Friday, 15 June 2018

Are we bound to be unhappy?

David Benatar impresses me the more I learn of his work. I must confess that he is pushing me toward his brand of philosophical pessimism.  In this note I want to explore a Benatar-inspired hypothesis: that evolution through natural selection will favour dissatisfaction, fear, and pain, respectively, over satisfaction, calm, and pleasure, respectively.  In short, that we are bound for unhappiness.

Let’s start with satisfaction.  The hypothesis is that evolution will favour dissatisfaction over satisfaction because the cost of error in the direction of the latter is greater than the cost of error in the direction of the former.  If we are, say, prone to feel satisfied too early, then we will cease the activities that promote survival such as hunting, seeking, preparing, defending, and basically anything that requires serious effort.  If, on the other hand, we are prone to err on the side of dissatisfaction, even when something survival-promoting has happened, then we are simply prone to continue to engage in those activities that promote our continued existence.  Dissatisfaction is, in effect, the motivation to continue to fight for survival.  Hence, we are selected to become and remain dissatisfied more easily than to become satisfied.

Let me illustrate what I mean by way of a thought experiment (perhaps a very silly one in many ways).  Assuming the sensation of hunger pushes one to seek food, then having found something to eat, one ought not to become over-satisfied and too deeply relaxed at that point, for then one opens oneself up to all kind of risk: that someone will steal one’s food while one is taking it easy; that excess food will go bad because not preserved while one is off enjoying the feeling of satisfaction; that one will be unprepared for the next day’s hunt because one spent no time thinking of the next bout of hunger and preparing as a result; and so on.  In short, creatures who quickly get over the joy of securing food to focus on protecting what they have and preparing for future hunger will be better suited for survival. So, the feeling of satisfaction, which needs to be there to reward the effort, should be, from an evolutionary point of view, relatively fleeting and easily replaced with its opposite.

Next, let’s consider fear.  There are many things to be fearful of in this world, but to narrow things down here I will focus on fear of death.  Any creature who lacks a substantial fear of death will be less prone to fight and resist threats to its survival and hence the lack of fear will decrease the odds of making it.  It is, again, better from an evolutionary point of view to err on the side of more fear rather than less.  Evolution ought, then, to select for beings who are maximally disturbed by death, up to the point of becoming paralyzed.  We would not be well placed to survive if we froze in the face of threats, but below that level, more fear is probably an evolutionary advantage.  

Finally, as for pain, let us assume here that it is an indicator of damage.  Hence, pain can linger, and even be chronic, because damage can.  Pleasure, on the other hand, usually either: (1) indicates the cessation of pain, and hence the return to normal, in which case it will pass in favour of a feeling of normalcy; or (2) accompanies some positive good for the body or mind, in which case it will cease as soon as the good achieved its purpose.  For example, eating will give pleasure to the body because it corresponds to the inputting of nutrition, but once the nutrition is in, the body returns back to normal, and indeed needs to start thinking about its next meal.  So, there is reason for pleasures to, in general, quickly recede precisely because if they lingered they would tend toward excess satisfaction which would bring with it the risks mentioned earlier.  Pleasure has had to go down relatively quickly to ensure people will re-seek the good thing it accompanies.

So, I hypothesize that, given the evolutionary realities of our species' past, we are likely to be dissatisfied, fearful, and hurt more often than not.  If so, then Benatar’s anti-natalism seems psychologically well grounded.  Of course, it becomes counter-productive to become de-motivated by these things, as mentioned above, so we would expect people to have a built-in sense of optimism that works in opposition to dissatisfaction, fear, and pain. So I think we should expect that people profess more satisfaction than their situations might otherwise suggest, because in doing so they are more likely to continue the struggle. Moreover, natural variation will ensure that exceptions are born regularly: some will face all of the reasons for negativity with great equanimity and even happiness.  But if I am right, then unhappiness should be more widespread.

