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Wednesday, May 17, 2023


As I have observed over the years in various places, there is a considerable difference between thinking about the world and actually trying to change it. When you are merely thinking, it is no more trouble to think about everything than to think about something, so philosophers think about being rather than, say, about what is for dinner. And if you can think about everything actual, it is no greater effort to think about everything possible as well. Hence the popularity of speculation about possible worlds.


But when it comes to changing the world, it takes an enormous amount of effort to make a very small difference and a vast amount more effort to make a slightly larger difference. For example, I spent 23 years of my life raising money to support poor black men and women in South Africa who wanted to go to one of the historically black universities there but lacked the money even for the tuition down payment that got them in the door and eligible for government loan schemes. Month after month, year after year, I sent out letters and gathered money and managed in the end to help about 1600 young men and women have a chance at a higher education in South Africa. That is not even enough people to form a blip in the national statistics, and yet it was far away my largest sustained effort.


Now I sit in comfort in a continuing care retirement community as my Parkinson’s takes over my life, watching with horror the terrible things happening here in the United States and elsewhere in the world. It is no trouble at all for me to think about them and little more effort to write about them but neither thinking nor writing has of course the slightest effect on those terrible things. When I try to make a difference, the most I can think to do is to give my little bits of money to this or that political campaign and hope that tens of millions of other Americans do the same.


At the moment, I am waiting to see whether Joe Biden stares down the House Republicans and takes one of the available ways of handling the debt limit problem unilaterally. Today, Paul Krugman says that Biden has blinked. But perhaps Biden is playing a deep game and is trying to trap McCarthy into making impossible demands which he, Biden, can then righteously reject just before he mints the damned coin. No matter how subtle an analysis I could conjure while sitting in front of my computer, what I think and say will have no effect at all on what Biden does.




David Zimmerman said...

The Washington Post has just reported that Biden has signalled that he is open to Republican demands for "work requirements" for eligibility to certain social programs such as food stamps.....

This after all that insistence from the White House that the Dems will not negotiate about raising the debt ceiling.
Clearly Biden learned nothing from the "Freedom Caucus's" debt ceiling hostage-taking in 2011 when he was Obama's VP.

One weeps.

Howie said...

There is something to what you say: McCarthy comes off as a disgruntled shareholder at a shareholder's meeting. He is a total lightweight and airhead.
To answer Krugman: saying you won't negotiate is a stance in negotiation

s. wallerstein said...

It's clear that thinking in itself will not change the world.

But if someone such as yourself, Professor Wolff, thinks about what in the world should be changed and tells others about that, whether through writing or lecturing or blogging, those others may change the world or at least be influenced by your thinking to communicate to others such ideas.

Not of us is the Messiah, none of us is Lenin (thank god), none of us is Martin Luther King, none of us is George Orwell, but we all do a bit towards changing things for the better.

As a matter of a fact, you (Professor Wolff) have frequently said that since social change is a long hard march, each of us should contribute what he or she feels good about contributing and what his or her skills and lifestyle permit them to contribute.

Thinking clearly seems to be your chief skill and that's great.

tom llewellyn said...

Very few people can actually change the things that matter. I have a friend who has an MBA degree and is a big Trump supporter. Tons of evidence will not change his mind. If I can't convince him, how can I change the world? Life is a comedy to him who thinks, and a tragedy to him who feels (Walpole).

John Pillette said...

ALLOW ME to cheer you up (you’re welcome …!)

Language evolved through a random mutation some years ago, and since then nearly all of the words “spoken” (broadly defined to include words merely thought) have been used by humans
NOT for communication with others in order to accomplish external tasks, but INSTEAD to talk to ourselves inside our own heads.

Think about it, 117 billion Molly Blooms, going on and on and on … !

Given this, it’s a wonder anything has ever been accomplished, and no surprise at all that what does get accomplished tends to be just a little “rando” (as the kids like to say)!

Marc Susselman said...

tom llewellyn,

Thank you for the great quote. So true, so true.

Ahmed Fares said...

"If all mankind, jinn, angels, and devils combined their efforts to move or to still a single particle of the universe without His will and choice, they would be unable to." —Al-Ghazali (The Jerusalem Treatise)

" ... just as by moving natural causes [God] does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature.
— Summa, I., Q.83, art.1.
—Thomas Aquinas

God Causes Our Actions, But We Control Our Thoughts

A second cluster of ideas congenial to the denial of free will starts with the pronounced Hasidic valuation of inwardness over action[…]

Reb Zadok [Zadok HaCohen of Lublin, a disciple of Mordechai Joseph Leiner (the Izbicer Rebbe), who believed that humans do not cause their own actions, also] denies free will in the strong sense of teaching that none of our acts result from our own volition; God is the true agent of human deeds. There is no human agency in the world of action. However, there is freedom with regard to the mental attitude we take with regard to our actions.

That covers the three Abrahamic faiths. Here's something from Hinduism:

“It is Nature that causes all movement. Deluded by the ego, the fool harbors the perception that says "I did it".” —Veda Vyasa, The Bhagavadgita or The Song Divine

Acts are part of divinity and have nothing to do with humans except in their capacity as channels for divine acts.

