Tuesday, January 27, 2015

American Sniper, Extraordinary and Ordinary Virtue

American Sniper is a wonderful movie that I hope is not overlooked at the Oscars for its somewhat politically incorrect moral clarity. Moral ambiguity is nowadays misunderstood as moral sophistication, and a film that draws clear lines between the good guys (Chris Kyle and his fellow American soldiers) and the bad guys (Islamic radicals) is seen as simplistic. But modern moral "sophistication" is really just an expression of the emptiness of contemporary secular ethics, which, failing to find a foundation for simple and obvious moral distinctions - like the distinction between terrorists who use children to deliver bombs, and the sniper who must decide whether to shoot that child before he succeeds - denies the obvious moral distinctions themselves.

But the failure of secular ethics is not my point here. Rather, while watching the film, I kept thinking about the extraordinariness of the heroism of Chris Kyle - his courage in facing down an enemy sniper nearly as lethal as himself, his patience in sitting hour after boring hour in the same position, scanning the horizon for threats to the Marines he was protecting, his prudence in making the split second decision whether to pull the trigger on a target that might be a dangerous terrorist - or might merely be a mother out for a walk with her child. And by extraordinary I don't mean the magnitude of his virtue (although there is that) but the simple fact that it was out of the ordinary - not the normal way in virtue is manifested.

Sniping in war is an extremely unusual occupation, and it is that because it is an unusual occupation in something that is itself unusual - war. War cannot be the norm because it is destructive, and you can only destroy what has first been created. So more fundamental than war must be the peace that allows that which would be destroyed or consumed in war to be created in the first place. This is but an instance of the more general metaphysical truth that good is more basic than evil.

We should keep this in mind if we are tempted by the idea that war somehow rips away a façade and reveals reality as it is. The fact that those who have experienced war have seen things very few of us have seen, and that it is easy to become complacent and fall into the mistake of thinking peace is self-sustaining rather than something that must be vigilantly protected, can lead us into this temptation. And if we have fallen for this temptation, then war might indeed be a process of disillusionment, but only of our mistake in thinking that that which is normal and fundamental therefore needs no effort to maintain. It is normal and fundamental that we breathe, but it would be a tragic mistake to think that we therefore need expend no effort in making sure the conditions are maintained in which we can in fact breathe; this is why we have smoke alarms in our homes, airplanes deploy oxygen masks in emergencies, we have clean air laws, and ships carry life preservers.

The extraordinary virtue of Chris Kyle in war, then, was for the sake of returning to or maintaining the ordinary. And from there we can say that the extraordinary virtue of Chris Kyle was for the sake of the ordinary virtue of normal life. Again, I do not intend extraordinary/ordinary as referring to a scale of magnitude - extraordinary being a lot of virtue and ordinary less - but as referring to their relative normalcy. Ordinary virtue happens all the time, extraordinary virtue only occurs in unusual circumstances like war or a natural disaster.

In some ways extraordinary virtue is more difficult than ordinary virtue, but in other ways it is less difficult. Extraordinary virtue tends to be concentrated in the moment and demands a supreme sacrifice of the individual. He is squarely faced with the choice to live up to his character or not; to charge the machine gun, run into the burning house to save a child, or face down the criminal pointing the gun at him. It tends to be, but is not always, highly visible and has clearly defined and immediate results. There might be glory attached in medals, news stories or even a feature film. There is almost certainly the gratitude of those who have immediately benefited, the buddy you dragged back to the aid station or the mother of the child you brought out of the burning house.

The clarity of the challenge involved in extraordinary virtue may be considered one of its "advantages", even if that isn't exactly the right word. The problem of meaning is eclipsed. The situation is clear and what is required is obvious: The only challenge is in doing what is necessary. Veterans have spoken of the horror of war and don't wish to repeat it, but they also sometimes speak of missing the existential clarity of combat. I remember one Easy Company veteran (from Band of Brothers) wistfully reflecting on the confidence and vigor he felt during the Second World War, something he lost as a civilian and never recovered. (I understand that war is not always morally clear - Vietnam comes to mind - but I am thinking here of the typical individual soldier in the moment of combat. The American GI in Vietnam may have wondered what he was doing there, but those doubts were forgotten when the VC were discovered infiltrating through the wire at 2:00 AM).

