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.

On miracles

Melissa asked:

I have a good friend whom I’ve known since she was born. She grew up in a really religious family, I had no problem with her telling me some things about her belief and God until she met an old friend, who also is from an religious family.

This girl has told me some stories which gave me goosebumps. Things like she had screws in her leg because of a car accident and when they had to operate her leg to get those screws out the doctors said that the screws mysteriously disappeared. Another story was that she ran away from someone and climbed on an old garage roof. The roof collapsed under her feet but with the power of god she was able to jump 2 meters back on the roof.

My friend unfortunately does believe all those stories of her and I feel like she is getting to deep into those things. I hope that you can give me advice or a second opinion on this.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Let’s get this straight, Melissa. A friend of a friend of yours is one of many people around the world — millions, in fact — who believe in miracles. You are very unlikely to find anyone here (on a web site devoted to philosophy) who believes in miracles, so you would not be totally surprised if we said, ‘We don’t believe, etc.’

However, that is not in the least bit helpful to you. To anyone belonging to the large group of ‘believers in miracles’, philosophers are miserable sceptics who wouldn’t recognize ‘the truth’ even if it slapped them in the face. You can imagine the response if you said to your friend that a philosopher had said to you, etc., and your friend said to her friend that a philosopher had told her friend, etc.

A long line of Popes (to quote just one example) have presided over canonizations based on reports of miracles, which they presumably believed. Catholicism (to name just one religion) has given the seal of approval to the belief in miracles. — Well, I’m not going to tell you my politically incorrect opinion about this!

David Hume, in his book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) gives a concise and persuasive account of why we should not believe in miracles. I will summarize Hume’s central argument, which is about probability, using an up-to-date example.

Probability is involved everywhere, when we form beliefs. Take the news, for example. You read or hear a news report and you think, ‘I just don’t believe that. It couldn’t possibly happen.’ A tiger is loose in the Florida Keys and is attacking local residents. The report could turn out to be true (recently a tiger escaped from a nearby zoo) or false (the ‘tiger’ is just an unusually large wild cat). But without more information you have to make a judgement call.

That’s all scientists do. They look for the best theory. Sometimes it turns out that the ‘best theory’ is false. Theories are in a constant process of testing and appraisal. However, one assumption of the scientific enterprise is that the universe is law governed. If that assumption turned out to be wrong (which it could conceivably be) then everything we had so far found out about how the universe works would be trashed. If miracles of the kind you describe do actually happen, then we can say good bye to science. As Hume says, it would be ‘a greater miracle’ if that turned out to be the case. It is more probable that reports of miracles are false, than that the universe is not law governed.

Improbable, but not impossible. There is a hypothesis that is taken seriously, ‘Simulation Theory’, according to which the entire universe is a computer simulation, like ‘the Matrix’. In the Matrix ‘laws can be bent’. Anyone who has played a 3D computer game is familiar with this. Monsters can appear from nowhere, and then disappear without a trace. If Simulation Theory were true, there could be vampires, zombies, werewolves, screws could disappear from broken legs, and girls could do a standing jump of two meters. (Women athletes have jumped higher than two meters, using the ‘Fosbury Flop’ technique but that requires a short run-up.)

There is to date, so far as I am aware, no evidence in favour of Simulation Theory, which is why I called it a ‘hypothesis’. It’s something we can imagine, like Descartes’ ‘evil demon’. Which is not to rule out the possibility at some time in the future evidence might turn up that points to the possibility that the hypothesis may be true, after all.

Don’t even bother to try to tell your friend this, because it won’t make any impression. Your friend’s friend is in no danger, however. She doesn’t need to be ‘saved’. There are millions like her, as I have indicated, who are perfectly happy with their beliefs and their world view. She is ‘crazy’ by my lights — the lights of a trained philosopher — but safely so. If she starts doing crazy things, then that’s another matter, in which case a call to social services might be needed.

The nature of time and the age of the Earth

Robert asked:

What is the age of the Earth if time does not exist?

Answer by Peter Jones

If time does not exist then the Earth has no age so the question is odd as stated, but I know what you mean.

