Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Skeptic

skeptic200Oh, well, I should have known. The Sunday Telegraph reported on January 18 that folks working in the City are visiting psychics in dramatically increased numbers in order to gain some insight into the financial future. If it’s true – and of course this is the kind of “trend” story you can write from a couple of phone calls – it just goes to show how little they believed in the stuff they were selling in the first place.

A Google search shows that there’s a rash of stories in the US about people visiting psychics with financial worries on their minds, but these seem to be all ordinary individuals. Interesting, though, that there are all these stories on local TV and newspaper sites, each quoting a different local psychic saying more or less the same thing. The media cue the media.

The Telegraph story got its information from the British Astrological and Psychic Society as well as a couple of Web sites. All said the same thing: they’re getting a lot of wealthy guys – yes, guys – coming in to consult them about their careers. Should they quit the finance industry altogether? Or could the psychic just glance over this job offer or contract for them? You can’t help feeling that this says everything you need to know about the inner workings of the financial industry. They say it’s all about the numbers and the analysis, but how can you tell?

I guess there are no skeptics in a foxhole.

In booms and busts it’s fascinating to watch CNBC, which relies on a steady stream of CEOs, venture capitalists, analysts, and pundits to fill its many daily hours of coverage, pretty much like a sports broadcast, only with money. They spend a lot of time just calling the score (currency rates, the various key market averages, and the state of shares lucky or unlucky enough to be in the news). But at some point they need to fill up time with people explaining the Meaning of It All.

Some of these (mostly) guys are hilarious. My favourites are the ones who explain very seriously what the charts mean. I mean, the patterns made by the graphs on the charts. As in talking about the share price “finding a bottom”. Or the graph forming a “head and shoulders” or a “double top”, which is supposed to tell us something about where the share price is going to go. The first time I saw someone read a chart like this – they call it “technical analysis” – I stared, giggled, and wondered why they didn’t just read tea leaves on the air.

I said as much to a friend, with whom I share a second friend who has spent much of his career in financial journalism. “Oh, no,” he said. “If you go into his office he’s got a big graph on his wall covering all the ups and downs in the market for the last 40 years, and he can explain to you what each one means.”

There’s a word for that: hindsight.

What technical analysts don’t look at is the stuff you’d think would be most helpful: what the company does, how well it does it, what its operating margins and prospects are. All they’re interested in is the pretty pictures. People who will believe this will believe anything. They’ll find meaningful patterns in clouds, reinterpret their dreams to predict the events that happen the day afterwards, and believe in the financial “opportunities” they’re selling.

You’re right. I’m not being fair. There’s no reason why all these things should necessarily go together. But the underlying phenomenon is the same: humans are just really good at seeing patterns, even where none exist.

What’s interesting is how plausible the research analysts make it all sound. In 2000, I spent six months doing financial news (as a freelance) for a Web site and magazine with delusions of IPO grandeur; incredibly, it still exists, but it never got the share of the dot-com boom its initial investors and full-time staff hoped. As part of the job of producing a couple of stories every day, I had to phone research analysts.

Much to my astonishment, whatever you asked them about the companies they covered, they all always sounded terribly knowledgeable and logical, and the case they made for whatever their opinion was on a particular company always sounded compelling. They were also always terribly busy, which meant you were lucky to get their attention for five minutes. Note: it’s very hard to mount a logical argument against someone’s belief if you only have five minutes to talk to them and you need them to produce usable quotes in that time. Journalists are therefore pretty much forced to report their words at face value; there isn’t time for serious questioning.

All of which kind of makes me wish I could pretend to be a psychic so I could quiz the City folk a little more intensely. Though if these financial types had any common sense, they’d be asking the psychics this: how come they didn’t predict the economic meltdown. Huh? Huh?

Wendy Grossman is founder and former editor (twice) of The Skeptic magazine.

Thinking for the city

sheffield200What is the appropriate punishment for murder? “It depends on what type of murder it is,” says a 12-year-old school kid. “You could have murder where you go out and shoot someone or you could have a crime of passion.”

I’m in Sheffield, and the discussion is taking place in a class which is part the university’s Philosophy in the City project. We’ve heard a lot about philosophy in schools over recent years, but this scheme is different, in that it is run entirely by students.

Philosophy in the City is the brainchild of undergraduate Alexis Artaud de la Ferriere. Artaud de la Ferriere is clearly something of a renaissance man, who has contributed to the British Journal of Undergraduate Philosophy (an intriguing sounding paper called “How to be David Copperfield: a critique of Locke’s personal identity model”) and is also one of the poetry editors of Route 57, the School of English’s online writing magazine.

However, Artaud de la Ferriere is not one to take advantage of the opportunities he has been given without worrying about the justice of it all. He realises that he is privileged to be able to do all of these things, “especially when you’re doing philosophy,” he says, “which isn’t something which is obviously contributing to society.” He talks of the responsibilities students have “through brute facts and brute numbers, that we get this subsidised degree that’s probably going to get us good jobs, and it’s not obvious how we’re giving back to society.”

Philosophy classes may not appear to be the most obvious way to contribute to the common good, but Artaud de la Ferriere makes a convincing case that philosophy for all is a matter of social justice. “In Britain or America, you have a system where abstract knowledge is reserved for a certain community: you have to go to certain schools to get it and live in certain neighbourhoods, and it’s assumed that lower-income communities only need to learn skills.” Not sharing that assumption, he set out to organise some of his fellow students to spread the word.

It helped that Sheffield University has one of the most developed student volunteering services in the country, and also that the philosophy department head, Robert Stern, was on side.

“We were a bit nervous at the beginning about how this would come across to the kids, and whether we’d get a hostile reaction or not,” says Stern, “but we did have people on the inside in schools who could say that’s inappropriate, or they’ll really like that.”

Indeed, Stern thought Artaud de la Ferriere’s idea was better than an alternative they’d been toying with, which was to send out some of its staff to local schools.

“I thought the advantage of having undergrads do it is partly that they’re closer to the school experience. Having us come in, from a different generation and rather formal, we’d probably have gone into normal lecturing mode and that probably wouldn’t be the right level. As long as we had the right support, which we did, I was pretty confident that it would work, and it did.”

The class I witnessed backs up the claim. Under the guidance of postgraduates Alison Patrick and Rebecca Waters, the 11- to12-year-old children were discussing the ethics of punishment. One questioned the wisdom of life sentences instead of capital punishment by asking, “If they’re going to die in prison, why not just kill them?” Another believed firmly in the death penalty, saying with Old Testament logic that “how they killed someone, they should be killed too.”

Others were more lenient. “If you punish someone, you could make them mad, so they’ll do something worse,” warned one. Another, responding to the utilitarian argument that sometimes even the innocent should be punished as a deterrent, said, “Won’t people find out that if they do something wrong, they’ll be let off, but if they don’t, they’ll go to prison?”

The kids seemed to genuinely value the experience. “They’re interesting because they make you think and they’re not like other lessons which are just full of facts and things you’ve got to remember,” said Ellie; Adam echoed a common belief that “It makes you think beyond what you normally think.” When I asked what he got out of it, Max said “To look at things differently, in a way. I like it.”

