Monday, April 30, 2007

Verification, Social Philosophy and Conservatism

The idea of the previous post is the following. Suppose your society has a set of values that are free of internal inconsistency (such as "All men have a right to liberty" and "blacks have no right to liberty") or error about the non-moral facts (such as, for example, "blacks are happier as slaves".) In other words, your society is committed to a set of values that are unassailable on grounds of coherence and fact. These are the values by which you and your compatriots prefer to live.

If the value set to which you are committed is wrong, then it will be appropriate for someone to require your society to change its values and adopt new ones, values which are not the ones by which its members prefer to live. In that case, the true values will have no appeal to members of your society, as the prospect of pursuing lives that violate one's preferred moral values is repugnant. In addition, no one has any idea what would count as evidence that they should nevertheless accept the new values. On the verificationist view of the matter, this is a notion of persuasion with no content. And the notion that a society should have to live by new values that it coherently and with full information finds repugnant is a notion that smells of tyranny and hasn't the slightest hint of moral enlightenment.

The verificationist result in social philosophy therefore is not only inherently interesting but also has interestingly conservative implications. It seems an important part of the core of conservatism that a society has a right to live as it prefers and can have no reason to pursue any so-called "progressive" paths that are not motivated by the values to which the society is already committed. As I said in the previous post, progressivism is a non-starter whenever it has no appeal to the premises already accepted by the society it criticizes. In other words, it is not worth debating progressives who do not have arguments couched in the antecedently-held values of the society under question. Their moral convictions have no content. More likely they are expressions of resentment or instruments for gaining power, as they have proven to be numerous times in the 20th Century.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Verificationism in Social Philosophy

This post continues our series in verificationism. If you're just jumping in and it's not clear to you, scroll down and start at the beginning.

Any society S has a set of values. Now consider whether S should reject that set and adopt a new set. Suppose that some members of S recommend a "progressive" attitude and the judgment that S should make progress to a new set. There is a way to fill in the details so that we can know without examining the progressives' arguments that they are unsound.

Suppose the following facts about S's values. First, they are a coherent set. This means that S's members can live lives and behave in ways that fulfill the values of the set without violating any. This assumes that where two values give contrary prescriptions in a specific case, there is an ordering of precedence that decides which of the two overrides. This is matter of common-sense practical rationality, in which one decides, for example, that the importance of avoiding nuisances is overridden by matters of life and death. By the same token, the values of liberty and security are coherent even though in certain cases they yield contrary prescriptions. And some values, such as liberty and security, are always more important than others, so the coherent set of values includes a hierarchy, as well as a pattern of decisions, like case law, that shows the ways in which values of comparable weight are applied in cases in which they diverge in prescription. In any event, we don't need a lecture about coherence in practical reasoning. Suppose S's value set can't be faulted for its degree of coherence.

Second, suppose that S's values are consistent with all non-moral facts. They don't place blame based upon errors about agency and responsibility for action. They don't assign statuses of S's members based upon false views about the differences in capacity to perform or to suffer amongst various kinds of members of S. They don't assign punishments for crimes based upon errors about whether punishment deters crime. They don't recommend ways of life based upon errors about which ways will make which people happy. Etc. S's values are free of error in their assumptions about the non-moral facts.

Therefore, S's set of values is the set that S prefers. By "prefers" I mean that S is devoted to its values and there is no inconsistency in them or non-moral fact that could be raised that would give S internal grounds to revise the set. By "internal grounds" I mean grounds to eject one value from the set on the basis of others more important or central to the structure of the set.

Given these two facts, S can have no reason to revise its values. This is the Humean view that there can be no external reason for S to revise the set. A corollary to this claim is that progressivism, if it is the claim that S should adopt a new set of values even though the old set is coherent and free of error about the non-moral facts, is always false.

The reason is verificationistic. There is nothing that would count as evidence that S's value set, as described above, was wrong (either immoral or otherwise practically irrational.) No one has any idea what would count as evidence that the progressivist's recommendation was the right one. "S prefers its values yet ought to reject them" is a claim for which no one has an idea what would count as evidence for it.

