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Discussion questions for 2018

  1. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is beauty merely an expression of an individual preference? Or does it reside in the object itself? When discussing this question we need to keep in mind the distinction between beauty in the natural world and beauty in works of art. Further, when considering beauty in works of art, we need to distinguish between spatial arts such as painting, sculpture, and architecture, and temporal arts such as music, literature, and drama. Do we require different criteria of beauty for these different types of arts?
  2. Do obligations indicate the goodness of a thing or is goodness quite distinct from obligation? Are there any obligations which are binding on all of humanity or are they all merely socially and culturally relative? If we say something is good, can we also command it to be done? Or does this commanding diminish its goodness? If we say something is good, do we require a free-will so we can choose to be good, or is this goodness causally determined?
  3. What is a mind? Traditionally, minds are said to be either cognitive (they have ‘consciousness’), affective (they are emotional), or conative (they strive after things). If we say that mind is identical with consciousness, can you describe your own consciousness without reducing it to merely what you are aware of, your memories, hopes, etc? Do sleep-walkers have consciousness? Are they even conscious?
  4. Is a society merely a collection of individuals or is it something more than that? Is a beach more than a collection of individual grains of sand?
  5. Is political power the preserve of professional politicians or can it be found in everyday interactions? Is a truly equitable society possible to achieve or is it simply an impossible Utopia? Are Utopias worth striving to achieve? Is revolutionary violence an acceptable way to achieve a Utopia? Does the end justify the means?
  6. Do we know things directly and immediately or do we perceive things as mediated and represented to us? If we always perceive things as represented to us, then how do we ever know if we correctly or falsely perceive the representations before us? Can we have direct experience of our emotional states?
  7. If we live in a fully-determined universe then human history is also fully-determined. In other words, there is no free-will and we cannot choose our own history. If this is so, then are our actions meaningless? Are we simply biological, psychological, and social puppets?
  8. The theory of Freethought (also known as secularism or naturalism) is the theory that no supernatural explanations can be admitted for natural events. In other words, it is the theory that there are no ideas which are ‘beyond’ or ‘above’ discussion. Are there any ideas (for example, the heroism of the ANZACs) in contemporary society which are ‘above’ discussion? Freethought is also opposed to any form of censorship. Can censorship ever be justified? Do the terms sedition, blasphemy, and obscenity have precise meanings or are they simply socially and historically relative?
  9. Is education no more than instruction in the skills and techniques for the workforce to function effectively? What role does criticism play in the educative process? What is criticism? What is the purpose of the university? If the State pays for University funding does it get to say what gets taught within the university?
  10. What is a thing? Is a universe merely a collection of things? How are qualities related to things? Do they merely ‘adhere’ to things like redness does to a rose? What can we say of the relations between things? If I smell a rose and say that it smells fragrant, does the fragrance belong to the rose, to me, or somewhere between us?

Some discussion questions from February 2018

Aesthetics

Is beauty objective or subjective? If it is subjective, then it is no more than personal opinion and hence does not really exist. If it objective, then it exists ‘in the object’ but where is it? The traditional Idealist and Platonic view is that beauty is the ‘ideal type’ (the ‘form’) of a thing and this is best exemplified in the statues from the classical Greek age. In contrast, Representational aesthetic theory (sometimes called ‘Realism’) holds that a work of art is beautiful only insofar as it reproduces exactly the object it seeks to portray. However there are many alternatives to these two theories. Impressionism, eg Monet, seeks to convey an image of a thing that is only accessible by a certain way of viewing the object (squint your eyes!), while Cubism (as in Duchamp’s ‘Nude descending a staircase’) seeks to unpack the inner structure of a thing itself. Cubism also requires a special way of looking at an object. The challenge for contemporary aesthetic theory is to locate exactly where beauty is. In post-modernism, ‘beauty’ and ‘art’ are merely social constructions and hence don’t really exist at all. One positive theory is that beauty is a phenomenological experience between subject and object – it is a ‘relating with’ an object.

Metaphysics

I spoke a lot about metaphysics this week, especially the theory of Space-Time and the universe. At the end of the 19th century, the Idealist view was that ‘reality’ was merely an aspect of the ‘Absolute Mind’. That view was challenged by Einstein’s relativity theory which held that the universe (Space-Time) was created at a particular moment in time. Einstein’s view were described by the Australian-born philosopher Samuel Alexander as ‘physical Space-Time’ which he contrasted with his own view of Space-Time as a medium in which things exist. Alexander’s metaphysics is often described as ‘emergent evolution’ for he held, somewhat inconsistently, that Space-Time does come into existence at a certain point from which it then ‘evolves’ and that Space-Time is simply a medium in which things exist. Alexander’s theory was ‘corrected’ by John Anderson who argued that if Space-Time is infinite then there can be no ‘thing’ – ‘the universe’ – that comes into existence. This position puts Anderson in direct opposition to 20th century cosmological theory from Einstein through to Hawkins. This opposition leads to some interesting epistemological questions. If we accept Anderson’s argument that Time cannot have a beginning (which is a temporal relation) or that Space cannot have a boundary (which is a spatial relation) because they are both infinite, then it follows that the cosmological claim for ‘physical Space-Time’ cannot be supported. Further, if there can be no physical Space-Time, then the very notion of a ‘Universe’ (defined as the totality of everything that exists) must also be rejected. Now if this is so, then the scientifically trained cosmologist will reply that all our scientific evidence since Einstein (eg quantum theory) has supported modern cosmological theory and therefore that the Andersonian argument must be wrong. The conundrum then is this: do we accept an apparently logical argument about the infinity of Space-Time or do we accept the apparently compelling evidence of modern cosmological science? It seems we can’t have it both ways.