Their teacher, Jill Harrison, is also an enthusiast. “It’s always good to be challenged – and they have been. It’s good for them to talk to different people, they’ve enjoyed it. They like active learning.

“They need to know there is this subject and they need to know what it is. There’s no reason why philosophy as a subject in itself can’t be taught in schools, and I think it should be, and not just for sixth formers.”

The Sheffield students certainly haven’t gone for the easy option. The lesson I saw was at The City School, where half the students have identified Special Educational Needs and nearly one in five qualifies for free school meals.

What exactly they do in each session varies. “There are two main constraining factors,” says another volunteer, Elaine Yeadon, “what the schools require and what the volunteers we have are comfortable teaching.

“We have a few set lesson plans that usually work very well for any age group. Usually it’s very interactive. What we’ve generally done is a very short presentation at the beginning of the main issues, and then prompt them with some questions and get them to go into groups, discuss them, and give feedback.”

The volunteers I talked to seemed to strike the right balance between scepticism towards how much they could expect to achieve in such circumstances, and commitment to the possibility of making a difference.

“There is a tradition in philosophy, maybe starting with Socrates,” says one of them, Joshua Forstenzer, “in which there’s this sense that you can have an education which is perhaps not the normal type of education which provides certain basic skills, but one which provides you with a capacity for reasoning and a taste for things which are not available everywhere. That can be the drive for anybody to go on and study greater things.”

His colleague James Andow is living proof. Andow came to Sheffield from The Ridings High School in Winterbourne, where he participated in the gifted and talented programme. “The only reason I’m now doing philosophy at university, why I’m involved in this project,” he says, “is that after that we did a little thing about formal thinking and logic.

“The amount that we’re going to change their future lives is going to be reasonably minimal, unless they take it up as an academic career or something like that. But you’ll have introduced them to something worthwhile, just by giving them a new way of thinking about things.”

The students clearly get something out of the experience themselves, although it’s not always the obvious. “I do it because I like the look of bewilderment on their faces when you question something they thought was a given,” says Yeadon.

Stern also sees benefits for the students. “Philosophy does give people skills but they don’t recognise it, and I think doing some of the teaching makes them realise they can do things and there are skills they can one day put on a CV, but not in an artificial way.”

But it should be remembered that this is not the USA, where community service can gain students credits and is almost obligatory for anyone applying to a good university. There is something exceptional about this level of commitment and the project seems to have genuinely retained an altruistic edge.

“When we did the first big recruitment drive I went along fully prepared to sell it not as a selfless thing,” explains Andow, “but that it does a lot for us, it gives us teaching experience, it gives us something to put on our CV, it counts towards the Sheffield graduate award, it can help you understand philosophy better. I was ready to sell it on all these grounds, and I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with doing it for those reasons. But we didn’t have to, because people were willing to do it just for selfless reasons.”

With 25 student volunteers, the scheme is currently riding high, and this year it will extend to running a summer school. It was nominated for a Times Higher Education Award (but alas didn’t win) and Artaud de la Ferriere has also been nominated for the University’s Chancellor’s medal, although with characteristic modesty, he actually said “we have been nominated”. The future, however, is far from assured.

“We’ve got to pass it on,” says Stern. “There’s a worry that there’s a core of enthusiasts who have seen it through but are going to be leaving, and will it all then peter out? One thing is to ensure a succession and structures that can continue and pass on from year to year. This is the first year of real change of that sort and I think things are in place for next year and it will continue.”

Let’s hope it does, or even that the idea spreads.

Review: Hegel’s Practical Philosophy by Robert B. Pippin

pippin200Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life by Robert B. Pippin
(Cambridge University Press)
£18.99/$29.99 (pb)

Karl Marx famously remarked upon the need to “discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell” of Hegel’s philosophy. But even this is too generous for some. Schopenhauer, who for a time was Hegel’s colleague at Berlin, scheduling his lectures in direct competition, gives this unvarnished verdict: “a commonplace, inane, loathsome, repulsive and ignorant charlatan” who had taken to “scrabbling together senseless and maddening webs of words, such as had previously been heard only in madhouses” but whose work was “trumpeted abroad as immortal wisdom by his mercenary followers, and which was regarded as such by blockheads.” But is there any truth in this – whether Marx’s claims of mysticism or Schopenhauer’s accusations of charlatanry?

The Hegel who emerges from Robert Pippin’s latest book can easily answer such worries. Here we are presented with a philosopher with thoroughly modern concerns who appears neither fit for the dustbin of history nor in need of an overhaul. As with Pippin’s reading of Hegel’s theoretical philosophy, the much-caricatured windy metaphysician is absent. Instead, Hegel’s practical philosophy is taken to stem from a social account of rational agents. In other words, he is out to understand those aspects of people which require us to make reference to reasons, and he thinks this is best done by looking to features of the way we relate to each other.

Rationality and sociality become linked in this way through Hegel’s central preoccupation: freedom. According to Pippin, Hegel thinks that the sphere of rational activity – where reasons come into play – is marked out by being the sphere of free action. Now, the traditional philosophical problem of freedom concerns “free will”. It asks how we can act freely in a world where every event is causally determined by a previous one. But Hegel is not much moved by this problem. For him, being free is not primarily a power to cause things. On Pippin’s account, it is not simply initiating behaviour that is important, but an action being “truly ‘mine’, such that I can fully or truly stand behind it, own up to it, claim ownership of it.” This is just as much a matter of values as it is of causes.

Pippin traces these thoughts back to Rousseau, whom he takes to claim that nothing can count as a value for me unless I can come to identify with it. It is in Kant though that this idea is seen as coming to fruition. In particular, Kant’s notion of “self-legislation” takes centre stage. As Pippin understands it, Kant is claiming that we can only be obligated to what we can rationally obligate ourselves to. In a deep sense, authority, whether moral, political or scientific, cannot be foisted upon us, and instead must be something justifiable to each individual who is subject to it. The image of freedom here is one in which people, in some sense, give laws to themselves.

This story of the path to Hegel is a controversial one, on both historical and philosophical grounds. One of the great merits of Pippin’s telling of it, against other attempts to do so, is that he is extremely sensitive to the paradoxical nature of the claim that we legislate for ourselves. Taken literally, it seems barely coherent: “Unless you are already bound to the constraint of reason, on what basis could you subject yourself to such constraints?” Pippin is keen to temper any radical existentialist reading of self-legislation, whereby value comes from an unaccountable act of committing oneself. Rather, Hegel’s great contribution is supposed to be his ability to domesticate the rhetoric of self-authorisation, placing it within a social frame.

For Pippin’s Hegel then, freedom demarcates the practical realm, but a social account is needed to round out that conception of freedom. So understood, Kant is right to think that freedom requires a specific relation to oneself in which one is able to identify with the actions one takes and the motivations they express. But where Kant thinks we can use pure reason to guide what we do and what we value, Hegel is meant to have seen that practical deliberation is always bound up with social norms. So, ultimately, practical reasoning is taken to be intelligible only as a social activity. Thus, the specific relations to ourselves crucial to being free are only achievable in co-operation with others. A rich account of this communal practice of exchanging and assessing reasons is provided. In this way, freedom is located at the level of both the individual and institutions, including the modern state thought to be needed to support complex communities.

