Meta-Meta-Philosophy

In chess the goal of checkmate is absolute while all other values are subordinate to it. In philosophy, unlike the game of chess, values are not encoded into the rules of the game itself. In fact, one of the goals of philosophy is to find out what our values should be! Yet we can’t even begin the process of philosophizing without accepting that we come to it with preformed ideas. When Descartes began his explorations of a “first philosophy” by invoking the procedure of “radical doubt” he was presupposing the value of certain knowledge as the ultimate yardstick. He did not start by demonstrating that it is actually possible to know anything with certainty, nor did he take the time to argue that knowing things with certainty was a good and useful goal. He just assumed that his reader would already agree with him on these points. So even a “first philosophy” does not begin in a vacuum, but rather occurs in the context of a fully-formed culture. I cannot begin to overemphasize the importance of this point.

Before launching into the development of a philosophical position (strategy and tactics are both required to form sound arguments), one must have a fully developed sense of what is important in life (i.e., wisdom) even if the goal is to expand and refine those values. It is a cyclical process that feeds back into itself. What is often missed is how radically different the resulting philosophies are which started from different cultural contexts. And it explains a lot. That is why there can be a philosophy of chess, a philosophy of science, a philosophy of law, a philosophy of gender, etc., each with different emphases and ethical implications. Being able to construct a well-formed argument to support a solid philosophical position is what makes you a good philosopher. Knowing which presupposed values should undergird your philosophy is what makes you wise.

A Little Meta-Philosophy

Given that breaking down the word “philosophy” into its Greek roots implies “love of wisdom,” it makes sense to emphasize wisdom over mere cleverness, as did Plato in his famous dialogues. At the risk of sounding clever myself, the recursiveness of the formula “it would be wise to value wisdom over cleverness” lends emphasis to its self-apparent truth. Unfortunately, recursive formulas contain very little definitional content due to their circularity. To shed light on the distinction between wisdom and cleverness I could just refer you to Plato, but perhaps I can take a little stab at it here.

The literature of the game of Chess relies heavily on a similar distinction between “strategy” and “tactics.” Strategy generally refers to long-term goals, whereas tactics are the means of achieving them. So a strategy might be expressed verbally like so:

“Given that Black’s pieces are currently gathered on the Queen side and are thus not able to quickly come to the defense of the Black King, and given the weakness already existing in the pawn structure of the Black King’s castled position, White should adopt the strategy of attacking on the King side after making appropriate preparations such as stabilizing the center, opening lines, and concentrating attackers near the King. If this strategy succeeds it will become possible to break through the King’s defenses and achieve checkmate.”

Notice that in the description of the strategy there are few specifics: only some generalities about the state of the Black position. “Stabilizing the center” is a sub-strategy, based on established general principles, which should make the success of the large-scale strategy of the King side attack more likely. The specific method of stabilizing the center, perhaps pushing a pawn from e4 to e5, or trading pawns on d5 before planting a knight on e5, falls into the realm of tactics. But judging which of the two methods is better is still a strategic question. Opening the ‘h’ file by advancing the pawn to h5, with the White Rook behind it, then exchanging on g6, maneuvering the White Queen to h3 after the Rook has been moved to h6, etc: these are tactical maneuvers serving a strategic goal. The final combination to break through the Black defenses, perhaps involving sparkling sacrifices of material to finally trap the Black King in a mating net, these are the culmination of strategy by tactical means.

We can summarize the distinction between strategy and tactics as follows: strategy is “general” or abstract, tactics are “specific” and mechanical. The soundness of a tactical “trick” is not just in the achievement of its mechanical purpose, but even more importantly, whether the achievement of that tactical effect succeeds in bringing about the strategic goal. All the brilliantly clever tactics in the world are worthless if the strategy they serve is based on the wrong values. In philosophy, we must be clear on what the purpose of philosophy itself is — in human and social terms — before launching into the fancy footwork of clever arguments, or our entire mission will fail.

External Analysis

The analytical frame of mind seeks to break a thing apart to look at elements, mechanisms, or internal structures to understand how it functions. But I often find that an “external analysis” of boundary conditions, contexts, inputs and outputs — really just treating the thing as a “black box” — can answer questions without having to delve into the inner workings.

Of course, I don’t necessarily mean physical things. It could be anything from a job description you are writing to an economic theory. An example of an external analysis might be the design of fire-retardant chemicals. Since the purpose is to make something that won’t burn, if you succeed, it won’t oxidize easily or perhaps not even break down at all. From that simple external assessment, it is pretty clear that such a chemical will likely be a potential environmental contaminant, since it would hang around for a long time. Its toxicity would depend on other features, of course. Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), for example, is very stable because the active sites on the hydrocarbon frame (two benzene rings) are occupied by chlorine atoms. (This is internal analysis now.) The molecules are chemically inert, but the chlorine atoms are very electronegative. These two facts — that the molecules are inert, and that they have electronegative sites — explain the carcinogenic properties. The PCB molecules hang around in the body long enough to find their way into the cell nuclei where they can disrupt DNA replication. So the internal analysis explains the particular mechanism of one particular chemical (PCB), but the external analysis (characteristics of a fire retardant) are enough to warn you that it may be dangerous.

