Monday, October 15, 2018


My blog last week was a clear case of self-censorship. Or rather, not the blog itself was, but I had self-censured the photo: I had uploaded another photo than I actually wanted to do, because I feared that it would be removed by some social media because it showed a nude female body. Or to be more exact, it showed a nude female shop-window dummy (placed as trash in the street). My fear that this would happen was not without reason, for I know that a photo of a 40,000 years old (!) rather abstract female figurine had been removed by Facebook simply for the reason that it was nude. And a museum in Antwerp, Belgium, warns that pictures with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) taken in the museum and uploaded to Facebook may be removed because they show nude women. Since I wanted to share my blog on several social media and since then automatically the photo of the blog is shown, I decided to change the image for this blog, even though the new photo was “more awful” than the original one. By doing so I self-censured my blog.
When we talk about censorship, we probably think in the first place of journalists and writers who are not allowed to publish their articles and books in dictatorial or authoritarian countries. However, a by far more common phenomenon is self-censorship. Here I’ll ignore psychological forms of self-censure, which involve that people don’t freely express their opinions because of the possible negative reactions of others, even if they are their equals. I have rather a kind of self-censorship in mind in a more or less institutionalized setting, like worded in this definition: “[T]he act of censoring yourself because you fear that governments, firms or institutions will find something you want to say objectionable, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient. It applies to person communications, news, social media, art, literature, film and entertainment. Self censorship may create an environment of fear that suppresses economic activity, culture, political freedom and social processes.” ( Now it is so that in my case I didn’t fear the social media. I changed the photo, since it would have no sense to announce my new blog, if this announcement would soon be deleted. But what difference does it make? The effect is the same: I censured myself.
Now you can say: “Okay, that may be true, but often we need to restrain ourselves in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts.” That’s right, but it’s different when values like freedom of speech and expression are at stake and that’s often the case when we censure ourselves because we fear the reactions of governments, firms and institutions, even in democratic countries. Then self-censorship becomes dangerous, because it undermines the values we value and should defend. We see this already somewhat in democratic societies but the mechanism is explicitly used in authoritarian and dictatorial states where what citizens do is controlled by fear. In order to demonstrate that the ban to say what is displeasing to the authorities and the ban to express yourself in the way you like must be taken serious, examples are set. People who allegedly don’t comply with the rules are arrested, sentenced, executed or murdered (sometimes under a pretext) or they simply disappear and are never again heard of. Think of the recent murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. Social media like Facebook can exclude people from their websites, if they don’t follow their rules, even if their rules are not the generally accepted rules; or at least they remove displeasing content, which restrains people to express what they want to express (see the examples above). Since most people want to avoid the nasty consequences if they don’t follow the rules, the result is self-censorship. You can say, of course, why should I need Facebook and other social media? The problem is that in the present world you need them, for otherwise – for instance –  nobody will find your personal website. Then you are free to express yourself, but nobody knows. As a result, self-censorship becomes a kind of thought police, for it doesn’t only limit the expression of certain thoughts but in the end it makes that certain thoughts don’t pop up at all. Just as it is the function of the police not only to catch criminals but also to make that crime doesn’t happen. This is well expressed by a certain psychoanalyst in Montevideo, who had lived during the years of repression and dictatorship in Uruguay in the 1970s and early 1980s. During these years he and his wife kept silent and they were never detained or imprisoned, but “[o]ur own lives became increasingly constricted. The process of self-censorship was incredibly insidious: It wasn’t just that you stopped talking about certain things with other people — you stopped thinking them yourself. Your internal dialogue just dried up.” ( Although the consequences of the restrictions of the social media are not that dramatic, any imposed limitation of thinking, by others or by yourself, kills thinking a little bit, anyhow.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Can people be trash?

When reading Anne Applebaum’s book Red famine. Stalin’s War on Ukraine, I came across the following quote from Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman:
“I’m no longer under a spell, I can see now that the kulaks were human beings. But why was my heart so frozen at the time? When such terrible things were being done, when such suffering was going on all around me? And the truth is that I truly didn’t think of them as human beings. ‘They’re not human beings, they’re kulak trash’ – that’s what I heard again and again, that’s what everyone kept repeating ...”
Appelbaum’s book treats one of the most miserable periods in the history of the Soviet Union. Here it’s not the place to go into details but in the 1930s Stalin and the leadership of the communist party had decided that agriculture in the Soviet Union had to be collectivized: Individual peasant farmers had to join big cooperative agricultural farms, if not voluntarily then by force. Applebaum describes in her book how this happened in the Ukraine, the major agricultural area of the Soviet Union. There was much opposition in the Ukraine against this collectivization. In order to break the opposition Stalin and the communist leadership decided to kill and to starve out all farmers, peasants and others who opposed the plans. As a result that millions of people died – executed, in prison camps (the “gulag”) or by starvation. In those days the richer farmers and peasants were called “kulaks”, but actually it was so that every opponent and everybody who was against the collectivization was called so. Moreover, in the communist propaganda they weren’t simply seen as people who didn’t agree and didn’t cooperate; no they were considered “trash” or “vermin” and the like.
Now it’s so that the situation described in the book is something of the past, anyway – I hope and assume – for the readers of my blogs, although I don’t want to underestimate the number of regions in the world where people still are treated in such an inhuman way. But you, readers of my blogs living mostly in comfortable circumstances, look around and watch: Isn’t it so that in your immediate environment still many people are seen a little bit as trash or even as vermin? People belonging to other groups, to “lower” groups, to “lower” classes than the one you belong to are too often looked upon with contempt. Actually, as is often thought by the “higher” people (and maybe also by you???), it is that they don’t behave as it should be. Their opinions are not the “right” ones, just because they are “lower”. In fact they are seen a little bit as trash. Especially those people are seen that way who don’t lead a regular life: poor people, street people, tramps, illegal migrants from Africa and the Middle East in Europe and from Latin America in the USA. In their hearts – and sometimes openly as well – many people see them as trash or vermin. Throw them away from your life, tread down on them. Of course, not literally. We are human and civilized and put them in camps or on islands far away or keep a watch on them in another way. We even pay their return home, in case they are immigrants and are prepared to leave. We are human, aren’t we? But in fact, a little bit of the feeling described by Vasily Grossman is still in us.

