Category Archives: Philosophy

Does Everyone Deserve Freedom?

Aristotle once wrote that there are such things as “natural slaves” (he said that slavery can only be justified with tell me what to donatural slaves, and not those who desire to make their own choices and pursue their own goals), and I have often said that in reality there are few people who want nothing more than to be told what to do (discounting those who prefer being told what to do simply because they have had to grow accustomed to it). And yet I cannot help but think that it depends on how this concept is interpreted.

In theory we could one day realize that complete economic freedom which we seem to be striving towards i.e. freedom from the necessity of human economic productivity, whereby machines would do all of our work. But how would human society respond? Some people would excel in such a world of freedom. They would become happier, more learned, more creative, more physically active, more charitable, and more socially productive. However, it seems quite likely that most would completely flounder.

How many people are socially productive in the spare time? How many people want to be if given the choice? Would Man as a Thinking Creaturea world of academics, sportspeople, artists, writers etc realistically come to pass? Or would we have a world of Hedonists, bent more towards personal short term pleasure than anything else? Combined with the forces of conservativism, which would remind people about how big a cause of depression economic unemployment has been, jobs may continue to exist solely for creative reasons, and the peer pressure for people to get an economic as opposed to social job may in fact stay.

Just as children need rules, do some adults need to be controlled (I’m not talking about criminals here, or the extent to which freedom for one person can restrict the freedom of another so please don’t open this topic in the reply)?aristotle_on_slavery Perhaps you think that we all need to be controlled, and that our efforts to ask for guidance from God(s) are just an example of this. In other words, in a world of economic freedom:

  1. Would all people (as a collective) be happier with freedom?
  2. Would they be happier if all people still had to work, but a reduced number of hours?
  3. Or would they be happier if people could obtain freedom in order to pursue socially productive, but not personally productive, goals?

P.S. To see some other recent blog posts about freedom please see the below:

Does meaning go further than emotion?

“We think, therefore we exist.” It’s a clever phrase, and difficult to refute. But thought can be little more than a computation. cartoon-meaning-of-lifeA more pertinent phrase would be “we feel, therefore we live.” But today, as with Descartes’ quote, the fact that feeling is a crucial aspect of life is fairly obvious. So let’s take it to the extreme.

In his book ‘The Passions’, Robert Solomon proposed that emotions literally are the ‘meaning of life’. What he meant by this was that emotions constitute frameworks of value and significance. Without emotions there would be no value, and therefore no meaning.

Is this true? Does meaning go any further than emotional implication? meaning-emotion-meaningIn day to day life everything can be connected to emotion. The thing we remember most from any given day is always that thing which causes us to emote most, whether it be because it gave pleasure, pain or any other emotion. And even those mundane trivialities of life that we have to do, but may not result in any emotional engagement e.g. employment to do a task for another, are still purposefully carried out in order to avoid negative emotional implications were we not to do the tasks.

However, if all of reality were nothing more than a stream of emotions and preceptors able to feel them, many people think that life would be more meaningless. In fact some people even believe both, seemingly opposing views.

On the meaning of life, Aristotle said:

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

It seems almost utilitarian of Aristotle to say such a thing, and the statement finds a great deal of acceptance today. And yet Aristotle also argued that were life nothing more than emotion, then life would mean less.

How can we hold such opposing views? Is there any meaning beyond emotion? How does one justify it? Is it simply that one source of emotional gratification today is justification relevant to tangible realities, and so we believe that we would always need such justification, simply because we don’t know of a world without it? Indeed the human mind is unable to imagine that which carries no weight in reality. We cannot imagine a colourless world, and as such are likely to remark that a world without colour would be worth less somehow. But isn’t that only because we know of colours? Even a person born blind has been told of colour, and wonders what they are missing. But if we had known nothing else, and if only two things existed: emotion, and the ability to feel; would we want for more? Does meaning go further than emotion?

Matthew Ratcliffe thinks the answer lies in the phenomenology of mood, which he describes as a generalised, background of feeling.

