Author Archives: Jeff Mason - Page 2

The Mind-Body System

The hypothesis that the soul and the body are separable is as old as the dream of an afterlife. In early Greek days, the soul was identified with ‘pneuma’ or breath. Watch someone die and you will see a last exhalation. People believed that the soul of the dying departed the body with that last breath, and, just perhaps, went somewhere else. The fear of death, literally a fear of ‘nothing’, seems to be the other side of loving life. It is an animal fear that finds a characteristically human response. Entertaining hopes of an afterlife is very understandable, especially considering that death is mysterious and we cannot know with absolute certainty what happens after we die.

In Western philosophy and religion, the soul-body split is maintained as an article of faith for many centuries. With Descartes, in the early modern period, the soul morphs into a ‘mental substance’. In his metaphysical dualism, the Christian ‘soul’ becomes ‘cognitivized.’ The mind becomes identified with ‘thinking’ and ‘immediate self’-awareness’.

Descartes’ way of distinguishing mind and body has a certain plausibility. Otherwise, his theory would not have been taken seriously. The mind, and things mental, do not exist in space or have parts with spatial dimensions. Mental objects exist without doubt in our subjective appreciation of them. Each mind is a true individual, while bodily things have no absolute identity, being just thicker or thinner parts of one huge material substance. Minds and bodies are bearers of completely incompatible properties, and thus refer to separate metaphysical substances.

From this high point, there can only be questions, and Descartes, himself, starts the process. For example, he said that the soul is not in the body the way a captain is in his ship. There is some kind of substantial unity of mind and body. In addition, he thought it obvious that we are all aware of thoughts causing physical reactions, and bodily events causing changes in thinking and feeling. Thinking, here, involves everything of which we have direct awareness, like our perceptions, sensations, emotions, thoughts, mental images, and so on.

The famous problem with Descartes’s theory is that there seems to be no way to explain the substantial unity or the interaction of mind and body. He undermines his own theory by attempting to explain the connection in terms of ‘animal spirits’ that are based in the pineal gland but spend their time taking messages from the body to the mind or vice versa.

Opposed to this dualism are various forms of monism claiming that we merely describe one substance in different ways. However plausible, there is something missing from an approach that starts from the position that dualism must be overcome with a theory of direct reconciliation or identification of mind and body. Of course,working from the naturalistic principles common today, we cannot have the soul flying off somewhere after the death of the body. Aristotle is reasonable about this. Mind (nous patheticon) is the idea of a living body of a certain complexity. Without that living body, the individual’s mind is gone. Naturalism is incompatible with an invisible after life.

This is reasonable, but we would do well to shift to another way of thinking about the mind-body problem. Instead of looking at it as a problem of separate entities that must be reconciled, we might try looking at the mind and body as part of a system. This system includes more than cognition and bodily properties. We are speaking of human beings here, and we need a dynamic and systematic understanding of them, not one that can be captured in a still picture.

Humans exist in time and history. We cannot abstract their ‘minds’ and their ‘bodies’ from the complex and interactive world in which they live. The concepts of ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are too bare to support a systems approach. I therefore propose to jump over all the arguments about the sameness or difference of mind and body, and try to formulate a way of conceiving them as belonging to a dynamic system in which philosophy, psychology, behavioral economics and neuro-physiology will play a part in deepening our self-understanding, thus obeying the philosophical injunction to know oneself.

Authorship and Self-Identity

Ordinarily, we interchange the expressions “writer” and “author”. For example, we advertize events at which an “author” will appear to sign copies of a new book. We introduce the writer behind the table covered with books as the “author”. I am bucking conventional wisdom by claiming that it is impossible to meet the author of a book, because the author is not a person but exists solely in the book as the writer has written it.

This is counter intuitive, so let us examine the differences. Writers are persons who have lives. They are born, grow up, write books, and then they die. Writers can change their minds. Authors cannot. Writers write. Authors come into being only to the extent that they are given an identity in the written work. The author comes to a complete self-identity with the last words. Any changes to the text must come from a writer.

Take the early and the late Wittgenstein as an example from philosophy. We have a choice of authors here. The author of the early “Tractatus” and the late “Philosophical Investigations” are very different, though Wittgenstein, the writer, wrote them at different times of his life. Like bugs caught in aspic, the authors of the early and late works look at us unblinking. Every time we open the “Tractatus”, we see an author who confidently comes to the end of philosophy, while the author of the “Investigations” is more circumspect.

