Monday, December 31, 2012

When prophecy fails

Sour grapes: Wasn’t it Aesop who had invented the theory of cognitive dissonance?

Actually I didn’t want to write about the nonsense of the end of the world. It isn’t worth to give it so much attention, and I agree with the Russian president Vladimir Putin (probably the first and the last time that I’ll agree with him): The end of the world will be in about 4.5 billion years’ time. But the event made me think of a study by Leon Festinger and his co-workers I learned about when I studied sociology long ago: When Prophecy Fails (first published in 1956). It was rather new then when I attended my lectures.
In this book the theory of cognitive dissonance is described for the first time. The details of the study and the theory can easily be found elsewhere on the Internet, but the essence is this: Members of a small sect somewhere in the USA think that the world will be destructed by a Flood but that only they will be saved (by a UFO). On December 21 the believers meet at a pre-determined time and place but nothing happens. Although before the presumed date of the end of the world they avoided publicity, now the believers think that the world has got a second chance and they dramatically increase their activities of spreading their message to the world.
What did happen then from a psychological point of view according to Festinger and his co-workers? Before the final date the members of the sect have a certain belief about what will occur. However, the belief doesn’t come true, for the world hasn’t been destructed as prophesied. Therefore there is a discrepancy between the original belief and the facts. Festinger et al. call this a “cognitive dissonance”. Such a dissonance is considered an unpleasant experience by most people, so they want to get rid of it. In the words of Festinger et al.: The cognitive dissonance has to be reduced. Therefore the believers of the destruction of the world think that there is a reason that the world has been saved (“the world gets a second chance”) and they adapt their behaviour to it (in this case: they try to make converts). The result of the new interpretation of the belief and the adaptation of behaviour is that the gap between belief and fact (so the cognitive dissonance) is psychologically reduced.
According to the original theory the reduction process is unconscious. Moreover, it is not limited to sectarian believes and behaviour. Actually the reduction of cognitive dissonance is something everybody often does if there is a discrepancy between a belief, attitude, values, norms etc. and the facts. It is a common psychological mechanism. Later the theory has been changed in the sense that reduction can also happen consciously.
These were some of my thoughts when I heard all the fuss about the supposed end of the world because the Maya calendar ended on December 21st last (It’s interesting that the Mayas themselves had a different interpretation of what this meant). This case is unlike the one analysed by Festinger et al. in so far as then the believers avoided publicity before the predicted end of the world, while now the predicted fact received already much attention before it should take place. Anyhow, I have some questions. What will the real believers do now that Doomsday did not take place? Will they flood the world with a new interpretation of their sectarian belief and with a new Doomsday prophecy? Moreover, what progress will the study of this failed prophecy bring to the social sciences and especially to psychology? I am waiting for what will happen.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Photography as a way of seeing

Lith, the Netherlands: Photo with pinhole camera

There is no good philosophy but only philosophy that is not bad. This was the conclusion of my last blog. But how about photography, for instance? It is often said: With these modern digital cameras everybody can make a good picture. And although we know that it is an advertising slogan, many people belief it’s true. For isn’t it so that by simply pressing a button, nowadays we can make pictures that are sharp, well exposed, and thanks to the newest techniques, taken just at the moment that everybody is smiling? What more do we want in a good photo? Okay, you need to keep your camera straight, but Photoshop or another good program can solve it, in case you forgot it. So why do we still need photographers? As a result it has become increasingly difficult to make a decent living of photography. Another consequence is that the quality of photos in newspapers and magazines is often low. But it’s strange: on the one hand there is no accounting for taste, so seen that way, you can’t say: This photo is good, that photo is bad. All criteria for quality in art are subjective, aren’t they? On the other hand, people say: This photo is better than that one. How can they say that, if there are no objective quality criteria? Apparently, there are bad photos and photos that are not bad, just as there is bad philosophy and philosophy that is not bad. However, good and bad can have two different meanings here: It can mean technically good or bad, or it can mean good or bad with respect to its contents (and maybe we can apply this distinction to philosophy as well). The former refers to aspects like sharpness, exposure, and other “technical” aspects. The latter is what the image on the photo represents and how it is composed. A good photo tells a story, for instance, or we call the image beautiful, intriguing, or having a good likeness.
A photo that is good in the first (technical) sense need not be so in the second sense (concerning its contents), and that’s what we often see. But the other way round? Needs a photo with a “good” content also be technically good? In the past it was generally thought that a technically bad photo could not be good, anyway, but why should it be so? I always say: A photo is good if it represents what it is supposed to represent. A feeling need not be sharp but can also be blurred, by way of speaking, and that must be in the image. If we wanted to make a picture of John and it shows John, in fact it is a good photo; other aspects are secondary. This is striking when I present photos on an art market or in an exhibition. When I show sharp and otherwise technically good photos next to photos taken with a pinhole camera, which are a bit blurred, because such a camera has no lens, then the pinhole pictures draw the attention of the visitors, and less so the technically goods ones, even when both types of photos have basically the same contents. Obviously there is more than just good or bad in photography. Let’s call it expression or feeling, the way we look at it. Indeed, there is quality in photography – I’ll certainly not say there isn’t – but I think it is not about good and bad but it is rather a matter of seeing and perspective.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Good philosophy is not bad

Plato: A not bad philosopher?

What is good philosophy? What is bad philosophy? These questions occurred to me after having disproved the Lottery Paradox. For how can it happen that a thesis like the Lottery Paradox persists so long, while in my opinion it is so easy to refute? Is it really such a bad kind of philosophy as I think it is, or does it have strong points as well? Since I do not have a thorough formal philosophical training, because it was another route that led me to philosophy (which is not unusual for philosophers), I cannot fall back on theoretical insights or procedures that I had learned during my education, nor do I have such books. What I did therefore is what most people do today, I think: I googled my questions. However, it didn’t help me for I found a lot on the philosophy of the good and the bad but nothing about what good or bad philosophy might be. The only thing I found was that philosophy must not be inconsistent, but that’s obvious, I should say. Moreover, inconsistency may be a criterion for bad philosophical reasoning but consistent reasoning is not good just for that. It would be bad philosophy to contend the latter, since there are other factors that can make an argumentation wrong even if it is consistent. This thought is in line with Karl Popper’s brilliant idea that fundamentally it is possible to refute a theory, but that it is never possible to prove it. If this idea is applied to my questions, it means that one cannot say what good philosophy is, although one can say “that is bad philosophy”. Or rather, one can say “that is a bad philosophical argumentation”. Then one comes into the fields of argumentation theory and methodology and their rules. Or even more, then applies what Paul Feyerabend says: “Anything goes”, namely that any argumentation, also non-standard, that undermines another argumentation makes the latter a bad one (basically, for the thesis is founded on certain suppositions, like that the former reasoning is correct).
Does this mean that we can say nothing about what good philosophy is, but that we can say only that a case of philosophy is “not bad”? By chance, recently I received a contents alert from a philosophical journal that drew my attention to the article “Bad Analytical Philosophy” by Pascal Engel. The first sentences read: “Most analytic philosophers agree that good philosophy ought to satisfy certain minimal requirements: it should be clear, precise, well argued, putting forward an explicit thesis and exemplify the principle that truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion. Everyone agrees that it should be also interesting, relevant, reasonably original, rigorous, and that it should advance theoretical or critical proposals on the problems and puzzles which have shaped the analytic tradition or which are the object of current concern. Many philosophers are confident that when these basic desiderata are met, analytic philosophy cannot be bad. Nevertheless we all know that there is bad analytic philosophy.” And I want to add here: what is valid for analytical philosophy is valid for philosophy in general as well. However, in the light of Popper’s idea that we cannot positively prove a theory, that good philosophy cannot be guaranteed when we follow the requirements listed by Engel. These requirements can be guide lines at most. They’ll never reach the status of criteria that make philosophy good when strictly applied, although it will be possible to lay down criteria that make philosophy bad (even if these will not be exhaustive).
Where does this get us? The upshot is that there is no good philosophy, or rather: logically we cannot say that a piece of philosophy is good but only that it is not bad at most. But maybe this is a case of bad philosophy.
Source: Pascal Engel, “Bad Analytical Philosophy”, in Dialectica Vol. 66, N° 1 (2012), pp. 1–4: p. 1

