One Year Anniversary of my Grandma’s Death

I recently read that people often feel like they lose a part of their identity when they lose a loved one. It’s taken me almost a year to realize that this is exactly how I feel. I think this feeling of emptiness first started with the physical absence created by my grandma moving out of the house and into the nursing home. Her health had been deteriorating for some time and there was no way that we could take care of her anymore, so she had to go.

It’s hard for me to explain how significant a change that was for me. After she moved, I felt so alone at home. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. She wasn’t in the kitchen, the living room, or the backyard. She wasn’t anywhere. She was just gone.

Having to visit her was quite depressing. I find there are very few places that are as gloomy as nursing homes. Everyone there is just waiting to die. No one has anything to live for anymore. And only the lucky ones get frequent visitors.

Despite how much my grandma’s absence from the house changed my life, she was still a part of it. I continued having conversations with her, smiling with her, eating with her... So she wasn’t really gone then, she was just in a foreign environment. I think this is why I didn’t feel a part of me was missing until after she died. That part of me, whatever part it was, was still somewhat intact.

My grandma always played a central role in my personal life, and because of this, I can’t even reflect on the times when she wasn’t there. She was always there. And that's such a meaningful aspect of my life. I mean, even though I love philosophy and I identify as a philosopher, I can easily imagine my life without it. I can simply think back to how I was in college. But I can't do the same with my grandma.

I don’t think that part of me will ever come back. I think it’ll just be an ever-present gap in my life.

She was such a great person. I miss her so much.

Mill and My Resentment Towards My Parents

The picture above depicts the collection of John Stuart Mill’s books, and it was sent to me in the form of a postcard to thank me for my generous financial contribution towards its preservation.

I often say that Mill was responsible for my intellectual enlightenment—a contribution that he has made to my life for which I will be forever grateful—but I don’t think I’ve ever really explained why his work was so influential to me. This is certainly because I, for the longest time, could not understand it myself. I mean why are any of us the way that we are? Who knows? Despite the difficult nature of this question, I think I now have part of the answer.

As a child, my parents forced me to do many things. Not only did I have to play soccer, basketball, tennis, football, and a number of other sports, I also had to learn how to play piano and violin, as well as attend Kumon, which is a Korean after-school program that focuses on math, and attend Chinese school. Being that I had the typical second-generation Asian-American upbringing, I, of course, also had to take SAT classes, because what kind of first-generation Asian parents would not force their kids to take SAT classes?

This went on for many years, and I sincerely hated it. I especially hated being forced to play piano and violin. And I made this very clear to my mom, who, in response, said, “You’ll learn to like it. Your sisters didn’t like piano in the beginning either, but now they do.” This answer infuriated me, because I knew I wasn’t my sisters, and they weren’t me. I was convinced that I wasn’t going to end up liking those instruments. In fact, I took it upon myself to keep a calendar where I crossed out every single day that I still hated piano and violin, with the ultimate goal of having physical proof that my parents were wrong, that, after years of being forced to play, I still hated it. During my bouts of anger, I even fantasized about smashing my violin against the piano, but I never did it.

It took me many years to figure out that what I felt towards my parents was resentment, and honestly, to this day, I still resent them. Don’t get me wrong, I know my parents tried their best; I just disagree with how they raised me. I won’t go into the details of what I would have done differently, if I had been them, but suffice it to say that my particular upbringing made me realize how important autonomy was for self-development.

When I say self-development, I mean the good kind of development—passionate self-development. That’s what was missing in my childhood. I had no passion in what I was doing, because I fundamentally didn’t value any of the activities that my parents forced me to do. And the fact that they forced me so comprehensively made it less likely for me to eventually engage in those activities autonomously.

From my parents’ perspective, I can understand why they did what they did. Let’s face it, children don’t want to do many things that are ultimately good for them, so my not wanting to play piano and violin was to be expected. But to me it was really bad. I was extremely angry and resentful, because I felt that I was being significantly wronged somehow. However, without being able to justify why I had such strong feelings, my attitude remained immature. I was just another kid pouting and stomping his feet.

So I think Mill was influential to me because his writings validated my feelings. He made it very clear how important self-development was for a full human life, and thus, made it very clear how wrong it was when it was stunted. Essentially, Mill convinced me that I was justified in feeling what I felt. This was a liberating and empowering experience.

Despite how much I disliked my upbringing, I know it made me the man I am today. In fact, I think it’s possible that my passion for philosophy wouldn’t have been discovered, if my parents hadn’t force me to do so many things. So in a sense I’m grateful for what they did. And perhaps by focusing on that aspect, I can eventually let go of my resentment.

