The examined life

Mabel asks:

Evaluate the moral implication of Aristotle’s popular saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Answer by Craig Skinner

The remark about the unexamined life is made by Socrates at his trial. He has already been found guilty (of corrupting the young and holding the city’s gods in contempt), the prosecutor has suggested the death sentence, and Socrates addresses the jury. They expect him to ask for leniency, grovel a bit, promise to stop haranguing young men in the town square about the nature of virtue, exposing their ignorance and trying to get them to think clearly. But Socrates doesn’t play ball. Instead he says:

“I say that this is the greatest good for a human being — to have discussions every day about virtue and the the other things about which you hear me conversing and examining myself and others; and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” (Apology, 38a 1-6)

He is sentenced to death and accepts it without question, refusing offer of escape from prison by his friend Crito.

“Not worth living” is strong stuff. Not just a bad way to live but worse than not living at all. Socrates clearly believed it. Few others do. Plato, for instance, in his ideal city in the Republic, has three classes, philosophers, soldiers, workers. Only the first live an examined life whilst the others have unreflective lives, yet lives worth living. And most of us would surely agree that a life comprising useful work, family and leisure interests can be worthwhile.

However Plato does think that the examined life of the philosophers is the best life. And we can understand Socrates as holding the same less extreme view if we translate the greek “biotõs” as “to be lived” rather than “worth living” so that the saying becomes “the unexamined life is not to be lived”.  In short, no human should live an unexamined life.

Now we have something many of us would agree with. Aristotle certainly would (although I’m not aware that he went around quoting Socrates as your question rather suggests). He says:

“Human beings began to do philosophy, even as we do now, because of wonder, at first because they wondered about the strange things right in front of them, and later, advancing little by little, because they came to find greater things puzzling” (Metaphysics, 982b12).

He argues in Nicomachean Ethics that the philosophical life is the pinnacle for humans, using reason in virtuous activity.

And I’m sure you agree with me that a full human life includes wonder about things and a sustained attempt to understand:  why there’s a universe rather than nothing, how it works, how did we come to be, how should we live, how will it end, what can we know, what does it all mean? Otherwise you and I wouldn’t be engaged in this dialogue.

So one implication of the saying is that all of us should philosophise in the broad sense at least some of the time.

You ask about the moral implications. Of course, saying how we should live because it is best for us, is already a moral judgment. But does it make me a better person? In the Apology Socrates assumes rather than argues for it. Elsewhere (Euthyphro, Crito, Charmides, Gorgias for instance) he argues that all virtue is related to the endless search for understanding, and those failing to do this fall into to all kinds of vice. However, lest we get carried away thinking philosophy is the royal road to virtue, reflect on Kant’s view that moral agents need no help from philosophy, they know where duty lies (but don’t always do it), and perfecting the soul needs a pure heart not a trained mind.

Plato, Parmenides and Heraclitus

Ozzy asked:

Heraclitus says that everything is changing all the time. List at least two problems with believing this. Do you think that they can be overcome?

Miriam asked:

Could you please tell me what Socrates speech in Plato’s dialogue ‘Parmenides’ is about? in your opinion?

Paula asked:

Explain what it means for Plato to side with Parmenides more than Heraclitus.

Peter asked:

How did Plato resolve the problem of permanence?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m taking these questions together because they all relate in one way or another to Plato’s theory of Forms. Parmenides and Heraclitus were Plato’s great predecessors. I am going to say something controversial here: Plato agreed with Parmenides and he also agreed with Heraclitus. They were both ‘right’ as far as he was concerned.

What are Forms? The common explanations I’ve seen of this are misleading at best. I remember as a school student in Chemistry first hearing about Plato’s belief that there is an ‘Ideal Table’, a heavenly Table that all actual tables more or less closely resemble. And similarly for all other things that we recognize and give a name to. This is complete piffle, as I will explain below.

