J'ai une plume

"Qui plume a, guerre a."

Three Wishes

This post is a little longer than my previous entries. It started as a tangent from my original project on teleology, but has grown. While I compile notes on Gaia, this has been my amusement. 500 words is a good optimum for success given the internet attention span, so I am not optimistic about this. Still, it was fun to write and it might be fun to read too.

 

As semi-professional killjoys, we spend much of our time examining and analysing things to the point where their magic and enjoyment is lost. Initially we do this consciously, but once started the tendency cannot be checked. It is a blind, mechanical process without end. I am Lovecraft’s Pole Star which “leers down from the same place in the black vault, winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message, yet recalls nothing save that it once had a message to convey.” Or maybe that’s just alcohol. Either way it is inevitable.

It was in this mindset that I cheerfully sat down to watch Disney’s Aladdin the other day. The turning point in the film – as in all versions of the story – is the appearance of the Genie of the Lamp, who is able to grant wishes. Versions of the tale differ (and in fact the entire story is a later European addition to the original One Thousand and One Nights) but the one known best, at least in the West, involves three wishes, perhaps with limitations in their scope. In the Disney version the holder of the lamp is unable to use wishes to kill, to raise from the dead, or to make a person fall in love. This is very convenient within the context of Disney since these are precisely the powers a Disney hero would require to carry out Hollywood’s ideological requirements of defeating the irredeemably evil villain and forming the romantic couple. Arbitrary restrictions on the use of magical powers have always been among the best starting points for fantasy plots, so this is ideal for the narrative.

I was unsure whether to take the Disney prohibitions seriously when I came to speculate on the consequences of wishes. It always bothered me that Robin Williams’ genie forbade raising people from the dead, not as an absolute impossibility, but on the basis that it was ‘messy’ and for that reason he ‘didn’t like doing it.’ Most likely this was part of the humour of the character and the prohibition was real, but it created doubt. I decided the best solution was to start with potential wishes which would avoid these issues. But where to begin?

The first place for anyone with normal, embarrassing levels of selfishness would be personal and material gain. Perhaps the fabled “riches beyond the dreams of avarice” ought to be one of the three? But this is something with much broader implications than it first appears. Consider another popular film franchise: The Hobbit. Tolkien’s book did not specify in any great detail the value of the treasure hoard possessed by the dragon Smaug, but I’m willing to bet an appreciable fraction of said hoard that it was nowhere near the eventual CGI glitter-party of Peter Jackson’s hyperbolic mind. To ruin these films too, let me just point out that Smaug’s defeat would lead to a sudden, catastrophic injection of gold into the economy of Middle Earth which would plausibly lead to the collapse of society itself – though truly this is well overdue, considering that the long-distance shots of the cities of Minas Tirith, Osgiliath and Edoras show vast plains of grass and not a single farm, ranch, small-holding or allotment – presumably they all subsist on Lembas bread and Pipeweed. For currencies based on gold the result would be an unmitigated disaster which would rival several of the other outrageous hardships faced by the average citizen of Gondor. No-one would be interested in the Return of the King in the climate of Weimar-style inflation on the price of Old Toby.

A large enough quantity of cash will either break the monetary system altogether, or be indistinguishable from political power. Why buy luxury good X when you can buy the factory? Why not buy the town? This leads to the second self-seeking possibility: wishing for political power.

Nowhere is the American origin of the Disney Aladdin more apparent than in the results of the hero’s first wish – the wish to be a prince. Rather than producing fake proof of royal heritage, or altering the past to create an actual heritage, the genie seems to overcompensate in the outrageous lie by focusing on providing seventy-five golden camels (don’t they look lovely, June?) and purple peacocks fifty-three (fabulous Harry, I love the feathers). In conversation an American friend of mine once assumed that hereditary nobility in Britain gained their status by first getting rich and then – in some hellish eternal version of the American Dream – being granted a special title until the end of time. Obviously the opposite is the case given the recent emergence of capitalism and the much longer period of military feudalism which created the original inequalities that later found new modes of expression in a market economy; until relatively recently ‘new money’ didn’t exist, and until very recently it was incapable of exerting as much influence as true capitalism should allow, at least in Britain. With a few late exceptions, they aren’t lords because they’re rich, they’re rich because they’re lords.

To return to the point, Aladdin is later faced with the dilemma of whether to continue lying about his origins or telling the princess Jasmine the truth. The ‘truth’ in this case – utterly bizarrely, to my mind – is that he is ‘not really a prince’. Obviously the genie’s powers are even more limited than we thought, since Aladdin’s wish to ‘be a prince’ was interpreted as to ‘appear to be a prince’. One could let Theory out of its cage here to make Lacanian squawks about Aladdin’s symbolic identity. The madman is not just the beggar who thinks he is a king, but also a king who thinks he is a king – the status of king being nothing more or less than being treated as the king – rather than some inherent property which magically makes people bow, on the contrary, it is the bowing itself which works the magic. Thus one reading would have us believe that Aladdin really is meant to be the prince, but that he nonetheless has a Richard III-style hysteric outburst in which he questions his symbolic identity. I think this is too clever. Really the genie has just provided him with a light-show, and the real essence of Prince-ity (unreal concepts can bear stupid names) has not been delivered. Somehow, in spite of being treated as one, Aladdin is not a prince.