Authors often show a confidence that writers do not feel. Just a glance at original drafts of canonical works reveals the rewriting and crossing out that went into the production of the final text. However, when the book goes off to the printer, the author in the text has been fixed by the writer in the stance of addressing its target audience. For the distinction between the author and the writer also exists between the “audience- to-which- the- writing- addresses- itself” and the actual reader who happens to pick up the book and look through it.

A writer can never be as self-identical as the author in a text. This is because the author is not free to reconsider the views that it puts forth in the book. This is one of Plato’s main complaints about writing; namely, that the author cannot be cross-questioned. Books and their authors keep saying the same words over and over, like the sequence of notes in a symphony. The author’s identity is fixed in a way that the writer’s identity is fixed only in death.

This realization changes how one looks at the writings of philosophers, particularly professional philosophers. In an academic world of “publish or perish,” there is, understandably, considerable motivation to get into print, to get a ‘name’ for oneself in one or another sub-specialty of philosophy. It is understandable that graduate students and non-tenured faculty, as living writers, have considerable anxiety and hope riding on their writings. Compare these writers with the ‘authors’ in the texts they manage to publish.

Writers who can break into the published world of philosophy have played the game impressively. However, usually, none of the anxiety and self-doubt of the writer is in evidence. The author confidently takes on all comers, has read all the relevant papers, has a consistent argument that fits into the already established debate. This is not an easy thing to do, and to carry it off with aplomb is precisely not to reveal what is at stake for the writer. One must make it look easy. Of course, nothing is at stake for the ‘author,’ for the author exists only in the text.

The self-identity of an author is complete. The same can be said for the ‘readers-in-the-text’ to whom the text is eternally addressed. All the time it takes to read a book comes from the life of an incompletely self-identical and mortal human being. Philosophical writing, for the most part, seeks to persuade a persuadable audience to follow an argument and agree with its conclusions. The function of the author is, first, to convince a selected audience of the truth of the arguments presented; and, second, to show the incoherence or unlikelihood of countervailing arguments from other authors.

Thinking of Nothing

Is it possible to think of nothing and remain awake? Is thinking of nothing the same as not thinking at all? Is being conscious of something the same as thinking? Do all thoughts take objects? Where do ‘objects of thought’ come from? Perhaps these are odd questions. Usually there is no need to ask. Thinking is about something or other.

We spend a lot of time thinking about the future. This includes all the mundane things we have to plan for and carry out. It includes thinking about what is coming up for our health, education and job prospects, relationships, the state of the economy, politics, retirement, taxes, death; in short, all the things that people care about that point to the future.

We spend most of the rest of the time thinking about the past. I think of the good times and the bad times, the people I have known. Sometimes an old landscape comes before my imagination, now covered with houses and roads, sometimes a flower I have seen, or the smell of orange blossoms in spring. I think of old loves and passions, the turmoil of youth, the work of middle age, and the reflections of later life. Looking back, we can try to see the meaning hidden in events that were too close and involving to be understood clearly at the time.

Can objects of thought come from the present? I do not see why not. Bringing your attention to sensations or perceptions of objects brings you directly to the present. This is because the living body is rooted in the present in a way that thinking is not. For example, to become conscious of the feeling in your left foot is to come into the present of your body at a particular moment. Similarly, becoming aware of the specific perceptual qualities of an object also brings you to your senses. So if you were to see a rare bird and remember to pay attention to its color, and the flash of its wings, this, too, brings you into the present of your body as perceptual system. All too often one is ‘elsewhere’ when the bird passes by. In addition, there are contemplative practices that fill the present meaning, as in Plato’s intellectual contemplation of the Forms or religious contemplation of sacred symbols. However, such objects are not temporal in the same way as sensations or objects of perception.

Yet more objects of thought come from subjects like logic, mathematics and geometry. The objects of these studies are universal necessary truths that do not depend upon contingent facts for their validation. I can intuit some simple truths like this. For example, I can see a circle is round and a square is rectangular. So, if I take up a position, as Spinoza suggested, “under the aspect of eternity”, I am thinking about something that does not change over time. Every time I look at a circle, I can be sure to see its circular shape. Some objects of thought are timeless.

Have I left anything out? What about “Mindfulness?” Does mindfulness count as thinking about something or nothing? By “mindfulness” I am thinking of a dedicated or “single-minded” mindfulness. Roughly speaking, this form of mindfulness brings one into the present moment without comment or judgment. One is simply in watchfulness over what transpires within one’s field of bodily/mental experience. Mindfulness is word free, a simple awareness of a present actuality that cannot be named, but can be encountered in stillness. Chattering to oneself destroys it. The words that make up our descriptions and explanations distract us from the moment.

