Woody Allen’s “The Irrational Man” between existentialism and reuse

Woody Allen’s last movie, The Irrational Man (henceforth TIM) keeps on discussing about luck and case, a topic which was at the center of his Match Point (MP). In both movies, the “villains” end up being punished, in a (too) straightforward way in TIM and in a subtler one in MP. Notwithstanding that, one of the strengths of TIM is that the condemnation of the villain is so straightforward, that one is lead to suspect that his punishment only happened by chance and not as a result of justice. If you are interested in the topic and can read Italian, you can read my analysis of MP in the light of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta here.
If you don’t know Italian, you might have missed that the climax scene of TIM is a quotation* of the corresponding climax scene of Il Vedovo, a 1959 movie by Dino Risi, which also elaborates on the topic of trying to organise the perfect murder of an unpleasant person. The main difference lies in the fact that W. Allen sympathises with the prospective murderer (a philosophy professor who dislikes Kant’s Categorical Imperative and is fond of Sartre) much more than D. Risi, whose commedy really has no hero.

*I do not think it is a simple reuse of a convenient device. The similarity is so striking that the director surely intended his public to recognise what he was doing. In this sense, the movie presupposes a public of connaisseurs (along the public of people paying the tickets). I discuss the terminology related to reuse in the Introduction of a forthcoming volume edited by me and Philipp Maas. Its basic ideas can be read here (where “pragmatic reuse” stands for what we later labelled “simple reuse”).

Human beings as animals

Humans are not animals according to Descartes’ distinction of res cogitans and res extensa. They are also not animals according to many Christian theologians (Jesus came to save humans, not animals). Perhaps humans are not (only) animals also according to the Aristotelian definition of human beings as “rational animals”, which attributes to humans alone a distinctive character. Humans are also quite different than animals when it comes to their respective rights. But here starts a moot point:

from http://www.popsci.com/should-animals-same-rights-people

174th Philosophers’ Carnival

Have a look at the new Philosophers’ Carnival and let me know what you think about it. I am sure most readers will love the mixing of text and images (I don’t, but just because I am esthetically-impaired). And no, nothing beyond Königsberg, but several interesting posts on challenging topics (from atheism to blameworthiness for what we cannot choose to avoid).

172nd Philosophers’ Carnival—SECOND UPDATE

Welcome to the 172nd Philosophers’ Carnival! Read, enjoy, add your favourites in the comments below and submit here your proposals for the next edition of the Philosophers’ Carnival (which will be hosted by Samuel Paul Douglas).

As a general framework, let me start with Catarina Dutilh Novaes’ review of Williamson’s Tetralogue, discussing the possibility of rational dialogue to advance knowledge —that is, the reason which could make philosophy more than a Glasperlenspiel.

Should philosophy (of religion) go out of its comfort zone?
In this post, Aaron Thomas-Bolduc suggests that we should go out of our comfort zones and test our ideas outside them. A few days before, Adriano Mannino had posted here his comments on a study by Helen De Cruz and asked whether philosophy of religion is more than Christian apologetics.
This post by Michael Almeida shows that arguments about philosophy of religion can be dealt with in a purely logical way (from premisses to absurd consequences). Similarly, Eric Schwitzgebel discusses here the application to artificial intelligence of a problem originally dealt with within philosophy of religion, i.e., God’s responsibility for our well-being (and our responsibility towards AI, if we ever were to create one). By the way, the author includes in his dialogue also the Confucian approach of ethical obligations (which get stronger the closer one is to oneself, so that one has higher obligations towards one’s family than towards strangers).

Free will within and without contemporary Western philosophy
The idea of going out of one’s comfort zone brings me to the following series of posts, dedicated to free will. One can start with John Danaher‘s general summary of the possible meanings of “Liberty” and “Free will” as explained by Skinner (John Danaher has further interesting posts on freedom and work and democracy).
Next, this post by Jayarava Attwood discusses the Buddha’s defense of free will while debating with a denier of free will in a text of the Pāli Buddhist Canon. The same author has also dedicated a more general post to the issue of free will at the boundaries of philosophy and neurosciences, here. Again on Buddhism, Amod Lele discusses here how ethics is possible even within a deterministic worldview. Last for the non-Western series, this post discusses Free will vs. divine omnipotence in a Vaiṣṇava theologian, Rāmānuja. Stewart Duncan discusses here some passages of Leibniz which suggest that he might have conceived of things deterministically and of thoughts as actions, depending on the souls only.
Flickers of Freedom is the usual reference point when it comes to free will. This month, this post by V. Alan White on whether responsibility comes in degree especially recommends itself.

