Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Some Things I Learned in the 2010s

Baby Yoda

Before I begin, let's get this out of the way. There's pretty good reason to think the current decade doesn't actually end until December 31, 2020. About 20 years ago I was one of those people who insisted that the new millennium didn't begin until Jan. 1, 2001. But I'm less insistent about decades. Maybe it's because ending the 2010s a year early doesn't seem so bad, given everything that's happened in the last half of the decade.

Whatever the case, here are just some of the many things I've learned in the 2010s.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Rise of Skywalker: Non-Spoilery Questions

I have now seen Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker twice. But it’s way too early to post a proper review. In the past I’ve posted non-spoilery thoughts on the new trilogy (see here and here) and then spoilery posts later: see herehere, and here. But this time I had the idea to do a non-spoilery review consisting of questions that I was asking before, during, and after the movie. Some of these questions are answered in the movie. Some of them were prompted by the movie. Many are meta-questions about fandom’s relationship with the movie. There are even a few philosophical bits! I'm not sure how it will go, but I've got a good feeling about this.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Last Jedi is the Most Philosophically Interesting Star Wars Film

“This is not going to go the way you think.”

- Luke Skywalker

The Last Jedi is the most philosophically interesting Star Wars film.

I’m not saying it’s the best Star Wars film. Or a perfect film. I think I will go with the majority of Star Wars fans and stick with The Empire Strikes Back as my favorite (also maybe not perfect, but then what is?).

Yet I think The Last Jedi is the most philosophically interesting of all the films. So far, anyway. I suppose J. J. Abrams could surprise me when I see The Rise of Skywalker for the first time in a few days, but as David Barr Kirtley said on his podcast The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, while Abrams knows a lot about making movies, The Last Jedi writer and director Rian Johnson actually has something to say.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Death, Daoism, and Dragons: The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

It's hard to put into words what a book like Ursula K. Le Guin's The Farthest Shore does to the reader. Is it a fantasy story for adults and children alike? Is it a Daoist parable? Is it a meditation on death? Short answer: yes. Someday I will read these books again, and then maybe I will discover the true name of a more adequate review. For now, let this review suffice.

Friday, November 29, 2019

The Last Jedi’s Canto Bight Sequence: A Defense

Rose and Finn at Canto Bight

“Failure, the greatest teacher is.”

- Yoda

I love Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I wrote a non-spoilery review soon after seeing it, and in another post on my favorite movies of 2017 I promised to write a defense of a particular part of the movie. In both posts I mentioned the extreme nerd rage directed at the film. Having watched The Last Jedi again recently, I find this rage even more perplexing.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Re-Reading for Fun and Profit

The Dune section of my bookshelves

Once upon a time I rarely re-read anything. After all, life is short and my to-read list is long.

But at some point I changed my mind about that, both in fiction and philosophy. I still only re-read a small fraction of the books I read (life is getting shorter all the time), but I am much more likely to do so than I once was. In some ways, I think this is partly a result of getting older. Maybe life is too short to read bad books, and if I choose to re-read something it's usually because I either enjoyed it the first time or didn't understand it but got the sense that there was something valuable to be understood.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Movie Round Up: Doctor Sleep, Terminator: Dark Fate, and Ad Astra

I haven't posted movie reviews in a few months (since September or July or even April). I have been seeing movies during this time, but somehow life and other matters have gotten in the way of writing reviews. Well, no more! The time has come to rectify this problem with reviews of three movies I've seen recently: Doctor Sleep, Terminator: Dark Fate, and Ad Astra. There's not much that unites them besides the facts that they are all broadly "speculative fiction" and they are all movies that some people didn't like, but I did.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Keep On Shining: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Reading The Shining about five years ago set me down the path to my recent obsession with Stephen King. I'm not sure why it took me so long to read Doctor Sleep. Reading the whole Dark Tower series may have had something to do with it. But with the Doctor Sleep movie coming out soon I figured it was finally time. And I loved it. It's a different sort of book than The Shining (less visceral but more reflective, less traditional horror and more weird fantasy). Nonetheless, it's a worthy sequel precisely because it adds to rather than rehashes the original.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Philosophical Methods and This Blog!

A bit of meta-blogging news!

Yesterday I Skyped with a Philosophical Methods class at the University of North Florida taught by my friend and colleague Dr. Aaron Creller. Dr. Creller had his students read some selected posts and a few more of the students' choice as an assignment exploring different ways to engage in public philosophy.

