Getting Started in Philosophy
by Alan Carl Nicoll
September 22, 2018
Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved
Page numbers refer to the PDF version, available HERE.
For the past hour I’ve been researching the Internet to find material suitable for people wanting to get into philosophy, but I haven’t found anything I like better than my own blog posts. There are serious errors of omission in this document; some of this is addressed in “Self-Criticism” (p. 9).
There are two general approaches to Western Philosophy (“WP”) for beginners, I think: review the history of philosophy from the beginnings, or jump right into discussions about the questions that most interest you. History is easier to talk about, but my own approach in this, as in all things, has been to follow my interests wherever they lead, and to hell with being systematic. My everlasting puzzle has been “the meaning of life” and a related question of “how should I live?” The most important books I’ve read in this pursuit are discussed below under “Selections from Book Thoughts 1 & 2: Meaning of Life / Self Development.” My most recent thinking is described in my story excerpt, published on my blog as “The Bleak Philosophy,” included below.
The most important WP philosophy books in my experience are discussed below in “Book Thoughts 3: Philosophy.”
Not discussed below are two books by Will Durant that summarize the major teachings of the major philosophers, in a highly entertaining way. They are: The Story of Philosophy, and The Mansions of Philosophy (also published as The Pleasures of Philosophy). These were published in the ‘20s, however, and so leave out much of interest. A few decades later came Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, which has its critics, but I find very readable and delightful, but it, too, omits anything more recent than Logical Analysis (i.e., up to the ‘50s). Frederick Copleston’s massive volumes on the history of philosophy are highly regarded, but I haven’t read them.
Here is an odd collection of things from my blog which may provide an entry point. For starters, I have brief reviews of some of my favorite books, covering “the meaning of life,” personal development, and (p. 5) WP; then (p. 7) three long paragraphs from Bertrand Russell; then (p. 9) “Self-Criticism” and “The Bleak Philosophy,” and finally (p. 13), some recent discussion of neuroscience, titled, “Diary Entry: 5/29/18.”
Selections from Book Thoughts 1 & 2: Meaning of Life / Self Development
I am initiating a new feature of this blog which is nothing more ambitious than recording my thoughts about books I’m reading or have read, or sometimes, books I tried to read and gave up on. This is an attempt to make this blog something more dynamic than a place to store chapters of my books in progress.
It’s unclear to me how I’ll incorporate this project into WordPress. For now I’ll just start with comments on my Best Books Ever list. At this point I don’t plan to reread each item, but just to give my current thoughts about things I’ve read and loved, in some cases decades ago. It is my intention to be brief and to avoid expressions like “Read this book!” All the books on my list seem to me potentially life-changing, and you neglect these gems at your peril of leading a diminished life.
Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Self Reliance”
Emerson’s Essays are generally rather dry and abstract, but this essay is evergreen. The writing is exceptionally vigorous and the thoughts are forceful and, at times, extreme. I haven’t read the essay in years, but I’ve read it many times, and it’s a short piece that I think most people will find quite amazing.
Leo Tolstoy: Confession (also published as My Confession)
This short book has sometimes been anthologized, as in Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, an excellent book as well. Confession is Tolstoy’s story of his crisis of faith, his confrontation with the meaning—or meaninglessness—of life. While his solution to his dilemma may please few modern readers, especially atheists (of which I am one), the challenge is the important thing, and he presents the challenge vigorously and clearly—true of Tolstoy’s writing generally.
Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace
If you haven’t read War and Peace, what are you waiting for? It is certainly the most acclaimed of all novels. I recall Percy Lubbock’s point that I am forced to paraphrase: it has everything in it, and that’s also its weakness. I will not add to, nor repeat, the carping of critics. Tolstoy trained all subsequent generations of writers by his example, and this book contains many brilliant scenes. It has multiple excellent love stories, vivid pictures of war and its consequences, and enough reflections on life to form a separate book of quotations. To me he is never dull, even when taking his main character, Pierre Bezuhov (or Bezukhov), through the lengthy rituals of Freemasonry, But I exaggerate: his theory of history is beyond dull, and unpersuasive. It seems these days that the theory is confined to an appendix or two, a choice of which I thoroughly approve. In the list it appears under the title “Meaning of Life / Self Development” and I think that categorization is fully justified. It can be a life-changer.
