Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Ursula von der Leyen, the new ruler of the European Commission

Monday, July 15, 2019

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (alias Macron and Merkel)

When I saw the excellent performance of Verdi’s opera Macbeth by Opera Vlaanderen in Antwerpen, Belgium, recently, I couldn’t help to compare its story with the power politics as you can see it every day everywhere in the world. Even more, I had to think of a special case, namely the way the new president of the European Commission was chosen by the government leaders and president of the countries of the European Union. Or rather, I had to think of the intrigues by two of them: The French president Emmanuel Macron and the German chancellor Angela Merkel. But let me first tell the main lines of the story of the opera, based on the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare (which goes back to a true history that took place in 1040).
The main characters in the opera are the Scottish general Macbeth and his wife Lady Macbeth. When King Duncan of Scotland is Macbeth’s guest in his castle, Lady Macbeth, in her lust for power and her desire to become Queen of Scotland, incites her husband to murder Duncan. And so Macbeth stabs him, while he is asleep. Now Macbeth and Lady Macbeth become the new King and Queen. However, they fear the Scottish general Banquo, since a prophecy says that his descendants will inherit the throne. Therefore, Macbeth arranges to kill Banquo and his son as well by hiring two men for the job. Banquo doesn’t survive the attempt but his son escapes. The opera ends with the fall and death of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
So far the opera. Now the other story: The nomination of the new president of the European Commission. As is usual in a democracy, after parliamentary elections a new government must be appointed in accordance with the results of the elections. As a rule this starts with the designation of a new prime minister. For the European Union (a confederation of 27 states – assuming that the Union Kingdom has already left the club) this means in the same way that a new European Commission must be chosen, to start with the election of a new president of the commission. On the basis of the results of the elections for the EU parliament the most likely candidate for this function was the socialist Frans Timmermans, with the leaders of the christian-democratic and liberal fractions as acceptable alternatives.
Democracy? In the EU the procedure is that the government leaders and president of the member countries come together in conclave in Brussels, and after long discussions and long nights they come with their nominations for the presidency of the European Commission and for some other important functions and then the parliament gives its consent. Of course, this is the theory, for in practice it is so that only Germany and France decide and that the other government leaders are simply assessors. Actually, what the parliament thinks is unimportant. For isn’t it so that elections are hold only for keeping the people quiet? So, instead of nominating Timmermans (or one of the other acceptable candidates) as president of the European Commission, Macron and Merkel proposed the German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a person who is hardly known outside Germany (and who is the minister of an army known for its broken aircraft and submarines and guns with crooked barrels, and a shortage of everything that an army needs, including soldiers). So when I was in the theatre in Antwerpen a week ago, I couldn’t help to draw a parallel between the opera and the election soap in Brussels: Just as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth first murdered Duncan, the King of Scotland, and then Banquo, their possible rival, in the same way Macron and Merkel first killed Timmermans (too strong) and then Democracy (a future danger). Is there a case of power politics in a “democracy” that is more cynical than what happened there in Brussels? But look what happened to Macbeth and his wife ...
Now it’s up to the parliament to accept the nomination of von der Leyen or not. At the moment that I publish this blog it was not known yet what it will do. Is it important? Sometimes it’s not the facts that count but the intentions are, even if these facts didn’t happen.

Monday, July 08, 2019

A little ethics

Usually I am too late when I want to pay homage to a philosopher, like two weeks ago, when I paid a tribute to Jürgen Habermas. Usually you publish a tribute just before the birthday or other relevant date of the philosopher concerned or soon after the death of the person, but I always miss the news, so also in such cases. I am the kind of person who’ll hear about the end of the world ten years after it happened, so to speak. But this time I am ahead of the fact, for when browsing on the Internet, I discovered that next month on 6 August it will be fifty years ago that Adorno died; in Visp in Switzerland. Now I could wait yet three weeks before publishing my homage, but last week I wrote already about Adorno on occasion of my trip to Frankfurt. Therefore I just write this tribute as a continuation of that blog. Moreover, a philosopher of his standing certainly deserves two blogs. This is the more so, since Adorno still is one of the most popular philosophers in Germany. Also outside Germany his work still is often reprinted, especially his main works Dialectics of Enlightenment (written together with Max Horkheimer), Negative Dialectics (which is more a work for specialists, to my mind) and his Minima Moralia. Just this latter work is Adorno’s most popular book. Even more than 100,000 copies have already been sold in Germany! It has been translated in many other languages as well and also there it is often reprinted. Any philosopher who had such a success can be proud of it. It’s this book I want to write a little bit about as a tribute to Adorno.
Adorno was born in Frankfurt as Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund but later changed his name to Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (Adorno was his mother’s family name). He studied philosophy, sociology, psychology and musicology in Frankfurt (where he met Max Horkheimer) and elsewhere. He became a teacher at the University of Frankfurt but in 1933 he was forbidden by the Nazis to lecture any longer. Therefore Adorno decided to emigrate and returned to Germany only in 1953, although he had visited his home country already a few times again since 1945. He spent most of his time in exile in the USA. It was during these years abroad that Adorno begun to write his aphorisms and mini-essays that later would be published as his Minima Moralia (MM for short). Originally Adorno wanted to give the MM to Horkheimer on his 50th birthday, but it was not yet finished then and finally it was published in 1951 in Germany. The title refers to the Magna Moralia that supposedly had been written by Aristotle, although now this is called into question. Apparently Adorno wants to say with the title that the book contains very small (minima) ethical remarks (moralia), to be distinguished from Aristotle’s big (magna) ethics.
The structure of the MM is very different from Adorno’s other books and articles. While these are longer or shorter treatises, the MM consists of 153 short pieces or statements that can each be read on its own: Just open the book on an arbitrary page and start to read – and to think of course. And there is always something to think, for Adorno never writes a word without giving it a wider intention. The book is also a kind of mirror of the author’s experiences, as the subtitle expresses: “Reflections from a damaged life”. Note that when Adorno wrote his book, his country (and most of Europe as well) lived through one of its darkest periods in history: The violence and destruction by Nazism and fascism. So Adorno writes how life must not be and the book has become, as some call it, a negative moral philosophy; a moral philosophy after the holocaust. It’s your task as a reader to transform this into a positive ethics: Make good by criticizing what is not good.
Of course, I tried to trick to open the book on an arbitrary page. In my Dutch edition it was page 99, where I read in reflection 72: “How so many things are inscribed with gestures, and thereby with modes of conduct. Clogs – ‘floppies,’ slippers [in English] – are made so that one can slip them on one’s feet without using the hands. They are monuments to the hatred of bending over.” I have italicized what especially stroke me in this aphorism. What a chance that I just saw this passage, for it says much about present society. In a sense it says how we gradually become alienated from actual life; from how things come about. Basic actions are taken away from you so that you don’t know any longer how basic things come about in life. Go to a supermarket. Do you still know where your food comes from and how it is produced? Take cheese. In the past you bought it from a farmer; then you bought it from a dairy shop, which got its products directly from the farmer. Then you bought your cheese in a supermarket, but you still bought a whole cheese or a piece of it. But today, you can buy there only (or nearly only) slices of cheese. You even don’t recognize the original cheese in it any longer, and you are spared the effort to slice the cheese yourself. Look further around in the same supermarket. Most food is readymade for you, prepacked. You don’t even have to cook any longer. But it’s true, you’ll not get your fingers burnt.

