Existentialism and reverse thinking

Geoff asked:

I heard a great line the other day that went something like “my fear of death is just my love of life, reversed” and I thought it was really interesting. I was wondering if there is any other type of philosophy I could read about that follows this same kind of reverse thinking.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

its been a while since I had a question from a Geoffrey with a ‘G’. Of all the variations on the name this is considered by many to be the best. Congratulations on that! (I mention this because there have been one or two occasions when I asked myself a question, but this is not one of those occasions.)

I get it. I know exactly what you mean about reverse thinking. In the case of the fear of death, however, it is precisely because we love life that there is, or seems to be, something to fear. And that is the problem. If you love a certain someone, then this is inseparable to the fear of his or her death, or your permanent separation from them. Imagine saying to yourself, as you see death approaching you, ‘I love life, I love life…’. How does that help? The thing you love, your own dear life, is about to be taken away from you!

You asked for ‘another type of philosophy… that follows this same kind of reverse thinking’. I believe there is. It’s an issue connected with existentialism and in particular, nihilism. Existentialism can be seen as a reaction to the death of God (Nietzsche) or the notion that there exists nothing in reality corresponding to the meanings we confer on things and events in our lives. According to the existentialist, our own free decisions are the only thing that can create meaning. My love of country, to take a random example, is the result of my free decision, which then imposes duties on me that would not have arisen otherwise. For example, the duty to fight to defend my country if the need should arise.

Of course, you could say that I never actually decided to love my country, because I have always been a patriot. But that is not the point. Patriotism is not self-justifying. That’s what a philosopher like Jean-Paul Sartre would say. Consider, for example, if you are a German during the reign of Hitler. There is always a question, a decision to make, says the existentialist.

The problem with this philosophy is that the meanings that the existentialist ‘creates’ are paper-thin. To be an existentialist is to see the truth, the reality, which is bare of all meaning, save that which we invent, or confer. It is a world of dreams or fantasy. As you stare through the tinsel covering at what lies underneath, reality stares back: blank, empty of meaning, terrifying.

This is where reverse thinking comes into play.

Reality is not literally blank. it is only the supposed ‘meaning’ of things that has been stripped away. The facts are still the facts for example, the existence of billions or trillions of galaxies in the universe. I don’t need to look for the meaning of this startling fact. Using reverse thinking, if nothing has any meaning, that is equivalent to saying that nothing has any special meaning. Everything has the same meaning. The world, the universe, is absolutely jam-packed with meaning!

You could compare the point about meaning with the famous ‘duck-rabbit’ image that psychologists of perception talk about (referenced by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations) or even the popular notion that the pessimist sees the glass half empty while the optimist sees the glass half full. Existentialists talk a lot about ‘choice’ but don’t realize that to see the world as the existentialist sees it is itself a choice. I don’t have to pull ‘meaning’ out of a hat. It is everywhere you look.

Before you dismiss this as mere word-play, consider two facts that I have mentioned several times in these pages: the fact that there exists anything at all, and the fact that I am here, experiencing it. There might not have been a universe, but given that a universe exists, I might not have been here to recognize that momentous fact.

There is no emotion appropriate to recognition of the existence of a universe, or recognition of my own existence. Be glad or be sad, be joyful or terrified it makes no difference. Because everything is equally full of meaning, you are free to make of things what you will, to pick out the aspects that interest or move you, to ignore those that do not. By contrast, the existentialists ploy is a solution to a non-problem, a transparent ruse that persuades no-one (even those who call themselves existentialists). In short, it is double-think. Meaning cannot be created, it can only be recognized.

That’s a philosophy worthy of a name, however, to date, I have not found one. As a matter of historical fact, the thought first came to me back around 1980, when I was sitting outside the beer cellar in the gardens of University College Oxford, after swigging a couple of bottles of delicious Cornish ale. As always, I had my little notebook with me, where I would jot down ideas for my D.Phil thesis. I wrote, ‘Everything has a flip side‘. So for want of a better name, call this Klempner’s ‘beer-cellar philosophy’.

