What’s the point of knowing anything if I am going to die?

George asked:

If there is no afterlife, I will forget everything I know, so what is the point of knowing anything?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Amazingly, in the 21 years that ‘Ask a Philosopher’ has been running, I have never encountered this question. And it’s a good one, George.

At first sight, the question just seems a particular example of, ‘What is the point of achieving, striving, hoping for, etc?’ When I die, everything I have, everything I have achieved, comes to dust.

But then you realize that that’s not so. If I have done something of lasting benefit to others, anything, then that continues after I die. Just as my material possessions will pass to the beneficiaries of my Will. If I have made a positive difference to the world, then that doesn’t depend on my being around to enjoy the thanks and praise, etc.

On the other hand, my pleasures and enjoyments are real, just because they are happening now. I might relish the memory of a really great pint of real ale. But that is not the same as actually drinking and enjoying it. In other words, the hedonist, or refined hedonist — Epicurus, for example — has nothing to fear from death. The quality of life is a function of the quality of pleasure. All that matters is that I maximize that quality, using all the technical knowledge at my disposal.

The notion that if I die I am somehow being ‘deprived’ of future pleasures is nonsense. I don’t bemoan the fact that there are many fine examples of real ale that I will never get to taste, not even if I lived for ever. That’s simply because around the world today, new beers are being created faster than I would have the physical capacity to drink them, even if I was granted indefinite life. (If you are more of an intellectual sort, substitute ‘reading books’ for ‘drinking beers’.)

There’s a lot to be said for hedonism, I’m not knocking it.

But knowledge is something very different. I am talking about my personal knowledge, rather than knowledge which will have lasting benefit for the human race. I want to know, regardless of whether or not that knowledge will ever be passed on to others.

But why? What’s the point of it? You can take pleasure in knowing something, or the prospect of getting to know something, but that isn’t it’s point. There are things that it would give me pleasure to know, and I would love to know. And there are other things I would hate to know, such as what Donald Trump looks like in the nude, or what people I walk past in the street are thinking. (Telepathy would be sheer hell, extrapolating from Sartre.)

Knowledge just for its own sake is rubbish. You fill your mind with so much useless information. And yet, there are things I am desperate to know, and things that after a great effort I have come to know. And when I die that will all be gone!

Let’s consider another sort of example. It would be great to learn Russian. That’s something I would love to do if I had the energy and time. Or nuclear physics. Unfortunately, that will never happen. But suppose I have been sentenced to death, and given just six months, with nothing else to do than learn Russian or nuclear physics. The activity might be pleasurable, it might help to distract me. But it would be so obviously pointless. And yet, there is another kind of knowledge which I would strive for with every fibre of my being: Why am I here? What am I? What is this ‘world’, really?

I suspect — and it is no more than a suspicion — that in this lies the germ of a thought that, somehow, though one can’t explain it, knowledge can save me. I mean, literally and not just metaphorically. To know something that would render the prospect of death of no consequence whatsoever. Easy, if you are looking for evidence or proof of an afterlife. More difficult if, like Epicurus, you hold that my death is ‘nothing to me’ because I won’t be around to experience it.

My question, and maybe yours too, George, is are those the only options?

Ayn Rand: ‘Principles do not fill the glass’

Jeff asked:

In reading Ayn Rands book Atlas Shrugged I came across a statement regarding character:

‘Principles do not fill the glass.’

Was wondering if your readers agree or not?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There’s a great song sung by Julie London on her ‘London By Night’ LP, ‘Pousse Cafe’. When I first heard it, I could make sense of the line, ‘It’s like my heart, it’s in three parts.’ Then I found out that Pousse Cafe is actually three layers of alcoholic beverage carefully poured into the glass so that they remain separate.

How is this relevant? I don’t share the jaundiced view of Ayn Rand held by many, possibly the majority of academic philosophers. She was let down badly by her epigones, mostly second-rate thinkers who worshipped every word that came out of her lips. Maybe she did allow her head to be turned by the uncritical adulation, compounded by the cold rejection she received from the academic community. But she was a highly intelligent woman and an original thinker, in her way.

I did try once to read ‘Atlas Shrugged’. It’s got a great first sentence. But somehow it couldn’t hold my attention and I gave up before finishing it. I’m not a great reader. So I don’t remember the context of her, ‘Principles don’t fill the glass’.

It is important to have principles, primarily for political reasons: You let others know where you stand, and the things you won’t budge from. The idea that ethics is based on principles was advocated powerfully by Immanuel Kant. But principles are only one of the layers in the glass. Another layer is habit, the things you do without having to reason it out first. This was something Aristotle emphasized. He regarded the ‘continent man’, who restrains his bad impulses as ethically less admirable than the man who doesn’t need to restrain himself because he doesn’t need to. Doing the right thing comes naturally to him.

