Lao-tse and Western philosophy

Yolanda asked:

How has taosim (Lao-Tzu) influenced western cultures? I’m writing an extended essay for the International Baccalaureate (IB) and am finding it hard to find resources. Could you also link websites or books if you have any to help answer the question?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Having an interest in classical Chinese thought, I once set out on the same road as you and found the same dearth of source materials. I’m afraid if this is your target, you are going to be disappointed. A few Westerners over the last 200 years have delved into, and translated, Lao-tse’s philosophical wisdom; but they are few and motivated by a private, rather than academic interest.

Among sources sources translated into English, the classic is still Fung-Yu Lan, “A Short History of Chinese Philosophy” which I believe has more recently been enlarged to 2 volumes. There is also Dirk Bodde: “Chinese Thought, Science and Society” (1991). Of course, Lao-tse is relatively briefly dealt with. So you may find, as I did, that Lao-tse’s influence on western culture is nil.

Sorry to be so discouraging, but you still have two choices available. One involves refocusing the essay you wish to write to the question of “Why is Lao-Tse almost totally unknown to Westerners?” It is difficult, but possible if you pit the sentences of the old Sage against a few Western mystics (e.g. Meister Eckart, Angelus Silelius), because they never “got through” with their message either, except on a very small scale. The other choice is to pursue your question through the merger of Taoism with Buddhism and western interest in Zen Buddhism. I concede that this is a far cry from what you set out to do. For all I know, Lao-tse himself (if there was such a man) might not have felt that this alliance has anything to with him.

The paradox of anti-solipsism

Samuel asked:

To what extent is solipsism a relevant philosophical theory in modern society?

I have determined it to be irrelevant in an ethical sense but not in a philosophical one.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In a nutshell, ethical solipsism would be the view that other people simply don’t count in my deliberations. They are tools to use, or obstacles that get in my way, nothing more. By contrast, ‘philosophical’ or what I would term ontological solipsism is the view that I am the only entity that exists. You are just one of the characters in the story of my world — which is the one and only world.

For the ethical solipsist, people are ‘real’ in the sense that they are actually existing entities outside my own consciousness. I might or might not believe that these ‘things’ have something ‘inside’ — consciousness, a view of the world, desires and feelings — or not.

If they don’t have anything ‘inside’ then their apparent ‘pain’ or ‘suffering’ cannot give me sadness or pleasure. They are just pieces of malfunctioning biological equipment. But if they do have something ‘inside’ then, so what? So what if their suffering is real? Pain is bad when it’s in me, but if it’s in you then it doesn’t hurt me at all.

I once believed that it was possible to refute ethical solipsism, in whichever variety it occurs (see ‘In pursuit of the amoralist’, 2002 http://klempner.freeshell.org/articles/shap2.html). I don’t think that now. In practical reality, you don’t attempt to argue with a criminal psychopath, you lock them up.

I would go so far as to make the case for locking up ethical solipsists before they have committed any criminal acts — in a way similar to the 2002 movie ‘Minority Report’ based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. They are not criminals (yet) but they are ‘pre-criminals’. They are loaded weapons, ready to go off at any moment without warning.

Ontological solipsism is a different kettle of fish. You can be as moral as anyone if you are an ontological solipsist. That is because it is a metaphysical theory without any practical consequences. You look at the world in a funny way. That’s all. ‘This is all in me,’ you tell yourself. And then you go about your life the same way as everyone else, helping little old ladies across the road, etc.

This led Wittgenstein, for one, to conclude that the very notion of solipsism is meaningless, just a strange tendency to utter certain sequences of words, a tendency that can perhaps be cured by philosophical ‘therapy’. I don’t altogether agree. I think it means something to reject solipsism, in this sense, so what you reject must also be in some sense ‘meaningful’.

But now the problem really gets going. Let’s say that you absolutely turn your face against the very idea of ontological solipsism. Of course, the world is real. Of course the world doesn’t depend on me, you say. The world would exist, even if I did not. Well, OK then, and what about me. How did I get to be in the world?

