Monday, 19 August 2019

The Rhythm of Sentiment

Francisco Goya. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Posted by Allister Marran 
If you are privileged enough to go to university straight out of school, as I did, you are greeted by disdainful lecturers who roll their eyes at your infantile exuberance, your unenlightened ignorance, and often plain stupidity.
You think you know it all, yet you lack the fundamental tools to appreciate the gravitas of the knowledge you are being fed. Everything is so simple when you know nothing.

Life experience creates perspective.

Social theory was particularly difficult. To my mind, in a world where there was only black and white, I could not grasp the grey areas.

Nazis, right wing racists, and communist dictators were bad. Progressives and capitalist democracies were good. Nothing else to see or say. You could never have a bad democratically elected president, could you? You could never explain the rise of nationalism in a way that made sense, could you?

And yet we now live in an age where democratically elected populists, who are right or left wing nationalists, are dominating the world political landscape, where they are verbosely racist and openly swear allegiance to military dictators and murderers. Trump, Johnson, Brazil, Venezuela, Spain, Austria. The list is long and shocking.

These are all democratically elected officials. The voice of the people has been heard. The people want leaders who allow them to chant 'Send her back,' and can question the nationality of anyone who is not white skinned (Trump), who diminishes the effects of colonialism on Africa (Zille), or promotes Islamophobia (Johnson), who actively promote racial tension and are anti gay rights (Bolsonaro).

A simple social theory was presented to us, called the social cycle theory, which may be described as follows:

Social cycle theories belong to the earliest of social theories. Unlike the theory of social evolutionism, which views the evolution of society as progressing in some direction(s), social cycle theory argues that events and stages of society typically repeat themselves in cycles. The sociologist Vilfredo Pareto wrote, 
'There is a rhythm of sentiment, which we can observe in ethics, in religion, and in politics.'
In the broader scope of having some greater perspective on life and politics over the last thirty years, if you subscribe to the social cycle theory, it is clear that we are heading into a very dangerous age, where political leaders are able to stoke their bases, and these supporters can wear their prejudices and their hatred of others with pride, knowing that there will be no accounting for their bigoted behavior.

As the chants become louder, the racists become more emboldened, stepping out of the shadows to add their voices to the cacophony of jeers and hate speech.

There is strength in numbers, and so they exhibit their most vigorous exuberance for resentment and loathing, of others not like them, when they are in groups. They wear hats and badges which are brightly coloured, so they can easily spot each other and seek each other out in the world, and can speak easily when in the company of similarly uniformed cadres. And they try to assimilate everyone in their orbit by jovial energy, brute force, or subterfuge.

I did not believe in the social cycle theory when I was younger. I believed that humankind evolved, moved forwards, and you can never look back. If the world was ruined and destroyed by the rise of white nationalism in World War II, surely people aren't stupid enough to fall for that again? Surely showing someone a video of the Nuremberg Rallies, or Mussolini speaking to his army, would be enough to guard them against rallying behind the hatred of a new nationalist cabal in the world?

Surely we are not destined to repeat the mistakes of the past ad infinitum, until mankind is no more, destroyed once and for all by their own hatred and prejudices?

In my old age I am slowly coming around to understanding that maybe the social cycle theory is the best way to explain humanity's stupidity after all.

Aside: The fate of the world rests with the youth. Their single-minded desire to cast off the sins of their forebears and parents, and to forge a new way could still save us. The depressing beauty of life is that death is certain for us all, and in that we renew with a potentially diverging purpose and direction.

The advice I give to older people is simple ... for you it is too late. Your time is over. Enjoy the memories, but don't impart your prejudices and bigotry on the younger generations.  Let them forge their own path, devoid of the hatred and darkness you have internalised.  Pass down your knowledge but not your bitterness.

Break the cycle. Make the future a better place for your children, and your children's children.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Pragmatism: its Conception of Unverified Truth #2

Essay by an anonymous contributor* reposted from Pi Alpha

In this, the second of two posts, Pi presents reflections on ‘Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth’, a title which William James chose in 1907 for a classic paper on pragmatism.
In last month’s post, we considered pragmatism’s conception of verified truth. However, many of our beliefs are either not verified, or are only partially so. Rather, the vast majority of the beliefs we live by are unverified.

William James uses the example of a clock:  we do not know how it works, nor have we seen the insides of it. ‘We let our notion pass for true, without an attempt to verify.’ We believe the clock to be keeping accurate track of time with its cogs and weights, but we do not really understand how.

This is not a problem for pragmatism, as James points out: ‘Just as we here assume Japan to exist without ever having been there, because it works to do so.’ So because of this, we assume that the thing hanging on the wall with the hands and a face is a clock which keeps accurate track of the passage of time, because it works for us to use it in such a way.

The verification of the assumption here means that our incorporation of this assumption does not contradict previously held beliefs, or is so overwhelmingly powerful that previous truths are altered (as little as possible) to make room for this new truth. The fact that we could verify that the cogs and weights actually do keep an accurate track of the passage of time counts in this case as verifiability. It is because we know previous truths about cogs and weights that we can believe that a series of them can count units of time. This information is useful to us in our new belief that the thing on the wall is a clock and functions as such. ‘We use it as a clock.’ That is what makes it useful to use in a situation where knowing the current time is helpful to us. In another situation, knowing the time may not be helpful to us. In this case it does not matter if the cogs and weights actually do keep an accurate track of time.

Another reason that James gives for us counting the possibility of verification as being just as good as actual verification is that ‘all things exist in kinds (groups) not singly’. When we verify a certain belief that we have, that verification can then be used to verify other beliefs of the same kind, or of the same type. ‘A mind that habitually discerns the kind of thing before it, and acts by the law of the kind immediately without pausing to verify, will be a “true” mind in 99% of cases, proved so by its conduct fitting everything it meets, and getting no refutation.’ These semi-verified or non-verified truths give us the same advantages of full verification, such as saving effort as we verify all our beliefs, which thus leads us to say that these beliefs are true.

Our actions (formed through beliefs), which allow us to willfully lead ourselves through persisting reality, form into habits of action. These habits of action are carried out at an almost unconscious level as most of our un-verified (but verify-able) beliefs form actions that we carry out every day.

Consider habits, as an example. Habits are things which we do every day, but do not really think about, like going to work or playing a certain card game. As long as these habits contain beliefs that are consistent with this persisting reality or realities, and lead us to moments worthwhile, they will be followed.
‘To “agree” in the widest sense with a reality, can only mean to be guided either straight up to it or into its surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected with it better than if we disagreed.’ 
 Reality is not a set thing that our ideas either match up with (which is true ideas) or do not (which is false ideas), but it is made by us. In pragmatism, to copy a reality is one way of agreeing with it, but not essential. The essential part of agreement is how you use it to guide you through this persisting reality we seem to be experiencing. Names are just as true or false as our other ideas or what James calls definite mental pictures. Names are arbitrary, however once set they need to remain so or there would be confusion. Names are labels given to objects that have the same grouping or kind, and as long as we use the right name for the right object, our name is always true.
‘You are sure to get truth if you can but name the kind rightly, for your mental relations hold good of everything of that kind without exception.’
In the end, philosophy needs to give us a theory that will affect out lives, giving us something almost tangible that we can hold on to and use. Pragmatism is not strictly speaking a philosophical theory of itself, but more of a lens through which all other theories must pass. It grants an idea to be true, and then asks, so what? What definite difference will this idea make to me in my life, if I were to believe it or chose not to believe it. It must always be remembered that all previous truths must be affected as little as possible when incorporating new beliefs.
‘We must find a theory that will work, and that means something extremely difficult, for our theory must mediate between all previous truths and certain new experiences.’ 
 In science, there are often two or more competing theories which attempt to explain the same phenomenon or situation. In times like this, we should look as much as possible to the explanation that incorporates all previously held truths, while at the same time accurately predicting new experience. This is a rather easy thing to do. We are naturally disposed to incorporate the theory which conform to our preconceived notions, and thus reject the one which changes our previous truths more.

