What Does Studying Classics at Oxford Teach You about Running a Country?

An article in the Guardian declared the Oxford University degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) “the degree that rules Britain.” Here’s a snapshot of the UK political and media elite from a few years ago:

“Monday, 13 April 2015 was a typical day in modern British politics. An Oxford University graduate in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), Ed Miliband, launched the Labour party’s general election manifesto. It was examined by the BBC’s political editor, Oxford PPE graduate Nick Robinson, by the BBC’s economics editor, Oxford PPE graduate Robert Peston, and by the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Oxford PPE graduate Paul Johnson. It was criticised by the prime minister, Oxford PPE graduate David Cameron. It was defended by the Labour shadow chancellor, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Balls.

Elsewhere in the country, with the election three weeks away, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, Oxford PPE graduate Danny Alexander, was preparing to visit Kingston and Surbiton, a vulnerable London seat held by a fellow Lib Dem minister, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Davey. In Kent, one of Ukip’s two MPs, Oxford PPE graduate Mark Reckless, was campaigning in his constituency, Rochester and Strood. Comments on the day’s developments were being posted online by Michael Crick, Oxford PPE graduate and political correspondent of Channel 4 News.

On the BBC Radio 4 website, the Financial Times statistics expert and Oxford PPE graduate Tim Harford presented his first election podcast. On BBC1, Oxford PPE graduate and Newsnight presenter Evan Davies conducted the first of a series of interviews with party leaders. In the print media, there was an election special in the Economist magazine, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Zanny Minton-Beddoes; a clutch of election articles in the political magazine Prospect, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Bronwen Maddox; an election column in the Guardian by Oxford PPE graduate Simon Jenkins; and more election coverage in the Times and the Sun, whose proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, studied PPE at Oxford.”

The subjects of Philosophy, Politics and Economics were clearly combined into a degree that would attract those with ambitions to take leading roles in running a country.

There was a time when a degree in Classics (ancient languages, literature, history and philosophy) would have been thought to be the subject of choice for those wanting to run the country, or the Empire as it was, not just for career politicians but also for those in public administration.

A degree in Classics is the degree the UK’s current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, holds. Before him you’d have to go back more than half a century for a Classicist Prime Minister to Harold Macmillan (1957-63) who also happens to have been at the same school (Eton) and the same Oxford college (Balliol) as Boris Johnson.

Anthony Kenny, who was Master of Balliol College when Johnson was a student there, wrote about Johnson’s time at Balliol:

On the basis of the tutors’ reports, I formed the judgement that while Boris had the necessary intelligence, he lacked the appropriate diligence to achieve the first-class degree that he clearly felt was his due. Though he sat lightly to formal academic obligations, Boris did acquire a genuine love of the classics during his undergraduate years…

This genuine love and to some extent mastery of the classics is obvious from stories like the one (told here) from Johnson’s time as a journalist in Brussels:

In the days when French was the only language authorised in the EU press operation, Johnson once asked a question in Latin. He wanted to know more about some directive supposedly intended to enforce the use of the Latin names of fish to facilitate the common fisheries policy.

Johnson also gets journalists to cover forgotten celebrities like the 5th century BC Roman legend Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus by saying things like this (when asked in 2009 whether he’d want to be party leader and Prime Minister):

“In the immortal words of Michael Heseltine, I cannot foresee the circumstances in which I would be called upon to serve [as prime minister]. If, like Cincinnatus, I were to be called from my plough, then obviously it would be wrong of me not to help out.”

This is knowledge of Roman history used as a stylistic device to present oneself in a certain light. Cincinnatus had such a reputation for competence in leadership that he was brought back into a position of great political responsibility, even as he was busy just doing work on his small agricultural holding. The words that the Roman historian Livy uses ahead of the episode Johnson alludes to are:

“It is worth those persons’ while to listen, who despise all things human in comparison with riches, and who suppose that there is no room for exalted honour, nor for virtue, unless where riches abound in great profusion. Lucius Quintius [Cincinnatus], the sole hope of the Roman people, cultivated a farm of four acres, at the other side of the Tiber, which are called the Quintian meadows…”

There are very few clearer contrasts than that between Cincinnatus  and a current-day career politician who spends all his life plotting to achieve the highest political office.

Another Classics moment in Johnson’s career is the fact that he, as Mayor of London during the 2012 London Olympic Games, commissioned a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, to write an Olympic Ode in ancient Greek and in the style of Pindar. Johnson recited it himself at an opening gala.

But besides the odd recherché reference and the occasional lapse into Greek or Latin, what else might Johnson’s time at Oxford  have taught him about running a country?

There is an episode of his life in student politics at the Oxford Union remembered by Anthony Kenny that looks like an early lesson in political self-presentation:

In 1986, he ran for the presidency of the Union. Though nothing like as rabid as the Balliol JCR, the Union was sufficiently left wing for it to be inconceivable for a Tory to be elected as president. Boris concealed his Conservative affiliation and let it be widely understood that he was a Social Democrat. So far as I know, he told no actual lies, but his strategy recalled Macaulay’s words about the difference between lying and deceiving: ‘Metternich told lies all the time, and never deceived any one; Talleyrand never told a lie and deceived the whole world.’ With Talleyrand-like skill, Boris got himself elected as President of the Oxford Union in Trinity Term.

Shortly after this I was telephoned by an SDP MP, Dick Taverne, who told me that he was looking for an intern to work for him during the vacation. He inquired whether I could suggest any candidates. ‘I’ve just the man for you’, I said, ‘bright and witty and with suitable political views. He’s just finished being president of the Union, and his name is Boris Johnson.’ When I summoned Boris to ask whether he was interested in the job, he burst out laughing: ‘Master, don’t you know I am a died-in-the-wool Tory?’

Toby Young, a contemporary of Johnson’s at Oxford, said that Johnson “had successfully courted the backing of the leftwing Limehouse Group to secure victory. He didn’t join the group but was seen at one of its parties. According to Young, Johnson also stopped describing himself, for the period of the Union election campaign as a Conservative and rebranded himself as an environmentalist.

There may be parallels between that episode and the 2019 leadership campaign during which Johnson was relatively hard to pin down on his views and avoided many opportunities to communicate them, but was seen in the presence of various fractions of his party, associating himself with both the One Nation Group and the hard Brexit plans of the European Reform Group.

When Johnson almost became Prime Minister in 2016, Anthony Kenny was reminded of the time Johnson, almost achieved a first-class degree, but had to settle for a 2:1 instead:

In 1987, Boris sat the final examinations. He was determined to get a first, and seemed confident that he could do so on the basis of six weeks of really hard work. Perhaps he might have been able to do so had he taken eight weeks: quite a few firsts have been gained on the basis of a last-minute spurt. But some weeks after the end of the examinations, Boris was summoned from France, told that his work was on the borderline between the first and second class, and instructed to appear for a viva, or oral examination. A day or two later Boris knocked on my door, and presented a very humble appearance – the only time I have ever seen him do so. ‘I am to be viva’d on Aristotle’, he said. ‘My tutor is in France – but I hear you know something about Aristotle. Would you be kind enough to give me a tutorial in preparation?’ So we sat together for the best part of a day and went over a number of likely questions. In spite of this expert assistance, however, Boris achieved only an upper second. That is something that he has never forgotten. Nor has David Cameron, who got a first – not, in [Classics] however, but in PPE, as Boris likes to remind people.

There are critics of Johnson who would claim that his unwillingness to put in the hard work over a sustained period of time still disqualifies him from the highest achievements of political office. In 2016, some of those who pulled the plug on Johnson’s bid for the party leadership cited a lack of seriousness. The media reported as emblematic the fact that Johnson took a day out to play cricket on a day that was crucial to the leadership campaign.

