The story of my life

Lindsay asked:

Did the ancient philosophers write about telling one’s own story as a form of activism and means to social change?

I’m working on my MA in Counseling Psychology and writing my thesis, which is a narrative inquiry. In a sense, I’ll be helping my participants tell their stories and writing/publishing it to help therapists better understand my population (those in polyamorous relationships).

One of my sources* claims that telling one’s life story as a form of activism dates back to the Enlightenment. I know just enough philosophy to wonder if earlier rhetoricians addressed this. I remember that Aristotle wrote of the pathos of storytelling but don’t know if the power of telling one’s own story was addressed. Are there works that speak to this topic?

This is a tiny part of my methodology. I ask this question out of curiosity and a desire to more fully understand the power of telling one’s story as a means of healing, social change, and other positive outcomes. I’m also looking at using narrative therapy as my primary theoretical orientation in my therapy practice. So, helping people “restory” their lives to emphasize their strengths, etc to build confidence and help them heal from past trauma, etc. Reading suggestions are welcome!

*Lenart-Cheng, H., & Walker, D. (2011). Recent trends in using life stories for social and political activism. Biography, 34, 141-179.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Someday I’m going to write
The story of my life
I’ll tell about the night we met
And how my heart can’t forget
The way you smiled at me…

‘The Story of My Life’ (Bacharach and David, 1957)

I have a distinct memory as a youngster humming this pop song to myself as I explored wooded land near my home in Finchley, London. According to Wikipedia, the British cover version of the original USA release by Marty Robbins was a number 1 Hit for Michael Holliday in 1958. So that would put my age at 7 or 8, possibly a year or two older.

If you thought you would get the real story of the lyricist’s life, — this was an early production from the genius pairing of Burt Bacharach and Hal David who went on to write some of the most memorable songs of the 60s — you are likely to be disappointed. It turns out to be a classic (or cliched) heterosexual love story: Boy meets girl, boy and girl are separated, boy and girl reunited. As we learn from the chorus, (preceded by the girl backing group singing, ‘Bum-bum, bum, bum’),

The sorrow when our love was breaking up
The memory of a broken heart
But later on, the joy of making up
Never never more to part…

Even back then — I am confident this is not just fanciful construction on my part — I remember pondering with a feeling of giddy vertigo the momentous fact that my life was still before me. There were multiple paths stretching in different directions. The song had a flavour for me that was close to mystical. At the time, the boy-meets-girl aspect hardly figured. With the benefit of hindsight, there is more than a little irony in the all-too pat ‘love story’.

The 1999 sci-fi spoof movie ‘Galaxy Quest’ depicts the cast from a TV series similar to Star Trek encountering an alien race who lack any concept of fiction or even lying, and think that the TV episodes are recordings of ‘actual historical events’. Misunderstandings abound and there are many comedic moments. But there is a serious point here. Human beings are story tellers. This is a deep fact about the human psyche, not simply something to take for granted. (Wittgenstein is often quoted as making a remark to this effect, but I would be very surpriised indeed if he was the first philosopher to take notice of this phenomenon.)

The way you frame your question (in terms of the made-up verb ‘to restory’) suggests that recounting ‘the story of my life’ has a loose connection to datable, historical facts. At the same time, presumably there are limits imposed by reality. I can imagine myself as ‘the Man who fell from Mars’ — in my disputes with ‘academic’ philosophy this is something I have been tempted to do on occasion — but the sober truth is that I was born a human being on planet Earth.

How did the notion of telling a story come about? Is it because we dream? Domestic cats dream, according to owners’ anecdotal evidence. From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to ‘rehearse’ typical actions, like stalking or pouncing, can be seen as conferring a survival advantage over otherwise similar creatures that don’t dream. Then what are human dreams for? Why, supposing a connection here, do stories interest us or move us? Assuming that humans were not ‘designed’ by some higher being, it could just be an evolutionary accident, an unexpected benefit bestowed on creatures who had invented a language capable of converting subjective ‘memories’ into narratives.

The consequences of our having this accidental capacity, are indeed momentous.

Telling X’s story’ is something the Ancient Greeks did — for example, the contrasting pictures of Socrates by Plato and Xenophon. They also had a tradition of story-telling where the characters were presumed to be fictional. But who was Plato, what was his ‘story’? Why didn’t he tell us? The closest we get is Plato’s ‘7th Letter’ whose authenticity has been a subject of much dispute.

Aristotle notoriously argued that a ‘man’ (‘person’ if you prefer, although Aristotle had views about the differences between the sexes) cannot be called ‘happy’ until after he has died, and his achievements evaluated in a positive or negative light. The ‘happy’ cuckold whose wife has been deceiving him for years is a case in point. Or the terrible karaoke singer who is urged by his so-called ‘friends’ to demonstrate his ‘talents’ for their amusement.

