Metaphysics 101 Part 9

(Part 9 of Ten)

(continued from Part 8 of Ten)

The widely held assumption that atheism and fine ethics are incompatible is a superstition, not a fact. However, if you are an atheist, don’t badger a person of faith.

—Mario Martone

For existentialists, existence is absolutely limited to subjective mental constructs. We cannot know other people at all. For determinists, existence is a cosmic puppet show. Our relationship to other people is determined by the dance of dendrites and synapses, not character. For full-time skeptics, existence probably doesn’t exist, and then again, it might. Other people might be real, and then again they might not. For other intellectual nihilists, existence is a senseless game without any purpose for those who live it. Other people are interchangeable, as in a dream.

Out of the Maze

Lists of philosophies are about as prolific as the philosophers to whom they refer, from Aristotilianism (Aristotle) to Objectivism (Ayn Rand) to Zoroastrianism (Zoroaster). Lists of philosophy terms and concepts are exponentially greater than those of the philosophers, scholars, and critics who create them.

In the world of philosophy, every concept has a counterpart either as its opposite or its mirror image where particulars may differ but its essence is identical. In that world, the lust for axioms is insatiable. It generates circular arguments even when self-evidence is crystal clear. In addition, philosophers generally have a proclivity to complicate the simplest of issues. (Here, I’m compelled to insert an axiom stated by another movie character—very different from Rose in the African Queen—who passionately retorts: “If I tell you a piece of fish stinks, I don’t have to tell you why, do I?”)

Philosophers are notorious for their insistence on axioms for just about everything. I’m not a philosopher, but I don’t feel a need to explain why slavery, theft, and sexual abuse are evil. I also agree with those who believe that the Golden Rule is the only rule of ethics necessary and from which all others may be derived, including environmental and animal concerns.

Philosophy purists often object to Ethics as a major branch of philosophy on the grounds that it is subjective. The objection is even stronger when applied to Esthetics. But subjectivity is part of human nature. Removing the factor of subjectivity from the human psyche in order to understand a human being is like removing his mind and heart in order to understand the dynamics of human life.

I also don’t think those two branches of philosophy are as ‘non-objective’ as most philosophers make them out to be. For example, when an individual has an aversion to being a slave or the victim of a sexual predator, her objections are every bit as objective as the right to kill someone in self-defense.

I’m fascinated by cosmology, but Esthetics has more to do with the study of humankind than all the other branches put together. ‘Esthetics’ is a word associated with ‘beauty,’ ‘taste,’ ‘art,’ and the appreciation of art. For the purposes of this article, I prefer to call Esthetics (fine) Art. Art is a prime example of what Rose means when she says we are meant to rise above nature. Even though we are made of stardust, we are more than that now. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Michelangelo’s Pietà, and Einstein’s equation E=MC2 came from themnot from ‘random’ stardust but from ineffable human creativity. All creative thought is art as distinct from mindless instinct. It comes from us, not the stars, although their beauty literally inspires artists.

Art is never a matter of chance. It is conceptual. It has a purpose. When someone randomly splatters paint on a canvas, he is engaged with the need to feel like an artist, even though he doesn’t have the talent to qualify as one. The results of his random splash may be beautiful, but like a beautiful sunset, splatter doesn’t qualify as a work of art even if it is beautiful.

Taste is unreliable as a primary factor in judging whether or not a painting, ballet, or novel qualifies as a work of art. A judge should consider the universality and purposes of a piece of art and not simply equate ‘new’ with ‘good’ or fame with authenticity.

Aristotle and Plato are prototypes of philosophers who preceded and succeeded them. Aristotle got art right, Plato was abysmally wrong about it. Ayn Rand, successor to Aristotle, also got it right.

[But I have a reservation about her judgment. In 1959 I invited her to see an off-Broadway, one-night production of The Crucible that I had directed. She declined my invitation because of Arthur Miller’s political views. Ironically, Mr. Miller’s play was implicitly in complete accord with the philosophy of Ayn Rand but she didn’t attend the performance because of his politics. I’m virtually certain that her decision was subjective even though she was overwhelmingly objective about art and philosophy.]

The performing art of film has a tremendous affect on millions of people. That is especially true of fine film art. If you seek the truth about the Nazi Holocaust, see Shindler’s List; for a window into American Congressional practice in the 50’s, see Advise and Consent; for the face of prejudice, A Time to Kill; for the meaning of integrity, A Man for All Seasons. There are also a few Hollywood directors and actors who make honest “morality” statements in as many films as possible. Denzel Washington is one of those artists. See Training Day, Hurricane Carter, and Philadelphia.

Artists do it better than philosophers.

(to be continued in Part 10 of Ten)

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