Kevin asked:

I read the following. “If God is good and God made everything, then everything God made is good.”

It has been a long time since my philosophy class in college. I am not wanting to debate the statements, I am just trying to determine if the logic being used is appropriate. It looks like the sentence is saying if A=B and A=C, then B=C. Is that appropriate logic?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The logic of identity or equivalence would be valid in this case if one takes ‘God’ to refer to the Universe, and ‘good’ to refer to Goodness (as such). If God is Goodness and God is the Universe then the Universe is Goodness. QED.

Speaking as an atheist — not having a particularly strong stake in this debate — the statement is heresy (I forget which one) and a few hundred years ago you would be burned at the stake for it. In any case, it’s obvious that the heretical interpretation is not the one intended.

Let’s start from the beginning. I am holding a potato. God made this potato. Therefore this potato is good. However, looking at the potato, feeling it, smelling it, it is clear that this potato is bad. When I cut it open, the inside is black and slimy. This potato is good for nothing except throwing in the garbage bin or waste disposal.

Does that contradict the statement, ‘Everything God made is good’? Only if you are a simpleton. It is good that potatoes go bad, because that means they are able to decompose. If potatoes were not capable of decomposition then they could not be cooked and eaten. They’d be like plastic. Is that what you want, a God who makes plastic potatoes?

The same can be said of a human being. This man is bad. Would it be better if men and women were immune to badness? Then they would have characters that were immune to development, progress or change. They would be like robots. And that would not be so good.

— If you are a theologian, games like this are second nature. You are never going to convince a ‘true believer’ that anything in creation is not as it should be. Equally, no-one, except a simpleton or a true believer, looking at the facts with a cool eye, could find inspiration for belief in the continuous, needless, slaughter of innocents splashing across our TV screens on a daily basis.

 

Carla asked:

Is there any normative ethical claim that says that one should reduce suffering of others? Is there a strong claim, that suffering and pain can be considered bad and must therefore be avoided?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

If someone is suffering, and I have the power to reduce that suffering, and no worse consequences would follow if I reduced that person’s suffering, and the person in question doesn’t deserve to suffer as punishment for some heinous crime — ought I to attempt to reduce the suffering? Is that a moral law or axiom?

Intuition suggests that it might be. It is hard to justify allowing avoidable undeserved suffering. On the other hand, doesn’t that assume that ‘suffering’ is always bad? That’s the assumption I would question. Let’s say you are studying hard for the exam, and the effort is really killing you. For your own good, I want you to suffer. You have been far too easy on yourself in the past, and this is your big test, your opportunity to step up to the mark. I wouldn’t want to take that away from you!

The example I have given against the normative view that one ought always to strive to reduce the suffering of others is consistent with saying that, other things being equal, suffering and pain are intrinsically undesirable things that we have a possibly defeasible reason to avoid. But is even that true?

It seems obvious. But like good philosophical questions, the more you think about it the more you wonder. Why are suffering and pain intrinsically bad? What is ‘painful’ about pain? Couldn’t you learn to enjoy pain, love it? Would it still be pain, or would it become a pleasurable sensation?

It’s a fallacy to argue that if you enjoy pain, then the ‘pain’, for you, becomes pleasurable. Not at all. If you’re a masochist, then you want the pain to be painful (for whatever psychological reasons, say, your needing to ‘act out’ some punishment that you imagine you deserve).

Similarly with other forms of suffering. Maybe the only time you really feel alive — really connected to the world around you — is when you are suffering. The more you suffer, the truer your vision of reality becomes. That’s why fakirs and mystics proverbially go out into the desert to starve and dehydrate themselves to the point of death.

David asked:

‘p or not p’

used with a disjunctive syllogism.

Is this begging the question?

And is that statement ‘p or not p’ a true dichotomy? 

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Jones, sales assistant in an East London grocery store, enlisted for King and Country just in time for the Battle of the Somme in 1916. But he never went ‘over the top’. The day before a sniper’s bullet put an end to his young life.

We will never know whether or not Jones was brave. However, using the law of excluded middle it seems we can make the following deduction:

1. Either Jones was brave or he was not.

2. If Jones was brave, then there was some fact about Jones’ physical or mental state that constituted his disposition to act bravely if and when the occasion arose.

3. If Jones was not brave, then there was some fact about Jones’ physical or mental state that constituted his disposition to fail to act bravely if and when the occasion arose.

