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Philosophy Is Like Sand, It Gets Everywhere by Will Bentinck

What do we think about philosophy? Plato. Aristotle. Other men with beards. All waffling on about the fundamental nature of things; tangling themselves up in logical arguments and asking questions that have no answers. Do we consider it solely as an academic discipline? Or is philosophy more like the science of thinking? We’ll look at zombies, porn, democracy, God and more…

Well, there is more to philosophy than the academic side. I’m tempted to say something sweeping like ‘we all do philosophy all the time’, but the truth is that we don’t. But we should. I get asked a lot what philosophy actually is. The dictionary says philosophers study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence, which is technically true, I suppose.

plato

I would say instead, that philosophers ask questions and then try to find answers that sound sensible. Although, like most human beings, philosophers are essentially lazy and so they tend to just try and find sensible answers to other people’s questions. The important part of philosophy that I want to talk about is that it is mainly about taking little for granted. Question Everything.

The approach that philosophers take to a theoretical problem is matched in rigour only by the approach that a good scientist will take to a practical problem. If you’re now thinking of mathematicians and how they approach theoretical problems, I would suggest that mathematicians are just extremely specialised philosophers (1).

I am talking quite loosely about ‘philosophy’. Specifically, I mean analytic philosophy, which is the ‘scientific’, rigorous style. There are other ways of doing philosophy. However, I want to promote a more engaged and investigative attitude to life and this is the simplest way to put that across in a half-hour, non-academic talk. I will gladly discuss this shortcut with anyone who objects to it, or simply wants to know more about why I did it. Drop me a line

Philosophy as an attitude is a rigorous approach to theory, taking little for granted. We should all strive to do this a bit more. So let’s look at some philosophical thinking to see what I mean. The title of this talk says that philosophy gets everywhere. To try to illustrate this, I went to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on-line (from which most of the research for this talk has come) and had a look at the table of contents to see if anything popped out as being interesting enough to talk about, while ranging broadly enough to back up my claim that philosophy gets everywhere. Delightfully illustrating my point completely by chance, the table of contents reads like a good horror film: it starts with ‘abduction’ and ends with ‘zombies’.

aristotle

Here are some of the more interesting ones: Abduction, Afterlife, Brains in vats; Chaos, Cloning, Corruption, Cosmology; Death, Deception, Democracy, Evil, Feminism; Film, Fitness, Friendship; God, Hedonism; Impossible worlds, Intensional transitive verbs; Killing vs letting die; Liar paradox, Lottery paradox; Marriage, Miracles, Procreation, Pornography; Quantum mechanics, Time travel, Vagueness, War and Zombies.

Yes. There is a philosophy of zombies. Zombies Do you feel that the mind is more than just the brain; that there is more to being conscious than just having a brain? If you do, then your intuitions follow Descartes and his “I think, therefore I am” , which is called Dualism2. It basically holds that there is Body and there is Mind and that they are different, fundamentally. One of the many theories of mind that contradict Dualism is called Physicalism, which holds that the mind is the brain, with all its electro-chemical process, but nothing more – nothing more than the physical, hence Physicalism.

Do you feel that Physicalism might be right? If you do, then you are vulnerable to Zombie Attack. If you’re a Dualist, you’re fine. In fact, you’re quite likely to have been the one who set the zombies on the physicalists. Now we’re not, unfortunately, talking about the kind of zombie you might find in a film or in a comic book. We’re talking about philosophical zombies. The problem with Physicalism, say its critics, is that anyone could be a zombie right now. A zombie is a human being with all the required physical bits, electro-chemical processes and so on, but without conscious experience, without a mind. So you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between me and my zombie-self. But the experience of being me and being my zombie-self would be totally different.

My experience of me and your experience of me are clearly going to be different: I’m doing it from the inside. Now, if I was behaving in exactly the same way, but wasn’t conscious, your experience of me would be the same; but my experience would be completely different – in fact, by definition, I wouldn’t be experiencing it at all, for there would be no “I” to be doing the experiencing. This sound pretty ridiculous and that is the argument against Physicalism.

