Some brief thoughts on a few recently read books

I won’t be writing full posts on these books either because they’ve been available for a while or their focus isn’t quite aligned with this blog. But I think they’re worth mentioning as books that I read, enjoyed, was challenged by, and recommend.

The first is Slavoj Žižek’s 2008 repackaging of his 1989 classic The Sublime Object of Ideology. Admittedly, there were stretches were I was lost. Then there were stretches where Žižek’s engagement with the thought of figures like Marx, Freud, Hegel, and Lacan were enlightening. For a helpful overview, see Epoch Philosophy’s video on the book.

The second is Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. I found Fisher’s critiques of the problems of capitalism agreeable but as with many books like this one, it seems as if solutions are harder to provide. Again, not a paid promotion, but Epoch Philosophy’s overview of Capitalist Realism is more helpful than anything I’d write here.

Finally, I read Kenneth P. Miller’s Texas vs. California: A History of Their Struggle for the Future of America. It’s a wonderful book. I devoured it in a few days. Miller sees Texas and California as sibling rivals. He shows how Texas and California weren’t always on the polar opposite side of things but also how they evolved to be. The book goes back and forth, juxtaposing the two states’ origins, people, economies, and cultures before exploring how Texas turned deep red and California deep blue. The second half of the book contrasts their “rival models” on everything from taxes, labor, energy, the environment to poverty and other social issues. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a proud Californian who happens to live in Texas. I’ll always feel this way. But there were points where I can see how the Texas model is right for Texas (e.g. taxes) or at least understand why Texas approaches things as they do (e.g. energy). There were moments when I thought California could learn from Texas (e.g. affordable housing). But overall, I came away homesick for California mostly when reading about social issues where my values are far more Californian than Texan regarding things like embracing LGBTQIA+ peoples, welcoming immigrants, and promoting a woman’s right to her bodily autonomy (a.k.a. pro-choice), etc.

Defining “utopia”

As I mentioned in a previous post (“Contrasting Utopias”), I was reading Thomas More’s Utopia this past week. I used Yale University Press’ Second Edition translated by Clarence H. Miller which has an afterward from Jerry Harp, a professor at Lewis and Clark College. Harp reminds the reader that most of us come to this book with a preconceived idea of what “utopia” means and reminds us that we need to understand what More meant by the word. The word is a “Greek pun”: “‘Utopia’ is the good place (eu-topos) that is no place (ou-topos).” In Latin, it’s Nusquama, which means “Nowhere” (pp. 146-147). Harp draws from this polyvalence of “good place,” “no place,” and “nowhere” the following observation:

Although the term has come to mean an imaginary and ideal place, an impractical social scheme, More’s text works in more complex ways than popular usage allows. Utopia is a nowhere that opens into new discursive spaces. Were the realm of the present and pragmatic concern to dominate entirely, we would be led into stagnation. The nowhere of Utopia—the work as well as the genre and mode of thinking—provides one way to keep consciousness on the move even though it is an impossible place.

Utopia, p. 147

With this in mind, Harp says, “We do well to read the text in more complex terms that as a blueprint to an ideal state.” (p. 147) For Harp, “Reading Utopia means entering into a dialogue, with oneself and others, that continues to this day.” (p. 153). This dialogue goes back to St. Augustine of Hippo who imagined the “City of God” as standing outside of the “City of Man” (pp. 148-150). It goes further back to Plato’s Republic (p. 155)

Harp draws our attention to one of the key participants in this dialogue, Paul Ricoeur, who links utopia to ideology—ideology being “the taking of the provisional and pragmatic for the metaphysical.” (p. 157) Harp writes of Ricoeur:

In his reading, the best function of the utopian thinking is as an antidote to ideology, for such thinking provides an opportunity to play one’s identity out and away from the prison house of the here and now. As he puts it, ‘This function of utopia is finally the function of the nowhere. To be here, Da-sein, I must also be able to be nowhere.” Utopian thought relates to identity because part of identity is prospective, who and what we desire and strive to be— “What we call ourselves is also what we expect and yet what we are not.” But ideology and utopia will not remain separate; they tend to interweve, and one issue worth further reflection is how the two function together as well as tend to tear apart, in Utopia and elsewhere.

Utopia, pp. 157-158

While Harp reminds us that utopia can’t be divorced from ideology (discussing and citing Ricoeur’s Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, pp. 310-312), I want to briefly highlight Ricoeur’s point that utopia can contrast ideology. If ideology is, as Ricoeur defines it, a categorical confusion where we claim ontological necessity when it’s unwarranted, then utopia helps us break free from our assumptions that what is now must be what is. It allows us to question our norms and taboos. It asks us to stop claiming that this or that is “natural” and ask what the world looks like if we remove appeals to nature as an excuse for inactivity. (In a sense, this is where SciFi thrives.)