Truth has a certain ‘cash-value’ in pragmatism. Truths pay. They pay because they lead us towards some way of predicting our next experiences. The truths that pay more, help us more, by leading us towards worthwhile moments in our experience. Pragmatism is a name for a verification process of our ideas and beliefs: truth is largely made up of other truths. It is a lens through which all other theories must pass, in order for us to incorporate them into our belief system.

Experience has a way of ‘boiling over’, which is to say that it forces us to correct our beliefs due to new experiences happening, which do not conform to what we believed before. While the facts may change in our situations, our use of truth also does.
‘The “facts” themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.’
 Beliefs make us act, and as they do so so, they bring with them new experiences which themselves redefine the belief’s guiding our actions. This may be likened to Berkeley’s descriptions of matter: people thought he was denying its existence. Similarly, pragmatism was accused of denying truth, but clearly just redefined the word to mean something other than copying a stagnant reality.

Copying reality is really not important. Who cares if our beliefs copy reality, if what we really want is to be able to use our beliefs to guide us to where we want to be? And to do so through this persisting reality that we seem to be experiencing through our sensory perceptions.

* This post is adapted from Pi Alpha, the first embodiment of Pi.  In the transition to Pi Beta, the name of the author was unfortunately lost.  His identity would be a welcome addition - if anyone can help.

Monday, 5 August 2019

PP #48: Philosophic Reflections on a Lunar View of Earth

This view taken  July 20, 1969,  from the Apollo 11 spacecraft shows the Earth rising
above the moon's horizon. (Image credit: NASA/JSC)

Posted by Keith Tidman

Half a century after the Apollo 11 astronauts stepped onto the heavily pockmarked moon, a quarter of a million miles away, much of the world has recently been savoring again the grandeur of the achievement. Reaffirmation of the ‘giant leap for mankind’ legendarily beamed back to Earth, and the ambitious revisualisation of our space-based destiny and vistas.

The feat symbolised humankind’s intrepid instincts. To venture into space, as Earth-bound explorers once riskily did across threatening oceans and landmasses. To satisfy a gnawing curiosity, placing footprints, as these resilient astronauts did, onto unknown and little-known shores. And in the doing, be in awe of the oneness and most-fundamental architecture of humanity — the very nature of our being.

From this comparatively short distance, Earth still looks startlingly small and lonely — even humble, given its cloaking by the atmosphere. Yet, humankind might discover it isn’t alone; the cosmos brims with habitable planets. In that endeavour, how might the image of our planet change, then, as cameras peel back even farther: from elsewhere in the Milky Way and well beyond? As distances in space turn into light-years.

As Earth shrinks with distance, does the meaningfulness of our planet and its inhabitants shrink in parallel, in the vast cosmic backdrop, contesting humankind’s immodestly self-styled honorific of ‘exceptional’? Does our reality change? Or do, say, the ‘volume and mass’ of what fundamentally matters about us — our purpose — rebelliously remain unaffected, defining our place in the larger scheme, no matter Earth’s size in the surrounding cold expanse? 

A rebelliousness that, one might submit, emerges from a web of human ‘consciousness’ that stretches around the planet — the neurons and synapses (connectomes) of seven-and-a-half billion people ceaselessly firing: the stuff of dreams, imaginings, creations. Integral, perhaps, to a larger cosmic consciousness: and again, the stuff of dreams, imaginings, creations.

The seeming peacefulness in the image at top is just that: ‘seeming’. The pacific panorama masks the true nature of Earth: roiling with both natural and human activity. The phantom tranquility conceals one of our instinctual human behaviours: successive wars filling millennia of history. One wonders what idiosyncratically in the human genome leads mankind to war to remedy differences and trifling grievances, as well as quench hegemonic cravings. All the while paradoxically juxtaposed with the astounding complexities of humankind’s diverse civilisations and cultures.

As we gaze, from moon’s vantage point, upon the orb of Earth, with its thin coating of air and water, we are reminded of how vulnerably brittle the Earth’s environment is. Especially at the environment’s intersections with not-uncommonly remorseless technology. Existential risks abound. We’re reminded of the responsibility humanity has as active (proactive) guardians, to nurture the planet as the planet symbiotically nurtures us. Critical, we might agree, to the survival and continued evolution of our species.

What happens if we misguidedly, even disinterestedly, poison or exhaust the planet, as it hangs precariously in space? Or might nature, perhaps indifferent to humanity and coolly subjecting us to its whim, itself render the planet uninhabitable — leading to another major extinction event? Are we only renters, not owners? Did the lunar visit introduce a new imperative: to leave Earth behind and inhabit somewhere else?

Is there a solemnity about the rearward-looking scene of a distanced Earth — an awe that prompts reflection? A scene made all the more evocative by our believing that Earth is immersed in a sort of cosmic sea — of dark matter, dark energy, quantum fluctuations, and more. Is there the perception of ‘aloneness’, too, our seemingly distanced from everyone and everything else in that cosmic sea? The silence of the gaping, inky space contrasts with the cacophony of Earth, the latter a hive of devices that magnify our voices and echo our presence. Will that cacophony continue, or ultimately go silent?

In that presence, we marvel that humankind, dwelling on the comparatively tiny planet seen from the lunar perspective, nevertheless has the cognitive wherewithal to ponder and increasingly understand the cosmology of the whole universe: its beginning, its evolution, its current circumstances, its future. A study in the making, propelled by an irresistible impulse to know.

Anyone whose culture might have included the pre-digital-age children’s game of marbles may nostalgically recognise, from this lunar distance, the surface appearance of Earth, with its gauzy, chaotically swirling patterns. We admire its familiarly abstract beauty. All the while suspecting that there’s order interweaving the deception of chaos. Surrounding this marble-like Earth is a bewildering stillness and blackness — a blackness majestically interrupted, however, by galaxies and stunning phenomena like the Pillars of Creation.

Future generations will grasp, better than us, how this one step on another cosmic body, however craggy and nearby the moon is, served to spur far more ambitious tours through space, whether by human beings or sophisticated thinking apparatuses — to face down the harsh environment of space as we inexorably scratch our exploratory itch.

Monday, 29 July 2019

Pragmatism: its Conception of Verified Truth #1

Essay by an anonymous contributor* reposted from Pi Alpha

In this, the first of two posts, Pi presents reflections on ‘Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth’, a title which William James chose in 1907 for a classic paper on pragmatism.
One of the most basic questions a philosopher can ask is: ‘What is truth?’ What does it mean for a thing to be ‘true’?