As a whole, the book does a good job of rendering some very difficult topics intelligible, putting them within the grasp of the general reader. Pippin has an extensive grasp of Hegel’s texts, though arguably in places the discussion is anachronistic. In his defence, Pippin says he has tried to avoid “pious paraphrase” and has tried to think along with the historical figures he discusses. Whether that satisfies us or not, the book has more than enough to recommend it to contemporary readers, quite apart from its contribution to the history of philosophy. As a lucid work threading together the themes of rationality, freedom and the social world, it could be profitably read by anyone with an interest in these topics who is willing to engage with some challenging ideas.

Tom O’Shea is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Sheffield

Letter from … Malta

(cc) Jon Rawlinson

(cc) Jon Rawlinson

I once met Woody Allen in Paris. I was a teenager then. He was producing some sketch with a few team-mates at a lonely spot. I could not resist the temptation to go over and shake his hand. Well you don’t meet the likes of him everyday, do you? More than a little annoyed, he pretended to be pleased with the acquaintance, and asked me where I was from. I said Malta. And he said, “Ah, Malta!”, then threw down a really small spittle on the pavement at his foot, pointed at it, and said, “Malta!”

I did not take this to be an insult. I don’t think it was intended to be so. I took it to be just weird Woody Allen humour (which I really never understand very much anyway). At least he knew we existed – something I learned never to assume of anyone – and he also knew something about us: that we were an almost imperceptible island.

Malta is indeed a very tiny place: just about the size of Birmingham, with a population slightly more than that of Manchester. What can one ever expect to emerge from such a drop in the ocean? Not anything worth calling philosophy, for sure. Small dog, tall weeds, one might say. But here’s the surprise: Malta definitely does have a philosophical tradition, and one that goes back at least four centuries.

All in all, one might consider this to be quite remarkable. The thing is, Malta’s civilisation surprisingly belies the minute size of its physical terrain. In all probability, one reason is that, from time immemorial, for good or for bad, lying at the crossroads between Europe and Africa, these islands have always been involved in the vibrant happenings of a very lively and dynamic part of the world. But this alone almost certainly cannot explain Malta’s peculiarity. An additional reason is possibly that, quite fascinatingly, from the latter half of the 14th century onwards the Maltese ruling class began to acquire a somewhat beguiling sense of self-rule and pride. Malta was then part of the expanding Kingdom of Aragon, and that sense of relative autonomy was further enhanced when, in the first half of the 16th century, Malta became the home of the Knights Hospitallers for the next three hundred years. During this time the island enjoyed the status of a sovereign state in its own right, and that gave some Maltese an ineradicably commanding feel of belonging and identity; so much so that, right up to Independence in 1964, it could not be obliterated by the subsequent one hundred and fifty years of British colonial rule.

It should perhaps not be surprising, then, that, as far as can be ascertained, Malta’s philosophical tradition begins its solid accrual from the stimulating time of the Aragonese towards the beginning of the 16th century. This does not mean, if truth be told, that our philosophical interest should not go farther still. Malta appears to have been first inhabited some seven thousand years ago. Its sophisticated prehistoric temples are unique in the whole world. The earliest temple dates from around 4100 BC, so these hallowed edifices precede the Great Pyramid at Giza by more than a thousand years, and Stonehenge by more than two thousand.

However significant such an ancient and noteworthy past might be, it would be a mistake to believe that Malta had ever been the centre of Mediterranean culture. In actual fact, it continuously lay on the fringes of sways with endlessly shifting pivots, and this remains so to this day when Malta is part of the European Union. Being of Semitic origin, now with strong elements of Italian and other Mediterranean stock, the Maltese – sometimes with their philosophy and their philosophers – have indeed always been within the picture; even if in the background of some inconspicuous corner, nonetheless part of it.

During the last ten years or so what we have been trying to do is to aptly recognise and duly honour this modest share without succumbing to conceit or pomp. The necessity arose for two main reasons. One, because the Maltese themselves, mostly due to a dearth of required research, did not acknowledge, much less appreciate, any local philosophical tradition; and, secondly, because any activity that was being carried out in the philosophical field – whether it was teaching, writing or simply discussing – was done as if we ourselves had, at most, a present without a past. Plato, Kant, Freire, Wittgenstein, Habermas and the whole pantheon of European and American philosophers were thrown about chapter and verse; but not one single local name ever surfaced.

So what I did was start to dig deep into the dusty archives. In due course names and manuscripts and personalities began to emerge, enough to make one’s head spin. Next, I published; first, in 1995, a small book to whet the appetite; then, six years later, in 2001, a two-volume encyclopaedia of philosophy in Malta. Both were written in Maltese, and both attracted considerable interest. However the second one was more comprehensive and perceptive. It was a sort of source book that provided biblio-biographical information about all the known Maltese philosophers; a minute description of all known philosophical writings composed by Maltese philosophers (most of them still in hitherto unpublished manuscript form, generally written in Latin, Sicilian or English); and all the philosophical schools or societies that had existed in Malta throughout the centuries. Unfortunately, so far no such publication exists for English-speakers.

These publications started the ball rolling. Subsequently, courses were read at the University of Malta and at other institutions of higher education, a first public conference on “Maltese” philosophy was organised, articles were written, monographs published, first-grade dissertations undertaken, and so forth. All along one main idea has always been consistent: to instil in young and upcoming Maltese philosophers a sense of local connection, pride and gratitude: their work is part of a continuum.

Since the 16th century, philosophy has contributed to the academic and, sometimes, the intellectual and cultural life of the Maltese intelligentsia. In most cases it functioned as a tool of the establishment – including the Catholic Church – to conserve and perpetuate orthodox and official doctrines. In other cases it offered alternative and imaginative routes of thinking. Despite its relatively long philosophical tradition, however, Malta has no particular philosophy associated with its name. Though sometimes innovative and creative, the large majority of Maltese philosophers have always worked with imported ideas and, but for very rare cases (like in the case of Emanuel Dimech), have seldom broken new ground in the philosophical field. Although the philosophy of many of them did not affect social or political life, some interacted in a lively way with current affairs, and sometimes even stimulated societal change. Throughout the ages, Maltese philosophers did not adhere to just one philosophical tradition. The majority belong to the Aristotelico-Thomistic school. Every now and then, however, other trends appear along the way, especially during the last quarter of the 20th century, such as humanism, empiricism, pragmatism, existentialism, linguistic analysis and some others. Apart from unique, rather than rare, exceptions, theism has been a constant trait throughout the whole Maltese philosophical tradition.

During the last thirty years or so philosophy in Malta has taken an unprecedented twist. Peter Serracino Inglott gave it an extraordinary new breath of life by widening its horizon, diversifying its interests and firmly propelling it into social and political action. He removed philosophy from under the wing of the Catholic establishment, and most heartily engaged it with contemporary cultural and political issues and concerns.

