Monday, 24 October 2016

Shapeshifters, Socks, and Personal Identity

Posted by Martin Cohen
Perhaps the proudest achievement of philosophy in the past thousand years is the discovery that each of us really does know that we exist. Descartes sort-of proved that with his famous saying:

"I think therefore I am."
Just unfortunate then, that there is a big question mark hanging over the word ‘I’ here – over the notion of what philosophers call ‘personal identity’. The practical reality is that neither you nor I are in fact one person but rather a stream of ever so slightly different people. Think back ten years – what did you have in common with that creature who borrowed your name back then? Not the same physical cells, certainly. They last only a few months at most. The same ideas and beliefs? But how many of us are stuck with the same ideas and beliefs over the long run? Thank goodness these too can change and shift.

In reality, we look, feel and most importantly think very differently at various points in our lives.

Such preoccupations go back a long, long way. In folk tales, for example, like those told by the Brothers Grimm, frogs become princes – or princesses! a noble daughter becomes an elegant, white deer, and a warrior hero becomes a kind of snake. In all such cases, the character of the original person is simply placed in the body of the animal, as though it were all as simple as a quick change of clothes.

Many philosophers, such as John Locke, who lived way back in the seventeenth century, have been fascinated by the idea of such ‘shapeshifting’, which they see as raising profound and subtle questions about personal identity. Locke himself tried to imagine what would happen if a prince woke up one morning to find himself in the body of a pauper – the kind of poor person he wouldn’t even notice if he rode past them in the street in his royal carriage!

As I explained in a book called Philosophy for Dummies – confusing many readers – Locke discusses the nature of identity. He uses some thought experiments too as part of this, but not, by the way (per multiple queries!) the sock example. He didn't literally wonder about how many repairs he could make to one of his socks before it somehow ceased to be the original sock. He talks, though about a prince and a cobbler and asks which ‘bit’ of a person defines them as that person?

In a chapter called ‘Of Identity and Diversity’ in the second edition of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he distinguishes between collections of atoms that are unique, and something made up of the same atoms in different arrangements.

Living things, like people, for example, are given their particular identity not by their atoms (because each person's atoms change regularly, as we know) but rather are defined by the particular way that they are organised. The point argued for in his famous Prince and the Cobbler example is that if the spirit of the Prince can be imagined to be transferred to the body of the Cobbler, then the resulting person is ‘really’ the Prince.

Locke’s famous definition of what it means to be a ‘Person’ is:
‘A thinking intelligent being, that has reason, and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness, which is inseparable from thinking’
More recently, a university philosopher, Derek Parfit, has pondered a more modern–sounding story, all about doctors physically putting his brain into someone else's body, in such a way that all his memories, beliefs and personal habits were transferred intact. Indeed today, rather grisly proposals are being made for ‘transplants’ like this. But our interest is philosophy, and Derek’s fiendish touch is to ask what would happen if it turned out that only half a brain was enough to do this kind of ‘personality transfer’?

Why is that a fiendish question to ask? But if that were possible, potentially we could make two new Dereks out of the first one! Then how would anyone know who was the ‘real’ one?!

Okay, that's all very unlikely anyway. And yet there are real questions and plenty of grays surrounding personal identity. Today, people are undergoing operations to change their gender – transgender John becomes Jane – or do they? Chronically overweight people are struggling to ‘rediscover’ themselves as thin people – or are they a fat person whose digestion is artificially constrained? Obesity and gender dysporia alike raise profound philosophical, not merely medical questions.

On the larger scale, too, nations struggle to decide their identity - some insisting that it involves restricting certain ethnic groups, others that it rests on enforcing certain cultural practices. Yet the reality, as in the individual human body, is slow and continuous change. The perception of a fixed identity is misleading.

“You think you are, what you are not.” 

* The book is intended for introducing children to some of the big philosophical ideas. Copies can be obtained online here: 

Monday, 17 October 2016

Does History Shape Future Wars?

Posted by Keith Tidman
To be sure, lessons can be gleaned from the study of past wars, as did Thucydides, answering some of the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘why’, and ‘so-what’ questions. These putative takeaways may be constructively exploited—albeit within distinct limits.
Exploited, as the military historian Trevor Dupuy said, to “determine patterns of conduct [and] performance . . . that will provide basic insights into the nature of armed conflict.” The stuff of grand strategies and humble tactics. But here’s the rub: What’s unlikely is that those historical takeaways will lead to higher-probability outcomes in future war.

The reason for this conclusion is that the inherent instability of war makes it impossible to pave the way to victory with assurance, regardless of lessons gleaned from history. There are too many variables, which rapidly pile up like grains of sand and get jostled around as events advance and recede. Some philosophers of history, such as Arthur Danto, have shed light on the whys and wherefores of all this. That is, history captures not just isolated events but rather intersections and segues between events—like synapses. These intersections result in large changes in events, making it numbingly hard to figure out what will emerge at the other end of all that bewildering change. It’s even more complicated to sort out how history’s lessons from past wars might translate to reliable prescriptions for managing future wars.

But the grounds for flawed historical prescription go beyond the fact that war’s recipe mixes both ‘art’ and ‘science’. Even in the context of blended art and science, a little historical information is not always better than none; in the case of war, a tipping point must be reached before information is good enough and plentiful enough to matter. The fact is that war is both nonlinear and dynamic. Reliable predictions—and thus prescriptions—are elusive. Certainly, war obeys physical laws; the problem is just that we can’t always get a handle on the how and why that happens, in face of all the rapidly moving, morphing parts. Hence in the eyes of those caught up in war’s mangle, events often appear to play out as if random, at times lapsing into a level of chaos that planners cannot compensate for.

