Monday, May 22, 2017

Who cares

(the truck had already gone to the hard shoulder)

Spring 1915, at the front of the First World War near Nancy, France
“At midnight someone is knocking at the door ... It’s a soldier from the colonial troops who comes back from the trenches, wounded at his hand. He cannot find the aid station. Clavel asks the card players. They give only a vague indication. They don’t want to be disturbed. In the black night Clavel goes to look for it, together with the colonial soldier, walking in the rain and through the mud. ...
‘I am bleeding ..., I am bleeding’ the colonial soldier says.
At last after half an hour they find the aid post.
When Clavel comes back, the players don’t ask anything. They even don’t look up.”
From Léon Werth, Clavel Soldat (first edition 1919).

Spring 2017, on the motorway near Nancy, France
The truck moves to the left, comes on our lane and touches our car. Then suddenly another car appears in front of the truck and jumps on our lane. It’s impossible to avoid it. A crash. Our car comes to a standstill.
My wife and I remain sitting in our car for a few minutes. We see the driver of the other car getting out. We see the truck driver walking on the road. We ask each other whether we are all right. Happily we are. We sit there yet for a few moments. Then we get out, too. Nobody comes to help us and ask whether we are okay, although it is very busy on the highway. The drivers behind us must have turned their car and fled away. Who cares about an accident?
When the police arrives – a policeman and a policewoman – they immediately start to control the traffic and to move our car and the other cars to the hard shoulder. They don’t get the idea to ask whether we are okay and maybe need medical help. The first few minutes they even don’t talk to us...

A few years ago, on the motorway near my town, the Netherlands
Our car goes into a skid, overturns and lands on its wheels. Dizzy and in shock we are sitting there. We ask each other whether we are all right. Happily we are. A man runs to our car and asks whether we are okay. Two policeman – a policeman and a policewoman – who happen to pass by stop. While the one starts to control the traffic, the other one comes to us and asks several times whether she has to call an ambulance for us and warns us to see a doctor when we get pain in the back of the neck. Then she explains the further procedure to us.

Often we cannot help what happens to us but what we can help is how we get along with it. How one does is a matter of individual differences and a matter of education. It’s up to the reader to pass his or her judgment on the cases described above.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Even Russell sometimes nods

Even Homer sometimes nods

Bertrand Russell was a great philosopher, who made valuable contributions to philosophy. He was also a very creative philosopher. His view was wider than the mathematical and analytic philosophy, which were his specialities and which he helped develop. As for this we must also mention that he stimulated Wittgenstein, who had approached him. Russell was politically very active (which brought him in prison because of his opposition to the First World War). He popularized philosophy. And so on. It was not without reason that he got the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work. He contributed to the advancement of philosophical thinking and thinking in general. It will be clear that I cannot do justice to his work in a blog.
Russell also made mistakes, also philosophically, and in many respects his philosophical ideas have been superseded. Here I want to discuss such a mistake.
Let me take again Russell’s book The problems of philosophy, which I discussed in my last blog. In this book he defends the view that “all our knowledge of truths depends upon our intuitive knowledge” (ch. 10). I’ll not go into details, but Russell says that some of our self-evident (intuitive) truths immediately derive from sensation. “We call such truths ‘truths of perception’”, he says. According to Russell these self-evident truths of perception – or perceptive intuitions, as I’ll also call them – can be of two kinds: either they can assert the existence of a sense-datum in an unanalyzed way or they can be judgments of memory (ch. 11). And just here we have a problem. Particularly the idea of sense-data has been the object of much debate and in the end it appeared untenable, especially after its rejection by Karl R. Popper, who put forward strong arguments against the idea. Sense-data, so Russell, is the name for “the things that are immediately known in sensation: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardnesses, roughnesses, and so on.” (ch. 1) Now the idea that sense-data exist is seen as naive, although many great philosophers thought so. “[I]f we are to know anything about [a] table”, so Russell, “it must be by the means of the sense-data – brown colour, oblong shape, smoothness, etc. – which we associate with the table” (ch. 1). However, one can object that colour, shape, structure (like smoothness), and other properties not mentioned by Russell like material (the wood the table is made of) are not data objectively given in nature. These properties are shaped in the mind. For example, physically colour does not exist. There are only waves with a certain length, which are interpreted by us as red, blue, brown, etc. It is the same for all other properties that Russell ascribes to sense-date. That we see a table in a certain way is an interpretation of the mind. It’s not a kind of objective fact like a sense-datum in the sense of Russell.
Take now the other kind of perceptive intuition: judgments of memory. It’s true that Russell admits that we often make mistakes in what we remember. Therefore he thinks that intuitive truth of memory is gradual. There is a transition from what we certainly and self-evidently know to what we are uncertain about whether we remember it to clear mistakes in memory (cf chs. 11 and 13). Nevertheless there are absolute self-evident truths of this kind, so Russell. Memories and other mental facts can be self-evidently true if they refer to private facts that are finally unknown to others and can be known only by the one who has them. Let me quote Russell for an example: “When Othello believes that Desdemona loves Cassio, the corresponding fact, if his belief were true, would be ‘Desdemona’s love for Cassio’. This would be a fact with which no one could have acquaintance except Desdemona; hence in the sense of self-evidence that we are considering, the truth that Desdemona loves Cassio (if it were a truth) could only be self-evident to Desdemona. All mental facts, and all facts concerning sense-data have this same privacy: there is only one person to whom they can be self-evident in our present sense, since there is only one person who can be acquainted with the mental things or sense-data concerned.” It is as if Desdemona has a list with characteristics of being in love that she checks and then says: “Indeed, I’m in love with Cassio”. No, it doesn’t work that way. For Desdemona there is no fact of “Desdemona’s love for Cassio” that can be self-evident to her. Russell confuses here the third-person perspective of Othello and the first-person perspective of Desdemona. She simply is in love with Cassio, without thinking.
There is a saying that even Homer sometimes nods. We use it when even the most gifted person makes mistakes. Despite his flaws Homer was a great poet. Accordingly Russell was an excellent and brilliant philosopher, even though we don’t always agree with him.

