Archive for category Books

When Philosophy Becomes Therapy – The Atlantic

What these authors seem to be saying is that philosophy does not have to be aloof and pretentious. It’s as simple and natural as asking questions about ourselves and the world around us, using logic and skepticism as tools. It’s the process of looking for meaning and guidance in how to act. It’s curiosity and common sense, passed down over hundreds of years of human experience. It’s living your life in an engaged, intentional, contented way—or, more fancifully, in the pursuit of wisdom. It can, and should, be utterly practical.

via When Philosophy Becomes Therapy – The Atlantic.



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Read slowly to benefit your brain and cut stress – WSJ

“When I realized I read Twitter more than a book, I knew it was time for action,” she says.

via Read slowly to benefit your brain and cut stress – WSJ.

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On Books, Zubiri, and Serendipity

Alas, second-hand bookshops are closing daily, driven out of business by the combination of a general decline in reading, the internet and that most characteristic of all modern British institutions, the charity shop. Booksellers tell me that 90 per cent of their overheads arise from their shops, and 90 per cent of their sales from the internet. Except for the true antiquarian dealers, whose customers are aficionados of the first state and the misprint on page 287, second-hand bookshops make less and less economic sense. […]

Browsing among the shelves is rewarding in a way that surfing the internet (the largest second-hand books website searches through 140 million volumes for sale, or says it does – I haven’t counted) can never be. Of course, if there is a particular book that you want urgently, the internet is a wonder: you type in the title, you pay by credit card, the book arrives the next day. There is no need any longer to resort to the bookfinder, that strange professional searcher after needles in haystacks, who guards his sources more jealously than any journalist and, I suspect, would not reveal them under torture.

But serendipity is the greatest pleasure of browsing, and there is no substitute for being able to hold the physical book in one’s hand. […]

The joy of finding something that one did not know existed, and that is deeply interesting or connected in a totally unexpected way with one’s intellectual interests of the moment, is one of the great serendipitous rewards of browsing, and one unknown to those who take a purely instrumental view of bookshops, leaving them the moment they discover that they do not have the very book that they want.

–Excerpted from Theodore Dalrymple, “Why Second-Hand Bookshops are Just My Type,” The Telegraph 7:00 AM GMT 03 DECEMBER 2012


In October of 1999, my wife and I visited San Francisco to celebrate our 40th birthdays (serendipitiously,we were born on the same day). We stayed at a lovely place, Hotel Boheme, in the North Beach section of the city, which we picked because of its literary flavor, its ties to the Beat writers, and its promotion of area book shops. We are book collectors – not in a “serious” or professional way, but we love to book shop. On this particular trip, we attended the San Francisco Book Festival – which was okay, but nothing in comparison to our visit to City Lights bookstore along with several other used and antiquarian book shops. Oh, we did other things, too. We went to the San Francisco Art Museum of Modern Art and heard some jazz out on the plaza (I remember that a poor musician cracked his bass while playing a Dexter Gordon tune…sad!). We spent too much time in an art gallery and came dangerously close to buying a $14,000 painting (it would have been paid for via some credit company and would have meant the kids couldn’t have gone to college) – we wisely took a long walk across the Golden Gate Bridge to clear our heads (and never went back to the gallery).

I raise this last recollection in particular to indicate that we have a proclivity to impulse buying. And that leads me to the topic of this post. One evening during this trip we were walking back to the hotel to freshen up before dinner (we were going to an Asian-Fusion place whose name I cannot remember now), and we passed a little used book shop. We cannot resist. The place, as I remember it, was quite small. Just in side the door was one vertical shelf of philosophy books (the primary target of all my book shopping). Now, even back then, I already had a pretty good philosophy library and it was pretty unlikely that I would find anything surprising on the shelves. Yes, books I didn’t own, but not books or authors that I had no idea about. But this day was different. A book on the shelf stood out to me. It was blue cloth (but the smooth, almost leather-like cloth binding you don’t see much anymore) with gold stamping. I had never heard of this book’s author, let alone the book. It was published, I could see on the spine, by The Catholic University of America Press. I confess to a critical affinity to Catholic things, so I picked up the book and flipped it open to a random page. I read and read (as my wife sidled up to remind me we had a dinner reservation and needed to get going – always hard to do in a bookstore). I read some more. I formed a conclusion: I had absolutely NO idea what this philosopher was talking about! Here in my hands was a book, a nice book as an object, pleasant to hold and to look at, whose contents were completely baffling. Of course, I simply had to have it! And so I bought it, dropped it off in my suitcase, and headed to dinner.

Upon returning home, I had one more look at this book, confirmed my incomprehension, and squeezed it onto a shelf among the hundreds (thousands?) of other books I have but have not read. (As I say, I like books. I did not, however, say I read them all. As one wit put it, “We buy books not to read them but to love them.”)

Time passes. I am working at this point for a division of the US Steel corporation on various business process reengineering projects. We get a job in Spain. I am excited. My mom was a Spanish teacher, and I had “studied” Spanish in high school and college, always wishing I were fluent but never diligent enough (or provided with sufficient opportunity) to become so. But perhaps here was an opportunity to work on my poor Spanish at least a little (and it did, bad as it was, come in handy on more than one occasion on the job). In preparation for the trip, I dug out a few Spanish books I had, and coincidentally I noticed my San Francisco purchase, that nice blue book: On Essence by Xavier Zubiri.