Truth, as a dictionary would tell you, is a property of our ideas. Their agreement (between our ideas and reality) is truth, where their disagreement is falsity. This tells us what the word ‘truth’ means in conversation, but a dictionary cannot tell us what is meant by the term ‘reality’ or the agreement of our ideas with this reality. A true idea, in the non-pragmatic sense, is an idea that accurately reflects reality. People would never believe something that they know to be false, so everyone’s beliefs are about something that they think is true. This does not really get at the heart of the problem, though, which demands what reality?

The great American philosopher (I think, the first great American philosopher) was William James. His development of the school known as pragmatism created for me America’s first original school of thought, and thus America’s first real contribution to the world of philosophy. Indeed, when James headed the Colombia philosophy department, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, whose interests spanned the logical structure of language, said it was one of the finest schools in the world. James did not like the Cartesian idea that truth is the correct reflection of reality, but instead insisted that truth is made by us through interactions with reality, although not one stagnant reality.

Previously in Europe, the pervasive school of thought was that if your idea could be said to be true, then ‘you are where you ought to be mentally’. However, pragmatism asserts that you should take a belief to be true, then ask:
‘What concrete differences will its (an idea’s) being true make in anyone’s actual life?’ 
This question becomes the foundation of pragmatism: what experiences with reality would be different if the belief were to be true or false? James then goes on to make his largest claim, that truth ideas are those that:
‘we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify’
This is the practical difference that true or false ideas have to us. Indeed, this process of assimilation, validation, corroboration, and verification allow us in effect to make an idea true or false. ‘Truth happens to an idea.’ This thought is in direct response to the European schools of thought that had a stagnant reality which true ideas correspond to and false ideas do not. In effect, James is claiming that ideas become true or are made true by actual events.

The possession of a true idea is not an end in of itself, but can be seen as a tool that allows us to function towards our desires and goals. James brings up an example that I shall use for the rest of this and the next post: imagine that you are lost in the woods and starved, but you come to what appears to be a track leading in some unknown direction. If you know that it is a cow track, and that cow tracks lead to farmers’ houses, then this information is useful to you. ‘The true thought (the one that the track is in fact a cow track) is useful here because the house (at the end of the track) which is its object is useful.’ In this scenario, the track is useful because of the situation you are in, which is being in need of food. But if the situation were slightly different, the usefulness of this truth is changed as well.

Let us say that the track that we come to appears to us to be made by a goat and not by a cow , along with the knowledge that cow tracks lead to farmers’ houses and goat tracks lead to large fields. This then changes the usefulness of the path, but does not change the fact that the information that we already knew is useful to us. Back to the cow tracks scenario, let us say that it is a cow path, not a goat one. The information that goat paths lead nowhere useful is in itself useful, although not right now. James calls these extra truths.

At this point I feel I need to stop and re-clarify the example. The reason we know that goat tracks lead nowhere is because before, in a different woods, we followed a goat track and it led us nowhere, whereas previously the cow tracks did lead to a safe house. This process is the verification process, that tells us what ideas we have are true and which ones are not. However, if say we had forgotten this previous adventure, and followed the goat tracks and they led to a house, then the truth that goat tracks do not lead to houses would be false.
‘Whenever such an extra truth becomes practically relevant to one of our emergencies, it passes from cold storage to do work in the world and our belief in it grows active.’ 
 This idea of goat tracks leading nowhere, but cow tracks leading to houses, can be said to be true because it is useful, but also can be useful because it is true. Both these things say the same thing, that ‘here is an idea that gets fulfilled and can be verified. ‘True’ is the name for whatever idea starts the verification process, ‘useful’ the name for its completed function in experience.’ True ideas obtain a certain value based on their usefulness to us in situations. Pragmatism’s general notion of truth is about the way one moment in our experience with reality may lead us towards similar desired moments. We as humans, with a finite unknown amount of time here, want moments that are worthwhile having. True ideas are those that get us to our destination of worthwhile moments.

Experience is filled with regularities. One moment can (and often does) influence the next moment we have. ‘Truth, in these cases, means nothing but eventual verification.’ This verification takes place when we interact with reality from one moment to the next moment (or what I call, existence through persisting reality) and our ideas are being used to influence this persisting reality.

Back to our scenario of the cow tracks: verification takes place when we follow the tracks and actually see the house and get food and rest inside. Or the goat tracks one: the verification process takes place when we get to the end of it, and there is no house to take shelter in or give us food. Verification can be positive or negative. If the cow tracks lead to a house, it is verified positively. If it leads nowhere, it is verified negatively. On the other hand, if the goat tracks actually lead to a house, then it can be said that our previous belief was false, or that its verification was negative. We have verified that our previously held belief was false.

* This post is adapted from Pi Alpha, the first embodiment of Pi.  In the transition to Pi Beta, the name of the author was unfortunately lost.  His identity would be a welcome addition - if anyone can help.

Monday, 22 July 2019

The Octave Illusion

Posted by Thomas Scarborough*

440Hz and 880Hz alternating R and L

The Octave Illusion was discovered by Diana Deutsch in 1973. It produced two alternating tones, one octave apart, in each ear. However, when the tone in one ear went ‘high’, the tone in the other ear went ‘low’, and vice versa. (Click the arrow to play.)

The tones used here are A4 (440 Hz) and A5 (880 Hz) - in this case reproduced with the precision of the modern computer. The effect is the same whether this is played through headphones or loudspeakers -- and interestingly, does not change when the headphones or loudspeakers are swapped around.

It is a simple auditory illusion, yet most powerful. Instead of hearing two alternating tones in each ear - as one should - most people hear alternating tones bouncing from ear to ear. It seems that the brain has therefore removed two tones, one from each ear. That is, the tones are replaced with silences.

There is copious literature on what this might mean, and what might cause the effect - yet the general agreement is that there is no simple explanation.

It might not seem at first that an auditory illusion has anything to do with philosophy. However, what we have in this particular case is auditory ‘objects’ -- a range of auditory ‘things’ which include bangs, ringtones, meows, and so on -- which belong to the much larger set of ‘objects’ in general.

To this day, then, we search for ways to decide what is or is not illusory ...
space, time, numbers

identity, free will

things, events, properties

society, language


matter, force, energy

causes, physical laws...

... and even God.
Thus, illusions such as that above -- of which we all now are aware -- have a lot to do with the way we perceive our world.  It has not always been so. There once was a time - or so it is thought - where we perceived everything as real. Today, to borrow the words of the British philosophy professor Simon Blackburn, we have left this far behind: ‘Everything you can think of has at some time or another been declared to be a fiction by philosophers.’

It falls under the subject of ontology - and it all started, according to the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, Thomas Reid, when we separated objects from ideas. The Octave Illusion is just one of many evidences that our experience is not the same as the ideas we have about it. Our brains have already interpreted it for us.

* The author once designed a simple electronic unit to produce this effect. This is still obtainable from the publisher at

Monday, 15 July 2019

Is Beyoncé really an Existentialist?

