The Prehensionist Manifesto
(This document states the main tenets of the Cult of the Hand. All members of the cult are expected to conform to these principles. Formally, the cult is referred to as the Gripparian Order.)
We seek to promote greater hand consciousness
We advocate manual cultivation, arboreal therapy, and brachiation training
We believe in prehension science and are strict evolutionists
We preach hand reverence
We encourage hand intimacy, but not hand promiscuity
We are in the grip of the grip
We deplore hand neglect and hand repression
We thank nature for the gift of the hand
The thumb and forefinger are objects of special reverence
Our prophets are Charles Darwin, Charles Bell, and John Napier
We foster hand virtue
We think the hand is a thing of beauty
All hands are created equal
We contemplate the hand every day
We never take our hands for granted
We observe the hands of others
We prefer writing to speaking
We support an active hand life-style
All fingers are important
Hand communication is encouraged
We practice special secret hand greetings
We think the hand jive was cool
We leave casts of our hands after death
We worry about the decline of the hand in the modern world
We view tools as extensions of the hand
We classify species according to their prehensive profile
We regard the brain as secondary to the hand
We have intense hand discussions
We teach our children hand anatomy
We believe that pointing is profound
Hand exercise is mandatory
We do everything to avoid cold, numb hands
We believe that a flexible hand is a flexible mind
We regard the intellect as an extension of the hand
We tolerate pan-prehensionists but this is not official doctrine
We admire gibbons greatly
We sing praises to the hand
We favor eating with the hands
We esteem the feet because they are the platform of the hands
The muscles of the forearm are fascinating to us
We believe that anatomy is destiny
We regard the body as essentially prehensile
We regard speech as a fall from grace
We reserve a special compassion for those who have lost their hands
We are entranced by trees
We abhor “glad-handing”
We find hand holding extremely romantic
For us the hand has a halo around it
We view the mouth with some suspicion
We see nature as the Great Chain of Prehensive Being
We feel the foot is misunderstood
We collect hand trivia
We admire hand erudition
We disapprove of hand exhibitionism
Our central metaphor is the grip
At wedding ceremonies we say, “You may now hold the bride’s hand”
We have private hand gripping sessions
Shaking hands is taken very seriously
We feel a kinship with apes
Kissing the hand is permitted but not encouraged
Calling someone “handy” is a great compliment
We see no distinction of status between the power grip and the precision grip
We think philosophers have wrongly ignored the hand
In the beginning was the hand-deed
We despise the phrase “hand job”
We believe that capitalism has led to proletarian hand alienation
We think it is bad manners to grab things
We have long arguments about hand etiquette
We regard the hand as corruptible but not corrupt
We are ambivalent about gloves
We are a secular organization but we applaud hand worship in moderation
We support hand pride initiatives, but deplore hand vanity
We feel that musicians are basically good but at risk of hand abuse
We accept that man is nothing without his opposable thumb
We oppose hand oversimplification
We give out hand achievement prizes, especially to children
We invest in hand education
We believe the hand is more trustworthy than the tongue
We climb trees at weekends
We regard fingerprinting as an invasion of privacy
We are continually astonished by the hand
We do not permit hand plastic surgery, except for medical reasons
We are working to create a hand museum and university
One of our highest honors is to be designated a “Keeper of the Hand”
We wash our hands in a spirit of holiness
Violence with the hand leads to immediate expulsion from the Order
Anyone wishing to become a member must pass a simple test in pointing and gripping
We approve of prehensional meditation but it is not mandatory
We believe mind and body are united in the hand
We are a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving hand wellbeing globally
We do not favor one hand over the other
We believe that 10 is a special number
We are critical of thumb idolatry, though we understand it
We give our children names like Palm and Index and Grippa
We call Sunday Thumbday
We reject the term “pinkie”, preferring “precious”
We treat the back of the hand with the same respect as the front, though it has no name
We have an annual hand poetry prize
We repudiate all hand superstitions
