Monthly Archives: February 2011

On Possessing A Woman

So here’s another “Who said this?” contest. I think this is easier than the last one. No Googling of course: you cheat only yourself with such behaviour (that’s not true, obviously, but it’s the sort of thing that people say, right?)

As regards a woman, for instance, the control over her body and her sexual gratification serves as an amply sufficient sign of ownership and possession to the more modest man; another with a more suspicious and ambitious thirst for possession sees the “questionableness”, the mere apparentness of such ownership, and wishes to have finer tests in order to know especially whether the woman not only gives herself to him, but also gives up for his sake what she has or would like to have – only then does he look upon her as “possessed”.

A third, however, has not even here got to the limit of his distrust and his desire for possession: he asks himself whether the woman, when she gives up everything for him, does not perhaps do so for a phantom of him; he wishes first to be thoroughly, indeed, profoundly well known; in order to be loved at all he ventures to let himself be found out. Only then does he feel the beloved one fully in his possession, when she no longer deceives herself about him, when she loves him just as much for the sake of his devilry and concealed insatiability, as for his goodness, patience, and spirituality.

Heady stuff. Additional kudos given to people who (dare) venture an opinion on the merits of the passage. I think there’s something to it, though clearly that doesn’t mean the phenomenon it describes is not regrettable.


While most of the recent coverage of WikiLeaks has focused on Assange’s trial, an important bit of news is the alleged conflict between Bank of America and the organization.

WikiLeaks apparently has some documents that would be damaging to Bank of America. This is hardly surprising, given the sort of financial misdeeds that seem to have been business as usual for many of the big financial companies. Apparently the security company of HBGary Federal saw this as an opportunity and developed a rather nefarious plan that involved attempting to discredit WikiLeaks by submitting false information to the site, to expose those who have contributed to WikiLeaks and by launching attacks on journalists who have expressed sympathy for WikiLeaks. In addition to the security company, it also appears that the well connected law firm of Hunton & William and even the United States Justice Department were also involvedto some degree.

In response to this, Anonymous (a self-proclaimed defender of WikiLeaks) launched a counterattack on HBGary Federal and its head, Aaron Barr. Ironically, Anonymous was able to  hack the security company and revealed not only the plans in question but also such things as the fact that Barr’s wife intends to divorce him. They even revealed the name of his WoW character, a level 80 Night Elf Druid. That is certainly an interesting nerdtastic touch.

On the face of it, it seems that HBGary Federal and Barr reaped what they had sown. After all, by engaging in such activities and planning to engage what certainly seem to be unethical and even illegal activities, they appear to deserve to be exposed and even subject to punishment. Since the authorities appear to not be inclined to take action in regards to these activities,  it could be argued that this was a state of nature situation which justified Anonymous in taking action in its own defense and the defense of others. This could thus be seen as a falling nicely within John Locke’s theory regarding self defense and punishment in the state of nature.

It could, of course, be objected that Anonymous is in the wrong. After all, Anonymous launched some minor attacks against companies such as PayPal  for ceasing to do business with WikiLeaks. Also, WikiLeaks itself has engaged in activities that some consider unethical and illegal. On these assumptions, it could be thus argued that HBGary Federal was acting in an ethically acceptable manner by trying to stop wrongdoers and to protect  Bank of America and others from the danger posed by WikiLeaks and its allies. As such, HBGary Federal could be seen as acting as a vigilante. Of course, vigilantism might strike many as morally questionable so perhaps it is better to cast the company as acting within a cyber state of nature. In this state, the company has to act in ways that seem to go beyond the law because its chosen opponents (Anonymous, WikiLeaks, supporters, and journalist) are beyond the reach of the law.

The main and most obvious flaw in this objection is that while Anonymous and WikiLeaks have endeavored to remain outside of the reach of certain authorities, the authorities do have the means to impose their laws upon them. Even if they are regarded as criminals, they would thus still seem to be within the state of society and thus can legitimately expect to not be subject to unlawful action and vigilante style attacks. While it might be argued that Anonymous and WikiLeaks act as vigilantes and thus can be justly subject to vigilante attacks, this would be on par with arguing that criminals can be treated in criminal ways because they are criminals. It would also appear to be a case of a “two wrongs make a right” fallacy.

If Anonymous and WikiLeaks were, in fact, beyond the reach of the law and were engaged in wrongful acts, then a case could be made for vigilantism. After all, if the wronged parties had no recourse to the law, then they would seem to have the right (as per Locke) to seek to stop the wrongdoers and gain reparation for the damage done. However, this does not seem to be the case at all.

