Incompatibilism is the view that free will is incompatible with determinism; compatibilism is the view that it is compatible with it. Libertarianism is the combination of of incompatibilism with the view that determinism is false, hard determinism is the combination of incompatibilism with the view that determinism is true. Hard incompatiblism is the view the free will is compatible neither with determinism nor with indeterminism. By considerations of symmetry, there ought to be a sixth view, hard compatibilism, which holds that free will is compatible both with determinism and with indeterminism, though as far as I know it has not found any defenders. But it seems to me to be a view no less plausible than any of the others, and a good deal more plausible than hard determinism and hard incompatibilism.
My own view is that the debate over the compatibility of free will with determinism would be better construed as a debate over the compatibility of moral responsibility with determinism, because I think that free will and moral responsibility might come apart; incompatibilists might be right about free will, but moral responsibility can still be taken to be compatible with determinism. However, if someone disagrees with me about that, they could say that my view on what’s necessary for morally responsible choice applies to free will as well, and so that both free will and moral responsibility are compatible with both determinism and indeterminism.
What is it that’s required for morally responsible choice? There may be many things, and what’s specifically required might vary between circumstances, but I think it primarily includes an agent’s being able to deliberate, and to do so without coercion, to clear-headed and rational, to understand the difference between what’s morally right and what’s morally wrong, and to have the ability to do as they wish. The important point is that none of these things seems to require the truth either of determinism or of indeterminism. Granted, they require that if a possible world is indeterministic it can’t also be massively irregular in its behavior, but I don’t know of any good reason to think that an indeterministic world would have to be. Thus for all I can see a priori, some possible worlds may be deterministic and others indeterministic, and there may be morally responsible agents in both kinds of worlds.
I will close, then, with two questions: First, has anyone defended hard compatibilism in the free will literature? Second, even if they have, why does it seem to have found so few defenders? For it seems to me to be a position eminently worthy of defense, and if it’s not, I’d like to know why.
For a while my blog Philosophical Pontifications and this blog have, unfortunately, been primarily monologues. In the interest of starting more conversations, both about philosophy and the humanities in general, I’ve decided to look for guest bloggers. You can contribute one post, a series of posts, or even become a regular contributor–it’s entirely up to you. Contributions about philosophy will be posted on both blogs, and contributions on other sub-disciplines of the humanities will be posted only at Scholardarity. If you’re interested, you can email me with a post idea or rough draft at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Nature of Analytic Metaphysics
As he was leaving a philosophy conference in a nearby possible world, one of my counterparts overheard the following conversation:
Smith: Great job on your presentation on the problem of the many! You almost convinced me to give up on multipleism.
Jones: Glad to hear it! How many of you did I almost convince?
Smith: Ha-ha. Well, anyhow, I hope you have a good weekend!
Jones: (Chuckles to himself)
Smith: What’s so funny?
Smith: C’mon, out with it.
Jones: Well, I never thought about it before, but it just occurred to me that we call Saturday and Sunday ‘the weekend’ when Sunday is really the first day of the week. It’s a little incongruous to count the first day of the week as a part of its end, isn’t it?
Smith: Hmm…that’s interesting. I guess I always thought of Monday as the first day of the week.
Jones: Ah, a clash of intuitions! How…usual—for us, anyway. Perhaps I think Sunday is the first day of the week because I’m Anglican, and you think Monday is because you’re agnostic?
Smith: Wait a minute…“intuitions”? Are you saying you’re a realist about “days of the week”?
Jones: Well, yes. Why wouldn’t I be? After all, today is Friday, right? And Friday is a day of the week. So, since it’s true that today is Friday…
Smith: A semantic argument? Really? Next thing you know you’ll be telling me you think holes exist too! “After all, Swiss cheese is full of holes. So, since it’s true that Swiss cheese has holes in it…”
Jones: Very funny. But a parody isn’t a counterargument.
Smith: Ok, how about this: Suppose God creates a universe out of nothing—or, as I would be more inclined to believe, that it springs into existence uncaused—lasts for a single day, and then completely vanishes. If there truly are “days of the week,” what day of the week would it have been?