During our Skype session, I gave a bit of an overview of how I started the blog (you can get some idea about that by reading my first post). Students and Dr. Creller asked a lot of really great questions on topics such as similarities between philosophy and science fiction, why I like subtle humor, and how I see the relation between traditional academic philosophy and the type of thing I do here.

It was fun and humbling to have this blog serve as a point of discussion in a Philosophical Methods course!

Unfortunately I forgot to get photographic evidence, which I realize is an unforgivable offense in this digital age, but hopefully this report offers some small consolation.

Random Thoughts, Part 6

Made at: https://www.jasondavies.com/wordcloud/

A while back I started writing down some of my random thoughts and posting them on the blog. I've made five such posts now, and you are reading the sixth!

Monday, October 14, 2019

Lunar Leitmotifs: Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Moon is definitely not destined to be among my favorite Kim Stanley Robinson novels.  It's nowhere near the Mars Trilogy, Aurora, or The Years of Rice and Salt (my personal favorites), nor is it quite as much fun as Galileo's Dream, as engaging as Shaman, or as wide-ranging as 2312.  In fact, Red Moon may be my least favorite of KSR's novels I've read.  But as I said in my review of New York 2140 (another book I liked but didn't love), I'd be happy to read KSR's grocery list.

The focus on China is interesting, although sometimes it felt as if people forgot that countries besides China and the US exist. China is going to be a major player in space exploration in the future, and it was interesting and presumably realistic to read about all the factions within the government. My favorite character was Ta Shu, a TV host with a penchant for what might be called "science fictional Feng Shui" and the vehicle for a lot of KSR's typical ruminations on history, philosophy, science, economics, etc.  The odd couple of Qi and Fred is fun, but in retrospect it was odd that it was always from Fred's POV and never from Qi's.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Was Social Media a Huge Mistake?

Was social media a huge mistake?

This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. From large scale harms like the propaganda machines of Russian troll farms to smaller issues like the way random acquaintances treat each other on your Facebook page, it seems that social media was maybe a colossal mistake on the part of humanity.

I’m not saying social media is all bad. If it weren’t for Facebook, I’d have lost touch with a lot of friends over the years. Twitter has connected me with philosophers around the world. And of course there was plenty of propaganda and rudeness long before social media.

My concern isn’t so much that social media makes new bad things. Humans have always been intellectually and morally fallible. My concern is that it exacerbates our weaknesses in a deeply unhealthy way.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Birthdays, Deathdays, Climate Change, and Humanity

Last year I celebrated the apex of birthdays in the life of any philosophical nerd: 42. I can’t hope to top that this year, but that’s okay. Each year is something of its own (see some of my previous birthday posts here and here.)

Birthdays and Deathdays

This year I’ve been thinking a little bit about my post from four years ago when I discovered that I had, statistically speaking, entered middle age. I’ve also been thinking a lot about death in my philosophy and horror class (an occupational hazard, I suppose). I’ve always been a bit prone to melancholy and thoughts of death (not quite enough to be goth, but I see what the goths are on about).

Given that my life is more likely than not more than halfway over at this point, should my birthday be a day of celebration of my existence thus far or a mourning in anticipation of an impending deathday?

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Institutional King: The Institute by Stephen King

My obsession with Stephen King as of late has almost turned this into a Stephen King blog, so of course I was planning to review his brand new book, The Institute, which was released on Sept. 10, 2019.  I promise I will have some non-Stephen King content soon.

The Institute is definitely one of King's more science fictional novels, probably more in the direction of "hard science fiction" than just about anything he's done. There are also some interesting philosophical questions lurking.  Let me do a regular, non-spoilery review first, and then I'll get to some spoilery philosophical bits.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Almost Coherent Time Travel: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

11/22/63 may be one of my favorite Stephen King novels now. It's almost a coherent time-travel story (I have a few nagging doubts I'll work through below), but there's also intrigue, adventure, and romance.  It's like three or four novels in one, but running at the same time, harmonizing with each other at key points.

I'll get to the time travel business at the end (with spoilers), but first a few spoiler-free remarks about the novel overall.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Memory, Identity, and Endings: Thoughts on IT Chapter Two

IT Chapter Two was one of my most anticipated movies this year.  I enjoyed the first one, and I've developed an unexpected obsession with Stephen King in recent years.

