Thursday, 19 January 2012

Why Philosophy is Still Vital

As a student of philosophy I'm definitely no stranger to the sentiment that philosophy is useless. Even some philosophers themselves take it as a sort of publically accessible in-joke. Like so many things in common parlance you think it must have some credibility, but again you know that general views so often turn out to be wrong, sometimes with unpleasant consequences. Is philosophy sold short by this idea?

A lot of the time philosophy is seen as a commendable, interesting, but ultimately futile endeavour. Callicles, an interlocutor in Plato's Gorgias, asserts that philosophy is for young men and that it ought to be put aside as maturity beckons one become adept in the political skills required in adulthood. In more modern times, as Stephen Hawking sees it, philosophy has been replaced by the natural sciences. Man has come out of the age of superstitions and philosophy, now we can intervene in the world and see how it is for ourselves... directly.

The classic image is the philosopher in their armchair, coming out with archaic sounding nonesense and getting most of it wrong. And the worst bit is, even if one of them got it right, how would they know? Where's their proof? They tried to use their logic as an absolute standard and look what happened there. Presumably this is the reason why, suffering from government cuts, some UK universities have begun to threaten their philosophy departments, some of them even being disbanded entirely. Things just don't look good for we humble philosophers.

So why do we bother? Arguably some of the most intelligent people who have ever lived persist with philosophy even in a post-scientific age. Immanuel Kant, who once said that Copernicus' astronomical findings made him redundant, still didn't put all his books in a box and go back to selling marijuana. But don't forget philosophy also boasts the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Michel Foucault, etc. - what would keep genius of this calibre involved in all of this fluffy BS? I'm quite sure I'll be accused of begging the question here. "It is precisely because of their active involvement in and approval of all this "fluffy BS" that they were not geniuses but imbeciles, charlatans, or con-men!"

I quite like philosophy, incase you couldn't tell from some of the stuff I posted on here, and so I was going to tell you why it is that I persist with it, having got to the crossroads at the end of oblivion and asked myself why it is I bother at all. So why do I? Firstly because I realise the critical importance of asking philosophical questions. More importantly, I also realise how little attention anyone pays to philosophy these days, which means there is a growing need for people to get involved with it so that they can keep it moving forward and ensure it doesn't eventually disappear....

But what would be wrong if philosophy did vanish? And what even makes philosophical questions important? In a sense this is two ways of asking the same question, and so I will only provide one answer. My answer is that boasting of direct access to the phenomena, or speaking of "mind over matter", or of responsibility, or a self, as a part of any practice without at least having some idea of whether these are actually contentious philosophical claims is as ignorant as neglecting to consider General Relativity or Quantum Mechanics in matters of physics. Such philosophical assumptions are made by a huge (perhaps total) number of social institutions, including law, education, and of course the sciences themselves - but this is not to say that they have partook in the business of philosophy.

In my view, any practioner whether scientific, educational, or legal should seek to understand not only how to to carry out their practice but should also critically engage with things about their practice, questions about scientific, legal, or educational institutions and their foundations. It's important to pay attention to what is happening across the boundaries of the various disciplines, and the sciences are no less obliged to pay attention to philosophy as philosophers are to pay attention to science. Thinking of the foundation of a practice reveals it as a part of the whole phenomenon of human existence, the place where it makes sense (is grounded) in terms of some human concern.* Understanding existence, of course, is precisely the place where philosophical thinking emerges.**

Antonio Damasio writes in the postscript to "Descartes' Error" of the Cartesian assumptions built into Western medicine. The conceptual separation of mind and body, redundant in philosophy for a long time, permeates their treatment of the body alone without proper consideration of the "mind" as an important operation of that body. He sees the effect of such conceptual misdemeanor manifest in the relative ignorance of physiological consequences of psychological difficulties, and of psychological consequences of physiological diseases.

The fact that our language reflects this dualism makes it seem the obvious ontological picture, even to the point where other ontological pictures might seem unthinkable. That we speak of something's being psychological or something's being physiological certainly seems to at least suggest the existence of two different domains, as Descartes imagined, a mind substance and a matter substance. However, as John Searle helpfully suggests, these refer to nothing but perspectives on the same single phenomenon. "Physiological" refers to what is revealed when considered from a third-person perspective (by observing it), and "psychological" refers to what is revealed when it's apprehended in a first-person perspective (by living it).

We needn't get too embroiled in a discussion of Cartesian dualism (they're numerous, and in my view, more or less decisively weighted against dualism) because our purpose here is to demonstrate why philosophy is still vital. The point I wanted to bring to your attention is that an issue which has been strongly contested in philosophy and even in the other sciences still prevails in some places as obviously true, without any suggestion that its ontological basis may be unsound, indeed often without any idea that there is even a problem. And the prevalence of faith in the Cartesian view is still huge outside of philosophy. But whether or not Cartesianism is the correct way of looking at things does not matter, for the sake of my point here, what matters is that the ontological assumptions behind medicine are not settled yet nevertheless affect how the science goes about its practice. And how could a science go about its practice without an ontological view of what it's investigating and how what it's doing makes sense?

