Monday, April 30, 2012

Socrates vs. Aristotle

At the beginning of the semester, Dr. Griffin told us that it all comes down to  Socrates vs. Aristotle, so I thought I would consider there differences.

Socrates is only known through the writings of others, most notably Plato, and so it is difficult to determine which ideas belonged to him, and which belonged to the authors. Our actual idea of him is so unclear that an expert on the subject, Cornelia de Vogel, said, "“The ‘real’ Socrates we have not: what we have is a set of interpretations each of which represents a ‘theoretically possible’ Socrates.”

Without worrying too much about which beliefs originated with whom, we can summarize Socrates. He looked for answers from within himself and those around him and encouraged development of self and friendships. He is quoted as saying, "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being." A proponent of oral traditions, he opposed writing. According to him, all wrong is a result of ignorance. He supported a higher placement of women in society than was granted to them at the time, and listed two women among his own teachers. He believed there was only one kind of excellence, shared by all humans. He searched for the big unifying truth of life and believed it could only be found through unending questioning.Where Bacon sought to vex nature into giving up her secrets, Socrates focused on vexing people to obtain a higher understanding.

His visit to the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi was mimicked by Neo's visit to the Oracle in the movie The Matrix. The Oracle has confidence in Neo, despite his admission of ignorance, modelling the Oracle of Delphi's statements that Socrates is the wisest man in the world after he admits he knows nothing.

Aristotle sought to observe the world around him, writing treatises on nearly every subject. His major contribution to the development of logic can be described by Kant, who wrote, "That from the earliest times logic has traveled a secure course can be seen from the fact that since the time of Aristotle it has not had to go a single step backwards…What is further remarkable about logic is that until now it has also been unable to take a single step forward, and therefore seems to all appearance to be finished and complete." Aristotle believed certain axioms must be adopted to allow for logical reasoning.

He attempted to sort and organize the objects of our world. Unlike Socrates, he believed different cases held different kinds of goodness or excellence. He made rational conclusions based on observations of nature and believed understanding the world was more important than understanding oneself. Because he based his works on pure observation, he findings were often wrong.

Aristotle believed destiny resides in everything, which can be taken to extremes in a deterministic sort of way. This is the case with movies such as Napoleon Dynamite , where every event leads up to the climactic dance scene.

While I can see the good points of each, I don't believe either of these can be taken as a philosophy of one's life. In order to live your life to it's fullest and to achieve as much as you're capable, you cannot go about observing only the world or only the internal workings of people. I guess in some ways I tend to agree with the path of moderation of the ancient Greeks. There is one point on which I do disagree with Socrates, which I think was put best by the following quote.
"But as for certain truth, no man has known it, 
nor will he know it; neither of the gods 
nor yet of all the things of which I speak. 
And even if by chance he were to utter
 the perfect truth, he would himself not know it. 
For all is but a woven web of guesses." 
-Xenphanes ca. 400 BC                              


Walt the philosopher

Throughout the semester, every time we started a new topic I could come up with a Disney movie that would fit that theme. As time progressed I came to see just how much philosophy we have instilled in us at a young age through the movies we watched over and over again. When you watch movies as a child, you get the storyline; you cheer for the heroes and root against the villain. Then you revisit the movies as you get older and a whole new level is opened up because of your knowledge of human interactions and the subtleties of language. After this class, I realized that the movies had yet another level, one that many people probably never grasp.

One of the first topics we covered in class was the question of is there a God. While Disney makes few outright references to God, some characters can be seen praying. The film that deals the most directly with God is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As the movie mainly takes place in the cathedral it is inevitable that God would be mentioned. The scene below is one of the best. It is towards the end of the movie. The villain, Frollo, has attempted to capture all the gypsies. Quasimodo has saved Esmeralda and poured molten copper in the streets to prevent pursuit. Frollo has corned Esmeralda and Quasimodo and is trying to kill them. This seen portrays God as Frollo’s words are turned against him by some higher power.

The next topic we talked about was closely related to the first. People have long been asking what happens to us after we die. The Disney movie that relates to this topic is Hercules. In the film, Hercules, son of Zeus, falls in love with Meg, who has sold her soul to Hades. Hades offers Hercules a deal- Hades will free Meg if Hercules gives up his powers for 24 hours. Hercules agrees, but during that day, Hades unleashes the Titans upon the world. Hercules fights one and kills it, but Meg is killed in the battle. The scene below shows Disney’s take on the afterlife (the first three minutes is the relevant portion).

The third topic in this set of ideas is the question of evil. Disney movies abound in evil villains. The movie I chose was The Black Cauldron. This movie never achieved the popularity of other Disney films, yet is one of my favorites. It has the scariest villain of the Disney movies and he is quite evil. The Horned King is searching for the mythical black cauldron. When he finds it he plans to use the cauldrons power to raise the cauldron-born. The cauldron-born are undead warriors who cannot be killed. The Horned King plans to unleash these warriors on the land and destroy everything. If ever there was an evil villain, the Horned King is it. The scene below shows the Horned King using the black cauldron to raise the cauldron-born. It captures the essential creepiness of the movie.

After evil, we turned to the question of personal identity. This is another popular topic in Disney films. Most of the characters undergo some identity crisis. The example I chose is Beauty and the Beast. This is a classic paragon of the question of personal identity. Does the Beast’s outward appearance define him, or is it simply a covering for his true identity. The scene below is the beginning of the movie, where the Beast is first transformed from human to beast. It asks the question of what makes a man, his appearance or what lies beneath?

