The pursuit of wisdom

Ross asked:

I have a question . Why has modern philosophy abandoned what was the goal of ancient philosophy namely the pursuit of wisdom? Is this a weakness in modern philosophy or were the ancients misguided?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I ask you a question in return: What is wisdom? Maybe you tend, like many people, to think of a grey-bearded old fogey who utters mysterious mantras or is steeped in religion but inclined to an unorthodox point of view? Well, its etymology points to “wis”, derived from the old German “wissen”, which denotes the capacity to think and explain, as well as “witz”, in English “wit”, which used to mean sharpness of intellect. If you are familiar with Shakespeare, you’ll know that this is how he used the word and so did all writers before the 19th century.

This doesn’t leave much room for the prejudice in which you indulge. I can’t see Kant or Hegel, even Heidegger and Wittgenstein having abandoned wisdom. But maybe your real concern is the university circuit and the thousands of academics who write papers and combat each other’s “position” on one or another trifling issue, and otherwise teach the subject in the same way as a physicist or anthropologist or economist would deal with it – facts, doctrines, histories, theories and an undue emphasis on fads and fashions, while you feel that you’re missing out on what is supposed to be “wise” about all this. Unfortunately this is a perspective as old as philosophy itself. Even Thales and Pythagoras, or Plato and Aristotle had their commentators back in the ancient days, some of them far from embracing wisdom, but preferring scurrilous argumentation.

No, there is nothing new under the sun in this respect. What has changed is methodology. Beginning with Galileo in the age of Shakespeare, science began to develop a predominantly empirical, factual, experimental and probative methodology of exact knowledge; and if you look at this closely, you will quickly understand that this comprises a division in the area of “wis”-dom which grew to question features of our existence that cannot be encompassed this way. In spite of which, science has in recent times moved increasingly into research that is intrinsically closed to “factual” theorising; but its prestige in our modern world has burgeoned to such an extent that we are totally intimated and most reluctant to rebut its incursions into such matters as life, mind, art, spirituality etc., as if they were amenable to the same methodology (not to say technology!) that gave us computers, atom bombs and contraceptive pills.

In sum: It is not the case that philosophy has abandoned wisdom; simply that men endowed with wisdom are harder to breed in an environment dominated by the sciences and to some extent by the prior needs of educational curricula. Hence the weakness you perceive can be put down simply to the swings and roundabouts which affect all human activities over time – after all, we haven’t had a second Shakespeare for a few years either, and if Einstein had been born in 1564, he would have been unemployable!

Gene editing and the dignity of ‘the human’

Kelly asked:

Using the ethical theory of deontology criticise and evaluate the practice of gene editing.

Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

One has to put the question in a larger context. The Enlightenment was a great project of improving the lot of mankind by putting each and every institution before the ‘tribulanl of reason’ as Kant put it in a lengthy footnote to the foreword of Critique of Pure Reason (1st ed.).

But since humans are objects of our critical review, we always have some vague idea of what is good and what is not in humans. Otherwise there would be no criminal law reflecting on ‘bad behaviour and punishment’ and no education and civilization either which are meant to keep the human excesses and evil tendencies in check.

But even then, a lot of madness and cruelty remains. And the natural response of the Enlightenment was: What to do about that? But this is only on behaviour, of ‘mentality’. The question of sanity and decency in human conduct.

Now what about the body? We call some people ugly. We call other people ‘challenged’. We call people crippled — either from birth or from accidents.

In our age of improvement we want to correct things to the better. That’s natural.

But in our age of science and technology, we try to prevent bad things from happening. Why repair any bodily or mental aberration after birth and not before? At first sight, there is nothing to object.

On second sight, there is a lot of trouble: Who defines what is good?

Only humans can decide what is good or not in humans. Animals can’t. And robots can’t either. Then we enter the problem of eugenics. The Nazis have demonstrated what this comes to: ‘Kill all Jews, they are aberrations and not the right sort of humans!’ ‘Kill all crippled people, all people with dementia, etc.! They are life not worth living!’

From this derives an ethical principle: ‘Humans are not allowed to define what a human is!’ To be more precise: ‘A human is what is born by a human mother.’

Thus we are in an ethical conundrum: We find it natural to improve things, but a human is not a thing for other humans to define, and thus every improvement has to be executed with greatest reluctance, reflection and circumspection.

It is not the case that nothing can be done. Teachers and MDs and surgeons are improving humans all the time. But they shun back from any general concept of improvement. There is no accepted standard of a good and sane human — whether with respect to the body nor to the mind nor to ‘soul and character’. The accepted principle of all medics is always: ‘Try to remove or alleviate suffering — but nothing else!’ Not even euthanasia is generally accepted.

