Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Great Conversation

Do you consider yourself a 'philosopher" to any degree? Do you think about the meaning and purpose of life? Do you have an opinion on morality, ethics, and whether good comes from a God-being, or whether goodness is something innate and independent of itself and discovered by man, or whether it is merely an abstract concept created by man and can be adjusted or interpreted as needed by the moment?

When you read philosophy books about Socrates, the father of philosophy, or Plato, Aristotle, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Voltaire, or any others you enjoy or respect - you join into the 'great conversation' of humanity that has carried on since Socrates started it in the 4th century BC. It could easily be argued that Jesus was also a philosopher (besides being a prophet, or a religious icon or God, or Son of God or whatever you personally believe). Socrates, like Jesus, never wrote anything that survived his time - but their thoughts and teachings were written down by their followers and they continue to influence the world thousands of years later. By reading these works, or thoughts, we can start to understand the minds of the great thinkers of classical or modern times and ponder these things ourselves - perhaps to add our own insights into the 'conversation'?

I think Socrates would be very amused to hear that philosophy is a subject for which there are departments set up in universities. He would laugh and say, "Do you also have a department of Love? A department of Jealousy? A Humor Division?". Philosophy is defined as the study of wisdom itself.

It occurs to me that these days, most philosophers are either professors in universities, or else they are religious leaders (who are proselytizing their own religion by presenting their dogma and doctrine as philosophy - which might actually be legitimate - but it's debatable, of course!), but I think the most common philosophers are probably comedians. The comic observes life in intimate detail. Things that most of us don't realize, or do think about but don't talk about. They sometimes take an external point of view to analyze from a distance - and thereby show how ridiculous and nonsensical a certain behavior is. Typically, they start these observations with a phrase like, "Have you ever noticed...." Jerry Seinfeld is famous for this style. But most comics are philosophers to some extent. Observing the human condition and criticizing what they see is basically what they do for a living. Far from being excluded, ironically, the physical comedians may have some of the most subtle observations of all, if you think about it.

What makes us laugh? Why? Is it because someone told us it was funny and we believed them and we continued to follow that pattern for the rest of our lives? Or is it something deeper than that? Why is it that when a comic falls down or trips over something and seems to be hurt, some people laugh hysterically and others don't find it funny at all? What determines that? Is it genetic? Is it conditioning? Is it something based on personal experience? What is the cause exactly? To understand all this and still be funny to most people is not trivial. A good high quality comic can definitely be a philosopher. Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, Robin Williams, George Carlin - these men and others have some useful insights and interesting observations about the human condition. Their genius is in being able to see it, know it intimately, find the twist of humor in it, and turn it around and present it back to us in a way that reveals a new insight about it in a funny way. Quite a trick.

But usually, when we speak of philosophy, we are thinking of deeper matters. More serious matters.

Whenever philosophy is discussed, religion seems to intertwine with the concepts, so I'll assume a belief in God in the following questions because that is too integral to the concepts of morality, ethics, goodness, justice, etc. to leave it out and still participate in a meaningful conversation. (My own personal beliefs are notwithstanding). The concept of God is included here to provide structure to the classical thought and modern interpretation.

So... questions:
1) Where does "Goodness" come from?
In other words, if you believe in God, then you probably believe that God is "good". But why, exactly? and how? In other words, is God "good" because 'Goodness" exists as a concept and he is well described by the concept? Or is it merely something he creates and so it is whatever he creates by definition? In other words, Is "goodness" defined as being whatever God is? Many religious people would vote for this option. But if he murders, does murder then become a "good" thing? If he defines "good" and he does it, then, by definition, whatever he does is "good", correct? If he causes or allows a hurricane which destroys cities and hundreds of lives, does that become "good" because it is an act of God? Or is God being bad when he does that? Is he capable of being bad then? No? If God is pure goodness, then, logically, murder and destruction are part of what he does and are therefore "good" and therefore we should strive to do that as well. If that offends our sense of what "goodness" and "virtue" is, then, logically, through Socratic reasoning, we would have to accept that the concepts of Goodness and Virtue exist outside the concept of God, and that God is not always good. And that may offend our religious beliefs on some level. So our beliefs may contradict each other. In this contradiction, we are faced with a dilemma of what to believe.

2) If God is not always good, (that is, if his behavior does not always flow in concert with our concept of "goodness and virtue") then where did the concept come from? Did we just invent it? Or is it some standard truth that exists in the universe in and of itself? If we just invented it ourselves, then that means we could change it to suit our purposes. If stealing was convenient to our purposes, then we could simply expand our definition of "good and virtuous" behavior to include stealing and we would be all set, right? But what of the rights of the person who had his things stolen? Would he feel that was fair? Or would he feel cheated? Presumably, we could not accept that we have the right to alter the concepts of good and virtue to include something like stealing. Or lying. Or killing. Or hurting people. Or damaging property or the world.
Therefore, logically, if we accept this premise, then we have isolated the truth that 'Goodness" and "Virtue" are things that define themselves and are beyond the purview of both mankind AND God. In which case, since (if you believe in God) you believe that God created the universe, and yet he is not good or virtuous - then who or what created goodness and virtue? And if these things exist outside the purview of God, then what else is outside the realm of his design or control?