In answer to each question:

No, Ozzy, there was no real problem for Heraclitus in the notion that ‘everything is changing all the time’ although there seems to be. If everything is changing all the time, how is it that we are able to refer to things, or recognize something as ‘the same again’? If everything is changing all the time how is it that all sorts of things that we see around us don’t seem to change?

The answer isn’t ‘some things change very slowly so it isn’t a problem’ (I’ve actually seen this proposed by a dimwitted commentator) but rather that there is one thing that is universal and can never change: the Logos. The Logos describes the rules by which things appear to change or not change, transform into other things rapidly or over a longer period of time. If you have Logos you don’t need permanent ‘stuff’ as well. All there is, is the Logos and appearances. You can think of the Logos as ‘the laws of nature’ but Heraclitus had something much more abstract in mind then a specific set of rules. Logos is rationality, reason itself. The human soul is part of, or participates in the Logos. That is how you and I are able to reason things out — because of a fundamental ‘fit’ between our minds and reality. Brilliant!

Miriam, I don’t know which ‘speech’ you are referring to specifically but I can guess. In Plato’s late (and arguably greatest) dialogue Parmenides the young Socrates meets the elderly Parmenides (a meeting that so far as we know did not actually take place). In the first part of the dialogue, Parmenides quizzes Socrates on his thoughts about the Forms, then in the second part Socrates turns the tables and gives Parmenides’ theory of the One a thorough working over.

The first question Parmenides puts to Socrates is deceptively simple: what sort of things have Forms? Is there a Form for hair? How about a Form for mud? Oh, no! says Socrates, not that kind of stuff. ‘That is because you are still young,’ remarks Parmenides, condescendingly, ‘When you are older you will learn not to despise such things.’

Why would there be a Form for hair? Human beings have hair, it is one of their constant, universal attributes. Why is that? Why are any attributes of anything universal? Why don’t some ‘human beings’ have metal spikes instead of hair? Why do we find life in general divided into kinds? Mud looks more like a random a mixture of stuff — you can have every kind of mud, and between any two samples of different kinds of mud, you can mix the two together. But if you think of mud as made from water and earth, then you may begin to see that the physical properties of mud are not so random after all.

Paula, you are just plain wrong in saying that Plato ‘sided more with Parmenides than Heraclitus’. Or, rather, your teacher is. (I’m guessing that this was a question you were given.) Parmenides realized that apart from all the things we talk about or perceive around us, the things about which we say, ‘it is’, or ‘it is not’, there has to be something that simply IS, full stop. Things change IN reality, but reality, what IS, cannot change. He called this the One. There are various ways of spelling this out — and much controversy over exactly what Parmenides meant — but I’ll keep things simple. A few days ago, you posted your question on Ask a Philosopher. That’s a fact. It will still be a fact in 1000 years time, or after the human race has become extinct. What IS, is, and can never not be.

As I’ve already explained, Heraclitus is not in fundamental disagreement with the idea that what IS is unchanging. The Logos IS. The notion that the Logos could be different from one day, or millennium, to another is something Heraclitus would never have entertained for one second. Reason just IS reason. ‘Fire’, ‘strife’, ‘war’ describe both metaphorically and literally the result of the continuing and unchanging hand of the Logos that ‘governs all things’.

Finally, Peter. What is the problem of permanence? Reading Plato’s earlier Socratic dialogues, the same question comes up again and again: how is it that we seem to have notions of human virtues, like ‘justice’, ‘courage’, ‘temperance’ — show by the fact that we just know when an offered definition is wrong? His answer was, because these things simply are, and never change. What human beings mistakenly or correctly call ‘just’ or ‘unjust’ is determined by the unchanging fact of Justice itself.

But, as I’ve already explained, concrete reality shows the same features as our abstract ethical concepts. Gold is always gold, horses are always horses. Gold will always have the same density. Search as hard as you like, you won’t find a continuum of animals ranging between a typical horse and a typical lion. Because they fall into ‘natural kinds’. The notion of an underlying explanation of things falling into kinds in terms of the atomist theory of Democritus and Leucippus seemed at the time far fetched or even impossible. By the principle of ‘insufficient reason’ there are atoms of every shape and size, moving randomly. How could that possibly give rise to gold, or horses?

