Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Nature of Childhood

While working at Camp Kum-Ba-Yah the last five summers, I got to spend a lot of time teaching and hanging out with kids. I had no idea that I would appreciate this experience as much as I did. These are some of the things I felt compelled to write down and remember.

-When evaluating, use constructive praise followed by a criticism, followed by more praise or encouragement. This is known as a “criticism sandwich.” You don’t always have to balance criticism with praise, but be sure to instill a sense of faith in them. This is paramount to a child’s individual success.
-Don’t let your emotional/intellectual stimuli affect your kid’s. This is a hard one. But if you've had a bad day and you come home to an excited kid, BE EXCITED. Be as happy as he or she is to see you. BE that happy to see them. It’s one thing to tell your child you love them, and it’s another to show it. Don’t be critical or hard on them because of something you had to put up with or experience. Don’t make your own misery something that they have to share when you’re around. WE ARE THE GIVERs, so be aware of what you ‘pass on’ to your kids.
-Be honest! Always tell the truth. If you lie to your kid ONCE—ONE TIME—that’s all it takes for them to justify it. “Daddy did it…” Lying is the acid that will destroy your bond with your child. Refrain from lying, and not just to your kids!
-Patience is the best way to get your criticism or “growth moments” across. If you’re frustrated, the kid will be obstinate. If you’re chill, the child can be chill. Your child will absorb the attitudes you portray and the energy you give off. Be the light for them. Be the comfort. Be the trust. Be the love.

-Challenge your child to grow; inspire them to learn. Be someone your kid will want to grow up to be like. Keep their interest engaged, even in simple conversation. Test them. Make it a loving and enriching experience to be with you. Make it so they have something to gain by interacting with you—every time!
-Be honest. Don’t dumb it down if you don’t have to. Your kid is going to learn it no matter what—because he’s curious. If you are real with your kid, they’ll respect you and appreciate their relationship with you. BECAUSE THEY CAN TRUST YOU. The more you deceive your child, the harder it will be to foster a meaningful relationship. Be honest, answer all the questions you can, and don’t dumb it down! Use advanced vocabulary, and tell them what it means! SHARE YOUR KNOWLEDGE! Don’t short-change your kid because you don’t feel like explaining something. They know it when you do, and it’ll only make them feel like they’re not important or “good enough” to know. That’s obviously not the case, but avoid making them feel like that at all costs. Make your kid feel confident, handsome and smart, and they will be. Letting your kids see you be confident and uninhibited will allow them to feel the same. That’s a priceless thing to do for a kid. Let them see you be yourself, your REAL self. And don’t be ashamed; never make a kid feel ashamed. Don’t ever be “too cool” or “not in the mood.” Kids don’t get breaks from being kids, so adults don’t get breaks from being an influence. It’s a role into which you have to put a ton of energy, time and thought. You can’t go through the motions and expect to be a good parent…or have a decent kid! You have to want to. And you have to like it! Kids know when your heart’s not in it, and they don’t like to be patronized. You have to be creative, fun, engaging, patient and ACCEPTING. Kids should never doubt or misunderstand your bond with them. As far as they’re concerned, we exist for them; our knowledge and experience is for their sake. We have lived so that they may live.
-Explore every single curiosity! If you don’t know something, figure it out together! Kids love discovery and learning. It is the nature of being a child with a mind fascinated by all things. Think about all the things a child doesn't know or understand yet! Love this about children! Cherish this hunger for stimulation, growth and knowledge—it’s built-in EVOLUTION! Give them the tools you've been given and the ones you've made for yourself; teach what little you can. As for the rest, you have to hope that you've inspired them by being true to yourself and the best self you can be.
-If kids learn to be themselves, consciously CHOOSE who that person is, and learn to accept others for whom they have chosen to be—those kids will make it. I am unsure of what it is about adult life that makes people feel like they have to pretend, or deny impulses. Underneath the pretensions and egos, we’re still kids. We get older and complicate our lives; we forget how fun it is to be young. We desensitize, lose our patience, lose our curiosity (the last one puzzles me most). Kids ask questions constantly, and they should! We should always want to learn more about ourselves and our experience of Life. You haven’t been bored until you’re dead—no way of physicalizing will, just being. ‘Is’-ing; existing, but not really. As a kid, your body is new and it’s growing all the time. Kids are physical because they want to ‘feel.’ They learn by touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, smelling—you can’t deny their senses! Use them to your advantage and capture their attention! Appeal to the fact that they are human; they’re young super-computers constantly processing information and learning. Teach them to use their super-computing minds as a tool to navigate life. Solve problems, think critically, reflect and self-regulate. The mind is powerful, and it often overpowers a child’s will to resist it. Teach them to master their minds.


-Don’t forget that everything is an experience, especially to kids. “Do you wanna make some cinnamon rolls? OR DO YOU WANNA MAKE SOME CIN-NOM-NOM ROLLZ?!” Instead of eating cinnamon rolls normally, you eat them crudely and grunt loudly. Ritualize it. Make it fun. Make it INTERACTIVE.  Perhaps you get messy…messes are great! Making messes and cleaning up after them is what life is all about.  Being able to navigate life and its messes with clarity and positivity is graceful. Not all kids are graceful, but you can show them what grace feels like—that’s good inspiration.
-Delegate responsibility: this might belong in the AUTONOMY section, but I mean this in an entertaining sense. Kids love being your partner in crime, and they always appreciate a good plan. NEVER underestimate the power of a good plan. That being said, there should be tunes. If you’re doing something monotonous or anything that can be enhanced by background music and silly dancing, in the words of Big L, “PUT IT ON.” Everyone needs to know how to shred the air instruments and rock out. I don’t know why, but kids love THE FUNK. Maybe it’s the rhythm, the boogie guitar--perhaps the nonsensical dance moves it seems to conjure… All I know is, they love to move and they love to groove. GROOVEMOVES!

