Friday, January 31, 2014

More Thoughts On the Location Problem

I received a thoughtful comment on a recent post that I would like to share:

"I'm afraid that you have misunderstood the nature of the "location problem". It's not about physical location. What is meant is in what domain of our ontology (our account of all the things that exist) does value reside. If you are a physicalist, then your ontology only has one domain; that of physical objects. If you are a non-naturalist, then your ontology has room for non-physical things (like consciousness (assuming a non-reductionist account of consciousness of course))
If you take an expressionist view of value then value only exists in the valuations which people actually make. (this does not solve the location problem in itself because the conscious states which constitute valuations may be not reducible to physical phenomena)
If on the other hand you are a moral "realist" then value can exist whether there is anyone doing any valuing or not.
When "naturalists" talk about "locating value" they are talking about being able to say that value can be described entirely in physical terms. Not ab finding the physical place in the world where that value is."

I think the commentator is on the mark about my critique of the essay on moral realism.  The essay on moral realism was an attempt at providing an answer to the question of the ontological location of value.  My post did not critique the answer to that question.  I did not say the answer was wrong, for example.

But I think my commentator misinterpreted my critique, which was not addressed at the answer at all, but rather questioned the formulation of the question itself.  That is to say, I am not claiming the witness is lying or mistaken, I am objecting to the form of the question posed to the witness.

What do I mean?  To ask the location of something is a perfectly good question in the English language.  I can ask for the location of my glasses, for example.  I can formalize the question into the form "Where is X located?" where "X" stands for a noun.

Now let's stipulate to some values of "X" shall we?

In English, I can ask the question:  "Where is the YMCA located?"
There are certain established means of answering this question.  To find the Y, I might ask a pedestrian for directions, I might look it up on a map, or search the internet.  That is to say, in learning to speak English, I not only learn this phrase, but I learn certain techniques that go along with the phrase.  Likewise, when I "get directions" or I look something up on a map, I know what to do with those directions, I know how to interpret them so that I can find the YMCA.

It is important  to note that the question "Where are my keys located?" is grammatically similar, but the techniques that I have learned for finding my keys are radically different.  I know not to ask a pedestrian for directions to my keys.  I'm not going to look up the location of my keys on a map.  The techniques in this context are radically different, even though the forms of expression of the question are virtually identical.  That is to say, the surface grammar of the two questions masks the depth grammar underlying the two questions (two very different clusters of techniques).  Now clearly, there are some techniques for finding my keys.  I can try to "remember" where I last put them down (and this is an interesting and confusing thing for philosophers to do), I can ask my wife if she remembers where I last put them down.  I can randomly search familiar places.  But just as I don't ask a pedestrian for the location of my keys, I generally don't just randomly start wandering about town looking for the YMCA.

Changing it up, I can ask the question:  "Where is the government located?"

This question has the same surface grammar as the question about the YMCA.  But note that the question has several different meanings--that is to say, there are several different correct answers to this question depending on the context.  In a certain context, I might say "Albany" or "Washington D.C.".  In another context, I might point to a building and say "In there."  In a courtroom, I might point to a specific table.  In another context, I might say "In the hearts of the people" and philosophers might quibble whether this were a metaphor or a literal statement, but it would be the only sort of answer possible.  In another context, I might say "in the Constitution" or even "in the vision of the Framer's."

I raise this example to point out that the question "Where is the government located?" is, on its own, completely meaningless.  It clearly has a meaning when we specify a particular context, but without that context, it really asks nothing.  The same could be pointed out about our other two location problems, but this aspect was hidden, for purely accidental reasons.  The "YMCA" is usually used to name a building, and most cities that have a building named the "YMCA" have only one such building.  We can thus imagine a single context in connection with the expression.  Likewise, most people have only one set of keys, and even if they have multiple sets, they don't usually mislay all their keys at once.   "My keys" generally has a unique reference, and so we can imagine a single context here.