You mention the Sophists. This suggests (to me) that you approve of the notion that ‘my story’ is mine and the truth, the real truth about me isn’t something that can conflict with my perception of how the events in my life string together. I am the best authority, regardless of what you say or how you perceive me. This seems to echo Protagoras, ‘Man is the measure of all things’ but arguably Protagoras was talking about differences between cultures — Greeks versus ‘Barbarians’ — rather than individual persons.

In Plato’s dialogue ‘Theaetetus’ Socrates offers an argument against what he takes to be Protagorean ‘relativism’, which makes the case that failing to distinguish ‘how things are’ from ‘how things seem to me’ leads to absurd consequences. If you go to a physician, you want to be told the truth about your condition, and you assume that you will get the right treatment for that condition. But I don’t think that this is something that Protagoras would have necessarily disputed. It was just some imaginary theory of Plato’s own concoction, a ‘straw man’ introduced into the dialogue to make a philosophical point.

I suspect that, as you say, personal narrative, confession is a ‘Modern’ idea, going back to thinkers like Montaigne and Rousseau. Yet even today, mainstream academic philosophers look askance at philosophical writing that departs from objectivity in the expression of the writer’s personal thoughts, feelings, recollections (as in, for example my ‘Philosophizer’ trilogy). However, I still believe in truth, the absolute truth — about the origin of the universe, or the nature of consciousness, or the whole panoply of unresolved problems and questions. The two modes of discourse can coexist, side by side, or even complement one another. I don’t see a conflict.

On what must be

Brian and John asked:

Why is there anything at all?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Most of the questions I receive through the Blogger form on my home page at https://www.geoffreyklempner.net I have seen before during the 22 years that Ask a Philosopher has been running since 1999. So there are not that many I choose to answer.

This time, the question comes from two of my former students. John was one of the original members of a small group of adult learners who over three decades ago came to my apartment to hear chapters from the book which was eventually published as Naive Metaphysics: a theory of subjective and objective worlds. He is now a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. John teaches English to foreign students, attends conferences on Linguistics and reads Philosophy. He also attends Philosophy evening classes run by the Workers Educational Association now given by Brian, who first came to my WEA classes many years ago after the A-Level (pre-university) class he was attending was discontinued. Brian’s day job is running the Porter Bookshop, a business which he took over from the previous owner, and which he has expanded to include a considerable online presence on Amazon.

Both John and Brian went on to take their Philosophy degrees at the University of Sheffield.

Last term, Brian based his evening classes on a set book, The Mystery of Existence: Why is there anything at all? John kindly gave me his copy. It’s a topic and a question that we have debated on and off for years. But it is only recently that the pieces of the jigsaw have begun to come together.

First off, here are two quotes that to my mind set the terms of the debate:

Come now, I will tell thee — and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away — the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for anything not to be, is the way of. conviction, for truth is its companion.. The other, namely, that It is not, and that something must needs not be, — that, I tell thee, is a wholly untrustworthy path. For you cannot know what is not — that is impossible — nor utter it…
I hold thee back from this first way of inquiry, and from this other also, upon which mortals knowing naught wander in two minds; for hesitation guides the wandering thought in their breasts, so that they are borne along stupefied like men deaf and blind. Undiscerning crowds, in whose eyes the same thing and not the same is and is not…
— Parmenides ‘Poem’ translated by John Burnet, available at http://philoctetes.free.fr/parmenidesunicode.htm.

And the second quote:

1. The world is everything that is the case.
1.1. The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11. The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.
1.12. For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.
1.13. The facts in logical space are the world.
1.2. The world divides into facts…
— Wittgenstein ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated by C.K. Ogden, available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5740/5740-pdf.pdf.

These translations are older than the ones currently available, but I have chosen them because they are freely available on the web, and they are good enough to convey the point I wish to make, which is this: according to Parmenides, everything that is, is necessary, while according to Wittgenstein, everything that is, is contingent.

These are, or appear to be, extremes. Common sense holds that some things are necessary — the laws of logic, and arguably the laws of nature — while other things are contingent.

It was contingent, not necessary, that Germany was defeated in the Second World War. If the German Enigma code had not been broken at Bletchley Park, or if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbour, dragging the USA into the war, it is possible that Hitler might have prevailed. On the other hand, if there were no laws of nature, then there could not be a physical, ‘material’ universe, where, for example, Hydrogen, the first, and simplest element in the Periodic Table, consists of one proton and one electron and always reacts in the same way with other elements regardless of where, or when, it occurs. Similarly, a proton or an electron in turn always behave in the same characteristic ways, and so on, down to the most ‘fundamental’ particles, whatever these may be.

It is a remarkable fact that the universe runs according to laws, and in particular a given set of laws rather than different laws. And yet there is, equally, a contingent feature, possibly going back to the Big Bang, by virtue of which the history of the universe has taken the course that it has, rather than a different course — for example, the outcome of the Second World War.

