Philosophical novels

Joshua asked:

I am a fan of what is known as philosophical novels; and have seen a lot of philosophical thinking in a lot of science fiction. I wonder: what is the relationship between literature and philosophy? Why are such novelists such as Fyordor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and such others regarded as philosophers, without real training in the craft?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

One could be cynical about this: When authentic philosophy begins to ebb and the shelves of academic exegesis outnumber them by ratios in the thousands, the hunt for new ideas might very well alight, here and there, on poets and novelists who have not previously been considered fit for discussions of ‘their’ philosophy. That’s one side of it. The other is, that the tradition of philosophical writing has never been averse to literary excellence. Plato’s dialogues and hundreds of imitations up to the days of Hume speak for it; and so do the literary masterpieces of such men as Francis Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and others.

It is a ready-made invitation for novelists with this kind of inclination to produce dialogues infused with a philosophical spirit, even if the rigour of argumentation yields to the drama of their mise-en-scene. Consider the Grand Inquisitor episode and Ivan’s encounter with the devil in The Brothers Karamasov as well as the figure of Kirillov in The Demons: These sections thrive on philosophical ideas in that they bring issues of the utmost relevance to the human condition under the searchlight. Consider in the same light The Magic Mountain of Thomas Mann, which is in one of its aspects a theatre piece where two conflicting intellectual powers (Naphtha and Settembrini) struggle for the soul of the naive hero Castorp, which is also deeply philosophical in its social and ethical context.

However, let’s not shove the crucial issue under the carpet, which is that neither of these writers was expounding ‘his philosophy’ this way, as (per contrast) Plato did. So there is a difference between ‘a philosophy’ which a philosopher might publish in literary form, and a novel, poem or play in which the author engages himself with philosophical ideas that are rarely (if ever) his own. It stands to reason, I think, that if we continually smear out this difference, we are not honouring men of literature (or science) who did not regard themselves as philosophers.

As for sci-fi, which used to be a favourite genre of mine, I have grown skeptical about its fitness for philosophy. It is not the genre as such, but simply its store of ideas which on the whole are so far removed from life that I have come to doubt that these writers and film-makers actually know what it is. But without life, there is nothing to philosophise about. (Nevertheless I give you leave to contradict me wholeheartedly, if you are so inclined).

Philosophy and science (2)

Lasmii asked:

I am a literature student. I am deeply interested in philosophy and science. Who are the philosophers who probed into scientific ideas?

Answer by Peter Jones

Some names that might be relevant would be Erwin Schrodinger, Arthur Eddington, Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, Bernardo Kastrup and Ulrich Mohrhoff. Most scientists doodle with philosophy but these names do more than this. Schrodinger is an excellent philosopher. Kastrup argues from science to Idealism and has a new book out. Mohrhoff explores the area between quantum mechanics and non-dualism.

Generally scientific ideas are not much help to philosophers but the birth of QM changed this and among the early pioneers many recognised this.  With the passing of that pioneering generation scientists seem to have gone back to not being interested.

The list could be longer and stretch back to Democritus and might include the Alchemists, but for me it’s only with modern physics and ‘scientific’ consciousness studies that physics becomes interesting in philosophy.

Philosophy and science

Lasmii asks:

I am a literature student. I am deeply interested in philosophy and science. Who are the philosophers who probed into scientific ideas?

Answer by Craig Skinner

In the ancient world there was philosophy. Then Christianity appropriated it to formulate intellectually appealing doctrine (theology). Throughout, systematic enquiry into the natural world was called natural philosophy. A ‘science’ was simply a body of knowledge or area of enquiry, such as military strategy or geometry. It was only with the application of mathematics, and the distinctive methodology of conjecture and testing with experiment, beginning with Galileo and Newton, that natural philosophy became science as we now know it, and physics, chemistry, geology, biology, psychology, and other fields of study, successively budded off from philosophy.

I will deal briefly with three things:

1. Great philosophers who were also scientists.

2. Great philosophers of science.

3. Great or well-known scientists who show interest in philosophy.

(1) The presocratics are sometimes called protoscientists because they were the first to seek explanation of events by natural rather than supernatural causes (mechanism rather than agency). Perhaps the most notable is Anaximander (born 610 BCE). He held that the Earth was a stone floating in space and didnt ‘fall’ because there was no reason for it to prefer one rather than another direction to move. He also held that change through time was due to universal necessary laws. A sparkling account of his contribution and its significance is given by one of our best scientist-writers (Rovelli C (2007) Anaximander, Westholme.

