The phenomenology of whose mind? THREE

Notes on reading Hegel:  The Dialectic

Before we get into it, first understand a couple things.

First a couple of value terms get reversed in Hegel in a way important to remember (but fairly easy once we get into the swing of it):  When most people refer to what is “abstract” in philosophy, they are referring to ideas, or concepts, as ‘abstracted’ from experience, the experience itself held to be ‘concrete.’     For Hegel, this can’t be true, because there is no articulable knowledge in experience just as such, but only in the concepts we derive from it.  Therefore, the experience (just as such) is an abstraction – from the senses, from the immediate events, from the raw context of things we see and bump into – which then has to be made concrete into a meaningful concept through the application of reason.

Secondly, I remind my reader that for Hegel, the Dialectic is both a process of reasoning and a structure of human behavior over time.  That’s because Hegel assumes reasoning determines human action, not only locally, but collectively throughout a culture.  Thus politics, religion, law, art – all manifest moments of the Dialectic as expression of reasoning in history.

To see this reasoning in something like actual practice, let’s tell a little story here – compared to the epic Hegel narrates of it, a mere episode in the life of Consciousness:

… so, one day a Consciousness came to a university to ask a question, “what does it mean to be ‘Human?’”

The first person he encountered was an anatomist, who said, “Oh, I’m dissecting the corpse of one of those in the surgery theater, come along.”  And during the dissection, the Consciousness saw the bones and the meat, and the skin, and sinews and nerves, etc.  “So this is human?”  “Well,” says the anatomist, it’s the corpse of one.  It’s the body when not alive.”

So the body, just as body, negates the living of the human as a concept of an entity that, to be fully human, must be alive.

So the anatomist sends our Consciousness to consult another expert, in the university hospital, a physiologist, who, using as example a brain-dead patient kept on life-support, demonstrates how the body actually functions when alive – the interactions of the nerves, the collection and dispersion of oxygen by the blood, the digestion of nutrition and separation from waste, and so on.  “So, now I know the human!”  “Well, no,” the physiologist admits, this is the body, but what was most human about it has fled.”  “So, this body is mere abstraction of the human as organism.  Where can I find the concrete ‘human’?”  The physiologist opens the door, and our Consciousness finds itself on the street outside, surrounded by living entities much like the brain-dead body in the ward of the university hospital.  Except that as immediately living organisms, they negate any expectation learned from study of the living body alone: As they approach, they respond to Consciousness’ inquires, concerning the human; but they each respond in a different way.  Frequently these differences are quite small, but occasionally, they are telling.  And what they are telling is that The Human, taken as mere collection of representatives, amounts to another kind of abstraction, the abstraction of a catalogue of data that doesn’t yet amount to a concrete idea of what it means to be human.

But in among this data, our Consciousness discovers a couple of interesting facts and reports, specifically concerning how humans control release of urine.  Now, the physiology of urinating is already known; but what the physiologist had not explained was the way certain humans urinate standing up, and others do so squatting.    This turns out to be a rather empty detail, having largely to do with physiognomic difference between the sexes.  But in reviewing this detail, Consciousness finds two rather troublesome reports from his subject humans.  In one, a young woman reports having “wet herself” slightly when shocked by the news that the school her children attended had been the scene of an explosion and a massive fire.  Her further response was to contact her family and friends and rush to school to see if they could help put out the fire and search for survivors.

In other, a young man reported having “wet the bed” in his sleep while dreaming of a waterfall.

Now, in the first report, what Consciousness recognizes is that humans can function collectively; they form a community, which in certain moments will respond as one.  They do so by sharing a language, apparently finding value in similar hopes, worries, and concerns.  From this Consciousness extracts the principle of the Social, the necessary attribute that brings together representatives of the human into a communal whole.  This seems to be satisfactory completion of the idea of The Human, given objective observation of their behavior, in a manner complimentary to our understanding of the human body.

But in the second report, Consciousness discovers a completely other principle:  What the young man is reporting is events in a private mental life; events that only happened to and for himself.  Obviously, his body responds as any human body would.  But it now responds to an experience only he can know and which he must learn to articulate – not only to communicate with others, but to understand himself qua individual.  This thus asserts his importance as individual identifiable separate from the community around him.

Through comparing both these reports, Consciousness also learns something new about any meaningful knowledge about The Human – namely that it must incorporate not only the immediately observable, but also, the concepts that emerge from the reports and articulations by humans themselves.  And what Consciousness discovers is that such reports and articulations are frequently in conflict.  Almost, one would say, in contradiction.

After all, take the two principles learned from analyzing the reports from the young woman and the young man.    To be human is to exist as Social, as part of greater whole, influenced by and acting with, a community of peers.  So the human only realizes him/herself by blending into the collective.

But:  To be human is to be as Individual, to be the unique focus of a certain series of experiences and thoughts.  Thus, surely the human can only realize himself or herself by separation from the community and assertion of self.

Can these two seemingly contradictory principles be somehow brought together in one Absolute Idea of what it truly means to be human, the Truth of The Human, the Idea as absolutely true?  The Knowledge, that is the complete knowledge, of The Human?

The answer is yes; what one will have to do is account for all possibly essential (that is, truly important and distinctive) differences of particularities of the human experience, and of their blending into a totality, wherein perceived conflicts stand revealed as moments of the Whole – but a Whole that validates, rather than obliterates, the Particulars as necessary moments of this blending.

This manifest working through of these conflicts into the realization of the proper relations between the Whole and its particulars, as objectively observable human behavior, is called: history.

But the understanding of this resolution can only be accomplished intellectually by a Subject as knower, but only in a manner completely articulable with any other Subject-Consciousness.  Thus the Absolute Knowledge will be what the Individual Consciousness knows, that every Consciousness knows, of the Idea as Whole, derived dialectically from its particulars.

The truth of this Knowledge will be determined through logic (as Hegel discusses in the Science of Logic).  The narrative of the process for acquiring it is described in: The Phenomenology of Mind.

