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6 Berkeley’s Suitcase Hugh Hunter lays out Bishop Berkeley’s case for idealism 10 Nowhere Men Nick Inman argues that without your mind you’re nowhere 14 The Private Lives of Rocks Jon David thinks comprehensively about panpsychism 16 Spinoza’s Metaphysics & Its Implications For Science Zoran Vukadinovic on what it means to say that God is Nature
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20 A Golden Manifesto, Part II Mary Midgley continues her look at ethics past & future of 24 Epicurus For Today Luke Slattery modernises an ancient authority on moderation 27 Existential Comics: Epicureanism Corey Mohler on the original party school! 29 Philosophy For The Brave Dahlian Kirby analyzes existentialist psychotherapy
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The Road The journey’s hard, and life is short, so how to live? p.48
Book: Was Einstein Right? by Clifford M. Will reviewed by Tim Wilkinson 46 Book: Moral Relativism by Stephen Lukes reviewed by Phil Badger 48 Film: The Road Michael Burke takes a post-apocalyptic hike with Levinas
REGULARS 13 Philosophical Haiku: Hegel Terence Green hits Hegel heavily with haiku and history 32 Question of the Month: To Be Or Not To Be, What Is The Answer? Your replies to Hamlet’s Question 38 Letters to the Editor 41 Brief Lives: Voltaire Jared Spears is jolted by the shocking life of an electrifying mind 51 Philosophy Then: What Is Metaphysics Anyway? Peter Adamson asks what Aristotle meant by it in his book on it 52 Tallis in Wonderland: On Logos Raymond Tallis has a word for the wise
POETRY & FICTION 19 Spinoza’s Work Peter Abbs focuses poetically on a lens-grinding philosopher 56 Hegel and Hume Talk It Over Chris Christensen overhears a dialogue on knowledge & reality December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 3
Editorial Beyond Physics No More?
et’s get meta-physical! Metaphysics is philosophy’s oldest and most central strand. When Greek philosophy first kicked off in the port of Miletus on the coast of Anatolia 2,500 years ago, the biggest question pondered by the likes of Thales and Anaximander was this: what is the underlying reality of the universe, beneath the surface appearances of our everyday world? Thales thought that everything was, deep down, made of water. Squeeze something hard enough and juice runs out – see? Anaximander disagreed; the underlying reality, he said, was an unobservable element called apeiron. And so Western philosophy began, with speculations that could not be directly checked but which might with greater or lesser success explain those phenomena that we can directly observe. Democritus (460-370BC) hypothesised that simplicity of explanation could be combined with the diversity of the observed world if we assume everything to be made up of arrangements of tiny indivisible articles he called atoms. Epicurus a century later agreed but added that rather than just bouncing around in a mathematically predicatable fashion, sometimes the atoms swerve unpredictably as they fall through the void – and this swerve (called a clinamen), by defeating determinism, is the source of our free will. You can read much more in this issue about Epicurus and his theories and we have a great cartoon strip about him too. Such speculations didn’t have a specific label until Aristotle’s editors gathered together his notes about them into a volume they called ‘Metaphysics’, meaning ‘Beyond Physics’, perhaps because Physics was the title of the previous volume. Our metaphysics articles in this issue includes a feature on Bishop Berkeley; so you can find out why he believed in ideas, but not in matter, and also why he made the surprising claim that his colourful ideas were a philosophy of common sense. Berkeley’s idealism is well known, but it’s often forgotten he too, like Democritus and Epicurus, believed in atoms – though naturally he had his own unique take on what they were. The article on Spinoza explores his reasons for thinking that God and Nature were one and the same – but the author goes on to argue that in the process, Spinoza gives us valuable clues as to how to understand some perplexing puzzles in science today. Nick Inman asks about the nature of human identity and asks where, exactly, it is located, and Jon David wonders whether rocks have awareness. And there you see a sample of the themes that have preoccupied metaphysicians for centuries. For a couple of thousand years, metaphysics was such a central, essential part of philosophy that for many people, it was the real story. The majority of the great philosophical
4 Philosophy Now
December 2016 / January 2017
theories and debates down the ages were in one way or another part of metaphysics. Metaphysics is about the deep structure of the universe, about how things really are, as opposed to how they look. But this question directly connects with others which are part of metaphysics too. Does God exist, and if so, what’s He (or She) like? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How does the mind or soul connect with the body? Free will is another perennial problem in metaphysics, and should not be confused with Free Willy, which was a movie about a whale. Relatively recently, in the last three centuries or so, the invention of new scientific instruments has revealed things about the universe which were previously hidden from our perceptions by scale or distance. Philosophers used to hypothesise about everything being made of atoms – a recurring subject of discussion in metaphysics for two thousand years. Yet over the last one hundred years the structure of atoms has become very well understood through both theoretical and experimental physics and we can even take photographs of them, using powerful electron microscopes. Does this mean that the whole discussion of atomic theory has moved from the realm of metaphysics into the realm of physics? If so, might other discussions in metaphysics follow suit in the future? The mind-body problem has already done so, if you believe physicalists like Daniel Dennett, but very much hasn’t if you agree with dualists like David Chalmers. The jury is still out on that one, but perhaps there are other metaphysical questions which can be solved by science. So, might metaphysics soon become a quaint historical footnote like alchemy? Clearly some metaphysical questions – like the existence of atoms – have indeed crossed into the realm of experimental science, into a space where they can actually, finally be answered. But there may be movement in the other direction too. Some philosophers have recently been scrapping with scientists like Stephen Hawking about whether the world still needs philosophy. Hawking claimed that “philosophy is dead”, as physics now does all the work that philosophy used to do. Yes, retort philosophy’s defenders – that is because you astrophysicists have all become amateur metaphysicians yourselves, theorising about supersymmetric strings and dark energy and parallel universes and other matters way beyond the reach of your telescopes! So from that perspective, metaphysics is not old-fashioned – on the contrary, it is the new black. And as we stare out into the blackness still seeking answers about the nature of the cosmos and the place of consciousness within it, mere labels, such as ‘scientist’ and ‘philosopher’ may come to seem less important than the questions themselves.
• Peter Singer wins Philosophy Now Award • Philosophers and the US Election • Animal Welfare: Good News & Bad News? News reports by Anja Steinbauer. Animal Welfare Ups and Downs I This first of two reports on morally ambiguous animal welfare developments concerns male chicks, who owe their short existences to the breeding industry for egglaying hens. Since they don’t have sufficient body mass to justify raising them commercially for meat, millions of male chicks are killed every year. This is done by gassing, suffocation in plastic bags, or maceration, i.e. being mechanically ground up, none of which are likely to be painless. TeraEgg is a new technology which can examine eggs and sex the foetus through a non-invasive process known as terahertz spectroscopy. This will mean that the eggs containing male fetuses can be destroyed weeks before hatching occurs. While this seems a step in the right direction in that it does reduce animal suffering, animal welfare supporters have argued that it is a figleaf masking the bitter reality of continued animal exploitation. Animal Welfare Ups and Downs II Our second piece of contentious animal welfare news takes us into the world of animal use for human medical research and training purposes. Washington University’s medical school has announced that it will cease to use cats in medical training after finding that technological advances in simulators and mannequins mean that they can now adequately replace live animals. The anatomy of a cat’s windpipe closely resembles that of a newborn infant, so cats provided the best training ground for medical students. Animal welfare activists had put serious pressure on medical schools to stop using live animals, causing some schools to change to technological replicas before experts deemed them to be viable alternatives, or to even be secretive about their continued use of live animals. There is now a new call for general ethics guidelines on the use of animals in medical contexts. Philosophers and the US Election Philosophers rarely take the plunge into the mud bath of real-life moral and polit-
ical problems, but many did comment on the recent US presidential election, including Brian Leiter, well known for his widely-read Leiter Reports blog about academic philosophy. The great majority of philosophers quoted online opposed the election of Donald Trump. Prof. Harry Frankfurt, for instance, called Trump a master of ‘bullshit’, a form of dishonesty distinct from lying and characterised by the speaker’s utter indifference to whether what they say is true or not. No, Trump is a pragmatist in the tradition of C.S. Peirce, said Oxford moral philosopher Daniel Robinson to Quartz magazine. A tiny handful of other philosophers also backed Trump. In an interview posted on his website, the post-Marxist provocateur Slavoj Zizek shocked many (maybe that was the point?) by declaring that he would have voted for Trump despite being “horrified at him.” Zizek said: “Listen, America is still not a dictatorial state; he will not introduce fascism. But it will be a kind of big awakening. New political processes will be set in motion.” Philosophy Now Award 2016 Won by Peter Singer The 2016 Philosophy Now Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity has been given to Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer. Singer was nominated not for his work in general but for two very specific reasons. Firstly, for embodying the idea of a practical philosopher who doesn’t only analyze ethical problems but who also strives to apply a
Peter Singer receives the award
News Free Discussion vs ‘Safe Spaces’? Surely universities are bastions of free speech, where proponents of opposing opinions on moral, political, philosophical and social matters can test out the viability of their views in fierce but reasoned verbal battle? Increasingly, student unions in the UK and US declare ‘safe spaces’ and demand that controversial speakers be ‘no platformed’. The idea is that the expression of certain views might make members of one or other minority group feel unsafe and should therefore be prevented. This happened to Iranian secularist and feminist Maryam Namazie, a well-known intellectual and critic of the position of women in Islam; her 2015 lecture at Goldsmiths University was aggressively disrupted with repeated references to ‘safe spaces’. Most recently, when one of Britain’s best-known philosophers, Sir Roger Scruton was invited to Bristol University the student union tried to no-platform him due to the fact that although he defends gay relationships on the grounds of personal choice, he opposes gay marriage. reasoned ethical stance to the difficult decisions that face us all in our everyday lives. Secondly, in trying to prove that we have duties to help strangers, his books and arguments have set out to disturb the comfortable complacency with which many of us habitually ignore the desperate needs of others, and that certainly counts as fighting stupidity. The Award is particularly for this work as it relates to the Effective Altruism movement, an attempt to use research and comparative analysis to organize the charitable efforts of people in the directions in which it will do the most good. The (transatlantic) award ceremony was held at London’s Conway Hall on 31 October. After a brief acceptance speech via video by Peter Singer, Samuel Hilton spoke to the audience about the Effective Altruism movement inspired by Singer’s work. The 2014 Award was given to Noam Chomsky and last year’s award went to children’s author Cressida Cowell.
December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 5
Berkeley’s Suitcase Hugh Hunter unpacks the sources of Berkeley’s idealism.
ou will be familiar, in these days of inelegant travel, with the exercise of trying to fit everything you might plausibly need into a very small suitcase. It sometimes happens that there is one thing which frustrates the process, an object with awkward contours that ensure it cannot be packed along with the other necessities. It is of some value to identify the troublesome object. Would it not be a small triumph if you not only identified it, but realized that you didn’t need it after all? It was a similar realization in the realm of metaphysics that led the young unpublished George Berkeley (1685-1753) to breathlessly write in his private philosophical journal, “I wonder not at my sagacity in discovering the obvious tho’ amazing truth, I rather wonder at my stupid inadvertency in not finding it out before. ‘tis no witchcraft to see.” (Notebooks, in The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne eds A.A. Luce, T.E. Jessop, n.279.) Berkeley had been trying to fit together a number of beliefs, and he found that he could not do it. Then, in a single insight, he saw that one belief frustrated his project, and that he could do without it. The problem lay in fitting together a belief in perception by means of ideas in immaterial minds, a belief in atoms, a trust in common sense, and a belief in matter. It was the last belief Berkeley suddenly recognized that he had never needed and that by discarding it he could make the others fit together. This freed him from a double puzzle of being isolated from the physical world in two separate, if related, ways. Travelling The Perilous Way of Ideas Let us begin with the sort of isolation caused by a belief in material things plus a belief in ideas. Looking back on early modern philosophy [that is, from the early seventeenth century on], Thomas Reid (1710-96) observed that his predecessors had followed the ‘way of ideas’. In this observation he was certainly correct. The reason was that early modern philosophers could see no way for material bodies to be present in immaterial minds: how could a material tree be in the mind of a man? Instead there must be some intermediate entity, an idea. Ideas tie together the material world of bodies and the immaterial plane of minds, for ideas can represent bodies but are present in minds. Some interaction between someone’s sense organs and the tree causes the idea to come into being with properties so as to represent the tree, enabling the person to perceive it. There was, of course, a great deal of dispute as to how ideas ought to be understood. Antoine Arnauld (1612-94) thought of ideas as aspects of the act of perception. Berkeley found this view implausible. It seemed to him that a more robust understanding of ideas was needed, and he found it in the works of Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) and John Locke (16321704). Both men took ideas to be not the perceptual acts themselves. With this Berkeley was in full agreement: what6 Philosophy Now December 2016/January 2017
ever it is that we have in mind, it cannot be a material tree, nor is anything clarified by saying that we have in mind an aspect of the act of perceiving a tree. Rather, ideas must be entities such that (a) we may have them in mind, and (b) they convey to us the properties we associate with trees. But consider now how this view isolates us, the perceivers. Take the case of colours. Since the early modern period it has been widely thought that colours are not in bodies. Instead, colours are the result of interactions between the surface properties of bodies and our sensory organs; and the same is true of smells, tastes, and sounds. As Galileo wrote in 1623, “I think that tastes, odors, colours, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we place them is concerned, and that they reside only in the consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated” (The Assayer, p.274). Following the way of ideas, then, colours and other sensations are features of ideas, not of bodies. The world of our experience is a carnival of smells and tastes and sounds and colour, but we carry it about in our minds through a reality that is in itself silent, dark, flavourless. That is what I mean when I say that the way of ideas leads the perceiver into isolation. Moreover, this isolated state of man invites the sceptic to ask: How can you be sure that every property of ideas is not like colours, and just in the mind? How can you be sure there really is a material world at all? On this point the sceptic Pierre Bayle joked in his philosophical Dictionaire Historique et Critique (1697) that the way of ideas had produced a stronger sceptical challenge than was known even in antiquity. “Today the new philosophy takes a stronger line [than classical Pyrrhonian skepticism]: heat, smell, colours, etc, are not in the objects of our senses; these are modifications of my soul; I know that bodies are not those that appear to me. Some wanted to exclude extension and movement, but it wasn’t possible, for if the objects of sense seem coloured to us, or hot, cold, or odorous, while they are not these things, why can’t they seem extended and figured, at rest and in motion, while being none of these?” (My translation.)
Bayle wrote toward the end of the seventeenth century, and even then his argument was hardly new. The father of early modern philosophy, René Descartes (1596-1650), had considered the question of the trustworthiness, or not, of our perception of an external world as the very origin of his philosophy, and the power of the sceptical threat can be seen in just how far that great man and his successors were from answering it. In the end, Descartes argued that it would be inconsistent with the goodness of God for Him to deceive us by presenting us with ideas of a material world with no material world corresponding to them. The empiricist Locke argued that a certain “sensitive knowledge” answered scepticism – this being knowledge “of the existence of particular external objects, [gained] by that percep-
George Berkeley by Darren McAndrew 2016
tion and consciousness we have of the actual entrance of ideas from them” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 4.2.12, 1689). Malebranche appealed to Scripture: God is said to have created heaven and earth, after all. These arguments are all, and in the same way, question-begging. The sceptic’s question is whether ideas do in fact reveal a material world. To say that God would be a deceiver if they didn’t, or that our awareness of ideas goes even a whit toward showing that they do, is to assume what is to be established. And in order to deflate Malebranche’s reply, the sceptic need only ask,
Does Scripture say that God created a material heaven and earth? The sceptic shows how deep the isolation of early modern man is with regard to bodies and his perception of them. It is here the conflict arises with Berkeley’s trust in common sense. He wrote: “Upon the common principles of philosophers, we are not assured of the existence of things from their being perceived. And we are taught to distinguish their real nature from that which falls under our senses. Hence arise scepticism and paradoxes. It is not enough,
December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 7
Realities that we see and feel, that we taste and smell a thing. Its true nature, its absolute external entity, is still concealed. For, though it be the fiction of our own brain, we have made it inaccessible to all our faculties. Sense is fallacious, reason defective. We spend our lives in doubting of those things which other men evidently know, and believing those things which they laugh at, and despise.” (Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, Preface, 1713.)
Berkeley’s closing words express his own sympathies with common sense. It does seem to him both laughable and contemptible to suppose that the real world cannot be known through the rich world of experience. It is important to note here that an appeal to common sense is not an appeal to everything that is common. There are many people who do not understand Shakespeare, but so much the worse for them. Nor is it the claim that any belief that’s held by virtually everybody is therefore true. It is rather the claim that there are things that people cannot help but knowing (which is why they are common), and that this inescapable knowledge should bear some weight in our philosophical reflection. And two things that we cannot help knowing, according to Berkeley, are that we directly perceive bodies, and that we see them as they are. The way of ideas leaves us isolated, when common sense tells us that we are crowded about with readily accessible things. Atomic Confusion The second type of isolation of perceivers from the material world is caused by a belief in material atoms. Already by the middle of the seventeenth century it was observed that, “All the Learnedest Philosophers have acknowledged that there are such Atomes, not to speak of Empedocles, Democritus, Epicurus… And Galen makes mention of them… And indeed every where amongst Philosophers and Physitians both Ancient and Modern, mention is made of these little Bodikies or Atomes, that I wonder the Doctrine of Atomes should be traduced as a Novelty.” (Daniel Sennert, Epitome Philosophiae Naturalis, 1618). These ‘little bodikies’ about which everyone was talking, were understood to be tiny, indivisible fragments of matter. Tables and chairs, our bodies and animal bodies, all these are just assemblages, or as contemporary philosophers tended to think of them, mechanisms, made up ultimately of material atoms. In Berkeley’s time, the English called this view ‘corpuscularianism’. By the time Berkeley was writing, atomism had lost none of its appeal. That is because, as the distinctive philosophy of the early modern period grew in confidence, so too it grew confident of its judgment of the medieval period as obscurantist, authoritarian, and confused. To do without atoms seemed to risk a return to a medieval Aristotelian account, in which living bodies were understood as more primary than their parts, since on that view organisms consisted of indeterminate matter taking the determinate forms of the organisms. Much better, thought Berkeley’s contemporaries, to have determinate matter – atoms – producing all other kinds of entities through their arrangements. Then, instead of a multiplication of kinds of explanations of things (cat kinds, tree kinds, kinds of humans) as the Aristotelian account required, the early modern intellectual project became one of reducing explanations to combinations of a few basic atomic kinds. 8 Philosophy Now December 2016/January 2017
So appealing was the atomic picture that philosophers were willing to struggle to make sense of atoms’ most puzzling property: indivisibility. It was crucial that atoms be indivisible, for if they were not, their changes must be explained by some even more basic kinds. Locke thought it might be a brute fact that the smallest things are indivisible. But why should they be? If they take up space, why could God not separate their left and right halves? And if some things have this brute property of indivisibility, why must they be small, as all early moderns, including Locke, supposed? Faced with this question, Democritus, one of the ancient Greek originators of the idea of atoms, admitted that there might be atoms as big as houses. And early modern man is again isolated by atomism, because all that he knows or understands is vastly larger than the scale on which the workings of the world proceed. Once more, early modern man is like a Chinese emperor who is born, lives, and dies in a Forbidden City of the mind. What happens beyond its walls he does not know. As David Hume (1711-1776) wrote in another context: “We learn from anatomy, that the immediate object of power in voluntary motion, is not the member itself which is moved, but certain muscles, and nerves, and animal spirits, and, perhaps, something still more minute and more unknown, through which the motion is successively propagated, ere it reach the member itself whose motion is the immediate object of volition. Can there be a more certain proof, that the power, by which this whole operation is performed, so far from being directly and fully known by an inward sentiment or consciousness is, to the last degree, mysterious and unintelligible?” (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding 7.1, 1748.)
This mystery and unintelligibility, let us note, is in our own bodies. But these are the bodies that are closest to us. Early modern philosophy hoped to explain all bodily changes as variations of atomic motions. But even if such an explanation could be given (and that still seems as unlikely today as it did in Berkeley’s day), it would not free man from his walled citadel anymore than an Emperor walks among his people because his economic advisor explains their condition to him. Another way to put the puzzle is this. If changes in bodies are produced at the level of atomic motion, then the bodies themselves seem to be reduced to a secondary explanatory state. Material bodies are like political bodies in this sense: we may generalize about the actions of some political party, but we recognize that the party itself is really an amalgam of many individuals, and that to generalize about them all is to say something that will not do justice to any one of them. Locke was duly troubled. He wondered whether it is consistent with the goodness of God that He reserved for Himself the true atomic knowledge of things, and gave us only the sort of knowledge we get from our senses. Locke concludes that although “a man with microscopical eyes” might see things more truly, he would see things less usefully, for with our everyday vision we can discern things on the scale which is necessary for us to live our lives (see his Essay 2.18.12). Our creator had to choose on our behalf between the true and the useful, and He chose the second. This is not very satisfying justification for God’s activities – theodicy – for surely God Himself sees both the small and the large together; but Locke does not consider
Realities why God did not make us so as to see that way too. As we will shortly appreciate, Berkeley’s suggestion is that God created us in precisely this fashion. The Doubts & Beliefs of Bishop Berkeley I hope it’s become clear why the recognition that there were problems to be solved was something for which Berkeley took no credit. Galileo, Descartes, Bayle, Malebranche, Locke, and (eventually) Hume all noticed many of the same things. Double isolation, on account of both his means of perception and the scale of his perception, is the sad lot of early modern man. But Berkeley’s insight was that this depressing picture hung on a single shaky nail: the belief in matter. Consider first the isolation brought on by following the way of ideas. The suggestion that bodies (things that cannot be in minds) must be perceived indirectly by means of ideas (things that can be in minds) hinges on the belief that bodies cannot be in minds. Now, the reason for thinking that bodies cannot be in minds is that bodies are supposed to be of a nature incompatible with being in a mind: they are material. But if their materiality is put in doubt, there would be no reason to think that bodies cannot be in minds. And then the first sort of isolation would be unnecessary: man could directly perceive the world he inhabits. Doubting that there are material bodies does not entail doubting that there are bodies. It is rather a question of reevaluating the status of ideas. For most early modern philosophers, ideas are intermediaries which bring us information about material things. But perhaps this is like one of those fairy tales where the messenger is really the prince in disguise; and as in the tale, once the onlookers know, they can clearly discern the princely features that had been there all along, for the ideas that were considered mere intermediaries have all the features of the bodies we always supposed they represented. All the colours and smells and sounds and tastes which early modern philosophy had banished to the mind are as common sense have always supposed they are – characteristics of the thing itself. We can therefore state Berkeley’s suggestion that ideas are bodies in the sense that a combination of shape, colour, smell, taste and so on is a cake, and another combination is an apple. What Berkeley discovered is that doubting the existence of material bodies actually removes a great many other doubts. And so what seemed to Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke a sceptical attack, is to Berkeley merely a purgative. Of course our ideas do not point to anything beyond themselves, any more than bodies point to anything beyond themselves! Or in Philonous’ final words in Berkeley’s Three Dialogues, “the same principles which at first view lead to scepticism, pursued to a certain point, bring men back to common sense.” We find ourselves once again believing what Berkeley was so ashamed to doubt – that the world is rich with colours, odours, sounds and tastes. Without matter, the second isolation, which is brought about by scale, can also be resolved. Bodies are made of ideas; but on Berkeley’s account, the ideas are composed of atoms. Consider what you see before you. Berkeley’s argument is that if you choose an object and narrow your vision, and then repeat this process, you will soon encounter a limit beyond which you cannot gain any more clarity. You have reached a sensory minimum. The sensory minimum is Berkeley’s atom.
