A Philosopher's Blog

Ghosts of Philosophy

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2015

Ghosts of PhilosophyAnd this, my friend, may be conceived to be that heavy, weighty, earthy element of sight by which such a soul is depressed and dragged down again into the visible world, because she is afraid of the invisible and of the world below-prowling about tombs and sepulchers, in the neighborhood of which, as they tell us, are seen certain ghostly apparitions of souls which have not departed pure, but are cloyed with sight and therefore visible.

-Plato’s Phaedo

 

While ghosts have long haunted the minds of humans, philosophers have said relatively little about them. Plato, in the Phaedo, did briefly discuss ghosts in the context of the soul. Centuries later, my “Ghosts & Minds” manifested in the Philosophers’ Magazine and then re-appeared in my What Don’t You Know? In the grand tradition of horror movie remakes, I have decided to re-visit the ghosts of philosophy and write about them once more.

The first step in these ghostly adventures is laying out a working definition of “ghost.” In the classic tales of horror and in role playing game such as Call of Cthulhu and Pathfinder ghosts are undead manifestations of souls that once inhabited living bodies. These ghosts are incorporeal or, in philosophical terms, they are immaterial minds. In the realm of fiction and games, there is a variety of incorporeal undead: ghosts, shadows, wraiths, specters, poltergeists, and many others. I will, however, stick with a basic sort of ghost and not get bogged down in the various subspecies of spirits.

A basic ghost has to possess certain qualities. The first is that a ghost must have lost its original body due to death. The second is that a ghost must retain the core metaphysical identity it possessed in life. That is, the ghost of a dead person must still be that person and the ghost of a dead animal must still be that animal. This is to distinguish a proper ghost from a mere phantasm or residue. A ghost can, of course, have changes in its mental features. For example, some fictional ghosts become single-mindedly focused on revenge and suffer a degradation of their more human qualities. The third requirement is that the ghost must not have a new “permanent” body (this would be reincarnation), although temporary possession would not count against this. The final requirement is that the ghost must be capable of interacting with the physical world in some manner. This might involve being able to manifest to the sight of the living, to change temperatures, to cause static on a TV, or to inflict a bizarre death. This condition can be used to distinguish a ghost from a spirit that is in a better (or worse) place. After all, it would be odd to say that Heaven is haunted. Or perhaps not.

While the stock ghost of fiction and games is incorporeal entity (an immaterial mind), it should not be assumed that this is a necessary condition for being a ghost. This is to avoid begging the question against non-dualist accounts of ghosts. Now that the groundwork has been put in place, it is time to move on to the ghosts.

The easy and obvious approach to the ghosts of philosophy is to simply stick with the stock ghost. This ghost, as noted above, fits in nicely with classic dualism. This is the philosophical view that there are two basic metaphysical kinds: the material stuff (which might be a substance or properties) and the immaterial stuff. Put in everyday terms, these are the body and the mind/spirit/soul.

On this view, a ghost would arise upon the death of a body that was inhabited by a mind. Since the mind is metaphysically distinct from the body, it would be possible for it to survive the death of the body. Since the mind is the person, the ghost would presumably remain a person—though being dead might have some psychological impact.

One of the main problems for dualism is the mind-body problem, which rather vexed the dualist Descartes. This is the mystery of how the immaterial mind interacts with the material body. While this is rather mysterious, the interaction of the disembodied mind with the material world is really not anymore mysterious. After all, if the mind can work the levers of the brain, it could presumably interact with other material objects. Naturally, it could be objected that the mind needs a certain sort of matter to work with—but the principle of ghosts interacting with the world is no more mysterious than the immaterial mind interacting with the material body.

Non-dualist metaphysical view would seem to have some clear problems with ghosts. One such view is philosophical materialism (also known as physicalism). Unlike everyday materialism, this is not a love of fancy cars, big houses and shiny bling. Rather, it is the philosophical view that all that exists is material. This view explicitly denies the existence of immaterial entities such as spirits and souls. There can still be minds—but they must be physical in nature.

On the face of it, materialism would seem to preclude the existence of ghosts. After all, if the person is her body, then when the body dies, then that is the end of the person. As such, while materialism is consistent with corporeal undead such as zombies, ghouls and vampires, ghosts would seem to out. Or are they?

One approach is to accept the existence of material ghosts—the original body dies and the mind persists as some sort of material object. This might be the ectoplasm of fiction or perhaps a fine cloud. It might even be a form of energy that is properly material. These would be material ghosts in a material world. Such material ghosts would presumably be able to interact with the other material objects—though this might be rather limited.

Another approach is to accept the existence of functional ghosts. One popular theory of mind is functionalism, which seems to be the result of thinking that the mind is rather like a computer. For a functionalist a mental state, such as being afraid of ghosts, is defined in terms of causal relations it holds to external influences, other mental states, and bodily behavior.  Rather crudely put, a person is a set of functions and if those functions survived the death of the body and were able to interact in some manner with the physical world, then there could be functional ghosts. Such functional ghosts might be regarded as breaking one of the ghost rules in that they might require some sort of new body, such as a computer, a house, or a mechanical shell. In such cases, the survival of the function set of the dead person would be a case of reincarnation—although there is certainly a precedent in fiction for calling such entities “ghosts” even when they are in shells.