Monday, May 01, 2017

The times they are a-changin’

Since I created this philosophical website ten years ago, I have published more than 500 blogs. Nonetheless, if the reader wants to know what the main themes in philosophy are, it has no sense to list the themes of my blogs, since they don’t show what is important in philosophy but only what my philosophical interests are. Moreover, since I am not a philosopher by education but a sociologist who later became interested in philosophy, I even haven’t a good overview of the field. So, I got the idea to browse a bit on the Internet and to enter the words “problems in philosophy” in the Google search machines and see what I would get. Well, what did I find? Pages and pages with entries referring to Bertrand Russell’s book The problems of philosophy. I could even download the book for free, which was not necessary though, since I have it already. As such the result was not bad, but the book is already from 1912. However, because I wanted to see what the main philosophical problems were then according to Russell, I took my copy, read the contents and thumbed it through. What was it that Russell considered the major philosophical issues? I’ll spare you an enumeration of the fifteen subjects he discussed but they concern all the nature of reality and matter (ontological problems) and knowledge related problems (epistemological problems like induction, intuition, truth, universals). Although I lack a good overview of the field, as said, also for me it’s striking what Russell does not discuss in view of what is regarded philosophically important today. It’s true that Russell wrote in the foreword of his book that he had “confined [him]self in the main to those problems of philosophy in regard to which [he] thought it possible to say something positive and constructive ... For this reason, theory of knowledge occupies a larger space than metaphysics ..., and some topics much discussed by philosophers are treated very briefly, if at all.” And it’s also true that some problems became important only after Russell had published the book. Even so, it is useful to mention a few subjects that Russell ignored, albeit only for illustrating what has changed in philosophy. So here are a few themes that are absent in his book:
- Themes from ethical and moral philosophy. But didn’t already the ancient Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, talk about questions of right and wrong and the best way of life and about what they meant for us? These themes have always been present in philosophy since then, and maybe they are now even more popular than before.
- What is consciousness and what does it mean for human experience.
- The relationship between mind and body. The theme has become important since Descartes made his famous statement “I think so I am”. In Russell’s time it was still mainstream philosophy that mind and body were different substances. How much has changed, especially since brain research has started booming with all philosophical consequences involved like whether there is a free will.
- If “we are our brain”, as some philosophers and brain scientists say, what does remain then of the idea of the free will? Although this theme has become especially important since the rise of modern brain research, it was not new when Russell wrote his book.
- The philosophy of action, so questions about what actions are, how we study them, what makes how we act and so on. Although action philosophy developed as a special philosophical field not before the end of the 1950s, already in the 19th century there was a debate whether the humanities need a method of their own which is different from the method of the natural sciences. Although this discussion had many epistemological implications it was ignored by Russell, as it was by most other main stream philosophers studying epistemological themes.
- What is a person? What is personal identity? The question was raised by John Locke in 1689 and again and again it attracted the attention of philosophers, till today.
I am the first to admit that my list of problems of philosophy is casual and incomplete, also as a supplement to Russell’s list. Moreover, one cannot blame Russell for not mentioning problems that were not relevant in his days or even did not yet exist. Nonetheless, his list was one-sided, but what is more important, his choice shows that the main themes of philosophy have changed. Epistemological problems have become less important; ontological problems like the essence of matter and reality have become hobbies for specialists. What are important now are questions in the philosophy of mind on the consequences of brain research, for instance, like their effects on our idea of free will. Or ethical questions about good life and how we give sense to what we do. The times they are a-changin’, and so is philosophy.

Russell’s The problems of philosophy can be found on several websites, for example and

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Philosophy by the Way contest

The correct answers on the two questions for the contest on occasion of ten years Philosophy by the Way are:
1) The philosopher most mentioned in my blogs during the first ten years was, of course, Michel de Montaigne. (Everybody got it)
2) He has been mentioned 345 times during this period. (no one had the exact answer)
The winners will receive their prizes as soon as possible.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Moral luck (2)

In my blog last week, I treated moral luck as a one-dimensional concept. In fact, Nagel distinguishes four types of moral luck. I must say that his discussion of the types is not always clear and sometimes Nagel’s wording is confusing, so I doubt if there are just these four types. Anyway, let me present the types and say what I think of them. First I’ll quote how Nagel introduces the distinction:
“There are roughly four ways in which the natural objects of moral assessment are disturbingly subject to luck. One is the phenomenon of constitutive luck – the kind of person you are, where this is not just a question of what you deliberatively do, but of your inclinations, capacities, and temperament. Another category is luck in one’s circumstances – the kind of problems and situation one faces. The other two have to do with the causes and effects of action: luck in how one is determined by antecedent circumstances, and luck in the way one’s actions and projects turn out.” (p. 28) I have taken the labels for the types of luck from the Wikipedia (
1) Consequential moral luck: “luck, good and bad, in the way things turn out” (p. 28). A case in point is the pedestrian who suddenly crosses a street and is hit by a car, which I discussed last week. However, Nagel discusses here also cases that he calls “cases of decision under uncertainty” (p.29). For example: “Chamberlain signs the Munich agreement, the Decembrists persuade the troops under their command to revolt against the czar, the American colonies declare their independence from Britain ...” (ibid.). According to Nagel the agents who take the decisions in these cases cannot foresee the outcomes. Hitler could have stopped his aggressive policy after having taken Sudetenland; Britain could have started to negotiate with the Americans, etc.: At the moment the agents make their choices, the consequence are not yet clear. However, I think that there is a difference with the traffic accident: The traffic accident just happens to you, but by signing an agreement or by revolting you can be sure that the other party will react, although you don’t know yet what your opponent will do. There is a kind of relationship between the choices by Chamberlain or the rebels and the following actions, while such a relationship is absent in the case of the traffic accident. I doubt whether the actions by Chamberlain and the rebels fall under the heading of moral luck.
The next two types of moral luck are clear, I think:
2) Constitutive moral luck: The character, temperament, personality traits etc. one has developed insofar as they are determined by one’s genetic constitution and education. A person may be greedy, envious, cowardly, unkind, or nice, helpful etc. and, so Nagel, “to some extent such [qualities] may be the product of earlier choices; to some extent it may be amenable to change by current actions. But it is largely a matter of constitutive bad fortune. Yet people are morally condemned for such qualities, and esteemed for others equally beyond control of the will: they are assessed for what they are like.” (p. 33)
3) Circumstantial moral luck: Luck in one’s circumstances because they are impossible to control or foresee at the moment one takes the relevant decision. For instance: “It may be true of someone that in a dangerous situation he would behave in a cowardly or heroic fashion [but such a situation may never arise and will have no consequences for his moral record]” (pp. 33-34). See the case of the Nazi officer in the concentration camp and the German migrant to Argentina in my last blog.
4) Causal moral luck: “A person can be morally responsible for what he does; be what he does results from a great deal that he does not do; therefore he is not morally responsible for what he is and is not responsible for. (This is not a contradiction, but it is a paradox).” (p. 34). Nagel is very brief about this type and the only thing he says yet about it is that he sees a link between these problems about responsibility and control and the problem of the free will. However, it makes me think of the so-called Frankfurt-type cases, which I have discussed before: Jones is in a voting booth deliberating whether to vote for the Democratic or for the Republican presidential candidate. Unbeknownst to Jones, a neurosurgeon, Black, has implanted a chip in Jones’s brain that allows Black to monitor Jones’s neural states and alter them if need be. Black is a diehard Democrat, and should he detect neural activity indicating that a Republican choice is forthcoming, Black will activate his chip to ensure that Jones instead votes Democratic. However, Jones chooses on his own to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, so Black never intervenes (from my blog dated Feb. 23, 2012). The question then is whether Jones is or isn’t responsible for his action. I’ll not discuss it here (see my blog last week and the blog just quoted), for more important is now: Is causal moral luck really an independent type? It’s doubtful, for a closer look at it will probably show that it doesn’t cover cases that do not fall also under one of the other types. For instance, the case of Jones has traits of consequential moral luck (he couldn’t help being manipulated by Black) and constitutive luck (it’s a property of him always to vote Democrat, voluntarily or manipulated). However, it should need further investigation. Be it as it may, often things happen to us and we cannot help. And in case we can, it doesn’t automatically follow that we are morally responsible for the consequences.

