Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Philosophy Club Happenings

So, I haven't really written about the Philosophy Club since that first pub meet a few weeks ago. On the intervening weeks between pub meets, we have a colloquium, where a professor comes and lectures the group about some special topic or item of interest. Here's the rundown and my thoughts:

Why Vagueness is Interesting - Dr. Machina - 2/21

The first lecture was by Dr. Machina on "Fuzzy logic." He started with an ancient problem. Let's say there is a bald man. Would adding one hair to his head make him not bald? Most would deny this. Would adding a second hair? Again, the answer would typically be no. By corollary, then, you can add hair upon hair, up until he has a full head of hair, and he would still be "bald." Seems like a problem, yes?

According to Dr. Machina, there are three ways of dealing with this problem:
1) The original premise is false. There is a specific dividing line. "Bald" is a precise term. The problem exists because we don't know the boundary.
2) It is neither true nor false that the "grey areas" are bald. (This is apparently a rather bizarre position that Dr. Machina did not deal with)
3) One must use "fuzzy logic," or Degree Theory.

Dr. Machina purported that (1) is just not valid. After all, let's say we're talking about something that is red. Where is the specific dividing line between "red" and "not red?" His explanation of Degree Theory was that if you had a scale with "bald" on the one end and "not bald" on the other, the cases in between could be similar to values between zero and one.

Bald<----------------------------------------------------->Not Bald

Therefore, the sentence "He is bald and he is not bald" could be simply half true. A man with a thin head of hair (think Jason Alexander) we could call bald and that would be half-true. We could also call him not bald and that would also be half-true.

He does, of course, mention that his theory does meet some real problems. If we talk about "degrees" of truth like this, do we have to assign precise degrees of truth? The point of using (3) was to get away from the precise demarcations found in (1), but if (3) is to actually make any kind of statement whatsoever, it seems that it must resort back to (1) in some fashion.

From my own perspective, I find it interesting that he kept using both color and computers as reasoning behind this. After all, he points out, computers already use fuzzy logic, and why should we have to precisely label every different shade of every color? But look at how computers deal with color. Typically, computers think of non-primary colors as a combination of the three primary colors, each on a scale of 0-255. So, color X might be 5 parts blue, 100 parts red, and 200 parts yellow. Isn't a specific demarcation inevitable?

In any case, his point ultimately transformed into being that vagueness is necessary for language to even be possible. If we had to label everything precisely, he argued, we couldn't talk. Reality may be very precise, but we often can't express that preciseness. Jim Gaffigan's take on blindness is appropriate here. I'll often lament, "Oh, I am so blind." But I'd never say this to an actual blind person. "Oh I am so blind . . . not as blind as you. It's all fuzzy to me."

Dr. Machina then used the example of abortion as to how this applies to some controversial topics. Are there borderline cases where the fetus is a life, a human being? Is it more correct to say that the fetus becomes more and more human as it develops? (Of course, I'd say no, but that's a discussion for another day).

Eliminating Evil - Dr. Simon - 3/7

This week's lecture was by Dr. Simon on the removal of evil from our vocabulary. I'll be quite honest: This was one of the most grating, painful experiences of my life. Why? Only the first hour of the lecture actually maintained any semblance of direction, purpose, and having a point. The second hour involved conversation/lecture that was more akin to a drunken sailor stumbling back to his ship (in terms of topic and content, that is). Also, some of the more pretentious members of the club had to inject some sort of invective about Bush (the connection to evil, which was the point in the first place, being made very, very loosely) (very) every ten minutes. It was hard to sit through, because everytime I came up with a comment about something, someone else changed the topic into something completely other to what it was, and Dr. Simon just rolled with it. Yeesh. That said, I'll try to give you some of his content, along with my own opinions and ideas.

Dr. Simon looked for a bit at the etymology of the word. It originated in old english, meaning "uppity." In middle english, it had adopted the rather mundane meaning of "bad." The modern usage transformed it into something more akin to "total wickedness."

(Skipping some content that didn't really seem relevant to the overall topic)

Basically, Dr. Simon argues that "evil" is the wrong word to use, and should be eliminated from the vocaulary. Why? It simply isn't effective. It is reduced to a banality in being used to describe some situations. It ends conversation immediately because of its ability to polarize. It prevents any comparisons, because "comparing evil events degrades their consequences." It prevents us from reaching out to understand by irreparably separating us from others.

Now, I could refute each idea point by point, but I think his entire concept is flawed from the beginning. The abuse of a word or idea does not make that idea itself flawed. Just because people use the word evil in a trite manner, or have Hollywood-generated ideas of what evil looks like, does not mean that evil cannot be an effective word. The word has so much power because we know exactly what it means and what it entails. If I set an infant in front of you and proceed to carve it up into tiny pieces, you will be polarized; if it is even possible to understand why I did it what do you gain from the knowledge? Understanding the motivation does not cease to make that an evil act. You don't have to know why I did it to know it was evil.

Dr. Simon argued that a much better term to replace the word is jus cogens. It is an international law term, meaning a universal prohibition, something that is recognized as being wrong to anyone, anywhere.

But would just replacing the word just be a facade? Wouldn't a rose, by any other name, smell as sweet? And who defines exactly what is jus cogens, anyhow? How many people dissenting eliminates something from our new word for evil? One person? A thousand? A million? Who gets marginalized, and by what criteria?

Dr. Simon began the lecture by asking us five questions. I'll end this by answering those questions.

1) How would you use evil?

I would use evil as either a noun or an adjective. As in, "Killing babies is evil," or "There is evil in his heart."

2) How would others use evil?

I think most other people use evil in the same sense I do. There's two senses it is used in. The first is of something morally repugnant. The other is an extreme case of something "bad," though that still relates to morality, generally.

3) What does evil apply to?

Evil, though often applied to things that aren't in and of themselves evil, mainly applies to actions, ideas, and attitudes. The action of rape, for example, is evil. But the attitude that condones rape is also evil. One can be evil without ever having done evil things.

4) Are there types of evil?

I really am not sure how to answer this. I cannot seem to come up with an answer off the top of my head, but I am reluctant to say that there is only one type of evil.

5) Define evil.

Well, it would be easy to simply say, "Evil is all that God hates, everything that is completely contrary to the person and nature of God." Theologically, I'd call that a very accurate definition, but most philosophers wouldn't find it very useful. It more secular terms, evil is something that is morally repugnant; something that is so repulsive, we reject it outright. It is something that is so malicious in intent, purposeful, and corrupt that it is beyond redemption. That is how I'd describe evil.

I hope you all enjoyed this little foray into philosphy.

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