Speech carries various anxieties. Fear of asserting what is false should count as the most serious--inadvertent falsehood, as opposed to plain lying. The philosophical skeptic taps into this fear, making assertion seem perilous. In the 20th century fear of meaningless utterance became acute: it was all too easy to confuse the grammatical with the meaningful and end up spouting nonsense (the positivists tapped into this fear). This is more disturbing than the skeptical insinuation, because while truth is not transparent we feel that meaningfulness should be. Another linguistic fear, though, is the fear of cliche, of saying the hackneyed and over-used. I've always had a dread of this form of linguistic calamity and will go to almost any verbal lengths to avoid cliche--and yet the fear of it still dogs me. How can anyone still permit themselves to utter the phrases "emotional roller-coaster", "voracious reader", "like a deer caught in the headlights", etc? I wouldn't be caught dead with that stuff coming out of my mouth. What other linguistic fears are there? It would be interesting to compile a list and then impose a taxonomy. Speech is always an arena of anxiety, is it not?
The other day I was on the tennis court alone, practicing my serve. From nowhere I heard a sudden loud noise, like an explosive. I couldn't make out the source but then I noticed a flattened can on the other side of the court, about fifteen feet way. I went over to investigate and found a squashed can of corn beef hash, full, heavy. It had evidently been dropped from above the court, at least twenty floors up (the building has 44 floors and faces the tennis court). The act of dropping it had clearly been intentional and the purpose was presumably to scare me. If it had hit me on the head, it would certainly have killed me, such was the power of the impact. Reflecting on the incident later, it occurred to me that this was a minor act of terrorism: the purpose was to infuse an ordinary, peaceful activity--playing tennis--with fear and anxiety. And it worked: since that day I am always looking up and the calm of my tennis has been replaced with a kind of dread. Terrorists have made even the quotidian and tranquil into a zone of fear. Boy, would I like catch the person who did it. There is something nauseatingly sinister about the terrorist intention: to remove peace of mind.
How well understood is motion, really? Physics is supposed to be the science that predicts and explains all motions of matter; it describes the laws that govern the forces that move things. But there are some big gaps. The motions of particles are notoriously unpredictable and inexplicable at the quantum level, but at the cosmic level we have the problem of explaining galaxy acceleration--the universe is expanding more slowly than the calculated amount of matter in it would make us expect, given the accepted rules of gravity. Physicists have taken to speaking of "dark matter" a what accounts for the extra pull, but there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a thing--and isn't the idea of intrinsically invisible matter an oxymoron? It's just sheer handwaving. So we don't know why the cosmos is movingas it is. Do we know why animal bodies move as they do? Doesn't the mind play a role in "determining" these movements? But physics has nothing to say about the forces that govern the mind and its capacity to induce motion. I sometimes wonder if any motion has really been explained.
I recall reading somewhere that Keynes criticized Russell for saying that the problem with the world is that people are irrational and that the solution is that they should become rational. It seems a fair comment on Russell--but why is it a criticism? Because Russell's observation is a datum not an explanation: we want to know why people are irrational and how to improve their rationality. It's obvious what the problem is and also what the solution would be--but we need to know what causes irrationality and what we can do to fix it. Freud had a kind of theory of this but nowadays it looks pretty wacky. There seems to be a big theoretical gap here, urgently needing to be filled. (Of course, we won't recognize it if we start doubting that rationality is a robust matter.) I don't have a theory myself--human irrationality can seem the oddest and least adaptive trait of the species--but I do think we need to work on it. Why do people go around believing silly things and acting idiotically?
The New York Times (as well as AOL) today ran a picture of a lesbian couple getting married in California: Del Martin, 87, Phyllis Lyon, 84. They are holding hands and looking into each other's eyes, lined and grey and not long for this world; they have been together for 50 years. Doesn't it make you feel embarrassed that discrimination and prejudice have prevented them by law from getting married all these years? Doesn't it seem just utterly ridiculous? All this stuff about marriage being between a man and a woman: it's just complete whooey. I really wonder what all those anti-gay-marriage twits out there think and feel when they see a picture like that. Do they feel their own marriages under threat because these two old ladies are finally able to tie the knot? I think we owe them an apology myself.
