Monday, June 27, 2011

Some More William James

Continuing with the History of American Thought, and William James's contribution to it, I suggest that the idea that we may very well exist in a "God"-less universe leads to two philosophical questions, both of which were formerly answered by the existence of God.

The first asks what is the source of morality, or maybe, what is the ultimate moral authority? We covered that a little in the previous post regarding James's The Will To Believe.

The second question, with which we will now begin to deal, is, what is the source of ultimate Truth?  Is there even one?  Another way to look at this question, a beginning point anyway, is, what do we mean when we say we "know" something?  Is there a difference in belief and knowledge?  If we claim to know something that turns out to be false, is it fair to say that we did not actually "know" it, we only thought we did?  And if we believe something is true, what is the point of claiming knowledge of this truth if we recognize that at some future time we may discover that we are wrong.  Is there such a thing as knowledge or is it all just belief?

Whew!  Why did I think this would be easy?  Anyway, knowledge claims are based on various foundations.  Aristotle believed that reason led to knowledge.  The empiricists believed that examination of "the facts" would lead to knowledge of truth.  Generations of thinkers relied on the authority of Aristotle.  Others insisted that "holy scripture," "The Bible," were the only true authority, that God was the one sure source of knowledge, the determinant of Truth.

In What Pragmatism Means, James argues that truth is what "works."  If we have a question and a possible answer, we "test" the answer, see if it "holds up."  Against what do we test it though?  Something in the writings of Aristotle?  Look in the Bible?  James says that the pragmatist doesn't rule this appeal to authority out, it can be used as a starting point, at least, but he doesn't accept "authority."  He treats it more like informed opinion.  What we also do, he says, is try it in the real world.  Think about Aristotle and his idea that a bigger stone would fall at a greater velocity than a smaller stone.  The pragmatist, indeed even the empiricist, says, "let's see."  And if we determine that the stones fall at the same rate then we consider what we have (Aristotle says this, we just saw that) and we decide.  The pragmatist sees no reason to distrust his own eyes simply for the sake of being faithful to the statement of a man who lived 2,000 years ago and can no longer be questioned, so he decides that, at least for now, the truth appears to be (is?) that two different sized stones fall at the same rate.

But the question remains, what IS the Truth?  Have we found it?  How can we know?  The urge to check our findings is strong.  But how?  We would like to consult some ultimate authority, someone who "knows."  That was always "God."  God would know.  If only we could ask Him.  Which led many to the Bible.  The Bible is God's word, God wouldn't lie to us (would He?); try to find the answer in there.  Of course the Bible is finite and the number of possible questions is infinite so we can see that the Bible cannot answer all questions.  Right?  And anyway, the thinking is, what is the source of Truth if there IS no "God"?

James, as far as I can tell, says that there is no such source, there is only what works.  We hold these truths, then, until new information comes to light and then we incorporate the new information into our new Truth.  Obviously, then, we cannot afford to get to married to any particular truth, since new information may show us to be at least slightky in error.

So, do we ever really "know" anything or don't we?  What do you think?  (There is more in this vein coming, it's kind of a major philosophical question.  ;  ) ) 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Here's What I Wrote For My Class

The class is Comm. Arts 368: Theory and Practice of Persuasion.  I thought it might be a lot more about politics; so far it's been a lot about advertising.  Today we did see some political stuff and last night's reading used Abraham Lincoln and Rush Limbaugh to make a point about "factoids."

Anyway, the assignment was to write a two page critcal analysis of some print ad or TV commercial.  I used this one:

Here's what I wrote:

