When a Fundamentalist Finds Philosophy

I had grown up a Christian fundamentalist who generally had the world figured out by the time I was a teen and had my eyes firmly set on full time ministry. I took a required intro to philosophy class during my senior year at an ultra-conservative Baptist college by a professor who was not so conservative (and not so Baptist it turns out). I would never be the same.

I was rummaging through some stacks of stuff in the garage today sorting through items that needed to be recycled, discarded, and saved. I found an old, dust-covered briefcase that I used as a student, locked tight with long-forgotten combinations on the clasps. After trying various three-digit combinations that might have meant something to me back then, I gave up and grabbed the biggest screwdriver I could find and pried the locks loose. Among some dried up pens, an old notebook, and some tissues, I found a purple Pee-Chee with two dozen or so papers—obviously important since they were set aside from the reams of notes I have in an old metal filing cabinet at the rear of the garage. In back of the handwritten notes on epistemology and the dot matrix printout of reference materials I grabbed from the library, I found a single page on which I had written some lines in red ink. It’s dated June 1995 which makes it just a touch over 20 years old almost to the day.

In June 1995 I was scouting graduate schools with the goal of studying philosophy. I had grown up a Christian fundamentalist who generally had the world figured out by the time I was a teen and had my eyes firmly set on full time ministry. I took a required intro to philosophy class during my senior year at an ultra-conservative Baptist college by a professor who was not so conservative (and not so Baptist it turns out). I would never be the same. For the first time in my college experience, I had found myself with questions. Real questions, not the kind you’re taught to ask knowing you already have the answer. And there was something else. For the first time in my life, a small seed of doubt had been planted. I found myself with the terrifying consideration that some items in my worldview may not have been as iron-clad and irresistibly true as I had been led to believe they were. That seed flowered and by the end of the summer I had, for the first time, started reading to try to discover the truth rather than to reaffirm it.

Three years later, my worldview was in shambles and I knew I needed more training. Graduate school seemed like the best option and I headed to southern California to check out the program at Biola University. I stayed at a friends house not knowing who I was or where I was headed. I was alone and contemplative, one foot in the warm, comfortable old world and one out in the frigid unknown. Thoughts flooded into my head in that quiet room on that hot summer June evening and I jotted down these words.

At the top of the page, I simply wrote,

“Philosophy”

Look inside, outside, through pages of endless thought
endless mind in weary, dreary droll.

A slight glimpse a shadow vague—a stick, a nail
a jury-rigged edifice growing on the knoll.

Take, steal, beg, borrow desperately humbled
to light (or dark) not quite my own.

But shoulders are strong and tall enough
to bring heaven closer, nearer (not alone).

Secluded so it seems. A bubble impenetrable or only slightly visible.
A flame to few.

Half moon—silly half as many see it. Intelligence and genius reign
for those outside the pew.

Taste it. Good? You know it now. Ghosts haunt my mansion.
You live in an exorcised house.

Empty though it is, free, loose, explode! What’s beyond? Look!
The heres and nows.

Hand in hand we stand? Confusion with glasses on. Look closer.
More, heavier pages.

It squiggles and squirms. Can you catch it?
Not for all the stacks filled with sages.

Steve Jobs and Philosophy

I had the opportunity to contribute a chapter to a book on Steve Jobs in Open Court's "Popular Culture and Philosophy" series. It was a lot of fun! I wrote on the existentialism of Jobs and contrasted it with the more pragmatic mindset of Gates.
I had the opportunity to contribute a chapter to a book on Steve Jobs in Open Court's "Popular Culture and Philosophy" series. It was a lot of fun! I wrote on the existentialism of Jobs and contrasted it with the more pragmatic mindset of Gates. Check it out! Here's the amazon link: http://amzn.com/B00VPPUINI

Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters

In this piece (also for the New York Times) author Lawrence Berger talks about the conversation between the sciences and existentialists over what it truly means to be human.

In this piece (also for the New York Times) author Lawrence Berger talks about the conversation between the sciences and existentialists over what it truly means to be human. Many in the hard sciences believe we should seek to analyze the human person solely in terms of their physical selves and reduce the focus on human experience as a key to what it means to be a person. Berger argues otherwise. 

"The thought is that our worldly presence matters for how things actually unfold, well beyond any physical or physiological processes that would purport to be the ultimate basis for human activity. So, for example, when we feel that someone is really listening to us, we feel more alive, we feel our true selves coming to the surface — this is the sense in which worldly presence matters."

Why God is a Moral Issue

In the "Contemporary Issues" department, atheist Michael Ruse writes on religious faith and atheism for the New York Times.

In the "Contemporary Issues" department, atheist Michael Ruse writes on religious faith and atheism for the New York Times. This is a good example of the current dialogue taking place over religious belief.

"What is truly striking is that atheists of Dawkins’s stripe don’t just say that believing in God is an intellectual mistake. They also claim that it’s morally wrong to believe in the existence of God or gods."