This style was taken up by others. Kenneth Wain, for instance, a philosopher specialising in ethics, political philosophy, the philosophy of education, and international relations, is very active politically, and, like Serracino Inglott, takes a willing part in many a heated public debate.

The story of philosophy should be more than just a narration of tired expressions, worn-out names and stock storylines. It is sometimes evident that people who write philosophy histories read from the same page. For so long the provinces have been dismissed and ignored. Out there, there may be something that is worth catching the eye. Perhaps even in Malta.

Mark Montebello is visiting lecturer at the University of Malta

How to see (4)

escher200Drawing hands
Laurence Goldstein

Imagine a picture P1 of the right hand of the artist MC Escher emerging from a shirt cuff. The hand is resting on a sheet of paper, and a pen held between thumb and forefinger is being used to draw a picture on the sheet. That picture, P2, almost complete, is of a left hand. So the latter is a picture of a picture of a hand; it is not a picture of a real hand, but of a drawn hand. But wait….. that left hand is shown drawing a right hand, so the latter picture cannot be the picture of a real hand but is the picture of a picture of a picture of a real hand, P3. And is identical to P1 which, as we originally claimed, is a picture of a real hand. Contradiction. Or is it? Can the picture right hand simultaneously be P1, P3, P5, P7, ad inf., and the picture left hand simultaneously be P2, P4, P6, P8, ad inf.?

We are, of course, talking about Escher’s 1948 lithograph “Drawing Hands”. There is, as Norwood Russell Hanson said, more to seeing than meets the eyeball. Do observers who naïvely saw “Drawing Hands” as two drawn hands, now (after accepting the above analysis) see it differently as a pair of infinite superimpositions of picture hands, even though what meets their eyeballs is the same?

Awakening the sense
Ray Tallis

Philosophy neither tints the lenses nor sharpens the acuity of the eye. It can, however, help us to see differently by inviting us to “untake” the for granted. Things that are invisible because they are obvious may become visible through being put into question.
That cup over there has not particularly attracted my attention: when I am not using it, it is invisible through irrelevance; when I am using it, it dissolves into the flow of my activities. But when I look at it now with the disinterested, but not uninterested, gaze of the philosopher, lo and behold it becomes a focus of mystery. For example, I believe that it is independent of me, so how can I be aware of it? By what means is that thing over there experienced by me over here if I and it are in no way bound to one another? If it is not independent of me, then the world is more peculiar than I had thought: it is not, it seems, a place in which my body is an object among other objects, externally related to them. Suddenly we see that we are seeing and cannot see how this is possible. The most bored glance is a mystery.

By roughening up the smooth surface of the taken for granted with questions, the philosopher awakens a sense of possibility that requires of us that we should entertain new ways of seeing. The evidence for this is the wonderful history of philosophy which has godfathered inquiries into the material world, our place into it, and our knowledge of it, by which we have been immeasurably enriched.

Laurence Goldstein’s latest (co-authored) book is an introduction to the philosophy of logic: Logic (Continuum Press)
Ray Tallis is the author of The Kingdom of Infinite Space (Atlantic)

For previous articles in this series, see here, here and here.

Q&A: Sharon Kaye

kaye200What is The Aristotle Quest?

The Aristotle Quest is a trilogy of philosophical thrillers I’m writing. The first volume, Black Market Truth came out at the end of October. The second should be out this fall. It’s the story of a classics professor named Dana McCarter, who is appointed head of a billion-dollar institute to uncover the truth about Western civilization. Her theory is that the problems plaguing our culture today can be traced to ugly secrets in our history, much the way problems in adult life can be traced to forgotten childhood traumas. Dana learns that the truth is buried with Aristotle’s lost dialogues. In Black Market Truth, she finds five of them and takes on the powerful conspiracy that will do anything to keep them a secret.

How did you get interested in Aristotle in the first place?

I got interested in Aristotle because of the mystery surrounding him. He published twenty-one dialogues throughout his life. Like Plato’s dialogues, they were popular expositions of philosophy. Unlike Plato’s dialogues, however, they completely disappeared. All we know of them is their titles and a few fragments. Meanwhile, the works we attribute to Aristotle today are lecture notes never intended for publication.

When I found this out I began to wonder what was in those dialogues that made it so convenient for them to disappear. I figured it had to be something really big. Compare the case of Plato again. Plato said a lot of controversial things – for instance, that women could be rulers. Yet Plato was respected as a philosopher. Aristotle, on the other hand, had to flee Athens to escape persecution. Who did his dialogues threaten?

The answer I propose in the novel is that they threatened the most powerful force in his day, a religious cult that was the direct precursor to the most powerful force of our own day, Christianity.

The lecture notes we attribute to Aristotle have traditionally been interpreted as consistent with Christianity. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas read them as a metaphysical foundation for his faith. We know today, however, that these works are fraught with internal contradictions that suggest they were not by Aristotle alone but rather compiled from a number of different instructors at the Lyceum where Aristotle taught.
One strand of thought within the works is nominalism, the view that there are no common essences. Nominalism is dangerous to Christianity because it implies that concepts like “humanity” are made up.

The medieval philosopher William of Ockham believed Aristotle was a nominalist and read the lecture notes as a somewhat jumbled defense of nominalism. Ockham landed in deep trouble for attributing nominalism to Aristotle and for defending it himself. What if Ockham was right? This is the question the trilogy explores. I include an essay at the back of the book explaining which parts of the story are fact and which parts are fiction.

Which gaps in our knowledge about Aristotle’s life particularly inspired your imagination to fill them in?

His love life, of course! We know Aristotle hooked up with a slave girl and that they probably had a son. That appealed to my sense of romance and it told me something about the kind of man Aristotle was. I don’t picture him the way stodgy classicists do. I picture him as a mischievous, sexy son of a bitch.

For the novel, you had to write lost dialogues by Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers in history. How did you do that? Chutzpah?

It takes a lot more chutzpah to write a scholarly monograph on Aristotle! Writing non-fiction, you have to present a factual interpretation from start to finish. Writing fiction, I’m allowed to pretend a little. Aristotle would have had to be a real asshole to mind that.

If I were pitching the book to Hollywood, and said “It’s The Da Vinci Code meets The Name of the Rose”, would you be insulted or flattered?

I’d be flattered. In fact, it’s not a bad way to understand what I’m trying to do. Black Market Truth is like The Da Vinci Code because it’s an international thriller and makes controversial claims about Christianity. It’s like The Name of The Rose because it tells the story of a persecuted philosopher with revolutionary ideas. Like both of those books, Black Market Truth invites people to think about history in a new way.

Who would you like to play the two leads in such a film?

That question came up at one of my readings. The audience tossed out several suggestions. In the end, we decided that Jenifer Garner should play the fearless American professor Dana McCarter and Nick Cage should play the conflicted Italian inspector Domenico Conti.