This counts not only for the progressivist but also for the theistic reactionary. The progressive usually recommends that the wealthy members of S give more goods than they already do to the poor members of S. Aside from attempts to demonstrate that this position rests upon a more coherent construal of S's own values than that embraced by S itself, there is never any evidence to be adduced for this progressive stance. Usually the progressive requires that members of S "just see" that their poor are treated unjustly or that they just understand that Kantian rationality or the Golden Rule requires this conclusion. The theistic reactionary claims that God requires the S change its values. There is never any evidence for this claim, and even if it were true, it would be irrelevant. "God prefers that S change its set of values" does not make it more likely that S should comply. We can usefully refer to God's recommendation when we think that He knows that our present values are in error about the non-moral facts of human nature or are incoherent. But if He wanted S to change its values even acknowledging that there were no such reason, then his preference would have no purchase. The theistic reactionary, after all, is the fellow who still subscribes to divine command theory, which was debunked long ago.

There is a lot more to say about this, such as that this view does not entail any vicious moral relativism. But the point here is that the verificationist approach to the matter gives this interesting result that progressivism and reactionary theism are non-starters.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Discernment, Resentment, and Anger

I have found the truth in a teaching that I once dismissed. This is the counsel that one should not despise people who would do wrong by you. I think it is unfortunately passed around as "Do not judge others," a formulation of it that on the face of it is obviously bad advice. There is an ambiguity at play. On one interpretation it is bad, even laughable advice, on another interpretation it is right.

It's worthless advice if it means that one should not distinguish between right and wrong, should not recognize evil and should not resist one's enemy's attacks. It is laughable if it means that one only "descends to his level" when one decides that an evildoer is evil and that one should resist, counter-attack, and punish them.

But it is good advice if it means that one should not harbor hatred, anger and resentment when discerning and opposing evil. On this interpretation, it means that one should maintain an equanimity - a steady, calm, cool, and self-directed spirit - when discriminating between right from wrong and acting according to this discrimination.

That this is good advice is not obvious. One might think that anger is appropriate when one confronts bad behavior and especially genuine evil. But anger and its kin, hatred and resentment, can disable the character. They are a wrench in the works when we harbor them. It may be appropriate for a bit of indignant anger to flare up in someone who confronts an evildoer; it may provide the adrenaline the warrior's muscles need in the moment. But if he is of the highest sort of character, the anger will pass as quickly as it came.

When you envision a person of the highest order of virtuous character, you can see that he is devoid of anger, hatred and resentment. Otherwise, he would not count as content with this world and his place in it; but he does. It's just a fact that a considerable disposition to these negative emotions is not mechanically compatible with a virtuous character. In abstract theory, yes, and that's why the advice seems wrong. But in fact, no, the two aren't compatible.

Nor does a man of virtue shrink from crushing an evildoer with decisive violence or from publicly exposing wrongdoers with clear and accurate declarations. The resentful man is more likely to be hamstrung by his hatred and unable to act as effectively. His character is crippled. The man of virtue enjoys a certain ease and flow of action. His resentful friend gnashes his teeth, nursing his rage instead of acting or speaking up. Or if he does speak up, he betrays a vicious resentment that puts his pronouncements, as correct as they may be, in a dubious light for his audience. Or he engages in an overkill of violence that betokens despair and not exemplary heroism.

So, if "judging" means condemning out of a deeply seated antipathy, then "Do not judge others."

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Note on Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth

The point of The Age of Innocence is that one can either find a sort of salvation in accepting fate and duty or succumb to despair and resentment. The House of Mirth speaks of a closely allied theme. It's theme is the goal of creating a "republic of the soul," the orchestration of one's dispositions such that one isn't swept hither and thither by them, driven to extremes by compulsion and for lack of a central control. Whereas the former book's Countess Olenska acheives this harmony and control and Newland Archer does not, in the latter book Lawrence Selden enjoys the repose and Lily Bart fails to acheive it. In the latter case, however, the failure is much more grim in ramification than in the former case. At least Archer escapes with his life.

Lily Bart sees Selden's republic of the soul. It is palpable for her. She begins to create it in herself whenever he is near enough to her for her to observe his manner. But contact with another isn't enough to develop one's own virtue. The point is not that Lily doesn't develop virtue; it is that she could have done so. As does Archer in The Age of Innocence, Lily fails because she sees herself as mastered by fate, rather than as fate's equal.

