You can never leave

Frank asked:

How would you estimate the chances for Brexit now that this evening the UK Parliament has agreed in principle to Boris Johnson’s EU Withdrawal Bill?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I note that Prime Minister Boris Johnson took my advice and sent two letters to the EU, an unsigned ‘Parliament’s request’ for an extension of the EU exit deadline to the 31st January and a second letter arguing that the EU should not grant Parliament’s request.

(In my version there was one letter containing a section quoting the text of the letter that Parliament required to be sent. It is possible that the niceties of the use-mention distinction are not as clearly understood in law as they are by philosophers, hence two letters not one combined letter.)

As a result of the failure of the program motion (or ‘guillotine’) limiting the time allocated to passing the EU Withdrawal Bill, it is now impossible to meet the 31st October deadline. Donald Tusk is advising the EU twenty-seven that an extension should be granted although at the time of writing it is not known whether the extension will be to the 31st January, or to some time before that date, or after — possible months after.

Despite the necessary delay, it is feasible, even likely that some time during the next few weeks, or months, the Withdrawal Agreement will be ratified by the UK and EU and the UK will leave the EU. Is that Brexit?

Not at all.

Bear in mind what Michel Barnier, EU Chief Negotiator for Brexit and President of the European Council Donald Tusk both said at the press conference following the successful conclusion of their talks with Boris Johnson. ‘We are sorry to see you go but the door is open for you to come back any time.’

Where have you heard this before? You can never leave your lover, not permanently, if they say to you, ‘I will always take you back.’ Because, the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the weeks, months, years that follow you have to make the decision to not go back, over and over again.

There are ways to get round this. You burn your bridges, commit an act that is so despicable that you can never be allowed back. Or you decide that you will kill yourself, or your erstwhile partner. Human beings have been driven to such desperate extremes.

However, in this case no desperation is required, because the UK is a democracy and has periodic general elections. All it takes to reverse Brexit is a new UK government willing to turn back the clock and accept the EU’s ‘open door’ offer. So I’m sorry to tell you, Frank, that Brexit can never happen, at least in the form that Leave campaigners envisaged. It can never be permanent, so long as the UK and EU continue to exist.

Advice to Boris Johnson

Frank asked:

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in a bit of a tight spot at the moment. Do you philosophers have any advice? 

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

The so-called ‘Benn Bill’ (after Labour politician Hilary Benn) which becomes law on the 9th September, requires UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to request an extension to Article 50, if a withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU has not been achieved by 19th October. The precise text of the extension request letter is specified in the Schedule of the Law.

Boris Johnson said on camera he would rather be ‘dead in a ditch’ than make such a request. If he fails to send the latter at the appropriate time he faces legal proceedings for Contempt, and possibly gaol. If he sends the letter, his political reputation will be ruined. He will have done the one action that he stated he absolutely would not do under any circumstances whatsoever.

Our advice is that Boris should write the following letter:

Dear Mr President,

In compliance with UK law as enacted in the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, I am required to send you a letter containing the following text:

“Dear Mr President,

“The UK Parliament has passed the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019. Its provisions now require Her Majesty’s Government to seek an extension of the period provided under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union, including as applied by Article 106a of the Euratom Treaty, currently due to expire at 11.00pm GMT on 31 October 2019, until 11.00pm GMT on 31 January 2020.

“I am writing therefore to inform the European Council that the United Kingdom is seeking a further extension to the period provided under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union, including as applied by Article 106a of the Euratom Treaty. The United Kingdom proposes that this period should end at 11.00pm GMT on 31 January 2020. If the parties are able to ratify before this date, the Government proposes that the period should be terminated early.

“Yours sincerely,

“Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”

It is my view, and the view of my Cabinet that to grant any extension would be a grave error, with significantly deleterious consequences for both the European Union and the United Kingdom.

The issues that prevent an agreement between the EU and the UK, if they cannot be resolved now, will not be resolved in three months, six months, or indeed years, regardless of which Party is in power in the UK. 

It is our judgement that uncertainty over the outcome of protracted negotiations will have a strongly negative impact on the economies of the EU and UK, as well as provoking increased social unrest. There is nothing to be gained, either by the EU or the UK, from such a meaningless exercise.

Furthermore, it is our intention, if and when the Conservative Party is re-elected with a majority in the House of Commons, to end all negotiations abruptly once the 31 October deadline has passed and leave without a deal.

I therefore strongly advise you to ignore the request expressed in the quoted letter. There is still time to agree a withdrawal deal before 31 October.

Yours sincerely,

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

On the basis of this letter, the EU are of course free to ignore Boris’s advice and grant the extension, although, possibly, they might be less inclined to do so. It’s up to them.