This randomness is more familiarly known as the ‘fog of war’. The fog stems from the perception of confusion in the mind’s eye. Absent a full understanding of prevailing initial conditions and their intersections, this perception drives decisions and actions during war. But it does so unreliably. Complexity thus ensures that orderliness eludes the grasp of historians, policymakers, military leaders, and pundits alike. Hindsight doesn’t always help. Unforeseeable incidents, which Carl von Clausewitz dubbed friction, govern every aspect of war. This friction appears as unmanageable ‘noise’, magnified manifold when war’s tempo quickly picks up or acute danger is at hand.

The sheer multiplicity of, and interactions among, initial conditions make it impossible to predict every possible outcome or to calculate their probabilities. Such unpredictability in war provides a stark challenge to C.G. Hempel’s comfortable expectations:
“Historical explanation . . . [being] aimed at showing that some event in question was not a ‘matter of chance’, but was rather to be expected in view of certain antecedent or simultaneous conditions.” 
To the contrary, it is the very unpredictability of war that 
makes it impossible to avoid or at least contain.
The pioneering of chaos theory, by Henri Poincaré, Edward Lorenz, and others, has 
shown that events associated with dynamic, nonlinear systems—war among them—are 
extraordinarily sensitive to their initial conditions. And as Aristotle observed, “the least 
deviation . . . is multiplied later a thousandfold.”

Wars evolve as events—branching out 
in fern-like patterns—play out their consequences. 
The thread linking the lessons from history to future wars is thin and tenuous. ‘Wisdom’ 
gleaned from the past inevitably bumps up against the realities of wars’ disorder. We 
might learn much from past wars, including descriptive reconstructions of causes, 
circumstances, and happenings, but our ability to take prescriptive lessons’ forward is 
strictly limited.
In describing the events of the Peloponnesian War,

Thucydides wrote:

“If [my history] be judged by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past 
as an aid to the interpretation of the future . . . I shall be content.” 

Yet is our knowledge of history really so exact? The answer is surely 'no' – whatever the comfortable assurances of Thucydides.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Do We Need Perpetual Peace?

By Bohdana Kurylo
Immanuel Kant viewed war as an attribute of the state of nature, in which ‘the freedom of folly’ has not yet been replaced by ‘the freedom of reason’. His philosophy has influenced the ways in which contemporary philosophers conceive of political violence, and seek to eliminate it from global politics: through international law, collective security, and human rights. Yet is perpetual peace an intrinsically desirable destination for us today?
For Kant, peace was a question of knowledge – insofar as knowledge teaches us human nature and the experience of all centuries. It was a matter of scrutinising all claims to knowledge about human potential, that stem from feelings, instincts, memories, and other results of lived experience. On the basis of such knowledge, he thought, war could be eliminated.

Kant realised, however, that not all human knowledge is true. In particular, our ever-present possibility of war serves as evidence of the inadequacy of existing knowledge to conceive the means and principles by which perpetual peace may be established. Kant’s doctrine of transcendental idealism explained this inadequacy by claiming that humans experience only appearances (phenomena) and not things-in-themselves (noumena). What we think we know, is only appearance – our interpretation of the world. Beyond this lies a real world of things-in-themselves, the comprehension of which is simply unattainable for the human mind.

While realists, on this basis, insist on the inevitability of anarchy and war, Kant conceived that the noumenal realm could emancipate our reason from the limitations of empiricism, so enabling us to achieve perpetual peace. He sought to show that we have a categorical moral duty to act morally, even though the empirical world seems to be resistant to it. And since there is no scientific evidence that perpetual peace is impossible, he held that it ought to remain a possibility. Moreover, since moral practical reason claims that war is absolutely evil, humans have a moral duty to discipline their worst instincts to bring about perpetual peace.

Claiming to be guided by the universal reason, Kant proposed three institutional principles which could become the platform for a transnational civil society, superseding potential sources of conflict:
• The road to peace starts with the transition from the natural condition to an ‘original contract, upon which all rightful legislation of a people must be founded’, which needs to be republican.
• In order to overcome the natural condition internationally, external lawlessness between states should be solved by creating a ‘Federation of Free States’.
• Finally, a peaceful membership in a global republic would not be possible without ‘the right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility […] on someone else’s territory’ – the cosmopolitan right to universal hospitality.
Yet Kant, in spite of wanting to emancipate humans from natural determination and past experience, seems to have fallen under the same phenomenal influence as the realists. His pessimistic view of human instincts, which needed to be suppressed to avoid war, strongly reflected an internalisation of the social perceptions of human nature in his time. Humans, he thought, by choosing to overcome their instincts, ought to move from the tutelage of human nature to a state of freedom. The problem is that this ‘freedom’ was already socially defined. Therefore, viewing war as a purely negative phenomenon that hinders human progress, Kant never subjected his reasoning to the total scrutiny which he himself advocated.

Consequently Kant offered a rather deterministic solution, which merely aimed at social ‘tranquillisation’ through feeding people the ready-made values of global peace. Hence one observes his rather excessive emphasis on obedience to authority: ‘all resistance against the supreme legislative power […] is the greatest and most punishable crime’. Kant’s individual requires a master who will ‘break his self-will and force him to obey’. In turn, the master needs to be kept under the control of his own master. Crucially, this would destroy the liberty to conceive for oneself whether war is necessarily such a negative phenomenon.

Even such pacification, through obedience to authority, is unlikely to bring perpetual peace, for it refuses to understand the underlying factors that lead humans into war with each other. Perhaps more effective would be to try to find the cause of war, prior to searching for its cure.

Kant missed the idea that war may be the consequence of the current value system, which suppresses the true human will. Thus Friedrich Nietzsche argued for the need to revaluate values. Being unafraid of war, he recognised its creative potential to bring about a new culture of politics. Where Kant’s peace would merely be a temporary pacification, a complete revaluation of values could potentially create a society that would be beyond the issues of war and peace.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Picture Post #17 The Mask

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

The headquarters of Mussolini's Italian Fascist Party, 1934 via the Rare Historical Photos website
The curious thing about this image is that it looks so much like an over-the-top film set. The dictator looks down on the hurrying-past public, from the facade of the Party HQ. Which in this case is imaginatively, yet also somehow absurdly, covered in graffiti - in the original sense of writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or painted. The 'Si, si, si' is of course Italian for 'Yes', which is actually not so sinister. The occasion was the the 1934 elections, in which Italians were called to vote either For or Against the Fascist representatives on the electoral list. Indeed, the facade was not always covered up like that.