On Essence 11aYjiir1vL._AA160_

I did a quick internet search on “Zubiri.” Okay, first – I admit – I got a little sidetracked by links to pics of actress Diana Zubiri (no relation).

This is one of the few photos available I dare to post of this lovely young actress.

This is one of the few photos available I dare to post of this lovely young actress.

But I eventually collected myself and managed to find out a little about the philosopher. Spanish. Basque, really, and we were headed to Basque country on this job we were doing. I found out that he had written a number of books and that there were books of his course notes published posthumously (he died in 1983). Did I mention that I like books? So I thought maybe, if I got a chance, that I’d check out any bookstores near where we would be working to see if any of this thinker’s books were on their shelves, indeed, whether anyone had ever even heard of this philosopher, even in Spain.

By the way, this job we were doing was scheduled to be a month-long affair, taking us to various cities in northern and eastern Spain. We landed in Aviles airport on September 10, 2001. The next day, as we were having lunch, the universe changed.

It was strange to be so far from home when the attacks happened, frightening to be unable to contact my wife during those first critical hours, touching to be greeted on the job (yes, we tried to keep working) and in the street by Spaniards who treated me as tenderly and compassionately as if they had learned my beloved mother had just died. Everything became disoriented and disorienting, but like people do we kept moving forward, treating the abnormal with a massive dose of normalcy to try to alleviate its effects. We worked. And, when I had a chance, I went to book shops.

I asked around about this guy, “Zubiri”. I wasn’t, of course, at a philosophy conference, but rather in the company of steel manufacturers and engineers. But people have heard about philosophers, no? No, not in this case. Our first stop on the job was in Gijón, which I knew was near Oviedo, which has a university. I drove down one day to check out the book shops, and I did indeed find some of Zubiri’s books (including Sobre la Esencia, the book whose translation I had gotten in San Francisco).

Sobre la Esencia 41jWYRVs+XL._SL500_AA300_

No one in the book shop knew much about him (or at least that was my take-away from Spanglish conversations). But okay: Now I had the Spanish original of the book that I had found incomprehensible in English. The problem is that – have I mentioned this? – my Spanish is poor. How did I think having the Spanish text would help? And all this fuss about a philosopher whom no one (as far as I knew) had ever heard of and whose ideas I could not understand (after what small attempt I had made even to try). Ah, but I like books!

Our next stop took us to Bilbao and to the Basque region. I figured I’d try again, see what other books I might find. I asked around: “Have you heard of Zubiri?” The answers I got surprised me: “Do you mean the Zubiri shoe store? Or the Zubiri market? Or the Zubiri movie theater?”




As it turns out, Zubiri – as unfamiliar a name as it was to me – is quite a common Basque name.

shop ioap88

But no one seemed to know about Zubiri the philosopher. I did find some more books, though, in this or that shop. I bought them because now it was simply a matter of collecting the books of this unknown thinker just to have them and just because I had no reasonable expectation of coming back this way again any time soon.  I threw my purchases in the ever-more-weighty suitcase, all the while recognizing that I would not take the time to become proficient enough in Spanish to understand them and guessing that even if I did, I would not understand them anyway. It was all about the books themselves. I would treat them, I suppose, as if they were knick-knacks, decorating the walls of our home, and nothing more.

My project teammate and I returned to Pittsburgh 28 days after we left to a mostly empty airport. We were greeted by the customs officials as if we were somehow returning war heroes. In those strange days, people just wanted each other, no matter who they were, to get home to their families. That was all that seemed to really matter.

Truth be told, before all this happened, before we left for this work trip, before 9/11, I had already been considering leaving US Steel. I had very much enjoyed my time there and had learned a lot, but I was starting to feel “hungry” intellectually. I had heard about this job for a program manager for a group called the Philadelphia Center for Religion and Science. The position entailed directing a grant program to foster “the constructive engagement of science and religion,” as its motto put it back then. I had thought that such a job would allow me to apply my business-world experience while getting fed intellectually once more. I didn’t, myself, have a “science and religion problem,” per se. But I thought I’d meet scientists in various fields, theologians, and maybe even some philosophers. I had applied for the job some months before, and in fact I was contacted by PCRS just prior to leaving for Spain. In that interim, though, things had changed at work. I had been tapped to head up this business process assessment initiative and I had made commitments to go to Spain, etc. I couldn’t bring myself to pursue the PCRS job at that time. I told PCRS that I was doing this job that would last a month and that I did not want to hold up their search process but that if they were still interested in a month they could contact me when I got back.

When I finally did arrive home, there was a message from PCRS waiting for me. They were still interested. My wife and I talked this over – as I suppose many people did after the events of 9/11, we were questioning what was important, what really matters, and how we should spend our lives. Neither of us thought it was in business. Both of us found education to be our first love. So I agreed to be interviewed for the PCRS job. I made a deal with the executive director of PCRS that I would use my frequent flier miles to get a ticket to Harvard University, where a conference on science and religion was taking place and at which PCRS was doing some programming. PCRS would put me up in a hotel and could interview me during the conference. Worse comes to worst, I would at least have had the chance to hear an interesting conference on a subject that I had not devoted much thought to. Well, my three-day interview turned into a job.

