Not for Children

Every once in a while I get an idea for a children's book - simple, allegorical story with lots of illustrations. (I have only completed one so far, but I have at least two more sitting at the back of my head for that mythical period "when I have time"). The problem with these, in general, is that they're not really for kids at all; they're fairly adult, not in the sense that American culture often thinks - having graphic violence and/or sexual innuendo - but actual adult themes.*
So, my latest book idea is called "The Selfish Ant."
[Some back-story here: I'm concurrently reading A.S. Byatt's Angels & Insects (thanks, Mom!) and GWF Hegel's Philosophy of Right (for reasons that I'll probably talk about in another post) when I'm not grading essays. Byatt is relevant because there is an extended discussion of ants and their social order, along with "evolution v intelligent design," as part of the narrative; Hegel is relevant because he starts with the assumption that we are essentially social creatures with socially mediated wants and desires - rather than little autonomous creatures with natural wants and desires. This is not - despite the ant analogy - the same as mindless collectivism: it's merely acknowledging that whatever we do as individuals is shaped by the social environment in which we were raised and continue to operate.]

In my story, there's a little ant who doesn't think she is sufficiently appreciated, and despite the fact that she is virtually identical with all of her sisters, thinks of herself as smarter, harder working and all-around just-plain special in all sorts of ways. She comes to believe that the colony couldn't function without her, and eventually "goes Galt." She leaves the colony and doesn't quite realize she can't really function by herself until she starves to death. (I'm undecided at this point if the remaining ants should carry her corpse back to the colony in order to chop her up and feed her to to the larvae or not.) Note here that if the Queen did this, the colony really would collapse ala Ayn Rand; but the Queen not only truly is special, she's also a hereditary monarch - born to her position, rather than achieving it through a combination of genius and hard work. I think a series of pen-and-ink illustrations would be sufficient, but I don't know if there's a market for it beyond a couple friends (which probably excludes both the anarchists and the libertarians).

Speaking of libertarians, a while back I promised a rant: this post may have to suffice.

Oh, and merry Christmas!

*One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons plays with this: "what's an adult movie?" "You know, going to work, paying taxes, that sort of thing." One of the many reasons I like Calvin and Hobbes so much.


To be a philosopher

I've been thinking about Brad DeLong's recent use of Nietzsche to characterize the resistance of some to various economic measures that have a demonstratively positive impact on the economy as a whole (not just the individuals who are the recipients). Some of the pieces work nicely, and others - notably the resistence on tax hikes - do not; I'm still working out how all these things fit together. Along with this, I'm working on a sermon for the UUCR on Nietzsche; I suspect they'd be just as happy, if not happier, if I hadn't gone to seminary. Regardless, in thinking about these things, and trying to anticipate various criticisms, it occurred to me that many people don't understand what I mean when I say that I'm a philosopher. That is particularly true for the people with whom I have had most of my arguments lately. Therefore, it seems useful to state that clearly, even if few people read this, and the people who do read this aren't the people with whom I have been arguing.

When most people think of philosophy, they tend to confuse it with psychology; insofar as they correctly apprehend the subject matter, they seem to think of it as concerning "big questions" and rather fuzzy answers. If they've had a philosophy class, they might even remember what seems to be a pointless philosophical conundrum (or two). But thinking as a philosopher doesn't involve content as much as method. I'm currently reading an introductory text in philosophy which starts with Aristotle's definition of logic as a science - a normative science - and a liberal art (in a similar way that, e.g., arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, grammar and rhetoric are all liberal arts). But I suspect that it won't do to say that I think "logically" even if I can give a very precise definition of that; most people think of themselves as logical (even if I can poke holes in their arguments). So let me tell a story.

When I was an undergraduate, long long ago, I believed various things about the way the world is. This included belief in a material body and a distinct mental self; and the idea that the mental self (I think I would have avoided using the word "soul" even then, but perhaps not) was itself divided into three distinct parts, ala Freud (or, although I wouldn't have identified it like this at the time, Plato). Further, I thought it was unproblematic that we have freedom of will, in the sense that our mental self make decisions and causes the material body to do various things; we are "free" if (this is the way various philosophers phrase it) "in exactly the same circumstances, I could have done otherwise" (for the trivial, such as having oatmeal for breakfast rather than eggs, or for the more serious, such as deciding to go to University of Portland rather than Duke as an undergraduate). In the course of taking various classes in philosophy (and psychology, since they're not completely unrelated), I tried to articulate these positions; finding my own arguments lacking, I tried to find others who had previously defended these positions. What I found surprised me: no one had offered particularly good arguments for either dualism (having two distinct components of the self, physical and mental) or for freedom of will. Even the clumsy arguments for determinism, such as John Hosper's Freudian determinism, were laid out with more rigor than any of the arguments defending the so-called common sense view that we have "free will." And here's the punch line: I changed my mind on these topics.

Etymologically, the philosopher is the "lover of, or pursuer of, the truth," rather than someone who has the truth. I am not dogmatically attached to any of my positions, although, for the things I care about, I am increasingly skeptical that anyone has an argument that would convince me that I am mistaken. My skepticism grows when I ask someone with more knowledge of a particular topic to explain why I might be mistaken, and either I get a condescending "explanation" which ignores my concerns, or I am flatly dismissed. My skepticism also grows when I try to point out how reality seems to match the predictions I have been reading (in a rather Popperian way, whatever reservations you may have about Karl Popper), and again my concerns are dismissed (or deleted). For me, to be a philosopher is to follow the arguments where they lead; if you don't like my conclusions, you're welcome to point out the flaws in my arguments and pose counter argument. If you take me seriously, I will take you seriously; however, taking you seriously includes pointing out flaws in your arguments as well. That includes both structural flaws (since logic is the domain of philosophers) and empirical problems. Pushing back is a sign of respect; dismissing is not.

All of this is to say, I will probably come back to Brad DeLong at some point and talk about his use of Nietzsche in diagnosing the current situation (recognizing that if I wait too long, it will no longer be the current situation).

(I may also post a draft of the sermon in the next couple days.)

UPDATE: I've just had another exchange with one of the people I was thinking about when I wrote this. I posted a link to a blog post about economics, and I got a straw person argument as a comment. I try to be kinder to my friends who aren't academics, but there's just a certain rigor I try to bring to everything I write, and I expect the same from people who would like to join the conversation. The funny thing about this is, the comment was in regard to a portion of the blog post which was poorly thought-out and certainly deserving of criticism; it was also not the main point. There were good arguments to be marshaled; it's not my blog post, fire away! Even if it was one of my arguments, go ahead and fire away - philosophy as a discipline is about building good arguments and finding the flaws in arguments, other people's or your own. If there's a problem, I want to know - can it be addressed, how might I go back and change it, what other factors ought I include? Or was it just poorly thought through? Do I need to scrap it entirely? I'm happy to scrap bad ideas, and I'm happy to let good ideas go through a refining process.

But don't just fling shit at me, and then sulk when I point out, "hey, that's shit!"