This kind of argument is called reductio ad absurdum; which is taking someone’s position as true and then showing that it leads to an absurd conclusion – thus showing that their position can’t have been true in the first place; because it’s absurd. The critics of Physicalism say, if Physicalism is right, then zombies exist and that’s absurd, so Physicalism is wrong. The physicalists usually respond with something along the lines of ‘zombies aren’t absurd, how do you know I’m not one’ and that’s what being an academic philosopher is like.

Porn

So enough about zombies, let’s talk about porn [2]. New concepts or words I will put in bold the first time I use them. All words in bold are in the Glossary at the end. Pornography What is porn? This question is what’s known as an ontological problem. This means having to do with being or existence. We ask ‘what is porn?’  The ‘is’ being the important word. With this topic, I am going to take a more rigorous approach than I did with the last one. That was just to get your attention by talking about zombies. Now we get to examples of thinking being rigorous, taking little for granted.

We start with what philosophers call the naive position. Naive doesn’t have the same negative connotation in philosophy as it does in everyday English. The naive position is simply the position that most people take before they’ve thought about it rigorously. However, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t the right one. This is the position most people take on most subjects, because we don’t spend much of our time thinking rigorously about anything. Although I’m sure there are a few people in here who have spent a great deal of time thinking rigorously about porn.

So, can I please have a suggestion for a definition of pornography?

  • Sexually explicit
  • Primarily designed to produce arousal
  • Bad in some way, difference from erotica? (means that there might be non-sexually explicit material that is bad and so is porn)
  • Although this would make porn analytically bad
  • Obscene
  • Harms people, particularly women

 

So let’s start with sexually explicit. That is clearly going to be different in different contexts. The definition of sexually explicit is not definite, but solely dependent on the culture and time-period under examination. There are also problems with borderline cases. Are bare breasts sexually explicit in modern Western culture? Are they as explicit as a Victorian lady’s bare ankles were? If we take pornography merely to mean sexually explicit material, then we can get a little reductio ad absurdum going.

While sexually explicit material certainly includes sexual acts, both heterosexual and homosexual, it also includes anatomy textbooks; but we wouldn’t describe them as pornography. To say that anatomy textbooks are porn is absurd, so our original assumption that porn is sexually explicit material is wrong. However, we have got further than where we started. We now know that porn includes sexually explicit material and that it’s difficult to think of porn that doesn’t. We also know that not all sexually explicit material is porn.

In philosophy we say this means that being sexually explicit is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of being porn. That means porn must be sexually explicit, but it must be something else as well. So let’s adjust our definition to ‘sexually explicit material that is primarily designed to produce arousal’. Thankfully, now the anatomy textbooks have stopped being porn. This is the most commonly used definition of porn. But we should be careful to stress that the primary design of the material is arousal, rather than sexual explicitness being used to make some artistic or political point.

Hence we get a difference between Last Tango in Paris and Gangbangs of New York. One thing we are missing out here is that the words ‘pornography’ and ‘pornographic’ do have negative connotations. Now that would seem like a fairly simple thing to analyse. Society sees porn as a bad thing, or something like that. But this is rigorous thinking, not slapdash, gut-feeling, that’s just how I feel, received opinion thinking. So let’s be rigorous. Is it that pornography is not all of the sexually explicit material, but in fact some subset of that? Say, just the bad bits? Or is it that all sexually explicit material is bad? Or is it that no sexually explicit material is bad and all the people who say there is anything wrong with pornographic material are just plain wrong? What about non-sexually explicit material that is bad in the same way? For example, by subordinating women.

Is that pornographic? So is porn a bad subset of sexually explicit material, or a sexually explicit subset of bad material? This sort of confusion, while it may sound fairly distant and theoretical, is actually very important to the debate. For example, different groups of feminists argue different things about porn. Some say that porn is degrading to women; others say that some porn can be, in fact, a good thing for women. This is quite likely because they are using different understandings of pornography. The first group are likely to be defining porn as sexually explicit material that is bad in some way (towards women) and so they clearly think that it’s degrading to women.

The second group are likely defining porn simply as ‘sexually explicit material’. So, they can take into account all of the sexually explicit material that isn’t degrading to women (if there is any). The same question from both groups is now expressed in very different terms:

  • The first group are asking ‘Is all sexually explicit material in fact pornographic?’
  • The second group are asking ‘Is all pornography in fact harmful to women?’

