Six Degrees of Seperation
A Brief Look at the Principle Arguments in Modern Philosophy
Eric S. Williams
Philosophy is a discipline as old as humanity itself. It would be foolish of us not to believe that primitive peoples did not wonder at their own existence and the world they inhabited. Philosophy has been the foundation for learning in many cases, urging the student of philosophy out of their own self constructed allegorical cave of ignorance and timidly accepting the true light of the outer world…a light of understanding but also frustration. From the early works of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle we take the established premise of deeper learning: the right and responsibility to question established judgement. The later masters such as Spinoza, Descartes, and Kant further lead us to questioning the consequences of technology, state, and religion on complacent humanity. The modern student of philosophy is the beneficiary of some 3000 years of accumulated knowledge. Many of the same questions raised throughout history must still be addressed today by the budding student. There are a number of issues/problems that have dogged both master and pupil: the conflict between freedom and determinism, the role of God and religion, society and its moral foundations, the social questions surrounding society and state, the relationship between one’s mind and body, and the ethical issues surrounding technology and science. To be a successful disciple of philosophy, any student must be able to identify and explain the predominant principals governing these six issues.
In order for one to begin to understand the notion of free will, we must first examine its counterpart: determinism. In his text, Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, John Burr defines determinism as “the theory asserting universal causation and total predictability…”(Burr and Goldinger 30). Determinists believe that there are natural laws that dictate the pattern of the universe which govern outcomes, therefore it makes sense that the eventual decisions made by humans are also governed (Nagel 51-52). Further, it is believed by the determinist that every action, and henceforth every reaction, is already mapped out in our psyche. We have no free will, no ability to act on our own accord. This theory may further denote the premise of a god who is directing all our actions and interactions. This is a pretty bleak idea when most truly believe they are free to do as they wish. Determinism removes accountability from us all. That is, humans are not truly in control of their choices and actions today, tomorrow, and so on. Thus, it must be contended that every action, whether saintly or sinful, is out of our hands. As a result, monstrous acts against humanity like The Holocaust can’t truly be blamed on any one individual or group as they were working in accordance with their determined destiny.
While there are proponents of determinism out there, one can not exclude their opposition. Those who oppose the notion of determinism may be classified as libertarians. Libertarianism defends the idea of free will by attacking the principal of determinism based on its inherent concept. Libertarians contend that “if all actions are the results of causes, then no actions are ones for which anyone can be held morally responsible” (Burr and Goldinger 30). What libertarians believe in then is that some level of responsibility must be maintained in order for morally righteous or morally reprehensible actions to be held accountable to and by those who perpetrate such actions. The basic premise of this philosophy is that if everything we do or say is predictable due to a variety of causes, then no true freedom can exist (30). One chooses for themselves.
Hard determinism is a product of classical determinism that freely embraces the notion that no one is morally responsible for their actions. For them, moral or ethical responsibility can’t truly exist because “all human actions are ruled by heredity and environment; and since we are not responsible for either of these, all blame is unjust” (Burr and Goldinger 30). By this idea, a hard determinist would be inclined to agree that how or where one grows up is in no way related to the human being they will ultimately become, the actions they will participate in, and the future generated for them.
On the other hand, the underlying belief of the soft determinist is one where “people can be morally responsible even though their behavior is determined” (31). The soft determinist believes that there is a relationship of sorts between libertarianism and determinism. They believe that behavior can be categorized in two ways: behavior which is free and unfettered by destiny, and behavior which is compulsory and therefore out of our control. Free will for the soft determinist is the idea of being able to do what you want, when you want without outside influences or prompting. Compulsory behavior might then be relegated to behavior one is pressured or coerced into. One property that Burr doesn’t press in his work is how compulsory behavior as a product of obsession weighs in on this action. Do actions committed by serial killers who act out of a compulsion to kill still characterize themselves as free actions? Many times there is no coercion or direct pressure from another placed on this killer forcing them to do their dirty work. While many of those in the field of psychology today argue that serial behavior may be the product of a bad childhood, is it logical to assume then that the soft determinist can consider past events a catalyst on present or future events? Are these compulsions seen in a serial killer today the results of coercion or pressure forced onto them years ago?
