Monkeys under the skin

Angelica asked:

Do you believe that the origin of people was a monkey?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I don’t ‘believe’ any scientific theory — that’s not what theories are for. Science is not religion. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is the best theory on the table, which means that it is there to discuss, to use, to test (to destruction, if necessary) but above all to guide research. And that is something the theory of evolution has done magnificently.

Darwin aroused a storm of controversy when he asserted, on the evidence he had gathered, that human beings were descended from apes. More precisely, humans, apes, and monkeys are divergent evolutionary paths from a common primate ancestor. (We are closer to apes than to monkeys.)

Would there have been the same fuss if Darwin had claimed that humans were descended from an a more noble species, such as the lion? I’m sure some of the protestors would be mollified — quite happy to think of themselves as having lion ancestors!

How about you? Do you have a favourite animal species that you would like to have descended from?

As much as one might like to believe it, the evidence doesn’t support the theory of human lion ancestry. It is not on the table. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no empirical basis for the view that human beings are lions under the skin — except perhaps in a metaphorical sense.

That’s the thing about science. You don’t go by what you would like to believe, you go by the evidence.


Cartesian dualism and consciousness

Tung asked:

Can Cartesian Dualism successfully account for the existence of consciousness?

Answer by Danny Krämer

I think, Cartesian Dualism makes consciousness even more mysterious than materialism. As you know, Descartes postulates two different substances. The res extensa is the substance of all extended bodies. The res cogitans is the substance of the thinking beings. This substance is not in space because it is not extended. The biggest problems are: First, how is it that a special (bit of) res cogitans (me) is bound to a specific piece of res extensa (my body)? You can only explain this by some supernatural story. Second, how can these two substances interact? When I think that I want to raise my arm (something the res cogitans that is me does) then I can ‘command’ my body to raise the arm. But how is that even possible if the res cogitans has no spacial extension? The res extensa is a closed system, as we know from physics. You can not get any energy in that was not there before. Descartes said, the soul steers the direction of the pineal gland and so the direction of the spirits. But that is also impossible as Leibniz pointed out. Not only the energy of a physical system is constant but also the impulse. There is in principle no way to understand how to make dualism a working hypothesis.

On the other hand it is very plausible that materialism in some form could be true. We see that our brain has a deep connection to our consciousness. We can do experiments to get a better understanding of the connection between brain and mind. Something that is just impossible in a cartesian picture. Even so we do not understand the complexities yet, it is at least imaginable that a materialist view of the mind could be well established some day.

Sartre on freedom and evil

Hooshmand asked:

Could you please tell me what is the meaning of Sartre saying:”freedom alone can account for a person in his totality”?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I had to do a search in Google for your Sartre quote which apparently is in a work by Jean Paul Sartre that I have not read: his biography of Jean Genet, Saint Genet. (David Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ according to Wikipedia.)

Now, I could borrow or buy the book and read it and then give you an answer, but you might be waiting rather a long time. As I have read other books by Sartre, including Being and Nothingness that will have to do.

It seems to me that I understand what Sartre meant and I think I agree with it. Let’s take a topic that might have interested Sartre: Adolf Hitler. The accepted view is that Hitler was an evil man. He hated the Jews and wanted the Jewish people to be gone, permanently, and was willing to resort to mass murder to achieve his objective.

Biographies of Hitler try to explain the particular circumstances in which Hitler formed his beliefs and attitudes — the circumstances that ‘made’ him the monster that he was, et cetera. What would Sartre say about that? Impossible. It cannot be true that Hitler was ‘made’ because each person — as a ‘totality’ — makes him or herself.

It’s true that we can take a partial view, where we view an individual person as merely an example of a ‘type’. Statistics don’t always lie. Like who was most likely to vote for Brexit, who was most likely to vote against. But it is also a truism that individuals don’t always conform to type, and each person is uniquely different.

An individual can either act ‘authentically’ or in ‘bad faith’. Either way, that is something that person has freely (but not always with fully self-conscious knowledge) chosen to do.

But how can someone who is not intrinsically evil or mentally deformed in some way choose evil? Surely, there is something intrinsically wrong with you if you prefer evil, if you find it attractive as an option. What is good about evil, is the question one has to ask. Feeding Christians to the lions is good for entertainment (if you happen to not like Christians), reduces the number of Christians and also takes care of the lions.

Anyone, and I mean absolutely anyone, can knowingly commit an evil act. Pick your favourite hero or saint, it makes no difference. Take Mahatma Gandhi at the age of 18. He still has most of his life choices ahead of him, choices that will make it more and more difficult (but still not impossible) to choose evil over good. But, at 18, he is still half-formed, there is a wide range of alternative possible lives. I don’t think it would be too difficult to write a novel in which Mahatma Gandhi took the place of Hitler as a dictator intent on world conquest.

Gandhi notoriously argued that the British should not attempt to oppose Hitler because the way of violence can never be right. With the passage of time, evil dictators and empires pass. Some would argue that that view — the doctrine of passive resistance — is evil because it permits evil to flourish. I wouldn’t say that. The point is that Gandhi knew perfectly well what would happen as a result of allowing Hitler to triumph and made the mental calculation that the cost was acceptable, in order to uphold a principle.

