Visual appearance and illusion

JimJim asked:

Visual size is illusory: it shrinks in all three dimensions. Before we correct for this, not only do the railroad tracks meet in the distance, but a train travelling down them gets shorter, narrower, and smaller. So my question is: how far away must a visible object be for us to see it real size?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The premise of your question is false. There are visual illusions, which require a special setup to work, but in general things appear the size that they are, no larger or smaller.

You can verify this for yourself easily. Pick an object on the far side of the room and walk towards it. Does the object (a framed picture, say) ‘get larger’ as you move towards it. Of course not. Hold out your arm and look at your hand. Now move your index finger towards your eye. At what point does your finger appear bigger than it is? At no point.

The notion, e.g., that a train travelling away from us ‘gets shorter, narrower, and smaller’ is based on a overly simplified model of perception. When you look at the train as it travels into the distance, the image projected upside down onto your retina gets smaller and smaller. But what you see, what you perceive, isn’t that image. You see the train. Moreover, you see it as a train, that is to say, an constructed object of a kind that maintains its size over time. (I’m ignoring the fact that a train gets longer or shorter if you add or subtract carriages.)

There are common objects that get larger and smaller. A balloon, for example. Let’s say we are watching a clown walking the road with a large balloon. The balloon has a puncture, and is visibly shrinking, getting smaller and smaller as we look on. The clown turns towards us and shakes his head, sadly. Being able to tell when things actually get bigger or smaller is a pretty important ability, don’t you think?

In order to explain this, a distinction is sometimes made between what we ‘actually see, with our eyes’, and the perceptual judgements based on what we see. So, in your example of the train, we ‘actually see’ the train get smaller, but this is then corrected by our judgement.

There are special cases where this is true. The moon in the sky doesn’t look that large. But then when you take into account the information that the moon is a quarter of a million miles away, a quick calculation shows that it must be pretty big if we can see it at all at that distance.

Then there are artificially constructed experimental setups where a man walking across a room appears to get smaller because the ‘room’ in question is designed with a false perspective: we see the room as rectangular, but in fact the far wall is twice the size of the near wall.

In each of these cases, judgement is required to correct what we see, or seem to see. But these are necessarily exceptions to a rule: The rule being that our faculty of perception (eyes, optic nerve, brain — not forgetting our capacity to physically manipulate the objects that we see) is ‘designed’ by evolution to produce veridical appearances. We need accurate information coming through the senses on which to base our judgements. That’s how perception works.

The concept of perception applies not only to the five senses but also to things like understanding what a person is saying. We perceive meaning. Sometimes we can be wrong, and often those errors can be corrected by judgement. But judgement needs something to work on on. Language isn’t a cacophony of sound, or squiggles on a screen or on paper that we then have to interpret — although, as in the special case it can be, e.g., if you don’t ‘know the language’ and have to work what the person is saying from a phrase book.

A good question to ask in alleged cases of perceptual illusion is, How would things look otherwise? Discussing ancient beliefs about the cosmos, one of Wittgenstein’s students once remarked about the fact that the sun appears to go round the Earth. ‘And how would it look if the Earth appeared to go round the sun?’ was his reply. — I’ll leave you with that question to think about.

Houses in the sky

Cena asked:

If crisis came, can humans build houses in the sky?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

From a technological standpoint, it it is perfectly conceivable that human beings could live permanently in habitats floating in the sky and held aloft either by giant impermeable Helium bags, or possibly jet thrusters (as in the TV series Altered Carbon, 2018 although the latter would require a substantial permanent energy source.

Another possibility, explored in the movie Elysium (2013) is a giant orbiting structure — the ‘Stanford torus’, proposed in a 1975 NASA study — which could provide an Earth-like environment for tens or hundreds of thousands of human beings.

The first option might not be available in the event of a nuclear war, as the Earth’s atmosphere would be contaminated. On the other hand, either option could be used in the event of an ecological catastrophe that rendered the surface of the Earth uninhabitable, although underwater cities have also been proposed.

From a philosophical standpoint, the main question is an ethical one. The population of the Earth is around 7 and a half billion. When the crisis comes, if it comes, it could be double or treble that.

Realistically, only a small fraction of that total number would have the chance to enjoy life in the clouds, or in orbit. That’s the problem.