The next topic we looked at was determinism and free will. There are Disney films for both sides of this argument. I found one of each. For the determinism side of the dispute, Sleeping Beauty and for the free will side, Pocahontas. Sleeping Beauty argues strongly for the determinism case. When Aurora is a baby, she is cursed by Maleficent. Maleficent says that on Aurora’s sixteenth birthday she will prick her finger and die. The curse is lessened by another fairy who says she will not die only fall asleep for a hundred years. Everyone in the kingdom does everything they can to avoid Aurora’s finger prick, but it happens anyway. In Pocahontas, she is told how to live and who to marry. However, Pocahontas is obstinate and refuses to do as she is told. As she is able to do this, the movie seems to argue that free will has a foot in life.

Sleeping Beauty:


Following Determinism and free will, we discussed epistemology and Bacon’s idols. The Disney movie that provides an example of this is Tangled. Epistemology is the question of how do we know what we know. In Tangled, Rapunzel believes that Mother Gothel is her mother and that she must hide from the world. She thinks these things because they are what she has been told by Mother Gothel. In the movie Rapunzel leaves her tower and travels the kingdom. Mother Gothel catches up to her and brings her home. Once there, Rapunzel realizes that all she has ever known is a lie. The scene below is her realization.

One of the last topics we discussed was gender reversal. The classic movie that contains a switch of gender roles is Mulan. In the film, Mulan pretends to be a boy in order to join the army in her father’s stead. The results are humorous, as is expected from movies containing gender reversal. The scene below is Mulan’s first try at impersonating a boy. It enforces the stereotypes of men and women by playing them up in this scene.

The final topic we discussed was ethics. All Disney movies have some ethical undercurrents. The two I chose were on a point we touched on briefly. The point was the question of whether animals fall into Kant’s categorical imperative. We argued that euthanasia was acceptable because animals do not have souls. This was used to say that animals do not fall into Kant’s categorical imperative. The movie I chose was Bambi. In the scene below, Bambi and his mother are chased by a hunter. Bambi’s mother is killed. This scene is one of the saddest in Disney movie history. I argue that people would not care so much if animal’s did not fall into Kant’s theory.

I know there are many other movies that would be examples for these categories. That is my point. Disney movies have all of the philosophical topics covered, as long as you know where to look.

Two Sides to Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism as an ethical basis can have very virtuous or very depraved qualities. In film, movies such as V for Vendetta and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 present the two sides of utilitarianism. In a real world example, the Nazis and the Manhattan Project in World War II demonstrate the opposing ethics of utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism, widely known as “the greatest good for the greatest number,” is an ethical school largely started by Jeremy Bentham. Bentham believed that it is one’s moral obligation to provide the best possible outcome for the most people. In other words, if sacrificing one person saves a thousand people, it is one’s moral duty to kill that first person. In V for Vendetta, Delia Surridge is a doctor who is in charge of finding the cure to the St. Mary’s virus that could kill many. In order to save the population of London, she infects her patients with the virus and uses them as studies for her vaccine research. V for Vendetta portrays Delia Surridge as immoral. While she thinks she is saving thousands of lives, she overlooks the fact that she is responsible for killing a few hundred others. The clip below shows the ending scene from an excerpt in her diary during her time researching.

(I'm sorry that it's only the link. When I tried to embed the video, I couldn't find it again on YouTube. Hopefully that link still works.)
The Nazis in World War II had a very similar, still immoral, viewpoint as Delia Surridge. They sacrificed many Jews in order to perform highly unethical experiments on them such as drowning the patients or performing lobotomies. By taking the viewpoint that “the ends justify the means,” the Nazi’s experiments could be considered highly valuable because of their scientific research. However, the major consensus is that the sacrifice and torture of the Jews in order to obtain said research makes the entire ordeal immoral.
On the other hand, there are times when the ends really do justify the means. The Manhattan Project and the dropping of the two atomic bombs, for example, promote utilitarianism during World War II. While the atomic bombs sacrificed hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens, many argue that the bombs also ended the war, saving millions. The Manhattan Project is largely seen as an American victory, and it is viewed as justified and revering. 
In film, Harry Potter sacrifices himself in order to save the wizarding world.
Harry realizes that the only way to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort, is to allow Voldemort to kill Harry. Although Harry himself must suffer, he saves many lives by his death and therefore provides the greatest good for the greatest number.
By simply looking at Harry Potter’s case, it can be said that self-sacrifice makes utilitarianism ethical. Upon comparison of the United States to the Nazis in World War II, however, there is no clear reason why one is viewed as ethical and the other is not. My question is, “Is there as defining line that determines whether utilitarianism is ethical, or does it depend on your own personal opinion?” As an America, I am predisposed to believe that dropping the atomic bombs was the right thing to do, but I wonder if the Nazis viewed their scientific research in the same light. 

Ethics in Advertising

The two major schools of ethics, Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Bentham’s Utilitarianism, can be found in everyday commercials and advertisements. Immanuel Kant believed that there is only one moral standard, and that everyone must obey it at all times. Kantian ethics states that if an act is wrong, no matter the circumstances, it should not be be executed. Kant concluded that even something as small as a “white lie,” leads a person down a slippery slope in which other immoral acts such as murder are no longer of consequence. The famous Lay’s slogan “Betcha can’t eat just one,” is a perfect example of Kant’s slippery slope. 