The attitude on display smacks of what a previous Balliol Prime Minister, Asquith, called the Balliol man’s “tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority.” That is to say, one is meant to want and acquire the top office, the best degree, a superior grasp of one’s subject, but one shouldn’t be seen to make an effort in acquiring it. One is meant to have it despite not working very hard, despite, say, occasionally just playing cricket for a day.

Anthony Kenny became disenchanted with his former student, Boris Johnson, over the fact that Johnson supported the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union. His final recorded reflections on Johnson, are these:

I reflected ruefully on the college’s part in his education. We had been privileged to be given the task of bringing up members of the nation’s political elite. But what had we done for Boris? Had we taught him truthfulness? No. Had we taught him wisdom? No. What had we taught? Was it only how to make witty and brilliant speeches? I comforted myself with the thought that even Socrates was very doubtful whether virtue could be taught.

If we were going to stay with Kenny’s initial instinct that Johnson’s future conduct and programme of Government reflects on his college, his university and on the way Classics is taught, what should we look out for? In contrast to many of the populist politicians with which Johnson is often classed, he has enjoyed an elite education and spent four years of his life studying classical history, literature and philosophy. If that isn’t meant to have any kind of influence on his truthfulness, wisdom, morality, or at least an influence that could broadly be called civilising, then what is it meant to be doing?

One of the texts that should haunt anyone observing populist politicians, which I’m sure no one with a degree in Classics would have been able to avoid, is the beginning of Plato’s Republic, where the challenge to Socrates’ ethics is fiercely put by an aggressive sophist called Thrasymachus. Known as Thrasymachus’ challenge, or the immoralist’s challenge, the passage contains the following language. In the translation of Benjamin Jowett, another former master of Balliol College, who took the view that learning Classics at Oxford was a good preparation for men to go into the Indian Civil Service, it goes like this:

“You fancy that the shepherd or neatherd fattens of tends the sheep or oxen with a view to their own good and not to the good of himself or his master; and you further imagine that the rulers of states, if they are true rulers, never think of their subjects as sheep, and that they are not studying their own advantage day and night. Oh, no; and so entirely astray are you in your ideas about the just and unjust as not even to know that justice and the just are in reality another’s good; that is to say, the interest of the ruler and stronger, and the loss of the subject and servant; and injustice the opposite; for the unjust is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is very far from being their own. Consider further, most foolish Socrates, that the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust. First of all, in private contracts: wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that, when the partnership is dissolved, the unjust man has always more and the just less. Secondly, in their dealings with the State: when there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income; and when there is anything to be received the one gains nothing and the other much. Observe also what happens when they take an office; there is the just man neglecting his affairs and perhaps suffering other losses, and getting nothing out of the public, because he is just; moreover he is hated by his friends and acquaintance for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. But all this is reversed in the case of the unjust man. I am speaking, as before, of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is more apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable –that is to say tyranny, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale; comprehending in one, things sacred as well as profane, private and public; for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetrating any one of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace – they who do such wrong in particular cases are called robbers of temples, and man-stealers and burglars and swindlers and thieves. But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of his having achieved the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest.”

In a post-truth environment, the worry must be that the populist politicians are adopting Thrasymachus’ programme of lying and stealing on a grand scale. Why should they, they might think, tell the truth, when they can get away with lying? Why should the bother with fair taxation when they can get away with enriching themselves and their friends through the tax system? It is crucial that people learn that the immoralist’s challenge doesn’t succeed.

And yet, I know that there is a strand of teaching Plato at Oxford that consists of a lecturer taking a passage of Plato, treating it as an argument in analytical philosophy and showing up its deficiencies as an argument (Well… drawing the conclusion Plato does from his premises is a non-sequitur… It might work if Plato helps himself to this additional premise that he uses in such-and-such other dialogue, but then that contradicts what he does here.) It is quite possible to learn that Plato didn’t succeed in defeating the Thrasymachus’ challenge in the Republic. I’m pretty sure a tutor once told me not to read Plato for the philosophy but for the Greek prose style.

Clearly Jowett’s vision, that one could read Livy in order to be like Cincinnatus, rather than give oneself a learned – and at the same time humble – air, or that one could read Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics to learn about governing an Empire have deservedly failed with the decline and fall of the British Empire and the many ways in which post-colonial analysis shows how problematic it was for the British to think that they were the successors to the Greeks and Romans in their colonialism.

But that shouldn’t mean that those teaching future elites (another problematic concept in itself), have no responsibility for teaching them about how to be good at being an elite. Anthony Kenny, Jonathan Barnes and others who would have taught Johnson are leading experts in ancient philosophy. They awarded him a good, almost a top, degree in the subject they taught. What he learned, is something we have yet to see as he starts his position at the top of Government.

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Homo Sapiens – the Pathetic Species?

I never was that much of a science-fiction aficionado. But I’m sure as a child I occasionally borrowed some sci-fi literature from the library and watched the odd episode of Star Trek – ok, lots of episodes of Star Trek. I’m sure there was a time when it was generally thought that robots would be our kindly household helpers, machines would instantly cure diseases and generate whatever food we fancied.

In contrast, these days, we tend to tend to read more about how robots, or rather, their upgrade, artificial intelligence (AI), will be making us jobless, oppressing us and quite possibly killing us. I happen to think that we shouldn’t be quite that worried about AI, for any number of reasons: I think we switch them on, so we can switch them off. I think that even if we create them to teach themselves and to learn things, we give them the algorithms by which they “decide” whether something is a good move worth learning, repeating and developing, or not. I think that we tend to do ok in creating governance and codes for the development of science and technology. I think that even if they end up doing our jobs better than we could ever do them, they will create greater prosperity and it becomes a question of the distribution of the goods they create, rather than a fight of human beings against machines. (I also think we should stop talking about them as “they” as if they were the other grouping in an “us and them” situation, and only talk about them as “they” in the sense that we would talk about, say the contents of our toolbox as “they”, as in “I don’t know where I have left my hammer and nails, maybe they’re in the cupboard under the stairs.”)

I may be right or wrong about AI, but that’s not the point right now. Hannah Arendt wrote about “the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction” that “unfortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves [to it] as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires.” And so the thing that really interests me here, is not whether AI is going to leave us out of work, and quite possibly extinct, or not, but what it says about us a species, humanity, that we are so lacking in confidence with regard to our future machines. The mass sentiments here are fear, pessimism and a lack of confidence in our future as a species. This has replaced the mass desire with regard to future machines that they should make us creatures of leisure and comfort. We’ve gone from “the robots will do the work, which is nice” to “Oh my God, the AIs will do our work, we’ll all be jobless.”

A German compound noun that deserves to be as well known as those others, Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude and Weltschmerz, is Menschenbild. It means the image man has of himself. Or – since we should be wary of being unclear in languages where the word for “human being” and “man” is the same – the image human beings have of themselves. I generally find it difficult to say what the prevailing humanity-wide view is on anything, but it’s worth thinking a bit about the image we have of ourselves these days and whether our mass sentiment of lacking confidence with regard to our future and the unfriendly robots is founded in it.

Our Menschenbild has famously made a long journey over the last few millennia from one where we were at the centre of God’s universe to one where we are at the margins of a chaotic, sprawling and expanding universe full of dark matter and other uncharted waters, from one where we were put in charge of God’s creation to one where we have randomly evolved from matter that was coincidentally brought to life, and from one where we were the masters of our fate, to one where we’re barely in control of our minds.

I am interested in what further staging post on this journey we have reached. It’s genuinely difficult to judge what “most people” believe about these big questions. But I’ll speculate that a feature of our most up-to-date image of ourselves we are three things: a) we are destructive of the world, our habitat, and other species, b) we are our neurophysiology, and c) we are addicted. (Spoiler alert: I’m not arguing that these views are correct.)

