Author Archives: Jeff Mason

Close Encounters of the Cancer Kind: Is Philosophy a Preparation for Death?

There is nothing like a diagnosis of stage four inoperable lung cancer with bone metastases to give one a shock. I have known since I took logic as a young man that “Human beings are mortal. Socrates is a human being. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” However, I was not Socrates, and as far as I was concerned that syllogism was just an example of a valid argument. However, when you put your own name in place of “Socrates” things look very different. Now I am an oldish philosopher (67), and suddenly the real possibility of my own death in the fairly near future has become a reality. Mortality approaches.

I know that philosophers concern themselves mostly with abstract and very general questions in epistemology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, etc.. By and large they do not approach philosophical questions from a personal perspective. Even death can be approached as an intellectual or conceptual problem. However, when Santa gave me my cancer diagnosis for Christmas 2011, abstract philosophy and my personal experience unavoidably came together. I now wonder if I can write in a very personal way about the universal truth that we are all going to die, what this means, and if there is anything of general import that I can express about what is happening in my own case. This breaks some common views of what philosophy is, but I do not have time to care about that now. So I am addressing you from a personal perspective, from my frame of life, and I ask your indulgence.

Let me state my tentative conclusion at the start. I do feel that having studied philosophy seriously for 46 years allowed me to keep my calm when the doctor gave me my diagnosis after a routine CT scan. For a second, I sat there feeling nothing at all. However, the next thought that came to me was gratitude for the life I have lived. Maybe other people do not feel this. Kubler Ross famously discusses five stages of grief and loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I seemed to skip the first four. This is not to say that I instantly reached acceptance, but I did come first to gratitude. Now, after six months of living with lung cancer, I am trying to understand what acceptance of death may amount to.

Each of us can only judge and describe the world from our own time frame. If I had been much younger, my response to the diagnosis might have conformed more to Dr. Ross’s formula. The world looks very differently at different stages of life. Nevertheless, how one has looked, thought, and felt about life and death throughout one’s life has to make a difference at the end. In my case, the lens through which I have considered life has always been philosophical. Snatches of philosophical thoughts have lodged in my mind since I was was young. These are like seeds that took root deep in my mind and have matured and grown over the years. Now I feel that they are bearing fruit, helping me to live a new and deeper life. One nugget stands out to complete this first meditation on life and death.

Plato’s famously stated that “Philosophy is a preparation for death.” The Greek word that Plato uses for ‘preparation’ is ‘Melete’ and the root meaning is ‘care’ or ‘attention’. It can also mean ‘meditation,’ ‘practice’ or ‘exercise’. So are philosophers supposed to ‘practice’ dying, or simply to recollect the fact of mortality as they live their lives? What difference will that make?

I confess a great love of Plato and his amazing Socrates. However, I cannot go along with his tentative conclusions. We know what Socrates argues in the Phaedo. The reason that practicing philosophy is a preparation for death is that Socrates believes that the soul and the body are separable, that the soul is immortal, and that a very different after-life awaits those who have lived a good or evil life. Therefore, it behooves us to separate our own soul from our body as much as possible while we live and to detach ourselves from the preoccupations of mundane life.

The reason that I admire Socrates in the Phaedo is that after giving his ‘proofs’ of the immortality of the soul, he has the greatness to admit that his arguments are only the reasons he personally accepts to advance his position. He does not claim that they absolutely prove the soul is immortal. It is a postulate of Socrates’ practical metaphysics. In fact, he says that if he is wrong, and death is total extinction, then he will never know he is wrong, and his folly will be buried with him.

So in what sense can the study of philosophy be a preparation for death if one does not accept metaphysical dualism? I do not accept any such thing, but I still feel that my study of philosophy has helped me prepare for my present state. Does this mean that the study of any topic in philosophy will have this effect? I do not think so. I am not at all sure that one would prepare for death very well by spending 40 years working in the salt-mines of post-Gettier epistemology, nor in picking over all he convoluted arguments in mereology and inductive logic.

To see how the study of philosophy might be of value in preparing to die, we have to go back to the root meaning of ‘philosophy’ as the ‘love of wisdom’. Wisdom is not a topic that comes up very much in contemporary philosophy. It was more to the fore in the ancient world, where wisdom, ethics, and the question of living a good human life were brought together in a philosophical approach to living. For me, loving wisdom has to do with taking up the largest possible perspective in which to live one’s life, going all the way back to the Big Bang, including all of space and time, the natural history of the universe, the geology of the earth, and the total history of animals and human beings on this planet spinning through a gigantic universe. It covers all the natural cycles of life and death and sees everything as part of this comprehensive whole. Somehow, living in this context has helped me see life and death as part of a seamless process. Death shadows life as naturally as the shadow one casts on the ground on a sunny day. There is no point in denying it, and no point in worrying about it. Perhaps acceptance lies in this direction.