Harvard, MIT, and Microsoft Team Up on Free Courses

Microsoft established a partnership with the Harvard/MIT joint educational project called edX to deliver free and certified technical training in MOOC-style classes. These courses are designed to provide depth technical training on topics that range from C#, Bootstrap, and Transact-SQL to PowerShell Fundamentals and programming Office 365.

edx-logo-headerI’ve been working on an exciting project at Microsoft that I wanted to share with you. Recently, Microsoft established a partnership with the Harvard/MIT joint educational project called edX to deliver free and certified technical training in MOOC-style classes. My team and I have been actively involved in creating courseware for this partnership and have seen a phenomenal response. These courses are designed to provide depth technical training on topics that range from C#, Bootstrap, and Transact-SQL to PowerShell Fundamentals and programming Office 365.

Paul-Anders-DanI’m working directly on the Introduction to TypeScript course that covers the basics of programming small to large scale JavaScript applications using this new framework. TypeScript essentially enables you to write type-safe code at design time which can dramatically reduce run-time JavaScript errors and make managing code bases much easier. I’ve had the opportunity to work with programming language luminary Anders Hejlsberg on this project and that has been a ton of fun. You can enroll in that course for free here.

The partnership between Microsoft and edX gives both companies an opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands of students across the globe and provide depth training to many that would not have the opportunity to learn these topics.

For more information, see the edX press release here. Engadget has also done a write up and provides more information into the joint venture. The project also got some press in the venerable Harvard Crimson.

Visit the edX Microsoft page for a listing of all the free courses and register any that interest you. Let me know if there are any questions I can answer.

Paul

What is Truth?

The question, "what is truth?" is as old as recorded time and one still worth asking. This article explores this question and provides some common responses as well as looking at recent developments.

Truth-Torn-Paper-smTruth, like knowledge, is surprisingly difficult to define. We seem to rely on it almost every moment of every day and it's very "close" to us. Yet it's difficult to define because as soon as you think you have it pinned down, some case or counterexample immediately shows deficiencies. Ironically, every definition of truth that philosophers have developed falls prey to the question, "Is it true?"

Simply, we can define truth as: a statement about the way the world actually is. We'll look at various theories below that philosophers have considered but that's an adequate rough-and-ready definition to get us started. Coming up with a definition of truth falls under the discipline of epistemology or the study of knowledge though some philosophers categorize it as a study in metaphysics--the study of what is real.

In this essay, we'll look at some reasons why defining truth can be challenging. Truth seems like something we naturally comprehend and while intuition can help us a great deal in understanding what it is, surface definitions present us with unique problems and I’ll illustrate why. I'll then lay out some terms and concepts that will help us get a better handle on understanding what truth is. Next, we'll look at three main views of truth. The coherence theory describes truth in terms of interconnected belief. A belief is true if it is consistent with other beliefs we have. The correspondence theory describes truth in terms of a relation concepts or propositions have to the actual world. Finally postmodernism lays out a view of truth in terms of individual perspectives and community agreement. While this essay does not focus on practical issues like why a view of truth is important, I'll say a few words about that idea at the end and provide more resources for further reading.

Elusive Truth

I stated above that defining truth can be challenging. Let’s briefly look at why this is so by way of a seemingly simple example. Suppose you examine an apple and determine that it’s red, sweet, smooth and crunchy. You might claim this is what the apple is. Put another way, you've made truth claims about the apple and seemingly made statements about real properties of the apple. But immediate problems arise. Let's suppose your friend is color blind (this is unknown to you or her) and when she looks at the apple, she says that the apple is a dull greenish color. She also makes a truth claim about the color of the apple but it's different than your truth claim. What color is the apple?

Well, you might respond, that's an easy problem to solve. It's actually red because we've stipulated that your friend has an anomaly in her truth-gathering equipment (vision) and even though we may not know she has it, the fact that she does means her view of reality is incorrect. But now let’s suppose everyone is color blind and we all see "red" apples as green? We can make this objection even stronger by asking how we know that we all aren't in fact color blind in a way we don't understand and apples really aren't red after all. No one has access to the “real” color of the apple. Again, the response might be that that this is a knowledge problem, not a truth problem. The apple really is red but we all believe it’s green. But notice that the truth of the apple’s color has little role to play in what we believe. No one knows what the truth is and so it plays no role in our epistemology.

The challenge is that our view of truth is very closely tied to our perspective on what is true. This means that in the end, we may be able to come up with a reasonable definition of truth, but if we decide that no one can get to what is true (that is, know truth), what good is the definition? Even more problematic is that our perspective will even influence our ability to come up with a definition! These are no small concerns and we'll explore some responses below.

Some Preliminaries

Before we get to definitions of truth, we need to define some terms used in those definitions which will make things a little easier to digest. Epistemologists (people who study truth, belief and knowledge) use the following concepts as the framework for their study of truth.

Propositions. A common technical definition of a proposition (credited to Peter van Inwagen) is "a non-linguistic bearer of truth value." A proposition is a representation of the world or a way the world could possibly be and propositions are either true or false. Propositions are different than sentences. Sentences are symbolic, linguistic representations of propositions. Okay, that's all very technical. What does it mean?

Let's take the sentence, "The moon has craters." This is an English sentence that supposedly states some fact about the world or reality (and specifically about the moon). Because it’s in English, we say it's "linguistic" or language-based. If we're going to get philosophical about it, we could describe its properties as having four words and 17 letters, it's in the English language written in 11 point font and it's black. I could write the same sentence like this:

The moon has craters.

