Archive for March, 2018

Environmental Ethics at #mtsu Fall ’18-priority registration begins Monday

March 31, 2018

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Locke & Spinoza, “chalk and cheese”

March 29, 2018

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Locke & Spinoza, “chalk and cheese”

March 29, 2018

Today in CoPhi, “chalk and cheese” as Matthew Stewart has it. “Locke and Spinoza are the chalk and cheese of the early Enlightenment, or so it has long been maintained. One was moderate in all things; the other a thoroughgoing radical. One was supposedly a devout follower of Jesus; the other was known in his own day as the ‘atheist Jew.'” But both had a huge impact on the enlightenment revolutionaries of our patimony. More on them below.*

Today in Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen says professors and college graduates ought to be important fighters defending reason but have instead become enablers of magical thinking. Case in point: Princeton-trained poli-scientist Jodi Dean, author of Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace and enthusiastic defender of “the veracity of people claiming to be not just (UFO) witnesses but abductees.”

It’s not just Higher Ed that’s the problem. The largest charter school operator in Texas, a company called Responsive Ed, issues textbooks presenting Genesis as a scientific theory and dismissing evolutionary biology as “dogma” and “unproved theory.” And that was before Betsy DeVoss.

Wonder what Thomas Jefferson would say about that. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Sure, neighbor, say what you want. But don’t compel young students to hear it in their science classrooms unless you want to turn out generations of blathering scientific illiterates. Oh. You do.
Today in A&P, we meet Epicurus’s dangerous idea, “a kind of universal acid [that] dissolves every pretension of religion… top represent the meaning of existence”: nature always explains itself. Or will, given time and literacy.

Thomas Hobbes said Epicureanism is truer than Aristotelianism, invested as it is in understanding nature’s causes but not positing prior purposes. “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility,” Einstein agreed, precisely because its causes are discoverable.

Is it better (“less remote from the truth”) to believe nothing than to believe what’s wrong? Jefferson the Epicurean thought so. That didn’t block him from facing the hard but (speaking for myself at least) consoling truth that death redistributes our vital matter and grants our continuation in “a thousand forms” – animal, vegetable, and mineral.

Epicurus tumbled to Darwin’s dangerous idea, approximately, that the complexity and diversity of life are due to natural selection and time, which “transforms the nature of the entire world.” Nothing stays the same. As Lucretius put it, the pressures of survival, not the decrees of a transcendent authority, are responsible for “the creation of better and more just arrangements of society.” May the pressures continue. They must.
Today in Bioethics, Eula Biss plays some more with the vampire theme and her recognition as both a new mother and a patient that “we feed off of each other, we need each other to live,” and that the whole mutual dependency framework of our lives is beautifully “aglow with humanity.”

One of the troubling and less lovely expressions of humanity is our tendency to panic in the face of unwarranted and unsubstantiated fears. Such was the “cascade of panic” triggered by Andrew Wakefield’s discredited study linking the MMR vaccine to autism. “Wealthier countries have the luxury of entertaining fears the rest of the world cannot afford.”

Refusal of immunity “as a form of civil disobedience” is an opportunity of privilege – “a privileged 1% are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99%.” The refuseniks who think they’re striking a solid blow against inhumane capitalists, especially Big Pharma, are missing a vital point: shared immmunity “is a system in which both the burdens and the benefits are shared across the entire population,” hardly standard operating procedure under capitalism. Opting out really looks more like buying in and supporting the status quo, which is to devalue or ignore appeals to ethical principle in favor of (as Susan Sontag said) “the calculus of self-interest and profitability.” What an impoverished state of mind and a shrunken state of heart.

And speaking of Dracula, one more time: “medicine sucks the blood out of people in a lot of ways.” So maybe Biss’s dad was right: “Most problems will get better if left alone.” Problems abound, though, if our reason for choosing to leave them alone is an absence of trust in medical practitioners.

