Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Hannah Arendt; Interview with Roger Errera

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)
Hannah Arendt
Interview with the French writer Roger Errera, 1974


Totalitarianism begins in contempt for what you have. The second step is the notion: “Things must change—no matter how, Anything is better than what we have.” Totalitarian rulers organize this kind of mass sentiment, and by organizing it articulate it, and by articulating it make the people somehow love it. They were told before, thou shalt not kill; and they didn’t kill. Now they are told, thou shalt kill; and although they think it’s very difficult to kill, they do it because it’s now part of the code of behavior. They learn whom to kill and how to kill and how to do it together. This is the much talked about Gleichschaltung—the coordination process. You are coordinated not with the powers that be, but with your neighbor—coordinated with the majority. But instead of communicating with the other you are now glued to him. And you feel of course marvelous. Totalitarianism appeals to the very dangerous emotional needs of people who live in complete isolation and in fear of one another.


The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

Contingency and History

Roger Errera
The main characteristic of any event is that it has not been foreseen. We don’t know the future but
everybody acts into the future. Nobody knows what he is doing because the future is being done, action is being done by a “we” and not an “I.” Only if I were the only one acting could I foretell the consequences of what I’m doing. What actually happens is entirely contingent, and contingency is indeed one of the biggest factors in all history.

Nobody knows what is going to happen because so much depends on an enormous number of variables, on simple hazard. On the other hand if you look at history retrospectively, then, even though it was contingent, you can tell a story that makes sense…. Jewish history, for example, in fact had its ups and downs, its, enmities and its friendships, as every history of all people has. The notion that there is one unilinear history is of course false. But if you look at it after the experience of Auschwitz it looks as though all of history—or at least history since the Middle Ages—had no other alm than Auschwitz…. This, is the real problem of every philosophy of history how is it possible that in retrospect it always looks as though it couldn’t have happened otherwise?

Facts and Theories

A good example of the kind of scientific mentality that overwhelms all other insights is the “domino theory.” The fact is that very few of the sophisticated intellectuals who wrote the Pentagon Papers believed in this theory. Yet everything they did was based on this assumption—not because they were liars, or because they wanted to please their superiors, but because it gave them a framework within which they could work. They took this framework even though they knew—and though every intelligence report and every factual analysis proved to them every morning—that these assumptions were simply factually wrong. They took it because they didn’t have any other framework. People find such theories in order to get rid of contingency and unexpectedness. Good old Hegel once said that all philosophical contemplation serves only to eliminate the accidental. A fact has to be witnessed by eyewitnesses who are not the best of witnesses; no fact is beyond doubt. But that two and two are four is somehow beyond doubt. And the theories produced in the Pentagon were all much more plausible than the facts of what actually happened.


The “giftedness”—so to speak—of a certain part at least of the Jewish people is a historical problem, a problem of the first order for the historians. I can risk a speculative explanation: we are the only people, the only European people, who have survived from antiquity pretty much intact. That means we have kept our identity, and it means we are the only people who have never known analphabetism. We were always literate because you cannot be a Jew without being literate. The women were less literate than the men but even they were much more literate than their counterparts elsewhere. Not only the elite knew how to read but every Jew had to read—the whole people, in all its classes and on all levels of giftedness and intelligence.


When I wrote my Eichmann in Jerusalem one of my main intentions was to destroy the legend of the greatness of evil, of the demonic force, to take away from people the admiration they have for the great evildoers like Richard III.

I found in Brecht the following remark:

The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter. They are not great political criminals, but people who permitted great political crimes, which is something entirely different. The failure of his enterprises does not indicate that Hitler was an idiot.

Now, that Hitler was an idiot was of course a prejudice of the whole opposition to Hitler prior to his seizure of power and therefore a great many books tried then to justify him and to make him a great man. So, Brecht says, “The fact that he failed did not indicate that Hitler was an idiot and the extent of his enterprises does not make him a great man.” It is neither the one nor the other: this whole category of greatness has no application.

“If the ruling classes,” he goes on, “permit a small crook to become a great crook, he is not entitled to a privileged position in our view of history. That is, the fact that he becomes a great crook and that what he does has great consequences does not add to his stature.” And generally speaking, he then says in these very abrupt remarks: “One may say that tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy.” This of course is a shocking statement; I think that at the same time it is entirely true. What is really necessary is, if you want to keep your integrity under these circumstances, then you can do it only if you remember your old way of looking at such things and say: “No matter what he does and if he killed ten million people, he is still a clown.”


The law of progress holds that everything now must be better than what was there before. Don’t you see if you want something better, and better, and better, you lose the good. The good is no longer even being measured.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

In Praise of the Meaningless Life

Bob Sharpe (1935-2006), Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wales, Lampeter

Philosophy Now 24:15-15 (1999)

Forget about the meaning of life for a moment! Think about the normal use of ‘meaning’. I can ask “What does this sentence mean?” and the answer is something I find out. Equally I might ask “What did he mean by saying that?” and again discover the answer. The same goes for an action such as a gesture. That gesture is insulting; what he meant by that gesture of dismissal was precisely that, a rude dismissal of what you say. These are actions whose meaning I discover.

