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.

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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.

The Birth of Philosophy from the Spirit of Contemplative Practice

There’s a lot of interest in contemplative practices and traditions at the moment. Their steady but circuitous route to their current position in public consciousness went something like this: a number of contemplative practices were reduced to the non-religious and non-metaphysical core practice of mindfulness meditation. Its positive impacts on things like general health and wellbeing, chronic pain reduction and stress management, job performance and effectiveness has been shown in study after study. Neuroscience proved that mindfulness meditation could lastingly alter the structure and activities of human brains. Then interest grew again in the spiritual hinterland of mindfulness meditation. Buddhism provided much of that background. And from there, interest grew again in the contemplative practices of other traditions. As it turns out there is a “contemplative core”  present in a variety of cultures and traditions which is highly meaningful for humanity.

So, for example, the meditation teacher Shinzen Young writes about his own research into the contemplative traditions of various cultures and religions:

It was quite astonishing for me to discover that all over the world and in every historical period there had been people who lived their lives in the state of high concentration that I was just beginning to explore. I began to feel a link to them all. It was fascinating to feel that I shared something deep and important with people living centuries ago and having customs and beliefs completely different from mine. I realised that when we practice meditation, we are engaging in a quintessentially human endeavour. The science of enlightenment doesn’t belong to any particular religion or culture or period, rather it belongs to humanity as a whole and helps us to connect to our basic humanness.

But What is a Contemplative Tradition?

There are a number of interrelated elements that belong to a working definition of a contemplative tradition:

  1. We could say it requires a system of insights or teachings (most likely about the place of human beings in the universe).
  2.  Specific techniques or practices to experience, deepen and reap the benefits of those insights.
  3. More specifically, the techniques and practices of contemplative traditions involve the temporary narrowing of mental focus onto single items or concepts.
  4. A key aspect of contemplative traditions is that they promise that the practice of their techniques are a route to a better, more fulfilled, in some senses, happier life and a liberation from the struggle, dissatisfaction and drudgery of non-contemplative day-to-day life.
  5. There is something important about how the practice and techniques of the contemplative practice lead to a better life. The practices themselves may generate feelings of fulfilment and happiness while they are being practiced and in the immediate aftermath. But the important thing is that a brief but regularly repeated period of practice carries over into the rest of life. So, for example, mindfulness meditation is practiced at best for a small proportion of a day, but imbues daily life with greater awareness.

These are basic central formal elements of contemplative traditions, even if the nature of the insights and practices differ. As Shinzen Young writes:

One way to trace the theme of meditation in world spirituality is through vocabulary. Most of the world’s contemplative traditions have a generic technical term that designates any concentrated state. In addition, there are often specific technical terms used to describe different depths or levels of concentration. When we take the systems and put them side by side, we notice some broad parallels between the Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu systems of contemplation.

Similarly, the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Bhante Henepola Gunaratana writes about the “overlapping practices called prayer and contemplation” that are present in many different religions and cultures:

Prayer is a direct address to a spiritual entity. Contemplation is a prolonged period of conscious thought about a specific topic, usually a religious ideal or scriptural passage. From the standpoint of mental cultivation, both of these activities are exercises in concentration. The normal deluge of conscious thought is restricted, and the mind is brought to one conscious area of operation. The results are those you find in any concentrative practice: deep calm, a physiological slowing of the metabolism, and a sense of peace and well-being.

While the practice of restricting the breadth and increasing the depth of concentration and focus is something that takes place as a conscious practice for designated periods of time in a day, the results of such practices are changes in the overall life of the practitioner. There are a many mechanisms by which this might happen, such as a) that the insights gained during the practice allow for a better understanding of the practitioner’s place in this universe and therefore better navigation in life, b) that the overall better control of the own mind and the ability to concentrate leads to greater effectiveness in addressing any opportunities or challenges that life might offer, c) that greater feelings of connectedness to the world and other human beings (e. g. through a practised focus on compassion, loving-kindness or charity) evoke and strengthen such feelings outside of the contemplative practice, d) that brain activity during contemplative practice changes the structure of the brain long term in a way that increases contentment and decreases feelings of craving and dissatisfaction.