But as Harp observes, and when we return to the aforementioned previous post, ideology and utopia can’t be separated. This is what the “What’s Left of Philosophy?” crew recognized: normalizing and essentializing what we know as if it must be is another form of utopia. It assumes that the reality we know can remain as it is without consequence. This line of thinking acts as if it’s based on empirical reality but it’s as fanciful as utopias-for-change, if not more. The best example may be climate change. Yes, it may be utopian to imagine this or that action, or international agreement, is going to save us (collective humanity) from this or that consequence but it’s equally utopian, probably more so, to stick our head in the sand and imagine we can go on without global disruption and dysfunction. When we advocate for static utopias against dynamic ones, we’re refusing to admit that we’re fine with the trajectories that our current ways of life may take us, and we’re masking that refusal with the justification that our contemporary ways of life are good and right and shouldn’t be changed. While this or that aspect of our current ways of life may be good, it’s foolish to act as if there aren’t things that by being changed would be better for others and in turn better for us (due primarily to our ultimate interconnectivity with one another).

Imagining dynamic utopias can be scary. For one reason, my utopia may not be your utopia. I don’t know that I would want to live in Plato’s Kallipolis or More’s Utopia. In fact, I’m sure I wouldn’t. So, there’s a risk in moving toward a world that’s imaginary and dreamy. All of our dreams may not align. Your utopia may be my dystopia. But this is true of static utopias. My comfort with the current status quo might be someone else’s discomfort; my utopia may be their dystopia. Either way, we risk making things worse while trying to make things better—whether by action or inaction. So the question isn’t so much whether the present is good or not but whether we are willing to risk the present for an even better future.

Contrasting Utopias

This week I’ve been reading St. Thomas More’s Utopia (specifically Yale University Press’ Second Edition translated by Clarence H. Miller). I was drawn to it by an episode of the “What’s Left of Philosophy” Podcast (30 | What is Utopia? Part I. Thomas More: Critical Realism in a Time of Enclosure). And while there’s much to say about the book, the thing that has stood out to me the most was planted in my head by that podcast episode —which features Gil Morejón, Lillian Cicerchia, Owen Glyn-Williams, and William Paris—before I began reading the book itself. They pointed out that while Book II of Utopia provides a vision of an ideal place, Book I offers a counter-utopia, of sorts. That counter-utopia isn’t the perfect place but it’s a utopia nonetheless. How is it a utopia? Let me explain (or, go listen to the aforementioned episode).

In Book I, the character Raphel Hythloday is visiting Thomas More (who is a character in his own story). While Book II explains what kind of place Utopia is, Book I is critical of England so that a juxtaposition can be formed. (More published Utopia in 1516 when King Henry VIII reigned.) This can be read as realism v. utopianism. King Henry’s England was a real place while More’s Utopia is imaginary (like Plato’s Kallipolis). One may be inclined to reject More’s vision in favor of what was real because reality should trump fantasy in our expectations. And utopianism can be even more demoralizing than realism. But here’s why real London was as utopian as imaginary Utopia: London in the early 16th century had allowed a variety of injustices to simmer; for Hytholoday, the status quo couldn’t stand without dire consequences. In other words, as the “What’s Left of Philosophy” crew observed, while Utopia may be utopian, it is as much utopian thinking as to look at the status quo and ignore the potential questions of social stagnation.

Many of the social ills that Hytholoday critiques mirror modern troubles. There are critiques that can be applied to some of our own parallel ills today, at least in the United States: obsession with being armed (p. 21: “standing armies of mercenaries…destroyed not only their government but also their fields and even their cities”); the military-industrial complext and nation-building (p. 38: “their blood was being spilled to provide someone else with a smidgeon of glory…at home the war has corrupted morals, imbued the citizens with a lust for robbery, that slaughter in warfare made them completely reckless”); the prison-industrial complex (p. 23: “even as vagrants they are thrown in jail because they are wandering around idly”); environmental deprivation (p. 22: “they destroy and despoil fields…these good men turn all habitations and cultivated lands into a wilderness”); inflation and recession (p. 23: “the price of grain has risen sharply in many places”); the school-to-prison pipeline (p. 25: “when you bring people up with the worst sort of education and allow their morals to be corrupted little by little from the earliest years, and then punish them at last as grown men when they commit crimes which from childhood they have given every prospect of committing”); etc. As regards the willingness of the wealthy to allow the poor to remain in their state, Hytholoday says:

…how wrong they are in thinking that the poverty of people is the safeguard of peace, for where can you find more quarrels than among beggars? who is more intent on changing things than someone who is most dissatisfied with his present state of life? or, finally, who is more driven to create a general disturbance in the hope of gaining something that someone who has nothing to lose?

Utopia, p. 41

For Hytholoday, it’s outrageous to imagine that the status quo is safe; to imagine that there are no consequences when we fail to care for our most disadvantaged neighbors.

The most privileged in our society have some cushion between them and the least fortunate. Elon Musk isn’t impacted by homelessness in Los Angeles, the assault on women’s bodily autonomy in Texas, or gun violence…well, everywhere now. But as January 6th, 2021, showed us, social instability is always present. And social instability may not impact Musk the way it would impact me but it would impact him. Jeff Bezos may be untouchable but I think Amazon does better if there’s stability. The kingdoms of these men may seem invincible but they’re not if the common good is abandoned. And to presume that they are is as utopian as anything More or Plato can imagine. As Americans, to imagine our country is invincible is utopian. If 9/11 didn’t teach us that we’re not invincible then 1/06 should’ve. Social unrest can’t be ignored. Growing inequality can’t be ignored. Climate change can’t be ignored. To do so is utopian thinking.

