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.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Commentary on Waking Up by Sam Harris, part 1

I'm reading Sam Harris's new book Waking Up, A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Harris, you may remember, is one of the New Atheists and is the author of, among other books, the popular The End of Faith. Less well-known is that Harris is an advocate of Buddhist meditation, and in this book he discusses meditation in terms of its benefits and its relationships to religion in general and atheism. As I've mentioned elsewhere, Harris is a pleasant author to read because of his straightforward style and obvious sincerity. I think he is sincerely wrong about many things, but one of his virtues is that he has the courage of his convictions and tells you exactly what he thinks in plain language. As I was reading along I noticed that he wrote so many things of which I felt the urge to respond that my space in the margins filled up. So instead of writing there, I'm going to write here. This will not be a book review or essay on Harris's work, simply my comments on Harris as I read through the book.

Here goes.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In the first chapter, pages 4 and 5, Harris describes the results of his experimenting with the drug MDMA (Ecstasy) in 1987:

And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal - and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love - I love you because... - now made no sense at all. 

The interesting thing about this final shift in perspective was that it was not driven by any change in the way I felt. I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what was common to them all. 

The moment I could find a voice with which to speak, I discovered that this epiphany about the universality of love could be readily communicated. My friend got the point at once: All I had to do was ask him how he would feel in the presence of a total stranger at that moment, and the same door opened in his mind. It was simply obvious that love, compassion, and joy in the joy of others extended without limit. The experience was not of love growing but of it no longer being obscured. Love was - as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages - a state of being... It would take many years to put this experience into context... I still considered the world's religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.

Harris writes that what happened was a shift in "perspective" and not driven by "any change in the way I felt", but its significance is calculated in terms of how felt about his best friend, and how he would feel about a total stranger walking through the door. And at the end of the passage, he understands that he found an important psychological truth. Love, then, for Harris is a psychological experience and the state of being he mentions is a psychological state.

We may contrast that with the traditional Christian understanding of love, which is not so much a feeling or psychological state but an action. When Christ teaches what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, he teaches it in terms of parables like the Good Samaritan, a story that tells us what the Samaritan did and very little about what he felt. Harris and his friend take Ecstasy and sit around having warm feelings for each other and the world in general. All very nice, but where does that get Harris or anyone else?

Love, for the Christian, involves a state of being, but that state is much more than psychological and is dynamic rather than static. "Being" is an action word, and a man who is actually in a state of love must actually be doing something based on it. In fact, from the Christian perspective, simply having warm feelings about others that does not issue in action is very dangerous, since it invites one to mistake a mere psychological experience for the genuine state of love.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

On page 6, Harris notes that:

Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.

Admissions like this are one of the things that makes Harris worth reading, since he doesn't deny the obvious as many atheists do. For them, religion must be a malignant force through and through with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. If it were, why have so many people followed it? There must be something about religion that accounts for its persistence over millennia. The typical atheist response here is to account for religion in terms of evolution or some reassuring but false consolation it provides. This isn't good enough either, as it is obvious that, whatever else may be said about it, religion has produced some remarkable people who have managed to transcend the ordinary human condition in some way - the Buddhist monk serene in his contemplation being an example. 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

page 9:

Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience - self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light - constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work.

That principle is the subject of this book: The feeling that we call "I" is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is - the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at ta world that is separate from yourself - can be altered or entirely extinguished.

It's clear that Harris arbitrarily limits experience here. For example, while Harris does not accept revelation, there is nothing logically impossible about it. Someone could experience a private revelation from God through which God reveals certain truths to him inaccessible by other means. That experience being private, of course, means that it need not carry cognitive weight for anyone else, but that does not rule out the possibility that it could be genuinely meaningful for the person who experiences it. But in any case, Christianity has always depended on public witness rather than private revelation. The Apostles proclaimed the Gospel based on their witness of the risen Christ, a witness that involved him speaking to them, touching them, and eating their food. Subject experiences of ecstasy or love have nothing to do with. Today, the Church carries on the public witness of the Resurrection of Christ that was handed on to them through the ages starting with the Apostles. Now you may not buy that witness - as many did not buy it in the first century - but that is where the game is, not in subjective experience.

The doctrine that the self is an illusion involves profound consequences, and it will be interesting to see where Harris goes with it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Chesterton and Harry Potter

I'm a longtime Harry Potter hater, having once waged an unsuccessful mini-crusade to keep the series out of my kid's Catholic school. I haven't thought about Potter much in the last few years, but I've recently been reading In Defense of Sanity, a collection of Chesterton essays compiled by Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pierce and Aidan Mackey for Ignatius Press.

