Category Archives: Philosophy-Popular

Anti-Biography


“Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
~ Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca

I have written a short biography to introduce myself to my readers. But I want to make clear that the bio was meant as informative only, and not to be taken as claiming any self-importance. I am mindful of how small both our lives and our thoughts are in the vastness of space and time. As I have written elsewhere on this blog,

Against [the] immense backdrop of speed, space, time and mystery shouldn’t we be humbled by our limitations and apparent insignificance? Who, other than the ignorant or delusional, would claim to know much of ultimate truth? I make no such claim; no one should.

Yet we live in a world were sports figures, movie stars, and the rich and famous have ghostwritten biographies asserting their importance. (By contrast, one of my intellectual heroes, David Hume, wrote a very brief biography titled “My Own Life.” It exudes humility despite the fact that he was one of the great thinkers in the history of Western civilization.)

We also live in a world where some of the worst people strongly believe in their own self-importance. I unequivocally disavow such claims. While I may be important to my wife or children, from sub specie aeternitatis I am insignificant.

Yet, I find this insight edifying rather than depressing. It helps us to care about values that transcend our frail, fleeting, fragmentary egos. In this way, we are enlarged rather than diminished. If our concerns are self-centered only, they will die with us. If our concerns transcend the bounds of our egos we attain a measure of immortality.

Moreover, by seeing ourselves not as individual atoms but as part of a process which, hopefully, progresses toward higher levels of being and consciousness, we can find real significance as links in this chain. So we are either part of a vast cosmic web—which may be meaningful—or we are essentially insignificant.

For we are (almost) nothing alone.

What is A Worldview?


My friend Ed Gibney has written on each and every one of the thought experiments in  Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher. He has also summarized his own 100 blog posts on Baggini’s 100 thought experiments in “What I learned from 100 Philosophy Thought Experiments.”

Overall Gibney’s careful and conscientious effort to summarize, categorize, and comment on all these thought experiments and place them in the larger context is a superb intellectual achievement. 

After finishing this work Gibney claimed “that this writing project made subtle but important changes to the way I looked at things. In other words, I felt my worldview change.” Not many books do that. But what exactly is a worldview? Let Gibney explain. 

From Ed Gibney’s blog, reprinted with permission.
http://www.evphil.com/blog/what-i-learned-from-100-philosophy-thought-experiments

What is a worldview? We all have one. It’s possible that they can be explicitly known and explored, but more commonly they are a bundle of hidden assumptions tied together by a few professed beliefs you’ve either grown up with or adopted later in life. They can be passively absorbed from the society around you, or actively built through personal research and rational reflection. They aren’t always, if ever, perfectly consistent, but they have many interrelated and interlocking components, which makes them very difficult to shift. They’re sometimes called a “personal philosophy,” but since 1790, when Immanuel Kant coined the German word weltanschauung in his book Critique of Judgment, the specific idea of a worldview has been adapted and adopted all over the world as a term that “refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs forming a global description through which an individual, group, or culture watches and interprets the world and interacts with it.”

What specifically does this framework of ideas and beliefs consist of? A brief search through the Internet turns up several different but often overlapping elements of what a worldview must include. According to several sources (1234), a worldview ought to:

… explain the nature of the world; give us direction; tell us what to value; tell us how to act; explain what we can know; provide consistency and coherence to the story we tell ourselves; incorporate facts that we encounter; explain how things function; tell us why we are the way we are; yield insights into our feelings and emotions; tell us how to organise politically; help us choose future paths; uncover the origins of the universe and life itself; give us meaning and purpose; answer questions about gods and other mysteries; tell us what is good, what is truth, and what is beauty; help us feel less terrified of death; shed light on our joys and sorrows; and guide us through our darker hours.

Such core beliefs of our lives “are often deeply rooted…and are brought to the surface only in moments of crises. [But] the philosophical importance of worldviews became increasingly clear during the 20th century for a number of reasons, such as increasing contact between cultures, and the failure of some aspects of the Enlightenment project, such as the rationalist project of attaining all truth by reason alone.” Adding to the difficulty of getting our worldviews from fragmentation to integration has been the arrival of the information age. Ever since “the final decade of the 20th century, we have had an enormous amount of information at our disposal. On the one hand, this makes it easier for us to form an image of the world in which we live, but on the other hand, this introduces a new type of difficulty, i.e. we must develop the ability to take into account all this information.” We now have all the facts we could ever consume, but many worldviews are struggling to properly digest them.

This rising complexity and clash of worldviews in the late-20th century remind me of an illustrative passage of dialogue I just read in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which was published in 1868 and therefore foreshadowed some of these issues. In the novel, one of the minor characters reacts negatively to the modernism of his time by appealing to some good old-fashioned nostalgia (which never seems to go out of style). Recalling an earlier time, he said:

“Back then, people were driven by a single idea somehow, now they’re more edgy, more mature, more sensitive, able to cope with two or three ideas at a time…the man of today has a wider apprehension and, believe me, that prevents him from being as harmoniously integrated as they were in those days.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Two or three ideas? Those were simpler times! What about when we are forced to cope with thousands of them? Or even just 100 that have been chosen very precisely to pick apart the tiniest inconsistencies in your worldview. How could anyone manage to be “harmoniously integrated” in the face of such a deluge? As I worked my way through Baggini’s book, it became apparent that he had ordered his thought experiments pretty much at random, and that made it very difficult for me to see how the changes he was causing might be strung together into a coherent summary of what I had learned. But then, this is a lot like life. And philosophy has been used to make sense of life for thousands of years.