Berkeley redefines the atom, then. On this view, God has given us simultaneously micro- and macroscopical eyes, insofar as perception reveals large-scale bodies, and simultaneously (though we may have to narrow our attention), their sensory minima. So his redefinition is just what Locke implicitly takes to be impossible even for a good God to create. Berkeley’s account also provides an elegant answer to the question of why atoms are indivisible. They are indivisible because they are atoms of sensation; so a limit on their divisibility is also a limit on what can be sensed by us. Another consequence of this approach is that research into atoms is likely to be restricted to those fields which study sensory phenomena, for example optics. And although ideas are composed of sensory atoms, there seems to be no reason to look to the atoms rather than to complex ideas for explanations. In other words, the truth about the body of a cat is as likely to lie at the macro- as at the micro-level of perception. This is a consequence of occupying the divine adjustable point of view Berkeley opens up to us. And so Berkeley has supplied us with the tiny, indivisible composing parts of bodies, and can also give bodies a sort of explanatory priority without following the path back to Aristotelianism. Berkeley Being Realistic With the need for material atoms or material bodies removed, the double isolation that so troubled Berkeley and early modern philosophy is removed. On this view the true natures of bodies, along with their atomic structures, are completely manifest to us in perception. It is in this sense that Berkeley can rightly be called a direct realist. We can also see why Berkeley’s reaction to his discovery was humility, remarking that the wonder was that he had not seen it sooner. Berkeley understands his role as that of the boy who first saw the emperor as naked. As in the story, pretension is punctured, but this merely enables daily life to go on as before. “The Philosophers lose their Matter... as for bodies &c we have them still” (Notebooks, n.391). Descartes recommended to his readers a process of meditation that would provide their beliefs with a fresh firm foundation. The Berkeleian meditation could hardly be more different. The meditator discovers how unshakeable are the foundations of the beliefs he gained at mother’s knee. Nothing changes: “the horse is in the stable, the Books are in the study as before” (Ibid. n.429). But a very great deal is changed, the physicist and the mathematician might object. Are all of our fruitful theories concerning unobserved particles about nothing at all? What of our mathematical models of material objects? These are good questions, to which there are, I believe, good Berkeleian replies, according to which mathematics and science are understood as instruments for the dissection of the world of perception. But that discussion will have to wait. Let me just respond now with a Berkeleian question: Which is more certain, that the table is a cloud of atoms and has some independent mathematical shape, or that is it solid, brown, scratched, and smelling faintly of varnished wood? © HUGH HUNTER 2016
Hugh Hunter lives in Ottawa, where he teaches philosophy at the Dominican University College. Please visit jhughhunter.com December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 9
Nowhere Men Nick Inman wants to know where you’re at.
re you ready for the ultimate trick question? Here it is: Am I me, and are you? That is: do I and you exist? Only a yes/no answer is allowed. It wouldn’t be good philosophy to say that you ‘sort of’ exist, nor that you are a working assumption pending further investigation. It is also essential that we don’t just wriggle out of this question by playing with words and definitions. The easiest way forward would be to defer to the great minds that have been wrestling with this problem over the last few decades. Consensus among them, reached by reasoning based on the evidence of brain science, is steadily hardening. I’m going to attempt to show why this consensus is not only wrong – because it is based on a dodgy premise – but dangerously misguided. The Materialist Orthodoxy Many contemporary philosophers begin by ruling out the question ‘Who are you?’ as only of interest to an anthropologist: ‘who’ defines a person by his relationship to other people – it doesn’t shed any light on human nature. The crunch question, which is the only one a physical scientist would allow, is ‘What am I?’ Now we’re dealing with stuff. What else is there to deal with? If everything that exists is stuff – matter – then it is obvious that if I am, I must be something too. It would also help to say where I am because, as Eccles in The Goon Show put it, “Everybody’s got to be somewhere.” Well, there’s only one place I can be. Whatever my self is, it must be me the animal, the biological organism, or part thereof. So I am inseparable from my body: I move around with it, I rely on it for input and output. When my body dies I will disappear. The search for me can be narrowed down further. Although I have a foot, I would not say that I am a foot. Rather, the part of me that perceives and thinks is behind my eyes. “Logically,” says neurobiologist Dick Swaab, “you are your brain” (We Are Our Brains, 2014). End of mystery. I am found and explained. All that is left is to sort out the neuroscience of why I feel who I feel. I may still believe that there’s more to me than one and a half kilos of electrically active meat – that my rich inner life is more than biological. I dream, I create, I engage in abstract thought. Above all, unlike any other species I know of, I am self-conscious and able to tell another being about myself. There must be something more going on, surely? Not necessarily. Experiments with computers have shown that if you start with simple building materials (basically, stuff capable of binary logic functions) arrange them into complex patterns, then pile complexity on complexity and let the system run by itself, adding to its knowledge by learning, then you can get extraordinary manifestations of artificial intelligence that can fool an observer into thinking it’s conscious. The resultant ‘being’ appears uncanny, as if it must have been instituted by a supernatural creator. But not at all: reverse the 10 Philosophy Now
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procedure by stripping the complexity down into its components, and you will see that there’s no deus ex machina involved. The whole was only ever a sum of its parts, even if it seemed to our minds to acquire a quality of being more than that. It’s the same with the brain, the materialists argue. Really complex complexity can even convince itself (ie, me) that it is someone, a self, an entity which feels real and substantial and of intrinsic worth. Yet my innermost self is not a ‘pearl’ – an enduring thing of substance – but a bundle of properties that temporarily come together to make a person. Whatever my beliefs about God and the soul, I am nothing more than a (perhaps gloriously deluded) biological automaton. Daniel Dennett has described the self as a ‘Center of Narrative Gravity’, by which he means that I am no different to a fictional character which I and the world make up, and that my sense of self is similar to my centre of gravity: I have to have one, although I can’t locate it precisely. However, I wouldn’t be able to function if I knew that I was merely a coalition of my members, so nature pulls a confidence trick. In effect, it lies to me through my brain. In order to live well in society and to be motivated in pursuit of its own interests, the organism needs to have the illusion of separateness, autonomy, and significance. Therefore, I need to believe in a self that is substantial, coherent and sustainable; above all, a self which matters. That I only think I exist has been called the ‘self illusion’ by Bruce Hood (in The Self Illusion: Why There is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head, 2012). When this is understood, I can begin to see myself in an entirely different way: I am better thought of as not a noun but a verb. What I call my ‘self’ is really my brain ‘braining’. An intellectual consensus is coalescing around this materialist (or physicalist) view. Many of our greatest contemporary thinkers are quite happy to announce in public, without any irony, that they do not really exist. It has almost become a badge of macho pride (they’re mostly men, as it happens). It is as if we are in the grip of a new fashion for personal nihilism. The theme around the year 1000 AD was the end of the world; in the twenty-first century we have gone one better and declared the end of ourselves. I Confess To Heresy It is not respectable any more to speak up for dualism, the notion that there are two kinds of stuff, the material and the immaterial, body and mind. But I would like to point out that the materialist’s argument as I have set it out above does not run smoothly from premise to conclusion, and that dualism is not just a theoretical possibility. It is quite literally inescapable. You are living proof. Half of me does not exist; or at least, I cannot prove to you that it exists – isn’t that the same thing? And I assume it’s the same for you. I can give you independent confirmation of my name, occupation, address, passport number; but I find it hard, if not impossible, to convey to your senses anything about what I think of as the real me – the invisible, intangible, internal sensations of which only I am aware, and which are wholly beyond
NOWHERE MEN ILLUSTRATION © STEVE LILLIE 2016
PLEASE VISIT WWW.STEVELILLIE.BIZ
words and demonstration. The point I’m making is that the materialist argument as set out above only works in as far as we must speak objectively about the universe, and specifically, about human beings, including when you speak about someone else. You, to me, are an object like any other physical thing. I have no direct access to what goes on in your mind. From outside it is quite clear to me that you are an animal, and that everything about you can be expressed in terms of zoology. If you say you are a conscious, thinking being, I may give you the benefit of the doubt, but I am not going to accept it as demonstrated fact in the same way that I know your hand can hold things. However, if I turn my attention inward, everything changes. Unlike all the phenomenon I have experienced through my senses (including reading about them), I have certain unusual properties:
I literally cannot put my finger on myself. I don’t have mass or volume. I am not solid, liquid, gas, or even another kind of physical substance. Some may think I am merely my brain braining, and so conclude that my believing in my conscious self is an ‘ego trick’, but I have good reason to believe that my doing so is not a trick: I am proof to myself (but not to you) that there is more to me than matter. I know it, because I am it. This is more than “I think, therefore I am.” Trite as this may sound, I know I am because I am.
• I am the only substance in the universe of which I have intimate direct knowledge. • I am the only substance I can experience that I cannot exam-
The Nothing Beyond Words I immediately crash into an insurmountable problem in talking about this to you. How do I describe this self that I know to
ine objectively, in the sense of carrying out an experiment free of bias and error. • I am experienced differently from the outside and the inside, with no join between the two perspectives. • I am the only possible expert on this aspect of myself. • I am unique. For all I know, I may not even be like you.
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Realities exist? What word can I use for such a ‘non-thing’ which is not ‘nothing’? ‘Something’ and ‘substance’ will probably only mislead you. To call me ‘sensation’ may make you assume that my being is reducible to what can be sensed, and then you will fall into line with David Hume, who wrote, “when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception” (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 1, Part 4, Section 6, 1738) – and so denied the existence of the self. To call myself a ‘concept’ would assume that I am an abstract phenomenon, a construct even. In order not to mislead ourselves, perhaps we’d do better to adopt a symbol which has no definition or potential mistranslation: it stands for what it stands for. If language is one trap we continually fall into when discussing human identity, another is false analogy. It is, for example, erroneous to suppose that a brain is a glorified input-output computer running a program supplied by an organism’s DNA. The organic is radically different from the inorganic, and furthermore human awareness and thought, as far as we can tell, are radically different from anything else in organic nature. So what am I, this ‘symbol that was formerly known as Nick Inman’? I am a meaning-maker. The meaning that I apply to the universe comes from me, even the meaning that I allocate to logic, reason, and the evidence gained through the senses. Without me nothing means anything, or to put it another way, without this immaterial sensation of awareness I have, the universe might as well not exist. It is gobbledygook to talk, for instance, about the laws of science as separate from the conscious creatures who codified them. One easy illustration of this idea is to look at any object, remove its name and forget everything else you remember about it: what is left has no meaning. Anyone who doubts this must imagine an undiscovered, uninhabited planet somewhere in the cosmos on which meaning exists independent of thought. How? And how would we ever know? We would need to imagine that such a world is verified by a computer not build by human beings, and that does not report its findings back to anyone. You Need To Know Yourself To Know Anything Else Scientists and philosophers, including the most eminent, frequently gloss over an unjustified assumption: that they, the person reporting their results to us, are an objective instrument. But however much I may claim to be peddling objective truths, ultimately, what I am doing is reporting my subjective experiences. A few years ago, the British philosopher Galen Strawson wrote a long, erudite piece for the London Review of Books (26 September 2013) which began: “I’m a naturalist, an out-andout naturalist, a philosophical or metaphysical naturalist, a naturalist about concrete reality. I don’t think anything supernatural or otherwise non-natural exists.” I tried to read his arguments but I got lost on the first half of the first word. Anyone who is going to make confident statements about the nature of reality should first define him- or herself. The entire project of human knowledge is back to front. The ambition of science is to explain the universe, which means getting around to explaining human consciousness whenever feasi12 Philosophy Now December 2016/January 2017
ble. But without starting from the fact of consciousness, explaining anything is like drawing conclusions from the results produced by an uncalibrated machine, or, if we are to be brutally honest, using an optical instrument of mysterious hidden workings to examine itself. For an immaterial entity to insist that all must be matter, then the self must be matter; and so, since the so-called ‘self’ has none of the properties of matter, it does not exist. This is about irrational as you can get. I exist. Moreover, it is only logical for me, an immaterial presence, to suppose that I am not alone. There must be more immateriality in the universe. You, for instance, behind your eyes and beyond whatever words you say, if you exist, must be immaterial like me. The Pay-Off For Not Existing So why do so many very intelligent, well-educated people in high-status academic positions claim the opposite? I can only suppose there is a pay off for the ‘Nowhere Men’ that makes them hurry through the premises of their argument – including the dodgy ideas that the world is only what exists objectively, or in other words, that there is only material stuff – to get to the conclusion of their non-existence. There are several important victories to be gained by denying your own existence if you are a modern philosopher or scientist. Some of them are to do with shying away from the fear of not knowing and the unknowable. The most prominent of these is that it gets around the thorny problem of consciousness, releasing science from an impossible bind, since if consciousness is ‘merely the brain functioning’, we don’t need to consider an immaterial aspect to the universe. We also don’t need to talk anymore about the mind, or the spirit or soul. This delivers a knock-out blow to religion, which now becomes a form of culture akin to art: indulge if you want to, but don’t claim to be making a contribution to knowledge. At the same time, any objection to materialism is pre-empted: altered states – dreams, drugs, meditation, visions, and what are merely called ‘mental’ illnesses – can be accounted for in purely materialist terms, that is, in purely neuroscientific terms. The emotions are downgraded, love now being defined as one brain process communicating with another brain process. Moreover, all competing views of reality, and all ‘weirdnesses’, such as complementary medicine and true selfsacrifice (as opposed to the bowdlerized versions of altruism accepted by neoDarwinists) are ruled absurd. Intuition, and personal mystical knowledge are automatically derided. With all the alternatives out of the way, the Nowhere Men can now stake a monopoly on truth. Evidence becomes everything. Eventually there will be nothing that does not fit into a model or formula. If man is nothing but a mechanical animal, all his affairs become predictable and calculable. Political affairs will be judged by science, as will be ethics. An even bigger prize would be to finally end the argument concerning whether humans are special or not. The materialists would rather make us subhuman than superhuman. If the self is illusory, if there is only biology, then the human being is just an animal. This gets us off a really painful hook: our moral responsibility to other species and the planet. More insidiously, to deny the human mind and the complementary moral responsibility of free will is, perhaps unconsciously (if you will
Philosophical Haiku forgive the pun) to promote the modern project of rampant, selfish, immoral consumerism. The modern values of ephemerality and you-only-get-one-life-so-you-may-as-welldo-what-you-want hedonism are triumphant. So this kind of thinking has a very distasteful endgame, which can play out in two different ways. One way is that because we are nothing special, in fact don’t even really exist, it doesn’t really matter what happens to us, or what we do to the world. Who cares which dystopia we end up with when there is no ‘we’ to live with its effects? The other way forward is, that if we trust in science completely it will take over the role of development once allocated to God, and ensure that we evolve into successful sentient robots. Key to the modern notion of progress is a belief that technology can and will solve all problems. More than that, it will improve us. And if the self is no more than the output of the machine – if consciousness is just a sequence of brain code a bit more sophisticated than Microsoft Office – it follows without any insuperable moral or other difficulties that to upload a human being to something better than a human body, is a desirable end. Negating The Self-Negation I suspect that many of the Nowhere Men see the absurdity of the position they have chosen, although they don’t know how to get out of it. Significantly, when David Hume absented himself from existence, he left a door of hope open behind him: “If anyone, upon serious and unprejudiced reflection, thinks he has a different notion of himself… he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself; though I am certain there is no such principle in me.” If we are to paddle our way out of the whirlpool of oblivion to which the materialists would apparently consign us, we must start by accepting that we are subjective creatures, and that reductionism in the case of consciousness only leads to misunderstanding. If you think you are observing reality objectively, not subjectively, you should not forget that you are in it, way above your neck. We shouldn’t place all our trust only in branches of human knowledge prefixed ‘neuro’. To do so takes us into an endless loop of the human self exorcising the human self. On the contrary, quantum physics suggests that we must allow there to be different levels of explanation to any given phenomena and that sometimes you just have to accept apparent strangeness for what it is. So could I be both a ‘pearl of self’ and a ‘bundle of perceptions’, depending on which direction I look at myself from, and at which moment? True intellectual courage lies not in declaring yourself publically to be nothing, and your person a mere animal brain whirring away in the service of genes. It consists in accepting that you are something more than that, even if you can’t say exactly what. © NICK INMAN 2016
Nick Inman’s most recent book is A Guide To Mystical France: Secrets, Mysteries, Sacred Sites, published by Findhorn Press. He is also the author of Who On Earth Are You?, which began as a letter to his bank apologizing for not being able to confirm his true identity.
GEORG WILHELM FRIEDRICH HEGEL (1770–1831) Unfolding Reason As Mind seeks to know itself Freedom is Rational.
egel’s philosophical influence is out of all proportion to the actual value of his work, which just goes to show that writing a great deal of impenetrable prose can get you a long way. As a young man, Hegel was initially an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. Disillusioned by the failure of the revolution, Hegel determined to signal his profound sadness by never again writing in a way anyone could understand (okay, I’m speculating here, but there has to be some reason for his incomprehensible style). History, Hegel taught, is the unfolding of the ‘Absolute Idea’ or ‘World Spirit/Mind’. Through a series of contradictions in social structures, Reason gradually but inevitably works itself out as human history, so that “the history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” With me so far? Hegel believed that by following his thinking we would one day come to know the world as it really is. This moment, in turn, would represent the historically transcendental stage when Mind – the active force driving history along – comes to know itself. Only now would we live in perfect freedom. Freedom, in other words, is attained by living rationally in a rationally ordered political state, which means living in accordance with Mind. . . To sum up, if you choose not to live in accordance with Reason, you are living irrationally, and History will simply flatten you as it rolls on by. Hegel also modestly believed that he had discerned the underlying structure of reality, which is the Idea as manifest across space. Our minds are simply part of Mind working itself out through time and space. As part of his self-contained, self-referential philosophical system, he also has a lot to say about politics, logic, religion, art and more besides. As today, people in the Nineteenth Century loved this kind of thing, and crowds flocked to hear Hegel speak. He was, alas, stopped dead in his historical tracks in 1831 by cholera. Perhaps this was History’s way of flattening an irritating, if not irrational, philosopher. © TERENCE GREEN 2016
Terence is a peripatetic (though not Peripatetic) writer, historian and lecturer. He holds a PhD in the history of political thought from Columbia University, NYC, and lives with his wife and their dog in Wellington, NZ. He blogs at hardlysurprised.blogspot.co.nz (For more about the immortal Hegel see p.56 and future issues...) December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 13
The Private Lives Of Rocks Jon David thinks about the view that everything has awareness.
o rocks have minds? A minority of modern philosophers are prepared (but only, perhaps, after some prodding) to admit they believe the answer is ‘yes’ – or at least, ‘sort of’. In the past decade, a number of bona fide academics, such as Australia’s Freya Mathews, the USA’s David Skrbina, and the UK’s Galen Strawson, have emerged as champions of panpsychism: the view that not only rocks, but everything in the universe is – in some sense, and to some extent – conscious. The Roots of Universal Consciousness The idea that inanimate objects have some kind of consciousness isn’t entirely new. Alfred North Whitehead promoted it early in the Twentieth Century. Going even further back, early societies apparently believed that the natural world is populated by intelligent spirits who could control the environment – think of the naiads and driads of Greek myth, for example. By the historical period, such animism was on the wane – but it wasn’t dead. In the Sixth Century BCE, the earliest recorded Greek philosopher, Thales, famously wrote “All things are full of gods.” Aristotle reported that Thales said this because he noticed that a certain kind of rock, lodestone, has a mysterious power of attracting iron. So individual gods dwelt in the individual lodestones, and were able to reach out and drag iron nails towards them. If such spirits lived in magnetic rocks, Thales reasoned, why shouldn’t they also inhabit other objects? It didn’t stop with Thales. Plato, writing in the Fourth Century BCE, believed that the universe as a whole was a conscious, living entity, with an anima mundi or ‘world soul’ (anima is Latin for ‘soul’, and later writers used it to translate the Greek word Plato used, psyche, which can mean either ‘soul’ or ‘mind’). Plato’s mystically-inclined later followers, the Neoplatonists, went even further. In the third century CE, one of them, Plotinus, claimed
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to have experienced union with the anima mundi through ecstatic meditation. Another Neoplatonist, Iamblichus, believed not only that the universe was conscious, but that it was packed with spirits along the lines of The Tempest’s Ariel, who could, through appropriate rites, be called upon to do our bidding – including by animating (literally ‘ensouling’) stone statues. The Christian church tried to stamp out such flagrant paganism, but it was never entirely successful, and by the Sixteenth Century the Renaissance’s interest in ancient spirituality was all over Europe. For instance, the alchemist Paracelsus, along with originating the bacterial theory of disease, believed that the elements of earth, air, fire and water each had animating spirits, ‘elementals’, who could be invoked for magic rituals. In the case of earth – and for our purpose, rocks – the elementals are gnomes. Meanwhile, the Hermetic philosopher Giordano Bruno claimed “there is nothing that does not possess a soul.” Even the comparatively level-headed English natural philosopher William Gilbert, in his treatise On the Magnet (1600), argued that magnets had souls, and that compasses pointed north because they were attracted by the earth’s soul. Thales and Plato would have nodded approvingly. The Matter with Modern Minds But why would modern philosophers, raised on the type of view bequeathed by Newton that the universe is essentially a vast mechanism, ever flirt with the claim that inanimate objects are conscious? The answer is in the question. The universe-asmachine metaphor so beloved of early modern scientists implies that the universe has analysable working parts and that we can learn to predict its clock-like behaviour. But clocks do not, most would say, have minds. Yet the universe includes minds. We know it does, because we have some of them. But how can our minds possibly be related to the matter that makes up our machine-like bodies and the rest of this clockwork universe? How for example can my mind – not my brain, but my consciousness – move my hand just by thinking? This problem has haunted philosophers for centuries. The Eighteenth Century Anglo-Irish bishop George Berkeley tried to exorcise it by abolishing the mysterious mind-matter relation through his audacious claim that there’s no such thing as matter. There are only minds, and ideas in minds. Allegedly material objects, such as rocks – or even brains – are really just ideas in the minds of perceivers looking at them, or in God’s mind, if there’s no one else looking [see elsewhere this issue for Berkeley, Ed]. But this mental-only solution to the problem of mind’s interaction with matter, called idealism, never caught on. Samuel Johnson certainly wasn’t impressed. “I refute it thus,” he said, kicking a pebble. In his eyes, he thought he could prove that the pebble was a chunk of matter by kicking it. The Twentieth Century English philosopher Gilbert Ryle went in the opposite direction. He insisted there’s no such thing as mind, if by ‘mind’ we mean some separate ghostly entity that inhabits the body until death severs the connection.
Mind, he claimed, is nothing more than the body’s disposition to react in certain ways to certain stimuli. There is no “ghost in the machine,” to use Ryle’s own phrase. But this solution, physicalism, is also hard to swallow. How could we think there’s no such thing as mind? What would we be thinking it with? There’s also the question of where mind, or consciousness, came from. If the rest of the universe is unthinking, unfeeling matter, then what happened to give our ancestors their spark of awareness? Some people might be content to say that the fact mind and matter interact, and the fact there are minds at all in an otherwise material universe, are miracles, and leave it at that. But for atheists and agnostics, as well as believers who don’t want to sweep mysteries under the carpet, this won’t do. The Panpsychic World This is where panpsychism comes in. For if mind is matter in the form of brains, then equally, matter in the form of brains, is mind. But panpsychism doesn’t just restrict this thinking to brains. Why suppose there are two different kinds of matter in the universe, the insensate kind that makes up most things, and the special kind that somehow ends up in our heads? “I would bet a lot against there being such radical heterogeneity [difference] at the bottom of things,” Galen Strawson says. For him, it’s easier to believe that consciousness is part of the fundamental nature of matter – of all matter. So for panpsychists, the best explanation for how evolution managed to turn primordial sludge into conscious grey matter, is that the sludge was already conscious, albeit in some lowly, sludge-like way. In other words, panpsychists say that the best explanation for how mind and matter work together, is that all matter already has some degree of consciousness.The consciousness then becomes more complex as the organisation of the matter becomes more complex. What’s it like to be a rock, then? Without inside information (perhaps from magically possessed statues) we have no idea. But panpsychists say this lack of knowledge isn’t a problem. They point out we also have no idea what it’s like to be a bat (what must it be like to see using sonar?), yet we’re happy
to believe bats have some kind of consciousness. Unlike bats, rocks don’t have brains or sense organs. But panpsychism isn’t the claim that inanimate matter has thoughts or perceptions in the way that our brains enable us to have thoughts or perceptions – just that it’s conscious. This consciousness might be unimaginably simple and feeble compared with the consciousness of complex organisms, but it’s consciousness nonetheless. In fact, Strawson is reluctant to say rocks are conscious ‘as rocks’ – rather, it’s the fundamental particles of which they are composed that enjoy a ‘feeling-hum of existence’. But for David Skrbina, the alleged absurdity of rock-psychology just boils down to anthropomorphic bias. Why shouldn’t rocks be conscious? Panpsychists are generally keen to shut down talk of mysticism or ‘woo woo’ (Strawson’s term) in connection with their ideas. Although understandable from the point of view of wanting to maintain academic credibility, this is a shame. Panpsychism is consistent with spiritual and philosophical traditions that span cultures and centuries – from Plato’s world soul to the claim that everything has a Buddha nature. The idea that all things have at least rudimentary consciousness is also a staple of Romanticism – see Wordsworth’s nature worship – and, through the work of palaeontologist and philosopher Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, has even found a home in Christian theology. Also, like Plotinus, people throughout history have had momentary experiences of the cosmic consciousness – glimpses of reality as an ordered, living whole – that complements panpsychist claims. Such experiences aren’t proof, but they are, perhaps, evidence, and surely have a role to play in the case for panpsychism. The Point of Panpsychism Speculation on the private lives of geological formations might seem a sterile intellectual game, but it has profound implications. The mechanistic worldview inherited from the Enlightenment distorts our self-image. As minds in an otherwise mindless cosmos, we cannot make ourselves at home. It also means we’re liable to see everything around us – minerals, plants, animals, even people – as just raw material to be exploited. There’s a direct link between metaphysical materialism (the idea that matter is all that exists), economic materialism (the assumption that material possessions are all that matters), and full-blown ecological crisis. But economic materialism isn’t inevitable. Panpsychism can help open our eyes to the reality of pressing environmental concerns. “When the world is understood in panpsychist terms,” says Freya Mathews, “the whole spectrum of Western thought undergoes a profound shift, a shift away from the direction in which it has been drifting since the time of the scientific revolution.” So, panpsychism offers a way to understand how mind and body interact. It puts us in touch with rich spiritual traditions. It points the way to a healthier environmental ethic. All so long as we’re prepared to rub shoulders with sentient stones. For some, this price is too high. But for others it isn’t much more extravagant than supposing that the offal in our skulls is sentient. Conscious rocks might be better than the hard place of a materialistic universe. © JON DAVID 2016
Jon, a philosophy post-grad in Britain, sent us this article, then disappeared. If you know the author, please ask him to contact us! December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 15
Spinoza’s Metaphysics & Its Relevance For Science Today Zoran Vukadinovic thinks Spinoza could help us with our enquiries.