-If there is a conflict, let the kids be the ones to resolve it. Have conflict resolution pow-wows. Create the space for them to reach a mutual agreement. Teach them to work together, and to understand how each other feels. Every human being has a conscious need to express herself. Expressing oneself and one’s feelings allows us to let go of them. Helping each other understand how we feel allows us to better relate and enjoy life together. Kids don’t know not to do what they want. This makes it difficult to learn to share, play and get along with others, etc. If you teach them that they can share and depend on each other to keep themselves happy, they’ll resolve conflicts on their own. Help them to relate more personally to each other, and challenge them to reach a peaceful agreement. They’ll do all the work!
-Let your child decide. Don’t push any one choice or path on them. Instead, present them with the information, the raw data, and let them make the choice on their own. This helps them learn to REASON. It’s fine if you want to point them in a direction, especially if the decision is a big learning opportunity, but don’t be surprised or upset when they don’t take your advice. Let them suffer some consequences. This is THEIR choice and it teaches them that only THEY are responsible for themselves. THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT TO YOUR CHILD’S SUCCESS. If you allow their minds to process an important decision, chances are they’ll come to the next one and treat it with the same thought and respect. They’ll choose ‘incorrectly’ more often if they have to rely on you to tell them what to do. Instead, let them learn it.
-Let them grow and learn. Don’t ever get tired of your kid asking questions. THEY WANT TO KNOW! Kids have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Inspire your child to question and reason, and think critically about those questions and reasoning. If your kid learns how to learn, and can enjoy learning and respect knowledge, your kid will be UNSTOPPABLE.
-Let them be themselves. Your kids are more themselves than you will ever be (maybe). They are children on the playground of life and it’s exciting! It’s new! So much is to be experienced! LET YOUR KID DO WHAT HE OR SHE WANTS. If your son wants to dance, let him. If your daughter wants to wrestle, let her! Let them be their own explorers, with you as their guide. As a parent, there is only so much that you can teach. The rest, children learn from each other, themselves and through experiencing life. The successful children, the ones who grow up to lead meaningful lives and benefit the world, get to be who they are and who they want to be. Your child will flourish if you nurture and love the individual inside them for Who He Is. Let her express her true self in whatever constructive ways possible. And let them learn that the destructive behaviors are destructive. Let them know the difference for themselves. And no matter what, be supportive.
- Don’t forget about responsibility. It’s great if you’re going to let your child create his or her own experience, and make his or her own choices. But in doing that, you must make sure your child understands that with “great power comes great responsibility.” It’s important for them to learn to think things through—how will this behavior or action affect those who receive it and their environment? And even if the response is negative, teaching them to own up to it is important. It teaches them to respect consequences and the way their lives directly affect the lives of others.
-Show them the value of honesty and empathy. Show kids how to accept others as they are, and as they have chosen to be.
-Kids are tiny scientists. They're adults, they just don't know it yet. Guide them, but allow them to find their own path of least resistance. Let them feel it, choose it. It will be different from yours or anyone else’s. That is the nature of our evolution.

I think the first and foremost way to establish a conscious, spiritual connection with the world is to spend time in nature. Our way of life diminishes and disrespects many beautiful and helpful things our planet has to offer us. If we can teach kids to cherish and respect nature, there’s a better chance they’ll take some responsibility for it. And not only that—they’ll have a deeper connection to and understanding of their world. It is paramount that you share nature with your children. Nothing is more wondrous or beautiful than the universe in which we live. We must be good stewards and raise good stewards.

-Teach your child to self-regulate. This is an idea that Pat Haley (director of Camp Kum-Ba-Yah) and I discussed one day while philosophizing about camp. Kids need to learn at an early age that they can regulate their emotions, feelings and the way they relate to their environment and others. If you can teach a child that he or she is in charge of the way they relate to the world around them, you can make it easier for them to isolate and make sense of their experiences, both good and bad. This helps them to think objectively, and react more rationally to obstacles/problems/stimuli. If you help your child to discover and understand the healing and wisdom found in meditation, reflection, peace, independence, and respect for one’s surroundings, they will have an easier time “fitting in” to the world. Use different methods and techniques to navigate feelings of frustration or sadness. It’s ok for them to feel sad or frustrated! But when they realize it’s a choice that they’re making, and they can choose to make it feel different, they’ll be more aware of their feelings. Whether or not a child lets them get in their way is his or her choice.

Ideas for accomplishing these feats:

1. Don’t get frustrated or irritated with what your child does or does not know. Remember what it’s like to be a kid, fascinated with all things, and curious! BE A KID WITH YOUR KID. Having a child means YOU GET TO BE A CHILD! I can’t imagine a better excuse to behave like a child, and use your imagination—your spontaneous creativity—your FUN SIDE. We've learned so well how to be adults; let’s not forget how to be children. Our children depend on it. Remember your happy thought, Peter!
2. Don’t be too cool for your kids. This kind of goes with the first one, but it’s different. Be weird. Be a girl. Be a fairy if you’re a dad. Be a formidable soldier if you’re a mom. Play along. Be silly. Let your kids be smarter than you, let them ‘direct’ their entertainment. Help them to discover their own creativity, and foster it! Be quirky! Create personalities or characters to help out in day-to-day activities, or to warrant some kind of action (i.e. “The Claw” from the movie LIAR LIAR).
3. Use unconventional means to accomplish conventional tasks. This helps a lot in teaching anything. For example, if you’re teaching a group of eight-year-olds how to swim forward-crawl, don’t tell them the steps. Get their attention by using funny or weird ways of explaining things, and then go into detail. If I want to tell a kid that he has to breathe on the same side as the arm that’s coming up out of the water, I won’t tell him that. I’ll ask him a question: “What happens if you breathe on the wrong side?” Answer: the kid will inhale water and choke and you’ll have to save them. True. But instead of saying that, give them a kid-engaging explanation: “IF YOU BREATHE ON THE WRONG SIDE, YOU’LL SMELL YOUR ARMPIT AND PASS OUT IN THE POOL, PROMPTING ME TO SAVE YOU…” – You have to breathe on the same side as the arm that’s coming out of the water. But it’s funnier and easier to remember if you say, “You’ll smell your own armpit and pass out from the stench.” And say words like ‘stench.’ Kids love good vocabulary and new jargon. They LOVE IT.
4. Be concise. I know this is hard to do, especially for me, but it will help. If you can come up with creative ways of remembering instructions, techniques, anagrams, you name it—stuff like that helps kids remember, and makes what they’re learning more accessible and fun. When I’m asking kids to remember the parts of forward crawl, I usually group into threes: “Flutter kick, ‘slice the butter’ (arm movement), and breathing (“no smelly armpits,” or breathing on the wrong side).”
5. If being concise isn't your thing, explain it to them well, and then ASK QUESTIONS. If I’m unsure about whether or not something I said was understood, I’ll ask a question. KIDS LOVE ANSWERING QUESTIONS AND IT REQUIRES THEIR ATTENTION (most of the time). Ask them questions and get them to ask their own questions. Questions questions questions!
6. Sharing and materialism—explain that through sharing, time together is more enjoyable. Humans experience more joy in sharing than in keeping something from others. Shared mutual experience is more meaningful (or fun, for a kid) than individual experience or selfishness. Secondly, don’t let them get caught up in materialism. Let them experience the unpleasantness of shopping, losing or breaking toys; let them witness the impermanence of matter. Teach them that connections to physical objects don’t last. Help them to learn the value of experiences rather than material possessions, nature rather than video games, and CURIOSITY as opposed to boredom or apathy.