Glamorous, yes. But is this what an Existentialist couple looks like?
Posted by Martin Cohen

There are many who claim to be existentialists, but few of them seem to be following the same path. Perhaps that is because existentialism is supposed to be all about individualism. Here is one such recruit to the philosophy - Beyoncé - of whom we are assured ‘writing existential songs that move millions is kind of her thing’. Her performance of her song ‘I Was Here’ at the United Nations World Humanitarian Day in 2012 was epic.
‘The song is so powerful, so true. It is existentialism in it’s purest form: I was here. “I want to leave my footprints on the sand of time/ Know there was something that, something that I left behind/ When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets/Leave something to remember, so they won’t forget.”’
So writes Kari. Who is: a ‘vegan, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, yogi-mama that also loves to binge watch Netflix whilst eating an entire bag of potato chips’. So she ought to know!

But is it really existentialism as philosophers see it? Indeed the word has often been misused, but hen it is a term poorly defined even by the great existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre. Instead, we are left to guess at its , ahem, ‘essence’.
‘I was here, I lived, I loved, I was here. I did, I’ve done, everything that I wanted.’
Beyoncé Knowles is in many ways a remarkable figure. Born on September 4, 1981, in Houston, Texas, to parents one of whom worked as a hairstylist and the other was.. a manager in the record industry. The advice and skills of the two were both doubtless of later use. She somehow managed to become one of music’s top-selling artists with a net worth of around $300 million, only slightly shadowed by the assets of her partner, the rapper, Jay Z, who wears his cap back-to-front and T-shirts with slogans like ‘Blame Society’ and is is sitting on a pile of $500 million. Is there not something inauthentic, even contradictory about that? Maybe, but then… ‘Blame society’.

As a young girl, Beyoncé won a school singing competition with John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. But it’s not what Lennon probably imagined as the good life, even if it is highly idiosyncratic. To be fair, she does do some ‘good works’, with charities including Chime for Change, Girl Up, Elevate Network, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Girls Inc. of Greater Houston, and I Was Here cited in her publicity. Beyoncé also joined former Destiny’s Child bandmate, Kelly Rowland, to create the Survivor Foundation, which provides relief to victims of natural disasters. This is all very fine  - but it is not the stuff of existentialism, which is at heart a selfish doctrine born of elitism.

But back to the main question: is Beyoncé really an existentialist? And I don't think so… After all, whatever else he may or may not have been saying, Sartre openly derides those who act out roles: the bourgeoisie with their comfortable sense of ‘duty’, homosexuals who pretend to be heterosexuals, peeping Toms who get caught in the act of spying and - most famously of all - waiters who rush about. All of these, he says are slaves to other people's perceptions - to ‘the Other’. They are exhibiting mauvaise foi - bad faith.

This is a common flaw, and as the psychologists say, in choosing this fault to condemn in others, Sartre tells us a little about himself too. But isn’t it a popstar who dresses a certain way, adopts a certain hairstyle, away of speaking, of walking, that Sartre should really mock for their pretending and posturing to the audiecne and promising to be something that they are not really…?

Surely Beyoncé should find another label than that of ‘existentialist’ to attach to herself.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Altruism: Is It Real?

Painting by Jacques-Louis David (1781) depicting ‘Belisarius Begging for Alms’

Posted by Keith Tidman

A car is turned over, set ablaze. A passerby spots the driver still trapped inside. The driver has little time left, soon to be engulfed by the flames. The passerby sprints, from amidst onlookers, to the fiery wreck, managing to pull the driver out to safety but at his own grave peril. The ‘good Samaritan’ waits for the first responders to arrive, while comforting the semiconscious driver, and then leaves without giving his name or waiting for a thank-you.

Were the actions of the passerby those of altruism? Most people would immediately answer that question affirmatively. After all, the passerby selflessly put himself at risk, to aid a stranger. He seemed to disregard his own welfare. There was no expectation of reward or adulation or reciprocity. And he could just as readily have stood impassively watching or gone on his way to office or home, as everyone else was doing. Still, might the passerby’s self-interested motivation and intent have been as simple and basic as feeling good about having performed the deed? Or might the passerby’s actions have been prompted irresistibly by instinct, based on his brain’s physiology? Or is yet another explanation plausible?

Some people deny that altruism exists at all. Altruism is impossible, they say. They contend that all actions are taken solely to satisfy some selfish need or urge, and that the fact such actions might benefit someone else is incidental — or at least self-serving. The philosopher Ayn Rand starkly warned against what she saw, in fact, as the purported deceit of altruism: ‘If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that people have to reject’.

One name for such beliefs is ‘psychological egoism’: the view that deep down, people are always motivated by what they perceive to be in their own self-interest. That is, voluntarily helping others is only a subsidiary consequence of actions taken, where assistance rendered is impelled singularly by wanting to benefit ourselves. We relish feeling the glow of doing good. This overriding self-interest remains valid even when the actions taken might be accompanied by detriment to the doer, divorced from the urge to ‘help’. In short, no acts, it is thought, are designed solely to benefit someone else. There’s always the sense of gratification for having helped. It’s an unflattering explanation of human nature and behaviour.

Against this, other people subscribe to so-called ‘pure’ or ‘strong’ altruism’. This is a model of behaviour where acts of altruism are wholly selfless, undertaken uniquely to benefit someone else. There is no expectation of either an intrinsic or extrinsic reward, or of personal gratification. That is, every ‘good deed’ — including those where there’s a noble sacrifice (possibly even injury or death to the doer) — is unswervingly motivated by the desire to be of service to others. Martin Luther King’s words capture these sentiments, when he talks of the choice between ‘walking in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness’. A recent real-life example of self-sacrificial altruism was of a university professor who, losing his life in the process, blocked the door to his classroom in order to shield his students from the bullets of a rampaging shooter.

However, one characterisation of selflessness centers on utilitarian ideas about individuals deferring dispassionately to bettering the welfare of others, in the process, resisting their own self-interested wants and urgings. The definition of ‘others’ in this case may range from a single individual to family members, friends, associates, or larger community (the collective), importantly including people we don’t know and never will. It’s a more logic-based approach to supporting others’ wellbeing. Another approach centers on sympathy and kindheartedness, correlated to an intense response to the suffering and misfortune of others. Although there may always be the prospect of self-gain, here aiding others is based more in sentiment than reason, and hinges on the specialness of human connections. The 18th-century English philosopher Joseph Butler nicely parses this point about the balance between self-gain and selflessness, observing that: 
‘The satisfaction that accompanies good acts is itself not the motivation of the act; satisfaction is not the motive, but only the consequence.’
Thus far I have focused on ‘psychological altruism’, involving prosocial, empathic, compassionate behaviours such as providing aid and comfort in order to alleviate another person’s or a group’s suffering. Especially a total stranger’s woe, rather than the presumably simpler case of a relative’s or friend’s anguish. Taking in a migrant family, with no expected reward, is one example of this type of aid; volunteering as a doctor or nurse to work, say, in a remotely located Ebola or HIV treatment facility might be another. However, there may be at least another explanation for fathoming the human facility for altruistic deeds: the physiology of an individual’s brain.