Adorno’s Minima Moralia in English (I quoted from this source):

Monday, July 01, 2019

On Adorno

The Adorno Monument in Frankfurt am Main, Germany

When I was in Frankfurt in Germany, lately, I wanted to see also the Adorno monument on the grounds of the Goethe University there. For for a long time Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903-1969) has been one of my philosophical and sociological heroes, and actually he still is a little bit. And wasn’t Adorno one of the founders of the famous “Frankfurt School”, once an important current in philosophy and sociology with Jürgen Habermas as its most important “product” (to use an anti-Adornian term)? And it were, among others, Adorno’s ideas that inspired in the 1960s the student movement and its leaders like Rudi Dutschke – the man who said that a real revolution is not a sudden change of society (often based on violence) but that it’s a “long march through the institutions of power”, so a slow internal change by taking nonviolently the seats of power. By the way, this idea that wasn’t unreal at all, as is exemplified by the political career of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, another leader of the 1968 student movement, who later became one of the leaders of the Green movement in Germany and France, deputy mayor of Frankfurt (indeed) and leader of the group of the Greens in the European Parliament. As such I see the green movement as the intellectual legacy of the student movement of the 1960s; and if so it has been inspired indirectly by Adorno’s ideas.
But back to Adorno himself. I must say that his ideas are often not easy to understand. I remember that his book Negative Dialectics stood for more than ten years on my special shelf with books “yet to read”. Then I decided to remove it from there, for if you haven’t read a book for ten years since you bought it, you’ll never read it. When leafing through the book and reading some fragments, I found it actually obscure. I understood hardly a word of it. Also his Dialects of Enlightenment, which he wrote together with Max Horkheimer – his co-founder of the Frankfurt School –, is not an easy book, but I read it with interest and pleasure. In this book – published for the first time in 1947 in Amsterdam, after a pre-publication in 1944 in New York – Adorno and Horkheimer defended the thesis that Nazism was a logical consequence of the Enlightenment. When they wrote it, the thesis didn’t sound implausible but now more than 70 years later it seems too simple. With the same persuasiveness that Adorno and Horkheimer defended their thesis one can object that the Enlightenment was flexible enough to overcome Nazism, or that it were just its ideas that overcame Nazism. Another thesis in the Dialectics of Enlightenment is that capitalist society represses expression of individuality and tries to make everybody the same and uniform and to bring everybody on the same line, for instance because this should be better for massa consumption (one of the pillars of capitalism in the 20th century). I think that this thesis has more substance and still applies to the society of the 21th century. Look how social media like Facebook try to manipulate us and try to make us like what they like! In view of this, Dialectics of Enlightenment is still a book worth to read but then one must try to translate what Adorno and Horkheimer wrote in the 1940s to society as it is in 2019. When you succeed to do so, the book is still modern.
Adorno didn’t write only obscure texts that are difficult to understand. Although also his Minima Moralia isn’t always easy, this book with 153 mini-essays about life and society gives you time to think and when you still don’t understand what you read, just try the next mini-essay.
Adorno’s most well-known contribution to sociology and social research is his The Authoritarian Personality, written together with Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson and R. Nevitt Sanford. In this book the authors develop the famous F-Scale, a method to test whether a person is inclined to be authoritarian and to have fascist ideas. In the meantime this work is classic, and in view of the rise of right-wing populism it is still relevant. As the copywriter of Verso Books writes about it: “It ... marks a milestone in the development of Adorno’s thought, showing him grappling with the problem of fascism and the reasons for Europe’s turn to reaction.”
Adorno was a many-sided philosophical and social thinker and researcher, but not only that. He was also a composer, musicologist and literary critic, but to write about this is outside my competence.
On occasion of his 100th birthday the Goethe University in Frankfurt erected in July 2003 a monument for Adorno (see the photo above). The monument was created by the Russian artist Vadim Zakharov. “[He] described the desk and accompanying paraphernalia as ‘the true expression of Adorno’s personality’. ...  [Zakharov] chose to present the philosopher by documenting his ideas. Thus the functioning desk lamp symbolises his propensity for working at night and the ticking metronome his achievements as composer. Likewise, the edition of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1966) [indeed the book that I couldn’t read], placed on an otherwise remarkably tidy desk, represents his philosophical works; manuscripts and sheets of music indicate the main foci of his work. Quotations from Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1951) and Aesthetic Theory (1970) are engraved into the paving slabs surrounding the glass cube. They provide insights into Adorno’s thinking and inspire visitors to reflect on his philosophical ideas.” (quoted from The jury that chose the monument from six entries was enthusiastic about it. Nevertheless, it was marked by controversy, for– paraphrasing Adorno – who are you that you see yourself worth enough to value someone else? Do you think that you are better than that person? (same source). But who am I, then, that I have written this blog about Adorno?

Monday, June 24, 2019

Jürgen Habermas 90 years: A personal homage

The Insitute for Social Research in Frankfurt, 
where Habermas started his academic career

Tuesday last week one of the most outstanding living philosophers celebrated his 90th birthday: Jürgen Habermas. Already this would be reason enough to devote a blog to him. But there is also another reason: Habermas is one of those philosophers who had a big influence on my thinking, especially during the earlier years of my sociological and philosophical development. Currently Habermas is especially known as a political philosopher who stands for the freedom of speech and opinion, for democracy and open discussions and who is an advocate of the European Union. Habermas has always had these views, but during the earlier years of his career he was especially known by his contributions to methodology and the philosophy of science and also because he stressed the importance of language for human understanding. His works in these fields were an attack on positivist thinking and on the idea that there is such a thing as an objective fact. This was especially so in his first major work Knowledge and Human Interest. In this book Habermas defended the view that behind each type of science there is a leading interest that guides its practice. In plain words, the natural sciences are guided by an interest in instrumental action and technical manipulation, while the humanities are guided by an interest in communicative action and mutual human understanding. In order to understand this view one must know that “science” (“Wissenschaft”) in German can refer both to the natural sciences (as in English) and to the humanities and the liberal arts (just as in Dutch, though); then “humanities” can also be read as “hermeneutic sciences”.
Habermas’s epistemological thinking didn’t stop here. On the contrary, it just had started and in his Theory of Communicative Action he further founded the view that no theoretical thinking – so including the theories of the natural sciences – can be objective, independent of what humans value. Moreover, all this thinking is based on the mutual human understanding of what these theories are about. Actually there are two levels of thinking: theoretical thinking, so scientific understanding, and commonsense thinking, so human understanding in daily life. Habermas called the former level of thinking and understanding level 1, and the commonsense level – the way we understand in daily life – level 0. This brought me the idea that there are two levels of meaning related to these levels, which I called respectively meaning 1 and meaning 0 (see my blog dated 16 March 2009).
But what does it mean when we say that we have come to a mutual understanding, be it in scientific discussions or be it in daily life? According to Habermas mutual understanding has three aspects. All these aspects are equally important. In my interpretation, we have only reached mutual understanding on what we say if we – firstly – agree about the truth of the statement we discuss about. So, is the snakelike animal over there really a snake or is it a blindworm (so a kind of lizard)? And – secondly – what is our intention by uttering a statement, for example that there is a snake over there (and not a blindworm)? Are we classifying animals, or is it a warning for a dangerous animal? Moreover – thirdly – do we really mean what we say: Are we honest or authentic when uttering a statement? Maybe, you know that that animal is a blindworm but you try to convince me that it is snake so that I become scared and I’ll run away. I think that this threefold “theory of acceptability” is an important contribution in grasping what mutual understanding and coming to a consensus means. Although the original version of this theory of acceptability was much criticized, for instance because Habermas seemed to suggest that in the end truth depends on our consensus and not on what is out there in the world outside us, I think that its essence, as formulated here by me, still stands.
Anyway, after the publication of his Theory of Communicative Action, questions in the field of philosophy of science faded into the background in Habermas’s work and gradually I stopped following him. I went more and more in the direction of the analytical philosophy of mind and action, also under the influence of Habermas’s friend and co-philosopher Karl-Otto Apel (see my blog dated 20 March 2017). But Habermas’s earlier ideas on methodology and mutual human understanding had a big influence on my further philosophical development and his idea of the levels of understanding were fundamental in my Ph.D. thesis on the method of Verstehen (“understanding”). Moreover it’s not difficult to find there other ideas that directly or indirectly go back to Habermas. However, as it turned out, my thesis led me definitively away from Habermas. This didn’t happen because I came to disagree with his ideas, but my thesis made that I took new paths in philosophy and it stimulated me to develop new ideas in new philosophical fields. However, no doubt , without Habermas I would have failed to see the right signposts.

