Monthly Archives: November 2018

The Presocratics – The One and the Many

Part of "School of Athens" by Raphael (Raffaelo Sanzio, 1483-1520)

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

One of the earliest disputes of the Greek naturalists and Eleatics concerned the question of the one and the many — that is was the substratum of the natural world or reality itself one substance or many? Parmenides is clearly a monist, who thought that all change and difference in the world was essentially illusory. Yet Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes were also monists. While they accept that there are many diverse entities in the world, they argue that the substrate underlying them or the primal stuff from which they emerge is singular. For Thales, they are all made of water. For Anaximander, they all come from the original unity of the unbound. For Anaximenes, they all stem from an original chaos but have aether as their basic element.  Some of those who most clearly argue that the basic components of the world are not singular but multiple have not been mentioned.

Empedocles, who many early Greeks viewed as responsible for the developed teaching of the elements, is thought a pluralist. There is not one substance underlying the diverse things in the world; rather, there are a few key ones. The change we view in the world occurs over and above a “mingling and separating” of things that are themselves unchanging, primary oppositions: Wet, dry, cold and warm are eternal qualities that comprise all things, but that are propelled in their motion by two other eternal powers that also pull in opposition to one another, love and strife. The various things in the world around us do undergo change and transition as these eternal elements and forces ascend and recede from the foreground. Yet these basic qualities themselves are eternal. Basic reality, ultimate reality is not singular but plural. Empedocles is not a monist but a pluralist.

Another great “Presocratic” pluralist is Democritus, who was born just after Socrates, around 460 BCE — a reminder of the trouble with the temporal designation of “Presocratics.” The atomists maintain that the primary components from which all things in the world are comprised are atoms. From eternity, they have existed, with slightly different shapes and sizes. All things combine from a mixture of atoms and void. But the reality is expressed not by qualities of things. “By convention sweet and by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color: in reality atoms and void.” Qualities that we experience only have an apparent reality. Some of the Ancients viewed Democritus as a skeptic, but Sextus, an early commentator on Greek natural philosophy, has contributed to a common view that makes greater sense in view of his various truth claims:

In the Rules[Democritus] says that there are two kinds of knowing, one through the senses and the other through the understanding. The one through the understanding he calls genuine, witnessing to its trustworthiness in deciding truth; the one through the senses he names bastard, denying it steadfastness in the discernment of what is true. He says in these words, “There are two forms of knowing, one genuine and the other bastard. To the bastard belong all these: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The other, the genuine, has been separated from this.” Then preferring the genuine to the bastard, he continues, saying, “Whenever the bastard is no longer able to see more finely nor hear nor smell nor taste nor perceive by touch, but something finer…

Over the course of time, Democritus sees the atoms combining into different formations, which for their part then again dissemble. In fact, the atomists propose an idea that various other Presocratics also shared — that over the course of time the cosmos emerges, then collapses only to later re-emerge.

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 6 – Skepticism and Meaning

continued from a previous entry

  1. Skepticism

Yet, as we ascend these mountains of thought, we are brought back to earth. Looking to the past we see that truth, beauty, goodness, love, and meaning have emerged from cosmic evolution but so too have ignorance, loneliness, war, cruelty, despair, poverty, and pain. Surely serious reflection on this misery is sobering and we must temper our optimism accordingly.

We should also remember that if we find patterns of progress in evolution, we might be victims of confirmation bias. After all, progress isn’t the whole story of evolution—most species and cultures have gone extinct, a fate that may soon befall us. Furthermore, this immense universe (or multiverse) is largely incomprehensible to our three and a half pound brains, so we should hesitate to substitute an evolutionary view for our frustrated metaphysical longings. If reflection reveals that our deepest wishes may come true, our skeptical alarm bell should go off. For we want to know, not just to believe.