“Not all moods are generalized emotions. Some may indeed take this form but those that are responsible for the ‘meaning of life’ are not intentional states at all. Instead, they are part of the background structure of intentionality and are presupposed by the possibility of intentionally directed emotions.”

Ratcliffe gave the example of fear, which he says it would not be possible to experience without tangible cause. In other words Ratcliffe highlights the fact that the meaning of emotion hinges on our ability to think. After all, emotions are nothing more than chemicals unless they are processed and interpreted. And of course once we have the ability to think, we have the ability to doubt, to speculate, to make justifications and comparisons, and to build upon thoughts with still other thoughts. Emotions ruled by thought

So, what does all of this mean? Is it possible to feel, and not think? Is there meaning without feeling? If we could feel and think, but not remember, would we want reality? Does meaning go any further than emotion?

Does Civilisation Lead to Fragmentation, or Collapse?

If civilisation is that which broadens society, within the framework of a social contract between people, (if you wish to dispute this definition then please see the previous posts: what is civilisation & what is it to be civilised) then what happens when society grows too big/civilised?

You could debate the extent to which civilisation is growing or shrinking (the sick society post seems to suggest that we may in fact be at the beginning of our decline). But if/when it is expanding, then this broadening of society seems doomed to lead towards societal fragmentation.

More InfoAs civilisation has grown, we have built more complex identities & more complicated lives; we have explored far and wide; we have built bigger social networks than ever before; we have settled in more places; we have constructed more buildings, groups and works of art; and we have more commitments on what precious resources we have. How can we keep up with all of these developments?

In short, due you think civilisations come to ends in ‘Big Crunches’, when the gravitational forces that held civilisations together (e.g. ideologies, nationalism, religion etc) begin to crush the spirit of civilisation? Or do you think, like scientists currently think about the universe, that modern societies could continue to expand, until one day that one society has become ten, or twenty or more?

This question is in fact much more difficult than it seems. And you can see this by thinking about fallen civilisations from eras past. The ancient Sumerian civilisation (the civilisation which invented writing, and whose name means ‘land of the civilised kings’) collapsed under the strain of repeated invasions. The Mayan civilisation came to an end palenque-overview_mg_1198as a result of the Spanish invasion in the 16th century, due to war, disease, and a foreign civilisation determined to assert its own supremacy. The Khmer civilisation in modern Cambodia came to an end due largely to environmental changes. Ancient Rome fell as a result of repeated invasions, but over an incredibly long period of internal economic decay. All of these falls are caused by very pragmatic things: food resources, safety, environment and economics.

Are you still following? Good! Because almost all of the above ‘falls’ were in fact the falls of political and economic entities; and not civilisations! That one requires the other could be true, and should be the topic for another day. But that point aside, if civilisations are primarily about societies, then how much do those above examples really help? Was Roman civilisation expanding when it fell? Did it end up splitting into various smaller civilisations, all of which bore the mark of its ideas, art, music, writings and religion? Or was it in fact being pulled towards a ‘big crunch’, by entrenched ideas of aristocracy, hierarchy, militarism and hedonism? Did Mayan civilisation get destroyed by the Spanish? Or did its spread get temporarily halted, only to re-emerge and fragment into various different territories, such that signs of it can be seen today in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize?

Author and historian William R. Everdell once said that the rise and fall of civilizations is

“more a pattern in the mind than a pattern in the world.”

If this is true, and civilisations are carried not by the size of your guns, but rather the potential within the minds of your society, then what is the future for modern civilisations today? Are we headed towards a big crunch? Or are we headed towards accelerated expansion and fragmentation?

What is the nature of reality?

Quarks-and-Leptons-ChartReference to basic building blocks in nature date back to the 5th, and possibly 6th centuries BC, from Ancient Greece and India. Such thoughts propelled a historic evolution of science and philosophy, to the point where today we are able to divide the atom into protons, neutrons and electrons, and then divide them into quarks, leptons, gauge bosons, photons, gluons and the higgs boson. We can delve even further into these elements with quantum field theory, which treats all particles as excited states of an underlying physical field. But it’s around about at this point when our understanding breaks down.