Jones: Two points. First: I’m not sure that being (some particular) day of the week is an intrinsic property of a span of time. In fact, I doubt it. But let’s pretend it is. Why couldn’t it just be a contingent fact about a span of time that it’s a certain day of the week? There may be many possible worlds that answer to your description, some being intrinsic physical duplicates of each other. Maybe being Sunday, for example, is a non-physical, non-supervenient property that is instantiated in some of these worlds and not others. Maybe God just chooses at random what day of the week to make it in those worlds. Again, I doubt it, but I don’t think it’s conceptually incoherent. Second: Suppose, as I take to be more probable, that that what day of the week it is is supervenient on, or constituted by, certain of our social practices. In that case, what day of the week it is—if any—would in your scenario depend on whether there are people around in your short-lived universe. If there are, and they had false memories which concerned the appropriate social practices, what day of the week it was would be determined by the content of their false memories, and also by what they did during that one day—which days they marked on their calendars, for instance. Your thought experiment, I think, only seems to pose a problem for me because your description of the universe is under-specified.
Smith: Wow, you’re really taking this seriously! Ok, I’ll play along. Let’s say there really are days of the week. It still doesn’t follow that there’s a fact of the matter about which day—Sunday or Monday—is the first day of the week. Any member of any group can be the first, or second, or third…on an arbitrary ordering. But you seem to think that Sunday is “objectively” the first day of the week. And what I’d like to know is what you think it is that makes it true that Sunday, rather than Monday—or any other day—is really the first day of the week.
Jones: Does something have to make it true that Sunday’s the first day? Maybe it just is! “Explanations come to an end somewhere.” But as it turns out I do think there’s an account to be had: As I said before, I think that what day of the week it is is determined by social convention. Why then couldn’t it also determine which day is the first?
Smith: Social convention might determine it, if it could first determine what being first comes to in this context.
Jones: I think it can. As long as ‘first’, or some equivalent word, is already in use, we can say that a day is the first day of the week iff most other members of one’s society, understanding that they are participating in a social convention, agree to call it ‘the first day of the week’. Given my supposition that the word ‘first’ is already meaningful, my account is non-circular.
Smith: Non-circular, but maybe not non-contentious. Let’s “get medieval” and make some distinctions. Call the view—or the apparent view—that Sunday is the first day of the week ‘Sundayism,’ and the (apparently) rival view ‘Mondayism.’ Now, we can distinguish two versions of each view. ‘Strong Sundayism’ is the view that Sunday is essentially the first day of the week, and ‘weak Sundayism’ is the view that it is only contingently the first. Correspondingly, we also have strong Mondayism and weak Mondayism…
The conversation continued for quite some time. When it was finally over, my counterpart left feeling privileged to have overheard what he rightly suspected to be the beginning of one of the great metaphysical debates of his time. To some the dispute between Sundayists, Mondayists, and their anti-realist critics seemed interminable, impractical, or at least a bit odd. But the philosophers who were involved rested easy, secure in their conviction that they were doing their part by making a small but important contribution to the advancement of human knowledge.
All My Personal Information Is For-Sale on the Internet!
I plugged my name into Google and Peoplefinder was offering my name, age, and previous addresses for free, and different levels of my information for a dollar, fifteen dollars, or forty dollars a month, that is, 39.95, of course!
We have returned from the anonymity of the big city to the technology-based everybody-knows-everything-about-everybody of a small village. The question to ask: does this work against being human or is it helpful to it?
Knowledge is power and this is really knowledge without relationship. So power comes very close and relationship is like a paper relationship that is reduced to letter writing or now emails; or a telephone relationship that was reduced to calling each other – or sometimes a one-way imaginary relationship; or a Facebook internet relationship that is also virtual and somewhat unreal unless it adds and deepens the quality of a real and living relationship.
After reading Bill Keller’s OP-ED piece, the “Invasion of the Data Snatchers,” (NYT 1/14/2013, p. A21) I realize that it is really not the case that everybody knows everything about everybody: things the government does are classified and top-secret and can remain so for twenty years or more at a time. That spells untold information about us and very little for the most part about our security state. Bill Keller points that out by mentioning Daniel Solove’s book Nothing to Hide. The government should not say “Trust us. We are the good guys.” Checks and balances have to be strong so that individuals are not trampled and undone by the concentration of power on top. That has been one ingredient in the freedom we enjoy in our country.
This power imbalance is not the only way the people at the grass roots become dis-empowered: racism divides us, our classes do, that is, those who have money and those who don’t, and in a strange way our political parties now function that way. Perhaps the old tactic of divide and conquer has also been translated into that of divide and rule, but perhaps the division of the parties has only paralyzed the two chambers of our representative government, the security state gobbles up more and more power.
What do you think?
A Note to the Reader:
What follows is the text of an (unpublished) essay that I wrote back in 2002. I was 16 at the time, and because of that this essay contains some misunderstandings, is a bit simplistic, and–to put it in way that’s kind to my past self –“overconfident” both in its ambition and its style. Nevertheless, in spite of that and the fact that I have changed my views on quite a few points since then, I still think there is some value in it, and so I’ve decided to post it here.