Despite my many misgivings about our prized political system, it did manage to elect Barack Obama to be the Democratic nominee. I'm pleasantly surpised at my fellow man. It's not just his color, but also his calm, measured style, and obvious moral quality. But his color is, of course, highly significant. I can hardly think of a better thing for this country, and the world, than that he should be elected president. Political and moral progress is possible. Many blacks reported tears in their eyes when the announcement of his nomination was made; mine were damp too. This is a Big One. There's nothing quite so gratifying as seeing a horrible prejudice smashed to pieces.
I am struck by this passage from Tocqueville: "I have previously stated that the principle of the sovereignty of the people hovers over the whole political system of the Anglo-Americans. Every page of this book will reflect certain fresh instances of this doctrine. In nations were it exists, every individual takes an equal share in sovereign power and participates equally in the government of the state. Thus he is considered as enlightened, virtuous, strong as any of his fellow men." Toqueville's point is that democracy presupposes that each person is as competent and virtuous as any other. But of course this is false: people differ widely in intelligence and virtue. Note that he says "considered" not "really". So democracy rests on a lie. How, then, to defend democracy? Well, if truth, reason, virtue, etc are not objective qualities that people exemplify to varying degrees, but are rather relative to each person, we have a way out: everyone is as smart and good as anyone else to himself. Then democracy rests on no lie, since everyone really is cognitively and morally equal. Relativism steps in to save democracy from its noble lie. Thus relativism finds a foothold. But relativism is rubbish; so where does that leave democracy?
I watch how tennis players serve with great concentration. They all do it pretty much in the same way. And this way is quite different from the way amateur players serve, even quite decent amateur players. Claudio taught me the finer points of serving a few months ago (now, alas, he is back in Germany). High toss, long reach, bring the feet together, use a throwing action, backhand grip, snap the wrist down, plenty of side and top spin. It was incredibly awkward for me at first (backhand grip?!), but I took to practicing it almost every day for several months--not just on the court with a hopper of balls but also in my living room (no ball, just air). Gradually, the pieces came together, with some striking breakthroughs. Now what seemed alien feels natural. I can't serve any other way. It feels good to hit it just the way the pros do. There's a moral here--but I think it's too obvious for me to want to spell it out. Main point is: instead of fearing to serve, now I love to serve. Indeed, I can't wait to get down to the court and hit some serves.
My son Bruno told me yesterday that he'd just been watching a video of me on Youtube. Eventually it became clear what this video was of: a discussion I participated in a few years ago at the Philoctetes Centre in New York about evolution, consciousness, and the meaning of it all. I hadn't even remembered that it was being filmed, but it's a mark of our digital times that it has now shown up on the internet to be accessed by my son 3000 miles away. But that's not the point I'm most interested in making here; because Bruno observed that the scientists present were generally disagreeable and closed-minded (he actually used a much stronger word to describe them). And he's a scientist himself--a doctor (ENT). This prompted me to ponder who is more deplorable among us: the superstitious zealots who limit their knowledge to what the Bible tells them or the scientists who are unable or unwilling to take any question seriously which has no scientific answer--which includes most of the questions I as a philosopher spend my time on. Specifically, several of those present hated my bringing up the point that we have no good scientific theory of how consciousness evolved in the first place (or how it arises in the brain of every human being at some point or another--and not just human brains). Why are people so incapable of stepping outside the narrow world-view of their specific range of expertise--either the Bible or their particular scientific discipline? Is it fear, narcissism, laziness, bloody-mindedness?
Just when you think that, just conceivably, you might be overdoing the anti-religious diatribes, you read something like the article I came across last Saturday in the New York Times, about a chap called Specialist Jeremy Hall who was systematically persecuted by his army superiors and fellow soldiers for his atheist views. Particularly odious was the pressure to pray with others when he declared his lack of belief (not to mention the physical threats he endured). Such, apparently, is the military mind (excuse the oxymoron). We know they are a conformist lot, but I had no idea that religious conformity is rigorously enforced, though not officially. Anyway, it made me think of yet another reason to deny God's existence: surely if he did exist he'd come forward to denounce the actions performed in his name. I would, wouldn't you? At least he'd send some sort of emissary, if not his son then at least some high-ranking celestial colleague or other--the angel Gabriel doesn't seem to have been up to much for a while, lolling away up there. Send someone important to earth, put people straight about right and wrong, about what God really wants from us. But oh no, God just lets it all happen--even atrocities on a vast scale. A few words from him, convincingly stated, and we would know what's what, but apparently he just can't be bothered. More likely, the lack of divine corrective indicates a lack of divine existence. Specialist Hall, I'm with you.