In 1934, Mussolini had already ruled Italy for 12 years, and the election had certain fascistic features: there was only one party - the fascist one - and the ballot slip for 'Yes' was patriotically printed in the colours of the Italian flag (plus some fascist symbols), while 'No' was in fine philosophical sense a vote for nothing, and the ballot sheet was empty white.

The setting of the picture is the Palazzo Braschi in Rome, and the building was the headquarters of the Fascist Party Federation - which was the local one, not the national, Party headquarters.

According to the Fascist government that supervised the vote, anyway, the eventual vote was a massive endorsement of Il Duce with the Fascist list being approved not merely by 99% of voters but by 99.84% of voters!

But back to the building. Part of Mussolini’s and his philosopher guru, Giovanni Gentile's, grand scheme was to transform the cities into theatrical stages proclaiming Fascist values. Italian fascism is little understood, and was not identical to the later Nazi ideology - but one thing it did share was the belief in totalitarian power. As George Orwell would later portray in his dystopia, 1984, in this new world 2+2 really would equal five if the government said so. Si!

Monday, 26 September 2016

Poetry: Eulogy for Democracy

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except...”
A Eulogy for Democracy

 A poem by Chengde Chen 

(Breaking news: A democracy elects a fascist president…)

Democracy has committed suicide.
Freedom, at the funeral that is almost for itself,
invites Reason to give a eulogy.
Reason says, ‘This, however…
also shows the greatness of Democracy:
Dictatorship may let a madman rule the majority;
Democracy allows the majority to be mad!’

No one knows what is being added up in the ballot box
– wisdom or stupidity?
But the wonder of ‘water kindling fire’
has shown how absurd Democracy can be.
The sacred formula of ‘one man one vote’
casts the power in proportion to the birthrate.
‘Majority rule’ is to bully by numbers
– neither freedom, nor goodness

Democracy doesn’t mean freedom,
but the majority oppressing the minority.
That ‘all men are equal before the law’ is only half true –
the legislative process has favoured those in the majority.

From the point of view of mechanics,
to be oppressed by the many is no less uncomfortable
than to be oppressed by one person.
To avoid the oppression one has to join the majority,
so those in the majority may also be compelled.

Monday, 19 September 2016

A Philosophy of the Environment

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
In spite of its crucial importance today, in practice we have little operational guidance for defining policies, strategies, and outcome targets with respect to the natural environment. Above all, there are no agreed philosophical grounds for its preservation. Reactions to its destruction are fragmentary.
In times past, it was possible for every individual, or every family group, to be self-sustaining through all the cycles of nature. Today, we have advanced beyond all possibility of such a lifestyle, although pockets of our planet retain such ways of life. Today, the whole of nature needs to sustain the whole of humankind. This requires more than a parochial approach to the environment. It requires a global environmental ethics, and global environmental principles.

There is a pressing need today for a rational basis for a healthy, balanced relationship with the natural environment – for 'a broadly-based philosophy', in the words of the Scottish theologian and philosopher John MacQuarrie. While one cannot underestimate the effectiveness of reactive measures to protect or to heal the environment – on all levels, individual, organisational, and governmental – the philosophical underpinnings are sorely missed. Any substantial philosophy today should be able to present definitive criteria for dealing with the environment.

Various 'base principles' have been suggested:
• that nature enjoys a sacred status,
• that every life form has a special goal,
• that the natural environment is vital to our human flourishing,
• that it is essential for our economic progress.
Yet beyond all such considerations, it may be the very complexity of nature which promises a solution.

There is something which sets the environment apart, which requires a different treatment to all other ethical issues. There is no system (insofar as we may speak of a system at all) which is more complex than our natural environment. The environment presents us with an infinity of relations. We would need a mind (or a computer) larger than nature itself to understand it. We may say therefore that it is 'beyond the condition of things'. It is beyond reducing, controlling, or bringing into the condition of things. It is unconditional.

The natural environment is the ultimate zone, in which a vast tissue of influences cannot be reduced. It is so much more than a sphere which merely should be 'protected'. It is sacred. It is tabu. A reductionistic approach to nature does not apply.

Not only this. For want of a concept as to how nature ought to be – since we cannot possibly possess such knowledge – we cannot say that it should be this way or that. 'Is' and 'ought' vanish here. It is in a sacred space even beyond the realm of ethics. With respect to nature, we cannot give and we cannot take, we can only receive. In fact nature stands as a vast and all-encompassing symbol to teach us the limitations of human reason.

On the basis of a belief in a sacred environment there is a principled way forward. The environment – both animate and inanimate – is not merely an object of wonder and awe, nor is it sentimentally sacred. Its sacredness is of biblical proportions: a sacredness which means that it stands under 'the ban'. Whatever the value of nature may be – whatever its stores, whatever its appeal – it must not be touched. The only way forward is to treat it on the basis that it is both off-limits and hands-off, and this is unconditional. It is non-negotiable.

Our own simple, built environment is of course ensconced in the natural environment. Of necessity, we disturb the environment, because we are a part of it. How then should it be possible for nature to be off-limits today, in our (post) modern world?

The notion of such separation is not merely a wistful one. There are large areas today which we do keep off-limits: contaminated areas, for instance, military zones, and diamond areas. These are as good as sacrosanct – and yet the environment seems by comparison to be treated with ambivalence. In fact in times past, the natural environment was indeed thought to be sacred – in some cases more valuable than the life of one who desecrated it.

