Richard J. Eisner: Writer / Philosopher

Below are samples of my writing, preceded by a list. Most of the pieces are taken from a philosophy club's now-defunct website, where members posted comments and arguments on various topics. When that website existed, I simply, here, gave a list of my writings posted there, a link to the site, and instructions how to find my articles on it. Now that the other site no longer is, if I want anyone to read the articles, I have to post them on websites of my own. Some of the pieces explicitly reply to other members’ remarks. I do not post the remarks to which I’m replying (either because I have no copy of those remarks, or for other reasons); and I was disinclined to rewrite my piece to obviate this explanation, which I hope will suffice. If an essay is posted on its own dedicated website (containing only that essay), I simply provide a link to the website, instead of posting the piece again here.

  1. 1. Purpose in War: a Rebuttal     © 3 December 2004 by Richard J. Eisner

  2. 2. Egoism: a Rebuttal     © 9 January 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  3. 3. Determinism     © 12 March 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  4. 4. Free Will     © 23 April 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  5. 5. Why Are We Here?     © 2 April 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  6. 6. Pascal's Wager Argument: a Rebuttal     © 9 July 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  7. 7. Wager: Rebuttal to Epsilon     © 27 August 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  8. 8. Democracy     © 7 August 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  9. 9. Theology and Falsification     © 29 May 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  10. 10. Utopia     © 29 October 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  11. 11. Knowledge     © 1 April 2006 by Richard J. Eisner

  12. 12. Why Be Moral?     © 2 February 2007 by Richard J. Eisner

  13. 13. Four Critiques of Buddhism     © 17 November 2007 by Richard J. Eisner

  14. 14. A Foolish Consistency     © 8 March 2007 by Richard J. Eisner

  15. 15. The Impossibility of Knowledge, Free Will, and God     © 24 May 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

  16. 16. The Rationality and Ethics of Voting     © April 2017 by Richard J. Eisner

  17. 17. Why the Left Should Vote     © 27 February 2008 by Richard J. Eisner

  18. 18. Conservatism     © 27 November 2008 by Richard J. Eisner

  19. 19. Mark Twain Ghost Speech     © 4 July 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

  20. 20. Boundaries     © 28 July 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

  21. 21. Life After Death     © 29 August 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

  1. 1. Purpose in War: a Rebuttal     © 3 December 2004 by Richard J. Eisner

At the 21 November 2004 meeting of the Philosophy Club, a member—I believe it was Ron—asserted that the United States’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, though the Bush administration’s cause therein was bad, was nonetheless beneficial, and therefore justified (the end justifies the means). I agree that the war was begun and pursued with evil intent, but respectfully disagree with the rest of the aforesaid thesis, as follows.

            Specifically concerning Iraq, this war has caused enormous damage, among which, in addition to the huge tax burden, is massive loss of life and limb; widespread destruction of property, including irreplaceable, priceless artifacts; virtually permanent radioactive contamination of Iraq’s land; and increased world hatred of the United States, with consequent heightened risk for all Americans of terrorist reprisal. These terrible and mounting costs are no more balanced (let alone outweighed, let alone justified) by the admitted evil of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein than the loss of a hand is offset by the presence on it of a wart (and the suggestion that those opposed to this war favor Saddam Hussein makes no more sense than the charge that those against severing the hand are in favor of warts).

            More generally, to judge aggression rather by its outcome than by its purpose would be counter-utilitarian. The reason is that it will often be difficult to prove that a war did more harm than good. And if our condemnation of aggressors must depend on and await such proof, we will be able to punish very few of them, which will impair a major disincentive to such aggression and thus considerably increase it. So the question is whether ill-intended hostility is bad on the whole. I submit that it is. Ron, in denying the importance of purpose in this connection, drew a medical analogy, arguing that, if a surgeon performs an operation from motives other than the patient’s health, say from greed, and yet the surgery is competent and successful, then it was desirable and the physician’s purpose irrelevant. This hypothetical example, however, assumes that, in addition to the surgeon’s ulterior motive of greed, is a valid ostensive purpose (the patient’s well-being). But aggression often has no purpose beyond the ulterior motive, as the United States’s (initial) announced reason to invade Iraq (immanent, serious threat posed by “weapons of mass destruction”) turned out to be a fraud. Hence the appropriate surgical analogy for an ill-intentioned war is, not a well or poorly done operation, but an unnecessary one. Just as surgery, unlike some other medical procedures such as massage, is inherently destructive, so, too, is war. And while a surgeon may sometimes put his medical fee to better use than would his patient, and an aggressor put the spoils to better use than would the conquered; and while occasionally other good may accidentally result; in the vast majority of cases, and overall, the harm (not even counting the dread engendered by the possibility of gratuitous medical or martial incursion) will be far greater. This is why both surgery and war are universally—justly—considered wrong unless undertaken for proper purposes . . . which do not include greed.

  1. 2. Egoism: a Rebuttal     © 9 January 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

In his (on-line) essay “True Morality: Rational Principles for Optimal Living” Peter Voss writes that ethics should be a “system that we enthusiastically pursue, not from duty . . . but for personal benefit . . . ” In essence, Voss is advocating egoism, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “the ethical belief that self-interest is the just and proper motive for all human conduct.”

            I agree that self-interest is a proper motive, but disagree that it is the (sole) proper motive. One difficulty with egoism is that it disregards other people. Voss notes, “This does not mean that what is good for us is necessarily detrimental to others—life is not a zero-sum game. Fortunately, many rational [that is, egoistic] moral principles benefit both ourselves and others.” That “many egoistic moral principles benefit both ourselves and others” suggests that perhaps some egoistic moral principles do not benefit both ourselves and others, which latter category Voss does not address. Imagine you are walking and you happen upon a drowning man, whom you could easily save by tossing a nearby life preserver; but doing so would cause you to be two minutes late for your (very edifying) Book Club meeting. Egoism would compel, or justify, your letting the man drown. (I suppose that would be unfortunate?)

