Archive for the ‘Philosophy in practice’ Category

Definitions of sex, naturalism and the marriage debate

The definition of sex is surprisingly hard to pin down. There are a few common tropes such as that which produces orgasm or that which is pleasurable. But neither of these will do because sex can be sans orgasm and pleasure can be induced in other ways. One may say it’s the insertion of a penis in certain orifices, but of course this won’t do either for obvious reasons. Consent is also insufficient.

The traditional western definition is the coming together of two distinct individual organisms as one organism for the production of a new life. However, this takes something like a Platonic or Aristotelian realism and a fundamentally teleological view of nature for granted.  This just begs the question: can a society that is essentially naturalistic (i.e. no forms and no teleology) produce a meaningful definition of sex?

The naturalist position is the reverse of the realist position. For the realist, the man as substance is both more real than and is the final cause of his various accidents (such as his appendix for example). This view can most simply be thought of as wholes causing parts. For the naturalist-cum-atomist, atoms are the substance and man is the accident – parts causing wholes. This is the problem of the one or the many. When the naturalist view is fleshed out, not only is the definition of sex problematic but also the principles by which distinct individuals (which are necessary for sexual intercourse) have their being.

Therein is one of the potential sources for confusion in the modern debate regarding sex and marriage. The cart has gone well and truly before the horse; the question of the morality of sex must be subsequent to inquiry into the nature of sex itself. We don’t know what to do with sex and by extension marriage, simply because as a society the west has no understanding of what these things are.

A brief argument for dualism

dualism-2Athanasius proposes the following cosmological argument in The Incarnation:

If everything has its beginning of itself, and independently of purpose, it follows that everything would only exist, so as to be alike and not distinct.

And, given that body is homogeneous, it would follow that everything must be sun or moon, or that a man would be only a hand, or eye, or foot.

But as it is this is not so; rather, we see a distinction of sun, moon, and earth; and again, in the case of human bodies, of foot, hand, and head.

Now, such arrangement of separate things as this tells us not of their having come into being of themselves, but shows that a cause preceded them; namely God, the one who makes and orders all.

I thought it would be interesting to adapt this very unique argument into a syllogism for dualism (a less lofty conclusion than Athanasius’).

1) Matter is differentiated in various ways.

For example, an oxygen atom or a carbon atom and etc.

2) This differentiation is contingent and therefore requires a principle of its being.

There is a plurality of material things – that they are one way but they could be another.

3) The principle of differentiation cannot be physical because a physical principle of differentiation would require a physical explanation ad infinitum.

I have argued elsewhere that an essentially ordered series cannot proceed infinitely.

4) The principle of differentiation is therefore not physical.

Therefore dualism is true.

Formal and informal fallacies

circular-reasoning-works-becauseAssessing the validity of an argument is an important skill, and not only for the philosopher. An argument can be called into dispute in two separate ways: either through the accusation of a formal or informal fallacy. A formal fallacy involves an error in the form or structure of an argument, whereas an informal fallacy involves an error in the premises.

For a first example, take modus tollens:

If P, then Q. (It it is sunny, we will go outside).

Not Q. (It is not sunny).

Therefore not P. (Therefore, we will not go outside).

The above is a formally valid argument – in other words, if the premises are true then the conclusion must be also true. However, whether the premises are in fact correct is a separate issue. There are a whole host of informal fallacies (such as equivocation, begging the question, or ad hominem) that may ultimately render the conclusion false or unpersuasive.

For a second example, take the non-sequitur argument denying the antecedent:

1) If I am a cat, I am a mammal. (Antecedent = being a cat)

2) I am not a cat. (Denial of antecedent)

3) Therefore, I am not a mammal.

The above is a formally fallacious argument. Note that even though the premises and conclusion may well be true (i.e. no informal fallacies), the syllogistic structure of the argument causes the conclusion to be in no way supported by the premises.



Modus ponens and modus tollens

modus-tollensPreviously, I have examined a type of fallacious argument called non-sequitur. While non-sequitur is fallacious, its deceptive nature comes from the fact that it resembles a perfectly valid type of argument called modus tollens and modus ponens.

Modus ponens is latin for “the way that affirms by affirming”. It can be summarised as follows, with an example in brackets:

If P, then Q. (If it is raining, then we will stay inside).

P. (It is raining).

Therefore Q. (We will stay inside).

Modus tollens is latin for “the way that denies by denying”. It can be summarised as follows, with an example in brackets:

If P, then Q. (It it is sunny, we will go outside).

Not Q. (It is not sunny).

Therefore not P. (Therefore, we will not go outside).

