The two meanings of casuistry

Casuistry is a word that I do not really understand, as it seems both an insult and an adjective of praise (but probably not both). One meaning of casuistry is the notion that one would try to use any kind of reasoning in order to have a particular agenda or line of action to be justified. This is the kind of legal reasoning one would use to argue for something but not have the epistemic space to be convinced otherwise. This seems somewhat dangerous a mindset; to already agree and be inflexible upon a topic of argument: why use the appearance of argument at all?

Casuistry by contrast, can be undesrstood as the application of a universal to appropriate an ethical principle in a particular situation. In this case, we may consider ethical maxims, such as the principle of double effect, or the golden rule: as we consider them general rules, we may also maintain that they have wide applicability.


Offensive humour revisited

The notion to take offense, and the notion of offense, has taken up some presence lately. There are some views which are offensive, but is that to make some views an offense?

I have been watching some British comedies over the past few months. I have noticed in some of the late 90s/early 00s, that there were some jokes which seemed to be in bad taste by today’s standards. There was an episode of Black Books where Eastern Europeans were represented as eccentric and poverty-stricken. There are some jokes which should offend, but are justly comedic expressions. That Mitchell and Webb sitcom show had a sketch which mocked how dumbed down the vanguard of the higher echelons of BBC broadcasting standards had went; where people have an ‘A’ level superficiality and appropriation of issues, and are unwilling to engage in areas that they are either unfamiliar with, or afraid to tackle in fear of difficulty. Likewise, Armstong and Miller have made a few sketches to denote how the BBC are populist and pander to listening to whatever response people have about the news, or news stories, or events.

I’ve been in many philosophy seminars where I had neither an idea what they are takling about initially, nor familiarity with the background literature to which they were referring. Eventually, as most philosophers do, they get used to this environment and learn to get used to being around those with unfamiliar views, approaches and even their background literature fetishes. Some for instance are science-based, or mathematically based, or an x-in-disguise. There is a skill in being able to listen, being silent and trying to gain a handle on an unfamiliar issue. One may not automatically understand, nor have a valuable opinion on the issue, but to outright dismiss the unfamiliar is an intellectual dis-virtue that is beyond the pale for any civilised and proper person. This latterly point, was the moral, I think, in the Mitchell and Webb sketch.

Offensive humour that targets us is supposed to critique us. It is a part of good character to accept critique, although one need not necessarily agree with any given critique; being self-critical can lead to blind spots that others are better placed to see. Such would not be possible if it were the case that offense would be outright disallowed. A humourless world is one of philistine mentality and closed minded idiocy. Creativity comes in all forms, granted; although outrightly banning a media or theme hinders on any kind of creativity. Offense can also be funny.

As a closing point I would like to address a slightly different angle. In the film ‘The Aristocrats’, concerining the “world’s most offensive joke”, there was an address of how this versatile joke, The Aristocrats, has such power to be made relevant to many different ages. Whoopi Goldberg humourously mentioned how racial sensitivities, which are very real, can be exploited to humourous effect. The South Park interpretation of the Aristocrats, which I found the most funny as well as original. The South Park interpretation highlights 9/11 hysteria and lampoons it to powerful effect through the crude and childish mouthpiece of Cartman.

The comedians discussed with veneration the interpretation of The Aristocrats by Gilbert Gottfried. Gottfried’s version was told in 2001, at a time close to the bombings of September 11th. Gottfried, being a comedian who had made a reputation of making dirty jokes; had made a joke that was beyond the pale, referencing the September bombings. Gottfried made a successful attempt to save face by ‘going the other direction’ (of offensiveness) by making an interpretation of the Aristocrats. What is notable about Gottfried’s rendition of the joke is how the sexual acts are taken to a degree that is comical in that it is slapstick, and yet devastating and graphic. Gottfried’s humour is not supposed to be taken seriously and aims to give big and guilty laughter among the audience. Jokes are teased out of the audience from laughing at things that they do not consider in their real moral agencies, such as flippant and parodical portrayals of sexuality, ethnicity and gender, while dispersed with seemingly politically correct observations (in gest). Gottfried’s humour occupies an old kind of mentality where realities are overemphasised in an attempt to evince humour, which very much contrasts with the kind of offensive humour that subtly and conscientiously mocks the attitudes of others. I think it is this that marks what makes Gottfried’s humour as being ‘in the other direction’ of offensive humour.