What light does all this throw on the question of the meaning of life? At first sight, the question as to what life means looks absurd. Remarks made in a language have a meaning; language itself does not. Actions within a life have a meaning; life does not. So since a life is neither an utterance nor an action, the question “What is the meaning of life?” must be understood rather differently – as “What is the point of life?” or “What is the purpose of life?” The characteristic use of the definite article here suggests that life is presumed to have a single overall purpose and one which is something we might discover. To ask for the meaning of life is presumed to be no odder than to ask “What did he mean by doing that?” or “What is that tool for?” or “What is the significance of that obelisk?” Religious authorities are, of course, on hand to tell us the answer. Thus the shorter catechism tells us that the purpose of life is to glorify God. But why, you might ask, should that confer value on my life? Unless this is something which is intrinsically worthwhile, this will not make my life valuable. And even in the unlikely event of my finding this to be of intrinsic value, it is worth pointing out that the Lord did not consult me before allotting me this purpose. After all, I would not be mollified if I found out that the purpose of my life and that of all the other human beings on the planet was to provide light entertainment for some race of celestial beings. I would not think that that gave a value to my life.

This is not to say that my life might not have a purpose which was instrumental. For example, I might decide to devote my life to the care of AIDS sufferers and, at its end, I might look back with a measure of satisfaction at what I had used it for. But the point surely is that this purpose derives from my values and choices and other people have different values and choices.

Now in both these cases, certain assumptions are made which I intend to question. It is assumed that if life has an overall purpose, then it has a value and that if it has no overall purpose, it has no value. Neither assumption seems to me tenable. Perhaps the problem ultimately stems from the fact that ‘meaning’ is ambiguous. It can either be equivalent to 'significance' or it can connote ‘purpose’. The first implies value, the second does not. To say that life is meaningless may be to say that it is purposeless or it may be to say that it is of no significance or value. The two claims are distinct and I shall suggest that the first does not entail the second.

My life might have an overall purpose which I fulfil and which makes it valuable or it might not. It depends. The man who devoted his life to the care of sufferers from AIDS had a single overall purpose, the fulfilling of which we would say gave value to his life. But it seems that Hitler also had an overall purpose in life which he went a long way towards fulfilling. He all but destroyed European Jewry. But we would not conclude thereby that his life had positive value. Perhaps fortunately, most lives have no overall purpose or point. It certainly does not follow from this that they are valueless. There is no one aim for which I have lived my life. I have had a diversity of aims and purposes, some of which are more important, some of which are less so, some of which I have accomplished and some not. The lack of an overall purpose does not deprive it of value. In any case, it is not particularly uncommon for a man or a woman who has some overriding purpose to fail in that but to succeed at something else which is of value. Sir Arthur Sullivan wanted to be a great composer of heavyweight music and was not at all pleased when told by Ethyl Smyth that his masterpiece was The Mikado.

Most human lives are meaningless in that they have no overriding purpose. It does not follow that they have no value or significance. Indeed they may achieve more and do less harm than those who are devoted to some grand plan.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Passages from "Democracy in America"

Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, Viscount de Tocqueville (29 July 1805 – 16 April 1859)

"Americans are taught from birth that they must overcome life's woes and impediments on their own. Social authority makes them mistrustful and anxious, and they rely upon its power only when they cannot do without it. This first becomes apparent in the schools, where children play by their own rules and punish infractions they define themselves. One encounters the same spirit in all aspects of social life. An obstruction blocks a public road, interrupting the flow of traffic. The neighbors immediately set up a deliberative body. Out of this improvised assembly comes an executive power that will remedy the ill before it occurs to anyone to appeal to an authority..." (p. 215)

"The United States has no capital. Enlightenment, like power, is disseminated throughout this vast country. Hence the beams of human intelligence do not all emanate from a common center but crisscross in every direction. Nowhere have the Americans established any central direction over their thinking, any more than they have established any central direction over affairs of state." (p. 210)

"Nothing makes me admire the common sense and practical intelligence of the Americans more than the way in which they avoid the countless difficulties arising from their federal constitution. Seldom have I met an ordinary American who could not distinguish with surprising ease between obligations stemming from laws passed by Congress and obligations originating in the laws of his state..." (p. 187)

"In the United States, the majority takes it upon itself to provide individuals with a range of ready-made opinions and thus relieves them of the obligation to form their own." (p. 491)

"Generally speaking, only simple conceptions can grip the mind of a nation. An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex." (p. 186)

"What can be foreseen right now is that if the Americans did abandon the republic, they would move quickly to despotism without tarrying for long in monarchy. Montesquieu said that there is nothing more absolute than the authority of a prince who succeeds a republic, because the indefinite powers once fearlessly entrusted to elected officials would then be placed in the hands of a hereditary leader. This is true in general, but particularly true of a democratic republic. In the United States, officials are not elected by a particular class of citizens but by the majority of the nation; they directly represent the passions of the multitude and are entirely dependent on its will. They therefore inspire neither hatred nor fear. Thus, as I noted earlier, little care has been taken to limit their power by circumscribing their action, and the range of arbitrary discretion left to them is vast. The habits fostered by this way of ordering things could outlast it. American officials could keep their indefinite power yet cease to be answerable to anyone, and it is impossible to say where tyranny would then end.