The later Wittgenstein’s notion of a ‘picture’

Howard asked:

Hello there. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on what exactly a picture was for the later Wittgenstein. It is a term he draws on very often, but as is characteristic, doesn’t seem interested in giving an exhaustive definition. What would you say is a good way of approaching the notion? Thanks.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In order to answer your question, Howard, I need to say something about what a ‘picture’ was for the early Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein’s theory of an elementary proposition as a ‘picture’ of a state of affairs was inspired by a court case, where models were used to describe a traffic accident. Crucial here is the notion of ‘logical multiplicity’, where the possibilities of combination of linguistic elements map onto the possibilities of combination of the ‘objects’ in the world that the individual elements ‘name’. It’s a notion we are all familiar with, e.g. in the debate between analogue and digital recording. Some information is lost in a digital recording, the only question is whether this loss is above or below the threshold of the human ear.

In his later writings, e.g. in Philosophical investigations, Wittgenstein scorned the idea that meaning could be accounted for in terms of ‘picturing’, on the grounds that there are many linguistic ‘games’ and describing or ‘mapping’ states of affairs is only one of them. His use of the term ‘picture’, however, is almost exclusively concerned with the contrast between a picture and a meaningful thought, or ‘move in the language game’. Some uses of words only look like moves in the language game, whereas in reality, ‘one turns a wheel although nothing turns with it’.

A couple of non-philosophical examples illustrate the idea. A question Wittgenstein once posed to his students goes like this: Imagine a rope tied around the Earth (or, if you prefer, a sphere the size of the Earth). Now add one yard to the rope and stretch it tight, using stilts to hold the rope above the ground. How high are the stilts?

Most persons, without thinking, would say that the stilts must be tiny, since the Earth is very large compared to the one yard of added rope. Wrong! Believe it or not, the stilts are approximately six inches. If you don’t believe me, do the calculation yourself, using the formula, Pi x 2r = c, where r is the radius (the distance from the surface of the Earth to the centre) and c is the circumference (the original length of the rope around the Equator).

Here’s another example, also from Wittgenstein. In a classroom discussion, a student remarked that ancient peoples believed that the Sun goes around the Earth because, ‘that’s the way it looks’. Wittgenstein then asked, ‘And how would it look otherwise?!’ Try this for yourself. How would things ‘have to look’ if it looked as if the Earth goes round the Sun? Maybe what you ‘picture’ is the sensation of going around a roundabout in a car. But that fails to take account of the sheer scale of the solar system’s ’roundabout’.

On the philosophical front, a particular focus of the later Wittgenstein was the way we use (or, rather, misuse) terms suitable for describing material objects for mental ‘states’ and ‘objects’. The classic example is Descartes’ ‘theatre’ of the mind, where mental ‘objects’ pass along the ‘stage’. A certain way of thinking appeals to the imagination (the ‘picture’) which blinds us to the way these terms actually function in the real world, their ‘use in the language game’. However, the same error can also arguably be found on the opposite side, as illustrated by Bishop Berkeley’s description of external objects as mere ‘perceptions in the mind’.

Once you start looking for ‘pictures’, you see them everywhere. Not surprising, because so much of language — particularly, the language we use to describe our mental states — is more or less metaphorical. There’s no harm in this, Wittgenstein would say, provided that we keep this in mind when we do philosophy.

I’ve forgotten the reason why I must avoid doing X

Yakub asked:

I haven’t recently thought about something that would be a reason to not do a particular action. However I forgot what it was so I’m not sure if it was right. Let’s call this thought thought A. However this thing refuted a thought I had in my head (let’s call it thought B) that I was allowed to do the thing that thought A ruled out. Now I know for sure what thought B is, yet I don’t know what thought A is although I’m sure it refuted thought B. Yet I don’t know if it refuted it correctly. I’m not even 100 percent sure thought B is correct but I do remember it. So should I not do the thing or am I still allowed to do it? Please do not say it is my choice or something like that. I want the answer of what would be the smartest option.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Yakub, I know exactly what you mean, although I am pretty sure that this is the very first time we have had this question. So, well done for that!