Another option, which would still avoid dualism, is for the functions to be instantiated in a non-physical manner (using the term “physical” in the popular sense). For example, the functional ghost might exist in a field of energy or a signal being broadcast across space. While still in the material world, such entities would be bodiless in the everyday meaning of the term and this might suffice to make them ghosts.

A second and far less common form of monism (the view that there is but one type of metaphysical stuff) is known as idealism or phenomenalism. This is not because the people who believe it are idealistic or really phenomenal. Rather, this is the view that all that exist is mental in nature. George Berkeley (best known as the “if a tree falls in the forest…” guy) held to this view. As he saw it, reality is composed of minds (with God being the supreme mind) and what we think of as bodies are just ideas in the mind.

Phenomenalism would seem to preclude the existence of ghosts—minds never have bodies and hence can never become ghosts. However, the idealists usually provide some account for the intuitive belief that there are bodies. Berkeley, for example, claims that the body is a set of ideas. As such, the death of the body would be a matter of having death ideas about the ideas of the body (or however that would work). Since the mind normally exists without a material body, it could easily keep on doing so. And since the “material objects” are ideas, they could be interacted with by idea ghosts. So, it all works out.

 

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Werewolves of Instantiation

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 23, 2015

WerewolfWhile the truly classic werewolf is a human with the ability to shift into the shape of a wolf, the movie versions typically feature a transformation to a wolf-human hybrid. The standard werewolf has a taste for human flesh, a vulnerability to silver and a serious shedding problem. Some werewolves have impressive basketball skills, but that is not a stock werewolf ability.

There have been various and sundry efforts to explain the werewolf myths and legends. Some of the scientific (or at least pseudo-scientific) include specific forms of mental illness or disease. On these accounts, the werewolf does not actually transform into wolf-like creature. The werewolf is merely a very unfortunate person. These non-magical werewolves are certainly possible, but are far more tragic than horrific.

There are also many supernatural accounts for werewolves—many involve vague references to curses. In many tales, the condition can be transmitted—perhaps by a bite or, in modern times, even by texting. These magical beasts are certainly not possible—unless, of course, this is a magical world.

There has even been some speculation about future technology based shifters—perhaps by some sort of nanotechnology that can rapidly re-structure a living creature without killing it. But, these would be werewolves of science fiction.

Interestingly enough, there could also be philosophical werewolves (which, to steal from Adventure Time, could be called “whywolves”) that have a solid metaphysical foundation. Well, as solid as metaphysics gets.

Our good dead friend Plato (who was probably not a werewolf) laid out a theory of Forms. According to Plato, the Forms are supposed to be eternal, perfect entities that exist outside of space and time. As such, they are even weirder than werewolves. However, they neither shed nor consume the flesh of humans, so they do have some positive points relative to werewolves.

For Plato, all the particular entities in this imperfect realm are what they are in virtue of their instantiation of various Forms. This is sometimes called “participation”, perhaps to make the particulars sound like they have civic virtue. To illustrate this with an example, my husky Isis is a husky because she participates in the form of Husky. This is, no doubt, among the noblest and best of the dog forms. Likewise, Isis is furry because she instantiates the form of Fur (and shares this instantiation with all things she contacts—such is the vastness of her generosity).

While there is some pretty nice stuff here in the world, it is sadly evident that all the particulars lack perfection. For example, while Donald Trump’s buildings are clearly quality structures, they are not perfect buildings. Likewise, while he does have a somewhat orange color, he does not possess perfect Orange (John Boehner is closer to the Form of Orange, yet still lacks perfection).

Plato’s account of the imperfection of particulars, like Donald Trump, involves the claim that particulars instantiate or participate in the Forms in varying degrees. When explaining this to my students, I usually use the example of photocopies of various quality—perhaps arising because of issues with the toner. The original that is copied is analogous to the Form while the copies of varying quality are analogous to the various particulars.  Another example could be selfies taken of a person using cameras of various qualities. I find that the cools kids relate more to selfies than to photocopies.

Plato also asserts that particulars can instantiate or participate in “contrasting” Forms. He uses the example of how things here in the earthly realm have both Beauty and Ugliness, thus they lack perfect Beauty. To use a more specific example, even the most attractive supermodel still has flaws. As such, a person’s beauty (or ugliness) is a blend of Beauty and Ugliness. Since people can look more or less beautiful over time (time can be very mean as can gravity), this mix can shift—the degree of participation or instantiation can change. This mixing and shifting of instantiation can be used to provide a Platonic account of werewolves (which is not the same as having a Platonic relation with a werewolf).

If the huge assumptions are made that a particular is what it is because it instantiates various Forms and that the instantiations of Forms can be mixed or blended in a particular, then werewolves can easily be given a metaphysical explanation in the context of Forms.

For Plato, a werewolf would be a particular that instantiated the Form of Man but also the Form of Wolf. As such, the being would be part man and part wolf. When the person is participating most in the Form of Man, then he would appear (and act) human. However, when the Form of Wolf became dominant, her form and behavior would shift towards that of the wolf.

Plato mentions the Sun in the Allegory of the Cave as well as the light of the moon. So it seems appropriate that the moon (which reflects the light of the sun) is credited in many tales with triggering the transformation from human to wolf. Perhaps since, as Aristotle claimed, humans are rational animals, the direct light of the sun means that the human Form is dominant. The reflected light of the full moon would, at least in accord with something I just made up, result in a distortion of reason and thus allow the animal Form of Wolf to dominate. There can also be a nice connection here to Plato’s account of the three-part soul: when the Wolf is in charge, reason is mostly asleep.

