The essence of ‘I’

Jhavee asked:

Can a person have essence? If personal identity is determined by a thinker’s memories and expectations, can any of these be essential, or must they not all be accidental?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Here’s a movie dialogue you might recognize:

Agent Smith: Do we have a deal, Mr. Reagan?

Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.

Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?

Cypher: I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich. You know, someone important, like an actor.

Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.

In this memorable scene from ‘The Matrix’, Cypher wants to ‘remember nothing’. Hating his present life, all he wants is to be inserted back into the Matrix where he can enjoy juicy steaks and be someone important. — The scriptwriters evidently felt that there was no contradiction or absurdity in the idea that I will survive even though my future self will remember nothing of the life I live now.

At the beginning of ‘The Bourne Identity’, we, the audience know from frantic action back in Washington who Jason Bourne is, but he does not. His life before the fishermen hauled him out of the Mediterranean Sea is a complete blank.

Amnesia is a popular device in the moves, that one could even call a ‘trope’. We see something that the protagonist does not: we see him, or her, as a physically embodied entity with a history that remains unbroken even while the thread of consciousness is fatally severed.

It is all-too easy to conclude from this that bodily identity is the crucial thing. Or, if you want to be more sophisticated, you might go with something like David Wiggins’ idea (‘Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity’, ‘Sameness and Substance’) that what matters in personal identity is physical continuity of the ‘causal source’ of personality and consciousness in an ‘organized bundle’, i.e. the brain. So, in theory, ‘I’ could survive a brain swap and wake up in another person’s body.

In ‘The Man With Two Brains’ actor Steve Martin keeps his crash victim ex-wife’s brain in a jar. (Somewhere on the Pathways to Philosophy web site is the photo.)

— This is all complete piffle.

Absolutely, there is an essence to being ‘I’. How could there not be? But the essence has nothing to do with identity in time or place. If there really were such a thing as a ‘physical source of consciousness’ (an absurd notion, as I have argued elsewhere) you could still duplicate this thousands of times, just like a computer running Mac OS X or Microsoft Windows.

Then again, without the possibility of any physical connection (given that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light) ‘I’ can fully imagine ‘waking up’ on the other side of the galaxy. Would I still be me? Could I be? Say what you like, the question makes no sense, and neither does any answer you could give.

Regardless of time, at this very moment I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place. One can say, uninformatively, that the essence of ‘I’ is whatever it is that ‘makes the difference’ between a world without I and a world with I. Except that we absolutely don’t know what that is. It’s a complete mystery. I ought not to exist at all but here I am, now, at this moment, when, seemingly, I might not have been at all!

Professional philosophy is so mired in ideology — the ideology of ‘logical analysis’ or the ideology of ‘deconstruction’, or whatever — that it is impossible today to have a serious discussion of these issues without being forced along some ‘party line’. To undergo academic training in philosophy requires, first and foremost, that one learns to not see what is staring you in the face. And what is that, you ask?

Just look in the mirror, and you will see.

History, Plato and Marx

Sarah asked:

What philosophical difference between Plato and Marx helps us understand why history is important for Marx but not for Plato?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Your question is appealing at first blush, and the answer also springs to mind at once. For Marx, history recounts the evolution of large economic entities, and it is a perfectly normal and valid perspective to explain the simultaneous evolution of philosophical, political, religious, artistic and scientific achievements in all historical cultures as expressions of their underlying economic activity.

But having said this, one is at a loss to nail down a philosophical difference to Plato that could be helpful. There is simply no point of contact between them, because history plays hardly a role for Plato, and had in any case only just begun a few decades earlier with Herodotus as a new genre of literary art. Accordingly it could not occur to Plato to enquire into a subject matter that was missing from the intellectual agenda of his time. In any case history was a genre of ‘story telling’, rather than an invitation to philosophising.

This being the case, your question could have been answered in one word: “none”. Its presupposition is wrong, as it can’t enable us to compare apples with apples. Moreover the same argument applies to Marx’s position vis-a-vis practically all pre-18th century philosophers, as the first rigorous philosophy of history was penned by Hegel. This was so to speak the enabling factor for Marx — together with a number of thinkers on economics like Adam Smith, Ricardo et al., who provided him with ample intellectual fodder for his own socio-political perspectives. As Marx said himself, apropos Hegel, “The point is not to interpret history, but to change it.” This perspective was necessarily unavailable to Plato.