Monday, September 1, 2014

House-sitting and Reflecting

An open letter to Chuck, whose home I had the pleasure of watching over. The house sits on a heavily-wooded hill top in rural central Virginia. It inspired me to reflect--

"I worked every day that you all were out of town, but I loved the drive to and from your house. I started and ended every day with this incredible sense of gratitude and appreciation for the beauty that I was getting to witness. I felt lucky! Several times in the evening I sat in the screened porch and pondered to my heart's content. You asked what I like to do for fun when (name omitted) and I were last there. I like to think. I sometimes overthink; but generally I'm quite pleased with the things that amuse and interest me. And at your house, I got to fully experience myself in a way I had almost forgotten. I haven't had the capacity to live the way I 'choose' (the way I am around myself) since I moved from Harrisonburg over a year ago. I felt inspired by the setting and the personal touches in your home. I dig the crystals! I thought to myself, "I dunno what I'm going to do with my life force, but I hope it one day allows me to live as peacefully as this." I thought again about your question: what do I do for fun? And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of the things I spend my time doing are dictated by necessity, or out of obligation to someone else (even if I enjoy doing things with/for that person). In my free time, I like to be with friends, play disc golf, skate, play instruments, camp, do anything outdoors--but a lot of times I like to be still. I like to think. When I do something for myself, it is usually of a cerebral nature: pondering, reading, writing, playing music... The mind is great entertainment; it's almost an experience in itself. So, I find myself consumed with spirituality, consciousness, topics like quantum physics, philosophy, the unconscious/super conscious mind, life and death, the very meaning of life itself, my own life and Who I Am. I got to do quite a bit of thinking during my stay, and some good reading, too. I actually wrote at some point that I couldn't really enjoy the silence because of how loud and clear my thoughts were. I need to learn to clear my mind, but I otherwise enjoyed the perpetual stream of consciousness. 

The chickens were an endless source of humor. The few times I let them out, I developed a sense of how to wield my arms in order to coax them in a certain direction. Other times, I ended up circling the house a hundred times before I could manage to get them to 'choose' the door to the chicken coop. One of the smaller ones actually dug its way out one morning, and was outside when I came down to check for eggs. I had to chase her for a good while; for some reason, she was particularly skittish. I was running late to work, so I called in to let the KBY office know. The usual office manager wasn't there--it was a member of the board! I tried to explain my situation, that I didn't wanna leave your house with the chicken out because it probably wouldn't live through the day. I was a little exasperated, and asked her to relay the message. She said, "Oh, well, I raised chickens. I understand perfectly. Don't worry, I'll explain for you." --Ha, I hung up and said, "thank you, universe!" What are the odds?!

I really enjoyed getting the time to BE myself with myself. Thoreau probably had similar inspiration at his little cabin in the woods--it was Thoreaupeutic, ha. I wrote some about how nature has become so abstracted from the modern human experience, and from children's experiences. It's something we talk about at camp; but we don't really know what we're missing until we're in it and can remember how right it feels. I can't tell you how HEALTHY it felt to come home, drop 'the day' and its troubles at the door, and soak up the nutrients--the peace, quiet, nature, life outside of humanity and the overstimulated life. I wish I didn't have to work while I was there, but it made for a great contrast. 

I've been trying to live differently the last couple of years. I'm pushing myself to be my highest self, the best manifestation of my soul as possible. I've come to the conclusion that if I work hard and well, love freely without discrimination or judgements, and digest as much information and experience as I can, I will be better suited to 'connect the dots.' I am perpetually trying to make better sense of my experience and what it means to live. But I figure I'll know exactly what it means when I'm no longer doing it. Until then, I'm going to learn, do and be everything I possibly can. And be righteously in love with the whole froggin' experience. 

On the other hand, during this life and mind transition, I am having a difficult time making sense of the way I feel. I feel so intensely; I'm almost numb to 'real life' because of the degree to which I experience my emotions. I don't want to say I'm bipolar, but I know I'm sensitive about certain things. I can be insensitive just like everyone else, but for some reason I feel an intense gratitude-love for my self, my life, the people I love.......and other times I'm so bummed by others' lack of gratitude-love that it makes me feel separate from the world. Lonely. Really lonely. And it's hard to feel so genuinely interested in making the best of it when enough people on Earth (or at least in my life) seem to think they're worth more, or somehow more deserving of an experience less painful than someone else's. I consciously find ways to enhance the experiences of others--no, I'm not Jesus or the Buddha, but I do everything in my willpower to be a creative force of untold do-good capacity. No, I don't know how I'm gonna make my millions, or even what I'm gonna do now that the pool is closed. I feel like I can't even think about a "career" (*gasping at the thought*) until I get my head on straight. There are some things I need to know about myself before I feel confident pursuing what anyone would refer to as a 'normal life.' Is it OK to feel unready, or cynical towards working some 'lame' job? I have this idea that once I decide to be occupied from 9-5 my life will cease to have any magic to it; or that I'll have given in to a way of life I so adamantly oppose. I'm not a hippie or an anarchist, but I do think we have a pretty dysfunctional way of living, and our definition of 'freedom' could use some work. As far as I know, I want to go INTO THE WILD and live off the land, teach others to love freely and find their passion, their vibe--whatever makes them quake with energy, feel alive. Life could be so different, so peaceful, so connected--and sometimes it is! But other times, when it isn't, it's hard not to resent money, the "economy," capitalism, the "American dream," as it were. The world is ready for a change; it's begging for it. And I will do my part, whatever it is, however I can fit in. But I am having the hardest time finding the inspiration to go above and beyond the expectation. I could get a job, an apartment, a car, and let that be my life. Work, maybe date, find ways to distract myself from the fact that I'm not jiving with the world. That's kind of what I'm doing now. It's hellish. Kind of fun some days, amusing every now and again, but largely unfulfilling. The sense of security that I want says, "You can't just up and do crazy shit like not have credit. You can't have a carefree life! You oughta establish credit. Also, get a job, keep it. Consider moving up in said job, if you like it----" I wanna kill myself already. Meanwhile, the impulsive, creative, fun-loving weirdo John says, "Fuck negativity, bro. There is nothing in your way lest you think it so. Do what is in your heart and mosh the shit out of this Earth with your creativity and alternative perspective. Have the experiences that you want. Practicality and making conservative life-choices out of fear of screwing up is a blueprint for 'success,' in a shiny, sterile, office kind of sense of the word. Your passion and creativity--let your boundless love and appreciation of all things transform you into the master of your own experience. Share in the absurdity of life with those you hold dear, and live as a testament to your Self, which is ultimately a shred of a shared universal consciousness exploring itself, its own mind, in its own glory. CREATION. Do it, be it." 

