Nagel and his critics, Part IV

Continuing our look at the critics of Thomas Nagel’s recent book Mind and Cosmos, we turn to philosopher Alva Noë’s very interesting remarks over at NPR’s 13.7: Cosmos & Culture blog.  Noë’s initial comments might seem broadly sympathetic to Nagel’s position.  He writes:

Science has produced no standard account of the origins of life.

We have a superb understanding of how we get biological variety from simple, living starting points. We can thank Darwin for that. And we know that life in its simplest forms is built up out of inorganic stuff. But we don't have any account of how life springs forth from the supposed primordial soup. This is an explanatory gap we have no idea how to bridge.

Science also lacks even a back-of-the-envelop [sic] concept explaining the emergence of consciousness from the behavior of mere matter. We have an elaborate understanding of the ways in which experience depends on neurobiology. But how consciousness arises out of the action of neurons, or how low-level chemical or atomic processes might explain why we are conscious — we haven't a clue.

We aren't even really sure what questions we should be asking.

These two explanatory gaps are strikingly similar… In both cases we have large-scale phenomena in view (life, consciousness) and an exquisitely detailed understanding of the low-level processes that sustain these phenomena (biochemistry, neuroscience, etc). But we lack any way of making sense of the idea that the higher-level phenomena just come down to, or consist of, what is going on at the lower level.

End quote.  Now an Aristotelian would say that this is precisely what we should expect.  What modern biologists and neuroscientists have uncovered in exquisite detail are the material-cum-efficient causes of the phenomena of life and consciousness.  But that is only half the story, for there are also irreducible final and formal causes -- the inherent teleological features natural objects exhibit by virtue of their substantial forms -- and you are never going to capture those features in terms of material and efficient causality.  That is (one reason) why there always seems to be something left out in materialist accounts of life and consciousness.

There is a mystery here only if you suppose that “lower-level” descriptions are somehow more privileged than “higher-level” descriptions.  And that, we old-fashioned Aristotelians would argue, is something there is no good reason to believe in the first place.  It is merely a metaphysical dogma -- as old as Democritus and Leucippus but no more plausible now than it was in their day -- that is read into the scientific facts rather than read out of them.  In the case at hand, what Noë is describing confirms the traditional Aristotelian view that there is a difference in kind and not merely degree between the organic and the inorganic, and between sensory and vegetative forms of life (in the technical Aristotelian sense of “vegetative,” which does not correspond exactly to the colloquial use of that term).

This has nothing to do with vitalism, “Intelligent Design” theory, and other such bogeymen, and one reason Nagel’s inchoate neo-Aristotelianism may be troubling to his more ideological critics is precisely that it undermines the false dilemma that is the naturalist’s main rhetorical weapon: “Either accept some form of naturalism or you’ll be stuck with magic, obscurantism, or a god-of-the-gaps.”  For though Nagel’s own version is inchoate, neo-Aristotelianism cannot be dismissed as philosophically unserious, and has been worked out in more systematic detail by a number of prominent contemporary philosophers.  (I noted several examples in the first post in this series.  For a recent defense of a neo-Aristotelian position in biology, specifically, see David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.  I’ve criticized biological reductionism from an Aristotelian point of view in several earlier posts, such as this one, this one, and this one; and neuroscientific reductionism in several other posts, such as this one and this one.)

Now, Noë himself is no ideologue.  This is evidenced not only by the comments already cited, but by his recognition of the depth of the difficulties facing materialism, and of their roots in the very nature of the scientific revolution:

The scientific revolution took its impulse from what the philosopher Bernard Williams called the Absolute Conception of Reality. This is a conception of the world as "it really is" entirely apart from how it appears to us: a colorless, odorless value-free domain of particles and complexes moving in accordance with timeless and immutable mathematical laws. The world so conceived has no place for mind in it. No intention. No purpose. If there is mind — and of course the great scientific revolutionaries such as Descartes and Newton would not deny that there is mind — it exists apart from and unconnected to the material world as this was conceived of by the New Science.

If modern science begins by shaping a conception of the cosmos, its subject matter, in such a way as to exclude mind and life, then it shouldn't come as a surprise that we can't seem to find a place for them in the natural order so conceived.

This is why Nagel observes, at the beginning of his book, that the mind-body problem isn't just a local problem concerning brains, behavior and the mind; correctly understood it invades our understanding of the cosmos itself and its history. 

End quote.  This is a point I’ve emphasized in my own work many times and which (as I’ve emphasized in the earlier posts in this series) has informed Nagel’s own thinking since his article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”  Though materialists sometimes suggest that dualism represents a reluctance consistently to follow out the implications of the scientific revolution, the truth is precisely the reverse -- in fact it was the re-conception of matter put forward by the founders of the scientific revolution that led to (Cartesian forms of) dualism.  

