Wednesday, 28 December 2011


Even the ancient Greeks with their sublime standards of proportion, harmony, and otherworldly perfection, passed down images and stories of ugly and frightening creatures, both human and non-human. The grotesque and horrific entered Christianity in the Book of Revelation, scenes from which became favorite subjects for such later artists as Hieronymous Bosch, Albrecht Duhrer, and Fra Angelico. Hell, the Devil, and St. Anthony's temptations (hard to look at for very long) were favorite themes. Ugliness, like beauty, experienced numerous changes in fashion over the centuries, now displayed in the images of old women, now in dwarves and corpses, and often in frightful images of dragons, mythical beasts, and monsters of all kinds. In the modern era, the ugliness of industrial cities and the deformed people who inhabit them find expression on the canvases (and on movie screens!) of artists usually admired for less disturbing works, as well as some who seem to be ugliness specialists.

Judgments of ugliness, like those of beauty, are ultimately subjective, and Aristotle may find some support for his claim that the skill of a great artist can render beautiful an ugly object. However, I am inclined to the view of Umberto Eco (On Ugliness, 2007) who asserted there are some realities that no one can render pleasant by any philosphical maneuver or aesthetic rationalization. A few moments with Salvador Dali's Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) is probably all you will need to see his point. When artists painted or sculpted images of demons or severed limbs or the unadorned human genitalia or a pile of trash, they knew their subjects are ugly, they intended their works to reflect that ugliness, and they would likely be put off by anyone who did not react to them with revulsion or horror.

In the vast catalogue of ugly works of Western art, there are virtually no depictions of ugly landscapes other than those that have been destroyed or desecrated by human beings. Almost all the images of ugliness are of humans or creatures that bear enough resemblance to humans that we cannot behold them without self-reference. What are we to make of this? We find a clue in Friedrich Nietzsche's dictum that what we humans hate above all is the deformation of our own kind. Ernest Becker (Denial of Death, 1973) nailed the point precisely, I think: for us the body is always an existential problem. The evolution of the psyche from an infantile identification with bodily sensations through various stages of dawning self-consciousness brings us finally to a fully realized ability to contemplate ourselves and our situation as embodied, finite beings whose universal destiny is decline, disease, old age, and death. Our reaction is painfully split: on the one hand we yearn for liberation from this decaying flesh and for the perfection of the gods, while on the other we know perfectly well that without our ambiguous embodiment there can be no experience of truth, of love, of beauty, or indeed of anything like life as we have come to know it.

If beauty is truth, as Keats wrote, then, as artists of all eras seem to insist, ugliness is also truth.   In this ultimately mysterious universe, beauty and ugliness are, equally, fundamental elements of the order of things and of our own being.

     - C. Marxer

Friday, 16 December 2011


The simple answer is "No," as will be readily understood by anyone who has heard the music of Metallica or seen any pictorial representation of the temptations of Saint Anthony.  Of course, we could always deny that heavy metal music is art, a move that exposes just one of the complexities involved in our topic question.  What counts as art?  What is beauty?  What is the opposite of beauty?  If some art is not beautiful, how are we to characterize it?  Only the last of these is directly relevant to our topic, so I propose to begin with a set of orienting principles that, if not self-evident, are so widely shared as to provide an acceptable platform from which to begin our inquiry.

1.  The term art can be suitably applied to any deliberately created  product of the human      imagination.  This definition makes room for children's art, folk art, and decorative crafts, but excludes dreams and  the elegant trails left by sidewinders slithering across desert sands.   It also excludes the nifty nests of bower birds, although if someone  insists on making a case for them, I won't contest the point.
2.  Aesthetic judgment - a claim that an object is beautiful or not - is a  prerogative of rational beings.

3.  We call a work of art beautiful when it occasions in us a high degree of  pleasure.

4.  One thing can be more beautiful than another.

5.  The judgment of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the  subject's state of mind.     (#3, 4, and 5 are from R. Scruton, A Very Short  Introduction to Beauty).

6.  Shared agreement about what is beautiful and what is not is common  both within and across different cultures, along with lots of  disagreement. 

