Humility Can Bring Us Together

Last Sunday, I had a very unpleasant conversation with an argumentative man over libertarianism. This man, whom I had not met before that day, was informed and intelligent, but was already convinced even before entering the conversation that his opinion was true and that mine was false. Needless to say, he was not genuinely interested in what I thought.

This experience has reconfirmed my belief that if people were to speak like that to each other all the time, almost nobody would change their minds on any important issue. In fact, I am certain that to speak as if your opinion contains the entire truth is one of the surest ways not to convince someone.

If we want as a nation to break down the walls that divide us, it is extremely important to be able to engage civilly with others who disagree with our views. I admit it is not easy—I certainly have not mastered the skill. But it is necessary if we ever want to live in a country where one half of the population does not think the other half is crazy.

So how do we strive toward this goal? I suggest that we start by possessing the virtue of humility—that is, I suggest we not assume that our views contain the entire truth and that our opponents’ views contain none of it. Being humble means that we acknowledge that truth is difficult to be found. It means that when we enter a debate with another person, we ought to see it as a collaborative endeavor to attain truth.

Humility shows the other person that we respect their views, that we acknowledge and struggle with the intricacies of the topic, and that we do not hold ourselves to be better than others. Humility tells the other person, “You know, I don’t have all the answers, but maybe we can find some of them if we work together.” And even if humility is insufficient to convince the other person of our beliefs, what is more important is that it makes them want to empathize with us and spend time with us. Humility can bring us together because virtues are attractive, both to those who are virtuous and those who are not.

There is no doubt that humility is especially important for us at this time. We only need to point to this past year's Presidential election to see that there are multiple segments of the population that are utterly unwilling to engage civilly with one another, resulting in a lack of mutual understanding. The unfortunate result of this is that it becomes more tempting to surround ourselves only with others who already agree with what we believe. Without humility, then, people will remain isolated in their respective bubbles while refusing to acknowledge that other people have valid concerns. I, for one, do not want to live in a country like that.

Perhaps being humble is insufficient; perhaps there will always be stark disagreements. Even so, I refuse to believe that we cannot make any progress on this issue. I have faith that we can be more united than we are now, and I believe that the way to accomplish this begins with improving our own characters.

What is the Point of Being an Average Philosopher?

Many of us hold up influential people as exemplars of human excellence. We look to the scientist, the doctor, the activist, and think to ourselves, “Now that person is doing something with her life!” Such acknowledgments of greatness are almost immediately followed by the depressing thought of the mediocrity of our own lives, which raises the question about the value of being average.

I just finished reading A Mathematician’s Apology, a book written by G. H. Hardy about the intrinsic worth of what he calls pure mathematics. In essence, he thinks pure mathematics is valuable because it is a kind of knowledge, and because it can be beautiful. More importantly, he draws on the value of knowledge to defend the value of his life. Hardy (1967) says,

The case for my life, then, or for that of any one else who has been a mathematician in the same sense which I have been one, is this: that I have added something to knowledge, and helped others to add more; and that these somethings have a value which differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or of any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them. (p. 151) 

This sounds like a good answer to me, given that he was an excellent mathematician. But what does this mean for a person who is only average at what he does? What does this say about the value of my life as a philosopher? Though I have published and probably will publish again, I question how much this contribution is worth. How valuable is it to write a paper that only five people will read? In contrast to Hardy, I will not be known after I die. I will not leave behind a legacy.

Exploring the pointlessness of our lives is an emotionally difficult endeavor, because it reminds us not only of our mortality but also of our limited capacities. The fact is that not everyone can be excellent at what they do, no matter how hard they try. I am an average philosopher not because I do not desire to be great, but because I am simply not smart enough. This is unfortunate, but true, and I have accepted it for a long time.

Luckily, there is another aspect of a being professional philosopher where I can make a larger difference, and that is teaching. Even according to conservative estimates, I will teach around 5,500 students in my lifetime. To be clear, I do not claim that I will change the lives of every student under my instruction, but I hope to have some positive effect on at least 1/3 of them.

If I were to make a case for my life, then, it would be that I will help thousands of students throughout my career think in a more rigorous and intellectually-honest way, about fundamental questions of moral and political significance.

References

Hardy, G. H. (1967). A Mathematician’s Apology. London: Cambridge University Press.

My 31st Birthday

I think the most important thing that has happened in the past year has been my change of attitude toward publishing. Before turning 30, I saw it both as a test of my abilities and as an end in itself. Two factors are responsible for changing my attitude. The first was getting a couple of revise and resubmits—once that happened, I was convinced I had the ability to publish. And the second was the deeper acceptance that no one is going to read what I write. Accordingly, I now treat publishing only as a means to succeed professionally.

