Monday, December 27, 2010

Our future piggish identity

aIn his We are our brain the Dutch brain researcher Dick Swaab makes us think not only about the free will (see my blog two weeks ago), but also about our personal identity. His discussion of the subject is especially relevant for the question whether this identity is determined by psychological factors, by bodily factors or by both. One of the weak points of the pure psychological approach is that it denies that our personal identity is at least partially dependent on our physical constitution. Its adherents reject not only the importance of our bodily characteristics for our identity but they ignore also the way psychological characteristics are fixed in our body. They do accept that our psychological characteristics are physically fixed in our body in some way, indeed, for what sense would a brain swap have, if it weren’t? But they do not see that many psychological characteristics are not fixed to our body like a painting on a canvass (which makes that we can replace the canvass and keep the painting, albeit with much effort), but that they are inextricably tied to our material structure and are dependent on the individual features of our brain and in the end on the structure of our DNA.
The foregoing is not a pure philosophical problem. It may get a practical meaning as soon as it will become possible to transplant brain tissue from a foetus for repairing defects in another brain, as Swaab explains. For since “many of our characteristics, including our character, are determined in the structure of our brain during our foetal development … which characteristics could you get then from your donor?”, Swaab asks. These characteristics are dependent on what part of the foetus brain is used for the transplantation and where it will be placed in the donor’s brain. When this technique can be realized, especially in the higher brain structure, “it is to be wondered to what extent a new person is being composed, and how much transplanted tissue makes that the receiver should actually use the name of the donor as his second family name”. The issue of personal identity will become even more interesting, Swaab adds, when we are going to use tissues from other creatures for our brain transplantations. Until now these operations were hardly successful, “[b]ut if such xenotransplantations should ever become effective, would these transplants provide man then [for instance] with a bit of the friendliness and intelligence of the pigs?” If that is so, maybe it would not be a bad idea to improve our identity as a person in this way. (See Swaab, Wij zijn ons brein, pp. 170-1, also for the quotations).

Monday, December 20, 2010

The irremovable difference between presence and absence

Sometimes I think that I am a stupid philosopher. One who is too simple-minded to see the value of complicated thoughts and the truth of certain philosophical statements which are clear for many of my confrères. I faced this fact again when I started to read an article about Heidegger, or rather about his philosophical method, in a journal I am subscribed to. I knew that reading it would be quite an effort for me because of Heidegger’s obscure style. And many comments on his texts are not much better. Indeed, I had only just read one page when there was talk of “a thorough and irremovable difference between presence and absence” that formed the background of a long-lasting philosophical debate. I was baffled. I must admit that I had missed the debate, to which, according to the author of the article, outstanding philosophers like Heidegger (you guess it), Levinas and Derrida had contributed. But, of course, it is no wonder that I had missed it, for just such statements make me drop out. For what does this quotation mean when I look at it with a down-to-earth mind, forgetting for a moment that I am a philosopher? Or maybe when I look at it from the viewpoint of an analytical philosopher? Frankly speaking, it is nonsense. For the thoroughness and irremovability of the difference between presence and absence is already in the meaning of the words. It is analytical. It is as if you say: “If I am here I am not there”. Nothing is clearer and more analytical than this. Of course, it is thorough and irremovable, so what are we talking about then?
I continued reading the article but you’ll not be surprised that I put it aside after a few sentences. Actually I was a bit disappointed that I did not have the perseverance to read it to its end, since it is obvious now that I’ll never become a great thinker. For, so Heidegger, all great thinkers think the same because they all know themselves being bound by the question of Being. But it’s Heidegger’s Being and that’s not mine. For me this Being is nothing, and as Heidegger told us, the nothing nothings. Oh, help, let me stop here, before I do become a Heideggerian philosopher.

P.S. I know that this is a caricature but sometimes a caricature tells the truth better than telling the truth. In Heideggerian terms, it unhides the hidden better, than the unhidden itself.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Do my hormones make my choices?

In We are our brain the Dutch brain researcher Dick Swaab, defends the thesis that in the end everything we do is determined by the biology of our brain. Our brain steers our development, mainly with the help of hormones. Sexuality, juvenile behaviour, depressions, aggression, psychological diseases … This is just a random choice of our hormone guided behaviour. Therefore it is no surprise that Swaab concludes that there is no “complete ‘Free Will’ ”.
If one sees the free will as the possibility to take decisions independent of internal or external limitations, so Swaab, our present neurobiological knowledge makes clear that there can be no complete freedom. Conceived this way, I think there’ll be hardly any person who thinks that there is. The limits of our body, but also of our social and cultural environment, are widely accepted as the limits of our freedom. However, Swaab does not make clear what our freedom then is, but I guess that he doesn’t see much space for the free will.
Yet, despite himself, he gives a hint where our freedom has to be sought. One of our characteristics determined by hormones during our prenatal development is the meaning of eye contact. In Western cultures, so Swaab, women use eye contact in order to understand other women better, and they enjoy it. For Western men, however, eye contact means testing their place in the hierarchy, which can be very menacing. In business negotiations, eye contact between women leads to more creative solutions, while eye contact between men has a negative effect on the results. “You can take advantage of this practical tip”, so Swaab concludes.
I think that just this remark says a lot about the limits of the determinism of our brain. In order to explain this I want to refer to a distinction by Jürgen Habermas between two levels of meaning, level 1 and level 0. The former is the level all sciences are faced with when they theoretically interpret their objects of research. The latter level is typical of those sciences that have to deal with objects that have been given meaning by the investigated people themselves. This made me distinguish two kinds of meaning: meaning 1 and meaning 0 (see here). The former is the kind of meaning used on the first level. It is the meaning a scientist gives to an object, either physical or social in character; it is the scientist’s theoretical interpretation of reality. Meaning 0 is the concept of meaning for the underlying level 0. It is the meaning people who make up social reality give to this social reality or to parts of it themselves; it is their interpretation of their own lived reality.
When we return to Swaab’s description of the meaning of eye contact and his conclusion, we can apply the distinction of two levels of meaning here, too. When a researcher studies the effects of hormones on the meaning of eye contact, she is on level 1. When Swaab says, however, “You can take advantage of this practical tip”, he is no longer on the level of the biological mechanism.  In fact, he says then what this mechanism can mean for us, the appliers of the eye contact, and also that the mechanism needs no longer be an automatism but that we can use it for the benefit of ourselves. By interpreting the biological mechanism this way we have arrived at level 0. It is the level where we can reflect on our biological constitution and where we can take advantage of it, if we are conscious of it. Just this conclusion by Swaab shows that our determinism has its limits. Therefore I think that there is room for a free will on level 0. Swaab gives also another hint that points in this direction, when he describes the meaning eye contacts have for Western women and men. For doesn’t this refer to the idea that our biological functioning can have another interpretation in another culture and so lead to other choices in other cultures?

