In Defense of “I feel…”—Philosophy is Not Merely, “I believe…”

How do you feel? –What did I just ask you? “Feel” is like many/most words, i.e., we usually use it without thinking and its meanings are many and varied. I might ask you how you feel in regard to your physical health—the answer, “I feel good; the pain in my ankle has gone away.” I might ask how you feel in regard to life/mental health—the answer, “I feel kind of down these days; I can’t quite place it.” I might ask how you feel when facing a particular challenge—the answer, “I feel a little intimidated, but I believe I can do it.” Or I might ask how you feel about a particular idea—the answer, “I feel like that’s a good idea; I think we should do it.”

I want to focus on the last example of feeling. I remember being at the University of Georgia, working on my BA in philosophy, when I heard for the first time someone say something to the effect: “Don’t say ‘I feel…’ but rather ‘I think’ or ‘I believe.’” The context was a discussion of writing philosophy papers. So, instead of saying something like, “I feel Descartes’ dualism is problematic,” one should say, “I think/believe Descartes’ dualism is problematic.”

Continue reading

Life and Death, Sunshine and Rain: Accept one, Accept the Other

This morning I came across the lovely Buddha Doodles illustration with the Khalil Gibran quote: “If I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.” It’s a wonderful line to think about. For what exactly does it mean? In what sense must accepting the one mean accepting the other?

I am aware of at least one other explicit version of the idea, namely, in the Daoist text the Zhuangzi, though I imagine it is surely found in some form in Buddhist texts, as well:

Suddenly Zilai fell ill. Gasping and wheezing, on the verge of keeling over, he was surrounded by his weeping family. Zili, coming to visit him, said to them, “Ach! Away with you! Do not disturb his transformation!” Leaning across the windowsill, he said to the invalid, “How great is the Process of Creation-Transformation! What will it make you become; where will it send you? Will it make you into a mouse’s liver? Or perhaps an insect’s arm?”
Zilai said, “A child obeys his parents wherever they may send him—north, south, east, or west. Now, yin and yang are much more to a man than his parents. If they send me to my death and I disobey them, that would make me a traitor—what fault would it be of theirs? The Great Clump burdens meet with a physical form, labors me with life, eases me with old age, and rest me with death. Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good. (Emphasis mine. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections From Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Ziporyn, 45-46.)

While Gibran may not be saying exactly the same thing that Zilai is with his, “Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good,” it is clear that something similar is supposed to be going on.

But why would accepting one thing entail having to accept another? One obvious kind of case would perhaps be Hesperus and Phosphorus, the Evening Star and the Morning Star, both of which are Venus: “If you accept the beauty Hesperus, then you must accept the beauty of Phosphorus.” But even that could be challenged. Perhaps Hesperus is the more beautiful because of the context of the evening, or vice versa. Continue reading

Why So Many Disagreements Are Just So Damn Intractable

In a recent essay, I made a distinction between what I called epistemic reasons and purely causal reasons. The former are potentially truth preserving (capable of providing epistemic justification) the latter are not even potentially truth preserving (and thus are incapable of providing epistemic justification). In this essay, I’m going to appeal to the same basic distinction regarding reasons that do and do not provide epistemic justification, but I’m going to refer to them simply as epistemic reasons (ERs) and non-epistemic reasons (non-ERs).

In the course of reading the first chapter of MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, it occurred to me that we could use the ER/non-ER distinction to help explain disagreements about contentious issues concerning ethics, for example.

Continue reading

States of Belief

A song from Modest Mouse begins with these lyrics:  “I was in heaven – I was in hell – Believe in neither – But fear them as well.”  Subtract the claim of having been to both and just consider the claim, “I believe in neither heaven nor hell, but I fear them.”  Further, suppose someone asserts this with the utmost sincerity.  Is there anything strange about that assertion?  Is it at all like “Moore’s Paradox”:  “It’s raining but I don’t believe it.”  ?