The challenges of ordinary virtue are almost never, individually speaking, as difficult in the moment as those of extraordinary virtue. They involve simple things like getting up every morning to be at work on time; doing well in your courses of study whether you enjoy them or not; spending time playing with your children in the evening even though you are tired and would rather not; getting up in the middle of the night to care for a sick infant; putting up with a difficult boss for the sake of making a living for your family; dealing with the rotten kids on the youth soccer team you coach, or taking care of a crotchety elderly relative (not you Dad if you are reading this!) In none of these instances are the individual acts in any real way "hard", certainly not hard in the way of Chris Kyle. But there is also no glory or immediate recognition or "payoff" with them. Your kid may not be grateful with you that you played with him, just annoyed you are making him go to bed. No one will give you a medal for getting up and going to work every day. And everyone thinks his kid is just a joy for you to coach.

Furthermore, ordinary virtue can seem easy or boring because "everyone does it", and extraordinary virtue glamorous because only a few are called on to perform it and those that are, are lionized. But this is partly an illusion based on the fact that we normally live in ordinary times and only occasionally in extraordinary times, so simply by the nature of things extraordinary virtue will be unusual. And in ordinary times, not everyone does in fact do it, but this fact itself becomes blasé, especially in our "non-judgmental" culture.

If the challenge of extraordinary virtue is to find the strength to do what is necessary in the extreme moment, the challenge of ordinary virtue is to discover a moral foundation that can support the unglamorous, repetitive, and perhaps boring ongoing life of ordinary virtue. This was a central concern of Kierkegaard, of course, and in his view, the life of ordinary virtue (the ethical life) is inherently unstable and tends to lead to a crisis that provides the occasion for genuine religious faith. The difference in the challenges of ordinary and extraordinary virtue is not always appreciated, and the man who discovers the strength to face the demands of combat may be confused as to why he finds ordinary civilian life so difficult. Combat is, superficially and immediately, a far more difficult situation than ordinary life. How could the latter pose a problem when one has successfully faced the former? It is because, as we have seen, the requirements of the two situations differ.

The key here is meaning. The immediacy of combat, or any life and death situation, eclipses the more general question of meaning and gives life an urgent and brutal purpose in the moment. There is a temptation to yearn for the clarity that combat gives to relieve oneself of the anxiety of the question of meaning; but that question is not answered in combat, only eclipsed, and the question will return once the extraordinary state of war ceases. For war is only for the purpose of restoring some sort of peace, and ultimately itself has meaning, and is justified, in terms of the meaning of the peace it aims to bring about.

Thus we may admire and appreciate the virtue and sacrifice of Chris Kyle, but we should see that his virtue, while necessary and important, is not the most important type of virtue, because it is a virtue that has meaning only in light of the ordinary virtue of the peace it defends. And that latter virtue should be honored at least as much as the former.

I sometimes wonder if the effusive honor and praise we  currently give veterans is a reflection of our guilty conscience, or our half-buried suspicion that we are not worthy of the sacrifices our soldiers make for us - that our ordinary virtue is not worthy of their extraordinary sacrifice. Do not misunderstand me, I believe veterans deserve to be honored, and surely some of the contemporary effusion is makeup for the disgraceful treatment Vietnam veterans received for many years. But there is a certain over-the-top quality to it, as when I am regularly "thanked for my service", although I only served in the late 1980's for a few years, not in a time of war, and I find it embarrassing to be lumped in with WW2 or Vietnam veterans. In the old days veterans were honored on Memorial and Veterans Days with parades and that was that.

The true way to honor veterans is to live well in the peace that they have provided; and I mean "live well" in the classical sense of a life of virtue lived to as much perfection as humanly possible. But we have lost sight of ordinary life as essentially a challenge in virtue. That is too "judgmental." We see the virtue of the soldier in combat from afar, however, and cannot help but admire it. If we cannot honor our soldiers by the lives we lead, at least we can honor them with parades and benefits.

Perhaps the extraordinary virtue of the soldier is the last virtue a civilization loses. Out of the morass of ordinary life, our nation still produces superlative soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, police officers and firemen. We admire the soldier who faces his fears in combat, and would both reject and be puzzled by one who shrank from the demands of combat merely on the grounds that he "wasn't up for that." On the other hand, many times I have been met with puzzled looks by individuals when they learn I raised three children, something that was commonplace and hardly extraordinary not so long ago. Isn't that just an awful lot of work and an unreasonable sacrifice, the question is asked (although not typically in those words)? The question is itself an indication that ordinary life is no longer seen as a challenge in ordinary virtue, for it is like asking the soldier why he charges up the hill. The soldier does it because it is what the situation calls for, and I did it because it was what my situation called for.