Monday, December 06, 2010

“I cannot hand over the eyes”

Look at this: “It’s pitch dark. I can not hand over the eyes. Do you view please?” What would it mean? I think that you cannot make any sense of it. I have translated it from Dutch with a translation tool from the Internet. If I would translate it myself it would be something like “It is pitch-dark here. I can’t see anything at all (verbally: I cannot see a hand before my eyes; it’s a Dutch expression). Do you put the light on?” It’s a simple situation. The sentences are simple. Nothing special. The Dutch expression that I used for “I cannot see anything at all” is common. Nevertheless the translation tool made a mess of it. Moreover, it didn’t translate the word “here” in the first sentence of the example.
Or take this: “Do you have fits”? In this case I had translated the English sentence “Do you have matches?” (implying that I wanted to light a cigarette) into Dutch with the same language tool. Then I retranslated it myself into English, as verbally as possible, in order to show also what a mess you can get when you translate in the other direction.
I have the impression that Internet translation tools are increasingly used. It seems so easy: You want to translate something into another language, for instance because you want to send a message to another person and you do not share a common language with her. So, take a translation tool and translate it. What many people do not realize (and let’s hope that the constructors of the translation tools do realize it) is that translating is more than simply replacing words by other words plus the application of the right rules of grammar. For using a language takes place in a context, and words get their meanings only in a context. This is already important when a word or a sentence has apparently only a single meaning. “He took the knife and made a cut in the body” implies something very different whether it is done by a murderer or by a surgeon. Context becomes even more important when words have several unrelated meanings, like “match”, which can have such different meanings as an organized game, a small wooden stick for producing fire, making the same or equal, and many more. We have seen this in the scene where I wanted to light a cigarette and asked someone for matches. The translation tool misses the context and thinks of the verb “to match” instead of the small wooden sticks I need (it could also have mistakenly thought that I asked for games). This, combined with the problem that translation tools tend to take words verbally (see the first example where it did not take “I cannot see a hand before my eyes” as a Dutch expression), makes that translation tools are still an unreliable means for transferring meanings from one language to another. And one can wonder whether they’ll ever become reliable in future. For a language is not simply an instrument of communication, a language expresses also a way of life. And when you doubt about what I have written here, just pick a translation tool from the Internet and render this blog in another language.

Monday, November 29, 2010

What are we voting for?

Dutch national symbols
Some blogs ago I discussed that much of what I do is not steered by my conscious I but by my unconscious part, so by my zombie. My conscious I is often not more than an interpreter in my brain that tells me what the zombie has decided and my zombie is the actual steersman. But who steers my zombie? Or is it so that my zombie steers itself by an unconscious process of deliberation and reasoning that in the end decides what “I” want to do, actually not different from the way I would do it, when I would perform the process consciously?
Some distressing light on this question has been shed by experiments concerning political thought and behaviour by a group of Israeli researchers. The normative perspective suggests, they say, “that one’s political agenda should be driven by two factors: one’s ideology and the facts of the matter. These should form the input for an intentional reasoning process, wherein the goal is carefully thought-through political activity.” And indeed, psychological research has substantiated that one’s ideology and current events do influence political behaviour and thought, but in view of recent developments in cognitive psychology it is to be expected that unconscious processes play an important part as well. In order to investigate this the researchers tried to find out in a series of experiments whether subliminal presentation of national symbols influences one’s stance on political opinions and political behaviour. In these experiments the participants were confronted with several political issues. However, just before the presentation of the issues a national flag (which stood for the national symbol) was shown for such a short time that the participants were not aware of it. Both before and after the experiments the participants were asked their opinions on certain political themes. In one experiment the voting intention in coming elections was asked and then after the elections what they had really voted. All experiments showed the same result: On the average the participants had before the experiments more extreme views than after them. Therefore the researchers concluded: “the subliminal presentation of a national flag can bring about significant changes not only in a citizen’s expressed political opinions within an experimental setting but also in their ‘real-life’ overt political behavior”.
What makes this result so interesting for answering my question “who steers my zombie?” but also so worrying is not only that it tells us something about how we form our political opinions and behaviour but also that they can easily be manipulated by others, while we are not aware of it. This is the more worrying, while there is no reason to believe that such manipulation will move us only to the political centre. It is also possible, as the researchers point out, that priming of national symbols can activate extremist ideologies in those who have them already. In other words, what my zombie does for me unconsciously for me can easily be manipulated by not all too honest politicians. Then it may happen that we vote no longer for what we think right, for what we stand for, but simply for our national flag, rightly or wrongly.
Source . The quotations are also from this article.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The economic benefits of transgenic maize and the free rider problem

Maize field after harvest
Recently I read in a Dutch newspaper an article about the economic effects of the cultivation of genetically manipulated maize, in this case Bt corn. Bt corn produces a toxin that is poisonous to the European corn borer, one of the pests of corn. According to the article, a study on the effects of Bt corn in the Midwest of the USA published in Science showed that also on fields where non-manipulated corn was grown the population of the European corn borer decreased with 28 till even 73 percent. The introduction of Bt corn in the region has led to an economic benefit of 6.9 milliard dollars since 1996. However, almost two third of the benefit falls to farmers who do not cultivate Bt corn, but they do not have to pay for the license.
Coen van Wagenberg from Wageningen University speaks here of a free rider effect. Usually a free rider is defined as a person who profits by a public resource without paying a fair share in its costs. You live in an area protected by dikes but don’t want to pay the land draining rates from which the dikes are paid. You take the train but don’t buy a ticket. When there are too many free riders, dikes will not be constructed, public transport will not ride any longer for lack of money and everybody suffers, including the free rider. Therefore the state forces everybody to pay his share and tries to catch fare dodgers. In van Wagenberg’s view, also farmers who do not cultivate Bt corn in a region where other farmers do: The former take advantage of what the latter do, but they do not pay for the costs. The free market, so van Wagenberg, does not work here. Therefore the state must interfere and make that everybody in a region where transgenic maize is grown pays his share in the costs.
At first thoughts the argument seems reasonable: everybody profits by transgenic maize, so everybody has to pay for it. But is this really a case of free riding? I think it is not. Actually the arguments turns the world upside down and it limits freedom in the name of freedom. For does a person have to pay for his neighbour’s decisions?
I live in a terraced house. In winter I set the thermostat of my central heating on 19oC, while my neighbours left and right prefer 21oC. Then warmth flows through the walls to my house and my heating costs are reduced a bit. I profit by what they pay for their heating. Must I pay my neighbours then in order to equalize my benefit? I guess that nobody would get the idea. Everybody is free to choose how warm or cold his house will be and if a neighbour will have it warmer, she must accept that some warmth goes to the neighbour next-door.
I see here no fundamental difference with the case of growing transgenic maize. It involves as little a free rider problem as the case of me warming my house. In fact it is not the “free riding” farmer who undermines the free market as suggested in the article but the farmer growing transgenic maize and those on his side. Maybe some farmers try to profit by what their neighbours grow, but other farmers are simply against growing transgenic plants because of the harmful effects for nature and men’s health of genetic manipulation. It is a matter of private choice that is not comparable to profiting by the protection of dikes or not buying a train ticket. You cannot help that your neighbour chooses to grow Bt maize, like that you cannot help that your next-door neighbour will have her house warmer. The core of the problem whether or not the state must interfere here is not the functioning of the free market, but whether one can force a private person to pay a share in the costs that other private persons have because of their private decisions, so that the costs are fairly shared by all who have the benefits. Growing Bt corn is not a public good, just as making cars isn’t. The problem is an ethical one about freedom of choice and not about unfair competition in a supposedly free market. And it is also about the ethically acceptability to manipulate plants genetically and having persons pay for it who are against it.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Someone gives you money for an investment project. He says that it would be nice to give it back in case you make good gains but you do not need to do so. Your investment is successful and the amount doubles. What will you do? Experiments show that you’ll give it back. Suppose now that your financier says that you have to pay back at least a part, say 20%. It is your choice to pay back more. Again you succeed to double the amount received. What will you do? Experiments show now that the chance that you’ll pay back the whole amount diminishes. Fewer people are prepared to pack back the whole amount now than in the first case.
This is only one instance of what we call trust. Trust is a kind of promise. It says that you will not let your interests prevail at the cost of the interests of the person who trusts you. Trust can be expressed in words, for example by saying “You can trust me” or by behaviour that shows that you can be trusted. Although past behaviour is not a guarantee for what you will do in future, behaviour in the past that undermined that you were trustworthy tends to undermine that you can be trusted in the future.
As these and other experiments show, trust can also be undermined otherwise. Being a kind of promise, trust involves a moral obligation and it relies on an intrinsic motivation. Everything that undermines this intrinsic motivation undermines also trust. People tend to become calculating and to give preference to their own interests at the cost of interests of other people, when rules and regulations prescribe what they have to do and when, and what is allowed and what is not. When money stimulates or sanctions their behaviour trust is undermined, too. However, rules and regulations and monetary relations can never completely replace trust. Not everything can be prescribed and ways to avoid rules remain. Not all interpersonal relations can be steered by prescriptions and money. And then trust plays its part. Or rather we must say that trust comes first and that, when need arises, it is replaced by prescriptive relations (rules and regulations) and money. But this replacement is a double-edged sword. While it helps society function better where trust fails, it undermines trust as well so that the chance that trust will fail grows. Therefore, one must be very careful not to make more rules and regulations than necessary. The same effect can be seen when society becomes too money-based. Then personal relations, relations based on trust, tend to become relations guided by the question: what can I gain from it, what will it bring to me? One of the most extreme forms of this is corruption, and corruption has a disruptive effect on societies. Whichever way you look at it, trust is the foundation of society. Or alternatively: Trust is a lubricant for society and the better quality the lubricant is, the smoother society runs.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The group a person belongs to