Once the consumer has eaten one Lay’s chip, he cannot resist the temptation to continue eating until the entire bag is devoured. Similarly, as soon as a human being crosses the moral boundary line, the temptation to abstain from other immoral acts is too great to resist. One small, delicious chip, or in the ethical view, one tiny sin, quickly leads to an empty chip bag and a multitude of sins. In a Kantian view, one should simply stay away from chips altogether in order to lead a perfectly moral life with the best possible society.
Another school of ethics, utilitarianism, is also portrayed in advertising. Jeremy Bentham, a primary founder of utilitarianism, believed in “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Bentham stated that, “That which does not maximize the greatest happiness (such as an act of pure ascetic sacrifice) is, therefore, morally wrong” [1]. The ShamWow, a multipurpose towel, is an example of a utilitarian product.

A ShamWow, according to the commercial, is like a sponge, paper towel, and cloth towel combined. By maximizing its uses, the ShamWow provides the greatest good for the greatest number. It saves money and works well for all occasions. According to the utilitarianism viewpoint, one should only purchase ShamWows because it would be immoral use any towel with only one use. 
Another common ethical theme in advertising is the social contract theory. According to this theory, people should be moral “to make social living possible” [2]. It is very similar to the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, in order to look out for oneself, it is advantageous to “live in a society in which people behave morally” [2].  By living morally yourself, you encourage society to behave morally as well. Insurance commercials abide by this school of ethics, stating that by buying their insurance people are protecting themselves from what could happen. By acting morally and purchasing the best insurance, one is helping society to be moral by being prepared for mayhem.

Social contract theory is focused on preventative ethics by acting morally in order to prevent others from acting immorally. It sets a good example for others to follow so that everyone benefits. Similarly, according to the Allstate commercial, by giving money to the insurance company, one is setting a good example and preventing the consequences of immoral actions. A world in which everyone has insurance for accidents is the best world possible, according to the social contract theory.

[1]: Sweet, William. "Jeremy Bentham." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 23 December 2008. Web. <>.
[2]: Rachels, James, and Stuart Rachels. Problems from Philosophy. New York: McGraw Hill, 2012. Print.

U for Utilitarian

One of the most recent topics covered in class was ethics. The two main categories that we looked at were Kant’s categorical imperative and utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is an intriguing concept that has been explored in many films. I recently watched V for Vendetta and found myself analyzing it for its ethical viewpoints. The film has many utilitarianism undercurrents, which make it a fascinating movie.

Utilitarianism is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a doctrine that the useful is the good and that the determining consideration of right conduct should be the usefulness of its consequences; specifically: a theory that the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” In other words: the greatest good for the greatest number. Jeremy Bentham is a major player in the formation of utilitarianism. Bentham argued that it is the idea of greatest good for the greatest number that should determine the concepts of right and wrong.

V for Vendetta bases its entire concept in the idea of utilitarianism. The movie is set in a Great Britain ruled by a fascist government. The main character Evey meets a masked man known only as V, who plans to destroy Parliament and bring about a revolution. Throughout the movie, Evey is faced with V’s utilitarianism practicality and his complete disregard for social constructs. V will do anything to achieve his goals, which he sees as the greatest good for the country. Both V and the government have utilitarian views, but they use these views to different ends. In the first of the scenes below, the government creates a biological weapon which they use to unite the country, at the cost of some lives. To their eyes, however, this is a necessary sacrifice. Those few must die for the good of the many. In the second scene below, V is inciting the country to a revolution, despite the deaths this will inevitably cause. V believes that the good that will come from overthrowing the government will outweigh the bad.

Rookwood’s Story:

V’s Speech:

I do not believe that utilitarianism is a complete foundation for ethical determinations based on one slight problem: you can never know what the greatest good for the greatest number is in the long term. Look at the model we did in class with the four people standing on one train track and one person on the other track. Now, the immediate utilitarianism response is to kill the one person and save the four. Consider however, what those people may go on to do. Suppose the one person you killed would have gone on to find the cure for a disease and saved thousands of people, while the four you saved go on to do nothing of any importance with their lives. Was killing the one person then the utilitarianism thing to do? I understand that no one can know the future and that we can only act with the information we have. Nevertheless, utilitarianism cannot be an all-encompassing ethical basis.

Philosophy in Other Media: Free Will by Rush

While this is a philosophy through film class, I felt that another medium that frequently utilizes philosophical basis should not be entirely ignored. That medium is music. Perhaps even more so than in film, music often contains philosophical ideas in the lyrics of a song, or even throughout an entire album. As an example of this, I would like to present the song Freewill, by Rush, that goes into the Freewill vs Determinism debate through a different light than film does.

"There are those who think that life is nothing left to chance,
A host of holy horrors to direct our aimless dance.

A planet of playthings,
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive.
"The stars aren't aligned
Or the gods are malign"-
Blame is better to give than receive.

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that's clear-
I will choose Free Will.

There are those who think that they were dealt a losing hand,
The cards were stacked against them- they weren't born in lotus-land.

All preordained-
A prisoner in chains-
A victim of venomous fate.
Kicked in the face,
You can't pray for a place
In heaven's unearthly estate.

