Monday, November 23, 2015

At the wrong time at the wrong place

A few days ago I read an article about moral luck (see the reference below). The authors distinguished several kinds of moral luck, but in this blog I must ignore that because of lack of space. In order to make clear what the concept involves I’ll use an example from the article.
An effect corroborated in many studies is the so-called bystander effect. Suppose you are walking in the street and you see someone getting a heart-attack. What will you do? If you are the only person there, you’ll probably help, but the more people are around there, the smaller the chance is that you’ll come to the person’s aid: “the likelihood of intervention in emergency situations inversely correlates with the number of people present in that situation”, as the authors formulate it (p. 367). It depends on what is happening and how serious the accident is – or whatever it is –, but if you are the only bystander, the chance that you’ll help is, say, more than 80%; if there are more people present the chance that you’ll help may be as low as 10% or less. The bystander effect applies apart from your personal attitude towards helping in emergency situations in the abstract (so what you would say you would do when you are not there). In other words, even if you are morally and maybe also legally required to render assistance to a person and even if you think you should help, how you really will act generally depends on the accidental number of people present. So whether you’ll do your moral duty is dependent on whether you are in luck or whether it is just your luck, so to speak, whether or not many people are around there on the place of emergency. That’s why philosophers talk here about “moral luck”. Whether you’ll act in a moral way as you should do or whether you’ll dodge is determined by the situation you are in, at least for a big part. Does this mean that we are actually not responsible for our actions because “the situation made us do what we do”? Maybe, but I think that in the end a person is responsible for his or her own actions and that s/he is always accountable for what s/he does, certainly if there is freedom to act, as in my examples. But that’s a subject for debate for another blog.
Actually all this has nothing to do with the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday the 13th of November,  but when I read this article a few days later, automatically I linked up a connection between what happened to the victims and the idea of moral luck. For isn’t moral luck a bit like being somewhere at some time by chance? I mean, someone gets an accident and you happen to see it: two unrelated events that coincidentally go together. And by chance nobody else is there, or just a few other people are there, or maybe a lot. These phenomena unrelated to your walking there happen to go together and together they make what you’ll do. But one of the factors might be different and you would behave in a different way: Things happen to you and often you cannot help. It’s a bit like when we say: he was there at the right time at the right place (so he could and did help) or just at the wrong time and at the wrong place.
So it was in Paris in the evening of Friday the 13th November 2015 as well: Many people who were where the terrorist attacks took place simply happened to be there but they could have been elsewhere as well. Coming one minute later; leaving one minute later; just a banal thing as having gone to the toilet (and whether or not it was in use); that the terrorist would have come a few minutes or even seconds later, because a car happened to cross their way; such banal things in life often make whether you are a victim or a survivor. Being at the wrong time at the wrong place can kill a life; or many. From the point of view of the victims, of course; for the perpetrators there is no excuse. What happens in your life can be a matter of good luck and back luck. Often life is on your side, but not always.

Reference: Marcela Herdova and Stephen Kearns, “Get lucky: situationism and circumstancial moral luck”, in: Philosophical Explorations, 18/3, pp. 363-377.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Are individual actions possible?

Sometimes we do things alone, sometimes we do things together with other people, tuned to what our companions do – together with us. We could call the former kind of doings individual actions and the latter one coordinated actions, or maybe joint, shared or collective actions – the term is not important. Are individual actions possible?
Let’s say that I want to take the train to Utrecht in order to go to a concert there. So I take my coat, walk to the railway station, buy a ticket and get in the train, after it has arrived. In Utrecht I get off the train, leave the railway station and walk to the concert hall. This complicated action of going to a concert can be divided in a series of subactions with their own separate intentions that can also be considered on their own. I’ll consider the subaction “taking the train to Utrecht”.
When I want to spade my garden, I walk to the shed behind my house, take a scoop, go to my garden and start to turn the soil over. There is no other person involved than myself. How different it is when I take a train. Taking a train is not possible without the presence of a whole man-made and man-maintained infrastructure. In order to be able to take the train (in a legal way), first I must buy a ticket, for instance from a ticket machine. Even this simple action supposes many intentions and actions of other persons in order to make it possible! Someone (or several people) must have thought out this system, some must have constructed the machine, some must have put the ticket machine on the platform, must maintain the ticket machine and take care that there is enough paper and ink for tickets to be printed, etc. In selling railway tickets a whole structure of intentions and actions is involved and without such a structure buying a ticket is simply impossible. No one could print his own train ticket, or it would be seen as forgery.
It is the same for getting in the train and going by it to your destination. This is only possible if there is an infrastructure intentionally built up by many people who cooperated together in making it, with their own individual reasons and intentions for doing their tasks and, last but not least, the personnel (engine driver, guard) on the train and others that make that the train can safely ride on the railways.
So what looks like an individual action with an individual intention at first sight, turns out to be possible only if there are other people – most of them unseen by you – who each for their own reasons help you perform your action in some way. The individual action of taking the train to Utrecht can be performed only within the presence of an intentionally built up structure intentionally run by cooperating people. And so it is for performing many other individual actions as well, if not for most of them: they are based on a structure of individual intentions and actions geared to one another in order to make their realization possible. We need coordinated intentions and actions in order to make the structure run. In the case of my example, we could call it “railway system” or “maintaining a railway system”. Moreover, it works in two directions: No train, no customs, but also no customs no train. One implies the other and every participant needs to endorse the coordinated intentions and actions in some way. Every participant makes his or her own contribution realizing his or her own individual intentions.
The upshot is that most individual actions are difficult to distinguish from what I called coordinated actions. The difference is rather gradual than absolute. Most actions that are individual on the face of it can only be realized by cooperating with others in some way, as it is the other way round.
And how about spading your garden? Is it really an individual action, as I supposed? Who made your scoop? What made it that you are allowed to spade that piece of land? Why did you want to dig your garden? (maybe for selling the vegetables you grow there or preparing the soil, because you want to compete in a flower show next year?) It is to be wondered whether really pure individual actions are possible, or you must be a Robinson on a deserted isle before you met your Friday.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Philosophical paradoxes