So, what did I think?  Two main points: First, I was surprised that most critics seemed to like Chapter One better than Chapter Two, because I feel exactly the opposite way (this review is a bit more nuanced).  Maybe critics preferred Chapter One because it works better as a standalone movie apart from the book, while Chapter Two preserves one of the deepest themes of the novel about the relation between who we are as children and as adults.  My second main point: Chapter Two has a running meta-commentary on endings (also a nod to a frequent criticism of Stephen King's books), which is funny because my major issue with Chapter Two is precisely its ending.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Who Started the Fire?: Firestarter by Stephen King

Firestarter was the next stop on my tour of classic Stephen King novels, partly because I've developed a strange obsession with Stephen King's work in the last few years after hardly reading him at all for 20 years, and partly to get ready for his new one, The Institute, which is supposed to involve The Shop, or something a lot like it (The Shop is also featured in the miniseries Golden Years).  Firestarter is also one of King's more straightforwardly science fictional tales (if psychic powers can be science fiction... I guess some people have them on Star Trek).

So, how'd it go?  I took a few days to kindle a review.  Hopefully I can control the burn.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Hugo 2019 Results: My Ballot versus Reality

Today I watched the 2019 Hugo Award Ceremony, which was streaming on the Hugo Awards website.  (I watched from home in Chattanooga. The ceremony took place in Dublin.)

Last month I wrote some posts about my Hugo ballot (here, here, and here).  So, how did I do picking winners?

Not too great.  You can see the full list of winners here or, if you want the full math nerd version, see here.  Congratulations to all the winners and finalists!

My votes for the #1 spot only matched the actual winners in two cases: Best Novel for The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal and Best Art Book for The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, illustrated by Charles Vess, written by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Is Toni Morrison's Beloved a Horror Novel?

Every summer I make a point to read one work of "Capital-L Literature" (the kind of thing I would have read if I had taken more English classes).  This summer I had decided to read Beloved, and in one of those coincidences that probably don't mean anything, the very day I was planning to start reading it, the world got the news that Toni Morrison had died.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Castle Rock as a Buddhist Hell Realm: Needful Things by Stephen King

My delightfully tattered used copy of Needful Things.
(Think of this next time you see the opening credits of Stranger Things!)

Needful Things (1991) is not my favorite Stephen King novel, but it's... engrossing and fun and well, Stephen King.  There are obvious Christian overtones about making deals with the devil, not to mention some sort of critique of greed and capitalism or maybe even contemporary resonances about Russian interference in US elections by pitting Americans against each other or how having a lot of guns around makes all of this more deadly.  These are all interesting lenses through which one might look at the novel (feel free to steal any of them if you want to develop them... I won't even charge anything or expect any nefarious favors in return).  But as I read it I started working on another angle.  What if we understand the novel as depicting a kind of Buddhist hell realm where desire, delusion, and suffering roll on in a seemingly infinite feedback loop?

Monday, August 5, 2019

Random Thoughts, Part 5

Made at: https://www.jasondavies.com/wordcloud/

A while back I started posting collections of my random thoughts.  You can see the latest collection, Part 4, here.  You can see Part 5 right here, right now, right below!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Hugo Ballot 2019, Part Three: Related Work, Dramatic Presentations, and More

Some Hugo Award statues of various years

At last I have arrived at Part Three of my Hugo ballot for 2019!  (Check out Part One and Part Two to see how I voted for novel, novella, novelette, and short story).  In this part I'll discuss categories including Best Related Work, Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form), Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form), and some of the artist and fan categories.  There are just too many categories, and I lack the time or discernment to vote for all of them.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Hugo Ballot 2019, Part Two: Novelette and Short Story

My Hugo ballot continues!  (Check out Part One to learn more about the Hugo awards and to see how I voted for best novel and best novella).  In this post I'll cover the categories for novelette and short story.  In Part Three I'll get to other categories, like related work, dramatic presentation (long and short), and whatever else I can get to by July 31.  Seriously, how could one person possibly be educated enough to vote for all these categories?

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Hugo Ballot 2019, Part One: Novel and Novella

Ballots for the 2019 Hugos are due in just a few days on July 31.  See here for the full list of finalists.  If you want to vote, too, check out how to do so here either as a supporting member from your armchair or as an attending member in Dublin, but do it soon!

I've been voting for the Hugos since 2016 (ironically it was the obnoxious Sad and Rabid Puppies that motivated me to get involved back then, and thankfully they have since taken their yapping elsewhere). Every year I tell myself I'm going to start reading the finalists earlier.  This year I failed even more than usual and didn't really get started until mid-June.  I may end up voting in fewer categories.  Oh, well.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Lady Astronaut Mashup: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I thoroughly enjoyed Mary Robinette Kowal's The Calculating Stars, an alternate history mashup of Hidden Figures, The Right Stuff, and classic science fiction, all wrapped up in a thinly-veiled metaphor for climate change.  That doesn't entirely do it justice, of course, but you'll have to read it for yourself to see what I mean by all that.  I enjoyed this Hugo finalist so much, I just might give it my #1 spot on my ballot due in a few days.  Stay tuned to this blog to find out!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Dinétah After the Apocalype: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

I loved Rebecca Roanhorse's Hugo-winning short story, "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience," so I was really looking forward to seeing what she did with a novel, which is this year a Hugo finalist.  While I can't say I liked Trail of Lightning as much as the previous short story, it's definitely an interesting read.

