Where Plato Meets Hobbes

In many ways, Plato and Hobbes couldn’t be more different. Plato was an idealist, and Hobbes was a materialist. Plato advocated free will, and Hobbes was a determinist. And, famously, Plato believed in the Forms, whereas Hobbes was a staunch nominalist. But despite their differences elsewhere, the political philosophies of Plato and Hobbes are strikingly similar.

Plato advocated a dictatorship ruled by philosophers, on the grounds that philosophers alone have cognitive access to the Form of the Good. If a philosopher is given intensive training and education over the course of decades, he will be able to pierce the veil of perception and see what is really good. And once he has mystic insight into what is good, there is no reason why he shouldn’t use force to get any misguided citizens of the Republic who disagree to obey him.

Hobbes’ dictatorship was not ruled by mystics, like Plato’s. Instead, Hobbes, claiming to be an advocate of science, advocated a dictatorship run by arbitrary whim. Words like “good” and “justice” are controversial, and there is no objective way to settle disputes about these ideas, since they are subjective. So, according to Hobbes, everyone should submit to an all powerful Leviathan out of fear of anarchy, and just agree to treat the ruler as right by definition.

Why did Plato and Hobbes both end up advocating tyranny, even though they disagreed on so many points? The answer is that, although they might superficially look like opposites, mysticism and subjectivism can both lead to tyranny in practice. Mysticism can lead to a dictatorship ruled by mystics, whereas subjectivism can lead to a dictatorship ruled by the feelings of the dictator.

Reading Philosophy

I’ll explain how I approach a philosophical text, then list some books you can read to refine your approach further.

Reading Philosophy

The main thing when reading a philosophical text is to read actively – take notes, write in the margins, anything so that you’re not just letting the words pass over you. In addition, you need to read any philosophical text that you want to understand and remember a minimum of two times.

The first time you read a philosophical text, you need to put aside your personal views and just try to understand what the text is saying. Don’t evaluate the argument at this point, or your evaluation will distort your understanding of the content of the argument. Be able to prove that the philosopher is actually asserting each component of the argument you think he is making with specific passages in the text.

Once you understand the argument of the text, you can read it again to evaluate the argument. It helps many people to make an “argument map” or lay out the argument of the text in front of them as a syllogism so that the premises and inferences are clearly displayed.

If you read a philosophical text carefully, take notes, evaluate it thoughtfully, and write an essay explaining your point of view, there is a good chance you will remember it for the rest of your life.

Book Recommendations

One book that was recommended to me by a very good professor when I was a college freshman is The Practice of Philosophy by Jay F. Rosenberg. Rosenberg focuses on how philosophical worldviews get articulated and defended in the dialectical process of formulating and criticizing arguments, and he presents some common ways in which philosophical arguments are criticized.

Lewis Vaughn’s book Writing Philosophy is good, as well. It has two chapters that cover how to properly read a philosophical text, and it covers how to formulate and criticize a philosophical argument.

If you want a text that covers some basic issues along with readings, you might try Core Questions in Philosophy by Elliot Sober. Sober presents classic philosophical arguments clearly and explains how a philosopher could go about criticizing them. There is also a section near the beginning that explains inductive and deductive arguments.

How do atheists define good and evil?

Below is a post I wrote in response to the following question.

How do atheists define good and evil?

Atheists define good and evil differently, just like theists do. You’re probably familiar with Christians who have different beliefs about what good and evil are than you do. There are Christians who don’t think morality is based on God’s will, and even among Christians who do think morality is based on God’s will there isn’t complete agreement about what God’s will is, specifically. The situation with atheists is a lot like this – lots of different worldviews with no single set of principles between them.

Personally, I think Ayn Rand correctly defined good and evil in her essay “The Objectivist Ethics.” Ayn Rand thought that the purpose of morality was to have the best life for yourself and the people you love. This doesn’t mean exploiting other people, like Nietzsche thought it did, because the only way to become happy is to live a principled, productive life, neither sacrificing yourself to other people nor other people to yourself.

If you’re interested in looking into Ayn Rand’s own summary of her philosophy of Objectivism, you can read it at the link below:

http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/objectivism.html

Let me know if you have any questions.

Rationalism vs. Empiricism

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great article explaining the basics of the rationalism – empiricism debate. It covers Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, and some contemporary thinkers. Kant is mentioned but not really discussed.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/

My position is closer to the empiricism side of things, if we go by the terminology of this article. I don’t think we gain any knowledge solely on the basis of deduction from a priori intuitions, although I think deduction plays an important role in knowledge, and I don’t think we have any innate knowledge or innate concepts.

Of course, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to establish this position, and I’m not going to attempt that here.

 

Variation

I posted the following on a forum I belong to, and I think the point is general enough to post here as well:

I doubt that any two people on this forum have exactly the same beliefs and values, or even exactly the same beliefs and values about all of the major issues we discuss here.

