The Other Manifesto of Francis

 by on November 26, 2013
Nov 262013

Pope Francis has released his first major written work on theology and issues facing the church. Much has been said about his critique of capitalism, with headlines such as Pope Attacks ‘Tyranny’ of Markets in Manifesto for Papacy and Pope calls unfettered capitalism ‘tyranny’ and urges rich to share wealth. This is all very interesting, and I’ll probably have more to say on it later. But there’s another part of his statement that deserves attention, perhaps even more so than any other…

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Forgotten Externalities

 by on November 21, 2013
Nov 212013

Matt Bruenig offers an important thought experiment he calls Pick the Externality!. He describes three scenarios of property ownership and use and then asks which involve externalities. It is as much an experiment in politics, history and philosophy as it is in economics. And it raises questions that go to the root of contemporary economic theory and the hidden forces behind its practice that affect, in deep and enduring ways, our daily lives. I would hope that the major takeaway for most people is this: our economic ideologies and their leaders have been largely successful at convincing us that externalities do

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The Thracian Speaks

 by on November 13, 2013
Nov 132013

The Thracian servant-girl is perhaps the most underestimated character in philosophy. She is by all accounts a foil to philosophy: slave rather than free, uneducated, concerned with practical matters, and female. She is the opposite of much of what characterizes philosophy and is thus an outsider. Anything she would say is ipso facto not philosophy and should be regarded, as it has been, as gossip.

Socrates sets the tone for all future commentary while telling the story in Theaetetus. After the Thracian ridicules Thales for falling into a well, Socrates responds: “The same joke applies to all who spend their lives in philosophy.” With this, we are momentarily deceived into thinking that Socrates has recognized the Thracian’s mockery as a philosophical critique that should be internalized and allowed to transform us as philosophers. Yet no sooner has Socrates laid the foundation for a transformative dialogue between philosopher and maid than Plato steers him toward a discussion of the rigid distinction between the practicality of the uneducated masses and the freedom of the philosopher. Socrates thus must take the ridicule of common sense as a badge of honor in the project whose goal is to filter out mere opinion in the search for truth. Despite his incompetence in practical areas, the philosopher enjoys the freedom and leisure that accompany the “higher level” life. In this way, Plato sets a precedent not only for the treatment of the Thracian but also for the thought-action dialectic that would plague philosophers like an unsolvable puzzle for centuries.

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Wonder and Ridicule

 by on September 25, 2013
Sep 252013

Thales, the first natural philosopher in the Greek tradition. One day he fell into a well while observing the stars and gazing upwards. Plato says he was eager to know the things in the sky, but what was behind him and at his feet escaped his notice. For this reason he was mocked by a Thracian servant girl. And thus began Western philosophy. A scientist-philosopher known for great practical achievements could not resist the temptation of wonder. So when Socrates says that philosophy begins in wonder, remember that it also may end up in ridicule.

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The Problem of Thales, I. Science

 by on September 20, 2013
Sep 202013

The Problem of Thales

Western philosophy begins with Thales.
–Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy

…but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up
with modern developments in science, particularly physics.
Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery
in our quest for knowledge.
–Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design

To say there is a problem of communication between philosophy and science is quite an understatement nowadays. Discussions geared toward popular audiences give the impression that there is a choice that everyone must make, which is posed something like this: to believe the claims of science and to commit oneself to a mechanical, deterministic view of the world, or to believe that there is more to the human experience than objective truths and to search for the limits of science in philosophy and, it’s sometimes said, religion. Or, from the other side, the choice is often given thus: to join the tide of inevitable progress offered by science and its methods of inquiry, or to remain behind in the archaic language and obsolete methods of the humanities. Philosophers and scientists alike will point out that these are overly simplistic descriptions of the divide between the two disciplines, but nevertheless they express popular sentiments which obscure the fundamental issues.

To the public audience, philosophy and science seem in every way like two distinct projects. The scientist observes and measures the natural world in order to come away with models that better predict outcomes of the interactions of phenomena. The philosopher speculates about questions that are, at any stage, seemingly unanswerable by the scientist. Whereas the scientist may measure the properties of this or that thing or investigate the cause of an event, the philosopher may ask why there are things at all or what aspects of human nature condition our experience of such an event. But then the independence of these fields of inquiry is called into question when Stephen Hawking says that “philosophy is dead,” or, on the other hand, when Russell Stannard, a physicist himself, attempts to show the need for philosophical inquiry in science. Why does each feel the need to answer for itself to the other?

Scientists like Hawking assert that science has superseded philosophy, that scientific inquiry is now equipped to pursue answers to all the fundamental questions that were, at one point, asked by philosophers. The challenge to philosophy comes not only from without. Since Hegel and the responses to him, particularly from Nietzsche and Heidegger, philosophy has taken on a self-reflective and critical character that makes its own possibility of existence a question for itself. Philosophy, like the sciences, has been divided up into various branches and disciplines in order to meet this challenge with different strategies. There is philosophy of science, which explicitly interrogates science as to its fundamental nature and methods; philosophy of language, of logic, and of mathematics examine the character and scope of the manners in which scientists and philosophers alike represent truth; philosophy of religion looks at religion both as a science and as an experience outside of the scientific experience; political philosophy and ethics investigate the social nature of human activity. And so on.

With this further specialization of philosophy, each branch feels the need to answer the challenge and make itself relevant to science, incorporating new advances in knowledge while still attempting to penetrate to the yet unexplored depths of human understanding. However, science increasingly claims to have appropriated exclusive rights to this task of inquiry from philosophy. Why has philosophy divided itself and attempted to take on an increasingly scientific character, even when science rejects any cooperation? The fundamental problem that remains for philosophy today is its relationship to science and its purpose in a thoroughly scientific age. If we are to make sense of this problem for philosophy, it is urgent that we look at the history of this relationship in search of the root of the separation between the two fields of inquiry.

I. Science

The problem goes back to Thales…

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