Source: Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck”, see last week (italics by Nagel)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Moral luck

First case. You drive home from your work. Suddenly a pedestrian crosses the road without looking to see if it was safe to do so. You cannot stop and you hit him. He is seriously injured. You feel guilty, but you couldn’t help. Actually it was simply bad luck that you were there just when the pedestrian crossed the road.
Second case. You drive home from your work. You take your mobile and call your wife that you are on your way home. Suddenly a pedestrian crosses the road without looking to see if it was safe to do so. You cannot stop and you hit him. He is seriously injured. You feel guilty, for it’s not allowed to use a mobile when driving. However, even if you had had both hands on the wheel, it would have been absolutely impossible to stop in time and not hit the pedestrian. So, actually it was simply bad luck that you were there just when the pedestrian crossed the road.
On the face of it, both cases are the same: You couldn’t have stopped, anyway, and it was simply bad luck that you were there and hit the pedestrian. As Thomas Nagel writes (p. 25): “Whether we succeed or fail in what we try to do nearly always depends to some extent on factors beyond our control.” Here the factors were that the pedestrian suddenly crossed the road and that just then you were passing by. However, in the second case, you were calling with your mobile, which was not allowed. Just this gives a moral aspect to the second case: Maybe you could have stopped in time, if you hadn’t been calling, even if it is dubious. Therefore philosophers talk of “bad luck” in the first case and of “moral bad luck” in the second case: that you were using your mobile makes that the accident has a moral aspect.
Moral bad luck, or generally “moral luck”, is an important though not much discussed problem in philosophy. The term has been introduced by Bernard Williams, and the idea has been further developed by authors like Thomas Nagel and Alfred R. Mele. For reasons of space I’ll limit my remarks to discussing Nagel’s article “Moral Luck”.
In the course of time, we do many things that can be judged morally – positively or negatively –, but whether it’s done so often depends on chance occurrences, as my cases illustrate. “What has been done, and what is morally judged, is partly determined by external factors”, so Nagel (p. 25). To take an example by Nagel: “Someone who was an officer in a concentration camp might have led a quiet and harmless life if the Nazis had never come to power in Germany. And someone who led a quiet and harmless life in Argentina might have become an officer in a concentration camp if he had not left Germany for business reasons in 1930.” (p. 26) This, so Nagel, illustrates a general point: “Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck. Such luck can be good or bad.” (ibid.) However, what is under your control and what is beyond your control? If we would consider all factors that determine what you do, we might come to the conclusion that “ultimately nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control.” (ibid.)
Nagel doesn’t go that far. He sees a connection between the problems about responsibility and control and the problem of the free will. It’s true that “everything seems to result from the combined influence of factors, antecedent and posterior to action, that are not within the agent’s control. Since he cannot be responsible for them, he cannot be responsible for their results.” (p. 35) And “admittedly, if certain surrounding circumstances had been different, then no unfortunate consequences would have followed from a wicked intention, and no seriously culpable act would have been performed; but since the circumstances were not different, and the agent in fact succeeded in perpetrating a particular cruel murder, that is what he did, and what he is responsible for. Similarly, ... if certain circumstances had been different, the agent would never have been developed into the sort of person who would do such a thing.” But since the circumstances weren’t different and “he did develop ... into the sort of swine he is, and into the person who committed such a murder, that is what he is blameable for.” (ibid.)
In other words: An agent makes choices and that’s what he is responsible for. “Moral judgment of a person is judgment not of what happens to him, but of him.” We don’t judge his circumstances or his fate. “We are judging him, rather than his existence or characteristics.” (p. 36). It is the agent who acts, not his or her circumstances or fate that do. It’s so that “something in the idea of agency is incompatible with actions being events, or people being things. ... [T]hose actions remain ours and we remain ourselves, despite the persuasiveness of reasons that seem to argue us out of existence.” (p.37).
In discussing Nagel’s view on moral luck I had to leave out much what would make Nagel’s view clearer and what gives a better foundation of his conclusion. Anyway, it’s a conclusion that I endorse. Even if the circumstances happen to us, it’s me who bends them to my will by my actions. In this way, moral luck is also moral chances.

Source: Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck”, in: Mortal Question; Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979 (1991), pp. 24-38. (all italics in the quotes by Nagel)

Monday, April 10, 2017

The double meaning of words

The regular readers of these blogs will know that I am not a fan of Big Brother. So I am not here to draw his attention to difficulties he may come across when trying to manipulate his subjects. However, some such problems are interesting from a philosophical point of view. I think that it has no sense to ignore them, as if they don’t exist, so I feel free to talk about them. One problem that Big Brother must solve when he tries to develop the mind-reading technology as mentioned in my last blog is the problem of double meaning.
Let’s assume that Big Brother is reigning and that each newborn child gets a chip in the brain that is connected with a computer. In this way Big Brother can send thoughts to the child and he can use it also for reading the child’s thoughts. Let’s call the newborn child Subject. Then I think that it will be impossible to make that Subject will have only thoughts in her (or his) head that are acceptable to Big Brother. For no matter what Big Brother will do, it’s unavoidable that Subject sees things around her that haven’t been foreseen by Big Brother, or that Subject will get independent thoughts by talking with other subjects. Then Subject will gradually develop some thoughts of her own. If it has come that far, Big Brother is confronted with the problem of double meaning. For it is quite well possible that some words used by Big Brother for bringing thoughts to Subject’s brain have a different meaning for Subject than they have for Big Brother. The effect may be that Subject doesn’t behave any longer in the way desired by Big Brother and maybe she resists to him, too.
Here is a case of double meaning that I found on the Internet (but that actually is based on an incorrect comma):

A panda walks into a roadside cafe. He orders a bun, eats it, draws out a pistol and fires into the air and heads for the door.
"Why?" asks the confused waitress as the panda was half way out of the door. The panda produces a wild-life dictionary and shouts: "I'm a panda. Look it up!".
The waitress turns to the "P" section and reads:
"PANDA: Large black and white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

The problem with the double meaning of the words in this joke is that they have been divorced from the context, and just the context is important for understanding the meaning of a word, as Wittgenstein has made clear when saying “The meaning of a word is its use” (Philosophical Investigations 43). However, it can be difficult to determine what the use of a certain word is, since the context is not always obvious, for it is not automatically given. Every translator can tell you. In order to show this, I’ll translate for you a Dutch sentence, that contains several words with double meanings (I have italicized these words, which are in pairs in the text, and I have explained them in a note; I hope that you will not stop going on, if you don’t know Dutch). Here is the Dutch sentence:

Toen mijn moeder aan de was was, zag ik twee vliegen vliegen. Daar was ook een bij bij. Ze vlogen onder de deur door, over de weg weg.

