Oct 312010
Nelson Goodman

Discussing Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking (1978).

What’s the relationship between art and science? Does understanding works of art constitute “knowledge,” and if so, how does this relate to other kinds of knowledge? Goodman describes art as a symbol system (including art like instrumental music that doesn’t seem representative), which can symbolize successfully or not. While there is no one set of concepts by which to judge all art (different types of art and other descriptive endeavors establish incommensurable “worlds”), neither is art an anything goes endeavor where the individual spectator is the only determinant of quality.

We’re joined by painter Jay Bailey to bring up lots of amusing artwork examples (The Monkees! Thomas Kinkade! Self-mutilation as art!) and tell us how well Goodman’s account accords with his understanding of artistic practice (his answer: not so well).

Read the text online or buy it.

End song: “Staple Gun” by Mark Lint and Stevie P (1999).

Oct 312010

To counter some of the fluff I’ve been posting, here’s a whole lecture by Lewis Lancaster, founder of the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative (which he explains in the lecture) that says something about the content and history of Buddhism:

Watch on youtube.

I’ve not watched the whole thing, so I can’t guarantee that he doesn’t conclude the lecture by saying something crazy like “and also, Buddhists caused 9/11″ or “also, the Buddha was actually a space alien who ate brains.” So I’ll leave you to check it out for any Halloween surprises.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 302010

Following up on yesterday’s post about nothingness, here are two books, one by a scientist and another by a mathematician, about the origination and subsequent history of the mathematical notion of zero: Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea,by Charles Seife, and The Nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero,by Robert Kaplan.

I’ve not read either of these, but they’re both well rated, though ten years old now, so they won’t include the recent developments in the history of zero, such as when Cheney’s approval rating went to zero after he blocked out the sun with his evil globally warming cosmic hate rays.

The only specifically Buddhist account of this I can find is The Logic of Unity: The Discovery of Zero and Emptiness in Prajnaparamita Thought,by Hosaku Atsuao, which has no ratings on Amazon at least and so, unlike the four-star-rated Affairs of Gidget,is not guaranteed high quality by this here blog.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 292010

I got a call for some Alan Watts in our Buddhism discussion, so here’s one of many clips of his from youtube that touches on a theme discussed on the episode (i.e. nothingness and the interdependence of opposite, plus a quick statement without much explanation of Big Self) and which has some good background music that makes the whole thing fairly mesmerizing.

Watch on youtube.

I’m going to withhold judgment at this point, as there’s not a lot of meat to this clip. I suspect that this kind of philosophy seems cooler the less you analyze it; that’s at least my vague memory from reading The Bookback in maybe 1991. However, I welcome readers here to chime in with any positive things they have to say about him, and if there’s enough popular demand, I can look further into him and/or potentially try to get him covered in an eventual podcast episode.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 282010

Could Jesus have been taken to India as a child and taught Buddhism? Hmmm? Hmmm? Here’s something that apparently showed on the BBC at some point:

Watch on youtube.

OK, some silly speculation here (and more amusingly told in Christoper Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal),but a few points of comparison are made here between the teachings of Christianity (and how they’re “unprecedented” as far as Judaism is concerned) and Buddhism.
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Oct 272010

I will end my Westerhoff/Nagarjuna coverage with one more selection from right at the end of Westerhoff’s book:

According to the Madhyamaka view of truth, there can be no such thing as ultimate truth, a theory describing how things really are, independent of our interests and conceptual resources employed in describing it. All one is left with is conventional truth, truth that consists in agreement with commonly accepted practices and conventions. These are the truths that are arrived at when we view the world through our linguistically formed conceptual framework. But we should be wary of denigrating these conventions as a distorting device which incorporates our specific interests and concerns. The very notion of “distortion” presupposes that there is a world untainted by conceptuality out there (even if our minds can never reach it) which is crooked and bent to fit our cognitive grasp. But precisely this notion of a “way things really are” is argued by the Mādhyamika to be incoherent. There is no way of investigating the world apart from our linguistic and conceptual practices, if only because these practices generate the notion of the “world” and of the “objects” in it in the first place. To speak of conventional reality as distorted is therefore highly misleading, unless all we want to say is that our way of investigating the world is inextricably bound up with the linguistic and conceptual framework we happen to employ.

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Oct 262010

The ThingOur Nagarjuna episode seemed to conclude that ultimate reality is beyond our ability to speak about it. The objects of our experience are a shared fiction, and the most we can do with language is to show that they’re fictional; even the terms we use to accomplish this (like emptiness) are themselves constructs, serving only this negative, critical function.