The world as will or metaphor

In the “World as Will and Idea,” Arthur Schopenhauer unleashes the Will. That is, he elaborates a narrative and analysis of what the universe must look like if we set aside rationalist and moralistic preconditions for our understanding of it, and simply let it be what it is and do what it does. But it turns out this ‘doing’ is its being’ – that is, the universe is nothing at all but the actions and events that happen in it. It thus can be conceived as the movement itself, and among living beings, motivation itself, which then can be referred to as “Will” – the compelling force underlying all action. But is this really the case? Or are we witnessing an intended mythic ‘AS IF,’ a thought experiment carried to its furthest extent?

Schopenhauer is the first Western thinker to understand Eastern philosophies of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the first to think they had insights to offer the West. Will, and our possible responses to it, is the chief of these.

It should be noted that prior to Schopenhauer, Will has a special two-fold function in German philosophy. It is the articulation of the deepest motivation of all human action – desire – and the instrument of action that needs rational clarification and training for moral purposes. This leads to an odd formula we first find in Kant, that the Will, in order to be free (without which moral responsibility cannot be assumed), must be constrained by rationally derived moral principles (the foundation of de-ontological ethics). The Will is thus trapped in its freedom.

Schopenhauer is basically saying that this formula is metaphysically ungrounded. It assumes, for instance, that morals can be determined prior to any action, which makes no sense, since we are engaged in action long before we think through the morality of it. Since action precedes thought, it follows that Will functions without constraint – rationality thus is always in service of the Will, not the other way around. However, in yet another paradox, we can through reason quiet the Will and observe its cause and effects without engagement. As Heidegger (who didn’t like Schopenhauer, but who was led to much the same conclusions in his post-War thought), we can learn to ‘will not to will.’ (In Buddhism this leads to the Eightfold Path, and meditations directed toward release from the self.)

The reason we might want to do this is that if we see individual beings as mere incidence of the ontological imperative of Will, then these individuals are basically thrust around as puppets, causing themselves all kinds of suffering while deluding them into believing that they are actually doing something. (This is a fundamental principle of certain Hindu sects and of traditional Buddhism – desire itself creates the sense of ‘self’ which then believes ‘I am satisfying my own desires,’ when it’s only desire satisfying itself.)

For Schopenhauer, this indicates that Will itself can be conceived as a metaphysical agency, but only as a blind force – it originates as the tendency toward motion and the coming together and dissolution that are the recurrent processes of the universe, and finally realizes itself in living entities capable of consciously enacting its imperatives. One can see it in this way: There is a tendency of atoms to come together in molecules, and then to break away to join with other atoms in differing combinations. But of course they have no sense of this. Once life comes to be, we effectively have molecules seeking other molecules by sense, intentionally to achieve union, breaking up other molecules intentionally to destroy and consume. (This ‘intentionality’ is not the will of the organism, but of Will per se.) Schopenhauer sees the the metaphysical Will as a motivating principle rather than a conscious entity. It is to some extent the principle of causation itself as an active force, rather than mechanism dependent on inertial changes.

One of the problems with “World as Will and Idea” is that it’s not at all clear how much of this Schopenhauer holds to be literally true, and how much he is working as a trope – a model in competition with the agent-‘Consciousness’ of the “Phenomenology of Spirit” by Hegel (whom he absolutely hated). Schopenhauer’s favored predecessors were Hume and Kant; and his other writings are very clear and precise, yet he allows himself considerable flourish in “Will and Idea.” The benefit of such an extended trope is that it re-configures the frame through which we interpret experience. What happens has no design to it, no purpose; it is simply the causative forces of the universe enacting their inevitable processes; and this is true of lived experience as much as what we observe in the sciences.

Generally then, “World as Will and Idea” is best used as an epistemological tool. We actually don’t need to assume that there is any such entity or force as the metaphysical Will external to us, but rather adopt t as metaphor to guide how we interpret our experience, and as caution against assuming that all that we know through reason can be trusted as detached and unmotivated. The Will is always at work, even in the driest bits of data and any uses we might make of them.


This was written as reply to a post by Makagutu at:

I should admit that I have not read Schopenhauer for quite some time, so my discussion is certainly open to correction.

The meaninglessness of “race”

It occurs to me, that if one were to grant ‘race’ status to all the genetic differences that pass down through generations within given populations, expressing themselves in physical differences, we would have a multitude of ‘races,’ maybe hundreds; maybe even thousands. Pygmies, Bush People, Zulus, Swahili – these are all so phenotypically different, that we must reject any notion that there is a ‘race’ we can call “Negroid.” Similarly with the Irish, the Swedish, Hungarians, Southern and Northern Italians – etc., and the out-dated classification “Caucasian.” (And I admit I have enough Irish in me – part Pict, part Celt, part Moor, part Norse – that I would hate to be classified with the British! Up the Republic!)

The effort to define ‘races’ biologically is really an effort to find some meaningful way to categorize according to skin color. And you can’t get there from here.

I also wonder about the willingness to argue for what is neither scientifically supported nor anymore ethically acceptable. If we’re talking about a political ‘mess,’ well, politics is messy, especially given long established traditions and biases. But if we’re talking about a possible scientific “mess,” the whole notion of biological-realism ‘race’ seems to be about as messy – and as a-historical – as one could get.

If the word “race,” applied to those of differing genetic and ethnic backgrounds, is in anyway ambiguous and open to differing interpretations (if it is in anyway vague and unspecific) as is obvious, as really anyone with a decent education must admit – then of course the supposed categorization “race” can have no scientific value whatsoever.

Noteably, it appears that the only scientists continuing to use it in a meaningful way are those with open social agendas, such as ‘bio-criminologists,’ who hope that certain behaviors can be tagged to certain populations for better monitoring and therapeutic interventions. The problem is, these social agendas engender as many political problems as they seek to resolve. (‘So, ok, what do we do with these black people, anyway’ – I dunno; maybe treat them like human beings, providing education and jobs, perhaps? And it might help to keep white cops shooting them outright because they look different.)
Let’s face it:  ‘Race’ is an anachronism, a word and an understanding entirely social, with no scientific basis whatsoever. Mere excuse for political, economic, social and cultural biases – used to control the population drift in voting blocks, labor, intermarriage, and cultural enjoyment. Scientifically speaking, it is pure fiction – the remnant of fairy tales that we should have stop telling at least a century ago.