The scenario has been visited many times in science fiction. In a way, it exists now. A relative few enjoy a nice life, while for the many day-to-day existence is gruelling, requiring unrelenting toil. But even if the problem of poverty could be permanently solved, that would not do anything to address the challenge of deciding who gets the chance to escape after the Sun flares, or the missiles fall.

Should it be a lottery? Or should only the best and brightest be offered the chance to survive? If you’re testing ethical theories against intuition, that question is every bit as effective as the more frequently discussed Trolley problem.

If the only consideration is the future of the human race, one might opt for the ‘best and brightest’. But who is to choose, and on what basis? How do you balance IQ against musical talent, for example, or sporting prowess? Far easier, and fairer (for the many) would be a lottery, but this would bring its own negative consequences. The great and the good would have to take their chance along with the hoi polloi — a prospect that you may well find repugnant. Imagine waving good bye to Einstein, or Mother Theresa, or the Beatles. ‘Sorry chaps, your numbers didn’t come up.’

In the absence of the political will to make that hard decision and enforce it, the default option is the one explored in ‘Elysium’. The ones who get to go are those who can afford the ticket. So, Beatles yes, Mother Theresa no.

I’m not going to end this with some specious nonsense about ‘hoping it never happens’. It probably will. So maybe it would be a good idea to start discussing the problem now.

Thought and language

William asked:

While written words symbolize spoken words, what do spoken words symbolize?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Imagine the following scenario:

After a long, desperate fight lasting all day and into the evening, the battle has been won.

A messenger is sent out to give the news to the King. He runs all night and all the next day, then collapses and dies from exhaustion before he is able to deliver the message.

If only written language had been invented! The message would have been delivered, whether the messenger lived or died, provided that he arrived at his destination.

But suppose that spoken language had not yet been invented, what then?

The battle has been won. But the only ones who know, are those who fought. And when, eventually, the weary warriors return home, how can they ever describe what they saw with their own eyes, judged with their own hearts and minds — corpses strewn over the battlefield, dismembered arms and legs, decapitated heads, the remaining enemy troops in full flight?

Michael Dummett remarks somewhere (it could have been in ‘What is a Theory of Meaning?’ either I or II) that ‘language increases the range of human perception’. You can look out the window to see that it is raining, or someone else can look out the window and tell you, in words, ‘Hey man, it’s raining!’

And so we are tempted to put forward the following analogy: just as written words reproduce (or ‘symbolize’) spoken words, so spoken words reproduce the language of thought.

When the warriors judge, ‘we have won the battle’, the thought they express, severally and collectively, is expressed in mental language, a language that has no ‘words’ or ‘sentences’ as such, and yet has the power, the capacity, to give meaning to spoken and written language (once it has been invented).

Dummett calls this the ‘encoding/ decoding’ model of language, which he claims is refuted by Wittgenstein’s argument against a ‘private language’ in Philosophical Investigations. (Dummett goes on to make some very questionable deductions from this about the necessity for a ‘theory of meaning’ which we need not go into.)

I endorse the view that language is necessary for thought. Before language (historically, spoken language) was invented, human beings simply did not have the power to ‘think’ the kinds of thoughts that language is able to express, specifically, thoughts about the past or future, or about generality. (This point is made persuasively by Jonathan Bennett in his book Rationality, 1964.)

Then Jerry Fodor came along with his The Language of Thought (1975) and gave the idea of ‘language in the brain’ a new twist. There has to be some ‘structure’ there to begin with for language learning to be possible, something ‘mental’ — although physically embodied in the brain — that is in some way isomorphic to written or spoken words.

However, Bennett’s point still stands. In an analogous way to Darwinian evolution, an individual human brain ‘evolves’ structures over time in response to human interaction and other external circumstances (Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 1991), and it is plausible to claim that the ‘language of thought’, if there is such a thing, only came into being as spoken (and written) language developed.

What Darwinian evolution gave homo sapiens was the extra plasticity required to build structures in the brain where none had existed before, which then enabled the development of language. As with other evolved structures (a wing, for example) we can hypothesize that some survival benefit was conferred by this extra brain plasticity apart from the capacity to develop language — but that’s just speculation.