The first thing to note is that Trail of Lightning combines three things that may not have been combined before: Diné-inspired fantasy, urban fantasy, and post-apocalyptic science fiction.  For the most part, it works pretty well.  I was pulled into the book more than I expected, especially since I'm generally not the biggest fan of urban fantasy (I have only read one of the Dresden books, which I thought was fun, but haven't felt the need to read more ... yeah, I know, I'm a terrible person).

Let's talk about the three elements and how they interacted and where they maybe didn't work so well.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

50 Years After the Moon Landing: Where Are We Now?

Today is the 50thanniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first humans to walk on the moon with Michael Collins staying in orbit. (Since I first read about the Apollo 11 mission as a kid, I’ve always felt bad for Collins who went all the way to the moon without going for a walk!)
Usually statements like “one of the most amazing achievements in human history” are hyperbole, but in this case it’s completely true. The moon landing is well worth celebrating today. Have a party, raise a quiet toast to humanity, read NASA’s account here, or take a moment to glance at the moon and think, “God damn, humans went there!”
While celebration is a big part of this anniversary, for me it prompts the question: where are we 50 years later both when it comes to space exploration and our general condition here on Earth?
Space exploration, to put it mildly, has not gone the way many science fiction fans (including myself) have hoped.  Sure, we have the International Space Station and robotic missions to Mars and the rest of the solar system.  Voyager 1 and 2 are now in interstellar space. But no humans have been to the moon since 1972, and there have been no human missions elsewhere.  For people who read the great mid-20th century science fiction authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein, this seems like a huge disappointment.  We were supposed to be living on the moon and Mars by now. Instead we got Twitter and Apple watches.
But is space exploration all that great a thing, anyway?  Sending humans into space is extremely expensive and dangerous, as my first major space memory, the Challenger disaster, demonstrates.  Would we be better off turning our attention to Earthly matters?  Why go to space when huge issues like poverty and climate change demand our attention here on Earth?  I’m not sure.
I admit that a lot of my love of space exploration stems from a romantic feeling, which is in turn spurred by my love of science fiction.  But it’s that very love of science fiction that tells me that venturing into space just might tell us a lot both about the universe and about ourselves (see Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy or Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish novels for a bit on both fronts).  And as Octavia Butler suggested in her Earthseed duology, maybe we need a big goal like space exploration to keep us focused on something better than historical human preoccupations like killing and exploiting each other.
And for that matter, how are things here on Earth 50 years later?  The late 1960’s was a tumultuous era on Earth, times which it seems like we are re-entering today.  For sake of simplicity and familiarity, I’ll limit myself to the USA, but much could be said in many other places throughout the world (India, Brazil, Europe, etc.).
Who would have thought that 51 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. we would have actual Nazis marching in the streets of America, emboldened by a sitting President who regularly says racist things and enforces cruel, racist immigration policies?  Who could have predicted 46 years after Roe v. Wade that many states would be instituting some of the harshest restrictions on abortion to date, or that 50 years after Stonewall it would still be legal to fire someone for being LGBTQ in over half the country?  Or that 55 years after Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, we would possibly be returning to 1920’s levels of economic inequality?
Given the resurgence, or at least increased visibility, of morally regressive tendencies in the last few years, how far have we really come in the last 50 years?  Interestingly, Octavia Butler maybe could have predicted this, given her depiction of a Presidential candidate who wanted to “make America great again.”
I don’t need to continue spelling things out.  The last few years have been a huge disappointment, at least for progressive types, many of whom, like me, have in retrospect been a bit naïve.
Yet, here’s a consideration: The fact that so many people are so disgusted is itself a good sign.  If everybody was on board with the recent surge in bigotry and injustice, nobody would be noticing or speaking out or complaining about it.  This feeling of despondency itself contains the seed of something better, a measure of where we might go, to hitherto unexplored territories of justice.
And maybe, just maybe, this spirit of pushing boundaries, of – dare I say it? – going where no one has gone before, is where something like space exploration and true justice for all coincide.  We’ve never had a reasonably just society and we’ve never adequately explored our extraterrestrial neighborhood.  We’ve had brief glimpses of both so far in science, science fiction, and social movements. 