Recent research, using brain imaging, claims to have found that those people with little to no empathy, compassion, or ability to recognize cues of others’ distress tend to have smaller-than-average amygdala regions. The worst-case example being psychopathy, resulting in those with this condition to act callously, insensitively, and disinterested in others’ welfare. People thus afflicted thereby are often unable to recognize others’ fear. In contrast, highly altruistic people tend to have amygdalas that are larger and more reactive than average. This kind of explanation in which ‘mind’ is reduced to ‘matter’ does, of course, bring into question whether free agency is essential to altruism. In the case of our hypothetical passerby, the one who rescues the driver from the burning car, it’s assumed that his amygdala would have had these same features. In this same vein, the affection people generally feel for their own children, along with a deep motivation to protect and do good for them, may seem to be ‘hard-wired’, further pointing to the role of brain physiology in altruism. This extends beyond just gene survival and evolutionary purposes.

Sigmund Freud pointed out that our motives, and the motives of others, are often veiled, and that we are in fact driven by parts of our minds that have agenda of which we are unaware. Perhaps, therefore, the difference between ‘pure altruism’ (if attainable) and what we might call ‘everyday altruism’ is more one of language and semantics, with little to no practical consequence as to the reality of altruism and beneficial outcomes.

Monday, 1 July 2019


By Jeremy Dyer *

You draw a breath as you dive under the wave
Of silence in this nether world
Where peace and pain and green light and bubbles flow
As your body curves slowly to the surface
     like it was the first time
Waking from a dream that wants to drown you
     in its comforting
Pinpricks of light as you pause between the forces
Of darkness and light, hope and despair, death and life
Like an abandoned photograph slowly fading
Wishing everything would dissolve forever
and you would cease to be

* Jeremy Dyer is an acclaimed Cape Town artist.

Monday, 24 June 2019

The world in crisis: it’s not what we think

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

The real danger is an explosion - of Big Data

We lived once with the dream of a better world: more comfortable, more secure, and more advanced.  Political commentator Dinesh D’Souza called it ‘the notion that things are getting better, and will continue to get better in the future’.  We call it progress.  Yet while our world has in many ways advanced and improved, we seem unsure today whether the payoff matches the investment.  In fact, we all feel sure that something has gone peculiarly wrong—but what?  Why has the climate turned on us?  Why is the world still unsafe?  Why do we still suffer vast injustices and inequalities?  Why do we still struggle, if not materially, then with our sense of well-being and quality of life?  Is there anything in our travails which is common to all, and lies at the root of them all?

It will be helpful to consider what it is that has brought us progress—which in itself may lead us to the problem.  There have been various proposals:  that progress is of the inexorable kind; that it is illusory and rooted in the hubristic belief that earlier civilisations were always backward; or it is seen as a result of our escape from blind authority and appeal to tradition.  Yet above all, progress is associated with the liberating power of knowledge, which now expands at an exhilarating pace on all fronts.  ‘The idea of progress,’ wrote the philosopher Charles Frankel, ‘is peculiarly a response to ... organized scientific inquiry’.

Further, science, within our own generation, has quietly entered a major new phase, which began around the start of the 21st Century.  We now have big data, which is extremely large data sets which may be analysed computationally.

Now when we graph the explosion of big data, we interestingly find that this (roughly) coincides on two axes with various global trends—among them increased greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise, economic growth, resource use, air travel—even increased substance abuse, and increased terrorism.  There is something, too, which seems more felt than it is demonstrable.  A great many people sense that modern society burdens us—more so than it did in former times.

Why should an explosion of big data roughly coincide—even correlate—with an explosion of global travails?

On the one hand, big data has proved beyond doubt that it has many benefits.  Through the analysis of extremely large data sets, we have found new correlations to spot business trends, prevent diseases, and combat crime—among other things.  At the same time, big data presents us with a raft of problems: privacy concerns, interoperability challenges, the problem of imperfect algorithms, and the law of diminishing returns.  A major difficulty lies in the interpretation of big data.  Researchers Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford observe, ‘Working with Big Data is still subjective, and what it quantifies does not necessarily have a closer claim on objective truth.’  Not least, big data depends on social sorting and segmentation—mostly invisible—which may have various unfair effects.

Yet apart from the familiar problems, we find a bigger one.  The goal of big data, to put it very simply, is to make things fit.  Production must fit consumption; foodstuffs must fit our dietary requirements and tastes; goods and services must fit our wants and inclinations; and so on.  As the demands for a better fit increase, so the demand for greater detail increases.  Advertisements are now tailored to our smallest, most fleeting interests, popping up at every turn.  The print on our foodstuffs has multiplied, even to become unreadable.  Farming now includes the elaborate testing and evaluation of seeds, pesticides, nutrients, and so much more.  There is no end to this tendency towards a better fit.

The more big data we have, the more we can tailor any number of things to our need:  insurances, medicines, regulations, news feeds, transport, and so on.  However, there is a problem.  As we increase the detail, so we require great energy to do it.  There are increased demands on our faculties, and on our world—not merely on us as individuals, but on all that surrounds us.  To find a can of baked beans on a shop shelf is one thing.  To have a can of French navy beans delivered to my door in quick time is quite another.  This is crucial.  The goal of a better fit involves enormous activity, and stresses our society and environment.  Media academic Lloyd Spencer writes, ‘Reason itself appears insane as the world acquires systematic totality.’  Big data is a form of totalitarianism, in that it requires complete obedience to the need for a better fit.

Therefore the crisis of our world is not primarily that of production or consumption, of emissions, pollution, or even, in the final analysis, over-population.  It goes deeper than this.  It is a problem of knowledge—which now includes big data.  This in turn rests on another, fundamental problem of science: it progresses by screening things out.  Science must minimise unwanted influences on independent variables to succeed—and the biggest of these variables is the world itself.

Typically, we view the problems of big data from the inside, as it were—the familiar issues of privacy, the limits of big data, its interpretation, and so on.  Yet all these represent an enclosed view.  When we consider big data in the context of the open system which is the world, its danger becomes clear.  We have screened out its effects on the world—on a grand scale.  Through big data, we have over-stressed the system which is planet Earth.  The crisis which besets us is not what we think.  It is big data.

The top ten firms leveraging Big Data in January 2018: Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Chevron, Acxiom, National Security Agency, General Electric, Tencent, Wikimedia (Source: Data Science Graduate Programs).

Sample graphs. Red shade superimposed on statistics from 2000.

Monday, 17 June 2019

What Is Love?

Posted by Berenike Neneia
     with Thomas Scarborough 
What is love?  There is the unspoken view that what love means to one it means to the whole world.  This is not the case, as I shall demonstrate by exploring the word in my mother tongue, I-Kiribati.
In English, love is hard to define – or rather, it has many definitions – while in my own language, the word itself informs us of its meaning.

In English, ‘love’ may be traced back thousands of years to the Sanskrit ‘lubh’, which means ‘to desire’.  Its meaning has not changed much since then.  Today the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘a feeling or disposition of deep affection or fondness for someone’.

To many, this is unsatisfactory – mostly for the reason that affections may change – alternatively, that they believe love to be deeper and wider than mere desire.  In English, the only real alternative to this is the religious meaning of the word, which compares our love with the love of God which is sacrificial and unchanging.  Yet this, too, is simply called ‘love’.

In my own language, the word for love is ‘tangira’.  It comes from two words, namely ‘tang’, which means ‘to cry’, and ‘ngira’, which means ‘to groan.’  Crying may be both positive and negative, in the sense that a person can cry if they are happy and if they are sad.  This already reveals something important about love.  Love does not change when it turns to crying, or where there is groaning.  This is by definition wrapped up with love.