Destructive of the World

There’s nothing new about apocalyptic phantasies, and nothing new about the idea that human beings can’t control the powers and technologies that we created (see the Sorcerer’s Apprentice). But I think we’ve generally lost confidence in our ability to prevent climate change from becoming catastrophic. But even if we haven’t, there’s still plastic pollution, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, overpopulation and other problems. It seems to us that our lifestyle is destroying the planet with its natural resources that are also the foundation for our lifestyle. Our self-image now is less that we’re the crown of creation and more that we’re a virus that is making our host sick in order to multiply and support ourselves.

Neurophysiology

Plato thought that there are three parts of our soul (the appetitive, the spirited and the rational) that need to be brought into balance and the right kind of hierarchy in order for us to be good. Freud believed that the psyche was made up of three parts (super-ego, ego and id). So there’s nothing new about the idea that our minds have different parts. What’s new in our current image of ourselves now, is that we no longer talk about the soul, the psyche, the mind, but about the brain. This brain has different systems, each with their own functions, depending on the evolutionary stage at which they emerged. There is no hierarchy between these systems, just neural pathways, synapses and electrons firing between them. It’s not so much that we have brains, but that we are brains.

Addicted

Closely linked to our neurophysiological nature, our natural state is to be addicted. Dopamines in our brains have the strongest control over everything we do. The same mechanism drives heroin addiction, a penchant for cupcakes and any habits we may have acquired (like brushing our teeth after eating cupcakes). But then, the range of things to which we can be addicted has massively expanded to include social media likes for our selfies, shopping, and thinking. As über-guru, Eckhart Tolle says:

Compulsive thinking is actually an addiction. What characterises an addiction? Quite simply this: you no longer feel that you have the choice to stop. It seems stronger than you. It also gives you a false sense of pleasure, pleasure that invariably turns into pain.

And brain-scans show that the brain that isn’t in a meditative state, is in an addicted state. (It so happens that meditation teachers describe the neurophysiology as a way of explaining that we could be more aware and intentional about our actions, but the description of our neurophysiological nature sticks more strongly in the public consciousness than the idea that we could gain control over it.

Fundamentally Unfree

This combination of beliefs results in the most limiting of limiting beliefs: the belief that we are fundamentally unfree. We are set on our self-destructive journey by our brain chemistry. And because we basically are our brains now, there is nothing we can set against it.

And so someone like Yuval Noah Harari, the chronicler of homo sapiens, tells us:

Unfortunately, “free will” isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them? According to the theologians, it is reasonable for God to do so, because our choices reflect the free will of our eternal souls, which are independent of all physical and biological constraints.

This myth has little to do with what science now teaches us about Homo sapiens and other animals. Humans certainly have a will – but it isn’t free.

[…]

If you believe in the traditional liberal story, you will be tempted simply to dismiss this challenge. “No, it will never happen. Nobody will ever manage to hack the human spirit, because there is something there that goes far beyond genes, neurons and algorithms. Nobody could successfully predict and manipulate my choices, because my choices reflect my free will.” Unfortunately, dismissing the challenge won’t make it go away. It will just make you more vulnerable to it.

It starts with simple things. As you surf the internet, a headline catches your eye: “Immigrant gang rapes local women”. You click on it. At exactly the same moment, your neighbour is surfing the internet too, and a different headline catches her eye: “Trump prepares nuclear strike on Iran”. She clicks on it. Both headlines are fake news stories, generated perhaps by Russian trolls, or by a website keen on increasing traffic to boost its ad revenues. Both you and your neighbour feel that you clicked on these headlines out of your free will. But in fact you have been hacked.

Unfortunately the myth that “scientific reality” suggests that there is nothing beyond genes, neutrons and algorithms is much more likely to make us helpless against the commercially exploitative, criminal or malign actors who, according to Harari, are hacking us. When we believe that we are helplessly exposed to the signals we see online, that we can’t help but click on what is marketed to us, can’t help but believe, buy even, what we read and can’t help but act on what we’ve been sold, we are less likely to pause and reflect on the different courses of action that are open to us, to read critically what we see and to feel responsible what we do next. Much as Harari sells us this “scientific” unfree image of the human being, he is giving us a description of people who have already imbibed the self-limiting belief, not a description of what human beings could be at their best. Hopefully, the leaps from the image people clicking on links online to the conclusion that we have been hacked and have no free will seem to most people to be so full of non-sequiturs that we need not be overly worried by it. And ultimately, who are the agents who are hacking and manipulating us? Other human beings. How come they have the necessary agency, alongside their ingenuity and technical skills to hack us and implement their evil plans, when we can’t even decide what (not) to click on?

The neurophysiological, addicted, destructive self-image, widely held though it may be, is limited and limiting but fortunately it is not the only one available. Exploring more positive alternatives will be a matter for a future post!

[This post has had a great response. I wrote an addition to it reacting to some comments here.]

Determinism 13 – The Psychological Motives for Philosophical Views and Sam Harris’ Free Will

In this great piece of philosophical polemic (it starts with “What is the silliest claim ever made?”), Galen Strawson draws attention to the psychological benefits philosophers might gain from maintaining certain positions, the weaknesses in human rationality that allow or lead them to do so, and the – possibly unintended – political consequences.

Psychologically, he suspects that:

“it can seem exciting to hold views that seem preposterously contrary to common sense – there’s something Oedipally thrilling about it when the father is an old gentleman called Ordinary Opinion. Herbert Feigl adds another psychoanalytic note: ‘Scholars can cathect [or invest] certain ideas so strongly and their outlook becomes so ego involved that they erect elaborate barricades of defences, merely to protect their pet ideas from the blows (or the slower corrosive effects) of criticism.”

I assume that when we ask ourselves the questions whether we have free will, or not; whether we are entirely determined, or not; and what the consequences are if we answer these questions either way, we have to be on our guard against wanting so hard to answer them in a certain way merely in order to fulfil psychological needs that we blind ourselves against weaknesses in our thinking.

On the one hand, you’d expect us to be heavily invested in the idea that we are somehow in charge of our own lives, that our choices and decisions are ours and that we are – poetically speaking – the “captains of our souls.”

On the other hand maintaining a hard determinist position that we are entirely predetermined in our actions, can be exciting and thrilling, in that it probably goes against ordinary opinion. (I say “probably” because it’s reckless to assume that one has a firm grasp on what ordinary opinion is.)

But it also has the psychologically soothing effect of allowing us to believe that none of the things we think have gone wrong in our lives, none of the areas where we feel we have let ourselves down, and none of the extent to which we feel we have failed to live up to our promise, are in a meaningful way down to choices we made. (There is a flipside in that none of our successes would be due to anything particular merit of ours either. But I imagine that most people are happy to buy the ability to forgive themselves for the mountain of their real or perceived failings at the cost of greater modesty about the molehill of their achievements. Either that, or they just manage to supress the flipside.)

Even more than that, being able to preach that message of hard determinism to the masses, gaining excited followers who are keen to reap determinism’ self-exculpatory benefits, must be quite satisfactory in its own right. I imagine that this fuels to some extent the modern popular revival of Stoicism much embraced by bloggers and podcasters.

Looking at one of the more famous books arguing for a deterministic world view, Sam Harris’ “Free Will,” we can see some of the strange effects of really, really wanting to be able to argue that certain things are true.

According to Harris, “the popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.” He claims that both these assumptions are false.

Harris argues for determinism on the general metaphysical basis that nothing happens without causation and the more specific physical and neurophysiological claims that brain processes cause our actions, and that we’re not aware of those processes until the actions are well under way. He quotes in support of his position, among other things, the famous 1980s experiment by Benjamin Libet (which I discussed here – Spoiler alert: Libet didn’t think that his experiments support the notion that we don’t have free will). “One fact now seems indisputable:” Harris claims, “Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next – a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please – your brain has already determined what you will do.”