We maintain that the hand is epistemologically fundamental
We love the words “squeeze” and “grasp”
We stage brachiation contests
“I grasp, therefore I am”
Some of us refrain from applause because it is a form of hand slapping
We are working on improving hand nomenclature
We engage in hand sensitivity training, sometimes involving animals
We are suspicious of conventional notions of hand beauty, such as slender fingers
We have convened a special commission to consider boxing and other martial arts
We envisage a hand utopia
We are ambivalent about card tricks
We feel that everyone should work on his or her power grip, no matter how elevated
We memorize hand figures of speech
We conduct remedial hand appreciation workshops for those who need them
Our official icon is a picture of the thumb-index circle
We dream of the platonic form of the hand
We are very careful with kitchen knives
We think Michelangelo was onto something in the Sistine Chapel
We are interested in hand anthropology but believe in hand universals
We have doctors dedicated only to hand ailments
We have special hand holidays and celebrations
We regard ourselves as the only sane cult in the world
We are impressed by the hand theme in the life of Jesus of Nazareth
For us divinity exists only at the tip of the arms
We esteem all forms of prehension but we reserve a special place for the manual kind
In the hand we glimpse the infinite
We believe we were created in the image of the hand
We reject the notion of an immaterial hand
Man is a manual animal, a res manipulans, a digital soul
But we also know that we must trim our nails
(Membership of the cult is open to all, as long as the above precepts are adhered to. No exceptions permitted. Good gripping!)
What is the state of belief of an atheist? An atheist is often defined as someone who does not believe in God. It is quite true that an atheist does not believe in God, but that is insufficient to define the state of belief of an atheist. A tree or a rock or a lizard does not believe in God either--but it would be bizarre to describe such beings as atheists. This is because they are not believers at all, in anything. And even a dog or a chimpanzee, which plausibly do have beliefs, are hardly to be characterized as atheists. Furthermore, an agnostic does not believe in God either, since he suspends belief on the question. What is missing, obviously, is the fact that an atheist disbelieves in the existence of God—he believes that there is no God. He doesn’t merely lack belief in a divinity; he positively believes in the absence of a divinity. Moreover, he takes his negative belief to be rational, to be backed by reasons. He doesn’t just find himself with a belief that there is no God; he comes to that belief by what he takes to be rational means—that is, he takes his belief to be justified. He may not regard his atheistic belief as certain, but he certainly takes it to be reasonable—as reasonable as any belief he holds. Just by holding the belief he regards himself as rationally entitled to it (or else he wouldn’t, as a responsible believer, believe it—that being the nature of belief). Also, given the nature of belief, he takes himself to know that there is no God: for to believe that p is to take oneself to know that p. The atheist, like any believer in a proposition, regards his belief as an instance of knowledge (of course, it may not be, but he necessarily takes is to be so). So an atheist is someone who thinks he knows there is no God. Thus he is prepared responsibly to assert that there is no God. The atheist regards himself as knowing there is no God in just the sense that he regards himself as knowing, say, that the earth is round. He claims to know the objective truth about the universe in respect of a divinity—that the universe contains no such entity. Of course, this entails that he claims to know that other people’s beliefs on this question are false, i.e. the theists who believe that there is a God. He also claims to know that the agnostics are mistaken too: they suspend belief when it is rational to commit oneself on the question. If an agnostic asserts that only a state of non-belief about the existence of God is rational, the atheist takes the view that this is false: it is rational to hold positively that there is no God, not merely to be neutral on the question. The atheist thus claims to know that theists and agnostics are epistemically defective—that they have false and unwarranted beliefs about the question of God’s existence. He then has reason to wish to alter their beliefs so as to bring them into line with the truth. True beliefs are better than false ones, and he has the true beliefs while theirs are false.