Grace Llewellyn: The Teenage Liberation Handbook
I dearly love this book and have read it three times, starting in my forties. It is directed at teenagers, particularly those in public school, but it’s excellent reading for persons of any age. What are you going to do with your life? What do you love? The book asks such questions and provides unconventional answers that people have tried. This approach is both entertaining and liberating, and every teen deserves to receive a copy when she enters high school, if not before. Parents be warned: your teenager, if she reads this book, will very likely tell you that she wants to “quit school and get a real life and education,” which is most of the subtitle of the book. For any teen who is chafed or worse by her school experience, this book could literally be a life saver. If you’re beyond high school yourself, this book may encourage you to change jobs and pursue what you’ve always dreamt of. Many books talk in terms like these; this happens to be the one I’ve read and greatly agree with.
Lin Yutang: The Importance of Living
Dr. Lin here presents his idea of the philosophy of Chinese peasant women, if I remember correctly. The first time I read this book I thought it was about half nonsense and half stimulating, interesting, even weird, ideas. The second time I read it I thought it about 5% nonsense and the rest just fabulously interesting ideas. He starts with an analysis of the character of the people of various nations; this is anything but “politically correct,” but I find some unfamiliar truths here. In any case, don’t let a distaste for this beginning to turn you off to the book as a whole.
As an aside, Dr. Lin also wrote a book late in life called From Pagan to Christian, in which he describes his change in belief. Other books of his that I’ve read have all be interesting and entertaining, but the above is the important one. It went through many reprintings in the 1940s and was incredibly popular at the time. It deserves to be better known these days. Don’t take my word for it–read the raves on Amazon.com. Or check out the extensive quotes in my Collected Quotations.
John C. Holt: Freedom and Beyond
This book presents a perhaps naïve view of progressively-oriented economics; since I am not smarter or more educated in economics than Holt, I can’t really address that effectively. I can say that this book is the first that got me excited about economic justice. We have the world’s richest most successful economy, yet when it comes to the “blessings of society” and mere “happiness,” we are well behind other developed countries. Holt decries this. Here’s what I wrote about this book in 1993: ”An astonishing and important book. Full of stunning insights into American society. Especially good re education, but also mind-changing ideas about our economy and institutions. Reread this one often! Make it your own.” The second time I read this book, in maybe 2010, I was less enthusiastic, in part because I had learned Holt’s lessons.
Henry Thoreau: Walden
What can I say about a book I’ve read a scarcely-credible 22 times? Henry speaks of “modern man” as observed by him in the 1830s and ‘40s, with special reference to work (the first and longest chapter is called “Economy,” referring to a single person’s income and expenses). It’s a book that every young man should read, though perhaps not without a mentor. I first read it at seventeen and learned the wrong lesson. Thoreau reinforced my growing belief that normal adult life was bullshit. Thoreau’s point was to reduce expenses so you could reduce the work needed; instead I heard, “Avoid a nine-to-five job” or maybe even “Avoid work altogether.” He advocated a simple life of leisure; unfortunately, I learned only the leisure part of the lesson, not the more important point of living simply to reduce expenses. Thoreau was no hobo, nor was he the completely self-sufficient individual we wish he’d been; rather, he had support from his family that receives little mention in the book. He could not have lived on the food he grew because he was the laziest of farmers. Despite the defects of his practice of his theory, his theory is both refreshing and challenging. In addition, his prose is both funny and beautiful by turns. Some day I’ll write a long essay about this book; this is not the time. Available online for free, but I’d recommend an annotated version, of which some are available through your local library. I prefer Cramer’s.
Henry Thoreau: Essays
Henry’s “Civil Disobedience” is justly celebrated for its influence on Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It may nourish the rebel in you; it will certainly challenge the citizen you are (if you are). Briefly, he refused to pay his poll tax for reasons he explains, and as a result he spent a night in jail. We live in a less forgiving age. His other essays tend to be digressive, breezy, and chatty since many were originally given as public lectures. They are also serious, thoughtful, and personally challenging for the reader. The essay “Life Without Principle” seems to me a “little Walden.”