Black Market Truth by Sharon Kaye is published by Parmenides at $14.95

The human touch

forum45200Unless we have an extremely rare neurological condition, touch is present within every single interaction with objects in the world, and a considerable amount of interaction with people. The submissive position it is accorded perhaps mirrors the dismissive attitude we accord to touch in everyday experience: so obvious as to be meaningless, with seemingly little need for interpretation. Yet the long history of the relationship between vision and touch in science and philosophy indicates a more complexly experienced and articulated world. In striving for verification, do we reach out to touch something to feel its truth, or do we believe our eyes? And in the notoriously visual culture in which we live, what is the place of touch?

Like much of philosophy, what is closest or most obvious to us is revealed to be most distant. Or, as Heidegger once asked in The Essence of Truth: “How is it that the apparently self-evident turns out, upon closer examination, to be understood least? Answer: because it is too close to us and because we proceed in this way with everything close.” Not only the banal, everyday nature of touch but also its transience and deeply subjective nature, are all potential factors that make it unattractive for philosophers to consider seriously. There are no treatises on tactility, and few works praising the hand as opposed to the eye.

Nevertheless, the history of western philosophy is peppered with references to touch and tactility, even if primarily in relation to vision and the eye. In such works as Descartes’ Dioptrique (Optics, 1637) and Berkeley’s Essay Towards A New Theory of Vision (1709), touch is discussed only in relation to vision. Descartes unequivocally declares, “sight is the most comprehensive and the noblest” of the senses. Furthermore, the legacy of Platonic thought is characterised by an extreme aversion to, and suspicion of, touch and tactile properties.

Despite an inauspicious start in classical Greek scholarship and subsequently in the Renaissance, however, the story of touch becomes progressively richer as we reach the Enlightenment. For it was Denis Diderot, one of the founders of the original Encyclopaedia with Jean d’Alembert, who said in his Letter on the Blind (1749), “And I found that of all the senses the eye was the most superficial, the ear the most haughty, smell the most voluptuous, taste the most superstitious and inconstant, touch the most profound and philosophical.”

Some twentieth century European philosophy has engaged more directly with the possibilities and contingencies of touch as an alternative way of thinking about subjectivity, ethics and the question of the Other. Such figures include Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Luce Irigaray, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-Luc Nancy.

If history has been largely dismissive to the place of touch in philosophy, there is another ancient idea of the primacy of touch. Touch is, indeed, the first sense to develop in the human embryo, as Ashley Montagu’s Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin shows. Due to this very primordiality, touch sometimes functions as a model for all the senses, becoming the first sense prior to the differentiation into other senses like sight, smell and taste.

This tradition, spanning from Ancient Greek philosophy to recent folklore, classifies all senses as variations of touch. In De Sensu et Sensibilibus (On the Senses and Sensibilities) Aristotle reports the Atomist philosopher Democritus and his followers sharing this view, as “they represent all objects of sense as objects of touch”, and so “it clearly follows that each of the other senses is a mode of touch.” Aristotle himself hastily dismisses this treatment of sense perception as irrational, conceding only that taste and touch are related as they share the necessity for contact. Yet touch as a universal sensory model persists in some popular conceptions and folk knowledges. The primacy of touch and the celebration of the ambiguities of touching and feeling are also present in the work of more contemporary feminist philosophical figures such as Luce Irigaray and Edith Wyschogrod, as we shall see.

From Plato onwards, our enduring cultural assumption, compounded in later philosophy, is of the primacy not of touch but of vision. The famous division of the senses into five distinct ones occurs in Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul). He conceives it as a hierarchy, sight being the superior sense while touch is relegated to the lowest, basest position. In fact Aristotle reserves contempt for the “bestial” pleasures of taste but especially for erotic touch in his Ethics. This formal model of the five senses, as well as the value system behind its hierarchy that prioritises sight but is dismissive of touch, has clearly endured for millennia.

Doubting Thomas, embedded in the Christian heritage, is so-called for not believing what he saw, having to physically touch Christ’s wounds to ensure certainty. The popular expression “seeing is believing, but feeling’s the truth” reflects this. Our historical and philosophical legacy has favoured one side of the equation, and “seeing is believing” is the most remembered and rehearsed part of the phrase. At least in Western industrialised cultures, such attitudes maintain the sensory stereotype whereby vision is predominant, is distanced and even deceitful, whereas touch seems more intimate, reassuring and proximal. As in Doubting Thomas, touch is associated with verification, the connotations of tangibility being solid, foundational and undeceiving. And, as in Aristotle, touch in its immediacy is base or bestial.

Elsewhere, in De Anima, Aristotle does celebrate the aesthetic pleasures that touch affords, decoupling valid sensory pleasure from more bestial or carnal appetites. This is the case only for humans, who have the most finely discriminating powers of touch in the animal kingdom, and he sees this discriminatory power as indicative of superior intelligence. Thus, exploring the fine textures of a dress or a beautiful sculpture would show more discrimination and intelligence than, well, “copping a feel”.

Likewise, the philosopher Ficino, one of the major figures of the early Renaissance, followed his Greek classical forebears in equating touch with the baser, more carnal forms of love, and contrasted it with the “higher” or spiritual love associated with vision. His Platonica Theologica, like the work of Aristotle, acknowledged that touch was the “universal sense” in both animals and humans, and binds us to the animal world. For a religious man at the heart of the Renaissance’s celebration of all that is divine, raising our heads and opening up our eyes towards God, touch was the inevitable reminder of our lowly, animal origins and was therefore cast very negatively. If touch decidedly binds us to the animal world, it is the intellect that separates us from animals and allows us to contemplate the divine. It is no wonder, then, that in his Three Books on Life, written between 1480-1489, he declares: “Nature has placed no sense farther from the intelligence than touch.”

It is remarkable how powerfully this position is maintained, the exact reversal of Diderot’s view of touch three hundred years later. Ficino inherited the Greek unequivocal attitude towards touch with good reason. Not only was he a Neoplatonist, he was in fact the first translator of Plato into Latin and responsible for the Renaissance revival of Platonism. For Ficino, as for Aristotle, tactile properties are obvious, simple properties. “Of all the powers of the soul which are concerned with knowing,” he says in his Commentary on Plato’s Symposium, “the highest are intellect and reason, and the lowest are taste and touch. The last two for the most part lead down to bodily nature, while the first two lead up to divine substance, which is not of the body.”

A significant philosophical development occurs towards the end of the seventeenth century in thinking about the relationship between vision and touch. This concerned the case of blindness. Descartes had considered how the blind might use their eyes and hands in his Dioptrique, where he rather dismissively analogised the experience of the blind, saying “one might say that they see with their hands.” But a more considered treatment of space and touch in the congenitally blind was raised by Irish philosopher and scientist William Molyneux in a letter to John Locke, after the publication of the first edition of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690. Subsequently a whole host of philosophers including Berkeley, Diderot, Condillac and Voltaire became involved in a debate on the philosophy of blindness.

The letter was reprinted in later editions of Locke’s work, and became known as “Molyneux’s question”. It concerned the hypothetical case of a man born blind who could now see, at a time before cataract operations could answer this definitively. The question can be paraphrased like this: If a man, blind from birth, had an operation and suddenly gained his vision, could he tell a sphere from a cube by sight alone on the basis of a lifetime of solely tactile experience?