I had to dig deep into my thirty-five-year-old memories of organic chemistry class to come up with that example, but here is another one that is of more general interest: supply-side versus demand-side economics. Part of the fun of external analysis is that it can be quite simple-minded and still be useful. A fundamental “law” of economics is that of supply and demand, which is actually a theory about how prices are determined¬†in an open, competitive market. (In a controlled market, prices are either set by a government or a monopoly/oligopoly.) The idea is that when demand equals supply, prices will be at an equilibrium. Viewed externally, it is easy to imagine that in a demand-driven economy supply is lagging demand, so there is upward pressure on prices. In a supply-driven economy, supply is ahead of demand, so prices are softening. (External analysis saves us from having to do any math here.)

It makes sense that when Ronald Reagan was elected he was wanting to implement supply-side policies: inflation was in double digits and investment was weak. Now, after decades of supply-side policies, we see the specter of deflation all over the developed world while capital exceeds legitimate investment opportunities — flat growth, flat markets! So perhaps we need policies that stimulate demand. “Austerity” has the opposite effect: it is deflationary. Time for some long-overdue fiscal stimulus a la Keynes.

Independence

I read something a long time ago by the 20th century evangelist E. Stanley Jones that so impressed me that not only did it stick, it has guided my thinking ever since. We are all born completely dependent on others for our survival. As adolescents we naturally must exert our independence — physically, mentally, socially. But as adults, when we are fully mature in our understanding, we come to see that we are interdependent. Individual humans are weaker than other species, but together we dominate the planet. The greatest achievements of humankind are not individual acts of heroism, but the creation of civilizations that are vast and complex webs of specialization and interconnection.

It seems natural that one’s political orientation might evolve along with these stages of development. Early in life we might wish to be taken care of. Later, when our strength is greatest, we seek to sharpen our blades against brave challenges. But sooner or later we encounter failure, bad luck, or simply our own limitations. We gain the perspective that there is really no such thing as a “self-made man.” We come to see that we all have different capacities at different times in our lives, and virtually none of us could survive long in the absence of the contributions of others. A mature political outlook sees society as a vital shared resource. Yes, it imposes burdens and obligations, but without the public goods it offers, very little economic activity could occur. Nurturing and protecting the common good becomes a priority. On the other hand, a political view that clings to adolescent notions of liberty and independence — especially decrying the burdens of regulation and taxation — is not just immature, it is literally anti-social.

No, I Would Not Kill Baby Hitler

“Knowing what we know today, would you go back in time and kill baby Hitler if you could?”

Every time I hear this question I cringe a little. I find the presuppositions underlying it highly dubious. Leaving aside the paradoxes of time travel (I will save the discussion of the incoherence of the concept for future posts), the belief that you could change history in a meaningful way by adding or subtracting a single person is highly problematic: social forces play a bigger role than any individual. There is a feedback loop between the individual and society, each shaping the other. When conditions are ripe for a movement, a person will emerge to be its standard-bearer. That person is less unique than we are apt to think.

“Hitler Didn’t Drop Out of a Clear Blue Sky”

The social, political, and economic conditions in Germany between the two phases of the great world war are well known. Alice Miller makes a convincing case in her book, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, that Hitler was skilfully triggering deeply programmed responses from the German people that had been burned in by the pedagogical norms of the early 20th century. What’s more, the silly brown-shirt fringe group he was leading only gained power after it received the backing of the German military-industrial-financial complex (with help from abroad). Had there been no Hitler, they could have / would have chosen someone else to represent their interests.

The scenario presupposed by the “kill baby Hitler” question seems to assume that Hitler was some sort of demonic presence with super-human powers, not the sick but ordinary man he actually was. It also assumes he had no rivals. Suppose you go back and kill baby Hitler, only to find out later that all you have done is create space for his otherwise unknown rival, Schitler, to rise to power in his place — with the difference that Schitler is slightly less psychologically damaged and slightly more intelligent than Hitler, just enough so to actually win the war?

The idea that you could change history by plucking one person out is like thinking you could end a hurricane just by removing the molecules that form the wall of the eye: other molecules would form a new eye wall almost instantly.