            Another problem with Egoism is that its pronouncement that self-interest is “the proper motive for all human conduct” implies duty, which (duty) Egoism explicitly denies. More important, self-interest, the impulse to advantage oneself, is more accurately characterized as motivation than obligation. Indeed, the theory’s flaw might be capsuled as the confusion of motivation with morality.

            From a broader perspective, there is a fundamental, age-old, quite real dichotomy of the individual’s welfare and society’s (the two do not necessarily conflict, but, because resources are scarce, they tend to); and there is something contradictory about urging the general adoption of a doctrine of self-seeking, about recommending to the group that which is against the group’s interest. Egoism is a pseudo-ethic; it is naked selfishness attempting to look respectable by dressing itself up as a philosophy.

  1. 3. Determinism     © 12 March 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

Debra poses these questions:

“1. Do we live in a deterministic world, or do random events occur?

2. If we could roll back the clock to the big bang, or to 5 seconds ago, would events unfold the same way?

3. If random events occur, how small a chance was human evolution?”

I believe in causal determinism. A rerun universe would no more unfold differently than would a rerun movie.

The answer to the query about random phenomena depends on the definition of random, one such (per The American Heritage Dictionary) being “Having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective.” Thus defined, randomness and determinism are consistent, because causation does not entail purpose. If I fire a gun into the air on New Year’s Eve, and the bullet comes down a mile away and kills John Doe, Doe’s death was random, since it was not intended; but it was causally determined, by the position of the gun when it was fired, the weight of the bullet, the wind speed, and so forth.

Randomness in the larger, metaphysical sense, on the other hand, is, I think, inconsistent with determinism, in that there is no chance that given conditions will proceed otherwise than one certain way. Perhaps randomness and probability, strictly speaking, refer, in this context, just to our state of mind, our expectation. For instance, we might say that rain is seventy percent likely; yet either it will rain, or it will not rain. The “seventy percent” describes the uncertainty of our knowledge about the event, not any uncertainty in the event itself.

Postscript: Einstein’s dictum “God does not play dice with the universe” is problematic, in suggesting an example (dice-playing) of that (randomness) which the statement purports to deny.

  1. 4. Free Will     © 23 April 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

Free will is impossible, thus. It is not sufficient, for free will, that your will cause your action. It is additionally necessary that your will not be caused by something other than you. But your will must be caused by something. If it is not caused by something other than you, it must be caused by you (you must will your will). But, for the same reason, you must also will your will to will, and so back ad infinitum, a situation that cannot be, as our first will is given to us, at birth. Which is just to say that, ultimately, we do not cause ourselves, but rather are caused (causal determinism).

            The problem is that we seem to have free will; and, without it, a man is not truly responsible for his conduct, in which case, arguably, it is wrong to punish him for it. The solution, I think, is to frankly distinguish between the theoretical and the practical, and to posit a sort of utile fictitious free-will analogue. (Although we might regard the latter as the freedom, within limits, to effect our wishes, while our wishes themselves are beyond our control; this, too, finally, is merely a convenient mode of expression, for wishes encompass the inclination whether, and how, to act on an urge, and, more broadly, determinism entails that conditions, including our wishes, proceed in just one certain way.)

            In this quotidian world in which we appear to have a degree of control over our actions, we seem to shape our behavior, to an extent, by predicted consequences. Therefore, since, for example, some persons refrain from robbing banks at least in part because they understand that they may be punished for it; we know that, in practice, if we want to protect our money, we must make a law restricting people’s bank withdrawals to amounts they have deposited or that the bank voluntarily lends them, and penalize those who break the law. Hence practicality justifies—nay, necessitates—the imposition of punishment. Furthermore concerning retribution, the principle that humans are not responsible for their actions would apply also to our act of meting out punishment, and so absolve us for that as well. Or, if we are responsible for penalizing whom we consider wrongdoers, then so also are they for their actions. In other words, the argument against punishment is contradictory, in that it assumes free will as to the act of punishing, but a lack of free will as to the acts punished.

            Similarly rationalizing the use of this pragmatic free-will counterpart is its consistent application, even by those of us who deny the strict form. As I hold others accountable for their deeds, I likewise expect to be held accountable for mine; just as, correspondingly, though I know that, in the end, a writer does not create his compositions, I am nonetheless chagrined at a poor piece of work, and proud of a good one.

  1. 5. Why Are We Here?     © 2 April 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

“Why are we here?” is a variant of the proverbial query about “the meaning of life.” One signification of “meaning” in this connection is value (including disvalue), which has both an objective and a subjective sense. The objective form is intrinsic value, whose presence or absence is a fact, or truth, independent of our opinion about it. My own opinion (though I will not rehearse the argument for it) is that intrinsic value is impossible. Subjective worth, on the other hand, is, if you will, the value that what we value (say, our own life, or even life in general) has to us.

            A second definition of “meaning” here is purpose, to which the objective-subjective dichotomy likewise pertains. Since objective purpose overlaps, and depends on, objective worth (as Aristotle said, a thing’s purpose is to seek its essential good); the impossibility of absolute value entails the impossibility of absolute purpose. It seems to me that purpose in this context is just (subjective) intention, and that, therefore, the concept “the purpose of life” is unsound because purpose, being a state of mind, is a property, not of life, but of individuals; and because, contrary to the phrase’s implication of a unity of purpose (“the”), not all our purposes have the same object, not even happiness, which we often sacrifice for other desiderata (what we value [or believe is intrinsically valuable] may be a factor in determining our pursuits). (In further consequence, your “mission in life” does not exist prior to and independent of you, awaiting your discovery of it, but instead arises from you.)