With that in mind, I should mention that I was recently notified that one of my papers was accepted for publication. More importantly, perhaps, is that though I’m happy about it, I’m not ecstatic. I take this as evidence of my attitude truly changing.

Another event that is worth mentioning is that I spent 10 days over the summer in Mexico with my family. We rented a house in Sayulita, which is a small village about 45 minutes away from Puerto Vallarta. Overall, the trip was just okay. I didn’t like the humidity and the mosquitoes, but I did like spending time with my family.

What this trip taught me is that I tend to complain too much any time I’m slightly uncomfortable. It’s to the point where I get annoyed at myself. I’ve also noticed that I complain even more when I spend time with my parents, and I think it’s because they do things differently than I do in such a way that inconveniences me. For example, my mom always brings a lot of stuff when she travels, which means that I always have to help her. When we went to Mexico, she brought an entire suitcase of food. And I knew before we left for the trip that I had to carry it.

My sister Angeline is really good at pointing out when I complain too much. She immediately attributes it to the fact that I was spoiled as a child. And I think she’s right. I never had to endure any hardships. I never had to help around the house, for example, because my grandma and my great grandma did everything.

Speaking of my grandma, the two-year anniversary of her death is coming up. I honestly still can’t believe she’s gone. It’s crazy to think that when she died, she took a generation with her. I grew up in a house with a family of 4 generations. My great grandma was born in 1905 and died in 2006. So 10 years ago my family was reduced to 3 generations, and 2 years ago it was reduced to 2. When Angeline had Bodhi, my family was once again 3 generations.

Thinking about my grandma makes me think about death and how I don’t want to die. I can’t articulate it well, but the idea of nothingness just scares me. I tell my religious friends that I wish God exists, because then there would be an afterlife. But I just don’t think the arguments for God’s existence are good enough. I know that some atheists aren’t bothered by death because they think it’ll be exactly how it was before they were born, but that thought doesn’t comfort me. I think I don’t want to die because I want to continue experiencing the goods things in life. I want to be able to laugh, hang out with my friends, eat a good meal, be in love, and, of course, do philosophy. And thinking about death in terms of pre-birth still means that I won’t experience those good things.

Mill's Dedication to Harriet Taylor

This is John Stuart Mill's dedication to his wife, written in the beginning of On Liberty.

To the beloved and deplored memory of her who was the inspirer, and in part the author, of all that is best in my writings — the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement, and whose approbation was my chief reward — I dedicate this volume. Like all that I have written for many years, it belongs as much to her as to me; but the work as it stands has had, to a very insufficient degree, the inestimable advantage of her revision; some of the most important portions having been reserved for a more careful re-examination, which they are now never destined to receive. Were I but capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivaled wisdom.

On the Development of Potential

Astronaut Sam Cristoforetti on the International Space Station.

What do you see when you look at this picture? An astronaut? Earth? A Star Trek nerd, perhaps?

Let me tell you what I see.

I see a young girl telling herself that she will one day go to space.

I see a woman who was inspired at an early age by a TV show.

I see a person who, when faced with numerous challenges and failures, chose to persevere because of her dream.

I see an explorer wanting to unlock the mysteries of the universe.

Most importantly, I see the development of potential and the pursuit of a passion.

For these reasons, this is probably one of the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever seen. This image captures in one frame a manifestation of what I’ve firmly valued for most of my adult life—that is, the development of human potential. Though my treatment of this topic has been unsystematic, my conviction of its importance has only become stronger upon reflection. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that a full human life requires it.

I like this picture so much that I intend to include it in the introduction of my dissertation.

Why I'm Not Christian

A few points are worth noting before I explain why I’m not Christian. First and foremost, I haven’t read the Bible. My understanding of Christianity has entirely been accumulated through cultural exposure, philosophy, and private conversations. So my reasons for not being Christian should be interpreted accordingly. Second, I’m not committed to identifying myself either as an atheist or an agnostic. I’ve heard numerous definitions of both terms and I’m indifferent towards them. My position is that I leave the existence of God as a question. And third, although my target is Christianity, my arguments could also be applied towards other religions to the extent they rely on the same premises.

With that I mind, let’s begin with the more fundamental claims and then move onto the more specific ones.
  1. I’m not convinced by the contingency argument, which, I’ve been told is the best one for the existence of God, since it provides a plausible reason to believe in the existence of a necessary being, and God, by definition, is a necessary being. To elaborate, a necessary being is something that has to exist, whereas a contingent being is something that doesn’t have to exist.

