Monday, 15 April 2019

Philosophy and Boxing

There is something about testing oneself.  I try my best to seek out challenges against which I can measure my abilities.  The tougher the challenge the better, so long as I can take the time to work my way up the skill ladder toward high level competence.  Once my training is done, however, I want to push myself against the very best available to see what kind of obstacle I can overcome.  It is only upon contact with the highest level of challenge that one truly knows who and what one is.  Without that external check, one’s internal processing can veer unimpeded toward fantasy and romance, leading one to believe all kinds of distortions about oneself and the world.  It is in facing a serious challenge that reckoning takes place, bringing with it clarity, knowledge, and insight.  Since understanding oneself is the goal of philosophy, and one cannot understand oneself without understanding one’s environment, facing up to serious challenge is the essence of philosophy.  That is why philosophers debate: we offer counter-examples, raise objections, propose thought-experiments, and construct arguments in order to challenge our own views as well as those of others whose views we are considering as, possibly, our own.

This is, however, also why we fight.  I am not talking about warfare or street fights, nor about heated anger, backstabbing, undermining, or political takedowns, though those may have some features in common with what I am discussing.  No, I primarily mean combat sports: boxing, MMA, Muay Thai, etc.  To enter into the boxing ring, for example, is to face a serious challenge head-on.  To test oneself against another person in controlled combat is to check one’s inner beliefs against the outside world.  Am I a good fighter?  Am I really in shape?  Might I make the Olympic Team?  Could I handle myself if my life were threatened?  Etc.  These are the sorts of questions that only others can answer for you, by standing across from you and attempting to knock you out, or at least down.  Of course, nobody should step into the ring without adequate training.  You must get fit and skilled by putting in the hours of working out, practicing, and managing one’s diet and sleep.  Nonetheless, after all that is done, there is only one way to know how good one is, and that is to face the challenge of another fighter.

One of the many interesting things about my personal favourite, boxing, is that it demonstrates a fine balance between rules and control, on the one hand, and creativity and unpredictability, on the other.  The basic principle of boxing is simplicity: four basic punches, simple footwork, efficient defence.  The goal is to combine these elements unpredictably to sow confusion in your opponent, which opens up defence and allows one to strike.  Ultimately, one aims to defeat one’s opponent, but the true goal is to know oneself: if one is good enough here, then one can push for even better fight partners; if not, one must step back and retrain.  

Now, the fight must be fair for the simple reason that if not, then the result tells us nothing about how good we are as combatants, and this holds especially for the victor. That is why enlightening combat must have rules and while, in general, the limits of boxing are agreed upon in advance, referees exist to, in part, enforce the limits.  For these reasons, street fights and backstabbing attacks in the workplace have limited philosophical value for the attacker: victory will occur without any gain in self-knowledge. There may be something to learn about how one reacts to an unfair, unprovoked attack, but the assailant will certainly learn nothing of value about himself/herself.  These are not, therefore, good fights.  One must fight fairly for oneself as much as for one’s opponent, for otherwise the opportunity for philosophical insight is destroyed.

So I remain unsurprised by the fact that I am drawn to both boxing and philosophy.  I understand why the ancient philosophers saw combat training as part of a philosophical life, and I am drawn to the interpretation of a philosopher such as Epictetus as a kind of wrestling coach (see here for an interesting take).  Put simply, there is no philosophy without understanding, and there is no understanding without challenge.

Philosophy is often portrayed nowadays as excessively combative (see, for example, the opening paragraphs of this interesting essay) and while, much as in boxing, one can certainly step out of bounds in philosophical debate – and unfortunately, there are no referees to bring things back in bounds – in general, I am suspicious of this complaint.  Intellectual combat, within the rules and conducted fairly of course, is necessary to test one’s beliefs for philosophical value.  It is far too easy for anyone to get lost in flights of fancy dressed up in philosophical language, but ultimately leading nowhere. Much as one can be the greatest boxer in the world in one’s mind, one can be the purveyor of the greatest philosophical knowledge in one’s mind.  Training in the gym is some indication of one’s skill in combat, but only a good opponent can tell us the truth.  Similarly, a coherent philosophical system is some indication of insight, but only philosophical combatants can reveal the truth.  Too much sympathy with a philosopher’s views can in fact be counter-productive for him/her if it interferes with the level of critical engagement required to see just how far the views can be pushed.  