Derrick Jensen: A Language Older than Words
Jensen’s book is entertaining and loaded with exciting ideas, but some of the things he says, for me, “do not compute.” For instance, I find it rather incredible that he expects the reader to take seriously his claim of communicating with coyotes, trees, and stars. Some readers will perhaps find these things to be the most valuable parts. I certainly did not. However, like Thoreau, Jensen advocates shunning a standard “job” and instead doing something which will nourish the deeper part of you. I read the book twenty years ago and can remember few other details; fortunately, I have some extensive quotations in my Collected Quotations (surely a violation of copyright). I cannot recommend Jensen’s other works and opinions—my one glimpse suggested he’s advocating anarchy and/or violent revolution, for which I have no use.
Plato: Apology, Crito, Phaedo
Plato’s Apology is a foundational document of western civ, the story of the trial and death of Socrates. Crito and Phaedo continue the story. If you’re leading an “examined life,” you should know that Socrates gave us the idea. In addition to raising critical questions about man’s place in society, these three dialogues are also emotionally powerful reading.
Viktor Frankl: Man’s Search for Meaning
Frankl is the originator of Logotherapy, which aims to solve a patient’s psychological problems by improving his view of the meaning of life. Frankl’s view of the meaning of life is, essentially, what gives one’s life meaning is how one responds to suffering. I find this uninspiring, but the book has more than this. Frankl was confined in a German concentration camp with his father; he survived, his father didn’t. The story of this experience occupies the first half of the book, while in the second half the author explains how that experience made him see that the survivors of the camp had a strong sense of the meaning of their life, while those who succumbed to the horror did not.
Walter Kaufmann: The Faith of a Heretic
Kaufmann’s book is an examination of his personal beliefs in light of his atheism. Many books about atheism have been popular in recent decades; this is decades older and was the most important to me in informing my own beliefs. Kaufmann is noted as a translator of German literature, notably almost all the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. He also was a philosopher, though not a generally important one. I thoroughly enjoyed many of his books, which are listed in the Kaufmann Wikipedia article. I lost enthusiasm when reading his Discovering the Mind trilogy, which I found embarrassingly written. This book, however, remains excellent, almost required for thoughtful atheists.
Book Thoughts 3: Philosophy
I’m no philosopher, and philosophy is among the most difficult and technical of subjects. I started reading philosophy when I was 26 (now 71), beginning with Bertrand Russell’s Unpopular Essays. I could hardly have been luckier than to start with this book. Later I took a few philosophy courses at U.C. Irvine, at a time when I was much impressed with A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth, and Logic. The following opinions are penned by a layperson, and can hardly be considered definitive or even defensible, philosophically speaking.
William Barrett: Irrational Man
Currently rereading this with a friend and providing discussion questions; this may become a thing if any others show interest. This book gives an overview of existentialism, as of 1958. The introductory chapters tend to get a bit vague, in a woolgathering way, with many casual (and undefined) references to the human spirit and the like. But his discussions of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre are well worth reading. When I first read this book, I knew nothing of existentialism. Now, decades later, I am in a better position to evaluate it. (Stay tuned)
Bertrand Russell: The Problems of Philosophy
Russell is the most readable philosopher I know of; even when he gets technical, he doesn’t get unnecessarily technical or obscure. This book is deceptively simple. It begins by analyzing sense perceptions, as so many philosophers have done, and makes observations and draws conclusions which will be surprising to the neophyte, but mostly common sense to the experienced philosophical reader. As such, it’s a brilliant introduction to philosophy, with the emphasis on epistemology, apparently Russell’s favorite subject. It’s the one book by Russell that was included in the Great Books of the Western World, Second Edition. Readers who get through this short book may want to tackle a much more challenging and technical book of epistemology by Russell, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth. In my Collected Quotations are three long quotes from Problems, plus my brief review from 2001 (repeated below).
