religious traditions

When I find myself among conspiracy theorists and pseudo-science aficionados, I probably sound like the most relentless, ruthless, unforgiving positivist that you have ever heard. But, of course, I’m not a positivist at all. When I find myself among those educated in the sciences, I probably sound like the most woolly-headed philosopher imaginable, who seemingly takes every opportunity to needlessly complicate matters that are perfectly clear just as they are. I am caught between defending science among those innocent of science, and defending philosophy among those innocent of philosophy. In other words, I can’t win. And now I’m going to make my hopeless position worse by taking the conflict (rather, the absence of communication) between science and philosophy into the forbidden no-man’s-land of politics.

My particular dilemma is the result of understanding that science is philosophy; that is to say, science as we know it today, is a particular branch of philosophy (something that I began to explain in A Fly in the Ointment). While it may be grudgingly acknowledged that science has philosophical presuppositions, it is step further to see science as a particular philosophy that is rather less comprehensive than the whole of philosophy. Now, it is true that science has become differentiated from the rest of philosophy because of its practical successes, but its practical successes alone are no warrant for separating methodological naturalism, i.e., science, from the rest of philosophy.

Without philosophy we cannot understand science; philosophy provides both the synchronic and the diachronic context of science. The emergence of science within western civilization is the diachronic narrative of philosophy, and the relations of science to other aspects of the world and human experience is the synchronic context of science that can only adequately be addressed by philosophy. The need for a robust engagement between science and philosophy, as is to be found, for example, in the work of Einstein, is a need that grows out of the philosophical context of science.

Previous epochs of civilization — notably, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — might point to their own pragmatic implementations of philosophy, no less than the successes of the sciences are heralded today. Enormous monumental building projects that still impress us today, symbols of civilization such as the pyramids, Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, the Daibutsu at Nara, and Borobudur, were possible only through the effort of a philosophically unified civilization, and the monuments themselves are monuments to those civilizations and their philosophical bases.

As an example of a philosophical civilization animated from the power elites at the top down to the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder I have elsewhere quoted Gregory Nazianzus on the Christological controversies in Byzantium:

“Constantinople is full of handicraftsmen and slaves, who are all profound theologians, and preach in their workshops and in the streets. If you want a man to change a piece of silver, he instructs you in which consists the distinction between the Father and the Son; if you ask the price of a loaf of bread, you receive for answer, that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you ask, whether the bread is ready, the rejoinder is that the genesis of the Son was from nothing.”

Another example might be the reach of stoicism in the Roman empire from the emperor Marcus Aurelius to the slave Epictetus. This philosophical character of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is not limited to western civilization, its predecessors, and successors, but is a planetary phenomenon.

The civilization of India is perhaps uniquely philosophical in the world. India is a civilization-state, and Indian civilization is a philosophical civilization. In this respect, it is markedly different from western civilization, which has no contemporary single state representative, and in regard to philosophy is more narrow and focused.

This can give us a certain insight into western civilization, which is not a philosophical civilization in the sense that India is, but is a fragment of a philosophical civilization. In so far as science is a particular branch of philosophy, and in so far as western civilization in its present form (industrial-technological civilization) is founded upon science as the source of the STEM cycle, western civilization is a philosophical civilization for the particular philosophy of methodological naturalism. Indeed, the very insistence today that science can do without philosophy is an expression of the philosophical narrowness of western civilization.

Much is to be learned from the comparison of the philosophies and civilizational structures of those independent civilizations that can be traced all the way to their origins in the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, during which all agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations had their earliest origins. But there is a problem here. In reaction against the imperialism of western civilization since that period once called the Age of Discovery, when Columbus, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, and many others, sailed from Europe and began to survey the world entire, it is now considered in supremely bad taste to compare civilizations. The celebratory model of tolerance is almost universally adopted and every civilization is counted as a special snowflake that has something to contribute to human history.

In my post on The Future Science of Civilizations I noted Carnap’s tripartite distinction among scientific concepts, which Carnap identified as the classificatory, the comparative, and the quantitative. (We note that this typology itself takes a classificatory form, and an entire class of scientific concepts are comparative concepts.) In so far as we understand Carnap’s conceptual schema of measurement as developmental, proceeding in phases so that initial classifications lead to comparisons, and comparisons lead to quantification, all the while gaining in objectivity, Carnap’s schematism of scientific measurement embodies what Edith Wyschogrod called “the quantification of the qualitied world.”

If we take the division of classificatory, comparative, and quantitative concepts not in a developmental sense but as different approaches to a scientific grasp of the world, then each conceptual method of measurement may yield unique information about the world. In either case, whether we take these scientific concepts of measurement in developmental terms or take each in isolation, comparative concepts have a crucial role to play: either they are a stage in the development of a fully quantitative science, or they yield unique information about the world.

We cannot fully or adequately conceptualize civilization without developing comparative concepts of civilization to the greatest extent possible, but the development and exploration of this conceptual space is severely constrained by the contemporary political proscription upon the comparison of civilizations. In this way, the study of civilization today is unnecessarily yet unavoidably political. In order to frankly and bluntly discuss comparative conceptions of civilization, we are forced to seek artful euphemisms to speak evasively. This is unfortunate for the development of a science of civilization, but it is not insuperable, and the appropriate degree of abstraction and formalization in a fully developed theoretical context may be sufficient to violate this taboo in spirit while leaving the letter of the proscription intact.

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The legendary meeting of Confucius and Lao Tzu, each representing very different philosophical traditions of China.

The legendary meeting of Confucius and Lao Tzu, each representing very different philosophical traditions of China.

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A Fly in the Ointment

11 November 2014


Wittgenstein - cartoon

Wittgenstein was not himself a positivist, but his early work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, had such a profound influence on early twentieth century philosophy that the philosophy that we now identify as logical positivism was born from reading groups that got together to study Wittgenstein’s Tractatus — what I have elsewhere called The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club — primarily the Vienna Circle.

Wittgenstein began his education as an engineer, and only later became interested in philosophy by way of the philosophy of mathematics then emerging from the work of Frege and Russell. It has been said that the early Wittgenstein approached philosophy like an engineer, setting out to drain the swamps of philosophy. A more familiar metaphor for Wittgenstein’s philosophy, though for the later rather than the earlier Wittgenstein, is that of philosophy as a kind of therapy:

“A philosopher is a man who has to cure many intellectual diseases in himself before he can arrive at the notions of common sense.”

Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 1944, p. 44e

Wittgenstein does not himself use the term “therapy” or “therapeutic,” but frequently recurs to the theme in other words:

“In philosophizing we may not terminate a disease of thought. It must run its natural course, and slow cure is all important. (That is why mathematicians are such bad philosophers.)”

Wittgenstein, Zettel, 382

The idea of philosophy as therapy is not entirely new. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I noted the medieval tradition of conceiving philosophers as “doctors of the soul”:

“During late antiquity philosophers were sometimes called ‘doctors of the soul.’ Later yet, Avicenna was a practicing physician in addition to being both a logician and a philosopher, and he stands at the head of a tradition of doctor-philosophers among the Arabs. All this has a superficial resemblance to the contemporary conception of philosophy as therapy, but in reality it is the antithesis of the modern conception of philosophy as a sickness in need of therapy, of scholarship as an illness, and of the philosopher as corrupt and corrupting.”

Variations on the Theme of Life, section 767

Every age must confront the ancient and perennial questions of philosophy anew, because each age has its own, peculiar therapeutic needs. It has become a commonplace of contemporary commentary, as least since the middle of the twentieth century, that the pace and busyness of our civilization today is driving us insane, and in so far as this is true, we are more in need of therapy than previous ages.

In my previous post, Philosophy for Industrial-Technological Civilization, I suggested, contrary to Quine, that philosophy of science is not philosophy enough; that we also need philosophy of technology and philosophy of engineering, and to unify these aspects of the STEM cycle within the big picture, we need a philosophy of big history. There is only one problem with my vision for the overarching philosophy demanded by the world of today: there is no demand for it. No one is interested in my vision or, for that matter, any other vision of philosophy for the twenty-first century.

Previously I wrote three posts on contemporary anti-philosophy:

Fashionable Anti-Philosophy

Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy

Beyond Anti-Philosophy

The most prestigious scientists of our time seem at one in their insistence upon the irrelevance of philosophy. A post on the SelfAwarePatters blog, E.O. Wilson: Science, not philosophy, will explain the meaning of existence, brought my attention to E. O. Wilson’s recent statements belittling philosophy. SelfAwarePatters has also written about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “blanket dismissal of philosophy” in Neil deGrasse Tyson is wrong to dismiss all of philosophy, but he may have a point on some of it.

It is almost painful to watch Wilson’s oversimplifications in the above linked “Big Think” piece, though I suspect his oversimplifications will have a wide and sympathetic audience. After implying the pointlessness of studying the history of philosophy and making the claim that philosophy mostly consists of “failed models of how the brain works,” Wilson then appeals to the “full story of humanity” (without mentioning big history, though the interdisciplinary concatenation he mentions is very much in the spirit of big history), and formulates a point of view almost precisely the same as that I heard several times at the 2014 IBHA conference: once we have this big picture view of history, we no longer need to ask what the meaning of life is, because we will know it.

The inescapable reflexivity of philosophical thought means that any principled rejection of philosophy is itself a philosophical claim; unprincipled rejections, that is to say, dismissal without reason or argument, have no more standing than any other unprincipled claim. So the scientists who dismiss philosophy and give reasons for doing so are doing philosophy. The unfortunate consequence is that they are doing philosophy poorly, much like someone who dismisses science but who pontificates on matters scientific, and does so poorly. We are well familiar with this, as pseudo-science has been given a megaphone by the internet and other forms of mass media. Scientists are aware of the problem posed by pseudo-science, but seem to be blissfully unaware of the problem of pseudo-philosophy.

There is a book by Louis Althusser, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of Scientists, that I have cited previously (in Fashionable Anti-Philosophy) since the title is so evocative, in which Althusser says, “…in every scientist there sleeps a philosopher or, to put it another way, that every scientist is affected by an ideology or a scientific philosophy which we propose to call by the conventional name: the spontaneous philosophy of the scientists…” It is this spontaneous philosophy of scientists that we see in the anti-philosophical pronouncements of E. O. Wilson and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Not only eminent scientists, but also science popularizers share this attitude. Michio Kaku’s recent book, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind, is essentially a speculative work in the philosophy of mind. There is a pervasive yet implicit Kantianism running through Kaku’s book of which I am sure he is unaware, because, like most scientists today who write on philosophical topics, he has not bothered to study the philosophical literature. If one knows that one is arguing a neo-Kantian position on the transcendental aesthetic, in trying to come to terms with how the barrage of sensory data is somehow translated into an apparently smooth and unitary stream of consciousness, then one can simply consult the literature to learn where state of the argument over the transcendental aesthetic stands today, what the standard arguments are for and against contemporary Kantianism, but without this basic knowledge, one does little more than repeat what has already been said — better — by others, and long ago. Even Sam Harris, who has some background in philosophy, gives his exposition of determinism in a philosophical vacuum, as though the work of philosophers such as Robert Kane, Helen Steward, and Alfred R. Mele simply did not exist, or is beneath notice.

The anti-philosophy and pseudo-philosophy of prominent scientists is an instance of the spontaneous philosophy noted by Althusser. But this spontaneous expression of uninformed philosophical speculation does not come out of nowhere; it has a basis, albeit dimly understood, in the nature of science itself. What is the nature of science itself? I have an answer to this, but it is not an answer that will be welcome to most of those in science today: science is philosophy. That is to say, science is a particular branch of philosophy, that branch once called natural philosophy, and it is natural philosophy practiced in accordance with methodological naturalism. Science is a narrow slice of a far more comprehensive conception of the world.