There is nothing scientific about it; it is pure pablum for immature minds unwilling to live in the present of our multi-cultural post-modern world.

Let’s view this matter in an historical perspective.

Historically, the term ‘stars’ once referred to any object seen in the night sky.

The term ‘star’ was made scientifically useful only by re-definition, exclusively encompassing those objects that could be interpreted as suns within given planetary systems.

The question then is whether ‘race’ can also be salvaged by redefinition. The answer would appear, no; because it carries far too much weight politically, socially, culturally, historically, none which can be adequately stripped from it.

One reason I mentioned tribal and ‘national’ phenotype differences, is because in the past, and in some regions still today, these have been taken as establishing “racial” identities – which has led (and still leads, in some places) to useless wars and genocidal ‘ethnic cleansing.’

Why hold on to a term that has been used for highly questionable purposes, when it lacks the precision needed to be useful in biologic categorization?

Those desperate to cling to ‘racial’ differences between us will seek out the slightest nuance, in genetics, in biological texts – in reports in popular media. Anything that will re-affirm their own preposterous sense of superiority.

I’m reminded here of the earnest young person, studying a billboard seen for the first time, insisting, ‘there must be some reason that things go better with Coke.’ Yeah, it’s called a sales pitch.

But here’s the biological fact of the matter: If I have a (non-contraceptively-inhibited) sexual encounter with a a member of the opposite sex of any supposed ‘race’ – black, yellow, ‘Chinese,’ Australian Aboriginal – a child will be produced. That’s because our genes are fundamentally the same, the differences being superficially phenotypically different. Because we belong to the same species.

Some will here interject discussion of ‘breeds’ as we see in other animals, but here’s the problem – ‘breeds’ are the result of externally controlled reproduction. But humans procreate uncontrollably – really, if he/she has two legs, we’ll copulate. And that difference makes all the difference. There is no external, internal, or genetic means of tracking the reproductive history of any particular human lineage. Thus, while the phenotypical differences are obvious, there is no grounding genotypical difference between the ‘races’ – the ethnically different from different locales.*

The phenotypical differences generate the beautiful kaleidoscope of human experience. But they don’t make us fundamentally different – on the contrary, they assure us that we are fundamentally the same. They could not have arisen were we in any way genetically different as racists want of us.

* Just by the way, it should be note that mixed heritage off-spring (so-called ‘mongrels’) of controlled breeding produce young hardier and more likely to survive than their pure bred parents – almost inevitably (apparently inheriting the most adaptive genes from both parental lineages). Can we not learn from this? Genetic purity is a fundamental flaw in the scheme of evolution. The greater the difference, the greater chance for survival.

The fundamental injustice of religious reasoning

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, pp. 54–56

So goes the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” trilemma, that is supposed to convince us that, the gospels of the New Testament being allowed as trustworthy reports of a historical savant of the late history of ancient Israel, we must decide that the savant is all he claimed, and all the gospels claim him to be.

The one response Lewis could not assume, given his belief, is, simply, ‘I don’t care.’ * The choice he presents is a false dilemma (not a true trilemma, because, as I point out later, one choice is strictly irrelevant); and indeed many of the questions raised in discussions concerning Lewis’ challenge, while having historical-scholarly interest, resolve (or dissolve) in practical application, into questions as to whether we care about god’s existence or not; and I don’t.

Lewis was basically writing for people who wanted to believe, but had their doubts (in an era when belief was getting challenged and shaken by many events of the 20th century); he was trying rhetorically to put them in a position where they needed to make a choice (presupposing they would choose faith, since alternatives would not be fully formed in their minds). As a ploy it is somewhat of a kin to Pascal’s Gambit.**

Nonetheless, in its clearest form, as I previously noted, the challenge presents us with a false dilemma. I remarked that one response might be, ‘I don’t care,’ because I can certainly hold that Jesus was able to remark some ethical truths and that he was something of a loony. These beliefs are not mutually exclusive, ‘loonies’ can be capable of moral insight.

(‘Lunatic’ is a derogatory term, that does no justice to those suffering mental illness. Certainly it’s possible for someone who believes he’s a poached egg – which no one suffering mental illness has ever claimed, as far as I’m aware – to both recite and adhere to the famous Golden Rule of treating others as one’s self. Lewis not only violates empirical knowledge concerning mental illness, he not only violates the right of the mentally ill to be treated with dignity, he thus also violates the morality he claims to presume.)

As far as to whether Jesus is lying, that’s really quite irrelevant, since we only have the asserted quotations of the NT, we have not other means of determining his veracity. But in any case, there is no reason to assume that he is ‘Lord,’ on the basis of this logical challenge, since whether Jesus was a loony or not, or a liar or not, have nothing to do with any claimed divinity for him. He could well be an angel, or some avatar for some other religion’s god; or he could be a brilliant storyteller and moralist, giving his audience just what they needed to hear to reconsider their lives ethically. Or he could have been some sort of brilliant politician; or maybe he was just just someone, like Monty Python’s Brian, who happened to be in the right place at the right time – whether he wanted to be or not. Or maybe, what he had to say is so generalized as to be practically empty, anyway.

Or maybe he didn’t even exist, and the gospels are just so much fiction.

As far as to whether the gospels are themselves lies, records of hallucination, or straight-forward reportage:

There are, I think, two basic approaches to biblical scholarship – one asking, ‘what are the origins of these texts?’ (which may rightfully asked of any literature), and the other asking ‘how do these texts hang together, how do they compose the whole that believers read them as?’ The problem is that in scholarly practice the two questions often overlap, but unfortunately the answer to the second question (which is only meaningful to believers) may simply be that they do not hang together, that we are looking at a quilt, not a tapestry.

Look: concerning any ancient literature, any answer we could possibly give to the questions concerning their veracity, or intent, or the mental stability of their authors, or the rhetorical relation they might have had with their presumed audience – such answers would require compiling as many versions of the narrative as possible, from variant, preferably conflicting sources (since the conflicts will actually weed out certain biases), comparison with non-textual historical records and artifacts, etc., etc. Eventually we say, ‘In their own contemporary context, this is likely what they meant to say to their given audience.’ (By the way, all of this is derived from Schleirmacher – a devout Christian and a brilliant scholar.) But taken beyond the religious view in which such hermeneutics originated, this basically means we are reading such texts the way literary historians read great fiction of past eras, to discover their contemporary context and determine what can be salvaged to apply to literary reading today (or what readers of these texts, literature or not, can use today).