A second flaw is that the journalists that were supposed to be targeted were obviously not in a state of nature or beyond the law. If the journalists had acted in illegal ways, then they could be dealt with within the legal system. Naturally, it could be objected that since the journalists cannot be stopped via legal means, they must be stopped via what seem to be illegal (and what seem to be clearly unethical means) means. This objection would, of course, have some merit if the journalists were in the wrong and were being protected by unjust laws. However, this does not seem to be the case and the objection has no real merit. As such, it seems that a company was acting outside of the law and was hoisted by its own petard.

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Monads Look Inward

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, um 1700, Öl auf Holz

Image via Wikipedia

Philosophers during the modern era wrestled with various philosophical problems. Some of these were cast as new problems, although many had been vexing philosophers since the start of the profession. One of these is the problem of the external world: how do I know that my perceptions match what is real? Another is the mind-body problem: how does the mind interact causally with the body? Leibniz attempted to address these problems (and more) with his monads.

For Leibniz, monads are the fundamental entities that make up the world. They are immaterial and, although they have qualities, they have no parts. There are supposed to be an infinite number of these entities and, apparently, they all perceive. On most interpretations, each monad is a mind. However, the monads do vary in their degree of mental capabilities and they range from the most minimally perceiving monad to the supreme monad (not to be confused with the supreme Dalek or a nacho supreme) which is, of course, God. The higher sorts of monads are conscious and aware while the lower sorts presumably are not. As such, while your soap perceives (think about that the next time you lather up) it is not conscious (which is probably best for both of you).

While all these myriad monads perceive, this perception is not (as Leibniz sees it) a perception caused by external objects. As Leibniz famously claimed, the monads do not have windows and (in addition to making it hard to enjoy warm spring days) nothing enters or departs from them. However, each monad is supposed to mirror all of reality. While I usually use the  analogy of a bowl full of polished ball bearings as an analogy to illustrate that bit, the analogy rather obviously fails badly. But, I do think it is a nice image.

While this windowlessness might seem rather odd, it does enable Leibniz to solve two problems with one nad, monad, that is. First, the mind body problem is elegantly solved: reality is fundamentally mental (which I am sure you have long suspected) and hence there are not two distinct metaphysical types to have relationship problems. There is but one type and, perhaps even better, there are no causal relations between these monads (well, aside from God’s act of creation, but God is always mucking up things). Thus, these problems are solved. Well, sort of anyway. Second, the problem of the external world is also solved. Monads do not perceive what is outside of them, for there are no windows via which they interact with an external world. The split between experience and reality that allows the problem of the external world to gain traction simply is not there, hence its wheels spin futilely. Or would, if problems had wheels.

Assuming that you buy this, there are still some obvious problems remaining. One is the matter of addressing the intuitively plausible view that we are perceiving the same reality and that we seem to interact. For example, as I type the blog my husky (a husky monad) is watching. I believe that she is perceiving me doing this and I believe that I am perceiving her perceiving me and that she is no doubt wishing that I was handing her some treats rather than typing. So, how does this work with monads?

For Leibniz the answer is very straightforward. In the beginning, God created all the monads and placed “in” each one all its experiences (sort of like downloading a whole movie before starting to play it). Being really amazing, God makes sure that all the monads are in sync (no, not in the boy band). So, back to the husky example, when I have the experience of seeing my husky and she has the experience of seeing me, we are not “really” seeing each other. Rather Isis (my husky) is having an experience in her mind as if she were seeing me and likewise for me. While I do suspect that husky hair could actually get into a monad, there is no actual causal interaction between us. However, the experiences are in a state of pre-established harmony and hence it all works out. Really.

Not surprisingly, this has caused some people to wonder why this does not just collapse into solipsism. After all, if all my experiences are pre-loaded, then I should have them whether there are any other monads or not. By Occam’s Razor, one might argue, it would seem simplest to hold that I and I alone exist. Or, at best it is just me and the creator-which sticks us (or rather just me) into the problem raised by Descartes. Perhaps even worse, if the God monad perceives everything perfectly, then it would seem to entail that everything is just a quality of God’s mind. This is, of course, pantheism and something the sane generally endeavor to avoid whenever possible.  As such, let us quietly close that door and sneak away.