It would be quite wrong, then, to describe an atheist as a “non-believer”. He does not merely lack beliefs; he has many beliefs, among them that there is no God. It is not that the atheist is somehow shy of belief or afflicted with pathologically high standards for belief formation; he is not a skeptic, one who shuns belief. He is as much a believer as the theist; he just believes different things. It is not that there is a big hole in his belief system while the theist is bursting with robust beliefs; his beliefs are as numerous and sturdy as anyone’s—just different, that’s all. Indeed, the theist is as much a “non-believer’ as the atheist is, since the theist does not believe that there is no God, thus failing to possess a belief possessed by the atheist. And, of course, the atheist has many substantive beliefs that go along with his atheism, concerning the origin of the universe, life, the nature of morality, mortality, etc. Only from the point of the theist is he describable as a “non-believer”; from his own point of view, he believes in a great many things. From the atheist’s perspective, the theist is as much a non-believer as he is commonly taken to be, since the theist fails to hold many of his atheistic beliefs. The atheist is a red-blooded believer, indeed a confident (purported) knower.
To many observers the atheist as thus described is an arrogant and unreasonable figure. He takes himself to be entitled to various beliefs and attitudes to which he is simply not entitled. He does not know what he so confidently takes himself to know. He has overstepped the epistemic mark. He is a dogmatist, an atheistic fundamentalist, as unreasonable as the most unflinching religionist. He claims knowledge where none can be had. Agnosticism is the only reasonable position, if theism is to be rejected; atheism is intellectually irresponsible. How can anyone know that there is no God—any more than we can know that there is a God? These matters are simply beyond human knowledge, it will be said, areas of deep and irremediable ignorance.
I count myself an atheist in the strong sense outlined--so am I guilty of going out on an epistemic limb, of claiming to know what cannot be known? Am I being unreasonable? I don’t think I am, because there are many propositions affirming the nonexistence of things that most sensible people unhesitatingly accept. Take Santa Claus: what is your state of belief about him? Presumably you do not believe that he exists; but are you an agnostic about his existence? Do you think it is unreasonable—scandalous even--to believe that Santa Claus does not exist? I doubt it. You actively disbelieve in the existence of a tubby ageless pink-faced man with a white beard and red clothes who lives in the north pole making toys for children and who periodically mounts a sleigh to fly through the air powered by superfast reindeer in order to distribute these toys to children who have been good. If some epistemic stickler were to insist that only agnosticism is rational here, you would think him a bit nutty (“How can you be so certain there is no Santa Claus? Such certainty is beyond human epistemic powers!”). The reason is that you take yourself to have many good reasons to doubt that Santa exists: the story is made up to please gullible little children; searches of the north pole have not revealed the tubby philanthropist in question; it is preposterous to suppose that he could fly through the air with gravity-defying reindeer; he leaves no trace of his alleged journeys; parents have been known to purchase the gifts attributed to Santa’s generosity. These are all solid reasons to believe the negative existential: “Santa Claus does not exist”. Do they amount to cast-iron Cartesian certainty? No, but then nor do the vast majority of our beliefs; and this one seems no worse than, say, the belief that the earth orbits the sun or that Barack Obama exists. We are not certain in a skepticism-proof way of many things, but that doesn’t imply that we don’t have good reasons for our beliefs—including beliefs that certain things that some people think exist (in this case, little kids) do not. Quite simply, we know there is no such person as Santa Claus. Here is another example: I tell you that there is a dragon in the room next to you, eight feet tall and breathing fire, called “Draggy”. You express doubt, because you can’t see anything dragon-like in the vicinity. I tell you that it isn’t visible—or audible, touchable, or smellable. Draggy is a very special kind of dragon, completely undetectable by the human senses or any other device; yet he exists. I then challenge you to disprove my claim. I insist that if you won’t take my word for it then at least admit that you are agnostic on the question of Draggy’s existence—since you can’t prove he doesn’t exist. You might reply that I have defined Draggy in a very convenient way, so that no sensory evidence could possibly be given for or against his existence. The existential claim is totally unverifiable and unfalsifiable. Should you then be an agnostic about Draggy? That seems unduly cautious: it is more reasonable to suppose that I am playing a game with you, perhaps in order to scare you (I might go on to assert that when it thunders outside that is Draggy being petulant). You would be well within your rights to say to me: “Rubbish, you are making this sh** up; I totally disbelieve in the existence of your dubious Draggy or whatever you want to call it”. I might then go on to remind you of Descartes, dreams, brains in vats, the difficulty of obtaining absolute certainty; but you would rightly not be impressed by such flimflam. People cannot just go around positing peculiar entities and expect you either to believe that they exist or admit that you don’t know one way or the other.
