Posts Tagged Philosophy

Cruel and Unusual: Trump’s Budget Proposal

By Dan Rather

“Cruel and unusual,” the phrase rings in my head as I read the press reports of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget.

But to even talk about it as a budget is to miss the point. It is not a budget. It is a philosophy, and one that may come as a surprise to many of the people who voted for Mr. Trump. They will hurt in real ways. Meanwhile it confirms the worst existential fears of those who see his presidency as a threat to the very being of the United States they know and love.

This is a man who made a lot of promises on the campaign about helping those struggling in society, about leading the United States to greatness in such things as fighting disease. If anyone had any doubt about the hollowness of his words, this philosophy is all the evidence one would need.

This is a philosophy that doesn’t believe in helping the poor, rural or urban, or the power of diplomacy or the importance of science. It is a philosophy that doesn’t want to protect the environment. It doesn’t believe in the arts. This is about putting a noose around much of the United States federal government and hanging it until it shakes with life no more. In the name of reining in waste, it rains pain and suffering amongst the Americans who already are the most vulnerable. It must be remarked that many of these programs are really small budget items in the greater scheme of things, rounding errors in the federal budget. The purpose is to send a message, not to save money.

Rather than investing in what truly will make America great, this philosophy pounds its chest with false bravado. People will die because of this budget. People will suffer. Diseases will spread, and cures will not be found (really? slash science research?) Our nation will be darker and more dangerous. You know it’s a philosophy because the budget has few details really in it. And here is where I see its saving grace.

This philosophy is not the United States I think a majority of Americans would recognize. I believe that we are not so cruel, so shortsighted, so dark. It’s easy to rail against the federal government on the campaign stump, but cutting programs that people rely on, that is the kind of thing that can break through the fake news into reality very soon. We have already seen the mess that has become of the health care efforts.

This philosophy is no longer theoretical and it will be a rallying cry for a reverse philosophy. Those who champion an empathetic America, an America prepared for the challenges of the modern world, will have plenty of evidence to point to. Mr. Trump has already put many Republicans in Congress on a defensive footing, on Russia and on healthcare. Wait until the constituents start calling about how they won’t be able to heat their homes in the winter or the agricultural programs that were slashed.

“The administration’s budget isn’t going to be the budget,” Senator Marco Rubio told the Washington Post. “We do the budget here. The administration makes recommendations, but Congress does budgets.” You can expect to hear a lot more of that kind of rhetoric.

Mr. Trump’s philosophy is an opening salvo in a battle for the soul of America that is only beginning. This will be a battle fought trench by trench. But I think it is winnable and America will reconfirm a governing philosophy that is hopeful, compassionate, and wise about the role of government in making our world a safer, fairer, and more just place to live.”

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Quote of the Day

 “Where there is evidence, no one speaks of “faith”. We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.”

Bertrand RussellHuman Society in Ethics and Politics[6], London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1954, LCCN 54004060OL 14246427M

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On Not Being Entitled To One’s Opinion

Opinion-cartoon

Have you ever had a conversation with someone or were even engaged in a full out debate and then they say  “everyone is entitled to their opinion“?  Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close, even though usually it ends the conversation because who can argue with that? Or can you?

Knowing how to effectively debate and formulate a statement to argue for or against something is really an art and crucial in effective public discourse.

A whole lot of people mistake having an opinion on something based on subjective criteria with facts that are true no  matter what your opinion is on them.

2 + 2 = 4. That’s a fact. It is not 5 or 8 or 1, it is 4. I cannot insist it is 5 and then end the conversation by stating that “well, everyone is entitled to their opinion“. That’s nonsense, because 2 + 2 being 4 is not a matter of opinion, but a fact. And you or anyone accepting that fact or not, has no bearing on it being 4. You  can deny it as much as you want, it will still be 4.

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Let’s try another example: You can say you do not believe in gravity, but fact is that gravity is a fact of your existence on this planet and you feel it every time you move around.  You can express in however which ways you desire that you do not believe that gravity is real, but that doesn’t make your claim true or entitles you to it, even though it has been proven false. Or especially because it has been proven false.

What is an opinion, however,  is that chocolate ice cream tastes better than vanilla or that red is a nicer color than blue. I really cannot argue with that. 

Knowing how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible, is key to any effective debate. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – so continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. This attitude feeds into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Mistaking Free Speech With Opinions

Without the appropriate qualifications and experience, people who pose as experts are not entitled to have their opinions respected.

A lot of the climate change debates, for example, and their respective opinions are held by people who do not have the education and training and thus expertise to intelligently comment on climate change.

What the scientific community has to say is often subdued by the personal, subjective, often false opinions of amateurs who are not climate scientists. You suddenly have political pundits with no background in any of the sciences involved with researching climate change, commenting on the scientific and technical aspects of it, expecting their “opinion” to be respected just as much as the facts the scientist presents.

When people get sick, they don’t go to lawyers, they go to doctors. So why are we going to lawyers and MBAs for questions that can only be answered by scientists who posses the education, expertise and skills to intelligently and factually answer questions that pertain to climate change.