Popular Practical Metaphysics

Meditation 117: Popular Practical Metaphysics

Knowing my interest in practical metaphysics, a friend suggested I search Google for it. Much to my surprise, I saw many sites devoted to the subject. There are differences, however, between my ‘philosophical’ approach and the more ‘spiritual’ approaches I saw on the web. What these sites have in common is a faith or belief in metaphysical principles as absolute truths. Possessing these truths, it is said, has beneficial practical consequences for a person’s life.

What will the practitioner receive by taking in metaphysical principles and letting them transform her or his life? Many benefits are claimed. They will help you become a vegetarian, stop smoking and never suffer another cold. It also enables you to visualize and affirm outcomes that you desire. The idea is that by a kind of sympathetic quantum magic, the world will provide what you need for an abundant life if you can just want it in the right way.

On the internet, practical metaphysics is identified with spiritual practice and truth. Spiritual “truths” are, in fact, metaphysical assertions that go beyond logic or mere sense perception. The sites express a connection between practical metaphysics and a Divine Mind, God, Universal Spirit or Cosmic Consciousness. In this view, prayer or meditation is a kind of metaphysical work. The sort of things one learns are like those taught by Swedenborg, the great spirit-seer of old. We will learn about unseen powers and how to commune with them. We will attain unity with God or Universal Spirit, overcoming the otherness that haunts our embodied existence. We will learn to program our minds to make the most of our lives. Practical metaphysics teaches that there is a reality that goes far beyond the world we experience in daily life. We come to know this reality more through spiritual practices than abstract teachings. We are to intuit or directly experience metaphysical “truths”, but such experiences cannot be described in mere words.

Popular practical metaphysics falls into the category of “self-help” strategies that have a spiritual component. The claims of the web sites take advantage of the second and third principles of “philosophical” practical metaphysics, but deny the first. The first principle is that we cannot prove or disprove the truth of metaphysical claims either through empirical research or logical demonstration. The second and third are that we have to adopt some metaphysical beliefs and that some of these will have practical consequences for our lives. These consequences play out by shaping attitudes, patterns of feelings and kinds of actions. They influence everyday behavior. How they do so will depend upon the theory one adopts.

For example, one approach is to distinguish a Higher and a Lower Self, access the Higher Self, leave the Lower Self behind and attain enlightenment. Another approach is to leave the Self altogether, both Higher and Lower, as as distraction from the Pure Light. Taking one path or the other will lead in different directions and arrive in difference places, or, mystically speaking, in the same place. Still, it is a choice whether to take one path or wander aimlessly about in life. A metaphysical stance can come from within or without. It can be refused altogether, but even a refusal to play the metaphysical game is itself a metaphysical stance. Perhaps one of the things that makes the human species unique is precisely the insatiable human appetite for metaphysical ideas.

Popular practical metaphysics has a wide ranging idea of what constitutes metaphysics. It includes occult magical practices, parapsychology, hypnosis, quantum physics, psychic contact with spirits and sympathetic magic. We can learn to experience the spirit world and influence the Universal or Cosmic Mind. These are heady thoughts that do not directly contradict Pure Reason. (They are not logically impossible.) Nevertheless, Kant was right to restrict Pure Reason to the world of sense perception and causal reasoning. There is no check upon our ideas once we leave behind all thought of the empirical world. From my “philosophical” point of view, what we find on the web about ‘Practical Metaphysics’ are assertions that metaphysical claims are knowable. On my view, we can adopt such claims but are unable to prove their truth conclusively.

Implicit in popular practical metaphysics is the idea there that we can have knowledge of metaphysical truths and principles and that they can be taught. Most of the sites invite the reader to sign up for a course that will make all things clear. Therefore, in the background is the thought that some people have a privileged knowledge of metaphysical reality, and that this knowledge can be conveyed to others who lack it. Yet the web sites do not all agree about the constitution of Metaphysical Reality. It seems to go unnoticed that one metaphysical system may totally contradict another and that there is no common yardstick by which to measure both. The appeal to experience is also an interesting feature of popular practical metaphysics. It is needed because when I impart metaphysical truths to another, I have to admit that they cannot be known in ordinary ways. The proof has to be in the experience. Does your life improve? Does a metaphysical belief put your heart at rest? Is your soul in less pain? Does it give you comfort regarding a loved one’s death or peace in the middle of the night? Does it help you find meaning in your suffering, in your unhappy childhood, in your troublesome marriage, etc.? Does it make your illness or loneliness or blindness more bearable? Does it help you to have compassion for others? Does it give you the courage to withstand multiple failures, and keep trying? There is no doubting the power of belief, but the honest thing to say here is “Your money back if you are not fully satisfied.”