So, is there for Nagarjuna a Kantian thing-in-itself beyond our power to describe? A Tao, perhaps, an underlying God beyond human understanding? “The Void?” Westerhoff says no. Not only are knowable interdependently existing substances incoherent, but unknowable ones are too:

A key element… is denying that it makes any sense to speak of objects lying beyond our conceptual frameworks… These frameworks are all we have, and if we can show that some notion is not to be subsumed under them, we must not conclude that it therefore has some shadowy existence outside of the framework. To this extent our conceptual framework is to be thought of not so much as a map of a country, but as a set of rules for a game. If a traveler brings us news from a city in some far-off land which we cannot find on our map, we conclude… that it must be located somewhere outside of the area covered by our map.
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Oct 252010

ATOMOne of the topics we didn’t really get into on the podcast, and which in our Buddhism reading I actually found the most interesting, is the metaphysics of basic elements of the world.

Nagarjuna argues that reality has no ultimate foundation, and in the episode we discussed that in terms of the possibility of Cartesian “substance” being basic or Spinoza’s solution of making God the single, basic substance. But what about atoms, either physical, or logical (as in Russell/Wittgenstein) or something else (as in Leibniz)? In all of these cases, the elements are supposed to be basic, i.e. not defined necessarily in terms of something else; this is what Nagarjuna is arguing against as svabhāva, or substance. Here’s what Westerhoff (in the summary section of his book:, p. 203-205, has to say about this:

Another difficulty arising if we assume there are substances is the relationship between such substances and their properties. We cannot just conceive of some substance as an individual instantiating properties. …Suppose that water-atoms are substances and that their only intrinsic property is wetness. Now what is the individual in which wetness inheres? Since it is not characterized by any other properties, it must be some kind of propertyless bare particular. What makes it a bare particular? Given that we are dealing with substances here, it had better not depend on some other object. But if it is a bare particular by svabhāva and being a bare particular is therefore its intrinsic nature we are in the same situation as we were with the water-atoms and their wetness. For now we can ask what the individual is in which being a bare particular inheres, and then we are well on our way to an infinite regress. Note that this problem does not go away if we feel uneasy about the property “being a bare particular” and do not want to admit it. For we have to assume that the individual has some determinate nature due to which it is a bearer of its properties and the difficulty will just reappear with whatever we take such a nature to be.
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Oct 242010

world mapPsychologist Jonathan Haidt writes an interesting review of The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happenby Kwame Anthony Appiah: read the review here.

In evaluating our moral intuitions, we often reflect on whether this kind of phenomenology has resonance beyond other Western (“Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD)”) points of view. Appiah’s book focuses on honor killings and other “honor” practices, which seem only removable when the society in question gets mocked enough for engaging in them that they are dishonored, i.e. honor itself is used to halt the practice that was only kept in place to keep honor. Appiah argues, though, that since WEIRD societies focus on individual ethics and don’t see a moral wrong by an individual as a stain against the group, that removes a prime mechanism for moral improvement at the social level.

Stated this way (and of course I’m sure there’s more to it in Appiah’s book), I don’t quite get it. If we don’t currently have horrific practices perpetuated in the name of honor in the West, then we don’t need this mechanism to remove them. It would be nice if we had social mechanisms to encourage progress on (or dismissal of concerns regarding) alleged socially approved misdeeds like abortion, eating meat, and circumcision (none of which seem directly tied to honor), but the fact that we have a vigorous democracy with lots of parties speaking seems to give more hope of long-term resolution re. these issues (in the way that recent progress has been made re. gay rights and how concerns about interracial marriage have for the most part disappeared) than alternative social arrangements.

(Note: the image here is by Vlad Gerasimov.)

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 232010

We’ll be digging into the reputed “father of existentialism,” who takes his Christianity very personally and thinks the rest of you are a bunch of sheep, thank you very much.

In the ole’ Sygdommen til Døden, Mr. K. writes as “Anti-Climacus,” a pseudonym which he brought out when feeling frisky, much like Richard Bachman.

Did you know that you’re in despair? I bet you didn’t, but Captain Kierk. did, even though you weren’t born, so that’s a neat trick. You’re in despair if you have not developed an authentic self that acknowledges both your infinite and finite aspects and puts itself in subservience to God, so there! Those pagans, they may have done cool things by the standards of aesthetics, but the aesthetic gets replaced with the ethico-religious, and if you’re feeling some deep pit within yourself (or again, even if you aren’t), a full-bodied acknowledgement of this is what’s missing from your life.

OK, even if this sounds like bullpucky to you, looking at Special K. here will be good prep for our upcoming, long-awaited Heidegger and Sartre episodes, so get to it! Besides, Mr. Kooky Kierky is a bona fide extra-wordy literary genius (at least in the original Danish) any way you slice ‘im.

