Category Archives: Philosophy-Popular

A Vision of the Future

A colleague elucidated a thoughtful replay to those who believe that culture needs a vision of an ideal future that inspires people to act now so as to help bring about this ideal in the future. In my case this vision is of a future where our post-human descendents attain higher levels of being and consciousness. Our role in the drama is as protagonists in that evolutionary epic, and this provides (roughly) the meaning of our lives.

I would prefer this aspiration not to be “boxed in” to a single faraway, nearly metaphysical ideal (like Heaven, Utopia, Singularity, contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, …). Instead, I proposed that people should have a variety of aspirations and directions, from very concrete ones to achieve here and now, to very far away ones unlikely to be reached during their lifetime, and everything in between.

Rather than seeing the purpose of our lives in a specific goal, we instead think of it as a direction toward which cosmic evolution continually orients itself. As my colleague puts it:

In an evolutionary worldview, it is clear that life does not have an endpoint, but continues to evolve. Therefore, it is more realistic to replace purpose by direction: life evolves in the direction of more complexity, fitness, intelligence, synergy … you name it. Intent is a good word to capture this idea of pointing or directing, as it derives from the Latin “intendere”, which means “reaching towards.”

In practice this implies that as we reach one goal we then continue to strive for another. And this implies that we not box ourselves into a specific goal, but maintain “the flexibility to choose and change destinations any time along your journey, because … you always learn and become wiser while travelling.” So we shouldn’t accept a endpoint like a heaven, but instead remain open to adapting to lessons we learn along our journey.

This seems reasonable. Our overall purpose in life is to increase the good things about life and consciousness—goodness, truth, beauty, justice, liberty, equality, joy, pleasure—and decrease their opposites. We should try to create a heaven on earth, and for the moment we should take small steps toward this goal. In the present incremental steps may include: reshaping our criminal justice to be less punitive and more therapeutic; preserving the biosphere and stopping climate change;  defeating totalitarian political systems; overcoming racism, sexism, and xenophobia, advancing scientific research, elevating the truth versus the omnipresent lying; raising our children so that they arent’ sociopathic; creating more equitable economic systems; and advancing critical thinking and undermining superstition. Needless to say this list is almost endless.

For the moment we can do is what is humanly possible to bring about a better reality. If we do that we will be judge, if we are judge at all, favorably.

The Philosophy of Vegetarianism

I recently read, “Plants can see, hear and smell—and respond,” on the BBC earth site. The article reports on new research which shows that “plants perceive the world without eyes, ears or brains.”

As Jack C. Schultz puts it, plants “are just very slow animals.” Schultz is a professor in the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and he has spent four decades investigating the interactions between plants and insects. “Plants fight for territory, seek out food, evade predators and trap prey. They are as alive as any animal, and – like animals – they exhibit behaviour,” says Schultz.

“To see this, you just need to make a fast movie of a growing plant – then it will behave like an animal,” adds Olivier Hamant, a plant scientist at the University of Lyon, France. Time-lapse camera reveal much of this, “as anyone who has seen the famous woodland sequence from David Attenborough’s Life series,” can attest.

So what is plant sense? Daniel Chamovitz of Tel Aviv University in Israel found that it isn’t all that different from our own. Chamovitz is the author of the 2012 book, What a Plant Knows, which “explores how plants experience the world by way of the most rigorous and up-to-date scientific research …” He distinguishes his book from earlier works like, The Secret Life of Plants, “a popular book published in 1973 that appealed to a generation raised on flower power, but contained little in the way of facts.” That work is now noted for supporting “the thoroughly discredited idea that plants respond positively to the sound of classical music.” But Chamovitz wasn’t trying to demonstrate that plants had feelings, instead he was using contemporary scientific methods to ask “why, and indeed how, a plant senses its surroundings.”

And other researches like Heidi Appel and Rex Cocroft are investigating plant hearing. They want to know why plants are affected by sound—not by classical music but by a predators approach. “In their experiments, Appel and Cocroft found that recordings of the munching noises produced by caterpillars caused plants to flood their leaves with chemical defences designed to ward off attackers.” Plants respond to some sound with an ecologically relevant response.