The duality is not amusing. I am paying student loans and car repairs, and trying to move out of my parents' house. Not to mention support myself and pay for all the shit they're paying for now. It makes me feel guilty, how much I cost. Anyway, it's hard not to worry about money. That's how it works: the whole world buys into needing money to live how we all want--the result is greed. Inequality. Because I'm afraid of losing what I've got, some other mother fucker (that I'm willing to fuck over) is gonna have to suffer a little harder for his simple wants. Or her basic needs. Or his life. Who the fuck are these people to do this? What kind of person stands to gain from another's losses? Why can't we all gain from each other's gains? Because of greed, and ultimately fear. It's hard to want to be a part of that. Instead, I want to convince people that money is a trick, an abstraction of resources. I want to convince people that living simply and consciously, together and for the sake of each other, is the richest experience one could dream of (pun intended). But how do you do that conventionally? How will that pay the bills? Do I want it to, or should I keep my job and my spiritual dreams for reality separate?

This is the hell with which I find myself confronted. I've said a lot, and probably revealed a little bit about the kind of thinker I am... But these thoughts take so long to articulate. I wish there was some way to put it--like, "I'm just crazy!" or "I'm a weirdo!" ...but there isn't. There is just an intense willingness on my part to be ever-present, accepting, loving; to listen and respond with the utmost respect, love, and gratitude for the opportunity to share meaning. Even though sometimes (a lot of times) I feel differently. What makes me different from any other depressed, delusional degenerate? I'm at least willing to try and create a different experience: one of love, capacity, and inclusion instead of fear, isolation, separation. Maybe it's because I know what it's like to feel depressed and I'll do anything to avoid it, but I am always willing to "try out" a thought, no matter how crazy or impractical or 'out there' it is. All perspectives are worth considering. Aristotle said, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." I think this is also the mark of a compassionate mind; one perhaps willing to acknowledge the infinite variety of perspectives AND the fact that his is no more valid or 'real' than another. 

I guess what I'm getting at is this: 

I am god damn Man enough to admit that I am not sure of anything--not even how to best express myself in this twisty universe. And while I'm trying to figure out how to express myself, and be myself, and meet my own standards, I gotta worry about a whole bunch of other shit that seems way less important. But actually IS important (arguably, in a doomy, prison kind of impending way). Is there a way to bridge reality and my expectations for it? Is there a Bridge to Terabithia? I identify with characters like Jesse Aarons, or Holden Caulfield--they grew up thinking the world was gonna be different, and then realized they were naive, daydreaming suckers. I don't think there's anything wrong with being a dreamer, or wanting our experience to be painless. But somehow, we've got to find a way to live. Life doesn't end when you start feeling, it begins! I'm onto something, if I could just figure out what I want it to be. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Intro to Philosophy Final Exam -- Concluding Thoughts

1. Ethics: Compare utilitarianism and Kantian ethics on the problem of famine.  Based on our Aristotelian and virtue theory readings, how would a virtue theorist approach the problem of famine?

Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics both take very different approaches to the problem of famine, as well as to the problems of suffering and general unhappiness. Philosophers Bentham, Mill and Singer accept utilitarianism as a rational response to the wide variety of suffering that occurs, and suggest different ways in which to handle the suffering so that the greatest happiness or possible outcome is reached. Bentham claims we are governed by pain and pleasure. His utilitarian justification of right action is based on the principle of greatest shared pleasure—in other words, whatever action precipitates the greatest pleasure for the greatest amount of individuals is considered ‘best.’ Mill takes this idea a step further by distinguishing basic happiness from happiness of a higher faculty. Some pleasures are greater than others, arguably those that benefit the individual or group with a greater quality satisfaction than simple or “dumb” happiness. He acknowledges the variation of things included in measuring pain and pleasure, and that there may be a spectrum of perception regarding the concepts of ‘pain’ and ‘pleasure’ (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 461). However, the Greatest Happiness Principle does its best to accommodate this possible spectrum of perception, and states, “the ultimate end…is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality… This being…the end of human action is necessarily also the standard of morality.” It is precisely this standard with which so many philosophers take issue when it comes to debating Kantian ethics and Utilitarianism. Mill defines this standard as the basis for the “rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but…to the whole sentient creation,” (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 464). This might sound lofty, but Mill does his best to define utilitarianism as a means to a good end than which none greater can be experienced. By his definition and this moral standard that he describes, a utilitarian agent considers every aspect of “sentient creation” before determining what action to take. Velleman and O’neill criticize this all-encompassing theory. Velleman claims that such an approach to suffering is too broad to escape the shadowy gray area of human subjectivity. He argues that any reason for action must be valid not only from an individual perspective, but also all other perspectives. Otherwise, it cannot be for the ‘greater good.’ Velleman suggests these valid reasons are rooted in common moral knowledge, or a slightly more objective realm of reason for taking action. O’neill does a better job of contrasting utilitarianism from Kantian ethics, and sheds some light on the topic of beneficence.  She seems to agree that a utilitarian approach to famine (or suffering) is too much responsibility for an individual. Kantian ethics would suggest people take on a responsibility to themselves as individuals without using others as means to their own ends. O’neill enhances this idea by introducing beneficence—justice and then some—in hopes that people would foster the well-being and happiness of others by taking on some of the others’ means as their own. The difference between a Kantian approach and a utilitarian one is the amount of responsibility individuals are willing to assume. According to O’neill, Kantian ethics seems more feasible. Even if its scope is more limited, it allows individuals to focus on intention and good will. Do no injustice, and benefit those around you with your will and actions. In my opinion, if we all followed Kantian ethics, the end would be perceivably utilitarian in scope; but this is not the case. Enter SINGER. His argument for utilitarianism is one that is difficult to refute: that as long as an individual or group has the capacity to prevent suffering without suffering equally or sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, one should do everything to the point of marginal utility to prevent it. Singer’s argument, for me, silences all others in support of a Kantian approach. Although it is staunchly utilitarian, it dissolves the large-scale responsibility into one that is instead intensely personal; he dispels any doubt or criticism in regards to the subjectivity of a utilitarian response, as well. He admits he is not morally neutral, but it doesn’t matter. He takes a utilitarian approach because he acknowledges the subjectivity inherent in discussions of ‘just’ or ‘right action,’ in addition to the fact that not every human being practices Kantian ethics. Singer’s is an objective response to the simple fact that individuals cannot always count on each other to ‘do the right thing.’ Instead of bickering about it and getting bogged down in the definition of duty, charity, obligation, or responsibility, Singer says all of us should be doing everything we can to prevent the experience of suffering—it’s as simple and personal a responsibility as that. Perhaps many individuals see themselves as separate from each other, and from suffering; if this is the case, then Kantian ethics are for you. But Singer puts forth the idea of a global village, in which we are all a part of the greater whole, not one of us any different or less deserving than another. Therefore, his argument is one illustrating utilitarian responsibility on the part of an individual for the sake of all other individuals—“all for one, one for all.”
            Having thoroughly examined Kantian and Utilitarian responses to famine and suffering, I would like to address how a practitioner of virtue ethics might respond to this problem. Hursthouse provides some insight into how virtue ethics might better accommodate the subjectivity that Kantian ethicists and opponents of utilitarianism are concerned with. Virtue ethics is agent-centered instead of act-centered, so we can do away with some of the ‘what-to-do’ and ‘how-to-do-it’ concerns. Virtue ethics does provide action guidance, but more in relation to living well (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 562). The concept of living well is open to the same subjectivity, but is no longer the kind that cripples the ideology behind the argument. Hursthouse argues that while virtue can be subjective, a virtuous agent would be willing to acknowledge the subjectivity and act according to his or her own willingness to assume a state of being and thinking that honors ‘what is right,’ useful and agreeable to both parties involved. Hursthouse suggests we may have to accept that all we can know is ‘what is right’ according to our own experiences and ourselves. Does this moral relativism and spectrum of subjectivity mean that virtue ethics doesn’t do any better than utilitarianism or Kantian ethics? I don’t think so: virtue ethics is a way of thought and action that allows us as individuals to assess how to best align with others and ourselves while responding to a situation like famine or suffering. Kantian ethics takes a slightly removed, less involved, ‘far away’ kind of approach to suffering. Utilitarianism assumes a larger portion of the responsibility for a larger number of people—like Kantian ethics on a grand scale, with the awareness that not everyone practices Kantian ethics. Virtue ethics is a nice blend of assuming Kantian-style (or more personal) responsibility while acknowledging the need for a sometimes-utilitarian (or big-picture) approach. A Kantian ethicist would probably have good intentions and hopes for those suffering, but help mostly those around him for as long as he felt comfortable; the utilitarian would reduce herself to the equal of those in suffering to prevent the most suffering possible without suffering worse circumstances herself; all the while, the virtue theorist would probably be the one coordinating the efforts of the other two to make sure that the best possible outcome was reached with respect to each party involved. I like to think of them in relation to how separate they feel from one another: the Kantian ethicist would say, “I am separate from their suffering, but wish them well and will do what I can comfortably, because it is also the duty of others to offer support.” The utilitarian would say, “I am not separate from them or their suffering, so I will do everything in my power to help them as long as I do not therefore harm myself.” The virtue theorist would say something like, “I am lucky to be in a position that is not suffering, but I recognize that it is important to help those suffering if I can; because of who I am and how I want to be as a person, I will do what I feel is right and just to alleviate the suffering of my fellow human beings, and therefore myself.”