Given these initial ideas, our task is to attempt to make a case, either for or against the proposition that art must be beautiful.  Metallica and St. Anthony provide an easy first answer, but a more careful look reveals some interesting subtleties.  James Joyce distinguished proper from improper art.  The latter refers to works that tend to arouse some kind of desire in the experiencer.  Examples include pornography, didactic and propagandistic art.  Art is proper when it is experienced without any inclination to possess its subject or to perform some action.  In that opinion, Joyce agrees with other thinkers, such as philosopher Roger Scruton and historian Umberto Eco.  The idea is that the experience of beauty is disinterested appreciation - contemplation of a beautiful object solely for the delight, pleasure, joy, or spiritual feeling it evokes in us.

It is not clear from the above that Joyce would claim that only proper art is beautiful, but we can be pretty certain he would say that a lot of improper art is not beautiful.  He would find lots of takers for that position.  We can add a number of particulars to his broad category: boring art, poorly executed art, most children's art, raw sketches, doodles, and conceptual art (20th century) come to mind.  There may be others, but I think the most fascinating opposite-to-beauty is ugliness.  It may come as a surprise to many people to learn that alongside the history of beauty is a history of ugliness in art that is equally compelling, although in a different way.

Since earliest times, artists have not hesitated to portray ugliness in its many forms: the deformed, the chaotic, the disgusting, the monstrous, the diabolical, the terrifying, the  gory, etc.  Tender-minded philosophers like Plato and Marcus Aurelius have tried to avoid the reality of ugliness in various ways, but the persistent attention to ugliness by artists throughout the ages makes for a strong case that ugliness is not merely the absence of beauty but that, in art, it delivers powerful symbols of a dark component of reality itself. 

In Part 2 of this essay, I will explore in greater detail the concept of ugliness in art.

   - C. Marxer

Friday, 11 November 2011


Jesus of Nazareth seems an unlikely candidate for the label "subversive."  The most reliable writings about him that we have (the Gospels of Mark and Luke together with another source, Q, which Mark and Luke used) portray him as an itinerant preacher who urged his followers to repent of their sins, embrace a life of voluntary poverty and virtue, and prepare themselves for the imminent appearance of God's kingdom on earth.  The latter is of special importance for understanding Jesus's mission and teachings.  Jesus was a Jewish apocalypticist, a proponent of an ideology that saw the world as under the sway of evil powers.  A Messiah sent by God would sweep away the evildoers and establish a new order of peace and godliness.  In Jesus's version, the world as then known would soon come to an end, a day of judgment would separate the good from the wicked, and new earthly rulers, presumably his disciples, would preside over the new Kingdom of Heaven. 
There was nothing particularly unusual in his message; a number of prophets before him, including John the Baptist, whom Jesus knew personally, had called the Jewish people to repent and prepare for an imminent catastrophe.  Still, the Romans put Jesus to death as a troublemaker, so they may have seen something subversive in his preaching.  What might that have been?

A subversive is someone who works to undermine a regime or an established political order.  It is natural, therefore, to understand our topic as the question of whether Jesus was a political subversive.  However, it is possible, with a little semantic license, to consider whether he might have been subversive in other ways, which I will mention later in this essay.

It is not easy to make the case for Jesus as a political subversive.*  He does not seem to have been interested in the Romans at all, advising his followers to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's."  An apolitical attitude would make sense for someone who expected the world to end within a generation.  God would deal with the Romans.  His
sermons were all about the coming of the new Kingdom and what the Jewish people should do now to ensure God's favor at the end of days.  Also, there is no evidence that Jesus tried to organize some clandestine organization devoted to overthrowing the Romans or even the Jewish king. 

Nevertheless, near the end of his life when he entered Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, something happened to bring him under the suspicion of the Roman procurator. The authorities were always on edge during Passover, a time of great crowds in the city and not infrequent protests and sometimes even uprisings.  It seems that Jesus's enemies among the prominent Jewish factions of the time saw an opportunity to get rid of him.  His betrayer, Judas, may have told the Romans that he had been fomenting rebellion.  In any case, when Jesus failed to deny before Pilate that he claimed to be King of the Jews, his fate was sealed.  The Romans never hesitated to crucify anyone who appeared to threaten their authority. 

We can be quite certain, therefore, that Jesus was not a political subversive.  However, his adversaries among the religious authorities did not appreciate his criticisms of them and some of his interpretations of God's will, Jewish law, and traditional practices - his theology in other words.   They also felt threatened by his ideas about the evils of wealth and the blessedness of the poor, the meek, and the oppressed. Jesus advised breaking up families, if necessary, and even suggested that marriage was pointless, given that the world was soon to end.  If such radical ethical notions gained wide acceptance, they would change the very fabric of society.  So, if Jesus was not a political subversive, as I have argued, is it plausible to think of him as a theological subversive, an ethical subversive, or a social subversive?

