On Philosophy

July 1, 2009

The Virtues of Unintuitive Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 3:38 am

It is commonly thought that being intuitive, or agreeing with common sense, is a virtue in a philosophical theory. But the opposite is really the case. Philosophy that is intuitive is rarely worth reading; we are only bettered by philosophy that strikes us initially as unintuitive.

With the exception of Jean-Paul Sartre, no one is philosophically perfect. Everyone has places where their views need refinement or revision. It is because of this that we read, and sometimes write, philosophy. A philosophy that tells us that we are completely correct as we are is useless to us. We know that we are far from perfect, and we seek to find out how we are defective. A completely intuitive or a completely commonsense philosophy is saying just that, that we are completely correct. At best such a philosophy is useless, and harmful if we take it seriously, since it erects barriers to revising our mistaken beliefs.

My point is that to be worth reading a piece of philosophy should be at least a little unintuitive. It should challenge what we think to some extent. It is in the places where it challenges us that we have a chance to grow. Where it tells us that we are wrong is where we are presented with a new way of looking at things. And it is through such options that our philosophy improves. Now this is certainly not to say that, every time we find something that challenges what we currently think, we should change our minds. Although if that were the case it would take only two contradictory authors to keep us busy, since after reading the first the second would be a challenging new viewpoint to adopt, and then the first would be again, and so on. But every time we are faced with a challenge that we take seriously it gives us something to think about, and if we are wise enough then we will change our views in response to these challenges exactly when doing so would better our philosophy. Now certainly it is possible to improve without these external challenges, but in their absence I think it would be easy to rest content with a defective philosophy, or simply to be blind to significant alternatives.

Is this the death of intuition and common sense as a standard for philosophy? Probably not. Those who like such standards are rarely blind to the obvious consequence that taking them to be the standard implies that we are always correct in our philosophical judgments. There are ways to deflect the ugly implications of this consequence. One way is to simply deny that it is a consequence. This can be done by claiming that there are conflicts in our unreflective judgments that need ironing out, and thus that we can’t simply accept all of our intuitions as is. I’m going to simply pass over this response since it doesn’t seem plausible to me. First it’s not clear how conflicting judgments are to be corrected. What makes changing one a better idea than changing the other? And, more importantly, it is obvious that this approach aims for mere consistency. But why suppose that every philosophical deficiency gives rise to contradiction? Is it not possible to be consistently mistaken? There is nothing inconsistent with believing that one is under the power of an evil deceiver, but that doesn’t make it a good thing to think.

Another possible response is to accept that our unreflective judgments are basically correct, and to argue that philosophy’s job is not to change them, but to systematize them. I consider this to be a much better response, in part because it has the guts to bite the bullet. Does that make it unintuitive? In any case, it forces us to compare the value of revising our philosophical judgments towards some more perfect ideal to the value of systematizing our judgments. This leads us to the more general question of what the value of systematization is. In general systematization allows us to extend from a few knowns to unknowns. For example, a system of laws allows the law to apply to every possible case, while a simple collection of rulings does not. And I think some would claim that this is what goes on in philosophy, that a system of philosophy is supposed to extend our intuitive judgments into areas where we lack them. But I’m not sure that it is necessary. For example, I have never found myself with a shortage of ethical intuitions, although at times what was clear was only that the act in question was neither completely good nor completely bad. They probably aren’t all the best, and I’m sure that many of them are products of biases rooted in childhood. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Even on more metaphysical matters I find myself with an abundance of intuitions. For example: are dolphins conscious? My unreflective intuition is that they are not. Of course on reflection I begin to doubt this, especially in light of my little experience with them, and then I am not sure any more. But the intuition is there.

Perhaps at the end of the day it becomes a personal matter. I have plenty of intuitions, but little confidence in them. So if you have only a few intuitions but absolute confidence in them perhaps there is nothing a can say to convince you that you shouldn’t make systematization your highest priority. I have an intuition, however, that more people are like me than this hypothetical you.

Now in saying that unintuitive philosophy is the only kind worth reading I don’t mean to erect counter-intuitiveness as a new standard in place of intuitiveness. I am not encouraging taking the most unintuitive philosophy we can find to be the best philosophy. Once we see that a piece of philosophy is unintuitive to some degree it passes this test, and we must resort to other standards to decide between them. Moreover this is a personal test, about what is worth our time, not a guide to stocking library shelves. There is nothing that is intuitive to everyone, and so there is no philosophy that everyone should avoid on that basis (although there are examples of philosophy no one should read for other reasons). And certainly a philosopher cannot be expected to produce something they disagree with just because it is unintuitive. Everyone finds their own theories intuitive on some level, or at least has come to find them intuitive after working with them long enough. Nor should they strive to produce something other people find unintuitive. Like great art, great philosophy is apparently derived from inspiration and not from a formula.

What’s the point of all this then? The point is not to take one standard, intuitiveness, and replace it with another. The point is to highlight that by taking intuitiveness to be a standard we are causing ourselves to be stuck in a philosophical rut. We find what we currently believe to be intuitive, because we are used to it. And if we chose what to believe on the basis of how intuitive we find it to be we will never come to believe anything different. What I desire is not an inversion of this principle, but a suspension of it. And, like Descartes, I think the best way to achieve this suspension may be to create some contrary force to keep it in check. In this case the contrary force is seeing the unintuitive aspects of theories as presenting new options, which are chances for philosophical improvement. In a perfect world this idea meets our natural resistance to unintuitive ideas and negates it in the philosophical sphere.

