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Sitting With Aristotle

meditationBesides its principal function – moving people from point A to point B, public transport is also a stage. This age of global telecommunications has converted subways, buses, and trains into platforms for observing the lives of people. This unintended consequence of public transport can be fascinating and equally irritating. Fascinating because of what people tend to say to each other in public (both in face-to-face conversations and on mobile calls) and irritating because those same interactions disclose information that may be inappropriate and uncomfortable for others to hear. In addition to serving as a stage for observation, these interactions on public transport, for me, serve as an unique environment for philosophical contemplation.

Simply listening to what is going on around you and reflecting on those interactions can make you wonder about life. Ad hoc human dialogue, for me, raises questions like, “What is life all about?”, “Is there any meaning to all of this?” Recently, while sitting in a MARTA rail car in Atlanta, I was exposed to an emotional conversation taking place between a passenger and the recipient of their phone call. Even without knowing the context of the conversation, I knew that this was an emotionally charged situation. The recipient’s name was called out repeatedly as if to get them to stop talking. Once the conversation was finished, the passenger was visibly shaken.

This highly emotional episode brought me into contemplation. I sat there wondering about the joys and struggles of life. As I sat there contemplating about life, I found myself examining my own life. To be honest, my initial thoughts were one of disdain, “Why is someone having such an intimate and sensitive discussion in earshot of strangers (this was the theme of two previous articles here and here)?” It felt as if Aristotle was sitting next to me and encouraging me to think about my own life rather than think negatively about someone else. I felt as if they were showing me how important it is to have a life of contemplation. Contemplation and the resultant self-examination is one of the wonderful benefits of studying philosophy and applying it to your own life. Surely, it is not a guarantee that all philosophy students, teachers, professionals, and aficionados lead contemplative lives. The study of philosophy, particularly ancient Greek philosophy, promotes contemplation and examination but does not guarantee it. One still needs to practice these disciplines. The point is that contemplation is held in high esteem in the field of philosophy and this good is something that produces necessary reflections about life.

Ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle, exalted in contemplation. Aristotle defined contemplation as an intellectual activity in which the contemplator reviews the beliefs he or she possesses and arranges those beliefs in a way that is beneficial for intellectual growth. Aristotle argued that this act is the highest form of happiness. In Book X of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote, “Contemplation is both the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects that it apprehends are the highest things that can be known), and also it is the most continuous, because we are more capable of continuous contemplation than we are of any practical activity.” He argued that it is the highest human good and the act itself is “to aim at no other end beyond itself, and to possess a pleasure peculiar to itself, which intensifies its activity.” This was illustrated to me in my experience on the MARTA train. Numerous but organized thoughts about life began flooding my mind; an amazing intellectual activity that many us take for granted. It is an activity that is not promoted enough today. In this age of fast and easy communications, speed and convenience are prioritized over profound and intentional thought.

Aristotle was onto something I believe. He developed a formula for the good life that is attainable. The necessity of contemplation is seen, not only in regards to the daily matters of human life, but also in regards to the fundamental aspects of life (i.e. reality, existence, knowledge, and values). It is these objects of thought that Aristotle considered the most important in life. He promoted contemplation because this intellectual activity was the means by which one can comprehend objects of thought such as God, nature, existence, moral values, self-worth, and meaning. Comprehending these objects is necessary to obtaining the practical wisdom and moral virtues necessary for living the good life. Clearly, one cannot spend their entire life contemplating; there are daily matters of existence—some might deem more “practical” and some certainly more mundane—that we must attend to. However, you can actively participate in these activities while not forsaking the important activity of contemplation.

Philosophy is not the only field that advocates contemplation. The importance of contemplation can also be seen in religious practice around the world. Most religions highly esteem meditation which is a form of contemplation. Meditation carries different meanings in different religions. For instance, Christianity teaches that meditation is necessary in order to fill oneself with biblical principles whereas most forms of Hinduism teach that meditation is necessary to empty oneself of the illusion that you are an individual. No matter the distinction, meditation, a form of contemplation, is esteemed by many religions because of the spiritual and intellectual benefits that it produces. When you put together Aristotle’s teachings on contemplation along with the teachings of various religions on meditation, you come up with the concept that happiness is co-extensive with contemplation.

What happened in that MARTA train was magical yet sad. I experienced the benefits of the application of an important philosophical concept but, because it came as a result of someone else’s emotional anguish, it reminded me of the importance of reflecting on my life on my own. Meditation, contemplation, and reflection are time-worn disciplines that can lead to a happier life. If we take time from our busy lives and slow down to contemplate, we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us. Take some time to “sit with Aristotle” and learn from your own thoughts. It’s free but can reap untold benefits.

Religious Beliefs-Rational or Irrational?

AfaithGuns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, published in 1997, was written by Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at UCLA and expert in anthropology and evolutionary biology. This hugely popular book won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1998. Professor Diamond’s objective for the book is to demonstrate the significance of geographical factors on human history, particularly on the development of societies. Although critics have argued that the scientific evidence Diamond presents is to justify his claims, the book is a compelling narrative on the development of various societies that exist in the world today. His use of different disciplines such as linguistics, epidemiology, anthropology, along with his narrative on the impact of the development of technology produces a fascinating account of how human societies developed.

In addition to philosophy, geography and religion are two subjects that I enjoy immensely. Although I possess a basic knowledge of geography, I do not have the depth of knowledge to offer a strong evaluation of the Diamond’s theories. I possess a greater working knowledge of religion on this subject, particularly philosophy of religion. However, Diamond does not touch on philosophy of religion in his book. His treatment of religion pertains to the role of religion and government as an important factor to the development of societies. I do not recall any comments made on significant topics in philosophy of religion such as the existence of God, the problem of evil, and the rationality of religious belief. Due to this absence (this is not a criticism, merely pointing out that a philosophical treatment of religion was not offered in the book), I have been interested in gaining a better understanding of Diamond’s philosophical views on religion. Earlier this year, published an excerpt from Diamond’s most recent book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? This excerpt contains a snapshot of Diamond’s philosophical views on religion.

