Was Fichte a solipsist? (contd.)

Lucy asked:

I was reading about the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. I don’t know if I just read it wrong but to be he comes across as someone who agrees with solipsism. What is your opinion?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Lucy, I entirely sympathise with your question!! It is entirely understandable to read Fichte as proffering a variant of solipsism. I often used to struggle with the same issue.

Confusingly, in the first section of the Science of Knowledge, ‘Foundation of Theoretical Knowledge’, Fichte frequently uses the terms ‘Absolute Self’ and ‘Consciousness’. This concerns the synthesis of the Transcendental Categories to empirical Intuitions. This is achieved by a dialectic between the Absolute Self and Non-Self. This occurs unconsciously. It is how our perception of the world happens and it is happening now, as you read this answer.

In the second part of the Science of Knowledge, ‘Foundation of Knowledge of the Practical’, the ‘Intelligent Self’ is discussed. This is how the Self becomes aware of itself. The infinite striving of the Absolute Self encounters opposition with the Not-Self. The latter limits the former. Instead of striving outwards, the Absolute Self now strives inwards, concentrating on the finite Self. The intermediation with the Non-Self furnishes knowledge of it and importantly, knowledge of the finite Self itself.

On this basis, a conclusion of solipsism could be drawn.

However, an aspect of the Non-Self that limits the finite Self is of course, another Self or selves. Admittedly, this is not discussed in the ‘Science’ but, is discussed at greater length in Fichte’s later work ‘Foundations of Natural Right’. (1797). Here, the Second Theorem states:

“The finite, rational being cannot ascribe to itself a free efficacy in the sensible world without ascribing itself to others and thus, without also presupposing the existence of other finite rational beings outside of itself.” (P. 29 ibid)

In other words, the finite self can only become self-conscious of itself in the presence of other, finite selves. Any awareness of a self presupposes other selves, the social ‘We’ precedes the individual ‘I’. This obviously rules out allegations of Solipsism.

Fichte’s account of self-consciousness and others is elaborated upon and developed in the second section of FWJ Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) and both chapters on ‘Consciousness’ and ‘Self-Consciousness’ in GWF Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).

Hope this is of use Lucy.

Leibniz on why there is something rather than nothing

Minnie asked:

Why is there something instead of nothing? Is this a profound question or is it as Richard Dawkins maintains a “senseless question”?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I’m not surprised that a scientific dogmatist would wave off a truly profound issue like this, and Dawkins is by no means the first. When Leibniz put the question up, he was of course committed to putting God in the picture — why did God create an imperfect world instead of just enjoying his own perfection? And his answer (leaning on a prior formulation by the little-known early scholastic thinker John Scotus Erigena) was this: A single existent in the universe would not know that it exists, because it has nothing to compare existence with non-existence! And so Leibniz’s answer was considerably more sophisticated than our own pretty infantile supposition of a ‘big bang’: God created a kind of ‘cosmic dust’ as an analogue of himself, which we might conceive of as fundamental particles, each a mirror of the universe from its unique perspective. This can be readily translated into modern diction, as these particles comprise the underlying texture of the universe in his as well as our cosmological theories.

Leibniz called these particles ‘monads’; but the crucial difference to our present conceptions is, that his monads possess the potential, each in varying degrees, of animate and inanimate existence; and it is the manner of their congregation that results in the furniture of the world — predominantly inert monads comprising physics matter; predominantly active monads comprising the animate partition. Take note that this pathway is closed to Big Bang theorists!

Now you might cry out, “but this is metaphysics, not science!” Not so fast! Because you must not assume that any theory that happens to be the current paradigm, reigns in uncontested splendour throughout the scientific establishment.

Take Prigogine’s suggestion that in an otherwise empty universe, there must be a residual electric potential imbued with positive and negative charge from which matter can precipitate, as otherwise nothing will ever come into existence. Any now any such precipitate changes the constitution of this charged field and results in the potentiation of an accelerating cascade of further precipitations.

Although this thesis was offered by a scientist (indeed a double Nobelist), it is also pure metaphysics. But we cannot get around it; metaphysics is our only speculative methodology if we wish to find logically tight and scientifically sound theses on origins. I hope you can see from my description that Leibniz and Prigogine are not talking past each other, but propound much the same idea. For although Leibniz pays constant lip service to the theological presuppositions in his era, he occasionally lifted the lid on his own thoughts in private communications, as in this case in a letter to Johann Bernoulli, where he said: “God did not create the world — he created monads, and the monads created the world.”