Monday, December 10, 2012

Don’t define your concepts and you can get any conclusion

Two blogs ago I wrote about the Lottery Paradox. I showed that it was false. However, it stayed straying through my mind, not because I had my doubts whether it was really false, for it simply is. But I wondered what went wrong with the paradox and why it is still seen as valid by some. Well, I cannot give an answer to the latter, but I can say something about the former. This time I shall be less abstract and formal, so that those readers who got stuck halfway two weeks ago, will now keep hanging on my lips.
The Lottery Paradox says that we can argue that no ticket will win in a lottery, although certainly one ticket will do, if the lottery is fair. What went wrong in this reasoning besides that the statistical argument isn’t correct? I think that the essence of the failure is in the first basic principle. It runs, as you’ll remember: “If it is highly probable that p, then it is rational to believe that p.”
The central concepts in this principle are “probable” and “rational”. But what do these concepts mean? In the argument that is supposed to substantiate the Lottery Paradox they are not explained. I think that this is the real reason that the argument goes wrong. Let’s look first at “probable”. In the context of the paradox it has a double meaning. First it is treated as a psychological concept but next as a concept from the probability theory (or from statistics). The first principle of the Lottery Paradox says something like this: If it is very likely that p will happen, you can suppose that it really will, even though sometimes it doesn’t. For instance: The timetable says that the next train will leave within 15 minutes, and since the timetable is usually correct, I can better go to the station now (even though it may be possible that the rain will be too late this time). But then, in order to “prove” the Lottery Paradox, “probable” gets suddenly a statistical meaning, and then the argument is false, as I explained in my blog two weeks ago. This doesn’t alter the fact, though, that the psychological interpretation makes sense in our daily life.
There is also something wrong with the way the concept of “rational” is used in the “demonstration” of the paradox. What is rational depends largely on the situation where we have to act. Take the train example again. Suppose that I want to do some shopping in a town nearby. So, I think: “I must leave home now, although it might happen that the train doesn’t leave within 15 minutes, because it will be late or because the timetable has changed”. Then it’s rational to go now and not to check possible changes on the Internet in case there is a train every 15 minutes. If I am wrong, the consequences are negligible.
Take now this example from my blog two weeks ago: I work as a security officer on an airport where I check the passengers at the gate. Say every year ten million passengers pass this airport and only once in five years someone is caught who might have the intention to put a bomb in a plane. Therefore, it is highly likely that the next passenger is a decent person and not a terrorist. Must I say then: Well, it is very, very likely that the next person is not a terrorist. I am a rational person and I don’t check her? Of course not, for in view of the consequences in case she is, it is better to check her, and the next passenger, and the next … Here it is rational not to believe that p, even if it is extremely probable that p.
Don’t define your concepts and you can get any conclusion you like.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Big Brother is watching … George Orwell

Today we are being spied on most of the time. For instance, when I am on line, many web pages I visit have advertisements urging me to follow Dutch language courses. Why do they think that I might be interested in it? Because they have sent “cookies” to my computer in order to find out who I am and what my interests are. In this case it is quite an unintelligent way of spying, for why should a native speaker of Dutch want to learn Dutch? But it is an illustration that espionage or rather being spied on has become an intrinsic part of our lives.
The best known way of such espionage is the use of surveillance cameras, also called, CCTV cameras (CCTV = Closed Circuit TV). You find them everywhere. For instance, when I am going to make a run in the wood behind my house, the first steps after I have left my street are on the grounds of a psychiatric institute and the first thing I see is a CCTV camera. In the past sometimes I met a security guard on his round. Then he greeted me, but the camera says nothing.
Obviously, cameras are not employed without reason. People want to keep an eye on their properties. Authorities want to watch the public space hoping that it will become safer and more secure. And there are many other good (and also bad) reasons for installing cameras. Does it work? Studies show it hardly does.
The first CCTV system was installed seventy years ago. Before there were other ways to spy on, of course. However, these systems were personal in some way, for the watching agent was a person of flesh and blood. In a certain sense it is still so: Behind a surveillance camera there is someone who looks on a screen seeing what is happening. But more and more the systems are automated and systems of automatic face recognition exist already.
The science fiction novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (first published in 1924) was a source of inspiration for George Orwell. People there lived in a kind of see-through houses where everybody could observe what everybody else was doing. If you wanted to have a few private hours for yourself, for instance for passing an evening with your sweetheart, you had to apply for an official permit to close your curtains. George Orwell has replaced this quite primitive system by telescreens in each house and on all public places with hidden microphones and cameras. The leader of the state where all this happens is called Big Brother, and everywhere there are posters of him with the caption “Big Brother is watching you”.
Today gradually Orwell’s novel seems to become reality, and, how cynical, in Orwell’s country Britain in the first place. An article on the Internet from the London Evening Standard from 2007 tells me that there were already 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain in that year, or one for every 14 people in the country and 20 per cent of cameras globally. “It has been calculated”, so the article, “that each person is caught on camera an average of 300 times daily.” And where do we find these spy cameras? Around Orwell’s former home in North London, for instance. Within less than 200 metres from this flat, where Orwell lived until his death in 1950, there are 32 CCTV cameras, “scanning every move”, so the article. And it continues: “Orwell's view of the tree-filled gardens outside the flat is under 24-hour surveillance from two cameras perched on traffic lights. The flat's rear windows are constantly viewed from two more security cameras outside a conference centre ... In a lane, just off the square, close to Orwell's favourite pub ... a camera at the rear of a car dealership records every person entering or leaving the pub. Within a 200-yard radius of the flat, there are another 28 CCTV cameras, together with hundreds of private, remote-controlled security cameras used to scrutinise visitors to homes, shops and offices.”
If George Orwell would still have been alive, he would have been continuously within the vision fields of our modern big and little brothers and sisters, with all advantages and risks that it involves (and I am afraid that the risks are bigger than the advantages, as I have tried to explain in previous blogs). Big Brother is watching you, also, or maybe just, when you are George Orwell.

