Why bother studying ancient philosophy?

Ross asked:

With all the knowledge we have from modern psychology and science do we need ancient philosophy any more? Does it contain any relevant wisdom for us today?

Answer by Graham Hackett

Rose, I should first come clean and say that I am a great fan of ancient philosophical wisdom, especially the Greek variety. Even if it eventually gets dismissed as no longer relevant, it teems with unforgettable and mysterious characters. It has  a character who died for his philosophy. Socrates may well have been killed because he was an annoying citizen who asked searching questions of people who did not like to be annoyed. Then there are the dark comments such as; “man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not.” (Protagoras) . Merely poetry perhaps? Or powerfully pregnant remarks just bursting to be interpreted? Then think of the powerful thought-experiments of Plato; the highly developed imagery of the prisoners in the cave. Many modern philosophers are envious of the ability of Greek philosophy to illustrate with poetry and imagery.

I also think I can anticipate a very pertinent objection to these remarks; that it reduces ancient philosophy to a historical and literary study. This view comes from the notion that modern science, following innovations in areas such as relativity, both special and general, quantum physics and neurology has produced a picture of the universe which is near complete, and replaces that of all philosophy. Didn’t Stephen Hawking remark (The Grand Design) that philosophy as practised nowadays is a waste of time and philosophers a waste of space? More precisely, he wrote that philosophy is ‘dead’ since it hasn’t kept up with the latest developments in science. I would reply in response to this, that science is political in its choices as to the desirable direction of research. In response to this, I would ask you to read Karl Popper, with his insight that science is not about finding confirming evidence for a theory, but about striving hard to find disconfirming evidence. Or Thomas Kuhn, who observed that science is not a continuous addition of new facts to existing ones, but a series of revolutions, where whole world-views may be replaced with others. Not forgetting Paul Feyerabend, who wrote that “scientific method” only partially describes the methods of science. In truth, there are no rules, many theories are flawed, science doesn’t always methodically approach “truth”.

This is not to criticise the achievements of science, which have been stunningly productive. Most of Hawking’s attacks on philosophy stem from the case of metaphysics, which the achievements of quantum physics are said to have displaced. However, there are weaknesses  in this view. The gap between the relativistic and the quantum physics view of the universe still exists. Many physicists are aware of this gap, but ignore it, and just perform the calculations. However, this has left many questions still open to philosophers. For example, do things really change? Why do we think that time flows? Does it really flow?  These matters were well anticipated in the to-and-fro of ideas between Parmenides and Zeno on the one side, and Heraclitus on the other. Most modern philosophers interested in exploring these ideas still think it very useful to begin with the ancient Greeks.

Even if we think that modern neuro-science has solved, (or will solve) the body-mind dispute, we still have the remaining problem of why humans feel they are unique, and have a specially privileged place in the cosmos. These matters continue to be important, and cannot be dismissed. Ancient philosophy has much to say on this matter.

I could write a lot more on this subject, but I would be in danger of over-egging the pudding; I certainly don’t wish to argue in favour of ancient philosophy against the modern science world view, as one might argue in favour of ones favourite football team.

I leave you with one reference. This the book “Anaximander” by Carlo Rovelli. This is a book written by a well-known Quantum Physicist who prefers to discuss his views of the nature of science by beginning with the ancient Anaximander. Enough said.

Verificationism and the self-defeating argument

Millie asked:

Who was it that first pointed out that the verification principle fails to stand up to its own criterion?

Answer by Graham Hackett

One of the most famous statements about verificationism is that it is self defeating under its own terms. A statement can only be verified, (according to verificationism), if it is either an analytic statement (self-evident) or shown to be true by scientific proof. However, we can argue that the statement of the verification principle is neither analytic, nor supported by scientific proof. Therefore it is self defeating. We need to be careful in just baldly stating this as an anti-verificationist argument, since Ayer and Carnap, and other empiricists attempted changes in definition in response to the self-defeating argument. We would need to check whether all definitions have the same weakness. 