Practical Metaphysics: The Case of Freewill and Fatalism

Do humans act of their own free will, or is everything that people do merely the result of universal causation? Are free will and determinism compatible or incompatible? Does fate rule whether or not free will exists? These questions are metaphysical because neither science nor the techniques of formal logic can answer them once and for all. This is the first principle of practical metaphysics. The second is that it is necessary in life to adopt some metaphysical beliefs. The third is that some of these beliefs have practical consequences for one’s life. Free will conforms to the second principle, because everyone takes a stand on the question. However, not all metaphysical beliefs have practical consequences, so we must examine each case as it comes up.

Believing in the existence of free will clearly does have practical consequences. Believers are willing to accept responsibility for their actions. They think that their choices matter. The future is not a foregone conclusion. Praise and blame lose their grip if a person “cannot help” acting in a certain way. Another consequence is that such people will be less likely to blame others or circumstances for their own mistakes. Still another is that belief in free will supports an optimistic attitude. It makes sense of trying to do better, believing the future is open, and that it is actually possible to improve.

Does the belief in determinism have practical consequences? Perhaps. If it turns out that the truth of universal causation determines human actions, and if actions can be reduced to physical actions and chemical processes, then it is indeed true that all my actions will be determined in advance by antecedent causes. What difference would the truth of this assertion make to how I live my life? We are unable to know the entire antecedent universe. Whether or not it is true that the future is determined in advance, the future is opaque to us. We learn from experience what happens regularly in different circumstances, all things being equal. However, we cannot know if all things are equal in any particular case. Hence, we might be excused for thinking that a belief in metaphysical determinism makes no difference to the life of an agent.

Is this the whole story? Might it be possible to use a belief in determinism as a universal excuse for one’s actions? If my body and body chemistry move along with the universal causal nexus regardless of what I think, plan, feel or do, then what do my choices and reasons mean? Can I, therefore, abdicate my responsibility along with my free will by adopting a thorough-going metaphysical determinism? Or, does my ignorance of determining conditions make it impossible for me to give up my sense that I am responsible for my choices and actions?

If believing in determinism is a way to deny personal responsibility, then accepting it has practical consequences. It is an approach to life. Perhaps it would be better here to speak of the attitude of fatalism rather than universal determinism. With fatalism we can accept that we have to make choices, but believe that no matter what choices we make, our fate is sealed. Think of Somerset Maugham’s old story about the man who met the person of Death in Cairo, ran for his life to Samara, only to find Death waiting for him there, saying “When I saw you in Cairo, I thought you might be late for our our date in Samara, but here you are.” It was fate.

Fatalism is the view that what will be, will be, and nothing can change that. Might not taking on this view turn a person into a quietest who lives a still and passive life? Perhaps, if one believes in fate, one will not struggle against it. A clear literary example of this is described in Richard Adam’s epic rabbit adventure, Watership Down. At one point, Hazel and the other rabbits who are striking out to find a new home, run into a tribe of rabbits who live a well fed and pleasant life. However, they are taken for the pot one by one. All these rabbits know that one day they will be taken, but they do no know what that day will be. So they spend their time writing poetry and putting on tragic dramas, waiting quiescently for their individual ends. Hazel discovers what is going on and offers them a chance to escape. The ‘artistic’ rabbits turn down the offer by saying that their lives are their fate and they are resigned to it.

Perhaps there is another way, too, that belief in fate might affect one’s approach to life. There is a scene in Johnson’s “Rasselas” in which the hero meets a scientist who is weighed down by his conviction that he controls much of the weather and brings up the sun each morning from the top of his observatory. He is cured when he realizes that it is all a fantasy in his head. Finding out that something is not within one’s own power can be a relief. Responsibility is a heavy burden that can be laid down when one finds that the issue is out of one’s control. If we combine that with the idea of God’s providence, we have a source of consolation as well. I conclude that believing in free will or fatalism has practical consequences for the life of the believer, and thus falls within the subject matter of practical metaphysics.

Practical Metaphysics: The Case of God

Why should anyone bother about metaphysical questions? Spending time discussing them may seem speculative and inconsequential. However, while all metaphysical reasoning is speculative, it is far from inconsequential. Taking up a metaphysical stance is both unavoidable and has profound consequences for human life. To take the case of God, there are practical consequences for believers, atheists, agnostics and even those who are indifferent to the whole question of God’s existence. Practical metaphysics brings to our awareness both the nature of metaphysical thinking and the consequences that accompany and flow from it.

The first principle of practical metaphysics is that metaphysical propositions are never conclusively proved. The second is that human beings are obliged to believe at least some metaphysical propositions. The third is that belief in some unavoidable metaphysical propositions bring practical consequences. Metaphysical beliefs come with a price tag, and we do well to be aware of this in adopting one metaphysical stance or another.

A perfect example is the case of God. Does God exist? Can we prove or otherwise know that God exists? Can we know God’s nature? Is God a Supreme Being or Beyond Being? These are weighty questions, and they have been answered at length many times. Different proofs or disproofs have been been offered. Various approaches have arisen in history, been swept away by new arguments, only to resurface later in other forms. For example, Aristotle’s Argument from Design to the operation of an Unmoved Mover has morphed many times over the centuries, with Creationism and Intelligent Design as its latest versions. The ontological argument for God’s existence has also resurfaced since it was laid out by St. Anselm in the 11th Century, particularly by Descartes and Leibniz.