June 5, 2009

Beyond Sense and Nonsense

Filed under: Ethics,Metaphysics — Peter @ 11:34 pm

Personally I am an advocate of the idea that the universe is essentially a meaningless place, onto which we impose meaning. We create significance, we constitute it – we don’t find it. However, there is a dangerous ambiguity lurking in this brief description. I said that the universe is meaningless – the events in it are without significance – without us. But what does it mean to say that something is meaningless? To call something meaningless is not to leave it exactly as it was, it is to look at it in a certain way. It is to deny the existence of meaningful relationships between it and other things. This looks very much like giving meaning to it, like taking up an attitude towards it, like interpreting it. In other words, “meaningless” is itself a meaning that can be given to things. To say that something is meaningless is not to deny it meaning, it is to give it a meaning – albeit a rather empty one. Nihilism is simply one way of constituting the world, not a refusal to constitute the world at all.

This raises the question of what things are like then before we give them meanings. In a way the question cannot be properly answered. We cannot say that they have significant relationships to other things, because that is to say they have meaning intrinsically. But neither can we assert that they lack such relationships, because that is a significant fact on its own, which is also to say that they have meaning intrinsically (the meaning of being “meaningless”). Perhaps weak souls may simply give up at this point and conclude that on the basis of this dilemma that meanings of some kind must be intrinsic after all. The problem, however, stems not from the fact that meanings are really intrinsic, but that to describe something, to understand it, we have to take up an attitude towards it. In other words, if we think about it we can hardly help but give some meaning to it. The apparent contradiction arose then because we were trying to explain what a thing is like outside all attitudes towards it, while at the same time taking up such an attitude. What we are left with are things-in-themselves, noumena, beings-in-themselves. This are all labels for the unthinkable that sits outside, and in a sense “behind”, of the domain of meaning.

This is more of a terminological clarification than anything, the idea of the noumena has already been done to death by Kant. And besides, what can you say about things of which you cannot think? The interesting lesson is not that noumena pop up, but that meaninglessness is a kind of meaning. One immediate consequence of this is that there are two kinds of nihilists, where nihilists are characterized by the slogan “it’s all meaningless”. On one hand we have the hypocritical nihilist. The hypocritical nihilist goes around labeling things as meaningless without realizing that in doing so they are giving them meaning. Thus the hypocritical nihilist is constantly in the business of contradicting themselves. On the other hand we have the catatonic nihilist. The catatonic nihilist avoids self-contradiction by actually refusing to give things meanings, and the only way to do that is to refuse to interact with them. Thus the catatonic nihilist must curl into a ball and shut out the world.

This is why nihilism is an absurd position. Are there ways for the nihilist to be consistent? Yes. The nihilist could embrace the terminological clarification we have made here and run around saying “it’s all noumena”. But this would hardly be shocking, because the claim that noumena exist and in some way lie behind the world we experience in no way contradicts our ability to find meaning in the world. Or the nihilist may admit that they had something more traditional in mind when they made their claim. Perhaps they meant only to deny the existence of absolute meanings or divinely ordained meanings. But is there really anything shocking about that these days? We are well aware that most meanings, and most values, vary from culture to culture. We would hardly be shocked if we ran into a culture that thought gold was worthless, even though our culture values it highly.

If it is at all bothersome it must be because we are attached to some small set of meanings that we hold to be above this. Ethical values, perhaps, or the significance of life. But I would say that there is nothing contradictory about denying absolute meanings while still holding on to an absolutist system of ethics. In fact the absolutist must affirm this. From the absolutist perspective an ethical fact is not something that exists because we constitute it. Rightness and wrongness are independent of people and their opinions about rightness and wrongness. Thus, so conceived, rightness and wrongness are not a meaning. Rightness and wrongness are as much a fact as the hight of the desk or the weight of the lamp. They are something that belongs to the noumena; they are something that we give a meaning to. Just as we give a meaning to the weight of the lamp (heavy enough to serve as a paperweight) so too would we give meaning to ethical facts. Thus the absolutist position, if it is indeed correct, is in no way threatened by the denial of absolute meanings. Nor is the relativist for that matter.

Perhaps I have once again made a straw man out of the nihilist’s position. Can’t the nihilist simply accompany their denial of absolute meanings with the additional assertion that ethical values are meaning and not facts? Perhaps they could, and this would threaten the absolutist conception of ethics. However, it is also to beg the question against the absolutist, and thus isn’t much of an argument. We can borrow an argument from the Euthyphro here, and ask why we constitute something as good or bad, if ethical values are meanings we give things. It it an arbitrary choice, or do we constitute it as good because it is good? The second creates a paradox – if good is nothing but our constitution of something as good, then this is to say that we constitute it as good because we constitute it as good, which says nothing. Thus it must be the first – it is an arbitrary choice. But this is nothing more, and nothing less, than relativism. And relativism is the denial of absolutism. So to tell the absolutist that ethical values are meanings and not facts is simply to assert that absolutism is false. Which is not much of an argument against it. The absolutist’s position presupposes that ethical values are facts and not meanings that we assign.

