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

Monday, January 30, 2017

What is true

One of the most simple and yet most complicated concepts man ever has thought out is “truth”. Everybody knows what it means, namely that statements are according to what they say. Or as Aristotle formulated it in his Metaphysics: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” (1011b25) Nevertheless everybody also knows how difficult it can be to determine whether a statement is truly true. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says it: “The problem of truth is in a way easy to state: what truths are, and what (if anything) makes them true. But this simple statement masks a great deal of controversy. Whether there is a metaphysical problem of truth at all, and if there is, what kind of theory might address it, are all standing issues in the theory of truth.” (from the entry “Truth”) No wonder that there are many theories that explain what “truth” involves and a lot more secondary books and articles about these theories. Here I cannot treat even a little section of this literature and do justice to what has been written about “truth”. Nevertheless I want to say a little bit about it.
I start with an example that I also used when I discussed the so-called Gettier problem in one of my blogs, although I have changed it a bit (see my blog dated Nov. 12, 2012):

I am worried whether my best cow Betsy hasn’t been stolen from the field where she is supposed to be at pasture. I walk from my farm to the field, where I see a cow in the middle of the herd that exactly looks like Betsy and I am 100% convinced that she is Betsy. Therefore I don't find it necessary to walk to her and check her earmark. I walk home again and say to my wife: “Betsy is in the field”. However, I often confuse Betsy with Jane, when I look from a distance to her, and also now I actually saw Jane. Nevertheless, Betsy is also in the field, and I have seen her, too, for Betsy was grazing left of Jane, and I have seen both cows. However, I thought that the cow left of the cow I mistook for Betsy was Jane.

The Gettier problem is about whether I know whether Betsy is in the field. When talking about truth we have a related problem: Is it true that Betsy is in the field? Or rather, since truth is about statements: Is what I say to my wife – namely “Betsy is in the field” – true?
I think that according to most theories of truth – whether it be the correspondence theory of truth, the coherence theory of truth, the consensus theory of truth, or whichever – the statement that Betsy is in the field is true, if taken as such. And when I said to my wife “Betsy is in the field”, I wanted to say that the cow with earmark HW123 is in the field – since HW123 is Betsy’s earmark – and so that Betsy, the cow with earmark HW123, is in the field. That’s true, indeed. Nevertheless, at the moment that I am saying this statement to my wife, in my mind “Betsy” refers to a cow at a certain place in the field right of the cow I had mistakenly identified as Jane. Let’s suppose that Jane has earmark HW122, and that when I utter to my wife the statement “Betsy is in the field”, I have an image of two cows in my mind and I mean to say that the right cow is in the field. In this statement “Betsy” refers to the cow with earmark HW122 and this statement is false, even though Betsy is in the field, and Jane is also in the field, and even though also the cows HW122 and HW123 are in the field, and even though I have seen both cows in the field (but had unknowingly mistaken the one for the other). As we see: Statements can be true, even if they are false. What we see and say is not always as it appears to us.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Molyneux’s Problem

The case of a flagpole that casts a shadow on the ground, which I discussed last week, is an instance of how counterexamples can undermine theories. However, this counterexample was theoretical in the sense that one didn’t need actually put a flagpole somewhere and make observations. Often a theoretical case will not do and we need a real experiment for solving a philosophical issue. In this way one of the most intriguing questions in modern philosophy has been answered: the Molyneux question.
In 1688 the scientist and politician William Molyneux sent a letter to John Locke in which he presented him with the following question, quoted by Locke in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Book II, ch. ix, §8):

“Suppose a man born blind, now adult, who has learned how to distinguish by touch between a cube and a sphere of the same metal and about the same size, so that he can tell when he handles them which is the cube and which the sphere. Now suppose the cube and sphere to be placed on a table, and the blind man be made to see. Can he by his sight, before touching them, tell which is the globe, which the cube?”

Molyneux thought that the answer was no, and so did Locke. However, this was not the end of the discussion but just the start of it. Through the ages, the question attracted the attention of many philosophers and scholars, like Berkeley, Leibniz, Helmholtz, William James, etc, to this day. It’s no wonder, for its answer has important implications for the theory of perception. A negative answer, so Gallagher, implies a theory in which a meaningful access to the world is mediated and performed by different sense modalities that have to be coordinated. A positive answer implies a more direct access to the world based on innate properties. But how to get an answer? An empirical solution would be most obvious, but as long as it wasn’t possible to perform eye operations, only a theoretical reply remained. However, in 1728 William Cheselden published an account of a successful cataract operation in which he noted that the boy operated was not able to recognize a cube from a sphere. This pointed to a negative answer. Nevertheless doubts remained on methodological grounds, for it was not clear whether the boy had been able to make valid perceptual judgments because his eyes had not been functioning properly. Also later eye operations followed by tests were not without ambiguities, for example when there were doubts about the onset of the blindness in the cases studied or there was confusion about the experience of the patient after the operation. Therefore a positive or negative answer to the Molyneux problem couldn’t be given. Actually this was not a matter of how to answer the question but of the dearth of patients who met all methodological requirements, especially in the Western countries, where congenitally blind patients are treated ìn infancy, if possible, so that they are not suitable as test persons.
However, how cynical, useful patients can be found in developing countries where medical facilities for early eye operations are often present but many people who need it don’t get it because of inadequate medical services. So, in 2003 Pawan Sinha, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, set up a program in India and as a part of it operated successfully five blind patients who met the methodological requirements and tested them. The answer to the Molyneux question was negative: The patients who could distinguish a cube from a sphere by touching them couldn’t do so by perceiving them. The result of the vision test was barely better than if the test persons had guessed.
After three centuries of discussion and testing the conclusion is that man has to learn to see – which was already known from other research, of course –; that a meaningful access to the world is mediated; and that what one sense modality already “knows” is not automatically passed on to another sense modality. Nonetheless, this doesn’t involve that sense modalities function completely independent of each other. For – paraphrasing Gallagher – to take the case of vision discussed here, the structure necessary for seeing has never been used by congenitally blind persons, and therefore the neural networks for seeing are completely absent in their brains, or present only in a rudimentary form. But it is quite well possible, and not unlikely, that congenitally blind people learn to see and discern much faster, once they have been operated, because of what they learned before with the help of their other senses.