The article from the London Evening Standard:
An interesting report on the risks and other issues related to camera surveillance:

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Lottery Paradox

Trying to find an answer to the question when we can say that we have knowledge I found an article by Baron Reed titled “Fallibilism” (Philosophy Compass 7/9 (2012): 585–596). In a section of this article Reed discusses the Lottery Paradox and its relevance for knowledge as justified true belief. The paradox has been described first by Henry E. Kyburg, Jr, in 1961. I must say that, like the Gettier cases debate, I didn’t follow the discussion that developed since then, so maybe my arguments against it are not new (but I didn’t get the impression when I read Reeds article), but it is interesting to treat the paradox here because of its significance for our concept of knowledge.
I start with Reed’s description of the Lottery Paradox (id, pp. 588-589):

“[The lottery paradox] depends on the following two principles:
1. If it is highly probable that p, then it is rational to believe that p.
2. If it is rational to believe that p and it is rational to believe that q, then it is rational to believe that p & q.”
These two principles are quite plausible, so Reed, and if the “two propositions are each rational to believe, then surely it is rational to believe their conjunction. … Nevertheless, the two principles together yield a counterintuitive result. Suppose there is a fair lottery in which 1000 tickets are sold and in which only one ticket will win. For each ticket, there is thus a .999 probability that it will lose. Principle (1) tells us that it is rational to believe of each ticket that it will lose. So, where proposition pi is the proposition that ticket ti will lose, it is rational to believe that p1, that p2, …, that p1000. Principle (2) tells us that it is rational to believe the conjunction of all these propositions: that p1 & p2 & … & p1000. But, because we know it is a fair lottery, it is also rational for us to believe that some one of the tickets will win – i.e., it is rational for us to believe that either not-p1, or not-p2, …, or not-p1000. We know (and rationally believe) that this is equivalent to the proposition that not-(p1 & p2 & … & p1000). Using principle (2) again, it is rational to believe that p1 & p2 & … & p1000 & not-(p1 & p2 & … & p1000). But that proposition, of course, is a contradiction.”

At first glance, the Lottery Paradox may seem plausible, indeed, but at second glance? Premise (1) says that it is rational to believe that p if p is highly probable. But why should it? For example, I work as a security officer on an airport where I check the passengers at the gate. It is highly probable that the next passenger is a decent person and not a terrorist. Nevertheless, for me it is rational to believe that he might be an exception. The only thing that is rational to believe is that p is highly probable and not that it certainly will happen, as premisse (1) seems to state. Otherwise we add information without any argument.
Take now premise (2). What Reed doesn’t make clear is what “&” means. Say I throw the dice. Then there is a probability of .83 that 1-5 will come up. If I throw several times, that doesn’t change for each independent (separate) throw. If we interpret the & for separate throws, the probability for each throw remains .83. However, now we interpret & in the way that the first throw p is 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 and the next throw q is and the next throw r is etc.. Then after four throws the probability is 0.83x0.83x0.83x0.83=0.48 that this will happen, which is already less than a half! In other words, if p, q etc. are dependent on each other in some way and they have probabilities of less than 1 it is not rational to believe that p & q & etc. (i.e. in my example that each time 1-5 will come up).
This brings me to another flaw in the lottery paradox. Even if the premises are true, the world is wider and it contains also other knowledge, for instance what statisticians say about probabilities. Our rational believe is not based on single isolated facts but it is interwoven with other knowledge, like statistical knowledge. And statisticians can tell us that it is simply not true that we have to analyse the probabilities of the 1000 tickets in the lottery as independent from each other: If we know that one lottery ticket will not win, then the probabilities that the other tickets will win increase. Knowing the probabilities of the separate lottery tickets as such tells us nothing about the probabilities when we put some (or all) tickets together, unless we do the relevant statistical computations. I think that more can be said against the Lottery Paradox, but it is clear that neither premise (1) nor premise (2) is correct. The upshot is that there is no Lottery Paradox.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Gettier cases and knowing-how

Knowing how (foto B.bij de Weg)

The Gettier problem calls into question that knowledge is justified true belief. We have seen it in my last blog. The theme has been intensively discussed since Gettier published his article in 1963 and for me it is impossible to follow back the whole debate, but when I look up on the Internet the argumentations put forward there is one thing that strikes me: Although the Gettier problem and its consequences for what knowledge is have been examined in many ways, nonetheless the discussion has been one-sided. Or have I missed something? For when we take a closer look at the discussion we see that the concept of knowledge involved is basically propositional knowledge or knowledge-that. But didn’t already Gilbert Ryle defend in his The Concept of Mind (1949) that there are two kinds of knowledge: knowledge-that and knowledge-how? When we apply this distinction to the Gettier problem, I think we have to reject the conclusion that Gettier cases undermine the idea that in general knowledge is not justified true belief.
Once (in my blog dated June 9, 2008) I have dedicated a blog to Ryle’s distinction, but it’s already more than four years ago, so let me repeat the essence. When we talk about knowledge-that, we mean intellectual knowledge or rationally knowing. Basically, knowing-that is about facts or theories that can be true or false. Betsy, my cow, is in the field or she isn’t. E=mc2 or E≠ mc2. However, knowing-that is not all knowledge there is. Much of what we know is knowing-how, which does not refer to what we intellectually contain in our minds but to what we can practically do with our bodies (steered by our mind, it’s true, but not only). It refers to the way we do things and are able to do them. How we ride a bike, for instance. Maybe I cannot explain verbally what I do when I am cycling, but nevertheless I can do it and I can teach others how to do it. Also most professional knowledge, skill and craftsmanship fall in this category. A carpenter can excel in his trade, even when he cannot explain in words the details of what he is doing.
I think that it has no sense to talk about the Gettier problem when we talk about knowing-how. For instance, when I know how to ride a bike, something like a Gettier problem cannot happen. Maybe I belief that I can cycle because in the past I could, but if it is no longer so, because I have become too old for it and I would fall over, it is simply a false belief. I don’t see how a kind of Gettier problem can bear on cases like this one or on other cases of knowing-how. It should have to be something like that I have the true knowledge that I can ride a bike, but when I am going to check it, I do something else although I still have the belief that I am cycling. I cannot imagine how that is possible, but maybe you can. If I am right, it can still happen that knowing-how is not a kind of justified true belief but it is not because of Gettier-like objections.

Monday, November 12, 2012

On forgetting

In these blogs I write on subjects that I find interesting and I use this writing for developing my mind. Because I publish my blogs on the Internet, I hope that my readers will profit by it as well. This week’s blog has a different purpose, though, for I have a problem. I read a lot on philosophy and then it’s normal that I often come across the same theories, arguments and cases. Therefore I have developed not only my ideas through the years but also I have acquired also a good knowledge of what is going on in philosophy, at least in the fields I am reading and writing on. Nevertheless, there are some subjects that, how often I have read on them, I always forget what they are about. For instance, I always forgot what Frankfurt cases are. However, since I have written a few blogs on them, they have been printed in my memory. Another example is the so-called Gettier problem. I have read on it several times. Often I have looked up what it is. But what happened today: I stumbled on it in a book on knowledge and despite all my efforts in the past, it had again slipped my memory what it involves. So I got the idea to write a blog on the Gettier problem, for what has helped me to remember what Frankfurt cases are will without a doubt help me keep the Gettier problem in my mind, as well. But I want to make excuses to my readers, if they find this blog boring, for what I actually do is merely repeating some stuff that I have found on the Internet.
A standard definition of knowledge says that knowledge is justified true belief: We belief that something is the case; we have good reasons for this belief; and what is believed is also true. So far, so good, but take this example, which I have adapted from the Wikipedia:
I am a bit worried whether my best cow Betsy hasn’t been stolen from the field where she is supposed to be at pasture. I walk from my farm to the field, where I see a cow in the middle of the herd that exactly looks like Betsy, although I don't find it necessary to walk so near to her that I am 100% sure that she really is Betsy. Back home, I tell my wife that I know that Betsy is safe. My wife wants to check it, too, and goes also to the field. There she sees Betsy somewhere in the back and Jane in the middle of the herd. Because Betsy is often confused with Jane, if you look at her from a distance, she makes herself 100% sure that it is really Betsy there in the back of the field. Betsy hasn’t been stolen, just as I thought.
Now the question is: Did I know that Betsy hadn’t been stolen? For (1) I believed that Betsy was safe; (2) my belief was justified for I had checked it; (3) it was true that Betsy hadn’t been stolen.
In a famous paper published in 1963 Edmund Gettier discussed cases like this one where we seemed to have justified true belief, but where most of us would not say that we “know”; cases that cast doubt upon the definition of knowledge as justified true belief.
What this example and other more refined “Gettier cases” show is that it is possible to have justified true belief without having knowledge. The theory of knowledge that holds that knowledge is justified true belief is therefore false. We need more for being able to say to have knowledge. But what?
But isn’t this exactly what we do in scientific research: looking for something that we belief to be true on good (i.e. methodologically justified) grounds? And yet often it happens that our theories, once believed to be true and justified by experiments and argumentations, are later rejected or revised on the base of new data, experiments and argumentations. But weren’t then the old revised ideas no knowledge it all? And how about the new ideas that replace the old ones and that are the best we have at the moment: Are they knowledge? Seen this way, we can doubt whether we have any knowledge at all; whether knowledge in science can exist anyhow. We simply have justified true belief. And isn’t that also so for most we think to know outside science? It seems better never to say “I know” but “I think I know” at most. A lot more can be said about this, but I only wanted to write on the Gettier problem in order to know it forever.