Visa: It’s everywhere you want to be.  Who has not heard that slogan?  It has been ubiquitous for more than twenty years.  It works because it is true (Visa is accepted just about everywhere) and it describes something we want (a card that works like gold).  Take it wherever you go and you don’t need money.  This TV commercial adds another element: 
This paper will analyze this commercial, beginning with the concepts upon which its appeal is based (there are two), evaluating the effectiveness and suggesting ways in which the appeal could be increased. 
            The commercial begins with action footage of NBA stars and a voiceover, “They’ve been called the greatest team in Olympic history … “  This is an appeal based upon the “Social identity-promotion” model.   This model plays on people’s desire to feel a part of the “in” crowd.  Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan; these three and the others are ideals of athletic excellence.  If we can have ourselves identified with these “heroes” we will happily do so.  Plus, it is also the Olympics.  They only happen once every four years.  Players on the Olympic team are perceived as the “best of the best.”  The Olympics also play on national pride and feelings of patriotism.  So we see widely admired superstar basketball players traveling across the ocean to demonstrate their excellence in a quadrennial event while wearing the red, white and blue, with a high likelihood that they will “bring the gold” back to America (they’ve been called the greatest team in Olympic history).  I want to be a part!
            So how can I share in this moment of glory and national pride?  Obviously I can’t be on the team.  But I can go as a spectator.  That sounds exciting.  But, I have a problem.  I am not an experienced world traveler.  How much money will I need?  Will I have to convert my dollars to something else?  What?  Can I trust the “money changers”?  What to do?
            Enter appeal number two, based on the “ego defensive” model.  This commercial plays on the promotion angle and the prevention.  If I take the Visa card my problems are solved.  It spends like cash.  I am also warned that American Express will not cut it, “because once again the Olympics don’t take American Express.  Visa: It’s everywhere you want to be.”  I cannot go wrong with Visa, can I?  Count me in!
            Still, the commercial does leave room for improvement.  If they really want to allay all of my fears, telling me that Visa is good “at the ticket window” does not go very far.  What about food?  What about the hotels?  Is Visa really everywhere I want (and need) to be?  Or is that just a slogan?  I need to know this.  Also, at the end, when they show the card, it’s blue.  I would make it gold.  The whole premise of the commercial, the part based on the ego defensive appeal anyway, is that my Visa card is as good as gold.  It spends everywhere!  Just like gold.  The card should be gold.  Why pass up this obvious and easy symbolism?  It is true that the term “gold card” has a specific meaning to a credit card company but why would they assume that I am not a gold card candidate?  Or even already a gold cardholder?  And they could color the card gold regardless of whether or not is an actual gold card.  AND, even if they would rather not do that, the one in the commercial can certainly be gold.
            This commercial plays on the viewer’s desire to be part of the “in crowd” and invokes feelings of national pride.  It makes the viewer want to somehow be a part of an exciting event, the Olympics.  It then plays on the viewer’s fear of being “caught short.”  It does this cleverly, however, not giving him time to begin to counter-argue and talk himself out of going, by offering the solution to the problem at the beginning of the presentation of the problem.  “But if you think they’re tough, wait’ll you see the guys at the ticket window if you don’t have your Visa card.”  As they show the card being slid across.  Problem introduced and solved in the same sentence.  Very effective commercial.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Else?

OK, I just wrote a paper for my summer class and unlike all those damn history papers I spent the last four years writing, this one took just under two hours.  And that included watching a TV commercial on youtube about 14 times (I was critiquing it).  So, I've got my writing brain revved up and extra time.

My favorite class of all of them (there are 2 or 3 other contenders but this one is it) was History 302: History of American Thought, 1859 to the present.  As you might guess from the title this class dealt with American philosophy. 

So what is American philosophy?  Lots of things, no doubt.  This course begins with 1859, not 1620 or 1776, or 1789.  Why 1859?  John Brown?  The looming Civil War?  Nope.  Charles Darwin.  A Brit?  Yup.  Why?  Well, a lot of our ideas and ideal came from England, right?  Still, that's not really the point.  We started with Darwin (1859 was the publication date of his On the Origin of Species) because, basically, Darwin changed everything.  Origin of Species affected a lot more than just how we looked at evolutionary biology.  Darwinism implied that there was no real need for a "God" explanation of the Universe (something that had been evolving for a while, as Geologists and Paleontologists had already thrown serious doubt into the Biblical time line).