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that's clear-
I will choose Free Will.

Each of us-
A cell of awareness-
Imperfect and incomplete.
Genetic blends
With uncertain ends
On a fortune hunt that's far too fleet. "

In this song, one can actually clearly see both sides of the debate. Specifically the group is stating that they would choose to exercise freewill rather than choose to follow "a ready guide in some celestial voice". On this basis, one can see that the group is portraying both sides of the debate, but through a lens colored by the freewill side of the discussion. Determinism followers believe that every action taken in the world was "preordained" and that no matter what one does, it will follow the plans set by a "celestial voice" or a doll master that controls our "planet full of playthings". That no matter how much control we may think we have over what we do, it has all been set beforehand that you would do exactly what you do in any given situation.

Freewill thought, on the other hand, is that there is no set plan for the world and that our actions have complete control over what will happen to us in the future. This idea is most encapsulated in the line, "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." This line is the very core of freewill thought in that even if you think you are not making the choices that dictate your life yourself, you are in reality making those choices.

In the end, what the song is saying is that you can choose to believe in a deterministic life if you so choose, but doing so is still your choice. That you can fear what you want, follow what you want, but no matter what it is your choice. And so, in response to the debate, Rush has chosen to state that you can pick what you want, but they would rather believe in that they have free will and can control their lives. This really gets to the core of the debate, which is to say that no matter which side of the debate you support, it requires belief in that side. No amount of arguing will change that fact, if one does not believe in free will, they can always turn a free will thought into a deterministic one. The opposite is also true, a deterministic thought can be converted into a free will thought (i.e. "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.") This debate has been ongoing due to this requirement of faith in order to pick either side, and once the faith is there, it is difficult to change.

~ Brandon

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Stasis Theory

Stasis theory has been mentioned a few times in class thus far and shall be discussed briefly on Tuesday. I have decided to give a brief explanation of the concept here as well. Stasis theory is first and foremost a way of looking at a conflict in an effort to figure out where the conflict is located, and ideally resolve said conflict. Typically, stasis theory is applied to debates or arguments that have become locked into a repetitive/inescapable loop in an effort to determine why the debate is no longer progressing and move the debate on to its next stage.

Stasis theory has several different iterations that one can find on the internet that go about the process in different specific steps. Here I shall present the version that Dr. Griffin has taught in some of her other classes which encapsulates what most of the versions I have found attempt.

There are five different stages to stasis theory. These stages are stasis of fact, stasis of definition, stasis of cause, stasis of quality, and stasis of procedure. Each of these stages are meant to represent different points in which an argument or debate can get stuck, and thus enter a repetitive loop.

Stasis of fact deals with the assumptions or "accepted" laws upon which the debate may be founded. This can include statistical data, research data, laws, physical properties, anything that can be founded as some sort of hard basis upon which the debate is taking place. How stasis theory works with this is when a debate gets derailed due to either the inability of the debaters to agree on the presented facts, or the debaters working on the basis of different facts (i.e. one thinks they are talking about the color green, and the other assumes they are talking about the color red). Stasis of fact allows for the debaters to take a step back and and look at the facts that are being assumed for the discussion, at which point any discrepancies can be identified and resolved thus allowing the discussion to proceed once again.

Each level of stasis functions in much the same way, identifying what the core issue is that has the discussion locked up and stepping aside to resolve that issue between the debaters before moving on with the debate. Stasis of definition pertains to making sure that the involved parties are using the same definitions for the words or concepts they are using in the debate (think Idol of the Marketplace, this is the level of stasis upon which the class was stuck during the superhero debate). The stasis of cause pertains to the cause behind whatever the discussion is about. This level of stasis is the least prevalent of the five. Stasis of quality is to identify issues in desired quality of whatever is being discussed (factor of safety, level of quality control needed, etc. fall under this category). The final stasis is stasis of procedure, which deals with confusion and problems arising from the steps behind (or to come from) the debate being held.

In general, stasis of fact and stasis of definition are the most common, and this is true of their representations in film as well. Stasis of fact is very common, with the most obvious example being the Sherlock Holmes films, in which the main character uses exclusively facts from his environments to solve the problem. This identification of utilization of facts is founded in stasis theory as much as the use of the discrepancies between facts (which Holmes also uses). Stasis of definition is probably the most common of all, as it is the basis for the question "Who/what am I?", which, as we have discussed in class, is a very common question in film, the debate of identity. The others are much harder to locate in film, though I do not doubt there is a case for each of them out there somewhere, I am just not thinking of any examples right now.

Finally, I would like to open this explanation of stasis theory to other members of the class that may have been introduced to it before to help flush out my definitions, and especially to Dr. Griffin to expound the topic as well. I hope this explanation will help with the understanding of stasis theory.

~ Brandon

Judgment and Circumstance

When we were examining The Dark Knight in class, Dr. Griffin brought up a point that I wish we had more time to discuss.  When the Joker tells the story of how he got his scars, we get some insight into his character and why he is so violent and unpredictable.  Learning about his past sheds him in a new light.  In the end, it doesn't really matter what version of the scars story (or if any version) actually happened.  The Joker obviously is the product of extreme trauma.  His character for those moments becomes pathetic (in the literal sense of the word).  The Joker was not born evil, but rather is the product of his environment.  He perturbs the world around him in radical ways to try make sense of his confused existence.  So does knowing a bit about his past abate the rancor we should feel towards such a menace?  Does circumstance matter when deciding what to do with those who have breached any standard code of ethics?