While it is the wolf that usually takes the blame for the evil of the werewolf, it seems more plausible that this comes from the form of Man. After all, research of wolves has shown that they have been given a bad rap. So, whatever evil is in the werewolf comes from the human part. The howling, though, is all wolf.

 

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Introduction to Philosophy

Posted in Aesthetics, Epistemology, Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 17, 2015

The following provides a (mostly) complete Introduction to Philosophy course.

Readings & Notes (PDF)

Class Videos (YouTube)

Part I Introduction

Class #1

Class #2: This is the unedited video for the 5/12/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the last branches of philosophy, two common misconceptions about philosophy, and argument basics.

Class #3: This is the unedited video for class three (5/13/2015) of Introduction to Philosophy. It covers analogical argument, argument by example, argument from authority and some historical background for Western philosophy.

Class #4: This is the unedited video for the 5/14/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the background for Socrates, covers the start of the Apology and includes most of the information about the paper.

Class#5: This is the unedited video of the 5/18/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the details of the paper, covers the end of the Apology and begins part II (Philosophy & Religion).

Part II Philosophy & Religion

Class #6: This is the unedited video for the 5/19/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the introduction to Part II (Philosophy & Religion), covers St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument and some of the background for St. Thomas Aquinas.

Class #7: This is the unedited video from the 5/20/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways.

Class #8: This is the unedited video for the eighth Introduction to Philosophy class (5/21/2015). It covers the end of Aquinas, Leibniz’ proofs for God’s existence and his replies to the problem of evil, and the introduction to David Hume.

Class #9: This is the unedited video from the ninth Introduction to Philosophy class on 5/26/2015. This class continues the discussion of David Hume’s philosophy of religion, including his work on the problem of evil. The class also covers the first 2/3 of his discussion of the immortality of the soul.

Class #10: This is the unedited video for the 5/27/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes Hume’s discussion of immortality, covers Kant’s critiques of the three arguments for God’s existence, explores Pascal’s Wager and starts Part III (Epistemology & Metaphysics). Best of all, I am wearing a purple shirt.

Part III Epistemology & Metaphysics

Class #11: This is the 11th Introduction to Philosophy class (5/28/2015). The course covers Plato’s theory of knowledge, his metaphysics, the Line and the Allegory of the Cave.

Class #12: This is the unedited video for the 12th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/1/2015). This class covers skepticism and the introduction to Descartes.

Class #13: This is the unedited video for the 13th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/2/2015). The class covers Descartes 1st Meditation, Foundationalism and Coherentism as well as the start to the Metaphysics section.

Class #14: This is the unedited video for the fourteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/3/2015). It covers the methodology of metaphysics and roughly the first half of Locke’s theory of personal identity.

Class #15: This is the unedited video of the fifteen Introduction to Philosophy class (6/4/2015). The class covers the 2nd half of Locke’s theory of personal identity, Hume’s theory of personal identity, Buddha’s no self doctrine and “Ghosts & Minds.”

Class #16: This is the unedited video for the 16th Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the problem of universals,  the metaphysics of time travel in “Meeting Yourself” and the start of the metaphysics of Taoism.

Part IV Value

Class #17: This is the unedited video for the seventeenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/9/2015). It begins part IV and covers the introduction to ethics and the start of utilitarianism.

Class #18: This is the unedited video for the eighteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/10/2015). It covers utilitarianism and some standard problems with the theory.

Class #19: This is the unedited video for the 19th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/11/2015). It covers Kant’s categorical imperative.

Class #20: This is the unedited video for the twentieth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/15/2015). This class covers the introduction to aesthetics and Wilde’s “The New Aesthetics.” The class also includes the start of political and social philosophy, with the introduction to liberty and fascism.

Class #21: No video.

Class #22: This is the unedited video for the 22nd Introduction to Philosophy class (6/17/2015). It covers Emma Goldman’s anarchism.

 

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Why is the Universe the Way it Is?

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on April 30, 2014
Galaxies are so large that stars can be consid...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the fundamental questions shared by science, philosophy and theology is the question of why the universe is the way it is. Over the centuries, the answers have fallen into two broad camps. The first is that of teleology. This is the view that the universe is the way it is because it has a purpose, goal or end for which it aims. The second is the non-teleological camp, which is the denial of the teleological view. Members of this camp often embrace purposeless chance as the “reason” why things are as they are.

Both camps agree on many basic matters, such as the view that the universe seems to be finely tuned. Theorists vary a bit in their views on what a less finely tuned universe would be like. On some views, the universe would just be slightly different while on other views small differences would have significant results, such as an uninhabitable universe. Because of this apparent fine tuning, one main concern for philosophers and physicists is explaining why this is the case.

The dispute over this large question nicely mirrors the dispute over a smaller question, namely the question about why living creatures are the way they are. The division into camps follows the same pattern. On one side is the broad camp inhabited by those who embrace teleology and the other side dwell those who reject it. Interestingly, it might be possible to have different types of answers to these questions. For example, the universe could have been created by a deity (a teleological universe) who decides to let natural selection rather than design sort out life forms (non-teleological). That said, the smaller question does provide some interesting ways to answer the larger question.