Old metaphysical theories are never totally defeated. Their defenders simply die out. Once people forget that a metaphysical theory has been exploded by argument, it creeps back again, for it is always possible to hold any metaphysical theory, no matter how absurd it may seem to some. For example, I might persist in the belief that I exist in the Matrix, despite the fact that I have no empirical evidence for it, nor does any empirical experience make the hypothesis self-contradictory.

The case of God is perhaps the most urgent issue in practical metaphysics, for the simple reason that religious beliefs have the widest ranging practical implications. Such beliefs involve many aspects of life, including emotional responses and moral judgments. The stance of ‘Righteousness”, for example, is a metaphysical stance for it is founded on the Rock of the Lord. Living up to Divine Commandments is an exercise in practical metaphysics. The same can be said of Kierkegaard’s formula of faith in God: resting transparently in the power that supports you. This idea of resting in God is a powerful one. Life is difficult, troubles mount, and the end is pathetic, if not tragic. It gets to be too much for an individual to bear. What a relief to give up one’s troubles to God.

There is a kind of psychic economy here. I give up my burdens to God, and God buoys me up. This is a widely reported experience. There are many things that are out of an individual’s control. Misfortune is always a possibility, no matter how well you manage what is within your power. It is a real comfort to think that there is a benign power loving and caring for each of us. You may be cut off from the love of family and friends, because they die, while you continue to live a bit longer, but you cannot be cut off from the love of a Divine Father who cares for you as of a child. God plays the role of provider and sustainer, and this metaphysical belief attracts many people. It does so, I would contend, precisely because of the practical benefits that the belief in things unseen brings to the imagination of the confessed believer.

William James adopts this sort of approach in his “Varieties of Religious Experience.” He is not so much interested in logically proving God’s existence as in looking at how human beings describe their religious experiences. He distinguishes between ‘healthy souls’ and ‘sick souls’. So far I have been talking about the practical consequences of religious belief for the ‘healthy’ soul. The healthy soul concentrates on God’s goodness, love, forgiveness and care for us. We have faith that all things will be well in the end. The ‘sick’ soul concentrates more on human sinfulness, particularly its own. Here is Jonathan Edwards’ terrible God who holds us like spiders over the gaping pit of Hell. A perfect example of a sick soul is Stylites, the ascetic spiritual gymnast, who lived atop a pillar in the desert for twenty years to do penance for sins of the flesh. The practical consequences for the body are clear. The ascetic shows disdain for the body and welcomes its destruction in the name of a higher reality. Similarly, those for whom heaven and hell loom large in a post-terrestrial existence, will see life, not as a passing dream, but as a drama that is played out for eternal stakes in the life of each individual.

These are the sort of practical consequences that arise from having beliefs about God. Practical metaphysics helps us to explore them. For example, there are also practical consequences in believing that there is no God, that the existence of God is always in doubt, or that the whole question of God’s existence is nothing to us one way or the other. All these positions have their costs and their benefits. With the last three, one must forgo Divine comfort, a supernatural afterlife, and the belief that everything will come right in the end. On the positive side, non-believers are not troubled by thoughts of hell, the last judgment, or being observed by heavenly scribes. From this perspective, life is a dream, and nothing lasts forever. Living one’s life in either of these ways is, or can be revealed to be, a choice or stance in life that has no other foundation than the metaphysical commitments of the individual.

Nietzsche’s Tightrope and Homo-Electronicus

“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Overman — a rope over an abyss.”

“What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an over-going and a down-going.”

Thus Spake Zarathrustra

These words made a great impression on me when I was young. At first, I was filled by romantic thoughts of the struggle of make’s oneself anew from what has been made of one by parents, teachers, companions and ultimately history itself. The goal was to break heroically with patterns of the past, create new values, and to live a new life free of constricting and life-denying thoughts. Nietzsche’s concept of the Overman announces this new human being whose outline is just beginning to glimmer on the horizon of our vision.

Nietzsche saw this new sort of human being approaching. He saw that human evolution is a work in progress. We are always changing unpredictably as a species. However, Nietzsche had no very clear idea of what the Overman would be except a kind of super Greek warrior type who smashes the idols of the crowd and dares to live bravely under the sky without the need of heaven.

Since Nietzsche’s day, there have been scientific and technological advances that make our fast paced cultural evolution possible. Twentieth Century elders will hardly be able to fathom the changes taking place. The Overman is Homo-Electronicus, wired in, connected everywhere, possessing hundreds of instant applications. This evolution to a new sort of human being will not take long, nor will it be confined to creating changes in culture and mentality.

