Monday, April 21, 2014

Of Plants and People

Like many who live in cooler climates, I start most of my plants indoors. As a result, my seedlings spend upwards of the first two months of their delicate lives under fluorescent lights. I don't believe that plants have experiences; there is no such thing as 'what it is like to be a plant'.  However, I can't help but experience a particular feeling of newness and joy on the day that I bring my seedlings into the sun for the first time. For the first time in their young lives, these plants are being nourished by the source of light for which they were designed. At first they can only handle a few hours of filtered light. In time, they will grow to relish the full intensity of the noonday sun.

I can only hope that those of us who long to bask in the glory of the true source of radiance, God Himself, will in time have this longing fulfilled.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An Allegory

Once upon a time, there was a just and peaceful society. Its peace resided in the fact that the society was protected and cared for by many guardians. The guardians were strong, courageous, and devoted to the well-being of all its citizens. They also bore and nurtured most of its children.

Being a guardian was not always a pleasant job. It involved risk and self-sacrifice. It was often wearying and strenuous, and not everyone in the land was well-suited to the life of a guardian. Some were thin of build or had a timid disposition, and so they feared guardianship. Others had the athletic ability to become guardians, but the lifestyle did not appeal to them. They simply did not want to be troubled by its risks and requirements of sacrifice for the sake of others.

For many years, the people of this nation viewed their guardians as heroes. Although not everyone aspired to guardianship, they recognized that the well-being of their society depended on the guardians’ efforts. So, in an effort to support their current guardians, and to encourage the young to become guardians, the rulers of the society honored the guardians with public praise. They also gave the guardians certain legal privileges that non-guardian citizens did not have.

In the course of time, many citizens became addicted to personal pleasure. As a result, they began to lose respect for the life of guardianship. Some even began to resent not being given the same social esteem or legal privileges that the guardians had.

“It’s unfair!”  They cried to their rulers, and to anyone else who would listen. “We deserve to have everything that the guardians do! We demand equality with the guardians!”

Initially, few paid much attention to the protesters, but they pressed on with their complaints. Gradually, the protesters gained a hearing in front of the whole nation.
The guardians began reasoning with them to address their concerns:

“You have no rational basis for demanding the social status of guardians,” they said. “You have not publically committed your life to protecting and caring for our nation. You are not the ones that work day and night to keep our society safe. You do not bear and raise most of our nation’s children. We accept the lifestyle you have chosen, but the fact of the matter is that our society endures because of the work of the guardians.”

“Hateful bigots!”  The protesters screeched. “You are not treating us as equals! You are depriving us of our human rights!” 

“Wait a minute.” The guardians replied. “You already have the same rights that we do. No one is preventing you from becoming a guardian. If you were to choose the life of a guardian, would you not enjoy the social esteem that we do? As it is, you do not want to do that because it is undesirable to you.”

The protesters were unmoved, becoming ever more strident in their tone and hostile in their accusations. To the shock and dismay of the guardians, more and more non-guardian citizens began siding with the protesters. 

The guardians tried instead to reconcile and make a deal with the protesters, but they were cut off:

“We will have none of your outdated, rigid, discriminatory views in our society. People like you are not welcome in the public sphere any more.   All citizens deserve to be treated like guardians, and that is that!”

Eventually, the angry crowd prevailed; even the rulers gave in. Everyone was called a hero. Everyone was lavished with praise. All enjoyed the same benefits, regardless of their contribution to the well-being of society. The protestors rejoiced. After all, it felt good to be called a hero, even though deep down they knew it wasn’t so.

As years went by, fewer and fewer people aspired to the life guardianship. After all, being a guardian was not as pleasant as other ways of living, and by now the entire citizenry had become addicted to pleasure. Whatever they wanted but didn’t have, they demanded of their government. For a while, some of the more noble-minded citizens tried the life of guardianship, but soon they too gave it up. Eventually, everyone did as he or she pleased.

Without guardians, the once great society collapsed and disappeared forever.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Who's to Say? And Who are we to Judge?

As I've mentioned before, I am a philosophy professor. In the courses I teach, I think I hear these two questions from students more often than just about any other typical question. The trouble with these questions is that, aside from being multiply ambiguous, they are usually the wrong sort of question to ask. Sometimes, they are not even questions at all. Let's consider the first one:

Who's to say? (and it's cousin, "Who is he/she to say...?")