*Spinoza didn’t make it easy on himself by affirming pantheism, but perhaps he found the solace of solidarity with nature and the universe sufficiently off-setting and worth the cost in personal terms. He thought he’d touched all the bases: God, nature, freedom, emotion, everything. QED(Not quite easily done.)

He “claimed to demonstrate both the necessary existence and the unitary nature of the unique, single substance that comprises all of reality. Spinoza preferred the designation “Deus sive Natura” (“god or nature”) as the most fitting name for this being, and he argued that its infinite attributes account for every feature of the universe.”

An infinite God leaves no remainder, but also leaves individuals without a personal savior. He didn’t think he needed one, with his rationalist’s intellectual love of God. Free will may be an illusion, but a Spinozism of freedom is supposed to free us from reactionary passions like anger and self-pity. He would have been pleased by Einstein’s endorsement. “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind…”

But, freedom? “It would be moral bondage if we were motivated only by causes of which we remain unaware, so genuine freedom comes only with knowledge of what it is that necessitates our actions. Recognizing the invariable influence of desire over our passionate natures, we then strive for the peace of mind that comes through an impartial attachment to reason.” Much easier said than done. But again, Spinoza wasn’t about easy.

Anthony Gottlieb’s Spinoza brought “a breeze of the future,” a foretaste of our present, with determinism and secularism in the ascendant in the most enlightenend quarters. Was he really “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers,” as Bertrand Russell averred? “Those who were acquainted with him,” said Bayle in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, called him “social, affable, honest, obliging, and of a well-ordered morality.” But they didn’t confirm his mythic identity as a humble lens grinder scrabbling to sustain himself for his philosophic labors. “[H]is lens-making was primarily a scientific pursuit rather than a commercial one.”

If we “understood clearly the whole order of Nature,” according to Spinoza, we’d come to his conclusion that “all things [are] just as necessary” as a true mathematical proposition. “Unfortunately, people did not come to see this at all.” Fortunately, I say, lest we stop trying to be the change we want to see in the world. He’d say not to sweat that, if we want change then we necessarily will do what we think we must to achieve it… but we can’t bank on making a difference that confounds the “whole order.” And I say, again, I’m banking on it.

This God-intoxicated man has many secular and atheistic intellectual descendants, who are tarred by “no stigma in economically developed countries except the United States.” Still, “he believed that he believed in God.” Maybe Einstein did too, Gottlieb’s judgment that he was “probably just being diplomatic” notwithstanding.

John Locke‘s empiricism overstated the blankness of our slates, and relied too heavily on memory as a guarantor of personal identity. Thomas Reid was not in his league, but may still have had a better idea with his overlapping memories thesis. Until we become cyborg, total recall will not be an option.

“Locke’s grand work,” said C.S. Peirce, “was substantially this: Men must think for themselves.”

Thomas Jefferson may have overstated the case for Locke’s influence on the founding generation of the American republic, but if he influenced the sage of Monticello it would seem to follow that in fact his shadow has loomed large. A direct line can be drawn from his social contract to John Rawls’s, and from there to the current generation of progressive politics in America… to say nothing of his namesake on Lost. The authority of a rulers derives from the freely-contracted consent of the governed, or from nowhere. It doesn’t come down from heaven nor out of the barrel of a gun.

Locke “greatly admired the achievements that his friends in the Royal Society had made in physics, chemistry, and medicine, and he sought to clear the ground for future developments by providing a theory of knowledge compatible with such carefully-conducted study of nature. The goal of his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was to establish epistemological foundations for the new science by examining the reliability, scope, and limitations of human knowledge in contrast with with the pretensions of uncritical belief, borrowed opinion, and mere superstition. Since the sciences had already demonstrated their practical success, Locke tried to apply their Baconian methods to the pursuit of his own philosophical aims. In order to discover how the human understanding achieves knowledge, we must trace that knowledge to its origins in our experience.”

The Essay Concerning Human Understanding sounded the Enlightenment keynotes: think for yourself, question conventional and inherited wisdom, stop quibbling and splitting hairs about angels on pinheads (etc.)