A few years ago Mark Rutte, the new Dutch prime minister but then the leader of his parliamentary party, objected to the fact that one of the state secretaries in the government had a double nationality: she had both a Dutch and a Turkish passport. However, when he presented his new cabinet two weeks ago, it turned out that also one of the state secretaries in this cabinet had two passports: a Dutch one and a Swedish one. When asked how this was defensible in view of his former opinion, the prime minister answered that he did not mind that the state secretary had a Swedish passport but when she had had a Turkish passport, it would have been a point of discussion. No wonder that some accused him of discrimination. Apparently a minister or state secretary (and many other people) is not judged here by his or her personal loyalty to the government and the Netherlands but by the group s/he officially belongs to.
But why is just having a certain nationality so important? In the end a person belongs to many different groups and they can all have influence on one’s loyalty to the state. One can think of groups related to gender, class, language, profession, community, race and so on. And isn’t it so that in the past class belongingness was said to be international and that labour leaders often have stressed that workers from different countries would not fight against each other? (So sad, that this did not really happen). Doesn’t this imply that class membership can be by far more important than one’s passport? Or what to think of the language group one belongs to and the many separation movements in this world based on language? And isn’t it so that through the ages the belongingness to a religious group has also been important in determining loyalty to the state? And, to take another example, who cares about the international loyalties (and the loyalties to their own pockets!) of the fraudulent bankers, despite the recent bank crisis?
Amartya Sen argued in his The Idea of Justice that seeing a person “merely as a member of just one particular group would be a major denial of the freedom of each person to decide how exactly to see himself or herself. The increasing tendency seeing people in terms of one dominant ‘identity’ … is not only an imposition of an external and arbitrary priority, but also the denial of an important liberty of a person who can decide on their respective loyalties to different groups …” (pp. 246-247). And that is what often happens. The case of the Dutch prime minister is only one instance. He did not doubt at all about the loyalty of the state secretary with the Turkish passport. It was just that she had a Turkish passport (and apparently not a Swedish one) that counted. So we often do: we judge people not by what they say and do, but by their belongings, even if they cannot help that they have them and even if they cannot change them (like gender, race, but often also the passport). Actually people are then judged by mere formal qualities. We see it, as Sen warns, “particularly … in the present intellectual [and I want to add: political] climate in which individuals tend to be identified as belonging to one social category to the exclusion of all others …, such as being a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu, an Arab or a Jew, a Hutu or a Tutsi, or a member of Western civilization … Individual human beings with their various plural identities, multiple affiliations and diverse associations are quintessentially social creatures with different types of societal interactions. Proposals to see a person merely as a member of one social group tend to be based on an inadequate understanding of the breadth and complexity of any society in the world” (p. 247). And isn’t it so that in this time of globalization there is a tendency to get international and supranational group belongings? That it has become more likely that one has several nationalities, maybe not formally but actually in the sense of having different national roots? In this age of globalization having other-national group belongings is just an asset. It helps giving a person a wider view of what is happening around him or her. Seen this way, membership of a big number of groups, especially those crossing the national borders and those on the other side of the national border should have to be praised, including having a double nationality.

Monday, November 01, 2010

On being selective when travelling around

When travelling around, on holiday, I used to visit many of the buildings and sites recommended in my travel guide. See this! See that! Do not fail to visit this church, you must go to that museum, my guide said, and although I do not want to say that I visited all these places (in the end I wanted to keep some time for visiting the places I liked and for doing the things I preferred), I went to a lot of the sites advised to visit, anyhow.
Since a few years I do less so. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty and think it is stupid not to see the highlights of the local, national or international culture I pass, but often I had the feeling that they do not really appeal to me. Of course, the master pieces of art and intelligence are beautiful, but each time most of what I see appears fundamentally new to me. It is as if through the years I haven’t developed a mental frame that helps me to compare a new church and its ornaments, the next mediaeval town hall and the next painting or sculputure with those that I had seen a day before, not to speak of what I had seen months or years ago. Often the things I see do not fall in a slot, by way of speaking. Of course, there are exceptions. I remember that when I went into a church in Florence, my eye was immediately caught by a beautiful statue. It appeared to be one by Donatello. And Dutch painters, not only the big names like Rembrandt or van Gogh, have by far more meaning for me than foreign painters. But let’s say that 95% of those “musts” for tourists do not really fit a scheme in my mind, and I forget most of it very soon. This doesn’t mean that I do not visit those highlights of art and intelligence any longer, but gradually I have changed my strategy. I have become very selective and I look only at those things which probably will fit my mental scheme. So when I was in the Escorial near Madrid I gave only attention to what was related to Dutch history (and I visited the Escorial because I expected to find such things there). The LVR-LandesMuseum in Bonn was interesting for me because of it prehistoric objects and I ignored all other departments. And so on.
I hardly dared to tell other people about my “disinterest” for the highlights of culture till I read Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. In this book de Botton shows us ways of travelling but he also put these them into perspective, especially the more “traditional” way of visiting famous places. When de Botton was in Madrid and stood there amidst of a crowd of tourists, he wondered “what am I doing here?” And a few pages further he points to the terror of the travel guides, which praise certain places as interesting, force you to visit them and to show enthusiasm, and implicitly belittle those people who do not agree or prefer to ignore these places. Besides that, so de Botton, it happens often that we see these things on the wrong moment, when we are not yet ripe for appreciating them. This can make that the new information has no value for us (compare what I told about my mental scheme). Or if it has, maybe it would be better after our visit to the Notre Dame in Paris, not to go to the next tourist attraction nearby but take a train and compare it with the cathedral in Reims. That makes more sense than just keeping looking around where you are, with a travel guide in your hands, for by doing so your curiosity is deformed by a superficial geographic logic, by what happens to be placed together – things that may have no intrinsic relations – and by what is only recommended by our travel guide. It is the same, so de Botton, as letting your choice of books be determined by their sizes and not by their contents.
When I had read The Art of Travel I felt very relieved and now I dare to tell everyone: I did not see that famous sculpture, that church and that painting and I avoided them with intention. And I need not be ashamed for doing so and telling it to you, for being selective when travelling around does not only fit better my idea of what makes travelling around pleasant, it has also a philosophical foundation! See what de Botton wrote about it!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Making a reader think

