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.)
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 hand at it they usually 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. I am 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 with the dialectical equaivalent of rolling a driunk 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 is 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 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 isw to say: life exists and is waht it is independently of us, out langyuage, and outr conceptualizations. One cannot argue from our poor undertsnading 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?
But if one needs institutionalized religion, one could do far worse, assuming one can stomach the secular-humanist liberal namby-pambification and wussification that the post-Vatican II church can't seem to resist, the dilution of doctrine and tradition that empties into the nauseating Church of Nice.
There was something profoundly stupid about the Vatican II 'reforms' even if we view matters from a purely immanent 'sociological' point of view. Suppose Roman Catholicism is, metaphysically, buncombe to its core, nothing but an elaborate human construction in the face of a meaningless universe, a construction kept going by human needs and desires noble and base. Suppose there is no God, no soul, no post-mortem reward or punishment, no moral world order. Suppose we are nothing but a species of clever land mammal thrown up on the shores of life by blind evolutionary processes, and that everything that makes us normatively human and thus persons (consciousness, self-consciousness, conscience, reason, and the rest) are nothing but cosmic accidents. Suppose all that.
Still, religion would have its immanent life-enhancing role to play, and one would have to be as superficial and ignorant of the human heart as a New Atheist to think it would ever wither away: it inspires and guides, comforts and consoles; it provides our noble impulses with an outlet while giving suffering a meaning. Suffering can be borne, Nietzsche says somewhere, if it has a meaning; what is unbearable is meaningless suffering. Now the deep meaning that the Roman church provides is tied to its profundity, mystery, and reference to the Transcendent. Anything that degrades it into a namby-pamby secular humanism, just another brand of liberal feel-goodism and do-goodism, destroys it, making of it just another piece of dubious cultural junk. Degrading factors: switching from Latin to the vernacular; the introduction of sappy pseudo-folk music sung by pimply-faced adolescents strumming gut-stringed guitars; leftist politics and political correctness; the priest facing the congregation; the '60s obsession with 'relevance.'
People who take religion seriously tend to be conservatives and traditionalists; they are not change-for-the-sake-of-change leftist utopians. The stupidity of the Vatican II 'reforms,' therefore, consists in estranging its very clienetele, the conservatives and traditionalists. The church should be a liberal-free zone.
For Obamacare to work, the young must sign up. But will they? Why should they? Jeffrey H. Anderson:
In its government-run exchanges, Obamacare raises premiums for the young by suspending actuarial science. It forbids insurers from considering some variables that are actuarially relevant to health care, such as sex and health, while also limiting their ability to take age into account in an actuarially based way. Under ordinary principles of insurance, a healthy young person pays a lot less than a person nearing retirement. Under Obamacare, that’s not so. Yet President Obama’s centerpiece legislation depends upon young people’s willingness to pay these artificially inflated premiums.
Another reason the young are unlikely to show up in sufficient numbers is that Obamacare gives many of them an easy out: They can stay on their parents’ insurance free of charge until they’re 26. As for the rest, with the elimination of preexisting conditions as a barrier to buying health insurance, many will choose to go without coverage until they’re sick or injured.
In other words, Obama-care makes insurance more costly while simultaneously making it less necessary—especially for the young.
You ought to read the entire piece, especially if you are young and healthy.
The more I know about Obamacare, the more crack-brained (you can take that word in two senses) it appears. The burden of redistribution is to be borne by the young, precisely those least capable of carrying it.
This is an extremely penetrating analysis, worthy of careful study. Excerpt (emphasis added):
Again, note the nature of the “foremost” ideological mandate: if Muslim nations do not feel “good” about their historical contributions to science and engineering, such depression could not be attributed to their present scientific ossification or Islam’s often historical subordination to Western science, especially after the fifteenth century. Instead, the discontent over the absence of scientific parity might be due to other more nefarious causes—and thus in part rectified by the power, wealth, and influence of a properly sensitive U.S. federal government.
Similarly, homeland security is no longer just about ensuring the safety of the United States. In a series of bizarre euphemisms—overseas contingency operations, man-caused disasters, work-place violence—Islamic terrorism was redefined as a spontaneous tragedy without specified causation. To the degree that the issue of radical Islam was unavoidable in the debate over U.S. domestic and foreign policy, the contortions only grew worse: we should not allow the mass murderer Major Hasan to prejudice the Army’s diversity program; the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was largely secular; and jihad is a legitimate tenet of Islam properly characterized as a “holy struggle,” and therefore improperly associated with radical Islamic terrorists.