Paradoxes are a type of puzzle cases not mentioned on the website on action puzzles in my last blog. Nevertheless, they can be useful in clarifying concepts in the philosophy of action. I suppose that every reader of this blog will know the most famous of all paradoxes, the Liar Paradox: Epimenides said: Every man from Crete is a liar. The paradox becomes clear, if we know that Epimenides himself is a man from Crete.
I have discussed already extensively a well-known paradox in my blogs above, namely the Ship of Theseus, which is also known as Theseus’ paradox. Also one of the leading ideas in the philosophy of action actually is nothing but a kind of paradox, namely the idea that what we do – our actions – is dependent on the way we describe it. This idea has been introduced by Elizabeth Anscombe. Here I’ll use the version of E.J. Lowe: “A man is described as poisoning the inhabitants of a house by pumping contaminated water in its supply from a well, which the inhabitants drink with fatal consequences. There are various ways of describing what this man is doing: ... moving his arm, ... depressing the handle of the pump, ... pumping water from the well, contaminating the water-supply ..., ... poisoning the inhabitants of the house, ... killing the inhabitants ... [A]re these six different things he is doing, or just six different ways of describing one and the same thing?” (p. 240) In the former case, we would call him a juggler, so Lowe, but also the latter case – the one accepted in the philosophy of action – is problematical. Moving his arm is considered then to have different descriptions, but suppose that we want to know when and where the man is killing the inhabitants of the house. Depending on the way we describe what the man is doing, he kills them at different places and at different times, for the arm-moving takes place outside the house and the killing (which take place later) occurs within the house. (pp. 240-241) “So, it seems, we have to say that the man kills the inhabitants outside the house and quite some time before they die. But that is surely absurd”, so Lowe (p. 241). Lowe presents an alternative approach to resolve the paradox, but I refer those interested in it to Lowe, for here I want to talk about paradoxes.
I end this series of blogs on puzzle cases with a paradox that can be used to cast light on the idea of intention. The question is: Can we intend what we surely will not do? Generally philosophers of action support the view that intending to do a supposes minimally the absence of the belief that one will not a. However, take this paradox, which is known as the toxin paradox and which has been developed by G. Kavka (here quoted from an article by Stephanie Rennick): “You are offered a million dollars to form the intention of drinking a vile potion which, though not lethal, will make you unpleasantly ill. Once you have formed the intention the money is handed over, and you are free to change your mind. The trouble is that you know this, and it will prevent you from forming the intention, since you cannot intend to do what you know you will not do”.
This brings me back to the question whether I can try to do what I cannot do, discussed in my blog last week. Suppose now that I know that I cannot break the world record 5.000 m running, if my personal record is still three minutes slower than the world record after many years of hard training. Can I say then that nevertheless I can try to break the world record? Just as we cannot intend to do what we know we’ll not do, we cannot try to do what we know for sure we cannot do. Nevertheless I think there is much truth in the conventional wisdom saying “who doesn’t try doesn’t win”, even if you know that you have no chance.

Sources: - E.J. Lowe, An introduction to the philosophy of mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000 (
- Stephanie Rennick, “Things mere mortals can do, but philosophers can’t”,

Monday, November 02, 2015

On trying

In the philosophy of action puzzle cases can be used for several reasons. An already old website (I suppose it has been made by Joshua Knobe, who is now especially known for his contributions to experimental philosophy) mentions three such reasons:
– Exploring the causality of the relation between intention and action. Davidson’s case of the mountain climber in my blog last week falls under this category.
– Exploring the question whether acting intentionally implies acting with the intention to do what one intentionally does. For example, Harman discusses this case (quoted from the website): “In firing his gun, [a] sniper knowingly alerts the enemy to his presence. He does this intentionally, thinking that the gain is worth the possible cost. But he certainly does not intend to alert the enemy to his presence.”
– Exploring the relation between intending and succeeding to do what one intends to do. (see
In this blog I want to discuss a question that belongs to the last category and that I find intriguing since already a long time: Can one try to do what one cannot do? For instance, can I try to break a world record, if I am by far not good enough to break it?
According to Stuart Hampshire trying implies that “there is some difficulty and a possibility of failure”. If so, we speak of trying “whenever difficulty or the chance of failure is stressed” and the trying agent knows what to do and has decided to perform the trying action: The agent “should have some idea of how the required result might be achieved and that he should make up his mind now” (Hampshire 1959:107).
Suppose that I am a long distance runner. The world record on 5,000 metres track (5K) is 12'.37,35", run in 2004 by Kenenisa Bekele in Hengelo in the Netherlands. It is my big wish to break this record. However, my personal record (pr) is exactly three minutes slower: 15'.37,35". I ran it after many years of hard training. Therefore everybody body will say that it will be impossible for me to break the world record. Nevertheless, I don’t give up and I train and train and train ... and then I choose a race for the big try. As expected by the experts, I fail and because I have started by far too fast in the race I even fail to break my own pr.
According to Hampshire’s definition of trying, we can say that I tried to break the 5K world record but that I failed. Is it really so? It’s clear that I failed, but can we say that I tried? I think that we cannot, for it was 99.99999... % certain that I would fail, and I think that in order to speak reasonably of a try there must be a minimal chance of success and the chance of success was absent from any reasonable point of view. Therefore I want to add this “minimal chance of success” as a condition when we want to speak of a try. However, what is a minimal chance? Is it when my pr would have been 14'.37,35"? Or 13'.37,35"? Or 13'.07,35"? Or 12'.52,35"? Or ...? The problem is what tells a try from a not-try. A man cannot try to give birth to a baby, but a long distance runner with a pr of 12'.38,35" on the 5K track can reasonably try to break the world record on the distance, and there is a lot in between from the perspective of what we can possibly try and what we cannot. But where is the line that separates them? Often there is one, but as my case of the 5K runner shows, also often there isn’t one. In practice we know what trying is but in theory we cannot define it. The upshot is that we can’t even try to define “try” for there is no chance of success but only failure.

Hampshire, Stuart, Thought and action. London: Chatto and Windus, 1959.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Philosophical puzzles

Philosophical puzzles, like the “Ship of Theseus” (see last blog), are much used in analytical philosophy and especially in the philosophy of action. Then I don’t mean logical puzzles or puzzles merely done for fun or for training your brain and, but puzzles with an ethical or practical aspect, so like Theseus’ Ship, which plays an important part in discussions on identity, or the trolley problem, which I used in my blog dated Feb. 18, 2013. They are good instruments for thinking through complicated issues. However, the reasonings involved rely on philosophical intuitions, and is it really true that such intuitions are the same for everybody, even if philosophically schooled? It’s doubtful. Therefore a new branch of philosophy has come into being, experimental philosophy, which investigates philosophical problems by presenting them to different groups of laymen, while using an experimental format (for instance using test groups with different cultural backgrounds).
Since my specialty is the philosophy of action, I am especially interested in puzzle cases in that field. Some are about what an action is, what intentionality is, and the like. Other ones try to distinguish actions “as such” and its side effects. Again other puzzle cases focus on the relation between action and causality. And maybe there are other categories as well. Donald Davidson, who left his mark on the development of modern action theory, uses several puzzle cases for examining the question if and under which conditions there is a causal relation between an agent’s beliefs and the result of an action by him or her. Such cases are of the type that someone wants to perform an action with an important consequence and the idea of doing so makes the agent so nervous that he loses the control of his body and just this makes that he does what he intended to do but not in the way or at the moment he wanted to do it. Here is an example by Davidson: “A climber might want to rid himself of the weight and danger of holding another man on a rope, and he might know that by loosening his hold on the rope he could rid himself of the weight and danger. This belief and want might so unnerve him as to cause him to loosen his hold, and yet it might be the case that he never chose to loosen his hold, nor did he do it intentionally.” (Davidson, 1980: 79). According to Davidson we can say only that the climber caused the fall of the co-climber if what the climber believed and wanted to do on the one hand and the fall of the co-climber on the other hand were causally related “in the right way”, and that is apparently not the case in this instance. Is he right? For one can also say that one needs to keep his nerves under control in such a situation, anyhow, since being unnerved can make that a climber loses control of what he does and he has to know that, and wrong beliefs can make a climber nervous. Maybe one must say that just because the climber’s belief and want were related in the wrong way to the fall of the co-climber they caused it. Isn’t it so that we are often held responsible for what we do, not as side effects but just as the thing we do, because what we intended to do is related in the wrong way to the consequences? Just this “being related in the wrong way” makes that we are often held responsible for what we didn’t believe and wanted to do and nevertheless actually did (in causing a traffic accident, for example).
These are only a few initial remarks about Davidson’s puzzle case. Much more space is necessary to flesh it out, and maybe finally I would draw another conclusion, if I did. But what all this shows is that a good puzzle case doesn’t only make you think (using your brain) but also gives you a lot to think about.