Anne Applebaum, Red famine. Stalin’s War on Ukraine. London, Penguin Books, 2018; p. 226.

At first I had planned to upload here another photo by way of illustration of this blog (which you can find here on my Dutch photo website: Since I am almost sure that this photo will be removed by Facebook and some other websites where I always announce my blogs, I replaced it by the present one. The cynical thing is, of course, is that the present photo is by far more scandalous than the innocent photo that I originally wanted to upload here.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Are you weird?

Please go back for a moment to my last week’s blog and look at the picture of the Müller-Lyer Illusion. The weird thing of this figure is – and that’s why we call it an illusion – that the upper line looks shorter than the line under, though actually the lines have the same length. Or don’t you see the illusionary difference of length of the lines? If so, probably then you are not weird, or rather you are not WEIRD, for especially people from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies are tricked by the figure. In other words, whether you see the illusion or don’t is culture dependent. This is not only so for this illusion but for other illusions as well. But let me here concentrate on the Müller-Lyer Illusion as an instance of all illusions.
This illusion has been first described in 1889 by Franz Müller-Lyer. Since then several psychological explanations have been proposed. However, all tests of the illusion have been done by investigators with a Western background and almost everybody who has seen the illusion has this background as well. Therefore, it wasn’t realized that the illusion might be a WEIRD phenomenon. This changed in the 1960s when it was realized that seeing the illusion might have been influenced by cultural experiences. So Marshall H. Segall, Donald T. Campbell and Melville J. Herkovits got the idea that people living in different kinds of environments may see the illusion in different ways. To test this idea they selected peoples living in different physical environments, varying from environments with mainly straight lines like big cities with sky scrapers to environments with chiefly winding and varying lines like you find them in wood areas. Teams of data-collectors were sent to peoples in 15 different environments who were asked to estimate the length of the lines in the Müller-Lyer Illusion; or rather they had to judge the difference in length. In their summary of the project the investigators don’t specify the peoples involved but – to give an idea – you have to think of inhabitants of New York as opposed to Kalahari hunter-gatherers, Suku tribespeople from Northern Angola, and Bete tribespeople from the Ivory Coast. Care was taken that the test persons were not influenced by the data-collectors and, as said, the test had been developed that way that the informants could indicate what according to them the difference in length of the lines in the pair was, in case they saw a difference. (Actually, they had to judge not only the Müller-Lyer Illusion but four other illusions as well.) And what happened? The illusion appeared to be an illusion. Or rather some saw differences in length between the lines, but the differences were different for different peoples; in addition the differences were zero for some. Moreover, to what extent people were susceptible to the Müller-Lyer Illusion was dependent on the environment where they lived. People from Western societies – societies characterized by straight lines – proved to be more susceptible to the Müller-Lyer Illusion than non-Western peoples, i.e. for the former the difference in length was more than for non-Westerners. Also among the latter for some the difference in length of the lines was more, for others less, dependent on the environment where they lived. In other words, seeing the illusion or to what extent you see it depends on the culture where you live. In an older blog (dated 22 June 2009) we have seen that whether a certain epistemic intuition is really an intuition for you depends on your social-economic background. Here we have an example of the fact that illusions are culture dependent. Often it is so that mental and visual perceptions are related to cultural differences. And if you are weird you see illusions where others maybe don’t. But since the whole world still becomes more westernized to some degree, it’s not unlikely that in future more and more people will become weird.

References and related websites
- Barthelme, Simon, “Culture and Perception, part II: The Muller-Lyer illusion”:
- Donaldson, J; F. Macpherson, “Müller-Lyer” (Some explanations of the Müller-Lyer Illusion):
- Schulz, Colin, “Are Optical Illusions Cultural? People from around the world respond to optical illusions different. But why?”:
- Segall, Marshall H.; Donald T. Campbell; Melville J. Herkovits on their research:
- Wade, Lisa, “Cultural differences in cognitive perception” (Some statistics of the research by Segall et. al.):

Monday, September 17, 2018

Why do we believe?