Scientists are philosophers without realizing they are philosophers, and when then pronounce upon philosophical questions without reference to the philosophical tradition — which is much broader and pluralistic than any one, single branch of philosophy, such as natural philosophy — they do little more than to restate their presuppositions as principles. Given the preeminent role of science within industrial-technological civilization, this willful ignorance of philosophy, and of the position of science in relation to philosophy, is not only holding back both science and philosophy, it is holding back civilization.

The next stage of development of our civilization (not to mention the macro-evolution of our civilization into another kind of civilization) will not come about until science utterly abandons the positivistic assumptions that are today the unquestioned yet implicit presuppositions of scientific inquiry, and science extends the scientific method, and the sense of responsibility to empirical evidence, beyond the confines of any one branch of philosophy to the whole of philosophy. To paraphrase Plato, until philosophers theorize as scientists or those who are now called scientists and leading thinkers genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until science and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, civilization will have no rest from evils… nor, I think, will the human race.

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Twentieth century American analytical philosopher W. V. O. Quine said that, “Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.” (The Ways of Paradox, “Mr. Strawson on Logical Theory”) In so saying Quine was making explicit the de facto practice on which Anglo-American analytical philosophy was converging: if philosophy was going to be tolerated at all (even among professional philosophers!) it must delimit its horizons to science, as only in the conceptual clarification of science had philosophy any remaining role to play in the modern world. Philosophy of science was a preoccupation of philosophers throughout the twentieth century, from early positivist formulations in the early part of the century, through post-positivist formulations, to profoundly ambiguous reflections upon the rationality of science in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

I have previously addressed the condition of contemporary philosophy in Philosophy Institutionalized, in which I noted that among the philosophical schools of our time, “there is a common thread, and that common thread is not at all difficult to discern: it is the relationship of thought to the relentless expansion of industrial-technological civilization.” I would like to take this idea a step further, and consider how philosophy might be both embedded in contemporary civilization and how it might look beyond the particular human condition of the present moment of history and also embrace something larger.

The position of philosophy in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization was preeminent, and second only to theology. India had a uniquely philosophical civilization in which schools of thought wildly proliferated and were elaborated over the course of hundreds of years. In those agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations in which religion simpliciter was the organizing principle, initially crude religious ideas were eventually given sophisticated and subtle formulations in an advanced technical vocabulary largely derived from philosophy. Where the explicitly religious impulse was less prominent than the philosophical impulse, a philosophical civilization came into being, as in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, starting with ancient Greece and its successor civilizations.

With the end of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, as it was preempted by industrial-technological civilization, this tradition of philosophical preeminence in intellectual inquiry was lost, and philosophy, no longer being central to the motivating imperatives of civilization, became progressively more and more marginalized, until today, when it is largely an intellectual whipping boy that scientists point out as an object lesson of how not to engage in intellectual activity.

I have elsewhere described industrial-technological civilization as being defined by the STEM cycle, which I later further elaborated in One Hundred Years of Fusion as follows:

“…science drives technology, technology drives industrial engineering, and industrial engineering creates new resources that allow science to be pursued at a larger scope and scale. In some cases the STEM cycle functions as a loosely-coupled structure of our world. The resources of advanced mathematics are necessary to the expression of physics in mathematicized form, but there may be no direct coupling of physics and mathematics, and the mathematics used in physics may have been available for generations. Pure science may suggest a number of technologies, many of which lie fallow, with no particular interest in them. One technology may eventually come into mass manufacture, but it may not be seen to have any initial impact on scientific research. All of these episodes seem de-coupled, and can only be understood as a loosely-coupled cycle when seen in the big picture over the long term. In the case of nuclear fusion, the STEM cycle is more tightly coupled: fusion science must be consciously developed with an eye to its application in various fusion technologies. The many specific technologies developed on the basis of fusion science are tested with an eye to which can be practically scaled up by industrial engineering to build a workable fusion power generation facility.”

Given the role of the STEM cycle in defining industrial-technological civilization, a robust philosophical engagement with the civilization of our time would mean a philosophy of science, a philosophy of technology, and a philosophy of engineering, as well as an overall philosophy of civilization that knit these together in a way that reflects the STEM cycle that unifies the three in industrial-technological civilization. Thus the twentieth century preoccupation with the philosophy of science can be understood as the first attempt to come to grips with the new form of civilization that had replaced the civilization of our rural, agricultural past.

This fits in well with the fact that the philosophy of technology has been booming in recent decades (partially driven by our technophilia), with philosophers of many different backgrounds and orientations — analytical philosophers, phenomenologists, existentialists, Marxists, and many others — equally interested in providing a philosophical commentary on this central feature of our contemporary world. I have myself written about the emergence of what I call techno-philosophy. The philosophy of engineering is a bit behind philosophy of science and philosophy of technology, but it is rapidly catching up, as philosophers realize that they have had little to say about this essential dimension of our contemporary world. The academic publisher Springer now has a series of books on the philosophy of engineering, Philosophy of Engineering and Technology. I would purchase more of these volumes if they weren’t prohibitively expensive.

Beyond the specialized disciplines of philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, and philosophy of engineering, there also needs to be a “big picture” engagement with the three loosely coupled together in the STEM cycle, and beyond this there needs to be a philosophical engagement with how our industrial-technological civilization is embedded in a larger historical context that includes different forms of civilization with profoundly different civilizational motifs and imperatives.

To address the latter need for a truly big picture philosophy, that is not some backward-looking disinterment of Hegelian philosophy of history, but which engages with the world as it know it today, in the light of scientific rationality, we need a philosophy of history that understands history in terms of scientific historiography, which is how a scientific civilization grasps history and arrives at a self-understanding of its place in history.

Philosophical reflection upon existential risk partially serves as a reminder of the philosophical dimension of history and civilization, in a way not unlike meditations on eternity during the period of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization served as a reminder that life is more than the daily struggle to stay alive. In my post, What is an existential philosophy?, I wrote, “…coming to terms with existence from an existential perspective means coming to terms with Big History, which provides the ultimate (natural historical) context for ordinary experience and its object.”

What we need, then, for a vital and vigorous philosophy for industrial-technological civilization, is a philosophy of big history. I intend to do something about this — in fact, I am working on it now — though it is unlikely that anyone will take notice.

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to be or not to be

Two Conceptions of the Existential

What is an existential question? How and why do philosophers ask existential questions? How and why do philosophers attempt to answer existential questions, or seek to avoid them? One way to understand the nature of existential questions is to make it personal. Hamlet proposed the most famous existential dilemma in western literature, personalizing it in the line to be, or not to be, that is the question. Should I live, or should I die? Camus was riffing off the same theme when he said that suicide is the only philosophical question.

Previously in What is an existential philosophy? I attempted to demonstrate what is as stake in the distinction between the concern for existence that is the common foundation of existentialism and existential risk mitigation. To say that there is a common foundation in existential questions for existentialism and existential risk is not to confuse or conflate the two; existentialists and advocates of existential risk mitigation both take existential questions seriously. The response is distinct, to be sure; in fact, it is relatively easy to guess that major existentialist thinkers would have had to say about philosophical formulations about existential risk and the response thereto.


Naturalism and the disenchantment of the world

Much of existentialism was about coming to terms with the world no longer overlaid with the Sacred Canopy, and therefore a world in which we must accept death without consolation. Although we usually think of existentialism as an emotional response to the world (and a personal response to the world), the deeper meaning of existentialism is profoundly stoical. No doubt for some existentialists, stoically accepting death without consolation also meant accepting the death of societies, of civilizations, and perhaps also the planet entire and its sun equally without consolation.

The existentialists were not the only ones seeking a stoical acceptance of fate after what other philosophers called “the disenchantment of the world.” Bertrand Russell had little patience for the existentialists, but here is what he wrote early in his career about the apparent pointlessness of life:

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” collected in Mysticism and Logic, 1917

The existentialists didn’t invoke the entropic heat death of the universe in the way the Russell did, and their temperaments are worlds apart, but Russell and the existentialists offered a similar prescription for human life after the death of God.

The philosophical elaboration of existential risk mitigation is utterly naturalistic in its conception of the world — just as was Russell — and so accepts the world as the existentialists would have us accept it, without a Sacred Canopy, but instead there is also an utterly pragmatic attitude to what can be done to ensure the ongoing viability of the human project, such as it is. In so far as existential risk mitigation shades over into transhumanism as a strategy for ongoing human viability, it may go so far as to deny the the death of the individual. (This transhumanist aspect of contemporary thought has come in for much contemporary criticism from traditionalists — many of whom are not even aware that they are traditionalists.)

edwards encyclopedia of philosophy

The eliminativist evasion of existential questions

There is another philosophical tradition, distinct from those above that take existential questions with deadly seriousness, that attempts to demonstrate the conceptual bankruptcy of existential questions — that existential questions are either pseudo-questions, or they are systematically misleading expressions that need to be purged from our minds if we are to understand the world rightly.

In the Encyclopedia of Philosophy that he edited (i.e., he edited the first edition), Paul Edwards contributed an article on ultimate “why” questions that belongs to this other tradition. Arguing in the eliminativist fashion of classic positivism, Edwards allowed that, while “why” questions of a more limited scope can be meaningful, ultimate “why” questions — which he called the superultimate “why” — are logically incoherent:

In any of its familiar senses, when we ask of anything, x, why it happened or why it is what it is — whether x is the collapse of an army, a case of lung cancer, the theft of a jewel, or the stalling of a car — we assume that there is something or some set of conditions, other than x, in terms of which it can be explained. We do not know what this other thing is that is suitably related to x, but unless it is in principle possible to go beyond x and find such another thing, the question does not make any sense… Now, if by “the universe” we mean the totality of things, then our x in “Why does the universe exist?” is so all-inclusive that it is logically impossible to find anything which could be suitably related to that whose explanation we appear to be seeking.

Paul Edwards, “Why” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Second Edition, Vol. 9, Donald M. Borchert, Editor in Chief, Thomson Gale, 2006, p. 760

If you follow the logic of Edwards’ argument you may be convinced on a rational level that superultimate why questions are logically meaningless, and yet still experience a certain misgiving at simply dismissing these “why” questions as meaningless. After all, these superultimate why questions in religious dress have been at that heart of the consolation offered by religion to the anguished cri de coeur that the superultimate why question so often represents. “Why?” in this sense is the cry of an existentially wounded creature. Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is built on the promise of addressing this existential need.

This is a very human response — a human, all-too-human response. I am reminded of a passage from Walter Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic in a discussion of Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith, of which Kaufmann says:

“In a little over one hundred pages, [Tillich] redefines such terms as faith and heresy, atheism and revelation. It turns out that the man who accepts the ancient beliefs of Christendom, the Apostles’ Creed, or Luther’s articles of faith may well be lacking in faith, while man who doubts all these beliefs but is sufficiently concerned to lie awake nights worrying about it is a paragon of faith.”

Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic

On Kaufmann’s reading of Tillich, Tillich is giving voice to the existentially wounded creature who demands answers, while Kaufmann here plays the Nietzschean positivist who will have no truck with such human, all-too-human weaknesses.


Existential Questions

Existential questions would presumably be those questions asked by existential philosophers. However, I am going to use the phrase in a broader sense, though not necessarily in a way unjustified by the initial presumption. If a broader construal of “existential questions” includes questions not usually asked by existential philosophers and questions asked by philosophers who ignore or repudiate the existentialist approach, perhaps we should consider identifying as existentialists even those thinkers who explicitly reject the label. But that is neither here nor there at present.

The sense in which I would like to use the term “existential” is perhaps closer to what philosophers of mathematics have in mind when they discuss “existence proofs” and “existence assumptions,” which are understood to be characteristic of non-constructive thought. Indeed, existential thought and existential questions are broadly non-constructive, while a rejection of or disinterest in existential thought and existential questions is typical of constructivist thought.