I leave those questions open for any readers who might wish to bring them into the discussion.
     * For a novelistic attempt at this project, see King Jesus by Robert Graves, available from Amazon. 
      - C. Marxer

Thursday, 20 October 2011


Jesus of Nazareth was asked by a rich man what he should do to gain the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus told him to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and he would have treasure in heaven (Matthew 19:21).  Some critics of Peter Singer's Principle of Benevolence have charged that he advocates the same degree of self-sacrifice, only in our day not for laying up treasure in heaven but for gaining the satisfaction of knowing that we have fulfilled our duty or avoiding feelings of guilt if we failed to do so.  Such a standard, of course, would require many morally serious persons to reduce their standard of living, if not to quite to a subsistence level, then at least to a level far below the affluence that most of us enjoy in our over-developed societies.
Given the present conditions in many parts of the world, however, it does follow from my argument that we ought, morally, to be working full time to relieve great suffering of the sort that occurs as a result of famine or other disasters. Of course, mitigating circumstances can be adduced - for instance, that if we wear ourselves out through overwork, we shall be less effective than we would otherwise have been. Nevertheless, when all considerations of this sort have been taken into account, the conclusion remains: we ought to be preventing as much suffering as we can without sacrificing something else of comparable moral importance. This conclusion is one which we may be reluctant to face. I cannot see, though, why it should be regarded as a criticism of the position for which I have argued, rather than a criticism of our ordinary standards of behavior. Since most people are self-interested to some degree, very few of us are likely to do everything that we ought to do. It would, however, hardly be honest to take this as evidence that it is not the case that we ought to do it.  ("Famine, Affluence, and Morality," 1972)
One might object that there are many worthy causes that demand our attention: human rights, improving education, empowering women, etc.  If one is contributing to one or more of these causes, is she not fulfilling the Principle of Benevolence, even if none of her money goes to famine relief?  I think Singer's answer would be "Yes, but the need for food, shelter, and medical aid is more fundamental - necessary for the sustaining of life itself - than the aims of other benevolent activities.  Therefore at least some portion of our giving should go towards relieving hunger."  This seems correct to me.  Basic needs should be given priority over higher level needs.  Besides, campaigns for justice or education need not be abandoned altogether, because, we are told, there is enough wealth in the world to alleviate hunger without depriving humanity of everything else that's good or desirable in life. 

We are so used to thinking of giving as charity rather than duty, that many people will insist there must be something wrong with the argument, but Singer points out that the duty of benevolence has not always seemed so outlandish.  Thomas Aquinas claimed that food withheld belongs to the hungry, the clothes in your closet to the poor, and your savings to the penniless.  One of Islam's Five Pillars of religious obligation is to contribute 2.5 % of one's income to people in need.  Still, there are problems with Singer's specific claim that we have an obligation to contribute money to NGO's that feed starving people in foreign countries.

One is that we have no assurance that money contributed will achieve the results intended.  There may be an inverse relationship between the distance separating the contributor from the beneficiary and the actual benefit received.  NGO's have travel expenses, salaries to pay, and other overhead.  Often bribes must be paid to corrupt officials to get aid to the regions that need it.  Sometimes the food itself is stolen by a corrupt government or guerilla army.  Besides, there are plenty of hungry people in our own society.  It is estimated that in the U.S. 25% of children nationwide go hungry every day.  It would likely be more effective to donate money or even food directly to local organizations such as food banks. 

Another quite serious issue is whether the deeper problem might be population growth.  As long as poorer countries continue to produce large families, so the argument goes, providing food aid just postpones the inevitable in the long run.  Perhaps it is more humane to let one person die now than have 100 die in the future.  This seems harsh, but Singer grants the argument serious weight.  He says that if people come to the carefully considered opinion that population is the underlying problem, then they should contribute to organizations that are working towards rational population policies in developing countries.  Either way the Principle of Benevolence is fulfilled.

Short of rejecting the Principle of Benevolence outright, which would amount to abandoning the Moral Point of View, I do not see a way of avoiding at least a minimal version of Singer's conclusion, viz. that everyone who has the means ought to contribute something to relieve the hunger and destitution of strangers.  Are we unwilling to give up our weekly restaurant meal, pass on buying the latest version of the iPod, or earmark a percentage of our stock dividends for famine relief?  Then let us be honest with ourselves: we are not the moral paragons we have always thought ourselves to be.