Language and reality
Richard Yetter Chappell discusses here an aspect of the problem entailed in the naturalistic account of meaning.

On a similar vein, Tristan Haze discusses here a paradox, namely

If you’re a brain in a vat then you don’t have hands
You don’t know that you’re not a brain in a vat
Therefore you don’t know that you have hands

Interestingly, Haze does not enter into the ontology of the topic, but rather dwells in its linguistic and logical consequences (what does it mean to say that one has hands? To what does language refer?).

On the arbitrariness of the signified and its implications for linguistics, Alexander Pruss discusses here the problems one encounters when translating English hand with Polish rȩka. Pruss closes his post with a thought on false implicature (could occur in cases such as the one described) and lying (morally problematic).

On a sidetrack, Jon Cogburn discusses here how some misunderstandings of the so-called Continental Philosophy by Analytic Philosophers might just be due to wrong translations of French expressions such as l’event or l’autre as “The Event” (=the creation? what other key event?) and “The Other” (Satan?), does creating unwanted metaphysical entities.

Concerning lying, a post at Experimental Philosophy and PeaSoup by John Turri discusses how people react when one asks them whether telling the truth while trying to lie still counts as lying. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the answers depend on how the question is phrased.

At Practical Ethics, Hannah Maslen discusses a bias which seems to lead to more problems than it can solve, namely the hostile attribution bias, which is the cause of avoidable bloody fights, especially among teenagers, just because someone was “looking at me funny”. If you are schocked and ask yourself what could be done to interrupt this vicious circle, have a look at Eric Schwitzgebel’s memories of his father and of how he engaged young criminals, thus automatically making them relinquish crime.

Again at Practical Ethics, this post by Chris Chew discusses what could be the best death.

A new blog on the philosophical problems connected with disability has helped in raising an interesting debate on whether the discussion on some problems, such as the abortion of disabled fetuses, or the moral justification of evil, should be altogether avoided. On the Philosophers’ Cocoon, Marcus Arvan summarises the discussion and adds his view.

At Aesthetics for birds, Rebecca Victoria Millsop discusses the role of originality in painting and whether the research of originality at all costs does not lead astray (I agree). Rebecca is herself an artist (beside being a fifth-year PhD student in philosophy of art) and this perspective deeply enriches her post.

Last, although this is a philosophical Carnival, I hope readers will forgive me —given the high symbolic impact of the Paris attacks on the issues of freedom of thought and critique— if I add this post (which I discovered through Catarina Dutilh Novaes at NewApps) by Juan Cole, a historian of the Middle East, discussing the recent facts in Paris.

By coincidence, the colleague who will host the next Philosophers’ Carnival, Samuel P. Douglas has also a post on the epistemology of conspiracy theories, in relation to the Charlie Hebdo attack.



Free will in Rāmānuja

As frequently observed, free will was not a main topic in Indian philosophy, and discussions about it need rather to be looked for either at partly unexpected places (e.g., within logical discussions about agency) or in texts which are not primarily philosophical and in their commentaries, most notably the Mahābhārata and especially the Bhagavadgītā. Nonetheless, a precious exception is offered by a passage in a 11th c. theologian and philosopher, namely in Rāmānuja’s Vedārthasaṅgraha, which focuses on a constellation of topics quite similar to the one Western readers are accustomed to.

What is a body? Veṅkaṭanātha on plants, rocks, and deities

In general, classical Indian philosophers tend to define śarīra ‘body’ as a tool for experience (bhogasādhana). Thus, most philosophers state that plants only seem to have bodies because of our anthropomorphic tendencies, which make us believe that they function like us, whereas in fact plants cannot experience. By contrast, Veṅkaṭanātha in the Nyāyasiddhāñjana defines śarīra in the following way:

Doing research on free will in Indian Philosophy

As a scholar trained in Western Academia, one has at least three choices while dealing with Sanskrit Philosophy:

  1. One can treat it as if it were Western philosophy and discuss, e.g., of monotonic or non-monotonic logic in Nyāya,
  2. One can deal with it in its own terms, e.g., by describing the inner-Mīmāṃsā controversy about whether one has to study the Veda because of the prescription to study it or because of the prescription to teach it (since, in order for someone to teach, someone else must be learning from him),
  3. One can attempt a compromise, looking for how a certain topic is configured in Sanskrit philosophy.