Friedrich Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil
I’ve read all of Nietzsche’s major books at least once (excluding The Will to Power, which is a collection of notes) and most of them are well worth your time. I think this is his best and most important book, as well as being far more readable and interesting than his most popular, Thus Spake Zarathustra. It is his one book in the Great Books of the Western World, Second Edition, a good indication that it’s probably important to Western Civ. It’s not easy to summarize, however; the Wikipedia article does a better job than I could. You’ll find this one by turns profound and obscure and outrageous; it’s also, like Nietzsche often is, very quotable. Not in my “Collected Quotations,” however.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: On Certainty
Wittgenstein is tough to read. Most people trying to get into him start with his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a book which is far too much like Euclid for my taste and patience. On Certainty is relatively obscure by comparison, but it looks at epistemology in a way that is unique and especially entertaining and interesting. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is undoubtedly more important to the history of philosophy (and it’s in the Great Books), but that one puts me to sleep. This one I’ve read I think three times and I enjoyed it every time.
Thomas Nagel: “Subjective and Objective” (in Mortal Questions)
This brief essay seems to me to give definitive answers to many important questions in epistemology. Many of the most intractable philosophical questions revolve around the difference between two viewpoints. For example, looked at subjectively, nothing is more important (to me) than my life; looked at objectively, nothing is more trivial because in a few years it will be as though I never lived. Philosophy of mind is another area where this is at the heart of the matter: I know that I have a mind, but if one studies the brain, it looks like “nobody’s home.” Nagel offers a way to look at such questions; as far as I can tell, nobody is satisfied with his answers, including me. But they were convincing at one time, and this essay will advance your philosophical sophistication, even if the answers are not the final ones.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Philosophy in the Flesh
How does it happen that we can understand anything? Why can we understand words at all? Lakoff and Johnson provide the only answer to such questions that is even conceivable to me: we understand words physically. We are biological, living bodies; this fact forms our minds as we behave in the world. Unfortunately, the book is huge, and rather tedious; but you don’t have to read the whole thing (I didn’t) to the get very valuable (to me) nugget of this point of view. If you’re interested in cognitive science or neuroscience or psychology, you really want to make the ideas in this book part of your tools for thought.
Daniel Dennett: Freedom Evolves and Elbow Room
Dennett is one of the most popular of current big brains, and rightfully so. His books are chock full of surprising insights and thought experiments. This is one his books on free will, on of the toughest philosophical questions around. Unfortunately, I just can’t remember if this is the book I think it is, or if his Elbow Room is the book I’m remembering. Eventually I’ll settle this question and … you know.
Question settled: It’s Elbow Room that so impressed me. It’s also about ten years newer than Freedom.
Quotes from Bertrand Russell: The Problems of Philosophy, Oxford University Press, London, 1912.
“The value of philosophy is . . . to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find . . . that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.
“Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value—perhaps its chief value—through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleaguered fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife.
“One way of escape is by philosophic contemplation. Philosophic contemplation does not, in its widest survey, divide the universe into two hostile camps—friends and foes, helpful and hostile, good and bad—it views the whole impartially. Philosophic contemplation, when it is unalloyed, does not aim at proving that the rest of the universe is akin to man. All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to this Self that knowledge of it is possible without any admission of what seems alien. The desire to prove this is a form of self-assertion, and, like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self which it desires, and of which the Self knows that it is capable. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends; thus it makes the world of less account than the Self, and the Self sets bounds to the greatness of its goods. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the notSelf, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.” p. 157-159
Book review: A brilliant, brief introduction to epistemology. Offers sound reasoning on difficult subjects, and so would be a good introduction to anyone wanting to get into philosophy, though with one caveat: one is liable to say, on finishing it, “that’s all very nice, but what does it have to do with me?” That is, there is no consideration of practical questions, such as are the heart of books like Dr. Lin Yutang’s Importance of Living or Walter Kaufmann’s Faith of a Heretic. In other words, it does not deal with questions like, how should I live? This is abstract philosophy of a high order, yet it is very readable and comprehensible. An important book, really a classic. 4/18/01
My focus here is almost entirely on Western philosophy (“WP”), completely ignoring the vast riches of the Eastern traditions. While I have made some explorations into Confucius, Lao Tzu, Alan Watts, Buddhism, and such, I don’t want to try to address this right now. Alan Watts especially has been important to me, probably more important than I know, because I’ve been listening to his lectures on the radio for most of my adult life, as well as reading a number of his books. Regrettably, I am not in a position to recommend any one book.