Yes, cosmic and biological evolution—and later the emergence of intelligence, science, and technology—leave us awestruck. But this doesn’t imply that we are meant to be here or that human consciousness was inevitable. It is only because we value our life and intelligence that we succumb to anthropocentrism. The trillions and trillions of evolutionary machinations that led to us might easily have led to different results—ones that didn’t include us. We want to believe evolution had us as its goal—but it did not.  We are radically contingent, our existence serendipitous. Like the dinosaurs, we too could be felled by an asteroid.

So while we can say that meaning has emerged in the evolutionary process, we cannot say these trends will continue as evolution proceeds. We are moving, but we might be moving toward our own extinction, toward universal death, or toward eternal hell. We long to dream of better worlds but our skepticism awakens us from our Pollyannish imaginings. The evolution of the cosmos, our species, and our intelligence give us some grounds for believing that life might become more meaningful, but they offer no guarantees.  

Here then is the essence of the problem. Despite our best efforts we may collectively fail to bring about this meaningful reality we imagine. In other words, while we know how life could be fully meaningful, we don’t know if it is or will become fully meaningful. We could only know that sub specie aeternitatis. So it seems that we can’t erase all our doubts or allay all our fears. As long as we are committed to intellectual integrity we must admit that life may be utterly absurd, futile, and meaningless. All of reality may be heading … nowhere. Our lives, our cares, our dreams … all for naught.

to be continued next week

The Presocratics – Parmenides and Zeno

Parmenides.jpgBust of Parmenides

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Hans Georg Gadamer, an important 20th century Germany hermeneutical philosopher, emphasizes … the importance of Parmenides and the Eleatics for Plato’s later theory of the forms. Like Plato … Parmenides, as well as Zeno and other Eleatics, dismisses sense experience as a source of truth. For these thinkers, it is the analysis of concepts that lead to a truth that one must affirm regardless of how out of sync it is with our common understanding of the world.

In Parmenides case, the great rational revelation concerned the constancy and unchangeability of Being. “What is is,” he wrote, “and what is not is not.” If something were to come into being, then it would now be nothing. But nothing cannot exist. Similarly, if something now existed it could not later no longer exist. If so, where there is now something there would later be nothing. But nothing cannot exist.

For Parmenides, the eyes and ears lead us astray. As he notes: “Seeing, they saw in vain; Listening, they failed to hear.” In his view, following the logic of the argument, we should recognize that Being is unitary and unchanging. Our ordinary, temporal understanding, it follows, must be illusory. Being must, by definition, be eternal without beginning and without end.

Other Eleatics, like Zeno, followed in Parmenides’ footsteps. Zeno developed a series of logical paradoxes to underline the Parmenidean view that change, as perceived by sense experience, is illusory. Zeno’s arrow paradox plays on a concept of time. If an arrow is shot toward a target, at any given instance in time it would find itself at rest at some place on the trajectory. Since at every instant the arrow is at rest, it could never move from the arrow to the target. Logic, Zeno argues, disproves that movement is possible. We should thus not trust our senses.

His racecourse paradox reaches a similar conclusion. Imagine Homer running toward a target. To get there, he would first have to get halfway there and to get halfway, he would first have to get to the half-way point of that half-way, ad infinitum. Between each space, however, there would be an infinite number of points to cross from one to another, since each half can again, mathematically be divided in half, ad infinitum. It is impossible to cross an infinitude, so the motion can never occur. The race could never start.

Though these paradoxes clearly have something wrong with them, they are mind-bending What are the problems with taking logic and applying it to realities of space and time in this way? Aristotle criticizes Zeno, as well as Plato. Plato, for his part, follows the lead of the Eleatics. He thinks we should follow reason even if it conflicts with sense experience. He like the Eleatics is thus known as a rationalist.

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 5 – Transhumanism and Meaning

continued from a previous entry

  1. A Fully Meaningful Cosmos

Thus there are plausible reasons to believe that individual and cosmic death might be avoided. Yet immorality doesn’t guarantee a meaning of life, as the idea of hell so graphically illustrates. Immortality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a fully meaningful reality. But what do we mean by fully meaningful?