I hope you don’t mind my rewording your question a little, although I can imagine many readers still puzzling over this. The smartest option? Speaking as someone who is more than a little forgetful, the smartest option is to wait until you remember what thought A was. Or maybe it’s written down somewhere, e.g. in a notebook. Or ask someone who knows you well.

Seriously, this could be a matter of life and death!

The easiest way to illustrate your problem is with examples. Here’s one: Across town is a shop that sells my favourite brand of cigars. I don’t visit there very often, but when I do I like to restock my humidor. Let’s say, my humidor hasn’t been restocked for a while, and having nothing better to do I decide to pay a visit to my cigar shop tomorrow. But there’s a nagging thought in my head that I can’t quite remember. What was it? The next morning I wake up, and remember that the last time I passed my cigar shop on the bus, it had closed down and is now a nail parlour!

If I hadn’t remembered what my thought A was, I would have journeyed across town, discovered that the cigar shop was no longer there and returned home disappointed. So not a life-or-death matter. But this illustrates one aspect of your problem, which has to do with risk and consequences. If the likely risk is not very great — in this case just a wasted journey — then if you have a strong enough reason to do B then by all means have a go.

But let us now imagine a different case. Feeling a bit under the weather I pay a visit to my local physician. I describe my symptoms. The doctor takes my pulse and temperature, gives me a short examination and prescribes drug X. ‘Take this three times a day, and you will feel better in no time.’ But there’s a nagging thought in my head. And then at the last minute I remember: ten years ago when I was in hospital, I was told by a consultant that I am allergic to drug X and just one dose could kill me!

These are elementary examples, but they illustrate the point. A more realistic scenario — one that I myself have experienced — might be something like this. I want to upgrade the system on my desktop computer. There’s a particular improvement I want to make, that would make my desktop run a lot faster, but didn’t I try this a year ago? What exactly went wrong? Or did I consider making the upgrade and then change my mind when I came across a warning on Google? I can’t remember. So, what are the likely consequences? I can try again, and discover that the upgrade doesn’t work. That’s two hours wasted. Or I can try again, and destroy my hard drive, losing all my precious files. The question is: am I willing to take the gamble? In this case, the best option might be to search Google before trying anything else.

In short, my answer to your question is, it all depends on the circumstances. Try to remember. Gather what information you can. It is a matter of your choice, whether you go ahead with the action or not, but this is not not an arbitrary choice. You have to consider the possible consequences of your proposed action and make a judgement.

Through the eyes of Beyonce

Kati asked:

Since I was a child, I have wondered why I look out of my eyes and not someone else’s. I am seeing the world through my eyes from this body with a mind that knows I can only see the reflection of my face. If I am seeing through my specific set of eyes, and with this realization, do I have a greater purpose? I have asked many people if they ponder this though, but almost all have no clue what I’m talking about. Most say, “You are looking out of your eyes because those are yours and someone else’s eyes are theirs.”. That is not at all the inquiry; absolutely logical and generic. My therapist chalked this up to “depersonalization” or “derealization”, but this is a wonder I have had since elementary school.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you for this question, Kati. There is nothing wrong with you. I’ve answered variations of this question before. From my experience, less than ten per cent of human beings are puzzled by this, and few of those who experience the puzzlement are able to find the words to express it. I once called it the ‘idiotic conundrum’ but I have come to see it as neither foolish nor idiotic although it remains a conundrum, a puzzle for which I cannot see a solution.

First of all, we need to eliminate a popular misconception. Let’s say you get up one morning in a strange bedroom. You go to the mirror and look at your face and you see the familiar features of Beyoncé. Looking around your bedroom, you see the trappings of luxury that you could never afford. But you are still you and not Beyoncé. You have your memories and not Beyoncé’s. Your speaking voice may be Beyoncé’s voice but you can’t sing, you don’t have the skill or experience. To imagine being Beyoncé is to imagine your not existing and Beyoncé existing in your place.

There is a better way to express your puzzlement. Imagine a universe exactly like the present universe down to the tiniest detail. But you are not there. In your place is someone exactly like you down to the tiniest detail, a person called ‘Kati’ who posted this same question on ‘Ask a Philosopher’, word for word. But you are not that person. Or as I state in my recent book, I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place.