Il ne faut pas toujours tellement épuiser un sujet qu'on ne laisse rien à faire au lecteur; il ne s'agit pas de faire lire, mais de faire penser” (We must not always exhaust a subject, so as to leave no work at all for the reader. My business is not to make people read, but to make them think.) - Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws, Book 14, ch.XX)

 By chance, when thinking about my next blog, I met this quotation on the Philosophy Calendar, which hangs here somewhere on a wall in my house. I looked it up on the Internet in Montesquieu’s work ( in order to see in what context it had been placed. Montesquieu, so he said there, originially had the intention to investigate for all kinds of moderate governments known how the three powers are distributed and what the relations with the degrees of freedom are, but he wouldn’t do that for something had to be left to the reader: one must not only make him or her read but also make him/her think.
The comment added to the quotation by the Dutch journalist and philosopher Vanno Jobse related it to the difference between what a good book is and what is just a book: Some authors write a book where the whole thread and all thoughts are completely spun out. Then, you read the book and that’s it. Good books, however, have been developed well, everything is thought-out but, despite that, not everything that can be said about the main theme is said, and it gives the reader handles to make him or her think.
When I look back to how I wrote in the past, I must say that I was the type of author and thinker who tried to be complete. My attitude was: try to be as complete as possible. And when I discovered yet a little loose thread in my thoughts I tried to fasten it. I must say, I was also stimulated to do so by others. In case I had sent a paper to a journal, I usually got comments like: “How about this?” “How about that?” “There you can be criticized”. And so on, forgetting the main line of the thought. In the end I was fed up with it. What sense does it have to try to be as precise as possible? So I gradually changed my way of writing, I loosened my style and let the loose threads hang down. Or I intentionally left some points open without discussion. I started a blog website, too, which is exactly a place where you can have your thoughts run freely without thinking whether each thought can be substantiated. It is not that I hoped that I could make other people think, although that would be nice, of course. I write my blogs for myself, often as a reflection on what I have just read. But when I read later an old blog again, I often discover failures or imperfect thoughts that make me think again. And I enjoy it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Liberty of conscience

At the moment I am reading a philosophical book which is very different from those I have recently discussed here in my blogs: Amartya Sen’s The idea of Justice. Although one can wonder whether it is that different, for there is not a real gap between a concept like responsibility and a concept like justice.
Sen is not new to me. I “met” him already when I was studying sociology with economics as a minor and I became intrigued then by his Choice of Techniques, which discusses an aspect of a planned economy. Sen’s ideas and points of interest and mine developed through the years, although in different directions, but now and then I read some of his newest works like Identity and Violence, which is important for me because of my interest in (personal) identity and nonviolence. His present book is mainly a discussion with Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and his idea of justice as fairness.
Although I have read only less than a third of the book till now, I met already many stimulating ideas. One of the things that permeates the book is Sen’s multicultural education. Most people tend to become prejudiced in favour of their own cultures, also because as an outsider it is difficult to get to know the huge achievements of other cultures. Sen, living in several countries through the years, got the chance to become acquainted with many cultures and he used it. He tells for instance about the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great, who lived from 1542-1605 in what now is more or less Pakistan, Northern India and Bangladesh. Akbar, a Muslim, an enlightened ruler, “ not only did insist”, so Sen, “that the duty of the state included making sure that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of his religion, and any one was to be allowed to go over to any religion he pleased’, he also arranged systematic dialogues in his capital city of Agas between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsees, Jews and others, even including agnostics and atheists” (The Idea of Justice, 37). This happened in a time that religious wars reigned in Europe and people were sent to the stake because of their faith. This quotation makes us think. In a time that right-wing extremism flares up in many European countries (including in my own country, the Netherlands), it shows us another face of Islam than the one presented by this political ideology, which also forgets the zealotry with which Christianity was spread over the world during the ages, including in Islamic regions. When thinking of this zealotry and especially of the religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots in France in his days, Montaigne reacted in this way: “ ‘Tis usual to see good intentions, if carried on without moderation, push men on to very vicious effects.” The essay that starts with this sentence bears the title “Of liberty of conscience”. It tells us to be tolerant for other views, even when we do not like them. Although written more than 400 years ago, we can still learn a lot of it, just as we can from the words and practice of the Muslim ruler Akbar.

Monday, October 04, 2010

What does being responsible mean?

In these blogs I have often talked about our responsibility for doing things, but what does being responsible mean? I do not want to give an extensive analysis of the concept. Many philosophers have done that before and I don’t expect to be able to give an original contribution. However, in view of all what I have written about it here, I think that it is time to clarify what the concept in my opinion involves. “Responsible” or “responsibility” is a bit, what I would call, a “bucket concept”: we throw a lot in it which is hardly related. For instance, responsible can mean being in charge with a task, or behaving properly and sensibly, and the like. That is not what I mean with it. As used here, responsibility refers to a person and an action done by that person, to something a person did with an intention or intentionally. Only then I call here a person responsible for what s/he did or for the consequences of what s/he did. But for calling a person responsible for what s/he did it is not enough that s/he was acting with an intention or intentionally. The action or its consequences must also imply a moral obligation.
These are only minimum criteria. If they haven’t been fulfilled in some way, we cannot say that the agent has a responsibility for an action in my sense. And just this “in some way” makes the concept so difficult to catch. For who determines in which way? For example, was running into the car an action of mine? (See my blog last week) Cycling near Breukelen was, for I had the intention to cycle there, it’s true. However, when I saw the car I tried to avoid it. Nevertheless, the collision was a consequence of my action cycling there, and it can be defended that this makes that I am responsible for the accident: It was my choice to become a road-user and I need to know then that I run risks to make mistakes and to cause an accident. In this sense I am responsible for the accident caused by my mistake and it is this which gives me an obligation to pay for the damaged caused by me. But does it give me a
moral obligation? As for me I have the feeling it does, for the car driver couldn’t help that I run into his car. However, the Dutch legislator does not agree. According to him every car driver needs to know that a car can cause serious injuries and heavy damage to a pedestrian or cyclist that can exceed by far the apparent severity of the accident. A car is a dangerous instrument. Therefore, by becoming a road-user, a car driver is responsible for the consequences of a collision with a pedestrian or cyclist, even if s/he did not cause it, and s/he has a moral (and legal) obligation to pay at least a part of the damage caused. That’s what the Dutch legislator thinks.
The upshot is that the concept of responsibility can be given many interpretations and can be fleshed out in many ways. Just when we have determined the minimum criteria of what being responsible is, the discussion really starts.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Am I responsible for my actions or is my zombie? (2)

The bridge of Breukelen
(photo taken with pinhole camera)