I want to once again personalize this discussion so that reader doesn’t get thrown by terms like “constructive” and “non-constructive.” I know that some people find philosophical terminology to be off-putting, and they stop paying attention when technical terminology begins to play a role. So continuing the theme of Hamlet and Camus, which personalizes existential questions by relating them to the life and death of the individual, we can do the same thing with constructive and non-constructive conceptions of existential questions. It is a poetic thought encountered occasionally in literature that there is a date that will someday be the anniversary of our death. Every year we live, we live through the day that will be the anniversary of our death, but we hare unaware of this. Well, this is a perfectly non-constructive idea. We are asserting the existence of something, but we can’t point of an actual example.

I can say, “some day this year will be the anniversary of my future death,” but unless I am a suicide or a victim of capital punishment I cannot say, “the date such-and-such will be the anniversary of my death some day.” The good constructivist, even if he feels the poignancy of the poetic idea, will reject the idea that there exists a date that we cannot concretely exhibit. It has been said that an intuitionist who rejects the law of the excluded middle (P or not-P) will not agree with the statement, “either it is raining or it is not raining,” unless he looks out the window to confirm that the weather is one or the other of these alternatives. It is a similar matter with a constructivist who would reject that there is a date that will be the future anniversary of one’s death without being able to ascertain exactly what this date is. (He might, however, be so frustrated with our non-constructive claims that he kills us and settles the question then and there.)

Some will find the constructive claim to be the stronger position; some will not be able to resist the non-constructive claim. I maintain that constructive and non-constructive claims are complementary, and that both approaches have important contributions to make to human thought. The constructivist who insists that either the constructivist is right or the non-constructivist is right, is simply instantiating the principle of the excluded middle on a meta-theoretical level while denying its validity for infra-theoretical reasoning. Because I take constructivism and non-constructivism to be equally valid, I take existential and non-existential thought to be equally valid; the two are complementary perspectives. Sometimes the one offers the better insight, and sometimes the other.

Brain and mind

The Existential Stumbling Block

While the example I have used above of an existential question that illustrates the difference between the constructive and the non-constructive perspective is the kind of existential question that is likely to provoke an emotional response, yet many existential questions that preoccupy philosophers are such as to leave most people with little or no emotional response. There are technical questions concerning every putative existent as to whether or not it exists. When we discuss the ordinary objects of experience only radical skeptics question the existence of such things, but when it comes to intangible objects, or exists too large or too small, too brief or too long in existence for the human senses to easily detect, then skepticism comes more easily, and one understands why there is a debate as to whether such putative existents exist at all. Hence we come to the existential questions that preoccupy philosophers.

Existential questions have a peculiar quality to them that I would like to try to illustrate with some examples. This peculiar quality I will call the existential stumbling block, that is to say, that philosophers (or anyone else, when thinking philosophically about putative existents) often encounter existence questions as an impediment to further and constructive inquiry. I do not maintain that this is always or universally the case, nor to I say that all philosophers (or anyone thinking philosophically about existence) are tripped up by this stumbling block, but it is common enough — one might even call it a metaphysical bias — that it is worthwhile to make this philosophical impediment explicit.

Because of the particular approach taken to philosophy of mind by analytical philosophy — viz. it comes to a screeching halt at the existential question of mind and because of this conceptual scruple does not move forward to create a theory of mind, and even less to consider the practical implications of such a theory for thinking beings — this tradition of thought has been able to contribute very little to substantive questions that involve mind-dependent entities, and by “mind-dependent entities” I do not mean entities created or sustained by the mind, but entities that are recognized in, by, and through consciousness but which cannot be recognized in, by, or through the senses.

The existential account of the philosophy of mind — is there or isn’t there — is analogous to existential accounts of the philosophy of mathematics, which are primarily concerned with the ontological status of mathematical objects. There is a further analogy between these existential questions and traditional proofs of God’s existence in philosophical theology. Dostoyevsky provided the intuitive case for such existential preoccupations in his famous claim that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. One can imagine a similarly preoccupied philosopher of mathematics asserting, “If mathematical objects do not exist, then everything is permitted in formal reason.”

These examples represent a particular style of philosophical thought and inquiry, and it is much more in evidence in some areas of than than in others. In using an example from theology I risk losing my readers, because here is another question upon which some individuals become emotionally involved, but even on the question of the existence of God there are those who do not get caught on the existential stumbling block (cf. Stephen Cahn, “The Irrelevance to Religion of Philosophical Proofs for the Existence of God”).

Put simply, existence questions get “stuck” on determining the existence or non-existence of a putative existent, and in so far as philosophical effort gets “stuck” in this way, it prevents those so stuck from pursuing or investigating other questions. A great deal of rigorous, hard-headed analytical philosophy is, essentially, caught up in existential questions — Is there any such thing as mind, or is mind a mere aspect of the brain? Do mathematical objects exist? — and in so far as these are existential questions, they constitute a “wall” that blocks further inquiry. This kind of existential inquiry has a rigor of its own — though not the rigor of constructivistic inquiry — and it is sometimes a bracing and salutary tonic for the mind to think in existential terms. But every approach to thought has both advantages and disadvantages.

Edmund Husserl first formulated phenomenology in order to circumvent the existence questions of the natural standpoint.

Edmund Husserl first formulated phenomenology in order to circumvent the existence questions of the natural standpoint.

The existential perspective and the phenomenological perspective

The existential perspective can be profitably and most dramatically contrasted to the phenomenological perspective. The phenomenology of Edmund Husserl sought to do away with the ancient philosophical dichotomy between appearance and reality, and to level the ontological playing field, taking all things only in so far as they present themselves to consciousness. Husserl called this principle the original right of all data, by which latter he meant the data of consciousness, or what an analytical philosopher would call sense data (and what Schopenhauer called Vorstellung, often translated as representation).

The central conceit of phenomenology is to conceive of the world as though existence is irrelevant. For the phenomenologist, existential questions do not exist, except as a phenomenon of conscious life. In this respect, Husserl was not unlike Meinong, a fellow student of Brentano, and with whom Husserl is often contrasted, but wrongly in my opinion. The Meinongian distinction between being and being-so (Sosein), i.e., between existence and a certain way of existing, i.e., having a certain character (a distinction sometimes called Meinong’s principle of independence), allows us to compare the characters of things apart from any consideration of their existence, and this is also the perspective of Husserl in formulating phenomenology.

The phenomenological perspective does not pause over existential questions, and this is most clearly evident in Husserl’s approach to mind. Husserl never asks if mind exists or if consciousness exists; he takes mind and consciousness as given, and attempts to provide a phenomenological description of the structures of consciousness, such as they present themselves. The analytical philosopher who is debating endlessly whether or not mind is a legitimate concept is not free in the same way that Husserl is free to take mind for what it appears to be and to begin giving an account of what mind is on its own terms.

I want to be explicit and to emphasize here (because sad experience has taught me that, no matter how carefully I try to make a point, that others will not necessarily get the point I have tried to make) that I am not saying that Husserl’s investigation into the structures of consciousness is “good” while the debate over the legitimacy of consciousness is “bad,” nor am I saying the opposite. Both are legitimate philosophical inquiries, but they are distinct inquires. Our world is large enough, and sufficiently crowded with philosophers, that some can focus on existential questions even while others disregard these existential questions entirely and seek to go to the things themselves (as Husserl put it).

Arthur C Clarke

The existence question and extraterrestrial life

Compare the analytical philosophers who discuss the mind-body question in ever-increasing detail, but always coming back to existential questions of mind and consciousness, to the work of Husserl, who accepted consciousness as a fundamental datum and spent his philosophical career delineating the structures of consciousness. If one holds that there is no such thing as consciousness, then it would be pointless to attempt to investigate its structures; Husserl’s entire inquiry — as is the whole of phenomenology based on Husserl’s work — is closed to those who deny the reality of consciousness. Similarly, an investigation of the nature and properties of mathematical objects is closed to those philosophers who deny that there are mathematical objects, or who find them so problematic that the central question of the philosophy of mathematics is whether or not there are mathematical objects. This is the sense in which I mean that existential questions constitute a stumbling block, or an inquiry “wall” (like the retrodiction wall I previously wrote about).

I have, for some time, been planning to write a follow up post to my post on Arthur C. Clarke’s tertium non datur, which discusses the role of the law of the excluded middle in our thought. Clarke, in formulating his dilemma regarding extraterrestrial life in terms of the law of the excluded middle gives a non-constructive perspective on the question; the obvious response to this is a constructive conception of extraterrestrial life. The most obvious instantiation of a constructive approach to the question of extraterrestrial life today is to be found in astrobiology, which is a scientific rather than a philosophical approach, but the outlook of which could easily be captured in a philosophically-informed approach to astrobiology.

Clarke presented us with an existential perspective regarding extraterrestrial life, and most people feel the visceral appeal of the dilemma, in a way not unlike the way that most people will respond to the poetic idea that there is a date that will be the anniversary of their death. Part of what makes the dilemma powerful is that it appears to describe an exhaustive dichotomy that characterizes the world even if we do not know on which side of the dichotomy the world is to be found. But what is the value of an absolute and exhaustive disjunction between the existence of extraterrestrial life and the non-existence of extraterrestrial life? What would it mean to be alone in the universe? If there is life in the oceans below Europa’s icy surface, and we can determine that this life emerged separately from life on Earth (what astrobiologists call “strange” life or “weird” life), would we feel any less alone? Once we start to approach the question in this spirit, we can no longer make the sweeping distinction that we are either alone in the universe or we are not. It becomes a much more complicated and subtle question, and that can be a good thing.

Magritte The Banquet 1958

Existential questions and metaphysical questions

The existential perspective can also be contrasted to the metaphysical perspective. If the existential perspective is concerned with the ontological question of beings, i.e., whether or not they exist, the metaphysical perspective is concerned with the essence of beings, i.e., what they are, their nature. This is also an ontological inquiry, but it is in inquiry into Sosein rather than Sein (as in Meinong’s principle of independence, as noted above).

In several posts I have tried to formulate a metaphysical perspective — cf. Metaphysical Responsibility, Metaphysical Modesty, and Metaphysical Pride — but I am still far short of a definitive formulation, and I am working on further posts to try to get a handle on the metaphysical, which will now involve its contrast to the existential.

For the time being, lacking either a definitive formulation of the existential or the metaphysical, I simply want to note, to point out, that the kind of philosophical inquiries undertaken in the existential spirit differ markedly from the kind of philosophical inquiry taken up in the metaphysical spirit. Again, I am not saying that one is “right” and the other is “wrong”; both the existential perspective and the metaphysical perspective have something to contribute to our understanding of the world. Furthermore, both can benefit from their contrast with the other, which can serve to sharpen and to refine our perspective.

wanderer over a sea of fog

The existential perspective in philosophical context

I am not arguing here that existential questions and the existential perspective from which these questions emerge, and which presumably finds these questions to be meaningful, are either legitimate or illegitimate (which would simply be to reinstate the law of the excluded middle which is the source of most existential questions). Philosophy needs both existential and non-existential perspectives, existential and non-existential questions, in the same way that philosophy needs both formal and informal inquiry, both constructive and non-constructive reasoning, both abstract and concrete conceptions.

That being said, while existential questions have a definite value in philosophical inquiry, they can become a stumbling block. The apparent absoluteness of the existential dilemmas posed by existential questions can lead us, if we are not careful, into oversimplified black-or-white dichotomies that are not helpful in expanding our range of inquiry. One can simply shift one’s perspective away from the existential, and a whole range of interesting questions emerge. If one accepts that there are such things as minds, rejecting the eliminativist account of mind, then the investigation of mind becomes a legitimate field of philosophical inquiry. The point here is that the open existential question should not shut down open questions elsewhere. We can honestly admit that the existence of minds if problematic, and still be interested in mind as mind.