An intriguing problem in philosophy is the question “Why do we believe?” And then I don’t mean “believe” in a religious sense but in a psychological sense, for instance as it is worded in the Wikipedia as “the state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case with or without there being empirical evidence to prove that something is the case with factual certainty”.
Many philosophers think that we have no reasons to believe our beliefs. Of course, we may produce reasons why we believe that something is the case, but finally such reasons are mere justifications. In the end we believe without having reasons for it: we just believe. Wittgenstein said it this way in his On certainty:
“173. Is it maybe in my power what I believe? or what I unshakeably believe?
I believe that there is a chair over there. Can’t I be wrong? But, can I believe that I am wrong? Or can I so much as bring it under consideration? – And mightn’t I also hold fast to my belief whatever I learned later on?! But is my belief then grounded?
174. I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.
175. ‘I know it’ I say to someone else; and here there is a justification. But there is none for my belief.”
As Wittgenstein puts it: There is no justification for a belief. Even empirical facts cannot give it. Take the picture at the top of this blog. It’s the well-known Müller-Lyer Illusion. Someone who doesn’t know it will believe that the line on the top is shorter than the line under, while actually the lines have the same length. I can say to him: “Take a ruler and measure it”. But he replies: “I have done it but a devil makes my ruler longer each time I measure the line below. That’s why it looks as if both lines have the same length.” What then? I believe that there are no devils and that his ruler is reliable, but I cannot prove that his belief is false. Each “proof” by me can be “falsified” by another belief. It will not be difficult to construct a false belief, and if you believe it, you believe it. And why shouldn’t there be a deceiving devil that steers our beliefs? Until Descartes reasoned that his existence cannot be denied by such a devil and until Spinoza implicitly reasoned against the existence of gods that steer our lives, almost everybody in the world believed that nonhuman beings have a big impact on how we live and what we think. Despite many false beliefs man successfully survived more than three million years and led a happy or less happy life.
According to Andrew Newbert, this is the matter (as discussed by Jackson Preston King in an article; see “sources” below).The world around us is very complicated and very extended. We can know only a fraction of it, even if studying the world would be our main task. To quote from King’s article: “An individual person, living in a specific physical location on the earth, will never in the course of a lifetime encounter 99% or more of all the information and/or experience that is available on just this one tiny planet. We won’t read all the books. We won’t visit all the places. We won’t meet all the people. Most of the animal species on earth we won’t even see a picture of in our lifetimes, let alone witness in person.” Therefore, the only option we have is to construct images in our minds of how the world might be, based on our limited knowledge. We do this by forming beliefs and structures (“schemas”) of beliefs. Then such beliefs and schemas of structured beliefs help us to find our way in the world and to act: “Dr. Newberg’s explanation is that navigating the limited piece of physical reality we encounter in life, and remaining mentally and emotionally secure enough to survive, find mates, and propagate the species, requires an unquestioning, and when you think about it, strikingly unreasonable confidence in ourselves and in the world. Since full awareness of reality as-it-is was not an option for our ancient ancestors (as the overwhelm caused by so much data would have diminished, rather than enhanced, their chances of survival), evolution equipped them – and, as their descendants, us too – with brains capable of generating a convincing illusion of the reality of our own small words.” (ibid.) That’s why we have beliefs. They are like beacons in the sea that guide the ships passing by. Even if a beacon is on the wrong place or has gone adrift, it may hold its function, especially when we don’t know that it will lead us astray (which may be the cause of many problems). Without beacons we feel lost and so we construct them then in our minds – if necessary as illusions. Happily, enough of our beliefs are okay in the sense that they help us lead a life that avoids most obstacles.
We believe because our knowledge fails and because we need to act anyway. Fortunately most of our beliefs – correct or not – are effective and useful guides, and so, as Wittgenstein said “I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.”

- “Belief” in Wikipedia, ( )
- King, Jack Preston, “Why Do We Believe Anything, Anyway?”,
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty,

Monday, September 10, 2018

Puppet on a string

After Charles IX, only 14 years old, had become King of France in 1560, he made a tour through the country in order to have his kingship recognized by the local authorities. He made also an entry of state in Bordeaux, the town where the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne lived then. The political elite organised a grand reception for the young king, including a long procession. The parade included a group of prisoners from twelve countries accompanied by 300 soldiers. The prisoners were Greek, Turks. Arabs etc. but also Indians from Brazil, so from the just discovered New World. All wore their national costumes and their leaders held speeches in their own languages. How pity that we don’t know anymore what they said.
It was there that Montaigne met the Indians he tells us about fourteen years later in his essay “Of Cannibals”. Montaigne writes there that the King talked with three of them a great while and that the Indians were shown the town and shown how the people lived. Next they were asked what they thought of what they had seen and what had surprised them. They mentioned three points, but after 14 years Montaigne had forgotten one of them. These are their other observations according to Montaigne :
“They said, that in the first place they thought it very strange that so many tall men, wearing beards, strong, and well armed, who were about the king (‘tis like they meant the Swiss of the guard), should submit to obey a child, and that they did not rather choose out one amongst themselves to command. Secondly (they have a way of speaking in their language to call men the half of one another), that they had observed that there were amongst us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, whilst, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.”
It is not unlikely that the Indians really criticized the French society in this way, but I wonder whether Montaigne didn’t mention just this passage from what the Indians replied because it was his own opinion and because it indirectly refered to what his late friend Étienne de La Boétie wrote about society in his The discourse of voluntary servitude. For isn’t it so that the Essays, to which his “Of Cannibals” belong, are dedicated to La Boétie? Probably most readers of his time would immediately understand Montaigne’s silent reference to his friend. This is what La Boétie wrote:
“I come now to a point which is ... the secret of domination, the support and foundation of tyranny. Whoever thinks that halberds, sentries, the placing of the watch, serve to protect and shield tyrants is ... completely mistaken. These are used ... more for ceremony and a show of force than for any reliance placed in them. The archers forbid the entrance to the palace to the poorly dressed who have no weapons, not to the well armed who can carry out some plot. ... [I]t is not arms that defend the tyrant. ... [T]here are only four or five who maintain the dictator, four or five who keep the country in bondage to him. Five or six have always had access to his ear, and have either gone to him of their own accord, or else have been summoned by him, to be accomplices in his cruelties, companions in his pleasures, panders to his lusts, and sharers in his plunders. These six manage their chief so successfully that he comes to be held accountable not only for his own misdeeds but even for theirs. The six have six hundred who profit under them, and with the six hundred they do what they have accomplished with their tyrant. The six hundred maintain under them six thousand, whom they promote in rank, upon whom they confer the government of provinces or the direction of finances, in order that they may serve as instruments of avarice and cruelty, executing orders at the proper time and working such havoc all around that they could not last except under the shadow of the six hundred, nor be exempt from law and punishment except through their influence. ... [In this way] not the six thousand but a hundred thousand, and even millions, cling to the tyrant by this cord to which they are tied.”
To my view, this is what Montaigne probably wanted to say in his essay “Of Cannibals”. This is how he saw society. Changes are necessary, but change is not simply a matter of substituting the puppets. So it has no sense that the guard kills the tyrant and choose their own leader. How society works depends on a complicated structure of dependence. Is it different in present-day society even though it is more complicated? In the end we don’t obey voluntarily but everybody is tied to someone else like a puppet on a string.