Samuel Johnson‘s stone-kicking refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s idealism is usually met with derision, but as a practical response I place it in the same category as Diogenes’ ambulatory refutation of Zeno’s paradoxes. Works for me.

Berkeley‘s idealistic immaterialism (“in which he employed strictly empiricist principles in defense of the view that only minds or spirits exist”) deserves some derision, though it also makes a perverse kind of sense if we don’t repudiate Locke’s representational realist assumption about ideas and their putative inferential sources. Better to repudiate, and admit that experience gives us the world – not just ideas of a world. But it gives us a world in need of elaboration and refinement, which was always the point of reflecting on experience in the first place.

Better also to repudiate the idea that being and perceiving are one. But, Berkeley’s Three Dialogoues between Hylas and Philonous (1713) is still an entertaining read. “Here Berkeley spoke through Philonous (“Mind-lover”), who tries to convince his reluctant friend Hylas (“Woody”) that it is only by rejecting the artificial philosophical concept of material substance that skepticism can be finally defeated and the truths of common-sense secured.”

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: 3 Gauls in faith and doubt

March 27, 2018

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3 Gauls in faith and doubt

March 27, 2018

Finally went to see Black Panther. What a lavish, gorgeous cinematic spectacle! But I’d like to believe a technologically sophisticated society like Wakanda would also have developed more sophistication in its governance and leadership succession. Death challenges really do not suit an advanced civilization.

But King T’challa had a sophisticated point when he said: “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.” He’s got my vote… if he explains how all that technology can sit easily alongside a pre-scientific worldview involving the conjured spirits of the ancestors. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” said Arthur C. Clarke, but not from the standpoint of those who developed the technology. Or are we going to say that Vibranium did it, and we don’t know or care how? What a backwards, apathetic stance that would be. Speaking of apathy…

On Saturday, noted David Remnick, “thousands of American teen-agers marched on Washington to protest gun violence in their schools. This was more than inspiring—it was a bracing reminder to the rest of us that the course of events is in our hands, and that apathy is a choice.” I hope their teen spirit is contagious, at our school and everywhere else.

Three Gauls today, in CoPhi: MontaigneDescartes, and Pascal – a humanist skeptic, a rationalist/foundationalist, and a fideist gambler, respectively. The first and last were known for slogans in their native tongue: “Que sais-je?” (“What do I know?”) and “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.” (“The heart has its reasons that reason does not know at all.”) More on them shortly.*

Today in Fantasyland, another “channeled” dictation: A Course in Miracles alleges confirmation of Descartes’ worst nightmare – “that physical existence is a collective illusion–‘the dream.'” Dreams preempt systematic scientific inquiry but, mirabile dictu, make it possible for each of us to “create your own reality.” What if yours contradicts mine, though? Aren’t we going to need some applied science to sort it out?

Her hat’s not formally in the ring yet, but Andersen’s probably not going to support a presidential bid from Oprah. He says she, “more than any other single American by far, outside conventional religion and politics, is responsible for giving a platform and credibility to magical thinking… an inclusive promoter of fantasies–extraterrestrial, satanic, medical, paranormal…” She propelled The Secret to its iconic status (but don’t call her New Age). She elevated Drs. Phil & Oz to celebrity status. She does seem, ironically enough, to be a force of nature.

The not-so-secret “law of attraction” says you just need to think the right thoughts-and if things aren’t working out for you, you’re just not thinking and believing hard enough to harness “placebo power.” Believe and receive. This magical doctrine becomes truly pernicious when it’s invoked to excuse dishonesty, as in the case of our benighted Tweeter/Grabber in Chief: “…it doesn’t matter if he lies as long as what he says feels true.” It does. It doesn’t.

Today in A&P, we pick up Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. “Many historians today take for granted that the reference in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence to ‘the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God’ amounts to a gesture of conventional piety” supporting religious conservatives’ declamation that America was founded as a Christian nation.