aruch Spinoza was a Seventeenth Century Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish descent, and a lens grinder by trade. Though mild-mannered and agreeable, he was excommunicated by his community for his ‘abominable heresies’. His most important book Ethics (1677) is concerned with presenting the implications of God’s nature for human happiness. It might surprise you if I said that this work is quite relevant for our time, and that it may even help us understand some perplexing issues in contemporary science, but this is precisely what I will argue in this article. Specifically, I will try to show that Spinoza’s metaphysics, as well as being a good system through which to understand the behavior of elementary particles as described by quantum mechanics, also allows us to demystify the mind-body problem in cognitive science.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)
Two Modern Metaphysical Positions The branch of philosophy known as metaphysics is not easy to define, but we can say that generally it is concerned with the basic categories or ideas that underpin reality. It deals, for instance, with substances, causality, identity and emergence, and it relies on our ability to reason about things that cannot be directly observed or measured. In modern science there is a great emphasis on observation and measurement, which unfortunately tends to obscure the importance of theory in science. The discipline of metaphysics can help us make our worldview more comprehensible by integrating insights from science into our overall understanding of reality, which cannot rely on observation alone. Two influential contemporary metaphysical views are scientific reductionism, which is essentially a materialist position, and mathematical idealism, which holds that the basis of space and time is not subatomic particles, but rather, certain mathematical truths. Both positions derive from long traditions in Western thought, and both have merits. Scientific reductionism derives its force 16 Philosophy Now December 2016/January 2017
from the successes of modern science, which is itself largely a reductionist enterprise – meaning that it tends to explain the complex world in terms of layers of increasingly basic constituents. Mathematical idealism is inspired in particular by the successes of computer science in generating mathematicallybased models of worlds; in fact, so successfully that the idea that our universe is itself a computer simulation produced by an advanced civilization has entered the mainstream in philosophy (see ‘Are You Living In A Computer Simulation?’, Philosophical Quarterly, 53(211), Nick Bostrom, 2003). However, both positions are ultimately unsatisfactory. For example, it’s not clear that the qualities of our experiences can be entirely reduced to or expressed in terms of physical things. And if the world is composed from mathematical truths, the question then arises, how we can have any knowledge of these truths, given that they are outside space and time? Furthermore, if we suppose that these mathematical objects are mental in nature, we could end up with a circular argument: if, as the reductionists suppose, the mind can be reduced to the activity in the brain; and the activity of the brain can be reduced to interactions between nerve cells; these cellular processes to interactions between molecules; molecules to atoms; atoms to subatomic particles; subatomic particles to space-time points; space-time points to sets of numbers; and finally, sets of numbers to the mathematical laws relating them – which some would argue are essentially mental entities – this then loops us right back to where we started (see Reality: A Very Short Introduction, by Jan Westerhoff, 2011). Spinoza’s Metaphysics: An Outline Yet before we abandon the metaphysical enterprise to the skeptical view that what underlies the world we experience is essentially unknowable (or worse, uninteresting), let us consider Spinoza’s thought, which, as you will see, is surprisingly compatible with modern science. Spinoza held that nature – which he equated with God – is absolutely perfect, determined, infinite, and timeless. This infinite ‘God or Nature’ (Deus sive Natura) is all-encompassing. We are all part of it and there is nothing outside of it. We human beings have access to two attributes of this infinite Being – extension and thought – both of which express its infinite essence, and they correspond with each other, because they are expressions of the same reality. Besides thought and extension there are infinitely many other attributes of the infinite Being, to which we do not have access but which are nonetheless expressions of the same Being, which is, moreover, unconstrained by time. To appreciate how novel this thinking was, it is worth remembering that during Spinoza’s time the predominant view of the universe in Europe was still the medieval notion inherited from Aristotle and Ptolemy of a finite cosmos. As Joseph
PARALLEL WORLDS © VADIM DOZMOROV 2016 CONTACT HIM AT DOZMOROVADIM@GMAIL.COM
Ratner points out in The Philosophy of Spinoza (2014), Spinoza’s vision of the universe not only surpasses this ‘pent in’ medieval universe, but also the predominant contemporary view of the universe as a purely physical system. So let me elaborate a little on Spinoza’s metaphysics and present some examples that illustrate why it may be inspiring to anyone who is perplexed by our relation to the universe. Spinoza’s Monism Spinoza’s Ethics is divided into five parts. The first two concern metaphysics, and discuss God and the mind-body relationship respectively. In Part One, Spinoza equates God with the one infinite and unique substance that underlies all of reality. Please note that what is meant here by the philosophical term ‘substance’ is an integrated whole that cannot be directly experienced by us. Some of Spinoza’s contemporaries and near contemporaries held that there are several substances. Most famously, René Descartes (1596-1650) argued that there are two substances, mind and matter, which have the distinguishing qualities of thought and extension respectively. He further claimed that each individual person is a somehow-interacting union of these two substances. In contrast, Spinoza held that there is only one substance, because it is infinite and all-encompassing, and that, because it is not only infinite and all-encompassing but also creative, is to be equated with God. In the rest of Ethics, Spinoza unfolds the implications of this view for understanding the relationship between the mind and body, and subsequently for our understanding of emotions, knowledge, and ethics. One of the aims that Spinoza outlines in the opening pages of Ethics is to provide an explanation for the very existence of things. For example, one might ask whether the cause for the existence of existing things is within them or outside them. Spinoza begins to answer this question by stating that the definitions of entities usually do not include the specific number of individuals of that type that exist. For example, there is nothing within human nature, or in the definition of ‘human’, that specifies that there must currently be seven billion of us. This suggests that the definition of ‘human’, and so our essence, does not determine how many individual humans there will be. Therefore, our existence as individual entities is deter-
mined by an entity greater than ourselves. Spinoza then generalizes this observation to postulate that if there are multiple individuals of a type of thing, then the cause of their existence cannot be within them, and therefore that their essence does not involve existence. In other words, it is generally not part of the definition and essence of things that exist that they necessarily exist. This then invites the question: What is the ultimate cause of all the diversity and complexity that we encounter in nature, if it is not those things themselves? Spinoza’s response is that the ultimate source of all existing things – which contains all the other existing things, and without which they would not exist – must be something whose essence does involve existence. And because the definition of this entity therefore involves necessary existence (because it is of its essence to exist), not only does it necessarily exist, it cannot involve any negation to being. This means that this Being is unconstrained, all-encompassing, infinite and eternal. These are the defining characteristics of the cause of all that exists. This leads to Spinoza’s definition of substance as “that which is in itself and is conceived through itself” (Ethics Part 1, Definition 3). Put another way, substance is that part or aspect of nature that is self-creating (Spinoza and Spinozism, Stuart Hampshire, 2005). To use Spinoza’s terminology, substance is active nature, or Natura naturans (‘the nurturing nature’, or perhaps, ‘nature naturing’) – which he thus equates with God. Moreover, as its very definition involves necessary existence, we cannot deny that this entity exists. And because it is infinite and all-encompassing, there can only be one substance. Proposing that there is a self-creating aspect to nature is not foreign to the modern mind familiar with Big Bang theory, and we might even say, with the theory of evolution. However, accepting that there is only one such self-creating process (which by reason of its uniqueness we can call God) is more difficult. Moreover, because this entity is absolutely perfect and unique, the term ‘process’ to describe it is not entirely appropriate, since that term entails something that’s developing. ‘Substance’ is a more appropriate term to describe an entity that is not lacking in anything, and thus whose very nature is unchanging. The human intellect grasps Spinoza’s substance through its two attributes of extension and thought. That is, we can appreciate substance either by contemplating the infinitely-extended physical universe, or else by considering the infinity of ideas
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Realities possible within it. Reality is for Spinoza both a system of objects, and a system of ideas or representations. Human beings, for example, are bodies composed of physical parts, but are also representations, which constitute human minds. As I mentioned, for Spinoza substance also includes an infinite number of other, unknowable, attributes in addition to the two we can know. In a way, these attributes are what makes something real, distinct – they are the means through which one finite entity may be distinguished from another. In Spinoza’s terminology, each individual in nature is a mode of the one substance. For Spinoza, thought and extension are conceptually and causally independent of each other, but at the same time correspond to each other, or are ‘mapped onto’ one another. This correspondence of causally and conceptually distinct attributes is known as parallelism, and will be important when we consider the mind-body relationship. Please note that for Spinoza mind is not the cause of the physical universe, nor is the physical universe the cause of mind. Rather, Spinoza holds that the force behind the existence of corporeal nature and behind the workings of the mind is the same unique and all-encompassing substance, which has both attributes equally.
Substance & Science So God is an entity that exists necessarily, or by definition. It is the self-creating aspect of nature, and is the cause of everything
else that exists. The next question is, why is God/nature, as defined by Spinoza, relevant to us today? The answer is that this idea provides a view of the world that is surprisingly consistent with contemporary science, which still lacks a metaphysics that can accommodate its perplexing discoveries. The first example of its perplexing discoveries is quantum mechanics. It has become a cliché that no one understands the strange behavior of the elementary particles that quantum mechanics describes. For example, how can an unobserved electron be in an infinite number of places at the same time? Or how can a particle of light – a photon – ‘sample’ all of space to ‘select’ the fastest path between two points in space, as Richard Feynman’s interpretation of quantum mechanics would say? One common theme in quantum mechanics is precisely this ‘unconstrained’ behavior of particles. This is consistent with the notion that there is a boundless or infinite aspect in nature underlying the reality we experience – which is precisely Spinoza’s view of substance. Another theme in quantum mechanics is that the answer supplied by an experiment often depends on the question the experiment is asking. For example, elementary wave-particles can be seen to behave as either waves or particles depending on how an experiment is set up. Furthermore, it seems that observation is required to give quantum entities a determinate form. These two features of quantum mechanics suggest that there is a very close relationship between intelligence and corporeal nature in the universe, just as Spinoza supposed. To put it in Spinoza’s terms, intelligence and the material quantum events that intelligence observes are inseparable because they are two aspects of the same unique and boundless substance. The anthropic principle in cosmology refers to the striking observation that the cosmos in which we live appears as if specifically fine-tuned to allow life to exist. A number of very basic facts about the Universe, such as the strengths of certain forces (for example, the nuclear forces inside atomic nuclei), and the masses and charges of certain subatomic particles, are of the precise values required for the development of intelligent observers such as us. As the physicist John A. Wheeler summarized in 1986, it appears that “a life-giving factor lies at the center of the whole machinery and design of the world” (see Wheeler’s foreword in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by J.D. Barrow and F.J. Tipler, 1986). That description could aptly apply to Spinoza’s conception of Natura naturans, nurturing nature. In summary, modern science provides support for Spinoza’s monism by indicating that there is an unbounded and creative aspect in nature, and also that intelligence and corporeality are intimately bound and inseparable.
CARTOON © CHRIS MADDEN 2016
Mind-Body Correspondence Next, let’s turn to one of the most important logical consequences of Spinoza’s monism, namely, the doctrine of mindbody correspondence. In the first paragraph of Part 2 of Ethics, dealing with the mind, Spinoza makes clear that his conclusions about the mind emanate from his view of God: “I pass now to an explanation of those things that necessarily had to follow from the essence of God, or, an eternal and infinite entity.” As we have seen, God or substance is the self-creating aspect of nature which, 18 Philosophy Now December 2016/January 2017
Realities because it necessarily exists, cannot be limited by anything, and is, therefore, infinite. For Spinoza, a human body has the attribute of extension, and a human mind the attribute of thought, or representation. Moreover, the mind and the body are parallel expressions of the one underlying reality; or we could say that the mind and the body are the same thing (substance) considered under different attributes. In language that Spinoza inherits from Descartes, an idea is a representation of the thing of which it is an idea. This leads Spinoza to his famous conclusion that the human mind is equivalent to the idea of the human body. Spinoza’s parallelism also means that every change in the human body has to be accompanied by a change in the human mind: “Whatever happens in the object of the idea constituting the human mind must be perceived by the human mind… That is, if the object of the idea constituting the human mind is a body, nothing can happen in that body which is not perceived by the mind” (Part 2, Proposition 12). This doctrine of mind-body correspondence is relevant to contemporary cognitive science, where there is increasing recognition of how intimately cognition and embodiment are related. We might say that Spinoza’s argument, put in modern neurological terms, implies that the total representation that constitutes each individual human mind is equivalent to the total activity of that individual’s nervous system, and each operates or functions in parallel with the other. So Spinoza’s metaphysics shows how mind and the nervous system relate. This approach to the mind-body problem is appealing also because it suggests that the mind is not extrinsic to nature, but is one part of an integrated whole. For Spinoza, the double aspect of things (that is, the parallelism) applies to everything in nature, and therefore, everything in nature has a mind of sorts. Human beings do not occupy a metaphysically special place, except in so far as the human body is the most complex thing in nature, and therefore, its representation, or the human mind, is the most sophisticated mind in all of nature. Or as Spinoza says: “to the extent that some body is more capable than others of doing several things at the same time, or of being acted on (that is, suffer) at the same time, to that extent its mind is more capable than others of perceiving several things at the same time” (Part 2, Proposition 13, Scolium). In other words, the sophistication of the human mind corresponds to the complexity of the human body. Conclusion According to the contemporary spin on Spinoza’s theories that I have attempted to articulate here, the infinite self-creating aspect of nature underlies (1) the unconstrained behavior of particles in quantum mechanics; (2) the very existence of a world that supports intelligence; (3) the emergence of life forms through evolution. Moreover, all these phenomena that emerge from the one substance are interrelated: there is no intelligence without embodiment; there is no increasing complexity of embodiment without evolution; there is no evolution without a unique universe that allows life to emerge; and finally, as both quantum mechanics and the anthropic principle teach us, there is no observed material universe without intelligence within it. The existence of the universe and of intelli-
SPINOZA’S WORK Half-light and the calm hands of a man polishing glass, though outside the day is harsh with persecution, words that damn for the smallest deviation. In the synagogue they recite the cherem, denouncing a heretic to be deported from the House of Israel. Yet here in this alcove of instruments, of curvatures plotted to decimal points, there’s clarity of intellect. Nothing’s opaque. Through the clean eye of a telescope, an objective world with objective grace. There’s no rush for eminence – he rejects honours as one declines bruised fruit or last night’s beer. On his signet ring (below the hermetic rose) there’s a Latin word: caute – with caution, taking care. He hides his writing for fear of being burnt alive. As shadows stain the cobbled streets he jots down: Focal length, refractive index, magnifying power – bringing closer the grammar of blood, the Euclidian matrix of the stars. © PETER ABBS 2016
Peter Abbs is Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Sussex. Books include The Flowering of Flint: New and Selected Poems (Salt) and Against the Flow: Education, the Arts and Postmodern Culture (Routledge). Please visit www.peterabbs.co.uk. gence within it are ultimately expressions of the one substance. The attributes of thought and of extension cannot be reduced to one or the other, but both point to the same infinite and eternal Being. The same boundless power expressed by the complexity of the human body is also expressed by the powers of the human mind. The same power that is behind the unconstrained behavior of particles in quantum mechanics, and expressed by the sheer vastness of the cosmos, also underlies the continual development of human knowledge. There cannot be anything more life-affirming than this. This is what makes Spinoza most relevant to contemporary thought. © DR ZORAN VUKADINOVIC 2016
Zoran is an addiction psychiatrist at the University of Colorado, where he works as a medical director of a substance abuse treatment clinic. He and his wife Marina have two children, Andrey and Mila. December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 19
A Golden Manifesto, Part II
MARY MIDGLEY © MARTIN MIDGLEY 2011
Mary Midgley continues her recollection of a golden age of female philosophy.
n the first part of this essay (in Issue 116), I suggested that philosophers have been wrong in thinking that they were engaged in a hunt for a single and infallible answer to moral questions. They can hope to get nearer to right answers, to get further from some demonstrably wrong ones, and to get a better grasp of the kind of wrongness that is causing most trouble here. But none of this will be final. In his book of 1739, A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume famously claimed that it was impossible to logically derive judgments about values, about what ought to be the case, solely from facts about the world. Here Hume showed no interest in the detailed meaning of the value-judgments themselves, simply treating them as solid, ultimate units. His point was only that they were matters of feeling, not of reason. When I and my Oxford friends Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch began to look into ethics in the early 1940s this was still the prevailing view. It had just been reinforced in 1936 by the publication of A.J. Ayer’s best-selling book Language, Truth and Logic, which outdid Hume in preaching an extreme emotivism, a reduction of all moral matters to various kinds of feeling. Philosophers in general tried to accept this message of Ayer’s in spite of its alarming implications. They were still convinced by Hume’s account of the matter. But there was a good deal of uneasiness about its details. When we were first on the scene, the newest variant was
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R.M. Hare’s formula of Prescriptivism, which described moral judgments not as isolated feelings but as comprehensive orders, directions or prescriptions which one’s feelings might lead one to impose systematically on the rest of the world. People were, of course, somewhat puzzled about how these various individual orders or directions were to be brought into harmony, but Hare replied that, in general, these rulings would not disagree much with one another because they would all flow from a basic Utilitarianism. Apart from that, people would just have to be sensible. Because these were matters of individual feeling, no general rules could be imposed about what these judgments would require. Moral freedom had to be preserved. So can just anything be a moral principle then? It sometimes looks as if it can. Hare at one point mentions someone who believes that torturing is morally permissible, but Philippa Foot pointed out in response that for this to be possible, we need to know how it can be done. Is this man supposed to have answered the objection that to inflict torture is to do harm? It is not enough (she says) just to proclaim that in principle anything can be called good. Calling it good has to be made intelligible. And this requires an appropriate context – a background against which the claim makes sense. For instance, can it be good – can it be a matter for pride – to clasp one of your hands on top of the other three times in an hour? If we want to make sense of such claims, we have to try to find plausible ways of filling in the background: “Perhaps he is ill, and it is an achievement even to do this; perhaps this gesture has some religious or political significance and he is a brave man who will defy the gods or the rulers.” But these stories must still be made plausible, and without that plausibility the claim is still unintelligible. In fact, it turns out that emotivism cannot provide any escape from that requirement. “In this way,” says Philippa, “even feelings are vulnerable to facts.” As she points out, there are many aspects involved here: “How exactly the concepts of harm, advantage, benefit, importance are related to the different moral concepts such as rightness, obligation, goodness, duty and virtue is something that needs the most patient investigation. But that they are so related seems undeniable, and it follows that a man cannot make his own personal decision about the considerations which are to count as evidence in morals.” (Philippa Foot, Virtues and Vices, 1978, p.106)
So the background by which moral judgments are explained cannot just take human feelings for granted. It cannot treat them as separate, ultimate units. If we say, for instance, that Iago resented Othello because he thought his dignity was not being well enough appreciated, we are supplying a familiar explanation from human nature and we will naturally go on to
give details. But, at the time that we are talking about, in the mid twentieth century, there was not supposed to be any such thing as human nature at all. Behaviourism tabooed this whole concept because it insisted that behaviour was entirely reactive – caused only by previous behaviour – and any reference to motives was therefore merely an irrational excuse given for ignoring that causality. Existentialism tabooed it too, though for a quite different reason – because the Existentialists insisted that we are entirely free to act on our own decisions, so our claims to be blocked by natural emotions can (again) only be bad excuses (‘bad faith’). Marxists, meanwhile, considered all real causes of action to be essentially economic, so they too outlawed all talk of human nature. Today, it may seem strange that so many quite bright people should, for so long, have resolutely refused to use such an obviously indispensable floorboard in the whole structure of our motives. But I have lived through too many examples of this kind of thing in my time to be much surprised at it now. I do, however, remember that I knew I was in for trouble when I set out to defend the notion of Human Nature – including its close connection with the natures of other species – in my first book, Beast and Man. I began the book boldly like this: “We are not just rather like animals; we are animals. Our differences from other species may be striking, but comparisons with them have always been, and must be, crucial to our view of ourselves... People have a lot of obvious and important things that other species do not – speech, rationality, culture, and the rest. I have tried to discuss some of the most important of them, not attempting at all to deny their uniqueness, but merely to grasp how they can occur in what is, after all, a primate species, not a brand of machine or a type of disembodied spirit. This attempt must invade the territory of a dozen subjects, but the project still belongs to philosophy, because finding how the basic concepts of any subject work is a philosophical problem... Philosophy, like speaking prose, is something we have to do all our lives, well or badly, whether we notice it or not. What usually forces us to notice it is conflict. And on the matter of our animal nature a pretty mess of conflicts has arisen – between different elements in the common sense tradition, between common-sense and various learned studies, between those learned studies themselves, and between all these and the remarkable facts turned up by those who, in the last few decades, have taken the trouble to observe dispassionately the behaviour of other species.”
The mid to late Twentieth Century saw important shifts in the way we humans perceive our relation to the rest of creation, including the protests of moralists like Peter Singer against the blank insensibility of our whole civilization towards other animals. Awareness of issues about climate-change has been much slower than this to reach the public – indeed it still seems to have difficulty in reaching the kind of people who could do something about it. But about animals there has been a real change. Readers will notice that on these matters, as with the other topics that we four discussed, I and my friends did not try to claim credit for introducing any beautiful new simplicity. Far from that, we rather emphasized that these matters are really difficult and complicated – that we do indeed seriously need to think harder about them, so as to evolve concepts that will fill
in the vast blank spaces that have been allowed to accumulate around the narrow ranges of our own experience. In fact, we all need to do some serious philosophizing here. And we ourselves have tried to suggest ways in which this could be done. On the matter of animals, I think this last half-century has indeed seen some real progress, as people have learnt to think differently about them. Better-informed prophets, from Jane Goodall to David Attenborough, began to be heard above the clamour of those straightforward admirers of the human race who merely told us how extraordinarily intelligent we were. On this topic, as on many others, what has brought about the change has not been a persistent concentration on standard puzzles about borrowed books or choices involving trolleys, but a careful attention to the complexity of the actual facts – an examination of them which shows the need for new concepts. And here again, the choice of everyday examples – such as ones involving potatoes – makes it clear that facts are indeed relevant to the understanding of principles. Thus, David Hume’s declaration that there could be no reasoning from facts to values had been confidently accepted as a general truth. It was expressed, in our time, by dismissing these arguments as resting on a ‘naturalistic fallacy’. All right then, said Elizabeth Anscombe, if I can’t use facts to prove that something is my duty, what sort of evidence can you use to prove that I owe a debt? “Suppose, for instance, that I ordered potatoes, you supplied them, and you sent me a bill”, that surely constitutes a debt. But the whole point about debts is, of course, that the debtor has a duty to pay them; indeed, that is just what the word ‘debt’ means. So it seems that truths about facts can indeed be a proper basis for truths about values. (See ‘On Brute Facts’ by G.E.M. Anscombe, Analysis 18, 1958) This must, I think, be the end of my Bovrilesque attempt to boil down the main points of our philosophical message, and to explain why it has created a certain stir. I am conscious that, in trying to explain this, I have laid more emphasis on its destructive side – on our protest against existing attitudes – than on clarifying what ought now to be done to replace them. This is, I think, partly because the whole issue is simply too large to allow of summarising any new proposal here. Positive ideas can, of course, be found elsewhere in our writings, but I can’t reduce them all to Bovril form here. What we need now is not just a matter of replacing crows with jackdaws or apples with bananas. We need a real change of approach. We need to stop splitting philosophical ideas up into separate items and setting them to compete against each other. The best tool for this may be the logic of question and answer developed by philosopher of history R.G. Collingwood. This is a way of treating awkward proposals not as isolated propositions, but as answers to questions, searching out the particular question which has arisen to require just this answer, and thereby finding the wider pattern of further questions behind it. As Collingwood himself explained, this idea originally grew out of his interest in the nature of historical enquiry: “History did not mean knowing what events followed what. It meant getting inside people’s heads, looking at their situation with their eyes, and thinking for yourself whether the way in which they tackled it was the right way... It was a doctrine of [the contemporary creed called]
December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 21
BONOBOS © PSYCH ASD 2012
Not so different from ourselves?
‘realism’ ... that in this sense of the word there is no history of philosophy. The ‘realists’ thought that the problems with which philosophy is concerned were unchanging... they thought that the same problems which were discussed in modern ethical theory were discussed in Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics, and that it was a man’s duty to ask himself whether Aristotle or Kant was right on the points over which they differ.” (Collingwood, An Autobiography, 1939 pp.58-9)
In short, they believed that philosophy dealt in doctrines which were fixed units like tiles or tablets of stone, each inscribed with its own permanent message. Instead of this, Collingwood was suggesting that we may need to find out in our search a question which is quite unexpected, perhaps a question that has never actually been formulated before – as, for instance, clearly happened when people began to think about quanta. And this new question will itself have come from the answers to further questions, so that we need to look round to find the whole structure which is the source of the trouble. When somebody’s thought puzzles you (says Collingwood): 22 Philosophy Now
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“At first sight you cannot tell what he is trying to say. But if you will think carefully about the passage you will see that he is answering a question which he has taken the trouble to formulate in his mind with great precision. What you are reading is his answer. Now tell me what the question was? ... For me, then, there were not two separate sets of questions to be asked, one historical and one philosophical, about a given passage in a given philosophical author. There was one set only; historical.” (pp.71-2)
Someone who has grasped this approach is not likely to shift to, for instance, the combative style in which Colin McGinn was taught to philosophize (see part 1). But the temptation to tidy everything up into a fixed set of stone tablets is evidently still a strong one. And the heirs of the realists still continue to haunt us in the orthodoxies that reign today. This suggestion of ours – this sweeping (or ‘comprehensive’) call for an end to the artificial separation between values and facts – may seem a bit drastic. It is not, of course, usual for philosophers, or for scholars generally, to call for destructive
changes on this scale. Doing so always invites reprisals. And I probably would not now be dipping my computer in this pot of acid if I were not already old enough to more-or-less ignore my own future career, or if I did not feel that my duty to my friends and colleagues actually demands it. There is, indeed, one fact about the present state of our culture which does, I think, anyway call for a protest of this kind. This is the immense increase in specialization which has followed on the sheer increase in student numbers. As universities proliferate and departments subdivide themselves into ‘institutes’ and ‘centres’, this naturally produces a tendency to classify and standardize philosophical methods, so as to keep everybody telling the same story. Thus I now find that people to whom I have mentioned some quite ordinary topic murmur apologetically, “Oh dear, I’m afraid that’s not my area...” as if I had started to talk Chinese. I think something will need to be done about this runaway specialisation before we all become mutually incomprehensible. On the other hand, this enlargement and subdivision of the field may, of course, make possible all sorts of fertile developments of different approaches. If each separate university and institute managed to go its own way, thinking out its own problems independently but sharing its results with its neighbours, possibilities could light up indeed. The scene could also surely be enlarged outside the current system of universities and graduate schools by twittering and making use of other social media and related networks. I also suspect that this modern hope of standardizing the whole subject of philosophy must be the source of a quite alarming change that has gradually taken place in the nature of philosophical journals. During the last century, these journals have become steadily more influential and more technical. They used to be regarded chiefly as steps on the way to Real Books. Now, however, philosophers longing to achieve career success do not expect to do it by writing an interesting book. They know that their route to glory is to get an article published in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal. And they know that the article will, of course need to deal with some topic with which that journal has lately been concerned, because that is what interests its current editors. So in what style can our ambitious young prophet hope to write this important article? How can philosophy best express itself today? John Cottingham took up this painful question in a disturbing article called ‘What Is Humane Philosophy and Why Is It At Risk?’ By way of illustration he supplied an extract from a recent book: “Let us define what it is for a proposition to be (practically) realizable by A at t, that is, realizable by means of A’s intentional behaviour at t. To say that a proposition p is practically realizable by A at t is to say that there is some way of behaving, W, such that there are possible worlds in which all the actual truths that are causally independent of what A might do or think at t hold, and A intentionally behaves in way W at t. and in all those worlds p is true.” (Ralph Wedgewood, The Nature of Normativity, 2007)
This passage is not intended as a contribution to some highly technical branch of logic. It comes from a discussion of
that most widely-discussed of topics, Free Will. Yet it is hard to see how anybody could follow this reasoning at all unless they were already deeply dipped in the background of that particular controversy. And, though this particular example is from a book rather than a journal, this is the sort of style that journals increasingly adopt and editors increasingly expect their contributors to use. It seems to me that the natural result of this can only be that soon nobody will read these journals at all except the people who hope to contribute to them, since nobody else can understand them. And once the contributors realise this, the journal itself will surely evaporate. We may surely ask, then, why this style of writing has become so prevalent? John Cottingham rightly explains that it is used in order to imitate the approach of the natural sciences. This, however, is not going to work: “It would be sheer self-deception to suppose that such definitional and conceptual work could offer the kind of explanatory enlightenment that scientific research into a given phenomenon can provide. The basic disparity between the scientific case and the conceptual case is this. In the scientific case, the aim is to find some inner constitution, mechanism, or micro-structure whose workings will account for the phenomenon to be explained... [Then] we can see that a certain key will open a certain lock... But if we wish to understand meaning-involving activities or states like consciousness, belief, knowledge, intention, desire, goal, purpose... there is not even in principle the possibility of this kind of explanation. We may break the concepts down into their conceptual components, but, however deep we go, we shall never (as we may hope to do in the scientific case) discover a simple explanatory key that make us say, ‘ah, that’s how it operates’.” (p.5).