In Harris’ own life, his lack of free will manifests in particular ways. For example, he says:

“I generally start each day with a cup of coffee or tea—sometimes two. This morning, it was coffee (two). Why not tea? I am in no position to know. I wanted coffee more than I wanted tea today, and I was free to have what I wanted. Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have “changed my mind” and switched to tea before the coffee drinker in me could get his bearings? Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. Why didn’t it arise this morning? Why might it arise in the future? I cannot know. The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.”

In another episode he relates:

“For instance, in my teens and early twenties I was a devoted student of the martial arts. I practiced incessantly and taught classes in college. Recently, I began training again, after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Both the cessation and the renewal of my interest in martial arts seem to be pure expressions of the freedom that Nahmias attributes to me. I have been under no “unreasonable external or internal pressure.” I have done exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to stop training, and I stopped. I wanted to start again, and now I train several times a week. All this has been associated with conscious thought and acts of apparent self-control. However, when I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. Why did I stop training 20 years ago? Well, certain things just became more important to me. But why did they become more important to me—and why precisely then and to that degree? And why did my interest in martial arts suddenly reemerge after decades of hibernation? I can consciously weigh the effects of certain influences—for instance, I recently read Rory Miller’s excellent book Meditations on Violence. But why did I read this book? I have no idea. And why did I find it compelling? And why was it sufficient to provoke action on my part (if, indeed, it was the proximate cause of my behavior)? And why so much action? I’m now practicing two martial arts and also training with Miller and other self-defense experts. What in hell is going on here? Of course, I could tell a story about why I’m doing what I’m doing—which would amount to my telling you why I think such training is a good idea, why I enjoy it, etc.—but the actual explanation for my behavior is hidden from me.”

“It is perfectly obvious that I, as the conscious witness of my experience, am not the deep cause of it,” Harris concludes. And, of course, this kind of argument holds not only true for relatively trivial matters such as our choice of morning beverage and hobbies, but also more serious actions someone might take:

If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”?

These examples look odd to me: First of all, it’s difficult to imagine that Harris lacks the capacity for in introspection and reflection to the degree that he claims. Secondly, it is not clear to me why he thinks that the “story about why I’m doing what I’m doing” which amounts to giving good reasons for his actions, could not be the actual explanation for his behaviour, at least some of the time. Surely reflecting on why he thinks something is a good idea and why he enjoys an activity, would at least have potential to reveal something about the explanation for his behaviour, even if he wanted to go on to claim that these weren’t the motivating factors in the first place.

But then, when Harris wants to sell us the benefits of believing that we have no free will, things get even more odd:

Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can – paradoxically – allow for greater creative control over one’s life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bite of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).

Suddenly now, we can become sensitive to the causes of our thoughts and feelings when before we couldn’t tell why we wanted coffee or decided to spend a lot of time practising martial arts. How can we now realise that our bad mood has been caused by low blood sugar levels, when before we couldn’t even trust ourselves to identify the motivating reasons for how we spent a large chunk of our leisure time? Not only can we identify low blood sugar as the precise cause of our bad mood now, but we can also seemingly decide to counteract it with a bite of food (that is the implication of what Harris says, though he doesn’t explicitly say it). First Harris asks us to completely surrender to the idea that our actions are caused by factors we can’t be conscious of, now he tells us we can choose to take a bite of food, so that we don’t take our bad mood out on others. Not only can we suddenly make choices, but we can steer an entire intelligent course through our lives. Claiming that it is all a quaint paradox, doesn’t make it any less contradictory.

And then when he talks about the criminal justice system and moral responsibility, things continue to be a little bit self-contradictory. He wants to sell us the benefits of giving up our notion of free will, whilst persuading us that we can still keep hold of our ideas about moral responsibility and our custom of imprisoning people for crimes.

Some of the things he says about this are:

“What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm.”

“Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of a case: the personality of the accused, his prior offenses, his patterns of association with others, his use of intoxicants, his confessed motives with regard to the victim, etc. If a person’s actions seem to have been entirely out of character, this might influence our view of the risk he now poses to others. If the accused appears unrepentant and eager to kill again, we need entertain no notions of free will to consider him a danger to society.”

“Why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy? Because what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds—our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc. If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide.”

Now, those making moral judgements about others, and the criminal justice system, somehow have access to personality, personal history, patterns of activity, and confessed motives. They can make judgements based on expressed intentions, beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.. But, according to Harris, we don’t even have access to our own intentions.

And why didn’t it occur to us earlier to look at our past actions, beliefs, desires and so on, when we were looking to work out why we suddenly found ourselves doing martial arts in our free time, or when we tried to work out why we’re drinking tea on some mornings, and coffee on others? Granted, sometimes others find it easier to analyse our patterns of activities than we do ourselves. But Harris is claiming that we have no insight into our inner life, while others can somehow systematically use their insight into us to judge us morally, or take what we say about our motives to be reliable enough to decide whether society should be protected from us.

Determinism 12 – Can Schopenhauer Set You (A Little Bit) Free?

One of the most haunting bits of writing among the philosophical texts on free will and determinism, are these paragraphs from Schopenhauer:

Let’s imagine a person, who, standing in the street, says to himself: It is 6pm. The day’s work is done. I can now go for a walk, or I can go to the club, I can climb the tower to see the sunset, I can also go to the theatre, I can go to visit this friend, or also that other friend, yes, I can walk out of the gate into the wide world and never return. All of that is solely up to me, I have full freedom to do any of it, however I’ll do none of that now. Instead, I shall, equally voluntarily, go home to my wife.

That is as if water were to say: I can make high waves (yes! in the sea when there’s a storm), I can rush downhill (yes! in the bed of a stream), I can throw myself downwards frothing and bubbling (yes! in a waterfall), I can shoot up into the air (yes! in a fountain), finally, I can boil up completely and disappear (yes, at 80º heat), however I will do none of these things, but will stay voluntarily still and clear in the reflecting pond.

As the water can do any of those things only when the determining causes come into effect for one or the other; in the same way, that person can do, what he thinks he can do, no differently, than under the same condition.

I say it’s haunting because we are always that person standing in the street imagining that we could choose to do any number of things. And yet, when we reflect, we can’t see that we can escape causality. Schopenhauer tells us that human beings are prone to assert that we can do as we will. He reminds us that this is purely a statement about physical freedom, not about freedom of the will. In his formula: we can do as we will, but we can’t will as we will. We can execute our decision or choice to act in a certain way, but we can’t choose which way that decision goes in the first place. The content of our will is at any time given by motives, facts about ourselves (our character, thoughts, feelings, what we perceive) and facts about the world (the way other things are).

While the image of the person in the street much-quoted and famous, we are less frequently reminded that Schopenhauer goes back to his person in the street a couple of pages later:

If we return to that example of the person deliberating at six o’clock  and imagine that he now notices that I’m standing behind him philosophising about him and denying his freedom to all of those potential actions; so it could easily happen that he, in order to prove me wrong, might execute one of them: then, however, my very denial and its effect on his contrary spirit would have been the necessary motive to that action. However, that motive could only ever move him to one or the other of the easier actions mentioned above, for example to go to the theatre; but never to wander out into the wide world: for that the motive would be too weak.

This is interesting. We can imagine the man on the street having this kind of conversation with Schopenhauer.

“You said yourself that I acted differently because I spotted you and wanted to prove you wrong.”

“Differently, yes, but not more freely. Having bumped into me and reacted to our meeting is exactly how you would expect a mechanism of determinism to work. And I’m not flattering myself that it’s personal to me. Any encounter can be such a mechanism of determinism in that it can change your motives and make you act in certain ways.”

“Agreed, and in future I wouldn’t need you to stand behind me in the street, observing me, commenting on my deliberations in that way. It will suffice for me in future deliberations to adopt the motive to prove that I have freedom of will and disprove determinism, to have the same effect. If I do that, the whole course of my life will be different from the way it would otherwise have been, had I not adopted that motive.”