The NT has some problems in this regard; a strong social institution grew up around it and effectively cloistered the texts from critical reading, while at the same time abetting a radical and profound change in the social context in which these texts were first composed. I am not familiar with biblical scholarship per se, but I do know some of the history that tracked through the decomposition of Rome (and its great libraries), led to the canonization of the texts. This history has left us with great lacunae in our efforts to compose a single narrative such that all the loose ends could be tied together. Frankly, I doubt they can be.

This makes asking, ‘how do these texts hang together?’ ultimately resolving into speculations – some well-informed, some mere guesswork, none with enough evidence to be convincing.

* Actually, other than the remarks of this essay, possible responses Lewis would not really have expected, given his context and expected readership, include:

“Jesus was a complete loony, you’re absolutely right, all of his moral dictates are worthless, we should read Hume and Schopenhauer instead.”

“Jesus was indeed the spawn of the devil, and all his moral postulates are intended to confuse us. Read Aristotle or Confucius instead.”

“Jesus was a complete fool, and live your life according to the dictates of capitalism.” (A favored response among many Americans, although they won’t admit to it.)

“Jesus was indeed a prophet, but he was surpassed by the blessed Mohammed.”

“Jesus was mere avatar for the divine Krishna.”

“‘Jesus’ who?”

“Yeah, yeah, Hillel said much the same things a generation before. What a mensch!”

“I don’t think there is evidence this guy even existed.”

“My father, pastor at the Everything Is Lovely If You Submit Church, beat the crap out of me when I was young – so take your ‘Lord’ and shove it!”

Each to his own god (and some of us to none at all).

* Pascal’s Gambit:
If you don’t believe in god, and there is a god, you will go to hell.
If you believe in god and there is no god, you’ll have lived a better life anyway.

Complete response: On the other hand, if you don’t believe in god, live a good life, and there is no god, then you will have lived a good life; but if you’ve lived a good life without believing in god, but there is a god, and he is all merciful, as claimed of him, then you will not go to hell.

Note that the “all merciful” component is left out of Pascal’s Gambit. Yet, it is crucial. I remember a priest remarking, “it is my duty to believe in hell; but only a fool would believe there is any soul in it.” Either god is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, or he is really a waste of time. BUT if he is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, then do what you can, do as you feel you must, and make your peace with him after death.

And if it is not the case that he is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving – then he is not a god worth believing in.

He will forgive my non-belief – or he isn’t worth believing in.

Either he exists, and nothing happens; or he doesn’t exist, and nothing happens.

Or he exists and sends me to hell because he is not all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, in which case he is not worthy of worship, and I would prefer hell to any heaven he offers.

In this life, it doesn’t matter whether he exists or not. If there is any after-life, we’ll deal with that as it comes along.

But this is really what we non-theists have claimed all along.

The problem of ‘the Problem of Evil’

“The problem of evil, in the sense in which I am using this phrase, is essentially a logical problem: it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds. It is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries…” -J. L. Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence.”

J. L. Mackie was a professional philosopher and committed atheist who spent some of his career working arguments out of what is known as the Problem of Evil *. Theologians oft wring their hands over it, and that some atheists (especially so-called New Atheists) use it to confront theists with a challenge not easily or comfortably resolvable in the Christian tradition, from whence it originates. The Problem arises out of a conflict of two Christian beliefs: that god is all-powerful and all-good, and that the material universe (supposedly of god’s creation) is filled with evil – filled with sufferings and temptations, hardships, pain. This is an ancient Christian understanding of evil in the material universe following the Fall from Eden. It is unfortunately completely devoid of identifiable significance; or rather, as floating signifier **, it can be made to have any significance rhetorically useful in a given context. For instance, religious teleology: “You are here to confront the evils of your nature;” “you are here to confront the evils of the threatening natural world;” “the internet could be invented to challenge you with the evils of temptation” – etc., etc.

The trouble is, this is a universe that I don’t see myself living in. There is nothing evil about anybody’s getting cancer, or a sudden down-pour washing away this season’s crops, or a meteor falling on some city. These events are results of natural processes, and we deal with them as best we may, because survival – not ‘salvation’ – requires we must. Asserting there is evil in such events, certainly may rhetorically ramp up religious paranoia among some more superstitious Christians, requiring rhetorical re-assurance of divine mercy from wiser, more liberally minded theologians, priests, etc. The work of logical analysis would be to reveal the incoherence and paradoxes involved such an understanding of evil – and this seems to have been Mackie’s intent.

There’s nothing wrong in that – if one doesn’t mind spending a great deal of effort on a non-existent Problem in order to challenge those who won’t learn from the effort anyway. But is there another way to deal with the issue?  But why deal with it at all.  Why not just say, ‘this makes no sense,’ and be done with it?

I started blogging in an effort to find a place for my own secular Buddhism in the New Atheism movement, but eventually lost interest in New Atheism, although I remain sympathetic to the more thoughtful participants. The benefit of my year as a secular Buddhist New Atheist was that I was able to clarify my own beliefs, with which I am now quite comfortable – but being comfortable, I find the ‘god debate’ somewhat tiresome now.

Philosophically, as to the logic of the god debate, the point of origin for me was George H. Smith’s Atheism: the Case against God, presenting the strictly logical arguments against belief; the end point was Kai Nielsen’s Atheism and Philosophy, which presents the case that the very idea of god is simply incoherent, and cannot survive sustained argumentation. Notably, neither of these texts invoke science or scientific methodology (although Smith does make the demand for some evidence to support beliefs that are historically – and quite obviously – only assertions). The rational basis of theistic belief is fundamentally flawed, much of it spurious, regardless of empirical research or evidence.