Ayn Rand believed that a willingness to act on one’s principles, even when everyone is against you, even when you are threatened with the most dire consequences, is a crucial part of personal integrity, and I agree. I also believe, as I argued in my Ethical Dilemmas, that there are times when you have to go against your own principles – even though the very idea of this seems paradoxical.

However, there is a third layer that Ayn Rand would not have agreed to: the capacity to be moved by the plight of others, the ‘sentiment’ of David Hume. There does seem to be something almost idiotic in the way Ayn Rand’s characters stick to their guns no matter what, not allowing others to manipulate their feelings. Some people are pathetic and need help, the beggar in the street for example, or a spineless relative who is always getting into trouble and scrapes. It takes a certain strength to be kind, and not overly protective of your ‘integrity’.

Some would say that combining Kant, Aristotle and Hume is just an eclectic compromise. My response would be to quote Nietzsche: ”The truth is simple’ – is that not doubly a lie?’

Platonic ideas compatible with art?

Titu asked:

What is the connection between a theory of art and the concept of the world of ideas/ forms?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I assume you know about Plato’s theory of ideas, since you are asking for the connection from there to art. But although Plato denies a role to art in value-laden human activities, most thinkers who came after him (including his pupil Aristotle) found ways of protesting against his strictures, with varying degrees of conviction.

The connection of which you speak was not, however, accomplished until early in the 19th century by Schopenhauer. He unveiled the one criterion that all preceding arguments had missed: That the Platonic forms/ideas, as “Urbilder”, are archetypal images of perfection, but have no independent existence. They are after all ideas; and there can be no traffic down from heaven into human minds as this would imply a kind of empirical contact. Rather, says Schopenhauer, the Platonic idea is in fact identical to Kant’s “Ding an sich”, a noumenon or “creature of the mind”. What does this mean? That Platonic forms, like Kants “Dinge an sich”, are purely imaginary constructs which evolved in the cognitive mind after the digestion of phenomenal impressions. Hence it is our cognition that manufactures “immutable essences” and “fundamental archetypes” after the event. In a word: one cannot think of either Platonic ideas nor of “Dinge an sich” without first having their actual counterparts before one’s eyes. And so everything in the world that Plato wished to reduce to ideas/forms is in fact a Platonic idea/form in its own right, and ditto for Kant’s “Dinge”. We deduce the type from the particular, not the other way around. And so, by this turnabout, we come to the ideas and forms of art.

Is a statue a copy of reality? By no means. Even Cicero chastised Plato for this error, maintaining that Phidias depicted the “ideal form” of the goddess, not the living goddess herself. How right he was! Just consider that none of the divinities is reducible to the form of “the god or goddess”. Some measure of individuation is indispensable, even among the immortals!

It was Schopenhauer’s merit to draw this consequence — namely, that every work of art is an “Urbild” in itself — unique and unrepeatable. Every authentic work of art is both, a type and an individual, but the type exists only ideally, in virtue of our categorisation of genres.

It is on this account that the modern commodification of art is beset by considerable anguish. There are always clever people around whose fakes and forgeries can delude the best experts, and this has repercussions in a business where art is traded as money and investment. Paradoxically, however, it does not affect Schopenhauer’s dictum. Even a forged painting is a unique work, and a fake only when its author hides his/her name. A buyer who acquires it for cheap and actually enjoys it will not complain as long as they are aware that the name in the corner is mere decoration.

Which leaves us with one last thought. The foregoing made it clear (I hope) that the connection between the theory of art and theory of ideas is altogether spurious. It remains attractive to some; but neither Plato nor any Platonist could clinch the point, because at bottom the whole notion of copulating art with the eternal ideas is simply a category error. Whereas those who look for “soul food” in the arts are at least on right track. What we look for in a poem are not the fine words, nor the lovely melodies in music, nor the splendid colours in a painting. We expect them to “speak” to us, to appeal to our affections; and in this respect every art lover brings his own “archetypes” to the experience, to encounter his/her pleasure or catharsis in the collision between them.

The whole and the parts

Sal Bader asked:

I have a question concerning the difference between predication and constitution.

In predication there is something said of another thing so we are talking about a property that belongs to something not something in itself but in constitution. The parts seem to be independent real entities so how could they be united and belong to something or else there won’t be one thing really.

So, first, whats the relation between the part and the whole ? And second can we view constitution in a similar way to predication? For example can i say of the the whole after its constitution that the being of the parts now belongs to it and all that the part included itself now belongs to the whole so the parts are said of the whole or the whole is somehow present to all the parts?