Reference: Donald Davidson¸ Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Truth and the Ship of Theseus

Last week I mentioned the famous puzzle case of the Ship of Theseus. It was first put forward by the Ancient Greeks. Nowadays it is especially used in the debate on personal identity in the analytical philosophy. And indeed, the problem I discussed in my last blog has much to do with the question of group identity; in this case the identity of a group over time. But if a group like a sports team has a continuity over time despite changes in membership, just as the Ship of Theseus remains to exist when its planks are replaced one by one, does this mean that a group exists independent of the members who make up the group? The more I think about the case of the Ship of Theseus, the more intriguing questions come to my mind. It casts even doubt on one of the basic assumptions of classical logic, namely the law of excluded middle and double negation. The first part of this law says that for any proposition either it is true or its negation is true. The second part says that a statement cannot be true and not true at the same time.
To repeat, the case of the Ship of Theseus involves that the vessel is repaired by gradually taking out the old planks one by one and putting in new. Do we then still have the same ship at the end? Of course, Theseus, the owner of the ship who has commissioned the repair, will say “yes, we have”, and we’ll certainly agree if the old planks are destroyed. But suppose that someone has stolen the planks before they could be destroyed, builds a new ship with these planks (and only with these planks) and paints the name “Ship of Theseus” on it, just as on the original ship and on the one repaired by order of Theseus. Which ship is then the real Ship of Theseus? Say that just after the reparation has been finished, a fire completely destroys the ship with the new planks. Then the plank-hoarder appears and says: No problem, I have saved the ship for I have reconstructed the Ship of Theseus with the old planks. I think that it would be absurd to deny the truth of this claim. For if the Ship of Theseus would have been taken apart by taking away the planks one by one, storing the planks for a year, and then rebuilding the ship with the old planks, we would say the same. However, if we had replaced all old planks by new planks and would have destroyed the old planks, we would say that the ship with the new planks was the real Ship of Theseus. So whether the ship made of the old planks is the Ship of Theseus or whether the new ship is depends on the history of the building of the Ship of Theseus and on what has happened with the planks.
Suppose now that the repaired ship hasn’t caught fire and that the old planks haven’t been destroyed but used by an antique dealer to rebuild the Ship of Theseus. Theseus would say then, with right, that the old planks have been stolen and that the repaired ships is the real Ship of Theseus. But the antique dealer maintains that he wanted to save the original Ship of Theseus. Then he can also say with right that his ship is the real Ship of Theseus. As Noonan says about this case: “The identity statement in question is at worst indeterminate in truth-value” (p. 132). The problem can be solved by letting the truth of a proposition depend on who utters it (either Theseus or the antique dealer in my case), but classical logic does not allow this possibility: Either Theseus’ ship or the antique dealer’s ship is the real Ship of Theseus.
But suppose now that Theseus didn’t know that the old planks have not been destroyed and that they were used for rebuilding his original ship. Theseus puts out to sea with his repaired ship and he runs across the antique dealer with his ship. Theseus falls into a rage, when he sees another ship with the name “Ship of Theseus”, and he attacks it with his boat. We get a sea battle and one ship is destroyed and sinks. Then there are good reasons to call the winning ship the real Ship of Theseus, at least from then on. So the result of the battle determines which ship is the real Ship of Theseus. In other words, the truth of the proposition “The Ship of Theseus is identical with the ship constructed of the new planks” depends on the result of the battle. If Theseus wins it is true. However, this doesn’t involve that if the antique dealer wins this proposition is false. Moreover we have then the intriguing question, whether Theseus changes his opinion, in case he loses the battle. Maybe he considers from then on the ship rebuilt with the old planks again the real Ship of Theseus.

Source: Harold W. Noonan, Personal Identity. Second Edition. London: Routledge, 2003

Monday, October 05, 2015

A philosophical enigma

If we want to explain group behaviour, we are faced with the question: “What is a group?” Many answers have been given in philosophy, sociology and other disciplines. I’ll not try to evaluate them here. I want to consider a question that is relevant when we explain group actions from the perspective of analytical philosophy. Some examples of groups I am thinking of are people painting a house together, going for a walk together, a sports team, a task group, or a small company.
Although a group doesn’t have a shared intention, as we have seen in my last blog, usually it has a goal, which can be seen as the reason that brings the group members together, although it doesn’t need to be the intention that makes the group members act. It can make that people join the group.
Groups can be organised for only one task and once it has been executed, that’s it. Usually such groups are stable. Membership doesn’t change during the activity and once the task has been finished the group is dissolved. However, many groups have a longer duration: Its activity is permanent or at least it lasts quite a long time. Instances of such more or less permanent groups are sport teams and business companies. Then it often happens that members of the group have to be replaced now and then, temporarily or once and for all. Someone can become ill. Another member decides not to go on with the group. A member is replaced by someone who is more competent. And so on.
Let me take the case of the first team of a football club that wins the national cup. I call this team First Team (FT for short). Sometimes a team keeps the same core of players for years, but there are always changes from match to match and from year to year. Suppose that after fifteen years all players that once won the cup have left the team. Nevertheless it is normal to say “Finally, after fifteen years, the First Team has won the cup again”. One can say, of course, that in fact another team has won the cup and that it is not right to say that after fifteen years it was the First Team that has won the cup again, but then we have the problem to decide when the old guard (FTold) is no longer the new guard (FTnew) that wins the cup fifteen years later. Let’s say for simplicity that every year a player of FTold leaves the team and is replaced. So after eleven years FTold has become the FTnew that wins the cup again at last (I ignore the substitutes from match to match or even during a match). Then two views are possible. One is that FTnew is the same team as FTold, because it belongs to the same club, has a continuity in time with FTold, etc. The alternative view is that FTold and FTnew are different teams. But, as supposed, the change from FTold to FTnew is gradual, so when do we no longer have FTold and can we say that we have got FTnew instead? If one of the players of FTold leaves the team and is replaced, do we have then still the same team? If we say no, we have a problem, for everybody treats FTold still as the same First Team of our club. Moreover, say that the leaving player is injured and comes back after a few months, but after again a few months he leaves the team once and for all. Is it so then that we have two different teams during this period? Or is there a difference when a player leaves a team temporarily because of an injury and when he leaves it definitively? However, if we say that FTold remains the same after only one player has been replaced, then we can ask the same question, when a second player is replaced. If we say “yes” again, etc., then we have eleven new players that wins the cup after fifteen years and still we have the same team, although our view was that FTold and FTnew were different. Or must we say that we have a new team if at least half of the FTold players has been substituted? And why then just when six players have been substituted and not five or seven?
I can go on discussing this case and I can consider all kinds of variations. However, I think that the problem whether FTnew is or isn’t the same team as FTold has no solution. It is the same so for any other group in case members are replaced. I think that from one respect we can say that it’s still the same group and from another respect that a group with subsitutes is a new group, but the problem cannot be solved in a satisfactory way.
My case looks like the famous case of the Ship of Theseus – already discussed by the Ancient Greeks – which is repaired continuously by taking out old planks and putting in new. Do we still have at the end the same ship or do we have a new one? This problem of gradual substitution is one of the great enigmas of philosophy that until now nobody could solve and that maybe never will be solved. A group changes and nevertheless stays the same during the years. That’s all we can say about it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The strings that bind people together