    In a nutshell, the contingency argument states that it is plausible to believe that there is a necessary being on which the existence of all contingent beings rest, and that this is more plausible than an infinite regress of contingent beings. For instance, if there is something that doesn’t have to exist—let’s say a chair—it is reasonable to believe that there is or was another being on which the existence of the chair rests—perhaps a craftswoman. But if that craftswoman were also contingent, then it would be reasonable to believe that the craftswoman’s existence rests on another being—i.e. her parents. If we were to keep doing this forever, however, it would lead to an infinite regress, and infinite regresses are unpalatable for one reason or another. Accordingly, it is reasonable to believe that there is a necessary being on which the existence of all contingent beings rest.

    The argument then claims that it is plausible to believe that the universe is contingent—that is, the universe doesn’t have to exist. If that is the case, then there must be a reason why it exists. Thus, there is a plausible reason to believe that there is a necessary being on which the existence of the universe rests. And Christians call this necessary being God.

    In response to this argument, I do admit that an infinite regress is troublesome. The idea of there being turtles all the way down doesn’t sit well with me, and I think it’s because I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of infinity in general. That said, the idea of a necessary being also bothers me. Why does anything have to exist? I don’t find the concept of something necessarily existing any more plausible than an infinite regress. Thus, in the end, I take no position on the creation of the universe.

  2. However, let’s suppose for the sake of the argument that there is a necessary being. Even in that case, I’m not convinced that this being is personal—and by personal, I roughly mean a being that possesses intellect, volition, and emotions. William Lane Craig’s argument is that there is good reason to believe that whatever caused the universe is personal, because the universe started to exist at some point in time rather than another. This suggests that something chose to create the universe. Craig (2004) puts it this way:

    If the cause [of the universe] were a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions, then the cause could never exist without the effect. For example, the cause of water’s freezing is the temperature’s being below 0° Centigrade. If the temperature were below 0° from eternity past, then any water that was around would be frozen from eternity. It would be impossible for the water to begin to freeze just a finite time ago. So if the cause is timelessly present, then the effect should be timelessly present as well. (p. 5)

    Craig's argument can be formulated into the following question: Why is the universe as old as it is? Presumably, the universe could be 18 billion years old rather than 14 billion, so there must be a reason for its particular age. This sounds like a reasonable question to ask. Unfortunately, I don't know what the answer is. What I can say, however, is that I'm uncomfortable with adopting the position that there is an immaterial person who decided to create the universe at that specific moment. It certainly would be one explanation, but until I have a better understanding of physics and metaphysics, I'm unwilling to rule out other possible explanations.

  3. But let’s assume premise 1 and 2—that is, let’s assume that there exists a necessary being and that this being is personal. I don’t see why a necessary, personal being has to be all-good. As far as I can tell, the argument usually goes something like this:

         (a)    God is being.
         (b)    Being is goodness.
         (c)    Therefore, God is goodness.

    In response, I’m not really sure what to say in regards to premise (a). I don’t have a good understanding of metaphysics, so for argument’s sake, I’ll assume its plausibility. Premise (b), however, seems odd to me, mainly because it contrasts with the more intuitive claim that some being is neutral in value. For instance, suppose there are two universes that are identical in every way except for the fact that one of them contains an extra rock. If being is goodness, then it follows that the universe with the extra rock in it contains more goodness. This seems false. A more reasonable claim is that the extra rock does not add any extra goodness to that universe.
     
  4. Up till now, the arguments that I’ve considered are about the existence of a necessary, personal, and all-good being. These arguments, even if true, would not establish that Christianity were the one true religion, since they do not establish that Jesus was the Son of God. For this, one must accept the accounts given in the Bible regarding the resurrection of Christ, as well as other miraculous events.

    In response, I’m not convinced that Jesus was the Son of God because I don’t believe the accounts given in the Bible. And I don’t believe the accounts given in the Bible because I don’t believe in miracles. For me, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and historical accounts do not suffice. To be convinced of something as extraordinary as someone rising from the dead, I would require evidence attained through the scientific method. Now if it is the case that evidence for miracles cannot be attained this way, then I’m afraid I cannot see how I can ever believe in miracles.
     
  5. The last reason why I’m not Christian is because I reject its sexual ethics. I don’t think there’s anything immoral with having sex before marriage, or having sex with multiple people at the same time, or having sex with another person of the same sex, as long as everyone is a consenting adult. Also, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with anal sex or masturbation.