Why is there a universe? For many years, Einstein laboured in vain to unify the four fundamental ‘forces’ — gravity, magnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces. Now there are several contenders for unification, one of which is the ‘String Theory’ postulated by Stephen Hawking. It is not necessary to know the maths. String Theory is basically a set of postulated axioms from which all the laws of nature can be deduced. The only reason for choosing these axioms over the axioms postulated by other theories is their perceived ‘simplicity’. To date, there has been no definitive empirical test one way or the other. I don’t have the quote to hand, but Hawking has reportedly said that the one thing he can’t answer is ‘why the universe bothers to exist at all’. Indeed!

I said that the views of Parmenides and Wittgenstein represent ‘extremes’. One of the first classes I attended in the first year of my Philosophy BA degree at Birkbeck College, University of London, was on the Presocratic Philosophers, given by D.W. Hamlyn. Hamlyn claimed that Parmenides had been ‘victim to a logical fallacy’. In between what necessarily is, and what necessarily is not, there is what contingently is but might not have been — for example, the outcome of World War Two. But is this just a logical fallacy? This was before Aristotle, who first wrote down the so-called ‘laws of logic’, while Parmenides was giving voice to a powerful intuition, one that Einstein expressed two and a half thousand years later, when he remarked that ‘God does not play dice with the universe’. There is something repugnant, unacceptable, about the thought that it is merely a contingent fact that there is anything at all, or the fact that the laws of nature are what they are, or that things turned out the way they did. (His objection, if valid, does not merely apply to Bohr’s ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation of the subatomic world.)

Wittgenstein proposed two distinct theories of language, first in his Tractatus and then again in his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations decades later. However, the two distinct works agree about the fact that what there ‘is’ is ‘what is the case’. Whatsoever is the case might not have been the case. In other words, everything that we can say ‘is’, is contingent and not necessary. Wittgenstein’s early view was that there is a necessary framework that cannot be ‘said’ but only ‘shown’, consisting in ‘atomic facts’. You can think of these as analogous to the pixels on a computer monitor, or the possible moves on a chess board. Within the logical framework there are only so-and-so many combinations or ‘logical possibilities’. His later view was that the framework is provided by what he termed ‘forms of life’, where all that can be said is ‘this is what we say, and this is what we do’, where no further or ultimate reason can be given for doing and saying in this way rather than some other way. The ‘rules we live by’ are the bedrock of meaning, and any attempt to ‘dig below the bedrock’ (to quote words of John McDowell) is simply futile.

So which is it to be? There are, seemingly, three alternatives: that what is, is necessary, or that what is, is contingent, or, lastly, what is, is a mixture of necessity and contingency. The question — or insoluble problem — is posed by the ultimate absurdity of each of these alternatives. You can ‘choose to believe’ — in String Theory, or in the God Theory, or in some other theory — but the choice seems ultimately arbitrary, a matter of intuition or seeming ‘simplicity’, or whatever. And yet, there remains the conviction that there is a truth of the matter, albeit one that we can never know — a point made, as it happens, by the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes. A mere ‘theory’ isn’t good enough, if we don’t have hold of the actual truth!

I have theory — which doesn’t answer the question, although it does take it forward. Consider these two common sense claims:

A. The universe has existed millions of years before I was born and will continue for millions of years after I die.
B. If my parents had not met I would not have existed.

Subjective idealism denies A. Or. more exactlly, one can ‘say’ this but cannot ‘mean’ it. Objective idealism denies B. According to subjective idealism, the ‘existence of a universe’ just IS the fact that I have such-and-such experiences. The world begins and ends with I. (There may or may not be other subjects of experience, other ‘I’s. The ‘solipsist’ holds that I am the one and only subject.) According to objective idealism, there is, ultimately, just one subject of experience, one objective ‘I’, who is GK, John, Brian, and also Parmenides, Wittgenstein, Jesus, Mother Theresa, Donald Trump, etc.

I’m not saying that idealism, in whatever form, logically cannot be true, but merely that I choose to believe that idealism is false. Even though any such choice is ultimately absurd, it seems somehow ‘less’ absurd that idealism is false and that the realist view is true. In the pungent words of Ayn Rand, ‘existence exists’. There is no argument here, other than the observation that it is futile to embrace idealism, when there are things we urgently have to deal with, a world to make, or change. — In other words, I have a life to live, and not just to passively ‘experience’.

To me, that suggests that what is truly ‘ultimate’ is not that something ‘is’ — whether necessary or contingent — but, rather, as John Macmurray expressed this in his Gifford Lectures The Self As Agent and Persons in Relation, a necessary task. (He saw the ultimate task, the ultimate aim of all action, as ‘friendship’, but that claim is more contentious.) In any event, what is actual is not a ‘fact’ but an ‘issue’, a call to action rather than something that one merely observes or contemplates in ‘philosophical’ mode. — Karl Marx famously said this in his Theses on Feuerbach, but his meaning has often been represented as a repudiation of ‘mere philosophy’ rather than as a powerful, and indeed empowering, philosophy in its own right. Then again, there remains the question, do WHAT, exactly? The young Marx proposed, ‘fulfillment of the human essence’, but that falls back, once again, on something prior that merely ‘is’.

