ad astra per alia porci

there is beauty, even in the ugly bits
December 25, 2010, 5:28 am
Filed under: diary | Tags: , , , , , , ,

It is joy to watch a butcher focused on his work, expressing the hidden intricacies and careful gentleness of his craft. I do not think that butchery is a craft that many youths today would seriously consider as their profession of choice, and it is sad that it has become popularly viewed as blue collar, mindless, rough work. So what’s wrong with being “blue collar”? This whole class talk is nonsense and the further we move away from it the better.

If this video tells me anything at all, it tells me that there is nobility in any profession, and hidden depths of knowledge, skill and care in everything we do, and we should accord respect to anyone who does his job with heart.

The Pig & The Butcher from Paper Fortress on Vimeo.

I think, therefore I run

I have always thought that there is a close relation between philosophy and running. Running provides both an excellent metaphor and experience to which we can apply philosophical problems, as well as a conducive context in which one can do good philosophical thinking.

Running & Philosophy: a marathon for the mind (edited by Michael Austin, Blackwell Publishing: 2007) is an excellent volume that explores the various philosophical questions that arise most relevantly in the context of running. Runners encounter certain common questions, and each runner will consciously or unconsciously hold views on and hence answers to these questions. Why do I wake up and run every day? Should I? What good does running do to me? How should I run? Does my body do the bidding of my mind ? Are they the same thing? Such questions are fundamentally philosophical in nature; they seem parochially focused on running but upon closer inspection one realises that they relate to much more fundamental issues which philosophy seeks to answer.  The philosophers featured in this volume are runners themselves, so we can trust them (more) to understand the issues. What emerges is a set of thoughtful, insightful and (most importantly) passionate non-technical essays that addresses some of the deepest and most relevant questions pertaining to running, which I feel any runner of any stripe (competitive or fitness, young or old) can closely relate to and understand to a large degree.

Some of the essays speak out to me more than the others, largely because they reflect or relate to how I think and approach running, as well as the thoughts that naturally come to me when I run.

First is the link between running and the good life. I have always thought that running trains the virtues. Particularly, running inculcates perseverance and tenacity. A runner has to fight the urge to stop and relieve the persistent muscular pains and strenuous exertion of every heartbeat and hold steady onto his running goals, as well as have the discipline to run consistently and regularly. In doing so, the runner builds up his mental endurance and tenacity. Hence running is part of a good life, or is at least a means to living a good life. This view presumes that a good life is a virtuous one, and running is a means to achieve virtue. Virtue theorists think that virtue is the key to the good life. Aristotle, the seminal virtue theorist, thinks that virtue consists of a mean between extremes which may be inculcated and learned through consistent and proper practise. Hence when we run, we practise virtues like perseverance and tenacity.

Hedonists will not agree. They think that pleasure is the sole constituent of a good life, and anything that does not conduce towards the creation of pleasure is not part of a good life. Hence running will probably not be a means of achieving a pleasurable life, since it produces physical pain. Biting cramps, stinging blisters and aching muscles are simply not pleasurable.

But extolling the value of running can be consistent with hedonism. The runner plausibly experiences mental pleasure in physical pain. To describe the runner as a masochist would be to take things too far, but surely, the runner finds some sort of satisfaction after a run, regardless of the pain of his cramp or blister. Alternatively, the runner’s “pain” may be recharacterised as pleasure. A person who loves running does not experience pain at all while running, on this account, which a non-runner feels pain.

So is the runner at heart a hedonist? Does he, in reality, run for the sake of pleasure? I do not think most runners will tell you that they run solely for pleasure. I think there will be many runners who run for the sake of other things which they find intrinsically valuable, like fitness, virtue and happiness. However hedonists like John Stuart Mill will argue that psychological hedonism is ultimately at work here: that every thing we are motivated to do are ultimately grounded in expectations of pain and pleasure. Who is right? I think that psychological hedonism is a hypothesis that is unprovable either way. It is neither easily provable nor disprovable (we need massive amounts of relevant empirical data). Hence the hypothesis reduces to pure speculation.

Second is the mind/body problem. Is the mind separate from the body? Or is the mind (or consciousness) really just the brain, the mere result of photons firing? While running, I often wonder whether my mind is indeed separate from my physical body. Running unsurprisingly raises this question more starkly then in many other activities, because of the common phenomena of runners “willing” their tired and struggling bodies to go on and not stop. The element of conscious intention figures so strongly that it seems that running provides an example in support of dualism, which is the view that the mind is not purely physical. On the other hand, the contrary account, materialism, states that the mind is the brain. Mental phenomena is purely the product of physical, neurological processes, and may be fully and sufficiently explained by such. This is a huge hot spot for philosophical debate, which rages on with intensity that increases with the rate we are finding out more about how our brains work.