This digression into ethics, while not helping the nihilist look like less of a fool, has touched upon an interesting question, namely how to decide what is a “fact” and thus part of the noumenon, and what is part of the meaning that we give to the noumenon. Given that we can’t conceive of noumena I would say that it is impossible to know the answer to this question; we can’t look at the noumena as they are in themselves and see what we find there. But this is philosophy, the fact of the matter isn’t our concern here. On the philosophical level we are still free to hypothesize about what is and isn’t a noumenal property, on the same basis which we do all philosophy, namely that some ways of looking at the world are better than others. In simpler terms: the world makes more sense if we conceive of some properties as belonging to the noumenal, regardless of what the noumena is “really” like. This is why I think we can describe the size and mass of an object as “facts”, as properties that are what they are independent of us. It’s not that these properties couldn’t be understood as something we are projecting onto the world – they certainly could. We could point out that length is only something that comes into existence for us through our interactions with the world and through our interpretations of our experiences. This is why things shrank as we grew up, although since we are invested in the idea that length is an objective fact we describe that experience as the size of objects seeming to shrink.

But isn’t it absurd to say that length is merely a meaning that we impose on the world, and not a fact? It certainly seems absurd to me. The question is why. What’s so wrong about taking length to be something imposed on the world when it is perfectly acceptable to say it about the aesthetic value of the same item? One distinguishing feature is that we accept that judgments about aesthetic value can vary without indicating that some of them are in error, but we don’t say the same about length. If someone disagrees with us that the ruler is longer than the pencil after we place them side by side we conclude that their vision must be distorted, or that they have misunderstood the word. But if they disagree with our judgment that the pencil is more beautiful than the ruler we shake our heads and accept that they just see things differently than us.

The point is that we take uniformity concerning judgments about length very seriously, and judgments about beauty less so. A lot can hang on getting length “right”. We desire to communicate accurately and clearly about length, and we can only do that if length isn’t up for grabs. Much less hangs on beauty, and so it simply doesn’t pay to worry about having a single aesthetic standard. But I can imagine a situation where things are reversed. Imagine a culture with only a very primitive level of technology. Because they don’t have much in the way of technology they have no need for precise measurements. Indeed they don’t even have words for length specifically. Instead they have words for vaguely defined shapes each of which has a characteristic general size. In this culture there are valid disagreements about whether the ruler is “longer” than the pencil. One person might group the pencil under “A” and the ruler under “B”, which is characteristically larger. But another might classify the pencil under “C”, which is characteristically larger than “B”. Because these notions are vaguely defined, and they accept that there is no “right” way to classify shapes, both answers are equally valid. But, on the other hand, certain aesthetic values might play a large role in their lives. So large that they have developed a complicated numerical system for measuring beauty in its many different forms. They consider it to be an objective matter of fact that the ruler is 5.6 units in the R-h axis, while the pencil is only 3 units in the G-m axis. Thus the ruler has objectively greater aesthetic value than the pencil. If we disagreed with them about this they would conclude that somehow our perceptions were in error or that we didn’t properly understand what beauty means. Thus for them aesthetic value is properly placed in the noumena while length/size/shape is merely an interpretation of the world.

Now it is easy to object to this example by saying that,as I have described them, these people aren’t talking about length and beauty; the words they use simply don’t mean the same thing, so there can be no comparison. And that the words they use to describe shapes do not capture facts, as we take judgments about length to, thus says nothing about whether those judgments actually capture facts. This is a valid criticism. The reason I gave the example I did was because we are so set in our ways that we simply can’t conceive of using “length” in a way that isn’t factual. Thus I described a language that used non-factual shape words to describe something we normally think is factual, namely shape and size, to make plausible the possibility that the same could hold for length, that there might be ways of using length words and length concepts that isn’t factual either. At best this is an illustration, not an argument – and I’m perfectly happy with that because of my metaphilosophical commitments.

Let me finally get back to the point. The point of this lengthy digression is to show that what we choose to see as a noumenal property, and what we decide isn’t a noumenal property, depends on what we, collectively, consider important to communicate about in a clear, unambiguous, standardized, and objective way. We put length, charge, mass, etc into the noumena because they are part of our scientific and technological apparatus where all of the elements on the list are extremely important. It doesn’t matter if they are “really” – whatever that could possibly mean in this context – meanings projected out onto the world, so long as we are all projecting the same ones. Since beauty is not part of this or some similar apparatus we are free to leave it up for grabs.

So now let me tie this back into ethics and hopefully get some closure on this wandering mess. As I mentioned earlier, whether absolutism in ethics make sense under this worldview (where we project meanings onto a meaningless world) depends on whether right and wrong are facts – part of the substratum for interpretation, the noumena – or whether they are meanings. And that, if the second part of this piece is on the right track, depends on whether clarity, unambiguity, standardization and objectivity are things we want ethics to display. Whether they are things we need ethics to display. Obviously that is a philosophical argument in its own right. But I think the answer is yes; given what we do with ethics those features are features it needs to have, and thus we make better sense of the world we are in by placing ethical facts along with length and mass in the noumena (and let us leave questions of whether they reduce to some of those other properties to philosophers with more time on their hands).

May 21, 2009

Free Will And Quantum Physics

Filed under: Free Will — Peter @ 12:28 pm

An advocate of determinism can be supporting to one of two things. The first is a specific kind of physical laws, where each initial state has only a single possible successor state at any given future time. The second is the denial of a certain kind of free will. The first is philosophically irrelevant because it is a purely scientific matter concerning what the best mathematical model for describing observed events is. So it is the second that I care about. And with respect to the second some claim that quantum mechanics somehow refutes it. I of course am committed to them being wrong about that, because I am committed to the claim that philosophy is completely independent of scientific fact, which means that a scientific discovery can neither support nor refute a truly philosophical claim.

