Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 10 – Aristotle – Part 2

Ideal and Diagnosis – Rather than diagnosing a flaw in human nature and proposing a remedy, Aristotle gives us an account of the end, purpose or meaning of life and how one might achieve it. Rather than offer an otherworldly account of salvation, he offers one for this world—one more akin to Confucianism or Buddhism.

Aristotle begins by asking if there is one thing at which all action aims; if there is one thing all action seeks for its own sake. Aristotle says that eudaimonia is that thing. This is variously translated as happiness, flourishing, well-being, living well, fulfillment, perfection, and more. In his own words “the human good turns out to be activity in the soul [mind] in accordance with excellence.” In other words the good life is activity that involves rationality and embodying excellence over an entire lifetime.

Anything, even inanimate things, can function excellently. A good pen or a good dog functions as they are supposed to. Humans have both excellences of intellect—theoretical and practical reason—and excellences of character—virtues (excellences) like practical wisdom, knowing what to do in real-life situations by having learned from experience, as well as temperance, courage, and justice. In general he presents these virtues as “the mean between the extremes.” A life of virtue (excellences of character) is the ideal for human life. [Like Plato he emphasizes moral and intellectual virtue.]

In contrast to the state of virtue [knowing, wanting, and doing the right thing] stand brutishness (vice) [which is to not know, want, or do the good]; badness (incontinence) [which is to not want or do the good, although one may know it] and lack of self-control (continence) [which it to not do the good, although one may want and know it. Unlike Socrates, who thought knowledge was sufficient for virtue (KSV) and Plato, who recognized inner conflict, Aristotle recognized how weakness of will implies that KSV is false. Knowing the good doesn’t mean one will do it.

Realization or Prescription: Political Expertise and Intellectual Contemplation – A key is that vice and virtue result from habits, which themselves are the result of past actions and environment, including the social and political environment. [Aristotle says that political science is the science which studies the good for humans.] This leads us to Aristotle’s conception of government and society. In brief Aristotle believed that societies can only survive and flourish if there is some basic agreement about issues of private morality. [It is hard to know his prescription for a pluralistic society like ours. The founders of the USA thought that individual moral and religious pluralism was allowable, as long as the public, secular good took precedence.]

As for his specific, ideal notion of the good life Aristotle contrasts lives of pleasure, honor, and intellectual reflection. Not surprisingly he felt the latter was superior. Intellectual contemplation he thought was the highest and best human activity. Needless to say the authors reject Aristotle’s belief that intellectual activity is higher than other worthwhile activities. [Plato argues that intellectual pleasures are better than physical ones. He says you can confirm this by asking someone who has experienced both types which they prefer. He argues they will always say intellectual pleasures are superior.] The authors also criticized Aristotle for not noting how much one’s station in life affects their ability to live well.

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Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 9 – Aristotle – Part 1

Aristotle: The Ideal of Human Fulfillment

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was a student of Plato’s and the tutor of Alexander the Great. Aristotle’s background in biological subjects made him more of an empiricist [truth discovered primarily by the senses] as compared to the mathematician Plato’s rationalism [truth discovered primarily by reason.] Aristotle attended Plato’s academy but founded his own school, the Lyceum, later in his life. [Both schools would exist, in some cases off and on, for between 500 and almost 1000 years.]

Aristotle wrote on an amazing range of topics including: logic, metaphysics, epistemology, astronomy, physics, meteorology, biology, psychology, ethics, politics, law, and poetics. [I think we can safely say that Aristotle influenced more subjects for a longer period of time than any thinker in the history of humanity. His scientific ideas were often false, but they were the received wisdom for 2000 years. His logic is still used and his influence in multiple areas of philosophy is still felt.] For our purposes we will mainly focus on the Nicomachean Ethics, based on lecture notes taken by his students.

Metaphysical Background: Forms as Properties, and the Four Kinds of Question – Aristotle is not a classical theist like Augustine or Aquinas, but he does have a conception of an unmoved mover, a changeless cause/sustainer of the processes of the universe. Again this is not a personal god who cares about human beings or is the object of worship. [It is more like a power or energy that keeps things in motion by attracting them toward it.]

Aristotle rejects Plato’s belief in independently existing forms. There is something common to things that share a concept x, but that essence/form/pattern/structure is embedded in thing itself. We don’t need to escape from a cave, but see clearly what is in it. [Everything is a composite of form and matter. The form is the pattern or structure of a thing and the matter is what makes something an individual thing. Everything in the world is a formed matter; that is matter in a certain form. You never find matter without form---which would be like a primordial goo---and you never find form without matter---with the exception of the unmoved mover. Some forms are very primitive—a brick is basically just the shape of heated clay—while others are very complicated---like that of a human being.]

But in what sense is the essence of catness shared by all cats? Is this form a thing or a quality? Does a given form like health or goodness apply to all healthy or good things? Aristotle thought not. You can be healthy or good in different ways so he doubted that there was a unitary form of goodness. Pleasure, honor, and wisdom may all be good, but they are good in different ways hence there is no single form of goodness.

Another way of understanding his metaphysics is to consider the 4 causes, four questions we can ask about a thing in order to understand it: 1) material cause—what something is made of? 2) formal cause—what kind of thing is it? 3) efficient cause—what caused it to exist? And 4) final cause—what is its purpose or function? [This works well to understand human artifacts like statues or books, but the idea of a final cause is harder to determine for people, much less for inanimate objects. Aristotle is expressing a teleological view of reality—the idea that nature is goal-oriented. [This view has been undermined and rejected by modern science.] But Aristotle’s analytic nature laid the groundwork for the analysis prevalent in modern philosophy.]

Theory of Human Nature: The Soul as a Set of Faculties, Including Rationality – Plato was a dualist who believed that we are composed of two substances, a material body and immaterial mind. Aristotle rejects this. [No wonder his views were so much harder to reconcile with Christianity than Plato’s.] As a biologist, Aristotle recognized that living things include plants as well as human and non-human animals. [He says that plants have a vegetative structure (a way of functioning) which is primarily about taking in nutrients, reproducing, and the like. Non-human animals have this structure plus a sensitive structure which uses senses to interact with the environment and initiates desires. Human animals add to this a rational structure which makes them unique.] Each different thing then has a different structure or form. This is its formal cause in his language. Thus some things have a richer or more complex form than other things.