If God didn't create us, if there was in fact no "Creation" at all, just long, slow evolution, then how do we know that there even IS a God?  We don't, right?  That was always the basis for the belief; how ELSE could we have gotten here?  Bit by bit, over the years, science had answered many of the questions that had once been considered unanswerable, except by "God did it."  Certainly people could still argue that God created the universe and the earth, and life on earth, just as lower forms, knowing all along that eventually the human race would result.  Kind of chips away at the Bible as absolutely true, though, as Genesis pretty specifically refers to God making Adam as a fully realized human being.

Anyway, the point of the class, then, was how did this new idea, or set of ideas, influence American philosophy.  Basically, if there is no God (still an "if") from where do morals or ethics derive?  People had been taught for ages that we shouldn't kill, or steal, because God has handed down laws forbidding it, and God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, etc.  If there is no God, then ... ?

We read three pieces by William James, including (we'll get to the others, too) The Will to Believe (1897).  In this piece James argues that whether or not there is a God, which might well be unanswerable, it is beneficial to behave in such a way as to win the approval of an ultimate judge.  This goes well beyond Pascal's Wager, which he dismisses early in the piece as being "worse than silly, vile."  James's point isn't just that we need to guard against future punishment by a supreme being but that living as if one's life matters, as if being "good" has value, leads to positive outcomes in this world. He will have more friends, he will be considered trustworthy, people will treat him with respect.

He also makes the strongest case I have ever heard or read for "believing" in spite of a shortage of hard evidence.  Frequently in life, he writes, we must decide between two options when we would really like more information.  So we decide; we do the best we can with what we have.  Why should the matter of belief in "God" be different.  It is no different, he says.  Even the agnostic makes a decision.  One either believes or one does not, there is no third option.  If one does not believe, he has decided, based upon this same shortage of evidence he points to when confronting the believer.  The argument that the agnostic is awaiting further information is a specious one, he says.  No more information is likely to come.  Meanwhile, the agnostic is still living his life based on his non-belief, as the believer is living his, based on his belief.  There is no call for the agnostic to feel superior, he has done the exact same thing as the believer by choosing option B.

Read it for yourself, if you like:

In this piece James touches on the idea od universal truth, an idea which he develops further in our next piece.   

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Well ...

... I'm back.  1,100 miles driven, one 50 question test taken (I killed it), some Jeopardy playing and an interview.  I think I'm in.  Won't know until I find out.  ;  )

Monday, June 13, 2011

Here I Go!

I'm off to Kansas City to try out for Jeopardy! (well, after my first summer class, which starts in two hours).  I'll let you know how it comes out.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Conservative Paul Revere

Since Friday Wikipedia has gotten heavy traffic on its Paul Revere page, including (reportedly) people going in and changing the entry to match what Sarah Palin said about him.  I read what was on there just now, seems pretty straightforward.  Nothing about "warning the British."

I thought I'd then have a look at Conservapedia, the web-site set up to be the counter balance to what somebody decided was the liberal bias of Wikipedia.  Maybe they'd come up with something "creative" to back up Sister Sarah.  When I looked I had to laugh.  I guess that site doesn't want to be taken seriously. 

Here is the entire entry:

Paul Revere (1734-1818) was a silversmith in colonial America who was very active in Boston-area revolutionary groups such as the Sons of Liberty. He is famous for riding from Boston to Lexington, Massachusetts with William Dawes on the night of April 18, 1775 to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops were coming to arrest them. Revere was captured before he could reach Concord, but managed to escape.[1][2] His midnight ride was immortalized by a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.[3][4]

Wikipedia has seven full pages.  I will say this for the Conservapedia entry: I don't see any bias.  So what was their point? 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

OK, Back to School

So what else did I learn during those four long years, spending all that money?  Well, let's see ...

I had Professor Jeremi Suri for two history classes, back-to-back semesters.  History 102: The U.S. from the Civil War to the present; and 434: History of American Foreign Relations, 1898 to the present.  Guess what subject kept coming up? 

Yes, it was war.  We do, as a nation, have something of a history of deciding what we want and then taking it.  Not always and not necessarily without some justification.  But think about it.  A war to tell England that we weren't part of them anymore.  Another because they apparently weren't convinced that it really was over.  A Civil War to reconcile an irreconcilable difference.  Indian "wars" to take all the land, from coast to coast.  A war with Mexico to take what is now New Mexico, Arizona, California, bits of Utah and Nevada.  We helped Texas fight free of Mexico and admitted them as a state.