Moreover Consuelo De Moraes, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, “has shown that as well as being able to hear approaching insects, some plants can either smell them, or else smell volatile signals released by neighbouring plants in response to them.” Like us plants “smell or hear something and then act accordingly …” Of course plants don’t have easily identifiable sense organs like human beings, and more research is needed to learn how they sense. Still, “the photoreceptors that plants use to “see” … are fairly well-studied.

Vegetarianism

The nutruitional and environmental arguments for vegetarianism are quite strong. Vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters, and the negative environmental impact of eating meat boggles the mind. (These claims are so uncontroversial that I won’t even footnote them, but they can be verified by a small amount of conscientious research.) If you want to be healthier don’t take vitamins, but forego animal products; if you want to help the environment, better to not eat meat than drive a Prius. (Driving a Pruis will help too.)

But the moral argument traditionally rests on tremendous suffering animals experience when held captive under appalling conditions ameliorated only by their eventual slaughter, which itself we can assume is unpleasant. Animals suffer. But if plants also suffer what are we to eat? Must vegetarianism be rejected like meat-eating?

The first thing we might say is that if the choice is either plants or animals we still maintain that plants are less developed or organized forms of being and consciousness compared to what we usually call animals. Most importantly, plants don’t have brains, and their sense experiences are more rudimentary—thus they probably suffer less. So, given the choice between eating either plants and animals, we should choose plants.

We also have the choice of eating food substitutes. Eventually science should be able to mimic the nutritional benefits of so-called natural foods. Theoretically we should be able to make even more nutritious food than was available in previous eras, or we may be able to redesign our bodies to run best on some nutritional goo! In fact, if we had robotic bodies, perhaps we could power them with our own solar panels.

For now though I don’t think the fact that plants have sensory experiences changes that we should strongly prefer eating them to eating animal products. Eating plants is healthier, causes exponentially less environmental damage, and the sensory experiences of plants are not as rich as those of animals and thus plants suffer less. The argument for moral vegetarian therefore remains intact.

Bertrand Russell’s Grandmother: Anti-Metaphysician

In, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872-1914,  Russell tells an amusing story about his grandmother, the Countess Russell (née Lady Frances Elliot), who was the dominant family figure for most of Russell’s childhood and youth.[69][73] As an adolescent Russell had adopted utilitarianism, much to his grandmother’s dismay. In response she ridiculed him, and proceeded to pose ethical conundrums that she believed the young Russell couldn’t resolve using utilitarian principles.

But here disagreeableness didn’t stop there. Here is how Russell describes her antipathy to his philosophical interests: “When she discovered that I was interested in metaphysics, she told me that the whole subject could be summed up in the saying: ‘What is mind? no matter; what is matter? never mind.’ At the fifteenth or sixteenth repetition of this remark, it ceased to amuse me, but my grandmother’s animus against metaphysics continued to the end of her life.” Here is a poem the Countess penned to express those feelings:

O Science metaphysical,
And very very quizzical,
You only make this maze of life the mazier;
For boasting to illuminate
Such riddles dark as Will and Fate
You muddle them to hazier and hazier.

The cause of every action,
You expound with satisfaction;
Through the mind in all its corners and recesses
You say that you have travelled,
And all problems unravelled
And axioms you call your learned guesses.

Right and wrong you’ve so dissected,
And their fragments so connected,
That which we follow doesn’t seem to matter;
But the cobwebs you have wrought
And the silly flies they have caught,
It needs no broom miraculous to shatter.

You know no more than I,
What is laughter, tear, or sigh,
Or love, or hate, or anger, or compassion;
Metaphysics, then, adieu,
Without you I can do,
And I think you’ll very soon be out of fashion.

Russell subsequently states that some years later his grandmother said to him, ” ‘I hear you are writing another book,’ in the tone of voice in which one might say: ‘I hear you are having another illegitimate child.’ ”

As for me, I can’t imagine discussing utilitarianism or metaphysics with my grandmothers. Yet it doesn’t sound like discussing anything with Russell’s grandmother was much fun.