Let's ride this train of thought into the real world now.  The following link takes you to a scene from the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg.  The film is about the trial of the men who served as judges under the Nazi regime in Germany.  In the clip, the former German judge, Dr. Ernst Janning (played by Burt Lancaster), explains the circumstances in Germany that led to such a catastrophic breach in ethics and the deaths of millions.  The clip is long, but worth it.

For Love of Country

This entire film is a treasure trove of philosophical side of ethics.  I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in history and a few hours to kill.  But more to the point, does knowledge of the particular circumstances in Germany at all change how the men should be judged?  Even though it does not excuse their actions (or inaction), we at least understand the factors at play in Germany that can account for how such a crime against humanity could have happened.  Part of the dilemma in judging the Nazi judges is the question of whether their decisions were excusable given that they were in accordance with the laws of the Nazi regime, or if they are guilty of violating a higher universal code of ethics.  As an additional complication, the American judge of the trial faces pressure from his superiors to go easy on the German judges.  Why on earth would they do that?  Circumstance.  The Nuremberg trials were held at the onset of the Cold War.  To sentence the German judges harshly would win the ire of the German people.  Given Germany's position along the Iron Curtain, the allies wanted as much German support as possible to help cope with the expanding threat of the Soviet Union.  I hope you see how easily particular circumstances influence how we view right or wrong.  Is it possible to fairly judge a criminal without knowing every factor that led to the crime?  Should knowledge of circumstance even matter when passing on judgment?  If so, how?  I'm not just spewing out a stream of hypothetical questions for the fun of it.  I'd really like to know other people's thoughts on this topic.  I feel like this issue has tremendous relevancy to our criminal justice system, and that the justice system in this country could be vastly improved.

Plato's Deontology vs. Aristotle's Utilitarianism

During class we have discussed two of the major Ethical schools of thought. Those schools being Deontology, commonly attributed to Kant, and Utilitarianism, which is commonly attributed to Bentham. As discussed in class, Deontology deals in hard and fast absolutes, which are to have no deviation. For example, one should never kill another human. Ever. With absolutely no room for exceptions or variation. Utilitarianism on the other hand is based on the principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number".

While these two schools of ethical thought are associated with more modern philosophers, they can be traced back to the roots of philosophy itself, specifically Plato and Aristotle. The Deontological thought of absolutes can be related to Plato's concept of the one truth that people desire to attain. For Plato, there is one truth, and only one truth. No deviation. And that everything that a person can do should be in pursuit of that one truth and not in pursuit of anything else. This is in many ways very similar to the Deontological idea that once a rule has been set, it is not to be deviated from under any circumstances.

Generally opposed to this is the Utilitarian school of thought, which allows for deviations from rules if it is for the benefit of the largest number of people. For example, as opposed to deontologies, do not kill ever sentiment, a utilitarian may find it acceptable to kill a mass murderer to keep them from killing even more people in the future. In deontology, this thought would never be allowed.

Utilitarianism, while credited largely to Bentham, actually finds its basis stemming from Aristotle's writings, specifically from his Nichomachean Ethics. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about how one should lives one life on the basis of the middle road. By doing so, one will remain balanced in life and by seeking compromise rather than always holding to an extreme one will be able to do good for others. This idea is very similar to Utilitarianisms main goal of greatest good for the greatest number, and was likely in some way tied to the development of Utilitarian thought.

So while Deontology and Utilitarianism are both credited to more modern philosophers, the core ideas of each are in fact tied back to the early times in philosophy, namely Plato and Aristotle. This is true of many modern day philosophies, as a lot of the ideas developed throughout history can be traced back to those two drastically different philosophers.


The Necessity of the Non-Ideal

                The subject of how much, as individuals, we want our ideal life to be filled with non-ideal concepts such as pain and failure seems to be a reoccurring theme in our philosophy class.  The class seemed to conclude that in order to truly feel and appreciate happiness and satisfaction we must have had experienced the opposite side of the spectrum.  
                I feel that this philosophy has manifested itself again in our discussions over which super hero is the best. During our discussions we found that while superman is a more powerful superhero the majority of the class seemed to believe that he was not a better super hero because he is too perfect. In the older world of Superman, he was a figure separated vastly from any of his advisories. He seemed to have only a slight weakness, kryptonite, which, with enough will power, he could always easily overcome. While I agree that Superman is a great superhero in that he can overcome all of his advisories, I believe that his entertainment value is less than that of Batman because Superman does not experience the dramatic low points that Batman experiences. For Batman the possibility of death at the hands of his advisories is much more real allowing me to appreciate his triumphs more than I could appreciate Superman’s triumphs.
                The matrix takes this idea to a much more extreme level in saying that as humans we define ourselves through these non-ideal concepts. In The Matrix, the first versions of the simulated world used to entrap the humans were simulations of ideals worlds.

However, as the architect points out, the program broke down because the humans could not accept such a version of reality.
                These concepts kind of reflect Epicurus’s philosophy of pain and pleasure. He believed that pleasure was simply the absence of pain. Consequently the more an individual understands pain the more the removal of all pain may be appreciated. While Matrix takes this idea to an extreme in suggesting that as humans we require a tangible separation between pain and pleasure, the ideas in the movie likely stemmed from philosophies similar to that of Epicurus. 

