Posts Tagged ‘truth’

Hegel, Schopenhauer, Mill, infinity, & One

October 8, 2012

We’re well into the 19th century, in CoPhi: Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Mill. And the Philosophy Bites interview is with Adrian Moore, on the concept of “infinity“-and beyond? Is the universe infinite? Not only do we not know the answer to that, just try solving Zeno‘s Paradoxes. [Paradox #1YouT… How big is infinity? An animated TEDexplanation] Or getting a plumber on the weekends.

Hegel was the ultimate optimist, Schopenhauer the uber-pessimist. And Mill? I’d call him a realist with strong aspirations. [Hegel up@dawn]

They’re all in the song, if that helps. Let’s see… Schopenhauer and Hegel were both out-consumed by David Hume. And Mill, of his own free will, “on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.”

But it would probably be more helpful to relate the Germans to their predecessor Kant, and to bring Mill to bear on his countryman Bentham.

First the Germans: both Schopenhauer and Hegel tried to go beyond Kant’s proscription against specifying the “thing-in-itself,” the ultimate “noumenal” reality beneath the appearances. For Hegel, History’s the thing. For Schopenhauer it’s Will.

An amusing sidelight: in spite of himself, and his intent to renounce personal will (so as to starve ultimate Will, or at least deprive it), Schopenhauer was stubbornly competitive with his philosophical rival Hegel. He insisted on lecturing at the same time as the more popular Hegel, with predictable results. But you have to wonder if his auditors understood a word Hegel said? Maybe free gas was provided? (See William James’s “observations on the effects of nitrous-oxide-gas-intoxication” and his essay On Some Hegelisms – “sounds like nonsense, but it is pure on-sense!”)

I have to admit: for a sourpuss, Schopenhauer’s a lot of fun to read. His aphoristic Art of Controversy is a good place to begin.

The average man pursues the shadow of happiness with unwearied labour; and the thinker, the shadow of truth; and both, though phantoms are all they have, possess in them as much as they can grasp. Life is a language in which certain truths are conveyed to us; could we learn them in some other way, we should not live. Thus it is that wise sayings and prudential maxims will never make up for the lack of experience, or be a substitute for life itself.

And his Studies in Pessimism are oddly cheerful.

One of the lesser-known but more intriguing facets of Schopenhauer’s philosophy was his belief that music is our point of entree to Will, and to ultimate reality.

Mill tried to correct Bentham’s indiscriminate “happiness” by introducing a quality distinction among pleasures. I’d love to endorse this move, and say things like: unit for unit, an inning of baseball is far superior to a quarter of football. (We might agree, though, that both are superior to “push-pin” and some poetry.) But happiness, pleasure, satisfaction et al have to be left to the judgment of the beholder if they’re to be actual motivators of conduct. So, I agree with Mill in principle and in conscience, but must stick with Bentham in practice. [J.S. Mill up@dawn]

But the harm principle, and On Liberty in general? I’m with him. I love what he says about Socrates and truth.

And remember this, when we discuss William James and “what works”: “The truth of an opinion is part of its utility. If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is true? In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful.”

I’m with Gus Speth too. We finish with his book in EEA today. In the penultimate chapter he cites the Earth Charter‘s preamble:

…we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.  [We] declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.

The survival and growth of our species, the charter continues, is “about being more, not having more.” That’s what his Yale mentor Reich’s Greening of America was all about, with its Consciousness III and “a new way of living” built around “fulfillment, not wealth.” If it was also “too enamored with the youth culture of the sixties,” well, there was a lot of that going around then.

We began with Greening, and will move on to Bill McKibben’s Global Warming Reader next time. It’s helpful of Speth to conclude with a nod to McKibben, easily our best living  writer on climate and nature.

As for the Charter: I think Hegel and Mill would have signed. So will I. As they say: it starts with one.

Moral Truth

April 5, 2012

Sam Harris says questions about values (meaning, morality, purpose) are really about the facts concerning the well-being of conscious creatures. David Hume and G.E. Moore were wrong. Navigating the moral landscape involves getting the facts right. “Science” (but does he really just mean experience?) can generate moral truths capable of informing values and guiding conduct.

It’s a big challenge to an old sacred cow in philosophy. We’ll see if he pulls it off. I’m pulling for him to succeed, and betting that he and Hume aren’t really poles apart. Both possess sound moral instincts, both value compassion and empathy, both laud experience over mere reason as a moral teacher, both are sure good people are genuinely good without god.