Read the text free online or buy the book.

If we have time, we’ll likely also get into his more commonly read work, Fear and Trembling, which is considerably more f’ed up than TSUD what with all the teleological suspension of the ethical and things. Trippy!

Oct 222010

podcast iconOne of my goals in the run-up to our Buddhism episode was to listen to a bunch of many Buddhism/Zen-related podcasts (there seem to be more of these than philosophy ones) and post some reviews.

However, though I sampled bits of maybe six of them, I have nothing that I actually want to recommend, but at the same time, I don’t feel like I put enough time into them to condemn them specifically to you either.

So, let me invite you readers to submit via comments on this post your favorite Buddhist podcasts, or really any that you want to shout about whether you like them or not.

Just to recount my experience in general terms:

In a couple of cases, the podcast was just a recording of a Buddhist service, apparently unedited, with chanting and dead space. In general, the discussions moved very slowly and covered just a few points. It certainly astounds me how Christian ministers can give sermons week after week and always find something more to say, but of course that’s because they’re not trying to cover Christianity like we would on P.E.L. or even in a university setting; they just pick some particular point to harp on and talk around it incessantly for 15 minutes or an hour or however long their performance is. I got the same feeling from these types of Buddhist podcasts, confirming my suspicion that philosophy is generally made much more boring when it is turned into religion.
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Oct 212010

I was leafing through the Tehran Times, Iran’s Leading International Daily…

OK, I was not leafing through this. Rather, I have just started Google tracking new articles that come up with “philosophy” and “philosopher” in them in order to flag potential things to blog about for you folks.

So I see that today there is an actual article in the Tehran Times called “Dialogue possible between Western, Eastern philosophers,” which is a short interview with Jody “Jawad” Azzouni, a philosophy professor at Tufts University.

The headline may give you the idea that the article will say something interesting about East/West dialogue, but the whole exchange re. that topic is:

Q: “Philosophy: theory and practice” is the main subject of the World Philosophy Day in 2010 in Iran. Can this subject help develop deep dialogue between Western and Eastern philosophers?

A: In principle, of course dialogue is possible. There are many different kinds of “Western” philosophers and many different kinds of “Eastern” philosophers as well. I have no doubt that there are a great many issues in ethics and metaphysics (for example) where cross-fertilization would be valuable for specific philosophers in the two “traditions” that you mention.

That’s it. Is dialogue possible? Of course! And then the interviewer moves on to his next prepared question, displaying not the least bit of curiosity regarding what specific issues might be aided by such communication, or the differences in approach (if any can be generalized) between East and West, or the challenges that such communications face.
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Oct 202010
The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David

The Death of Socrates, 1787, by Jacques Louis David. Photograph: World History Archive / Alamy

The Guardian UK published this promotion of Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens, and the Search for the Good Life.It’s a biography of Socrates claiming to put him in his proper context and, if the article mirrors the book, trying to make him relevant for today.

One of the points in the piece is that when Athens was a flourishing democracy, economically strong and militarily mighty, it could tolerate a gadfly like Socrates.  But when it was weak, beset by enemies and questioning its own values, Athenians “took a more fundamentalist view” and put him to the sword (or hemlock, as the case was).  At the end, he says that it isn’t what he said or did that will convict him, but the court of public opinion ruled by gossip and rumor.
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Oct 202010

Some of our ongoing atheism discussion here brought to mind an analogy that I think is best illustrated by a comic from Lore Sjoberg’s Bad Gods.

Comic about Twilight

See the comic on Lore’s site.

Punch line aside, the point should be clear. To argue effectively against religion, you have to be familiar with religion, and to argue it on a point-by-point basis means you have to ingest it point-by-point. However, disdain for religion usually equates to nausea about the whole thing, which means you certainly don’t want to ingest it point-by-point, therefore the theist wins by fiat.

On second thought, even the punch line is relevant here, because those atheists who do take time to sift through the sermons and the tedium to charitably recount the best theistic arguments are then urged to just chill out and let everyone have their own views, which (if you don’t buy some sort of strong Kantian argument for agnosticism) is at least as antithetical to the spirit of philosophy as theistic or atheistic dogmatism and intolerance.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 192010

Western Buddhist ReviewAlan Sponberg, in this article from the Western Buddhist Review, gives a nuanced picture of the Buddhist view of self, affirming the no-self view described on the podcast while arguing that the unity of sentient life under samsara provides a foundation for environmental ethics:

