A Jaunt into Philosphy 4: The Mind-Body Problem

Here’s my last in my short series on philosophy. 

Another philosophical dilemma is the mind-body problem. Do humans have a mind separate from their physical bodies or is life merely composed of twirling particles and matter?  The latter view is called materialism; this belief contends there is nothing besides our physical functions.  Everything we experience including our thought processes is simply a response of the brain’s nervous system (Burr and Goldinger 320).

In contrast, a dualist is someone who believes there is a non-physical mind creating a causal effect between the body and the mind.  A materialist will counter that the existence of a non-physical mind cannot be proven.  However, the dualist puts great value in defending the idea of the mind because it can affect how one views the concepts of free will, morality and immortality (Burr and Goldinger 320).  For some, explaining away consciousness as a mere chemical response does not satisfactorily explain all human experiences. Perhaps we will never be able to explain scientifically why the mental realities of life seem so different to the physical realities around us (Nagel 36).

Epistemology is the study of knowledge.  Beliefs about knowledge range widely from pondering whether anything can be known to questioning whether we can know anything other than that which we know through our senses.  Rationalists believe that reasoning can be used as the sole source of knowledge. Modern philosopher Descartes and his axiom, “I think, therefore I am” is explained by Burr and Goldinger to mean “Whatever is perfectly clear and distinct to […] reason cannot be doubted and so must be true” (442).  Descartes’ statement does seem profound.  Of all the creatures that roam the earth, humans are seemingly so self-aware that we can realize that we are asking ourselves how aware we really are.

Empiricism states that we can only know what we can experience with our senses.  An empiricist would say that the certainty espoused by the rationalists say nothing at all about actual real-life fact; even science, they contend, merely points to probabilities but is limited when forced to produce facts (Burr and Goldinger 442-443). Philosophical skepticism speaks to yet a grander scale.   Just as Socrates went around to knowledgeable men only to discover that they really didn’t know anything, so philosophical skeptics question whether we can really know anything at all.  Burr and Goldinger state that skeptics may not refute that knowledge is possible but may challenge anyone who claims to have knowledge (443). The most radical level of this type of thought is solipsism where someone believes that nothing else exists in the world except for one’s own mind (Nagel 11).  The skeptic’s argument about doubting existence can spiral on and on.  However, most people – possibly even philosophers – at some point seem to acknowledge that there is something beyond our own minds even if the ‘what’ is not always clear.  This leads to many arguments debating the existence of God and the value of many different scientific pursuits.

A Jaunt into Philosphy 3: Absolutism vs. Relativism

Here’s my third attempt at philosophy. This one on absolutism vs. relativism.

Can it be determined that some actions are right and other actions wrong?  Can one culture’s traditions be morally inferior to that of another?  For example, a western person may look on in strange curiosity when a Vietnamese family gets together to celebrate the ngay gio or death anniversary of a loved one.  At the same time, a Vietnamese may wonder why an American makes such a fuss about their child’s birthday.  Is one better than the other?  Are they equally valid due to different cultural upbringings? Are they both actually pointing out the same moral principals in just different ways?

Relativism and absolutism are terms used by philosophers when discussing morality and society.  Relativism is described as each society having its’ own set of principles based on their culture and beliefs.  As the example in the previous paragraph shows, it is easy to see that different societies value different moral practices.  This is called social relativism. Ethical relativism builds on this principle by stating that any society’s ultimate moral principle is as valid as any other society’s principle (Burr and Goldinger 180-181).  This sets up a crucial conflict between ethical relativism and ethical absolutism which states that there is only one correct ultimate principle or set of principles.  This philosophical conflict has many ramifications in how someone might view abortion, punishment, education or the environment

In the modern world, the buzzword democracy emanates loudly throughout the world.  Leaders claim that democracy is every country’s destiny and possibly even their divine right.  Philosophers look at state and society and try to ask the big questions about the nature of democracy and its underlying political philosophy. They wonder about claims of one form of government being morally superior to that of another (Burr and Goldinger 269).  For example, in the often used statement “…with liberty and justice for all”, a philosopher might try to define liberty.  Can it mean different things to different people?  Can there be limits to liberty?  Why?  What is justice and can it really apply to everyone equally?

All of these questions lead to many very important issues which are discussed and debated every day.  Can there be true justice when some people are rich and others are poor?  Some say that an equal and just society should provide equal opportunity for everyone to succeed.  Others would take it a step further and say that equality of outcome is what is needed.  Everyone actually needs to be the same intellectually and materially for there to be true equality. When looking at the world, Nagel wonders if anything can and/or should be done about the tremendous economic disparity between the very poor and very rich nations (79).  The questions framed by philosophers are profound and difficult, but the practical application of the suggested answers to these questions result in very real consequences to our global community.