In comparison, the question about the location "the government" can sometimes elicit the name a of city, it can sometimes elicit the location of an activity, it can sometimes provide the location where certain people operating in accordance with a certain function may be found, or it can "name something intangible."  This last process is important to examine, because part of our problems stem from this construction.  Names name something tangible.  To say something names something intangible really means that it names nothing at all.  We don't expect to find the government through dissection of the hearts of its people, nor is it the literal "glue" that holds our constitution together.  Our word "name" suggests a picture of "how it ought to be"-- a "name" should have bearer--so the name gets a bearer whether or not one can be found, e.g. the name will name an intangible thing.  The superficial forms of our language are given a unitary grammatical structure, even though in the depths of our usage, its clear that no such unity exists.  At the same time, these "names of intangible things" are concepts in our language that are not meaningless, it is not that these concepts should be eliminated from our language, it is simply that the grammatical picture suggested by "naming" tricks us into misunderstanding these expressions.  (We do not need an "ontology", we need clarity about the deep grammar of these types of expressions.)

Our surface grammar suggests a certain picture, that the meaning of the location of the government (when we are asking about the location of something intangible) is similar to asking for the location of a key.  But the depth grammar shows that it has nothing in common.  We are talking about the names of things that cannot be named.  Does this mean that it is nonsense to say "The government is located in the hearts of the people"?  Obviously not, the assertion has a perfectly good use in the English language.  Further, the assertion is a literal assertion, it cannot be broken down into an analogy, the way we could break down "The Capital City is located in the hearts of the people."  The second expression can be changed into a simile, "The Capital City is like the location of the hearts of the people."   The simile then becomes "The capital city is located in the country like the government is located in the hearts of its people."  It is also important to point out that when we assert that "the government is located in the hearts of the people" we could put our hand over our heart in a gesture (and there would likely be a characteristic expression on our face and in the way we carried our frame, also).  In fact, the physical gesture could be substituted for the verbal expression.  This is to say, in certain contexts, it has the same meaning as the expression.

It is also true to say that in some contexts, our location problem can be solved by the gesture of pointing, and that the gesture of pointing might substitute for the verbal response.  For example, showing where the activity of government occurs.  We can also imagine the verbal answer is eliminated from English.  In this case, we could clearly distinguish between the figurative answer (patriotically placing our hands over our hearts) and the indexical answer (pointing to a building or an area in the building).  The illusory unity created by the form of our expression has now disappeared, and the responses no longer suggest that we are talking about the "same thing."  Further, we can see whatever "domain" our "ontology" ascribed to "government", it would be nonsense, as the concept of "government" is used to refer to several kinds of things, and sometimes it is used to refer to nothing at all (but what we say is meaningful and important).

To move on to another set of location problems, we can examine the question "What is the location of the motion?"  It is important to note that this question, like the one about the government, is meaningless without a context.  If we are deer hunting, in the forest, it is associated with one set of techniques (and answers).  If we are learning African dance, it has another meaning (another technique).  If we are conducting polling for a political campaign, it has another meaning, another set of techniques.  If we are repairing a broken mechanism on a car, it has another meaning, another set of techniques.  If we are conducting a physics experiment, we find other meanings, other techniques.  Last, we can consider the use of this question in the context of a therapy session.  The surface grammar is identical, but the depth grammar is incredibly complex.

I hope I have succeeded at making my point here.  Location questions have a superficially similar surface grammar that masks an incredibly complex depth grammar, even in very mundane contexts.  A location question asked outside of a specific linguistic context is meaningless.  The surface grammar of a location question forces a kind of picture on us, even if the depth grammar suggests that the picture is actually meaningless (names an intangible).

Let's attempt to apply this analysis to the "location problem" of values.  To talk about the "location" of something is to suggest a metaphor between that something and a physical object.  To talk about a kind of "domain" is to suggest a metaphor with a physical realm.  Now, we could consider a number of actual contexts in which we talk about domain, akin to asking about a location, but I will leave this to the reader.

Let us consider the "domain" of "ontology."  According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "[a]s a first approximation, ontology is the study of what there is."  This definition is interesting, because it suggests that ontology is empirical, e.g. we are going to study the empirical world and discover our ontology.  However, any empirical description of philosophers will reveal that ontology is generally anything but empirical.  My commentator defines "ontology" as "our account of all the things that exist."  This also suggests that ontology will turn out to be something like an encyclopedia (empirical), or perhaps a typology of our encyclopedia, a sort of Dewey decimal system for beings.