Thoughts, in fact, are not machines. Pseudo-science will get us nowhere. In fact, everything mentioned in this manifesto urges us to look at philosophical issues on a larger, more appropriate scale than is used in current orthodoxies, perhaps starting by asking why the ghost of that old, divisive mindversus-matter dualism, with its insoluble ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, still haunts and distorts philosophical orthodoxy today. And is my idea of shifting to a wider perspective itself entangled with the other interesting question that still awaits us, namely “How much does it matter that we four revolutionaries all happened to be female?” But these puzzles will, I fear, have to wait for another time.
© DR MARY MIDGLEY 2016
Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne until 1980. Her best known books include Beast and Man; Wickedness; The Ethical Primate; Science and Poetry and a memoir, The Owl of Minerva. She was given Philosophy Now’s 2011 Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity. • Clare MacCumhaill, Rachael Wiseman and Luna Dolezal, from Durham University, and Liza Thompson of Bloomsbury Publishing, are working with Mary Midgley to recover the ‘Golden Age of female philosophy’. They will be publishing a series of companions to these women’s work, starting in 2017 with Human Nature. Find out more at www.womeninparenthesis.wordpress.com or @parenthesis_in
December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 23
Epicurus For Today Luke Slattery argues that the ancient philosophy of the Garden offers an attractive answer to some of the challenges of the modern world.
nomic connoisseurship. In antiquity it was the exact opposite. Epicurus (341-270 BC) abandoned the city of Athens for a house and garden outside its walls. The communards who followed him adopted the pleasure principle as their guide: the purpose of life is to maximise pleasure. But they understood pleasure not as the fulfillment of desire so much as its rational mastery. The richest pleasure of all, Epicurus believed, was freedom from suffering. “By pleasure,” he insisted, “we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul.” A troubled soul, Epicurus believed, had two main causes: fear of death, and runaway desire. He tried to banish the first by pushing back against superstition. There is nothing to fear in death, he taught, because when you’re alive death is elsewhere, and when you’re dead you won’t be there – or words to that effect. Then, once irrational fears of the afterlife are swept aside, the Epicurean can attend to this one finite life. And as for desire, Epicurus counseled a disposition very close to Eastern ascetic simplicity: we are to shun the pursuit of unnecessary pleasures – of new sensations, more possessions – and instead take deep pleasure in simple things. As some of the few surviving fragments of writings by Epicurus explain, he aimed to live
GETTY VILLA © BOBAK HA’ERI 2007
n elaborate faux Roman villa, replete with coffered ceilings and a lavish ‘Vesuvian’ color scheme, rises above the Pacific coast at Malibu. Why location scouts didn’t seize upon it for the Coen brothers’ comedy Hail, Caesar is anyone’s guess. But it’s best thought of as another kind of prop. Built by John Paul Getty to house his art collection, the Getty Villa connects the contemporary world with an ancient philosophy that could change the world for the better; or, at least, make a difference. Getty modelled his villa on a partially buried seaside mansion at Roman Herculaneum, a victim of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. It is known as ‘the Villa of the Papyri’ because it housed a vast collection of papyrus manuscripts. Most of these are on Epicurean themes. Epicureanism was the world’s first ‘green’ philosophy. When people turn to the ancient therapeutic philosophies, or arts of life, they tend to look to resolute Stoicism for succor. But Epicureanism, which insists that we learn to be happy with less, is a better fit with the anxieties du jour. The reason Epicureanism is not often mentioned in this context is that for more than two thousand years it has been misunderstood. Today Epicureanism is regarded as a form of gastro-
Getty Villa, Malibu 24 Philosophy Now
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frugally at peace amid ‘nature’s wealth’. So there were no antiquarian cook-offs in the Epicurean garden, no tastings of the finest Retsina (if there ever was such a thing as fine resinated wine). Meals were shared, although property was not. Epicurus declared himself content with water, bread, weak wine, and a ‘pot of cheese’. During a siege of Athens he kept his community going with a store of beans, which must have been both a culinary and an olfactory challenge for all concerned. An inscription placed at the entrance to the Epicurean garden conveyed something of its presiding spirit: “The host and keeper of this place, where you will find the pleasure of the highest good, will offer you freely cakes of barley and fresh spring water. This garden will not tease your appetite with the dainties of art but satisfy it with the bounties of nature. Will you not be a happy guest?”
The Epicurean Cosmos Attempting to explain the movement of the world’s constituents, Epicurus held that although its atoms tend to fall in a straight line, they are liable now and then to deviate, or swerve. This primitive version of the particle theory of matter has profound psychological and ethical implications, since the swerve in nature allows for human freedom. By imbuing the basic stuff of matter with an erratic, unpredictable quality, a ‘free movement’, Epicurus hoped to release mankind from the chains of predestination. Without this swerve, none of us are responsible for our actions, since they would have then been determined, as a second-century AD Epicurean, Diogenes of Oinoanda, explained. The end result of a deterministic world is that “all admonition and censure are nullified and not even the wicked” can be justly punished. Our planet is one among many, Epicurus argues. But Epicurus’s philosophy resolutely denies the existence of a spiritual or abstract, supernatural world – such as was offered by the Platonic, then Christian traditions, and even Stoic cosmology, which insists on a determined universe infused with the breath of a cosmic god. Epicureanism, most importantly, rejects all thought of a postponement of happiness to a paradise in the heavens. At the point of death, Epicurus believed, we simply dissolve into the basic constituents of the universe, the atoms. It was this courageous questioning of received ideas about religion that encouraged his followers to picture Epicurus as a liberator, a breaker of shackles, a champion of humanity – a saviour. “Therefore Superstition is now in her turn cast down and trampled underfoot,” writes Lucretius in celebration of his master’s atheism, “whilst we by the victory are exalted high as heaven.” Lucretius views Epicurus as a philosophical freedom fighter who has turned religion on its head so as to exalt man – an image that was to exert a formative influence many centuries later on the young Karl Marx. There is much of Epicurus – who was the subject of Marx’s doctoral dissertation – in the young revolutionary’s early thinking. The Marxist notion of the philosopher as change-agent takes its heroic colours from Lucretius’ celebration of Epicurus the liberator. And Marx’s vision of the Communist utopia, in which a man might “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner” has a distinct Epicurean cast.
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Light begins in myth and ends in mastery. Between lies a 3,000 year journey of philosophy, scripture, painting, photography, and more. From the Ancient Greeks to the Romantic Poets, from the sunrise at Stonehenge to the latest LEDs, from the oldest creation stories to the newest lasers,
Light: A Radiant History... shines.
Happy Simplicity The Epicurean message, stripped to its essence, really is a call to liberation – from a superstitious fear of death, and from destructive desire. Its less-is-more ethos is remarkably, improbably, providentially relevant, twenty-three centuries after it was first articulated. As the late College de France scholar of antique philosophy, Pierre Hadot, explained, it enjoins us to “learn to be content with what satisfies fundamental needs, while renouncing what is superfluous. A simple formula, but one that cannot but imply a radical upheaval of our lives.” If translated into contemporary terms, this thinking might compel us to temper our mania for consumption; for more cars, more gadgets – more stuff. What gives Epicureanism its contemporary usefulness is that it talks not of an angst and guilt-ridden need to make do with less – the dilemma, broadly speaking, of eco-minded people – but of the rich pleasure to be had from doing so. It’s essentially an egoistic or selfish philosophy with altruistic consequences. So the philosophy of the garden addresses an urgent ethical question: how do we manage the threat of global warming caused by human over-industrialisation, and the crisis of environmental degradation that ultimately follows? Epicurus answered this question long before it was a question by invoking the idea of natural limits as a guide to action: “He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole of life complete and perfect,” he wrote. “Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labour and conflict.” Time and again Epicurus and his followers return to the theme of limits: “One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing.” It might seem to make no sense to airlift a philosophy of deep antiquity twenty-three centuries on from its origin and expect it to precisely dovetail with contemporary needs, and yet it is eerily prophetic. Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s 2013 treatise, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life, is a critique of exponential economic growth that opens with a quote from Epicurus: “Nothing is enough for the man for whom enough is too little.” And a few lines from the Epicurean poet Lucretius, penned at the height of paganism, also strike home in the age of the smartphone: “While we can’t get what we want, that seems Of all things most desirable, Once got, We must have something else.”
It should be remembered, however, that the philosophy of Epicurus is very old, and despite its contemporary resonance, is now and then rather strange. For example, believing in the absolute authority of the senses, Epicurus considered the sun no bigger than an orange because it seemed that size to the naked eye. Even in the domain of ethics, where Epicureanism is at its most attractive, its various dictates mix the reasonable – “There are three motives to injurious acts among men – hatred, envy and contempt; and these the wise man will overcome with reason” – with the ludicrous: “The wise man will not make fine speeches…Nor will he dribble when drunk.” On the other 26 Philosophy Now
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hand, it is remarkable just how directly the Epicurean ideal speaks to many contemporary needs. In antiquity this ideal was distilled to a quatrain of spare yet beautiful phrases: “Nothing to fear in God; Nothing to feel in Death; Good can be attained; Evil can be endured.”
This tetrapharmakos, or ‘fourfold remedy’, shows us how to achieve the Epicurean ideal of being happy in this moment, to stop postponing our joy – to, in the famous formulation of the Roman Epicurean poet Horace, “Seize the day!” Epicurean Economics Just how practical for contemporary people is the ‘radical upheaval’ (in Hadot’s phrase) implied by Epicureanism? Chicago University philosopher Martha Nussbaum, a world authority on Hellenistic philosophy, argues, “The whole world cannot organize into little Epicurean communities; such communities are always parasitic upon the economic and political life of the larger world.” And yet I would counsel against a tooready association of the Epicurean spirit of retreat with a bare, primitive, passive, parasitical existence. The nineteenth century French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau – little known outside his native land, although he was the first to coin what would become the Durkheimian notion of anomie – wrote a beautiful work of Epicurean advocacy and analysis titled La Morale d’Epicure. In it he points out that the lines with which Lucretius ends Book Five of his magisterial poem De Rerum Natura amount to a “doctrine du progress intellectual et moral de l’homme” and are a passionate hymn to creativity and social dynamism achieved by building upon simplicity: “Seafaring and farming, city walls and laws And arms, roads, clothing, and all such other things, All the rewards and delights of life, Songs, pictures, statues curiously wrought, All these they learnt by practice gradually And by experiments of eager minds As step by step they made their forward way. So each thing in its turn by slow degrees Time doth bring forward to the lives of men, And reason lifts it to the light of day. For as one concept followed on another Men saw it form and brighten in their minds Till by their arts they scaled the highest peak.”
In ancient statuary, Socrates is invariably pug-nosed and ugly. Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Emperor, looks like a guy you can trust. Epicurus, eyes set deeply behind a furrowed brow, is permanently cranky. He’s no voluptuary, no gastronomic bore. He’s a radical with a burning idea. It burns fiercely still. © LUKE SLATTERY 2016
Luke Slattery is a Sydney-based writer, and an honorary associate in the University of Sydney’s department of Classics and Ancient History. He is the author of four books, including Reclaiming Epicurus (Penguin, 2012).
Each week, Corey Mohler draws a new Existential Comics strip and posts it at http://existentialcomics.com
A comic by Corey Mohler about the inevitable anguish of living a brief life in an absurd world.
The Epicureans, despite being avowed hedonists and the modern connota-
hangovers), but simple pleasures that fulfill basic desires (hungry, sleep,
tions of the word, weren't really interested in the sort of sensual pleasure
etc). Likewise you should avoid excess or unnecessary desires such as
that we think of as hedonism. They believed that the most pleasurable life
greed, lust, and domination over others. Their prescribed path might be
mostly consisted of avoiding pain and unpleasantness by leading a simple,
viewed as boring by many modern and ancient readers: doing gardening,
tranquil life free of worries and suffering. The best kinds of pleasures were
meditating, and avoid politics and conflict. Epicurus said that he could be
not excessive ones that could lead to displeasure down the line (such as
satisfied with merely water, bread, weak wine and a â€œpot of cheese.â€?
28 Philosophy Now December 2016/January 2017
Philosophy For The Brave Dahlian Kirby on the benefits of existentialist counselling. Now according to Emmy Van Deurzen, “psychotherapists, psychologists or psychiatrists often have considerable difficulties in recognizing the validity of philosophical questioning. They are reluctant to engage in theoretical discussions with clients and patients who are seemingly disturbed, but who actually may be in search of meaning” (‘Existentialism And Existential Psychotherapy’, 1999). When people are distressed and questioning we often shut them up, either with pills or platitudes. But why shut them up, when what they really need is to think through what has happened and who they are? I think the modern cliché I most dislike, posing as a piece of philosophy (but which is really a form of shutting people up) is “Everything happens for a reason.” Okay, explain sudden cot death. Or suicide bombing. Or my cat getting run over. Or domestic violence. Philosophy doesn’t shut us up, it opens us up. We don’t need a university education to question, to wonder, to find meaning – we just need space to reflect, and perhaps, to debate. We need to tell our story, and in telling it find out who we are. We can do this alone, in our heads or on paper. However, to do it in the company of another human is both challenging and reassuring. We can piece together ideas between us. And why stop at two? A host of questioning human beings can be a fine thing. Choose Meaning Psychiatrist and philosopher Viktor Frankl, imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp, asked himself why some prisoners survived and some did not. What made the difference? He CARTOON © PHIL WITTE 2016
ccording to Epicurus, “The discourse of the philosopher that wouldn’t cure any human affectation is indeed an empty one.” So in a society where cutbacks are destroying education, where money is considered the main blessing and intelligence an embarrassment, what is the point of philosophy? I believe it is to keep us well. Whilst working in a semi-open prison as a counsellor, I came across several men who were nearing the end of very long sentences. They had all committed violent crimes, and some of them had spent their entire adult lives in prison, having entered the system at sixteen or seventeen. They had spent a long time being institutionalised; but had also been able to spend a long time thinking. Where else do you get the opportunity to reflect so long on life, morality, and individual worth? The problem for these men was that as the end of their time inside drew near, they began to feel very distressed. It wasn’t just the thought of sorting out housing and money. It wasn’t always about lost relationships or the world having moved on. It was a question of not knowing who they were: about not having a purpose. A lot of prisoners are physically and mentally unwell and rely on medication to get through. Some of them go to counselling. In counselling they are able to discuss the meaning of life. Anxiety and depression cause a person to feel isolated. We tend to start questioning our existence when we are in crisis or have suffered great loss. Philosophy can help us feel connected. As a counsellor with a doctorate in philosophy, I have found some of my most memorable conversations have occurred with a prisoner in a small room trying to make sense of human existence. By philosophy, I mean the sharing of ideas from the unique perception of the individual who has come to a point in their life when they need to know more or go deeper. It involves an acknowledgment that we are alone, but also together. In discussion with another questioning person, we can feel that we are not alone in our search for answers. Enter the philosopher, armed only with questions. Is that enough? In some situations, an encounter with a person willing to enter into a philosophical dialogue about life’s meanings, free will, and intention, may be enough to let someone know that life is both more complex and more beautiful than they have previously imagined. This can set the frail but curious individual on to the road to wisdom, and finding a way of coping with being a thinking, feeling being.
“I have an existential dread of falling off your couch.”
December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 29
WOMAN LISTENING © FRED W. BAKER III, 2009
found that those who found the will to endure the horrific conditions did so because they felt they had meaning in their lives. Frankl’s conclusion invites us all to find meaning. Sometimes this is easy, but when we’re in crisis it is painful. Long bouts of depression can leave us so isolated and exhausted that any suggestion of finding meaning seems beyond possibility. Frankl suggests that the final human freedom is “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946). I believe that Frankl’s focus on choice of attitude is the greatest wisdom he could give us. He isn’t suggesting we can overcome death or disaster, but merely that we can decide our attitude towards it. We don’t have to rely on the government/the priest/the weather, etc etc. We ourselves can begin to change how we feel. We can take comfort from the possibility that life isn’t something that is done to us; then we can decide to explore the hows and whys, and of course, the all-consuming ‘Why me?’ Asking the question ‘Is my life worthwhile?’ suggests we are looking for meaning. The question might occur to us because we are emotionally or psychologically tired from a life that seems to be only about paying bills and answering to the whims of an unreasonable boss. Or it may come when we have a serious illness, or are about to be released from prison after serving ten years for murder. When we ask this question, we are perhaps hoping that our life should be worthwhile. Or we may be asking why it used to be but isn’t now. Alternatively, we may feel it never was, and never can be. Counselling Through Philosophy People who have suffered serious abuse may need ‘formal’ discussion to make sense of their lives. This can come in the shape of existential counselling, which is therapy through philosophical discussion provided by a trained counsellor. If drugs block out the thoughts and feelings caused by abuse or other trauma, existential therapy does the opposite: it enables a person to think through what has happened, how it happened, and why it happened. Through existential counselling, depressed people can become aware that they are now responsible for themselves, and use this knowledge positively. The relationship between the client and the counsellor reflects all good relationships: we learn what it means to say that there is another who can listen and debate with us, but also that we are ultimately responsible for our own thoughts and feelings. Also, like other relationships, it is finite, which makes it bittersweet. In existential therapy in particular, the client will most likely 30 Philosophy Now December 2016/January 2017
be encouraged to reflect on one or all of the following: freedom and responsibility, isolation and meaninglessness, and the inevitability of death. This may sound negative, but the approach is positive. It depends on the theory that people can find meaning and can come to terms with the past now, and are therefore able to have a worthwhile future. With support from the counsellor the individual can face up to their fears and take responsibility. They can learn about their strengths and limitations. Existential therapy celebrates authenticity, and also acknowledges how damned hard life can be. Van DeurzenSmith (same person, different year – this time 1997) suggests in her book Existential Counselling in Practice that through existentialist counselling, people can become truly alive, and that only when “they begin to be ready for the recurrent challenges, crises and troubles, do they start to be open to the depth of experience and reality that comes with a true commitment to existence.” The truly liberating thing about existential counselling – possibly about any philosophical discussion on human existence – is that it doesn’t rely on diagnostic labels or on the medicalization of behaviour. A person isn’t ‘bipolar’ or ‘depressive’ or ‘borderline’; they are a unique human being reacting to a difficult world. The symptoms of, for example, borderline personality disorder, can be viewed as the results of rational responses in someone who has been sexually abused since childhood. She may feel she also would like the support of a medical doctor, and possibly medication; but for someone with such a history to have a serious, intimate, honest conversation, as equals, with another person about their choices, their abilities, their possibilities, is to give them the chance to take control of a life that may have seemed forever out of control. The journey won’t be easy, and the conversations will be painful. I am not talking about a quick fix self-help afternoon. We are looking at facing our fears head on, working out what we must take responsibility for, and what we must accept that we can’t change. It’s about giving up our victim status, and becoming powerful. It’s exciting, it’s challenging. Its philosophy for grow ups! It’s philosophy for the brave. An Antidote To Junk Culture We live in a culture where rather than ask our grandma for the old family Christmas pudding recipe, people look online to see what famous people put in theirs. To train our dogs, choose a book, live a healthy life, we look to celebrities who are making money by telling us what to do, think and eat. We seek the answers to how to live life and how to be happy from the rich and famous, although they themselves are often also struggling
to find their authentic selves. Through existential therapy we can explore who we really are and find out what we really want. Existential philosophy and existential counselling can both be considered antidotes to this celebrity culture. Through philosophical discussion – with a friend, a philosopher, or with an existential counsellor – we can begin to answer the questions ‘What would make life worthwhile?’ and ‘How do I get to that place?’ We can look back to what used to satisfy us and see if that still works, and if not, find new sources of meaning. We can also look at responsibility – a very important issue for people who have been abused. It may be thought that counselling in general, and existential counselling in particular, is only suitable for articulate, confident people. I strongly disagree. My work with people in prison is the evidence. In fact, the quirkier mind the better, and prison survivors often have a particularly individualistic, thinking-on-your-feet kind of way of looking at life. And as I said, they have had a long time to contemplate life’s meanings. One of my most successful therapeutic relationships was with a prisoner who was a traveller, or ‘pikey’, as she enjoyed describing herself. We looked at abuse and the meaning of life mostly through metaphor. Her aim was to make her life worthwhile. She learned what she could change and what she had to accept. Our starting point was both staring at the brick wall just outside the window. Sometimes those who can talk and think well hide their fears behind their talking and thinking. I believe very few of us are without anxiety. Instead of putting up armour, we can bring down our barriers in discussion (please enjoy the almost mixed metaphor!). We can start to look at questions in a new way, rather than trotting out the glib answers we have become familiar and comfortable with. We can take time away from looking at the constructs of our society, and look instead at our self-constructs. Instead of debating international politics, we can look instead at our internal politics. This is not self-indulgence, rather it is self-knowledge. We can look at the way we react to situations and people, and decide that from now on, we will respond in a here-andnow way. We can dump any aspect of our public persona at any time. This can only be liberating. If there is a meaning to life, shouldn’t we learn to understand it? If we are not choosing suicide, we are choosing existence. Existence is confusing and frightening. We need to reflect, and to talk to each other; to be humble and brave, and always question those platitudes handed to us which are announced as truths. Through philosophy, and in particular through existential discussion and existential counselling, we can learn to be good at life. Philosopher, heal thyself.
by Melissa Felder
© DR DAHLIAN KIRBY 2016
Dahlian Kirby obtained her PhD in Philosophy from Cardiff University. She works as a counsellor, and teaches counselling at Redcar and Cleveland College. She also runs therapeutic writing courses.
SIMON + FINN CARTOON © MELISSA FELDER 2016
PLEASE VISIT SIMONANDFINN.COM
December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 31
Question of the Month
To Be Or Not To Be, What Is The Answer? The following responses to Hamlet’s big question each win a random book.
here is only one philosophical problem which is really serious: suicide. To decide whether life is or is not worth living.” So opined Albert Camus, and he proffered an answer too. Yes, life is worth it if lived with lucidity, conscious of life’s absurdities, but rebelling against them. Scorn its arbitrariness and commit to being happy. Carry on Sisyphus! The question is topical. The single biggest cause of death among men under forty-five in the UK is suicide, and that’s typical for the whole Western world. Is that a ‘philosophical’ issue? Being authentic – true to who you are, and exercising your freedom to choose – is easier said than done in a modern world that’s so coercive. Social media invites us to create a kind of living autobiography that is not necessarily about the person we are. And how do you exist authentically with the pressures of modern life, which tend to bear us along on a tide of preoccupations? Understanding our human condition goes some way to inuring us against its absurdities. Where does suicide fit in a cost/benefit calculation of life’s trials and tribulations – which is what Hamlet’s soliloquy is largely concerned with? It is only if you exist that you can have pleasure, joy and satisfaction. As long as these outweigh the pain and the suffering, then being is worth it. But there is arguably an asymmetry in this argument. If you no longer exist then there is a complete absence of pain, which is a good, but also an absence of pleasure. Yet the latter is not in itself bad, because there isn’t a person who is being deprived. For the living, however, the calculus is different: pleasure involves a good, yes – but you experience pain too, which is an outright bad. Bad seems to outweigh the good when you compare the latter with the former, so that if we had the choice whether to come into being in the first place, we might well answer, no thanks. Eastern philosophical traditions argue that we confuse ‘being’ with egotistic thought and emotion; break free from these and you become aware, present, attentive to the present moment and non-reactive. This emergent self enjoys a different sense of being. It isn’t just what we feel and experience that matters to us, it is also what we are and how we live in contact with reality; and being in contact with reality requires us to be. MIKE DE VAL, NANT-Y-DERRY, ABERGAVENNY
o be is a good. Unless existence is a good, then nothing is good. Yet we all desire good: the will is naturally drawn to the good, and recoils from harm. What is not good is evil, meaning that evil is the privation of good. So evil only exists relative to some good. We all participate in goodness, which can be perfect only in God. Yet we’ve all also experienced evil at some point, because we all exist. We’ve also had experience of good, whether simple or complex; the pleasant feeling of sunshine on one’s skin, or the pleasures of friendship or romance. These are goods which we especially recognize when they’re missing, in the bitter cold, or loneliness, or heartbreak. No one who loses a limb reckons life better by the loss itself. Rather, the loss is only 32 Philosophy Now
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made bearable by the gain of some other good; for example, by becoming a more grateful person, or a more charitable human being, through overcoming the adversity. I think few would argue that the evil was required in order to gain these goods. Rather, the evil was merely the occasion of these intangible goods, which could be acquired by anyone at any time. There still sometimes occurs the feeling that life is unbearable, that the sum total of good experiences surely cannot outweigh the bad ones. Or perhaps the crushing weight of adversity and sorrow has made its presence felt too keenly upon a soul. To know that another has suffered more than me and has endured it admirably – Jesus is a good example – may be a small comfort. But perhaps all that is needed to revive hope is a change in perspective; to have a little more courage, a little more strength, and the grace to bear that which is passing, for this earthly life is indeed passing, lasting but a moment, while eternity is forever. With a perspective such as this, and the examples of countless others who endure suffering with fortitude, who wouldn’t be inspired to work not for what perishes, but for eternal life? EFREN PIZANO, CHATSWORTH, CALIFORNIA
o be or not to be? That is the question that arises when one faces up to the feelings of anguish, despair, and insignificance that can overcome us during times of deep reflection. Such feelings can lead us to wonder if it would be easier to end it all now and be done with the fluctuating emotions that never seem to settle or straighten themselves out with time. They linger on our horizon alongside another cause for concern: the certainty of death. When we reflect on the likelihood that a century from now we will be erased from the historical memory, a dark shadow of meaninglessness can be cast over our every decision and action. We feel like a Kafka character, who has been summoned to this world without a reason but living in hope that one day, before death, it will all become clear. I personally do not hold my breath. Instead of looking for answers in the works of existentialist philosophers or in the texts of the world’s religions, perhaps a reason to be can be found by observing nature. While walking my dog one afternoon, I noticed a cherry blossom tree in full bloom. It was strikingly beautiful, and I made a point of walking the same route every time I took the dog out, so that I could bear witness to the pink leaves that had left such an impression on me. A week or so passed, and I headed out on the same route: only this time, the tree stood bare. I was later to find out that these blossoms are very short-lived. Ever since I became aware of the cherry blossom tree’s evanescent nature, I have felt a deep affection towards it. I believe that while the colour of the petals is pleasing on the eye, it is their transience that provides the special aesthetic quality. Like the blossoming of a ‘Sakura’ tree, our lives are unenduring. This does not render them pointless. Instead, it provides the To Be or Not To Be?
beauty and significance that makes them worthwhile. If we can learn to embrace our impermanent and absurd condition, we may, like Albert Camus, find within us an eternal summer. KEVIN HATTIE, KIRKINTILLOCH, GLASGOW
he reference in the question is undoubtedly to Hamlet’s soliloquy where, considering suicide, he realises he and others are deterred by fear of what may happen after death. But to me the question also suggests the Greek myth where, when questioned by King Midas as to what is the best and most desirable thing for human beings, the satyr Silenus replies: “Not to have been born – but the next best is to die soon.” Some may say that philosophies which claim that life is not worth living, or that only a fear of death deters us from taking our lives, cheapen and degrade life. But, in regards to Hamlet, much of his soliloquy appears to ring true. He is surely right to say that life is full of tribulations – “the thousand natural shocks” – and that we are often unable to avoid them. We may, for example, be oppressed minorities living under a dictatorship; or, like Ophelia, we may be scorned in love. By ending our lives, it may, strangely, seem that we are taking control over matters and deciding how to live (to not). However, although many may hate their lives sometimes, few actually take their lives. Hamlet seems right when he says, “conscience makes cowards of us all.” Silenus, however, seems to be saying that it’s never worth living at all. Yet surely many things do make life worth living: the beauties of nature, art, science, the capacity for reason and selfawareness which allows us to appreciate these things. Although we know some of our life-experiences will be painful, and are aware that love affairs and friendships end, and the people we love most may die in the course of our life, there is, arguably, still much to appreciate. Furthermore, there is perhaps a certain dignity gained by living through personal adversity. Consider Camus’ telling of the myth of Sisyphus: Sisyphus adheres to his pointless labour in Hades despite the endlessness and ignominy of it, deriving some nobility from his absurd condition. And irrespective of the rights and wrongs of suicide, should we really fear death and what comes afterwards? Perhaps we should instead view it with anticipation. In the words of Peter Pan, death is “an awfully big adventure.” JONATHAN TIPTON, PRESTON, LANCASHIRE
s that the one real philosophical question – whether to live? (Camus.) But yet it is not really a question; it is a choice (or are we merely bewitching ourselves with language here? – Wittgenstein). But what is the purpose of this ‘real philosophical question’? Purpose itself goes far beyond the idea of ‘to be’: the real answer is to be sought in ‘how to be for someone’ (Levinas). In fact, there is no ‘answer’ available to us, only a choice; and this choice is contingent on whether the ‘to be’ can attain (realise, etc) its purpose – whether understood as that revealed in scripture, as the final cause in Aristotle’s sense, as some personal construction, or the ideal of a thinking subject, and so on. Hamlet’s trouble in asking his question is also an admission of having missed a particular life-purpose. That is, Hamlet is without an answer to the primary pair of questions: ‘What is man and why are we here?’ (Cassirer). I mean, it is difficult to imagine the ‘What am I?’ before knowing the ‘Why am I?’ This alone can inform us about ‘Who am I?’; and only from answering that can one have any idea about how to answer ‘What should I do?’