Hytholoday makes the argument that “it does not befit the dignity of a king to rule over beggars but rather over wealthy and happy subjects” (p. 41). We don’t have a king in the United States though we do have oligarchs (like Musk and Bezos) and these oligarchs are probably semi-permanent figures for the foreseeable future. Their comfort with growing inequality, social unrest, environmental deprivation, etc., show us that they’re utopian thinkers. Their counter-utopia is one of the status quo. More through Hytholoday asks us to consider what’s more absurd: imaging a better, more equitable world or imagining that maintaining the status quo won’t have negative consequences. I don’t know that there’s a universal answer for all times and places but both have the potential to turn out to have been wildly utopian. If this is so, which utopia would we rather seek?

A balanced high school religious studies curriculum

I’m writing this for myself. All my blogging is basically journaling. If I wanted more interaction, I’d have to catch up with the times and shift to Tik Tok. But Tik Tok isn’t like journaling, so I won’t be doing that. Also, this is for me because there are few people with jobs like mine who work in schools like mine with departments like mine. So, why do I put it on a blog? Well, a way that blogging isn’t like journaling is the decision to make your thoughts public. I want to make these thoughts public just in case (A) someone out there has feedback to contribute or (B) one of the estimated seven people in the world who are in similar situations come across it and find inspiration—or whatever the opposite of inspiration is.

What’s my situation? Well, I teach at an Episcopal school. Episcopalianism isn’t a monolith but among Christian traditions in North America, it tends to be one of the most hospitable to academic freedom. I’m confident that there isn’t even one other school in the Greater San Antonio region that would give me the green light to teach what I do like I do. Also, I teach high schoolers, and as anyone reading this is aware, very few high school teachers get to say much about religion in their courses let alone teach multiple classes completely devoted to the discipline. While you can teach religion in a public school setting, for various reasons related to sensitivity around the Establishment and Free Exercises Clauses of the First Amendment, and trouble budgeting for someone qualified to teach these types of classes, few public schools are willing to offer anything like what I teach. If you teach religious studies in a high school, usually you have major “confessional” restraints. You need to stay in line with the Catholic or Evangelical doctrine of the schools that exist independent of the public school system for the central purpose of raising young people to adhere to the worldviews they are promoting. Episcopalian schools exist to shape young people from within the Christian tradition but most Episcopalian schools see fidelity to Christianity as compatible with higher levels of pluralism and academic freedom than their Catholic and Evangelical counterparts.

Many public high school teachers won’t be interested in what I’m saying because while they may be able to talk about Hinduism for a class period while teaching more specifically about India, they can’t spend a month on Hinduism. Many private school teachers won’t be interested in what I’m saying because they either disagree with my approach or have administrations that would never allow anything like it. This brings me back to the seven or so people out there who may be in similar situations! And this ends a prolegomenon to this blog post.

When I first began teaching high school religious studies, our courses were (A) “Old Testament”; (B) “New Testament”; (C) “World Religion”; (D) “God Debate: An Introduction to Philosophy”. I’ve worked to change some of the names to better align with how I teach and how I think religious studies should be taught at our school. “Old Testament” is now “Hebrew Scriptures” because we consider Jewish interpretations of the Tanakh as much as, if not more than, Christian interpretations of the Old Testament. “New Testament” is now “Christian Scriptures” because we don’t restrict the content to what’s canonical—for example, the Gospel of Thomas and Infancy Gospel of Thomas get a lot of attention—and most of the class is now spent on the Gospels with only a little time being given to the Epistles. “World Religion” has been abandoned in favor of “Religion in Global Context” because (1) our freshman-sophomore classes, Global Studies I and Global Studies II, led me to realign the focus to parallel those classes and (2) the “world religion” model tends to focus on overviews of some of the “big” religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, usually—at the expense of literally every other religion. Since my pedagogical philosophy is concerned more with teaching students how to think about “religion,” the concept, rather than trying to provide them an impossible overview of these “major” religions, it made sense to change the name. Finally, due to personnel changes, the “God Debate” class was dropped.

A few years ago, I added a class titled “Religion in the United States” that examines, amongst other things, the concept of “religion” as it has been interpreted and applied in this country. We talk about Supreme Court “definitions” of religion and rulings related to the First Amendment; the role of the IRS; Native American spirituality; religion when the United States was founded; race and religion; how religions that were “imported” (i.e. pre-existed the country’s birth, e.g. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism) have evolved in this context; and what expressions of religion have been created in and “exported” from this country (e.g. Scientology, Pentecostalism).