'Ngira' has a further, related meaning, which is 'to sacrifice'.  Thus a person who is in love will engage in self-sacrifice.  This, in turn, needs to be mutual, to be shared equally between a husband and a wife, so that it will build a good and lifelong relationship which brings glory to God’s name.

Sacrifice, too, should rule out the possibility of violence.  In my culture, men may abuse their relationship role, and use it to gratify themselves alone.  In some instances, in which wives are violated by their husbands, men argue that they do such things out of love.  Then their behavioural beings, called ‘aomataia’, change and become violent.  This creates disunity and disorder.  But ‘ngira’ as sacrifice implies that a husband will sacrifice himself for his wife, and vice versa.  This lies closer to the religious definition of love in English.

‘Ngira’ has a social aspect, too.  People often identify themselves by the power they hold, and not by love.  The more people hold high rank in government, church, or non-governmental organisations, the more they are likely to define themselves as superior within the family, society, church, or country as a whole. Sometimes this quest for importance causes people to do harm to others because they want to be placed higher.  While power is not harmful in itself, it needs to be founded on sacrifice, to the benefit of all.

There is a related word in our language, to ‘tangira’.  It is ‘onimaki’, which means ‘belief, faith, confidence’.  This word clarifies the love that binds couples in marriage.  If both have faith in each other, it is assumed that there will be no violence, which leads people to separation and divorce – although this does not mean that they will not quarrel.  In spite of such things, there is a possibility that they will find solutions for their problems, because they believe that they are faithful to each other, and to God.

The meaning of ‘onimaki’ should rule out unfaithfulness.  Therefore, remaining a virgin is very important for unmarried women in I-Kiribati culture, and is still practiced nowadays.  If daughters are found not to be virgins during the first time they have sex after marriage, they will be returned to her parents and family naked.  To return the woman naked is to embarrass her, because she is not good enough to be a daughter-in-law, as she has already given her body to someone else.

Faithfulness also implies provision.  Sometimes marriage relationships are destroyed through the wife or the husband being lazy.  For instance, if a wife is lazy in the sense that she cannot look after her husband and in-laws, then if she lives in an extended family, as most women in Kiribati do, she can be chased away by the in-laws. This also applies to men, but is rare compared to women.

It will be seen in this exploration of the I-Kiribati definition of ‘love’ that it matters a great deal what we think of a word, and what it means – love being one of the most important words of all.  Yet some words give us little guidance in themselves, so that we profit from teaching ourselves their meanings.  The examples of ‘tangira’ and ‘onimaki’ in my language serve as an illustration of the value of knowing.

There is a tendency today to say that meanings are not defined but absorbed.  This is especially prevalent in religion.  Sometimes, however, there is great reward in reflecting on what our words mean, and applying these meanings to our personal and social situation.

Monday, 10 June 2019

On the Influences Upon ‘Happiness’

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a person’s happiness level combines ‘genetic set-point’, ‘intentional activities’ (choice of daily activities), and life circumstances (The How of Happiness).

Posted by Keith Tidman

Is ‘Happiness’ in large measure subjective? Are people happy, or unhappy, just if they perceive themselves as such? Surely, there’s a transient nature to spiked happiness, either up or down. That is, no matter how events may make us feel at any moment in time — ecstatic (think higher-than-expected pay increase) or gloomy (think passed over for an anticipated major promotion) — eventually we return to our original level of happiness, or ‘baseline’. This implies that happiness does not change much, or long-lastingly, for an individual over a lifetime. There’s always the pulling back to our happiness predisposition or mean, a process that philosophers sometimes refer to as ‘hedonic adaptation’. So, what factors influence happiness?

The feeling of happiness may be boosted when we’re fully occupied by activities that we deem especially important to us: those pursuits that represent our most-cherished values, inspire us, require concerted deliberation, prompt creative self-expression, achieve our potential, confirm our competence, reflect purposes beyond ourselves, foster meaningful goals, and promote relatedness. Ties to family, friends, colleagues, and the larger community — socialisation and connectedness — enhance this feeling of wellbeing. We benefit from these pursuits in proportion to how clearly we envision them, how committed we are to attaining them, and the amount of effort we invest.

The role of money in the subjective perception of happiness extends only to its helping to meet such salient necessities as a place to live, sufficient nourishment, adequate clothing, sleep, and security. That is, the barest requirements, but which importantly help lessen one’s anxiety over physical sustenance. After meeting such basic living conditions, the ability of larger sums of money to influence happiness trails off. People eventually adapt to the perks that a surge in wealth initially brings. Happiness reverts to its original baseline. (Even lottery winners, temporarily ecstatic as they believe the windfall is the key to life-long happiness, typically return to their baseline level of happiness. Their happiness level may ultimately even fall below their baseline, as new wealth might bring unanticipated pressure and anxiety of its own, such as being badgered for handouts.) That’s the individual level. But there’s a similar tendency at the national scale, too: defined as the declining effects of growing wealth on the wellbeing of populations. 

For instance, middle-income and wealthier citizens may find themselves unendingly aspiring for more and fancier material possessions — each leading, eventually, to adaptation to new norms and perpetually rising expectations to fulfill desires. This dynamic has been referred to as the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Happiness appears illusory and transient; there’s instability. Adaptation leads to fewer emotional rewards, and along the way possibly squeezes out less-tangible goals that might bear more significantly on quality of life. A sense of entitlement settles in. Whole sets of new wants materialize. As the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill counseled, ‘I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them’.

A powerful influence on happiness, which underscores the nature of wellbeing, is what people fundamentally value — their ideal, conditioned by cultural factors. For example, in pursuing happiness, one nationality may predominantly prefer situations and experiences that thrill, exhilarate, and enervate, with satisfaction of the individual at the core. Another nationality may be more predisposed to situations and experiences that promote tranquility, comfort, and composure, with satisfaction of the group at the core. Both of these culturally based models, in their respective ways, allow for citizens to fulfill expectations regarding how to live out life. 

Meanwhile, evidence suggests yet another dimension to all this: people tend to recall their personal reactions, such as joy, to activities inaccurately. In reflecting back, there’s greater clarity of what happened toward the end of the activity and diminishing clarity of what happened at earlier stages. As American-Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman succinctly expressed it, ‘Remembered happiness is different from experienced happiness.’ Holes or poorly recalled stages of activities get filled in by the mind, based more on what people believe should have happened, reshaping memories and misrepresenting to a degree how they really felt in the moment. The remembered experience — ‘experienced happiness’ — may thus have an unreal quality to it.

Some people believe that free choice, rather than submission to the vagaries of chance, is essential to this experienced happiness. But reality is a mixed bag. Countries that are relatively wealthy and enjoy the social perks of liberal democratic governance tend to feel confident and unthreatened enough to grant their citizens true choice (as a social and political good), which gets manifested in generally higher levels of happiness. Depending on what conditions might prompt sharp increases or decreases in happiness, hedonic adaptation will prevail. The key to maintaining at least baseline happiness is to have jurisdiction over how our choices actually play out, not merely to be presented with more choices. 