Certainly philosophical exchange should be fair and reasonable, without personal, gratuitous, or otherwise inappropriate attacks because victory by such means tells us nothing about ourselves as philosophers. However, I think philosophical debate, like all intellectual pursuits, is inevitably combative and rightly so. This can lead to painful experiences, to be sure, but pain is a large part of learning, as any boxer will tell you after he/she drops his hands in front of a good coach!  Philosophers should not shy away from the combative elements of the discipline, though we should do what we can to abide by fair standards and rules that apply to all.  I wonder what the philosophical equivalent of a weight-class would be…

Oh, and if you are in Kingston and want to learn how to box, here is the place to go.





Thursday, 21 March 2019

On Freedom of Expression

I think it is worth reminding ourselves why freedom of expression matters.  There were times when any of the following suggestions might have provoked stunned outrage: that Jews be allowed to own land or hold political office; that women be allowed to vote; that African Americans be granted full citizenship.  The free expression of dissenting views was of the utmost importance in those days.  It remains so today, even if the particular suggestions just noted are no longer taken seriously.  Unfortunately, there are debates in academic philosophy today that are conducting themselves without proper regard for the importance of allowing dissenting views to see the light of day.

I was thinking about this recently upon learning that the very excellent interviewer, Richard Marshall, resigned from 3AM Magazine after the decision was made to remove an interview he conducted from the magazine (see here or here).  I don't fault the magazine for this, as it was under immense pressure and acted reluctantly.  That, however, is what makes this situation so worrisome.  Reasoned dissent is not a threat to moral progress, but essential to it.

Noam Chomsky is right: either you believe in freedom of speech for those you disagree with or you don't believe in it at all; even Goebbels believed in freedom of speech for those he agreed with.  We need to remember this.  Everybody, on every side of a serious dispute, believes that he or she is on the side of the good and the true.  The value of freedom of expression comes from the knowledge that anybody can be wrong, and we won't know who is if we do not allow all considered views into the arena of debate.  Without such freedom, we have no check against persistent ignorance.  This is why such freedom is a foundational value of any civilized society, and its dismissal cannot be tolerated on the basis of offence.  Just because one is offended, it does not follow that one is right.  Those who found the very idea of a woman voting shocking did not gain any epistemic standing from the strength of their outrage.  The same holds today for anybody, even those on the right side of a dispute: one's outrage carries no probative value, except, perhaps, in demonstrating something about one's personality.

I think that the value of free inquiry goes even further than this, however, to the individual level.  Without the freedom to personally consider all viewpoints, no individual can fully self-develop.  The ability to openly explore all possibilities in creating a life path is central to the formation of the self.  Freedom of speech and thought lies, therefore, at the basis of human flourishing.

Of course there are risks associated with erring on the side of freedom of expression, but the best defence against bad views is counter-argument, not censorship, dogmatic resistance, or loud sloganeering.  If we stand by while the views we disagree with are silenced, it is only a matter of time before the views we agree with are silenced.

It is deeply worrisome to me that philosophy - of all disciplines! - should be losing sight of this in even the slightest of ways.  We are not doing justice to our worthy inheritance.  I fear that many philosophers today would be on the side of the Athenian government supporting Socrates' conviction rather than standing up for his right to offend.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Some Reflections on the Chomsky-Foucault Debate