For the record: Hume and Moore on the underivability of “ought” from “is” and the fallacy that results when derivations are attempted:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. A Treatise of Human Nature

Good, then, denotes one unique simple object of thought among innumerable others; but this object has very commonly been identified with some other—a fallacy which may be called the naturalistic fallacy”… What is good? logically depends upon the answer to the question What is the nature of supersensible reality? All such systems obviously involve the same fallacy—the naturalistic fallacy—by the use of which Naturalism was also defined.” Principia Ethica

The touchstone Sam will claim, but that Hume et al really could claim to know nothing much about, is the brain. “Human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain.” We can study both “scientifically,” and can use the resultant knowledge to go beyond mere idle academic debate to improve lives.

So what do we know about values? The other crucial disclaimer, at the outset: the absence of answers in practice is no proof of no answers in principle. But if we’re talking (for instance) about how to raise children, and whether it’s ok to beat the nonsense out of them, there must be a right answer.  “That’s only your opinion” is, well, only your opinion.

My favorite bit in the opening chapter conjures William James’s Rock in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life“:

Were all other things, gods and men and starry heavens, blotted out from this universe, and were there left but one rock with two loving souls upon it, that rock would have as thoroughly moral a constitution as any possible world which the eternities and immensities could harbor… while they lived, there would be real good things and real bad things in the universe; there would be obligations, claims, and expectations; obediences, refusals, and disappointments; compunctions, and longings for harmony to come again, and inward peace of conscience when it was restored; there would, in short, be a moral life

Against that backdrop,

Imagine if there were only two people living on earth… a man and a woman alone on  earth would be better off if they recognized their common interests… given the structure of their respective brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature.

…Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment?

I don’t want to give the game away prematurely, but so far as I’m concerned this just about captures the point, the game, and the match. The facts about how our behaviors and interactions register on our flourishing meters are the crucial facts. The quality of experience maps the quality of life.

There’s much more to say, but as an applied ethicist I must agree with Sam that “changing people’s ethical commitments is the most important task facing humanity.” We need to get them to commit to the notion that there are in fact moral and ethical truths beyond the culturally-embedded preferences and conventions, and that we should all act accordingly. We must not allow the term ‘morality’ to become a mere euphemism for one’s own preferred dogmas.

Just gimme some truth.


P.S. Here’s some truth, from Opening Night: Cards 4, Marlins 1.

down the road

October 7, 2009

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin.‘ Nancy Sinatra

charles-darwin-tree-of-life-sketch-1837“Truth” continues, first with a cryptic statement from our authors I consider a howler: “One need not attack science to reject Darwin’s theory of evolution.” No?

Granted, Darwin’s theory of evolution is not to be conflated with evolution per se. It’s not a necessary truth that Darwin’s version, or indeed that natural selection in general,  is a comprehensively correct account of how species originate and evolve on Earth. It’s a contingent matter of fact that Charlie Darwin (and not Alfred Russell Wallace, or even Charlie’s grandpa Erasmus, or who knows who) was the guy who assembled and finally propounded in public the most cogent account of biological nature’s modus operandi. Fact is, though, it has yet to be supplanted after 150 years. It keeps looking more and more elegant and right, as far as it went. It didn’t go far enough to incorporate the facts of DNA and the double helix, for instance. But neither did it block Crick’s and Watson’s way. It was a fruitful hypothesis that has multiplied.

So don’t hold your breath looking for reputable scientists willing to “reject Darwin’s theory” outright. Jerry Coyne speaks for many: “We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. We should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.” Why Evolution is True

Ken Miller, a prominent theist, has testified that it’s “the cornerstone of modern biology… a powerful and expanding theory that unites knowledge from every branch of the life sciences into a single science.”  Only a Theory

Theories are not, as Darwin’s critics often fail to grasp, unsuccessful aspirants to factual status. “Facts get interpreted according to theories.” Without theories, there could be no facts. Gravitation is a theory, and most of us would say it’s a fact too. If we’re Humeans, we won’t say it’s an item of certain knowledge; but then we don’t need to say that, in order to stand our ground and navigate it. If we’re pragmatists, we’ll say it’s an extraordinarily useful belief that’s paid its way so far, one we’re perpetually prepared to act on. That’s pretty solid ground.