A Jaunt into Philosophy 2: The Issue of God and Religion

Here’s the second post in a short series in philosophy. The first one on Freedom vs Determinism can be found HERE!    This one is on God and Religion. 

Philosophers differ profoundly on the issue of God and religion. Many see the world in pure scientific eyes. There is nothing except that which can be tested by scientific method and natural law. Those that hold this view believe that evolution shows that through natural selection, mankind evolved from lesser species thereby refuting the statements about the origins of man contained in some religious scriptures. (Burr and Goldinger 105).

Others counter this purely scientific view of the world by evoking the idea of design. They contend that it would be highly improbable that such an intricately formed earth could have come into existence by chance, thus necessitating belief in a Creator who designed the universe. Some scientists do believe in God and state that evolution is not incompatible with a non-literal reading of, for instance, the Bible. Burr and Goldinger point out that some common arguments for God’s existence such as using ancient scriptures to justify God or pointing to the fact that the majority of the world believes in God are invalid arguments.  Many things that were once believed to be true have been proven untrue and there is no verifiable evidence that the ancient scriptures are actually from God (105).

Despite the arguments against belief in God, many people continue to believe in God. In their view, everything can be explained by pointing to God as the originator and ultimate arbitrator of life. Nagel states that “the idea of God seems to be the idea of something that can explain everything else, without having to be explained itself (99). He seems to have a problem with this type of reasoning. If God gives meaning to life, but the meaning of God itself cannot be explained, then how can this be helpful? It seems that the only logical explanation for believing in God is faith, and once again this lacks the empirical evidence that makes it something which can be studied. But perhaps, that is the point and is exactly what Nagel is getting at when he says “the belief in God is the belief that the universe is intelligible, but not to us” (100). We may never know what is beyond this life we see which is something Plato points out when he describes Socrates’ contemplation about what may lie beyond his life (26). At the end of the philosophical argument about the existence of God, many people continue to believe in God without question, which is a prospect that Nagel finds hard to understand (91). But ultimately, one cannot disprove the personal religious experiences of another. These experiences can reinforce and strengthen a person’s faith and becomes nearly like a proof that God exists. These types of personal experiences are powerful and a person is not likely to be talked out of his or her belief even by a well-meaning philosopher




A Jaunt into Philosophy 1: Freedom vs. Determinism

I’m no philosopher. But I like to think of the issue and give my two-cents every once in a while. I worked through some of the major philosophical issues a while back by writing a series of short essays. Nothing groundbreaking here, but I thought I’d share my understanding and thoughts on them. Here’s the first one on Freedom vs. Determinism.

Freedom vs. determinism. Are human able to make our own choices and decisions?  Do we truly have free will to change our actions or is our behavior merely the outcome of a series of other actions, which were caused by previous actions?  Philosophers differ in their beliefs and understanding of this issue.  Burr and Goldinger break down the different views into the determinists and the libertarians.  Determinists believe that humans have no free will and that we are merely the sum of our environment.  Everything we do is predetermined. Just as the natural laws of physics and biology apply to our world, there are human laws which govern our actions even if we cannot articulate what those are (30).

Those who doubt the determinist point of view are called libertarians. Libertarians believe that humans are free beings – able to decide what to do in any given situation. The issue of having free will is crucial for libertarians, for without it, they believe personal responsibility is no more. In their view, without free will and personal responsibility, humans cannot be faulted for any actions they do whether benign or criminal because it could not have been helped. If everything is predetermined then criminals should not be punished or heroes rewarded (Burr and Goldinger 31).

Determinists counter by arguing that no other living creature has free will, so why should humans?  They point out that the personal responsibility argument is invalid and perhaps unnecessary. Nagel explains that bad behavior pre-determined or not is just that – bad behavior which in turn may come with consequences (54).

People seemingly do random, unexpected things every day. Suppose this very minute I was to walk out to my street and punch my neighbor in the nose. That would be random and seemingly out of character. I don’t believe that I shall do this thing, but I am physically able and capable. If I did it, would it prove that free will does exist? Or would it merely serve as a reminder that I have been building up to this point all my life and finally my philosophy course drove me to the edge and made me randomly punch my neighbor just to prove that I can. There seems to be a conflict of interests. Our actions can’t be pre-determined if there is free will, yet it seems that our actions could possibly be explained using either argument. Perhaps this is the dilemma to which Nagel refers. He seems unsatisfied to accept that all our actions must have some underlying cause without making ourselves nothing more than puppets; On the other hand, he seems also perplexed to say that our actions are ours without something within us causing them to be so (58). It is this perplexing question that has fascinating and complex consequences on how we view the world around us.

