« In the aftermath of violence | Main | Part 2: Leaping Without Faith »

On to Social Criticism

I find myself amazed to realize that it has been over eight months since I entered anything into this blog. I have been spending most of that time either consumed in my “real’ job, or writing or reading fiction. My personal quest for the absolute perfect way to express a thought in writing takes the form of writing novels, short stories or poetry, more often than writing philosophy. Philosophy, even verbal philosophy, has an affinity to mathematics in its requirement for precision, while poetic license is just what it says it is:  something applicable to poetry and fiction. I am enamored with the use of words more than the generation of ideas (a fact which even disserves my fiction, since I am challenged to generate plots, and more interested in refining the way I say things).

Nevertheless, I’m back to writing philosophy. What I’ve written so far provides ample justification for the claims that: 1) we often don’t know why we do things – i.e. our true motivation is obscure even to ourselves, 2) we think we know why we do things but that is just an illusion we create, perhaps as an after-the-fact rationalization, 3) there are some instances when our conscious decision- making plays a causal role in determining our behavior, and 4) even when we are making conscious decisions, we are not often logical, by any philosophical definition of logic.

I should add that none of the above implies that we don’t make decisions, almost continuously, but the choices underlying those decisions are not made consciously.

I have also, I think, given a cogent argument that the conscious decision making that has the greatest effect on our behavior is of a  big-picture type, which allows us to arrange our lives in such a way that our daily, habitual behaviors will fall in line with our overall value systems.

Can we then, choose our value systems?  I said previously that, our value systems come from, "what we were told by significant others, such as our parents; what we learned in our education, formal and informal, within our culture, what our religion taught us, what we learned from unique experiences (encounters with specific individuals, events that are unique to our own lives, such as attaining specific goals, crushing disasters and defeats, love affairs, etc.).Many, if not most, value systems include prescriptions for behavior which will increase the likelihood that the person who subscribes to that value system will actually be able to behave in accordance to the values espoused by it. Religious systems are good examples of this. Moslem and Catholic religions are known for their emphasis upon prohibiting engagement in experiences that would make it difficult to follow the values of the religion. That is why Muslim women do not expose much of their bodies and the Catholic Church discourages attending certain movies. Fundamentalist Christian religions tend to frown on listening to scatological music or looking at risqué pictures, or allowing even parts of society to sanction practices that might lessen the prohibition against them for others (e.g. allowing same sex marriage).

Parents who are successful in instilling their own values in their children are aware that doing so requires constant encouragement of some types of behavior (studying, politeness, responsibility), the involvement of their children in some activities in order to discourage their involvement in others (e.g. playing sports instead of hanging out), and absolute prohibition of some activities, which, although not harmful in themselves, could “lead to” increasing the likelihood of involvement of more harmful activities (e.g. not going to parties where older children or young adults are part of the group).  Most parents  agree with a large body of research, which has shown that the single most important thing a parent can do to guide their child’s behavior in the direction they want is to insure that they socialize with other children who behave in that way themselves. By doing so, parents can make it more likely that their children will develop “good habits,” which will follow the parents’ value system.

So selection of a value system is important in determining behavior. It is the job of religious leaders and social leaders and social critics to advocate for one set of values over another. It would not ordinarily be the job of a philosopher to do so. In my case, my venture into philosophy was simply (although it seemed to go on endlessly) to provide a justification for the claim that choosing a value system made a difference and that such an act of choosing was possible. Now that I have done that, I am prepared to assume the mantle of social critic.

In my search for examples of the perfect way for a writer to express him or herself in English, I took up reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet for the umpteenth time. In my opinion, Durrell is able to combine nearly perfect word choice and sentence structure with captivating plot and characters. However, many of his characters are believers in arcane religions and philosophies, such as Cabalism, Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, etc. In particular, I came across a segment within Clea, the last volume of the Quartet, in which a character describes, in a letter read by the narrator, the growing of a set of homunculi in jars, the homunculi being able to communicate with their creator and convey ideas. Eventually the homunculi must be destroyed, which incites a great upheaval of natural elements (smoke and fire). The characters reading the letter, the narrator and Clea, herself and a physician, Balthazar, must decide if they believe the account of the homunculi or not. Clea, being a mystic, does, Balthazar is undecided, and the narrator, as is typical for him, remains non committal.

While enjoying the writing in the Alexandria Quartet, I found myself, after reading this particular account of the letter describing the creation and destruction of the homunculi, irritated, not at the writer or the story or the characters in the story, but at the many people whom I know, who, had they been the characters reading the letter, would have accepted its truth. While they would have admitted that such an account was not possible by any scientific standards of which they were aware, they would have blithely cited the limitations of science (as does Balthazar, incidentally) to explain everything in nature. Or, using a type of reasoning, which is all too prevalent in my opinion, they would have acknowledged the impossibility of the existence of the homunculi according to any scientific or natural laws or observations, but chosen to believe it anyway, because it was appealing to them.

Believing in the existence of homunculi does not constitute a value system but believing that it is permissible to suspend the necessity of using empirically ascertained truth as the basis for one’s beliefs does, I would argue, constitute at least a value, which in turn may influence one’s choice of a value system.             


References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    Response: news
    Neat page, Maintain the fantastic job. thnx.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>