This last point is a more recent focus of neuroscience and again one that is true for contemplative practices with differing forms and content. Shinzen Young, for example, writes:

First, the research seemed to show that while the conceptual systems of the various religions (and specifically those of Buddhism versus Christianity) are very different, the underlying neurological correlates of contemplative adepts in those traditions are often rather similar. This lent credibility to the notion that the world’s contemplative traditions can be viewed as a unity.

So Where Does Philosophy Come Into It?

Is philosophy a contemplative practice? Is Western philosophy one kind of contemplative tradition? We can certainly trace aspects of contemplative traditions through the history of western philosophy. I would argue that philosophy is at its best when it connects to its status as a contemplative practice and weakened when it moves away from it.

Let’s run through the five aspects of contemplative traditions set out above:

A System of Insights or Teachings and Specific Techniques or Practices

It could be argued that Western philosophy can’t possibly be a system of insights or teachings, as there are too many differing strands that are in conflict with each other. But if we gain enough distance from it, we may be able to detect a system of key insights that are in some form or other relevant to the whole tradition. That would be equivalent, for example, to seeing fundamental philosophical tenets of Buddhism as the theoretical backdrop for the practice of mindfulness meditation without worrying too much about the difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism and the many arguments and differing theories between or within those schools.

It might be possible to extract certain insights as key to the contemplative tradition of Western philosophy. Just a few of these might be:

  1. We cannot rely on appearances. There is a truth that is somehow behind or beyond the things of our world. This is a key point from the attempts of pre-socratic philosophers to identify the original substance from which everything is made, be it water, fire or an ever-changing mix of source elements. This is behind the Platonic idea that the objects we perceive through our senses and handle in every day life are instances of more abstract ideas and forms. This is behind the idea that there is a nature of things beyond their appearance as phenomena. This idea is alive and well in the pop-philosophical question about whether our lives could be taking place in a simulated virtual reality. A special case of this insight is the Heraclitean idea (also flowing through Stoicism) that everything is in flux, or the insight that the things we regard as hard and fast are in fact ephemeral. Corresponding contemplative practices are: radical doubt, whereby we apply discipline in order to second guess everything that seems reliable until we get to a core of certainty (perhaps most obviously associated with Descartes). Aiming to see the abstract and eternal beyond the practical and fleeting. The practice of really de-valuing things that are part of the unreliable and fleeting world of appearance and looking for things that are eternal (including the devaluation of the body in favour of the soul).
  2. It is important to understand the real reasons for things and events. Philosophy (and from it science) started when people stopped seeing certain events as acts of gods and started looking for other (better) reasons. From that the practice of looking for and providing reasons became important in being able to say what is true and what is good. This capacity for perceiving, critiquing, providing and acting on reasons – rationality – became seen as a distinctly human capacity, or more lately as a capacity available to a distinctly larger extent in human beings. Rationality here is not meant as a contrast to being emotional but as an ability to deal with reasons. Corresponding contemplative practices are: looking for reasons, critiquing reasons, refining our ability to perceive and act on (right) reasons.
  3. There are ideals that we can somehow aim to get at. The True, The Good and The Beautiful to name but a few. Freedom, Right Action, the Good Life. These things are out there and it is our job to somehow get closer to them, unveil them, get them to reveal themselves, define them. Philosophy is a journey towards such ideals (out of the cave). Corresponding contemplative practices are: the contemplation of ideals.

The temporary narrowing of mental focus onto single items or concepts

  • Contemplation and Deep Thought: The practice of Western philosophy may not have the same specificity of practices as other contemplative traditions – it doesn’t have particular cushions, mats or stools for sitting on during practice, it doesn’t have the sounds of gongs or chimes – but it has its own forms of temporary narrowing focus. What does a philosopher do? In the first instance he or she narrows his or her thinking onto a single concept or proposition in order to develop and illuminate it.
  • Dialogue: Not too long ago, a newspaper published a letter-to-the-editor from Professor Simon Blackburn, that described the following course of events:

Sir, I was a member of the then sub-faculty of philosophy in Oxford some 30 years ago when the chairman received a letter from the administration asking us to detail innovations in teaching methods we had recently made. His reply was that the right method of teaching philosophy was discovered by Socrates some 2,500 years ago, and we had no intention of changing it. We heard no more about it.