- Shaun Gallagher, How the body shapes the mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005; ch. 7.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Molyneux’s Problem”, on

Monday, January 16, 2017

Hempel and the flagpole

Robert Marchand is not only a good cyclist at his age of 105, he is also a good scientist. For before his ride by which he set up the new world record in one-hour track cycling in the over-105 age group he said: “I am here to prove that at 105 years old you can still ride a bike.” So, he organised an experiment with a 105 years old person (himself) that he seated on a bike and let him make a ride of an hour. And so he proved his hypothesis that a 105 years old person can ride a bike. Okay, it’s not exactly correct that he proved that at 105 any person can ride a bike, but that there is at least one such a person who can, namely Robert Marchand. Let us forgive him for this slip up in view of his splendid performance.
We wouldn’t have forgiven him if he were not only a cyclist with an established name but also a methodologist with an earned reputation. And since it is always interesting to look at old cases, I want to return to Carl G. Hempel, one of the most important methodologists of the last century. Despite his merits – and I want to say that, although I have never been a fan of his approach – Hempel sometimes made weird mistakes, as we have seen a few weeks ago, when I discussed the raven paradox. We saw there that Hempel thought that the fact that an apple is red – if it is – can confirm that ravens are black. It’s not the only mistake Hempel by made and nor is it his most important one. One of the basic characteristics of Hempel’s methodology – called “covering law theory” – is that explaining the occurrence of a phenomenon and predicting that a phenomenon will occur are two sides of the same coin. Explanation and prediction are symmetric in his view, or, as he calls it, “structural identical”. This thesis is the conjunction of two sub-theses, so Hempel (p. 367): (i) “every adequate explanation is potentially a prediction” and (ii) “every adequate prediction is potentially an explanation”. Although sub-thesis (i) is correct, the weird thing is that Hempel actually also supports sub-thesis (ii), although after some discussion he admits that it is an “open question” (p. 376). However, it is crystal-clear that sub-thesis (ii) is false, as several philosophers have shown. Let me take the refutation by Wesley C. Salmon of (ii) (pp. 101-2) for making clear why.
We can predict a lunar eclipse if we know the positions of sun, earth and moon and the relevant laws of motion. This eclipse can be retrodicted using posterior conditions and the same laws. However, so Salmon, “if explanations are arguments, then only the predictive arguments can qualify as an explanation, and not the retrodictive one. The reason is obvious. We explain events on the basis of antecedent causes, not on the basis of subsequent effects (or other subsequent conditions)”. This becomes even clearer from Sylvan Bromberger’s flagpole example. If we know the elevation of the sun in the sky and the height of a flagpole, we can compute the length of the shadow of the flagpole; or if we know the length of the shadow, we can compute the height of the flagpole. However, only the presence and height of the flagpole explains the occurrence and length of the shadow but not the other way round. It is because “a causal process is involved, and that the light from the sun must either pass or be blocked by the flagpole before it reaches the ground where the shadow is cast” (italics Salmon). This refutation of sub-thesis (ii) is considered by some so fundamental that they call it the “killer” (Peter Godfrey-Smith) of Hempel’s covering law theory. Nonetheless, Hempel never revised his theory in light of the flagpole counterexample, which was put forward already one year after the publication of his Aspects... .

References: - Carl G. Hempel, Aspects of Scientific Explanation and other Essays in the Philosophy of Science. New York: The Free Press, 1965.
- Wesley C. Salmon, Causality and Explanation. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Setting targets, also when you are 105

Robert Marchand, setting up a world record in one-hour track
cycling in the over-105 age group on Jan. 4, 2017