“That is true. But again, that is exactly how the mechanisms of determinism work. Encounters with influential others, relationships, engagement with powerful concepts: of course they shape the way our lives go. They determine how they go. There’s something I always find slightly amusing about that, by the way, in that it doesn’t even matter if someone is conforming to someone else’s expectations or rebelling against them. The rebel does them the honour of allowing himself to be determined to the same degree as the conformist – the conformist in one direction, the rebel in the other.”

“That may be true, but in my encounter with you, I was not so much looking to follow you or rebel against you personally, and we didn’t engage with just any concept. It is the engagement with the concept of freedom of the will specifically which had the effect of changing my course of action.”

“Yes, you wanted to prove your freedom of the will, and so you changed your plan. But you didn’t prove your freedom, you just allowed yourself to be determined by a different and stronger motive. I assume your motives for going home to your wife were about spending time with your loved one, but also your comfort and routine. Now you’ve chosen to do something else, because the motive of proving your freedom was stronger. But, you know, you can never prove yourself to be free by allowing yourself to be determined by a motive.”

“Yes, you guessed that to disprove you I would go to the theatre instead. You thought that my new motive – to prove you wrong – would not be strong enough for me to walk away from my life as I know it.”

“Exactly so, and I was right, wasn’t I?”

“Yes, but doesn’t it strike you as meaningful that I didn’t just give myself up to complete randomness?”

“In what way meaningful?”

“Well, the most obvious way to prove our freedom of the will might have been to do something completely extreme and random. But then we would have fallen into the old trap of refuting determinism by gaining only an unattractive notion of freedom of the will that would entail chaos and randomness. That wouldn’t be a freedom of the will worth having.”

“True. Because there is no such freedom of the will available.”

“Nonetheless, I revised my plan under the motive of proving my freedom. In allowing you to add that motive to the set of motives motivating us, our lives changed.”

“But not in a way that proves that you have freedom of the will.”

“You say so, but I already feel a bit freer by having chosen to go to the theatre. I called my wife, by the way, and and also the two friends you mentioned and persuaded them to come too.”

“Yes, yes, they must have thought you very spontaneous, less predictable than they thought you were, less prone to sticking to your daily routine, more adventurous I grant you, but no less determined.”

“Ah, but that’s the point. I think a little bit less determined…”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe there was something in what you said… When you said ‘no less determined,’ it made me think that maybe it is a question of degree, not just a binary issue between freedom of the will and determinism.

In deliberating about our courses of action, we obviously consider a finite number of options and have a finite number of motives acting upon us. As you said, we won’t just wander out into the wide world and leave all our commitments and relationships behind on the slightest provocation. But where it would be reasonable and justifiable to do either of a number of things, say to go to the theatre or to go home, an added reason to do something other than go home (say if we were asked to prove that we can revise our plan) could suddenly make us go the other way. Maybe when we’re challenged to think again, when we’re given an additional reason to consider, when in the light of that reason we think again and we revise our course of action, maybe we should say that this increased our freedom a little bit.

You are fond of saying that we can ‘do what we will, but not will what we will.’ But in the first instance maybe we don’t even always do what we consciously will. Maybe sometimes we act habitually without thinking, almost as if on auto-pilot. So if we actually do what we will, rather than just do what we always do, that is an important increase in freedom, though I guess you would say only of physical freedom, not freedom of the will.

And let’s say that you’re right in claiming that we can’t ‘will what we will.’ You would argue that this is because motives that are given act on our character that is given, resulting in action that is given. But you caused me to reconsider what I should do with my evening. You added a motive into the situation (the motive to prove you wrong about freedom of the will) and it changed my course of action. You’ll say that it was already in my character to want to prove you wrong, so nothing new happened there. But maybe that openness to consider another motive, maybe the willingness to engage with your reasoning, maybe the possibility of considering new reasons, after my decision to go home had already been made, maybe they open up a little bit of space that we should call a greater freedom of the will.

Anyway, it’s time for me to go. The play is about to begin. Do you want to join us?”

“Erm, no thanks. I think I’ll just go home.”

 

Useful Concepts -#16- Supererogation -Going Beyond the Call of Duty

“Supererogation” has long been one of my favourite words and concepts. (In saying that, I’m not claiming to live up to it much…) It stems from the Latin words “super” meaning “over” or “above” and “erogare” meaning to “expend / pay out.” So it’s about expending above what might be expected, also known as going beyond the call of duty, or going the extra mile.

In ethics, the concept describes ways of acting that are morally good and praiseworthy, but acts that are not necessarily required. Supererogatory acts are those that are good and such that we definitely would want people to perform them, but at the same time such that we couldn’t criticise people for not performing them. Heroic acts spring to mind, like running into a burning building to rescue others. Or saintly acts such as giving up all and any comforts in order to devote oneself to caring for the poorest, sickest people.

Some people, let’s call the supererogation enthusiasts, see the concept of supererogation as a good criterion for whether a given moral theory looks plausible. Any reasonable conception of morality, they argue, should allow a place for supererogatory acts. If a theory has no such place, say because it too stringently requires human beings to do whatever achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people, in such a way that for every good act there might have been an other better act, and even for the best possible act a human being could have done, it was just what he should have done, then that is a reason to be suspicious of that theory. We would want there to be a category of good acts, or ways of acting, that deserve special merit, rather than just a shrug and the acknowledgement that “he just did what he had to.”

Others, let’s call the supererogation deniers, argue exactly the opposite: That there is no place for supererogation in any plausible moral theory. In the history of theological uses of the concept, supererogatory acts, such as making large donations to a church, were initially seen as being able to wipe out sin for the supererogatory agent and those around him or her. Against that, a view was taken that human beings were so flawed, so unable to live up to the expectations and requirements of God, that there was no possibility of supererogation. In that view of the world, whatever anyone managed to do, would fall short of what was required. Human beings are so dependent on God’s mercy and grace, that there is no point in talking about going above and beyond.

The denial of supererogation doesn’t need to make any theological assumptions about the relationship between person and God. It could simply be argued, for example, that human beings are such weak and stupid animals, so incapable of ensuring their own flourishing or supporting that of others, that our societies are so unhealthy and corrupt and the world such a sub-optimal, inhospitable and degraded environment, that even incredible, super-human acts could not do good at the level required. In such a context, it might then be unrealistic and unhelpful to acknowledge and applaud a category of specially good acts. It would be better simply to require of each and every agent to do his or her utmost. There would almost be a duty to go beyond the call of duty.

“Ought Implies Can”

There is a principle in ethics that “ought implies can.” It is often taken as axiomatic without further argument. To some extent hat makes sense. It would be strange for a moral theory to require something from someone who is unable to do that. I think the principle “ought implies can” sheds an interesting light on the possibility of supererogation.

First of all “ought implies can” creates an inequality in terms of what can be required from individuals. Some people can achieve more than others and therefore ought to try harder than others. Say person A is a strong swimmer while person B is physically weak and has never learned to swim. They stand at the seashore and suddenly spot someone out there in the sea frantically waving his arms and shouting for help. The weather has suddenly turned stormy and the waves are high in the strong wind. Let’s say in this scenario there happens to be no alternative means of rescuing the drowning man, than for person A or person B to jump in and rescue him themselves: no coastguard to be alerted, no rescue boats or helicopters, and no other devices at all. Person A could very likely rescue the drowning man without any great detriment to herself, but person B would equally likely fall victim to the elements before getting to the drowning man. “Ought implies can” means that the requirement to jump in and rescue the drowning man falls asymmetrically on A and B. While A could be criticised if she didn’t make the attempt to rescue the drowning man, B could probably escape criticism even if he didn’t make the attempt.

