Archive for the ‘ Philosophy ’ Category

The Struggle for the (Possible) Soul of David Eagleman

Robert Jensen in Killing the Buddha:

A neuroscientist imagines life beyond the brain.

There’s a struggle inside the brain of David Eagleman for the soul of David Eagleman.

That is, there might be such a struggle if Eagleman’s brain believed that Eagleman had a soul, which he is not sure about. In fact, Eagleman’s brain is not completely sure that there is an Eagleman-beyond-Eagleman’s-brain at all—with or without a soul, whatever that term might mean.

Welcome to the world of “possibilian” neuroscientist-writer David Eagleman, to life in the space between what-is and what-if, between the facts we think we know and the fictions that illuminate what we don’t know.

Eagleman-the-scientist would love to rev up his high-tech neuroimaging machines to answer the enduring questions about the brain and the mind, the body and the soul. But Eagleman-the-writer knows that those machines aren’t going to answer those questions.

Eagleman rejects not only conventional religion but also the labels of agnostic and atheist. In their place, he has coined the term possibilian: a word to describe those who “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.”

Taking seriously the old saying “the absence of proof isn’t the proof of absence,” Eagleman recognizes that people who don’t believe in God (at least not in God defined as a supernatural force or entity) can never say with certainty what doesn’t exist. So, the difference between agnostic and atheist is typically a matter of attitude, and such is the case with adding possibilian to the mix. Eagleman is not trying to support or rule out any particular claim but simply suggesting that it’s healthy to imagine possibilities.

While he reports on what-is in scientific journals, Eagleman’s brain and mind run free pondering the what-ifs. In his 2009 book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, Eagleman imagines life beyond death, in a playful series of short philosophical musings: What if there were an afterlife in which we relive all our experiences but shuffled into a new order? What if in an afterlife we confront all the possible versions of ourselves that could have been? What if we experience death in stages: when the body stops functioning, when we’re buried, and the moment when your name is spoken by another for the last time? Sum offers 40 such what-ifs. The stories aren’t meant as serious proposals about what an afterlife may be. They are vehicles for Eagleman’s ruminations on the vexing philosophical questions of human life.

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Historian claims Plato’s manuscripts are mathematically ordered according to 12-note scale

Julian Baggini in The Guardian:

It may sound like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, but an academic at the University of Manchester claims to have cracked a mathematical and musical code in the works of Plato.

Jay Kennedy, a historian and philosopher of science, described his findings as “like opening a tomb and discovering new works by Plato.”

Plato is revealed to be a Pythagorean who understood the basic structure of the universe to be mathematical, anticipating the scientific revolution of Galileo and Newton by 2,000 years.

Kennedy’s breakthrough, published in the journal Apeiron this week, is based on stichometry: the measure of ancient texts by standard line lengths. Kennedy used a computer to restore the most accurate contemporary versions of Plato’s manuscripts to their original form, which would consist of lines of 35 characters, with no spaces or punctuation. What he found was that within a margin of error of just one or two percent, many of Plato’s dialogues had line lengths based on round multiples of twelve hundred.

The Apology has 1,200 lines; the Protagoras, Cratylus, Philebus and Symposium each have 2,400 lines; the Gorgias 3,600; the Republic 12,200; and the Laws 14,400.

Kennedy argues that this is no accident. “We know that scribes were paid by the number of lines, library catalogues had the total number of lines, so everyone was counting lines,” he said. He believes that Plato was organising his texts according to a 12-note musical scale, attributed to Pythagoras, which he certainly knew about.

“My claim,” says Kennedy, “is that Plato used that technology of line counting to keep track of where he was in his text and to embed symbolic passages at regular intervals.” Knowing how he did so “unlocks the gate to the labyrinth of symbolic messages in Plato”.

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Veiled Threats?

Martha Nussbaum in The New York Times:

In Spain earlier this month, the Catalonian assembly narrowly rejected a proposed ban on the Muslim burqa in all public places — reversing a vote the week before in the country’s upper house of parliament supporting a ban. Similar proposals may soon become national law in France and Belgium.  Even the headscarf often causes trouble.  In France, girls may not wear it in school.  In Germany (as in parts of Belgium and the Netherlands) some regions forbid public school teachers to wear it on the job, although nuns and priests are permitted to teach in full habit.  What does political philosophy have to say about these developments?   As it turns out, a long philosophical and legal tradition has reflected about similar matters.