The result of all these machinations is that there are two ultimate questions rather than one: the first ultimate question is why there is anything at all, why there is ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing’. The second ultimate question is, given that there is something, why there is I rather than no I. This question is given added piquancy by the observation that I might not have existed but someone exactly like my might have existed in my place. This is a fact — or super-fact — that neither physics or religion can give an adequate account of. There’s no point even trying. Then what? I don’t know!

This is what I all the ‘idiotic conundrum’. Or my ‘ring quest’. I will almost certainly never find the answer, and in fact would most likely refuse to believe anything that was presented to me as an answer, however convincing the argument in its favour.

It’s an exceedingly small step forward, but that’s my contribution to the debate. Besides the ‘three alternatives’ I considered earlier, we have to reckon with the complicating fact of what one might term ‘I-ness’, or as some logicians term it, ‘indexical reference’ (or what John Perry has called the ‘essential indexical’). How does that help? Again, I don’t know. But it does look as if it somehow sets things in motion, in a way not contemplated either by Parmenides, or Wittgenstein, or the common sense view. In addition to the choice between three ‘absurd’ positions, is the added absurdity of there being I rather than no I.

Unlike certain ‘existentialist authors (e.g. Camus, or Sartre) I am not content with accepting absurdity as somehow ‘ultimate’. By the same token, I don’t have an alternative to offer, apart from the powerful intuition that philosophy doesn’t, can’t, end here. Absurdity is not an acceptable end point.

Over to you, John, and Brian!

Craig Skinner answers:

Fyatt Lux (FL) and Alpher Nix (AN) are in conversation

FL: they say “why is there something rather than nothing?” is THE philosophical question
AN: who says?
FL: well, philosophers, scientists, and lots of others.
AN: so what’s the answer then?
FL: we don’t know, but philosophy is more about asking questions than answering them.
AN: not much point in asking, then, if there’s no answer.
FL: we don’t know that when we start. We think hard, debate, maybe we find the answer, more often we have several possible answers, and yes, sometimes there is no answer. What’s your first thought on the subject?
AN: my first thought is that you’ll just say God made the world out of nothing, end of.
FL: well, I do say that actually, and what’s wrong with it.
AN: what’s wrong with it is that it just pushes the problem back a step. Now we ask why is there God rather than nothing? If you say he just exists, you may as well say that the world just exists.
FL: not quite, we can say that God doesn’t just happen to exist, his existence is necessary – his essence is to exist.
AN: don’t give me that old Ontological Argument stuff. Whether it’s Anselm’s original, Descartes’ version or Plantinga’s modern modal version, they’re all flawed. All they show is, having defined God as a necessarily existing being, that if God exists his existence is necessary, if he doesn’t exist his existence is impossible, but we don’t know if he exists or not. Aquinas dismissed it, correctly seeing it as the logical fallacy of changing the scope of the modal operator, thereby confusing a semantic thesis “God (necessarily) exists” (true by definition) with an existential thesis “(Necessarily) God exists”.
FL: well said, and I agree. That God made the world is a matter of faith not reason, although it’s not an irrational belief. It’s the answer for some, but not for others. Let’s move on. What’s your next thought?
AN: well, sometimes a question assumes something so basic we don’t even notice it, and if we spot the assumption and can reject it, the question dissolves. Think of how some sailors long ago were afraid to sail away into the beyond in case they reached the edge of the world and fell off. They assumed the world had an edge. Knowing the Earth is spherical we reject the assumption, the problem dissolves,
FL: fine, so what’s the hidden assumption in our question?
AN: that “something” and “nothing” are two different kettles of fish. But suppose the universe has zero mass/energy – its positive mass/radiation exactly balanced by negative gravity, positive charges by negative ones, spin up by spin down, so that the net content of the universe is nil, the universe is not so much something as nothing-carefully-arranged.
FL: neat, and in fact the universe may well be as you surmise. But how would this dissolve our question?
AN: ah, if the universe did have net zero energy and other conserved quantities, it could persist indefinitely without violating the Uncertainty Principle, if it started as a quantum fluctuation from nothing just as virtual particles pop into existence all the time in the quantum vacuum.
FL: nice try. I agree you have given a possible answer as to how the universe (or universes) arose from the quantum vacuum. But the latter isn’t nothing. It’s a fluctuating energy field following the laws of quantum mechanics. You haven’t explained how the universe arose from absolutely nothing.
AN: quite right, I cant dissolve the question. But maybe I can get round it. Suppose we say the universe has always existed so that there’s no need to explain how it arose at all?
FL: we could say that, and this was Hume’s view. A state of affairs is explained by the preceding state, which in turn is explained by its preceding state and so on indefinitely. Every state of affairs is explained, none is unexplained, and there is no first state to explain. What else is there to explain? As Aquinas saw better than Hume, what is to be explained is why there are states of affairs at all rather than nothing. This applies with both an eternal and a non-eternal universe. For Aquinas, creating the world was not just a one-off thing at some point in the past. Rather God creates or sustains the world in existence at all times, so that if right now, God took his eye off the ball, so to speak, the world would disappear. I’m afraid you cant circumvent our question by positing an eternally existing world.
AN: well, I’m stumped. Do we say there’s no answer then?
FL: maybe we do. But first let’s try a different tack – explanation by reasons not causes. We don’t explain why the chicken crossed the road by a story about electrochemistry in its leg muscles. We say it wanted to get to the other side.
AN: right, and you don’t explain how God causes the world to exist, you say he has reason to create it. Seems like we’re reviving old Aristotle’s final cause.
FL: yes we are, and a good thing. When Descartes rejected Aristotle, he threw out a number of babies with the bathwater. One of those that survived, and thrives, incorporated into neo-Aristotelian frameworks that many modern scientists subscribe to, is indeed final causation.
AN: okay, okay, enough of the polemic
FL: could we say the world exists because of ethical necessity. If there is to be good at all, then something must exist. Plato thought so, saying in Republic that the Form of the Good is “what bestows existence upon things”.
AN: sounds like you’re replacing God by ethical necessity. Instead of God doing the heavy ontological lifting, it’s done by an abstract entity. Could abstractions have such power?
FL: I’m not exactly sure. What about mathematical objects? Pythagoras thought the world was made of numbers. In our time, Roger Penrose and Max Tegmark, both apparently sane, suggest mathematics has a Platonic existence, and somehow conjures up the world.
AN: now God gets replaced by Maths. But the same objection applies – yes, if these Forms exist they are necessary, but we don’t know if they do. And how could they make a universe anyway? I rather think mathematical entities are fictions or nonexistent objects. Look, cant we just say the reason the universe exists is that Absolutely Nothing is an unstable state and inevitably decays into nothing-carefully arranged? Of course, this might mean things, maybe universes, pop into existence all the time, strange indeed but not logically impossible.
FL: I’m not sure this constitutes an explanation. Reminds me of the Principle of Plenitude.
AN: scraping the metaphysical barrel now, aren’t you.
FL: rather. One last try though. Let’s consider not why, but how the world is, and what Principle might select it. So, absolutely nothing (a null world) would be selected by Simplicity, all possible worlds by Plenitude, a good world by Goodness, a mixed-bag world by No Selector.
AN: and would there need to be a principle (a metaselector) selecting which selector?
FL: if there were, and we said that no selector could select itself, what might we get.
AN: well we don’t have a null world, so Simplicity is out as a selector. We don’t have a good world (it’s good and bad) so Goodness is out. We are left with Plenitude or No Selector.
FL: right, now if no metaselector can select itself, then, if Plenitude were the selector it couldnt be the metaselector. And no other metaselector could choose it. So Plenitude cant be the selector.
AN: so what’s left.
FL: the only logical possibilities are Simplicity as metaselector, which of course selects No Selector, and we have a mixed-bag universe; or No selector as metaselector, so that all selectors act partially, again a mixed-bag universe.
AN: right. And do we have a mixed bag world? Yes we do. And note that a null universe, selected by Simplicity, is impossible, since no metaselector can select this selector.
FL: so we seem to have proved that Absolutely Nothing is impossible, and a mixed-bag world is the only logical possibility.
AN: yes, granted what we have assumed, namely the Principle of Sufficient Reason (every contingent state of affairs happens for a reason), and The Axiom of Foundation (no truth explains itself/no cause causes itself).
FL: we’ve done well then.
AN: yes, but it’s disappointing that the world has to be so mediocre.