            To the argument that life’s purpose is objective in consisting in its creator’s (God’s) purpose for it, I would offer this response. If God could not possibly change His mind in this regard, then life’s purpose would be akin to intrinsic purpose, which, as discussed, I reject (and God would be extraneous). Or, if God could alter His purpose for life, then it is not necessary or universal, but merely contingent, one percipient’s (subjective) intent. Be that as it may, men frequently purpose to perform God’s will. But I wonder: Considering that any course of events (including our actions) willed by an omnipotent being would inevitably come to pass, regardless of our little effort for or against it; what is the logic in the notion of attempting to discover and do God’s will? Alternatively, what adjustment would we make in our purpose to carry out God’s will if we supposed that God wants us simply to do what is best for humanity?

            A third acceptation of “meaning” of life is a combination of the other two, and is captured by “meaningful.” When we pursue meaning in our lives, we are seeking purpose and value. Which meaning, again, is subjective, and something each person must generate for himself. What we search for in this respect is, not meaning, per se, but rather a sense of meaning; not the meaning, but a meaning . . . which I have found in writing about such philosophical questions.

  1. 6. Pascal's Wager Argument: a Rebuttal     © 9 July 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

In his “Wager” argument, Pascal reasons that, since belief in God, if the belief were true, would infinitely gratify the believer; therefore, however low the probability of God’s existence, so long as that likelihood is finite (not zero or infinitesimal), it pays, and so is rational, even rationally compelled, to (try to) believe. Preliminarily, a clarification. Infinite experience, happy or otherwise, for a finite being, is impossible: attainable neither instantaneously nor cumulatively (no matter how long finite increments accrue, you never reach infinity). Nonetheless, if the improbability of God’s existence is both finite and fixed, some sufficiently large finite quantum of pleasure will outbalance it, and eventually accumulate. Hence, in this context, we should use “endless” instead of “infinite.”

            Pascal’s argument, though, contains a number of significant faults that I think are not repairable. One is the notion that belief is a choice. Even if I could acquire great benefit by coming to believe “Thrice two is four” or “Earth is flat”; I don’t think I could so convince myself.

            A more fundamental flaw is that, almost question-begging, the argument depends upon a degree of the very beliefs that are the subject of its conclusion. If you think it is twenty-six percent likely that God exists, but that, if God did exist and you believed in His existence twice as strongly (more than fifty percent—more likely than not), then you would get unending happiness—in these circumstances, it might be perfectly reasonable to take steps to thus augment your belief in God (if, again, you also believed you could succeed therein). But if you lack those beliefs, if you firmly disbelieve in God or Heaven (let alone if you think that God would better reward nonbelievers), then your spending valuable time attempting to cause yourself to believe in God would be no more rational than, say, giving your fortune to a stranger on the street in response to his assurance that your doing so would bring you eternal bliss (an argument of exactly the same form as Pascal’s).

            A further, equally basic error in Pascal’s argument is this: the argument’s apparent persuasiveness derives largely from its mathematical structure, its irrefutable assertion that an infinite (or an ever-increasing) volume is greater than a definite one. Even granting the (doubtful) supposition that human choice is a mechanical, computational process, however, such reasoning assumes that the elements whose quantities are compared are equivalent, the implicit common unit being happiness. But not all desiderata are commensurable. And a man’s choice among them is ultimately subjective; he may rationally choose (and choose to spend his time pursuing) wisdom (which is explicitly sacrificed here) or glory, for instance, over (even perpetual) pleasure. In fact, a sure advantage, versus a speculative (if potentially larger) one, also amounts to an incommensurable qualitative difference, likewise a matter of personal preference.

            Finally, Pascal’s implication that reason dictates your choosing to believe in God, is ironic. The philosopher’s thesis includes two components: the decision and the belief. Because either choice, to try to believe, or not, is justifiable, depending on your existing beliefs and values; the decision is, as it were, rationality-neutral. But Pascal urges you to adopt a belief you think false, to believe what you disbelieve, to delude yourself. Ergo, Pascal’s proposition, far from being mandated by rationality, involves an irrationality.

  1. 7. Wager: Rebuttal to Epsilon     © 27 August 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

This replies to Epsilon’s 10 July 2005 entry (which responds to my 9 July 2005 comment on Pascal’s “Wager”). Epsilon first argues that a human is infinite, thus: Our existence includes phenomena, like meaning, beauty, and truth, that are not measurable. What is finite is measurable. Therefore, if it is not measurable, it is not finite; and if it is not finite, it is infinite. One flaw in this reasoning lies in the equation of not-finite with infinite, or the assumption that a thing is either finite or infinite. Such inference is valid with respect to entities that have magnitude, but not as to those that lack it, which things are neither finite nor infinite. And the phenomena that Epsilon cites (meaning, beauty, truth) are of the latter sort (Epsilon himself says these are entities “to which measurable magnitude does not apply”). Alternatively, that we include an infinite phenomenon does not mean we include an infinite amount thereof. Space may be infinite; but a man encompasses only a finite portion of it. Nor does our being greater than the sum of our parts imply that we are infinite.

            The reference, in my earlier piece, to the shape of the Earth was (obviously) meant to illustrate the simple point that belief is less a choice than a fact, not necessarily changeable by an act of will. When I read Epsilon’s words (second paragraph), “For anyone who believes in these things [evidence that Earth is round], then it is impossible to convince them that the Earth is flat”; I thought he was agreeing with me. When I read his next sentence, however, “But for one who does not believe in such things, it is very hard to convince them that it is round” . . . I realized that I am utterly at a loss to know what Epsilon’s point is.