As the Obama/Clinton wars drag on, I think of the malign effects of elections. We don't have a pure participatory democracy, such as once obtained in Athens, no doubt for good reasons of practicality. We have a so-called representative democracy, which requires that we elect our leaders by something like popular vote. This requires those things dignified by the word "election": money-driven, ad hominem, gotcha-loving, manipulative, mindfucking, demeaning, grotesque, corrupt, vicious, boring, fake, and so on. The candidates have to persuade the electorate to vote for them, and from this simple fact all the evils flow (combined with a full-blown capitalist-media complex). Imagine having to make yourself popular with everyone in order to be promoted in your job! I would never have got anywhere. I rather despise popularity, seeing it as the sure mark of a lack of integrity. Democracy is bad enough, but to combine it with the hunger for mass popularity is ten times worse. Down with elections!
The pope came and went. Two aspects of his proclamations stood out: on the one hand, his call for more authority and obedience, especially when it comes to the demands of the Catholic church; on the other hand, his condemnation of the sexual abuse inflicted by his priests. Did he not notice a tension between these two sentiments? He's supposed to be logically astute, but it's pretty obvious that the latter thing followed quite smoothly from the former: unquestioning obedience to the authority of the representatives of the church, i.e. priests, is what made possible the sexual abuse they so easily and revoltingly practiced on their "parishioners". You would have thought the pope's message might have been "Don't blindly do what priests tell you!". But then contradictions have never been much of an impediment to the skilled theologian (problem of evil and all that).
In order for democracy to be acceptable, it needs to be combined with legal protections for the rights of minorities (gays, atheists, et al), or else there will be a tyranny of majority rule. But these protections cannot be made subject to the will of the majority or they lose their point and force. So, they must stay in place even if the majority opposes them--which is undemocratic. Therefore, democarcy is acceptable only if it is not absolute. A tolerable form of democracy cannot be consistently democratic. The problem is that democracy and individual rights are at odds with each other.
Now that really is a taboo word. You must never call anyone stupid! But aren't some people just plain stupid? And isn't stupidity the source of much of the world's misery? I'd like to see a "Stupidity Science" movement in which the phenomenon is studied and taxonomized and explained--and remedied. I am certainly not a relativist about stupidity; I think stupidity is an objective trait. Maybe we all all stupid sometimes--but some people are stupid a lot of the time. Stupidity, as I mean it here, refers especially to the opinions and utterances of people who should know better. As the old saying goes: "It would only take a minute's thought...but thought is a difficult thing and a minute is a long time." In the end, of course, stupidity is about character, not IQ.
I was surprised the other day to discover that the "Founding Fathers" (silly phrase), especially John Adams, were quite opposed to democratic government, deeming it mob rule. The Constitution was mainly designed to protect individual rights from any form of tyranny, including majority rule. The reason was the stupidity and selfishness of the average person. This set me to wondering how much of the present state of politics and culture in the USA is the result of misguided democracy. Successful democracy depends upon an adequately educated electorate, unprejudiced and altruistic: but these conditions are not always satisfied by the voters out there. In fact, there is no requirement in the US political system for a president to have even a minimum of education, or even to be able to read and write. Maybe if recognized experts, unelected, were given some political power, the current ills might be mitigated.
What I really think about religion is that the less said about it the better. I'd rather discuss almost any other topic. Debating it always leaves me feeling faintly nauseated. However, religious belief does connect with a topic that does interest me: psychological manipulation. As it happens, I have a new book (very short) coming out on it next month, called--wait for it--Mindfucking. In it I analyze this concept, just as we analytic philosophers are supposed to. People I mention it to think I must be being funny or provocative, but it is actually quite a serious work, with many a ponderous formulation. I'm interested in how our minds can be manipulated--by other people, the media, governments, whole disciplines. Perhaps one's main intellectual responsibility is to ensure that one's mind has not been fucked by outside forces intent on manipulation and control. Let me invite my esteemed commentators here to enter their thoughts on the topic of mindfucking--a healthier subject than the one lately occupying this digital location.