This is not the place for me to go deeper into these conundrums. But a word is indispensable on why this is an issue of the utmost profundity to minds attuned to philosophy. Consider that the question refers to the fact that without life in the universe — especially intelligent life — there would be no-one to testify to its existence. Virtually all other philosophical questions, and all scientific questions as well, hinge on it. The existence of the universe is predicated a priori on there being life, as in a universe without this potential it would be indifferent whether it exists or not. So Leibniz’s question is a direct challenge to the mindless presupposition “here it is, basta!” and further to the asinine assumption that life is nothing more than a chance configuration of molecular products which we just happen to incapable of explaining in scientific terms. But also, as we saw, to the naive belief that a God may be said to exist without humans to posit such a Being as a possibility and then to cast doubt upon it.

To my mind, Leibniz holds an advantage in these stakes. His monadic cosmos unfurls with the potential for life as a residual capacity. He answers the second prong of the “existential question” by providing a pathway for the evolution of agency, intentionality, perception, awareness, intelligence etc., which tends to be ignored or confused by committed material monists like Dawkins. Leibniz knew nothing of evolution, of course; but as it turns out, it is the most exquisite argument in his favour that only intentional agents possess the wherewithal to legitimise the question under consideration here.

(See https://askaphilosopher.org/2017/05/08/why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing-2/)

Was Fichte a solipsist?

Lucy asked:

I was reading about the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. I don’t know if I just read it wrong but to be he comes across as someone who agrees with solipsism. What is your opinion?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

If you don’t supply a source of your reading, I can’t judge whether you or your source is in error. In fact, Fichte is the opposite of a solipsist; he tries to explain what it takes to furnish a mind with knowledge through experience. This can sound like a kind of solipsism to a careless reader, as he insists (rightly of course) that the contents of my mind cannot be the same as yours. If you fly over a mountain, you will naturally have a different perception of it than someone who climbs it from the bottom up. That’s the upshot of his take on individuality, which is what his philosophy seeks to establish. Even so, the sum of many such different perspectives can (and usually will) result in a consensus of opinion; although by the same token each one of us also has private experiences which we do not share.

That’s the nutshell response to your nutshell question. Of course, Fichte’s philosophy goes much deeper; but that’s for you to discover.

Looking for a philosophical name for my chess project

Amer asked:

I’ve been searching through philosophy and history to answer this question, but I am not very knowledgeable on this subject. I have a chess company I am about to open, the goal of this company in general is to provide events, tournaments, and school, for everything related to chess…

Is there any person in history or a story in philosophy that talks about a place where its a perfect place for what ever specific type of people, a place where when you enter, you become complete. Even a dream of a philosopher, mythology, or person in history that they have written or spoken about. I am also ok with a word that holds the significance of what I am talking about. A unique word that holds meaning to a place of pure focus, intelligence, happiness. I don’t want a long quote or phrase unless it includes a specific name in it. Or if its a phrase or quote, it is suppose to be a specific significant person or group of people talking about that place.

If there isn’t anything like that, then a historical person or mythical person who represents an ordinary being but when he acts on a specific thing for e.g. when he is on the battle field or other activity, he/she shows his/her inner genius and intelligence… Thanks for your patience.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

One of the great masters of the past, Siegbert Tarrasch, wrote: “Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make a man happy.”

A great line that might serve you at least as a motto, since it ties love and chess together as possible modes of deep experience.

The goddess of chess is Caissa, as I’m sure you know. The Greek name for heaven was Elysium. Hence or “Elysium Caissa” might suit you?

Another view of the Enlightenment

Alireza asked:

Could you explain the following sentences (especially the last one)? I have problem understanding them:

The Enlightenment project, writes David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity, ‘took it as axiomatic that there was only one possible answer to any question. From this it followed that the world could be controlled and rationally ordered if we could only picture and represent it rightly. But this persumed a single mode of representation which, if we could uncover it… would provide the means to Enlightenment ends.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

As you quote nothing else and I’ve not read this author, I can only respond to the quotation. It is a singularly narrow perspective and fits only one (and hardly the central) aspect of the Enlightenment. The issue of the rational mastery of human life was certainly important, but by no means the absolute focus of the Enlightenment. Indeed, one has to step back and consider Bacon’s agenda first, because it was taken up by Diderot and d’Alembert and acknowledged by them as a chief impulse. Bacon’s first principle was, “knowledge is power”, by which he did not mean the individual’s knowledge, but the pool of all knowledge in the realm. So he insisted that peasants and tradesmen be given a voice and add their knowledge to the pool. And he certainly had an encyclopaedia of all knowledge at the back of his mind and even drew up a schema of how this could be collected.

