Deleuze on change

James asked:

If, according to Deleuze, all change and movement is essentially differential or emergent, how does he distinguish between everyday change and the kind of creative or evolutionary change that surprises and delights us?

Answer by Georgios Tsagdis

The question could be better phrased. In the first instance, it is worth querying what couples creativity with biological evolution — Bergson, a major influence for Deleuze, wrote a book about it — but the answer that is required to class together and elevate these two changes from among the rest, is far from apparent.

Secondly, one might ask why other kinds of change should be all that different, and what types of difference are considered. Deleuze will evoke the example of water evaporating when heated. A gradual quantitative change results in a radical and abrupt qualitative change of state. One type of change turning into another is a very familiar phenomenon.

The emphasis on the question is a long line that runs from Socrates to Derrida and beyond. The clarity of the question itself is preferable to a poorly prepared answer, an answer proceeding upon a misunderstood question. Clarifying the question itself will be more effective, even if no answer follows or even if it is decided that no answer can follow.

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.

Are there basic, universal virtues?

Celo asked:

Are there any basic universal virtues? Do virtues change based on time, place and social context?

Answer by Paul Fagan

If we accept that human beings evolved from apes, which had to live together in some harsh environments, then it would be sensible to assume that virtues evolved and allowed them to survive this experience. For instance, the virtue of sharing would have been essential in order to share food in times of scarcity. But prior to sharing food, one would have to realise that one of your compatriots was hungry and this would require one to have the virtue of compassion. From this simple scenario, it should be noticeable that plural virtues were seemingly necessary for the survival of our ancestors. Hence, it may be expected that there should be basic, universal virtues lodged within human beings.

The problem for our ancestors is that they may have also had to face adversity of such a magnitude that it outweighed these basic virtues. For instance, if you only could obtain enough food to ensure your own survival, then you would need to be able to override both virtues of sharing and compassion. Consequently, the basic virtues may have been accompanied by an innate rationale which was also important.

With regard to the second part of your question, inquiring whether virtues change with time, place and social context, then it is certainly true that moralities may change on this basis: the society that one finds oneself in often sets the morality that one believes to be righteous (please see my previous articles What is a moral environment? and The consequences of cultural relativism). To explain, if a society exists with little food, then eating moderately may be considered to be a virtue: in order to ensure food for all. However, in a society with an abundance of food, having a voracious appetite may be considered virtuous: as less food would go to waste. Here differing virtues have been constructed, and although both are based upon the asset of food, they differ markedly due to food’s availability.

Although we may see ethical values changing both through time and place, there would be opponents to the above argument, who may claim that too much emphasis is being placed upon the exterior behaviour of persons. They may believe that there is a deeper, underlying morality that links human beings: for example, they may note that whatever society we live in, we all feel the same disgust when our leaders abuse their positions of power to enrich themselves. The problem here is that not all persons would be disgusted and some may be pleased that their leaders have done ‘well’ for themselves; moreover they may wish to do likewise if placed in the same position of power. Hence, a complex tapestry of virtues and rationale seem to be operating at all times

In concluding, although there are specific values that we may recognise as virtues, they are often intertwined with other values that we may not. It is not an area where philosophers may give a simple answer, and it may be worth the inquisitive reader’s while to consult with psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists in order to gain a fuller view.

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.

The two truths of 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 Peter Jones

The subtleties and complexities of these issues would normally prevent me from attempting an answer but by explaining them so his answer Dr. Klempner has made life relatively easy. I would endorse his criticisms of the various views he mentions.

While the theory of Solipsism as commonly defined and formulated is of no use to man or beast, most forms of it being blatantly absurd, the unfalsifiability of Solipsism is of vital importance in philosophy and consequently of vital importance to all of us. It means that we cannot falsify the Perennial explanation of Solipsism and of why it is unfalsifiable. This would be consistent with the truth of its explanation.

If we reject the various forms of Solipsism noted by Dr. Klempner then there is just one remaining. This would be form of Solipsism described by the Buddhist philosopher-monk Noble Nagarjuna in the second-century CE. This is both an ontological and ethical theory as for him these two areas of knowledge cannot be separated.