This sentence has different properties from the first one above. This one still has the same number of words and letters and it's in English. But it is in 18 point font and is written in blue. Now let's take this sentence, "La luna tiene cráteres." This sentence has four words but 19 letters. It's written in 11 point font and is black but it's Spanish. What do all three sentences have in common? Well, they all express the same idea or meaning and we could say the same "truth." We could express the same idea in Swahili, semaphore, Morse code, or any other symbolic system that conveys meaning.

Notice that the symbols themselves are neither true nor false. The meaning the sentences represent is either true or false. Sentences are symbolic representations of something else—propositions. The common property true of all sentences that express the same truth is what philosophers call the propositional content of the sentences or "the proposition." Now we can better understand the idea behind "non-linguistic bearer of truth value." Propositions are non-linguistic because they aren't written or spoken in a language. They bear truth because they are the things that are true or false. This is what allows them to be expressed or "exemplified" in a variety of different symbolic systems like language-based sentences. When it comes to understanding truth, many philosophers believe propositions are at the center.

Belief. Beliefs are things (at least) people have. They don't exist outside the mind. Some philosophers say beliefs are "dispositional." That is, they incline a person to behave in a way as if the thing they believe is true. So a belief, simply, is a proposition that a person accepts as representing the way the world actually is. Beliefs can be about false propositions and thus be "wrong" because the person accepts them as true. This is a critical distinction. While a proposition has to be true or false, beliefs can be about true or false propositions even though a person always accepts them as being true.

Some philosophers attempt to define truth "mind-independently." That means, they want to come up with a definition that doesn't depend on whether humans can actually believe or know what is true. Truth is viewed as independent of our minds and they seek a definition of it that captures this. Other philosophers have developed theories that keep people at the center. That is, truth and belief are considered together and are inseparable. I will try to make the relevance of the "epistemic" vs. "independent" views of truth relevant below.

Knowledge. Knowledge is belief in a true proposition that a person is justified in holding as true. The conditions under which a person is justified is complicated and there are many theories about when the conditions are met. Theories of knowledge attempt to describe when a person is in a "right" cognitive relationship with true propositions. I describe some theories of knowledge and some of the challenges in understanding when a person knows in an article for Philosophy News called "What is Knowledge?"

Common Definitions

The Coherence View of Truth

The main idea behind this view is that a belief is true if it "coheres" or is consistent with other things a person believes. For example, a fact a person believes, say "grass is green" is true if that belief is consistent with other things the person believes like the definition of green and whether grass exists and the like. It also depends on the interpretation of the main terms in those other beliefs. Suppose you’ve always lived in a region covered with snow and never saw grass or formed beliefs about this strange plant life. The claim "grass is green" would not cohere with other beliefs because you have no beliefs that include the concept "grass." The claim, "grass is green" would be nonsense because it contains a nonsensical term "grass." That is, you never formed a belief about grass so there’s nothing for this new belief to cohere with.

As you can see from the above description, coherence theories typically are described in terms of beliefs. This puts coherence theories in the "epistemic" view of truth camp noted above. This is because, coherence theorists claim, we can only ground a given belief on other things we believe. We cannot "stand outside" our own belief system to compare our beliefs with the actual world. If I believe Booth shot Lincoln, I can only determine if that belief is truth based on other things I believe like "Wikipedia provides accurate information" or "My professor knows history and communicates it well" or "Uncle John sure was a scoundrel".

These are other beliefs and serve as a basis for my original belief. Thus truth is essentially epistemic since any other model requires a type of access to the "real world" we simply can't have. As philosopher Donald Davidson describes the situation, "If coherence is a test of truth, there is a direct connection with epistemology, for we have reason to believe many of our beliefs cohere with many others, and in that case we have reason to believe many of our beliefs are true." (Davidson, 2000)

Figure: The Coherence Theory

 

The Correspondence Theory of Truth

Arguably the more widely-held view of truth (stemming from a broader rationalist tradition in philosophy), philosophers who argue for the correspondence theory hold that there is a world external to our beliefs that is somehow accessible to the human mind. More specifically, correspondence theorists hold that there are a set of "truth-bearing" representations (or propositions) about the world that align to or correspond with reality or states of affairs in the world. A state of affairs just is a particular way the world or reality is. When a proposition aligns to the world, the proposition is said to be true. Truth, on this view, is that correspondence relation.

Take this proposition: "The Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl 48 in 2014." The proposition is true if in fact the Seahawks did win super Bowl 48 in 2014 (they did) and false if they didn't.

Notice that on this view, propositions about reality are different from beliefs we may have of reality. We believe propositions--I believe that the moon has craters. What follows the "that" is meant to signify the proposition that a person believes. So truth on this view is when the proposition matches reality.

Figure: The Correspondence Theory

The correspondence theory only lays out the condition for truth in terms of propositions and the way the world actually is. This definition does not involve beliefs that people have. Propositions are true or false regardless of whether anyone believes them. Just think of a proposition as a way the world possibly could be: "The Seahawks won Super Bowl 48" or "The Seahawks lost Super Bowl 48" -- both propositions possibly are true. True propositions are those that correspond to what actually happened.

You'll notice that this definition does not include a belief component. That is, unlike the coherence theory, the correspondence theory describes truth in terms that are independent of beliefs humans may have. This has the distinct advantage of separating truth from the messy business of belief and knowledge but may warrant complaints of being impractical.