One of the cornerstones of what has been called “The New Atheism” is that religion (at least in its more charitable forms), while it may have had survival value in the past, should now be considered irrelevant at best and destructive at worst. In its most critical form, proponents of the New Atheism take a zero-tolerance approach to faith by voicing their disdain for religion clearly and loudly. At the heart of this is the idea that religious belief, given what we now know, is irrational. Religious adherents, so their claim goes, ground their beliefs in ways that are tangential to modern views of knowledge acquisition and certain core doctrines in most major religions are at best improbable. This foundational atheist/freethinker doctrine has gained quite a following to the point that it is fashionable nowadays for religious truth claims to be deemed equivalent to fairy tales. For some, the Gospels and the Quran have been relegated to the same philosophical status as the Easter Bunny and Mother Goose (I’ll refrain from repeating the scores of oft-cited articles and books here—see my Philosophy News articles here and here for some examples or search for “new atheism” in your favorite search engine for hundreds more). Based on the piece, Jared Diamond agrees that religious believers are irrational.

The excerpt concludes with the following statements from Diamond’s book: “Thus, religious supernatural beliefs are irrational, but emotionally plausible and satisfying. That’s why they’re so believable, despite at the same time being rationally implausible.” My first thought was that Diamond argues for the irrationality of religious supernatural beliefs because those beliefs are rationally implausible. For instance, belief that divine power enabled Moses to part the Red Sea may seem highly improbable but not unreasonable. It seems that if one adheres to a naturalistic worldview (which may describe Diamond—I’m unsure) then the miracles such as those ascribed to Moses are surely improbable and unreasonable.

But Diamond and those like him, it seems to me, assume that naturalism is correct. There are scores of people who do not make the same assumption and do not interpret historical events solely through a naturalistic lens. For some of those people, a deviance from natural law (large bodies of water do not separate and produce dry channels without any natural causes) while implausible are not unreasonable. Surely, difficulties arise when one ponders the lack of repeatability and the divine and unseen element of events like these. These two elements play an important epistemological role for many and probably do for Diamond. But this element of seeming implausibility that is associated with many religious beliefs should not automatically lend unreasonableness and irrationality to these same beliefs.

In addition to emphasizing the irrationality of religious beliefs, Diamond stresses the utility of religious beliefs, particularly its emotional adequacy. Dating back to Sigmund Freud’s projection theory, many atheists argue that religious supernatural beliefs are emotionally plausible and satisfying. This popular atheistic belief has partially stemmed from Freud’s theory that belief in God is an illusion that derives from our childish need for security. In addition to this need, some atheists contend that the reward for good deeds, punishment of evil, and the feeling of community that religion offers produces emotional satisfaction. In other words, religious adherents believe that God exists and in supernatural events described in various holy books because these beliefs bring emotional satisfaction to their lives but are not based on the veracity of the truth claims towards which those beliefs are directed. There is no intellectual validity to religious beliefs, only emotional validity due to man’s inner needs.

The problem is that this attack on the rationality of religious beliefs can cut both ways. Some theists argue that atheism also offers emotional satisfaction and that is why some atheists adhere to this worldview. It has been argued that beliefs, such as no God and no afterlife, allow people to live without worrying about judgment and condemnation. There is no God to interfere with the way you want to live (frequently argued by Christopher Hitchens). This provides an existential freedom to some people and the emotional satisfaction produced by atheism may be enough for some to become an atheist. Just as atheists can claim, “Religion is not true, it is useful”, the religious adherent can claim the same about atheists. Philosophical and psychological arguments about “who’s right” tend to be inconclusive largely for the same reasons evidence for and against religious truth claims are.

This excerpt from Diamond’s book was an insightful, but not an exhaustive look, into Diamond’s perspective on religion. His view that religion is irrational is certainly a popular view and is normally accompanied by two other views: 1) religion is useful not true (discussed in the previous paragraph) and 2) religion is harmful. Although Diamond does not state whether he believes religion is harmful, it is important to note this belief because of its popularity.

However, the popularity of the “religion is harmful” belief may be in decline. Julian Baggini, the well-known British atheist philosopher, believes that the “religion is harmful” belief aggressively promoted by modern atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens is an unhelpful trend. Moreover, he believes that atheists should support religions when they work to promote values shared by atheists. He is not the only atheist who feels this way. The atheist writer, Douglas Murray, after sitting alongside Richard Dawkins at a debate, stated, “The more I listened to Dawkins and his colleagues, the more the nature of what has gone wrong with their argument seemed clear. Religion was portrayed as a force of unremitting awfulness, a poisoned root from which no good fruit could grow. It seems to me the work not of a thinker but of any balanced observer to notice that this is not the case. A new dogma has emerged. And the argument has stalled.”

Whether that conclusion stands only time will tell.

Gotham’s State of Nature

conflictWith the end of the year comes the usual lists of best films along with professional and amateur Oscars award predictions. Most of the lists you’ll find on the internet contain Les Miserables, Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Life of Pi, Django Unchained, Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, and The Dark Knight Rises. Although I have not watched all of these films yet, two of them have stood out to me for different reasons.

Les Miserables is undoubtedly my favorite picture of the year. I think the film adaptation of the Broadway musical benefited from “live” musical performances over the typical lip synched songs that that the actors previously recorded in a studio. With Les Miserables, Tom Hooper wanted his cast to sing live on the set and this aspect contributed to making the film phenomenal. The movie was reflective of Victor Hugo’s romanticism which was evident in his writings. The aesthetic experience of the film (like Hugo’s novel but obviously much shorter) was distributed through the strong portrayal of human emotions. Suffering, angst, grief, and joy were wonderfully portrayed by the cast and, coupled with the live singing, created a powerful film.

