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.”

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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

Realizing the Matrix—On the Possibility and Desirability of “Uploading” Insight

There is a special class of knowledge or wisdom that we might call insight or realization. This comes in a variety of forms and degrees. For example, someone tells you how scary it is to be in the water when someone spots a shark. You’ve been afraid before, you’ve been in the ocean before, so you think you have a pretty good idea of what that must be like. But you don’t really realize what it’s like until you’ve been swimming on the North Shore of Oahu and someone yells, “Shark!” At which point you panic like never before, swim like never before. Or you have a conversation with a friend and they tell you something that sounds plausible and halfway interesting, but it doesn’t really connect with anything else you’ve been thinking about or that is meaningful to you. But some years later, after reading different things, thinking things through, you suddenly have an insight, you suddenly have this realization. You then happen to excitedly tell your friend about it, and their reaction is, “That’s what I told you two years ago!”

What is importantly common to the shark and friend examples is that they both involve a kind of “seeing” for oneself. The shark example is different in the speed at which the realization happens. It is a purer form of realizing what it is like to experience or do something. The example with the friend is less of a realizing what it is like and more a realizing the significance of something. This realizing the significance often means seeing connections, how an idea, for example, connects up with other important ideas, one’s other beliefs and values, etc. Such realizations are markedly different from simple cases of knowing how to do something like ride a bike and knowing what we might call “trivia” or pieces of information. For example, one might readily learn and know that in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is an important philosopher, is convicted and sentenced to death, eventually dying by drinking hemlock. So much is relatively easy to understand/know. But it takes years of studying philosophy and reading Plato, etc., to realize the full significance of those bits of knowledge, their value/significance, how they connect up with other issues, both in philosophy and one’s life. Continue reading

You are Right and I have my Peace—On the Pursuit of Truth and a Meaningful Life

What am I after in pursuing philosophy? A ready answer is: the Truth. The truth about whatever philosophical topic I might be interested in. But this answer is problematic for a number of important reasons. One is that philosophy is extremely difficult and I’d have to be a fool or full of hubris to think that I will figure out any significant truths, truths that greater minds than my own failed to see. Another is revealed in the following passage from §5 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, “Part One: On the Prejudices of Philosophers”: Continue reading

What’s Wrong With Cartesian Reasoning? Part I

There are many reasons to read Nietzsche. Whether you agree with his substantive views, taking him seriously will help to keep you intellectually honest. An example comes from Beyond Good and Evil, Part One: On the Prejudices of Philosophers, §5:

What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are – how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray; in short, their childishness and childlikeness – but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish – and talk of “inspiration”); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of “inspiration” – most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract – that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize “truths” – and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself.


According to an interesting website authored by Hugo Mercier, “Current philosophy and psychology are dominated by what can be called a classical, or ‘Cartesian’ view of reasoning. Even though this view goes back at least to some classical Greek philosophers, its most famous exposition is probably in Descartes.” This essay is Part I in a critical assessment of Mercier’s claims as outlined on the above website. Mercier contrasts the Cartesian view discussed with a dialogical view of reasoning that is supposed to fit best with empirical evidence and our evolutionary heritage. I will address it in more detail in Part II. All quotes below are from Mercier’s website. I question some of the claims as I quote them. Those objections are in brackets. I then go into a more detailed and general critique of the claims.

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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.

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A Difficult Dilemma: Deny that Humanity is Fallen or Deny Evolution?

I find Christianity (and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.) perplexing. I suppose Kierkegaard would want me to embrace this feeling (as regards Christianity). I admit my perplexity because I do not want to come across as angry or hostile in these essays. I really want to understand religion and humankind’s possible relationship with the divine better.

One of the things that troubles me with Christianity is the claim that it is only through Christ that one can achieve salvation, which I take to mean primarily that it is only through Christ that you’ll be with God, etc. This would seem to leave A LOT of people in the lurch through no fault of their own, simply because they never heard of Christ and Christianity. And it would leave those in the lurch for whom, again through no real fault of their own, Christianity is not a live option (in William James’s sense). A student of mine kindly pointed me to one of the Catholic catechisms that seems to address this concern (Thank you Mr. Shapland). It is here and reads: Continue reading

Why are you a Christian (Muslim, Jew, etc.)?

Much of what I have to say is critical, but I do not mean any disrespect to my family and friends, or any one else of a particular faith. The purpose of this short essay is to further my project of trying to understand religious belief and to cultivate a certain kind of humility that I find lacking in many religious people. The latter may seem condescending, though I certainly do not intend it to be.

When asking for the reasons why a person believes something, e.g., that gay marriage is a good/bad idea, there are two importantly different kinds of reasons that we might appeal to (there are more than just these two, but these are the most salient). One kind is called epistemic reasons. Epistemic reasons are relevant to the truth of that for which they are reasons. That is, their truth is supposed to guarantee or make probable the truth of that which is believed. For example, Bob believes he will get over an infection because of the known efficacy of antibiotics. That known efficacy is a reason for believing, it makes it probably true, that Bob will get well; and thus it justifies his believing that he will get well.

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Language and the Intelligibility of God

1. Introduction

In this post I want to consider a number of aspects of the question of whether and to what extent our claims about God’s nature are intelligible.  I will begin by considering the question of intelligibility on its own before applying those considerations to some of the things typically said about God in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  My conclusion will be that in regard to some things we say about God, e.g., that God is outside space and time, we are forced to choose between revising those claims, embracing irrationality, or rethinking the implications of those claims.

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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.