Postmodernism

Postmodern thought covers a wide theoretical area but informs modern epistemology particularly when it comes to truth. Postmodern theories of truth are difficult to articulate in strict terms because postmodern theorists tend to eschew hard and fast definitions. But we can provide some insight here. Put in simple terms, postmodernists describe truth not as a relationship outside of the human mind that we can align belief to but as a product of belief. We never access reality because we can never get outside our own beliefs to do so. Our beliefs function as filters that keep reality (if such a thing exists) beyond us. Since we can never access reality, it does no good to describe knowledge or truth in terms of reality because there's nothing we can actually say about it that's meaningful. Truth then is constructed by what we perceive and ultimately believe.

Immanuel Kant

I'm inclined to earmark the foundation of postmodern thought with the work of Immanuel Kant, specifically with his work The Critique of Pure Reason. In my view, Kant was at the gateway of postmodern thought. He wasn't a postmodernist himself but provided the framework for what later developed.  

Immanuel Kant

Kant makes a foundational distinction between the "objects" of subjective experience and the "objects" of "reality." He labels the former phenomena and that latter noumena. The noumena for Kant are things in themselves (ding an sich). These exist outside of and separate from the mind. This is what we might call "reality" or actual states of affairs similar to what we saw in the correspondence theory above. But for Kant, the noumena are entirely unknowable in and of themselves. However, the noumena give rise to the phenomena or are the occasion by which we come to know the phenomena.

The phenomena make up the world we know, the world "for us" (für uns). This is the world of rocks, trees, books, tables, and any other objects we access through the five senses. This is the world of our experience. This world, however, does not exist apart from our experience. It is essentially experiential. Kant expressed this idea as follows: the world as we know it is "phenomenally real but transcendentally ideal." That is objects that we believe exist in the world are a "real" part of our subjective experience but they do not exist apart from that subjective experience and don't transcend the ideas we have. The noumena are "transcendentally real" or they exist in and of themselves but are never experienced directly or even indirectly.

The noumena are given form and shape by what Kant described as categories of the mind and this 'ordering' gives rise to phenomenal objects. This is where it relates to truth: phenomenal objects are not analogues, copies, representations or any such thing of the noumena. The noumena gives rise to the phenomena but in no way resembles them. Scholars have spent countless hours trying to understand Kant on this point since it seems like the mind interacts with the noumena in some way. But Kant does seem to be clear that the mind never experiences the noumena directly and the phenomena in no way represents the noumena.

Figure: Kant's Two-world View

We can now see the beginnings of postmodern thought. If we understand the noumena as “reality” and the phenomena as the world we experience, we can see that we never get past our experience to reality itself. It's not like a photograph which represents a person and by seeing the photograph we can have some understanding of what the "real person" actually looks like. Rather (to use an admittedly clumsy example) it's like being in love. We can readily have the experience and we know the brain is involved but we have no idea how it works. By experiencing the euphoria of being in love, we learn nothing about how the brain works.

On this view then, what is truth? Abstractly we might say truth is found in the noumena since that's reality. But postmodernists have taken Kant's idea further and argued that since we can't say anything about the noumena, why bother with it at all? Kant didn’t provided a good reason to believe the noumena exists but seems to have asserted its existence because, after all, something was needed to give rise to the phenomena. Postmodernists just get rid of this extra baggage and focus solely on what we experience.

Perspective and Truth

Further, everyone's experience of the world is a bit different--we all have different life experiences, background beliefs, personalities and dispositions, and even genetics that shape our view of the world. This makes it impossible, say the postmodernists to declare an "absolute truth" about much of anything since our view of the world is a product of our individual perspective. Some say that our worldview makes up a set of lenses or a veil through which we interpret everything and we can't remove those lenses. Interpretation and perspective are key ideas in postmodern thought and are contrasted with "simple seeing" or a purely objective view of reality--something postmodernists reject as impossible.

We only have interconnected beliefs and for each individual, that's what truth is. We can see some similarities here to the coherence theory of truth with its web of interconnected and mutually supported beliefs. But where the coherence theory holds that coherence among beliefs gives us reason to hold that what we believe corresponds to some external reality, postmodernists reject that. In postmodernism there is nothing for our beliefs to correspond to or if there is, our beliefs never get beyond the limits of our minds to enable us to make any claims about that reality.

Community Agreement

Postmodernism differs from radical subjectivism (truth is centered only in what an individual experiences) by allowing that there might be "community agreement" for some truth claims. The idea is that two or more people may be able to agree on a particular truth claim and form a shared agreement that a given proposition is true. To be clear, it's not true because they agree it maps or corresponds to reality. But since the group all agree that a given proposition or argument works in some practical way, or has explanatory power (seems to explain some particular thing), or has strong intuitive force for them, they can use this shared agreement to form a knowledge community.

When you think about it, this is how things tend to work. A scientist discovers something she takes to be true and writes a paper explaining why she thinks it's true. Other scientists read her paper, run their own experiments and either validate her claims or are unable to invalidate her claims. These scientists then declare the theory "valid" or "significant" or give it some other stamp of approval. In most cases, this does not mean the theory is immune from falsification or to being disproved--it's not absolute. It just means that the majority of the scientific community that have studied the theory agree that it’s true given what they currently understand. This shared agreement creates a communal "truth" for those scientists. This is what led Richard Rorty to state the oft-quoted phrase, "Truth is what my colleagues will let me get away with."