To Be or Not To Be?
So Hamlet seems not to understand what he is asking. He, like everyone else, cannot proceed to properly answer ‘To be or not to be?’ without having performed the necessary first step of making a positive identification of, and commitment to, why he is here. And then the so-called ‘question’, like the dense fogs of Elsinore which so mystified him, should clear. HANK VRANA, SOFIA, BULGARIA
he human heart recognizes heroes by the choices they make when they are faced with adversity or responsibility. None of us ever knows for sure what we are made of until we are tested. In The Tragedy of Hamlet, the protagonist falls short of being a hero by virtue of his character, or lack thereof. According to the gravedigger’s reckoning (Act 5: Scene 1), Hamlet was thirty years old when he fell into his pit of despair. To be fair, Hamlet’s future was pretty bleak. His father, the old King of Denmark, had been dead only a month when his mother’s scandalous marriage turned his world upside down. Hamlet knew that his mother’s self-centered happiness had cost him the throne, but he felt helpless to stand up for himself. And what can a king stand for if he can’t stand up for himself? Poor Hamlet! He was a prince: that much was true. He knew full well who he was, but what he was, he hadn’t a clue. In this modern age of blended families and accumulated cultures, we struggle more than ever to know who we truly are. Companies such as AncestryDNA and Ancestry.com lend their shovels to help us dig up our roots; but the deeper we go, the more we know that we are digging in the wrong place. Our true identity does not reside in the dry dusty bones of our family trees, but rather in the sum total of our own individual actions. The beloved Russian author Leo Tolstoy believed that untangling who we are from what we are is one of life’s greatest pursuits. His philosophy was that our station in life merely describes us, whereas our actions define us. In his book, The Gospel in Brief, Tolstoy concludes that our true identity comes down to one thing: our choices. We have no control over who we have been made into. That is a fact of circumstances beyond our control. Yet to become or not to become what we are meant to be is for us to decide. Therein, dear Hamlet, lies our true identity, and our strength to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. CONNIE KOEHLER, TEXAS
amus wrongly reasons that the fundamental question of philosophy is whether or not life is worth living. No one seriously raises that question except in uncommon, particular cases. Why should I continue to live? The nearly universal answer is, “Because I want to.” It’s the way nature made us. Camus should have consulted Mother Nature. To be or not to be? The empirical evidence is clear. It is to be. There is a survival instinct. It is visibly operating in, for instance, conditions of slavery, where a continued existence in a degrading state of injustice, no liberty, scant pursuit of happiness, brutal punishment, and back-breaking labor, is still preferred to death. It is manifest in the clinging to life of the old and infirm whose time is short; and in the same clinging to life of the young and infirm whose time to suffer is long. Many with terminal illness who plan suicide find they cannot will themselves to do it. The survival instinct is not something we reason out. It is in us as a result of aeons of evolution. It clearly contributes to the survival of one’s species. To be or not to be? December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 33
Nature answered that question for us. Neither suicide nor deliberately sacrificing one’s life for another is evidence against the survival instinct. Both are rare, and their rarity is itself evidence that ‘to be’ is generally preferred to ‘not to be’. War might be the chief evidence to the contrary. However, most have to be conscripted or pressured to fight. And when people do march off to war, they do so not to give their lives for their country, but, as General Patton said, to make “the other poor dumb bastard die for his.” I might question my continued existence in the face of terminal illness. I would never question it just because someone suggested that life seems absurd. Even if it were proved to be so, we still are driven to live, and so we will. And if we need meaning in our lives, somehow, almost all of us will find it. JOHN TALLEY, RUTHERFORDTON, NORTH CAROLINA
© CHRIS GILL 2016
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onscious thoughts are due to complex electrochemical reactions in the brain, which, when deconstructed, are essentially interactions of matter and energy. Einstein’s equation E = mc2 says that matter and energy are interconvertible. And one of science’s most secure maxims is that energy can never disappear, it merely changes form. This means that nothing is absolved from this immortality, because everything has energyidentity. Therefore, ‘to be’ is the only answer. But will we still experience a sense of life after death – especially since our sense organs will no longer have the capacity to work as we anthropocentrically perceive them to? Aye, there’s the rub! Emerson says in The Poet, “Here we find ourselves, suddenly, not in a critical speculation, but in a holy place, and should go very warily and reverently.” To conceptualize post-death consciousness is to plunge into a conjectural dreamscape. Yet, many pundits have taken this dive and fashioned innumerable ‘answers’. In his Myth of Sisyphus, Camus calls this leap to belief in an afterlife a hope that transcends human understanding, an escape from reality that is akin to philosophical (that is, intellectual) suicide. He finds integrity only in the state before the jump: in Shakespearean terms, an ego-teetering between being a “paragon of animals” and “quintessence of dust.” He counsels living with the absurdity of the life we perceive. Absurdity bursts forth from conflicting contemplations of self: body and/or consciousness, meaningful and/or meaningless, particle and/or wave, etc. As
34 Philosophy Now
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T.S. Eliot said in The Hollow Men: “Between the potency and the existence/Between the essence and the descent/Falls the Shadow.” All who meditate upon these koan-like recursive mysteries become ensnared in this speculative penumbra of potential solutions, not unlike the superposition of the photon before the wavefunction collapse. In one sense, we will always be a part of this great flux of matter-and-energy existence; but the conscious decision to give place to being and/or non-being is one of preference not of certitude, for we cannot experience death amidst living awareness. The possible implications of quantum entanglement, universal sentience, parallel worlds, and a myriad other rabbits, beg to be chased. My preference is to shimmer in the probabilities, blink from one to another without settling, without collapsing. I will continue this relentless run to touch the horizon of human knowledge until I am enlightened by hidden variables, by inevitable natural death, or never, by nothing. Until then, the only significance any of us can give to these primeval yearnings for absolute identity are personal morality tales of ideology and imagination. CHRISTINE ROUSSEAU, FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA
n practice, suicide is rarely the result of a process or reasoning, but rather of a loss of reason. It is an outcome of depression, of schizophrenia, of alcohol or other drug abuse. It is estimated that 80% to 90% of suicides occur in people with mental disorders. Two-thirds of suicides visit a doctor in the month before their final act. (A depressed young friend of mine tried to admit himself to hospital the day before he killed himself, and was turned away.) So suicide is usually the consequence of an untreated illness; an illness that leads as surely to death as untreated cancer. Every year, across the world a million people kill themselves, and fifteen times as many try. In the developed world it is a leading cause of death in the unreasonable young. The old, and sometimes wiser, having still a little reason, eschew it, for reason cannot drive us to suicide. Roquentin in Sartre’s novel Nausea confronts a world in which all action is pointless, and quickly deduces that suicide would be pointless by the same token. Camus writes The Myth of Sisyphus towards much the same conclusion, encouraging us to battle on in an absurd world. Thomas Nagel agrees that if all life is pointless, then suicide is as pointless as anything else. It will be neither justified nor condemned by reason. However, David Hume long ago taught us about the limits of reason for motivating action. Reason cannot prove that night follows day, nor that the world exists, nor that I have a self. And yet I daily preen myself, and in the day that follows night, I go out into the world. I may also kill my unreasonable and unjustified self. We are not perfectly rational beings, like angels or gods. We are apes, and if we kill ourselves it is not because reason has shown us the way, but because we have become temporarily wonky. The brain – that highly irrational organ – that struggles to convert sensation into something bearable, has given up trying for a moment. And in that moment – and it only takes a moment, it does not take thought – we do the non-undoable. As for Hamlet, he was all words, words, words, and he was driven to murder and suicide because he had seen a ghost. ROBERT GRIFFITHS, GODALMING To Be or Not To Be?
hought over the act of self-killing has persisted for millennia alongside entrenched religious anathema against it, as well as certain religions which require it on occasion, for example, in the immolation of widowed Hindus. Attitudes in Western civilization started to shift from the Seventeenth Century: John Donne’s defense of suicide and David Hume’s critique of the Thomistic view of suicide were notable treatises. Hume argued that circumstances that lead to a human being living in constant pain and suffering mean that that person is leading an existence worse than death. Hume thought that the our natural fear of death ensured that the person who chooses to commit suicide would only do so after substantial deliberation. However, a person embroiled in dreadful circumstances may not be in the optimal frame of mind to make the choice. Giving the choice to someone else, a close relative, for example, appears to be a better alternative. However, the threat of extraneous factors affecting the decision always remains. For example, the person chosen to choose might abandon her duty to prevent an impulsive suicide in order to advance her own interests. Regardless of the checks which we might presume operate, a set of practices has yet to be devised that prevents manipulation and abuses of the potential victim. Advances in medicine have enabled us, through psychiatric testing, to determine a person’s rationality in moments of extreme anguish, for instance, when a patient chooses euthanasia. But are such tests able to reveal a difference between a soldier laying her life down for her county and a suicide bomber at the end of her life? Without testing capabilities at such junctures, the answer to ‘To Be or Not To Be?’ would appear to lie within the moral compass of the beholder. Yet as Schopenhauer puts it, suicide “is a clumsy experiment to make; for it involves the destruction of the very consciousness which puts the question and awaits the answer.” ISH SAHAI, MUMBAI
hether life is inherently positive, negative, or neutral is an issue faced by many philosophers, but few confronted it with such force as Arthur Schopenhauer. For Schopenhauer, all organisms are all driven by a Will to survive that often drives them into conflict, meaning that life is essentially suffering. Even in the brief respites when Will is not pushing us forward, there is little more than boredom. Life is therefore overall negative in nature. This is the philosophical stance of Pessimism. This Pessimistic stance leads Schopenhauer to another rather shocking conclusion – that human reproduction is morally reprehensible, and cannot be justified through reason. If life is suffering and negative, then it follows that to create life is a cruel act, as it condemns a new being to a life of suffering. It is no wonder then that, in both fiction and reality, suffering sentient beings often curse their creators, who have damned them to an unfair existence – as exemplified in Shelley’s Frankenstein. Even if we do not go so far as Schopenhauer’s Pessimism, nor accept his conclusion that human reproduction cannot be justified, his argument should highlight to us the significance of childbirth and parenthood. Creating another being is not something that should be undertaken lightly, and our reasons for doing so should be carefully considered, perhaps more than for any other act. For while we may not accept that life is inherently or simply negative, it is evident that our world is one with a great deal of suffering. With the awareness that one is bringing innocent life into an at times hostile world, parenthood is then a To Be or Not To Be?
great duty. Let Schopenhauer’s Pessimism then be taken as a challenge and a reminder to us: a challenge to build a better world for future generations to inhabit, and a reminder that children do not choose their existences. And on a broader scale, if society supports childbirth to sustain its own existence, then education and other investments in the future should be prioritised as a debt owed to the life that has been created. If new life is to be created, then we must take care that it is not a curse, by accepting the challenge of Schopenhauer’s Pessimism. KENNETH THOMSON-DUNCAN ABERDEEN
o be or not to be? Let me try to answer the question by recounting a harrowing episode from three years ago. Facebook is a strange place to try to talk someone out of suicide. But through an instant message I checked in with a young friend, who I knew outside of Facebook. She was not doing well and threatened to end her life. I am a philosopher, not a counsellor, so I was not trained for this. Nevertheless, I had to keep typing. I told Nancy (not her name) that she needed to stay in the world, that her presence, no matter how miserable for her, was nevertheless good and significant. I asked her to remember her place in the hearts of her family and friends. I added that her life might get better unexpectedly. I gave her links to articles that might awaken her desire to live. (All the while, I was frantically Facebooking to try to get through to her family.) I had a significant problem, though: Nancy is an atheist, who thinks that life has no objective meaning. But I did not counsel her to commit suicide if that was her desire since everything is meaningless anyway, neither I did not invoke Camus’ response to suicide, since I find these worldviews unconvincing. But since even nihilists cannot escape the truth that some things have meaning to some people, I tried to remind her of value outside of her own suffering. Ultimately, and however clichéd it sounds, that value, that meaning, is love. Love could hold her back and lead her on. I also implored her as a loving friend. Nancy did not try to die that night. I had gotten through to her mother, who lived locally and she rushed to Nancy’s apartment. Perhaps I stalled her long enough to make that possible. Sadly, Nancy did attempt to take her own life twice not long after. She failed both times. I visited her in the psychiatric ward, because she asked to see me. It was a kind-of pastoral visit to an atheist. Our philosophical discussion about God and meaning didn’t get too far during those visits. But why did she call me, a Christian philosopher, to meet her in the aftermath of her darkness? I think it was love. If love is real, suicide is wrong. As I departed, I said, “Love is real, please stay.” DR DOUGLAS GROOTHUIS, LITTLETON, COLORADO
The next question is: What is the Future of Humanity? Please give and justify your predictions in fewer than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 13th February 2017. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission is permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically. Thanks. December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 35
PHOTOS © AI BEI 2016
Tu Weiming is a philosophy professor at Harvard University and Chair of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University. He is an ethicist and is one of the leading lights of New Confucianism. David Volodzko asked him about the relevance of Confucius today.
36 Philosophy Now
In her 1982 book Child Abuse and Neglect: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, the anthropologist Jill Korbin wrote that in classical China “children, according to the ethic of ‘filial piety,’ were considered the sole property of their parents. As such, they could be dealt with in whatever manner their parents chose, with little or no interference from outsiders. Severe beatings, infanticide, child slavery, the selling of young girls as prostitutes, child betrothal, and foot-binding were not uncommon.” Is it true that Confucian ideas of filial piety say children are the property of their parents? Doesn’t the Classic of Filial Piety teach that the basis of filial piety is love? Korbin’s view is distorted, and I would say erroneous, for a number of reasons. In the Classic of Filial Piety, Confucius makes filial piety the root of all virtue, starting with the piety of the Emperor towards his parents and the good consequences of that for all his decisions. A disciple asks the Master (Confucius) whether simple obedience to a father can be called filial piety. Confucius reacts strongly (“What words are these?”) and replies that the Emperor who had ministers willing to argue with him would not lose his state and “the father who had a son that would remonstrate with him would not sink into the gulf of unrighteous deeds. Therefore when a case of unrighteous conduct is concerned, a son must by no means keep from remonstrating with his father, nor a minister from remonstrating with his ruler.” So the son’s responsibility is to help the father to become more fatherly. The father disciplines the son, of course, but the son is obligated to see to it that the father acts according to the fatherly principle. According to Confucius’ approach to the Rectification of Names [ie Chinese philosophy of language] if you occupy the position of father, then that very concept implies that you act in certain ways. The father acts fatherly so that the son will be able to act in filial reverence. So the notion of obeying an abusive father is totally distorted and, I would say, against basic Confucian principles. The principle of reciprocity, shu, is important in governing this relationship. The abuse of authoritarian power [in Chinese politics] occurred from time
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to time, and sometimes it became an excuse for the father to behave in an unfatherly way, but according to the rules of behavior (we call it ‘regulatory behavior’), the whole idea of property itself is, again, quite distorted. However, there are limits. For example, if the son kills the father, then normally the son would not be excused! The most important value in Confucianism is self-actualization, so the son cultivating the father is part of the game. The son should not be rebellious, but the father, like the son, has to improve. So in that connection, the reciprocal relationship is very much emphasized. The Confucian philosopher Mencius once explained that it’s not a good idea for a junzi [Confucian gentleman displaying moral nobility] to teach his son, because if the student doesn’t do his work, the teacher may become angry, which a father shouldn’t do. Do we know why this is the case? This is a very famous, yet sometimes overlooked, aspect of the Confucian tradition. The father-son relationship should always be cordial. Well, that’s not the right term. Loving and caring. So, for example, I would teach my friend’s children and my friend teaches my children. This is because the discipline of the teacher is incompatible with the caring of the father. A teacher-student relationship should be able to endure a great deal of pressure because of the discipline involved. But this is not desirable in the father-son relationship. It’s all right for the teacher to have indignation if the student doesn’t obey the rules, but between a father and son, anger is counterproductive. In the Analects, Mang Wubo asks Confucius about filial piety, and Confucius talks about parents who worry if their children are sick. Can you talk about this? There are 109 references to humanity, or ren, in the Analects, so in this one case, Confucius says that in filial piety it’s difficult to have the right attitude. Amy Chua, the ‘tiger mother’ [author of the bestselling book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother], who teaches at Yale, made a few comments, after she became a celebrity, that her older daughter is very amenable to this kind of pressure, while Interview
Interview her second daughter is diametrically opposed to it, so sometimes she would have to compromise. So even though on the surface, the emphasis is on imposing one’s will, I think there are underlying issues that need to be explored. If you’re very stringent, and the child is aware that this is for their own good, and the learning time is appreciated, it turns out to be efficacious for the relationship. On the other hand, I think many parents in China misunderstand this, and overexercise their parental power, and we don’t need to discuss the psychology of it, but quite often the children rebel. The parents’ willingness to sacrifice their own self-interest for the wellbeing of their children, and not the outmoded idea that they will rely upon the children to take care of them, has now become a civil religion in China. Especially the education of the children. As soon as a child is born, the parents begin to work extremely hard in order to save some money so that the child will have a proper education. Especially when they themselves never had a chance to go to school. Of course, there are benefits for them: they feel proud; they can be praised if their children excel. That’s certainly part of the story. But it’s extraordinary in many cases, I noticed, that parents in China or even in Taiwan decide to leave an adequate job at home in order to eke out a living in, for example the United States, by running a coffee shop, so that their children can go to a better school. That happens quite a lot. Even in my own personal experience, I have encountered quite a few stories like this, and I think it has do with the culture and ethos of the people. Filial piety is not just to one’s parents, but to one’s clan. And also, in the Great Learning, they say self-cultivation has to be extended to the family, and to the nation, and eventually, heaven. That is each person’s role in the network of selfcultivation. What do you mean by one’s clan? Not just one’s parents, but one’s relatives. It’s patriarchal, but it’s also quite broad. To support your parents, that’s good, but that’s a minimum. Even animals can do that. But to make your parents happy, respected in the community, Interview
that’s considered a higher level of filial piety. The highest level is, that because of your own merit, your own achievement, your parents will be remembered. For example, Mencius’ mother is remembered as an ideal of motherhood. Both Mencius and Confucius were raised by their mothers, so the role of the mother is extremely critical in Confucianism. A soldier who shows bravery on the battlefield can also be a demonstration of filial piety. So it has much broader significance than simply a family ethic. It has to be cultivated publicly. One thing that I just learned is that in Singapore, which is not necessarily a Confucian society, there’s been a survey run for the last 30 years or more of the views of different generations, and different sectors, businesspeople, academics, and so forth. And the single value mentioned most often is always filial piety. This is probably not true in China now. I don’t know whether it’s true in Taiwan. Why isn’t it true in China now? In China, Confucianism was devastated by the Cultural Revolution, which was very much anti-Confucian, even though now they try to restore some Confucian values. I don’t think xiao [filial piety] is included in socialist core values. But it is coming back in civil society in terms of parental relationships. In your view then, it’s not a case of Orientalist thinking to attribute Chinese behavior to Confucianism? If we look at the world in terms of value orientations, then not only China but also the rest of that region has been characterized as the Confucian world. Although in Japan, the idea of loyalty is much more pronounced than that of filial piety. Precisely because China was obsessed with the idea of being overwhelmed by Japan aggressiveness, China wanted to become wealthy and powerful, and many believed that getting rid of Confucian tradition was a precondition for becoming powerful. The discourse was that Confucianism is incompatible with modern ideas of ethics or the dignity of individuals. And the revolutionary Red Guards attacked Confucianism time and
time again, though it continued to be developed in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Korea. But this has all changed now, and we’re entering a new era where many of the positive Confucian values can be underscored. Right now, there’s this new view that China is going through a kind of Confucian revival. A revival is a doubleedged sword that can very easily be politicized by the government as a method of political control, but it also has much broader implications as well. Why do some people think Confucianism is incompatible with progress? That is a tradition that started in 1919, with the New Cultural Movement, and what I call all these Enlightenment values of the West, even though there’s a lot of debate about the abusive use of some of these values. We have Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Confucian values, and the argument was that religious forms are not compatible. But I think that phase is already over, and people today have more sophisticated ideas about human development, that it’s not just a matter of having a higher GDP. So right now in China, very few insist that the Confucian tradition is incompatible with progress. As properly understood and properly practiced, Confucian values become even more congenial to human development. Some narrow and nationalistic ideas have also surfaced based on this. My view is that Confucianism must adapt itself to human values, and that the abusive use of power by neoliberal economies could be corrected by a much broader vision of human flourishing. Issues of proper governance, moral order, and the financial regulatory system are all a part of the story. The role of government, for example, the role of leadership, all these are relevant issues. Thank you for your time. • David Volodzko is the national editor of
the Korea JoongAng Daily, the sister paper of The New York Times in South Korea, and a contributing author for the South China Morning Post and The Diplomat, where he writes about Chinese politics and society.
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Letters When inspiration strikes, don’t bottle it up! Write to me at: Philosophy Now 43a Jerningham Road • London • SE14 5NQ • U.K. or email firstname.lastname@example.org Keep them short and keep them coming! Voting For Self-Destruction DEAR EDITOR: Your Editorial in Issue 116 concluded that in the long term, the communal view of ordinary people should be trusted. I wouldn’t disagree with that. But this is not the ‘Five Year Democracy’ model of politics we and other so-called ‘democratic’ countries have adopted. Take, for example, the environment. The very future of our world depends on our solving a host of environmental issues. One of those is overuse of the world’s resources. If resource consumption continues at current rates the Earth will finally become a barren desert and a poisoned sea. Concerted international action to stop this is needed now. And ‘Now means Now!’ But the good sense of the general population will take a lot longer than five years to show. What politician, knowing they must go to the polls within that time-scale, is going to tell people that they must stop using their cars, buying things they don’t need, and switching the heating on, instead of wearing more jumpers? Our economy is based on a capitalist system which needs ever-increasing use of the world’s resources to generate growth, jobs and profits. What politicians are going to tell companies more powerful than their governments that they must stop producing junk and over-packaging it, chopping down forests to produce burgers and oil, and turning mineral-rich countries into big holes in the ground? I’m usually quite an optimistic soul, but not in this case. Our politicians can make a few of the right noises and sit through conferences at Kyoto and Copenhagen. But any of them who seriously suggested to the voters that they must stop consuming resources at anything like the level we do now would not get a sniff of the benches at Westminster or seats at the Senate in Washington. MEURIG PARRI, CAERDYDD
Contractual Obligations For Life DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 116, Stephen Faison argues that adherents of a social contract must provide the means to food, clothing and shelter, since “the contract recognizes that the individual possesses a natural right to survive.” Yet how can a contract, a literal or figurative piece of paper, recognize anything? Faison must mean that individuals recognize that each individual possesses a natural right to survive. But from where does this recognition arrive? In a state of nature, individuals are concerned only with their own self-interests and will do whatever necessary to advance those interests, including attacking others. If individuals recognize the natural rights of other individuals, they wouldn’t attack one another and wouldn’t be in a state of nature in the first place. Rather, individuals in a hypothetical state of nature would agree to a social contract simply because that contract would advance their interests by allowing them to live without constant threat of attack. Any claims about ‘natural rights’ are unnecessary. Faison goes on to explain that the state must furnish food, clothing and shelter for all its individuals as though the state were some nebulous entity external to the contractors. But the state is merely the legal arrangement to which individuals agree when they enter into a social contract. It’s nothing more than a collection of individuals, so Faison’s claim amounts to saying that some individuals must furnish food, clothing and shelter for other individuals. Consider a hypothetical state of nature where A is in a position of advantage relative to B and C by virtue of A’s superior natural abilities or material possessions. A could kill or steal from B or C, but B and C are strong enough together to kill or steal from A. A, B and C all have reason to enter into a social contract in which each of them agrees to refrain from attacking any other party.
