Determinism 11 – Ethics as a Means of Living with Determinism

[This post is a part of a series of posts on free will and determinism. The first one in the series is here. The most recent one is “Is it Better to Believe That we Have Free Will.”]

Thomas Nagel, one of the greatest living philosophers, approaches the subject of free will with humility. He writes:

“I change my mind about the problem of free will every time I think about it, and therefore cannot offer any view with even moderate confidence; but my present opinion is that nothing that might be seen as a solution has yet been described. This is not a case where there are several possible candidate solutions and we don’t know which is correct. It is a case where nothing believable has (to my knowledge) been proposed by anyone in the extensive public discussion of the subject.”

He ends his contribution to the discussion of the subject – 28 pages of tightly argued complex philosophical writing – with the remark, “As I have said, it seems to me that nothing approaching the truth has been said on this subject.”

The problem, as Nagel frames it, is one of perspective:

“In acting we occupy the internal perspective, and we can occupy it sympathetically with regard to the actions of others. But when we move away from our individual point of view, and consider our own actions and those of others simply as part of the course of events in a world that contains us among other creatures and things, it begins to look as if we never really contribute anything.

From the inside, when we act, alternative possibilities seem to lie open before us: to turn right or left, to order this dish or that, to vote for one candidate or the other – and one of the possibilities is made actual by what we do. The same applies to our internal consideration of the actions of others. But from an external perspective, things look different. That perspective takes in not only the circumstances of action as they present themselves to the agent, but also the conditions and influences lying behind the action, including the complete nature of the agent himself. While we cannot fully occupy this perspective towards ourselves while acting, it seems possible that many of the alternatives that appear to lie open when viewed from an internal perspective would seem closed from this outer point of view, if we could take it up. And even if some of them are left open, given a complete specification of the condition of the agent and the circumstances of action, it is not clear how this would leave anything further for the agent to contribute to the outcome – anything that he could contribute as source, rather than merely as the scene of the outcome – the person whose act it is.”

As Nagel sees it our problem concerning free will is a “bafflement of our feelings and attitudes – a loss of confidence, conviction or equilibrium.” The problem is that when we take an external view of our actions, we clearly see that our actions are events in a natural order caused by any number of factors outside of our control. Thus we get the “feeling that agents are helpless and not responsible.” And we can’t find ways of making sense of our internal view where we act autonomously. Neither can we get rid of our felt sense of autonomy in action. “We are apparently condemned to want something impossible,” says Nagel.

So if we can’t have the autonomy that we crave, the next best thing, according to Nagel, is to be able to reconcile our internal view with the external perspective. “This does not meet the central problem of free will,” according to Nagel. “But it does reduce the degree to which the objective self must think of itself as an impotent spectator, and to that extent it confers a kind of freedom.” So what we must do, is to learn to act from an objective standpoint as well as to view ourselves from an objective standpoint. Nagel adds, that, since we can’t act in light of everything about ourselves, the best we can do is to try to live in a way that wouldn’t have to be revised in light of anything more that could be known about us.

Nagel proposes an ascent towards this greater reconciliation of internal and external views along four steps:

1.) Self-awareness

“We might try, first, to develop as complete an objective view of ourselves as we can, and include it in the basis of our actions, wherever it is relevant. This would mean consistently looking over our own shoulders at what we are doing and why (though often it will be a mere formality). But this objective self-surveillance will inevitably be incomplete, since some knower must remain behind the lens if anything is to be known.”

This seems like a burdensome procedure, as well as one that might undermine confidence in action and make it hesitant. But this self-surveillance could potentially become a practice that runs in our mind quite routinely. The examples Nagel gives of things we might catch through the look over our shoulder are influences over our actions that we would resist if we became aware of them: prejudice, irrationality and narrow-mindedness. We can avoid acting under their influence by increasing our self-awareness.

Self-awareness, though, can never progress so far towards objectivity that it wouldn’t include a blind spot.

2.) Practical rationality – stepping outside of impulses and desires

Nagel refers to “ordinary practical rationality” as “roughly analogous to the process of forming a coherent set of beliefs out of one’s pre-reflective personal impressions. This involves […] actual endorsement of some motives, suppression or revision of others, and adoption of still others, from a standpoint outside that within which primary impulses, appetites, and aversions arise. When these conflict we can step outside and choose among them.”