Make of that what you will.

The meaning of life

Robert asked:

Dear Geoffrey,

What is your answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

No, I don’t know what’s happened to the other panel members either, your guess is as good as mine. (Except for Gideon, of course, who is related to me by Leibniz’s Law.)

Well, it’s summer. Maybe they’re enjoying a well-earned holiday at some fancy continental resort. Except — damn! — one minute you’re out there having a wonderful time getting suntanned and sampling the local cuisine, and the next minute you’re spreadeagled on the promenade with your skull smashed to bits.

It makes no sense.

I’m not going to answer your question because, logically, it cannot have an answer.

Suppose life has a meaning. Let’s call the meaning ‘X’.

X is the meaning of your life, X is the meaning of my life, X is the meaning of everybody’s life. Why is X the meaning? Who said? Maybe you got it from some Holy Book. It doesn’t matter. Suppose I don’t want the meaning to be X. I want it to be Y. That’s my bad luck, because the fact is that the meaning is X and not Y, and that is that.

If there is some person or entity that set the meaning of life to be X, I want to kill that person or destroy that entity. I refuse to have the meaning of life prescribed to me. Is that not a perfectly reasonable position to take? An eminently philosophical view, I would have thought — insofar as your philosophy allows for killing or destruction in a worthy cause.

The very fact that life has a meaning would render life meaningless. Human beings are reduced to actors on a stage, all our thoughts and actions scripted for a purpose that we didn’t choose.

If life has a meaning, then it has no meaning.
If life has no meaning, then it has no meaning.
Ergo, life has no meaning.

If life has no meaning, then why bother to get up in the morning? Generally, when I wake up, I need to pee. There is only so long I can hold it in before I simply have to get up. That’s basically the answer the Stoics gave: you follow nature. You do what you want or need to do. Or, as Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

If there is nothing you want from life, then that is very sad and the best thing you can do is kill yourself. But make sure first that you really know what you want, or rather don’t want. (It’s much more likely that there are lots of things you want, but they are all deemed impossible. That’s never stopped me.)

I woke up today and realized that I was 65 (and have been for a few months). Only a short while ago, I was 21 and setting out on a course of philosophical study that has extended for 44 years and still counting. It’s a choice I made, and continue to make, every day of my life — for no reason except that the questions of philosophy interest me, and I have not yet answered them all.

Least of all this one. I have just given you my view — take it or leave it.


Ethics of shark culling

Nate asked:

Given the current situation of increased shark activity and unprovoked attacks in Australian waters, is it possible to argue the culling of sharks, with ethical theory, in order to protect human lives? How would a utilitarian, Kantian approach this?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I sympathize with those who are arguing for a shark cull. In the UK, we have a problem with badgers. There’s overwhelming evidence that badgers carry tuberculosis and pass this to cattle, presenting a very serious threat to human health. Herds are regularly tested for the tuberculin bacillus and if the test is positive then it can be a disaster for farmer to see their cows and bulls slaughtered and burned.

You can imagine writing a children’s story about friendly, cuddly badgers. It would be more difficult to do this with sharks, so perhaps there is less opposition to culling sharks in Oz than there is to badger culls? On the other hand, sharks have feelings too, if any non-human animals have feelings. And, of course, there is also the conservation issue.

It occurred to me, however, that a small change in the wording of your question produces something rather more controversial. (This is relevant to Mill and Kant, as we shall see in a moment.)

“Given the current situation of increased religious extremist activity and unprovoked attack on the European continent, is it possible to argue the culling of religious extremists, with ethical theory, in order to protect (innocent) human lives? How would, etc. etc.”

What would Kant say? Kant has no objection to the death penalty, as deserved punishment for a crime such as murder. However, to preemptively kill a person or group of people on the grounds that they are likely to murder other people would be ethically wrong, because it would transgressing a person’s fundamental rights as a ‘lawmaking member of the kingdom of ends’. They have to do the murders first, then you can go after them.

On a Kantian view, non-human animals do not have ethical rights, so any moral obligations that we have towards them would be consequent on the value they have for human beings. Sharks have a value, on this reckoning (e.g. we wouldn’t like to see any species of shark made extinct) but it is a value to be weighed against other values.

Mill’s case for the ethical theory he calls ‘utilitarianism’ is based on the maximization of happiness/ pleasure and minimization of pain, with the rider that some states of pleasure are ‘higher’ than others. The characteristically human pleasure of studying philosophy or listening to classical music would be preferable to more ‘animal’ pleasures such as dancing in a mosh pit.

However, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer has controversially argued for a version of utilitarianism according to which there should be no distinction between human and non-human animals when we calculate the total amount of pleasure or pain. Under certain circumstances, it would be right to allow a human infant to die in order to save the life of a mature gorilla. The quality of states of consciousness is all that counts, regardless of what creature is enjoying them.