Maybe you have taken one or more New Year resolutions at the start of the new year. However, there is a good chance that you’ll not keep them or maybe you have already forgotten them by the time you read this blog. The reason is that most New Year resolutions are too vague: they don’t mention a date when they have to be fulfilled and they don’t tell which specific aim you want to reach. You decide to lose weight this year, but when you haven’t done it yet on December 30, you can say that you’ll have yet one day ago, but in fact it’s too late. Moreover such a resolution doesn’t say how much weight you want to lose. One gram? Ten kilos?
Every sportsman knows that if you want to achieve a goal, you must determine exactly what you want to achieve and that you must make a plan. And, of course, you must keep yourself to the plan – and not change it too much while you are working with it – for otherwise it is almost certain that you’ll fail. For instance, a long distance runner decides that he wants to run the marathon within three hours and then his plan says how often in a week he will train, and from day to day whether the workouts will be filled in with intervals or endurance runs, how fast he will run the intervals and the endurance runs etc., and when he’ll run the marathon. And so it’s the same for losing weight: Make a plan how many kilos you want to lose each month and what your diet will be. So far, so good. “Everybody” knows it, and hardly anybody does it, when taking New Year resolutions, and so they fail. Or they have simply forgotten their New Year resolution.
Although the time to set New Year resolutions has gone, it is not too late to set targets, for you don’t need to do it at the first day of the year. You can do it any time and you should certainly do it, for setting targets is an important condition for good life. Targets structure your life, they help make your life successful and they contribute to your feeling of happiness. And you are never too old for it. Really. Take Robert Marchand, the French cyclist who became 105 years old, last November. You know from my last blog that he is still active in cycling and that he even holds the world record in one-hour track cycling in the over-100 age group. But he needed a new challenge, so Robert Marchand set himself the target to get the world record in one-hour track cycling in the over-105 age group. However, there was no official over-105 age category in international cycling. No problem: it was created for him. But alas, the rules prescribe that for a record in one-hour track cycling you need to use a bike without brakes and without a freewheel. When Marchand was younger, riding such a bike didn’t cause difficulties, but at the age of 105 you don’t sit as firmly in the saddle anymore as a young fellow. Again no problem: The rules were adapted so that for this new track record it is allowed to use a normal race bike with brakes and a freewheel. And so it happened that last week, on January 4, Robert Marchand set up the new world record in one-hour track cycling in the over-105 age group in the unbelievable time of 22,547 km on the National Velodrome at Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines near Paris! Take your hat off to that! And pattern yourself to Robert Marchand and learn from him that you are never too old for setting targets. Old people were too long seen as people in terms of objects who need care and have nothing else more to wish. It’s true, often the elderly need care, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Robert Marchand needs some age related care as well, now and then. But Marchand shows us that also at an advanced age you can live life to the fullest, and that the elderly are maybe vulnerable but complete individuals who can live possible futures filled with perils and promises – as the philosopher Jan Baars words it – and who can set targets, indeed.

On the Internet there is a lot on setting targets and on Robert Marchand. Some on Jan Baars and his philosophy of ageing on

Monday, January 02, 2017

How to celebrate your birthday: Robert Marchand

Philosophers seldom write about the ordinary things in life, which are nevertheless meaningful from a philosophical point of view. When doing some research for my last blog I had to conclude that one of the few philosophers who writes about Christmas is Wittgenstein, but actually his remarks on Christmas are casual and they have hardly anything to do with its philosophical meaning. When you want to read about the meaning of our daily – often “banal” – activities, you get at sociologists like Michel de Certeau and Marc Augé. It’s true that the Swiss-British philosopher Alain de Botton writes about everyday themes like travelling or the news and what they mean for our art of living; themes that are more sociological than philosophical and that are avoided by most – but not all – other philosophers. But who writes philosophically about such an ordinary theme like birthdays?
In many countries outside the western world birthdays don’t count. They are not important and often ignored. Nowadays, dates of birth are registered everywhere, of course, but when people are asked how old they are, they often reckon only from the year they have been born. Whether they have passed already the date of birth at the moment they are asked for the age is not important for them. What’s more, for some people even the exact year of birth is not important. A vague indication of age suffices, as a person working with immigrants in the Netherlands told me.
How different it is in many western countries. It’s clear that I cannot speak here about all countries and cultures, but in countries like the USA, Germany and the Netherlands birthdays are really important. They are so important that you simply must celebrate them. The practice is, of course, that a substantial number of people doesn’t but also they do it in some way: If you don’t celebrate your birthday you must have an excuse why you don’t. It simply cannot be ignored, full stop.
How do people celebrate their birthdays? Preferably a birthday needs to be celebrated on the day itself, but when that isn’t practical or possible, usually it’s celebrated on a day in the weekend before or after the actual birthday. Then a party is held, big or small, the guests are treated, presents are given, and striking birthdays (like coming of age, or the 50th) are often celebrated in a special way, etc. I don’t need to go here into detail, since everybody knows. How interesting would it be to make a full philosophical study of this, for not everybody celebrates his or her birthday in the same standard way. Some people chose just the birthday for doing something special. They go to the theatre on that day. They make a long walk, alone or with others. Or they take a short holiday break, especially on striking birthdays, instead of giving a party (or they do both). And did you know that in the Netherlands on a birthday party you have to congratulate also the partner and family of the person whose birthday it is, and that the latter has to treat also his or her colleagues on his/her workplace?
But when you become older? Most people tend to give less and less attention to their birthdays after a certain age. Their children and close family and friends come to congratulate them, they treat them to cakes, and some call them up if they cannot come, but that’s all. Not so Robert Marchand, a French cyclist. What was his greatest wish to do on his 103th birthday? To take his race bike and to climb the Col Robert Marchand in the Ardèche in his country (he himself lives near Paris). However, there were two problems: the weather was not really good on this 26 of November and actually he wanted to climb only slopes that are at least 15 degrees, and this one is 11 degrees. But okay, it was his birthday, and so he conquered the 10km climb in under an hour, and at the top he took a glass of Champagne. On his 104th birthday, he cycled some 20 km of a stage of the Tour the France cycle race of that year in the Ardèche. And he celebrated his 105th birthday a few weeks ago by cycling 26,927 km with friends from his cycling club. Why just this distance? Because it is the world record in one-hour track cycling in the over-100 age group. I suppose that I don’t need to tell you that the record is his (cycled on January 31, 2014). But the real way he’ll celebrate his 105th birthday has yet to come, on Jan. 4 next (see my blog next week). Should I still explain how philosophically meaningful birthdays are for understanding ways of life?