As I prepare for my seventh year, the catalog (not including classes like “Religion in San Antonio” that were designed specifically for the summer school context) will be:

  • The Hebrew Scriptures
  • The Christian Scriptures
  • Religion in Global Context
  • Religion in the United States

Now, what I’m about to suggest may be rejected by my superiors but I want to process it out loud here anyway. Generally, I’m comfortable with these offerings but I think some improvements can be made. For one, while Episcopalians are Protestant or Protestant-ish (the so-called “Middle Way”), they aren’t biblicist, usually. Many within the Anglican tradition, of which Episcopalianism is part, talk about a “three-legged stool” upon which the tradition sits: (1) the Bible; (2) the “great” tradition; and (3) reason. Some within the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition add (4) experience, which I see as a positive addition. (Pentecostals add experience too…though their meaning is slightly different at times!) For this reason, while most of my academic training has been in biblical studies, I think the catalog is flawed when half of the religious studies offerings are related to the Bible. This means that the Bible receives as much attention as every other religion combined—including Christianity, which isn’t limited to the Bible (even when traditions are biblicist ones). One alternative would be to shrink “The Hebrew Scriptures” and “The Christian Scriptures” into a single class and then add a course on church history or theology. There are contexts where this may work. Ours might be one of those contexts but I’m doubtful for a whole variety of reasons, beginning with my presumption that only a handful of students want to talk about the intricacies of the Trinity or care for a week on the Nicene-Arian controversies.

What then is the alternative I’m suggesting? In my uniquely Episcopalian context, with the pluralistic student body we educate, and considering the present context of the world into which they’ll be graduating, here are the four courses I think would provide the most balanced high school religious studies curriculum (if only four can be offered):

Why these four? First, they encourage critical thinking that’s introductory in nature and “meta”. By the latter, I mean I’ve noticed that most of my students are very engaged when we’re thinking about the subject we’re thinking about. In other words, I can teach them the content of the Bible but they’re more interested in the concept of the Bible. The content of the Bible becomes more relevant when they’re considering what the Bible “is” and what’s at stake when we interpret it. Second, this balances what they need to know as emerging citizens while also aligning with the decision to go to a private school with a religious affiliation. Third, and related to the second point, it’s an alternative to the aforementioned approach of Catholic and Evangelical schools—our school has a daily chapel where constructive spiritual formation occurs for a pluralistic student body through the paradigm of Episcopalian spirituality. How that works exactly is the concern of our chaplain. My concern is that spiritual formation will be as strongly equated with human formation as possible so that my atheistic and agnostic students can take a religious studies class and come away just as mature in their thinking and acting as my Christian or Muslim students. In other words, there shouldn’t be any confessional barriers to their learning and participation.

“Introduction to the Bible” would retain the Bible’s place within a school that reads from it in daily chapel while focusing more so on what the Bible “is” than the type of deep dive that may be better suited for seminarians who plan on preaching and teaching from it. It would connect to whatever literary studies are happening in our English classes and study of the ancient world that’s happening in our history classes.

This would bring philosophy back into the mix. When my colleague Fr. Nate Bostain left, our curriculum developed a gap that needs to be filled. Also, I’m increasingly interested in philosophy, sponsored our school’s philosophy club for years, and have incorporated philosophy into our biblical and religious studies classes, so this would be more natural than say a course on historical theology or church history.

The theory class, “Introduction to Religion,” would be “Religion in Global Context” with a simplified name. It would retain the “global” focus which aligns nicely with “Religion in the United States” which has more of a local focus and is more historical and social in nature with an emphasis on our civic lives. Also, as I plan on doing this year, it’ll place more emphasis on the 3 B’s model that encourages students to recognize that while “belief” is part of what makes something religious, religions don’t always center on belief—rituals, holy days, communities, etc. can be even more central to someone’s religious identity.

Finally, and most importantly, each of these classes can become stand-alone so that there’s no need for one to be a prerequisite for the other like “The Hebrew Scriptures” is for “The Christian Scriptures” and “Religion in Global Context” is for “Religion in the United States” in our current catalog. I’m sure that would make scheduling easier for our Registrar!

Now, this blog post may be a futile writing exercise, and it may be that my superiors will disagree, but I plan on making a pitch like this to them this year in preparation for the 23-24 academic year.

Bertrand Russell’s invitation to epistemic humility

Next summer, I plan on offering a class on the philosophy of religion. While I’ve read philosophy on the side since I was an undergraduate, I didn’t major in it, nor have I logged anywhere near the same number of hours into studying it as say biblical and religious studies. So, while the class isn’t for another year, I find myself preparing now, reading all I can, and trying to envision the shape that the class will take.

Bertrand Russell. Image via Wikipedia.

One essay that I’m considering having my students read on the first day is Bertrand Russell’s “Philosophy for Laymen” (which can be found in Unpopular Essays, pp. 32-44). It’s a gem. Russell begins with the claim that since the dawn of civilization, humans “have been confronted with problems of two different kinds”: (1) how to master “natural forces” and (2) “how to best utilize our command over the forces of nature” (p. 32). Another way he puts it is that we have sought “a theoretical understanding of the structure of the world” and “tried to discover and inculcate the best possible way of life.” He concludes that philosophy has related to both of these concerns (p. 32) and therefore, “Philosophy has thus been closely related to science on the one hand, and to religion on the other.” (p. 33)

Then he goes on to warn against what today we call “scientism” and “anti-science” (p.36). Both are a bridge too far because both are a form of dogmatism. In this essay, the one thing that Russell presents as a great danger to us all is dogmatism. This doesn’t mean he promotes skepticism because, as we’ll see, skepticism is dogmatic too.