Noë even dismisses as “superficial and unsatisfying” the suggestion of critics like Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg that Nagel’s arguments have little merit given that most philosophers today would probably reject the claim that neuroscience, biology, and chemistry can all be reduced to physics.  For as Noë correctly observes:

[T]here is no stable or deeply understood account of how these autonomous domains fit together. The fact that we are getting along with business as if there were such an account is, well, a political or sociological fact about us that should do little to reassure.

End quote.  As I noted in the two previous posts in this series, the autonomy of these sciences, far from saving naturalism from critiques like Nagel’s, itself only provides further vindication of the holistic Aristotelian account of the natural phenomena studied by these special sciences -- just the sort of position toward which Nagel points, however sketchily.

All the same, Noë resists following Nagel’s call for a radical rethinking of the naturalist consensus.  (And now I get to justify my illustration of Noë as playing Dr. No to Nagel’s James Bond.  All in fun, Prof. Noë!)   Noë proposes instead that:

[T]here is another strategy for responding to the explanatory gaps. This has been one of philosophy's orthodox strategies at least since Kant and it is an approach championed by many of the 20th century's greatest thinkers, from Carnap and the logical positivists down through Wittgenstein and Ryle, to Dennett. According to this strategy, the seeming gaps are, really, a cognitive illusion. We think we can't explain life, but only because we insist on adhering to a conception of life as vaguely spooky, some sort of vital spirit. And likewise, we think we can't explain consciousness, but again this is because we cling to a conception of consciousness as, well, somehow spiritual, and precisely because we insist on thinking of it as something that floats free of its physical substrates ("a ghost in the machine"), as something essentially interior and private. Once we clear away these confusions, so this alternative would have it, we realize that we don't need to solve any special problems about life and mind. There never were any problems.

End quote.  There are several things that can be said in response to this strategy.  For one thing, and as I have already indicated, “vital spirits,” ghosts, and the like are straw men, at least if directed at Aristotelianism.  (Though frankly, they’re not really fair against Cartesianism either, but I’ll let the Cartesians defend themselves.)  It simply is not the case that to reject materialistic naturalism is to opt for magical or otherwise “spooky” forces and entities; it is, rather, simply to opt for an alternative metaphysics (and I have explained the difference between magic and metaphysics elsewhere).  Of course, Noë might not really be suggesting that critics of materialistic naturalism are committed to magic or other pseudo-explanations.  He may merely be suggesting that explanations of a materialistic naturalist sort are preferableto non-materialist explanations, even if the latter are genuine explanations.  But if that is what he means then he is begging the question, since whether materialistic explanations are to be preferred to non-materialist ones is part of what is at issue in the larger debate between Nagel and his critics.  

But put to one side the question of what positive alternatives there might be to the materialistic naturalism that is Nagel’s target -- neo-Aristotelian hylemorphism, Cartesian dualism, vitalism, idealism, panpsychism, neutral monism, or whatever.  Noë’s response would fail even if none of these alternatives was any good.  To see why, suppose that a critic of Gödel's incompleteness theorems suggested that every true arithmetical statement in a formal system capable of expressing arithmetic really is in fact provable within the system, and that the consistency of arithmetic canin fact be proved from within arithmetic itself -- and that Gödel's arguments seem to show otherwise only because of a “cognitive illusion” that makes formal systems seem “vaguely spooky.”

This would not be a serious response to Gödel precisely because it simply does not show that Gödel is wrong but either presupposes or merely asserts that he is wrong.  Gödel purports to demonstrate his claims.  Hence, adequately to answer him would require showing that there is something wrong with his attempted demonstration, not merely staking out a position that assumes that there is something wrong with it.  Similarly, many of the key arguments against materialistic naturalism -- Chalmers’ “zombie argument,” Jackson’s “knowledge argument,” Ross’s argument for the immateriality of thought, etc. -- purport to demonstrate that materialistic naturalism is false.  Adequately to answer them requires showing that there is some error in the attempted demonstrations, and the appeal to an alleged “cognitive illusion” simply assumesthis without showing it.  It merely begs the question.

Furthermore, there would only be pressure to take the “cognitive illusion” suggestion seriously if we had independent reason to think that materialistic naturalism simply has to be right.  And there is no such reason.  Its defenders often point to the “success” of materialistic explanations as reason to think materialistic naturalism is true, but as I have pointed out many times (e.g. here), this sort of argument, however popular, is blatantly fallacious.  To argue:

1. The predictive power and technological applications of materialistic modes of explanation are unparalleled by those of any other purported source of knowledge.