Common Belief (Doxa) and Certain Knowledge Are Two Different Things

Unlike “2+2=4” (certain knowledge), an opinion (doxa) has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it.

Opinions can range from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

creationistPosterMed

While no one can really argue with an opinion with its degree of subjectivity (the chocolate ice cream example) – in which case “you are indeed entitled to your opinion“, there is – however – a right and wrong answer when it comes to the sciences, law, mathematics and questions of a technical nature.  In that regard, an amateur is not entitled to disagree with a biologist  and have their views “respected” – as if they were both equally valid.

The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions grounded in technical, legal, scientific and physical disciplines to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. As if 2 + 2 was a matter of opinion; as if evolution was a matter of opinion; as if the structure of the DNA was a matter of personal opinion the same way ones like or dislike for a flavor of ice cream is.

Or, conversely,  as if one’s belief in something, such as 2 + 2 being 5 made it real or true and they would eventually become 5 if only you believe in it hard enough.

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That is certainly one reason why religious people often think they’re entitled to disagree with scientific facts pertaining to evolution and the origins of human life and this planet. “You are entitled to believe in evolution and I am entitled to believe in creationism“. As if evolution was a matter of personal opinion, like religion, or as if believing in creationism was as perfectly valid view to hold when it comes to the question of the origins of life.

In fact, even the term “believing in evolution” is false since belief  – as in faith, as in “a matter of personal opinion” – has nothing to do with it. Evolution is real, it is fact, whether you believe in it or not is irrelevant.

You Can Say Whatever You Want, Just Don’t Expect Me to Accept It

If “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people from saying or uttering whatever they want, then the statement is true. But so what? No one can stop you saying that a woman was created from Adam’s rib or that pink elephants can fly or that 2 + 2 is indeed 5. Say it as much as you like.

But if “entitled to an opinion” means entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred and forgotten altogether.

As someone put itThere’s evidence, and there’s bulldust. It’s a journalist’s job to distinguish between them, not to sit on the fence and bleat ‘balance’.” 

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All too often in debates, especially in the commenting section of online news and blog outlets, I run into people eventually pulling the “we are all entitled to our opinions” card – usually when the discussion is going in a direction they do not like and when their arguments become increasingly more indefensible.

It is entirely valid to utterly dismiss erroneous and simply wrong information that has a life of its own such as the vomit-chunk, utter stupidity that comes out of the mouth of anti evolutionists and proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design. Beliefs that continue to harm society in many ways.

The point is that we are all free to bring forth information but once it is proven to be invalid it is no longer an opinion but rather a misconception.

Once your perspective is proven false it is time to stop repeating it and insisting on it.

The consequences of continuing with the lies –  as far as this nation is concerned – is the decline of knowledge and education in favor of teaching children proven falsehoods under some “everyone is entitled to their opinion” mantra, which – as has been laid out – is not true.

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When the Pope, the spiritual leader of millions of Catholics, goes up there and tells people in impoverished areas ravaged by devastating communicable diseases such as HIV to not use contraceptives of any kind based on some pesky old book of unvalidated garbage, then the consequences are beyond devastating. In that regard the Pope is not entitled to his opinion which he then chooses to spread like venom around the world, costing people their lives.

So entitled to your own opinion? Sure, when it comes to personal tastes and flavors and how you wanna decorate your room or what type of governance you prefer, not when it comes to facts. In that case, you are merely entitled to uttering whatever misinformation you like, just don’t expect anyone to respect it as valid and much less as true.

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Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot

There are no words for how profoundly astute Carl Sagan was and for how truly enlightening Pale Blue Dot is in our quest to understand life and existence and our role, if any, in it. I guess this is sort of what I had to say on this very holy day for Christians.

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Review: Reality Bites

Never has angst looked so attractive and essential

Reality Bites” is a movie that I found (and still find) to be very close to the real life experiences people who leave the safety of college face. If you are in your late 30s or early 40s and kinda settled in your ways and job, you probably won’t get this movie anymore. You are too grown up and the issues these mid-20 something kids are facing will seem trivial and nonsensical to you.

Heck, even the actors, in the movie’s “special features” section – especially Steve Zahn and Ethan Hawke, as well as Ben Stiller – don’t really get the characters they played 16 years ago anymore. They talk about how childish their struggles in retrospect seem to have been and how bratty and ungrateful they find their characters now that they themselves have reached their mid-late 30s, early 40s and apparently figured out what life is all about: “having a career or something…” I guess that’s where the true tragedy lies: no longer being able to identify with your idealistic, hopeful, driven young self of the past anymore.

Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) just can't seem to figure it out

This movie is about four friends who face life – Reality – right after college. Leleina’s (Winona Ryder) speech at the beginning of the movie about what her generation is going to do with the damage they have inherited and a poignant “I dont know” as a response sum it up pretty well.

