Why is my life so important?

Arweena asked:

Say, if I already passed away and after a few years time, all of my relatives and friends passed away too and any mark of my existence would have been lost, would I cease to have existed? How come my life is so important if there’s about 7.8 billion of the same species as myself? I don’t believe humankind will reach a point when its disparity reduces into a thin line.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

A joke recounted by the poet W.H. Auden goes, ‘We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.’ According to the W.H. Auden Society the quote originates from a 1923 recording from music hall comedian John Foster Hall (1867-1945), who called himself ‘The Revd. Vivian Foster, the Vicar of Mirth’.

I don’t know why I am here on Earth. So how far should my needs and interests be taken into account when deciding on any course of action? The point made by the Revd. Vivian Foster and W.H. Auden is that to live a meaningful life there has to be something worth doing beyond merely sacrificing oneself for the needs of others, whatever that may be, because the same principle applies to them.

Assuming a reasonable state of health, I am the person best placed to look after the physical and mental state of GK, and it is reasonable to assume the same for others – excluding children and infants, or non-human pets that require humans to care for them.

If we expand the range of ‘things that are important’ beyond my own interests, there are friends, family, nation. where I am better placed to help than those outside that sphere. It is also true that I care more for these people than others, but that is far from being a tautology. Not everyone loves their country, for example.

So we are concerned here with two kinds of constraint on my actions and projects: the practical and the ethical, and the same applies to everyone else. There are things I can do for others, with lesser or greater difficulty, and things I ought to do for others, for lesser or stronger reasons.

Consider also the belief that some human beings, by virtue of their personal qualities, are more important than others, but at the same time ‘importance’ is relative to the needs and interests of the agent. The classic argument to this effect is the ‘Archbishop Fenelon’ objection to utilitarianism. The good Archbishop’s house is burning down and you have the choice of saving him, or a humble female servant. His death will bring pain and sorrow to many people. But the humble servant happens to be your mother. But why is that ‘important’? Isn’t she just another of the billions of people inhabiting this planet?

As Bernard Williams has argued, a utilitarian is forced to accept that even if utilitarianism is in some sense ‘true’, or ultimately the ‘best’ criterion for right action, the greatest happiness for the greatest number requires that people do not base their actions on a disinterested utilitarian calculation. Letting your mother die would be despicable. In general, it is better for the good of all, that human beings are encouraged to pursue interests that are important to them, that are, as Williams describes it, part of their ‘personal integrity’ (Smart and Williams Utilitarianism For and Against, 1973).

I am important to me, for practical and ethical reasons, and the same applies to every other human being. But other human beings are important too, not to forget non-human animals, the environment, etc.

But I sense that there is more to your question: granted all this, there does seem to be a sense in which most of us our very strongly attached to our own life. How many lives would you be prepared to sacrifice in order that you should continue to live? Clearly, if, from an objective standpoint, ‘importance’ is equally spread, then I should be happy to lay down my life in order to save the lives of, say, two complete strangers whom I was not connected to in any way. Why not?

My response is that I would not like to be the kind of person who would do that. That would be insane. Or imagine a world where you can donate your living body in order to provide your heart, liver, kidneys in order to save the lives of more than two people. It would be, in some sense, ‘inhuman’, to care so little about one’s own life.

OK, then, you say, let’s up the stakes. Suppose that, by laying down your life, you could save the lives of a hundred people, a thousand, a million, or everyone on the planet? Where do you draw the line? And on what basis?

There is an answer to this question, but it is based on what I care for, not on arithmetic. Consider a soldier in battle. One might very well care more for one’s honour and the lives of one’s comrades than a life of shame and dishonour knowing that you have betrayed them. If I am not important, if it is not ‘my honour’ that is at stake, then none of these reasons are especially important.

Or, consider a ‘Titanic’ scenario. Wouldn’t it be shameful to put your own life ahead of a lifeboat full of people, assuming you were in a position to save them by your own self-sacrifice? Should you first do your best to save them before considering your own safety? What counts as ‘doing your best’? Real life is rarely so simple as an example concocted for the sake of philosophical discussion.

Beyond that, there is something else, something metaphysical: the very mystery of my existence. Given that there is a world, there is no mystery to me why you exist, or Donald Trump or anyone else. But aren’t I just another ‘human being in the world’? For sure, that is true of the person ‘Geoffrey Klempner’, seen from an objective standpoint. What is utterly mysterious – and this is the question I am totally unable to answer – is that I am that person.

Reasons to be hopeful

Mason asked:

Why should we be hopeful at all?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There is no limit to how bad things can get. This is a truth that has been known at all times even though it has not always been believed. And, in fact, it is very often the case that it is not believed. Human individuals find it very difficult to accept that the worst could happen to them, or even worse that ‘the worst’ as they conceive it.