There are some among us who expect to see an aristocracy arise in America and who are already predicting exactly when it will seize power." (p. 460)

"Among the droves of men with political ambitions in the United States, I found very few with that virile candor, that manly independence of thought, that often distinguished Americans in earlier times and that is invariably the preeminent trait of great characters wherever it exists." (p. 297)

"While the natural instincts of democracy lead the people to banish distinguished men from power, an instinct no less powerful leads distinguished men to shun careers in politics, in which it is so very difficult to remain entirely true to oneself or to advance without self-abasement." (p. 227)

"I therefore believe that the kind of oppression that threatens democratic peoples is unlike any the world has seen before. Our contemporaries will find no image of it in their memories. I search in vain for an expression that exactly reproduces my idea of it and captures it fully. The old words "despotism" and "tyranny" will not do. The thing is new, hence I must try to define it, since I cannot give it a name.

I am trying to imagine what new features despotism might have in today's world: I see an innumerable host of men, all alike and equal, endlessly hastening after petty and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn into himself, is virtually a stranger to the fate of all the others. For him, his children and personal friends comprise the entire human race. As for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he lives alongside them but does not see them. He touches them but does not feel them. He exists only in himself and for himself, and if he still has a family, he no longer has a country.

Over these men stands an immense tutelary power, which assumes sole responsibility for securing their pleasure and watching over their fate. It is absolute, meticulous, regular, provident, and mild. It would resemble paternal authority if only its purpose were the same, namely, to prepare men for manhood. But on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them in childhood irrevocably. It likes citizens to rejoice, provided they think only of rejoicing. It works willingly for their happiness. It provides for their security, foresees and takes care of their needs, facilitates their pleasures, manages their most important affairs, directs their industry, regulates their successions, and divides their inheritances. Why not relieve them entirely of the trouble of thinking and the difficulty of living?

Every day it thus makes man's use of his free will rarer and more futile. It circumscribes the action of the will more narrowly, and little by little robs each citizen of the use of his own faculties. (p. 818)

"The sovereign, after taking individuals one by one in his powerful hands and kneading them to his liking, reaches out to embrace society as a whole. Over it he spreads a fine mesh of uniform, minute, and complex rules, through which not even the most original minds and most vigorous souls can poke their heads above the crowd. He does not break men's wills but softens, bends, and guides them. He seldom forces anyone to act but consistently opposes action. He does not destroy things but prevents them from coming into being. Rather than tyrannize, he inhibits, represses, saps, stifles, and stultifies, and in the end he reduces each nation to nothing but a flock of timid and industrious animals, with the government as its shepherd." (p. 819)

"In absolute governments, the high nobles who surround the throne flatter the passions of the master and voluntarily bend to his whims. But the masses of the nation are not inclined toward servitude; often they submit out of weakness, habit, or ignorance, and occasionally out of love for royalty or the king. It is not unknown for a people to take pleasure and pride of a sort of sacrificing their will to that of the prince, thereby marking a kind of independence of soul in the very act of obedience. In such nations degradation is far less common than misery. There is a great difference, moreover, between doing what one does not approve of and pretending to approve of what one does: one is the attitude of a man who is weak, the other a habit that only a lackey would acquire." (p. 296)

"As the first people to face the redoubtable alternative I have just described, the Anglo-Americans were fortunate enough to escape from absolute power. Their circumstances, background, enlightenment, and, most of all, mores enabled them to establish and maintain the sovereignty of the people." (p. 61)

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. New York, NY: Library of America, 2004.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Greek Concept of Virtue

Sally Haslanger
Sally Haslanger is the Ford Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and holds the 2015 Spinoza Chair of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam.

Let us begin by looking in a general way at the ancient Greek conception of virtue and morality. Although the various authors we will consider differ considerably in their views about morality, there are a number of core assumptions which they all shared, and within which their views evolved. Many of the assumptions and the debates will be familiar to us; they concern the foundations of moral motivation (why be moral?), the basis for moral obligation (by what authority does morality make demands on us?), and moral epistemology (how do we know what is right or wrong? Can virtue be taught?).

The Greek word for virtue is 'ARETE'. For the Greeks, the notion of virtue is tied to the notion of function (ERGON). The virtues of something are what enable it to perform excellently its proper function. Virtue (or arete) extends beyond the realm of morality; it concerns the excellent performance of any function.  For example the function of a paring knife is to cut fruits and vegetables. A paring knife "has virtues" relative to that function, eg., a good paring knife has the virtue of being sharp, strong, etc. From this it appears that our own broad idea of virtue retains the Greek suggestion that virtue is excellence in performing one's proper function.

In keeping with this broad conception of virtue, human virtue is that which enables a human being to perform well or excellently the proper function of a human being.  We may find it odd to speak of the proper goal or function of a human being; what is the function of human beings? The function of something is linked to what it can do especially well, or what only it can do. For humans, to put the point broadly, this is to live a human life.  So the function of a human being is to live well or excellently the life that we have.  Since to live well is to be happy, one's virtue is what enables one to lead a happy life.