One can be mindful in different ways. I am mindful of the pavement so that I do not trip, or mindful of the feelings of others. I am mindful of putting the silverware away, conscious of putting each fork or knife into it proper place. Here, we are still thinking of things, albeit in a mindful way that brings us more fully into the present moment. Nevertheless, discursive or calculative thinking is incompatible with ‘single-minded’ mindfulness.

So, can one think of nothing and remain awake? The answer is ‘yes’ in the case of ‘single-minded’ mindfulness. It is thinking of nothing in the sense of not categorizing things or making calculations about them. It is neither having abstract truths before one’s imagination, contemplating symbols or images, nor attending to sensations. ‘Single-minded’ mindfulness is neither engaged in the world, nor apart from it. It does not tell itself stories, valuing or negating, wishing or hoping, but receives and accepts whatever is going on as long as it continues; allowing thoughts and feelings, words and images, to exist as soon as they arise and to let them go as soon as they are ready to leave.

Meaning Machines

The question of the meaning of life is an old one. However, it is unclear exactly what the question means. Normally, we have little trouble with meaning. Clouds mean rain. Joe meant to warn me. Sentences, words, signs and signals have conventional meanings. The question of the meaning of life is different. It is not simply the definition of a word that we seek. Philosophers and those drawn to various religions tend to be the ones to ask it, and the question can be taken on three levels. We can ask about the meaning of all life, of human life, and of the individual’s life.

I would argue that the question has little meaning when taken in the first two senses. Life has no meaning in itself, it is simply here in the universe. The same goes for human life considered as the life of a natural species. Species come and go in the geological record, and it is not clear what meaning they can have. However, when it comes to questioning the meaning of an individual’s life, then the question comes alive.

Notoriously, in philosophy, the question of meaning is difficult and complicated. What is the Meaning of Being? What is the Being of Meaning? What is meaning anyway? Does it even make sense to ask about the meaning of life? If we decide that the question makes sense, what sense does it make? Various ideas are at play. Anxiety appears to be the motivation.

Sometimes we are worried that all our efforts will be for nothing if life has no meaning. A meaningless life may appear pointless, ‘superfluous,’ or ‘de trop’. Existentialists and absurdist playwrights hammered away at this theme with great gusto.

The question of the meaning of the lives of humans arises more or less acutely at different historical junctures. At times of great religious devoutness, the question is less pressing. Religion has an easier time than philosophy with the question of meaning. First, in religion, the question clearly has meaning; second, the question has an answer, and that answer is a resounding ‘Yes.’ Gods or spirits render mute the question of the meaning of human life, by folding it within a higher-than-animal purpose. We may be the ones asking the question, but the answer has always been foretold. There is actually no question about the meaning of human life.

Philosophy cannot take this way out. The question is a live one. If there is no ‘foreordained’ meaning to life, then what sort of meaning is there? It is not that we have the option of living in a world totally devoid of meaning; for, if that were possible, the question of meaning would not even come up. I can only worry about the possible meaninglessness of life if I suppose or hope it might have a meaning after all.

David Hamlyn, my old supervisor in graduate school, used to remark that we get our first idea of causality from our own powers to make changes in the world around us. You want to roll a rock. You push on it and it rolls. You learn from experience which rock will roll and which will not, no matter how hard you push it. We think of causality as ‘out there’ but our understanding of the concept begins within us.

Similarly, people look for the meaning of human life, and would be glad to find it ‘out there’, ready made, a transcendent meaning that surpasses mere animal existence. This is to get things backwards. We are the ones who bring meanings into the world, and then, looking around, find them there.

Human beings are little meaning machines who cannot help but create and then leave meanings on everything that pertains to a human world. This morning I am sitting, typing on my laptop, in the courtyard of a hotel in Los Angeles, looking out on a beautiful blue-sky, palm tree morning by the pool. The only reason I am comfortable here and now, is that everything around has a fairly stable meaning. My meaning machine is turned on and working. If I were to come down suddenly with early stage dementia, and lose many of the concepts by which I now understand my being in the world, in Los Angeles, beside a hotel pool, I would be as frightened as a small child abandoned in a strange place. The interesting question is not how human life can have meaning, but how it could ever be a worry that it might have none.

Brain Training

The new interface between traditional philosophy of mind and advancing neurobiology is an exciting place to be. It is also a confusing place. There is a lot of loose talk about the brain thinking, feeling emotions and having desires. There is much research about what parts of the brain light up when people are thinking, feeling or desiring something. We have also extended our knowledge of the role of the brain in producing the hormones, neurotransmitters and other chemicals that affect moods and behavioral responses. What are we to make of all this?