Developing an existential perspective also means developing a sense of the limitations of the existential perspective. We have see above that the existential perspective, in so far as it is non-constructive, admits of complementary constructive perspectives, and there are contrasting perspectives such as the phenomenological and the metaphysical. Similar considerations hold for the metaphysical perspective: developing a metaphysical perspective means developing a sense of the limitations as well as of the possibilities of the metaphysical perspective.

While this has been a rather long post, I hope that the reader sees that this is only a mere outline that scratches the surface of how we might approach existential questions without allowing them to become a stumbling block. As implied above in my brief discussion of Arthur C. Clarke’s existential dilemma about extraterrestrial life, this question can be taken in many interesting directions.

I hope that the study of existential risk can be undertaking in this spirit, and that the very interesting questions of whether or not human beings as a species survive, whether civilization has a future, or whether we are all doomed, are not exclusively taken up as existential questions. Because of our likely emotional response to these questions, there is a real danger that the legitimate existential questions will become a stumbling block to further inquiry.

Let me try to give you a sense of what I mean. In Bertrand Russell’s book An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, Russell spends more than three hundred pages on the question of universals (and the philosophical tradition probably has millions of pages on the question of universals), only to conclude his inquiry as follows:

I conclude, therefore, though with hesitation, that there are universals, and not merely general words. Similarity, at least, will have to be admitted; and in that case it seems hardly worth while to adopt elaborate devices for the exclusion of other universals.

Bertrand Russell, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, London: Allen and Unwin, 1956, p. 347

This strikes me as a kind of philosophical capitulation, and I can imagine someone similarity saying (as Russell himself often said, in many different contexts), we know that humanity, one way or another is doomed; therefore, there is no reason not to view our fate as already having been decided, and we ought to act as though we are already doomed. What concerns me, in short, is existential capitulation based on our present imperfect knowledge of the place of life in the universe.

Fatalism fed by the stumbling block of existential questions connected with the place of life, consciousness, and civilization in the cosmos can be readily moderated by sometimes distancing ourselves from the existential questions and adopting a phenomenological or metaphysical perspective — or any other perspective you might care to adopt.

The take-home message here is that, when one thinks in existential terms (or, for that matter, in any particular kind of terms), one should be aware that one is thinking in existential terms; philosophical reflexivity can be our bulwark again painting ourselves into a corner.

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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk

8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity

9. Conceptualization of Existential Risk

10. Existential Risk and Existential Viability

11. Existential Risk and the Developmental Conception of Civilization

12. Developing an Existential Perspective

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ex risk ahead

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Life Lessons from Morally Compromised Philosophers

What are we to make of Heidegger? Was he a mere apologist for the Nazis, as Hegel was taken to be an apologist for Prussianism? Can the philosopher be salvaged from the ruin of the man, as one book recently put it?

What are we to make of Heidegger? Was he a mere apologist for the Nazis, as Hegel was taken to be an apologist for Prussianism? Can the philosopher be salvaged from the ruin of the man, as one book recently put it?

With particular attention to the Heidegger case

I began this blog with the idea that I would write about current events from a philosophical perspective and said in my initial post that I wanted to see history through the prism of ideas. This continues to be my project, however imperfectly conceived or unevenly executed. It is a project that necessitates engagement both with the world and with philosophy simultaneously. And so it is that my posts have ranged widely over warfare and the history of ideas, inter alia, and as a consequence of this dual mandate I have often found myself reading and citing sources that are not the common run of reading for philosophers. Some philosophers, however, are both influential and controversial, and Martin Heidegger has become one such philosopher. Heidegger’s influence in philosophy has only grown since his death (primarily in Continental thought), but the controversy about his involvement with Nazism has kept pace and grown along with Heidegger’s reputation.

It may help my readers in the US to understand the impact of the Heidegger controversy to compare it to the intersection of evil and ideals in an iconic American thinker, taking as our example a man more familiar than Heidegger, who was an iconic continental thinker. Take Thomas Jefferson, for example. Some years ago (in 1998, to be specific) I saw two television documentaries about the life of Thomas Jefferson. The first was a typical laudatory television documentary about one of the American founding fathers (I didn’t take notes at the time, so I don’t know which documentary this was, but it may well have been the 1997 Ken Burns film about Jefferson, which I recently re-watched to confirm my memory of its ambiguous treatment of Jefferson’s relationship to this slaves), which touched upon the possibility of Jefferson fathering children by his slave Sally Hemmings, while not taking the idea very seriously.

Then in 1998 the news came out of DNA tests that proved conclusively that Jefferson had fathered the children of his slave Sally Hemmings, and the scientific nature of the evidence rapidly inroads among Jefferson scholars, who had been slow to acknowledge Jefferson’s “shadow family” (as such families were once called in the Ante-Bellum south). The consensus of Jefferson scholars changed so rapidly that it makes one’s head spin — but only after two hundred years of denial. And there remain those today who continue to deny Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemmings’ children.

Not long after this news was made public, I saw another documentary about Jefferson in which the whole issue was treated very differently; the perspective of this documentary accepted as unproblematic Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemmings’ children, and examined Jefferson’s life and ideas in the light of this “shadow family.” I don’t think that Jefferson suffered at all from this latter documentary treatment; he definitely came across less as an icon and more as a fallible human being, which is not at all objectionable. It is, in fact, more human, and more believable.

Though Jefferson did not suffer in my estimation because he was revealed to be human, all-too-human, there is nevertheless something deeply disturbing about the image of Jefferson sitting down to dinner with his white family while being served at dinner by his mulatto children that he sired with with slaves, and it is deeply disturbing in a way that it not at all unlike the way that it is deeply disturbing to know that when Heidegger met Karl Löwith in 1936 near Rome (two years after Heidegger left his Rectorship in Freiburg) that Heidegger wore a Nazi swastika pin on his lapel the entire time, knowing that Löwith was a Jew who had been forced to flee Nazi Germany. One cannot but wonder, on a purely human level, apart from any ideology, how one person could be so utterly unconcerned with the well being of another.

It would be disingenuous to attempt to defend the indefensible by making the claim that all intellectuals of Jefferson’s time were conflicted over slavery; this simply was not the case. Schopenhauer, for example, consistently wrote against slavery and never showed the slightest sign of wavering on the issue, but, of course, Schopenhauer’s income did not depend on slaves, while Jefferson’s did.

We know that Jefferson struggled mightily with the question of slavery in his later years, as is the case with most conflicted men tying himself in knots trying to square the actual record of his life with his ideals. It is easy to dismiss individuals, even those who have struggled with the contradictions in their life, as mere hypocrites, but the charge of hypocrisy, while carrying great emotional weight, is the least interesting charge that can be made against a man’s ideas. As I wrote in my Variations on the Theme of Life, “The world is mendacious through and through; mendacity is the human condition. To renounce hypocrisy is to renounce the world and to institute an asceticism that cannot ever be realized in practice.” (section 169)

Heidegger does not seem to have been conflicted about his Nazism in the way that Jefferson was conflicted about slavery. Many years after the Second World War, when the record of Nazi death camps was known to all, Heidegger could still refer to the “inner truth greatness of this movement,” while in the meeting with Löwith mentioned above Heidegger was quite explicit that his political engagement with Nazism was a direct consequence of his philosophical views.

One obvious and well-trodden path for handling a philosopher’s political “indiscretions” is to hold that a philosopher’s theoretical works are a thing apart, elevated above the world like Plato’s Forms — one might even say sublated in the Hegelian sense: at once elevated, suspended, and canceled. This strategy allows one to read any philosopher and ignore any detail of life that one chooses. I don’t think that this constitutes a good contribution to intellectual honesty.

I myself was once among those who read philosophers for their philosophical ideas only, and while I was never a Heidegger enthusiast or a Heidegger defender, I thought of Heidegger’s political engagement with Nazism as mostly irrelevant to his philosophy. At some point I don’t clearly recall, I become intensely interested in Heidegger’s Nazism, and there was a flood of books telling the whole sorry story to feed my interest: Heidegger And Nazism by Victor Farias, which was the book the opened by Heidegger’s Nazi past to scrutiny, On Heidegger’s Nazism and Philosophy by Tom Rockmore, The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader edited by Richard Wolin, Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany by Hans Sluga, Heidegger, philosophy, Nazism by Julian Young, The Shadow of that Thought by Dominique Janicaud, and most recent and perhaps the most devastating of them all, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 by Emmanuel Faye.

Even with all this material now available on Heidegger’s Nazi past, Heidegger still has his apologists and defenders. Beyond the steadfast apologists for Heidegger — who are perhaps more compromised than Heidegger himself — there are a variety of strategies to excuse Heidegger from his involvement with the Nazis, as when Heidegger’s Nazism is called an “episode” or a “period,” or characterized as “compromise, opportunism, or cowardice” (as in Julian Young’s Heidegger, philosophy, Nazism, p. 4). Young also uses the terms conviction, commitment, and flirtation, though Young ultimately exculpates Heidegger, asserting that, “…neither the early philosophy of Being and Time, nor the later, post-war philosophy, nor even the philosophy of the mid-1930s — works such as the Introduction to Metaphysics with respect to which critics often feel themselves to have an open-and-shut case — stand in any essential connection to Nazism.” (Op. cit., p. 5)

Heidegger’s engagement with fascism represents the point at which Heidegger’s ideas demonstrate their relationship to the ordinary business of life, and this is a conjuncture of the first importance. This is, indeed, identical to the task I set myself in writing this blog: to demonstrate the relationship between life and ideas. And Heidegger, I came to realize, was a particularly clear and striking case of the intersection of life and thought, though not the kind of example that most philosophers would want to claim as their own. I can fully understand why a philosopher would simply prefer to distance themselves from Heidegger and, while not denying Heidegger’s Nazism, would choose not to talk about it either. But that Heidegger thereby becomes a problem for philosophy and philosophers is precisely what makes him interesting. We philosophers must claim Heidegger as one of our own, even if we are sickened by his Nazism, which was no mere “flirtation” or “episode,” but constituted a life-long commitment.

Heidegger was not merely a Nazi ideologue, but also briefly a Nazi official. The Nazification of the professions was central to the strategy of Nazi social revolution (with its own professional institution, the Ahnenerbe), and a willing collaborator such as Heidegger, prepared to Nazify a university, was a valuable asset to the Nazi party. Ultimately, however, Heidegger was embroiled in an internal conflict within the Nazi party, and when the SA was purged and many of its leaders killed on Night of the Long Knives, the Strasserist SA faction lost out decisively, and Heidegger with them. Thereafter Heidegger was watched by the Nazi party, and Heidegger defenders have used this party surveillance to argue that Heidegger was regarded as a subversive by the Nazi party. He was a subversive, in fact, but only because he represented a faction of Nazism that had been suppressed. Heidegger continued as a Nazi party member, and paid his party dues right up to the end of the war. We see, then, that the SA purge was not merely a brutal struggle for power within the Nazi party, but also an episode in the history of ideas. This is interesting and important, even if it is also horrific.

The more carefully we study Heidegger’s philosophy, and read it in relation to his life, the more we can understand the relation of even the most subtle and sophisticated philosophy to ideological commitment and to the ordinary business of life. And it wasn’t only Heidegger who compromised himself. There is Frege’s political diary, less well known than Heidegger’s political views, and the much more famous case of Sartre and Camus. There are at least two book-length studies of the public quarrel and falling-out between Sartre and Camus (Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation and Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It by Ronald Aronson). Camus most definitely comes off looking better in this quarrel, with Sartre, the sophisticated technical philosopher, looking like a party-line communist while Camus, the writer, the literary man, showing true independence of spirit. The political lives of Camus and Sartre have been written about extensively, but even still Heidegger remains an interesting case because of the impenetrable complexity of his thought and the manifest horrors of the regime he served. There ought to be a disconnect here, but there isn’t, and this, again, is interesting and important even if it is horrific.

