Friday, September 19, 2008


On December 26, 2004, a tsunami struck several different countries in and around the Indian Ocean. Many different governments sent help; the U.S. government sent more aid than any other government.

President Bush sent an aircraft carrier to Indonesia to help the tsunami victims. The largest ships in the fleet, aircraft carriers have three hospitals on board that can treat several hundred people; they are nuclear powered and can supply emergency electrical power to shore facilities; they have three cafeterias with the capacity to feed 3,000 people three meals a day, they can produce several thousand gallons of fresh water from sea water each day, and they carry half a dozen helicopters for use in transporting victims and injured to and from their flight deck. The U.S. military saved thousands of lives in the days following the tsunami.

But, although the U.S. government sent more aid than any other government, there was another source of help which was much larger still. The charities in America sent billions of dollars in food, medicine, and supplies. In addition, the charities funded teams of nurses and doctors to set up hospitals, and teams of builders to remove rubble and start rebuilding.

The private charitable organizations in America not only sent more aid than the U.S. government, they sent more aid than all the governments of the world combined!

Which shows that, in offering significant help and making progress, private sector charity trumps government programs.

Not Building an Empire

One constant feature of human nature is the desire to take over and rule large amounts of territory. Whether in ancient history (Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cyrus of Persia, etc.), or in modern history (Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Napoleon), people want to build empires.

By contrast, there are those armies who defeat their enemies, and yet allow those enemies to keep their land afterward: nations which do aim to absorb their enemies, but rather to turn their enemies into friends. In the modern world, there is one such nation: the United States.

After two world wars, we returned all conquered lands to their own nations. After Operation Desert Storm, we returned all territory. We are preparing now to return Iraq to the Iraqis.

Colin Powell, former secretary of state, said, "Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Keeping the Peace

In late 1814 and early 1815, Napoleon's career was coming to an end, and Europe had suffered twenty-five years of nearly continuous chaos and bloodshed: first, the ten years of the French Revolution (1789 - 1799), and then Napoleon's dictatorship. France had conducted wars against, or involving, nearly all of Europe. The misery was wide-spread.

The leaders of European nations gathered at the Congress of Vienna to answer the question, how can we keep Europe safe and peaceful. The conference was organized and lead by Metternich. The starting point for discussion was the Treaty of Paris, first signed in 1814; during the conference, Napoleon attempted his comeback, and when that failed, a second Treaty of Paris was issued in 1815. The Bourbon absolutist monarchy was reinstated, and France lost the territory which had stolen from other nations after 1789.

It was clear that Europe would assume a new shape on the map, and a new political tone, especially because Napoleon had also officially ended the Holy Roman Empire. The Congress of Vienna wanted to ensure that Europe's new layout would lead to peace and stability.

The official dates of the conference were from November 1, 1814 until June 8, 1815.

England was represented by Castlereagh and Wellington; Napoleon gave England two of its greatest heros, Wellington and Nelson, and Wellington also was immortalized in the famous beef recipe. Wellington's real name was Arthur Wellesley, but he was called Wellington because he was the Duke of Wellington.

Metternich represented Austria, and Prussia was represented by Hardenberg and Humboldt. Alexander I represented Russia. Talleyrand represented France, and almost single-handedly saved his country, because the other nations wanted to punish it for the twenty-five years of butchery it caused. Talleyrand persuaded the other leaders that they would have nothing to gain by devastating France, but that if they left the country intact, it would benefit all of Europe.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Do You Exist? Do I?

Only a philosopher would spend time trying to answer the question, "do I exist?"

It's not that philosophers are worried about the answer. They know that they exist. But given that the answer is automatically "yes", how do we prove that answer? It's not enough to answer a question - you must offer evidence to support that answer. What evidence can you offer in order to convince me that you exist?

Descartes and Augustine share not only the argument Cogito ergo sum - in Augustine Si fallor, sum - but also the corollary argument claiming to prove that the mind (Augustine) or, as Descartes puts it, this I, is not any kind of body. "I could suppose I had no body," wrote Descartes, "but not that I was not", and inferred that "this I" is not a body. Augustine says "The mind knows itself to think", and "it knows its own substance": hence "it is certain of being that alone, which alone it is certain of being." Augustine is not here explicitly offering an argument in the first person, as Descartes is. The first-person character of Descartes's argument means that each person must administer it to himself in the first person; and the assent to Augustine's various propositions will equally be made, if at all, by appropriating them in the first person. In these writers there is the assumption that when one says "I" or "the mind", one is naming something such that the knowledge of its existence, which is a knowledge of itself as thinking in all the various modes, determines what it is that is known to exist.

But Descartes recognized that his use of this form of argument is quite different from Augustine's: "I do indeed find that Augustine does use it to prove the certainty of our existence. He goes on to show that there is a certain likeness of the Trinity in us, in that we exist, we know that we exist, and we love the existence and the knowledge we have. I, on the other hand, use the argument to show that this I that is thinking is an immaterial substance with no bodily element. These are two very different things."