Some websites on the Gettier problem

Monday, November 05, 2012

Feeling happy

Sometimes I think that I should take more time for writing my blogs than the afternoon I allot for it now. Then I could write thorough essays without the mistakes or rudimentary thoughts that are so typical for my present scribbles. But would it make sense? Wouldn’t I get simply another type of blogs? Blogs that are articles rather than the present small pieces of writing that – I hope – make the reader think? Anyway, now and then I come across thoughts or phrases that would certainly have given some blogs another turn had I known them before.
Today I happened to reread Montaigne’s essay titled “That Men are Not to Judge of Our Happiness Till After Death” (Book I, 18). It remembered me of what I recently had written about happiness and especially of what I had written about Wittgenstein’s two opinions on his life and my idea that there are two views on happiness: the view of the moment that something happens which makes me happy or unhappy and the view backwards on my life and my thinking how it was. Had I recalled Montaigne’s essay, I would certainly have referred to it in my blogs on happiness, and I would have come to other conclusions.
In this essay Montaigne comments on the statement by the Greek poet and statesman Solon (630 BC - 558 BC) “ ‘That men, however fortune may smile upon them, could never be said to be happy till they had been seen to pass over the last day of their lives,’ by reason of the uncertainty and mutability of human things, which, upon very light and trivial occasions, are subject to be totally changed into a quite contrary condition”. After some discussion, Montaigne concludes that what Solon wanted to say is that because of the precariousness of life “the very felicity of life itself, which depends upon the tranquillity and contentment of a well-descended spirit, and the resolution and assurance of a well-ordered soul, ought never to be attributed to any man till he has first been seen to play the last, and, doubtless, the hardest act of his part.” And that is “Wherefore, at this last, all the other actions of our life ought to be tried and sifted: ’tis the master-day, ’tis the day that is judge of all the rest, ‘’tis the day,’ says one of the ancients, ‘that must be judge of all my foregoing years’.”
When writing down these quotations, I saw that in the last one the Dutch translator of the Essays uses the word “happiness” (geluk) – in agreement with the 1595 French edition, which uses the word “bonheur” – whereas the English edition quoted speaks of “felicity”. Be this as it may, it doesn’t change what I was wondering already when I wrote my blogs on happiness but what I did not wrote down, namely: Do we really mean the same with “happy” when we say “I am happy now”, and when we say “looking backward I am happy” or rather “looking backward I am happy with it”? For instance, did Wittgenstein refer to the same thing when he wrote in his diary “There is no happiness for me; no joy ever” and when he muttered at the end of his life “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life”? A few weeks ago I thought so, following Groeger, but now I think that what I wrote just after the quotes but what I ignored contains an important truth: “a wonderful life needs not also be a happy life”. It’s just the essay by Montaigne that defends the idea that whether we really were happy can only be judged at the end of our lives that made it clear to me that our happiness now and our feeling happy with our life as a whole are different things. For for the latter Montaigne uses also the word “reputation” and he speaks here of a “judgment” on a life. Although Montaigne talks of the lives of other people in the first place, I think that it is the same for Wittgenstein or for you or me: When I look back on my own life and say that I am happy with it, what in fact I am doing is judging my life, although it may be so, of course, that the judgment leads to a feeling of happiness in me who judges myself. But such a feeling and a judgment are basically two different things. Unlike the latter, a feeling is neither an opinion nor a kind of view. And it is just a feeling that I am referring to when I say “I am happy now” or “basically I feel happy (in the long run)”. This cannot be changed by a dramatic act at the end of my life (as Montaigne thinks), for such an act can change my reputation and the judgment on my life as a whole but not what I felt some time ago, even not for myself.
Quotations are from the online edition of the Essays English version) on

Monday, October 29, 2012

Do we need heroes?

Pinocchio, mascot of the World Cycling Championships 2013 in Firenze, Italy

I think that most of my readers will have heard of the Armstrong affair in bicycle racing: the case of the American pro-cyclist Lance Armstrong who had won the Tour de France cycle race seven times in succession with the help of doping and who had developed an ingenuous system for hiding that he had used doping. Moreover, he had also “forced” his team mates to use doping. Since I am a huge fan of bicycle racing, I am very disappointed, as you’ll understand, also because it has become clear again that this sport has been deeply poisoned by doping. Happily, the use of doping has decreased a lot since Armstrong left the sport (but not because he left but because of strict measures against it) and it has always had “clean” branches: cyclo-cross and women racing, for instance. But why is it so that I am so disappointed? Because in my view it’s a beautiful sport, of course, but also because something else is the case: a hero has been knocked of his pedestal. Lance Armstrong: once a person admired by everybody, now treated like dirt.
I think that the latter, the case of the fallen hero, gives the Armstrong affair a wider meaning. It is not only about Armstrong, his teammates and pro-cycling; the whole affair tells a lot about us: participants, onlookers and mere passers-by. For how could things have gone so far? Not, I think, because Armstrong has a dirty or criminal mind. I don’t think that his mind is dirtier or more criminal than mine or yours. I think that it could happen, because I and you and the whole society need heroes and now a hero has been exposed as a cheater. We need examples: persons who do what we cannot do or think we cannot do. They stimulate us to do things we shouldn’t maybe do if we didn’t have our heroes. A tennis player who wins Wimbledon which makes then a lot of children in his or her country start to play tennis as well is a case in point. Or people follow an anti-hero like Werther from Goethe’s novel, whose suicide made that many people followed him. People don’t like to do things on their own initiative, unless they have examples they can follow. Thinking for themselves is too difficult for many people. Many political and other leaders are acquainted with this mechanism, and so they have created titles like Hero of the Soviet Union or Hero of Labour, Mother-Hero and other beautiful titles and honours. Or political leaders (like Mao) are mystified (or deified in the past). When that happens, something has gone wrong with society. People don’t think for themselves any longer.
These are extreme cases, but they are not exceptional; rather they are the rule. Of course, there is nothing against admiration. In fact, there is a sliding scale between admiring and idolizing, or – what I think is a better word for the latter – “herofying”. It’s so for persons and it’s so for societies. I think that the degree of “herofying” in a society says a bit about the nature of that society. Is it by mere chance that in a society where we find our Armstrongs we find also too many bankers and managers of big (and smaller) companies who have been shown up as people mainly interested in filling their pockets with money? Isn’t it the same mentality: one that sees people on the top as people to be admired or even herofied who are allowed to do everything as long as nobody sees it (or at least talks about it?). I think so, and that’s why what I heard a neuropsychiatrist in a French TV program saying is so to the point: “A society in peace doesn’t need heroes. When it needs them, it is ill”.

