Quine's slogan ought to be emblazoned over every polling place in the land, and tattooed onto the forearm of every dumbass liberal by a method both Kafkaesque and painful.
The quotation below is genuine. I just checked. One can find it at the top of p. 116, first full paragraph, of Word and Object (MIT Press, 1960, eighth printing, February 1973). I slogged through the whole of it in 1974. Quine is no Aquinas. At his door one receives, not bread, but a stone.
The discussion of lying a few weeks ago proved fruitful. But lying is only one way to be untruthful. A full understanding of lying is possible only by comparison with, and contrast to, other forms of untruthfulness or mendacity. How many different forms are there? This post takes a stab at cataloging the forms. Some are special cases of others. The members of my elite commentariat will no doubt spot one or more of the following: incompleteness, redundancy, infelicity, ignorance of extant literature on the topic, and perhaps even utter wongheadedness, In which case I invite them to help me think better and deeper about this cluster of topics.
1. Lying proper. A paradigm case of a lie is a false statement made by a person with the intention of deceiving his audience, in the case of a spoken lie, or his readers in the case of a written lie. This is essentially the dictionary definition. I don't deny that there are reasonable objections one can make to it, some of which we have canvassed. We will come back to lying, but first let's get some other related phenonena under our logical microscopes.
2. Fibs. These are lies about inconsequential matters. Obama's recent brazen lies cannot therefore be correctly described as fibs. Every fib is a lie, but not every lie is a fib. Suppose you are a very wealthy, very absent-minded, and a very generous fellow. Suppose you loaned Tom $100 a few weeks ago but then couldn't remember whether it was $100 you loaned or $10. Tom gives $10 to Phil to give to you. Tom states to Phil, falsely, that $10 is what he (Tom) owes you. Tom's lie to Phil is a fib because rooking you out of $90 is an inconsequential matter, moneybags that you are.
3. White lies. A white lie might be defined as a false statement made with the intention to deceive, but without the intention to harm. A white lie would then be an innocuously deceptive false statement. Suppose I know Jane to be 70 years old, but she does not know that I know this. She asks me how old I think she is. I say , "60." I have made statement that I know to be false with the intention to deceive, but far from harming the addressee, I have made her feel good.
On this analysis, white lies are a species of lies, as are 'black' or malicious lies, and 'white' is a specifying adjective. But suppose you believe, not implausibly, that lying is analytically wrong, i.e., that moral wrongness is included in the concept of lying in the way moral wrongness is included in the concept of murder. If you believe this, then a white lie is not a lie, and 'white' is an alienans adjective. For then lying is necessarily wrong and white lies are impossible.
If a white lie is not a lie, it is still a form of untruthfulness.
3. Subornation of lying. It is one thing to lie, quite another to persuade another to lie. One can persuade another to lie without lying oneself. But if one does this one adds to the untruthfulness in the world. So subornation of lying is a type of untruthfulness.
4. Slander. I should think that every slanderous statement, whether oral or written, is a lie, but not conversely. So slandering is a species of lying. To slander a person is to make one or more false statements about the person with (i) the intention of deceiving the audience, and (ii) the intention of damaging the person's reputation or credibility.
One can lie about nonpersons. Obama's recent brazen lies are about the content of the so-called Affordable Care Act. But it seems that it is built into the concept of slander that if a person slanders x, then x is a person. But this is not perfectly obvious. Liberals slander conservatives when they call us racists, but do they slander our country when that call it institutionally racist?
Monokroussos and Lupu argued that a statement needn't be false to be a lie; it suffices for a statement to be a lie that it be believed by its maker to be false (and made with the intention to deceive). Well, what should we say about damaging statements that are true?
Suppose I find out that a neighbor is a registered sex offender. If I pass on this information with the intention of damaging the reputation of my neighbor, I have not slandered him. I have spoken the truth. In Catholic moral theology this is called detraction. The distinction between slander or calumny and detraction is an important one, but we needn't go further into this because detraction, though it is a form of maliciousness, is not a form of untruthfulness.