There is no limit to how bad things can get, regardless of the existence or non-existence of God. Maybe there is a Hell and you are bound for it. Some would say there doesn’t need to be, this life is hell for so many people today.

I remember reading somewhere that ‘being hopeful’ is a trait of normal human psychology, and that the default position on the scale of pessimism and optimism is somewhat towards the optimistic side. To see the world as it is, just as it is, without the colouring of emotion or fancy, one can only be depressed and disheartened.

The truth is that there is no ultimate ‘reason’ for anything, no reason to get out of bed, except for the reasons we create ourselves, give to ourselves. Nature has ensured that, for the most part, we ‘find’ these reasons and are satisfied by them.

But what good is ‘hope’ if you see through it? That is the question. As human beings in the world, we seem to be faced with the alternative of giving ourselves to our nature, as beings who pursue our lives under the optimistic illusion that ‘things will work out for the best’, or realizing the awful, paralyzing truth.

It is a question that I have considered in my recent books. How to live, as a philosopher (or ‘philosophizer’ as I term it). I’m not now talking about philosophy as an academic exercise, but as an approach to life, as an attempt at solving this very problem.

I don’t have an answer for you. I am going to die. I am nearer death now than I was when I started out on this quest. I will almost certainly pass away before I achieve any satisfaction or find answers to the questions that grip me. Like many people, I hope that the process of dying won’t be too painful, even though it may be. But, who knows, I might be lucky, and that is something to be genuinely hopeful of.

The most important thing one could hope for the human race is that it should survive your death and mine, and all the current threats to its existence, that human beings will overcome our present disagreements and colonize the stars, as Asimov predicted. It could happen. Or we could all be gone in a hundred years. As a philosopher, I am not qualified to say what are the chances. But if the attitude of hopefulness helps rather than hinders a better outcome, that is sufficient reason for being hopeful.

Knowledge versus spirituality

Gagik asked:

About 2 weeks ago in a religion class we were talking about materialism vs spirituality. The claim of my teacher was that at the end of the life materialistic goods would not matter. My reply was that knowledge is very important for people, so important that it is easily objectified and it could be materialistic in a way, for example: If someone really wants to become a doctor they have to learn for it to have a better future buy things so on and so on. So my question is this, does the knowledge of the scriptures mean that it is materialistic and it can be objectified ? forgive me for using banal words, I am working on it.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Is knowledge a ‘material good’? There is a strong tradition within Christianity that the quest for knowledge – or, at least, certain kinds of knowledge – is an expression of human vanity, and should be suppressed. ‘Credo, quia absurdum.’ (‘I believe, because it’s absurd.’). So, yes, even knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (whatever your faith happens to be) could be termed materialistic, if you are going about this as someone who is keenly interested in religion as human phenomenon, rather than someone who is devoutly religious seeking revelation.

Here’s another way of putting your question: Is knowledge for its own sake in any way better than material possessions and enjoyments, so far as the pursuit of spirituality is concerned? Aren’t they both in the same category, as things we ‘own’ and ‘enjoy’?

In the Middle Ages, the defence of anyone pursuing knowledge against religious criticism was that one is striving to ‘appreciate better God’s great works’. Learning about the world of nature, or science, can be seen as a religioius quest, up to a point. Maybe they believed this – up to a point.

Consider the story of Galileo, or Descartes. I don’t know how devout these men really were. Galileo was up against a view of the physical world derived from Aristotle that was considered at the time to immune to challenge. Anyone who questioned that view was challenging the authority of the Church. Galileo was forced to recant his view that ‘the Earth moves’ by the Inquisition. Descartes suppressed some of his own writings for fear of suffering a similar fate, presenting his radical theory of mind-body interactionism in the form of a defence of the notions of the ‘soul’ and ‘God’.

I would like to consider a view that is perhaps not that popular today, that all this impressive knowledge is a kind of human vanity. The world is in incredible place full of, wherever you look, through the lens of physics, or chemistry, or biology, and all the other sciences or indeed the humanities. Art, literature, music. Enough to make any one of these realms your whole life.

And, yet, you might still be missing something. I am talking about the sense of ‘what it all means’, the feeling that motivates religion. Can you be spiritual, without believing in a God? Is there room, in our lives, for focusing on the ultimate questions of existence, regardless of how the world may be in all its incredible variety and detail? If there is, then that is an activity that I would consider part of the enterprise of ‘metaphysics’, as I conceive it.

Plato, Parmenides and the One

Delicia asked:

Why did Plato disagree with Parmenides’ philosophy?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

For me, this is a question of more than historic interest. But, first, the textual evidence.

Plato’s late dialogue Parmenides records a fictionalized meeting between the young Socrates and Parmenides where the two great philosophers take turns to criticize one another’s views.

