Critchley – What is a Philosopher?

The New York Times has recognized the existence of philosophy. Once every few years the Corporate Media remembers that philosophy exists and this must be our blue moon lucky appearance. The New York Times says they are beginning a regular column written by philosophers. No promise on how frequent this column will be (interesting that lack of commitment) but the first column was by Simon Critchley, chair of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, setting the foundation with a short essay called “What is a Philosopher?.

As a philosophy professor myself I will resist urges to point out assertions Critchley makes with which I disagree and instead salute him for the thoughtful attempt to describe and promote our sublime discipline. In my considered opinion, the essence of philosophy is refusing to accept superficial definitions and instead endeavor to delve deeper. Critchley’s essay is an invitation to do just that and I hope readers take him up on that.

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I Give You the Übermensch

One of the most notoriously misunderstood concepts in the history of philosophy is Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch. The word “Übermensch” is too often mistranslated into English as “superman” but the German “Über” means “over” not “super” and that distinction is crucial to understanding what Nietzsche really said.

Nietzsche’s Übermensch is not a man, or race of men, possessing superior power or strength. The Übermensch is neither a political nor military leader and is not defined by superiority to or power over others. Those fictions were pushed by the Nazi propaganda machine, which twisted the work of many notable German intellectuals and artists to try to make them seem to have foretold the Third Reich. Nietzsche’s philosophy had nothing to with Hitler and his racial fantasies.

What defines an Übermensch is the overcoming of one’s self, which Nietzsche defines both in terms of personal psychology and social pressures. Nietzsche believed most people wallow in their own weakness and limitations, accepting unquestioningly social morals and expectations. They remain trapped in powerlessness and become resentful of those who have more power than them. One becomes an Übermensch when one overcomes his (yes, Nietzsche is sexist on this) own weakness and fear to fully and passionately embrace the fullness of life and its possibilities. Nietzsche believed that all humans have a “will to power”–a desire to control themselves and their environment. But few people have the courage to act on their will to power. The man who overcomes is not afraid to act on his will and use his power to create. He is thus healthy and potent and flourishes in what he does.

The Übermensch, though he exercises his will to power, is not malicious. The Übermensch will transcend the limitations of society, religion, and morality and no longer will be limited and defined by them. However, he is not beyond morality, he is even more moral than normal people because he has transcended the conventional moral codes of society. The Übermensch practices his own independent virtue–self-defined and self-directed. He needs no religion, law, or rationality to tell him how to act, because he acts virtuously in all that he does. Nietzsche placed tremendous importance on not being bound to traditional cultural morality, defined in European society largely by Christianity. The greatest virtue, Nietzsche seemed to believe, was to be morally self-sufficient.

The Übermensch has no masks because he is content in his self and his actions; free from guilt and fear he has nothing to hide. He/she is authentic, open, and honest. He displays style and sophistication in everything he does. He is kindly toward others but does not desire or need the approval of others. The best example of an Übemensch in popular culture today is, ironically, in an ad campaign for a beer. “The Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign from Dos Equis personifies Nietzsche’s ideal man. TMIMW does whatever he feels like, even things that no one else has the strength and courage to try, and excels in doing it. He is never malicious, and is in fact giving and kind, does not need to step on anyone else to be himself, and is respected and admired because of his independence and strength. Take a look at some TMIMW Commercials and see what I mean.

Nietzsche believed that almost anyone could become an Übemensch, but that few people would even try. Depending upon how you look at it, he was either a cynic or a realist.

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The Non-expanding Universe

The cosmologists tell us the universe is expanding. However, if the universe had been expanding for 12+ billion years then we would see certain easily noticeable evidence. The expanding universe theory predicts that as space expands the matter within the space becomes less densely distributed and galaxies become farther and farther apart.

When we observe galaxies nine billion light years away we are seeing them as they were nine billion years ago. This allows us to look back in time and very easily verify the expanding universe hypothesis. If the universe had been expanding all that time then the galaxies nine billion light years away would, on average, be closer together than galaxies, say, two billion light years distant. It is simple to measure this and measurements of galaxy distribution have been made.

All surveys show that there is no significant change in the relative density of galaxy distribution across the universe which means no difference over space or time. There is “clumping” in the universe where there are regional spots of greater matter density. However, the level of this “clumping” is the same at all distances–the density of galaxies in regions nine billion light years away is not different from the density of galaxies in regions two billion light years away. Take any two distances and the same is true. Thus, since distance in space equals distance in time, the observations confirm that the density of galaxies nine billion light years ago is not different from the the density of galaxies two billion light years ago. Therefore, we must conclude that the expansion theory is contradicted by the evidence.