- La Boétie, Étienne de, The discourse of voluntary servitude. Quoted from an English version that I downloaded to my PC already many years ago. Sorry, I couldn’t find the Internet link, but there are several other good translations available.
- Montaigne, Michel de, “Of Cannibals”, Chapter XXXX in his Essays. Quoted from the Gutenberg edition, English version, on

Monday, September 03, 2018

What Mary didn’t know

Last week I discussed a thought experiment by Hume. It says that if we know, for instance, all existing shades of blue but one, it’s possible to fill in the failing shade in your mind, without seeing it. This made me think of another thought experiment, which in some way is the opposite, since it implies that even if we have a full description of all shades of blue, we still don’t know them. It’s Frank Jackson’s though experiment about Mary in a black-and-white room. It runs this way:
Mary has lived here whole life in a black and white room. She has seen everything around her only in black and white and shadows of grey. In this way she learns everything there is to know about the physical nature of the world. She knows all the physical facts about us and our environment, in a wide sense of “physical” which includes everything in completed physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology, and all there is to know about the causal and relational facts consequent upon all this, including of course functional roles. One day Mary leaves her room and comes in our world full of colours. But then she learns something about the physical world she didn’t know before for she has learned what it is like to see something red, say. (see reference below, p. 291)
On the basis of this thought experiment Jackson argues that physicalism cannot be true. Physicalism is the thesis that the actual world is entirely physical. We can also say that there is nothing over and above the physical and that there is only one substance in the world: matter. So physicalism opposes Descartes’s view that there are two substances, namely matter and mind. However, so Jackson, physicalism cannot be true because Mary discovers what it is like that a colour is red when she leaves her room, and just because this what it is like – the feeling of redness, I would say – cannot be described in a physical way. And since Mary cannot know what red is like by a physical description, physicalism cannot be true (cf. id. pp. 291-2).
All this seems plausible. If it is true, one conclusion could be that there are (at least) two substances in this world: matter (the world as described by physics) and mind (the world as you experience it). I don’t want to say that Jackson went that far, and I’ll leave it as it is, but my point is that this famous thought experiment simply is not correct, for it contains a hidden assumption that includes already its conclusion. According to Jackson, physicalism is the “challenging thesis” that the actual world is entirely physical and that accordingly, if this were true, complete knowledge of the actual world is physical knowledge, as physicalists say (id. p. 291). However – and that’s my point – the thesis that the actual world is entirely physical, says only something about how the actual world is; it is on the level of ontology. But the knowledge of the actual world says something about how this world is described; it is on the level of epistemology. It’s simply not possible to reduce epistemology to ontology and it is quite well possible that there are two (or more) unrelated descriptions of the same object. So even if Mary has learned in her black-and-white room how the world is in a physical way, we know already beforehand that she still doesn’t know how the world is in a phenomenal way, for that’s a different way to describe the world. It’s another type of knowledge. Mary even couldn’t get this phenomenal knowledge in her black-and-white room and she starts to acquire it only after she has left her room. By confusing knowledge of the actual world in physicalist terms with the physical state of the actual world, Jackson assumed already in his thought experiment what he wanted to prove, namely that physical knowledge doesn’t lead to phenomenal knowledge. If physicalism isn’t be true it is for other reasons.
Phenomenal knowledge describes the phenomenal characteristics of the world like the experienced shades of red, white and blue. Physical knowledge describes the physical characteristics of the world like the wave lengths of these shades. This doesn’t suppose, however, a non-physical mind but only that we can describe experiences in a non-physical way. And isn’t it so that the mathematical formulas as used in physics are also mental and that they fit the human mind just as a phenomenal description of colours does? Be it as it may, it’s not so easy to think out a convincing thought experiment.