One of the more frustrating aspects of being both a Potter hater and a Chesterton fan was the - to me - perplexing affection some Chestertonians had and still have for Harry Potter. One of the primary reasons for my Potter hatred, and one of the qualities of the series that struck me almost immediately on reading it, was its anti-Chesterton imaginative cast. I never could understand how anyone who read deeply of Chesterton could stomach Harry Potter.

My anti-Potter jihad is long over (and failed), so it is too late that I stumbled across the essay "Magic and Mystery in Fiction" in the Ignatius Press collection. The essay includes a passage relevant to what Chesterton's view of Harry Potter might have been:
In contrast with this, it will be noted that the good miracles, the acts of the saints and heroes, are always acts of restoration. They give the victim back his personality; and it is a normal and not a super-normal personality. The miracle gives back his legs to the lame man; but it does not turn him into a large centipede. It gives eyes to the blind; but only a regular and respectable number of eyes. The paralytic is told to stretch forth his hands, which is the gesture of liberation from fetters; but not to spread himself as a sort of Briarean octopus radiating in all directions and losing the human form. There runs through the whole tradition the idea that black magic is that which blots out or disguise the true form of a thing; while white magic, in the good sense, restores it to its own form and not another.
In these terms, the magic in Harry Potter is all black magic, whether used by Harry himself or Voldemort, for it bears no relation to form. What it does bear relation to is will - the will of the wizard himself and his desire to impose himself on the world. Thus the beginning magic classes in Hogwarts feature students turning small items arbitrarily into other small items, precisely what is of no consequence, since the goal is not to respect the form of the thing but to develop the power of the wizard. For the point isn't what it is with Christian miracles (or the genuinely good magic in Lord of the Rings), which is to restore things to the forms originally intended for them by the Creator, but to practice the technique of forcing things to be what you want them to be, whatever that might be.

The key to understanding the Harry Potter universe is to understand that it is a world without a Creator. A world with a Creator is a world made in the light of transcendent intelligence, in which everything is brought into being according to a pattern of wisdom that includes both the forms of things themselves as well as their relationships to each other. The wisdom of the creature is measured by the extent to which he knows, respects and conforms himself to the Divine Wisdom. "Magic" in such a world - another world for which is "miracle" - is really just another name for a specific act of Divine Grace. The great saint who has submitted himself extraordinarily to the Divine Will also becomes an extraordinary channel of Divine Grace, and so may appear "magical" to the ordinary man when, of course, he is no more magical than anyone else. He is simply more in tune with the way things really are, like the Elves in the Lord of the Rings. Sam Gamgee, on being presented with the gift of an Elvish cloak, asks if it is magical, a question that puzzles his Elvish benefactor. The Elves simply understand and conform themselves to nature to such an extent that they can produce from nature things that others, less consonant with nature than they are, can only interpret in terms of magic.

A world without a Creator is a world that does not express any deep wisdom in its origin; a being in this world has no assurance that his own nature is intelligible or that he necessarily bears any intelligible relation to anything else. Such a world is chaotic. It is chaotic not just in the relationships of things to each other, but in the relationships of things to themselves. Thus Hogwarts is populated with ugly, distorted and disproportionate things, like ghosts with half-severed heads and plants that have babies for roots, the cry of whom is dangerous. Why would a plant have a baby for its roots? Who knows? It's not a question anyone at Hogwarts, teacher or student, is interested in asking. In a chaotic world, questions of form are not worth asking since they don't have answers. Only questions of expediency matter, which is why the students concentrate on the most practical way to handle the Mandrake plant (that's the one with babies for roots) without getting injured. It's also why the students practice seemingly trivial exercises like making a pineapple dance across a desk or turning a beetle into a button. Why would one do either of those things? Again, that is not a relevant question at Hogwarts since beetles and pineapples are not created things with a nature and end informed by the Divine Wisdom, but merely random items that are grist for the will of the wizard.