To make sense of the metaphysical non-existence of time, the idea that time is reducible, it is necessary to view the psycho-physical world as an aspect of Reality, the other aspect being unmanifest, timeless and placeless.

This double-aspect approach is explained and discussed at length by Hermann Weyl in hie writings on the continuum. He points out that we do not experience the passing of time but create it as a theory.  This leads to a dual-aspect approach for which time is contingent, albeit real enough in everyday life. This is the orthodox approach in the Perennial tradition and so we we see, for instance, that Meister Eckhart warns us against becoming too involved with time since it is not truly real.  The Buddhist sage Nagarjuna proves this and gives us his dual-aspect doctrine of ‘Two Truths’ for which nothing is really real. If you look around you’ll see that nobody who ‘reifies’ time as a fundamental phenomenon can make sense of it.

To reduce time we have to reduce all time-based phenomena. Thus your question is muddled. It reifies the planet Earth but rejects the reality of time. But time and time-based phenomena have to be reduced all together or not at all. The doctrine that time is not really real requires that the Earth is not really real along with its multifarious inhabitants.

Thus for the conventional or naively-real aspect the age of the Earth is a few billion years, while for an ultimate view or ‘metaphysically’ it has no age or true existence. Note that the idea is not that time does not exist but, rather, that existence is not what we usually think it is, such that time does not ‘really’ or truly exist as any more than a conceptual phenomenon .  Kant may also be worth a read on this topic.

A dual-aspect approach is vital since the extreme idea that time does not exist is clearly nonsense. Time clearly exists in a sense and the question is only in what sense. All this is explained in the literature of the Perennial tradition.

Space, time and reality

Robert asked:

What is the age of the Earth if time does not exist?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Good question! What a predicament for all of us, not just philosophers, to be told on one hand that time flows, which ought to mean it is a measurable quantity as our clocks show us; or, in the view of eternity, there is no such thing as time.

However, it is only a human dilemma. To understand the world as the theatre where past, present and future rules, we need a constant that hovers over temporality – something that ticks impartially in the background with unwavering regularity, but has no beginning nor end. We take in our stride (or try to ignore) that such an infinite clockwork makes it impossible to identify a moment in time, as likewise it is impossible to assign to any temporal occasion a definite location in infinite space. We need such a constant to deputise for the one thing we don’t have: a reference point at rest in the centre.

And so we devise conceptual makeshifts such as the fabled ‘big bang’, to which we cling as a feature to help us with ontological reasoning. We need this sort of thing so that science can operate instrumentally, e.g. measuring time as well as space by using the velocity of light in a vacuum as a constant. Yet light is also a phenomenon, and so we go round in circles.

Hence the answer to your specific question must be detached from the dubious conception of time as some kind of res fluidum. The age of the earth is simply a number that answers to its orbital motions around the sun, retrofitted to the moment of its ejection from the sun. It is a very inaccurate measure, since the length of each of those years is not a fixed quantity – consider that the very word “year” defines “1 orbit”, which varies constantly even now and compels us to insert leap years every now and then – but only God knows the length of leap years over a span of several billion years!

All this is bamboozling in high degree. Factually regarded the Earth’s age is not measurable by any means at our disposal. Whatever age our scientists derive from the solar carousel must revert to human intuition; and this would not ensure that the numbers associated with the genesis of the solar system are intelligible – if they were doubled or even multiplied by a hundred, would anyone genuinely comprehend the difference?

In sum: Make do. Don’t worry about time and space and how to reconcile their infinitude with a concrete distance/duration with which you can associate empirically. An existent cannot be finite and infinite. In fact, an existent cannot be infinite, as all existents are made of finite parts. But being finite, they must exist in time, i.e. to begin at one time and end at another. And now the only means at our disposal to unravel this question is to consult Einstein’s relativity. However be prepared for more perplexity here, because with “curved space” and “time dilation” the aforesaid problems return with full force.

Not a satisfactory answer to your question, I agree; but I suspect there really is no answer. Which may be one reason why philosophers have struggled with these conceptions ever since Anaximander put the idea of an “apeiron” (boundless cosmos) on the map nearly 2600 years ago.