From a would-be conscientious objector

Ethan asked:

I’m set to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces but I have the option of not serving if I want to (by acquiring an exemption) so I was debating whether it would be morally right to serve or not. I came to the conclusion that it would be morally wrong to serve because of the unjustified harm it would cause to Palestinians. But here’s the problem, if I think it’s immoral to serve if given the option not to, I would then have to say that anyone with the option to not serve shouldn’t. But if everyone with the choice to not serve didn’t serve the military would collapse and a war would ensue causing more deaths than there would have been if people had served. Does that then make my claim that it is immoral to serve in the military wrong?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Israel is beset by enemies whose only desire is the complete destruction of the country and her people. That is a view held by the majority of Israeli citizens. One can only dream of a future when the danger is past and peace reigns in the Middle East. In the present situation, however, the capacity for self-defence is a necessity, and universal conscription is part of that strategy.

The dilemma over conscientious objection is not new. You allude to Kant’s Categorical Imperative when you say, ‘If I think it’s immoral to serve if given the option not to, I would then have to say that anyone with the option to not serve shouldn’t.’ But, actually, Kant’s view is more nuanced than this. He talks of the ‘maxim’ of my action. So, in this case, the maxim in question is not simply, ‘I shall acquire an exemption’, but rather, ‘I shall acquire an exemption in order that I should not cause unjustifiable harm to others.’

Unjustifiable harm to others is wrong, period. It is wrong by definition. It cannot be justified. In that case, no-one should serve. Everyone should seek an exemption from having to serve in the armed forces. Because those who do not will cause unjustifiable harm. End of discussion!

The outcome we would like (or you would like) would be one in which those who have special objections to serving in the armed forces do not serve, while the majority who do not have special objections do serve. No-one would question an exemption granted on serious medical grounds. You would only be a liability if, say, owing to a weak heart there was a chance that you would drop dead in the middle of an exercise. Similarly with psychological health, say, if you have recently suffered a mental breakdown. The question is whether there could be other reasons for seeking an exemption that do not fall into either category.

Here’s one reason that comes to mind. I have heard it said that through force of circumstance, the culture in the Israeli armed forces is strongly macho, and those who let the squad down are reviled and despised. Fear that you might fail to make the grade would be one compelling motivation for seeking an exemption but, applying Kant’s test to the maxim of your action (‘I will seek an exemption because…’) would not yield the result that you want. It is quite likely that the majority of new conscripts are fearful of failure, even if they don’t admit to it.

Another possible reason is simply morbid fear of causing the death of another person. You will be given a gun and taught how to shoot. Guns kill. This looks to me a more likely candidate, because not everyone feels this way. It is irrelevant whether the killing in question is justified or unjustified. The very thought of killing is unbearable to you, although others (sufficiently many others) do not find the thought unbearable, unpleasant though it may be. However, this looks to me like a problem of psychological health. Would you really not pick up that gun, even if intruders threatened to murder your family? (a frequently used argument against ‘conchies’ during the Great War).

Although I haven’t suggested acceptable grounds or a ‘maxim’ that would pass Kant’s test, in principle there is no reason why there should not be one. The notion of a ‘conscientious objector’ is enshrined in the law in many countries, including Israel where exemptions are granted on religious grounds. This is the point where you really need to think hard about why you object to military service. It is not enough to cite the fact that the experience will be unpleasant, or that you will get your hands dirty. There has to be a special reason, one that sets you apart from the others who, willingly or unwillingly, respond to the call-up. — What is it?

Rawls and justifiable inequality

Isaiah asked:

When discussing Rawls, do you believe that some inequality is justifiable in order to maximise the well-being of the worst off?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Life is full of inequality and whether one accepts this, wishes to eradicate this, or wishes to mitigate this, will depend upon one’s personal viewpoint. Rawls wished to lessen the inequality of societies and his stance is now explained.

If we accept that the worst off are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, as Rawls did, then many would feel obliged to tackle this problem. Rawls’ feelings upon the matter are explained in great detail in his book entitled A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1999: 57-73): in particular, Rawls considered distributions of material wealth based upon talent to be unreasonable and he justified this position by describing how talent is distributed by a ‘natural lottery’ and how ‘this outcome is arbitrary from a moral perspective’ (Rawls 1999: 64).

In tackling the problem, Rawls offered his difference principle, which may be viewed as a device that allows the most favoured groups to benefit from their talents provided any social and economic inequalities are ‘to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged’ (Rawls 1999: 266). Rawls effectively helps the worst off by harnessing persons’ collective desires to better themselves and maintains a profit motive within society in order to do this.

As already noted, individuals will have very differing views as to whether this is the correct approach to take and many other schools of political philosophy are highly critical of Rawls and a few of their views are now aired. Libertarians would number amongst the critics, and Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia felt that Rawls erroneously viewed the ‘natural abilities’ of the individual as a ‘collective asset’ (Nozick 1974: 228-9). Libertarians may wish to increase the level of the profit motive in order to benefit society; based on the rationale that more goods will be available to society if the talented can exercise their talents fully. Whilst at the other end of the political spectrum, many communitarians would favour a system where the least talented are incorporated within working life: as opposed to being assured an improvement in their well-being due to their disadvantage. Here, cooperation is far more important than competition and communitarians would believe that a happier society should arise.