3.) Prudential rationality – stepping outside of the present moment

An important subset of practical rationality, is prudence, where we don’t just step outside ourselves to arbitrate between a number of our motives for action, but we step outside of the present moment to consider future considerations that may have a bearing on our actions. (So this is where I judge the present desire to eat the second piece of cake against the future consideration of feeling like I’ve eaten too much.) Nagel warns against over-using the ability to do this: “The dominance of a timeless view of one’s life may be objectively unwise. And compulsiveness or neurotic avoidance based on repressed desires can easily be disguised as rational self-control.”

“But in its normal form,” he concludes, “prudence increases one’s freedom by increasing one’s control over the operation of first-order motives through a kind of objective will.”

4.) Morality – stepping outside oneself

The next step goes even further than just accepting considerations from outside the present, to accepting considerations from outside one’s life:  “More external than the standpoint of temporal neutrality is the standpoint from which one sees oneself as just an individual among others.” This step leads to the formation of impersonal values, and the modification of conduct and motivation in accordance with them.

The Paradox – Morality as Freedom

There is a paradox here: Nagel started us off on this ascent with a promise that it would get us to a more comfortable place with regard to our problem with freedom of the will. But we end the journey under the yoke of moral and ethical considerations. Nagel is fully aware of this paradox: “there is an internal connection between ethics and freedom: subjection to morality expresses the hope of autonomy, even though it is a hope that cannot be realised in its original form. We cannot act on the world from outside, but we can in a sense act from both inside and outside our particular position in it. Ethics increases the range of what it is about ourselves that we can will – extending it from our actions to the motives and character traits and dispositions from which they arise.”

 

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Determinism 8 – The Knowledge of Determinism

[This post is a part of a series on free will and determinism. It starts here. The previous post is here.]

The thought experiment suggested not only that it comes natural to us to think of ourselves as exercising free will in our decision-making and in our actions, but also that we find it practically impossible to imagine a life in which we don’t exercise free will. Even if we became intellectually convinced that everything is predetermined, we wouldn’t know what it would mean to just lay back and allow ourselves to do what we are predetermined to do.

We then looked at the role of our rationality, our ability to perceive and act on reasons, as the mechanism that makes determinism work for human beings and that provides the feeling of exercising free will. In this way of looking at it, our ability to perceive certain things as reasons for actions, our sensitivity to certain kinds of reasons for action, our capability to act on them and the reasons themselves are always already given.

Seeing our rationality as that mechanism explains an important phenomenon: the idea that knowing or coming to believe that determinism is a fact of our life can be in some way helpful to us.

At a first glance, it is hard to see how that idea would make sense. If we believe in determinism or know it to be true, it is hard to see how we could use that belief or knowledge to influence the course our life takes. After all, we are intellectually committed to the idea that we have no control over the way our lives turn out. And yet a number of philosophers and schools of thought teach something along the lines of: given determinism, we should live in such-and-such a way.

This makes better sense if rationality is involved in the way in which the predetermined course of events unfolds with human beings. Then the knowledge or belief in determinism can itself become a reason for certain actions or to act in certain ways for those human beings who come to believe in it.

So, for example, a human being who has become convinced that determinism runs his or her life, can take that as a reason not to get too upset if things don’t go his or her way. Or if I think that determinism is at the foundation of other people’s behaviours, that knowledge can become a reason for me not to react too strongly to any perceived slights, bad behaviour or unpleasantness from others.

 

Determinism 6 – The Mechanism of Determinism

[This is a part of a series of posts on determinism. The first one is here. The previous one is here.]

Going back to the thought experiment for a moment, it is striking that while we might accept the idea of determinism, we can’t imagine that we would stop deciding what to do. So one of the things that might be interesting to look at further is how exactly the predetermined course of events takes place so that, it engenders, in human beings at least, an inner perspective of exercising free will.

There is a related phenomenon worth looking at too: That is the idea – present in several schools of thought – that accepting determinism to be true can somehow make our life better.