Considering the alternatives, Robin Williams’ genie seems to have chosen the smart option. But it is also perhaps the only option available. Recall the rules the genie lays down at the very beginning: no killing, no raising, no romance. These three types of wish are probably a complete list of the ingredients required for the alteration of history. It is hard to imagine how a respectable lineage can be established for Aladdin without the use of any of these – even leaving out the paradoxes in personal identity which would result. Then again, the genie seems very loose on wishes which might indirectly result in any of these three coming to pass – how many thousands may live or die based on Aladdin’s eventual ascendency?

Again, my instinct is to leave these rules behind. They seem very ambiguous (especially the love one) and some of the genie’s other powers ought to overrule them a fortiori. A genie without these limitations may be too terrifying though. Aside from those explicit limitations, must we hold on to the implicit ones? What are the implicit ones?

Here we return to the familiar ground of omnipotence. There are certainly a few more thinkers – and people generally – who profess to believe in an omnipotent God than those who have a deep faith in genies. And more philosophy has been done concerning the nature of such a God than about any other subject – at least in the West. It is therefore troubling for our investigation that no real agreement has been reached on the property of omnipotence. If God can ‘do anything’ then can he create a round square? In other words, is he constrained by the laws of logic? If he is not then our method of discourse breaks down entirely, since we have no way in language to talk about such a being, except perhaps poetry, given that language as we use it is predicated on an adherence to non-contradiction. But if he is so constrained then we are also entitled to ask whether the constraints end there. Some things which are logically possible might not be metaphysically possible, or nomologically possible. We cannot be clear on the boundary.

Whatever the case for God, it seems like he might be capable of frightening things but never be inclined to do them. Whether this counts as a limitation is also contentious. At least it might mean that his moral sense could prevent him from waking up one morning and deciding to destroy the whole universe. Either way, the genie of the lamp will differ from God in that his powers will not express the will of a perfectly good being, but a human animal, the holder of the lamp. Human animals are capable of great altruism and nauseating pettiness – in fact our evaluations of both are always calibrated by humans as we find them, so that humans as a whole species no more ‘are’ good than they ‘are’ evil. The problem is that even a generous normal distribution over three wishes would likely give us at least one unpleasant desire realised with magical inevitability. Even Disney’s hero, who was meant to be a moral paragon, a “diamond in the rough”, only used one of his wishes selflessly, when he freed the genie at the end of the film.

Even leaving aside the explicitly repugnant wishes, there are plenty of well-meaning wishes which might have consequences which we would worry about. For example, one of the common hallmarks of utopian political projects is that they are concerned not only with changing material conditions, but precipitating a change in consciousness, a change in people themselves; humankind must be transformed in order to realise the bright future. For some this is a transformation which inevitably takes place through education or the escape from wage slavery. For others, such as Fanon, the only effective catalyst is violence. But what if one could simply wish this transformation into existence? Wouldn’t the world be better if, for example, humans were a bit more empathetic? Or a bit cleverer? Or suddenly fully possessed ‘class consciousness’? Wouldn’t Aladdin have an obligation to create such a world?

This is important because it does not seem to violate the genie’s original prohibitions – at least, no more than adding a new member to Arabian royalty would – and it becomes clear that wishes like these change everything. The human condition itself can be altered. Unless we are (like God) necessary beings with necessary characteristics, there is no reason to suppose that we could not be other than we are. True, we have evolved in a certain way, but why should this be the only way?

All of our valuation systems and all of the language we use to express these systems become inadequate. As I just mentioned, we judge the great altruism and nauseating pettiness on a scale in which humans are placed dead-centre as our reference point. Kant creates ‘supererogatory actions’, virtue ethicists need a harmonious mean, and utilitarians talk about ‘least suffering’ to absent themselves from a messianic quest of moral exceptionalism, all because they presuppose a norm of humanity – sometimes good and sometimes bad – and recognise this as an unsurpassable limit to their projects; there is no point trying to apply tennis strategy to a swingball set, which has a ball which is never capable of long shots but is stuck orbiting the same post anchored in the dirt. The perfectly virtuous agent whose tennis ball flies freely can only be God, while the rest of us carry out the same rotations of only slightly differing shapes. To wish to cut the rope and make us God-like in our virtue might be the logical decision.