Furthermore, some commentators would see internal faults within the difference principle. Many alleged faults of Rawls’ work are described in Will Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy (Kymlicka 2002: 70-75). In particular, one criticism that is influenced by his work would indicate that the difference principle could result in a grossly unfair arrangement for the hardest workers. To explain, if enough people in a society prefer the good of leisure time to the good of money, then they will not work too hard, and it will fall disproportionately upon society’s hardest workers to improve the lot of the worst off.

In this light, gaining a single person’s opinion as to the validity of Rawlsian thinking will possibly not give the best judgement on his work. It should be noted that it will be decided by a society as a whole, and not by individuals, whether they wish to live via Rawlsian principles. In fact, the reader may like to view the following video clip produced by The School of Life that explains Rawls’ motives and influences: . It is interesting that the video asserts that the application of Rawlsian principles would produce societies similar to those of Denmark and Switzerland, and if the video is right and you also admire these countries, then you would probably feel that Rawls’ thinking is justifiable.

Starting and ending with Hegel

Luka asked:

What is or where is the best place to start with Hegel?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

I would start with Hegel’s ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of History’ — especially the Introduction. This gives a general overview of Hegel’s Philosophy as Human History being the progress of the consciousness of Freedom, culminating in Reason realising itself in the Rationally ordered state.

I also think that the three books constituting the ‘Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences’ (Logic, Nature and Geist (Mind)) are much easier (though by no means without problem) to understand than the larger works such as the ‘Science of Logic’, ‘Philosophy of Law’ and ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’.

The first book of the Encyclopedia ‘Logic’ contains a shorter version of the ‘Science of Logic’.

In it, Hegel explains how the Mind of the Universe/ Nous/ God realises its thinking self from the immediacy of Being to a full, substantive understanding of itself and how it got there, in the Absolute Idea. Thus the foundational, epistemic and ontological certainty craved by Idealists, is arrived at. In ‘Encyclopedia Nature’, the Absolute Idea externalises itself in nature, making the processes of Nature intelligible. Finally, the externalised Absolute Idea, dialectically recovers itself in the ‘Encyclopedia Mind’. Here, Reason realises itself through human beings becoming conscious of themselves (in Geist or Thinking Thought/ Collective human consciousness) and in the construction of a Rational social order. The latter book can be described as a much briefer (and in my opinion, easier) account of themes contained in ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’.

Hegel described his Absolute Idealism as a ‘circle of circles’, so that when the end is reached, (i.e. a reading and understanding of his Philosophy of course!), the mundane beginning presents itself — whether everyday Being-now rationally understood and operating or, as living by Laws expressing Freedom in the good society as constituted by and arrived at in Mind Absolute.

Good luck Luka.

Gertler on disembodied ‘facts’

Ronald asked:

Can you explain Brie Gertler’s disembodiment argument to me?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Probably the best way to approach this argument is via psychosomatic pain, where it is often uncertain whether such pain is ‘imaginary’ or a real pain caused by the sympathetic reaction of some somatic processes. One doesn’t have to be a medico to understand that emotional turmoil can affect our organs. Gertler’s argument therefore centres on the age-old dilemma of how mental states can physically affect the body.

It insinuates the existence of two radically different communications pipelines (or forms of energy) in the body. But although electrochemical signalling is measurable on suitably calibrated instruments, the flow of energy being rendered visible as scintillations can only be distinguished from others by the site where they occur. In other words, the excitation of a nerve that carries a pain signal from a cut to the brain does not wear the label ‘pain’; we deduce from the fact that the signal is transported from this place to a particular sector of the brain that the recipient must be feeling ‘pain’. Therefore Gertler’s first line of attack is on the common viewpoint that the excitation of a nerve strand and the feeling of pain are two aspects of one experience, which can be understood as identical with each other.

But Gertler objects that this is confusing a physical signal with a non-physical mental or emotional state. Evidently ‘physical’ means embodied, whereas ‘non-physical’ means disembodied. As it happens, the notion of identity is based on a (deliberate?) forgetfulness that it isn’t the brain which suffers, but rather that it acts as a ‘go between’, converting the sensory excitation into a sense of pain and piping it into the person’s consciousness. The upshot is an inescapable logic asking for an autonomous, yet disembodied recipient faculty that is not in receipt of an unmediated communication from a throbbing nerve.

All the above has repercussions on matters of the mind such as ideas, thoughts, concepts, imagination etc. Gertler has no compunction defending Descartes’ dual substance doctrine, i.e. that he was right in his fundamental distinction between res extensa (embodied matter) and res cogitans (disembodied faculty aka mind). This does not entail having to defend Descartes’ gross errors when it comes to details, of which no-one takes notice any more. Even so, there are all sorts of other issues entangled in this duality from which Gertler’s approach could draw the sting.