The point of this was that knowledge of the empirical world must be given equal billing to “revealed knowledge”. When the French philosophes implemented it, they stressed this empirical perspective, culminating in the achievement of a multi-volume encyclopaedia. But the gist of it — in other words its agenda — hardly reflects your quote. They were not saving the world by enthroning reason, but giving expression to their belief that reason should play a greater role in the affairs of man — greater than privilege, prejudice, religion, superstition etc. Accordingly most of the vocal thinkers of that era were proponents of education, by which they meant education for everyone. This does not (in my opinion) square with Harvey’s “axiomatic” proposition.

The Enlightenment as a whole was hardly driven by ‘axiomatic’ ideas. It was above all a concern for the (educational) deprivation of the majority of people, who had been kept in the dark by church and nobility too long already.

To that extent, the Enlightenment was indeed enlightened; and the meaning of this word stems directly from its proselytisers as an expression of hope for mankind — hope for greater justice, equality, legality, peace and prosperity. I believe that the quoted depiction is a caricature of these ambitions, relying too heavily on Adorno and Horkheimer’s assessment, who were the first to blame the Enlightenment for the derailment of reason in the first half of the 20th century, as if it was a direct outcome of those aspirations.

Hoyle’s ‘junkyard tornado’ revisited

Orlando asks:

Is the “junkyard tornado” argument of Sir Fred Hoyle for the existence of God as bad as Richard Dawkins seems to think it is?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

My answer comes much later than the others and in part also engages with their replies. But first I must say that I’ve not heard of Hoyle’s 747 metaphor being associated with God — rather it was his rebuttal to scientists who promoted the idea of life arising from the zillions-to-one chance of physics matter clicking together at the right time and place, in the right order etc. Not that it makes much difference to the present question, since the replies by Skinner and Klempner bring aspects of this argument into play which induced me to respond again.

But apropos Craig Skinner, I have to say that the question elicited an astonishing faux pas: Hoyle’s point was that unguided processes cannot evolve meaningful structures which rest on purpose, strategy, discrimination, direction, intentionality and so on. Take the illustration based on Huxley’s Shakespearean monkeys, which though a notoriously inept metaphor, finds Craig saying, “If the attempt fails… he starts again…” What does this mean? Which attempt is failing, and what exactly is the monkey “starting again”? And then, “evolution is equivalent to keeping the letters which are correct…” What does ‘correct’ mean here? That evolution has foresight?

Taking it out of Huxley’s court, a different, but exactly equivalent scenario might clarify the problem: Suppose that every particle in the universe represents a letter and that their infinite shake-up keeps bringing them together in two, three, four etc combinations, doesn’t this give us a plausible basis for asserting that at some time several thousands of these will accidentally match Shakespeare’s text?

I suspect (even from the literature on the subject) that many people would nod their assent. It seems ‘logical’ to suppose that in an infinite playground, all possibles are actualisable and must ipso facto be actualised at least once in some corner of this infinite space. But now suppose that the particle representing ‘e’ has a nick in it that prevents its association with the particle representing ‘n’, what then? Well, goodbye Shakespeare!

In any case, the argument has holes in it big enough to drive a truck through them; though where to begin is not so easy to state. The cardinal problem is that it’s not a conclusion from a compelling stack of evidence, but a quite illicit extrapolation of evolutionary analogies on processes which do not evolve. Dawkins’ texts are full of such intuition pumps, which insinuate that inorganic processes can be dovetailed to organic processes; yet there is nothing in the sum of scientific knowledge to encourage this belief. It does not mean that we need God to lend a hand; but still puts his blind watchmaker and his mythical Mt Improbable out of court.

Therefore Geoffrey Klempner’s remark on wings and eyes belongs to a very different context — namely that these are not dead matter items like bosons posing as an alphabet, but organic extensions of living entities whose primary state of existence is intentional behaviour.

I cannot fathom why this feature is so desperately resisted by Dawkins and likeminded colleagues, as on first and every future glance it is blindingly obvious that intentionality is the driving motor of evolution and “can do” — it can demonstrably scale Mt Improbable. We might look at two ‘accidental’ evolutions to help us along. First, the mandibular hinge of H. sapiens which should leave all of us suspiciously eyeing the word ‘accidental’, as after all the resulting fluent speech accelerated the motor of human evolution. A companion piece is the emergence of the sickle cell aorta among Congolese negroes. Now this can be dated with reasonable closeness to an evolutionary trait installed in less than 5-6 generations. It was the response of an organism to survival pressure and retrofitted to the genes as an heritable trait. In the face of this, why must we insist on chance with the mandible hinge, when it is equally probable that persistent straining of the jaw over many generations, by people intent on opening their mouth to speak, was at last answered by an organically induced modification?

