Monday, May 30, 2011

Bill Moyers on Memorial Day

The following video is from 2009 but it is still timely and relevant. Moyers' comments should help us to reflect more carefully on what memorial day is really about.

Here's the video:

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reflections of Eternal Life: Part 1

I've decided to do a few blog posts together as a series on the issue of - for lack of a better term - "life after death." I don't know how many posts this series will finish up with, although I'm sure I will write at least three. I should begin with a candid admission that I am agnostic regarding life after death. I simply do not know - and am pretty sure that none of us can know - anything about what might happen to us after death (other than the facts that our bodies will decompose).

I thought, however, that I ought to compose a few reflections on the topic, since it has of late become something of a newsworthy item.

A well known evangelical pastor has recently come out with a book questioning the existence of Hell. There is, predictably, much controversy over this. The Religious left has long embraced this universalist conclusion, and the religious right damns it as blasphemy. But in my opinion he is only half right. I think it is VERY UNLIKELY that anything like the traditional concept of a personal afterlife can be true.

The idea that after death we will hang out again with Grandma and the beloved family dog we lost at age 12 is without any support of any kind. And it requires a commitment to the view of God as a supernatural being "out there" somewhere in a equally supernatural heaven; a God who makes plans, has intentions, thoughts, feelings, and will judge our merit (or gracefully forgive us all our failings) based on our moral behavior.

Belief in such a person-like God is hard to sustain given the impersonal nature of the laws that govern the physical world, the vast age and size of the universe, and the rather obvious historical development of that concept of God over time together with its clear role as a psychological projection. This is not to say that I embrace atheism. I do not. But I think that any viable conception of God must recognize that the view of God as person-like and supernatural is deeply problematic. If we are to retain concepts of deity, they must be of a different nature. I've discussed this elsewhere and refer my readers to that earlier material.

The reader may already guess where I am going with this. Just as it is possible to reject a supernatural and person-like creator without eliminating God all together, it seems to me that it is possible to reject a continuation of ourselves as persons after death without rejecting some essential continuation of ourselves all together. What I have in mind is something like this: Perhaps it is true that we do not "go to heaven," do not continue to exist after death in the same person-like state (filled with memories, images, sense-perception etc.) after our death - at any rate I'm inclined to believe that we do not so exist; but this need not mean that we completely cease to exist. It could well be that there are important senses in which something non-personal but essential about us continues to exist for eternity.

It is such non-personal conceptions of eternal life that I will consider in my future posts for this series.

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dissertation Defense : Videos of the Questions and Answers Round 1

Following the post of my summary of the dissertation, I thought I'd add some videos of the first round of the question and answers sessions. In many ways this is more important and interesting than my summary:

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Spinoza's theory of individuals: Video of my dissertation defense

Hello Readers!

I successfully defended my dissertation today and am now "Dr. Wion." It is very nice to have earned this degree after 16 years of toil, debt, and struggle. I provide here the videos of my summary of the dissertation. The Q&A sections of the defense will be posted later. If you don't know Spinoza's thought that well, I recommend that you read the Introduction to my dissertation which I have pasted here right below the video.


Spinoza speaks often of individuals. Indeed, the well-being of a particular set of individuals, namely human individuals, is the principal focus of his philosophy. Naturally we expect such a systematic philosopher as Spinoza to provide a theory about what, precisely, an individual is. This expectation is bound to be present with regard to any philosopher who stresses the importance of individuals. For Spinoza, however, the problem is particularly acute, for he famously argues that there is only one substance, one self-existent being. If there is only one substance, it seems to follow that there is only one individual. Since substance in the western philosophical tradition is ordinarily restricted to particular individuals, this seems to be a sensible conclusion. It thus appears that Spinoza would conclude that there is only one individual. He does not do this, however. He repeatedly speaks of individuals in the plural, in particular of human individuals and their well-being. It is obvious that Spinoza holds that there are multiple individuals. Since he holds that there are many individuals but only one substance, it follows that most individuals are not substances. This invites the question of what an individual is for Spinoza.

In this study, my principal concern is to answer the question of what Spinoza holds an individual to be. My secondary aim is to argue that Spinoza's conception of an individual has important moral and political consequences regarding the nature of the state and the role of the community in the life of the individual.

I will present my reading of what an individual is for Spinoza and the moral and political implications that follow from his conception of individuals over the course of five chapters. Chapter 1 will argue for and explain my reading of Spinoza's system as a whole. We cannot begin to understand Spinoza’s conception of an individual without a firm grasp of the nature of his larger metaphysical system. This means that we must first clarify Spinoza’s central metaphysical concepts. These concepts are principally found in Ethics 1 and 2. They include the concepts of substance, attributes, and modes, as well as the central ideas which Spinoza offers on the relationship of the mind to the body, and his argument for universal casual determinism. A thorough investigation of Spinoza’s conception of the individual requires an adequate comprehension of these concepts.

In my second chapter, I will look closely both at Spinoza's primary texts for his understanding of what an individual is and at the work of leading interpreters on this aspect of his thought. The critical issue that I will examine in chapter 2 is what exactly counts as an individual for Spinoza. Although this issue, for reasons that will be presented, cannot be fully resolved, I will venture some conclusions about the origins of Spinoza's account of individuals and what he considers to be paradigmatic individuals.

Chapter 3 proceeds from the doctrine of individuals in general to a particular application of that doctrine. My focus here will be on whether or not the state (or “civil society”) counts as an individual. This question is important because Spinoza claims that the human individual is part of some larger individual, though he never explicitly says what this larger individual is. Since, for Spinoza, to be part of a larger individual is to have one's very nature determined by that individual, it is absolutely critical to determine what that individual is. In this chapter, therefore, I will carefully examine the work of Alexandre Matheron and his critics, primarily Steve Barbone and Lee Rice. Matheron argues that Spinoza thinks of a civil society as a kind of individual of which human beings are a part. Rice and Barbone argue against Matheron's reading.

In chapter 4, I will shift my analysis to the moral and political implications that follow from Spinoza's understanding of what an individual is. I will argue that Spinoza, contrary to some common readings of him, is not an egoist. Spinoza is not an egoist because his conception of individuals is primarily a relational one; whereas egoism, I will argue, depends upon a non-relational theory of individuals. To demonstrate this contrast between a relational and non-relational understanding of individuals and its role in interpreting Spinoza's position, I will carefully examine the work of feminist scholars who have written extensively on this issue. I will also contrast the work of these thinkers with the contribution of Rice.

Chapter 5 will briefly examine some political implications for Spinoza's theory of the individual. In particular, I will argue that Spinoza's understanding of the individual requires a strong commitment to what is often called “the welfare state.” To illustrate his commitment to a strong welfare state, I will argue, on the basis of his general political theory and several key texts, that Spinoza would support universal health care coverage.

Bookmark and Share