Monday, October 22, 2012

What is true

Was it worthwhile?
(Photo showing war cemetery at Douaumont near Verdun)

Wittgenstein had two opinions on his life. We saw it in my last blog. Once he wrote in his diary that he wasn’t happy with it. Judging from what I know about Wittgenstein it was not simply a remark written in a depressive mood but it was the way he generally felt about his life, anyway during a long period. Nevertheless, when he was dying he said that he was happy with his life, looking backward. We can explain the difference by saying that Wittgenstein had changed his mind. But we can also suppose that from one perspective, the perspective of daily life, he felt unhappy, but from an overall perspective, evaluating what he had done and experienced, Wittgenstein judged otherwise and generally he felt happy with what he had achieved and had lived through. Here we have two views on the same thing and both can be true.
In Arnold Zweig’s novel of the First World War Erziehung vor Verdun (Education before Verdun) a soldier, Süssmann, says before he dies: “Tell my parents: It was worthwhile. Tell lieutenant Kroysing [his superior officer]: It was not worthwhile”. And then the author adds: “The truth is somewhere between these poles, but not exactly halfway in between, as a wise man noted.”
Zweig suggests here that both the message of the soldier to his parents and the one to his superior were not completely true, and when we wouldn’t have read this comment we would tend to think that the message to Kroysing was true and that the one to his parents was a white lie, because he did not want to add extra suffering for his parents if they would think that he had died in vain. However, the author apparently doesn’t want that the reader gets this idea and suggests that there are good sides and bad sides of the First World War and dying for it.
This is a possible interpretation but is it also conceivable that both remarks by Süssmann are true? A first thought is – and Zweig seems to have the same opinion – that there cannot be two truths: a statement is true or it isn’t. Something in between doesn’t exist and a truth that is a lie or the other way round is an impossibility. If we make two apparently contradictory statements about the same thing, either only one can be true or both say only a part of what is the case and there must be a true statement that expresses what there really is. In the end there is only one correct description of the world.
However, life is often not as simple as that. When we tell how we see the world around us and what we have experienced, we don’t do it in order to express objective facts. There is always a purpose behind our description. Saying that something is true always supposes that we take a certain perspective, just as we can say that Wittgenstein took the perspective of being in the middle of his experiences in one case and the perspective of the overall view in the other. In the same way we can give Süssmann’s messages different interpretations that both are true. For it is quite well possible that in the message to Kroysing Süssmann thought of the purpose of the war and what he was fighting for and that in view of all the suffering and dead the war wasn’t worthwhile. However, in the message to his parents maybe Süssmann wanted to say that in view of the fact that he had been a good son and a good patriot who did his duty (or in view of the idea that his parents wanted that he would be so) his life had been a success and that it had been worthwhile. These are not simple different aspects of the same thing but different perspectives of looking at the same thing. Seen in this way contradictory statements like those made by Süssmann or Wittgenstein can be true at the same time, how weird this may look on the face of it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

What makes us happy?

Does it depends on our character whether this glass is half full or half empty?

The ink of my last blog was not yet dry when I found an article on the Internet that makes that I have to revise it. Or rather I found a reference to a recent psychological research that seems to refute one of the main points of the received view on happiness: the idea of the hedonic treadmill, which says that in the long run happiness is stable and doesn’t depend on incidental events and specific life circumstances (see my last blog). The article where I found the reference summarizes the research this way: “Bruce Headey, a psychologist at Melbourne University in Australia, … and his colleagues analyzed annual self-reports of life satisfaction from over 20,000 Germans who have been interviewed every year since 1984. He compared five-year averages of people’s reported life satisfaction, and plotted their relative happiness on a percentile scale from 1 to 100. Heady found that as time went on, more and more people recorded substantial changes in their life satisfaction. By 2008, more than a third had moved up or down on the happiness scale by at least 25 percent, compared to where they had started in 1984.” (
But as it happens so often in science, when we put things in perspective, they are not as plain as they look on the face of it. So it is here, too. However, I want to refer my readers for a discussion and appraisal of Heady’s results to the short article by Lena Groeger just mentioned. What remains to be said then is that in the long run our level of happiness can vary more than was thought initially and that it depends less on our character and genetic makeup than was thought until recently: Although some people are more prone to feeling happy or unhappy, we can do something about it.
This takes us back to Aristotle’s view that happiness is makeable. Even so, one wonders why some people feel happy in conditions where other people would feel themselves deeply unhappy. Poor people are often very happy, which rich people who see them often cannot understand (but sometimes just use as an excuse for the argument that their circumstances do not need to be changed). And people who have made progress sometimes feel unhappier than before. Happiness apparently depends on our expectations and seen possibilities. What makes us happy and what we can do in order to make ourselves happy is related to the world around us and the way we see it.
All this makes me think of a famous quote from Karl Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they … do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” In the present context: Men make their own happiness, but they … do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves... And this make happiness perspectival, for what the circumstances are is subject to how and from which position we see them.
It  leads my mind to Wittgenstein, or rather back to Wittgenstein. For it was just when I was browsing on the Internet looking for what Wittgenstein thought about happiness (and I knew that he often felt unhappy) that I found the reference to the research by Headey et al. Wittgenstein once wrote in his diary (and in order to make it myself easy, I quote from Groeger’s article): “There is no happiness for me; no joy ever.” “Yet” , so Groeger continues, “minutes before he died, he muttered: ‘Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life’.” Although a wonderful life needs not also be a happy life, nevertheless I think that the quotation shows that what once couldn’t make us happy can do so afterwards.

Monday, October 08, 2012

How long does happiness last?