In not answering your exact question about the origin of the self-defeating argument (SDA), I find that it it is mentioned many times by critics, but none of them admit to its first formulation. My own view was that it was kicked around by the Vienna school for some time, asserted, refuted and re-asserted. The SDA  may well have even been first formulated by a verificationist! The nearest I can get to a meaningful answer is to suggest that a reading of the argument between Carnap and Putnam would be revealing. But I don’t think that the SDA can be traced to any one source.

As an observation on SDA’s generally, they can be found in other areas of philosophy. For example, the foundationalist argument for knowledge, is (by some accounts) based on the idea that knowledge is based upon arguments, which are themselves based on further arguments, and so on, until we reach an argument which is final and needs no further support. Foundationalism, it is argued, is self defeating because it has no such  basic foundation. SDA’s have sometimes been described as themselves being self–defeating because the argument always regresses to something which cannot be supported by any further evidence, and which has to be held to be true by stipulation. Wittgenstein in his latter days may have held such a view. SDA’s can be very clever, but they are often wearisome.

Rather than rely on the SDA criticism of verificationism, a more powerful criticism is that it is based on a simplistic view of how science is conducted. Scientific procedure is not always based upon proceeding from one set of facts to another set of facts. Sometimes it proceeds by making assumptions or stipulations. Einstein based his success on making the assumption that the speed of light is fixed, and that nothing can exceed it. It has never been proved in the analytic sense, but the assumption has so far yielded correct calculations and forecasts. Quarks, bosons and other particles were long assumed to exist, even though no direct evidence existed for them. (That evidence was found long after this assumption was made.) It is very difficult to see how verificationism could cope with this approach to science. Karl Popper also remarked that his “falsifiable” approach to the conduct of science had killed verificationism. Even if Popper’s blow was not fatal, the description of science contained in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was.

Also much more powerful than the SDA, is the serious attack on verificationism made by Quine in his paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. Are there any really self-evident propositions? Further, he questioned the whole notion of truth as consisting of atomistic self-evident or scientifically-proven propositions. Truth was much more a question of a mutually supportive network of propositions.

This argument is not as clever as the SDA, but it is more rewarding.

Creationism and scientific evidence

Mike asked:

I am currently having a discussion with a Young Earth Creationist who posits that the whole question of science is a philosophical one and that the view on evidence is purely philosophical. I don’t know how to respond to (what I think) is an absurd argument. Do you have any tips?

Answer by Graham Hackett

Many people have had discussions, not only with Young Earth Creationists, but with  the whole area of Intelligent Design, and find that they founder and become heated over the role of evidence. The nature of the evidence in religion is mostly testimonial. There is nothing wrong with testimonial evidence per se, but  anyone (not just a scientist) is entitled to ask where the testimonial comes from. If the testimonial of (say) one observer is corroborated by the testimony of another, it is still perfectly reasonable to ask what the testimony shows. Professional scientists do this all the time; after all, there are plenty of examples of scientific frauds. Testimonial evidence must be interrogated, that is the scientific position.

Some scientific areas of enquiry, such as applied medicine, are also not without such problems as the downplaying of, or even the total dismissal of evidence. Consider the notorious case of Dr Semmelweis in the 19th century, who presented evidence that the death rate in one hospital ward (where the doctors washed there hands) was much lower the in another, where doctors came straight from the mortuary and did not wash their hands. Semmelweis was regarded as an impertinent upstart, questioning the status of doctors. The evidence was, at the time, disregarded.

Also, many creationists of all varieties are particularly sensitive about the lack of direct, testable evidence for their own positions; the kind of evidence we can interrogate. This is particularly the case with Young Earth and intelligent design. I have searched for peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals which make claims for the findings of creationists, but have found none. Very often, creationists of all stripes restrict their own scientific remarks to attacking the claims of other scientific disciplines. You might like to have a look at some of their responses to the interpretation of carbon dating techniques, which is particularly pertinent to the Young Earth position. There is nothing reprehensible about doing this, but it is surely a weakness in ones position when virtual all of our time is spent on rebuttal and not on proactive argument.