The Dark Knight Rises was my second favorite this year. Although I am not a fan of comic books and film adaptations of comic books, I was pleasantly surprised by The Dark Knight Rises. In addition to the incredible visual effects, the dialogue and concepts displayed through the characters of Batman and Bane were fascinating. Something about the plot kept prodding the philosopher in me but I could not put my finger on it. It was after watching the entire film that I figured out what caused my reasoning to go into hyper speed and my thoughts went back to The Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries) brought dramatic changes to Western thought particularly in the disciplines of politics, philosophy, and science. Scientists such as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and Edmond Halley as well as philosophers such as Pierre Bayle, Voltaire, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Thomas Hobbes helped make this a revolutionary period in the history of Western thought. Among other fields, the field of political philosophy was greatly affected by this period. Political concepts such as the social contract theory, natural rights, the consent of the governed, and equality were developed or brought to prominence during the Enlightenment. Philosophers and the ideas they developed out of this period served as the foundation of modern liberal political theory.

Among all these great thinkers, The Dark Knight Rises brings one particular man to my mind. The 17th century British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, was known for his part in developing the social contract theory and for writing the classic book Leviathan. In this 1651 book, Hobbes advocated the social contract and rule by an absolute sovereign. Essential to Hobbes’ ideas about the social contract is the state of nature. Hobbes defined the state of nature as the “natural condition of mankind” that would exist if there were no government and no authority to restrain human nature.

Hobbes referred to the state of nature as a “war of all against all” and famously described life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to transition a society from the state of nature to civility, its people mutually agreed to create a state and give up their power to the state in return for the protection of their well-being. For Hobbes, the ideal state is headed by a sovereign who has absolute power; a power that is consensually given by the people to him or her. This is the social contract as presented by Thomas Hobbes.

The “state of nature” is a good description for the society in Gotham that Bane created. Ironically, it was the social contract in reverse – Bane desired a dissolution of that contract. Bane regressed Gotham from a civil society to the state of nature in order to destroy Gotham (the state). Bane wanted destruction and chaos, Hobbes wanted peace and order. Bane wanted a civil war to destroy the state, Hobbes wanted to create and preserve the state. Gotham’s state of nature was clearly seen when Bane whips his supporters into frenzy as they pillage the homes of and beat the wealthy. Ever the populist, Bane knows exactly which buttons to press in order to create a society that certainly is nasty and brutish and most likely would shorten the lives of its inhabitants.

In one of his many memorable lines, Bane addresses the crowd at the football stadium, “Gotham, take control...take control of your city. Behold, the instrument of your liberation!” Prior to blasting open the gates of the prison and releasing its prisoners, Bane cries out, “We take Gotham from the corrupt! The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity. And we give it to you, the people. Gotham is yours! None shall interfere, do as you please.” Surely, Bane is the deceiver as he knows why he is doing all this. Whereas the people of Gotham think this is a permanent restructuring of Gotham by performing justice and redistributing wealth, Bane knows this is not the case. This is all about turning Gotham into ashes. Bane’s carrot on the stick was hope and redemption and the people fell for it.

Although Bane embodies the antithesis of Hobbes’ Leviathan, there is one similarity. Both of them knew the destructive effects of the state of nature. Bane knew that allowing people to live without legal restraints of any kind and offering them the limitless satisfaction of their appetites would degenerate into destruction. This does not mean that Gotham’s state of nature is exactly what Hobbes portrayed in the Leviathan. However, there are enough commonalities in both states that caught my attention when I was watching The Dark Knight Rises. Bane’s delight was Hobbes’ sad truth. After all, Gotham was “a war of all against all.”

Like Sheep to the Slaughter?

free-speech-smSeptember 11 is an iconic date in American history. That day in 2001 was a turning point for Americans that served as a catalyst for other significant political events such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Patriot Act of 2001, and, some may argue, the economic recession of 2008-09. The effects of 9/11 reverberated not only in the United States but throughout most of the world. Islamic terrorists, via different radical cells worldwide, gained confidence from the 9/11 attacks orchestrated by Al Qaeda and numerous large-scale attacks were carried out worldwide, most notably the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, the 2005 London train bombings, and the 2008 New Delhi bombings.

Although 9/11/01 will always be remembered as the day Al-Qaeda struck the heart of the United States and caused the death of nearly 3,000 people, on a more recent September 11, more blood was shed. On 9/11/12, an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya took the lives of four Americans including the life of the US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. The attack appears to be the work of a Libyan Islamic militant group, Ansar al-Sharia. Initially, the attack was thought to be a protest that went out of control following the appearance of an anti-Islamic video titled Innocence of Muslims. This 14 minute video, produced by an American named Mark Youssef, was released in July and depicted Muhammad in a manner that is blasphemous to Muslims. This video led to numerous protests throughout the Islamic world and it was against this backdrop that the Benghazi attack occurred. In addition to the casualties, this event produced political repercussions in the United States; repercussions that were evident during the Presidential campaign. The Obama administration, the Pentagon, and CIA have endured heavy criticism due to its lack of protection of the American employees and their inaccurate accounts of the events of that day. These are certainly important issues but the relevant issue at hand is one that played a small part in this event but grew in importance as news outlets offered their analysis of the events of 9/11/12.

As more eye-witness accounts and intelligence information became publicly available, the true motivation for the attack came to light. The attack had nothing to do with a protest against the crudely filmed amateur video. However, by this time, the media got the ball rolling on a hot button issue that has the attention of both political philosophers and philosophers of religion: free speech and religious belief. Although the Benghazi attack had nothing to do with the Innocence of Muslims, free speech and respect for religion dominated columns and editorials in the days following the attack.