And I also wonder: How long can a nation that no longer puts ordinary virtue at its center, keep producing individuals capable of the extraordinary virtue required by its defense?

Here we are back to one of the central questions of Plato's Republic.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Dawson on Barbarism

"We have learnt that barbarism is not a picturesque myth or a half-forgotten memory of a long-passed stage of history, but an ugly underlying reality which may erupt with shattering force whenever the moral authority of a civilization loses its control."
 -  Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950)

Dawson wrote those words in the wake of the barbarities of the Second World War. It is something we should remember as we deal (or avoid dealing) with the barbarities of radical Islam. Refusing to name evil for what it is by, for instance, merely talking about "extremism" and avoiding any mention of Islam in connection with contemporary terror movements, corrupts the moral authority of our civilization. For truth is the foundation of moral authority, and as we cede the latter we invite that ugly underlying reality to erupt - with shattering force.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Suicide by Pope?

The Maverick Philosopher asks:

"No doubt you've heard of suicide by cop.  Is the Catholic Church committing suicide by pope?  Francis the Foolish is now regularly coming out with silly statements.
 
This post is a stub. Perhaps I will finish it later.  Or you can take the ball and run with it. "
 
If the Catholic Church is what it claims to be - divinely authorized by Christ Himself and in fact the Body of Christ - then it cannot possibly commit suicide by Pope or any other means. The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
 
If it can commit suicide, or if a Pope could inflict fatal damage on it, then the Church is not what it claims to be and deserves to disappear from history. In such case a foolish pope is simply doing everyone a favor, including Catholics, by exposing a grand historical lie for what it is.
 
In either case there is nothing to fear from a foolish Pope.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Harris, Faith and Science. Commentary on Waking Up Part 5

This is the fifth part of my commentary on Sam Harris's Waking Up.

A theme that Harris repeatedly emphasizes in Waking Up is that the Eastern spirituality he advocates does not necessarily require any belief in a faith-based system (which Harris thinks is pernicious) or subscription to any metaphysical dogmas. According to Harris, it can be approached entirely empirically. For these reasons it is allegedly superior to Western spirituality, in particular Christian-inspired spirituality.

But Harris's proposed spirituality does in fact require faith, or at least faith as it has been understood in the Christian tradition. This differs from the currently popular understanding of "faith", which just means willed belief in propositions without evidence. The traditional understanding of "faith" is closer in meaning to what we think of as trust; as in we believe in something because we trust the person proposing it, and have reason to think he is in a position to know the truth of it. This understanding of faith is, in fact, not restricted to religion but is how the mass of individuals are related to, for instance, science. The average man cannot duplicate the experiments of the trained scientist or perhaps even understand the details of the scientist's theories. But he believes what the scientist proposes to him because he has reason to believe that the scientist knows what he is talking about when it comes to science. The average man is rightly impressed with the technological wonders that are based on science and sees them as confirmation of the scientist's theories. Trust is involved because, not understanding the science and therefore the true connection between science and technical wonders, the average man must take the scientist's word for what the science truly is and what it implies.

With respect to Christianity, and specifically with respect to the Catholic Church, faith does not mean believing propositions without evidence, but in trusting  that the Church is a true witness to what it claims to have witnessed - the Resurrection of Christ. That witness, and its ratification by Christ Himself,  is the basis of the authority of the original Apostles, and that authority has been passed on through history to the generations of bishops. The average man's relationship to the bishops is much like that of his relationship to scientists. He must trust the bishop, as he does the scientist, to communicate to him the true meaning and significance of that which he is in no position to fully understand.

The big difference, of course, between the bishop and the scientist is that the bishop does not have the full spectrum of modern technical wonders with which to impress the average man. But he does have, perhaps, the occasional miracle, and he certainly has the ordinary witness of saints. The impressive lives of saints like Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Francis Xavier, and many others, testify to the effect of Christ in their lives and through that testimony support the witness of the Church.

What is the nature of the faith involved in Sam Harris's spirituality? He claims there is none, but in fact the prospective meditator is taking it on faith that meditation will have the effects that Harris claims it will. In the extreme, Harris claims that meditation will reveal the illusion of the self, but even if this is true, it will be experienced only after many years of meditation. The person who spends years meditating just to discover if the claims about meditation are true so he can take up meditating, has of course already answered his question. Skeptics rightly make the same point with respect to some Christian apologists who claim prayer can be tested empirically. When prayer doesn't soon have the evidential effect that was hoped, the apologist counsels patience that God works in his own time (which He does). But asking someone to pray for an indefinite period as a way to establish that prayer is a worthwhile activity in the first place is hardly a reasonable request.

