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 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

I 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 example. 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 explanations 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, like 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 what religious believers imagine their heaven is like. Of course 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

The Value of Philosophy

(This article was reprinted in “Church and State,” May 2018)

What is the value of philosophy? To this question, we propose some possible answers. First, it’s natural to wonder, to be inquisitive. Children are marvelous philosophers who never tire of asking questions. However, you may reply that we have no duty to do what’s natural, or that you don’t find it natural to philosophize. Second, philosophizing is pleasurable. We find joy asking questions and considering possibilities. Perhaps that is why Plato called philosophizing “that dear delight.” Nonetheless, you might counter that it doesn’t suit your tastes. Third, we appeal to philosophy’s usefulness. Any kind of knowledge is potentially useful, and if philosophy engenders a bit of knowledge and wisdom, then it’s worthwhile. Nevertheless, you may not value wisdom or knowledge unless it engenders material reward.

Finally, we might argue that philosophical (critical) thinking protects us against unsupported ideology, unjustified authority, unfounded beliefs, baseless propaganda, and questionable cultural values. These forces may manipulate us if we don’t understand them, and can’t think critically about them. This doesn’t require a rejection of cultural values, only a reflection on them. Otherwise, they aren’t our values, ideas, or beliefs—we have accepted them second-hand. To this you might respond that reflection is laborious, that ignorance is bliss, and that trust in authority and tradition maintain culture.

So you can reasonably reject all of our arguments. In the absence of definitive arguments then, individuals must decide for themselves whether philosophy is a worthwhile pursuit. We all decide whether the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, wealth, fame, pleasure or anything else is worth the effort. In the end, to value philosophy we must believe that reflection, wonder, questioning, and contemplation enrich human life; we must believe with Socrates that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” And I believe that.

Questions about the value of philosophy also intertwine with issues concerning education in general. What is the point of education? Is it merely to learn practical skills? Consider a nurse or physician who has mastered the techniques necessary to practice their profession. Is that sufficient to being a good nurse or physician? Most of us would say no. One also need traits like insight, compassion, and communication skills, things we may learn from philosophy, literature, biology, psychology or history—subjects that teach about life and people. This suggests that real education is more than technical training.

To better understand this point ask yourself: Is the point of lifting weights merely to push them against the force of gravity? No! In lifting weights we seek to transform our physiques, accomplish our goals, and learn the valuable lesson that nothing worthwhile is attained without effort.  And through this process, our bodies are transformed. Analogously, education transforms us by increasing our awareness, diminishing our dogmatism, honing our critical thinking skills, and, at its best, helping us to be happy and wise. True education transforms our minds. Jiddu Krishnamurti made this case:

Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life? Surely, life isn’t merely a job, an occupation: life is wide and profound, it’s a great mystery, a vast realm in which we function as human beings.

Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, put it this way:

The [person] who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of [their] age or [their] nation, and from convictions which have grown up in [their] mind without the cooperation or consent of [their] deliberate reason. To such a [person] the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find… that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy…. removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt…

Finally, consider the view of the great twentieth-century historian and philosopher Will Durant, who in the preface to Pleasures of Philosophy said this about the purpose of philosophy:

Philosophy will not fatten our purses…For what if we should fatten our purses, or rise to high office, and yet all the while remain ignorantly naïve, coarsely unfurnished in the mind, brutal in behavior, unstable in character, chaotic in desire, and blindly miserable?

Our culture is superficial today, and our knowledge dangerous, because we are rich in mechanisms and poor in purposes … We move about the earth with unprecedented speed, but we don’t know and haven’t thought, where we are going, or whether we shall find any happiness there for our harassed souls. We are being destroyed by our knowledge, which has made us drunk with our power. And we shall not be saved without wisdom.

I can’t provide a knockdown argument for philosophy’s value if we measure value only in terms of wealth. If that’s all matters to you then the life of the mind will be irrelevant. But if what’s really valuable are things like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, wisdom, and love … then I’m glad I fell in love with philosophy almost fifty years ago.

Philosophy & Wonder

I have taught out of several hundred philosophy books in my college teaching career. One textbook, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, had a prelude with a futuristic photo of a spaceship, missile launching, or futuristic house (depending on the edition) along with a few words from the author. It set the tone for the exploration upon which my students and I were about to embark.

Those words were simple, although philosophy is generally a difficult, esoteric pursuit. They were written by a professor who wanted to communicate with his heart, not impress students with his intellect. I think they wonderfully communicated the value of philosophy, especially for the uninitiated. Here is what he wrote:

The following pages may
lead you to wonder.
That’s really what philosophy
is—wondering.

To philosophize
is to wonder about life—
about right and wrong,
love and loneliness, war and death.
It is to wonder creatively
about freedom, truth, beauty, time
and a thousand other things.
To philosophize is
to explore life.
It especially means breaking free
to ask questions.
It means resisting
easy answers.
To philosophize
is to seek in oneself
the courage to ask
painful questions.

But if, by chance,
you have already asked
all your questions
and found all the answers—
if you’re sure you know
right from wrong,
and whether God exists,
and what justice means,
and why we mortals fear and hate and pray—
if indeed you have completed your wondering
about freedom and love and loneliness
and those thousand other things,
then the following pages
will waste your time.

Philosophy is for those
who are willing to be disturbed
with a creative disturbance.

Philosophy is for those
who still have the capacity
for wonder.

     Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering