Monday, June 19, 2017

The cement of society (2)

Trenches of the Western Front, First World War.
 On the foreground Allied trenches; on the background German trenches. 

In my last blog I put that trust is the cement of society. Montaigne stated that it is just language that ties people together, but I see it this way that language is the means used to inspire trust. However, what is trust? In an old blog I described trust as a kind of promise, but as I see it now this is actually not to the point. It’s true that accepting a promise is not possible without trusting the person who gives the promise, but trust is much wider. It involves also other relationships. Nevertheless we can find the essential aspects of trust in the relationship constituted by a promise. For one thing, a promise involves a kind of dependence, and so it is with trust. One doesn’t give a promise or accept it, when one has nothing to do with the other. The person who accepts the promise needs the help of the person who gives the promise, or the other way round. This dependence can be of different kinds. For instance,you need the practical help of the other, or his or her moral support. My friend promises to help me, or a person in need promises to follow my advice, knowing that it is the best for him or that by not doing so he will lose my future support. However, the latter example shows that the dependency may be rather weak, for perhaps the person who gives the promise may know others who can help him, so why not break the promise? Often there are no sanctions in order to extort a promise. It’s the same so for a relation of trust. So, for another thing, trust is vulnerable. This makes that Annette Baier sees trust as a kind of reliance on the good will of the other, and that she formulates the essence of trust in this way: “Where one depends on another’s good will, one is necessarily vulnerable to the limits of that good will. One leaves others an opportunity to harm one when one trusts, and also show’s one’s confidence that they will not take it. ... Trust then ... is accepted vulnerability to another’s possible but not expected ill will (or lack of good will) toward one.” (p. 235) This description of trust is, so Baier, a first approximation of the idea, but for this blog it will do.
Briefly, who trusts takes the risk that things will not evolve as hoped or expected. It’s therefore not surprising that for Niklas Luhmann – who wrote an influential book on trust – risk is the core of trust. He called it a “risky advance” (p. 27). I think that this idea of trust as risky advance needs an explanation, but instead of spending some abstract words on the matter, I want to quote a passage from Léon Werth’s autobiographic novel Clavel Soldat, which exactly says what it is about. The event takes place during the First World War on the Western Front in Northern France. Clavel cannot sleep and goes back to the trench for a smoke, when dawn breaks:
“Someone holds out his head above the parapet. He makes a movement with his arms as if he brings a rifle to his shoulder. Then he shakes his head as if he says “no”. It’s Arnoult, one of the volunteers...
Apparently a German in the trench on the other side has answered his signs, for he seems not to consider it necessary any longer to take precautions.
– Comrades... Dirty work... Arnoult says.... Scheissarbeit [shit work]
A voice on the other side answers:
Verfluchte Scheissarbeit [damned shit work]
The corporal plucks him by his coat.
– They’ll shoot you down.
He answers:
– I trust them.
And then he shows himself up to his middle through a break in the parapet.”
(p. 174)

In our incalculable and anonymous world we have often no option but trust if we want to reach our aims or if we want to make contact. Not everything can be arranged and regulated ahead: We have to take risks and to trust, even though, as Luhmann puts it, in the end trust has no foundation (p.31). For trust bridges the moments of uncertainty in the behaviour of other people (p. 27).

- Baier, Annette, “Trust and Antitrust”, in Ethics, Vol. 96, No. 2 (Jan., 1986), pp. 231-260.
- Luhmann, Niklas, Vertrauen. Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft; 2014.
- Werth, Léon, Clavel Soldat. Paris: Viviane Hamy, 2006.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The cement of society

