The Four Kinds of Explanations

The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments…. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament.

...Most of us have, of course, no very definite intellectual temperament, we are a mixture of opposite ingredients, each one present very moderately.

...Temperaments with their cravings and refusals do determine men in their philosophies, and always will.

― William James

When a curiosity in the world draws your eye, and your mind begs for an explanation ― what kind of explanation do you offer it? Every effect is driven by an infinitude of causes, and each cause among them is driven in turn by yet another infinitude. Picking apart this vast interconnected web, we can see four kinds of explanatory strands, four kinds of relations which might satisfy your mind’s quest to understand.

Each of these kinds of explanations lives in its own world; communicating between these kinds is quite difficult. Much frustration might arise when we ask for an explanation, expecting some human-centric story of motivation, and instead are given some story of chemicals or atoms, or vice versa. These explanations are tools, and as tools are useful for different kinds of things. Depending on the problems we try to solve in our daily lives, we might tend towards one kind of explanations more than others, or perhaps we might tend towards one kind because of our personality, or perhaps because of some random synaptic connection in the brain…

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Rethinking the Is-Ought Chasm

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.

― Rumi

Masters of intellect have ever reached towards the stars in their endeavors. More than tools, beyond predictions, the goal of philosophy often tends towards a deeper understanding, towards answering that ultimate question, “how should we then live?”

It is a question where religion has had more success than reason, at least in terms of popularity. Somehow, the kinds of questions and answers are split, so that the answers which seem more important are inaccessible by any but the least precise ways of thinking, which would be a damning tradeoff for any philosophical endeavor.

This strange separation comes, like most such distinctions, not from some artificial barrier enforced by societal forces, but from deep within our nature.

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The Myth of "Mostly Peaceful"

The conqueror is always a lover of peace; he would prefer to take over our country unopposed.

― Carl von Clausewitz

The line between peace and war, between cooperation and coercion, is a brightline of supreme ethical importance. It separates the moral realms of what you might personally consider the best course of action versus what you are justified in forcing upon others. There no room to blur this line ― even a minor harm today can serve as a credible threat of greater harm extending far into the future, projecting force into your mind and demanding your submission.

A boxing match is "mostly peaceful", but it is still a fight. A victim of bullying does not always come home with a bloody nose, after some point they might willingly comply. A pistol held to your head is just as threatening weather its muzzle is hot, or not.

"Mostly peaceful" is a meaningless descriptor; it can encompass even the most violent extremes. Anything less than total peace is unsafe. There is no gray area between peace and coercion. If violence raises its head, it must either be renounced, or else it colors all its surroundings.

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Critical Feeling

Life is like a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue...

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Over the course of a good education, we learn to subject our beliefs and judgements to critical scrutiny. When reflexive, errant thoughts arise within our minds, we know how to combat them within ourselves and bring them in line with reality. We call this process, this collection of corrective metacognitive tools, “critical thinking”.

But when feelings arise within us, we have been given no such toolkit, no similar standard by which to judge whether these feelings are in need of correction in the first place. At best (or, perhaps, at worst), we can apply often vague, sometimes contradictory religious prescriptions of which emotions are good or bad, or perhaps evil. The precision with which we wield reason and logic may seem more taunting than inspiring, a nirvana beyond our reach.

There is a path to these elysian fields. When we recognize that our feelings are not in fact some representation of some "truer" self, but in fact are a kaleidoscope formed of naive, primal drives, we can tease apart each of these colors and, looking at them one by one, discern their purpose. Translated from flutters of the heart to context-specific goals, they become strategies no less amenable to inspection than any rational plan.

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The Illusion of Self and its Interests

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.

― Sartre

The world of stories is a world of coherence. A narrative Occam's razor cuts away passing passions, leaving enduring motivations for us to perceive. From the multitudinous emotions and actions we see played out before us, we imagine a mosaic, fractionated existences coallescing into persistent personalities and consistent characters.

It is a necessary simplification; we cannot contain in our heads each fleeting feeling, even of ourselves. And it is a useful one; across the stories we see in ourselves and in others, patterns arise which give us expectations for possible futures and handles to control those fates.

But peeling back the veil of these stories, the messy texture of existence is soon evident. The unified story we tell about the myriad of our internal selves is as arbitrary, and as not, as any history of nations. Behind the facade of harmony there are many players, often in conflict, many schemes, often shifting, and any retelling must leave out most characters and ellide most conflicts or else it could not be understood.