~ On Imagination and Conception ~
If I may be allowed to borrow your attention for a moment, I will explain to you a thought that occurred to me one day: Philosophy has gone on for thousands of years with logic, that is, the rules for correct reasoning. Logic is useful, to be sure, but oughtn’t philosophy have another implement in its tool-bag? One that tells it, for example, what the correct rules are for imagining and conceiving something?
It seems this new implement would be a sister-science to logic. Not, of course, that I mean to develop such a science myself. That is not the purpose of this essay. What I want is not to create this new science, but rather give something of a rough outline of it.
First of all, it shall be necessary for us to define what we mean by “imagine” and “imagination”. By “imagination”, we mean that class of mental phenomena which involves the production of sense images that are not given in actual perception; whether they are visual , audial, tactile, etc. By “imagine”, we mean the production of one of these images voluntarily. Secondly, for the “reference frame”. By “reference frame”, we mean what is usually termed the visual or phenomenal field. Specifically, we shall be interested in the phenomena of imagination as they relate to philosophical arguments for or against the conceivability or possibility of something. Fallacies of imagination I shall call abuses of the reference frame.
Since the time of Hume and Locke, not much has been said by philosophers concerning the nature of imagination, and I suspect that many still unconsciously subscribe to such an empiricist ‘cut and paste’ theory. Thus, the first thing we need to do is disabuse ourselves of such a notion, and especially of the idea, if any still have it, that such phenomena could be the product of a tabula rasa mind.
Once hearing a tune, I may change its tempo, add to or subtract from the background layers of sound, and even completely change its instrumentation, say, from a violin to a clarinet; all the while retaining the ability to recognize it as ‘the same’. Here’s an interesting question: “How do I change the tempo of the song to make it faster or slower?” It is not accomplished by a mere verbal mental command, but in what it positively consists we never observe, nor do I think we can.
Once hearing a voice speak for a short while, I may retain its sound, and so imagine it to to speak words I have never heard it say. One finds that one does this sort of thing very often, though usually thinking of how some friend or relation is going to respond to something.
To say I read a text means this: My eyes scan the page, while my mind speaks the words to itself in the voice it thinks the author of those words would have. And if I type like this, why does your mind put extra emphasis on the words ‘like’ and ‘this’?
Before you build a house, you must have some idea of it. But what could you possibly have in your mind before you construct that idea? It will simply not do to say that you form it as if by painting or by piecing colors together: in all such cases you have some conception of what you are creating beforehand. Yet, if it were spontaneous and random, there would be no structure to the scene. So just how is it that any of these mental landscapes we concoct initially come to mind?
Simple images may be flipped on a horizontal or vertical axis. If I, for example, form an image of a triangle that I have never before seen, and decide to flip it upside down, how does my mind know, before flipping it, what this, which is right side up, will look like upside down, in order that It may create that image? Surely I am not reversing some object. This is rather the destruction of one image and the creation of another.
I believe that we must allow the mind some inventiveness of its own, for all this seems completely unaccountable on any tabula rasa view. Philosophically, it makes sense to say that the mind is a tabula rasa, because no one knows what ‘the mind’ is. But if you say that the brain is a tabula rasa, everyone knows you speak nonsense.
Now, we ask ourselves, what is it like to imagine something? How do mental images differ from those given to us in perception? They all seem to share a common characteristic, which I think can only be described as a kind of faintness. If I hear a sound, I am always aware that I hear it, even if I am completely unable to determine what it is. When I imagine a sound, on the contrary, I am always able to determine it, even though I never hear it for an instant. And though I am perhaps able to increase its pitch, I find myself quite incapable of raising or lowering its “volume”. An analogous thing happens with sight. I may form whatever image I please, but regardless of the detail, it never enters into my visual field, nor does it disturb any of its content. In these instances, it is as though a second reference frame were created, and that nothing which goes on in the one has any effect upon the other. I believe that the first shall be called the perceptual frame, and the second, the imaginal frame. Each has its own peculiarities. The perceptual frame may increase or diminish in size depending upon the focus of one’s attention. When reading a book, say, it will seem that the text is all that exists, everything beyond the page being relegated to obscurity. Though our perceptual frame never vanishes, there are certain occasions, such as absorption in a daydream, when we become completely oblivious to its content, and on reflection cannot decide whether we were truly conscious of it or not. The imaginal frame, unlike its counterpart, is in no way permanent. It is created as soon as something suggests an image, and vanishes as soon as one’s attention is withdrawn from it. Images are formed continuously during the reading of a novel, and rarely or never at all during the viewing of a film or television program. During the remaining time the pace of the flow of images is located somewhere in between these two extremes.