5. Malicious gossip. This may be distinct from both slander and detraction. Slander is false and damaging while detraction is true and damaging. Malicious gossip is the repetition of statements damaging to a person's reputation when the person who repeats them does not know or have good reason to believe that they are either true or false.
There is also a distinction among (i) originating a damaging statement, (ii) repeating a damaging statement, and (iii) originating a damaging statement while pretending to be merely repeating it.
6. Insincere promises. An insincere or false promise is one made by a person who has no intention of keeping it. As I have already argued in detail, promises, insincere or not, are not lies. Obama made no false promises; he lied about the extant content of the Obamacare legislation. But insincere promising is a form of untruthfulness insofar as it involves deceiving the addressee of the promise as to one's intentions with respect to one's future actions.
7. Bullshitting. Professor Frankfurt has expatiated rather fully on this topic. The bullshitter is one who 'doesn't give a shit' about the truth value of what he is saying. He doesn't care how things stand with reality. The liar, by contrast, must care: he must know (or at least attempt to know) how things are if he is to have any chance of deceiving his audience. Think of it this way: the bullshitter doesn't care whether he gets things right or gets them wrong; the liar cares to get them right so he can deceive you about them. More here.
8. Mixing untruths with truths. This is the sort of untruthfulness that results from failing to tell nothing but the truth.
9. Evasion. Refusing to answer questions because one doesn not want the whole truth known. Evasion is a form of untruthfulness that does not involve the making of false statements, but rather the failing to make true statements.
10. Linguistic hijacking and verbal obfuscation. A specialty of liberals. For example, the coining of question-begging epithets such as 'homophobia' and 'Islamophobia.' Orwellianisms: bigger government is smaller government; welfare dependency is self-reliance. More examples in Language Matters category.
11. Hypocrisy. Roughly, the duplicity of saying one thing and doing another. See Hypocrisy category for details.
13. Exaggeration. Suppose I want to emphasize the primacy of practice over doctrine in religion. I say, "Religion is practice, not doctrine." What I say is false, and in certain sense irresponsible, but not a lie. Here are posts on exaggeration.
14. Understatement. "Thousands of Jews were gassed at Auschwitz." This is not false, but by understating the number murdered by the Nazis it aids and abets untruthfulness.
When the president speaks now, few listen. He realizes that and so, like Richard Nixon, must add emphatics as a substitute for honesty. But by now we know ad nauseam all the banal intensifiers — “make no mistake about it,” “I am not kidding,” “in point of fact,” and “let me be perfectly clear.”
Obama is playing a strange game: The more he speaks untruthfully, the more he resorts to emphatic intensifiers that instead confirm that he is speaking untruthfully. In turn, Obama’s audiences play an even stranger game: The more they hear their president speak, the more they are impressed that he can sound so sincere in being so nonchalantly insincere and mellifluously misleading. When I first heard, “You can keep your doctor and your health plan,” I thought, “That can’t be true; he knows it can’t be true; and the American people must know it can’t be true” — and, then, I shrugged: “But he’s hit upon a winning lie.”
Many prominent liberals now consider verifiable ID requirements at polling places to constitute voter suppression. And of course their use of 'suppression' is normatively loaded: they pack a pejorative connotation into it. Voter suppression, as they use the phrase, is bad. Well then, do these liberals also think that requiring drivers to operate with valid licenses to be driver suppression in that same pejorative sense? If not, why not?
After all, to require certification of age and of minimal driving knowledge and skills limits the number of drivers just as an ID requirement at the polls limits the number of voters. But for either limitation to amount to suppression in a pejorative sense, the limitation would either have to be injurious or arbitrary or unnecessary or in some other way bad.
But obviously both forms of certification are necessary and reasonable and in no way bad and the discrimination they involve is legitimate. (See articles below if you really need arguments.)