She is the valedictorian of her college and an aspiring documentary film maker. She walks around with her camera filming her friends, asking them lots of personal and intimate questions about themselves and life in order to eventually create a documentary that will mean something. She wants to make a difference in the world and just like any hopeful college student, was imagining that she would “be somebody” after all the hard work she put in thus far. Little did she know that Reality just doesnt work that way. It’s hard to be a saint in a paradise that is crumbling and when paying your rent takes precedence over making a meaningful difference in someone’s, or even your own, life.

That's all we need: a couple of smokes, a cup of coffee and a little bit of conversation. Just you and me and five bucks

She shares an apartment with her nerdy-hip friend Vicki Miner (Janeane Garofalo) who is a cynical yet at the same time strangely idealistic girl working at The Gap as a manager. Even though she is hip and goofy she is also lonely and feels like she is pursuing hollow ambitions. She graduated college, but the only thing she really seems to have remembered is her social security number, which she can recite to Leleina even when she is drunk and stoned at the same time. If you’ve gone to college in the 90s, you’ll know that your social is just about the most important and over-used thing ever.

Their gay friend Sam, who seems very tight with Vicki, has even less of a clue about what he wants to do with his life now that he graduated. He is shy and has not come out to his mother yet about being gay. He thinks he needs to have a career of some sort, but just like his counterparts, is floating adrift in a sea of cluelessness about not only who he is but also what is expected out of him.

Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke)

And then finally there is Troy Dyer, brilliantly acted by Ethan Hawke. Troy is a rebel, the freethinker, the “what’s-it-all-mean” kinda  guy. He is a philosophy major who was only a few units away from his BFA – yet he does not seem very interested in ever going back to finish up. He is superbly smart and could probably land a good paying job faster than any of his friends if he actually put some ambition and effort into it, but he doesnt want to. He is an artist and his music and philosophy mean a lot to him and he seems to have little use or respect for the “establishment”. His music and his philosophy mean so much to him that he is not willing to just give it all up so he can get that “toehold in the burger industry”. In fact, he has a disdain for it and the fact that his everyone has sold out to it.  His father is dying of cancer and he doesnt want to give up the one thing that means something to him and then end up like him, with tumors growing in his groin.

Troy is madly, insanely and secretly in love with Lelaina and because that is the only non-cynical emotion he has, he has a hard time telling her to her face how he feels about her or even fully commit. He dates a lot of faceless girls whose names he often doesnt remember and whose phone numbers he can memorex even less.

As far as Troy (Ethan Hawke) is concerned, the establishment owes him Snickers

Troy is the most interesting and intriguing character in this movie as he just symbolizes the struggle his generation is facing so poignantly and realistically. The philosopher and artist inside him refuses to sell out for a steady paycheck and an equally meaningless and meager profession that will catapult his life into a boring, meaningless and existential rut. He takes pleasure in the details, like “quarter pounders with cheese, the sky about ten minutes before it starts to rain, the moment your laughter becomes a cackle…” and all he and Leleina apparently need are 5 bucks, a coffee and good conversation. He steals a Snickers from the gas station he works at, stating that the establishment “owed him Snickers” and gets fired.

When he moves in with Leilana and Vicky, Vicky says that it is only temporary until “he can afford his own place”. Lelaina responds that this was the American dream of the 90s and could take years. Indeed. Even in the 2010s, if you can afford your own place by the time you are 35, you are lucky. The Dream never seems to end for America.

"There is no secret handshake. There is an IQ pre-requisite, but no secret handshake"

The diametrical opposite to Troy is Michael Grates (Ben Stiller). He is a bit older, a few years out of college and pretty much grounded in reality. He takes an interest in Leleina after he runs into her car by accident and has her come to his office only to find out that she is broke and cannot afford a law suit. When he first comes over to the “maxi pad” (as Vicky calls their apartment), Troy mistakes him for a “collection agent”. Michael is precisely what Troy does not want to be: he wears a suit, he has a boring corporate job, a steady income; in short: a sellout.  In a way he Michael “conformed” to the system and he has learned to walk the line of adulthood and idealism because he has realized that sometimes you gotta wrap the meatloaf in attractive wrapping (i.e. make concessions) to sell it. Troy thinks he’s the reason Cliff’s notes were invented. Tensions ensue as Leleina finds herself rejected from jobs she didn’t even want to have and as Troy’s feelings for her finally come to the surface, in turn creating tension between her and Michael.

Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke

This is a movie that captures the Zeitgeist of Generation X pretty accurately. I cannot describe the so many ways in which the struggles these college graduates go through truly resembles the reality for many people in their age and place. I’ve lived nearly every moment and spoken nearly every dialog said in this movie in my own life.

These kids are overeducated and underpaid and, literally, from one day to the other, have to come to terms with the fact that all the hard work they put into their education and idealism is not going to become a reality – at least not anytime soon and definitely not the way they imagined it would.

Troy resists this disillusionment as much as he can – which is what makes him so appealing as a character: he represents the “I won’t surrender” scream we all wished we had yelled out at some point in our lives to declare our independence but also the discontent with the status quo. But we all know that – as if trapped in quicksand – Troy will be sucked into accepting this biting Reality at some point in his life, like the rest of us, whether he likes it or not.  Let’s just hope he does not end up like his father.

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