You might be tempted to explain this by saying that you are a ‘soul’ and your exact doppelganger has a different ‘soul’. The problem with this imagined solution is that a soul is just a thing or ‘substance’ as Descartes called it. The same problem arises with soul substance as for material substance. If a material body can be duplicated so can the soul. It’s a non-solution. If you woke up one morning with a different ‘soul’ you would still be you — a point made by John Locke, in his parable of the prince and the pauper who exchange souls. Or as Kant expressed it, your ‘soul’ could be continually replaced and you would never know, because your memories are passed from one soul to the next like a line of colliding pool balls.

The closest I’ve seen to a solution is the one proposed by Thomas Nagel. There is only one ‘objective I’, the singular subject of experience who looks out of Kati’s eyes, and mine, and Beyoné’s, and every other conscious subject in the universe. But you are unaware of this. Call it a kind of ‘metaphysical amnesia’. However, I don’t see how such a theory helps. First of all, it’s just a belief that could never be verified, unless by some miracle you came to be aware of all your millions and billions of ‘selves’. And more to the point, talk of ‘identity’ is meaningless in this context. It is no less likely that every morning every human being is non-identical to the person who went to bed the previous night. or every time you or I blink our eyes.

Better to admit that there are insoluble conundrums, despite what generations of philosophers have said or believed. Conundrums don’t have a solution, but rather are things to wonder at, the surest proof that the universe — or existence — is more than either science or religion can explain.

On ethics and reason

Mehran asked:

If iI don’t believe in god and afterlife why should I help people or put my life in danger for them? and if I help a human that he/she can live why do I do that when I am going to be dead and be nothing?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There was a time when I would have attempted to answer your question by an appeal to reason. You will find this in Pathways to Philosophy Program E. Reason, Values and Conduct. I won’t repeat the argument here, as I no longer have much confidence in its validity. Instead I will answer your question in a different way. You ask for a reason but there is no reason that logically compels me to act, beyond the plain statement of the facts of the case.

In Sheffield UK, where I live, there are now increasing numbers of homeless people sleeping in doorways or begging for coins to pay for a bed-and-breakfast room for the night — or for drugs or alcohol. In one of the Bridget Jones movies (I forget which one) Bridget gives a brilliant answer to a rich Yuppie who asks this question. Why help these people when they are capable of work? Why are they so pathetically idle? There are various explanations why a person might end up on the street, and Bridget enumerates them. The last one is that they are simply ‘helpless and pathetic’. In other words they have lost the ability or will to improve their situation. Instead of seeing this as an excuse for contemptuously refusing to give money, that is precisely why they need our help.

When I go to the city centre, I usually have two or three fifty pence pieces in my back pocket to give to street musicians if I like what they’re playing, or to a homeless person who appeals to my sympathy. Aren’t I just allowing myself to be manipulated? Yes. The philosopher David Hume argued that ethics is based on sympathy, on the ability to be moved by another person’s plight. It is an essential part of human nature. As we would now add, only a psychopath is incapable of being moved at all. But why fifty pence, and not ten pence, or a pound? It’s a judgement call, or, equally, a measure of how much I care. Other persons might care more, or less, or have more or less to give.

Sympathy is not the only factor here. Human beings are also tribal, caring for other members of their tribe or family but not others, and at times malicious in responding to a perceived hurt or offence, or just for the heck of it. So you could ask, why are some natural inclinations ‘good’ while others are ‘bad’? Why should we promote altruistic actions while resisting those that are malicious?

The answer is that the great majority of human beings have altruistic impulses. Instead of looking for a reason or justification, you need to see that the alleged ‘reason’ for resisting altruism has no more force than the alleged reason for being altruistic. The American thinker Ayn Rand notoriously held altruism to be a ‘vice’, but her argument is no stronger than those that have been given by moral philosophers in favour of altruism — by Kant, or in recent times by Thomas Nagel.