Monday, December 26, 2016

How to celebrate Christmas: Wittgenstein

There is hardly any western philosopher who writes about Christmas. It’s a bit strange, since Christmas is the most important holiday in the western world, even though for many people it’s no longer celebrated because of its religious meaning. It has turned into an important secular holiday, especially to be celebrated in the family. In this way Christmas is gradually becoming important all over the world, also in non-Christian countries. Therefore, it’s remarkable that all major (western) philosophers philosophically ignore it, although much can be said about it. Even such a devote roman-catholic like Montaigne usually kept away from writing on Christmas, probably because he didn’t want to be involved in the religious conflicts of his time. He was afraid of being accused to support the Reformation, if he would present a moderate point of view.
It’s true that Sartre wrote a kind of Nativity play, when he was interned as a prisoner of war in Germany during Christmas 1940, but actually it was an act of solidarity with his fellow prisoners and a rejection of Nazism. But it is an exception and in fact only Wittgenstein devotes occasionally some words to Christmas. We know that he often celebrated it with his family – anyway before he definitively moved to England – but that he didn’t like it. However, during the First World War, so exactly hundred years ago, he was not at home, since he was a soldier. Wittgenstein wrote a diary during these years, and it would be interesting to know what he did on December 25 or 26, 1916, but alas, this part of his diary has been lost or he didn’t write about it. What we do know is what he did during Christmas two years before. These were the days that soldiers on the Western Front fraternized and celebrated Christmas together with the enemy, to the great annoyance of the generals, who succeeded to suppress this fraternization in later years. But in December 1914 Wittgenstein was in Eastern Europe and his post was behind the front line at a quiet place. So even if he would have liked to fraternize with the Russian enemy – which I doubt – he couldn’t do that.
Wittgenstein tells us that on Christmas Day 1914 he takes the midday meal in the officers’ mess. Was it special Christmas dinner? I don’t know, for he doesn’t mention what he ate. And Wittgenstein tells us that “he worked a bit”. The next day, on Boxing Day, he “hardly worked”, so he writes, and in the evening he went to a coffee house with a young man whom he had met, and he had an interesting discussion with the guy.
It needs some explanation what Wittgenstein means when he writes that he “worked”. He doesn’t mean that he did his tasks as a soldier, but that he worked on the manuscript of what would later become his Tractatus logico-philosophicus. We know even exactly what he wrote then:

“The proposition says something” is identical with: It has a particular relation to reality, whatever this may be. And if this reality is given and also that relation, then the sense of the proposition is known, "pvq" has a different relation to reality from "p.q", etc.
The possibility of the proposition is, of course, founded on the principle of signs as going proxy for objects. [Cf. 4.0312.]
Thus in the proposition something has something else as its proxy. But there is also the common cement. My fundamental thought is that the logical constants are not proxies. That the logic of the fact cannot have anything as its proxy. [See 4.0312.]
[from Notebooks 1914-1916]

In the Tractatus (4.0312) this would become:
The possibility of propositions is based upon the principle of the representation of objects by signs.
My fundamental thought is that the “logical constants” do not represent. That the logic of the facts cannot be represented.

So, during Christmas 1914, four months after he had voluntarily joined the army, Wittgenstein was working on the most fundamental thoughts of his early philosophy, namely that a language represents the world it depicts. This idea would become one of the basic ideas of analytical philosophy. Even though today we will not take it in a literal sense any longer, isn’t it still considered true that the words we speak represent at least our view on the world and how we want that others – the persons we are speaking to – see it?

Source, besides Wittgenstein’s Notebooks 1914-1916, Wilhelm Baum, Wittgenstein im Ersten Weltkrieg. Die „Geheimen Tagebücher“ und die Erfahrungen an der Front 1914-1918), Klagenfurt-Wien: Kitab Verlag 2014.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Monday, December 19, 2016

Passing a square

Nancy, France, Place Stanislas

A few weeks ago I wrote here about a series of photos I presented recently at a photo exhibition in my town. These photos were mainly landscapes but what was special was that each photo was framed by a natural frame, for instance a window frame. Just by the frames the pictures got a philosophical meaning, for don’t we all look at the world through our mental frames? However, I presented then also another series of photos, which showed pictures on a theme that seems meaningless at first sight: People crossing squares. Why taking pictures of such an ordinary if not banal event that is not conspicuous in any sense and doesn’t seem worth to remember? In a way you are right, I think, when you say that we can ignore such daily events like – in this case – crossing squares. Nevertheless I don’t agree with you. In order to explain that I’ll concentrate on the theme of the exhibition (people crossing squares) but it’s only an example of the “banal” things we do.
Actually squares are quite prominent in a town. Some are even famous, like Trafalgar Square in London, St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City or the Red Square in Moscow. It’s not without reason, for a square can have all kinds of functions like being a market place, a place where people meet, a place where buildings of a certain type are concentrated, and many more. Squares are also connecting and communicating spaces. They are places you must pass when you want to move from one part of a town to another part. In the latter sense they are transit places, or as I prefer to call them: passages. Squares are not the only kind of passages. Other passages are, for instance, waiting rooms, highways and railway stations. One characteristic of passages is that you want to pass them as quickly as possible. Or sometimes you use them in a way related to their meaning of a passage: If you are too early for an appointment, it’s a nice place to wait just there. Usually squares got their function as a passage and their other functions not by chance: They have been made that way. Towns develop around markets. Museums are deliberately concentrated around a square. Spaces are left open as meeting places. Squares are essential when planning a town.
Just this given functionality makes that passing a square is not an accidental affair. People are – often unconsciously – led along squares. City planners can have made it so that you have to pass them (because of the pattern of the streets). People may like it to pass them if they find them beautiful, even if they don’t give attention to the beauty once they are there, because they are in a hurry. And look: most people pass squares in the same way, along the same lines. Such things make that from a philosophical and sociological point of view passing a square is not an event without meaning, even if it may lack meaning from the point of view of the passer-by. Passing a square is one of the simple and apparently banal things that make up life, just like many other simple actions do like emptying your mail box, going to the baker’s, taking a breakfast, waiting in a waiting room. Actually such things are essential for life and we necessarily spend a lot of time on them. They cover also a big part of our planning when we prepare what we see as a meaningful event like a party. Just this is the meaning of “banality” in daily life, like passing a square.