These questions are asking the same thing, only veiled under different definitions of the word ‘pornography’. These two groups are disagreeing because they are assuming different definitions of ‘pornography’. This means that the discussion is dramatically obscured by lessthan- rigorous thinking. So, enough about porn. Hopefully you are beginning to see the merits of rigorous thinking. Or you’ve zoned out. Either way, it’s time to change the subject.

Self referencing paradox

Paradoxes of self-reference ‘This sentence is false. Is it false? Because if it is, then it’s true; but if it isn’t, then it’s true, which makes it false. Blimey. This is the most famous paradox of self-reference, the Liar Paradox. However tempted I am, I am not going to go through an analysis of self-reference. I appreciate that, while I find it salivatingly fascinating, others would rather eat their own shoes. What is interesting about paradoxes of self-reference, however, is how philosophers have reacted to them over the ages.

These sorts of problems throw up questions about the validity of language, maths, logic, communication and so on. It’s not like ‘This sentence is false.’ uses any complicated language or grammatical constructions, either. It’s just subjectpredicate – it just happens that the subject is the sentence itself. We have to go a bit Matrix on this one. We must ask ourselves not what is wrong with the sentence, but what is wrong with our understanding of the rules used to make it.

We clearly don’t understand what ‘false’ means if we have so much trouble with this sentence. But of course we know what false means. It means ‘not correct’ or ‘not in line with reality’ or some other naive definition. But we don’t know what false means. Because if we did, we’d have no trouble with explaining what is wrong with the liar paradox beyond self-reference.

Most importantly, the liar paradox is a substantial barrier to the construction of a formal theory of truth. When I say formal I mean similar to the kind of thing mathematicians look for in their theories: absolute internal consistency. The liar paradox denies them that. This essentially means that any formal theory containing the concept of truth is inherently inconsistent. Which is bad. So we’ve been quite descriptive so far. We’ve described what zombies might be like, what porn is or isn’t and how self-reference can be the death of truth.

In philosophy, the opposite of descriptive is normative. Descriptive means ‘is’, normative means ‘ought’. Normative analyses talk about how it should be. So normative ethics looks at how we ought to behave, normative studies of democracy look at when and why democracy is morally desirable, as well as what sort of principles should guide democratic institutions. Whereas descriptive studies of democracy simply describe democracy as it is

democracy

Democracy; While I am preaching rigorous thinking and not taking much for granted, I’m not going to go through defining democracy. We went through that process with porn, so let’s look at something else here. I am also not interested in describing democracy. While present cutting-edge political science is compelling and global democracy and political engagement are fascinating and important subjects, I think the more interesting aspect to include in this short talk is a normative discussion of democracy. How can we justify a democratic approach?

How do we address the problems of democratic citizenship? What kinds of legislative institution are best for a democratic society? What authority does a democratic system have over its members? So, justifying democracy:

  • Amartya Sen (an Indian economist) said in 1999 that ‘no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press’. As a justification for democracy, this argument is based on their being incentives for politicians to respond to the needs of the poor.
  • Democracy is also thought to be the best decision-making process for a large group of people. Democratic decision-making tends to be better informed about the needs of citizens and how to deal with them.
  • There are also moral arguments in favour of democracy. The democratic process tends to make people stand up for themselves more and encourages autonomy. This in turn encourages people to think more carefully about things, because it matters more that they do.

 

Just think, in a monarchy, you don’t get to make any decisions, or contribute to the making of any decisions, so what’s the point in thinking carefully about any social or political issue? Plato disagrees. And, considering that probably the most famous quote in philosophy is that the whole of Western philosophy is merely footnotes to Plato, we should listen when he disagrees. He says that the very nature of electing representatives intrinsically favours those who are good at getting elected.

It favours those who are experts in mass appeal, when the masses are made up predominantly of people who do not have the talents to think well about difficult political issues. So we end up with poorly worked-out ideas. Does this sound familiar to you? He was a clever bloke, that Plato. The modern, more inclusive view of humanity is that we are not predominantly made up of people unfit for office.

