Monday, March 30, 2009

Re: Presidential Trends, Etc.

Jeff writes to add some insights of his own to the post titled Presidential Trends. Here's part of what he says:

...two candidates that fit all of these characteristics better than both Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal are Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty (both of which are younger than Jeb Bush anyway). Both of these men served as Governors and both are very open about being Evangelical Christians. Both are down to earth and were popular in each of their bluish states (Arkansas and Minnesota). Both reached out to those outside of their own party and worked together to find positive solutions to problems and got a lot accomplished despite the opposing party in their states' legislatures. I think that a candidate such as Huckabee or Pawlenty would be a fresh new face for the GOP and could attract voters outside of the far right and rather than focusing on negativity and what the other party is doing wrong, they would focus on coming up with solutions and making progress.

The rest of Jeff's e-mail can be read on the Feedback Page.

Another reader wrote to take issue with the tone of an article by Keith Pavlischek that we discussed a few weeks ago. That letter is also on the Feedback Page.


The Problem of the Self

A.C. Grayling at New Scientist discusses a little of the history of an interesting metaphysical problem. The problem lies in trying to ascertain exactly what it is we are referring to when we talk about the self. What is the self? Who is the I or me to which I refer when I use these words? If it's just the body, as materialists believe, then what is it about us that perdures through time and makes us the same self from one point in time to the next?

Grayling writes:

After John Locke published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690, he sent copies to various savants of his acquaintance, asking for comments and in particular for advice on whether he had left out anything essential - for if so, he could add it to a second edition. His correspondent William Molyneaux of Dublin replied that Locke needed to say something about personal identity: that is, what makes a person the same person throughout their life.

Belief in the idea of a substantial soul - a "you" that is separate from your body - was waning. In the absence of this metaphysical entity as a convenience for underpinning personal identity, what, asked Molyneaux, makes the retired general continuous with the eager subaltern of 40 years before, and he with the red-cheeked baby in his nurse's arms 20 years before that? In response, Locke added a chapter to his second edition which instantly caused a storm of controversy and has been famous ever since in the annals of philosophy.

In that chapter Locke argued that a person's identity over time resides in their consciousness (he coined this term, and here introduced it to the English language) of being the same self at a later time as at an earlier, and that the mechanism that makes this possible is memory. Whereas a stone is the same stone over time because it is the very same lump of matter - or almost, allowing for erosion - and an oak tree is identical with its originating acorn because it is the same continuous organisation of matter, a person is only the same through time if he or she is self-aware of being so. Memory loss interrupts identity, and complete loss of memory is therefore loss of the self.

The divines, represented by Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester, took umbrage and attacked Locke for ignoring the immortal soul. In 1712 The Spectator magazine ran a front-cover demand that "the wits of Kingdom" should get together in conference to settle the matter of personal identity and selfhood, because the controversy was getting out of control. In 1739, when David Hume published the first volume of his Treatise on Human Nature, he stated that there is no such thing as the self, for if one conducts the empirical inquiry of introspecting - looking within oneself - to see what there is apart from current sensations, feelings, desires and thoughts, one does not find an extra something, a "self", over and above these things, which owns them and endures beyond them.

Thus in 50 years the unreflective idea that each individual has an immortal soul as the basis of their selfhood had changed utterly. For millennia before Locke, no one had so much as raised the question. But it was no surprise that the question should suddenly become urgent as the Enlightenment dawned, with its central idea of the autonomous individual who is a bearer of rights and responsible for his or her own moral outlook; such an idea needs a robust idea of selfhood, and the philosophers eagerly tried to make sense of it.

Hume's sceptical view did not prevail. Kant argued that logic requires a concept-imposing self to make experience possible, and the Romantics made the self the centre of each individual's universe: "I am that which began," wrote Swinburne in Hertha, "Out of me the years roll, out of me God and Man." Without a deep idea of the self there could be no Freud or psychoanalysis.

So fundamental is the idea of the self to modern human consciousness that one would expect developments in neuroscience to have a direct bearing on it. And ... that is exactly what is happening - with surprising and often disconcerting results.

The disconcerting results consist primarily in the inability of materialist philosophers to identify anything other than the physical body that would constitute a self. If we have a mind or a soul then presumably it is that, or could be that, which comprises the essential "me," but for modern materialists who have no room in their ontological cupboard for immaterial substances, nothing remains but to conclude that we are simply a mobile pile of carbon and a few other elements. These chemicals are in constant flux so the self is constantly shifting and changing. There's nothing upon which to base a belief that I am the same person I remember being ten years ago.

T.S. Eliot put it this way: "What we know of other people is just our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then....At every meeting we are meeting a stranger."

If this is the case several awkward conclusions follow. In the first place there's no sense in which I can be held responsible for what was done by an individual who had my name and social security number ten years ago. It wasn't me. I cannot be held responsible for promises, contracts, crimes, or anything, for that matter, any more than I could be held responsible to keep a promise made by you.

Another thing that follows from the materialist view of man is that if there really is no self then there's no intrinsic human worth, no dignity, no significance to the individual, or indeed to humanity as a whole. We're simply a couple of scoops of gooey organic molecules, and there's not much value to goo.

Of course, once society comes to recognize and accept this unfortunate idea it will be no time at all before holocausts start looming right around every corner.

Ideas, especially metaphysical ideas, have consequences.


Bristol and Ashley

It'd be a terrible shame if the allegations of a tape of Joe Biden's daughter using cocaine really exists. I'm sure it would be a source of anguish for Biden and his wife, and it's beneath contempt that someone made it and is trying to shop the tape around. I'm frankly very reluctant to talk about it and prefer that this sort of thing just be ignored.

However, there's a point about this that needs to be made. Vice-president Biden has, to his credit, been a leader in the war on drugs, created the Drug Czar post and sponsored much anti-drug legislation. Thus the problems his daughter is allegedly having must be especially painful, and we should all be sympathetic, but this leads me to my point.

When word came out that Sarah Palin's daughter was pregnant and unmarried the media and many Democrats richly, and publicly, enjoyed the irony of the daughter refusing to abide by the values of the mother. Bristol Palin's story was all over the media. Some outlets even ran unsubstantiated allegations that Sarah's mentally retarded child was really Bristol's. Then, even after the election was over, the media came back to get in a few more kicks to the Palins' ribs when Bristol and the baby's father broke up. The whole episode was very sad and quite contemptible, but that didn't hinder gleeful reporters from doing their worst to gloat over every detail.

Now the shoe may be on the other political foot, but you'll probably not hear much about Ashley Biden on the six o'clock news, nor should you. But then you shouldn't have heard much about Bristol Palin, either. A principled reluctance on the part of journalists and political operatives to embarrass the families of our public figures is only principled if it's a courtesy extended to all of our public figures and not just those on the side we want to see win.