What, then, do spoken words symbolize? Written or spoken words represent that something is the case, or is not the case: something that is true if the words represent that something is the case and it is the case, or if the words represent that something is not the case and it is not the case, or false if the words represent that something is the case and it is not the case, or if the words represent that something is not the case and it is the case. — That’s how Aristotle explained the concept of truth.

The technical term that we would now use for this is: ‘truth conditions’. Instead of looking for some ‘thing’ in the brain that is the ultimate bearer of meaning, we describe what meaning does, what it is, in effect. Statements, or judgements, made in written or spoken language, have truth conditions, and that is how they get their ‘meaning’. That is how language is able to work.

You might object to this that nothing has really been explained. Isn’t there still a mystery about how meaning — or the capacity to express thoughts or statements that have truth conditions — can arise at all? There is much that we still do not know. But I am going to leave it there.

Classic texts for the beginning student

Alan asked:

Discussing which philosophers’ original work to read, GK intimated that Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ would not be a good choice. Is this because you consider him a poor philosopher, or that his philosophy is so self contained it allows little constructive discussion? Or something else completely?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

How do you know that Spinoza was a great philosopher who is eminently worth discussing? Because that’s what you were told in some lecture course or in a YouTube video? Maybe the speaker was putting you on. Maybe the whole ‘spinoza’ thing is just a big joke played by philosophers on the non-philosophical world.

Spinoza is difficult to read without a supporting secondary text (or lecture course or YouTube video). That’s why when starting out in philosophy it is better to find a classic text that you don’t need to have explained to you, where you don’t need to be spoonfed.

Locke is one philosopher who has suffered from generations of misinterpretation. Reading texts from the 60s you’d think he was complete dumbass. Just read the unabridged Dover edition of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in two volumes from start to finish and you’d have a very good and accurate view of Locke. And you only need to read it once — because he goes to such great lengths to explain himself.

Pity the poor students who relied on the ‘expert guidance’ available at the time without taking the opportunity to judge for themselves!

That’s just one example. There are plenty of classic texts that you don’t need to have explained to you, for example you could try some of the texts in Section 3 of the Pathways introductory book list, which I reproduce here without comment:

George Berkeley Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713)

Rene Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)

David Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)

Plato Phaedo (around 385 BC)

Ludwig Wittgenstein The Blue and Brown Books (Blackwell)

Kirk, Raven and Schofield The Presocratic Philosophers (2nd Edition CUP)

— You can approach philosophy in the spoonfeeding way or you can see this as an opportunity to learn to think for yourself. The decision you make now will have profound consequences.

[Note added: for more on this topic see my post on the Philosophy Pathways blog On reading.]

Causation and necessary connection

Vipin asked:

How do we define necessary connection essential for a cause-effect relationship? As per David Hume, there is no necessary connection found in matters of fact; but is it true? Can we not find any causal relationship between any two facts in this world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I was hoping Craig would answer this one. I seem to have different intuitions about cause and effect from most philosophers coming to this topic. So you should take my answer with a big pinch of salt.

Hume saw the basis for the alleged ‘necessary connection’ between cause and effect in the operations of the mind, the tendency of the mind to pass from one ‘idea’ to another associated ‘idea’. He is careful to explain how this psychological process is consistent with a ‘logic’ of causes (see his ‘rules by which to judge of causes and effects’, Treatise of Human Nature Book I, Part III: Section XV). The frequently cited objection that merely noting regularities would fail to distinguish genuine cases of causation from accidental connections would leave him cold.

It’s a good theory, so far as it goes. Carl Hempel developed the idea in his ‘deductive-nomological’ (D-N) model of explanation. Various weird examples have been concocted, which attempt to show how the D-N model sometimes fails to track causation. One I remember from my Birkbeck days is ‘Valberg’s Bomb’, which greatly exercised G.A. Cohen, famous expositor of Marx, when he ventured into what was for him relatively unfamiliar territory of philosophy of science in a lecture series I attended. (I’ve just searched Google, but the only reference I could find to Valberg’s Bomb was an email I wrote back in 2011 Jerry Valberg was a colleague of G.A. Cohen at UCL.)

Elizabeth Anscombe, in her essay ‘Causality and Determination’ (E. Sosa, M. Tooley eds., Causation. OUP. pp. 88-104, 1993) challenged the Humean orthodoxy, arguing for a more traditional, pre-Humean notion of a cause as the ‘source’ from which the effect flows. On this account, there need be no universal law under which the cause-effect pair falls.