In both books, Wharton wants the reader to see that virtue is crucial and failure to acheive it is failure to acheive a sort of salvation. The House of Mirth paints this picture more starkly than Archer's "mere gray speck of a man." Lily Bart loses everything.

Selden, for his part, fails, as well. Sometimes virtue requires action that would in most circumstances seem somehow rash or wide of the mean. Selden mistook passivity for equanimity at crucial moments where more forthright action would have made all the difference, both to himself and to Lily.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Verificationism and the Zombie II

There are some points that need clarification, so let's review:

1. Evidence that there is a zombie cannot be found in any possible world. Therefore, such evidence is a logical impossibility. I suppose this is because there is a contradiction buried in the notion of "zombie for whose existence there is evidence." Perhaps it is that consciousness is by definition private (which would likely be because to have experience of a particular instance of consciousness is to be that instance.) "Evidencethat object o is not conscious other than o's physical and functional states" is incoherent.

[An aside: "evidence that there is a zombie" refers to first-order evidence. There is a possible world in which an honest and very intelligent person tells you that there is a zombie. But his testimony is second-order evidence. The point is that he can't have his opinion from bonafide first-order evidence; there is none of that in any possible world.]

Perhaps the fact that the concept of zombie is not incoherent (self-contradictory) misleads one into thinking that zombies are logically possible. There is more to logical impossibility of a thing than contradiction in its concept. A term X will fail to refer in any possible world if it is meaningless. And X can be meaningless because either (a.) X is self-contradictory in definition or (b.) X pretends to refer to something for which it is self-contradictory to claim that there is evidence that X correctly refers to it. When a person claims that there is an X and, upon our asking him to describe circumstances of warranted assertability of this claim, admits that there could never in any circumstances be evidence for his claim, we may conclude that X is a meaningless term.

2.Concepts can be large and diffuse clusters of various component concepts and experiences. So, one might be able to imagine things that are not logically possible. The imagination is powerful and can even sally forth without due regard to logical possibility. A zombie, who acts conscious but is non-conscious, may be fantasized about. He may therefore seem compellingly possible. But this is no argument against the verificationist dismissal of zombies that I've given here. It is merely the claim that my dismissal of them seems wrong.

3. Since evidential states that indicate a zombie existed are not possible and "zombie" is idle chatter like "round square" or "square with no corners," consciousness logically supervenes upon physical and functional states. "Zombie" is not a meaningful term because zombies are not logically possible. Since this is so, it is clear that consciousness is certain physical and funtional states.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Verificationism and the Zombie I

Now, back to our zombie. Poor bastard! He has no idea what chocolate really tastes like. He prefers Belgian and seems to savor it upon his palate, but he in fact has no consciousness of its wonderful flavor. As passionately as he behaves toward his wife, he loves her not. Writhing in pain from a wound, he is blessedly spared the agony you and I feel in such a case. You see, he has all the physical, behavioral and neural states we do, but none of the actual consciousness. He isn't biologically possible in our world, since the biology here requires that these states give rise to corresponding conscious states. But he is possible in a world that we may imagine. For there is no contradictions in the concept of "zombie," and therefore we can clearly and distinctly perceive the difference between consciousness, on the one hand, and physical and functional states, on the other.

Or so it is said. But there is nothing that would count as evidence that someone was a zombie. Suppose you parachute in to the possible world in which zombies are said to exist. Proceed then, in your imagination, to chat up the first cordial person you meet. Ask him a battery of questions and he opines on love, salvation, satire, overcoming depression. Prick him, and he cries out. He finds your chocolate delicious. And so forth. Meanwhile, have you any evidence that your spouse is not a zombie in counterexample to the biological laws I alluded to? None at all.

No, the concept of zombie has built into it the stipulation that zombies are undetectable: no physical or behavioral examination can discover them. Therefore, there is by definition nothing that would count as evidence that your specimen was a zombie.

If verificationism is correct, then "zombie" is not a meaningful term. And if "zombie" is not a meaningful term, then mind and the corresponding physical and functional states are not distinct.

Here you may tollens my ponens, as Aaron Haspel has when I broached this argument in the past. As I recall, he stated, "So much the worse for verificationism."