As noted above, the teleological camp is very broad. In the United States, perhaps the best known form of teleology is Christian creationism. This view answers the large and the small question with God: He created the universe and the inhabitants. There are many other religious teleological views—the creation stories of various other cultures and faiths are examples of these. There are also non-religious views. Among these, probably the best known are those of Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, roughly put, the universe is the way it is because of the Forms (and behind them all is the Good). Aristotle does not put any god in charge of the universe, but he regarded reality as eminently teleological. Views that posit laws governing reality also seem, to some, to be within the teleological camp. As such, the main divisions in the teleological camp tends to be between the religious theories and the non-religious theories.

Obviously enough, teleological accounts have largely fallen out of favor in the sciences—the big switch took place during the Modern era as philosophy and science transitioned away from Aristotle (and Plato) towards a more mechanistic and materialistic view of reality.

The non-teleological camp is at least as varied as the teleological camp and as old. The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers considered the matter of what would now be called natural selection and the idea of a chance-based, purposeless universe is ancient.

One non-teleological way to answer the question of why the universe is the way it is would be to take an approach similar to Spinoza, only without God. This would be to claim that the universe is what it is as a matter of necessity: it could not be any different from what it is. However, this might be seen as unsatisfactory since one can easily ask about why it is necessarily the way it is.

The opposite approach is to reject necessity and embrace a random universe—it was just pure chance that the universe turned out as it did and things could have been very different. So, the answer to the question of why the universe is the way it is would be blind chance. The universe plays dice with itself.

Another approach is to take the view that the universe is the way it is and finely tuned because it has “settled” down into what seems to be a fine-tuned state. Crudely put, the universe worked things out without any guidance or purpose. To use an analogy, think of sticks and debris washed by a flood to form a stable “structure.” The universe could be like that—where the flood is the big bang or whatever got it going.

One variant on this would be to claim that the universe contains distinct zones—the zone we are in happened to be “naturally selected” to be stable and hospitable to life. Other zones could be rather different—perhaps so different that they are beyond our epistemic abilities. Or perhaps these zones “died” thus allowing an interesting possibility for fiction about the ghosts of dead zones haunting the cosmic night. Perhaps the fossils of dead universes drift around us, awaiting their discovery.

Another option is to expand things from there being just one universe to a multiverse. This allows a rather close comparison to natural selection: in place of a multitude of species, there is a multitude of universes. Some “survive” the selection while others do not. Just as we are supposed to be a species that has so far survived the natural selection of evolution, we live in a universe that has so far survived cosmic selection. If the model of evolution and natural selection is intellectually satisfying in biology, it would seem reasonable to accept cosmic selection as also being intellectually satisfying—although it will be radically different from natural selection in many obvious ways.

 

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College & Critical Thinking

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2013
Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

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With the ever increasing cost of college education there is ever more reason to consider whether or not college is worth it. While much of this assessment can be in terms of income, there is also the academic question  of whether or not students actually benefit intellectually from college.

The 2011 study Academically Adrift showed that a significant percentage of students received little or no benefit from college, which is obviously a matter of considerable concern. Not surprisingly, there have been additional studies aimed at assessing this matter. Of special concern to me is the claim that a new study shows that students do improve in critical thinking skills. While this study can be questioned, I will attest to the fact that the weight of evidence shows that American college students are generally weak at critical thinking. This is hardly shocking given that most people are weak at critical thinking.

My university, like so many others, has engaged in a concerted effort to enhance the critical thinking skills of students. However, there are reasonable concerns regarding the methodology used in such attempts. There is also the concern as to whether or not it is even possible, in practical terms, to significantly enhance the critical thinking skills of college students over the span of the two or four (or more) degree.  While I am something of an expert at critical thinking (I mean actual critical thinking, not the stuff that sprung up so people could profit from being “critical thinking” experts), my optimism in this matter is somewhat weak. This is because I have given due consideration to the practical problem of this matter and have been teaching this subject for over two decades.

As with any form of education, it is wise to begin by considering the general qualities of human beings. For example, if humans are naturally good, then teaching virtue would be easier. In the case at hand, the question would be whether or not humans (in general) are naturally good at critical thinking.

While Aristotle famously regarded humans as rational animals, he also noted that most people are not swayed by arguments or fine ideals. Rather, they are dominated by their emotions and must be ruled by pain. While I will not comment on ruling with pain, I will note that Aristotle’s view about human rationality has been borne out by experience. To fast forward to now, experts speak of the various cognitive biases and emotional factors that impede human rationality. This matches my own experience and I am confident that it matches that of others. To misquote Lincoln, some people are irrational all the time and all the people are irrational some of the time. As such, trying to transform people into competent  critical thinkers will generally be very difficult, perhaps as hard as making people virtuous.

In addition to the biological foundation, there is also the matter of preparation. For most students, their first exposure to a substantial course or even coverage of critical thinking occurs in college. It seems unlikely that students who have gone almost two decades without proper training in critical thinking will be significantly altered by college. One obvious solution, taken from Aristotle, is to begin proper training in critical thinking at an early age.