But before I can discuss that matter it is first necessary to talk a bit about what free will is. There are many definitions of free will. Some, including myself, take free will to be essentially the power of self-determination or self-causation. In other words, you are free if you are the primary cause of your own actions. This fits nicely with a physicalist view of the world, since in it you are identified with your brain, and it is obvious that your brain could be considered a primary cause of your actions. Such a view is a compatibilist view, because it entails that the question of whether we have free will is independent of whether the universe is deterministic.

Despite my inclinations that is not the definition of free will that I will be using here. Compatibilism in many ways is the antithesis of the determinism-indeterminism debate because it denies any significance to it. To really engage in that debate we need to make free will part of the stakes. So what is free will in the context of this debate? Many characterize it as “the ability to do otherwise”, but obviously that definition doesn’t say much since it could just as well be used to describe the self-determination view of free will. What is meant by this definition is that to be free one must have the ability to make a meaningful choice which is not fully determined by the preceding physical facts. In other words, one must have the ability to be an uncaused cause (interestingly giving people a property that was classically reserved for the divine).

Obviously in a Newtonian world-view there is no room for such a thing. Every event is caused and completely determined by preceding events. Which means that either the choices of individuals are determined in this way, making them un-free, or their choices are somehow made outside the physical world and cannot have any causal import. Either way free will is an impossibility. Quantum physics changes the Newtonian picture of the world. In it there appears to be room for randomness. Moreover it appears that this randomness is somehow connected to people, because observers are credited with collapsing the wave-function, which is what gives rise to it. And some take this to make room for the exercise of free will.

The first objection that could be raised against this leap in logic is that this is simply one interpretation of quantum mechanics. And it is a very problematic one. Most interpretations that try to overcome its problems either get rid of the collapse of the wave-function or get rid of the observer’s role in that collapse. But let’s be a charitable as we can and stick with this interpretation of quantum mechanics. Even so it still doesn’t give the supporter of free will what they want. It opens the door for the possibility of events that aren’t fully determined by preceding events, and that is part of what is required for free-will, but it doesn’t leave room for a meaningful choice to be behind it, which is the other part. Perhaps I should elaborate. In quantum mechanics it is certainly true that the collapse of the wave-function happens in a way that is not completely determined by preceding events. But the collapse is also completely random. The fact that the collapse is random means that we do not have any control over it, because that would be the opposite of random. In other words this randomness is not a place where choice can have an effect. But perhaps the observer’s role in sparking collapse is where their choice enters into the picture. Alas, this cannot be the case either: observers don’t have a choice about whether they cause the wave-function to collapse, they always cause it to collapse.

In summary: quantum mechanics refutes the first of the two claims “determinism” might be a label for, as described in the first paragraph. Namely it may, under certain interpretations, be incompatible with certain ways of mathematically modeling the universe. But it has no bearing on the second claim, namely the denial of effective uncaused choices. In fact I would go so far as to say that it is impossible for any scientific theory to lend credibility to the existence of free will, so defined. Because every theory in physics will model the world using laws. And the laws of physics will make predictions about events. Those predictions will be precise, in which case the events are completely determined, or they will be statistical, in which case the actual course of events will be random and independent of human choice. Either way there is no room for uncaused causes within the course of events described by such laws; an uncaused cause is necessarily outside of any such laws.

Everything I have said so far has been a negative claim; I have been arguing that an appeal to physics, even quantum physics, cannot justify this sort of free will. But in the process of doing so I have been playing that game which I despise so much, namely pretending that scientific findings have some bearing on this issue. I have been pretending they have some bearing to show that, even under all the assumptions made by the advocates of this sort of free will, even assuming it was Newtonian physics that was the biggest obstacle to this sort of free will (which it isn’t, since, again, philosophy is independent from scientific theories), it still cannot be justified by appeals to quantum physics. Now I am going to stop playing that game – I’m going to stop being a bad role model – and describe how this sort of free will can be argued for and against independently of scientific theories.

The question of free will is really one of how we choose understand the choices that we make and that others make, not the forces behind them (how we choose to constitute them). The forces behind them are irrelevant from a philosophical perspective. Because even if we live in a deterministic universe it doesn’t make any difference to us. I don’t know all the relevant physical facts about previous states of the universe – in fact I can’t know them – and thus I will never be in a position to be able to predict with complete accuracy the choices of other people. In other words, as far as I am able to know there will never be any contradiction in taking myself and others to have free will of the “uncaused cause” sort, even if such a thing is physically impossible. But neither does this mean that I must take them to have free will of this sort. Philosophically we have a choice, we are faced with the question: “what is the best way to conceive of the ability of ourselves and others to make choices?”

The “uncaused cause” conception of free will emphasizes the randomness and unpredictability of people’s choices. It emphasizes their “radical freedom”, their ability to make choices that go against everything that they have previously done and said. In contrast the “self-determination” conception emphasizes the connection between our free choices and responsibility. It emphasizes that when our choices are free that we have to own up to them. I can see both conceptions of free choice as being philosophically interesting. So described the “uncaused cause” conception of free will would fit nicely with a theory that was trying to encourage people to make radical choices and to fully exercise their freedom. Using this conception of free will is one way to emphasize to people that they are free to make a break with their past, their past choices, and their past conception of themselves. The “self-determination” conception of free will can be used to good effect in a theory where we are trying to motivate certain kinds of behavior on the basis of someone’s desire to see themselves as free. Kant’s ethics, specifically the Groundwork, is a good example of this. From the conception of ourselves as free agents we are supposed to concede that we are autonomous, and thus self-determining, and that the only way to be autonomous is to govern ourselves with reason.