What is a genuine ‘effect’ of a ’cause’? The cause must be the ‘source’ of the effect. The cause must be the thing from which the effect ‘really comes’. This is something we all believe. But just repeating the belief, or finding some new word to describe it, is no help at all. The examples Anscombe cites in her paper are unpersuasive. In her impressive oeuvre, this essay seems somewhat of an oddity.

I used to be Humean, but I’ve come round, or at least half come round. What I now believe is that causation can be a one-off, just as Anscombe said. She was right. But I also believe in a Humean fashion that, in principle, anything can cause anything. Logically, anything is possible. It is logically possible that I could sneeze and as a result the universe could disappear in the next second. My typing a full stop at the end of the last sentence, could, in principle, have caused a plumber in Delhi to die of a heart attack.

Impossible, you say?

Let’s run the universe again in our total-universe simulator, and see what happens. We can stop Kennedy’s assassination, but only (on the ‘official’ theory) by preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from firing his rifle, or else spoiling his aim. In a similar way, we can try various ways of altering the course of world history, each more or less amusing. But every single time I type that period, Mr Singh’s heart stops. This is no mere accidental connection. We can’t explain it. Nor is there any ground for thinking that an explanation could, in principle, be available. It’s just a fact. Blame the glitch on whoever it was who designed the universe.

That’s my intuition. In practice, just as Hume said, we must always as a methodological principle look for a causal law to explain cause-effect relationships. But there is no guarantee that we will find the law in question, or even that it exists. Many of the things we take to be ‘effects’ of ’causes’ might not be such, and we would never know. Many of the things that we would never in a million years imagine could be ‘effects’ of ’causes’ might indeed be such, and we would never know. (For roughly Kantian reasons, we should add ‘hopefully not too many’.)

I honestly don’t think that was what Anscombe believed, not for one second. But that’s just the way with taking an argument, or an idea, to its logical conclusion.

As Plato said, you have to follow the argument wherever it goes.

Is it worth reading Plato’s dialogues?

Anne asked:

What is the best order to read Plato’s Dialogues in? Does it matter regarding understanding them and is it worth reading them all?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The very first philosophy book I picked up was one of the five volumes of Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues. That would have been around late 1971 in Swiss Cottage Library, London. I remember that it was a heavy tome, but have no recollection at all of which volume it was.

What captured my imagination was the polite and respectful way in which the participants in the dialogues spoke to one another. In Jowett’s translation, they sound a bit like Oxford dons debating in the Senior Common Room. Yet I was charmed.

Occasionally the participants get flustered or even angry. Socrates had that effect on people. But reading these conversations, some of which record actual discussions that took place two and a half millennia ago, I got a powerful sense of how important reason is, man’s highest faculty — and woman’s too.

There are no women in Plato’s dialogues, although Plato on occasion makes positive use of female imagery — for example, Socrates as midwife, or when various Greek goddesses make an appearance.

Anne, I don’t want to tell you which dialogues to read, but can only echo what Giddy said in his advice to Richard:

I could tell you that the Phaedo, recounting the last day of Socrates’ life and exploring arguments for the immortality of the soul, is a dramatic masterpiece, sufficient to move a reader to tears — and all that talk about the ‘soul’ might leave you cold.

Or I could say that the Republic is an epic journey into Plato’s ethics and metaphysics, every bit as gripping as Lord of the Rings, and you’d just get bored by the interminable length of it.

The Theaetetus is a startlingly modern exploration of the nature of knowledge and problems around relativism of truth and perception, and yet the arguments might just leave you flummoxed. Similarly the Parmenides, where Plato manages the extraordinary feat of admitting seemingly fatal objections to his prized Theory of Forms.

These days, the complete Jowett translations are available in a single volume. I’m guessing you have that, as like Shakespeare’s Complete Plays it is so widely available. Why not just start at page one? Keep a notebook of your progress. It might very well be the case that the ‘lesser’ dialogues, the ones the scholars don’t discuss so often, succeed in getting you hooked just because of their relatively modest, down-to-earth ambitions.