But Stewart’s thesis is that it instead reflects the founders’ Deism, that “it refers to nothing that we commonly mean by the term ‘God,’ but rather to something closer to ‘Nature.’ It tells us that we are and always have been the source of our own authority; that we govern ourselves not through acts of faith but through acts of understanding.” It invites us to pair John Locke’s ideals (life, liberty, property) with Baruch Spinoza’s understanding of nature as entirely inseparable from ourselves.

When I was growing up, all I knew about Ethan Allen was that his name fronted a furniture store we often drove by. In fact he was a revolutionary hero and, despite a lack of formal schooling, an inspired/inspiring author and advocate of enlightenment values. His Oracles of Reason (was it all his?) was for some a secular Bible. It had words for the spirit behind A Course in Miracles:

“In those parts of the world where learning and science has prevailed, miracles have ceased; but in such parts of it as are barbarous and ignorant, miracles are still in vogue; which is of itself a strong presumption that in the infancy of letters, learning and science, or in the world’s non-age, those who confided in miracles, as a proof of the divine mission of the first promulgators of revelation, were imposed upon by fictitious appearances instead of miracles.”


“I have generally been denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious I am no Christian, except mere infant baptism make me one; and as to being a Deist, I know not, strictly speaking, whether I am one or not, for I have never read their writings… [I] wish that good sense, truth and virtue may be promoted and flourish in the world, to the detection of delusion, superstition, and false religion…”

And in a self-referential “hoist on your own petard” passage, “Those who invalidate reason, ought seriously to consider, “whether they argue against reason, with or without reason…”

He also believed, as we’ll see in an upcoming chapter, in intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, in “alias worlds.” He’d surely agree with the Pythons’ Galaxy Song – “there’s bugger all down here on earth.”

Was Melville thinking of Allen when he said he wrote the godliest things with the soul of an atheist? Is “godly” the word he’s looking for?

Thomas Young, “unquestionably the most unwritten about” distinguished revolutionary, may have “collaborated” with Allen on his Bible. His writing chops were all over the propaganda “engine” he cofounded with other infidel Deists. (Were there any important non-Deist infidels then?) He thought “the whole story” of Christian salvation a “big fraud.”

Nature’s God goes boldly where just a few “scrupulous and worthwhile” scholars including Susan Jacoby have gone before. Young Jefferson boldly went to Philadelphia for an inoculation against the pox. Deism was another form of inoculation, against another form of pox. Allen thought the very air (and sunlight, and natural waters) a tonic source of knowledge.

The “individualistic side of Protestantism” pushed to its extreme by Jonathan Edwards was, we’ve seen, an enabler of magical fantasyland thinking.

Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man inspired Young, as well as Enlightenment icons Kant and Voltaire, and gave us some of our favorite literary cliches. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast… to err is human… fools rush in… a little learning is a dangerous thing.”

But, “Whatever is, is right” is wrong wrong wrong. Thus spake the pragmatic meliorist.

“All nature is but art, unknown to thee;All chance, direction, which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good. And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, One truth is clear, ‘Whatever is, is right.”

Young and his fellow “natural-born rebels” sought more than freedom of religion?, but the fuller freedom that exempts the irreligious from self-misrepresentation – a “religion of freedom,” if you will. (I won’t, freedom needs no religion if free men and women have sufficient understanding.)

Today in Bioethics…

*Descartes, of course, preferred his previously noted Latin cogito declaration. I can’t help repeating Kundera’s quip: that’s the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothache. I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life, than of the body’s various aches and pains. I’m more certain of them every day. Fortunately, solvitur ambulando is still my working slogan.

Descartes wanted only good apples in his sack, by Nigel’s analogy. He was prepared to waste a lot of perfectly acceptable beliefs, in order to avoid potential errors. Unlike James he thought our errors are awfully solemn things, not necessary and instructive steps along the way of life and learning. He rejected what Pyrrho and Montaigne both  accepted, the inevitability of uncertainty. As Sarah Bakewell says of Montaigne, “Learning to live, in the end, is learning to live with imperfection in this way, and even to embrace it.” Pascal also hated not knowing, but decided the best route ultimately was not the Rationalist Road.