Let me distinguish reasonable from excessive agnosticism. Reasonable agnosticism applies to cases where the evidence for and against a proposition is pretty evenly balanced. There are many such cases: Should we maintain a military presence in Afghanistan? Is there such a thing as dark matter? Was the moon ever part of the earth? Excessive agnosticism is the view that we should never commit ourselves as to the truth of a proposition. It is the natural response to various forms of extreme philosophical skepticism. What I am pointing out is that opponents of atheism practice selective excessive agnosticism: they insist on a skeptic’s standard of evidence when it comes to the proposition that God does not exist. They accept that other negative existentials can be known to be true—as that Santa and Draggy do not exist—but they deny that the atheist negative existential can be known to be true. My position is that both are in the same boat: that is, it is as reasonable to be an atheist as it is to be a disbeliever in Santa or Draggy. There is nothing inherently irrational in denying the existence of God, any more than it is inherently irrational to deny the existence of those other things. To suppose otherwise is to be what we might call a dogmatic agnostic—one who refuses on principle to disbelieve no matter how good the evidence for disbelief is.
And now the question becomes what the reasons actually are to deny that God exists. Here I shall be brief, because this is well-trodden ground. In the first place, I do not think there is any evidence in favor of God’s existence (by “God” I shall mean a supernatural being with some personal characteristics who created the universe and is interested in the fate of sentient beings such as ourselves). No observable fact about the universe points towards God as its most plausible explanation, e.g. the intricate design of organisms. There is no good evidence of miracles on the part of specially endowed human beings or emanating from Beyond. The idea of a disembodied being with infinite causal powers existing imperceptibly is contrary to reason. The traditional story of such a being is better explained by certain human needs and superstitions instead of by the actual existence of such a being. It is never reasonable to believe in the existence of something simply because of human testimony, when no other evidence has ever been forthcoming. The traditional so-called proofs of God’s existence—the first-cause argument, the ontological argument, the argument from design—do not hold water. In sum: there is simply nothing out there that amounts to a decent reason to assert that there is a God. As to arguments against, there is the standard problem of evil, as well as the more general problem of making sense of a being having all the qualities said to be possessed by God (e.g. how can God be truly omnipotent granted he is a necessary being—for couldn’t he act so as to extinguish himself, thereby showing his contingency?). There is really no more reason to believe in the God I have defined than in the Greek gods or other beings of myth and legend.
The theist may think I am being hasty and unfair. These are profound questions, she will say, not to be quickly decided. I agree that the considerations just adduced need to be thought through carefully (and I take myself to have done this work over the years), but the point that needs to be made here is that the theist is actually as hasty and unfair as she says I am. For every theist is also an atheist. That is, every believer in one god is a disbeliever in another. Believers in the Christian God disbelieve in the vengeful, jealous and capricious God of the Old Testament, as well as in the Hindu gods or the Greek gods or the nature gods of “primitive” tribes or any number of other “false gods”. People believe in the reality of their own God but they are not similarly credulous when it comes to other people’s gods—here their disbelief is patent and powerful. They do not preach agnosticism about those other gods; they reject them outright. I am with them on this point, but I extend it to their God too. My point is that they are as “dogmatic” as I am in their atheism; we are just atheists about different gods. I am an atheist about all gods; typical theists are atheists about the majority of gods believed in over the centuries by human beings of one tribe or another. I find their disbelief thoroughly sensible; I would merely urge them to push it one stage further. I favor total atheism; they favor selective atheism--none of that pusillanimous agnosticism for either of us. So please, theist, do not accuse me of epistemic irresponsibility in my atheism.