Practical Concerns

Philosophers are supposed to love wisdom and wisdom is more oriented towards the practical than the theoretical. This article has been largely about a theoretical view of truth so how do we apply it? Most people don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about what truth is but tend to get by in the world without that understanding. That's probably because the world seems to impose itself on us rather than being subject to some theory we might come up with about how it has to operate. We all need food, water and shelter, meaning, friendship, and some purpose that compels us to get out of bed in the morning. This is a kind of practical truth that is not subject to the fluidity of philosophical theory.

Even so, we all contend with truth claims on a daily basis. We have to make decisions about what matters. Maybe you're deeply concerned about politics and what politicians are claiming or what policy should be supported or overturned. Perhaps you care about which athlete should be traded or whether you should eat meat or support the goods produced by a large corporation. You may want to know if God exists and if so, which one. You probably care what your friends or loved ones are saying and whether you can count on them or invest in their relationship. In each of these cases, you will apply a theory of truth whether you realize it or not and so a little reflection on what you think about truth will be important.

Your view of truth will impact how you show up at work and impacts the decisions you make about how to raise your children or deal with a conflict. For example, suppose you're faced with a complex question at work about something you're responsible for. You need to decide whether to ship a product or do more testing. If you're a postmodernist, your worldview may cause you to be more tentative about the conclusions you're drawing about the product's readiness because you understand that your interpretation of the facts you have about the product may be clouded by your own background beliefs. Because of this, you may seek more input or seek more consensus before you move forward. You may find yourself silently scoffing at your boss who makes absolute decisions about the "right" way to move forward because you believe there is no "right" way to do much of anything. There's just each person's interpretation of what is right and whoever has the loudest voice or exerts the most force wins.

An engineer may disagree here. She may argue, as an example, that there is a "right" way to build an airplane and a lot of wrong ways and years of aviation history documents both. Here is an instance where the world imposes itself on us: airplanes built with wings and that follow specific rules of aerodynamics fly and machines that don't follow those "laws" don't. Further most of us would rather fly in airplanes built by engineers that have more of a correspondence view of truth. We want to believe that the engineers that built the plane we're in understand aerodynamics and built a plane that corresponds with the propositions that make up the laws of aerodynamics.

Your view of truth matters. You may be a correspondence theorist when it comes to airplanes but a postmodernist when it comes to ethics or politics. But why hold different views of truth for different aspects of your life? This is where a theory comes in. As you reflect on the problems posed by airplanes and ethics, the readiness of your product to be delivered to consumers and the readiness of your child to be loosed upon the world, about what makes you happy and about your responsibility to your fellow man, you will develop a theory of truth that will help you navigate these situations with more clarity and consistency.


Bibliography

Ackerman, D. F. (1976, December). Plantinga, Proper Names and Propositions. Philosophical Studies, 30, 409-412.

Barrett, W. (1962). Irrational Man. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books.

Brown, C. (1986). What Is a Belief State? Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 10, 357-78.

Brown, C. (1992). Direct and Indirect Belief. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 52, 289-316.

Chisholm, R. (1957). Percieving: A Philosophical Study. Ithaca: Cornell University.

Chisholm, R. M. (1989). Theory of Knowledge (3 ed.). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Davidson, D. (2000). A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge. In S. Bernecker, & F. Dretske (Eds.), Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology (pp. 413-428). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1998, August 13). Postmodernism and Truth. Retrieved December 26, 2014, from Tufts: http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/postmod.tru.htm

Frankfurt, H. (2005). On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Frankfurt, H. (2006). On Truth. New York: Knopf.

Gettier, E. (2000). Is Justified True Belief Knowledge. In S. Bernecker, & F. Dretske (Eds.), Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

James, W. (1907). Pragmatism. Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Kripke, S. (1980). Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Massachusettes: Harvard University Press.

Strawson, P. F. (1950). On Referring. Mind, 59(235), 320-344.

Williams, B. (2004). Truth and Truthfulness. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Seize the New Year

Spinoza; public domain, Wikimedia CommonsHappy New Year! Thank you for being a part of Philosophy News!

I was doing research for a paper I’m working on and read through Harry Frankfurt’s short book On Truth. It’s a fine little book focusing on the practicality of valuing truth. I came across a passage that captures ideas that I’ve been turning over for the past few years and Frankfurt articulates these ideas in ways I’ve not been able to. As I think about a kind of “charge” for the upcoming year, this passage seems better than any I’ve come across recently.

I know themes of “self-actualization” and “authenticity” have turned into pop-psychological nonsense in recent days but the nonsense is a bastardization of ideas that are not only sensical but essential, I think, for human thriving. In this passage, Frankfurt briefly unpacks Baruch Spinoza’s idea of love and joy as a catalyst for determining how we ought to orient our lives.

Spinoza explained the nature of love as follows: “Love is nothing but Joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause” (Ethics, part III, proposition 13, scholium). As for the meaning of “joy,” he stipulated that it is “what follows that passion by which the…[individual] passes to a greater perfection” (Ethics, part III, proposition 11, scholium).

I suppose that many readers will find these rather opaque dicta quite uninviting. They do truly seem forbiddingly obscure. Even apart from this barrier to making productive use of Spinoza’s thoughts, moreover, one might not unreasonably question whether he was qualified, in the first place, to speak with any particular authority about love. After all, he had no children, he never married, and it seems that he never even had a steady girlfriend.