Consider the reports of persons who had a leg amputated, but insist that they can still wriggle their toes. The ‘disembodiment’ idea can guide us towards a feasible resolution. It may be a memory pipeline that wasn’t closed, so that the impulse for toe wriggling (which is of course disembodied) remains alive in the brain; and as the brain ‘expects’ a wriggling response, it conveys it as a ‘fact’ to your mind, even though it is now physically impossible. We don’t know this, of course, but is a plausible scenario.

Consider further the effect of anaesthesia. Here the problem to overcome is the habit of neural afferents to ‘switch off’ when a signal is detected as a steady pulse; and they remain in the ‘off’ position until the sensation changes in nature or strength. The corollary to this is that the brain keeps the impression of pain alive until a new instruction arrives. In other words: The circuit from afferent to the brain is actually broken for a considerable length of time, even while brain continues ‘manufacturing’ a feeling of pain. The application of an analgesic is then equivalent to ‘news’ for the brain to react by ‘switching off’ the pain. It is hard to conceive of a more persuasive scenario for the plausibility of Gertler’s ‘disembodiment’ theme.

One more issue raised by Gertler points in the same direction. She says, I can easily conceive of a pain at any time, without actually feeling it. This reflects our imaginative capacity as well as our ability to conceptualise experiences and then ‘play’ them through the mind — in retrospect, in envisioning a future, even in fiction. It summarily rebuts the notion that sensory stimulation and its effect on our consciousness comprise an unfiltered unity. Concepts are disembodied too!

In sum: Gertler’s ‘disembodiment argument’ seeks to redress a lopsided scientific position which has been overstressing the physicalist position for so long by now, that it seems part of the furniture. If I may speak pro domo for a moment, it has always seemed incomprehensible to me that the scientific enterprise of our civilisation painted itself into a corner from which there is no exit except to disown the idea of a disembodied substance — as if the universe is not rich enough to engender two substances and for objects imbued with life to avail themselves of both!

Advice to Boris Johnson

Frank asked:

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in a bit of a tight spot at the moment. Do you philosophers have any advice? 

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

The so-called ‘Benn Bill’ (after Labour politician Hilary Benn) which becomes law on the 9th September, requires UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to request an extension to Article 50, if a withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU has not been achieved by 19th October. The precise text of the extension request letter is specified in the Schedule of the Law.

Boris Johnson said on camera he would rather be ‘dead in a ditch’ than make such a request. If he fails to send the latter at the appropriate time he faces legal proceedings for Contempt, and possibly gaol. If he sends the letter, his political reputation will be ruined. He will have done the one action that he stated he absolutely would not do under any circumstances whatsoever.

Our advice is that Boris should write the following letter:

Dear Mr President,

In compliance with UK law as enacted in the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, I am required to send you a letter containing the following text:

“Dear Mr President,

“The UK Parliament has passed the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019. Its provisions now require Her Majesty’s Government to seek an extension of the period provided under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union, including as applied by Article 106a of the Euratom Treaty, currently due to expire at 11.00pm GMT on 31 October 2019, until 11.00pm GMT on 31 January 2020.

“I am writing therefore to inform the European Council that the United Kingdom is seeking a further extension to the period provided under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union, including as applied by Article 106a of the Euratom Treaty. The United Kingdom proposes that this period should end at 11.00pm GMT on 31 January 2020. If the parties are able to ratify before this date, the Government proposes that the period should be terminated early.

“Yours sincerely,

“Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”

It is my view, and the view of my Cabinet that to grant any extension would be a grave error, with significantly deleterious consequences for both the European Union and the United Kingdom.

The issues that prevent an agreement between the EU and the UK, if they cannot be resolved now, will not be resolved in three months, six months, or indeed years, regardless of which Party is in power in the UK. 

It is our judgement that uncertainty over the outcome of protracted negotiations will have a strongly negative impact on the economies of the EU and UK, as well as provoking increased social unrest. There is nothing to be gained, either by the EU or the UK, from such a meaningless exercise.

Furthermore, it is our intention, if and when the Conservative Party is re-elected with a majority in the House of Commons, to end all negotiations abruptly once the 31 October deadline has passed and leave without a deal.

I therefore strongly advise you to ignore the request expressed in the quoted letter. There is still time to agree a withdrawal deal before 31 October.

Yours sincerely,

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

On the basis of this letter, the EU are of course free to ignore Boris’s advice and grant the extension, although, possibly, they might be less inclined to do so. It’s up to them.

Boris, meanwhile, would have successfully distanced himself from the extension request, having made it clear that the request comes, not from him or the Conservative Party, but from the British Parliament, whose composition after any future election could be very different from what it is at the present time.