Also missing here is any consideration of women. Few women have attained significant reputations (that I’m aware of) in WP, so I have nothing to offer. I welcome suggestions.
The Bleak Philosophy
The following is extracted from the first draft of a science fiction novel that I call, You Have No Right to Remain Silent. At this point it seems highly unlikely that I’ll ever finish the novel. However, this little speech and discussion is the closest I’ve come so far to writing a connected, coherent explanation of my philosophy. In reading this, you should imagine a middle-aged man addressing a room of about twenty assorted persons, sixty years from now. So, without further ado:
“Welcome, newcomers and fellow bleaks. I am Robert Montes, but everyone calls me ‘Padre,’ maybe because I was called that when I was an altar boy. It was a joke then, and maybe it is now, I don’t know. I’ll also answer to Robert, but if you say ‘Hey, Bob,’ I’m likely to look behind me.”
“The foundation of bleak philosophy is to combine the best elements of existentialism and General Semantics, both rather technical subjects. Sartre said that existentialism was the result of taking atheism seriously. The bleak philosophy is the result of taking neuroscience seriously.”
He takes a small card from his shirt pocket. “I want to read you a quote from Blaise Pascal, who lived in the seventeenth century. He said, ‘I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another, nor why the short time which is given to me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than another of the whole eternity which was before me or which shall come after me. I see nothing but infinities on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least is this very death which I cannot escape.’ Powerful words.”
“Pascal’s questions go to the heart of what it means to be human, to be alive. He believed that he was a soul, an immortal soul temporarily housed in a body, and so he wonders, why this body? Why now? This is a thinker’s question, a question which occurs only to persons who have time to think, and perhaps only to those who question or reject the answers they grew up with—in my case it was a version of Christianity which I no longer respect, if I ever really did.”
“If Pascal had thought of himself not as a soul, but as a body, he would not have had these questions. Now, to make troubling questions go away is not a good reason to change your religion, your beliefs. But if you discover that your beliefs are unreasonable, irrational, not as good as other beliefs you might have, then you do have good reasons to change.”
“Science does not accept the existence of souls, as I see it—and everything I’m saying tonight is only my opinion—science does not accept the existence of souls for two reasons. First, there is no good evidence that souls exist. Some people believe in ghosts, and that ghosts are souls, but both science and most religions reject belief in ghosts. The second reason that science rejects the existence of souls is that souls explain nothing. These two points could be argued about for a long time, and perhaps one day I’ll go into those arguments in detail in a lecture. Tonight my purpose is not so ambitious. Tonight I want to concentrate on what it means to be Bleak. Because Bleak is the name my religion has acquired, it’s a nickname that has stuck, for better or worse.”
“Modern science tells us that we are essentially just very smart animals. We are not something very different from chimpanzees or dolphins or cats. We have somewhat different brains, is the important difference. And as Daniel Dennett said earlier this century, the more you know about brains, the more it looks like nobody is home. What we call the mind is just the activity of mindless neurons housed in a complicated body. The mind is brain-body activity, and there is no other thing like a soul that tells the brain what to do.”
“Again, I can’t expect you to be persuaded by the few words I’ll say to you tonight. To understand and believe the bleak philosophy is not the work of an afternoon or even of a year. Without a firm belief in the methods and results of science, there’s hardly any point in even talking about it. But with a firm belief in the methods and results of science, you’re within spitting distance of being a bleak. You’ll believe that the earth is a speck of dust among countless others, you’ll believe that we are all the descendants of apes, you’ll believe that when the brain is dead the person is dead, and there’s an end. People call these facts ‘bleak,’ and in comparison to the fantasies of a heavenly afterlife in the lap of a loving god, they are. But there are reasons not to turn your mind away from hard realities, reasons which I probably don’t need to spell out. Given that Bertrand Russell did such a wonderful job of it in his A Free Man’s Worship a hundred years ago—we have a pamphlet of that essay available.”
“One of the hardest things for people to accept is that people are bodies, not minds. We tend to believe, we grow up believing, that it is natural to believe as Descartes did: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ We take this for granted. Why question it?”