Of course, these details concerning his personal life have no plausible relevance except to questions about his authority with respect to romantic, to marital, and to parental love. What Spinoza was actually thinking of when he wrote about love, however, was none of these. In fact, he was not thinking especially of any variety of love that necessarily has a person as its object. Let me try to explain what I believe he did have in mind.

Spinoza was convinced that every individual has an essential nature that it strives, throughout its existence, to realize and to sustain. In other words, he believed that there is in each individual an underlying innate impetus to become, and to remain, what that individual most essentially is. When Spinoza wrote of “that passion by which the…[individual] passes to a greater perfection,” he was referring to an externally caused (hence a “passion”—i.e., a change in the individual that does not come about by his own action, but rather a change with respect to which he is passive) augmentation of the individual’s capacities for surviving and for developing in fulfillment of his essential nature. Whenever the capacities of an individual for attaining these goals are increased, the increase in the individual’s power to attain them is accompanied by a sense of enhanced vitality. The individual is aware of a more vigorously expansive ability to become and to continue as what he most truly is. Thus, he feels more fully himself. He feels more fully alive.

Spinoza supposes (plausibly enough, I think) that this experience of an increase in vitality—this awareness of an expanding ability to realize and to sustain one’s true nature—is inherently exhilarating. The exhilaration may perhaps be comparable to the exhilaration that a person often experiences as an accompaniment to invigorating physical exercise, in which the person’s lungs, heart, and muscular capacities are exerted more strenuously than usual. When working out energetically, people frequently feel more completely and more vividly alive than they do before exercising, when they are less fully and less directly aware of their own capacities, when they are less brimming with a sense of their own vitality. I believe it is an experience something like this that Spinoza has in mind when he speaks of “joy”; joy, as I think he understands it, is a feeling of the enlargement of one’s power to live, and to continue living, in accord with one’s most authentic nature.

Now, if a person who experiences joy recognizes that the joy has a certain external cause—that is, if the person identifies someone or something as the object to which he owes his joy and on which his joy depends—Spinoza believes that the person inevitably loves that object. This is what he understands love to be: the way we respond to what we recognize as causing us joy. On his account, then, people cannot help loving whatever they recognize as being, for them, a source of joy. They invariably love what they believe helps them to continue in existence and to become more fully themselves. It seems to me that Spinoza is at least on the right track here. Many paradigmatic instances of love do exhibit, more or less straightforwardly, the pattern that he defines: people do tend to love what they feel helps them to “find themselves,” to discover “who they really are,” and to face life successfully without betraying or compromising their fundamental natures.

With all the life-critical problems facing so many in most parts of the world, struggling to become an authentic self may strike some as largely an indulgent, Western “first-world problem.” And in some ways it is. But if you are fortunate enough to be in a position where more than your basic needs for survival are met and you don’t live in a world where avoiding terror and destruction constitute your daily goals, be thankful and find a way to embrace authenticity and live life full of vitality—whatever that means for your situation (and be assured it won’t come without sacrifice and probably some pain). As we enter 2015 find or focus on what it is that gives you meaning in a way that enlarges who you are and better enables you to help those around you.

Let nothing distract you from pursuing it.

How to Write a Resume That Stands Out

How you approach your resume can be the difference between getting a call and getting passed over. This is my take on what makes a resume stand out from the crowd.

resume-stand-outThere are many good articles and even books dedicated to solid resume writing. This is my take based on my many years evaluating candidate resumes.

As a manager at a Fortune 500 company for a decade and a half, I've been in the role of "hiring manager" many times. I've looked at hundreds of resumes, done dozens of informational interviews, and interviewed dozens of candidates. I've hired many great people (and have had my fair share of hires that didn't work out). I've also learned quite a bit about what to look for in resumes that have helped me land the right people for the jobs I needed to fill.

I'll be the first to acknowledge that the resume is becoming somewhat passé in light of newer technologies like LinkedIn, professional job sites, and the emergence of "performance-based" evaluation methods for determining potential candidates. Also, recruiters have an increasingly larger role to play in evaluating a candidate's viability before a hiring manager ever gets involved. But, at least for the time being, the resume is still king and most hiring managers will use the resume as a first look when determining which candidates he or she will choose to talk to.

Most good guidance on this topic outline basics like using good grammar in your resume, avoiding flashy fonts and garish colors, and keeping your resume to around one page. These are table stakes. But there are other things you can do to make your resume stand out from the dozens or hundreds of resumes a hiring manager may scan when searching for that ideal candidate (this guidance can also be applied to your LinkedIn profile).