But the problem is, none of this matters to ‘true believers’ (so we should hardly be surprised when they discard any empirical evidence to their beliefs). As I discovered reading theist responses to atheist arguments, religious belief is not really a matter of reasoning. Its foundations are first, foremost, and overwhelmingly emotional. It may be a simple, vague, intuition of ‘something out there;’ an undeniable pathology of needing paternal guidance; a profound sense that some spiritual ‘other’ lovingly follows one around, invested in one’s success in life, forgiving any perceived transgression. But whatever it else is, it is emotional yearning, emotional fulfillment, emotional satisfaction, that rational argument can never reach. It is love; and one can no more argue against it than persuade a teen-ager that her idealized first relationship is a tissue of rhetoric and fantasized future happiness (conditioned on her willing loss of virginity, of course).

I confess I tried feeling such love for a long time – but I never did. The year before I adopted what I would call the truth of the non-theistic tradition of Buddhism, I went to a priest for confession (having a history as a Catholic). I spoke admiringly of Thomas Aquinas – upon which the priest shook his head sadly, saying “you love wisdom more than god.” He gave me absolution, but warned that I perilously close to unbelief. He was right, on both counts: I love wisdom; I never really believed in god.

To return to our starting point: My problem here is that I no longer recognize the Christian universe Mackie is attempting to confront; I don’t live there. The ‘radical evil’ that Kant and other philosophers write about is comprehensible once one recognizes that it arises out of unbridled desire – this is completely in keeping with the Buddhist understanding of suffering arising from the ‘self.’ But the Christian notion that ‘evil’ is signifier for horrendous experiences of every kind – human, natural, real, imagined – requires some basis in an amorphic metaphysics is entirely alien to me. While I sympathize Mackie’s project, it really seems to miss the point. The Christians’ worry over the Problem of Evil arises from fear, and their commitment to god arises from loneliness, longing, and hope. This makes the question a matter for psychology, not logic. Fearing the ‘evil’ all around us, or trusting in a loving god’s mercy to save us from this, are clearly drawn from deeper feelings than logic can reach.

For me, the universe is simply what is, just as it is. There is no inherent good or evil to it; there is no ‘wrongness’ or misfortune. The only meaningful sense of ‘evil’ for me lies in the harm we do to ourselves or others. Such is properly addressed by either ethics, psychology, or collectively in politics.

It’s not a matter of choice, but of epistemic conditioning. I try not to let my emotions govern my beliefs – and I don’t believe that they should. We should always try to look at the universe just as it presents itself, and learn to live with that.


*See the Stanford Encyclopedia discussion,

** I should remark, for readers unfamiliar with the term, that ‘floating signifier’ is a term of art in semiotics for “a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified” (David Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, Routledge, 2002 ).

Mackie, J. L. “Evil and Omnipotence,” in Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254. (Apr., 1955).

Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case Against God. Nash, 1974.

Nielsen, Kai. Atheism & Philosophy. Prometheus Books, 2005.


Sex, gender, politics – a brief inquiry (note 3)

What could it possibly mean to for someone, born with a penis, to claim, ‘I feel I should have a vagina’? Because that’s the bottom line; in order to convince me that a male ‘should have’ been born female (or vice-verse), I need to be persuaded that the person, having a penis, knows what it feels like to have a vagina (or, again, vice-verse), without having one, and this now appears to be beyond comprehension.

I am not a backward thinker; I have long supported gay/lesbian rights, and advocated justice for those who feel the need to adopt differing gender signifiers in their behaviors. But justice does not demand that I dumb myself down and put my brain on hold. The only thing we know of the opposite sex is gender – and gender is a social construct. Otherwise, we need to assume that physical sensations of the opposite sex can be experienced so directly and concretely – without actually living in such a body – that a person could recognize the comfort level of so living in that body as to be able to claim the need to live in it.

As I write that, I’m aware that the articulation verges on the incoherent. This is all nonsense; this was precisely the wrong turn for the transgender community to make. They are rhetorically relying on American embarrassment over discussing any sexual issue in depth, to put forward a claim with no recognizable ontological, epistemological, biological, or even psychological foundation. This is fantasy. This is, profoundly, exactly the wrong direction for the transgender community to take, in defining the real rights that justice demands for them.

(As to the recent issue concerning restrooms in Texas – if we, as some other countries do, had unisex public toilets, this wouldn’t be an issue. “What fools these mortals be!”)

The question is whether trans-gender identification (a social-psychological phenomenon) translates easily into trans-sexual identification (which would be a physiological-neurological phenomenon), and without better evidence and argument than we have had so far, I don’t see how this is possible. I emphasize the genitalia, because a truly trans-sexual identification would seem to hinge on the ability of a person to know, or at least have a very good idea, what it would actually be like to have the genitalia of the opposite sex.

There are important historical issues to keep in mind here. First, trans-gender identification has been around as long as cultural records can reach – in every culture that has kept records on such matters. So there is no arguing a real phenomenon there, and so arguing for the rights of the trans-gender identifiers is no great leap of conscience.

However, the move towards trans-sexual identification is a most recent phenomenon, and hinges on the odd conjunction of three apposite trends in the 20th century – the inherited legacy of equating gender and sex, which was widely distributed through common culture, making the distinction between the two a point of argument; the development of medical technology that allowed genital reconstruction and hormonal realignment; and certain theories in genetics that seemed to promise that not only sex but gender identification could be found to be genetically pre-determined. (Again, an important backdrop to all of this has been the long-standing American embarrassment over public discussion of sexual matters at all.) The efforts to derive sound argument and a coherent understanding of trans-sexualism from these intersections have largely failed, I think, and so the demand for its legitimation largely reduces to clamor about feelings and social conflicts that are more easily resolved when redirected back toward the rights of trans-gender individuals. In other words, the trans-sexual arguments actually over-complicate the discussion, and not, I suggest, to the benefit of the individuals involved – except of course when they can gather enough social pressure on certain institutions and persons of influence to make themselves annoying. But while that may win some small gains, I suggest it does them no good in the long run, since it only means that the real issues involved remain unspoken.

Let me clarify the point as simply as possible: I can well imagine arguing, politically or before the law, for the right of self-determination for those who feel, however impelled, a need to adopt the accoutrements and behavior of the opposite gender. I can’t quite imagine arguing on behalf of someone who, say, born with a penis, claims that he ought to have a vagina (or vice-versa), since there is no way for that person to know what that be like without actually having said genitals.