It could be argued the greatest invention of all time was the lens (according to Wikipedia, some time between the 11th and 13th centuries) because it led to the discovery of the ordered world of the microscopic. and eventually the possibility of explanation in terms of microstructure — the laws of physics, chemistry and biochemistry. Take that away, and there’s a massive gap that can only be filled by the notion that natural kinds arise from a Logos, an ultimate classifying principle built in to the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Plato’s Forms.

What about the ideal Table, then? Plato actually uses this as an example in his dialogue Republic to explain the Forms, but he doesn’t mean simply that there is a Form of the table, in the same way as there is a Form of the human. Tables exist in a variety of shapes and sizes, but anything that is literally a ‘table’ that we use as a table (by contrast with Table Mountain, or a doll’s house table) references human need. A table is like the ground, but higher up for convenience. You can deduce the range of constructed items that satisfy the requirements of being a table from the Form of the human. For example, the range of possible lengths of a table leg. Unlike human beings, tables are made by carpenters according to specifications and plans. Folding, not folding, square, round, rectangular, and so on. This is like the way the Form of the human gives rise to the variety of human beings. But only like. It’s an analogy, nothing more.

Consciousness, nous and the demiurge

Theodore asked:

Our lungs do not produce the oxygen which we find necessary to breathe, so why should anyone think it unusual that our brain does not produce consciousness which we find necessary to think?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I am totally gobsmacked by this question, Theodore. Wow. So many possible lines of inquiry here.

Our lungs don’t produce the oxygen we need, as you well know. But if they did, their function could surely not be to oxygenate the blood. Because then it wouldn’t be necessary to breathe at all. We could produce all our own oxygen through the process of chemical reduction without having to take any from the outside world. Assuming that the oxygen is used to produce energy from food through the process of oxidation, fundamental laws of chemistry and thermodynamics would in tatters.

A more plausible theory is that human beings and animal life in general were created by the plant world in order to produce all the carbon dioxide it needs for photosynthesis. No fundamental laws broken here, but it would somewhat upset our view that human beings are higher than plant life. (It would make an interesting variation on the Matrix scenario of human beings as Duracell batteries designed to keep the computer world up and running.)

This is speculation, right? And as much as we know about human physiology and biochemistry, so little do we know about the nature of consciousness, how it ‘acts’ and how it is ‘produced’. So the field is open for any theory that sounds even a little bit plausible.

The Ancient Greeks were there first: the ‘Air’ of Anaximenes, the ‘Nous’ of Anaxagoras, and Xenophanes’ ‘One God’ who ‘sees all’ and ‘shakes all things by the thought of his mind’. The invisible substance that pervades all things has purpose. It is mind-like. Anaxagoras offers the most interesting version of this hypothesis. Unlike air, Nous is everywhere, it even pervades rock and solid metal. When Aristotle formed the metaphysical theory we know as ‘Hylomorphism’ to account for the ultimate nature of existence and change, it was the thought of Anaxagoras, out of all the Presocratics, that most influenced him.

So much for history. I take your idea to be this: the brain doesn’t ‘produce’ consciousness as material monists foolishly believe. Rather, its function is to interact with consciousness which is already ‘out there’. One well-know version of that story is the mind-body dualism of Descartes. The tiny pineal gland in the brain is the place, Descartes thought, where mental substance is able to move or be moved by the ‘animal spirits’ thus producing speech, action and perception. The problems with Descartes’ mind-body interaction theory are well known, so I won’t repeat them here.

However, here’s another theory, much closer to the Greeks, that you might like. Nous is everywhere. In the beginning, its powers were limited because it had so little to work with. All Nous can do, the sum total of its powers, is to alter probabilities, to make the relatively improbable probable. And so it was that the massive improbability of matter, energy and space appearing from nothing was conquered.