Might we be dreaming? Doubting Descartes, early in his Meditations, says what do you mean we? Ultimately he decides we’re all here, at least as awake as Gilbert Ryle’s ghost can be. If we can trust our clear and distinct perceptions we can rule out the evil demon hypothesis, and stop worrying that we might be brains in vats, or humans in matrix-like pods, or something.

Descartes’ “most practical critic” was the American C.S. Peirce, who said we shouldn’t pretend to doubt in philosophy what we don’t question in life. One of Descartes’s surprising contemporary admirers is A.C. Grayling. He thinks Descartes was wrong about consciousness and the mind-body problem, but wrong in wholly constructive ways that have benefited subsequent philosophy.

Montaigne, Bakewell points out, answered his own question about “How to live” with hard-won but much-treasured lesson that Epicurus was right, death per se is not one of our experiences. He learned that from his own “near death experience,” which he says taught him that nature drips a comforting anaesthetic into our veins when we need it most. “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”

But, “as Seneca put it, life does not pause to remind you that it is running out.”

Many readers through the past half-millennium have been struck by the contemporaneity of Montaigne’s mind, his capacity for “living on through readers’ inner worlds over long periods of history” and speaking to them like a friend and neighbor despite the distance of centuries and the differences of culture. He achieved that authorly immortality so many have aspired to, but so few actually attained.

He achieved, in his own terms, freedom. “Be free from vanity and pride. Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions, and parties. Be free from habit. Be free from ambition and greed. Be free from family and surroundings. Be free from fanaticism. Be free from fate; be master of your own life. Be free from death; life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.”

“Given the huge breadth of his readings, Montaigne could have been ranked among the most erudite humanists of the XVIth century. But in his Essays his aim is above all to exercise his own judgment properly. Readers who might want to convict him of ignorance would find nothing to hold against him, he said, for he was exerting his natural capacities, not borrowed ones. He thought that too much knowledge could prove a burden, preferring to exert his ‘natural judgment’ to displaying his erudition.” SEP

And, as we’ve already apreciated about him, Montaigne was a peripatetic who said his mind wouln’t budge without a big assist from his legs.

Pascal’s best thoughts (and worst) are in his best-known book, Pensees.  His best invention was a rudimentary calculator called the PascalineHis most noted argument was for a wager that asked “what have you got to lose” by believing? That depends on how you think about the integrity of belief, and on how much you value your Sundays. I’m betting there’s both more in heaven and earth (if you invert the terms) than Pascal dreamed.

Pascal said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” And Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.” (But, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”)   And “I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise.” (That’s what Mark Twain, and really all the wittiest wits, said too.) And “To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.” (But Nigel says he said he wasn’t one.)

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” But, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” That’s why Descartes took the Rationalist Road. Pascal sticks to Faith Street: “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the truth.”

So, how do you know you’re awake and not dreaming? Is it meaningful to say “life is but a dream”? Does “Inception” make any sense at all? Are you essentially identical with or distinct from your body (which includes your brain)? If distinct, who/what/where are you? How do you know? Can you prove it? Is there anything you know or believe that you could not possibly be mistaken about, or cannot reasonably doubt? If so, what? How do you know it? If not, is that a problem for you?

Do you believe in immaterial spirits? Are you one, or hoping to be? Can you explain how it is possible for your (or anyone’s) material senses to perceive them?

At what age do you hope to retire? What will you do with yourself then? Will you plan to spend more time, like Montaigne, thinking and writing?

Have you had a near-death experience, or known someone who did? What did it teach you/them? How often does the thought occur to you that you’re always one misstep (or fall, or driving mistake) away from death?