Meaningful things matter and they are good. But to be fully meaningful they must matter completely, be perfectly good and last indefinitely. The more we and the cosmos matter, the better we and the cosmos are, and the longer we and cosmos last, the more meaningful they are. In other words, a fully meaningful life and a fully meaningful cosmos are as significant, good, and long-lasting as they can possibly be. An individual life and the cosmos can be partly meaningful without meeting all of these conditions but they cannot be fully meaningful.

Can we then create a fully meaningful cosmos? I think this is plausible. To bring about such a glorious future we must enlarge our consciousness, perfect our moral natures, and overcome all human limitations. The philosophy which underlies these ideas is called transhumanism.

  1. Transhumanism and Fully Meaningful Cosmos

Transhumanism is an intellectual movement that aims to transform and improve the human condition by developing and making available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physiological, and moral functioning. Transhumanism is based on the idea that humanity in its current form represents an early phase of its evolutionary development. A common transhumanist thesis is that human beings may eventually transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities that they will have become godlike or posthuman. Notably, this includes defeating the limitation imposed by death.

Now we may fail in these efforts, succumbing to asteroids, pandemics, nuclear annihilation, malevolent artificial intelligence, climate change, vacuum decay, a new Dark Ages, or scenarios we can’t now fathom. But if we do nothing, we will certainly perish. Without sci-tech we are helpless in the face of asteroids, pandemics, and all the rest. On the other hand, if sci-tech conquers individual and universal death and enhances our intellectual and moral faculties, then it will create the conditions that may eventually bring about a fully meaningful reality.

  1. Transhumanism and Religion

What will be the effect of transhumanism on religion? If sci-tech defeats suffering and death religion will have lost its raison d’être—to soften the blow of suffering and death and to give life meaning. For who will pray for heavenly cures, when the cures already exist on earth? Who will die hoping for a reprieve from the gods, when science offers immortality? Who will look elsewhere for meaning when the world boasts a plenitude of it.

So, as our descendants continue to distance themselves from their past, they will lose interest in the gods. In a thousand or a million years our descendants, traveling through an infinite cosmos or virtual realities with augmented minds, won’t find their answers in ancient scriptures. Robust superintelligence won’t cling to the primitive mythologies that once satisfied ape-like brains.

Now some say that transhumanism is just a high-tech substitute for old-time religion and, yes, transhumanism has religious components. Transhumanists want infinite being, consciousness, and bliss as do those who imagine a beatific vision or other heavenly rewards. But there is a vast difference between having faith in the existence of a heaven and gods and actively trying to create them. Posthumans won’t die and go to heaven, they’ll (hopefully) create a heaven. In the future, the gods will exist … only if we become them.

The implication of all this is that we must take control of our destiny; we must become the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. If we don’t play God, no one will. There are risks, but with no risk-free way to proceed, we either evolve or we will die. That is the transhumanist message. But does the past offer any indication that the future really will be unimaginably better and more meaningful?

  1. Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life

Fortunately, a study of cosmic evolution supports the idea that life has become increasingly meaningful, a claim buttressed primarily by the emergence of beings with conscious purposes and meanings. Where there once was no meaning or purpose—in a universe without mind— there now are meanings and purposes. These meanings and purposes have their origin in the matter which coalesced into stars and planets, which in turn supported organisms that evolved complex brains. (I am also sympathetic with panpsychism which posits that mind was present from the beginning. Either panpsychism or emergentism explains mind.) And, since the minds from which meaning and purpose emerge are a part of the universe, part of the universe has meaning too.

This has a further profound implication—the universe is partly conscious. The story of cosmic evolution is of a universe becoming self-conscious through the conscious minds that emerge from it. Nature creates consciousness which in turn contemplates nature. Reality has grown the eyes so to speak with which it sees itself. We are as windows, vortexes, apertures or nodes through which the universe has become and continues to become ever more self-conscious. In short, when we contemplate the universe, it is partly conscious; and when we have purposes and meanings, parts of the universe do too.

