Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


Educational Imperatives

Perhaps the defining characteristic of democracy is its supposed commitment the the provision of equality. By their very nature, human societies are rife with inequality and disadvantage, whether by result of personal inadequacy or a simple roll of the dice. Education, at its heart, is thought to be the remedy to this, the ‘grand equalizer’ that overcomes the misfortunes of birth and gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed.

While that may summarize our current understanding of education, it was not always thus. The modern idea of ‘public’ education arose, not out of some egalitarian ideal, but out of the elitist ideals of the Enlightenment. Common people, so the argument went, were uncivilized, ignorant, unwashed savages, and needed to be instructed to become civilized and ‘proper’ members of society. It was not so much about a belief that education was the key to equality as it was that education was the key to civilization; more accurately, it was the belief that education was a way to bring the clearly much more enlightened and worthy views of the philosophes to the masses.

So we see that education was, in a way, a form of social control – plain and simple, it was an excuse for the elites to impose their worldviews on the common people and to achieve their own goals. As public education was just beginning, the masses weren’t necessarily taught the same things rich people might have learned in their own schools – governments, once they took control of education, saw value not in ‘enlightening’ common folk but in building good workers, and so early education focused around the value of hard work and honest labour rather than teaching the spirit of questioning and inquisition we take for granted today. We see this manipulation of education far too often, even today – who has not heard the threat educational brainwashing poses, or shook their head upon hearing the things the Taliban taught to children? Education, on its, own, is a way to teach people ideas – nothing more, nothing less.

So understanding that education simply serves as a means to further an agenda, we have to ask the question: what should that agenda be? This question lies at the heart of education, and, we can suppose, the heart of a democracy. A system that declares itself built on equality can scarcely be legitimate without it, so education must somehow serve to truly be that ‘grand equalizer’ we make it out be. So, then…how?

We must refine the aims of education. There are two competing views on this: that education should teach people life skills and the information necessary to be successful in the modern economy, and that education should teach the more amorphous ‘liberal arts’ – the arts of questioning, wondering, and thinking for oneself. If the goal of education is to achieve equality, we must educate in the way that leads to the most potential for equality – but in which direction that leads, there is no consensus.

Just like you, we’re still learning. We don’t have all the answers. If we wish to have a democracy, and all the trappings we associate with it(prosperity, freedom, equality), education is necessary for the preservation of civilization and for the relatively equal footing it provides. But more than that is a mystery. And so we turn the question over to you, dear reader. For the society we believe in, we need a strong foundation – but the question is, what do we want that foundation to look like?






The Art of Cartography

A map is more than just a way to convey geographical information about the world. A good map, to me, is the ultimate crossroads between truth and beauty – a work of art that simultaneously manages to be explicit in its imparting of wisdom and reality and yet still indicates subtleties much too deep for a single image to convey. More than that, its form can be as delectably aesthetic and enrapturing as even the most esteemed Van Gogh, for there is nothing more beautiful than an illustration of our sum knowledge of the world we live on.

A map’s aesthetic design can, of course, be beautiful in and of itself. In the picture above, the illustrations around the edges can be understood as an attempt to signify, in some way, the wonder of the world they were in the process of discovering. Still, though, the prime raw beauty of the map lies in the sections displaying the world, not in the artwork around it – one can only wonder at the incredible attention to detail and deftness of hand that one would need to turn information about the entire world from a dozen sources into a coherent whole, all without the artist leaving his studio. As a work of human achievement, a map before the age of satellites stands with few equals.

Since satellites, though, our cartography has taken a different shape. No longer finding it a challenge to display

the shape of the world, we began focusing on what else maps could tell us. Thus the beauty and aesthetic appeal of a map became even less about the form and more about the meaning it could impart. Colourful the map right may be, few would say its appearance alone makes it beautiful. But to me, it is beautiful, and stunningly so, that a few colours, varyingly spaced around the world, can tell us so much and raise questions about so much more.

The blue – that is, the rich parts of the world – is concentrated in only a few sections of the world. That is the truth the map communicates, but it makes us ask something else: what makes them different? We know, of course, that most of the world’s rich countries are built upon a foundation of democracy, human rights, and the free market – but what’s that blue bit in the middle there? Saudi Arabia, the same colour as Canada, Japan, and Germany? A theocratic quasi-command economy lacking every fundamental freedom we in the West hold dear? How could this be?