Recommended authors: Michel de Certeau, Marc Augé.
More photos of passing a square on:

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Raven Paradox

Since I didn’t succeed to take a picture of a raven, instead I have photographed an orange.

Last week I talked about the liar’s paradox and the Sorites’ paradox. Paradoxes are self-contradictory reasonings, for short. They have to be distinguished from fallacies, which are invalid or otherwise faulty reasonings that often seem correct (or to some they do) and therefore deceive the mind. I have talked about paradoxes and fallacies in my blogs before.
Paradoxes seem unsolvable but once they have been solved they appear to be fallacies. An example of a paradox that became a fallacy is Zeno’s paradox about Achilles and the tortoise. (Zeno of Elea lived from 490-430 BC) Achilles and the tortoise are in a footrace and the tortoise starts, say, 100 metres ahead of Achilles. Then, so Zeno, Achilles cannot outrun the tortoise, for when he has done 50 metres, the tortoise has done, say, 5 metres in the same time, and when Achilles has done half the distance to the tortoise that then remains, the tortoise has advanced again, and so each time that Achilles has done half the distance separating him from the tortoise, the latter has moved forward again, etc. Only in modern times this paradox could be solved, which made it a fallacy. The flaw in the reasoning is that Zeno does as if the time doesn’t move on.
When browsing on the Internet for more paradoxes, I came upon one that is interesting from a methodological point of view, namely Carl G. Hempel’s Raven Paradox, which he expounded originally in an essay published in 1945 (republished in 1965; see footnote). Hempel himself calls it the “confirmation paradox”, and just this name shows why it is interesting, for Hempel’s idea is that we must try to find confirming evidence for our hypotheses, which brought him into conflict with Karl R. Popper, who says that we must try to falsify hypotheses (and must formulate them that way, that this is possible). I’ll quote the paradox not from Hempel’s essay, but from a website that explains it without the logical notation used by Hempel:
“[T]he Raven Paradox begins with the apparently straightforward and entirely true statement that ‘all ravens are black.’ This is matched by a ‘logically contrapositive’ (i.e. negative and contradictory) statement that ‘everything that is not black is not a raven’—which, despite seeming like a fairly unnecessary point to make, is also true given that we know ‘all ravens are black.’ Hempel argues that whenever we see a black raven, this provides evidence to support the first statement. But by extension, whenever we see anything that is not black [and not a raven; HbdW], like an apple, this too must be taken as evidence supporting the second statement—after all, an apple is not black, and nor is it a raven.” (
So, the evidence that apples are not black while ravens are so by hypothesis seems to confirm that ravens are black, indeed.
In 1967, the British mathematician Jack Good wiped the floor with the Raven Paradox. I haven’t read his article, but only a short version of his argumentation. However, already immediately after I had read Hempel’s reasoning it seemed counterintuitive to me and with right, for it’s not correct: There is simply no relation between the colour of apples and the colour of ravens and between apples and ravens, so what could apples tell about ravens? Whether apples are red, white, yellow or black, it’s quite well possible that there are white ravens, and the colour of apples cannot confirm or disconfirm the existence of this variety of ravens. The Raven Paradox is simply a fallacy.
Talking about fallacies, what the author of the website just quoted, Paul Anthony Jones, probably didn’t realize is that also his explanation of the Raven Paradox contains a fallacy (or to say it more friendly: it’s not correct). For immediately after the passage I quoted he goes on:
“The paradox here is that Hempel has apparently proved that seeing an apple provides us with evidence, no matter how unrelated it may seem, that ravens are black. It’s the equivalent of saying that you live in New York is evidence that you don’t live in L.A., or that saying you are 30 years old is evidence that you are not 29.”
The first sentence of the quotation is okay, and that’s what the Raven Paradox mistakenly says. However, Hempel’s reasoning is not the equivalent of the two examples that follow then, for there is a relation between living in New York and living in LA in this case, and there is a relation between being 29 or 30 years old, and this relation is you. You can live in only one place, which can be described by its geographical coordinates. When those coordinates are those of NY, they are simply different from those that belong to LA, although this doesn’t say something, of course, about what the coordinates of LA are and whether or how they relate to the coordinates of NY. In the same way, the fact that your age is 30 years old does say that you are not 29, for your age is a measurement on a time scale and just like that you cannot be at two places at the same time, you cannot have two ages (and, by the way, there is a relation between 29 and 30 years as such, namely that they indicate points on the same time scale).
The upshot is that one must not compare apples with oranges, not to speak of apples and ravens.