Frank Jackson “What Mary Didn’t Know”, 
See also his “Epiphenomenal Qualia”,

Monday, August 27, 2018

Shades of blue

The cases of Swampman and Teletransport discussed in my blog last week are so-called thought experiments. These are experiments that are performed only by reasoning, so in the mind, since they cannot be performed in real for often obvious reasons. Thought experiments belong to the oldest instruments of philosophy and I have discussed them in my blogs as well. When one searches the Internet for lists with the most important thought experiments, it’s striking that these lists are very different, although some such experiments are mentioned on several lists, like “Swampman” and “Teletransport”. One that often fails is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I am a bit surprised for I thought that it’s the most famous thought experiment, one that “everybody” or at least every philosopher knows.
Thought experiments can provide deep insights, but a problem is that with many thought experiments are meant to prove what they actually already assume; or that the results follow from doubtful suppositions. Parfit’s Teletransport is a case in point. After having been teletransported Parfit’s wakes up and says “Examining my new body, I find no change at all.” (see my blog last week) With the help of this thought experiment Parfit reasons then that there is a psychological connectedness between Parfit on Earth and the teletransported Parfit on Mars. Leaving aside my criticism last week – which one could call “immanent” because it accepts the view that teletransport is a real possibility – I want to raise here a more fundamental point, namely that assuming the feasibility of such a teletransport is not right at all, unless it has been proven in practice. For I think that teletransport is not possible in the sense that Parfit wakes up on Mars and thinks that he is the person who just has been teletransported from Earth. One cannot correctly assume that it happens without any further reasoning or test. There is a simple argument against the idea: There is no intrinsic need to destroy Parfit on Earth when he is teletransported, and when we would omit Parfit’s destruction on Earth, there would be two Parfits thinking “I am Parfit”. Parfit on Earth is right, so Parfit on Mars cannot be, for he is not more than a copy. He remains a copy whether we destroy Parfit on Earth or whether we don’t. In my last blog I argued that Parfit’s reasoning was false, here I more fundamentally argue that Parfit’s thought experiment is false, since it is based on false assumptions.
To take yet another possibly false thought experiment, in his A Treatise Concerning Human Understanding David Hume wants to defend the thesis “that all our simple ideas in their first appearance are derived from simple impressions, which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent”. So first there is the observation and only then there is the idea. After having discussed two kinds of phenomena that support this thesis, Hume says: “There is however one contradictory phaenomenon, which may prove, that it is not absolutely impossible for ideas to go before their correspondent impressions.” For take this thought experiment: “Suppose ... a person to have enjoyed his sight for thirty years, and to have become perfectly well acquainted with colours of all kinds, excepting one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with. Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be placed before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest; it is plain, that he will perceive a blank, where that shade is wanting, said will be sensible, that there is a greater distance in that place betwixt the contiguous colours, than in any other. Now I ask, whether it is possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses? I believe there are few but will be of opinion that he can; and this may serve as a proof, that the simple ideas are not always derived from the correspondent impressions”.
Now I think that this objection to Hume’s just mentioned thesis would be enough to falsify it. Not so for Hume. After having presented the thought experiment his conclusion is: “[T]he instance is so particular and singular, that it is scarce worth our observing, and does not merit that for it alone we should alter our general maxim.”
Be it as it may, is it right that the person in Hume’s case can supply “from his own imagination ... this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade”, as Hume thinks? Helen De Cruz describes this experiment on the “Bored Panda” website and has added a drawing of several shades of blue with one missing plus a man in a blue sweater by way of illustration (see the link below). However, she adds: “Curiously though, when I presented this drawing to friends, they thought the man’s sweater was the missing shade of blue, but it isn’t! So perhaps it is not so easy to fill in the gap after all.” Maybe we cannot fill in the shade of blue simply by our imagination at all! What Hume assumes here in his mind needs to be proven in an experiment before we can accept it. As long as it hasn’t been performed, Hume’s blue shades case doesn’t refute his thesis. However, this thesis must be refuted for other reasons, which I’ll not discuss here.

- De Cruz, Helen, “8 Philosophical Thought Experiments That I Illustrated To Broaden Your Mind”, on website
- Hume, David, A Treatise Concerning Human Understanding, Book I, Sect.I, on website

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Swampman

Some examples devised by philosophers are weird but analytically very useful. Take this one by Donald Davidson:
“Suppose lightning strikes a dead tree in a swamp; I am standing nearby. My body is reduced to its elements, while entirely by coincidence (and out of different molecules) the tree is turned into my physical replica. My replica, Swampman, moves exactly as I did; according to its nature it departs the swamp, encounters and seems to recognize my friends, and appears to return their greetings in English. It moves into my house and seems to write articles on radical interpretation. No one can tell the difference.
But there is a difference. My replica cannot recognize my friends; it cannot recognize anything, since it never cognized anything in the first place. It can’t know my friends’ names (though of course it seems to); it can’t remember my house. It can’t mean what I do by the word ‘house’, for example, since ... [it] was not learned [by Swampman] in a context that would give it the right meaning – or any meaning at all. Indeed, I don’t see how my replica can be said to mean anything by the sounds it makes, nor to have any thoughts.” (source: see below; italics in the original)
Much can be said about this example and much has been said about it. I think that it gives some answers but raises many questions, too. Anyway, I think that you’ll agree that Swampman is not Davidson.
Take now this case by Parfit: “I enter the Teletransporter. ... This machine will send me at the speed of light [to Mars]. I merely have to press the green button. ... When I [do], I shall lose consciousness, and then wake up [an hour] later. ... The Scanner here on Earth will destroy my brain and body, while recording the exact states of all my cells. It will then transmit this information by radio ... [to] the Replicator on Mars. This will then create, out of new matter, a brain and body exactly like mine. It will be in this body that I shall wake up.” Parfit presses the green button and wakes up on Mars: “Examining my new body, I find no change at all.” (source: see below)
Next Parfit discusses the relevance of his example for the problem of personal identity. However, is it possible to be teletransported in this way? Parfit’s example suggests that the answer is yes, but after having read Davidson, the answer is clear: No. From Davidson’s discussion we can learn that Parfit on Mars is not a kind of resumption of Parfit on Earth. For instance, what Parfit’s Mars-Replica knows was not learned by him in a context that would give it the right meaning (see above). It’s simply a copy, just as a copy of a letter is a copy of a letter and not the original, even though it has the same contents and the same layout. Moreover, in the case of the teletransport the original has been destroyed, just as Davidson has been by the lightning in the Swampman example. There isn’t even a (psychological) continuity between Parfit on Earth and his replica on Mars, as Parfit thinks, for there is no logical necessity that Parfit on Earth must be destroyed; just as we don’t need to destroy the original letter once we have copied it. A copy is not a continuation of the original but duplicate of it.
However, copying Davidson to Swampman or Parfit to Replica-Parfit doesn’t need to happen all of a sudden. Think of the Ship of Theseus: Theseus returns from Crete to Athens, after having killed the Minotaur, and has to repair his ship at sea. He replaces the old planks of the ship one by one by new ones so that finally none of the old planks of the ship that left Crete remains. Then the question is: Is the ship that arrives in Athens the same one as the ship that left Crete? To my knowledge there has never been given a satisfactory answer to this question. If one looks at the ship when it left Crete and then again when it arrived in Athens only, one tends to say “no” in view of Davidson’s case. On the other hand, I think that the sailors had always the idea that they used the same ship. And how about halfway Crete and Athens? The questions become even more intriguing, if you realize that man is like the Ship of Theseus: Man is continuously under construction and reconstruction. Man is continuously repaired and renewed and after some years none of the molecules we originally consisted of are yet the same. Then the question is: Are we the same as we are? You know the answer for yourself but it seems that the Swampman example is not as weird as it might seem on the face of it. Think about it, and the more deeply you go into it, the more you’ll discover in it.