Just a hundred years ago, nature did not need any assistance from humanity. That is, in our very recent past, we knew a world in which nature was allowed to be nature, and did not need human cosseting or monitoring. The deliberate, nation-wide, even global protection of the natural environment through human custodians is a comparatively recent development.

In short, a separation between the natural and the built environments should be – and has to be – a realistic goal. This goal will be achieved when the equilibrium of the environment is maintained in every part without human intervention – or rather, its dynamic equilibrium is maintained over all its various cycles. Since, however, nature is beyond the condition of things, this must be a self-sustaining dynamic equilibrium, without the influence of human custodians.
'Our immediate environment is not nature as formerly, but organisation. But this immunity from nature produces a new crop of dangers, which is the very organisation.' —Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Six Imperatives for Saving Syria?

Posted by Keith Tidman
With many powers exercising their claims in Syria—and demonising one another—the conflict long ago morphed from a civil war to a Hobbesian battleground for international self-interests. And as Thomas Hobbes warned, life for many in Syria is 'nasty, brutish, and short'. 
The dynamics have turned toward ever-more bloodshed, with rivals—kindled by neighbouring and remote states alike—entangled in a brutal, interventionist struggle for preeminence. The outcomes have included the civilian casualties, families sundered, and an outpouring of millions of refugees funneling into other countries, near and far. The economic and security stressors are being felt in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and elsewhere: exacerbating localised conflicts, rendering borders porous, spurring radicalisation, and destablising social order.

The war in Syria continues to roil. Stunning images of dazed, blooded children pulled barely alive from the rubble following air strikes have virally circumnavigated the world time and again. Eyes gazing upon such stark images have welled up. Outrage has been stoked. So, five years since the carnage began, and more than quarter of a million deaths later, what—in an admittedly ideal world—are the imperatives for Syria? From a philosophical vantage point, there are at least six—both strategic and moral.
Imperative One - is for the powers exercising the greatest leverage—including Iran, Lebanon, the Gulf coast states, Russia, Western Europe, the United States—to agree to bring the worst of the fighting and cyclical escalation to an end. This imperative calls not for yet another disingenuous, short-lived ceasefire in an ongoing series. Rather, without key factions fueling the fighting—with money, arms, logistical support, fresh foreign fighters, tactical direction, leadership on the battlefield, and the like—the flames will scale back to a more manageable intensity. That, in turn, will feed oxygen to efforts not only to shift the course of events in the towns but more crucially to hammer out a longer-lasting, sustainable solution.

Imperative Two -  is to disentangle the flailing limbs of the rival groups that have spent the last half-decade killing each other and pursuing gains in territory and influence—where one nation’s ‘unsavory’ antagonist is another nation’s ally. The message must be that no one’s interests have any hope of prevailing, permanently, in today’s unremitting carnage. Messaging, though necessary, isn’t sufficient, however. Those countries whose proxies are on the front lines must retract their own talons while also reining in their surrogates. Proxy fighting—the worst of a raging hot war, along with a Mideast cold war of hegemons ham-fistedly competing over ideas and power—is cruel cynicism.

Imperative Three - is for power centres like the United Nations, the Arab League, the United States, Russia, and the European Union, as well as nongovernmental organizations like Médicin Sans Frontières and the Red Crescent, to mobilise in order to inject humanitarian relief into Syria. That means doctors, medicine, food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities—including expertise—to allow for at least rudimentarily livable conditions and some semblance of normalcy, as well as to pave the way for more-robust civil affairs. Essential will be countries and organisations avoiding working at cross-purposes—all the while staying the course with sustainable, not just episodic, infusions of resources. With visibly improving conditions will come the provision in shortest supply: hope.

Imperative Four - is for these same power centres not just to arrange for rival groups to ‘stake their flag’ and settle in place, but to disgorge from Syria those non-native elements—foreign interlopers—that embarked on pursuing their own imperial gains at the Syrian people’s expense. The sponsors of these groups—Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, the Kurds, Gulf Cooperation Council members, Russia, United States, and others—must operate on the basis that ideology, tribalism, sectarianism, spheres of influence, imperialism are not zero sum and, moreover, must not come at the Syrian population’s expense.

Imperative Five -  is for the global community to begin the massive undertaking of repairing what now lies as rubble. Those repairs to infrastructure—buildings, utilities, services—will require resources that can be met only through collective action. Continued fighting will disincline countries from contributing to the kitty, so first achieving imperative number one is essential. ‘Aid fatigue’ will set in if infrastructural fixes get protracted, if there’s unmitigated corruption, and if gains are destroyed—leading to disenchantment and the mission petering out. Reconstitution of the country will therefore have to happen on a grand scale, with all aware of the consequences of diminishing commitment and exigencies at home and abroad competing for attention. One country’s aid will likely provide a fillip to others, leading to a critical mass of support.

Imperative Six - is to settle on a system of governance for Syria, including leadership. The model doesn’t have to be overtly liberal democracy. Rather, some variant of a ‘benign (enlightened) autocracy’ may suffice, at least in the immediate term, with parties pledging to work toward an enduring system to serve the population’s interests. The eventual system will require a broad-brush makeover: political representation, public debate, formal social contract, human rights, policymaking (domestic, foreign), resource management, rule of law, the environment, civil society, institutional formation . . . the gamut.
The overarching need, however, is actionable ends to set history ‘right’. As Confucius, who himself lived in a time of wars, observed, 'To see the right and not to do it is cowardice.' At the very least, to see the right and not to do it is moral bankruptcy. To see the right and not to do it is a corruption of the obligation of nations to set people’s welfare right—an endeavour paradoxically both mundane and noble. To see the right and not to do it is a corruption of the foundational expectation of Syrian families to go about their lives in the absence of tyranny. Idealism, perhaps—but scaling back the 'continued fear and danger of violent death', described by Hobbes, should be at the core of Syrians’ manifest destiny.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Picture Post #16: Life Behind the Pile of Petrol Cans

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Azad Nanakeli 2011, Arbil, Kurdistan-Iraq
A tailor shop that is situated behind a pile of petrol cans. An image that offers a certain brutality about human life – yet in this harshness, but also lightness, man survives. In such ‘idiosyncratic sympathies’ is hidden our intimacy – and hence, similarity. How violent is it to earn one's daily bread out of sight of the street, and behind a symbol of capitalism and war and power?

