A Cheetah, Sea Creatures and a Spider – Philosophers Looking At Animals

Here are three philosophers looking at animals:

Hursthouse’s Cheetah

“I once saw a nature documentary which followed a cheetah in the wild through her pregnancy and managed to capture in full the extraordinary sight of her trying to bring down a small deer (on her own, of course, because cheetahs are solitary) when very near to her term. Apart from the pregnancy, she was nothing but skin and bone and sinew, and although she started off with the characteristic gravity-defying bounds, she couldn’t keep it up, and collapsed. According to the documentary, she had been, in the last few weeks, a little unlucky in the availability of prey, but only a little; near starvation and exhaustion after attempts at hunting during pregnancy are, it was said, pretty much the female cheetah’s lot.”

Rosalind Hursthouse “On Virtue Ethics”

Wiggins’ Sea Creatures

“Two or three years ago, when I went to see some film at the Academy Cinema, the second feature of the evening was a documentary film about creatures fathoms down on the ocean-bottom. When it was over, I turned to my companion and asked, ‘What is it about these films that make one feel so utterly desolate?’ Her reply was: ‘apart from the fact that so much of the film was about sea monsters eating one another, the unnerving thing was that nothing down there ever seemed to rest.’ As for play, disinterested curiosity, or merely contemplating, she could have added, these seemed inconceivable.”

David Wiggins “Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life”

Nagel’s Spider

“One summer more than ten years ago, when I taught at Princeton, a large spider appeared in the urinal of the men’s room in 1879 Hall, a building that houses the Philosophy Department. When the urinal wasn’t in use, he would perch on the metal drain at its base, and when it was, he would try to scramble out of the way, sometimes managing to climb inch or two up the porcelain wall at a point that wasn’t too wet. But sometimes he was caught, tumbled and drenched by the flushing torrent. He didn’t seem to like it, and always got out of the way if he could. But it was a floor-length urinal with a sunken base and a smooth overhanging lip: he was below floor level and couldn’t get out.

Somehow he survived, presumably feeding on tiny insects attracted to the site, and was still there when the fall term began. The urinal must have been used more than a hundred times a day, and always it was the same desperate scramble to get out of the way. His life seemed miserable and exhausting.

Gradually our encounters began to oppress me. Of course it might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to. None of the other regulars did anything to alter the situation, but as the months wore on and fall turned to winter I arrived with much uncertainty and hesitation at the decision to liberate him. I reflected that if he didn’t like it on the outside, or didn’t find enough to eat, he could easily get back. So one day toward the end of the term I took a paper towel from the wall dispenser and extended it to him. His legs grasped the end of the towel and I lifted him out and deposited him on the tile floor.

He just sat there, not moving muscle. I nudged him slightly with the towel, but nothing happened. I pushed him an inch or two along the tiles, right next to the urinal, but he still didn’t respond. He seemed to be paralysed. I felt uneasy but thought that if he didn’t want to stay on the tiles when he came to, a few steps would put him back. Meanwhile he was close to the wall and not in danger of being trodden on. I left but when I came back two hours later he hadn’t moved.

Animals – Human and Otherwise

Why do philosopher’s look at animals when they’re considering the big questions about human existence?

Maybe because it makes sense to remind ourselves that we are also animals. And then it helps us think about the ways in which we are different from other animals and the ways we are alike.

Wiggins’ sea creatures for example who don’t rest, play or contemplate, show us that these activities are important to us. In Wiggins’ words:

“If we can project upon a form of life nothing but the pursuit of life itself, if we find there no non-instrumental concerns and no interest in the world considered as lasting longer than the animal in question will need the world to last in order to sustain the animal’s own life; then the form of life must be to some extent alien to us.”

Human animals need to be able to pursue something more than survival itself. The world is – to us – of non-instrumental interest. We can care about it beyond our lifespan. And it is part of who we are, as a species, to look for meaning and purpose. (Wiggins almost looks like he’s arguing that any life form that doesn’t concern itself with philosophical questions is alien to us.)

Hursthouse’s cheetah, reminds us that as animals our lives and what constitutes a good life are to some extent bounded by what is biologically possible for us. In contrast to cheetahs though, we can correct what is “natural” for us through our thinking, our actions and our institutions. Hursthouse writes:

“But in virtue of our rationality – our free will if you like – we are different. Apart from obvious physical constraints and possible psychological constraints, there is no knowing what we can do from what we do do, because we can assess what we do do and at least try to change it.”

While cheetahs are not widely seen to be organising themselves to make pregnancy and childbirth less burdensome and potentially lethal for female cheetahs, human beings have, for example, adopted Millennium Development Goals to improve maternal health, reduce child mortality, promote gender equality, empower women and achieve universal primary education. As a species we have even made some progress towards these over the decades. We can critique our nature from the inside and do something about it in a way that cheetahs can’t.

Nagel’s spider serves as a metaphor for the absurd human existence. With hindsight he sees that he went wrong in “rescuing” the spider. He assumed that this miserable existence in a urinal could not possibly be a worthwhile life for a spider. But it turned out that when the spider was “liberated” from his bleak existence, that was the moment when life was no longer worth living. The point of view of the spider and that of Thomas Nagel were incompatible with each other in a way that turned out to be fatal for the spider. What Nagel takes from the episode is that there are “hazards of combining perspectives that are radically distinct.”