2. Therefore what materialistic explanations reveal to us is all that is real.

is as silly as arguing:

1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has.

2. Therefore what metal detectors reveal to us (coins and other metallic objects) is all that is real.

Metal detectors are keyed to those aspects of the natural world susceptible of detection via electromagnetic means (or whatever).  But however well they perform this task -- indeed, even if they succeeded on every single occasion they were deployed -- it simply wouldn’t follow for a moment that there are no aspects of the natural world other than the ones they are sensitive to.  Similarly, what materialistic explanations do is to capture those aspects of the natural world susceptible of a materialist analysis -- breaking down larger systems into component material parts, mathematically modeling the parts and their combinations, testing the predictions that follow from these models, and so forth.  But here too, it simply doesn’t follow for a moment that there are no other aspects of the natural world. 

Suppose someone beholden to the idea that coins and other metallic objects are all that exist was confronted with all the obvious counterevidence -- trees, rocks, people, animals, glass, plastic, and all the other non-metal objects there are.  And suppose he acknowledged that there is an “explanatory gap” here but that it rested on a “cognitive illusion” that made trees, rocks, etc. seem “vaguely spooky” insofar as they appeared to “float free of their metallic substrates.”  Of course, no one would take such an absurd suggestion seriously for a moment.  But neither is there any non-question-begging reason to take seriously the suggestion that all the counterevidence to materialistic naturalism rests on a “cognitive illusion.”

As E. A. Burtt warned in his classic book The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, those impressed by the methods of modern science are prone to “make a metaphysics out of [that] method,” to judge reality by the method rather than judging the method against reality.  That is in fact the “cognitive illusion” operative in the debate between materialistic naturalism and its critics, and it seems it is an illusion to which even a reasonable man like Noë might be subject.

Comment Commencing Comments

I've heard from a few readers lately who've said they miss being able to comment. I miss having them, too, for the most part. I think my reason for stopping them was rising frustration over the political scene during the campaign, and a feeling of not needing any more aggravation. Most legitimate (to use a word having recent political implications) comments are not, in fact, aggravating. Having gotten rid of word verification, though, I got tons of spam; and whereas it's only a click to get rid of it, it's really annoying. Plus, once in a while Blogger fails to email me about a new comment, and sometimes I forget to check the pending page, so some people end up thinking I've shit-canned them when I haven't.

But what the heck! Not allowing comments seems a little cowardly. I'd said I'd post the occasional emailed comments, like Andrew Sullivan does. But he gets a few million hits a month and, presumably, tons of emails. Here, not so much.

Anyhow, let's go at it again. Comments will resume, sparse as they may have been and will be. And since I've also heard from people who thought the kibosh was the right move, I'll be a little more scrupulous in managing what gets through and what doesn't.

Ironically, this comes at a time when my vim vigor and verve are vanishing.

[Update: wow, it took exactly three minutes for the first spam comment to arrive...]

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Assholes, Idiots, And Poopyheads

It's so painful following the so-called negotiations over the much-called fiscal cliff, that I don't think I can do it. What a bunch of disingenuous posturing self-indulgent borderline criminals. The whole bunch of them. Each side demanding the other makes the first move. Every participant heading for the cameras to condemn the other side. Cheerleaders from the sidelines and fringes, demanding no quarter, fanning the flames.

I'd say it's time to call in actual negotiators, arbitrators who've done tough ones, let them do what people actually do when they're trying to reach agreement: talk, listen, propose, counter, and do it behind closed doors and staying away from the limelight. Committed to doing something for the good of those whose future is at stake, rather than for their own preening and grandstanding.

Who do these people think they are? Really, it's a serious question. Do they see themselves as entrusted with the task of doing the country's business, or are they just a bunch of egoists bent on making the most noise, turning the greatest number of heads in their direction? These despicable souls are like the owners of a pro sports league and the players during a strike: strutting, calling the other side names, crying foul. Except that unlike those people, already more wealthy than fifty of us will ever be, are negotiating only for their own inflated self-interest; and the outcome has almost entirely esoteric impact.

Our elected representatives, on the other hand, have the future of hundreds of millions of people in their hands, and they act like it's just about themselves. And, of course, a handful of their biggest donors. I find it truly and deeply depressing. Appalling.