So, on the Greek conception of virtue, a virtuous person is one who has the ability to live excellently, ie., to live a full, productive, and happy human life.  Moral goodness is a kind of functional goodness: goodness relative to our proper purpose or function.  This is only a schematic model and must be filled in by further discussion of what constitutes a distinctively human life, and distinctively human excellence.

Happiness is not only the product of well-living, but it is also what we naturally pursue.  We have as our function a well-lived life, and we are naturally motivated to pursue such a life; this is a life of happiness. In short, happiness is our TELOS, ie., our goal or aim.  On the Greek approach to ethics what is morally right for an agent must contribute to the agent's happiness, for the moral goodness of our actions is necessarily connected to living well.  On this view, one can always characterize what is morally right in a way which reveals it as conducive to the agent's good, or self-interest. (This need not mean that all morality is narrowly self-centered, for it may be essential to my happiness and the goodness of my life that I am able to care for others.)

During Socrates' lifetime, it was usually assumed that there are five cardinal virtues: wisdom, moderation/temperance, bravery, justice, piety.  Popular belief had it that one could have one of these virtues without having the rest.  Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle believed, however, that the virtues are inseparable; if you have one you have them all.

The point of these virtues is that each enables one to perform well in a particular sphere of life, and the virtues together enable one to live a good life as a whole.  Bravery enables one to perform well in situations of danger; justice enables one to carry out successfully one's dealings with the others in a community; having all of the virtues enables one to perform excellently in all aspects of life. Truly living well requires that one have all of the virtues; complete virtue is the key to happiness (EUDAIMONIA).

There are two problems we shall have to address in coming to understand this conception of virtue:

1. Morality requires that we be just. To be just is to honor the claims of others in considering potential conflicts. In some cases, honoring the claims of others will clearly be against one's self-interest. How do we reconcile the claim that justice is a virtue and so (necessarily) leads to my happiness, with the seemingly undeniable fact that sometimes the unjust person who does not treat others fairly ends up happier? (Eg., won't an unjust person who gets more than a fair share of the pie be happier than they would be if the pie were divided fairly?)

2. If all morality is in our self-interest (because morality necessarily promotes our happiness), and we are naturally motivated to act in our own self-interest, why is it that sometimes we perform actions we know to be morally wrong? In other words, how is possible that sometimes we know the right thing to do, and yet go ahead and do the wrong thing? This is known as the problem of AKRASIA or "weakness of will".

Ancient philosophy, Fall 2004, lecture notes

Friday, March 3, 2017

In Praise of Philosophy

By: Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961)
If we have recalled these words of Bergson, not all of which are in his books, it is because they make us feel that there is a tension in the relation of the philosopher with other persons or with life, and that this uneasiness is essential to philosophy. We have forgotten this a little. The modern philosopher is frequently a functionary, always a writer, and the freedom allowed him in his books admits an opposite view. What he says enters first of all into an academic world where the choices of life are deadened and the occasions for thought are cut off. Without books a certain speed of communication would be impossible, and there is nothing to say against them. But in the end, they are only words expressed a bit more coherently. The philosophy placed in books has ceased to challenge men. What is unusual and almost insupportable in it is hidden in the respectable life of the great philosophical systems. In order to understand the total function of the philosopher, we must remember that even the philosophical writers whom we read and who we are have never ceased to recognize as their patron a man who never wrote, who never taught, at least in any official chair, who talked with anyone he met on the street, and who had certain difficulties with public opinion and with the public powers. We must remember Socrates. 

The life and the death of Socrates record the difficult relations which the philosopher maintains – when he is not protected by the immunity of books – with the gods of the City; that is to say with other men, and with the fixed absolute whose image they extend to him. If the philosopher were a rebel, it would be less shocking. For in the last analysis each one of us knows for his own part that the world as it is, is unacceptable. We like to have this written down for the honor of humanity, though we may forget it when we return to our affairs. Hence rebellion is not displeasing. But with Socrates it is something different. He teaches that religion is true, and he offered sacrifices to the gods. He teaches that one ought to obey the City, and he obeys it from the very beginning to the end. He is reproached not so much for what he does as for his way of doing it, his motive. In the Apology, there is a saying which explains it all, when Socrates says to his judges: Athenians, I believe as none of those who accuse me. Revealing words! He believes more than they, but also he believes in another way, and in a different sense. True religion for Socrates is religion in which the gods are not in conflict, where the omens remain ambiguous – since, in the last analysis, says the Socrates of Xenophon, it is the gods, not the birds, who foresee the future – where the divine reveals itself, like the daimon of Socrates, only by a silent warning and a reminder to man of his ignorance. Religion is, therefore, true, but true in a sense that is does not know – true as Socrates thinks it, not as it thinks.

And in the same way when he justifies the City, it is for his own reasons, not for raisons d’Etat.  He does not run away. He appears before the tribunal. But there is little respect in the reasons he gives for this. First of all, he says, at my age that lust for life is not in place; furthermore, one would not put up with me much better elsewhere; finally, I have always lived here. There remains the celebrated argument for the authority of the laws. But we need to examine it more closely. Xenophon makes Socrates say that one may obey the laws in wishing for them to change, as one fights a war in wishing for peace. Thus, it is not that the laws are good but that they pertain to order, and one needs order in order to change it. When Socrates refuses to flee, it is not that he recognizes the tribunal. It is that he may be in a better position to challenge it. By fleeing, that is, he would become an enemy of Athens and would make the sentence against him true. By remaining, he has won, whether he be acquitted or condemned, for he will prove his philosophy either in leading his judges to accept it, or in his own acceptance of the sentence.