Virtue will always raise its flags of dependence upon what it believes. Reducing intimacy to something impersonal in cultural terms, yet personal in providing a subjective state within which is created a distinct worldview. The subtlety between intimacy and brutality can then pass by unnoticed, or be easily exchanged, one with the other.

Yet human beings are blessed with something called imagination. And without imagination, intimacy cannot exist. Strangely, the most common scenes reflect our trouble with imagination. As if the common has very little value in regard. We let comparisons decree our personal preferences – and in so doing, not only do we refuse to imagine ourselves, but we refuse to imagine others. We refuse intimacy with the world.

Imagination evokes thinking, even though most thinking occurs within the already imagined. Imagination reveals a problem as to how we make the world intelligible. In this way, daily life offers us a myriad stream of common, unanticipated images like this, scenes in which a host of uncommon things can be traced.

Monday, 29 August 2016

How the Body Keeps Human Nature in Check

Posted by Eugene Alper
Philosophers have always treated human nature with suspicion. From Plato's legend of the ring of Gyges to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, the belief has been that human nature is fundamentally bad, and that if people could get away with it, they'd rather steal, rape, rob, and kill.
Because of this, one theory goes, people enter into a social contract. To avoid mutual destruction by their raging selves, they give up some of their freedom in exchange for security. The social contract theory, as one example of political philosophising, sounds reasonable. But is the premise correct? Is human nature really fundamentally bad?

It seems to me that however destructive human nature can be in theory—indeed, if we assume that man has free will, then he is capable of committing anything—in real life, man's own body, its vulnerabilities and frequent needs, forces him to co-operate with others rather than try to destroy them.

In real life, we do not think about this much; rather, we co-operate with others by habit instilled in us from childhood. We are trained to behave decently by our own family. Our parents do not want aggressive and unruly creatures bothering them, so for their own comfort they train us to be nice. And we continue to be so throughout life—and those who are not, as we often find out, may not have had that early socialising experience.

But let us pretend that there was no socialising milieu in one's childhood. Let us pretend that somehow a man did not realise that his mother was his only source of food and comfort, and he did not learn to please her. And let us pretend that it did not occur to him later in life that other people were useful to him too, and somehow he failed to master the skill of ingratiating himself with them in order to obtain what he needed. Let us pretend that, instead, the man was dropped from the sky into the world, not knowing anything at all about how it operated. Even then, it is my argument, he would be forced rather quickly to be nice rather than bellicose.

Dropped into the world, the man would promptly discover that his body needs to be fed every four hours and go to sleep every sixteen. His skin, he would notice, is sensitive to cold, heat, and any contact with sharp, hard, or heavy objects, especially if the contact is made at speed. Even walking barefoot, he would observe, can be painful. He would find that the food his body demands so often is not readily available, and to fight for it with other people and animals a few times a day is painful to the skin. It is also risky to try to steal it, for getting away is difficult with the skin being so sensitive. Every night he would learn how physically complicated it is to find a safe shelter to hide from those he might have angered during the day. With his body getting hurt so easily and tired so quickly, he would calculate that it is more energy-efficient to try to engage others in a peaceful exchange, where he would trade for his food something of value to them: a thing he might have, a service he might perform, even a promise he might fulfill in the future.

Even if he were bigger and stronger than other men around him, he would understand that he could not be big and strong twenty-four hours a day. For some eight hours—a third of each day on this planet—he would be as defenseless as a baby, and need to have someone he could trust next to him. Even the meanest tyrant with the worst human nature could not be mean under these circumstances all the time. The vulnerability of his own body at night and its dependence on non-poisonous food during the day would make him behave decently—at the very least to his closest circle.

This is what the man dropped from the sky would discover: however base and wild he might wish to be, his needy body keeps him in check. And philosophy, as fearful as it is of human nature, should acknowledge that it has an ally. The body is not a millstone to which the wing-flipping free will is oh-so-regrettably shackled, but a sensitive vessel playing a noble role. 'Don't be too cocky,' says the body to the free will trapped inside, 'or we will both get hurt.'

Monday, 22 August 2016

Revisiting Anselm's Ontological Argument

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

On the surface of it, Anselm's ontological argument seems to be absurd: One can think of nothing greater than God, therefore God exists. And yet our fascination with Anselm endures. What is this strange attraction?

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) was a medieval philosopher and theologian, who put forward the celebrated ontological argument for the existence of God. This has been discussed by many of the 'big names' in philosophy, including René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – and more recently by Charles Hartshorne, Karl Barth, and Alvin Plantinga, among others.

What is remarkable about Anselm's argument is that, while it would seem to have been refuted time and time again – beginning with Gaunilo of Marmoutiers in 1078 – it just keeps on bouncing back.

I propose that we may find an explanation for this abiding fascination with Anselm, if we assume (as was indeed the case) that Anselm did not have access to the postmodern language of epistemology – in particular, to the nonfoundationalism which we know today. What might his argument have looked like if he had?

But first, for the sake of completeness, the core of Anselm's original ontological argument, translated by Scott Moore:

Even the fool is compelled to grant that something greater than which cannot be thought exists in thought, because he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood exists in thought.

And certainly that greater than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater.

We shall pass over the detail of previous historical discussion, as this is not of special importance here. What is indeed important is just a single feature of Anselm's argument – namely, the word 'greater'. What does Anselm refer to with this word? A supreme being? A perfect being? A necessary being? What is he thinking is 'greater'?

