5 Philosophical Questions Life Forces You to Answer

Like it or not, life makes philosophers of us all. You may hate philosophy, but you can’t escape it. You can — as many people do — outsource how you answer these questions, but that still requires a decision.

5.) How do I know a thing is true?  Sometimes the answer is self-evident, but, more often then people acknowledge, it’s not. This is exacerbated by the confusion of subjective truth (a personal “truth”) with objective truth (the universally true.)

Some people relinquish decision to an authority — be it a teacher, a scripture, or the scientific consensus. Some people only believe what said person’s personal experience tells them.

There is a related question of how tightly should one hold onto whatever beliefs one acts as if are true. The scientific approach suggests one should be ready to abandon something one believes is true in light of new information (assuming the new information is sound and can be validated.) Religions tend to prefer that the truths that have been handed down should be grasped firmly no matter what one sees, hears, or learns. One’s philosophical stance may take either approach, or one in between.

4.) [Who] am I?  As the brackets suggest, this is actually two questions. The full question, “Who am I?” presumes that there is a self (an I.) Some philosophies, e.g. Buddhism, reject this presumption, hence the more fundamental question of “Is there an I?”

3.) What constitutes a virtuous or moral life? Of course, some philosophies would reject the ingrained presumption that one should care, but that’s a fringe position. Maybe the more general question of “What constitutes a good life?” is a better one.

2.) What does it mean for something to be real? Some will say, “Come on. I know what’s real. I don’t need to philosophize about that?” Really? Because the best minds in the world are constantly debating this and have reached no consensus on the subject. It’s certainly possible to get through life behaving as though reality is “x,” whether or not “x” turns out to be true. But that’s very different from knowing what is true.

1.) Is there free will, and — if so — in what sense?  It feels like we have complete free will, but there are a couple of grounds on which this has been questioned. For the religious, reconciling an omnipotent god and free will takes some mental gymnastics. (If one can act completely freely, how can a god also?)

But more recently, free will has been challenged by science as well. Benjamin Libet’s work showed that “decisions” take place before people become conscious of them, and — therefore — aren’t decisions in the sense we usually understand that word (i.e. the product of conscious deliberation.) Of course, while some have argued that the repeated validation of Libet’s work shows free will is purely an illusion, there remain many who argue there are still possible ways in which some form of free will exists. (Including, apparently, Libet who believed we at least have “free won’t” even if we don’t have free will — i.e. we can consciously veto deterministic “decisions.”)

Best of luck picking — or building — your own life philosophy.

BOOK REVIEW: Conversations on Consciousness ed. by Susan Blackmore

Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be HumanConversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human by Susan Blackmore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Blackmore gathers together interviews from a veritable who’s who of consciousness experts from neuroscience, philosophy, physiology, psychology, and physics. While the interviews are in part tailored to tap into the special insights of the given expert, a consistent series of questions is asked of each of the interviewees. Each expert is asked what they think is challenging about consciousness, what they think about the feasibility of philosopher’s zombies (a popular thought experiment about an individual who seems to behave like an ordinary human but who has no conscious experience), what they think about the existence of free will, what happens to consciousness after death, and what got them interested in the subject. This makes it easy for the reader to see not just differences in thinking across disciplines, but also different schools of thought within disciplines. There’s enough variety to make for intriguing reading. There is also a mix between individuals who have experience with meditation (e.g. the interviewer) and those who don’t, and so it’s interesting to compare views of those with such insight to those who study consciousness entirely abstractly.

I won’t list all the authors, but they include: David Chalmers (who famously coined the term the “hard problem” of consciousness, which is one of the most widely discussed ideas in the book), Francis Crick (of DNA fame who later shifted focus), Daniel Dennett (a well-known philosopher), V.S. Ramachandran (a neuroscientist famous for work on phantom limbs and behavioral neurology), and Roger Penrose (a physicist who believes that quantum mechanics may prove crucial to figuring out consciousness.)

It’s a straightforward book. There’s an Introduction by Blackmore and then the 20 or 21 interviews (one “chapter” is a married couple – Pat and Paul Churchland — whose insights are presented together.) The only back matter is a glossary, which is quite in-depth and which helps to clarify the many confusing concepts from various disciplines. There are a few cartoon drawings that lighten the tone, but serve no essential purpose.