So Plato’s argument is weakened. But it is interesting to note that recent Western politics has had a glimmer of Platonic personality contest about it. Hobbes, in 1651, also argues against democracy. He argues that, because everyone has equal contribution to decision-making, no one can make a significant difference to it. So, people are not concerned with politics because they don’t feel they can make a difference and politicians are not concerned with the greater good because they simply don’t have the incentives.

The continuation of this theory into present-day political theory is fascinating, but would take up another half an hour, if not more. So, those are the arguments based on the consequences of democracy. There are also arguments based on the intrinsic properties of the democratic process. Some of you may be thinking, this has now just become a talk about politics. The last guy talked about politics. This guy said he was going to talk about sand or something. But this is philosophical thinking in action. Justifying, rather than simply accepting as true. Looking for justification in the outcomes as well as inherent in the actual process. Being clever enough to look at what Plato said and try to pass it off as your own work.

God

And now, for my last trick, I will prove that God does not exist. Well actually, I will give what I believe to be a persuasive argument that shows that the classical monotheistic conception of God as omnipresent, omniscient and benevolent is as ridiculous as conceiving of Him as all-knowing, all-doing and supremely evil; which could be considered a proof of the non-existence of God, but not as the non-existence of any god. Your home may be repossessed if you do not keep up repayments on your mortgage.

If we say for the moment that God is all-knowing, all-doing and supremely good (did you notice how I could be setting up a reductio ad absurdum here?), then we have the famous problem of evil. This is formulated in many ways, most commonly the logical problem of evil says that there being so much evil in the world is logically incompatible with God being supremely good; and the evidential problem of evil says the slightly weaker claim that all the evil in the world gives good evidence against God being supremely good.

In fact, the sheer quantity of evil in the world leads some to claim that the God of classical monotheism is straightforwardly falsified by evidence. So how can we defend what we might call the good-god hypothesis? There is such a thing as a theodicy, which you theology students will know is a justification of the goodness of God, or an attempt to explain why God permits evil. The fact that the defence’s arguments have a name shows how big this problem is for them. I will run through three of them, but there are loads:

  • The free-will solution: God could have made us always be virtuous, every act a good one. But the fact that we have the choice to be evil, but choose to do good things instead makes our actions all the more virtuous and enlightened.
  • The character-building solution: Bad things happening to us make us better people. God allowing us to suffer is the only way he can ensure that we grow as people to become the noble souls He wants us to be.
  • The dependence solution: There are such things, such great and truly virtuous things that could not exist without evil occurring in the world. Charity could not exist without suffering or neediness. We could not offer ourselves in selfless acts if there were not people who required that generosity. ‘Charity’ is called a second-order Good and ‘suffering’ a first-order Evil. Second-order trumps first-order, so the existence of suffering is justified by the possibility of people being charitable.

 

Unless you’re a hardcore believer in the good-god hypothesis, you will probably feel that these theodicies fail to satisfactorily explain what they set out to explain; namely, why God permits evil. Some think that, while not individually, the collection of theodicies together makes for a good stand against the problem of evil. Others disagree, but still want to uphold God’s benevolence, so they appeal to mystery. ‘God works in mysterious ways’. Who am I to comprehend the almighty? He’s infinitely intelligent.

So if we can’t find a reason why he allows so much evil, that isn’t good reason to think.  He doesn’t exist. So, now comes the clever bit. The evil-god hypothesis. Consider that there is only one god, one omniscient and omnipresent god, the creator of all things, including humanity and all the baggage that comes with. Now this god we are imagining is not supremely good and forgiving and delightful, but is supremely evil and depraved and cruel. There is no bound to his infinite wickedness.

Gordon

Let’s call him Gordon. But the supremely evil Gordon cannot exist. How could he? There is so much good and love in the world. The joy of holding your child for the first time, your first kiss, great charity and most of all love, not just romantic but of your family and friends too. How could a supremely evil god, especially one called Gordon, allow all this goodness to exist? So now we have the evidential problem of good. Which, considering that there’s probably only one person in this room seriously considering the possibility of a supremely evil god right now, we can see that we all take the evidential problem of good to be decisive.

The problem of good is persuasive enough to show us that God cannot be evil. Poor Gordon. How can we defend the evil-god hypothesis? Let’s stand up for Gordon and his limitless cruelty. How about some reverse theodices?