In fact, an abundance of choices can confound and freeze up personal decision-making, as people hesitate to choose when overwhelmed by a multitude of nuanced possibilities. Anxiety over the prospect of less than the best outcomes and the unintended consequences of choice only makes matters worse. This reflects how people exhibit different approaches to evaluating happiness. Yet, paradoxically, citizens who have known no other social scheme may in fact prefer contending with fewer choices. Such is the case, for instance, with autocratic systems of governance, modeled on prescriptive social contracts, which take a characteristically more patriarchic-leaning approach to decisions. Citizens become acclimatized to those conditions, where their level of happiness may change little from the baseline.

Tracking the influences on happiness tells us something important about context and efficacy. That is, the challenge to happiness — and especially efforts to control how these influences bear on the amount of happiness people experience from moment to moment — seems tied to resigning to the formidable reversion back to one’s happiness baseline. Evidence is that hedonic adaptation’ is a commanding force. By extension, therefore, attempts to appreciably elevate an individual’s happiness quotient, lastingly not just transiently, by manipulating these influences might have modest effect. The situation of influences’ limited effects in heightening happiness both appreciably and long term  one’s actual experience of happiness  may particularly be the case in context of how Sonja Lyubomirsky, among others, apportions the influences (‘determinants’) of happiness among the three sweeping categories shown in the graphic above. 

Monday, 3 June 2019

Picture Post #47: Joyful Shades, A Riddle

'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.' 
Mountain View, Kareedouw, South Africa

Posted by Tessa Den Uyl

For a light to shine, it has to burn something, and within this transitional process, it is able to illuminate shapes. The stronger a directional light shines, the clearer the shadows become, and without the shadows, we wouldn’t see forms but flat surfaces.

Certain shapes we can touch, but when we try to grasp their shadow, this doesn’t work. In this image, where the shadows are almost as clearly outlined as the physical bodies, it comes to mind that no problem is situated within the space of an outline, but merely in the identity of that which establishes it. 

This means that we can put confidence in the cosmic order, in which no person has a right to self-contained certainty, since everything is opened up by something else, and liberated the moment it is touched by light.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Is Popper a ‘modest’ Leo?

Posted by Martin Cohen

A few years ago, astrologer-aesthete Mark Shulgasser asked this revealing question about one of the 20th century's most under-rated philosophers for us. Popper, we should first recall, is admired for at least two big ideas: the first that science proceeds by testing hypotheses and disregarding those that fail the test (‘falsification’) and secondly, his critique of ‘historicism’ (the idea that history is marching towards a fine goal) and linked defence of liberal values and what he calls ‘the open society’. His point is that too many philosophers, from Plato down, think that they are exceptional beings - ‘philosopher kings’.

And yet... Shulgasser throws the charge back at him!

Those (like Popper) born under the astrological sign of Leo think they are kings. Do Leo philosophers think like that too?

Shulgasser continues:
‘Popper himself, so Napoleonic, the overcompensating short man. Popper's philosophical ambitions are overweening. He conquers continents. No one talks about Popper the person without noting his autocratic behavior and intransigence in contrast to his ethic of openness. Here's the Leo dilemma — the autocratic, central I versus the right of every peripheral being to claim to be the same.’
Certainly, in later years, it seems that Professor Popper lived in a house ‘supremely large in area, and adorned with numerous books, works of art, and a Steinway concert grand piano’...  But does that make him ‘Napoleonic’? Consider Brian Magee (broadcaster, politician, author, and popularizer of philosophy) on Popper. taken from Confessions of a Philosopher. Magee starts by accepting Popper as the ‘the outstanding philosopher of the twentieth century’ indeed, the “foremost philosopher of the age”! 
‘My chief impression of him at our early meetings was of an intellectual aggressiveness such as I had never encountered before [Napoleonism]. Everything we argued about he pursued relentlessly, beyond the limits of acceptable aggression in conversation. As Ernst Gombrich—his closest friend, who loved him—once put it to me, he seemed unable to accept the continued existence of different points of view, but went on and on and on about them with a kind of unforgivingness until the dissenter, so to speak, put his signature to a confession that he was wrong and Popper was right. 
In practice this meant he was trying to subjugate people. And there was something angry about the energy and intensity with which he made the attempt. This unremittingly fierce, tight focus, like a flame, put me in mind of a blowtorch, and that image remained the dominant one I had of him for many years, until he mellowed with age. . . 
He behaved as if the proper thing to do was to think one’s way carefully to a solution by the light of rational criteria and then, having come as responsibly and critically as one can to a liberal-minded view of what is right, impose it by an unremitting exercise of will, and never let up until one gets one’s way. ‘The totalitarian liberal’ was one of his nicknames at the London School of Economics, and it was a perceptive one.’
Popper it seems,  ‘turned every discussion into the verbal equivalent of a fight, and appeared to become almost uncontrollable with rage, and would tremble with anger ’.

Yet central to his philosophy is the claim that criticism does more than anything else to bring about growth and improvement of our knowledge and his political writings contain the best statement ever made of the case for freedom and tolerance in human affairs.

So who is the ‘real’ Karl Popper? Does it matter if he failed to live up to his own writings? There's a revealing story told about Popper in which he was invited to give a talk at Cambridge University ‘at the Moral Sciences Club’. 

Who did wave the poker during the acrimonious debate? I understood the Popper version of the Poker incident to put him in a meek and philosophical light and Wittgenstein in a boorish, intolerant one. Maybe I got this wrong - alas I committed myself to this in print - in my book called Philosophical Tales

Anyway, what is known is that Popper was there to present his paper entitled ‘Are There Philosophical Problems?’ at a meeting chaired by Wittgenstein. The two started arguing vehemently over whether there existed substantial problems in philosophy, or merely linguistic puzzles—the position taken by Wittgenstein. In Popper’s account, Wittgenstein gestured at him with a fireplace poker to emphasise his points. When challenged by Wittgenstein to state an example of a moral rule, Popper claims to have replied: ‘Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers’, after which (according to Popper) Wittgenstein threw down the poker and stormed out.

My guess it that Popper was indeed a little bit Napoleonic. Mind you, he faced a world in which he was passed over by others all the time, not least Wittgenstein, partly on some kind of unspoken notion of his not being ‘one of us’, not being quite posh enough. Popper was denied access to Oxbridge, and had to graze on the outskirts of academia as a 'not-quite-great' philosopher. 

And elsewhere Magee himself makes it clear he believes Popper is colossally underrated. Why, it’s enough to give anyone a Napoleon complex!

Monday, 20 May 2019

The Will-Ought Distinction

David Hume, the originator of the is-ought distinction
Posted by Thomas Scarborough
The is-ought distinction is a philosophical classic which lies at the core of moral philosophy. It states that one cannot derive ‘ought’ sentences from ‘is’ sentences -- in other words, one cannot derive ethics from fact. This rests in turn on the things-relations distinction. While ‘is’ describes how things are related to one another, it is unable to describe how they ought to be related.
Instead, here, I seek to introduce another distinction which, as far as I can see, is non-existent in the world of philosophy  -- yet may be more important than the is-ought distinction.  The goal here is to present a will-ought distinction. It is offered in broad outline, while acknowledging the fact that there are many nuances at play (that is, what follows is necessarily simplistic).

Now ‘is’ and ‘will’ play a large part in science.  The scientist begins with ‘is’, which is the facts -- or the pieces of what is out there -- and these facts, for a scientist, may not make much sense in the beginning.  As scientists seek to understand the facts, then, they play with them -- they rearrange them, reword them, have a few drinks together as they argue over them -- even bet on hypotheses, and so on.  In other words, the ‘is’ of the matter may be a fairly detached activity.