I just saw the movie "Lincoln." I thought it was pretty well-done, a little Spielbergian sappiness here and there, but what was likely a reasonably realistic rendition of the politics surrounding the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, based, as it was, on DKG's book. (I've read, though, that the implied urgency of getting it done during the lame-duck session was overblown.) Back then, playing to the press meant taking note of a few people taking notes in the balcony. The weight of the outcome was heavily felt and deeply considered by both sides. I wouldn't say there was much in the way of compromise, given the black and white, as it were, nature of the issue. But a key moment occurred when Thaddeus Stevens (I believe it, because Tommy Lee Jones, who played him, was a classmate of my wife at Harvard) was willing to tone down his rhetoric in order to gain a vote or two.

People spoke like speakers, back then. Using language. To each other. To persuade, and, of course, to annoy. To get a laugh. Since (I assume, without looking it up) there are records of the sessions, I presume the rhetoric in the movie was reasonably true to the times. It was good stuff. Puffery, to be sure; but weighted with the importance of the issue at hand, freighted with understanding that there were serious implications, good and bad, on both sides of the matter. Looking at our barely articulate and demonstrably stupid congressional leaders nowadays, it seems democracy wasn't meant for these times. It was meant for times when representatives -- and those who elected them -- were half-way (at minimum) educated; when people focused more on issues than on personal aggrandizement (did they? I think so) and when bribery meant something prosaic, like becoming postmaster of a backwater county, rather than having tens of millions funneled into a super-pac with no rules.

The reelection of Barack Obama was a good thing: it was, so I'd like to think, a repudiation of lying as political strategy, and an affirmation of his accomplishments in the first term. But if the non-negotiations  so far are an indicator, not a damn thing has changed in Congress: it's still led by pig-headed and self-absorbed losers more interested in themselves, their personal power, than in doing what democracy requires: negotiating in good faith, putting the interests of country ahead of those of person or party, and, above all, willingness to compromise to get there.

A pox on both houses in both Houses. I can't stand looking at any of them.

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"Army": New Meaning

This picture appeared in The Seattle Times the other day, part of a pretty interesting story, actually, about a guy from around here they call "the IED whisperer" in Afghanistan. Not wishing to detract from the story itself, nevertheless I find the picture pretty amusing. (I admit to editing slightly, but only to remove an irrelevant part. The original is findable in the article.) (I also admit to being hypomotivated; thus the digging into unpublished drafts from the past.)


Another Reason to Take Up Golf: Both Sexes Find Golfers Attractive

Attractive Golfers?                 photo credit: sezidesign via photopin cc
As any golf evangelist will tell you, there are myriad reasons to take up the sport: the social aspect, the outdoors-in-nature aspect and the fact that golf is a game one can play for a lifetime, are three that come up frequently. And there are tons of others - a google search brings up more lists of "reasons to play golf" than you can swing a seven iron at.

However, there's one incentive that didn't appear on any of the lists I looked at, and I'm guessing it's one that might be particularly attractive to that prized 18-25 year-old demographic: new evidence has emerged that indicates both males and females find golfers "attractive".

Okay, it's probably not something the scientific community would agree on... these findings are actually rather anecdotal in nature... in fact, they're based on a Twitter hashtag.



Now, if only she'd reconsider everything else he's told her...



Nowadays when a Republican apparatchik speaks the truth, it resonates like a cannonball in a dumpster. So some guy in Florida has admitted that their war on early voting was, as was obvious to everyone but teabagger apologists and Fox "news" commentators, aimed solely at voter suppression. Denying the right to vote to citizens. Of the United States of America, the country toward whose democracy they like to claim surpassing love. Suppressing the votes of those of the darker skin-tone variety. It was never about preventing fraud, of which the only examples this cycle (and of which, as usual, there were virtually none) were pretty much limited to Republicans.

Jim Greer, the former head of the Florida Republican Party, recently claimed that a law shortening the early voting period in the state was deliberately designed to suppress voting among groups that tend to support Democratic candidates, the Palm Beach Post reports.
“The Republican Party, the strategists, the consultants, they firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates,” Greer told the Post. “It’s done for one reason and one reason only...‘We’ve got to cut down on early voting because early voting is not good for us.’"... 
... Scott's predecessor, Republican-turned-Independent Charlie Crist, resisted efforts from Republicans to shorten the state's early voting period, citing reasons that mesh with Greer's claims. In an interview with The Huffington Post earlier this month, Crist said the new law is clearly aimed at curbing turnout among Democrats. "The only thing that makes any sense as to why this is happening and being done is voter suppression," he said.
Crist added, "People have fought and died for our right to vote, and unfortunately our legislature and this governor have decided they want to make early voting less available to Floridians rather than more available ...  It's frankly unconscionable." 
Greer also acknowledged that the effort to restrict early voting would directly affect turnout among Florida's African Americans, a demographic that consistently supports Democrats.
In the run-up to the recent election (there was one, as I recall) I know I began to get a little crazy. But if I was a little hot under the collar some times, and posting way too much, I don't think I ever deviated from factual: todays Rs are grievous liars, deceivers, suppressors of democracy. It's they that hate what America is; it's they that tried to win an election based on lies, on fomenting hate, on fakery. It's they that actively reject science and expertise, they that want this to become a biblical theocracy.