All of this is meant as speculation as to the psychology of happiness.  It isn’t intended to argue that life is objectively worthless or meaningless. Indeed, it is quite compatible with the reverse.  Life may very well be filled with objective goodness in every measure, and be more than worth fighting for in every way, yet it still be the case that human beings are more likely than not to be unhappy with their lot in life.  Indeed, given how many people report unhappiness after achieving the highest levels of success and fortune, the unhappiness-by-evoution hypothesis strikes me as likely.  Nonetheless, I remain optimistic myself in the existence of objective value, though I am unsure as to its ability to produce happiness.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

The Subjectifying Impulse in Philosophy

Kant famously argued that knowledge of the general properties of reality could not be gained as a result of the mind conforming itself to the structure of the world but, rather, the other way around.  This was his ‘Copernican Turn’.  This is perhaps the most famous example of what I will call a subjectifying impulse in philosophy, the impulse to imbue the seemingly non-human aspects of the world with human qualities.  For example, Kant argued that space and time themselves borrow their formal structure from the formal features of possible human experience.

If one begins to look for it, one can find this sort of thing throughout philosophy, but there is a related maneuver that I want to mention here, which is the following: whatever the qualities of the human-independent world, they are unknowable as a result of the fact that our access to the world is necessarily mediated by representations, which are subjective so render it impossible to gain knowledge of how the world is independent of any representations or representational acts.

Knowledge of how the world is in itself, independent of human representations of it, would be what Bernard Williams called an ‘absolute conception’.  For many, the absolute conception is out of reach for our knowledge is perspectival in some way.  In Past, Space, and Self, John Campbell puts the difficulty with the absolute conception as follows:

What it demands is that one should build up a synoptic picture of the world, one that wholly abstracts from one’s own place in the throng, and then somehow identify one of the people so pictured as oneself. What is dizzying is the kind of complete objectivity, the degree of abstraction from one’s own busy concerns, that is required. A first interpretation is that what is wanted is a kind of top-down view, so that we think in terms of a kind of aerial photograph, and then one has to identify oneself as one of the people shown in the photo. But that would not be enough, for it would only give the viewpoint of the photographer, and we need a picture of the world that is objective, in that it is not from any viewpoint at all. (Campbell, p. 6)

I was reminded of the issue after reading this interesting interview with Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan.  Here is an excerpt:

I think philosophy presupposes the ability to do something that’s actually not possible for us to do’. This, she says, is to stand outside the relationship between ourselves and the world, to be able to see both ourselves and the world. We want to be able to understand the world from something like an objective point of view, to think about it with maximal detachment. ‘But unfortunately’, she continues, ‘we are a mind in the world, and not just in the world generally, but a very specific world, a particular world for each person. And so we have this regulative aspiration, but that’s at best a regulative ideal, not one that we can actually achieve

The question I want to consider here is, why is this impossible to do, rather than simply very difficult that demands careful, rigorous thought?  Here is some more from the interview:

The philosophical ambition is to tell us the way the world is independent of our representations, but that calls for us to represent the world, so we have this ambition to represent the world as it is without representation…  In trying, Srinivasan says, one runs ‘into a kind of paradox, because one is representing the world as the sort of world which cannot be represented’. The perspectivalist position – that ‘the world in itself is such that there is no world beyond our representations of it’ – exhibits a kind of ineffability

I think this does get at the heart of at least one way of expressing scepticism about the absolute conception, but I think the question remains: what exactly is it that is paradoxical or ineffable?  Sure, to represent the world we must engage in representation, that seems unobjectionable.  But to suppose that this entails that we cannot represent the world as it is independently of representation seems to me to assume that we can only represent representations, i.e. that all representations have content that includes representations.  True, all representations have content, but not all such content is itself representational.

Consider a sentence, such as “I am standing”, said by P and some time, T.  This sentence represents P as standing at T, but it is not necessary to assume that the utterance of “I am standing” is in part about itself.  The utterance may be about a person's relation to a time but it needn’t be about the representational item itself.  A person’s position at a time need have nothing to do with a sentence that expresses that content.

One of the interesting features of indexicals, such as “I”, “here”, “now”, is that they allow us to move from our local perspective to an absolute one.  “It is now noon”, said at T, is in one sense inextricably linked to its context of utterance, in that the content it expresses depends on that context.  On the other hand, there need be nothing perspectival or representational about that context.  For example, in this case the context is merely a time, T, which may well exist independent of any human perspective.  So I don’t see that representing the world via a sentence such as “It is now noon” is to represent the world as the kind of world that cannot be represented.  Rather, such sentences represent the world as it is in itself, even if in so doing we relate ourselves to a particular worldly context. 