My 30th Birthday

There is nothing intrinsically special about the number 30; it’s just one number greater than 29 and one number less than 31. And if we analyze it terms of days, Saturday was just a day after Friday and before Sunday. Yet, there is something unnerving about both digits changing that seems to warrant solemn contemplation. It’s interesting how much significance we put on our birthdays, as if that one day every year we sit down and get judged by our potential self that would have come to exist, if we had just worked a little harder.

Well, this year thinking about the person I could have become has led me to describe my 29th year as a humbling experience. The main reason for this is because I did not achieve my goal of publishing before 30, which was the only goal that I explicitly gave myself, and probably one of the only goals I’ve explicitly given myself in my entire life. This significant blow to my self-confidence has reaffirmed my belief that I'm a person with average abilities. I know that my current state of disappointment is making me exaggerate my failures and belittle my accomplishments, and I know that publishing isn’t the best criteria to determine whether or not I have something valuable to contribute to the field of philosophy, but I’m an emotional creature whose rationality plays only a secondary role.

I tell myself that with every step I take, I become a better philosopher, that with every rejection I get, I gain something valuable. It does help to tell myself this, but only to a certain extent. What would really help is landing that first publication, because then I would have proved to myself that I can do it.

The fact that I’m so bothered by not having published bothers me, because I know no one is going to read the stuff I publish anyway. Maybe a few people, but that’s all. Essentially, how much I publish is not going to make any difference in the world whatsoever. So if I really want to make an impact, then I should mainly care about my teaching abilities. But I don’t, and it’s because I’ve internalized the professionalization of the field. I know how important it is for a professional philosopher to publish.

I wasn’t always like this. When I started becoming passionate about philosophy, it was about attaining knowledge and learning how to live a good life. And I think that’s what philosophy should be about. But once I decided to become a professional philosopher, it was difficult not to internalize the professional criteria. It just seemed natural to think that your worth as a philosopher was determined by your ability to publish. And it still seems natural to think that way, given that the rules of the game are already set and that I want to play.

On Being Transgender and Transracial

Recent events involving Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal have spurred up comparisons between being transgender and being transracial. I thought I would share my opinions on the matter.

I’ll begin with transgenderism. It seems to me from the transgender literature I’ve read that what many transgender people are talking about when describing the phenomenon is some sort of mind/body dualism. Mind/body dualism asserts that the mind and the body are radically different things. An historical figure who proposed one form of this theory is Descartes, who famously said that the mind was the thinking thing and that the self was the mind. This idea is accompanied by the claim that the body is not essential to the self, which explains why a person would still remain the same person even after losing an arm.

I really do get the impression that this is what transgender people are referring to when they talk about being transgender. Transgender people often claim that their gender, which lies in the mind, is distinct from their sex, which is determined by their physical bodies. Furthermore, they claim that their true selves lie in the mind and not in the body. I also often hear transgender people say that they do not feel like their bodies belong to them, as if there is a self that is independent of the physical body that is somehow occupying the wrong physical space.

After reading how transgender people describe what it means to be trans, it is hard not to get the impression that what they are talking about is the existence of an immaterial person, or a spirit, or a soul. In fact, when I was doing some reading about the transgender community in Thailand, one transwoman said that she was born in a man’s body but with the soul of a woman.

Maybe transgenderism doesn’t necessarily posit the existence of immaterial persons, or spirits, or souls, but if it does, then I’m skeptical if it’s coherency, because I’m skeptical of the existence of immaterial persons, spirits, and souls.

Having said that, being skeptical of their empirical claims does not mean that one must disrespect them. (And unfortunately, I think that many people don’t realize this non-necessary connection.) I am perfectly fine with addressing transgender people with whatever pronoun and by whatever name they prefer. I also think that transgender people should not be fired from a job just for being transgender.

Given my liberal leanings, I find it easy to sympathize with those who have been oppressed, marginalized, and persecuted, and I cannot think of any other group that is more persecuted than transgender people (in America). I don’t know if other people have gotten this impression, but it seems to me that there is no safe haven for transgender people. Generally speaking, they’re not even accepted by their own parents.

Now regarding transracialism, I’m also skeptical. I do accept the fact that race is a social construct, but I don’t think it’s a type of social construct that allows for a person’s race to differ from their parents’ race or a combination of their parents’ races. So two White people cannot have a Black child, and one White person cannot have an Asian baby with one Black person. Much of the transgender response to the Rachel Dolezal case echoes this sentiment.