There seem to be limitations to what we can learn about people simply by studying their brain activity. Perhaps it is true that certain characteristic spots light up when people report feeling, desiring or thinking something. However, it is always possible to have a feeling that does not correspond to the normal spot lighting up. Similarly, a spot may light up but without the corresponding report.

Another limitation seems to be that no matter how well grounded our correlations become, linking brain states with mental states, we cannot read off the object of a thought, feeling or desire simply by looking at a brain lighting up. For example, we might find a strong correlation between people reporting feeling afraid and the lighting up of a certain portion of the brain. We might even become confident that we can say that the subject is feeling fear just by looking at the brain activity. Nevertheless, we cannot say just what the person is afraid of. Thought is intentional activity, and we cannot arrive at the object of an intention solely by looking at the brain.

While these limitations exist, what we are leaning about the brain does affect our understanding of ourselves as thinking and learning beings. The Socratic injunction to ‘Know Thyself’ just got more complicated. The old idea that the brain stops changing early in life has given way to the idea of the ‘neuroplasticity’ of the brain. The brain changes. Can we train the brain to work better?

Brains are like muscles. We need nourishment and exercise to keep them in shape. We can develop different sets of muscles and change our physical shape over time. Now think of the brain in the same way. We need to feed and exercise the body to keep our brains healthy. Through brain training we may be able to develop new ‘second’ natures, and reprogram our responses to things, thus, over time, changing the neural networks in our brains.

New habits of mind, perception and response need time and repetition to become ingrained. It is said that one needs six weeks or so to break one habit and establish another. During this time, our brains adapt to the change we are making in our lives.

One area of brain activity is of great potential interest. This is the action of the amygdala, in the medial temporal lobe. While our understanding of this area is not complete, the amygdala is part of the story of the fight or flight response, and ‘flying off the handle’ in general. When a tiger comes around the corner, one is running before making any conscious choice. It is an immediate response. If there were ways to prevent the ancient amygdala from carrying out some of its immediate, unthinking reactions, and put a thought process between the stimulus and the response, we could, perhaps, increase our control over our actions and emotional responses. Getting a grip the amygdala might help people shape a thought-mediated response to events rather than blindly reacting to them.

All this is a little fanciful, I admit, but to pursue the theme a bit further, consider the new job opportunities that may open up for certified ‘Brain Trainers.’ They would have to know about the effects of diet and exercise on brain function, as well as amygdala training techniques. In addition, I speculate that meditation will be part of a brain training regime. Imaging studies show that the brains of experienced meditators differ from non-meditators. Their meditation predictably produces beneficial brain waves of a type that non-meditators do not. The practice calms a person who simply breathes and attends to the moment as it unrolls. Training the brain may become part of the good life and contribute to the art of living. Perhaps integrating an awareness of brain chemistry and function into our self-understanding will contribute to the philosophical goal of self-knowledge.

Inner Freedom

What is inner freedom? One way into this question is through an old Taoist story, told by Chuang-Tzu, about the three butchers and their knives. The first butcher is learning his trade and has to sharpen his knife every day, since it picks up nicks from hitting the bones. The second butcher is at a much higher level. Through skillful use, he only has to sharpen his knife once a month. However, the third butcher is a true master of the art and never has to sharpen his knife.

I want to emphasize the ease with which the master butcher cuts the meat from the bone. His freedom lies in not hitting any snags, finding the joints and the passageways through the carcass. The meat simply falls away from his knife, while the butcher’s arm encounters no resistance. It is this “not encountering resistance within oneself” that I think of as inner freedom. And just as it takes the master butcher time and practice to develop his skill, so it takes time and life experience to develop inner freedom. Even though we all have our problems and patterns of reaction, we can cultivate the ability to live freely within ourselves.

Each of us has a ‘second nature’ or character that we create through and by our interactions with others. The culture and history into which we are born circumscribes what we can become in life and restricts the range of our options. For example, an ancient Greek did not have the option of becoming a computer programmer. However, these limitations do not prevent or cause inner freedom. Inner freedom is gained or lost by the way a person thinks, feels and perceives. Each of us is singly responsible for how we respond to the conditions, events and occurrences of our lives.

Inner freedom is contrasted with outer freedom. Outer freedom has to do with civil and personal rights, the rule of law, due process, security of property, safety on the streets, and so on. Outer freedom is the freedom to move about unhindered as one follows the self-chosen course of daily life. Outer freedom is the stuff of politics and public policy. Inner freedom, by contrast, is more subjective and not totally tied to the existence or level of outer freedom. It is no doubt easier to find inner freedom in a world where outer freedom is assured, but inner freedom is more of a way of being in oneself than a determination of circumstances.