Humans thus changed become inhuman. The paradigm of such collectivism is perhaps the ant or the bee, neither of whom seems like an attractive role-model. Even another higher primate which behaved in such a way would earn our contempt. We constitute at least a part of our identity on the ability to think for ourselves and to rebel against authority, rather than taking pride in roboticism. Weighing up the advantages of such a wish becomes impossible given that it does not represent a move from a worse to a better situation, but a shifting of the very coordinates against which we judge what is worse and what is better. Some would have said that God was constrained if he would not be prepared to use his omnipotence for evil, are we not similarly constrained if we are reborn as incapable of evil? What of literature?

Perhaps this is indeed what someone in possession of the lamp would desire. But if so this is a choice which cannot truly be justified on moral grounds since it is the very redefining of the moral system itself. Kant recognised that even if we cannot prove the freedom of the will, we must presuppose it for morality to make any sense at all. My pleasure at seeing the reform of a villain is predicated on the freedom of his will, so that the genie’s coercive magic feels like cheating. I grant that I am defending the right of humans to do evil, which obviously sounds monstrous to some, but maintaining a sound moral system without this is fraught with hardship.

How can any of these decisions be made without the relevant information? I don’t know what the queer features of morality demand, any more than anyone else who has dedicated countless barren hours to thinking about ethics. It would probably be wise to spend the first wish on a magical, exhaustive encyclopedia. We could determine finally whether free will exists in the first place. We could sort out once and for all what moral reality demands – and whether or not it exists in the first place. If not, could we wish it into existence or is the concept itself meaningless? Obviously we would probably spend some time asking the encyclopedia whether intelligent life existed elsewhere, whether faster than light travel was possible, how to finally defeat ageing etc. But after a while the puckish among us would begin to ask it the questions which the early Wittgenstein considered meaningless – those about ethics, aesthetics and religion. Not to mention finally discovering what we mean by “this sentence is false”. I wonder whether many philosophers actually believe in a determinate answer to these questions, and whether they would want to know the answer if it was so readily available.

Would I?

 

Consider this post the beginning of a longer conversation about wishes. This has been surprisingly fruitful so far. I am edging closer to the idea of the importance of limitation to define activity. If I can wish away all humans and wish them back again, they suddenly appear expendable and contingent. If I can wish for wealth or poverty then everyday struggle becomes a silly game. Knowledge might be attractive, but what does one do afterwards? The whole drama and striving of existence becomes nothing more than a casual pastime to alleviate boredom – assuming one hasn’t wished time itself away or something even more outlandish.

Now we return to the real world where genies are probably scarce. But paddling in the shallow water of speculation has made us painfully aware of the unthinkable things in the deep, which are only vague, dark shapes from the surface. All our work is ahead of us to reconcile ourselves to the limits of the world, since the alternative could be worse. We will return, properly equipped, some time.

 

I repeat that this has gone on rather longer than I had originally planned, and yet I feel that I have skimmed over important details. There are even whole avenues which I have deliberately avoided exploring in the interests of brevity. Perhaps if this had been better thought out then it would have a pleasing structure and even a sustained thesis, without an ending which trails off abruptly. Perhaps if I rewrite it then all the tensions will resolve themselves so that there will be nothing worth saying. We can hope.

My purposeless species

My most recent post was meant to make the reader reconsider our talk of purposes and ends. By focusing on one familiar example I hope I have shaken a few certainties. The first region we visit on our journey is called Telos – the land of final ends. It may seem backwards to start here, but our first business is actually to show that most of Telos itself is backwards. Not just in the case of bodily organs but in other, more important areas as well.

Historically talk of a telos was common. Just as objects have a telos (knives are for cutting things, car alarms are for annoying people) Aristotle held that each creature had a telos (fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly etc.) and that man’s telos was to live a happy, virtuous life. If squinted at from a distance, this idea seems parsimonious. But the comparison with tools should be considered deceiving. Tools are something we will discuss much later, since they have a very different status within teleology. Even if we focus solely on animals it seems an obviously simplistic model that the telos of fish is to swim and birds to fly. Aristotle’s biological knowledge being what it was, he would have inevitably included marine mammals and corvids in this category, especially because he was presumably unaware of their superior intellects. Adapting an Aristotelian framework to give some dignity to dolphins and ravens must either become a hierarchy of reason (with all the worrying implications for mentally subnormal humans) or continue to focus, like a pre-school book, on the fact that dolphins have fins and ravens have wings.

Determining an animal’s telos in the great chain of being does a very bad job of hiding the subjective artefacts which are smuggled in. A cow would be perturbed at its options for a telos and even Aristotle would have a hard time finding a telos for wasps. For that matter why could the human telos not be to stand perfectly upright on two legs. Being a vertical creature is surely noteworthy.