- Davidson, Donald. “Knowing One's Own Mind”, in his Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; p.19.
- Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984; pp. 199, 215.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Internet in the 17th century

Today we have the Internet. We use it for exchanging messages and information, not only privately but also, for instance, in science and in philosophy. However, how kept scientists and scholars in touch during the age of the rise of modern science and philosophy, so in the time of Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Boerhaave, Newton, Huygens, and others, when the Internet did not yet exist? For it’s clear that science and philosophy were not lonely activities then, but that workers in these fields knew about each other and built relationships. They had extended networks and they had also a name for it: The Republic of Letters.
The term “Republic of Letters” dates from the 15th century, but its main period was from about 1500 till 1775, the time of the rise of modern science and philosophy. What has been meant with “Republic of Letters” has always been a bit vague, but here I refer to a system of human relationships. As Hans Bots describes it in his book that I have used for writing this blog: The lettered persons were part of an ideal state or republic that was above the existing political units in Europe. It had its own rules and laws. The lettered people felt themselves “citizens” of this community and behaved publicly like that and they saw themselves as equals. Ideally reason and truth were their highest authorities. These characteristics were important in view of the fact that the political states were continuously at war with each other. Therefore the scholars needed a way of cooperation that kept aloof of these conflicts and that allowed them to go along with each other without being divided by politics. The Republic of Letters was for them a kind of state above the political state. Its citizens were the intellectual and scientific elite of those days. Not social rank or position was important for its citizenship but nobility of the mind.
How did the participants exchange ideas and information? Basically there were four ways for this. Most important was personal contact with other members of the intellectual elite. This was easy when you lived in or near a town that was a centre of intellectual culture or even had a university. But also in those days already people travelled a lot; especially the elite did, including the intellectual elite. Erasmus travelled through many parts of Western Europe; the Dutchman Huygens went regularly to Paris and has also lived there for some time; Descartes moved from France to the Netherlands and later to Sweden, and he has also visited other countries. Many others did so. However, if you hadn’t the opportunity, time or money to travel, there was an alternative: writing letters. Letter writing tends to become a forgotten activity, but in those days this means of communication was very important. The postal services had gradually improved and it lasted only a few days to send a letter from, say, Amsterdam to Paris. But sending letters was expensive and risky. They could easily be lost because of wars, raids or other circumstances, so the best way to send a letter was to give it to a traveller you knew.
And there were books. Since the invention of the art of printing, it had become easy to duplicate books. However, books were censored everywhere. Usually the author or publisher needed consent from the authorities before they were published. The Netherlands were an exception and here censorship was less strict than in other countries. Moreover, if books were censored there, it was always after the publication. As a consequence the Netherlands became a centre for printing “dangerous ideas” and spreading them all over Europe.
All these methods of exchange existed already before the rise of the Republic of Letters, but the Republic invented also a new method: journals. Because of the growing number of books and scientific discoveries and inventions, people lost an overview of what was happening in the intellectual world. It became impossible to read every interesting publication, so there came a need to summarize what was happening in the learned world. Already about 1620 the first periodicals with political and commercial news had been published in Amsterdam. It had yet to wait until 1665 before the first scientific journal came out. It was in Paris. This Journal des Savants contained summaries of books and reports of new research. It was soon followed by other such journals, especially in the Netherlands, but also, in London and elsewhere. In Rotterdam the Frenchman Pierre Bayle made himself useful by developing this new medium. Also in 1665 the Philosophical Transactions was published in London. It contained only reports of scientific experiments and in this sense it is the first modern scientific journal.
Journals were especially useful for those who didn’t live near a library or intellectual centre. Actually any town or court of a noble man or woman with an intellectual interest could be such a centre, but two centres stood out. Most important was Paris, but the Netherlands was almost as important. It was a new state where, as we have seen, censorship was almost absent and printing houses flourished, especially in Amsterdam and Leyden. Moreover the new University of Leyden, established in 1575, attracted by its modern structure the best professors and students of the time.
Life today is unthinkable without the Internet, but the Internet as a modern way of communication in the scientific world is not much older than about 25 years. Therefore, in the period of the rise of modern science and philosophy they needed a communication system of their own. They called it the Republic of Letters.