So, maybe the moon landing of July 20, 1969 can represent our glimpses of new and better things for humanity. It is with this hope that I celebrate today.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Disco Turing: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

I really, really loved Catherynne M. Valente's Space Opera, a sort of Douglas Adams-style take on the Eurovision Song Contest.  I'm not sure if this book is entirely groundbreaking or whether it deserves a Hugo Award and it has its share of problems (for example, it's all just a bit too much sometimes), but I just might give it my #1 spot for the Hugo Awards because I love humorous science fiction and I think the universe might be a better place if we had more of it.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Tales from the Beach

The beach in Panama City Beach, Florida, USA

This year my wife and I took our usual beach vacation around our anniversary.  We've been to Panama City Beach on the Florida panhandle a few times now (see, for instance, this post from 2017, "A Nerd at the Beach"), but this year we had a new thing to contend with: Tropical Storm Barry!  It was headed for Louisiana, but here's a thing about tropical storms: they are really big and affect a lot of surrounding areas.  We only had one day with a lot of rain, but the sea was so rough and the risk of rip currents so high that nobody was allowed to swim in the ocean during most of our trip.  How did we fare despite this calamity?  Here are some short tales that might tell.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Space Chillwave, Not Space Opera: Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

I went into Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers with mixed feelings.  It's the third in a series, but I haven't read the first book and I gave up on the second one after 50 pages (it seemed okay, but nothing special).  But, wanting to do my duty as a Hugo voter, feeling bad about never finishing the second one (itself a Hugo finalist two years ago), and vaguely feeling like this might be my kind of thing after all, I decided to give this a go.

My mixed feelings continued for at least the first third of the novel.  Part of my mixed feelings were about whether this was a "novel" at all, or merely unconnected novellas cut up and shuffled together. I kept forgetting who was who among the five or six main characters.  Worse yet, one of them seemed to be a predictably angsty teenager intent on demonstrating that teen angst is as timeless and universal a phenomenon as it is an obnoxious one.

By the middle of the novel, though, Chambers had won me over.  I understood what people love about these books.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Horror of Knowledge: The Dead Zone by Stephen King

I've been wanting to read Stephen King's The Dead Zone for a few decades, and I'm glad I finally did because it's now one of my favorite Stephen King novels.  It's more focused than his longer books, but still intricate and well put-together enough to be interesting.  And there are some great thoughts to be had on love, death, religion, and politics, but perhaps most philosophically interesting (to me, anyway) are the questions about knowledge -- what is it, what do you do with it, and how much of it do you really want?

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Review of Reviews: Stephen King Edition (The Talisman, Elevation, Everything’s Eventual, On Writing)

Occasionally I like to write a "review of reviews."  I've been reading a lot of Stephen King lately, and I have a few short reviews I haven't posted yet... so, here is my Review of Reviews: Stephen King Edition!  I'm reviewing works that span a lot of King's career: The Talisman (with Peter Straub, 1984), Elevation (2018), Everything’s Eventual (2002), and On Writing (2000).

I swear I didn't mean to become obsessed with Stephen King.  It just kinda happened.  Oh, well.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review of Reviews (The Courtier and the Heretic, Exultant, The Slow Professor, Cosmonaut Keep, Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon)

It's been awhile since I posted an old-fashioned review of reviews (as opposed to a "round up"), so here it goes!  In this one I'm reviewing three non-fiction books and two fiction books: The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza & the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart, Exultant by Stephen Baxter, The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod, and Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon, edited by Sydney Perkowitz and Eddie von Mueller.

And if none of those pique your interest, I will be posting an all-Stephen King review of reviews soon!

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Need for Auto-Skepticism: Epistemic Modesty, Transphobia, and Philosophy

René Magritte, "The Human Condition"
(photo from my recent visit to the Magritte Museum in Brussels)

The problem with many self-described “skeptics” these days is not that they are too skeptical but that they are not skeptical enough. Or so I’m going to try to argue here via a circuitous route through a current dispute about transphobia in academic philosophy with stops in ancient Greco-Roman, classical Chinese, and classical Indian philosophy.

Recently philosopher Jonathan Ichikawa posted a Twitter thread about a particular use of skepticism. Ichikawa’s thread includes the idea that skepticism is often linked with conservatism, an idea that is hardly new (although, I think, less true than is often supposed), but the more immediate context of all this is an ongoing … well, I’m not sure what to call it. “Discussion” is too tame, “kerfuffle” is too dismissive, and “internet shit-show that gives a peek at everything that’s wrong with my discipline” is, while not entirely inaccurate, not quite right. I’ll settle on “dispute” for now with the caveat that I leave this open to future revision.

