Philosopher wanted urgently

Highgate cemetery 006 (2)

It is noticeable that broadcasted examples of the general knowledge quiz tend to claim unusual mental powers for their more successful entrants: master mind, super brain, and egghead are examples. These are hardly accurate descriptions. Success in quizzes (as I know very well) requires wide interests, a good memory, and readiness for preparatory work. All the candidates know perfectly well that quiz setters enjoy obscure capital cities, the singers of James Bond theme songs, and FA Cup winners. You are either prepared to swot these up or you aren’t; your degree of intelligence, if such a concept really has any meaning, hardly comes into it.

Rather than enter quizzes I have always considered that seriously bright people study philosophy, this being a discipline with which I have always struggled myself. I wish I could say that I understood Spinoza’s ethics or Bertrand Russell’s wish to place mathematics on a logically secure foundation, but evidently my own talents do not lie in that direction. Generally I get by, but what I need is a practical philosopher among you to explain a few troublesome issues in simple terms. The Radio 4 programme ‘The Philosophers’ Arms‘ is the sort of thing I have in mind. Definitive answers in short comprehensible sentences would be much appreciated.

I guess we have all had the experience of waking from a dream and explaining to family or friends that ‘it seemed so real’. Is it possible that what we choose to call ‘reality’ is in fact a dream, or perhaps an extraordinarily perfect illusion created for some purpose by a malevolent demon? Clearly in the everyday world we act as if this were not the case. If the ‘reality police’ refused to investigate a burglary at our house on the basis that there was no objective evidence of the existence of the stolen objects, nor indeed the house, we should be seriously disappointed. I have thought about this question a good deal. The best I can come up with is that although I cannot prove the dream-world theory to be untrue neither can I find any positive evidence for believing that it is true. I don’t feel entirely happy about this and wish that I could be more definite about reality than the uneasy thought that it may be a convenient fiction like the sun rising each day. Can anybody help me?

It is easy to be sure that phenomenon B always follows phenomenon A, or at least always in our long experience. Is that the same as saying A ’causes’ B? I gather that it is not. I hit a cue ball in a game of snooker; the cue ball hits in turn a red which then enters a pocket on the table. Did I cause the red to enter the pocket, or did it simply follow my use of the cue? It doesn’t seem that you can actually prove causality and it may be another one of those convenient fictions. Again when we are mugged in the street and summon the reality police we do have certain expectations. What if they refused to prosecute on the grounds that although our black eye followed us being hit by a mugger’s fist yet neither we, nor anybody else, can prove causality? I predict that we should feel definite disappointment.

A snooker table is quite a useful place to think about such things. Clearly the path taken by a snooker ball depends on a small number of very simple factors: its initial direction, the energy imparted by the cue, frictional with the baize, and dynamic interactions with the other balls or cushions. It may be possible to predict accurately where two balls will end up after a single interaction, I guess professional snooker players have to make such predictions successfully, but the results are soon unpredictable if multiple balls are involved. If one knew enough could one predict exactly where all the reds would end up after the first shot when, I should explain to non-players, all the reds are bunched together? But tiny differences in ball alignment will make huge differences in the final outcome, which I imagine is not really predictable.

Many people, myself included, believe that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Is this principle philosophically secure? If I tell you that I ate bacon and egg for breakfast you would have no actual evidence for believing this to be true. If I also told you that I could levitate 12 feet above the ground you would have no reason to believe this either. But in the everyday world you would probably argue that many people do in fact eat bacon and egg for breakfast and that you have sometimes done so yourself. My first statement is therefore plausible if unproven. Since nobody at all is demonstrably able to levitate at that height the second statement is both implausible and unproven. Before it is believed something very convincing in the way of evidence would have to be produced. I think you could say that you ‘knew’ I had bacon and egg because it is true and you had good reasons for believing it is true. You can never say that you know that I can levitate since you could never have good reasons for believing it. Am I right?

A popular poser when I was a sixth-former, fifty years ago, was ‘if a tree falls in a forest when there is nobody present to hear it does it make a sound?’. You might equally ask if a light is switched on automatically, when there is nobody to see it, does it produce any light? I think I have sorted this one out. When the tree falls or the filament glows physical consequences result. In the first case these are compression waves in the air and in the second various types of electromagnetic radiation are produced. In the absence of ears, eyes and brains to detect and analyse these consequences they are not perceived, and so cannot be called sound or light. Is this correct?

What is meant by ethics? The sound waves and light mentioned in the last paragraph are part of the natural order, like gravity or evolution. Personal ethics are surely an imagined order, a way of structuring human behaviour, and in this respect do not differ from a political system, or a form of government. Imagined orders have a habit of becoming embedded in the material world, and a substantial fraction of educational time is devoted to preparing children to live ethically: do not lie, do not hit your neighbour, do not steal, respect each other and so forth. I am sure that it appears quite proper to us all that children should be instructed how to behave in society together with the knowledge that their personal beliefs and wishes are of real value. But there is nothing natural about this and other societies might take a totally different view. I should like to think that there was more to ethics than divine will experienced at third or fourth hand. Can anyone help me?