So which is true? I guess it’s all about perspective.

Integrity: Can it be lost and then re-found? (Philosophical musings of my next novel.)

He is a man of integrity.

Have you ever heard someone referred to as such? What does that really mean? A man of perfection? A man of excellent decision making abilities? A man who is trustworthy and honest?

Isn’t that actually quite a heavy anchor to put on someone’s shoulders?

I remember a former pastor of mine once referring to me to someone else as “one of the good ones.” It was a nice compliment, but it frightened me because of its implications. What if I don’t remain “one of the good ones?” What if I mess up? What if I make a terrible mistake in my life? Am I suddenly not one of the good ones anymore?

This, in theme, is what my fifth novel is about. I’m currently writing it and it is, in a sense, a (very) loose re-telling of the story of David. I have always found his story fascinating because he was “one of the good ones” and then fell as hard as anyone could have fallen only to be once again considered, in the end, “one of the good ones.” It’s a fascinating dynamic, which I’m attempting to discover if it can practically work in our modern setting. Lots of good philosophical ideas to debate in my head as I write this one.

So as I wrestle with this idea of integrity, the question must be asked: can integrity be lost? At what point is integrity lost? And, can it ever be gained back again?

These are difficult questions, which actually expose some of the fallacy of integrity to begin with, and here’s why: every person does things that he or she isn’t proud of. Every person is capable of making a huge mistake. Every person has the ability to lose the integrity perceived upon them by outside eyes.

This is also the same problem I have with the term ‘hypocrite’ because everyone at some point in their life is a hypocrite. No one will ever 100% follow through on what they say they believe or what they say they do.

Then why do we bestow such flame happy words upon them? Why can’t we just let humans be humans – mistakes and all – moles and all – hypocritical behavior and all?

We spend too much energy requiring everyone’s actions to live up to their words, and when they don’t, our modern society and our ever encompassing social media and news networks are always happy to expose everyone’s vulnerability.

But when I go back to the question of integrity, can lost integrity ever be gained back again? Is it possible? What would it take? Is there ever a way for good that has fallen to evil be brought back around to good again?

I’ll let you know when I finish my novel.


A Stab at Philosophy: The Problem of Pain and Evil

In this short essay, I would like to offer my view about God and the problem of evil.  I will start with the premise that God exists according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and I will look to show that the presence of pain and suffering in this world does not, as some contend, prove that God is not good.

If God exists and is a good and loving God modeled after the Judeo-Christian concept, then how could He allow evil to prosper, pain to exist and suffering to be wide-spread?  It is not hard to produce a long list of tragedies many of which are inexplicable in scope. The great tsunami of 2004 destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods in Sumatra alone.  The great cyclone of 2007 wrecked havoc on untold thousands in Myanmar.  If there is a God, especially a good God who holds the cosmos in His hands as many Christians may say, how could He have let this happen, and how could he not stop nature from causing such cruel disasters?  But not all disasters are natural.  Tens of thousands of children die each day around the world from preventable diseases.  Most of them live in Africa.  Strongmen with guns divert aid, pocket the money and watch their citizens die.  Terrible disease and famine strike down uncountable families.  Villages in Darfur, Sudan have been decimated; women raped and then slaughtered.  Humankind seemingly has little will or desire to step in and stop the senseless killing and violence.  Likewise, it seems that God is nowhere to be found.  For how can we pray to a merciful God when such pain is so widespread?

Sometimes we are not distant observers of pain.  There are many examples of suffering that happen around us each day sometimes in very personal ways. Often times these occurrences seem illogical and have no explanation at all.   B. C. Johnson, in his article The Problem of Evil, gives us a poignant example of a six-month old helpless baby being left behind in a burning house (137).  Johnson contends that God could not be good because He, assuming He is all powerful, could have stopped the fire and saved this life but did not.  Let us expand Johnson’s reasoning and see what other types of scenarios it could also apply to.  A lazy mother decides to go shopping and leaves her baby unattended in a car on an extremely hot day.  A toddler wanders into the kitchen and accidently pulls a boiling kettle down upon herself.  A man slips on the ice, hits his head and dies.   All of these scenarios, and countless others, have something in common.  Someone is hurt that didn’t deserve it.  There were no bad actions or evil intent on the part of the victims.  Even the boiling kettle incident, though caused by the actions of the toddler, was the result of a benign movement that caused indescribable pain, for she was merely reaching for things like she reaches for a mobile in her crib.  An action we as parents encourage.  How could something so simple turn out to be so bad, and where is God in these instances?

