Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dream Political Scenario for Republican 2012 Primaries

Disclaimer:  I am a registered independent with moderate political views who has cautiously supported Obama for the last several years.  With that said, I have been largely disappointed  by Obama's inability to accomplish much of anything in Washington (granted, much of the blame for that falls on the House Republicans, but Obama has caved to their demands far too often for the blame to only rest on them) and I recognize that the Democrats are going to have a very tough battle in next year's election.  So I have been watching the Republican race very closely to see what happens, often finding myself terrified by the prospects of any of these people being President.  I don't trust Mitt Romney, I think most of the other candidates are a joke, and the only one I would seriously consider voting for is Jon Huntsman, but he is getting little political traction outside of New Hampshire, where is currently polling fourth.  I suppose I could live with Gingrich with the knowledge that the president can't act unilaterally on very many things (and at least he has some experience getting things done in Washington), but wouldn't be wild about his nomination.

So with that said, here is my dream political scenario:

1.  Ron Paul wins Iowa, throwing the race wide open.  Supporters of Paul and Gingrich cast it as a major blow for Romney, he sees his first major drop in polls.

2.  Huntsman, who has been campaigning vigorously in New Hampshire, pulls off an upset win there and starts getting major national attention.

3.  Gingrich wins South Carolina with Paul in second and Huntsman in third.

4.  Gingrich wins Florida with Huntsman in second.

5.  Huntsman wins Nevada.  He and Gingrich are now battling it out going into Super-Tuesday.  Huntsman wins over both conservatives concerned with Gingrich's record and moderates concerned with Gingrich's sanity, wins big on Super-Tuesday, goes on to claim the nomination.

This scenario isn't actually going to happen.  I am fully aware of that.  So here is my more realistic hope for the next few weeks:

1.  Ron Paul wins Iowa, Gingrich takes second, Romney third.  Paul and Gingrich spin this as a major defeat for Romney, he sees his numbers drop significantly.

2.  Gingrich pulls off a win in New Hampshire (or maybe even a close second that he can cast as a defeat for Romney), Huntsman places a solid third, gets some major attention.

3.  Gingrich lands solid victories in South Carolina and Florida.  Romney is sinking fast at this point.  Bachmann and Santorum drop out at this point, their supporters are split between Gingrich and Huntsman, who has shifted focus to Nevada.

4.  Huntsman appeals to Romney supporters in Nevada who are disenchanted with their failing candidate.  He also plays up his credentials as former governor of neighboring Utah.  Pulls off an outright win in Nevada.

5.  Going into Super-Tuesday, Huntsman able to appeal to conservatives worried about Gingrich's record and moderates concerned about his sanity.  Also able to pull over many of Romney's former supporters.  Takes home big wins on Super-Tuesday, though nomination battle isn't totally finished yet.  Romney officially drops out, giving Huntsman more of a boost.

6.  In later primaries, Huntsman either wins the nomination or forces enough of a split with Gingrich to be on the ticket as VP nominee.

Not sure about the likelihood of this scenario either, but I think its a bit more realistic.  Will be interesting to see what happens in the next few weeks!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Meaning, Self-Determination, and Relativism