The second issue in philosophy revolves around the concept of God. Many philosophers and indeed students of philosophy have wrestled with the questions of God’s existence. Western philosophy has struggled to prove or disprove the existence of God, specifically the God of the western world. This God of the western world is seen as “an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe” (117). God is also characterized as being sympathetic to the plight of mankind, yet there are those who vehemently argue against the idea of God from a variety of viewpoints. Many arguments against God come from two ideas: proof of His existence and how/why God lets tragic actions happen. There are four basic arguments that are offered to these critics.
The Argument from Scripture is the simplest of all and a good place for any philosopher to start. This argument concludes God must indeed exist because we have writings concerning Him and His life (or at the very least actions He is responsible for). Furthermore, “these writings are assumed to have been inspired by God and therefore reliable” (117) Granted this seems suspect and this argument is easy to dissect and rail against. The easiest complaint contends that so much of the original Biblical text has been lost in the translations from era to era that the writings can not possibly be proven to be at all accurate. Therefore, argument from scripture is easily dismissed by critics.
The Argument from design maintains that the harmonious balance of the world and universe is so “intricately put together” that it must have been put together by a logical and rational presence (117). It is further argued that life in even its simplest form is too complex to be a random aberration. Proponents of this belief contend that the universe is just a little too orderly and balanced to be chalked up to random chance.
Argument from agreement states its case on the simple idea that because so many men and women believe in God that He must exist (Burr and Goldinger 117). This argument’s only true defense is spotty at best and relies on the notion of a simple “If/Then” statement. Basically put, if one believes in God, then God exists. The problem with this idea is that the whole of humanity has been so catastrophically wrong in the past over thousands of beliefs. Thus, because so many people believed the world was flat, it must be so, and so on.
Those who favor Argument from religious experience claim that God exists because they have experienced Him or His work directly (Burr and Goldinger 118). Many of these claims are based on some divine intervention or revelation, or that they were the recipients of or were witness to a miracle. As we all know, that which we conclude as truth is not always so. It is easy to dismiss this argument from the standpoint that no tangible proof is offered up other than the claims of one mind. Hallucinations and delusions are all too common throughout history. If one were to believe that God exists strictly because He spoke to or through them, then one must also accept the idea that the Oracle at
Morality and its function in society has also been a point of contention. The burning questions have always been one of what makes right or wrong. The branch of philosophy that deals with this is ethics. Ethics wrestles with the ideas of what makes any act a morally acceptable one. Burr contends that, “…moral standards…are merely products of the society in which one lives” (Burr and Goldinger 200). What this leads us to believe is that what makes one act morally reprehensible in our society may make that same act acceptable in another. This idea is known as relativism.
Relativism falls into two distinct categories: sociological and ethical. Sociological relativism maintains the fact that the guiding principles between societies are different (Burr and Goldinger 200). This holds true in regards to social and religious customs, as well as professional and educational customs. The difficult issue to quantify is whether notions of right and wrong are the same or different between these societies. Proponents of ethical relativism address this notion. Ethical relativism maintains that, “there are different but equally correct ultimate principles” (201). This belief therefore contends that two very different cultures or societies may inevitably wind up implementing similar practices (i.e. euthanasia) that serve the greater good, even if one of those cultures finds the practice barbaric. Ultimately, it is the survival of the species that must be addressed.