The greatest scientist among great philosophers is Aristotle. His physics is often derided as nonsense these days. Of course it is long superseded. But it held the stage for 2000 years because, given the accepted cosmology of his day — an Earth-centred system of concentric spheres with circular motion in the heavens and linear motion on Earth — it was a coherent system of fluid mechanics, and was only replaced when Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton came up with something better. Newton, in turn, was replaced by Einstein, and now, because Einstein’s theory of gravity doesnt work below the Planck scale, we await the new theory of quantum gravity which will replace it. Aristotle’s field work in marine biology is world-class. Darwin admired it, commenting on the illustrious biologists, Linnaeus and Cuvier, that ‘they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle’. Aristotle knew that individuals varied within a species, that some variations were heritable, and that some variations aided survival. But he didnt make the conceptual leap to evolution by natural selection, maybe because of his view that there were fixed natural kinds. Mind you, nobody else came up with the idea either, although Hume was close, till the 19th century. Philosophy texts tend to skim over Aristotle’s biology (although they deal with its metaphysical underpinnings, and these are also very much alive and well in modern scientific practice). An outstanding account is given in Leroi AM (2014) The Lagoon: How Aristotle invented Science, Bloomsbury.

Descartes was a great mathematician, inventing analytic geometry, and we still refer to the x-y axes on which we plot our graphs and functions, as Cartesian co-ordinates. But he was also a scientist. His vortex theory of the formation and motion of the solar system was mainstream till succeeded by Newton’ laws of motion and gravity. He also studied animal anatomy and physiology by dissection.

Berkeley made original contributions to the science of optics, again mostly skimmed in philosophy texts.

(2) Once science got going, philosophers turned to systematic analysis of scientific method and practice, including confirmation, refutation, theory choice, underdetermination, versimilitude, realism, reduction, distinction from pseudoscience, and much else. Among the great 20th century philosophers of science are Popper (distinguishing science from pseudoscience), Kuhn (science proceeds by long stretches of within-paradigm routine work punctuated by paradigm shifts), Feyerabend (there is no single scientific method, only a hotchpotch), Duhem, Lakatos, Hempel, Laudan, Cartwright and others. All have written important works, and well, but, perhaps, they are mostly too heavy-duty for the general reader.

(3) Scientists with an interest in philosophy are a mixed bag, their philosophy ranging across the whole spectrum of the good, the bad and the ugly. Einstein’s contributions are mostly aphoristic, but astute. Eddington’s 1927 Gifford lectures, published as The Nature of the Physical World are worth a read. A brilliant account of the science and philosophy of time, making clear difficult ideas which many other authors leave opaque, is Rovelli C (2018) The Order of Time, Allen Lane. As for Dawkins and Hawking, considerable scientists and good writers both, their philosophical contributions are best passed over.

I have only skimmed the surface of a vast subject, and havent even touched on the disputed question of the distinction, if any, between science and philosophy, but I hope my remarks are of some help.

Meaning of life

Ali asked:

A man can produce more than 70 millions of children in just 1 ejaculation. So many children & crowds of people can exist in the world if man decides to. How is it possible for billions of unwanted species to be given souls in a moment. Is god or life or anything waiting for men’s sexual intercourse to give them free souls?

Is there such a thing as soul or its injector (god) at all? If it is done by mere accidents therefore our lives is meaningless & worthless; If god gives souls whenever men get hard-ons, so it is based on men & men decide to produce men (so many souls too!) not the peeping god!

Enlighten me please! So much thanks & excuse the angry language of the questioner. No one has ever given a satisfying reply to the puzzled questioner!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I hope you are aware, Ali, that your question demands a history of all religions and philosophy on one page? Can’t be done; and in any case every answer can only reflect the prejudices of the writer. No-one ever had a solution to these problems that could be accepted by everyone as the whole truth and nothing but.

My point of view is that only one road leads to something near a relevant conception, which is trodden by philosophy and biology jointly. Obviously I must curtail it to a few paragraphs, but I hope you get something from them.

Humans are animals. If we are ensouled, then all animals must be ensouled. Evidently there are qualitative differences among the species, shown by the fact that only humans can express themselves in speech and thinking and possess a highly developed consciousness of selfhood.

But as all other life forms (including insects, plants, microbes) exhibit intentional forms of behaviour, it is likely that souls are the common property of all, again with qualitative differences. This implies that ensoulment is identical across all life forms, in fact a default definition of life.

The qualitative aspect results from individuation at or after birth. Its degree may be determined by the give and take with the habitat and the survival needs of species. Now this seems to be the real gist of your question — is a god needed to endow creatures with individuated souls?

I’m inclined to doubt it. Although there are many ontological proofs, not one of them succeeds in demonstrating the absolute necessity of such a being. As it happens, the scholastic thinker Ockham said 800 years ago: Don’t overload your theories with unnecessary hypotheses. Meaning: if any occurrence is repeatedly the same, there is no necessity for assuming that a creative act must be associated with each. Thus, to stay with animals: Life is transmitted from mother to child; there is never a ‘new’ life created in any birth, only a new body. After birth, the child acquires its individuation during the growth of what Kant calls ‘the unity of apperceptions’. In humans, the individuation is largely assisted by education. No god needed for this.