May it be taken for granted that there are few or possibly no palatable reasons why a six year old child has to die a painful death by fire?  This incident is not good.  It is a hollow statement to say that I continue to have faith in God’s goodness even though it seems like God did nothing to prevent this.  Johnson describes this type of faith as “confidence in a friend’s innocence despite the evidence against him” (138). Johnson would damn God’s goodness for allowing the child to die while he would call a theist nothing more than a stubborn person who ignores the evidence against him.  However, we need to examine this more closely.

Could it be possible for God to intervene sometimes?  For all the babies who have died unjustly in fires, there are most likely the same number or more that have been saved – sometimes in a most miraculous way.  How often do we hear someone say ‘If it wasn’t for God, I wouldn’t be alive’ after an ordeal which nearly took their life?  How many times does a car miss a person by ‘mere inches’?  How many times has someone been shot and just barely survived because the bullet was not one inch further to the left or right?  What if a baby is saved in a fire?  Perhaps God intervened to raise the pitch of the baby’s cry just enough to be heard by the fire fighter or perhaps God protected the baby’s lungs from the smoke to allow it to survive long enough to be rescued.  If we blame God for the death of a child, shouldn’t we at least possibly consider giving God some credit when a child survives?

This doesn’t, however, adequately explain why God would allow some babies to live and others to die.  Some Christians may quote Romans 8:28 where the Apostle Paul writes that “all things work together for good…”  But this kind of reasoning and faith seems inadequate here.  There is no good caused by a baby’s senseless death, and I believe God is greatly pained by this event.  Then why let it happen?  Perhaps there is something else at play here.

Let us look at the Christian view of the world.  The world we live in is neither the world God intended nor the world which ultimately will endure.  The Christian views humankind and nature itself as a corrupted form of what will someday be perfected by God.  In the meantime, pain and suffering is a by-product of our fallen world.  This means that fire, an item which sustains life, also is an item of destruction and unfortunately may even take an innocent life.  Why God would chose to let one baby die while rescuing another baby is a perplexing problem.  It is easy to say that ‘God has His reasons’ or that ‘His ways are higher than ours’ but that provides little relief to a hurting mother.   This may be enough for some to argue that God’s inability or unwillingness to help every child in every situation proves that God is not all good.  However, this too doesn’t quite make sense.

The moral boundaries of good and evil are generally easily seen and understood by humankind.   God created these moral boundaries for humans.  However, God is not a human; therefore humanity’s moral boundaries do not apply to God.  One might counter that this is taking the easy way out, but if we take for granted that God is spirit, then how can we hold God to a human standard?  It sounds cruel to us, but there are many instances in the Bible where God destroyed people or let people die.  Even the great flood of Noah would have caused the death of many women and children.  Does this prove that God is cruel?  It only shows to me how much man thinks of himself.  It only shows to me that God sees the big picture and knows that what is happening now is not the end in itself; he chooses to use the laws of nature to His purpose whether it makes sense to us or not.

John Hick in his article The Problem of Evil describes how God never promised that our lives here on earth would be perfect and pain free.  He describes our lives here as the substance of “soul-making”, that the world “with all its rough edges” is where humans learn, strive and endure so as to be able to be “children of God” and “heirs of eternal life” (146).  Actually, what would life be like if we didn’t have trouble, trials, pain and suffering here on earth?  These tests of our soul seem to define the human experience for without them, how would we know what joy, laughter and love really is?  A world that Johnson envisions where God saves every child, where pain doesn’t exist would not be human at all.  In fact, it wouldn’t even be earth because the very laws of nature would no longer apply.

Hick shows how strange and drastic a world such as this would truly be.  The laws of nature would have to be suspended because gravity’s pull could cause no injury (147).  The child pulling the hot boiling water down upon herself wouldn’t cry at all – perhaps her skin would quickly turn to stone as to deflect the high temperature of the water.  Let us suppose that we lived in a world where pain like this did not happen.  The man who slipped on the ice and hit his head would stand up again and be fine.  In fact, he could throw himself off the Empire State building and find himself no worse for wear.   If God intervened and stopped all pain and suffering, the world as we know it would be gone.  In fact, it sounds as if we are describing heaven – the place that the God of the Bible promises to those who have become ‘children of God’.  It is illogical for us to demand that God provides a paradise for us now only so we can go to paradise with Him later.  This earthly evil does not necessitate that God is not good or even that God does not exist. We may not understand all that God intends for us on this earth, and we still may not understand why a baby dies in a fire, but would we want it any other way?  To say so, would be like taking the humanity out of humans.