Let’s start with an assumption that is widely shared: that all human beings are equal bearers of human dignity.  It is widely agreed that government must treat that dignity with equal respect.   But what is it to treat people with equal respect in areas touching on religious belief and observance?

We now add a further premise: that the faculty with which people search for life’s ultimate meaning — frequently called “conscience” ─  is a very important part of people, closely related to their dignity.   And we add one further premise, which we might call the vulnerability premise: this faculty can be seriously damaged by bad worldly conditions.  It can be stopped from becoming active, and it can even be violated or damaged within.  (The first sort of damage, which the 17th-century American philosopher Roger Williams compared to imprisonment, happens when people are prevented from outward observances required by their beliefs.  The second sort, which Williams called “soul rape,” occurs when people are forced to affirm convictions that they may not hold, or to give assent to orthodoxies they don’t support.)

The vulnerability premise shows us that giving equal respect to conscience requires tailoring worldly conditions so as to protect both freedom of belief and freedom of expression and practice.  Thus the framers of the United States Constitution concluded that protecting equal rights of conscience requires “free exercise” for all on a basis of equality.  What does that really mean, and what limits might reasonably be placed upon religious activities in a pluralistic society?  The philosophical architects of our legal tradition could easily see that when peace and safety are at stake, or the equal rights of others, some reasonable limits might be imposed on what people do in the name of religion.  But they grasped after a deeper and more principled rationale for these limits and protections.

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The World Turned Upside Down

From Neuroskeptic:

This map is not “upside down”. It looks that way to us; the sense that north is up is a deeply ingrained one. It’s grim up north, Dixie is away down south. Yet this is pure convention. The earth is a sphere in space. It has a north and a south, but no up and down.

There’s a famous experiment involving four guys and a door. An unsuspecting test subject is lured into a conversation with a stranger, actually a psychologist. After a few moments, two people appear carrying a large door, and they walk right between the subject and the experimenter.

Behind the door, the experimenter swaps places with one of the door carriers, who may be quite different in voice and appearance. Most subjects don’t notice the swap. Perception is lazy: whenever it can get away with it, it merely tells us that things are as we expect, rather than actually showing us stuff. We often do not really perceive things at all. Did the subject really see the first guy? The second? Either?

The inverted map makes us actually see the Earth’s geography, rather than just showing us the expected “countries” and “continents”. I was struck by how parochial Europe is – the whole place is little more than a frayed end of the vast Eurasian landmass, no more impressive than the one at the other end, Russia’s Chukotski. Africa dominates the scene: it can no longer be written off as that poor place at the bottom.

One of the most common observations in psychotherapy of people with depression or anxiety is that they hold themselves to impossibly high standards, although they have a perfectly sensible evaluation of everyone else. Their own failures are catastrophic; other people’s are minor setbacks. Other people’s successes are well-deserved triumphs; their own are never good enough, flukes, they don’t count.

The first step in challenging these unhelpful patterns of thought is to simply point out the double-standard: why are you such a perfectionist about yourself, when you’re not when it comes to other people? The idea being to help people to think about themselves in more like healthy way they already think about others. Turn the map of yourself upside down – what do you actually see?

Reluctance to Let Go

Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:

There’s a movement afoot to frame science/religion discussions in such a way that those of who believe that the two are incompatible are labeled as extremists who can be safely excluded from grownup discussions about the issue. It’s somewhat insulting — to be told that people like you are incapable of conducting thoughtful, productive conversations with others — and certainly blatantly false as an empirical matter — I’ve both participated in and witnessed numerous such conversations that were extremely substantive and well-received. It’s also a bit worrisome, since whether a certain view is “true” or “false” seems to take a back seat to whether it is “moderate” or “extreme.” But people are welcome to engage or not with whatever views they choose.

What troubles me is how much our cultural conversation is being impoverished by a reluctance to face up to reality. In many ways the situation is parallel to the discussion about global climate change. In the real world, our climate is being affected in dramatic ways by things that human beings are doing. We really need to be talking about serious approaches to this problem; there are many factors to be taken into consideration, and the right course of action is far from obvious. Instead, it’s impossible to broach the subject in a public forum without being forced to deal with people who simply refuse to accept the data, and cling desperately to the idea that the Earth’s atmosphere isn’t getting any warmer, or it’s just sunspots, or warmth is a good thing, or whatever. Of course, the real questions are being addressed by some people; but in the public domain the discussion is blatantly distorted by the necessity of dealing with the deniers. As a result, the interested but non-expert public receives a wildly inaccurate impression of what the real issues are.