As a default strategy, reading a book all the way through isn’t that bad. And you have the pleasure of seeing, day by day, or week by week, how far you’ve come. Read it like a novel. As you progress, you will learn more and more about the character of Socrates, a man of charisma and passion, so very different from ‘philosophers’ (so-called) today.

As for the order, the only thing you need to know is that, although there is some debate around this, Plato’s dialogues are roughly divided in to his early, middle and late periods. The early dialogues are more like actual records of discussions that Socrates had. In the later dialogues, although still featuring the figure of Socrates, Plato is speaking directly to us.

Is it worth reading Plato’s dialogues? How can you say that? On this forum?! — Only joking. All I can say is, Try it, you might like it.

— And if you don’t, try something else.

I want to be a Superman

Jose asked:

I am interested in becoming the Superman (Nietzsche) giving that prototype a try. What would be the requirements or how could it be possible in modern times?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What a great ambition!

You will need all your strength and passion, and then some. You could start by reading all the works of Nietzsche, including the collection of writings published posthumously as The Will to Power (with caution because these were Nietzsche’s notebook jottings selected by his sister Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, who later was to become a supporter of Adolf Hitler).

But what exactly are the requirements for becoming a — no reason why there should be only one — Nietzschean Ubermensch (literally, ‘Overman’)?

Here’s Walter Kaufmann:

The Ubermensch — even if one considers Nietzsche’s reverence for Napoleon and Caesar, rather than his admiration for Socrates and Goethe… is the ‘Dionysian’ man who is depicted under the name of Goethe at the end of Gotzen-Dammerung [Twilight of the Idols] (ix, 49). He has overcome his animal nature, organized the chaos of his passions, sublimated his impulses, and given style to his character — or, as Nietzsche said of Goethe: ‘he disciplined himself to wholeness, he created himself’ and became ‘the man of tolerance, not from weakness but from strength,’ ‘a spirit who has become free.’

Kauffmann, W. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist p.316

I stand to be corrected by Nietzsche scholars, but it is not clear that for Nietzsche any historical or (then) contemporary character had fully succeeded in this self-transformation. There are stages along the way, and some progress further than others. In Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche talks of a ‘rope stretched over an abyss’ which conveys the sense of danger — one can fall into the abyss at any point on the journey — but also a distance that has to be travelled, comparable (metaphorically, if not literally) to the distance between an ape and a human being.

As Desmond Morris vividly demonstrated, we are, in fact, apes (The Naked Ape). Actually, to get the best taste of this, rather than watching the ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies, you could read Aldous Huxley Ape and Essence, a very disturbing work which I came across in my youth.

We are apes. We share with chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutangs the tendency to get overcome by the feelings of the moment. As Freud noted, we are prisoners of our drives, which the process of civilization has enabled us only partially to sublimate. I am writing these words today, because I was in the mood to write, and if I had not been in the mood your question might have remained unanswered. I have to be in the right mood, or the words don’t come. That’s how apelike I am.

In modern times, strange as it may seem, you might stand the best chance of overcoming your ‘all-too-human’ nature by getting psychoanalysed. Once you’ve done that, in theory at least, you have become like a musician who has mastered the art of the biological instrument that evolution has created, an instrument that was never ‘intended’ to be anything but a faster, cleverer ape.

Power over others is something you might, as an Overman, acquire — if you are a writer, say, who is able to move others by the power of words, or possibly a political leader (Churchill would be closer to this model than Hitler, but still a long way off). However, in a similar way to the ‘overcoming’ of Neanderthals by Homo Sapiens, it would take significant numbers of Overmen to pose any threat to humanity. Given the present ‘decadent’ state of our culture, that scenario is a long way away from being realised.

Although the National Socialists were totally wrong in thinking that Nietzsche’s idea had anything to do with their brutally animalistic interpretation of the ‘Will to Power’, there is a sense human beings would be in danger — for example, if we were visited by an alien species who had succeeded in realizing Nietzsche’s ideal. It would be incredibly hurtful to truly see ourselves as they saw us, perhaps that alone would be enough to destroy our reason to continue living on this Earth.

Nietzsche’s vision is, in a way, brutal because in stark contrast to Kant — or indeed any ‘Christian’ reading of his works — Nietzsche sees humanity as a means, not an end. Ultimately, the only thing that gives meaning to human life, is the possibility we will be succeeded by the Overman.