4. Either way (the disjunctive syllogism), there was some fact about Jones’ physical or mental state that constituted his bravery or lack thereof.

The argument is a fallacy.

There might, or might not, exist in the yet untested Jones, a physical or mental state that his bravery or the lack thereof consists in. We simply do not know. You can’t use pure logic to prove an existence claim.

The correct response is to point out that in this case, both the statement ‘Jones was brave’ and the statement ‘Jones was not brave’ share a common assumption. All the disjunctive syllogism (‘or-elimination’ in propositional logic) shows is that there is a shared assumption.

However, it would not be correct to draw the conclusion that the law of excluded middle should be rejected. What it shows that, ‘Jones was not brave’ is not the correct way of stating the proper, or full negation of ‘Jones was brave’.

What we should say, instead, is that, ‘Either Jones possessed the disposition to act unbravely, or there does not exist any such disposition, or Jones does not exist, or there is no such thing as bravery (just as there is no such thing as being a ‘witch’), or… (anything else you can think of).’

What is interesting about the Jones example is that the celebrated Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett in his seminal article, ‘Truth’ (reprinted in ‘Truth and Other Enigmas’ 1978), uses it as leverage against realism about meaning and truth. An anti-realist rejects the law of excluded middle.

I think he was wrong about this (as I argued in my doctoral thesis The Metaphysics of Meaning) but that’s a discussion for another occasion.

 

Iris asked:

1. Is there a view from somewhere?

2. How many angels can dance at the tip of the needle?

3. If I have a pen right now prove to me it does not exist or it does exist.

4. If two boxers pray at night before their fight, whom will God hear?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Very good, Iris.

1. Thomas Nagel’s book The View From Nowhere (1989) makes the case that there is such a thing as a ‘view from nowhere’. He assumes, without argument, that there is a ‘view from somewhere’. No human being occupies the view from nowhere, but we can conceive, in the abstract, what that would be like. So it would be turning the tables to raise the question whether, in fact, there IS a view from somewhere. You and I assume that there is. I have a perspective or view on the world, so do you. Those views are ‘real’ so far as you and I are concerned. Could we be wrong? how? Maybe you and I don’t really ‘exist’ as separate subjects of experience. All we are, is manifestations of IT, the singular consciousness and ultimate reality of the universe. — That would take some proving.

2. If you look at the tip of a needle under a microscope, it looks quite large. So it all seemingly depends on how small angels are. They could be tiny. Or does it? The point made in the original question (posed in the Middle Ages) is that, according to Thomistic metaphysics, unlike human beings each angel possesses a unique Aristotelian form. By contrast, you and I share the same Aristotelian form, the form of ‘human’. Objects that share the same form cannot exist in the same place at the same time. Objects that have different forms (e.g. ‘statue’ and ‘lump of bronze’) can. So unlike humans, a potentially infinite number of angels can exist in the same physical place. — If you believe in angels.

3. If your statement, ‘I have a pen right now’ is true then it follows, as a matter of logic, that the ‘pen I have right now’ exists. If it is true, as a matter of logic, that your pen exists, then it is false, as a matter of logic, that your pen does not exist. Of course, you could be lying, but that possibility isn’t relevant to the question you raised.

4. If both boxers are good Jews, or Christians, or Muslims (or, insert your favourite religion) then God hears both their prayers and decides for the best. It might be ‘for the best’ that you lose a fight, because if you had won, you would have put off your retirement from boxing, which would have led to your early death from injury. But then, of course, when you pray (If you are a good… whatever) you don’t pray to win, you pray that the outcome should be ‘for the best’. You don’t ask God for favours at the expense of someone else — do you?

 

Lovely asked:

If the old woman lives affluently do you think the Brahmin will not want the life of the old woman?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Voltaire’s story of the Good Brahmin raises a deeper, and to me more interesting question than John Stuart Mill’s ‘Why is it better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied?’ (from Utilitarianism 1861).

The Brahmin has been seeking all his life for the joy that the old lady gets from her religion — a joy for whose loss no material comforts can compensate. He has sought, as philosophers do, the way of understanding. Yet as philosophers know well, the search for understanding brings dissatisfaction and pain.

So we are not comparing human happiness or pleasure with that of a non-human animal. These are two paradigmatically human lives. (See Gideon Smith-Jones’ answer to Canton Not all pleasures are the same.)