     - C. Marxer

Friday, 14 October 2011



The blog gives participants and followers of the White Rock Philosophers' Cafe an opportunity to continue the discussions we hold at our monthly meetings. Our rationale is that often we take away from the meetings a sense of non-completion. There always seems to be more about the topic we would like to explore and do so with others. The main feature is a summary essay with additional commentary that I post a few days after each meeting. As a follower, please feel to post comments on any of the posts, and I will do my best to acknowledge and respond to all of them. Others, of course, may join in the debate to the benefit, hopefully, of all in our quest for clarity and truth. From time to time I will post essays on other topics. All are fair game for critical discussion.

*  *  *  *  *  * 
Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Help Strangers in Need?

Few among us can look at images of starving African children without feeling a pang of compassion.  Many people feel compelled to do something about human misery abroad, whether by working directly on the ground with an aid organization or by contributing money.  Conventional opinion in the affluent countries of the world calls such efforts charity.  Not Peter Singer, Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University.  In a widely read 1972 article and in his recent book The Life You Can Save, Singer argues forcefully that we have a duty to do something to alleviate the suffering of people in countries like India and Somalia who are starving and who lack access to clean water and basic medical services.  If sound, his argument erases the distinction between charity and obligation and would lead to drastic changes in our way of life if we put his conclusion into practice.

High marks to Singer for courage.  Objections have been many and loud: charity begins at home, why should I give up my hard-earned wealth for strangers, giving will create a culture of dependency, aid organizations are self-serving, aid money is often stolen, if people are destitute it's their own fault, third-world people have too many children, poverty can't be eliminated, we are prisoners of our selfish genes, etc.  Some of these ring rather hollow, others deserve serious consideration.  However, the best way to get a handle on a complicated and compelling issue like this one is to render our protagonist's argument as strong as possible and then hold it up to the light of careful philosophical analysis.  That will be my approach in this essay.

First, Singer opens the exit door for anyone who does not take the Moral Point of View.  The moral point of view is an orientation to life based on the conviction that when making decisions that affect other people, their interests (desires, needs) must be taken into consideration.  People who take the moral point of view I call morally serious persons.  Psychopaths, moral relativists, and unredeemably self-centered individuals have no place at the table.  Given that context, Singer's argument can be set forth as follows:

1.  The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of ourselves, our families, and even our society.

2.  Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

3.  If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought to do it; it is a moral obligation.

4.  Most of us can do this because we frequently spend money on things we don't need.

Therefore, we should donate money to alleviate dire suffering in Africa and other poor regions of the world.

The importance of Premise 1 cannot be overstressed.  If you consider yourself a morally serious person, and most of us do, then you must be prepared to accept that basic human needs are the same everywhere and should be given equal consideration.  The fact that a needy person lives in a distant land has no moral importance whatsoever.  There may be grounds for looking after friends, neighbors, and fellow Canadians first, but they are not self-evident.  Where the need is greatest, other things being equal, is where our moral attention should be directed.

Premise 2 will be confirmed by anyone who is not entirely bereft of common sense, so on to Premise 3, which is the critical step in Singer's argument.

There is widespread agreement among people of most cultures that everyone should avoid doing harm whenever possible.  Call that the Harm Principle.  It flows almost automatically from the Moral Point of View.  Singer's Premise 2 goes beyond that maxim, claiming that we have an additional basic duty  to prevent harm or relieve suffering whenever possible.  This is usually called the Benevolence Principle.  It does not enjoy the same consensus.  Most people will agree that we should pull a drowning person out of the water if doing so does not threaten our life, and we would condemn someone who refused to do so because the water would ruin his business suit.  In Singer's terms ruining a suit is not "sacrificing something of comparable moral importance" to the life of a stranger.

However, beyond obvious cases of that sort, the argument is harder to make for Singer's strong version of the Benevolence Principle.  It is also harder to take.  It implies that many of the purchases we make, such as dining out at restaurants, buying new clothes every few months, upgrading from a 27-inch tv to a 46-inch flatscreen, etc., are morally wrong.  Singer is relentless about this, and I see no easy way to refute the argument.  When others are starving, how do I justify trading in my one-year-old car for a new one?   If we are unwilling to sacrifice self-indulgent purchases like these and share our discretionary income with others in dire need, then should we not at least be honest with ourselves and admit that our purchasing decisions are often immoral?