The politicization of almost every aspect of American culture and politics over the last five years could easily be expanded. Traditional employment background checks are now “racist” given that minorities with higher crime records might be unduly affected. The 2009 reordering of the Chrysler creditors leap-frogged junior union creditors over senior bondholders—as enforcement of existing legislation becomes predicated on perceptions of social justice rather than faithfully executing settled laws on the books. Each new tropical storm launches a fresh debate about “climate change,” despite no evidence that recent weather is more prone to hurricanes or the planet has heated up over the last 15 years. Almost every new mass shooting offers occasion for mobilization to enhance existing gun control legislation.
1. Sherlock Holmes is a purely fictional character
2. Someone made up a story about a person called ‘Sherlock Holmes.'
I don't think this is right. Even if (1) and (2) are intersubstitutable salva veritate in all actual and possible contexts, they are not intersubstitutable salva significatione. They are not intersubstitutable in such a manner as to preserve meaning or sense. (1) and (2) don't have the same meaning.
First of all, it is not in dispute that Sherlock Holmes is a purely fictional person, unlike, say, the 19th century American chess prodigy, Paul Morphy, who is the main character in Francis Parkinson Keyes' historical novel, The Chess Players. (Available from Amazon.com for only a penny! The perfect Christmas gift from and to impecunious chess players.) A fictional object need not be a nonexistent object: Morphy is a fictional object inasmuch as he figures in the novel just mentioned, but he existed. Holmes never existed and never will. Hence the need to distinguish between the purely fictional and the fictional, and the fictional and the nonexistent.
Now let us assume that some fom of 'creationism' or 'artifactualism' is true: purely fictional objects are the mental creations of finite minds, human or not. They are literally made up, thought up, excogitated, invented not discovered. They are literally ficta (from L. fingere). On this approach, internally logically consistent ficta cannot be reduced to real, albeit mere, possibilia. For the merely possible belongs to the real, and cannot be made up; the purely fictional, however, is unreal and made-up.
Let us further assume that artifactualism about purely fictional items, if true, is true of metaphysical necessity. It will then be the case that (1) and (2) will be either both true or both false across all possible worlds. But they don't have the same meaning since one who understands (1) may easily reject (2) by holding some other theory of fictional objects, say, a Meinongian theory according to which Sherlock Holmes and his colleagues are mind-independent nonentities.
London Ed is making the following mistake. He thinks that 'x is mind-made' follows analytically from 'x is purely fictional' in the way that (to introduce a brand-new example) 'x is male' follows analytically from 'x is a bachelor.' 'Tom is a bachelor' and 'Tom is an umarried adult male' have the same meaning; the latter merely unpacks or makes explicit the meaning of the former. But (2) does not unpack the meaning of (1): it goes beyond it. It adds the controversial idea that purely fictional objects have no status whatsoever apart from the mental activities of novelists and other artistically creative persons.
Ed may be misled by the etymology of 'fictional.' Pace Heidegger, etymology is no sure guide to philosophical insight.
If you say that Tom is a bachelor but not an unmarried adult male, then you contradict yourself, not formally, but materially. But if you affirm both (1) and the negation of (2), then you involve yourself in no sort of contradiction. Some maintain that purely fictional objects are mind-created abstract objects. People who hold this do not violate the meaning of (1).
Spencer Case thinks I need to expand my musical horizons. I don't disagree. He writes,
O.K. here are my five picks for good folk/rock music within the last ten years.
First, "The Wrote and the Writ" by Johnny Flynn, an artist I've just discovered. I chose it because of the syncopated guitar and the outstanding lyrics.
Second, "Right Moves" by Idaho's own Josh Ritter. Ritter been one of my favorites for about six years. He isn't instrumentally out of this world like some of the other artists here, but he's a great songwriter. It's hard to find a representative song for him for a first exposure, but this seems like a safe bet. Third, "Simple as This" by Jake Bugg, another new discovery. Great lyrics.
Fourth, "Don't Need No" by Punch Brothers. I've seen these guys live and they are amazing.
Fifth, "Big Parade" by Lumineers. These guys are from Denver and actually, they are quite popular now. So not everything on this list is obscure.
As far as I'm concerned, these artists prove good music is alive and well, if under-appreciated. Interested to hear how you think they stack up.
It's good stuff, Spencer. I enjoyed 'em all. Here are some obscure tunes/renditions I think you'll enjoy if you haven't heard them already. I won't make any invidious comparisons. It's all good.