The task of philosophy

The task of philosophy, often a difficult and painful one, is to extricate and bring to light the hidden categories and models in terms of which human beings think, to reveal what is obscure or contradictory in them, to discern the conflicts between them that prevent the construction of more adequate ways of organising and describing and explaining experience (for all description as well as explanation involves some model in terms of which the describing and explaining is done); and then, at a still ‘higher’ level, to examine the nature of this activity itself (epistemology, philosophical logic, linguistic analysis), and to bring to light the concealed models that operate in this second-order, philosophical, activity itself. – Isaiah Berlin

The task of philosophy was originally published on Meandering home


Meditation on freedom

Breathe in and think about a beginning. How to start a meditation on freedom? Do we have an entry point, a route that we can follow? Let’s clear our head of all that has been said about freedom. Smile. We are going to choose freely what we mean by freedom here. We are gaming ourselves. It is an existential.

So we are aware of Libet’s experiments. We raise our arm first, and the neurons that are associated with our decision to do so fire some milliseconds later. Our body decides, our consciousness follows and creates an evolutionarily useful internal theatre of the free will. It seems there is nothing more to say about the subject. What we call freedom is a certain fysiological dance of axons and dentrites.

Lo and behold! We have begun to find freedom ‘boring’. Can we still wonder about the ‘privateness’ of a phenomenon? We have been here a million times, we can accept that freedom is a ‘dance’ of the elements. Some philosophers have insisted that such dance needs to be indeterministic because that is how we experience our freedom. Something inside us must be god-like, they seem to think, for we are the creators of our inner worlds. Perhaps the quantum indecidibility is what makes freedom possible on an ontological level. The thought that whatever I will decide next was already ‘written in the stars’ contradicts our experience of freedom, and the latter certainly should count as a genuine source of knowledge?

Let’s breathe a bit more. Thinking is praxis. And so is a meditation on freedom! A deterministic view that we can hold about freedom can lead us to discard the concept of responsibility and punishment. This is of course simplistic and lacks the elegance of philosophical reasoning. The decision to get rid of punishment and the concept of responsibility itself is ‘inevitable’ or ‘automatic’ in this story. But if we decide nót to get rid of responsibility some causal chain must have lead to it and in this story we accept causal chains. What we are saying (intentionally in a vague way) is that such conclusions from the alleged absense of freedom require some sort of ‘loyalty’ to a perceived truth. But loyalty is a concept of the same category these thinkers want to get rid of!

We close our eyes. Breathe again. We defend, against all too quick naturalists, the enigma of our freedom. When we say it is a ‘necessary illusion’ we don’t mean this lightly. Can intelligent machines experience freedom? Imagine a robot that has passed the Turing test. I think we can never tell, just like our human freedom must remain an enigma for each other. This humanist consideration would be an argument in favor of some legal status of machines that can interact like humans. I find this a hard discussion.

It is time to get up. Feel our living bodies again. Practise awareness. The freedom that we mean is the experience, not of an abstract moment in which we can or can not lift our hand, but the experience of a fulfilled life.

Meditation on freedom was originally published on Meandering home

Philosophy doesn’t cut it

Philosophy doesn’t cut it – the letters
have all been combined
in all possible ways

Perhaps the love of wisdom is something for wet animals,
the turtle, the frog, the earthworm?

Cut in two, the earthworm continues to be.
What is being?
What wisdom can we aspire to, apart from not
being cut in two?

Philosophy doesn’t cut it was originally published on Meandering home

In Defense Of The Philosophy Faculty

When I began studying philosophy in 1997 some people called it navel-gazing. It is no different in 2017, as calls for austerity affect everything that doesn’t generate a direct cash return. The reputation of philosophy, because it has no (and cannot have) direct practical value, is that of a complex game of words that refuses to surrender to the regime of utility.

If philosophy doesn’t demand absolute independence from cultural, economical or religious influences, it ceases to be the love of wisdom and becomes the worship of the power structure that embeds it. Of course it is always embedded in such a power structure (as a faculty with a budget, staffed by people with salaries and affinities); hence a philosophy faculty cannot exist without a permanent struggle to evade canonization as a useful, rational underpinning of the real thing: the worldly sciences.

