Philosophy McNuggets II

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

More short, unrelated mini-essays, like the ones I posted in Philosophy McNuggets I.

A lot of people claim that the world is coming to an end. Based on the Aztec calendar, or based on watching Al Gore predict death by global warming, or based on whatever it is, they assure me that in the next 5, or 10, or 20 years, Western civilization will come crashing down around our decadent feet.

The thing is, they don't really believe it.

Here is my offer to them. Let's pick a large amount of money—something that really counts to both of us—say, $5,000. I'll give you that money right now. It's yours, whether you want to give it to your favorite charity or spend it on bubble gum. No strings attached...except one. In exactly six years time, if Western civilization is still around, I want you to give me $20,000. If we're all dead or living in a post-apocalyptic hell or a resurrected paradise, why of course, money won't mean anything. So hey, what do you have to lose?

No one has taken me up on that one yet. Money has a way of cutting through the layers.

The sexist says: "Women are completely different from men. Men should do male things, like science. Women should do female things, like, I don't know, knitting or something. It is wrong and unnatural to mix the two."

The feminist says: "Apart from the obvious biological differences, women are indistinguishable from men. Therefore, if males outnumber females among the ranks of nuclear physicists or baseball players or Senators, this is clear proof of sexism in the system."

The realist says: "On the whole, men are taller than women. This does not mean that there is anything unnatural or wrong about a tall woman or a short man. But statistically, if you are looking for tall people, you will tend to get more men. The same might be true of various aptitudes and personality characteristics: we should not be surprised if we find some women who really love baseball or are great at nuclear physics or want to run the country, but they may well be outnumbered by the men."

Why are there so few realists in the world? Because no one ever wants to admit that it's about the math.

Let's imagine, for a moment, that you trust someone, and he cheats you or lies to you. Now what do you do?

Obviously you don't just want to forget it. You want to learn the lesson: don't trust that particular person in that particular way. Don't get burned again.

But most of us go far beyond that lesson, and into an irrational fuming stage. We replay the injury over and over again, along with revenge fantasies.

"Ooooooh, Henry Higgins, just you wait until we're swimming in the sea,
Ooooooh, Henry Higgins, and you get a cramp a little way from me.
When you scream you're going to drown, I'll get dressed and go to town.
Oh-ho-ho, Henry Higgins, down you'll go, Henry Higgins! Just you wait!"
Suppose that Professor Higgins himself is long gone, far beyond Liza's powers of actual revenge. And suppose you stopped her and said, "You're only hurting yourself here. Just let the anger go." Could she, really, just let it go? Probably not. This is my question: why not?

Because deep down, she feels that if she let all the feelings go, she would be letting him get away with it. As long as she is nursing her bitterness, at least she's doing that to him.

He, meanwhile, doesn't know or care a thing about any of it.

Here is a story that my friend Janice recently emailed to me. The only background you need, to follow the story, is that Janice is an artist whose work is available for review on online sites (which seems to be a huge part of the art world today).

I was reading the International critiques, or CRITS as it is called, that other artists, collectors and critics were penning about my artwork on the Saatchi Online Gallery in London. One artist said of my very favorite painting that it seemed easy enough to do and didn't think it was worth the amount of "quid" that I placed on it for sale purposes. I then looked at her artwork, and picked out one I especially liked and made a positive comment on it in CRITS on her site. Some time later, I got a nice review from her on another painting of mine.
I repeat the story here because it goes with my point, above, about forgiveness. It is so obviously the right response, in retrospect, but how many of us would have the wherewithal to carry it off at the time?

What makes people join, and stick with, a spiritual group?

A lot of it is being welcomed in, getting a sense of belonging. Good old-fashioned friendliness has probably changed more personal theologies than all the philosophical argument in the world. But to whatever extent philosophical arguments do help, I think that what all the religions have in common, rather than what distinguishes them, makes the most converts.

Someone says to you, "You're living as if you're going to be immortal. But in fact, you're going to die, at some particular but unknown moment in the future. All that will be left will be what you made of your life. So if you look at your life that way, what do you want to make of it now?"

This person could be a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or for that matter a Communist. But if it's the first time anyone has delivered that particular message to you at the right time, and in the right way, then you are hooked. You associate that message with that particular teaching, and therefore see it as the great path to wisdom.

For me, it was Augie Turak and the Self Knowledge Symposium. To this day, I have all kinds of reasons why I think Augie's philosophy works better for me than the major religions, but I have to admit that a lot of it comes down to this: he said the same things they all say, and he said it in a way I could hear.

Why is it that I speak so much more often about Christians and Buddhists than about my own heritage, Judaism?

I've spent my whole life listening to Jews. I had Sunday School teachers and Hebrew school teachers and relatives and friends who talked about the Jewish people and its ethnic and cultural heritage. They talked about the state of Israel. They talked about "Justice, justice, justice shall you pursue." They talked about the Holocaust.

But they didn't talk about God much. I'm not saying this is true of all Jews, but just in my experience, I haven't heard too many Jews talking about the things that get me excited: a transcendent reality, a higher meaning, an ultimate answer. This may be one of the reasons that so many Western Jews are finding their home in Buddhism.

The liberal argument for gay rights boils down to this: what adults do in the privacy of their own homes is no one else's business, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else. If two men want to have a loving and compassionate and sexual relationship, you don't have to like it, but you certainly can't interfere with it, in the name of cultural traditions or religion or anything else you happen to believe in. Live and let live.

I tend to buy that argument, for the most part. But I want to go on record as saying that once it is generally accepted, the next step is going to be polygamy. There's no consistent way to prevent the argument from going there.

This will cause a dilemma for feminists, because polygamy is inherently asymmetric, which is what feminists hate most. They will try to keep it symmetric by pointing to the occasional instance of polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands), but it will be very rare and little solace. Feminists will split over the issue, just as many feminists have split over the question of men with sex-change operations.