Having explicated the nature of imagination sufficiently for our purposes, we shall now concentrate on the abuses that philosophers have made of this faculty. I believe these may be divided into three major categories: abuses of amphiboly, abuses of improper imputation, and abuses of misapplication.
1. The abuse of amphiboly: The confusion of the noumenal and phenomenal sense of a term, or the mistaking of an image or perception for the thing itself, as this relates to philosophical arguments.
Example: Hume said that a man, lacking in the requisite experience, could not deduce from the qualities of FIRE, that it would burn him. But fire of the sort Hume means has never burnt anyone, and never will. For the ‘fire’ he is thinking of is naught but a certain conjunction of sensory qualities, viz.; hot, red, semi-translucent, etc. Our mind may conjure as much in a dream, without us suffering any ill effects. But if we were to take a studious pupil, whose subjects were chemistry and physics, and ask him what effects would ensue, upon the excitation of the molecules in my hand past a certain point; I cannot help but think that his answer would be “ignition”, even though he had never experienced for himself such a thing as ‘flame’.
2. The abuse of improper imputation: When imagining, to think or tell yourself something that you have not made the sensory qualities adequately represent. Or, to not imagine what the definition of the object or concept would entail, either fully or partially.
Example: McTaggart’s B-series. Whenever we try and represent to ourselves a tenseless timeline [I.e., a view of time according to which there is no "passage of time" and that all times are equally real], we find that we always imagine the events as simultaneously given, and subsisting in time. But that completely fails the conception of a temporal series, for it is the essence of time that its moments are not simultaneously given, and its component parts do not subsist. And when McTaggart said that the poker would always be hot on Tuesday, it is evident that he was using this picture, viz., the still image of a glowing poker, because that image does indeed subsist temporally. But the instants of the actual day would not exist in such a manner, even though that is how he represented them to himself.
3. The abuse of misapplication: The taking of the standard of our ability to form mental images as the standard of the possibility of things.
This abuse consists of three subsections:
1. The first form of the abuse of misapplication consists in the belief that whatever is imaginable and non-contradictory is also, for that reason, possible. In recent years, this principle has borne the title of “analytic-synthetic dichotomy”. It seems a bit odd, if I do say so myself, that this doctrine should be advanced by the empiricists as self-evident, without any further argument or experiment. Is there a way to test this hypothesis, so that we may see whether or not everything imaginable and non-contradictory is possible? I believe there is.
Let us suppose, for our example, a crystalline sphere. Let us also suppose that this concept we have conjured up possesses a very special property: once thought, this magical sphere will cease to exist merely as a concept or mental image, but will instead manifest itself in physical reality. Now, let us conceive of the proposed object. We do so, and… nothing happens.
To any sensible person, the answer to this question should seem exceedingly obvious. But our goal here is to be rational, not sensible.
We ask ourselves: Is there any obstacle to our imagining this event? No, there certainly is not. We can quite clearly imagine ourselves thinking of the sphere, and then that the sphere appears in the space outside us. And we may be sure the the proposed event is not ‘logically impossible’, for the thought of such an occurrence engenders no contradiction. Since this magical concept is both imaginable and non-contradictory, it must, according to the principle, be a genuine possibility. But we have thought of the concept, and it has refused to manifest itself. Therefore, we must conclude that the proposed event was never really possible.
Allow me to clarify this line of reasoning:
p. Whatever is imaginable and non-contradictory is possible.
q. A concept which, when thought, will obtain in physical reality.
1. (q.) is imaginable and non-contradictory, and so according to (p.) must be possible.
2. (q.) is thought, but does not obtain.
3. (2.) creates a conflict between (1.) and (p.).
4. We cannot reject (1.), because (q.) is imaginable and non-contradictory.
5. Therefore, we must reject (p.)
Thus we must conclude that we cannot give to our concepts such a magical property, merely by thinking it, even though we can imagine ourselves doing so.
2. The second form of the abuse of misapplication consists in the violation of the the boundaries of the reference frame. For example, it has been argued by some (such as Kant, in his antinomy concerning space and time) that we must always think of space as being infinite, and cannot imagine that it comes to an end. From whence is this belief derived? I imagine it arises from a thought experiment like this: Imagine any colored shape, such as a square, or perhaps a tree. Regardless of the shape, you must always represent it as being against some background, whether black, or white, or blue, but it must always be some color. From this, you may come to the conclusion that for any colored area, there must be a colored border. The opposite you will decry as unimaginable, entirely inconceivable. Allow me to ask you a question. Does your visual field stretch on to infinity? No, I do not believe you can affirm that it does. Very well, then what lies outside it? Your very reference frame is a colored area outside of which there is no colored border! But if that is so, then your perceptual space comes to an end. So what’s going on here?