I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. It’s quite old at this point – having come out in 2005 – but since consciousness is so intractable, it’s not like any of the questions have been cleared up. (If it were a book on AI, I’d probably say it was worthless at this point, but not this book.) I’d recommend it for anyone looking to understand the lay of the land with regards thinking about consciousness.

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BOOK REVIEW: Free Will by Sam Harris

Free WillFree Will by Sam Harris

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I had high hopes for Sam Harris’s book Free Will, but they didn’t pan out. It’s a very short book (less than 100 pages) on the subject of free will–or the lack thereof. While I’m normally a huge fan of brevity and conciseness, Harris could have put some more pages to good use. My two principal complaints regard the lack of information: a. substantiating the notion that free will is always and everywhere an illusion as Harris asserts; b. suggesting what logic is at the root of decision if our conscious thoughts are irrelevant. (If they were random synaptic firings our behavior wouldn’t be nearly so consistent. Self-preservation of genes? The hand of god? You won’t know from this book.)

Harris might claim that that’s not the purpose of this book, that one should familiarize oneself with the vast literature on the topic before getting to this book. In that case, my complaints remain two-fold. First, he shouldn’t take on such a bold and presumptuous title as Free Will (no subtitle) if he’s not going to educate us from the ground up on the titular topic. Second, if the reader has done all the scholarly reading on the subject, why should we care about Harris’s opinions?

I will say that if you liked Matrix Revolutions, the third Matrix movie, you will love this book. SPOILER: In that movie, we find out that Neo is the central element of an elaborate plan to fool people into thinking they have some control over their own lives. In Harris’s book, Neo is replaced by the conscious mind.

There’s a scientific literature supporting the notion that free will is an illusion–though Harris only touches on it. This conclusion has been reached by observing that subconscious parts of the brain involved with decision-making light up well in advance of the conscious parts of the brain. [On a note unrelated to the book: we also know that individuals with damage to the emotional centers in the brain become unable to make decisions because all options hold the same weight.] The most illuminating example offered is an experiment in which participants were asked to press a button to select a letter or number of their choosing from among a string of changing letters / numbers. Some subjects felt the scientists had mastered precognition (a class III impossibility according to physicists–i.e. impossible according to the laws of physics as we know them.) What was really happening was an exploitation of the lag between when the individual’s subconscious decided and when their consciousness became aware of their decision.

Harris briefly mentions a couple of these neuroscience experiments, but then expects that the reader will treat the free will illusion as law. That is, we are to accept that always and everywhere people’s subconscious minds decide some measure before their conscious minds. Maybe there has been a broad enough scientific investigation of the topic to safely conclude that free will is always and everywhere an illusion–but Harris does make this point.

Harris tells us about couple of studies in which, a.) there’s no cost differential between the different options; (i.e. is it possible that the mind treats decisions about picking a spouse or a house differently than picking a letter or number for which there is no objectively better or worse option?) b.) those studied are a random sample of individuals who have no particular expertise with their minds—probably mostly college undergrads. (If I drew a random sample of people and asked each to lift 300 lbs over his or her head. If no one could do it, would I be safe in concluding that lifting 300 lbs was something forever beyond the capacity of every member of the human race? In other words, what if exercising conscious control over decision-making requires training and expertise with the mind.)

There are a couple of red-flags for me about Harris’s approach to the subject. First, Harris scoffs at the suggestion that it might be that the conscious can overrule the subconscious, and seems to deem this as unworthy of study because it would just be the subconscious making a second decision instead of the conscious truly vetoing. Anytime a scholar is dismissive of another scholar’s attempts to further probe into a question signals that a pet theory has become a sacred cow.

Second, Harris suggests that anyone who truly studied his own mind in action couldn’t help but realize the fallacy of free will. People who can’t imagine that others see the world differently than them are also a point of concern when it comes to getting sound information. Could it possibly surprise Mr. Harris to learn that there are people who’ve spent far more time alone with their minds than he, who’ve concluded quite the opposite?

Alright, I may have overstated Harris’s position when I suggested the conscious mind is relegated to a Matrix Revolutions-style (and Rube Goldberg-esque) machine for tricking us into thinking we have choice and control over the direction of our lives. I suspect Harris would agree that evolution doesn’t over-engineer, and a conscious mind that is just part of a trick would be the vastest act of over-engineering in the history of the universe. (Unless the universe is a hologram, as some physicists are now suggesting–presumably based on the notion that their math works out in 2-D.)