The problem really seems to be, that creationists will eventually reach a point where scientific evidence will no longer do the job they want to do; which is to provide support for their thesis. This is an ancient problem Consider the remark, attributed to Tertullian

“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

Athens was the home of philosophical enquiry, and Jerusalem the home of monotheistic deistic religion. The inference seems clear;  the two areas are clear and distinct from each other; they do not relate. St Augustine would later declare the primacy of faith over reason.

Perhaps you have reached the same impasse with your Young Earth Creationist, who represents Jerusalem, while you are trying to represent Athens?

To give the role of evidence in creationism a more modern role, you might like to read Plantinga’s views. He said that belief in God can be argued as “properly basic” and not in need of any further justification or support from any other disciplines. You do not need what scientists regard as evidence. He has attempted to row back from this position in his later writings, as it seems to be much too permissive as to what can be basic beliefs. Why can’t we regard the “Peanuts” cartoon “The Great Pumpkin” belief  as properly basic?

I am sorry if this does not seem to be the answer you might like to have in your disputation with the Young Creationist. I have tried to show that such disputations will always reach an impasse. Many people will often quote supportive evidence, interrogate conflicting evidence and therefore appear implicitly to suggest that evidence is important. However, if at some point the evidence no longer works for them, who will they do? Will they change or even abandon their position? Or will they ignore evidence?

The inner voice

Goran Schill asked:

Hi, I wonder if the constant inner monologue I have in my self-conscious mind suggests that there is only one part of myself. When I ask myself if I should grab a beer in the fridge, and I hear one voice saying “yes, nice, you deserve it” and another “no, go to the gym and work on your belly instead”, and then there is a will inside me that decides to either close the fridge and go to gym, or open the beer, are these voices and this will just one single unit of myself, or are there two or even three parts of my self-conscious self? One reason I am asking is that I wonder if Plato’s tripartite soul may be at work here: the appetitive (have a beer), the rational (go to gym) and the spirited (will to decide either). Or is this just amateurish hairsplitting?

Answer by Graham Hackett

I often think that, in talking about consciousness, the only serious game in town is the argument between those who believe that human consciousness is a part of us which is separate from our material selves, and those who think we are just body. As human beings, some would say that we are not just our body, physical makeup, phenotype, etc. We also have a soul, a mind, a consciousness; however you wish to designate it. The consciousness is really us, much more so than our physical constitution. 

If you believe that we have a consciousness separate from our physical make-up, then you might get into a secondary discussion about how this works out in practice. Plato liked to think of a “soul” which had the parts you describe, which performed performed various functions such as providing direction (reason), sufficient vigour and vim (spirit) to proceed in this direction, and finally, appetite, (to make sure we are properly sustained our nourished). Freud, regarding himself as rather more scientific than Plato, parcelled us up into id, ego and super-ego. In your own case, you were wondering whether there were different voices, etc, which might decide you either have a beer, go to the gym, or ruminate a bit more about it.

How likely is this? It occurs to me from time to time, that we are making a lot of this up as we go along. We are so strongly sure of the sense of our own selves (think of Descartes “cogito”), that we may be giving ourselves special privileges when we compare ourselves with brute beasts, whom, we surmise, may not have this powerful feeling. I do not wish to be disrespectful to Plato, who has spent a great deal of his powerful intellect building a philosophical position to be admired. However, is there any reason to believe in attempts to divide our consciousness into supposedly functional parts, especially when we might want to query the very concept of consciousness itself?

When I read your amusing description of your soliloquy with your fridge, I was reminded of a famous observation by Hume.