Also, I did not write this comment because writing is an act which means I only acquired the act which God created. The same is true for this article and the other comments.


We live in a world that seems to be brimming with causal activity. I push the keys on my keyboard, and letters appear on the screen. Outside the wind blows leaves across the patio. The ringing of the phone cuts short my idling thoughts.

Philosophers have long wondered about the nature of causality. Are there true causes at work in the world, and, if so, what makes them the causes they are? How do causes bring things about, and what kind of connection does a cause have to its effect? These questions took on another level of complexity when various religious and theological considerations were brought to bear on these issues. For instance, philosophers came to question how divine causal activity is to be understood, particularly, in relation to the natural causality of creatures. It is from this context, in which questions about the nature of causation intermixed with questions about the relation between divine and natural causality, that occasionalism emerged. Occasionalism attempts to address these questions by presenting as its core intuition the claim that, regardless of our common sense inclinations, God is the one and only true cause. In the words of the most famous occasionalist of the Western philosophical tradition, Nicolas Malebranche, “there is only one true cause because there is only one true God; … the nature or power of each thing is nothing but the will of God; … all natural causes are not true causes but only occasional causes”...

source: Occasionalism

marcel proust said...

A propos Krugman... As an economist myself, I take what he says about economics quite seriously and have learned from him by doing so. Howsomever, I trust his insight into affairs political no more than my own.

Steve Gerrard said...

Not really relevant to the post, but I thought you might like that a young Tufts philosophy professor friend of mine posted on Facebook: " Grading papers for a political philosophy unit in which we read Robert Paul Wolff's defense of anarchism. I've now seen TWO essays that refer to Wolff as 'Christian Wolff' (the 18th century German metaphysician!?).
What's going on here?"

Jim said...

Steve Gerrard --

Sounds to me like students are using ChatGPT software to compose their essays. It works astonishingly well if you are very specific about the instructions but will default to a best guess without it. Hence the Christian Wolff reference. I have seen the same thing in my classes. There is supposedly software available to detect this, but I have yet to employ it. What tips me off for other submissions is that I know the students do not write as well as the papers they submit. Nevertheless, I find the trend rather disheartening.

-- Jim

Michael Llenos said...

Imagine an A.I. program that would not only write an original A- paper, but an A.I. program that would further edit that paper by putting in it typos, run on (and incomplete) sentences, & also brief irrelevant phrases and other narratives.

One of the only things that can save us from succumbing to a harsh A.I. slavery is an advanced benevolent civilization that has already been through such pitfalls & knows how we can navigate safely over such troubles. Don't believe in such civilizations? Well you probably have never read the Timaeus & Critias.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

"Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways, but what matters is to change it"

The 11th thesis on Feuerbach is now almost 180 years old. It seems to me that it is high time to turn the sentence around again.

Marc Susselman said...

Prof. Gerard,

I note that you have taught a course in the Philosophy Dept. at Williams College titled “Free Speech and its Enemies,” part of which deals with speech codes at colleges and universities. I am contesting the constitutionality of such a speech code at a public university in New Jersey, a speech code which has been promulgated by the State of New Jersey, and applies not only to colleges and universities, but to all public employees in New Jersey. I maintain that the code is unconstitutional because it is not “content and viewpoint neutral.” In fact, two professors at this university were disciplined for allegedly violating this policy, one of whom was terminated. The case is on appeal to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, and for some unknown reason, although oral argument was conducted at the Court in March, 2022, the Court has yet to issue a decision. The appeal is an unexplained limbo. You may be interested to know that Judge Alito, now Justice Alito, when he sat as an appellate judge on the 3rd Circuit, wrote the majority opinion in Saxe v. State College Area School District (2001), holding that an anti-harassment speech code at a public school district in Pennsylvania was unconstitutional because it was not content and viewpoint neutral. (This means that government may not selectively approve some speech, and prohibit other speech, based on the content and/or viewpoint in the speech.)

On a separate issue, in your course do you address whether freedom of speech should protect hate speech in any context, or in every context? For example, should freedom of speech apply to protesters in front of a mosque holding signs which state such things as, “Go Back to Saudi Arabia”; or “Muslims are Terrorists”; or “This Mosque Supports Isis”?

Marc Susselman said...

Correction: Prof. Gerrard

Ahmed Fares said...

This is in line with my previous comment. (emphasis is from the original article).

Economist Tyler Cowen has an article up today titled: Claims about atheists. A quote:

…atheists take part in plenty of political actions – 1.52 to be exact. The overall average in the entire sample was .91 activities. The average atheist is about 65% more politically engaged than the average American.

And this:

The results here are clear and unambiguous – atheists are more likely to engage in political activities at every level of education compared to Protestants, Catholics or Jews. For instance, an atheist with a high school diploma reports .7 activities, that’s at least .2 higher than any other religious group.

Political engagement is clearly related to education, though. The more educated one is, the more likely they are to be politically active. But at every step of the education scale, atheists lead the way. Sometimes those gaps are incredibly large. A college educated atheist engages in 1.7 activities, it’s only 1.05 activities for a college educated evangelical.

source: Claims about atheists