There used to be a big issue about monotheism and polytheism. Asserting the existence of only one god flew in the face of the beliefs of the polytheistic majority. No doubt the polytheists felt disrespected, and they wondered how the monotheists could be so sure that all those gods of old were mere fancy, poor non-existent beings, destined for the scrap heap of history. Some of the gods denied had ancient names, fervid followers, temples devoted to them, priests specializing in their doings—and the disbelieving monotheists wanted to abandon all of that in favor of their pinched unitary deity. The new monotheists were the atheists of their day, except that they retained a single divine being alone (hoping for a reductio the polytheists asked why, if they were ready to abandon nearly all the gods, they didn’t go the whole way). Perhaps the polytheists urged a more cautious agnosticism on the monotheists with regard to the spurned deities; they rejected the offer, preferring outright disbelief. My state of belief mirrors theirs, except that I affirm zero gods instead of one. (In fact, the idea of many gods has its advantages over the one-god theory: it comports with the complexity of the world and it promotes tolerance.) Yahweh, Baal, Hadad, and Yam: which of these ancient gods do you believe in and which do you think fictitious? I believe in none of them, nor in any others that might be mentioned; if you believe in one of them and disbelieve in the others, then you are just like me with respect to those others. Atheism is not confined to atheists, and the epistemology is the same no matter which gods you disbelieve in.
I say I am an atheist, and that is true. But the label is misleading in that it characterizes me from the perspective of a theist: I am a rejecter of theism (why can’t I describe theists as rejecters of atheism, thus privileging my own position?). This gives the impression that I go around rejecting theism, that I am preoccupied with that activity, that I wake up each day and celebrate my denial of God’s existence. According to this picture, I am an atheist in the same way I am a philosopher or a tennis player or hold certain moral views—these being traits of mine that define my “identity”. But really I am atheist in the same way typical monotheists are a-polytheist: it’s not something you think about, aside from the constant buzz of people asserting the opposite. Since there are no noisy polytheists left, monotheists don’t need to occupy themselves with combating polytheism; nor is this something they fret about and ponder on a daily basis. They are beyond polytheism. To be a theist who is labeled an a-polytheist would be an odd mode of description today--true but hardly central, significant. You could be an a-polytheist and scarcely have given the topic a moment’s thought; it is simply a logical implication of your assumed monotheism. For me to be called an atheist feels similarly weird, as if I am defined by one of disbeliefs (I’m also an a-scientologist, an a-Santa-ist, an a-werewolf-ist, etc). If theists were in the minority, and quieter, I doubt that the term “atheist” would be much used; and if that minority were very small, theists might be called “a-naturalists” or some such thing. I am defined as an atheist only in a certain social context. I used to be a serious engaged atheist, when I was thinking systematically and passionately about religion, some forty years ago—when I was in the heated process of rejecting religious claims. But since then my atheism has become merely reactive; where once the larva was hot, now it is cool. I used to believe in ghosts and goblins too, as well as Santa, but once the process of rejecting these entities was over my state of belief became one mainly of indifference. It would be odd, though literally true, to describe me as someone who disbelieves in ghosts, goblins and Santa—as if this were what my thought processes were all about. I am beyond these things—as I assume you are too. And that is my actual position with respect to God: I am post-theist—or I would be if I were not placed in a social context in which I need to defend my settled beliefs (hence this essay). I no longer debate the issue with myself or wonder whether I might be making a serious mistake (though I concede, as a good fallibilist, that it is logically possible that I am wrong—as it is about almost everything I believe). So my state of belief is not that of one continuously denying the existence of God, with an active belief that there is no such entity (though it is true that I am more often in this state than I would be the issue were not constantly debated around me). I am, dispositionally at any rate, in a state of implicit disbelief with respect to God—as I am in a state of implicit disbelief about ghosts, goblins and Santa. I simply take it for granted that there is no God, instead of constantly asserting it to myself. The state of mind I am in while composing this essay is not then my habitual state of mind, and even to be explicitly denying the existence of God strikes me as taking the issue a little too seriously—as it would be to write an essay making explicit my negative implicit beliefs about Santa Claus. So I am really as much post-atheist as post-theist, when it comes to my natural state of mind—just as I suppose most people are post-a-polytheist as well as post-polytheist. Polytheism, for most people, is simply a dead issue, not a subject of active concern. Theism for me is a dead issue, which is why it is misleading to call me an atheist--though it is of course strictly true that I am. It is misleading in just the way it is misleading to speak of a traditional Christian as an a-polytheist or a normal adult as an a-Santa-ist, since it suggests are far more active engagement with the issue than is the case. Many other difficult issues engage my mind and remain unresolved or at least open to serious question, but not my disbelief in God.