What have you learned, so far, about “how to live”? Have you formulated any life-lessons based on personal experience, inscribed any slogans, written down any “rules”?

Do you agree that, contrary to Pascal, most nonreligious people would consider it a huge sacrifice to devote their lives to religion? Why? Is the choice between God and no-god 50/50, like a coin toss? How would you calculate the odds? At what point in the calculation do you think it becomes prudent to bet on God? Or do you reject this entire approach? Why?

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Saints and secularists

March 20, 2018

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Saints and secularists

March 20, 2018

In CoPhi today, another quick pass at the heroes of late antiquity/middle ages. Augustine was a Manichean before his conversion to Christianity and its omnipotent Deity and supernaturally-rooted disdain for human reason.

Boethius’s consolation came mainly from stoic philosophy, not Christianity,   but he lets God off the hook (in anticipation of Aquinas) by flattening time and letting Him “see everything in one go in a timeless sort of way.”

Anselm’s Greatest Conceivable God possesses Being irrefragably and necessariy, if you believe in the power of words to compel reality.

Peter Abelard may have been “the first serious moral philosopher of medieval times” but his lust for Heloise came at a painful and irreparable cost. Perplexing. What would he have liked to synthesize?

Ockham’s “razor” was a simple tool. Too simple, for a complex world? Giordano Bruno could have used it, though.

In Fantasyland today we’re reminded – wouldn’t you rather forget? – that the occupant of the formerly-most-respected office in the world once slapped and body-slammed the head of the WWF on stage. He’s been slapping the rest of us since.

Burning Man is another fantasy stage for adults of all ages, who go to the desert and dress up as unicorns, birds, mermaids, geishas etc., and “step through the looking glass – that is, through the LED screen – to inhabit Azeroth or Tatooine” or wherever. Kids ‘R’ Us for sure, innocently and harmlessly enough for most perhaps, but Michael Jackson was another story.

In A&P today we note the ascent of Catholicism in America in the ’30s, impacting pop culture via calls for censorship in the film industry and a pledge not to “throw ridicule on any religious faith.” Life Magazine’s Birth of a Baby also offended the vigilant censors, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling against prior restraint of free expression.
A pair of priests, Coughlin and Sheen, blazed the trail for Billy Graham and other Protestant evangelicals – not to mention Rush Limbaugh and other preaches of hate. And Bishop Sheen also paved the way for those who wanted to treat “liberal” as a dirty word. Imagine wanting a government to “do good in society” – how vile!

The Jehovah’s Witnesses had no use for secular govenment, earning a reputation even lower than atheists’ by the mid-’30s – mostly by proselytizing passionately and refraining from patriotic public pledges.

The last well-known secularist crusader in the tradition of Paine and Ingersoll was Clarence Darrow, who died in 1938. “The Atheist Mother” Vashti McCollum was no crusader, just a humanist whose wish to raise her children free of doctrinal duress was “somehow” perceived as hostile and threatening by the conformist majority.

Lady Chatterley dealt a decisive blow to the Comstock law in 1959, inflaming the enemies of secularism and leading Billy Graham to write in 1954 that communists worship the Devil. That was a bit abrasive. Would it have been worse, if he were a woman?

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: John Locke Discussion and Quiz Questions

March 19, 2018

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John Locke Discussion and Quiz Questions

March 19, 2018

Discussion Questions:

1. How much freedom would you be willing to give up to the government.?

2. At what point would it be acceptable to turn against and try and replace bad government?

3. Locke argues that everyone is fair and unselfish originally by nature. Do you believe this?

Quiz Questions:

1. In what religion was Locke raised up in?

2. What prestige university did Locke attend in Oxford Ohio?

3. Who recruited Locke to be their personal physician and inspired many of his philosophical beliefs?

4. What were the documents called where Locke stated everyone has the right to life, liberty, and property?

5. What did Locke say should happen to corrupt government?

Books: Two Treatises, Concerning Toleration

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Resist!-a reading list. Additional suggestions?

March 17, 2018

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