            In his third paragraph, Epsilon writes, “[P]ost-rational beliefs do not simply follow the rules of logic . . . because they also follow other rules that cannot be reduced to logical arguments and are therefore more advanced. . . . [W]ho is to say that an irrational belief isn't more advanced than a rational one?” To begin with, Epsilon confuses nonrational and irrational; not-follow and violate. When I eat breakfast, I am not following traffic rules; but neither am I violating them: they simply do not apply. My breakfast is non-legal, not il-legal. But if I jaywalk while eating toast, that the toast is nutritious does not render my action lawful. Merely that a statement does not follow logical rules does not make it irrational; but if it is irrational (if it infringes logical rules), its conformance with other principles will not negative its irrationality. And, since philosophy is a rational affair, the irrational is bad philosophy (the purely nonrational is not philosophy). On the other hand, it is true that an argument might seem illogical just because, ahead of its time or highly sophisticated, it is not immediately understood. But our judgment’s fallibility does not foreclose its viability. That I occasionally miscount my change does not mean I should abandon the attempt. Indeed, the very notion of the advancement of our thought presupposes both judgment, by which we discern the more and the less advanced, and criticism, whereby, through argument, we test each other’s ideas (count our philosophical change, and inspect it for the sometimes overlooked rare gold coin but also for the far more common slug), come to recognize our past deficiencies, winnow out the unsound, and so intellectually advance.

  1. 8. Democracy     © 7 August 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

I find Plato’s philosopher-king argument for monarchy unsound and, further, disagree with its conclusion (I favor democracy), as follows. Plato’s argument, most fundamentally, is this. There is something which is intrinsically good. Other supposed desiderata count for nothing; and, unless a human lives as to partake of or achieve the one true good, all is lost, his potentially significant life is naught. Moreover, this final desideratum is not the subject of common knowledge, for opinions about what is good vary greatly, and all such opinions, except the single right one, are wrong. Consequently, just as you would need the special expertise of a physician to know what is a healthy life, you need the special knowledge and wisdom of a philosopher to know what is a good life. And, since the people need a governor who knows what is good, in order to lead them to it, and because philosophers, and only they, can be counted on to know what is good, the ruler must be a philosopher. And just as the patient must follow the orders of his physician, subjects must obey the philosopher-king.

            Plato is of course correct that the purpose of government is to help citizens live good lives. If, additionally, just one sort of life is actually good, it is perhaps not terribly unreasonable to argue that the person most likely to be able to ascertain it be responsible to do so and that his determination therein be followed. But I believe that intrinsic good is impossible. And, if no sort of life is ultimately better than another, there would seem no justification to demand that a person live other than as he desires (consistent with the well-being of his neighbors); and I would construe good here as a man’s own sense of satisfaction, however he pleases to define it. This relative conception of good suggests to me that, by and large, we do what society as a whole find most satisfying, which contraindicates autocracy, for, if one man’s, or even a small minority’s, preferences (even if selflessly motivated) are always adopted, then, on balance, the group will be less satisfied than if, through a democratic, accommodating system, the majority’s preferences are taken, or everyone’s interests are proportionately indulged. It is as if a band of six (mature, independent) individuals needed to choose a movie to watch every week. Suppose one person likes comedy shows; four others enjoy dramas; and the remaining one (the philosopher among them) prefers educational/philosophical films. Under my plan, a democratic mode would fulfill everyone’s interests as far as possible (and maximize net satisfaction), perhaps by viewing a comedy movie one week, a philosophical presentation another, and dramatic shows a number of weeks. Under Plato’s doctrine, the philosopher would be in control, and a philosophical film would be the choice every week. Though the philosopher might think this is for everyone’s edification and good; in reality, all that would be happening is that the philosopher would have his way, have his interests met, all the time; the other members, never: the philosopher would in this respect be constantly satisfied, the others constantly dissatisfied; and overall satisfaction would be less.

            If we interpret philosopher more broadly as one who is thoughtful and conscientious, Plato’s argument involves another problem. Presumably, such good men can also be elected; so the question is, Why is the head of state more likely to be a good man in an autocracy than in a democracy? I see no apparent reason therefor. In fact, the opposite seems more probable. In a monarchy, the governor is randomly determined by birth (or some similar happenstance); whereas, in a democracy, we can deliberately select him on the basis of leadership traits. Plus, if the ruler starts to govern selfishly, only democracy enables the people, without violence, to replace him; and his knowledge that he can be replaced makes his ouster less often needed (“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”). And here, again, optimization of public satisfaction requires, in addition to a benign leader, a mechanism whereby the people’s wishes can be given effect.

            Finally, I prefer democracy to autocracy on grounds, not only of utility, but also of principle, the principle that competent, mature humans have, or should have, a right to equal participation in decisions that affect them and for whose benefit the decisions are supposedly made—in short, that men have a right to determine their own lives. But this principle entails yet another matter of utility. Given men’s instinctive, and, I think, quite reasonable, feeling that they have a right to share in their state’s governance; then, even in the unlikely event that a monarchy conduced to society’s welfare as effectively as a democracy, the people would still be less satisfied, since they would have an additional source of substantive unhappiness in their lives: resentment at being excluded from the decision.

  1. 9. Theology and Falsification     © 29 May 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

In his 3 April 2005 Critique of Antony Flew’s essay “Theology and Falsification,” Ron writes, “In this essay Flew relies on an incorrect understanding of what falsification is. Take this comment in particular:

            [Ron quoting Flew:] ‘Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding “There wasn’t a God after all” or “God does not really love us then.”’

            [Ron continuing:] “But that has nothing to do with falsifiability. What will convince a believer regarding the truth of a proposition is distinct from whether the proposition is in fact falsifiable.”

            Flew ends his essay by asking religious persons, “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?” According to Ron, because falsifiability is an objective property, independent of acceptance or rejection, Flew’s query about what the devotee would accept as falsification of his beliefs is irrelevant.