And so, finally: Where does value enter this picture? Is life just a meaningless accident? Questions like this point to the psychological need of humans to find value, which historically has been satisfied by our many religious doctrines. But the fact that there are so many, shows that ultimately none ever satisfied us completely. In our present scientific culture we make do with the idea of an ultimate cause. But a cause cannot confer value either. So we are stuck with the only possibility left over, which is that we ourselves are responsible for creating value and giving meaning to life.

How? I’ll repeat here a dictum that I’ve put into one of my books: That life is a privileged state of existence; and that self-reflexive consciousness adds a new vantage point from which to inject value and meaning into our existence. This should be understood in the context of an overwhelmingly lifeless universe, of which in every other respect it could be said that it makes no difference whether or not it exists. It is this privileged state of existence represented by living creatures that confers value and meaning; and as its (current) flag bearers, we humans have that opportunity and privilege to make something of it.

Time travel

Siobhan asked

What is the Philosophy of Time Travel?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This reminds me of a story, Siobhan, of many stories I’ve read from centuries, millennia ago — Orpheus in the Underworld, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, the Pharaohs — Cheating death, cheating time, flying through the air with magical animals, descending into the bowels of the past, tearing off the dark cloak from the future… so many dreams that will not die. Now we have science fiction to drape them — Science! Wow!

Yes, there have been philosophers too, in the middle ages, who propped up these dreams and stories with cast-iron logic, but we don’t believe them any more because we found that some terms in their syllogisms, called ‘common notions’, were not common any more when the power of the Church began to wane. Today we have science. Science delivers; we believe in it. Nevertheless, doubts creep in sometimes. Just how much science is there in science fiction? I suspect: very little; though a plethora of fancies that could be so construed on the basis of superficial similarities.

On my understanding, we owe our current conceptions of time and space to Einstein. His theory is called Relativity. It does not make provision for time travel; but is on the contrary, totally and absolutely inimical to it. So you see the problem: Relativity has to be proved wrong before one can philosophise about time travel. No philosopher would risk reputation and career on such a fool’s errant.

What about quantum theory? Don’t experimenters sometimes find particles veering off the straight and narrow path into the future to jump into the past? Well, that’s one reason why empirical physics and particle physics don’t get on, why we don’t have a ‘unified field theory’. This ‘maybe time travel’ might be nothing more than a limitation on our observational powers. But even if particles truly bounce into the past sometimes, they are not ‘things’ and therefore we can’t get a ride on them. It doesn’t stop fiction writers and movie makers, of course. Our imagination is fuelled by such fancies.

Coming to the end, you would not expect to be the first person to put a question of this nature to the panel. So let me finally point you to a more detailed rendering of the problems of time travel that I wrote in these pages a few years ago and is still accessible from the archives of Pathways. Happy reading!

Socrates and Mill on the unexamined life

Samantha asked:

In the Apology, Socrates says, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ (38a) Do you think that J.S. Mill would agree? More generally, do they agree about the nature of the good life? Explain why or why not.

Answer by Graham Hackett

I’ll start with a quote from JS Mill

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.” (Utilitarianism)

Sometimes, when we read JS Mill today, we may form the impression that what is being said is glaringly obvious. This is because much of the matter discussed by him has now come to be regarded as settled and received opinion in the 20th century. We know that Socrates (through Plato) believed that everything, even the most taken-for granted concepts, such as courage, prudence, temperance etc should be subjected to the most rigorous questioning. Philosophic examination of this type, plus contemplation of ultimate questions of truth and justice constituted the “examined life” for Socrates. Famously, as you indicate in your question,  Socrates, at his trial  declared that he would choose death rather than live the unexamined life. Lest we get carried away with the nobility of his sentiment, we would have to admit that living the examined life was not something that Socrates thought was a road which should be taken by all. We know that, as described in The Republic, only a small privileged group would be able to do this, thus befitting them for just rule.

Although he may seem like a million miles distant from Socrates, J.S Mill also has a version of an “examined life”, although it is very much different from Socrates version. The source to read for this is “On Liberty”, published in 1859. Of course, the main aim of that essay is that the promotion of liberty and free speech is essential for a healthy body politic, but Mill is eager to argue that it also promotes happiness. 

There are several reasons for a permissive attitude to liberty of thought and speech. Mill says;

“Those who desire to suppress it (a controversial opinion), of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”

In general, freedom of speech enables/ allows people to come to a clear and lively understanding of truths about the world. What amounts to the same thing, the silencing or censorship of expression prevents people from arriving at a clear and vivid understanding of true beliefs about the world. In addition to the promotion of free speech, Mill also has strong views on how science should progress,  Scientific theory should develop using inductive methods, and no theory should ever be regarded as the final word.

