Useful Concepts -#13- Going With the Flow

When I was much younger, maybe in my teens, I adopted “go with the flow” as a motto and as a way of life. For me it didn’t mean just following others or not having any idea what I wanted to do. It meant not having too clear a plan, for example going to the train station knowing that there would be a train reasonably soon, rather than going with a particular itinerary in mind. Or walking around in the right area of town trusting that I would find the place I needed to find, rather than having the location clearly mapped out in my mind.

This may have led to me spending too much time waiting at train stations, or asking perfect strangers for directions more frequently than may be respectable. Less kind observers may also have taken my “go with the flow” attitude for a rationalisation of a certain lack of personal organisation or an overly intellectual excuse for a poor sense of direction. But it did insure me against getting too stressed if stuff didn’t go to plan. (Not having a specific itinerary in mind happened to be particularly useful when I became a user of English trains, rather than Swiss ones.)

Speaking of rationalisations and over-intellectualising things, it’s fair to say that “going with the flow” has pretty much the purest intellectual and philosophical ancestry of any useful concept. Ever since Thales of Miletus, one of the first Greek philosophers, thought that water was the primal substance and Pythagoras believed that souls flow from one incarnation to the next, ideas of flux were in philosophical play. But it was Heraclitus of Ephesus who declared that everything flows.  And in a way this idea that beyond our reality, where things seem hard and fast and where we assume a certain amount of stability, there is a world in flow, flux, change, and motion is perhaps the original philosophical stance. It is even possible that Heraclitus taught that if everything is in flux then we – our selves – are also impermanent. We only have fragments of his teachings preserved in the writings of later philosophers, often out of context, misquoted or misunderstood. But his tendency to compare the flux of everything to the flow of a river is clear. He says people can’t step into the same river twice. And when this is quoted, there sometimes is a suggestion that those who step into the river aren’t the same either on the two occasions. If we allow for Heraclitus’ concept of “psyche” to stand for a kind of concept of self, it is clear that Heraclitus regarded it as something we could never fully get a grasp of ourselves.

Heraclitus is credited with this original vision of the fleeting world. But what consequences does flux have for our lives? What does it mean for the way we are, that everything, even our own selves are in flux? Perhaps surprisingly the real masters of flux for me, because they aim to address some of these questions, are the Stoics. It was probably the founder of that philosophical school, Zeno of Citium, who declared that a happy life was one that “flowed smoothly.” (And by  the way, while we’re talking about Ancient Greek or “Western” philosophy, Thales’ and Heraclitus’ hometowns of Miletus and Ephesus were in an area called Asia Minor, today Turkey, whereas Zeno’s hometown of Citium is in today’s Cyprus, so far East that it’s more or less equidistant between London and Mumbai.)

The word the Stoics used for the “smooth flow” of life is “eurhoia,” a term that is also used in ancient Greek for water that flows clearly without obstacles, and for speech that flows well with a coherent argument. But what does it mean for a life to flow smoothly? It means arranging our life in such a way that the flow of the self moves with the flow of everything else. For the Stoics the flow of everything was not just a random movement of atoms in a chaotic universe but it was a pre-determined course of events guided by fate. Occasionally they metaphorically describe Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods, as the personification of that destiny, at other times it is a divine sequence of cause and effect, represented by the goddess Heimarmene, or just the nature of things. Bringing our own actions, but also our emotions, into line with that natural flow of things that happen in the world, is key to the good life and virtuous life.

One Stoic philosopher compares the human condition guided by destiny to the situation of a dog pulling a cart. The dog’s master will make the dog pull the cart from A to B. The dog may take the attitude that it doesn’t want to pull the cart from A to B. It may try going elsewhere, or it may try to shake off the cart. Then it will be beaten by the master all the way from A to B. It will be an unpleasant experience but the outcome will be that the dog pulls the cart from A to B. Or it can willingly get on with the task and get from A to B without being beaten, a smooth journey. That sounds a bit unfriendly, but there are other ways of putting it. Here’s Diogenes Laertius, the third century biographer of Greek philosophers summarising the teachings of the Stoic, Chrysippus:

“Again, ‘to live according to virtue’ is equivalent to living according to the experience of events which occur by nature, as Chrysippus says […]. For our natures are parts of the nature of the universe. Therefore, the goal becomes ‘to live consistently with nature,’ i.e., according to one’s own nature and that of the universe, doing nothing which is forbidden by the common law, which is right reason, penetrating all things, being the same as Zeus, who is the leader of the administration of things. And this itself is the virtue of the happy man and a smooth flow of life, whenever all things are done according to the harmony of the daimon in each of us with the will of the administrator of the universe.”

