Does Philosophy make Progress?

“Philosophy never makes progress, unlike science. Philosophers are still thinking now about the same problems they were 2,000 years ago.”

I’ve come across this sentiment or something like it quite a few times, and I think it’s actually not true. So why not blog on the subject?

It does seem, at times, that philosophy is sort of ‘stuck’. Obviously it changes, in what positions are fashionable, and who’s quoting whom at whom regarding what, but does it make substantive progress? Can we point to ‘advances’ that philosophy has demonstrably made, contributions it has made to human knowledge which aren’t just a trading-in of old prejudices for new ones?

The first and most concrete thing that comes to mind is, unimpressive as it may seem, a collection of instructive failures. Its history is filled with bold experiments, and the records of what went wrong – each of which tell us something significant.

For example, we now know that if we suppose all knowledge and all concepts to be derived from experience, we will find it very very hard to justify even simple reasoning procedures like “if it hurt every time I did it so far, it will probably hurt next time as well”. We know that because incredibly smart people committed to that very supposition have spent their lives trying to do so, with little success. And I don’t think that this was known in the same way in centuries before that, because the problem hadn’t been raised and considered in the same way.

Of course not everyone agrees, and people will always have a new attempt to revive apparently dead options – but there is at least a consensus that certain positions face certain, apparently serious, problems.

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What is religion: How to completely miss the point

Since we’re coming out of a big ‘religious’ holiday, and since I chat occasionally about religion, I figured it might be interesting to say something briefly about what I use the word ‘religion’ to mean. In particular, I wanted to say how I take it to be different from something else that I’ll call ‘sprituality’. (I’ve kind of done this before in places but whatever.)

To use the most extreme sort of example, contrast what are often called ‘mystical’ or ‘religious’ experiences, whatever their cause, with everyday awareness. Common features of the former include a sense of oneness or that boundaries are unreal or superficial, and relatedly, a sense of a meaningfulness, a goodness, and a ‘mine-ness’ that somehow applies to everything. Every event and detail is somehow beautiful and important.

By contrast, everyday life is chracterised by a sense of separation, of the world containing a great number of distinct things, of which some are meaningful and some meaningless, some good and some bad, some ‘mine’ and some alien or ‘other’.

This is related, I think, to the prominence of action in everyday life: when we act, we do so by means of what is ours (starting with our body, of course) as opposed to what is other, and we have to choose what to focus on (and what to ignore as irrelevant) and what to aim to promote (good) or avoid (bad).

So I tend to envisage this thing I call ‘spirituality’ as the tendency towards the former and away from the latter. ‘Mystical experiences’ are the extreme case, but other experiences can approach it to a greater or lesser degree, insofar as they are characterised by this sense of 1) oneness or universal ‘mineness’, and 2) abundant meaning and goodness suffusing that unity.

Ok, that’s the hippy shit out of the way. How do I think ‘religion’ relates to this? Well, while granting the word can be used in different ways, I think that what best characterises the things most commonly called ‘religious’ is something like ‘fetishistic spirituality’.

That is, in ‘religion’ that sense of universal meaningful oneness etc., is attributed exclusively to certain very specific things, usually on an apparently arbitrary basis. All other things are not only excluded from this, but are as a result felt as less important and less valuable.

For example, religions typically

  • identify certain people, and not others, as having the authority to speak on behalf of the transcendental oneness;
  • identify certain texts as being produced by and conveying it, and not others;
  • identify certain sets of ritual actions, certain buildings, certain items, certain sets of words, as having a special connection to it;
  • and of course, very commonly posit that this meaningful oneness (now no longer, of course, really such a thing) is actually a specific entity distinct from the rest of the world, an invisible, fire-breathing, masturbation-policing fundamental reality.

There are exceptions, and qualifications, of course, but why expect there not to be?

So in essence, spirituality is a sort of mindset characterised by a sense of universality and oneness, and activities that aim to cultivate it; religion is the subsuming of this oneness under one side of a division. I think this makes religion not only absurd from the ‘mundane’ perspective (e.g. scientifically wrong) but also absurd from the spiritual perspective that it’s supposed to best represent. It is perhaps the most spectacular way to miss the point.