Supererogation enthusiasts and deniers may place a different emphasis on the analysis of the situation but may find they’re not as far apart as it originally seemed.

“Person A just did what was required of her,” says a supererogation denier.

“But because of her superior skills, so much more could be required of her, and the drowning man got rescued. Now isn’t that worth celebrating?” replies the supererogation enthusiast.

“It’s worth celebrating perhaps that the outcome was a happy one and that person A had this great ability to swim and rescue drowning people. But if she hadn’t made the attempt, she would have been open to severe criticism, so she really just did what could have been expected,” responds the supererogation denier.

The supererogation enthusiast then has at least one further point to make: Let’s assume that person A’s ability to rescue the drowning man was down to more than just inborn physical ability. Let’s say she trained her swimming abilities a lot and spent some time doing a course in rescue swimming. Let’s say she did that while person B was playing video games and eating pizzas. Couldn’t the supererogation enthusiast point out that person A never had a duty to lead that lifestyle and person B can’t be criticised on moral grounds for choosing his way of life? She wouldn’t have been in the situation where she could rescue someone from drowning, and therefore ought to have done so, if she hadn’t set out on a certain path, that of honing her abilities long ago. Wouldn’t the acts of supererogation have started with the lifestyle chosen and the skills developed, rather than just with the act of jumping into the water to rescue someone?

The supererogation sceptic could try one counter to that. He could refuse to accept that person B cannot be criticised on moral grounds. Or at least he could say that narrow moral grounds aren’t the only consideration here, and that broader ethical issues arise. He could say that we could call B’s lifestyle lazy, self-indulgent and selfish and that this are precisely words of criticism. He could also say that we would call A’s lifestyle industrious, committed to self-improvement and altruism.

But at the same time, person A could have trained in rescue swimming, a non-moral skill, all her life, but never got into a situation where she could perform the morally valuable task of rescuing someone. It would be merely bad luck that she never had the opportunity to perform that good act. In the same way as it is bad luck for agent B to be stuck in a situation where rescue swimming abilities would have carried moral weight, rather than video-gaming skills. And at the same time person A could have been quite useless in a situation where a different kind of skill might have been required, say rock climbing, in which we assume she had no ability. No human could possibly train to be able to perform excellently in every situation, he or she could get into. That would take us to the realm of superheroes. Nonetheless, the situations where someone happens to be able to perform morally excellently due to work they have done to prepare themselves, are those where supererogatory action is relevant. (Of course, some people train themselves and seek out such situations, e. g. by choosing careers where they might be first responders in critical situations.)

The other way in which “ought implies can” creates a space for supererogation comes from the fact that it is not always clear-cut what a person can achieve. This might only become clear in the attempt. The opportunity for supererogation would then arise from where someone takes an optimistic view of what he or she can, and is therefore taking on a higher burden of what he or she ought. But I’ll write about that in the next post.

 

 

Useful Concepts – #15 – The Principle of Charity

There’s a useful concept which I know from literature about philosophy that could be put to greater use in a lot of current political debate and in most discussions that are taking place on social media. It’s called the principle of charity. It has nothing to do with giving to worthy causes and everything to do with the way we argue or communicate.

Philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse defines it in the following way:

“The principle of charity, roughly, requires that we try to find the best – the most reasonable or plausible – (rather than the worst) possible interpretation of what we read and hear, i. e. of what other people say.”

She argues that this is in fact a common feature of everyday language use. She gives an example of an 85 year old aunt who tends to muddle up names. So she talks about how her grandson Jack came to visit her, when in fact her grandson’s name is Jason. Jack is the aunt’s late husband. In talking to her we don’t interpret her as making crazy claims about a dead person. We fairly easily understand that she is in fact talking about Jason.

This sort of example, according to Hursthouse, “is important because our capacity to communicate with each other – the very possibility of language – rests on our willingness to aim to interpret what others say as, if not true, at leat reasonable rather than barmy.”

In philosophy, the principle demands, e. g.:

  • that when a writer seems to be contradicting himself or herself, we look out for whether he or she didn’t in fact just advance the strongest possible counter-argument to what he or she was arguing, playing devil’s advocate against his or her own argument, in order to prepare the ground for showing that he or she can meet the objection.
  • that, if a writer seems, at first glance, to be relying on a false premise, rather than pounce on it and accuse him or her of a logical mistake, we look for the interpretation of the premise that makes the argument at least plausible, one that might plausibly hold and support the conclusion of the writer.
  • that, if a writer seems to be drawing recklessly broad conclusions for which there are easy counter-examples, we try to find an interpretation of the conclusion that makes it at least plausible.

And so on. You get the gist.

That doesn’t mean we can’t argue with anything that anyone has ever written on the grounds that somehow they must be right. It just means that we should do the mental work that is required to read the writing of others in the best possible light before critiquing it.

Of course we need to read critically, keeping an eye on mistakes, but the search for the truth advances best, if we don’t just criticise things that are obviously wrong at the surface, but instead aim to uncover the real problems in an argument at a deeper level.

Weak criticism, as Hursthouse says, is roughly speaking, “one that the writer could have easily escaped by modest changes to what she said – changes which, in being modest, do not affect the main thrust of her argument.”

So the point is not necessarily that we always let the other person be right. But that our critique of someone else’s point of view is much more effective when we first help them make the strongest case they have.

And if in the process of applying the principle of charity we realise that there was more that is right in the argument we’re critiquing that we thought, and maybe more wrong with our previously held views, we can always go with Socrates’ thought that in an argument, the person who turns out to be wrong really wins because he learns something new.

Some Philosophical Aspects of New Year’s Resolutions

There is a lot of advice on making and keeping New Year’s resolutions. A lot of it is conflicting. Some say resolutions made at the turn of the year could work, some say they’re doomed to fail. Some say we should aim for small changes in our lives, one at a time, others that we should aim for ambitious all-encompassing change. Some say we should tell other people about our resolutions, others say we should keep them to ourselves and work on them quietly. Some say we shouldn’t even bother making resolutions, others argue we should make them more frequently, suggesting, for example, that we look about every four months at what we want to change and what our targets might be. Do philosophers have anything to say on New Year’s resolutions?

Plato and the State of the Mind

Plato argues that the self or the mind is like a city state. The mind has three parts: a) reason, b) passion / motivation and c) appetite / desire. These are equivalent to three parts of a city state: a) rulers, b) soldiers and c) labourers. And as in the city state, order needs to be established by creating the right kind of hierarchy between the three parts. Self-control or self-mastery, the sorts of things one might need in order to implement a New Year’s resolution is given when the passionate or motivating part of the mind is only in the service of reason, not in the service of appetites or trying to do its own thing. Reason needs to rule, passion / motivation needs to help it implement its policies and jointly they need to lord it over the appetites and desires. If that correct hierarchy is established and if each part of the mind does its own work and doesn’t develop ideas above its station, then the person whose mind is thus structured will live a self-controlled and good life.

Conclusion: the only resolution worth making is to ensure the mind is correctly structured. The way this happens is through education and practice. We shouldn’t expect suddenly to be able to do the things we haven’t been able to do, just by making a resolution. Rather we will have to spend time on getting the mind into the right shape. Being clear about our reasons for wanting to keep a resolution, the strength of our motivation and the desires that might conflict with them will also help.

The Stoics and Things Worth Focussing On

The Stoics teach us not to worry about things outside of our control and to focus only on the things internal to us that we can control. In the former category are things like good health / ill health; good looks / ugliness; life / death; riches / poverty; power / powerlessness; being liked / not being liked; and so on. In the latter category is only whether we have virtuous character. Having a resolution to make more money, or to lose weight, or to have more friends would therefore be pointless, if they are not properly thought through. It makes more sense to think about what virtues we would need for a chance at them. We should then aim to develop the virtues of industriousness and frugality instead of making a million dollars; self-control and maybe a certain abstemiousness instead of losing weight, and so on.