The idea that such struggle is prima facie, and not only after its effects have been measured, beneficial (to avoid the word useful) with respect to something like truth, is difficult to accept, precisely because it evades the framework of economical usefulness in the most fundamental way: it indefinitely postpones the ‘cashing in’ on its usefulness, something that is anachronistic in an era that is obsessed with realizing the idea of future today.

Is this the cultural bias against the benefits of a strange discipline that appears to force itself to be contrarian? Every time a philosophical theory becomes ‘fixed’ as a useful tool for a particular science, it loses her philosophical essence. At their heart, the theories of Marx, Darwin, Freud and their twentieth-century successors are philosophical new ways of asking questions. Sure, these theories have been refined (or: overcome) but that is not the point. Such theories ask the foundational questions of disciplines. They might have a ‘return on investment’ only in useful applications, but the kind of thinking that gives rise to them can be organized in a properly philosophical environment.

So there are these two lines of argument in favor of the philosophy faculty:
1) The irreducible value of the unique ‘flight forward’ to ever new perspectives due to the proper intention of philosophy to ‘leave nothing unthought’ (which can be read as ‘thinking totality’, or not). The value of philosophy exists in opposition to the cultural context that embeds it. It always has to think this opposition and can therefor never be contained. This restless ‘spirit’ of philosophy is directed towards truth, with which it coincides at the end of days. In a certain way it is the secularized Jewish or Christian (idealist) eschatology.
Giving this philosophical drive a formal place in socity is an existential choice that is and should be presented to the sovereign (the electorate). Personal note: This ride (or rite, in a wink to Derrida’s différance) of truth is invaluable to me.
2) The ability of the philosophy faculty to nurture and disseminate theories that can later be borrowed by other sciences that can make them useful (if and only if they deprive these theories of their philosophical spirit).

The more practical issue is whether the creation and teaching of fundamental and foundational theories should be relegated to a faculty that specializes in them. Of course individual philosophers could be integrated in other faculties, such as physics, anthropology, or law and still be prolific researchers and great teachers. However, this misses one great opportunity of philosophy gives us: mingling between faculties. If students of law, economics, biology and architecture take the very same logic and ethics classes, there is the unique opportunity of cross-pollination, of interesting debates between the students (and who knows, their tutors) that will ultimately sharpen the intellectual contours of society.

I think such classes are best organized by a distinct faculty in order to avoid the possibility of bias. But more importantly, a philosophy faculty should be something like the dedicated and sacred ground of Reason.

In Defense Of The Philosophy Faculty was originally published on Meandering home

"Neo-Malthusian" "populationists"

The straw man used to “debunk” people who count

The business-as-usual people like to portray anyone who raises concerns about the exponential growth of the world population, given our finite habitat, as a misanthropic pessimist who doesn’t believe in progress. These people – whatever their motives are, I find it hard to believe they aren’t bought by corporations – won’t get tired of pointing out that the “overpopulation movement” allegedly started with a certain Mr. Malthus, who in late 18th century England claimed that workers bred quicker than they would be able to increase productivity, thus creating an unsustainable population growth. Malthus was elitist; his modern-day “counterparts” who aren’t shouting Hallelujah at the 7. billionth human but raise concerns instead, are called racists or “anti-progress”.

I don’t think the discussion is trivial. Smart people have argued on both sides. We should ring the alarm bells, says one side, because we are dangerously approaching and overshooting carrying-capacity of the planet. Nay, say the others, the more the merrier, and worldwide production has actually increased more than population growth over the past few decades.

I am of course extremely biased. Production almost always means irreparable destruction of nature (don’t say “resources”; if anything WE are resources for nature regulating herself). I don’t think we (let alone the planet) would be better of when there are more of us around. And I think it’s extremely dangerous to keep betting on all these fantastic inventions (3D-printing, artificial meat, nanotechnology, strong AI, nuclear fusion) to come to the rescue.

On a side note, I’m not anti-technology. I think many of these techniques are very fascinating and should be developed. But we should not rely on inventions in the future that we merely predict. That is not good survival strategy for individuals, nor is it for a species.

First fossil fuels will become very expensive (and a few perverts very rich), then they will simply be no longer available. And we rely on this stuff for our very food. Industrial agriculture is a one-way street, and we all know where it leads to. But I don’t need to repeat that here.

This is not about the numbers. You and I have seen the numbers. And otherwise, they are just a few mouse clicks away. What is important is how we interpret the numbers.

What do we want?