I have also reached the point (I reached it long ago) that the issue of God’s existence no longer strikes me as an interesting issue. I mean, when it comes up I tend to glaze over, because all the moves are so familiar and the debate seems so antiquated. I find it hard to get fired up about it. It just seems dull. No intellectual sparks fly off it. The question has important political and cultural significance, to be sure, but as an intellectual issue in its own right it lacks vitality. By contrast, my belief in ethical objectivism, or in natural mysteries, or in conceptual analysis, seems relevant and alive—as does my rejection of the contrary positions. My rejection of theism is more like my rejection of monarchy as a good political system—a bit of a yawn. When I was young I saw through both ideas and have found no reason over the decades to question my earlier conclusions, so the belief is like an old relative I take for granted rather than a lively new acquaintance (I am by no means in love with atheism, as I am with other intellectual ideas). The thrill of atheism has gone, along with fear of it; now it is just an uninteresting fact about me, hardly worth mentioning.
Do I then advocate abandoning all talk of God and his works? I think there is no such thing as God in reality, so do I also think that discourse about God has no useful role? It may shock some of my atheist comrades but I don’t advocate the abolition of God-talk. What I think is that God is (or can be or become) a useful fiction, so his name can play a role even though it has no existent bearer. For many people Satan has already gone that way: they don’t believe in his literal existence but they find it useful to retain the concept and its associated language and ideology. Satan is, or has become, a useful fiction, his name a fruitful source of ideas and emotions, especially when it comes to describing the deeply evil. Imagine a community of intelligent beings who have never believed in God or anything supernatural or even considered the question of whether such beings might exist; they are constitutionally secular. They do, however, enjoy works of fiction, so they are familiar with the notion of a fictional character; they are clear that such characters do not exist but are merely conjured up by creative writers. One day a writer publishes a novel with a radically new theme: a supernatural being who created the universe, cares about us, ensures our survival after death, rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked—called “Gud”. The book is offered as a work of pure fiction and is taken to be so by its eager readers. It becomes a bestseller, a publishing phenomenon. People speak constantly of Gud and his works, enjoying the fiction woven around this supernatural character. The story supplies something in their imaginative life hitherto missing (rather as some of Shakespeare’s characters seem to do so). No one, however, is tempted to think the story is factually true. They start saying Gud-related things to each other, like “Gud wouldn’t think much of that” or “It would take Gud to pull that off” or “By Gud, you’re beautiful”. They find such remarks amusing, maybe enlightening—though they are consciously interpreted as purely fictional (compare “Only Sherlock Holmes could have solved that crime”). In this way the God concept enters their thought and discourse, but never in such a way as to make a factual claim; it is all just harmless make-believe. I have no objection to any of this: our hypothetical community is a community of atheists who find talk of Gud useful and amusing. A fictional supernatural being plays a role in their imagination but is not taken to be a genuine constituent of reality. They are careful, say, to instruct their children that this is just a story not a piece of sober metaphysics or science. Well, I think God could play just such a role for us. We simply cease to take talk of God literally, consigning him to the category of useful fictions. He already plays that role for many of us, because atheists do not all abjure the word “God” (“I wish to God people didn’t believe in things like…God”). In fact it is plausible to conjecture that back in man’s prehistory, before the distinction between myth and fact has become clear, talk of the gods belonged to seamless mode of speech in which people were none too fussy about which parts they thought corresponded to objective reality and which parts were projections of the imagination. Then god talk became hardened into literal assertion and you had to decide whether you thought the gods were myth or reality; heretofore people were pleasantly hazy about that distinction. I don’t advocate a reversion to such haziness; I just think it was a mistake to put the gods on the reality side instead of the useful fiction side. Let us then put them clearly on the fictional side where they belong; we can then talk about them all we want, so long as we know what we are doing. Presumably churches and other forms of worship will then disappear, at least as we know them—though worship of known-to-be-fictional characters is not unprecedented. Religion as we have it will certainly not survive the reorientation I am suggesting, though a good deal of its conceptual core might (only now interpreted fictionally). People will no longer believe in God but they will make-believe in him. This strikes me as quite an attractive world to live in. Stories can, after all, be good—artistically, morally—without being true—factually. There is no God, but the story of him has its attractions as a work of art (at least some of it does; not all of the God fiction is that useful). Living in that world my state of belief with regard to God might include a good deal of make-believe in him, combined with adamant disbelief in his reality. My imaginative life already involves a lot of make-believe in relation to fictional characters, none of it confused with belief proper; I see no reason why I couldn’t extend this attitude towards God, at least once other people stopped literally believing in him. I might then extract what is good in the concept, while discarding the metaphysical baggage. Religious language would then be more of a fun fiction than a cruel hoax, a kind of game.