I just don’t have a good idea of what purpose Harris thinks the conscious mind serves. His central point seems to be that we still need to keep putting rapists and murders in jail so they can be kept off the streets. We just shouldn’t bear any ill-will toward them because they had no control over their decisions. However, if we set a tone with our conscious thought stream, then whether the individual’s decision to act was conscious or not they would have culpability by virtue of stage-setting. If we don’t have any control over our conscious thought stream then there would be no benefit to courses of study that help one improve one’s state of mind, but there’s also a scientific literature showing that people who begin meditative practices, yoga, and the like do see tangible positive changes. (Not to mention that Harris should give all the money back for the books he has sold about meditation, i.e. Waking Up.) If we have conscious control of our thought stream, but that thought stream is irrelevant, then we should be walking around in a constantly perplexed state.

To add to the confusion, Harris uses the term “choices” to refer to his “decisions,” but according to his paper he doesn’t make any choices. He—like all of us—are slaves to some unknown–or at least unexplained–process. Black boxes aren’t persuasive.

I can’t say I’d recommend this book, unless you’ve read extensively on the topic and are rounding out your reading experience. This book isn’t the ideal starting point for engaging this subject—as it seems when you are reading the blurb–because you’re as likely to come away more confused than when you began reading.

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READING REVIEW: April 24, 2015

I completed three books this week. The first was Richard Wiseman’s Night School. I wrote a lot about this book in my last Reading Report. Night School examines what happens when we sleep, what happens when we don’t, and a host of events that happen in and around our sleeping life (i.e. nightmares, night terrors, sleep walking, etc.)  The notion that dreams and nightmares are our subconscious working out waking life problems is well established, but there was some interesting discussion of how to change one’s dreamscape (i.e. lucid dreaming) that was fascinating.

NightSchool

 

 

The second book I finished was Sam Harris’s Free Will. I had high hopes for this book, but they didn’t pan out.   It’s a very short book (less than 100 pages) on the subject of free will–or the lack thereof. There’s a well-established scientific literature supporting the notion that free will is an illusion. This conclusion was reached by observing that subconscious parts of the brain involved with decision-making light up well in advance of the conscious parts of the brain. The most illuminating example offered is an experiment in which participants were asked to press a button to select a letter or number of their choosing from among a string of rotating letters / numbers. Some subjects became convinced that the scientists had mastered precognition (a class III impossibility according to physicists–i.e. impossible according to the laws of physics as we know them.)  What was really happening was an exploitation of the lag between when the individual’s subconscious decided and when they became aware of their decision.

While I’m normally a big fan of brevity, Harris could have put some more pages to good use. First, he barely mentions a couple of the neuroscience experiments, and expects that the reader will treat this all as law. That is, we are to accept that always and everywhere people’s subconscious minds decide some measure before their conscious minds. Harris also scoffs at the suggestion that perhaps the conscious can overrule the subconscious. He seems to deem this as not worthy of study because it would just be the subconscious making a second decision. So we learn about a couple of studies in which a.) the decision-maker has no stake in the decision (is it possible the mind treats decisions about picking a spouse or a house differently than picking a letter or number in which there is no more costly outcome?) b.) those studied are a random sample of individuals who have no particular expertise with their minds. (If I drew a random sample of people and asked each to lift 300 lbs over his or her head. If no one could do it, would I be safe in concluding that lifting 300 lbs was something forever beyond the capacity of every member of the human race? In other words, what if exercising conscious control over decision-making requires training and expertise with the mind.) Maybe all of this has been studied (e.g. high stakes cases and cases with monks and meditators), and we can safely conclude that free will is always and everywhere an illusion–but Harris didn’t make this point. He concludes we will take it as a given just as he has. (Much like he suggests that anyone who truly studied their mind would understand this point already. Would it surprise Mr. Harris to learn that there are people who have spent far longer alone with their minds than he, who have concluded quite the opposite?)