The answers given by a map do little but pose more questions. But as I see it, this makes it the greatest art of all – what else is art for but to inspire, to make one think, to impart wisdom, to leave the viewer with a sense of awe at the scale of human achievement(think of the work that went into discovering the knowledge in that map!) and hungry for more? True, it may not seem as ‘beautiful’ as the Sistine Chapel or the David – but when we see that beauty for what it really is, that which makes our eyes go wide and our jaws drop and sets our mind to furiously examining whatever we are beholding, we see that a map is the embodiment of true art, in its purest form.

It is with this last understanding that a map’s beauty can be best understood. For all the talk of truth, a map need not be based in reality to be art. Perhaps the most famous fictional map of all time, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, has a beauty of its own. But that beauty lies not in the truth it communicates, but in the possibilities it hints at. What hidden world lies behind its tea-stained tones? As we peruse its markings, we can hardly stop the questions from jumping out, wondering   about what may lie behind the innocuous names of “Gondor” and “Mordor”. What lies out east in Rhun or south in Harad? Does anything exist out across the sea? Its purely visual appeal outside, even a fantasy map shares the greatest attribute of the real ones: the ability in inspire wonder.

I suppose the true beauty of maps lies in the map that is the least like art of all: Google Earth. Almost entirely devoid of human input, Google Earth is naught but a collection of images serving to display our world. But take a moment to open the program, if you have it. Zoom out really far, until the whole brown and blue globe is just a sphere on the screen. Then begin zooming back in, watching as the continents acquire definition, as borders become coloured in, as city names appear out of thin air and roads begin to criss-cross the land. Watch as grey blurs over the land become cities, as 3-D buildings spring out of nothingness, and tiny toy cars begin to dot the landscape. At the last, enter Street View, and take a moment to realize that in mere seconds you went from a view of 7 billion humans to the view from one human’s naked eye. So much achievement, education, ingenuity, and simple hard work – all so, for a few seconds, you could zoom through the sky, watching colours become cities and mountains and flitting over the all human existence. If art is that which makes you wonder, that which leaves you in awe and inspired to ask ever more about the world we live in – well then, a map is the greatest art of all.


Follow me on Twitter: @LiamTheSaint



What It All Comes Down To

No matter the issue, every debate over ethical concerns can essentially be boiled down to one, basic question: What is the right thing to do?

Of course, that doesn’t really help to find an answer. But what it means is that, before we can ever hope to come to a conclusion and resolve the great issues debated today, we must understand the fundamental origins of the morality we hope to achieve. This is, obviously,  a subject of much debate – how can we hope to comprehend something so intangible and all-encompassing as morality? But its difficulty notwithstanding, the pursuit of this knowledge lies at the heard of understanding how to act in an organized world.

Morality, in one form of another, has existed as long as there has been society. It has not, however, always been thought of as such. In the earliest times of human development, we may have seen sparing examples of what we might recognize as morality – helping the weak and sick, putting the needs of others and of the group ahead of your own – but it was unlikely they thought of their actions in those terms. More likely is an idea of a sort of instinctive societal self-preservation – morality as a tool to an end, that end being the supremacy of your race or your tribe rather than your person, rather than as a virtue in and of itself.

But eventually, human societies outgrew the basic morality of hearth and home, and a greater understanding of morality was required in order to prevent ever-larger human societies from collapsing into chaos. The solution to this, for many societies(if not all), was religion.

One’s belief as to the truth of religious ideas necessarily plays some role in their thoughts on religion’s role in morality, but there are a number of things that are difficult to dispute. Primarily, both sides can agree that a major function of religion was the imposition of an infallible moral order upon society, dictating without error exactly what is right and what is wrong. While the irreligious and the religious may differ on the ultimate source of this moral order – on whether it ultimately comes from the political aims of men or is truly the inspired word of the Lord – the true function of religious morality was to provide a universal set of ethics that would apply in all cases.

The rules set in in place by various religions dominated many societies, more or less, for thousands of years. To a degree, this stifled ethical development – because there was already an infallible doctrine of moral laws to follow, new ideas about right and wrong had to be contorted to fit within an existing structure. God couldn’t have simply forgotten about something, so for a long time any new ethical or moral ideas had to find a firm biblical basis – and were they contradictory, to the fires they went.