Aristotle, seventy-five years later, will say, in leaving the city of his own accord, that there is no sense in allowing the Athenians to commit a new crime against philosophy. Socrates, on the other hand, works out for himself another idea of philosophy. It does not exist as a sort of idol of which he would be the guardian and which he must defend. It exists rather in its living relevance to the Athenians, in its absent presence, in its obedience without respect. Socrates has a way of obeying which is a way of resisting, while Aristotle disobeys in seemliness and dignity. Everything that Socrates does is ordered around the secret principle that one is annoyed if he does not comprehend. Always to blame by excess or default, always more simple and yet less abstract than the others, more flexible and less accommodating, he makes them ill at ease, and inflicts upon them the unpardonable offense of making them doubt themselves. He is there in life, at the assembly of the people, and before the tribunal, but in such a way that one can make nothing of him. He gives them no eloquence, no prepared rhetoric. By entering into the game of respect, he would only justify the calumny against him. But even less any show of defiance! This would be to forget that in a certain sense the others can hardly judge otherwise than they do. The same philosophy obliges him to appear before the judges and also makes him different from them. The same freedom which brings him among them frees him from their prejudices. The very same principle makes him both universal and singular. There is a part of him by which he is the kinsman of them all. It is called reason and is invisible to them. For them, as Aristophanes says, it is cloudy, empty chattering. The commentators sometimes say it is all a misunderstanding. Socrates believes in religion and the city, in spirit and in truth. They believe in them to the letter. He and his judges are not on the same ground. If only he had been better understood, one would have seen clearly that he was neither seeking for new gods, nor neglecting the gods of Athens. He was only trying to give them a sense; he was interpreting them.

The trouble is that this operation is not so innocent. It is in the world of the philosopher that one saves the gods and the laws by understanding them, and to make room on earth for the life of philosophy, it is precisely philosophers like Socrates who are required. Religion interpreted – this is for the others religion supressed. And the charge of impiety – this is the point of view of the others towards him. He gives reason for obeying the laws. But it is already too much to have reasons for obeying, since over against all reasons other reasons can be opposed, and the respect disappears. What one expects of him – this is exactly what he is not able to give – is assent to the thing itself, without restriction. He, on the contrary, comes before the judges, yes, but it is to explain to them what the City is. As if they did not know! As if they were not the City! He does not plead for himself. He pleads the cause of a city which would accept philosophy. He reverses the roles and says to them: it is not myself I am defending; it is you. In the last analysis, the City is in him and they are the enemies of the laws. It is they who are being judges, and he who is judging them – an inevitable reversal in the philosopher, since he justifies what is outside by values which come from within.

What can one do if he neither pleads his cause nor challenges to combat? One can speak in such a way as to make freedom show itself in and through the various respects and considerations, and to unlock hate by a smile – a lesson for our philosophy which has lost both its smile and its sense of tragedy. This is what is called irony. The irony of Socrates is a distant but true relation with others. It expresses the fundamental fact that each of us is only himself inescapably, and nevertheless recognizes himself in the other. It is an attempt to open up both of us for freedom. As is true of tragedy, both the adversaries are justified, and true irony uses a double-meaning which is founded on these facts. There is therefore no self-conceit. It is irony on the self no less than on the others. As Hegel well says, it is naïve. The irony of Socrates is not to say less in order to win an advantage in showing great mental power, or in suggesting some esoteric knowledge. “Whenever I convince anyone of his ignorance,” the Apology says with melancholy, “my listeners imagine that I know everything that he does not know,” Socrates does not know any more than they know. He knows only that there is no absolute knowledge, and that it is by this absence that we are open to the truth.

To this good Irony Hegel opposes a romantic irony which is equivocal, tricky, and self-conceited. It relies on the power which we can use, if we wish, to give any kind of meaning to anything whatsoever. It levels the things down; it plays with them and permits anything. The irony of Socrates is not this kind of madness. Or at least if there are traces of bad irony in it, it is Socrates himself who teaches us to correct Socrates. When he says: I make them dislike me and this is proof that what I say is true, he is wrong on the basis of his own principles. All sound reasoning is offensive, but all that offends us is not true. At another time, when he says to his judges: I will not philosophizing even if I must die many times, he taunts them and tempts their cruelty. Sometimes it is clear that he yields to the giddiness of insolence and spitefulness, to self-magnification and the aristocratic spirit. He was left with no other resource than himself. As Hegel says again, he appeared “at the time of the decadence of the Athenian democracy; he drew away from the externally existent and retired into himself to seek there for the just and the good.” But in the last analysis it was precisely this that he was self-prohibited from doing, since he thought that one cannot be just all alone and, indeed, that in being just all alone one ceases to be just. If it is true the City that he is defending, it is not merely the City in him but that actual City existing around him. The five hundred men who gathered together to judge him were neither all important people nor all fools. Two hundred and twenty-one among them thought he was innocent, and a change of thirty votes would have saved Athens from the dishonor. It was also a question of those after Socrates who would run the same danger. He was perhaps free to bring down the anger of the fools upon himself, to pardon them with a certain contempt, and then to pass beyond his life. But this would not absolve him in advance from the evil he might bring on their lives. It was therefore necessary to give to the tribunal its chance of understanding. In so far as we live with others, no judgement we make on them is possible which leaves us out, and which places then at a distance. All is vain, or all is evil, as likewise all is well, which are hard to distinguish, do not come from philosophy.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Big data, Google and the end of free will