The point is that the Harry Potter world, not being a created world informed by Divine Wisdom, is not an imaginatively Catholic world; and for Chesterton, this would have been a fatal flaw. Chesterton loved the children's literature of the Western tradition because it made us all imaginative Christians whether or not we ever became confessing ones. The fact that we no longer instinctively recoil from a story in which the "good" magic is less than a metaphor for grace, and is not restricted to creatures like Gandalf with the nature and wisdom to wield it, but is instead distinguished from "bad" magic only in the supposed moral character of those who wield it, should tell how deteriorated our cultural imagination has already become.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Game of Thrones, Machiavelli, Socrates and Plato

[This post has spoilers for Game of Thrones]

Ethan makes an interesting comment here on my earlier post concerning Game of Thrones. The context is the decision of Eddard Stark, while a prisoner of the Lannister family, to condemn himself as a traitor in return for the sparing of his daughter's life. He takes issue with my point that Stark would have done well to have heeded the Socratic principle not to voluntarily do evil to oneself, for even though things didn't turn out as he thought they would, at least his daughter's life was in fact spared.

Ethan is right about that, but I think to understand what is really going on here, we need to turn to Plato's modern nemesis, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli would tell us that there is a crucial difference between Socrates and Eddard Stark: Socrates is a private citizen and Eddard Stark is a king. And - according to Machiavelli - the morality of kings is different from that of ordinary citizens. Ordinary citizens live an intra-city existence in the context of the city's laws and courts; to be a good man in the city is to live well socially. It is to obey the city's laws and customs, and to follow the ordinary rules of morality with which we are familiar. It is to live in Plato's Republic. In that work Plato developed the notion of justice based on the well-ordered city, where every citizen knows his place and fulfills his duty.

But the king does not live an intra-city existence; his life is inter-city, dealing in the "community of the world", except that there is no such community. There is no world-wide law or court system, or world-wide set of customs in the context of which the king makes his decisions. The international world is not a well-ordered Republic but remains in the state of nature as described by Thomas Hobbes - a war of all against all, in which peace occurs not as a reasoned state achieved via a rational Republic, but merely as an agreement between two foes who realize they can't (for now) get the better of each other. And without a worldwide city in which to develop the notion of justice, the Platonic understanding of justice is stillborn - for the king if not the people.

The wise king, according to Machiavelli, understands this and does not make the mistake of judging his decisions in light of an understanding of justice - the justice appropriate to the life within the city - that cannot apply in the context of his life as king. The king must use "evil well", which means that he must not be afraid to perform acts that, according to ordinary morality, are base, but in the context of his rule as king he finds necessary. (Incidentally, this applies not only to his relations to other cities but to his rule as king in his own city. His rule constitutes the city, and so is not an appropriate subject of Platonic justice, which appears as a consequence  of the rationally founded city. The justice that comes into existence with the city cannot be the justice against which the city's creator is judged.)

What would Machiavelli think of Eddard Stark? One thing we are taught by Machiavelli is that, if you are going to play the "game of thrones", you must play it all the way or not all. The prince who only goes halfway and remains constrained by "conscience" will find himself a victim of his more ruthless rivals. He will be the man who brings a knife to a gunfight. Eddard Stark is such a man. He wants to play the game of thrones and is not above practicing deceit in pursuing his aims, most notably in his revision of Robert Baratheon's final words concerning his heir (which Stark changes from specifically naming Joffrey Lannister to the generic "rightful heir.") But Stark is also constrained by his conscience. When he discovers that Joffrey is actually the product of incest between Cersei and Jaime Lannister, he informs Cersei in private and offers her the chance to flee with her children. Cersei uses the opportunity, and Robert Baratheon's death, to orchestrate the assassination of Stark's bodyguards and his arrest as a traitor.

Machiavelli would have predicted such a result, for he tells us in The Prince that "men must either be caressed or annihilated; they will revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot do so for great ones." The most dangerous thing a prince can do is injure a rival but leave him in a position to retaliate. Cersei does not make the same mistake, for when she turns on Eddard she makes sure he is thrown in prison in chains, completely helpless. Once this has occurred, Eddard really has no good alternatives. He's lost the Machiavellian game he entered without understanding what was necessary to win it; by falsely reporting Robert Baratheon's final words, he has also compromised his own integrity and turned away from the Socratic path. In the end, he's listened neither to Socrates nor Machiavelli. So it is true that, by the time he receives Varys's counsel in prison, his doom is already more or less sealed and he makes the best of a bad situation.

It doesn't help him that Varys is hardly Socrates, and is a poor Machiavelli as well. The Machiavellian truth of Eddard's situation in prison is that he and Sansa will live only insofar as they are useful to the Lannisters. The Lannisters have already demonstrated their ruthlessness by assassinating Eddard's guards, throwing him in prison, and demanding that he falsely testify against himself. It should be obvious to anyone, and especially to a supposedly wise counselor like Varys, that the Lannister's word means nothing in this context. Machiavelli: "A prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them."