Answer by Peter Jones

Nice question. Predication is a problem, as you say, since it creates a separation between subject and predicate. For this reason Bradley says, and I believe he is correct, that in metaphysics predication is both necessary and illegitimate. This is rather like Lao Tsu’s comment that Tao cannot be spoken but must be spoken, (I believe it’s exactly the same point). So you’ve asked about a genuine and important philosophical issue.

Predicates are attributes. It the the separation between attributes and essences that leads Kant to the ‘thing-in-itself’. There has to be something that ‘has’ its attributes and yet if it only ‘has’ attributes then in-itself ‘it’ has none. This allows his ‘thing-in-itself’ to be a unity and not an aggregation. Thus his unity is not a collection, but a phenomenon that is apart from and additional to its attributes and predicates. This allows him to avoid the problems you mention.

Russell’s paradox is an example of the trouble one gets into if one confuses a collection of parts with a unity.

A unity is not an aggregation. As Leibnitz and Animaximander note, a unity has no parts. A ‘whole’ can have parts (given the way we usually use the word), so a ‘whole’ football team is an aggregate of eleven players. If we say in this way that the whole is a collection of parts no problems arise. Problems arise only where we say the whole is a unity, thus not an aggregate. This leads to a lot of muddle.

It is strongly stressed in the perennial tradition, which endorses a doctrine of Unity, that a Unity is not an aggregate. It is not a collection of other things. It is not the set-of-all-sets. As you have spotted, collecting a lot of parts into a pile creates an aggregated whole, not a unity. For unification the parts would have to be transcended for some underlying shared identity.

Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’ is a shared identity, not an aggregate. The ‘One’ of Plotinus’ is likewise a shared identity, not an aggregate. The problems you mention in your question arise only where we confuse a collection with a unified ‘thing’. All Kantian phenomena are aggregates. They may be called ‘wholes’ but they are collections of parts. This is presumably what Margaret Thatcher was trying to say when she said there’s no such thing as society. In the end there are just individual people, and even these are aggregates.

In short, I think that if you make a distinction between ‘whole’ (an aggregation) and ‘unity’ (not an aggregation) then any problems should go away. Exploring this issue in depth may be worthwhile since it will reveals many hidden linguistic and conceptual muddles arising from our idea of parts. wholes, unities and sets that plague philosophy. Bradley might be worth reading for the reasoning that leads him to judge predication invalid in metaphysics, and there is plenty of literature on the relation between parts and wholes. You will end up studying the meaning of the word ‘unity’, the most difficult word in all of philosophy.

The pursuit of wisdom

Ross asked:

I have a question . Why has modern philosophy abandoned what was the goal of ancient philosophy namely the pursuit of wisdom? Is this a weakness in modern philosophy or were the ancients misguided?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I ask you a question in return: What is wisdom? Maybe you tend, like many people, to think of a grey-bearded old fogey who utters mysterious mantras or is steeped in religion but inclined to an unorthodox point of view? Well, its etymology points to “wis”, derived from the old German “wissen”, which denotes the capacity to think and explain, as well as “witz”, in English “wit”, which used to mean sharpness of intellect. If you are familiar with Shakespeare, you’ll know that this is how he used the word and so did all writers before the 19th century.

This doesn’t leave much room for the prejudice in which you indulge. I can’t see Kant or Hegel, even Heidegger and Wittgenstein having abandoned wisdom. But maybe your real concern is the university circuit and the thousands of academics who write papers and combat each other’s “position” on one or another trifling issue, and otherwise teach the subject in the same way as a physicist or anthropologist or economist would deal with it – facts, doctrines, histories, theories and an undue emphasis on fads and fashions, while you feel that you’re missing out on what is supposed to be “wise” about all this. Unfortunately this is a perspective as old as philosophy itself. Even Thales and Pythagoras, or Plato and Aristotle had their commentators back in the ancient days, some of them far from embracing wisdom, but preferring scurrilous argumentation.

No, there is nothing new under the sun in this respect. What has changed is methodology. Beginning with Galileo in the age of Shakespeare, science began to develop a predominantly empirical, factual, experimental and probative methodology of exact knowledge; and if you look at this closely, you will quickly understand that this comprises a division in the area of “wis”-dom which grew to question features of our existence that cannot be encompassed this way. In spite of which, science has in recent times moved increasingly into research that is intrinsically closed to “factual” theorising; but its prestige in our modern world has burgeoned to such an extent that we are totally intimated and most reluctant to rebut its incursions into such matters as life, mind, art, spirituality etc., as if they were amenable to the same methodology (not to say technology!) that gave us computers, atom bombs and contraceptive pills.

In sum: It is not the case that philosophy has abandoned wisdom; simply that men endowed with wisdom are harder to breed in an environment dominated by the sciences and to some extent by the prior needs of educational curricula. Hence the weakness you perceive can be put down simply to the swings and roundabouts which affect all human activities over time – after all, we haven’t had a second Shakespeare for a few years either, and if Einstein had been born in 1564, he would have been unemployable!