The answer reveals a huge amount about the relationship between the role of learnt experience and what is innate in our perception of the world. Remembering that the question was formulated before cataract operations had been performed successfully, the theoretical content of the question is really asking whether there is translation from one sensory system (touch) to another (sight), or whether it must be learned through repeated experience. Being an empiricist, Locke could allow nothing innate, nothing outside of the immediacy of experience, and therefore sided with the incompatibility of the sensory systems. There followed much discussion and disagreement. Indeed, Berkeley’s aim in his Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision was “to show the manner wherein we perceive the distance magnitude and situation of objects”, but as a significant correlate to this aim also “to consider the difference there is betwixt the ideas of sight and touch, whether there be any idea common to both senses.”

Molyneux’s question and the issue of the specificity of the senses, especially touch and vision, is important for later theories of psychology, philosophy of mind, and in particular the issue of how blind people conceive of space. In fact, the Molyneux problem was regarded by the great historical philosopher Ernst Cassirer in The Problem of Knowledge (1951) as the central question of eighteenth century epistemology and psychology. For the empirical psychologist Von Senden in his book Space and Sight of 1932 for example, what was felt by touch would produce a separate series of sensory impressions from what was seen. And more recently, the contemporary philosopher Shaun Gallagher in his How the Body Shapes the Mind follows this question through psychological experiments with young children to find that, to this day, the answer is not as straightforward as you might think.

The debates that ensued from Molyneux’s question were undeniably fruitful, and certainly in Diderot’s famous essay “Letter on the Blind for the Benefit of Those Who See”, the ability to seek evidence from actual blind people about touch and their imaginations of sight was a remarkable idea. Instead of endlessly hypothesising, Diderot went to a local village and asked a blind resident detailed questions, finding empirical evidence to resolve some of the troublesome questions that Molyneux and other philosophers had raised.

Centuries later, Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945), a sustained exploration of embodied consciousness, engages explicitly with the tactile and its relations to the other senses. He even declares “synaesthetic perception is the rule.” He speaks of the “tactile within the visible” in his later book The Visible and the Invisible. We can only truly talk about embodied perception if we acknowledge that touch is already there in the visible world, and that it establishes a reciprocal relation between an external world and our embodied consciousness; in other words, that there is something mutual between the toucher and the touched, that the toucher and the touched help constitute themselves as toucher, as touched. The paradigmatic case of the “tactile within the visible” is where Merleau-Ponty explains this co-constitution of toucher and touched through the emblematic example of one hand touching another hand:

“This can only happen if my hand, while it is felt from within, is also accessible from without, itself tangible, for my other hand, for example, if it takes its place among the things it touches, is in a sense one of them, opens finally upon a tangible being of which it is also a part. Through this criss-crossing within it of the touching and the tangible, its own movements incorporate themselves into the universe they interrogate, are recorded on the same map as it; the two systems are applied upon one another, as the two halves of an orange.”

Similarly, something of the primordial and maternal nature of touch, that of a mother and baby, or the reassuring carnality between lovers, is spoken of enigmatically by Luce Irigaray in her book An Ethics of Sexual Difference. She also hints at an ambiguity of touch, the same ambiguity of the physical act of touching and the emotion of being touched. Irigaray probes this ambiguity in a way consistent with considerations of the primacy of touch, of infant development, of interiority and exteriority, and of maternal, nurturing generosity: “Before orality comes to be, touch is already in existence,” she says. Reminiscent of the earlier discussion of the primacy of touch, for her there is something unique and subtle about touch that underlies all other perceptions, that helps to constitute an “inside” of the body and subjectivity as against an “outside”, and that continually, comfortingly affirms the tactility of flesh. This she does in a metaphor of her own that directly speaks to Merleau-Ponty’s example of the two hands touching. Instead, Irigaray suggests the lips are a better example of touching while being touched, simultaneously aware of each lip’s pressure while being a point of passage between inside and outside. From Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of hands touching each other, and Irigaray’s of lips, it is clear that we have proceeded into much more metaphorical territory.

Final mention must be made of the work of philosopher and Talmudic commentator Emmanuel Levinas. It follows the path we have taken from the immediacy of touch to a far more metaphorical notion of touching, a way of thinking fruitfully about intersubjectivity, about relations with others. Levinas’ concept of the “caress” is explained in Time and the Other (1987): “What is caressed is not touched, properly speaking.” Admittedly concerned with eroticism and sensibility, it is more about an orientation to an “other” subject in general than the straightforward sensation of touch. Rather than be limited, constrained, captured by lust or need for example, the caress allows a more ethical sensibility, letting the other be. There is something transcendent yet respectful about this, what he elsewhere describes as “a phenomenology of eros.”

The dictum of the Scholastic philosophers is relevant to thinking about the centrality of sensory experience: “There is nothing in the intellect that is not first present in the senses,” usually attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. The lowly position of touch in the hierarchy belies its complex constitution, being a sense that corresponds to no single organ. Physiologically, touch is a sense resulting from the combined information of innumerable receptors and nerve endings concerned with pressure, temperature, pain and movement. But there is more to touch. It is a sense of communication. It is receptive, expressive, can communicate empathy. It can bring distant objects and people into proximity. It is a carnal world, with its pleasures of feeling and being felt, of tasting and touching the textures of flesh and of food. And equally it is a profound world of philosophical verification, of the communication of presence and empathy with others, of the mutual implication or folding of body, flesh and world. That tension between the everyday immediacy of skin contact and the philosophical profundity of touch, between “immediate” and “deep” metaphorical touching, has been a continual presence within the philosophical senses of touch discussed.

Mark Paterson is lecturer in human geography at the University of Exeter and author of The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies (Berg)

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The wisdom of engineers

ValenciaPhilosophical questions about the external world and our knowledge of it are almost exclusively raised from the armchair. The knowledge we gain in everyday life or develop through scientific investigation is considered at the conceptual level, and its claim as genuine knowledge is assessed in abstraction from its exercise and application. This intellectually aloof manner is one reason that Anglo-American philosophy tends not to inform itself directly with scientific findings. Empirical studies of the world are apt for philosophical analysis, but few philosophers use them to inform that analysis. It is not surprising therefore that engineering has so far been uncharted territory for philosophers. But what would philosophers learn if they engaged with this practical discipline, a discipline that seeks not to understand the world but to change it?

If philosophers were to look more closely at the nature of practical knowledge about the world and practical engagement in it, many of the abstract questions and doubts that philosophers ponder become harder to entertain. It is very difficult to be a sceptic about the existence of the external world when you are working with it and changing it. It is also difficult to maintain sceptical doubts about knowledge of the world if you appreciate the way that knowledge is involved in the sophisticated interactions with the world that engineers perform.

Philosophy of science has a relatively long and established tradition, but has generally excluded engineering from its compass. Although there is no sharp distinction between engineering and science, they are often distinguished by their overarching goals. Roughly: science has the aim of providing knowledge and understanding of the world, which it does by making observations and discoveries and by constructing explanatory theories; engineering has the aim of making the world a more accommodating place, which it does by designing, constructing and maintaining artifacts, processes and systems of infrastructure. In terms of meta-aims for science and engineering, you might (contentiously) add that scientists aim for truth in the theories they develop, and (less contentiously) that engineers aim to create things that are useful and reliable.