Whereas in that example we have the spider’s perspective and the human being’s, Nagel’s point is that the human mind seems capable of taking up two similarly radically distinct points of view all of its own: a subjective, “inner” point of view within which our projects have supreme value and importance, but also an objective, “outer” view, the view from nowhere, or the point of view from the universe, where everything shrinks into insignificance compared to eternity and where any human being’s interests (even mine) are worth as much as any other’s.

How can we find our lives meaningful when we are aware of the objective perspective? From the point of view of the universe, our lives could look a bit like that of a spider living in a urinal. And yet, we can clearly also experience enjoyment and lead a life worth living in the subjective view. But, though we may try, we can’t ever completely let go of either perspective.

Nagel argues that we can’t reconcile the two perspectives, but we can reduce the jarring between them. We can do this through devices, such as morality, “which seeks a way to live as an individual that affirms the equal worth of other individuals and is therefore externally acceptable.”

Or through a certain form of humility: “the recognition that you are no more important than you are, and that the fact that something is of importance to you, or that it would be good or bad if you did or suffered something, is a fact of purely local significance.” This humility, Nagel says, “falls between nihilistic detachment and blind self-importance.” As he says, with it:

“We can try to avoid the familiar excesses of envy, vanity, conceit, competitiveness, and pride – including pride in our culture, in our nation, and in the achievements of humanity as a species.”

That latter point is interesting. We may even be able to learn something by looking at other species.

 

 

Beliefs and Outcomes

As I said, there are some issues swirling around my mind that I’m not completely clear about. The temptation is not to write about them until I have achieved greater clarity. But I suspect that unless I write about them, I won’t achieve that greater clarity. So let me start with some basic thoughts about the relationship between beliefs and what happens in life:

1.) Imagine I walk out of my house one morning. As it’s early, it’s still dark, slightly misty and I’m only half awake. I see something I believe to be a cobra or some other kind of dangerous snake slightly to the side ahead of me. I jump back indoors and shut the door buying time to consider my next steps. Here are two alternative scenarios for what might happen next:

a) Ok, on further observation from a safe distance the belief that there’s a dangerous snake out there turns out to have been true. I phone the police or the local zoo or someone. They come to pick up the dangerous snake. All is fine. The correct belief that there’s a dangerous snake outside my house allowed me to react in an appropriate way to save my life and potentially that of others. By instilling a useful emotional reaction (fear) in me and triggering the right physical response (jump back, shut the door), the correct belief rewarded me by protecting me from a dangerous animal and I survive.

b) Ah, on further observation from a safe distance the belief that there’s a dangerous snake out there turns out to have been false. I look more closely and realise that a neighbour just left a coiled garden hose in the front garden. The belief that there’s a snake out there did nothing particularly useful, as it didn’t correspond with any real danger. Though I survive in this scenario too, the belief hasn’t done anything useful for me. If anyone observed me getting scared of a garden hose, it might cause me slight embarrassment. The whole episode was a bit of a waste of time.

2.) Imagine I need to get to work. I believe that there will be a train from my local train station at 8.20am that will get me there on time. So I walk to the station and get there just before 8.20am. Again two scenarios:

a) The belief that there is a train at 8.20am was correct. I catch the train and get to work on time.

b) The belief that there is a train at 8.20am was incorrect. It left at 8.15am before I got to the station and the next one doesn’t leave for another 30 minutes. I’ll get to work late and I waste 30 minutes at the train station.

In these examples correct beliefs about things reward me with a successful outcome to my projects (survival / avoidance of danger; getting to work) and allow me to plan appropriately. Incorrect beliefs can’t be said to reward me in such a way. The reason the correct beliefs reward me with a kind of success is because they correspond with something that’s real in the world (leaving aside for now all sorts of metaphysical and epistemological justifications that may be required for such a statement) with which I correctly engage in order to further my projects.

3. Let’s say that the train operator in my area is unreliable. I believe that on any given day there is a 50% chance that there is a train from my station at 8.20am. On half of the days the train drivers are on strike, there are technical problems with the trains or the trains aren’t running due to bad weather conditions. I have no way of knowing in advance whether this will be one of those days, so I walk to the station for 8.20am.

a) My belief was correct and today turns out to be one of the days on which there is a train. Great!

b) My belief was correct and today turns out to be one of the days on which there is no train. Not so great. But as my belief was correct, I always reckoned that there is only a 50% chance that I won’t have a train. Though the absence of a train is disappointing, I expected it as a possibility. It is an eventuality I took into account in walking to the station, while also planning for an alternative for the case that there is no train. In my own personal cost-benefit analysis walking to the station every day, even if trains only appear on half the days is still worthwhile. (E. g. because the walk to the station is short and the benefit of getting to work by train is great.) Believing correctly that there may not be a train allows me to avoid disappointment and plan for alternatives (taking a bus or working at home).

c) My belief was incorrect. There is never a train at 8.20am. Though there may have been one at 8.15am which I have missed. The next train may or may not be there in half an hour’s time. This is less good. It’s disappointing, a waste of time and for as long as I persist in my false belief that there is a train at 8.20am, I will never catch a train on time, even if it’s a good day for running trains.