Over the last four hundred or so years, human beings have achieved something truly amazing: we understand the basic rules governing the operation of the world around us. Everything we see in our everyday lives is simply a combination of three particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — interacting through three forces — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force. That is it; there are no other forms of matter needed to describe what we see, and no other forces that affect how they interact in any noticeable way. And we know what those interactions are, and how they work. Of course there are plenty of things we don’t know — there are additional elementary particles, dark matter and dark energy, mysteries of quantum gravity, and so on. But none of those is relevant to our everyday lives (unless you happen to be a professional physicist). As far as our immediate world is concerned, we know what the rules are. A staggeringly impressive accomplishment, that somehow remains uncommunicated to the overwhelming majority of educated human beings.

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Does Surveillance Make Us Morally Better?

Emrys Westacott in Philosophy Now:

Imagine that right after briefing Adam about which fruit was allowed and which forbidden, God had installed a closed-circuit television camera in the garden of Eden, trained on the tree of knowledge. Think how this might have changed things for the better. The serpent sidles up to Eve and urges her to try the forbidden fruit. Eve reaches her hand out – in paradise the fruit is always conveniently within reach – but at the last second she notices the CCTV and thinks better of it. Result: no sin, no Fall, no expulsion from paradise. We don’t have to toil among thorns and thistles for the rest of our lives, earning our bread by the sweat of our brows; childbirth is painless; and we feel no need to wear clothes.

So why didn’t God do that and save everyone a lot of grief? True, surveillance technology was in its infancy back then, but He could have managed it, and it wouldn’t have undermined Eve’s free will. She still has a choice to make; but once she sees the camera she’s more likely to make the right choice. The most likely explanation would be that God doesn’t just want Adam and Eve to make the right choices; he wants them to make the right choices for the right reasons. Not eating the forbidden fruit because you’re afraid you’ll be caught doesn’t earn you moral credit. After all, you’re only acting out of self-interest. If paradise suffered a power cut and the surveillance was temporarily down, you’d be in there straight away with the other looters.

So what would be the right reason for not eating the fruit? Well, God is really no different than any other parent. All he wants is absolute, unquestioning obedience (which, by an amazing coincidence, also happens to be exactly what every child wants from their parents.) But God wants this obedience to be voluntary. And, very importantly, He wants it to flow from the right motive. He wants right actions to be driven not by fear, but by love for Him and reverence for what is right. (Okay, He did say to Adam, “If you eat from the tree of knowledge you will die” – which can sound a little like a threat – but grant me some literary license here.)

Moral philosophers will find themselves on familiar ground here. On this interpretation, God is a follower of the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. (This would, of course, come as no surprise to Kant.) According to Kant, our actions are right when they conform to the moral rules dictated to us by our reason, and they have moral worth insofar as they are motivated by respect for that moral law. In other words, my actions have moral worth if I do what is right because I want to do the right thing. If I don’t steal someone’s iPod (just another kind of Apple, really) because I think it would be wrong to do so, then I get a moral pat on the back and am entitled to polish my halo. If I don’t steal the iPod because I’m afraid of getting caught, then I may be doing the right thing, and I may be applauded for being prudent, but I shouldn’t be given any moral credit.

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Do Economists Really Know What They’re Talking About?

The disconnect between economic theory and reality seems ominous.

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. . . . Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. —English economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)

Almost everyone wants the world’s governments to do more to revive ailing economies. No one wants a “double dip” recession. The Group of 20 Summit in Toronto was determined to avoid one. In major advanced countries—the 31 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—unemployment stands at 46.5 million people, up about 50 percent since 2007. It’s not just that people lack work. Lengthy unemployment may erode skills, leading to downward mobility or permanent joblessness. But what more can governments do? It’s unclear. We may be reaching the limits of economics. As Keynes noted, political leaders are hostage to the ideas of economists—living and dead—and economists increasingly disagree about what to do. Granted, the initial response to the crisis (sharp cuts in interest rates, bank bailouts, stimulus spending) probably averted a depression. But the crisis has also battered the logic of all major theories: Keynesianism, monetarism and “rational expectations.” Economics has become the shaky science; its intellectual chaos provides context for today’s policy disputes at home and abroad.

Consider the matter of budgets. Would bigger deficits stimulate the economy and create jobs, as standard Keynesianism suggests? Or do exploding government debts threaten another financial crisis?

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