Murder is the worst crime you can commit. I think that most of us will agree. Not so Montaigne. For him there is at least one crime that is worse: Lying. As he writes in his essay Of liars: “In plain truth, lying is an accursed vice. We are not men, nor have other tie upon one another, but by our word. If we did but discover the horror and gravity of it, we should pursue it with fire and sword, and more justly than other crimes.”
On the face of it, Montaigne’s view seems surprising. Nevertheless there is some truth in it, for as Montaigne says a few lines after the quotation: “If falsehood had, like truth, but one face only, we should be upon better terms; for we should then take for certain the contrary to what the liar says: but the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit.” In other words, lying undermines the faith we have in the speaker. We cannot trust a person if s/he lies. And if we cannot trust what someone says, what remains then? As Montaigne had just said (see the first quotation here): we have no other ties with each other than by what we say. We need it for inspiring trust. That’s why lying affects the basis of society, even to that extent that for Montaigne it’s the worst crime that can happen.
I think that the importance of trust for our living together is underestimated. It glues society together. It’s the cement of society. If we don’t trust someone, it is difficult to built a relationship with him or her. If a person lies to us on one occasion about something that is important to us, who knows maybe s/he’ll do it a next time as well. If we don’t have reason to think that this person has changed, we tend to avoid him or her and we don’t want to enter into a relationship with this man or woman any longer or we take our precautions in order to diminish the risk that we’ll again be deceived. As a consequence our relationship becomes difficult, often to the detriment of both of us. That’s one reason why corrupt societies are economically less flourishing than societies where corruption is more or less absent. For isn’t corruption also a kind of a lie?
Montaigne says of himself that “I have this vice in so great horror, that I am not sure I could prevail with my conscience to secure myself from the most manifest and extreme danger by an impudent and solemn lie.” Actually, I think that this has more to do with the type of personality Montaigne is than with a principled horror of lying whatever the circumstances – if it is true what he writes here, for who says always the truth about him or herself, even if s/he doesn’t lie? – For, would a modern Montaigne who had hidden an Anne Frank in a tower of his castle really say “yes”, if an SS-man would knock on his gate and ask whether she is staying there? (If I may believe him, Kant would have said that she is). Who lives within a lie must not be surprised that s/he will meet with a lie. And a lie to the SS-man is a word of truth and confidence to Anne Frank. Sometimes lying is necessary in order to restore trust.

Sources: Michel de Montaigne, “Of Liars”,
James Lewis, “Commentary on Montaigne’s On Liars,

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Barber of Seville

Although it was not a real promise to write yet another time on Russell, nevertheless once I have said that I may return to him sooner or later I feel it as a kind of obligation to do so. And since there is a saying that you must never put off till tomorrow what you can do today, I think the best is to write about him now.
I reread the chapter “The Limits of Philosophical Knowledge” in Russell’s book The Problems of Philosophy, but when I asked myself what I should say about it, I realized that I had not so much to add to my criticism written a few weeks ago. For also in this chapter Russell’s view on philosophy (as treated here and in the whole book) is somewhat limited and moreover it is a bit outdated. When Russell thinks of philosophy he thinks of epistemological issues in the first place, so questions in the field of knowledge. But as I have written four weeks ago, there is so much more in philosophy. Now it is so that Russell himself writes in this chapter that “we have scarcely touched on many matters that occupy a great space in the writings of most philosophers. Most philosophers – or, at any rate, very many – profess to be able to prove, by a priori metaphysical reasoning, such things as the fundamental dogmas of religion, the essential rationality of the universe, the illusoriness of matter, the unreality of all evil, and so on.” (p. 82) And then he thinks of philosophers like Kant and Hegel. However, according to Russell, such problems cannot be solved by philosophy but only by science. That’s true, I think, but I doubt whether most, or otherwise very many philosophers spent their time in Russel’s days and before on the themes just mentioned and on related themes. I think that there were also quite a lot of philosophers who reflected on other themes, and they were not the least important. I guess that there were more of them than Russell thought. A case in point is Nietzsche. And when I was developing the ideas that led to my dissertation, I spent much time on studying the works of the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), who transformed the method of explaining texts into a general method for the social sciences. By doing so he developed the method of Verstehen (understanding) and in this way he became one of the founders of the philosophy of action (still today one of the lively branches of philosophy). Dilthey was also an important contributor to the so-called Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life). A few other philosophers I want to mention yet without further explanation are Montaigne, Rousseau and Karl Marx. All these philosophers (with the exception of Dilthey) are mentioned in Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.
But by writing in this way on Russell I tend to ignore his great contributions to philosophy. For example, his critique on set theory led to a shock in the world of mathematics around 1900. I am not a mathematician, so I can’t explain you the ins and outs in detail and in a accessible way, but who doesn’t know the story of the Barber of Seville? And then I don’t mean Rossini’s opera but the barber in this town who had written on the signboard of his shop “I shave all men who do not shave themselves” (implying: and only men who do not shave themselves). It’s a paradox, for what about the barber himself? The story has been told in another version by Lewis Carroll and has been used by Russell to criticize the set theory, for does or doesn’t the barber belong to the set of his clients? The set theory couldn’t tell and finally the problem was solved by changing the rules that define a set. It seems that there is nothing as easy as that: When you can’t solve it, ignore it. In a positive way we can say, of course, that a mistake in the set theory was eliminated in the sense of Popper’s error elimination. It’s the way science develops. Nevertheless, it looks a bit like a trick. Moreover, actually the entire paradox is based on the prejudice that the barber is not a woman.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why don’t we care?

