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?

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