The philosophy writer Chirag Mehta asks: what is the great-making property? Or more to the point, the linguist Michael Geis notes that adjectives such as 'greater' are normally relativised to some reference class. To put it simply, adjectives typically refer to something definite. But where is Anselm's reference class? It isn't there.

Supposing that we take a leap of intuition. Aristotle used the Greek word ἀξίουν (that which is worthy) to describe axioms. We know, too, that Anselm was well familiar with Aristotle's work. ἀξίουν is derived from the word ἄξιος (worth, or worthy), and it means 'a statement or proposition on which an abstractly defined structure is based'. 

Now let us suppose that Anselm intended to speak of something more worthy than which cannot be thought – in the sense of the ultimate Axiom – the Axiom which lies beneath all axioms: that Axiom which is 'more worthy' than all others. In keeping with this, let us drop Aristotle's word ἀξίουν into Anselm's work, so replacing Anselm's adjective 'greater':

Even the fool is compelled to grant that something more ἀξίουν (axiomatic) than which cannot be thought exists in thought, because he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood exists in thought.

And certainly that more ἀξίουν (axiomatic) than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is more ἀξίουν (axiomatic).

It will be seen that the replacement works. Perhaps therefore Anselm did not intend (seemingly absurdly) that one cannot conceive of anything greater than God. Perhaps he intended that God is the ἀξίουν beneath all axioms. Even if this was not his intention, it would seem to deliver an ontological argument.

With the rising tide of nonfoundationalism today, axioms are in trouble. We need foundations, yet we do not find them. The theologian Deane Galbraith notes that the problem today is not merely that our axioms are ungrounded, but that they are now 'grounded arbitrarily'. This implies, too, that we find ourselves in a great personal and social predicament.

There has to be an ἀξίουν, and it has to be an ἀξίουν which is more worthy than all others. How then might God represent that ἀξίουν? This lies beyond the scope of this simple post. Yet if this is what Anselm should have intended – namely, that we are in desperate need of the ultimate Axiom, then his argument may begin to make eminent sense.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Free Will: Has Philosophy Been Eclipsed by Neuroscience?

Norton Junction. With acknowledgement to Adrian the Rock
By Keith Tidman
We make decisions before we are consciously aware of making them. These are the findings of the latest neuroscientific research. Has neuroscience therefore eclipsed philosophy? Has it taken the lead? Does philosophy have anything left to say?
In a much-publicised experiment, a neuroscientist placed people into a ‘functional magnetic resonance imaging’ (fMRI) machine. The aim was to observe brain activity as test subjects performed an activity. The neuroscientist instructed the subjects to press a button either with their right hand or their left hand – but to pay close attention to when they took the decision as to which hand to use. The results surprised the worlds of both philosophy and neuroscience. The scanner revealed brain activity—the brain unconsciously deciding to press the button—a remarkable seven seconds before the test subjects consciously opted to press it. That is, the subjects’ brains committed to decisions before the subjects became aware of making them.

Why should this be important? Why does it matter?

We assume that free will is fundamental to our humanity. Assumptions about free will—conscious agency—engage people on pragmatic levels. In fact those assumptions are the keystone for society’s notions of responsibility. Codes of morality and law necessarily rest—rightly or wrongly—on free will’s existence. Institutions, from government bodies to systems of justice to religions, are built on that keystone. In the absence of an alternative model that ensures order in society, such rules-based institutions hold people accountable for their actions. Human conduct is judged, and responses—praise and reward, or condemnation and punishment—are rendered accordingly. Society assumes that a person may be held responsible only if that person is a ‘morally responsible agent’, in conscious, intentional control of behaviour.

The cautious conclusion to the fMRI experiment was that consciousness may play no role in what a person decides. Other neuroscientists concur in this, based on the results of different tests. But are our conclusions too hasty? Are the results ironclad?

In the context of conscious control, what does the fMRI test really tell us about free will? Is free will an illusion, a tricked brain, misled intuition—and even just a convenience for society to function? The question typically appears something like this: “At the moment a person decides, could she willingly and freely have decided otherwise?” And if we do not enjoy unbridled (‘libertarian’) free will, do we at least have contingent free will? If free will is an illusion, is that so for only those choices made hastily and with minimal thought? Or does free will describe all our decisions? Philosophers have grappled with free will for millennia, of course. But the role of neuroscience in this arena is more recent—and arguably indispensable. This dual track of philosophers and neuroscientists makes it necessary to delineate what unique competencies each field brings to free will. But what are they? And do they each have a role?

By and large, both philosophers and neuroscientists today acknowledge the  cause-and-effect nature of brain activity (the physics, chemistry, biology) and decisions—mind-brain dualism long since having been discarded. Yet our considerations do not end here.

Philosophers, for their part, collaborating with psychologists and anthropologists and others, bring a deep understanding of human behavior. This understanding exists in the context of the roles of institutions and culture in society, informing the ways people make decisions, including whether freely or mechanistically. Philosophers also contribute an understanding of the centuries-long history of conceptualising free will and its alternatives, especially how some of the most brilliant minds have described and debated free will and determinism and the concepts’ variants. This process includes placing those historical notions of free will to the litmus test of analytical logic, to assess soundness. All this vitally informs the science—outside the standard domain of scientists—to ensure that the science remains conceptually and historically grounded.

For their part, neuroscientists, collaborating with physicists and biologists, structure hypotheses and bring increasingly sophisticated technologies and rigorous methodologies to understand cognitive brain function. They correlate those functions to the brain as it makes a decision and the person subsequently is aware of the decision. The aim is to explore—tangibly record and measure through technology—what is happening at the unconscious and conscious levels, and to do so involving more complex decision-making. Independent scientists must duplicate test results. For neuroscientists, this unique framing of the free will-versus-determinism puzzle takes into account diverse factors.  These include the neurons and synapses firing in different regions of the brain, perceptions of reality, people’s genetic makeup, the environment influencing genes’ expression (epigenetics), psychological states, and others. How these factors bear on outcomes of science’s take on free will remains to be explored.