The ideas about selectors are discussed by Parfit and developed by Holt:

Holt J (2012) Why Does The World Exist, p 221-242. Liveright
Parfit D (1998) Why Anything? Why This? London Review of Books, 22 Jan/05 Feb

The pursuit of happiness

Hazel asked:

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts as to whether the pursuit and obtaining of happiness is actually important to the individual?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you, Hazel, for this question which lately has figured large in my deliberations.

For the longest time, the answer I would have given is that the pursuit of a meaningful goal is the best route to something one might term as ‘happiness’ while the pursuit of happiness per se is almost always doomed to failure and ends up, self-defeatingly, as merely some or other version of empty pleasure-seeking hedonism.

Now, I am not so sure. The goal I am currently pursuing (my Question with a capital ‘Q’ — see my other recent answers) increasingly looks like one that cannot, logically be attained. Or, as I put it in my book Philosophizer, ‘The horizon recedes as I advance.’

What then? All that is left is whatever pleasures life has yet to give: companionship — in my case, close family and friends, as I live alone — music, the visual arts, plus sufficient whisky and cigars to keep my mind chemically in the right state, or right place. (I am not sure of the right word to use here.)

Why is happiness important? Freud once wrote that he, personally, found that a state of mild depression was the best impetus for the work he was focused on, primarily his writing. I can understand that. But there is a kind of subversive double-think here. Knowing myself — to some extent, though admittedly given my belief in a Freudian ‘subconscious’ this is ultimately limited — I am better at producing ‘work’ (my books) when propelled by a nagging, and painful sense of unfulfilment. If I were truly happy, would I even need to write? Probably not!