Sam Harris is asking us to trust that meditation will have the evidential effect he says it will - specifically, that it will bring one to perceive the illusion of the self. Harris implicitly admits this by spending considerable time bringing in science in an attempt to support this belief (which I have addressed in earlier posts.) Such preliminaries would not be necessary if Harris weren't writing a check he promises to cash later.

But the same thing is true of "faith-based" Christian spirituality. The Church claims that through prayer, fasting, and reception of the Sacraments, the Christian will discover a relationship with Christ that fulfills all the promises that the Church makes about Him. Such a promise must be taken on trust (faith) but, like Harris, the Church does not demand that anyone believe this promise without evidence, but marshalls evidence in support of its promise - just as does Sam Harris.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Self, Immanuel Kant, and Sam Harris. Commentary Part 4

In this fourth part of my commentary on Sam Harris's Waking Up, I will continue with his chapter The Mystery of Consciousness and on into the next chapter The Riddle of the Self.  Both these chapters provide the opportunity to bring in Immanuel Kant, the great Enlightenment philosopher.  Kant was a deep, thorough and disciplined thinker who thought through the implications of modern philosophical premises to a level that is still often underappreciated. Modern materialists like Harris still haven't come to terms with Kant.

In the latter parts of chapter 2 and into chapter 3 Harris attacks the unity of conscious experience and the subjective experience of an "I" (the latter of which he does think is an illusion, in contrast to consciousness itself). Harris distinguishes between consciousness itself and its contents:

Here is where the distinction between studying consciousness itself and studying its contents becomes paramount. It is easy to see how the contents of consciousness might be understood in neurophysiological terms. Consider, for instance, our experience of seeing an object: Its color, contours, apparent motion, and location in space arise in consciousness as a seamless unity, even though this information is processed by many separate systems in the brain. Thus, when a golfer prepares to hit a shot, he does not first see the ball's roundness, then its whiteness, and only then its position on the tee. Rather, he enjoys a unified perception of the ball. Many neuroscientists believe that this phenomenon of "binding" can be explained by disparate groups of neurons firing in synchrony. Whether or not this theory is true, it is at least intelligible - because synchronous activity seems just the sort of thing that could explain the unity of a percept.

This work suggests, as many other finding in neuroscience do, that the contents of consciousness can often be made sense of in terms of their underlying neurophysiology. However, when we ask why such phenomena should be experienced in the first place, we are returned to the mystery of consciousness in full.

He then goes on to discuss the division of the brain into hemispheres, and circumstances under which the hemispheres appear to have their own individual consciousness:

What is most startling about the split-brain phenomenon is that we have every reason to believe that the isolated right hemisphere is independently conscious... The consciousness of the right hemisphere is especially difficult to deny whenever a subject possesses linguistic ability on both sides of the brain, because in such cases the divided hemispheres often express different intentions. In a famous example, a young patient was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up: His left brain replied, "A draftsman," while his right brain used letter cards to spell out "racing driver." In fact, the divided hemispheres sometimes seem to address each other directly, in the form of verbalized, interhemispheric argument.

What Harris is after is undermining the notion that there is some unified self, soul, or "I" that is behind human nature. Consciousness is real for Harris, but any unified experiencer of consciousness is not.

Much of what makes us human is generally accomplished by the right side of the brain. Consequently, we have every reason to believe that that disconnected right hemisphere is independently conscious and that the divided brain harbors two distinct points of view. This fact poses an insurmountable problem for the motion that each of us has single, indivisible self - much less an immortal soul. The idea of a soul arises from the feeling that our subjectivity has a unity, simplicity, and integrity that must somehow transcend the biochemical wheelworks of the body. But the split-brain phenomenon proves that our subjectivity can quite literally be sliced in two... However, the most important implications are for our view of consciousness: It is divisible - and, therefore, more fundamental than any apparent self.

Harris is anxious to show that science suggests that the self is an illusion because that is the same place he is going with Eastern spirituality.  For Harris, science tells us the truth about the objective world, while Eastern meditation can reveal to us the truth about the subjective world - specifically, that the self or "I" is an illusion. Since consciousness is not merely subjective but is itself part of the objective world, consciousness is the meeting place between science and meditation. Like a good medieval theologian, Harris rejects any temptation of a "double truth" about consciousness - the truth discovered by meditation and the truth discovered by science, which might possibly disagree. For Harris they must agree and, he argues, in fact they do.