What we have discovered about the neuroplasticity of the brain holds out the promise that even old dogs can learn new tricks. It is never too late to create neural networks corresponding to abilities that allow the satisfaction of our desires. Furthermore, I hazard that the brains of young people have already changed to accommodate activities like texting that requires constant use of the thumbs.

As a mid 20th Century person, I have seen enough time pass to notice some differences between then and now. Starting lecturing in philosophy full time in 1972, I was from a wave of students that has receded only in the last ten years or so. Back then, I felt the generation gap began with people just a little older than I was at the time, 27. The cohorts following shared a similar mindset to my own. It seemed to me that I was on the same wavelength as my students. However, today’s students have become increasingly electronic in their being and I find it increasingly hard to imagine what it is like to be them. Perhaps it is a failure of empathy, since if one cannot model the interiority of another in oneself, it is is difficult to empathize with how they experience the world. I do not know the new links that bind students together, their electronic devices and social networks.

As one of the elders now, it is hard for me to see very far into the future. However, I can see that the convergence of technology with our mental powers is going to transform human beings in ways we cannot yet imagine. “Just in time” electronic knowledge is going to relieve our short term memory of the need to store contingently useless facts. When it is time to know the next thing, one will consult the web and move on to the next stage of the investigation. Knowledge acquisition will be driven by a constantly shifting focus of questions, desires and tasks. Our mental powers will be augmented by our union with the web and the society it creates. Information will be distributed across computer networks and the web will give constant access. What effect will this have? I really do not know, but I am confident that we will be changing our brains by merging with digital technology. These ‘augmented’ humans will look back at us and wonder how we ever survived. The trouble with being an elder is that much of the knowledge and understanding one has acquired over a lifetime applies to a world that increasingly ceases to exist. However, the ‘down-going’ of the elders is the ‘over-going’ of the young. There is nothing to complain about in that.

Practical Metaphysics: The Case of Mind-Body Dualism

Metaphysics is unavoidable in human life and metaphysical assumptions predate rational self-conscious reflection. Though most people spend little or no time pondering metaphysical questions as such, there is no one who does not adopt one metaphysical stance or another. What I mean by a metaphysical stance is a position that assumes certain realities that go beyond empirical tests and all possible observations. These assumptions have practical consequences for the way a person experiences the world and projects him or herself into it. It is part of our ‘being in the world’. Philosophers, of course, have explicitly considered metaphysical questions. What is Being? Reality? Metaphysical Substance? How are appearances related to what is? How do reason and logic function in arguing metaphysical theories?

One unavoidable metaphysical concern is the problem of mind-body dualism. The ancient Western philosophical tradition largely treats mind and body as separate, though the concept of ‘mind’ is modern. The ancient distinction is between body and soul. Bodies can disintegrate, but souls move on to whatever awaits them after leaving the body. Some are described as going to Hades as gibbering shades, some to the Blessed Isles, others to the River Tartarus, Heaven, Hell or Paradise. Some are said to pass from body to body in successive reincarnations. Can we prove that such views are logically impossible?
Other-worldly religions perpetuate a commitment to metaphysical dualism for the simple reason that if this were not true, then there would be no ‘other world’, no afterlife, no other body to inhabit. Dualism is an unavoidable metaphysical view for those who believe and have faith in the existence of life after death. It is right that believers in the afterlife speak of belief and faith, because no metaphysical view can be proved beyond doubt.
Descartes provoked the modern problem by casting the mind-body distinction as one between Divinely created secondary metaphysical substances. This idea permitted the continuance of mental life beyond the destruction of the body. He deferred to revelation at the cost of logical consistency in his philosophy. Today’s debate about mind-body dualism takes up a naturalistic rather an a religious perspective. From this perspective, dualism can hardly be understood.
Sometimes a gap opens up between one metaphysical orientation and another. People looking at each other from opposite sides of this gap, over time, start speaking, as it were, different languages. We really stop being able to understand one another. It is like the lack of understanding we find in two intransigent ideologically-minded political parties. At this point, argument loses its grip. It is useless to attack someone who is not standing on the same metaphysical ground as oneself. The best we can do is to profess ignorance of metaphysical matters and start asking questions about the different views and their practical implications.
The situation is complex, but the basic idea is that the rejection of metaphysics is itself a metaphysical position. Even my own non-dogmatic skepticism is a profession of faith in the benefits of lightening the load of beliefs I carry. There are still plenty of things that I believe provisionally on the basis of experience, but I do not have to go on to make a leap of faith to one of the alternative metaphysical narratives that history has thrown my way.
To conclude, let us return to mind-body dualism. Accept it or reject it, one is willy-nilly entering into a personal contract with a metaphysical view. Furthermore, no matter what view is adopted, it will have practical consequences and affect one’s life and lived experience. So, from the naturalistic position of most Western university philosophy departments, what is the practical consequence of dropping mind-body dualism? The main one is that we will no longer be able to speak of mind continuing after the end of the body.
Accepting dualism, on the other hand, which it is always possible to do with faith and belief, legitimizes one or another of the myriad narratives that deal with the next life. For many believers, there is a heavenly judge who sees how law-abiding one has been. However, one’s consciousness changes upon the thought that one is being observed. In one story, Saint Peter is always looking on, never sleeping, recording in his book one’s good and bad deeds and intentions. This puts a burden on those who accept mind-body dualism that is absent from those who do not. I hope this shows that practical metaphysics is not a contradiction in terms, but a necessity. It is best to be actively conscious of the role that practical metaphysics plays in all our lives.