Obviously it’s not my intention to develop theories based on either of these two conceptions of free will, or the many unnamed alternatives, here. The point is merely to demonstrate that it is possible to have a lively philosophical discussion about them without having to appeal to science. In fact I think that we are far better off without dragging science into it. Because as I have framed this possible debate it is one that is going to involve philosophical systems, as we evaluate different conceptions of human choice and free will based on how they are philosophically useful. I think that this is much more interesting than deriving philosophical consequences from something that is itself unphilosophical, but maybe that’s just me.

May 20, 2009

The Constitution of Happiness

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 5:08 pm

The problem of human happiness, like so many difficult philosophical problems, has both an obvious answer and, at the same time, is completely obscure. The problem of human happiness is the question “why are people unhappy?” or, if you are more of an optimist – as I try to be – it is the question “how can we become happy?”. The obvious answer is that if we are unhappy it is because we don’t have the things that they want, and that we could become happy if we were simply able to get our hands on them. Class dismissed! But the problem isn’t so easily solved. The obvious answer simply raises more questions. Why do we want the things that we do? Should we desire them? Why are desires connected to happiness? Are they the only source of happiness? What these further questions illustrate is that to successfully grapple with this problem we need an account of the nature of happiness.

So let’s first get clear about what we mean by happiness. I think we all know what the term “happiness” means, but I suppose that there is no harm in making sure that we are all on the same page. Happiness then is a pleasurable feeling, which can be described as an emotion or as a state of mind. Subjectively happiness is a kind of “primary good”, meaning that we enjoy happiness for its own sake. If someone asked us why we liked being happy we couldn’t explain it to them, we like happiness without having a reason for liking it. (Indeed explanations of why we like things, when spelled out in full detail, all rest on the fact that one thing or another makes us happy. Thus we can hardly explain happiness in terms of liking if we explain liking in terms of happiness.) We can also draw a distinction between happiness and a pleasurable experience. A pleasurable experience is momentary while happiness subsists over an extended period of time. Pleasure is fleeting while happiness has a kind of stability. Which is not to deny that there is connection between the two; perhaps repeated pleasurable experiences give rise to happiness.

Now we can return to the naïve answer to the problem of happiness, which was that happiness comes from pleasure, which comes from getting what we want. Or, in other words, from fulfilling our desires. But how are desires connected to pleasurable feelings? We know from experience that they are connected, that is not in question. But we want to know what it is about a desire that produces happiness. Does fulfilling every desires produce pleasure? I don’t think so. Consider some very simple desires, such as the desire to stretch your legs when they are cramping up. Does fulfilling this desire make you happy? Certainly it removes discomfort, which may give it the illusion of producing pleasure, since you are better off afterwards. But not being in discomfort is hardly the same as pleasure. (Historical footnote: Plato once made a similar point in the Republic.)

What this shows is that some desires produce pleasure while others don’t. There must be some feature that is the cause of this division. This mysterious feature, it would seem, is what connects desires to pleasure. Let’s take a look at some desires. The desire to eat when you are hungry. The desire to eat your favorite food. The desire for more money. The desire for a new car. Of these four only the first appears to be the kind that removes discomfort rather than producing pleasure. The difference seems to be that it is a desire away from something rather than towards something. It is a desire to get away from hunger. The other three are desires towards something, good food, money, and a new car, respectively. But what makes the things that desires pull us towards different from those they pull us away from? Why don’t I have a positive desire towards hunger and a negative desire away from what I now consider my favorite food? Is it something in the things themselves? It doesn’t seem likely since someone with an eating disorder may very well have those reversed desires.

What distinguishes the things desires pull us towards from those that they push us away from is the constitution of value. The constitution of value is a way of describing how we create value in the world. Or, in other words, how it comes to be that some things seem better to us and others worse. The constitution of value theory makes us the cause of this, specifically our constituting acts. A constituting act is a mental act or choice which amounts to the association of some significance with an object of experience. For example, words mean what they mean to us because of such constituting acts: through a constituting act we associate a meaning with a sound or with some written symbol. Through such acts meaning is given to otherwise meaningless physical events. The constitution of value operates in essentially the same way, except that, rather than meaning being associated with things, value is. Such constituting acts are the foundation of our judgments concerning what is and isn’t important; we constitute some things as having value, and other things as valueless. And what we constitute as having value is what we desire, and what we constitute as having negative value (as being bad) is what we desire to avoid.

Given this, the solution to the problem of happiness may seem to lie in how we constitute value in the world. Since constituting acts are something we preform they must be under our control. Thus we could, in theory, choose to constitute the world of value differently. To cease to be unhappy all we would have to do is stop constituting things we lack as valuable, reserving value only for the things we currently possess. Thus we would be happy, because all our desires would be fulfilled. But if things were really this easy there would be no problem of happiness, people would have figured it out for themselves already. One problem is that, while the constitution of value is under our control, we cannot change it on a whim. Once we start to constituting something as having value it has a kind of inertia; it requires work to change how we constitute it. Secondly, not all pleasures and pains come from desires; we are simply hard-wired to derive pain from some things and pleasure from others. And it is exceedingly difficult to constitute something as valuable which causes us pain, or to constitute something as valueless which gives us pleasure.

Still, these are not insurmountable difficulties. It is possible to change how we constitute value in the world if we work at it long enough. Obviously since what we possess is constantly in a state of flux we would have to choose very carefully what to constitute as having positive or negative value. You wouldn’t want to work hard to constitute something as valuable that you would then lose. Thus the outcome of this effort is likely to be a person who constitutes little as valuable, and even less as having negative value. This is very close the ascetic ideal, where little is valued and thus where the individual has few or no desires.