But gradually, society’s adherence to religion as the basis of all ethical decisions wore off, and society(by this point, you’ll have realized that I am primarily speaking of Western society here) was forced to do something it had rarely had to do before: decide on its own morality. There had always been debate on ethical subjects, of course – but this tended to serve as a part of wider theological debate. Now, ethical ideas were forced to stand on their merits alone, rather than resorting to God’s authority.

It is under this framework, though, that our understanding of ethical issues has reached its most convoluted. In addition to the ethical issues previous generations struggled with, we now have far more that could never have been predicted, ranging from genetic modification to the struggle between environmentalism and economic development to artificial fertilization to, eventually, the humanity of artificial machines. Without a moral power giving us all the answers, humanity may be lost and adrift in a sea of ethical dilemmas.

Under such a burden, we must now determine some framework and set of guidelines that can answer these questions. Unlike with Canada’s foreign investment rules, apparently, our development of moral issues will never be solved by a patchwork of approaches on a case-by-case basis – such a thing would invariably result in conflicting judgements and more confusion than before. But what form could this possibly take?

Some would simply characterize certain actions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and declare the former always good and the latter always bad. Kraemer brings up, in his blog post, a common ethical issue: What about when killing some people would save the lives of even more people? Moral absolutists would tell you killing is always wrong, so doing such a thing would be evil. Yet is not the act of saving the first group then tantamount to killing the second? The only reasonable defense of such a thing would be to claim you cannot know for sure what the results of your actions will be either way – but this simply sidesteps the question of whether or not the action is right(surely in retrospect we can make a judgement), and at any rate, doesn’t bother to answer the question of where we come up with our original moral judgements in the first place.

From a human perspective, the only reasonable basis – barring religion, that is – for an original moral judgement is utilitarianism on a societal level. Something so intangible as ethics never truly has an answer, of course, but the closest we may come to the maximum development of our own sense of morality in fact must come, perhaps paradoxically, from a return to our collective instincts. As we have seen, those instincts do not simply lead to Hobbes’ characterization of life as nasty, brutish, and short. How could it, when it is these same instincts that led us to develop society and civilization? What comes instinctively is, oftentimes, the most moral choice of all.

Our pursuit of ethical ideas has always circled around the idea of what course of action has the best result. As Yasmeen pointed out, much of the debate around euthanasia revolves around whether or not the legalization of assisted voluntary suicide will lead to more assisted ‘involuntary’ suicide, because people would feel pressured to do it. This, however, is not the ethical question key to the debate. That question would be simply the acceptableness of suicide by those who wish it as a method to end suffering – a question easily resolved by a societal utilitarian framework, because ending suffering without causing harm naturally decreases the overall suffering of a society. The debate remains, however, as to whether actions taken for ethical reasons will actually do what was expected of them; if we legalize euthanasia not realizing its implications for involuntary suicide, the result would obviously not be what we based our ethical decision on. Fortunately, however, that is a debate for public policy analysts and not for ethicists.

That fundamental theorem – that the prime role of ethics is to provide for the betterment and strengthening of our society – has and likely always will dominate society, whether people know it or not. If robots achieve human-like sentience, and we begin debating what rights they will have, the important part of the debate will not be wither it is right to subjugate them, but whether or not we should view them as part of human society. If not, we will see our actions as irrelevant insofar as they do not harm us. If so, then as part of our society, their own betterment will stand just as important as our own. The end result is the same: ethics is the art of buttressing human civilization.

For all our accumulated wisdom and combined experience, humanity still remains a cluster of beings attempting to define what is right in a world that comes with no easy answers. The questions of morality will eternally exist, but if we ever wish to find some sort of an answer – one that will most of the time lead to the conclusions we tend to want to make, and that will provide for the enrichment of all – a human perspective of ethics for humans, by humans, is necessary. The biological and instinctive imperative of all humanity is, after all, the pursuit of its own supremacy. Better to admit that and strive to understand its implications than to eternally search in vain for an intrinsic label that isn’t really there.





The Original Evil Genius

“Cogito ergo sum”

“I think, therefore I am” stands as one of the most well known statements in the history of philosophy, representing, to its creator, the sole truth we can be sure of. In reaching his epoch-breaking conclusion, Descartes followed every path available to try to disprove it. As the one statement that he believed humanity could prove, no matter what, he had to ensure that it stood to the utmost scrutiny. While putting it to the test, he abandoned the realm of what we might call realistic and hypothesized a few extraordinarily, on the surface, ridiculous ideas.