Mind-Body Interactionism

It seems natural to speak of physical occurrences and mental processes interacting. I step barefoot on a tack. Unless my foot is asleep, I will feel a pain where the tack has entered. The tack is logically distinct from the sensation of pain caused by stepping on it. Stepping on the tack precedes the feeling of pain. It happens regularly and predictably. Is there something philosophically wrong about speaking this way?

Going in the other direction, imagine waiting for your beloved at the station. The whistle of the approaching train makes your heart go pit-a-pat in anticipation. This would probably stop if Uncle Henry got off instead. Our thoughts, desires and feelings are regularly followed in time by changes in body chemistry and neural activities. We can learn to predict what effects having certain thoughts will have on our bodies.

I remember as a teenager climbing a steep switchback trail rising over 4,000 feet. Trying to keep up with the other back packers, I began to get out of breath, my heart raced and I started to feel dizzy. A friend advised me to listen to my body and find a rhythm of walking that suited me. This turned out to be slow but steady. I was told to count my steps over and over, one to four, in a time that brought my heart rate down and calmed my breathing. This was good advice. My thoughts about hiking changed and so did my body’s response to the task.

From a common sense point of view, there is nothing wrong with talking about physical events causing mental events, or vice versa. Philosophically, however, the theory that mind and body interact is difficult to maintain. One reason may be that the problem arose in the context of Descartes’ dualism. Given his metaphysical position, it is hard to see how there can be any interaction between mind and body, since they do not share any properties. Descartes’ own solution is hard to accept, since it requires occult entities called ‘animal spirits’ that somehow run messages from the mind to the body and the other way around.

However, speaking about mind-body interactions the way we do seems most apt in the examples I have given and many others. Does using the language of mind-body interactions require a commitment to a metaphysical dualism of substance between mind and body? Surely not. When we speak of mind and body, we are not speaking of two separate things. There is only one thing that is in question.

How, then, can there be mind-body interaction if mind and body are really one? I grant that there is a problem here. If mind and body are one, then it is misleading to speak of them interacting as of they were different things. There may, in fact, be no interactions on some metaphysical level, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to describe in any other way the ordinary cases of what we pre-reflectively call ‘mind-body interactions.’ It is sufficient for my purpose to remain at the level of phenomenological description. Looking at how we experience the world, it seems that philosophical identity theories of mind and body make it harder to say what we want to about common appearances of mind body interactions.

It would be so much easier to square identity theories with our experience if we were not inherently temporal beings, living through a sequence of times. In this contingency, we find the mind-body distinction useful to us in a rough and ready way. This is all we need to register the patterns of mind-body interactions that commonly appear to occur in life. We can learn from experience which patterns to cultivate and which to avoid. If I drink too much, I will get a hangover. If I think too long about a personal insult, my heart rate will increase and nasty chemicals will be injected into my body.

The mind-body distinction is ‘thought constituted’ and not a distinction in reality. However, we use the distinction because we find ourselves in a situation where mental processes precede bodily processes, and vice versa. We find it useful to distinguish ‘things’ from ‘consciousness of things’. Experience teaches us the connections. So, in conclusion, we do not have to feel philosophically embarrassed to speak loosely of mind-body interactions. On the contrary, it is for those who hold that mind-body interactions are either senseless or impossible, to explain why it appears that mind-body interactions happen all the time,

Death and Its Concept

Philosophers and non-philosophers stand on a level of equality with respect to death. There are no experts on death, for there is nothing to know about it. Not even those who study the death process have an edge on the rest of us. We are all equals in thinking about death, and we all begin and end thinking about it from a position of ignorance.

Death and its concept are absolutely empty. No picture comes to mind. The concept of death has a use for the living, while death itself has no use for anything. All we can say about death is that it is either real or it is not real. If it is real, then the end of one’s life is a simple termination. If it is not real, then the end of one’s embodied life is not true death, but a portal to another life.

Having no content, we must speak of death metaphorically. For those who think death is real, death is a blank wall. For those who think it is not real, death is a door to another life. Whether we think of death as a wall or a door, we cannot avoid using one metaphor or another. We often say that a person who dies is relieved of suffering. However, if death is real, then it is metaphorical even to say that the dead do not suffer, as though something of them remains not to suffer. As there are already many speculations about some sort of ‘next life,’ I will focus on the view that death is real and marks the final end of an individual’s life

Let us explore the metaphor that death is a wall a bit further. Each of us is born facing this wall. From that moment on, every step we take is towards it, no matter which way we turn. There is simply no other direction to take. Like a fun house mirror, the wall of death show us our living fears and distorted images of ourselves. All we see when we look at death is a reflection of our own lives.