The reason that philosophy belongs to the “layman” and not just the professional is that everyone needs to learn how to approach thinking about and acting in the world in a way that is philosophical in nature if we’re to avoid the dogmatism that leads to the either/or, us-against-them, zero-sum approach that we see emerging again today not only in the UK from where Russell hailed but here in the United States and also in places like India. Democracy has become strained in these countries as certain ideologies—the kind promoted by figures ranging from Steve Bannon to Yogi Adityanath—promote a nativist, nationalist, and often theocratic justification for just winning, even if the principles that hold pluralistic democracies (like the United States and India) must be abandoned.

Russell’s words remain a relevant response to the willingness of the mob to follow people like Bannon and Adityanath when he writes:

…so long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues. For the learning of every virtue there is an appropriate discipline, and for the learning of suspended judgment the best discipline is philosophy.

Unpopular Essays, p. 38

This call to “endure uncertainty” is seen as necessary for maturity but as I said, he doesn’t advocate a pendulum swing to skepticism or nihilism. Russell writes:

But if philosophy is to serve a positive purpose, it must not teach mere skepticism, for, while the dogmatist is harmful, the skeptic is useless. Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance.

Unpopular Essays, p. 38

For Russell, “The pursuit of philosophy is founded on the belief that knowledge is good, even if what is known is painful.” (p. 41). But not all “knowledge” is the same: “all that passes for knowledge can be arranged in a hierarchy of degrees of certainty, with arithmetic and the facts of perception at the top.” (p. 39) My confidence that 2+2 = 4 should be higher than my confidence that a certain form of capitalism or socialism will be the most utilitarian. We can’t be frozen by our uncertainty, as Russell writes: “…it is necessary, at the same time, to learn to act upon the best hypothesis without dogmatically believing it.” (p. 39) Pragmatically, Russell tells us that we should ask what potential harm might come from acting on what we think we know. “When you act upon a hypothesis which you know to be uncertain, your action should be such as will not have very harmful results if your hypothesis is false.” (p. 40).

This last line reminds me of a claim found in the United States Declaration of Independence:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

I interpret this to mean that the architects of the Declaration are asking their audience to take their call for independence seriously because they know that something like revolution should be the last option. Now, for many who are oppressed or feel oppressed, this claim may seem unjust, but it should be remembered that the results of a revolution aren’t always positive. Yes, things can get better but they can get even worse as well. Most revolutions fail (remember the “Arab Spring”?) and stability is a virtue unless the suffering being experienced in a stable situation is worse than the potential suffering caused by the instability of revolutionary action.

Russell’s concern is that we don’t usually know if we’re right in the same way we know 2+2 = 4. And since there’s room for doubt, we must be cautious. We must allow our epistemic humility to guide us away from rash decisions. Is this to say that there’s never a time for action that might have some form of “collateral damage”? That’s unclear. The Founding Fathers appeared willing to act on principles that would suggest that they saw certain levels of pain and suffering to be worth it if certain freedoms were obtained, and maybe worth it even if those freedoms weren’t obtained, but they recognized that this is rare. Russell himself held to an evolving form of pacifism over his lifespan. Though his pacifism wasn’t absolute later in life, his belief that epistemic humility requires us to “pump the brakes,” if you will, seems to have remained consistent.

Now, epistemic humility isn’t always high-stakes. For Russell, it’s an attitude that should be applied generously. For my students next summer, I hope it’ll help them develop a posture of openness and inquiry. I think that would be a great way to open a philosophy course.

Book Note: David J. Chalmers’ “Reality +”

David J. Chalmers, Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (W.W. Norton, 2022).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

I’ve been intrigued by some form of simulation theory since I saw The Matrix a couple of decades ago. When I introduce Hinduism to my students, I connect simulation theory to the concept of “Brahman,” the name of existence itself, of which all of us are part. For many Indian philosophers, everything and everyone is Brahman since everything participates in “existence”. When Brahman is personified, questions can be asked as to why there is difference if all of us are ultimately the same thing: lila and maya. Lila is “divine play” where Brahman “decides” to experience endless realities as a way of “enjoying” all the different perspectives that all of us create. Maya is the negative illusion that we’re individuals. Our stress and anxiety come from the false separation of “I” from everything else. So, lila and maya are two sides of the same coin. In order to enjoy our experience of reality, and for Brahman to have that experience, we must believe we are individuals, unique and distinct from the whole of reality in some way. But that sense of self, that illusion, also leads to our own entrapment in samsara, cycling through almost endless lives, until we can realize our oneness with Brahman, releasing ourselves from the illusion of distinction, and merging back into the whole. This is called “moksha”.

Hinduism is said to be “monistic” as in there isn’t one “god” like the popular forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but just one “thing” or one “reality”. Again, that reality is Brahman.

Why do I connect this to simulation theory? Well, simulation theory asks whether or not we are in a simulation and if we could know if we were in one. I push my students to consider the possibility that we are in a simulation, or that we are emanations of Brahman, and then ask them whether discovering that we are simulated or emanated would change how they view themselves and their lives. Since many of my students have been raised in homes where Christianity is practiced, or where Christianity is the unspoken influence, they tend to think of themselves as creations distinct from a Creator—creations with a unique, eternal soul that will never lose its distinction. For these students, the concept of Brahman, and simulation theory, can be unnerving. For students who tend to be more naturalistic, who already see themselves as material beings emerging from a material world to which their bodies will return when they die, neither Brahman nor simulation theory causes much unease.