Allow me to fast-forward. The program, called the Local Societies Initiative (LSI), required me to expand the grant-making to Europe (and eventually around the world). Eventually, a group from Madrid applied for a grant. I had the opportunity to travel there to work with this group, but I made one special stop. I had learned that the Fundación Xavier Zubiri was located in Madrid. I had come to learn, in bits and pieces, that Zubiri wrote on religion, Christianity in particular but not exclusively, that he had studied oriental languages, and that he studied with De Broglie and Schrödinger as well. A science-and-religion man!


Maybe someone at this foundation would be interested in learning about our grant program? I found the address, got inside the building, went up the 5th floor, and knocked on the door.

Xavier Zubiri at his desk

Xavier Zubiri at his desk

No answer. I dropped my business card inside the door and went away.

Again, time passed. My contacts in Madrid had, as it turned out, connections with the Zubiri Foundation. In fact, one of my colleagues in Madrid had written on Zubiri. He assisted me with opening a conversation with members of the Zubiri Foundation, eventually leading to a successful application for one of our grants. In the process, I had the opportunity to make a return visit to Madrid and got to visit the Foundation. I now have a photograph of me standing next to the desk where Zubiri worked on the book Sobre la Esencia.

with Antonio González (left) and Diego Gracia

with Antonio González (left) and Diego Gracia

After about a decade, I left my job at what became the Metanexus Institute to return to teaching. I was offered the opportunity to teach a course entitled “The Human Person” at Saint Joseph’s University, a Jesuit school in Philadelphia. After a round or two of teaching this course, I insinuated into the syllabus Zubiri’s last work, Man and God (which he worked on until his death at that desk I stood next to).


In the intervening years, I had come not only to understand Zubiri and his philosophical project, but to think that he is perhaps the most profound unsung thinker of the 20th century, a philosopher whose works have much to contribute to our understanding of science, religion, and most importantly ourselves. This coming year, I will be offering a course entitled “Philosophy and Liberation,” which will explore the work of Ignacio Ellacuría, who completed Man and God from Zubiri’s notes, and Enrique Dussel, a thinker deeply influenced by Zubiri. Zubiri, as you can imagine by now, is not an “unknown” thinker at all in Spanish speaking countries, and indeed, through Ellacuría’s work and life (and martyrdom) is highly influential even in the sphere of political praxis.

This story of my growing relationship with the thought of Xavier Zubiri, lasting more than a decade, is meant to highlight one thing: the transcendent importance of used/antiquarian bookstores. Dalrymple, in the piece I cited to begin this essay, points out that the “joy of finding something that one did not know existed, and that is deeply interesting or connected in a totally unexpected way with one’s intellectual interests of the moment, is one of the great serendipitous rewards of browsing.” Literally, such serendipity has changed my life. My thinking about the history of Western philosophy, about the human condition, and about the nature of reality, has become thoroughly infused with Zubirian ideas. I not only understand his ideas better (with still much, much left to learn, I hasten to add lest I present myself as an expert!), but I understand better the philosophical problems I have always wrestled with. And all because I have a certain book-lust and serendipitously found a book that caught my eye that I never otherwise would have known existed. We will be diminished if the bookstores go the way of the dinosaurs.


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On Edmund Husserl, his name

This morning, as it happens, I am standing, puzzled, in the kitchen, with a little book set down before me. I am in the midst of one of those moments where the folly of my solitary undertaking takes hold of me and, on the verge of giving up, I fear I have finally found my master.

His name is Husserl, a name not often given to pets or to brands of chocolate, for the simple reason that it evokes something grave, daunting, and vaguely Prussian. But that is of little consolation. I believe that my fate has taught me, better than anyone, to resist the negative influences of world thought. Let me explain: if, thus far, you have imagined that the ugliness of ageing and conciergely widowhood have made a pitiful wretch of me, resigned to the lowliness of her fate – then you are truly lacking in imagination. I have withdrawn, to be sure, and refuse to fight. But within the safety of my own mind, there is no challenge I cannot accept. I may be indigent in name, position, and appearance, but in my own mind I am an unrivalled goddess.

Thus Edmund Husserl – and I have concluded that this is a name fit for vacuum cleaner bags – has been threatening the stability of my private Mount Olympus.

–the thoughts of Renée the concierge, from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, pp. 53-4.

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On taking up philosophy

It’s not a calling, there are choices, the field is wide. You do not take up philosophy the way you enter the seminary, with a credo as your sword and a single path as your destiny. Should you study Plato, Epicurus, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, or even Husserl? Esthetics, politics, morality, epistemology, metaphysics? Should you devote your time to teaching, to producing a body of work, to research, to Culture? It makes no difference. The only thing that matters is your intention: are you elevating thought and contributing to the common good, or rather joining the ranks in a field of study whose only purpose is its own perpetuation, and only function the self-reproduction of a sterile elite – for this turns the university into a sect.

–from The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, p. 252.

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To have access to everything may be to have nothing in particular.