Gene editing and the dignity of ‘the human’

Kelly asked:

Using the ethical theory of deontology criticise and evaluate the practice of gene editing.

Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

One has to put the question in a larger context. The Enlightenment was a great project of improving the lot of mankind by putting each and every institution before the ‘tribulanl of reason’ as Kant put it in a lengthy footnote to the foreword of Critique of Pure Reason (1st ed.).

But since humans are objects of our critical review, we always have some vague idea of what is good and what is not in humans. Otherwise there would be no criminal law reflecting on ‘bad behaviour and punishment’ and no education and civilization either which are meant to keep the human excesses and evil tendencies in check.

But even then, a lot of madness and cruelty remains. And the natural response of the Enlightenment was: What to do about that? But this is only on behaviour, of ‘mentality’. The question of sanity and decency in human conduct.

Now what about the body? We call some people ugly. We call other people ‘challenged’. We call people crippled — either from birth or from accidents.

In our age of improvement we want to correct things to the better. That’s natural.

But in our age of science and technology, we try to prevent bad things from happening. Why repair any bodily or mental aberration after birth and not before? At first sight, there is nothing to object.

On second sight, there is a lot of trouble: Who defines what is good?

Only humans can decide what is good or not in humans. Animals can’t. And robots can’t either. Then we enter the problem of eugenics. The Nazis have demonstrated what this comes to: ‘Kill all Jews, they are aberrations and not the right sort of humans!’ ‘Kill all crippled people, all people with dementia, etc.! They are life not worth living!’

From this derives an ethical principle: ‘Humans are not allowed to define what a human is!’ To be more precise: ‘A human is what is born by a human mother.’

Thus we are in an ethical conundrum: We find it natural to improve things, but a human is not a thing for other humans to define, and thus every improvement has to be executed with greatest reluctance, reflection and circumspection.

It is not the case that nothing can be done. Teachers and MDs and surgeons are improving humans all the time. But they shun back from any general concept of improvement. There is no accepted standard of a good and sane human — whether with respect to the body nor to the mind nor to ‘soul and character’. The accepted principle of all medics is always: ‘Try to remove or alleviate suffering — but nothing else!’ Not even euthanasia is generally accepted.

Now, we all sometimes meet a person who seems perfect: Great looks, great mind, great character, great intelligence, a 10 on almost every skale. There are not many of such people, maybe one in 1000, but we know them from personal experience and call them dream women or dream men or superstars. And don’t look for the dark side. Some are really good. There need not be a dark side. They are not only perfect, they are even truly nice and helpful and humble and ready to learn. They are neither arrogant nor neurotic, they are simply perfect. But only one in thousand — or less.

Now imagine a city of 5-10 million inhabitants like London. Then you may see a small city with 5-10 thousand — the perfect people from London! Every one of them is nice and bright and just perfect. Wouldn’t that be your utopia? The new humanity?

Today there are nearly 8 billion humans inhabiting the Earth. Many of them are poor and wretched and some cruel and repellent. What about extracting from these 8 million perfect specimens and get rid of the others and start humanity from scratch? Something like this was on the minds of Hitler and Himmler and some others.

Now you see the real problem. It is not just ‘deontology’. It is a fundamental problem of human existence: ‘What sort of people should there be?’

Look up https://www.amazon.com/What-People-Should-There-Pelican/dp/0140222243/

For the time being, human engineering is a technical problem: We simply do not know what we do. Thus genetic engineers are reluctant to do much if anything. Only in some cases, preventive measures are allowed even by the Catholic Church. And killing people ‘that are not perfect’ is a no go. But what if genetic engineering becomes really precise? Then people may sue their parents : ‘You could have prevented me! You could have known from my genes that I have this handicap!’

The next step would be to enter the project of trans- and posthumanism: Start creating perfect humans all over again! Look up https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumanism

This is not killing ‘deficient humans’. There is no natural objection to improving humans. It is called the paradox of transhumanism that ‘improving the human’ may coincide with ‘replacing humans by something better’.

Then we are in the center of metaphysical anthropology: What would we call ‘the essence of humanity’?

Do not even think of ‘man in the image fo God’! We do not think of God as having two legs and two arms, a belly and a head. So what does ‘in the image of God’ come to? It must be something spiritual. But what exactly? A creative mind? And what if a smart computer displays a creative mind? Would the computer be built ‘in the image of God’?

Once you start genetic engineering of humans there is much much more to it than mere gene editing and IVF. You are right in the middle of metaphysical humanism.

This is only a starter, just some hints. And now that you have seen the whole picture, you may get to your original question on the details.

Look up https://www.amazon.com/Posthumanism-Stefan-Herbrechter/dp/1780936060/