Everything that we see lies in our visual field, and thus within the borders of the reference frame. In order for us to see where the reference frame ends, we would have to drag its borders within themselves, which is absurd. Because we cannot “see” its boundary as we could the juncture of two colored areas, we feign it has no boundary at all. There arises a similar illusion regarding our perception of time. Whatever we perceive, we perceive at a certain moment in time. Because perception must occur at a given moment, we cannot technically experience its ‘beginning’ or ‘end’ (And, in my opinion, it is this that gives rise to the ‘specious present’ [The 'specious present' is the notion that our perception of time always involves extended intervals of time rather than durationless instants, and hence that what we experience as present is an interval of time.]). Here, as in the previous case, our experience terminates in a boundary that is itself unobservable. Because of this, we find that we cannot imagine a beginning or an end to time, though it is certainly possible in itself. When Kant plucked time from out the world, he dragged the antinomy the removal was supposed to efface in its train. It is all very well and good to say: “There is no time in the world, so there is no fact of the matter of time’s beginning or not.” But can one likewise affirm: “There is time in the mind, and there is no fact of the matter of time’s beginning or not”? The question comes down to this: “Is our past temporal history finite or eternal?” [In other words, what I meant was this: Consider the set consisting of all your past experiences. The set is either infinite in the "past direction" or not. If it is infinite, there was never a first moment at which you had a conscious experience, and so even if there is no fact about whether the physical world has existed forever, you and your experiences have always existed. If, on the other hand, the set is finite in the "past direction", there is a first conscious experience that you had, and so for you there is no time prior to that. In that case there is a beginning to your "experiential time", and if so, why should a beginning to time be inconceivable in the case of the physical world? Either way, I didn't see--and still don't, for that matter--any reason to think that Kant has established his antinomy.] If we are to take Kant’s first antinomy as proving its conclusion, then it is absolutely impossible for him to answer this question. Hence, there must be some defect in his conception of time. Therefore, I declare Kant’s first antinomy to be fallacious, for he has committed the abuse of misapplication.
3. The third form of the abuse of misapplication consists in the belief that whatever is unimaginable must, as a consequence, be impossible. This opinion, I suspect, is derived from a certain arrogance of the mind. Being naturally overconfident, it overestimates the power of its faculties, and if it finds that it cannot drag anything within its sphere, it must suppose the difficulty to arise from some defect in the thing, and so declares it to be nugatory and impossible in itself.
It has been alleged by many, though most famously by Hume and Berkeley, that the human mind has no power of conjuring up any image that is not fully determinate and particular in every degree. I shall advance no arguments against this position. Indeed, I heartily endorse it. But I shall not proceed with them in drawing their conclusion, viz., that an indeterminate image is impossible. For if they had been more attentive to their own perception, they would have realized that it is positively littered with indeterminacies! If you don’t believe me, you may try this experiment and see for yourself. Go into any room, preferably one that is brightly lit with a diversity of variously colored objects. Now, stare straight ahead, and focus your eyes on the very center of your visual field. While leaving your eyes where they are, focus your attention on the outermost periphery, preferably fifty degrees or more from the center. I believe you will notice that, though you can see that something is there, you cannot see it as being in a determinate shape, or having a determinate color. If you feign that you do, then try and tell yourself what its shape and color are without looking! This is especially evident in the case of text. Try focusing your eyes on one page of an open book, whilst focusing your attention on the page opposite it. Though you can discern the general shape that the words together form, it is quite impossible for you to honestly affirm that you see any individual character, or if you can, that you see what shape it is in. These experiences, though possible, are entirely unimaginable. Now, if our imagination cannot tell us about what it may be possible to experience, then a fortiori it applies even less to what is possible in reality. Thus, whenever a philosopher should henceforth proclaim something to be unimaginable, our reply shall be a resounding “So what?”
Finally, we shall draw our conclusions:
1. The mere fact that we can imagine something does not prove it to be possible, and the mere fact that we cannot imagine something does not prove it to be impossible.
2. Since we can have and now remember ‘unimaginable’ experiences, our inability to form such images stems not from a defect in their nature, but a defect in ours.
3. Hume, Berkeley, and innumerable others have committed the abuse of misapplication.
Our knowledge of nature, be it ever so great, has taught us but one thing throughout the ages, that humanity, through its blindness, refuses to learn: Reality is not quite so narrow as to be confined to our conception of it.