Death has no subjective meaning at all. It will come to other people, but never to me. Of course, I know that I am going to die. Death means the end of my future. However, as long as I am alive, I will be living toward that future possibility of no longer having possibilities.

The unavoidable conclusion is that, if death is real, neither I nor you will ever personally taste death. I will cease to be conscious before the end. No matter how close I come to it, death recedes before me. I am actually dead only for others. When the end actually arrives, my dead body passes into the hands of the coroner. I will no longer be there. Death is always described from the perspective of the living. As Ludwig Wittgenstein famously put it, “Death is not an experience in life.”

The concept of death is unlike most other concepts. Usually we have an object and the concept of that object. For example, we have a horse and the concept of a horse. However, the concept of death is absolutely without any object whatsoever. Thinking about the prospect of one’s own death is a constant meditation upon our own ignorance. There is no method for getting to know death better, because death cannot be known at all.

One trouble with discussing this topic is the instinctive fear of death. We tend to avoid death in our thoughts and actions. However, if we could forget our fears for a minute, we could see more clearly how interesting the concept actually is from a more detached point of view.

Birth and death are the bookends of our lives. Living towards death in time gives one’s life a direction and framework within which to understand the changes that life brings. The world looks very differently to the young and the old. The young look forward. The old look back. What matters to us changes as we get older. The prospect of death informs these changes. The young have an intellectual understanding that death comes to us all, but their mortality has not become real to them. For the old, mortality starts to sink in.

For a long time, I have been puzzled by two famous philosophical ideas about death, one from Plato and one from Spinoza. The first is that a philosopher has a vital concern with death and constantly meditates upon it. The second is that the wise person thinks of nothing so little as death. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. Ignoring death leaves us with a false sense of life’s permanence and perhaps encourages us to lose ourselves in the minutiae of daily of life. Obsessive rumination on death, on the other hand, can lead us away from life. Honestly coming to terms with one’s death involves reflection on its significance in one’s life, and thinking about the larger values that give life its meaning. In the end, it is useful to think about death only to the point that it frees us to live fully immersed in the life we have yet to live.

Meditation 110 Philosophy, Thinking-Well and the Art of Living

Meditation 110: Philosophy, Thinking-Well, and the Art of Living

What good is philosophy? Does it contribute to the art of living? Yes, because it helps us to apply intelligent thought to the world of our own experience. In this sense, it is possible to be an ‘unschooled’ philosopher. Any person who thinks deeply, loves to discuss the large questions of life, and tries to think comprehensively is a philosopher.

Philosophizing is a matter of asking difficult questions, analyzing them clearly, and coming to reasoned conclusions. Thinking philosophically reveals that appearances are often deceptive and nothing can be taken at its face value. A person who sees this is less likely to be taken in by charlatans, advertisers and politicians. No one wants to play the part of a fool. Thus, thinking-well is part of the art of living.

One benefit of leaning to think-well is the ability to see the big picture and a long time frame. It is valuable to locate our thinking in a history that goes back to the beginnings of agriculture and settled communities. During these last 10,000 years, most of the significant evolution in our society has occurred.

Philosophy has a questioning spirit that does not take things for granted or believe something because someone says it is so. Among the ideas that philosophers explore are God, self, freedom, morality, beauty, justice, and metaphysics. Philosophy is free to go anywhere as long as it uses reason, logic and the evidence of our senses to back up its speculations.

Crucially, philosophy challenges us to be consistent in our own views and to ask others to be consistent, too. When we hit a contradiction in our beliefs or values, it is time to stop and think again. Whenever someone points out our contradictions, we ought to be grateful. Seeing our own inconsistencies gives us a chance to rethink our ideas and values and come up with something better.

The habit of thinking philosophically makes life reflective. Philosophy encourages us look for the reasons behind what we and others believe. Dealing with the differences and contradictions we find is the main reason philosophy began over two thousand years ago and why we need it now.

Another benefit of philosophy is the ability to think clearly and well about the practicalities of life. We all have to make our way in the world. The art of living enables us to act effectively, make true friends, pursue excellence in our lives and cultivate understanding. Aristotle, near the beginning of the Western tradition, calls this ‘practical wisdom.’ We need to learn about the general consequences of our actions, and to form plans most likely to avoid the pitfalls that await the unwary.

In addition, discussing philosophical questions can give us an exciting way of sharing ourselves with others in talk, engaging in significant conversation rather than idle talk. Through a process of give and take, good philosophical talk enables us to explore vital topics and disputes, ideally in friendly way, discovering where we agree and disagree. The art of philosophical conversation gives us reliable routes to excitement, joy and transcendence. Indeed, the conversation of philosophically inclined partners-in-discovery is one of the finest human experiences.