Aristotle to Aquinas is like Darwin is to Dawkins

Lately I have been considering a number of reflections and observations I have had since reading a few of Dawkin’s books as well as an (abridged) copy of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”. My understanding of Darwin is so much informed by Dawkins that I would consider their doctrinal views as synonymous, or more specifically, the latter being an evolution (excuse the pun) of Darwin’s system of biology.

Dawkins’ modified Darwinism seems to be a touch more informed by modern zoology. Without having much familiarity on Darwin on religious belief, Darwin seems to leave how explicitly challenging natural selection can be to the literal notion of creation, or any religious belief at all. There are some issues which interest me, and I suspect the next few decades will shed more light on this issue.

1. The digital river analogy: The notion of genes as replicators is more like a helpful default position than the actual position. While DNA and RNA seem to work as replicators; the comparison to digital data seems curious. The notion of the digital river is that our genetic structure, and those of plants, animals are offshoots of a larger stream.

The general notion of genus-species relata is compatible with Kant’s notion of typology (what I’ve called the Systmaticity thesis). We order things like bananas to bumblebees, and assume that features that typify their classification embodies features of a greater genus. Consider the taxonomy by virtue of their history and we come closer to a river notion. Assume that all organic things are part of a higher descendent form. This leads me to my next consideration

2. Gaps: It is one thing to metaphysically speculate a higher genus, but to move from a metaphysical claim to an actual empirical one may seem an impassable bridge. Not so for the notion of the digital river. Dawkins gives a few good examples of intermediary species that suggest common ancestry. There are constantly made discoveries and gaps being filled. The argument for the digital river takes place across a great many species and bodies of specialised research. As such, there are not enough people or funders to construct a ‘complete’ taxonomy. This leaves empirical gaps. Gaps are often appealed to as a ‘failure’ of evolution. The notion of intermediaries is also misunderstood by creationists who hold that there would be intermediaries between any arbitrary two currently surviving species. The notion of intermediaries works with descendent species, not contemporaries.

3. How fast does natural selection, or adaptation proper take place in an organism?

This notion borders on a thought about scientific research as well as, it would seem, what we currently understand. It is understood that significant features are inherited over a period of thousands of years, but what about changes over a single or other number of generations that can be observed in living memory? Lately I had came across the notion of ontogenesis, that being, the process of developement in an organism in its own lifetime. I have heard some speculation that ontogenetic changes can be observed and influence development.

Does ontogenesis affect generational adaptation? It would be interesting if it would, although this is just a speculation on my part. There was around 1996, a Marvel Comics series concerning the origins of Mr. Sinister. Sinister, who lived around the 19thC, maintained the belief that human beings can go through significant change over a period of observable (that is, in our lifetime) generation. Mr. Sinister speculated, in a manner similar to domestication or selective animal breeding, that significant changes can be encouraged.


“It’s funny because it’s true” – Responding to authenticity

The comedian Joe Rogan often shows his response to internet viral videos. It has become as much prevalent as the videos themselves to record the responses that people have to the videos. One particular instance that I consider is the video described by Rogan as “a man being fucked to death by a horse”. The background story of it shows that due to his lifestyle activity, of regularly intruding into barns and stimulating coitus with horses, there was a result of serious organ damage which led to his death. The video was an example of his activities but, per se was not the video of his death.

Our response seems to change to these events once we have more background information. I was watching a few videos of ‘dating tape’ advertisments where these men seem to be so horrific that it arouses suspicion as to whether it was a real video or not. It has often been exposed that pranks or viral videos were fake to begin with, under the guise that if it were a genuine event, people would find genuine shock and comedy from it. It is all too easy to fool people, and ith as led me to the consideration that a whole set of background propositions come to play in compliment to our immediate reaction.

Often, in emotional reactions, we can be given a ‘false start’. We may be quick to anger, or shock, and then later diffusing the situation and the inadequate basis of that feeling, we then remove (albeit slowly) that response which we have had. This reminds me of an aspect of Spinoza’s ethical system. A lot of our negative feelings can be diffused by an apprehension of their poor basis. A compatible claim is also that authenticity governs a significant component of our reaction to a situation, in contrast to our immediate reaction to it.


The lesser reliance on independent computers

This week marks the release of Windows 7. Some of the critical reception of this operating system has let me to consider that the saleability of operating systems as big commercial commodities may come to an end. Microsoft, due to various reasons, is losing its market dominance. It also seems that, with the disappointment of Vista (and other notable Windows operating systems between Windows 95 and XP); we will enter different market and consumer conditions, which do not bank on the great release of a new operating system.