It’s a revealing experiment to put side by side bookstores and the Internet—or even just Google Books, which now offers 15 million of the world’s 130 million unique books. Both the Internet and Google Books strive to assemble the known world. The bookstore, on the other hand, strives to be a microcosm of it, and not just any microcosm but one designed—according to the principles and tastes of a “gatekeeper”—to help us absorb and consider the world itself. That difference is everything. To browse online is to enter into a search that allows one to sail, according to an idiosyncratic route formed out of split-second impulses, across the surface of the world, sometimes stopping to randomly sample the surface, sometimes not. It is only an accelerated form of tourism. To browse in a bookstore, however, is to explore a highly selective and thoughtful collection of the world—thoughtful because hundreds of years of thinkers, writers, critics, teachers, and readers have established the worth of the choices. Their collective wisdom seems superior, for these purposes, to the Web’s “neutrality,” its know-nothing know-everythingness.

Read more: The End Of Bookstores | The New Republic

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Mental Causation

Neil Campbell, Mental Causation: A Nonreductive Approach. New York: Peter Lang, 2008. x + 113pp. ISBN 978-1-4331-0374-2 (€ 38.00 £ 28.50 US $ 58.95) Book Review by Eric Weislogel

As the intrepid Sister Gertrude reminds us in Muriel Sparks’ The Abbess of Crewes:  a problem you solve; a paradox you live with.  A long-standing question in philosophy is whether the relationship between mind and body (or mind and brain) is a problem to be solved or a paradox to be lived with.  If it is a problem to be solved, then the history of Western thought (that deposit of our faith) has provided us with two main approaches to solving it.  We can be either dualists or monists.  The decision is based on the number of types of things we think there are.

The dualistic approach to the mind/body problem, as presented to us most famously and rigorously by Descartes, but which may date as far back as Plato, says there are, ontologically speaking, two fundamental sorts of things.  There are extended things (res extensa) and there are thinking things (res cogitans).  Extended things are those which are composed of parts outside of parts, and thinking things are those which are not extended, i.e., which have no parts.  Extended things can be quantified, measured, plotted on a grid, located, and are—at least in principle—accessible to all.  This means they supersede perspective.  They can be fully comprehended in their surfaces, in their geometry and geometrical relations, in their mathematico-physical determinations.  Note that when I say “in their surfaces” I am not referring to anything necessarily simple or superficial.  As extended things are composed of parts, each part will have its “surfaces,” and these parts may form extremely complex networks of relationships.  In any event, they are the foundation for a “third-person” ontology, which in turn is the foundation for science.

Thinking things, in that they have no parts, are not susceptible to measurement, quantification, or localization.  They cannot be mathematically or physically determined—they are not that sort of thing at all.  They are the foundation for a “first-person” ontology (if there is such a thing), but they will not be comprehensible by science (or by the same sort of science, if there is more than one kind science) as  are extended things.

In short, extended things and thinking things are, as they say, apples and oranges—two fundamentally different types of things.

The trouble is, these apples and oranges always make their appearance at the same time.  Hence the mind/body problem:  how does an immaterial, nonphysical, non-locatable (it is literally nowhere) thinking thing produce effects in a material, physical, tangible extended thing?  Descartes had his ideas about it.  He thought that in the pineal gland somehow thought interacted with body.  But even if he were right, he would only be answering the “where” question, not the “how” question.

The temptation to accept the dualist position stems from its taking seriously mental life.  It makes no effort to explain consciousness, emotion, intentionality, will, desire, or any other aspect of mental life in terms of material or physical being.  That would be, to a dualist, not to explain but to explain away consciousness.  But most of us have no wish to give in to this temptation because the cost seems much too high.  It would require that we abandon our hopes for a science—which would appear to depend upon “third-person” ontology—of consciousness.

In fact, most of us—and almost all of us who are denizens of the kingdom of science and technology—are monists.  We think there is just one fundamental sort of thing, viz., matter.  That is our working assumption.

Now one way to be a monist is to adhere to a program of reductive physicalism.  That means, your hope would be to explain absolutely everything in terms of matter in motion.  You might take “matter” in a wide sense to include “energy” (as we know they are convertible), but nevertheless what there is is matter.  The temptation to this position stems from its promise of something like a grand unified theory of everything, a consistent theory that at least in principle promises completeness.  And with completeness would come—again, at least in principle—predictability.  At the atomic level we have very substantial (even though not perfectly good) reasons for thinking that what happens happens according to the strictly deterministic laws of nature.  So much about reality allows itself to be explained according to physical laws that admitting the existence of some “thing” that does not submit to these laws strikes us more as giving up the game of science all together.

But what are the prospects of explaining, say, the collapse of the international finance system due to the unsupportable risks of credit default swaps in terms of protons and neutrons, quarks and charms?  Exceedingly slim, I would say…about the same as predicting earthquakes at the molecular level.  And the prospects are no better for explaining why I reach for the freezer door handle when I want a frosty mug for my beer at the neuronal level.

An important question is why would we even want to make explanations at this level.  If all reality—including human social reality—were fully explicable in terms of deterministic physical laws, then what would become of, say, the ideas of moral responsibility, creativity, and love?  These ideas depend upon a metaphysical concept of freedom (whatever exactly that means) that would be dashed on the rock of physical determinism.  Some thinkers seem sanguine about such a prospect, but it is a minority view.  Most of us want to maintain what we take to be perfectly meaningful talk of choice and responsibility, as the cost of forgoing it would be much too high.