In the first part of the Parmenides, by far the most studied, Parmenides argues against Plato’s theory of Forms, here attributed to the young Socrates, although we cannot be sure how close Socrates and Plato were on this question. You may have come across the ‘Third Man Argument’ which Parmenides uses to undermine the theory of Forms dialectically, by means of an argument from vicious regress.

In the second part of the Parmenides, Socrates employs his dialectical method to reduce the Parmenidean theory of the eternal and unchanging One to various kinds of self-contradiction. Current views are divided as to how seriously this part was meant to be taken. Was it just an exercise for Plato’s students? The general problem is that, when dealing with ultimate questions, it is not at all surprising that we should encounter contradictions and paradoxes, not to mention language simply giving out.

Hegel attacked this problem but, again, there are many who are unconvinced by his story of dialectical ‘triads’ starting with Being-Nothing-Becoming. – To say this is, of course, incredibly glib, but I’m assuming that reading Hegel’s ‘Logic’ is not part of your assignment. (I admire Hegel’s dialectic but I don’t believe it. I am (even) less qualified to talk about Plotinus who attempted a not dissimilar task.)

Rather than get entangled in textual debate, I would like to consider the matter afresh. Yes, I do think that Parmenides was onto something. There is something Real, something that is, or could be termed, ‘ultimate’. But, if there is, what can we legitimately say about it? And how to connect the ultimate Real to the familiar world of appearances, of ‘sights and sounds’ as Plato calls it?

In the surviving recorded fragments of Parmenides’ writings, an account of the world of appearance is offered, but so far as I am aware no scholar has been able to find the argument that connects the world of appearances to the One. Parmenides basically says, ‘This is my account of appearances, take it or leave it, but whatever you do, don’t mistake this for the truth, as so many humans foolishly do.’

That’s just not good enough. The task that we are given is saving appearances. An an account of Reality that fails to save appearances, that is to say, fails to account for the very fact that there is a ‘world of appearance’, cannot be adequate. That was Plato’s impetus and challenge.

His response was the theory of Forms. Like the Presocratic philosophers who came after Parmenides, he was willing to give the status of the ‘eternal and unchanging’ to something other than just the One. He proposed entities he called ‘Forms’. There would not be this world of appearances unless there was some kind of blueprint or template from which particular copies could be made. Unlike the example of a negative and a photographic print, however, the original is not in the world but outside it.

One question here is how many Forms we need, and Plato is Plato is not at all clear on this point. Are there Forms of disgusting things like mud or hair, for example, as the fictional Parmenides asks in Plato’s dialogue? Is there just one Form of dog, or mammal, or animal? What about different varieties of dogs? What should we say about the Form of ‘motor car’ or ‘computer’?

Although I’m not a great fan of Forms, I can see a connection here to simulation theory, the idea that this world of appearances has been created out of 1s and 0s in a galactic super-computer. The problem here is that that’s just more of the same. A ‘super-computer’, whatever it is made of, is just more stuff, just more of ‘something that appears’.

For me, the big question concerns contingency. As Parmenides argues, if ‘nothing’ is unthinkable then, of necessity, something ‘is’. The One is necessary. That’s the beginning of an answer to the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ The next step is the one that is crucial: how to get from the One to this world of appearances? Is there a coherent story to tell here? Can you see a way to improve on Plato’s response? At whatever level you look at the world, you encounter things that ‘could have been otherwise’. There might not have been any dogs (or wolves, etc.). Or the so-called ‘laws of nature’ might have been different.

Theists will appeal to the ‘God’ theory at this point. Plato had ‘the Good’ as the highest Form, that somehow, in a way not explained, accounts for all the rest. Can we accept, then, as an alternative, that contingency itself is, in some sense an ‘ultimate’? Or is that thought unthinkable, as Einstein thought when he remarked that ‘God does not play dice with the universe’?

Becoming a self-taught philosopher

Jason asked:

How does one become a self-taught philosopher? In particular I am drawn to such models as Ken Wilber (Integral Theory), Ayn Rand (Objectivism, as an example not as a thought to contribute to) and Eric Hoffer (the Longshore Philosopher) as well as Hayy ibn Yaqzans. I do have an MA in theological studies from a progressive seminary that had a strong interest in the 3rd wave feminism, postmodernity and indigenous thought (I have to admit I am enamoured with V.F. Cordova, the first native woman to get a Ph.D in philosophy and her challenge to western thought). Another obvious set of inspirations for self-taught philosophy would be the Victorian Sage writers as well as contemporary writers in the creative nonfiction/ Wisdom writing tradition.