When I wrote my blog last week, where I asked who is responsible for my actions, I did not expect that a few days later this question would become reality for me. Last Saturday, I was cycling along the Vecht, once a former branch of the Rhine, now a quiet river with villas from the 18th century and mediaeval castles left and right. On the other side of the Vecht, Nijenrode Castle loomed up from behind the trees. A bell told me that it was seven o’clock. One or two kilometres further on I saw the characteristic bridge of Breukelen. I am about halfway my trip, I thought, and smiled. I was going easy with a steady speed. Then, suddenly, a blue colossus in front of me. A car! I made a swing to the right. Too late. The car stops me with its side. Happily a bleeding hand and a few bruises were my only injuries. Nothing serious. My bike had no damage at all. The car had more damage than I and my bike together. The chauffeur and his wife were very nice and helpful. They were even prepared to bring me home. But after having returned to myself, some talking and exchanging addresses, I decided to continue my ride, albeit with a lower speed. With still an hour to ride home, I had time enough for thinking over what had happened. I realized that it was a typical instance of the responsibility case in my last week’s blog. One thing seemed certain: As a person I was responsible for the accident, for I hadn’t given priority to the car. But my I as brain interpreter and my zombie started quarrelling about their shares in it. Okay, my I (brain interpreter) is prepared to take the responsibility for the trip and the route, but it reproaches the zombie that it really behaved like a zombie when cycling there. My speed was easy and steady which made that I was almost in trance. However, my zombie reproaches my I that it looked too much to the landscape, the Nijenrode Castle and the beautiful bridge and that it had to be attentive on the crossing. I knew the situation and, although it is a quiet crossing, I knew that cars could come from the right. I should have noticed the car, according to my zombie, and I had had to warn him in time. But is it not so that I was there for enjoying the trip? Can’t I trust my zombie that he does what he is supposed to do: leading me automatically and with flexible reactions along the roads? He had to know that crossings can be dangerous, so it is my zombie that had had to be more attentive, so I said. I am a simple brain interpreter, just reporting afterwards to other people what my zombie has decided. According to some philosophers, like Paul Churchland, I am even not more than an epiphenomenon of my zombie. How can I be held responsible for the collision then? Even if I can be held responsible for the main lines of the trip, it is my zombie who is responsible for filling in the details, I maintained. Only that in the end my person was responsible for the collision was no point of discussion.
When I called my insurance company, the lady on the line made me doubt whether even this was correct. She told me that according to Dutch law cyclists and pedestrians are protected “traffic participants” and that in case of a collision with a car they are not be liable for the damage. She advised me to recover my damage from (the insurance company of) the chauffeur and it was even not yet sure whether my insurance company needed to pay the damage of the car. The reason is that in a collision between a car and a pedestrian or cyclist the chances to get damage are very unequal. But if this is so, it might imply that my person and my brain interpreter and/or my zombie are responsible for the accident but nor for the damage of the accident.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Am I responsible for my actions or is my zombie?

As we have seen, there are two entities within me that may determine my actions, my zombie and I. Then we can ask: Who is responsible for these actions? Am I, my brain interpreter, responsible for what I do, or is it my zombie, who steers my actions? Here I do not want to discuss the situation that we do things really unconsciously, for example when sleepwalking or in a black out, but I mean the cases that I am completely aware of what I am doing.
We have to consider several possibilities here. The first one is the case that my chauffeur example is a good analogy for: It is I – my brain interpreter – who determines the main lines of what I am doing and it is my zombie who executes them. This sounds quite Cartesian (like all the cases here), but I think that further insight will show that actually I and my zombie are deeply integrated. Anyhow, I think this case is a variant of the assumption that man has a free will and as such is responsible for what s/he is doing.
A second possibility seems more interesting: That it is not I – my brain interpreter – who determines the main lines of my actions, but that my zombie does. My I is really a brain
interpreter and it is my zombie who takes the decisions, which are then explained by my brain interpreter, who puts them into words. But does this mean that I (now in the sense of me as a person) am not responsible for what I am doing? However, it can still be so that my actions and the decisions that ground them are my actions and decisions, albeit that my actions are based on my rational unconscious decisions. My brain interpreter is then like the government speaker who tells the press afterwards what the government has decided, informed about what has been decided by the prime minister, because the government speaker herself wasn’t present at the cabinet meeting. But then the cabinet decisions as such are still rational decisions, although the speaker learned about them only afterwards. So, it can be with my zombie, too: my zombie takes his decisions hidden for the brain interpreter but they are based on relevant facts, experiences, feelings and what more it needs for a rational weighing. Basically, this situation is not really different from the first situation described here: I am still a person with a free will.
But what if my zombie is merely a kind of automaton? A kind of machine or computer that processes input and output according to certain rules programmed by nature and past experiences, without any kind of deliberate rational weighing (whatever that might mean)? And that I, in the sense of my brain interpreter, do not more than giving a kind of description of the output? And that I as a person am not more than a sort of executer of these decisions when acting? Then I am really a zombie although a zombie with the appearance of a conscious being.
That I am in fact not more than a zombie in disguise is quite well possible, of course. But does this make any difference with the free will situation? Should we say then: well, because I am actually a zombie who behaves automatically, I cannot help what I do, and it is the same for my fellow men? We are all automatons and we do not know what we do? Should we have to conclude then that we have to skip the idea of responsibility for what we are doing from our vocabulary? Or are we still responsible in some sense? Maybe it is irrational, but I guess that nobody would accept our not being responsible in some sense.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Who steers the body?

Last week I wondered whether the fact (if it is a fact) that the zombie within me takes his decisions while I am not conscious of them really implies that it is not actually I who steers my body but that it is the zombie who does. “Even when the decisions are taken unconsciously by my zombie … , it is quite well possible that they are ‘my’ rational decisions, albeit that they are my rational unconscious decisions”, so I wrote. I think that this remark needs some further explanation.
Let’s say a manager has a car with chauffeur and orders the chauffeur to drive to 3 Mind Square where he has a meeting. The chauffeur carries out the order and brings the manager to the right address. Who then causes the ride being made: The manager or the chauffeur? For isn’t it so that the chauffeur starts the engine, steers the car, chooses the route, etc.? But in the end it is the manager who decides and determines what is to be done: Going to 3 Mind Square. Isn’t it the same with the zombie within me and my brain interpreter (=I) ? My zombie does a lot which I have no knowledge of and takes many decisions for me and starts to execute them before I know them. Might it not be so that my “mindbrain” functions like a manager with a car with chauffeur? That I am the manager and that the zombie within me is my chauffeur (and that my body is the car)? Then we can explain, for instance, why most I do is not conscious for me (the chauffeur drives the car, while the manager is reading his papers and takes no notice of what the chauffeur does) and why I can explain only afterwards why certain decisions have been taken (why I went through the Brain Street and not though the Zombie Street: because the chauffeur preferred this route, although I did not know that beforehand ), albeit I (the manager) who determines the main lines and plans for the future (going to 3 Mind Square).

