Is there no place for them today?

Why do people do such horrible things to each other? When will people stop fighting? When will the threat of terrorism no longer exist?

I see the laments every time a terrorist attack happens in a Western nation, and my own response is–why are these the questions we ask?

What follows isn’t criticism, it isn’t an argument, it’s just a reflection. It’s just another way to ask why.

(Would love to credit this properly.)

(Would love to credit this properly.)

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Hypotheticals, Hitler, and Human Atrocity

“Baby Hitler” was trending on Twitter on Friday. After investigating, I found that New York Times Magazine had posed this question:

Dylan Matthews wrote this response: “The philosophical problem of killing Baby Hitler, explained over at He takes up the classical responses to posing such a hypothetical problem, and he makes good points about time travel and consequentialism. I want to go further and explore the only thing I’ve ever gotten out of such thought experiments–the further affirmation that philosophy, and ethics in particular, doesn’t (and shouldn’t) happen in a vacuum.

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.

Granted, it can be kind of fun to think about hypothetical situations, especially about time travel. And maybe thought experiments reveal something about our intuitions. Ethical thought experiments can show the basic idea behind consequentialism, and perhaps they can make you reflect on how you would act differently if faced with an ethical dilemma. The problem, of course, is that you are never going to be in a situation where there are five people tied to a trolley track and your mother tied to another. Just like you are never going to be able to go back in time and kill baby Hitler.

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They say ignorance is bliss.

First, read this article (“We Are All Confident Idiots” by David Dunning) so you know what I’m talking about.

We’ve all seen this, haven’t we? People who are very convinced that they are right about something–even something made up. Just watch Fox News (but not for very long–at some point it stops being funny and starts being terrifying).

I used to teach university students, and (probably due to my own failure as an educator) I could see this very thing happen. Students would be convinced they understood something, and then when they didn’t score well on a test they were confused and usually made no effort to understand why they didn’t know what they thought they knew.

ignorantSuppose, though, you’ve read your Socrates and your Hume and your skeptics.

Imagine you know the things you don’t know (and it’s a lot–pretty much everything).

Imagine you don’t even fully trust your ability to make patterns because you know you seek patterns and causes even when they aren’t there.

Imagine you don’t believe you are a good, capable person, because these things mean nothing to you and are totally relative.

Imagine you think every system of rule is wrong. That every belief system is wrong. That every ideology is wrong. But that you don’t have a right one to replace them, because it would be wrong too.

Imagine you struggle to form opinions anymore because you don’t have ideologies or sacrosanct beliefs. Imagine you don’t have opinions because you can’t ground them in anything and so they’re useless to you because you want something to hold onto.

At that intersection, you have me.

And I guarantee you, it sucks.

Most of the time, I don’t even feel like a person.

It’s lonely.

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Rustin Cohle, Hypocrisy, and the Meaning of Life

The-Meaning-of-Life-monty-pythonIf you are not a philosopher, when you think of philosophy, one of the first questions that pops into your head is, “What is the meaning of life?”

Were you to ask this question to a professional philosopher, they’d probably scoff, because answering such questions isn’t really what professional philosophers do. (Professional philosophers mostly argue among themselves at conferences and across publications about linguistic and conceptual distinctions and interpretations they’ve drawn. Sometimes this can be interesting to people outside the conversation, but usually it isn’t. [Sorry, but, well, it isn’t and that’s okay.])

I don’t know why other philosophers got into the study of philosophy, because for me it was exactly questions of meaning that drew me in. Even though these questions have become philosophical clichés, that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. The question of “What is true?” genuinely haunts me on a daily basis, and as much of a devoted Foucaultian[1] as I am and as swayed by Wittgenstein as I am, I still naively believe there’s a satisfactory answer to this question that has nothing to do with an episteme or a socio-historical cultural context or a game.

Of course, I’m also convinced the answer to this question can never be articulated or argued for — once you reach true understanding, I imagine you don’t feel compelled to write a tell-all.

The meaning of life is a question that still baffles me, too, because, like I want there to be truth, I want there to be answer where I also know there isn’t and can’t be one.

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Even if things end up a bit too heavy

[1] I saw this on a tumblr post recently:

“Depression is humiliating. It turns intelligent, kind people into zombies who can’t wash a dish or change their socks. It affects the ability to think clearly, to feel anything, to ascribe value to your children, your lifelong passions, your relative good fortune. … You alienate your friends because you can’t comport yourself socially, you risk your job because you can’t concentrate, you live in moderate squalor because you have no energy to stand up, let alone take out the garbage. You become pathetic and you know it. And you have no capacity to stop the downward plunge…” (complete post here.)

I mostly can’t relate to this post at this point in my life, but I have in the past, and I do find honesty in the words. (This is also a relatable take on depression.) I could probably be diagnosed as depressed, although it’s been years since I last went to a therapist, and I’m highly skeptical of psychiatric practices and the pharmaceutical industry. I can tell when I’m being manipulated, and I’m resistant to it in a way that most people must not be.

I do take depression screening tests regularly, though—morbid curiosity—and I usually fall somewhere in the category of mild depression, even on good days. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about philosophy and my place in the profession/discipline. The two are not unrelated. Of course, this isn’t true of all people who do work in philosophy, but it is true of me. And Foucault. And John Stuart Mill. And William James. And Nietzsche. (And Boris Yeltzin, oddly.)

Depression screening tests always trip me up on this question: “Do you think your future is hopeless?”

Well, of course I find my future to be hopeless. I find everybody’s future to be hopeless. I’m a tiny little piece of matter in a vast and indifferent universe, and someday I’m going to die. And you can give me all the platitudes you’d like about carving our your place, sharing your life with people who care about you, doing what you can with the time you’ve got, but I don’t work that way.

There’s a reason why most people don’t process their thoughts the way I do. Most people don’t think about the big picture, and that’s the first place I go. The big picture is not a happy one, but it’s not a sad one either. It’s indifferent. And that’s okay.

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