As the postmortems continue apace, and as Fox "news" resumes its customary lying and propagandizing (want to see what happens when someone calls them out on it, on their air? Watch this) -- it's only a few seconds before they cut him off), I'd like to think the reason The Rominee lost and that Ds picked up seats in both houses (actually received two million more votes in the House of Representatives than Rs did, due to geography and gerrymandering, which sort of puts the lie to their claim that they "have a mandate" because they retained the House [one of a very few times in history that a party maintained control while losing the popular vote totals) has nothing to do with "gifts," as Romney claimed, or "ground game," as others have said. It's because enough people actually understand who todays Rs are, and what it is they stand for. They lost because of their values, not in spite of them.

I hope so, anyway. If they ever realize it, it might mean we'd be back on the road to having two legitimate parties in this country. Signs, so far, however, don't look all that good, as John Boehner and Mitch McConnell continue their heel-digging obstructionist rhetoric, and realists continue to be shot down by the revanchists, as if nothing happened on the first Tuesday of this month.

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Eye Witness Testimony

On the left, the police sketch of the suspect, released after the killing of three shopkeepers. On the right, the guy they later arrested for it.

[Both images from the above link]

Darell Iss A Dick

Several sources are posting an AP story about the assassination of a Benghazi security chief. One source, a forum for cyclists, of all things, and sent to me by a reader, contains claims that his was among the names leaked to the public by Darrell Issa in his Congressional witch hunt, decried at the time as risking the lives of those people. I've looked around several times, several places, and can't confirm that the name was on Issa's list; if it was, it only magnifies what was already an impression of the hugeness of Issa's grandstanding and dishonest sickishness. The car-alarm multimillionaire has been surpassed only by John McCain as a full-time critic of President Obama; but in the case of Issa, he's taken his position of chairman of the House Oversight Committee (placing him there is a perfect example of committing an oversight) to hold endless hearings to highlight himself and smear everyone else.

But here's the thing: in trying to find out whether the chief's name was among those leaked by Issa, I came across the entirely unsurprising right-wing tinfoil take on the matter: Obama had the man killed because of what he knows.

And so it goes. Elections, it turns out, have no consequences.

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Cardinal virtues and counterfeit virtues

The cardinal virtues are wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice.  They are so called because they are traditionally regarded as the “hinge” (cardo) on which the rest of morality turns.  We find them discussed in Plato’s Republicand given a more given systematic exposition in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.  

For Plato, these virtues are related to the three main parts of the soul and the corresponding three main classes in his ideal city.  Wisdom is the characteristic virtue of the highest part of the soul -- the rational part -- and of the highest class within the city, the ruling philosopher-kings.  Courage is the characteristic virtue of the middle, spirited part of the soul, and of the soldiers who constitute the second main class in the city.  Moderation is the characteristic attribute of the lowest, desiring part of the soul and of the lowest, productive class of the city.  Justice in turn is the proper ordering of the three parts of the soul and the city, each doing its part.
When reason is in charge and the spirited part of the soul -- the part driven by a sense of honor and shame -- is doing reason’s bidding in keeping down the desiring part of the soul, allowing its appetites to be indulged only when reason dictates, the soul is just.  And when the philosopher-kings -- those motivated by a rational, disinterested pursuit of the good of the city -- are in charge of the city, the soldiers following their lead in governing the city, and the productive class focusing their attention on that to which they are best suited (farming, building, craftsmanship, and the like), the city is just.  Injustice is a deviation from this order -- the spirited part or the desiring part dominating the soul, or the soldiers or productive class dominating the government of the city.  

Plato’s famous analysis of the four main types of unjust regime develops this theme.  A timocracy or honor-oriented society puts the military virtues ahead of reason.  This is disordered, but still the least bad form of unjust city in Plato’s view, since at least it is an objective and non-appetitive standard -- the will to pursue what is honorable and avoid what is shameful -- that is idealized.  An oligarchy or money-oriented society is worse, because it is driven by the appetitive part of the soul, but it is still not the worstkind of regime, since the pursuer of wealth must at least puts chains on his appetites to some extent, respecting bourgeois values like thrift and long-term thinking.  Democracy, as Plato understands it, is worse still, since it effectively puts the lowest appetites in charge.  Like the never-satisfied and competing impulses toward food, sex, and drink that dominate a degenerate individual soul, a democratic society is dominated by the same impulses, and its social life and politics are chaotic, characterized by passing fads and resistant to the idea that there might be any permanent and objective standard against which the fads and impulses might be judged.  Tyranny, the worst kind of regime, is essentially what results when a particular democratic soul, driven by especially strong appetites, imposes its will on the rest.