The dispute has been going on for a long time, but a few recent items are this interview with philosopher Kathleen Stock and an essay by a trans woman on why she is leaving the discipline of philosophy. I have thoughts on both of these items, but they been discussed elsewhere and I trust readers are capable of listening, reading, and judging for themselves. My concerns here are more general.

Skepticism and Gender Dogmatism

I am a cis man. I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans person in philosophy. The idea that I can tell other people what their experience is seems to me to be, far from skepticism, perhaps a kind of epistemic arrogance.

Here’s a suggestion: the problem with transphobia and other forms of anti-LGTBQIA+ sentiment isn’t so much that people have the wrong beliefs about gender, but that they have too many beliefs about gender. The idea that a trans woman isn’t a real woman relies on some pretty concrete beliefs about gender, particularly what it means to be a woman. Much the same could be said about notions that lesbians and gay men can be “cured”, or that bisexual people don’t really exist, or that nobody can be asexual, or that intersex children are abominations, and so on. Such notions are usually founded upon some kind of gender dogmatism.

I don’t know whether gender is “natural.” I’m even less sure what that would even mean. But I’m pretty sure that trans folks are human beings worthy of whatever respect any other human being might deserve, or in any case I’d like to think the discipline would be better off if we treated our colleagues with the modicum of respect of acknowledging basic aspects of their identity. The idea that many trans folks in our discipline feel disrespected and harmed should start from the fact that many trans people have explicitly said this, but because this seems not to be enough for many so-called skeptics, let me put it this way: whether or not trans people are “really” the gender they say they are, we should respect our colleagues. And by “respect” I mean at the very least taking our colleagues’ experiences seriously by not outright denying their identities.

I don’t see why this is so hard. And if you need some kind of argument here, try this: Imagine that one person claimed repeatedly that another person with a PhD in philosophy who is a philosophy teacher and researcher at a university was not really a philosopher. That would be pretty weird. I realize this actually happens, but notice that when it does, it’s often because the person making the claim has some definition of philosophy, often a pretty narrow one formed on the more extreme edges of specific camps, e.g., analytic, continental, etc. Notice also that I have not engaged in any sort of a priori attempt to define “philosophy” before I feel comfortable saying that the second person is a philosopher. Nor have I claimed that we should not ask metaphilosophical questions.

But this is merely an analogy. I want to reiterate again that I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans person in philosophy. The only evidence I have to go on is the testimony of trans people in philosophy. It seems odd for people allegedly interested in the truth to a priori reject what would prima facie appear to be a valuable source of evidence on the matter. (But one might object: isn’t this just what skepticism does? More on that soon.)

Maybe all of this reveals that categories like gender and “philosopher” are more fluid than we take them to be. Maybe it shows that such categories are in need of further conceptual analysis or deconstruction or whatever. I don’t know. But here’s my hypothesis: whatever one’s views about gender or metaphilosophy may be, telling other people what their identity is would seem to be a matter of great dogmatic faith in one’s own epistemic abilities rather than any kind of skepticism.

(Because my intended audience here is mostly philosophers, I should add the qualification that of course I don’t mean we should always respect the self-professed identities of other people: for instance, a person who clearly advocates white supremacist views but who denies being a white supremacist is not necessarily worthy of respect).

Contemporary Uses of Ancient Skepticism

That objection again: But that’s just what skepticism does! It discounts the obvious sources of evidence at the expense of others. That’s what Descartes did: he discounted the evidence of the senses at the expense of the evidence provided by “clear and distinct ideas.” Is it just good rational practice to subject new claims to the skeptical fire?

Ichikawa in the Twitter thread mentioned earlier questions this assumption and points out that such skepticism often serves to support the status quo. Ichikawa cites a passage from Sextus Empiricus about following “the tradition of laws and customs” as part of Sextus’s answer to the inactivity objection (how can skeptics act without beliefs?). I’m not disputing that Sextus said that or that many skeptics throughout history have been political conservatives on account of their skepticism. And I agree with Ichikawa that many self-described skeptics do indeed have the effect of maintaining the status quo.

But I would like to suggest two things: first, ancient and modern skepticism are very different animals, and second, it would be dogmatic to take Sextus too seriously here.