The aspect of this that seems most modern about this is the idea of living in accordance with one’s own nature. “The daimon within us” is not a demon, but the kind of minor divinity of the self who can aim to get along with Zeus, the controller of the universe. And this idea of being true to oneself – living in line with our own nature – is expressed in other, practical ways. Cicero, summarising the teachings of the Stoics for the Romans, gives an example (also alluding to the use of “eurhoia” in rhetorics as smoothly flowing speech which would have been important for him, the master orator) :

If anything at all is fitting, then nothing is more fitting than a smooth flow of life as a whole and of individual actions; and you cannot preserve this if you neglect your own nature and imitate that of other people. For just as we should employ the style of speech that is familiar to us to avoid being quite justifiably ridiculed like certain people who drop in Greek words all over the place, so too we should not admit any inconsistency into our actions and our general way of life…

None of this means that we should lazily submit to the thought that it’s just our fate to have certain things happen to us, or it’s just our nature that we are a certain way. The dog still has to pull the cart. It is doing hard work – happily – to get where the master wants it to go. And the inner “daimon” is managing the flow of the self, as a microcosm of the flow of the universe managed by Zeus. That self isn’t fixed. It is in movement. It just flows more smoothly and pleasantly when it goes with the flow of overall destiny.



Useful Concepts – #12 – Happiness Again

The other day I met up with a former colleague. I say “former colleague” but maybe “friend” would be a better word. Not that he’s a close friend. I know very little about what goes on in his life. But I’ve worked with him for long enough to know his strengths and for him to know my weaknesses, our views of the world overlap to a significant enough extent and we can tap into each other’s sense of humour easily enough. He’s one of those people who are very good at being rude (honest) to me but with enough underlying sarcasm and politeness that it’s easy to take. So  I wasn’t surprised that he suggested somehow that I probably spend too much time blogging and promoting my blog on social media.

I gave my usual explanation, that I just wanted to get into a regular habit of writing, that I’ve spent too much time reading and thinking and not enough writing, and so on. He responded: “Really? I just thought you wanted to help.” As I couldn’t work out whether he was making fun of me or whether he was getting at the truth, I decided he was probably doing both. (Who says Socratic irony is dead?). “Help make the world a better place?” I asked. He confirmed that that was indeed his take on what I was trying to do. We both smirked at the hopeless idealism and immodest ambition in that alleged motive and I changed the subject.

But yes, I guess in truth I would like to help. Ideally, if I’m honest, I would like each of my little blog posts to be a “transformational object” for its readers. And one of the ways I would like to help is by getting at happiness and what that means for human beings. It was probably no coincidence that my first post was on the subject of happiness. There was a time when I was obsessed with the concept and given my personality type and preferences that meant getting at it intellectually rather than through practice, trial and error. I first got into it by studying ethics and learning that there are lines of inquiry that are not so just about working out what the right actions would be in given situations, but about having a vision of the good life for human agents and giving them a way to navigate their way through a hazardous world where much is out of their control.

A bit later I worked as a civil servant on sustainable development. And as it happened, this work again brought me back to my obsession with happiness, wellbeing, the good life, or quality of life. (Happiness was given other names in order to make it respectable for government to show an interest in it.) I was able to play a minor role in developing government indicators of wellbeing, funding research of people like Professor Paul Dolan who has since published his bestselling “Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life” and participating a bit (always at a slight distance as a grey-suited civil servant)  in Professor Tim Jackson’s work for the Sustainable Development Commission which led to his classic “Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow.” (How little he enjoyed his interaction with government is the subject of a new preface to the second edition.)

In the early part of the millennium there was a bit of a happiness boom driven by behavioural economics and positive psychology. And a part of why I was so angry and upset about the retreat of philosophy from the public sphere was that I felt that it was giving up on its tradition of having meaningful things to say to people about the important things in life and the big questions.

I remember for example being at a philosophy seminar where the lecturing philosopher described a psychological experiments that measured what activities contributed to people’s happiness. He described how people were given a pager that would send them a signal at random times of the day, at which point they were asked to record the activity they were engaged in and how happy they felt on a scale of one to ten. The lecturer’s voice trembled in anticipation of how amused his audience would be at this experimental set-up. And he was richly rewarded with sniggers from an audience full of senior academics.

Of course there is plenty that a philosopher could question about this, to give just a small number of questions as an example:

  • isn’t happiness too multi-dimensional to just rate it with a simple number?
  • how does someone’s happiness in the moment relate to their overall happiness in life or their evaluation of their happiness from a later point in time, say from their deathbed?
  • is an individual’s assessment of their happiness reliable or could they be deluded?
  • how do we deal with the fact that this experiment will only give us statistical correlations between happiness and activities, rather than causal explanations?
  • isn’t this idea of using technology to ask real people questions about things they do in everyday life a bit vulgar? Hadn’t we better rely on literature and a bit of thinking undertaken in the library?

But at the same time you could read things in philosophical literature that showed that philosophers could have done well to engage a bit more seriously with this kind of research. For example, in a book that I love and hold as one of the great works of philosophy, Rosalind Hursthouse relies on the fact that it is obvious to an outside observer whether we are enjoying ourselves. She writes:

“I need a shorthand description for the indications of enjoyment – that things are done with zest and enthusiasm, anticipated and recalled in certain tones of voice with certain facial expressions, and in a certain vocabulary, and so on – so I shall call them `the smile factor’.”