Thus on the one hand we do not want to admit that science has such narrow limits as to tell us nothing about consciousness but on the other we do not want to give up a “first-person” ontology all together.  Both naturalistic and materialistic science and the psychological, social, economic, aesthetic, and moral discourse we all engage in are too important to dispense with.

So are we left with a problem or a paradox?

Neil Campbell has given us a concise and excellent example of an attempt, if not to solve, then at least to point towards a solution to the problem of mental causation—how the mind has causal effect on the brain/body.  His general position on mental causality is not original.  In fact, it is perhaps the most widely help position among philosophers of mind and consciousness.  Campbell’s book is teasing out some of the nuances of the position by way of critically elaborating the views of Donald Davidson.  However, the book offers the neophyte to such questions a clear and succinct presentation of the philosophical issues at stake and is accessible to any interested reader.

Campbell is one of many proponents of non-reductive physicalism.  Non-reductive physicalism is purportedly an alternative to reductive physicalism, but one which does not revert to dualism.  It is best not to think of non-reductive physicalism as a theory in its own right.  Think, instead, of non-reductive physicalism as a disideratum, as a standard by which to judge how satisfactory to our intuitions is any particular theory of mental causation.  The tenets of non-reductive physicalism represent our basic intellectual commitments going into the question from the start.  What are those tenets?

First, there is the commitment to non-reductionist explanations of consciousness, of mental states, and of mental causality.  We will not be satisfied with any theory that explains away thought, consciousness, intentionality, desire, creativity, or moral responsibility as mere illusion.  We are committed, for example, to the idea that our wanting a drink is causally connected to our getting a drink.  We are committed to the idea that our desire for that which is not our own is causally connected to our stealing that thing and that we are responsible for that theft.

Socrates, in the Phaedo, shows us the distinction between the cause of something and the conditions without which the cause would not be a cause.  Suppose, Socrates says, one were asked to explain why Socrates is in jail at just that moment.  Reflecting the answer of one who confused cause with condition, Socrates says:

I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have joints which divide them, and the muscles are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture—that is what he would say, and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is, that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence; for I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off long ago to Megara or Boeotia—by the dog they would, if they had been moved only by their own idea of what was best, and if I had not chosen the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, of enduring any punishment which the state inflicts. There is surely a strange confusion of causes and conditions in all this. It may be said, indeed, that without bones and muscles and the other parts of the body I cannot execute my purposes. But to say that I do as I do because of them, and that this is the way in which mind acts, and not from the choice of the best, is a very careless and idle mode of speaking. I wonder that they cannot distinguish the cause from the condition, which the many, feeling about in the dark, are always mistaking and misnaming. [Jowett translation]

So non-reductive physicalists do not want to make this “mistake and misnaming” of mental causality.  But they do nevertheless recognize that the mental has conditions without which there could be no consciousness and therefore no mental causation.  The non-reductive physicalist is committed also to what Campbell describes as “minimal physicalism.”  The commitments of minimal physicalism are three:

1.    a commitment to supervenience, the idea that while the mental is not reducible to the physical it nevertheless depends upon the physical.  This commitment entails that “physical properties are ontologically primary in some sense.” [3]
2.    a commitment to causal closure, the idea that “nothing outside the physical domain (should anything exists beyond it) can affect the physical domain,” i.e., that “all physical events have physical causes and only physical causes.” [3]
3.    a commitment to the goal of explanatory completeness, the idea that “there is an explanation, in physical terms, for every mental event and human action.” [4]

The second commitment rules out dualism.  Couple that with the first commitment, and the third seems to follow.  But notice the slippage in the terminology.  Physical events have (only) physical causes.  Mental events have explanations couched in physical terms.  Commitment 3 does not say that mental events have (only) physical causes, for that would violate the commitment to non-reductionism.  If non-reductive physicalism is a disideratum, a standard for evaluating theories of consciousness, then can any theory satisfy its requirements?  And, if a theory were to satisfy its requirements, what kind of a theory would we have?  Non-reductive physicalism addresses our (apparently conflicting) intuitions about reality and ourselves, but are our intuitions really correct?  Can we save the appearances?  How can we have a theory that includes supervenience but that does not end up reducing the mental to the physical, on the one hand, or that does not end up reintroducing an irreducible dualism, on the other?  Is non-reductive physicalism a matter of trying to have our cake and eat it, too?

Campbell is well aware of this problem.  He recognizes that commitments to both non-reductionism and minimal physicalism “places considerable strain on the commonsense view of mental causation.” [4]  For example:

If my action of drinking a lemonade is a physical event, as it must be, then by closure it has a physical cause, and hence an explanation in physical terms.  And if, given antireductionism, the mental property of my desiring lemonade is not reducible to the physical property that causes my drinking, it seems my desiring lemonade qua the tokening of a mental property makes no causal contribution to my drinking.  If the property of desiring the lemonade is epiphenomenal, then we seem to have abandoned the commonsense view of mental causation.  Indeed, it seems we have abandoned mental causation altogether. [4]

Clearly, there is some sort of anomaly here.  In fact, the position of Donald Davidson goes by the name of “anomalous monism.”  Campbell focuses on two key papers of Davidson, “Actions, Reasons, Causes” (1963) and “Mental Events” (1970) in order to account for this difficulty.  In the latter paper, Davidson expounds and attempts to reconcile three principles, as Campbell lists them [17], that apparently conflict:

1.    At least some mental events enter causal relations with physical events.
2.    Events related as cause and effect fall under strict deterministic laws.
3.    There are no psychophysical laws.

