Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Relevance of Philosophy

Nicolas Kristof’s recent New York Times column, “Don’t Dismiss the Humanities,” raised a topic of frequent discussion for one who has spent over 40 years studying philosophy. Kristof asks: “What use could the humanities be in a digital age?” And he answers the question immediately:

University students focusing on the humanities may end up, at least in their parents’ nightmares, as dog-walkers for those majoring in computer science. But, for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world.

I wouldn’t want everybody to be an art or literature major, but the world would be poorer — figuratively, anyway — if we were all coding software or running companies. We also want musicians to awaken our souls, writers to lead us into fictional lands, and philosophers to help us exercise our minds and engage the world.

Kristof notes that “Skeptics may see philosophy as the most irrelevant and self-indulgent of the humanities, but the way I understand the world is shaped by three philosophers in particular.” Those philosophers are:

Isaiah Berlin, from whom he learned that the world is nuanced and complex, but that this shouldn’t paralyze us so much that we fail to act. We should not become like those pilloried by Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” We have doubts, yet we must act. As Berlin put it: “Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood.”

John Rawls who wrote the most celebrated work of ethical and political theory in the twentieth century, A Theory of Justice. In it Rawls argues for what he calls “justice as fairness,” which reconciles the competing values of liberty and equality. Rawls invites us to choose our moral principles from behind an impartial “veil of ignorance,” which prevents us from knowing anything about who will be in society. From this “original position” Rawls thought that self-interested individuals would choose a fair system. If we don’t know whether we’ll be rich or poor, black or white, male or female, we are apt to favor a system that distributes the wealth of society quite equally.

And finally Peter Singer, who has argued that we should treat non-human animals much better than we now do. He has also argued that we have an obligation to share our wealth with people around the world.

Kristof concludes:

So let me push back at the idea that the humanities are obscure, arcane and irrelevant. These three philosophers influence the way I think about politics, immigration, inequality; they even affect what I eat.

It’s also worth pointing out that these three philosophers are recent ones. To adapt to a changing world, we need new software for our cellphones; we also need new ideas. The same goes for literature, for architecture, languages and theology.

Our world is enriched when coders and marketers dazzle us with smartphones and tablets, but, by themselves, they are just slabs. It is the music, essays, entertainment and provocations that they access, spawned by the humanities, that animate them — and us.

So, yes, the humanities are still relevant in the 21st century — every bit as relevant as an iPhone.


As one who has taught both computer science and philosophy majors during my career, I must say that I unhesitatingly advised students with aptitude in both subjects to major in computer science. Unless one is independently wealthy, it is too risky for a student to major in philosophy in the USA. (I would guess this holds around the world as well.) Moreover one can major in computer science, engineering, or related fields and still be informed by philosophy. So I will continue to tell my students not to major in philosophy, unless some new social and economic system arises in which persons can make a good living while philosophizing.

Of course this is a different issue than whether philosophy or the other humanities are worthwhile. Of course they are! We are not fully human unless we know something of philosophy, literature, history, music, religion and art. Surely the world needs informed people who can engage in rational discourse, in Socratic dialogue. Surely we need more people to admit, like Socrates, how much they don’t know.

Most of all, as Kristof notes, we need new ideas. And as I’ve told my students for years, ideas are important—they are not something confined to the ivory tower. Ideas incite revolution and war, they move people to sacrifice themselves, they change science and technology. Ideas change the world. And ideas come from the most unlikely of places, including the humanities. For ultimately the humanities are outgrowths of the human condition, of our need to understand truth, beauty, goodness justice, meaning and more. The study of the humanities paves the way for making us more humane.

Mortimer Adler on Truth and Justice

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, September 22, 2014)

In a previous post I promised to discuss two great ideas—truth and justice. A lifetime of study wouldn’t suffice to properly discuss these two ideas, but I wanted to offer something.

There are many great ideas. The philosophical popularizer of last century, Mortimer Adler, wrote a massive tome two-volume work entitled:The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon – I (Angel To Love) and THE GREAT IDEAS: A SYNTOPICON – II, (MAN TO WORLD). It contained 102 great ideas which Adler later paired down to six in his book, Six Great Ideas (1981).