My goal in this chapter and the next is to convince you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion - and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment.

And the benefits of realizing this, moment to moment, is, according to Harris, peace of mind.

Harris, however, in attempting to hold on to the truths (allegedly) revealed both by modern science and Eastern meditation, is trying to have his cake and eat it too. We can see this by turning to Kant, who saw the problem in his analysis of the thought of David Hume. Hume, like Harris, did not think there was any unified self undergirding our experience, for the simple reason that we do not directly encounter any such self in experience. Such a self would be one and the same through all our experiences, but we have no experience of anything that persists invariably the same, so the self must be merely an illusion.

We don't need to go into the details of Hume's thought other than to remark on its resemblance to the position Harris takes. Kant was not particularly concerned about saving the idea of a persistent self, but he was concerned with saving the idea of empirical science, and he saw that the Hume/Harris position threatens the very possibility of science. For science requires scientists, and if there is no persistent self, how can there be a scientist to pursue science? Kant, who respected Hume as the man who "awoke me from my dogmatic slumbers", wondered how he could save science in light of the Humean view of the self and Humean epistemology. Specifically he asked: What are the minimum requirements, rationally speaking, to get science up and running?

Let's consider one of the famous experiments at the origin of modern science: Galileo's investigation of acceleration by rolling balls down ramps. What is necessary for this experiment? Beyond the physical equipment of balls, ramps and timing mechanisms, there is the necessity of a scientist to conduct the experiment. Consider what Galileo must be capable of for the experiment to work.

At time t1 Galileo releases a ball at the top of the ramp. At some later time t2, when the ball reaches the bottom of the ramp, Galileo marks that time and, at a yet later time t3, he calculates the difference between t1 and t2 and deduces from that difference some conclusions about acceleration. What is Galileo doing at time t3?

He is recalling what he did at time t1 (release the ball down the ramp) and considering it in its relationship to what happened at time t2 (when he recalls that the ball reached the bottom of the ramp.) So at time t3 Galileo is experiencing the remembered experiences of t1 and t2 and uniting those memories in his consciousness at time t3. Now, as Clint Eastwood might say, we have to ask ourselves a question: Just what is the object of science? Is the object of science the real balls, ramps and events that happened "out there" at times t1 and t2, i.e. is it about objective reality itself? Or is science only about our experiences of reality and not reality itself? Specifically, are the conclusions that I arrive at during time t3 about something more than merely the memories I have of what happened at times t1 and time t2?

Let me table this question for a moment and consider what Kant showed regardless of how that question is answered. For Galileo's scientific project to work, whether we think science is about reality itself or only about our experience of it (both now and remembered), certain things are necessary. For starters, no conclusions about what was going on at t1 and t2 are possible unless they are united in what might be called "a unified field of rational inquiry." (These are not Kant's terms but my interpretation of what Kant is getting at.) This simply means that t1 and t2 must be viewable from some one rational perspective. If you remember what was going on at t1 but not t2, and I remember what was going on at time t2 but not t1, and we don't talk to each other, the science can't get on. Either I have to remember what was going on at both t1 and t2, or you have to tell me what went on at t1 (assuming I remember t2). Either way, the events at t1 and t2 must appear to some one rational viewpoint for any scientific analysis of them to occur. And this rational viewpoint must be capable of supporting the meaning of the relationship between t1 and t2. It must underwrite the meaning that t2 is "after" t1 and that such a difference is measurable as precisely some number of seconds.

Furthermore, the rational viewpoint must also underwrite the spatial relationships that constitute the substance of the events at t1 and t2. Galileo was standing at the top of  the ramp at the start of the experiment, which he experienced as here at that moment and the bottom of the ramp as there. Later, he moved to the bottom of the ramp to catch the ball, which he then experienced as here and the top of the ramp as there. Yet later, when analyzing the experiment, Galileo is able to identify the top of the ramp as the same identical spot in space despite it having been here at one moment and then there at a later moment, and similarly with the bottom of the ramp. Just like the experience of the times t1 and t2, it doesn't really matter if Galileo himself both released the ball and then caught it. Someone else might have released the ball and Galileo caught it, but the science can't happen unless the man who released it tells Galileo exactly where he was when he released it. The point is that the ball's place at the start of the experiment - call it p1 - and its place at the end of the experiment - call it p2 - must be united in some one field of rational inquiry capable of seeing and analyzing the geometrical relationship between the two points. And beyond that, this rational viewpoint must be capable of uniting the geometrical considerations in the relationship between p1 and p2 with the temporal considerations of the relationship between t1 and t2. p1 happened at t1 and p2 happened at t2 and all four of those elements can be united in a single theory of acceleration in a single rational field of inquiry.