3) What does "Justice" mean? Does justice exist? Where do we learn the meaning of it? Who determines justice? Is it defined by those that are powerful? If Germany won World War II then Hitler would today probably be considered the hero, and Churchill would be considered the monster. The victor writes the history books and sets the tone for how the future regards the past. Is this also the way with justice? What is justice? Is it merely the mask worn by power? Or is it something that exists intrinsically on it's own merit and is beyond the reach of those who would turn it to their own selfish purposes?
For instance: Let's say that in early America, there was a man who went to a farm in the deep south and opened up the barn, and freed a slave and took him away to allow him to live the rest of his life as a free man. The slave owner might send the police after the man that freed his slave complaining that he was wronged, and that that man stole his property. He would seek to have "Justice" serve his purpose to return his property. Or the man that freed the slave might also seek Justice to defend his action as the right thing to do because it counters slavery, which he believes is inherantly evil. Who is right here? Whose side does justice serve? And in this is there a lesson about what exactly justice is? Who or what invented it? Is God just? If so - why are small innocent children killed in war, in disease, in natural catastropies? Or do we need a different definition of justice to include these atrocities? Have we reasoned that God os not just, or do we misunderstand the concept of justice? Or do we misunderstand the power or role of God?

4) If God is not just, then why do we praise him, and do what he says? What compels us to follow his rules, his teachings? What compels us to construct great cathedrals in his honor? Do we merely wish to appease a powerful being that might otherwise crush us? Is God merely a capricious power that we are frightened of, or the benevolent creator of all that exists, and therefore the very definition of goodness and virtue - but then in that case what of the above observations/arguments?

5) What is the difference between morals and ethics? And who defines them? If you define your own morals, then what guidelines do you use? Is any behaviour that benefits you considered moral? Then what about the next guy? Can he also do whatever he wants to you and your property and still be completely moral because it servers his purposes? Assuming not, then what are the rules that are common for all behavior, that we can accept and use as our guidelines - and where do these rules come from? Our religious leaders? Which religion would that be? What about where the religions differ? Is murder always bad morally? What about the situation when one religion says it's ok to murder someone as long as they are an infidel (a non-member of that particular religion) or as long as the murder is a retribution for some other sin according to other rules set up by that same religion? Who decides what is fair overall? Are you allowed to have your own personal moral code? Or are you only allowed that if your own morals happen to exactly coincide with those of the society or religion that surrounds you? In which case are morals merely the rules for behavior dictated by the most powerful in our society - those with the ability to enforce their rules and impose their will upon the others - and is that in itself immoral??

6) Why be good? If you could steal a million dollars from a house down the street from you, would you do it? No? Why not? Is it because you are afraid of being discovered and punished? What about if you were guaranteed not to be caught, and that no one would ever find out - THEN would you steal the money? Still no? Why not? Is is because you simply know it's wrong? Why do you want to do good? What compels you to want to be good? Is virtue it's own reward in some way?

These are some of my questions in the Great Conversation of history.


At 9/12/2007 8:41 PM, Anonymous Igor said...

7) Would you accept an answer to any of these questions if the answer goes against your own opinion/liking?
What would make you to drop your own opinion regarding "meaning of life" and accept another person's explanation?

At 9/12/2007 9:45 PM, Anonymous Val said...

I am always willing to 'upgrade' my opinions on things if I am presented with a better answer.

I am driven mostly by logic, so as long as it is logical it might be plausible. In any case - I am willing to listen. Aren't you?

If someone were to present you with a reasoned argument that found in favor of a solution that is different than your existing idea - wouldn't you accept it?

At 9/15/2007 10:19 PM, Anonymous igor said...

Hey, I didn't mean "you" as You !

I just added the 7th question directed towards a reader of the post!

Pls do not be so defensive, I am your friend! (;-)


As for the logic - alas the problem is never the pure logic of someone's arguments, the problem is how those arguments are anchored to the reality. The logic by itself is just a balloon meaninglessly flying in the air. Easy to blow. Easy to watch.

The real issue is how the arguments and/or the starting points of the reasoning are tied to reality.

A simple (and famous) example: The God Question.

If your starting point is God The Father (ie The Anthropomorthic God) - then you can build un-assailable logic around it (theology).

If your starting point is the non-anthropic God - many other different castles of solid logic can be built (agnosticism for one).

If your starting point is No God - well, the logic produces yet another structure (atheism).

Hope I managed to convey the reasoning behind my 7th question.


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