I am bullying Aristotle because he bequeaths us a long legacy of talking teleologically, ascribing purposes promiscuously. Of course there are very few nowadays who are invested in such a world-view, but a proper treatment of this topic demands a historical note too. Nor is it acceptable to blame the intellectual environment of the time – plenty of pre-Socratic philosophers were capable of investigating the world without a recourse to ends, and even if they had not, part of being a philosopher is taking responsibility for your intellectual environment and trying to shape it to yourself, rather than simply reformulating, recapitulating or re-clothing it.

Aristotle’s view may gain traction because he has managed to spin a metaphysical conjuration which ends in humans being obliged to live happy, virtuous lives. Philosophical conclusions which are ‘unobjectionable’ in this way should be investigated all the more rigorously lest we slide into stupid, accepting docility. Happiness and virtue sound wonderful, but the argument for them hangs loose and appendix-like. It is the word ‘abracadabra’ and the wave of the wand in the rabbit trick – a false explanation. And our prejudices are the secret hatch which really produces the rabbit; really convinces us that Aristotle is right. Any words of his would have given us a rabbit.

My purposeless heart

It has become a truism that adding teleological explanations (that is, explanations concerned with ends and purposes) where they do not belong is the cause of many misunderstandings about the world. From one point of view the heart is indeed ‘for’ pumping blood, but this is not an objective, scientific observation. In saying that the heart is for pumping blood our observation has been blended with a series of values and preconceptions that we have brought along ourselves. It is certainly true that the heart does pump blood – at least in living humans – but any conclusions beyond that and we have ceased to be disinterested scientists.

This example is bound to cause discomfort to some people. Surely everyone would agree that the heart has a purpose – to pump blood. But is an appeal to general opinion like this a valid move? I think not. I said that our observations get coloured by extra baggage that we bring along ourselves when making them. In this case it just turns out that the baggage in question is the generally held preference for life over death in ourselves and (for the most part) in others too. The fact that this preference is near universal does not mean we should call it objective. This is especially true when we consider that organs such as the heart often evolved from previous systems with utterly different mechanisms to which we would ascribe utterly different purposes. Limbs that used to be ‘for’ swimming eventually were ‘for’ walking and finally ‘for’ carrying and manipulating objects. It is not unthinkable that some other organ might begin to aid in the circulatory process and after millions of years render the heart redundant – our legs already do something similar when we walk, working against gravity which would otherwise mean that blood pooled in our feet. By that point perhaps the heart would be ‘for’ timekeeping or something similar.

Of course it is legitimate to say that the heart is ‘for’ pumping blood, as long as we do not then go on to infer the existence of purposes, functions, ends or any kind of teleology outside of our own minds and our own interests. The heart pumps blood, and my subjective valuation of a ‘good’ heart is one that pumps blood efficiently and for as many years as possible. The point I am making is that we must think carefully when we talk about our relationship to the world to determine what goes where. If we were willing to grant objective purposes to our own organs we would have a case for objective purposes as entities at all. Once that has been allowed then a whole world of teleology would return like the vengeful spirit (Geist?) of the 19th century. Perhaps history would be for something? Maybe the world is for something? This would be a class of metaphysical entities which would work in bizarre and fascinating ways. Such a class may even exist (though I think it unlikely) but even if it does, I hope I’ve made it clear that my heart is not in it.

Intro: If Twitch plays Pokémon then who is playing Pokémon?

Moderation would have me speculate that there are only a finite number of ways human beings can possibly invent to entertain themselves. But finite numbers can still be monstrously large, and thus we have Twitch Plays Pokémon in which thousands of people wrestle like angry 90s 8-year-olds to press the buttons on a Gameboy. Essentially the chat box, which is usually used for highly insightful and worthwhile commentary on the live video, has become the input system for the game itself. People direct the character by typing commands like ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘A’, ‘B’ etc. Interestingly, after two weeks of play the hivemind has actually managed to make good progress in the game. Though many of the instructions are no better than random noise – or worse, given the perpetual attempts to derail the process – there are enough genuinely interested people to ensure that the hero is slowly stumbling towards victory.

I agree at this point that the pastime is a strange one. It is precisely the sort of idea that, had a science fiction author come up with it, would have been derided by critics; real humans would never waste time on something so pointless. Its inclusion in your work makes the whole thing unbelievable and is an unwelcome distraction from an otherwise interesting plot. Two stars. And yet at this very moment there are tens of thousands of people frantically trying to force an 8-bit character to move up instead of walking repeatedly into a wall who are succeeding in making this a priori evaluation of unlikelihood seem hasty.