Now, we all sometimes meet a person who seems perfect: Great looks, great mind, great character, great intelligence, a 10 on almost every skale. There are not many of such people, maybe one in 1000, but we know them from personal experience and call them dream women or dream men or superstars. And don’t look for the dark side. Some are really good. There need not be a dark side. They are not only perfect, they are even truly nice and helpful and humble and ready to learn. They are neither arrogant nor neurotic, they are simply perfect. But only one in thousand — or less.

Now imagine a city of 5-10 million inhabitants like London. Then you may see a small city with 5-10 thousand — the perfect people from London! Every one of them is nice and bright and just perfect. Wouldn’t that be your utopia? The new humanity?

Today there are nearly 8 billion humans inhabiting the Earth. Many of them are poor and wretched and some cruel and repellent. What about extracting from these 8 million perfect specimens and get rid of the others and start humanity from scratch? Something like this was on the minds of Hitler and Himmler and some others.

Now you see the real problem. It is not just ‘deontology’. It is a fundamental problem of human existence: ‘What sort of people should there be?’

Look up https://www.amazon.com/What-People-Should-There-Pelican/dp/0140222243/

For the time being, human engineering is a technical problem: We simply do not know what we do. Thus genetic engineers are reluctant to do much if anything. Only in some cases, preventive measures are allowed even by the Catholic Church. And killing people ‘that are not perfect’ is a no go. But what if genetic engineering becomes really precise? Then people may sue their parents : ‘You could have prevented me! You could have known from my genes that I have this handicap!’

The next step would be to enter the project of trans- and posthumanism: Start creating perfect humans all over again! Look up https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumanism

This is not killing ‘deficient humans’. There is no natural objection to improving humans. It is called the paradox of transhumanism that ‘improving the human’ may coincide with ‘replacing humans by something better’.

Then we are in the center of metaphysical anthropology: What would we call ‘the essence of humanity’?

Do not even think of ‘man in the image fo God’! We do not think of God as having two legs and two arms, a belly and a head. So what does ‘in the image of God’ come to? It must be something spiritual. But what exactly? A creative mind? And what if a smart computer displays a creative mind? Would the computer be built ‘in the image of God’?

Once you start genetic engineering of humans there is much much more to it than mere gene editing and IVF. You are right in the middle of metaphysical humanism.

This is only a starter, just some hints. And now that you have seen the whole picture, you may get to your original question on the details.

Look up https://www.amazon.com/Posthumanism-Stefan-Herbrechter/dp/1780936060/

Why bother studying ancient philosophy? (2)

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 Peter Jones

In an academic context ancient and modern philosophy are no different. The problems are the same and the thinking is the same. No progress has been made in the interval. Thus Lord Whitehead could characterize the history of Western thought as ‘footnotes to Plato’.

There is a strange idea circulating that modern science has allowed philosophy to make progress but this is clearly not the case. There is no evidence that it is likely to make progress in the next thousand years. If modern psychology and science has led to philosophical progress as you say then I’m sure philosophers would have noticed and reported it. Yet I know of no examples.

Whether we need ancient philosophy will depend on which philosophy we are talking about.  Do you mean the Rig Veda or Socrates, the Tao Te Ching or Democritus? The age of a philosophy is irrelevant to its usefulness and truth. The most ancient philosophy is the Perennial philosophy, and as this is the only philosophy that works and allows us to answer metaphysical questions. I would suggest we need ancient philosophy and do not need the modern kind.  But one has to pick and choose among a host of ancient thoughts and ideas. It is hopeless speaking of ‘ancient’ or ‘modern’ philosophy as if either presents a unified set of ideas.

From a certain perspective your question is sad since nobody with an education should need to ask it, but the faults of our education system are not yours. You need only note that modern philosophy is no more able to explain metaphysics than Plato and possibly less so, while those who claim to be able to do may appear in any age. Those who claim to be able to do so are responsible for the earliest human written texts, the Vedas, the Tao Te Ching and so forth, and modern philosophy has yet to catch up, but these ancient texts and the ideas they contain simply is modern philosophy if we are alive today and endorse their explanation.

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.

Morals – where do we stand with them?

Douglas asked:

The phrase “the blind leading the blind” is a reference to moral choice. It appears over 100 times in the Bible. Is it possible to reintroduce moral choice effectively to a person? I’ve found no success. How to pose a moral dilemma to a person in denial?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I don’t agree that the phrase is about morals. It has a much wider use as a metaphor of certain aspects of the human condition. That it appears 100 times in the Scriptures (including the New Testament) is therefore hardly noteworthy. However, the scriptures lay great stress on an underlying notion of (dis)obedience, which could be taken as the focus of moral behaviour — but this is debatable and not everyone would see it that way. We might e.g. take into consideration that it is not uncommon for biblical protagonists to argue with God about the disparity between his and their own sense of justice. Hence it is also useful to compare the Sermon of the Mount, where we find 90 mentions of reward and punishment without a single instance of faith as a blessing in its own right.