Our scientific understanding seems constantly to change, as we doggedly root down further and deeper into what we can analyse. Yet in everything we have found, or even thought of, we have always discovered two things: mathematics, and potential.

Galileo: “The book of nature is written in mathematical characters.”

Cartesian doubts come mostly on two levels: horizontal scepticism, whereby we doubt people’s expectations that just because something has happened a hundred or a thousand times, it will necessarily happen again; and vertical scepticism, whereby we doubt inferences and implications. Both doubts are rational, and we could perhaps imagine a reality in which these forms of horizontal and vertical logic don’t serve us very well. Yet in this reality, they do. Indeed Einstein found the numbers to suggest that the universe is expanding in 1916, and yet despite the fact that he thought it to be illogical and dismissed the maths, Edwin Hubble later found clear evidence of the universe’s expansion. Indeed if you look at the history of discovery in science, particularly related to those particles discussed above, you’ll often find that people knew about the particles before they found evidence of their existence. The reason why we can do this is that all of reality seems to obey mathematical rules. 1 + 1 always equals 2, no matter where or when you are. And this also explains why potential seems to lie at the heart of reality, for as I argued in ‘Does Nothing Come from Nothing?’ the existence of zero in addition to, and separate from, nothing, supposes that positives and negatives can spring into existence where before we would have been able to perceive nothing.

Plato argued that numbers are not simply human constructs, but are actually real, whether or not we can actually see them. Max Tegmark went so far as to theorize that the universe itself is made of maths. UniverseMath_m_0131Yet what are numbers? Why do we ‘sentient beings’ come pre-equipped with ‘number sense’, such that even if we don’t know the words for numbers we can instinctively understand what the difference is between encountering two dogs, three dogs and more? Why do we find beauty in mathematics? Take sounds for instance; those we perceive as a threat or warning follow different mathematical rules (if you draw patterns based on the notes) to those in which we find beauty.

Defined linguistically numbers are values used to express quantities, or more fundamentally they are information. But it seems hard to think of information being at the heart of all things, since insofar as everything has an information content or position, even if that position is set at zero, information can easily be thought of as a dimension (in fact even your shadow is an example of your informational content). And current scientific understanding says that dimensions sprang into existence with the Big Bang, which suggests that it is possible for dimensions not to exist (honestly, I’m not sure I can buy that).

What do you think numbers are? Are they the most fundamental aspect of reality? Are they the only reality? Could there be something other than maths? Are numbers simply a construct within our Universe?

What do you think?

21st Century Thought in IR

WW2 VictoryThe effects of World War Two in International Relations are numerous, with only the most obvious below.

  1. The loss of life led to obvious demographic, socio-psychological and economic impacts
  2. Decolonisation after the war led to a re-mapping of the geo-political environment
  3. The international power centre shifted from Europe to the US and USSR
  4. New international bodies emerged e.g. the Bretton Woods Institutions

These effects are well known. Indeed it was the biggest war that humanity has ever experienced, directly involving  over 100 million people, and from more than 30 different countries. So such effects are even expected.

However, one of the most enduring impacts of WW2 has also been one of the least talked about: the entrenchment of political thought. Appeasement is now seen as wrong. There is seen to be no choice other than capitalism or socialism, democracy or dictatorship and liberalism or conservatism; when in reality the number of options that we have is far far larger. And all of these entrenchments seem to based upon two dangerous assumptions: the assumption of knowledge, and the assumption of righteousness i.e. the arrogance of assuming that ‘we’, the subject(s) of contemplation, are always in the right.