Though individuals must find their own inner freedom, many philosophers have discussed ways of life that hinder or further it. The ancient Stoics, for example, maintained that detachment from the ephemeral desires of the moment gives one a freedom of mind and judgment, a secure place from which to observe oneself, other people and the world without becoming overly attached or appalled.

Another element of inner freedom is freedom from inner compulsions. It is hard to see someone in the grip of addiction possessing inner freedom. The same goes for people who cannot escape obsessive negative thinking. To continually keep sorrows and grievances alive, going over the loss or the insult again and again is incompatible with inner freedom. The Stoics like to remind us that the great dramas of our lives are but passing shadows against the backdrop of the universe.

Inner freedom also involves a lack of deep discontent in oneself. Such discontent comes out in the unpleasant feelings of envy, jealousy, greed, and thwarted egocentric pride. Contrariwise, inner freedom connotes a kind of ease within oneself. Moreover, this ease has something to do with living morally. To be conscious of having done no terrible wrong is a relief to the mind and contributes to inner freedom.

Attaining inner freedom is an achievement, not a random happening. It comes from the efforts we must make to become aware of our responses to what we encounter, and to train ourselves to modify them for the better. We must learn from experience and thought how we fit into the universe as a whole, and how the universe fits into us. We must discover our genuine interests and needs, what really satisfies us, what we most enjoy, and allow them to guide us in life. The key to inner freedom is to bring all these things into alignment so that one’s efforts simply flow in a concerted and coordinated succession of actions, feelings and thoughts.

There is lots of good advice about cultivating inner freedom in ancient philosophy. From other quarters
we hear about the value of a good diet, exercise, mindfulness, conscious breathing, meditation, contemplation, and various spiritual practices. We also hear about the value of gratitude in cultivating inner freedom, as well as the benefits of living well-disposed toward others and helping them when we can.

Everyone gets upset from time to time. In a flash, our brains and bodies release chemicals that make things worse. Creating a gap between the thought and the reaction gives us the space to reappraise the situation. In that space we can change our reaction, prevent the release of stressful chemicals, and soon end the upset by re-establishing inner freedom. Nevertheless, it is no easy matter to find a path through life that encounters no internal resistance. This is the secret of inner freedom that each of us, over time, must find for ourselves though practice and reflection.

Time and Happiness

I am perplexed by the question of our relation to time and happiness. On the one hand, our lives are undoubtedly made up of present moments that succeed each other. There is no going back. Eventually, my tomorrows come to an end, and I assume that time will no longer exist for me. At that time, there will be no ‘me’ to be happy or unhappy, to experience pain or pleasure. Excluding the miracle of an afterlife, the discussion of happiness involves only the time that lies between birth and death.

How can we look at a human lifetime? One way is to look at it as the ‘times’ of our life. I was young once, and that was a time of my life. Today is another time in my life, and the days succeed one another in a regular fashion. There is a sense in which we never leave the present moment. However, another way to look at the time of one’s life is to imagine it ‘as a whole.’ I say, ‘imagine’, because it is literally impossible to view your life as a whole. To do that you would have to be able to read your own obituary. Yet, we may ask ourselves today if our lives ‘as a whole’ embody the values we hold most dear?

What have these different views of a lifetime to do with happiness? Are we to be happy in the moments of life that succeed each other, or is happiness a quality of life as a whole. Philosophers have divided on this question. The Hedonists believe that the happy life is one in which there is a quantitative preponderance of pleasures over pains in the course of a lifetime. All we actually have are the moments of pleasure or pain in our lives, and these moments have a subjective quality about which we are rarely confused. Therefore, the best plan is to structure one’s life in such a way that a train of pleasures and enjoyments are the norm, and pains come along as infrequent visitors.

From another point of view, hedonism looks too easy and too subjective. Pleasures involve the satisfaction of desires, but are all desires, and the pleasures that accompany their satisfaction, worthy of pursuit? Some lives that contain many pleasures might not be worth living. I love the example of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, who retired to his country estate and whiled away the rest of his life tearing the wings off flies. Is this human happiness? Who is to judge and by what standards? Values besides pleasure come in here.

Aristotle clearly believes that the pursuit of pleasure, unguided by good judgment, is not sufficient for happiness. It is not that the happy person has anything against pleasure as such, but rather allows some pleasures and avoids others. Wisdom tells us that the pleasures of drink are often followed by hangovers and of food by upset stomachs. Aristotle sensibly advises moderation in all things.