As Heather Dyke persuasively argues (Metaphysics and the Representational Fallacy) it is a mistake to suppose that features of our representations must be features of what we represent.  John Heil (From an Ontological Point of View) and William Alston (A Realist Conception of Truth) make similar points.  So I don’t see why we can’t use language, or other representational systems, to express content that does not implicate elements of those systems. 

So I, further, see no reason to assume that we each inhabit a unique, specific world.  Rather, we could very well share a common world even if we each have a unique set of representations of it.  The content of such representations can be shared in common. 

Suppose A says “B is all the way over there”, when A and B are separated by one kilometre.  Why not suppose that the content of the sentence/representation is, say: A and B are separated by 1 km?  Nothing impossible about that. 

Well, perhaps the idea is we must also add the following: And A thinks that 1 km is very far indeed.  That is, one might insist that part of what A is expressing is her evaluation of the distance.  Well, it is not hard to work that into the content.  For example, given the context, this extra content is equivalent to: A is at position P and believes that any position 1 km from P is very far away.  Then the sentence expresses the following content: A is at P, B is at Q, P and Q are separated by 1 km, and A believes any position 1 km from P to be very greatly separated.  In such a case, we are not representing the world as it is independently of representation, since we are representing A's beliefs.  But there is no reason to suppose this generalizes to all cases, so that all representations are reflexive.  Indeed, the objective distance between A and B is just such a content.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

On the logical form of maximal inclusivity

It strikes me as obvious, even a truism, that people find it important to feel that they belong to a larger group or community of some sort or another.  I will, at any rate, take that as given.  So, a sense of inclusion is psychologically valuable to many.  There are, no doubt, those who prefer to be alone, and we all have times when we need solitude, but overall, one wants to be part of a community.

It seems, further, that in many cases the sense of belonging is engendered by a shared characteristic of some sort: all who believe that P, or accept that Q, or who are R, bond over P, Q, or R, and form a community on that basis:

“All of us, here, are P/Q/R”.

As valuable as such congregating may be in creating a sense of inclusion, it also entails exclusion, for:

“You must be F to belong here”

is logically equivalent to:

“If you are not-F, you do not belong here”.

The risk as that those who are F will clash with those who are not-F, over resources, or legislation, or simply broader social norms.  On risk is the urge to segregate: let the Fs live here, the non-Fs there.  This is the dark side of the craving for inclusion.  For example, suppose a child grows to reject the religious upbringing of her parents but still wants to feel a sense of belonging to her family and community.  It would be a shame for her to have experience rejection on that basis, so we want families, for example, to have a broader sense of belonging/inclusion that a shared religious belief or practice.  Accordingly, I think it worthwhile ask what greater inclusion would look like.

Which leads me to wonder what the maximally inclusive community would be.  Is there a conception of inclusion that is sufficiently broad that it could include everybody?  I will eave aside for the moment whether such a broad definition of community would satisfy the psychological need for a sense of belonging.  My question is whether it is logically possible to define a community that would not be exclusive, something along the lines of:

            “All are welcome here”.

Right of the bat, this seems like a paradoxical formulation.  Suppose we had a community defined by this principle: would it welcome those who actively wish to destroy the community?  Could they really be welcome there?  It is hard to see how a community could, in general, be robust enough to survive if it had to invite in those who wished to destroy it, as they could not be integrated into the community as a whole.

What is nice, however, about “all are welcome here” is that it is a, relatively, content-free criterion of inclusion.  Any community built on a specific belief, practice, or physical trait, is inherently alienating because many will not share that belief, practice, or trait.  So a content-free, or formal criterion of community would likely be the most inclusive.  We can start with the idea of a community that is welcome to anyone who doesn’t wish to destroy the community itself:

(Ax)(Ac)[~D(x, c) à W(x, c)]

D(x, y) = x works to destroy y
W(x, c) = x is welcome in community c

This seems necessary but not sufficient.  After all, the most exclusive community imaginable could still satisfy this requirement: e.g. a very religiously intolerant group would still count as maximally inclusive so long as it was unwelcome to those who are religiously tolerant.