But I have my doubts whether this is really a solution either. The problem of happiness was only in part the problem of avoiding unhappiness. The other part was trying to gain happiness. Being free of desires might be a way to avoid unhappiness, but it doesn’t seem likely to produce happiness. But suppose that somehow we managed to constitute the world in some extremely unlikely way, such that we had many desires and they were always being satisfied. This is to be as charitable as possible to the idea that we can be happy by adjusting how we constitute value in the world. Even if this could be achieved I still doubt that it would produce happiness. Previously happiness was distinguished from a mere moment of pleasure by defining happiness as having a kind of stability. A single moment of pleasure, which is the end product of a fulfilled desire, is not stable. It is extremely unstable because it naturally fades away in a short amount of time. A succession of these pleasures, however long it is extended, is not stable either. It is unstable because it is entirely contingent on whatever is behind those moments of pleasure to continue to produce them. In other words: “happiness” is such a scheme is still subject to the whims of fate, no matter how pleasant we posit them to be. But true happiness breeds further happiness, and doesn’t require continual external inputs to persist (although it may require us to avoid pains).

The core problem with these solutions is that they are focused on how we constitute value in the external world. But, no matter how we choose to constitute value in it, those acts are still dependent, to some degree, on what there is out there to constitute as valuable. But the external world is not the only possible target of constituting acts. It is possible to direct these acts at abstractions and ideas, for example, which obviously are independent of what is actually present in the world. More importantly, it is also possible to direct constituting acts at the self. In other words, we can, and do, constitute bits and pieces of our lives, our personalities, our abilities, and our dispositions. The obvious implication is that we can constitute ourselves as valuable. And since we can never be separated from ourselves that this will provide a stable source of happiness, and thus of pleasure. Love thyself, as they say.

As usual the obvious solution is no solution at all. To explain why I must overthrow the simplistic model of desire that we have been using so far, namely the theory that value judgments breed desires, which produce pleasure when satisfied, which in turn have some unspecified causal connection to happiness. This model isn’t necessarily wrong as much as it is overly simplistic, and leaves out important relationships. The first of these stems from the nature of desire. Desire intrinsically involves separation – to desire something you must lack it, and a desire is a drive to negate that separation. Some separations are greater than others and thus require more work to overcome. And this effort is inexorably bound up with the constitution of value: the more work we have done to bridge a separation the more valuable what is on the other side will seem. This is because one of the primary uses of constitution is self-justification; we constitute the world so as to make sense of it, and to make sense of our role in it. This is not the only reason we constitute things as we do, but it certainly is a major one.

Let me illustrate how this model works through an example. To get the ball rolling we must first suppose that we constitute something as valuable for an unspecified reason. Perhaps someone tells us it is valuable. Or perhaps it is just an impulse. Now in most cases we probably would quickly cease to judge this thing to be valuable as quickly as we started (our interest gets caught by some new shiny thing). But in some cases during that short time we do or say something that commits us to it. Perhaps we remark to a friend how nice it is. Or perhaps we do some research about how much it would cost to buy one. Now we have made some effort to annul the separation between us an it, or at least committed ourselves to that effort. To explain these event to ourselves we thus continue to constitute that thing as valuable. Which in turn may eventually lead us to put more effort into acquiring it, which will in turn increase our estimation of its value. Thus for anything which we are not hard-wired to find pleasure in there is a correlation between how much work we have put into getting it and how much pleasure it gives us (because work correlates with value).

This why you can’t derive happiness from constituting something that you already have or are as valuable. Really constituting it as valuable, and not just saying the words, is hard or impossible since you don’t have to work for it. This is why the luster of every new thing wears off; once you have it you no longer have to work for it, and are thus no longer driven to constitute it as valuable to justify your efforts to posses it. For this reason happiness cannot be achieved under this model by constituting some fixed point or points as valuable – once you get there you can derive no further pleasure from them. If the problem of happiness has a solution it must be through constituting some direction of movement as valuable, rather than a fixed point. Allow me to elaborate. If we constitute some process as valuable – ideally one without a terminating point – then we can continue to derive pleasure from it through putting in the work to move one step further along it. The fact that we have to work to move further along it reinforces our constitution of it as valuable. And because it is a process rather than a fixed point there is no danger that we will actually get hold of what we seek and thus tire of it. For example, someone might constitute the process of becoming a better artist as valuable. If they do they can work every day at improving their art and derive happiness from that. They will never become a perfect artist and have no room left for improvement, since perfection can never be realized, only approached.

Given the above this is what we have as a solution to the problem of happiness: constitute what you are doing as valuable and refrain from constituting as valuable anything external to yourself except as it contributes to the first part. Is this solution too cheap? Does it make happiness unrealistically easy to obtain? Hopefully not. Since work is never out of the equation we are never promised free happiness. Additionally, constitution is seen as participating in a kind of feedback loop with some essentially random inputs. In layman’s terms this means that while it is possible to influence how we constitute the world it is never directly under our control in the same way the decision to raise our arm is. Again, this shows that happiness in this model must be both chosen and earned; wishful thinking will not make it fall into our lap.