I’ve said more on the first point elsewhere, but when most philosophers these days talk about “skepticism” they usually have in mind the kinds of arguments you find in Descartes, Hume, or their intellectual descendants in analytic epistemology. While such arguments often borrow from ancient Greco-Roman skepticism, they are put to very different uses: modern skepticism is a move within a theoretical project of epistemology, while ancient skepticism was a way of life in the sense expressed by contemporary philosopher Pierre Hadot (while the Academics come closer to contemporary skepticism than the Pyrrhonian skeptics, I think Academics were practicing skepticism as a way of life, at least as they were represented by Cicero). Or, to put it more succinctly, modern skepticism is primarily (if not wholly) theoretical, while ancient skepticism is primarily (if not wholly) practical.

On the second point, skepticism does not logically entail conservatism. A fully purged Pyrrhonian skeptic could just as easily be what we’d call “progressive” once they stop trying to base their politics on anything like a fully worked out philosophical view. A contemporary Pyrrhonian might attack gender dogmatism, especially if such dogmatism is causing harm to oneself or others. Pyrrhonism’s target (at least in the version of Pyrrhonism we find in Sextus) is disturbance and its goal is tranquility, or the lack of disturbance. I dare say there is a great deal of disturbance created both on Twitter and off by gender dogmatism. Perhaps we’d be better off with fewer beliefs about gender.

An Academic skeptic may even have what Carneades called “persuasive impressions,” or something more than suspension of judgment and less than a full belief. Academics very well may form “persuasive impressions” about gender based on testimony from the experience of trans people or at least about the necessity of respecting one’s colleagues. And this can all be done with something less than full, dogmatic belief, something open to future revision.

Skeptical Progressivism?

But, one might object, doesn’t “progressivism” (or some other political philosophy) require some idea of what we are progressing toward? Doesn’t it require some coherent beliefs about the goals of politics? Can one act politically without political beliefs?

Skepticism, of both the everyday and philosophical varieties, is these days typically associated by its opponents with cynical dismissiveness and by its champions with hard-nosed rationality. But I think both views get it wrong, because they see skepticism as inherently directed toward others.

A lesson from the ancient Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna is that skepticism is an internal affair. Once you turn skepticism back on itself to purge yourself of your internal dogmatisms, you are left with a kind of mental peace, a coolness of the mind. For Nāgārjuna (at least as I interpret him) a major cause of our suffering is attachment to philosophical views, even when it comes to Buddhism itself. The Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi and the classical Indian skeptic Jayarāśi show that skepticism might lead to a cheerful openness to new ways of being and thinking, unimpeded by our self-imposed cognitive straightjackets. For Zhuangzi, skepticism results in a freer and less dogmatic way of being in the world, and for Jayarāśi, the destruction of philosophical dogmatism (especially that of religious philosophers) leaves us free to delight in everyday experience.

I personally find great joy in the attitude that the universe doesn’t owe us anything, that we are imperfect creatures doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Imagine how dismal (and boring) it would be to believe that we have almost everything figured out already! I don’t see why this attitude can’t be applied to gender as well: human beings are complex and gender is a vastly complicated topic that has spurred a panoply of views throughout all of human history. It would be intellectual folly to claim to have figured out gender once and for all.

Neither is skepticism inherently conservative. Conservatives often rely on dogmatic beliefs that society and its inhabitants must be a certain way and know their place in some preordained order. Skeptical progressives would lack the dogmatisms that hold us back from trying something new, from listening to and taking seriously the concerns of people on the margins of societal power. Instead of asking, “Why?” skeptical progressives might ask, “Why not?” Skepticism, properly applied, is a form of openness to social progress, but without an a priori fixed idea of what this progress consists in or where it is headed; maybe this makes it a great deal more progressive than most dogmatic forms of progressivism.

Auto-Skepticism and Epistemic Modesty

Let’s call the idea that skepticism should be applied to oneself “auto-skepticism.” I’m not entirely set on this term. I may revise it later, lest someone think I’m implying that we should be skeptical about automobiles (maybe we should be, but it would require another post!).

So, my suggestion is this: skepticism should be applied as much, if not more so, to oneself as to others. Auto-skepticism is especially important for those of us who are in positions of social privilege. I’ve written about this before, but the problem is two-fold: a privileged person simultaneously has less access to evidence of what it’s like to be a marginalized person and more confidence in their epistemic authority about all matters (including the experience of marginalized people). It’s something like a Dunning-Kruger effect.