This type of interaction is an interesting one because it gives participants an investment in an outcome while removing individual responsibility and therefore the potential discomfort that the eventual failure would cause. Are our players in Bad Faith or are they experimental scientists exploring new facets of democratic systems? It is quite easy to dig out an old copy of Pokémon and play through it yourself, but the smallest achievement of getting your command through to the Twitch stream’s character is felt more forcefully than anything that could be done alone. For starters, we are no longer talking about a game of Pokémon, we are talking about the game. Realism about possible worlds cheapens our successes and failures (in another possible world I succeeded at my last job interview) and likewise a million different copies of Pokémon makes us acutely aware that catching them all means nothing – or as Wittgenstein observed, the meaning of the universe (if there was one) would have to lie outside the universe – in our bragging rights to our classmates, not as part of the game itself. Massively multiplayer games get around this by allowing us to create meaning since we are now in a shared world in which others exist, so our usual coping strategies for other consciousnesses come into play. World of Warcraft would be utterly dull even as a normal multiplayer game, let alone as a single player

The world must be persistent and it must be shared. It must be persistent in order to give it some feeling of grounding and necessity, not conditional on me turning the computer on. It must be shared in order to find meaning through others’ ascriptions of meaning, and it is all the better if the other players are ‘thrown’ into it like the apparently random array of people we meet in the real world. The recognition of other consciousnesses ascribing meaning then allows the exhibitionist in us to emerge and thus we act out through our single-button inputs. While we let it matter, we know that it does not. Nor can anyone convince us that we are to blame if it fails, since our portion of blame is infinitesimal when our fellow players are taken into account.

The desire to fall into a das Man state of group think in which the will is subordinated to a general will-composite is what I wish to consider over the next few posts. There are a few places I want this to visit. I want to look at vitalist metaphysics and a pseudo-teleological framework for evolution which sets as its aim the fusion of consciousness as some in the trans-humanist movement would favour. Likewise I want to look at the constitution of the political subject and consider the differing forms of social grouping (for which we will hopefully venture intrepidly into the Critique de la raison dialectique). The fact that we have begun with a look at an isolated phenomenon of the contemporary web should also give a clue about the variety in content coming up. Games will be one of the sources of material and I hope to expand on some the things I have mentioned in passing here.

I make no apology for the hiatus.

Everything is water

The ‘Tools of Philosophy’ which some thinkers like to eulogise and even formalise into long lists seem to be of only limited value. It is true that, upon being confronted with an unfamiliar philosophical problem, the philosopher equipped with these tools should be able to comprehend it and to defend a (perhaps original) solution. But philosophy is not a book of puzzles. Or if it is a book of puzzles, this is something which must be established separately and not merely assumed from the outset. We are not dealing with a collective body of knowledge which is steadily added to, otherwise our fundamental truth would still be ‘everything is water’. Philosophy is an act.

The implication of the attitude of those who are fond of their ‘Tools’ is that a young philosopher may join the collective endeavour by initiation into its methods – or rather, the older philosopher’s own methods – and perhaps develop an existing idea further; solve another puzzle from the book. The apparently magnanimous effort of helping the initiate speak the language and use the techniques of the existing elite may at first seem perfectly reasonable. However, it must be supplemented by a later stage of rebellion against this status quo, otherwise the initiate will indeed join the ranks of those he admires, and spend his days festering in a lecture theatre repeating these old ideas to the next generation of students (‘Everything is water, as Thales teaches us’). He may not even be the object of the same admiration he felt for those who came before him since he is merely the prophet of genius, not genius itself.

If, however, he throws off the absurd uniform of the acolyte he will be able to create something truly original and enduring. He must have the courage to leave his comfortable, servile position and denounce the mentors he once loved. Granted, not all those who do work in philosophy need to do this – there is plenty of room for them in footnotes of greater works by greater thinkers – but the only way to make the glorious, though probably doomed attempt to escape the pure contingency of your position in the history of thought is to question your surroundings and attempt something radically new. To disagree is not enough either; opposing your pineapple-ism to your former supervisor’s anti-pineapple-ism just means that you are still working within his co-ordinates and accepting his presuppositions. If philosophy worked like this we would still be debating whether or not everything is water.

Of course, this violent act of disavowal is precisely what a good philosopher expects and probably looks forward to in the next generation. The student who cannot bring himself to cut the cord is actually a disappointment to those whose approval he craves. I claim that this expectation is subtly included in the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next and the philosopher who deserves to be remembered is the one who can decode this message and act upon it.

It is not the case that everything is water.

A reason-able ontology

Before one can begin any philosophical endeavour it is important to get clear what sort of explanation we are actually looking for. There has been a core of work done within the philosophy of reasons in recent years which does not seem to know where it is going, nor how we would recognise its destination when it arrived. One need not be scientistic to recognise that one very credible claimant to ontological priority is some form of subatomic particle or fundamental force. Naturally this does not necessarily mark the absolute foundation of the ontic and, if mistaken for anything other than an empirically testable explanation-model, scientism may inadvertently be smuggled in as well. To recognise the limits of scientific enquiry is not some sort of fatal blow to science struck by smug philosophers and theologians who can thereby sweep away the teachings of some of the only disciplines to have actually advanced in the last century; it is simply to posit that there may be some questions which are unanswerable and yet not nonsense.