This is an audio recording of me giving a presentation on the philosophy of time to the philosophy club at Diablo Valley College, which was made back in 2006. It is about eternalism, a position in the philosophy of time which holds all times to be equally real. I should note that I no longer endorse all of the arguments I made in the presentation, but I still consider myself an eternalist.– Jason Zarri
(A Re-post from Philosophical Pontifications)
The following is the text of a presentation on culture and values I gave in 2007 to the Inter Club Council at Diablo Valley College. I’m posting it here because I think makes the important meta-ethical point that inter-cultural dialogue concerning ethical matters makes little sense unless we assume values are objective.
Hi, my name is Jason, and the subject of my presentation is culture and values, specifically as they pertain to the relations between people of different cultures. But before we can see how they are related, we must first know what they are. Speaking roughly, a culture is a collection of customs, beliefs, and attitudes which are shared by a community and passed down largely intact from generation to generation. Values are similar in that they also include beliefs and attitudes, yet they differ in that they might either be confined to a single person or never passed down. Values could exist without culture, but the converse is not true, and hence they can be personal in a way that culture cannot. Culture and values are closely related insofar as they share a normative aspect. To say that something is normative means that it concerns not just what is the case, but also what should be the case. One can believe many things about what is, such as that grass is green or that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but only beliefs about what should be count as values. Our values can encompass anything we treasure, hope for, or regard as ideal. They are important because they are the principles we use to guide our thought and behavior. They determine not only what we do, but also who we are. The identity of a person or a culture is largely defined by the set of values they accept. This is especially true for cultures because every culture must have a set of behaviors it regards as permissible and another that it regards as taboo. Cultures need rules to determine who is part of the “in group” and who is part of the “out group”, otherwise there would be nothing to distinguish one culture from another. Whether or not one counts as part of a culture depends on whether or not one abides by these rules.
Now that we have some understanding of what culture and values are, we can ask ourselves what we should think about circumstances where the customs, beliefs, and attitudes of one culture conflict with those of another. In today’s ever shrinking world we are increasingly likely to encounter people of other cultures whose values are different from our own, and the question of how we should respond becomes increasingly more significant. In my opinion, the two main stances you can take are what I will call multiculturalism and cultural relativism. Though you might suppose these to be the same, I will argue that they are actually incompatible. Broadly speaking, I would say that multiculturalism is the idea that no single culture should be dominant because different cultures are valuable in their own right, and each has something positive to contribute to society. The presence of diverse perspectives and traditions promotes solidarity and mutual understanding, which helps prevent a society from becoming narrow-minded and intolerant. I would say that cultural relativism, by contrast, is the idea that no culture or cultural practice is inherently better than any other. It stands in opposition to objectivism, which holds that at least in some cases one culture’s practice can be better or worse than another’s. I think cultural relativism is accepted by many because they believe it subverts the claims that nations with imperialistic ambitions have often used to justify the subjugation of foreign peoples. Such nations have typically held their actions are justified because their culture is somehow superior to others, perhaps because they are more intelligent, more technologically advanced, or because they alone enjoy the favor of the gods or God. Whatever the reason, their actions are no less appalling. Cultural relativism seems attractive because it promises to do away with such rationalizations. If no culture is better than any other, none can use their alleged superiority as a pretext to oppress another. Yet I think those who embrace cultural relativism fail to see that their view entails they are in no position to condemn imperialistic societies. After all, these societies have a culture too, it just happens to be imperialistic! What’s to stop a member of such a society from saying that their actions are justified after all because imperialism is a part of their culture? Their culture might not be better than any other, but it is also no worse. So who are we to criticize them? If we reject objectivism because of the bad behavior it can be used to justify, we should reject cultural relativism for precisely the same reason.
However, I don’t think objectivism necessarily has the bad consequences its opponents attribute to it, so long as we distinguish it from a superficially similar position which I will call cultural chauvinism. Objectivism requires only that some cultural practices are better or worse than others, and is quite compatible with one culture’s being better than another in some respects and worse in others. Cultural chauvinism, on the other hand, is the belief that your own cultural practices are the better ones. This distinction is important because objectivism allows, as chauvinism does not, for the possibility that your way of doing things may be the one that could use some improvement. Objectivism thus supports the values of reflection and self-doubt [by which I mean the capacity for self criticism and intellectual humility], and through them an openness to the ideas of others. All of these are essential if one wants to live in a truly multicultural society where people of different cultures can effectively communicate with and learn from each other. Chauvinism and relativism leave no room for these virtues, the first because it refuses to consider the worth of another culture’s perspective, and the second because it holds that the members of each culture need only look within their own minds to find the truth. These perspectives would also seem to make the notion of moral progress an impossibility, for the value of a cultural practice would be just as relative to a time as it was to a place. Are we really prepared to say that the abolition of slavery, the institution of women’s suffrage, and the success civil rights movement reflect nothing more than a change of cultural taste? On neither of these views is there any need for different cultures to learn from each other.