Relying on outside sings of enjoyment to draw conclusions on an inner state (the “smile factor”) is a tricky business but Hursthouse is not wrong to do so. It is similar to the idea that our subjective estimation of our happiness would mirror the judgement of other people as to how happy we are and would correspond to something real, namely our happiness. But while Hursthouse just uses a list of indications of enjoyment and assumes that they are as accessible to ourselves as they are to others, the economists and psychologists have done their homework and collected evidence: They undertook studies, for example, where they asked an individual to rate his happiness on a numeric scale. They then asked people close to that individual to rate his happiness. The ratings of the individual matched the rating of that individual’s happiness given by their friends reliably.

Or Professor James Griffin proposes a list of things that one might want in one’s life: accomplishment, the components of human life (autonomy, liberty, limbs and senses that work, the minimum material goods to keep body and soul together, etc.), understanding, enjoyment, deep personal relations. I’m sure I was at a lecture where Professor Griffin said that his list may show a slight bias to the things that academics might value but he thought it was pretty comprehensive. We could rely on such lists much more, if we compared them with the factors that look important when we look at studies of the wellbeing of tens of thousands of people world-wide.

On the other hand, it is depressing to read in Professor Lord Layard’s great and influential book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science dismissals of Aristotle of this kind:

“It differs, for example, from the approach taken by Aristotle and his many followers. Aristotle believed that the object of life was eudaimonia, or a type of happiness associated with virtuous conduct and philosophic reflection.”

“For Aristotle, ethical behaviour was largely a matter of good habits, which create discomfort when you behave badly and reinforcement when you behave well.”

“However Aristotle made one serious mistake. He included in his concept of happiness only that happiness which is associated with a life of virtue (including contemplation). This was to confuse the means with the end. Virtue may be the means to create a happy society, but the end is the greatest happiness and the least misery in the society. And much of happiness comes and should come from purely private pleasures. Is painting virtuous, or playing the piano to yourself, or enjoying bingo? Virtue doesn’t seem the right word to describe these things.”

Any serious engagement with philosophy could have cleared up some of the false assumptions here. For example the misunderstanding that, for Aristotle, happiness (eudaimonia) results as a consequence of virtuous actions, rather than that virtuous actions and having virtuous character traits are constituent parts of human flourishing. Aristotle wouldn’t have a problem with the idea that bingo (played virtuously) could contribute to the happiness of human beings. Or for an other example, the idea that habits which create comfort and discomfort in response to behaviour are the mechanics that links virtues to happiness. Virtues for Aristotle are more than a question of good habits and good behaviour. They are more like character traits that govern emotions, reliable and stable ways of acting, sensitivities, reasoning and so on. Nor is Aristotle’s happiness a sum total of momentary comforts and discomforts, but a notion related to the characteristically good, flourishing life for human beings.

Would there be a difference if Layard (whose work has been influential in shifting public policy and government spending priorities) had paid more attention to Aristotle, rather than dismissing him on flimsy grounds? I don’t know. But the vast array of studies that have found correlations between various activities and subjective ratings of happiness of the people who undertake them could be enriched. Correlations have been found for example between happiness and all three of the following: commuting to work for a shorter time rather than a longer time, being married, and attending church regularly. It seems to me that if you want to move from mere correlation to causation, it will be important to ask, for example, how commuters could make better use of their time commuting to engage in valuable activities, rather than just waste it. Or you need to ask yourself whether it is being in possession of a marriage certificate that makes married people happier, or whether it could be something about their ability to enter into deep personal relationships and long-term commitments (things that unmarried people can cultivate in different ways too, by the way). And you have to ask yourself whether it is being in a church at certain times that is making people happy, or the social aspects, putting time aside to reflect on the human condition in its relation to the divine, or enjoying beautiful music and language. Otherwise you might end up prescribing the wrong things for happiness (get a different job closer to home, even if your current job gives you a great sense of purpose, get married even if you’re not sure it’s for you, go to church) and miss the point.

So yes, I will hopefully write a bit more about happiness. (Looking back it looks like all of my blog posts so far are in some way about happiness.) And in some way or other I hope we will get at its nature, or at least stay close to it.

Useful Concepts – #11 – Feelings Have Thoughts Too!

Philosophers have not gained a reputation for being greatly in touch with their feelings. “Being philosophical” about something means rationally processing it without getting too swayed by emotions.

But amongst the philosophers, it is the Stoics who are particularly thought to be unemotional. They are sometimes seem as not quite human, somewhat robotic, in their  ambition to maintain equanimity in the face of events that would, in normal people, cause great emotion, positive or negative.