A boom-and-bust with real people of flesh and blood, like the way we frantically keep inflating and popping economic bubbles? That is so disgusting and inhumane, let alone that would also decimate the natural habitat of almost every species we know, and every species we never got a chance to know because we destroyed them before we discovered them. All because we can have a few more decades of “prosperity”, a few more decades of smiling artificial families in sterile apartment blocks stringed together to megacities that suck the lifeblood out of the environment.

Is that what YOU want?

I am impatient with people claiming that we shouldn’t actively check population growth. I challenge them to look anyone straight in the eye and say they are not religious fanatics, that they have thoroughly studied the situation, and conclude that human population growth is possible and desirable. Their opportunism, taking as advice by an Indian or Chinese (rural or urban) family, is potentially murderous.

Because their children’s children might live in a barren world with soil erosion, draught and starvation caused by the current levels of extraction and consumption. And anyone honestly willing to prevent that (for the sake of humans and other wondrous species) is demonized as an enemy of progress.

Fuck. We have MODELS for this. We can model the rise and decline of rabbits in Australia, so we can also model the rise and decline of human population. Humans: the only species who has it in his might to avoid becoming a plague (leading to their own inevitable self-destruction). But they are screwing it up.

What the heck! Earth has space for a lot more humans. Let’s take the number of square feet of land on earth as an upper limit: 5,490,383,247,360,000 people could stand on this planet. This means (if we have all the technology, except the technology to shrink ourselves, that human population could increase millionfold. If we could shrink ourselves using advanced generational picotechnology, we could perhaps grow population even more! Humans would of course need to be kept in cages like in the Matrix trilogy and essentially converted into energy sources.

Drill, baby, drill.
Screw, baby, screw.

Let’s bequeath the next generation what we so humbly deny for ourselves: Insurmountable problems that lead to certain death when unsolved. Let’s continue screwing each other, the planet, and the next generation.

Mad Max World

Cover of "Mad Max (Special Edition)"
Cover of Mad Max (Special Edition)

We have been taught to accept whatever choices people make, as long as they are lawful. Within an essentially unquestioned framework called “The Law”, we believe, people (I mean citizens) can live out their valuable freedom, and choose anything they want and cannot do in-justice.

Of course, “The Law” is a power structure only cosmetically separated from the state, which is only cosmetically separated from the Corporatist Elite. And these corporate entities (with more “personhood” under the law than most primates have) make the choices that matter to our planet. They choose to “develop the resources”, that is to rape and kill mountains, forests, rivers, oceans.

We have choices too. I’m not talking about the allegedly all-important consumer choices (will come to that in another post), but about the choice to fight back. To do something about “it”. If we can for once indoctrinate ourselves, and find other sources to base our emotions on than our flat-screen TV sets, we might have a chance. We might be able to associate the feeling of wealth with healthy forests and rivers teeming with life. And to associate the feeling of poverty with encroaching concrete, industrial production and consumption.
Cover of January, 1915 National Geographic Mag...
Cover of January, 1915 National
Geographic Magazine
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
But it’s a choice so it’s your call. Green propagandists like myself, environmental scientists, and others can only advise. Go ahead. Choose an ocean where 90% of the fish are gone (you probably don’t know what codfish tastes like), choose the destruction of primary rain forest, never mind about biodiversity, never mind about cancer treatment, never mind the indigenous, or the fact that these forests are the carbon sinks. Choose a world where the important industrial nations don’t even show up at a conference (Rio+20) because they’re too busy shoveling money up bankers’ asses. Choose a world where the positive feedback mechanisms of climate change (and to you, corporate media dick, if you abuse the word “positive” to pretend it’s not that bad, I’ll kill you) are structurally ignored: what do you (and anyone) really know about methane trapped in permafrost, the Greenland icecaps, and the plankton depletion, all of which could trigger runaway climate change?

Choose a world that will look more like the background of the Mad Max films than what we still see on National Geographic. Choose a world where the smog is unbearable and you need a mask to survive (a real one, not a figurative mask like we think we already need today). Choose a world without wild animals. Choose a world full of poison. Choose a world that looks like a moon, with big air conditioned apartment buildings housing the wealthy 1%, while the rest is enslaved in the production process to satisfy their insatiable perverse hunger for more. Go ahead, choose for yourself.

But don’t you dare to choose for your – and our – children and grandchildren. Don’t you dare.

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