Augustine's purpose in the larger context is to establish the continuing goodness of the world following the fall. To this end, Augustine argues that "we recognize in ourselves ... an image of God, that is of the Supreme trinity. It is not an adequate image, but a very distant parallel." And this premise leads to the conclusion that "we are human beings, created in our Creator's image." Thus, for Augustine, "Self-certainty thus leads self-consciousness back to the inner consciousness of God, which is found to be more essential to consciousness than itself. For the si fallor, sum does not aim at the ego, nor does it come to a half in the res cogitans, seeing as the interior intimo meo transports it, as a derived image, toward the original exemplar. The si fallor, sum remains the simply, though first, moment of a path that, in two other more rich moments (knowing one's Being and loving it), disappropriates the mind from itself by the movement of reappropriating it to its original, God. The si fallor, sum does not assure the mind of having its principle in itself, since it does not grant it Being in itself nor saying itself by itself (like substance). On the contrary, si fallor sum forbids the mind to remain in itself, exiled from its truth, in order to send it back to the infinite original. The mind is retrieved only insofar as it is exceeded.

Descartes wants to show that "by means of the certainty of Being that thought secures for what from now on becomes an ego" that the I is an immaterial substance: "What is at stake, then, is not found simply in the connection of thought and existence, however certain this connection might be. That the mind thinks, therefore that it is insofar as it thinks – this belongs to an inference that is if not banal ... at least quite commonplace. What is peculiar to Descartes consists, as he so lucidly indicates, in interpreting the certain and necessary connection of the cogitatio and existence as establishing a substance, and moreover a substance that plays the role of first principle."

We may conclude that, despite the rather different goals of their writings, Augustine anticipated Descartes by over a thousand years, and even anticipated Anselm by five hundred years, in composing what amounts to an a priori argument directed against radical skepticism. For, although Augustine's argument makes reference to sensation, the structure of his argument is essentially a priori.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Mind or The Brain?

Modem philosophy of science has been devoted largely to the formal and systematic description of the successful practices of working scientists. The philosopher does not try to dictate how scientific inquiry and argument ought to be conducted. Instead he tries to enumerate the principles and practices that have contributed to good science. The philosopher has devoted the most attention to analyzing the methodological peculiarities of the physical sciences. The analysis has helped to clarify the nature of confirmation, the logical structure of scientific theories, the formal properties of statements that express laws and the question of whether theoretical entities actually exist.

It is only rather recently that philosophers have become seriously interested in the methodological tenets of psychology. Psychological explanations of behavior refer liberally to the mind and to states, operations and processes of the mind. The philosophical difficulty comes in stating in unambiguous language what such references imply.

Traditional philosophies of mind can be divided into two broad categories: dualist theories and materialist theories. In the dualist approach the mind is a nonphysical substance. In materialist theories the mental is not distinct from the physical; indeed, all mental states, properties, processes and operations are in principle identical with physical states, properties, processes and operations. Some materialists, known as behaviorists, maintain that all talk of mental causes can be eliminated from the language of psychology in favor of talk of environmental stimuli and behavioral responses. Other materialists, the identity theorists, contend that there are mental causes and that they are identical with neurophysiological events in the brain.

In the past fifteen years a philosophy of mind called functionalism that is neither dualist nor materialist has emerged from philosophical reflection on developments in artificial intelligence, computational theory, linguistics, cybernetics and psychology. All these fields, which are collectively known as the cognitive sciences, have in common a certain level of abstraction and a concern with systems that process information. Functionalism, which seeks to provide a philosophical account of this level of abstraction, recognizes the possibility that systems as diverse as human beings, calculating machines and disembodied spirits could all have mental states. In the functionalist view the psychology of a system depends not on the stuff it is made of (living cells, metal or spiritual energy) but on how the stuff is put together. Functionalism is a difficult concept, and one way of coming to grips with it is to review the deficiencies of the dualist and materialist philosophies of mind it aims to displace.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Gettin' Sneaky

Samuel Adams was a man of courage and integrity. As one of our founding fathers, not only does our nation owe its existence to him and his colleagues, but the world owes its concepts of modern freedom and democracy to this same group.

His contribution was to organize in Massachusetts the local committees of correspondence. After he had formed the first one in Boston during 1772, some eighty towns in the colony speedily set up similar organizations. Their chief function was to spread the spirit of resistance by exchanging letters and thus keep alive opposition to British policy. One critic referred to the committees as "the foulest, subtlest, and most venomous serpent ever issued from the egg of sedition."

Inter-colonial committees of correspondence were the next logical step. Virginia led the way in 1773 by creating such a body as a standing committee of the House of Burgesses. Within a short time, every colony had established a central committee through which it could exchange ideas and information with other colonies. These inter-colonial groups were supremely significant in stimulating and disseminating sentiment in favor of united action. They evolved directly into the first American congresses.

So, if you have liberty, if you enjoy both civil rights and human rights, if you are to express opinions and beliefs freely, if you able to make some decisions about your own life ... thank this group of sneaky note-writers!