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The Forgotten Fascists

Fascism was born to inspire a faith not of the Right (which at bottom aspires to conserve everything, even injustice) or of the Left (which at bottom aspires to destroy everything, even goodness), but a collective, integral, national faith.

― José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of Spanish Fascism

My grandmother was born in February 1937 in Málaga, which was at the time a stronghold against the Spanish fascists. The day after she was born, the hospital was evacuated, most of the city which hadn’t already left was evacuated, and they all walked 125 miles, five marathons, along the coast to Almería. My newborn grandmother, her mother, her father, and her three older brothers travelled by night and hid by day, so that the air force could not see them and mow them down. Around five thousand Malageños, approximately one in three, were killed in that exodus. Another five thousand Malageños stayed behind, and did not evacuate. Many of those were raped, and all of them were killed and buried in mass graves.

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Transformative Learning

The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbors for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get to some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his own flame, his own intellect, but is happy to sit entranced by the lecture, and the words trigger only associative thinking and bring, as it were, only a flush to his cheeks and a glow to his limbs; but he has not dispelled or dispersed, in the warm light of philosophy, the internal dank gloom of his mind.

― Plutarch

Learning is often conceived of as some kind of accumulation of knowledge. The sedentary nature of our schools encourages this passive outlook of precious knowledge poured out from teachers onto students, for them to pour forth once again onto their exams. Much of what is taught in schools serves only this purpose, and a wise student simply discards the trivialities foisted onto them ― Napoleon's birthday, or the isle to which he was exiled, or the names of all sixty characters in Tolstoy's War and Peace. A student wiser still would never bother to learn these in the first place. By some travesty, students are graded on many of these frivolities, as if they bore any relation to future competence or marked some intellectual asset which might be redeemed at some future date.

How much of our educational energy is devoted to such futility? Modern students rightly learn its uselessness, and learn that such classes are a bore, and learn that life consists of far richer things.

Real learning is transformation, not accumulation.

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Democracy and Dialogue

When I speak of reason or rationalism, all I mean is the conviction that we can learn through criticism of our mistakes and errors, especially through criticism by others, and eventually also through self-criticism. A rationalist is simply someone for whom it is more important to learn than to be proved right; someone who is willing to learn from others — not by simply taking over another's opinions, but by gladly allowing others to criticize his ideas and by gladly criticizing the ideas of others. The emphasis here is on the idea of criticism or, to be more precise, critical discussion. The genuine rationalist does not think that he or anyone else is in possession of the truth; nor does he think that mere criticism as such helps us achieve new ideas. But he does think that, in the sphere of ideas, only critical discussion can help us sort the wheat from the chaff. He is well aware that acceptance or rejection of an idea is never a purely rational matter; but he thinks that only critical discussion can give us the maturity to see an idea from more and more sides and to make a correct judgement of it.

― Karl Popper

The ancient Greeks are often credited with the invention of two of the most important social technologies in the history of the world ― democracy and philosophy. The time between the two fills barely the blink of an eye in a timeline. How could these two massive advances have independently occurred so quickly?

It is because they are not, in fact, separate social technologies. They are, rather, both forms of a single technology, one single innovation which transformed their society and which still transforms ours: dialectic.

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Reason Can Die

It is surely harmful to souls to make it a heresy to believe what is proved.

― Galileo Galilei

There is a presumption nowadays that "progress" is an inevitable improvement, that the slow meandering of culture will by some invisible hand of morality tend towards an ever greater good. "The arc of the moral universe is long", Theodore Parker once said, "but it bends toward justice". Those words pronounce a sense of safety, assuring us that our hard-fought battles, once won, stay won forever.

But that is not true.

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Bloodless Progress

The war of ideas is a Greek invention. It is one of the most important inventions ever made. Indeed, the possibility of fighting with words and ideas instead of fighting with swords is the very basis of our civilization, and especially of all its legal and parliamentary institutions.

― Karl Popper

Death is the favorite tool of evolution. Each new generation, with its various mutations and innovations, is winnowed and pruned by contact with hard reality or by competition with its contemporaries. This holds clearly, not only in the evolution of our biology, but also in the evolution of our society. When innovation prompts the gears of progress, lives are often crushed between in their turning.

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