This seems especially true for someone like me. As a white, cis-het man I have been taught (usually implicitly) that I have a special epistemic authority to tell other people what their experience is: I’ve noticed over the years how easy it is for me to say dismissive things like, “It’s not that bad,” “You’re over-reacting,” “I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way,” “I’ve never noticed that myself, so it can’t be right,” and so on. This is something I’m working on. And I find that auto-skepticism is a useful tool in the process of reminding myself that my experience does not dictate reality.

Here’s some skeptical advice. If you find yourself tempted to think things like “trans people are just confused” or “trans women aren’t really women,” ask yourself some questions. What is your motivation for thinking so? Is it really an open-minded search for truth, or are there emotions lurking deeper (disgust, fear, etc.)? Why does this issue matter to you? What is your evidence in favor of these claims? Does this evidence trump the evidence of testimony of trans people? Where does the burden of proof lie in this case? What is the proper amount of epistemic modesty here? What are your own epistemic limitations, especially when it comes to experiences you’ve never had? Could these limitations be doing more work than you think? What are your reasons for thinking whatever you think about gender? Are these good reasons? Are your arguments actually good arguments? Are you overly attached to a particular view about gender? Does this attachment cause suffering to yourself or others? Might you be better off having fewer beliefs about gender? Might you experience a kind of peace of mind or intellectual freedom in relinquishing some of your beliefs about gender? Must one have beliefs about everything?

I can’t say what your answers to these questions will be. To say so would be uncouthly dogmatic. But I wonder if they are nonetheless helpful questions to ask oneself.

Do I turn this auto-skepticism on everything I have written here? Of course! Feel free to tell me where I am wrong. My own position contains blind spots, and I don’t see myself as having solved anything. At best I hope to have suggested some things to consider, things that may help some people turn their gaze inward to their own dogmatisms at least long enough to give some of our colleagues a moment of respite.

When it comes to lofty matters like the ontology of gender, it’s hard to know what to think. But in the meantime, I think a basic collegial respect is warranted. And if you require an argument in favor of treating people with basic respect, well, you may need more help than philosophy can give.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Comparative and Continental Philosophy Circle, Leiden, Netherlands (May 23-25, 2019)

I'm excited to be traveling to the Netherlands this week to attend the Comparative and Continental Philosophy Circle at Leiden University, which will take place May 23-25, 2019. Details here.  See also a post I made over at the Indian Philosophy Blog.

Monday, May 20, 2019

What do Creators and Fans Owe Each Other? - Misery by Stephen King

I've been reading a lot of Stephen King lately, but somehow I had never read one of his most famous books.  I'm glad I finally did.  Misery is definitely one of King's tightest novels (being relatively short and only having two major characters probably helps there).  It also brings up a lot of interesting issues with regard to addiction, mental illness, and biggest of all: the ethics of what creators owe to their audience and vice versa.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Random Thoughts, Part 4

Made at: https://www.jasondavies.com/wordcloud/

A while back I started collecting my random thoughts and putting them on my blog. There have been three parts so far (see here, here, and here). And you are now reading Part 4! Enjoy!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Thoughts on Recent Anti-Abortion Legislation

In recent months many US states have passed legislation severely limiting access to abortion or making it illegal all together (read about some of this legislation here).  Here are some of my thoughts on the matter.

1.    Abortion is going to happen and has been happening for thousands of years.  I’d rather have it be safe and legal.
2.    Personhood is a super complicated issue. I recently taught a whole class on what it means to be a person.  My own inclination is that an embryo or a fetus does not meet any reasonable criteria for personal identity.  But almost all human beings capable of being pregnant clearly do meet these criteria.
3.    Pregnancy can be dangerous and has vast effects on a person’s body, health, and life.  It usually ends with hours and hours of pain the rest of us can’t imagine.  Nobody should be forced to go through with that.
4.    Pregnancy is caused by men.  It’s weird that people seem to forget that, especially people who like to talk about “personal responsibility.”
5.    Casual denigration of the South is no solution: first, prejudice against the South is dumb and helps nobody, and second, the whole anti-abortion strategy is to use these laws to force challenges in the Supreme Court, so this should alarm all Americans.
6.    It really is about respecting women’s autonomy and recognizing women’s humanity.  The same goes for people who do not identify as women but who can become pregnant.
7.    I tend not to feel or express anger or outrage in conventional ways.  I also have a lot of misgivings about how many people these days express anger and outrage, especially on the internet.  But rest assured that I do feel both anger and outrage about recent restrictions on abortion.  It’s appalling and we should all be working to protect abortion rights.

8.    Fellow men, most of us have not said enough about this or done enough to stop what’s happening.  We can do better.  This is our issue, too.