This is nothing new. The values of free speech and respect for religion have clashed numerous times in the 21st century. The Jyllands-Posten cartoons depicting Muhammad in an unfavorable light and the Terry Jones’ burning of Qurans in his church sanctuary are just two events that raised serious concerns about free speech: should free speech have limits when it offends the adherents of a particular religion? In modern Western society, most people fall into one of the following two camps: 1) There should be no limits on free speech and offenses toward religious adherents is a by-product of the value of free speech or 2) restraint should be exercised when the expression of certain speech is offensive or harmful to religious adherents.

There is no doubt that some speech regarding religion, whether intentional or not, causes personal offense. Denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, restricting the posting of the 10 Commandments on public property, or affirming marriage equality for homosexuals causes offense to many Christians. Depicting images of Muhammad causes offense to many Muslims. Denying the Holocaust causes offense to just about everyone. However, the boundaries of our liberties are dynamic and this creates the challenge of protecting and balancing our liberties. This challenge is evident in the relationship between free speech and respect for religion. The examples cited in the previous paragraph demonstrate that these two values, when overlapping one another, can get messy.

On one hand, most societies revere the individual liberty exercised in the right to speak freely without fear of punishment—one of the ingredients of a liberal democracy. Conversely, most societies equally cherish and demand respect for one’s religious beliefs—an ingredient of many liberal democracies particularly in the West. These, clearly, are two important principles necessary for a free and flourishing state and for a respectful relationship between states. Nonetheless, it is a philosophical challenge to advocate unrestrained free speech while maintaining respectful consideration of religious beliefs. Both can certainly exist and, it seems, must exist in a liberal democratic state but there are occasions when the practice of one value interferes with the other and a trade-off is necessary at times.

A few days after the Benghazi attack, the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to the dismay of Muslims worldwide. The magazine’s actions provoked heated debates in France about the limits of free speech. The debate was not exclusive to France but also spread throughout Europe. Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s Foreign Minister, during a speech in late September said, “I call on all those, especially those who rightly invoke the right of freedom of speech, to also act responsibly. The one who now puts more oil on the fire on purpose, with obvious effect, is not the greatest thinker." For some, particularly those who have an inclination towards libertarianism, this remark may sound counterintuitive to a free and open society. However, Westerwelle may be on to something there, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle and Joel Feinberg’s Offense Principle.

Mill and Feinberg proposed criteria for the state’s restriction of liberties based on preventing harm to others (Mill) or preventing offense to others (Feinberg). Although both of these philosophers were strong advocates of individual liberties, both of them argued that the state could interfere with an individual’s liberties if it was needed to prevent harm or offense. Although Mill and Feinberg proposed that the state could sanction an individual or individuals based on these principles, Westerwelle is not arguing for state action. Westerwelle’s themes are more “in the spirit”, and not necessarily “in the letter”, of Mill and Feinberg. The point here is that the common denominator extracted from these three men is the need for the responsible exercise of the individual liberties that we possess.

Although, this does not answer the challenge of describing what constitutes harm and offense when talking about free speech, it is important to state that individuals and groups, when exercising free speech, ought to do so in a manner that is responsible and considerate towards religious adherents. Of course, one can argue that an offense to one Muslim or one Christian may not be an offense to another Muslim or Christian. This is not easily categorized. Moreover, an offensive caricature or controversial religious statement does not justify violence by the offended party. However, there are occasions when certain individuals or groups choose to act irresponsibly when exercising their freedom of expression and do so without any regard for the religious beliefs that others possess. It is difficult enough to protect and balance these seemingly “dueling liberties”, but the challenge is greatly increased when individuals and groups exercise one of our cherished liberties without considering the effects it can have upon others.

5 Reasons Why I Love Philosophy

why_smAs a die-hard soccer (“football: to those of you on the other side of the pond) fan, I love reading articles about the sport in American, British, Portuguese, and Brazilian publications. There are “must read” features that I go to every week on,, The Guardian,, and summaries on the Portuguese League in any of the major Portuguese publications. Reading all of these are enjoyable and it is especially exciting when I find articles with titles like “5 Things We Learned From the Gunners’ Victory” when it follows an Arsenal victory (yes, I am an Arsenal fan). Articles like these contain great insights into both the immediate contest but also soccer itself. Recently, while reading “5 Things We Learned...”, a thought popped in my mind about another personal passion: philosophy. I wondered if I could put together a list of things that I love about philosophy. As a result, I put together my list of “5 Reasons Why I Love Philosophy.”

1. It Makes Explicit what is Implicit in Our Thinking and Doing

Last year, I read Philosophy: The Quest for Truth and Meaning by Dr. Andrew Beards, a British philosopher who teaches at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, England. Maryvale Institute is a Catholic distance-learning college for theology and philosophy (as you might expect, Dr. Beards’ philosophical views reflect Catholic philosophical traditions). The book is centered around the philosophy of Bernard Lonergan, the 20th century Jesuit philosopher and theologian. Having heard much about Lonergan, I wanted to know more about his views and I stumbled upon this book. Dr. Beards wrote something that stuck in my mind and correctly points out one of the tasks of philosophy: “What philosophy is often concerned with is to make explicit what has always been implicit in our thinking and acting.” The truth of this statement is the principal reason why I love philosophy. Philosophy teaches us to think about, contemplate, and clearly express the fundamental concepts of life. It explicitly identifies ideas that we have been thinking and living all along.