Thus the form of something does not exist independently; it is not an entity in itself. Rather it is the specific pattern or structure or form of a thing which defines how it exists and functions. [It is different to be structured as a rock, tree, dog, or human.] Thus for Aristotle it makes no sense to talk of a soul or mind without a body, for the essence of a person is embedded and intertwined with their matter. You can’t take it out of the body. [And to think Roman Catholic natural law theory is Aristotelian through and through.]

The only exception is that divine intellectual functioning may take place without a body. Yet it is hard to see how this could be the case. For example even if computers think without bodies their thought still depends on material components. Disembodied thought is conceptually problematic, although many Christians and Islamists who followed Aristotle welcomed the possibility. As for ordinary embodied human beings Aristotle’s major distinction is between their rational component and their emotions and desires. He also distinguished between theoretical and practical reasoning.

Aristotle also held that humans are social and political creatures who have activities common to all.  He also thought that we can only reach our full development in societies. However he does not think that woman are rational creatures, and his remarks are quite disparaging toward them. Perhaps worst of all, Aristotle advocated a doctrine of natural slavery—the idea that some are naturally slaves. He thinks this is the status of non-Greek barbarians. Still we should not reject the rest of Aristotle’s thought because he was a misogynist, racist, and imperialist. [Aristotle’s doctrine of natural slavery heavily influenced the Catholic Spanish conquerors of the new world, many of whom used this doctrine to justify their horrific treatment of the people of the new world. For more see the disputations during that time held particularly at the University of Salamanca.]

The Transhumanist Party: Could It Change Our Political Future?

The noted transhumanist Zoltan Istvan recently published an article in the Huffington Post entitled: Should a Transhumanist Run for US President? Istvan is preparing to run for the Presidency of the United States in 2016, as a member of his newly formed Transhumanist Party, a political organization dedicated to using  science and technology improve human beings and their society. In addition to promoting ideals like prosperity and security his political agenda is as follows:

1) Attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years—a goal an increasing number of leading scientists think is reachable.

2) Create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.

3) Create national and global safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible planetary perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.

Although the universal benefits of such goals are obvious, politicians ignore them. Instead “They’re more interested in landing your votes, in making you slave away at low-paying jobs, in keeping you addicted to shopping for Chinese-made trinkets, in forcing you to accept bandage medicine and its death culture, and in getting you to pay as much tax as possible for far-off wars (places where most of us will never step foot in).”

Istvan realizes that he will not get elected, and will have difficulty even getting on many state ballots, but he thinks the forming of the party is a start. “[I]f transhumanists—a growing group consisting of futurists, life extensionists, biohackers, technologists, singularitarians, cryonicists, techno-optimists, and many other scientific-minded people—are serious about the pending future, then it’s time to get involved in the political game …” And perhaps the time is right since the transhumanist movement is becoming more mainstream. “There are many employees at major tech companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google who subscribe to transhumanist aims. Transhumanist-themed conferences, groups, and even schools, like Singularity University, are popping up.”

I can personally attest to this rapid transformation. When I taught transhumanist themes in a world-class computer science department just ten years ago, the ideas were generally dismissed by both students and faculty. Now, with drone planes replacing jet pilots, AI and robotics progressing, Ray Kurzweil essentially Google’s thinker-in-chief, the idea of the singularity omnipresent in silicon valley, rapid advancement of self-driving cars, exoskeletons showing promise and more, I do feel somewhat vindicated. No, we haven’t yet reached a technological singularity, and any given prediction regarding the reality and benefits of a future technology is open to the vicissitudes of fortune and a thousand caveats. Still the inexorable transformation of our world unfolds before our eyes each day.

Yet although the pace of change is increasing exponentially, many still respond to the unfamiliar with ancient and uniformed dogma wired by genes and culture into their primate brains. This will not do. As we enter into this new world we need brains capable of greater intelligence and morality; we need to evolve; we need to transform. But this can only be accomplished in a social and political milieu that actively promotes the transhumanist goal of using science and technology to overcome all human limitations. I thus applaud Istvan’s potential foray into politics and I think we should support him.

Finally I echo Istvan’s concerns about mustering the political will to defeat death. There is no more important human project. As I wrote in most recent book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives:

Only if we can choose whether to live or die are we really free. Our lives are not our own if they can be taken from us without our consent, and, to the extent death can be delayed or prevented, further possibilities for meaning [in life] ensue. Perhaps with our hard-earned knowledge we can slay [what Nick Bostrom calls] the dragon tyrant, thereby opening up the possibility for more meaningful lives. This is perhaps the fundamental imperative for our species.

Note – This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, October 20, 2014. http://hplusmagazine.com/2014/10/20/transhumanist-party-change-future/

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 8 – Plato – Part 2

Plato: The Rule of Reason

Diagnosis – Persons differ as to which part of their nature is predominant. Individual dominated by reason seeks are philosophical and seek knowledge; individuals dominated by spirit/will/emotion are victory loving and seek reputation; individuals dominated by appetites are profit loving and seek material gain. Although each has a role to play, reason ought to rule the will and appetites. And in the same way those with the most developed reason ought to rule the society. A well-ordered, harmonious, or just society is one in which each kind of person plays their proper role.  Thus there is a parallel between proper functioning individuals and proper functioning societies. Good societies help produce good people who in turn help produce good societies, while bad societies tend to produce bad individuals who in turn help produce bad societies.