Perhaps most reflective people contribute money now and then to assist people harmed by epidemics or other natural disasters.  Not enough and not often enough.  Over 900 million people in the world do not have enough to eat.  So what would be enough?  Singer recommends 5% of annual income, provided that level does not require us to sacrifice anybody else's need for food, clothing, shelter, and medical care (including our own, of course).  Too harsh a standard?  Well then, as in the famous joke, we are now haggling about the price. 

So far I have tried to show that some version of the Benevolence Principle must be embraced by all morally serious persons.   However, I also stated above that Singer's version of the Benevolence Principle is harder to defend than the Harm Principle.  In Part II of this essay, I will elaborate on that view, particularly as Singer applies his principle to situations of starvation and other dire needs in the poor countries of the world.

- C. Marxer

Wednesday, 12 October 2011


Books Received by the Library for the
White Rock Philosophers Cafe, 2009-2011 

Ernest Becker, Denial of Death.
Roger Scruton, Beauty.
Michael Philips, The Undercover Philosopher.
Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes.
______Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates (more phil. and jokes)
Robert Wright, The Evolution of God.
Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present.
Simon Critchley, The Book of Dead Philosophers.
Marietta McCarty, How Philosophy Can Change Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most.
Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind
Marci McDonald, The Armageddon Factor.
Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit.
Henry Jacoby, House and Philosophy: Everybody Lies.
Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem. (How the Bible fails to answer the problem of suffering.)
Lee Alan Dugatkin, The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of
Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization.
Naomi Klein, No Logo.
Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
John Morreall, Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor


Ideas of the Great Philosophers,  by Prof. Daniel N. Robinson, 60 lectures, 30 minutes each.

Thursday, 22 September 2011


Laughter might be the strongest indication of a Cosmic Spirit operating in the universe.  The central feature of comic experience, as I wrote earlier, is cognitive disengagement.  In the moment of enjoying a joke, a spontaneous one-liner, or a scene from a comedy, there is nothing going on other than pure amusement.  We are, in a way, standing outside of our normal selves, having no agenda, intending no action, surrendering all control, suspending all desires; instead occupying a viewpoint of choiceless yet playful awareness of some unexpected aspect of existence and bursting forth with the staccato sounds that could easily be understood as laughter at the entire universe.  In such moments, what is there that is not absurd?  The comic viewpoint is not even personal:  who is that laughs?  There is just that laughter, emanating from nowhere in particular and so, in principle, accessible to any rational creature that allows itself to surrender all shred of self-regard and practical concern to the pure enjoyment of a crack in the normal, tedious order of things.  Perhaps that is why laughter is contagious.  Start one person laughing, and often everyone will be laughing even if they missed the original joke.*  The comic viewpoint, therefore, is also the cosmic viewpoint, that of the Laughing Buddha, the pure but penetrating Witness to the absurdities of existence.

Of course, not everything is funny.  We can joke about death in the abstract, as in Woody Allen's quip, "I'm not afraid of death.  I just don't want to be around when it happens."  But we do not, perhaps cannot, laugh at the death of any particular person.  The bell tolls for us, too, and the image of ourselves in a casket is not usually a trigger for amusement.  Social norms also impose constraints on humor.  We call jokes about the disabled "sick."  Joking about bodily functions is frowned on in polite company.  Poking fun at a religion may earn you a fatwa.  Are some forms of humor morally wrong? 

Most current philosophical thinking on this question centers on racist and sexist jokes.  At our September 14 meeting, I told this one:

Q:  How does a passerby dissuade a group of black guys from gang raping a teenage girl?
A:  He throws them a basketball.
Most people laughed at this at first, but the laughter was followed immediately by some groans and grimaces.  People who are not racists do not feel comfortable with jokes like this, even though we cannot help but laugh at them.  Is that wrong?  Should we train ourselves not to laugh at such jokes?  Is it wrong to tell racist jokes?  Always, no matter what the circumstances?  It is not easy to answer these questions in any thoughtful way.  In his book Jokes: Philosophical Thinking About Joking Matters, Ted Cohen interrogated himself from a dozen or more angles in search of a moral theory that would show that such joking is wrong.  Eventually he gave up and advised his readers to hang on to their negative feelings, if they need to, but not to lie to themselves about whether the jokes are funny - they are.

