Monday, April 4, 2016

Laws are pretty tricky, philosophically speaking

A lot of ink has been splashed around trying to construct watertight formal definitions of laws - and here, of course, I am talking about scientific laws or laws of nature - not the legal kind. But, if you think about it from another angle, such laws are very mysterious in all sorts of ways - ontologically, metaphysically, and so on.
Try considering, for example, how a law of this kind might be created or in some other way come into existence. Imagine trying to set about the task of bringing it about that there are such laws. Where would you start?
Here's one thought: laws cannot precede objects (i.e they cannot be created out of nothing). But then, if there have to be objects (using that notion in the widest sense), wouldn't any laws relating to them be derivative - that is: dependent on their nature? So could we not deduce some sort of essentialism from the the very existence of laws?  Laws can only exist if the relevant objects have certain definite properties?
The underlying thought here is if ontology takes priority, then laws are descriptive - after the fact entities, if you like. Can we conceive of a world in which there are just laws, and nothing else?
In such a world, if objects come into existence, they will be bound by these laws. But, what does the binding?
Imagine you have god-like powers. How would you create laws starting from scratch? Isn't it misleading to think of laws as some sort of metaphysical glue that can make sure that objects do what they are supposed to do?
Perhaps it is a mistake to think of laws as being separate from entities. How, in an empty world, do laws get going? If objects emerge in such a world, wouldn't their law-like behavior have to be a function of their very nature rather than a result of conformity to pre-existing laws?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Another sort of puzzle about God

The existence of God has often been invoked to answer very puzzling questions like: "How is is possible for this world to have come in to existence?", and, more generally, "How is it possible for anything to exist?" But, the answer fails to impress those who are bugged by such questions because it simply provokes a further question "How is it possible for God to come into existence/exist?"
     It is difficult to get purchase on such a question, and even theologians struggle, finding themselves resorting to dubious properties like 'necessary existence' which then have to be subjected to endless refinement in the face of even the mildest critical scrutiny.
     But, there is a related puzzle in the vicinity - one that it seems is rarely discussed: "How is it possible for God to actually have the incredible powers commonly attributed to such a being?"
Imagine God reflecting on these powers: "How did I get these?"
Presumably, God would not be satisfied with anything along the lines of "Because I just happen to have them" (that surely makes them contingent, if not arbitrary). And, "Because I have to have them" or "Because it is just in my nature to have them" would be opaque, and hence equally unsatisfactory.
    Presumably, God would have an answer (if the question makes sense). But, there seems to be no way we could ever understand it.
     Of course, this way of describing things projects a very human-like psychology onto God. But, absent that, it's not clear that we can ever gain any understanding of God (this suits some theologians, along with others who find the smokescreen of 'mysteriousness' rather handy), and, more importantly, it's even less clear that God can ever understand us (which, some might say, would explain a lot).

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Having v Being: Marx and the accumulation that robs us of our humanity

I recently came across some passages in Lionel Trilling's wonderful book Sincerity and Authenticity that, to my mind, speak both insightfully, and poignantly, to many of our current problems - from the decline of the arts and humanities to the degradation of the natural environment. There is not enough space to quote in full, but perhaps enough to inspire some useful thoughts. Trilling's book is much neglected these days, but it was given a honorable mention in Bernard William's Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy, and although it is a bit old-fashioned, even quaint, in its approach at times, it contains many treasures like the following:

"The human autonomy which is envisioned by Schiller, Wilde, and Nietzsche is, we perceive, in essential accord with the conception of moral life proposed by Rousseau and Wordsworth when they assigned so high a significance to the sentiment of being. Indeed, the preoccupation with being informs most speculation about the moral life throughout the nineteenth century. The intense meaning which Wordsworth gave to the word 'be' became its common meaning in moral discourse. And it came commonly to be felt that being, which is to say the gratifying experience of the self as an entity, was susceptible to forces which either increased or diminished its force. There was a pretty clear consensus, for example, that among the things which increased the experience of self, art was pre-eminent. And, there was no question at all of what diminished the experience of the self - the great enemy of being was having ... it is accumulation robs you of being."

Trilling buttresses these views with some telling quotes form the early Marx, among which the following stands out:

"The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life - the greater is the saving of your alienated being. Everything which the economist takes away from you in the way of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth. And everything which you are unable to do, your money can do for you; it can eat, drink, go to the ball and the theatre, It can acquire art, learning, historical treasures, political power, and it can travel. It can appropriate all these things for you ... but although it can do this, it only desires to create itself, and to buy itself ..."

With regard to this, Trilling makes an important point about the alienation involved (note, alas, his naive optimism about what "will be readily seen"):

"It will readily be seen that alienation does not mean to Marx what it meant to Hegel. It is not the estrangement of the self from the self which Hegel sees as a painful but necessary step in development. Rather it is the transformation of the self into what is not human. Marx's concept of alienation is not wholly contained in what he says about money; but certainly money is central to it and provides the most dramatic way of representing it."

(Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1972,pp.122-123. The Marx quotation is from Early Writings: Karl Marx, T.Bottomore (ed. and trans.), McGraw-Hill: New York, 1964, p.171-2)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Anti-Private Wittgenstein Argument: a light-hearted observation

Wittgenstein seemed to have had  a morbid fear of not being understood. James Klagge says some interesting things about this in his book Wittgenstein in Exile. But, perhaps he makes too much of it. And, perhaps, at times, Wittgenstein did too.
Shouldn't he at least have shown us a glimpse of the irony in the very idea of there being a private Wittgenstein, someone who uses words and has thoughts only he can understand? Recall, it wasn't just Joanna or Joe Soap who would be left in the dark - even verbally astute philosophers like Russell would not be able to understand him. At the same time, isn't there something dubiously realist, and unWittgensteinian, about the notion of there being words and thoughts the meaning/content of which are unavailable to others?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Morals without worlds

If there hadn't been a world, if there had been just nothing, would there still have been a basis for morality? Some philosophers seem to think there would. For example: there would still have been reasons to do the right thing regardless (i.e. regardless of whether anyone existed to do it). But, this is hard to make much sense of: reasons drifting around outside of space and time, unattached to anything?
   Dissolve the universe leaving no physical remainder, then, or so the idea appears to be, this would have no effect on the existence of, say, moral principles. Here, we might agree up to a point. We might accept that such principles cannot be destroyed in the way the thought experiment envisages. But instructive puzzles remain.
   Suppose there is a world in which the existence of certain moral principles is recognized and that world ceases to exist. Here, we might want to say that the principles in question have some kind of latent operational status. In such circumstances it still remains true, for instance, that it would be wrong to do X. This has to mean something like: if beings capable of moral judgement and behavior were to exist, then it would be wrong for them to do X.
   If we go along with this, we end up with a world filled with all possible moral principles. For from each instance of 'if there were to be creatures who lived in such and such ways', we can derive the existence of moral principles relevant to their behavior. This encourages us to think of moral principles sitting there waiting to be discovered. We might also wonder whether we can ever to sure about our own moral status. Might we not fare very badly in that respect when scrutinized in the light of moral principles that we have not yet discovered?
   But, if you think about it, the chances are that we are already faring badly. For moral principles that we are unaware of already exist. Ignorance will not get us off the hook.
   Recall, however, that we were originally thinking of the case where there is simply no world in the first instance. Doesn't even latent operational status becomes nebulous in this case? Can we say "no" without having to lean on platonic myths as support for so saying? Are we happy to allow that moral principles can neither be created or destroyed, but are just there?
   A pragmatist can agree that all sorts of new moral principles might be 'discovered' in the future, and even that we might look bad in the light of them. But, these will be created at the time, out of the social circumstances that happen to exist then. To think of them already being there in splendid isolation, waiting to be found, is the kind of mistake that the philosophical imagination has been prone to for far too long.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Worlds without Explanations

Student: “Why is there so much suffering?”
Shunryu Suzuki: “No reason”.

That there has to be a reason for everything is an appealing thought. It is hard for us to accept the notion of something just happening, or just being there, for no reason. And, when we are thinking along these lines, “reason” is usually short for “reasoned explanation”. Can we imagine a world in which this kind of thinking has no application? This is not easy. Imagine a world in which there are no intelligent beings: our world, if things had gone differently. Isn’t this a reasonless world? In one sense, perhaps, yes. But, we will still want to ask of that world why it is like it is – why it is reasonless, for instance. All worlds seems to invite such questions, as does their absense.
          Will the quest for reasons run out of steam at some point? Not because we are intellectually exhausted (although we can imagine that happening), but rather because it comes up against a natural boundary beyond which such a quest makes no sense?  Some think that this world, our world, constitutes just such a boundary. We can ask of things in it “Why this?” or “Why that?” - “Why is the sun so hot at its core?”, “Why do earthquakes occur in some places and not others?” And so on. But, when we start to ask certain questions of that world considered as whole, then, or so some people believe, these questions implode. We don’t know how to press them further because no answer seems possible even as we begin to raise and reflect on them. “Why does this world exist?” and “How is it possible for this, or any, world to exist?” are examples of these questions.
          Of course there are standard answers to such questions which are liable to satisfy many people. “Because God made it” is one. And, “As a consequence of the big bang” is another. But, anyone inclined to take the thrust of the initial questions seriously will not be so easily satisfied. 
        They will want to ask these questions of the very phenomena invoked in the answers: "Why does God exist?", “How is the existence of God possible?”, "Why did the big bang occur?", and “How was the existence of the big bang possible?”
More on this some other time.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Succinct Summary: Surprising Source

"The rich run a global system that allows them to accumulate capital and pay the lowest possible price for labour. The freedom that results applies only to them. The many simply have to work harder, in conditions that grow ever more insecure, to enrich the few. Democratic politics, which purports to enrich the many, is actually in the pocket of those bankers, media barons and other moguls who run and own everything."
                                                            Charles Moore (Margaret Thatcher's official biographer, former editor of The Telegraph, etc.)