I have had to ask myself if my interest in Heidegger’s Nazism is prurient (in so far as there is a purely intellectual sense of “prurient”). There is something a little discomfiting about becoming fascinated by studying a great philosopher’s engagement with fascism. I am not innocent in this either. I, too, am a morally compromised philosopher. Perhaps the most I can hope for is to be aware of what I am involved in by making a careful study of philosophy’s involvement in politics. Naïvété strikes me as inexcusable in this context. I hope I have not been naïve.

I have not scrupled to read, to think about, and to quote individuals who were not only ideologically associated with crimes of unprecedented magnitude, but who have personally carried out capital crimes. In the case of Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski, who was personally responsible for several murders, I have carefully read his manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future (read it several times through, in fact), have thought about it, and have quoted it. Others who have been influenced by Kaczynski’s work and have publicly discussed it have felt the need to apologize for it, like scientists who consider using the research of Nazi doctors. But an apology feels like an excuse. I don’t want to make excuses.

Heidegger, like Nazism itself, is a lesson from history. We can benefit from studying Heidegger by learning how the most sophisticated philosophical justifications can be formulated for the most vulgar and the most reprehensible of purposes. But we cannot learn the lesson without studying the lesson. Studying the lessons of history may well corrupt us. That is a danger we must confront, and a risk we must take.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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It was the Romanian expatriate writer E. M. Cioran writing in French (and translated into English by the indefatigable Richard Howard) who first made me aware of Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre. Cioran’s Anathemas and Admirations has a chapter on de Maistre, the latter himself an intemperate expatriate gifted with a literary style so powerful that it wins the reader’s attention for doctrines so marginal as to be laughable — if only they had not been taken so deadly seriously by men who have died for them. But not everything in de Maistre is as trivial or marginal as his monarchism and his defense of the Ancien Régime.

Along with Edmund Burke, de Maistre (when he is remembered today) is remembered as a proto-conservative, staking out positions that would later become doctrinaire among conservative thinkers. Both were great stylists, but Burke was really a poet — did he not write one of the eighteenth-century tracts on the sublime that gentlemen of good taste wrote in those times? — while de Maistre was an original, ruthless, and brutal thinker, i.e., he was everything that a philosopher ought to be. But today de Maistre is held in low opinion because of his at times virulent racism (as though this were worse than virulent monarchism, or virulent sexism, etc.).

There are two sides of the coin of ad hominem arguments: either love or hatred of a man can lead us to embrace or reject his ideas. We need to try to see beyond both de Maistre’s fearsome if not untouchable reputation and the beauty of this style, if we are to engage with de Maistre the thinker — and this is a task worth the effort, because de Maistre has some interesting ideas that deserve exposition. His low reputation today might lead us to ignore these ideas, or his literary style might lead us to assent to ideas that, while interesting, certainly do not deserve our assent.

The intransigence of de Maistre invites the reader to shout back at him, even to shout him down, with a long and detailed catalog of the absurdities that have been perpetrated upon the world by men who believed in the doctrines that de Maistre defends. I doubt any of this would have made the slightest impression on de Maistre, whose own obvious contempt for such an approach comes across in every dismissive formulation that is presented as though no counter-veiling principle were even possible, even thinkable. With such a mind it would be utterly irrelevant to debate details; I have no doubt that de Maistre would have dismissed every challenge to his examples and instances with a contemptuous wave of the hand and a disapproving expression. In reading de Maistre, therefore, it behooves us to think only in terms of principles.

What are de Maistre’s principles? What is the essence of de Maistre’s thought? It is easy to take the wrong lesson from such a vigorous and expressive writer. The least imaginative and least creative among us read the likes of Burke and de Maistre and believe that they have found the whole meaning in a blueprint for contemporary society. But this is a mere detail, an accident of historical circumstances that might be construed in dramatically different ways in different periods of human history. What is of the essence of de Maistre’s thought is something not at all obvious, and it is his finitistic perspective.

I have previously quoted from de Maistre’s An Essay on the Generative Principle of Constitutions — a short, incisive, and suggestive work, i.e., everything that a philosophical work should be — in Fairness and the Social Contract and Why Revolutions Happen. Comte de Maistre begins his Essay by recounting the counter-intuitive nature of political science, citing several examples of putative political “common sense” and how experience has shown these to be “disastrous.” This points to an unexpected empiricism in de Maistre’s thought. Echoing but altering Thucydides’ famous aphorism, history is philosophy teaching by example, de Maistre wrote that history is experimental politics.

In the preface to his Essay, de Maistre anonymously quotes his own Considerations on France, Chap. VI. Following is how the two passages appear, first in Considerations on France:

1. No government results from a deliberation; popular rights are never written, or at least constitutive acts or written fundamental laws are always only declaratory statements of anterior rights, of which nothing can be said other than that they exist because they exist.

2. God, not having judged it proper to employ supernatural means in this field, has limited himself to human means of action, so that in the formation of constitutions circumstances are all and men are only part of the circumstances. Fairly often, even, in pursuing one object they achieve another, as we have seen in the English constitution.

And this is how they appear, in a slightly revised form, in de Maistre’s Essay:

1. No constitution arises from deliberation. The rights of the people are never written, except as simple restatements of previous, unwritten rights.

2. [In the formation of constitutions] human action is so far circumscribed that the men who act become only circumstances. [It is even very common that in pursuing a certain end they attain another.] 3. The rights of the PEOPLE, properly so called, proceed almost always from the concessions of sovereigns and thus may be definitely fixed in history, but no one can ascertain the date or the authors of the rights of the monarch and the aristocracy.

This in itself, in its most tightly circumscribed formulation, I cannot reject — human action is most certainly circumscribed, and unintended consequences often outweigh intended consequences. Indeed, de Maistre’s thought here closely echoes my own formulations in terms of the permutations of human agency, and in so doing de Maistre reveals his eschatological conception of history, affirming non-human agency as the source of political constitutions.

Further to this eschatological conception, Comte de Maistre quotes the theologian Bergier:

Law is only truly sanctioned, and properly law, when assumed to emanate from a higher will, so that its essential quality is to be not the will of all [la volonte de tous]. Otherwise, laws would be mere ordinances. As the author just quoted states, “those who were free to make these conventions have not deprived themselves of the power of revocation, and their descendants, with no share in making these regulations, are bound even less to observe them.”

Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and other Human Institutions, M. the Count de Maistre, the citation is from Bergier, Traite historique et dogmatique de la Religion, III, ch. 4 (after Tertullian, Apologeticus, 45)

Bergier has here put his finger on something important, though of course the lesson I take from it is rather different than the lesson that de Maistre takes from it. The same idea finds a very different expression in Gibbon, and I have quoted this several times:

“In earthly affairs, it is not easy to conceive how an assembly equal of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own.”

Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VI, Chapter LXVI, “Union Of The Greek And Latin Churches.–Part III.

I have called this Gibbon’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Political Entities, or, more briefly, Gibbon’s Principle. Bergier and de Maistre invoke a distinction between laws and ordinances, with ordinances being mere human things subject to change, while laws are laid up in heaven. This is de Maistre’s realism.

The political theologizing of de Maistre is what is most predictable and least interesting in his thought; it only becomes interesting as a consequence of his finitism. The implications of de Maistre’s finitism, once extrapolated to its logical conclusion throughout his political thought, converges upon a radical finitism in political science, and this I cannot accept or endorse. More interesting than his theologizing is de Maistre’s political realism — and by “realism” I do not mean that “political realism” used in discussions of policy, that prides itself on its rejection of humanitarianism and of moral and political ideals, but de Maistre’s Platonic realism in politics that, on the contrary, raises up moral and political ideals as the only true reality.

The strong position de Maistre takes on ineffability is related to his Platonic realism: constitutions are real in a Platonic sense, but our knowledge of them is imperfect, and if we try to write them down we will only get it wrong, much as a mathematician using a compass to draw a circle inscribes only an imperfect image of a circle that represents, for pedagogical reasons, the “real” and “true” circle to which the imperfect drawing refers. The harder we try to inscribe a perfect circle, the more we are going to depart from the Platonic form of a circle, and the more we try to write down the perfect constitution, the more it departs from the Platonic form of a constitution. In de Maistre, written law is not only derivative of unwritten law, i.e., the mere appearance or a more fundamental reality, but it is, moreover, always wrong because the unwritten fundamental reality is essentially ineffable.

This is how de Maistre himself formulates it in his Essay:

1. The fundamental principles of political constitutions exist prior to all written law.

2. Constititional law is and can only be the development or sanction of a pre-existing and unwritten law.

3. What is most essential, most inherently constitutional and truly fundamental law is never written, and could not be, without endangering the State.

4. The weakness and fragility of a constitution are actually in direct proportion to the number of written constitutional articles.

This is really quite close to Brouwer’s intuitionism; indeed, we might call de Maistre’s thought intuitionistic political science. Both Brouwer and de Maistre place a strong emphasis on the ineffability of experience, and the ways in which language misleads and falsifies, but de Maistre’s ineffability is predicated upon realism while Brouwer was what we might call a proto-anti-realist. Intuitionism after Brouwer went on to inspire a generation of philosophers to formulate anti-realist positions that owe much to Brouwer’s inspiration.

Thus de Maistre’s realism coupled with finitism and an eschatological conception of history stake out a unique (or nearly unique) position in the history of thought. It would be entirely possible to formulate this Platonic realism in politics in an infinitistic context (just as de Maistre could have justified his finitism according to other conceptions but in fact chose to justify it in theological terms, invoking an eschatological conception of history), but de Maistre is thoroughly finitistic in his orientation.

Comte de Maistre uses an eschatological conception of history to provide the ideological superstructure of justify his theological exposition of finite human agency, but he could make the same point invoking a cataclysmic conception of history or a naturalistic conception of history. Even a modified and qualified formulation of the political conception of history, which makes human agency fundamental and central to history, would be consistent with de Maistre’s finitism, so that the theological justification, however much weight de Maistre himself might have attached to it, is of little intrinsic interest. The point I am making is that de Maistre’s theology is dispensable in defining his theory, while de Maistre’s finitism is indispensable.

Joseph de Maistre’s finitistic political theory represents something of an antithesis to an infinitistic conception of political society such as I outlined in what I called Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics (and something I touched upon again in Addendum on Technological Unemployment).

I hope to return to this idea in future posts, and to be able to show why this is important, because I know that this sounds rather recondite and marginal, but it is neither. One of the most persistent themes of Western historiography in the modern period is the idea of progress, which is attacked at least as often as it is put forward as an interpretation of history (not long ago in Progress, Stagnation, and Retrogression I mentioned my surprise that Kevin Kelly offered an explicit defense of historical progress in his book What Technology Wants). A finitistic conception of history knows nothing of progress; we must have an infinitistic conception of history before the idea of progress can even have meaning for us. This, however, is a complex idea that requires many qualifications and therefore independent exposition. I will leave that for another day.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Kantian Critters

7 May 2013


The Transcendental Aesthetic and the Finding of

Other Minds in Other Species

An extrapolation of the “problem of other minds” to other species

What philosophers call “the problem of other minds” is closely related to what philosophers call the “mind-body problem” (both fall within philosophy of mind), and both are paradigmatic metaphysical questions that have been with philosophy from the beginning. Lately I’ve written a good deal about the mind-body problem on my other blog (e.g., in Naturalism and the Mind, Of Distinctions Weak and Strong, Of Distinctions, Principled and Otherwise, Cartesian Formalism, etc.), and this has got me to thinking about the problem of other minds.

