Monday, March 29, 2010

“Only those who can see can also dream”

Many people think that dreaming has not much to do with reality. Sometimes people are classified as dreamers or as realists, implying that the former do not have an eye for reality, while the later have their feet firmly on the ground. Maybe there is some truth in it and I do not want to say that all dreamers are actually realists in disguise, but when I think of Martin Luther King Jr. (“I have a dream”) or Bertha von Suttner, the peace activist who dreamt of an International Court of Justice, I guess that dreamers are often as realistic as so-called realists are. For isn’t Barrack Obama in a certain sense the fulfillment of King’s dream and don’t we have several international courts of justice today? Sometimes I think that dreamers have a better eye for reality than realists have.
This idea was sustained when I started to read Thomas Metzinger’s Being no one. The self-model theory of subjectivity. It is a thick work about self and the first person view, about personal experience and consciousness. I still have a long way to go in it, but somewhere in the beginning Metzinger describes how we see the world, namely how we make a representation of what is around us. I know that the analogy is not completely correct, but let me explain it in my own words in photographic terms. If we want to make a photo, we can choose a black-and-white film or a colour film, for instance. We can also use filters on our lens in order to accentuate certain aspects in our picture or to bring about a certain effect and make the picture more dramatic, or softer, or just what we like. Usually we call only the plain colour picture real. This does not mean that we can call the colour picture “better”. For instance, a photo in black-and-white can show drama that a photo in colour cannot do and in this way it can impress us more than the same picture in colour. But we can value the worth of the black-and-white photos or the effect of a filter only if we know how the representation “really” is and then we take the colour picture as a measurement.

Continuing my photographic analogy of Metzinger, so it is also with our dreams and our view of reality. Our camera makes a picture of the world. The standard picture of this is the one in colour. Its function for us “consists in depicting the state of affairs in the real world with a sufficient degree of … precision” (p. 53; italics Metzinger). Only if we have such a basic idea of how the world looks like in our mind (the colour picture), we can accentuate its dramatic aspects (making the colour photo black-and-white), making it romantic (using a soft focus filter) or even change the photo with Photoshop in order to show how to situation on the photo actually should be (replacing houses by trees in a landscape, for instance, when we want to have more nature there). That is, we can express our dreams by changing the plain picture in one how we would like to have it. However, we can do that only if we do have a plain picture, namely the idea of how reality is like. Or, in Metzinger's wording, “Only those who can see can also dream” (p. 54). If we take it this way, I wonder whether dreamers do not have a better view on reality than so-called realists. For while realists take the reality as it is and simply try to live with it, those who have dreams do not only know reality is but they know also some of its weak points. And just that’s what they want to have changed in their dreams.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Running as an art and as a way of life

In the waiting room of my dentist last Monday, I didn’t read one of the usual magazines on the reading table. I had taken my own book with me, Why we run by Bernd Heinrich. I opened it where I had stopped reading the day before and my eye was caught by a statement of Steve Prefontaine, the late middle and long-distance runner and one of the persons who has made running popular: “A race is like a work of art that people can look at and be affected by in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding”. Being a runner myself, I thought this statement is as true as a statement can be. At least when one interprets it as a sentence about running, although, I suppose, every sport is an art in its own way. I had to think of the joy of seeing a race on a track, in the field or on the road. I had to think of all those graceful African long distance runners. Just seeing them running makes it already worth watching, independently of how the race develops. And I had to think of the wonderful John Ngugi in the first place, who won so many races and who was the best cross country runner in the world for many years.
However, at second glance, I think that this quotation describes only one side of the expressive side of running. Although I do not deny that a runner (and, generally, a sportsman) is an artist, what this statement does is showing how the sport is from the outside, from the third person perspective in philosophical terms. It shows how we see the sport, how we as spectators experience the performance of what is for us, the spectators, actually a kind of show that can move us in many ways, like a piece of art.

From the perspective of the runner, the first person perspective, it is different, I think. Unlike an artist, a runner – or another a sportsman – does not try to make something beautiful, a work of art. If that is what s/he does, it is only a side effect. A runner wants to perform as well as s/he can. S/he wants to win. Or running is done for pleasure, for the joy of doing it, for losing weight, for feeling well, or for another reason. However, one cannot do that only by simply doing it in some way. One has to live for it. Of course, one can go and run just as one goes shopping, takes the train or reads a newspaper. But for many people it is more. It is a part of what they are, maybe a little part, maybe a big part, but it is not something that is done casually. It has become a part of their personality, their personal identity. Without it they would be different persons in a certain sense. Then, from the first person perspective running or sport has become a part of the way of living if not, for some, the way of living itself.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Gardening in my mind

Once I wrote a blog about the relation between gardening and philosophizing. Philosophizing can be seen, I said there, like weeding the thoughts that I have developed until I have an ordered whole. Every single thought that does not fit in the whole I have thought out is removed or put in the compost bin of my mind where it will decay so that it can be used as fertilizer for better thoughts still to be developed. But the relation between gardening and doing philosophy is not only one of analogy. For when I walk through my garden, look at what has to be done and start to work, it always happens that my thoughts drift off to spheres that are no longer related to the grubbing of my hands in the soil, to the weeding and to the putting of plants on their proper places. I simply cannot help but it always happens. After a few moments my thoughts are far away in other worlds, although I still know what my hands are doing. Then it looks a bit as if I am two different persons. I have begun philosophizing.
It is not always so that my mind drifts to deep reflections that lead to the foundations of philosophy. Far from that. Often my thoughts are quite superficial. They can centre on what I have done today, remember a letter that I have written yesterday, go to what I have planned to do tomorrow. But frequently it happens that they are deeper and that my mind starts to work out thoughts for an article. Or an idea for a blog develops. Or my thoughts simply evaluate a book that I have read recently. Actually it is nothing special, but what is special about it is that I can never stop it. I cannot say: let me concentrate today on the garden and on nothing else. In this way it is very different from other practical activities I do. When I make a bike ride, for instance, or a run in the wood behind my house, it happens often that thoughts are restless moving through my head, but soon they gradually fade away and I am fully concentrated on this activity, the cycling the running, and on nothing else. My mind becomes empty of everything else. Sports is distracting like gardening but in a very different way. For when I am in my garden it happens just the other way around. I begin with gardening but then my gardening gradually moves to the background and I cannot stop beginning to philosophize a bit, sometimes superficially, sometimes deeper, but it always happens. And seen in this way, gardening in my garden is gardening in my mind.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The value of thought experiments