Fortunately, it gets better in this chapter. “We want to say that truth means something more than “very well confirmed”; it means “the way the world really is.” That’s the presumption, balanced in science by the humble admission that our inquiry into truth is nowhere near completion. That’s why C.S. Peirce— recall him from the James bio: the brilliant but bumptiousRoad_Closed_Ahead_sign.svg[1] philosopher James thanklessly helped and publicized– called truth the view which is destined to be arrived at in the vanishingly remote long-run. Meanwhile, we must regard all truth claims as fallible and all disconfirmations as progressive, useful, suggestive, & encouraging. Peirce gave science its best rallying cry: “Do not block the road of inquiry!’

These terms “fact” and “truth” often get jumbled and confused. James is again a voice of clarity. “Truths emerge from facts… the facts themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.” And beliefs require believers, actors, doers. That’s us, the tellers and deniers of truth (and of falsehood), the theoreticians and experimentalists. When we respect logic and evidence and observation, mistrusting unexamined authority, we’re rational. That doesn’t mean we already own the truth, the whole truth etc., but simply that we’re on the road and on our way. We’re giving prejudice and superstition “down the road,” as my country cousins might say.

Sometimes truth runs afoul of our raisin’ (they might add); when it does, scientific rationality stiffens our resolve to stay on track. And scientific humility grants us leave to hit the occasional roadside attraction, in the form of  religious or spiritual speculation concerning matters that may range beyond our trip-tik and exceed the ambit of empirical inquiry: the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything. Science makes no advance declarations about this. Darwin himself pointed out that it’s more often those who know little, not those who know much, who are sure that a given inquiry is beyond science.

But the point here is that if we’re going to make time on our trip, we have to get back on the highway. We have to continue asking nature to yield specific information regarding particular matters of fact. Take care of the days, the years will take care of themselves: sound advice for students as well as scientists.

Why be rational? As Carl Sagan used to say, science isn’t perfect but it’s the best tool we’ve got. Acting rationally  maximizes our chances of getting knowledge, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the “occasional ego boost”  that comes from usin’ your noggin.

kierkegaard3Not many philosophers have openly embraced irrationality. (Many have courted her, but most often unwittingly or else with great reluctance and discretion.) Soren Kierkegaard, though, defended personal, “subjective truth.” His concern was not with how the world is, but with one’s own– his own– personal commitments in the face of “objective uncertainty.” If we can’t have the whole truth now, he implied, let us abandon the pretense of objectivity altogether and have ourselves a private, impassioned little fling. Let us take a leap of faith.

It’s a profoundly personal approach to faith and belief (less evidently to truth), but paradoxically there’s quite an extensive community of Kierkegaardians out there. (My old classmate George is one of their leaders.) They’re all individuals, they don’t have to follow anyone… but they choose to follow the melancholy Dane. For reasons, I imagine, not “because [they think]  it is absurd.” (Creo quia est absurdum, Kierkegaard liked to say.)

There is something willfully excessive about this view, but also something enticing– especially when weighing Kierkegaard against the philosophical giants of his time (Hegel especially) who were so confident of our human ability eventually to bring Geist, the great aborning  World Spirit of arch-Rationalist legend, to objective fruition.  But must there not be some reason why you or I should decide to “leap,” unless we’re comfortable with making life-defining choices arbitrarily? That really does seem irrational, and not in a good way.

But perhaps Kierkegaard gains in popular appeal by association with the romantic movement, and poets like “Bright Star” John Keats. If a short, intense, passionate life appeals, maybe Kierkegaardian irrationality does too. But still, is a preference for passion purely arbitrary? OK, that horse has suffered enough. I’ll stop.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism has a lot going for it, but “There are no facts” goes too far. Like Kierkegaard, his interest is not in the impersonal, objective truth but in personal passion and the expression of his own creative will. He treated life itself as his artistic canvas, and his personal style as an artful creation. The two great 19th century precursors of existentialism disagreed about God and another world, but their individualistic repudiation of Truth as something larger and more important than themselves is of a piece.

Much in our experience is subjective, but “it’s all subjective” really is a lazy untruth. That’s an ironic charge to lay at the feet of either the great self-styled philosopher of adversity (“What doesn’t kill me” etc.) or the tortured sufferer of “sickness unto death” but it seems accurate. Accuracy: another feather on the scale tipping toward some notion of objectivity as our goal in assessing matters of fact.