This brings back memories of my first logic course. When the fundamental laws of logic were presented to me, my first impression was one of incredulity. I thought to myself, “Isn’t the law of non-contradiction, the law of identity, and the law of the excluded middle obvious? Do we really need someone to teach us this?” The laws of logic become obvious to you when it is pointed out to you. You knew these laws but probably could not express it clearly. In other words, what you knew implicitly was made explicit to you. For instance, I knew that both of these statements could not be true at the same time and in the same sense: “There are eggs in the fridge” and “There are no eggs in the fridge.” The law of non-contradiction is easily recognized once it is made explicit. This is such an appealing characteristic of philosophy.

2. Philosophy Begins In Wonder

Aristotle coined the famous phrase that titles this section. This quote expresses a fantastic element of philosophy, namely, that part of its value becomes clear when you begin wondering about what otherwise was always taken for granted. You do not need to be a philosopher to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. When you see a sunset or the expanse of a mountain range, you are overwhelmed with awe at such a sight. However, there are some who do not even wonder what or who caused the objects they are observing or contemplating the nature of these objects. Wonder is like an open door beckoning a special guest: philosophy. The questions arise and this naturally leads to philosophical analysis.

By their very natures, philosophy and wonder have a symbiotic relationship and need each other. Philosophy begins in wonder and wonder bears fruit when it results in philosophical analysis. This relationship demonstrates the fact that everyone who wonders should philosophize. Everyone wonders about something and this naturally leads to digging into the object of that wonder.

I came to philosophy later in life. It was a discipline that I had heard of but did not think was important. When I began my theological studies, I began to see philosophy in a new light. As I wondered about big questions such as “Does God exist?”, “What is human nature?”, and other complex questions, philosophy grabbed my attention and opened up a whole new world to me. Prior to that time, there were ideas about the fundamental issues of life that I held to dogmatically. However, I no longer hold some of those ideas because I began wondering about what otherwise was always taken for granted.

3. All Those Philosophers Drive Me Crazy!

Think back to Philosophy 101. One of the first topics in class was ancient Greek philosophy. Most likely, you started with Plato and the Socratic dialogues. Very interesting reading! But all those questions from Socrates can give you a headache. Socrates really knew how to get under the skin. Just ask Thrasymachus and Euthyphro. If Socrates’ questions were not difficult enough, they spawned even more challenging puzzles about the Theory of the Forms and the preexistence of the soul. You read the Allegory of the Cave in The Republic and you think to yourself, “Okay, this makes sense. I think I get it.” Not so fast! Here comes Aristotle and his realist view of the Forms. Fast forward to the second week of class and now you are learning about the nominalism of Abelard and William of Ockham. They disagree with Plato and Aristotle. A few classes later have you deep into the complexities of Kant who disagrees with Plato, Aristotle, Abelard, and William of Ockham. These philosophers can drive you crazy! All you want is a clear-cut answer to the problem of universals (and to think: before you took the course, you didn’t even know what a universal was).

Joking aside, I actually love this about philosophy. Let’s face it, we prefer to have answers to hard questions supplied to us without any effort on our part. I get my answer and now I can move on. But we come to learn that life is not simple and philosophy helps both unpack the complexity and provide a way through it. Just reading about the problem of universals and seeing the different philosophical views about it throughout history has given me a greater appreciation for what it means to exist. All these philosophers have sharpened my ability to think by ensuring that I do not get too comfortable with simple answers. Can I still believe in something with conviction? Yes, I can. However, all those philosophers remind me of one thing: even my views that I hold with great confidence can and should be re-evaluated when necessary. Yes, they drive me crazy but that’s a good thing.

4. Philosophy Informs Practice

Contrary to popular belief, philosophy is very practical. Philosophy has significant implications for the conduct of life. All of the branches of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and logic) contribute in their own unique way to how we conduct our lives. How we view the nature of reality (metaphysics) will have a direct effect on the decisions we make about how to live. For example, the theist conducts her life from a worldview which is centered on the existence of a divine being. To the theist, God is ultimate reality and His nature and commands ought to be a fundamental consideration in how she makes decisions. How we come to know (epistemology) has a direct bearing upon our lives. Civil and criminal law rely heavily upon what someone knows and how this affected their actions. How we reason (logic) is essential to interacting with our own and other’s ideas. Reasoning properly is an example of logic in action. It has a direct effect upon our ability to think critically about ideas and situations in life. In addition, logic teaches us about fallacies (improperly ordered thinking) that negatively affect our ability to arrange ideas and determine whether they’re true or false. How we determine right and wrong (ethics) is probably the one field of philosophy which is most associated with practicality. Morality is a daily concern in life. Concerns about right and wrong and good and bad continually occupy our lives. Philosophy is not merely academic as some believe. It is highly pragmatic when applied properly.

5. The Versatility of Philosophy

The skills acquired in studying philosophy are versatile and can serve as a strong foundation in other disciplines. This is a much overlooked feature of philosophy. The reasoning and analytical abilities acquired from analyzing complex ideas and arguments are essential in a number of other of fields. Studying philosophy involves reading about complex ideas and arguments which exercises analytical and reasoning skills. Reading complex writing, a common feature of philosophy, can aid in producing strong verbal and writing skills and provides the student of philosophy with the tools necessary to communicate ideas effectively and clearly. In addition, the study of philosophy can develop problem-solving and argumentative skills. The transferable nature of these skills provides an incredible intellectual versatility to the student of philosophy. You can find philosophy graduates working in the following fields: law, government, journalism, sales, charitable organizations, education, science, and other fields.

Philosophy is not an intellectual magic wand. It can be misused and lead to greater confusion and misunderstanding like any discipline. But when done carefully and when the philosopher, with a fair degree of humility and tentativeness, seeks truth, it can be a powerful part of human intellectual progress. It doesn’t always lead to the right conclusions and philosophers need to be aware of the penchant for self-deception and cognitive biases in order to avoid intellectual pitfalls. And you know what? That’s an important philosophical point.