Now that all those problems have been successfully ignored, there is the obvious problem of space. If we are just immaterial monads, then the space we perceive would thus clearly not be space in the usual sense of a box in which God keeps his stuff. Also, what we take to be extended (three dimensional) objects cannot actually be three dimensional in the usual sense.

Leibniz solves the first problem by taking space to be a system of relationships between what a monad experiences. To use a contemporary example, think about “moving” around in 3D video game like Halo or World of Warcraft. It seems like you are moving through space because of the relationship between the elements of your experience, yet there really are not three dimensions in the usual sense. Space is merely a matter of perception and relative to the experiences.

In regards to objects appearing to be extended, this  is also a matter of perception. While Leibniz uses the analogy of a rainbow, the video game analogy works even better. In video games we experience what seem to be extended objects, even though they are not actually extended. Rather, the extension is something of an illusion. Likewise for the monad’s experience of extension-it is all in their minds. The monads look inwards and see all that can be seen.

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Should government support breastfeeding?

The First Lady of the U.S., Michelle Obama, has made combating childhood obesity her mission. Her initiative, Let’s Move, has the ambitious goal of eradicating it within a generation. Given that obesity in U.S. kids has tripled in the last thirty years, it’s incontrovertibly an important issue. Yet the approach she takes has not been without its critics. This is especially true of late, when Mrs. Obama stated in a discussion with the press that she advocates breastfeeding because “kids who are breast-fed longer have a lower tendency to be obese.” Around the same time, the IRS announced that it would offer tax breaks for employed women who purchase breast pumps.

This two-pronged effort by the government set off a firestorm of debate. It also created interesting bedfellows. Some feminists and conservatives found themselves agreeing that, on this point, the government has no business interfering in the lives of women.

I think the government’s message puts undue pressure on women. As of yet, there is no evidence of a strong link between obesity and formula fed babies. Moreover, anyone who has breastfed a baby or consistently spent time with a woman who breastfeeds realizes that expressing milk takes a lot of time. Additionally, not all women enjoy the experience of breastfeeding or are even able to do it.

Certainly it is right for the government to protect working women who choose to breastfeed when corporate America fails to do it on its own. An admirable example of this is last spring, when the government required that businesses provide non-bathroom space and breaks for nursing mothers. Yet it is careless to send the message that breastfeeding is better than formula when the evidence is not there to support it.

Mrs. Obama has subsequently toned down her rhetoric and said that “[b]reastfeeding is a very personal choice for every woman. We are trying to make it easier for those who choose to do it.” This is fine if by “trying” she doesn’t mean supporting policies that are based on little scientific evidence.

Wittgenstein, Popper and the Art Of Feud.

In general outline at least the historical record is not in dispute.  In 1946 Karl Popper addressed the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club on the subject Are There Philosophical Problems?. The subsequent discussion, chaired by Russell, is known to have been lively. At one point Wittgenstein, brandishing a poker, is said to have demanded of Popper that he offer an example of  a moral rule: “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers”, Popper is said to have replied. At which point Wittgenstein, perhaps deciding it was a case of “thereof one must be silent”, stormed out.

It has been suggested that the title and content of Popper’s paper were intended to provoke Wittgenstein who by this time is thought to have become sceptical of the existence of philosophical problems, and to believe that such “problems” were instead reducible to the misuse of language. Whether his scepticism was as well defined as many think is open to question. An alternative reading of Wittgenstein might be that he was developing a metaphilosophical perspective from which standard philosophical problems were drained of their force. Thus in the Blue and Brown Books he remarks that “philosophy really is purely descriptive”. Presumably, also, Popper thought that Wittgenstein, a former pupil of Russell and Moore, and by this time a Cambridge Don, had never come across a philosopher who took seriously the existence of philosophical problems. None of this is important of course. What is most notable about the “Poker incident” is its delicious status as an originator of that most wonderful thing: the philosophical feud.

The incident itself was too fleeting to count as a feud-in-itself (a noumenal feud as it were). But there were many, many spin offs. Defenders of Wittgenstein have claimed that it is unfair to infer from the brandishing of the poker a genuine threat. On this view Wittgenstein was just playing with the poker in a particular way. The Popperians have countered that this defence requires the existence of an inner mental object that exists in addition to the poker-behaviour and that in deploying such a “beetle in a box” the Wittgensteinians are guilty of hypocrisy. The moral philosophers have feuded differently, the deontologists suggesting that Popper’s example needs to be reformulated thus: “Do not threaten visiting lecturers”; the normativists denying that any such reformulation be necessary. Direct realists have accused idealists of denying the existence of the poker in the first place. One Contrarian Literalist has argued for years that Popper has successfully reduced all philosophical problems to the single axiom Do Not Threaten Visiting Lecturers With Pokers – though he, like the People’s Front of Judea, is pretty much on his own. Careers have been tarnished. Fists have flown. Obviously I’m making some of this up.