Many years ago I have written my PhD thesis about the question how to explain human actions. At the end of my thesis I thought: this is all about individuals but how about groups? Can we explain what groups do from a kind of group intentions just as we can understand individual actions with the help of the agent’s individual intentions (plus his or her beliefs)? In my thesis I wanted to dedicate a chapter to the problem but I dropped it. Nevertheless it stayed in my mind. Actually, I was not the only philosopher who found the issue intriguing. Twenty years ago the theme was rather new, but since then more and more philosophers in the field of analytical philosophy have got their teeth into it, like Raimo Tuomela, Margaret Gilbert, Michael E. Bratman, John R. Searle and Seumas Miller, to mention a few names. One of the most important contributors to this subject is Bratman.
According to Bratman, just as an individual agent has intentions that guides his or her actions, also group behaviour is led by a kind of common intentionality – at least if we talk about small groups. He calls this common intentionality “shared intention”. Say, so Bratman, you and I are painting a house together. It’s not just that each of us is painting on his own, but we coordinate our painting in some way. You scrape the old paint and I paint what you have scraped. You buy the brushes and I buy the paint. We check what the other has promised to do; etc. If this is the case, we have a shared intention, namely in the sense that each of us has the appropriate attitude and that these attitudes and the way they are put into practice are interrelated. We can compare this with the way an individual coordinates what she does over time, for instance when she would paint her house alone: “Thus does our shared intention help to organize and to unify our intentional agency in ways to some extent analogous to the ways in which the intentions of an individual organize and unify her individual agency over time.” (Bratman, 1999: 110-111; quotation on p. 111). Elsewhere Bratman says it this way: “... shared intention ... involves intentions of the individuals whose contents appeal to the group activity” (2014, p. 12). We can compare this sharing an intention with the case that my neighbour and I are painting our houses – we have two semi-detached houses –, but we haven’t consulted on the matter. Then, in my words, my neighbour and I have the same intention but we do not have a shared intention.
However, do we really need a shared intention in order to explain what two people do that are painting a house together in the way described by Bratman? The problem is that Bratman doesn’t say who you and I in his sample are, which suggests that his analysis applies to every two (or maybe three or four) people who form a painting group or another task group doing a job together.
So, let’s say that I want to paint my house, but it is too much work for me. Therefore I hire a hand in order to help me. Together we paint the house, exactly in the way described by Bratman. Then we have a painting group in the sense of Bratman, but does this group and do the people making up the group have a shared intention? On the face of it the shared intention is “painting the house”, and indeed, what I do can be understood in this way:

(1) I have the intention to paint the house.
(2) I think that I can paint the house only, if I hire a hand to help me.
(3) Therefore I hire a hand who helps me painting the house.
(4) Together we paint the house.

Does the hand share my intention to paint the house? I think that what he does can be better understood in this way:

(1) The hand has the intention to earn money [since to hire himself out as a hand is his work].
(2) The hand thinks that he can earn money by helping me painting the house.
(3) Therefore the hand hires himself out to me for this reason.
(4) Together we paint the house.

What this example shows is that for me – the owner of the house – the supposed shared intention is what I want to bring about but for the hand it is a means for another intention, namely earning money. In a certain sense we can call a means also an intention (at least often we can), and then we could say that hiring himself out contains the intention to paint the house, but even if we accept this, we must admit that for the hand this intention is on another explanatory level than it is for me. Therefore I think that my counter-example contains the case of a group of two people who cooperate and act together but who don’t share an intention in the way conceived by Bratman. The upshot is that it is not a shared intention that explains what a group does. The problem here is not finding a common goal that binds the members of a group together but to unravel why these members let themselves bind.

References: Bratman, Michael E., “Shared Intention”, in Faces of Intention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999: 109-129; Bratman, Michael E., Shared Agency. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Monday, September 21, 2015

On refugees (2)

“... and suddenly I discovered Descartes among a group of refugees and quickly I took a snap shot ....”