You can see the problem here: Given the choice, I much prefer to have my fifteen or so books (self-published on Amazon) than no books, even though I might have been happier had I spent the last five decades with some other occupation — my equal-second strings photography or music, for example. This looks like saying that, given the choice, I actually prefer to be (have been) unhappier.

Or, maybe, we have to distinguish different varieties of ‘happiness’, those that are more or less ‘hedonic’ or pleasure seeking? There is something fishy there. I remember once seeing a cartoon — I think it was in the magazine Radical Philosophy — a pompous Philosophy Professor is saying to one of his students, ‘When I said I was ‘happy’ with your essay, I didn’t mean that it made me ‘feel’ anything’ — as if to say, paradoxically, that happiness isn’t, in fact, something one feels. Which is absurd, isn’t it?

One essay you might read is ‘On Hedonism’ by Herbert Marcuse, in his collection Negations, which gives some sense of the dialectic here. In his Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant makes a point about the Categorical Imperative which seems at first puzzling: if your real motivation is the Categorical Imperative to take into consideration your own happiness, then drinking a glass of port is the morally right thing to do, regardless of the worry that in the long term it might harm your health. In other words, ethics trumps all other considerations, including prudence.

As you can see, my answer to your question is largely aporetic. The best I can do is distinguish, as I have done above, the ‘pursuit’ of happiness from its ‘obtainment’. But how important it is, ultimately, to obtain happiness is still a question I am unable to answer.

The ‘logic’ of Covid-19 denial

Sandra asked:

How am I to deal with people who persist in believing that truth doesn’t matter, e.g., who can say that Covid-19 isn’t real?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

As I write, the UK is battling to vaccinate as many of its citizens against Covid-19 as the supply of vaccines allows. I was fortunate to receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccination this week.

First, I want to say something about conspiracy theories in general, then about the concept of truth, and then, finally, about groups of people who have, or seem to have, encouraged the belief amongst themselves that Covid-19 is somehow not ‘real’.

It is axiomatic that a conspiracy, of any kind whatsoever, requires the continued cooperation of all the conspirators. It only takes one former conspirator, or a few former conspirators, to ‘blow the whistle’. This is one of the reasons why in UK law, ‘conspiracy to do XYZ’, where XYZ is a criminal offence, is a worse crime than when a single individual does XYZ.

The idea that the Covid-19 pandemic is a conspiracy would require the cooperation of not hundreds or even thousands but tens of thousands of people. Theoretically, it could be done. All the news reports, where cameras have been allowed into hospitals around the world, could be showing actors rather than patients, doctors and nurses. But each one of those supposed ‘actors’ would have to be in on the conspiracy. Common sense would seem to show that the pretence could not be maintained for any length of time.

A similar point could be made about the so-called ‘conspiracy’ to persuade people to believe that the Earth is round rather than flat. There is an added point to make here, however, that the very idea that it is an a priori truth that ‘things fall down’ is at least partly to blame for the Flat Earth theory. The very first philosophers in the Western tradition believed in the Flat Earth theory. It seems that Thales and Anaximenes both assumed this to be an unquestionable truth. And why not? And yet the principle was questioned by Anaximander, who was the first to see that the question wasn’t about ‘falling’ but about attraction, why objects should be attracted towards the Earth. His answer, although we now judge it to be incorrect, was that things ‘fall’ in order to maintain the symmetry of the ‘cosmos’.

Two millennia later, Isaac Newton proposed that a very small attractive force exists between any two masses which is proportional to the inverse square of their distance times the product of their masses. When one of the objects is the size of the Earth, that force becomes significant, and we call it ‘gravity’.

In the case of Covid-19, a population who are used to seeing spectacular sci-fi epics in the cinema can be partly excused for being tempted to think that the images flickering on their TV screens might be just more of the same. But, as in the case of things falling, there is a better explanation than the claim of conspiracy. The better explanation is that Covid-19 is real, and that, to date, it has killed more UK citizens than died in the Second World War. (The number of deaths world wide still has a long way to go before it reaches the total number, the largest part of which was suffered by citizens of the former USSR.)

Even though it is not the only logically possible explanation, the best explanation for reports of the devastation caused by Covid-19 is that the reports are true. But why must we believe ‘the truth’? No-one is forced to ‘believe’ any matter of fact. The grieving mother who refuses to accept that her son has died in a foreign war, even when his body is returned in a casket, has chosen ‘not to believe’.

Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland saw a philosophical conundrum here. At one point in the story, the White Queen claims to be 101 years old:

‘I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.

‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’

‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

— You might think that the same could be said by a ‘believer’ in the Covid-19 or Round Earth ‘conspiracies’. But, generally, they don’t say this because they don’t have the White Queen’s smarts. What they believe is not something they regard as ‘impossible’ but, on the contrary, they believe their theory to be the most likely explanation. This is just not the case.