In the case of the topic of free will, it is hard to avoid the third approach. In fact, whereas the topic of free will is one of the major Leitmotivs running throughout the whole history of Western Philosophy, on a pair with ontological issues, it is not formulated as such in Sanskrit philosophy (see Freschi in the volume edited by Dasti and Bryant). Nonetheless, one can look for implicit treatments of it in theological contexts and in in philosophy of action ones.

Veṅkaṭanātha (also known with the honorific title Vedānta Deśika, traditional dates 1269–1370) is one of the most prolific and multi-faceted personalities of Indian philosophy. He attempted to create a philosophic system which should have broadened Rāmānuja’s Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and make it into a more comprehensive philosophical system. Due to its ambition of comprehensiveness, it is legitimate to expect from Veṅkaṭanātha’s system that it deals also with questions relating to the nature of action and of our contribution to it, and, thus, ultimately with the issue of free will.

What do we have at Veṅkaṭanātha’s background?

On the one hand, Veṅkaṭanātha’s relation towards (Pūrva) Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta (and other Indian philosophical systems), on the other his relation with the Vaiṣṇava religious literature he considers authoritative (Pāñcarātra, hymns of the Āḻvārs). Given the fact that most researches on Indian philosophy focus on Sanskrit texts, one runs the risk to neglect the latter component, which is predominant in Veṅkaṭanātha’s non-Sanskrit production.

The Mīmāṃsā background
The Mīmāṃsā school did not explicitly deal with the topic of free will. Nonetheless, its theory of action presupposes that there are real agents and that these can be held responsible for their actions. In this sense, its concept of duty and of responsibility takes free will as self-assumed.

The Vaiṣṇava background
The Vaiṣṇava texts follow a different path, since many of them emphasise the worthlessness of the poet (the Āḻvār) or of his poetical figura (often a woman) and his/her desperate need of God’s mercy, which is the only thing which could save him/her. Interestingly enough, even in these texts, free will is not denied, but rather superseded by God’s intervention. The protagonist is desperate because of her/his sins and states that s/he cannot achieve anything on his/her own. The possibility to achieve salvation through other ways (most notably, through the bhaktimārga, which is based on one’s love for God) is not ruled out. One could theoretically be able to love God and to be saved through that. De facto, however, the protagonists of the Āḻvārs’ hymns feel unable even to do that. Even their love is not perfect, only their surrender is.

Thus, free will seems to remain a pre-condition. But God’s grace can supersede it and save even unworthy ones. Or do Tamil-conversant readers have a better appreciation of what is at stake?

(cross-posted also on the Indian Philosophy blog)

A theist caught in the paradoxes of free will

Can a theist believe in God’s omniscience&omnipotence and in free will? I have argued in other posts that one can think in a compatibilist way (because God wants to be freely loved) and that this entails that no punishment/ban from God’s presence can be eternal. Here I would like to test it in the case of Vedānta Deśika/Veṅkaṭanātha, a Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedāntin who also wrote Mīmāṃsā works.

From a Mīmāṃsā standpoint, free will is a fundamental presupposal, since Vedic prescriptions are in a dialectical relation with one’s desire (rāga): one always decides on the basis of the one or the other. That rāga itself might lie beyond one’s free will is an idea never discussed by Mīmāṃsā authors, possibly because they are interested in the phenomenology of free will and not in its ontology.

Can the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta point of view agree with this perspective? On the one hand, one might think that the omnipotency of God as conceived by Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta authors leads back to the initial problem. On the other, according to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta human beings are nothing but specifications (viśeṣas) of the only existing reality, God Himself. In some forms of Vaiṣṇavism (e.g., in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism), God can freely choose to self-delude Himself as part of His play (līlā). Thus, the child-Kṛṣṇa can willfully forget His omnipotence in order to enjoy His mother’s protection.

Can one conceive the freedom enjoyed by human beings also as a case of self-delimitation?

Further thoughts on free will in Indian Philosophy can be read here.