I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place. A world without ‘I’ would be exactly the same as the world as it is now. It would have GK in it, just as it does now. Adding ‘I’ to the world, making it true that ‘I am GK’, is adding nothing, zero. And similarly with taking away. The very next moment I could cease to be but the person, GK, writing these words would continue without a pause. A different ‘I’, a different subject of consciousness would be thinking the thoughts I am thinking now.

Call this a paradox, the ‘paradox of anti-solipsism’. My name for it is the ‘idiotic conundrum’. As to the solution — I’m still working on that.

The essence of ‘I’

Jhavee asked:

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

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Here’s a movie dialogue you might recognize:

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

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

Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?

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

Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.

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

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

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

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

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

— This is all complete piffle.

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

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

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

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

Just look in the mirror, and you will see.

History, Plato and Marx

Sarah asked:

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

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

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

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

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

From a would-be conscientious objector

Ethan asked:

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

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertler on disembodied ‘facts’

Ronald asked:

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

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes a chair a chair (2nd opinion)

Acer asked:

What makes a chair a chair?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I suspect you’re angling for a Platonic form and have, perhaps, a killing riposte up your sleeve, like the one Parmenides gave to the young Sokrates in the dialogue where they both appear — not to mention Aristotle’s dismissive evaluation. But even these two critics missed a fundamental point. Unlike Christians, who imbibe notions of infinitude and eternity with their mother’s milk, they had no genuine conception of either; it was an ‘irrational’ conception, along with such items as the impossibility of assigning a cardinal number to the hypotenuse of a square, if the sides are whole numbers (or vice versa). An important additional corollary was their inability to envisage a future, as we do routinely with our expectations (on the back of 600 years of unremitting progress) of ever more knowledge, expertise and technology still to come.

Where this becomes a telling limitation is in the Platonic notion of an ‘eternal’ idea. It’s probably not a good idea to try and make a list of them, if only because many of them (e.g. the form of ‘Man’) look so much alike they seem to twins, quintuplets, 12 to a dozen etc. Most importantly, however, Plato made a huge omission that really ought to puzzle us. Where are the perfect utilitarian forms? Where in God’s name is the most crucial resource of humans, the intentional ideas and acts that spawn the overwhelming percentage of our actual being? I mean to protest, as after all: if I thump some fellow on the nose for being an ass, there must be a template somewhere for this kind of behaviour, which indeed is likely to be a thousand-fold daily occurrence on earth. And, ceteris partibus, owing to some such utilitarian intentional templating, it is where we also find the templated ingredients for the device under consideration, the chair.

Now on account of his omission, it could not genuinely occur to Plato that a multitude (if not infinitude) of such ideas belong to a future over which Ananke had drawn her veil. Moreover a future in which his heaven also changed its ‘whereabout’. What I mean by this is that his heaven was never ‘up there’ in the nether-nether, but always a ‘virtual heaven’ in a virtual location called Utopia.

This Utopia is a collective ideal site in which the basic forms of human inventions are housed. Being lodged here, but being intrinsically portable, they comprise a resource from which further basic, but also composite forms can be derived. E.g. the invention of the wheel rested on the insight that a circle offers a more efficient resource for continuous movement that any polyhedron. In this context Plato’s methexis becomes self-explanatory: it is a ‘self-help resource’ for humans dispensing with the cumbersome apparatus of urging the rain clouds to drop a load of ideal forms on the head of an enquirer or inventor.

If you’ve followed me so far, then I can dispense with all the intermediate steps from the ideal forms of 3 or more ideal lines (sticks) arranged to support a platform of ideal quadrilateral, oval or circular shape, to explain chairs. This practical invention might have occurred to Homo erectus and become a resource for all its variations from stools, wheelchairs, chaiselonges and thrones to helicopters and whatever else may still prove useful for the purpose of putting a bum on a seat (or for that matter, putting a chair into a painting or doll’s house).

Therefore (coming to an end of these long-winded preliminaries) the ultimate source of a chair — that which makes a chair a chair — is nothing other than a human being’s intention to make such a contraption, based on precedents fetched from Utopia and the all-too-human urgings to make some aspects of life less cumbersome. The only things remaining to be said is the puzzlesome fact that other fauna, e.g. spiders building a web or bees forming honeycombs, seem also to be relying on the reciprocation of some ideal forms residing in Utopia. But this might be a question for another day!