But if someone says, right out, ‘I know that it is true that Covid-19 is real but I choose not to believe it,’ then there is a much swifter point to make, which was highlighted by the philosopher G.E. Moore. ‘It is raining, but I do not believe that it is raining,’ is known as ‘Moore’s Paradox’. There is no logical contradiction in this sentence, and yet the claim seems impossible. Surely that is truly a ‘last gasp’ basis for resistance by the scorched Earth conspiracy theorist.

Despite this, there are groups of people who have, somehow, convinced themselves and one another that the conspiracy is real. Just this week, British police broke up a party of 400 people. Although this was not reported on the BBC News, according to the Daily Telegraph, it was a wedding party amongst Ultra Orthodox Jews. Could any of the guests have been watching the News, the battling doctors and nurses tired beyond desperation, the body bags and graves? It is entirely possible that a group of people should, for reasons best known to themselves, refuse to watch TV or read newspapers. To me, that is the kinder explanation. The less kind explanation is that the guests were fully aware of what they were doing but chose deliberately to put themselves and all the persons they came into contact at risk from a deadly disease, something that is simply beyond my comprehension.

On the possibility of philosophical enlightenment

Ceren asked:

What is the point of Plato’s allegory of the cave in Book Seven?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

If you search ‘Ask a Philosopher’ you’ll find several answers on this topic. Plato’s Allegory of ‘the Cave’ can be found in his dialogue Republic. Many generations of commentators have interpreted this as a metaphorical account of the difference between ordinary knowledge of the world of phenomena and philosophical knowledge of ultimate reality, which Plato conceives as the Form of the Good, metaphorically the ‘sun’ that is the source of the illumination that reaches us only indirectly, as shadows cast on the wall of the cave.

I am very conscious of the cave, ‘Living in the dark’ as I described it in my latest YouTube video https://youtu.be/8W17F1lpPWM. Painfully so. My question is whether, in fact, there is anything outside the cave, or, if there is, or must be, whether there is any possibility of coming to know anything about that ‘something’, by using the methods of philosophical inquiry or otherwise. In my video, I describe the world in which I find myself as ‘Plato’s cave without the Sun’.

Is this a tenable position? Is it even bearable? I mean, to think of Reality with a capital ‘R’ as something totally beyond any possibility of knowledge or human comprehension. Not to mention the highly questionable claim that it is in some sense ‘good’, or indeed the ultimate Good with a capital ‘G’. At some time not too far in the future, I will be dead. And I will have died, never having discovered an answer to that question. The comforts of religion don’t interest me, they seem like fairy tales. The claims of philosophers, Plato included, seem baseless and even arrogant.

Whether in fact Plato did believe that knowledge of the Good is possible is itself unclear. He describes his ‘dialectic’, or the correct method of philosophical inquiry as directed towards knowledge of the Good, but nowhere does he claim that he, or anyone else, has ever reached this goal. Reading his dialogues, the strong impression is that the Good is merely posited as the ‘best explanation’ of how dialectic itself is possible. But who is to say that it is the only possible explanation?

Kant, similarly, draws a distinction between the two worlds of phenomena and ‘noumena’, claiming that while the human capacity for reason is capable of discovering a priori truths relating to the world of phenomena or appearances, there is yet ‘room for faith’ about the noumenal world, including the existence of God, human freedom and everlasting life as conceived in the Christian religion.

F.H. Bradley, by contrast, conceives of his Absolute not so much as a second ‘world’ but rather as a way of grasping reality as a single whole, free of the contradictions inherent in human thought. Again, a kind of ‘faith’ is brought in to bridge the gap that human beings are incapable of crossing by means of thought and reasoning, although we have an intuitive vision of the Absolute in the unbroken wholeness of ‘immediate feeling’.

Plato and Kant were geniuses, and if they couldn’t prove that there is anything outside the cave, then I certainly am unable to do so. All the wondrous discoveries of science are unable to do so, they merely describe in more detail the walls of the cave. The laws of nature are just rules that we posit hypothetically in order to account for observation and the results of experiment. We don’t even know what it would mean to say that these rules are ‘true’, let alone the ultimate Truth. To even raise that question goes beyond science and the experimental method.

Maybe enlightenment is just realizing that ‘this is all there is’ and the very desire for more is a mistake, or illusion, maybe even a necessary illusion. In my book Philosophizer I wrote of a ‘horizon that recedes as I advance’. The fact that I see, or seem to see a horizon ahead of me implies the existence of a place I can never reach, however long I travel, just as one never reaches the end of the rainbow.

Split consciousness scenarios and the self

Lee asked:

So I read that an octopus has neural networks in each limb (a kind of brain that can think independently). Assuming that there is a single consciousness if a limb in separated from the body does a single mind then control both entities at the same time? If so and we could replicate this in humans (in the far future), would it be possible to split our mind in two with a single consciousness that would be able to communicate with both physical bodies at the same time regardless of distance between the two? Or at the point of splitting is the consciousness split also?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

If you cut off one of the limbs of an octopus, there is no physical process whereby the ‘mind’ of the octopus is able to control its own body and also the movements of the separated limb. That’s just a matter of physical and physiological fact. However, we can imagine a possible world scenario in which human beings have electronic gadgetry put in place to enable my various spatially scattered ‘parts’ to communicate with one another and with my brain. I could even send part of myself to Mars, my left arm, say, while at the same time I am sitting at home, safely in front of my computer.