But you will have to bite the bullet here. If you don't accept principle V (stated in the two previous posts), then you countenance terms as meaningful which are devoid of evidentiary content and whose definitions may even stipulate that the terms can in principle never be any justification for applying them to any object. If you maintain that only an incoherent definition may be cause for dismissing a term as meaningless, you will have to explain why incoherence is a graver sin than the lack of evidentiary content. If a person proposes a noun or adjective X and we rifle through the infinity of possible evidentiary circumstances together with him, under each of which he declares that there is no evidence that X applies to any object, then we may consign his term X to the flames

Of course it is meaningless to speak of people who are not people. But it is equally meaningless to make reference to the distinctness of things for which there could never be evidence that they were separated from one another. To say that "consciousness and the physical and functional states that correspond to it are distinct even though nothing could ever count as evidence that the latter existed without the former" is meaningless talk.

The mental space that a meaning takes up may be quite large. Meanings of terms are sometimes large clusters of concepts. The corresponding evidential criteria for the application of a term may be an equally large cluster. The artificial substitution of one element of the cluster with a new component does not always make for an obvious contradiction. Sometimes the contradiction must be ferreted out. Also, the substitution can create vacuity of meaning in another way: by depriving the term of the possibility of justified application in any conceivable circumstance. And both contradictions and evidentiarily vacuous terms may be imagined to be applicable; such is the power of the imagination. When sleepy, I can imagine a world in which there is a round square or an absolutely undetectable gnome. So, the power of the mind to imagine the zombie is no evidence that mind is non-physical.

This is the first result of verificationism as I have proposed it. "Zombie" is a meaningless term. But if consciousness is distinct from the physical and functional states that correspond to it, then "zombie" is a meaningful term. So, consciousness is not distinct from the physical and functional states that correspond to it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Verificationism in Philosophy of Mind

I'll give four examples in which the verificationism I've been discussing in the last two posts gives interesting and plausible results: philosophy of mind, metaethics, epistemology, and social/political philosophy. The gist of verificationism is V:

V: If S knows what S means by an X, then S has an idea of what S would take as evidence that the X correctly described a given object and what S would take as evidence that the X incorrectly described another given object.

Now, in philosophy of mind there is a celebrated and strange individual. He is quite a considerable personage, forcing hoards of materialists, who've rejected dualistic ontologies of mind and brain, to acknowledge the fellow's impossible possibility and shore up this contradiction either by conceding that materialism is false and dualism correct, or by some ornate contortions of theory, to devise a better-defended materialism which can afford acknowledge the brute as a merely a remote possibility of no genuine threat.

The poor fellow is the zombie.

Skip this paragraph if you know well what "zombie" means in philosophy of mind. Otherwise, consider. A zombie is a person just like us in physical and behavioral respects; he is not the groaning, groping monster of the horror movies. No, he acts just like everyone else. If you prick him, he cries. If you examine his actions throughout the day, he is indistinguishable in habit from any normal person you please. He seems to enjoy a pint and a laugh. He appears alarmed when told of some foreboding danger. But, you see, the poor zombie has no mental states. Or, more precisely, he is never conscious. He feels no pain or joy, he has never experienced any visual sensation, nor any sense of worry or eager anticipation. We might say that your spouse or the lady who works down the hall from you might very well be zombies. But as a matter of biological contingency, in our natural world zombies are physically impossible. For in this world, any animal of our exact physical description, down to the biochemical and neurological detail, is conscious. So, consider that the zombie dwells only in a logically possible world that we may imagine.

So, there is no contradiction in the concept "zombie" in other words. Or so it is believed by materialists and dualists alike. This has lead materialists to feel themselves forced to show how consciousness and brain could be one and the same when in fact we can as clearly conceive of consciousness being stripped away from the brain as imagine an apple washed clean of its waxy coating. The zombie has a brain (and all the requisite behaviors) but he has no consciousness. So, they aren't the same thing. Or if they are, the materialist is bound to show how they are one and the same here while in the zombie's possible world they are not. And from there the ink is spilled by the gallon, filling the philosophy journals and books with the back and forth between the materialist and the dualist. You can practically specialize in zombies these days as a philosophy professor.