So why do liberals label legitimate voting requirements as voter suppression? Because they want to make the polling places safe for voter fraud. They need people, citizens or not, alive or dead, to 'vote early and vote often' if they are going to win in close elections. If it is not close, they can't cheat; but if it is close then cheating is justified by the end, namely, winning. Or so they believe.
You won't understand the Left unless you understand that they lack the qualms of those of us brought up on 'bourgeois' morality, most of which is contained in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For a leftist, there is nothing wrong with lying and cheating if those are means judged necessary to achieve their end, namely, the victory of the Left and the destruction of the Rght. So they want as many potential leftists voting as possible regardless of citizenship status, age, or criminality.
You can bet that if actual or potential conservatives were involved in voter fraud, liberals would call for standards of ID to be ramped up to 'proctological' levels.
What I have just done is explain why liberals maintain the absurd view they maintain. It is perfectly comprehensible once you grasp that the point is to enable voter fraud. The arguments why their view is untenable are found in the some of the articles listed below.
It would be nice to be able to expect from popes and presidents a bit of gravitas, a modicum of seriousness, when they are instantiating their institutional roles. What they do after hours is not our business. So Pope Francis' clowning around does not inspire respect, any more than President Clinton's answering the question about his underwear. Remember that one? Boxers or briefs? He answered the question! All he had to do was calmly state, without mounting a high horse, "That is not a question that one asks the president of the United States." And now we have the Orwellian Prevaricator himself in the White House, Barack Hussein Obama, whose latest Orwellian idiocy is that Big Government is the problem, not him, even though he is the the poster boy, the standard bearer, like unto no one before him in U. S. history, of Big Government!
But I digress. Here are a couple of important points in rebuttal of Francis (emphasis added):
To begin, we note that “trickle-down” economics is a caricature used by capitalism’s critics and not its defenders. Those of us who embrace free markets do so not out of a belief that the breadcrumbs of affluence will eventually reach those less well-off, but, rather, out of a conviction that the free market is the best mechanism for increasing wealth at all levels. As for being confirmed by the facts, we believe the empirical evidence is conclusive. Compare the two sides of Germany during the era of the Berlin Wall or the China of today with the China that hadn’t yet embraced an (admittedly imperfect) form of capitalism. The results are not ambiguous.
To this I would add that it is a mistake to confuse material inequality with poverty. Which is better: everyone being equal but poor, or inequality that makes 'the poor' better off than they would have been been without the inequality? Clearly, the second. After all, there is nothing morally objectionable about inequality as such. Or do you think that there is a problem with my net worth's being considerably less than Bill Gates'? There is nothing wrong with inequality as such; considerations of right and wrong kick in only when there is doubt about the legality or morality of the means by which the wealth was acquired. My net worth exceeds that of a lot of people from a similar background, but that merely reflects the fact that I practice the old virtues of frugality, etc., avoid the vices that impoverish, and make good use of my talents. I know how to save, invest, and defer gratification. I know how to control my appetites. The relative wealth that results puts me in a position to help other people, by charitable giving, by hiring them, and by paying taxes that fund welfare programs and 'entitlements.' When is the last time a poor person gave someone a job, or made a charitable contribution? And how much tax do they pay? There are makers and takers, and you can't be a giver unless you are a maker, any more than you can be a taker if there are no givers. So, far from inequality being the same as poverty or causing poverty, it lessens poverty, both by providing jobs and via charity, not to mention the 'entitlement' and welfare programs that are funded by taxes paid by the productive.
You don't like the fact that someone has more than you? Then you are guilty of the sin of envy. And I think that Francis is aware that envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Here is a question for socialists, redistributionists, collectivists, Obaminators: Is your redistributionism merely an expression of envy? I am not claiming that envy is at the root of socialism. That is no more the case than that greed (also on the list of Seven Deadlies) is at the root of capitalism. But it is the case that some socialists are drawn to socialism because of their uncontrollable envy, a thoroughly destructive vice.