____________________________________________________________________

The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872-1914 (London, Allen & Unwin: 1967), 56-7.

Introduction to Will Durant’s, The Story of Philosophy

Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, originally published in 1926, has sold millions of copies and it launched publishing giant Simon & Schuster. It has probably introduced more Americans to philosophy than any other book. It is one of the first philosophy books I ever read and, thanks to a gift from my son-in-law, I own a signed copy. The book’s introduction beautifully discusses the value of philosophy. I reprint it here.

There is a pleasure in philosophy, and a lure even in the mirages of metaphysics, which every student feels until the coarse necessities of physical existence drag him from the heights of thought into the mart of economic strife and gain.

Most of us have known some golden days in the June of life when philosophy was in fact what Plato calls it, “that dear delight;” when the love of a modestly elusive truth seemed more glorious – incomparably — than the lust for the ways of the flesh and the dross of the world. And there is always some wistful remnant in us of that early wooing of wisdom. “Life has meaning,” we feel with Browning. “To find its meaning is my meat and drink.”

So much of our lives is meaningless, a self-canceling vacillation and futility. We strive with the chaos about and within, but we should believe all the while that there is something vital and significant in us, could we but decipher our own souls. We want to understand. “Life means for us constantly to transform into light and flame all that we are or meet with!” We are like Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov –– “one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions.” We want to seize the value and perspective of passing things and so to pull ourselves up out of the maelstrom of daily circumstance.

We want to know that the little things are little, and the things big, before it is too late. We want to see things now as they will seem forever — “in the light of eternity.” We want to learn to laugh in the face of the inevitable, to smile even at the looming of death. We want to be whole, to coordinate our energies by harmonizing our desires, for coordinated energy is the last word in ethics and politics — and perhaps in logic and metaphysics, too.

“To be a philosopher,” said Thoreau, “is not merely to have subtle thoughts, or even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.” We may be sure that if we can but find wisdom, all things else will be added unto us. “Seek ye first the good things of the mind,” Bacon admonishes us, “and the rest will either be supplied, or its loss will not be felt.” Truth will not make us rich, but it will make us free.

… .

We should study not merely philosophies—but also philosophers. We should spend our time with the saints and martyrs of thought, letting their radiant spirits play about us until perhaps we too, in some measure, shall partake of what da Vinci called “the noblest pleasure, the joy of understanding.”

Each of the philosophers has some lesson for us—if we approach [them] properly. “Do you know,” asks Emerson, “the secret of the true scholar? In every [one of them] there is something… I may learn of [them], and in that I am [their] pupil.” Well, surely we may take this attitude to the masterminds of history without hurt to our pride! And we may flatter ourselves with that other thought of Emerson’s, that when genius speaks to us we feel a ghostly reminiscence of having ourselves, in our distant youth, had vaguely this selfsame thought which genius now speaks, but which we had not art or courage to clothe with form and utterance.

And indeed, great [people] speak to us only so far as we have ears and souls to hear them—only so far as we have in us the roots, at least, of that which flowers out in them. We, too, have had the experiences they had, but we did not suck those experiences dry of their secret and subtle meanings: We were not sensitive to the overtones of the reality that hummed about us. Genius hears the overtones — and the music of the spheres. Genius knows what Pythagoras meant when he said that “philosophy is the highest music.”

So let us listen to these [philosophers], ready to forgive them their passing errors, eager to learn the lessons which they are so eager to teach. “Do you then be reasonable” said old Socrates to Crito, “and do not mind whether the teachers of philosophy are good or bad, but think only of Philosophy herself. Try to examine her well and truly, and if she be evil, seek to turn away all [people] from her — but if she be what I believe she is, then follow her and serve her and be of good cheer.”

I too felt the pull of this “dear delight” almost 50  years ago. Since then it has been a constant companion, even in the most troubling times. I’m fortunate to have encountered philosophy, and I thank all those who introduced me to the world of mind.