This blog is based on Hans Bots, De Republiek der Letteren. Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2018.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Embodied cognition

Knowledge is not only in the brain. With this statement I don’t mean in this blog the “extended mind thesis”, which says that a part of the mind is outside the brain in the agent’s world. For instance, you have stored a mailing list in your computer and you know in which file it is, so you don’t need to have the addresses in your mind. No, in this blog I mean with my statement that your knowledge is in your whole body. This thesis is called “embodied cognition”. Last week I discussed already an instance of it.
Actually the thesis doesn’t represent one view. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says in its introduction to the theme: “Embodied cognitive science encompasses a loose-knit family of research programs in the cognitive sciences”. The family shares its critique against traditional approaches but each member tries to find her own solutions. Here I cannot even try to give a full treatment of the theme, but I’ll give some illustrations so that you get an idea what it is about.
My description of embodied cognition last week was rather vague. This one from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyis much clearer: “Cognition is embodied when it is deeply dependent upon features of the physical body of an agent, that is, when aspects of the agent’s body beyond the brain play a significant causal or physically constitutive role in cognitive processing.” The definition says that there is more knowledge in the body than we find in the grey matter in the head. One of my favourite examples to show how this can be is the case of a runner. Broadly it is so that there are two types of runners: sprinters and long-distance runners. Of course, everybody can choose to become a sprinter and train as hard as s/he can and so become better and better. Nevertheless whether s/he’ll become a good sprinter depends not only on the training but also on the features of his or her muscles. Just as we have an inborn capacity for language learning, we have an inborn capacity for becoming a good sprinter. A person with the type of muscles for a long-distance runner will never become a good sprinter. And the same story for the athlete who wants to train for a 5K or a marathon. In other words: Your legs have a kind of knowledge about running a sprint or running a long distance. However, this is not the whole story, for talented or not, everybody will become better in the chosen speciality by training. The muscles become stronger, the blood transport in the legs improves etc. And the next time you are going to train this increased capacity is still there. So your legs have “learned” to adapt to the training (just as you’ll become better by practicing a language you are learning). You have got more knowledge but this knowledge is not in your head but in your muscles.
I want to add another example, which I have taken from the website of Psychology Today (see Sources below). The web post there explains that there are two very different kinds of robots, here exemplified bij Honda’s ASIMO and the Boston Dynamics Big Dog. Let me quote:
“Honda’s ASIMO literally implements a traditional cognitive, computational approach. Everything it does is the output of complex internal programmes which control everything he does. Honda are fond of trotting him out to dance, run, and climb stairs; he can do all this, but it’s very fragile. Minor disruptions throw him entirely (e.g. a minor error in foot placement and he falls ...; hide his pre-set landmarks with a little clutter and he completely fails to navigate his way across a room). He’s slow, and inefficient; if you knock him, he needs time to recompute his behaviour or else he falls, and he often doesn’t have the time. [The] Boston Dynamics Big Dog[, on the other hand, can] walk over rough, uncertain terrain while carrying heavy loads[. The designers] knew that the computational strategy was too slow and cumbersome. So they instead built a robot with springy legs and joints that mimic the kind of dynamical systems seen in animal quadrupeds. Big Dog has very little brain; the specific movements he produces ... emerge from the interaction between his moving legs, the surface he’s on and any other forces acting on him. If you knock Big Dog, he doesn't need to recompute his behaviour; he simply responds to the new force and the details are left up to his anatomy (his leg moves where it goes because that’s the way it’s built).” (italics mine) This is not only the way Big Dog moves. As stressed by me in the quotation Big Dog’s walking is copied from the way animals walk and, I assume, man walks as well.
The embodied cognition thesis says that knowledge is not only in the brain but in the whole body. I presented here two cases that illustrate the thesis, but there is a growing number of studies that substantiate the view. I’ll mention only a study by Shaun Gallagher, one of my favourite authors in the field (see Sources below). But if it works this way, it has consequences for our self-understanding and, for instance, for our idea of free will (a theme also discussed by Gallagher). It looks as if your body can behave against “your” will. But do we also say so when you drive a self-driving car? Of course not.

- For the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
- Gallagher, Shaun, How the body shapes the mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005

Monday, July 30, 2018

A wave of the hand

I want to say something, but I cannot find the words. I get the feeling that I must make a gesture. Then, suddenly as it seems, I know what I mean. The thought pops up. Many of us have had this experience, maybe you too: A gesture stimulates your thinking.
We make gestures for many reasons. I want to draw your attention to something, so I point to it. I want to call a waiter, so I raise my hand. A gesture can be a greeting. I want to show you how a thing looks like and I indicate its shape with my hands. Some gestures have even clear, predetermined meanings. As these examples show, we make gestures or wave our hands with the purpose of communication. But not everybody makes the same gestures in the same situations. Gestures cannot only be different from person to person but also from culture to culture. When a Greek makes the gesture meaning “come here”, a Dutchman will think that the person wants to express that you must go away. People also adapt their gestures to the audience.
Communication is not the only function of gestures. We make them also when talking on the telephone. Blind people make also gestures and the non-blind do when talking with a blind person. One of the non-communicative functions is that they help us learn. It’s obvious that we cannot learn how to drive a car by simply reading a book “how to drive a car”: we have to practice it in order to be able to do it. But in education there is a method called “total physical response” that is based on the idea that you learn a language better by doing what you say. For instance, when you want to learn what the Latin sentence “aperite fenestram” means, it helps that you actually opens a window, since fenestra=window and aperite=open! In other words, doing what you say helps your memory.
But did you know that gestures also help you think? For example – and now I quote from source 1) below – “consider a math problem like 3+2 +8 =___+8. A student might make a ‘v’ shape under the 2 and 3 with their pointer finger and middle finger, as they try to understand the concept of ‘grouping’ – adding adjacent numbers together, a technique that can be used to solve the problem. ... Students who are coached to make the ‘v’ gesture when solving a math problem like 3+2+8 = ___+8 learn how to solve the problem better [than those who aren’t].” This is a simple case of how gesturing helps you think, but generally it is so that gesturing helps to think “in any situation where the person who is speaking and gesturing is also trying to understand – be it remembering details of a past event, or figuring out how to put together an Ikea shelf.” (ibid.) Generally it’s so that waving your hand helps you think, whatever it is about. It’s a new challenge of the idea that body and mind are different substances, so the old idea of Cartesian dualism. Cognitive psychologists call this challenge “embodied cognition”, which “views concepts as bodily representations with bases in perception, action and emotion” (ibid.).
In the Netherlands and many other countries it is so that the accused in a trial is free to move in the sense that he doesn’t have handcuffs and the like that can limit his gestures. This is obvious for, as long as the judgement hasn’t yet been pronounced, he is still legally innocent. In other countries, however, the accused cannot make the gestures and waves he likes, because his hands have been tied. This a psychological disadvantage, because it is humiliating and it makes that other people (including the judges or jury) tend to look down on the accused – consciously or unconsciously –, which may impede a fair trial (in the end the accused may be innocent). Now we see, however, that being chained is also detrimental for the accused in another way. For the simple fact that his hands are chained makes that the accused cannot freely think in the way he would if his hands were free. In other words, in handcuffs (or with his hands tied in another way) the accused cannot freely defend himself. Seen that way, being cuffed in a trial is a violation of human rights. Thoughts are free, but you must be able to have them.