And indeed the Stoics taught that things like riches or poverty, health or illness, our relationships with loved ones, even life or death, are outside of our control and so we shouldn’t consider them to be too important. They are merely indifferent items. The only things that matter are our inner qualities or our virtuous character. For the kind of calm state of mind that could be achieved by applying that kind of thinking to life, they have the image of the flat undisturbed sea on a windless day (“galene” in Ancient Greek).

So it may come as a surprise that Martha Nussbaum – with her 57 honorary degrees and 18 academic awards and prizes a rockstar of the philosophical world – has revived the Stoic teachings on emotions to create a highly persuasive account of what emotions are, and, of course, a very useful concept. That account also smashes the traditional way of thinking of thought and feeling as diametrically opposed.

Unlike some philosophical writing, which can be technical, dry and removed from life as we know it, Martha Nussbaum’s book about the emotions starts with a heart-rending biographical account of how she heard of the death of her mother and the days that followed. It also manages to deal with some things that most people contemplate quietly within themselves, such as why she and her sister grieved in different ways, and so on. All in the service of making philosophical points.

The basic point of Nussbaum’s so-called neo-Stoic account of the emotions is that emotions are basically judgements we make about things that are important to our own well-being, or flourishing. In evaluating external things, things outside of our control, as important to our well-being we also acknowledge our lack of self-sufficiency.

The idea that emotions may actually be evaluative judgements seems at first glance unlikely for a number of reasons:

1.) Emotions have urgency and “heat” to them, unlike the rational thought processes that more normally lead to judgements.

2.) Emotions tend to overcome us. We are passive with regard to them, rather than actively pursuing a thought process that would lead to a judgement.

3.) The ability of emotions to “dismember the self” (in Nussbaum’s words) when thoughts are normally thought to be (more or less) under our control.

Let’s take these objections in turn with Nussbaum’s explanation:

1.) Urgency and heat: Emotions feel urgent because they are judgements about things we think are important to our wellbeing and flourishing. They are not just any kind of judgment, but judgements that are central to our most valued attachments, projects and goals. Fear is the emotion where we judge something central to our wellbeing to be threatened. Sadness is the emotion where we judge something central to our wellbeing to be lost. Joy is the emotion where we judge it to be available. And so on. Because of their connection to our view of what would be a good life for us, they create urgency.

2.) Our passivity regarding emotions: This comes from the fact that emotions are judgements about objects in which we are invested but which are outside of our control. (There are echoes here of the Stoic view that nothing apart from our character is under our control.) Things happen. We can’t help but notice that they happen and make the relevant judgements about how they affect our flourishing.

3.) The self being torn apart: Quoting Nussbaum:

“the reason why in some emotional experiences the self feels torn apart (and in happier experiences filled with a marvellous sense of wholeness) is, once again, that these are transactions with a world about which we care deeply, a world that can complete us or tear us apart. No view that makes the emotion like a physical object hitting us can do justice to the way the world enters into the self in emotion, with enormous power to wound or to heal. For it enters in a cognitive way, in our perceptions and beliefs about what matters. Not just an arm or a leg, but a sense of life, gets  the shock or grief.

Insofar then, as we might sometimes be more affected or more aware of the emotions we are feeling than the judgements we are making, emotions then – in this neo-Stoic view – can also serve as a guide to a greater understanding of our thought processes and our conception of the good life for ourselves. It is a rewarding exercise, in times when we feel emotional, to try to unearth the evaluative judgement about our sense of flourishing and wellbeing at the core of the emotion. Stopping to ask “what judgement about my wellbeing am I making that is inherent in feeling happy, sad, fearful, confident right now?” may seem a bit overly Stoic, but it works and can be useful.

As a postscript for those who enjoyed the examples of (mis-)adventures of intellectuals commenting on tennis players in my previous post about Roger Federer, in researching this post, I found another great example from Martha Nussbaum:

“Two night ago, I went to bed thinking that Todd Martin had been knocked out of the U. S. Open (since he had lost the first two sets to a tough opponent.) I felt a little sad. When I woke up, I found out that he had won in five sets. I saw him on TV dancing around the court, and I felt a surge of joy. But of course it was a trivial sorrow and a trivial joy. While one watches a tennis match, one is intensely focused on the athlete one likes, and so an emotion can develop as one temporarily comes to think the match very important – and perhaps also identifies with the aging Martin, with his graying temples, so like one’s own if one did not dye one’s hair. But when normal life resumes, the evaluation resumes its normal low level. Todd Martin just isn’t a very important part of my life.

Useful Concepts – #9 – Experience Machines

Quite possibly the first use of the adjective “superduper” in philosophical literature occurred in the mid-1970s in this paragraph by Robert Nozick:

“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences of, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”

Nozick gives three answers:

  1. We want to do certain things, rather than just have the experience of doing them. (But even Nozick asks, but why?)
  2. We want to be a certain way, to be a certain person. If we plug in, we’re just an “indeterminate blob.” Nozick asks, is the person in the tank courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? How could we know? How could they be?
  3. Plugging in “limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated.”