So contrary to what you might expect, I think that it is only on a presumption of objectivism that learning from other cultures makes sense. Once we realize that we each possess but a small fragment of the truth we will be motivated to engage people of other cultures in an earnest dialogue. In that event those of each culture can modify their views in light of the others’ experience to the improvement of all.
Some Reflections on Phenomenology
The following consists of some more or less random thoughts I’ve had on phenomenology. Originally they were meant to be organized into an introduction to a longer work, but at this point I don’t think I’ll ever get around to completing it, so I thought I may as well dump them here. Enjoy them, such as they are, as an illustration of the weird things you can think of when you have too much free time on your hands. :-P
As I open my eyes, I am treated to a menagerie of colors and shapes. Far from being randomly strewn about, they appear organized into various objects at various distances from each other and from me. These objects, or at any rate most of them, seem to curve or budge outward in a three dimensional space. I see them arranged in depth with respect to each other, according as they are closer to or farther away from me in the direction of my line of sight. This sense of depth is diminished if I close one eye. The objects look somehow flattened, even though I know intellectually that this is not so. Yet I can still tell that they are closer to or farther away from me because in my experience closer objects occult farther ones: If I situate myself (and/or the objects) so that the closer object is “in front of” the farther one, I can no longer see part of it, even though I believe no less strongly that it is still there. (A priori, there is no reason that this should be true of all possible visual experience. If you put one of your hands in front of the other, the sensation you have in the closer hand in no way occults the sensation you have in the farther hand, yet it is not as though the sensation in the closer hand is “transparent”, both seem entirely “solid”, just as the color of an opaque object seems “solid”. If it is possible to sense one solid sensation as being in front of another without the closer occulting the farther, I see no reason why this should be impossible in principle with color in the case of vision.) Something similar is the case with pictures and paintings: The figures depicted are apprehended by me as being in depth, and, after a fashion, as three dimensional, even though I do not perceive the depth or trideminsionality as I do in normal binocular vision. The sense of depth is even less than in monocular (single-eye) vision. The closer an object is, the more the visual background is occulted by it, and in that sense it appears larger the closer it is, even though I do not judge it to increase in size.
An interesting question confronts me: What do these objects seem to be distant from? “My head” would be one commonsensical answer, but my head is not represented in this space—the only time I normally see my head is in a mirror or a picture, or perhaps on a closed-circuit television screen. And whenever I do see it, as in a mirror, it still appears to be distant from my vantage point. My vantage point, or point of view, seems only to be definable as a focal point of my perceptual space. In my unreflective moments, it seems that my point of view is my inmost here—a place behind my eyes from which I’m looking out. The distance and direction of everything I see seems to be defined relative to this point.
Sounds seem to be organized about this same focal point. Sounds are curious beasts: Although they occupy space, they seem neither to be points nor to have any shape. Who can hear the blare of a trumpet and say whether it is flat, spherical, or triangular? Synesthetes perhaps, but not the rest of us. In spite of this, sounds do seem to possess distance and direction. Most of us ask where a sound is coming from, not where it is. On the folk conception, sounds have a focal point where they are “made” or “emitted”, and suffuse the space around this point, growing fainter the farther away they are from it. This is a good approximation when interpreted as regarding sound waves in the air, but not as regarding aural experiences, which are in the mind or brain of the observer. Our minds may make mistakes in attributing sounds, as when one attributes the sounds which come from television speakers to the mouths of the actors one apparently sees through the television screen.
It has been argued by some—such as Kant—that one must always think of space as being infinite, and cannot imagine that it comes to an end. How does this belief come about? I imagine it arises from a thought experiment such as this: Imagine any colored shape, such as a square, or if you’re feeling more creative, a tree. Regardless of the shape, you always represent it as being against some background, whether black, or white, or blue, but it is always some color. From this, you may come to the conclusion that for any colored area, there must be a colored border. But this conclusion is problematic. Does your visual field stretch on to infinity? The answer, I think, is no. If you hold your index finger about an inch outward from your face, and move it straightly to the right, after a couple feet you’ll find that you can’t see it any more. The farther something is from the center of the visual field, the more “blurred” or “indistinct” it appears, until you cannot see anything at all. So if your visual field comes to an end, what lies outside it? Your visual field, as presented in experience, is itself a colored area outside of which there is no colored border. Yet it seemed a short while ago to be impossible to imagine that space of any sort could come to an end. So what’s going on here? The answer, I think, goes something like this: Everything that you see lies in your visual field, and thus within its borders. In order for you to see where the visual field ends, its borders would have to be brought within themselves, which is impossible. Because you cannot “see” its boundary as you could the juncture of two colored areas, you conclude it has no boundary at all.