A person sincerely making the claim about fearing heaven and hell seems to be saying that X doesn’t exist but I fear X.  Perhaps that is not strange after all, since we fear things that don’t exist yet, e.g., the last moments of life as we are dying, and things that may never exist, e.g., getting fired from our jobs, going bankrupt, etc.  But while those things are feared and do not exist, they are believed to exist in the future (or it is believed that they will exist) or believed to be possibilities.  But presumably anyone who doesn’t believe in heaven or hell doesn’t believe that they will come to exist or that they are possibilities in the same way that losing one’s job is a possibility.

Perhaps one could not believe in heaven or hell, but fear them because one fears that one is wrong about there not being either.  Insofar as one fears being wrong, one can fear that which one is wrong about.

But I wonder if we couldn’t approach it from another direction viz. looking at the ways in which one might believe in neither.  That is, we can distinguish between a mere lack of belief in X and a “positive” disbelief in X.  So a person who merely lacks belief in heaven and hell might sensibly fear them in a way that a person who holds a positive disbelief in them could not.  I may be building something out of nothing here (or perhaps nothing out of something).  But part of the joy of doing philosophy is to start wondering about something and see where it leads, even if it often leads nowhere.

Performing Mathematical Operations on Nonsense

Let us define the number i as equal to the square root of -1.  So i cannot be positive or negative, but all real numbers are positive or negative—so i is imaginary.  I am pretty much the farthest thing from a mathematician, but i strikes me as being something that we think we have some understanding of, but we really don’t, similar to saying “There is either a red square-circle or there is not a red square-circle.”

But the funny thing is, we can perform operations with i:

(2i)(4i) = (2 · 4)(ii), which equals (8)( i2), which equals (8)(-1), which equals -8.

So from something that doesn’t really make sense, namely “i = the square root of -1,” we get something that makes perfect sense.  How much of philosophy is like this?

Possibility and Nonsense

Before talking about the nature of arguments in my Intro to Logic class, I start off talking about inferential relationships between statements more generally.  So I ask them to consider what else must be true , e.g., if “Todd is dead” is true and if “Bob loves Jill” is true.

Two of the claims that people said followed from “Todd is dead” were:

1) There is at least one dead person.

2) There is a reason for Todd’s death.

I used this opportunity to talk about the difference between logical and causal possibility.  I take it that 1) is logically necessary in relation to “Todd is dead” and that 2) is causally necessary.  We can imagine a world in which people die for no reason, or something like that.

This led to the students’ asking about whether claims following from “Bob loves Jill” were causally or logically implied.  Someone asked whether it could be possible for someone not  to be able to love someone else and if so whether it would be causal or logical.  I said we could imagine a person having some kind of chemical imbalance or the like such that it would be causally impossible for him to love anyone.  But this led me to ask the class whether my water bottle’s not being able to love anyone is a causal or logical impossibility.  It is not so clear, is it?

This reminds me of an interesting but difficult passage in “Part II” of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, where he writes:

“A new-born child has no teeth.”—”A goose has no teeth.”—”A rose has no teeth.”—This last at any rate—one would like to say—is obviously true!  It is even surer than that a goose has none.—And yet it is none so clear. For where should a rose’s teeth have been? The goose has none in its jaw. And neither, of course, has it any in its wings; but no one means that when he says it has no teeth.—Why, suppose one were to say: the cow chews its food and then dungs the rose with it, so the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast. This would not be absurd, because one has no notion in advance where to look for teeth in a rose. ((Connexion with ‘pain in someone else’s body’.))

So, we might say that it is obviously true that my water bottle cannot love anyone, but is that not more than just odd sounding?  Is it a causal impossibility that makes us say this?  We might imagine the water bottle imbued with a spirit by a magician or god mightn’t we?

What about these three statements:

A) Either it is raining or it is not raining.
B) Either there is a black unicorn or there is not a black unicorn.
C) Either there is a red square-circle or there is not a red square-circle.

In the context of asking about immediate inferences, we might say that you can’t infer anything about the world, so to speak, by the truth of A) and B).  But should we say the same about C)?  If the idea of a square-circle is incoherent, then what could C) possibly mean?  Is C) true?  If it is false, is it necessarily false?  Is it nonsense?