But I accept a form of materialism that is orthogonal to this tirade, as well as unpopular, old-fashioned and hopelessly benighted by the illusion that verificationism is not dead. Won't you join me? Verificationism is not dead. Go reread V. Now this:

What would you take as evidence that there was a zombie? Nothing would count as evidence. Zombie is an empty concept. It is hand-waving at its core. Therefore, the supposed threat to materialism is groundless. It's no threat at all. We'll make all this clear in the next post. We also need to understand more about concepts and terms, such that they can be meaningless and yet appear to everyone to have a perfectly clear meaning.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


In the last post I suggested a verification principle. It is a component of a variety of verificationism that I would like to propose as quite sound. This old term is applied to the philosophy of the logical positivists, the early 20th Century philosophers who identified the meaning of a term with epistemic conditions under which the term is used. These philosophers were extreme empiricists, by which I mean that not only did they believe that all knowledge is based upon experience (moderate empiricism), but also that objects of which there could be no experience were not to be acknowledged to exist.

The sort of verificationism I propose leaves all of that behind. The meaning of "experiment" or "democracy" isn't a phenomenal feel or even reducible to several phenomenal feels. Even the meaning of "yellow" isn't. And if the meaning of "yellow" isn't the experience of yellow, more abstract and complex terms are also irreducible to experiential states. In addition, I don't rule out that God exists but cannot be experienced by us. In particular, I think that universals (such as "spherical" and "true" and "organic") exist, even though no one can experience them. No, the verificationism I have in mind doesn't rule any of that out.

It's just that I think that there are philosophical concepts and problems that don't mean anything and that therefore inappropriately occupy the philosophical mind. The verificationism I have in mind simply serves to make us a bit stricter about which concepts pass as meaningful. It doesn't replace conceptual incontinence with the extreme austerity of the old logical positivists.

Just consider a philosopher philosophizing about something. Suppose he proposed that something Z existed, or he asked you to suppose that there was a Z. Suppose also that you asked him what he meant by Z, and he told you but it didn't make much sense to you. You might then ask him what would count as evidence that there was such a thing as a Z. If he shrugged and admitted that he had no idea, this should tell you that he didn't have any concept of a Z.

We'll apply this verificationism soon. Also, Kekes on The Art of Life is coming soon.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Verification Principle

Consider a kind of sentence X

X: Any assertion that a thing has a certain property or is of a certain kind (or lacks that property or is not of that kind.)

In other words, X is the application of an adjective to describe a thing or the use of a noun to categorize a thing (or to deny that the adjective correctly describes it or to deny that the noun correctly categorizes it.) "The action was right" and "Joe is a zombie" are examples.

I propose the following verification principle, which has the form "if p, then q":

V: If S knows what S means by an X, then S has an idea of what S would take as evidence that the X correctly described a given object and what S would take as evidence that the X incorrectly described another given object.

In other words, if you assert something meaningfully by an X, then you have an idea of what would count as evidence that what you've said was false, and what would count as evidence that what you've said is true. I also accept that if S has an idea..., then S knows what S means by X. So, the verification principle could be made bidirectional (p iff q) if you like. However, I am only interested in the first direction: "if p, then q." You'll see why as we go along. What's important is whether terms and assertions have meaning, not (in the other direction) whether we can determine that someone has no evidence for an utterance on the grounds that he doesn't know what he means by it.

Also, I have nothing to say about whether the evidence is analytic or empirical in nature. It doesn't matter. It's a 21st Century verificationism, if you like, without the logical positivism that bedeviled its grandparent almost a century ago. Let's just not talk about logical positivists and their verification principle. Objections to it are relevant only if they are objections to V.

Here is an argument for V. Suppose S asserts that X. Suppose also that we ask S what would count as evidence that X was true and what would count as evidence that X and what would count as evidence that not-X. If S falls silent, shrugs, says "I have no idea," then we begin to wonder whether S has no idea what he's said when he said X. In fact, if a thorough probe showed that S really had no idea of what would count as evidence, then we would be justified in concluding that S had no idea what he meant by X.

Is V analytic? Yes. It's analytic philosophy, in which we analyze concepts to produce interesting tautologies. Oddly, the analytic-synthetic distinction is fuzzy, however, and V is ever slightly empirical in its derivation. In analytical philosophy, we notice which terms (such as "evidence") we would apply in imagined situations, in order to adduce evidence for statements about what we mean by other terms, such as "meaning." This imagining flushes out meaning and therefore helps construct analyses.