Plato differentiates between 5 classifications of societies. 1) The best is a meritocracy, where the talented rule. This may degenerate into increasingly bad forms, each one worse than the other as we go down the list. 2) The timarchic society, which values honor and fame while reason is neglected. In such a society spirit dominates the society and the ruling class. 3) Oligarchy, where money making is valued and political power lies with the wealthy. In such a society appetites dominate the society and the ruling class. 4) Democracy, where the poor seize power. They are also dominated by appetites. He describes the common people as “lacking in discipline [and] pursuing mere pleasure of the moment …” 5) Anarchy is the sequel to the permissiveness and self-indulgence of democracy.  It is the total lack of government. Plato thought this would usher in a tyrant to restore order.

Prescription – Justice is the same in both individuals and society—the harmonious workings of the parts to create a flourishing whole. But how is this attained? Plato believes that education—academic, musical, and physical—as the key. Education takes place in the context of a social and political system. Not surprisingly this includes kings (rulers) being philosophers, those in whom reason dominates. If there really is a truth about how people should live, then only those with such knowledge should rule. [Think of the parallels with Confucianism, where those who rule have mastered the Confucian political texts.]

To achieve this end Plato, the guardians or rulers must engage in a long educational process in which they learn about the Forms. [After a nearly 50 year long process, those of the highest moral and intellectual excellence will rule.] The guardians cannot own personal property and cannot have families. [The idea is that only the desire to serve the common good motivates them, rather than money or power.] He hopes that the guardians will so love wisdom that they will not misuse their power. As for those dominated by will/emotion/spirit they are best suited to being auxiliaries—soldiers, police, and civil servants. The final class is comprised of the majority, those in whom the appetites dominate. They will be farmers, craftsman, traders, and other producers of the materials necessary for living.

Critics have called Plato’s republic authoritarian or totalitarian, and Plato advocated both censorship and propaganda as means of maintaining social control.  He certainly believed that the masses [who he says like to “shop and spend”] were unable to govern the society, and that an elite, composed of the morally and intellectually excellent should make the important decisions about how best to govern a society.


The School of Athens

Review of David Benatar’s, Better Never to Have Been


Born rich                                                                              Born poor

David Benatar is professor of philosophy and head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa. He is best known for his advocacy of antinatalism. His article, “Why It Is Better Never to Come into Existence,” espouses the view that it is always a harm to be born. In addition he wrote a book on the same topic: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.

It is commonly assumed that we do nothing wrong bringing future people into existence if their lives will, on balance, be good. This assumes that being brought into existence is generally beneficial. In contrast Benatar argues that: “Being brought into existence is not a benefit but always a harm.” While most people maintain that living is beneficial as long as the benefits of life outweigh the evil, Benatar argues that this conclusion does not follow because: 1) pain is bad, and 2) pleasure is good; but 3) the absence of pain is always good whether people exist or not, whereas 4) the absence of pleasure is only bad if people exist to be denied it.

To support this asymmetry between 3 & 4 Benatar presents three arguments. The first is that: 1) while there is a duty not to bring people who will suffer into the world (supports 3), there is no duty to bring people who will be happy into the world (supports 4). Thus a lack of suffering is always good, whether or not someone enjoys this absence; whereas a lack of happiness is not always bad, unless people exist to be denied it.

His second argument is that though we think it strange to say we have children so they will benefit, we think it normal to say we should not have children because they will be harmed. We don’t think people should have as many children as they can so as to benefit those children, but we do think people should refrain from having children if this will cause them suffering.

His third argument to support the asymmetry is that while not having children may be bad or good for the living, not having been born cannot deprive those who have never been born of anything.

This fundamental asymmetry—suffering is an intrinsic harm, but the absence of pleasure is not—allows Benatar to draw his nihilistic conclusions. In other words, the amount by which the absence of pain is better than its presence is itself greater than the amount by which the presence of pleasure is better than its absence. This means that not existing is either a lot better than existing, in the case of pain, or a little worse, in the case of pleasure. Or to think of it another way, the absence of pain and the presence of pleasure are both good, but the presence of pain is much worse than the absence of pleasure. (Here is my own thought experiment that might help. Suppose that before you were born the gods were trying to decide whether to create you. If they decide to create you, you will suffer much if you have a bad life or a gain greatly if you have a good life. If they decide not to create you, you will gain greatly by avoiding a bad life, but suffer only slightly if at all by not existing—as you wouldn’t know what you had been deprived of.)

To further his argument, Benatar notes that most persons underestimate how much suffering they will endure. If their lives are going better than most, they count themselves lucky. Consider death. It is a tragedy at any age, and only seems acceptable at ninety years of age because of our expectations about life-spans. But is lamenting death inconsistent with his anitnatalism? Benatar thinks not. While non-existence does not harm a possible person, death is another harm that will come to those in existence. In response you could say that you can’t be mistaken about whether you prefer existence to non-existence. Benatar grants that you may not be mistaken, if you claim that you are currently glad to have been born, but you could still be mistaken that it was better to have been born at all. You might now be glad you were born, and then suffer so badly later that you change your mind. (I might wish I hadn’t been born, after I find out what’s in store for me.)

What follows from all this? That we shouldn’t have children? That no one should have children? Benatar claims that to answer yes to these questions goes against a basic drive to reproduce, so we must be careful not to let such drives bias our analysis. Having children satisfies many needs of those who bring children into existence, but this does not mean it serves the interests of the children—in fact it causes them great harm. One could reply that the harm is not that great to the children, since the benefits of existing may outweigh the harm, and, at any rate, we cannot ask future persons if they want to be born. Since we enjoy our lives we assume they will too, thus providing the justification for satisfying our procreational needs. Most people do not regret their existence, and if some do we could not have foreseen it.

But might we be deceiving ourselves about how good life is? Most of us assume life would be unbearable if we were in certain situations. But often, when we find ourselves in these situations, we adapt. Could it be that we have adapted to a relatively unbearable life now? Benatar says that a superior species might look at our species with sympathy for our sorry state. And the reason we deceive ourselves is that we have been wired by evolution to think this way—it aids our survival. Benatar views people’s claims about the benefits of life skeptically, just as he would the ruminations of the slave who claims to prefer slavery to death. Benatar concludes by saying: “One implication of my view is that it would be preferable for our species to die out.” He claims that it would be heroic if people quit having children so that no one would suffer in the future. You may think it tragic to allow the human race to die out, but it would be hard to explain this by appealing to the interests of potential people. He concludes that it is better never to come into existence, as being born is always a harm.