Boris, meanwhile, would have successfully distanced himself from the extension request, having made it clear that the request comes, not from him or the Conservative Party, but from the British Parliament, whose composition after any future election could be very different from what it is at the present time.

Can philosophy be defined?

Col asked:

What is your definition of ‘philosophy?’

Do you see any possible objections to your definition?

How would you defend your definition against those objections? 

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I’m going to answer your question with another question: Why is it so important to ‘define’ philosophy? How does it help? What insight might such a definition give into the activity we call ‘philosophy’?

In a wide range of cases (and despite what Socrates repeatedly says in Plato’s dialogues) it is perfectly in order, in response to a request for definition, to cite a range of paradigm cases.

What is physics? Well, Newton’s laws of motion is physics. The structure of the atom is physics. The age of the universe is physics (or, if you want to be precise, the branch of physics known as ‘cosmology’). Still, it is useful to be able to say, with some degree of precision, how ‘physics’ chunks up physical reality in contrast to, say, chemistry or biology. That doesn’t seem too difficult a thing to do although although I won’t attempt that here.

What is science? is a more philosophically challenging question. Karl Popper in his 1934 book Forschung. Zur Erkenntnistheorie der modernen Naturwissenschaft (published in English as The Logic of Scientific Discovery in 1959) proposed a ‘falsifiability’ criterion as a means to demarcate science from what he called ‘pseudo-science’. Astrology and astronomy both deal with the heavens, but whereas astronomy is a science — putting forward theories about the stars, planets and galaxies that can, in principle, be overturned by empirical observation — astrology is arguably not falsifiable in this way.

A similar challenge to separating science from pseudo-science arises in philosophy. A lot of things go under the term ‘philosophy’ in popular parlance that professional ‘philosophers’, regardless of their individual differences, would not wish to describe as such. ‘Pop’ philosophy isn’t really philosophy, they would say. Although here the boundaries are more blurred. An increasing number of books have been written by academic philosophers popularising philosophy, and to make a subject accessible you have to make short cuts, over-simplify, paint things in black and white which are more like shades of grey.

Another challenge comes from a different direction. One might say, ‘That’s not philosophy, that’s psychology,’ or, ‘That’s not philosophy, that’s history of ideas.’ I’ve heard student essays criticised on both of these counts. Presumably, the critic has a clear notion of the difference between psychology and philosophy of mind/ philosophical psychology, or between history of ideas and history of philosophy.

For both these reasons — philosophy versus ‘pop philosophy’, or distinguishing philosophy from other disciplines — it would be nice if we could find a formula that would demarcate philosophy, properly so-called, from other things that we would not call ‘philosophy’.

I might state that philosophy ‘uses reasoning to discover things about the world,’ but that won’t do because Sherlock Holmes does exactly that when he solves a case. Certain aspects of ‘the world’, then? Mathematical reasoning discovers things about mathematical reality, the universe of numbers, sets and so on. By contrast, when a philosopher thinks about free will, or the mind-body problem or the problem of scepticism they are thinking about the actual we live in, our life, our place in the universe, not merely a world of grey abstractions.

In the absence of a simple formula, what I propose instead is a more like a template: in philosophical thinking, two fundamentally distinct but connected faculties are deployed in close harness: the faculty of logic (as in Sherlock Holmes) but unlike that great detective the philosopher always employs logic in combination with a faculty of intellectual vision. Philosophy describes the actual world, our world, that’s all it does. But it does this in a way that makes no additional empirical claims.

In a not dissimilar way, an art critic describes a painting, enabling us to see what we did not see before. The ‘facts’, the patches of paint on canvas, are already known. What is more difficult to grasp is the meaning, or the value of what we are looking at, how it all adds up to make a statement, as intended by the artist.

I’m not putting forward an argument for God as the ‘artist’. That’s not the point of the comparison (although a theologian might disagree). The point is that philosophers seek to uncover things that matter in our lives, by using vision and logic to make sense of the world. I wouldn’t even attempt to put this forward as a demarcation proposal, in the spirit of Popper. So ‘objections’ and ‘replies’ aren’t really to the point. But I hope that what I’ve said does help to make sense of the activity we call philosophy.

On this account, ‘pop’ philosophy is philosophy, it just isn’t very good philosophy, because it is marred by illogical thinking as well as false factual claims. Psychology can be philosophy, given a suitable context (for example, Nietzsche’s psychology). History of ideas, done by an historian who is gripped by the ideas in question rather than taking the stance of a detached spectator, shades imperceptibly into philosophy.

Thinking too much

Howzer asked:

How to stop thinking too much, but feel instead? I need inspiration and courage to do what I want.