“However, another thing we take for granted is that changing the brain changes the mind. A drink of alcohol or a dose of marijuana changes how a person feels and how she behaves. These things don’t affect the mind directly—they change the actions of neurons, and neural activity is what we experience as the mind. Another long argument for a rainy afternoon, perhaps.”
“The mind is a curious, mysterious, slippery thing, which is kind of what you should expect of the doings of a hundred billion little machines. We tend to think that we know our own minds, but serious thought reveals how little we really understand, even today.”
“For example, consider free will. I can, of course, choose to raise my left arm. But when I try to see that choice being made in my mind—try this at home some time—I see that the choice comes from a dark place into which I cannot see. In fact, all of our choices are made unconsciously. The conscious mind cannot make choices, it is a generally helpless thing, it’s the chattering monkey riding on the back of the elephant, thinking that it controls where the elephant goes, when it’s the elephant, the unconscious mind, that goes where it wants. You’ve experienced this willful unconscious in action if you’ve ever tried to deny a craving of your body, such as in breaking an addiction. You can’t stop thinking about the craved object, it seems.”
“The whole point of the bleak philosophy is to bring our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves in line with the best science of our time, because we need to cast off the shackles of error.”
Padre sighs, raises a hand to gesture but soon lets it fall. “I’ve been studying science my whole life, but no one can know it all. I think that, no, I know that every year I fall further behind. And every science I look into seriously I find to be extremely complicated. The dirty little secret…” He pauses, sighs, seems confused. “The dirty little secret,” he says with evident reluctance, “of the bleak philosophy is that to do it right is impossible. It’s impossible to become bleak in a fully rational way. But perhaps all is not lost. The whole world honors, respects, and uses science. The overwhelming consensus of the human species is that science works and is reliable, and that there is only one science, the same for us all, except for a few areas of controversial new theories. The exact opposite is true of religion. Most of the big conclusions of science are not controversial. No serious, educated person will argue that we are not made of atoms, that the universe is not vast, that we do not need oxygen to breathe.”
“My advice is to study all the science you can. Learn the main conclusions, the big theories, to the best of your ability. Learn what science says about you, about what a human being is, how our bodies work, and why we behave as we do. We must follow the overwhelming consensus of trust in science, not as an act of faith, but for the same reason that you don’t put your head into the fire. Nothing else makes sense. Are there any questions? Sarah?”
“Yes, Padre, could you say something about the meaning of life?”
“Would you like the long answer or the short answer?”
“Miss Chen asks about the meaning of life. The bleak answer is that meanings are human constructs that have no reality outside of a human context. I think the psychological truth of the matter is that we should pursue those things that give us lasting satisfaction and avoid those that give us lasting regret. When we do this we feel that life is meaningful. This is also the bleak picture of an ethical life. If you can’t write novels, carve statues, raise a family, or find true love, still you can plant trees, or seeds. Make this a better world by your efforts and you will feel satisfaction now and later and know the meaning of life in proportion to your efforts and results.”
Feeling encouraged, Kavanaugh asks, “Could you say something about bleakspeak?” Unconsciously, he has used the same words as Ms. Chen.
“Yes sir, and thank you for being here today. Bleakspeak is not an essential part of the philosophy, but some of us find it helpful to remind ourselves frequently of some key points. This has good psychological effects. Usually, bleakspeak takes the form of saying ‘this body’ in place of ‘I,’ such as ‘this body likes spaghetti.’ Often, bleaks add ‘right now,’ indicating that preferences, desires, goals, and so on change with our mood. So it is bleakspeak to say, ‘This body right now wants spaghetti.’ This part of bleakspeak is a modification of a practice advocated by some followers of General Semantics, a large subject that I can’t go into now. Of course, saying ‘this body right now’ all the time may draw attention that might be awkward in certain situations, so, some of us will say ‘ee’ instead of ‘I.’ ‘Ee wants’ instead of ‘I want.’ The ‘right now’ part is understood as part of ‘ee.’ And, of course, most bleaks don’t even use bleakspeak. It’s a personal choice and bleaks generally aren’t language snobs about this.”