That method which has run through Western philosophy for more than two millennia is the practice whereby two or more people are engaged in the practice of talking to each other, more specifically asking and answering questions, in order to establish the truth about certain concepts. Whether this takes place in the agora, the Ancient Greek market-place, where one might have found Socrates, the particular stoa, or portico, where the (therefore) Stoic philosopher Zeno taught, the seminar rooms of universities, or elsewhere doesn’t particularly matter.

  • Reading and writing: These are key practices of the contemplative tradition that is Western philosophy. Of course we are not talking about any kind of reading or writing. It is much more a case of extending the practice of dialogue to a situation where people aren’t necessarily in each other’s presence. So the writer in this practice writes in a way that allows the reader to understand his or her insights. The writer also anticipates objections the reader might advance and answers them. The reader not only aims to take them in, but reads critically, i. e. thinks about what his or her objections would be, what he or she agrees with, and what could be said in response. The reader aims for a charitable reading whereby he or she reads the arguments of the writer in a way that gives them as much sense as possible, before opening the text up to critique. The practice of teaching or learning philosophy by working with classic texts comes close to the idea of contemplating certain bits of scripture as a way of narrowing the focus of concentration.

A better, happier life through brief but repeated periods of practice

Does the practice of philosophy make life better? And do occasional periods of practising philosophy have a positive effect on life as a whole?

Philosophers have long argued that the answer to both questions is yes. In Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, he talks about people who are constrained to life in a cave where they can only observe shadow images on the walls and guess at what objects they represent. Some lucky cave dwellers manage to escape. On leaving the cave these people start seeing real objects, reflections of the sun in water and finally the sun whose light makes everything visible. These people are the philosophers who move from merely dealing with the objects and concepts of the practical world to being able to contemplate the forms, the essences of things, and eventually the form of the good – the ultimate source of truth.

In the ideal society, Plato argues, these people who have seen the light, must not be allowed to stay out there basking in the sunlight – even though they will “think that they’ve been transported to the Isles of the Blessed.” The philosophers will have to go back down to the cave to use their advanced understanding gained from contemplation of the sun to lead the community in the cave and share their understanding with them.

In other words: although philosophical contemplation is a pleasant and liberating experience in itself, those practicing it, must return to “real life,” better able to act there because of the insights gained in contemplation and with a responsibility to enlighten their non-contemplative fellow citizens insofar as they can.

There is also a famous paradox in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which may benefit from applying to it the idea that philosophy is meant to be a contemplative practice. The paradox is in the fact that in book 10 of the Ethics, Aristotle says that happiness consists in contemplation, that contemplation is the highest form of virtue and that it is divine. Whereas elsewhere he gives the impression that all the virtues are equally valuable and that human life is at its bests when it contains activity and social interactions. This is a bit of a paradox that comes about from the fact that engaging in contemplative practice provides a different mindset and perspective in which contemplation is a superior activity. But its value consists in when it carries over to the activities of “normal life.”

Then we have the Stoic philosopher Seneca who, in his essay on the Shortness of Life, proposes that practising philosophy is really the only worthwhile, happy-making and life-prolonging activity. He recommends an ongoing dialogue with the philosophers, as:

“No one of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die; no one of these will wear out your years, but each will add his own years to yours; conversations with no one of these will bring you peril, the friendship of none will endanger your life, the courting of none will tax your purse. From them you will take whatever you wish; it will be no fault of theirs if you do not draw the utmost that you can desire. What happiness, what a fair old age awaits him who has offered himself as a client to these! He will have friends from whom he may seek counsel on matters great and small, whom he may consult every day about himself, from whom he may hear truth without insult, praise without flattery, and after whose likeness he may fashion himself.”

So What?

So what if philosophy once was, or in some places still is a contemplative practice? It certainly has moved on now. It is now taught as an academic discipline, rather than a contemplative practice. Isn’t that better? It depends. There are those who regret that philosophy is becoming increasingly invisible in the public space. (I have written about that in this post.) Philosophy could re-connect with its roots as a contemplative practice. It could be a discipline that aims to benefit its practitioners and through them the wider world. Or it could become ever narrower, thinner, specialised and removed from the circumstances of the lives human beings lead. Then it shouldn’t be surprised if people turn either to the ancient philosophers who took their task seriously (has anyone noticed the resurgence of Stoicism) or the teachers of other contemplative practices when they need some insight into what is going on in their lives and the world.

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.”