Note: Carl G. Hempel, Aspects of Scientific Explanation and other Essays in the Philosophy of Science. New York: The Free Press, 1965; pp. 14ff.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The paradox of lying

In On what matters. Volume One, pp. 277-78 Derek Parfit writes:

‘[According to Kant] “It is wrong to act on any maxim of which it is true that, if everyone accepted and acted on this maxim, or everyone believed that if it was permissible to act upon it, that would make it impossible for everyone successfully to act upon it.”
Turn next to lying. Herman writes that [Kant’s statement] “seems adequate for maxims of deception ... Universal deception would be held by Kant to make speech and thus deception impossible.”
Korsgaard similarly writes “lies are usually efficacious in achieving their purposes because they deceive, but if they were universally practiced they would not deceive ...” ’,

so Parfit, and he continues:
‘But no one acts on the maxim “Always lie”. Many liars act on the maxim “Lie when that would benefit me”.’

So far so good. It’s not only true for liars but for all deceivers like corrupt people, people who give themselves bonuses which they don’t deserve, and so on: If everyone benefits at the cost of others, no one benefits. Then you can better stop deceiving, for everybody would be better off if no one deceives. However, if only some deceive, the deceivers are better off and the victims are the losers, even when they don’t notice it.
But here we have a problem that looks like the liar’s paradox: “All Cretans are liars, said Epimenides, himself a Cretan”. For if everybody lies, it’s almost sure that everybody knows it. Then we’ll give what someone says the opposite meaning of what it actually means. But then the opposite meaning becomes the factual meaning of the words. However, it remains possible that everybody is basically a liar but doesn’t lie always but most of the time. It would living together make quite complicated, if not impossible.
What when only some people lie (at least sometimes they do) or only some people are corrupt (sometimes)? Then lying or being corrupt can be effective. But how far does it go? Take the case of corruption. If in a society nobody is corrupt with the exception of only a few, these few are better off and as a whole this society flourishes, as practice shows. But to the extent that corruption grows, a society becomes worse off (in the sense that most people it in are worse off), and in a very corrupt society, everybody suffers, with the exception of some “happy few”, and the society tends to fall apart or to be ruled by the “happy few” who are the most efficacious in their corrupt practices. But where are the limits that divide societies that are well off because there is only little corruption from societies that are rather well off, because corruption is present but not disturbing, and these from societies that are undermined by corruption? It’s like the Sorites’ paradox: How many grains of sand make a heap? Or how many grains of sand must we remove from a heap of sand till it is no longer a heap?
Parfit tells us that ‘no one acts on the maxim “Always lie”. Many liars act on the maxim “Lie when that would benefit me”.’ That’s a philosophical answer but practice shows that deceiving like corruption can become endemic in a society. Then in the end nobody will profit by deceiving (I am convinced that also the “winners” of deceiving would be better off if they would stop deceiving). Nevertheless everybody continues, for who stops first will lose anyway.

Find here be way of illustration the Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 by Transparency International:
Reference: Derek Parfit, On what matters. Volume One. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The garden of philosophy

Philosophers disagree on almost everything and there is no hard core of philosophical thinking. That was my conclusion last week. However, lack of consensus is one thing, lack of progress is something else. As Chalmers states in his paper quoted last week (p. 9): “Despite this lack of convergence, it is hard to deny that the insights of Plato and Aristotle, Hume and Kant, Frege and Russell, Kripke and Lewis have involved significant philosophical progress.” Now I can examine what this progress involves, but I think that the result will be anyway that there is no progress comparable with the progress made in hard sciences like physics, chemistry and biology. But is the comparison right?
Once upon a time there was a field behind my house. It gave me plenty of space for sitting in the sun and reading a book, but it was empty. Or so it seemed to me, for actually it was full of weeds and the insects, butterflies and birds loved it, and the mice and voles liked it, too. However, it didn’t satisfy my mind and I wanted to change it. So I bought a spade, and bags of seed and some little trees and fertilizer as well. I made a design and I started to dig and to sow, and I planted the trees, and I built also a pond. I looked how others made their gardens, and I copied them or let myself inspire by their ideas. After a few years I had a beautiful garden with a good structure and every plant had its place and everything fitted together in a harmonious way. The insects and butterflies and birds loved my garden even more than before and the mice and the voles loved it, too, as did the frogs attracted by the pond and the slugs attracted by the sappy plants. They all were very satisfied with my garden, but I wasn’t. Or rather, I thought that it wasn’t bad but it could be better, for everything that is good can be improved, and so I thought “Let’s make things better”. I restructured my garden, I removed plants and I replaced them by even more beautiful plants. I replaced the trees by yet more beautiful trees that even better fitted my garden. After some time I saw that it had really improved and that I had made a lot of progress in gardening as well. I had got a lot of knowledge how to make a garden and everybody praised my expertise. And the insects, butterflies, birds, mice and voles and also the frogs and slugs praised me by their deeds, for they came in increasingly bigger quantities to my garden and they were even more pleased with this piece of land than before.
However, better is not good enough, and although I thought that my garden was not bad and that it was even better than before, I got the idea that here a plant should be removed, there one had to be replaced; elsewhere a plant had to added, and I saw also that the structure of the paths had to be changed yet a bit. Of course, some time was spent on weeding, too. Again everyone praised my expertise and insight and the garden became better and better. And also the wild life in my garden thought so and it came there in still bigger quantities.
But each person becomes older, and after many years I sold my garden and I started to philosophize, since it takes less effort. I sold also my house and moved to the other side of the street and I saw how the new owner of the garden found it a good place for taking a sunbath and for reading. However, although he wasn’t really dissatisfied with the garden, he saw some weak points in it, and since good is not good enough, he thought “let’s make things better” and so he did and cleared the garden, built it up anew and he liked it, at least for some time, and everybody else who saw it liked it as well. The animals in the garden loved it even more than mine, or at least most of them did. But since better is not good enough ...
Once I wrote a blog about the relation between gardening and philosophizing. Philosophizing can be seen, I said there, as weeding the thoughts that you have developed till you have an ordered whole. It is sowing and planting the ideas in your head and structuring them in the right way. If the result is not satisfactory in some way, you try to improve it, even when others say that what you did is beautiful. But most of us – the gardeners – don’t breed the plants and seed ourselves but we leave it to specialists. And so the quality of our plants improves and they become more beautiful and they fit better our soil and they are less vulnerable to pests and weeds, and we call it plant improvement. But they who improve the plants don’t put them in a garden. That’s what the gardeners do. We the gardeners give each plant its place and puts it in the structure of the garden so that it comes out best and fits in the whole. If we are not satisfied with what we made, we try to do it better, till we become old and leave the job to young gardeners. I think that this is what philosophers do and what philosophizing involves. Philosophizing is cultivating the fields left and ignored by the branches of science and giving everything it’s meaningful place – a place that gives sense to those who see it. As long as we are pleased with it, we think that we have made things better. But people come and people go and everyone his mind, for better is not good enough.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The hard core of philosophy