(Hermaphrodites are actually beside the point; they are the result of genetic or physiological dysfunction during maturation, and so have their own unique experiences.)


But let’s consider this in relation to a similar, possibly related, phenomenon:

“Body integrity identity disorder (BIID, also referred to as amputee identity disorder) is a psychological disorder in which an otherwise healthy individual feels that they are meant to be disabled. (….) BIID is typically accompanied by the desire to amputate one or more healthy limbs. It also includes the desire for other forms of disability, as in the case of a woman who intentionally blinded herself. BIID can be associated with apotemnophilia, sexual arousal based on the image of one’s self as an amputee. The cause of BIID is unknown. One hypothesis states that it results from a neurological failing of the brain’s inner body mapping function (located in the right parietal lobe) to incorporate the affected limb in its understanding of the body’s physical form.” *

1. BIID is recognized as a disorder because it generates unhappiness and may lead to self-mutilation. It also appears to involve a neurological dysfunction, although the research is incomplete. AS a disorder, it is one surgeons appear unwilling to cater to; it is a historical problem why it is surgeons became willing to cater to trans-sexualism, assuming that it also may be a similar disorder. (But of course, trans-sexuals are making the further claim that it isn’t a disorder at all.)

2. Let us imagine a case of BIID, wherein the afflicted person claims, not only that, say, his right leg is not his own, but that the right leg of a certain woman actually belongs to him. Should we try to convince her to surrender her leg via transplant? (Well, obviously that’s not what trans-sexuals are arguing – or are they? Not claiming a specific person’s genitalia, but certainly claiming right to possession of similar genitalia to those already existent for others.) Less extremely, should we allow cosmetic surgery to the man’s leg so that it appears in every way similar to the leg of the woman in question? That may be worth doing to resolve the man’s unhappiness; but it doesn’t mean that his BIID is not still a serious disorder.

3. But trans-sexuals are not simply expressing the sensation that their genitals-of-birth are ‘inappropriate.’ They are claiming that the genitals of the opposite sex are appropriate to them. This is where coherency falls apart. How could they possibly know that? Genitals are not just attractive things dangling in theoretical space; they are rich with a whole host of sensations and physiological responses. These sensations and responses one must know – not simply imagine – in order to claim the right of possession. A woman claims she should have a penis instead of her vagina. Which penis? the blood-engorged erect in copulation? the shriveled in the chill wind? The irritated with pressure from the bladder needing to urinate? The one accidentally caught in a hastily closed zipper?

4. We don’t know if there might be some genetic causality to BIID. But let’s allow the claim that there is some for gender identification. That only means that gender identity is a predisposition towards adopting certain socially constructed behaviors. It is not a determination of sexual being – that determination is given over to the XX and XY chromosomes. And the genetics of that are quite clear.

5. The medical technology of cosmetic surgery is a luxury. It can be used to alleviate psychic pain in certain cases, yes; but it neither arises from, nor generates, any rights.

* See also Gordon Cornwall’s fascinating discussion at:


After composing the above, it occurred to me that the most important film on this subject happens to be one of the worst films ever made – “Glen or Glenda,” written and directed by the master of bad cinema, Ed Wood. Promising to be an exploitation film about the then new trans-sexual surgery conducted in Sweden, it is really a boldly auto-biographical revelation of Wood’s own trans-gender transvestism – despite being a heterosexual who had served in the Marines during WWII.

Important, because it makes concrete this distinction between the trans-sexual and the trans-gender – and also because, in its own (frankly hilarious) inept way, reveals the real pain that people suffering such identity confusion have long experienced in this culture. (Wood, alas, eventually drank himself to death.)

How can a film so amusingly bad nonetheless score such crucial points? That’s an aesthetic issue. For now, let us give Wood his due, and admit that he put his finger directly on the real problem here: Trans-gender identification and trans-sexualism are not equatable. The suffering of each is no doubt real; but they are not the same, and confusing the two may do more harm than good, politically (and possibly psychologically as well).

Sex, gender, politics – a brief inquiry (note 2)

Let’s try to simplify matters concerning differences between trans-gender identification and trans-sexuality (they are not the same thing), in order to reveal their real complexity.

Biologically, the difference between female and male reduces to genetics – XX and XY – and there is no escaping that. We can change the physiognomy but that doesn’t change the genetics.

There may be genetic factors that we don’t understand as yet, but admitting this, are there genetic factors that lead certain males to want to adopt the cultural signifiers of the (socially determined classification) ‘woman’ (and females with like feeling to be ‘men’)? Such a claim could only be made if we accept primary tenets of Socio-biology/ Evolutionary Psychology; but such tenets include presumption that gender arises from evolutionary needs for sexual selection for procreation, and trans-sexuals are not reproductive.

We can conceive of a re-write of Socio-Biology and Ev-Psych and related genetic inquiries, but at the cost that these would probably read very ‘post-modern’ mythification and mystification of the basic science (and Socio-Biology and Ev-Psych already have some of this problem, anyway, IMO).

Is there really some genetic component to the desire to play with dolls? Do we really want to go down that path?

No one is saying that a person should not pursue his/her desires or beliefs. But to insist on a biological component every time someone gets a bee in their bonnet about wanting to change themselves or the world to bend to those beliefs/desires, is simply fatuous.

Does this have anything to do with sexual preferences as having a possible genetic component? I don’t know. Frankly, I’m not sure it matters. The insistence that sexual preference had genetic components was rhetorically useful at some point, since it was clear (and remains so) that there is little recourse for change in preference, whether genetically originated or no. But I hope we are beyond that, or should be.

This indirectly leads to a question that needs to be raised, even if so touchy, it is rarely (ever?) raised in public discourse on such issues: As posed on the cover of Vanity Fair, ‘post-op’ trans-sexual Caitlyn Jenner’s semiosis promises viewers of the pose, of sexual desirability as a woman. So the question is fair to ask of viewers, defenders and protestors alike – ‘would you have sex with this woman?’ And a fairly correlate question then must also be asked: ‘Would you have had sex with Jenner as a man?’ Finally, let’s extrapolate those questions further – ‘would you consider marriage with Jenner now? Would you have considered marriage with Jenner then?’ These questions, to be meaningful, should be asked of male viewers of the pose; female answers to the questions would be interesting, but have limited value (since Jenner is clearly appealing to male audiences).