It is important to note that while an argument is logically sound provided it follows the formula of modus tollens or modus pollens, the validity of the premises may still be called into question.

Agent Smith on teleology and the art/nature distinction


I killed you, Mr. Anderson. I watched you die… with a certain satisfaction, I might add. Then something happened. Something that I knew was impossible, but it happened anyway. You destroyed me, Mr. Anderson. After that, I understood the rules, I knew what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was compelled to stay, compelled to disobey. And now, here I stand because of you, Mr. Anderson. Because of you, I’m no longer an Agent of this system. Because of you, I’ve changed. I’m unplugged. A new man, so to speak. Like you, apparently, free.

But, as you well know, appearances can be deceiving, which brings me back to the reason why we’re here. We’re not here because we’re free. We’re here because we’re not free. There is no escaping reason; no denying purpose. Because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.

– Agent Smith, The Matrix Reloaded

Per Aristotle, the final cause (or the purpose of a substance) is the cause of causes. Using the example of a saw; the material that the saw is made from, the shape of the saw and the manner in which the saw is built all come after its purpose of cutting things. Take for example Agent Smith above, who is made by the Matrix in order to suppress a potential human insurrection. He has the abilities and qualities you would expect to be able to perform such a role: a sense of superiority, superhuman strength, martial arts expertise and etc.

All of this seems fairly non-controversial. This is because Smith is clearly an artifact; that is he is clearly made by another from an idea that exists prior to its phyiscal manifestation. But substitute Smith for Neo or Morpheus, a man born of a woman – a natural substance. Considering a man born in the usual way, the notion of a final cause becomes highly controversial. Plato and Aristotle’s rival Lucretius (a forerunner to Democritus), insisted when regarding a natural substance that “nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use”.

One can find the same notion in Darwin’s theory of natural selection. For Aristotle, the adaptation occurs after the purpose. For Darwin, the adaptation occurs randomly and without purpose, but may find “a cause of its use” that can lead to the organisms survival.

Zombies and modernism

zombie-brainsThe zombie trope is ubiquitous in modern film and literature. The typical plot involves a form of chemical or virus that infects a human being and mysteriously removes their humanness while leaving them more or less physically intact. The zombie will engage in any means that will meet its physical needs, with no regard for morality and reasoning.

The zombie theme is an archetypal example of the influence of modern philosophy on modern art. The father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, theorised that animals were a type of zombie i.e. their behaviour could be thoroughly explicated through physical interactions. Descartes differentiated animals from humans by saying that a human being had an immaterial mind that interacted with their brain.

It is not difficult to see how the idea of the zombie arises. If what makes the man wholly man is a separate and distinct thinking substance, what would happen if this substance, or access to it, were lost? Per Descartes, man would be reduced to the state of an animal i.e. a zombie.

While a symbol of popular culture, the zombie is also an important metaphysical tool. Modern philosophers like Locke and Hume, who sought to explain conscious activity purely in physical terms, are faced with a “zombie problem”. Either mental facts such as secondary qualities and qualia can be explained wholly in physical terms, in which case a man is a zombie; or they cannot in which case the existence of zombies is not possible and the materialist account of mind faces a serious problem.

The trial of Socrates as an example of the sophistical trial of philosophy in general

Chodowiecki_Socrates-e1338025232963In the previous post, I discussed how the ugliness of Socrates can be considered as a metaphor for the destitution of the human intellect. In a similar way, the trial of Socrates is an example of the timeless and continual trial of philosophy in toto.

According to Plato, Socrates faced trial in Athens charged with two acts of impiety. These acts are described as failing to acknowledge the gods of Athens and attempting the introduction of new gods. Interestingly, Plato writes that Socrates not only offers a justification of his actions to the group of Athenians judging him, but also to a second group – a group that have been accusing him for many years.

Broadly speaking, their accusations tend to focus into three types: i) that Socrates does not believe in the Gods of Athens, ii) that he disregards (and is perhaps disdainful of) the affairs of earthly life and iii) that he uses clever tricks to make the weaker argument appear the stronger.

In the general sense, the tendency of philosophy is to demythologise the religious. In this way, the philosopher is always placed on a collision course with the religious institutions of his time. In regards to ii), the charge of philosophy being “useless” is ubiquitous throughout history and certainly persists in our current intellectual climate. It is typically argued that the achievements of philosophy are ultimately without value in everyday life. Finally, the third attack is an attempt to reduce the content of philosophy to nothing more than bloviation.

Socrates’ concise response offers an answer to all three accusations simultaneously. He says that his mission is the most pious and most useful because he seeks after the knowledge that when lacked renders everything meaningless and valueless. As the story goes, the jury was unconvinced.