What I have said here about philosophy and thinking-well as part of the art of living is conditional upon certain fundamental values. These values are the freedom of thought and the desirability of possessing some measure of autonomy in our lives. Philosophy grew up over 2,500 years ago when life in Greece and the Middle East was becoming complicated. People disagreed, sometimes violently, over questions with no easy answers. A few people decided to begin thinking things through for themselves in discussion with others. Philosophy was born. Philosophical reflection frees us from unnecessary fears, the shackles of ideology, and the word of ‘authorities’. We learn from this development that incorporating a reflective and actively inquiring way of thinking into our lives is part of the art of living, part of what it is to be fully human, and a significant part of the good of philosophy.

Stoics and Epicureans

Not just living, but living well, is a question worth exploring with the help of philosophy. From its history, we can gather thoughts about living well that invite rational scrutiny. Philosophers give reasons for their views, and do not rely, for the most part, on authority or revelation to carry the day. We may not agree with them, but from ancient times to the present, philosophers have explored many ideas about living well, the nature of a good life for human beings, the art of living, and the best routes to happiness.

The ancient Greeks wished their friends to ‘do well’ and ‘fare well’ in life. Doing well means acting morally and justly. Faring well has to do with prosperity, good health and general flourishing. The art of living is to become skilled in this. It is learning to do well oneself and create the best chances of faring well in life. Doing well and faring well differ, to my mind, in that the latter requires a bit of luck and the cooperation of a wider world. Doing well (acting justly in the world) is within one’s own power and requires no external conditions to make it possible. Ancient philosophy, in particular, has much to tell us about these topics. Consider the Stoics and Epicureans.

The Stoics hammered home the point that no one can force us to do evil and that there are worse things than death. What happens to us cannot determine how we think and feel. Our responses to what happens to us can come under our own control. In addition, they advocated detachment and a lessening of desires as a way to combat the sufferings of life. For the early Stoics, the art of living meant cultivating ‘Ataraxia’ or ‘Painlessness’, and this meant becoming indifferent to the things most people crave the most. According to Zeno, the first Stoic, we are to become indifferent to pleasure and pain, wealth and poverty, health and illness, indeed, life and death themselves. Each of these goods and evils are of no value in themselves, and are never to be preferred or avoided at the expense of reason and virtue. The art of living, for the Stoics, means following the universal laws of nature and facing whatever comes your way with equanimity, neither exulting in victory nor despairing in defeat. Stoic wisdom is all about doing your duty as reason and nature direct your reflective actions. Wisdom is the goal, not pleasure. At best, pleasure is a distraction from duty. At worst, it is destructive of the lives and fortunes of persons. Wisdom and right action are the goals of life.

The Epicureans also claim to follow reason and nature, but here pleasure in one form or another recommends itself as the good we all seek for ourselves. Its founder, Epicurus, tells us that life is simple, the good is easily within our grasp, and happiness is living in harmony with your friends. Nothing more is needed. In fact, having more than one needs to satisfy legitimate animal desires leads to an uneasy mind filled with imaginary fears of losing what you do not need in the first place. The art of living, here, is to develop the skill to avoid the idols and temptations of the world, and simply to cultivate your garden in harmony with yourself and nature.

For Epicurus, the art of living gives us the ability to maintain peace of mind. Part of this freedom comes in releasing an excessive fear of death. Such a fear, more than any other, hinders us in living. Death is nothing, and so nothing to fear. “Where I am, death is not. Where death is, I am not.” And if you say that it is precisely this ‘nothing’ that you fear, the reply is that it can only be something to fear while you are alive, so why waste the time. Again, we can lessen our fears by negotiating life in such a way as to avoid the shoals of superstition and the stares of vengeful gods. If gods exist, and are happy, then they will not associate themselves with unhappy humans. If the gods do not exist, it is the same. Stick to natural desires, which are easy to satisfy. Avoid vain desires that are expensive to satisfy and cause mental disturbances.

Both the Stoics and Epicureans have worked out ways of living that recognize the pains and sufferings of human existence while negotiating a way through them. It is true that Stoics tend to keep the idea of God to give the universe a providential frame, but they revere the God of reason and the laws of nature. The stoic follows nature and tries to see everything that happens as only a tiny part of a greater universe. The Epicureans do without supernatural consolation, but since no one will ever taste death (only dying), we do not have to worry about it. Where the philosophy of Epicurus sits uneasily is in philosophies or religions that denigrate the body and, especially, the pleasures of the body. However, when we read what Epicurus said, it turns out that the life he recommends is miles away from the common idea of hedonists as irrational pleasure seekers and addicts. Plain living and high thinking are his prescriptions for the good life. Though the stoics and Epicureans disagree, there is nothing to stop us learning from their insights about how to do well and fare well in this (human) life.