It is a far cry to maintain that the open source movement will fill in much of the void left by Microsoft’s disenchanted consumers, but one possible contribution towards the downfall of the importance of the CPU is the changing nature of our computer use. Perhaps it may be more useful, for instance, to not focus on the CPU and other aspects of the hardware but towards the degree in which a user is integrated into a wider network, namely, the internet.

A lot of the functionality of software can be outsourced to external servers and online programmes. Music and radio can be streamed; documents and databases can be dealt with online; even the managing of our personal affairs need not be centred on a single computer unit. There are lots of benefits for this; greater communcation with others and greater accessibility, we rely less, it may seem, on the hardware of a computer terminal, than the usernames and passwords we use.

What happens when the internet shuts down? An analogous thought came to me when watching the recently released film ‘Surrogate’; where humanity, through the introduction of neurologically-controlled robotic shells, had radically changed their social and economic activities. Crime had almost eradicated and sexual/gender boundaries had blurred so much that no one really cared about them. Without to spoil the end, consider that if we become too dependent on something, we may, without it, forget other kinds of functionality. To adopt a new approach is to put away another: who for instance, still uses shorthand?


Three Polemicals: The cultural merit of religious culture

There seems to be two ways (inter alia) in which we can distinguish the views of Dennett, Hitchens and Dawkins.

1. The issue of ‘Brights’

From what I’ve read, it seems that both Dennett and Dawkins believe that it is a good thing to come out as an atheist, agnostic, secular or ‘rationalist’. This is good as a statement of solidarity against religious belief and its prevalence in the world. Dawkins asserts that coming out as a bright is comparable to coming out as a homosexual in the 1960s-70s, in that its a minority affair and people are still stigmatised for it. This is an interesting analogy to make, especially given both the fight that gay rights still has to make, and the progress it has made so far.

Hitchens differs on this issue, stating that irreligiousity is no position at all. To be an anti-theist (the preferred term) is a negative, and it is pointless to be assertive about a thesis that essentially does not have any propositions except negations. Hitchens gives the conciliartory example of Hume, who had friends and amicable relations with religious persons and his views, while challenging through the written word, did not encapsulate him as a person. This is an issue of, what some people call ‘Freedom of the Pen’. Both points seem to be correct, although Hitchens’ justification seems like a red herring here. It is contingently true that in many parts of the world, coming out as a secularist leads to much unpopularity, in that sense, there is a political and ideological significance, at least contingently, for ‘coming out’.

2. Should we abandon religion and religious belief?

Hitchens makes this point very strongly, and so does Dawkins to a lesser extent. What I find interesting and convincing in the argument of Hitchens and Dawkins is the unifying component of the explanatory thesis ‘religion ruins everything’. Dawkins addresses how a lot of evil comes from religious belief, such as New Labour policies, the deleterious notion of ‘diversity’ (although not developed as well as I would have wanted this point to be), and intolerance. Hitchens’ line of thought on this issue is persuasive in that he points out how many of the recent global incidents are related to religion. The violence in Serbia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and historical Europe are almost entirely fuelled by religious figures, in such a way where it is exceptionally difficult to give the defence of distinguishing between the ‘official doctrine’ and ‘misinterpretation’.

There are ways in which wars are not labelled as religious, and keeps a certain kind of truce in war, by re-labelling the nature of the conflict. Factions divided by ethnicity gloss over the fact that this division is also religion-based. ‘Eth nic cleansing’ is a terrible phenomena, but even more terrible is the fact that it is just as discriminatory against religious groups than it is an ‘ethnic’ one. It is uncouth to acknowledge a religiously based war where there is one, compared to the more packageable and media-friendly ethnically based hatred. There are a lot of other appeals that Hitchens makes, such as the horrors of childhood genital rituals. Hitchens gives the example of how children had died from a circumcision ritual which involved manually removing the foreskin with his teeth; some children had contracted genital herpes as a result.

By making the moral and social corruption of religion total, there is a sense in which Hitchens (and Dawkins) assert that religion must go. It is by trying to argue for the totalising negative effects that such an argument can work; Dennett by contrast, remains agnostic on the issue that religion needs to die. Dawkins does establish that religion has an very important cultural significance; Dawkins goes into great detail to describe how there are many phrases in English which are derived from the King James version, there are also a great many literary references that cannot be understood without familiarity with the Bible. Consider the poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ (Plath), which is an interesting twist on the miracle story of ressurection.¬† Hitchens is perhaps the most notable in this kind of argument because he almost accepts his own inner conflict on this issue; while religion ruins everything, a life without the reference to the past, and the past’s preoccupation of religion and religious ideas is untenable. Our cultural heritage stems from these many biblical references, and these influences make our culture rich.