Monday, June 10, 2019

What does an action mean?

When I asked myself what to write in this week’s blog, I suddenly realized that through the years I have given hardly any attention to my Ph.D. thesis. Actually the only thing that I discussed here from my dissertation was the difference between meaning 1 and meaning 0 (see my blog dated 16 March 2009). Although not everything in my thesis will be of interest to the readers of these blogs, I think that at least one theme is, namely: What do we mean when we say that an action has a certain meaning? The answer to this question is not only of theoretical interest for philosophers or, for instance, sociologists. It has also practical relevance. Think for instance of a court that must judge why a murderer performed his criminal act, or – hopefully more innocent – of parents who want to know why their child did this or that in a certain situation.
Traditionally, it is said that, when we want to know what an agent meant with his or her action, we want to know the reason. Let’s take an example. A man shoots down another man on the other side of the street; then he runs to him and takes his wallet. Why? Without any additional information, you may think that the man is a criminal who robs his victim of his wallet, hoping that it is filled with bank notes. However, such an act is difficult to understand, if the agent happens to be a millionaire. We can “understand” that a poor man needs money and that he thinks that he can get it by shooting down and robbing a stranger, who may have a thick wallet in his pocket. But a millionaire? Why should he do that? I’ll not answer this question, but what my example makes clear is that we need at least two questions in order to understand what the agent did; so in my case why he shot down (and robbed) his victim. The first question is: What was the intention of the agent that he shot down a stranger? Answer: He wanted to take his wallet. And the second questions is: What was his motive (ground) for doing so? Answer: he needed money (or had another motive if the perpetrator was a millionaire). In my blog dated 9 July 2019 we saw that Daniel Dennett calls the first question the “for-question” and the second question the “how-come-question”.
Can we say now that we understand the action performed by the agent? Let’s assume that we know that the agent needed money (so he had a motive) and that therefore he shot down the other man in order to take his wallet (so he had also an intention). Then most of us will say that his act is a crime. Nonetheless the latter is not as obvious as you might think. Even if we know an agent’s motive for acting and his intention in acting, it may be that we still don’t fully understand the action in question. In order to make this clear, let me assume that the town where the action just discussed took place is in the frontline of a war. Two armies are fighting against each other in the streets. Now it may be so that the shooting we just saw happen before our eyes has been done by a criminal who had put on a uniform and uses the confusing situation to rob other people. However, it’s also possible that both the agent and the victim are soldiers belonging to different armies. Both soldiers have received orders to kill opponents and to take the wallets of the victims and to give them to their commanders. Then the shooting soldier has a motive (his orders) and an intention (killing enemy soldiers). Should we then no longer call the action a crime but the execution of a – supposedly legal – order? At first sight we may say so; nevertheless it doesn’t need to be correct. For maybe the victim had seen that his opponent wanted to shoot him down and realized that his gun was empty, so that he couldn’t defend himself. Therefore he held his hands up. Nevertheless he was shot down. Then we talk no longer of the execution of an order but of a crime of war. Cases like these made me conclude that in order to understand an action we need not only to know what its motive is (Dennett’s how-come-question) and what its intention is (Dennett’s for-question), but that we need also to ask a third question, namely the question what the action as such is (in my example: a crime or an order). We can only understand an action and so know its reason if we know (1) how it comes about (its motive); (2) what it is for (its intention); and (3) what it stands for or represents (let’s call it its sense). Only when we have answered these three questions, we know what an action means.

Monday, June 03, 2019

The social self

When you want to show yourself to another, you take a picture. With a few clicks you can share it with anybody. There are many reasons to share a photo. Maybe you just want to show your face; or you want to show a funny situation in which you were involved; or something bad happened to you and you want to tell about it. Whatever the reason is to share a picture of yourself, all such pictures have one thing in common: in one way or another, even in negative situations, you try to show your best side in the given circumstances or anyway a better side. Hardly anybody wants to present him or herself as a wretched little creature, or with sleepy eyes just after s/he has woken up in the morning. If the photo is to be shown to strangers, giving a positive impression is even more important.
When the French philosopher Montaigne (1533-1592) wanted to picture himself for his family and friends, of course, he couldn’t take a selfie or had made a photographic portrait. He could have made a painted portrait of himself, – and such portraits exist – but he had another idea: He thought that the best way to present himself was to write about himself. And so he did and so he wrote his Essays. They pleased many people and they still do, for they are still widely read. Because of this we know what kind of person he was, or rather many people think so. But do we really know Montaigne? Even the most honest person can give only a subjective image of him or herself and such a self image is always distorted in some way. It’s your image of how you see yourself; not one how you are. It’s a first-person view and as such it is always a subjectively distorted if not dressed up self-view. Why would it have been different for Montaigne?
If you realize this when making your self-picture, it wouldn’t be that bad. Maybe you don’t know in what way your self-view doesn’t fully represent the way you are, but once you know that you might be wrong about yourself, you are basically open to corrections. But alas, this is often not the case. Often it is so that people unknowingly present themselves better than they are. Even more, some do so intentionally and think that it’s okay. There can be good reasons for this, of course. You want to have a better position or you want to be accepted by others, for instance, and then it is a bad idea to be negative about yourself. The problem is, however, that, once you have painted such a better self-image, you tend to think that this is really how you are. You are going to believe in your own false image; in the image you have first dressed up. Many people fall into this trap set for others. This was already noticed by the French writer and nobleman François de La Rochefoucauld. A century after Montaigne he wrote: “We are so used to present a distorted image of ourselves to others that in the end we distort ourselves for ourselves.” La Rochefoucauld saw it happen in his own social environment. If in his days you wanted to be a successful nobleman, you had to take part in all kinds of intrigues and conspiracies in order to gain a higher position in the pecking order of the nobility and at the court. And you had also to present yourself better than you were, with the psychological consequence that you went to believe your self-created distorted image. Being a sharp observer, this didn’t escape La Rochefoucauld’s attention.
As said, there can be good reasons to dress up your self-image a bit, but there is risk that you will forget your self-distortion. In my blog last week we saw how social media try to manipulate your self. But that’s only one aspect of what the social media do, albeit an important aspect. The social media are also a source of self-manipulation. Take a look at the profiles of people in Facebook, Instagram, and so on. Take especially a look at the photos and look how people present themselves. What you see are nearly only happy lives and handsome people; people presenting their better selves. That would be nice, if it weren’t so that increasingly people are going to believe that life fundamentally is that way; and they are going to believe that they are as they are in the pictures of themselves they have uploaded. “If my life is not that way, there is something wrong with it; if I am not as in my pictures, there is something wrong with me.” That’s what they are going to believe. More and more I get the impression, to give an example, that if people aren’t handsome they think that they have failed. So they make themselves handsome. In the Internet you can do it by using FaceApp (an app for improving a picture of your face), or in real by using makeup. In the same way you can adapt other aspects of yourself. In your profile description, in your chats .... And in the end you become your self-presentation, or rather you think so. But, whatever you do in order to dress up yourself, you cannot change the facts. As Montaigne said, even on the highest throne, you have to sit on your buttocks. Why should you hide that? If it leads to soreness, it’s better to use an ointment.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Determination and Control

