Thursday, January 1, 2009

Introduction: What I Believe

Criticism often flows one way in soapbox-esque situations such as this, but I want the dialogue to flow freely in both directions here. So I had this great idea for an introduction where I would just lay out the baldest assertions of what I believe. I am liable to explain, expand, and expound on any of these points at the slightest provocation (and probably will in future posts), but for now, I think that simple declarative sentences will do. Here goes!

Metaphysics: I believe that existence exists, and only existence exists. (I don't believe in Objectivism, but it does have a lot of useful stepping stones in it.) I believe that the term "nature," in metaphysics, ought to encompass all that is, and therefore the idea of the "supernatural" is borderline incoherent. I believe that our senses aren't reliable truth detectors, but they are the only way we can get data from the world, so we just need to be careful when we try to bridge that gap.

Metaethics: I believe that benefits are good and harms are bad, a tweak on the "happiness/suffering" view of most utilitarians.  I believe that happiness and suffering are both important parts of life, but they are momentary, and focusing on long-term benefits and harms goes a long way to clarifying consequentialism.  I believe that empathy is a fine foundation for morality. I also believe that, insofar as an objective meaning of life is possible, we are here to live a joyous life. I believe that, as a field, ethics is a game with fundamentally arbitrary rules, just like language or Chess, but we can still do useful and interesting things with this game and these rules, just like language or Chess - and I think that a forward-thinking, all-embracing hedonistic utilitarianism is the best game in town. I believe that, in everyday usage, morally-charged language is usually a covert expression of a value judgment or a command (e.g. "That's yucky to me," or, "Don't do that!").

Epistemology: I believe that the only way to learn about the world is by looking at it. I also believe that the only way to sort out just what we know is to think carefully about it - but please let's not get carried away (I'm looking at you, Hume!). I believe that careful epistemology should be kept in mind, but should be tempered with a healthy amount of pragmatism just to prevent being paralyzed by doubt.

Linguistics: I believe that language is a game where nobody's ever playing by exactly the same rules, but lots of us are usually pretty close, and that makes it useful. I believe that the utility of language has limits - you can't define entities into existence, for example. I also believe that language games belie their subtlety and intricacy: there are levels and levels to this stuff, and lots of it boils down to matters of perspective and emphasis. At the same time, I believe that words have meaning - but only intersubjectively so.

Ontology: I believe that philosophical atoms exist, metaphysically speaking; everything else only exists conventionally. This includes tables, chairs, persons, genes, memes, gluons, species, sexes, nouns, numbers, and your grandmother. There's nothing "wrong" or "bad" about conventional existence, we just ought to keep it in mind so that we play our language games properly. "Philosophical atoms" is a placeholder term for whatever the most fundamental component of reality happens to be; I also recognize that this term may in fact have no referent, in which case all the world is infinitely subdivisible "gunk" all the way down. I believe in the ontological disjunction: "either there are philosophical atoms, or it's gunk all the way down."

Ethics: I believe in determinism, and I believe that man is free as an undammed river is free. I believe that determinism does not diminish moral responsibility, it just complicates some things (and can clarify others). I believe that deontology is a relic of our superstitious past, specifically: beliefs in moral "substance" and divine fiat, inexcusable ever since the Euthyphro problem - however, I also believe that the second formulation of the categorical imperative (treat persons as ends in themselves and never as mere means) is an excellent principle. I believe that virtue ethics effectively captures many of our intuitions, and is useful for approximating the robust everyday ethics we often employ in practice, but it has deep and serious flaws. I believe that consequentialism is the best ethical framework available on the grounds that it is consistent, coherent, and practical, and lends itself easily to principled analysis - but it is also easy to abuse, so we need to be careful.

Politics: I believe that to govern men is a difficult matter. I believe that democracy is the worst form of government, except for every other form of government. I believe that truth and ethics are not subject to majority vote, but it's ultimately the only civil way we have of resolving conflicts when we can't convince each other. I believe that any system of governance is only as good as its people, and that perfect people need no governance, and it's all one giant downhill clusterfuck from there. I also believe that not everything is subject to the democratic process, because a tyranny of the majority is still tyranny.

Rights: I believe that the only truly inalienable right is the right to one's opinion - but that's only because we can't reliably read and change minds at this point in time. I belive that "human rights" is nonsense on stilts, because there's nothing you have that can't be taken away from you. I also believe that this makes it all the more important to have a sound legal system in place to give people sensible rights and protections under the law, and I believe that this centers around "negative" rights - phrasing rights in such a way as to only obligate other people to stay out of one's way, so long as no harm is coming to others.

Drug Policy: I believe that humanity has always had a strong commitment to getting wasted on whatever's handy. I believe that what you do to yourself in the privacy of your own home is your business, and yours alone, so long as you're not doing harm to others (like neglecting your kids). I believe that all drugs should be legal, and a construction worker should not be in a crane on pot any more than a surgeon should be drunk in the OR. I believe that drugs are no more a waste of time than theme parks - and no less.