No, not this evil genius

One of these theories, representing the furthest extent of Descartes’ theorizing, was the Evil Genius theory. It essentially posited the existence of some being that deceives us in all things, forging an entire world that is nothing but an illusion designed to trick us into accepting it as reality. The idea struck me, and I decided, though it does not represent my true beliefs about epistemology(not at the outset of this post, at any rate), to do some theorizing myself and examine and understand what the basis of such an idea would be, if any.

Firstly, we must realize that the ‘reality’ we perceive is unknowable – whether or not there is some objective reality, there is absolutely no way of knowing that. All information about the outside world must, at some point, come through our senses and be processed by our brain, whereby any hope of reliability is obliterated. Thus, it is entirely plausible that everything we experience is simply an illusion implanted into us by some deceiving evil genius – true or not, we would have no way of knowing.

We must not, however, confuse our terms of external realities – everything is external. Our bodies are external. Our brains are external. No piece of information that is based in any external stimuli or information can assure us of its reliability, and thus, even our own knowledge of ourselves is subject to skepticism – how can we be sure of even our own bodies when all we know of them is relayed as signals, via our nerves, to our brain and then to our mind? Every action we take and every sensation we feel could very well be the product of some false stimuli fed to us by this Evil Genius.

“But…what then?” I hear you say. “Doesn’t that mean everything could be part of that illusion? How could anything be real?” These are the same questions Descartes asked himself. But – and this is exactly how he reached his final conclusion – he reasoned that even accepting everything we know of the world and everything we know of reality as nothing but illusion, there still must be something to perceive that illusion. To deceive, something must be being deceived – and thus we must all, on some level, no matter how base or primal or fundamental, exist.

But – and here I depart from Descartes`axiom – that prompted another question: what about reason? We can accept that all knowledge of things outside our minds is subject to unreliability, given the potential for illusion, but what about ideas and knowledge that are derived entirely within our own minds? Are these, too, subject to questioning and skepticism?

I see several answers to this question. Firstly, no – reason and logic are by definition flawless, and pure logic in a field like mathematics is only flawed to the extent that the logic is compromised by the logician. Secondly, yes – this evil genius we speak of must also have the power to twist thought and logic, thus making even reason unreliable. And thirdly, an answer purely from my own interpretation, both yes and no – reason and logic are flawless, but their foundations may be quite the opposite, evil genius or not.

Reason is, at its heart, a construction of building blocks, an endless chain of cause and effect, of premise and conclusion, that leads from one idea to another. Done properly, reason can form an unassailable edifice of thought upon which any attack would break. But while the walls reason erect may be strong, we must consider what it is built upon.

Just try taking out the bottom piece. I dare you.

Reason is, of course, dependent on the assumptions we make and the conclusions we can prove, and to a very large extent strives to limit the former while expanding the latter. But at a certain point, there had to be a jump from nothing to something – there had to be a first premise, a first assumption, and a first idea. Without any logic leading to it, it would be unquestionable – how can you argue against a conclusion created out of thin air when you have no other conclusion to compare it to? This first thought, unreliable as we might find it today were it to be identified, would have to lay a foundation for all successive thought to be build upon. The obvious problems this raises are compounded even further once one realizes that this first thought would likely be an inference made on the basis of experience and reality – and thus, the Evil Genius worms his way into our very way of thinking.

What, then, have we established with the exploration of this idea? Firstly, anything that depends on the senses or processing into the mind from the outside world is unreliable, subject as we are to illusion and deception. Secondly, reason too must be questioned, as the possibility remains that some evil genius would be able to manipulate our logical processes just as easily as he would manipulate external realities. And thirdly, even if the above is not true, reason is still to be questioned because of the first, fundamental assumption or conclusion all else must be based on.

While Descartes’ basic idea – I think, therefore I am – still holds in the face of all that(something must be being deceived, even in the face of all this deception), we have to wonder what exactly the point of all this is. Essentially, we have proven that no piece of knowledge, whether of reason or of reality, is reliable. Really, a more unhelpful and useless conclusion has never been reached. True knowledge, it seems, is nowhere to be found – and because of that, we must accept the flawed, unreliable knowledge that we have and make do with it. Reality itself may be questionable, but so long as we exist within some reality -and Descartes established that we do – we are forever bound to exist within that framework, true or not. Let us not be so caught up in matters of absolute truth and reality. When we can trust nothing as true, we must accept what we have, though forever vigilant against the flaws in that knowing. Be careful about what you believe – the Evil Genius is out there.

