Wednesday, February 24, 2010

“In view of my present knowledge …”

Recently an official committee established by the Dutch government criticized the political and military support by the then Dutch government to the American-British attack on Iraq in 2001. One of the main conclusions of the committee was that the military attack on Iraq had not been authorized in a proper way by resolutions of the United Nations Security Council according to international law. Mr. Jan Peter Balkenende, then and now Dutch Prime Minister (albeit then of another government coalition) reacted: “In view of my present knowledge, I should have decided differently”. Since then, “everybody” uses the expression “in view of my present knowledge” here.
Are the words by Mr. Balkenende a right reaction? I think they are not. Of course, it is true, when we look back on what we did in the past, we often think that we did wrong. We have new knowledge that puts our past motives and reasons in another light; our opinions may have changed; we see the consequences of our action; we see how other people have reacted on what we did; and so on. In short, we have become older and wiser. The problem is, however, that at the moment we have to take a decision, often we cannot postpone it until we have better information. And, of course, we can know its consequences and how other people will react only for a part. We simply have to decide now and we have to do it on the basis of what we know now. Later, we may have excuses that we took the wrong decision, and these excuses may be good excuses. This is not only true for the man in the street but also for politicians. However, politicians are supposed to take the right decisions at the moment that they have to be taken. In case they do not have enough knowledge for a well-considered decision, they are supposed to collect more information. If they have to act in a hurry, they have to be able to explain why they decided the way they did in the light of the information then available to them. It is no excuse to say later “If I had known then what I know now, I would have acted otherwise”. That is avoiding responsibility, for a politician is supposed to take the best decision right at the moment, not later, and he or she is responsible for that decision in that situation. If we would accept an excuse like “If I had known then, what I know now”, it is like: “ ‘In view of my present knowledge, I wouldn’t have been in jail now’, said the prisoner, and he was released”. It does not work that way, neither for a prisoner nor for a prime minister.

note. Since I finished this blog and before its publication, the Balkenende government has tendered its resignation. In view of my present knowledge of it, I wouldn’t have written this blog.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Paradise lost?

In Slavoj Žižek’s Violence, I met a passage in which he describes that today’s world of the Internet has no longer “Master-Signifiers”: world leaders like Churchill who simply take decisions and steer the world on the basis of the complexity of information brought to them by specialists-advisers. “A basic feature of our postmodern world is”, says Žižek, “that it tries to dispense with this agency of the ordering Master-Signifier” (p. 30). Typical for the present world is a “World Web Surfer ... sitting alone in front of a PC screen [who is] increasingly a monad with no direct windows onto reality, encountering only virtual simulacra, and yet immersed more than ever in a global communication network” (p. 29; italics mine). Here, I do not want to discuss whether the Master-Signifier is a vanishing type. I wouldn’t be surprised if it will come out sooner or later that the events in the world are more manipulated than ever before. However, even if we suppose that the World Web Surfer is not only a World Web Surfer but has direct personal relations as before like family, friends and colleagues, the quotation evokes a picture of modern man becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world and increasingly losing his or her grip on it. But is it a correct picture?
It is true, many of our relations are nowadays no longer from face to face but from screen to screen. No longer from voice to voice and from look to look, but intermediated by apparatuses and bits. But does this make the relations less personal? When we look around and see what most of our direct relations involve, we realize that, outside the little circle of family, friends and colleagues, although being “personal”, our relations are only superficial in most cases. My washing machine has broken down and I buy a new one. I have lost my job and I apply for an unemployment benefit. My car has been stolen and I go to the police. All these contacts are made in person, indeed, but we do not meet persons here as Mr. or Mrs. Johnson, Mary or Pete, but we meet them as functionaries, usually playing their parts in larger bureaucracies; bureaucracies that one can penetrate, if at all, only with much patience, time and energy. The reality one encounters here is often no less virtual than the one encountered in the Internet. As soon as one thinks about making the functional relation really personal, one is usually stopped by one’s own reserve and a lot of institutional rules and practices.
Against this, I want to state that the window onto reality offered by the screen and keyboard of a PC is often by far more direct. On the Internet one has many opportunities to come in a direct contact with persons one has never met before and could hardly meet in another way. The Internet gives the opportunity to get round blockades that exist in the “real” world. Authors can publish in bits what nobody wanted to publish in paper for often vague reasons. There are social relations websites like Facebook, elderly people can escape isolation brought by their age, to mention a few things. I do not need to list the advantages of the Internet as a means for communication and making relations for the readers of this blog. They are already caught in the Web and they know what I mean. However, I do not want to glorify the Internet and the computer era. My problem with quotations like the one above is that they always seem to suggest that we have lost a paradise of personal relations and communication that never will come back. Yes, we got global communication back for it, it is said, but it is virtual, not real (forgetting that this virtuality is also a part of reality). I want to state, however, that if we have lost a paradise, we have got back another one. It is different, indeed. Maybe it is not better but it is also not worse. We have lost the old Garden of Eden, but we have got a new one in return.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Am I different persons? Personal identity (23)

To the right and to the left still the same person?