Maybe I should add this week yet a bit to what I have written in my last blog. My view on the case there has been implicit, but actually there is much to say about it. And doesn’t the case tell a lot about the kind of persons we are? For I don’t see it as a case about individuals who behave in a specific situation but as a case that is typical for man (woman) as such. So I do not reproach by writing this blog the individual agents involved and their individual behaviour; nor do I reproach the individual policeman and -woman his and her (in my eyes) unprofessional behaviour – “unprofessional”, for shouldn’t it be so that in emergency cases helping the victims is one of the first things to do as long as no other help is present? – No, in my view the case says a lot about the kind of person Man (Woman) is, at least in certain social, cultural and historical circumstances. Just that’s why I started in my last blog with the quotation from Werth’s autobiographic novel Clavel Soldat, – actually Clavel=Werth – which happened to take place in the same region where my wife and I were involved in the road accident. But in the end Man (Woman) does not exist and there are only individuals who act and make choices.
There is much in this case that must make you think and that determines what people do in certain concrete circumstances. I’ll mention a few:
- As psychological studies have shown: The more people are present at the place of an accident, the fewer people will help, for everybody thinks that another person will do so, and if no one else does, why just you?
- Once one person takes the initiative to help, more people present are prepared to help. However, in fact most of them will help only if they are asked in person to do so. So if you are at the place of an accident and can’t handle it alone, don’t expect that the others present will help you, but address yourself to a specific person among the bystanders – whoever it is – and then it’s almost certain that this person will help.
- Each car driver (and car passenger) passing by without giving help was not simply someone passing by, but s/he was passing by in a box, namely in a car. They saw the accident through the windows of their cars, a bit as if they were watching a drama in a theatre. And who will give help to the actors in need on the stage? In other words, the fact that you are sitting in a car creates a distance between your world within the car and the world outside the car. The world outside the car becomes a kind of objective occurrence that develops independently of you; a kind of drama acted on a stage (unless you yourself collide with another car).
- People are more willing to help when they have prepared themselves in some way what to do in situations they don’t expect or that suddenly happen. Even a little mental preparation at home will do a lot to make you act in the right way in sudden circumstances. That’s also why I called the behaviour of the policepersons involved unprofessional, for isn’t it to be expected that it is a part of their training to care for the victims and to see whether help is necessary?
- All persons involved in the accident were foreigners or of foreign origin (which in case of the Frenchman involved was maybe not clear at first sight, however; but the other cars involved had foreign registration numbers).
Voilà a little philosophy of help or rather non-help. I had the intention to write this week yet a bit about Bertrand Russell’s book The Problems of Philosophy and especially about the chapter on “The Limits of Philosophical Knowledge”. But once I started to write, my fingers begun to type on the Problem of Man (Woman) and so it became a blog on his (her) limits. Maybe another time I’ll return to Russell.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Who cares

(the truck had already gone to the hard shoulder)

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Even Russell sometimes nods

Even Homer sometimes nods

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

Monday, May 01, 2017

The times they are a-changin’

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

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Philosophy by the Way contest

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

Monday, April 24, 2017

Moral luck (2)

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

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

Moral luck

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

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

The double meaning of words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 03, 2017

Big Brother will come within you

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

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

Something to celebrate: Ten years of philosophical blogs

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

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Karl-Otto Apel 95 years: A personal homage

Karl-Otto Apel

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

Succeeding a successor: Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 06, 2017

Teasing thoughts

Elisabeth and Erika

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

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