What constitutes the ‘ultimate principle’? While there may not be a single ultimate principle, philosophers have been able to identify three major views of what it is. Egoism contends that, “self-interest is the only proper standard of conduct” (Burr and Goldinger 201). For the egoist, there exists no greater cause then self aggrandizement and no need to place the wants or needs of others above their own. Utilitarianism is the belief that, “right acts are acts producing the greatest happiness” (201). For the utilitarian, the end result of whatever it is they do is the most important element to consider. Thus, the utilitarian might consider himself more or less important than the welfare of others or society as a whole, and vice versa. Finally, formalism states that, “rightness or wrongness of actions is not determined by the consequences produced by the actions” (202). The essential element of the formalist point of view is not considering the ramifications of one’s action on themselves or others. The principle of how to behave properly in a variety of circumstances then is the tenet driving formalism, not the end-result or reward.
The merits or flaws of various governmental archetypes and how they compare with others sparks a fourth issue addressed by philosophers: the relation between State and Society. For many it is the basic comparing and contrasting of, say, democracy versus oligarchy. But the argument touches on other aspects as well, including the legitimacy of the state’s power and whether a status quo can be fairly maintained. Burr writes that a “legitimate government maintains that its physical authority ultimately rests on moral authority” and that governments “justify their existence and policies by appealing to a political philosophy”(Burr and Goldinger 292-93).
What is the philosophy behind democracy? Typically, one tends to believe it is equality among all men and women and that no voice gets left unheard. Is this true and accurate? No. Simply speaking not everyone’s voice is answered or even heard by a democratic government. The will of the majority ultimately negates the will of the minority in most cases. But, that will of the majority is not always good or infallible. As Burr points out, history has taught us that the majority believed the earth to be flat and slavery to be justified at one time (295). Thus the will of the majority, while not always correct, can suppress a morally righteous minority. The minority, however, has not always submitted. In a much more recent application, the election of George W. Bush as the President was the physical manifestation of the will of the minority. Bush did not defeat his opponent Al Gore via popular election. If that were the case, Gore would have won. But the fact that the American ‘democracy’ implements a supposedly fair and equitable electoral system shows not only the glaring fallibility of majority rule, but also how the will of the minority can be exercised.
Further, we must examine the differences between ethical and political democracy. Political democracy is designed to serve the will of ethical democracy, that being the idea of freedom (Burr and Goldinger 296). Yet while political democracy strives to insure the premise of freedom for everyone, it does not ultimately follow the precepts of ethical democracy. Political democracy is nothing more than a vehicle to formulate and implement the inherent freedom that all get to enjoy. Ethical democracy is much more involved in the life of the individual, striving to set forth notions of social, political, racial, sexual, educational, and economic equality or democracy (296).
The fifth issue confronting philosophers regards whether a mind exists and how it might relate to the body. There have been countless arguments for and against the existence of a mind and how, if at all, it relates to the body. This debate is referred to as the ‘mind-body problem’ (Burr and Goldinger 398, Nagel 27).
One belief against the existence of a mind is held by materialists. Materialists argue that the world, universe, and body are made up of physical matter only (Burr 398). As a result, the notion of a ‘mind’ does not exist for them, as mental states are nothing more than a state of the brain (Nagel 31). Further, Burr states that materialists also deny the existence of an immortal soul, as it too is not a physical object (398). On the other hand, dualists claim humans have both a mind and a body (Burr and Goldinger 398). Dualists believe that the existence of memory, images, and sensations clearly point to the existence of a mind as they can’t be physically presented. Therefore, as a memory is a non-physical entity, so too can a mind exist as another non-physical entity.
Dualists, while all believing in a mind, differ on how it relates with the body. The interactionist, “maintain that body and mind can causally affect each other”, while the epiphenomenonist argues that “physical events can cause mental events, but that occurrences in the mind are not able to cause… physical events” (Burr and Goldinger 399). What this boils down to is that the interactionist might think of performing an action and the body carries out that action. At the same time, physical sensations like cutting a finger will cause mental sensations of pain. The epiphenomenonist will contend that while cutting a finger will indeed cause pain, the notion of being hungry causes the mind to consider eating, not the mind ordering the body to satiate its hunger.