But will the cosmos become increasingly conscious and meaningful? Will it progress toward complete meaning, or approach meaning as a limit? We can’t say for sure but there is a trajectory to past evolution: molecular processes were organized into cells; cells into organisms, and human organisms into families, tribes, cities, and nations. Uninterrupted, this could lead to global and interstellar cooperatives, with a concomitant increase in intelligence that may eventually lead to an omnipotent command of matter and energy—even to omniscience itself.  

Think of it this way. If the big bang could expand into a universe almost a hundred billion light-years across, if some of the atoms in stars could become us, and if unconscious random genetic evolution and environmental selection could give rise to conscious beings, then surely we can direct cosmic evolution toward more perfect forms of being and consciousness. Or perhaps the universe is consciously doing this itself, as some panpsychists suggest. So there are good reasons to believe that reality may become increasingly meaningful.

  1. The Meaning of Life

If we try to improve reality we may actualize its potential for full meaning. If we are successful in this project we will have been a part of something larger than ourselves. The part will have been meaningful in bringing about a fully meaningful whole. The meaning we found in our lives would then have been connected to  … the meaning of life. In other words, the best ways to find meaning in life contribute to creating a meaning of life.  

In practice, this implies that we find the deepest meaning in life by playing our small role in this upward progression of cosmic evolution. Individually our efforts are minuscule but collectively they transform reality. We do this in relatively mundane ways—nurturing our children, helping others, increasing our knowledge, caring for the planet, loving as best we can. These are simple things yet, simultaneously, they are the most important and meaningful ones.

Here then is our cosmic vision. In our imagination, we exist as links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward higher levels of being, consciousness, truth, beauty, goodness, justice, joy, love and meaning—perhaps even to their apex. We dream that our descendants will gradually transform and perfect their moral and intellectual natures, make themselves immortal, and bring about a fully meaningful reality. And if all this comes true then there is a meaning of life.

to be continued next week

Summary of David Benatar’s “The Human Predicament”

Image result for David Benatar

I have previously written about the philosopher David Benatar’s anti-natalism. Now Oxford University Press has published Benatar’s new book The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions.  Here is a brief summary of the book followed by a few comments.

Benatar’s book addresses the biggest question such as whether our lives are meaningful or worth living, and how we should respond to our impending death. He forewarns his readers that he won’t provide comforting answers to these questions. Instead, he argues

that the (right) answers to life’s big questions reveal that the human condition is a tragic predicament—one from which there is no escape. In a sentence: Life is bad, but so is death. Of course, life is not bad in every way. Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vice—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament. (1-2)

The rest of the book explains this predicament. The basic structure of the argument goes something like this. While our lives may have meaning to each other, life is meaningless from a cosmic perspective; they have no grand purpose. “The universe was indifferent to our coming, and it will be indifferent to our going.” (200) Whatever little meaning our lives have is fleeting, and all human achievements ultimately vanish. In the end, it will all be as if we never were. This doesn’t imply that life has no meaning whatsoever, but “that meaning is severely limited.” (201)

However, even if our lives have some little meaning they are poor in quality and involve endless suffering. Some lives are better or luckier than others but in the long run, none of us fare well. It’s not that every moment is horrible but that sooner or later life will probably deal us some terrible fate. However, Benatar doesn’t conclude that since life is bad death is good. Instead, he argues that death is bad too. “Death does nothing to counter our cosmic meaninglessness and usually (though not always) detracts from the more limited meaning that is attainable.” (2-3)

Benatar doubts claims of immortality, even scientific ones, and also considers that immortality might not be a good thing. He grants that having the option of immortality would be better than not having it, but doubts that we will ever have that option. And while suicide doesn’t solve the human predicament it is sometimes the best choice we have. Yet, even when it is rational, suicide is tragic because it both affects others and annihilates an individual. Thus the prescription to “just kill yourself if it’s so bad” fails to appreciate our existential predicament.