Scientific Application of Bacon's Idols

The originating ideas behind modern day quantum mechanics arose in 1900 when Max Planck published a paper hypothesizing that the total energy of a vibrating system was quantized and not continues. This scientific deduction was very much the result of Bacon’s proposed method of induction where physicists collected large amounts of data from which they were able to begin piecing together an apparent truth. From 1890 to 1900, physics journals were filled with empirical measurements of properties such as the atomic spectra and coefficients of expansion. Thousands of pages of empirical data on atomic spectra lead to the observation of spectral lines thus to the creation of theories to explain their discretization. While these theories might not have been the complete truths that Bacon might have envisioned they certainly provided an initial clue in a roadmap that was followed to a more globally applicable truth.
Along the physicists community’s path of developing the theory quantum mechanics Albert Einstein became of victim to an idol of the cave.  While Einstein was part of the initial formation of quantum physics with his formation that the electromagnetic field was quantized, he later began to reject the idea because of its radical implications.  During his previous work, everything was deterministic and given a certain input to a system the response could be calculated precisely. This philosophy became his cave. However, quantum theory suggested only probabilistic responses. To this concept he responded:
God doesn't play dice with the world."”
Because of this predisposition created by the idol of the cave he spent from the emergence of quantum theory in 1927 to the end of his life in 1955 trying to show that quantum theory was not complete description of the physical universe. 

                Bacon warns about the potential negative influence of his idols on a personal level. However, on a societal level are these idols as applied to a single individual necessarily a detriment? In science, a mindset that bacon coined as idols of the cave result when a dramatic shift in theory occurs in the field such as what happened when quantum mechanics.  Looking back we know that Quantum Theory would be (and still is) a prominent theory for at least the next 85 years. Had its foundation been incorrect, the resulting situation could be an Idol of the theater that would encompass all of society.  Consequently, looking back, it was probably a good thing that at least some brilliant scientists were dedicated to finding holes in the theory before it came widely accepted.

Lastly: Because this is a philosophy through film class here is a movie clip from star wars. The officer who is completely convinced of the power of the death star is suffering from the idol of the cave because he has been devoted to the creation of the death star and believes it is indestructible. 


The "best" Superhero

A few weeks ago there was a discussion in the class over the topic of who was the "best" superhero. As the discussion progressed, it became rapidly evident that the class had no established definition of either what it means to be a superhero, or what it means to be the "best". So I shall begin this post by establishing both of these parameters through the online Merriam Webster dictionary definitions for these two terms.

Superhero: "a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers; also : an exceptionally skillful or successful person"

Superhuman: "1: being above the human : divine , 2: exceeding normal human power, size, or capability : also : having such power, size, or capability"

Best: "1: excelling all others , 2: most productive of good : offering or producing the greatest advantage, utility, or satisfaction "

I have also included the definition of superhuman as it is another ambiguous term that was used in the definition of superhero.

As one can see from the definitions for superhuman and best, even the dictionary does not have a single definition for a given word. This is because in different contexts a word can mean different things. This is particularly dangerous when having a discussion and is the reason for the usage of Stasis Theory (specifically stasis of definition) which will be discussed briefly in class in Tuesday.

Given the above definitions, a superhero is someone that is more than human, or capable of actions that the average person can not accomplish. Thus, anyone that accomplishes more in a given area than their peers can be deemed as having "superhuman" abilities in that area. The twist that threw off the discussion into a repetitive loop in class was primarily the definition (or rather definitions) of best. Part of the class was using the first definition given above. The rest was using the second definition. The first definition states that the best excels all others, and with regards to superhero's this would result in superhero's that are perfect being the best superheros. (I.E. Superman, who has no real flaws through most of his continuities.) The second definition uses the words greatest satisfaction in them, which would imply that the best superhero would be the most satisfying or interesting hero, which is what the rest of the class was arguing. For the first definition I'd have to agree that Superman is the most pure and perfect hero. The second definition leaves far more room for opinion in the decision, which is why there will never be a single unanimously favorite superhero.

Ultimately, superhero stories are hard to compare. Every generation brings new twists and changes to the hero's, and our generation of remakes is generally moving the hero's into a more dynamic style (edgier, more human emotions, etc) as this is what our generation largely desires. This was evident from most of the class assuming the second definition of best rather than the first one, and that the modern iterations of superhero stories are moving towards a darker more ethically based internal conflict rather than having purely "white knight" superheros.

~ Brandon

Epistemology and psychedelics

Hey guys, this is something that I've been thinking about for a while ever since our discussions on epistemology. We seem to gain knowledge through observation, consistently using sense data to update our model of the world. However, there are certain substances around that are designed to deliberately screw with this model, which makes me wonder how they fit into all of this.

Here's a clip from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where one of the characters (played by Johnny Depp) enters a hotel in Vegas while he's on LSD. A lot of absurd stuff happens, and the guy basically sees and senses a lot of things that aren't really there. In reality, none of this insanity actually exists, but to him these visuals are very real and manage to freak him out a bit.