David J. Chalmers, one of the foremost philosophers in the area of the study of mind, has written a wonderful book titled Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problem of Philosophy that deals a lot with simulation theory. When I’ve told people about the book, some of them say something like, “I can’t imagine reading a whole book on that topic.” But it isn’t about simulation theory only, just like when I teach my students about simulation theory, I’m really trying to help them conceptualize Indian concepts of Brahman. The book uses simulation theory as a gateway to many of the fascinating “problems of philosophy,” as the subtitle suggests. Chalmers has chapters on epistemology, ontology, and ethics that all use virtual worlds as thought experiments. When we ask whether we can know if we’re in a simulation, we’re jumping into a conversation about how we can know what we know or if we can really know anything (and what we mean by the word “know”). When we consider simulation theory, we’re asking what is “real”. It physics the only “real” world. Is our perceptions “real” or completely constructed. And when we consider what it would be like to see sentient life emerge in a simulation—whether we are the created or the creator—it forces us to consider our own ethical paradigms around how we treat other minds.

For this reason, the book can serve not only as a niche study of virtual worlds and how we should consider them—whether that be wearing an Oculus, enjoying whatever Meta is creating, or participating in Second Life—but it can serve as a general introduction to many of the problems that philosophers have been addressing and will continue to address. Also, the illustrations found throughout the book are excellent which makes the book all that more effective at teaching difficult philosophical concepts.

Book Note: “Philosophy’s Big Questions” edited by Steven M Emmanuel

Philosophy’s Big Questions: Comparing Buddhist and Western Approaches edited by Steven M. Emmanuel (Columbia University Press, 2021).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

Philosophy’s Big Questions: Comparing Buddhists and Western Approaches, edited by Steven M. Emmanuel, contains eight essays that each do what the title suggests: examine one of philosophy’s big questions through the lens of “Western” philosophy in dialogue with Buddhist philosophy. These essays cover topics ranging from epistemology (e.g. Chapter 2: “What Is Knowledge? Knowledge in the Context of Buddhist Thought” by Douglas Duckworth) to ontology (Chapter 3: “Does Reality Have a Ground: Madhyamaka and Nonfoundationalism” by Jan Westerhoff) to ethics (e.g. Chapter 7: “How Much Is Enough? Greed, Prosperity, and the Economic Problem of Happiness: A Comparative Perspective” by Emmanuel; Chapter 8: “What Do We Owe Future Generations? Compassion and Future Generations: A Buddhist Contribution to an Ethics of Global Interdependence” by Peter D. Hershock). There’s a mix of theoretical-leaning essays (e.g. Chapter 4: “Can Consciousness Be Explained? Buddhist Idealism and the ‘Hard Problem’ in Philosophy of Mind” by Dan Arnold) with practical-leaning ones (e.g. Chapter 1: “How Should We Live? Happiness, Human Flourishing, and the Good Human Life” by Stephen J. Laumakis).

The reader will encounter the conflict of similarity and dissimilarity. By this I mean, that sometimes “Western” philosophy seems worlds away from what Buddhist thinkers have suggested—for example, Hershock’s discussion of the “Bodhissatva” figure in Mahayana Buddhism— while at other times it seems like they arrived at similar places from different directions—for example, Laumakis’ discussion that also cites ancient Greek philosophers or Arnold’s essay that engages the work of philosophers like David J. Chalmers while speaking of the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” (anatta) in a way that resonates with view of Daniel Dennett and others that our “consciousness” is just an illusion.

On a side note: one thing I really appreciate about this book is that it answers the call of those like Bryan Van Norden who have challenged philosophers to look beyond the Western canon. This volume definitely accomplishes that objective!

Would it be unethical to simulate the universe?

The past few weeks, I’ve been teaching a unit on Indian cosmology (think Brahman, Samsara, Moksha, et al.) as I’ve been reading David J. Chalmers’ Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy while also watching a lot of Rick and Morty, so excuse the weirdness. Because of all this, I’ve been thinking a lot about Nick Bostrom‘s famous Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?” article (The Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 53, Issue 211, April 2003pp. 243-255). In that article, Bostom made the claim that “one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to become extinct before reaching a ‘posthuman’ stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of its evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” (If you don’t have time to read about this theory, there are plenty of YouTube videos that provide decent summaries.) As things are looking now, (1) seems extremely probable. We can’t figure out climate change and we still have weapons that could wipe us out in minutes. But if we are going to survive and slip through our “Great Filters,” then (2) would seem extremely improbable. We’re already making simulations and have been for a while now. If technology continues to develop at the pace it has since I was a teen, then I’d be shocked if it turned out that we humans would choose to not create advanced simulations. Except there’s one idea that has grabbed my attention: humans could choose to not create advanced simulations for ethical reasons.

Chalmers (p. 94) puts it this way: “populations advanced enough to create sims will know how to create intelligent sims that aren’t conscious (while nevertheless serving many practice purposes) and will have strong reasons—perhaps ethical reasons—to do this.” I mean, if I look at contemporary humanity, this seems unlikely. We humans seem to have no problems (collectively) with causing suffering, whether we’re inflicting it on fellow humans or other non-human animals. So, there’s little reason to believe that future humans would be morally superior to us…but there’s one I’ve been pondering.