We might see the problem Hume would have here. If I am nothing more than merely the passing parade of experience from moment to moment, then there is nothing to unite that experience in a single rational field of experience to make science possible. That passing parade must somehow be integrated across time and space, and integrated in a way that makes it mathematically tractable, for science to happen.


Now I have been careful not to identify the "rational field of experience" that makes science possible with the "soul", the "self", or the "I" or - and this is what materialists miss - the "brain". I haven't done that because Kant didn't do it. Kant restricted himself to elaborating the purely rational requirements for the possibility of science and he found no warrant in that purely rational consideration to go beyond the "formal" requirement of an integrated field of rational experience to an identification of what, in reality, the substance of that field actually is. He can, strictly speaking, only say that such a field of integrated experience, whatever it's ultimate nature might be, is necessary for science.

It is at this point that we return to the question I tabled earlier: What is the object of science? Is it the balls and ramps themselves that are "out there" in objective reality? Or is it merely our experience of those things with all the qualifications alluded to above? Kant refused to go beyond what he could justify with strict rational necessity, and he held that science is about our experience of reality but not reality itself, which is the basis of his famous distinction between the noumenal (how things truly are in themselves) and the phenomenal (how they appear to us).

But suppose we want to go beyond Kant and hold that science is about reality itself and not merely reality as it appears to us as conditioned by our cognitive apparatus? This is only possible if the rational field of inquiry required by science supports such a move. Galileo's cognitive apparatus must have enough integrity so that at time t3, when he remembers what happened with respect to the ball and ramp at times t1 and t2, he can have the rationally justifiable confidence that his memories reflect reality itself at those times and places. Furthermore, he must have the rationally justifiable confidence that his analysis of the relationship between times t1 and t2, and places p1 and p2, reflect reality as well.

On what basis can Galileo justify such confidence? It is hard to see how such justification could be arrived at in terms of the Hume or Harris views of the self or mind (which, of course, is why Kant never went there). Since we are talking about the rational justification of science itself, we can't call on scientific conclusions to do the work without begging the question. The only other available basis of justification is pre-scientific common sense. By "pre-scientific" I don't mean temporally prior, i.e. what was thought to be common sense prior to the rise of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I mean logically or "existentially" prior. The scientist takes for granted that his telescope is in reality what it appears to him in his sight and touch; that it behaves more or less the same as long as its nature isn't changed; and that the things he views through his telescope will not change their behavior without some cause. And, of course, he will assume that his spatial and temporal intuitions (here and there, before and after) reflect reality itself and not merely a reading into reality of the conditions of his own cognition.

But the intuition of an enduring self is just as much a pre-scientific common sense intuition as are our intuitions about space and time. We might, indeed, say that the intuition of self is even more fundamental that the intuitions of time and space since it is only in reference to a self that time and space have meaning (space - here and there - has meaning only in reference to a self which is here and something else is there and time only has meaning in reference to a self to which before and after appear.) So if we are going to take our common sense intuitions about space and time, and what appears in space and time, as reflective of reality - and this seems the only way to underwrite a science that is about reality itself rather than merely the human perception of reality - then we must accept our common sense intuition about an enduring self to be reflective of reality as well.

All this is to the point that when Harris wishes to invoke neuroscience or brain science in general to undermine the notion of an enduring self or "I", and in particular our common sense notion of an enduring self, he has sawed off the limb on which sit the brain sciences themselves sit. Brain science can get going only if there are brain scientists who, like Galileo, can be rationally confident that their scientific intuitions about the "brain" actually reflect reality itself rather than merely their experience of reality conditioned by their cognitive apparatus. And, again, such confidence cannot be a product of brain science itself without begging the question.

Typically, thinkers like Harris fail to see this problem. They think they can blithely invoke science to undermine common sense, including common sense notions of the self, without effecting the rational foundations of science, as though scientists do not share the same human nature as the rest of us. So when he makes statements like

The idea of a soul arises from the feeling that our subjectivity has a unity, simplicity, and integrity that must somehow transcend the biochemical wheelworks of the body.

we can respond that any scientific talk about biochemical wheelworks is only possible if there is subject around with the unity, simplicity and integrity to support it.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Commentary on Waking Up by Sam Harris, part 3

At this point I would like to jump ahead to Harris's chapters 2, the Mystery of Consciousness. I'll come back to the intervening parts later (or maybe not).