The experience machine has created a whole literature, not to mention any number of sci-fi films. People have worked out variants, for example where you never emerge from the machine until your biological death, in order to get rid of the idea that you could ever become conscious of spending a lot of time just being a body in a tank, and so on.

People argue over whether Nozick got the right reasons to reject the machine. Some people may also take pleasure in the intellectual bravado of saying that they would plug in, that they see no reasons not to. That would be a typically annoying undergraduate posture to take up. (I’d know, I did for a whole afternoon. It was many years ago.)

The ongoing discussion just shows how great a concept the experience machine is. But the rejection of it, for most people who aren’t undergraduates in philosophy, is immediate and from the gut. (Not every belief or conviction that is instinctive and intuitive is necessarily right, though this one is.)

Experience machines exist, of course, and many of us plug ourselves in quite willingly. Some of those superduper people, for example, can help us flood our brains with a  bitter, white crystalline purine, a methylxanthine alkaloid that is chemically related to the adenine and guanine bases of deoxyribonucleic acid and ribonucleic acid. This blocks the action of adenosine on its receptor in the brain and stimulates the autonomic nervous system. It makes us less drowsy, more alert, physically faster and better co-ordinated. It can increase our heart rate and pulse. You’ll be aware of course, that we don’t have to plug into electrodes and float in a tank for this. And the superduper people aren’t neuropsychologists, but more likely baristas. This experience machine is just a regular cup of coffee.

But physical symptoms and mental states are a two-way street. Research has shown, for example, that, even when you feel you have no reasons to, you can smile for a while and your mood will improve, or you can clench your fist for a while and that can make you more aggressive. And so this experience machine can give us the impression that we’re well rested and refreshed (not in any way drowsy or tired) or that we’re facing an amazing, interesting experience (alertness, fast pulse) or a fight-or-flight type situation (heart beating faster, sudden alertness) even when it’s just a routine Monday morning and we’re on our way to the day-job.

There is, of course, also the type of organic compound in which the hydroxyl functional group is bound to a saturated carbon atom. This is an experience machine that can give us the desirable experience of being socially less inhibited, much more certain that other people find us entertaining and generally convinced that we’re all round great people. It can be ingested in pleasant-tasting drinks like wine and beer.

And anyone who has ever seen a small child on a sugar rush may also find it easy to believe that sugar provides a desirable experience of enjoyment and mental energy, not least by activating dopamine in the brain in a way that is similar to stronger drugs.

I’ll call things like coffee or alcohol  “mini experience machines.” After all, the effect lasts a much shorter time than a session in the superduper neuropsychologists’ floatation tank experience would. And it gives us not so much a whole set of new experiences that are wholly separate to what we’re doing and who we are, but it puts a little layer of, say, additional (alternative) reality, over and above that reality.

I’m not saying that coffee, alcohol and sugar are therefore bad things or that we need to reject them with the instinctive vehemence with which we would reject the idea of plugging into an experience machine. But it probably helps to be aware of the “experience machine light” effect of such things.

I also find some of the tools some of us work with are a bit like experience machines in that they give us an interface to interact with the world in a way that, as much as possible, reduces reality to things that pop up on a screen. So I know that people want to give me some information or want me to do something in something like the following way (that’s not my real inbox, by the way):

I  can have conversations and exchanges with lots of people and all the while I’m just “plugged in” to a screen.

So, in fact, there may be lots of mini experience machines that interact in various ways to put layers of differing experiences across “real” life on a day-by-day basis. And although we may not have the same reasons to reject these mini experience machines – after all, they are more time-limited, localised in terms of their effect and less intrusive in the way we can link up to them – maybe we should aim to be suspicious of them, particularly if we’re veering to more extended use (both in terms of timing or in terms of range of experience), so if one or more of the following are true:

  1. We use them in high doses, frequently or on a daily basis.
  2. They give us experiences that we worry we wouldn’t otherwise have enough of in our lives – excitement, connection, attention, confidence, mental energy.
  3. We would be forced to live our lives differently, if we didn’t have them.
  4. We couldn’t function properly in our daily lives without them.

But since I’ve declared so many things mini experience machines, would we even know whether we’re using them too much?

First of all, it is possible to take stock of the mini experience machines we use. We can then try not using them. Or, if that is too difficult, we could ask, what would the consequence be for the way I live my life, if I didn’t plug into this experience machine? How would I have to deal with the tiredness or the lack of challenges in my reality if I didn’t have coffee to simulate alertness? Why am I so inhibited when meeting people that I need alcohol to have its effect? What energy rush or feelings of enjoyment would I like that I currently take from sugar rushes?

And presumably, finding out about these things is what lots of people do these days when they sit down and pay attention to their breathing, to their mind and their thoughts with minimal stimulation from mini experience machines or communication technologies (particularly first thing in the morning when the body has processed all the ingested experience machines from the previous day). Maybe then they can listen to the real experience and find out if the like it, or not.