We are all manipulated by social media like Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest and searching engines like Google. Everybody knows or can know. Much has been said about it already and as a result these media etc. promise to better their lives. Maybe they’ll do, or maybe they only say that they’ll do, but do we really care about it? Perhaps we should think like Burrhus Skinner, who asked in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity why we should worry about being covertly controlled and manipulated if it makes us happy. Your first reaction may be that he is right and it is my first thought, too. However, on second thoughts, I don’t feel at ease with the idea of being manipulated, even if I don’t know it and even if I shall never know that it happens and shall not have the slightest suspicion that it happens. Why?
Actually there is nothing special about being limited by external causes and influences in what we do. You have broken a leg and cannot walk for a long time. You have even to stay in hospital at first. A bridge has collapsed and we must make a detour. There is a power failure and the fridge, the Internet and a lot more don’t work for hours. So, why shouldn’t we adapt to the manipulation by the social media just as we must in these cases? It sounds reasonable. Life is that way. Is it?
Take the case of the bridge, but the same could be said about the other cases. The bridge has been built according to the newest insights and has been well maintained, but it has been destroyed by an earthquake. It’s a mere natural disaster. We are sad that it happened, but it happened. But what if the bridge would have been blown up by terrorists? Then we are not sad but angry. Apparently there is a difference between natural limitations and human limitations. Even more, we may find the latter objectionable, while we’ll never use such a word for natural causes.
Once we see this, we are close to the solution of our problem. For “objectionable” has everything to do with objectives, so with purposes. We cannot find what nature does objectionable. Nature doesn’t have purposes but in nature everything just happens, and that’s it. The word “objectionable” can be applied only to human agents, namely to what they do and to the effects of what they do. As Robert Kane says in his book The Significance of Free Will: “Objectionable control is exercised by purposeful agents, not natural forces.” And, referring to Daniel Dennett, he continues: “For, while nature may determine us, nature (‘not being an agent’) does not control us.” (p.69). So, while both nature and the purposeful agent constraint us and limit us in what we can do, nature has no interests in doing so and doesn’t act intentionally. The purposeful agent, however, does have interests, like earning money in the case of the owners of the social media. In view of these interests the purposeful agent sets his aims and tries to manipulate and so constraint our behaviour intentionally. By doing so this agent impedes the wills of the persons who are his objects. That’s why we don’t simply say that the agent determines what we do but that he controls what we do. In this way he limits our freedom, even in case we don’t know he does. But why should we follow the will of the other? Freedom is “the power to be the ultimate source or origin of one’s own ends or purposes rather than have that source be in something other than you.” (id., p.70) In short, freedom is being yourself. That’s what you give up, if you allow yourself being controlled by social media like Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and searching engines like Google, and so on. But maybe you are happy with it.

Robert Kane, The Significance of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998; pp.67-71.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Playing the man

Playing the man or playing the ball?

Not so long ago the mayor of my town organised a meeting with the inhabitants because a serious incident had taken place here. Also some other authorities that were responsible for the incident were present. At the beginning of the meeting the rules were established. One rule was “Don’t say ‘you are stupid but it is stupid that ...’ ” Actually this rule referred to one of the most important fallacies in discussions: The argumentum ad hominem. Someone who uses it attacks his or her opponent as such and not what s/he says. In sports terms we say that you play the man instead of the ball, and – like in sports – in the meeting in my town the rule was set in order to keep the meeting decent and fair and especially in order to avoid verbal aggression. For a public meeting this is important, but it’s not the real reason that you must avoid the argumentum ad hominem. The real reason is that it is a fallacy and that an argument is only good or bad because of its content and not because it is uttered by a person with such and such qualities. Bullying a person does not disqualify the truth of his or her claims.
Playing-the-man arguments often go this way:
- “You say so because you are a socialist” (Ignoring that the person concerned presents figures that show that the measured proposed is bad for poor people; you should attack the figures, not the membership of the socialist party).
- He is not a Christian, so it is not surprising that he committed the murder (As if non-Christians or non-religious persons in general do not have morals).
- He looks like a tramp so he cannot be trusted (As if a suit and a black tie or a neat dress makes you more reliable; but alas, many people think so. In a discussion it can mean that you believe a dressed up person sooner rather than a “tramp”; or just the other way round, depending on your psychological make-up).
- “How can you think so, you are only an ordinary wo/man.”
The essence of the argumentum ad hominem is that we don’t judge a person on the arguments produced in the discussion but – actually or openly – on his or her character, morals, appearance, reputation or anything else that is the supposed reason behind the argument; so actually the person is judged on our prejudices. It can happen, of course, that someone produces a socialist argument, because s/he wants to follow the party line in order to make career within the party; or the tramp lies because it is the only way to survive; etc. But this can only be a sound argument if it has been proved to be the real reasons of the socialist, tramp etc. Otherwise it has nothing to do with the arguments produced.
A fallacy related to the argumentum ad hominem is “guilt by association”. For example, you make a certain claim and another person, who happens to be a crook, makes the same claim; so your claim must be false just because of that. Two weeks ago I discussed in my blog already a special example of this fallacy, the reductio ad Hitlerum, like that you are a vegetarian and Hitler was a vegetarian as well, so it is bad to be a vegetarian. Or another example of the “guilt by association”: John cannot be trusted because he has criminal friends (does just this makes him untrustworthy?). The logical inverse of the guilt by association exists as well: the honour by association fallacy. For instance, she must be a feminist, for she comes from Sweden (supposing, as I do, that feminism is a positive value). Another related fallacy is the tu quoque argument, or the you-also fallacy, but I suppose that now you are smart enough to find out what it involves. As such I hope that these blogs about fallacies have made you smarter and that I have drawn your attention to the way you can be tricked in discussions. And you’ll certainly be smarter after having read Aristotle’s Sophistical Refutations.