I have quoted before, for example, the Stoic philosopher who compared our human life with regard to pre-determined destiny to that of a dog pulling a cart. The dog’s master will make the dog pull the cart from A to B. The dog’s attitude could be that it doesn’t want to pull the cart from A to B. It may try to go elsewhere, or it may try to shake off the cart. It may get agitated angry and upset as it does so. Then the master will beat the dog all the way from A to B. It will be an unpleasant experience for the dog but the outcome will be that it 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.

The Stoic’s advice would be that we accept that determined fate will make us go from A to B anyway. We should therefore go along willingly, rather than be upset about our fate and rage against it. That will ensure a smoother ride in life and prevent additional pointless mental and physical aggravation.

Modern proponents of determinism tend to focus on the idea of responsibility. If I am predetermined to do something bad, or if it is predetermined that my action will be unsuccessful, then I should not be so judgemental about myself or others. We should all stop giving ourselves and other such a hard time. Some even suggest that the acceptance of determinism should lead us to overhaul the criminal justice system. Why put people in prison for things that they have no control over?

There is something odd about this idea that the acceptance of determinism can have beneficial effect for our lives. Surely our attitude towards the vagaries of our lives would be as predetermined as everything else that happens. Surely our tendency to judge and criticise ourselves and others would be as little a matter of free will as everything else?

One thought which may lead people to think that the acceptance of determinism could lead us to live our lives differently – more calmly, less judgementally – may be the assumption that the realm of the mind is in some ways unaffected by determinism. So, one may think, while I am predetermined as a physical body in a physical universe, my mind, my attitudes and thoughts are – at least to some extent – free. That would allow me to choose at least my mental attitude towards predetermined events.

But the existence of a mental realm that is unaffected by the forces of determinism in an otherwise predetermined universe seems an odd thing to assume in this way of thinking. First of all, it is then questionable whether this mental realm wouldn’t be sufficient to bring back some element of free will into this deterministic world-view. In other words, if I can choose my attitude towards pre-determined events, how can I be sure that my choice of attitude wouldn’t influence events in such a way that it is meaningless to speak of a fully pre-determined course of events?

More generally, we know that at least some of our mental events are clearly closely connected with physical events in the world. I could, for example, form an intention in my mind to kick a ball. I kick it, it smashes a window, and that sets a whole other series of actions in motion. In order to have any relevance, our mental events would have to be able to translate into physical actions or engage somehow with the predetermined course of events in the physical world. Otherwise they would just be a kind of dream that couldn’t even influence our own actions in any way.

So, if, in my mind, I could use my new-found knowledge about determinism and free will to maintain a calm attitude in the face of adversity, then presumably that is relevant because I could then react differently to events than I would have done without that knowledge. And my different mental reactions could ultimately result in a different course of events following on from there. So the mental realm stays connected with the physical. If it is free enough to allow me to choose my mental attitude, it will influence physical events. And that would go against the picture of determinism we were advised to accept in the first place.

And yet, the people who advocated the acceptance of determinism as a means to a better life, presumably did that from a perspective of reaping those benefits for themselves. It is likely that Stoics through the ages, and other determinist schools of thought actually felt that it worked for them.

So the search is on, for a “mechanism of determinism” that has these two characteristics:

  1. From the inner perspective of a human being it feels like an exercise of free will.
  2. It’s acceptance somehow influences the way we live our lives and could even lead to a better life.

[The next post in this series on free will and determinism is here.]

 

Determinism 5 – The Split Second of Freedom?

[This is a part of a series of posts on free will and determinism. The first post is here.]

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet performed some experiments relating to the free will. He sat people down in front of a kind of clock face with a dot moving around it very fast. They could stop the dot with a flick of the wrist. Libet asked them to note where the dot was when they formed the intention to move their wrist in order to make the dot stop. He also measured via an electrode on their head when the “specific electrical change in the brain (the ‘readiness potential’)” that “precedes freely voluntary acts” occurred.

He found that the electrical change in the brain occurs more than half a second before the action is taken. And that the human subject becomes aware of the intention to act 350-400 milliseconds after the electrical change but still around 200 milliseconds before the action is taken.

This research was pounced on by those arguing that we have no free will. How can we be said to choose freely to act when the evidence for the action about to be taken is there before we are even consciously aware of it?