Yuval Noah Harari, tenured professor at the Department of History
 of  The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Forget about listening to ourselves. In the age of data, algorithms have the answer, writes the historian Yuval Noah Harari

For thousands of years humans believed that authority came from the gods. Then, during the modern era, humanism gradually shifted authority from deities to people. Jean-Jacques Rousseau summed up this revolution in Emile, his 1762 treatise on education. When looking for the rules of conduct in life, Rousseau found them “in the depths of my heart, traced by nature in characters which nothing can efface. I need only consult myself with regard to what I wish to do; what I feel to be good is good, what I feel to be bad is bad.” Humanist thinkers such as Rousseau convinced us that our own feelings and desires were the ultimate source of meaning, and that our free will was, therefore, the highest authority of all.

Now, a fresh shift is taking place. Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies, and human authority was legitimised by humanist ideologies, so high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data. This novel creed may be called “Dataism”. In its extreme form, proponents of the Dataist worldview perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system — and then merge into it.

We are already becoming tiny chips inside a giant system that nobody really understands. Every day I absorb countless data bits through emails, phone calls and articles; process the data; and transmit back new bits through more emails, phone calls and articles. I don’t really know where I fit into the great scheme of things, and how my bits of data connect with the bits produced by billions of other humans and computers. I don’t have time to find out, because I am too busy answering emails. This relentless dataflow sparks new inventions and disruptions that nobody plans, controls or comprehends.

But no one needs to understand. All you need to do is answer your emails faster. Just as free-market capitalists believe in the invisible hand of the market, so Dataists believe in the invisible hand of the dataflow. As the global data-processing system becomes all-knowing and all-powerful, so connecting to the system becomes the source of all meaning. The new motto says: “If you experience something — record it. If you record something — upload it. If you upload something — share it.”

Dataists further believe that given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves. Once that happens, humans will lose their authority, and humanist practices such as democratic elections will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.

When Michael Gove announced his shortlived candidacy to become Britain’s prime minister in the wake of June’s Brexit vote, he explained: “In every step in my political life I have asked myself one question, ‘What is the right thing to do? What does your heart tell you?’” That’s why, according to Gove, he had fought so hard for Brexit, and that’s why he felt compelled to backstab his erstwhile ally Boris Johnson and bid for the alpha-dog position himself — because his heart told him to do it.

Gove is not alone in listening to his heart in critical moments. For the past few centuries humanism has seen the human heart as the supreme source of authority not merely in politics but in every other field of activity. From infancy we are bombarded with a barrage of humanist slogans counselling us: “Listen to yourself, be true to yourself, trust yourself, follow your heart, do what feels good.”

In politics, we believe that authority depends on the free choices of ordinary voters. In market economics, we maintain that the customer is always right. Humanist art thinks that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; humanist education teaches us to think for ourselves; and humanist ethics advise us that if it feels good, we should go ahead and do it.

Of course, humanist ethics often run into difficulties in situations when something that makes me feel good makes you feel bad. For example, every year for the past decade the Israeli LGBT community has held a gay parade in the streets of Jerusalem. It is a unique day of harmony in this conflict-riven city, because it is the one occasion when religious Jews, Muslims and Christians suddenly find a common cause — they all fume in accord against the gay parade. What’s really interesting, though, is the argument the religious fanatics use. They don’t say: “You shouldn’t hold a gay parade because God forbids homosexuality.” Rather, they explain to every available microphone and TV camera that “seeing a gay parade passing through the holy city of Jerusalem hurts our feelings. Just as gay people want us to respect their feelings, they should respect ours.” It doesn’t matter what you think about this particular conundrum; it is far more important to understand that in a humanist society, ethical and political debates are conducted in the name of conflicting human feelings, rather than in the name of divine commandments.

Yet humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of “free will” is under threat. Scientific insights into the way our brains and bodies work suggest that our feelings are not some uniquely human spiritual quality. Rather, they are biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to make decisions by quickly calculating probabilities of survival and reproduction.

Contrary to popular opinion, feelings aren’t the opposite of rationality; they are evolutionary rationality made flesh. When a baboon, giraffe or human sees a lion, fear arises because a biochemical algorithm calculates the relevant data and concludes that the probability of death is high. Similarly, feelings of sexual attraction arise when other biochemical algorithms calculate that a nearby individual offers a high probability for successful mating. These biochemical algorithms have evolved and improved through millions of years of evolution. If the feelings of some ancient ancestor made a mistake, the genes shaping these feelings did not pass on to the next generation.