Also, there is the old traditional distinction between the ‘higher’ and the ‘lower’ pleasures. The lower pleasures are animal or physical pleasures, more like pleasurable sensations than thoughts. The higher are the pleasures of the mind, of art, theory or the like. We have to learn to appreciate the higher pleasures, and develop our sensitivities beyond physical sensations. So, though I would not call them ‘higher’ or ‘lower’, I do recognize a distinction between those pleasures that primarily involve introspected pleasurable sensations in one’s body, and those that rely more on perception and thought than raw sensations.

If we are to vet the pleasures of the moment so as to attain true happiness, then we must have a standard by which to judge those pleasures that are part of a truly happy life and those that are not. Here, Aristotle also has a position that can help us. For him, the truly happy person lives a long and honorable life, pursuing and attaining a degree of moral and intellectual excellence. We ought to live our lives as advised by our reason, and our reason has care of ourselves as a whole and over a life time. Thus we can judge how well we are doing in living the kind of life that, with a bit of luck, will be happy overall. It is true that the happiness of a philosopher like Aristotle is heavy on the supreme value of Reason in the determination of excellence. As self-directing, the happy person gains a measure of autonomy and control over his or her own thoughts, emotions and feelings. Of course, Aristotle finds the highest happiness in the exercise of theoretical reason, and thus values the joys of learning above the pleasures of the flesh.

We may not agree with Aristotle about the nature of happiness, but he does succeed in showing us how to question the hedonist’s account. How important is the pleasure or pain of the present moment when viewed in the light of a lifetime? The present moment, though it is all we actually live through, seems to be more important when we are young, and not so important when we are older. Many of the favorite things of my youth no longer interest me as much. Other things have taken their place. I hope my judgment is better now than it was then. I can put the present more into the perspective of a lifetime than before. Perhaps this is one reason that Aristotle believed that the young cannot be truly happy, no matter the undoubted pleasures of youth. As he wrote so beautifully, “One swallow does not a summer make.” A happy life overall is about achieving something which, in one’s own opinion, is worthwhile. It is having purposes that give life meaning, with pleasures and good times as just two of the ingredients of a good and happy life.

Religious and Scientific Faith

My perspective on the world is agnostic, secular and scientific. From that perspective, I used to think that faith, as the belief in things unseen, only concerns religions. Religions require many beliefs in unseen things. We need faith in order to have beliefs about them, because there is no way of knowing the truth of statements about supernatural or paranormal entities. We cannot reliably detect supernatural beings by ordinary sensory or generally empirical means. “Reliably” is the key term, since there is no lack of anecdotal testimony. However, mere assertion does not make the anecdotes true. It takes faith to believe them with confidence.

More crucially, it takes faith to believe in the the existence of gods or a single God with supernatural powers and occult qualities. None of the proofs showing the existence of supernatural beings are uncontested. Therefore, though faith is necessary for belief in things unseen, it is not sufficient for knowledge. It is always possible to be skeptical about them.

I choose to be agnostic about things I cannot know, and this means that I must allow the bare logical possibility of the existence of Divine Being. However, advocating faith in them seemed to me a trick to derive knowledge from sheer belief. Somehow people of religious faith are simply making an elementary epistemological mistake. The mistake is to think that faith converts what is an objective uncertainty into unshakable knowledge. A proposition does not become true simply because a person believes it hard enough. It is always possible to be wrong about a belief, but this is not true of knowledge. I thought we could dissolve the claims of faith by giving everyone an elementary course in epistemology. People only need to learn the distinction between knowledge and belief, and then they will see that their faith is simply the holding of uncertain beliefs with a subjective passion of conviction, not knowledge of a supernatural world.

What a fool I was. Though keeping the idea that faith does not provide knowledge of its objects, I came to realize that faith in things unseen belongs to human life. This applies as much to the secular/scientific person as to the religious person. Both operate on presuppositions that are ultimately unfounded and unknown. Hume points the way in his account of inductive reasoning. He pointed out that while all our positive knowledge of the world is based on the proposition that the future will be like the past, we cannot know this for certain. Things were very different just after the Big Bang than they are now, and they may become different again in the future. We just do not know how different the future will be..

One article of scientific faith is that the universe is predictable, and that the human mind has powers enough to understand it to a large extent. The human mind is limited by space, time, and the bounds of sense. These limits enclose what we call the ‘natural’ world; namely, a universe that is best understood through empirical, testable, scientific inquiry.