So it makes you wonder about the epistemology involved in defining what we know as "reality." If a chemical alteration to your synapses can drastically alter your view of the world, then can you really define a "regular" world view?  On some level, even when we are sober, our brain just goes through physical/chemical interactions as well. It's maybe a more subdued version of what happens when your brain interacts with a hallucinogen. Dreams are a similar topic, where our mind's interactions form a distorted view of what we consider "reality." Regardless of our mental state, it seems like our minds clearly drive our perceptions of reality, as well as our "model" for how the world works. If our minds are perturbed in some manner, then that disturbance ripples out to our perception of reality as well. I guess I'm kind of rambling on here, but I guess I'm just trying to drive at the fact that there are things out there that can drastically alter our world view and sense of self, which definitely has interesting implications with about epistemological and ontological thought. 

If a magic mushroom trip gives you the illusion that you truly understand everything about the world, then do you really understand the world? Most would say no. But if everything's all in your head at the end of the day, does it really matter? You could well be the only person who really matters when it comes to matters of defining the sources of your knowledge and your identity. Goes back to that Kuhnian idea of being trapped in your own paradigms... it might be impossible to truly understand what true "reality" is when you've been biased by your mind's personal flavor. To what extent is it appropriate to consider others' perceptions in these aspects?

Ethics vs. supply and demand

Thanks to the effort of many scientists, philosophers, and other thinkers throughout history, ethical norms have become very well defined.  Some of these “rules” are so well established that they transcend cultural barriers.  For instance adultery, theft, and fraud are considered wrong by a large assortment of cultures.  But some other things manage to transcend cultural boundaries as well as (if not better than) the strongest, ethics.  At least, it certainly seems that way.  Case in point: the black market.  If somebody wants something they are not supposed to have, and if they are willing to do enough for it, somebody else will be more than happy to give it to them.  Take the case of Yuri Orlov, the protagonist in Lord of War.  Orlov is a prolific arms dealer; the quintessential ‘merchant of death.’  His M.O is discussed in the following clip (couldn't embed for some reason).

We can clearly see his consequentialistic views here: he doesn’t care who made the stuff he’s selling, who he’s selling it to, or what they’ll do with it.  All that matters in the end is Orlov’s payday.  Although one could argue that Orlov still uses some form of ethical thinking (albeit a very ego driven one), this thinking provides his reason for throwing other ethical considerations out the window.  So which side ultimately wins?  Is it ethics or capitalism which is more powerful?  Over the course of this film (which I highly recommend seeing), the answer ultimately proves to be murky and clouded.  Just like the world of arms trafficking.

Do It Yourself Deity Response

The metaphysical engineers give a plausibility quotient of 0.2 for a God that fits all of the listed characteristics: omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, the creator, the sustainer, eternally existing, and a personal god. Their first argument for why this God is inconsistent with the universe that we live in is the problem of evil and suffering. The problem of evil states that God cannot be all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing at the same time because otherwise there would be no evil. Since there is evil in the world, God is either unable to stop evil, unwilling to save people from evil, or unaware of the evil, therefore He cannot be omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient. 

The flaw in this argument lies in the definition of evil. Evil is not something; it is the absence of something. Evil is, in fact, the absence of good. It is a divergence from the way things ought to be. God does not allow evil in the world, but he does allow choice. He allows people to diverge from what ought to be and in essence, to choose evil. In order for people to truly love God, they must have the choice to love him or not. Otherwise it would not be true love. Forced love is not love at all, therefore God gives people the opportunity to choose him, and through choosing him, to choose all that is good. Those who do not choose God choose evil because evil is the absence of good. God is aware of evil and is able to force people to choose him, but he gives people free will instead. He is all-loving because he gives people that choice instead of forcing love.

Many will argue that the free will argument does not explain natural evil such as tsunamis or disease. Natural evil is the result of living in a fallen world. God does not “make” disease because he cannot make evil. He does, however, allow that divergence from what ought to be, to happen because it is an indirect consequence of sin. Although sin does not cause evil, as shown because lying cannot cause cancer, this absence of good comes about through living in an imperfect world. As soon as people decided not to choose God and all that was good, the world ceased being perfect. Thus things like poor health and natural disasters are present because they are imperfections in the world. God does not cause natural disasters, but because he gives his people free will in order that they can truly love him, evil, or the absence of good, must exist in the world. Otherwise there would be no choice, only good, but also no love. God shows his love, power, and knowledge by using evil situations to bring out the good in the world. 

"Do It Yourself Deity." 2010. 
        <>. Web.

Can Machines Think?

One of the things that interested me in the book was the chapter on whether a machine could think. We didn’t talk about this in class much but as technology advances more and more this question in the future could be a big philosophical debate. Right now in order to conclude that a machine can think it must have conscious thoughts and be able to do everything a human being could do. The debate here is how do we know that conscious thoughts are happening and that the machine isn’t just processing inputs to produce outputs similar to human. In place today is the Turing test which is basically an interrogation of a human and computer by and human trying to decide which is which. This test is run multiple times and if no more than half of the guesses are correct then the machine has passed the test. No machine has passed this test today, but in movies machines in the near future seem to have conscious thoughts and feelings. They are also frequently depicted as taking over the human race or ruling us in some fashion. Even though this as of now is a far off thought, if someday machine are developed to be able to think and do everything a human can do will they be able to evolve in their thinking as humans can too? If this did happen would it be a matter of time before machines are the dominant “species”. In the clip below of I, Robot this is shown to some extent even with the rules of robotics in place.  