In chapter 2, Harris struggles with coming to terms with the fact and nature of consciousness in terms of modern materialist philosophy.

And the question of how consciousness relates to the physical world remains famously unresolved... Whatever the ultimate relationship between consciousness and matter, almost everyone will agree that at some point in the development of complex organisms like ourselves, consciousness seems to emerge. This emergence does not depend on a change of materials, for you and I are both of the same atoms as a fern or a ham sandwich. Instead, the birth of consciousness must be the result of organization. Arranging atoms in certain ways appears to bring about an experience of being that very collection of atoms. This is undoubtedly one of the deepest mysteries given to us to contemplate.

Harris's perplexity is a function of the materialist philosophy he takes for granted. This philosophy, having its origin in the Enlightenment, holds that reality is composed of bits of brute matter (or energy fields or whatever) banging together, the "clockwork universe" thought to have been implied by Newton's discoveries. What's important here is that one of the points of this philosophy was to banish Aristotle's formal and final causes from nature. These causes are fundamental to our experience of consciousness. My thoughts are "directed" at their object as an arrow to a target (an example of final causality). And I can understand why the angles of a triangle must add to 180 degrees (which is to understand the formal causality of a triangle). Aristotle thought this "directedness" was a basic feature of nature itself, which was why consciousness did not seem to him the scandal that it is to modern philosophy. Fire is "directed" to heat, acorns are "directed" to grow into oak trees, and minds are "directed" to understanding. And our ability to understand formal causality is simply a reflection of the fact that formal causality is part of nature itself.

But how are such experiences to be understood in the clockwork universe of the materialist? As Edward Feser's pithy expression puts it, formal and final causality were "swept under the rug of the mind." The directedness of nature is not something we discover in nature but is rather read into nature by the mind. This creates a problem, however, when we try to understand the mind itself in terms of the clockwork universe. For our experience of the mind just is those experiences of formal and final causality that were banished in principle from the materialist universe. This makes the mind more than merely a mystery for the materialist; it makes it a scandal. The difference being that a scandal is not in principle solvable in terms of the fundamental principles of a philosophy, while a mystery is in principle intelligible, even if practically it may never be fully illuminated.

The temptation in the face of scandal is to deny its basis, and this has been done by some modern philosophers who simply deny the reality of the mind (e.g. Daniel Dennett), dismissing it as an illusion of the material brain (a position that does not make sense - more on that later). Harris, to his credit, is unwilling to simply dismiss the significance of our experience of consciousness: "Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion."

The next few pages of Waking Up consist of Harris further wrestling with the incongruity of consciousness in a materialist universe:

First there is a physical world, unconscious and seething with unperceived events; then, by virtue of some physical property or process, consciousness itself springs, or staggers, into being. This idea seems to me not merely strange but perfectly mysterious... To simply assert that consciousness arose at some point in the evolution of life, and that it results from a specific arrangement of neurons firing in concert within an individual brain, doesn't give us any inkling of how it could emerge from unconscious processes, even in principle.

Harris, again to his credit, refuses to accept the empty answer that time, genetic mutation and natural selection are responsible for consciousness. Even if they are, no light has been shed until it is explained how they account for it. It is like claiming that gravity is responsible for the movement of the planets without providing any theory that accounts for planetary orbits in terms of gravity (e.g. Newton's theory of gravitation).

I am sympathetic with those who, like the philosopher Colin McGinn and the psychologist Steven Pinker, have suggested that perhaps the emergence of consciousness is simply incomprehensible in human terms. Every chain of explanation must end somewhere - generally with a brute fact that neglects to explain itself. Perhaps consciousness presents an impasse of this sort.

When brute facts are invoked, you know you are at the point of a philosopher waving the white flag. A chain of explanation that ends in a brute fact isn't really a chain of explanation at all, since you might as well have invoked the brute fact at the start of the explanation as at the end. In any case, if Harris's first sentence is amended to "... perhaps the emergence of consciousness is simply incomprehensible in materialist terms" he might be on the way to a breakthrough, or at least a breakout, from the materialist prison in which finds himself without realizing it.