The idea that we cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ is peculiarly scholastic or ‘Western’ idea and the opposite of the truth. There would be no other way to derive an ‘ought’ except from an ‘is’ and it is as a consequence of this, as you will note from looking around you, that when we do not know what ‘is’ we are left with a choice between believing in some sort of highly judgemental monotheistic Leviathan or just doing what we feel like doing.

Nagarjuna explains ‘what is’ and in so doing explains the unfalsifiability of Solipsism. This is his famous ‘Two Truths’ doctrine, a didactic device explaining why not just Solipsism but all metaphysical questions are undecidable. It would be because the multiplicity of individual sentient beings would be contingent, not fundamental. For a fundamental analysis nothing would really exist or ever really happen. The fundamental nature of Reality would be beyond conceptualisation due to the nature of what it is. Lao Tsu tells us everything follows from what the Tao is and if Tao is fundamental then this is inevitable. The fundamental nature of Reality would be undifferentiated, the ‘Unity’ or ‘Unicity’ spoken of by the mystics. This would be all that is truly real and it is denoted in the literature as the ‘Real’.

This ‘Unity’ would encompass all of us and award us our reality as individual instances of ‘me’ and ‘my world’. There is no suggestion that nothing exists, only that contrary to our usual idea Existence is not fundamental. We tend to imagine Existence is fundamental but mysticism says it is mental and reduces to a prior state. This would be the reason why Solipsism is unfalsifiable.

At a conventional level of analysis for which ‘me’ and ‘my world’ seem to be truly real Solipsism is clearly false. If we endorse naive realism then it will appear to be absurd and its unfalsififiabilty will seem just another ‘barrier to knowledge’. For a fundamental analysis, however, Solipsism would be true. There would just one real phenomenon and it would be Me. Not just me but you and every instance of ‘me’ there could ever be.

So, on this view  Solipsism would be true and false. We cannot rigorously state it is either without denying the dual-aspect nature of Reality.  It would not be rigorous to say Solipsism is true or false and this would be why it is unfalsifiable. It cannot be formulated is such a way that it is true or false. Scholastic philosophers can easily formulate various versions of Solipsism and work out none of them make sense, but they cannot work out why logic and experience cannot finally falsify it. As far as we can tell from our own experience and our own logical analysis it might be true. Nagarjuna and the Perennial philosophy explain why this is.  It would be because it is not exactly false.

This would be what Heidegger proposes when he explains altruistic behaviour, a phenomenon biologists are still trying to explain, as ‘the breakthrough of a metaphysical truth’. He is saying that the true nature of Reality is such that we can derive an ethical scheme from ‘what is’, and this is because at the level of what truly is ‘we’ are in fact ‘One’. It would be an intuition of our common identity, an experience of empathy with the other, that generates truly altruistic behaviour. Altruism would be motivated by an intuition that Solipsism is in some sense true. Thus when we help others we help ourselves. The distinction between selfishness and altruism breaks down.

Nagarjuna’s explanatory doctrine of ‘Two Truths’  or ‘Worlds’ explains why metaphysical problems are undecidable. It is a difficult doctrine to understand but profoundly simple in its application. When you find yourself confronted by a metaphysical dilemma such as Solipsism you just endorse Compatibilism, This is not quite what Nagarjuna suggests but it would be a first approximation and it works. All you would be doing is rejecting all the extreme theories that are known not to work. The difficulty is not applying this idea but making sense of it. It is said that it would be impossible to do this merely by thinking about it, but this is not to say there would be no point in doing so.

A general name for this view is ‘non-dualism’. It is the rejection of all extreme metaphysical views. It is the proposal that all ‘oughts’ derive from the same ‘is’ and that we are It. Reality would be ‘advaita’ or ‘not-two’. It would follow that sentient beings should be nice to each other and help each other out, just as they nice and helpful to themselves. The reason we behave differently would be that it is not an easy task to learn who we really are and thus know that Solipsism is not entirely false. A complete realisation is called ‘Enlightenment’.  Philosophers everywhere at least generally agree that all other ideas are unworkable, for this is why they generally agree that metaphysical questions are undecidable.

The good news is that if Nagarjuna is right then once you begin to understand the unfalsifiability of Solipsism you will begin to understand the unfalsifiability of all such problems. Thus while his view is not easy to get to grips with you may find it considerably simplifies philosophy.

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 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.