After ten years on my shelf, I finally picked up and read The Chomsky-Foucault Debate.  I knew a fair bit about Chomsky’s philosophy and much less about Foucault’s, but came away with increased admiration for both.  I found Foucault’s responses to indicate a very subtle and thoughtful approach to historical and conceptual questions and I was impressed by how much agreement there was between him and Chomsky.
            Where they mostly disagree is on the nature of political justice as well as the idea of human nature.  Chomsky has famously argued that there must be something like a human nature, by which he means an inborn set of cognitive capacities inherited from our genetic ancestors.  These would allow human beings to solve the practical induction problem of there being no way to determine the difference between a linguistic noise and a non-linguistic one by simple sensory exposure. They would also explain the similarity in structure between all languages, the ability of children from any part of the world to learn the language of any other part, and so on.
            Foucault is sceptical of the idea of human nature because of the observed plasticity of concepts in general through history.  Something that is seen as an eternal necessity in one era is rejected as trivially false in another.  More notably, the ways in which concepts, such as ‘human nature’, are understood often seems to be the result of the wish of the powerful to marginalize, exclude, or punish certain groups in society.  So, for example, one human trait might be deemed natural, or part of human nature, so that those who lack it can be confined to institutions, subjected to degrading treatments, or teased.  Terms referring to torturous acts can be medicalized in order to seem like neutral, benign practices.   All of this has the effect of rendering a substantial sub-group of the population oppressed and without a voice, so changes in our understanding of the human being, biology, medicine, and social institutions are not necessarily indicative of progress toward truth or enlightenment.  Indeed, Foucault expresses a very deep scepticism of the very concept of such progress simply because every concept will be subject to such arbitrary mangling: this includes such concepts as ‘truth’, ‘knowledge’, ‘objectivity’, ‘rationality’, ‘evidence’, ‘science’, and so on.  No idea can be assumed to be free of the ad hoc manipulations of the powerful.
            In essence, Chomsky agrees with this on the social and political level.  He accepts that powerful groups – state governments, multi-national corporations, and so on – purposely, if not always explicitly, exert tremendous control on the generation and distribution of ideas in society: what gets heard, as opposed to silenced; taken seriously, as opposed ridiculed; presented as settled instead of controversial; dismissed as absurd as opposed to respected; and so on, is in various ways a product of what powerful groups and individuals want the general public to think.  He believes there is effectively greater ideological control in the United States than in fascist Spain (the control is exerted subtly rather than by government force).
            Where Chomsky disagrees is at the individual level. No matter how concepts may be contorted and disfigured, it is absurd to suppose that individual human beings are formless, perfectly plastic blobs, simply waiting for the imprint of their ideological environment.  After all, a perfectly formless entity – it surely couldn’t rightly be an object in any interesting sense – would be unable to absorb any imprinting: to draw an imperfect analogy, you could press your hand into the vacuum of space all you want and never leave a print; but if you press your hand into clay, then a mark will be formed.  So, human beings must have some kind of structure of receptivity in order to be subject to conceptual manipulation and, therefore, to be able to take up concepts in the first place.  Chomsky thinks this is compatible with the kind of historical abuses aptly pointed out by Foucault.
            To put it another way, without a background of relatively fixed form, the concepts of manipulation, change, or distortion would have no application.  If literally everything goes, then nothing does: clay can only be deformed because if it has an internal structure to begin with.  On this, I am firmly on Chomsky’s side: if there is change, of either a benign or malicious kind, then there must be some structure to be altered.
            So one question I have is what the impact is of Foucault’s observation – which I also think is true – that many medical, scientific, philosophical, political, economic, social, etc., terms and concepts have gone through significant historical changes.  What are we to make of the fact that what is considered a benign, even beneficent ‘medical’ intervention in 1880 is considered an unthinkable attempt at social control or even torture today?  What is the implication of this sort of historical variability?
            Well, it seems to me that the answer is at a certain level pretty straightforward, though things get complicated pretty quickly. First, as noted above, such alternation couldn’t have any impact on human beings if we weren’t the kinds of creature who are, innately, subject to conceptual impact.  You can shout obscenities at a rock or twig all you want, or you can offer the most soothing words you know, and you won’t change its response to the forces of gravity.  You can calmly and soothingly insult your dog and not impact its self-esteem in any way.  Yet, with human beings, even the most subtle form of insult can trigger large responses, and certainly institutional settings can change our sense of what is possible for us to achieve because of our observation of what is acceptable/rewarded and what is unacceptable/punished.  So, the kind of historical, conceptual plasticity rightly noted by Foucault in fact depends on the kind of human nature that Chomsky defends, i.e. one that is subject to conceptual impact.  The fact that the concept ‘human nature’ itself has undergone historical transformations doesn’t contradict this.
            But there is something more intriguing to me that comes out of the discussion between Chomsky and Foucault on political justice. Chomsky believes that it is part of our inherited human nature that we strive for creativity and meaningful engagement with our surroundings.  Indeed, it is his argument that the learning or usage of language, even in its most basic forms, is an ongoing act of creativity that is outside the scope of explanation by current principles of natural science.  So, he thinks it is of our essence to be creative and free, and that this has implications for the proper arrangement of society: it should be one in which individuals are, insofar as possible, enabled to pursue creative, meaningful interactions with their surroundings.  Moreover, systems can be judged as relatively just or unjust along such a dimension, i.e. how amenable they are to such freedom and creativity.
            What surprised me most of all in reading the debate was how strongly Foucault rejected this, in large part, so far as I can tell, because it all rests on notions of both ‘human nature’ and ‘justice’ that, he believes, can have no fixed, ahistorical content.  What is ‘just’ for one context is the height of malevolence in another. Hence there is simply no hope of measuring justice, even in theory because there is no measure outside of a given context.  Now, in one sense I think this is what one would expect if one were to hold that human beings and human ideas are all inherently formless: there could hardly be a fact as to what promotes or degrades human well-being if there are no facts about well-being.  Foucault says:

“When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial, and even bloody power.  I can’t see what objection one could make to this” (p. 52).

He says later:

“it seems to me that the idea of justice in itself is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power” (p. 54).

So this really suggests that it is the idea that human concepts have no essence – they are inherently without form – that supports a rather nihilistic conclusion: that there is nothing we can say by way of criticism when the powerful abuse the powerless.  It is just what is done, and words will be twisted to mean whatever the relevant group – powerful or powerless – want them to mean.  If this is true, however, then there is no difference between good and bad uses of a concept, so there can be no such thing as improperly or unjustly pathologizing any given kind of human behaviour.  So calling all the X's in human society "great" and "in need of medical treatment to eliminate X-behaviour" are equally good or bad.
            One thing that is going on is that Foucault thinks that the concepts we have can’t be used to fight and overthrow the system in which the concepts are born:

“you can’t prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realization of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and one can’t, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should – and shall in principle – overthrow the very fundaments of our society.  This is an extrapolation for which I can’t find the historical justification” (pp. 57-58).

Now there is a sense of what we might call “taint creep” here: since all concepts are born in a system that is tainted to a certain degree, they are all thoroughly and irredeemably tainted themselves.  I’m not sure why we should believe this.  But this can’t be quite right, because outside of a conceptual system, the notion of “taint” lacks application.
            Of course, this might be simply a prediction or empirical claim: as a matter of fact, using concepts such as “justice”, which are born in a classist system, simply will fail to have any impact in overthrowing or substantially changing that system.  I gather that the evidence for this comes in the final sentence of the above quotation, namely that Foucault hasn’t found any historical example of concepts within a system being employed to overthrow that system.  An analogy might be as follows: as long as one limits oneself to the vocabulary of capitalism, one will be unable to overthrow capitalism, or even properly conceive of this overthrow, because the terms one uses will carry, implicitly perhaps, the justification for capitalism. 
            Okay, but can one not, even within the framework of capitalism, say, recognize certain limitations, such as great inequality, for example? Upon seeing this, can one not conceive of the need to modify or even overthrow the system, in order to eliminate this problem?  Notice that in the quotation above, Foucault points out the inadequacy of concepts such as “justice” to carry out a fight that should overthrow the fundamentals of society.  How can he suggest that this should be done, unless he conceives of a flaw in the current system that implies some action is normatively required?  Or, is “should” here merely an expression of personal taste, in which case why take it seriously?
            More importantly, if any social change is to occur, human beings are going to have to organize, communicate, and act in some sort of concerted effort.  This will require the employment of language and appeal to concepts: cohesive social effort of the type required is impossible otherwise.  Let us grant that Foucault is right and that all concepts are born of some social context.  If that means all concepts and ideas are tainted, then all attempts at change will require tools tainted by the vested interests of those who create and control concepts.  
Does it follow, however, that the result of such changes will be similarly tainted?  I don’t think so.  There is some kind of projection fallacy going on here: even if all the hammers used to build a house are made of wood, it doesn’t follow that the house is made of wood.  If a house is built out of sand, water, and a binding agent such as cement, one is left with a house that is neither sand, nor water, nor cement but, rather, concrete.  Properties of those things that construct something new are not necessarily transferred to that something new: some may be, but it is far from necessary. I imagine that Foucault’s point may be that whatever revolution we construct, the result will be at least in part a new conceptual system, and all concepts do necessarily carry the biases, distortions and power grab of some group or another.  Perhaps, but this doesn’t show that improvement is impossible: maybe there is no ideal landing spot available to us, no matter how revolutionary our actions, but perhaps some conceptual biases will be better for human beings than others. 
Of course, this is where I imagine Foucault insisting that “better for” is simply the invention of a few, used to placate themselves that they are doing the “right” thing and so feel better about whatever the results of their actions may end up being.  I don’t see any reason to believe this, unless one thinks that all properties of concepts, including their genetic ones, transfer to whatever those concepts are used to build, and this seems fallacious to me.