Doing thought experiments is one of the methods used in philosophy. Philosophers discuss often problems that need experimentation. However, in many cases this is no practical option. Many philosophical issues are related to man and society, and, for instance, one cannot force people to undergo brain surgery for the sake of answering philosophical questions. What remains then are analytical methods. Doing thought experiments is one of them.
Man’s imagination is boundless. Man can think almost everything. This applies also to thought experiments. However, does every experiment that we can think lead to valid results? In fact it is so that a though experiment, like every experiment, can produce such results only if its premises are true. This logical fact is largely ignored when discussing the results of thought experiments. For instance, in action theory there is a thought experiment in which a surgeon puts something in a brain which make it possible to manipulate the agent’s movements. But what value do conclusions based on this thought experiment have if we do not know whether such an operation is basically possible? Even more, the argumentations about personal identity in the analytical philosophy are founded mainly on thought experiments of dubious value. Brains are switched between persons. Brains are split and the parts are placed in the heads of different persons. People are scanned and teletransported to other planets. On the basis of such thought experiments philosophers come to far-reaching conclusions about our personal identity. However, what is never done in the discussions about personal identity is questioning whether brain switches and teletransport are fundamentally possible at all. I think that in the light of the present research and literature on the relation between the brain and the rest of the body and between mind and body these thought experiments are not possible, for the working of the brain is based on the working of the body, at least for a part. Moreover, a part of what we essentially are is just in our body. If we suppose then in a thought experiment that our brain and body are separated, the conclusion that the brain – and the mind, which is supposed to have its residence in the brain – carries our personality and that the essence of what we are is our psychology is actually a repetition of the main premise of our thought experiment. We suppose that we can separate brain and body, so we can come to no other conclusion then that we fundamentally are our brain (or mind). In other words, it is begging the question.
Thought experiments can lead to valid conclusions only if we can make true that their premises are realistic. As long as we do not try to substantiate that a certain thought experiment represents a fundamentally possible event, it is a doubtful instrument. However, this is often disregarded by philosophers who study personal identity.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The contextual embeddedness of the free will

The question whether man has a free will is one of the main themes in analytical philosophy. The will is seen here as something within man that steers his or her actions and makes that he or she does the action chosen. The view that the will takes its decision independently and that the will is “free” is called indeterminism. The opposite view that the decisions of the will are caused by other factors is called determinism. However, whether the will is determined or free, it can happen that someone wills an action and is about to do the action but does not do it without having a reason for not doing it. Then one speaks of akrasia. Whether man has a free will or not and whether man can really act in an akratic way are important in the light of the question whether man is responsible for what s/he does.
I think that one of the problems in both views of the will in analytic philosophy is that they are based on the Cartesian distinction between mind and body. Actually it sees man as having a little mental man, a homunculus, inside that steers the body. However, who steers then the homunculus? Another problem is that this approach has no eye for the contextual embeddedness of man: the fact that man is a being with an environment that has as much influence on how s/he acts as man’s inner reasons, believes and intentions.
A good illustration of the contextual embeddedness of the will is a sports drama that I saw during the just finished Olympic Winter Games. It happened during the 10,000 m race in speed skating. Let me first explain a bit for the readers of my blog who do not know much about speed skating races. During a competition, the skaters compete in pairs on a 400 m rink and the one with the best time after all pairs have competed wins. For a 10,000 m race they have to skate 25 laps. The rink is divided in two tracks: an inner track and an outer track. On the side of the rink opposite of the finish line, the skater that comes from the inner track goes to the outer track and the skater that comes from the outer track goes to the inner track. If the skater fails to do that s/he is disqualified. During his race, the last one of the eight races for the Olympic 10,000 m competition, the Dutch skater Sven Kramer was clearly about to win the gold medal. After, if I remember well, 15 laps, Kramer was in the inner track and on the changeover point he skated unmistakingly in the direction of the outer track. However, a few moments before he was there his coach made a fatal mistake and shouted: “go to the inner track”. So did Kramer, and he lost his second gold medal of these Games, because he was disqualified.
What can we say about this case from the perspective of the problem of the free will? His behaviour when he left the inner track (what he said afterwards) made it clear that Kramer had the will to go from the inner track to the outer track. I think that it is also clear that the fact that he decided otherwise at the last moment was not a case of akrasia. Hadn’t Kramer’s coach shouted to him, he wouldn’t have changed his mind and from the context and from his explanations later it is clear that Kramer did not change his mind because of an inner stimulus or inexplicable change of mind. It was his coach that made him do it. However, the time left to Kramer to decide whether he had to follow his own original intention (going to the outer track) or had to do what his coach said (going to the inner track) was so short that he followed his intuition (or must we say his automatism?) that the coach is right and he made a quick jump to the inner track, with the fatal consequence.

Must we say now that Kramer did not follow his will when he chose to go to the inner track? But Kramer was not forced to go to the inner track. In a certain sense it was his own choice to follow the advice of his coach. Therefore I think that this case is an illustration that our will is not simply something that is only within us but that it is also contextually embedded in what is around us.