I intend to use V to argue for interesting results in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and metaethics. So, it is important to know whether V is true. Are there any problems with V?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence: The Perdition of Newland Archer

This is the story of the self-destruction of a man. "Destruction" is seemingly wildly too strong a term, as Archer's life is, after a fashion, "exemplary" (to use Kekes's term.) But this is precisely the point. Fate deals him a good hand, albeit one with a painful trial in it. Yet, Archer lacks the spiritual resilience to get past the trial.

Archer is talented, bright, inquisitive and imaginative, as well as loyal to whom he ought to be. But there is an arrangement of these components of character that would enable him to remain true to his most important values and that he fails to find. He fails to find it because he allows himself to plunge into rage, despair and self-contempt.

Few of us are put to the test: to sacrifice what, above all other things, one wants second-most for what one wants most. Here lies the possibility of perdition and the chance to realize salvation. Archer must choose: He may through betrayal bring shame and disruption to the society to whom he is rightly loyal and also break his new wife's heart. Or he may forego a life with the woman to whom he is ideally suited: Ellen Olenska. he chooses the former, and Olenska, as desirous of him as he is of her, leads him to it. But Archer rails against this fate. He allows the disappointment to grow into rage and despair. These push him near to madness as his internal "demons" drive him to revoke his choice, a move he is prevented from making by Olenska's retreat to Europe and his wife's announcement of her first pregnancy. Thereafter, he fails to be the kind of "fellow he had dreamed of being," instead "inadequate: a mere gray speck of a man." His irrational resentment of fate drives him needlessly to abandon his third-most important value: his delight in adventuresome travel, inquiry and interesting discussion.

Olenska, by contrast, is saved. She endures the fate, foregoing the life with the man ideally suited to her. But she does this with a grace of character and a steady and clear-eyed contact with her conscience, the faculty that in Archer deteriorates under the oppression of resentment. Olenska is able to cut through the layers of resentment and find the settled resolution to her fate as her "equal," rather than the "master" fate becomes for Archer. Upon making the difficult choice fate forces upon her, where Archer finds rage and chasms of despair within himself, Olenska finds abiding self-love. She explains to him:

I WAS lonely; I WAS afraid. But the emptiness and the darkness are gone; when I turn back into myself now I'm like a child going at night into a room where there's always a light.

Just so. The difficult trial causes the painful emotions. But if you remain quiet and do not rage against them, they disperse. Archer, on the other hand, welcomes "fuel for his own [anger]." For Archer, the trial "is beyond human enduring--that's all." But Olenska instructs, "Oh, don't say that; when I'm enduring it!"

While most of us don't face a trial of the severity that Archer and Olenska did, still it remains possible to experience the salvation Olenska did and to avoid the deleterious effects of resentment of fate that beset Archer. Perdition and salvation are attainable even for less interesting characters. Olenska shows that it is a matter of paying attention to one's loyalty to one's "unconditional commitments" (as Kekes calls them) at precisely the moments when adversity strikes and offers us fuel for anger or despair. There is a peaceful contemplation, a serenity just short of meditation, that is possible for anyone who has, although not faced the trial, nevertheless managed to choose, arrange, and adhere to a set of unconditional and conditional commitments that we would call important constituents of a good life. The good life is a moral and practical matter, whereas the avoidance of perdition and the acceptance of salvation within it is a spiritual one. If even an exemplary life can be deeply damaged by resentment, then Archer and Olenska's lives serve as a universal lesson.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Maverick Philosopher Offers Salvation Today

Bill Vallicella gives a helpful analysis of salvation today. He's uncovered a different area of the terrain from what I've been preoccuppied with, and I'm sure there's more to be said. For example, Bill puts his finger on the difference between mystical Asian varieties of salvation and Judeo-Christian varieties. Here Bill has it right that the question is, Who is saved? Also, he mentions anti-religious salvation-deniers, which brings up the issue of the epistemic status of claims to salvation. I find the idea that there are no cases of salvation highly implausible, but only if I get to define "salvation" as I have been doing.

UPDATE: Bill offers criticism of my posts on salvation. He says my concept is thin beer and:

We must not so rig our terminology as to foreclose on the possibility of genuine salvation, salvation as it has been understood in the major religions. I'm not saying that there is salvation in this further, genuine sense. I am saying that we ought not, by a hasty terminological decision, to foreclose on its possibility.