This last point is important because unless our ontological commitments are clear and well established from the beginning, we can fall into an obscure philosophical pit and end up wandering dead-end tunnels of deranged speculation which have little or nothing to do with the sunlit, empirical world above. Such is much of the talk about reasons in contemporary philosophy. For long years the Humean model of motivation has been the consensus among philosophers of action. This consists in the straightforward and intuitive combination of a desire and a belief: I desire a glass of Malbec and I believe there is a bottle in the kitchen – thus I am motivated to go to the kitchen. This seems perfectly reasonable and accords well with psychology and neurology, albeit merely as a philosopher’s simplification and a rendering into plain English. Recently, however, there has been a general shift towards talk of reasons themselves having priority over the mental states of the Humean model. One argument for this is that, except in cases where we are mistaken, people do not tend to talk in terms of belief and desire, rather they cite facts about the world: “I am going to the kitchen because there is a bottle of Malbec there.” To say “because I believe there is a bottle of Malbec there” seems to imply a certain level of doubt, and “because I desire a glass of Malbec” seems to be implied already without needing to be said.

The usual objection to this account of motivation is that it seems to provide a fact about the world (and the location of bottles of Malbec) without any driving force behind it to actually lead to an action. It seems that without reference to a particular desire I could simply say, “There is a bottle of Malbec in the kitchen – and so what?” and remain seated rather than being motivated to do anything at all. Defenders of this model will cite the difference between my act of desiring and the object of my desire and use other examples to reinforce their intuition: I help a person who is drowning simply because they are in trouble, not because I believe they are in trouble and I desire to help them.

Many people do not share the intuitions of the reasons-centric views and are more inclined to accept the Humean model. On the other hand it is not initially obvious which deserves priority out of a Humean explanation and a reasons explanation, since they both seem to be completely interdependent or even interreducible: I believed there was a bottle of Malbec in the kitchen because there was a bottle of Malbec in the kitchen, but the fact that there was a bottle of Malbec in the kitchen could not motivate me unless I also believed this fact. We are left with a circle of explanations with no clear winner and so there seems to be a deadlock between the Humean and the reasons-theorist.

It is at this point that I reiterate my warnings about the relationship with science. The reasons-theorist will claim that their account is more parsimonious since it relies only on facts and states of affairs, rather than being forced to talk about states of affairs in combination with complex mental states. They have missed the point. A mental state belongs in the same ontological category as the states of affairs which lead to it. Facts are the strange things which seem to require us to inflate our ontology. What kinds of things are facts? At least we can have some sense of what something is to be a mental state and that there is a definite relationship between a mental state and a physical state of affairs. Allowing facts into our ontology leads to an explosion of entities since relational facts and facts about facts can go on indefinitely, and even then it is not clear what the relationship between a fact and a state of affairs is.

Of course, this is not to say that the Humean model is necessarily superior, only that it has the advantage of presupposing only a modest ontology – one which is informed by knowledge of natural science and has a distinct advantage for that reason. It may be that facts deserve their own ontological category, but this seems to be more a result of philosophers talking about talking, rather than talking about reality.

Moderation in philosophy

There is a perpetual danger with philosophical writing that one will try to say too much. Concrete, empirical conclusions must usually be based on concrete, empirical premises and it is a foolish philosopher who forgets this. On the other hand it is certainly possible to say too little. I do not refer here to a ‘noble’ Wittgensteinian silence nor to a blissful state of ataraxia or of enlightenment, instead I am referring to something far more mundane and – as with a surprising number of mundane things – also something dangerous. The tendency to say too little to which I am here alluding is analytic philosophy’s maddening ability to produce book-length statements of what can only be described as the bleeding obvious.

Moore’s Defence of Common Sense springs to mind instantly here. As part of his strategy to disarm the threat of scepticism, Moore produces a startlingly long and convoluted list of things which he (thinks he) knows. These include things about the Earth having been around for a certain time and people existing and so on. As philosophy the list is mostly irrelevant and as rhetoric it is akin to suicide by sleeping pills.

Likewise Maria Alvarez’s book Kinds of Reasons is possibly correct in everything it says yet I have come away from it no wiser but noticeably older. The insights upon which she seems to want to sell her book seem fairly obvious and do not necessitate a 200-page exposition. In fact I agreed with all of them instantly and yet strangely when I read the body of the book I found myself disagreeing with some of the manoeuvres she used to reach them and some of the other things she asserted in the process.