Theology: I believe that all religions are fundamentally bunk as religions. They're simply the codified superstitions of our fearful and primitive ancestors, and we don't need them any longer - anthropologically interesting as they may be, they're simply not guides to The One Truth of the Universe. As philosophies, however, they've all got something useful to say, even if they're often instructive by negative example - so take what is useful and develop from there. I believe that there's nothing wrong with using a philosophy as a stepping stone.

Spirituality: I believe that spirituality has gotten a bum rap from being too long associated with religion. It also means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Words relating to "spirit" still have a lot of use for atheists: the spirit of the law or a holiday, the human spirit, a spirited person, kindred spirits, and so on. I believe that we're made of no different stuff than the rest of the universe, but despite that, we still feel like there's some metaphysical "I" at the helm of consciousness. I believe that it's entirely appropriate to refer to things that depend upon or cluster around that kind of feeling as "spiritual" - for an atheist such as myself, it just means that it's about being alive and conscious (and perhaps vividly aware of that fact), not about having a soul or whatever.

Etiquette: I believe that etiquette is a system of hypothetical imperatives and nothing more - what is rude or polite is a matter of contingent cultural context. I believe that nobody has the right not to be offended, and we should try to be open-minded and apply the principle of charity by default - but let's not be so open-minded that our brains fall out. I believe that, in most situations you're likely to encounter in civilized society, it's more important to get along than to get your way - in other words, live and let live. I believe that respect is to be earned, but we can afford to be generous with kindness.

Introspection: I believe that the unexamined life is not worth living. I believe that it's important to question one's beliefs, to keep an open mind, to always be willing to revise (or abandon) even one's most cherished beliefs when the situation calls for it (and that's a complicated matter in itself). I believe that philosophy applies to everything and everyone, and that it ought to be a subject at all levels of education - though it would have to be handled differently for different age groups.

Humanity: I believe that human history is a mess, our minds are a mess, our culture is a mess... we're just generally messy. I believe that the human body is dirty, and sexy, and gross, and beautiful, and ad hoc, and wonderful. I believe that the human mind is not a reliable truth generator, but is very useful for analyzing ideas when properly trained and carefully applied. I believe that we will always make mistakes, but this doesn't mean that we're always mistaken. I believe in optimism as a moral imperative: for all our messiness and flaws, we're all we've got, so we'd better make the most of it.

- - -

Postscript - Acknowledgements: I wrote this off the top of my head, but I freely admit that a lot of this is phrased in the words of others. I do actually believe these things, even though I didn't come up with them on my own (or at least not first). However, I also don't know where I got them all, so I'm going to try to do a "blanket attribution" thing here, rather than look up a billion obscure quotes. Acknowledgment for where I am today in my thinking is due, in no particular order, to all of:
  • Greek philosophers such as Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, and others (so wrong on some things, so right on others, and so hard to tell the difference on still more).
  • Eastern philosophers, both ancient and not-so-ancient, such as Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama, Sun Tzu, Daisuke Togakure, and others (what they lack in analytic strength, they more than make up in suggestive power).
  • Western philosophers, medieval to modern, such as Kant, Bentham, Leibniz, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hobbes, and others (still plagued by the same problems as the Greeks).
  • Twentieth Century philosophers such as Ayn Rand, Bruce Lee, Winston Churchill, my father, my school teachers, my friends, and others (maybe not all career philosophers, but philosophers all in their own ways).
  • Internet-capable philosophers, such as Richard Dawkins, Richard Carrier, PZ Myers, Adam Lee, Pat Condell, and others (the internet doesn't always make you stupid).
  • The founding fathers of the United States of America, despite their flaws (and, in a way, because of them - for teaching me that hero worship is generally silly).
  • Stand-up philosophers such as George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, Bill Maher, Richard Pryor, Lewis Black, Eddie Izzard, Eddie Murphy, and others (maybe not the most rigorous of philosophers, but similarly influential).
Even this is an incomplete list - I know I'm missing some, but I'm not sure whom. On top of it, this list also came right off the top of my head, but I hope it's good enough. My apologies to any who have been excluded, living or dead, and to the readers: anything you can identify as originating from someone else, I'll be happy to include (hooray for editing!).


cl said...

Nice overview. It's helpful to have these sorts of things all laid out for folks to peruse.

The only part where it seems we substantially disagree is the second sentence in the "Theology" paragraph. I believe many religious statements have value as guides to the "One Truth" you allude to.

D said...

Sure! And a broken clock is right twice a day.

Thank you for the comment, though; and in all seriousness, there surely is something of value in just about any religion. The problem is that there's a whole lot of useless junk around it.

I read somewhere that Truth is a mirror that shattered into a million pieces when God dropped it from Heaven. Everyone picked up a piece and thought he had the whole thing. Then they built elaborate structures around their shards and called them "religions," and they forgot about the shard of Truth at the center and focused on the superficial trappings.

OK, so I don't think any religion is founded on a kernel of Truth (or even truth), but the shotgun approach simply does work from time to time. Say enough profound-sounding things, and eventually something will be right in an interesting way. The thing is, we had to look at the world to find out where all those books are borne out, anyway.

cl said...

The "mirror" analogy was fascinating; I'd never heard that, and it's perhaps one of the most apt analogies I've heard.

Oh, I'll get back to your comment on DA later - Ebonmuse has me on commenting restriction there.