Or it may be away from screens in green spaces and in nature surrounded by other life forms who are less prone to plug into experience machines. Or it may be something we do while deeply involved in community, voluntary or religious activities. (These practices, by the way, have all been demonstrated to increase wellbeing.) They may also all help us to access the things in Nozick’s three reasons for rejecting experience machines:

  1. We may gain a better understanding of what we are doing in our lives, rather than just having the experience of doing them.
  2. We can ask ourselves and learn about what kind of person we are or want to be (rather than being an indeterminate blob).
  3. And we may even access a world that is deeper or more important “than that which people can construct.”



Useful Concepts – #8 – Just Going for It

The first thing to be aware of is the so-called “paradox of choice.” This provides the background for some useful concepts for making decisions. The paradox is that we expect more choice to be better for us and to make us happier but it doesn’t. Psychologists have found that once we have too much choice, say 24 flavours of jam or types of breakfast cereal rather than 4, we become less able to choose, more worried about the consequences of our choice, more likely to be stressed out about making the choice, potentially even anxious about whether we’ll regret it, and eventually less happy with our choice in retrospect.

Of course there are strategies and techniques for dealing with the problem of too much choice. For example, there’s the distinction between optimising and satisficing. Optimising is a strategy whereby you keep considering further options until you’ve convinced yourself that you have the best one. Satisficing is a decision-making approach whereby you set yourself some criteria that have to be fulfilled, and as soon as you find an option that fulfils them, you go for it. So, if you’re dining out and choosing a main course from a menu, you might set yourself the criteria green, vegetarian and rich in carbs and as soon as you arrive at the spaghetti al pesto, you look no further.

Beyond the strategies and techniques, there are useful insights from the philosophy of practical reason. This looks at what it means to have reasons for action or to act on reasons. When I read certain philosophers on this subject, I can’t help having the image in my head that we are like characters in one of those video game where you walk through an environment and jump to avoid a hole in the ground, duck to avoid flying objects, or swerve to collect objects for bonus points. In those games, if you fail to take the right action, you may lose a life. If you take it skilfully, you get bonus points or reach the next level. Much like real life then.

Let’s accept then that as rational animals we just are responsive to certain features of the world we live in which are reasons for action. They are not in any way magical entities. Having a bottle of water available when we are thirsty could be a reason to drink it.  Seeing someone who looks lost or distressed may be a reason to help them. Wanting to improve our health and fitness may be a reason to go to a gym.

But here’s a minor difficulty: our environment is a bit more complex than that of a video game. That’s partly because there is no reason to believe that the world is designed in such a way that in any given situation there is just one reason available to us that is the right one for us to act on. There may be many reasons available to us and some of them may be reasons for actions that are mutually exclusive.

So, say for example, that in the past I promised to visit a friend on a given day. That is a reason to make a visit. But – assume I’m also a tennis obsessive – at the same time suddenly and surprisingly someone gives me a ticket to see the Wimbledon finals. Now I have a reason to do that. So now I have a dilemma. Some people might say that the reason provided by a promise I made trumps the prospect of the relatively selfish pleasure of watching a game of tennis. (But you could imagine that my visit could be easily re-arranged, that my friend had alternative things to do and is quite happy not to be visited, that the tennis was going to be the last public appearance of a great player…) And the dilemma could just as easily be between two strong moral reasons for doing something.

These dilemmas caused by competing reasons can be large, serious and to some extent painful. But they can also be positive. Once or twice people have come to me and said things like: “I need advice. I really don’t know what to do. I’ve been offered a new job, but then my current job is also getting really interesting and there may be an opportunity for promotion here…” The first thing to understand is that these are not desperate, overwhelming situations in which it is necessarily the case that one choice is right and the other wrong. When seen in perspective a positive dilemma is actually a relatively pleasant situation to be in. It is a mistake to think that just because we are asked to choose between alternatives, one must be right and the other wrong. Or just because we have several options, they can be ranked in order of goodness and one is clearly the best. The strength of the reasons available to act upon may not even be measurable by the same yardstick. Again, there just is no reason to assume that the world is organised for us in such a simple way.

So maybe what we need is some useful concepts to help us with the fact that reasons for action can pull us in different directions at the same time. Here are some of them.

1. Just doing something: This is a favourite of mine. Once we understand that the world is not organised in a way that guarantees that there is always a right choice and only ever exactly one, and once we have acquired a feel for what it’s like to be in such a situation, it is easier to just do something. In philosophical literature this is sometimes inelegantly described as “plumping” for a choice. This is definitely valid for times where we run out of further criteria or reasons to choose one way over another. (It may be more advisable for relatively trivial choices.)