Philosophy of science has most likely flourished because of the contentious nature of the claim that science provides true knowledge. There is a gap between scientific observations and the “reality” behind those observations which scientific method cannot bridge. Philosophers work in that gap, asking whether the explanatory theories based on observations really reflect reality. In contrast, the question of whether the products of engineering effort are useful, reliable and so on is generally answered by engineering methods and is not philosophically provocative. Something either works or not – there is no gap between “apparent” and “real” functionality to be filled by philosophical reasoning.

However, if philosophers are considering the nature of knowledge about the world they should take into account the practical products of engineering as well as the theoretical products of science. It first needs to be accepted that engineers, as well as scientists, produce knowledge. Engineering is often thought of as only applied science – engineers apply scientific theory to practical problems. But successful engineering practice can be developed in the absence of scientific theory. Engineers often point out that the steam engine was initially devised, and then perfected (most notably by James Watt), prior to the development of thermodynamics. It was only through investigating the functioning of steam engines, and creating idealised models of such engines, that Carnot developed the science of thermodynamics that explains their functioning. But in the absence of this theory should we judge that engineers worked blindly, or did they develop and apply knowledge? The answer is surely the latter. This was not theoretical knowledge, however, but practical knowledge. It was not even wholly propositional knowledge – knowledge that can be written down – but engineering know-how; knowledge that is evidenced by exercise not by recitation.

Engineering has developed an impressive body of such know-how: it is on the basis of such knowledge that we commute to work, take an elevator, check the internet or get ourselves a glass of water from the tap. This knowledge is different from theoretical scientific knowledge, but not wholly distinct from it. The two sources of knowledge blur: experimental science involves a great deal of practical know-how, and engineering science involves developing theories. It is therefore essential when theorising about human knowledge, scientific knowledge in particular, to take into account this impressive body of practical knowledge alongside scientific theory.

One philosopher who appreciates the role of engineering in science and has brought it to bear on philosophical questions is Ian Hacking. Hacking’s concern was the reality or not of so-called “theoretical entities” in science. Sub-atomic particles are treated in philosophy as (merely) theoretical entities because they are not directly observable, but are posited by scientific theory to explain the observations that are made. Hacking argues that it is only when one focuses on observability, or the lack of it, that one is tempted to class entities described by science as “theoretical” and to therefore question their reality. If one focuses on the ability to manipulate those entities then one becomes less ambivalent about their existence. Hacking discusses the example of a polarised electron gun, designed to emit polarised electrons for use in experimentation. He concludes that if one can successfully design such a device and can thereby harness the behaviour of electrons, it is pretty hard to be sceptical about their existence.

Hacking points out that it is largely engineering know-how rather than theoretical knowledge that went into the design and construction of the polarised electron gun. A more timely example of engineering’s role in experimentation is the large hadron collider being built at CERN. This might be part of one of the largest-scale scientific experiments ever run, testing our most fundamental theories, but it is also an incredibly challenging engineering project. Designed to recreate experimentally the conditions at the beginning of the universe, it is expected to reveal the Higg’s Boson – the as yet undiscovered entity necessary to the standard model of particle physics. It is hoped that the collider will reveal a great deal more – possibly even lending support to supersymmetry, the theory that for every particle there exists a heavier partner, a theory which solves some major problems in the standard model. No one is sure what will happen to accepted and postulated theory when the collider roars into life, but what is certain is that the rotating beams of protons that will collide in the facility are real, not theoretical. It will be proven that we know how to get them to do what is necessary in order to learn more about them. This shows that, even without full theoretical knowledge of fundamental particles, you can engineer a system to reveal that knowledge. Hence there is something other than theoretical knowledge of fundamental particles that one can’t be sceptical of – knowledge of their existence and of how to manipulate them.

This brings us to the philosophically significant issue of theory change. One of the philosophical arguments bridging the gap between theory and reality in science is the pessimistic induction. This is the argument that current theories should not be accepted as true on the basis that they are highly likely to turn out to be false. Past experience tells us that new theories arrive and usurp accepted scientific belief, as the Newtonian system was ousted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Therefore we should expect current theories to be similarly overturned. The conviction that current theories will end up on the scrapheap even leads to scepticism about the very idea of scientific progress. If new theories emerge that paint right over what was previously believed, offering a fundamentally different picture of reality, they do not build on previous scientific knowledge but replace it.

Joseph Pitt, in his article “What Engineers Know”, argues that the pessimistic induction allows engineers to score a triumph over science. This is because the scrapheap of engineering is unlike the scientific scrapheap. When a new engineering design is developed, say for an aircraft, it does not overwrite previous designs. However revolutionary it is in terms of materials used, how light, fuel efficient, fast or capacious it is, while it improves on existing planes, it cannot show that they fail to work. It builds on existing design and improves it, rather than showing existing designs to be flawed. To take a more revolutionary example, internet-based communications such as email do not render telephone communications obsolete. The new methods devised for routing information across networks have not rendered older means of connecting people irrelevant. Rather, a new mode of communication has developed as an additional tool that exists alongside the older technology (which continues to be improved in its own right).

Pitt goes on to argue that this shows that the practical knowledge of engineers is more secure than scientific, theoretical knowledge. But there is no need to take sides. The important thing is that applied knowledge – applied theoretical science, applied engineering science or pure engineering know-how – does not leave the same room for philosophical doubt that theoretical knowledge does. Knowledge of something like how to build an aircraft stays useful, even if more useful knowledge exists – and as mentioned earlier, usefulness is not generally philosophical contentious. If we are willing to accept that a large part of our shared knowledge of the world includes engineering knowledge, then we can conclude that a lot of our sophisticated knowledge is steadfast; that it has been, and will continue to be, developed and improved upon. This makes sense of what remains self-evident even in the light of the pessimistic induction, that we have made progress in our ability to adapt the natural world and to build artifacts that allow us to live more comfortably in it.

An important aspect of engineering knowledge in addition to its practical nature is the fact that it is most often shared knowledge – shared by researchers, design teams and even whole corporations. Complex engineering projects involve a number of people working on different aspects in different locations. Take, for example, the development of the Airbus A380, the current largest passenger plane. This project has taken advantage of engineering and manufacturing expertise across Europe. Developing, testing and constructing this aircraft was not simply a matter of copying what has been done before on a larger scale, but posed novel challenges due to the new services that Airbus planned to incorporate into the plane and to its sheer size. The fact that there were novel challenges involved was evidenced by the fact that the project has hit upon numerous delays in delivery. Lessons are learned through such challenges, however, and new knowledge is created on how to deal with the problems of constructing larger and more complex aircraft. However, this is not knowledge held by any one person or single team. It is emergent knowledge, dispersed amongst people, held in various databases, designs and so on (and even gained by competitors).