On my interpretation, the Brahmin has set his heart on ‘finding the answer’, and now, too late, he realizes his all-too-human limitations. (Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry would have something to say about that.) And yet he would not trade places with the old woman.

Why?

You have to know why a person would choose to pursue a life in philosophy. This is something I have been explaining to my Pathways students for over two decades. They have not chosen the ‘life of a philosopher,’ but merely to study the subject for pleasure or the other rewards that study brings. Yet they understand.

The way of philosophy does not promise enlightenment. That wasn’t part of the deal. There is nothing in this or any other world that is worth trading for the understanding a philosopher seeks. That’s what you believe. To survive disappointments, battle scarred, and still press on is your badge of honour.

‘My pain is mine: I will not give it up.’

Something must also be said about Voltaire’s jaundiced view of philosophy — the same Voltaire who satirized the philosopher Leibniz in his novel Candide. Voltaire was a brilliant writer but a great philosopher he was not. I would hazard a guess (only a guess) that the pain he describes is his own secret pain. Not good enough to reach the heights of philosophy, he settled for ‘brilliant writing’ instead.

He would have been better off with a yacht and a Lamborghini and pad in St Tropez.

Whom would you prefer to be: Leibniz or Voltaire? or take the money?!

It’s a question I ask myself on occasion.

Jurgis asked:

What do you think of Merab Mamardashvili’s motto, ‘The Devil is playing with us, when we are not thinking precisely’?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Talk about ‘precision’ is like waving a red flag to a bull when you’re in conversation with an analytic philosopher. The English language is no longer enough — algebraic symbolism is now the norm in articles published in the major journals. The idea goes back to the 18th century philosopher Leibniz and his ‘characteristica universalis’:

“All our reasoning is nothing but the joining and substituting of characters, whether these characters be words or symbols or pictures… if we could find characters or signs appropriate for expressing all our thoughts as definitely and as exactly as arithmetic expresses numbers or geometric analysis expresses lines, we could in all subjects insofar as they are amenable to reasoning, accomplish what is done in Arithmetic and Geometry.”

(For a longer quote, see http://follydiddledah.com/image_and_quote_7.html.)

The ‘scab of symboles’ as Hobbes called it affects some areas of philosophy more than others. Some parts are still relatively free of it. Yet even then one finds points explained with irritating overkill, as if clarity can be achieved only by the philosophic equivalent of legalese, allowing no possible room for misinterpretation.

This kind of stuff bores me senseless — I’m not ashamed to admit, I won’t even make the attempt to read it even there are reasons to think there is something good buried down there. I don’t care. Let it stay buried. Academic philosophers should talk like normal human beings or shut up — because no-one outside their tiny circle is listening.

My view of precision is much more practical. It’s about having your mind on the job, something Robert Pirsig talks about in his Zen and the Art. It’s not a new idea: Aristotle was there first. You have to have the eye, or the ear, or the feel for what you are doing — whether it is making a brush mark on a canvas, tightening a nut on a motorcycle engine, selecting the right word, or choosing one of innumerable ways of casting an argument.

Mamardashvili was a Georgian philosopher, working under the Soviet regime. (See his profile in the ISFP Gallery of Russian Thinkers http://isfp.co.uk/russian_thinkers/merab_mamardashvili.html.) In his book Philosophizer, Geoffrey Klempner states:

“I have a theory that Russian intellectual life is afflicted by chronic bad conscience, which will take many generations to overcome. Under the Communists, ‘intellectuals’ and ‘philosophers’ (so-called) debated apparently weighty problems, all the time aware of the vast weight of censorship bearing down, silencing any genuinely significant idea. They pretended concern for the pursuit of truth while all the time hopelessly mired in lies. Those who refused to bend ended up in the Gulags. A lucky few escaped to the West.” (Chapter 9, ‘A touch of poshlust’)

This is somewhat unkind. Despite the restrictions on freedom of thought, Russian thinkers succeeded in producing a welter of original ideas, that have no counterpart either in the analytic or continental traditions. Yet there is a point to be made here. When a thinker protests, ‘At all costs, I am trying to think precisely,’ there is always a suspicion that the motivation for philosophy — the pursuit of truth at all costs, regardless of the outcome — has taken second place. This applies as much to analytic philosophy as it does to those Russian thinkers (I suspect Mamardashvili was not one of them)  who allowed themselves to be cowed by the the fascist bullies of the Soviet regime.

 

Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' Kindle book by Geoffrey Klempner

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