For example, Christians like to paint atheists as moral subjectivists, but this isn’t quite right. Atheists disagree about whether morality is objective. In addition, the atheists on this forum who think morality is objective all have different ideas about what objective morality looks like, and the atheists who think morality is subjective on this forum all have different ideas about what subjective morality looks like (e.g., HRG’s ideas on the subject vs. Corvidal’s).

Christians aren’t a uniform group, either. No two Christians on this forum have exactly the same views. There are Catholics and Protestants, liberal Christians and evangelicals, Christians in favor of homosexual marriage and Christians opposed to it, and Christians in favor of legalizing abortion and Christians opposed to it. And there are all kinds of different specific variations within each of these camps.

The metaphysical reason for this is that people have free will – they choose how they interpret the evidence available to them, and no two people have exactly the same evidence or make exactly the same decisions. To take an example we’re all familiar with, if you post a story about a Christian terrorist blowing up an abortion clinic, one person will interpret it as an isolated incident, another will interpret it as representative of the logical implications of Christianity.

My point is that you have to learn what each individual poster thinks by talking to them. Broad generalizations about what a group believes are necessary for some purposes, but don’t rely on them too much when you’re dealing with a specific member of that ideology.

Undermining the Case for Theism

I’m an atheist, so my position on God’s existence is based on the premise that the arguments for God’s existence fail.

I can’t go through every argument in an internet post, obviously, but I will list a few sample arguments and explain why I reject each of them.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This argument is based on an equivocation between different arrangements of matter and matter itself. We have sufficient evidence that every arrangement of matter has to have a cause, but no evidence that matter itself requires a cause. Actually, the first premise implies that the universe is eternal, interpreted properly, since every arrangement of matter would need to have a cause in a prior arrangement of matter, all the way back forever.

In addition, this argument does not establish that the cause would have to be God. Craig attempts to give a conceptual analysis of the cause of the universe, but it is very weak, especially the principle of determination that he uses to justify the inference to a conscious cause.

The Fine Tuning Argument

This argument attempts to support the claim that God exists using the alleged fine tuning of the constants of the universe. These constants had to be within incredibly small, specific ranges to allow life to emerge. This fine tuning is very unlikely given naturalism, but it is at least not incredibly unlikely if God exists. Therefore, the fine tuning is evidence for God. (Robin Collins is an example of a theist who uses this argument.)

The problem with this argument is that none of the premises can be objectively supported. It’s controversial among physicists whether the fine tuning even exists. It isn’t clear in what sense the constants of the universe might have been different from what they are or how we could objectively determine the “probability” of their being at the values they are, either.

Finally, we have no basis for the crucial premises about what is likely given naturalism and theism. Who is to say that this sort of fine tuning is unlikely given naturalism – on what basis? Further, how could we objectively predict what God would be likely to create, given that our human preferences and values do not necessarily track the preferences and values that God would have? The fine tuning argument’s claims about God are based on nothing more than unjustified anthropomorphism.

The Argument from Miracles

The argument from miracles attempts to establish that God exists on the basis of miracles that allegedly occurred. One alleged miracle that is popular among apologists, and crucial for the Christian religion, is the alleged miracle of Christ’s resurrection. The textual evidence in the Bible, particularly the Gospels, is alleged to contain enough evidence to establish the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

The problem with any argument from miracles is that there cannot be sufficient evidence for an event that violates the laws of nature. A law of nature is supported by countless observations over the course of human history, so we cannot allow one event, which is only supported by ancient texts of dubious reliability, to overturn it. Our experience uniformly shows that people who die stay dead, and we cannot allow the Gospels, which were written by fanatics, to overturn such a strong generalization.

Sometimes apologists say that the credibility of miracles depends on establishing the existence of God first, but this only shows that miracles cannot be evidence for God’s existence, since they presuppose it. If we have to believe in God to believe in miracles, then we cannot use miracles as evidence that God exists on pain of circular reasoning.

In conclusion, the case for God’s existence is very weak indeed.

Note: I copied and pasted this post from an internet forum post that I made elsewhere.

Free Will is Scientific

Determinists often attempt to associate determinism with science. The idea is that determinism is scientific and free will is not, because the laws of physics as we currently understand them are deterministic.

I think one fact this overlooks is that science requires the concept of intellectual responsibility. A scientist is expected to look at the evidence and draw only the conclusions that it warrants. Scientists who draw unjustified or irresponsible conclusions are criticized for doing so, and scientists who draw the correct conclusions from the evidence are praised and sometimes idolized.

A determinist might respond that it would be useful to praise and criticize scientists on the basis of whether they drew the correct conclusions from the evidence even if we didn’t have free will. The problem with this response is that it assumes that the speaker has free will and can choose whether or not to praise and blame the scientists. You can’t say that no one has free will and then tacitly assume that you have free will.

So, I think belief in free will should be seen as the scientific position, not determinism.