When I had cycled to the Col du Grand Ballon I felt happy. As a reminder of this joyful moment I bought a little souvenir, which I have put in a bookcase in my study, hoping that it will make me happy again every time I look at it. But will it work? Feelings of happiness tend to fade away after some time, even in case the object of happiness or its token is still present every day. There is a theory that says that after three months these feelings have gone. Or rather the feelings of happiness have returned to the original level before the event that raised it took place. The opposite is also true: unhappy events tend to fade away as well. When I buy the house of my dreams, I feel very happy when I open the door for the first time. But gradually I become accustomed to my new property and I don’t feel better anymore than when I opened the door of my previous house. It is the same when I have lost a valuable possession. After some time I have moved it to the backyard of my mind. This seems to be even so for some very radical life changes like winning the jackpot in a lottery. So, in the long run happiness doesn’t depend on incidental events and it is not related to specific life circumstances. In the long run the level of happiness is stable. Psychologists talk about a “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation”: each person has an individual level of happiness to which s/he returns after some time. It depends mainly on the person’s character and on genetic factors, although there can be much short-term variation.
However, there are exceptions to the levelling effect. Those who get divorced, unemployed, injured, seriously ill or physically disabled do not, it seems, on average recover the initial level of happiness they previously were at. And there are factors that permanently increase the level, like marriage (but not for everybody). This is an indication that it cannot only be influenced in the short run (buying a house) but also in the long run. The question is: how? And then we are more interested, of course, in the way we can influence our happiness level positively rather than negatively.
The Swiss author Rolf Dobelli, whose interesting book on mistakes in thought brought the theme to my attention, mentions several things you can do in order to prevent that happiness fades away. Much that makes you happy has also negative side effects. If you think that you cannot adapt to them, change your choice. So, don’t buy a house in the countryside far away from your workplace, if you don’t like commuting, for then your happiness can even become a source of unhappiness. Have also an eye for the fact that material things make you only happy for a short time. Moreover, the way you spend your life has a positive or negative effect on your happiness. The more leisure you have and the more autonomous you are, the better it is. In addition, take care of your relations and your reference groups. All such things have an effect on how you feel. I would summarize it this way: For a large part your level of happiness is given by your character and a few other factors, but the variations around this level are a matter of framing.
Nevertheless, it’s my experience that not all incidental feelings of happiness about big or little life events fade away unless you take special measures. Everybody knows that memories can make us happy or sad. I still feel a bit happier when I think of some good races I did in the past as a runner (these are not the very few races I won). And they took place before the theory of the hedonic treadmill had been discovered and when the idea of trying to preserve moments in my mind was still far away from me. Yet I think that a help to call back some nice moments can be useful and that a little souvenir can be such a help.

Monday, October 01, 2012

No mountain too high?

Practice makes the world go round was the essence of my last blog. But is it really so? I wanted to test it, and since for me philosophizing and cycling go together, it would do it by bike. But which mountain would be high enough for examining the truth of the statement? For practical reasons I decided to go to the Vosges in Eastern France. This region is less than a day’s drive from my home and you find there real mountains. Even more, some of them had got some fame in the Tour de France cycle race, and one of these mountains, the Grand Ballon, had always been my secret aim. Therefore my experiment would consist in a climb of the Col du Grand Ballon. And if I succeeded to cycle to this mountain pass of 1325 metres, it would tell me not only something about philosophy but also about myself. So there I went, again with my wife. However, we didn’t go directly to the Vosges but first to the much lower mountains of the Eifel in Germany in order to give me some extra training.
The rides in the Eifel went smooth and the low mountains where no problem for me. Full of optimism I left for the Vosges after a few days, but once I was there, I got nervous. For there is a big difference between a low mountain of 500 m and a mountain pass of 1325 m. I felt like having to run a marathon on the base of thorough interval training and having run some much shorter races. It’s quite well possible, but psychologically it is not the best preparation. But okay, I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it on the first opportunity that the weather was good, for you never know how it changes in the mountains.
The day after my arrival was warm and sunny. When I explored the climb by car that morning and saw the profile of the route, I became reassured a bit. It should be quite well possible for me. Back home, I took a light meal, changed clothes, checked my bike, and left. The first ten minutes were only a warming up on a more or less flat road. Then it went uphill. I’ll save the readers all my feelings, but I can say that it was often very hard and often I had no gears left in order to make it easier for myself. Several times I got the idea: that’s the end; now I have to stop. But I didn’t and when I left the trees behind me and open fields stretched out before my eyes, I knew that the worst was behind me. At the top of the pass I had even the power to accelerate.
The Col du Ballon d’Alsace (1178 m), which I did two days later, was a piece of cake compared with the Grand Ballon. A bit like the climb to the top of the Netherlands but x times longer. Actually I should have done it first by way of training. It appeared to be a real mountain for philosophers, for here I could think over what climbing the Grand Ballon meant for me and my theory. It became clear to me that it’s really true: after having gone up go down again and then up and down and up and down... So you can learn to climb the highest mountains. The highest mountains? For me, the Grand Ballon was the limit. But lots of cyclists and potential philosophers have conquered higher and steeper climbs, like the famous Mont Ventoux (the mountain of Petrarch, but also the mountain where Tommy Simpson died in 1967 during the Tour de France). Or the Tourmalet, the Galibier, the Alpe d’Huez and many more. Maybe it showed that each person has his or her limits. But what are they? Must I simply do the Grand Ballon a few times again and then I can do these other climbs as well?
But now it was the limit for me. Since I had reached the top of a renowned Tour de France col, I appeared to be a good philosopher. But since it certainly wasn’t the top of the tops, I understood also that I am not more than that. In order to check it, I browsed a bit on the Internet and found a website called Blogrank, which ranks all kinds of blogs, including philosophical ones. I added my blog, too, and I came out as #73 in philosophy (see the button right). Not too bad but not the top of the world. What remains then is to try to reach the best 25. How? By cycling on more mountains and writing more blogs, of course. When you’re on the top of the mountain, you can only become better by yo-yoing down and up. It’s true for cycling and it’s true for philosophy as well, not to speak of life.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The top of the hill

The highest point of the Netherlands

There is a saying that runs “When you are on the top of the hill, you can only go down.” It sounds quite obvious. It’s true, you can go to live on the top and then the reverse seems to apply better to you: “When you are in the valley, you can only go up.” But for most people, the saying is plausible. Nevertheless I had my doubts, so I wanted to investigate the truth of it. As my dear readers will know, for me riding on my race bike and philosophizing often go together and sometimes they are two sides of the same coin. So in order to find out how much worth there is in this saying, I took my car, threw my race bike in it, put my wife on the seat next to me in order to have some pleasant company during the trip, and there I went to the southeast of the Netherlands where you find the highest hills of this country. With some effort (for it appeared to be one of the best weekends of this summer), I found a hotel and after some rest and some eating, I got on my bike.
The highest point of the Netherlands was only ten kilometres from my hotel, but I thought that it was better not to take the quickest road to the top. Since most things in life go better after some preparation, I decided to take a roundabout route. It would give me a thorough warming-up and so I could get a bit accustomed to cycling on the hills, for the molehills near my town are hardly worth the name of hill, not to speak of “mountain” as we call them there. However, I had profited by riding on these molehills and actually, and I went up and down without excessive effort. It showed that I was in good shape, for also for pro cyclist the region has some fame; not because the hills are so high, but because you find there hardly one flat centimetre, which makes cycling there very strenuous in the end.
So when I reached the climb I had came for, I had got already some feeling for the right gears and the right tempo, albeit that I was still a beginner. Nevertheless I was quite nervous. But it was without reason for the road to the top of the Netherlands appeared to take me somewhat less effort than the last long and sometimes steep slope I had past, so when I was there I was very self-satisfied. However, I was not the only philosopher on the top. Anyway, there were lots of other cyclists and it seemed that an organised bike tour was going on with this hill as its summit. There were many old cyclists, too, but when you looked well, you could see that most had bikes with electric drive, so in my view they were not of the right philosophical type. Moreover, there were several cafes, a watchtower and a maze. It was almost as an amusement park. But I didn´t was there for amusing myself. So I rode around the monument indicating the top of the Netherlands and also around the flags that indicated the place where this country, Belgium and Germany meet, which was some 50 metres from there, so that I had been in three countries. Next I went downhill and back to my hotel.
Until now I hadn’t got any philosophical feeling, and I was a bit disappointed. Most what looked like it was that I had thought of Petrarch climbing the Mont Ventoux. But there had already been many Petrarchs before me on this hill. Then, I got the idea that I had to do it again, like Sisyphus, although the main difference between Sisyphus and me was that he would never reach the top, and I could go there as often as I liked. Happily my wife and I had booked the hotel for two nights, and since the next day I was not too tired from the effort the day before I got on my race bike again, and since I needed again a warming-up and some more experience, I did the same route as the day before. It was a good idea, for although I didn’t ride really better, I was more relaxed, better changed gears and felt more at ease. And I knew the route already a little bit. So after an hour I was again at the top of the Netherlands, and now I smiled, for now, a brain wave told me: not yesterday’s ride but today’s ride taught me a lot of philosophy. It is true, when you are on the top of a hill, you can only go down. But here the story doesn’t end, for after you have gone down, you can go up again. And again. And again. And each time you’ll be better and enjoy it more and you’ll learn from it. “When you’re on the top of the hill, you can only go down” is not true. Even more, when you are on the top of the hill, you must go down, and up and down, and up and down… And so you become prepared for higher hills and for real mountains. And now I am prepared for it, too.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Free will and responsibility