Conclusion: the only resolutions worth making are about developing the virtues as only our character is under our control. Any specific targets regarding the outcomes we want to achieve might be blown off course by things outside of our control. Work on our attitudes and habits should be the focus.

Derek Parfit and Future Selves

Derek Parfitt, who was called the most influential philosopher of our times, died in 2017. One of his biggest contributions in philosophy was on questions surrounding personal identity and the self. He argued that personal identity was a question of certain physical and psychological continuities, but that there was no special further ingredient. His views were sometimes likened to Buddhist views that there is no stable self over time. He talks about past and future selves who have separate interests to the current self. Resolutions then would be attempts of a current self to impose certain ways of behaving on future selves, in order to achieve certain things for an even further future self. To aim to do so is perfectly reasonable for the current self. But future selves will look from their perspective as to whether the resolution made by a (now) past self is still one that they have reason to honour.

Conclusion: Not keeping a resolution may not be simply a question of weakness of will but may be a legitimate evaluation of the interests of the current self compared to those of the past self.

Bernard Williams and the Things that Propel us into the Future

Bernard Williams took the view that “an individual person has a set of desires, concerns or, as I shall call them, projects, which help to constitute a character”; these “ground projects [provide] the motive force which propels him into the future, and gives him a reason for living.” For Williams this was a strong argument to critique ethical theories that demanded of people that they should abandon their desires, concerns, commitments, relationships or projects when universal ethical considerations required it. For Williams, our “projects” were not co-incidental fancies, but the very things that are central to being who we are and that make our ives worth living. New Years Resolutions could then be seen as an exercise to audit where we are with our “projects,” what is really important to us, what are our reasons for living and to re-focus our attention on those “projects.”

Conclusion: New Year’s Resolutions could be far more than an unrealistic exercise in setting targets for oneself. They could be a useful audit of what really matters to us and a re-focussing of attention.

 

On Tim Ferriss’ Porch

The other day I watched this TED talk by Tim Ferriss.

He talks about a time when he was feeling suicidal, not helped by a family and personal history of bipolar disorder. He then describes a method of getting things done more efficiently and effectively by addressing your fears head-on. This is meant to be useful as a productivity method even for people free of manic depressive tendencies.

The talk is ok, but something caught my eye and I haven’t been able to let go. Tim recommends a Stoic attitude. In doing so he explains the origin of the name of that particular school of philosophy as being derived from the Greek word “stoa.” He says that “stoa” is Ancient Greek for porch and shows this picture for illustration.

porch copy

He says that Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy, taught in a porch.

Now as it happens, Zeno taught his philosophy in a very specific “stoa” in Athens, the Stoa Poikile  which could be translated as “the painted porch.” But it’s a porch in the sense of a portico, not in the sense of the bit outside someone’s secluded forest retreat, or even just outside someone’s house. It looked more like a more colourful version of this than Ferriss’ porch:

image

And at the time when Zeno taught it was by one of the main public spaces in Athens.

I’m worried that my motives for raising this could easily be misunderstood. So let me just address a couple of points: First of all, this isn’t just a case of me being elitist. I don’t think that you’re only entitled to talk about ancient philosophers if you have a degree in ancient languages and philosophy. I’m quite happy about the current level of interest in Stoic philosophy and the many people who feel inspired by it. I am happy that they find the teachings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and others readily available in translation and am not generally worried that they might be missing facts about the nuances of the Greek language and architecture or the history of Roman philosophy.

Secondly, I’m worried that it could be argued that I’m just jealous that millions more people read everything Tim puts out on his blog, podcasts and books, than read this blog and that I’m just jealous. This TED talk alone has already had more than three million hits. So here are some quotes from the Roman philosopher Seneca, whom Ferriss also quotes. In fact, Seneca is quoting some other people here:

Democritus says: “One man means as much to me as a multitude, and a multitude only as much as one man.” The following also was nobly spoken by someone or other, for it is doubtful who the author was; they asked him what was the object of all this study applied to an art that would reach but very few. He replied: “I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.” The third saying – and a noteworthy one, too – is by Epicurus, written to one of the partners of his studies: “I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards. Farewell.

So, why would it matter if Ferriss is a bit loose with the illustration of a porch. Maybe he just thought the Athenian Stoa Poikile looked a bit boring? Isn’t it worth it if he can make millions of people more effective, less anxious and less depressive?

First of all, when he talks about Stoicism, Ferriss explains that, contrary to popular opinion, it is not about being like Spock, the emotionless character from Star Trek, nor about being like cattle dimly indifferent to rain. In doing so, in de-bunking possible misconceptions about Stoicism, Ferriss sets himself up as someone whose knowledge of Stoicism is of a higher order. He has gone beyond the surface level.

Then he should know that in Stoicism it is important that the Stoic stays involved in public affairs. In contrast to the Epicurean school of philosophy which would have been keener on the forest retreat, the Stoics taught that it it important to stay involved in political and public life. It is important that Zeno’s “lecture hall” was a busy public space, not a secluded private porch. It also meant his philosophy was publicly available.

And if Ferriss – whilst giving the impression that his expertise in Stoicism goes beyond the popular surface-level appreciation – misrepresents the porch where Zeno taught, how much can we trust him to get the other stuff right?

When he correctly states that the Stoics taught us to differentiate between the things we can control and those we can’t, can we trust Ferriss to tell us which things are in which category? Does he know that life / death, good health / bad health, riches / poverty are some of the distinctions the Stoics taught us to care little about because the only one we could really do anything about was our own good or bad character? Can we trust him to teach us, with the Stoics, that our goodness, our development of virtuous character is the only thing really worth focusing on?

Does he understand that the Stoic exercise of praemeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils) is meant to strengthen people to be in equanimity when bad things occur, not to make better plans for avoiding them?

In other words, can we trust him to present Stoic philosophy as what it is, not just another life-hack or “get rich quick” scheme?

Parmenides’ Stunning Inspiration

The pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides would appear to be a crown witness for the emergence of philosophy out of contemplative practices (which I described as an important feature of philosophy in this previous post).

He opens his philosophical work with a description of a chariot ride – guided by goddesses – to the abode of the goddess Justice. She teaches him “both the steady heart of well-rounded truth, and the beliefs of mortals in which there is no trust.”

Some see this as a genuine description of Parmenides’ approach to gaining insight. A shamanic journey to the underworld where he is instructed by divine inspiration.

Others see it as merely a standard literary device: the invocation of muses and gods that is standard in poetic works of his time. (And why should a philosopher write in a poetic format? Possibly just because didactic works were written in that way.)

Here is some of what the goddess teaches Parmenides:

“There is the way ‘that it is and it cannot not be:’ This is the path of Trust, for Truth attends it. Then there is the way ‘that it is not and that it must not be:’ This, as I show you, is an altogether misguided route.”

So again, as with Heraclitus’ journey into the soul, the philosophical teaching is presented as a journey. There is a fork in the road, a choice of two directions. The two paths have ontological names, but as the image of the crossroads often suggests, the choice is also an ethical one: to go down the path of what is, or to chose the path of what isn’t. The (shamanic-)philosophical project of finding the truth is also the project of choosing to live in accordance with truth, of leading a good righteous life. Those who go down the path of “what is not:”

“stray two-headed; for confusion in their breasts leads astray their thinking. On this way they journey deaf and blind, bewildered indecisive herds, in whose thinking being and not being are the same and yet not the same. For all of them the path turns back on itself.”

