Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

How to be an optimal human, at the least according to some conceptions of “optimality” and “human.”

Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright embarrass themselves while telling women to vote for Clinton because she is a woman, they shouldn’t be as shallow as going after the boys who allegedly flock to Sanders’ rallies…

New research seems to indicate that evolutionary psychologists have tried for decades to explains facts about gender differences that may not actually, ahem, factual.

Another one for the New Atheists: a series of books seeking to undermine some of the most superficial arguments made against religion.

There is a new, heavily annotated, edition of Mein Kampf, which rather ironically “looks a bit like the Talmud.” A must for democracy and critical thinking.

The pros and cons of contemplating one’s death (mostly cons, the pros come at the very end).

Morality as a muscle, and why virtue ethics is far better than deontology or utilitarianism to deal with the complexities of today’s world.

Good general article on the recent discovery of gravitational waves.

What is the self? It depends, argues Julian Baggini. But getting different answers in different contexts doesn’t mean we disagree as much as we think.

Is humanity getting better? Yes, but not enough. The article also includes a wonderfully disturbing example of the dire consequences of getting causality wrong…


115 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. Hi Robin,

    But the New Atheists have willingly taken on the burden of evidence …

    One can make all sorts of arguments against particular, specified gods (e.g. the problem of evil against the triple-omni god), and sometimes atheists do make such arguments, depending on context. But, I don’t agree that NAs in general have “taken on the burden of proof” or departed from the main point as in my previous comments.


  2. Coel and Robin: Certainly, if we are talking ontological claims, the burden of proof is on the theist, who is making the positive ontological claim.

    That said, I doubt that most peoples’ religious commitments should be understood in that way. They don’t ontologically commit to God in the way one ontologically commits to the existence of neutrinos or quarks, so to engage theists on this level seems largely pointless. Kierkegaard seems more relevant in these quarters than Quine.


  3. Come on, Dan K. Call it a disagreement if you like, but when it comes to weighing some things, a properly placed thumb can slightly affect either side of the scale. This short video on jazz lingo serves to suggest my point. Note Ali Jackson’s comment around 2:16 into it. Enjoy!


  4. Coel,

    When you write a book called “The God Delusion” containing a “central argument” and say that this argument shows that “there is almost certainly no God” then you have taken on the burden of proof.


  5. Hi Dan,

    Coel and Robin: Certainly, if we are talking ontological claims, the burden of proof is on the theist, who is making the positive ontological claim.

    So if John says the nature of reality is almost certainly X and Jack says the nature of reality is almost certainly not X then John is making a positive ontological claim and Jack is not?

    No, they are both making positive ontological claims. As I said before, I don’t think the fact of being an atheist commits you to an ontological claim, I am saying that the NA’s are making such claims.

    When Sean Carroll says “The problem is, there are no necessary beings. There is only what exists, and we should be open to all the possibilities” he is saying, in effect, that at the fundamental level of reality things are as they are for no reason at all.

    Again, that is a positive ontological claim and one which is beyond the knowledge of physicists

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Robin: To say X exists is a positive ontological claim. To say that there is no X is not.

    The atheist says there is no X. The theist says there is an X.

    But read the rest of my post. I don’t think that most religious people are making formal ontological commitments like that.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Hi Alan,

    Last night you incited a good bit of discussion here with the following comment:

    First, virtue ethics is in fact a form of consequentialism, where the consequence is rational self-improvement. If we take that as a form of intrinsic value universalized, it is not inimical to utilitarianism at all. In fact I wonder out loud if some form of virtue utilitarianism might be a very defensible position.

    You did intrigue Socratic with this notion, and certainly me. Here you seemed to be painting outside the lines, redefining, breaking rules, and so on. “Virtue utilitarianism”? Well the concept does seem quite attackable. What’s so “virtuous” about a given subject deciding that the interests of others should be forfeit for its own? The principal of utilitarianism can indeed be quite “repugnant,” as you well know. So why not observe that different subjects can naturally have conflicting interests, and so take your point “amoral”? It might be worth a laugh to consider the realities of good/bad existence itself, regardless of what we find so repugnant about these realities.


  8. Sure, lingo. And the question in the video, “Are you playing or are you talking?” It’s not always clear which we are engaged in.