This analysis and its relevance to modern politics and culture deserve a write-up of their own, but for the moment let’s consider the fate of the cardinal virtues in a modern democratic society.  The words “wisdom,” “courage,” “moderation,” and “justice” are certainly not absent in such societies.  To some extent the content of the traditional virtues is even respected -- democratic citizens will approve of the courage they read about in military history or see portrayed in movies like Saving Private Ryan, will commend moderation where overindulgence might affect bodily health, and so forth.

But much more prominent than the cardinal virtues -- and to a large extent coloring the conception democratic man has of the content of the cardinal virtues -- are certain other character traits, such as open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness.  The list will be familiar, since the language of these “virtues” permeates contemporary pop culture and politics, and it can be said to constitute a kind of counterpoint to the traditional cardinal virtues.  And in each case the counter-virtue entails a turn of just the sort one might expect given Plato’s analysis of democracy -- from the objective to the subjective, from a focus on the way things actually are to a focus on the way one believes or desires them to be.

Hence wisdom, as a Plato or Aquinas conceives of it, is outward-oriented, involving a grasp of objective truth in the speculative and practical spheres.  Open-mindedness, by contrast, is oriented inwardly, toward the subjective, concerned not with objective reality itself so much as with a willingness to consider alternative views about objective reality.

Courage has to do with the will to do what one ought to do in the face of danger or difficulty.  The courageous man will do his duty even though he is afraid or feels uncomfortable or put upon, and we praise him precisely for ignoring these subjective feelings.  Empathy, by contrast, involves precisely a focus on such feelings -- indeed, even to the point of sympathizing with the one who has failed to be courageous.  Courage says: “Yes, it was difficult; but you should have done it anyway.”  Empathy says: “I understand why you didn’t do it; it was so difficult!”

Similarly, moderation tells us that we sometimes need to refrain from indulging our appetites, in some cases even when we have an extremely powerful desire to indulge them.  Tolerance, by contrast, refuses to condemn such indulgence.  Toleration works in tandem with empathy, as moderation works together with courage.  Just as courage is reason’s ally in keeping the appetites at bay -- it reminds us that it is weak and shameful to indulge when reason says we shouldn’t -- so too is empathy the ally of the appetitive part of the soul in its war with reason, giving it permission to indulge and to ignore what unkind, unfeeling reason is saying.  Courage and moderation command: “You’re a human being!  Don’t act like animal!”  Empathy and toleration respond: “We understand, go ahead, you’re just an animal anyway!”  

Finally, whereas justice requires us to conform our desires to the order of things, fairness commands the order of things to conform itself to our desires.  Justice says: “John is richer than you are and Paul has more authority.  But that is as it should be, since John worked harder and Paul is wiser.”  Fairness says: “John is richer than you are and Paul has more authority.  That’s not fair!”  Justice treats equals equally and unequals unequally.  Fairness treats everyone equally; or rather, it treats everyone the way the one shouting “Unfairness!” thinks they should be treated.

Now, all of that makes the counter-virtues in question sound pretty bad -- or it should make them sound bad, anyway -- but I hasten to add that none of this entails that there is nothing of value in open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness.  Far from it.  The objective truth at which wisdom aims is not all built into us and it is not all obvious; it needs to be acquired through hard work.  Open-mindedness facilitates that.  Realistically inculcating the virtues, including courage, requires an understanding of actual human circumstances, including human weaknesses.  That requires empathy.  The road to virtue is, given human weakness, inevitably paved with repeated failures to live up to it.  Tolerance of these failures (albeit not approval of them) is, accordingly, no less necessary to the realistic inculcation of virtue than empathy is.  And some inequalities really are rightly decried as unfair insofar as they arise from injustice.  (John might be richer than you because he is more hard-working.  But it might instead be because he is a thief or a fraudster or someone who knows how to game the system.)

So, there can be real value in open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness, and a wise man will acknowledge this.  But it is crucial to see that their value is instrumental.  They are of secondary value, of significance precisely insofar as they facilitate the acquisition of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice.  A soul which strives primarily to acquire those traditional cardinal virtues, even while acknowledging the value within limits of open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness in the process of acquiring them, is rightly ordered.  But a soul which primarily values open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness, and either rejects the traditional cardinal virtues or relegates them to second place, is disordered.  Similarly, a rightly ordered society will value the traditional cardinal virtues over open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness, whereas a society which celebrates the latter over the former is disordered.  Even if it uses the language of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, it will not respect or promote true virtue, but only its counterfeit.