Monday, September 06, 2010

Me and my zombie

The idea that there is both a zombie and an I in me, as I suggested in my last blog, sounds rather weird. However, this is a bit the picture one gets from the insights of neuroscience. On the one hand we have our brain, the “grey matter” in our head (actually it is not grey), which functions like a computer. It gathers and processes the information it receives from the world outside. And if necessary it takes the decisions. All this happens unconsciously. Let me call this part my zombie. On the other hand we have our conscious me, what is often called our brain interpreter. It is the “thing” in me that thinks that I am who I am and that consciously deliberates what I must do. At least, that’s what it seems to me that the brain interpreter does, for according to present insights the decisions are in fact taken by my zombie and not by my brain interpreter. The brain interpreter, so the idea is, comes into action only after a decision has been taken. It only words the decision and gives a motivation for it. However, because my zombie works unconsciously, we think that it is my brain interpreter, or “I”, who takes the decision and who gives the motivation for the decision, although actually it is my zombie who weighs the reasons for the decision and who decides, on the ground of past experiences, its education, its genetic constitution etc. We can see it a bit like this: Let’s say, every week a government has a closed meeting where it discusses the relevant issues and where it takes decisions. After the meeting, the government speaker tells the press what the ministers talked about, what they have decided and what the motivations for the decisions were. Then one can compare the cabinet in session with my zombie and the speaker with my brain interpreter. But it need not be so, of course, that the speaker tells the press what really took place in the meeting and what the real decisions and the real grounds for these decisions were. It is the same with my brain interpreter. I (my brain interpreter) can say that I want to do A for certain reasons, but when the moment is there my zombie makes that I do B (and then, afterwards, it is quite likely that my brain interpreter succeeds to put forward “good reasons” why I did B).
All this sounds quite Cartesian. It is as if I have a homunculus, a little man in my head, that accompanies my decisions and my actions. The difference is, of course, that the Cartesian homunculus is the one who takes the decisions and guides the zombie and then my body, while my brain interpreter follows the decisions taken by my zombie and what my body does because of these decisions. It is as if my consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon that plays no part in what I actually do.
I am not going to undermine this conception. I am not in the position to do that. Moreover, I think it is not unfounded. But in certain respects it is problematical. It looks, as said, as if our consciousness is a kind of epiphenomenon that has no real function in what we do, so why should we have it? Of course, it is possible that our consciousness has really no function, but it is quite exceptional in nature that organisms develop epiphenomenal entities. A second point is that when my zombie processes unconsciously the information it gets and when it decides unconsciously, this does not need to imply that it takes these decisions behind my back in some way as if another person has taken them; i.e. that these decisions are not mine. Even when the decisions are taken unconsciously by my zombie (and there are good reasons to think they are), it is quite well possible that they are “my” rational decisions, albeit that they are my rational unconscious decisions. They could be the same and be rational, just as when they wouldn’t be interpreted afterwards by my brain interpreter, but instead would be conscious at the moment of decision itself. Then my zombie is actually me minus consciousness.
This is just one possibility. And besides that, Victor Lamme, whose book inspired most of what I have written here (see my blog last week), doesn’t say in the end that we have a dualist structure. “Brain and mind are identical”, so Lamme (De vrije wil bestaat niet, 2010, p. 280). What all this shows is how difficult it is to solve Chalmers’s “hard problem”. For even if we know how the brain functions with all its psychological consequences (Chalmers’s “soft problem”), there is a good chance that we still do not know what consciousness and its relation with the brain are.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The zombie within me

In my blog last week I attacked the argumentations by Nagel and Chalmers that there must be something subjective or conscious in us. I argued that we can at least know what it is like to be a zombie, since we often behave like a zombie and we know that we do. Of course, my reasoning was not serious. What is serious, however, is that we often do behave like a zombie. And this raises substantial questions about who and what we are and why we do what we do. Is it an exception that I sometimes behave like a zombie, for example when I am riding my bike? Maybe we think so, because we can come back to ourselves, by way of speaking, and become conscious of and reflect on that we were behaving like a zombie for a while. But this may be mere illusion.
On July 20, 2009, I published here a blog about free will and a cup of coffee. There I mentioned that Lawrence Williams and John A. Bargh had shown that holding a warm cup of coffee makes you have more positive attitudes towards a stranger than when you hold a cup of ice coffee. We think that the stranger is “really” sympathetic, while actually it is the temperature of our hands that makes us think so. Our consciousness of the fact (if it is a fact) that the stranger is sympathetic is apparently merely an epiphenomenon and has no influence on our feelings towards the stranger, at least not in this case. It is as if we first feel a person sympathetic because of an objective cause (the warm cup of coffee) and that only then we think that we feel that the person is sympathetic, namely because of this objectively caused feeling. It is as if our consciousness, our thinking, does not count.
This idea is supported by a case that I just read in a book about the free will by Victor Lamme. Here he describes the case of a woman who was blind because of a brain damage and who could grasp objects on a table just as a person with normal visibility does and not as someone does who is blind because of eye damages. When a person with normal visibility takes an object like a cup or an object with an irregular form like a piece of art, s/he grasps it immediately in the right way, unhesitatingly. A person with eye damage or a person with a blindfold must first feel what the shape of the object is before s/he can get a good grip on it. It was as if the woman concerned could see the object, although she was blind. This and other research brough Goodale to the conclusion that we have two systems in our brain that guide our actions. In addition to the system that makes us consciously do what we do there is one that determines our actions unconsciously. (cf Victor Lamme, De vrije wil bestaat niet, 2010, ch. 2). Or does the former system merely accompany our actions like an epiphenomenon? For what should the function of consciousness be for us if we can act also without being conscious of it? It looks as if there is something in us that is like a zombie. The question remains then, of course: who writes this blog? Do I write it or does my zombie write it?

Monday, August 23, 2010

What it is like to be a zombie

Me philosophizing

(Background music: David Chalmers sings “The Zombie Blues”: )
In a famous article, “What is it like to be a bat?”, Thomas Nagel argues that it is impossible to “catch” the inner experiences of a bat, a human being, a Martian or whatever being with an inner subjective life in the objective description of an outsider. What it is like to be or to experience for a bat, for a human being, for a Martian or for any other being with inner experiences is inherently different from how an outsider, for instance an investigator, observes these same inner experiences. Inner experiences as they are for the holder and as they are for an outsider looking at them are fundamentally of a different type. Therefore we have to distinguish between the perspective of the first person and the perspective of the third person when describing them (see ).
Some twenty years later, David Chalmers argued in a similar way that we must make a distinction between the mental and the physical and that a physical reduction of our inner experiences is not possible. In his reasoning he used the so-called Zombie argument. A philosophical zombie is not the terrifying figure we know from films and the like but, in the words of Chalmers, “someone or something physically identical to me (or to any other conscious being), but lacking conscious experiences altogether” (The conscious mind, 1996, 94). However, if we try to describe a zombie, we must conclude that “There is nothing it is like to be a zombie” (id., 95). Arguing from here, Chalmers concludes that consciousness does exist, which makes that reducing conscious inner experiences to physical experiences is not possible. I know that my summary is too oversimplified, and maybe Chalmers will protest, but what I want to discuss is: Is there really nothing it is like to be a zombie?
Once upon a day I made a bike tour on my race bike, as I do so often. I had a strong wind against me and my legs were wheeling round like mad to fight the natural counter forces. The evening sun was dazzling me and I couldn’t see anything. My head had become empty and I felt like in trance. Suddenly I came back to myself and at once I knew it: So it is to feel like a zombie. Zombies do exist! And there is something it is like to be a zombie, for I experienced being a zombie! And we can experience how it is like to be a different creature! How sad for Chalmers and Nagel that such a simple bike ride can topple their theories. The upshot is: Take a bike and philosophize!