There are two aspects to examine here: the telling of the joke and the enjoyment of it, the amusement.  First, the amusement.  Some people think it's wrong to laugh at jokes that demean minorities or ethnic groups or even an entire gender.  I suppose we could train ourselves to be super-alert for such joking and stifle our laughter the moment we sense one coming our way.  But most of the time we don't worry about this.  If a questionable joke is told, we laugh, maybe groan and wag our finger at the joke-teller, and move on - but we enjoyed the joke.  Is our amusement wrong?  This question reminds me of the long-running debate among moral philosophers about the intrinsic value or disvalue of pleasure derived from evil acts.  A sadistic Nazi prison guard, for example, enjoyed brutalizing Jewish inmates.  His actions were reprehensible, but must we also say that the pleasure he derived from performing them is evil also?  Tough question.  Considered in themselves, pleasures seem to admit only of degrees of intensity but not of qualitative differences that would make a moral difference.  If the Nazi guard could experience the same pleasurable feelings by watching a violent movie, would we have the same objection to his enjoyment?

Similarly, it is not clear that enjoying a racist or sexist joke is wrong or bad in itself.  If you think it is, what moral principle or theory brings you to that conclusion?  Am I a racist if I laugh at the joke about the blacks guys and the basketball?  Not necessarily.  Can I enjoy the joke and still disapprove of the negative stereotyping that it presupposes?  I don't see why not.  Do such jokes incline me to believe the stereotypes?  Certainly not, just as jokes about God do not cause me to believe that God exists and does foolish things.  John Morreall argues that jokes do not make claims or assertions at all.  Joking is a form of play; it is, let us recall, disengaged from all cognitive or practical concerns.  We should not be bothered if a joke consists entirely of wild fantasies or falsehoods about anybody or anything.  To joke is to play with ideas and when the play works, the appropriate response is amusement.

So the mere enjoyment of jokes seems to have no moral significance in itself.  The telling of jokes, on the other hand, is a different matter.  As Morreall points out, making a habit of joking at serious matters may lead us to disengage too often, to become cynical and irresponsible.  Laughter at someone's suffering or disaster also can block compassion and morph into outright cruelty.  Some people claim that racist and sexist humor promotes prejudice.  That may be true, although it is not clear how joking might do that.  It is sometimes said that joking aestheticizes serious issues, which has the effect of depriving them of their due seriousness.  Certainly racist and sexist humor do nothing to weaken prejudice, and our common sense intuition that it may reinforce socially harmful attitudes seems like a pretty good reason not to indulge in it.

When I first began to research this topic, I was surprised to discover what a rich subject for philosophical investigation it is.  Humor has usually been thought of as a minor aspect of human life, perhaps an object of some psychological interest, but philosophy is serious business and can't be bothered to dwell for very long on the silly side of life.  This attitude has changed in the last hundred years or so, and the literature on the philosophy of humor has become quite extensive.  Naturally, such works are sprinkled with lots of examples of jokes and cartoons, so they make for enjoyable reading.  I hope this brief and woefully inadequate introduction to the topic will lead you to sample some of the literature.  I recommend especially the books by Cathcart and Klein - listed at the end of Part I of this essay.  Contrary to the widespread view that philosophy and comedy dwell on different planets, the authors of Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Tavern and Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates demonstrate not only that philosophers can recognize and enjoy humor and use it for teaching philosophy, but also that some of them are pretty accomplished jokesters themselves. 

Many people would sooner die than think.  In fact, they do so.         
                                                                               - Bertrand Russell
* Many years ago, I attended a meditation retreat in Vancouver led by Joshu Sasaki, Zen Master of Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California.  During the ten days he spent at our center in Vancouver, he decided his students were becoming all too serious about their practice.  So he instructed us to gather in the zendo early in the morning before meditation and laugh.  After experiencing some awkwardness at first, we soon learned to do this easily, one person initiating the laughter - sans benefit of any joke - the others joining in soon after.  Before long we were all doubled over and slapping our knees, laughing at ourselves, at nothing, at everything.


Friday, 16 September 2011


Welcome to the White Rock Philosophers' Weblog!

The blog gives participants and followers of the White Rock Philosophers' Cafe an opportunity to continue the discussions we hold at our monthly meetings. Our rationale is that often we take away from the meetings a sense of non-completion. There always seems to be more about the topic we would like to explore and do so with others. The main feature is a summary essay that I post a few days after each meeting. As a follower, please feel to post comments on any of the essays, and I will do my best to acknowledge and respond to all of them. Others, of course, may join in the debate to the benefit, hopefully, of all in our quest for clarity and truth.  From time to time I will post essays on other topics.  All are fair game for critical discussion.