Another article of scientific faith, articulated by Kant, is that we can discover increasingly simple and unified sets of physical laws, and an increasingly complete scientific theory of the workings of the universe. There is no way that we can know this a priori. Nevertheless, looking for the unities and identities behind seemingly disparate and complex phenomena is what science does, based on hunches and considerable experience of progress in that direction. Kant called this a practical postulate of Pure Reason. It is an operational principle that allows scientific investigations to proceed. There would no reason to investigate nature if we thought from the get-go that the universe is ultimately a meaningless chaos.

It follows that we must all have faith in things unseen that we cannot ultimately know. Given this, how do religious and scientific faith differ? One important difference is that religious faith sees itself as establishing supernatural truths, while scientific faith does not. Scientific faith rests content with reasonably certain beliefs about the world that are theoretically open to correction. Religious faith remains viable only on the assumption that religious truth exists and can be confirmed by faith. Scientific faith remains viable even realizing that it must operate on ultimately unfounded assumptions. Or, to put is another way, there is a different attitude toward what faith can accomplish. Both religion and science begin with beliefs. In the first case, faith turns belief into religious knowledge. In second case, faith leaves us in the realm of belief. The ‘faith-based’ beliefs of science merely play an operational role in the search for better and better theories.

We can now understand another difference between religious and scientific faith. This is the characteristic dogmatism of religion and the skepticism of science. It makes sense that religion is dogmatic, since it is convinced of supernatural truths through the power of faith. Other views cannot be allowed as competitors, for when one possesses the truth, any change in belief will mark a slide into apostasy and falsehood. Scientific faith does not have to commit itself to any particular metaphysical view, and can thus remain skeptical while putting its provisional faith to work achieving such significant, though limited, progress as we are able to make.

Is it Rational to be Optimistic or Pessimistic?

An optimist is someone who looks at the bright side of life and expects good things to happen. A ‘cock-eyed’ optimist is one who believes, against all the odds, that everything will turn out all right in the end. Against this, the pessimist looks at the dark side of life and expects bad things to happen. A ‘dyed in the wool’ pessimist is one who believes that everything will turn out badly in the end.

On the face of it, pessimists seems to have sober reason on their side. For the pessimist, we have to be realistic, and the fact is that everything will eventually come crashing down. Entropy takes care of the end of things, and that end is increasingly chaotic. All systems move from a more to a less ordered state, until finally, they cease to exist. Our lives are like this. We are little anti-entropy machines, and our living bodies try to keep back the encroaching disintegration. In this they are successful for awhile, but, in the end, our bodies succumb to the forces of decay and finally move to the disordered state we call death. For the pessimist, the world is a disaster waiting to happen, and the optimist is simply living in an illusion.

Some systematic differences have been pointed out between the two approaches to life. First is the old saw about whether the bottle of wine is half full or half empty. The truth is that the bottle is both half full and half empty, and it is entirely up to the person whether to be happy or sad about this. It is the individual’s choice to be happy having half a bottle left, or sad that it is half gone.

Another difference between them is that the pessimist sees negative outcomes as the norm, while the optimist sees positive outcomes as the norm. The result is that when an obstacle arises, the optimist sees it as a temporary and local problem that can be overcome. The pessimist sees a problem or obstacle as what is to be expected, and getting a good result as the exception. It might be argued that the pessimist has the right in this, because, if one predicts a bad result that does not materialize, one is pleasantly surprised, whereas, if the bad result occurs, one takes it as only what is to be expected and is therefore not so affected by it as an optimist would be.

Despite this, there is currently much discussion about the value of optimism as an operational principle. It is claimed that the optimistic person is happier than the pessimist, travels more hopefully, is healthier and lives longer. In addition, the optimist is said to be more resilient and better able to cope with life’s setbacks.

It is true that bad things can happen and often do, but the opposite is also true. The optimist does not have to be ‘cock-eyed’. It is possible to be a realist and a moderate optimist at the same time. Optimism is more about maintaining a positive attitude than anything else. Pessimists do not pursue difficult projects because they are sure that they will fail before starting. It is hard to get moving on a project when what is before one’s mind are all the things that might, and probably will, go wrong. An optimist has a ‘can do’ approach that concentrates more on success than failure, while recognizing the problems more as opportunities to make progress than as crippling setbacks.

The sort of optimism that pessimists decry is really a silly kind of unjustified belief that the future will bring whatever one hopes will come to pass. However, another kind of optimism is not a matter of belief but of attitude. It is really more about having faith in one’s own competence than a matter of belief. It is the feeling that one will be able to cope with whatever happens as it comes along.