Herein lies the point of disagreement between myself, the author of the essay I critiqued, and my commentator.  It is fundamentally ontological in nature.  There is what we say, and what we can empirically observe.  Scientific inquiries concern themselves with what we can empirically observe.  Philosophical investigations concern themselves with what we say, particularly what we are inclined to say regardless of the facts.  That is to say, philosophy concerns itself with understanding the conventions of our ordinary language.  Philosophy is an investigation into meaning, science is an investigation into truth.  Philosophy deals with concepts, science deals with the empirical observation of things.

Thus, "ontology" may be understood as the symptom of a condition that results from the false conflation of scientific inquiry and philosophical inquiry.  We sometimes develop physical ailments, and we sometimes develop metaphysical ailments, but the first is the result of disorder in the body, the second is the result of conceptual confusion.  Language is a labyrinth that deceives us, and we become lost in the forms of our language.

We have a noun in English, "existence," and we have a verb "to exist."  There are certain preexisting grammatical conventions that govern our usage of these words.  For example, we sometimes say houses exist, people exist, deities exist, numbers exist, possibilities exist, nations exist, languages exist, corporations exist, money exists, and we even say values exist.  Why do we need to overlay our ordinary conventions with an "account" of "all the things that exist" when a description of our conventions would suffice?  How could our "account" have any more authority than our conventions here?  Further, if we make up an "account" that departs from our conventions, it does not, in fact, change that which is truly independent of our language.  All an "ontology" does is to arbitrarily propose to change our use of ordinary language, and it does so on the basis of what authority, reason?  But reason is simply another concept with a use in our language, and there can be no hierarchy in what we are inclined to say (the hierarchy is manifest in what we are inclined to do).  [The entries in a dictionary have no importance until we turn to the dictionary to look something up.]  What we need here is clarity about what we say, we need to see the surface grammar and the depth grammar, and we need to see how the surface grammar can mislead us, send us down the wrong path toward the ontological minotaur. 

An "ontology" is not a domain, it is a proposed change to our ordinary use of our verb "to exist"  (or sometimes "to be.")  To "locate" value is to propose a connection between the concept of value, and some other set of concepts.  But note, the concept of "location" is something that is incredibly rich and complex, we have only touched on a fraction of the complexity of the concept.  Further, to talk about the location of something outside of a specific context is meaningless.  "What is the location of a physical thing?" is not a question, but the form of a question.  If we specify the type of thing and the context in which the question is asked, we can talk about an answer, we can talk about a meaning and we can do something with the question.  But without a specific type of thing, and without a specific context, the question is meaningless.  

The assertion "Physical things exist" is not an assertion, but a pseudo-assertion.  This is not to say that I cannot refer to (or even point to) something we agree is called a physical thing.  Further, our concept of a "physical thing" would not be coherent if I could not point to something I call a physical thing.  Perhaps I want to say "But something exists that I call a physical thing."  But note that "something" here has no reference.  I seemed to be making an ontological statement about "something," but really I am making a grammatical statement, that the concept of "physical thing" is connected with the concept of pointing.  Perhaps someone says, "But I can give 'something' a meaning here, look! <points to the table>  That is a physical thing.  That exists."  What has this person done?  They have repeated a rule about how we talk about physical things.  They have not "proved" that physical objects "exist", they have "proved" that the concept of "physical object" can sometimes be made to have a reference.  But I have not objected that the concept of a "physical object" cannot sometimes have a reference, I have objected to misconstruing a statement about our linguistic conventions into some kind of "general" empirical description of anything.  Of course, I agree that if it became impossible for any person to point to something, our concept of "physical object" would become vestigial, useless.  But here I am talking about the conventions of our language, not the "general domain of existence", whatever that could be.  

What is ontology?  Ontology is the general grammatical form of a description, similar to the way an algebraic expression, such as "y = ax +b", is the general mathematical form of a description of a line.  But "y = ax + b" does not describe a line, and we cannot graph any line with the expression unless we stipulate to the value of a and b. What ontological domain does "y = ax + b" belong to?  Does it matter what I say here, provided the expression can be connected with a use, a set of techniques?  Moreover, it is hopefully clear that ascribing an "ontological domain" to "y = ax +b" does not mean anything at all--it is not connected with any use, any set of techniques, except the technique of conceptual confusion.