Okay, so let us focus on the concept of welcoming, which is a naturally inclusive idea.  Consider a community that is open to anybody who is him/herself maximally welcoming, or, put differently, a community that welcomes any who welcomes any:

(Ax)(Ay)(Ac)[W(x, y) à W(x, c)]

Of course, such a community must only include those who are maximally welcoming, so let's make this a biconditional:

(Ax)(Ay)(Ac)[W(x, y) <-> W(x, c)]

So long as “x welcomes y” entails that x does not try to murder, humiliate, cheat, or otherwise harm y”, then it seems that such a community could be defined without welcoming in murderers, thieves, and those who otherwise wish to destroy communities.

Thus, perhaps it is logically coherent to imagine a community that is maximally welcoming without immediately inviting self-destruction.  Such a formal principle is useful because it provides a criterion for determining when a community is as open as it can be.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Philosophy, Science, and the "Core"

There is a clear sense in which modern science is a progression away from an anthropocentric worldview toward one in which human kind and human experience are no longer viewed as central to our understanding of the general features of the universe.  The scientific revolution ushered in a period of human decentering, which of course continues to this day. 

Aristotelian physics, as sophisticated as it was, revolved around the human experience of the world.  For example, according to him: the Earth occupies the center of reality with the far off starts utterly alien to anything we encounter here; just as we govern ourselves by making decisions about what is best to do, so nature governs itself in accordance with its proper purposes; just as biological species seem distinct and categorically different from each other, so they are; and so on.

If we pick Copernicus as a natural starting point, we can see the scientific revolution as a rather systematic dismantling of this kind of perspective.  For example: not only is the Earth not the center of the universe, it isn’t even the center of the solar system; the universe operates by causal laws devoid of teleological residue; far from the universe being somehow made for us, we have adapted to it through eons of variation and selection (and the difference between species is better understood as one of degree rather than kind); and so on.

Now, one difference between the humanities and the natural sciences is that while the latter continue to produce a picture of a world that is largely indifferent to our viewpoint, the humanities remain centered on the human experience.  In studying such human creations as art, literature, music, sports, and society, the humanities have as their mission the understanding of the ways in which our endeavours impact ourselves.  The sciences have as their mission the understanding of the impersonal laws that underlie all phenomena, human or otherwise (this even when studying specifically human phenomena such as art or communities).

None of this is meant as a complaint against either the sciences or the humanities.  Indeed, I think it is important and appropriate that we engage in a study of both sides of the anthropocentric vs. impersonal viewpoint dichotomy.

All of which brings me to philosophy.

Philosophy is a unique discipline in that it has one leg firmly planted in the spirit of the scientific worldview and the other in the spirit of the humanistic one.  Much of philosophy is the struggle to understand and, if possible, reconcile this divide: how can an impersonal universe, as uncovered by scientific inquiry, contain such things as meaning, consciousness, qualia, morals, counterfactual truth, mathematical truth, truth at all, and so on?  This is part of what makes philosophy difficult and worthwhile: it is a bridging discipline that offers insight from a unique vantage point.

All of which brings me to the so-called “core” of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and the philosophies of language, mind, and science (I take this usage of "core" from here).

We can, very roughly, divide philosophy into impersonal and personal, or scientific and humanistic, sides.  Philosophy includes, for example: the attempt to understand both the structure of causation and also causal talk; the attempt to understand the nature of time and our experience of time; the nature of moral properties and the nature of our reactive attitudes; the nature of aesthetic properties as well as the human experience of art; and so on.  Indeed, without paying attention to both sides of these sorts of dichotomies, it is hard to imagine the result being anything like philosophy at all. 

All of this is a big part of the reason why philosophy has to remain in conversation with contemporary science: the psychological and cognitive sciences will help us to understand the human experience while the natural sciences help us to understand the world.  Without both of these, our philosophizing will certainly be impoverished.