In my first edition of Evolutionary Philosophy, I attempted to construct a worldview through the use of a simple list of 10 tenets, and then by using a more comprehensive set of questions on how to Know Thyself. Those were both non-traditional methods for philosophers, but now it’s more of a natural fit to try and sort the 100 philosophical thought experiments into a traditional construction of a worldview by using the six academic branches of philosophy: epistemology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and political philosophy. These branches originate from very basic and universal questions: What do I know? How do I know it? Where do we come from? What is good? What is beautiful? How do we act? As I slot the lessons learned from 100 thought experiments into these six categories, I believe that all of the needs for a worldview which we listed above will be met. In fact, due to the overlap and repetition that exists in this list, we now know (specifically from #43 Future Shock) that one hundred philosophical thought experiments are more than enough to know the field.

Great. We know the journey will be worth it, so let’s get started. I’ll try to go through this as quickly as I can by summarising the lesson of each thought experiment in just a sentence or two (as I just did above after the hyperlink). If any summary doesn’t immediately feel right for your worldview, have a look at the thought experiment in full to see where one of us has gone wrong. And with that, we’re off! First, to build a view of the world, we must gain some knowledge about it.

(Next up – the thought experiments dealing with epistemology.)

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 reveals 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 researchers 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 defenses 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 nutritional 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 Prius 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 sensory 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.

Must Evil Exist? No

One of the five paintings of Extermination of Evil portrays Sendan Kendatsuba, one of the eight guardians of Buddhist law, banishing evil.

 recently received a letter from a former student who was trying to defend the necessity of evil. She wondered: “can there be goodness without badness?” While most people non-reflexively answer this question with a resounding no, I do not.  I’ve never found the arguments that there must be bad in order for there to be good, convincing.

First of all, this is a metaphysical question about the nature of reality. Behind it lies the idea is that there is some kind of balance or symmetry in reality. There’s light and shadow, knowledge and ignorance, sleeping and waking, life and death, yin and yang, etc. So for every attribute, we can probably talk about its opposite attribute. But is there an opposite of everything? Of a tree? A person? A chair? Can there only be trees, people or chairs if there are not-trees, not-persons, not-chairs? You could say that the opposites of being and non-being underlie all these examples. But can there only be being if there’s non-being? Thousands of years ago Parmenides claimed that there can’t be non-being.

Also, consider that while shadows can’t exist without light, light can exist without shadow. While ignorance can’t exist without knowledge, knowledge can exist without ignorance. Moreover, we can easily imagine beings who don’t sleep or die or do evil. So while there is a lot to be said here, I’m just not convinced that reality that there has to be badness for there to be goodness.

This question could also be construed as an epistemological one. Can we know goodness without badness? If we lived in a perfect world, could we imagine what an imperfect one would be like? I don’t see why not. If I’ve only known good beings, thoughts or behaviors, why couldn’t I conceive of their opposites? To say I couldn’t is to limit our imagination. So I why we could only know badness if there’s goodness.

I think the prevalence of this idea, at least in Western culture, derives from Christian theodicy. The argument that badness is somehow necessary is often used by religious apologists as an excuse for, and a defense of, the existence of evil in a world created by an omnibenevolent god. But surely their omnipotent god could have created a world with only good. Of course, the religious apologist will reply that there must be badness to build our souls, or help us appreciate good, or to let us exercise our free will, etc. But I don’t think that building our characters or the existence of free will—assuming the latter even exists—are worth the price of evil. So, I agree with the near-unanimous view of philosophers that a theodicy, a full explanation of evil, isn’t possible and defenses of evil don’t work either. Moreover, I’d much prefer to live in a reality without evil.

Now some claim that a world without badness is impossible? But why? I can imagine such a world, or that an omnipotent being could have made it.

Another reason I reject the “there has to be badness” idea is that it is used as an excuse for evil. The idea that evil is necessary limits us; it causes us to accept evil as necessary. But death from the plague wasn’t inevitable, nor is slavery, torture, misogyny or racism. We make moral progress because we reject the status quo. So I don’t accept any evil. Not pain, torture, anxiety, depression, alienation, loneliness, hatred, war, death … not any of it. I can imagine a world without all these things. I can imagine a heaven on earth.

And if we create a heaven on earth or in a simulated reality and find that we no longer appreciate the goodness, then I suppose we can add some badness to reality to help us remember how good we have it. Then that badness really would be good for us. (If goodness can’t exist without badness, then how is a supernatural heaven possible? Do the Gods have to give us an occasional electric shock to remind us of how good heaven is?) But of course, all this seems silly. Of course, we know that evil is bad; we have just come to accept it because we don’t think there’s much we can do about it. But to conclude, as the religious apologists do, that evil is just the privation of good (Augustine), or that this the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz), is just plain stupid. Pain, suffering, loneliness, death, depression and all the rest are really bad, and this is not the best of all possible worlds.

So I don’t see why there has to be badness for there to be goodness. There can be only goodness, which is how religious believers imagine their heaven. Still a supernatural heaven is a fantasy and we don’t have heaven here on earth either, but we can create one if we aren’t deterred by ideas that convince us that there must be badness.

Some men see things as they are and ask why? Others dream things that never were, and ask why not?” ~ George Bernard Shaw