Reflections – Benatar relies on an asymmetry to claim that it is better never to have been born, and it would be a good thing if the human race became extinct. The validity of this asymmetry is open to question. Yet despite its philosophical subtlety, it is hard to believe that Benatar believes his own argument. Can one really prefer eternal nothingness to the possibility of a good or bad life? If I prefer to remain alive, I am not implicitly accepting that life is better than non-life? Does it really make sense to dedicate a book to the parents who harmed you by bringing you into existence? Still, Benatar’s arguments are persuasive enough that I cannot find any knock-down arguments against them, although I urge caution against accepting philosophical prescriptions that, if followed, will result in the death of the species. Surely we ought to tread carefully here despite the power of Benatar’s claims.

I find this one of the deepest, most troubling, and hardest to evaluate pieces I’ve ever read. A possible answer might be to accept the truth of Benatar’s assertions regarding the history of cosmic evolution to the present—so far pain and unhappiness have outweighed their opposites and so far it would have been better never to have been—but suggest that a glorious future is in store for our descendents. This future will make the long, painful struggle of life and consciousness ultimately worth it. Thus the end state will be so rewarding that we can say, in retrospect, that it was better to have been.

Still this kind of eschatological talk scares me, inasmuch as it relies on a future that may not transpire. It also implies that somehow the future will justify past suffering. If this justification depends upon an eternal plan, then the eternal planner is exceptionally evil. As Dostoevsky said, the torture of a single child cannot be justified by a good future. But if reality was a matter of happenstance, and if all those who previously suffered somehow partake in this better future, then one might justifiably conclude that, on balance, it was better that consciousness arose.

Still I don’t know if my argument works against Benatar, and the whole question strains my limited intellectual faculties. Perhaps we just have to hope that life is worth living. But then this is really no answer either. As for me, I now find my life to be quite worthwhile. However, if at some point in the future that it not the case , then I hope to have the option to end my life without help, or be able to get help ending it if necessary. I also hope that my family reads the pieces I have written on this topic, as well as consult my end of life documents. Until then, I want to follow the advice of Thoreau:

… to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life …

Henry David Thoreau

Note – This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, October 13, 2014 http://hplusmagazine.com/2014/10/13/better-never-born-anti-natalism/

The Allegory of the Cave, The Divided Line, The Myth of the Sun

As I said in yesterday’s post, Plato used three images to explain his theory of the Forms. The first was the myth of the cave.

The chained prisoner’s tied see only the wall in front of them while in the roadway behind them various objects are carried back and forth resulting in the shadows on the wall. One day a prisoner breaks free and see the objects behind him. He knows there is something more real and he has more knowledge of his reality. Eventually he makes his way out of the cave and see objects in the sunlight, and then he sees the sun itself.

The allegory this refers to his leaving behind the impermanent, material world for the permanent intelligible world. It is a story about the human journey from darkness to light, from sleeping to waking, from ignorance to knowledge. For Christians like St. Augustine it represented the souls journey from this world to the heavenly one. Contemporary commentators often argue that has something to say to us. We look at our televisions, smart phones, and computer screens rather than contemplating eternal things.

Plato’s next device to explain forms was the divided line.

As move from top to bottom you find more reality and more knowledge. For example suppose you only know the shadow of a horse, in that are at the bottom (A). The shadow has very little reality—it depends on the horse casting the shadow—and it provides little knowledge. If you now see an actual horse you have moved up one level (B). You know more about horses and the actual horse has more reality than its shadow. If you move further upward to (C) you are in the realm of understanding, the realm of mathematical ideas. Finally as you proceed upward you arrive at the world of forms (D), the highest of which is the form of the good.

Finally Plato says that just as the sun illuminates the entire physical world so too, by analogy, does the idea of the good illuminate all of reality. Thus the entire material, temporal world that we usually see is less real than the immaterial, non-temporal.

I don’t know if I hope Plato is right or not. But if he is, then dinner is not that important.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 7 – Plato – Part 1

Plato: The Rule of Reason

Plato (427-347 BCE) “was one of the first to argue that the systematic use of our reason can show us the best way to live.” [This is the implication for politics and ethics of the rise of reason in ancient Greece—the Greek miracle. It replaced superstitious, mythological, supernatural thinking with rational, philosophical, naturalistic thinking. Thus we are moving from ancient religious traditions to rationalism; to reason as the instrument for understanding ourselves. And the lives we live today owe much to the Greek miracle.] Plato argues that if we truly understand human nature we can find “individual happiness and social stability.” [We can answer ethical and political questions.]

Plato’s Life and Works – Plato “was born into an influential family … of Athens.” Athens was at the center of the Greek miracle, the use of reason to understand the world. He was especially influenced by Socrates, but after Athens lost the twenty-seven year Peloponnesian War with Sparta, Socrates came under suspicion and was eventually condemned to death. [You can read my detailed notes of the trial of Socrates as recounted in Plato’s Apology on canvas course site.]

Socrates was interested in political and ethical matters, especially about whether the Sophists were correct in defending moral (cultural) relativism. [This is the idea that morality is relative to, conditioned by, or dependent upon cultural conventions.] Socrates believed that the use of reason could resolve philosophical questions, especially if one employed the method of rational argument and counter-argument; the Socratic method of questions and answers designed to uncover the truth by engaging in a forum of rational discourse.

