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Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Creative genius on the edge

Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counte...

Rousseau (Photo: Wikipedia)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a French speaking political writer and educator born in Geneva, Switzerland.

After taking various odd jobs this self-taught intellectual moved to Paris in 1741, meeting up with Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists.

A kind of romantic naturalism pervades much of his work, which many equate with the idea of the “noble savage.”

Many see the noble savage as one who rejects stultifying conventions and religious promises of an afterlife in favor of spontaneous desire and worldly affections.

But this is another myth that students of Rousseau say does not apply to his work. In reference to Rousseau’s belief in stages of human development, Wikipedia notes:

Rousseau believed that the savage stage was not the first stage of human development, but the third stage. Rousseau held that this third savage stage of human societal development was an optimum, between the extreme of the state of brute animals and animal-like “ape-men” on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilized life on the other. This has led some critics to attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage, which Arthur Lovejoy conclusively showed misrepresents Rousseau’s thought.¹

Voltaire & Rousseau

Voltaire & Rousseau by Anne via Flickr

In 1754 Rousseau wrote Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Amongst Men, outlining an apparently innate sense of freedom and perfectibility in human beings, in contrast to the corrupting powers of institutions.

In Luxembourg from 1757-1762 he wrote The Social Contract, which had a significant bearing on the French revolution, as exemplified by Rousseau’s cry for ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ The Social Contract produced the famous line, “man is born free, but everywhere is in chains.” This work remains a cornerstone in modern political theory, but has roots in ancient Greece and Rome.

In 1762 Rousseau published the novel, Emile. Its critique of the monarchy and government bureaucracy got him into hot water with the authorities. To avoid arrest he retreated to Switzerland, ultimately to end up in England with the support of the philosopher David Hume.

Rousseau later wrote his Confessions and returned to Paris in 1767, ignoring the threat of an outstanding arrest warrant. He continued to write but became hypersensitive to perceived threats. Some of these threats may have been real and others exaggerated. For instance, he believed that Hume was conspiring against him, which may have been partly true. And Voltaire accused him of burning down the theater at Geneva in 1768.²

Devon Hollahan – Paranoid android via Flickr

Some say that Rousseau was paranoid during this period. But I prefer to think of him as confusing actual and perceived threats.

When people are threatened, possibly traumatized and lied to, and all they have is their intuition to guide them, it’s hardly surprising that they make interpretive mistakes. They sense the bad vibes from others, which are real. But unless they train themselves to treat every perceived threat as a hypothesis instead of a fact, they could become overwhelmed and see some non-threats as threats.³

Rousseau also took some heat for his views on religion, which challenged both Catholic and Calvinist teachings. Rousseau was a precursor to those Romantics who see God in natural creation and society as something other and potentially corrupting. He rejected the belief in original sin and was upset that his views gained much criticism while the religious authorities were indifferent to the atheistic philosophers of the day.4

Related » Enlightenment

The house where Rousseau was born at number 40, Grand-Rue. – Wikipedia

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau

² Ibid. Hume had offered to filter and forward Rousseau’s more important incoming mail, to which Rousseau agreed. But there is some evidence that Hume also read Rousseau’s outgoing mail, which was not agreed upon. This only goes to show that creeps who somehow think they’re justified in violating personal privacy – just because they can – have been around for a very long time. It’s not something unique to the cyber age.

³ Of course, it’s not easy to support or reject these hypotheses because some threatening people are pathological liars and polished fakers. As for those generating the bad vibes, I believe God will deal with them – fairly – in good time.

4 This situation has been tentatively explained by the sociological “in-group / out-group” theory. According the theory, people in an in-group feel more threatened or irritated by an out-group when the out-group shares some but not all of the in-group’s views and practices. So for example, some Americans and Canadians look down on and insult one another because inhabitants share some but not all elements with the other country. But neither Americans nor Canadians become emotionally invested or insulting toward peaceful, faraway lands that are fundamentally different. Most just couldn’t care less. It’s the partial similarity that stirs up discontent between in-groups and out-groups.

 Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (3quarksdaily.com)

  New New Left Ideology Controls the Democratic Party (americanthinker.com)

 The Concept of Facts Is Newer Than You Think (time.com)

 Scots sick and tired of Sturgeon’s independence referendum ‘rabble rousing’ (express.co.uk)

 Eurozone economy overtakes UK as France and Germany accelerate (telegraph.co.uk)

 [Nelson Lund] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Not a nut, not a leftist and not an irresponsible intellectual (washingtonpost.com)

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Science

David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

David Hume (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science [Latin scientia = knowledge] (revised Aug 17 2016)

Hard and Soft

Science has, at the very least, two meanings. The first meaning is most commonly found in the natural and physical sciences. In these so-called “hard” sciences, science develops laws and theories from the systematic observation of nature.

These laws and theories, according to most definitions, may be supported or disproved. This is made possible by the fact that, once published, scientific results become public. As public knowledge, new findings (and the theories derived from them) are subject to peer review and, when appropriate, replication.

The other meaning of science is far more opaque, usually cropping up in the so-called “soft” social sciences.

Political science, sociology and psychoanalysis, for instance, rely on theories. But these theories often depend on selective, scant or questionable empirical research. And they tend to use correlational or multivariate instead of causal experimental designs.

Correlational studies merely tell us that, in certain circumstances, two variables of interest occur together in some degree of statistical probability, whereas multivariate designs look at any number of variables and attempt to determine their probability of occurring together.

Most agree that no definitive causality can be claimed with either correlational or multivatiate designs.  However, this is some debate on this issue. Many agree that causality cannot be demonstrated in the social sciences. But we can point to the reality of “strong” and “weak” correlations—hence the important offshoot of science, statistics and probability.

Critiques of Science

Theological

English: Science icon from Nuvola icon theme f...

Science icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Theological critiques of science have two branches. On the one hand, some theologians warn against adopting a false moral neutrality that some scientists apparently advocate. This debate usually makes headlines whenever stories about abortion or same sex marriage arise.

The other branch relates to the theological claim that conventional science cannot account for nor predict revealed, infused or illuminated forms of knowledge. And to complicate matters, some theologians say theology, itself, is a science. And not only that. It is the “noblest” science.¹

Philosophical

Without getting too deep, it is important to take a step back and question some of the assumptions that science rests upon or, perhaps, implies. This is what philosophers tend to do.² For example, they ask does our world always operate in a uniform and predictable manner?

Critics also maintain that science cannot explain everything. Human experiences like love, free will, morality and identity are somewhat mysterious. We might be able to trace brain patterns, chemical interactions and response times in a lab. But this is only looking from one perspective, and from the outside.

And most would agree that correlational and multivariate studies in any branch of science do not adequately explain why things happen. We often hear the word “link” in scientific reporting. For instance, “Scientists Find Link Between Dopamine and Obesity.” But this does not tell us what causes what.

“It’s possible that obese people have fewer dopamine receptors because their brains are trying to compensate for having chronically high dopamine levels, which are triggered by chronic overeating,” says Wang. “However, it’s also possible that these people have low numbers of dopamine receptors to begin with, making them more vulnerable to addictive behaviors including compulsive food intake.”³

Other critiques highlight the role of human bias, usually called experimental or experimentor bias. In a nutshell, human bias influences the selection, observation, interpretation, analysis and presentation of data.

Also important is Karl Popper’s argument that scientific truth claims can only be disproved, never proved.4

English: The OWNER of this passport picture of...

The OWNER of this passport picture of Willard Van Orman Quine is Dr. Douglas Quine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sociological

Sociological critiques of science do not ignore philosophical issues but tend to focus on the role of social power in shaping, legitimizing and reproducing scientific truth claims within the broader context of a given society’s sense of normality.

Some writers, like Broad and Wade, report cases where scientific credentials have been forged and results fabricated.5 And some cultural theorists, particularly postmodern, see science as just another conceptual game, fiction, strategy, agenda, or discourse posing as truth.

From this it’s clear that science is far more complicated than what the media usually portrays. But the word “science” still has power to sway the masses, a power arguably out of sync with the realities of its complexity.

If we apply just some of these well-known critiques to recent trends about Climate Change, a virtual hailstorm of criticism will likely descend. In a sense, science really has become the new religion. Simply use your mind to question data selection, application, interpretation and presentation and you might not be labelled a “heretic” as in the Middle Ages. No, in the 21st century, you will probably be called a “denyer,” a term which ironically rests on (weakly scientific) psychoanalytic assumptions relating to a theory of “denial.”6

Anima and Animus – from concepts developed by Dr. Carl Jung, who tried to integrate psychology and spirituality (via Pinterest)

Depth and Transpersonal Psychology

Contemporary depth and transpersonal psychologists and those hoping to integrate science, religion and spirituality say a new form of science, beyond immediate biological, behavioral, psychological, social and environmental factors, is required to better account for the workings of the psyche in relation to the universe and God.