On the face of it, perhaps this question is an attempt to determine which people in the world have the intellectual or moral authority to make certain claim, such as, "except in rare and extreme circumstances, abortion is immoral." If that were so, then perhaps a response like, "moral philosophers who have a solid command of the literature are the ones to say in this case," should suffice. (Sometimes I give a similar answer when we're discussing John Stuart Mill's claims regarding how one can know which of two pleasures is more worthy of pursuit.) But, this answer doesn't usually placate the student. I think the reason for this is that the student is not, in fact, asking a genuine question as much as they are using a question to express their disdain for some view that they reject. More importantly, the question (whether a genuine one or not) seems misguided in that, ultimately, it doesn't matter who is making the claim at all. If we're trying to think carefully about important questions, then we should be focusing on why a person makes the claims they do. That is, we ought rationally to be more concerned with understanding and thinking through the reasons that a person might give for or against a particular stance on some issue.

Who are we to Judge?

As with the first question, sometimes this probably isn't a real question at all, as much as it is a way of saying, in effect, "don't judge me," or, "I don't like the idea of saying that X is morally wrong." Ironically, the people most likely to say this are usually the same people most likely to make self-undermining claims like, "you shouldn't try to tell people what is right or wrong." However, if it *is* a legitimate question, then perhaps the best answer is, "we are human beings with the capacity to understand and evaluate reasons for or against a particular claim, and the ability to, sometimes, make correct judgments." Or, if the question is about what gives a person the right or authority to make some judgment, then we are back to asking about what reasons a person has for making a certain judgment on an issue, in which case it doesn't matter who "we" are per se.

Friday, January 20, 2012

How the Potato Changed the World--Smithsonian Magazine

An interesting read here.  Here's an excerpt:

"Many researchers believe that the potato’s arrival in northern Europe spelled an end to famine there. (Corn, another American crop, played a similar but smaller role in southern Europe.) More than that, as the historian William H. McNeill has argued, the potato led to empire: “By feeding rapidly growing populations, [it] permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.” The potato, in other words, fueled the rise of the West.
Equally important, the European and North American adoption of the potato set the template for modern agriculture—the so-called agro-industrial complex. Not only did the Columbian Exchange carry the potato across the Atlantic, it also brought the world’s first intensive fertilizer: Peruvian guano. And when potatoes fell to the attack of another import, the Colorado potato beetle, panicked farmers turned to the first artificial pesticide: a form of arsenic. Competition to produce ever-more-potent arsenic blends launched the modern pesticide industry. In the 1940s and 1950s, improved crops, high-intensity fertilizers and chemical pesticides created the Green Revolution, the explosion of agricultural productivity that transformed farms from Illinois to Indonesia—and set off a political argument about the food supply that grows more intense by the day."

Read more:

Friday, December 30, 2011

Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Does Philosophy Have to do with the Power Grid?

A common thought in our culture is that philosophy is just people's opinions, and that one person's opinion is as good as any other's. It doesn't really matter what you believe, as long as you're sincere about it. After all, philosophy isn't relevant to the really important things in life, right? Here's one stark example of why this view is mistaken:

I just finished watching a History Channel documentary called "The Crumbling of America." The documentary highlights numerous problems with our country's infrastructure, including dams, aqueducts, the power grid, and bridges. Among other things, they predict that there is a 66% chance that in the next 30 years, a large earthquake will bring down the levees of the Sacramento River delta.  A catastrophe of this sort would reduce California's water supply by upwards of 50%.  So, there is a 66% chance that in the next 30 years California will suddenly and catastrophically lose 50% of its water supply, along with the devastation that such a massive flood would bring.

Now, I wouldn't make the claim in all cases, but in the case of (at least) the power grid and other utility-owned infrastructure, I think that the sorry state of things can be traced in part to the philosophical view that businesses are primarily responsible to their shareholders (i.e., those who own stock in the company), not their stakeholders (i.e., those who have some interest in seeing the company succeed, such as their customers, their suppliers, their employees, and so forth). Major infrastructure projects take millions, if not billions or in some cases (e.g., the Sacramento levees), trillions of dollars to carry out. A utility company looking to maximize its profits is going to want to avoid paying for such projects. Further, if a major disaster took out much of the country's infrastructure, either the government (i.e., you and I) or the company's insurance agency would likely be footing much of the bill for the reconstruction project. So, there is a perverse incentive for companies to avoid building new infrastructure or updating old infrastructure if they don't absolutely have to. As long as the current infrastructure is good enough, they'll keep it. If a major disaster happens that takes out the infrastructure, someone else will help pay for it. Either way, it's a win-win for them and a lose-lose for the rest of us.

Who says ideas don't matter?