Privacy: A Thing of the Past?–Part II

social_headMany are arguing that the internet and social networking are the cause of an erosion of personal and private boundaries. There’s little doubt that they’re right in some broad sense. But does the causal relation go one way? While social networks and the ability to post anything and everything to the web may undermine a person’s ability to keep their private lives private, the voluntary use of this technology may actually be a product of a growing insensitivity to the need for privacy on the part of its users. My previous article, “Privacy: A Thing of the Past?”, concluded with the conjecture that the popularity of reality TV and its exposure of private, personal details, along with the lack of self-control on the part of cast members, have contributed to a “softening” of views on privacy by the show’s viewers. Prior to this, I examined the scope and importance of privacy and offered scenarios in which traditional privacy boundaries seem to be eroding. Moreover, I posed the question, “Why does public disclosure of details of one’s private life seem to occur more frequently today?” This question led to the conjecture in the conclusion of the article. In this installment, I examine other factors that may have contributed to this “softening” of traditional privacy boundaries.

Along with reality TV, social networking is one of the fastest growth areas in technology. Social networking is an umbrella term for websites and services that provide a medium for interacting with others, enabling personal commentary, creating the ability to engage in discussions and user groups, publishing personal photos and videos and even finding a date for Friday night. Websites such as My Space, Facebook, Twitter, Google +, You Tube, and Flickr are some of the most popular social networking sites in the world. The explosion of social networking has revolutionized communications to the point that, for many people, social networking sites are a significant means of forming and maintaining relationships. The phenomena of reality TV and social networking have changed our perceptions of privacy. For older people, the idea that most of your personal life will be revealed online or on TV is detestable. Having a private life seems to be something that this new generation does not have. Does this mean that teenagers and young adults today do not cherish privacy? Certainly not. It means that perceptions of privacy have changed and, for some, these changes are a result of an inevitable evolution of thought produced by the global and technological age that we live in today. Traditionally, private personal details were kept “close to the vest” and not shared publicly as we see today. This is not the case anymore.

I was reading an article on the appropriate use of social media by employees and I came across this statement by a lawyer named Jeffrey Klein. Klein succinctly stated, “Facebook and Twitter have, in many instances, supplanted the cafeteria or the break room, as the place for employees to gather to communicate.” Facebook, Twitter, and other sites have supplanted traditional means of relating to one another. During this process of forming and maintaining relationships via social network services, private, personal details will inevitably be disclosed and, at times, these details are disclosed to the public. Social networking sites have supercharged the ability to make the private public. It it changing the way we think about interacting with other humans. While much of it is healthy, there is a the real risk of harm.

Willful disclosures of intimate information can produce unintended consequences. By not carefully using social networks, you may put yourself at risk of losing your job, or losing a friend. You may unwittingly post comments that can be easily taken out of context and your declaration of a particular relationship status or un-friending someone can cause problems. These possible liabilities, along with the benefits of social networking (e.g. communicating with family and friends who live far away, keeping up with someone’s achievements, forming new friendships, etc.) has created a new—and largely untested—frontier in communications. Like reality TV, there is a possibility that the disclosure of private personal details on social networking sites produces a “softening” of traditional privacy boundaries. However, is it plausible and, more importantly, what are the ethical implications of a more relaxed view of privacy? These are new frontiers moral philosophers will need to explore in the coming decade.

The plausibility of a connection between these two social phenomena and the everyday scenarios offered in the introduction of the last article is worth considering. This conjecture is not a condemnation of reality TV and social networking. The dynamics these two elements have produced can be beneficial. Still, most agree that privacy is a good cherished by society and the scenarios presented run counter to the typical understanding of the scope of privacy. In other words, in my experience, most people feel that it is harmful to disclose sensitive, personal details to a broad, public audience. Nonetheless, while conducting an appraisal on the two components of this conjecture—frequent occurrences of these uncomfortable situations and the influence of reality TV and social networking—it can be easy to commit a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. More evidence needs to be gathered to make the connection. I present the conjecture here as an hypothesis to explore.

It is difficult to determine the extent by which sites such as Facebook and My Space and shows such as Big Brother and The Bachelor have changed perceptions of privacy, but it is not wrong to argue that these sites and television programs have been a force for a modified view of privacy. Couple this with the age-old longing for intimacy and friendship that humans possess and you have a recipe for change; a change that is not desired and enjoyed by all.

The Supreme Court and Philosophy

Contemplation-Of-JusticeFor those who love philosophy, debates are high up on the list of favorite activities. Whether it is reading, watching, listening, or participating in debates, this activity is stimulating and informative and, for the philosophy lover, it can be a lot of fun. Certainly, not all debates fall in this category but there was a recent debate that, I believe, is memorable.

One of the most significant political and legal events of the year was The Supreme Court case in February, United States v. Alvarez. The Supreme Court consented to hear this case regarding the validity of the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. The Stolen Valor Act states “whoever falsely represents himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States ... shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than six months, or both." This case was brought against Xavier Alvarez, an elected member of a Los Angeles area water board. In 2007, Alvarez introduced himself at a public meeting as a retired Marine. In addition, he stated that he received a Medal of Honor in 1987. Alvarez lied on both counts. As a result, Alvarez would become the first person convicted under the Stolen Valor Act. Alvarez appealed his conviction on the ground that the Stolen Valor Act violates the First Amendment protections for free speech. The 9th Circuit Court agreed with Alvarez and struck down the Stolen Valor Act in 2010. The judges argued, “The Act therefore concerns us because of its potential for setting a precedent whereby the government may proscribe speech solely because it is a lie….All previous circumstances in which lies have been found proscribable involve not just knowing falsity, but additional elements that serve to narrow what speech may be punished.” This appellate court ruling set up an interesting legal battle in the Supreme Court.