Some of this is actually quite defendable.  The founders did try to reason with King George.  The South was not only unwilling to give up slavery but were trying actively to spread it into the unsettled West in the last decade before the Civil War.  I'm surprised that war didn't happen sooner.  The "Indian Wars" are rather harder to defend but also seemed to have an inevitability that I can't see around.  The Mexican War got us much territory that was only nominally Mexico, really.  Many Californians wanted to  join the U.S.  The Spanish-American War at least started as an anti-colonial, Cuban independence move. 

It was at that point that the 434 class started, actually.  An unexpected benefit of the Spanish war was the acquisition of the Philippines.  There were discussions regarding what to do.  Do we want overseas possessions?  Why?  Aren't we anti-colonial?  Senator Albert Beveridge, however, as well as others, insisted that this was obviously part of our "manifest destiny."  Obviously God had decided that it was time (the frontier had just been declared "closed,"after all) for America to expand overseas.  Asian markets, Asian raw materials, an American Empire!

Of course we went ahead.  The Philippines were subdued (turned out that they didn't like colonialism either), T.R. sent the Great White Fleet around the world, the Open Door Policy was declared.  Comes next: a couple World Wars.

Stay tuned! 


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Memorial Day

Apparently the local PBS station ran The American Experience: My Lai this past Monday night.  A Wisconsin State Journal reader has taken exception.  His letter to the editor is here:

On Memorial Day, Wisconsin Public Television choose to show "American Experience: My Lai," a programming choice that was insulting to the men and women of America who have served and died for freedom around the world.

Using such a notorious incident as symbolic of all military service is deliberately provocative. No one would argue that America's actions throughout the years have been blame free. However, the highlighting of My Lai on the day we choose to honor our fallen is beyond bad taste. It is the deliberate pursuit of an agenda that is contemptuous of the beliefs, values and traditions of our country and the millions of soldier who have faithfully served it.

My father, father-in-law, brother, other relatives and friends did not ask to be placed in harm's way. They served where they were ordered. They did their duty and served their country from Okinawa to Berlin with honor, dignity and humility. They were and are truly citizen soldiers. They do not deserve the slap in the face that public television gave them.

It is especially repugnant to realize that my tax dollars were used to insult the people I honor and respect. More significantly, it must be infuriating to them to realize that their tax dollars were used to gratuitously denigrate their selfless service.

I decided that I didn't agree with him and sent in the following letter, hoping to possibly give him a different way to look at this "outrage."

A Wednesday letter writer claims that the showing of American Experience: My Lai, by Wisconsin Public Television on Memorial Day was "insulting to the men and women of America who have served and died for freedom around the world."  He claims also that WPT was using My Lai as "symbolic of all military service"and that it was "deliberately provocative."  And, oh yes, tax dollars were used to do so.

Perhaps.  Or maybe nobody else assumes this intent.  Maybe others realize that March 16, 1968 was not a typical day for the U.S Army.  Maybe it IS important that we remember the bad things about war, too.  It's not all about heroes and valor and glory.  Sometimes it's about horror and slaughter and "payback."  And yes, My Lai was your tax dollars at work, too.

Maybe one of the reasons we would like to forget My Lai is because we never really dealt with it.  Blame the lowest ranking officer involved, commute his sentence, try to forget the whole thing.  Because really, who was to blame?  How far from "official policy" were the events of that day?  My Lai was a "free fire zone."  In Vietnam, everyone not wearing our uniform was at least suspect, if not presumed enemy.  This was hardly the only village that was burned to the ground, certainly not the only instance in which civilians were killed.  Who was to blame if not the war policy itself.  And who is responsible for the war policy?  Better to just forget, right? 

Is Memorial Day about collective memory or selective memory?  Maybe taking a minute, or ninety, to remember the other side of the coin is not such a bad idea.

So, is Memorial Day supposed to be only for "good" memories?