However, all of this also points to something that often gets overlooked both about and within philosophy: we need the “core” of philosophy precisely because it is the entry point and locus of the impersonal point of view into philosophy.  Value theory leans, rightly, toward the human experience, while M&E lean toward the impersonal point of view.  If the latter is impoverished, so is the discipline of philosophy as a whole.

Think, for example, of Bertrand Russell’s argument that the temporal present is an artefact of human psychology, not a feature of time itself; or David Lewis’s argument that our world is just one of infinitely many, equally real worlds; or Quine’s argument that the most intimate part of our experience – the meanings of our thoughts and utterances – are actually devoid of determinate content because even a perfect scientific observer of language users would be unable to determine such content; or Mackie’s argument against the existence of moral properties; or Putnam’s arguments that cognition can be understood on analogy to computation; and so on.

What all of these landmarks of 20th century “core” philosophy have in common is the attempt to reconcile the human perspective with the detached, scientific one.  Similar examples could easily, of course, be produced from the works of Hume, Nietzsche, Descartes, Locke, Plato, and other notables.

None of this is to argue that the “core” of philosophy is more valuable or important than any other area.  It is just to argue two things: (1) the “core” remains essential to philosophical inquiry; and (2) the function of injecting the detached, impersonal perspective into philosophy is inherently interesting and valuable precisely because our understanding of ourselves and reality is greatly enhanced by the attempt to reconcile – or, if that’s not possible, understanding the gap between – the two perspectives.  If we are going to engage properly in the human project of self-understanding, then the impersonal perspective is essential (this may sound paradoxical, but I hope to have given reason to think it in fact isn’t). 

So long as we think it is important and valuable to have a proper understanding of ourselves and the universe we inhabit, the “core” of philosophy remains something worth doing and something worth pursuing.  In short “core”, theoretical philosophy has value.

This argument is directed not only at academics outside of philosophy, university administrators, lawmakers, and the general public, but also at fellow philosophers, some of whom tend to dismiss “core” philosophy for the usual reasons: the Hawking argument that the questions addressed there should just be addressed by the sciences; the positivistic one that they all amount to meaningless speculation; the postmodern one they disguise an oppressive, harmful ideology; and so on. 

On the contrary, I argue, we need half of philosophy to consist in the regular input of the impersonal perspective into semantics, the philosophy of mind, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and so on.  Without this, there can only be philosophically impoverished humanistic projects.

These reflections were stimulated in part as a result of some interesting comments by Marcus Arvan (see here) in which he suggests that we work to raise the public profile and financial security of the profession of philosophy by emphasizing and selling the practical, naturalistic, and inter-disciplinary aspects of the field, which, he argues, are more likely to attract public support and funding, and then use this funding to support the more theoretical research of the core of the discipline.  This argument is based on the model provided by the natural sciences which, he argues further, garner widespread financial and moral support on the basis of their practical benefits, but which use this support to fund the pure research wings of the disciplines.  

I think this is an interesting suggestion, but I have a worry, which is that the relationship between the “core” and the more practical, value theoretic sides of philosophy are not like the relationship between applied and theoretical science.  In the sciences, as much as there is plenty of jocular put-downs of the opposing side, the theoreticians and the experimentalists generally respect each other and recognize the other as engaged in worthwhile, genuinely scientific work (one side may be *more* valuable, but both are valuable).  In Philosophy, there are too many examples of thinkers accusing their opponents of not even doing worthwhile work.  This is not, contrary to one narrative one often encounters, just a matter of analytic metaphysicians telling practical ethicists or Heidegger scholars that what they are doing is “not philosophy”, but also of thinkers telling analytic metaphysicians that what they are doing is pointless drivel or actively harmful.

I think we need to stop this and until we do I think that a strategy such as Arvan’s could inspire increased in-fighting as different philosophical camps view a renewed focus on practical philosophy as just a grab for an increased share of limited resources that won’t lead to increased support for “core” research, since the latter isn't respected by the practical side.

Yes, I am advocating for the importance of the “core” of philosophy, where I happen to work.  I do not mean to denigrate or complain about other areas of philosophy.  As I argue above, we need both sides of the divide for philosophy to continue to be the special and important discipline that it is.