Actually the Frankfurt cases are already rather old. Not as old as Plato’s philosophy, of course, but Harry Frankfurt presented them in 1969. It was his contribution to the discussion on determinism and moral responsibility. So the debate lasts already more than 40 years. What’s new now is that the discussion on determinism has changed because of recent developments in brain research. If our hormones make do what we do, as some brain researchers say, or if our behaviour and actions are nothing but programmed reactions of our neural networks to the inputs from the world around us (what we see, what we hear and so on), what does remain then from the idea of free will and, in line with it, the idea that we are morally responsible for what we do? In view of this, the Frankfurt cases illustrate, under a certain interpretation, that determinism and freedom can go together. Right now, I don’t have the idea that I can give a substantial contribution to the debate, but nevertheless let me brainstorm a bit about it.
Basically it is so – and I think that nobody will deny it – that a person is morally responsible for what she does by her own free will. But say that I am riding uphill with a friend in the case in my last blog. First we decided to go straight on, but then I changed my mind, as I explained, and I decided to go to the left where the road splits, so that I am sure that I’ll be home before dark. My friend doesn’t care, for he has light on his bike, which I haven’t. So he says: “I’ll go straight on and tell you later how the road is like.” But because the road straight on was blocked, my friend had to turn to the left, too. What’s the difference between my turning to the left and my friend’s turning to the left? Can it happen that in a non-trivial case I will be held responsible for my action (and with right) and my friend will not, even though we did the same action at the same place under the same circumstances, but only for the reason that we had different intentions for our actions at the moment we couldn’t yet foresee the consequences of the alternative decisions?
Secondly, does our moral responsibility for an action depend on the moment we have taken the decision to act in a certain way? Or are there, for instance, levels of responsibility depending on the moment the decision has been taken? In the trivial case of me riding uphill and downhill: Is my responsibility for turning left before I could see that the road straight on had been blocked different from my responsibility for turning left at the moment I could see the blockade, although I had the intention to turn left anyway?
To end this quite abstract blog (which is a bit unusually for me, I think, but the readers may protest) I give an example, adapted from the philosophical literature. There are better cases, but presently I cannot find them: A locomotive is running downhill. I don’t know what went wrong but what I do know is that there is no engine driver in it. There is a man on the track who doesn’t see the loco coming. I cannot stop it but I can shift a switch and lead the loco to another track and the man will be saved. As for the responsibility question it’s a simple case, you’ll think. But there are many variations possible. For instance, there is a man on the other track, but you cannot see him from your point of view. Or you can see him, but one of the persons is your son. Or you see the second man at the last moment. Or your daughter is on one track, and on the other track there are 2, 3, 4 … persons. With some creativity you’ll be able to think up a lot of cases, but are you able to solve the responsibility problem? I wonder who can.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Commonsense and the concept of philosophy

When Giere asserted that human science should not stray too far from ordinary ways of speaking he was referring to the difference between the idea of memory in the debate on extended cognition and the commonsense idea. But how about free will, a concept that has been discussed regularly in these blogs?
When we would ask an average person to circumscribe “free will”, I think s/he would give a simple version of Dick Swaab’s definition in his Wij zijn ons brein (We are our brain), which he borrowed from the American researcher Joseph Price: “Free will [is] … the possibility to decide to do or not to do something without internal or external limits that determine this choice” (p. 379). I think that hardly any philosopher will endorse it, for how naïve it is. Why? The fox got the cheese from the raven by a trick. Although the fox is smarter than the raven, he isn’t free, for he cannot fly and take the cheese by force. Who would accept this reasoning? Freedom is only possible within limits that determine the choice. I wonder whether my average person realizes it. And if s/he would realize it, what would s/he think then of this:
One of my favourite routes when making a bike ride goes somewhere uphill and then halfway downhill I take the asphalt bike path to the left, for according to my map the road straight on changes into a sandy path after a kilometre or so. But does it really do? I never checked it, although I have planned to do it sooner or later. So once riding uphill, I thought “Let me check it now”, but then a few minutes later: “Let me do it another time, for if the road is really sandy after a kilometre, I have to go back and it is already nearly dark”. However, at the point where I had to turn into the bike path, I saw that the road straight on had been blocked for a reason I didn’t know. So I had to turn into the bike path anyway. But no problem, I had already decided to do that.
Cases of this type have been discussed first by the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt. Therefore they are often called “Frankfurt cases”. In the instance just described I hadn’t the feeling that my options were limited, since I had skipped the plan to go straight on. Does it mean that my choice to turn left into the bike path was my free will? For before I knew that the road straight on had been blocked, I had taken already the decision to choose for the alternative: to take the bike path to the left. I guess that my average person would judge that I wasn’t free, for in the end I had no choice. However, most philosophers think otherwise: Before I had reached the top of the hill I had two possibilities to choose from, and before I could know that one wasn’t real, I had already chosen the road that hadn’t been blocked. In philosophical terms: I could choose from alternatives and I had control of my decision (at the moment of my decision), and it was this that made that I was free to choose. But in my instance, the idea that I was free is quite counterintuitive, and I doubt whether it is in keeping with commonsense. But if it isn’t, does it mean that we have to dispense with this philosophical idea of free will? Maybe in this case, but if it would imply that we have to drop philosophical ideas in general, in case they don’t agree with commonsense, the concept of philosophy as such would be at stake.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Philosophizing about ordinary concepts

At the end of my last blog I quoted Giere with consent where he said that human science must not develop ideas that are too far away from pou common sense notions. In this case that we must not defend an idea of memory that is too different from what the man or woman in the street thinks it is. But can we maintain this in general? If it were true, philosophizing would not be more than asserting what everybody already knows, albeit with some nuancing and in a clearer wording. But take this example, which is not from philosophy but from the natural sciences (although in those days, the natural sciences were seen as a kind of philosophy). Galileo defended the idea that the earth moves around the sun instead of the other way round. This view was contrary to what most people (and not only the Roman Catholic church) thought. As we know now, Galileo was right and the public idea was false. Why might such a turn in thinking not be brought about by philosophy? Why might philosophy not be able to undermine false ideas? In a certain sense philosophy can. One task of philosophy is correcting errors in reasoning, not only errors made by scientists but also those made in public reasoning. As such, these corrections can have radical consequences, in case it comes out that just the opposite of what always was held to be true is the case. However, there is a fundamental difference between what facts in the natural sciences are and what facts in the social sciences are. In the natural sciences facts exists independent of what we, the observers of these facts, think of it. It is our task as observers to find out what these facts “really” are (I put the word really between inverted commas since also in the natural sciences what we see as facts must pass through the filter of manmade concepts and theories). In human society, however, facts that are independent of us do not exist. Social facts are literally “made” by us. When we play chess, we don’t simply move wooden objects, but we play a game and we move pawns, rooks and queens etc. When humanity dies out, the wooden objects may still exist and they may be found by a roaming animal, but the idea of game and the idea that these pieces of woods “actually” are pawns, rooks or queens has been lost. Such meanings belong to, using Giere’s words, “our shared conceptual scheme and culture”. Social facts are ways we think about what is around us in the social and in the material world and ways we react to them, but when we think differently about these ways, they change with our thoughts and get another meaning. And just that is, I guess, the reason why Giere says that our philosophical ways of speaking and our philosophical interpretations must not be too distinct from our common sense ways of speaking and interpreting. If they would be, they’ll lose touch with the social reality as it exists for us, and they’ll not affect what the ordinary man or woman thinks but only exist as separate interpretations at most; interesting for philosophers, scholars and scientists, but of only marginal value for what people actually do and think. Then for most people our memory will remain to be only something that in the head, although some philosophers think that’s on the front doormat, too.