I have never found the idea of other minds in other species to be in the least problematic. When you look into the eyes of another living being, whether human being or other being, you are well aware of the moment of mutual recognition, and you are equally well aware at that moment of mutual recognition that you are sharing that moment with another consciousness (that is to say, you experience a social temporality).

In The Eye of the Other I wrote:

It is when we look into the eye of the other that we recognize the consciousness of the other. Even if we feel that the reality of other minds is beyond philosophical demonstration, even if we are skeptics of other minds, it would be extraordinarily difficult to look into the eyes of another and not experience that immediate reaction of recognition of another mind. When we look not only into the eyes of another being but also into the eyes of another species, there is simultaneously the recognition of the awareness of the other and of the alien nature of that awareness.

Some people feel obliged to deny this inter-species recognition of common consciousness on ideological grounds, although few ever think of speciesism as a ideology. As I have recently observed in relationship to geopolitics, which I characterized as an ideology that does not know itself to be an ideology, so too with speciesism: for many it is simply an unexamined presupposition and is never formalized as an explicit article of belief.

While I myself don’t find anything in the least problematic about consciousness in other species, and I think that anyone that takes a naturalistic point of view would be hard-pressed to deny it, I cannot deny that there are some persons who feel a real sense of moral horror in recognizing the consciousness of other species. I am fully aware of this moral horror, and I am utterly unsympathetic to it. To paraphrase Freud on the “oceanic” feeling, I am unable to discover this moral horror in myself.

Some of those who are uncomfortable with the ascription of consciousness to other species simply don’t like animals, and some of those similarly disposed are just completely uninterested in animals and find it peculiar that some human beings seem to be closer to their dogs and cats than they are to other human beings. Such persons sometimes become visibly discomfited at any mention of Johnson’s Hodge or Greyfriars Bobby or Hachikō, all memorialized by statues. I have personally heard individuals of this particular temperament indignantly lecture others (myself included) on the dangers of anthropomorphizing our companion animals. If I were to be so lectured today, I would lecture right back on anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind, which is utterly out of place and unbecoming of a philosopher (which in this instance includes anyone who makes, or who implies, philosophical assertions about mind, specifically, denying mind to certain classes of existents).

Such persons often live in an exclusively human world, and to them the animal world seems inexplicably alien. This in itself is an implicit recognition of an animal world, that is to say, a world constituted by animal consciousness. But, of course, not all who deny consciousness to other species can be so pigeon-holed. Some who have completely succumbed to anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind are in no sense living in an exclusively human world, and certainly when the dogma of human exceptionalism in consciousness gained currency, long before our industrial-technological civilization freed us from animal muscle power as the motive force of civilization, almost everyone lived intimately with animals.

In this latter context, prior to industrialization, there was always a theological overlay to the denial of consciousness to other species. Indeed, it is very likely that, if the terms of the philosophical problem of other minds were carefully explained, those with a theological world view might well without hesitation grant consciousness of other species, and simply deny they other species possess a “soul,” which is simply a theologically-legitimized devalorization. In practice, it comes to much the same as the denial of consciousness to other species and a sedulous distinction between the human and the animal realms.

I observed in The Origins of Physicalism that Cartesianism was the original “mechanical philosophy,” and while Cartesianism in the time of Descartes and immediately afterward incorporated human exceptionalism into the philosophy (i.e., it institutionalized anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind), the logical extrapolation of the theory was evident, and what the Cartesians practised upon other species later philosophers in the mechanistic tradition came to practise also upon human beings: the denial of consciousness.

Today we have a school of thought that is not exactly the denial of consciousness but rather the revaluation, or, better, the devaluation of consciousness, which latter is called a “user illusion” — at least, in techno-philosophy the denial of consciousness is called the “user illusion.” In traditional philosophy, the denial of the existence of consciousness is called “eliminativism,” since instead of seeking to reduce consciousness to something else that is not consciousness (and thereby exemplifying reductivism), eliminativism cuts the Gordian Knot and simply denies that there is any such thing as consciousness — meaning that there is nothing to be “explained away.” I am sure that I am not the only one who finds this to be a thoroughly unsatisfying “solution” to a perennial philosophical problem.

How then are we to understand the minds of other species, i.e., the problem of other minds as generalized to include non-human species? What philosophical framework exists that can provide a conceptual infrastructure for such an understanding? There are many possibilities, but today I would like to consider a Kantian approach.

If we take as the lesson of Kant’s transcendental aesthetic that the mind is being continually bombarded by a riot of sensations from all the various bodily sensory organs, and that the mind then constitutes a kind of conceptual sieve that shapes, channels and directs the mass of sensory experience into something coherent upon which an organism can act, we can recognize that much the same process occurs in other species. All mammals have more or less similar bodies and similar sensory endowments, so that all living mammals are constantly being bombarded by a riot of sensations which each creature must sort into coherent experience. The fact that we can play fetch with a dog, and both successfully interact in one and the same world, simultaneously recognizing the stick at the center of the game as an object that passes between two or more organism involved in a game of fetch, suggests that we and the dog constitute and cognize the world in a remarkably similar fashion.

The dog, like us, is receiving sensory signals from his eyes, ears, nose, and so forth, as well as experiencing kinesthetic sensations from the movement of his body as he exerts himself in lunging after the stick. From all of this sensation the dog successfully distills a world, and that world is remarkably similar to our world.

A few years ago I had an interesting experience that bears directly on games of fetch and shared experience, when I had an opportunity to feel what it was like to be a dog among dogs. I was at a vacation house on a river, and had brought my wetsuit along so I could swim. The river is fed by snow melt from Mt. Hood and it is one of the coldest rivers in which I have ever been swimming. I put on my wetsuit and got into the water just as others were beginning to play fetch with a large black lab that they had brought along. They threw a stick into the frigid waters of the river, and the lab plunged into to fetch the stick. The next time the stick was thrown I started swimming toward it the same time that the lab started swimming toward it. The lab looked at me and instantly saw me as a competitor for the stick. He swam all the harder and made it to the stick before me with an obvious sense of triumphalism.

Of course, most people have had experiences like this in life, and some people will dismiss such experiences as readily as Descartes dismissed his correspondent’s stories attempting to prove that animals are not mere mechanisms. However we interpret such experiences, we share and interact in a common world. Although this is utterly contrary to the spirit of Kant, I have to observe that any animal that could not distill coherent experience of the world out of its mass of sensation would never survive. Evolution selects for those organisms that can best hunt or avoid being prey in the common world in which predator and prey interact. This is a naturalistic point of view, whereas Kant’s point of view was decidedly that of idealism.

Even if one rejects Kant’s idealism, as I do, there seems to me to be some residual value in the idea of the mind being involved in the constitution of experience. I think that Kant was right that we have certain a priori intuitions that order our experience, but I think that this was much more fluid and pluralistic than Kant’s exposition of the transcendental aesthetic allows. While I wrote above that mammals all have a relatively similarly experience of the world, a function of a similar sensory and cognitive endowments, I would allow that there is some important variation. Sight plays a very large role in how human beings cognize the world; smell plays a disproportionate role in how dogs cognize the world; sound plays a disproportionate role in how dolphins cognize the world.

All terrestrial critters of a given level of cognitive complexity have to distill coherent experience of one and the same world out of a mass of sensation, but that mass of sensation differs among different species. I suspect that this sensory difference means that different species also have different a priori conceptions that help them to organize their experience into a coherent whole, and that, just sensory experience differs from species to species, but admits of degrees of greater or less, so too the a priori ideas of distinct species different from species to species but also admit of greater or less similarity. That is to say, smell may shape the world of a dog far more than it shapes our world, but we probably share far more in terms of sensory experience and organizing ideas with a dog than with a marine mammal, and probably we share much more with a marine mammal than with an octopus or other cephalopod. This is a function and an illustration of a point I recently tried to make about the relationship between mind and embodiment.

primate minds

I tried to make this point in my above referenced post, The Eye of the Other, since when I unexpectedly looked into the eyes of a sealion, a marine mammal, we immediately recognized each other, and in the same moment of recognition also recognized the profound differences between the two of us. Common mammalian minds, differently embodied and living in profoundly different environments, will involve different sensory stimulation, different kinesthetic sensations, and different a priori concepts for organizing experience. But not too different. A shark, with a mind very different from a mammalian mind, can predate marine mammals, so that both sharks and marine mammals interact in the same marine environment just as human beings and tigers interact in the same terrestrial environment.

vertebrate minds

I suspect that, at least in some senses, the tiger’s mind and the human mind share concepts derived from their common terrestrial environment, while the shark and the marine mammal share concepts derived from the common marine environment, so that a tiger’s mind is more like a human mind than a sea lion’s mind is like a human mind, and, vice versa, a sea lion’s mind is more like a shark’s mind than it is like a human mind. Nevertheless, the human mind and the sea lion mind will share some concepts due to their common mammalian constitution. To employ a Wittgensteinian turn of phrase, the different sensations, concepts, and minds of distinct species overlap and intersect.

vertebrate and other minds

The recognition of consciousness in other species is no marginal and recondite inquiry; if, in the fullness of time, we encounter other intelligent species in the universe of extraterrestrial origin, we will need a philosophical framework in which we can integrate the idea of consciousness among other organic species, and if research into artificial intelligence and machine consciousness ever issues in a self-aware mechanism, fashioned by human hands in the same way that we might build a car or a house, we will again require a philosophical framework in which we can integrate the idea of consciousness even more generally, comprehending both naturally-emergent consciousness from organic substrates and artificially emergent consciousness of non-organic substrates.

all minds

We need a robust philosophy of mind that does not stagnate in questions of whether there is mind or whether minds can be reduced to other phenomena or eliminated altogether. Such doctrines are — would be — utterly unhelpful in coming to understand what Husserl called the “structures of consciousness.” It is likely that the structures of consciousness vary incrementally among individuals of the same species, vary a little more across distinct species, and will vary even more among minds derived from different sources — different ecosystems and biospheres in the case of organically-originating extraterrestrial minds, and different mechanisms of implementation in the case of inorganically-originating minds of machine consciousness.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is best remembered for this science fiction stories, but many of his dicta and aphorisms have become common currency and are quoted and repeated to the point that their connection to their source is sometimes lost. (Clarke’s thought ranged widely and, interestingly, Clarke identified himself as a logical positivist.) Recently I quoted one of Clarke’s well-known sayings in Happy Birthday Nicolaus Copernicus!, as follows:

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

quoted in Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the Twenty-First Century (1999) by Michio Kaku, p. 295

In so saying, Clarke asserted a particular case of what is known as the logical law (or principle) of the excluded middle, which is also known as tertium non datur: the idea that, given a proposition and its negation, either one or the other of them must be true. This is also expressed in propositional logic as “P or not-P” (“P v ~P”). The principle of tertium non datur is not to be confused with the principle of non-contradiction, which can be formulated as “~(P & ~P).”

Even stating tertium non datur is controversial, because there are narrowly logical formulations as well as ontological formulations of potentially much greater breadth. This, of course, is what makes the principle fascinating and gives it its philosophical depth. Moreover, the principle of the excluded middle is subtly distinct from the principle of bivalence, though the two usually work in conjunction. Whereas the law of the excluded middle states that of a proposition and its negation, one of the other must be true, the principle of bivalence states that there are only two propositional truth values: true and false.

To get started, here is the principle of the excluded middle as formulated in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy edited by Robert Audi:

principle of excluded middle, the principle that the disjunction of any (significant) statement with its negation is always true; e.g., ‘Either there is a tree over 500 feet tall or it is not the case that there is such a tree’. The principle is often confused with the principle of bivalence.

THE CAMBRIDGE DICTIONARY OF PHILOSOPHY second edition, General Editor Robert Audi, 1999, p. 738

And to continue the Oxbridge axis, here is the formulation from Simon Blackburn’s The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy:

excluded middle, principle (or law) of The logical law asserting that either p or not-p. It excludes middle cases such as propositions being half correct or more or less right. The principle directly asserting that each proposition is either true or false is properly called the law of bivalence.