Those six were: truth, beauty, goodness, liberty, equality, and justice. Adler distinguished these in triads: truth, beauty, and goodness are ideas we judge by; liberty, equality, and justice are ideas we act on. I think the organization of the triads is illuminating.

1. Truth

Adler holds that truth is the sovereign idea by which we judge. He believes that beauty is a special kind of goodness, which is itself a special kind of truth. He also holds that truth—by distinguishing certain from doubtful judgments, and by differentiating matters of taste and matters of truth—provides the ground for understanding beauty and goodness. Whether this is true or not I’ll leave for the reader to consider. 

Yet there is something intuitively plausible in this analysis. If we know what’s true, we would know what was good and beautiful. (This depends on the Adler’s acceptance of philosophical realism and a correspondence theory of truth.) But knowing what’s good or beautiful does not seem to entail that we know what’s true—the relationship is not symmetrical. Thus truth seemingly regulates our thinking about goodness and beauty; it is the one to which the other two are subordinate. And, as I’ve stated many times, if the truth isn’t important, then nothing much else matters. Truth is surely one of the greatest ideas.

2. Justice

As for the ideas we act on, justice reigns supreme. Here I find Adler’s argument especially compelling. He argues that justice is an unlimited good, while liberty and equality are limited goods. The distinction comes from Aristotle. We can have too much of limited goods, while we cannot have too much of an unlimited good. Societies can have too much liberty or equality, but not too much justice.

The argument is straightforward. For political libertarians, liberty is the highest value and they seek to maximize liberty at the expense of equality. They want near unlimited liberty even if the result is irremediable inequality, and even if large portions of society suffer serious deprivations. They may favor equality of opportunity, knowing that those with superior endowments or (more likely) favorable circumstances will beat their fellows in the race of life. The resulting vast inequality doesn’t deter them, for in their view trying to achieve equality will result in the loss of the higher value, liberty. On the other hand, egalitarians regard equality as the highest value and willingly infringe upon liberty to bring about equality of outcomes. In their view equality of opportunity will not suffice, since that will still result in vast inequality, the supreme virtue in their eyes.

The solution recognizes that liberty and equality are both subservient to justice. Individuals should not have so much freedom of action that they injure others, deprive them of their freedom, or cause them serious deprivations. One should only have as much freedom as justice allows. Analogously, should a society try to achieve equality of outcomes even if that entails serious deprivations of human freedom? Should we ignore the fact that individuals are unequal in their endowments and achievements? No says Adler to both questions. We should only have as much equality as justice allows.

Regarding liberty, justice places limits on the amount allowed; regarding equality, justice places limits on the kind and degree it allows. Thus justice places limits on the subordinate values of liberty and equality. Too much of either liberty or equality results in an unjust society. I agree with Adler, justice is the ultimate idea of moral and political philosophy and truth is the ultimate idea in metaphysics and epistemology.

How Should We Spend Our Time?


(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, September 17, 2014)

[I have promised posts on the topic of “truth and justice” and “cognitive bias.” I will deliver in the next few days on the former topic, but I won’t have time for the latter. For those interested, two sites about cognitive bias are: Overcoming Bias, the blog of Professor Robin Hanson of George Mason University,  and Less Wrong, the brainchild of Eliezer Yudkowsky, a researcher at Machine Intelligence Research Institute.]

Speaking of a lack of time, today, as I was reading multiple threads on multiple topics by members of the research group with whom I’m affiliated, (Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Group in Belgium) I was struck by the importance of deciding what one will read, think, and do in one’s lifetime. Why? Because there is too much material to read and think about for any one person to be acquainted with, much less master. It would be a full-time job just to digest all the material on my email threads. Moreover, at the moment there are at least 20 topics in my blog post que, and ten books waiting to be read. It is overwhelming. One must pick and choose, so that one doesn’t waste their precious time on triviality. Life is short. But according to what criteria do we pick and choose?