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But suppose B and C make the additional demand that A furnish them with food, clothing and shelter as part of the contract. At best, this looks like a bad deal for A, one he would never accept without coercion. At worst, it seems like B and C are extorting A by agreeing not to attack him so long as he provides them food, clothing and shelter. There are arguments for equitable distribution of basic goods, including John Rawls’ social contract theory incorporating a ‘veil of ignorance’; but I’m not convinced that Faison is on the right track with his ‘license to steal’. GREG HICKEY CHICAGO DEAR EDITOR: I’ve recently discovered Philosophy Now and I love it. But I am struggling with Faison’s article, ‘The Social Contract: A License to Steal’: I am constantly distracted by the use of the terms ‘he’ and ‘man’ in contexts that are clearly intended to be gender-neutral. It’s particularly galling given that the article addresses the state’s responsibility to protect citizens, yet it is so often women (and their children) whom the state fails to protect. Surely authors could be advised that sexist language is unacceptable in Philosophy Now; and that if a submitted manuscript includes sexist language, its author will be asked to correct it? VIRGINIA SIMPSON-YOUNG NEW SOUTH WALES More Unfeasible Election Conditions DEAR EDITOR: I’d like to address how Lorenzo Capitani wants to count votes in his article ‘Informed Voting’ in Issue 116. Capitani argues that those with particular experience within a specific topic should have their vote on that topic count more than a layperson. For example, a policeman’s vote would count more than mine concerning issue of criminal justice. This sounds reasonable, but why should we take working within a profession to be a guarantee of the quality of
Letters that person’s vote? It is false to think that policemen automatically have a better understanding of racial discrimination being committed by police officers. An officer can ignore these issues, even after being thoroughly educated about them. They may say they don’t believe it’s happening and carry on their job in wanton ignorance. This can be said of any professional who decides that a particular problem doesn’t exist within their profession, e.g. mine safety, or medical malpractice. In addition, the idea that votes should be counted according to the theme does not sound feasible. There is too much known overlay among different issues, not to mention the unknown overlay. Voters, and those who will calculate their votes, may not realize that a particular issue will have further-reaching aspects, in which others who have vital knowledge should have been part of the calculation process. For example, if the issue is overfishing, it would be obvious to have the votes of fishermen count more than others, but it may not be obvious that local psychiatrists should have their votes enhanced too, since less work for the fisherman may lead to a diminished sense of worth, affecting their families. Lastly, in most representative systems, we do not vote directly on issues, but rather vote to elect those to make those decisions. For this idea of Capitani’s to work, each representative would need to be a jack-of-all-trades to be able to vote rightly and fairly. K.C. WARBLE III SOUTH CAROLINA DEAR EDITOR: I read with great interest Lorenzo Capitani’s idea of voting rights based on merit. I have been thinking this very idea for quite some time, and seeing your article allowed me to look at the idea from a different perspective. I was initially in favour of a test for a vote, but now I’d like to argue against the proposal. Humans are naturally self-serving, and politics is no different. If only those with a direct, active interest in the topic under debate may vote, votes will largely be driven by self-interest, to the detriment of those more indirectly affected by the issue. Take the example of a vote on whether factories should be forced to reduce carbon emissions. Factories would have to find better ways of reducing fuel consumption. They might invest
more in renewable energy and spend less on oil. If enough factories follow this plan, there would then be a surplus of oil, driving the price down. The economies of oil-exporting countries may shrink due to this devaluation. It is not impossible (it has already happened) that such a declining economy would seek to divert attention away from the poor economy by focusing on showcasing its foreign policy strength... As can be seen, a snowball effect is created. Also, what constitutes ‘knowledge of the issue’? Does being a businessman, investor, or economist suffice to have enough knowledge of the above example? How deep would the knowledge have to be in order for it to be sufficient? Is a one week course enough to vote on X? Or perhaps a doctorate is needed to truly grasp a complex situation. If the vote was whether or not to make Shakespeare mandatory for schoolchildren, who would get a say in that? In theory it seems logical that the best-informed should govern society. Yet a single-subject test might dangerously narrow political debate and muffle the expression of genuine concerns. Misguided though the uninformed vote may be, it is still a better indicator of the general will of the people. Take Brexit; the ‘leave’ side won, in spite of economists’ warning that it would have a negative impact on the British economy. If only people who had passed a politics and economics test could vote then Brexit would have been rejected. Yet it is likely that leave voters had other concerns on their minds that, for them, outweighed the likely economic damage. The world isn’t split into different and separate compartments, where a certain thing can be done and then one can move on to the next; it is human nature to want to give order to the world, but in reality everything is interrelated, whether obvious or not. For this reason, and the reason previously stated, I don’t think that it is in the interest of society to impose a test in order to be eligible to vote. DAVID CONROY, BY EMAIL DEAR EDITOR: I find Lorenzo Capitani’s suggested methods for enhancing political decision-making disturbing on two counts. First, his proposals are elitist and so anti-democratic. Second, there are serious issues about the delivery of his suggestion. I’ll concentrate on the second.
Capitani stresses the importance of knowledge in political decision-making. Knowledge is essential to that purpose, but knowledge cannot be sufficient: the facts require interpretation. Politics differs from subjects such as physics or driving theory, where answers can be assessed as being correct or incorrect. Certainly facts underpin political decisions; but the facts themselves must be augmented by interpretation. The ability to interpret facts in a rational manner is essential when making any decision, political or not. Skill in this could be assessed. However, a further step is required: the facts have to be weighted. Some people will arrive at weightings consistent with their synthesis of the facts; but others will not. The latter will be dominated by prejudice, possibly arising from political allegiance. Capitani does not explain how his system would overcome the influence of propaganda, nor does he inform us whether he would seek to assess the weightings a potential voter gives to the facts. How, and importantly, by whom, are examiners to be chosen? One concern here is over the possibility of political patronage. A second is, to what extent would assessors allow those with political views different to their own to reach the required standard? Unless these two issues are addressed, Capitani’s examination system will work in favour of the establishment and exclude divergent thinking. Further, what level of ability does Capitani require of those permitted to vote? As someone interested in many political fields, my knowledge is not to a consistent level across all, but I would not wish to be excluded from any decision which affects my country, region, or town. For some topics, my interest only develops when that field enters political debate. Would I have the time to acquire the necessary level of knowledge in time to pass the examination required to participate in the decision-making? MICHAEL SHAW HUDDERSFIELD Co-operative Disagreement DEAR EDITOR: I wanted to thank you for publishing Mary Midgley’s article ‘A Golden Manifesto’ in Issue 116 [and 117, Ed]. I am a young woman who’s recently returned to university to undertake a Masters degree and the article really resonated with me. I found it very
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Letters valuable to read Midgley’s account of being in classes during the war where the men were invalids or conscientious objectors and less competitive than usual. This reminded me of undergraduate philosophy classes where the male students would be highly involved in discussions, whereas there were some female students who wouldn’t say anything at all, with little to no encouragement from tutors. As a woman I feel I have had to adopt a particularly aggressive discursive style to make myself heard. The article helped solidify some concerns I’ve been having about this. I hope to let myself be influenced by Midgley and her friends in adopting a more co-operative approach. ANA HINE DUNDEE The Trolley Trundles On DEAR EDITOR: Let us call the person who comes upon the situation in Omid Panahi’s very good article, ‘Could There Be A Solution To The Trolley Problem?’ ( Issue 116) the ‘Accidental Visitor’. In the original version, Visitor cannot stop the trolley, but she can control the switching mechanism of the tracks, thus enabling her to direct the trolley away from a track that will kill five people down a track that will kill one person. Normally, the moral question posed is: “Which alternative should Visitor take and why?” Another possibility, however, is for Visitor to do nothing. In that case, Visitor does not interfere in the fate of any of the six people involved. This involves a rather radical view of responsibility which we might call ‘Bystander Immunity’. The idea is that one is never responsible for a train of events that would occur in one’s absence anyway. Admittedly, this is a truncated view of moral responsibility. Normally, it is thought that we should save another human being if possible, at least when there is little or no cost to ourselves. One should wade into the muddy water to save the drowning child, even if it involves ruining one’s clothes. To fail to do so is morally monstrous. Nevertheless, it might give us pause that in many countries, there would not be any criminal charge in the offing for one who stood by and simply allowed the child to drown – or simply let the trolley run over the five people on the track. Another alternative is for Visitor to flip a coin: heads, the trolley goes on the
track with one person; tails, the trolley continues on the track with five. The reasoning here is that each of the six people has an equal right to life. By flipping a coin to decide which track the trolley will roll down, the coin flip gives each of them a 50/50 chance of surviving, thus giving equal respect to the right to life of all six. For a discussion of this way of thinking, see: John M. Taurek, ‘Should the Numbers Count?, Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 4 (1977). DON E. SCHEID, J.D., PH.D. WINONA STATE UNIVERSITY, MN DEAR EDITOR: Ethical matters aside, a consideration relating to the Trolley Problem (Issue 116) is the question of legal liability. The relatives of the one worker you kill might well sue you for loss of earnings, perhaps more. The five workers on the other track would be unlikely to testify in your defence since they are apparently deaf and unaware that they have been saved. DERRICK GROVER WEST SUSSEX In Sight Of The Self DEAR EDITOR: Thank you for Alisa Anokhina’s article on relieving depression through searching for authenticity (Issue 115). I’ve often felt that depression (including my own) is connected to a loss of authenticity resulting in a severe loss of self. I’ve never before viewed this connection in existentialist terms, but I can now see how this philosophy suggests a solution to, not just a relief from, depression. The Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe described depression as a prison, and it certainly does feel like that. She describes this imprisonment as a life in which one’s own values cannot be expressed or provide autonomy for that person. It takes a lot of courage to define one’s own values and act in a way that is consistent with them, so shaping ourselves, because this often affects other people. But depression does seem to be a situation in which we have become shapeless – without choices – and the best treatment would be help with regaining and strengthening the person we want to be. However I’m not clear about Alisa’s advocacy of medication. Depression can be, and often is, devastating, because the loss of self is devastating, and medication cannot restore that loss of self. Regaining the self requires action and love and a
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sight of a possible future. This cannot be gained medically, it can only be lived. And I think that with psychological (existential) strengthening, a ‘depressed brain’ can achieve great things. PAMELA WHITE NOTTINGHAM Eternal Fact-Straightening DEAR EDITOR: In his interview with Stanley Fish (Issue 116), Scott Parker was in error in inserting that in Kansas, “creationism is taught in schools as an alternative theory to evolution.” He was presumably thinking of actions taken by the state board of education in 1999 and again in 2005 to compromise the treatment of evolution in the state science standards. Both actions were subsequently reversed; moreover, neither involved requiring or even allowing teachers in the state’s public schools to present creationism as scientifically credible. Such a requirement or allowance would be unconstitutional, as established by the Supreme Court in its decision in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987). To be sure, creationists have not been idle in their attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution in the US, but their recent efforts have been aimed at misrepresenting evolution as scientifically controversial. Dismayingly, the Supreme Court’s decision notwithstanding, creationism is routinely taught in US public schools. GLENN BRANCH NATIONAL CENTER FOR SCIENCE EDUCATION, OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA DEAR EDITOR: In reply to Bill Meacham’s letter in Issue 116 expressing exasperation over the resolution of the contradiction in baseball’s rules, look at Rule 7.08(e) as quoted in the story of the professor: “Any player is out when he fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base.” That was the rule before the correction. Now read Rule 7.08(e) in rule books subsequent to the correction (mine is the 2013 edition): “Any runner is out when he or the next base is tagged before he touches the next base.” The corrected version makes the runner safe in the event of a tie; the old version makes the runner out in the event of a tie. The new version makes the rule consistent with the rule for the batter-runner at first base. CHRIS CHRISTENSEN PORTLAND, OREGON
Voltaire (1694-1778) Jared Spears looks at the cometary career of a celebrity revolutionary.
mprisoned inside the walls of the Bastille in 1717 accused of composing poems which mocked the family of France’s ruling Regent, twenty-three-year-old writer François Marie Arouet was hard at work on his first play. He later boasted that his cell offered him quiet time to think. It seems Arouet took this time to ruminate over the injustice of the charges: the subject of the play bears the unmistakable irony of satire. He chose to adapt Oedipus, the classic Greek incest tragedy. The irony? The Regent, whose family Arouet had allegedly defamed, was widely rumoured to have carried on relations with his own daughter. Drawing such an unabashed comparison, the play was destined to spark controversy, even before opening. But while libel was a punishable crime, satiric insinuation was not. As if to make sure of his inculpability, the author for the first time graced his work with a nom de plume, a single word: Voltaire. This vignette of the rebellious young writer coining his now notorious pen name is in many ways characteristic of Voltaire’s entire life. Throughout a long career, Voltaire was never a stranger to controversy. On the contrary, he courted it, revelling in every chance to outmaneuver an opponent through rhetorical mastery and biting wit. A natural provocateur ever testing limits, this penchant for feather-ruffling won him admirers as well as enemies. A humanist who championed reason over superstition and tolerance over bigotry, Voltaire helped France cast off a shadow that lingered over it after centuries of religious conflict.
Early Years Born in 1694 with what’s now diagnosed as Crohn’s disease, Voltaire constantly defied prognoses that he was not long for the world, although the degenerative condition often left him confined to bed. As a boy he received a strict Catholic Jesuit education. From this he acquired two things: impeccable learning, including in Latin, theology, and rhetoric; and an abiding skepticism and mistrust for authority. Rebelling against his father’s wish to carry on the family practice in law, the young libertine chose for himself the life of a writer. Instead of performing the duties of a notary as his father had arranged, the young Arouet spent his post-college days scribbling poetry and charming the salons of Paris’s social elite. When his deceit was eventually uncovered, his father sent him abroad to serve the French ambassador in Holland, but scandal followed close behind when the impetuous poet fell in love with a French Protestant. The idea of an interfaith marriage was too much for his father to swallow, so the errant son was shuffled back to Paris. His time abroad in Holland’s more liberal society is often cited as a source of Voltaire’s humanist values, but the sting of a foiled love affair at such a tender age cannot be overlooked. In any case, shaped by the ironies of his early life, his character would be defined by his eagerness to embrace the role of intellectual outsider.
Master of the Art of Shaping Perceptions Seldom in one place more than a few years, Voltaire’s life was largely that of a wanderer. Never far from controversy, he often left a city in flight, as when faced with the prospect of another term in the Bastille in 1723. The wily troublemaker this time contrived an alternative, commuting his sentence to a period of exile in London. Voltaire’s career had to this point leaned more toward literature than philosophy, but in England’s more laissezfaire market of ideas, Voltaire started to engage with conventionchallenging concepts about the universe and man’s place in it. Warily returning to France in 1726, Voltaire was eager to repair his tattered public image there. Keenly aware of the machinations of noble favouritism, he began a deliberate campaign of literary output and influence-courting in Paris. His tip-toeing around potential controversy in this period paid off, and by the end of 1732 he had taken up residence at court in Versailles – a sign his reputation was restored. While there he struck up a relationship with the Marquise Emilie du Châtelet, whose vivacious personality and remarkable intellect proved an instinctive draw. But his repaired standing and new-found favour at court would be short-lived. While at Versailles, Voltaire refined and expanded on his Letters Concerning the English Nation, the result of a fruitful infusion of new perspectives while across the Channel. These essays mark his shift toward philosophy and the examination of social mores, extolling such far-ranging topics as religious tolerance of the Quakers to the natural philosophy of English thinkers such as Isaac Newton. Despite Voltaire’s dutifully applying for approval from royal censors, Letters was illicitly released by its publisher in 1733 without the author’s approval. Causing yet another scandal, the book was banned, even burned, when it appeared in France. This controversy saw Voltaire’s careful campaign of appearances undone, in part due to his assertions of Newtonian natural philosophy. The concept of a natural world governed by a set of fundamental laws observable and understandable through experimentation had already won over Protestant nations. The French, however, clung stubbornly to their own science, rooted in the work of Descartes, and French Academy elders rejected Newton’s theories. Underlying the discrepancies was a deeper tension between the methods of the two schools. The deductive Cartesian system demanded explanations for why natural phenomena occurred, while the inductive Newtonian method favored empirical investigation, and was content to take nature as it was observed. In Letters, Voltaire broke down Newton’s math-heavy works, and espoused empiricism as a more objective standard of truth over the “useless” Descartes, but his assertion that Descartes “was a dreamer, and [Newton] a sage” was tantamount to heresy among the Academy establishment. As the debate swirled in Paris, Voltaire and his partner in crime, du Châtelet, fanned the flames by publishing scientific experiments alongside a steady stream of pamphlets and essays in support of Newtonian theories. By the time the authoritative December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 41
Voltaire by Gail Campbell, 2016
edition of Voltaire’s Elements of Newtonian Philosophy was published in 1745, the tide of French thought had turned away from Cartesianism. Voltaire, standard-bearer of the movement, was credited with dragging national thought into modernity. This was the manifold genius of Voltaire – able not only to synthesize the complex works of Newton and others, but also able to wage a formidable campaign of public discourse. Theodicy Meets The Odyssey By 1754, after the untimely passing of his mistress and a tempestuous stint as advisor to Prussia’s King Frederick the Great, the wayward Voltaire found his next cause célèbre. Europe’s many different theological strains had left unanswered ques42 Philosophy Now December 2016/January 2017
tions on the nature of man and the moral implications that followed. Was man inherently good, or inherently evil? Were the course of mankind’s actions divinely preordained? In natural philosophy Voltaire had proved himself a tactful and tireless champion of the ideas of others. Here he would leave his own enduring stamp on Western thought. This debate was a war of words fought on two fronts. On one side were those such as the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who conceived of modern man as corrupted by society, and who praised instead the ignorant simplicity of the noble savage. To Rousseau’s assertions, Voltaire responded that “Reading your works, a man gets the notion to walk on all fours. After more than sixty years I’ve regrettably lost that habit.” He went on to oppose Rousseau’s extremity. “Great crimes are always committed by great fools,” he wrote of him. On the other side stood Optimists such as Alexander Pope. Heirs of the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, they reasoned that through divine ordination the world which man inhabits must be the best of all possible worlds. No matter how terrible things may seem at times, they asserted that God’s will must be good, and infallible. For Voltaire, the Optimist’s stance epitomized the dangers of dogmatic faith holding sway over reason. In 1755, an unpredictable catastrophe brought the dubiousness of the Optimist’s thinking to the fore when an earthquake of an estimated magnitude 8.5 rocked the Portuguese capitol, Lisbon. Coupled with the resulting tsunami, the disaster leveled three quarters of one of Europe’s great imperial cities in a matter of minutes. With tens of thousands of lives lost, the horror at this seemingly random calamity left Europe bewildered. Although Voltaire must
Brief Lives have been as shocked as anyone at the tragedy, he was outraged by the responses of his adversaries. Rousseau proclaimed Lisbon proof that civilization was inherently a mistake – if the many towers of Lisbon had not crowded so many thousands of people together, how much harm could the earthquake have done? Even more worrying in Voltaire’s eyes was Pope’s Optimistic response, which affirmed the idea that God had surely brought his wrath upon Lisbon to punish its sinful ways. Voltaire’s initial response, Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon, used high literary form as an entry into the debate. In its verses Voltaire directly attacks the Optimists, writing, “Come, ye philosophers, who cry, ‘All is well,’ And contemplate this ruin of a world.” In humourless sobriety, Voltaire asks how such unpredictable, senseless suffering isn’t a cruel fate. The poem stirred the Paris salons and drew rebuke from Rousseau, but Voltaire’s follow-up would prove the knock-out blow. The satire Candide was Voltaire’s magnum opus, successfully synthesizing forty years of social criticism and challenges to conventional wisdom into a brilliant example of his literary command. Rich in the author’s trademark ironic wit, the brisk narrative follows its once sheltered young Candide in an Odyssean adventure through contemporary Europe, confronting all the harsh cruelties of this world in a reality check not unlike the fabled experience of the young Buddha. He is accompanied by Dr Pangloss, who after each horror asserts, “Everything must be for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.” The satire struck a stinging blow against religious zealotry, government hypocrisy, and, above all, the philosophy of Optimism. Although thinly veiled in allegory, the book laid bare the shortcomings of that philosophy by reducing it to absurdity. Published in 1759, Candide was quickly translated into multiple languages, rapidly becoming a best-seller despite being banned in France. The book’s familiar format – it satirizes the narrative clichés of the popular picaresque novel – made it accessible to any literate person of the time, rendering Candide capable of spreading Voltaire’s rebuke out from the salons and into the wider public consciousness. One contemporary that year speculated that it had been the fastest selling book ever. The far-reaching results of this work cannot be overstated. The minds behind the democratic revolutions in France and America in the following decades were in no small part influenced by the notion of individual free will set forth in Candide. Final Acts Voltaire finally settled down in 1759 in Ferney in France, near the Swiss border. Installed here for the next two decades, he received visitors from across Europe, corresponded with leading thinkers the world over, and published numerous new works. ‘The Great Voltaire’, as he came to be known, never ceased his work, and continued to engage in events which captured public attention, such as the 1763 affair of Jean Calas. Voltaire elevated this case of religious persecution against a wrongly-accused provincial Protestant to national scrutiny. Calas had been tortured and executed for the murder of his son, despite evidence of his son’s perjury and suicide. Once more, outrage stirred Voltaire into a vigorous campaign of letters, opinion columns, pamphlets, and petitions. This time, the intervention of the ‘Patriarch of Ferney’ prompted an almost
immediate response. King Louis XV received the Calas family and annulled the sentence. A new trial found Calas innocent and posthumously exonerated the wrongly accused citizen. The incident is a testament to Voltaire’s now unrivaled influence and stature. It also exemplifies one of his most enduring lessons: exercise restraint over impulsive judgement and action when our emotions might otherwise get the better of us. In February 1778, Voltaire made his first trip to Paris in twenty years. He came for the opening of his latest play, Irene, and was greeted at the theater with a hero’s welcome. The members of the French Academy who had so bitterly pitted themselves against Newtonian theory some four decades earlier now exalted the man who had survived to witness the birth of his own legend. But at the age of eighty-three, this last trip proved too much for Voltaire’s constantly bedeviled health. For one who referred to himself as “dying since birth” he had managed to cheat death long beyond the wildest expectations, but he died soon after returning to Paris. A long-standing opponent of the Catholic church, Voltaire was denied a churchyard burial. But his remains would not rest long in the ground. Just fourteen years later, they were resurfaced on the order of the French Revolution’s new National Assembly, to be interred in the Panthéon, where the Assembly decreed the most admirable sons of France were to be laid to rest. An Enduring Legacy Voltaire was so incessant in his attacks, so adapt in wielding both wit and reason, we who look back from today cannot help but admire him, and today he is exalted as a preeminent thinker from the era history has called the Age of Enlightenment. It is perhaps easy to think of the Enlightenment and its achievements as just another inevitable step in the long march toward Modernity. But freedoms which form the basis of Western society today – the freedom to think, speak, and act as we choose – were then only the fancy of a few scribbling idealists such as Voltaire. It took courage to provoke the powerful and challenge commonly-accepted ideas to advance more humane ones. Conceiving mankind as neither irrevocably predestined for glory nor utterly doomed, Voltaire showed that despite its perennial imperfections, humanity could nevertheless strive toward virtue. His life, advocating reason although he was at times vain, and tolerance although he was at times vehement, is itself proof of the wide-eyed realism he espoused. So what can we make of the legacy of Voltaire? His ideals have been used to mould our modern democratic societies, and for that we can rejoice. But we must remain sober in acknowledging the ways in which history is bound to repeat itself. “What makes, and will always make, this world a vale of sorrow,” Voltaire warned, “is the insatiable greediness and the indomitable pride of men.” So it falls to each era to confront these ever-shifting shadows as they appear to every generation and place. We can be grateful then to inherit the privilege, and responsibility, of Voltaire’s legacy – to stand that much bolder on the shoulders of a great man, who employed wit and wisdom in an unfinished quest for greater justice and humanity. © JARED SPEARS 2016
Jared Spears is a writer and researcher in New York. His work can be found at LitHub, Mental Floss, and elsewhere on the web. December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 43
Books Was Einstein Right? by Clifford M. Will
Tim Wilkinson answers the question Was Einstein Right? about general relativity with a “Yes!”, whilst Phil Badger surveys Steven Lukes’ perspective on moral relativism. unanswerable questions” (p.50). The author’s qualifications for giving us the lowdown on experimental general relativity are impressive. A distinguished academic physicist and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity, he also chaired NASA’s Science Advisory Committee for the Gravity Probe B experiment for over ten years. Gravity Probe B is arguably the most important, and certainly the most delicate, test of general relativity so far performed, and became the longest-running project in
IN NOVEMBER 1915, Albert Einstein revealed his theory of general relativity to the world. Almost exactly a century later, in June 2015, at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada, a group of physicists gathered to discuss a problem: the theorists are taking over. As Perimeter director Neil Turok told New Scientist, in physics, “theory is becoming ever more complex and contrived… and yet failing to Gravity Probe B heads off explain the most basic facts” (Issue 3028, 4th July 2015). The main culprit is string theory, the mathematics of which have become all but impenetrable without yielding a single testable prediction. Physicists wanting to grapple with these developments, and philosophers studying their predicament, could do worse than start by reading Was Einstein Right? by Clifford M. Will, Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Florida. Professor Will sets out his stall early on: “Without experiment, physics is sterile, physical theory merely idle speculation” (p.13). This book is remarkable in that Will manages to remain faithful to his objective of making experiment his focus, while at the same time delivering, almost in passing, a superb explanation of general relativity, without an equation in sight. Furthermore, you’ll find here none of the hyperNASA’s history. First conceived in 1959 bolic theorising that is usually assumed to and proposed to NASA in 1961, the satelsell popular physics books. There is no lite was not launched until 2004. The fretting about what, if anything, came results – in the affirmative – were finally before the Big Bang, no untestable hooey announced in 2011. Unfortunately, about quantum multiverses. Instead, Will although the experiment is described in exhorts us to “focus only on observable, detail, the results arrived too late to be operationally defined quantities, and avoid included in this book. 44 Philosophy Now December 2016/January 2017