Monday, August 20, 2012

What is in my mind and what isn’t?

Once in a blog I discussed Andy Clark’s thesis that the mind is not only in the head, a thesis that I also endorse (see my blog dated May 31, 2010). It involves that thinking and the storing of knowledge does not only take place within the head, but also outside the body. We write memos or tie knots in handkerchiefs in order not to forget things that are important for us. Or nowadays we often use digital gadgets for it. These are simple examples of a phenomenon that is common practice. The digital revolution seems to have made our storage capacity unlimited and through this our minds, too.
In a recent article, Ronald N. Giere rejects this thesis (like some others do as well in this special issue on “Extended cognition and epistemology” of Philosophical Explorations (15/2, June 2012)). He summarizes his viewpoint by relating the following personal incident:
“Some years ago, my wife and I were in Europe for an extended period. Given communication technology at the time, the best solution for mobile communication was to acquire new ‘chips’ for our phones … One day someone asked me for my wife’s number. I replied … that I didn’t know it. I had seen it, but I did not now remember it. However, I continued, ‘Not to worry. I have the number in my phone’. Whereupon I reached for my ever present phone and produced the number. It would have been very odd for me to say, ‘I remember the number’, and then reach for my phone. Even less would it have made sense to say ‘We remember the number’, where the ‘we’ referred to myself and my phone. It was not odd to say, ‘I have the number in my phone’ ”. (id. p. 205)
It seems that Giere has a point here, especially since his example is much like one used by Clark somewhere. Here it is not the place to discuss Giere’s case and article extensively, but I want to make a few comments that may cast some doubt on his conclusion. Indeed, it is odd to say ‘I remember the number’, and then reach for my phone, but take this case. I always forget my wife’s phone number but by chance it is her birthday in reverse order plus the compulsory 06. So, I know the trick how to produce it, like Giere knows the trick that he can find his wife’s number in his mobile. What’s the difference then between my case and his? I think that also in my example it is odd to say that I remember the number, even though I can produce it without an external aid.
One thing that Giere in his example does is confusing person and brain. As I see it, what Clark contends is that the physical aspect of the mind is more than what is only in the head; that it’s more than what is only in the brain. Take his example in which I put a beer can on my front doormat in order to remember that I have to buy beer (see my blog dated May 31, 2010). In this case I cannot say that I remember now that I must buy beer, for I don’t. But I have made tags inside and outside my mind in order to remember at the right moment that I have to buy beer, and it is just the fact that some of the tags are outside my mind that makes that I can say that the mind is not only in my head. Physically (bodily), I have only tags and representations of tags in my brain, but seen from the viewpoint of me as a person, we can say that the buy-beer-tags are both in my brain and on my front doormat. Just the latter adds something essential to my having to buy beer. It is a bit like this: I am a bundle of muscles, bones, neurons and a few things more. But what makes me am a Dutchman or a philosopher is the society I live in and my relation to that society.
It is difficult to say where in the brain the memory is located, for there is no exact place for it, but let’s for simplicity reasons say that it is in our temporal lobe. I think that it is as odd to say then “Yes, I remember my wife’s phone number. It’s in my temporal lobe. Just a moment, I’ll bring it up”, and after some deep thinking I say the number, as it is odd to say “Yes, I remember it. I have it in my phone” and take my mobile, whereas the first action is what we often do, usually automatically. What isn’t odd, however, is to say “Yes, I know, it is 06---” or to say “Yes, I know the number. Just a moment”, and without saying something else I take my mobile and show the number to the questioner. It is often a matter of perspective, wording and context whether we can say that we “remember” or “know” something.
As I see it, these objections show that it is not odd to say that the mind is not only in the head. I think that there is more that supports the idea than there is that rejects it. Nevertheless I agree with Giere that “ordinary ways of speaking [in this case that the mind is only in the head - HbdW] are indicative of models deeply engrained in our shared conceptual scheme and culture. To be successful, a human science should not stray too far from that shared experience”. (ibid.) And we need to keep that in our minds.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Travelling without a destination

Meuse Source number 1

When you say that you are going to make a travel, the first question always is: where are you going to? The question seems obvious, but is it really so? I mean, of course, we have to go somewhere when travelling, but is it a matter of fact that the destination is its most important aspect? Is it so that a travel is intrinsically unsuccessful when we don’t reach our destination, i.e. the geographical purpose or purposes of our trip? That we must say that we don’t have made a travel, if we hadn’t at least planned to reach a certain location, even if we don’t reach it for one reason or another?
Although I must go somewhere when making a travel (not counting a travel in my mind), I think that it is quite well possible to go on a trip in which the geographical destination is a redundant aspect. In the Netherlands, the summer this year is rainy and cool. It’s not the type of weather that you would like to go to the beach and take a sunbath. So, sun-worshippers want to go away, to the south, where it is warm and sunny and where you can sunbathe when you like. At present, the Dutch newspapers are full of advertisements with travels to the beaches of Spain, Greece, Turkey or Gambia or wherever they have warm sunny beaches. But is it really important for our sun-worshippers to which of these countries they’ll go? I think it isn’t. What counts is whether there is a good beach, whether the weather is good, the price of the trip and maybe a few things more, but the geographical destination is secondary for most people. They simply want to sunbathe and that’s the actual purpose of the trip.
Or to take another instance, my wife and I just returned from Northeastern France, where we followed the River Meuse from Sedan till its sources. Once we had seen the sources, we directly drove home. Does this mean that the Meuse sources were the destination and primary purpose of our trip? That the first question to ask about our travel is “Where have you been?” with a “to the Meuse sources” as its obvious reply? No, for what we really have done there is making photos of towns and villages on the Meuse with a pinhole camera. We had allotted two weeks for the project, and when we wouldn’t have reached the sources of the river, we still would have made a lot of pinhole pictures and we might go there later again for doing the last part of the river. Moreover, my actual project is not so much taking pinhole photos of towns and villages on the Meuse, but making such photos along any river. Since such a purpose is too abstract, this time I had chosen the Meuse in France as the river and then its sources as the logical final destination of the present trip. So we can say that travelling along the Meuse was the secondary destination of our trip and seeing its sources the tertiary destination. The purpose of the trip or, if you like, its primary destination, was taking pinhole photos of towns and villages on a river, in this case on the Meuse.
The upshot is: There are many ways to travel. Travelling to a geographical destination is only one way, and often this aim is secondary at most.