2. Paying attention to the ‘remainder’ and dealing with it: There may be situations in which we have to make a choice, or take an action, from which we just don’t emerge particularly well. (The situation of being double-booked and having to cancel one commitment springs to mind.) Again, where someone is caught in a dilemma, the existence of a choice between several options doesn’t guarantee that one of them is the right action. In those situations it might help to understand that there is a “remainder” to deal with. That is to say an expectation that regret is felt and expressed, an apology, some kind of restitution or compensation made willingly.

3. Character – the kind of person I am or want to be: In her book On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse provides a very serious example of a dilemma:

“Suppose (just for the sake of an example) that whether to ask the doctors to continue to prolong one’s unconscious mother’s life by extraordinary means for another year, or to discontinue treatment now, would be an irresolvable dilemma in some cases.”

She then considers two very different people in that situation:

One might be a doctor herself, someone who had always striven to think of the human body as a living, and hence mortal, thing, not as a machine to be tinkered with; she knows that, if her mother were her patient, she would advise the discontinuation of treatment. The other might be someone who worked with apparently hopeless cases of mental disability, someone who said of herself ‘I never give up hope; I couldn’t do the job if I let myself.’ Faced with some such decision as the one outlined, it seems that each might act differently, each believing, correctly, that she had a (…) reason for favouring the action she elected to take.

And while the situation involved and the possible outcomes just are such that it may look wrong to say the both took the right action, as Hursthouse remarks, it is plausible to describe them as having acted well –

courageously, responsibly, thoughtfully, conscientiously, honestly, wisely – and not just describe them merely as having done what was permissible, which any cowardly, irresponsible, thoughtless, heedless, self-deceiving fool could just as well have done in the circumstances.

So my biography, my standards, my ideals, things that have always been important to me are valid pointers to which competing reasons I should act on. (I always thought that mottos inscribed on coats of arms may function in that kind of way.) This could also help in more trivial and positive situations than the one described by Hursthouse. Choosing from a menu for example, I could say to myself “I like being adventurous, so I will order something I’ve never had that looks a bit unusual.” Or I could say “I know what’s good and what I like, so why shouldn’t I have the same I had last time. After all, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

As someone said, choices when repeated over time become habits, habits over time become character. And character can in turn become a guide to the choices we should make.





Why Do Philosophers Not Make The News?

Why do philosophers not make the news?

Maybe it’s because Empedocles was so misunderstood by his contemporaries that he jumped into a volcano, Socrates was sentenced to death by the good citizens of Athens, Seneca was driven to suicide by the mad emperor Nero and in more modern times Heidegger became a Nazi.

But let’s rewind…

Derek Parfit, the most influential moral philosopher of our time, died on 1 January 2017. It wasn’t reported in the news. This  caused some consternation and sadness among professional philosophers. If “fake news” weren’t enough to worry about, an absurd selection and prioritisation towards the hysterical (“ISIS bomb plots!”) and the trivial (“Is this the year Prince Harry will marry Meghan Markle?”) rather than the actually important (I know, according to whom?) would still be a problem.

The New Statesman recently published an article by David Herman lamenting the passing of the days when Isaiah Berlin’s death made front page news, Mary Warnock and Bernard Williams were on Royal Commissions and government committees for this, that and the other, radio and television took an interest in A. J. Ayer and publishers spent serious money on academic philosophers.

(Don’t say: “but what about Alain de Botton? He’s still on telly? He still sells lots of books?” Yes, but he’s not an academic philosopher. Many of them would say that if doing philosophy is like drinking double espressos, his stuff is what you get when you spoon off the top of a cappuccino. You know, the bit that has all the chocolate powder on it. It may taste milky, frothy and sweet but it has never been in touch with a molecule of caffeine.)

In the New Statesman article a number of philosophers and commentators are quoted as blaming any number of things for the demise of the philosopher as public intellectual among which:

  • The Research Assessment Exercise, a quality assurance process the Government imposes on universities, which drives philosophers to publish articles in journals rather than talk to the public;
  • the end of deference and distrust of experts meaning that people don’t want someone out of a cosy college in Oxford telling them what to think
  • The media, dumbed down and driven to sensationalism and by the need to make money from advertising
  • Politicians who are not as interested as their predecessors (“Margaret Thatcher was interested in Popper, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott…” When Tony Blair was asked in the weekly Parliamentary Questions to the Prime Minister to briefly outline his political philosophy, he was completely stumped. None of this is meant to be evidence that an interest in philosophy is good for a Prime Minister.)

You’ll have noticed, a lot of the blame goes to things other than philosophers or the academic discipline of philosophy.

Don’t get me wrong: I think an update on the latest developments in philosophy should be reported in every news bulletin. I think leading philosophers should be consulted on every bit of government policy. I think there should be reality TV shows in which a group of philosophers are sent to a five star beach resort to debate the meaning of life and no one should ever be voted off by the public. I think every new Doctor of Philosophy should be able to publish his or her doctoral thesis to the commercial success of de Botton’s greatest hits, or even J. K. Rowling’s. I think television networks should use the kind of budgets they use for Game of Thrones to make a television drama series of Plato’s Republic.