I finished my last blog remarking that there might be a Descartes among the refugees who look for a better life in Europe. I didn’t mention the name of Descartes without reason, for 22 years old Descartes left his native country France, afraid that he could be arrested because of his ideas. He went to the Netherlands, where he stayed twenty years, till he left for Sweden, where he died.
It’s not exceptional that philosophers and others have to leave the places where they live because of their ideas. Also in the Netherlands in the days of Descartes it could be dangerous to have unusual ideas, although the country had the reputation to be tolerant. Especially it could be dangerous to have ideas that conflicted with the reigning religion. Spinoza, excluded because of his atheistic views by the Jewish community of his home town Amsterdam, first felt forced to leave for the nearby Ouderkerk. Although he returned to Amsterdam after some time, soon he preferred to leave the town permanently and finally he established himself in The Hague.
I’ll walk with seven-league strides through history till I arrive in the twentieth century. So, for instance, I’ll not talk about Rousseau, who fled France in 1762 persecuted because of his ideas, or about Voltaire who had taken up his residence in Switzerland just a few years before Rousseau went to live there, also for avoiding arrest by the French authorities.
In the twentieth century it was especially for political reasons that philosophers had to flee. They were victims of the reigning ideology, be it communism or nazism. In the latter case philosophers (and many others) didn’t only have to flee because of their ideas, but also if they belonged to the “wrong race”: They were Jews or of Jewish descent. Most members of the Vienna Circle – a kind of philosophical debating club – fled from the Nazis to the USA (like Carnap, Feigl and Gödel), or sometimes to Britain (Neurath) or New Zealand (Popper). Wittgenstein, who was already in England, did not return to Austria. The members of the Frankfurt School – a sociological current centred around the Institute for Sociology in Frankfurt, Germany – fled via Geneva and Paris also to the USA, although most of them returned to Europe after the fall of Nazism. This was, for instance what the philosophers-sociologists Adorno and Horkheimer did. Their colleague Walter Benjamin found himself forced to commit suicide during his flight (in 1940 from France, occupied by the Nazis). An outstanding philosopher who fled communism was Kolakowski from Poland. Kolakowski had developed a kind of revisionist Marxism, which was rejected by the communist leaders, who deprived him of his academic functions. In the end Kolakowski went to the West.
Most philosophers mentioned here were welcomed in their new fatherlands, or at least they were treated in a decent way. That needed not always be so. Montaigne was not a political refugee, but once he had to leave his castle because the plague reigned in the region where he lived. Travelling around with his family (and some servants, I suppose) he could not find a refuge, although he was already a well-known man. In his Essays (Book III-12) Montaigne tells us that
“I myself, who am so hospitable, was in very great distress for a retreat for my family; a distracted family, frightful both to its friends and itself, and filling every place with horror where it attempted to settle, having to shift its abode so soon as any one's finger began but to ache; all diseases are then concluded to be the plague, and people do not stay to examine whether they are so or no.”
In need and no longer being the lord of his castle when he was on the run, Montaigne was considered as vermin and bringer of the plague, and not as a man respected by his environment. His social network collapsed as soon as he had to flee and no longer counted who he was, despite his past.
Actually this is the situation many refugees are in. Most are not welcomed but feared because they might bring misery, even if a few weeks ago they lived yet in their own country as well respected citizens. In this case the misery is not a contagious disease but the fear of social unrest and instability and the fear that the refugees “pick our houses and jobs”. So you don’t handover to them the food parcels they need – containing only bread and water –, but you throw them in the mob, as I have recently seen on TV in a report about a reception camp for refugees in Hungary (as if they are animals in a zoo).
This is how Montaigne continued his story:
“And the mischief on’t is that, according to the rules of art, in every danger that a man comes near, he must undergo a quarantine in fear of the evil, your imagination all the while tormenting you at pleasure, and turning even your health itself into a fever.”
A parallel with a refugee camp is easily drawn. The Latin proverb “Homo homine lupus est” (Man is a wolf to another man) has got man interpretations, but there seems to be a kernel of truth in all of them.

Monday, September 14, 2015

On refugees


Now streams of refugees from the Middle East are arriving in Europe – and many migrants from Africa as well, but in this blog I’ll ignore this, although the question is the same in many respects –. The first problem is, of course, how to receive them and how to take care of them. This logistic problem is immense and must not be underrated, also because some countries in Eastern Europe would like to get rid of the refugees rather yesterday than tomorrow. Have they forgotten that before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 many people from there has fled to the West and that they were always most welcome? They should remember the words of Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America: “The happy and powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune.”
Once the refugees have arrived in their country of destination and have become settled a bit, another problem arises: integration. This seems to be the more difficult since many of the newly arrived have a different religion and social and cultural background than most of the inhabitants of their new fatherlands. On purpose I speak of “new fatherlands”, for in view of the present situation in the Middle East it is not likely that the refugees can soon go back home again; at least not in the years to come.
Integration is often difficult to realize, especially if it doesn’t regard just a few individuals or families but such quantities of people that come to Europe today, moreover almost within a short period. Integration is not an automatic process. One has to work on it. Many people think that it cannot and will not be successful. Is it true? It’s a never ending discussion, also in Germany, a country with many refugees and migrants, which was recently yet in the news because of protests against the arrival of new refugees. Happily, many Germans think differently about it and recently refugees from Syria and other countries in the Middle East were welcomed with applause and presents in Munich when they left the train. Will they succeed to integrate? As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas underlined in an article a few years ago, problems of integration must not be denied but generally integration is successful. The problem is not so much the integration as such but those who  are afraid that traditional values will be undermined by the arrival of newcomers (see for the article). I don’t want to play down the problem of integrating people from other cultural backgrounds (and that’s much more than only different religious backgrounds). However, I just finished reading a book about the “fin de siècle” – the period around the year 1900 – in the Netherlands. In those days the towns had been overflowed with migrants from the countryside, like all countries in Europe then. Many people saw their traditional ideas undermined because of that. Also the introduction of many technological innovations at that time had this effect. People were on the move; ideas and values were changing. Later, during the famous 1960s we see a movement towards democratization and against the authoritarian structure of society. Many new ideas developed then are still practiced and honoured today. In the 1960s they were seen as an attack on everything “we” stood for. Now, fifty years later we live through new social changes caused by the introduction of the computer, the Internet, the smart phone, and so on, as a consequence of the digitalization of society. The way we get along with each other has changed, too, and also, for instance, the concept of friendship must be given an new interpretation (for many people today a “friend” has become someone who is on your friendship list on Facebook, even if it is no more than that and even if you never talk with him or her). Be it as it may, the best solution of the present problem of refugees would be, of course, an end to the wars in Syria and the Middle East. But how to do that?
What most people do not realize is that many states have been built on migration. Go back into history and see how people always have been looking for new places to live. Also during the past hundred years many people in Europe have moved and migrated and they settled elsewhere as a consequence of two world wars or simply looking for work.
I want to finish by quoting a few words by Max Frisch and then change them. Somewhere he said: “We asked for workers. We got people instead.” I want to make it this way: “We expected refugees. We got people instead”. Fugitives are seen as people in miserable circumstances that need help, but they bring also a lot with them. There are also philosophers among them; maybe a Descartes.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Can we measure the value of life?