But Libet himself wasn’t quite as categorical about his findings. He clearly took the view that we should assume that we have free will. He suggested that his experiment showed that free will might consist in being able to veto actions that the brain proposes to undertake. In the 200 or so milliseconds between our awareness of our intention to act and the action itself, we can stop ourselves from acting. He says that sometimes the electrode showed a readiness potential in some of his experimental subjects and they became aware of an intention to act but didn’t ultimately take the required action to stop the dot moving. His conclusion is:

“The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place. We may view the unconscious initiatives for voluntary actions as ‘bubbling up’ in the brain. The conscious-will then selects which of these initiatives may go forward to an action or which ones to veto and abort, with no act appearing.”

The  ethical conclusion Libet reaches is that guilt and the attribution of moral wrong-doing should relate only to actions taken, not to thoughts about actions. Specifically, he rejects the kind of doctrine expressed in the Sermon of the Mount:

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart”’ (Matthew, 5.27–8).”

But those who see Libet’s experiments as proof of the absence of free will, have to force themselves to overlook the fact that Libet quotes – at the end of his article published in a scientific journal – the author Isaac Bashevis Singer who said:

“The greatest gift which humanity has received is free choice. It is true that we are limited in our use of free choice. But the little free choice we have is such a great gift and is potentially worth so much that for this itself life is worthwhile living.”

But it doesn’t end there. Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach discusses the Libet experiment and quotes with approval another Tara (Bennett-Goleman) who calls the milli-seconds between our awareness of an intention forming and the physical movement to implement it, the “magical quarter-second.” Tara Brach concludes that:

“By catching our thoughts in the magic quarter-second, we are able to act from a wiser place, interrupting the circling of compulsive thinking that fuels anxiety and other painful emotions. If our child asks us to play a game and we automatically think “I’m too busy,” we might pause and choose to spend some time with her. If we’ve been caught up in composing an angry e-mail, we might pause and decide not to press the send button. The basic mindfulness tools for working with compulsive thinking are “coming back” and “being here.”

It’s time to disentangle some thoughts. Here’s what I think:

  1. Libet’s experiment is interesting but it doesn’t necessarily show any of the things he or others claimed. It could simply be a case of brain-hand-eye co-ordination takes certain amounts of time. Also, if we believe that we have free will, as Libet does, then how can we tell that the electrical charge in the brain isn’t just something we generate when we exercise our free will?
  2. The ability to say no to things that bubble up in the brain an unconvincing and unsatisfying version of free will. Surely we would want the ability to choose positively what actions to take, rather than just a power of veto.
  3. I don’t think Libet’s moral conclusions would follow from his interpretation of free will as a power of veto. In a later blog I’ll aim to argue for moral responsibility even for predetermined, not just for freely willed actions.
  4. Even if Libet’s and Bennett-Goleman’s magic quarter-second doesn’t follow from the experiments, there is clearly the possibility of a reflective space before any action. I think making use of it, and practising the ability to extend it, can make our actions better, even if not necessarily freer. This is again something I’ll want to discuss in a future blog.

 

Determinism 2 – What is the Problem?

This post is a part of a series. Here’s the first one of the series.

The majority of people who responded to my thought experiment said they would try to forget about the news and just spend their day as they were planning to do anyway. Slightly fewer people saw themselves newly absolved of responsibility for their actions and therefore went for ice cream and telly. There were also a few who were going to spend the day proving that we do have free will, regardless of the panel’s findings, some of them brought issues of ethics or religion into it. One or two just remarked that they would do whatever they were pre-determined to do and one or two others said that of course we have no free will and everything is predetermined.

Of course there is more than one problem surrounding determinism and free will. It’s worth untangling them a bit.

First of all there is a relatively straightforward problem: In the pursuit of our daily lives we appear to exercise our will freely. From minor decisions as to what kind of breakfast cereal to buy, to major life choices such as whom we should marry or whether we should change jobs, careers even, or move to a different country, our life seems somehow to be up to us. Or at least we seem to have a say in the direction it takes. And we would like to think that even with major moral dilemmas, such as – during times of war – whether to join the resistance and fight the forces of oppression, or stay at home to look after a sickly relative, we would be free to make that decision. In such cases, I suspect, many of us would prefer the ability to make our choices freely to the alternative of not choosing at all. That would remain the case even if it ultimately means having an ability to make choices that will turn out to have been bad choices, tragic choices or fatal choices.