As we look at the current state of our world, assuming it’s either (A) base reality or (B) a simulation of what base reality looked like in the early twenty-first century, then it appears clear that if humans are going to make it and make it so that we don’t launch our descendants into a dystopic age where they’d have little time to worry about anything other than creating technologies that help them stave off extinction, we’re going to have to experience an evolutionary leap in ethics. I mean, not just on the level of individuals recycling, buying electric vehicles, investing in renewable energies, and maybe going vegetarian, but at the international level and hopefully in a way that includes democratic societies. (Though, as the Pill Pod discussed in their 64th episode, “Democracy Dieth in Darkness,” political scientists/philosophers like Ross Mittiga are already asking if authoritarian power is ever a legitimate form of government, especially if climate catastrophe grows more probable: “Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism, and Climate Change,” American Political Science Review [December 6, 2021], pp. 1-14).

This feels improbable right now but let’s assume it will happen (or happened, if this is a simulation that is based on base reality). What sort of collaboration would be demanded of humanity? What sort of transnational government structure would have to emerge? And if we were capable of these things, would we be moving more toward the Star Trek vision of the future than the Don’t Look Up one? And if that were to be the case, then doesn’t that raise the probability that humanity would become the type of species who knowing the suffering they’d cause by creating advanced simulations with sentient creatures (who would have to live through the era we’re living through now) would choose to avoid inflicting that type of pain on their potential digitized creations?

I don’t know that answer to this is “yes” but it’s worth considering. But it also leads to theological/theodicy questions and invites us to consider antinatalist ethics as well. First, if I’m assuming morally advanced humans would never create this reality intentionally, what does that say about a god who would create this reality? Now, I’m not actually opposed to this reality. In fact, I’m unsure that I can be because it seems odd to use existence to argue against existence. And I guess questions around postmortem sentience and even multiverses muddy that waters here. But my underdeveloped line of thought does have me wondering: if I think that advanced humans wouldn’t inflict this suffering, what does that say about the idea of “god” or god if god exists?!

Also, back to afterlives: would it be ethically justifiable to run simulations like our world if you offered your digital creations an afterlife of bliss?

Finally, am I being too negative about our current state? If a global catastrophe is around the corner, would it be immoral to have children? Obviously, if humans had foreknowledge and knew with absolute certainty that everything was going to go to hell within the next half-century, then yes. But we don’t have that foreknowledge. So, it gets trickier.

And that takes me back to the question of simulation: what if this universe is an open-ended simulation? Our fate isn’t predetermined. Maybe there’s great joy in meeting the challenge of climate change and solving it? Maybe we actually do that or have the potential to do that? Then I guess we could leave the door open to the possibility that there’s nothing immoral about our universe being a simulation if indeed it is one!

Book Note: Bryan Van Norden’s “Taking Back Philosophy”

Bryan Van Norden, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (New York: CUP, 2017) (Amazon; Bookshop)

While this book wasn’t completely what I expected it was excellent nonetheless and I think I prefer what it is in actuality to what I imagined it would be. When I bought it, I was under the impression that the entire book would be a defense of the basic thesis: a thesis Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield put forth first in a May 11th, 2016 entry to “The Stone column of the New York Times blog” titled “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is” (p. xxiii). Van Norden and Garfield argued that philosophy departments should “rename themselves ‘departments of Anglo-European philosophy'” if they weren’t willing to expand their departments to include the study of philosophy from non-“western” perspectives (p. xxiii). As you can imagine, this provocative claim provoked many responses and those responses led to Van Norden writing Taking Back Philosophy.

The first couple chapters of the book are what I expected and I found them entirely convincing. In chapter 1, “A Manifesto for Multicultural Philosophy” he “names names” and “brings the receipts” as the kids say, showing how the assumption that philosophy is only a “western” thing is ethnocentric and structurally racist, even when unintended. He makes the case that if philosophy is to survive and not kill itself off, it needs to adapt to and embrace a diversifying and pluralistic world. But this isn’t just an attempt to be PC or cosmopolitan: it’s because Van Norden is right in that Indian and Chinese thought, to name two branches, are deeply philosophical! For example, I’ve been (slowly) reading Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics and as I encounter his monism I keep thinking, “Didn’t India reach these conclusions centuries, millennia prior to Spinoza?!” Now, they framed it differently but that doesn’t make it less philosophical.

Now, I’m prone to agree with Van Norden. As far back as the early 2010’s when I read Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, I’ve been convinced that Jewish and Christian sacred texts can be read as rational, philosophical works just as easily as the Pre-Socratics or Plato. I teach them with an eye to their philosophical claims. For example, in past versions of my class “The Hebrew Scriptures” (when I covered a lot more ground pre-pandemic), I would juxtapose the political philosophy and ethical paradigms of the Book of Daniel over against the Book of Esther. I’m supervising independent research by a student right now who is investigating these matters and soon we’ll discuss topics like trauma in the Book of Lamentations and theodicy in the Book of Job. (For a great discussion on how this can work, listen to Dru Johnson’s interview with Van Norden on Johnson’s podcast.)