One of the charges against philosophy is that it makes no progress. Philosophers have been arguing over the same basic questions that they always have. While this is true, it is not true that this eternal philosophical conversation is fruitless. For it is a good clue that a particular philosophical school is fundamentally mistaken when it gives up attempting to account for something after having struggled with it for a long time. Materialist philosophers have been trying to find a place in their philosophy for the fact of consciousness - a fact, Harris concedes, that is undeniable - for a long time, with little success even by their own lights. They are now at the point of simply giving up on the project. The alternative to giving up on explaining consciousness, of course, is to abandon the philosophy that makes such an explanation impossible and go in search of another one.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Commentary on Waking Up by Sam Harris, part 2

On pages 12 and 13, Harris makes some good points about happiness and the variability of existence (points that are standard fare in classical philosophy) but are well-made nonetheless:

We seek pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations and moods. We satisfy our intellectual curiosity. We surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We become connoisseurs of art, music, or food. But our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment.

Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment. Realizing this, many people begin to wonder whether a deeper source of well-being exists. Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain?... is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one's desires are gratified, in spite of life's difficulties, in the very midst of physical pin, old age, disease and death?

This is well-said, and Harris goes on to draw out the logic of the situation:

If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one's desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed. Such happiness should be available to a person who has declined to marry her high school sweetheart, renounced her career and material possessions, and gone off to a cave or some other spot that is inhospitable to ordinary aspirations.

The first thing to note is that Harris is looking for merely psychological well-being. But what of well-being simpliciter? We are more than merely our psychology, and the question may be asked if psychological well-being is a good when our overall human well-being is not. Tony Soprano, for example, sought help from a psychologist to overcome his panic attacks. It turned out that treating the panic attacks involved a more comprehensive psychological analysis of Soprano's life - the life of a mafia boss and killer. Can a mob killer be "psychologically healthy" yet remain, and be comfortable with, his life of crime? This was the question that bedeviled Soprano's psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, and raises the question of the relationship of the psychological sciences to an evaluation of human character.

In the book Artificial Happiness, physician Ronald Dworkin discusses the widespread use of psychotropic drugs to give people a feeling of well-being they don't really deserve. While such drugs are appropriate in some cases of genuine psychological illness, they are increasingly administered to people who are simply unhappy, and often for very good reasons. They are unhappy because they have messed up their lives through poor choices, alcohol, simple irresponsibility or unfortunate circumstances (e.g. a woman staying with an abusive husband.) Their feelings of unhappiness could be a spur to a reconsideration of their lives. Instead, they seek and are sometimes granted drugs that merely make them feel better, derailing any motivation they had to change themselves or their situations. The man who can't keep a job because he's too lazy to consistently get to work on time feels just cool with that; the woman with the abusive husband abandons any plans she had to leave him and thinks things are fine because she feels content with what is going on.

Psychological well-being is not a good thing if it doesn't reflect genuine well-being. Why does Harris focus on it? It is because he is captured by the scientistic mindset that does not permit a deep philosophical analysis of human nature. Such an analysis presupposes that some views of human well-being are better than others and, even more significantly, that they can be objectively ranked through philosophical investigation. And that implies that the truth about human nature, including its end or purpose, is also a philosophically available truth. The Enlightenment tradition of which Harris is a modern exemplar holds that such truth simply isn't available to us. We can pursue "happiness", but of what happiness consists - in terms of desires and their fulfillment - isn't something that can be objectively determined. We cannot say precisely in what absolute human well-being consists; but we can at least say in what psychological well-being consists.

The classical philosopher, as exemplified by Aristotle, is not afraid to rank desires or to insist that the truth concerning human nature, including its end, is a philosophically available truth.  That truth is that man is by nature a rational animal, and that fulfillment for him involves ordering his being to reason. Psychological well-being is not the primary goal here, it is merely a by-product of a deeper transformation, a transformation of character. Well-being for man means well-being in terms of virtue. The good man (the man who is truly "well") is courageous, temperate, just and wise, all virtues conditioned by reason. Man will experience pleasure at the result - psychological well-being - but that well-being is simply delight in the true good he possesses. Pursuing psychological well-being as an end in itself is, on this view,  to mistake the by-product for the product.

Modern thinkers are wary of speaking of human nature classically understood - that is, in terms that go beyond the restrictions of science to a philosophical consideration of man as such. Psychological well-being has the advantage that it sidesteps questions of the nature of man in terms of man's end or purpose, but for that very reason, will not turn out to be what an unsatisfied man is really looking for.