My main criterion is to pursue, as far as possible, timeless topics like the meaning of life and love, the importance of truth and justice, the advancing science and technology, and the course of cosmic evolution. Obviously these topics are themselves much too broad–one is going to have to specialize further to make much progress. Still I remember reading Isaac Asimov’s advice that we eschew specialization so that we can be polymaths. I think there is much to this. If our focus is too narrow, we miss the proverbial forest for the trees. Nonetheless no advice is truly adequate here. There is an almost infinite amount of existing knowledge which increases daily, and our minds are finite.  As I’ve said many times our best hope for synthesis of this knowledge is to increase our mental capacities. Until then I would advise thinking about as many timeless things as possible while maintaining physical vigor and mental health.

In addition to intellectual life, there are also obligations to family, to making a living, to bettering the world, and more. Here too we must make choices—there are more things to do than we can do. But we should do what we generally enjoy, with the caveat that we are bad at predicting our own happiness. Still life is too short to make ourselves and others miserable by pursuing some supposed, but despised, duty.

In the end we must strike a balance. This idea was well captured in the opening pages of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, David Hume penned this remarkable paragraph:

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: but neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: but the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Being A Deep Person

Yesterday’s post advocated for personal growth, the means by which humanity’s desperate need for better people might be satisfied. I recently read an article in The Atlantic that provided additional insight into the topic. It summarized a talk given by the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival. Normally I agree with almost nothing Brooks says, but here I found his thinking insightful. 

Brooks argues that American culture overemphasizes attaining happiness, rather than “a different goal in life that is deeper than happiness and more important than happiness.” We focus on power, wealth, and professional success, instead of cultivating the kind of personal qualities that will be discussed at our funerals. As Brooks says, we put “resume virtues” over “eulogy virtues.” Instead of emphasizing happiness and resume virtues, we should search for inner depth, for eulogy virtues.

For Brooks, the American rabbi and philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik captured the dichotomy between resume and eulogy virtues in his book, The Lonely Man of Faith. Soloveitchik differentiates between “Adam I” and “Adam II.” As Brooks explains:

Adam I is the external Adam, it’s the resume Adam … Adam I wants to build, create, use, start things. Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities, to have a serene inner character, not only to do good but to be good. To live and be is to transcend the truth and have an inner coherence of soul. Adam I, the resume Adam, wants to conquer the world … Adam II wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist and what ultimately we’re here for … We live in a culture that nurtures Adam I … We’re taught to be assertive and master skills, to broadcast our brains. To get likes. To get followers.”

But how do we nourish depth? What does it mean to be deep? Brooks says:

I think we mean that that person is capable of experiencing large and sonorous emotions, they have a profound spiritual presence … In the realm of emotion they have a web of unconditional love. In the realm of intellect, they have a set, permanent philosophy about how life is. In the realm of action, they have commitments to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime. In the realm of morality, they have a certain consistency and rigor that’s almost perfect.

Brooks also thinks deep people tend to be old, and I agree. “The things that lead you astray, those things are fast: lust, fear, vanity, gluttony … The things that we admire most—honesty, humility, self-control, courage—those things take some time and they accumulate slowly.” He lists: Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, Pope Francis, and Mother Teresa as examples of deep people.


Although I do believe we ought to become deeper people, I object to much of Brooks’ characterization of depth. “Large and sonorous emotions” and “spiritual presence” often hinder a life of depth. The Stoics and Buddhists believed, roughly, that fervent emotions impede a good life, and no one can accuse either group of being shallow. As for spiritual presence, the notion is extraordinarily vague. Perhaps Brooks uses the term to describe deep feelings generally. I’m not sure. But I state unequivocally that strong emotions and religious attachments often fetter personal growth.

“A set, permanent philosophy” can also be a hinderance to depth. If this philosophy results from a lifetime of searching and impartial inquiry, then it is a sign of depth. But in most cases a set, permanent philosophy is the first one to which the individual was exposed, and that typically signfies shallowness of thought and being. Also, an unreflective, permanent acceptance of the first philosophy one encounters often leads to dogmatism. And a dogmatic, unreflective person is essentially the opposite of a person of depth.

I agree that persons of depth often commit “to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime,” but so do Nazis, fascists, Fox News anchors and other horrific human beings. Being committed to tyranny, oppression or racism does not make you a deep person. Or if it does, it surely doesn’t make you a moral one. Yet Brooks says, “In the realm of morality, they [deep people] have a certain consistency and rigor that’s almost perfect.”