I tend to agree with dualists like Chalmers. It seems that subjective experience (the technical word being “qualia”) cannot be explained fully by neuroscience. There seems to be an explanatory gap in this respect: the best science cannot account of why consciousness, that is the subjective experience that humans have of things in the world, exists. The conscious experience of the runner is a good example. While running, I experience the sorrows of missing my personal best, the happiness of feeling the wind in my hair and the bittersweet melancholic feeling of randomly remembering the walks that my grandparents used to bring me on when I was much younger. A purely neurological explanation does not lead to the conclusion that my subjective experiences while running should exist. It only shows that certain representations will be flashed in my mind. I might just be a running zombie that perceives mere representations, without the internal subjective experiences that produces the usual subjective experiences each of which are individually unique to the person experiencing it that runners have. However, I do have these subjective experiences, and plenty of them too.

Yet I think a clear and absolute separation is too simplistic. One can possibly hold that mind and body are indeed separate but they strongly influence each other. To put it colloquially, mind embodies body and body embodies mind. When my body is engaged in running, my mind starts to embody the values and norms of running. When my mind is directed towards running, my body naturally follows and begins to shape itself to become the body of a runner. Body and mind are engaged in a circular relationship, each reinforcing and shaping the other. I think the Asics motto is very true: “Sound mind, sound body”. Running creates a sound body, which is in turn required for a sound mind, and vice versa.

My third point has nothing philosophical to it. Running is a very conducive context within which to think deeply about issues and questions, which need not be fundamentally philosophical. Running allows me to cut up a part of the day, which I could dedicate to pure thought while exercising the body. My mind empties out white noise, focuses on the question or issues of the day, and I communicate with myself. Most of my best and deepest thinking occurs during my runs. I do not think that this can be done in other sports, particularly team sports. There will not be sufficient mental solace.

Books that try to bridge the gap between “academic” philosophy and popular culture and everyday life usually do not make the grade for me. My experience tells me that they either collapse into superficial and insubstantial banter about philosophy (or worse, the autobiographical lives of philosophers) or strenuously seek to create artificial and tenuous links between the two subject matter. I do not know if I am being biased because I am a runner myself, but I find Running & Philosophy to be pitched at exactly the correct level. The philosophy discussed does not require prior knowledge of philosophy, yet the essays stay closely relevant to running, and provide sufficient substance and intellectual provocation to keep the reader thinking long after finishing reading them. My only gripe with the book is that it did not have essays that approach running through the Eastern philosophical tradition. I wish that popular philosophy books are more like this gem of a book.

best article title, ever
December 13, 2010, 2:30 pm
Filed under: diary, philosophy

I just met the best title I have ever encountered for a philosophy paper:

The Power of Passion on Heartbreak Hill

Written by Michelle Maise, in a very good collection of articles on running, Running & Philosophy, edited by Michael Austin. Review and reflections on the collection due soon.

david chalmers is a hero
December 11, 2010, 5:20 pm
Filed under: philosophy

The central problem in the philosophy of mind, in a nice, informative and succinct interview:

Chalmers looks like a absolute rock star, with big hair and leather jacket. Can a philosophy professor, or even any professor in any discipline, get even more cooler than that???

wonder and scepticism
December 11, 2010, 4:38 pm
Filed under: philosophy | Tags: , ,

My own experience of philosophy tells me that two ingredients are required for happy and fulfilling philosophising: wonder and scepticism.

Wonder is the capacity for awe when one perceives the rich complexity and mysterious beauty of the world. Philosophers have long noticed the importance of wonder. The exact provenance of this opinion is unclear; this observation has been variously credited to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Whiteheadd. But whoever lays claim to it does not matter.

What  matters is that it expresses a central kernel of truth: philosophy begins in wonder. It is a child-like state, where one sees the world through unprejudiced and eager eyes and many, many questions pops up in one’s inquisitive mind, each aching to be explored and hopefully answered. Even the simplest and the most seemingly mundane things transforms into rich mines of questions; they take on a new coat of mystery. Wonder motivates the philosopher to strive to understand and unravel the mysterious workings of the world.

Scepticism is a questioning attitude. It compels us not to blindly accept common claims and beliefs, but rather subject them to critical scrutiny, to constantly examine, probe and adjust our views on what the world is. It is both destruction and creation; untenable beliefs and theories are cast aside while new ones are built through it.

Interest and progress cannot be sustained without having both. While wonder provides the fuel, scepticism provides the map. Wonder spurs the philosopher to ask questions, but without scepticism it results in undisciplined, wild and ultimately sporadically successful searches for truth. Scepticism breaks many of our closely-held beliefs and creates frustration in the search for the best theory, and has the effect of diluting the philosopher’s enthusiasm. Wonder is the counterbalance that pushes the philosopher onwards.

philosophical stock-taking

Now that my little sojourn into university-level philosophy is over (for now at least), I find it appropriate to state my position on the range of philosophical issues canvassed in my philosophy modules and to mark my progress in philosophical thought. These positions are not in any sense at all set in stone; they are certainly, and should be,  prone to refinement and revision.

For my minor in philosophy, I took courses in metaethics, moral philosophy, political philosophy and the philosophy of religion.