But I detect something else in the passages quoted above.  If all concepts, being born somewhere in some social context, are thereby unfit to serve the purposes of critiquing their social, political, or economic, system, then this would suggest that we need to transcend concepts/ideas altogether in order to achieve genuine political insight.  If the concepts that exist necessarily recapitulate the systems in which they are born, then escaping a system means escaping conceptual thought. This ties up with the denial of human nature, with the insistence that we, and perhaps all beings, are formless: the constraints implicit in conceptual systems are ill-suited to represent that which is without form.  This is interesting, but I think it is fatally flawed: that which is utterly formless, can sustain no imperatives, no creativity, neither advance nor retreat, nothing at all really.  A formless realm of thought, as Chomsky points out, is one in which nothing goes because anything does.  A truly limitless system of concepts would be one in which anything can mean anything in any way, which means it is impossible to interpret, at least by creatures such as ourselves; but then it is not clear how it could lead to anything at all, never mind social change.
In the end, I think the choice boils down to a Chomskean notion that progress, however small, can be made within a corrupt system so long as we open our minds and seek justice and fairness, or else a kind of fatalistic surrender in which no cohesive action is conceivable.  As Chomsky argues, creativity requires the friction provided by conceptual limits, and this includes thinking creatively about how to improve the lives of human beings.  I think Foucault’s arguments that this is impossible either because concepts such as justice can never escape the power systems in which they are born, or else because concepts are simply not suited to the job of revolutionary thinking, seems to be either fallacious because it makes a kind of genetic fallacy, or else hopeless, because it amounts to the idea that, in order to truly change things, we must access a purely limitless conceptual realm, which seems like a contradiction in terms: ‘limitless’ and ‘conceptual’ are at odds.
Perhaps that is our lot: there is simply nothing to say about the world, really; all is projection and there simply can be no objective facts at all, not even ones about small, incremental improvements.  This view is, however, self-undermining because in order for there to be projections at all, there must be some things that can be impressed upon and some effects of such impressions, as argued above.  If the world were truly without inherent form, this would include human minds as well, and there would be no way for concepts to have any impact whatsoever, and even historical plasticity would be an illusion, though even illusion would be impossible, for they have a certain form. That fact that there is illusion, entails that there is form to the human mind because the formless cannot be subject to illusion.
So, I think it is safe to side with Chomsky: there are facts about human nature, and there could very well be facts about what is better or worse for that nature.   This does not entail that human nature, or natural nature, is fixed and timeless; either could be subject to change with time. But at any given time in which there is so much as the acceptance of a concept, or the illusion of natural structure, is one in which there is some form of structure in the world, no matter how obscure it may seem to us.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

On the demand for explanation

The humanities are in something of a bind due to the fact that its works can only exist in a narrative form.  Good luck getting a grant application approved If your project does not make for a good story, with a premise, i.e. a well defined problem (not too big but not too small; relevant but also timeless), identifiable obstacles to solving the problem (the bad guys), a tidy set of solutions to the obstacles (the good guy) and a clear indication of how the solutions will advance the field (a happy ending).  Any essay, book, or talk is bound by the same rules.   But what if the world doesn’t operate on narrative principles?  That is, what if reality follows the laws of cause, effect, matter, energy, space, and time, to whose mathematical form story arcs are invisible?  If so, why should we expect narrative structure to adequately capture reality?

Consider Kahneman and Tversky’s work on hindsight bias (“creeping determinism”) which is the tendency for us to see past events as expected, predictable, or inevitable (in hindsight) all the while happily acknowledging that the future remains unpredictable. This combination is clearly hard to make coherent but a historical narrative is precisely the act of explaining notable past events, that is to say, making them seem obvious given the proper focus on the proper underlying conditions at the time.  That is, it is the following story: given the conditions and the following historical interpretation or theory, the event was bound to occur and, using this theory, one better understand current and future events. This once again fits a classic kind if story structure.