You’re on your own with Foucault and Habermas, I developed a blind prejudice against them both long ago. My  bad, I suppose.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000) was intriguing and original– I spent part of a party drinking with him in the kitchen once– but I’veQuine never had any trouble communicating about rabbits (“gavagai!”), even after a drink or two. (I used to wonder, with that string of initials,  if he might not have been a good spokesperson for the Seagram’s label.) His indeterminacy thesis seems overblown, but I’m sure he was right to emphasize holism and the web of belief. Novel experiences invite creative and experimental assimilation. That’s the spirit of science.

bertrandrussellthumbFinally, Lord Russell. He often said things he didn’t mean, for the sheer shock and amusement of it. I’m pretty sure he didn’t really mean it when he wrote, “Better the world should perish than I or any other  human being should believe a lie.” That’s on a par with Hume’s pricked pinky, an instigating statement designed to provoke serious “out of the box” reflection. And it echoes Clifford: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

I’m with James on this, though: “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.”

We’ve all swallowed our share of lies and inadvertent untruths, and peddled ’em too. Thankfully, the world has survived our collective duplicity and ignorance. We must hope it’s getting better at detecting the truth, and wanting to.

handling it

October 5, 2009

curieMarie Curie (1867-1934), Nobel laureate in chemistry, 1911… “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”

She knew she wasn’t dreaming. Only in philosophy class, and in Hollywood, do apparently mentally-healthy people really entertain that improbable hypothesis. “No one in his or her right mind ever really wonders whether the world exists.” (And even those who believe everything is predestined look both ways before they cross the street.)

I’ll bet Madame Curie also knew that not all human questions are as responsive to scientific habits of inquiry as those whose answers were radium and polonium. The best questers after truth know when to wear which hat. They learn how to pose productive questions. But they also learn that some “imponderable” questions are well worth pondering anyway.

Our chapter begins with some good, productive (though debatable) questions. Here’s another one: is it always and everywhere wrong, in an ethical sense, to believe anything on insufficient evidence? That was W.K. Clifford‘s view. William James disputed it. More about that next time. For now, let’s take note that the resolution of this dispute depends heavily on how we answer the question “What is truth?”

Is it correspondence, coherence, satisfaction, pragmatic utility, or something else? Is it necessary or contingent? Is it objective or subjective? Can you blame the voice of youth for asking…? Maybe we just can’t handle it.

But that won’t be our assumption here.

There are contingent, empirical truths. I’m typing on my computer keyboard right now, as a matter of fact. (Well, I was when I wrote this. Is it still true?) There are necessary, logical truths.  “2 + 2 = 4.”

And there are much more interesting candidates for truth, hotly contested by intensely interested humans. “Is there a God?” is much more interesting, and should be much more controversial, than “Do you believe in God?” (There’s actually considerable dispute as to the gospel truthmore… epistemological relativism is not true for everyone… knowing the truthalready knowing… really really… radical skepticismsuperstitionfideism.) BTW: here’s what atheists talk about when they gather at their big  annual “shindig,” according to Jerry Coyne.

Does experience generate knowledge? Are there innate ideas? Is the mind a blank slate? Is this a world of pure chance? Are we evolving? Do I have a meaningful future? Do we? What’s going to come of this world, and our species? Is life good, or no good? Is the truth about all these things already settled? Or does truth– like other items more commonly mentioned on bumper stickers– happen? If so, what makes it happen?

Imponderable? Not at all. Let’s put on our thinking hats.

What about thinking itself? Is it immediately in touch only with ideas in your head, representations of allegedly real things we can’t directly encounter? That was John Locke‘s assumption (no, not that John Locke), shared by Hume. James the radical empiricist had another idea.

But David Hume (1711-1776) (more… & more) was still wedded to representational realism, and concluded that knowledge is beyond us. But habit and custom, sentiment and decency, are not. On his skeptical/empiricist view, we  can lead perfectly respectable, responsible, neighborly, happy, honest lives without possessing– or knowing that we possess– absolutely-certain knowledge of what is true.

little fingerHere’s a nice Humean challenge:  Is it unreasonable (“against reason”) to “prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of [your] little finger”?  David said no. (And David was a nice guy.)

What do you say? world destruction

o “prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of my little finger” would not be
unreasonable (“against reason”)?