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

What do you really want?

In the TV series Lucifer God’s son Lucifer has quit his job presiding over Hell and now owns a night club in Los Angeles. His one super-power (apart from being able to scare people by putting on his ‘devil face’) is asking that question. And when he asks, you can’t resist no matter how hard you try. You just have to blurt out what you really, really want. And some of the answers are pretty embarrassing, to say the least.

We’re in Freud territory, although Sigmund rarely gets a mention in the episodes. Another TV series Westworld hits the nail on the head. Human beings are not more complicated than ‘hosts’ (artificial humans, androids). On the contrary, they’re much more simple. In a key episode, we learn that a human brain has only ‘a few thousand’ lines of code. All human human behaviour can be explained by reference to just a small number of unalterable basic drives. The rest is just calculation. Or calculation plus two or three millennia of culture if you want to bring in Freud.

I would say that in addition to inspiration and courage (things we all want) you need to trust yourself more. What you call ‘thinking too much’ is basically lying to yourself. For example, pretending that a situation is more complicated or challenging than it really is.

— You know this, don’t you?

Let’s get down to basics. There’s a girl that you really fancy. (I don’t want to be sexist, by all means substitute ‘boy’ if that’s more relevant to your case.) You can spend all night working out what the person in question would say if you said…, or if you said… . Or you can just walk up and start a conversation. Let the inspiration of the moment guide you.

Oh, I forgot, you don’t have inspiration. Or the courage. Well here’s a tip. Ask yourself what a courageous or inspired person would do, and do that. Pretend it isn’t a problem. You might surprise yourself. (I’m only repeating basic advice that you could find on a hundred web sites.)

Leaving aside basic wants that we all share, in various ways, there is something unique to you, that no-one else has. No-one else has lived your life. So in a way, your wants are unique too. Think of it this way: you are an artist and your life is your art. You are free to create anything that pleases you. Free to experiment. Forget the others, this is about you and only you.

You’re right that you need to avoid thinking too much. It isn’t necessary to work out everything in advance. Try something, and if that doesn’t work, try something else. If you keep going and don’t falter, you will get there — wherever it is you ‘really’ want to be.

A hundred years from now, you’ll be dead. And then it will be too late.

Advice to a newbie

Richard asked:

I’m just starting with philosophy non professionally so this site is an amazing help!

Sometimes I have a philosophical idea or question and I would like to research it and write it down. The point is I haven’t a clue how and where to start. You start with a question, ok, but how about the next step? Is there some sort of plan or standard to follow? For example ‘always start with logic’ or something? Maybe this question itself is to vague. Please let nne know if it is.

Anyway thanks a lot for this super website!

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Mmmm… fresh meat!

Well, I could tell you a thing or two, Richard. Recommend some book that you’ll find way too difficult, and then imagine you… squirming, despising yourself for your pathetic stupidity. Not what we do here on Ask a Philosopher? Well…

Ever see the 1955 movie, Kiss Me Deadly?

Listen to me, as if I were Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of hell… don’t… don’t open the box! 

Every single one of us has been there. The really clever ones don’t go in for philosophy because they tend to hate open-ended problems and questions. They get impatient. They want to solve the problem and move on. Are you like that? Hope not.

(Sorry, I forgot Bertrand Russell. No doubting he was clever. He suffered from a rare condition: he ran out of problems to solve.)

Find a book, or, better, find a philosopher. It could even be Russell. It’s worth taking the time to search. Someone you can admire, even wish to emulate (in your dreams). Put your heart and soul into it, be willing to endure the pain and disappointment of multiple false starts.

No-one just starts with a question. Actually, that’s not true, the Internet is crowded with people who think that all you need to do is think about some philosophical question for a day and then post your opinion on a forum.

But if you have a question that really gnaws at you, then look for an author who has written a book on that topic that you like the look of. Difficult enough to set you a challenge but not too difficult to put you off philosophy for life. Your judgement is not necessarily reliable on this. But at least it’s your call. And that’s really important. Because your judgement is you rmost valuable asset.

Logic is more often than not a great excuse for bad judgement. ‘This follows from that… so it must be right.’ Or, worse, ‘My theory is free from any inconsistency except with the facts. So the ‘facts’ must be wrong.’

Believe me, I’ve heard almost exactly that from a professional philosopher.

Really glad you like our site. You could spend months — or weeks, anyway — just reading over twenty years worth of materials we have here. You could start with our home page and follow the links. Ask a Philosopher has been going nineteen years so there’s a pretty large backlog you could explore.

Amazingly, we still get questions that we’ve never been asked before. Maybe you can think up one…

Consciousness, nous and the demiurge

Theodore asked:

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

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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