Another matter of serious concern is the fact that students are exposed to influences that discourage critical thinking and actually provide irrational influences. One example of this is the domain of politics. Political discourse tends to be, at best rhetoric, and typically involves the use of a wide range of fallacies such as the straw man, scare tactics and ad hominems of all varieties. For those who are ill-prepared in critical thinking, exposure to these influences can have a very detrimental effect and they can be led far away from reason. I would call for politicians to cease this behavior, but they seem devoted to the tools of irrationality. There is a certain irony in politicians who exploit and encourage poor reasoning being among those lamenting the weak critical thinking skills of students and endeavoring to blame colleges for the problems they themselves have helped create.

Another example of this is the domain of entertainment. As Plato argued in the Republic,  exposure to corrupting influences can corrupt. While the usual arguments about corruption from entertainment  focus on violence and sexuality, it is also important to consider the impact of certain amusements upon the reasoning skills of students.  Television, which has long been said to “rot the brain”, certainly seems to shovel forth fare that is hardly contributing to good reasoning. While I would not suggest censorship, I would encourage students to discriminate and steer clear of shows that seem likely to have a corrosive impact on reasoning. While it might be an overstatement to claim that entertainment can corrode reason, it does seem sensible to note that much of it contributes nothing positive to a person’s mind.

A third example of this is advertising. As with politics, advertising is the domain of persuasion. While good reasoning can persuade, it is (for most people) the weakest tool of persuasion. As such, advertisers flood us with ads employing what they regard as effective tools of persuasion. These typically involve various rhetorical devices and also the use of fallacies. Sadly, the bad logic of fallacies is generally far more persuasive than good reasoning. Students are generally exposed to significant amounts of advertising (they no doubt spend more time exposed to ads than critical thinking) and it makes sense that this exposure would impact them in detrimental ways, at least if they are not already equipped to properly assess such ads with critical thinking skills.

A final example is, of course, everyday life. Students will typically be exposed to significant amounts of poor reasoning and this will have a significant influence on them. Students will also learn what the politicians and advertisers know: the tools of irrational persuasion will serve them better in our society than the tools of reason.

Given these anti-critical thinking influences, it is something of a wonder that students develop any critical thinking skills.

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A Review of Travels in Elysium

Posted in Book Review, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2013

Travels in Elysium
William Azuski
539 pages
2013
Iridescent
$18.90

While it is tempting to embrace subjectivism when it comes to matters of art, experience has shown me that what I feel about a work merely reveals what I feel. When I was more foolish, I took this feeling to reveal the quality of a work. However, I have found that works that I rather like can actually be of rather poor or dubious aesthetic value while I can also recognize the aesthetic merit of works I dislike. I make these points because honesty compels me to say that I did not like or enjoy Travels in Elysium, which is billed as “a metaphysical mystery set on the Aegean island of Santorini.” The work did remind me a bit of the most famous “metaphysical” mystery books, namely Dan Brown’s works—which I also do not like or enjoy. I do freely admit that the failing might lie within in me rather than within the pages of this book. I will, however, endeavor to present a just assessment of the work.

The protagonist of the tale is 22-year-old Nicholas Pedrosa who is drawn into the drawn out story by Marcus James Huxley, an archaeologist (or something like that). Huxley has found 5,000 year old writings on Santorini and Pedrosa is hired to be part of his expedition to uncover the ancient mystery of what happened to the people when their city was buried by a volcano. Unlike in Pompeii, there are no signs of the inhabitants.  Pedrosa also walks into another mystery: Huxley’s previous “young assistant” has died.

Azuski endeavors to work in some philosophy, namely Plato’s (rather brief and not very philosophical) tale of Atlantis. Being a professional philosopher, I am generally interested when a work of fiction makes effective use of some aspect of philosophy. However, the tale of Atlantis is more a work of Platonic fiction than Platonic philosophy. The mere fact that something is written by a person who is a philosopher, even in the context of a philosophical dialogue, need not make the content philosophical. However, people tend to take a broad view of philosophy—most especially when it comes to the much distorted field of metaphysics. As such, this could be regarded as a metaphysical mystery with philosophical elements—at least in some sense of these terms.

In the course of the story, the narrative shifts around in time—jumping from the present setting to the distant past and back again. While I do enjoy a well done time shift in a narrative, the shifts in this novel are abrupt and rough in a way that seems to disjoint (rather than enhance) the narrative. I will note that some readers might be more adept than I in such matters, so perhaps this is a failing on my part as well.

Some critics have already pointed out that Azuski’s tale suffers from technical defects, namely in regards to his descriptions of how archaeology is conducted and how active and erupting volcanoes work. While such errors can be regarded as a defect in a work, I tend to go with Aristotle in this matter. That is, such errors are faults, but they are not defects in regards to the artistic aspects of the work. To paraphrase Aristotle, to badly present the facts of archaeology would be a factual error, but to present a story of archaeology poorly would be an artistic error. There is also the fact that, as readers will find, perhaps the seeming errors are not errors because of the final “twist ending” of the story. But, as just noted, from the standpoint of assessing the work as a work of art (and not a report on archaeology or volcanoes) what matters is the aesthetic qualities.