Most philosophical feuds lack the vibrancy of the Poker Incident (hereafter PI).  I remember as an undergraduate reading Iris Murdoch’s wonderful Sovereignty of Good and coming across the sentence “McTaggart denies that Time exists and Moore replies that he’s just had his breakfast”. This, I thought, sounds like good feud potential! But with the onset of age I’m coing to think that she might have, you know, been making a point about the nature of time. More recent exchanges between Ted Honderich and Colin McGinn had potential, but kind of petered out.

What makes for a decent feud? For one thing it seems to me that personal animus is neither necessary nor sufficient. Smith and Jones can like and respect each other and yet feud effectively, and even movingly. And the Honderich/McGinn example shows that intense mutual dislike can sabotage the feud. Whatever animus that exists must not be between the parties but must somehow be internal to the feud itself (this point is crucial, it is tragic when a decent feud founders on the rock of mutual loathing). Need the feud be about anything significant? Again I  would suggest not. Some of the greatest feuds can take as their cause the most trivial, basement, disagreement (see again Honderich/McGinn), although it is often a good idea to disguise this in the cloak of High Principle (McGinn/Honderich ibid).

The logic of feuds is interesting. Consider the relation “A is feuding with B” (AfB). Then clearly it is commutative since AfB implies that BfA. If I’m feuding with you then you must be feuding with me. If not then what we have is not a feud but a sort of extended hissy fit on my part. On the other hand there is no transitivity since AfB and BfC does not imply AfC. I could be feuding with you and you could be feuding with my brother but that does not imply that I am feuding with my brother (as it happens I am but that is not implied by the system). What happens if A is identical to B? Is it possible to feud with yourself? On the face of it perhaps not. It would be like playing chess with yourself. But on the other hand when I was drinking I sort of pulled it off (there are issues of personal identity/continuity that are raised by this, I suspect).

It is interesting that feuding has been brought into focus by the new technologies. As it happens I visit the US quite a bit. Not in person but via various internet (political) discussion boards. On one of these I have been engaged in sustained feuding with several posters over a long period of time. One of these feuds goes back, unbroken, to the Kerry nomination of 2004. Neither of us knows the identity of the other. The feud is rancorous, unrelenting and conducted (I am proud to say) in a tone of high condescension on the part of each of us. On the other hand we exchange perfectly friendly Private Messages. The animus principle as adumbrated above is therefore impeccably observed. On the other hand were we to meet we might hate each other, in which case it would be put under some pressure. This is another example, I submit, of how the internet is reshaping serious philosophical work.

(The sharp-eyed will have noted that following discussion of the Poker Incident I made the parenthetical direction “hereafter PI” and then did not refer to it again. I’m happy to defend that omission in the comments section below but only with posters willing to give up three years of their life at least to give any such potential feud an appropriate momentum)

Trust as a truth-maker

Daniel Everett entered Brazil as a Christian missionary. Then he encountered the Piraha people, a community that is indigenous to Brazil, and lived among them for a while. And as a result of encountering the Piraha, he lost his faith.

The Piraha are interesting for a great many reasons, foremost among them being that their culture is based on immediate experience. Everett describes them as “the ultimate empiricists”, because they have no respect for explanations of remote facts. For example, when Everett attempted to convey stories of Jesus and the sermon on the mount, his efforts were laughed off as credulous or delusional, since Everett had not witnessed the sermon firsthand.

This is just to say that, for all intents and purposes, the Piraha endorse a kind of evidentialism. Evidentialism is the idea that we have a responsibility to only believe things in proportion to the evidence. Compare that to the missionary Everett, who was a fideist — meaning, he believed certain religious claims were true on the basis of choice, commitment, and faith.