Monday, May 13, 2019

False reasoning

Fallacies are flaws in reasoning that are not easily noticed, or anyway aren’t noticed at first sight. However, some are easier to discover than others. Some are even quite silly, so Aristotle, and some are even clear “to the man in the street”, especially those that play with the double meanings of words. Many jokes are like that, “e.g. ‘Where are you bound?’ ‘To the yard arm’; and ‘Which cow will calve afore?’ ‘Neither, but both behind’ ”. (182 b 15)
Here is a type of reasoning that seems to have been used often by Sophists (travelling teachers). It has been constructed by me:
1) Carl wrote a history of American capital
2) Washington (D.C.) is the American capital
3) So Carl wrote a history of Washington (D.C.)
Or one that Aristotle ascribes to the Sophists:
1) John has ten
2) John gives one to Pete
3) John no longer has ten, so he has nothing.
I admit that the last one is a bit difficult to understand, because it is based on a weird twist of the mind, but it seems that the Sophists often reasoned that way. Since many people fell into such traps or didn’t understand what was wrong with them, Aristotle decided to write his Sophistical Refutations.
As I see it, the book has two main themes. One theme is an analysis of fallacies. The other theme is how to debate and how to defend yourself against fallacies. The themes are mixed together in the book, though. I think that for a current reader the analysis of fallacies is more interesting than what Aristotle tells us about the technique of debating. The reason is that Aristotle supposes a type of discussion that is currently seldom performed. Aristotle supposes that there is a questioner (the Sophist) and someone who defends a thesis. The former holds then the opposite thesis and tries to refute the thesis upheld by the latter by asking all kinds of questions and producing all kinds of reasons why the defender is wrong. Of course, the defender tries to make clear why s/he is right. Sophists often used fallacies to win the debate. However, nowadays discussions are usually of another kind. They are often debates between two or more advocates of different points of views that are not necessarily the opposite of what the other participants in the debate say (political debates are a case in point). A participant tries to convince the other participant(s) that his or her views are the best. And if s/he cannot convince the other participant(s), s/he hopes at least to convince the public that her or his view is preferable. Discussions as supposed by Aristotle do occur but not so often, but if you are interested in debating techniques, anyhow, you should certainly read Aristotle’s treatise.
In the Sophistical Refutations Aristotle analyzes thirteen fallacies. I’ll not give a description of the fallacies, let alone an analysis, but the main flaws are double meanings, weak or incorrect conclusions and circular arguments. Above I gave already examples of the double meanings of words. Also questions can be confusing in this way. For example, a question like “Did you stop smoking every day?”, can mean to ask whether you stopped smoking, or whether you smoke now less than before, for example one cigarette every other day, or one once a week. An example of a false conclusion is: “Plato is different from Aristotle. Aristotle is a man. So Plato is not a man.” Maybe you’ll not fall into this trap, but one that often happens is the so-called “post hoc - propter hoc” fallacy: “If p is the case then q is the case. q is the case, so p is the case.” An example: If it has rained, the street is wet. Now the street is wet, so it has rained. Of course this need not be true, for it’s possible that a leaking tank lorry has just passed. This fallacy happens more often that you think, for instance in political discussions! The last main flaw I mentioned, the circular argument, is also called petitio principi or begging the question. A circular argument is often hidden in a long chain of reasoning, in which the conclusion is the same as the point of departure of the reasoning. This makes it difficult to give an example here. I know that it is weak to say so, but my excuse is that also Aristotle doesn’t give an example but simply says that the flaw often happens (see 181 a 15).
All this can give only an impression of Aristotle’s Sophistical Refutations. The book is a rather detailed treatise of argumentative reasoning and the first one ever written. Aristotle was aware of this and thought that without a doubt the book would need improvement. Nevertheless, the book was used as a guide to argumentative reasoning till far in the 20th century. Can there be a better proof of the quality of the Sophistical Refutations?

Note on the sources of this blog
The numbers in the text refer to the standard system for referring to passages in the Sophistical Refutations. The quotes are from the online edition mentioned in my blog last week. For writing this blog I have used the introduction to the Dutch edition: Aristoteles, Over drogredenen. Translated and annotated by Pieter Sjoerd Haspers and Eric C.W. Krabbe. Historische Uitgeverij, Groningen; 2018.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Sound reasoning

Aristotle with the Dutch translation of 
De Sophisticis Elenchis, in English Sophistical Refutations

When Aristotle wrote his book on fallacies (De Sophisticis Elenchis, in English Sophistical Refutations) he will not have realized that it would last 1500 years before it would become a standard work of argumentation. This book, which belongs to his Organon (a collection of six methodological works), is the first systematical treatise on reasoning ever written. It analyzes a range of fallacies often used by people in their argumentations and it describes also how to perform a discussion. The book was especially directed against the Sophists. These were, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica tells me, “lecturers, writers, and teachers in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, most of whom traveled about the Greek-speaking world giving instruction in a wide range of subjects in return for fees.” Basically what the Sophists did was okay, but some – or too many – applied intentionally false arguments in order to win their debates and so to earn money. It made that the Sophists got a bad reputation. For Aristotle it was a reason to write his book.
After some time the Sophistical Refutations and most other works written by Aristotle became forgotten. At least this was so in Europe for in the Arab world they remained influential. Only from the 12th century on they became known again in Europe, especially thanks to the Arab philosopher Averroes and Jewish scholars in Andalusia. Also the Sophistical Refutations was rediscovered and it became even the standard work for argumentation till far in the twentieth century, although it didn’t remain without criticism. We saw already in my blog two weeks ago that Descartes was not satisfied with Aristotle’s argumentation theory, because it was only useful for arranging knowledge but not for acquiring new knowledge. The authoritative status of the Sophistical Refutations was only undermined when Charles Hamblin published in 1970 his book Fallacies. Since then it is still seen as an important book on sound reasoning, but it is recognized that there is more to say about argumentation and that Aristotle’s theory must be adapted and supplemented in view of later developments.
I just started reading Aristotle’s book, so I don’t know whether he treats the fallacy under another name, but one that Aristotle certainly doesn’t discuss is the Reductio ad Hitlerum, the “Reduction to Hitler”, a term coined by professor Leo Strauss in 1951. Sometimes the fallacy is also called the Argumentum ad Hitlerum (Argument to Hitler) or “Playing the Nazi-card”. It’s a version of the association fallacy, which says: A has property p and B has also has property p, so A and B are the same (at least in some relevant aspects). In the case of the Reductio ad Hitlerum the reasoning is that someone has a certain view and, since this view was also held by Hitler, this person is wrong. For instance, it’s not good to be a vegetarian, because Hitler was also a vegetarian.
Forty years later the American attorney and author Mike Godwin developed the Argumentum ad Hitlerum into what became known as Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”. So, if an Internet discussion lasts long enough, sooner or later a statement by one of the participants will get the reply “Hitler (or the Nazis) said the same”. But, as my example just given made clear, a view hold by Hitler is not automatically wrong. Even so, such an argument can pollute a debate, which makes that some moderators of Internet discussions have decided to finish a thread, as soon as the Argumentum ad Hitlerum is put forward. Of course, someone can use the Hitler-argument with the intention to end a discussion, but often people use incorrect arguments like this one without knowing that they are fallacies. They sincerely belief that their factual fallacies are sound arguments. In view of the latter, although it is true that the time has come to improve and supplement Aristotle’s Sophistical Refutations, even after more than 2300 years it still keeps its value.