Chapter 2, “Traditions in Dialogue” was another chapter I expected. In this part of the book, Van Norden does what I imagined he’d do throughout: he juxtaposes Chinese philosophy (his expertise) with “western” counterparts (e.g. the metaphysics of Descartes and Nāgasena; the political philosophy of Hobbes and Kongzi and Mengzi). Anyone with an open mind should recognize not only that China has had philosophy (unless we assume some oddly misplaced concreteness that claims “philosophy” because of its etymological roots in Greek must be “European” or “western” only) but that Chinese philosophy stands its ground quite well!

Chapter 3, “Trump’s Philosophers” looks at the move by personalities like Donald J. Trump and Xi Jinping to build “walls” (metaphorical and literal) that divide. In a sense, this chapter serves as a mirror for those who want to keep philosophy ethnocentric and “western”. Van Norten doesn’t fall into the trap of denegrating “western” philosophy, culture, and traditions but instead advocates something like a “more is more” approach: let’s celebrate the thought that has come from places like Germany, France, England, and the United States but in doing so let’s not close ourselves off to what we can learn from China, India, Japan or from broader groupings like African and Indigenous forms of philosophy.

In chapter 4, “Welders and Philosophers,” Van Norten challenges people like Marco Rubio who use rhetoric that (being generous here) may intend to dignify the working class (“We need more welders and less philosophers.”) at the expense of the academic “elites” but instead is disparaging toward both the welder who could and should want to read philosophy, the philosophy major who can actually do quite well for themselves with their humanities degree, and all citizens of a democracy who have the right to be informed and develop their thinking as members of society. This chapter defends the value of the humanities and the usefulness of a college education. My only complaint is that while showing how an undergraduate degree can raise someone’s earning power, Van Norten doesn’t deal with higher ed’s cost inflation that essentially saddles college graduates with a “tax” (student loan repayment) for getting that education.

Finally, in chapter 5, “The Way of Confucius and Socrates,” Van Norten reminds us of why philosophy is valuable, for everyone. His definition of philosophy is similar to the one I’ve shared with my students and members of our school’s “Philosophy Club” (p. 151): “philosophy is a dialogue about problems that we agree are important, but don’t agree about the method of solving, where ‘importance’ ultimately gets its sense from the question of the way one should live.” The target isn’t just Rubio or others like Ted Cruz, who while allowing themselves to receive a liberal arts education speak to others as if its a waste of their time, but also to members of the cult of scientism, like Neil deGrasse Tyson or the late Stephen Hawking, who think that philosophy is outdated just because certain branches of the sciences have developed a method that helps them solve or begin to solve important questions. Van Norten reminds readers that prior to a field’s emergence, it must be created by philosophy. Once a field has a generally shared methodology, it “grows up” and can go out on its own as “astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics,” to name a few examples (p. 143). Hawking and deGrasse Tyson wouldn’t have their fields of study if it weren’t for the “natural philosophers” who preceded them!

The broader defense of philosophy wasn’t what I expected when I bought to book but it didn’t detract from the book at all. It made it better. It reminded philosophers that what they’re doing is important but that it philosophy can be improved by expanding the conversation to include the many voices that are often ignored.

Book Note: Slavoj Žižek’s “Heaven In Disorder”

Slavoj Žižek, Heaven in Disorder (New York: OR Books, 2021). (Amazon; OR Books)

I’ve started reading Žižek. But I started at the end with (what I believe is) his most recent book: Heaven in Disorder. According to a friend who is familiar with Žižek, this is one of his most readable and easy-to-understand books, so I think I made a good decision!

Mostly, it’s a collection of very short essays. Often, his essays are blog post size: three-four pages. There are a few longer essays but even those are less than twenty pages long.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is what ties together this collection. Žižek has a lot to say about American presidential politics as well, seeing that several essays reflect on the end of the previous administration and the election of Joe Biden.

As to the name of the book: Žižek talks about how “One of Mao Zedong’s best-known sayings is: ‘There is a great disorder under heaven; the situation is excellent.'” I don’t know if this refers to the Chinese view of the “mandate of heaven,” but that’s secondary to how Žižek uses it. He comments (p. 1), “Mao speaks about disorder under heaven, wherein ‘heaven’, or the big Other in whatever form—the inexorable logic of historical processes, the laws of social development—still exists and discreetly regulates social chaos. Today we should talk about heaven itself as being in disorder.” For Žižek this means that even the symbolic universes that held countries and cultures together are divided. The turmoil isn’t just “on the ground,” if you will but in the fact that “heaven is divided into two spheres” in a way that is similar to the Cold War, except that there’s one major difference (p. 2). He says, “The divisions of heaven today appear increasingly drawn within each particular country. In the United States, for instance, there is an ideological and political civil war between the alt-Right and the liberal-democratic establishment, while in the United Kingdom there are similarly deep divisions, as were recently expressed in the opposition between Brexiteers and anti-Brexiteers…Spaces for common ground are ever diminishing, mirroring the ongoing enclosure of physical public space, and this is happening at a time when multiple intersecting crises mean that global solidarity and international cooperation are more needed than ever.” (p. 2) In other words, the pandemic demanded global unity but even within nations, there’s no unity: “heaven” is torn in two.

It’s a great collection. It’s thought-provoking as always and easy to read, as my friend noted, and as I’m recognizing as I’ve dived into The Sublime Object of Ideology, which takes a lot more work!