In a sense, the difference between the missionary Everett and the Piraha echoes an argument in epistemology. W.K. Clifford, a sabre-rattling epistemologist from yesteryear, argued that it is a sin against humankind to believe something on insufficient evidence: to be deluded is to be irrational, and worse. Pragmatist philosophers like William James bemoaned Clifford’s hellfire, and defended the idea that an ethical belief can be supported by force of will. Contemporary evidentialists like Richard Feldman and Earl Conee have goals that are slightly more modest than those Clifford had. Feldman and Conee argue that it is epistemically mistaken to believe out of proportion to the evidence.

I am an evidentialist, in the sense that I think evidentialism is platitudinous — it is surely correct to say that all objective knowers ought to apportion their beliefs to the evidence. But I also think that evidentialism is relatively trivial — evidence and volition are not mutually exclusive. Following the constructionism of John Searle, it turns out that sometimes you can believe in a proposition, and — bizarrely — trust counts as strong evidence in favor of the truth of the belief.


A pastor stands before his assembled flock at mass. The pastor has noticed that over the past few weeks donations in the collection plate have been diminishing. For a brief moment, he suspects there may be a thief around. On this particular day, the pastor has privately observed that a particular teenage boy has snatched some donations from the plate as it makes its rounds. A calm immediately passes over the pastor’s mind. For though the pastor knows that the boy is prone to mischief, the pastor also knows that they are otherwise impressionable and pious. Now suppose the pastor, in his sermon, mentions the mystery of the diminishing funds. In the midst of his speech, he sincerely endorses this proposition:

  1. I know that no-one who is part of this congregation is a thief in their heart.

The pastor says this with all appropriate showmanship – credulous intonations, sweeping gestures – in order to convey his belief that the congregation is made up of virtuous souls. But since the pastor has observed the boy taking the money, we should say that the pastor has made an utterance that is contrary to the external evidence, and is unjustified.

Let (t-1) be the belief in (1) prior to the utterance, and let (t-2) be the belief in (1) after the utterance.

Insofar as we think that (1) is the expression of the pastor’s own sincere beliefs, we might think that the utterance is faulty. Strictly speaking, his prior belief (t-1) is a delusion, since it is a belief that is directly contrary to the external evidence.

Yet the effect of the pastor’s words and bearing is as if it had conveyed a secret message to the boy: I know what you have done, and now you know that I know. As a result of the pastor’s utterance, the boy quietly defers to the pastor. Ashamed at his petty crime, the boy resolves to never steal again, and immediately returns the funds to the plate.

What is remarkable about this case is that simply by uttering (1), the pastor has at the very same moment (with the cooperation of the intended audience) brought about the state of affairs described by (1). The pastor’s prior delusion (t-1) suddenly transformed into an objective fact of the matter after it had been expressed (t-2). The utterance (1) is very much like what John Searle called a status function declaration. The assertion is true because the pastor represented it as true, and it was taken as true by the boy.

In short, the pastor made up the facts — and he got away with it. And “getting away with it” for the right sorts of reasons is all that is required to make the claim true.


In the above example, trust is the thing that makes (1) true. But of course, this is not a feature of all — or even most — evidential claims. No matter how much you trust a homeopath, trust alone will not make their snake oil work.

I think there is quite a lot to recommend the idea that trust can make some claims true. For one thing, it makes sense of the tenaciousness of systematic illusions — the illusions involved in organized religion, for instance — in such a way that we are capable of attributing rationality to them at some level. (Since the presumption of rationality is essential to social scientific explanations, this is only bad news for the cynic.) For another thing, it gives an account of how effective threats to those institutions pose a rational existential crisis in those who buy into them. As the Catholic Church has learned in Ireland, breaches of trust can be both morally outrageous and world-breaking.

(And to their credit, some ancient institutions will occasionally recognize the theoretical limits of their supposed magesteria. For instance, according to Catholic dogma, even the Catholic Pope’s infallibility is limited to its use ex cathedra. So if Mr. Ratzinger were to declare that the Earth has sixteen moons, then he would not be speaking from the chair of Peter, and hence not saying something true.)

So there’s no need to worry that recognizing trust as a truth-maker will lead to an epistemic disaster, and there are some good reasons to think that it makes sense of how the social world works. But even so, this is still a disturbing line of argument. For any free-thinking person who is not dead from the neck down, the idea that authorities can just make facts up from out of nowhere is a complete and utter scandal. And the above argument confounds the initial motivation for evidentialism, which is to reject the idea that wishful thinking can be conducive to rationality.