Some works are so well-written that reading them is like sledding down that perfect snow covered hill: the mind goes smoothly and pleasantly over the words. While such works can contain matters that must be wrestled with, the writing aids one in this struggle rather than impeding it. When I started reading the work, it reminded me of the times when my sled ran out of snow and hit patches of dirt or gravel—slow and painful going. Since I was asked to review the work, I pressed on. The sledding improved a bit, but it was rather like sledding in a storm—I found the work confusing (and not in the good way that a mystery should be initially confusing). Again, this could be a failing on my part—I am not, as a rule, much of a mystery fan. However, I will say that the author seems to overuse the red herring device and does not use it to good effect (that is, to advance the plot and enhance the mystery). It felt as if the author had written multiple stories and, not wanting them to go to waste, simply copied and pasted them into the text of the novel to serve as red herrings.

After 538 pages, the novel ends on page 539. To avoid spoiling to book, I will not reveal the “surprise” ending. However, I did find the ending disappointing and unsatisfying. I had hoped to at least be rewarded with an original and interesting ending after slogging through so much text, but this was not the case.

This novel had, I believe, considerable potential. However, it would have benefited greatly from some considerable pruning, editing and rewriting. While I did not enjoy the book, those who like Dan Brown might find this metaphysical mystery appealing.  Kirkus has a very positive review of this book and I recommend that readers of this review read that to get an alternative view of the text.

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Violence & Video Games, Yet Again

Posted in Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2013
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While there is an abundance of violence in the real world, there is also considerable focus on the virtual violence of video games. Interestingly, some people (such as the head of the NRA) blame real violence on the virtual violence of video games. The idea that art can corrupt people is nothing new and dates back at least to Plato’s discussion of the corrupting influence of art. While he was mainly worried about the corrupting influence of tragedy and comedy, he also raised concerns about violence and sex. These days we generally do not worry about the nefarious influence of tragedy and comedy, but there is considerable concern about violence.

While I am a gamer, I do have concerns about the possible influence of video games on actual behavior. For example, one of my published essays is on the distinction between virtual vice and virtual virtue and in this essay I raise concerns about the potential dangers of video games that are focused on vice. While I do have concerns about the impact of video games, there has been little in the way of significant evidence supporting the claim that video games have a meaningful role in causing real-world violence. However, such studies are fairly popular and generally get attention from the media.

The most recent study purports to show that teenage boys might become desensitized to violence because of extensive playing of video games. While some folks will take this study as showing a connection between video games and violence, it is well worth considering the details of the study in the context of causal reasoning involving populations.

When conducting a cause to effect experiment, one rather important factor is the size of experimental group (those exposed to the cause) and the control group (those not exposed to the cause). The smaller the number of subjects, the more likely that the difference between the groups is due to factors other than the (alleged) causal factor. There is also the concern with generalizing the results from the experiment to the whole population.

The experiment in question consisted of 30 boys (ages 13-15) in total. As a sample for determining a causal connection, the sample is too small for real confidence to be placed in the results. There is also the fact that the sample is far too small to support a generalization from the 30 boys to the general population of teenage boys. In fact, the experiment hardly seems worth conducting with such a small sample and is certainly not worth reporting on-except as an illustration of how research should not be conducted.

The researchers had the boys play a violent video game and a non-violent video game in the evening and compared the results. According to the researchers, those who played the violent video game had faster heart rates and lower sleep quality. They also reported “increased feelings of sadness.”  After playing the violent game, the boys  had greater stress and anxiety.

According to one researcher, “The violent game seems to have elicited more stress at bedtime in both groups, and it also seems as if the violent game in general caused some kind of exhaustion. However, the exhaustion didn’t seem to be of the kind that normally promotes good sleep, but rather as a stressful factor that can impair sleep quality.”

Being a veteran of violent video games, these results are consistent with my own experiences. I have found that if I play a combat game, be it a first person shooter, an MMO or a real time strategy game, too close to bedtime, I have trouble sleeping. Crudely put, I find that I am “keyed” up and if I am unable to “calm down” before trying to sleep, my sleep is generally not very restful. I really noticed this when I was raiding in WOW. A raid is a high stress situation (game stress, anyway) that requires hyper-vigilance and it takes time to “come down” from that. I have experienced the same thing with actual fighting (martial arts training, not random violence).  I’ve even experienced something comparable when I’ve been awoken by a big spider crawling on my face-I did not sleep quite so well after that. Graduate school, as might be imagined, put me into this state of poor sleep for about five years.

In general, then, it makes sense that violent video games would have this effect-which is why it is not a good idea to game up until bed time if you want to get a good night’s sleep. Of course, it is a generally a good idea to relax about an hour before bedtime-don’t check email, don’t get on Facebook, don’t do work and so on.

While not playing games before bedtime is a good idea, the question remains as to how these findings connect to violence and video games. According to the researchers, the differences between the two groups “suggest that frequent exposure to violent video games may have a desensitizing effect.”

Laying aside the problem that the sample is far too small to provide significant results that can be reliably extended to the general population of teenage boys, there is also the problem that there seems to be a rather large chasm between the observed behavior (anxiety and lower sleep quality) and being desensitized to violence. The researchers do note that the cause and effect relationship was not established and they did consider the possibility of reversed causation (that the video games are not causing these traits, but that boys with those traits are drawn to violent video games).  As such, the main impact of the study seems to be that it got media attention for the researchers. This would suggest another avenue of research: the corrupting influence of media attention on researching video games and violence.

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Socrates & the Good Death

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 4, 2013
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Reading the section on the deaths of the philosophers in Candida Moss’ the Myth of Persecution led me to think about the notion of the good death.