You can read my most recent post, "Philosophy, Laughter, and Humor" below.

Charles Marxer
White Rock Philosophers' Cafe

Sunday, 22 May 2011


In two recent books, biologists Richard Dawkins and Jerry A. Coyne claim that evolution is a fact, not a theory.  They make this philosophically startling claim because the creationist movement gets a lot of traction from the charge that evolution is only a theory.  I think this tactic, while understandable, is a mistake.

Dawkins begins with a strong analogy: the Pythagorean Theorem, he writes, is a fact.  I doubt that mathematicians talk this way, but the Pythagorean Theorem is a fine example of an ironclad truth, and it allows Dawkins to establish  the sense in which he is using the term “fact,” viz. a proposition or statement that “is beyond sensible doubt.”* Jerry Coyne takes a similar position.  “A theory,” he writes, “becomes a fact (or a ‘truth’) when so much evidence has accumulated in its favor - and there is no decisive evidence against it - that virtually all reasonable people will accept it.”  Evolution, they assert, is just such a fact.  According to Dawkins, evolution “is a fact in the same sense as it is a fact that Paris is in the Northern Hemisphere.” * Not really.  

These notions are seriously confused. They muddle the relationship between fact and theory in scientific investigations.  For empirical scientists, facts are merely the raw material of scientific explanation; theory is the real name of the game.  Facts are what science begins with; theory is its intended destination.  So what is a fact?  In simplest terms a fact is a statement about an observation or a summary of a number of observations.  The facts that are of interest to scientists are facts that raise questions, the ones that require an explanation.  For example, here’s a fact: ‘Dinosaur fossils have been found in many parts of the U.S.’  How old are they?  How are they related to other fossils?  How did they come to be where they are? Etc.  A theory is intended to answer such questions, that is, to explain the facts.  If it is to do that, a theory cannot itself be a fact.  The job of evolution, then, is to explain the observed facts contained in the fossil record and other phenomena.  However, on the Dawkins/Coyne interpretation, if evolution is a fact and facts require explanation, then we are confronted with the awkward question ‘What explains evolution?’  There are no scientific books or papers on that topic, because evolution is a theory, not a fact.  It explains but does not itself call for an explanation. 

Theories and facts belong to different logical categories.  Facts are particular, specific; theories are very general.  Secondly, facts can be strung together in conjunctive sentences, but a theory cannot be a bead on the string.  The sentence "We have a rich fossil record scattered over billions of years (fact) and life has evolved from a single ancestor" (theory) is syntactically correct but scientifically incoherent.  We have a rich, diverse fossil record because life has evolved from a single ancestor.  The clauses of the latter sentence cannot exchange places, unlike a simple conjunction of facts; they have a fixed logical relationship.  Also, facts are observed, theories are constructed.  Another difference is that a fact is stuck with being what it is - it produces no offspring.  A theory may lead via prediction and experimentation to the discovery of new facts (in a stepfatherly sort of way).

Coyne is right to say that a theory can become a fact,  as for example when a detective’s theory of a murder case is confirmed by a video showing the murderer in the act of killing his victim.  However, that occurs rarely in science, where theories deal mostly with the unobservable, and never by the mere accumulation of confirming evidence.  It certainly will never occur with evolution owing to the impossibility of observing extinct species.  Coyne would be on firmer ground if he were to stick with “evolution is a ‘truth’ ” - not ideal but better than ‘fact.’  Evolution can be characterized modestly as true in the pragmatic sense as a set of ideas that work, that is, it explains a large range of phenomena and allows for predictions which have been borne out by subsequent investigations, and it has not been overthrown by decisive evidence.  

Why is this important?  First, for our own understanding - always a supreme value - but also because the cause of defeating creationism is not well served in the long run by the tactical use of falsehoods or distortions.  Above all, we want everyone to be possessed of clear and accurate ideas about the nature of science.

* Not an effective analogy.  Mathematical theorems are not facts as science understands the term.  They are necessary truths arrived at by deduction from a priori axioms, whereas scientific theories are contingent upon empirical evidence and are therefore unavoidably probabilistic.

      - C. Marxer

References:  Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution Is True, 2009.
                       Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, 2009.