For a competent translator its meaning is clear:
When my mother was doing the laundry, I saw two flies passing by. They were accompanied by a bee. They passed under the door and flew away over the road.

However, when I had translated the sentence with an Internet translator, I got this incomprehensible result:
Then my mother to the wax was, saw I two flies flying. There was also at at. Them flew under the door, concerning the way gone.
(try it with your own translator or translate it into another language in this way and the result will be as incomprehensible).

The problem was that the computer translator didn’t know or understand the context of the sentence. It translated simply the single words without considering their uses in the text and the context. As this example clearly shows: What the context of a sentence is, is not obvious as such. It always needs an interpretation to get it. However, usually interpreting is an unconscious process that takes places without consciously thinking about it.
The upshot is that if you want to communicate a thought to another person, or if you want to bring over a thought literally to another mind (as Big Brother would like to do), it is possible that the other doesn’t understands you, even when she knows all the single words you used. I think that everybody has experienced this sometimes. Normally you try to solve the problem by talking with the other and explaining what you mean. But if you want to manipulate the other, it’s already more difficult to do so, since you want to hide your real intentions. And if you are Big Brother, I wonder whether this problem of double meaning can be really solved – which shows that there’ll always remain a place where you are free: In your mind (with the hope for a better future if the world would have come that far).

Note. The meaning of the italicized words in the Dutch sentence
was1=(she) was, was2=laundry – vliegen1=flies (insects), vliegen2=(to) fly – bij1=bee, bij 2=at – deur=door, onder ... door= under – weg1=road, weg2=away

Monday, April 03, 2017

Big Brother will come within you

Last week I described Hilary Putnam’s case of a brain in a vat. Here I’ll bypass Putnam’s interpretation of the case and the philosophical debate it provoked. However, currently it’s not yet possible to remove a brain from a body, keep it alive in a vat with nutrients and make the brain think that it is a real person that behaves and thinks as a normal human being. Nonetheless, I think that the time will not be far away that is be possible to envat a brain.
The Dutch neuro-scientist Anke Marit Albers took a number of test persons, placed them in a fMRI scanner and asked them to imagine a multi-banded grate that could be rotated in three different ways: 60, 120 or 180 degrees. Albers didn’t know how many degrees each test person mentally rotated the grate but the fMRI scanner could tell her by scanning the individual brains.
Of course, it was not as simple as that, although it’s the essence of the test. First, since each person organizes his or her brain in a different way, a scanner must learn for each single person which pattern in the brain corresponds to a grate that has been rotated either 60 or 120 or 180 degrees. But once the fMRI scanner has learned the typical patterns for each test person, it can read the rotation in a test person’s brain. Second, although the scanner basically can tell how much a test person has mentally rotated the grate, it makes mistakes. In spite of this it does better than chance. So if you want to know how much the test person has rotated the grate, you can better use a scanner than just guess it.
The investigation has its limitations. That’s clear. The test person was allowed to rotate the grate in his or her imagination only in three different ways and the prediction how much s/he did is not infallible. Nevertheless it’s a giant leap forward on the road to read the minds of other persons. Once the method will have been improved, it can be useful to help patients who suffer from hallucinations or obsessions, so Albers.
What does it mean for the case of a brain in a vat? There is an important difference between this case and the investigation by Albers: Albers tries to detect which imaginations a person has; so the imaginations are the output of her test. In the brain-in-a-vat-case, however, imaginations are put into the brain; they are the input of the brain. Our first thought of the idea to use imaginations as brain input may be that it’s science fiction. However, what is science fiction today can be reality tomorrow. Wasn’t – to take an example – Jules Verne’s novel Around the Moon science fiction in his days and hasn’t it become true a century later? Even more, man has not only flown around the moon but he also walked on the moon. And maybe already soon the day will come that thoughts can be inserted into the brain. For doing so we need to know how the brain is structured, and, as I just have shown, the first steps have already been done to find it out.
Investigators can already steer the behaviour of test animals by stimulating their brains. Brain implants are being developed in order to restore vision in the brains of people who are congenitally blind or to make paralyzed limbs move again. In fact, this is a matter of bringing outside information inside the brain. One step more and it will be possible to bring fake information (and thoughts) in the brain in this way. According to Albers theoretically such things can be done, although there still are many practical impediments. For a handicapped person brain implants would be fantastic. However, “it evokes also more terrifying ideas within me”, so Albers. For Big Brother such a progress of science will be great. No longer he needs to manipulate your environment in order to manipulate you in an indirect way, with the risk of failure and undesired effects. When the knowledge of thought implantation will have been fully developed, he simply can put a chip in your head and connect you with a computer. One step further and only transmitting a special kind of brain waves in the air will suffice. Then we’ll not be much unlike Putnam’s envatted brain.

Sources: De Volkskrant, March 22, 2017; p. 27. Anke Marit Albers, “Tracking dynamic mental representation in early visual cortex”, on

Monday, March 27, 2017

Something to celebrate: Ten years of philosophical blogs

!!! Solve the quiz and stand a chance of winning a book !!!