It is not ‘rational’ to care, nor is it ‘irrational’. It is simply the way we are. Even Adolf Hitler cared for animal welfare and loved his dog, despite being full of hate. There are also circumstances that would require our self-sacrifice for a greater good, for example resisting torture in order to save the lives of comrades, on the grounds that one ‘could not live’ knowing that you have betrayed them.

To experience altruistic impulses is normal. As I have indicated, it is one of the aspects of psychological health. But that is not the same as being totally altruistic, supposing such a thing to be possible. It is also normal to care more for ourselves, or our family, or for fellow nationals than for peoples or persons whom we don’t know. Caring less is not the same as not caring at all. On the other hand, the more we are acquainted with the facts, the more we see, the more we are likely to care, because our sympathetic feelings are aroused.

It is irrelevant what may or may not happen in an afterlife. I personally don’t believe in a heaven or hell. but if these did exist, then arguably there would be no such thing as altruism because seemingly altruistic actions would be motivated by the prudential desire to receive a reward or to avoid punishment. However, one could say the same about prudence. There is no logically compelling reason to be prudent, apart from our natural inclination for self-preservation.

In short, the belief that one day you will be ‘nothing’ is not grounds for ethical nihilism. Nor is the prospect of heaven or hell a reason to be ethical. In stating this, I am giving a reason for resisting the impulse to search for logical ‘reasons’.

On truth and revelation

Jonathan asked:

I wondered if there was any rational and logical reasons in disbelieving stories of divine interventions that many religions pretend. Most certainly yes, as we do not have any reason to believe them in the first place. However, if such divine revelation were to happen directly to any one of us personally (you or me), we would certainly be obliged in believing it.

So my question is: What if such revelation were to happen to thousands of people at once, but you personally are not part of this group, should you believe it? What kind of credibility such event should have? I am asking this because I think it is the case with the (pretended) revelation found in the Bible at Mount Sinai, and wondered if any historian, theologist, or philosopher has ever thought of this. Thank you in advance for your help as this question does bother me for quite a while now.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This an excellent question that applies as much to epistemology — or ‘theory of knowledge’ — as it does to theology. The sense that something has been ‘revealed’ to us, when it comes, seems beyond all uncertainty and doubt. One example outside theology would be the sudden illumination that tells you your life’s purpose. You ‘see’ the way ahead. You ‘know’ what you have to do, from here onwards. There is no obstacle so great that it could block your path.

Yet even on the personal level, leaving aside other persons and whatever they believe or disbelieve, you may also recall that you have experienced more than one such episode in your life. And later, in the cool light of day, all you can do is wonder that you were so easily persuaded of the ‘truth’.

But let’s stick with theology. After months of anguish at my failures, or losses, one day I wake up with the absolute and certain knowledge that Jesus loves me. Human beings love to be loved. The emotion of divine comforting embrace banishes all questions and doubts. And yet, thereafter, doubts may return, and it becomes harder and harder to recall that moment when I ‘knew’. The words reduce to a mantra or magic spell that over time loses its efficacy, fades and dies from over use.

Or not. Human beings differ. Those who claim to have been ‘born again’ might yet succeed in shoring up their defences against doubt, especially — band this is the important point that relates to your question — while in the company of other persons who claim to have experienced a similar episode of illumination. Should we believe them when they say that they know, beyond all doubt, that they have been ‘saved’?

Human testimony can be a source of knowledge, but I doubt whether this is true in the case of the claim of revelation. Regardless of the numbers of persons involved, One would have to experience the revelation for oneself. That is my answer to your question.

There is something else, that relates to truth telling. If you’re going to tell a lie, be crystal clear and honest with yourself that you are lying. What do you hope to achieve by your lie? What are the likely consequences if you are found out? The worst kind of lie is when you give in to the temptation to believe. As if you could change the facts by your lying words. Ministers of religion, as persons looked up to by their congregations, are especially prone to this trap.

This isn’t a soap box and I am not going to call al religious believers liars. If you had a problem in engineering and then a sudden revelation of the solution, there would be a way of testing this out. The broken machine is now fixed, or not fixed. Knowing that God has spoken to you, or that Jesus loves you may make you a happier person, or drive away the fear of death, but that is not in itself a test of the truth of what you believe.