Perhaps the idealist holds the most radical view of the mind. The idealist will, affirm the existence of minds…but deny the existence of any material objects existing apart from minds” (Burr and Goldinger 399). Idealists maintain that there is no physical world, our minds only allow us to perceive one. For the idealist, the mind, and indeed the minds of everyone, exist in a disembodied state, formulating a sort of fantasy world where we interact with figments of our imaginations or constructs of other minds like ours. This makes for a very frightening perspective and doesn’t adequately explain our perceptions of the world. If we are merely living in a world constructed by our mind, how do we perceive other physical manifestations like heat, cold, hard, or soft?
Finally, what all philosophers are striving to achieve is knowledge; no one would deny the benefits of knowledge on humanity today, especially in regards to the great scientific advancements perpetrated by knowledge. Burr tells us that, “philosophers study and discuss what they technically call epistemology: the investigation of the origin, nature, methods, and limitations of knowledge” (Burr and Goldinger 478). What many philosophers try to track is the nature of knowledge, how we really ‘know’ anything, and how knowledge relates to science.
The two views of knowledge and its role in science are held by Rationalists and Empiricists. Rationalism believes that knowledge is based solely on reason and is not at all affected by one’s experiences (Burr and Goldinger 478). Empiricism claims the opposite, that all our knowledge is inextricably linked to our sensory perception of the world around us (478). Of course both of these ideas can be wholly truthful. There may never be a way to ultimately determine which idea is accurate. The plain fact is that the beneficiary of knowledge, whether empirical or rational, has been the realm of science. Knowledge is a means to an end for all people, what that ‘end’ results in is the important matter.
The use and power of knowledge in science has sparked debate and controversy, no more evident than between creationist and scientists. The creationist believes in some divine force being responsible for the genesis of the world, people, and the sum of all our knowledge. To them, it is the work of a God-Figure who has allowed all this to happen. The scientist, who holds onto an evolutionary belief, contend that the end result of our scientific inquiry and knowledge is the rational progression of life and time. Indeed, the evolutionist sits in direct opposition in most circumstances with their creationist counterparts. Both sides have loyal followers but neither has been able to sufficiently produce enough evidence to clearly defeat the other.
Finally, there is an ethical question surrounding science and knowledge. While science has clearly benefited humanity a thousandfold, so too has it brought destruction equally terrible. The question is begged as to whether such inventions as the atomic bomb, clearly the climax of someone’s scientific pursuit of knowledge, has helped or hindered humanity. It is due to ideas such as this that , “…critics and powerful enemies of science abound in contemporary life and, some fear, steadily mount in numbers and influence” (Burr and Goldinger 480).
To be a successful disciple of philosophy, any student must be able to identify and explain the predominant principals governing the six issues previously discussed. If, in fact, the “main concern of philosophy is to question and understand very common ideas that all of us use every day without thinking of them”, the student of philosophy can do no better than to start here (Nagel 5). The problem is getting said students to understand that there is more to it than the preconceived notions they hold to be true. Many people do not wish to be brought up from the darkness of the caves their intellect has lived in all their lives. For them, ignorance truly is bliss and easier to cope with than rampant and agonizing questions over the existence of God and the notion none of them may truly choose their own destiny. For many, not knowing the glaring truths of the lives they lead is more comfortable than realizing they may have been living a closed and isolated life intellectually. Nagel opens his book What Does It All Mean with the blanket statement, “If you think about it, the inside of your own mind is the only thing you can be sure of” (8). It is hard to believe that Nagel truly accepts this in light of all the issues addressed above. Yet, perhaps the statement isn’t meant to be truthful, just represent the truth we all believe before philosophy utterly tears it asunder by creating for us doubt. Indeed, the knowledge is there for the taking, and power over one’s own life may result from it…the true issue is whether one is truly ready to accept it.
Burr, John R. and Milton Goldinger. Philosophy and Contemporary Issues. 8th Ed.
Nagel, Thomas. What Does It All Mean: A Very Short Introduction To Philosophy.