ad astra per alia porci

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.


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