We left off our last post with some pretty big questions.  What I hope to do in this post is sketch in a very broad outline the direction I see answers to those questions as going.  Then in future posts I will flesh that out a bit more through some more concrete discussions of different issues.  What that means is that this post will probably be a bit more “technical” or “jargony” than I would like, but I hope it will still be relatively clear. 
First, meaning:  We ended by saying that meaning is defined by the one bestowing meaning.  That actually is too simplistic for the reason that we are all bestowing meaning on a shared collection of objects.  Further, we are influenced in our own bestowing of meaning by the meanings others have bestowed.  There is a back and forth going on that is far more complicated than a single direction of movement or even a two-directional dialogue between “object” and “interpreter.”  It is more like trying to pinpoint a person in a crowded room where everyone is moving and swirling around.  We can find the person-- we can bestow meaning-- but it involves a serious amount of maneuvering and jostling past other people trying to do the same.  This is what we can call the “hermeneutical situation.”  Objects exist a certain way in themselves.  But we can only comprehend them in the way we perceive them, in the way we bestow meaning on them or interpret them.  But these perceptions and interpretations are influenced by the way our culture has taught us to perceive and interpret objects.  But even that is filtered through our own sets of categories, which have been influenced by a myriad of factors from our family situation to our particular education to our conversations with others.  So in the end, we bestow a particular meaning on things, but that is not merely a process of us arbitrarily deciding something will mean x for us.  Understanding and parsing through all the various influences on us and how they impact our own understanding of the world (our own efforts to bestow meaning), what we can call the hermeneutical process, is as much an exercise in psychology as it is in philosophy.
Second, self-determination:  Just as all of the various cultural and experiential factors we have noted above work together to shape the way we understand the world, so they work together to shape us into who we are.  Seemingly this “determines” us and makes us products of our culture and situation.  However, there is a sense in which we do and must have freedom in the midst of this process.  That sense is in our choosing to embrace what we are.  We are self-determined in that we decide that we are satisfied with ourselves, that we are who we are and are not something else which has failed to accomplish its own being.  That sense of self-acceptance, of choosing ourself, is the existential endeavor.  It involves understanding ourself, just as with the hermeneutical process above, and deciding that the self whom we understand is in fact “us.”  That does not translate into a static existence-- we are always in motion and on certain trajectories.  But it involves us recognizing the trajectories on which we are moving and consciously choosing to embrace them, understanding and accepting their consequences for our being.
Third, relativism:  What needs to be kept in mind is that the things we have discussed are primarily epistemological and don’t necessarily translate into concrete metaphysical implications.  The limitation introduced by our subjective perspective is an epistemological limitation.  But what we are able to know has no bearing on what is.  The meaning we perceive in the world is not somehow imposed on the world by our perception of it.  So many perspectives exist and we must recognize the limit of our own perspectival viewpoint.  This is not the same as saying that all such perspectives are true in the sense that they correspond to metaphysical reality.  While the claim could be made that since we don’t have access to objective knowledge of the world the best we can do is formulate our own subjective understanding of it, this is not the same as saying that our individual subjective understanding describes the way the world actually exists.  In fact, to make this relativist leap, to claim that all beliefs are metaphysically true, is to negate the value of holding beliefs.  If no perspective can be valued as “better” or “worse” than another then there is no reason to choose any perspective.  This is not to say we wouldn’t choose-- that is a natural consequence of being human, we have a perspective and an understanding of the world-- but it would be to say there would be no basis for the choice except luck or chance.  This, in turn, fundamentally negates the value of our own existence.  To find our own existence meaningful we need to “choose” it in the sense of self-determination as we have already discussed.  To do that we need some reason to “value” it.  We find that reason by comparing different perspectives, thinking through issues in different ways, and embracing that which we find most compelling.  In effect, when we make this choice, we are claiming that as best we can tell the perspective we have adopted is the “most true” of all the options available to us.  This is not the same as saying it is “objectively true.”  But neither is it the same as saying that all beliefs are true, which is effectively the same as saying no beliefs are true and no beliefs are meaningful.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Blog is Back!! Essential Traits and Existentialism