I think the aye’s have it: “In the world of the living, Horatio, there are more possibilities than are dreamed of by blind watchmakers purporting to scale a mountain of improbable dead matter conjugations.”

The crux of all this is easy enough to state: Evolution is a two-way traffic between organisms and habitat. The habitat delineates the possibilities of survival by fitness, it therefore facilitates adaptation, diversity, proliferation etc. Organisms, in staging their survival activities, change the habitat (so do external impingements, but these may be left to one side as self-explanatory). Now if you’ve been following me so far, you should have your ears ringing with the word “intentionality” which hardly makes its presence felt in Dawkins’ propositions. It denotes that in the two-way traffic between organisms and habitat, the former act in whatever ways are possible to sustain themselves, while the latter is modified by mechanical causes and forces, including those related to the organisms’ survival struggles.

That was short, but permits an immediate resume. Survival pressure provokes a reaction from organisms which must in many instances confront them with the need for enacting a choice from among possible alternatives and to throw the whole species history into the balance. Somewhere along this road we find wings and eyes emerging. Evolution is in fact the fundamentally intentional exploration of the greatest possible diversity for appropriate niches. But dead matter has no choices, only accidents, and I can’t think of a single specimen where a physics accident “improved” anything. Indeed it is nonsensical to begin with, as the physical cosmos has no agenda that we could articulate.

Finally apropos Klempner’s quip on DNA: “you and I are here, talking about this”. DNA is dead matter too, and so the choice between supposing the incipience of life to be due to genes, or genes having been constructed by organisms to help with their self-reproduction seems hardly worth disputing, especially as every textbook tells us that organisms still construct, maintain, repair, copy, refashion and multiply them every minute of the day. Hence it is far more plausible to support the view that organisms began with a simple chemical clock and enhanced this device as they got bigger and more complicated than supposing that a bit of dirt on the ground grew into the sophisticated machinery of DNA all by itself. It is, as Klempner wrote, “even more improbable than the chimpanzee story”. But we need do nothing more than to introduce an intentional agent into this scenario and bingo! things happen!

I’m going to stop here. Hoyle’s point was really very simple. In the stakes between physics improbabilities being overcome by chance events or intentionality, the latter is a hands-down winner. Without intentional agents marshalling their intentional resources, the Earth would not have changed from being a ball of rock, water and gas in the 5-or-so billion years of its existence. I see the problem related to “God” in a different light: We assume that we know how matter came into existence; but we can’t explain intentionality. So we end up plastering a false and useless ‘objectivity’ over the question and achieve nothing. But I can’t follow this through in this place, and in any case, I wrote a book on it called Life and Mind, which maybe you could do worse than looking into.

Pointless suffering cant be justified

Martin asks:

A question about suffering.

A person is enduring extreme suffering. During that suffering they die. Did the suffering happen or matter?

Alternately, death ‘wipes the slate clean’ and is a release so you don’t have to worry about peoples last moments

I’ve witnessed traumatic things and I don’t know how to rationalise other’s suffering.

Answer by Craig Skinner

I saw a fair bit of suffering in 40 years as a medical doctor.

We’re not talking about voluntary suffering for good ends, like visits to the dentist, but pointless suffering.

Yes, it happens. The world is full of it. Probably suffering outweighs joy. But even if it doesnt, there is too much of it. The alternative is no world at all or one without sentient beings. And the case for that is convincingly made by Benatar in Better never to have been (OUP 2009).

And suffering matters. Yes, death ends a creature’s sufferings, but this doesnt mean it didnt happen. It will forever be the case that it did, and was bad.

I dont think you can justify or rationalize it. And this is the case whether you are religious or not. If you are, you might hold that an ordered world containing free beings, a world with both necessity and free will in it, inevitably includes innocent suffering, and at least some of it is deserved, and also that God is a fellow-sufferer (incarnate as Jesus). But even if all this were true, and also that those who suffered got a cushy afterlife, this still wouldnt justify it. Some say it helps us grow. And no doubt struggling with adversity can sometimes do this, but most suffering mars or even ruins a life.

So the best we can do is to try to prevent it, to relieve it if we can, and to comfort if we can do neither. Those who deal with it daily in a professional capacity can only cope if the have a degree of detachment from it, but this need not, and should not, amount to lack of fellow feeling.