One of the problems discussed in the philosophy of personal identity is that body cells or body parts are artificially replaced by new cells or parts. For example it is Parfit’s case in which I am (or rather my brain and body is) teletransported to another planet with the help of a machine. Then, according to Tye in Consciousness and Persons, “I no longer exist” (p. 148). But he continues: “[W]hat happens to me, if 10 percent is replaced, or 35 percent, or 70 percent? Is there a fact of the matter about which partial teletransportation destroys me?” After some discussion Tye concludes that such a fact of the matter does not exist but “Once enough of the original neurons are replaced (and the originals simultaneously destroyed) a new brain is created and the resulting person is not me”. I’ll pass over here that Tye talked earlier about teletransporting brain and body and now suddenly only about the brain. Readers of my blogs will know that I see the identity of a person in the body as a whole (including the brain) and not only in the brain. But is it really so that we can say that if enough of my brain or body (including my brain) has been replaced, I no longer exist in the sense that the original person that I was has been destroyed?
What philosophers who discuss this theme always forget is that the replacement of cells and body parts is not only a philosophical thought experiment, but that it happens also in nature. For isn’t it so that damaged parts of the body can heal by replacing the damaged tissue by new tissue? Even more, isn’t it so that during my whole life my body cells are gradually and continuously replaced by new ones, while the old body cells are destroyed? But in the case of the natural replacement of my body cells nobody says that my personal identity is destroyed and that I have become another person with another identity after some time. If we would accept that, it cannot be without consequences. For instance, fingerprints do not change through the years, but after, say, ten years they would be the fingerprints of another person! Or take this: the mainstream of personal identity philosophers, who defend the so-called “psychological view”, state that a person’s personal identity remains the same as long as a person can still remember past facts of his or her life or as long as a person has remained unchanged in other psychological respects between some point of time in the past and the present. If a person has changed enough in psychological respect he or she is no longer the same, they say. However, if we accept that the replacement of my body cells makes me another person after some time, then it can happen that physically I am another person but psychologically I am still the same as before this replacement. And that sounds rather weird.

If we cannot accept that the gradual natural replacement of my body cells and body parts makes me another person, what is then the fundamental difference between this natural replacement of my body cells and parts and its artificial replacement by means of teletransportation, transplantation or which other artificial replacement we might invent in real or in our thoughts? For the latter replaces me by another person in the view of Tye and others, while the former does not in case there is a fundamental difference between both. But if there is no fundamental difference, either a big part of the discussion about personal identity must be done anew or it must be accepted that I am physically different persons during my life, even if my life is a psychological unity.

Monday, February 01, 2010

On philosophical puzzles

One of the attractive things of philosophy is that it racks your brains. This sounds weird, but actually it is this what philosophers do: racking their brains. I do not know how it is for other philosophers, but I become restless and get an unsatisfied feeling, when I haven’t thought about difficult problems or when I haven’t read a difficult philosophical book for some time. Happily, I have my blogs that I have to write each week. And in those days that I did not yet write blogs, I wrote articles or my dissertation. Actually, philosophizing is torture that causes happiness, at least for some, for it seems that there are people for whom it is real torture, by way of speaking.
That voluntary torture causes happiness or a kind of happy feeling, whatever this may involve, is probably an instance of a general human phenomenon. Masochism is one of its extreme cases. I guess such strivings are a special expression of the general human characteristic that man is not a passive being waiting till something happens that makes action necessary. No, man is fundamentally always looking for activity, trying to be ahead of the problems that may arise and setting goals. When there are no possible problems of life that need to be coped with, man makes problems for himself. We have a special name for such problems. We call them puzzles.

In a certain sense we can see philosophy as a puzzle on its own: Why philosophy? But also within philosophy we find puzzles. We can call them second-order puzzles. Being formulated this way, philosophical puzzles seem masochistic ways to chase away boredom. Maybe, for some philosophers they are, but most philosophical puzzles have serious foundations that relate them to questions of daily live. Take for example this puzzle from the philosophy of action, which I found in one of the essays of Donald Davidson: A man may try to kill someone by shooting at him. Suppose the killer misses his victim by a mile, but the shot stampedes a herd of wild pigs that trampled the intended victim to death. (originally it comes from Daniel Bennett) Or take this one by Chisholm: Carl wants to kill his rich uncle because he wants to inherit his fortune. He believes that his uncle is home and drives towards his house. His desire to kill his uncle agitates him and he drives recklessly. On the way he hits and kills a pedestrian, who happens to be his uncle. The question in these cases is: Did the shooter and Carl perform intentional actions by killing: did the killings happen to them or were they performed on purpose or maybe they are a mixture of both? In other words, were they guilty, responsible or liable for the killings and in what degree? It is true, one can discuss such cases as mere puzzles, and although they are for some nothing else, for others like judges they are puzzles with far-reaching consequences. Seen from that perspective, masochistically torturing your brain can even be useful and contribute to the happiness or unhappiness of other people.