Second, if the conscious mind is just a Matrix Revolutions-style (and Rube Goldberg-style) machine for tricking us into thinking we have choice and control over the direction of our lives (what happened to evolution not over-engineering?), what guides all of these “decisions?” Given that they produce, I might point out, a fairly orderly world. Harris doesn’t answer this. One might guess that he would point to Dawkinesque suggestion that it’s all about genes advancing their own agenda. (A proposition that seems to me has trouble explaining a corporeal who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades.) I shouldn’t put words in the author’s mouth. Quite frankly, I have no idea whether he believes there are rules or some guide to these subconscious decisions, because he doesn’t tell us. (Maybe he thinks they are random neuronal firings, but I doubt it.) From what I’ve heard of his other books, he doesn’t think it’s a god making these decisions–a sentiment I share. However, there must be something underlying these decisions, and an author writing about this topic should at least make some effort to address it. Black boxes aren’t persuasive.

FreeWill

 

The final book I finished this week is entitled The Sensual Body. This is a book that discusses a number of systems of movement and bodily activity as means to increase bodily awareness. Among the systems included are Tai chi, Eutony, Kum Nye, running, Aikido, and massage. It’s an interesting overview, but without sufficient detail of anything in particular to be of practical value. It’s the kind of book one might read to see what kind of classes one should take or what more focused books would be of benefit.

 

Besides the aforementioned books, I spent most of my reading time on two books that look at two very different subjects from the viewpoint of neuroscience. The first is Wired for Story, and it’s a how-to book for writers that sets itself apart by explaining how humans are hardwired by evolution to love stories. Just as a few notes produce an infinite variety of music. There is an inherent limiting / shaping structure to stories that is ignored at the writer’s peril. Much of the advice offered isn’t that different from other books on writing or storytelling, but one gets insight into which advice one should really treat as inviolable because it touches upon something fundamental to our human nature.

 

 


Wired for Story

 

The other book is the only book I purchased this week. It’s entitled Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control and is by Kathleen Taylor. So far the book is intriguing. The chapters I’ve read so far provide an overview of brainwashing and cults. The middle section of the book delves into the neuroscience behind brainwashing, and the final section gets into practical matters such as how one can make oneself resistant to thought control techniques.

 

Brainwashing_Taylor

 

READING REPORT: March 6, 2015

This will be a brief reading report. I finished just one book this week, as well as purchasing only one book.

 

Bansenshukai

The book that I finished was a translation of the Bansenshukai, which is a 17th century ninja manual written / compiled by Fujibayashi Sabuji. The Japanese title means “10,000 Rivers Flow into the Sea,” but this English translation by Anthony Cummins and Yoshie Minami was re-titled The Book of Ninja. I ran into a hard-copy of this book in a Kuala Lumpur bookshop, but ended up purchasing the much cheaper Kindle e-book. I read about half of the book months ago, and only got around to finishing it this week.

 

There’s much that will forever remain unknown about the ninja and their medieval practices. The Bansenshukai is one of three well-known manuals that survived into the modern era–along with the Ninpiden and the Shoninki (each of which also has at least one English translation.) It should be noted that these manuals were generally written after the heyday of ninja activity, and still the most common sentence in this book is some variant of the phrase “There is an oral teaching”, meaning that important details have been kept out to preserve secrecy. This is a book of tradecraft, don’t expect thrilling exploits of the ninja, much of the book deals with minutiae about medieval lock picking and recipes for incendiaries. While the English translation title may beckon images of black-clad ninja stealthily rolling over the top of a wall to dispatch an unsuspecting sentry via death from above, the bulk the material is much more mundane. This is a great book for people who geek out on Japan’s Warring States period or who are doing research regarding this topic (I fit in both categories as my novel takes place in part in medieval Japan.)

 

FreeWill

The book I bought is Sam Harris’s Free WillHarris is a neuroscientist who studies issues that have historically been considered the domain of religion and spirituality, but he does so from a scientific point of view. What one believes about free will is likely to form the bedrock of one’s personal philosophy of life, so this is a very important topic, and I have high hopes for learning something new from this book.

 

The only other book that took a significant portion of my time is one that I introduced earlier:

WhyDoPeopleGetIll_Leader&CorfieldLeader and Corfield explored the immune system and issues related specifically to cancer in the chapters that I read this week. It was a pleasant turn for the book into a more scientific and less psychobabbly landscape. I continue to be intrigued by this book and it’s title question.

 

That’s it for now. I’ll be posting reviews for The Book of Ninja as well as last week’s Antifragile in the upcoming week.