Even though humanists were wrong to think that our feelings reflected some mysterious “free will”, up until now humanism still made very good practical sense. For although there was nothing magical about our feelings, they were nevertheless the best method in the universe for making decisions — and no outside system could hope to understand my feelings better than me. Even if the Catholic Church or the Soviet KGB spied on me every minute of every day, they lacked the biological knowledge and the computing power necessary to calculate the biochemical processes shaping my desires and choices. Hence, humanism was correct in telling people to follow their own heart. If you had to choose between listening to the Bible and listening to your feelings, it was much better to listen to your feelings. The Bible represented the opinions and biases of a few priests in ancient Jerusalem. Your feelings, in contrast, represented the accumulated wisdom of millions of years of evolution that have passed the most rigorous quality-control tests of natural selection.

However, as the Church and the KGB give way to Google and Facebook, humanism loses its practical advantages. For we are now at the confluence of two scientific tidal waves. On the one hand, biologists are deciphering the mysteries of the human body and, in particular, of the brain and of human feelings. At the same time, computer scientists are giving us unprecedented data-processing power. When you put the two together, you get external systems that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can. Once Big Data systems know me better than I know myself, authority will shift from humans to algorithms. Big Data could then empower Big Brother.

This has already happened in the field of medicine. The most important medical decisions in your life are increasingly based not on your feelings of illness or wellness, or even on the informed predictions of your doctor — but on the calculations of computers who know you better than you know yourself. A recent example of this process is the case of the actress Angelina Jolie. In 2013, Jolie took a genetic test that proved she was carrying a dangerous mutation of the BRCA1 gene. According to statistical databases, women carrying this mutation have an 87 per cent probability of developing breast cancer. Although at the time Jolie did not have cancer, she decided to pre-empt the disease and undergo a double mastectomy. She didn’t feel ill but she wisely decided to listen to the computer algorithms. “You may not feel anything is wrong,” said the algorithms, “but there is a time bomb ticking in your DNA. Do something about it — now!”

What is already happening in medicine is likely to take place in more and more fields. It starts with simple things, like which book to buy and read. How do humanists choose a book? They go to a bookstore, wander between the aisles, flip through one book and read the first few sentences of another, until some gut feeling connects them to a particular tome. Dataists use Amazon. As I enter the Amazon virtual store, a message pops up and tells me: “I know which books you liked in the past. People with similar tastes also tend to love this or that new book.”

This is just the beginning. Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able constantly to collect data on their users while they are reading books. Your Kindle can monitor which parts of a book you read quickly, and which slowly; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. If Kindle was to be upgraded with face recognition software and biometric sensors, it would know how each sentence influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It would know what made you laugh, what made you sad, what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, computer programs need never forget. Such data should eventually enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision. It will also allow Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to press your emotional buttons.

Take this to its logical conclusion, and eventually people may give algorithms the authority to make the most important decisions in their lives, such as who to marry. In medieval Europe, priests and parents had the authority to choose your mate for you. In humanist societies we give this authority to our feelings. In a Dataist society I will ask Google to choose. “Listen, Google,” I will say, “both John and Paul are courting me. I like both of them, but in a different way, and it’s so hard to make up my mind. Given everything you know, what do you advise me to do?”

And Google will answer: “Well, I know you from the day you were born. I have read all your emails, recorded all your phone calls, and know your favourite films, your DNA and the entire biometric history of your heart. I have exact data about each date you went on, and I can show you second-by-second graphs of your heart rate, blood pressure and sugar levels whenever you went on a date with John or Paul. And, naturally enough, I know them as well as I know you. Based on all this information, on my superb algorithms and on decades’ worth of statistics about millions of relationships — I advise you to go with John, with an 87 per cent probability of being more satisfied with him in the long run.

“Indeed, I know you so well that I even know you don’t like this answer. Paul is much more handsome than John and, because you give external appearances too much weight, you secretly wanted me to say ‘Paul’. Looks matter, of course, but not as much as you think. Your biochemical algorithms — which evolved tens of thousands of years ago in the African savannah — give external beauty a weight of 35 per cent in their overall rating of potential mates. My algorithms — which are based on the most up-to-date studies and statistics — say that looks have only a 14 per cent impact on the long-term success of romantic relationships. So, even though I took Paul’s beauty into account, I still tell you that you would be better off with John.”

Google won’t have to be perfect. It won’t have to be correct all the time. It will just have to be better on average than me. And that is not so difficult, because most people don’t know themselves very well, and most people often make terrible mistakes in the most important decisions of their lives.

The Dataist worldview is very attractive to politicians, business people and ordinary consumers because it offers groundbreaking technologies and immense new powers. For all the fear of missing our privacy and our free choice, when consumers have to choose between keeping their privacy and having access to far superior healthcare — most will choose health.

For scholars and intellectuals, Dataism promises to provide the scientific Holy Grail that has eluded us for centuries: a single overarching theory that unifies all the scientific disciplines from musicology through economics, all the way to biology. According to Dataism, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a stock-exchange bubble and the flu virus are just three patterns of dataflow that can be analysed using the same basic concepts and tools. This idea is extremely attractive. It gives all scientists a common language, builds bridges over academic rifts and easily exports insights across disciplinary borders.