Two years ago I have read The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer and I have written a few blogs about it, too. Then I put the book in my bookcase and I never read it again, for actually it is not my type of philosophy. Therefore, what I remember from this book is not much and it can actually be summed up in a few words: To live is to suffer. This seems to be Schopenhauer’s idea of life. Leafing through the book today, I saw a passage that I had underlined and that expresses this idea, too: “... so the view forces itself on us that life is a business and that the gains of this business are by far not enough to cover its costs”: In other words, life is an unhappy affair, if we could make a cost-benefit analysis. But would this really be possible? For how should we calculate the value of happy and unhappy episodes in life? How much happiness balances how much suffering? I suspect that it is an impossible task.
I think that there is at least one philosopher who would disagree with Schopenhauer, if he could – if he could: for he lived before Schopenhauer – : Michel de Montaigne. Despite his own sufferings – he lost his best friend Étienne de La Boétie, which determined the course of the rest of his life; he had kidney stones for many years and he died of it – Montaigne had a positive outlook on life. He knew how to live. And although he knew that a life could be happy or unhappy in its totality, he didn’t want to pass a judgement before it had ended.
In his essay “That men are not to judge of our happiness till after death” (Essays, Book I, Ch. XVIII) Montaigne defends the thesis that an event at the end of someone’s life can push the final verdict in the opposite direction. Someone’s life looked happy, but he has been murdered in a cruel way. Therefore, we must judge his life as a whole as unhappy, Montaigne seems to defend in this essay. Or, to take an example by him, “I have seen many by their death give a good or an ill repute to their whole life. Scipio, the father-in-law of Pompey, in dying, well removed the ill opinion that till then every one had conceived of him.” Montaigne says in this essay that the last act a person does in his life, especially if he died during this act, can shape a reputation of this person that comprises his whole life and give it a positive or negative turn: “Wherefore, at this last, all the other actions of our life ought to be tried and sifted: ‘tis the master-day, ‘tis the day that is judge of all the rest, " ‘tis the day," says one of the ancients,—[Seneca ...]— "that must be judge of all my foregoing years." ”
Well, I have my doubts. It’s not that I think that someone’s last act cannot influence the judgment on this person’s life, or that it cannot have even a strong influence, but a life lasts many years. Some people are criminals during their younger years and become saints during their last years. Do then only the last years count? I think that it would be better to say that we have here, for instance, the case of a person who has seen the light, or, if a life develops in the opposite direction, the case of a person who got into low water. Summarizing a life in this way gives a better look on the phases a person lived through than just saying that someone’s life was good or bad as a whole – or happy or unhappy. But what remains is: How to measure happiness or goodness? Or how to balance one phase of life against another phase, like a happy event at the end of your life against a very unhappy youth fifty years ago (or the other way round)? Actually it implies the question what the influence of the time perspective must be on your judgment and also the question whether one can compare time as a moment (the final act of your life) against time as a process (the flow of actions that made up your life). I think that seen this way we compare incomparable variables, if we ignore the ups and downs and want to press a whole life in one word.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Wittgenstein and the First World War

View on the Italian Front, where Wittgenstein has fought during the First World War

Once I wrote in a blog (dated March 10, 2014) that I was surprised that Wittgenstein said nothing about his war experiences in his Notebooks 1914-1916, although he wrote them during his service as a soldier in the First World War. It was not true: he did write about it. As so many soldiers Wittgenstein kept a diary, which is now known as the Secret Notebooks. What is strange, however, is that in volume one of the collected works of Wittgenstein published by Suhrkamp Verlag in Germany, so in the volume that contains the Notebooks 1914-1916, there is not any mention at all of the existence of these Secret Notebooks. This is also strange since these personal notes have been written in the same notebooks that Wittgenstein used for his philosophical notes, namely on the pages opposite to these philosophical notes. Moreover, the personal notes clearly help understanding the development and explanation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus. Therefore it is a “must-read” not only for those interested in Wittgenstein’s war experiences but also for those interested in his Tractatus.
I “discovered” these secret notebooks on a website with new publications in philosophy. They have been published (in German) by Wilhelm Baum in a book on Wittgenstein in the First World War (see the reference at the end of this blog). Baum presents there not only the Secret Notebooks but he gives also much information about the history of the notebooks, about Wittgenstein’s participation in World War One, his relations with other people in this period of his life, the philosophical meaning of the notebooks, and so on. It’s a pity that Baum could publish only a part of Wittgenstein’s notes, for most of them have been lost.
For an interpretation of the Secret Notebooks I refer to the work by Baum. I want to make only two comments. The first is that religion and a religious view on the world were for Wittgenstein more important than many people know. Wittgenstein was a religious person, as it turns out. My second comment is that this allows a religious interpretation of a famous statement by Wittgenstein: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life have still not been touched at all.” (Tractatus 6.52). This is especially so, if one relates this statement to a remark by Wittgenstein in a letter to Ludwig von Ficker: “The meaning of this book [the Tractatus] is an ethical one. ... [It] exists of two parts: the one that you see here and everything that I haven’t written. And just this second part is the most important part. For the ethical is so to speak bounded from the inner side by the book...” (Baum, 120). It is possible to give this passage a religious interpretation, as Baum does, in the sense that in fact most important in the world are not the facts but our view on the facts, and for Wittgenstein this view was religious. This reading by Baum is possible and at first sight his argumentation is convincing, but a more general ethical interpretation of this passage remains possible.
Since I am very interested in the First World War I was curious to know Wittgenstein’s war experiences. As for that the value of the notebooks is limited. They tell us a bit about what Wittgenstein did during the war, his relations to other soldiers, how much he worked on the Tractatus, when he was under fire, and so on, but the notes are short – often too short– and it is difficult to relive Wittgenstein’s war on the basis of these notes. Many other war diaries and novels written by soldiers give so much more insight in the personal experiences and feelings of the authors (cf. the diaries by Maurice Genevoix and Charles Delvert, to mention only two of them). The notebooks have hardly any value for military history, but the more important they are for understanding Wittgenstein as a person and for understanding the Tractatus. Therefore I wonder why it took so long before they have been published and why they haven’t been published in Wittgenstein’s Collected Works. They are essential for understanding a great work in philosophy and a great philosopher.
I want to end with a quotation from the Secret Notebooks:
“When one feels that one gets bogged down in a problem, one must not think about it any longer, for otherwise one stays stuck to it” (November 26, 1914). It’s a lesson a lot of us should take to heart.

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

Monday, August 24, 2015

Space and time in society

Actually the intrusion of the private into the public, but also of the public into the private, is remarkable. Not the fact that it happens but it points to some interesting aspects of social life. As a sociologist I am used to think about society in terms of social relationships, so in terms of the way we connect with others and what these connections mean to us. However, actually society is not only a matter of relations but the way social life takes place has also something to do with where relationships are entered into. Moreover, social relationships are also temporal in some way. Now I am the first to deny that this idea is something new. There are other sociologists and philosophers who have written about it before. Nevertheless, the aspects of place and time are often ignored when society and social relations are studied and that’s why I want to talk about it here.
Take for instance the separation of the private and the public discussed in my blog last week. It is not without reason that Žižek and others don’t talk simply of the separation of both spheres of life as such but that they talk of the separation public space and private space. In other words, the private and the public are spheres that are not only characterized by distinctive manners but also by the geographical areas where they take place. The private is typically the sphere of life at home where the walls of your house protect you against the look of others, while the public is typically the sphere of life in the street, where everybody can see what you do. Therefore it’s not weird to say that the private intrudes the public or the other way round, for it is a bit the same as if a burglar breaks into your house: boundaries are exceeded (in fact, that is what happens when someone talks too loud when calling in a train and others feel disturbed).
Usually it takes some time to go from the private to the public space: You have to open the front door of your house and maybe walk through your front garden, before you are really in the public space. In the front garden you are still on your private property but nevertheless you cannot do there everything you like (by law, you are not allowed to go naked there, though you are allowed to do so in your back garden, especially when there is a wall around it).
The separation in space and time is not only characteristic of the spheres of the private and the public. For example, we meet some friends only in the sports field and maybe we would never get the idea to invite them for a birthday party, even if we feel very close to them when we go along with them as team mates. As soon as we leave the stadium, each of us goes his own way. And it is the same for the people we meet at the work place: Our colleagues are usually not our friends and, even if they are, during the working hours at the workplace we treat our friends not as such (which may be a reason for conflicts between us, however).
In his An ethnologist in the metro Marc Augé says about the same: “In order to go from one activity to another one needs time and space.” This is what we use the underground for and “when we change our activities at certain hours, we change also our locations. These changes of activity are not simply technical changes; they can go together with real role changes, for example when they go together with a passage from the life that we call professional to the life that we call private. The contrast private life / professional life as such does not comprise all kinds of changes of activity: there are forms of life that are more or less public that are not professional – it happens that one goes, alone or with friends, to public places in order to relax; that one goes to the stadium; to a parade; to a display of fireworks; to the theater; or to the cinema – and multiple forms of private life, official or secret, with family or alone, juridical or religious ...” (2013, 95-96; translated from the French edition)
Many of our activities based on social relationships are place bound and time bound, or at least in modern contemporaneous society they are, which can make our life rather compartmentalized.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Public and private