It was Nous that first nudged basic protein molecules together to produce molecules of DNA, that even today maintains the balanced processes in every living cell (a phenomenon that biologists have yet to fully understand), that in tiny stages pushed evolution all the way up the steep gradient of improbability ultimately to create human life. By manipulating quantum effects in the brain, you and I become its eyes and ears. We are the means to its end, which was simply, all along, to overcome its blindness and its solitude.

In the beginning Nous didn’t know what it was doing. It was not in any way ‘conscious’. Certainly not a ‘god’. It was just blindly thrashing about. But, gradually, as more and more order was created, it discovered its ‘purpose’. Through tiny steps, it transformed itself into the Demiurge of nature.

Basically, all I’ve done is rehash the doctrine of the Upanishads with added baroque or filagree to give the impression of being ‘scientific’. In the words of Alan Watts, ‘We are all It.’ Like any theory, it deserves to be considered as possibly true. Why not? At this moment in our history, no-one knows ‘the truth’ — if there is such a thing. So if this is what you would like to believe, no-one has the right to contradict you.

A fate worse than death

Rehan asked:

If human have an innate will to survive, shown by the fear of death, does this not prove there is no afterlife? Why would human fear death if there was something after it?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

People live from day to day, nourishing their hopes and dreams, and also fearful of bad things that could happen to them, like illness or injury. Or death. Experience — for most of us, this means watching the TV news — teaches us about all the good or bad things that could happen. Like winning fifty million on the Lottery, or being brutally raped and murdered by terrorists, and everything in between.

Is that it? Not at all. Not a bit of it. The human mind and frame are limited in their capacity for happiness and pleasure. There is only so much you can take before you are completely, and blissfully sated. For me, freshly fried fish in golden batter with chips and lashings of salt and vinegar goes a long way towards achieving that goal, but everyone has his or her own preference.

As for the bad, that’s a different story. Because there is no limit to how bad things can get. That’s how the famous mathematician Pascal was able to persuade himself that religion is the only rational option. Even the slightest chance of eternal damnation is sufficient argument for treading the strict path of righteousness, which for him meant Christianity.

You’ll find plenty of discussion on the Internet of ‘Pascal’s Wager’ as it is called, many complaining that Pascal’s argument is less than compelling. Why should the slightest, slightest chance of something bad bother me? The problem is that people seem to have such feeble imaginations. George Bernard Shaw, in his play Saint Joan, with more than a bit of tongue in cheek describes Hell as place where people are drunk all the time, a never-ending party for the wicked. Then again, if you think about it, the impossibility of ever getting the chance to sober up is a pretty hellish prospect.

Today, Hell has become glamourised. Hell is cool. Watching TV episodes of Lucifer or Constantine, it seems the human taste for sexy devils and demons is nothing short of voracious.

By stark contrast, hidden away on the Pathways web site is this description of Hell excerpted from the Bahar-e-Shariat:

“The Kafirs (infidels) in Hell will have to drink boiling oil-water, after which their bowels and intestines and stomach will be break into pieces. The consumed water will then come out of their stomach like curry and will flow down to their feet. The skins of their bodies will become thick up to 42 yards. Their tongues will be hanging out of mouths up to a length of two miles. The passerby will walk trampling upon these tongues.” (Six of the Best: Glyn Hughes)

In the original text, the account is a lot longer and even more fearsome. The description of Paradise from the same book is, for me, far less convincing. As I said before, there is only so much pleasure a man (or woman) can take before one is sated.

I don’t actually believe that I will be going to Heaven or Hell. But what’s belief got to do with it? What does it matter whether you believe or disbelieve? Those are just things people say. What people say ultimately doesn’t mean a thing. Truth be told, death as the absolute end of everything, death with no afterlife, isn’t so fearsome. If you’ve reached the absolute end then you’re safe. You should be afraid to be alive.