Furthermore, Joffrey is now king, and it is in Joffrey's hands - a man who is an obvious psychopath - that Eddard's life will be placed, whatever agreements he might have made with other Lannisters. And with respect to Sansa, does Varys really expect the Lannisters to spare Sansa should they find it expedient to do away with her, based on some private agreement they made with Eddard? Such an expectation would be dangerously na├»ve. Probably nothing Eddard could do in prison would change how things turned out for himself and Sansa, except for Eddard doing an injustice to himself by falsely confessing to treason.

The Stark family in general suffers the same ambivalence of character shown by Eddard and, unfortunately for them, learn no lessons from his demise. Robb Stark accepts the consensus of northern nobles and becomes King of the North. He prosecutes the war against the Lannisters with both skill and zeal and, moreover, claims to fight in the name of justice. He executes Lord Karstark, again in the name of justice, for the murder of two Lannister prisoners, even though his mother Catelyn correctly predicts that this will cause the Karstark forces to abandon Robb's army and seriously weaken it. But when it comes fulfilling a vow he made to marry a daughter of Walder Frey, his commitment to justice wavers and he breaks the vow in favor of marrying the woman he loves, a healer attached to his army named Talisa.

Robb later realizes he can't win his war without Frey's forces, and attempts to reconcile with him by offering to apologize as well as have one of his nobles marry a Frey daughter. Robb would have done well to listen to this piece of Machiavellian advice : "And whoever thinks that in high personages new benefits cause old offenses to be forgotten, makes a great mistake." And, as happened with Eddard, Robb find himself in a situation where he has injured an enemy and also put himself in a vulnerable place. At the wedding banquet at the Frey castle, Robb, his family, and their forces are all slaughtered at the infamous Red Wedding.

The argument I am making is that the Starks come to a bad end because of their ambivalent moral nature: They follow neither Socrates nor Machiavelli; they attempt to play the game of thrones, but don't do it with the ruthlessness that Machiavelli teaches us is necessary to succeed. Instead, their half-hearted commitment to justice, sometimes submitting to it and other times ignoring it,  only creates a series of dangerous enemies who are powerful, devious and ruthless, and furthermore, are themselves more consistent followers of Machiavelli.

It's clear how a more consistent Machiavellian approach might have changed things for the Starks. After Eddard discovers that Joffrey is a product of incest, instead of warning Cersei and giving her a chance to escape (as well as retaliate), Eddard would have used the information to destroy Cersei outright, and in a context in which he was safe from retaliation. Robb would not have executed Lord Karstark, the justice of the situation not even entering the calculation, and his forces would have been sufficient for him to continue his string of battlefield victories.

But how might things have changed for the Starks if they had been more consistent followers of Socrates? Socrates would surely have advised them that they can't both be committed to justice and yet pursue the game of thrones. This doesn't mean they couldn't be kings. But it does mean they can't try to manipulate events, especially when doing so involves compromising justice. Eddard could have honestly reported King Robert's final words and let the chips fall where they may. He could have acknowledged Joffrey as Robert's successor and simply gone back to Winterfell, forgetting any notions of scheming events to his liking. And Robb Stark could have forestalled his unfortunate end by simply fulfilling in justice the vow he made to marry a daughter of Walder Frey.

It remains to ask the question: Who is truly wiser, Socrates or Machiavelli? We can first note that Machiavelli takes the prince's motivation for granted. He addresses the question of how the prince shall gain and retain power and defeat his enemies, and never asks the question of the ultimate purpose for which the prince wishes to use power. It is a Socratic principle, however, that one should pursue wisdom before power, for the man who gains power without wisdom will only become a danger to himself as well as others. Joffrey Lannister is a good example of such a man. But we may also ask the question of a thoroughly Machiavellian character like Tywin Lannister. Tywin is no fool and regularly demonstrates his superiority in the game of thrones over his opponents. He is not constrained by notions of justice in formulating and carrying out his plans. Nor is he constrained by sentimentality in using the marriages of his children for political ends. But what has he won with all that scheming? Power, yes, but he is hated by both his daughter Cersei and his son Tyrion. He has no real friends and has in fact become a lonely, bitter old man, prosecuting the game of thrones in the name of the family Lannister when the meaning of family has long since been lost on him. He is reminiscent of Michael Corleone, another man who ends up destroying his own family by "being strong" for that family.

We might also consider the character of Robert Baratheon. He ends up miserable as king, frankly confessing to Eddard Stark that he thought being king meant doing whatever he wanted, when it turns out he is constrained by the necessities of state and politics. Worst of all, from the Socratic perspective, is Joffrey Lannister, whose ascent to the throne permits him to unleash the worst aspects of his character. The fact that Joffrey fails to appreciate the evil he does to others and himself only makes the situation all the more horrifying.