It could be argued that we have always held these assumptions, and that they are an implicit part of human nature. And yet not only are they very illiberal and non-cosmopolitan assumptions to hold; it is also a fairly safe thing to say that there have been more conflicts since WW2 than before, year on year. The U. of Michigan’s “Correlates of War” project documents every conflict since 1816, and according to their calculations
there have been a total of 194 actual “wars” between 1945 and 2001, and that does not include the more than 3000 different disputes that occurred in the period. So was it just circumstance that caused these polarisations, divides and tensions? Or was there a fundamental change in the way we think?

The American philosopher Avital Ronell believes that increased moralistic interventions abroad do stem from such assumptions.

The other is so in excess of anything you can understand or grasp or reduce, this in itself creates an ethical relatedness… A relation without relation, because you can’t presume to know or grasp the other. The minute you think you know the other, you are ready to kill them! You think oh! They are doing this or this.. they’re the axis of evil…let’s drop some bombs!. But, if you don’t know, don’t understand this alterity, it’s so other that you can’t violate it with your sense of understanding; then you have to let it live.”

According to Derrida we cannot be moral if we think that we are in fact moral. In other words, if you’re arrogant enough to think that you’re fulfilling what Peter Singer would call your moral obligations to help others, then you’re not questioning yourself enough, and not pushing yourself enough. Thus we could push the argument of Avital Ronell still further (since she cited Derrida’s above argument when saying the above), to suggest that the increase of military interventions in international relations marks a decline in international morality.

Personally, I wouldn’t buy the notion that we are becoming less moral. After all, we don’t need to know someone else to kill them; indeed being able to kill someone when you do have such knowledge seems even more immoral to many people. We can kill instead based on an educated guess. In fact humans act on guesswork all the time. What Ronell is really saying is a values statement that when we know the risks are large, and yet the probabilities of reaching our desired outcome are unknown, we should be risk averse. Just because liberal interventionists are less risk averse, or choose to weigh the unknown probability of success against the unknown probability that more will die if intervention is not carried out, it does not make them less moral than non-interventionists. And indeed the opposite argument could also be made.

Assume NothingThe more pertinent question therefore, is whether these assumptions of knowledge and righteousness are more present, and/or having a greater impact on international affairs today or not. After all, modern examples seem very easy to find. It is why the logic behind why Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ seems so compelling. It is the reason why despite the fact that the world is becoming increasingly globalised and cosmopolitan, we see signs of the ‘other’ everywhere. It is the logic behind liberal interventionism, the interventions in the Middle East, Zionist militarism, and even the calls from those inside the affected countries e.g. Syria, for outside help.

Whatever its source, they are dangerous assumptions to hold if we let them dominate twenty-first century thought. The extent to which this is true can be seen in the handling of Russia’s Crimean intervention. The calls are not for Russia to come to the negotiation table, delay the annexation of Crimea, or organise a new referendum conducted under UN supervision. These options are seen as weak, and a form of appeasement, which, despite the fact that Hitler is dead, would only create a new Hitler. So instead, the calls on Russia are for them to simply back down, reject their long cultural history of expansionism and pan-Slavism, and see them adopt the culture and tactics of the United States – the single country which it would most humiliate Russia, and particularly Putin, to be seen emulating. Keynes wrote a pamphlet in 1919, arguing how the world’s tough approach to Germany would cause trouble. And of course he was right. Are we learning the wrong lesson(s) from history?

Do you believe that the assumptions of knowledge and righteousness dominate 21st century diplomatic thought more than they did prior to WW2? What has changed that led us here? And where will it lead us in the future?

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” Is she right?

Margaret MeadMargaret Mead was a twentieth century anthropologist, whose work greatly influenced those campaigning for equal rights in the sixties and seventies. The above quote is perhaps her most famous, and in recent years this message has appeared all over popular media, and throughout much of twenty first century culture.

The 2006 music video for “If Everyone Cared” by Nickelback ends with her quote. It’s used in the TV series the West Wing. And it was essentially the central philosophy of Barrack Obama’s presidential campaign: “Yes we can. Change we can believe in. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Yet when we’re thinking about these quotes, we’re not thinking about the sorts of changes that President Obama has managed to realise (don’t misunderstand me here; I’m a huge Obama fan). We’re thinking about pivotal changes in human history; the sort that historians are likely to refer back to. In this modern world, can such momentous changes still be realised by a “few caring people”?