Next consider the ancient cosmological question: why is there something at all, rather than nothing?  Recently, physicists have started turning their attention this traditional piece of philosophy, for example Lawrence Krauss’s recent book, A Universe From Nothing. It is natural for astrophysics to address this question as the attempt to explain the Big Bang, at least in some fairly direct sense, amounts to the attempt to explain why there is a universe at all.  Cosmology naturally turns toward the issue.  

But explanation is constrained by the parameters of human reasoning in ways that threaten to make the cosmological question unanswerable.  For assume physicists have identified the absolute rock bottom ontological layer.  Perhaps it is 11-dimensional strings, or a quantum vacuum, or space-time loops, or what have you.  Whatever it is, imagine it turns out to explain all other physical facts, at least when combined with initial (boundary) conditions.  Now raise the cosmological question: why is there this rather than nothing?  Well, the explanation for the existence of, say, the quantum vacuum can take one of two forms: either it is explained by the existence of something else or it is self explanatory.  In the former case, the question is just pushed back and we will need to ask why there is that further being, and so on infinitely.  In the latter case, we have a circular explanation.  Neither of these satisfies.  Each is in fact a paradigm of non-explanation.  In philosophy’s long history, two of the primary means of showing a position to be problematic is to show that it leads to an infinite regress, and so fails to explain anything (e.g McTaggart’s argument agains the reality of time) or else that an argument is circular.  Along with the charge of incoherence, these are probably the three primary stopping points in philosophical and general argumentation.  

Similar points apply to other humanities as well, of course.  A historical explanation of a phenomenon that simply points to some other phenomena in need of explanation may satisfy those for whom the other phenomenon is sufficiently acceptable as a premise, but it will hardly address the cosmological question.  Nor will an explanation that casts some event as its own explainer.  

In general, explanation proceeds by appeal to something taken as given along with some kind of organizing principle to derive a conclusion that is the item to be explained.  But this process cannot go on forever.  It must reach an end point, which is something that is an unexplained explainer or else a self-explainer that can also somehow explain everything else.  But, again, the former is simply to beg off of giving an explanation and the latter is, famously, not the kind of thing that one can expect the natural sciences to turn up, given that they are designed to investigate the empirical world in all its contingency.  As philosophers have pointed out through the ages, the posit of some kind of divine entity, a necessary being that is the ground of all being, will logically do the trick: if something is a necessary being, then it’s existence is explained by its necessity; if this being is the ground of all else, then we have explained all.  It needn’t be pointed out that the natural sciences, and naturalistically inclined philosophers, are unlikely to consider such an explanatory path to be worth pursuing.

So our quest to answer the cosmological question seems to point inevitably toward theology.  Of course, this is only apparently the case because there is an alternative: not everything can be explained.  Not because the world is some kind of mystical entity but, rather, simply because our own cognitive limitations are not up for the task of explaining all that there is.  Perhaps, in other words, it is a shortfall of our cognitive architecture that we can only understand explanations in terms of boundary conditions and applicable laws/principles.  Maybe a universe could, for example, consist of an infinite series of dependencies: matter depends on energy which depends on space-time which depends on the quantum vacuum which depends on … ad infinitum.  Such a universe would be one that would seem to us to be inexplicable.  Nevertheless, it might still be.  

The point is that whenever we seek explanation we must eventually push up against the limits of the human demand for stories of a certain kind.  Given this perennial danger, the demand that all philosophical, historical, literary, anthropological, sociological, etc. theories fit into a neat narrative structure comes to seem question-begging and needlessly limiting of the possible models of reality that we might want to consider: why prejudge the outcome at the start by turning away from an explanation that lacks the standard sorts of narrative structure?  It is hard to imagine how, say, putting a string of equations on the board followed by “therefore, reality” could possibly explain anything, but perhaps the point is that while it might not explain anything to us, it nevertheless explains everything in some sense we cannot grasp.  Or, perhaps the demand for explanation itself is the result of cognitively limited beings trying to tell a story that captures a reality that extends beyond the scope of those limits.  Perhaps the demand for explanation and understanding is misguided from the start.

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.