The purpose of the case before the Supreme Court was to determine whether the Stolen Valor Act violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to free speech. What ensued was an engaging back and forth between the judges and the lawyers. The 9 justices, along with Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and Alvarez’s lawyer Jonathan Libby, discussed hypothetical situations in which lies were told and the impact of those lies on free speech. For instance, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said it was all right to lie when asked, “Are there Jews hiding in the cellar?” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. suggested that it was acceptable to punish a false statement that “your child has just been run over by a bus.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked about false statements made while dating. Justice Elena Kagan asked about lies concerning extramarital affairs. All of these hypothetical situations were presented in order to determine if the punishing for speaking falsely can be harmful to right of free speech. Although the content of the proceedings was intriguing, the philosophical method employed during the proceedings was even more so.

It was as if Socrates himself was there in the court. The dialectical method used by the judges was evident as they utilized questions to obtain the judgments required by this case. The dialectical method, popularized by Plato’s Socratic dialogues, is an inquiry into the truth by employing the exchange of arguments and questions. Typically, questions are used for three reasons: to provoke people to think more critically of their beliefs, to expose the flaws of a particular view, and to eliminate inadequate or irrational views. This is exactly what the Supreme Court justices engaged in during the Alvarez case. Justices presented hypothetical situations in the form of questions with the aim of determining if there are situations in which the punishment of false speech violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to free speech. Subsequently, if the justices determine that these situations exist, then they must determine whether the Stolen Valor Act is a violation of the right to free speech.

Although there is a plethora of exchanges that can be cited as examples, the following exchange involving Justice Scalia and Jonathan Libby serves as a great illustration of the use of a philosophical method such as the dialectical when one is searching for the truth. In this exchange, Justice Scalia cites the example of someone lying about receiving a Congressional Medal of Honor.

JUSTICE SCALIA: What if he just gets the cheers of the crowd? He's up there. I'm a congressional Medal of -- the crowd cheers, and they give him a parade down Main Street. Is -- is that something of value?

MR. LIBBY: It could be. Again, it -- it will come down to, over time, how that ultimately gets -

JUSTICE ALITO: But that's not -- the answer is would the First Amendment permit that.

MR. LIBBY: That's a difficult question, Your Honor.

JUSTICE ALITO: Well, that's sort of the question we have to answer here.

MR. LIBBY: Sure.


MR. LIBBY: And I get that.

Reading the transcripts of the case and reading the reports from the courthouse surely must generate excitement on the part of philosophy lovers. The dialectical method employed by the justices and attorneys in this case shows us the worth of philosophy in everyday life, especially in public policy. The value of rational and critical discussion—something which many Americans feel has disappeared from our government’s deliberations—is evident in this Supreme Court case. For some, it may seem unnecessary and insignificant to point out the method used by the justices and the attorneys. However, for those who understand that philosophy remains important and valuable, exchanges like these illustrate why.

LOVE146: Philosophy in Action

sad-childWhen we hear the word “slavery”, most people think of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that occurred from the 16th to the 19th century. They think that slavery is no longer a problem that plagues modern society. This is not true. There is a modern day slave trade and an estimated 27-30 million people are enslaved worldwide. At the heart of today’s slave trade are the many forms of enslavement such as debt bondage, forced labor, forced child labor, child soldiers, sex slaves, and child sex slaves. According to UNICEF, “As many as two million children are subjected to prostitution in the global commercial sex trade…. The trafficking and sexual exploitation of children produces horrible consequences in the lives of these children such as physical and psychological trauma, diseases (including HIV/AIDS), drug addiction, unintended pregnancy, malnutrition, social ostracism, and death.” Slavery clearly is one of the plagues of modern society. Thankfully, the hope of abolition is a reality.

LOVE146 is an illustration of this reality. LOVE146 is a US based non-profit organization whose vision is to abolish child sex slavery and exploitation through prevention and aftercare solutions while contributing to a growing abolition movement. LOVE146 was founded in 2002 (as Justice for Children International) and continues to be recognized as a leader in the fight against modern day slavery. One of the vehicles through which LOVE146 carries out its mission is through the formation of local task force groups which I have recently joined. The local task force is a means by which members can demonstrate their passion for human rights by bringing awareness of the slavery issue to their local communities. In doing this, the local LOVE146 task force groups are a demonstration of philosophy in action.

Human rights organizations (HROs) like LOVE146 educate, promote, and protect human rights along with reporting on human rights worldwide. These universal and egalitarian love146_logonorms, known as human rights, help protect people from political, legal, and social abuses and organizations such as LOVE146 are at the forefront of protecting the oppressed, the weak, and the vulnerable in society. Just as significant, HRO’s are the epitome of the practical implementation of philosophy. The mission of HROs are built upon the philosophical foundations of human rights, particularly the meaning and function of human rights. Subsequently, these foundations serve to build the HRO’s belief that human rights are part of society’s expectations for their members. Without this belief, HROs would have nothing to promote or protect. For instance, LOVE146 correctly believes that children should not be exploited for sexual purposes and this is a universal right for all children that society accepts. Subsequently, LOVE146 can advance their specific mission, the abolition of child sex slavery. This is translated down to the local task force groups who play their part in the practical application of philosophy.

One of the most important events in the history of modern human rights was the drafting and adoption of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948. This declaration displays the philosophy, behind not only the UN’s human rights endeavors, but also the philosophy advocated by numerous HROs. This document has greatly influenced HROs in the late 20th to early 21st century. It contains statements such as, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”, “Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom…”, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” These statements have philosophical significance for HROs today and are part of the mission statements and values advocated HROs. The concepts of human equality, human dignity, and liberty mentioned in The Universal Declaration undergird the work done by these organizations.