I agree. I want to avoid illicit semantic maneuvers. What I'm trying to do is an explanatory reduction or an empirical reduction, not a definitional one. I do not want to foreclose possibilities but only to explain after possibilities have been pursued. For that reason I cannot take my case for salvation naturalized to be conclusive.
Salvation II

In the previous post I gave a description of salvation in psychological and moral terms. According to it, salvation is an achievement of deep and genuine patience accomplished through a calming of the mind and a contemplation of the fact that the frustration, resentment, and anger with which it frequently reacts to the course of mundane events are: (a.) inappropriate, given the fact that on the whole life and the world are very good and (b.) unnecessary, given the fact that the mind can replace resentment and the others with patience. The multiplicity of short- and medium-term goals and low- and mid-priority values that give order to our lives consume so much of our time and demand so much careful attention that, since coming anywhere near fulfilling all of them completely is impossible, we must handle frequent failure. Without having a proper perspective on these failures, frustration, resentment, and anger arise and even snowball themselves into fully-fledged unhappiness. Salvation replaces the discontent with patience and contentedness even amidst the daily failures that will continue to batter the mind.

This description of salvation being purely psychological and moral, what we have here is salvation naturalized. The claim is that salvation can be fully described in non-religious and non-theistic terms: terms that are all descriptions of the profane and devoid of the slightest allusion to the sacred. This is not a definitional naturalism. I don't say that religious definitions of salvation are by definition incorrect. Rather, I mean that either they are not obviously superior to the naturalistic definition of salvation or, at worst, they may be eliminated from our description of salvation as unnecessary.

Religious definitions of salvation will have a fourth component that the naturalistic definition (#1-3) lacks:

4. The events of #1-3 are caused by the sacred or God. Deep and genuine patience is the presence of this sacred being in one's mind, heart or soul. His power or care enables one to handle mundane disappointments with calmness. Salvation is an awakening of faith in a certain supernatural being.

The naturalistic view of salvation simply leaves out #4. It says that #4 may perhaps be true, but there is no reason to think so on the evidence we have at the moment. As a description of salvation, the naturalistic one is not obviously or even probably incomplete on the facts as we know them. Cases of genuine salvation may be frequently described in supernatural terms, but it is not obvious that they are supernatural events. The theist ( who accepts #1-4 as a description of salvation) and the naturalistic atheist who subscribes to the description of salvation I've given in #1-3 have different senses of the term, but they apply it to the same event.

There are both atheists and theists who have experienced salvation. They have different metaphysical claims about what happened to them. The theist will say, "God saved us both," and the atheist will reply, "No deity was involved." So, whether I've succeeded in naturalizing salvation stands as an open question here. (On the other hand, if the theist admits that #1-3 are a complete definition of "salvation," while #4 is merely an additional description of salvation that is not by definition correct, then we could say that the salvation naturalized presented here is definitional.)

Salvation III will discuss the salvation and perdition of Edith Wharton's characters Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer, respectively. The Age of Innocence shows up early in John Kekes's The Art of Life, so the novel will serve as a segue from this series on philosophy of religion to our series on Kekes's book. (By the way, Scorsese's movie is no substitute for the book in this connection. The fine movie leaves out certain glimpses of Olenska's salvation and Archer's perdition.)

Monday, April 09, 2007

Salvation I

There are various sorts of sublime transformations of one's psychology, I suppose. The sort I have in mind involves three things:

1. The redirection of one's attention from the flow of thoughts (reasoning, desires and emotions) that usually fill the mind as it occupies itself with its countless concerns.

2. The resulting recognition that until now one has been inadvertently subject to that flow of thoughts such that the perspective of complete immersion in it has kept one from noticing that this world and one's existence in it are vastly better than nothingness.

3. The resulting beginning of deep and genuine patience: the recognition that upon re-immersion of the mind into the flow of mundane thoughts, one need not be subject to the frustration, resentment and anger that they so often inflict but may instead rest assured by one's allegiance to the values one cherishes.