So the disturbed evidentialist might explain the pastor’s story by saying that at any particular moment in time, trust is never a part of the evidence. The idea is that the prior belief (t-1) and the subsequent belief (t-2) can only be judged on their own terms, and not compared to one another. As such, it would turn out that (t-1) is just the pastor’s delusion, and (t-2) is made true by the decision of the boy — in both cases, trust is not the truth-maker. In other words, the account would have to be synchronic (at one time), not diachronic (across time). This is consistent with what Feldman suggests in his essay “The Ethics of Belief”, when he claims that evidentialism is best seen as a synchronic theory of rationality, not a diachronic one.

If we don’t believe that trust counts as evidence at the level of the diachronic, then we’d have to say that trust is (at worst) a merely sociological event that is of no philosophical interest, and (at best) involves a non-epistemic sense of justification (e.g., as Feldman suggests, a prudential one).

And while I agree that trust is a prudential notion about how we ought to pursue our personal projects as human beings, it seems that trust is also a conception of how we ought to conduct ourselves as responsible knowers. Trust is the causal link between (t-1) and (t-2) that made the boy acquiesce; furthermore, trust is the boy’s evidence for accepting the testimony of the pastor as true, and not just as the pastor’s interesting opinion; and trust is the reason why (1) really is true, since (1) is only true through deference, and there cannot be any genuine deference without trust. And, finally, if either the pastor or the boy had lacked trust, but all other events had remained the same, then we would have grounds to think that the pastor simply was not warranted in asserting (1).


In antiquity, the word “truth” (derived from “troth”) meant faithfulness, good faith, or loyalty. I’ve suggested here that there is one special context in which truth has retained its initial connotations.

I only worry that the Piraha would not approve.


(Corrected Feb 20: it’s the “chair of Peter”, not the “chair of David”. Apologies.)

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Help! What Does This Mean?

This is Aristotle. I’ve been puzzling over the last clause for about a week now. I can’t figure it out. I suspect it’s not particularly difficult, but I’m a little baffled.

Although these opinions [those of Parmenides] appear to follow logically in a dialectical discussion, yet to believe them seems next door to madness when one considers the facts. For indeed no lunatic seems to be so far out of his senses as to suppose that fire and ice are "one": it is only between what is right and what seems right from habit that some people are mad enough to see no difference.

Is he just flagging up that he doesn’t think much of a naive empiricism? But if so, how does that relate to the fire and ice bit?

Any ideas or advice gratefully and humbly accepted!

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.

A First Unmoved Mover?

The Atomists – Leucippus (if he existed) and Democritus – had this idea that there were a load of atoms zooming around a void, and sometimes they’d bump into each other, and as a result – occasionally – form compound substances.

Aristotle complained that the Atomists hadn’t explained the source of all this motion; basically, he didn’t much like that the idea that motion and the continuation of motion might not need an explanation.

So here’s an amusing thing (if you’re amused by things that aren’t amusing, that is). This is how Frederick Copleston handles this issue in Volume 1 of his (remarkable, actually) history of philosophy (pp. 74-5)

To us, indeed, it may well seem strange to deny chance and yet to posit an eternal unexplained motion…but we ought not to conclude that Leucippus meant to ascribe the motion of the atoms to chance: to him eternal motion and the continuation of motion required no explanation. In our opinion, the mind boggles at such a theory and cannot rest content with Leucippus’ ultimate; but it is an interesting historical fact, that he himself was content with this ultimate and sought no “First Unmoved Mover”.

Okay, well that’s pretty clear. Bad Leucippus. This is how Bertrand Russell handles the same issue in his History (pp. 66-7).

Aristotle and others reproached him [Leucippus] and Democritus for not accounting for the original motion of atoms, but in this the atomists were more scientific than their critics. Causation must start from something, and wherever it starts no cause can be assigned for the initial datum. The world may be attributed to a Creator, but even then the Creator Himself is unaccounted for. The theory of the atomists, in fact, was more nearly that of modern science than any other theory propounded in antiquity […] All causal explanations…must have an arbitrary beginning. That is why it is no defect in the theory of the atomists to have left the original movements of the atoms unaccounted for.

Copleston and Russell were both writing at roughly the same time, but they have a very different take on this issue. The explanation? Copleston was a Jesuit priest; Bertrand Russell, wasn’t.

(If you’re interested, you can hear them debating the existence of God here.)

What Did the Greeks Think About the Afterlife?

I asked the following question on Philos-l (mailing list for philosophers).

In the Phaedo, Cebes suggests to Socrates that a common fear amongst people is that the soul will be extinguished upon death.