As Plato recounted in the Apology and the Crito, Socrates makes it clear that he prefers to keep to his moral principles and die sooner rather than violate these principles and die somewhat later. The account of his death presents Socrates as courageously accepting death—he freely drinks the hemlock and philosophizes as the hemlock kills him. He also expresses a principle defiance against his accusers and a respectful defiance towards the state. In regards to the state, he claims that he will obey the state, unless he is ordered to cease engaging in philosophy—he cannot accept that order.

While Socrates death is often considered to be the model of how a philosopher should face death, other philosophers have even more dramatic ends. Diogenes of Sinope, it is claimed, held his breath until he perished. Zeno, of the famous paradoxes, allegedly bit of his tongue and spat it towards the tyrant who was questioning him. Perhaps the most extreme case involves Anaxarchus—not only did he spit his own tongue at the tyrant Nicocreon, he also responded to being beaten with pestles (while, appropriately enough, being in a mortar) with the remark, “just pound the bag of Anaxarchus. You do not pound himself.” This remark mirrors one made by Socrates when Crito inquires about how he is to be buried. In reply he says, “However you want to, if you can actually catch me and I don’t escape you.”

At least according to the legends, these philosophers regarded a good death as one which involved some or all of the following: choosing death over violating one’s principles, expressing courage and self-control before and during the death, and expressing defiance towards the wicked.  Such principled deaths were praised in the ancient world and held up as a model of how a person should conduct himself when faced with death.

This is not to say that people in the ancient world wanted to die—presumably they wanted to live as much as people do today. However, the moral of these death tales is that a person should die a good death in preference to living a bad life. In any case, these heroic deaths were presented as a model as how a worthy person should die.

As might be imagined, as Moss notes in her book, most people in the modern Western world seem to regard dying well in a rather different way. To be specific, most seem to hold the view that the good death is dying in comfort and peace of old age.  If Socrates is the model of how to die for the ancient world, Winston Smith of 1984 is the model for the death to avoid for the contemporary world. Smith, unlike Socrates, is broken and the lesson of this story is rather different from that of Socrates’ story.

While it might be tempting to regard this view as a sign of the decline of Western civilization, there are two things well worth noting. The first is that while the ancients presented the heroic philosophical death as an ideal, most of the ancients did not seek out such heroic deaths. Socrates himself notes that he knew of the apparent common practice of people engaging in shameful behavior in the court in the hopes of postponing their death. The second is that we still value the heroic philosophical death today. For example, Dr. King is lauded for his heroism in facing death threats and it seems reasonable to think that he believed that he, like Moses, would not live to see the promised-land. Like Socrates, he faced the threat of death with courage and he essentially elected to die rather than abandon his principles. There are, of course, numerous other examples of people who are praised for dying in a way that the ancients would certainly regard as good deaths.

I will close with a question well worth discussing, namely what is a good death? That is, what should we hold as the highest value when it comes to dying? For Socrates and other ancients, a good death involved meeting death with courage and control. For much of the Western world today, it is meeting a peaceful and painless death.

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Video Games, Movies & Violence

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2012
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Each time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, there is an effort to determine the causes (or lay the blame). This process generally follows a predictable script. Those who hate guns, blame the guns. Those who love guns say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Those of the cult of pop psychology appear on the news shows to discuss whatever “theory” they are currently selling in their self-help books. Those who study the workings of the mind present their latest theories. And, of course, there is the ritual blaming of violent video games and violent movies. This time around, the National Rifle Association explicitly blamed Hollywood while proposing that the United States should post an armed guard in each school.

While I have written often about video games, movies and violence I clearly have my own small part in the scripted play and here I am writing about them again.

The archetype argument for the claim that the arts (in this case video games and movies) can cause people to behave badly is based on Plato’s argument in the Republic. In that work, Plato contends that the arts can corrupt the soul and cause people to give in to feelings such as lust, anger and humor in ways that they should not. In the case of mass shootings, the basic idea remains the same: exposure to violent content in video games and movies can cause people to engage in real violence, such as engaging in a mass shooting at a movie theater or school.

The idea that violent video games and movies can affect people is not implausible. In fact, I have my two standard arguments in support of the claim that violent media can play a causal role in actual violent behavior.

First, repeated exposure to game or movie violence can condition a person to accept violence as normal. This is because people generally base their conception of normal based partially on what they generally experience. So, if fictional violence becomes a normal part of a person’s life, it makes sense that she might become desensitized to violence (or accustomed to it) and thus less more likely to give in to violent impulses.

Censoring such violence would reduce the exposure of people (or certain people) to virtual violence and thus they would presumably be less likely to be violent.

My second standard argument is based on the idea that the violence of movies and games is a curriculum of virtual violence that often teaches that violence is an effective and acceptable solution to problems. Popular video games such as Halo 4 and World of Warcraft are focused on violence, albeit in the context of science fiction and fantasy. There are also popular first person shooters, such as the Call of Duty series, that involve engaging in violence against other virtual humans. There is also the infamous Grand Theft Auto series of games in which one plays a bad person doing bad things. In the case of movies, even movies such as the Avengers and the Hobbit include considerable violence. Given the lessons taught by these movies and games, it makes some sense to think that people exposed to them might be more inclined to consider violence an option, perhaps in emulation of the games or movies. As such, perhaps some blame can be placed on video games and movies.