This last semester was insanely busy and I took a bit of a hiatus from blogging to keep on top of everything.  But the semester is finally over and so now the blog is making a comeback.  There are several posts that I had started and never finished that will hopefully be getting revisited and prepared for posting in the near future.
This post aims to summarize some of what I have been thinking about this semester in my own studies and tie that in to some familiar themes on this blog.  Much of my work this semester has had to do, either directly or indirectly, with the school of philosophy known as existentialism.  I find this branch of philosophy fascinating because of the kinds of questions it is asking and the way it approaches these questions to posit answers for them.  Existentialism is very motivated by the kinds of epistemological limitations that I have discussed in previous posts to approach philosophy from a very different angle.  Rather than attempting to paint an objective metaphysical picture of the world, existentialism begins by noting our subjective perspective on the world and attempts to describe the way in which we might live "existentially" given this finite/subjective viewpoint.
A particularly famous example of this way of thinking is found in the writings of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  To briefly outline Sartre's claims, Sartre believes that as far as human beings are concerned, "existence precedes essence."  What Sartre means by this is that nothing "essentially" defines "me" as "me."  I simply exist as "me" and however I define or understand myself determines what the essence, or core being, of "me" really is.  To illustrate with a simple example:  If I cut my hair (which I should probably do, though I was just informed that I look like Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol…), have I become a different person?  Most people would easily say "no."  What if I dyed it blonde?  My girlfriend might be pissed at me, but I don't think this would constitute me being someone else.  These are relatively simple examples.  What if I do something more complicated- I get plastic surgery and replace my chin and my nose.  I am now unrecognizable.  Am I a different person?  I think most people would still say that it is "me" beneath these changes, not someone else.  Let's get really complicated- what if I underwent surgery to have my gender changed?  My gut is still to say that I would be the same person, even if in a very different physical manifestation (without getting into a discussion about transgendered persons, we are assuming in this example that it is me, a male who has no doubts about being a male, that is our subject).
So far we have only discussed potential physical changes.  Let's talk more abstractly.  What if I woke up one morning and decided I would no longer hold any religious beliefs.  I became an abject atheist and quit all associations with Christianity.  Would I be someone new?  What if I became convinced of solipsism- that I am the only person that exists?  Would that make me someone new?  What if I underwent therapy and radically changed my personality to become extremely extroverted and aggressive?  Would that make me a different person?  What if I lost my memory and could not recall who my friends and family were?  Would I still be "me"?
The point of this lengthy list of questions is simply this:  I don't think that any of these questions presents us with a "change" which would actually result in a new person coming into existence (at least not on most accounts of personhood that I am aware of).  So if I can change almost everything about me, from my personality to my appearance to my beliefs to my memories, and still be "me" what is it that is essentially "me"?  Sartre claims such an "essence," such an underlying core being, simply doesn't exist on its own.  Instead, that core being is whatever I make it to be.  I exist, how I exist is up to me to decide.
Now, I think Sartre might be willing to push this a little bit farther than I have thus far.  So far we have only talked about individual persons and their "essence" or core being.  What happens, however, if we broaden this to talk about the human race as a whole?  Is there anything that is "essentially" human-- anything that to lack would make us "un-human"?  The predominant philosophical tradition has been that rationality defines the essence of humanity-- the ability to think and reason is what makes us "people."  But what about the person born with a severe mental handicap?  It is possible to conceive of someone who was born without the cerebral capacity for reason even if their basic biological functions were intact.  Would such an individual, with their human DNA and human appearance but without any higher reasoning capacities actually be a person?  My sense is that most philosophers would be quick to say "yes" and seek some explanation for this seeming exception to the rule.  We could make similar cases, I think, about many other things- two arms are not required to be human.  Nor two legs.  Nor two eyes.  Nor any other physical feature, really.  DNA might mark off the human species, but everyone has slightly different DNA and human DNA is remarkably similar to the DNA of other species.  So does that minuscule difference from other species while accounting for variations within our species actually separate people from "not-people"?
In then end, we might come to a similar point: Nothing in particular defines the "essence" of humanity.  Humanity determines its own essence through the way it constitutes itself.  Now, however, I want to push this point farther than Sartre takes it, at least in my knowledge of Sartre.  Can we define the essence of anything?  Pick an object or a creature, any one, and see if we can find an underlying "core" that must be present for it to be what it is.  I think a case can be made that no such core exists for any object, that the meaning of things is defined by the one bestowing meaning on it.  That final statement is certainly a very radical one, and that is something we will have to explore in a bit more depth in other posts.  In particular, I want to address down the line three related questions:
1.  What does it mean for someone to bestow meaning?
2.  How is bestowing meaning related to determining our own essence in the way Sartre describes?
3.  What happens when we bestow different meanings on things?

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