Love

Is Romantic Love a characteristic of youth? Are we, as Sam Harris once remarked, simply ‘biochemical puppets’, our ‘love’ determined by our hormones? Or, do we, as we age and mature, change our concept of love to a non-Romantic view which denies, for example, the idea of a ‘soul mate’. Do we simply opt for the best available partner or does our understanding of love expand beyond the narrow parameters of Romanticism? For example, Skye Cleary states: “…an existential approach to romantic loving shows that once we free ourselves from externally-imposed expectations about how we ought to be in relationships, as well as from being slaves to our passions, then we will be free to reinvigorate love in authentically meaningful ways.” What might these new ways be? Cleary also writes: “Love based on friendship is a better way to think about relationships than merging [of two into one] because, although there is still the risk of power struggles, great friends respect one another’s freedom. They are generous, they cooperate, and they support one another’s flourishing. In ideal relationships, lovers transcend together, meaning that they have their own projects, but also create a future together by working towards common goals. Not only does having common goals give lovers something to talk about, but it also deepens their understanding of one another.” Is love an act of individual freedom or merely the expression of the activity of our hormones?

Art and Censorship

Are there ‘unacceptable’ limits to artistic expression which must be censored? The most common argument in support of this view is the ‘we must protect the children’ one. The censor argues that we must protect the innocence of children from adult exploitation and abuse. The ‘pure artist’ replies that there can be no limit to the subject an artist treats. Which of these is right?

Are there moral absolutes?

One of the more interesting things about John Anderson’s moral and ethical theory is that on the one hand he was a moral subjectivist (also known as moral relativism, moral skepticism, or amoralism) for he believed that no moral obligations were absolute, but on the other hand he was an ethical objectivist which is to say he believed that goodness was an objective quality of human activity. While post-modernists, for example, would agree that morality is relative to social and cultural conditions , they would deny that goodness is objective. However for Anderson this conclusion was the direct result of his Realist theory of relations. If Realism is true, then no quality can be a relation and no relation can be a quality. However, an obligation is a relation and therefore cannot indicate the inherent goodness or badness of what is being obliged. Therefore this inherent goodness or badness must exist in the object itself. He described these ‘goods’ in terms of things like creativity, inquiry, courage, co-operation, love, etc. However one interesting question that came up in a discussion about evolutionary ethics – that our concept of goodness is dependent upon our stage of evolution – was whether, as we move through into transhumanism and then posthumanism with sentient robots, cyborgs, and the like, will these qualities still define what is ‘good’? Would an intelligent robot, for example, think that love or courage would be good? Would it have other criteria for goodness?

My Shredded Tyre: Conscious and Unconscious Decisions

thAbout a year ago I shredded a tyre. The pressure must have been quite low and I didn’t see the tyre deflating over time. So heading down the freeway at 100km/h, I shredded a tyre. Three weeks ago, I was taking some friends to the airport and one of them remarked that a rear tyre looked a bit flat (yes, the same position as the one I shredded… in my defence, that part of the car is in my ‘blind spot’ in my garage, so it is ‘very hard to see’ if the tyre is deflating). I hadn’t noticed it previously and when I checked the pressure at the garage, it was down from 29 psi to 11. I topped up the pressure but didn’t take the tyre to the garage to have it checked for a leak. Two nights ago, I had a dream where I was driving along the freeway and the same rear tyre shredded. Yesterday I was driving along in my car when a memory of my dream came back to me (what did I see that prompted that memory?) and I remembered I hadn’t re-checked the tyre pressure. I drove straight to a garage and checked the tyre pressure: it was down to 19 psi. Today I will book the car into a garage and get the slow leak repaired.

How ‘conscious’ was my decision to have the tyre repaired?

Freedom through vulnerability

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In this culture, the thing we fear the most is being vulnerable. If others know our secrets, our ‘weak spots’, then we will be conquered and overcome. So we must construct a ‘mask’ that, we believe, will conceal our vulnerabilities and hence insulate ourselves from pain. But our mask becomes a rigid face which we are increasingly unable to change – we become determined by the mask we have constructed and we lose our freedom.

How, then, do we regain our capacity for freedom? Simple. We become vulnerable.

Try this. Write down five things, whether they are desires or hopes, fears or shames, that we would not easily share with another person. And when you have written them down, say them out loud to yourself. Now ask yourself, what prevents me sharing these secrets with other people?

We tell stories and construct narratives around key events in our lives. We might say that an something happened to us that changed our life and often these events are part of our secret narrative. Less often, we will say that we chose an action that changed our life. Less often do we say that these are my vulnerabilities and that I can change the story I tell about these secrets. In my new narrative, I can be the actor and not the victim. In my new narrative, I can become free through sharing my vulnerabilities.

‘Freedom through Vulnerability’ is the subject of our next talk at Philosophy in the Pub on Tuesday 20th September 5.30-7.00pm at the Back Deck, Robina Tavern. $5