3 thoughts on “Philosopher wanted urgently

  1. I can’t give you definite answers – and I rather fear that any actual philosopher would leave you with more questions than you started with. But they would in many ways be better questions, and perhaps that is all one can hope for. I can give you a few pointers to what better philosophers than I am have thought on your questions. They’re all big ones.

    On your malevolent demon: Descartes famously started his philosophy off by worrying about this sort of thing. He wanted to put everything he believed on a very sound basis, so started by doubting everything he possibly could. Obviously, as you point out, what he thought he could see, hear and feel could be the result of a malevolent demon. So he was doubtful. But the clever bit was to realise that something must be doing the doubting, and so must exist – this is the “Cogito, ergo sum” idea. He then made some rather less solid leaps to conclude that the Christian God also existed, and wouldn’t be so lax as to permit demons to deceive decent people like him. And even the cogito has been disputed by later philosophers. You might enjoy searching for discussions of the ‘brain in a vat’ problem, or ‘The Matrix’ problem for philosophers young enough to have encountered that film before philosophy, or ‘The Simulation Argument’. My take on this one is an alarmingly pragmatic one: it does less than no good to worry about situations if there is no conceivable way of telling whether they have happened or not. Yes, I might be a space alien in the middle of an uncannily accurate and convincing experiential simulation of humanity, but as there is no possible way for me to tell that (or any number of other possibilities) apart from my actual lived experience, it is most useful to work as if reality is as it appears to be. And let’s face it, it appears to be more than complex enough to keep us busy with what actually obtains, rather than things that are indistinguishable from fantasy.

    On causation: This is quite slippery stuff, and you touch on multiple philosophical conundrums. Back in Aristotle’s day they worried about all sorts of different causes, and considered them all important. These days we declare most of those uninteresting or not amenable to rational analysis and only care about what he’d have called the efficient cause. Happily, physics has quite a strong, formal conception of what causation is these days, and mathematical logicians have come up with ever-smarter ways of discerning causation from data. Unhappily, it’s moderately hard to get to grips with those, and even if you do, there’s no guarantee that what you think causation ought to mean is captured by those formalisms. Which itself is a general problem that has plagued attempts to work with formal logic since Frege and Russell’s work on logic.

    The stuff about not being able to tell where the multiple snooker balls will end up is itself a scientific field, as you may know – it’s chaos theory, and again it gets mathematically complex but is quite straightforward in philosophical terms: what happens in the future is determined by what happened in the past, but the future depends so finely on the past that an approximation of the present is not much use for making even an approximate prediction of the future. The Butterfly Effect is the famous motivating example: the path or even the development of a hurricane may be affected by the tiny air movements caused by the flapping of a butterfly’s wing, far away in distance and time. Weather is particularly prone to this sort of effect, which for a while made it look like long-term weather forecasting might be practically impossible. One would have to measure the current weather to an impossible level of accuracy to predict the weather even a few days’ hence. But clever meteorological boffins came up with the wheeze of running their models over and over again, but with slight variations of the initial conditions. This gives them some degree of confidence about their predictions: if most of those runs yield the same results, they are pretty likely to happen and they can give definite forecasts; if they yield very differing results, they can say that it’s not clear what will happen. You may have seen hurricane track forecasts that have a funnel shape, spreading out from its current location as time goes on to illustrate where they think it may end up.

    Your extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence seems like the sort of thing that Bayesian statisticians and enthusiasts would leap on. The idea there is that one has a prior belief, to which one is attached with a certain weight, and you update that belief based on new evidence, weighted appropriately. So your prior for believing that anyone can levitate is very, very low, and so would require a vast amount of evidence to outweigh, but my prior for someone eating bacon and egg for breakfast is much higher and might need only your word for it. Bayesians would probably argue that you could be convinced about levitation – but only if you are presented with sufficient evidence, and it may well be unlikely to provide that much evidence.

    On a practical matter, I think levitation is rather more plausible than you appear to – we have already levitated frogs in absurdly powerful magnets. There are good arguments for why it is difficult (and dangerous) to extend this work to levitating humans, they do not seem insuperable to me.

    As you suggest, the tree in a forest is a hoary old chestnut. I think it’s not actually that interesting a conundrum. It depends rather straightforwardly on what one means by ‘making a sound’. If one means ‘makes the vibrations in the air that we commonly call sound’, then yes, the tree does make a sound. If one means ‘is apprehended by a human having the experience we commonly call hearing a sound’, then no, it doesn’t. Not all philosophical problems are so easily resolved with careful definitions, but some are.

    Alas, so far as I can make out, philosophers have rather failed to achieve consensus on morality and ethics. They have at least agreed (more or less) that there are three broad sorts of ethical theories. There’s virtue ethics, which is most concerned with the character of the person acting. There’s deontology, which is about rules that are to be obeyed for acts to be moral. And then there’s consequentialism, which holds that an act’s morality is to be judged by the effects it has. They’ve even invented an entire area – meta-ethics – to try to get clear about what sorts of arguments one might make to try to resolve this. To use the modern educational jargon, that’s still very much a “working towards” outcome.

    How one can live the good life, or at least a better life, has been a fascinating but not fully resolved question since the dawn of philosophy. I expect we will be a while getting to the answer. But that is no reason not to work at it, in my philosophy at least.


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