Of course, there will come a time when one will not be able to cope with some disaster or another. However, the optimist does not let that stop him or her from acting to prevent it or to pursue some other course of action, even while knowing that eventually everything comes to nothing.

My conclusion, therefore, is that the rational choice is for optimism, despite the fact that nothing lasts and all accomplishments eventually come to nothing. I would summarize my position as long term pessimism combined with short term optimism. And since our lives are short, it is best, from a practical point of view, to cultivate optimism as a modus operandi for our lives. To expect disaster and failure as the norm may protect one from being too disappointed when things go wrong, but that is no way to live. It is always possible to look at the world pessimistically or optimistically. The choice is ours.

Meditation 99 “Life is a Dream.”

Meditation 99: Life is a Dream

Metaphors draw two unlikely suspects together in an illuminating way. The metaphor “Achilles is a lion” is not literally true, unless I have a lion named “Achilles.” Yet it draws attention to the courage and strength of the hero with a punch that straight prose lacks. “X is brave and strong” applies to many people. The metaphor distinguishes Achilles from others who are also brave and strong. Metaphors make readers think about the deeper identity that underlies surface differences. A good one sparks new thoughts and connections between ideas, but metaphors are never literally true.

“Life is a dream” is a well known metaphor. On the surface, seeking an identity between waking life and dreaming seems unpromising. After all, we distinguish ‘dreaming’ from ‘waking life’, and without this contrast, it would no longer make sense to speak of ‘dreaming’ in the first place. Life is real, but dreams are not. No matter how vivid at the time, what happens in dreams does not actually happen. I dream that I marry the boss’s daughter, but wake up to find it is time to go to work sweeping her dad’s factory floor. I can fly in my dreams, but not in waking life. There are other contrasts. Time is disjointed in dreams, but can be mapped using clock time in ‘real life’. I wake to a continuing life, but each dream is complete in itself. It is extremely rare, I would imagine, to continue last night’s dream tonight. Dreams certainly appear illusory in comparison with normal waking life.

At this point, we might ask why “Life is a Dream” has captured so much attention over the years? From what direction do we hear it? The metaphor seems to be coming from an esoteric tradition, from mysticism, Taoism, or perhaps Buddhism. As a realistically-minded philosopher, I have resisted the idea that life is somehow a dream. And yet, I have thought about it over the years. I stub my toe. It hurts. Is this a dream? I lose my job, my wife, my cat and my dog. Are these just dreams? The world aches with war, plague, death, hatred, hunger and despair. Are all these dreams? Are the suffering of millions just illusions?

Another way I have resisted the life/dream metaphor is by rejecting mysticism as not sufficiently rational. In one strand of the mystical tradition as I understand it, what the ignorant normally call ‘life’ is actually illusory. It is the veil of Maya, fueled by craving for the unreal and delusional delights of trying to satisfy endlessly proliferating desires. Everything is changing in every way all the time. Nothing stays the same. We are supposed to escape from the illusion of Maya and the wheel of life (Samsara) by understanding that life is just a dream, and all this ceaseless striving is a kind of sleepwalking. Best to give up the desires which give birth to the world of craving. This sounds good, but once again we are up against the fact that life feels real to those who are struggling to survive in a difficult and frightening world. Thinking that life is just a dream seemed to me just an excuse to forget about the world and all the problems we find there.

After coming to these dark reflections, I found a question to move forward. Are dreams actually the same as illusions? Consider an optical illusion. Once we find out that it is an illusion, our minds corrects for the faulty perception. A straight stick looks bent when it is half under water. Once we learn a little optics, we see why it looks this way. Of course, it might be a bent stick after all, but that would just be funny. Are dreams illusions like this? I think not. No matter how sure I am that it was a dream after I wake up, there is no way to ‘correct’ for the illusion while in the dream itself. Dreams just do seem real at the time.

First of all, a dream is not illusory on its own terms. While dreaming, the dream is real. Second, dreams have meaning. To say that something is a dream is not to say that it is meaningless, pointless or trivial. Third, and most importantly, though dreams do vanish upon waking, the ephemeral nature of dreams does not detract from their existence or significance.

From this standpoint, there is a deep identity between dreams and waking life. For me, it has to do with the varnishing of days and dreams together. Yesterday has all the phenomenological reality of yesterday’s dream. It is gone, not to be retrieved. Yesterday is like a play that ran its course, stirred up actions and passions, and then passed away in sleep. What is the memory of the wonderful trip you took to the sea shore last summer but a dream? This is the deep structural identity of memories, dreams and waking life.