You can find an Internet version of Sophistical Refutations on

Monday, April 29, 2019

Entartete Kunst - Degenerate Art

“Entartete Kunst” or “degenerate art” was the name given by the Nazis in Germany to modern art that wasn’t according to their norms of what art should be. The term was especially in use during the years 1933-1945, when the Nazis were in power. Degenerate art was removed from state-owned museums. Generally it was banned in Germany, as it didn’t fit the Nazi idea of Germanhood, meaning that it allegedly was un-German, Jewish, Communist, and the like. “Degenerate” artists, so artists that made such art, were boycotted, forbidden to exhibit or sell such art, or sometimes even forbidden to produce it. Their art was often abstract. Also music could be degenerate, like “negro music”, as the Nazis called it, so jazz.
In 1937 some 5,000 works of degenerate art was confiscated from museums and art collections, including work by Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and many German painters. A selection of 639 works was exhibited in a special exhibition called “Degenerate Art”. The exhibition was shown in many towns in Germany. It’s intention was to horrify the visitors. Now that from then on artists who made degenerate art were seen as official national enemies, many fled abroad or went into “internal exile” by stopping to make the kind of art that had been forbidden.
It’s striking that one of the artists who was branded as degenerate was Emil Nolde. Nolde was an expressionist artist but he was also a committed member of the Nazi party. However, after a bitter ideological dispute, also expressionist art was seen as un-German, and in 1936 Nolde was ordered to stop his artistic activities. Among the 5,000 works confiscated in 1937 about 1,000 had been made by Nolde. The artist was upset for he didn’t understand what the problem was, but of course it was no help. After the Second World War Nolde became world-famous. He was known as an artist who had been classified as degenerate by the Nazis and whose work had been boycotted by them. That Nolde was a fanatical Nazi and an ardent anti-Semite even till 1945 had been more or less forgotten. After the war he did as if he had been persecuted by the Nazis. And so it happened that two of his paintings were on the wall of the office of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
A few weeks ago an exhibition dedicated to Emil Nolde has been opened in Berlin, titled Emil Nolde. A German legend. The artist during the Nazi regime. The makers of the exhibition had made a thorough inquiry into the life and political views of the artist and had disclosed the truth: That Nolde was rather a dedicated contributor to Nazism than a victim. The intention of the exhibition is to show this. It was a shock to many.
And Merkel? She decided to remove the two paintings by Nolde from her office and to replace them by two “innocent” works. I fully understand, and I certainly would have done the same. Nevertheless there is something problematical about doing so. The removed paintings are beautiful, at least in the eyes of the highest political authority of Germany – I assume – and of others. From an “objective” point of view they are outstanding works of art. That’s the artistic side. But politically? From that point of view the paintings were not allowed to be beautiful and outstanding in a sense, not by the Nazis and not by many people today, including Angela Merkel. However, there is a difference: The Nazis banned Nolde’s paintings because of their content; now they are banned because the artist himself is considered “degenerate”, so to speak. But whatever the reason may be, apparently art is always political, anyhow. Even “innocent” art fundamentally is, for society changes and what is “innocent” today may be “unacceptable” tomorrow, both because of what or how a work of art represents and because of the ideas the artist stands for. Does innocent art really exist? I am afraid it doesn’t.
Actually, the matter is more complicated than only the political aspect just discussed. A work of art represents something, namely what you see in it (or what you think to see). By doing so, it excludes what the work of art doesn’t present, incidentally or on purpose. Take by way of example my photos. Most of them don’t have an explicit political content. However, the image in the photo takes the place of everything that is not in the image, not only because it has been incidentally left out – for I can’t capture the whole world in one shot – but also because I intentionally didn’t want to photograph it. This can happen – and usually happens – because what’s outside the image didn’t fit my feelings but also because I didn’t want to include in the picture what’s not in the image because I consider it ethically and/or politically not acceptable. Everything has a meaning, also when it hasn’t. Nobody is innocent and nothing is innocent. Which does not need to mean that everybody is also responsible, though.
You can find my photos on

Monday, April 22, 2019

Discourse on Method. Descartes

Descartes stressed that we must talk and write in a clear and distinct way. We have seen this in my blog last week. However, for him it was not only a manner how to say things but it was essential for his whole scientific approach. According to Descartes science in his time was an unsystematic gathering of facts. Moreover he was not satisfied with the syllogistic logic that had been developed by Aristotle and the logic of the scholastics, which were the accepted methods of learned thinking in those days. As such these were valuable methods, so Descartes, but they were only useful for arranging knowledge but not for acquiring new knowledge. New facts were fitted into the existing dogmatically accepted systems with the help of these systems of logic, but if this wasn’t possible, so the worse for the facts. Galileo’s problems with the roman-catholic church are a case in point. Descartes saw that the old ways led to stagnation in the development of science and that the old ways of thinking had become obsolete. Methodical thinking should have to replace the old dogmatism. For him “method” became the essence of investigating and discovering new knowledge. This made him the founder of modern science.
Trying to systematize the acquirement of knowledge, Descartes first asked what we know anyway, as an unquestionable starting point for knowledge, a so-called Archimedean point (named after the Greek scientist Archimedes, who was looking for a solid point in space in order to move the earth with a lever). This led him to his famous idea “I think so I exist”: The fact that I think shows that it is unquestionable that I exist. For Descartes this was the “first principle of philosophy”. But why is it so sure that I know this? According to Descartes this can be only so, because I see it in a clear way. By reasoning this way he got his main rule of thinking: “The things that we receive in a very clear and distinct way are all true”.
Descartes made this rule the foundation of his method. Essentially this method says that in order to get knowledge, we must either reduce existing or newly acquired insights or sense impressions to clear and distinct views or deduce them in a clear and distinct manner from other clear and distinct views. Although observations are important for getting new insights, they are not central. Most important are reason and doubt as means to determine whether the acquired knowledge is really so certain as assumed.
For Descartes “clear” and “distinct” are not vague concepts. He gives them a well defined meaning. He tells us also how to get clear and distinct knowledge and how to order our data. His method consists of two phases: First comes analysis and then synthesis. Here I cannot specify them in detail, but by analysis a phenomenon is unravelled into its most elementary parts, until one knows each element in detail and knows what makes it different from the other elements and what the relations with the other elements are. If possible one must try to grasp not more elements in one thinking than one can handle. In the phase of synthesis a theory is built up. It’s just the opposite of analysis. All the elements are fitted together into a deductive system in such a manner that one gets insight into the way the elements cohere. In a sense, the situation that existed before the analysis begun is restored but there is an important difference: Before the analysis took place the coherence of the elements was confused, after the synthesis it has become visible how the elements cohere. In short (my words) confusion has been transformed into knowledge.
Descartes’s systematization of knowledge acquirement led to a methodological turn in science. No longer the fixed and usually traditional ideas became the measure of new knowledge, but the question whether we got our knowledge in the right way. Knowledge was no longer true because it fitted our till then justified ideas but because we could justify the way we got it. Doubt became central to science but not the sceptic doubt that says that in the end there is no truth, but the methodological doubt that asks whether the method used is right; the doubt that says “better is not good enough”. This kind of doubt doesn’t bring the idea of truth into discredit but it brings truth nearer, step by step just by questioning it.