As an example, Liberal Interventionism has been one of the hottest topics in the media throughout this century. In 1999 the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his Chicago speech, outlined his doctrine of Liberal Interventionism. And a Liberal Interventionyear later the UK’s intervention in the Sierra Leone Civil War was seen as a great success. Furthermore, orders for intervention in Sierra Leone did not come from a huge collective government, but in fact from a renegade Brigadier David Richards, who saw the chance to intervene, and took it without permission. So you could even argue that a few, or even one person, really did change the world here. Subsequent interventions have also been justified on moral grounds e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, with much less consensus as to the success of these missions. But more to the point, there has been a common thread throughout each of these interventions. And that thread of logic echoes the thought of American pragmatists, of Japanese leaders during WW2, of Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars, and even right back to the works of Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, and is also cited as an intellectual forbearer of ‘realpolitik’. That thread of thought is quite simply, the importance, and dominance, of power.

Hobbes’ method of reasoning provides a good example of this realist motivation for intervention. He started his argument, in his famous work ‘Leviathan’, with a kind of Cartesian thinking. Similar to the way Descartes started with his base assumption that thought proves existence, Hobbes said that as little as we can be sure of, we can at least be sure that humans are attracted to pleasure, and repelled by pain. As we can be sure of this much, said Hobbes, it goes to reason that what we all seek, and will always continue to seek, is the power to act on these attractions and repulsions. It is why he reasoned that in a state of nature life would be “nasty, brutish and short”, since without any kind of civilisation we would all be out to increase our own power.

Why do I use these examples? Because the world’s focus on Ukraine is indicative of all the above. The message from western interveners is that the Russian intervention and referendum in the Crimea was illegitimate, and abused Ukrainian sovereignty i.e. we want to help people, and we believe that we can change the world and make it more peaceful. In reality however, such intervention is both an example of power politics, and also quite frankly playground politics. The Russian intervention bears a lot of similarities to recent Western interventions. It is debatably legal in terms of international law. And although the referendum in Crimea should have been organised in different times, and under the supervision of the UN, I have not heard Westerners suggest this. Instead, they simply reject any sort of referendum, and in a blatantly childish manner, simply assume that what’s needed is a good old fashioned, gun-slinging approach of anti-appeasement i.e. if we show we’re the stronger party, we’ll win; life is a competition and we want to be the biggest bully in the playground.

It’s unlikely much of this is blatant, or even realised. The simple fact that the EU managed to achieve unanimity in deciding that they would impose sanctions on Russia goes to show that Western decision makers do believe they are in the right, and are acting morally. But our resources, and our ability to act, is finite. And what about the places where we can really help? How many children need to be decapitated in the Central African Republic before we intervene there? The UN says there is a real risk of genocide. But how many rapes are needed? How many mutations and acts of torture? How many murders are needed before we even start to think in such a way?

We can't changeThere is no power to gain in the Central African Republic. There is in re-igniting old Cold War tensions. So what would it take for us to change this much? What would it take for countries to actually intervene for moral reasons, as opposed to reasons of power? If Margaret Mead is right, then a few caring people can achieve such a change in international relations, and perhaps, depending on whether you agree with Hobbes, even a change in human nature. Do you think she was right? Are these changes really possible?

Is Freedom an Option?

“O sancta simplicitas! In what strange simplification and falsification man lives!” So begins Nietzsche’s second Nietzsche freedomchapter of “Beyond Good and Evil”. It says that humanity has always contrived to retain its ignorance, so that we might realise “an almost inconceivable freedom”. Indeed to Nietzsche even our thoughts were suspect. For those who call themselves ‘free spirits’ in a philosophical sense are in fact often “glib tongued and scribe-fingered slaves of the democratic taste and its ‘modern ideas’ […] they are not free”.