2. Challenges to Morality: Both Mackie and Harman seem to cast doubt on the claim that morality is a body of objective knowledge or that it is about objective reality.  What are some of those arguments (one from each philosopher)?  How does Sturgeon counter Harman’s argument?  Plato also seems to side with the objectivist view.  Why?  Or, if you disagree, explain.

Mackie argues that there are no such objective values as would constitute a basis for morality or a moral code; therefore there is no such thing as objective morality. An individual’s values are subject to his or her moral perceptions and individual experience. Outside of this individual experience, no freestanding moral guidelines or standards exist. Instead, morality is relative to social and cultural traditions, our perceptions of which are perpetually changing to accommodate evolving sociocultural trends. He defines this phenomenon in his argument from relativity, and continues to explain why even “very generic principles which are recognized at least implicitly to some extent in all society” do not provide sufficient basis for universal moral agreement or even common ground (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 714-715). Harman makes some similar arguments in regards to observation and its moral implication for the observer. First of all, there is no such thing as ‘pure observation.’ What we observe is subject to our own mental filter and capacity to interpret observation stimuli into patterns of understanding; we make judgments of our observations based on prior experience and contextual beliefs. If what we observe conflicts with these prior moral theories or beliefs, we either act based on theory and uphold it, or use the observation as the basis for modifying that theory to make better sense of the observation. Science works the same way! However, theories in science are not only proven by observation, but also explain the observation itself. This is not the case with morality, and Harman is keen to delineate this. He asserts that moral principles cannot be tested by observation because the observation provides no direct evidence of a moral principle. Because the moral principle cannot explain the observation itself, he concludes morals are unnecessary to explain a response to an observation. In other words, there is no evidence for a moral code outside of any observation stimuli. This echoes Mackie’s argument that there is no objective morality. Did someone say ‘subjectivity?’ That’s right—according to Harman, our observations and our moral responses to them are based purely upon our prior experience and individual construction of our own moral reality. Right or wrong has no bearing on why people act and how others observe; there is absolutely no purely moral assumption. Sturgeon counters Harman’s argument by upholding the value of making assumptions about observations. He explains that observations have no intrinsic value; without making some assumption or educated guess in regards to what is being observed, the observation is meaningless. There would be no conscious thought about the observation, and nothing to learn from it or understand. Earlier, Harman explained that moral responses to observations stem from individual psychology and social circumstance. Sturgeon calls this moral nihilism, and pushes us to be morally realistic and ethically natural without clinging to a reductive definition for ethical terms. It seems like Sturgeon is a little bit fed up with the subjectivity. He seems to be at peace with not trying to reach a simplistic view or definition of morality, and doing his best to be sociologically and morally mindful. He says as long as we are willing to “hold the right sorts of other moral assumptions fixed in answering counterfactual questions,” we should regard moral facts as “relevant to the explanation of non-moral facts, and in particular of our having the moral beliefs we do,” (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 735). He compares morality to quantum physics in this way, citing the fixed theoretical assumptions physicists make in order to better explain microphysical observations. He concludes by acknowledging Harman’s illustration of moral skepticism, but that the only real evidence for it is the “difficulty of settling disputed moral questions,” (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 736).
I don’t think it’s necessary to side with moral objectivity. Clearly, we have seen how morality and moral observations are subject to individual experience and moral background. That being said, the next-best thing to objectivity would be to at least acknowledge the subjectivity of morality, like Sturgeon does. If one were able to ponder the other possible moral perspectives in response to an observation, he or she would perhaps approximate objectivity from a moral standpoint. Even though he or she would not be separate or detached from his or her own moral opinion and subjective experience, as Harman and Mackie suggest, the response to the observation would take into larger consideration the vast array of possible moral reactions. It isn’t perfect moral objectivity or omniscience, but it is an attempt at such a thing. That is worth siding with, and I do.


3. Existential Issues: What are some bad arguments for the absurdity of life (according to Nagel)?  What is a good argument (for Nagel)?  Camus seems to argue that life is absurd.  Is his argument a good one (according to what Nagel would say)?