Rather than reifying the prevailing sense of an autonomous self-interested individual with its complement of rights, Buddhism seeks to transform the very way which the individual conceives of himself. Traditionally, Buddhist “environmental ethics” has thus been less a matter identifying and securing rights. Rather it has been much more a matter of undertaking a practice of affirming and eventually realizing the trans-human potential for enlightenment. Based as it is in cultivating an ever deeper insight into the trans-species mutuality of sentience and hence potential for enlightenment, Buddhist practice can only express itself as a compassionate, environmental sustaining altruism.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 162010

GallagherIn my new role as blogger, I’ve been struck by the pull of what I can only describe as Andy Ronneyization, wherein having a forum where you speak alone makes you more and more likely to be snarky, and complaining, and increasingly Scrooge-like: closed-hearted, quick to jeer, encased in your own bile, and ultimately insane.

This is why I have no intention of ever doing a podcast or radio show by myself, and why it’s good that people can comment here and call me on it if I start talking shit. It also means that even if Wes is too busy to be blogging right now so you only have my self-sick voice to hear, then I’d better make most of my posts directed towards philosophy resources on the web so that that wide swath of external personalities gets brought into the picture and it’s not just me extruding myself until I am but a husk.

Serendipitously, I ran across a review of a recent Gallagher appearance (yes, that awkward watermelon-smashing comedian) that shows starkly what can happen if you monologize too much:

Read “Gallagher Is a Paranoid, Right-Wing, Watermelon-Smashing Maniac,” by Lindy West, from Seattle’s “The Stranger.
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Oct 152010

As mentioned on the podcast, our original intention was to cover Zen, but that seemed difficult without covering some of the history. Nagarjuna was a big influence on Zen, particularly in the “Reasoning” reading where he urges disassociation from even Buddhist doctrine itself, i.e. the transcendence of all views. That’s the kind of mind-bending apparent self-contradiction that Zen is famous for.

Here’s a quick clip of Nyogen Yeo Roshi talking about the illusory nature of the self and your experienced world:

Watch on youtube.

Roshi here tells us to appreciate the beauty of the illusory world; we just don’t want to get stuck in it. He argues that the present is an illusion because it’s temporary, because the passing of time makes all events past unreal, because they can’t be produced for reexamination in their fullness. (I don’t find this particular point convincing in the least, myself.)
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Oct 142010

Elucidations podcast logo OK, if the atheism debates are so squalid, then what’s the moderate, “philosophically respectable” approach to some of the issues that come up in them?

A recent episode of the University of Chicago philosophy podcast Elucidations featured philosophy uber-blogger Brian Leiter (who taught my philosophy and the law class at U. Texas). Leiter addresses the question, “Do matters of religious conscience deserve special protection in law?”

His answer is a qualified “no,” in that yes, matters of conscience deserve protection, but not in virtue of their being associated with a religion. Of course there are historical reasons why we needed special protections for religion, and certainly it’s easier, when faced with someone who claims that he can’t follow the law due to a matter of conscious, to procure evidence that the person isn’t just lying if he is associated with an established religion (e.g. Quakers have predictable anti-war beliefs), but ideally, we should broaden the law to provide some protection for all matters of conscience and omit the reference specifically to religion.
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Oct 132010

South Park Dawkins

The most recent comment to yesterday’s post on atheism was a quote (thanks, Jonathan!) from Jose Ortega y Gasset used on this blog to argue that scientists shouldn’t be weighing in on matters of religion and ethics which are, after all, not their specialty.

The point is well taken, reflecting Socrates’s general criticism that every expert in one area thinks he’s an expert in everything. However, Ortega y Gasset’s critique is equally applicable to anyone who has not engaged in the requisite level of philosophical reflection, including any religious believers who have not studied epistemology and clergy who have not thought a lot about meta-ethics.

How much is “a lot” or “requisite?” I don’t know. Dawkins’s book is, unsurprisingly, at its strongest when talking about natural selection; his comments about ethics and other matters are certainly researched (much like Freud’s comments on anthropology and other subjects that make up his speculative work), but Dawkins is obviously not deeply familiar with the vast canon of philosophy in these areas.
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Oct 122010

I referred on the podcast to the over-the-top theatrics of the Lotus Sutra, and also that Nagarjuna’s “verses” were just that: verses meant to be memorized and sung.

Well, here on youtube we have a recording of the Lotus Sutra (I have no idea how much of it; surely not the whole thing) memorized and chanted in a simultaneously monotonous and hypnotically cool way by “some Western Buddhist monks.”

Watch on youtube.

Be sure to get to (or jump to) 6:55 in here when they suddenly get all bass-y such that I just about choked myself laughing for a second. I also love at the end (around 8:45) when they get all slow and swooshy like they’re imitating the Doppler effect.
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