Allowing for the distinctly separate competencies of philosophers and neuroscientists, tackling free choice can best be accomplished jointly: defining the problem, examining alternative models, conjuring hypotheses, developing methods, describing initial conditions, teasing out empirical data, interpreting results. Wherein, it seems, lies the best hope of resolving the free-will debate. Philosophy is far from eclipsed.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Nothing: A Hungarian Etymology

'Landing', 2013. Grateful acknowledgement to Sadradeen Ameen
Posted by Király V. István
In its primary – and abstract – appearance, nothing is precisely 'that' 'which' it is not. However, its word is still there in the words of most languages (for we cannot know all). Here we explore its primary meaning in Hungarian.
The Hungarian word for nothing, 'semmi' is a compound of the conjunction 'sem' (nor) and the personal pronoun 'mi' (we). The negative 'sem' expresses 'nor here' (sem itt), 'nor there' (sem ott), 'nor then' (sem akkor), 'nor me' (sem én), 'nor him or her' (sem ő), etc. That is: I or we have searched everywhere, yet I or we have found nothing, nowhere, never.

However much we think about it: the not to which the 'sem' sends is not
the negating 'Not', nor the depriving 'Not' that Heidegger revealed in his analysis of 'das Nichts'. The Not in the 'sem' is a searching Not! It says, in fact, that searching, we have not found. By this, it says that the way we met, faced,
and confronted the Not is actually a search. Thus the 'sem' places the negation in the mode of search, and the search into the mode of Not (that is, negation).

What does all this mean in its essence? Firstly, it means that, although the 'sem' is indeed a kind of search, which 'flows into' the Not, still, as a search, it
always distinguishes itself from the not-s it faces and encounters. For searching is never simply a repeated question, nor the repetition of a question, but a question carried around. Therefore the 'sem' is always about more than the tension between the question and the negative answer given to it. For the negation itself – the Not – is placed into the mode of search! And conversely.

Therefore the 'sem' never negates the searching itself – only places and fixes it in its deficient modes. Those in which it 'does not find' in any direction. This way, the 'sem' charges, emphasizes, and outlines the Not, but also stimulates the search, until the exhaustion of its final emptiness. Therefore the contextually experienced Not – that is, the 'sem' – is actually nothing but an endless deficiency of an emptied, exhausted, yet not suspended search.

This ensures, on the one hand, the stability of the 'sem', which is inclined to
hermetically close up within itself – while on the other hand it also ensures an inner impulse for the search which, emanating from it, continues to push it to its emptiness.

And it is in the horizon of this emanating impulse that the 'sem' merges with the pronoun 'mi', in the Hungarian name for nothing. The 'mi' in Hungarian is at the same time an interrogative pronoun and the first person plural personal pronoun. Whether or not this phonetic identity is a 'coincidence', it conceals important speculative possibilities which should not be overlooked. For the 'Mi' pronoun, with the 'Sem' negative, always says that it is 'we' (Mi) who questioningly search, but find 'nothing' (semmi).

Merged in their common space, the 'sem' and the 'mi' signify that the questioners, in the grip of the plurality of their searching questions, facing the meaning of the 'semmi', only arrived at, and ran into the not, the negation.

In the space of its articulation the Hungarian word of the nothing offers a
deeper and more articulated consideration of what it 'expresses', fixing not only the search and its – deficient – modes, but also the fact that it is always we who search and question, even if we cannot find ourselves in 'that', in the Nothing. That is to say, the Nothing – in one of its meanings – is precisely our strangeness, foreignness, and unusualness, which belongs to our own self – and therefore all our attempts to eliminate it from our existence will always be superfluous.

Király V. István is an Associate Professor in the Hungarian Department of Philosophy of the Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. This post is an extract selected by the Editors, and adjusted for Pi, from his bilingual Hungarian-English Philosophy of The Names of the Nothing.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Have We Normalised Oppression?

Posted by Bohdana Kurylo
There are forms of oppression and domination, wrote Michel Foucault, which become invisible – the new normal. Have we normalised oppression today? Are we even aware of it any more?
In the introductory volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault drew his readers’ attention to the workings of power on the level of one’s sexuality and desire, as both an example and a metaphor of all power relations. He debunked the idea that sex is the locus of the truest form of the self. In fact, this idea turns out to be an invisible mechanism of control. As Foucault put it, it is ‘a new mode of investment which presents itself no longer in the form of control by repression but that of control by stimulation’. In turn, the ‘stimulation’ cannot do without sex being regulated and monitored, to effectively manage the populace. Still, modern control would not be effective without control being exerted by individuals over themselves, however unknowingly. And the more self-governing our self becomes, the more relevant this becomes.

As such, there is a clear difference between the repressive methods used by the Soviet state to regulate society and the self-discipline of the modern sexually ‘liberated’ generation. The latter has willingly measured and categorised itself through all-encompassing examination and normalisation through beauty standards, nudity and endless discourses on sex. A confessing animal, modern man has made, perhaps, the most intimate part of his self available for mass surveillance. The force of surveillance has significantly increased with the rise of social media, the efficacy of which is not inferior to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: its prisoners are close, yet in isolation from each other; perfectly visible for the watchers, yet unable to see them. In short, the soul is governed by aligning new norms with individual desires and pleasures.

