09/23/14

The Trolley Problem


The Trolley ProblemI had read about the “trolley problem” in the past, but not given it much thought until recently when I saw Thomas Cathcart’s little book of that name in the philosophy section of an Indigo bookstore. It’s subtitled, “Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the bridge? A Philosophical Conundrum.”

I, of course, was so intrigued I had to buy it. I have read others of Cathcart’s books and liked his work in introducing/popularizing philosophical concepts.

The original trolley problem is a thought experiment that goes like this, as Wikipedia puts it:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You do not have the ability to operate the lever in a way that would cause the trolley to derail without loss of life (for example, holding the lever in an intermediate position so that the trolley goes between the two sets of tracks, or pulling the lever after the front wheels pass the switch, but before the rear wheels do). You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

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09/20/14

The Unexamined Life


“The unexamined life,” Socrates declared in his trial, “is not worth living.” His student, Plato, wrote down those words in his account of Socrates’ trial and death, in the book, Apology.*

Socrates was speaking for himself and about the value of his life as a thinking person. He was on trial in 399 BCE for impiety – questioning the gods and introducing new gods – and corrupting youth. His real “crime” was his threat to established thought: he made his followers think, to question everything, to examine their beliefs and their knowledge and determine for themselves its validity. He taught them critical thinking and analysis – a dangerous new way to look at things. It shook the foundations of his society.**

And, of course, here is where Socrates’ approach conflicts with faith. Faith requires us to stop questioning and believe. Socrates exhorted his followers to question. His detractors stood on the firmament of faith. There was bound to be a clash.

The jury found him guilty and sentenced Socrates to death. But more than two thousand years later, Socrates words remain with us, are still repeated and debated today, while the members of the jury and their arguments are long forgotten.

As Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes about Socrates, of course there were political undercurrents to his trial:

Socrates pursued this task single-mindedly, questioning people about what matters most, e.g., courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls generally. He did this regardless of whether his respondents wanted to be questioned or resisted him; and Athenian youths imitated Socrates’s questioning style, much to the annoyance of some of their elders. He had a reputation for irony, though what that means exactly is controversial; at a minimum, Socrates’s irony consisted in his saying that he knew nothing of importance and wanted to listen to others, yet keeping the upper hand in every discussion. One further aspect of Socrates’s much-touted strangeness should be mentioned: his dogged failure to align himself politically with oligarchs or democrats; rather, he had friends and enemies among both, and he supported and opposed actions of both.

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09/15/14

The Emperor’s Handbook


Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was considered the last of the “Five Good Emperors” of the Roman Empire. He lived 121-180 CE and died while on campaign in Germany. Like many Roman thinkers of his day, he followed the popular Stoic philosophy and his writing became an important document in the late Stoic phase of classical antiquity.

While he ruled, Marcus Aurelius kept notes – written in Greek – about his thoughts and beliefs, as a guide for his own life and behaviour, applying his Stoic beliefs to his everyday life.

These thoughts were never intended for public reading or publication such as it was in that time (since the printing press would not come into use for roughly another 1,300 years, for works to circulate they needed to be hand-copied). He titled them simply “For Myself.” They have become known today as The Meditations.

A central theme to Meditations is to analyze your judgement of self and others and developing a cosmic perspective. As he said “You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgement, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite”. He advocates finding one’s place in the universe and sees that everything came from nature, and so everything shall return to it in due time. It seems at some points in his work that we are all part of a greater construct thus taking a collectivist approach rather than having an individualist perspective. Another strong theme is of maintaining focus and to be without distraction all the while maintaining strong ethical principles such as “Being a good man”.

After his death, his writings were saved – by whom, no one knows for sure – and shared. And copied over the centuries. Copies in Greek survived until the mid-16th century when it was first printed (1558). It was translated into English shortly after and had undergone numerous translations ever since.

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09/5/14

Coffee with Cicero


CiceroCan you imagine what it would be like today to be able to meet the Roman philosopher, Cicero, for coffee and spend an hour chatting? Or meeting up at a local pub and settling down to a beer or glass of wine? How great would that be to spend an hour with one of the world’s great thinkers?

What would you talk about? What wouldn’t you? Just imagine having the opportunity to share your thoughts on politics, religion, justice, philosophy, morals, friendship… the scope of what Cicero wrote about means you can talk about almost anything.