Nagel enumerates several bad arguments for the absurdity of life. The first is the argument that nothing we do will matter one million years from now. Nagel poses the question, “how do we know what we do will matter at all?” He also refers to the brevity of our lives compared to the infinity of the universe. In the grand scheme of things, it would seem that our lives are too short to have any measurable impact. Nagel argues that our lives would be just as absurd no matter the length of time we were subject to life. Lastly, it is argued that our lives are absurd because no matter what we do, all lives come to an end, therefore rendering the lives themselves and their purposes utterly meaningless. Nagel casually explains that all justification ends in life, and whether or not the process can be justified has no bearing on its end. “No further justification is needed to make it reasonable to take aspirin for a headache,” (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 756). Even though these arguments are not sound illustrations of the nature of the absurdity of life, Nagel thinks they hint at its essence. In an attempt to clarify the arguments, Nagel defines the absurdity of life as a “conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality,” (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 756). However, this discrepancy is not present in our world or universe; rather it is connected to our consciousness and our own self-awareness. This “collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt,” is a collision that takes place within ourselves (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 757-758). This is precisely the absurdity that Nagel is attempting to better clarify. Even though we build and experience our lives, we sense a detachment from them—Nagel describes this point of view as one “from which the seriousness appears gratuitous,” (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 757). When we reflect on our lives, we seem to do so from a separate point of view. We don’t worry as much about the meaning of our lives while actively living them, but when we stop to ponder, we’re left with the overwhelming thought “Why? What does it mean? For what?” It is in this way that Nagel agrees that our lives are absurd. Camus’ argument is not a good one, either, according to Nagel. Camus argued that the absurdity of life stems from the world’s (or the universe’s) failure to meet human demands for meaning; but Nagel says this is not the case (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 758). Camus’ argument seems to suppose that if the world were different, our struggle for meaning might be less. Nagel corrects Camus’ argument by saying the absurdity derives from the clash between expectation and experience, not expectation and the universe’s manifestation of our world; he makes this distinction because the clash or struggle is internal, not external. Our lives are most certainly absurd, but only so because of the disparity we create between the inherent and perceived meaning in our lives and the universe. If I may add my own philosophical opinion, I would say that Nagel articulates the nature of this struggle quite well. Our lives have no apparent meaning; instead we create it for ourselves and share it with others. Perhaps the life we expect is so different from the one we experience because our expectation is based on the idea that there is some greater purpose than the one we choose for our time in this realm of experience. I will echo what Nagel said about the need for justification: there is no justification needed (for a single action or an entire life) beyond wanting to experience something for the sake of having experienced it. This life in which we are suspended is one of choice, experience and sharing; beyond that, our lives are whatever we choose for them to be, and for ourselves to experience. In the comforting words of Pink Floyd, “all you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be.”


4. Let’s go back to Russell’s characterization of philosophy as a discipline that cannot escape the uncertainty of its conclusions, and yet this very feature is what gives philosophy its value.  Can you make a case for that view based on what we have learned since midterm?  Let’s have it, or if not, explain why.  Don't speak in generalities here.  We want to know specifically what in our readings since midterm has stimulated in the way that Russell says philosophy can stimulate a student of the subject.  Say what specific readings have had an effect on you, what kind of effect, and whether the effect has been valuable, and how.

The uncertainty of philosophy as described by Russell is absolutely the core reason philosophy has value and will always have value. Philosophy is not studied or written for the sake of arriving at concrete, calculated conclusions, nor is it useful for determining exactly how to live or what to believe. What then is it good for? Evolution of thought, consciousness and understanding. Philosophy is a discipline predicated on the incapacity of human intellect to answer all of life’s pressing questions. Science does its best, but is limited to what we can physically prove and measure by observation. Philosophy concerns itself with the abstract, the infinite. It is the necessary platform for discussing and pondering our own curiosities, while attempting to make sense of the nature of our experience. We are both participants and spectators in our lives; it’s as though we are watching ourselves on television, but don’t understand the point of the program, how long it will last, why the program exists in the first place, and how it is that we are able to be a part of the show while we watch. Our consciousness and our experience of it are most curious indeed. Philosophy is the science dedicated to better understanding these phenomena, or at least trying. Even though philosophy is not always exact, it is a thorough attempt at ‘thinking in the right direction.’ There are several readings that have had a profound impact on my philosophical experience, the first of which was Singer’s discussion of utilitarianism and duty to charity. I cannot tell you how long I had waited to read something exactly like this. In my own philosophical dabbling over the last several years, I wrote several times about the willingness of society to ignore and separate ourselves from suffering. Singer says as long as we have the capacity to end suffering, that’s exactly what we should do. I don’t see how anyone could possibly disagree. I find myself under the impression that none of us are separate from each other, nor from any other part of the universe. To quote Singer, the least we could do is facilitate the “prevention of the starvation of millions outside our society,” which must be “at least as pressing as the upholding of property norms within our society.” If we all took on a utilitarian role, the amount of sacrifice required of each human being would be minimal—even if the role we took on were one based on Kantian ethics! Singer states plainly that this way of life we take for granted has to change… He concludes that charity is synonymous with duty; the distinction people make between moral duty and charity “cannot be supported.” Even if we adopted this approach to ending suffering in a moderate form, the world would change drastically. Singer talked about a life of theory and practice intertwined… We are proud of our theories, but there is a lot more we could be doing. Those with the greatest capacity have the greatest responsibility; but none of us is without responsibility, whether it be to others or ourselves. For me, this utilitarian response to suffering is the most virtuous. Singer is willing to accept the responsibility to ease the suffering of others if he has the capacity to do so. The Kantian approach (in addition to the lazy, ignorant approach) seems to work if you can distance yourself from the problem. If you think you are different from those suffering, and that it is not your duty to alleviate it, then you don’t have to. This is a theory based on privilege and the ability to ignore something so grievous as the suffering of another people. I liked Singer’s thoughts because he directly challenges us to see how off base this is. No one can claim ignorance; people simply refuse to change. After reading Singer, I felt established in the way I give back and choose to spend my time and money. I would argue that I am certainly utilitarian in terms of philosophy and theory, but am still learning (and trying!) to affect the change I wish to be a part of in the world. Even if there is some uncertainty surrounding the subjectivity of utilitarianism, Singer is at least ‘thinking in the right direction,’ and I hope the rest of the world starts to catch on.