“There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment conscious of what we call our SELF; that we feel its existence and continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of a demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity. …[But] from what impression could this idea be deriv’d? …For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.

“…I may venture to affirm …that [persons] are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement.”

How can you go from your “particular perceptions” of fridge, bottle of beer, pleasure at the contemplation of the beer and guilt at the thoughts about the gym to a feeling that parts of your self are regimenting your responses?

My own particular view of consciousness is strongly influenced by scientific discoveries in neurology and brain function. I think that consciousness is a self-organised emergent property of property of billions of neurons firing in patterns in the brain. This leaves open the question as to whether self-consciousness really exists. Isn’t a property — even a self-organised emergent one — a real thing? It is certainly real enough to help me organise myself about whether I eventually take the beer or go to the gym. Or prevaricate.

Socrates and Mill on the unexamined life

Samantha asked:

In the Apology, Socrates says, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ (38a) Do you think that J.S. Mill would agree? More generally, do they agree about the nature of the good life? Explain why or why not.

Answer by Graham Hackett

I’ll start with a quote from JS Mill

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.” (Utilitarianism)

Sometimes, when we read JS Mill today, we may form the impression that what is being said is glaringly obvious. This is because much of the matter discussed by him has now come to be regarded as settled and received opinion in the 20th century. We know that Socrates (through Plato) believed that everything, even the most taken-for granted concepts, such as courage, prudence, temperance etc should be subjected to the most rigorous questioning. Philosophic examination of this type, plus contemplation of ultimate questions of truth and justice constituted the “examined life” for Socrates. Famously, as you indicate in your question,  Socrates, at his trial  declared that he would choose death rather than live the unexamined life. Lest we get carried away with the nobility of his sentiment, we would have to admit that living the examined life was not something that Socrates thought was a road which should be taken by all. We know that, as described in The Republic, only a small privileged group would be able to do this, thus befitting them for just rule.

Although he may seem like a million miles distant from Socrates, J.S Mill also has a version of an “examined life”, although it is very much different from Socrates version. The source to read for this is “On Liberty”, published in 1859. Of course, the main aim of that essay is that the promotion of liberty and free speech is essential for a healthy body politic, but Mill is eager to argue that it also promotes happiness. 

There are several reasons for a permissive attitude to liberty of thought and speech. Mill says;

“Those who desire to suppress it (a controversial opinion), of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”

In general, freedom of speech enables/ allows people to come to a clear and lively understanding of truths about the world. What amounts to the same thing, the silencing or censorship of expression prevents people from arriving at a clear and vivid understanding of true beliefs about the world. In addition to the promotion of free speech, Mill also has strong views on how science should progress,  Scientific theory should develop using inductive methods, and no theory should ever be regarded as the final word.

My understanding is that as well as being of instrumental significance for a healthy state, the liberties Mill describes, together with his robust views on science give us an alternative view to Socrates as to what might constitute an ‘examined’ life.

So JS Mill would certainly agree with Socrates that the examined life is a desirable one. However, there are points of difference to note between the two. What is it that constitutes the ‘examination’ in this examined life? For Socrates the process is based on theoretical analysis, abstraction  and contemplation. Concepts such as honesty, truth, courage and justice have a real unchangeable metaphysical existence; they can be discovered and known. In comparison, Mill eschews the metaphysical realm, and abandons any attempt to find a priori explanations for our concepts. Truth is a matter of empirical research, and discovering it is an ongoing eternal process. For example, liberty of speech and the resulting improvement in public living, is more than a set of governing practices. It is a culture or way of life of a community defined by equality of membership, reciprocal cooperation, and mutual respect and sympathy located in civic society. On Mill’s view, democratic participation is a way of life that unites two higher pleasures – sympathy and autonomy. 