One question is whether there has been progress in commonsense thinking (or folk psychology as it is called most of the time), which I discussed last week. A different question is, whether there has been progress in philosophy, a question that has also been the subject of quite a bit of philosophical debates and that has been discussed by some of the most prominent thinkers, like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl R. Popper and Thomas S. Kuhn. In this blog I’ll not try to answer this question, but I want to talk about one important aspect of it: whether there is a received body or “hard core” of philosophical knowledge.
Progress is a relative matter in the sense that things are compared “before” and “after”. So we must have something to compare and what we want to compare must be viewed at several moments in time. Without any further discussion, I think that we can say that in the “hard” sciences like physics, chemistry and biology there is a core body of knowledge that is generally accepted and that has been growing through the years. But how about philosophy? Does it have a received body of knowledge?
In 2009 David J. Chalmers and D. Bourget made a list of thirty central themes in philosophy and asked via a survey academic philosophers – mainly in the field of analytic/Anglocentric philosophy – what their positions on those themes were. There were some 2000 recipients of the survey and 47% filled it in and sent it back. The outcome? It’s not unexpected, and actually it was what everybody who knows a bit about philosophy could tell you, but from the point of view of the hard sciences it’s somewhat shocking: There is no hard core of philosophical thinking. Maybe the conclusion is a bit too hard, for if you look closer you may find some points about which all philosophers agree (but I guess that they are rare), but on almost any theme in the survey philosophers are divided. I’ll not go into the details what all the terms that follow mean, but here are some examples, and if you only take a look at the division of the percentages, you’ll see that there is no unanimity among the thinkers (you can find the full list in Chalmers article below):
- free will: compatibilism 59%, libertarianism 14%, no free will 12%, other 15%
- mental content: externalism 51%, internalism 20%, other 29%
- normative ethics: deontology 26%, consequentialism 24%, virtue ethics 18%, other 32%
- truth: correspondence 51%, deflationary 25%, epistemic 7%, other 17%
Etc.: On almost all 30 themes the philosophers who filled in the survey disagree to an important extent on what “the facts” are. Only on one theme more than 80% agreed: On the question whether there is an external world, for 82% of the philosophers asked think that the outside world “really” exists. Three views (namely that there is a priori knowledge; atheism; and scientific realism – saying that the world is as described by science) attracted over 70% support. Three more views got more than 60% support. On all the other 23 questions the philosophers disagreed in a more or less stronger way.
What to say more? I think that the conclusion is clear. Philosophers disagree on almost any issue that is important for them and there is no hard core of philosophical thinking. Is it surprising? No, of course, for what should philosophers philosophize about when they agreed?

Source: David J. Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?”, on

Monday, November 14, 2016

Thinking in progress

Industrial agriculture: Genetically manipulated sunflowers. Progress in science?