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Simon Blackburn, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 129

For more partisan formulations, we turn to other sources. Mario Bunge formulated a narrowly syntactical conception of the law of the excluded middle in his Dictionary of Philosophy, which is intended to embody a scientistic approach to philosophy:

EXCLUDED MIDDLE A logical truth or tautology in ordinary (classical) logic: For every proposition p, p v ~p.

Dictionary of Philosophy, Mario Bunge, Prometheus Books, 1999, p. 89

By way of contrast, in D. Q. McInerny’s Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking we find a strikingly ontological formulation of the law of the excluded middle:

“Between being and nonbeing there is no middle state. Something either exists or it does not exist; there is no halfway point between the two.”

D. Q. McInerny, Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, Part Two, The Basic Principles of Logic, 1. First Principles, p. 26

What these diverse formulations bring out for us is the difficulty of separating logical laws of how formal systems are to be constructed from ontological laws about how the world is constructed, and in so bringing out this difficulty, they show us the relation between the law of the excluded middle and the principle of bivalence, since the logical intuition that there are only two possible truth values of any one proposition — true or false — is so closely tied to our logical intuition that, of these two values, one or the other (but not both, which qualification is the principle of non-contradiction) must hold for any given (meaningful) proposition.

The powerful thing about Clarke’s observation is that it appeals to this admixture of logical intuitions and empirical intuitions, and in so doing seems to say something very compelling. Indeed, since I am myself a realist, and I think it can be shown that there is a fact of the matter that makes propositions true or false, I think that Clarke not only said something powerful, he also said something true: either there are extraterrestrial intelligences or there are not. It is humbling to contemplate either possibility: ourselves utterly alone in a vast universe with no other intelligent species or civilizations, or some other alien intelligence out there somewhere, unknown to us at present, but waiting to be discovered — or to discover us.

alien excluded middle 2

Although these logical intuitions are powerful, and have shaped human thought from its earliest times to the present day, the law of the excluded middle has not gone unquestioned, and indeed Clarke’s formulation gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore the consequences of the difference between constructive and non-constructive reasoning in terms of a concrete example.

To formulate the existence or non-existence of extraterrestrials in the form of a logical law like the law of the excluded middle makes the implicit realism of Clarke’s formulation obvious as soon as we think of it in these terms. In imagining the possibilities of our cosmic isolation or an unknown alien presence our terror rests on our intuitive, visceral feeling of realism, which is as immediate to us as the intuitions rooted in our own experiences as bodies.

The constructivist (at least, most species of constructivist, but not necessarily all) must deny the validity of the teritum non datur formulation of the presence of extraterrestrials, and in so doing the constructivist must pretend that our visceral feelings of realism are misleading or false, or must simply deny that these feelings exist. None of these are encouraging strategies, especially if one is committed to understanding the world by getting to the bottom of things rather than denying that they exist. Not only I am a realist, but I also believe strongly in the attempt to do justice to our intuitions, something that I have described in two related posts, Doing Justice to Our Intuitions and How to Formulate a Philosophical Argument on Gut Instinct.

In P or not-P (as well as in subsequent posts concerned with constructivism, What is the relationship between constructive and non-constructive mathematics? Intuitively Clear Slippery Concepts, and Kantian Non-constructivism) I surveyed constructivist and non-constructivist views of tertium non datur and suggested that constructivists and non-constructivists need each other, as each represents a distinct point of view on formal thought. Formal thought is enriched by these diverse perspectives.

But whereas non-constructive thought, which is largely comprised of classical realism, can accept both the constructivist and non-constructivist point of view, the many varieties of constructivism usually explicitly deny the validity of non-constructive methods and seek to systematically limit themselves to constructive methods and constructive principles. Most famously, L. E. J. Brouwer (whom I have previously discussed in Saying, Showing, Constructing and One Hundred Years of Intuitionism and Formalism) formulated the philosophy of mathematics we now know as intuitionism, which is predicated upon the explicit denial of the law of the excluded middle. Brouwer, and those following him such as Heyting, sought to formulate mathematical and logic reasoning without the use of tertium non datur.

Brouwer and the intuitionists (at least as I interpret them) were primarily concerned to combat the growing influence of Cantor and his set theory in mathematics, which seemed to them to license forms of mathematical reasoning that had gone off the rails. Cantor had gone too far, and the intuitionists wanted to reign him in. They were concerned about making judgments about infinite totalities (in this case, sets with an infinite number of members), which the law of the excluded middle, when applied to the infinite, allows one to do. This seems to give us the power to make deductions about matters we cannot either conceive or even (as it is sometimes said) survey. “Surveyability” became a buzz word in the philosophy of mathematics after Wittgenstein began using it in his posthumously published Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics. Although Wittgenstein was not himself an intuitionist sensu stricto, his work set the tone for constructivist philosophy of mathematics.

Given the intuitionist rejection of the law of the excluded middle, it is not correct to say that there either is intelligent alien life in the universe or there is not intelligent alien life in the universe; to meaningfully make this statement, one would need to actually observe (inspect, survey) all possible locations where such alien intelligence might reside, and only after seeing it for oneself can one legitimately claim that there is or is not alien intelligence in the universe. For am example closer to home, it has been said that an intuitionist will deny the truth of the statement “either it is raining or it is not raining” without looking out the window to check and see. This can strike one as merely perverse, but we must take the position seriously, as I will try to show with the next example.

The day before the Battle of Salamis, Aristotle might have said that there would be a sea battle tomorrow or there would not be a sea battle tomorrow, and in this case the first would have been true; on other days, the second would have been true.

The day before the Battle of Salamis, Aristotle might have said that there would be a sea battle tomorrow or there would not be a sea battle tomorrow, and in this case the first would have been true; on other days, the second would have been true.

Already in classical antiquity, Aristotle brought out a striking feature of the law of the excluded middle, in a puzzle sometimes known as the “sea battle tomorrow.” The idea is simple: either there will be a sea battle tomorrow, or there will not be a sea battle tomorrow. We may not know anything about this battle, and as of today we do not even know if it will take place, but we can nevertheless confidently assert that either it will take place or it will not take place. This is the law of the excluded middle as applied to future contingents.

One way to think of this odd consequence of the law of the excluded middle is that when it is projected beyond the immediate circumstances of our ability to ascertain its truth by observation it becomes problematic. This is why the intuitionists reject it. Aristotle extrapolated the law of the excluded middle to the future, but we could just as well extrapolate it into the past. Historians do this all the time (either Alexander cut the Gordian Knot or Alexander did not cut the Gordian Knot), but because of our strong intuitive sense of historical realism this does not feel as odd as asserting that something that hasn’t happened yet either will happen or will not happen.

In terms of Clarke’s dichotomy, we could reformulate Aristotle’s puzzle about the sea battle tomorrow in terms of the discovery of alien intelligence tomorrow: either we will receive an alien radio broadcast tomorrow, or we will not receive an alien broadcast tomorrow. There is no third possibility. One way or another, the realist says, one of these propositions is true, and one of them is false. We do not know, today, which one of them is true and which one of them is false, but that does not mean that they do no possess definite truth values. The intuitionist says that the assertion today that we will or will not receive an alien radio broadcast is meaningless until tomorrow comes and we turn on our radio receivers to listen.

The intuitionists thus have an answer to this puzzling paradox that remains a problem for the realist. This is definitely a philosophical virtue for intuitionism, but, like all virtues, it comes at a price. It is not a price I am willing to pay. This path can also lead us to determinism — assuming that all future contingents have a definite truth value implies that they are set in stone — but I am also not a determinist (as I discussed in The Denial of Freedom as a Philosophical Problem), and so this intersection of my realism with my libertarian free willist orientation leaves me with a problem that I am not yet prepared to resolve. But that’s what makes life interesting.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Morally Distinguishable Outcomes in

nuclear_explosion_on_earth_from_space small

Global Catastrophic Scenarios

Below is Nick Bostrom’s table of qualitative categories of risk. Bostrom and Milan M. Ćirković have together edited a book on Global Catastrophic Risks, which includes this table. Existential risks, that is to say, risk that could result in human extinction, are identified as “an especially severe subset” of global catastrophic risks.

qualitative categories of risk

Of existential risks and their potential consequences I recently wrote this:

“When we think about what this means for us, our other ‘priorities’ pale by comparison. Nothing else matters, no matter how apparently pressing, if we are made extinct by an accident of local cosmology.”

Thinking of this further, I realized that there are many ethical presuppositions implicit in my formulation, and that (at least some of) these presuppositions can be spelled out and made explicit.

Bostrom’s table of qualitative risk categories suggest possibilities of scope and intensity beyond those comprised by global catastrophic risk and existential risk, and on the margin of the table we see “Cosmic?” as a possible scope beyond “pan-generational” and “Hellish?” as a potential intensity beyond “Terminal.” Thus what is cosmic and hellish is a qualitative risk category beyond even that of existential risk. I think that there are moral intuitions from catastrophic outcomes that correspond to these almost unthinkable scenarios.

While it would seem that there is little worse that could happen (from a human perspective, i.e., fully informed by anthropic bias) than human extinction, even given our anthropic bias and therefore our desire to avoid human extinction there are morally distinguishable outcomes in many different scenarios of global catastrophe and human extinction, and where there is the possibility of morally distinguishable outcomes there also will be the possibility of ranking these moral outcomes from the least awful possibility to the worst of all possibilities. There is also the likelihood of moral disagreements on these rankings, and these moral disagreements over prioritizing existential risk mitigation could prove crucial in future debates over the allocation of civilizational resources to existential risk mitigation. Thus even if existential risk comes to be seen as an overriding priority for human beings and civilization, this is not yet the convergence of human moral effort; room for profound disagreement yet remains.

Considering a range of devastating and catastrophic events that could compromise human life and human civilization, possibly to the point of their extinction, I can think of six scenarios in order of severity:

1. Massive but survivable catastrophe A global catastrophic risk realized that results in the loss of millions or billions of lives and deals a major setback to civilization, without either extinguishing human beings or human civilization (in Bostrom’s table of qualitative risks these would include global, trans-generational, and pan-generational endurable risks).

2. Catastrophic failure of civilization A global catastrophic risk realized that resulted in the catastrophic failure of civilization, but does not result in the extinction of human beings. The human population might be drastically reduced to paleolithic population levels, but potentially could rebound. There remains the possibility that civilization might be reconstituted, but this is likely to take hundreds if not thousands of years. (“Global dark age” in the table above.)

3. Human extinction The first level of human extinction I will call simple extinction, which is an existential risk realized, which however leaves the Earth intact, and the legacy of human civilization intact. I add this latter qualification because it is possible, even if human beings become extinct, that human civilization might leave monuments that could be appreciated by other sentient species that could visit the Earth. It is even possible (however unlikely) that other species might appreciate the human record of civilization more than we appreciate it ourselves. Thus human extinction need not mean the loss of human cultural legacy. A pandemic that killed only human beings could have this result. (X marks the spot in the table above.)

4. Human extinction with the extirpation of all human legacy The second level of human extinction I will call compound extinction, which is an existential risk realized that results in human extinction and the elimination of all (or almost all) signs of human presence, but which leaves the biosphere largely intact, and the ordinary business of terrestrial life continues largely unchanged. (This is human extinction coupled with “destruction of cultural heritage.”)

5. Catastrophic compromise of the biosphere The third level of human extinction involves not only the extinction of human beings and all human legacy, but also the extinction of all complex life on the Earth. Terrestrial life continues, but is reduced to single celled organisms. Thus there remains the possibility that life on Earth may recover, but this would probably require billions of years and result in very different life forms.