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Morality of the Death Penalty
In Law abiding citizen the question of Ethics of the Death penalty is brought up.  Kant says “neither a society, nor a state can exist without laws. If there is no law, there is no society and no state. Therefore enforcement of the law, which is the society's foundation, means protection of the society and the state. Thus, any person violating the law loses the right to be a society member, opposes social order and consequently must be deemed guilty and punished. The right to administer punishment is the right of a ruler to make violators and criminals suffer. It is impossible to punish the ruler himself since the authority to administer punishment belongs to him. A ruler can retire due to his crimes but cannot be punished. “  So this it is a categorical imperative for members of a society to abide by the rules set up otherwise a punishment is necessary.  In the film Law abiding citizen the ethics of how one should be executed is brought up. The chemicals used during lethal injection (barbiturate, paralytic, and potassium solution) are used in order to kill the condemned without pain, or at least visible pain in the case the barbiturates do don’t work the paralytic will hide the suffering if death is not immediate.  The main character in LAC exchanged the canisters in the machine that administered the lethal injection and therefore the lethal injection was no longer a painless procedure.  So is this no longer etchical? The end result is the same they still die regardless of which way is used.  According to Kant “the punishment must always correspond to the crime.”  So he would not have a problem with painful death of the violator as long as the victim had also suffered.     

On Political Ethics

I would like, if I may, to introduce you to a film which looks into political ethics. This film is Trollhunter, it's from Norway, and below is a link to a clip from that film. 
The video is the whole movie, but the relevant clip is from 35:45 to 40:10.
(Apologies for the awful dub)

Anyway, the situation, as you saw, is basically this: There are trolls in Norway, and they are a threat to human life. Hans is employed by the Norwegian government to kill straying trolls. As we see, the Norwegian government goes to some lengths to prevent the populace from knowing that trolls exist. (For a better illustration, watch this link to about 1:22:15) But is that right?

The government has one man hunting down straying trolls (and a significant bureaucracy to support him), which, as we saw in the first clip, can and do kill people. Why isn't it better to keep the populace well informed about serious, but occasional, problems?

Here's what I can assume the Norwegian government's argument is: Trolls are dangerous, and we don't want our citizens to panic or do something stupid. We also don't want to scare off tourists. The more people we have associated with dealing with trolls, the higher a chance there is of a leak. And if we devote too much money to dealing with trolls, someone will ask questions. So we've got to do the best we can to keep this quiet and keep the people safe & ignorant.

The government's point of view is utilitarian and consequentialist. The Norwegian government feels it must deceive and give one man a difficult, unpleasant job in order to keep its citizens safe.

And now for the opposing viewpoint, that of the Volda College students, Thomas, Johanna, and Kalle (and eventually Malica): The citizens of Norway have a right to open knowledge. A better-informed populace is more capable of taking care of itself and is less likely to stumble into trouble unaware. Such a populace will also be more capable of appropriating resources to deal with the troll problem. Moreover, it's wrong to deceive the public.

The students' point of view is deontological. They consider "A government should not lie to its people" to be a categorical imperative.

And so we see the two major schools of ethical philosophy applied to government policy. Maybe Plato was onto something with his whole "philosopher kings" thing - would government be better if policymakers were familiar with philosophy and the ideologies behind their policy goals?

Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump
At the end of the Movie he says that he doesn’t know if his mama or Lt. Dan was right about destiny or lack thereof.   Forrest asks himself why can’t both be correct, that we have destiny but in between we are all randomly bumping around on our way to that destiny.  The book discusses this saying that God made humans as more than just another animal but as moral agents able to decide what type of life to lead and what kind of person to be.  This means that he had to give us free will, but the book argues that he could not have both given us free will and not limited the ability to make wrong decisions so therefore free will is the reason for moral evil.  There is also natural evil which are natural disasters and diseases that provide humans with the ability to moral character.  In the movie Forrest overcomes his disability and becomes a kick returner for a college football team, a military hero, and a millionaire shrimping boat captain, through what seems like random dumb luck and natural evil which is in Forrest’s favor.  This “dumb luck” comes about from the decisions Forrest makes and from what he has been told by his momma and Jenny.  His dedication to his promise to Bubba paid off and gave both him and Lt. Dan a new outlook on life, whether or not it was the same outlook is not know but regardless it was a positive change from Dan’s belief that his only destiny was to die in a war.  

Sense-datum (and a little bit of determinism) and Star Wars

According to the views expressed in the early 20th century by Bertrand Russell, Alfred Ayer, and others, the individual's perception of the world around them is always skewed by the limitations of sensory data.  In other words, an error free perception of the world around us cannot technically be achieved because the data is tainted during sensory interpretation.  This view is shared by Obi-Wan in Star Wars, as seen here:

His main point that “your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them” is part of a recurring theme in the saga.  This theme concerns the importance of not allowing oneself to waste their effort processing and interpreting what they sense, but rather following instinct and prior experience.  Taking this one step further, one could make the argument that such a theme begins defining a difference between knowledge and wisdom.  And there most definitely are differences.  The way I look at it is that knowledge is the memorization of data (can be gained by simply observing), while wisdom can only be gained by making mistakes, and learning from them (refining one’s instincts).  That said however, instinct alone does not make one “master of the force” as Star Wars suggests, but one cannot function solely on sense-datum either.  And is there really no such thing as luck?  Well that’s another story (see post on Ferris Bueller).