            But it seems to me that the misunderstanding is Ron’s, not Flew’s, who I think makes a good case for his inquiry’s dual relevance, as follows. One purpose of Flew’s question is to deal with a certain logical double standard sometimes employed by believers. The faithful often cite factual evidence for their opinions. But one assumes that, if evidence could be adduced for a conclusion, evidence might be adduced against it. Flew is addressing the hypocrisy of the religious man who, aware that his offering evidence for his claims obliges him to be at least potentially open to counter-evidence, purports to be open thereto, but whose conduct belies it (he glibly explains away and dismisses aught that might contravene his dogma). Flew confronts this deceit by stating his conviction that the religionist would in fact never accept anything as falsifying his beliefs, and challenging him to show Flew wrong in this regard by saying what he would accept as falsification.

            More fundamentally relevant, falsification is essential to truth, nay, to meaning itself. If you do not know when a statement is false, you cannot know when it is true (“true” is “not-false”). If your acquaintance tells you, “I have several paintings in my home,” but later, upon seeing a chair in your office, he exclaims in earnest, “Oh, you, too, have a painting!”; you can no longer credit his original announcement, for apparently he does not know what a painting is. To know what is a painting, you must know what is not a painting. With respect to a grand religious declaration, like one about God’s existence, or His love, whose presence allegedly benefits men, at least, or especially, the devout; unless the world would look different depending on whether the utterance is true or false, the assertion is meaningless; and, unless you know how the world would look (different) if the belief were false, you do not know its meaning, much less its truth (and the proselytizer has the burden to define and prove his doctrine).

            Postscript: Religion is faith, which The American Heritage Dictionary defines as “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.” Since the ultimate suppositions of science and philosophy are likewise unprovable, however, we must go on to say that what most basically distinguishes faith from those disciplines is that it involves, not critical thinking, but rather the suspension of critical thinking; and, concomitantly, it seeks, not truth, but comfort (the intuition by which we accept mathematical axioms is qualitatively different from faith, inasmuch as a reasonable man cannot deny them . . . and that a belief is comforting neither implies nor suggests that it is true). So perhaps the central incongruity here is (rational) argument on (essentially a-rational) religion.

  1. 10. Utopia     © 29 October 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

The closest we can come to effecting happiness, which cannot be done, is to advance the freedom to pursue it. Essential, however, to the freedom to seek happiness is basic economic well-being, for only when we are relieved of the constant struggle for mere life do we have time and energy to pursue what makes life worthwhile. But utopia, by definition, or at least by connotation, is good for all of its inhabitants, not just for a few, which entails widespread economic well-being, which, in turn, given the scarcity of material resources, requires the sharing of such wealth, and a limit on individual amassment of it.

  1. 11. Knowledge     © 1 April 2006 by Richard J. Eisner

In his 15 October 2005 entry, Brian raises, among kindred issues, the central question: Is knowledge (in the strict, philosophical sense) possible? A useful point of departure here is Descartes. He holds that certain of our ideas, including those we acquire through sense perception, such as that we walk and eat, are unknowable, because a powerful demon could deceive us about such matters—we could be hallucinating. But Descartes maintains that we can know other truths, as an example of which, he cites his famous aphorism “I think, therefore I am.” The essence of you is your awareness. When you are aware, you are. At least in this instance, to think is to be aware. When you think “I think, therefore I am,” you think; you are aware; and you are. “I think, therefore I am,” whenever you rehearse it to yourself, is consequently self-confirming, and deception-proof. (Based on these observations, Descartes proposes an axiomatic, quasi mathematical method of philosophy, a means of gaining knowledge, whose most fundamental rule is to receive just utterances [like “I think, therefore I am,” and specifically excluding ones based on sense perception] that are so clear as to be irresistible to the mind.)

            My own view is that we can know no statements at all (only our raw consciousness itself). For our sense of sureness, our sense of “irresistible clarity,” regarding them (statements) is ultimately unreliable, in that we could theoretically possess that same sensation about false or meaningless propositions. Many times in a dreaming or half-dreaming state I have thought some concept was utterly clear, and wished to write it down, but, on waking, immediately realized that the idea was nonsensical. Even if our perception properly corresponds with truth, we have no way finally to check that connection. (Remember, the issue is not, Are we right?, but, Do we know?) Hence, as to any given proposition I might accept, I believe that it is true (perhaps even absolutely true), but that I cannot know it. (Since our lack of knowledge pervades every kind of proposition and manner of reasoning, we cannot work around it by avoiding certain forms or modes of thought; and maybe the only helpful prescription along these lines is simply the age-old advice to be self-critical and to think and write as clearly as one can.)

            Brian mentions the paradox of the use of reason to determine reason’s own limit. But, I concur with Brian, this is no more contradictory than the use of our mind to determine our mind’s own limit, in, say, recognizing, late at night, that we would be too tired to read and comprehend a difficult book. Similarly, though, one might contend that my disavowal of knowledge is inconsistent, as follows. If I do not know the truth of any proposition, then I do not know the truth of “It is impossible that I know.” Ergo, I am leaving open the possibility (or, I believe) that “It is impossible that I know” might be false, and this translates to “It is possible that I know,” which contradicts my original position. The flaw in this “paradox” is its assuming (counter to one of our own premises) necessarily that our claims (in this case, “I cannot know”) are coherent and that we understand them. If “I cannot know” turned out rather to be something like “Waters enhance the tonic chord,” my professed ignorance of the assertion’s truth would be entirely consistent. Which confusion we cannot rule out. Consider this analogy. You have a million sheets of paper. On one is written a mystery sentence. The rest are inscribed, “Thrice four is twelve.” One page is taken at random and you have no information as to which message it bears. You believe that the statement on it is true, but you do not know it; and yet you do not think that “Three fours are twelve” could be false . . .

            In answer to a final question, which Brian asks, Is the aforesaid a limit on all knowledge, or just on human knowledge?; I believe that the limitation is an inherent one . . . in a word, that knowledge is impossible.