Descartes’s ideas on method can be found in his Discourse on Method and his Principles of Philosophy

Monday, April 15, 2019

Rules for the mind

If I say “Descartes”, many people will say “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think so I am”, and that’s it. Even if they can explain what was meant with this sentence and why it was important, I think that most who are not philosophers, and maybe also many who are, don’t know that Descartes contributed to many different fields of philosophy and science. So, if it wouldn’t have been William Harvey who discovered the blood circulation, it might have been Descartes who had already made much progress in his research. He invented also analytic geometry.
Some of Descartes’s ideas are weird from the current point of view, and I assume that also already in his days they were. For instance, he thought that animals have no feelings, since they have no souls. They are not different from machines. So if you give a dog a kick and it screams, this screaming is merely a sound and not an expression of pain. Therefore vivisection was not a problem for Descartes.
If you think that philosophy is obscure, maybe you have read Hegel and Kant, but you haven’t read Descartes. Descartes is one of the most clearly writing philosophers who ever lived. His maxim was: Everything can be said in a clear and distinct way, say in plain words that everybody can understand. Otherwise it’s nonsense. He didn’t use this only as a rule of thumb but he wrote even a book with methodological rules for clear and distinct philosophical and scientific reasoning: The Rules for the Direction of the Mind. It contains 21 rules with extensive explanations. It’s a pity that he didn’t finish the book, but nevertheless it is worth reading. His explanations are as interesting as the rules themselves are and they contain also a criticism on the way many people reason. The rules are not only useful for philosophers, scholars and scientists, but for everybody who is arguing. So keep these rules also in your mind when you listen to a politician. (If enough British had done so, maybe they would never have voted for the Brexit). Take for example this quote from the explanation to Rule IX:
“It is a common human weakness to consider most beautiful what is difficult. Most people think that they know nothing when they see a very transparent and simple cause of something. Yet they admire grandiloquent and far-fetched argumentations by philosophers, even though they are usually based on foundations that nobody ever fully has understood. ... [I want to stress that] knowledge, how hidden it is, must not be deduced from important and obscure things but only from what is easy and general.”
Descartes is right, but how often does what is difficult seems more important to us than what is simple? And not only words can mislead us, but also the pose of the speaker often does, as Descartes explains in his comment on Rule XII:
“The self-confident allow themselves to put forward their conjectures as true proves; in cases they absolutely know nothing about they think to see obscure truths, as through a fog. They are also not afraid to present them and to connect their concepts then with certain terms. With the help of these terms they are in the habit to talk and to reason about many things that in fact neither they nor their listeners understand.” The modest, so Descartes continues, keep silent and let finding the truth to others, because they think that they themselves are not competent enough and they belief what the self-confident say.
Have I to add anything? Isn’t this what we everywhere see around us? But even if we have the right attitude and are honest and open, language can block mutual understanding and prevent to express what we mean. For for one a word means this and for another that and as Descartes says in his explanation to Rule XIII (a bit adapted and generalized by me) : “Questions about words happen so often that almost all controversies between philosophers would disappear, if they always agreed about the meaning of the words.”
There is a joke that says that there are two philosophical main laws:
The First Law of Philosophy: For every philosopher, there exists an equal and opposite philosopher.
The Second Law of Philosophy: They are both wrong.
Alas, often this seems true, for most philosophers didn’t read Descartes’s Rules and don’t use it as a guide. If they would, they would know that they “ought to give the whole of [their] attention to the most insignificant and most easily mastered facts, and remain a long time in contemplation of them until [they] are accustomed to behold the truth clearly and distinctly.” (Descartes’s Rule IX)

Monday, April 08, 2019

I don’t think so I am not?

I start with a joke:

René Descartes is in a tavern. He is drunk. The bartender cautions: “Monsieur, I think that you have had enough.” Descartes slurs back “I think not” and vanishes.

I hope that you understood and that you laughed, but now I become serious, for the reasoning implied is fallacious: Descartes’s famous statement “I think so I exist” may be true, but it does not imply that I don’t exist if I don’t think. And it is not so that if I exist this implies that I think. For would it be so then that I don’t exist when I am sleeping? And how about a tree? But okay, as for the latter you can object that a tree hasn’t an “I” (which is something to discuss about in another blog).
In philosophy we call this fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc, literally “after this so because of this”. In this case the fallacy is the reasoning that I exist because I think. However, thinking is only an aspect of human existence, but the cause of my existence must be found elsewhere.
I don’t know whether Descartes would have laughed about the joke, but actually he worried about the question whether he would exist, if he didn’t think. Although the “I think so I exist” doesn’t imply that I exist because I think, nevertheless it is quite well possible that I don’t exist if I don’t think. Descartes worded his worry this way in the “Second Meditation” of his Meditations on First Philosophy:
“I am; I exist – this is certain. But for how long? For as long as I am thinking; for perhaps it could also come to pass that if I were to cease all thinking I would then utterly cease to exist. At this time I admit nothing that is not necessarily true.”
On purpose I have quoted Descartes from Sorenson’s A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities where he gives an explanation of this passage. For immediately after it Sorenson continues:
“Compare Descartes’s principle connecting thinking and human existence with another Cartesian principle connecting being extended in three dimensions with physical existence: Necessarily if a body exists, it is extended in space. If a physical thing ceases to be extended, then it ceases to exist. Similarly, if a mind exists, it thinks. And if the mind ceases to think, then it ceases to exist.”
So, after all must we conclude that if we don’t think then we don’t exist, albeit on other grounds than the false post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning? Not so, for here we have the fallacy of false analogy. Above I raised the question whether one still exists if one sleeps (and so doesn’t think). The answer is, of course, “yes”. Why? Because thinking is not a property that a mind simply has and manifests itself but it is a disposition: a property an object has even if this property is not active at a certain moment. This makes thinking different from the property “being extended”, which points to the way an object appears (in this case by having the three dimensions width, height and depth). If the disposition “thinking” isn’t active, it still doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist as a disposition. A glass remains brittle, even if it will never fall from the table on the floor and break, although it is always possible that this will happen. But if we can’t pour water in it, because it is not extended, it is not a glass. It is similarly with thinking. Even if a mind doesn’t think, the property “thinking” is still there and the mind can start to think when it needs to, for example when one wakes up in the morning. When a man is absent-minded, it doesn’t imply that s/he hasn’t a brain.

- Roy Sorensen, A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities. A Collection of Puzzles, Oddities, Riddles and Dilemmas. London: Profile Books, 2017. The quotes are from pp. 42-43.
- There are several versions of the joke on the Internet. You can find it also in Sorensen’s book on p. 42.