    I’m having trouble tracing the original comment in which BNW was introduced. But Huxley is dead and can’t comment on this matter. It makes sense to me that your main focus in assessing this novel could be stated “as criticizing Utilitarianism from a virtue-ethical perspective” in a philosophy course, but not so much in an English lit course. And Alan’s and Socratic’s comments, as I said before, are arguable.

    Consider the piece in SA entitled “How to be an Optimal Human.” The so-called “theories” of rather formidable thinkers are touched on in the piece. Then we are ultimately presented with a checklist on how to “optimize” our lives, along with a nicely enumerated list in the summation followed by a rather humorous “**” footnote at the end. So I think that Alan’s comment, “First, virtue ethics is in fact a form of consequentialism, where the consequence is rational self-improvement,” is, as Socratic suggests, an arguably valid point at ground level.

    Returning to your question about how jazz slang connects to “what we were talking about,” I suppose it’s about the selective use of lingo employed to cue a group on what approach is to be taken in this instance as opposed to another.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thomas: The problem is that Utilitarianism is inherently, essentially, a consequentialist moral philosophy. Eudaimonism — virtue ethics — is not. It’s really as simple as that. And does not require a sophisticated treatment of the subject. It’s really, survey-level stuff.


  10. Since I can’t seem to drag this conversation beyond the dichotomy of theist, versus atheist, I thought I might post this excerpt from Murray’s book;

    “We must get back behind these gods of the artist’s workshop and the romance-maker’s imagination, and see if the religious thinkers of the great period use, or imply, the same highly human conceptions. We shall find Parmenides telling us that God coincides with the universe, which is a sphere and immovable;[12:1] Heraclitus, that God is ‘day night, summer winter, war peace, satiety hunger’. Xenophanes, that God is all-seeing, all-hearing, and all mind;[12:2] and as for his supposed human shape, why, if bulls and lions were to speak about God they would doubtless tell us that he was a bull or a lion.[12:3] We must notice the instinctive language of the poets, using the word θεός in many subtle senses for which our word ‘God’ is too stiff, too personal, and too anthropomorphic. Τό εὐτυχεῖν, ‘the fact of success’, is ‘a god and more than a god’; τὸ γιγνώσκειν φίλους, ‘the thrill of recognizing a friend’ after long absence, is a ‘god’; wine is a ‘god’ whose body is poured out in libation to gods; and in the unwritten law of the human conscience ‘a great god liveth and groweth not old’.[12:4] You will [13]say that is mere poetry or philosophy: it represents a particular theory or a particular metaphor. I think not. Language of this sort is used widely and without any explanation or apology. It was evidently understood and felt to be natural by the audience. If it is metaphorical, all metaphors have grown from the soil of current thought and normal experience. And without going into the point at length I think we may safely conclude that the soil from which such language as this grew was not any system of clear-cut personal anthropomorphic theology. No doubt any of these poets, if he had to make a picture of one of these utterly formless Gods, would have given him a human form. That was the recognized symbol, as a veiled woman is St. Gaudens’s symbol for ‘Grief’.”

    As such, “God” is an all purpose metaphor, for some conscious concept. There are reasons “God” is a western concept, rather than an eastern assumption, because there isn’t the conceptual necessity to isolate it as distinct from its context, since the presumption is that it is reflective of the context and trying to elevate it to the “God” status would eliminate its meaning, not magnify it.

    The brick is close to meaningless in isolation, while it is part of the whole in the wall.


  11. Hi all–and thanks Phi Eric and Thomas, and of course to Massimo for the original posts.

    I’ll still stand by my original claim. Eudaimonia isn’t just a moral strategy of attainment, it’s an end unto itself, and attainable only as the consequence of cultivating habitual actions. I see no conflict with maximizing it in a utilitarian way, or for that matter assessing groups or whole societies by such a principle. After all, eudaimonia isn’t the same for all, and so allows adjustments for individual moral improvement in ways that are recognizably and practically pluralistic. But not just anything counts as virtuous character or action, and the maximization should target reasonable norms of variable eudaimonia. It seems to me that at least some forms of virtue utilitarianism would plausibly aspire to construct societies that try to embody practical wisdom while tolerating reasonable diversity of conduct and character.

    I’ve thought about and taught this possibility for several years, but haven’t published anything on it, and even convinced one real published virtue theorist that it is not just coherent but defensible.