  • Be specific yet succinct. Stating a skill or proficiency in general terms is one of the more egregious flaws I see in resumes. Saying, "Proficient with Illustrator" tells the hiring manager almost nothing. Dozens of candidates will say the same thing. I'd rather see something like, "Used Illustrator to create hundreds of graphics for Awesome Web's home page." That stands out and gives a hiring manager something to ask about in an interview.
  • Use examples whenever possible. Similar to number 1, the more examples you can use in your resume, the better. You have to be careful here because examples can get wordy so use them carefully. For big-ticket items that apply directly to the role, a well-placed, well-written example of real-world experience goes a long way and stands out.
  • Do research and write for the position. While you want to write about you not the job, your resume should reflect the fact that you know what you're applying for and you've done the work to match your skills and passions to the role. For example, if you want to work as a programming for a specific role in a game development company, talk about how your skills as a programmer will make you successful at that specific job rather than talking in generalities about your skills as a programmer. This requires a bit of work and may mean you tweak your resume for each job your applying for. But it will pay off.
  • List only skills or tools that apply to the role. Any skills you list or tools you're proficient in should apply to the specific role you're applying for. Long lists of things you're good at but that don't relate to the role you're applying for comes across as fluff and hiring managers will assume you're just padding your resume to look impressive. Don’t do it.
  • Write for humans not computers. This is related to the previous recommendation. While it's true that when you submit a resume to many companies and job sites, that resume will get scanned and keywords from your document will be used to surface candidates to hiring managers. Remember though that your resume eventually will end up in the hands of a human that will read through your document. Write with keywords in mind but focus on readability and on communicating your passion, skills, and who you are to a human reader. I've read too many resumes that were filled with seeming random keywords that clearly were written for a computer and not me.
  • Avoid using big words. While reaching deep into your vocabulary (or Thesaurus) may make you look impressive, in my experience, large, and more importantly, obscure words diminish the overall readability of the document. For example, if you mean to say, "I helped Big Data Corporation clarify their customer reports using my skills as an interpreter" avoid saying, "I served as an interpretive heuristic for Big Data's problem with epistemic opacity in their customer-facing 10-1299s." As the saying goes, "Don't use a big word where a diminutive one will suffice."
  • Think about what the hiring manager needs from you. A lot of resume guidance will tell you to focus your resume on your skills and what you want out of the job. This is good guidance but you should also understand that the job is about providing mutual benefit to the employee and the employer. It goes a long way to acknowledge that part of your goal is to help the hiring manager reach his or her goals and to help the business, non-profit, government office, or whatever to be successful. I know you want a good job that you'll love. Tell me also how you plan on helping me accomplish my goals.
  • Try to let your true self come through. I like reading resumes where a bit of the personality of the individual shows through. Resumes that are overly humorous or that are too clever can be a turn off. But subtle humor, hints of passions outside of work or of things you like, and clues that the you don't take yourself too seriously go a long way. If you're a creative type, let that come through too but don't overdo it. I want to know who you are. I don't want to be manipulated. You want to be professional but accessible too. One memorable resume I received had a subtle and artistic box around the candidates qualifications and experience with an arrow at the bottom of the box. Below the arrow was the name of the candidate. This was a minor creative flourish but made the resume stand out from the rest. Her resume was solid and we brought this person in for an interview. We ended up making her an offer.

One final bit of guidance: have someone (or better, many people) you trust proofread and give you honest feedback and be prepared to respond to that feedback. Its much better to have friends or colleagues find spelling errors or tell you that something doesn't make sense than for a hiring manager to find flaws.

So I can summarize the items above with what I'll call the 5 Bes of a good resume:

  1. Be clear
  2. Be specific
  3. Be concise
  4. Be engaging
  5. Be authentic

On Post-Christian Sexual Ethics

Sexuality, if it’s to have meaning culturally, has to be rooted in what the human person is if we’re to avoid barbarism. I'm not sure, though, whether a meaningful anthropology—one that adequately provides a basis for sexual expression without devolving into barbarism—is impossible on naturalism.

romance_smA friend recently sent me an article titled, "Sex After Christianity" by Rod Dreher published by The American Conservative. In it, the author uses the topic of gay marriage as a jumping off point for discussing a broader cultural shift away from a Christian worldview towards a secular one and the implications that shift will have on the social fabric at large. The article is well constructed and, as one would expect, articulates in a clear way important aspects of the ethical foundation of a generalized American conservatism but takes the discussion beyond mere politics and talks about its philosophical foundations (and contrasts it with that of secularism).

It’s hard to disagree with the author's major premise. Certainly a religious system that makes moral demands and that is believed by a wide body of a given society will create moral center and provide a foundation for culture. Now that the West effectively is in a post-Christian era, was it the abandonment of Christianity that fostered the sexual revolution or vice versa? It’s hard to draw hard-and-fast conclusions about the causal order (and Dreher isn’t entirely clear on that either it seems).

As the author notes, Christianity helped constrain the male eros and that helped foster a “civilized” culture. But I think a large part of the basis for the development of the Christian ethic probably had to do with child bearing and rearing. So if the sexual revolution preceded an abandonment from Christianity, one could possibly point to the growth in available contraception as the key. As humans had more control over when and if they bore children, sex became less about bearing offspring and and the focus could turn more freely to sexual pleasure—the evolutionary order got flipped on its head. Evolutionarily, sexual pleasure appears to be a secondary quality designed to foster the primary “goal” of genetic distribution. Provide a means to control the distribution aspect and the secondary quality now becomes primary. Couple that with scares about overpopulation and its concomitant evils like ecological overuse and abuse, worries about space and having enough food and natural resources to support an over-burdened planet along with very real threats from disease and the like and you have a good argument for actually devaluing bringing more humans into the world. In fact, given all these worries, it’s better not to bear children. What, then, do we do with sex? Anything we damn well please it would seem.