  1. 12. Why Be Moral?     © 2 February 2007 by Richard J. Eisner

In “Why Be Moral? A Dilemma for Nontheists?” (2001), Keith M. Parsons argues that there is a metaphysical source or ground of moral obligation, that there are objectively true moral precepts, such as “The gratuitous infliction of harm is intrinsically wrong and therefore ought not to be done.” I dissent. Precepts (rules of conduct) are not true or false, let alone demonstrably or absolutely so. There is no fact of the matter (only that fact). Like purpose, duty is merely a state of mind, the sense of duty, existing just when and as we experience it, and whose content is virtually unlimited. For example, a man might (perhaps inspired by a vision wherein the doctrine is revealed as a command of God, who—it is well known—works in mysterious ways) adopt this version of the foregoing no-gratuitous-harm principle: “I should do good to my friends and harm to my enemies; and if the harm is intrinsic, so much the better.” Even if such a tenet is unquestioned and globally accepted, the point is that one could differ (logically, if not socially). Nor do we make something a part of the structure of the universe by consensus. And human nature is not metaphysics. It is useful, even necessary, to construct moral laws and to render moral judgments; but we should understand that we do so in relative, human terms, and not in absolute, metaphysical ones.

            Postscript: Given the subjectivity of ethical obligation, the question “Why should we be moral?” reduces to “Why should we do what we feel we should do?,” which is nonsensical.

            Post postscriptum: Parsons cites as an exemplar of ethical objectivism John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” argument: that a person ignorant of his eventual social circumstances, rich or poor, able-bodied or disabled, and so on, would, to account for his possible relative disadvantage, elect an equitable state. Rawls’s thesis is circular, positing an act as its own reason. Thus, just as I scratch my neck, not because I would scratch it, but because it would relieve my itch; and I forbid my toddler to cross the street, not because I would forbid it, but because it would make him safer; so, too, here, we choose egalitarianism, not because we would choose it, but, rather, say, because we would benefit from it. Which criticism, however, is secondary to the aforesaid more general one: Our vision of the sort of world we should create is not true or false; ultimately, we cannot prove it, but only speak on it, and hope that our words will move others to feel the same.

  1. 13. Four Critiques of Buddhism     © 17 November 2007 by Richard J. Eisner

One.    A fundament of Buddhism is the nonexistence of the self. Suffering, however, is not an unindividuated mass, like air, but rather an (individual) experience: When I die, my suffering ends, yours continues. The self is the individual: I am myself; you, yourself. Were there no self, no one would suffer, and there would be no suffering; but, obviously, and as Buddhism recognizes, suffering exists. Hence, there is a self: it is that which suffers.

             Two.    The first of Buddhism’s “Four Noble Truths” declares that the ultimate aim is to eliminate suffering. That is a valid goal, and yet the most efficient means to its attainment is suicide, which seems a bad remedy. The resolution is that the cessation of suffering is only half the object: We live, not merely to extinguish the negative, but as well to effect the positive (such as joy and enlightenment). Death is an unsatisfactory solution because, though it achieves the former, it also precludes the latter. Verily, the termination of suffering is a reason not to live, not a reason to live.

             Three.    Buddhism’s fourth “Noble Truth,” which in essence teaches that enlightenment, and only enlightenment, liberates us from suffering, is equally problematic, thus. If an enlightened person with terminal cancer runs out of pain medicine, he will suffer, despite his enlightenment; nor are philosophers immune to boredom, depression, or sadness. Conversely, a dose of heroin will (at least temporarily) disperse an ignorant man’s anguish; and there is much truth in the old saying “Ignorance is bliss.” In reality, both the wise man and the fool can experience both agony and ecstacy. Wisdom and happiness have precious little to do with each other.

            Four.    The second and third of the “Noble Truths” likewise address the problem of suffering: the second identifies desire as the cause; the third, the removal of desire as the cure. These two statements imply that desire is . . . undesirable. But far from being detrimental to us, desire is essential to our humanity: love, for instance, involves the desire for another, or for his welfare; nay, our very existence depends on our desire to live. This denigration of desire, moreover, taken together with the first Noble Truth’s focus on (the negation of) (the feeling of) pain, and the fourth Truth’s prescription of “enlightenment” as the spiritual panacea, produces an unwholesome bias for experience over accomplishment: a bias, for example, that, confronted with the young Mozart, miserable in the frustration of his desire to compose, might have counseled him to abandon the desire. Surely, though, the world is better off that Mozart followed that thirst. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Mozart, having fulfilled his life’s passion, and actualized his genius, regretted not taking an alternate path—including experiencing the pleasurable sensation of “enlightenment.” (And, apropos, men who have accomplished a body of written work on Buddhism, likely a source of considerable pride and satisfaction for them, urging the rest of us to give up striving for accomplishment, and to just meditate instead—is that not disingenuous?) The truth is that, what is gratifying or meaningful—what constitutes a good life—what makes life worth living—is something each person must determine for himself, in light of his own interests, values, abilities; which determination will be different for the Buddha, Plato, Newton, Freud, and Mozart. To proclaim one sort of life, one sort of pursuit, as right for everyone, is downright . . . unenlightened.

  1. 14. A Foolish Consistency     © 8 March 2007 by Richard J. Eisner

In his famous adage “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” just what is Emerson attacking? Not, I think, consistency in general, for consistency is essential to truth—necessary, though not sufficient, for it, and central to the search for it: A thinker tests the soundness of his outlook by probing it for inconsistency, which will indicate the presence of error (if two propositions are inconsistent, one of them is false). I believe Emerson is criticizing sequential, as opposed to simultaneous, consistency, as follows.

             Both wise and foolish consistency involve the impetus for agreement among our opinions. The difference lies in the set of opinions with respect to which harmony is sought: in the first (wise), it is the present body, in which our standard is truth, and we discard old notions as we come to see that they conflict with it; whereas, in the second (foolish), it is the series, wherein, to avoid having to admit that we erred, our principle is conformity with our past assertions, and we suppress new ideas at odds with them. In other words, the former strives for the truth, even at the cost of appearing fallible; the latter strives for the appearance of infallibility, even at the cost of the truth . . . and, by thus inhibiting the quest for truth, foolish consistency constricts the mind.