Certainly, the first principle is true.  I hit my thumb with a hammer (physical event) and I feel pain (mental event).  Or I desire to eat cake (mental event) so I slice myself a piece (physical event).  The second principle has to be true.  In physics, we have Boyle’s law: “For a fixed amount of an ideal gas kept at a fixed temperature, P [pressure] and V [volume] are inversely proportional (while one increases, the other decreases).”  In other words, decreasing the volume of a fixed amount of gas causes the effect that the pressure increases. This is an example of just what we mean when we say that X causes Y. Every time X happens, Y happens because of X in a regular, predictable, deterministic, law-like manner.

The third principle is the controversial one.  Think about it:  I might say that “I voted for Obama because I liked his war policy.”  I will be very, very unlikely to say, for instance, “I voted for Obama because of the state of my hypothalamus.”  But why is this?  To answer this question, we have to look at “type identity theory”—the idea that for every type of mental event there is a type of physical event that is identical with it—and why this theory is implausible.

The reason type identity theory is implausible is as follows.  For type identity theory to give us the kind of satisfaction we desire in our explanation of the mental, it would have to include what is known as “bridge laws.”  Remember the second and third commitments  of “minimal physicalism” – every physical event must have a physical cause (causal closure) and every mental event must have an explanation in physical terms (explanatory completeness).  So if we want to say that the mental causes something physical to happen, then there must be some “bridge law” that links the mental to its physical cause.  Can we find such bridge laws?  Consider the following:

a.  multiple realization – mental states can be realized in various ways (and not just one way).  For instance, in humans beings pain is a function of the stimulation of c-fibers.  But what would pain be for, say, an ant or an octopus or a Martian?
b.  neural plasticity – even if we were to limit ourselves just to discussing human beings, it turns out that our neurological systems are, in fact, highly “plastic” or variable or malleable.  We know that damaged brains are able to re-wire themselves and become alternative sets of functionings (but still resulting in, for instance, pain).
c.  mental holism (from Donald Davidson) – all beliefs and desires are modified and mediated by other beliefs and desires.  None of us has exactly the same network of experiences and beliefs, so we cannot have the same types of physical states tied to them.

From these three points, we can conclude with Davidson and Campbell (among many others) that there are no strict psychophysical laws.  I.e., there are no clear “bridge laws” from the mental to physical or vice versa.
So if all three of Davidson’s principles are true, then it seems like we are forced into a choice to figure out what the real cause is.  Is it mental or physical?

a.  Only mental causality is the real cause.
–But then we are back in dualism, with the mental as something mysterious.  We are committed both to causal closure and explanatory completeness, and this choice would give us neither.
b.  Only physical causality is the real cause.
–But then the mental seems “epiphenomenal.” In other words, the mental seems to “ride on top” of the physical and be more or less illusory.  This would not explain the mental, but explain it away.  But we are looking for a theory that is committed to non-reductionism, but this choice reduces the mental to the physical (i.e., says that the “mental” is nothing but the physical).

Donald Davidson thinks he has an answer:  “anomalous monism.”  Basically, it is “token identity theory.”  For every token of a mental state there is a token of a physical /brain state.  So, there is no choice between the mental and the physical, because the mental is the physical.  Better put, Davidson wants to say that there are events (which are particular, datable occurrences—i.e., events are not types, but tokens).  For any single event of the relevant type, however, there are two types of causal explanation which do not reduce to one or the other.  We can explain what’s going on via descriptions of physical causality or we can explain what’s going on via descriptions of mental causality, depending on our interest.  But we do not need to have a mental causal explanation of a physical causal explanation or a physical causal explanation of a mental causal explanation.  We do not (and probably cannot) reduce one type of causal explanation to the other.

In any case, it seems like the best choice for understanding the mental in a physical world is a type identity theory.  Notice how Davidson’s “anomalous monism” appears to satisfy all the requirements for non-reductive physicalism.  First, it is minimally physicalist.  It accepts supervenience (at least in a weak sense), and it allows for both causal closure and explanatory completeness.  And, it is non-reductive in that it allows for the mental have its own (explanatory) realm.  Davidson’s “anomalous monism” is more or less a “black box” functionalism, in that it seems to suggest that we do not need to know how the brain actually works to understand the mental.

The aim of Campbell’s book is to defend Davidson’s position of anomalous monism against its critics.  Chapter Two outlines three objections to anomolous monism.  The first objection (from Honderich, Hess, and Stoutland) claims that anomalous monism results in the causal inefficacy of mental properties, i.e., epiphenomenalism, that the mental is causally irrelevant to physical events.  Campbell deals with this objection in Chapter Three.  The second objection (from Stoutland and Honderich) is that if there are no psychophysical laws, then it is no more than a coincidence or an accidental connection that physical events have the mental properties that they do.  The third objection comes from Jaegwon Kim, which is that anomalous monism’s adherence to supervenience runs afoul of Kim’s “exclusion principle.”  The exclusion principle states that “no single event can have more than one sufficient cause occurring at any given time—unless this is a genuine case of causal determination.” [36]  Anomalous monism, says Kim, which holds that the mental is not reducible to the physical, ends up implying that any attempt to explain how one mental state causes another will have two possible and irreducibly distinct sufficient causes.  Again, this shows, according to Kim, that Davidson’s position results in epiphenomenalism.   Campbell deals with the second and third objections in Chapter Four.