This human predicament is not the product of a conscious agent, but of blind evolutionary forces. Yet human consciousness worsens the situation because humans “inflict colossal quantities of suffering and death on other humans. The deceits, degradations, betrayals, exploitations, rapes, tortures, and murders …” (203) However, while we should be pessimistic about the possibility of cosmic meaning, we can still obtain limited meaning. And this implies that

One should not desist from loving one’s family, caring for the sick, educating the young, bringing criminals to justice, or cleaning the kitchen merely because these undertakings do not matter from the perspective of the universe. They matter to particular people now. Without such undertakings, lives now and in the near future will be much worse than they would otherwise be. (205)

Naturally, people resist pessimistic views of life. Furthermore, they try to undercut them by claiming that adherents to pessimism are grouchy, pathological or macho individuals.  While Benatar these adjectives describe some pessimists, they don’t describe them all.  For many pessimism is an authentic response to one’s understanding of the human predicament.

So how then should we respond to the human predicament? First, we should cease having children and thereby perpetuating the cycle of suffering. But as we already exist, what can we do about our situation? Suicide might be a rational response, but better to invest some meaning into our lives.

An even better response would be to adopt a pragmatic optimism that recognizes the human predicament but uses optimism to cope. This would be most successful if one actually believed in an optimistic view. But suppose you only accept optimism as a kind of placebo? The optimist might recognize the horror of the human predicament but try to keep this horror at bay and remain optimistic. However, Benatar worries that this compartmentalization will be hard to maintain—to acknowledge the bleakness of life and yet remain optimistic. If you can’t maintain the correct balance here, you might become overly optimistic or revert back into pessimism.

The best coping mechanism would be to adopt pragmatic pessimism. Here you accept a pessimistic view of life without dwelling on it and busy yourself in projects that enhance and create terrestrial meaning. In other words “It allows for distractions from reality, but not denials of it. It makes one’s life less bad than it would be if one allowed the predicament to overwhelm one to the point where one was perpetually gloomy and dysfunctional … ” (211)

Benatar admits that the distinction between pragmatic optimism and pessimism as well as between denial and distraction are ambiguous. They exist midway in a continuum between “deluded optimism and suicidal pessimism.” (211) Like terminally ill patients we should confront our imminent death but not be so obsessed with it that we don’t spend time with our friends and family. So, while we can ameliorate our predicament somewhat, doing so “is the existential equivalent of palliative care.” (7)

In the end, the best we can do according to Benatar is to be the kind of “pessimists who have the gift of managing the negative impact of pessimism on their lives.” (213)

Reply – There is much to say about this book but let me mention a few things in passing. I believe that life is bad in many ways and so is death. The solution is to make life better and eliminate death. It may indeed be better if nothing had ever existed—assuming nothingness is even possible—but I just don’t know how to evaluate that claim. It may also be that something like Schopenhauer’s idea of blind will drives us and reason recommends putting an end to consciousness. But again I just don’t know how to evaluate such claims. Right now I enjoy my life, but then I’m a privileged white male in a first world country with a roof over my head, food in my refrigerator, access to medical care and the recipient of a wonderful education. I certainly understand that for many others life isn’t worth living and this fills me with irredeemable sadness. I wish I could say more.

The other thing I’d like to say is that I think the pragmatic response, whether slightly more optimistic or pessimistic is the best approach. This aligns well with the kind of attitudinal and wishful hope that I’ve written about in this blog. The main difference in my approach is that I begin with ignorance about answers to the big questions whereas Benatar confidently claims that the answers to life’s big questions are pessimistic ones. Starting from my ignorance I argue that, assuming we have free choice, we might as well be optimists as that is pragmatically useful. As I’ve said many times this is no answer but a way to live. And we find the most meaning by trying to make the world a better place.