Socrates claimed that he did not know the answers to questions beforehand, but that he was wiser than others in knowing that he didn’t know. [This is the essence of Socratic wisdom—he is wiser than others in knowing he doesn’t know, whereas the ignorant often claim to know with great certainty. Through a series of questions and answers—the Socratic Method—he showed people they didn’t know what they claimed to know. Needless to say questioning people about their beliefs and implicitly asking them to defend them often arouses resentment and hostility. [Spinoza said “I cannot teach philosophy without being a disturber of the peace”]

Plato was shocked by Socrates execution, but maintained faith in rational inquiry. Plato wrote extensively, and in a series of dialogues, expounded the first (relatively) systematic philosophy of the Western world. [The early dialogues recount the trial and death of Socrates. Most of the rest of the Platonic dialogues portray Socrates questioning to those who think they know the meaning of justice (in the Republic), moderation (in the Charmides), courage (in the Laches), knowledge, (in the Theaetetus), virtue (in the Meno), piety (in the Euthophro) or love (in the Symposium).] The Republic is the most famous dialogue. It touches on many of the great philosophical issues including the best form of government, the best life to live, the nature of knowledge, as well as family, education, psychology and more. It also expounds Plato’s theory of human nature.

Metaphysical Background: The Forms - Plato is not a theist or polytheist, and he is certainly not a biblical theist. We he does talk of the divine he is referring to reason (logos) that organizes the world from preexisting matter. What is most distinctive about Plato’s philosophy is his theory of forms, although he is not precise as to what exactly this theory means. What Plato realizes though is that knowledge is an active process through which we organize and classify our perceptions. Forms are ideas or concepts which have at least 4 aspects:

A) Logical – how does “table” or “tree” apply to various tables/trees? How does a universal concept like “bed” or “dog” or “red” or “hot” apply to many individual things? [Any word except proper names and pronouns refers to a form] Nominalists argue that words simply name things, there are no universal concepts existing over and above individuals. [Words are convenient names that demarcate some things from others.] Platonic realists argue that universal forms really exist independently, and individual things are x’s because they participate in xness. [Dogs are mammals because they participate in doginess—which transcends individual dogs.] At times Plato suggests that there is a form for all general words–other times he doesn’t.

B) Metaphysical – are forms ultimately real, that is, do they exist independently? Plato says yes, universal, eternal, immaterial, unchanging forms are more real than individuals. Individual material things are known by the senses, whereas forms are known by the intellect. And the forms have a real, independent existence—there is a world of forms.

C) Epistemological – knowledge is of forms, perceptions in this world lead only to belief or opinion. We find the clearest example of knowledge based on forms in mathematics. [Hence the motto of Plato’s academy. “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.”] The objects of mathematical reasoning are often not found in this world—and we can never see most of them—but they provide us with knowledge about the world. [Plato is challenging us to account for mathematical knowledge without positing mathematical forms. And even today most mathematicians are mathematical Platonists.]

D) Moral – ideals of human conduct, moral concepts like justice and equality are forms. [Plato has so far discussed physical, mathematical, and now moral forms.] Individuals and societies can participate in justice, liberty, or equality, but in this world we never encounter the perfect forms. The most prominent of all the forms is the form of the “good.”

The parables of the sun and cave are primarily about seeing the light of goodness. [Plato compares the suns illumination of the world with the form of the good’s illumination of reality.] Plato thought that thru the use of reason we could come to know the good … and then would do the good. Thus knowledge of the good is sufficient for virtue, doing the good. [This seems mistaken as Aristotle will point out because our will can be weak.]  Thus Plato’s philosophy responds to intellectual and moral relativism—there are objective truths about the nature of reality and about human conduct. [The allegory of the cave, the myth of the sun, and the divided line are the devices Plato uses to explain the forms. I will explain these in tomorrow's post.]

Theory of Human Nature – The Tripartite Structure of the Soul – [Having encountered the social self of Confucianism, the divine self of Hinduism, and the no self of Buddhism, we come to dualism.]

Plato is a dualist; there is both immaterial mind (soul) and material body, and it is the soul that knows the forms. Plato believed the soul exists before birth and after death. [In our pre-existence our soul saw the moral and mathematical that it now remembers! We don’t see perfect circles or perfect justice in this world; we remember seeing them in Platonic heaven before we were born.] Thus he believed that the soul or mind attains knowledge of the forms, as opposed to the senses. Needless to say we should care about our soul rather than our body.

The soul (mind) itself is divided into 3 parts: reason; appetite (physical urges); and emotion/passion/ spirit/will. Examples of the latter include: love, anger, indignation, ambition, aggression, etc. There are thus 3 different aspects to our mental nature and when these aspects are not in harmony we experience mental conflict. Emotion or passion can be on the side of either reason or the appetites. We might be pulled by passionate love, lustful appetite, or the reasoned desire to find the best partner. Plato’s own image is of the charioteer (reason) who tries to you control horses representing emotions and appetites. [Elsewhere he says that reason uses the spirit (or will) to control the appetites. As the book says, the idea of emotion/passion/or spirit is. Nowadays we usually divide these as reason, appetite, and will.

Plato also emphasized the social aspect of human nature. We are not self-sufficient, we need others, and we benefit from our social interactions, from other persons talents, aptitudes, and their friendship.

 

The Trial of Socrates

Summary of Plato’s Apology

The Apology is Plato’s recollection and interpretation of the Trial of Socrates (399 BCE). In the dialogue Socrates explains who he is and what kind of life he led. The Greek word “apologia” means explanation—it is not to be confused with apologizing for one’s actions. The following is an outline of the argument that Socrates makes in his defense.

I. Prologue (17a-19a)

The first sentence sets the tone and direction for the entire dialogue. Socrates, in addressing the men of Athens, states that he almost forgot who he was, and that the speeches of his accusers reminded him. The dialogue will thus be a kind of “recollecting” by Socrates of who he is. That is to say, the Apology will become Socrates’ answer to the question: “Who is Socrates?

II. The First False Charges (19a – 24a)

A. The Charges and Their Assignment (19a-20c)

The first “charge” against Socrates arose from general accusations that had been directed toward him through the years. These accusations were that Socrates was: (1) a physicalist and (2) a sophist. The charge of “investigating things beneath the earth and in the skies” were also leveled at physicalists like Thales and Anaxagoras. The charge of “making the weaker argument appear the stronger” was directed to sophists like Gorgias, Hippias, and Evanus. But Socrates is neither a physicalist or a Sophist. He is not a physicalist because he believes in a non-physical soul, and he is not a Sophist because, among other reasons, he doesn’t charge for his teaching and he is interested in truth not influence.