I'd like to develop the idea that these together describe salvation. #3 requires a little more explanation. One's external perspective on the flow of thoughts - the extraction of the mind from the flow and awareness that that flow is no longer present while yet one's mind is still present, makes it obvious and simple that one is not a reed adrift in that flow but rather a container and controller of it. From this external perspective, one may consider the proposition that subjecting oneself to the flow of thoughts and coping with it only by doing things that will maximize the agreeable thoughts and minimize the frustration, resentment, and anger is a strategy that cannot but fail to result in happiness since frustrations and resentments will continue to sting forever, abated only marginally by one’s efforts. One must also recognize that one’s own allegiance to cherished values and action in accord with them is a strategy likely to create a happy life, and that in view of this recognition, the events that formerly would have caused frustrations and the like are not able to do so anymore. This is not a merely cognitive change. It is a psychological reorganization in which the disposition to react to adversity with resentment is all but eradicated.

This salvation is not an emotionally powerful event. On the contrary, although it is likely accompanied by a profound sense of peace, it is chiefly the development of an aloofness, a tendency not to generate certain emotions (frustration, resentment and anger.) The reason it counts as salvation is that #1-3 describe a psychological transformation in which the basic facts of the existence of this world and one’s existence in it are recognized as enormously good, while the emotive reactions that are a primary cause of unhappiness are almost entirely left behind. I don't see much to argue about in that point. The controversy lies in the religious or theistic person’s likely contention that #1-3 are an incomplete description of salvation.

More on this later in Salvation II.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


There is a closer connection between evil and nihilism than is obvious. Evil is serious harm that makes it less likely that its sufferer will lead a good life (this being the Kekesian definition of evil.) We are subject to impulses to obtain pleasure. To refrain from submitting to them requires that one see that there is a good life to be made from a structure of character and habit that requires foregoing any opportunities to experience pleasure. Nihilism is a belief that causes a person to lie to himself, saying that such a good life is not really good or not really possible. Prudent self-interest being thus undermined, only the moral stricture against harming other people is left to prevent one's fulfilling the impulse to do evil. This stricture is not strong enough in many cases to prevent the action. In any case, one is quite vulnerable to the urge to take pleasure by harming oneself (alcohol abuse, cigarette smoking, and slothful habits being examples.) So, since it is not obvious that one can have a genuinely good life, nihilism lurks. But it lurks unobviously. The origin of some wrongdoing in nihilism is therefore also unobvious.

The gist of the matter is that people sometimes do evil because they think it doesn't really matter - that nothing really matters and that immediately obtained pleasures are the best option. This is why people of religious faith are likely to see those without it as teetering on the brink of nihilism and sin. They think that in a society that lacks it the center will not hold and all hell will break loose. The unobviousness of the mechanism by which nihilism effects these results impairs debate over this point, to say the least. Both sides are prone to misunderstand and disparage the other.

Faith is the result of a psychological transformation in which the efficacy of nihilism is broken because there is a religious experience of the possibility of a genuinely good life. The first component of this experience is metaphysical. It is that the creation of this world is purposive and good. The second component is much more intimately psychological. It is the unlinking of the mind from mundane frustrations, resentments and anger. These are connected, in that the experience of the goodness of this world makes the resentments and the rest seem petty and ignorant. But one doesn't have to be so very metaphysically minded to accomplish the psychological component of faith through techniques of calming and mental release: meditation and prayer.

What of atheism, then? What is the disagreement over nihilism and goodness? The atheist can recognize that the fact that this world exists is good. He can also withdraw his mind from the mundane frustrations and cease to be subject to their return. Besides the disagreement over whether a God exists - an abstract and lifeless question akin to "How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?" and almost entirely to the side of the real disagreement between the atheist and the theist - there is a disagreement over one or the other of the following:

1. The correct description of this redemption: whether the theistic talk can be
eliminated from it.
2. Whether any redemption is necessary. In this case, the atheist who maintains
that it is not is either incorrect or an extraordinarily talented person who has
always by nature been in possession of redemption.

More on this later. Also, we will be returning to our series on John Kekes, and on the two issues in conservatism. As well, I will ask for your help in certain matters of philosophy of language and metaethics.

Sunday, April 01, 2007


I'll be away from computers until Thursday (4/5). When I get back, we'll continue our little series on religious talk, theory of conservatism, and the works of John Kekes (his The Art of Life up next.)