Perhaps these questions can be better answered if we consider why people are unhappy under this model, and see whether what prevents them from being happy is an actual obstacle. The root of unhappiness, in this model, is being unhappy with what you do. In other words, you may get things that you value – and thus have moments of pleasure – but what you are doing does not seem part of a process that you constitute as valuable. Is this possible? Since I have explained the constitution of value as in part being a process of self-justification it might appear that I am committed to the claim that if you do something you must see it as valuable. But this is not really the case. All I am committed to is that value plays some role in explaining your actions, not necessarily such a direct one. And I think that in the case of unhappy people they explain why they do things they don’t particularly enjoy – often jobs they don’t particularly enjoy – by taking them as having merely instrumental value towards grasping some fixed points that they constitute as intrinsically valuable (i.e. a new car). But since grasping one fixed point of value after another does not produce happiness these people may never be happy, even though they see all their actions as serving their desires.

This then is my sketch of a solution to the problem of happiness. Constitute the process of your life as valuable and you will be happy. Admittedly there is much more that could be said here. The process of our life is not one process towards one destination, but a number of journeys that are interwoven. And it is rarely the case that a person commits to every such process process early in their lives and then stays with it forever. There are some processes that we hope we stick with forever, such as the process of becoming a better companion to one’s life partner. But there are others, such as the process of becoming a better Tetris player, that we fully expect to engage in only for a time. And so more should be said about how we constitute a process as valuable, which processes we should constitute as valuable, and how we can change our constitution of such a process. But I’m not going to say those things here and now.

May 11, 2009

The Philosopher As Artist

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 2:57 pm

It is common to view the philosopher as a kind of scientist, a view I call “the philosopher as scientist”. Philosopher as mathematician also has some traction, but then again mathematician as scientist is extremely popular itself, and so, by the transitivity of analogies, this is not really an alternative. In any case, through “the philosopher as scientist” we are encouraged to understand the task of the philosopher as basically the same as that of the scientist, but with a different subject matter, and with mental experiments (a.k.a. intuitions) in place of physical ones. Just as science is expected to strive towards some final and perfectly correct theory, so philosophy expected to tread on a similar path. Little good comes of thinking in this way, since philosophy bears little resemblance to science, and less to math. A better model – although deficient in its own ways – is see the philosopher as a kind of artist, and thus philosophy as art.

End Products

Let’s explore this analogy by considering how art is different than science, and then by thinking about which of the two is more like philosophy. Perhaps the most significant difference between the two is that science is an act of discovery, while art is an act of creation. Science is out to capture the facts about the world, and the closer it comes to reflecting those facts the better we judge it to be. Art, on the other hand, does not necessarily have to reflect anything. Some art is non-representational. Other works picture scenes that have never occurred outside of the artist’s imagination. In any case, every work of art adds something new to the world – even artistic photographs – while science succeeds only when it perfectly copies what is already there. Although some sculptors speak figuratively of their work already being present in the raw stone we know that this is not literally true. What art is adding is not something physical; science produces something new in this sense as well: new printed pages full of figures and theorems. What a work of art creates is some new perspective, some new idea, some new thought crystallized into physical form and inserted into the public sphere. This is how even a photograph can be creative – an act of creation – in the artistic sense; through the photograph some beautiful image is made physical and public that previously existed only privately in the mind of the photographer.

Philosophical activity, I claim, is better understood as an act of creation rather than an act of discovery. But what is philosophy creating? Art has largely emotional import and gives us new emotional perspectives on the world; it provides mainly emotional insights. Philosophy seems to do basically the same thing, but on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one; it provides intellectual or conceptual insights. The best philosophy provides us with new concepts, new intellectual tools, that let us understand the world in a novel way. Consider Sartre’s invention of “bad faith”, for example. Through the idea of “bad faith” Sartre describes self-deception as it never had been before; specifically as embracing a self-conception that runs contrary to our true natures – often our radical freedom. It is not the case that bad faith is the only valid way of understanding self-deception, and that every other theory is somehow a mis-characterization of it. No, bad faith is a new way of looking at self-deception, a new way of understanding its significance, and a new way of connecting it to other aspects of life. Self-deception existed before Sartre, but bad faith did not, just as beautiful women existed before Leonardo da Vinci, but the Mona Lisa did not.


Another substantial difference between art and science is that in science it is possible to order every theory from better to worse, and to speak about one theory improving upon or replacing another. But when it comes to art no such ranking is possible. There is good and bad art, but it is hard to draw such absolute comparisons between good art. And certainly one piece of good art does not replace or supersede another. A work by Monet does not supersede one by Rembrandt; after Monet Rembrandt’s work does not become a mere historical footnote in the development of art. But of course in science this happens all the time. General relativity theory replaces Newtonian mechanics, making the latter good only as an engineer’s approximation and for teaching students. But Rembrandt is not considered only an approximation to the “true” beauty captured by Monet, or vice versa. In art there is room for many different works of art, each of which can be a success in its own way. But in science where two theories deal with the same subject matter there is room only for one; eventually one of the two must be shelved as less correct.

Again, I think it is obvious that in this respect philosophy is more like art than science. Of course philosophers argue amongst each other as if philosophy was like science, and spend large amounts of time trying to “prove” that their position is “correct” and that those of their opponents are at best approximations to the philosophical “truth”. But if they really feel that this is how philosophy should be then they must also think that philosophy is an abject failure. We still teach and read Plato and Aristotle, and not as mere approximations; they still have interesting things to say to us. If philosophy is really like science where better theories are supposed to supersede worse ones then we haven’t made any progress in the last few thousand years, at least when it comes to the subjects Plato and Aristotle talk about. Obviously it would be absurd to say this. It is absurd even to think it. Philosophy makes much more sense when we understand it in basically the same way we understand art. Yes, there is good and bad philosophy, and some philosophy is better than others, just as there is good and bad art, and some art is better than others. But there is room for as much philosophy as we like on any subject, so long as each is adding some new interesting perspective none has to invalidate the others, even if they make contrary claims. Philosophers making contrary claims is like two artists paining the same scene in a different style; the fact that they differ does not mean that we have to throw out one of them.