How alien is objective physical reality compared (a) to its perceptual appearance and (b) to our own consciousness? As to (a), it seems to lack secondary qualities like color; in which case, what makes it capabable of occupying space? As to (b), unless we go in for panpsychism it seems very remote from the nature of experience. So it must be quite alien to the things we know about most directly. Is it SO alien that we couldn't represent it in our experience in principle? We're accustomed to the strangeness of matter from contemporary physics, but is it so far removed from what we are familiar with that we have no hope of adequately representing it? Is it as remote from our understanding as a bat's experience? Or is it remoter, because at least a bat has experience, which we also do--while matter sits at an opposite ontological extreme? Is the entire universe an alien form of life--though completely dead?
The odd thing about utilitarianism is that what makes it most attractive is also what makes it most implausible. It seems good to require impartiality, so that no one is treated as privileged in making a moral decision--hence U doesn't discriminate with respect to whose happiness is maximized. But this very feature of the theory is what leads to its hyperbolic demandingness--as when it obliges us to give away all our money to charity and neglect our own children in order to benefit remote individuals. The altruistic aspect of U comports well with the intuitive content of morality, but the slide into excessive altruism is immediate. To prevent this, we have to insist on partiality, but then we are back discriminating against certain people. Stressing special relationships quickly leads to favoring our own tribe at the expense of others. It's either demandingness or discrimination.
Consider the following thought experiment. You go to a possible world and encounter some space-occupying objects. They appear just as our space-occupying objects do--with shapes, colors, masses, and so on. Does it follow that they are made of the same material stuff as our objects? Mightn't they be made of same strange ectoplasm that merely simulates the superfical properties of we call material things; or of some other variant of the general category "matter"? In particular, these possible entities have the same causal properties and dispositions as our objects, despite their different constitution. If this is a real possibility, then the knowledge of matter we now have cannnot include its actual intrinsic constitution, since if it did we could know that the entities in this possible world are not of the same stuff as our entities. In short, we don't know the intrinsic nature of matter.
For the last couple of classes we've been discussing utilitarianism (U). U is a consequentialist doctrine, like ethical egoism, though it evaluates actions by the general good, not merely that of the agent. An action is right if and only if it leads to more happiness and less suffering than any other action that could be performed in the circumstances, with respect to everyone affected by the action. That is, we are obliged to do what leads to the most happiness for the most people (and animals, on some versions). Clearly, then, U is altruistic in form, since it requires us to sacrifice some of our own happiness if that will lead to greater happiness all round. The view is universalist, egalitarian, secular, monistic--and obviously onto something. Surely the goal of morality, at least in part, is to promote the general welfare, it might be thought, and that's what U prescribes. It comes as a surprise then that the theory encounters serious and principled problems, mainly revolving around questions of justice--but also concerning whether it is too morally demanding. Such criticisms are the topics for next week's class.
The topic this week was ethical egoism. What a terrible theory it is! An action is right if and only if it's in your own self interest. That means that helping others, with no benefit to self, is immoral. Rubbish. Particularly pathetic is the argument that apparently atruistic actions are really egoistic, since you get pleasure from doing good. This just conflates the object of a want with its consequences. You might as well argue that economic actions, like buying a television, are really altruistic, because someone else benefits, namely the people you buy it from. Motives are of several kinds: egoistic, altruistic, malicious, and self-destructive.