  • The free-will solution: Gordon could have made us always be evil, every act a bad one. But the fact that we have the choice to be good, but choose to do bad things instead makes our actions all the more depraved and despicable. Which Gordon likes!
  • The character-destroying solution: Good things happening to other people make us jealous and envious. God allowing others to prosper is the only way he can ensure that we grow as people to become the covetous souls he wants us to be. This doesn’t just apply to prosperity, this might be good fortune or even things like natural beauty – how that beautiful scenery only reinforces how ugly and maligned my life is. Oh woe is me! Gordon rubs his hands!
  • The dependence solution: There are such things, such foul and truly contemptuous things that could not exist without good occurring in the world. Rape could not exist without beauty or sexual attraction. ‘Rape’ is called a second-order Evil and ‘sexual attraction’ a first-order Good. Second-order trumps first-order. Gordon grins with glee! If these reverse theodices seems a little silly, maybe these arguments aren’t satisfactory.

 

But never mind, we can still play the mystery card! Gordon is infinitely devious and diabolical, so if we can’t understand his grand master plan, conceived in a hollowed-out volcano, most likely, then that is no reason to believe he doesn’t exist. So we have symmetrical arguments for and against the likelihood of our omnipotent, omniscient god being either good or evil.

So both are as likely or unlikely as the other. But they can’t both be true, so they are both unlikely. This argument is against a particular part of a particular conception of God; but by undermining one of its fundamental parts, it undermines the whole. This is not an argument against the existence of a god. It is an argument against the existence of the classical monotheistic conception of God with a capital G.

Any questions, please get in touch —

 

Glossary

  • Autonomy – freedom from external control or influence; independence. Descriptive – saying how something is. (Compare with Normative.)
  • Dualism – theory that there are only two fundamental elements to a particular theory. The Dualism discussed above is specifically ‘Cartesian Dualism’ – that there is Mind and there is Body/Matter and they are fundamentally separate (compare Physicalism).
  • Formal theory – a theory that is expressed in formal language.
  • Formal language – an invented language that operates under absolute fixed rules of grammar and vocabulary. There are no interpretative rules in a formal language. Naive position – the position taken by not being clever and complicated about it. You might do this by accident (as we do with most things) or on purpose, as a philosophical standpoint. Necessary condition – a necessary condition for X is something that MUST be true for X to be true. Normative – saying how something ought to be. (Compare with Descriptive.)
  • Ontological – to do with ‘being’ or ‘existence’. Paradox – when a group of apparently true statements lead to an apparently contradictory outcome. Solving the paradox requires either showing that one or more of the statements aren’t actually true, or showing that the outcome isn’t actually contradictory.
  • Physicalism – the mind is the brain and nothing more. They are not separate (compare Dualism). Problem of evil – that there is evil in the world is a difficulty for the position that God is allgood.
  • Reductio ad absurdum – taking your opponent’s position as true, using it to come to an absurd conclusion and so showing that your opponent’s position must be false.
  • Reverse theodicy – a theodicy, but a justification of the evilness of God, or an attempt to explain why God permits goodness. (See Theodicy.)
  •  Subject-predicate – a common sentence structure. The subject is what the sentence is about; the predicate is a property of the subject. So in ‘The apple is green.’, ‘apple’ is the subject and ‘green’ is the predicate. The ‘is’ is called ‘the is of identity’, because it identifies ‘apple’ with ‘green’. Sufficient condition – if a sufficient condition for X is true, then X is true – nothing else needs to be true.
  • Theodicy – a justification of the goodness of God, or an attempt to explain why God permits evil.

 

Bibliography

(1) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy The contents of the SEP are updated regularly. The entries below were all accessed in August 2010. I haven’t listed the address to directly access the archived page (so that you would see the page I saw), because I think it worthwhile to stay up to date. See if you can find any differences between what I’ve said above and what’s on the SEP. Entries:

(2) Dr Stephen Law (2009): ‘The evil-god challenge’, Religious Studies, Cambridge University Press

Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

 

 

Will Bentinck gave his talk on 24th August 2010, at The Palatine pub in Stoke Newington, London

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