This is the fundamental flaw in Brook’s description. We can imagine the most committed Nazi, slave owner, exploitative capitalist or Fox News pundit having deep, spiritual-like emotions about philosophies which they consistently hold, and which they hope will continue on after their lifetimes. But such people aren’t moral.

This suggests that Brooks analysis only works if morality as ordinarily understood is not part of a deep life. By “morality as ordinarily understood,” I’m thinking of the late philosopher James Rachels’ account, in his best-selling university textbook, of “the minimum conception of morality.” The generally agreed-upon starting point for any moral philosophy is: 1) an effort to guide one’s conduct by reasons; and 2) giving impartial consideration to the interests of each individual who will be affected by one’s conduct. Needless to say, the committed Nazi or Fox news commentator don’t subscribe to this minimum conception. Thus Brooks idea of depth doesn’t preclude immoral people, as surely he intended it to do. 

The implications of Brooks’ view would also come as a surprise to Buddhists who advocate loving kindness, or to religious traditions which advocate beneficence, or to the majority of moral philosophers who believe that compassion for, and connection with, our fellows is a large part of being “deep.” Yes, you could talk about intellectual or aesthetic depth without reference to morality, but I don’t think this is the depth Brooks has in mind.

I also object to Brooks list of deep persons. Three of the four persons he mentions are Catholics. (Albert Schweitzer was not Catholic and rejected much of traditional Christianity. Still he might be called a Christian mystic or a death-of-God theologian.) Combined with Brooks’ references to “spiritual presence,” this suggests that he thinks depth is related to religion. The objections to this line of thinking are so apparent they hardly need noting. Yes, religious people can be deep and moral, but there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that religious persons are generally deeper or morally better than secular people. In fact I think that conventional religion is generally an impediment to depth and morality, although this claim would take more time to defend than I now have. (As an aside, critics have claimed that Mother Theresa was no moral exemplar.)


Despite my objections to various aspects of Brooks thinking, for the most part I agree with his overall sentiments. The deep, moral life is the one most worth living, and we generally don’t cultivate or value it. One can live such a life in many ways: by caring for  your children, doing relatively menial work, singing, dancing, playing, creating, or in some combination of activities. As for happiness, when directly sought, it is often missed. Rather, it is the unintended by-product of a life explored in depth. Seek to live deeply, morally, and meaningfully, and you will have the best chance of living well.

A Final Caveat

I do realize how trite the above advice is for those who are destitute, incarcerated, oppressed, etc. As I’ve said many times, following Plato and Aristotle, one needs a good government to have a good life—the good life cannot be achieved by individual effort alone. Aristotle didn’t think that government could make people virtuous or happy, but good government by definition must provide the conditions under which all its citizens can flourish. This is how adjudicate between good and bad governments. Judged accordingly, the US government is better than some governments, but much worse than any Scandinavian government or most European government at providing the conditions in which all  people can flourish. The US is clearly not the greatest country on earth.

For those who are systematically oppressed I have little to offer, except to advise you to do your best to find opportunities in the injustice which surrounds you. That it surrounds you is a great stain on all of us, and our more advanced descendents will look back with horror that we tolerated so much injustice. It makes me ashamed of being human. Please accept my apologies along with most fervent wishes that you find inner peace nonetheless.

The World Desperately Needs Better People

When I went back to graduate school, I gave up making good money as a casino dealer for the poverty of graduate school. But what was the point of dealing cards no matter how good the tips were? I didn’t want to spend my life that way. I wanted to do graduate work in philosophy. I didn’t want to die and know Buddha’s or Aristotle’s names, but not their philosophies. And I knew that I I would succeed, since it was what I really want to do. Most of us do best and are happiest doing what want to do.

Of course the chance to do what we want to do, rather than what we have to do, depends in large part on whether we live in a society which provides an opportunity for all its citizens to flourish—that is what makes a society a good one, as Aristotle taught me. But if one is lucky enough to have the opportunity and ability to do what they want—then they should seize the moment, accept the challenge and grow. The world so needs people who have grown, who have evolved, who have increased their awareness. The world desperately needs better people more than it needs anything else. To those embarking on this journey I say—go forth and travel.