Furthermore, these concepts are held by people who are serious about putting an end to the evils of slavery and human trafficking. These evils must be abolished because every human being is created equal, created with worth and dignity, and subsequently warrants liberty in their life. Not everyone agrees philosophically on the details of these axioms. For instance, the concept of liberty is intertwined with the metaphysical concepts of free will and determinism and the political concepts of the state and its relation to its constituents. There may not be agreement about these details but there is agreement among the human rights community (includes HROs and all those who work or volunteer for these organizations) about the existence of equality, dignity, and liberty in mankind.

The vision of LOVE146 is “The abolition of child sex slavery and exploitation. Nothing less.” The mission of LOVE146 is “Abolition and Restoration! We combat child sex slavery & exploitation with the unexpected and restore survivors with excellence.” LOVE146 needs your support but, most of all, the victims of sex slavery and exploitation need your help. The vision and mission statements of LOVE146 are powerful and bold but, more importantly, allow these statements to be inspiring to you. Allow them to provoke you into action to reach these goals advocated by LOVE146 and other HROs out there. After all, when you are part of today’s abolition movement, you are the epitome of philosophy in action.

Conspiracy Theory

Stylized_EyeStephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63, is a fictional work about the time travels of a Maine high school teacher and his attempt to thwart the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The main character, Jake Epping, wants to change the course of history by preventing the assassination and by preventing past, traumatic events that occurred in the lives of a couple of friends. This novel is captivating and King provokes a fascinating thought experiment about the state of the world if President Kennedy was not assassinated on that fateful November day in 1963. This theme along with King’s incredible ability to tell a story is the recipe for a great read centered on one of the watershed events of American history. When you arrive at the afterword of the book, King presents his view on the veracity of the traditional account of the JFK assassination – the President was assassinated by one man, Lee Harvey Oswald. King states, “After reading a stack of books and articles on the subject almost as tall as I am, I’d put the probability at ninety-eight percent, maybe even ninety-nine. Because all of the accounts, including those written by conspiracy theorists, tell the same simple American story: here was a dangerous little fame junkie who found himself in just the right place to get lucky.” Frequently, when someone refers to the JFK assassination, the term “conspiracy theory” comes to mind.

Interestingly, the nature of the term “conspiracy theory” has changed. Traditionally, this term was a neutral, descriptive term referring to a proposed explanation for an event or events resulting from a covert plan. Nowadays, it is a pejorative term that has been implanted in popular culture. It still is seen as an explanation appealing to a covert plan but, nowadays, it is perceived as irrational or paranoid. In other words, the term “conspiracy theory” means that you should not take this explanation seriously and it should be simply dismissed(because it is unbelievable or silly). However, should these theories be dismissed simply because they are labeled "conspiracy?" Is the change in perception towards the term justified?

It is important to note that some conspiracy theories are true, some are false, and some are utterly foolish. When a conspiracy theory is deemed to be false or silly, it should not be based solely on the label. It should be deemed false or silly because the evidence for the explanation is lacking or inadequate to justify the conclusion. The theory, in light of the available evidence, is found wanting. Because of the pejorative sense of the term today, people seem to think that no epistemic duty exists to examine a conspiracy theory. The problem with this is that a legitimate theory explained by a covert or partly covert plan may be prematurely dismissed because of the label attached to the theory.

A conspiracy theory should be judged by its content not by the term itself. For instance, an attempt to overthrow the Nazi government and assassinate Adolf Hitler was known as Operation Valkyrie. The culmination of this failed operation occurred in July 1944 and is frequently referred to as a conspiracy theory. Surely, at the time, the idea that groups involved in the German Resistance were secretly colluding to overthrow the mighty Nazi government and assassinate Hitler was unthinkable and could have been considered downright crazy. However, the historical evidence clearly demonstrates that Operation Valkyrie was an authentic conspiracy against the Nazi government and there is ample evidence to support belief in it.

Contrast this with the conspiracy theory about the JFK assassination which hypothesizes that various conspirators, many in influential government posts, collaborated in a secret plan to murder the president. This theory is rooted in two allegedly indisputable arguments: a single insignificant man such as Lee Harvey Oswald could not have murdered the President by himself and the President posed such an incredible threat to the industrial-military complex of the United States that his death was desired by many influential industrial and government elites such that they conspired and executed a plan to murder him. Despite the existence of numerous people who still believe in this theory, there exists credible evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in murdering JFK. Although some (like film director Oliver Stone) may disagree, numerous historical sources such as the Warren Commission, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy written by Vincent Bugliosi, Case Closed written by Gerald Posner, and numerous other works along with an incredible amount of forensic evidence demonstrates that the traditional explanation for the JFK assassination is the strongest explanation for this event. The conspiracy theory is judged on its explanatory power and strength and should not be dismissed because of the term used to describe it.

There has been much academic work performed about the topic of conspiracy theories and conspiracism—a new sort of world view which sees every major world event produced by a secret plot or plots. The majority of the academic work has been in the field of history but this fact should not discount the importance of philosophy when examining conspiracy theories. Epistemology is an especially valuable discipline to utilize when examining conspiracy theories. Some may think it is an epistemic duty to dismiss conspiracy theories. However, if a cursory examination of the evidence suggests that a given theory is plausible, then intuition seems to dictate that we have an epistemic duty to examine the theory.

Surely it is easy to judge a conspiracy theory without examining it because of the negative connotation associated with the term but we have a duty to do otherwise. This does not mean that every conspiracy theory should be afforded the same amount of analysis and contemplation. Some theories are simply foolish and a brief examination can reveal this. Like it or not, conspiracy theories are more influential than ever and moving through these theories can be frustrating but also rewarding. After all, the late Christopher Hitchens referred to conspiracy theories as the “exhaust fumes of democracy”, a by-product of the overwhelming amount of information that is made available in this age of technology.

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