On the other hand, we understand the universe we inhabit to be a physical universe in which things follow the laws of physics and other sciences. Bodies move according to laws of physics that we can work out through observation and the other methods of science. In that physical universe every cause has an effect and every effect its cause. Certain things follow each other as night follows day. Even where a divine spirit is assumed to be a part of this picture, this spirit is the provider and enforcer of these laws that govern bodies. And human creatures are undeniably physical beings who – as bodies – are subject to the same laws. What’s more, with the progress of neuroscience, the more we can look into the activities of tiny particles in our brains and the mental processes triggered by these activities, the more scientists conclude that the lives of our minds are as governed by these laws of science as our bodies.

Secondly, there appears to be a kind of psychological problem: In the thought experiment, we have come across an overwhelming reason to believe that we have no free will. And yet, it is not just my perverse construction of the experiment that leads us ask ourselves the question “so what do we do now?” Acquiring the knowledge that we are predetermined creatures doesn’t seem to change our sense of agency. And for the small number of people who answered the thought experiment by saying “I’d do whatever I’m predetermined to do,” the challenge would be to describe how the experience of doing so is qualitatively different from the experience of living life exercising free will. A life where we just surrender to determinism, switching off whatever faculty we think we’re exercising when making choices or decisions for ourselves, doesn’t seem feasible.

Thirdly, there is the question of responsibility for our actions. Some people found the certain knowledge that their actions are a result of determinism, rather than an exercise of their free will, liberating. They chose to sit in front of the telly and eat ice cream. Watching TV and eating ice cream are of course just representative examples for how we might chose to live our lives if we were freed from the responsibility for our actions that we normally place upon ourselves or see ourselves under. There are unlimited other things people might choose to do if they saw responsibility for their actions lifted from them. Again, isn’t it an odd and paradoxical psychological effect that the sudden knowledge that their actions are pre-determined suddenly seems to free people up to do what they always wanted to do?

But aside from the psychological effect, there’s the ethical point that a lot of people see the seeming absence of responsibility for our actions, moral responsibility in particular, as so repugnant, that they would take that as a starting point to argue against determinism. It may also be possible to rescue moral responsibility through into a deterministic picture of life and the universe.

[The next post in this series is here.]

Cats and Dogs in the Library – Non-Human, Human and Superhuman Rationality

Writing this last post about some philosophers’ treatment of animals reminded me of another philosopher’s, Alasdair MacIntyre’s, book Dependent Rational Animals.

Philosophers over the centuries have been fairly binary in distinguishing between human beings and other animals, mostly on the basis that non-human animals lack some capacity for reasoning or deliberation. They act on instincts and drives, whereas human beings act on reflection and reasoning.

Rationality (meaning the ability to reason) also tends to be connected with language skills. What is key, is the ability to formulate for oneself and express to others one’s reasons for actions, to reflect on them and critique them even before acting. The advanced language skills of human beings have helped set ourselves apart – in the minds of philosophers at least – as the species that is able to reason, against the others that are unable.

This binary view can be attacked from two sides: Firstly, an argument could be made to bring human rationality (in the sense of being able to reason and act on reasons) closer to certain animal behaviours. Secondly, it could be argued that animals actually do have some capacity for reasoning that is not qualitatively different from that of human beings.

McIntyre pursues both those lines of attack. He argues, that we would do well to see our human reasoning capability as a development that emerges from our animal nature and is continuous with animal behaviours:

“It is not only that the same kind of exercise of the same kind of perceptual powers provides, guides, and corrects beliefs in the case of dolphins – and some other species – as in the case of humans, but that our whole initial bodily comportment towards the world is originally an animal comportment and that when, through having become language users, we under the guidance of parents and others restructure that comportment, elaborate and in new ways correct our beliefs and redirect our activities, we never make ourselves independent of our animal nature and inheritance. Partly this is a matter of those aspects of our bodily condition that simply remain unchanged, of what remains constant through and after the social and cultural scheduling and ordering of our bodily functions: toilet training, developing what one’s culture regards as regular sleeping and eating habits, and learning what constitutes politeness and rudeness by way of sneezing, spitting, burping, farting, and the like. And partly it is a matter of what is involved in our becoming able to reflect upon our overall comportment and our directness towards the goods of our animal nature, and so in consequence to correct and redirect ourselves, our beliefs, feelings, attitudes and actions.”