There’s a more fundamental misunderstanding at work here, however. When Francis talks about “economic power,” he misapprehends a fundamental aspect of free markets – they only provide power consensually. Apart from government, no one can force you to buy a product or purchase a service. There’s a similar error in his citation of Saint John Chrysostom’s aphorism: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood.” The economics of capitalism are not zero-sum. Trade only occurs when both sides are made better off by the transaction. The wealthy don’t get rich at the expense of the poor.
Lefties hate business and especially big corporations. I give the latter no pass if they do wrong or violate reasonable regulations. But has Apple or Microsoft ever incarcerated anyone, or put anyone to death, or started a shooting war, or forced anyone to buy anything or to violate his conscience as the Obama administration is doing via its signature abomination, Obamacare?
On the other hand, did the government provide me with the iPad Air I just bought? You didn't build that, Obama! Not you, not your government, not any government. High tech does not come from politicians or lawyers, two classes that are nearly the same -- yet another problem to be addressed in due course.
Be intellectually honest, you lefties. Don't turn a blind eye to the depredations of Big Government while excoriating (sometimes legitimately) those of Big Business.
Some object to the popular 'Obamacare' label given that the official title of the law is 'Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act' or, as commonly truncated, 'Affordable Care Act.' But there is a good reason to favor the popular moniker: it is descriptive where the other two labels are evaluative, expressing as they do a pro attitude toward the bill.
Will the law really protect patients? That is an evaluative judgment based on projections many regard as flimsy. Will the law really make health care affordable? And for whom? Will care mandated for all be readily available and of high quality?
Everybody wants affordable and readily available health care of high quality for the greatest number possible. Note the three qualifiers: affordable, readily available, high quality. The question is how best to attain this end. The 'Affordable Care Act' label begs the question as to whether or not Obama's bill will achieve the desired end. 'Obamacare' does not. It is, if not all that descriptive, at least evaluatively neutral.
If Obama's proposal were referred to as "Socialized Medicine Health Care Act' or 'Another Step Toward the Nanny State Act,' people would protest the negative evaluations embedded in the titles. Titles of bills ought to be neutral.
So, if you are rational, you will not find anything derogatory about 'Obamacare.' But liberals are not known for being particularly rational. But they are known for playing the the race card in spades. (See my Race category for plenty of examples.) And if the liberal in questions hosts for that toxic leftist outlet, MSNBC, then 'morally obnoxious' can be added to the description. So the following comes as no particular surprise:
MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry went off on a tangent in a recent broadcast, ranting about the racist overtones of a word that’s been used for years by both sides of the political aisle — Obamacare.
“I want to talk today about a controversial word,” she said, as FrontPageMag.com reported. “It’s a word that’s been with us for years. And like it or not, it’s indelibly printed in the pages of America history. A word that was originally intended as a derogatory term, meant to shame and divide and demean. The word was conceived by a group of wealthy white men who needed a way to put themselves above and apart from a black man — to render him inferior and unequal and diminish his accomplishments.”
Slanderous and delusional.
So the question arises once again: Can one be both a liberal and a decent and sane human being? Or is scumbaggery as it were inscribed into the very marrow of the contemporary liberal? Or perhaps it is more like this: once liberalism infects a person's mind, the decency that was there is flushed out. Need an example? Try Martin Bashir on for size. Or Keith Olbermann. (At the end of the hyperlink I defend Dennis Prager against Olbermann's vicious and stupid attack.)
I suppose I should say at least one good thing about MSNBC: both of the these leftist scumbags got the axe.
By the way, 'scumbag' is a derogatory word and is intended as such. But you knew that already. It is important to give leftists a taste of their own medicine in the perhaps forlorn hope that someday, just maybe, they will see the error of their ways and learn how to be civil. Civility is for the civil, not for assholes. 'Assholicity' for assholes.