The depth grammar of the concept of a "physical thing" or a "value" or a "domain" or "consciousness" or "physical world" are equally complex and differentiated.  I can say that "value is located in the physical world" but note that the assertion is not an actual assertion, but the form of one.  An antique dealer might point to a clock and say "there is value in that thing," which in some sense might be said to locate value in the physical world (but in this specific context).  But when the philosopher says (or denies) "there is value in that thing" that statement has no connection to ordinary human activity.  When the antique dealer says it, I know what she means, e.g. she can buy and re-sell the item at a profit.  With the philosopher, I do not actually know what she means.  Its not connected to anything.

Any attempt to structure the forms of the descriptive concepts of our language based strictly on the surface grammar of our words is essentially meaningless.  Ontology is not only arbitrary, but 150 proof metaphysical moonshine.  It is a house of cards that resembles a building, but collapses upon scrutiny.  Thus, I disagree with my commentator that I misunderstood the "location problem".  The "location problem" is nonsense, and the answer to nonsense is to come to see nonsense as nonsense, and not to make up a nonsensical answer.

But here I must pull back, as before.  To talk about the location of value is to make a metaphor between the location of a physical thing and value.  Asking for the location of your keys suggests that you have lost something of great personal value.  Further, asking for the location of your keys is also often related to the act of searching for the lost bearer of personal value.  The forms of our language can suggest a certain kind of picture, even when the forms of our language are actually meaningless.  (We can compare this to a portrait of Phillip Marlowe, private investigator.)  A philosophical answer, e.g. a meaningless expression, can also suggest a certain kind of picture.  If value resides in the physical world, like our keys, then maybe we can find it again, and we feel reassured.  If value does not reside in the physical world, and the physical world is all that exists, then perhaps we feel sadness, loss.  We can compare our responses here to a work of fiction, for which the names of characters name intangibles, but concerning which we can shed tangible tears for the bearers none-the-less.  Perhaps philosophy then, by virtue of its fictional character, can sometimes change the meaning of our world, and the meaning of our life.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Pseudo-Metaphor: Contemplations of Heaven

          I recently read a piece inquiring into the location of values in the natural world.[1]  The tone of the piece was very earnest.  The author appears to have uncritically swallowed what is marketed as the “scientific world picture” and yet cannot abandon his commitment to the philosophical position of moral realism.  Thus, he diligently tries to transmute the lifeless atoms in the void into living, breathing persons with moral inner lives.  He characterizes this quest for the philosopher’s stone as the “location” problem.

          I had two fundamental reactions to this piece.  The first, the simplest, is that whatever a “value” is, whatever sort of thing a “value” could be, it is not an ingredient in things, the way oxygen is part of a water molecule.  Certainly, there are living, breathing beings in the world that are the locus of ethical values.  We do speak of the value of human life, for example.  That life exists in space and time.  At the same time, the practice of vivisection will reveal no value at any level of the organism.  Abandoning reductionism, perhaps we can view the person as a totality, as a whole, and perhaps the forms of our language suggest that we value the person as a living unity.  However, here it seems that what is revealed compels value, but value is not what is revealed.  What do I mean?  We see the person as “possessing” or manifesting life (for life is not an ingredient either), and on account of that life, we accord them value.  If we run the operation the other way, it is possible we could see a person as possessing no value, and therefore there would be no adverse ethical consequence if we took their life.  

          We can talk about the location of a physical object.  We can describe the location of physical object, for example, in a physics experiment, or playing a game of battleship, or in giving directions to the store.  This article mentioned above seems to talk about “value” in terms of a metaphor with a physical object.  Yet our concept of “value” is not analogous to a physical object, or even a quality of a physical object.  Moreover, the article seems to presume that any concept for which the metaphor of a physical object is not appropriate should be eliminated from the language.  Thus, you can appreciate the author’s conundrum:  he is committed to narrowly limiting the sphere of metaphors (as all serious hard-thinking people are these days) to metaphors of physical objects, and perhaps their qualities and quantities, as well as committed to “objective” or “real” moral judgments.  What does it mean to the author to say something is “real” or “objective”?  We can presume it means that one can create a service-worthy metaphor between the concept of value and the concept of a physical object.

          Stepping back, we can question this whole philosophical project.  Why are the only “real” or “objective” concepts in our language those that can be analogized with a physical object?  If we presuppose that the grammar of our ethical concepts is not analogous to the grammar of our physical concepts, why should this bother us?  If we wrote a beautiful poem, should we be upset if the poem could not rendered without aesthetic impairment into the form of a sonnet?  I can only assure you good reader that these people, in fact, exist, and are doing this very important and serious philosophical work on these questions.  Perhaps we can call this condition the “Philosophical Delusion,” and note that while being contagious, it is not generally dangerous.