Recently I have read Event. Philosophy in Transit by Slavoj Žižek (Penguin Books, London etc. , 2014). I have some doubts about the book, but I’ll not write a review. Here I want to limit myself to discussing a passage that casts an interesting light on modern society. In this passage Žižek points to the changing status of public space: “ ‘[The] street is an intensively private place and seemingly the words public and private make no sense.’ ... [B]eing in a public space does not entail only being together with other unknown people – in moving among them, I am still within my private space, engaged in no interaction with or recognition of them. In order to count as public, the space of my co-existence and interaction with others (or the lack of it) has to be covered by security cameras.” (p. 176; the first sentence is a quotation from the Chinese People’s Daily)
According to Žižek the public space is becoming smaller while the private space is growing: Actions performed only at home in the past, or in places where they couldn’t be observed by others now often take place also “in the street” without the feeling of any shame that everybody can see them. Indeed, I can remember that when I was a child, kissing in public between lovers “was not done”. Now nobody cares. Today, it even happens sometimes, so Žižek, that fully erotic games take place in “heavily public places” like beaches, trains, railway stations, shopping malls, and the like, and most people passing by do as if they don’t see it. In other words, the private intrudes the public. People check themselves only when surveillance cameras are present, and this is not so, I think – Žižek doesn’t explain it – because people can be seen, for in public spaces people can always be seen, but it is because they can be punished for what they do. Only Big Brother can make that people behave themselves, or so it seems.
How about the private space? Does it become larger, because it simply absorbs parts of the public space? This would fit into the modern trend of increasing individualism. Žižek seems to think it does: “It is often said that today, with our total exposure to the media, culture of public confessions and instruments of digital control, private space is disappearing. One should counter this commonplace with the opposite claim: it is the public space proper which is disappearing. The person who displays on the web his naked images or intimate data and obscene dreams is not an exhibitionist: exhibitionists intrude into the public space, while those who post their naked images on the web remain in their private space and are just expanding it to include others” (pp. 178-9; italics Žižek).
Although this is true as such, I doubt whether it is only the private space that extends at the cost of the public space. It’s not a development only in one direction. For why else, for instance, are we advised to cover the webcam of our laptops or PCs? Just because otherwise our private actions can become public we are said to do so. Or take the activities of the secret services that try to find out what government leaders do, but also the laws that prescribe that data once considered private, like e-mail data, calling behaviour and data on other activities you do via the  modern media are collected and stored. I can see this only as an intrusion of the public into the private, and so do national committees that have been established by governments (!) for protecting the private. And once people become aware that their private behaviour can be seen by public agencies, albeit secret public agencies, it’s quite well possible that they are going to behave accordingly, so that they restrain themselves in what they say and do on line (like people in a dictatorship do).
What we see here then is both an extension of the private at the cost of the public and an extension of the public at the cost of the private. The development is not one-sided, as Žižek seems to suggest. Even more, I think that the idea that there is a distinction between the public and the private is at stake. Rather than that one sphere of society intrudes the other, or that one (the private) expands itself at the cost of the other, maybe it will be so that the separation of the private and the public will fade away and that both will mingle so that we’ll gradually get one single common sphere with more public and more private corners at most. Will it be worrying? Given our present way of life it will. Nevertheless, such a mixture of spheres is not new. It’s what you find in small isolated societies and, I guess, what you found in “primitive” prehistoric societies, so in societies where more or less direct relations prevailed. But just that is a reason to be worried, for nowadays we do not live any longer in such small-scale societies but in mass societies. Just in mass societies, in which direct relations are mainly absent, keeping the two spheres apart is important for protecting us against the arbitrariness of Big Brother and our fellow man.

Monday, August 10, 2015

On commemorating

Monument for the victims of the terror attack in Bodø, Norway

The day I arrived in Trondheim Norway commemorated the terror attacks of July 22, 2011, when 77 people were murdered. Exactly four years ago I was travelling somewhere north of Oslo. Since I avoid the news during my holidays, and also because my knowledge of Norwegian is only basic, it took some time before I knew what had happened. It came as a shock. Now I had been travelling around in the country again and one of the things I noticed were the local monuments remembering the calamity.
Commemorating impressive events of life with monuments, especially when there have been many victims or when these events have changed history in a significant way, is a normal aspect of life. Maybe some readers know that I make pictures of monuments and sites related to the First World War, which I publish on my main website (see A century after its end commemorations are still held. The more so this happens for more recent events like the Second World War, 9/11, or the shot down of the Malaysian airliner of flight MH 17 last year in the Eastern Ukraine. Remembering seems to be a basic act of life, not only for individuals but also for whole societies. Has it always been so?
My answer to this question can only be a try and please correct me if you know more about it. Anyway, I have a strong impression that it has to do something with our view on history and the way we place facts and events in life – as individuals and as society. And so I think that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. I don’t want to say that remembering the victims of a war, a violent event or a tragic incident did not happen long ago but then it had always been private or limited to small circles of people. Through the years, I have seen many monuments for the First World War – of course – and for the Second World War as well. You find them everywhere in this part of Europe and a lot of them outside this region, too. I have also seen monuments for other wars and human catastrophes like the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), or for victims of traffic accidents along roads, and so on. What strikes me is that they date from the middle of the 19th century or thereafter. Of course, there are many older monuments, like the Roman triumphal arches, but these monuments do not remember victims but victories in war. Or you find religious crosses on crossroads or chapels that have been built on memorable sites – and I think that it is the same so in non-Christian countries and regions – but they are anonymous in the sense that a casual passer-by does not know what happened there. They remember only for those who know what happened and they don’t tell you about it and just that monuments invite the passer-by to stop and to read what occurred and that they remember who died – indeed, “modern” war monuments are often full of names – is a phenomenon of relatively modern history, I think.
Why just now? As I see it, it has to do with a new idea of history called “historicism”, which developed in the 19th century and stressed the significance of the context in which things happen, and also with the rise of psychology at the same time, which stresses the importance of remembering and contending with traumas for a balanced inner life. It is not that such scholarly ideas explicitly made us build monuments but they stand for a new view on society and the way we deal with what happened to us. Once I thought that many monuments – especially monuments remembering wars – were only an expression of nationalism, so just the kind of feeling that also caused the wars that such monuments were erected for. Later I learned that nationalism is only one aspect of such monuments and often it is only a minor aspect. For monuments, like so many symbols, express especially an inner emotion and they try to summarize what many people feel and want to share with others.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Keep it simple