Follow me on Twitter: @Liamthesaint



A Man of Our Time

Ted Honderich is not one of those larger-than-life philosophers we can only read about in books. He is a man of the modern era, born in 1933 in a small Ontario village. Raised by devoutly religious Mennonite and Calvinist parents, the questions of existence – why are we here and what does it mean to be here? – plagued him, setting him on philosophy as his life’s path.

Still, not being of Ancient Greece or Imperial Germany doesn’t mean he isn’t a real philosopher. Honderich has attempted to provide answers to some of the most deeply rooted questions of all Western philosophy, theorizing on determinism and free will, the nature of consciousness, and the morality of terrorism. It is this last idea that has gotten Honderich in so much trouble. In face of Neo-Zionist Israeli expansionism and ethnic cleansing since 1968 war, Honderich claims, Palestinians had a moral right to resist with international terrorism. That assertion by Honderich – who married a Jewish woman, has Jewish children, and publicly supports  Israel’s right to exist – has earned him plentiful accusations of anti-semitism, leading to some of his lectures being well-attended by riot police to head off any potential violence. And who says philosophy can’t be interesting?

Honderich in the flesh

Still, his ideas on politics notwithstanding, what interests me most are his ideas on metaphysics; specifically, determinism. While I will go into more depth during our presentation, what it essentially boils down to is this: traditionally, deterministic philosophers divide into two camps, those who believe determinism is reconcilable with free will, and those who do not.  Honderich favoured a third way – while, I’ll admit, I don’t really understand what it is in the slightest. It focuses less on the explicit meaning of determinism than on its consequences; that is, it seeks to avoid the state of dismay we feel if we truly accept determinism, by combining the idea that everything is predetermined by past events with the idea that we can shape our own future when we have an idea of what we want that future to look like. Or something.

As you might have realized, I’m not quite sure what Honderich is trying to say, but I hope I eventually do – I’ve long been fascinated by determinism(though without realizing that was what it was), and the idea that events are in fact totally caused by those that have come before – and that, by extension, a being with complete omniscience could entirely reasonably be able to predict everything about tomorrow simply by virtue of knowing everything about today. It plays into our common cultural notion of fate – the idea that something, be it love, a chance meeting, or some tragedy is simply ‘the way it was meant to be’. Whether or not this is true, and the implications of that answer, play into the very meaning of what it is to live.

Even if I can’t quite make out what Honderich’s philosophy is trying to say – yet – he is a modern philosopher well worth studying – if not for the philosophy, then for the controversy, for the riot police, and for his scandal plagued past(think university professor and undergraduates). Stay tuned!

Follow me on Twitter: @LiamTheSaint



Anarchistic Epistemology – The Fallacies of Science. Liam, Clayton, Keagan

Imagine, if you will, an institution that claims to hold the key to all knowledge. No true understanding can come from anywhere else – everything we know now, and everything we ever will know, can only be discovered under its tutelage. More than that, this institution labels those who disagree with it fools, and heretics – people are laughed at and ridiculed when they present beliefs contrary to the standard dogma of this institution. Finally, the state is completely in its thrall – government supports it, funds it, and, even if more by rhetoric than by action, affirms its supremacy over all knowledge.

I am speaking, of course, of science. For what is science, but an establishment devoted to understanding the world through a certain light, a certain viewpoint, a certain process? Like the medieval Church it superseded, science is nothing but a set of rules by which we claim to, somehow, reach an ‘objective’ knowledge of the world. But how can it do that, when science itself is built upon a spider’s web of assumptions, viewpoints, and paradigms? However much scientists may claim to be objective, they are fundamentally not – by their very fact of existing in a certain time, in a certain place, in a certain culture. And if science has not an answer now, never fear – for some day, science will provide the answers to all questions. Some day, science shall uplift us all into a state of earthly heaven, providing for all of our needs and most of our wants. Yet still, when the science is proven wrong, is there humbling of heads, acceptance that all of our skill at science at one time led to a wrong answer? No! Instead, it reaffirms itself, positing that being proven wrong was all part of the plan, and is some step on the way to eventual true understanding.

Are we to simply accept this? No, say the anarchistic epistemologists – science is unreliable. Throughout history, we have done research and forwarded theories and thought them confirmed – until they were proven wrong, upheaving an entire generation of thought and shattering our prior notions about how things worked. Given that, can we trust the scientific method as the only – or even the main – method of inquiry we use to make sense of our surroundings?