Sometimes I feel myself like a brain in a vat. Do you know what I mean? Here is how Hilary Putnam describes it:
“Imagine that [an evil scientist has removed a person’s brain] from the body and placed in a vat of nutrients which keeps the brain alive. The nerve endings have been connected to a ... computer which causes the person whose brain it is to have the illusion that everything is perfectly normal. ... [A]ll the person is experiencing is the result of electronic impulses travelling from the computer to the nerve endings.”  So, “if the person tries to raise his hand, the feedback from the computer will cause him to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ the hand being raised. Moreover, by varying the program, the evil scientist can cause the victim to ‘experience’ ... any situation or environment the evil scientist wishes” and to make that the victim remembers it later, like (my examples) that he read a certain book, watched TV, made a trip to Amsterdam, etc. “It can even seem to the victim”, so Putnam, “that he is sitting and reading these very words about the amusing but quite absurd supposition that there is an evil scientist who ... places [brains] in a vat of nutrients which keeps the brains alive.” In short, this envatted brain-person has the illusion to be a completely normal person. (Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981; pp. 6-7). However, Putnam argues that such a case is not possible, at least not if the victim’s brain has been envatted already during his whole life, already from before the time that he begun to give meanings to the objects in the world around him.
However, my situation is somewhat different. I am sure (but maybe Descartes’ devil has deceived me) that at least during my younger years, I wasn’t an envatted brain, but that I had a real body with a brain in my head; walked with real feet on this earth; discussed with real persons about the mind-body problem; and read real books about envatted brains or, for instance, Robert Dahl’s story “William and Mary”. However, now, sitting here behind my computer, I often think that I am only a brain in a vat instead of a person with a complete body. According to Putnam such a case that a brain has been envatted later in life, when the victim had already developed meanings in his or her head, is quite well possible.
Why do I think that I am a brain in a vat? Well, each Monday I sit behind my computer and write a blog. I send it to the world via my computer. Then the blog appears on my computer screen. And sometimes I receive feedback via my computer. So, actually my relation with the world is entirely dependent on my computer – anyway blogwise –, just as the world of a brain in a vat is computer-controlled. Who will prove that my computer hasn’t been programmed by an evil scientist? Therefore I wondered whether I couldn’t I make a test that proves that my blogs are real. I often thought about it and finally I developed such a test. Furthermore, I decided to do the test on a special day. For today, the day that I upload this blog to my blogwebsite, it’s exactly ten years ago that I published my first blog here. Yes, it is really exactly ten years ago, for I published my first blog on March 27, 2007. Moreover, a few weeks ago I published my 500th blog. Therefore I HAVE SOMETHING TO CELEBRATE!!! And you, my dear readers, can take part in this celebration. If you send your messages to me, there will be no doubt that this blog isn’t faked, for each message will be different. How should an evil scientist – or Descartes’ devil – find the time to forge all the mails you’ll send to me? The more messages I’ll receive, the more likely it is that I am not an envatted brain.
In order to stimulate that you’ll send me your mails, I have made a little quiz. It consists of two questions. I am sure that you can answer them. If your answers are correct, you’ll have the chance to win a book, written by me, namely my book Running with my mind, which contains a selection of my blogs, or if you prefer, I’ll send you the Dutch version (see the column left of this webpage).
Here are my questions:
1. Which philosopher has been mentioned most in my blogs till the day of today, March 27, 2017?
It’s an easy question, isn’t it? It’s so easy that I have made a second question in order to decide who will be the winners of the quiz:
2. How often has this philosopher been mentioned in my blogs till the day of today, March 27, 2017?

There are three books to win for the best answers to these questions. The winners will be those who answered question 1 correctly and who gave the correct answer to question 2. If no one knows the correct answer to question 2, I’ll give the books to those who are nearest to it. If there are more than three winners, I draw lots in order to decide who’ll get the books (as usually in such quizzes, there is no correspondence possible about my decision who are the winners).
You can send your answers before next April 23, to this e-mail address:
[the contest has been closed]
Don’t hesitate to send me your mails. I want to be flooded with mails for the more I get, the more I’ll be sure that I am not a brain in a vat. And don’t hesitate to add your personal comments on my blog if you like!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Karl-Otto Apel 95 years: A personal homage

Karl-Otto Apel

Last Wednesday, March 15, one of the greatest German philosophers celebrated his 95th birthday: Karl-Otto Apel. Only this fact would be a sufficient reason to devote a blog to this outstanding philosopher. But there is also another reason: Apel is one of those philosophers who has much influenced my philosophical career, not in person but by his writings. I have all his works here in my library, with the exception of the latest ones. For it’s true, through the years I lost contact with his philosophy and it’s already ages ago that I have read a text written by Apel. However, without his work my philosophical interests wouldn’t have developed the way it did. In this blog it’s impossible to do justice to Apel and his ideas, so I’ll keep it personal and write a bit about what he meant to me.
I came into touch with Apel via his friend the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Habermas was very popular among students when I studied sociology at the university, and Habermas and Apel developed a part of their early theories together. So it was impossible then to read Habermas’s works and not to stumble upon Apel. Gradually Apel became more important to me than Habermas. One of the theses that Apel defended was that knowledge and our body are inseparably related. Corporality and consciousness are in a complementary relationship, he says. This statement was an attack on Descartes’s mind-body dualism – a theme that is much discussed in the analytical philosophy of mind these days. Both Apel and later – independently – most analytical philosophers who discuss the problem reached the same conclusion: There is no mind-body divide and mind and body are intrinsically related. How this relation is, is still a much debated issue, but, influenced by Apel, I developed the idea that mind and body are aspects of the same substance.
Apel defended also the idea that our argumentations must stop somewhere. Our reasoning must have an end, a point beyond which we say it’s impossible to argue, for otherwise we would get into an interminable relativism. It was an attack on Popper’s critical rationalism. It made me develop the idea that finally we have to act, anyhow, even if it is “only” the “banal” thing that we have to eat and work in order to survive.
What was and still is unusual for a philosopher with a background in the continental philosophy is that Apel paid much attention to themes from analytical philosophy. He wrote on language and action in an analytical way. By doing so he succeeded to bridge the two seemingly unbridgeable approaches of continental and analytical philosophy and especially he succeeded to combine and weave together the ideas of Heidegger and Wittgenstein.
All this had a big influence on my ideas and philosophical development, but most important for me were Apel’s discussions on the question whether there are two basic research methods, namely one for the natural sciences, called “explanation”, and one for the humanities, called “understanding”, or whether there is only one unitary explanatory method both for the sciences and the humanities. Themes from this “Explanation-Understanding Controversy” became central in my Ph.D. thesis. Moreover it’s not difficult to find there ideas that directly or indirectly go back to Apel. However, as it turned out, my thesis led me away from Apel. This happened not because I came to disagree with the his ideas, but my thesis brought me on new paths in philosophy and stimulated me to develop new ideas in new philosophical fields – at least, these fields were new to me.
I want to end this homage to Apel with a little anecdote which I told here before in my blogs and that illustrates Apel’s influence on my philosophy:
Once I was in a bookshop in Amsterdam and my eye was caught by a new book by Apel: Die Erklären-Verstehen Kontroverse in transzendentalpragmatischer Sicht (“The controversy between explanation and understanding from a transcendental-pragmatic perspective”). It was a methodological discussion on explaining and understanding in the humanities and social sciences, a theme that appealed a lot to me then. I found the book very interesting and what I found especially interesting was Apel’s analysis of a book by the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, a philosopher whom I didn’t know yet. I got the feeling that I had to read von Wright’s book Explanation and Understanding anyhow. It took me much effort to get it and in fact it was too expensive, but it came out that it was worth its money. Von Wright discussed here his solution of the explanation-understanding controversy and presented his methodological model for the social sciences. Basically I agreed with his approach, but in my view his model could be improved in several respects. Doing this became the leading theme of my Ph.D. thesis and it made that since then I devote much time to philosophy till the day of today.
And actually my meeting with Apel and von Wright in a bookshop in Amsterdam is also the reason why I write my blogs today, already ten years long.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Succeeding a successor: Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland

Let me take another puzzle from Roy Sorensen’s book that I quoted in my blog last week. It’s about American presidents:
“Grover Cleveland was inaugurated as the 22nd and 24th US president, succeeding Benjamin Harrison, who was the 23rd president. Who was the other [US] president who succeeded his successor? ... You do not need any historical hints” (p. 20).
Unlike last week, I’ll give the answer immediately, so if you want to figure it out yourself, stop reading NOW.
According to Sorensen the answer is Harrison, for “Benjamin Harrison succeeded his successor, because his successor was Grover Cleveland. Harrison was elected after Cleveland’s first term. Although Harrison was elected only one term, he succeeded his successor” (pp. 256-7).
At first sight, the answer seems correct. Let me do some simple logic:

(1) Cleveland = Harrison’s successor {namely during his second term as the 24th US president}.
(2) Harrison succeeded Cleveland {namely when Harrison became the 23th US president,
he succeeded Cleveland who had finished his first term as the 22th US president}.

Now fill in (1) in (2) and we get:
(3) Harrison succeeded Harrison’s successor.
In plain English we would formulate (3) as “Harrison succeeded his successor”, and that’s what Sorensen contends.

So far so good. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if you think that there is something wrong with (3), even though the formal reasoning is correct. Anyway, I think that Harrison did not succeed his successor, although he succeeded Cleveland, who later became his successor. Just this “later became” is the point where Sorensen goes wrong, to my view, for what he ignores is the aspect of time. The question is: Is Cleveland as the 24th US president identical with Cleveland as the 22th US president? My answer is “No”, at least not in the respect we are discussing here: Being the successor of Harrison.
A much discussed issue in analytical philosophy is the question what makes a person P2 at time t2 the same person as person P1 at time t1. For example, what makes a ten years old schoolboy living in a provincial capital in the north of the Netherlands the same person as the philosopher who writes a blog about a philosophical puzzle more than fifty years later somewhere in the centre of the Netherlands? Now I pass over a long and extensive discussion, but we can say that in the first place it’s the physical continuity between the schoolboy and the philosopher that does, but – as most philosophers stress – it’s especially the psychological continuity in time between the schoolboy and the philosopher that makes them the same person. When talking about psychological continuity we have to think of qualities like character traits, memory, experiences, etc. Does the philosopher still remember to which school he went? Is he still like the boy who wanted to be the best of the class? Does the boy’s experience that he fell from a bridge explains the philosopher’s fear for water? To the extent that we can answer such questions with “yes”, we can say that the philosopher is still the same person as the schoolboy; to the extent that we have to say “no” the philosopher has changed and got another personality. Who doesn’t know the sayings “Oh, John has changed so much through the years”. Or “Pete is still like the one I met fifty years ago for the first time”?
Now I think that it’s clear that the ten years old schoolboy is not the philosopher he is fifty years later. Maybe someone would have predicted that the boy would become a philosopher, but then he was not the philosopher we see fifty years later writing blogs. Let’s now assume that you are also a blogger and you write in your blog “Fifty years ago I was a friend of philosopher By the Way, but when we left the primary school, we lost sight of each other and we have been out of touch since then.” Is this statement true? No. Maybe you were a friend of the boy who would become a philosopher but not of the philosopher. The characteristic “philosopher” applies only to the man many years later and not to the schoolboy, even if that man and the schoolboy can be considered otherwise the same person. In this respect the schoolboy has changed. And so it is also with Grover Cleveland as the 22nd president of the USA. At the moment that Benjamin Harrison became the 23 US president (in 1889), Cleveland was not the successor of Harrison, but the successor of Chester A. Arthur, the 21st US president. It was only four years later (in 1893) that Cleveland became Harrison’s successor. It is an anachronism and therefore wrong to ascribe in 1889 to Cleveland a characteristic he would get only four years later, and at least in this respect Cleveland as the 22nd US president is not identical with Cleveland as the 24th US president. So there has been only one US president that succeeded his successor: Grover Cleveland. When he did, Cleveland became a little bit another person (namely by becoming the successor of his successor), even though he was physically and psychologically continuous with the Grover Cleveland who had ended his term as president of the USA four years before and who lacked the characteristic just mentioned.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Teasing thoughts

Elisabeth and Erika

Sometimes my blogs may be quite complicated. At least that’s the impression that I get from what others tell me when they have read them. Sometimes my blogs, or rather their conclusions, have also a wider meaning than what you read in the blog itself. So, I finished my blog “What is true” last month (Jan 30, 2017) with the statement: “What we see and say is not always as it appears to us”. It was the upshot of a blog in which I attacked the idea that a statement cannot be true and false at the same time, and I had an epistemological or logical context in my mind, when I wrote it. Nevertheless, the conclusion can also be given a more general application, and if you forget the original context for a moment, you can see it also as a reference to what people often – or if I were cynical, I would say “usually” – do: People try to appear better than they are. We have many words and expressions for it, like a wolf in sheep’s clothes, hypocrisy, flattery, and so on. Now that you have got the hint, I think that it’s not difficult to mention other cases. This not to say that keeping up appearances and related phenomena must be seen only negative, for the world would be full of conflicts, if we always presented ourselves towards others as we really are and if we would always directly and immediately say what we think. Often it is better to control and restrain ourselves. However, when we would go too far in that, the world could become full of false ideology if not corruption, and appearance would become reality. In other words, we would live in a fake world, to take a word that is often used these days. But isn’t just this what is exposed by carnival, when it criticizes persons in office and old and new habits and customs? And if my blogs would help you a bit to think critically, it would be very nice. As Montesquieu said in his Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws, Book 14, ch. XX): “My business is not to make people read, but to make them think.”
In order to break stiff thoughts it is not always necessary to use complicated argumentations. Sometimes simple cases will do, too. Take for instance this logical enigma, which I found in a book with a collection of philosophical puzzles, brought together by Roy Sorensen. (In case you want to solve the problem yourself, I’ll give the solution after the Reference, so stop reading on then, when you are there). I quote (p. 17):
“Elisabeth was born fifteen minutes before her sister Erika. The two were identical and had the same mother. Yet Elisabeth and Erika were not twins.” How to explain this?
It’s just a simple example, but breaking your fixed thoughts is an important source of creativity and a condition for understanding people with other habits and customs that originally seemed to be strange to you, if not weird.