Nevertheless, after defending Davidson on anomalous monism, Campbell argues that Davidson is wrong to think that reason-giving is a form of causal explanation.  Thus Campbell’s two main claims in the book are that “(1) mental events cause actions because they are token-identical to physical events; (2) explanations of intentional action that appeal to mental events (‘reason explanations’) are not causal explanations.” [5]  Campbell defends the latter thesis in Chapters Five and Six.  Campbell argues for what he calls “explanatory pluralism,” the idea that at least some events have multiple explanations, explanations of irreducibly different types.  In so arguing, Campbell concludes that Kim’s “exclusion principle” is unjustifiably constraining and fails to recognize different species of explanation.  Campbell is willing to admit that anomalous monism does entail a certain type of epiphenomenalism, but it is of an explanatory rather than of a metaphysical nature.  “Explanatory epiphenomenalism” [83 ff.] is no barrier to the full acceptance of physicalism, according to Campbell.  In fact, this approach might shed light on the perennial problem of the “explanatory gap” or the “hard problem” of consciousness—how the phenomenal properties of conscious experience can be captured in physical terms [103].  Campbell writes:

Given the anomalousness of the mental I claimed, as does Davidson, that the fact a physical event is also a mental event that rationalizes an action is not something one can determine from knowledge of the physical facts and the laws that determine them.  When events are characterized under their physical descriptions rationality drops out of the picture entirely.  This doesn’t mean that physics (or whatever the basic physical theory turns out to be) is incomplete.  Since explanation is an intenstional relation and functions only when events are appropriately described, one shouldn’t expect knowledge of the physical facts to entail knowledge of the rational relation between reasons and actions.  To think otherwise is to play fast and loose with the canonical form of explanation statements…. [103-104]

But where does this all leave us?  The mystery remains as to why consciousness admits of both physical causal “third person” explanation and “first person” mental explanation.  That “why” question might not, itself, be a problem to be solved but a paradox to be lived with.

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The End of the Book World???

The $9 bestseller?

The book that contains all books?

Personal exhaustion?

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Caputo on Žižek and Milbank

If you are one of those people for whom these kinds of things matter, you will want to check out Jack Caputo’s review of The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? by Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank.  If you are not familiar with the work of either Žižek or Milbank, perhaps this is not a bad (if critical) introductions to some basic ideas in their work.  To simplify, both thinkers in this book are taking the thought of G.W.F. Hegel as their starting point and “materialism” as their main concern [and not Jesus, btw…].  Žižek is pro-Hegel and Milbank is anti-Hegel, but, as Caputo shows, their “Hegel” is probably not the one you can find in, say, Hegel…or at least not in the standard readings of Hegel.  Žižek uses Hegel to argue for a radical materialism; Milbank argues against Hegel in favor of a materialism supported, instead, by the apparatus of the metaphysics of analogy [and here] of St. Thomas Aquinas.  So this is the question posed in the title of the book:  Does Hegel’s dialectic lead to a nihilistic dead end that is upended by the paradox of a God-made-man (Milbank)? Or, does Hegel’s dialectic demand the conclusion that God (divinity) died on the Cross, leaving us with no choice but a fully-demythologized materialistic view?  Caputo’s review lays this all out nicely.

Caputo’s estimation of all this?  He finds neither Žižek nor Milbank to be really interested in matter…i.e, matter doesn’t really matter for them.  Milbank denigrates matter by seeing it as a moment or a stage to be passed through on the way to the resurrected body (which, if matter, is no matter we’re familiar with)—his not-so-radical orthodoxy.  For Žižek, it is not so much matter that matters but our ability to embrace our fantasies and to give ourselves over to a Cause even though we know there is nothing more to what is than matter, despite the utter despair this produces.  The “matter” that matters to Žižek is “spectral” or virtual matter that is the result of our pursuit of desires, fantasies, causes.

In the end, Caputo thinks this debate on matter doesn’t really matter at all.  Why be forced to choose if presented by a false dilemma?

Why do we need the notion that at the metaphysical base of things there lies either a primordial peace or a primordial violence — or a primordial anything, at least one that we could ever get our hands on? Why do the multiple repetitions of which our lives are woven need to be cast either as a downbeat and futile search that will be always frustrated or as underwritten by an uplifting metaphysics of participation? Why inscribe either absolute contradiction or absolute peace at the heart of things instead of ambience and ambiguity? Why chaos instead of the unsteady chaosmotic process of unprogrammed becoming? Why not see life as a joyful but risky business that may turn out well or badly, a repetition forwards in which I produce what I am repeating, in which I invent what I am discovering, but in which I am divested of any assurances about what lies up ahead — let alone deep down at the metaphysical base of things? Žižek’s notion of the contingency of necessity is close to this insight, but he insists on treating the Deep Trauma like some Metaphysical Meteor that cratered downtown Ljubljana. Is this not just the search for a transcendental signifier all over again? Why do we have to believe that something deep is out there but alas it is lost and we are hopelessly searching for it?…