             Addendum: A corollary to the foregoing is that vital to the pursuit of truth, is self-criticism.

  1. 15. The Impossibility of Knowledge, Free Will, and God     © 24 May 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

Only a conscious being can have knowledge (or free will or be a god); and a conscious being is contingent, not logically necessary (there is a possible world without consciousness). As to any contingent being, a greater creature, one that could deceive the lesser one, is theoretically possible. Ergo, an entity cannot tell whether any belief is not a deception; and thus (propositional) knowledge is impossible. Moreover, because free will presupposes knowledge (to have absolute volition in doing an act, you must know what act you do), and knowledge is impossible, so is free will. And insofar as knowledge and free will define God; God, too, is impossible.

  1. 16. The Rationality and Ethics of Voting     © April 2017 by Richard J. Eisner

“The Ethics and Rationality of Voting” entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy argues that voting is irrational because the value for any given voter of the potential difference that his vote would make in an election’s outcome, discounted by the minuscule probability that his vote would make the difference, is less than the value of his time in voting, just as it’s irrational to play the lottery, because the value of winning it, discounted by the microscopic chance of that happening, is less than the cost of a lottery ticket. (And it couldn’t be morally compulsory to use your time counterproductively, to do an act worth less than your time in doing it.) But I think voting is rational. One problem with the foregoing argument to the contrary is the supposition that a person’s vote is inconsequential unless it breaks a tie. Elections that close are indeed rare. But elections are often lost by narrow margins, and specifically by the failure to vote of a relatively small number who neglected to vote on the rationale that their vote wouldn’t change the result. Perhaps more to the point, let’s view the situation at the level of the population as a whole. Most people are drudges, working hard just to survive economically; they don’t live lives of quiet desperation, because they don’t have enough leisure time to contemplate the meaning of their lives. But poverty in this country could be ended simply by redistributing its (considerable) wealth. Such redistribution depends on the government, which, short of revolution, is determined by elections. So voting can potentially change the people’s quality of life, for better or for worse, far more significantly than practically anything else the people might do on any day. As to whether we have a moral obligation to vote, the answer, strictly speaking, is no: moral obligations do not objectively exist—a moral obligation is the feeling of obligation (we have an obligation if and only if we feel we have one.) So “I have a moral obligation to vote” is elliptical for “I feel morally obligated to vote.” (But I feel morally obligated to vote.)

  1. 17. Why the Left Should Vote     © 27 February 2008 by Richard J. Eisner

As the rich get richer while the rest get poorer; and as the government inches further and further to the right, with more and more middle- and lower-class people’s electoral participation consisting in electing not to vote; one would think leftists would be clamoring to get citizens to the polls. Many are. Ironically, though, the Left itself is the source of certain familiar anti-voting arguments, which herein I shall rebut and, I hope, thereby counteract.

             One vote-disparaging comment from the Left is that it doesn’t really change anything. Were voting of no avail, however, oppressors would not deny it to the oppressed or the latter struggle to acquire it; nor the Right work so assiduously to get their vote out, and to keep ours in. Surely, you could effect significant change if you could determine the outcome of every election, or even some of them . . . or if enough progressives voted.

             Similarly, the vote is denigrated on the basis that we should focus, rather, on educating the masses about political realities. Insofar as this is code language for revolution; if you can stir enough persons to violently overthrow the government, you can stir enough of them to vote for it, which purpose, given the inherent destructiveness of the bullet, is better achieved through the ballot. Anyway, why should we not vote also?

             A third reason given for not voting is the alleged counterproductiveness or impropriety of supporting the lesser of two evils. But when both options are adverse, we should vote for the lesser of the two evils, very simply because . . . a lesser evil is preferable to a greater evil. And in such circumstances, a refusal to vote for the lesser ill is tantamount to a vote for the greater. If you were in severe pain, would you decline medicine that would reduce but not eliminate the agony, on the ground that less pain is still pain, and so merely the lesser evil? If you found a hundred-dollar bill, would you throw it away because you really needed three hundred dollars? The principle here is that, as between two states of affairs, the better one should be taken. To except from this rule cases wherein the better alternative is bad, just makes no sense.

             Finally, some assert that conditions must fall, to galvanize men to radical change. Howbeit, while degeneration might spur a man to constructive action; it could also demoralize, or rouse amiss. And though small victories could make a man complacent, they may also empower and encourage him to fight for further gains. The two modes—retrogression and melioration—being neutral in their stimulation of salutary conduct; the net effect is that the first makes the world worse, the second makes it better. And transformation may be gradual, as well as sudden. Wherefore, we should strive invariably and straightforwardly for society’s improvement . . . which process we would considerably advance by persuading our comrades to vote.

  1. 18. Conservatism     © 27 November 2008 by Richard J. Eisner

The Left are liberal in favoring a redistribution of wealth toward greater equality, but conservative in supporting preservation of the natural environment and of the lives and health of the populace. The Right, mainly the rich, are conservative in supporting the continuation of unrestrained capitalism, essential to perpetuating and expanding the wealth disparity in their favor, despite the resultant harm to the environment and to the well-being of the people; in their willingness to sacrifice which latter desiderata, they (the Right) are liberal. It seems to me that what the Right are really interested in preserving is their own advantage, and that, to the extent to which conservatism is a principle and not a pretext, the true conservatives are the Left.