Some preliminary attempts at integration have been made. But the process is still in the germinal phase. Considering the vastness and mystery of life, the universe and beyond, this is not surprising. What is surprising is how dogmatic groups in possession of social power can sway the masses into thinking they have everything figured out. To me, this is not only ludicrous. But sometimes dangerous.7

¹ Recently TVO did a segment where two believing American scientists talk about science and religion. There’s no great depth here, and some of the statements wouldn’t wash in Canada, which arguably in matters of world faith and multiculturalism is several decades ahead of the USA. But it’s worth watching. http://tvo.org/video/programs/the-agenda-with-steve-paikin/scientists-on-religion

² David Hume goes so far as to critique the entire idea of causality. I think Hume’s critique is quite convincing, to the extent that it seems reasonable to say that most everything comes down to belief instead of knowledge.

³ Scientists Find Link Between Dopamine and Obesity in Brookhaven National Laboratory, February 1, 2001 » http://www.bnl.gov/bnlweb/pubaf/pr/2001/bnlpr020101.htm.

4 Perhaps a bit too detailed for the bulk of this entry, Willard Quine says empiricism (which science rests upon) contains “two dogmas.” One dogma is the distinction often made between Kant‘s analytic and synthetic propositions. In the simplest terms these are, respectively, intellectual constructs understood to be true in themselves vs. intellectual constructs taken to be true by virtue of how they relate to the world. Quine’s second dogma is reductionism, the belief that naming and meaning are the same.

5 Betrayers of the Truth, 1982. And more recent examples of outright fraud in science:

Sir John Houghton speaking at a climate change...

Sir John Houghton speaking at a climate change conference in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6 Global Warming activists/alarmists also overlook the reality that scientific research in support of the prevailing global political agenda have a much better chance of getting funding than those that question the data collection and interpretation behind it. This does not represent a scientific attitude, one that wants to get at truth. Rather, it’s yet another example of societal power-players hoping to reinforce whatever views they find important, and for whatever reasons they may really have.

In psychiatry, for example, some doctors prescribe medications (arguably a legitimizing term for drugs) without really knowing whether they are doing more harm than good. See https://epages.wordpress.com/2015/12/21/the-human-side-of-science

Related » Archaeology, Aristotle, Chakras, Emic-Etic, Fundamentalism, Galileo Galilei, Ideal Types, Myth, Particle-Wave Duality, Phenomenology, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Saint-Simon (Comte Henri de), Scientism, Semiology

 


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Atheism

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Atheism [Greek (atheos) = without god or gods] is the belief that God does not exist.

If one were to say that they are “of the opinion” that God does not exist, then they more correctly would be called an agnostic.

Famous atheists include the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and, some say, the philosopher David Hume. Hume was denied a professorship for his beliefs. However, some maintain he was not an atheist but only misinterpreted as one.

The Physicist Russell Targ, best known for his advocacy of ‘remote viewing,’ believes that atheism is an unscientific position, favoring instead agnosticism.

Several religions are listed as atheistic at Wikipedia, to include Buddhism, Jainism, and even Hinduism. But one has to be careful here because the concept of atheism, itself, has different meanings. Moreover, each religion has a different take on the idea of “God.” So countless hours could be spent debating whether or not a given religion really rejects the idea of God or not. This is a common problem when we get into debates about religion. No matter how hard we try to define our terms, we’re still using language. And language meanings are arguably always open to interpretation.

Related Posts » Deism, Theism, Pantheism


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Behaviorism

B.F. Skinner playing tic-tac-toe against a trained chicken (not pictured). It is noted that despite playing numerous games, Skinner was never able to defeat the bird. – Via Tumblr

Behaviorism is a psychological theory that sees mankind as operating more like a machine than as a free agent. Its modern form arose in reaction to so-called armchair philosophers, depth psychologists and alleged mystics who tried to understand human motivation in terms of what went on inside the mind or soul. For behaviorists, what really counts is what we can directly observe—in a word, behavior.

This approach is traceable to thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke David Hume, George Berkeley and David Hartley. Hobbes viewed man as a natural and social creature, while the others stressed the importance of the association of ideas.

