ad astra per alia porci

the edge of creation

At a recent dinner with my secondary school class and form teacher, I commented that studying law is easier than philosophy. My friends were quite surprised since law is commonly perceived as an exacting and tough subject to study, in comparison to the “fluffy” humanities. They did not pursue the issue and ask for my reasons.

I really do think that as an academic discipline, law is easier than philosophy. I might not have engaged in the study of philosophy for my entire undergraduate career and indeed I have in fact studied much more law than philosophy, but I think that I have enough experience to give an informed opinion.

It is important to explain exactly what I mean when I claim that it is “easier”. In what way is it easier?

Studying law is easier than studying philosophy in the sense that one can become proficient and adept in law through sheer hard work alone, while the same cannot be said of philosophy. The law is in essence a closed set of explicit rules and principles that, when applied to particular facts and cases, will yield certain results. These rules and principles are all readily found in the textbooks, statutes and legal cases. If one knows and understands the technical machinery of the law, one becomes proficient in the law. It does not take a lot of innate ability to become proficient at the law; it takes only a strong will and hard work. If a student is less adept with language or learns at a slower pace than another student, that student just needs to put in more effort and she will get there eventually.

Something more is required for philosophy. Philosophy has no concept of precedent. Aristotle might be a great philosopher but he has no special claim to the truth by virtue of his reputation and authority alone. His words cannot and must not be taken as absolute truth. Instead, philosophers looks for reasons and arguments that support or run against propositions and subject them to critical analysis. The field of possible arguments are limitless. This lack of limit translates readily to creativity. Philosophers have to perform mental acrobatics and challenge pre-existing presumptions, finding new and viable ways to make good arguments or destroy unjustified belief.

In contrast, for law, the arguments that are required in the conventional cases that may be resolved by pre-existing legal principles and rules are limited by precedent. Certain arguments cannot be made while certain other arguments must be made. There is a correct answer, and all we need to do is do sufficient leg and mental work to find it out.

So far I have treated the study of law as limited in its application to the “easy” cases. What about (to use Dworkin’s term) the “hard” cases which existing legal precedent do not cover and the court has to fashion new rules of law and/or reject existing rules? I readily concede that we see more creativity in the hard cases, because there is no existing legal rule to be applied and a new rule must be fashioned. However, this creativity is not limitedless, as would be the case in philosophy. Dworkin’s interpretive approach to law reveals this. Dworkin suggests that in the hard cases, the judge must seek to fashion a rule of law that presents the entire corpus of law in the best light possible. He calls this approach “constructive interpretation”. Constructive interpretation requires the new legal rule to both fit the past corpus of legal rules as well as bring the law to where it should be. It must be noted that under this view, the new legal rule in hard cases must show respect for past precedent. Hence in this way, the kind and form of legal arguments that may be raised in support of particular new legal rules are still limited in some way by what exists already in past precedent. It is perhaps less limited as compared to the situation in easy cases, but it is still limited.

Personally, I like the challenge of hard legal cases. I like the creativity required, the room to wander intellectually and the opportunity to construct from existing material as well as non-legal material coherent and sustainable arguments in support of new legal principles and rules. I like the tension between respecting precedent and testing legal boundaries. The easy cases fall within the comfort zone of law students and are correspondingly unexciting. It is in the hard cases, at the edges of legal creation, where the really exciting and demanding things are done. I tend to think of this as the legal equivalent of a geological phenomenon: the creation and destruction of land through movements of tectonic plates. When the tectonic plates of the Earth move against or away from each other, existing land is destroyed and new land is created. Similarly, in the hard cases new law is created and old law is destroyed. I have always regarded the edges of the law as particularly interesting, engaging and intellectually exciting since opportunities abound to create better laws and destroy bad ones.

This is the reason why I specifically chose to do my pupillage in the appellate department of a law firm. I hope that I will be engaged in appellate cases, so that I can stand at the edges of legal creation and contribute in some way to the creation of good laws and the destruction of bad laws.  I think that practising in this area of the law will be intellectually and spiritually fulfilling, and I certain hope that I am not wrong to think so.

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.”

Moore’s non-naturalism, but with a touch of… love

The nature of goodness has perplexed many and generated a huge corpus of diverse philosophical works. For theists, the concept of the Good is intrinsically bound up with God, for God determines what is good. Philosophers however in general tend to be of the secular persuasion, and hence tend to view the Good and God as distinct and separate, and place the Good above God. Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good is one of the attempts to construct a metaethical view without God, a project which is of particular interest to me from an intellectual and personal point of view.

Murdoch is a unabashed neo-Platonist, an increasing rarity in today’s academic landscape which is increasingly moving away from the Platonic worldview. Murdoch’s view of the nature of the Good finds it roots in Plato’s concept of the Forms, where the Good has an ethereal, non-natural quality, and is a close cousin of G.E. Moore’s ethical non-naturalism. Murdoch rejects the pervasive rationalist influence on the conception of the Good, which states that in the absence of God, the Good is purely the product of human will. In the gap that God left, the existentialists and rationalists fill it with human will. In Murdoch’s words, “Kant abolished God and made man God in his stead”, such that the will is the creator of value and “values which were previously in some sense inscribed in the heavens and guaranteed by God collapse into the human will”. Murdoch sees the Kantian man as “the offspring of the age of science, confidently rational and yet increasingly aware of his alienation from the material universe which his discoveries reveal”.