6. Terrestrial sterilization The most radical form of realized existential risk is terrestrial sterilization which results in human extinction, the extirpation of all human legacy, and the elimination of all terrestrial life, i.e., complete catastrophic failure of the biosphere. From this point there is nothing that can be recovered and no human legacy remains.

I tried to arrange these various morally distinct outcomes on an expanded version of Bostrom’s table of qualitative risk categories, but couldn’t yet find a conceptually neat and straight-forward way to do so. Further thought is needed here. I don’t think there is a need to distinguish further qualitative categories of risk beyond existential risk — in other words, we can refer to all of these morally distinct outcomes as outcomes of existential risk, as realized in distinct scenarios. However, one could make such distinctions if it were helpful to do so.

The most radical moral imperative of existential risk is to take existential risk as absolute and as trumping all other concerns, which is what I clearly implied when I wrote that, “…our other ‘priorities’ pale by comparison. Nothing else matters, no matter how apparently pressing…” if we are made (or make ourselves) extinct. This radical position has profound and discomfiting implications.

If we survey the evils of the world, we would be forced to acknowledge that it is better that any or all of these evils continue than that human life should be permanently extinguished, because the continuation of these evils is consistent with the continuation of human life and human civilization. The end of all human life would also mean the end of all the cruelties and inhumanity that we inflict upon our fellow man, and this would be a good and indeed a desirable state of affairs, but from a radical perspective on existential risk we would have to affirm that, as good a state of affairs as this represents, it would not be as morally good as the state of affairs that involves the perpetuation of these evils together with the perpetuation of human life and civilization.

Of course, under most conceivable scenarios there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that we had to choose between the perpetuation of all the evils of the world and human extinction. That is to say, there is no reason that we cannot work toward the elimination of human evils and the mitigation of existential risks. As a moral thought experiment, however, we can employ the method of isolation and ask whether the survival of human beings and human civilization, together with all the evils this entails is better than the annihilation of human beings and human civilization, so that neither human good nor human evil remains.

While I would be willing to assert that existential risk mitigation trumps all other concerns, even in a thought experiment in which human evils remain unmitigated, I can easily imagine that there are many who would disagree with this judgment. Moral diversity is a fact of human life, and we must recognize that if some among us (myself included) would be willing to explicitly affirm the radical moral consequences of prioritizing existential risk mitigation, there will be others who will equally explicitly reject a radical prioritization of existential risk mitigation, and who will affirm that it is better that the world should come to an end than that the manifold evils of our time should persist. From this point of view, in view of the limited resources available to human beings, we would do better to direct these resources to the mitigation of human evils than to direct these resources to the mitigation of existential risk.

It is entirely possible that someone might affirm that it is a good thing civilization should be ended, and the idea has incredible romantic appeal that cannot be denied and should not be ignored. Many are the science fiction books and films (for example, think of Logan’s Run or 12 Monkeys) that depict a world empty of human beings and populated only by collapsing buildings and animals hunting in the ruins. This scenario is depicted, for example, in Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us.

The idea that civilization is evil can easily be extended to the idea that humanity is evil in and of itself. The predictions of the original Club of Rome report of 1972, The Limits to Growth, have been widely discussed on its recent 40th anniversary, but what has not been remarked is the language and tone of that original document (which you will not find on the internet, despite the millions of used copies kicking around). The report boldly asserted, “The earth has cancer and the cancer is Man.” This kind of rhetoric, which is less common today, can easily play into a principled denial of the moral value of humanity.

And it is easy to understand why. The world is filled with evils, and the most horrific evils are those that human beings perpetrate upon other human beings — homo homini lupus. If we prioritize existential risk mitigation over the mitigation of human evils, we find ourselves forced into the uncomfortable position of tolerating Kantian radical evil, Marilyn McCord Adams’ conception of horrendous evils, and Claudia Card’s atrocities. Imagine the horrors of genocide, torture, and industrialized warfare and then imagine being forced to admit that it is better than genocides occur, better that torture continues, and better that industrialized warfare persists than that an existential risk be realized. This is a hard saying; nevertheless, this is the argument that must be made, and it is always best to face a hard argument directly than to attempt to avoid it.

In Marilyn McCord Adams’ exposition of what she calls “horrendous evils” in her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God Adams wrote:

“Among the evils that infect this world, some are worse than others. I want to try to capture the most pernicious of them within the category of horrendous evils, which I define (for present purposes) as ‘evils the participation in which (that is, the doing or suffering of which) constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to him/her on the whole.’ The class of paradigm horrors includes both individual and massive collective suffering…”

Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 26.

She went on to add in the next section:

“I believe most people would agree that such evils as listed above constitute reason to doubt whether the participants’ life can be world living, because it is so difficult humanly to conceive how such evils could be overcome.”

Loc. cit.

In the last paragraph of her paper of the same title, Adams again suggests that horrendous evils call into question the possibility of having a life worth living:

“I would go one step further: assuming the pragmatic and/or moral (I would prefer to say, broadly speaking, religious) importance of believing that (one’s own) human life is worth living, the ability of Christianity to exhibit how this could be so despite human vulnerability to horrendous evil, constitutes a pragmatic/moral/religious consideration in its favour, relative to value schemes that do not.”

Marilyn McCord Adams, “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.” Anthologized in The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 221.

A generalization of Adams’ argument could easily bring us from the point where horrendous evils make the individual doubt or question that one’s life is worth living to the point where humanity on the whole legitimately, and on principle, questions whether any human life at all is worth living. If humanity comes to decide that horrendous evils overwhelm all value in the world and make human existence utterly meaningless and pointless, then the mitigation of existential risk can come to seem like an evil or an impiety.

Adams finds her answer to this in Christianity; we naturalists cannot appeal to supernaturalistic validation or justification: we must take human evil on its face along with human good, and if we prioritize the mitigation of existential risk (and therefore the continuity of humanity and human civilization), we do so knowing that human evils will continue and are probably ineradicable if not inseparable from human history.

We can actively seek to mitigate human evils, and the effort has intrinsic value, but the intrinsic value of the mitigation of suffering and mundane meliorism can only continue in the case that humanity and organized human activity continue. Therefore the prioritization of the mitigation of existential risk is what makes possible the realization of the intrinsic value of the mitigation of suffering and efforts toward meliorism. With the end of humanity would also come not only an end to all intrinsic goods of human life, but also an end to the intrinsic good of the mitigation of suffering and the effort to make the world a better place.

We can only create a better civilization if civilization continues. If we are perfectibilists, we may believe in the perfectibility of man and indeed even the perfectibility of civilization. This project cannot even be undertaken if humanity and human civilization are cut short in their imperfect state.

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

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ex risk ahead

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Pulp-O-Mizer existential risk

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Much of what I write here, whether commenting on current affairs to delving into the depths of prehistory, could be classed under the general rubric of philosophy of history. One of my early posts to this forum was Of What Use is Philosophy of History in Our Time? (An echo of the title of Hans Meyerhoff’s widely available anthology Philosophy of History in Our Time.) It could be argued that my subsequent posts have been attempts to answer this question (that is to say, to answer the question what is the use of philosophy of history in our time), to demonstrate the usefulness of bringing a philosophical perspective to history, contemporary and otherwise. The reader is left to judge whether this attempt has been a success (partial or otherwise) or a failure (partial or otherwise).

In several recent posts — as, for example in The Science of Time, Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time, and Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection, inter alia — I have been writing a lot about the philosophy of history from the perspective of big history, which is a contemporary historiographical school that comes to history from the perspective of the big picture and primarily proceeds according to scientific naturalism. This latter condition makes of big history a particular species of naturalism.

In many posts to this forum I have emphasized my own naturalistic perspective both in philosophy generally speaking as well as more specifically in the philosophy of history. For example, in posts such as Natural History and Human History, The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History, and An Existentialist Philosophy of History, I have emphasized the continuity of human history and natural history, especially making the attempt to place civilization in a natural historical context.

This emphasis on big history and naturalism has meant that I have spent very little time writing about alternatives to naturalistic historical thought — with a certain exception, which the reader may well not immediately recognize, so I will point it out explicitly. In several posts — The Ethos of Formal Thought, Foucault’s Formalism, Cartesian Formalism, and Formal Strategy and Philosophical Logic: Work in Progress among them — I have discussed the possibility of formal thought in relation to historical understanding, i.e., topics not usually discussed from a formal perspective (which is usually confined to logic, mathematics, and some branches of science). Formalism represents a certain kind of countervailing intellectual influence to naturalism, and it has probably served roughly that function in my thought.

I have previously mentioned Darren Staloff’s lectures on the philosophy of history, The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophies, Theories and Interpretations of Human History. One of the motifs running through Staloff’s lectures is a contrast between what he calls naturalism and idealism. He sums up this motif in the final lecture, in which he adopts the perspectives of naturalism and idealism in turn, trying give the listener a sense of the claims of each tradition. I found Staloff’s exposition of idealism less persuasive that his exposition of naturalism, and so I found the motif of a contrast between naturalism and idealism a bit strained, since it seemed to me that idealism really couldn’t carry its own weight in the way that it might have been able to in the past.

Recently I’ve encountered an approach to the philosophy of history that could be called “idealist” (at least in a certain sense), and this is much more persuasive to me that Staloff’s analytical representatives of the idealist tradition, like R. G. Collingwood. I have found this idealist perspective in the work of Ludwig Landgrebe, who was one of Husserl’s research assistants.

The casual reader of this blog might well have picked up on the amount of contemporary continental philosophy that I have read, but it unlikely to have realized the extent to which Edmund Husserl and phenomenology have been an influence on my thought. Nevertheless, that influence has been profound, to the point that many of Husserl’s expositors and commentators have also influenced my thinking. Recently I have been reading some essays by Ludwig Landgrebe, and this has started to give me another perspective on the philosophy of history.

Landgrebe wrote at least two papers on the philosophy of history, as well as one chapter of his book, Major Problems in Contemporary European Philosophy, from Dilthey to Heidegger. No doubt there is more material, but this is what I have found translated into English. (Landgrebe wrote an entire book on the phenomenological philosophy of history, Phänomenologie und Geschichte, but this has not been translated into English.) The two papers are “Phenomenology as Transcendental Theory of History” (which can be found in the collection of essays Husserl: Expositions and Appraisals, edited by Elliston and McCormick, University of Notre Dame Press, 1977. pp. 101-113) and “A Meditation on Husserl’s Statement: ‘History is the grand fact of absolute Being'” (The Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 5, Issue 3, Fall 1974, pp. 111-125).

It is well known that Husserl’s last work, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, assembled posthumously from his papers, is the work in which Husserl placed phenomenology in historical context (for all practical purposes, for the first time), and considered the emergence of Western scientific thought in historical context. As such, this has been the point of departure of much historically-oriented phenomenological research, and the Crisis (as it has come to be known) and its supplementary texts were clearly influential for Landgrebe.

Landgrebe, however, as Husserl’s research assistant, was more than conversant with Husserl’s logical thought also. Husserl’s Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic was a text assembled by Landgrebe from Husserl’s notes. Landgrebe consulted with Husserl throughout this project, and the original texts are all due to Husserl, but the structure of the book is entirely Landgrebe’s doing. Landgrebe brings the kind of rigor one learns in studying logic to his very compact essays on the philosophy of history. In this way, Landgrebe’s formulations have a formal character that makes them very congenial to me. Landgrebe’s approach is essentially that of a formal phenomenological theory of history, and this perspective allows me to assimilate Landgrebe’s insights both to idealistic historiography as well as my long-standing interest in formal thought.

If I were now to revise my speculative syllabus If I Lectured on the Philosophy of History (lecture 13 of which I had already assigned to phenomenology), I would definitely showcase Landgrebe’s philosophy of history as the most sophisticated phenomenological contribution to the philosophy of history.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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