I am a newly-minted deontologist. I always had my niggling feelings of doubt about utilitarianism and all forms of consequentialism, and my modules on ethics confirmed them. Consequentialism cannot be the correct ethical theory. It faces deep problems of proving intrinsic value and matching our considered judgments. In this respect, deontology has the upper hand. However, deontology faces its own problems – a priori justifications are that much harder to accept and prove, compared to empirical justifications which consequentialists like Mill usually rely on. Virtue ethics have a very strong “common sense” appeal, but I would regard virtue ethics as either subsumed under deontology or providing an account of the good life, not morally right action.

For political philosophy, I believe that Rawls provides a much more convincing and persuasive account of distributive justice than the utilitarians and libertarians (particularly Nozick). I use the words “much more convincing” deliberately to show that Rawls has a better theory in relative terms, not that Rawls is absolutely correct. I do not think that his contractualist justification of his principles of Justice as Fairness is convincingly enough. I think that his argument against desert is more successfully, but it does not prove that his particular idea of justice is right. In fact, it justifies non-desert-based pattern theories in general. It does not tell us which one is correct, unfortunately. Despite my doubts about Rawls’ theory, I think they are more likely to be right than what the utilitarians and Nozick advocate. Utilitarian justice is, simply put, not justice at all. Nozick blindly advocates liberty, and it is not apparently clearly why liberty must be the sole and only value that distributive justice advances.

On the metaethical front, I am a moral cognitivist. I believe that moral claims are belief claims. I reject moral non-cognitivism, which states that we essentially engage in cross-talk when we express our moral views and moral claims are expressions of blunt emotion and are not claims about beliefs, largely because it does not properly characterise and does not take seriously what we mean when we engage in moral discourse.

I am a moral realist. Unlike Mackie and Harman, I believe that there are objectively true moral principles or beliefs, and we can find them out, even though the path might not be a very easy one.

I think moral anti-realists make the common mistake of transplanting the scientific empirical method into ethics and thinking that ethics works in the same way as science.

I am undecided whether I am a ethical naturalist or non-naturalist. My rejection of utilitarianism is the main reason for this indecision; utilitarians can more easily (and consistently) claim that they are moral realists. Deontologists need to find some second order theory that coheres with their first order deontic principles, and it seems that it is hard to have a second order theory that is naturalistic, particularly in the fully reductionist sense.

I am an externalist about the motivational force of moral reasons and believe in the Humean theory of motivation. I do not think that reason alone suffices to motivate action, and I do think that desire is almost always the root of all motivation. Man has always been at least partly if not fully animal  in nature. The explanatory power of the Humean theory is great and conversely it erodes the credibility of internalist accounts of moral reasons.

The philosophy of religion is extremely technical and profound, once one delves into it sufficiently. Hence I cannot say that I have understood the material sufficiently to have a very well-formed stance.

Given what I have been taught and the little that I know, I am an agnost. I do not find the arguments supporting the existence of the theistic God to be sufficiently persuasive. Neither do I find the arguments against the existence of the theistic God to be knock-down arguments too. However, I think that the weight of the evidence and arguments lie against the existence of God. This presupposes that “rational” argument and empirical evidence are appropriate means to arrive at truth in this area at least. The philosophy of religion might have a difference epistemology. Faith may be a viable alternative. I need to learn more about this.

From the way I have presented by final views, it might seem that I have separate views in separate areas. But this is not so. As with most other subjects, philosophy cannot be studied and understood properly in isolated areas. It simply cannot be compartmentalised, with each area of philosophy hermetically sealed off from the other. For example, assessing Rawls’ argument from the rejection of desert (ostensibly a question for political philosophy) requires one to understand and have an opinion on the compatibility between free will and determinism (a question for the philosophy of free will).  For example, assessing the tenability of the doctrine of double effect (ethics) requires one to know the philosophy of cause and effect.

Hence a proper and true understanding of any philosophical issue requires wide and deep knowledge in many areas. Herein lies the roots of both frustration and joy. Often, the student of philosophy (alright, myself at least) gets frustrated whenever one hits a brick wall, that is when one meets a philosophical issue that requires one to dabble in other areas which the tutor does not tread into and the scope of course does not encompass. The student then has to do some independent work, but without tutelage and guidance, this might be a uphill task. Yet every triumph delivers satisfaction.

So even though I have learnt something about the various areas I have covered for my philosophy modules, there is a huge amount of things which I do not know and would like to know. Studying one area of philosophy opens up even more questions requiring knowledge of other areas. Studying ethics have given me much impetus to learn more about epistemology and metaphysics. For example I was introduced to ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism in my metaethics class; to understand which view is more tenable, one needs to learn something about metaphysics. For example Rawls’ reflective equilibrium is now considered a major method in ethical inquiry; I tend to doubt its efficacy and prefer a priori methods. To resolve this problem, I need to learn more about moral epistemology.

So in essence, there is so much more to learn and discover. Philosophy will continue to be in my life, in some way or another. It is going to be a part of my intellectual and leisure (!) life at least, if not my career and academic life in the future. I am still pondering over whether I should go into academic philosophy and law.

I like the blurb on the NUS philosophy T-shirt which some of the professors wear now and then. It sums up my experience of studying philosophy: “Come for the answers, stay for the questions.”