Induction and Under-Determination The evidence-based approach to knowledge yields a treasure-trove of ideas for anyone interested in the philosophy of science. It is generally accepted by philosophers of science that scientific theories can never be finally confirmed. For starters, the past may not be an absolutely reliable guide to the future, so that what has been observed might not be what will be observed in the future, even in the same circumstances. This is part of the problem of induction. Moreover, for any given experimental result, there might be several theories capable of predicting that result, so how do you know which is the correct theory, given that evidence? This is the so-called under-determination problem. Will gives us a striking example of under-determination in action, as he charts the rise and fall of an alternative theory of gravitation – the Brans-Dicke Theory, developed in the 1960s and 70s. For a time, it looked as though certain experiments might go against general relativity and in favour of Brans and Dicke. Although the tide eventually turned in favour of general relativity, as Will recounts, with appropriately chosen parameters, Brans-Dicke Theory can always be configured to produce exactly the same predictions as general relativity, to within any given level of experimental accuracy. Why then, ponders Will, did BransDicke Theory fall out of favour? In what sense is it wrong, and general relativity right? The answer can be partly put down to Occam’s razor – general relativity is a simpler, more elegant theory. Philosophers reading Will’s account may also conclude that Brans-Dicke Theory was a degenerative theory – it was constantly in need of tweaking to accommodate troublesome observations, without any concomitant increase in its explanatory or predictive power. Book Reviews
Books Falsification In other chapters of Was Einstein Right? we are served a banquet of food for thought on the relationship between positive evidence – observations that conform with what a theory would predict – and confirmation that that theory is true. A single repeatable negative example – that is, an observation which goes against the predictions of the theory – will always carry more weight than any number of positive ones. In fact, a repeatable negative observation will, generally speaking, falsify the theory under scrutiny. However, in some approaches in the philosophy of science (such as those incorporating Bayesian probability), positive evidence should count for something, especially when the observation concerned would be extremely surprising without the theory in question predicting it. As Will shows, some of the predictions of general relativity are so surprising as to be almost unbelievable, but have been verified by observations nonetheless. For instance, when setting out the implications of general relativity on the bending of light rays, the effect of gravity on clocks, and the motion of Mercury around the Sun, Will clearly, carefully, and convincingly explains why calculations done using Euclidean geometry and Newton’s ideas of gravity will produce different results to general relativity. He then leads us through decades of experiments designed to test general relativity’s predictions. Because the experimental difficulties and uncertainties are placed front and centre, students of the philosophy of science will find it entertaining and illuminating to relate their ideas to the episodes described. As a source of material for such an exercise, Was Einstein Right? fares better than many texts written specifically for that purpose. There is still one major prediction of general relativity yet to be properly tested: gravity waves. Will explains how these arise from the theory. Importantly, from a scientific point of view, gravity waves are a specific, quantifiable, and in principle measurable prediction. The theory is therefore susceptible to falsification. Since the mid-1970s, the existence of gravity waves has been inferred indirectly from the movement of binary pulsars. However, in early 2016 direct detection of them was announced in a paper published in Physical Review Letters (PRL 116, Feb 2016). Sadly, this was much too late to be included in the book, but it will be interesting to watch the story unfold in this still nascent area of observational astronomy. Book Reviews
Brush Up Your General Relativity In addition to its value as raw material for philosophical reflection, Was Einstein Right? should prove an extremely profitable read for students of the philosophy of science wanting to get to grips with this important pillar of physics. For example, Will takes his time in explaining the crucial importance of the principle of equivalence. Broadly, this is the idea that people in equivalent types of motion will experience the universe in the same type of way. For instance, it says that things appear (locally) the same to an observer in free-fall as they do to an observer who is not under the influence of gravity. Will further explains why any theory that respects the principle of equivalence (such as Brans-Dicke Theory) will automatically make many of the same predictions as general relativity, such as the effect of gravity on clocks, and the curvature of space. Speaking of curved space, Will invites us to consider an enormous triangle, half the size of the Solar System, with the middle of one side passing close to the Sun and the opposite vertex somewhere out near the orbit of Pluto. From our perspective, the sides of this triangle are perfectly straight along every part of their length. However, general relativity would predict that due to the mass of the Sun, the interior angles of this triangle would add up to 179°, 59’, 59.125” – which is 0.875 arcseconds less than the 180° that would be the case if space were everywhere Euclidean. Conclusion: matter literally bends space. Such a large triangle is unlikely to be drawn any time soon; but long baseline radio interferometry (using radio telescopes a great distance apart) provides a very accurate way to measure the same angular discrepancies. These measurements have confirmed the predictions of general relativity with a precision of 0.1%. Space is indeed curved. Spacetime is curved too. Now, using geometry to represent time, let alone curved spacetime, is a few levels of abstraction up from using geometry to represent space. However, since Descartes introduced us to coordinates in the Seventeenth Century, we have been able to use mathematics to represent anything that can be quantified, including time. Geometry, which since the Nineteenth Century includes nonEuclidean (curved space) geometries, can then be brought to bear on our physical concepts, including spacetime. Describing curved, non-Euclidean spacetime without using mathematics is a considerable chal-
lenge, but Will still manages to give the reader a decent flavour of what’s going on. A Rewarding Page-Turner The only criticism of Was Einstein Right? I can muster is that it is desperately in need of a Third Edition. We now have the results of Gravity Probe B, and the latest detectors are approaching the sensitivity needed to routinely observe gravity waves without the need for a conveniently nearby supernova. But this is a minor gripe. Although more educational than popularising, as an exposition of general relativity which avoids the underlying mathematics, I have never come across the equal of Was Einstein Right? The presentation of the theory in the form of engaging real-life historical episodes makes it more of a pageturner than it has any right to be. Compared to the full-fat mathematical version of general relativity I learned as an undergraduate, I have no hesitation in saying that in many respects, the fascinating tales in this book are far more rewarding. Will’s clear writing and breezy enthusiasm make this an enormously agreeable way to pick up the basics of general relativity, and an indispensable resource for reflection on its philosophical ramifications. © DR TIM WILKINSON 2016
Tim Wilkinson has a PhD in pure maths. • Was Einstein Right? by Clifford M. Will, Basic, revised 1993, £9.99 pb, 312pp, ISBN: 0465090869
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Relative Battle, Peter Pullen 2016
Moral Relativism by Steven Lukes TO BEGIN WITH, LET ME say that this is a slim book on a huge and controversial topic. However, to say that a book is slim in girth is not to say that it is slight in content, and this one is the summation of well over thirty years work on its topic by an eminent thinker in the field. Professor Lukes’ conclusions might not be to the tastes of some readers, but few will be left with anything less than admiration for his grasp of the issues, or his crystal clarity in exploring them. Lukes, a professor of politics and sociology at New York University, first outlines several species of relativism. For example, cognitive relativism says that there is a range of fundamentally incompatible perspectives about the sorts of things that can be true. The inspiration here is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and in particular, his insight that what have become known as our ‘conceptual schemes’ (not his term) shape our understanding of the world. However, Kant argued that even if we could not be sure how far our understanding revealed ultimate reality, the rational mind’s basic ‘categories’ (his term) generated a universally human vision of that reality. Cognitive relativism undermined Kant’s ‘human universalism’ by making claims, based on anthropological research, for ‘exotic’ cultural variations in both beliefs about the world and basic logic. The Diversity of Custom As exciting as debates about cognitive relativism are – and there are plenty of us who’d take the ‘universalist’ side against such relativism – it is moral relativism that most interests Lukes. Again, it is the apparently huge range of beliefs found across human cultures that inspires the moral relativist move. Faced with the wide differences we find between individuals and between cultures regarding morality, the relativist abandons questions about the justification of moral beliefs in favour of sociological ones explaining why they exist. Morality, on this picture, is the product of time and place, and there is nothing more to moral approval or outrage than the cultural conditioning of emotion. For Lukes, moral relativism represents a fusion of anthropology and moral scepticism which sees genuine debate on moral issues as impossible. Of course, the existence of moral diversity is, of itself, no argument for moral 46 Philosophy Now
scepticism or relativism: we might, as Lukes points out, readily accept that others think differently from us and conclude that they’re just wrong! It is only when we adopt the ‘external’ perspective of the anthropologist that doubts about the status of our own moral beliefs get a hold. This is a matter of profound anxiety to some (Lukes cites Pope John Paul II as an example) on the grounds that, captured by such doubt, we’ll be unable to maintain any sense of value at all. Sadly for the moral absolutists amongst us – and ultimately we have to count Lukes in that camp – there is more difficulty in overcoming moral relativism than its cognitive sibling. Concerning cognitive relativism we can, with moral philosopher Bernard Williams, say that reality has a habit of biting us hard if our cognitions are too wide of the mark – people with really mad thinking about the world will die a lot quicker than people with reality-tracking thoughts. Thus, agreement or ‘convergence’ on big questions of fact is at least possible. No such constraints define the limits of moral variation. Consequently, history and anthropology give us repeated examples apparently vindicating the view of the Greek poet Pinder that “Custom is lord of all.” Lukes himself gives an excellent example from Herodotus about the mutual horror that Greeks, Persians, and Indians
December 2016/January 2017
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experienced on learning of each others’ preferred modes for disposing of the remains of the dead. It seems as that we are in the business of ‘inventing right and wrong’ (the phrase is the subtitle of a relativist tract by John Mackie). Against Moral Relativism Faced with this situation, the beleaguered moral realist – someone who says that there are real ethical truths independent of parochial variations in customs – has few options. One, which Lukes explores, is to deny that variation at the level of ‘norms’ (that is, rules and practices), betokens any real moral variation at all. Thus Persians, Indians, and Greeks all shared the ‘value’ – a more abstract, higher order of thing than a norm – of respecting the dead, even though the norms followed in doing so differed. The problem here is two-fold. Firstly, the extent of normative variation between cultures makes us balk at the idea that this variation is superficial. Secondly, if the realist wants to assert the truth of one set of norms against another, her position is as untenable as moral relativism itself. Moral relativism holds practices to be too different to judge them by any one standard, whilst with moral realism, the apparent differences in practice signify no real differences at all. How can we know which perspective is true? Well, Lukes does not swallow any of Book Reviews
Books this. You can almost hear his distain for anthropologists such as Richard Shweder, who attempts to categorise female circumcision as ‘genital modification’, and describes suttee (a Hindu widow’s ritual self-immolation) as “conceivable [to the victim] as an astonishing moment when her body and its senses became fully sacred.” For Shweder, and others like him, cultures and their ways are radically different, alien, and, chillingly, closed to any form of evaluation from what they see as our ‘ethnocentric’ Western perspective. Lukes argues that what is at work here is a kind of romanticism about culture, originating in the work of Johann von Herder (17441803) and later taken up by Johann Fichte (17621814), which sees each culture as a hermetically sealed ‘monolithic’ unit that “bears in itself the standard of its perfection” (Herder, Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, 1791). In other words, cultures cannot be judged in terms of values external to them. Lukes pulls no punches in criticising this view, asserting that cultures are nothing like as rigid as it implies (he approvingly cites Mary Midgley’s image of cultures as ‘ecosystems’ which shade into one another, either across space or through time). He also says this view ignores the possibility of contention and struggle for change within a culture. As an example he cites the case of a Sicilian woman, Franca Viola, who broke a thousand-year-tradition by not only refusing to marry the man who had kidnapped and raped her, but by pressing charges against him. Later, in similar vein, Lukes notes the research of Christine Walley, whose work with Kenyan initiates of ‘genital modification’ counters Shweder’s picture of general female endorsement of the practice. Custom might, in other words, be ‘lord of all’; but some of its subjects are more willing to revolt than we’ve been led to believe. Book Reviews
Crossing Cultures So powerful, argues Lukes, has the ‘monolithic model’ of culture become, that it has even infected the thought of some otherwise liberal thinkers, leading them to dismiss those who criticise practices in other cultures as ‘cultural tourists’. Lukes acknowledges that such criticisms sometimes have force, but identifies dangers, both in certain kinds of relativist multiculturalism, and in the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis put forward by the late
Huntington saw only irrevocable difference between ‘civilizations’ – again negating the possibility of real dialogue between them. The net result of both positions has been a ‘ghettoising’ of culture in which a conservative suspicion of those defined as ‘other’ can fester. Instead, Lukes proposes that we embark on a renewed effort to identify shared values across cultures – what political philosopher John Rawls called an ‘overlapping consensus’. This might, Luke hopes, form the basis of a healthy re-examination of the justice of Divine Judgement? Kali Trampling Shiva particular cultural norms. Lukes by Raja Ravi Varma refuses to pin his hopes for this on any specific philosophical resource, but unsurprisingly, ‘Kantian universalism’ gets a mention, as do Jürgen Habermas’s attempts to rescue the idea of shared values from what he sees as Rawls’ excessive ‘abstraction’. For Habermas, thought experiments such as Rawls’ ‘original position’, or Kant’s notions of ideal rationality can’t replace actual debate between real individuals. Lukes even gives a nod to the kind of Aristotelian view represented by Martha Nussbaum’s ‘capabilities’ approach, which holds that there are some universal prerequisites necessary for people to live fulfilled lives. There’s much to be said on all of this. For instance, Habermas insistence on the right of ‘all concerned’ to take part in such a debate has a whiff of circularity about it – it assumes the equality of persons which he hopes will be our conclusion. Nussbaum’s position, on the other hand, might seem no more than an eloquent plea for universalising certain rights. Nevertheless, for Lukes, the chance of establishing a dialogue between cultures is worth the effort, and dialogue that moves us towards basic consensus on values Samuel Huntington. Both of these conis the best argument against a moral relacepts, Lukes argues, are premised on the tivism which begins from the observation notion that dissent within a culture is of apparently irreconcilable differences. © PHIL BADGER 2016 always experienced as both negative and Phil Badger studied social sciences, including external in origin. Thus in Holland some economics, psychology, and social policy, with well-meaning liberals have denied the philosophy, and teaches in Sheffield. need for cross community dialogue or critique, which they fear might be experi• Moral Relativism, by Steven Lukes, Profile 2008, enced by immigrant communities as a £8.99 pb, 256pp, ISBN: 1846680093 form of cultural imperialism, while December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 47
Michael Burke traces the lengths to which we must go to truly love the other person.
My Responsibility To The Other What makes Levinas’s ethics so singular is his unrelenting insistence on the individual’s absolute responsibility to others. This is not an ethics where my obligations to the Other (person) are mediated through some general, rational principle, or through some algorithm of utility. I do not calculate how I should act toward the Other by asking what that person would want done in my place, or what an impartial spectator would suggest I do. For 48 Philosophy Now
Levinas, all these principles and rules for how I should act get in the way of and obtrude my relationship with the Other. Facing the Other, I simply ask: ‘What do you need from me?’ When I encounter another, I ought to put aside my concerns and projects to provide succor to the Other any way I can. There should be no hesitation, no qualification in my response. Levinas says that our responsibility to the Other has no limits. Nor are there any Emmanuel Levinas 1906-1995
LEVINAS PHOTO © BRACHA L. ETTINGER
peculating on ethics from the bleak post-apocalyptic 2009 film The Road (based on Cormac McCarthy’s bleak post-apocalyptic novel of the same name) seems like a contradiction-in-terms. After all, The Road recounts the journey of a father and son over an inhospitable Earth smothered in a cloud of dust, where civilization is dead and buried under the ashes. Humanity has become a fast-diminishing refugee species, forced to make brutal decisions in the face of bitter cold, starvation, and roaming cannibals, as the beleaguered survivors eke out what little food remains while avoiding becoming food for others. Why then propose this film as an illustration of the ethical thought of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), a philosopher who stresses our unconditional responsibility for the welfare of others? In a world where any underlying decency has long ago been squelched by rumbling stomachs, where churches have long since burnt down and ethical treatises have either succumbed to mildew or been consumed as fuel to keep warm, Levinas’s message seems overwhelmingly out of place. Yet it is precisely when the clamor of all the sensible and rational theories of moral obligation have been silenced that his message of an inescapable moral responsibility resonates the loudest. In other words, Levinas’s ethics is the definitive ethics of emergency, for the destitute, the abandoned, the rootless. His ethics is a sure and steady guide along The Road, especially as Levinas and Cormac McCarthy converge in their attempts to salvage a shred of humanity from the gaping maw of an inhuman world.
limitations on whom qualifies as the Other. Seeing someone in terms of their gender, race, creed, or any other distinguishing characteristic only risks blocking my access to the singular individual before me. So we bear an ethical responsibility that we have not chosen, to respond to a call of obligation we can never fulfill. If this brief sketch of Levinas’s ethics shows anything, it is the sheer difficulty of living up to your responsibility to the Other. In a sense, it’s impossible –your obligations are never exhausted: the more we meet our obligations, the more that is asked of us. But it is this impossible obligation to the Other that resonates so deeply in The Road.
December 2016/January 2017
The Failure Of Theodicy Before exploring more closely how The Road illustrates Levinas’s ethic, it will be helpful to place his philosophy in context, as a response to the horrors of World War Two, in the wake of which much of Europe was in a condition not a far cry from the devastated ruins of the world of The Road. As Levinas attested in Difficult Freedom (1990), his life and thought were “dominated by the presentiment and the memory of the Nazi horror.” Yet the genocidal devastation of the Holocaust, which took the lives of several members of Levinas’s family, did not undermine his hope in humanity. Rather, it showed him the moral bankruptcy of ethical systems that magnify rational characteristics or social values over directly addressing the person. Levinas expounds on the deficit of standard moral theories in light of the Holocaust and other horrific atrocities in an essay entitled ‘Useless Suffering’. Here he addresses the centuries-old question of how an all-loving, all-powerful and allknowing God could allow humans to suffer. For Levinas, the absurd, superfluous character of suffering is magnified in the light of the senseless convulsions of the Twentieth Century. But despite the various efforts of Western philosophers and theologians over the centuries to justify or explain suffering, often by appealing beyond experience to a supersensible Being, Levinas, not unlike many of his contemporaries, believed a tipping point was reached against these theodicies [theological explanations of evil, Ed] in the Twentieth Century, with its total wars and merciless genocides. It is not merely that the humanistic culture of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, human rights, and the inviolable freedom of the person, was unable to prevent the rise of murderous totalitarian ideologies, but that these Enlightenment values were fundamentally unable to justify such senseless horror. The point is not simply that no one can write moral treatises, let alone poetry, after the Holocaust. Rather, any attempt to even explain such an event falls flat. So for Levinas, Auschwitz under-
Post-Apocalyptical Ethics The hopelessness and nihilism that postwar Europeans encountered are paralleled, or rather accentuated, in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of The Road. Indeed, what The Road so forcefully characterizes is the sheer devastation that has befallen the world. Further, there is no explanation of the cataclysmic event: we aren’t told whether it is due to some asteroid, nuclear conflagration, or even the visitation of a divine judgment upon a forsaken humanity. Theodicies can offer neither explanation nor succor in this monochromatic and wasted world. Rarely has the alternative between ethics and sheer survival been drawn so starkly as here. But this contrast also starkly exposes what Levinas ceaselessly promulgates: the blunt opposition between the way of the world and the ethical call. The obliteration of the environment through and even against which humans have so long defined themselves, opens up the possibility of encountering human beings beyond any doctrine – simply face to face. Neither nature nor culture any longer mediates one’s encounter with the Other. The people encountered in the story are for the most part stripped of the identifying categories that Levinas castigates as submerging the uniqueness of the individual brought out by the ethical encounter, such as ethnicity, political affiliation, or religious creed. What predomi-
nates instead is need, vulnerability, and hostility. The cries for help often go unanswered by the father, the protagonist of the film (Viggo Mortensen) who is bent on continuing on The Road and keeping his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) alive. Bereft of other sanctuary, father and son find refuge in one another. This relationship between the father and the son epitomizes the unconditional devotion of the ethical bond, both in the father’s unstinting commitment toward his son, and in the son’s equally unsurpassable dedication toward his father. Although the father’s unrelenting drive to do whatever it takes to save his son marks him as a likely representative of a Levinasian self called to an infinite ethical obligation to the Other, I think that the son provides a better example through which to see Levinas in Father & Son The Road. help an old man Although on the road both the father and the son repeat the mantra that they are ‘carrying the fire’ – a catchphrase which guides their conduct, epitomized most clearly in their stricture against eating other people – the son embodies this ideal more fully than the father. It is unclear as to whether the father actually believes this ‘code’, or whether, as intimated increasingly throughout the journey, it’s simply one of the father’s ‘old stories’, calculated to motivate the son to continue the journey. The son, however, constantly advocates for those they come across, whether for a dying man, a thief, or a rambling old man. In response to the father’s question about responsibility, with its Biblical resonances of being the keeper of one’s brother, the son replies that he worries about everything and everyone – an apt summary of Levinas’s injunction to care for others unconditionally. Perhaps the son, by his actions, or by his very presence, prevents the father from degenerating to the desperate measures that others around them have adopted.
Films Unsaying The Apocalypse What unites McCarthy and Levinas is their common effort to express the inexpressible. Levinas is well aware of the tension upon his call to our ethical obligation to the Other caused by depicting the Other, since to comprehend the Other, let alone measure our ethical responsibility to them, limits and distorts the way our ethical responsibility reaches us. Levinas is hard pressed to avoid his suspicions that he
THE ROAD IMAGES © WEINSTEIN CO./DIMENSION FILMS 2009
mines humanity’s ability to make sense of the world, let alone form a plausible theodicy regarding such events. What separates Levinas’s response here from other accounts, is that rather than trying to prop up the enfeebled moral and social values, Levinas asks what we ought to do in light of this manifest failure of institutional morality and traditional religion. If the devastating events of the Twentieth Century undermine the theoretical framework of the political and social order, perhaps a more appropriate starting point is the interpersonal encounter between the I and the Other, and an unconditional responsibility to the person. Further, if a rational set of moral principles tailored to the reality of human condition has failed to guide human interaction, perhaps an unrealistic moral approach, demanding the impossible, can succeed in its place. In the face of useless suffering, perhaps the senseless kindness advocated by Levinas – of placing the Other’s needs, even their survival, before your own – is the only ‘sensible’ response.
has already betrayed the inviolable nature of the self’s responsibility to the Other even in merely discussing them. Unlike other post-apocalyptic stories, The Road deprives the viewer of reassurances of something better to come. There are no precious books to reignite the fires of civilization; no triumphant return of nature; no sense of freedom or vindication with regard to the overturn of the old, corrupt status quo. The desolation and despoilation of the world is near complete. Time has also contracted for the wanderers, flattening into a monotony bereft of conventional chronological references or temporal markers. The opening line of the book captures this erasure of distinction well: “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.” Coupled with this loss of
December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 49
orientation is the contraction of the world to the things necessary for day-to-day survival. Whatever does not draw the father’s scrupulous attention regarding their survival is ignored. This tunnel vision also underscores his truncated sense of time – of a past impossibly distant and excruciatingly painful when viewed from the present, and a future doled out in the next scrap to be found, the next meager shelter to be sought. Memories of a deceased wife and a departed world are irrevocably cleaved from a present where they can find no foothold. An interplay of abstract ideas is also absent from the dialogue. Littered
shared world. However, both Levinas’s and McCarthy’s response to this decentering from time and space is through a storytelling that is a speaking to the Other rather than a speaking about the Other. At first glance this point seems counterintuitive for The Road. After all, the exhaustion of narrative is in part the point. The allusions to the silent monoliths of a forgotten civilization, to the mute agonies and imponderable rhythms of nature, attest to the end of the human story, the impotence of human theory, and in particular, to theodicy. In the face of such devastation, words have been divested of their power.
practice strikes close to the concept of saying Levinas uses, insofar as saying consists not in explaining or pigeonholing the Other but in being exposed to however the Other comes across to you, and thereby keeping an open relationship to them.
with archaic, obscure words, The Road’s focus on dead and dying words illustrates how the apocalypse might also transform thought and language. Levinas grapples with a similar dynamic of transforming language, for instance through his distinction between ‘saying’ and ‘said’. He argues that the Other’s uniqueness – the way they express or say themselves to your self – cannot be captured through the stale, general concepts and empty terms of rational argumentation – what is said. And even though Levinas employs traditional spatial and temporal terms to depict the Other, such as the height from which the Other calls to us, or the distant past from which it summons us, the concepts are drained of their conventional meaning. This height cannot be traversed; this past is so remote as to have never transpired. These puzzling formulations of space and time accentuate that the Other stands apart from context – the Other is not a character within a shared spatial and temporal context. For Levinas, the said (rational discourse) seeks futilely to compensate for the absence of a
The son has even tired of his father’s tales of the past, of deeds of goodness and heroism, complaining that these stories are not true, yet offering no tales in their place. Yet the reaching-out of story-creating and story-telling remains. When the father dies, the boy kneels besides him, saying his name over and over again. Although this is a name we never hear or even need to hear, it assures us that through his love this man fashioned an identity, the story of a self, and that in the desolation of the world’s ending, the father’s life meant something. The boy also promises to talk to the father every day – a promise of love that validates the use of memory which the father had once thought too harmful in this world, since all it seemed to do was evoke the pain of loss. So the conclusion of The Road intimates that the boy will assume the father’s mantle in continuing to tell stories, talking to his absent father every day not in order to chart the passing of time or understand the world, as much as to sustain his relationship to the father, and by doing so, sustain goodness and love in the world. This
phy: the frailty of goodness and redemption, and the isolation of the individual in and from the vast, senseless universe surrounding her. Such fragile goodness is exhibited The Road in small acts of senseless kindness, whether it be the father and boy sharing their meager supplies with a bedraggled stranger, or the family at the end adopting the now orphaned boy. Yet one must not be misled by this last fleeting glimpse of goodness. Such acts will not save the world. Things cannot be made right. Levinas also acknowledges that there are no guarantees or unequivocal measures to be taken to ward off evil. Nor is there any certainty that history will not repeat itself in new and more horrendous holocausts, be they human, animal, or planetary. Perhaps it’s enough to be content with acknowledging the fragility of our civilization, with its Bibles, Mona Lisas, and Constitutions, and, as McCarthy in a rare interview with Oprah Winfrey pithily summed up, “Be grateful.”
50 Philosophy Now December 2016/January 2017
Terminus The world of The Road cannot be put back together or made right. This runs contrary to the assumptions guiding most theodicies. But this bleak comment on the future is an affirmation that the world must be faced and lived in as it is. It deploys themes all too familiar to the reader of Levinas’s philoso-
© DR MICHAEL J. BURKE 2016
Michael Burke is Associate Professor of Philosophy at St Joseph’s College, New York.