So it occurs to me that you have inadvertently pre-loaded your question with an illicit association of the Christian religion with morality. Now this happens to be a highly topical issue for us today, in an age of weakening faith which induced many writers (religious and secular alike) to a call for reflection, along the lines of “are morals possible without religion?” Therein lies in fact the answer to the preloading I referred to.

For it fails to take account two facts that cannot be left out of sight: First, that Christianity is today embedded in a global network of religions and regarded even by many of its followers as no more than an equal to several others. Second, that the historical record of practical Christian morality exhibits several phases of horrifying derailment (e.g. witch burning) that one would prefer to forget as they can scarcely be used for an advertisement.

Add to this an apparently growing disaffection with both Christian morality and spirituality and we are homing in on the burning focus of your question — for which the real issue is not how to reintroduce moral choice or how to pose moral dilemmas to doubters, but rather how to re-ignite a remedial sense of moral hope into Christian societies.

I will not pretend that I have the solution to hand. Yet there is one aspect you need to be better aware of: namely, is that morality is not a code — unlike the rules of ethics or the legal systems of nations, moral rules are not written down, but mostly taught by word of mouth and example, and drawn from the customs and traditions of whatever social collective one belongs to. Inevitably, therefore, they frequently differ from one cultural realm to another, from one religion to another, even from one village or city to another; and in addition they change much more often than ethics or laws in reponse to external influences. This opens the door for anyone who wishes to make such a claim that all morals are relative, temporary and subjective, as well as relying on authoritarian figures and/or institutions imposing them in their own interests rather than that of the people. Taken together, they form a considerable impediment to the wishes implied in your question.

Ethical egoism

Kadekiwala asks:

Suppose one of your friends tells you that the meaning of life is nothing other than “get yours while you can” (take what you can get out of life while you have the opportunity). What philosophical theory of meaning of life does this view belong to? Identify, explain and evaluate.

Answer from Craig Skinner

Identify: my friend is not telling me how things are (people are selfish – Psychological Egoism). Rather, she is advising how we should be (Ethical Egoism).

Explain: it’s the ethical viewpoint, that I should consider only my own interests. As with non-egoistical views, I can think of it in utilitarian terms (act to maximize happiness -mine, that is), or deontologically (do my duty – to myself of course, I have no duty to others).

Evaluate: there is no knockdown argument to convince a determined egoist to change her ways. We are not asking why people in general should go along with society’s norms. Without this, our lives, as Hobbes said, would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. No, the egotist wants to live in a generally moral society, but to take advantage of it in her own self-interest, if she can get away with it without loss of reputation. In short, she is what Hume calls “a sensible knave” and he confesses to having no good answer to the determined, careful, egoist.

Plato had a go. His Republic tells the story of Gyges who finds an invisibility ring, and, using its powers, kills the king, marries the queen, becomes rich. Glaucon asks Socrates which of us would act differently, challenging him to prove that it is always better to be moral (“just”) rather than immoral even if the latter goes undetected and brings great benefit. Socrates says immorality damages the soul, and even claims that a moral person who is reviled, rejected, and unfairly regarded as immoral is still happier than an undetected egoist who is rich and well-respected. Most readers find Glaucon’s question more compelling than Socrates’ answer.

Suggested justifications for not being egoistic are:

  1. God commands it.
  2. Makes for a fulfilling life.
  3. Irrational to do otherwise.

1. Even assuming there are any gods, obeying for fear of punishment or hope of reward smacks of egoism in any case. Of course we should obey because what is commanded is good. But the egoist disagrees and we are no further on.

2. Socrates’, Aristotle’s and Hume’s view. Virtue is necessary for eudaimonia (flourishing) according to our nature as rational, social animals. I have sympathy with this view, that the ruthless, wealthy mobster, forever looking over his shoulder, “respected” by his peers, feared by many, loved by few or none, is ignorant of what constitutes real happiness. But I accept that the sensible knave can simply say it’s crazy to deny Gyges had a great life, married a queen, ruled a kingdom, what more do you want.

3. Kant’s view. The moral law is what we legislate for ourselves as rational autonomous beings, to not follow it would be irrational.. But again, the egoist simply says she formulates maxims for her own interests and rationally follows them.

For completeness, recent attempts by Nagel, Parfit and Alison Hills to cast doubt on the coherence of the egoist position, are, in my view, no more convincing.

But here we are no worse off than when trying to convince the determined sceptic that the external world exists. I think, with Aristotle and the virtue ethicists, that we have reason to be moral: it is the way to a fulfilled life, although luck, good and bad, also plays a big part.

Finally, if my friend had said that the “meaning of life is nothing” full stop, rather than “…nothing other than etc”, that would be Nihilism, which has no necessary connection with ethical egoism, but that’s another story.