So far this term I've dispatched the three most popular ethical theories in America today--relativism, divine command theory, and egoism. It wasn't difficult work. So people go through their lives with ethical ideas that are patently erroneous. A few classes in high school would suffice to put them right, but somehow it never happens. You aren't supposed to criticize people's ethical opinions. That's sad.
In my seminar we discussed a paper by Galen Strawson, "Real Materialism". It's a stimulating paper that contends that experiences should be declared "physical" just as such, without benefit of reduction. We don't know enough about matter to rule out their being aspects of it--so why not call them "physical"? I appreciate Galen's premisses but I resist the conclusion. I quite agree that our conception of matter is sketchy at best; as John Foster puts it, matter is "inscrutable". I even see some force in the thesis that experiences constitute the intrinsic nature of matter (though I don't in the end agree with it); but I see no point in calling this aspect "physical". However, Galen gives a nice account of the Russellian thesis about the limitations of our knowledge of material reality. It's a rather Kantian thesis--with the underlying reality of matter noumenal and our knowledge only capturing its appearance to us.
1. Objects are composed of stuff (“matter”, “energy”, “ectoplasm”). This stuff gives the substance of the object. Is it a substratum? We can say that, though it need not be unknowable. (Truisms quickly turn into absurdities here.) It is not a priori what kind of stuff the world contains, though it is a priori that it contains stuff of some sort. The same stuff can take many forms. An object is not identical to the stuff that composes it. Objects and stuff belong to different “categories”.
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I'm beginning this blog with a big chunk of metaphysics, written in the high Wittgensteinian style-a series of linked aphorisms. The ideas came to me in that way and it felt forced to try to present them in the usual discursive form. I usually don't write in this style, and vaguely disapprove of it. Partly because of the unorthodox format, finding an orthodox way to publish Principia Metaphysica proved something of a problem; so I publish it now, on the Web, so that it might see the light of day.
I intend to write a good deal about philosophy on this blog, generally as and when topics arise in my academic life. This semester I'm teaching a graduate seminar on ontology, which will have a lot of physics in it-as well as consciousness and meaning. No doubt I'll submit reports of how this is going. In the first class, next Tuesday, I'm going to present a paper in which I argue that traditional ontology isn't possible. It has long been assumed that there are three great categories of being-the physical, the mental, and the abstract-and that metaphysics is concerned to decide whether entities from each category exist, and whether one category can be reduced to the others. Thus we have materialism, idealism and Platonism-as well as dualism and nominalism. My contention is that the three categories are actually not well-defined, so that traditional ontology is asking improperly formed questions-which means that the standard doctrines of metaphysics are also not well-defined.
In addition to these philosophical disquisitions, I'll occasionally discuss other things that interest me-particularly sport. Since I just started stand-up paddle-boarding, they'll be a certain amount on that-how it compares to kayaking and surfing, say. This is a new sport that is currently sweeping the planet and I predict a strong future for it. The board is usually about twelve feet long and thirty inches wide; you stand on it and propel yourself forward with a canoe-style paddle (the kind with a blade at one end and T-grip at the other). It's easy enough in flat water, but the difficulty increases exponentially in rough water, which makes stand-up paddle surfing pretty challenging-there's a lot of falling off the board. As it happens, I just finished writing a book about sport, its mechanics, aesthetics, ethics and psychology; so this subject is very much on my mind.
I also intend to weigh in on various questions of ethics and politics, and cultural matters generally-especially if they have any philosophical ramifications. I might even tell you what I'm finding funny these days, on TV and elsewhere. So it won't all be dry serious stuff. Last night, say, I found 30 Rock and The Office especially amusing: but I won't try to repeat the jokes here. In fact, I might even play the role of TV critic once in a while. I'll be ranging from the intellectual to the athletic to the facetious.
My plan now is to write this blog in a diary-like form, with regular postings of weightier pieces-like the PM I'm kicking off with. And, of course, I welcome feedback and comments.
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