The answer is no. Not with such a track record of inaccuracy, of bias, of interpretations that will later be ‘disproven’ by later interpretations of more and different things. But still, the scientific establishment dominates. Science, said Paul Feyerabend, is “only one of the many instruments man has invented to cope with his surroundings. It is not the only one, it is not infallible, and it has become too powerful, too pushy  and too dangerous to be left on its own.” Once upon a time, we believed in the separation of Church and state – the separation of the state from an institution that was convinced of its own supremacy over knowledge and thought and intent on having the final word on all the issues of the day. Now, it is time for the separation of state and science – lest we give an institution rotten with bias, perspective, and inconsistency the role of objective, impartial, and supreme purveyor of all that is true.

Follow me on Twitter: @LiamTheSaint



Reductio ad Hitlerum

You know who loved painting? Hitler. Hitler was a painter. Are you sure you want to be a painter?

Hitler supported gun control. Gun control and the long-gun registry are evil! (thanks to Conservative MP Larry Miller for that one)

Hitler loved the military – anyone who supports a big military is just like Hitler.

These arguments all share the same logical fallacy: Reduction ad Hitlerum(yes, that really exists.) The flaw in the logic should be apparent: evil in a person does not extend evil to everything that person does, just like in my last post I pointed out that opposition to something does not necessitate opposition to every single thing that something does.

But we still see reductio ad Hitlerum very frequently in both our conversations and our political discourse, as the favoured tactic of people with nothing better to say. Glenn Beck, to those who are familiar with his work, is known for using this, so it seems, to prove virtually every single argument he makes. The fallacy inherent to comparing things to what Hitler did may seem obvious to some people, but its ubiquity in our society means it is still a cause for concern – after all, if it’s used this much, it must be convincing someone! To avoid this fallacy, remember this simple rule: the first person to mention Hitler in an argument loses every time. So next time, instead of resorting to this underhanded tactic, try to come up with a actual, reasonable point to make. Don’t just use Hitler – its insulting, unflattering, and just plain silly.

Besides, there’s always Stalin.

Follow me on Twitter: @LiamtheSaint



Political Proofs

The Conservative Party stands for fiscal responsibility and accountability.

The Liberal Party opposes the Conservative Party.

Therefore, the Liberal Party opposes fiscal responsibility and accountability.

First of all, is this syllogism true? Some would argue that the first premise is incorrect; that is, the Conservative Party does not stand for fiscal responsibility and accountability. While I would agree that it is most certainly not those things(responsibly and accountable), others would say the opposite; but at any rate, it is what they claim to be, and we can conclude that it is, indeed, what they stand for – at least on paper.

Is the second premise true? Yes – while the argument can be made that the Liberal Party does not oppose the Conservatives on everything, they are still opposition, and as such, oppose.

But is it valid? This question rests upon the definition of the word ‘opposes’. When you oppose something, do you oppose everything to do with it, everything it says and does? Or can you support something sometimes while still generally opposing it? Take this equation:

Oppose * (A whole)

Oppose * (Individual parts of that whole, which add up to it)

Then we convert the ideas into numbers, taking opposition as a negative number and assigning individual terms different magnitudes of importance.

-1(1 – 2 – 3 + 4 + 5) = -1 + 2 + 3 – 4 – 5 = -5

The result, being negative, indicates that on the whole the feelings toward something remain opposition. But is each individual part opposed? No – because some terms remain positive, indicating no opposition. What does this mean for our syllogism? That opposition to a whole does not necessitate opposition to all its component parts – and thus, this syllogism is invalid and unsound.

Follow me on Twitter: @LiamtheSaint



Is the Good Book Good?



Tim Minchin’s amusing song about The Good Book pokes fun at religion in this song – and without getting into the whole religion debate, it’s worth examining the logic used and its role in providing humour to the song. Without further ado:

I know the Good Book’s good because the Good Book says it’s good

I know the Good Book knows it’s good because a really good book would

You wouldn’t cook without a cookbook and I think it’s understood

You can’t be good without a Good Book ‘cos it’s good and it’s a book

And it is good for cookin’

Extracting the arguments from this takes a bit of work, but a few basic streams of logic can be found:

Premise A: The Good Book says it’s good. (A)

Conclusion: The Good Book is good. (If A, then B)

This basic logic is built upon and elaborated upon in a second stream.