“There are a few other linguistic practices advocated by many bleaks. Probably the most important is avoidance of the use of labels for human beings, such as racial terms—black, Asian, white—terms for sexual preference, words like ‘drug addict’ and ‘alcoholic,’ ‘communist,’ and indeed, even the label ‘bleak.’ This usage is controversial but the thought behind it is important. Stereotypes and pigeonholes, in other words, labels, are frequently more misleading than helpful, but avoiding labels sometimes just makes conversation about certain subjects difficult. The important thing, the general principle, is to avoid thoughtlessly pushing people’s emotional buttons and thus making them and ourselves temporarily stupid. It’s axiomatic that when you get emotional you get stupid. Of course, ‘stupid’ itself is a label, or is often used that way, as is ‘emotional.’ But in this case I’m not talking about a particular human being, so the rule doesn’t apply.”
Diary Entry, 5/29/18
Typing in quotes from Stanislas Dehaene: Consciousness and the Brain, Viking/Penguin/Random House, NY, 2014, I include this selection:
“[The brain] is constantly traversed by global patterns of internal activity that originate not from the external world but from within, from the neurons’ peculiar capacity to self-activate in a partly random fashion….our global neuronal workspace does not operate in an input-output manner, waiting to be stimulated before producing its outputs. On the contrary, even in full darkness, it ceaselessly broadcasts global patterns of neural activity, causing what William James called the ‘stream of consciousness’—an uninterrupted flow of loosely connected thoughts, primarily shaped by our current goals and only occasionally seeking information in the senses. René Descartes could not have imagined a machine of this sort, where intentions, thoughts, and plans continually pop up to shape our behavior. The outcome, I argue, is a ‘free-willing’ machine that resolves Descartes’s challenge and begins to look like a good model for consciousness.” p. 14-15
If we accept this view, if we are to take neuroscience seriously, our “free will” is an unconscious process. I considered this possibility before, when approaching the question of free will from a philosophical standpoint, and found it, essentially, as good as no free will at all. That was before I began thinking of “me” as “this body.” Now I think that way; and, as a corollary, I think of moods as “the influence of the body on the mind,” which I doubt is an adequate explanation or definition—at best, it’s a fairly crude metaphor, fully in the dualistic idiom, and useful only in speaking to those who remain dualist.
So, “unconscious free will is the only free will we have” will be highly unsatisfactory to those who identify “me” as “my mind,” but might be satisfactory and convincing to those who identify “me” as “this body.” I don’t know of anyone who identifies themself as their body, except me. This identification came to me as a result of much study, and specifically arose when I contemplated this long quote from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées:
“205. When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened and astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?”
Pascal’s questions result from identifying “me” with “my mind” and are based in Cartesian dualism, the old theory of the mind-body problem. That problem disappears when you realize that there is no “mind,” only a “body-mind” or, more simply, a body—born as a fact of biology, thinking as a fact of biology, here-now because one’s parents had sex and produced one’s body.
And the question of “free will of the body” wipes out, ignores, the distinction of conscious versus unconscious free will. The body acts, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, each act as free or as unfree as the other. Dehaene again: “The popular Danish science writer Tor Nørretranders coined the term ‘user illusion’ to refer to our feeling of being in control, which may well be fallacious; every one of our decisions, he believes, stems from unconscious sources.” (p. 91)
“Stems from” is ambiguous; I take it to mean that decisions are made unconsciously. I don’t decide; I recognize that I have decided (where “I” means “my conscious mind”).
“Free will” becomes a useless concept, because it is mentalism: “the theory that physical and psychological phenomena are ultimately explicable only in terms of a creative and interpretative mind,” according to the American English dictionary included in my MacBook. “Mind” is just an ill-defined function of the body, and, as far as I can see, a thoroughly unnecessary and misleading concept. If we dispense with “the mind” as an explanation of anything, and dispense with “I” as a useful pronoun, we arrive at what I call “the bleak philosophy,” and “bleakspeak,” the modified English proposed in my uncompleted novel of the dystopian future.
Dehaene: “It is humbling to think that the ‘stream of consciousness,’ the words and images that constantly pop up in our mind and make up the texture of our mental life, finds its ultimate origin in random spikes sculpted by the trillions of synapses laid down during our lifelong maturation and education.” p. 190
Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
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