          Two points need to be made about these metaphors.  One, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using the metaphor of a physical object to talk about ethical values, any more than there is anything wrong with using the metaphor of a fluid to talk about viral infection (e.g. it was in his head and now descended into his chest).  But when we use a metaphor, we should use the metaphor self-consciously and for the purpose of clarity.  That is to say, the metaphor makes it possible to view facets of the problem we might otherwise neglect.  On the other hand, when we are infected with the “Philosophical Delusion” and driven by the “quest for philosophical truth” into forcing the forms of our language into one metaphor that does not really fit, we end up propagating confusion.  It is perfectly fine if you want to say ethical propositions are objective or subjective or need to be eliminated (so far as you explain what you actually mean), but when you start to speak of the location of values in some literal fashion, you are speaking nonsense man!  If values have a physical location, then we can obviously give directions to ethical values, the way we might give directions to a restaurant.  An interesting premise for a fairy tale, but not a useful philosophical point-of-view.

          But here I have to stop myself, because it occurs to me that we do, in fact, make literal statements about the location of values.  For example, what is the source and destination of the good?  Obviously, it is up in the sky, heaven.  What is the source and the destination of evil?  Equally obvious, it is down in the earth.  We can even point down.

          Now I understand to certain educated readers, these statements must be viewed as unsophisticated balderdash.  But what does that mean?  I think it means that in some sense, we too would be inclined to say these things, but that tendency has been rooted out by virtue of our education and training.  Yet, I think there is something very profound in these assertions that we are inclined to miss, and that is that one could travel the ends of the Earth, speak to many people, learn many languages, and one could discover that most human beings everywhere in the world conceive of the good as being associated with the sky and heaven, and evil as associated with the ground and fire.  It is as characteristic of human beings as the use of our index finger to point.

           The question becomes, if, in fact, human beings generally do assign a literal location to the good and to the evil, why then do the philosophers reject it?  Why does the philosopher need to construct a “better” or improved account of the location of ethical values?

          Perhaps the first thing that is obvious is that human exploration of the heavens has not revealed a heavenly realm of beneficent beings so far.  At the same time, we speak of heart break without blushing, but medical science has not established beyond a reasonable medical certainty that a psychologically painful separation causes the severance of the cardiac tissue into two.  But even hard-thinking rational philosophers sometimes admit to having broken hearts.   I think we need to carefully consider these figurative expressions, and what they mean.

Ludwig Wittgenstein gave a lecture on Ethics in 1929, in which he treated some of these expressions, and noted that these expressions appear to be analogies:

Thus in ethical and religious language we seem to be using similes.  But a simile must be a simile for something.  And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it.  Now in our case as soon as we try to drop the simile and simply state the facts which stand behind it, we find that there are no such facts.  And so, what at first appeared to be a simile now seems to be mere nonsense.

Returning to our heart break example, speaking of a broken heart appears to be an analogy.  Obviously, through medical science we can establish that our heart is not actually broken (although we might feel pain in our chest).  But we say that we know that something inside us is broken, analogous to our heart.  What then is broken?

          The natural instinct in a culture saturated with neuroscientific just-so stories is obviously to jump for some neurological analogy.  But note that we say our heart is broken, not some region of our neocortex.  Further, medical science has not revealed that any portion of our brain is severed as a result of a separation.  Our brain is not broken either.  Let us suppose that when human beings experience separations, that scientists observe some characteristic activities in certain portions of the brain.  Is the broken heart an analogy for this brain activity?  The problem with this explanation is that our language of heart break is a grammatical convention of our language.  It is unclear how an empirical hypothesis about unknown brain activity can in any way relate to the long-standing conventions of the English language.  If heart break were, in fact, an analogy, we would be able to state the analogy, and we would know what the literal analog was.  We would not have to speculate about some hypothetical future finding of neuroscience.  It is clear that the statement is just something we say, and something we say in certain culturally prescribed contexts.  For example, we do not typically say that our hearts have been broken (except facetiously) because we experienced a flight delay (even if scientists could measure activity in the “heart broken” portion of the neocortex in these situations).