In 1739, the so-called British empiricist philosopher David Hume wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature:

The qualities, from which…association arises, and by which the mind is after this manner conveyed from one idea to another, are three, viz. resemblance, contiguity in time or place, and cause and effect.¹

Most will say that the scientific study of behaviorism begins with the Russian, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), who conditioned dogs to salivate not just at the sight of food but also at the sound of a bell that preceded feeding.

The American psychologist J. B. Watson (1878-1958) generalized these findings to human beings, emphasizing the importance of recency and frequency. This means that if we’ve smiled every time we’ve seen a child for the past ten years, we’re very likely to smile if we see a child today. The American B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) extended this system to include the idea of positive and negative reinforcement.

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Pavlov’s type of learning is usually called classical conditioning, while Skinner’s is called operant conditioning. Skinner soon became the most popular advocate of behaviorism. He argues that past reinforcements determine behavior. We learn to repeat or decline behaviors based on their consequences. This is called the Stimulus-Response-Reinforcement (S-R-R) model.

Skinner also formulated the idea of shaping. By controlling the environmental rewards and punishments for behaviors, one is able to shape behavior. Psychologist also call this behavior modification.

Critics of behaviorism say it depicts a soulless, mechanistic view of mankind. Instead of resembling a pleasure-seeking machine, critics say that human beings are uniquely free, replete with emotional, intuitive, intellectual and spiritual concerns extending well beyond the narrow confines of reward and punishment.

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Daniel Dennett contends that human beings are Skinnerian, Popperian and also Darwinian creatures. This means that we learn from stimulus, response and reinforcement but we also have the inner ability to test our hypotheses prior to enacting them in the real world.

This challenges Skinner’s anti-mentalism, as does Dennett’s Darwinian component. According to Dennett we act partially in accord with ancestrally acquired knowledge. A good example of this can be found in our capacity for language. Because of our language skills, many believe that human beings are hard-wired to learn languages. And we do, in fact, learn language if we’re raised in the right kind of environment, whereas a child parented by wolves in the wild won’t learn how to speak a language.²

¹ David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature London: Collins, 1962 [1739], p. 54.

² Wittgenstein’s notion of a private language might seem to challenge this idea. But Wittgenstein, himself, argues that any kind of representation that isn’t socially shared cannot truly be language. More recently, the postmodern notion of connotation complicates this claim. Some postmoderns ask:  If everyone understands signs differently, are we really communicating?


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Causality

Spurious Causality

Spurious Causality by y3rdua via Flickr

Causality is the belief that a second event is the consequence of a first event. This is usually described as a relationship between a cause (first event) and an effect (second event).¹ Not everyone sees causality as a belief. But from a mature philosophical perspective, that’s exactly what it is.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle saw causality in terms of four interrelated causes or explanatory factors:

  • The material cause: The raw material used to make an object (e.g. wood)
  • The formal cause: What the object will be (e.g. a chair)
  • The efficient cause: How the object is created (builder)
  • The final cause: The object’s function or purpose (it is used for sitting)

This teleological perspective is based on Aristotle’s belief that a valid distinction can be made between a thing’s essence and its observable form.²

Perhaps in keeping with Aristotle’s idea of a “formal cause,” Michelangelo said that, when sculpting, he simply removed the stone that hid the figure already existing within.

The idea of one event causing another event has been critically examined. The philosopher David Hume suggested that the idea of causality is nothing more than an expectation based on past experience and human limitations.

David Hume

David Hume (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hume’s critique of the belief in cause and effect challenges our conventional way of seeing. All we can be sure of, says Hume, is that certain events occur one after another in a given region and for a certain duration.

In billiards, for instance, the white ball appears to cause the motion of other balls when impacting them on the gaming table. But here’s the radical part. Hume says that all we can truly know is that, in the past, the first ball impacted and the other balls moved. We cannot prove that the first ball’s impact will always be followed by movement of the other balls. And for Hume, there is no rational way to demonstrate a causal connection:

Reason can never shew us the connexion of one object with another, tho’ aided by experience, and the observation of their constant conjunction in all past instances. When the mind, therefore, passes from the idea or impression of one object to the idea or belief of another, it is not determin’d by reason, but by certain principles, which associate together the ideas of these objects, and unite them in the imagination.³

Put differently, from prior experience we build up a series of expectations and habitual ways of interpreting observations. Hume calls these “ideas.” But ideas they simply are. Although we expect the billiard balls to move, we have no way of proving or knowing that they always will.