Monday, April 01, 2019


Oslo: Flowers for the victims of a terrorist attack in Norway on 22 July 2011

In his study of evil, Roy F. Baumeister tells the story of a North Korean young woman who had been chosen to become a special agent for the foreign intelligence service and then to carry out a bomb attack on a South Korean airplane. She was “explained that the airplane’s destruction would create a broad sense of chaos and uncertainty that would prevent South Korea from hosting the upcoming 1988 Olympic Games as scheduled. This in turn would lead to the reunification of Korea ...”. Later she wrote that she didn’t understand how this could happen, but she saw herself as politically naïve and she wanted to be a good patriot. Also any feeling of moral responsibility that more than hundred people would die did not come to her mind. The bomb attack was purely a technical operation, she thought. The woman successfully performed the action, but, as we know, the 1988 Olympic Games took place as planned and Korea was never reunified. The woman was captured, sentenced to death but pardoned by the South Korean government. Gradually she also begun “to feel terrible guilt much of the time” because of the innocent passengers killed, and she got nightmares.
In this case, so Baumeister, we see three characteristics typical of a terrorist act. First, the actor is not troubled by guilty thoughts that many innocent people will be killed, although such thoughts often come after the deed. Second, vicious terrorism is motivated by the highest ideals and principles, not by personal hate towards the victims or by personal gain. Third, the action doesn’t lead to the desired goal; neither a possibly short-term goal is reached, nor a long-term goal is. Even more, I want to add: What the goal is, is often vague and unrealistic. It is usually only stated afterwards, so that there is nothing to negotiate about in order to prevent it. An act of terrorism happens. (pp. 27-30)
Terrorism is a rather new phenomenon that could only develop since the end of the 18th century. There are at least two reasons for this. The media must have been developed to such an extent that the news about a terrorist act can get around on a rather wide scale and relatively fast. Otherwise it has no sense to perform it. Moreover, a human life must be seen as valuable. Before the Enlightenment life expectancy was short; not much more than 30 years. People could be sentenced to death for all kinds of crimes, including petty theft. Many people were murdered. This gradually changed since the end of the 18th century.
Although the motives for a terrorist act can be complicated and, for instance, can involve also revenge and punishment, actually such an act is a deed meant to create an atmosphere of fear: the intention is that people fear that they might be killed and that because of this they take all kinds of preventive measures that disturb their lives, if not society as a whole; or that then people or governments give in to the demands of the terrorist or his/her group. Therefore terrorism needs not be aimed directly at persons but it can also exist in, for example, poisoning water supplies. However, as said, a problem is that the demands are often vague, if the possible victim would be prepared to negotiate at all (which is often not the case). In the past revenge or punishment of a certain person was more important than it is today. Usually victims were carefully chosen and it was not the intention to kill people arbitrarily or to kill innocent passers-by. The murder of archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, which led to the outbreak of the First World War, is a case in point. Also the Red Army Faction in Germany in the 1970s and later chose its victims precisely. Today terrorists just want to kill innocent victims – as many people as possible –, although the killing of the editorial board of Charly Hebdo in Paris in 2015 shows that sometimes the victims still are purposefully chosen.
This shows another characteristic of terrorism: Man is seen as a mere instrument, as Camus makes us clear. This does not conflict with the point that for terrorism being possible man must be valuable. Just because people are valuable in the view of others, terrorists see them as instruments to draw attention to their causes. For the terrorist the ideal is higher than man, which makes man instrumental. That’s also why ultimately the terrorist is prepared to kill him or herself in the act, or that, in case of state terrorism, the people may be oppressed, for their oppression is seen as a step on the road to the ideal state. As Camus quotes Nechayev, a Russian communist revolutionary and nihilist from the 19th century: “It’s not about justice but about our duty to eliminate everything that can harm our cause.” Everything is allowed.
And this is what we see in all kinds of terrorist acts today, whether performed by representatives of organised groups or by lone wolves. Locked up in their brains they see only abstract ideals and instruments but no people, like in the recent terrorist acts in Churchland, New Zealand, or in Utrecht, here in the Netherlands. In fact, man is absent in the ideals of the terrorist. Terrorists only care for ... yes, for what?

- Baumeister, Roy F., Evil. Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: Henry Holt and Cy, 1999.
- Camus, Albert, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. New York: Vintage Books, 1956.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Are beliefs brain states?

In 1998 Andy Clark and David Chalmers published their article “The Extended Mind” in which they defended the view that the mind is not only in the brain, but also in the world around. This so-called extended mind thesis was the start of a discussion that lasts until today. A more radical version of this view is the enactivist approach, which I discussed two weeks ago. An important advocate of this theory is Shaun Gallagher. Although the actual discussion started only after Clark and Chalmers had presented their paper, they had forerunners. One of them was Lynne Rudder Baker. She called her account “practical realism” and she gave a comprehensive explanation of her view in her book Explaining Attitudes.
Baker’s practical realism is an attack on the – then – standard view that states that someone’s beliefs are literally somewhere in the brain. How this can be is explained by different theories in different ways, but, so Baker, “[w]hat Standard View theories have in common is the thesis that each instance of each belief is identical with, or is constituted by, an instance of a particular brain state.” In short: “Beliefs are brain states” (p. 12). Although without a doubt, so Baker, it is true that “[h]aving certain neural states is, presumably, necessary for people to have beliefs ... it does not follow that for a person to have a particular belief there is a neural state that constitutes that belief.” “[A] belief is a global state of a whole person, not of any proper part of a person, such as the brain”. (pp. 153-4) So, “[h]orses win races; legs have states. Having certain leg states is, presumably, necessary for horses to win races; but it doesn’t follow that for a horse to win a particular race, there is a leg state that constitutes the winning of the race.” (p. 154)
An attitude such as a belief, so Baker continues, can be compared with a state of financial health or a state of physical fitness. To take the first example, only in marginal cases your financial health has to do with the state of your bank account. It’s a relational concept: If the amount on your bank account is above a certain minimum, your financial state is more a matter of your pattern of spending, your financial wishes and the state of the economy (inflation, national income) than the sum of money you possess. In the same manner, a belief is not to be identified with any particular internal state of the believer. (ibid.) In enactivist terms, having a belief supposes not only a brain, but also a body and a world in which the brain and body exist. Seen this way, Baker has paved the way for undermining the “standard view”.
Nevertheless, one case discussed by her seems not to agree with the extended mind thesis and the enactivist approach. Peter asks Paul for Mary’s telephone number. Paul consults a directory, as always, and produces the correct number: 06-54321. Since Paul always has to consult a directory, “[i]ntuitively”, so Baker, Paul does not have the belief that Mary’s number is [06-54321] but only a belief how to find the number” (p. 161) and she explains that this is in keeping with practical realism. However, does the fact that Paul never remembers Mary’s telephone number makes that he does not have the belief that it is 06-54321 but only the belief how to get it? Let me take the main example from Clark’s and Chalmers’ article. Otto suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore he carries always a notebook with him and every time he learns some new information, he writes it down. When he needs some old information, he looks it up. The notebook contains also Mary’s telephone number, so when Peter asks for it, Otto looks in his notebook and says “06-54321”. However, Fred knows Mary’s number by heart, so when Peter asks Fred for Mary’s telephone number, Fred produces it by heart without any hesitation and faultless. This made Clark and Chalmers conclude, that there is no fundamental difference between what Otto does and what Fred does, but there is only the practical difference that Otto consults the extended part of his brain, and that Fred consults the internal part of his brain: In both cases we can say that the telephone number is in the brain. But if this is true, and if we apply this reasoning to Baker’s example of Peter and Paul, we can say that Paul has not only the belief how to find Mary’s telephone number but also the belief that her number is 06-54321, just as Fred has this belief. This is this fully in line with Baker’s view that a belief is not simply a state of the brain but that it is a global state of a whole person related to the world around and especially to that part of the world that is within his or her reach. So, if we correct Baker’s view this way, it is only one step more to a fully developed theory that the mind is extended if not enactivist and this makes that Baker is a forerunner of these views.

- Andy Clark and David Chalmers,  “The Extended Mind”, in Analysis, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Jan., 1998), pp. 7-19. Ook op website
- Lynne Rudder Baker, Explaining attitudes. A practical approach to the mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.