My own project is to look at how neurodiversity challenges our notions of thought, human-beingness and several fundamental concepts.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

With an MA from a legitimate degree granting institution, one would hardly describe you as ‘self taught’, but I get the point that you are looking to teach yourself philosophy, as you understand that notion. From what you say, my glib response would be that you already are a ‘philosopher’. You are also a student of philosophy, as all philosophers are. Debating with one another, we also learn from one another.

Before we go any further, a warning that my answer is not going to be along the well-trodden lines of, ‘You need to study such-and-such, and read so-and-so.’ As it happens, I did my undergraduate studies at an English university in the second half of the 70s — from which you can gather that I am trained in the methods of analytic philosophy. However, I have long since grown away from my roots. I did have to teach myself at that point, because I had no model to follow. Yet it sounds like a strong dose of Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein (both early and late) is just what you need.

Sometimes one gets the impression that philosophers working within academia consider themselves the only real ‘philosophers’, i.e. academic philosophers. The idea has gotten a hold that there is such a thing as the ‘state of the art’ in philosophy, which is nowhere to be found outside the University. Which is nonsense, to my ear.

On the other side, the good thing about universities is that the academics who work there are given the time to think and debate. But then so are monks. (There was a time when monasteries were one of the chief sources of philosophical enlightenment.)

I have books by Ken Wilber and Ayn Rand which were both given to me by ardent ‘fans’. The fact that I haven’t made much progress with them says more about me than about those authors. These days, I don’t read. I only have one Question, which I have repeated sufficiently many times, that there hardly seems any point in rehearsing that again.

Your question sounds interesting. How diverse can human brains be? A lot more, perhaps, than many are willing to admit. More interesting still is the notion that there are forms of thinking or ‘brain functioning’ that we have yet to encounter because they are still to be achieved. When we do get there, who knows?

What is the core, the essence of being a philosopher, or, more specifically, a philosopher in the 21st century? Is it possible that what you are asking me is how one can earn a living from philosophy outside the normal channels of academia? From publishing books, say? Or, gathering a coterie of followers? I found a way, but it required brain-crunching work (see my collection of over 1,000 reviews of student work at http://philosophos.sdf.org/electronic_philosopher/).

If you get an original idea, and if you are good at putting that across, then some time in the future you might well find your work on the same bookseller shelf as Rand and Wilber. Would that be it, or would you still want more? The answer to that question shows the kind of ‘philosopher’ you are striving to be.

Haunted by solipsism

Ian asked:

I want to know how to deal with solipsism. I’ve been living in agony over it for the past several months and it just haunts me to no end. I makes life small and narrow and it feels like there is no point to doing anything.

What can I do about it?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’ve written a number of posts on this topic, but I want to focus this time on the particular feeling of dread at being ‘alone’. The fact that this is a metaphysical and not a factual or contingent solitude seems little comfort when you see (or ‘seem to see’) your predicament so clearly.

Solipsism could be true. That is to say, so far as you could ever know it is possible that I don’t exist. The words that you are now reading on the screen are just phenomena that fill up your subjective (and the ‘only’) world. Where these phenomena come from (if that makes any sense for the solipsist) or what they ultimately represent remains a mystery. Why me?!

This is no comfort to you. But you and I are not looking for comfort, we are looking for the truth, aren’t we? To see this clearly, to experience the feeling of disorientation and indeed dismay is an achievement. You see more than others see. But, as I like to state to my students, ‘consider the possibility that you are wrong’.

I am stuck on a different but related point. I don’t believe that solipsism is true. I can’t prove this. (I once thought I could, but I now think I was wrong about the possibility of a proof.) But if solipsism is false, and you exist, and billions of other humans exist, I mean, actually exist and not merely ‘seem to exist’, then another question arises: why am I here at all?

I wrote a book about this with a long and clumsy title: I Might Not Have Existed But Someone Exactly Like Me Might Have Existed In My Place. It’s on Amazon, if you’re curious to read.

After years, decades in fact, of edging forward with this topic, I seem to have hit a wall. I believe that there is such a thing as The Real. I mean, how things really are, the ultimate explanation, or cause, or, I don’t know what — of everything. But, most importantly, the reason why I am here and not merely someone ‘exactly like’ me.

But what could this be? Not God, not ‘super-strings’, not any kind of matter, even ‘dark matter’. There is no reason, or possible reason that I can see or think of. So far as the world is concerned, ‘someone exactly like me’ would fulfil exactly the same function, server exactly the same purpose (if there was ultimately such a thing as ‘purpose’) that I serve.

What is most vexing is that 99.99 per cent of human beings simply do not see this wall. They are not prompted to ask the question. They are so enmeshed, sucked into this actual world and all its contingencies, that they don’t even know how to formulate the question in their own minds.

So, solipsism is ‘an’ answer but it is not a very good answer and it is not the only possible answer. In which case all one can do is keep searching. If you are interested in pursuing this topic further, you could look at my latest YouTube video, Living in the Dark.