Looking at engineering knowledge in this way reveals that a great deal of important, knowledge does not reside in individuals’ heads. Realising this is relevant to addressing scepticism about knowledge in general. Kieron O’Hara in Plato and the Internet argues that the sceptical questions raised within the philosophical model of knowledge as “justified true belief” have less purchase in a world where a significant amount of knowledge is held by organisations rather than individuals, where it is held in different peoples’ heads (and laptops), in databases, in records and on the internet. Sceptical worries that are based on the possibility that one could be dreaming, or could be deluded by an evil demon, meaning that one’s beliefs or perceptions are radically wrong, do not apply to knowledge which is not in the form of a belief in an individual’s head. Hence, once more, engineering knowledge is less vulnerable to this form of sceptical doubt than other forms of knowledge.

A final kind of philosophical worry that might be allayed by looking at how we manipulate the world concerns the questions that arise about the relation between the mind and the body. Descartes, in his Meditations, famously cast doubt on the necessary connection between mind and body, imagining that he could conceive of himself as existing separately from his gross physical body, as a purely mental thing. This Cartesian dualism has led to philosophical scepticism about the existence of other minds. If we imagine minds and bodies as being somehow independent, we can imagine bodies existing without minds. Thus we can conceive of the possibility that the bodies around us are hollow automota without the mental life that we have. However, robotics itself could provide us with an interesting perspective on this issue.

One of the most valuable contributions that engineering has made to human welfare is through its collaboration with medicine. Biomedical engineering is responsible for developments in keyhole surgery and in the development of functional prosthetic limbs. To be able to design and make a limb that responds to an individual’s intentions and moves to some degree like a real limb gives a different perspective into the relation between mind and body. Modern prosthetic limbs work on the basis of understanding the working of the nervous system, and therefore work entirely on the physical level. However, the aim of such devices – and at present they are a long way from this aim – is for them to work as a normal limb, to move on the basis of thought, of mental inclination, to be a natural expression of behaviour. The design and fitting of such limbs is a matter of intervening in the process of connecting mental activity to behaviour. Being able to affect such a connection narrows the window for philosophical doubt about the intimate connection between mind and physical behaviour. It is to experience how mind and body connect, not just to have a more detailed physical theory of how the body and brain interact. As engineers get better at making such limbs work, their experience of connecting mind and body will become ever more significant.

Once one is out of the armchair, out of the laboratory even, scepticism is much harder. This is an extension of Hume’s point that in one’s everyday life it is impossible to be a sceptic due to the distractions of leisure or the pressures of merely surviving. If we look at practical knowledge of the world and see how it is generated and used, the gap between appearance and reality, where sceptical doubts arise, is narrowed. When one realises that much knowledge is know-how, the gap between theory and reality closes. If one accepts that not all knowledge is beliefs in individuals’ heads, the worry about delusion is less pressing. And if one is working in the gap between mind and body, helping people to connect mind to an extended, prosthetic body part, the possibility of mindless bodies becomes less real.

Natasha McCarthy is policy advisor at The Royal Academy of Engineering


(cc) Ben Stanfield (acabden@flikr)

(cc) Ben Stanfield (acabden@flikr)

The transition from George Bush to Barack Obama was bound to be of interest to philosophers for reasons that are far from exclusively political. Bush’s advanced degree was in business administration, Obama’s was in law. Bush got mediocre grades at best, Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review. Bush spent his first adult decades dabbling unsuccessfully in oil and baseball, Obama wrote two books and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Bush made a virtue of making decisions quickly and then sticking to them no matter what, Obama seeks out disagreement and advice from people who don’t share his politics. Bush insisted on absolute loyalty during his presidency, at the Harvard Law Review, Obama annoyed his progressive friends by appointing only one of them as an editor compared to three conservative Federalists. The differences between the previous administration and the new one, in short, are far more than purely political, and in fact radiate out in many directions.

It seems difficult to dispute that many of the differences are likely to be seen as improvements by most academics and intellectuals even if they are politically conservative. The shift from a pervading suspicion (real or assumed) of the intellect to the reverse of that can hardly help but appeal to philosophers.

The result on philosophy blogs was sometimes plain content-free giddiness. At Feminist Philosophers “Jender” did a post titled “At Long Last…” saying she had started a list of ways to complete that sentence but they all seemed entirely inadequate. “And I imagine we all have our own favourite completions, ranging from the angrily prosaic (we have a President who was ELECTED) to the more idealistic.”

Steve Gimbel, at Philosophers’ Playground, sympathised with comedians who mourned the loss of Bush, solicited Obama jokes, and offered a few himself. “Since Obama’s election, relations have gotten much closer between the US and Great Britain. The English are now less self-conscious about Prince Charles’ ears.” Not a goldmine for comedy, then.

Brian Leiter did have a political view; he was “pleasantly amused” that Obama mentioned non-believers in his inaugural address when “I know that, deep down, Obama, as an old Nietzsche Man, can’t believe any of that religious nonsense,” but he noted that it’s far more important “that Obama has now chosen top legal officials who actually believe in the rule of law, human dignity, and individual rights. No wonder the reactionary Chief Justice Roberts choked when delivering the oath of office!”

Actually, however, it is some wonder if Chief Justice Roberts in fact really does not believe in the rule of law, which is usually considered at least as much a conservative value as a progressive one. A better way of putting it is that it’s just a sane value, and thus one that cuts across political affiliation and especially party loyalty.

Mark Kleiman of The Reality-Based Community wrote a post- inauguration piece on “President Obama, civic republican”, arguing that the central point of Obama’s inaugural address was “its appeal back to the civic republican tradition of Tom Paine and Benjamin Rush, which emphasised public virtue rather than individual prosperity.” Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison all had civic-republican tendencies of thought, Kleiman said, but Hamilton ended up prevailing. Obama is “not so one-sided as to neglect Hamiltonian wisdom,” but he seems intent on righting the balance, “on reminding people of what they should do rather than what should be done for them, on substituting ‘Follow me!’ as a political slogan for the now-conventional ‘Soooo-eeeeeeeeee! Here pig pig pig pig pig!’”

Tibor Machan saw not so much a civic republican emphasis on virtue as an imposition of large goals on people at the expense of their own smaller, private plans. Quoting the inaugural address on “the scale of our ambitions” and “big plans”, Machan took exception to Obama’s “implicit assertion that what matters in a good society is that there be some kind of large scale ambition afoot, some sort of big plan,” saying that it smacked to him of “those famous Five Year Plans that the Soviet Union was constantly rolling out and conscripting everyone to serve.” What the public good amounts to in a free society, he argued, is “that everyone’s rights are secured so they may all go about their big or small plans without being driven by some leader, king, tsar or ‘Fuhrer’.”

Machan also objected to Obama’s shout-out to “the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things” on the grounds that it “continues the misimpression that the worthy kind of work must be physical labour.” Machan urged that “the work done by entrepreneurs and inventors and architects, work that’s largely intellectual and not so physical must not be overlooked” and concluded by saying no thanks: “for the President of the United States of America it is really somewhat out of line to make it appear that what most of us need is for him to show us his care.”

The civic republicans and the private planners should have a lot to talk about in the next few years.