    Again, thanks to everyone for a spirited and valuable discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Daniel, I do respectfully disagree, as I alluded to in my previous post. Eudaimonia is an end-unto itself and eudaimonism is a description of the means to attain it. I know most ethicists think of it as separate from the consequentialist/deontological divide. But I don’t see why.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Dan, you may be right in that I’m underselling Huxley in BNW. (I have read The Perennial Philosophy, which I find interesting, but overstated, in the same line that The Golden Bough is interesting but overstated. I’ve also read, as noted, BNW Revisited and Island. Beyond The Perennial Philosophy, I’ve never really read any other nonfiction. I’ve of course read ABOUT his fun on psychotropics, etc.)


  14. eudaimonia

    How many times have you heard someone say?
    If I had his money I would do things my way
    But little they know that it’s so hard to find
    One rich man in 10 with a satisfied mind

    -Satisfied Mind by Glen Campbell


  15. Hi Dan,

    Actually theists are making a much stronger ontological commitment than merely that something exists, they are making a commitment about the nature of reality.

    Still, it seems convenient that there can be a claim in the form “Almost certainly X” that carries no burden if evidence.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I don’t understand the statement “There is almost certainly no unintelligently created universe” even means. Is it some attempt to say something about the probability of there being a “God”? Why the double negative? Why the business with the “X”? It adds nothing.


  17. Hi Coel, Brodix

    Nope, it is not a scientifically open question.

    Actually, Guilio Tononi is saying much the same as Brodix. His theory has been regarded as the leading theory of consciousness by Christoph Koch. It has even been taken seriously by our friend Mr Dawkins. And while I don’t buy it for a moment, I would not unilaterally decide that something being actively considered by scientists and taken seriously by scientists is not a scientifically open question.

    On the other hand I am perfectly open to the idea that there is a neuroscience generator in the same vein as the pomo generator. Maybe even an EvPsych generator.


  18. Hi Robin,

    It has even been taken seriously by our friend Mr Dawkins.

    “Taken seriously” in the sense of “this has merit, we should invesitigate it seriously”?, or did he merely say something about it? If a scientist says something about creationism, that does not make creationism an open scientific question.

    As per previous discussions, one difference between science and other things such as pseudo-science is a quality criterion, and to be an “open scientific question” the question has to meet that criterion.

    Re your other comment. There are lots of atheist writers, a lot of atheist books, and a lot of arguments made by atheists about various conceptions of gods. But, atheism does not depend on any one such argument; the best case for atheism (as with all good cases) comes from the number of different lines of thought that join together to reinforce the conclusion. The problem of evil and the argument you’re pointing to in TGD are among those. But, again, overridding all that is the simple lack of evidence for theism.

    I’m quite happy to discuss the merits of the argument you’re referring to, but not on the basis that atheism stands or falls on it.

    Hi Dan,

    Perhaps we need a distinct term for a “religion” that is about cultural and social practices, and which is important to people’s identity, but which does not have any supernatural doctrines.


  19. Comments are closing shortly, so I’ll just try to coalesce my point;

    Only the present physically exists. Consciousness only exists as a present state, as compilations of prior states. So the issue is whether this state of consciousness is entirely unique for every even marginally aware organism, or is it potentially some network of awareness and we essentially function as lens of this basis sense, which creates our particular identities.

    This then could help us sort out both how the networks which we operate in and those which we consist of, as the article on the self observes, that our identity is not a single whole, but competing elements which coalesce as is suited to situations of nature and context. Much as groups of people coalesce and work as units.

    Not always successfully, but then peoples minds don’t always stay unified.

    It would seem to me there is an Ockham’s razor argument that this conscious state is not created ex nihilo for every single being. Just that we, as a society, concentrate on distinctions and objects, rather than connections and networks. Our form of group think.


  20. Hi Robin,

    > No DM, that is not another option since it takes us right back to the question “why are all options realised in separate universes rather than not all possibilities being realised?”

    Yes, but that question can be answered by realising that whatever is real is a matter of perspective and there is no fact of the matter, and that this is necessarily the case.

    What I’m saying is that the MUH basically answers your question as far as I’m concerned, but it doesn’t really fit into your options 1 or 2. My offering of an option 3 is perhaps too brief to make the argument fully, but I’m just saying you may have a false dichotomy on your hands.

    Liked by 1 person

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