This is the first of the (if one so prefers) four parts of the scientific method: characterisations, hypotheses, predictions, and experiments -- and the first of these four, namely characterisations, is about observations, definitions, and measurements of the subject of inquiry.  In other words, it is about establishing the facts.

Yet facts alone offer little or no explanation of phenomena.  There comes a point where these facts must be combined in such a way as to present a theory.  At this point, ‘is’ (the facts) becomes ‘will’ (the theory).  Theory is, after all, that which will happen.  Theories predict things.  If they do not predict things, they are not theories.  We now find, besides ‘is’ and ‘ought’, a third category.  In the context of science:
• ‘is’ refers to fact,
• ‘will’ refers to theory,
• while ‘ought’ refers to value
Let us now notice that ‘will’ and ‘ought’ both have to do with expectation.  Both may be defined -- at least in a great many cases -- as ‘reasoned expectation’ -- and reasoned expectation is a fairly standard definition for theory.  One cannot call theory reasoned certainty of course, as every scientist will freely point out.  Neither is this true of ‘ought’.

Further, both ‘will’ and ‘ought’ may refer both to personal and impersonal things.  This fits well with the things-relations distinction above.  They both have to do with how we expect things to be related to one another.  Things ‘will’ be so and so ordered, or they ‘ought’ to be, whether this refers to a person's behaviour (‘She will ...’ ‘He ought ...’) or to the arrangement of objects, events, or concepts (‘It ought ...’ ‘That will ...’).

How, then, should we distinguish ‘will’ from ‘ought’?

Unlike ‘will’, ‘ought’ may often be non-normative -- which means that one may not seriously, in every case, expect it to happen.  As an extreme example, someone might say, ‘There ought to be two moons orbiting the earth’ (which is impossible).  But then, too, someone might consider, ‘Crystal Palace ought to win the Premier League’ (possible, though not likely), ‘The rocket ought to land safely’ (likely), or 'This experiment ought to produce an alkali’ (all but sure).  There is a continuum of additional information, therefore.

Now I need to make a further distinction.  In that case of proposing two moons, we might really have meant, ‘There ought to have been (perfect tense) two moons.’  A great many ‘ought’ sentences may be interpreted in this way.  Subtract such examples from all examples, and this increases the number of oughts which are more seriously about the future.  ‘Ought’ now comes a lot closer to ‘will’.

Perhaps one might argue, too, that ‘ought’ may be distinguished from ‘will’ by seeing the term as applying only to ethics -- and not to such neutral subjects as those of science.  Yet how should one make such a distinction?  It is artificial -- not to speak of old-fashioned.  I have said that ‘ought’ represents the way that things ought to be related to one another, and this does not in principle separate ethics from science, or from any other activity for that matter.  This brings two important questions:
•  Is science in reality a language of ‘ought’? (Which is, all about value?)
•  Can one really separate ‘ought’ from ‘will’? (That is, to separate moral acts from any acts at all).
And one last question too:
•  Is every move we make a moral one?

Monday, 13 May 2019

Advantages of Ecological Socialism

Image courtesy of Clariant. 
Today, companies like the speciality chemicals company
Clariant say that they are working to reposition
themselves as sustainable solutions providers

Posted by Andrew Porter*

Today, there is much greater awareness of the threat of Climate Change. Yet species loss, disruption of planetary systems, and widespread environmental degradation are allowed to continue. Over millennia, we have been very good at developing ways to respond to the environment; now the imperative is to develop the sharpness and capacity to respond to ourselves.

Surely it is apparent now that modern industrial overreach needs to be scaled back significantly. A number of systems might be devised for remedy, but the only ones that have any real chance of success revolve around human ecology and sustainability. Can large swathes of society rally around a call to protect ecologies and promote sustainability? Because underlining such a solution is the question ‘What's in it for us?’ I think that this question itself must be transformed by a new ecological attitude, what we might call an 'inner ecology.'

One ‘system’ that might guide a large set of cultural and societal factors toward a much better relationship between humankind and the Earth is what I call ‘ecological socialism’. It would require a re-orientation of society towards an integration of human needs and what is necessary to afford the natural world its sustainability. The ‘socialism’ of the idea means equal possession of the opportunities and limitations inherent in living within the governance of natural principles. It is both ethical and ecological to distribute limitations and opportunities equally: who could argue otherwise?

An integration of the planet’s health (preservation of biodiversity and habitat, clean water and air, soil conservation, and respect for the earth's climate mechanisms) and people’s lives maximises care of one for the other. Nature has its goals and man has his; unless they are integrated, sustainability will remain out of reach. Two primary principles that we might work into to guide and animate environmental preservation are:

1) Streams, trees, bays, animals, mountains, oceans, and so on, should have standing as holders of legal rights because they have moral rights in our mind. We are in this together, nature and man, and if we are a lame and destructive partner, this joint venture remains unviable.

2) Natural systems maintain health and balance as a core feature, and should become a core feature of our lives. This involves development and implementation of human ecology models. The process as well as the result is – rather than a frittering away of human capacity – a kind of wholeness.

Surely the present is the crucial time to address this. George Monbiot makes the point well in a March 15, 2019 article in The Guardian newspaper entitled ‘Capitalism is Destroying the Earth. We Need a New Human Right for Future Generations’.
‘At the heart of capitalism is a vast and scarcely examined assumption: you are entitled to as great a share of the world’s resources as your money can buy. You can purchase as much land, as much atmospheric space, as many minerals, as much meat and fish as you can afford, regardless of who might be deprived. If you can pay for them, you can own entire mountain ranges and fertile plains. You can burn as much fuel as you like. Every pound or dollar secures a certain right over the world’s natural wealth.’
Ecological socialism—moving away from current assumptions and forms of exploitation—seeks the sustainability of the natural world and also aims to sustain man, in some form, within this. A principal standard of ecological socialism is that human burdens on the planet are kept well below the Earth's carrying capacity for them.

Ecological socialism attempts to genuinely represent all life forms and natural systems as equals in its sphere of obligation, caring, and set of rights. Ecological socialism models human governance and society on the appreciation of ecological balance and advantages. It seeks to make organic goodness human as well as natural. Ecological socialism recognises that humans must be integral with natural ways for both humans and the Earth to thrive.

Some specific choices are clear. Industrial society must be phased out. Strategies must be found to bring human numbers down and encourage small-scale simplicity. I believe that ecology-centred education, with good assistance from the humanities, helps pave the way. The belief that the individual and society are supported best by harmony with and not antagonism with nature is the vital one.

The exploitive way of life, denying costs, is over. Ecological socialism integrates man and ecologies, making the human path forward one of integrity itself. This is a value worth crafting human life around. Currently, culture and societies seem not to mind demise. But ecological socialism aims to help people understand that a citizen is not a citizen unless responsible to oneself and to the Earth.

Citizenship is best defined as this dual responsibility—to help oneself and one’s circle thrive, and also to bolster the optimal flourishing of the ecosystems and planetary systems of Earth through non-interference. Ecological socialism is the best way to ensure this.

Andrew Porter is a philosopher and educator who lives near Boston in the United States

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