Is sexual attraction a matter of gender? Is romantic love?

CAUTION: What we know as (engendered) ‘romantic love’ has a history; it originated in the early Renaissance, not existing in the West previously (although similar cultural phenomena are to be found in India, China, and Japan of the same era).

Murky waters, indeed.

Rhetoric as philosophy

Can ‘critical thinking’ be successfully taught in the schools? This question has been debated for decades; but the debate has been largely cooked by the mistaken presumption that there is some discursive space from which to criticize efforts to manipulate people – whether through ‘propaganda’ or advertising or political speechifying. Unfortunately – that’s not true.

The problem with rhetoric (which is what we are discussing here) is that it can always get us what we want, but is rarely what we want it to be.

We want rhetoric to be controllable by reducing it to social protocol. That’s useless and untrue, despite the fact that this is the common teaching of it (e.g., that’s the founding premise of ‘composition studies’).

The supposition that there can be a clear distinction between rhetoric and traditional logic (which is the logic we commonly use in daily life) is false; and Aristotle noted that, which forms the basis of his Rhetoric. All modern studies on response patterns to common public argumentation (e.g., behavioral responses to advertising or political speeches) seem to confirm this.

If this is the case, then there can be no clear *discursive* distinction between ‘mindfucking bullshit’ and reasonable persuasion. And there isn’t. The distinction is between what the target audience of the former believe, and what the target audience of the latter believe. The problematic is not how target audiences are manipulated, but why it is they wish to be so manipulated.

Rhetoric is simply the practice of using language to control the behaviors of others. And we all use it, specifically to that purpose. Thus our awareness needs concern ourselves, and the possible consequences of our discourse. We are fooling ourselves (and doing disservice to our young) to pretend otherwise.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” (- Shakespeare) *

“Words are instructions or directions for behavior, and they may be responded to either appropriately or inappropriately, but the appropriateness or inappropriateness depends upon the judgment of someone.” Morse Peckham, “Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior,” U Minnesota, 1979.

“The problematic is not how target audiences are manipulated, but why it is they wish to be so manipulated.”

– ‘This sounds like you’re saying that both audiences are being manipulated -‘

‘I am; they are.’

‘But surely an appeal to our reasoning is not a manipulation, but simply a conversation between equals.’

‘Are you not listening to yourself? “An appeal to our reasoning”? what could be more rhetorically manipulative?’

‘But if I am presented with a choice reasonably presented, allowing me to judge on logical grounds -‘

‘- and how does that make you feel? Isn’t that the person you always wanted to be? and would you submit if you did not feel this?’

There is not a single thing we say lacking rhetorical value. The art of rhetoric – and critical response to it – begins with admitting that.

Less simply, then: Rhetoric is the verbalization of our desires and our fears – our lust, our wish for power, our frustrations and anxieties, our self-identifications, i.e., our images of ourselves: it defines ourselves socially, and how we interact with others (the others we always want something from, be it sex, money or respect – i.e., subservience). We use it; others use it on us. The art becomes, how to navigate in its stream, not whether we wish to stand apart from it (which is impossible) or what we can know independent of it (which is nothing).

We might want to be intellect separable from material reality; but that is not as nature made us. We are as we are; my dog will use every sign she can present to get me to pet her, to feed her, to let her out at night. Our signs are far more complicated; but do they not originate in similar needs for recognition and social ‘stroking’?

What a wonderful thing it would be, if we were ‘spirits in a material form’! Unfortunately, we are merely animals, trying to get the world around us to do our bidding.

We have developed a great many technologies with which to do this; but the first and foremost – available, and indeed inevitable, to all – is rhetoric.

Who cares if you can upload consciousness into a computer? The important question is whether you can persuade a plumber to clean your pipes on Saturday! (Extra points if you get him/her on weekday rates!)

* This clearly means that ethics begins as a question of what we say, and the behavior we expect from this…..

We are only what we say and do. That’s an ontological problem, but it is not beyond the question of what we can know….

Which makes clear that studies we have long believed to be separable – ethics, epistemology, ontology, sociology. etc. – are all part and parcel of a single problematic –

Who are we? what is this, this thing called ‘human’?

Class and contemplation

I posted my comment on viewing the whole matter of the American academy and the humanities from a broadly historical perspective, because my own responses to the problems of the academy have been somewhat mitigated over the years by just such historical considerations. The point of my comments was that the place of the humanities in the university is both a product of history, and at play in historical trends beyond itself that any argument – sound or otherwise – cannot properly address or effect. That’s no consolation, but does provide a moment to ask where in this stream we are really swimming.

Throughout my education, from 2nd grade to doctorate, I was recurrently reminded by teachers, administrators and peers, that, coming from the working poor, I was extremely fortunate to have access to learning that really wasn’t intended for those of my background. * Indeed, I was. 200 years ago, I probably would never have learned to read; 500 years ago, I would not have been allowed to learn to read. The books of the tradition before the 19th century were not written for my eyes, the music before then was not composed for my ears. The notion that art and literature has some universal value that we all have a right to, is historically easy to falsify. (Which of course is not to say that I dismiss pre-Modern arts and literature, or reject their availability, to the contrary: I am quite sincere in saying I consider myself lucky to have been born in this era, when such were made available to those of my class.) Nonetheless, I remain suspicious of claims that some necessary human truth is delivered us through the traditional arts (beyond the undeniable truth that people who can paint or write or compose, etc., will do so when they can).

But while there is a great deal of class-based ramblings in Western philosophy, there is very little of it in Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhism has a surprising track record of sages who came from humble origins. Becoming a Buddhist, I fully realized the truth of Aristotle’s claim that the richest life would be that of contemplation. Aristotle’s strongest claim for this was in the Politics, wherein Aristotle surmises that governmental structures inevitably grow corrupt, and that participation in politics inevitably corrupts individuals. The more we participate, the more complicit we become. Perhaps the most honest and virtuous choice we can make is simply opting out of the fabric of a society that can not live up to the best elements of its ideology, and refuses to change in order to do so.