Another breath of fresh air emanates from my recent tennis life. I now have two coaches, David and Claudio. David often counsels me to "hit the ball with love" and he can't stand sloppy footwork. Claudio advocates "more power" and works with me on precise details of the stroke. David is Latin American, Claudio is German. Both are fine tennis players, and superb coaches (and very nice guys). Under their joint, and complementary, influence, my game has been improving dramatically--especially my backhand topspin. This is an example of human cooperation at its best. I've also been employing a new method of practicing: in bed at night I go through my strokes in my imagination, dwelling on the details, trying to install the technique in my mind and body. And it works. For anyone wanting to learn to play properly, here's a bit of advice: work on the stroke with someone who knows how to play without even hitting a ball, in your front room or back yard. Get it right before you venture onto a court; then you won't have laods of bad habits you need to eradicate.
I well remember that sunny morning a few years ago when Jonathan Miller came to my apartment in New York to discuss the non-existence of God. We had been friends for a number of years, and had discussed a great many topics, but we had never, except glancingly, ever spoken about religion. We knew about our shared atheism, but the subject didn’t seem to warrant much attention; in the Miller-McGinn world it was a non-existent topic. So our conversation that morning, which went on for a good two hours, was fresh material. It was a smooth and easy conversation, with much humor and mutual understanding. And yet we were attacking the foundations of what billions of people find essential to living happily (or that’s what they think). In earlier centuries, or in other places, we would have been gruesomely executed for having such a congenial chat.
It is often forgotten that atheism of the kind shared by Jonathan and me (and Dawkins and Hitchens et al) has an ethical motive. Or rather two ethical motives: one is ethical repugnance at the cruelty, tyranny and oppression of organized religion over the course of human history; the other concerns the ethics of rational belief—how we are obliged to form our beliefs about the world. The first motive is familiar and needs no commentary from me. The second is less widely appreciated, but for some of us it is crucial to the whole discussion. We believe, as an ethical principle, that beliefs about what reality contains should always be formed on the basis of evidence or rational argument—so that “faith” is inherently an unethical way to form your beliefs. To believe “on faith” is to believe that the world is a certain way (contains a god etc) without the support of either empirical or logical justification. This violates the ethics of belief—how you ought to arrive at your convictions. That, for us, is the original sin of theism; and from this sin the other sorts of sin arise—religious intolerance, persecution, violence.
In the Atheism Tapes you will see this ethical perspective amply displayed. Atheists through the ages have been moved by a moral imperative: to uphold the rationality of belief. Wishes can never replace justification as a ground of conviction. Contrary to the popular myth, atheists are not people who have abandoned the idea of the moral good; they are people with a particularly clear sense of what moral goodness requires. From our point of view, the typical theist has already done something morally wrong simply in being a theist.
I just wrote a review of Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson for the Wall Street Journal. It's an interesting and provocative book, arguing that American culture is far too obsessed with happiness and not respectful enough of misery. The author admits to his melancholic tendencies, but celebrates them, rather than lamenting them. The general point is that gloom produces insight, creativity and depth, while happiness is bland and static. It raises the question in my mind of whether utilitarianism might have neglected the fact that melancholy can sometimes be a good thing--both instrumentally and intrinsically. Instrumentally, because it can lead to wisdom, creativity etc; but also intrinsically, in that a certain sort of melancholy might be good in itself. What do people think?
Let "weak ethical egoism" be the doctrine that it is wrong to count other people's interests as having more weight than your own like interests, i.e. acting like a "martyr". Let "strong ethical egoism" be the doctrine that it is wrong to count other people's interests as having ANY weight in a case of conflict with your own like interests. Weak EE proceeds from a principle of impartiality in which your interests are not subordinated to the (like) interests of others, and it looks like plain common sense. But strong EE violates such an impartiality principle, and thus is plainly immoral.