B. Socrates’ Art and the Delphic Oracle (20c-23c)

The false image of Socrates arose because people misunderstood his true activity. Socrates explains this activity by relating a story about the Delphic Oracle. A friend of Socrates’ went to the Oracle and asked the priestess: “Who is the wisest of mortals?” and the priestess replied: “Socrates is the most wise.” When Socrates heard this he was surprised, since he thought of himself as ignorant. In response he tried to invalidate the claim by finding someone wiser than he. He began to question various people including politicians, poets, and craftsmen. In each encounter the various individuals claim to be in possession of some kind of wisdom or knowledge. But upon further questioning, Socrates became convinced that none of these persons possessed knowledge or wisdom.

Socrates concluded that the truth of the statement “Socrates is most wise” is that Socrates was most wise because he was aware of his own ignorance, while those around him who claimed to know were ignorant of their ignorance.

C. How the Charges Arose (23c-24a)

In the course of Socrates’ verification of the Delphic Oracle’s claims that he was most wise, he challenged many people about their cherished beliefs. The response of many individuals was confusion and anger. Over the years, this anger took the form of a general resentment toward Socrates.

III. The Specific Charges (24b – 28a)

The charges made were that Socrates was guilty of: a) corruption of the youth; and b) impiety or not believing in the gods. And the penalty they demanded was death.

Regarding the Charge of Corruption of the Youth Socrates responds:

  1. Meletus says that Socrates is the person in Athens who is responsible for the corruption of the youth. Yet it is absurd to say that only Socrates corrupts the youth. This implies that everyone else helps the youth. But just as there are few horse trainers, so there are few who really “train” the youth. Socrates is of these “trainers.”
  2. Who would voluntarily corrupt the youth? (25c-26a) If Socrates voluntarily harmed the youth, then (since evil begets evil) they would harm him. And no rational person voluntarily harms himself. But if he harmed the youth involuntarily, then he should be educated not punished. So either he is intentionally harming the youth which is self-destructive, or he is unintentionally harming them in which case he should be taught how not to do so, not punished.

Regarding the Charge of Impiety

Could a person believe in things like clothes and yet not in human beings who wear them? So too with divine things: Since Socrates believes in a Diamon (a divine thing), it follows that he believes in divinities. He also says that believes in spiritual activities so he obviously believes in spirits.

IV. Socrates’ Interpretation of his Art (28b – 32e)

Socrates is unpopular, but not ashamed of his occupation even if it brings death. One should not fear death, for that is to claim one knows what one does not know—that death is bad.) Socrates encourages people to care not for their possessions or bodies, but for their souls.

Socrates, far from being an impious corrupter of the youth, is actually a blessing sent by the gods. To show this, Socrates likens himself to a gadfly (a horsefly). Just as a gadfly constantly agitates a horse, preventing it from becoming sluggish and going to sleep, Socrates converses in the marketplace to prevent the city from becoming sluggish, careless and intolerant. Ultimately, Socrates’ whole life has been a service to the city begun out of a pious response to the saying of the gods. He is their gadfly.

V. Socrates Answers the Charges (33a-34b) 

Finally he asks if any present in the court felt that he had corrupted them. Plato and others indicate that, to the contrary, they have been helped by Socrates not corrupted by them.

VI. Epilogue (34c-35d)

Socrates tells the men of Athens that he wants to be judged according to his account of himself and not by any other standard—such as appealing to his old age or the fact that he has children. Thus Socrates wishes to be judged and not exonerated for any other reason than the demands of justice. A vote is taken and Socrates is found guilty.

VII. The Conviction and Alternate Penalties (36a – 38c)

The penalty proposed is death by hemlock. At this point Socrates has the opportunity to propose an alternate penalty. Socrates argues that since the penalty should be something he deserves, and since he has spent his life in service to the city without pay, he deserves free meals for the rest of his life. (He does appear to offer that his friends will pay a small fine for him.)

VIII. Final Speeches (38c-42a)

There are two final speeches. The first are to those who voted for his death; the second are for those who voted for his acquittal.

To those who voted for his death (38c-39d)

At his age of 70 death would have soon arrived naturally. But now these people will bear the responsibility for it—and they will have allowed Athens to be condemned for my execution. Socrates notes that he could have won his case if he had appealed to their emotions, if he had practiced Sophistry, but he chose instead to speak the truth. He prophecizes that there will be others to take his place when he is gone. After all, it is not the particular person of Socrates which is at issue here, but the activity of philosophy itself.

To those who voted for his acquittal (39e-42a)

Socrates notes that his Daemon never attempted to dissuade him from anything that he said. So this outcome must be for the good. After all, death is either one of two things: a deep sleep or a change of place. A deep sleep is more peaceful than most of our waking time. If he were to enter Hades—if death were a change of place—he would have the opportunity to meet all of the great Greek thinkers and heroes. And here he could ask them the same questions that he asked the men of Athens. So he has in no way been harmed, for he will either sleep soundly or continue talking. [He omits the ideas of some eternal punishment. Obviously such an outcome was unthinkable.]

[In the next dialogue, the Crito, Socrates rebukes his friends who want to help him escape. Socrates has been found guilty and believes he should abide by the laws of the state that has nurtured and educated him. Finally the dialogue The Phaedo will describe the scene of Socrates’ death. After he has gone Plato writes movingly:

“Such was the end of our comrade … a man who, we would say, was of all those we have known the best, and also the wisest and the most just.”

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 6 – Buddhism – Part 2

Buddhism: In The Footsteps of the Buddha

(I am teaching the course “Philosophy of the Human Person” at a local university. These are my notes from the primary text for the course, Twelve Theories of Human Nature.)