Murdoch advocates a return to conceiving the Good as being identical to God’s characteristics. While some philosophers view Good as materially different from God, Murdoch’s concept of Good is essentially God without God. Murdoch defines God as “a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention”, and suggests that “moral philosophy should attempt to retain a central concept which has all these characteristics”. Murdoch’s view of the Good is mystical, and almost religious:

“A genuine mysteriousness ataches to the idea of goodness and the Good. This is a mystery with several aspects. The indefinability of Good is connected with the unsystematic and inexhaustible variety of the world and the pointlessness of virtue… Good is mysterious because of human frailty, because of the immense distance which is involved. If there were angels they might be able to define good but we would not understand the definition. We are largely mechanical creatures, the slaves of relentlessly selfish forces the nature of which we scarcely comprehend… And if we look outside the self what we see are scattered intimations of Good. There are few places where virtue plainly shines: great art, humble people who serve others. And can we, without improving ourselves, really see these things clearly?”

She suggests that Kant looked at the wrong place when he tried to find the Good without God: the self. The Good stands outside of the human self, and is a non-natural singular entity that can be perceived but never fully defined.

A unique aspect of Murdoch’s view is her introduction of elements that are seldom seen as the core of ethical deliberation: love, beauty and the arts. Rationalism has formed the core of much of ethics since the Enlightenment, with Kant being the most prominent advocate of the use of reason as a neutral objective means of determining the Good. Even Plato was suspicious of the power of the arts and argued that the arts distorted reality. To the contrary. Art, to Murdoch, is closely connected to the Good. Murdoch rejects the Platonic suspicion of art, and argues that instead of distorting reality and manipulating man’s perception of reality, art offers a more accurate view of the real, and ultimately the Good. Murdoch hand suggests that beauty and the arts are a means to access the Good, the apprehension and comprehension of which is part of the process of “unselfing”, where an existence that exist independently of the self is perceived and validated. Love, while not being the Good itself, “is the energy and passion of the soul in its search for Good, the force that joins us to the Good and joines us to the world through Good. Its existence is the unmistakable sign that we are spiritual creatures, attracted by excellence and made for the Good”. “Good is the magnetic centre towards which love naturally moves”.

I think Murdoch makes several important points. Firstly it seems to stand to reason that the Good probably is acutely similar to God. If philosophers replace God with the Good, it seems that replacement suggests compatibility and similarity. God is mystical, unknowable and all-encompassing. If human experience tells us anything, the Good is also similarly impossible to fully comprehend and retains a mystical allure. How much of this is due to Murdoch’s possible deep-set desire to cling on to the vestiges of Christian thought is probably a moot (but interesting) point. Secondly the Kantian grip on moral philosophy should be reexamined and perhaps rejected. The self and its will, unlike what existentialists say, is not the creator of all value, and is not the sovereign entity in this world. The world outside of us is much bigger than the single consciousness that apprehends it, and anyone who has encountered the beauty and immensity of nature will have to admit so. Anyone who apprehends art will know that concepts like beauty and love exist outside of the human will. If anything, the will is at the mercy of hard reality, and anyone who claims to be doing the Good is exerting a claim of objectivity, which presupposes an objective existing source of normativity that stands outside the individual. Third, and this is linked to the second point, it seems that we should start being honest with ourselves and give proper consideration to the role that emotions and beauty have to play in achieving the Good. The arts seem to me a means to reveal reality and the Good, and appreciation of the arts itself is at least commonly accepted as something that is prima facie good. Love, to me, seems to be as mystical and unfathomable a concept as Murdoch would view the Good. It has a strange attracting quality, and its mysteriousness is the reason why countless poems, novels and songs have been written about it. Its complexity is fascinating, while its simplicity is understood by all humans.

Non-religious ethics, be it at the first order or second order, is a particularly young and exciting field of growth in philosophy, because of growing secularism and an increasingly interconnected world we find ourselves in. Many people who grow up without God or rejected religion remain (I hope) genuinely interested in what is the right thing to do. Problems like pollution and financial meltdowns are global in nature and are no longer localised, and it is important to find a common ethical ground upon which people of diverse cultures and religious affiliation are able to agree upon and formulate enlightened global policies. In an interview I watched a while ago, Kwame Anthony Appiah went further to suggest that it is inevitable and necessary for the world to find a common ethical system, as our formerly local spheres collide with each other in this cosmopolitan world.

And this is where philosophical ethics can step in. Rational argument is the basis of philosophy, and the means through which men of different backgrounds may come to agree upon certain points. Hopefully, philosophical ethics may in the future provide a viable ethical code that any rational man would accept, upon which global action may be based upon and misunderstandings and divisions may be erased.

These are exciting times for me, on the intellectual front. Finishing Murdoch’s book coincided with the start of a new academic term, in which I will be continuing my exploration and deepening my understanding of ethics. Particularly, I taking courses on first-order moral philosophy, political philosophy and normative ethical theory; these courses are exactly the courses that I have wanted to take since my junior college days, and the focus of my interest in philosophy. I always had my reservations about the apparently elegance and simplicity of utilitarianism as well as the otherworldly abstraction of Kant’s categorical imperative, and found the inadequacies of consequentialist and deontological approaches to ethics to be somewhat patched up by virtue ethics. I would like to listen to what my professors have to say.