Actions and movements on Mars would be difficult to say the least, given the time lapse. It would not be a lot different from what NASA technicians do now, when they control the movements of the various Mars rovers. Say, I want to pick up a rock with my left hand. It would take between 5 and 20 minutes for the radio signal to reach Mars, and the same amount of time to see that my action had succeeded. Anything more than a simple graping movement would be virtually impossible, given the constant two way communication that normally takes place between hand and eye. The setup would also require wireless transmission of almost imaginable capacity compared with what we have now.

One philosophical question raised by this thought experiment is, ‘Where am I?’ If the part of ‘me’ that is sent to Mars is destroyed when the capsule crashes, I am still here. just as in the case of the octopus, it would be like cutting off a limb. But what if I could send half of my brain? I have robot ‘eyes’ on Mars and on Earth, each wired up to one of my separated brain halves. If my Mars body dies, then I am still alive here on Earth. But, equally, if my Earth body dies, I can continue my life on Mars, as a human ‘Mars rover’.

In a sense, the same applies to each of us, now. It is not as if ‘I’ am where my eyes are. My feet are in a different place from my brain. Just from looking that the physiology of the human body, we can say that there are various spatially located parts which are ‘part of me’ and there is a centre, that receives information and controls the functions and movements of the various parts that in the case of human beings is in a particular place, the skull of a living human being, but in different possible world scenarios could be scattered far and wide.

All that is relatively simple. It is indeed possible that what I have imagined might never come to pass, because we are defeated by the complexity of of brain processes. The total number of possible brain states is enormous, even in comparison with the number of atoms in the universe. A similar thing can be said of the bandwidth of the process of communication between the two halves of the human brain, which we still only barely comprehend.

However, there is a deeper philosophical question that can be raised here which attacks the Cartesian idea that there is just one ‘mind’ or ‘self’ controlling our body, or bodily ‘parts’, regardless of how these are distributed in space. The classic article is Thomas Nagel’s ‘Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness’ (Synthese 1971, you can find this in PDF if you search on Google). Nagel’s article is based on an actual experiment on a human subject, where the corpus collosum connecting the two halves of the brain was severed, as a drastic treatment for epilepsy after other treatments had failed.

In this experiment, various setups were used to test the ability of the subject whose brain had been bisected brain to recognize different shaped objects. Amazingly, the subject could recognize, say, a cube by feel and also by sight, but was unable to say whether or not the object they had seen and touched was the same shape or not. This seems impossible, if we think of the mind as a single arena or theatre, where all the contents of consciousness are displayed. Surely, if you see there is a cube there, and feel the cube, you must know that what you have felt and seen are the same shape? It seems that we have to say that what the experiment of brain bisection shows that there is no ‘theatre’, no single ‘you’ here.

You could also look at other classic articles by Sidney Shoemaker, Derek Parfit, Bernard Williams, Daniel Dennett, David Wiggins, and others dealing with a whole range of thought experiments raising questions about our intuition of ‘self identity’. A classic example is Shoemaker’s thought experiment, where my brain is split and each half put in a new body. My response to this, which I argued for in my book Naive Metaphysics, is that this could be plausibly seen as a case of ‘survival’ as two fully separated beings. There would simply be two GKs, both possessing my memories.

If you have doubts about this, or think, ‘this could never happen to me’, imagine that it has already happened, and the other ‘you’ one day knocks on your door, you invite him or her in, and once you have gotten over the awkwardness of the situation talk about old times when there was ‘just the one of you’. For example, my first operation, when my adenoids and tonsils were removed at the age of four, becomes ‘our’ operation. An so on.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Factor in the various possibilities of amnesia, as in Derek Parfit’s ‘Methuselah’ thought experiment, in which the future GK, living hundreds or thousands of years from now, has no remaining memories of my self in 2020, and it becomes increasingly plausible to say that either the very notion of ‘self’ is a complete illusion, or that there only ever was one ‘self’ that has split many millions of times, forming all existing human and non-human subjects of consciousness. Some would argue that the two suppositions amount to the same thing. I am not you. You are not me. Imagining that, despite this, in some sense ‘we’ are one seems just a fanciful way of saying that we are both conscious subjects, full stop.

But what about my existence, here and now? I am not you. But, equally, I am not in the future, because the future has not yet happened, and I am not in the past, because the past has gone. If it is logically possible that the universe only came into existence five minutes or five seconds ago, as Bertrand Russell once hypothesized, then all that is indubitably ‘me’ only exists in the present.

And this is the bit I can’t get past. Take ‘me now’ or ‘this’ away, and everything else, the whole universe and all the people in it, remains unchanged. So what is it? Why is it? Why am I here at all? – I am sure that there is a lot more to say at this point but that is as far as I have been able to take the question.