You also mention, in your question whether Socrates and Mill would agree about what constitutes the good life.  I am a bit less secure about my answer here, but I would assume that, for Socrates, the good life would involve the search for truth and justice, and living in accordance with what one finds. The spirited, appetitive and rational elements of ones soul are in harmony. It is highly likely that Socrates felt that this good life would also deliver happiness.  Mill begins with happiness – his utilitarian approach involves that the goal of life is to maximize it. However, his writings indicate that for him, happiness (utility) is a richly nuanced concept, leading to a concept of the good life every bit as complex as the more metaphysical pursuit of Socrates.

John Stuart Mill on unreasoned belief

 Yasemin asked:

I have trouble understanding this paragraph, can you help me?

“There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make a tenable defence of it against the most superficial objections. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority, naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to be questioned. Where their influence prevails, they make it nearly impossible for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly; for to shut out discussion entirely is seldom possible, and when it once gets in, beliefs not grounded on conviction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument. Waiving, however, this possibility — assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument — this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.”

Answer by Graham Hackett

The author is suggesting that there are still too many people who are willing to base claims of knowledge on faith alone, unsupported by evidence, and suggests that when faith is lacking, or insufficient in itself to sustain belief, too many fall back on authority for support. Not just a case of “believe this”, but “believe this, or else…”.  The author makes the assumption that the truth is something “out there” to be discovered, independent of our minds.

I do not recognise the passage, but the criticism may be aimed at two problem areas.

The first target may be  Fideism, which is the view that claims to knowledge can be  underwritten by faith alone, quite independently of any kind of evidence. There are almost no philosophers, and I would hope (in agreement with the author) fewer and fewer of all kinds of people who would support Fideism. The reason is because it is just too permissive a standpoint; you could hold pretty well any kind of opinion as true provided you could show that people had an active faith-based belief in it. As the author suggests; “this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being.” 

It is quite true that many hold that religious beliefs are only supported by faith. For example, Tertullian, the early christian divine, is alleged to have remarked “what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” Athens would be seen as the home of reason and Jerusalem the home of faith, and Tertullian is clearly making his argument in favour of Jerusalem rather than Athens. Calvin is often cited as settling the argument in favour of faith alone, even suggesting that we have a ‘sensus divinitatus”, a reliable human organ for detecting what beliefs we should have faith in. However, the matter is not quite so straightforward. St Augustine uses the maxim “faith seeking understanding”, and St Aquinas has the famous “Five Ways”, which has five arguments for belief in God, quoting reasons and evidence. These two examples suggest that Christians, at least, were not always happy with relying on faith alone. However, I do not wish to over-egg the pudding, as I do not have any knowledge as to how, in comparison with Christianity, Islam and Judaism deal with this matter.

The other target of the quoted text could be said to relate to the activity, behaviour and character of the believer. There is a great deal to be said for a “due diligence” approach to knowledge aquisition. Have we used all the tools and methods available to us for checking the truth, have we examined the authenticity of all testimony respecting the belief and the credentials of those providing the testimony? In other words, it is not just the catalogue of evidence quoted in favour of a belief which we should consider; it is also “the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being” . To use the language of reliabilism, are we a “reliable instrument for tracking the truth?

I think I would even go one step further in this direction then taken by the writer. Perhaps we should take a leaf from Aristotle’s book, and be prepared to consider the process of gaining knowledge as a set of virtues. There is a recent venture in philosophy known as virtue epistemology, which seeks to explain some knowledge issues as depending to some extent on the character of the agent. Characteristics such as open-mindedness, courage in defending beliefs, thoroughness etc, could be said to be epistemic virtues. If you wish to get the flavour of this kind of thinking, you might read the article “Virtue Epistemology” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, written by J. Turri, M. Alfano, and J. Greco. The writers are all leaders in this field. For them, establishing knowledge becomes an ongoing process conducted by agents displaying different levels of epistemic virtue, rather than a once-for-all discovery of something which is “out there”.

Well, do you think you are a reliable instrument for establishing truth, showing due diligence, and all the right epistemic virtues?