    Regarding the latter, I get the impression that the reason why Christians are against these actions is because they accept some version of the function argument. For those unfamiliar, the function argument says that what it means for a thing to be good is for it to fulfill its function well. For instance, a good heart is one that pumps blood well. Some have taken this argument to mean that it is bad to use a thing in a way that is not according to its function. This variation of the function argument is immediately implausible. For instance, assuming the function of my ears is to hear, it is in no way bad if I wiggle my ears as a party trick. That said, I think there is a more plausible form of the variation of the function argument, and it is this: to use a thing in a way that impedes its functioning is bad. According to this variation, it would be bad if I poured acid into my ears, because that would impede their functioning.

    Even if we take this more plausible variation of the argument, however, it wouldn’t apply to anal sex or masturbation. Anal sex could be harmful if done improperly, but it is not necessarily so. And I definitely don’t see why masturbation is necessarily harmful to one’s genitals.
A person reading this post may say, “Okay, the arguments are not sufficient to make you convert to Christianity, but this is where faith comes in.” I’m not sure how to respond to this. I think for me, faith has to be justified, but I admit that I don’t know what would be necessary for me to feel justified in having it. Perhaps if I had some sort of miraculous experience—such as dying, seeing God, and then coming back to life—I'd change my mind.

I shall end with this statement: If I were to see God after I die, I would tell him that I tried my best to be intellectually honest.

References

Craig, W. L., & Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2004). God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist. New York: Oxford University Press.

A Call for Intellectual Humility

"Those who seek the truth become humble persons, for they know that truth is difficult to be found..." - Pope Francis

It is unfortunate that the typical person is so strongly convinced of her own beliefs, when the process of attaining those beliefs was nothing more than the mindless absorption of opinions of those around her, followed by five minutes of thought. If moral truths were that easy to attain, philosophers would not have spent thousands of years thinking about them. In reality, ethical and political controversies are difficult to resolve, for a number of reasons.

First, discovering the core of the subject matter that distinguishes one argument from another is a laborious task, for to truly understand a position requires an understanding of its basic principles. And basic principles, given their nature, are difficult to uncover.

Second, since opposing positions often contain legitimate principles that one agrees with, one must undertake the arduous process of weighing said principles against one another. Commonly, this process is so difficult that it pushes people to question the sufficiency of their own intellectual abilities.

But even if these first two hurdles are overcome, there is another task of accepting the implications of one’s position. It is often the case that the core principles of one’s belief will logically lead to a conclusion that one does not want to accept, because it conflicts with another belief that one simultaneously holds. Unfortunately, it may take years before a person can make her numerous opinions consistent, if it is at all possible.

In light of the above, which is, to be sure, only a sample of the difficulties that plague the process of discovering truth, anyone who holds a strong position on a controversial issue ought to think about whether she has truly reflected upon the intricacies of the debate. Has she uncovered the necessary premises that support her conclusion? Has she sincerely engaged with others who disagree with her? And has she followed her belief to its logical conclusions? Or has she, like most who are opinionated, substituted critical thinking with hasty acceptance, and argument with regurgitation?

It ought to be acknowledged that truth is difficult to attain, so much so that it is indeed correct to say that philosophy makes slow progress. This can be seen in the fact that it is always Aristotle’s philosophical—and not his biological—work that is taught to younger generations. The questions that puzzled thinkers in ancient Greece are still relevant today, despite much spilled ink.

Am I suggesting, then, that those who have not spent a significant amount of effort into understanding an issue ought to suspend judgment? To a certain extent, yes. More specifically, I am arguing that one’s conviction ought to correlate with the amount that one has subjected one’s beliefs to the process of intellectual critique. And given that most of those opinionated have not done this, they should remain silent or at the very least be modest in their convictions. What they absolutely should not do is assume that their positions contain the entire truth while the opposing ones contain none, as that is almost never the case.

What would go a long way to hinder misguided conviction is the simple action of pausing to reflect. The next time one enters a disagreement with another, one should ask oneself the following questions: What are the core principles of our positions? Are both of us discussing the same topic? Are we using terms in the same way? Is there truth in what the other person is saying? Why is my position right? And what would convince me that I am wrong? If these questions were reflected upon even the tiniest bit, the vast majority of debates would be more fruitful, cordial, and intellectually honest. This, I admit, is quite demanding and therefore I am certain that there will be many cases where a person cannot answer these questions. When those cases arise, the proper response is to admit that one does not know the truth.