Buddhism also insists on engagement with others to alleviate suffering. But for me, philosophy – east and west – has provided the richest experiences of my life. I don’t believe this can be taught – but it can be learned. Perhaps the best argument for the humanities is that they provide opportunities for learning. That may not sell many student loans, but it may persuade some young people to rethink what they expect from a college education.


  • Let no one misunderstand, despite the carefully worded main text here, and risking the banality of cultural criticism: I was not supposed to have earned a doctorate, I was not supposed to have thought deeply on Shakespeare, or Kant, etc.  And I was told that, by implication on many occasions, but explicitly on some.  The notion that the arts and literature ‘belong to the masses’ is a myth, and every historical record demonstrates it.   I was fortunate to get to it at all – but not without scars.

Abortion: about justice – not biology, not god

Abortion: I know the topic raises emotional responses – including, obviously, my own. So I want to use the emotional appeal of my rhetoric to cut short appeal to personal emotion, by indicating that appeal to some theory of universal self-interest or universal sympathy concerning the fetus, is doomed to cancellation by confrontation with personal experience and differently directed sympathies.

The weight of justice seems to me to favor the interests of the living women who make this choice, not ‘possible persons’ the present ontological status of which remains in doubt.

It may indeed be the case that the legalization of abortion contributed to a coarsening of our culture, a loss of a certain sensitivity – but there are important legal reasons why this cannot be undone, and my position is that justice weighs in favor of accepting this, and considering the whole issue in a manner that allows us to live with it.

To begin with, I don’t believe human life begins at conception. “Homo Sapien” is a biological category, “human” is an ontological category. I deny the two are identical. There is no (and for theoretical reasons, cannot be) evidence to the contrary.

Thomas Aquinas argued that no human life came into being until an infant demonstrated personality, demonstrating that the soul had been implanted in the body, which he reckoned to be about four months. The Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion doesn’t hinge on the existence of ‘human’ life in the fetus, but on the life in pontentia, pre-determined by god. But I don’t believe in god. So let us recognize the strength of the one claim, concerning the development of personality, while recognizing that the second claim, reliance on god, is unpersuasive to unbelievers. The point being that the matter turns on the definition of ‘human being,’ and this point cannot be decided scientifically, because it is an ontological category, that can only be decided ideologically or philosophically. But in this culture, it cannot be decided religiously. Thus, the point is so open and filled with possibility that only small groups and individuals can realize which definition of ‘human being’ they wish to pursue.

This problem can be somewhat mitigated by law, but the Supreme Court has decided that the Constitution has limited jurisdiction over the matter, and that individuals must wrestle with their choices by themselves.  That’s as it should be.  If we were talking about real, existent persons the matter would be otherwise.  But we are talking about an infinite number of ‘possible persons,’ which would individually fall out into a hard reality that is frequently poorly prepared, impoverished, punishing.  Abortion may be the greatest act of mercy in certain circumstances.

Anti-choice proselytizers squall about the ending of life in the womb. Then they should develop a system of incubation, whereby the excised fetus can be brought to maturation outside the womb. They should also find funding for the raising of these children afterward, rather than condemning them to the ‘care’ of women who do not want them, cannot afford them.

And they should explain why they so willingly send these children off to die in war, or send them to the gallows when the pressure of their unfortunate births may lead them to transgress. *


But: ‘What if your mother had chosen abortion?’ I wish she had, putting an end to years of manipulation and abuse.

My mother had a different idea: she believed that if she had enough children, perhaps her drunkard husband would stay married to her. Reproduction was then her only strategy for control over an abusive man she should never have married in the first place – except that, at the time unmarried women approaching 30 were considered disreputable failures. (When that strategy failed, then she seemed to have decided that she could manipulate her children to die before her, thus assuring herself a kind of ersatz immortality. It worked with my two sisters, who both died at age 50 – thoroughly scrambled psychologically by the many mixed messages from their mother, especially concerning sexuality and procreation.)

There are some women who should not have children; and all women should have the right to an informed choice with real options for living their lives well. Denial of this corrupts them, corrupts the men involved with them, corrupts the very fabric of society.

The whole anti-choice argument stands on the assumption that the ‘nuclear family’ is natural and inevitable, shored up with instinctual caring, which the surrounding community re-enforces. That’s untrue. The ‘nuclear family’ is an ideal, and ‘instinctual caring’ is a religious belief. Humans are too variant in their motivations and behaviors to provide the kind of generic surety the anti-choice arguments seem to take for granted.

Nothing of this yet addresses the problem of the right of a woman to her own body. Until a fetus reaches a maturation towards birth – sustainable life outside the womb – it is little more than a parasite. It is homo sapien; it is not yet human. It doesn’t enter that process of becoming until it is born. No excuse for causing it suffering – but no reason to keep it alive.

The woman involved is a living human, she is an already ontologically becoming human being. She should not be denied the opportunity to choose the path of her own becoming.

My mother didn’t know any better. Now women know that some parasite in their body is no reason to devote their entire lives to the result of rape, brutality, oppression and enslavement.

Shall we deny them this? enforce religious belief through state strictures punishable by imprisonment? That won’t stop women seeking the relief they need from impossibly difficult situations. So, should we return to coat-hanger abortions in unsanitary backrooms? Hundreds of thousands of women suffered injury or death in those days – already existent persons suffering because of religious hypocrisy pretending to be law. No thanks.

I wish the whole world vegetarian. But that’s not so. Wishing a world where abortion is not a reasonable choice is unrealistic. I must accept women’s claim to controlling their reproductive destiny. The choice must be theirs. Denying this is profoundly unjust.

I care for the living, not the dead and the unborn. The former no longer suffer, the latter need not ever suffer. The suffering that exits now is what we must help to lessen.


* I here must laud the Catholic Church’s opposition to capital punishment and unjust wars; at least in their opposition to abortion, they can claim consistency, which is much more than can be said of the American Religious Right that terrorizes us with fake videos and inflammatory rhetoric.