Okay, maybe not our gawking-at-celebrities culture, or the latest ad-riddled TV sitcom, or how well a vastly-overpaid sports star or team is doing this season (I would pay teachers, firefighters and police first, before any sports celebrity, but I don’t get that choice). To which he might respond, O tempora, o mores! (O, the times, O, the customs!) which he said in his First Speech Against Catilina. It sums up every older generation’s view of the upcoming generations’ lifestyles, I expect.

I’m sure Cicero spoke among his friends of the trivialities, too, just didn’t write much about them, at least in what of his works remain. But why waste that hour with such irrelevancies?

No, you’d have the chance to engage in stuff of consequence: big ideas, embrace the range of humanity and its behaviour, grab at issues that affect the tides of culture, the meaning of life, and the ebb and flow of politics. A real conversation, it would be, even perhaps a debate in which his famous rhetorical skills might come into play as he challenged you, parried your points and argued you into a corner.

(There’s a book in this: what would you talk about if you could have coffee with a dozen of the world’s great thinkers? I need to get back to writing for print…)

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09/2/14

Common Sense



When men yield up the exclusive privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.

Thomas Paine, 18th century political activist and political philosopher, wrote that line. It struck me as particularly cogent in light of modern politics and the rise of fanatic, fundamentalist organizations: people who give themselves over to ideologies or to any monolithic cause lose their liberty because they stop thinking for themselves. They allow others to do the thinking for them, rather than question matters for themselves.

This is true, of course, at all levels, local to international. We should never allow partisan politics to replace our independent reason.

The line appears in the early part of his controversial booklet, Common Sense. That pamphlet helped inspire the thirteen American colonies to declare their independence in 1776. Although it was originally published anonymously, Paine’s name became linked to it after three months. He donated the royalties from its sale to help fund George Washington’s Continental Army.

How much the title and the contents match is open to discussion. In my own observations what most people call “common sense” isn’t very common at all. Paine’s work strikes me more an inciting work of political propaganda than common sense.

While the booklet was really all about the reasons for creating a new republican state, separate from the monarchy of Great Britain, Paine indulged in a bit of philosophizing outside that narrow political sphere, including many comments on the nature of government, especially hereditary government (which he clearly detested as unnatural).

Although he quotes from the Bible and includes many examples and stories drawn from scripture in his short work, and he was careful to support religious freedoms, Paine decried the mixing of religion and government, writing:

It is of the utmost danger to society to make it (religion) a party in political disputes… Mingling religion with politics may be disavowed and reprobated by every inhabitant of America… As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensible duty of all government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith.

In his appendix, Epistle to the Quakers, Paine challenges their own pamphlet against taking arms to fight for independence, and adds about religion in general that it is

“…the utmost danger to society, to make it a party in political disputes.”

While he was thinking historically of the contentious involvement of religion in European politics, I suspect he would be angry and shocked at the increasing interference in politics and education by the fundamentalist right in modern America.

Paine argued for simpler forms of government (which makes me think of our proposed governance changes here in Collingwood):

I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered…

This next quote strikes me as appropriate for our dynamic, new face of economic development, here in Collingwood:

It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradations we surmount the force of local prejudice, as we enlarge our acquaintance with the world.

Paine speaks optimistically (perhaps overly so) of youth. Or perhaps he just hoped:

Youth is the seed time of good habits…

And this quote rings true when one contemplates the gun madness of our southern neighbour that has wrought so many deaths, so many tragedies yet no change in the gun laws:

The present state of America is truly alarming to every man who is capable of reflexion.

Of course, these quotes are all taken out of context and should not be seen as Paine presaging any modern situation or state.

It’s a short read, important mostly for its connection with the American Revolution. But it’s also interesting to read how Paine and his peers were looking at alternative forms of government. You can browse it online here.

09/1/14

Thirty years later…


In his book of aphorisms, Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche described “marriage as a long conversation” like this:

When entering a marriage, one should ask the question: do you think you will be able to have good conversations with this woman right into old age? Everything else in marriage transitory, but most of the time in interaction is spent in conversation.

In just under two weeks, I will celebrate my 30th wedding anniversary with Susan (and almost 33 years together). I can say with confidence that, yes, we still have engaging, stimulating, interesting conversations together. We always have, right from the start. Such is the nature of our relationship. We share, we talk.

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