            The other topic shrouded in uncertainty is the nature of death, which Nagel discusses. This is more the type of philosophical uncertainty that I prefer: not dealing with how to act or live, but the abstract phenomena present in our lives that humanity has spent thousands of years trying to understand. Nagel wonders in his writing if death is a moral evil. Is it bad to die? For years, I would have thought, “Yes!” because death is something we know very little about. We fear what we do not understand, so it’s easy to conclude that death is ‘bad’ or ‘evil.’ Recently, I find that I am fascinated by death, near death experience and what happens to one’s consciousness when the physical body is no longer able to support the life force that once animated it. Nagel describes death as undesirable because the loss of life is regrettable, not because the state of being dead is evil or negative. For the sake of his discussion, he defines death as permanent, after which there is no conscious survival. More so than the rest of his conclusions, it was this assumption that most intrigued me. He said that if death were just a temporary suspension of conscious experience, which resumed later, we wouldn’t really mind. It wouldn’t be much different from going to sleep and then waking up not knowing how long you’ve been ‘out.’ I can see why he would define death as permanent for his discussion, but it is interesting that he mentions this concept. For me, it is conceivable that death is a transition into another state of consciousness separate from physicality in which we ‘remember’ or revert to the ‘form’ of our true nature or essence (whatever that is). For Nagel to present death as permanent, yet neither fortunate nor unfortunate was particularly interesting. One would not experience death—he or she would be alive, and then his or her life would cease. Beyond that, it is difficult to infer what would happen to his or her consciousness or will because it ceases to have function and meaning in our realm of physical experience. Death is probably the most notorious of the vast array of uncertainties in our experience because it is the furthest thing from what we spend our time doing—living our lives. Nagel is willing to entertain the nature of this uncertainty, and offer a conclusion that is not typically reached in regards to death. He does not describe death as unfortunate or evil; instead he offers reasons to believe death may be positive in some cases, and at the very least not unpleasant to the individual that experiences it. I find great solace in this exploration of death because Nagel acknowledges that the nature of death may be nothing like what we anticipate. And if the absurdity of life has taught us anything, it’s that what we anticipate is rarely what we experience. The uncertainty inherent in most philosophy is for me the greatest truth. I have spent my life looking for answers, what is ‘real,’ and trying to master the science of what I can trust and expect. Philosophy provides the ‘answer’ that I have been looking for, which is that there is uncertainty surrounding all things. We live in realm of becoming, in which all substance is in a perpetual state of change. This uncertainty is the only truth, the only thing we can expect and count on. This brings me peace. Uncertainty is philosophy’s way of self-preservation and evolution, and I much prefer it to the dogmatic, dualistic tendencies of most ways of thought. Acknowledging the uncertainties in philosophy and in life is the easiest way to let go, to be at peace with the perceived ‘absurdity’ of life. I think when we admit this fact, it is ourselves that we see as absurd, and not life. We cling to knowledge that isn’t even real! I am confident in my ability to analyze, think critically, and reach my own conclusions, but I definitely won’t be taking life so seriously in the future. In this brief exploration of philosophy, I did not expect to learn as much as I did about my experience and myself; and I am learning to accept and appreciate uncertainty as the very essence of life itself.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Intro to Philosophy Midterm: A Few Thoughts

1. On Philosophy--

Bertrand Russell states in “The Value of Philosophy” that philosophy is used for the sake of approximate knowledge; in his own words, it “aims primarily at knowledge.” However, knowledge based on certainties and facts is not the type to which he is referring. Russell explains that philosophy aims to better understand the unity and framework that holds sciences together. Its purpose is not to provide a definite answer or to reach some kind of resolution, but instead to make an attempt to understand the mysteries and causal forces that propel us through our human experience. My philosophical experience has most certainly confirmed this claim that Russell makes. In Plato’s “Apology: Defence of Socrates,” Socrates justifies his attempts to expose the “pretensions to knowledge” and ignorance of ‘knowledgeable’ individuals. By the mere act of questioning established knowledge (and perhaps rocking the existential boat), Socrates is put on trial and killed. The most important aspect of his philosophy was indeed this “questioning” (“Apology: Defence of Socrates” 23a). Socrates tried to teach his fellow Athenians that thinking critically and examining our systems of thought and belief serves our intellect better than arrogance on any subject matter. At first, this acknowledgement of uncertainty is something that frustrated me; now I see that the uncertainty is the very essence of philosophy. Socrates--the martyr--did his best to instill his passion for philosophy and thought in his contemporaries. David Hume made another compelling argument for the sake of philosophy in his discussion “Of Skepticism with Regard to the Senses.” Although he does not argue for philosophy on the whole, his perspective offers an important insight to our experience. The senses, Hume claims, are but tools to convey “impressions of very existences by a kind of fallacy and illusion.” The greater implication in his statement is that there are realms of consciousness or understanding that go beyond what we are able to perceive sensibly; there is a reality that our senses are only able to hint at. Enter PHILOSOPHY. It is a reasonable, logical, and ‘scientific’ approach to attempting to understand the meta-mind-reality we encounter with intellect, curiosity and consciousness. Even though philosophers must admit to ultimate uncertainty, it is the uncertainty that allows philosophy to evolve alongside our intellect. Philosophy allows us to critically examine our own pretensions to knowledge, and at least try to better understand the mysterious universe of experience in which we find ourselves wondering.  

2. On science--

Scientism is a belief or practice in which the authority of science is placed above that of philosophy, religion, morality, the arts, et cetera. David Armstrong supports this doctrine because he genuinely believes that science has a greater capacity for reaching intellectual consensus (Armstrong, “The Nature of Mind”). There is good reason for this. Armstrong argues, “The best clue we have to the nature of the mind is furnished by the discoveries and hypotheses of modern science…” Before any advancement in scientific methodology, and well before the establishment of a scientific community, “inquiry proceeded, as it were, in the dark.” According to Armstrong, science is the best way to achieve consensus on controversial ideas, and consensus is paramount to the formulation of an established truth or science. While religion or morality can alter human perception, science provides insight into the structure or fabric of the reality in which we exist. Because science is predicated on empirical data, observation, and repetition over time, it is better suited to establish a consensus on the nature of man and our experience. David Hume makes similar claims in his “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” In section four, Hume explains that knowledge is based on prior experience or observation; knowledge of something is not realized until the event upon which the knowledge is predicated has occurred. To prove this fact, Hume argues the inability of one to determine the effect of a specific cause if he or she has not already experienced or observed it. One cannot make a decision (or predict the effect of any cause) based on knowledge “without the assistance of observation and experience.” It is this very principle, Hume claims, that has kept philosophers from remarking upon the “ultimate cause of any natural operation, or [showing] distinctly the action of that power, which produces any single effect in the universe.” This is a problem for science, but also for us philosophers. How are we to formulate even an approximate knowledge about anything if we have no prior understanding or experience of it?  Wesley Salmon examines this in “The Problem of Induction.” Salmon exposes the uniformity principle upon which most science is dependent. It is necessary scientifically to observe or experience a phenomenon in order for it to become knowledge, and to be accepted as established knowledge. However, this type of knowledge cannot be formed in regards to an unobserved fact or phenomenon—this is the problem of induction. Salmon asserts that there is no such thing as ‘knowledge’ when it comes to dealing with unobserved fact; this assumption that we make based on science and our experience is called ‘belief.’ Because accurate knowledge of an unobserved event or phenomenon is impossible to attain, it is impossible to ‘know’ with any certainty that one will experience a distinct or predictable outcome. This makes sense until we reexamine this statement from a scientific perspective. Induction and the assumption of uniformity (or that history will repeat itself) is highly problematic for science. Science depends on past experience and patterns that emerge from observed phenomena. Technically speaking, science is a pretense to knowledge. Even with scientific evidence to support a claim, science does not constitute knowledge. Science does its best to provide the evidence and reasoning for believing a ‘fact,’ but it does not constitute knowledge. Salmon comments, “A ‘science’ that consisted of no more than a mere summary of the results of direct observation would not deserve the name.” Given the circumstances and our human limitations to knowledge, I would wager that science is still our best bet towards understanding the nature of our experience. Science, even if compromised by the assumption of uniformity and plagued by the problem of induction, still offers us a better understanding of cause and effect, and similar past events. It would serve us philosophically and otherwise to admit and fully understand, though, that even science stems from ‘beliefs.’ In other words, we know even less than we thought!