IMAGE BY CAROL BELANGER GRAFTON
What is Metaphysics Anyway? Peter Adamson considers Aristotle’s original use of the term. ’ve occasionally had the disappointing experience of walking into a bookshop, seeing a shelf marked ‘Metaphysics’ and, beginning to peruse it, only then finding that it’s filled with volumes on mindfulness, crystals, and learning about one’s past lives. I wouldn’t be surprised if New Age enthusiasts have occasionally had the reverse disappointment upon learning that a ‘Metaphysics’ course they signed up for will involve arguing about the nature of reality, personal identity, and the problem of free will. This confusion over what metaphysics is, exactly, is an old one. A historically-minded person asked to define this field of philosophy might say that metaphysics simply studies the sort of issues tackled in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the first work to use the word in its title. But this answer would need a significant caveat: Aristotle did not use this title himself, and indeed the book is almost certainly a collection of disparate materials cobbled together centuries after Aristotle’s death. Because it is a composite work, maybe we should not expect a unifying theme in the Metaphysics. Perhaps it is called by this title just because it is to be read after (meta) Aristotle’s discussion of natural philosophy in his Physics. On the other hand, perhaps the compiler had good reasons for putting these materials together as a single text. Intelligent readers, from the great ancient commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias, to the also pretty great medieval commentators Averroes and Thomas Aquinas, have indeed detected a single project running throughout the Metaphysics, although without agreeing what it was. This disagreement was only to be expected. The Metaphysics takes on an enormous range of problems, from the principle of non-contradiction, to the nature of God; from an analysis of material substance, to a refutation of Plato’s ideas about mathematics. One book even takes the form of an extended philosophical lexicon. If however you want to argue that the Metaphysics is about just one central topic, then an obvious candidate for that topic is being. Aristotle
has a lot to say about being, especially in the notoriously difficult middle books, whose inquiry into substance is clearly relevant to the study of being (especially since the Greek word for substance, ousia, is derived from the verb einai, meaning ‘to be’). According to this way of thinking about metaphysics, as being concerned with being itself, it has a good claim to be the most general philosophical subject, and hence in a way, the most fundamental science. Ethics studies only human happiness and virtue; zoology only animals; physics only physical things. Metaphysics would study everything, since everything that is has being. The metaphysician should however bear in mind Aristotle’s dictum that “being is said in many ways.” I myself, for instance, will have being in a different and more primary way than my baldness has being. In Aristotle’s terminology, my baldness is only an ‘accident’ – a property that belongs to me and depends on me for its being; whereas I am a ‘substance’, meaning that I have being independently of other substances. Now that we’re thinking along these lines, we might wonder: is there some being, or kind of being, that is most fundamental or primary? Many readers, especially in the medieval period, thought that such a being makes its appearance only in the twelfth of the fourteen books of the Metaphysics. Here Aristotle discusses the immaterial intellects that in his view are responsible for moving the heavens. One single intellect stands over all the others, initiating or coordinating the motion of the entire universe by thinking. This is Aristotle’s God. Perhaps then Aristotle’s plan all along was to move through preparatory stages of discussion before finally reaching the real object of his investigation, namely the divine First Mover. Thus, once we work through the Metaphysics we will have grasped the nature of the first cause of all things. Since, according to Aristotle, we understand things by tracing back their causes, metaphysics therefore provides a foundation for the
study of all other things. If so, metaphysics would still be the primary and fundamental science, but for a different reason. Now, its philosophical primacy will have to do with the primacy of God. These are two very different ways of understanding the Metaphysics, and hence, metaphysics: are the treatise, and the branch of philosophy, about being, or about God? Or perhaps there are two kinds of science here: it became traditional to speak of metaphysica specialis (about God) and metaphysica generalis (about being). But allowing this would undermine the cherished idea that Aristotle did have a unified project. That was presupposed in a dispute between two leading thinkers of the Islamic world, Avicenna and Averroes. Avicenna believed that metaphysics is really the study of being, and that talking of God, even proving His existence, is just part of this general enterprise. Averroes disagreed. He pointed out that Aristotle proves God’s existence in the Physics, and thus the Metaphysics only discusses the manner of God’s causality. But this is as it should be. As the first cause of being, God is the proper subject matter of metaphysics; and Aristotle teaches that no science should try to prove the existence of its own subject matter. This debate has relevance for our understanding of metaphysics today. The lingering association between the word ‘metaphysics’ and theology or the supernatural (what comes ‘after physics’ in another sense), has real historical roots. Some are therefore suspicious of the whole enterprise. But they need not reject the term, or the discipline, since there is an equally sound historical precedent for understanding metaphysics to be something quite different – an inquiry into all that is. This would arguably make metaphysics the most general and fundamental part of philosophy. © PROF. PETER ADAMSON 2016
Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. Both are based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.
December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 51
allis T in Wonderland
he greatest mysteries are often those we are most likely to overlook. Supreme among these is the fact that the world is intelligible to us, at least to some degree. Of course, if we could not make momentto-moment sense of what was going on around us, there could be no us. Inhabiting an entirely unintelligible world in which nothing could be understood, anticipated, or acted upon with reliable consequences, would be incompatible with life. But there is no ‘of course’ even about this. That human existence requires a more or less intelligible world doesn’t solve the mystery, it simply moves the mystery on. After all, the vast majority of organisms act, or at least react, and flourish, without making sense of the world. That one thing is explained by another thing is not the kind of thing that bacteria (the most successful organisms) entertain; and at a higher level, the laws of nature as we understand them are beyond the cognitive reach of all but H. sapiens. What’s more, many humans thrived before Newton announced his discoveries or Einstein formulated the General Theory of Relativity. Let us unpack our sense-making a little. We live in a world in which happenings seem to be explained by other happenings: ‘this happened because of that’. We not only observe causes, but actively seek them out. We also note patterns, connect and quantify those patterns, and so arrive at the natural laws which have proved so empowering, enabling us to predict events and manipulate things. All of this takes place in a shared, boundless public cognitive space, draws on a vast collective past, and reaches into an ever-lengthening and ever-widening future. The extraordinary character of the sense-making animal may be highlighted by contrasting a wild animal looking for the origin of a threatening signal with a team of scientists listening into space to test a hypothesis about the Big Bang, having secured a large grant to do so. This suggests another way of coming
52 Philosophy Now
On Logos Raymond Tallis looks into the mystery of the sense-making animal. upon the miracle of our sense-making capacity. Consider the relative volumes of our heads (4 litres) and of the universe (4 x 1023 cubic light years). In our less-thanpin-pricks bonces, the universe comes to know itself as ‘the universe’ and some of its most general properties are understood. That this knowledge is incomplete does not diminish the achievement. Indeed, the intuition that our knowledge is bounded by ignorance, that things (causes, laws, mechanisms, distant places) may be concealed from us, that there are hidden truths, realities, modes of being, has been the necessary motor of our shared cognitive advance. Man, as the American philosopher Willard Quine said, is the creature who invented doubt – as well as measurement, provisional generalisation, and modes of active inquiry. It takes two to tango. The fact that the world is intelligible clearly cannot be just down to us, otherwise our stories about how things hang together would be somewhere between myths and an evolving consensual hallucination. The balance between the contributions of what is out there and what is in us, between the extent to which the mind conforms to the universe and the universe has mind-compatible properties, is an issue that has had a long history, shared between theology and philosophy. The Word and The World One word that haunts discussion of our astonishing capacity to make sense of the world is Logos. In Western culture, its most famous occurrence is in the extraordinary opening verse of the gospel according to St John: “In the beginning was the Logos.” This has kept thousands of commentators busy, because Logos, which is often translated ‘word’ or ‘reason’, does a lot of work – encompassing the Word that was God’s command that the universe should come into being as well as the Word that was made flesh in the body of Jesus Christ in fulfilment of a promise of salvation. At a more abstract level, the Logos is offered as an explanation of the intelligibility of the
December 2016/January 2017
world: John is indicating that God ensured that His creation and His chosen species should be so designed that the latter should make sense of the former. ‘Let there be light!’ was ‘Let there be sense!’ as well as ‘Let there be stuff!’ However, this replaces one mystery with many others. Moreover, it does not seem to accommodate the story of the gradual advance in understanding, by no means complete, that has been the great, hard-won achievement of humanity. It puts it all in the human starter pack. Logos has a history beyond even the wide realm of a faith that has filled two thousand years with hope, joy, bloodshed, terror, and oppression. This history – brilliantly summarised in James Hastings’ monumental Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (1906-1928) – is all the more complex because Logos has a multitude of senses, mobilised in different contexts. It has a field of meanings, with nodes here and there. This is hardly surprising, given that it registers such a profound encounter of human consciousness with itself. We cannot be sure when something equivalent to Logos first made its appearance in our conversation with ourselves. Some scholars trace it back to the Pyramid Texts of Heliopolis, nearly 2,500 years before St John wrote his gospel. From the primal waters the god Atum arose: he was the light of the rising sun and the embodiment of the conscious Word or Logos, the essence of life. The Egyptian Logos does not map clearly on to what Logos subsequently became. The term was in common use when the Pre-Socratic philosophers – those “tyrants of the spirit who wanted to reach the core of all being with one leap” as Nietzsche characterised them in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks – employed it, partly to pat themselves on the back for their own reason-based approach to questions about the nature of the cosmos. Although Logos referred to the way human rationality was reflected or expressed in discourse, it also captured the
ATUM © JEFF DAHL 2007
philosophers’ trust in their own arguments and explanations, and the sense of their awakening from the sleep of Mythos. The boundaries between Mythos – stories told as religious myths or in works of art – and Logos – a reasoned account – will always be contested, and their respective claims to truth likewise. After all, myths, too, are reasoned accounts of a kind: they make sense of making sense, and they use words. What’s more, reason itself operates on a given experience of the world, established long before reason does its work. Hence the endless returns of Mythos. Logos was central to Heraclitus’s philosophy. According to F.M. Cornford in From Religion to Philosophy (1912), Heraclitus developed – “in flashes of mental lightning”
Atum, Egyptian embodiment of reason
– the notion of Logos as being both the rational structure of the world and the source of that structure. Reason was present in all things. This was asserted against the materialism of the Ionian philosophers, for whom the world was just what was visible. By contrast, Logos was an invisible, immanent reason – the general plan ensuring that the world was an ordered Cosmos rather than a disordered Chaos. It was the hidden harmony behind the discords and antagonisms of existence; behind the eternal war between the elements that kept Being in motion, leaving nothing immune from change. This rational order of things did not itself make the world conscious or thoughtful. Rather, the world became conscious and thoughtful in the human Logos, whose most developed representative was the philosopher himself, in whom the human Logos was united with the Logos of the Cosmos. Making sense of the world was the result of a marriage between microcosmic human Logos and the macrocosmic Logos of the universe itself. Logos provided the link between rational discourse and the world’s rational structure. The Subsequent Fate of Logos We are more familiar with Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, Logos was the rational activity of the world soul created by the demiurge. It could be revealed through Ideas accessed by an intelligence stimulated by the dialectic of philosophical discourse. For Plato, influenced by Parmenides, Logos was revealed in the kind of thought that accessed unchanging self-same Being, real and true, not through sense experience, which is unstable and untrue. According to Aristotle, the Logos was the inherent formula determining the nature, life and activity of the body, as well as, more narrowly, ‘significant utterance’. These ideas inspired the Stoics, for whom the Logos was a supreme directive principle, the source of all the activity and rationality of an ordered world that was both intelligible and intelligent. It was the ‘seminal reason’ or underlying principle of the world, manifest in all the phenomena of nature. It acted as a kind of force, conferring inner unity on bodies and on the world as a whole, and at the same time guaranteed the intelligibility of the world to humans, since the human soul participated in the cosmic Logos. It is also because the one Logos is present in many human souls that we are able to communicate with each other: we all partake of ‘common sense’. The Stoics’ message was that
allis T in Wonderland
humans were truly happy only when they were living in a state of harmony in which the Logos of their own soul resonated with the universal Logos, the harmony of nature. For Philo of Alexandria, a first century Jewish philosopher steeped in Greek thought, the Logos was the model according to which the universe was created. It encompassed the creative principle, divine wisdom, the image of God, and man, the word of the eternal God. At the same time, it was the archetype of human reason, that through which the supreme God made contact with His creation. Logos is the intermediary between God and the world, the creator and His creation. Which brings us back to the Christian notion of Jesus Christ as Logos. The Logos was the means by which God let Himself into a privileged part of His own creation – humanity. Philo’s connecting the ‘divine thought’ with ‘the image’ and ‘the firstborn son of God’, ‘the archpriest’ and ‘the intercessor’, paved the way for the Christian conception of the incarnate ‘word become flesh’, and so of the Trinity. The Word by which He made the world, His law, and indeed Himself, known to man, was now identified with Christ. In the New Testament, the Logos is the Word, the wisdom of God, the reason in all things, and God Himself. Secularists may smile at such responses to the extraordinary fact that we make sense of the world. But when we think of the alternatives – such as Kant’s claim in The Critique of Pure Reason that the experienced world makes sense because we fashion that world through our senses and understanding, or an evolutionary epistemology that argues that the fit between mind and world is a Darwinian necessity – the smile may fade and wonder return. The endeavour to understand the sense-making animal has a long way to go. © PROF. RAYMOND TALLIS 2016
Raymond Tallis’s latest book The Mystery of Being Human: God, Freedom and the NHS was published in September. His website is raymondtallis.com.
December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 53
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December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 55
Hegel & Hume Talk It Over Chris Christensen watches Hume and Hegel argue about how they can have knowledge of reality. Hegel
Hume: True enough, Kant said we could not comprehend the
world without the mind first putting its stamp on it; and he added that this means that the true external world – what he called the ‘thing-in-itself’ – is forever beyond all knowledge for us. Hegel: That statement is contradictory! How can he say we know nothing of it, yet also claim that he knows that it exists and is a ‘thing’? Hume: I leave that for you metaphysicians to play with – if
doubt there are two philosophers further apart in their ideas than George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and David Hume (1711-1776). Hegel’s rationalist metaphysics, based on the arguments of reason, ranges far afield and is difficult to understand. Hume’s empiricism, on the other hand, with its conclusions derived through experience, is accessible to the layman. A thoroughgoing skeptic, Hume thought that metaphysics should be “committed to the flames.” Hegel was six years old when Hume died, so there was no professional overlap. But here they’re in the philosopher’s afterlife outside of time, able to see the entire history of philosophy. I see them in comfortable chairs before a cozy fire, each sipping brandy as they talk.
Hegel: [Gesturing at the fire.] So, Hume, you say that metaphysics should be committed to the flames. Does this contempt for thinking beyond what we can observe derive from a philosophical stance? Or does it simply stem from insecurity regarding your unease in tackling pure reason? Hume: The flames are figurative of course. I’m not a book
burner, and I wouldn’t stand in the way of people who wish to publish nonsense. But I readily admit to unease over any speculation that professes absolute certainty. Hegel: Yet you yourself claim a sort of certainty regarding
experiences that arise from the senses; those which you call ‘impressions’. Hume: You misinterpret me. I make no such claim. I concede
certainty only in mathematics, where, to quote myself, there are “relationships among ideas true and certain.” Three times five equals fifteen, Hegel, and always will. I do however say that the liveliest thought is inferior to the dullest sensation. Hegel: But Kant taught us that the mind does not simply pas-
sively receive information through the senses, but organizes our experience. So our ‘impressions’ are partly a creation of our intellect. In other words, we know the world by the work of the mind, and the world just as we experience it does not exist independent of us. 56 Philosophy Now December 2016/January 2017
only you would admit that it’s merely play! But Kant’s idea brings Barzun’s metaphor to my mind. Barzun likened Kant’s idea of the mind putting its stamp on reality to a waffle iron acting on batter. Fortunately, there’s another metaphor that reverses Barzun’s. Locke says that at birth the mind is a blank slate upon which the chalk of experience writes. That makes much more sense. To put it briefly, Hegel, ideas arise from experience. However, abstract rationalism such as yours depends more on invention than experience! Hegel: Yet there are cases in which the ideas arising from pure
reason are later empirically demonstrated. For instance, through pure reason Leucippus and Democritus theorized the existence of atoms over two thousand years before your vaunted empiricism confirmed their philosophy. Hume: I grant the Greek atomists their luck. But most such
cases don’t get beyond speculation. Plato’s nether world of Forms has yet to be proved empirically, and I dare say it will remain in his metaphysical cave. Incidentally, you just said so yourself: atomic theory was confirmed by empiricism. Still, I must concede that if Plato’s Ideal Brandy is better than the superlative stuff we’re drinking, then I tip my hat to him. Hegel: We agree on that, Hume. Here’s to Plato. [They raise their glasses and drink.] Let’s leave the ancients and move to more modern times. We rationalists believe that so-called ‘empirical proof’ is unnecessary: one can gain knowledge purely through step-by-step reasoning. Descartes proved this when he concluded ‘I think therefore I am’. He proved his existence by doubting it, then through pure reason carefully built a logical proof that overturned his doubt. Hume: Descartes wrote that he wanted absolute privacy for a
few days, and so squirreled himself away to think. But his solitude demonstrates the two main weaknesses of pure rationalism – its need for error-free rigor and its extreme subjectivity. Bertrand Russell illustrates the first well when he describes rationalism as an inverted pyramid, with the first premise pinpointed on the ground. If it and all subsequent premises and conclusions are sound, all is well. But if just one mistake is pre-
sent – one brick is weak – the whole subsequent argument collapses. Empiricism, on the other hand, avoids both weaknesses. Its foundation is wide and broad, constructed from a careful gathering of facts. Experiments prove the facts by testing and study. Relationships among the facts are then determined. Moreover, many thinkers cooperate in the endeavor – they seek objectivity. Once the foundation is perfected, the next level is built, using the same method, and so on. If a mistake is made – if a brick in the edifice is weak – it can be removed and corrected without the collapse of the whole argument. Hegel: But with empiricism, unlike with pure logic, no argument is ever proved absolutely. You yourself admit that by using the scientific method, high probability is the best we can attain. Let’s return to Kant’s statement that there is an in-itself external world beyond our experience. That’s an idea that Kant claims is demonstrated by reason. It follows that we can employ reason to further that knowledge. Hume: But ideas don’t come first, they derive from impres-
sions. So you cannot gain knowledge without employing the senses. Proof that impressions come first can be seen in the stark example that a man born blind has no idea of color. Hegel: A man born blind has only an idea of color! Precisely what he lacks are your impressions! Hume: That’s absolutely wonderful, Hegel! You’d have made
a great Sophist! I can see you in my mind’s eye, traveling with Libanius, teaching the untutored the wiles of argumentation, the two of you completely unconcerned about truth…
Hegel: Whereas you put great stock in the senses and in
empirical proof, yet in the end you caution us that even science can be wrong. That is, in truth, you admit that science is in fact a process of finding temporary approximations to knowledge that eventually gives way to better approximation. It must make continual adjustments to accommodate new circumstances, new evidence. So your skepticism leads to a dead end. We can know precisely nothing! Hume: I wouldn’t put it quite like that. I concede that my skepticism can often paint me into a corner. One wag even said that I throw the baby of science out with the metaphysical bathwater! But science does not totally do away with acquired knowledge. It can find error and correct it, or we may refine our knowledge. Nonetheless, science comes close to reality despite its tentative knowledge – or rather, because it admits to tentative knowledge. With the exception of mathematics, we’ll always be without certain knowledge. Yet it’s true, the human mind thirsts for certainty. This is why religious belief – and theories like yours – will forever be with us. Hegel: But my theory is not religious. It has nothing to do with man’s religion. It’s based on rational thought, bereft of superstition. I believe merely that humanity is on a journey. We are here to develop the self-consciousness of the world, which is the consciousness of freedom. Beginning in China, then in Persia, and now in Europe, humanity has gradually developed a higher consciousness of freedom, and an actual freedom of living, which in turn feeds into a greater consciousness of freedom, until – Hume: – until – and correct me if I’m wrong – humanity
Hegel: Careful, Hume. You don’t want to infect your precious
empiricism with the mind’s eye. Hume: A predictable rejoinder from a rationalist! You seem to
think you have a monopoly on the mind – that empiricists don’t employ it at all. Well, let me disabuse you of that notion. The intellect’s greatest contribution to knowledge is being acutely aware of impressions and emotions as they surface. In short, mind is best used for awareness of its own processes. In this way it can tame the passions – and prevent flights of Hegelian fancy. Unfortunately, few are very aware. By the way, there’s a revealing statement by your fellow rationalist Descartes, seemingly unconscious. He writes, and I quote, “We must occupy ourselves only with those objects that our intellectual powers appear competent to know certainly and indubitably.” Isn’t that wonderful? Hegel: It’s perfectly reasonable. What’s your point, Hume? Hume: His recommendation certainly seems wise. But first
note the words ‘only’, ‘certainly’, and ‘indubitably’. These are words of certitude. But in the statement is also a word that conveys uncertainty. That word is ‘appear’. It’s an escape word – a means of explaining how one could be wrong, despite all the certitude that reason can attain! I find it charming.
arrives at an ideal state of pure consciousness, which you call Absolute Mind, or Absolute Spirit. Hegel: Now you’re getting into the spirit of it yourself, Hume! In fact, reality is actually constituted by mind. At first, mind is unaware of this: it sees the world as something independent of it, even hostile or alien to it. It’s estranged from reality, tries to understand it, and fails. Only when mind awakens and realizes that reality is a creation of mind can it give up reaching beyond itself. It then knows there is nothing beyond itself. On the contrary, objective reality is thought; and thought is objective reality. Hume: Indeed, Russell called your Absolute Mind a sort of
God: “truly a professor’s God” – Mind dwelling on its own thoughts! The whole thing is quite fascinating, even if it is nonsense. But let me see if I have it right. The engine that propels this metaphysical journey is your dialectic. One stage of this journey of human culture is negated as development continues: as you phrase it, a thesis meets its antithesis; there is a clash; then the two are melded into a synthesis, which becomes the new thesis; and so on it goes. Hegel: I never used those terms. They were added to my theory by my followers. But there is a stage-by-stage advance, December 2016/January 2017 Philosophy Now 57
yes. And each stage of human culture is an advancement of human consciousness until we reach the stage of Absolute Mind. That ideal state no longer requires, nor allows, an ‘antithesis’.
twenty-first century you have an ally who’s picked up your torch, a fellow whose name rhymes with yours – Nagel. He took a shellacking from materialists for his ideas on consciousness. Even I thought the reaction against him was a bit knee-jerk.
Hume: Tell me, what happens to our bodies when we reach
Hegel: Yes, I’m aware of Nagel – an American, no less. In fact,
that exalted state? Do we shed them and ascend to an intellectual heaven like a rapture? All I can say is that one would miss one’s brandy.
he attempts to find a middle ground between my idealism and materialism by saying there’s a gap between the explanations available to science and explanations for consciousness. He says the physical sciences can describe the behaviour and physical constitutions of organisms like ourselves, but they cannot describe our subjective experiences, such as how things appear to our different points of view. This gap, he says, reflects a deep metaphysical difference between consciousness and the brain – between mind and matter. Dualism dies hard, eh? Still, I am encouraged by his existence, and by your defense of his idea.
Hegel: You make light of it, Hume. That’s a familiar reaction to profound thought from someone who shies away from metaphysical exploration. Unfortunately, I cannot describe the particulars of the final destination of consciousness. Hume: Sorry, Hegel, but you strike me as taking yourself too
seriously. Nonetheless, your metaphysical edifice is exceedingly impressive. Your theory is magnificent – truly a monument of unprecedented intellectual achievement. It puts you at the pinnacle of philosophical idealism. It’s unfortunate that it smacks of bloody rubbish. But this is unsurprising, since you follow in the rationalist footsteps of Pythagoras, Parmenides, Plato, right on up to Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, even surpassing them in speculation. Hegel: I take that as a compliment, Hume. I see myself as standing on the shoulders of my predecessors. After all, my philosophy is all-inclusive. The dialectic of history is a process; it does not do away with what came before.
Hume: I didn’t exactly defend his idea. Hegel: No, but you seem to caution his critics. Hume: I don’t like knee-jerk reactions. But I do like Nagel’s
idea that science is limited regarding its knowledge of subjective viewpoints. However, he says it follows that biological evolution must be more than just a physical process – that the theory of evolution must incorporate a mental aspect. Hegel: But the greater theory need not be theistic, Hume. It can be seen as an expanded form of understanding that includes the mental, but is still scientific.
Hume: But in the final analysis your majestic edifice is a reli-
gious one, despite your claim to the contrary. That’s the great irony of pure rationalism. It claims the mathematical precision of logic, but its conclusions ultimately require faith. I suspect you rationalists secretly crave the approval of empiricism.
Hume: Of course I find that appealing. But his leaping from
that to speculating that consciousness has a purpose in the cosmos strikes me as reaching too far. Hegel: Hume, you ought to let your imagination soar a bit. So
Hegel: Recall Democritus and his atoms. Perhaps some day
my metaphysical theory will be proved empirically – even if it takes over two thousand years! Hume: There’s an important distinction between your think-
ing and that of Democritus. While you both employ pure reason, you propose a metaphysical theory, concerning a purpose and end to human development. Democritus, on the other hand, proposed the physical existence of atoms. You dwell on metaphysics, he on physics. He was a materialist, let’s not forget. His theory was provable by empiricism. I doubt yours is.
let’s imagine that there’s a post firmly lodged in the ground – the Post of Skepticism. A rope is attached to the post, with the other end tied around your waist. My guess is that you, my friend, would never stray far from the Post of Skepticism, and would always keep a firm grip on the rope. Hume: And you? Hegel: I would venture out wherever my mind demands, in the search for higher knowledge. Hume: And, dear Hegel, when you felt the tug on the rope, you
Hegel: You doubt everything, Hume. That’s a certainty I find
quite ironic. And in the twentieth century your skepticism lead to its own extreme result – analytic philosophy. It seems that speculative philosophy is now dead. Philosophy’s role has become merely to analyze the workings of language. Still, my theory cannot be disproved.
would slip the knot and float away into the metaphysical mists. But I must say – and this may be the brandy talking – despite our differences, I would miss you. A toast, Hegel – to philosophy! Hegel: To philosophy! [They raise their glasses and drink.] © CHRIS CHRISTENSEN 2016
Hume: It’s not incumbent on the doubter to disprove an asser-
tion: the onus is on the maker of an assertion to prove it. But you can dream, Hegel; and your dream never ends. Even in the 58 Philosophy Now December 2016/January 2017
Chris Christensen is a delivery driver in Portland, Oregon. In addition to studying philosophy, he and his wife Bobbie produce a blog called Red Stitches: Mostly Baseball.
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