At first, this may seem absurd. But Hume’s critique of causality had a profound effect on one of the most important thinkers in the history of Western philosophy, Immanuel Kant. Mortimer Adler says “…Kant tells us that David Hume awakened him from his dogmatic slumbers.”4

Particle tracks in a cloud chamber

Particle tracks in a cloud chamber by Ethan Hein via Flickr

In addition, developments in subatomic physics, especially concerning particle reaction chambers, have challenged many longstanding assumptions about causality. On a quantum level of reality, contemporary physicists claim that observations of subatomic particles support the ideas of probability and simultaneity instead of linear causality.5

This radical uncertainty is reflected in the arts and in the depth psychiatry of C. G. Jung, whose concept of synchronicity suggests the possibility of non-causality or acausality.

¹ Wikipedia gives a standard definition that most would accept: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causality

² A distinction that the Catholic Church adheres to when explaining the efficacy of the Eucharist.

³ David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1896 ed.), SECTION VI.: Of the inference from the impression to the idea, paragraph 278.

4 Adler, Mortimer J. (1996). Ten Philosophical Mistakes. Simon & Schuster. p. 94, cited at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critique_of_Pure_Reason#cite_note-2

5 Some argue, however, that it’s invalid to compare quantum and macroscopic levels of reality because subatomic particles exist in an entirely different arena, and behave in different ways than the larger aggregate objects which they make up.

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David Hume

David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed those of 20th century emotivists via Wikipedia

David Hume (1711-76) was a Scottish philosopher who developed a naturalist perspective on all aspects of human life.

For Hume, the highest good is based on the pursuit of happiness. We are personally happy when we’re good to others, not due to some high spiritual reward but because this approach leads to a harmonious social whole. So personal and social well-being go hand in hand.

This means that morality isn’t based on austere rational principles but on the desire for enjoyment. Accordingly, Hume believes that reason cannot determine anything without experience. And he goes as far to say that reason is the “slave of passion.”

Hume’s metaphysics, in particular his critique of the belief in cause and effect, remains an important challenge to our conventional way of seeing. All we can be sure of, says Hume, is that certain events occur one after another in a given region and for a certain duration.

In billiards, for instance, the white ball appears to cause the motion of other balls when impacting them on the gaming table. But here’s the radical part. Hume says that all we can truly know is that, in the past, the first ball impacted and the other balls moved. We cannot prove that the first ball’s impact will always be followed by movement of the other balls. And for Hume, there is no rational way to demonstrate a causal connection:

Reason can never shew us the connexion of one object with another, tho’ aided by experience, and the observation of their constant conjunction in all past instances. When the mind, therefore, passes from the idea or impression of one object to the idea or belief of another, it is not determin’d by reason, but by certain principles, which associate together the ideas of these objects, and unite them in the imagination.¹

Put differently, from prior experience we build up a series of expectations and habitual ways of interpreting observations. Hume calls these “ideas.” But ideas they simply are. Although we expect the billiard balls to move, we have no way of proving or knowing that they always will.

At first, this may seem absurd. But Hume’s critique of causality had a profound effect on one of the most important thinkers in the history of Western philosophy, Immanuel Kant.  Mortimer Adler says “…Kant tells us that David Hume awakened him from his dogmatic slumbers.”²

In addition, on a quantum level of reality, contemporary physicists claim that observations of subatomic particles support the ideas of probability and simultaneity instead of linear causality.

However, some say it’s invalid to compare quantum and macroscopic levels of reality because subatomic particles exist in an entirely different arena, and behave in different ways than the larger aggregate objects which they make up.

This debate continues to this day, the answer to which might depend on one’s core beliefs and related worldview. Or in Hume’s terms, one’s “customs of thought.”

Related Posts » Atheism, Behaviorism, Mill (John Stuart), Roberts (Jane), Rousseau (Jean Jacques), Smith (Adam), Synchronicity, Unconscious, William of Ockham

¹ David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1896 ed.), SECTION VI.: Of the inference from the impression to the idea, paragraph 278.

² Adler, Mortimer J. (1996). Ten Philosophical Mistakes. Simon & Schuster. p. 94, cited at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critique_of_Pure_Reason#cite_note-2