The right path, the path of “what is,” leads Parmenides to the kind of non-dualism which we have also seen in Heraclitus: He rejects opposites such as dark and light, hot and cold, heavy and light:

“Mortal beliefs, listening to words which, though composed, will be lies. For they proposed in their minds to name two forms, one of which should not be named; this is where they went wrong. They selected things oppositely configured and attributed to them features distinct from one another—to the one form the bright fire of flame, Which is gentle, very light, and in every way the same as itself, But not the same as the other. This too is self-consistent in the opposite manner, as impenetrable night, a dense and heavy body.”

And it is the exclusive existence of “what is,” uninterrupted, unvaried and unchanging, that leads to this rejection of dualism and the view of a single coherent and sphere-like reality:

“For apart from ‘what is’ nothing else either is or will be, since ‘what is’ is what Fate bound to be entire and changeless. Therefore all those things which mortal men, trusting in their true reality, have proposed, are no more than names – both birth and perishing, both being and not being, change of place, and alteration of bright colouring. Now, since there is a last limit, ‘what is’ is complete, from every side like the body of a well-rounded sphere, everywhere of equal intensity from the centre. For it must not be somewhat greater in one part and somewhat smaller in another. For, first, there is no such thing as ‘what is not,’ to stop ‘what is’ from joining up with itself; and, second, it is impossible for ‘what is’ to be more here and less there than ‘what is’, since it all inviolably is. For from every direction it is equal to itself, and meets with limits.”

Parmenides argues for these conclusions about “what is” based on insights into the completeness and uninterrupted nature of existence. He argues that things must be different from the way the appear to the eye based on reasoning.

Given the strength of the vision though, it is possible that Parmenides’ well-rounded sphere of being is something seen, or experienced, more through contemplative practice than through logical reasoning alone. How can Parmenides so categorically deny the realities of growth and perishing, of change in the world all around us? That denial rests on the idea that there is a different way of perceiving what is: One based not just on sense perceptions but on contemplation of truths. And this way allows us to live more in accordance with truth.

That was surely a key moment in the history of human thought, when someone or a small number of people first had the insight that things could be different from the way they appear to us and that we should engage the mind and thought to work out a better view of reality. I can’t help wondering what kind of mental process first led them to this kind of insight, how they would have been received by their contemporaries. We know some of these early philosophers had difficult relationships with the communities they were in. They were thought to be obscure, arrogant, impractical.

Parmenides’ suggestion reminds me of a thought experiment I once read in  a book about the geometry and mathematics of the dimensions: Imagine creatures of two dimensions who live on a plane and perceive objects in two dimensions. Now imagine what a sphere looks like that moves through their plane. It will be a dot, then a growing circle, then a shrinking circle, then a dot, then nothing.

sphere

The 2D creatures would therefore see it as a circle that comes into being, grows, the at some point starts to shrink again and finally perishes. Now imagine though one slightly special 2D creature, call it Parmenides, who works out a whole new way of “seeing.” It is based on some idea that what is cannot just not be, and vice versa. Through an astonishing mental effort he combines the two-dimensional slices of growing and shrinking circles and suggests that instead of concepts like the birth and perishing, growth and shrinking of a circle, there is merely a sphere that stays the same as it travels through the experience world of 2D creatures, despite appearances. How would other 2D creatures react? First of all it might still require a huge mental effort for 2D creatures to “see” what Parmenides “saw.” Some might react against it and argue that there’s no point in assuming anything that is not part of the world as it’s experienced. Some might just ignore Parmenides. They might tolerate what he says but simply think that it doesn’t affect them. They want to navigate the “real world” of growing and shrinking circles. Some might “get it.” and feel enriched by the insight. Some  of them might develop new theories about the eternal life of shapes against the background of the appearance of birth, growth, shrinking and death. Who knows.

The existence of a “sphere” in real Parmenides’ philosophy and his 2D namesake is coincidental. I don’t mean to suggest that this exact thought experiment was what Parmenides had in mind. But what is relevant, is the radical nature of the insight based on mental process other than pure sense perception. The sheer mental effort of gaining such and insight. And the difficulty of communicating it, let alone persuading others that there is truth and relevance in it. How do human beings do that kind of thing? That is the job of contemplation and philosophy.

 

Heraclitus’ Journey Into the Soul

In a previous post I argued that Western philosophy is related to contemplative practices and traditions. I now want to look at traces of this relationship in the early history of Western philosophy, starting with Heraclitus. We have only fragments of his philosophy. And yet we have enough to trace a number of his trains of thought. There is much in the fragments – not just his most famous view that all is flux – that would be in line with the insights of many a contemplative tradition and practice:

Everything is one:

“Not having listened to me but to the principle (the logos) it is wise to agree that all is one.”

Flux: 

“On those who step into the same rivers ever different waters are flowing.”

“It is impossible to step into the same river. It scatters and regathers, comes together and dissolves, approaches and departs.”

Distrust of the senses and a desire to find the truth behind sense perception:

“Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men if they have barbaric souls.”

“The true nature of things tends to hide itself.”

Non-duality / Unity in opposites:

“The divine is day night, winter summer, war peace, satiety hunger. But it takes different appearances like fire which, when mixed with incense, is named according to the savour of each.”

“The way up is also the way down.”

“Sea: water most pure and most tainted, drinkable and wholesome for fish, but undrinkable and poisonous for people.”

Awakening:

“But the general run of people are as unaware of their action while awake as they are of what they do while asleep.”

“The universe for those who are awake is single and common, while in sleep each person turns aside into a private universe.”

There are also hints in Heraclitus’ fragments regarding his method for achieving insights. One fragment simply says:

I searched for myself.

In itself it may not amount to much. But the work described here is an intentional effort. The verb that Heraclitus uses for “searching”, is one he also uses in a different fragment where he says that those digging or mining for gold find a  lot of earth and not much else. So the journey inside oneself is not casual introspection but it is about digging deep to find valuable nuggets. And there are other hints that Heraclitus believed that a systematic inward focus is central to the philosophical enterprise. Elsewhere he says:

It is possible for all human beings to know themselves and to think reasonably.

And then there this further exploration of this theme in a fragment that says:

The limits of the soul you will not find walking, even if you wander down every road. Such a deep principle (logos) it contains.

This explains the point of Heraclitus’ inward journey. The soul itself contains the logos, the principle, or correct account which according to Heraclitus explains the truth about everything.

Elsewhere in Heraclitus’ fragments we see examples of why the inward search is necessary and how the soul contains the principle that also explains everything. By looking inward we can see how we reflect the way things are in the wider universe:

And the one and same: living and dead, awake and sleeping, young and old. For this is changing into that, and that changing back into this again.

That is to say within ourselves we can experience the non-dualism and the one-ness that Heraclitus also sees in the external world.

And there is a further physical reason, why the journey into the soul can teach us truths about the universe. Heraclitus believes that fire is an important element in the universe. He says that the universe is an eternal fire. Elsewhere he says that thunderbolt rules the universe. (An ancient commentator took thunderbolt to be the same as the universal fire though ancient Greeks would also have associated the thunderbolt with Zeus.)

Heraclitus also thought the soul had attributes of fire. But only if it was maintained in such a way to be dry and hot. Moisture and water, he thought, were the death of the soul. There are also fragments that suggest that the soul maintained its fieriness through righteous conduct. In other words the ability to find the fire that reflects the matter of the universe and to find the logos of the soul which is the same as the wider principle, the right account of everything, depends on the righteous conduct of the searcher. That also explains the fragment that says eyes and ears are bad witnesses for the people with barbaric souls. (The word barbaric doesn’t necessarily imply badly behaved, it may merely be a reference to speaking in an unintelligible language.) The corrupted soul simply doesn’t reflect things right, giving a scrambled account of what people see.

So one of the earliest philosophers in Western philosophy has a method of journeying into the soul to explore wider truths. There he finds one-ness in seeming dualism. In the soul he also finds the guiding principle of everything, the logos. This leads to an ethical argument about maintaining the soul in a fit state so that it properly reflects the truth about things.

And from there all flows.