But I also think that philosophy needs to acknowledge its own role in raising its public profile and should have to work a bit harder. I’d like to acknowledge here the work that lots of philosophers do in international governance committees, in human rights advocacy, teaching, lecturing, giving seminars, making podcasts, tweeting or writing articles for popular consumption. But clearly that isn’t quite enough yet to get philosophers into the news, even when they die.

So here are some alternative reasons why philosophy may not have a higher public profile that look more to the role of philosophers in all of this:

  • Philosophy attracts for the most part introverts (I assume) who would rather study on their own with some books  for company, rather than be out there among people explaining what they’re doing. They are also maybe keener to spend time thinking, than broadcasting.
  • Philosophers are too modest to  talk publicly about the progress being made within the discipline. They are humbled everyday by the really big questions they deal with and the limits of the human mind to comprehend things. Humility is fine. The dirty flip side of that coin is that some philosophers jealously denounce anything that has commercial success or aspirations as “not the real thing.” That makes it more difficult for good communicators and non-academics to make a contribution on behalf of the discipline.
  • There is also a stance of “well, if it takes this to be read, heard and seen by wider sections of the public, I don’t want to be influential or popular. I just want to be seen as brilliant and wonderful by my peers in academic philosophy.” That retreat back to your own clique smacks a bit of a lack of confidence. It could be compared to re-living a traumatic “nerdy vs. cool and popular kids” trauma.
  • Philosophers are careful about the language they use and the way they make their arguments. They spend time defining their terms. They have learned to put three concessive clauses after every positive statement and to anticipate a few arguments that could be made against what they’re saying. They give the views of the people they disagree with the most charitable interpretation before they take them apart. That doesn’t make for the most impactful communications.
  • There is no premium on people working together to find common ground and reach consensus on a question in philosophy. Working alone to demolish everything that has been thought before is just as valuable, if not more so, than putting forward a positive proposal, than showing where there is a high level consensus. (Thanks, Socrates!) But what if people were genuinely interested in where philosophy has progressed towards insights, rather than where it has gone back to the drawing board?
  • Philosophers are perhaps genuinely traumatised by the history of unsuccessful to catastrophic interactions between philosophers and the public realm. Socrates got killed. Plato got too close to the tyrant of Syracuse which ended badly for him. Seneca got too close to Nero which harmed his reputation and ended badly for him. Heidegger got too close to Hitler. Sartre too close to Stalinism. (And Michael Ignatieff – Isaiah Berlin’s biographer – led his party to its worst electoral defeat in Canada. There are lessons there!
  • And in return, philosophers who want to be politicians have to disavow any knowledge of philosophy. Julian Baggini writes the following about two British politicians:


[Former Minister and member of the Cabinet] Oliver Letwin, for instance, has a PhD on the subject but when I asked him if that was a disadvantage in politics he answered, “massive”, without hesitation. “I do my best to conceal it.” Another brainy MP, Tony Wright, once found himself quoting Mill in a parliamentary debate, “and I just realised how odd that was, and how embarrassing it was.”

Given these challenges, what could philosophers do? Starting from the non-reporting of Parfitt’s death, it would be sensible to adopt the principle that if you want to make the news when you die, you have to make yourself known while you’re alive. You can’t just rely on having strategically placed disciples in politics and the media who will ensure the eternal afterlife of your fame and ideas. (That worked only for Leo Strauss.)

  • Don’t do down those who communicate philosophy well as not doing the real thing. Even if they provide journalistic surveys of the history of philosophy, rather than engage in academic philosophy, their activities could be the entry-level drug for the mind that hooks people on philosophy so they can be sold your harder stuff.
  • Paint a picture of real progress in philosophy coming up with real answers to big questions around which consensus is being built. Then explain how these answers affect human life. For example, tell the story about how philosophers were in court rooms explaining the writings of Plato and Aristotle to help settle questions around gay rights (at least Martha Nussbaum was). Peter Singer’s campaign for animal liberation can be traced back to the writings of Mill and Bentham.
  • Make the communication of philosophy a greater part of academic activity. Scientists embrace the “public understanding of science” as a part of what they do. They put some of the best and brightest in charge of it. They make them professors and Fellows of the Royal Society and President of the Royal Institution. Google “Professor for the Public Understanding of Philosophy” and you get one person: Professor Angie Hobbs at the University of Sheffield. She seems very active but I’m not sure she can do it on her own.

In his New Statesman article, David Herman concludes that if you care, you should:

go to your local library or bookshop or follow debates online: be your own border guard and wear a black armband for an era that has passed.

Sadly, retreating to the local library or bookshop to mourn for previous better times may be tempting. Philosophy was always tempted to retreat to a more private place: Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Peripatos, Epicurus’ garden.

An alternative would be for it to be out in the market place (Socrates’ Agora) making its case.