On the other hand, it’s psychologically very useful – since we can generally live entirely in neither the spiritual or the mundane, action-centred mindset, dividing them into “one is for Churches, Bibles, priests and stained glass, the other is for the rest of life” minimises cognitive dissonance. And, of course, its incredibly politically useful because it allows spirituality, a fairly widespread and normal aspect of human life, to be appropriated – to be controlled by particular groups for their particular purposes.

Anyway, that’s how I use the words, and that’s what I mean when I say I both value spirituality and condemn religion.

Identity Politics, Class Struggle, and Power

I realised today why I’m uncomfortable with the term ‘identity politics’.

This usually gets counterposed to ‘class struggle’, at least in the intellectual circles I tend to frequent. But elsewhere it can be contrasted with whatever more ‘serious’ or ‘pragmatic’ politics the speaker prefers. For those who’ve not come across it, it sort of lumps together sexual, racial, disability, cultural, etc. issues – politics which problematise the oppression of certain people on the grounds of their ‘identity’.

I dislike the term because I think it serves to disguise the way that all politics is about ‘identity’: all politics is about people deciding to act in certain ways, and the way that people make those decisions, about what they want and what motivates them, has to be understood in terms of how they conceive of themselves.

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Insufficient Cheer

I took a break from blogging because work was mounting up, but even now that I have more free time, I find myself struggling to work out what to blog about.

Part of it is, I’m just not too sure what this blog is for. I mean, some politics blogs post news items with commentary; I’ve done that sometimes. Some post exchanges with other bloggers, or strategic evaluation of the state of the unions and so forth; I’ve done that sometimes. Some blogs post pictures of cute animals; I’ve done that sometimes. And some blogs post spontaneous expositions on fairly deep issues that no-one asked about; I do that a lot.

But which is my actual plan? I’m not sure. Perhaps another way to put it is that I’m not sure what balance to strike between being theoretical (which on its own would make this some kind of quasi-academic endeavour), being politically relevant (which on its own would make this a sort of news service), and being personal (which would make this a somewhat one-sided conversation). I’m still trying to find the right recipe with those three ingredients.

Still. It’s Christmas. That should be the spark for any number of posts.

In particular, I was struck by how much there is to be cynical about right now. I say that not only because any Christmastic outpouring of manufactured festivitation is liable to provoke cynicism.

There’s also the predictable events in Copenhagen: a grand gathering of people from across the world, committed to finally tackling global warming, and what happens? The police arrest half of them pre-emptively and trap the others in a freezing cold kettle, so that a bunch of gangsters can sit in rooms and bicker over money.

Not to mention the bizarre sight of ‘universal healthcare’ being stripped naked, tied to the back of a truck, dragged around the US legislature for about a year, so that now a battered corpse on the end of some rope is pulled towards the finish line and the onlookers cheer mightily: “universal healthcare has almost passed! what a glorious spectacle!”

Then there’s the whole anniversary thing. Not of anything to do with Jesus, but rather that the 25th was the day Gorbachev resigned, and the 26th the day the Supreme Soviet announced the final, official, end of the USSR.

(Incidentally, the 25th is also apparently the day that Ceausescu, Stalinist despot of Romania, was unceremoniously shoved out of office and summarily executed)

That anniversary is a cause for cynicism in two ways: the final dissipation of whatever hope had continued to float around the USSR’s claims to represent economic, political, and social democracy, and the rising up of new hopes that capitalism would make the former Soviet republics rich and free – hopes with about the same amount of reality to them.

So yeah. The midwinter solstice, apparently, is a sign of renewal, so perhaps we should see this as an opportunity to celebrate the way that crap, whether in a political system or a healthcare system, can renew itself, casting off the old forms and taking on new ones, just as bad. Like the death and resurrection of the most holy Jebus.

On the other hand, we might also see this as an opportunity to reflect that renewal is not always guaranteed, and that the renewal of life each year operates within parameters. If those parameters are exceeded, the effective renewal of life may be made precarious – certainly the renewal of billions of organisms’ individual lives cannot be counted upon. And so far, there’s little reason to think that’s not going to happen over the next few decades.

But then again, even if that does happen, there will still be life, and I think it’s inevitable that given enough millions of years, some other intelligent animal will set fire to something and learn how to make sharp sticks and robust wheels. So be happy about that! ‘Tis the season to be jolly!

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Yeah so like I’m not going to post much, if at all until my term papers are handed in, which will probably mean not until shortly after Christmas. Unless some really exciting news appears…