Nevertheless, it is questionable whether such control necessarily has negative implications, as in the case of conventional forms of oppression and domination. It is indeed a hybrid power that does not oppose one’s wishes, but in fact creates them. On the surface of it, Foucault himself seems to take a neutral stance in relation to the new style of governance, rejecting the idea that society can exist without power relations. However, his emphasis on the effects of normalisation on the individual – which ‘attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognise’ – reveals a negative attitude. It seems that Foucault confronted the issue of modern governance because of his urge to go beyond the existing perceptions of the self. Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘will to power’ – an ‘attempt to overcome, to bring to oneself, to incorporate’ – may well explain it. It is precisely this ‘instinct for freedom’ that would lead Foucault’s subject to want to become a master in playing these games of power with the strongest possible protection against the abuse of power.

At this point, the connection between freedom and ethics unfolds. Foucault pronounced the nature of freedom to be ethical in itself: ‘Freedom is the ontological condition of ethics’. Yet, he wondered whether it makes sense to say ‘let’s liberate our sexuality’, for the problem of freedom is much more ethical than the rhetoric about desires and pleasures. Thus, it is important, once again to debunk the myth that sexual liberation – or any liberation – is equal to freedom. Indeed, is liberation only about genitals and not about conscience, dignity and self-reflection? Freedom is impossible without self-reflection and the ‘care of the self’. Hence, as ‘taking care of oneself requires knowing oneself’, freedom from imposed knowledge and control becomes a major argument for resistance against modern power.

A bigger question, however, is whether resistance is possible – and here, Foucault led his readers into the labyrinth of philosophical paradoxes. The problem is that the relationship between the self and power is mutually determining. Paradoxically, as the self has essentially become the locus of power today, humans face the challenge of resisting themselves. As a result, the individual is constituted both through the practices of subjection and liberation. Although a fully autonomous self is impossible, those who dare to follow their instinct for freedom inevitably have to overcome these paradoxes on the path of the never-ending process of self-cultivation. As an option, Foucault proposed shaping individual subjectivity through the force of creativity, virtually transforming everyone’s life into a work of art. Metaphorically, ‘why should the lamp or the house be an art object but not our life?’

The questions remain: Who exercises power? Who makes decisions for me? Foucault referred to the notion of ‘governmentality’ to describe modern political reason. Its main characteristic is societies in which governance follows the principle of ‘enterprise’, in which the self is self-sustainable and self-governing, ensuring higher productivity. This is a world in which discipline and control have been internalised by the individuals themselves.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Sea-Bird’s Lament

Posted by Rorine Tioti *

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Sunset at Sea 1879.

Over the tree tops, in the branches
Is my home sweet home
Now cut and destroyed
For your Home Sweet Home
I fly over the horizon to the setting sun
To nowhere, to find a new home

* Rorine Tioti is a citizen of Kiribati.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Picture Post No. 15: Boulevard du Temple

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Boulevard du Temple, by Daguerre

This is one of those 'first ever...' photos- so a little history story could be told. But more than that, and unlike most of the early images,  it has quite an aesthetic. And the two stick figures in the foreground add a certain something human too... Are they children playing?

The Frenchified nature of the town is given by those shop awnings and ordered lines of trees - as well as perhaps more obscurely, by the slope of the roofs.

On closer inspection, the figures turn out to be adults, and one is offering his boot via an extended leg to the other, who presumably is a shoe-shine boy. Thus, the image captures in a frozen moment of time, a slightly sourer taste of social inequality.

It is a daguerrotype, an image recorded on a sheet of copper coated with silver and developed by mercury fumes, taken by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (after whom the process was named). The exact date of the photo is not known, but it is thought to be either 1838 or 1839.

One contemporary photographer says too that the matchstick figures are the first human beings to be photographed*, adding:
‘Their simple, everyday transaction has made them immortal.’
Following on from the artistic era of Romanticism, photography fitted well the artist's needs to express the real and natural. But above all, this mechanical medium seemed to fit the industrial revolution and the need for man to fix himself into particular roles.

Because, indeed, another quality of the image is that there are only these two figures, locked forever in their unequal relationship. What should have been a bustling boulevard is strangely deserted. This appearance is, however, also illusory: the first daguerrotypes took some minutes (10 to 15) to fix on the plate, and so all that moves is removed... moving objects, like coaches or even pedestrians, would leave little or no trace. They are the ghosts of early photography.

*Others would argue the point, including earlier images by Daguerre himself such as Foyer au Pont-Neuf, but if there are literally other figures to be found, none are as striking and problematic as these two.

Just fancy that! Hardly any daguerrotypes have survived, but this one was still being lovingly preserved as late as 1974 in a museum. At that point, however, someone decided to ‘clean’ the tatty old silver plated surface, wiping the delicate image away in a moment ...

Monday, 25 July 2016

Poetry: BREXIT and 9/11

The City of London. Although some financiers played  a key role in the
LEAVE campaign, others fear loss of access to lucrative European markets

So Why Does BREXIT* Remind Me of 9/11?

 A poem by Chengde Chen 

Why does BREXIT remind me of 9/11?
Because the exit is like a suicide attack.
Britain, like a plane hijacked by democracy,
With her island-shaped spirit and body,
Dives into her interdependent neighbour,
Regardless of the fatal consequences of
Isolation, recession, and dismemberment…

If an action of suicide bombing
Is to perish together with the enemy,
Brexit is to do so with friends!
But, world-shaking as it is, this isn’t 9/11 yet.
The “explosion” detonated by the referendum,
is time-consuming, procedural, and reversible.

If Britain regrets the decision, she can re-vote.
Some would cry “respecting democracy”, but
Should we democrats be so “respected”
That we’re not allowed to change our mind –
But must jump off the cliff-edge mistakenly-reached?

A U-turn would, of course, not be glorious, but
Should the UK trade her existence for pride?
Where would the pride stay, anyway?
If we must make the mistake into a full disaster,
Wouldn't democracy look crazier than al-Qaeda?

* Editorial note. 'BREXIT' is the term used to signify the process of withdrawal from the European Union by the United Kingdom, a long-standing aim of both the extreme left and right in English politics, if rather less so in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today: philosophical poems. Readers can find out more about Chengde and his poems here
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