McIntyre also discusses at some length the research showing the ability of some species, e. g. dolphins, to learn and use language to develop and communicate hunting strategies and to adjust their behaviours to a changing environment.

In some experiments, dolphins were able to learn a made up vocabulary and syntax made up by human beings using dolphin sounds and distinguish sentences like “take the surfboard to the frisbee” from “take the frisbee to the surfboard.” (Dolphin researchers seem to live a fun life full of frisbees and surfboards.)

This ultimately leads MacIntyre to the suggestion that there is a spectrum of reasoning ability, and that some animals are further along that spectrum, closer to where human beings are, than others:

“To acknowledge that there are these animal preconditions for human rationality requires us to think of the relationship of human beings  to members of other intelligent species in terms of a scale or a spectrum rather than of a single line of division between ‘them’ and ‘us.’ At one end of this scale there are types of animal for whom the sense of perception is no more than the reception of information without conceptual content. […] At another level are animals whose perceptions are in part the result of purposeful and attentive investigation and whose changing actions track in some way the true and the false. And among such animals we can distinguish between those whose perceptions and responses are more fine-grained and those whose perceptions and responses are less so.”

This leads MacIntyre to a revision of a famous moment in philosophy:

Wittgenstein remarked that ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’ (Philosophical Investigations II, xi, 223). About lions perhaps the question has to be left open. But I am strongly inclined to say of dolphins that, even although their modes of communication are so very different from ours, it is nonetheless true that if they could speak, some of the greatest of the recent interpreters of dolphin activity would be or would have been able to understand them.

The “spectrum” idea of animal rationality reminds me of one more thought. That is a text by the philosopher-psychologist-theologian William James, who is forever condemned to have the tagline “brother of the novelist Henry James” after his name. He wrote:

“I firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangent to the wider life of things.”

Even if the human species represents a point relatively far along a spectrum of rationality, it is still only a point on a spectrum. That leaves open the possibility that there are points on the spectrum beyond human rationality. Not everyone will find the idea palatable that there are already beings in the universe – divine or alien, presumably – who have a higher form of experience than ours, relative to whom we are like domesticated cats and dogs in drawing rooms and libraries. But whether it is already available to any creature, or not, the possibility remains there that rationality could develop further than that of human beings.

There is no reason to be so ego-centric and grandiose from the human perspective to assume that we represent not only the high-point, but the end-point of rationality. And it is intriguing to think about some of the consequences of that. Some points, briefly, that spring to mind:

  • It could be argued that human beings don’t even use their rationality for much of the time. We often act automatically, instinctively, reactively, habitually. That is fine and probably saves time as well as mental effort. But we need to be clear that for much of the time we don’t make use of the highest form of our rationality. If, as Viktor Frankl says, there is a space “between the stimulus and the response and in that space lies our power and our freedom” we should be aware of how often we don’t make use of that space, but act in a more animal-like stimulus-response mode.
  • The cats and dogs that thrash the furniture of the drawing rooms or make a mess of the libraries are not the ones that are most popular with the people who understand the features of those rooms. In the same way we should approach our environment, the universe, whose features we can’t fully comprehend, with a certain humility and a desire to leave it intact.
  • We should keep alive the hope that it is possible to refine our rationality to a higher point on the spectrum, not just over evolutionary history for our species, but over a lifetime. The dolphins that learned a more advanced level of vocabulary and syntax, developed their language and reasoning capabilities to a point that wasn’t necessarily available to other individuals of their species. But they were trained by human beings who were further along the spectrum of rationality. If we were to aspire to develop beyond our point, whom would we look for training? It’s a tough question. But we have concepts of perfection: Plato’s idea of the Good, the Stoic concept of the wise person, religiously inspired images of the highest attainable mode of living, the contemplation of beauty, the virtues, or even love. (“Will not ‘Act lovingly’ translate ‘Act perfectly’, whereas ‘Act rationally’ will not? It is tempting to say so” writes Iris Murdoch)

 

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.