Monday, August 16, 2010

The importance of Georg Henrik von Wright

In my last blog I mentioned the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright. I think that most people who read my blogs do not know him. However, he has been one of the most important analytical philosophers of the second half of the last century. When I had finished my dissertation many years ago I had the intention to write an article about von Wright, but for one reason or another I didn’t. So maybe I can make up for the omission here a bit, although a little blog can never be compared with a long article. In fact I must limit myself here to a short indication of the importance of von Wright for philosophy.
As said, von Wright (1916-2003) was a philosopher in the tradition of the analytical philosophy and. He studied first in Helsinki under the guidance of Eino Kaila, which brought him into touch with logical positivism, which was then in its heyday. Next, von Wright studied at several other universities in Europe including in Cambridge. In 1939, he met there Wittgenstein, but the first contact was disappointing for von Wright, because Wittgenstein was quite annoyed that a young man unknown to him dared to join his lectures while they had already started. Soon they became good friends, though. Later, after the death of Wittgenstein, von Wright became his successor in Cambridge and he edited Wittgenstein’s later works for publication.
Another important contribution by von Wright to philosophy is his development of deontic logic, the logic of ought. Although deontic logic was already known to the Greek, in fact von Wright can be seen as the founder of this branch of logic, because he proposed the first plausible system of deontic logic.
His third main contribution concerns my own field of interest: action theory. In my blog last week I mentioned already von Wright’s book Understanding and Explanation. This book has been influential in the discussion whether the relation between the premises and the conclusion of a practical syllogism for the explanation of actions is logical or causal. There has been a long and heavy debate on this question, which did not lead to a real solution. In my view, the best analysis of the issue, if not the solution of the problem, has come from von Wright, who showed that it is impossible to establish independently of each other which intention an actor had and the action that the same actor did on account of this intention. And this makes that it is impossible to verify the premises and the conclusion of a practical syllogism independently. However, this does not imply that one cannot explain an action, when one is able to establish separately what the intention of an action is and what the actor allegedly did on account of this intention. For me, von Wright’s approach is still the fundamental solution of the explanation-understanding controversy.
Be that as it is, the discussion gradually faded away, but the importance of von Wright’s book may still be judged from the fact that it has been reprinted in 2004, 33 years after its first publication.
It is true, von Wright is not a very well-known philosopher outside academic circles (and outside Finland), but its influence has not been unimportant as I have tried to show.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The influence of books (2)

I think that most people have read one or more books that have influenced them in a certain way. This influence may have been little, for example because it made one to read another book by the same author or to visit a museum or a town. Or the influence may have been much greater, sometimes even in that degree that it led to a turn in one’s life. I read many books through the years and so it is no wonder that they have influenced me in different ways. Most books I have read are interesting to my mind, but that’s it. It may have happened that I talked about them with someone else, but that did not happen often. Other books were related to one of my main interests and have broadened my knowledge in those fields, or maybe I used them when writing an article or a blog. However, a few books became very important to me in the sense that they had a substantial influence on my life. Maybe it was not a turning point but if I hadn’t read them my life would have been different. Actually there are two of such books and their influence is related. Once I was in a bookshop in Amsterdam and in the philosophy department my eye was caught by a new book by Karl-Otto Apel, one of my favourite authors: Die Erklären-Verstehen Kontroverse in transzendentalpragmatischer Sicht (The controversy between explanation and understanding from a transcendental-pragmatic perspective). Its subject was the methodical discussion about explaining or understanding in the humanities and social sciences. I found the book very interesting and what I found especially interesting was Apel’s discussion of a book by the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, a philosopher who was new to me at the time. I had the feeling that I had to read this book, Explanation and Understanding, anyhow. It took me much effort to buy it and in effect 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 methodology and the model, but in my view the model could be improved in several respects. Doing this became the leading theme of my PhD thesis and it made that I dedicated most of my time to philosophy for a long period. Actually, there is nothing to wonder at such an influence of books on your life, for isn’t it so that a book is nothing else than solidified human thoughts and relationships?

Monday, August 02, 2010

Man made future (2)

My blog published two weeks ago says nothing else than what Wittgenstein knew already long ago: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life have still not been touched at all.” (Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 6.52)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Man made future

When people are thinking about how life will be in future, they are usually thinking of how our life will develop in a technical way. Shall we have houses completely guided by computers where, for instance, our meals are already prepared while we are yet on our way home? Will high speed trains connect the corners of the world? How will the newest telephone look like? Can solar energy solve our present energy problem? And so on. What these let’s call them “technical futurologists” always forget, however, is that our future is not determined by what we technically can and by our technical gadgets. If that were true, the Industrial Revolution would have begun already 2000 years ago. For wasn’t it Heron of Alexandria (10-70 A.D.) who invented the steam engine? No, what our future will be is not in our technical possibilities. Or rather, they are a limiting condition at most. What really makes the future is man him/herself. It is the way man deals with inventions and even more the way men deals with each other. In short: our future will be in our human relations and how we’ll socially manage the new technology. What will count in the first place is how we’ll go along with each other in daily life, whether we’ll continue to defend our personal interests at the expense of others, short-sighted politics, the presence or absence of racism, war and manmade poverty and the way we’ll use our inventions, etc. , so our social inventions. Not what is technically possible will make our future but what we’ll humanly make of it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Personal identity (24)

In The Blue and Brown Books Wittgenstein writes: “Now let us ask ourselves what sort of identity of personality it is we are referring to when we say ‘when anything is seen, it is always I who see’ ” (Blackwell, 1969, p. 63). Here I’ll not follow Wittgenstein’s argumentation but I’ll put the quotation within the frame of the current debate on personal identity.
I am walking with wife in a little town and she says: “Look, storks!” Then I ask her (inspired by Wittgenstein): “Do you see the storks or do your eyes see the storks?” Does it make any difference then whether she points to her eyes or to her chest? In case she points to her eyes does that mean that her eyes see the storks but that she does not see them? And in case she points to her chest, does it mean that my wife herself sees the storks but that her eyes don’t see them? And if we think that our personality is made up of our psychological characteristics like our memory and other mental characteristics, as the adherents of the psychological continuity of personal identity do, is it so then that my wife as a person can see the storks with her eyes closed, in case it is so that she as a person sees the storks? Or are our eyes like a pair of binocles that we need when the storks are so far away that we cannot observe them with the naked eye? How weird to suggest that I am not an integrated whole.
(By the way, why do we point to the chest, when asked who did see the storks, if one of us did? Why do we don’t point to our brain? For, if the adherents of the psychological continuity of personal identity are right, isn’t it so then that the person goes where the brain goes, as we swap our brain with another brain in another body, and wouldn’t it be then obvious to point to our brain?)

Monday, July 05, 2010

Old ideas just fade away

When we think, talk, act we need a frame of reference that gives it a sense. This is one of the insights so clearly formulated by Wittgenstein’s idea of language games. However, these frames are not fixed and unchangeable and we must be glad that this is so. It is true, fixed frames give stability and they make it easier to see the consequences of what we say and do. But on the other hand, this can become problematic when we discover new facts, encounter new experiences or new circumstances. What to do with them, how to deal with them, when they do not fit our frame of interpretation? Then two things are open to us: either to reinterpret the facts etc. or to change the frame. Both choices seem weird, for aren’t facts facts, and aren’t frames actually also a kind of facts? Nevertheless either happens and can have sense. As for changing the facts, we can come to the conclusion that we were wrong and that from a different point of view, things look different: just as we can mistake a marsh tit for a willow tit, or even think, as was done till not so long ago that it is one species. This is the usual thing: Facts are reinterpreted within a frame, sometimes even so that they are forced to fit within that frame of interpretation. Then the facts are distorted. This happens more often than one might think, and often people do not realize it, when they do it.
However, we can change a frame as well. Then we fit it to the facts instead of the facts to the frame. Happily we do not have to do that often, for it can bring much uncertainty leading to much turmoil in our mind if not in society. It is a kind of revolution, a minor one or a big one, but a revolution it is. It was not without reason that Thomas Kuhn, who described the changes of frames in science, called his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