In this scenario too, the correct belief rewards me with success in terms of furthering my plans and projects. In this case – due to the complexity of the situation – that success may not be the achievement of my most immediate goal (getting to work). But the success in this case consists of the fulfilment of my general expectation that if I go to the station for 8.20am every day, I will get to work by train on half the days. Though I don’t catch an 8.20am train in scenarios b) and c), scenario b) is different in that my project – of catching the train if there is one, and doing something else if there isn’t – is still successful. Again this success is due to the correspondence of my belief with what is actually happening in the world.

In these examples then, there is a relationship between beliefs and outcomes. Holding correct beliefs allows me to interact with the world in a way that generates a successful outcome. This is not least the case because the world is the way I believe it to be. If I hold false beliefs, the world turns out not to have been the way I believed it to be. This means I interact with the world in sub-optimal ways.

There is a certain type of beliefs that is held to be particularly important to the achievement of successes. These are beliefs about ourselves. I wonder whether the simple relationship we discussed above regarding the correspondence of real things in the world with the beliefs I hold and successful outcomes holds for this type of beliefs too.

 

Why What Goes On In The Mind Matters

A complex of related themes is going around my mind at the moment over which I don’t feel I have enough clarity yet to write a coherent blog post. But I thought that maybe if I set out some of those things in little chunks, then maybe it will help make things clearer. So here are some slightly random thoughts which really need to be elaborated and brought into some kind of order:

  1. What goes on in our minds matters because it influences what we do and how we do. Not just in an obvious sense that acting on correct beliefs can lead to successful outcomes (“there is a train at 8.20am that goes to the destination I need to get to”), but also in more indirect ways (if I believe things aren’t hopeless, I will be able to take positive action for longer; if I believe this pill is the medicine that will heal me, I will get better even if it’s a placebo; if I believe my mental capacities aren’t fixed but I am capable of learning things, I will succeed better at expanding my mental capacities; etc.)
  2. The things we actively “bring to mind” and the things “at the forefront of our mind” aren’t the totality of what goes on in our minds. There are probably beliefs we are unaware of that we may not have examined for a long time. There may be thoughts that are being processed outside of our field of attention. There may be techniques by which we can become more aware of some of the things going on in our mind but fundamentally that’s how human minds work (?).
  3.  Given 1. and 2., it would sometimes be helpful if we could choose what we believe or what goes on in our minds. But fundamentally we can’t fully choose what we believe (try believing something random at will), and we can’t easily influence the beliefs or other things going on in our minds that we aren’t aware of.
  4. There may be techniques by which we can exercise a bit more control over what goes on in our minds (in particular clearing out unhelpful beliefs that we hold but haven’t examined for a while). Given 3. we should expect these to be very valuable but not straightforward to practice or instantaneous in their effect.

So that’s it. I hope to expand on all of this a bit in the next few posts. If the mind allows.

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 – #1 – Succeeding While You’re Failing

There are concepts that I find so useful that I would like them to be circulating more widely.

For two of these useful concepts, I rely on Adam Phillips, the prolific essayist and psychotherapist who is responsible for some of the best book-titles in recent publishing history – On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored; On Flirtation; Going Sane. But he also makes some insightful points about success and failure.

It’s a commonplace of popular psychology to analyse instances of failure as self-sabotage. That is the idea that the person failing is not only complicit in his own failure but somehow orchestrating it, in order to satisfy a psychological need below the surface. In other words, the failing not only need to cope with their failure but also need to come to grips with the fact that they are to blame for it.

But Phillips has a different take on this. Continue reading Useful Concepts – #1 – Succeeding While You’re Failing

Amoralists and Psychopaths – Do Philosophical Questions Get Answered?

(This blog-post became much too long for a blog-post as I was writing it. But as it’s really my writing practice and not written for any particular readership, I didn’t attempt to shorten it. But because I like readers anyway, I put some sub-titles in. If anyone reads this, you can treat the sections as individual blog-posts, as necessary.)

Do Philosophical Questions Ever Get Answered?

Do big philosophical problems ever get solved? I mean, does humanity progress in its understanding of the deepest, most persistent questions about our world and our lives? Or do we just occasionally reformulate the questions and nibble away some crumbs of understanding at the edges of the big  problems?

I despair sometimes over the fact that while other disciplines have unleashed energy from splitting atoms, landed people on the moon, found cures for diseases and spun off masses of benefits for everyday human life from their discoveries, philosophers haven’t come much closer in the last two thousand years to reaching agreement on some fundamental and all-important questions, for example, whether we have free will or are fully predetermined in our actions.

One really big challenge in philosophy has been put to bed in recent years though. That is how to deal with the amoralist. The amoralist is the person who – while others discuss what would constitute moral behaviour – asks the question: but why should I act morally at all?

Continue reading Amoralists and Psychopaths – Do Philosophical Questions Get Answered?