  1. 19. Mark Twain Ghost Speech     © 4 July 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for attending. My name is Mark Twain. More precisely, it used to be Mark Twain. I’m his ghost. That’s why I look so pale. I am, however, quite confident that I will, in the near future, once again be incarnate, because science is on the verge of discovering how to bring back previously living things, like in that movie . . . oh, what’s the name of that movie . . . yes, Jurassic Park. Thank you. My memory isn’t what it used to be . . . being dead is pretty hard on the mind—it’s because the brain has difficulty getting oxygen, or so they say; I don’t know all the physiological technicalities. I still do pretty well, though, despite the handicap. But being dead has its advantages. For example, you no longer have to brush your teeth, since the teeth stop decaying. On the other hand, I can’t smoke anymore. Don’t ask me why; all I know is that I tried it, and it doesn’t work. Which is a shame, because now I could do it with impunity as regards my health. And I used to love to smoke. It was a habit I took pains to cultivate—with considerable success, I might add. I particularly enjoyed smoking after meals. I don’t miss that so much as I might, seeing as I don’t eat anymore—no need to. Where was I . . . oh, yes, that movie, in which scientists resurrect dinosaurs. Some have called me a dinosaur. But I assure you that, if brought back to life, I would be no dinosaur; I would be extremely relevant, and very useful. In fact, that is why I am here to speak to you tonight—to prove that I have ideas that can help the world solve many of its most pressing problems, which will, I trust, put me very near to—if not right at—the head of the line, to be brought back to life by scientists, as soon as they know how to do it.

             Today, as was true in my own time, one of the most significant problems is the economic situation. Among those who do the most good in this regard are philanthropists. What a wonderful contribution they make. Take Bill Gates. To start with, it’s because of him, and other extraordinary business leaders like him, that we’re the wealthiest nation on earth. Why, if Bill Gates moved to another country, the U.S. would immediately sink to ninth or tenth place. And Mr. Gates benefits not only the United States. His charitable foundation pays for life preserving drugs for millions of impoverished persons in Africa and other nations. This one man alone has saved innumerable human lives. And therein lies one of my most important ideas for helping the economy. This is the plan: institute a special federal tax, earmarked for the “philanthropic fund.” When about 10 billion dollars has been amassed, give it to one man, the designated philanthropist. I hereby offer to perform that function when I am brought back to life. I say “when,” rather than “if,” because, the more I think about it, the more strongly I am convinced that I would be providing so invaluable a service in this respect, that the scientific community will be virtually unanimous in selecting me as one of the first subjects for revivication, if not the very first such subject, when the technology is developed. And my pledge is as follows: Bill Gates gives 20 percent of his fortune. If you’ll give me ten billion dollars—I’ll give . . . 50 percent. Hold your applause, please. And I am prepared to give that much—why? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I believe in sacrificing for the greater good.

             Indeed, I even have some creative ideas on how to deploy the money I give away. One of the best of them is this. Public television frequently hosts experts on personal financial management; for example, the author of a book titled . . . oh, what is that . . . it’s something like “Rich Mother, Poor Father”—my sincere apology to the author, whose name I can’t remember either—I probably mangled the book title. I wish I had notes here to work from; but, you know—well, you probably don’t know—ghosts can’t make notes, because we can’t pick up writing utensils. The fingers just pass right through a pen or pencil, so you can’t get a grip on it. . . . It’s tough being dead. . . . Where was I? Oh, yes: these personal-finance gurus. I confess, I don’t fully understand what they say; but they’re so impressive. The one whose name I’m so ashamed I can’t recall, says, “Stop working for money, and let money work for you.” You’ll have to admit, ladies and gentlemen, that’s a powerful concept. I am so thoroughly convinced of the inherent rationality of those ideas, and of their efficacy in enabling people to create wealth in their lives, that I have come to the conclusion that we could end hunger on Earth by the dissemination of these finance books to the poor, because, in the final analysis, poverty-stricken persons around the world are in such a state of deprivation, not so much because they lack material resources—that’s the symptom—but rather because they lack knowledge of sound investment strategies.

             Ladies and gentlemen, I have many more great ideas for improving the world, but I’m afraid I must conclude for now—I don’t possess the stamina I used to possess when I was alive. The spirit is willing but . . . anyway; I shall present the other thoughts in future speeches, to which you are all invited. Thank you very much for coming tonight. Adieu.

  1. 20. Boundaries     © 28 July 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

A real and definite boundary is the boundary of consciousness, as it were; each percipient is unique and distinct, never blending into another.

  1. 21. Life After Death     © 29 August 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

Following is my view on life after death. Preliminarily, we must define the entity that is supposed to survive (the issue addressed by the concept of the soul). As I see it, that entity, the individual’s quintessence, is consciousness, bare sentience, sans mental equipment, like memory and thought (which may decline or end in a creature, though he remains the same individual).

             I believe that afterlife is logically possible (we came once, we could theoretically come again), but unlikely. Heaven and Hell is pure fantasy. Less easy to dismiss is reincarnation, an individual’s continuing, perhaps endlessly, by successive rebirth in other organisms, most often envisioned occurring between humans. While it cannot be disproved (or proved—if it happened, no one, not even the subject, would know it); I disbelieve in reincarnation as well, for this reason.

             The number of potential awarenesses that have never come into actual being is infinitely times as great as the number which have previously lived, even if the latter number is itself infinite (it is the contrast between the actual and the possible, the possible being infinitely more vast than the actual, even if the actual is infinite). Thus, when an organism is about to be born, it is infinitely more likely that the consciousness that will come to life in it will be drawn from among those which have not theretofore been realized than from among those which have already existed (because the first category is infinitely greater than the second). And so the likelihood that anyone will ever have another life, is infinitesimal—theoretically possible, practically impossible.

             On the bright side, rejoice!; for if you ever did reappear, it is overwhelmingly (though finitely) probable that you would come back, not as a man (let alone a great one), or even as a lion, but rather as a mouse or a flea, because they far outnumber higher animals . . . assuming the distribution of life forms on Earth typifies that throughout the cosmos. More to the point, life, even human life, is, on balance, wretched. Ironically, there may be justice, and mercy, not in the existence of some resurrection everlasting, but in everyone’s life, its joy and its misery, being finite.