It is simply a fact about human nature that few are able to make good use of free time, 'leisure' time. Provide them with it and they 'go to seed' in no time, following the path of least resistance ever downward. The classical concept of leisure. not to be confused with 'leisure,' as the former is explained by Josef Pieper in his Leisure: The Basis of Culture is not understood and few have the self-discipline nowadays to live a life that is leisurely in the classical sense. What we can expect thanks to Obama and his ever-increasing infantilization of the populace via his promotion of welfare dependency and 'free' health care is more social pathology, more tattoos, more drug use, more mindless texting and sexting and high-tech time-wasting. As the government grows bigger, the citizen grows smaller, weaker, and less self-reliant so that he needs ever more government to feed, clothe, shelter, and wipe his butt for him, the mediating institutions of civil society (see article below) having been weakened if not destroyed by big government and its liberal-fascist initiatives.
It is now a requirement of Obamacare that every Catholic institution larger than a single church — and even including some single churches — must pay for contraceptives, sterilization, and morning-after abortifacients for its employees. Each of these is directly contrary to the Catholic faith. But the Obama administration does not care. They have said, in effect, Do what we tell you — or else.
If that isn't liberal fascism, what would be? Now I can't expect a morally obtuse liberal to appreciate what is wrong wth the killing of innocent human beings who just happen to be prenatal, but you would think that liberals, of all people, would understand what is wrong with forcing people to support what they, in their serious and deeply considered judgment, consider to be a grave moral evil.
“Work” and “purpose” are intimately connected: Researchers at the University of Michigan, for example, found that welfare payments make one unhappier than a modest income honestly earned and used to provide for one’s family. “It drains too much of the life from life,” said Charles Murray in a speech in 2009. “And that statement applies as much to the lives of janitors – even more to the lives of janitors – as it does to the lives of CEOs.” Self-reliance – “work” – is intimately connected to human dignity – “purpose.”
So what does every initiative of the Obama era have in common? Obamacare, Obamaphones, Social Security disability expansion, 50 million people on food stamps. The assumption is that mass, multigenerational dependency is now a permanent feature of life. A coastal elite will devise ever-smarter and slicker trinkets, and pretty much everyone else will be either a member of the dependency class or the vast bureaucracy that ministers to them. And, if you’re wondering why every Big Government program assumes you’re a feeble child, that’s because a citizenry without “work and purpose” is ultimately incompatible with liberty. The elites think a smart society will be wealthy enough to relieve the masses from the need to work. In reality, it would be neofeudal, but with fatter, sicker peasants. It wouldn’t just be “economic inequality,” but a far more profound kind, and seething with resentments.
One wouldn’t expect the governing class to be as farsighted as visionaries like Bezos. But it’s hard to be visionary if you’re pointing in the wrong direction. Which is why the signature achievement of Obama’s “hope and change” combines 1940s British public health theories with 1970s Soviet supermarket delivery systems. But don’t worry: Maybe one day soon, your needle-exchange clinic will be able to deliver by drone. Look out below.
William Sloane Coffin has this to say on p. 56 of Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004): "We cannot legislate morality, only the conditions conducive to morality." To combine three serious mistakes in one short sentence is quite a trick.
First, since we do legislate morality, it follows that we can.
Second, if Coffin is saying that we ought not legislate morality, then he is saying that we ought not have laws, since all laws legislate morality.
Third, it is false that we can legislate the conditions conducive to morality. Among the conditions of morality (moral behavior) are freedom of the will and knowledge of right and wrong and of their difference. Obviously these things fall outside of the scope of legislation. What Coffin wants to say is that we can only legislate certain conditions external to the agent, which, if they were to obtain, would lead to morally correct behavior. Well, nothing can lead to, in the sense of determine, morally correct behavior since free will is involved; but I grant that if everyone had a well-paying job that would reduce the incidence of crime. Unfortunately, the government cannot legislate jobs into existence.