Consider the case of Yiddish culture, it has been said and reported on that there is a state of decline in Yiddish culture. Most of Yiddish culture seems to be based around New York City. Although Yiddish culture seems to be fighting for its continuation by the few proponents it does have, there are many influences in New Yorker culture that have been exported, this ranges from inflections or synonyms for male to the music and harmony of George Gershwin. There is a sense in which, our deference to religious culture, in terms of how it has influenced people and still continues to influence us in popular culture or even high culture, is important for the continuation of great music, comedy, poetry etc. This seems to be the biggest concession of the New Atheists; but not one that is harmful to their argument. It is this concession that seems to make the notion of an aggressive atheist seem redundant (granted that they acknowledge this issue).

As a side point, I have heard that many historians of ancient and medieval philosophy tend to have a religious background; Martha Nussbaum being the popular example. This seems to make more sense to me when considering Hitchens’ point that he earlier made, that skills such as biblical referencing, memorising passages are skills of exegesis, that is, the critical, expositional and interpretative abilities that are transferrable from the study of religious texts to say, the works of Aristotle. I’ve found, for instance, that every particular historical thinker has their own set of exegetical problems and issues, here are a few of them:

1. Authorship – as there are questionable authors in the Old and New Testaments, there is also the similar problem of authorship in Aristotle scholarship
2. (mis)Translation – there are issues in Kant scholarship between translation that is readable in english, or translation that is accurately verbose, syntactically complex that genuinely reflects the complexity of Kant’s original German – consider that, with modernising the bible to account for modern english to the point of diluting it.
3. Consistency – Leibniz changes his views throughout the corpus of his work, such to say that a systematic view is difficult or perhaps not desirable. Whether there is a unified view, or a series of works that enable thought and encourage certain ways of thinking is a disputed issue. Why does the work have to be systematic anyway? A similar point can be made in Nietsche studies
4. The significance of writing style/role of interpreters: Song of Songs is a poetic love story, whereas the letters of Paul tend to be more didactic; does the differing writing style entail a different method or presentation of dogma? Catholicism deals with this by stating dogma through the various encyclicals and systematic theologies which present ‘how to read the Bible’ . Another movement attempts to study biblical texts in historical ways. Aristotle studies has a comparible history; there are the interpreters who had seemed to have a high status in disseminating Aristotle’s works with elaboration and guarding a certain kind of reading. Catholicism too has its doctors, like Augustine and Aquinas, who carry the ‘recieved view’ of Catholic beliefs. There are also ‘hereticals’ who interpret differently. Difference in interpretation can be treated with eccentricity, respect, or as a view in its own right, consider the case of Kripke’s work on Wittgenstein.

In short, there is a certain cultrual and educational import, but this is apparently a small concession for the New Atheists, as it is not a concession on beliefs, but the cultural impact of religions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not an argument used ‘against’ atheism.


“The fish in me”: spiritual Darwinism

I have been going through Dawkins’ latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth. What I’ve found, and this is confirmed in my reading of the other Dawkins texts, is that there is a discernable and distinct sense in which a sense of wonder is found in the notion of Darwinian evolution. Consider the following:

i. Our genes and biological functions contain relics of our ancestors
ii. We posit a shared common ancestor between contemporamous living species, from sheep to bananas, we share genes and perhaps however distantly, perhaps an genetic ancestor.
iii. There are some species that existed alongside our ancestral species that are alive today.
iv. Common ancestors are theoretically posited to have intermediary ancestors, as evolution occurs by degrees. At the end of chapter 7; Dawkins adds a postscript that there was an intermediary fossil discovered that shows a connection between humans and apes, this discovery is as recent as May 2009.

There is something exciting about the pursuit of fossils; it is the discovery and exploration of our ancestors. By positing the common genetic ancestor, which is a thesis that is held to the jury of evidence to be justified (which it has, to some great degree of success).

The spirituality, if such a word has any meaning, has the following significance:

i. The incumbent species today are our genetic cousins; a certain moral significance can be made for this.
ii. Within this family metaphor, we find that there are aspects of our parent species that still remain in us, for better or worse
iii. With all the currently living species, and the previous ancestors before us, we are all related in some fundamental genetic sense. The unity of these organic beings makes a family structure in the Linnean taxonomy. In a crude sense, we are all part of some single genetic pool.

Many talk about the things that Darwinism’s implications reject; but there is a distinct spiritual option, a positive thesis¬† that can be made. It is quite an interesting one too, and highly counter-intuitive, and one which is decided not by theology, but empirical investigation.