Another time where a scientific project spent a lot of money not realising it rested on a philosophically unsound ontology was the Artificial Intelligence project in the late 1960's-1970's. Researchers around this era failed to take Hubert Dreyfus' critique of its computational understanding (again sourced in Plato, Descartes, Leibniz) seriously, a critique which was inspired by the anti-Cartesian works of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty (his predicted failure of information processing models was in the end vindicated following dual snags the "frame problem" and the "commonsense knowledge problem"). However, as they say in science, a falsified experiment is still valuable to furthering scientific knowledge. "Good old fashioned AI" helped us learn a lot about how human beings understand things, and arguably for the first time put philosophical ideas into an empirical scientific setting where both endeavours worked alongside one another profitably. In the end, of course, Dreyfus and others began influencing the scientific research itself with the creation of so-called "Heideggerian AI" and embodiment research inspired by Merleau-Ponty. And the research itself still returns with the potential of sharpening, validating, or falsifying philosophical ideas upon which it rests.

Wouldn't it be worthwhile if we did those sorts of projects more?

* I shouldn't need to mention, of course, that the notion of worldhood I operate in freely here is my debt to Martin Heidegger, who pointed the way.

** I of course can't defend all of philosophy. Some of it seems a bit daft if we're honest. Sorites Paradox? Can't say I dwell on that one too much when I'm trying to find my keys.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Living & Survival

On more than one occasion I have witnessed, espoused, or considered the notion that brute survival is the ultimate foundation of all actions, the ultimate good, that for the sake of which all else is ultimately done. We’ll call this the “survival view”. With the expression of this thought I wish to critically appraise the survival view, but it might seem hopeless of me to bring this issue to bear. What could be more self-evident than man’s will to live? Certainly, and I don’t wish to deny anything in expression of this thought but merely to challenge our understanding of what it means for a being which exists as we do to have a will to live. I don’t intend to make any proper conclusions here, for the issue (and the interpretive potential of the survival view) is complex. I am simply offering food for thought. However, first I must elucidate the survival view so we know what we’re looking for.

Consider that you have agreed to help a friend or family member move some boxes. The survival view would have it that your doing so ultimately relies upon your not wanting to lose the approval of the group, and that not wanting to lose the approval of the group is rooted in survival fears. As the Hobbesian account of the origins of civilisation would predict, losing the favour of the group means you forego the benefits of civilisation and are left to your own mortality. It is well known that banishment was (and still is when you consider imprisonment a form of banishment) a type of sanction wielded against those who fly in the face of the agreement.

Sexuality is of course frequently couched in terms of an orientation towards preserving survival, either that of the individual or the family (or indeed the species). Sexual attraction has even been interpreted as the recognition of personal features rendered salient by such a will to survive (wide hips in a woman, wide shoulders in a man, etc.). As an extension of sorts, one’s concerns about their family are also interpreted under the survival view. The sorts of anguish and anxiety concerned parents are put through by advertisements playing on their concern for their children are again seen as rooted in the drive for survival. But what is this “survival” which serves as the meaning-giving horizon for all of these various phenomena?

In order to get to the heart of this matter we will need to consider the two words under which I have brought this thought: “living” and “survival”. When one imagines the term “survival” we imagine a mode of existence in which everything inessential to the most rudimentary and basic impulse of life is discarded. Asking a friend with financial difficulties how they are getting by, they might reply “I’m surviving”. This sort of passive, only doing/having what is necessary is all that one requires to survive in the sense of getting from one day to the next. But what of living?

When we think of living we imagine the rich tapestry of activities we are involved in, or can become involved in. We think of lovers, friends, music, work, we think of books, films, walking, climbing, travelling, creating things, destroying things, dancing, fixing things, improving things, acquiring things… the list is, I expect, inexhaustible. To cite another common phrase, upon having a kind of breakthrough, perhaps a new job has afforded you an opportunity you did not have previously, or a certain experience has helped you overcome a limitation which you might have had, you could say “now I am really living”.

Clearly these two words, “living” and “surviving” are formally identical. When you strip them back to their logical structure both denote successfully getting from here to there in time (without dying!) However, their characters, considered in themselves, are actually opposed in a certain sense in that “survival” emphasises the passive “just getting by” of life, whereas "living" gives us a much more dynamic and colourful picture of what transpires in the business of life.

It’s certainly no secret that Western thinking tends to prioritise the cognitive-theoretical over other faculties of thought expressed in the life of man.[1] What results from this is an emphasis on the disinterested apprehension of the observer as opposed to the affective, involved apprehension of the participant. Our best descriptions of what life is like, this general view has it, originate in ways of looking at things which are not “coloured by subjectivity”, where phenomena encountered subjectively are demoted to the level of an unwanted cognitive interference (like noise on a phone line). The intuitions which bolster this view are numerous, involving various instances where affectivity genuinely does mess things up and where the detached apprehension of an observer is required.