In the same paragraph, we read this amazing sentence: "Economics are [sic] not a science; they [sic] are only politics in disguise." Is this to say that economic phenomena (buying, selling, bartering, etc.) are really political phenomena? That is obviously false: there could be economic phenomena even if there were no state (polis). Is it to say that economics as the study of economic phenomena is reallyjust political science? That too is plainly false. Perhaps Coffin is merely making the trivial point that economic pronouncements are liable to be influenced by political considerations. If that is what he means, he should say it instead of saying something idiotic.
I am sorry to have to report that his book is filled with similar nonsense.
Obama's electoral success is truly a remarkable commentary on the goodness of the American people. A 2008 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reported "that 17 percent were enthusiastic about Obama being the first African American President, 70 percent were comfortable or indifferent, and 13 percent had reservations or were uncomfortable." I'm 77 years old. For almost all of my life, a black's becoming the president of the United States was at best a pipe dream. Obama's electoral success further confirms what I've often held: The civil rights struggle in America is over, and it's won. At one time, black Americans did not have the constitutional guarantees enjoyed by white Americans; now we do. The fact that the civil rights struggle is over and won does not mean that there are not major problems confronting many members of the black community, but they are not civil rights problems and have little or nothing to do with racial discrimination.
There is every indication to suggest that Obama's presidency will be seen as a failure similar to that of Jimmy Carter's. That's bad news for the nation but especially bad news for black Americans. No white presidential candidate had to live down the disgraced presidency of Carter, but I'm all too fearful that a future black presidential candidate will find himself carrying the heavy baggage of a failed black president. That's not a problem for white liberals who voted for Obama -- they received their one-time guilt-relieving dose from voting for a black man to be president -- but it is a problem for future generations of black Americans. But there's one excuse black people can make; we can claim that Obama is not an authentic black person but, as The New York Times might call him, a white black person.
We humans naturally philosophize. But we don't naturally philosophize well. So when science journalists and scientists try their hands at it they often make a mess of it. (See my Scientism category for plenty of examples.) This is why there is need of the institutionalized discipline of philosophy one of whose chief offices is the exposure and debunking of bad philosophy and pseudo-philosophy of the sort exhibited in so many 'scientific' articles. Although it would be a grave mistake to think that the value of philosophy resides in its social utility, philosophy does earn its social keep in its critical and debunking function. But now on to the topic.
Is there extraterrestrial life?
To answer this question, one would have to have at least a rough idea of what counts as living and what counts as nonliving. For example, "A working definition lately used by NASA is that 'life is a self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution.'"
In a recent Scientific American article, Why Life Does not Really Exist, problems with the NASA definition are pointed out. I won't try to evaluate the putative counterexamples the author adduces, but simply assume that the NASA definition is not adequate. Indeed, I will assume something even stronger, namely, that no adequate definition is available, no razor-sharp definition, no set of properties that all and only living things possess, no set of properties that cleanly demarcates the animate from the inanimate, and is impervious to counterexample.
Supposing that is so, what could explain it? According to the Scientific American article (emphasis added) what explains the difficulty of defining life is that life does not really exist! It can't be defined because it is not there to be defined. You heard right, boys and girls:
Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult? Why have scientists and philosophers failed for centuries to find a specific physical property or set of properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate? Because such a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.
This startling passage provokes a couple of questions.
The first is whether the author's conclusion, which we may take to be the conjunction of the bolded sentences, follows from the difficulty or even the impossibility of finding an adequate definition of life. The answer is: obviously not! One cannot conclude that nothing is living from the fact, if it is a fact, that it is difficult or even impossible to say what exactly all and only living things have in common that makes them living as opposed to nonliving. That would be like arguing that nothing is a game (to invoke Wittgenstein's overworked example) because there is nothing that all and only games have in common that distinguishes them from non-games. There are games and there are non-games and this is so whether or not one can say exactly what distinguishes them.