I have no doubt that the universe is billions of years old, but the expanding universe hypothesis is clearly false. So why do scientists continue to insist that the universe is expanding? It’s classic “groupthink”–a common malady in all areas of human society. We see it in culture, religion, politics, and even science. Once an idea becomes popular, it creates an inertia that makes it hard to sweep it away, even in the face of evidence. Beliefs, whether they are scientific or not, are created and maintained because they serve a useful purpose; but that purpose is not always because it best explains the available evidence. It is far too easy for people to ignore inconvenient truths if denying them serves a purpose.

Posted in Philosophy of Science | 3 Comments

The Internet Entitlement Culture

The Internet, the World Wide Web, is a fascinating laboratory of human nature. Perhaps because of the relative anonymity of the Internet, people more readily act on their desires. The Internet may provide insight into the perennial question of whether people are basically selfish. Anecdotal evidence definitely suggests that people are ruder, snarkier, and just plain meaner online than they would ever dare to be face-to-face. Online forums and comment boards resemble the maturity level of grade-school recess. I am not prepared to say that how people act online is somehow more authentic to their inner self than “normal” life, because the artificial nature of the online environment probably invokes artificial behavior that is tailored to the medium. However, I think we can look at online behavior as having some definite themes that tells us something about humans.

Most importantly, the Internet has what I will call an entitlement culture. It is an attitude where people want something for nothing and get quite upset when anything blocks them from it. The entitlement attitude manifests in peer-to-peer file sharing and ripping music from Internet radio stations. Called “piracy” both by the copyright holders and the people who do the downloading, it is no different than walking into a store and stealing a CD or DVD. The only difference is the technological medium of the intellectual property. This piracy has become glorified and rationalized by the people doing it and whole Web sites are dedicated to it using the words “pirate” or “warez” complete with self-serving manifestos about how they are justified in doing what they are doing. They think it is somehow cool to steal. The reality is that they aren’t “pirates,” they are bratty kids who want something for nothing and are too selfish to pay for it. As someone who has been a radio DJ for 13 years and knows many musicians, it angers me that someone would say they have a “right to have the music but the artist does not deserve any compensation for their efforts.

Another manifestation of the Internet entitlement attitude is ad-blocking software which blanks out on-screen ads when visiting Web sites. It sounds cool to block ads and yes many of them are annoying, but the only way those Web sites make money is through the ad images and clicks. So when you block them you are using their site and not paying for it. That is your right I guess, but whenever I visit a Web site I like I will click on an ad. I think of it as a tip jar but even better because it costs me nothing. As a Web site owner myself who depends on ads to survive, I can appreciate the needs of the Web site owners.

This hearkens back to the age-old question proposed by Plato millennia ago: if someone could steal without getting caught, would they? Plato said, in the story of Gyges’s ring, that people would; the Internet seems to prove him right.

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When Atheism Becomes Bigotry

Is there any real difference between these two statements?

    A. Black people are stupid.
    B. Religious people are irrational.

Of course not. Oh, I know, I can hear the militant atheist now with their excuse: “But religious people are irrational!” This of course is the same justification used by racists. Both types of bigotry offers no evidence for their assertions, they only repeat them louder and more forcefully.

Atheism becomes bigotry when it makes prejudicial statements about religious people. Prejudice is prejudice and intolerance is intolerance, and both are irrational regardless of who commits it. Despite its scientific pretensions and its pronouncements of love for reason, many atheists offer arguments laden with logical fallacies of hasty generalization, strawman arguments, and most of all ad homenim attacks. They are, in fact, fundamentally no different in all of this from the religious fundamentalists.

I argue that there is a brand of atheism that is equivalent in character and substance to fundamentalist religion. Let’s call it “fundamentalist atheism.” Like their religious counterparts fundamentalist atheists are characterized by their ideological orientation, militancy, and dogmatic thinking. The fundamentalist atheist says that belief in God or any higher power is a sign of irrational thought and idiocy and that good and intelligent people will agree with their views. We see this in atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and their followers. The arguments of Dawkins and Hitchens, et al. are, in their structure, no different than the arguments of bigots like James Dobson and Gary Bauer. The atheist will say “but I don’t condemn people to hell.” Yes, but only because you don’t believe in hell. What is important is the condemnation itself, not what you think should happen to those you condemn.

Even if an atheist could prove that God does not exist (a logical impossibility) it would not justify the bigotry. And it is utter hypocrisy to condemn the bigotry of religious fundamentalists and act the same way.

Posted in Philosophy of Religion | 10 Comments