In response to the transgender people’s response to transracialism, some have pointed out an inconsistency with their positions. If gender and race are both social constructs, why can a person be transgender but not transracial? I think this is a legitimate question and none of the responses that I’ve read given by transgender people answer it successfully. But this may be because of how I understand transgenderism.

To add onto what I said earlier, it seems that transgender people not only posit the existence of an immaterial person but also a gendered, immaterial person. And if it is possible for an immaterial person to be gendered, why can’t it be racial? I suspect that a successful answer is going to have to draw from the philosophy of mind.

On Curiosity and the Attempts to Satisfy it



There seems to be a fundamental drive in human beings to explore new territories in all of its forms and push the frontiers of knowledge ever farther away from the origin of ignorance. We started with walking on our feet to see what was beyond a hill, and then built ships to cross vast bodies of water. After, when we were curious to see what was above and below us, we took to the skies, and dove deep into the oceans. And now we are beginning our journey to explore the stars. Though our curiosity may have simply been a product of evolution, it has become so much more than a means of survival. Indeed, it has become a source of human excellence.

None of the achievements that we have accomplished, however, and none of the milestones that we have reached, would have been possible without our scientific endeavors. And this is not only to highlight the work of geniuses but also the work of countless individuals who contributed, and who continue to contribute, to the expansion of knowledge. The effort of the human mind is an unstoppable force that has broken many previously-deemed boundaries. Who knows what limit we shall breach next?

Both curiosity and the attempts to satisfy it bind human beings together through space and time. The desire to know the unknown is an immaterial chain that links together the past, the present, and the future. People who look up at the universe now are seeing some of the same stars that were seen by people who lived millennia ago. And some of those same stars will be gazed upon by people who will live millennia from now. Our wonder connects us no matter how different we are from our ancestors, and no matter how different we will be from our descendants. The same can be said about our attempts to expand our knowledge, for everything that we have discovered today was only made possible by the work of previous generations, and every discovery that will be made in the future will require the foundations that are being laid down now. Our attempts to unlock the mysteries of the universe are a part of a common, poetic heritage.

Thus, with every frontier that we explore, we bring with us the curiosity and the work of our forebears. The flag of human history hangs high on every ship and plane that we have ever built and will build. And one day, when our children look back at Earth while standing on the shores of another world, they will reflect on our humble beginnings, and dream of tomorrow.

The Difference Between Word and Message

It has come to my attention that many discussions about controversial issues tend to lead to conflict due to a lack of appreciation of the difference between word and message. For example, if a person were to say that 93% of blacks are murdered by other blacks, it would likely lead to a heated, and unproductive, debate, even assuming that the fact touches upon a legitimate issue that warrants exploration. Why? Because by stating this fact, one would sound like a racist, even if one weren’t. In other words, there is an important possible difference between what one is saying and the message one is sending.

It should be recognized that by claiming the above fact about black murder rates, a person could be approaching the issue for at least two different reasons. One possibility is that a person believes that black-on-black crime is a legitimate and serious issue that should be discussed. The other possibility is that a person wants to justify racism or express racist beliefs. And without being able to truly know what motives a person has for stating such a fact, the reason will be unclear.

The recognition of the difference between word and message does not entail denying that there is good reason for people to look beyond the actual statement another person makes. In other words, it is not unjustified that someone suspect another person of racism if that person were to state the above fact. And the reason why is because people often make statements to convey messages that are not encapsulated in the words of the statements themselves. Many people do refer to the high murder rates of blacks by other blacks to justify or express their racism. The unfortunate effect of this phenomenon is that some people’s statements will be misinterpreted. Perhaps a person does think that the issue warrants attention and is willing to approach it with an open mind and sincere heart. And if it is true that the issue is worthy of serious discussion, then it would be unproductive if others accuse that person of racism, for that would not only insult that person but would also leave the issue unaddressed.

With all of this in mind, I suggest that both the hearer and the sayer of a statement keep in mind the important distinction between word and message. This would, at a minimum, require the following: if you are the sayer, try to imagine whether your statement could be sending a certain message that you do not intend to send; if you are the hearer, try to figure out whether the sayer of the statement is intentionally sending a message that she is sending.