Just a quick explanation here; note the use of “almost” in Nietzsche’s work. Contrary to what a lot of people think, Nietzsche did not oppose, or dismiss, freedom. To him it was something that we strive towards, but are simply very unlikely to really obtain.

Of course you might question what freedom is. Arendt explained the difficulty of this question well when she said:

“In its simplest form, the difficulty [of defining freedom] may be summed up as the contradiction between our consciousness and conscience, telling us that we are free and hence responsible, and our everyday in the outer world, in which we orient ourselves according to the principle of causality.”

As a philosophical concept freedom is most often discussed with reference to determinism, as its opposite, and moral responsibility as its partner. For if we are not free at all then our actions must be determined. And if we are free, then we must also be morally responsible for our actions. It is from these baselines of the philosophical discussion of freedom that Arendt notices the major difficulties. We all assume that we are morally responsible for our actions, because we at least have an illusion of free will in deciding what to do. And yet analyse it a little deeper, and our thoughts themselves seem to contradict this common sense; for just as when we make excuses, so too in any sense can we say ‘I acted thusly, because X, Y and Z had happened in the past. Had they not, I would have been forced to act differently.’

So there are contradictions. And it’s difficult to define in an objective sense. But even if we have different imaginations as to what it is; we definitely have at least the illusion of freedom/free will. But if nothing comes from nothing, how can we create an illusion of that which truly doesn’t exist? The illusion of freedom must either be an image of a conceptual reality, or at very least a modified version of a very similar concept; and if it is the second, it has since caused us to create the conceptual reality of freedom. So freedom does exist. But is it a real option in our lives? Or is it more as John Dewey said, that our activity results from impulses that emerge spontaneously in response to changes in circumstances?

Illusion-of-FreedomLet’s think. In most of the world escaping into the wild; where only nature would restrict our actions; simply isn’t an option. There isn’t enough wild to escape into, particularly in Europe. So, if we can’t hunt and forage for ourselves, we’re forced to live within those societies and economies which already exist. Within these societies we are forced to go to school throughout our childhood. And within these economies we are forced to either enter the labour market in order to earn enough to survive, or live off the benefits provided by those who feel themselves to be forced into the labour market. Freedom of entry into, and exit out of, the labour market, is not free. Society presents us with commitments that restrict our geographical location, creates expectations that further limit our options in the job market, and creates the economic demand which dictates what careers are going to pay. Flexible and part time roles aren’t allows offered, and thus to take a job we are usually forced to spend most of our time in the job. The competitive economy forces employers to work their employees hard enough that during their free time, many people are too tired to properly look after themselves by exercising or cooking healthy food. In order to stay alive we need a place to live, and to pay bills that often leave us with less than enough cash to freely pursue what we want during that limited amount of free time that we have. We are even imprisoned by society’s desires. Who reading this can’t remember comparing themselves to other classmates at school, and hoping that they would earn more in later life? Those people we call ‘weird’ are in most cases those people who for some reason don’t desire what society encourages us to desire e.g. money.

We could even go so far as to question what freedom is, for usually we talk of freedom within nature. But is not nature the biggest prison of all? Kant argued that space, time and causality are categories used by the human mind to interpret experience, and so in this sense physics and biology themselves limit what we are able to think, for they provide a finite, defined number of tools with which we may think. And if you ascribe to the Newtonian view of nature as being like a machine, or Spinoza’s view of freedom as an illusion, then we could say that even the most minute of human actions is determined.

What do you think? Is everything pre-determined? Is, as Spinoza argued, the only freedom that we have the ability to see the world as it is and say yes to it? Does the probabilistic nature of reality mean that because everything is not determined, then we are free to choose between some limited, finite options? Do you think that freedom really is an option, and that it can be enhanced by politicians reforming the socio-political economic structures? Or do you think, as Jean-Paul Sartre did, that “man is condemned to be free [because…] he did not create himself and not only is he free to choose, but he must choose.”

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