Perhaps the difference between Socrates and Machiavelli can be cast in terms of being careful what you wish for. Machiavelli may be able to get you what you want (if you are a prince), but he cannot help you understand if it is something you should really want after all. For that, you need Socrates.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Derbyshire and the Red Pill

John Derbyshire's latest column is an interesting example of what happens when an intelligent but non-philosophical mind bumps up against some realities that can only be addressed philosophically.

The most fundamental of these realities is that most people live non-reflectively and accept uncritically whatever the conventional wisdom tells them. One reason this happens is that it is simply easier to live as one of the crowd ("the herd" as Kierkegaard put it). Challenging the conventional wisdom, the established ways, is perceived by the crowd as a threat to the stability of the established order (which, in truth, it may very well be); so the critical thinker will naturally find his life more difficult than one who just goes along with the prevailing wisdom. As Derbyshire puts it:
It is also antisocial. Who wants to hear you say that the emperor has no clothes, when everyone else they know—including all the cool people!—says otherwise.
Those who follow the crowd are known as the "well-adjusted."  In the terms of Derbyshire's column, they have taken the "blue pill", an apparent reference to the film The Matrix (which I haven't seen). The far fewer people who take the "red pill" are the "realists", the ones who take the truth as it is and damn the consequences. Naturally, Derbyshire includes himself in this latter group. (How can one be sure which pill you actually took? Maybe the red pill is just a blue with some food coloring on it.)

Derbyshire finds demoralizing the fact that most people are non-reflective, and so not open to the truth he wants to tell them. He consoles himself that there are still, in fact, some redoubts of reason left in the modern world:
Crazy as the social and political worlds undoubtedly are, looking at things realistically, reason still holds its fort. Mathematics, the homeland of reason; science, the mostly-well-behaved offspring of math; and technology, the child of pure science, continue to produce wonders and enlarge our understanding.
Noticeably absent from the list of citizens Derbyshire welcomes into the fortress of reason is philosophy. But without philosophy, the fortress of math and science will not last long, for the question of the value of math and science is a philosophical one, not a scientific one. No wonder he is depressed. His own canon of reason is in effect a form of unilateral disarmament in the face of those who would undermine the things he loves.
 
Putting yourself outside the circle of reason would make anyone gloomy. Yet Derbyshire's occupation - writing pop math books and opinion columns - qualifies as neither math, science nor technology, and so does not qualify as reason under his requirements. This gives Derbyshire's columns their peculiar flavor: He desperately wishes that everyone would take the red pill and deal with reality, but can't make an argument to that effect since no such argument is possible in terms of math or science. All he can do is lament the fact and report that he, unaccountably, prefers the red pill to the blue pill.

The fact that most people do not prefer to face the truth, and resent those who would reveal it to them, is no recent discovery. It is, in fact, one of the original insights of philosophy and is memorably allegorized (yes, that is a word) in Plato's parable of The Cave. The difference between Plato and Derbyshire (or, at least, one of them) is that Plato didn't simply throw up his hands in light of this situation, but thought deeply about it and its implications for the practice of philosophy. The result was The Republic, one of the great philosophical documents of Western culture, in which Plato makes the argument that the city in which philosophers rule is not only ideal for the philosopher, but for everyone else as well. Plato's ideal city was never realized in fact (and, indeed, even in The Republic he acknowledges that it was never really practical), but that doesn't mean the work was without influence. The alternative to crowning the philosophers kings is to make kings, to the extent it is possible, philosophers. Another way of saying it is that it isn't necessary that the mass of people become philosophers - it is only necessary that the influential ones become philosophers. That has happened in history - Marcus Aurelius comes to mind - but most notably in the founding of our own nation. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are nothing if not documents claiming to found a nation on reason.

Derbyshire ends his column with a note of demoralization, lamenting the fact that he is on the red pill:
I want to believe the pretty lies. I’ve had enough of depressive realism. I want to take the blue pill. Where’s the nearest retail outlet?
It's a little hard to take Derbyshire seriously in his melancholy, for there is about him a bit of what G.K. Chesterton called the "boyish delight in the grim and unapproachable pose of the realist." In any event, the answer to depressive realism is more realism, not less, and we can only hope that Derbyshire's depression might drive him to the point of reconsidering the scientistic (not scientific) dogmas that prevent him from thinking truly philosophically.