What one can say, tentatively, is that Mill’s case for culling sharks, if valid (under appropriate circumstances) is also a valid case for culling religious extremists. There is an issue about the negative utility of perceived ‘injustice’ — as Mill argues in his book Utilitarianism — but one could argue that the point about injustice, although valid, would be overwhelmingly negated by public sentiment in the wake of terrorist killings.

You can take this either as a reductio ad absurdum of utilitarianism, or not, depending on whether you are more sympathetic to Kant or Mill.


What is ‘the’ question?

Trisha asked:

What is the question?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

My first impulse was to take a swipe at this, which on the face of it doesn’t look a lot different from, ‘Is this a question?’ which we get asked with boring regularity. (‘If this is an answer,’ is one response.)

There is something which is the question. For whom? What is the question for me? for you? No. For everybody — even if they don’t know this. There is ultimately only one question, and that question is…

Let’s consider some candidates for ‘the’ question:

— How can I find love?

— How can I attain eternal salvation?

— How can the human race end suffering and achieve world peace?

(OK, those are two questions but they usually go together.)

— What is the answer to the question of the Universe, Life and Everything?

(Douglas Adams humorously makes the point in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that we can’t know what an answer to that question means until we know what that question actually is.)

I am bored of eager proselytizers trying to convince you that their question is ‘the’ question. It’s a disease. An epidemic. It’s one of the aspects of human frailty that we manage to con ourselves into thinking that there is just one thing which is in question. As if, if only we know the answer, all problems would be solved, everything would be wonderful, etc. etc.

If you want to know what drives you, get psychoanalyzed. Then you will learn that what you really want is to kill your father and make love to your mother, or own a penis, or some such nonsense.

Human nature is complex. The things that move us, the things we find puzzling, or gripping, or exciting can be many and various.

As a heuristic, it can be useful to ask, when you are faced with a complex problem, ‘What is the question?’ It’s a way of focusing your inquiry and being methodical. You attack the weakest point, tease out the piece of loose string or cotton that allows the rest to unravel. Then you will likely discover that the first question you asked wasn’t the question you were really after.

One question leads to another.

‘The’ question does not exist.

(Who) is a philosopher?

Trinity asked:

Can we consider Joseph Campbell to be a philosopher? I’ve read on your website that you have to study philosophy to be a philosopher, but does the fact that he taught philosophy make him a philosopher even if he didn’t formally study the topic. He did spend 5 years in the woods reading.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I don’t know a lot about Joseph Campbell but I’m going to attempt an answer to your question anyway. That’s one of the things philosophers do. We’re not interested in investigating facts (the historical origins of myths, for example) but rather what can be reasoned out and proved without appeal to empirical data.

Philosophy is the ‘art of reason’ (according to Jonathan Barnes, author of The Presocratic Philosophers Routledge 1982). This is a nice definition because it combines two ideas that one doesn’t normally put together: art and reason.

Consider the art of drawing. To be master of this art, it is not enough to be able to draw a good likeness. You need to have mastered the different techniques and media (charcoal, pencil, conte, graphite stick etc.), know how to create different effects (e.g. shading or cross hatching), understand the laws of perspective, and have a good knowledge of human anatomy. To master the art of reason, it is not enough to be able to argue logically. Most persons can do that. Reason is much more than logic. The Presocratic philosophers invented new principles of reasoning that no-one had even considered before. The pushed forward our understanding of the nature of reason and the reasoning process.

Take the two (arguably) most fundamental problems of philosophy: the nature of Being and the nature of Consciousness. These questions can be found in Eastern and Western Philosophy. These are questions that move me, even though — despite all that i have learned — I doubt that I will ever solve them. However, it’s what you do in response to questions like these that defines the kind of thinker that you are. What I’ve tried to do, over the years, is reason these questions out. Maybe they are simply immune to reasoning, recalcitrant. insoluble.

Joseph Campbell had a different approach, as I understand it. Recognizing the limits of reason, he looked to the experience of the transcendent or numinous — the way of mysticism. Does that mean he is not a philosopher?

Let’s consider other great thinkers: Is Richard Feynmann a philosopher? Is Samuel Beckett a philosopher? is Mahatma Gandhi a philosopher? Put any of these men in a room with a philosophy professor and odds on the professor will look intellectually puny by comparison. All three produced ideas that changed the way we look at the world. The philosophical implications of their work are immense. No doubt there are many who would say the same about Joseph Campbell.

Speaking personally, philosophy has taken me to the point where I wonder whether, in fact, I am a philosopher. I am too keenly aware of the limits of reason (although it could just be my limits that are in question, not reason as such). So now I’ve taken to calling myself a philosophizer. It’s just a word. You can be a philosophizer — someone who takes a keen interest in the questions of philosophy — without undertaking the stringent commitment to rely on the art of reason alone.

In these terms, Campbell was undoubtedly a philosophizer. The case I’ve sought to make here is that it is not really interesting or relevant to ask whether, in addition, he was a ‘philosopher’.