Descartes’ Rules for the Direction of the Mind (see my blog dated June 22, 2015) gives not only the basic rules for a methodic approach of scientific problems. It contains also a number of statements that have a wider meaning; statements that have sense in the daily contact of men with each other. Some seem obvious. Nevertheless we often forget to apply them. For example, in Rule IX Descartes tells us that people are often more impressed by difficult high-flown far-fetched reasonings that they don’t completely understand than by simple transparent arguments. Knowledge, so Descartes, must not be deduced from what looks important and obscure but from what is easy and common. Isn’t it so that – my instance – a politician that uses bombastic language without content and not founded on the facts tends to have more followers than one who says the truth in a clear way?
Descartes’ words made me think of what is called Occam’s razor. Occam (or Ockham) himself didn’t use the word “razor” for his principle and he formulated it also in different words than we do today. He was a Franciscan friar who lived from about 1287-1347. The maxim that made him famous was in his words “It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer”. Today this is read as “Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity”. For example, take the reasoning (1) “All men are mortal”- (2) “Philosophers are men” - (3) “Socrates is a philosopher” - (4) “So Socrates is mortal”. This reasoning contains the entity “philosopher”, which is superfluous here, for if we would define “philosopher”, we would get something like “a man who studies fundamental problems”. Fill in the definition in our syllogism and you’ll see that the entity “philosopher” is superfluous in this explanation why Socrates is mortal.
Sometimes Occam’s razor is considered meaning “Say it as simple as possible”. This interpretation is not correct, for arguing from several entities can be more brain breaking than a single statement with one or two entities that comprises a lot. Aristotle thought that bodies like stones fall on the ground because it’s there that their “natural place” is. However, reality appeared to be more complex and now we use complicated Newtonian suppositions and formulas for explaning gravity or, even better, Einstein’s theory of general relativity, even though Aristotle’s view was simpler.
Occam’s razor has a long history. Actually Occam was not the first one who formulated the principle. Once clearly formulated by him it had a big influence. Many scientists applied it and many philosophers referred to it. Wittgenstein, one of my favourite philosophers, said it this way: “If a sign is not necessary then it is meaningless” (Tractatus logico-philosophicus: 3.328). Or later “Occam’s Razor ... says that unnecessary elements in a symbolism mean nothing.” (5.47321).
Things that we first thought to be simple can be quite complicated but Occam’s razor helps us avoid unnecessary complications. It’s not completely harmless, as we have seen, and take care of the pitfall of oversimplification of Occam’s razor, but nevertheless as a rule of thumb you can start with the idea to keep it as simple as you can and then look what it brings. It helps prevent that you’ll be deceived by people who want to impress with an air of erudition and scholarship. For as Descartes warned us in Rule XII: Learned people are often so ingenious that they find a way to be blind even in matters that are clear as such and that every simple mind understands.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Why it is good to make a bad plan.

I finished my last blog saying that with his definition of “person” Locke gave a lead of departure for future discussions on the concept. We call such a lead also a “handle”. Famous critics of Locke were Joseph Butler (1736) and Thomas Reid (1785), but the discussion still goes on today. It shows how important a good handle is for starting a discussion and making progress, for what should we talk about if we have nothing to talk about? We should first have to invent a theme and next we should have to give it contents, too. For instance, we can decide to talk about “man” as the ancient Greek philosophers did. But then? We have only something to discuss if we fill in the idea of man, so if we define it. That’s what Plato did when he described man as a featherless biped. Now Diogenes of Sinope had a handle to criticize Plato’s definition, which he did by bringing Plato a plucked chicken: Plato’s “man”. As a result Plato changed his definition to “Man is an upright, featherless biped with broad, flat nails”. And so the discussion on man begun.
Although this is a funny anecdote, it shows in a nutshell what science is: making theories, testing theories in an experimental way, improving theories. Although many people think that science starts with the second, so with experimental research or at least with observing, this is not true. The idea is the first of these three steps in science, for without ideas there is nothing to start with and there is nothing to investigate. People who think that they just look and then start to develop ideas conceive themselves. Their ideas are simply implicit and not explicitly worded.
In a scheme it goes this way:
P1 > T1 > E > T2 > P2
P(1) is a question or theme we want to discuss, or something like that, also called the problem. For example: “What is man?”. Then we form an idea how things might be arranged, a kind of theory, like “Man is a featherless biped” (T1). Is it true? We can try to find it out by discussing about it and doing tests and experiments (E). If we are successful, we can formulate a better theory (T2). But often we are not fully satisfied with our solution or improved theory. Then we get new questions, new themes to talk about, etc. (P2). And so our knowledge evolves.
A scheme for the evolution of knowledge has also been developed by Karl R. Popper:
P1 > TT > EE > P2
Again, P1 is the problem we start with. TT means “tentative theory”, so the way we guess that the things we are interested in might be arranged. EE refers to the tests and investigations of our tentative ideas. Actually Popper calls this phase “error elimination”. When we have finished the EE phase, however, we are never completely contented with our result, so we get a new problem situation, which Popper calls P2.
Is Poppers scheme for the evolution of knowledge right? In a certain sense it is, if we suppose that my T2 is the conclusion of Poppers EE and that it is included in it: From a philosophical or scientific point of view a solution of a problem is never completely satisfactory, for we can always ask new questions. Therefore no solution is free of problems. Nevertheless I think that it is better to formulate T2 explicitly like in my scheme, for in practice it is often so that we stop once we have formulated T2, even in case we are not completely satisfied. There is nothing against doing so, for how should it be different in many cases? In practice we need to act! We cannot continuously go on evaluating, discussing, thinking about the best solution, as if we live in an ivory tower. We simply have to do something.
This makes me think of something I learned already as a child. I liked playing chess and in order to improve my level I studied chess books. Then I learned from the great chess player and chess theoretician Aron Nimzowitsch that a bad plan is better than no plan. I never forgot it and I still apply it. For if we have no plan, we don’t know where to start and we keep erring, but also a bad plan gives us a point of departure. Even if our first steps lead to nothing, we have a frame for evaluating our mistakes and improving our design. How this works tells us a scheme for the evolution of knowledge, like mine or like Popper’s.

Source: Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979; p. 164.
op website 13 juli 2015