          What then is the language of heart break?  It is not our heart, a physical organ, that is broken, but we ourselves who are broken in our hearts, in our essence.  I do not dispute this statement, but there is possible confusion here.  This break in our essence is not somewhere inside, hidden.  There is not a little person inside our body reading the heart gauge and issuing descriptive reports on the status of our hearts, like an attendant in a cardiology unit.  This fetching little metaphor only produces confusion for us here.  There is no inside—when we are true to ourselves, the condition of our hearts is written into our faces.  It is the luminosity of our being.  And the assertion is not a description, it is an expression of that luminosity.  The language of heart break is not a proposition that stands for an inner, hidden state of our being, but rather, the language of heart break is a symbol, an expression, of our being[2].  It is merely a gesture, a signal, not a factual assertion.

          The symbol has no reference.  It does not stand for an inner spiritual or an inner physical process, it is nonsense, meaningless in that sense.  But in the symbol, something valuable is revealed.

          How can we then analyze the idea of the good being located in the sky, and evil in the ground?  It is clearly the experience of perceiving the world as the manifestation of hierarchy.  Note this is not a case of a sign, of the world standing for some invisible hierarchical realm.  We see the world, and we see the world as the manifestations of a hierarchy.  We are speaking of perception, not about a theory or a metaphor.  It is a visionary phenomenon, not a literary phenomenon.  Nor is the content of what we see any different from the way we view things ordinarily.  We are not hallucinating, we are not having a vision of the heavenly hierarchy.  We are simply seeing the world, the good old ordinary world, as an enchanted place.    

We can make a distinction between sensation and perception.  We have sensations, but perceptions are conceptual.  We have visual sensations, but we see things.  Perception involves seeing things as the embodiment of concepts.  We see the dining room table, not our visual sensations.  Although this way of seeing cannot be likened to a theory or a metaphor, we cannot deny that our perceptions can be wrong.  For example, we may perceive a snake, but later discover that the snake is a really a coil of rope.  But we have to ask, how can our perceptions be wrong?  Because we have conventions of language that establish empirical conditions that corroborate (or falsify) our perceptions of reality.  If we look more closely at the seeming snake, we discover it has no eyes and is not moving, for example.  And it is important to note that in this mode of perceiving the world, as the manifestation of a hierarchy, there are no empirical criteria that can verify or refute this vision.  It is, as Wittgenstein stated, nonsense, but important nonsense.  After all, it establishes the physical location of value, our philosopher’s stone.

Obviously, there is nothing to compel or prevent us from adopting or rejecting this way of seeing.  At the same time, it does strike me that discursive philosophy cannot add or subtract anything by way of further explanation or theory here.  Thus, as unsophisticated as it sounds, I am forced to conclude that if it were possible to say anything about this matter, we would have to say that the location of the good, the valuable, is in the sky.   Call it the invisible sun.

[2]  If scientists discovered that excitation of a certain region of the brain stood in one-to-one correlation with people’s first person accounts of experiencing heart break, I would be inclined to say our brain expresses our heartbreak, not that our brain activity was our heartbreak.  Otherwise, we might as well say our frown does not express our sadness, it is our sadness.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Cartesian Affliction of Contemporary Philosophy

I was reading an essay by a philosopher several days ago, and it immediately bothered me in a visceral kind of way.  It was thoughtful, well-written, the author was obviously not stupid or inarticulate.  At first, I thought what bothered me about it was the breezy, self-congratulatory tone, but the fact of the matter was that I couldn't actually put my finger on what it was that bothered me about the article.

You can read it here if you like:

Today the answer was revealed, and I think the answer is actually symptomatic of not only the author's work product, but endemic to the whole field of academic philosophy.  The author suffers from what I term the Cartesian affliction.

The essay provides the author's thoughts on what kind of rational justification can be brought to bear in support of democracy.  What could possibly be wrong with that?  Don't I support democracy?  You see, that is precisely what is wrong with the article, I do support democracy.  Furthermore, even if I came to the conclusion that the author's rational justification was in fact totally invalid, I would still support democracy.

What is the purpose of a justification?  One purpose is to persuade another person that your conclusion is the correct one.  Another purpose is a kind of self-discovery, of realizing the connections between one set of ideas and another.  You could call it self-persuasion.  A justification has a use when you have one set of unquestioned foundational beliefs, and you have another disputed belief.  