This is what hackery looks like. This is what assholery looks like. Asshole hackery, hackish assholery. Holy asshackery. After their nonstop and made-up mongering of events (and non-events) in Benghazi, the newly reconstituted (because of the imminent departure of Joe "Droopy" Lieberman) troika turned its America-loving gaze to the just announced cease-fire in the Middle East. After taking another swipe at Obama, which they (McCain and Graham, at least) do with each and every beat of their blackened and embittered hearts, they praised the efforts of everyone involved except, you know, the ones that other observers consider key players: President Obama and Secretary Clinton.

I don't know enough about Ms Ayotte to include her in this (although she spends a lot of time with them), but it's clear those two former but always phony moderate males have gone so deep into the recesses of their own hate-fevered and cavernous minds that they'll never emerge. If Barack Obama were to end global warming with a wave of his hand, announce the death, by a laser he invented himself, of every terrorist on earth, patent in the name and for the profit of the people of the US a battery that ran electric cars for ten years without a charge, they'd be critical. Somberly, sorrowfully, sadly like the parents of a wayward child, critical. Righteously, religiously, seriously, self-centeredly and limelight-hoggingly critical. "It hurts me to say this but I have to because, much more than everyone else, I love my country" critical.

Pathetic, is what it is. Sad. We should give them their own street corner in D.C., couple of sandwich boards, two sturdy soapboxes, a pair of megaphones, and let them blather nonstop and unfettered, round the clock. Let's even set up a closed-circuit TV so they could watch themselves, fit it with a Fox "news" logo so they'd believe (because they'd want to bad enough, they would) that they were the only people on that airspace, ever. It'd be soothing to them, maybe, and a balm for the rest of us.

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Here's what I have to be thankful for: spending the day with my wife, our son, his incredibly fabulous, beautiful and altogether wonderful fiance, and our nephew, who's become like a brother to our son. Those three "kids" give me hope for the world; at least they let me know the part of the world they'll inhabit will be better for it.

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Gawd, I hate reading letters to the editor around here. There are some with which I agree, of course, but the ones that feel like fingernails on the proverbial chalkboard could have been written by Fox "news." Well, in effect, they were. Talking points transcribed. Wild claims repeated, dutifully, verbatim. Takers versus makers. Socialism on the march. The end of our "freedoms," as yet unspecified.

For a minute there I allowed myself the delusion that the election night meltdown on Fox was a life lesson for the lied-to; a fix for Foxification. But no. It's only gotten worse. Facts? Clearly not wanted. Reality? Ask Alan West, who'll probably refuse to concede even when Patrick Murphy is sworn in. (Update: he conceded. Grudgingly.) Since the beginning of this blog, a main theme has been the furious flight from reality by today's Republican party. The election results, so far divergent from the unanimous claims of every single Fox commentator, would serve to shine light into the darkness that is Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, deceivers of a magnitude not imaginable mere years earlier. Is what I thought. Because it was so obvious.

How wrong I was. They've just increased the heat and squelched the light even more heavily. Want proof? Check this out. Is there even a word for that? A sentence? A pot calling a kettle a hypocrite? Stoned people throwing glass houses? McCain missing a closed-door session providing information on Benghazi to go on TV to complain about not receiving information? (Why is he even given airtime anymore? There should be a separate 24/7 cable channel, all McCain and Trump and Palin and Dick Morris and Karl Rove, all the time. Let people who feel the need to be dumber watch whenever they want. And save the rest of us from having them show up, uninvited, ruining our evenings.)

Because (and who's the one ignoring reality here?) I'm still being told my weekly column will be up and running soon (I've written, you might not be surprised to know, a couple dozen already) I find myself feeling I must read everything that's on the op-ed page. And so I do. Same old thing: paranoid fantasy about our president, his actual record notwithstanding. Even under the irresistible logic and powerful persuasion of my soon-to-be column, I don't doubt it'll continue. Long after Obama's term is over, no matter how well the economy might be doing, no matter how few UN tanks are rumbling in our streets and no matter how little influence Sharia law will have had on the body politic, no matter how much further along we are toward budgetary balance, they'll write in; decrying the evil socialist, the secret Muslim, the Kenyan hater of America. Screeching. Fingernails on the chalkboard.

And to them, I'll be part of it, too.

[If I maintain my plan of silent running for the next few days, Happy Thanksgiving. It could be worse.]