Premise C: A good book would know it is a good book. (C)

Premise D: The Good book is good. (D)

Premise E: The Good Book says it’s good. (E)

Conclusion: The good book is good. (If C, D, and E, then F)

Before even looking at the soundness and truth of the statements, let’s try to understand this logic.

A, therefore B. Makes sense so far.

C, D, and E, therefore F. But wait – I’ve seen some of these before.

“The Good Book is good” = B, D, and F. Let’s rename all of these B.

A, therefore B.

C, B, and E, therefore B.

But A and E are equal as well, so let’s make both of those A.

A, therefore B.

C, B, and A, therefore B.

Where are we now?

Premise A: A good book would know it is good

Premise B: The Good Book is good

Premise C: The Good Book says it’s good.

Conclusion: The Good Book is good.

Is it valid? Sure – accepting all the premises as true, the conclusion is reached. Premise B alone would be enough to prove the conclusion – though it would fail to be an argument, with only a single premise(and an as-yet unproven one at that). But the circular logic is apparent. Why is the Good Book good? Well, because it says it’s good. And it would know – after all, it’s a good book!

Thus the entire stream can be rewritten thusly:

The Good Book must be right about being good, because good books would be right about that.

The Good Book is good.

The Good Book must be right about being good, because good books would be right about that.

The Good Book is good.

…and so we continue the circular logic ad infinitum. It’s all still very valid – the premises do lead to the conclusion – but those premises rely upon the conclusion formed by themselves, begging the question if they are true at all. The lack of that fundamental Truth means this logical is unsound indeed.

This isn’t the place for a discussion about whether or not this is actually the logic of religious people relying upon the Bible, but I do have a question for readers: How exactly does Tim Minchin use our fundamental understanding of logic to poke fun at religion and make the audience laugh?

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Nature? What Nature?

It is one of the oldest questions: What is the nature of man? Is he by nature good and reasonable, as argued by Butler? Or is he instead evil and selfish, fulfilling Hobbes’ description of life as nasty, brutish, and short? And if the latter is true, is man still redeemable, either by reason or action, or is he condemned to be of that fallen state forever?

Worthwhile questions, to be sure; but I reject the concept. ‘Nature’ is a funny word – we use it to apply to so much, but it really doesn’t actually mean anything. What is it? Some nebulous concept of a person’s character? There are some people we would call ‘good’ and some people we would call ‘evil’. Who are we to say which is the default? Furthermore, no one in the history of the world has actually considered themselves ‘evil’. People always act as they believe is justified, whether that means killing six million Jews or devoting a life to the service of the needy.

Indeed, this pigeon-holing of people as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ has dangerous ramifications. Doing so makes it easy for us to cast off immoral actions as the result of evil people, letting us go on with our lives safe in the knowledge that people who do bad things are just bad people and we’d better try our best to stay away from them. But this is simply a denial of reality. No one is intrinsically ‘evil’. Everyone is simply human; no more and no less. To label someone as ‘evil’ is to deny their humanity, and by extension, to deny that they are the same as you and I. For that is the most important thing to remember when we speak of ‘evil’. We are not speaking of monsters, of deformed boogeymen and incomprehensible lunatics. We are speaking of people. We are speaking of people with mothers and fathers, of people with brothers and sisters, of people who cried when they skinned their knee as a child and felt scared when the older kids walked by. If you want to understand ‘evil’, you cannot separate it from our basic notions of humanity.

This answers the question, I think, albeit in an indirect way. What is the nature of man, but man? How can you declare seven billion people, with all their different lifestyles, morals, and experiences, to be one thing or another? Every action, ‘good’ or ‘evil’, is the product of all that has come before, just as every person is the product of everything that has happened to them during their life. What was it that led Joseph Stalin on a different path than Mother Theresa? Were they born fundamentally different beings? Did God send one as a plague upon the world and the other as an angel? Or is the thing that separates them rooted in the experiences that shaped their mind and formed their world? Indeed, how could it be anything else?

We see, then, that we cannot ascribe the character of men to some vague, generalized notion of ‘human nature’ that is applicable in all cases. Every person is different, and every person will have their own biases, assumptions, and experiences. That fact must be the fundamental basis for understanding humanity. The nature of man lies not in his universal goodness, or his lack thereof. The nature of man lies in his variety.

– Liam St.Louis

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