3. On the existence of evil--

I would like to argue against the existence of evil. In “God, Evil and the Best of All Possible Worlds,” Gottfried Leibniz asserts that there is such a thing as a ‘necessary evil.’ Although he denies that God “chose poorly” by creating a world with evil in it, he explains that perhaps God created evil for the sake of a “greater good.” He references St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, contending that it is perfectly understandable that an “imperfection in the part may be required for a greater perfection in the whole.” Now, I don’t wish to speak ill of the experience or opinions of Leibniz, but I would venture so far as to say that his conclusions about the purpose of evil and its presence in our experience depend on beliefs about God as a being, and about God’s intentions. Leibniz assumes that God is perfect, and therefore would create the perfect world—even if it meant there were suffering in it. By allowing for evil to exist, perhaps one fosters the creation or experience of ‘good’ in response to ‘evil.’ I believe there is something to be said about balance in the universe, though I am not convinced by his reasoning that evil is necessary for the existence of good, or a ‘greater good.’ Russell refutes the argument of design for the exact same reason Leibniz subscribed to it. In his “Argument from Design,” Russell attributes the apparent lack of design and existence of evil to the fact that there is not a perfect God responsible for the creation of our experience. Life evolves and does what it must to survive, and the resulting experience is judged as “evil.” Hume approximates my own stance on the existence of evil in his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.” Philo, one of his characters, states that true nature is neither good nor evil, and that God (or whatever supreme being) is or would be indifferent to good and evil. Instead, Philo describes a natural state of balance, in which events occur that can be judged as “good” or “evil;” however to do so is simply choosing the way in which to relate to these events. Nature, as it exists naturally, is an ebb and flow of events. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are simply human reactions to the stimuli from one such event. Hume’s view (as expressed by Philo) seems to be the most congruent with objective experience, or what I would refer to as ‘reality.’ Evil and good are just ideas; they do not exist outside of the framework of a conscious, judgmental mind. Balance is another thing all together—“balance” is a better way of looking at the ups and downs of our experiences. In my opinion, no human acts unjustly based upon his or her individual experience; in fact, nothing in nature acts unjustly, or outside of what he or she is able to justify. But one conscious being might judge the acts of another as evil because of the way those actions affect others. I like to think of life as a pond into which stones are constantly thrown… A conscious, objective person would not judge the ripples as good or evil, but simply accept them for what they are, as they are. I would postulate that good and evil do not exist, but sensations and human reactions to stimuli do exist. It is the way we process these stimuli, and relate to each other and reality that shape our perception of “good” and “evil.”

4. On human identity--

Identity—“who we are”—is one profound topic. As far as my own identity is concerned, I have established a sense of ‘self,’ but I am not sure what it is that I am. A mind? A computer? A living organism, yet also a thinking organism? Over the course of our readings, there were several stances on identity worth mentioning, and I’d like to address those here. First, I would like to acknowledge Searle and his concept of intentionality. This force of will that we exert on our surroundings and others rules out the possibility that humans (or our minds) are simply machines. Searle argues that the human mind is comparable to a computer, and that a computer can in fact think. But we humans are not just computers; computers lack something that is natural to a human—“intentionality,” as Searle puts it. Even though a computer could be created to replicate processes of the human mind, and even though the cause-and-effect events in the mind could be duplicated, the “causal powers” of intentionality and our own distinct experiences are more responsible for our perceived identity. These causes of our experience go beyond programming, or what we might refer to as ‘instinct,’ or ‘human nature.’ It is intentionality and the very nature of choice that allows us to participate in the formation of an ‘identity.’ So, we are somewhat machine like in the sense that our minds have the capacity to compute and process information, but our identity seems to stem from something deeper than programming and input stimuli. Derek Parfit claims that identity is dependent upon psychological continuity and connectedness, though connectedness is most responsible for our “self-survival” or maintained sense of self. Our identity can change depending on our experience; Parfit uses Wiggins’ case to illustrate this point, and how connectedness is essential to defining our sense of self. If one experiences an event-stimulus in which some perceived aspect of the self is changed (either intentionally or reactively), the event is comparable to fission (Wiggins’ case). During this fission, whether the stimulus is internal or external, one may realize a disparity between the established identity and the resulting one. Maintaining a connection between these ‘different’ selves over the course of one’s experience is what shapes his or her sense of identity. Parfit emphasizes that this connectedness, or relation to oneself over time, is the essence of the identity that we experience. This self or identity is constantly undergoing fissions (and fusions arguably) that mold our perception of it; but maintaining the psychological connection from fission to fission is responsible for the “survival” of any one “self” of ours that we experience. This fact reveals the perpetual evolution of our individual self and identity, and allows us to see ourselves more objectively. This truth has played a fundamental role in my understanding of my own identity. Lastly, Descartes—a man after my own heart. Descartes ponders his true essence in his second Meditation dealing with the nature of the human mind. Descartes can come to terms with the fact that he is, but he has trouble deciphering the I in “I am.” He is able to deduce that he exists, and that he is something—“I am a thing that thinks,” he says. He spends a fair amount of time assessing ways in which he can prove the extent of his identity in relation to objects, thoughts and “imperfect” mental inspection. After all of this thought still, he arrives at his conclusion that by considering ways in which he is able to “grasp” a concept or physical object, he is able to better grasp and reveal to himself the nature of his own mind. Obviously, the nature of self and identity is complex, but Descartes reduces himself to nothing but his thoughts, and therein realizes his essence. “I think therefore I am.” In my humble philosophical opinion, there is no greater truth. We are conscious beings, capable of thought beyond what we perceive. We have the ability to think with an awareness about ourselves, and formulate relative opinions based on our own experience with this ‘self.’ This is the nature of our identity—our own thoughts and reactions to a ‘self’ that we exist as and simultaneously outside of. Because of our consciousness and self-awareness, we are able to comprehend that we are something…but the essence of “what we are,” this identity, is created, evolved, and simultaneously experienced in the whirlwind of our life experience. Are we our minds? Yes, but in addition to something else—the will, intentionality, consciousness, and desire to express “who we are”—these all play a part in the symphony of our identity. At least, I think. Descartes said in his infinite wisdom, “My mind enjoys wandering, and it won’t confine itself to the truth. I will therefore loosen the reins for now so that later, when the time is right, I will be able to control my mind more easily.”