Was that a common fear at the time? (The stuff I’ve been reading has sort of suggested that what people were really afraid of was that bad things might happen to their souls after death. But it’s possible I’ve been reading the wrong stuff.)

Is there a standard text dealing with attitudes towards death in Ancient Greece?

A lot of people have asked that I report back on what I find out, so I’m doing so here (plus there’s a chance that some of the readers of this blog might be interested in this stuff.)

The first thing to say is that there was some disagreement in the responses I got. However, the general consensus seems to be that even if the Ancient Greeks did think souls are immortal, they didn’t really believe in an afterlife in the sense of the souls of the dead being psychologically continuous with the person they were while living.

So, for example, several people pointed to Chapter 13 Book 11 of The Odyssey, which sees Odysseus in Hades, where he encounters the ghostly, shadowy souls of the departed, deprived of memory, solidity, etc.

But, of course, it is entirely possible to be fearful of being in such a state – not least because thoughts about personal identity aren’t likely to be uppermost in one’s mind when contemplating the possibility of Hades – so it would seem this sort of attitude is consistent with the idea that the Ancient Greeks were fearful of death, etc., (and one can see why Epicurus might have thought that his idea that the soul simply ceases to exist – or rather disperses into the void – would be comforting).

Two or three people mentioned that Socrates is talking to a couple of Pythagoreans in the Phaedo. Unfortunately, though, my ignorance of these matters means I can’t quite square this with Cebes’s idea that the soul is simply extinguished upon death. Didn’t Pythagoreans believe in metempsychosis? I think I vaguely remember some story about Pythagoras not wanting to feed Winalot to a puppy because he suspected the puppy was actually an old friend of his (i.e., an old, reincarnated human friend – not a long-lost puppy friend).

Okay, what else? Ah yes, a couple of people suggested that it is possible that Socrates’s interlocutors in the Phaedo were reflecting a growing belief amongst philosophers at the time that the soul was just a property of the body. So presumably they would have thought that once the body dies, the soul quickly follows (which I guess is pretty much the view of the atomists). If this is right, then Cebes might not be talking about what the multitude fears, but rather about what the philosophers with this belief fear. Still, that does rather leave the puzzle of how to square Epicurus’s idea that the extinction of the soul is a comforting thought with Cebes’s claim that this is precisely what some people fear.

There were a lot of further reading suggestions:

E.R. Dodds, ‘The Greeks and the Irrational’
Erwin Rhode, ‘Psyche’
Tad Brennan, ‘Immortality of the soul’ (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
J. P. Vernant, ‘El Individuo, la Muerte y el Amor en la Antigua Grecia’
Martin D’Arcy,  ‘The Mind and Heart of Love: Lion and Unicorn’
W. Burkert, ‘Greek Religion’ and ‘Ancient Mystery Cults’
M. Cosmopoulos (ed.), ‘Greek Mysteries. The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults’
M. Detienne, ‘Dionysos mis à mort’
B. C. Dietrich, ‘Death, Fate and the Gods’
M. Dixsaut, ‘Le Naturel philosophe’
R. G. Edmonds, ‘Myths of the Underground Journey in Plato, Aristophanes and the Orphic Gold Tablets’
F. Felton, ‘The Dead’ (A Companion to Greek Religion, D. Ogden (ed.))
W. K. C. Guthrie, ‘The Greeks And Their Gods’
P. Hadot, ‘Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique’
R. Parker, ‘Miasma : Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion’
N. J. Richardson, ‘The Homeric Hymn to Demeter’
T. M. Robinson, ‘Plato’s Psychology’
S. Rosen, ‘The Grief of Persephone’, (Harvard Theological Review, 36  (1943), pp. 247-259)
Chr. Sourvinou Inwood, ‘Reading Greek Death to the End of the Classical Period’
D. White, ‘Myth and Metaphysics in Plato’s Phaedo’
G. Zuntz, ‘Persephone’
Robert Garland, ‘The Greek Way of Death’

And it just remains for me to thank: John Humphrey, T. Chappell, Michael Garfield, Guiseppe Feola, Anthony Lesser, Dermot Moran, Maria Angelica Fierro, Javier Enrique Carreno, Stephen Clark, and especially, Aikaterini Lefka. (It goes without saying that none of these people are responsible for my misunderstandings here.)

People should feel free to enlighten me further about these matters in the comments. This is pretty interesting stuff, I reckon.