There are many senses grouped together under the grab-bag label “touch”. One of these is proprioception, which is the feeling of how one’s limbs are situated with respect to each other and one’s torso. Another is the sensation one has “in” the various parts of one’s body. This feeling is difficult to describe; it might be characterized as a sensation of existence or ownership, even a feeling of space being “filled”. What it is is brought to light in contrast with its absence, as when some part of one’s body, such as one’s leg, “falls asleep”. I can note that I never experience this sensation in objects which are not part of my body, though if I did I would probably come to regard the object as a part of me. Touch, of course, also includes the sensations of textures of the objects my skin comes into contact with, from the roughness of sandpaper to the smoothness of silk. Neither can I leave out the feelings of pressure and tension on my skin, nor those of heat and cold. Touch seems to be “coupled” to sight: It does not seem to me that I have two right arms, one felt and one visible, but rather one arm both felt and visible. This can result in some interesting experiences: If you bring your hand closer and closer to your face, its image grows, taking up more and more of the background, and yet your hand doesn’t feel as though it’s getting any bigger. The feeling you have in your right hand and its corresponding visual image still seem to fit together, in spite of the fact that one changes while the other remains constant.
Taste and smell may be regarded with justice as two branches of the same sense. Most of the richness of a given food’s flavor is derived from my sense of smell, as the tongue can discern only sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Taste and smell must be very similar; otherwise we would never confuse them as we do. Something can both smell sweet and taste sweet, but try to imagine a confusion between sight and hearing, or between taste and touch, and I think you’ll come up empty. Nevertheless, taste and smell are still distinguishable. Taste is apprehended as being concentrated on the tongue, whereas smell is presented as suffusing the space in front of one.
The perceptions which I have discussed so far do not exhaust the realm of experience. In addition to ordinary experiences of external objects, there is also the phenomenon of imagination, or mental imagery. One notable feature of mental imagery is something that, following David Hume, I will call “faintness”. The term is being used here in an analogical sense, as is evidenced by the fact that, for example, a normal sound or visual experience can be so faint that I cannot determine what it is I am seeing or hearing. By contrast, if I imagine seeing or hearing something I can determine what it is I am imagining quite well enough, it simply that the imagined sight or sound, though “cognized” in some sense, is neither seen nor heard. By the “faintness” of mental imagery one should understand the fact that though these experiences are determined, they are not apprehended in the same way genuinely perceptual experience is. Perhaps an example can make the nature of this distinction clearer. For my part, if I imagine (form a visual image of) a tree, it looks to be in front of me. That is, I don’t see it, from a first person perspective, as being on the side of me or behind my head. Yet in spite of its being in front of me, it doesn’t look at all “transparent”; I don’t “see through it” to the things in my normal visual field, and neither are they obscured by the image. They both look “solid” in their own way, despite the “faintness” of the image. Neither seems to affect the other. In this sense, then, they seem to be in separate spaces, both of which seem to be “in front” of my point of view.
 By the “sensation in” your hand, I mean the feeling that one has simply of its “being there”, of a part of oneself as pervading that space. It is this sort of sensation one loses when a part of one’s body “falls asleep”.
 Brand Blanshard, The Nature of Thought, Volume One, p. 149
 Synesthetes are people who have something we can call “cross-modal activation”: Certain experiences in one perceptual modality (i.e., sight, touch, hearing, etc.) activate experiences in another. Let us assume for a moment that there is a synesthete who has cross-modal activation between the portions of their brain dealing with shape and sound. One question that I have not heard addressed is whether in such a case the shapes or textures are merely felt at the same time the sounds are, or whether they truly qualify the sounds themselves, the sound being apprehended as being triangular, say, in the same way that a color patch may be apprehended as being triangular.
 For clarity, I intend “visual field” to be taken in the sense of one’s subjective visual experience, not that portion of the physical world that visible to one. The question of whether and in what sense there is such a thing as the “visual field”, so conceived, will be addressed later [Or so it would have been, if I had finished the work].