Summary of Plotinus

The first philosophy book I ever bought—above is the exact cover—was the The Essential Plotinus. Conversations with a friend in the summer after high school in 1973 awoken me, as Hume did Kant, from my dogmatic slumber. At the time my friend was something of a devotee of Plotinus, having studied him in a metaphysics class. I eagerly bought the book and carried it around with me, although I didn’t understand much of it. But I have fond memories of the book. It marked the beginning of a long intellectual journey for, unbeknownst to me at the time, the world of the mind was beckoning.

Plotinus (c. 204/5 – 270) was a major Greek-speaking philosopher of the ancient world. In his philosophy there are three basic principles: the One , the Intellect, and the Soul.[1] He is generally regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism,[2] a mystical form of Platonism that thrived in Late Antiquity. His metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Pagan, Islamic, Jewish, Christian and Gnostic metaphysicians, as well as other mystics.

The One – Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, godlike, totally transcendent One containing no division, multiplicity or distinction. The One is beyond all categories of being and non-being. The One isn’t a thing or a person; it isn’t the sum of all things; and it isn’t sentient or self-aware. But the One is the first principle; it is good; and nothing could exist without it. The One is the source of the world, but it doesn’t create the world by willful action. Instead, reality emanates from the One, as an outpouring or overflowing of its nature in an ongoing temporal process. In other words, the One reflects itself onto lower planes, but these reflections represent limits on the ‘s perfection.

Nous – The first emanation from the One is Nous (Divine Mind, Logos, Thought, Reason, Intelligence.) This intelligence contemplates both the One, as well as its own thoughts, which Plotinus identifies with the Platonic Forms (eide).

Soul – The second emanation brings soul, the creative power of which is divided into the upper aspect, World Soul, which remains in contact with Nous, and the lower aspect, identified with nature, which allows for individual human souls.

Matter – The third emanation results in matter, the lowest level of being, and is thus the least perfected level of the cosmos.

Mystical Experience – To experience the is be in ecstatic union with it, a union Porphyry says that Plotinus achieved multiple times in his life. This union with the is probably related to enlightenment, and other concepts of mystical union common to many Eastern and Western traditions.

This Metaphysics – The concept of the One is similar to the concept of Brahman in Hinduism. It also has much in common with pantheism, the view that god and reality are the same thing. This idea that all reality is divine shows up throughout the history of philosophy and religion—most notably in the pantheism of Spinoza. The idea that nous contemplates Platonic ideas finds echoes in St. Augustine. And, no doubt, other parallels could be drawn between Plotinian metaphysics and other thinkers.

Happiness – Human happiness for Plotinus is beyond anything physical, attainable only within consciousness—the incorporeal contemplative capacity of the soul. If we achieve true happiness, we can ignore pain and suffering, as our minds will be capable of focusing on eternal things. Thus the happiness of enlightened individuals cannot be disturbed, for in contemplation they experience the inner peace of union with the One.

Knowledge – Plotinus distinguished between: sense knowledge, which gives us little truth as it is about the changing physical world; reasoned cognition, which gives us knowledge of essences (Platonic forms); and ecstasy, which consists in intuition of, and connection with, the One. This climax of knowledge that consists in an ecstatic or intuitive mystical union with the One is something achieved by only a few.

Reflections – I am generally skeptical of this kind of metaphysical speculation. I’m just too influenced by Kant to believe that this kind of metaphysics can be sufficiently justified. I also believe that Plotinus basically has it backwards. His is a top-down system that starts with mind and ends with matter. But I’m a bottom-up or evolutionary thinker. Cosmic evolution begins with matter and mind slowly emerges. Of course this is something of a chicken or the egg question, and the issue of whether mind or matter is the eternal principle is a long-standing one in metaphysics. So I will say Plotinus does some pretty good top-down thinking.

Disclaimer – This is a very brief outline of Plotinus’ thinking, and I refer readers to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or Wikipedia for more. I also thank my old friend Dan Dunay for long ago introducing me to Plotinus.