When the neurophilosopher Paul M. Churchland argued that “both the content and the success of FP [folk psychology, or commonsense] have not advanced sensibly in two or three thousand years”, he put forward a controversial view. He actually stated that our commonsense thinking is still on the level of the Ancient Greeks and that it has come to a standstill since then, if there has been any progress at all before these times. This becomes clear, when we see how Churchland goes on with his argument immediately after the sentence quoted: “The FP of the Greeks is essentially the FP we use today, and we are negligibly better at explaining human behavior in its terms than was Sophocles. This is a very long period of stagnation ...”. Actually it is not only Churchland who says so. It has often been contended that there is no progress in commonsense thinking, for the difference with the spectacular progress in scientific thinking is great. And not only commonsense thinking seems to stagnate but also more learned but non-scientific ways of thinking like philosophy according to some.
Although it is true that there has been much progress in science, nevertheless I think we have to put it into perspective. Scientific progress has been spectacular, indeed, but in fact it mainly happened during the past 400 years. Before progress has been very slow, although undeniable. But the development of celts from the simplest forms to efficient instruments was already a matter of three million years, and for the development of industrial forms of agriculture man still needed 15-20,000 years, to take a few examples. Only since about 1600 A.D. the development of science has been exponential.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that commonsense thinking and also philosophical thinking will finally develop in the same exponential way. But why should it? For unlike what Churchland thinks, commonsense thinking is not a sort of making quasi-scientific theories that are confronted with what is happening in the world and then tested and improved, just in the way scientific theories are experimentally tested. Commonsense views are not theories from which predictions can be deduced that can falsify them, and they are not quasi-scientific theories that are replaced by better ones. This is not the way man thinks, as every psychologist can tell you. And just this “as every psychologist can tell you” is already a case of refutation of Churchland’s view, for in the days of Sophocles no one who thought about human behaviour would say that. Moreover, it’s simply not true that the “folk psychology” of the Greeks is essentially the same as ours. Ancient Greek society was a class society that distinguished between free citizens and slaves. Among the former, only adult males had the right to vote (at least that was the situation in Athens, which was a kind of democracy). This society was very different from today’s Western society and today’s Western democracy. Much of what belongs to our present commonsense conception would be completely useless in Ancient Greek society, not only because the social organization has changed but also because many daily social conventions are now entirely different. Just that is one reason why many people in authoritarian political systems rise in revolt against such systems since there have been developed democratic alternatives. In the days of the ancient Greeks authoritarian systems were replaced by other authoritarian systems if necessary, with a democratic upper layer at most. Nowadays people want a fully-fledged democracy. And should we not consider it to be progress that today human rights are generally accepted and applied to everybody irrespective of class, sex, origin, etc. (how poorly they may be observed), while in Ancient Greece human rights (or what counted as such in those days) obtained only for free citizens? And what about the feudal system? Were not even then the rights different according to which estate one belonged? Is it not to be called progress that today there are generally valid human rights? And what to think of the idea of women rights, gay rights, and so on? Isn’t all this a matter of progress in commonsense, so that we can say that “both the content and the success of FP have ... advanced sensibly?”

Reference: Churchland, Paul M. (1992), A neurocomputational perspective. The nature of mind and the structure of science, Cambridge, Mass. etc.: The MIT Press (quotes from p. 8).

Monday, November 07, 2016

Facing life

 The author facing life

The main lesson we can learn from my last blog is that death comes often in an unexpected way. If these inhabitants in Herculaneum had been asked how they might die, perhaps they would have mentioned ten or more ways how death could come to them, but probably none of them would have thought that they could die because of a volcanic eruption: For them, volcanic eruptions were an unknown phenomenon. Actually, the way these people in Herculaneum died, and even more what they knew about ways of dying is an argument in support of Montaigne’s contention that “seeing we are threatened by so many sorts of death, is it not infinitely worse eternally to fear them all, than once to undergo one of them?” For if we are afraid of all kinds of possible deaths, we may be afraid of the wrong one. And if we simply try to avoid that one of these kinds of death will happen, we are on the wrong track. I don’t mean that it isn’t good to take precautions against a possible premature death. It’s good to get injections against common illnesses and I should advice everybody to wear a seat belt in a car. But such measures should be seen as what they in fact are: They are not precautions – which suggests that they can prevent what we don’t wish to happen – but safety measures that reduce the chance that something undesirable happens but doesn’t exclude it. If this is the only thing we do, we are in the wrong. Safety measures are necessary but they are not sufficient and it is not right to think that this is the way to face death. It’s only negative and it doesn’t help us stand in life.
In his essay “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die” (Essays I, 19), from which I borrowed the quotation above, Montaigne tells us about Chiron who rejected to get eternal life from his father Saturn. Why? In Montaigne’s words: “Do but seriously consider how much more insupportable and painful an immortal life would be to man [if it were eternal]. If you had not death, you would eternally curse me for having deprived you of it”. Suppose that you had eternal life. What would you do? What reason would you have to act? Everything could be done later. It’s quite likely that you’ll think so and act accordingly, even if having eternal life does not involve having eternal youth (many people who think that eternal life is something to be wished for, forget that it may be a life in which you still become physically older and cripple and helpless after some time). To my mind, just the fact that man is forced to act in order to survive gives life sense. Not taking precautions against death – which is impossible in the end, also because, as we have seen, death can come in an unexpected way – is the way to face death but acting is and so performing what we positively want. By doing so we give sense to life and we give it a meaning – namely in the way we act. Therefore I can fully agree with what Montaigne had written a few paragraphs before: “The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time”. It’s what Montaigne learned from his own experiences. When he was about thirty years old, several people dear to him died, including his father and his beloved friend Étienne de La Boétie. It made him afraid of death. And then it happened almost to himself, when he fell from his horse. Although he was unconscious and vomiting blood, for himself it was not an unpleasant event. When Montaigne came round, he tells us, “I shut my eyes, to help, methought, to thrust it out, and took a pleasure in languishing and letting myself go. It was an imagination that only superficially floated upon my soul, as tender and weak as all the rest, but really, not only exempt from anything displeasing, but mixed with that sweetness that people feel when they glide into a slumber.” (Essays II, 6). It made that Montaigne changed his attitude towards death and he was no longer scared of it and he became positive towards life. As we have seen, we find this vision on life already in his essay “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die”. Even though the essay is mainly about death, it’s why I think a better title would have been “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Live”, for what it actually says is that facing death is facing life.