If you are standing on the ground, and you want to elevate yourself, you assemble some kind of structure, and then you can stand on the structure at the new elevation.  Justifications are sort of analogous.  They take us from our foundational beliefs, those beliefs about which we are certain, and attempt to elevate us to a controverted belief, about which we are not certain.

Which takes us to the problem with the article.  I don't know about my readers, but my support for democracy is pretty damn solid, about as solid as just about anything else I believe.  Especially democracy at the level of the average philosopher, with corruption, stolen elections, ballot stuffing, voter suppression, McCarthyism, legalized corporate bribery and legislative stalemate abstracted away.  I would believe in Democracy even if I came to doubt in a democracy.  Which, if you think about it, means that I can't--at least as far as I go--actually come up with any justification for Democracy.   Don't get me wrong.  I can make up thousands of reasons why Democracy is good--but they wouldn't be justifications.  Its like adding a stucco facsimile column on the front of a building for decorative purposes.  The fake column doesn't bear any weight.  Its not structurally part of the building at all.

Of course, another purpose of a justification is to persuade others.  I may believe in democracy, but others might not, so I might construct an argument to persuade other people to my side.  So I have to ask--who are the readers of this column?  Do any of them actually doubt democracy?  Do any of them actual seek to violently overthrow the government and replace it with some kind of autocracy?  This is surmise on my part, but I can't actually believe any of the readers of this article actually support anti-democratic political movements either.

Don't let me be misunderstood.  There are a great number of people throughout the world that doubt democracy, and a great number who support anti-democratic political movements.  I believe it would be a great benefit in the world to convince some or all of those persons that democracy represents the best way.  However, it occurs to me that if I wanted to persuade these people, I would need to understand their language and their world-view.  Further, my justification would need to be framed in terms of their language and their world-view, and not mine.  For example, in the right context, I might be more persuasive if I selectively quoted portions of the Qu'ran than if I discussed Plato's Republic.

What is wrong with the article:  the author provides a pseudo-justification for a belief that he does not actually doubt for the benefit of an audience who also does not doubt the belief that is the subject matter of the justification.  I have to ask--what is the purpose of making up pseudo-justifications for beliefs that everyone already believes?  This phenomenon I name the Cartesian affliction.

But here, let us offer an interpretation of Descartes.  Descartes lived in an age of emerging science.  Aristotle had been swept aside in a scientific revolution.  The conceptual and scientific foundations of the late middle ages were crumbling.  The certainty in the existence of God that characterized Europe for over a millennium was foundering.  Descartes lived in an age of doubt, and perhaps rightly, philosophy turned to the question of doubt.  Descartes's brilliance lay in creating a sense of sophistical pseudo-doubt in the existence of an external world, for which he constructed the pseudo-justification of God as a solution.  No one actually doubted the existence of an external world, and many people doubted the existence of God.  No one actually cared very much if the external world did not exist, but many people cared whether God existed or not.  Thus, Descartes convinced people that what they wanted to believe in but doubted was necessary in order for them to believe in what they did not care about but about which they were already certain.  It's a classic sales pitch:  you have to buy that, you want buy this, let me explain why you have to really buy this if you are going to buy that.  Have you ever read a Christian apologist who didn't parrot Descartes in some fashion?

But our contemporary article, while sharing Descartes's affliction, doesn't even seem to be selling anything on the mean terms.  It's completely useless.

I recall reading a series of writings by gay and lesbian Roman Catholics, and it was very moving to me.  Some of the writers came out in favor of their orientation, others in favor of Church dogma.  But all the writers were torn between two things they loved, and two different understandings of what love is.  It made me sad to read of people who through the course of their lives had been torn in two, and remain torn in two come what may.  There were real justifications in those writings.  But above and beyond the justification, there was real vulnerability.  A real question stems from a real place of vulnerability, and a real justification, a real answer, comes when we stop hiding and accept our vulnerability, our unknowing.  This I believe.  We must be truth before we can know truth.

What is wrong with the contemporary philosopher?  His (or her) method is about hiding.  Pretending to doubt beliefs undoubted.  Offering pretend justifications to overcome those pretend doubts.  Hiding in irony, skepticism, and most of all in a pretend doctrine of truth and wisdom.  Is it that philosophy has nothing to say, or is it that philosophers are afraid to say it?