My point is that the change in sexual focus that the author writes about may be less due to a degradation in Christian belief and more about other social factors. I think the degradation in Christian belief seems more to be the product of a nexus of many different social and ideological changes with the possibility for greater sexual freedom being just one of them.

Other comments on what I see as some key ideas in the article:

“For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.”

This is a fascinating set of ideas (particularly that first sentence) and one I’ll have to think more about. I also love the idea that a culture is essentially based on a shared metaphysic (and I'd clarify that this doesn't need to be a supernatural metaphysic) rather than being merely a normative description of what people actually do or the values they end up having. I love that idea and I’ll have to think about it more.

“You don’t behave this way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because this moral vision is encoded in the nature of reality.”

I’d tweak this idea just a bit but in a way that probably doesn’t materially change the impact of his comments: “ . . . you do so because this moral vision is encoded in beliefs about the nature of reality.” I think the change actually is all that’s needed – it doesn’t matter much what the actual nature of reality is. All you really need for a cultus is religious belief and not any actually existing God or substance that provides a foundation for religious truth claims about the nature of things. Indeed, if postmodernism is informative at all, it’s on this point: all we have are our beliefs. But this is a philosophical point and doesn’t really impact his argument all that much.

“The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.”

I think this is a key premise for him and one that resonates with me. I think sexuality, if it’s to have meaning culturally, has to be rooted in what the human person is if we’re to avoid barbarism. I'm not sure, though, whether a meaningful anthropology—one that adequately provides a basis for sexual expression without devolving into barbarism—is impossible on naturalism as the author seems to imply. The author is essentially writing about what historically has worked and rightly notes that a belief system that is deeply metaphysical has been highly effective in controlling sexual expression. Certainly, Christianity, and let’s be honest, any religious system that has a deep anthropology, is a kind of shortcut to this. If you can get people to believe that their meaning and essence (from which normative ethics can be derived) is described and mandated from on high, you get what you need in fairly short order. But I wonder if a purely naturalistic anthropology could effectively do the same thing. It seems a deep anthropology could be developed naturalistically. Something like natural law without a divine lawgiver seems doable. What I’m not clear about is whether it could have the same psychological force and staying power to keep us civilized for very long.

I suppose we're going to find out.

Evolution and the Extent of Explanatory Power

While I think many explanatory models built on evolutionary frameworks are very informative and explanatorily sufficient, I’m pretty skeptical of current attempts to develop a grand evolutionary history that is based around reverse-engineering phenotypes to genotypes and genotypes to pre-historic precursors to modern biological functions.

evolution-personA friend recently sent me this article by Micah Mattix titled, "Portrait of the Artist as a Caveman". In the piece Mattix looks at recent attempts to explain and understand art and artistry from an evolutionary explanatory framework. The author makes some important observations many with which I agree (though maybe for different reasons).

While I think many explanatory models built on evolutionary frameworks are very informative and explanatorily sufficient, I’m pretty skeptical of current attempts to develop a grand evolutionary history that is based around reverse-engineering phenotypes to genotypes and genotypes to pre-historic precursors to modern biological functions. We simply don’t have a history of natural selection and never will. (This is part of the reason why I don't think "irreducible complexity" style arguments work either. As critics of this style of argumentation have pointed out, we just don't know how specific mechanisms we see in current organisms might have developed because we don't have a history. IC arguments make inferences about what might have been the case in terms of functional usefulness just as evolutionary historians do about functional development.) The only reason I tend to buy any evolutionary story for any particular explanandum (and I think there are only situational explanatory narratives in evolutionary theory, no explanatory meta-narrative—at least not yet) is because that particular evolutionary story has more explanatory power than any other explanans for that explanandum. And it also has to be in a better position in terms of metaphysics and epistemology than its rivals. It’s a pretty tall order but one that any theory or explanatory model faces.

Evolutionary stories about human psychological properties tend to have the same plot which attempt to break down what we know about some given thing (language, art, reason) into smaller, atomic parts, then make assertions about the role those parts probably played in early humans or pre-human biology, and finally provide a narrative for how those parts formed into what we see today. Even if the explanation is completely coherent and reasonable (and based in the evidence we have at our disposal), it can never be considered history. Just a good explanatory, but ultimately a “just so," story. I'm not implying that this counts against evolutionary explanations at all. Any other model faces the same challenges (and, frankly, there are scant few other options worth considering). But as Mattix tries to point out, when we fail to consider that we're not talking about history but about inferences to the best explanation, we tend to lose sight of the fluid nature of the underlying model and the need for open-mindedness to other explanations and for potential revision to the story—something philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued for recently in his book, Mind and Cosmos.

When it comes to art, I think all we can say is that humans have an artistic impulse and if the current evolutionary narrative is correct, then it somehow developed through the process that theory describes. I just can’t see how we can come up with any story about how it actually formed based on the paltry evidence, and type of evidence, we have at our disposal. Any story will be at best a product of inferential speculation and has, ultimately, to be defeasible and taken with a grain of salt. The point, I think, is not that we shouldn't attempt to develop these stories. Rather, it's to temper the tendency to treat these stories as historical narratives that have enough explanatory strength to marginalize or even prohibit other explanatory models—even non-evolutionary ones (as Nagel and, to an extent, Mattix argue).  

I think we also seem to forget that we can always say, “we just don’t know.” Our drive for causal stories is just too strong (and I'm sure there’s a good evolutionary story for why that is).