Diagnosis – We begin with the 4 noble truths. The first noble truth is that life is full of suffering and dissatisfaction. (This is also the third mark of existence.) We suffer from anxiety, insecurity, uncertainty, fear, frustration, disappointment and loss—everything is imperfect and flawed. In addition everything is constantly changing, radically impermanent, so even the good things and times never last. The first kind of suffering is ordinary suffering: aging, sickness, death, unpleasant conditions, sadness, pain, not getting what we want, etc. The second kind results from change, even happiness doesn’t last, is fleeting and ephemeral. The last type results from the false sense of ego. [Thus we suffer when slighted, insulted, not recognized, etc.] The Buddha did not say that life is essentially or only suffering but we experience much suffering. And this is not meant to be pessimistic but realistic—the basic problem of life is that we experience so much dissatisfaction.

The second noble truth identifies the cause of suffering as craving, grasping, desiring. We try to hold on to and possess things that don’t last. The essence of reality is change and grasping or desiring tries to prevent change by keeping things as they are. Much of this desiring is motivated by the idea of the separate ego, which wants to have more and more. [Think of it simply. I want money, sex, power, drugs, food, fame, etc. What happens? When in the state of wanting, I am dissatisfied. Then I get what I want, but soon I want more. I want a thousand dollars and then ten thousand and then a million and then a billion and I am still unhappy. The thrill of the new car or house makes me happy for a very short time.  In fact studies show that after one has about a 100 thousand dollar income more money does not make people happier. Does a glass of wine taste good? Maybe. Do ten glasses make you feel better? Is it nice to have a roof over your head? Yes. Does having ten houses make your happier? No. This is what Buddha is getting at when he says our desires cause our troubles.]

Prescription – The end of craving and desiring is the key to relieving suffering. This is the third noble truth. [This is of course antithetical to a capitalist economic system propelled by creating desires through advertising.] This leads to the state of nirvana, a peaceful state with no desiring. But what exactly do we do to experience this blissful state of not wanting and desiring and craving? We understand the fourth noble truth, which is to follow the eightfold path, also known as the Middle Way between a life of complete asceticism and a life of desiring pleasure. This path addresses ethical conduct, which is based on compassion, mental discipline, which flows from meditative practice and leads to the realization of the true nature of self, and wisdom, which is the realization of the true nature of reality.

Ethical components of the eightfold path include: 1) right speech—speech that tries to benefit others, speech that doesn’t lie, and silence when called for; 2) right action—moral, honorable, and peaceful conduct, no lying, killing, cheating, stealing, and the like; and 3) right livelihood—making a living without harming others. [Yes, the Koch brothers fail miserably on this one.]

Mental discipline is comprised of: 4) right effort—working toward wholesome rather than unwholesome states of mind; 5) right mindfulness—achieved through mindfulness meditation that leads to a better understanding of the impermanent nature of reality and lack of self; and 6) right concentration—meditation on a single point [like the breath, a flame, an image, a mantra].

Wisdom includes: 7) right thought—detachment from the idea of self; and 8) right understanding—accepting the 3 marks of existence (life is impermanent, there is no self, and there is suffering) and harmonizing the mind with this realization. It also implies accepting the 4 noble truths.

Different Paths – For monks this involves selfless, detached actions which aim to free one from karmic residue, and ultimately which leads to enlightenment. For the laity this involves doing good deeds, accepting the 5 precepts—don’t kill, steal, lie, consume intoxicant or have illicit sex—and improving their karmic lot. The monks provide a model of the spiritual life; the laity provides minimal food for the monks. In the Theravadan tradition the monk who reaches nirvana, while in the Mahayana tradition the bodhisattva does not enter nirvana but stays in this world and helps the rest of us be liberated. The bodhisattva is often characterized as more compassionate than the monk who withdraws from the world. In some schools of the Mahayana tradition the idea our true consciousness already exists and we must work to uncover it. [Similar to how Socrates thought of knowledge.] The idea is that we don’t have to work to achieve Buddha nature, but recognize that it is already within. [Even if it is within it seems we have to work to bring it forth.] The Mahayana tradition also recognizes other ways besides the monastic life to enlightenment, including devotional practices.

Women in Buddhism – In some texts woman are treated as inferior in Buddhism and perhaps by the Buddha himself; yet the Buddha allowed women to be monks as long as they were subordinate to men. On the other hand some Buddhist texts advocate an all-inclusive salvation. Today Buddhism is still dealing with these issues. [Obviously this is a controversial issue. However if you think this is only an issue in Hinduism or Buddhism consider what seminal Catholic thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas say about women:

“Woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition…” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I q. 92 a. 1

“I don’t see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes the purpose of procreation. If woman was not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?” St. Augustine, De genesi ad litteram, 9, 5-9

“Good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I q.92 a.1 reply 2

And you can find other disparaging remarks about woman throughout the history of philosophy. (Whatever you do, don’t read Schopenhauer!) I’d say the first thinker who says nice things about women is John Stuart Mill. For more see his book: The Subjection of Women (Dover Thrift Editions).

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 5 – Buddhism – Part 1

Buddhism: In The Footsteps of the Buddha

(I am teaching the course “Philosophy of the Human Person” at a local university. These are my notes from the primary text for the course, Twelve Theories of Human Nature.)

Buddhism developed in Northern Indian in the 5th Century BCE and spread throughout Asia. Like Hinduism it is a disparate tradition, but our chapter will focus on the main differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.

We begin with a story in the Pali Canon. When confronted with the great questions “Do we have souls?” “Do we live after death?” “Is the world eternal?” the Buddha refuses to answer these questions insisting that “the religious life does not depend on dogma.” One will die before these questions are answered. Buddha likens asking such metaphysical questions with claiming—after being struck by a poison arrow—that you won’t have the arrow removed until you know who wounded you, what kind of person they were, the nature of the arrow, etc.  Again such a person would die before all their questions are answered.

Moreover even if one had answers to all these abstract questions what good would it do? Would you cease to suffer in this life? [He might be wrong. If you know that you would have infinite being, consciousness, and bliss after death it might help. His point though is to first eliminate the cause of suffering and then proceed.] Thus Buddhism is anti-metaphysical. Rather than constructing esoteric theories, the Buddha wants to understand the nature, causes, origins and the possibility of removing suffering. Buddhism is like medicine that we use until we gain full health.