The Creative Process

Art and science also have substantial methodological differences. In science new theories are motivated by experiments. Experiments yield data, and when that data conflicts with, or simply isn’t explained by, existing theories there is room for new science. The process of producing new scientific theories is a slow and incremental one because of this. First you have to find data that needs explaining. In light of that data you form a hypothesis. You then test the hypothesis with further experiments, which usually prompt revisions and thus the need to collect even more data. And eventually you end up with something that is worth being called a new theory. Art is nothing like this. Producing good art is not an incremental process. Sometimes the artist is simply inspired, and the very first thing he or she sets out to create is great art. Of course most artists aren’t so lucky, they spend many years developing technical skills, copying the work of other artists, starting projects that don’t turn out exactly as they would like, and in general waiting for inspiration. But, while all that effort may be necessary preparation, the great art that follows on its heels is not a continuation of it. Newton said that he stood on the shoulders of giants, and he was right in the sense that his work built upon what came before. But an artist cannot say the same thing. While art does not exist independently of its history, it does not build upon it, but rather exists in reaction to it.

Once more there are stronger parallels between philosophy and art than there are between philosophy and science. Philosophy does not appear to be an incremental process. There are no revised or improved versions of the Republic. Now I am not denying that philosophy changes over time. Often new philosophy will be developed in light of criticisms leveled against existing positions. But I think it would be a mistake to understand this process as analogous to the revision of a hypothesis in the light of new data. In general philosophers don’t revise their theories, they move on to new ones. Sometimes a criticism is met with change, but it is just as likely to be met with a criticism of the criticism. On the other hand, the process that produces philosophy looks a lot like the process that produces art. Like the artist, most philosophers spend the early part of their careers developing technical skills and imitating the work of other, more famous, philosophers. They don’t produce brilliant new ideas, they make small revisions and small objections to existing positions. This is a lot like the young artist who does his or her best to imitate a famous style, adding only a few flourishes of their own. This phase may never come to an end; there are both philosophers and artists who do technically proficient work but are never truly inspired. Some, however, are inspired. These lucky individuals make a sudden leap past their previous work and produce something new and original. It’s not an incremental improvement over their past work or the work of some other philosopher, it is something never before seen.

History of the Discipline

Finally let’s take a brief look at the historical “progress” of the arts and sciences. Of course “progress” is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to art, since art doesn’t improve as much as it finds new things to explore. This simply highlights the fact that art does not have a linear history; there is not a single narrative strand that ties everything together. Rather the history of art is characterized by a number of movements, many of which overlap. And within each movement there are usually a number of different schools and styles. Overall the history of art is one of diversity. Science has no room for this sort of diversity. The history of science can be understood as a monolithic enterprise. Although there have always been disagreements within the scientific community, it has always been the case that scientists everywhere have been doing the same thing. In other words, the history of science is not littered with movements that are largely incompatible with each other as the art world has been.

It’s hard to deny that the history of philosophy bears a striking resemblance to the history of art. The history of philosophy is littered with different schools or movements, such as Rationalism, Empiricism, Existentialism, and so on. Each of these movements is largely incompatible with the others, and each philosopher, or at least the major historical figures, tends to work primarily within a single one of them. The history of Chinese philosophy is an even better illustration of this similarity; in translation one of the early periods of Chinese philosophy is described as the time of the hundred schools. And the six major schools of this period existed largely contemporaneously with each other. It is hard to make sense of this within the scientific paradigm. Science just doesn’t have schools or styles. Or maybe it has exactly one style that all scientists share. If we were to really press the analogy between science and philosophy we would be forced to construe these schools as something like failed theories. But this hardly does them justice, both because some of them still have traction and because they were hardly monolithic, there are substantial disagreements within a single school of philosophy that makes understanding them as a single theory difficult.

So What?

All I’ve done so far is point out that there are more similarities between art and philosophy than there are between science and philosophy. By themselves these similarities show nothing, and we could choose to see philosophy as a kind of science in spite of them. But that choice would be a problematic one. Because if we continue to view the philosopher as a scientist in light of these dissimilarities with science we will be led to conclude that philosophy is defective. We would see the substantial number of ways in which philosophy is unlike science as ways in which philosophy has historically been a failure. You would feel the need to essentially start over in some radical fashion, to do philosophy in some new way that eliminates these “problems”. But then you are hardly doing philosophy anymore. What you would essentially be saying is that the vast majority of what has been called philosophy was a mistake, and that you would rather do something new, something different, but keep the old name. Isn’t that somewhat disingenuous? If you want to do something radically different it would be more honest to distinguish it from the long tradition you are reacting against.

I think that this is an attitude that you wouldn’t get far with. It is not clear what changes you could enact that would make philosophy fit into a scientific mold. And it is hard to have a positive attitude about philosophy if you see almost all existing philosophy as wrongheaded. This is why I think it is better to understand the philosopher as an artist. By doing so we are able to make sense of philosophy as we know it. The features of philosophy that have been described here are expected for art, and thus they don’t stand in need of correction. There is no need to radically revise philosophy, even if you would like to start a new movement within it. Of course if you adopt this attitude towards philosophy you will be dissatisfied with those who adopt the opposite, and who try to eliminate the artistic aspects of philosophy. But, from this perspective, seeing the philosopher as a scientist is just one movement among many, and no movement lasts forever.

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