Not all concepts are such that necessary and sufficient conditions for their correct application can be specified. There are vague concepts, family-resemblance concepts, open-textured concepts. The concept bald, the concept game, the concept art. Their being vague, etc., does not prevent them from having clear instances and clear non-instances. A man with no hair on his head is bald. Your humble and hirsute correspondent is most definitely not bald. The fact that we don't know what to say about Donald 'Comb-Over' Trump does not change the fact that some of us assuredly are and some of assuredly not.
The second question is whether the author's conclusion, namely, that life is a concept that we have invented is even coherent. It isn't. I'll give two arguments. I beg the indulgence of those readers who will feel that I am wasting my time and yours with the dialectical equivalent of rolling a drunk or beating up a cripple. I agree that in general there is something faintly absurd about responding to a position whose preposterousness renders it beneath refutation.
A. If life does not exist, but is a mere concept we have invented, then a fortiori consciousness does not exist and is a mere concept we have invented. For if the difficulties in defining life are a reason for thinking there is no life, then the difficulties in defining consciousness are a reason to deny that there is consciousness. For example, there appears to be something very much like intentionality below the level of conscious mentality in the phenomena of potentiality and dispositionality. (See Intentionality, Potentiality, and Dispositionality: Some Points of Analogy.) This causes trouble for Brentano's claim that intentionality is the mark of the consciously mental. But it would surely be absurd to deny the existence of consciousness on the ground that defining it is not easy. There is a second point. Those of a naturalist bent are highly likely to maintain, with John Searle, that either conscousness is a biological phenomenon or at least cannot exist except in living organisms. So if there is no life, then there is no consciousness either.
But only conscious beings wield concepts. Only conscious beings classify and subsume and judge. So if there is no life, there are no concepts either, and thus no concept of life. Therefore, life cannot be a concept. It is incoherent to suppose that a lifeless material object could classify some other objects in its environment as living and others as nonliving.
Moreover, if consciousness does not exist, but is a mere concept we conscious beings have invented, then obviously consciousness is not a mere concept we have invented but rather the presupposition of there being any concepts at all. The notion that consciousness is a mere concept is self-refuting.
B. The author tell us that "What differentiates molecules of water, rocks, and silverware from cats, people and other living things is not 'life,' but complexity.
Note how the author takes back with his left hand what he has proferred with his right. He appeals to the difference between the nonliving and the living only to imply that there is no difference, the only difference being one of material complexity. But a difference between what and what? Now if he were maintaining that life emerges at a certain level of material complexity he would be maintaining something that, though not unproblematic, would at least not be incoherent. For then he would not be denying that life exists but affirming that it is an emergent phenomenon. But he is plainly not an emergentist, but an eliminativist. He is saying that life simply does not exist.
If the difference between the nonliving and the living is the difference between the less complex and the more complex, then actually infinite sets in mathematics are alive. For they are 'infinitely' complex. If you say that only material systems can be alive,, but no abstracta, what grounds your assertion? If life is a concept we impose, why can't we impose it on anything we like, including actually infinite sets of abstracta? Presumably we cannot do this because of the nature of sets and the nature of life where these natures are logically antecedent to us and our conceptual impositions. Sets by their very nature are nonliving. But then appeal is being made to what lies beyond the reach of conceptual decision, which is to say: life exists and is what it is independently of us, our language, and our conceptualizations. One cannot argue from our poor understanding of what life is to its nonexistence.
The fallacy underlying this very bad Scientific American piece could be called the eliminativist fallacy. An eliminativist is one who, faced with a problem he cannot solve -- in this case the problem of crafting an adequate definition of life -- simply denies one or more of the data that give rise to the problem. Thus, in this case, the author simply denies that life exists. But then he denies the very datum that got him thinking about this topic in the first place.
John Hawkins argues that it is in a recent Townhall piece. I agree with everything he says, except the title. It suffices to argue that liberalism is wrong. It is irrelevant whether it is on the right or wrong side of history. Allow me to explain.