Why not adopt the post-metaphysical idea that gives up searching for all such primordial underlying somethings or other? Why must we posit either a primordial loss or a primordial gain? Is there some reason we get only two choices, either God as an illusion spun by the objet petit a or God as the Alpha and Omega, the really real and really Big A? Is this not simply metaphysics spinning its wheels all over again, a point Milbank supports when he says neither of these views can be proven (153)? All that is truly given is a promise/risk, what Derrida calls a “perhaps” not reducible to one or the other. Why must we believe that underneath it all is something profoundly productive or destructive? Why not simply confess that the “matter” that really matters is the risky matter of life, life marked by an unknowable and fundamental undecidability, an ineradicable secret or mystery which reminds us that we do not know who we are, that we do not know what is (deeply) what or what we truly want, yet to make this confession without nostalgia and without despair and without theological triumphalism but with a joyful sense of discovery?

To put this set of questions my own way:  Why not try to feel our way through [phronesis] that space between idolatry (a set-in-stone guarantee that it will all work out in the end and I know what “work out” means precisely; i.e., that I know God as the god-that-I-know, and the god-that-I-know is the One True God) and foolishness (that nothing matters, not even matter, and that what is is just what I say and nothing more, i.e., nothing more than nothing at all)?

My only reservations with Caputo’s review is the tendency that bubbles up here and there of the pot calling the kettle black.  Caputo doesn’t like Žižek’s nasty criticism of Derrida (whom Caputo loves), but then lays into G.K. Chesterton in a manner equally unfair—he “mocks mercilessly,” just as Žižek does Derrida.  Sometimes Caputo himself has, in his own words directed at Milbank, “a disturbing and dogmatic theological dismissiveness of anyone who disagrees with him.”  I risk this comment under the dictum, “he without sin cast the first stone….”  We all do this, I suppose.  But I do want to point out that Caputo’s is not the only (or best) way to read Chesterton….

I prefaced this review-of-a-review with a qualifier:  If you are one of those people for whom these kinds of things matter….  You don’t have to be.  As Caputo asks:

Does anyone really think the Sermon on the Mount has anything to do with any of this bombastic metaphysical tilting and jousting?

Jack’s message is this:  The matter that really matters is the flesh of your neighbor.  Just go take care of it….

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What’s to read?

Let’s see…anything good to read?

David Plotz says we should read the Bible, every single word of it.  And we should read his book, too.  Why?

Question: After someone reads the Slate article, do they have any reason to buy your book instead of just buying a Bible? What does your book have that a Bible doesn’t?
David Plotz: You can leave my book in the bathroom, and not feel guilty about it!
My book is by no means a substitute for the Bible. It’s an effort to bring a new, curious, irreverent perspective to a book that has been made inaccessible and difficult by clergy and academics. If there is anything I hope Good Book does, it is to show readers the exuberant, fascinating messiness of the Bible, and encourage them to read it themselves.

Seems like a good enough reason.

John Rawls also says (from the beyond the grave) that we should read the Bible.  He said the following in his recently published undergraduate thesis:

An ounce of the Bible is worth a pound (possibly a ton) of Aristotle.

Even the Peripatetic Prattler can’t disagree.

David Harvey says we should read Marx’s Capital.  He’ll even help us.

Economist and blogger  Paul Krugman says we should read torturers the riot act in order to reclaim America’s soul.  Why?

…because America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for […] the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

(“Never before”?  Really?  Maybe Krugman hasn’t read Zinn or Chomsky.  Maybe he doesn’t watch Democracy Now! Anyway, I hope his net’ll catch all the Democrats who were briefed a long time ago about all this, along with the Republican S.O.B.s).  You can read some of the relevant memos here.

A. N. Wilson says we shouldn’t bother reading C.S. Lewis.  Anything at all linguistic should be sufficient to lose our atheistic faith:

The phenomenon of language alone should give us pause. A materialist Darwinian was having dinner with me a few years ago and we laughingly alluded to how, as years go by, one forgets names. Eager, as committed Darwinians often are, to testify on any occasion, my friend asserted: “It is because when we were simply anthropoid apes, there was no need to distinguish between one another by giving names.”
This credal confession struck me as just as superstitious as believing in the historicity of Noah’s Ark. More so, really.
Do materialists really think that language just “evolved”, like finches’ beaks, or have they simply never thought about the matter rationally? Where’s the evidence? How could it come about that human beings all agreed that particular grunts carried particular connotations? How could it have come about that groups of anthropoid apes developed the amazing morphological complexity of a single sentence, let alone the whole grammatical mystery which has engaged Chomsky and others in our lifetime and linguists for time out of mind? No, the existence of language is one of the many phenomena – of which love and music are the two strongest – which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.

You can read an interview with this convert here.

Mark Edmundson says we shouldn’t be reading “readings.” Rather, we should just be reading.  He begins:

If I could make one wish for the members of my profession, college and university professors of literature, I would wish that for one year, two, three, or five, we would give up readings. By a reading, I mean the application of an analytical vocabulary — Marx’s, Freud’s, Foucault’s, Derrida’s, or whoever’s — to describe and (usually) to judge a work of literary art. I wish that we’d declare a moratorium on readings. I wish that we’d give readings a rest.

Amen, brother!

And speaking of amen, the Pope will have to read this secret memo (scroll down…it’s the second piece) before President Obama will visit the Vatican.

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