Some websites
or just google “gesture and thinking”.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The origin of language

Paraphrasing Plato, one could say that man is a language speaking biped. But then Diogenes could take a gibbon and say: “Look, by the Way’s man!”, since, unlike other apes, gibbons walk bipedly when they are on the ground. Therefore I should add “without a fur” (see my blogs dated 7 December 2009 and 25 January 2016). Be it as it may, speaking is an essential part of man’s identity. So, when we want to understand man, we should know how language developed, but until now the origin of language is cloaked in mystery. Maybe it always will. Speech organs quickly decompose after death and even more so the brain, where language development takes place; unlike human bones, which can be conserved for millions of years. Therefore, the origin of language is subject to much speculation, even to that extent that already in 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris didn’t want to receive communications on the theme any longer, since it was only open to serious scientific discussions.
Recently the question has got more attention and nowadays there are several serious hypotheses about the origin of language. Some have such funny names like ding-dong or bow-bow hypothesis. Nevertheless, most are still speculative, so let me look at the facts. The supposed dates of the origin of languages are as diverse as three millions ago, when man begun to make stone tools, till the making of the first cave paintings some 50,000 years ago. There is something to say for the view that a kind of language existed already millions of years ago. If we accept that the Australopithecus could not communicate on a level that deserves the label “language”, already the first Homo might have been that smart. It is known that then stone tools were often not produced where the flints were found but somewhere else. Say a Homo, 2.5 million years ago, wants to say to a friend: “Hey man, this afternoon I found a heap of flints over there 5 km from here. Let’s collect them tomorrow and bring them here.” Does he need a language in the modern sense for this question? Bees use a kind of language for this. But maybe our Homo can express his thought by means of gestures and some grunts. Or say that this Homo wants to teach his son how to make stones tools. Making stone tools is not as difficult as many people think today, but nonetheless it requires some learning. Does this stone age man tells his son then: “First do this, than do that, etc. Look!” and he shows his son how to make a celt? However, men are wonderful imitators and maybe the son will learn the skill by copying his father’s movements guided by some positive or negative grunts by the latter.
Later Homo managed also to control fire and, moreover, the celts had become a little bit more complicated. Being able to use fire, man could cook his food and as a consequence man’s intestines became shorter through the ages. In other words, surviving and probably also social life had become more complicated. Man was no longer the animal that could live by simply following instincts and intuitions. The first steps on the road to the development of a complicated culture had been taken. Without language modern man cannot transfer the cultural achievements to the next generation. But maybe culture was then still on such a low level that imitation and a few grunts would suffice to pass it on.
Then the modern Homo Sapiens, so “we”, appeared on earth. It was some 200,000 or even 350,000 years ago. Everything changed. It was the start of a rocket evolution – so revolution –. Man’s brain was strikingly bigger than ever before and it continued growing. For what else would we use this extra capacity than for storing a huge quantity of words and a complicated grammar? Anyway, on statistical grounds, a researcher like Johanna Nichols argues that present-day languages must have begun to develop at least 100,000 years ago, otherwise they couldn’t have been as diversified as they are now. It’s a strong argument, I think, supported by other theories that ascribe the origin of modern language to the appearance of the Homo Sapiens. Although I am not an expert, I think that the thesis that places the origin of language as late as 50,000 years ago is not tenable. Making the cave paintings of that time supposes already a high level of culture and communicative abilities and before “we” could have reached that level we probably needed a long way to go.
All this is reasoned guessing. Most likely is that modern language originated with modern man. But previously? My feeling plus my lay understanding of archaeology, palaeontology and linguistics tell me that language in some form – but more advanced than simply grunting – must be older. But what is my opinion worth? What is sure is that now there are some 6-7000 languages in the world. However, probably soon two thirds of these languages will be extinct. What does this mean for man? Culture and language developed hand in hand with each other. What will the consequences be if so many languages will be lost forever? If a language expresses a world view, as I think, the loss of each language is an impoverishment for man. Can and will the existing languages take over what threatens to be lost? Maybe I should change my definition: Man is a cultural biped, as long as s/he speaks. But then maybe Diogenes would take a gibbon and say: “Look, a biped that speaks and has no culture.” Future man?