But is it really so that old frames are changed, if there is something basically wrong with them? If Kuhn is to be believed, often it does not happen that way, at least not in science. And I see no reason why what he describes is limited to science. According to Kuhn, it is not so that people change their own frames. New frames and new interpretations are developed, it is true, but they are developed by a new generation of thinkers. Only rarely they are proposed by those few “old thinkers” who have flexible, creative minds. New frames lead always to much opposition, in science as well in society, but gradually the opposition decreases. No, not because of what one might think: that the new ones are better and that those who opposed a new one first, are convinced of its value. That happens, too, but the most important reason that fundamentally new ideas become dominant is simply that the old ones die out, not only in science, as Kuhn pointed out, but in society in general. It is as with the old soldiers in the famous song: Old ideas never die, they just fade away.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Sentence and context

Many sentences have several interpretations, and even more interpretations when they are divorced from the context. The latter need not be bad, as long as one realizes what one is doing. Interpreting sentences can be a creative act and make the mind open for new ideas. In my blog of April 30 last I explained that a sceptical interpretation of the first part of Wittgenstein’s second aphorism in his On certainty is not correct in view of the context. To remember, Wittgenstein said there: “From its seeming to me - or to everyone - to be so, it doesn't follow that it is so.” He argued that fundamentally we cannot be sceptical because in the end we need a frame of reference (a language game, as he called it) in order to make doubt possible. We need a frame of stable presuppositions, he says, and only within this frame we can doubt. However, as I showed, also such a frame of reference is not beyond doubt, for in the end it is a shared individual frame at most: frames of reference appear to be stable, because many people have them. Then we have dissolved scepticism in a practical way, so it seems.
Nevertheless, a fundamental sceptical interpretation of what we perceive may be useful. Actually it is that what scientists often do when they practise science. One of the problems in science is that a theory might seem to be a good one and still we do not know whether it is true. For how should we know that the theory is true? We only know that it works in the sense that when we apply it, it gives good results. Take a sunset, for instance. For thousands of years people thought that the sun really went down at the end of the day and they lived with it. The idea behind it was that the earth is the centre of the universe and everything in heaven moved around the earth. Okay, a few heavenly objects moved a bit strange and not in circles like the other ones, but who cared? Some people cared, like Galileo and Copernicus, and it was discovered that this problem could only be solved by changing the frame of reference, and putting the earth on a far less important place in universe. Everybody knows this story, but it still teaches us something important: our stable convictions and frames of reference are often not as stable as we might think. It shows also that false thoughts can be stimulating, for the original explanation of the sunset and the central place of the earth was false, but just the fact that it led to some strange phenomena (the apparently strange movements of the planets in the sky) stimulated the development of better ideas. Seen in this way, it need not be bad that sentences are divorced from the context, for Wittgenstein’s anti-sceptical interpretation of the quotation would stop us, where the context ends, but taken as it is its seemingly false sceptical interpretation can be a first step to topple what everybody “knows”. At least so it seems.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The turmoil in my mind

Thoughts sprout from my mind
(Photo taken at the International Garden Festival, Château Chaumont, 2010)

A reader who commented on my blog “The fluency of reality” (April 26, 2010) reproached me of having “too much turmoil in my mind”. I do not know whether he referred only to what I wrote there or that he thinks that it is generally so, but I suppose that he is right and I am proud of it. Even more, probably I couldn’t have written my blogs and what else that I have written during the years without the turmoil in my mind, sometimes less, sometimes more, sometimes maybe even in that degree that I did not know where to start writing. For I think that some disorder in your mind is necessary for being creative and developing new ideas.
Most creativity does not start from nothing, with a flash and there it is. No, creativity is hard working. You cannot be creative without knowing what you are talking about, so you need thorough background knowledge. Therefore, I spend much time on reading on themes that I find interesting and that are important for what I want to write about. Themes that broaden my mind. From this background I choose my subjects for a blog or for an article or maybe even for a book. But then, I am not yet ready: I need a plan of work. I do not want to say that I have always a well developed plan when I am writing. Far from that. A vague plan is often enough for me to make a start and to come to a good end. Once I have begun writing, my mind produces lots of associations and when I pick them up, it leads me gradually to the development of what I have in my mind and want to express.
Writing in this way is not enough for creative writing, though. For until now it is simply a matter of practice and it does not bring something new. I do not want to say that the result will be unimportant. What is routine knowledge for me may be new for other people and help them a lot. But if I want to bring something really new and want to be really creative, I need something more: everything that I have gathered in my mind for my blog, article, book has to be mixed. That is where the turmoil starts. Unexpected and unlikely associations must be made, associations with themes, events and facts that do not belong to my main theme must be brought in. Thoughts that look foolish at first sight must be considered and developed in their consequences, old thoughts must be reconsidered, and so on, and so on. It is impossible to describe what happens, for much of it is an unconscious process. But one thing is clear: it is turmoil in my mind. And then it suddenly happens. It can be a matter of minutes, a matter of days, or sometimes a matter of years, but then, if everything goes well, all at once new creative thoughts sprout from my mind. It makes me happy and elated: something really new has been born. I am the first to admit that the result may also turn out to be false, and may have to be thrown away later. It may be an idea about which another person would say: “it involves too much turmoil in your … mind”. But is that bad? I don’t think so. For every thought can be the starting point for a new thought. Even a wrong thought, a false thought often is. It is the way creativity works and brings something positive. And in the end that couldn’t have happened without much turmoil in my mind and in the minds of other persons.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Producing and practising

I shall not give an answer to the question of my blog last week. I simply haven’t one. At least not now; maybe later. However, when I had finished the blog, I had to think of a distinction by Aristotle that may be relevant for the answer on the question whether we die a bit when my action has finished and the result of it no longer exists.
In the blog I mentioned several examples of actions: writing a book, making a garden, shopping, making a bike ride, chasing away a burglar, visiting a friend. Let us look at two of them: writing a book and making a bike ride. Writing a book is a long and complicated action. It can last many years, but in the end there is a result: a book, which you can buy in a shop, for instance. If you find writing a book a too complex example of an action, let’s say that I write a letter to a friend. It takes me half an hour to write it and then it is ready for posting. An action like making a bike ride does not have such a material result. I love cycling and several times a week I make a ride just for pleasure. However, when I am home again, I cannot say: Look, here is my bike ride. I have just finished it. Do you want to have it? Nobody would understand it, for making a bike ride does not lead to a result that you have at the end of it as a ready-made product independent of the action itself. No, the aim of making a bike ride is just the doing itself. Such an action was called “praxis” by Aristotle (from prattein, to act, to practise) and he distinguished it from actions like writing a book or a letter, which he called “poiesis” (from poiein, to make).
In view of the distinction between praxis and poiesis, maybe it is possible to say that one dies a bit when the result of a case of poiesis is destroyed, while praxis is an instance of living. Although this may be a starting point for answering my question, I think that it is not as simple as that. In the first place, we produce many things during the years. Letters, memorandums as an office worker, objects as a production worker or in spare time, meals in the kitchen, and so on. Can we say that I die a bit each time such a result of our productive actions is destroyed? I think that not everything we produce is so important that we can go that far. But secondly, not all actions can be clearly classified as a case of poiesis or praxis. Take making a garden. I have changed the wilderness behind my house into a garden. Must I say now that I have produced a garden? But at which moment was my garden finished? When I have put the last plant in it? And how about garden maintenance? A garden is not something stable but must be kept. Moreover, making a garden as such, the action of gardening, is for many people also a case of praxis. These are only a few of the points that need to be cleared, when one wants to distinguish poiesis and praxis. Nevertheless, I think that the distinction is useful and that it may help a bit to understand better what fundamentally belongs to us.