Life of Buddha – The story of the Buddha, independent of its historicity, is crucial to understanding Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama was born a privileged prince after a miraculous birth. [By legend a white elephant entered his mother Maya’s womb through her side.] Siddhartha grew up shielded from life’s unpleasantness but one day went for a ride outside the palace where he saw, in succession: old age, sickness, death, and finally a simple monk who had renounced the world. Buddha thought the monk revealed a possible way out of this suffering and, in response to these experiences—he left his wife, newborn son, and the comfort of the palace.

For the next six years he tried ascetic experiences with no success—nearly starving to death in the process. Eventually he found a middle way between the opulent decadence of palace life and extreme asceticism. While sitting under the Bodhi tree, determined not to leave until he achieved enlightenment, he finally achieved enlightenment. Siddhartha Gautama had become the Buddha, the Awakened One. He decided to share his insights with others [like the enlightened prisoner in Plato’s cave who returns to it.] His own life became the model for the monastic life of a Buddhist monk. He died, surrounded by his followers at the age of 80.

Theory of Existence – The 3 most fundamental characteristics of existence for the Buddha are: 1) radical impermanence (constant change); 2) lack of a solid self (no self); 3) unsatisfactoriness (suffering).

The first mark of existence captures life’s transitory, ephemeral, fleeting nature. Nothing in the world is solid or independent of anything else. And nothing—no idea, being, state of mind, or thing—endures. Everything is impermanent, changing constantly at every moment. And this constant changing brings about constant changing in everything else. Everything, including you and me, are dependent upon and interconnected with other things without which we wouldn’t exist. [Our parents, grandparents, gravity, evolution, the air and water, the sun and stars, etc.]

Consider also how our thoughts, desires, cravings, interests, wants, preferences, hatreds, loves, lusts, and beliefs, all depend on situations largely out of our control—and consider how much mental suffering we endure on this basis. Buddhism aims to free us from the ignorance that is at the root of all this suffering. Of course our present life is one of a long series of them and our present condition is determined by past actions. [Again to make this scientifically believable consider many of your behaviors emanate from your biological past; and how many of your beliefs emanate from your social and cultural heritage.] Karma is the term which denotes this moral law of cause and effect. And karma is enough to propel the universe along in Buddhism, there are no creator or sustainer gods. Some versions of Mahayana Buddhism do imply that some eternal form may be behind the world. Still this is not a personal god in any sense.

Theory of Human Nature – The second mark of existence means that the idea that there is nothing solid or permanent about reality also applies to the self. There is no self. (anatma or no atman.) Consider a chariot (or the car you drive or university you attend.) They are all made up of many parts, but the word chariot or car or university applies to all of those parts together—they are not independent existing things. In the same way the word I or ego or self is simply a name for all of the parts put together. There is nothing in addition to the parts—there is no soul of the car or university or body. You are the sum of your parts (and their interrelationships); there is no separate soul or essence to you anymore than to your car or university. [Even saying “to you” in the above is misleading. When you say “you” that refers to all the parts of your body and their interactions.] Again there is no independent self, ego, I, soul, etc. [A truth confirmed by the Buddhists in meditation. And one of the most fascinating ideas I’ve encountered in 40 years of doing college level philosophy.]

Of course you have continuity of memory, but there is nothing permanent underlying your being, nothing like a soul. You are a mind, body, and stream of consciousness. You are not really a being [a substance] but a becoming [an event.] The idea that you are a separate ego is also harmful, harmful because it leads to fear of death, violence, theft, and completion. Realizing the self is an illusion leads to compassion—the most important Buddhist virtue.

The idea of the separate ego is an expression of the 5 attachments or components (skandas) that make up what we call a person. The components are: 1) form– the body and its sense organs; 2) sensations—the physiological process produced by the contact of senses and the world [eye see object or ear hears sound]; 3) perception—sensations that lead to object recognition [What I feel is a table]; 4) mental formations—our predispositions, attitudes, tendencies, habits, and karma [states of mind like conceit, impatience, humility, wisdom, etc.]; and 5) consciousness—not only does one sense and perceive something one becomes aware of something; consciousness is awareness.

Perhaps the most important component are the mental formations, which themselves result from the interplay of bodies, sensations, perceptions, and conscious awareness. All of this leaves karmic residue or ideas in our minds. [This is a fascinating topic. How and why do we form mental constructs? And how do the state of our reality and the reality of the world depends on good and true consciousness.] In short our consciousness is conditioned by [nearly determined by] our mental formations. [And if they are in turn completely determined then we have no control over consciousness.] In short our consciousness is conditioned by what has gone before which then shapes our consciousness perhaps forever. [How my mind doesn’t feel like my own when I read this.]

Consciousness consists of these every changing, ephemeral states or forms of mind—and how brief our conscious life is. Like a chariot that exists on a single point of its wheels, we live only for a brief moment of a single thought. We are changing every millisecond. Thus there is nothing permanent about us, not even for a moment. [You may think a piece of granite or steel is stable but it too is changing every moment. You can confirm this by looking at ancient ruins. In fact all of reality is radically impermanent. Not only can you not step into the same river twice, you cannot even step into it once.] Ask yourself this. Are you the same or different than when you were 6 years old? In one sense you are the same—born of the same parents, same DNA—but in another sense you are radically different. The Buddhists explain the self using a candle flame. At every moment it is different—you are always changing—but there is a connection between the candle flame now and it flame an hour ago—you have some psychological continuity with your 6 year old self. [This is known as the problem of personal identity in western philosophy. How can you be both the same and different from what you used to be? What, if anything, persists in a person over time? It is one of the most vexing and studied questions in contemporary philosophy.] Finally, reincarnation is explained by the analogy of one candle relighting another new one as the former one burns out.

Buddha himself refused to answer the question of whether a separate, permanent soul exists. [I have encountered Buddhism on and off for 40 years and with each new encounter I am always moved by its profundity.]