While we’re at it – and until my pen reverts to writing with ink instead of bile – if I read one more essay about the meaning of life which tries to effect a ‘clever’ inversion by instead posing the question ‘what makes life meaningful?’ then I will make it my project to make the insipid life of the author a lot less ‘meaningful’ and perhaps a lot shorter. An essay which, for example, argued for a plural nature of the Good, or defended an existentialist position of radical freedom, or even one which asserted pure nihilism would be an example of philosophy. An essay which simply lists ‘things which the author thinks make life meaningful’ (such as family, friends, enjoyable work, moderation and, implicitly, mediocrity) is not philosophy. It is either the contents of a £1 greeting card or an episode of Sesame Street. One of the beautiful but terrifying things about philosophy is that once an argument has been made or an idea formulated the author loses control of it but retains the right to say ‘I did this first’. None of these cute little essays is a particular improvement on Plato’s dialogues on similar subjects and at least when he dealt with them he was able to present arguments in their favour rather than bare assertions. He provided insights into the value of friendship because he was interested in friendship, not because he wanted to avoid answering a very different question. If our strawman with his ‘meaningful life’ wanted to fit into the orthodoxy, he would be much better dismissing the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’ as some sort of misuse of language, which is now the accepted way to avoid having to answer difficult questions and thus to avoid having to actually do any philosophy at all.

Admittedly the balance is hard to achieve and I welcome any accusations of hypocrisy which follow this. One must never go too far with philosophical conclusions, but neither should one fall to the temptation of disguising the disappointingly sterile character of one’s conclusions by overwhelming the reader with unhelpful filler material. Never say too much and never pretend you have said more than you have, simply to disguise the fact you have said nothing at all. Maybe complete silence really is the correct course.

‘Common sense’ is not the companion of the intellect, it is its opposite

One of the most corrosive forces in the world is what is generally referred to as ‘common sense’. Consider the situations in which common sense is usually invoked. One of the most obvious is when noting its absence in an individual when wishing to criticise or ridicule this individual for making what is considered a stupid mistake. “Just use your common sense” would not be heard from any but the worst of teachers since it betrays a refusal (or inability) to engage with and attempt to solve the problem our ‘idiot’ is facing. Common sense is treated as a clear, transparent quality (compare Descartes’ equally absurd ‘natural light’), so the order to “use your common sense” is completely meaningless; if some knowledge or insight were accessible to my ‘common sense’ then it would have been immediately available. The demand is actually no better than simply saying “do it better!” This is meaningless. The question you have failed to answer is how exactly I am to do it.

So much for practical reality. It is true that common sense is an annoyance in those situations, but it is in theoretical and intellectual contexts that it is more destructive. Kant characterises well those who would wear it like a talisman:

“They therefore came up with a more convenient way to be obstinate and defiant without any insight namely the appeal to common sense. It is in fact a great gift of heaven to possess straight (or as it has recently been called, ordinary) sense. But one must prove it by deeds, by the considered and rational things one thinks and says, not by appealing to it like an oracle.”

I would go further than Kant here and claim that ‘obstinacy’ very quickly becomes an understatement. Pressing the common sense beliefs of an interlocutor will very quickly provoke real anger or, more tellingly, perceivable panic – deeply held beliefs serve as a comforting companion, one not willingly surrendered. Here common sense plays the role of a (false) foundation to a set of beliefs. The first (and only) line of defence provided by “it’s just common sense” is sufficient in most normal arguments. Even when rejecting what you take to be common sense, most opponents will not continue in a direct attack but will instead attempt to show that the case in question is an exception to the common sense rule you are reliant on. Instinctively most people know that ordinary, pre-reflexive human stubbornness makes it futile to try to attack the beliefs which you hold based on ‘common sense’.

At this point one can almost hear the words ‘herd’ and ‘rabble’ being screeched amid Nietzsche’s cackles from beyond the grave.

The implications of this problem are broader than they may appear at first. Recall the old story of Wittgenstein asking a colleague why people used to assume that the Sun revolved around the Earth. His colleague replied that the answer was obvious: “it just looks as if the Sun is revolving around the Earth,” he said. Wittgenstein simply replied by asking what it would have looked like if the Earth was going around the Sun.

This is the status of the false seer of ‘common sense’. There is no part of common sense so ‘obvious’ that it does not deserve to be questioned. Sadly it also seems that there is no truth so sacred that it is incapable of being ridiculed or opposed by the non-thought of ‘common sense’.

The enemy within and without

The process of ‘Othering’ is one which most people will be familiar with, even if they didn’t know there was a name for it. You (a culture, a society) treat a separate group as if they are, in their very essence, something different and threatening to you (your culture, your society) so that the only way to protect yourself is to keep as great a distance as possible between you and this Other while either fantasising about or actually bringing about a world where this Other no longer exists. This is a fairly old name for a practically primaeval phenomenon. Criteria for being an Other vary, but it is often based on an ethnic or religious difference. Crucially though, it is not the case that this group are ‘the same as us except for x‘ Rather, at the very basic level, to be a black/white/Jew/Muslim/Catholic/immigrant/gay is to be other than human (or on some theorists’ reckoning, to be unbearably human) so that your very presence creates a necessary fracture in the harmony of my (our) lifeworld.