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Generally Speaking

It's a serious question, one only being asked lately and, even then, not very loudly: how do you know when a general is competent? Since World War II, have we had any at all who were? Ike was, I think, and Patton. The former a careful and thorough planner, the latter a blood-and-guts go-for-the-kill sort. Bradley: seems like it. MacArthur? Not entirely sure. Nimitz did the Navy damn well, I'd say. But since then, to whom can we point without reservation?

I'm no military mind, but having spent a year in Vietnam, a probably unwinnable war, I'm of the opinion that General Westmoreland didn't really get it. I don't know who led the invasion of Grenada, an embarrassment cooked up by Reagan to viagrate our post-Vietnam sense of impotence; but a light colonel could have managed that one.

Colin Powell? Maybe so, at least in terms of the invasion of Kuwait. All in, then all out. And I don't blame him for the falsity of his UN appearance: I think he was duped. Tommy Franks, briefly a hero of Iraq number two, was thought brilliant, until it became evident he'd not planned past day three or so.

That David Petraeus couldn't keep his dick in his pants isn't really germane, but it has raised some questions about him, starting with the fact that he decks himself out in all his ribbons, looking a little like a silly Sovyetski. From experience I know the military loves to give itself ribbons, of which I have several, most of which I got just for showing up. (Which is not to say that those of many aren't far beyond deserved, and the least we can do in recognizing heroism and sacrifice.) But lots of career guys and gals choose only to wear a handful at a time. Not sure what it says about Petraeus and his coat of many colors that he parades in full dress guzzy; but, combined with a certain weakness of spirit recently revealed, it could be of a piece. But what's more relevant, and not much in the way of addressed, are his military skills and wisdom.

He literally "wrote the book" on counter-terrorism; and from what I understand of it, there's some deep thinking there, along the lines of hearts and minds. But how has it worked out for us? Which wars has he won, exactly? Here's an interesting opinion piece, with a pretty brutal title:

FASTIDIOUSNESS is never a good sign in a general officer. Though strutting military peacocks go back to Alexander’s time, our first was MacArthur, who seemed at times to care more about how much gold braid decorated the brim of his cap than he did about how many bodies he left on beachheads across the Pacific. Next came Westmoreland, with his starched fatigues in Vietnam. In our time, Gen. David H. Petraeus has set the bar high. Never has so much beribboned finery decorated a general’s uniform since Al Haig passed through the sally ports of West Point on his way to the White House...  
... No matter how good he looked in his biographer-mistress’s book, it doesn’t make up for the fact that we failed to conquer the countries we invaded, and ended up occupying undefeated nations. The genius of General Petraeus was to recognize early on that the war he had been sent to fight in Iraq wasn’t a real war at all. This is what the public and the news media — lamenting the fall of the brilliant hero undone by a tawdry affair — have failed to see. He wasn’t the military magician portrayed in the press; he was a self-constructed hologram, emitting an aura of preening heroism for the ever eager cameras.

Pretty tough stuff, the claims of which I have no basis for judging. But there's a implicit issue: How do you know if your generals know what they're doing; if their training and experience has created the high level of competence we need? Petraeus could indeed be the best we have; but "best" doesn't necessarily mean good enough. I assume the Pentagon asks those questions, but by what means does it answer them? Again, my experience tells me there's a strong inclination in the military to fluff the ratings, and to promote those who don't rock any boats. When you rack up a few stars above your clavicles, what then? Military hierarchy is very inbred. Unlike corporations, they don't bring proven leaders in from outside when profits are down.

I don't know the answers, but this seems a good time to start asking questions. It's unlikely we'll ever fight another war like WWII. And while teabaggers and teabaggRs scream about "gutting the military," it's not likely that owning another battleship would have prevented Benghazi, or will intercept a suitcase bomb in a mall. (Benghazi might have been different, of course, had the Rs in Congress not so severely cut the funding for embassy security that the Obama administration had requested. But, you know, we want stuff without paying for it, don't we?) And it's probable that, whereas there was a time we could mark the ends of wars by watching people gather on battleships to sign things, the new reality is that we may never again have an opportunity to say we've "won" anything; maybe just that we didn't definitely lose. Certain threats, barring the worldwide end of religious fundamentalism or witnessing a few more major steps in human evolution, will never go away.

But since we have the most expensive and arguably the most powerful military in the world, it'd be nice to know that it's being managed, at the level of carrying out -- and giving reliable input on -- orders by the Commander in Chief, by people who know what they're doing.

Yet what do you suppose would happen to politicians -- whether a president or members of Congress -- who raised the issue? Boy oh boy: people would be slapping "support our troops" stickers all over the place, wouldn't they?

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