My understanding is that as well as being of instrumental significance for a healthy state, the liberties Mill describes, together with his robust views on science give us an alternative view to Socrates as to what might constitute an ‘examined’ life.

So JS Mill would certainly agree with Socrates that the examined life is a desirable one. However, there are points of difference to note between the two. What is it that constitutes the ‘examination’ in this examined life? For Socrates the process is based on theoretical analysis, abstraction  and contemplation. Concepts such as honesty, truth, courage and justice have a real unchangeable metaphysical existence; they can be discovered and known. In comparison, Mill eschews the metaphysical realm, and abandons any attempt to find a priori explanations for our concepts. Truth is a matter of empirical research, and discovering it is an ongoing eternal process. For example, liberty of speech and the resulting improvement in public living, is more than a set of governing practices. It is a culture or way of life of a community defined by equality of membership, reciprocal cooperation, and mutual respect and sympathy located in civic society. On Mill’s view, democratic participation is a way of life that unites two higher pleasures – sympathy and autonomy. 

You also mention, in your question whether Socrates and Mill would agree about what constitutes the good life.  I am a bit less secure about my answer here, but I would assume that, for Socrates, the good life would involve the search for truth and justice, and living in accordance with what one finds. The spirited, appetitive and rational elements of ones soul are in harmony. It is highly likely that Socrates felt that this good life would also deliver happiness.  Mill begins with happiness – his utilitarian approach involves that the goal of life is to maximize it. However, his writings indicate that for him, happiness (utility) is a richly nuanced concept, leading to a concept of the good life every bit as complex as the more metaphysical pursuit of Socrates.

Animals, humans and personal identity

Clara asked:

Can animals be considered persons?

What do philosophers supporting bodily continuity in terms of personal identity argue and how can I reject their arguments?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Clara, these are great questions, touching on the most fundamental issues that philosophy can deal with! However, in many ways both of them address the same underlying problem, and so I will deal with them together.

But I must begin with a caveat. Not all philosophers who wrote on these matters were au fait with biology. E.g. John Locke was a medico in an era of practically zero neurophysiological knowledge, so we must disqualify his pronouncements on two souls in one body and two bodies sharing a soul. Similarly some present day conjectures try to fit digital ideas onto living processes and let their fancies outrun biological capacities. I shall ignore them too.

The basics of this matter turn on the possession of language and a conceptual faculty. These two features enable human self-reflexivity, i.e. our consciousness of individuality and the ability to frame mental artefacts which we call ‘concepts’. Animals don’t have this capacity, even though all mammals (e.g. dogs, horses, apes, dolphins) possess a neocortex. This makes it doubtful whether or not they have a sense of individuality, or ‘personhood’. Many handlers of such animals believe it to be the case, as they feel that some forms of intimate communication between them is possible. However, there is no known method of clinching such arguments, in the main because animals have extremely limited resources of articulation.

On the other issue, matters are considerably more involved. The strongest arguments for the life-long persistence of personhood are Kant’s ‘Unity of Apperceptions’ and Schopenhauer’s ‘Principle of Individuation’. These and similar propositions can be questioned on the basis of pathological disruption of personality. E.g. someone may suffer coma, severe psychological trauma or complete memory loss and in some cases start a new life after the restoration of their personality. Whether these patients are identical with their former selves is perhaps debatable, but there are two main arguments against the supposition of a new identity.

The first is, that the notion of personhood is intrinsically ill-defined, as a five-year-old child is hardly a formed personality and must add character traits aplenty in their future life — in other words, personality is not a thing and cannot be pinned down to a single coherent phenomenology. Therefore loss or change of personality are undeniably possible.

The other objection is, that a person’s body and life form one indissoluble entity. The notion of personal identity is therefore bound up with the autonomy of living processes, in which all mental processes are included. Therefore a unique personhood is a subjective conscious self-reflectivity that can indeed change without annulling objective personhood.

In sum, the stronger battalions are on the side of the uniqueness and persistence of personhood in life. Disruption and change may alter its qualitative features, but not its intrinsic continuity. From a neurophysiological point of view, it can be said that much empirical evidence collected from brain damaged patients points to the brain’s capacity to restore its own integrity (in some cases despite catastrophic pathology), which seems to provide pretty conclusive evidence in favour of continuity.

Incidentally, the first empirical case study is the story of Phineas Gage, who survived a 4-foot-long iron rod being driven through his head. It changed his personality, but he remained the same ‘person’ for the 12 years of his post-trauma life. Look him up in the web!