Roy Sorensen, A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities. A Collection of Puzzles, Oddities, Riddles and Dilemmas. London: Profile Books, 2017
Solution: Elisabeth was one member of a set of identical triplets.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Vanishing shops

Look at the photo at the top of this blog. Usually I write first a blog and then I look whether I have a photo that fits it or I take such a photo. But sometimes it’s the other way round: I have taken a photo and then I see a blog in it. Like now. Lately I went to a shopping centre in a nearby town for taking photos for my series of people passing open spaces (see my blog dated Dec. 19. 2016). However, I failed to take such photos that were interesting enough. Why? If you look a little bit longer at the photo you may realize what the reason is: This once lively square, which is in the centre of the town, is empty. Only on the left we see a woman walking away with a full plastic bag. The bicycle stand in the middle is also empty. We see one shop in the picture, on the other side of the square: It’s closed, not only now, but definitively. Maybe it has been moved, maybe it has been closed forever. Nonetheless, there are yet other shops around the square, outside the photo, some closed and some open. There is even an advertising board on the square, trying to entice customers to one of these shops. But whom if nobody is there?
Just because of what isn’t there, the photo is interesting. The emptiness refers to what is changing in society. However, for interpreting the photo we need some background knowledge. A first thought might be that the economy is going bad. Indeed, many shops and store chains go bankrupt these days. Nevertheless that can’t be the real problem, for the economy is on the way up and people are buying more than ever before. So, that’s not what the photo says. But maybe the shops have moved to the edge of the town, or people prefer to buy in bigger towns or in immense shopping centres in the middle of nowhere. It might be possible, but you hardly find such enormous shopping sites in the Netherlands. People still prefer to go downtown. So, also this can’t be the cause of the empty and desolate shopping centres. No, there is another reason: people have changed their behaviour. Times are changing.
Let’s walk through an average shopping street in the centre of a town and look at the shops. What do you see? Clothes shops, shoe shops, beauty shops, food shops and supermarkets, opticians, book shops, sometimes a department store, cafés and restaurants, and the like. In short, you find there shops where it is fun to buy; where it is an advantage to go in person (trying on clothes, shoes); where it is nice to browse (clothes, books); for going out (restaurants) and what more, but hardly where you – till not so long ago - went to buy something you simply needed and where you had to go because there was no alternative, although you found shopping quite boring. However, now there is an alternative: The Internet. So what you see today is that many shops have vanished from the streets because more and more people buy on the Internet. Examples of shops that have disappeared are photo shops and shops for electronics. In fact, you still find shops for cameras and other photo things and for electronics here and there, and so it maybe be also for other types of shops, but most are big stores that sell also via the Internet. Small shops that can’t give this service don’t survive and are replaced by big specialized stores, unless these small shops have a special advantage. Only shops with goods that people prefer to feel and see, or where they like to browse, plus everything related to food can survive in these days of the Internet. The old way of daily shopping has changed. Of course, the arrival of the Internet is just one aspect. People also increasingly prefer big supermarkets instead of going to the baker’s, butcher’s, greengrocer’s and the like – actually already since a long time –, but for a part shopping has become sitting behind your computer and browsing and buying in the virtual shops of the Internet instead of going to the real shops in the streets. Society is changing and so are our habits, as always. And that is what the photo on the top of this blog shows: A vanishing way of shopping and so a vanishing way of life.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Vanishing languages

Some vanished languages: Etruscan (in Antiquity), Gothic (in the Middle Ages) and Wappo (recently)

February 21, so the day after this blog has been published, will be International Mother Language Day. The day has been first announced by UNESCO in 1999. Its purpose is to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. In 2007 the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2008 International Year of Languages and invited “Member States, the United Nations system and all other relevant stakeholders to develop, support and intensify activities aimed at fostering respect for and the promotion and protection of all languages, in particular endangered languages, linguistic diversity and multilingualism” (resolution A/RES/61/266).
That it’s really necessary to take measures to preserve and protect languages became clear to me from an article I recently read in a newspaper. How many languages are there in the world? Well, I think that most people will say something like fifty, or hundred, or maybe 500. Actually there are about 7,000 languages. And how many languages do you think will be there at the end of this century? Not more than half of them, but the most pessimistic estimates say that only 10% will remain. So if I would have asked you in 2117 how many languages there are in the world, and not in 2017, you might have been right. This means that every two weeks a language vanishes.
There are several reasons why this happens. The ethnic group that speaks the language disappears. People prefer to speak another language that has become dominant or they prefer not to teach their children the native language any longer, because speaking the dominant language gives better job opportunities. People are forced to speak another language. And there are certainly other reasons as well why languages die.
If a language were simply a means of communication and not more than that, probably the loss of a language would not be really dramatic. However, it is more than just an instrument. Especially two things are important. Say, you are somewhere abroad on holiday and no one there speaks your language. Then you hear someone who does. I don’t think that you’ll immediately walk to that person and shake hands, but certainly you’ll feel related to him or her in some way. In other words, a language gives you identity, and probably the more so if your language is not one of the world languages which is used as a lingua franca. Your native language is one of the factors that makes who you are and often it happens that someone who has spoken a big part of his or her life a second language, all at once begins to speak the native language again at a sudden dramatic moment like an accident, even if it is only for a short time.
As for the other reason why a language is more than a mere instrument: I think that many people will know that Inuit languages have more words for expressing types of snow than any other language. Or, another example, Dutch, my mother tongue, has more words for describing types of watercourses and canals and uses more nuances in that field than, say, English. These are just two instances that indicate that there is a narrow relationship between a culture and the language used by the bearers of that culture. And not only is it so that word distinctions are often different for different languages. Also grammatical differences may have cultural relevance. This doesn’t mean that there is a one-to-one relationship between language and culture, but that there is a kind of relation is unmistakable.
The relationship between language and culture is especially significant for smaller languages and cultures, I think. And when a certain language has vanished, also the corresponding culture will have vanished, or anyway a relevant part of it. This is important for the bearers of the vanishing cultures but also for everybody else in the world. Since many vanishing languages are only spoken and have no written sources, their disappearance will be for once and for all. Then the world has become a bit poorer. That’s what we see in this globalizing world, where increasingly only a few languages are used. As Cecilia Odé, a Dutch linguist, says it: “If the process of globalization goes on, everything around us will more and more look the same, including languages and cultures. Already long ago everybody has become aware of the importance of biodiversity. Why would the preservation of language diversity be less important?”
I would say it so: Each language is important because it presents a specific view on the world. In this way, it helps show how things can be seen different than we thought from our own language and world view. Therefore languages help our mutual understanding but also our creativity.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Alternative facts