Of course, like previous all-encompassing dogmas, Dataism, too, may be founded on a misunderstanding of life. In particular, Dataism has no answer to the notorious “hard problem of consciousness”. At present we are very far from explaining consciousness in terms of data-processing. Why is it that when billions of neurons in the brain fire particular signals to one another, a subjective feeling of love or fear or anger appears? We don’t have a clue.

But even if Dataism is wrong about life, it may still conquer the world. Many previous creeds gained enormous popularity and power despite their factual mistakes. If Christianity and communism could do it, why not Dataism? Dataism has especially good prospects, because it is currently spreading across all scientific disciplines. A unified scientific paradigm may easily become an unassailable dogma.

If you don’t like this, and you want to stay beyond the reach of the algorithms, there is probably just one piece of advice to give you, the oldest in the book: know thyself. In the end, it’s a simple empirical question. As long as you have greater insight and self-knowledge than the algorithms, your choices will still be superior and you will keep at least some authority in your hands. If the algorithms nevertheless seem poised to take over, it is mainly because most human beings hardly know themselves at all.

Originally published in the Financial TimesAUGUST 26, 2016

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Psychology of Climate Change Denial

 The Australian Psychological Society
Whilst the vast majority of people claim to be concerned about the climate, it is also the case that large numbers of people also avoid, minimise, switch off, or distance themselves from effectively engaging with the problems. A small but noisy minority actively deny that there even is a problem. How do we understand this, and how do we solve the “It’s Not My Problem” problem?
One of the ways of dealing with denial is to raise awareness of the scientific consensus on climate change.  The importance of this cannot be overstated. Typically, the general public think around 50% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming. The reality is that 97% of scientists agree.
Psychologists who have specialised in understanding science denial have found that the best way to respond to this is to use a branch of psychology dating back to the 1960s known as “inoculation theory” (See Cook, 2015). The way to neutralise misinformation is to expose people to a weak form of the misinformation. The way to achieve this is to explain the fallacy employed by the myth. Once people understand the techniques used to distort the science, they can reconcile the myth with the fact.
With respect to climate change, science denial can be stopped by first explaining the psychological research into why and how people deny climate science.
Having laid the framework, you then show people how to examine the fallacies behind the most common climate myths. There are five common techniques that are used to create myths about climate change.

  • Fake experts
  • Logical fallacies
  • Impossible expectations
  • Cherry picking
  • Conspiracy theories

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Practical Reason, Phronēsis

Practical Reason

Prof. R. W. Hepburn
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2 ed.)

Argument, intelligence, insight, directed to a practical and especially a moral outcome. Historically, a contrast has often been made between theoretical and practical employments of reason. Aristotle's ‘practical syllogism’ concludes in an action rather than in a proposition or a new belief: and phronēsis (see book vi of Nicomachean Ethics) is the ability to use intellect practically. In discussions of motivation, furthermore, appeals to practical reason may seek to counter claims that only desire or inclination can ultimately prompt to action. A measure of disengagement from personal wish and want, a readiness to appraise one's acts by criteria which (rising above individual contingent desire) can be every rational moral agent's criteria, marks a crucial point of insertion of reason into practice. To Kant, the bare notion of being subject to a moral law suffices to indicate how practical reason can operate. Considering any moral policy, ask: Could it consistently function as universal law? The scope of practical reason, however, is much wider than this: practical reasoning must (for example) include the critical comparison and sifting of alleged human goods and ends, and the reflective establishing of their ranking and place in a life plan.
E. Millgram (ed.), Varieties of Practical Reasoning (Cambridge, Mass., 2001).
O. O'Neill, Constructions of Reason (Cambridge, 1989).


Prof. C. C. W. Taylor.
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2 ed.)

Practical wisdom. In ancient Greek the term (frequently interchangeable with sophia) has connotations of intelligence and soundness of judgement, especially in practical contexts. In Aristotle's ethics it is the complete excellence of the practical intellect, the counterpart of sophia in the theoretical sphere, comprising a true conception of the good life and the deliberative excellence necessary to realize that conception in practice via choice (prohairesis).
R. Sorabji, ‘Aristotle on the Rôle of the Intellect in Virtue’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1973–4); repr. in A. Rorty (ed.), Essays on Aristotle's Ethics (Berkeley, Calif., 1980).


The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2 rev. ed.) Simon Blackburn

Practical wisdom, or knowledge of the proper ends of life, distinguished by Aristotle from theoretical knowledge and mere means-end reasoning, or craft, and itself a necessary and sufficient condition of virtue.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Corporation

The Corporation is a 2003 Canadian documentary film written by University of British Columbia law professor Joel Bakan, and directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott. The documentary examines the modern-day corporation. Bakan wrote the book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, during the filming of the documentary. (Wikipedia)

Related material:
The World According to Monsanto

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Undeniable climate change facts

CNN's Jennifer Gray give five reasons why 97% of scientists agree climate change is happening.

CNN's John Sutter was in Shishmaref, Alaska, to explain how climate change has affected the world this year.