You heard it here first.

Reading through these little mini-essays, I'm surprised by the voice that comes through. It is, by and large, a conservative voice. That is what I would conclude about the author if I were reading these.

I have another essay where I examine the difference between liberals and conservatives and look at my own positions. Overall, I come out pretty liberal, despite all the individual issues where I lean to the right.

So let me end on a liberal note. According to one Web site I found (, over 25,000 children die every day due to poverty. Approximately 1 billion people live in slum conditions.

People who have plenty to eat can worry about all the things I worry about on a daily basis, such as the state of Calculus education or whether homosexual civil unions should be called marriages. But when you face global hunger in all its enormity, every other political issue pales to the utterly trivial. In the end, I still vote for the folks who seem to take this one issue the most seriously. So far, that's the Dems.

Note: well after writing this bit, I wrote a more full essay specifically on the topic of poverty.

Hungry for more? Order an extra-large basket of Philosophy McNuggets III and Philosophy McNuggets IV!


From: Richard Felder
December 4, 2008

Great stuff!

My only problem is with your sexist-feminist-realist trichotomy. You have the realist attributing a gender difference in the population of, say, scientists, to the fact that some gender differences, such as height, are intrinsic. It's a giant and unjustifiable logical leap from stating that some gender differences are real to asserting that the feminists are being unrealistic in their accusations. For example, the latest and most carefully done studies I've looked at regarding math aptitude conclude that there are no gender differences, and the studies that purported to show such differences were flawed. Also, both of us know quite well that sexism-based limitations on women's access to and opportunities to advance in some traditionally male careers are both real and common. Your feminist's argument may be unjustified in particular instances, but your realist's argument—which has historically been used to justify all sorts of gender and ethnic discrimination by people like your sexist—is far more problematic to me.

From: Kenny Felder
December 4, 2008

Good, good! Let's explore this.

Suppose you look at 12-year-olds who join basketball teams, and you discover that a lot more boys do so than girls. This difference may come from biological causes, or it may come from environmental and social factors (ie sexism), or it may come from some-of-both.

Are you saying that...

a) You are sure that it is all environmental and none biological?

b) You aren't sure, but we should assume that it is anyway, for fear of unfairly discriminating?

c) Something else (and if so what)?

From: Richard Felder
December 13, 2008

In the case of height I'm quite sure biology has a lot to do with it, based on the best research available. As regards general athletic ability, biology may or may not play a role, and in the case of interest in athletics I'm sure that social conditioning plays an important part. However, (a) I would still strongly oppose any policies that limit girls' opportunities to play basketball based on their sex; and (b) no conclusive research exists showing that math and science abilities are gender-related, and so even if you could justify discrimination based on real biological differences (which I don't think you can), you can't justify any policy that's based on the assumption of gender differences in intellectual aptitudes. When differences in access or treatment are found to exist, I'm siding with the feminists.

From: Kenny Felder
December 13, 2008

I don't feel like you answered the question yet. If I were to suggest that more boys are interested in playing basketball than girls, and more girls are interested in ballet dancing than boys, would you consider it unthinkable that such a discrepancy might have a total or partial root in biology?

From: Richard Felder
December 14, 2008

Total root—almost unthinkable. Partial root—almost certain.

From: Kenny Felder
December 14, 2008

So we are allowed to admit publicly that at least some of the differences are biological? That statistically speaking, the aptitudes and even the preferences of men and women may statistically differ?

That's all I think I was arguing originally.

From: Richard Felder
December 14, 2008

Some of which differences? Are some differences at least in part biological? Of course. Does that mean that any difference that shows up is at least in part biological? No.

From: Kenny Felder
December 14, 2008

OK, I'm still not seeing any points of disagreement here. Obviously I never claimed that all differences are biological.

But drifting toward the implications, if we agree that some of the differences are biological, then we can also agree that if you look at a particular situation and see an asymmetrical male/female breakdown, then you cannot ipso facto assume that there must be sexism at work?

From: Richard Felder
December 14, 2008

Again, it depends on how much evidence there is for a biological basis. If there's essentially none, then sexism is a reasonable assumption.

From: Kenny Felder
December 15, 2008

What sort of evidence would you want?

From: Richard Felder
December 15, 2008

Let's take math ability as the case in point. I would want data from either brain research or rigorous genetic studies demonstrating the existence of a sex-linked math aptitude, or empirical studies showing that in cultures where there's no social stigma attached to girls being good at math you still find sex-linked math performance differences.

From: Kenny Felder
December 16, 2008

I doubt you will find such cultures. So in the absence of rigorous genetic or neurological studies, whenever we find more males than females in a math-related field, we should assume that sexist practices are at work, and take action to root them out and correct for them?

Incidentally, I have heard that there are now more female than male math majors. So should we also be taking that as evidence of sexism, and looking to correct for it?

From: Richard Felder
December 17, 2008

"I doubt you will find such cultures. So in the absence of rigorous genetic or neurological studies, whenever we find more males than females in a math-related field, we should assume that sexist practices are at work, and take action to root them out and correct for them?"

Yes, especially if you're in a culture you know gives girls negative messages about what is and isn't a suitable pursuit for women, with engineering and physics definitely being in the non-suitable category.
"Incidentally, I have heard that there are now more female than male math majors. So should we also be taking that as evidence of sexism, and looking to correct for it?"
I hadn't heard that, but relatively speaking I don't think you're talking about many people—there aren't a whole lot of great jobs out there for math majors. I suspect that many more men than women who have the ability to be math majors are instead going into better paying traditionally male fields like engineering, the hard sciences, economics, and business.

 Kenny Felder's Essays and Commentaries

 Send comments or questions to the author