The Frankfurt School and its sympathisers would see this as a symptom rather than the ailment itself. The falsity of the fascist wager becomes apparent in the underlying logic which makes inevitable this Othering. The pre-neoconservative thinker Carl Schmitt argued that an enemy image is necessary to create a harmonious society. ‘Society’ within the terms of his argument is only truly achieved when a nation is mobilised to a state of near-perpetual war – both internally and externally. The pairing is critical to maintaining the balance of power. Jews/Bolsheviks; counter-revolutionaries/capitalists; terrorists/enemies of freedom; thought-criminals/Eurasians (or Eastasians) – all these are examples of a comprehensive Schmittian pairing of internal and external enemy. The falsity I just mentioned exists in the notion that the ways of life of these various societies must be defended from the outsiders mentioned. On the contrary, the societies require these pairings to function at all. The only way to disguise the fact that it is not a harmonious society is to blame all the ills on some intrusive external agency which is apparently bent on taking away what little the citizens still have. The Other is a necessary structural component which does indeed betray illness, although the disorder exists at a much deeper level and Othering is merely a symptom of it.

None of this is particularly new or original. Othering, and labelling in general, is a lazy way to find a simple solution to deeper problems; idiotically simple when you consider those who engage in it seem to have intellects just capable of grunting out the inference “x happened, so somebody must be responsible for x” and so discount ideas, thoughts and more complex forms of causation as responsible for societal maladies – probably on the basis that none of these latter (unlike people) are the sorts of things which can be seen, heard, smelt or lynched. Even those who consider themselves progressive can all too easily fall into this trap. It is much easier to believe that the Illuminati are to blame for war, crime and injustice than to face the structural defects of society. The question is never ‘how can we get rid of these people who are secretly manipulating society to serve their own ends?’, but rather ‘how can we reconstruct society so that it would be impossible for anyone (secret society or otherwise) to have such unthinkable levels of power and privilege at the expense of other human beings?’ While not quite as insidious as the fascist’s Othering, the interpretation of events along the lines mentioned is similar in its intellectual laziness and cowardly unwillingness to confront the real problems.

“Evil resides in the very gaze which perceives Evil all around itself.” – Hegel.

Religion: Content, form and utopia

The sort of ‘postmodern’ acknowledgement of religious diversity and its attempt to nullify the potentially deadly consequences of the inherent disagreements seems to me to be completely backwards. The idea is that all the different faiths, especially the monotheisms, are really talking about the same things in different ways – that the content of their belief is fundamentally the same and it is the form this belief which differs. It is certainly a useful fiction for curbing the worst excesses of religious violence, but one is inclined to wonder whether it is applying a plaster where an amputation might be more prudent.

It should already give us pause for thought that what I am about to say next would outrage, or at least cause discomfort to, a great many tolerant, liberal people: the major monotheisms are not talking about the same thing and are, at their core, fundamentally irreconcilable. A world in which there was no friction between religions would be a world in which the constituent beliefs were empty or nearly so. They differ at the level of content.

On the other hand one can argue that the form of religious belief is indeed common. As I have indicated in an earlier post on David Hume, the usual form of religious belief is one whose primary feature is a willingness to take seriously ancient written testimony of miraculous events. The content of the belief will be dependent on which of the holy texts one chooses to take seriously. Although such experiments are obviously impossible, it would be very enlightening if one could go back in time and transfer one of the faithful at birth to a different family of a different religious confession and see if the form of belief would latch onto different contents in a different environment.

My mental response to the fact that the majority of people adopt the religion of their parents is one of bemusement.

Simon Blackburn has given a brief treatment of the status of religious belief. It may be the case that religious moderates do not treat their beliefs in the same way they treat other beliefs. At the most mild end they might be merely a set of useful stories which help ground a series of community traditions and practices and help keep families and societies cohesive. The fact remains though that there are a great many people who take every letter of a particular religious text as the literal word of God. I have a great deal of sympathy for these people since it cannot be denied that they have been brought up in an environment with these traditions and practices which tell them that ‘these stories are really, really true’ but then paradoxically expects them to return to their secular lives, rather than taking the logical step of treating their religion as the most important – perhaps the only important – thing in their life. If they are not ‘really, really true’ then the wrong thing is being preached.

The liberal postmodern wants to allow the flourishing of the moderates on the basis that they are looking at the same thing from different angles. A more appropriate analogy would be that they are looking in opposite directions from the same point. It is because of the wildly different contents of religious beliefs that a pluralistic harmony is impossible in a society which includes literalists of differing faiths. And it is because of the ambiguous approach of moderates to their ‘beliefs’ that such literalists are bound to emerge within multicultural nations. The liberal, postmodern vision turns out to be strikingly utopian.

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