A ‘Soul’ Is Just a Person (continued)

In my previous post I defined what I mean when I use the word ‘soul’ — it is essentially synonymous with ‘person’. I could just use the word ‘person’, but that word is usually taken to include the whole person, i.e., the body as well. By soul I mean everything about the person except their physical body, with the understanding that the line between body and personality is neither hard nor fixed. I am not suggesting that the soul is some sort of amorphous, nebulous substance that is added to a living body by some sort of higher power. I am philosophizing here, not doing theology. Thus, I want to start by pointing out what is obvious, uncontroversial, and indubitably true: stuff you can see for yourself to be the case.

Try this analogy: by itself a musical instrument is a material object. When I play it, the music that comes out is immaterial, except insofar as structured energy is being transmitted in the form of sound waves (so it is indeed physical, which is not the same as material). The music is not a ‘substance’ in the way that the material of the guitar is, but it is nevertheless real. You can hear it. What the music you hear is to the body of the guitar, so my soul is to the physical body you see before you. The obvious difference is that the guitar doesn’t make music on its own. It is not alive. My body is alive, and the patterns that emerge from my thoughts, words, intentions, actions, etc., comprise my ‘personality’, which I am arguing just is, by definition, what I mean by ‘soul’. It’s really not mystical or anything. Just as you can hear music and know that music is real, you can interact with me and see my soul, even though my soul is not, strictly speaking, a material thing.

There are consequences that immediately follow from the approach I am taking:

  1. Any animal has a soul in the sense that I am using the word. Your dog is a ‘person’.
  2. I make no claim whatsoever about the separability of the soul from the body. Quite the opposite, actually, because there are no examples of music you can hear arising without a voice, instrument, or electronic audio production system of some kind producing the sound.
  3. The soul arises naturally from the behavior of the living being as it interacts with its environment and other beings. It comes from just being alive and sentient. It is not added from the outside (no one “gives you a soul” — the soul is you, so it can’t be taken away either).
  4. When the body dies, we no longer see the soul associated with it — “the music stops.” Did the soul die with the body? Did it go somewhere else? I make no claims here in either direction. But it is no longer observable through the behavior of the body.
  5. It seems possible that a body in a vegetative state (i.e., a person is judged to be “brain dead”) might not have a soul, but I urge caution here, because people do come out of comas.
  6. For my purposes, I am going to say that plants don’t have souls, although they are alive. This is just to maintain the distinction between plants and animals: plants can’t walk around, they can be dead and then come back to life, they can be pruned, grafted, cut and propagated. So while a sensitive person may feel as though their plants have souls, because the individuality of plants is less defined I am going to say “no soul in the sense that I mean here.”

A final note: nothing I have said here is to be taken as an “assertion of facts about the soul”. What I am doing is taking things we all know to be the case and then constructing a way of talking about them. I am clarifying how the word ‘soul’ will be used in my writing, and specifically what it will indicate (and what it will not).

A ‘Soul’ Is Just a Person

I had to take a break from blogging to do a thorough reboot. I now feel I have come far enough to be able to write again, but I have to warn you: my posts are going to seem pretty random for a while. That’s because dialogue is impossible without some common framework in terminology and concepts, which I suppose explains why there is so little productive dialogue these days. I want to talk about some key subjects, but I now realize I will have to take a measured approach, carefully laying out what I actually mean when I use a term — especially terms that come with heavy baggage from the past. One such term is ‘soul.’

C. S. Lewis is often quoted as having said, “You do not have a soul: you are a soul. You have a body.” All those childhood discussions about whether or not people have souls, and if so, what are they made of, are completely flipped on their head by this simple remark. Lewis is pointing out that the word ‘soul’ is just a word, and it means person. Consciousness and free will may at the end of the day turn out to be mere epiphenomena, but whomever is being addressed by the pronoun ‘you’ just is a soul according to the definition of that word. Now I understand that some people believe that souls are eternal and indestructible, but that view is by no means universal even among the writers of the Bible (it is thought to be a Hellenistic accretion by many scholars, but I digress). Such discussions are irrelevant to what I am trying to say here.

On the other hand, Nietzsche famously said that we are in the process of discovering that “the soul is just something about the body.” Well, fine, if we drill down to the mechanisms of the organs of the body and it turns out that this thing we call consciousness is a mere physiological cyber-function that happens to pass the Turing test, I am still left with my experience of being a conscious subject. It’s like telling me that my body is essentially a driver-less car: my belief that I am steering it is as cute as the preschooler thinking they are steering the toy fire engine car on the carnival ride. But then, you still haven’t explained who this ‘I’ is who thinks he is driving.

But for the sake of the discussion I want to have it is oh so much simpler than all that. Let’s just approach the thing externally (as the Turing test does, by the way) and say this: there is the body, and there is the soul, and by “the body” we mean that collection of atoms you take to the morgue when the person is dead, and by “the person” we mean everything else about them that animates them and makes them who they are.