While a reasonable case can be made in favor of being suspicious of violent video games and movies, there is the rather important matter of sorting out the extent of the influence. That is, working out the causality of the matter.

Obviously enough, exposure to violent movies or games is not a necessary condition for a person engaging in violent behavior. A necessary causal condition is a condition that is required for the effect to occur. Put another way, without the necessary condition, what it is necessary for cannot be the case. For example, the presence of oxygen is a necessary causal condition for human life.

While humans have been engaging in violence since there have been humans, movies and video games are rather recent inventions. As such, exposure to them cannot be a necessary cause of violence. After all, there would have been no violence until they were invented if this were the case.

Naturally, it could be claimed that any violent art (such as a story about war) or violent games (like chess) can cause people to be violent and these are rather old. However, the obvious counter is that humans were probably killers before they were artists and gamers.

Equally obvious is the fact that exposure to violent movies or video games is not a sufficient cause of violence. A sufficient causal condition is such that it will bring about its effect by itself. For example, decapitating a human is sufficient to cause death.

Millions of people (including me and many of my friends) have played violent video games without ever having engaged in acts of significant violence, such as murder or mass murder. Also, billions of people have probably seen violent movies without engaging in such violence. As such, exposure to violent movies or video games is clearly not a sufficient condition.

As might be imagined, sensible people do not claim that such exposure is a necessary or sufficient cause of violence. However, there are other types of causal connections.

One plausible type of causal connection is that exposure to such video games or movies is a contributory cause. That is, such exposure is one more straw on the camel’s back and the weight of various causes can result in that final break. On this view, merely seeing such virtual violence would not cause someone to engage in violence. However, it does contribute to the person’s tendency towards violence and hence is a causal factor.  As might be imagined, determining the contribution of a contributory cause can be challenging—especially if the contribution is fairly weak.

Sorting out such weak casual factors typically requires relatively large causal scale studies (or experiments). In such cases, the goal is to determine the effect of the alleged cause on the population in question. When talking about causation in a population, the bar is set fairly low (but sensibly so). To claim that cause C causes effect E in population P is to say that there would be more cases of effect E in population P if every member of P were exposed to C than if none were so exposed. This does make sense. After all, if C does bring about a difference, even a tiny one, it would be a causal factor.

On the face of it, it is not implausible to claim that exposing everyone on the planet to violent video games or violent movies would result in some (more than zero) increase in violence. However, this is no doubt true of many other things—even seemingly innocuous things like refined sugar or Justin Bieber’s music.

Even if it is assumed that such exposure can have a causal role in actual violence, there is the rather obvious concern about the extent of the casual role and to what extent (if any) this warrants controlling people’s exposure to these violent movies and video games.

As noted above, people who were never exposed to violent video games or movies have engaged in violence over the centuries. Also, the overwhelming majority of people who have been exposed to violent video games or movies have not engaged in unusual acts of violence. As such, the causal connection (if there is one) seems to be extremely weak.

Given such exposure could play a causal role it might be tempting to support the censorship of such violent works. After all, reducing the chance of violence might be regarded as worth the infringement of the freedom of expression. As might be imagined, when people are still emotionally reeling from a terrible event there is often a desire to do anything that might lower the chances of such a thing happening again. Of course, making a rational decision requires considering the matter properly and this involves considering the potential harms and costs of such an approach, however well intentioned.

Obviously enough, human societies typically operate in a way that involves tolerating things that cause harms based on the perceived benefits of those things. For example, although tens of thousands of people die each year in events involving automobiles, we tolerate automobiles because of their benefits. As another example, we allow drugs with awful side effects to be legally sold presumably because of their benefits. We also tolerate war because of the alleged benefits. We do, of course, ban some things because of the harms they do (or could do). For example, people cannot legally sell contaminated food. As another example, I cannot legally own biochemical weapons.

Sorting through the various things that are banned or illegal, it would seem that we are generally willing to tolerate a considerable amount of harm provided that there are some benefits (typically profits). Consistency would, of course, require us to apply the same principle to violent movies and violent video games.

As such, one way to look at the matter is to imagine that violent movies and video games were pharmaceuticals, foods or automobiles and apply the same basic standards used to assess whether such things should be banned.

As noted above, millions of people are exposed to violent video games or movies. These people typically enjoy them and most of them certainly seem to be unharmed. In fact, people seem to be in far more danger from the junk food they typically eat and drink at the movies or while playing video games. They are, obviously, vastly less dangerous than automobiles in terms of the body count generated—even if we assume that such exposure does cause people to behave violently. Video games and movies are also big money makers.

Violent video games and movies also seem to have far fewer negative side effects than many legal medications—even those sold without prescriptions. Also, there are reasonable grounds to believe that people can, as Aristotle argued, experience an emotional catharsis by being exposed to the arts. As such, while some people might experience negative side effects from such exposure, other people might be “medicating” themselves by exhausting their violent impulses in art rather than reality.

As such, if censoring video games and movies would be warranted because of the alleged harms, then consistency would require that we also ban many other things that are clearly far more dangerous. After all, if the goal is to prevent harm and death, it hardly matters whether those who die do so because of a bullet, a car, a pill, or a Big Gulp.

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A Socratic Challenge

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2012
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