The phrase "on the wrong side of history" is one that no self-aware and self-consistent conservative should use. The phrase suggests that history is moving in a certain direction, toward various outcomes, and that this direction and these outcomes are somehow justified by the actual tendency of events. But how can the mere fact of a certain drift justify that drift? For example, we are moving in the United States, and not just here, towards more and more intrusive government, more and more socialism, less and less individual liberty and personal choice, Obamacare being the latest and worst example. This has certainly been the trend from FDR on regardless of which party has been in power. Would a self-aware conservative want to say that the fact of this drift justifies it? I think not.
But if not, then one cannot argue against liberalism by trying to show that it is on the wrong side of history. For which way history goes is irrelevant to which way it ought to go.
'Everyone today believes that such-and-such.' It doesn't follow that such-and-such is true. 'Everyone now does such-and-such.' It doesn't follow that such-and-such ought to be done. 'The direction of events is towards such-and-such.' It doesn't follow that such-and-such is a good or valuable outcome. In each of these cases there is a logical mistake. One cannot validly infer truth from belief, ought from is, or values from facts.
One who opposes the drift toward socialism, a drift that is accelerating under President Obama, is arguably, pace Hawkins, on the wrong side of history. But that is no objection unless one assumes that history's direction is the right direction. Now an Hegelian might believe that, one for whom all the real is rational and all the rational real. Marxists and 'progressives' might believe it. But no conservative who understands conservatism can believe it.
One night a conservative talk show host told a guest that she was on the wrong side of history in her support for same-sex marriage. My guess is that in a generation the same-sex marriage issue will be moot, the liberals having won. The liberals will have been on the right side of history. The right side of history, but wrong nonetheless.
It's why Congress has an approval rating of 6%. It's why Obamacare is wildly unpopular. It's why D.C. and our court system have devolved into partisan warfare. It's because liberalism is a non-functional, imperious philosophy that is out of step with the modern world and on the wrong side of history.
Hawkins thinks it is a point against liberalism that it is on the wrong side of history. But whether it is or not is irrelevant -- unless one assumes what no conservative ought to assume, namely, that success justifies, or that might makes right, or that consensus proves truth, or that the way things are going is the way things ought to be going.
As I have said more than once, if you are a conservative don't talk like a [insert favorite expletive] liberal. Don't validate, by adopting, their question-begging epithets and phrases.
For example, if you are a conservative and speak of 'homophobia' or 'Islamophobia' or 'social justice,' then you are an idiot who doesn't realize that the whole purpose of those polemical leftist neologisms is to beg questions, shut down rational discussion, and obfuscate.
Language matters in general, but especially in the culture wars.
I just wasted 30 minutes on the phone with a customer service representative straightening out a screw-up emanating from their end. The automated intro said that a "helpful customer care" rep would be available in one minutes (sic)." Don't tell me how helpful and caring you are. Just do your job and do it right.
This change from 'service' to 'care' is squishy, bien-pensant liberal feel-good bullshit and quite in keeping wth the Age of Feeling, the Age of Obama Yomama. It's humbug I tell you, humbug!
Liberals are for the rule of law when it suits their collectivist, big government agenda, but only then. Peter Berkowitz:
The left-liberal mindset endemic on the college faculties and law schools where Barack Obama’s political sensibilities were forged holds that morals and politics are subject to a universal reason to which the left-liberal sensibility is uniquely attuned. This conceit receives expression in a faith that the left-liberal brain trust can embody complex public policy in general rules and regulations, which can then be administered smoothly by well-educated bureaucrats and adjudicated impartially by empathetic judges.
At the same time, the left-liberal mind rebels against established authorities, hierarchies, and formalities that constrain its ability to pursue the people’s good and social justice -- at least as it understands them.
Often enough, this rebellion turns against laws duly enacted by left-liberals themselves. Obamacare and the Iran nuclear deal are now demonstrating the destabilizing consequences of governing in accordance with a love-hate relationship toward the law.
I've been asking myself a question these last years. Why did we expend so much treasure to defeat the Evil Empire, the USSR? To become another, albeit lesser, evil empire, the United Socialist States of America?