Causal explanations of the sort yielded by science are one such arena where disinterested observation is essential.[2] Not only does the reduction of elements to their formal structure sharpen the focus of a scientific investigation (by delimiting the phenomena it focuses on to formalisable elements of natural or mechanical systems) but it also goes some way towards preventing bias. If it is the case that there is a threat to the future of our planet our feelings about it shouldn’t influence the results of our investigation as we’re trying to figure out what is genuinely going to happen and not what we would like to happen. However, the consequence of stressing this view as primary is that we end up thinking that the world in which we find such feelings is a false picture of what the world is “really” like…

When we consider our affairs it should come as no surprise that we interpret all of our dealings as resulting from a will to survive. We are, each and every one of us, involved in the business of life, expressing it in our various ways (even those who wish to die are responding to life and are involved in a particular mode of living). But we should not see our “living” as “survival”! It is not any mere “hunting” for necessity which drives man. Man does not simply wish to live but to live well.[3]

Man is concerned about existence. Man wants to live, and all of the things man does involve this "being towards life", but what the survival view misses is that it's not sufficient for man to merely be alive. Certainly everything we do concerns the future, our future, the future of the species - but we do a lot more whilst we're here than merely passing on our genes. We pass on a culture, a way of living and a body of knowledge (both practical and theoretical). The arts, sciences, and technology do a lot more for us over and above transmitting how to preserve our survival.

The extent of the violence which the survival view does to our pre-conceptual understanding is evidenced in its treatment of sexuality wherein the present life of the individuals in love are no longer in focus. The survival view of sexuality discards the affective and ultimately existential motives for seeking a partner and replaces them with a blind and impersonal impulse towards propagating the species. The invention of contraception (and let’s not forget the phenomenon of masturbation) are places in which we find sexuality expressed in realms extraneous to that of mere survival.

It may be objected that such phenomena are merely the “sublimation” of the will to propagate the species. However, I feel there are too many possible motivations for seeking and pursuing partners. For instance, the continuation of affection between lovers even after reproductive capabilities are severed (either by nature of by their own intervention) certainly suggests that something more than merely furthering one’s genetic agenda is at play. More casual pursuits also inhibit the reproductive initiative. Reasons for involving oneself in a relationship of this particular sort might be related to self-esteem, boredom[4], or the suppression of a feeling of loneliness opened up by the prior loss of a more significant relationship.

It can be nice sometimes to reflect with a friend or a lover on the memories you’ve shared, the places you’ve been, or to have a smoke or a drink and share some laughs together. The survival view sees these acts not as having value in their own sake, but in their contribution towards securing survival. Seeking lovers without the intention of having children would no doubt be interpreted as feeding back into the “survival loop” in some way, perhaps in its alleviation of anxiety, a condition inimical to survival. But what makes this view implausible (I do not think it is grounds for calling it explicitly false at present) is that people, in their gut, would often rather die than be forced to live life in a certain way. The fact that the survival instinct has to be maintained in situations where living well has been critically compromised at least suggests the priority of living well over merely living in the life of man.

The survival view, as I see it, is based upon a category mistake in that it confuses a third-person detached explanation with an involved, first-person description. It assumes the formal, detached account of the actions of human beings is primary and subsequently attempts to reduce all of the phenomena encountered by an involved participant in its own terms. When we come to appraise our lives and the value of the efforts we make we are left with the formal account which offers simple survival as our fundamental reason for living when in reality our motivations for living far surpass merely surviving. It is the quality of our life which moves us, not simply securing the mere fact of our being[5] but ensuring that we live triumphantly. In short, it is not the simple fact that we wish to survive which is false. It is rather the way of stopping short at formalisable facts which falsifies our understanding of what it is that we preserve in continuing to live, something which can only be made manifest by living it (or expressed linguistically by describing what is thus made manifest).

- Jordan Adshead (January 2012)

[1] For a more explicit and in depth critique of this cultural idiosyncrasy see Gilbert Ryle’s “The Concept of Mind”, Hubert Dreyfus’ “Mind over Machine”, essay three of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals”, and Martin Heidegger’s “Being and Time” which, for my money, offers the most expanded and in-depth critique of this phenomenon.

[2] Note that here I mean only scientific questions work best without affective involvement. Any questions about science, however, validly concern the appraisal of the feelings.

[3] This is the view shared by José Ortega Y Gasset.

[4] I expect boredom has a large role to play in understanding the life of human beings.

[5] Consider your own understanding of the term "being" as it is presented here. When you read "our being" did you imagine an objectively present thing? Or did you imagine being in the sense of activity: be-ing, like mov-ing, or walk-ing - being as a thing we do?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Happy New Year

Over the holidays it really strikes me how cheerful and light everybody becomes, and how bitterness and spite are seldom seen. In 2012 I hope we continue to recover our humanity and move closer to solving our problems.

Happy New Year, to you and anyone who's reading.