By the way, if you are curious about the above-stated fact, it is correct. That said, the corresponding percentage for white people is about 86%. The reason why these numbers are so high is because people tend to kill other people they know, and most people socialize within their own ethnic group. For more information, see http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2014/nov/25/rudy-giuliani/giuliani-93-black-murders-committed-blacks/

Climate Change Skepticism

On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, there was a guest who was skeptical about the claim that human activity was affecting the climate. His response to the vast consensus in the scientific community was, “Well, we still don’t know for sure, and we shouldn’t disregard the small minority because leaps in science are made by people who go against common belief.” This is a common response given by climate change skeptics and I do think there is truth to this reasoning. Now, regardless of what I believe, there is an interesting thing that climate skeptics should keep in mind, and it is this: if the vast consensus of experts of a field X is insufficient to convince one of a truth claim that is X-related, then there is little that one should believe.

To be clear, I have done my own research to find out how vast this scientific consensus is, and the number that I found was 97%—that is 97% of climatologists agree that climate change is partly anthropocentric. Now if 97% consensus is insufficient to convince someone, then those unconvinced should be skeptical of the vast majority of truth claims out there, since few truth claims can be supported by such a consensus. I mention this with the intention of pointing out that most people who are skeptical of climate change are not equally skeptical about other issues, even though they should be if the threshold to believe in something is higher than 97% consensus. Having said that, I do think there is such a thing as reasonable disagreement with a vast consensus, but I believe that that disagreement must be the result of an informed process. I think you can reasonably disagree with anthropogenic climate change if you are a climatologist (or at least someone who has the knowledge of a climatologist).

In defense of their skepticism, climate change skeptics claim that the field of climatology has been corrupted in such a way that climatologists who disagree with the majority are somehow discriminated against. If this claim is true—and it might be for all I know—it would give a reason to be skeptical of the consensus. However, what is important to keep in mind is that the claim that the field of climatology has been corrupted is another truth claim in itself. And in response to this claim, I would ask the following question: “What convinced you that the field of climatology has been corrupted so much so that it discounts the consensus?” I doubt climate change skeptics would be able to give a criteria that would both justify their belief in the corruption of the field and discount the trustworthiness of the consensus.

Consent and the Substance of Contracts

In the past few weeks, I have come to the realization that the course I taught last semester unintentionally touched upon the topic that can be labeled as the insufficiency of consent. Since I now find this subject to be interesting and since it is an apt occasion to reflect on the past year, I want to discuss my thoughts on the matter.

To clarify, what I mean by the insufficiency of consent refers to the fact that consent is not the only factor that is considered when we make value judgments regarding contracts. There are numerous examples of this, but let us focus on one—sweatshop labor. Now even if we assume that sweatshop workers consent to work in poor conditions with little pay, and even if we assume that working in a sweatshop provides the workers with the least bad option they have, many would claim that the agreement is still morally condemnable because of what those workers are asked to do. In other words, many people criticize sweatshops because they think they are exploitative and that what makes them exploitative is the substance of the work contract.

Unfortunately, I cannot define exploitation, but I suspect that it is intrinsically linked with the violation of human dignity, which, in turn, is intrinsically related to the disrespect of persons, neither of which are easy to define. That said, exploitation does exist and a perfect example of it is portrayed in the movie Bumfights in which homeless people are asked to do a number of degrading and violent acts in exchange for money or some other incentive. To be clear, I do not claim that sweatshops are as morally condemnable as Bumfights, but the latter does show us that consent is not the only factor that matters. There are certain acts that are simply demeaning and dehumanizing, and any contract that asks people to do them is appalling. Consequently, consent is a necessary but not sufficient condition of a non-morally condemnable contract.

But what counts as exploitation? How do we know when human dignity is being violated and when persons are being disrespected? Unfortunately, I do not think there are any easy answers to these questions due to the fact that “dignity” and “respect” are such abstract concepts. In the end, we might simply have to use our judgment, and therefore, there may not be any way to convince a person holding an opposing viewpoint.

Putting sweatshop labor aside, I believe there is an even less obvious case of a morally condemnable work contract, and that is sign spinning. Sign spinners are people who are hired to hold and spin an advertisement while dancing and (commonly) wearing a costume. I encounter a number of sign spinners as I drive around the city and I have always been bothered by what they are asked to do. Again, because of the difficulty in defining human dignity and respect, I have trouble explaining to others why I find sign spinning to be condemnable (not as condemnable as sweatshops, of course), but I suspect it is because I find it to be humiliating and similar to the acts that are asked of people who are being hazed.

To be clear, the fact that I find it difficult to explain why I find certain work contracts to be morally condemnable should not be taken as evidence that I am wrong. I think the nature of the terms that we are using are intrinsically difficult to grasp; therefore, any difficulty that we may have explaining what a word means, in this context, is simply to be expected.