Vaduz, Liechtenstein

If you don’t take account of the facts; if you deny or ignore them, sooner or later reality will overtake your false views. Therefore methodologists have developed rules for investigators to get the right answers to their questions. These rules do not only concern how to collect data, but also how to ask good questions, for if your question is wrong, you’ll not get the data you need and maybe you’ll get no data at all.
Basically these rules are also useful in daily life, outside science. It would be good to be conscious of them and to apply them there, too. Nevertheless this doesn’t happen often. People may not know that such rules exist, and even if they know them intuitively or explicitly, they may not have the time to apply them. People often have to act under pressure! Or maybe you are unable to collect the data you look for, so you must act with the help of what you do know, on the basis of your intuition, consultation of other people and your prejudices. Acting on basis of your prejudices sounds negative and maybe repugnant, because prejudices are frequently used for discriminating people, for pushing them down because of the colour of their skin, their sex or their religion, but strictly speaking a prejudice is a pre-judice, so a preceding judgment, which we use when we don’t have yet the relevant facts for a well-considered judgment, as the German philosopher Gadamer has made clear to us. Often we lack the facts and we cannot collect them for some reason and nevertheless we must act. Therefore Gadamer talked of a prejudice against prejudice. But it’s true that the negative sense of “prejudice” has also good grounds.
Since we have to act and perhaps have to act quickly, the only thing we can do then is to employ the limited data and evidence we have and to follow our intuitions. Then we try to make a consistent story from the information at our disposal. That the story is good is often more important for us than that it is complete. Even more, the cynical thing is that knowing little makes it easier to make a good, coherent story, so Kahneman. And that’s what we often see: People prefer simple stories to complex ones. Also a simple story based on partial information can be useful for reasonable action.
With a simple, incomplete story the risk is higher that reality will overtake us. Therefore it’s important to stay open to new facts. It’s sensible to adjust what we erroneously thought true – our story – to new information. But alas, it frquently happens also the other way round: Not the story is fit to the facts but the facts are re-interpreted, and maybe even adapted, in the light of the story and adapted to what is considered true on the basis of prejudices or unjustified beliefs. Cognitive dissonance reduction is a case in point. It’s a psychological process in which displeasing facts are argued away. In another related psychological process, called confirmation bias, people are only open to and look for facts that confirm their views.
Such psychological mechanisms often work unconsciously. However, it also happens that the facts are consciously adapted to the truth for manipulative reasons. This can be done for gain, in order to mould people to one’s will for commercial or political reasons, and so on. This can be done by telling half-truths or half-lies. Or facts are shoved aside or even ignored. And what if others bring to light that you are doing so and confront you with the facts as they are? Oh, it’s not necessary then to acknowledge that you made a mistake and to make your excuses. Isn’t it so that everything that happens is open to different interpretations? Just ignore the facts they throw in your face and say that you have alternative facts, whatever it may mean. It’s always possible that your followers will believe you. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin Books, London, 2012
- Journal of Alternative Facts:

Monday, February 06, 2017

Living within the truth

Truth is a simple and complicated concept at the same time. Everybody knows what it means, but everybody also knows how difficult it can be to determine whether a statement is truly true, as I asserted last week. Once I wrote an article in which I distinguished three different concepts of truth. They are for short 1) Truth as agreement of a statement with reality. It’s the concept of truth used in science; the one I discussed last week. 2) Truth as a way to express that one or more actions we perform are in agreement with the aims we have set. It was, for instance, the concept of truth used in communist circles. 3) Truth as a metaphysical idea that refers to what is superhuman, “not of this world”, so truth in its theological sense. I made this distinction between these three concepts of truth long ago and I doubt whether I can still endorse it. Nevertheless, it is valuable in some sense, for it makes clear that there is more than truth as defined in science and analytical philosophy (what academic philosophers tend to forget) and that our actions can (and some will say must) be guided by three principles: 1) Take account of the facts; don’t deny or ignore them. Reality will always overtake your false views. 2) Be consistent in your actions and act logically, otherwise you’ll not reach your goals. 3) Have a view of life, have ethical principles and be conscious of them (it doesn’t need to be interpreted theologically). These three principles are useful in morally difficult situations and they help prevent that you’ll perform actions that you’ll later regret.
This came to my mind – also because of what I had written last week, of course – when I thought about what is happening in the world at the moment. It made me also think of an essay by Václav Havel in which he tells us how we can live according to our own principles even under a repressive regime: His essay “The Power of the Powerless”. In Dutch it is titled (translated) “Try to live within the truth”, which explains why I had to think of it.
Havel considers there the case of the manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop, who has placed the slogan “Workers of the World, unite!” in his windows, among the onions and the carrots. Why did he do that? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the thought to unite the workers of the world? Not at all. The man hasn’t even thought about what the slogan means. He has simply put it there, because he lives in a repressive communist country and because he doesn’t want to have problems with the authorities. He simply wants to have a quiet life, avoid politics, earn his money and keep his job. He wants to live in harmony with society, as Havel calls it. By doing so the manager of the fruit-and-vegetable shop follows the ideology of the ruling communist party. If he would really think about it, he would know that this ideology contains an unrealistic view on society; that he doesn’t subscribe to the goals of this ideology; and that in the name of this ideology much is done what he thinks bad. Then, so Havel, this manager lives within a lie.
However, let’s suppose that one day the manager becomes fed up with all he has to do in order to lead a quiet life. All those nonsense measures he has to take, as he sees it now. Already since long he doesn’t believe anymore in the official ideology and he develops his own thoughts. He wants to show what he thinks and he wants to support people who think like him. He removes the slogan from his windows and begins to say what he thinks. He regains his freedom. But it will not be without consequences. The manager will be dismissed. Probably his children cannot go to the university. Etc. Then the man tries to live within the truth, so Havel.

Truth is seen as the agreement of a statement with the facts in the view of academic philosophers. But is it the whole truth, so to speak? For instance, can we say that there is truth in life? I think that Havel makes clear that there is. Truth is also following your values and stick to what you stand for. Havel shows with a simple case how it works. And living within the truth is not restricted to people living under repression. Also in democratic countries it is often necessary to take an explicit stand. Burning a candle in the window on occasion of an action of solidarity, as is often done, is such a simple stand. And there are often events that make that you feel that you have to say: Now it’s enough. Now I cannot accept it any longer. Sometimes it becomes important to row against the current. Then there are always ways to protest and to follow your principles, as Havel has shown. To live within the truth as he called it. Havel himself was a clear example and it even made that he was elected president of his country, Czechoslovakia.

Havel’s essay can be find on