PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Is there such a thing as right or wrong?

Is there such a thing as right or wrong?

Is it right or is it wrong to question questions questioning the existence of right or wrong? No doubt, the man on the Clapham omnibus can answer this question with ease; we, on the other hand, have to wait a few more days before we can find out.

What are the issues with the existence of right or wrong? To begin with what do we mean by, "Is there…"? Is this (right or wrong) some extra property which a thing or object, or maybe, even a statement, possesses. By possesses I mean the same way that I possess a copy of Plato's Republic. This possession could also be interpreted as possessing like a tyre possesses the quality of roundness. Are right and wrong properties that get attached to something or do these terms give a thing or object a different type of complexion? Maybe in the same way that eating three kilos of strawberries would give many of us a different type of complexion?

Right or wrong may also be a projection of a psychological type on events and things. What do we mean by 'projection' and how do we project consistently? Here, right or wrong could be considered as concepts and not neural firings. Any attempt to subject these terms, and other moral and value judgement terms, such as good and bad, to some other analysis would lead to denuding the concepts of their moral (value judgment) content. In other words, the fact that we use right and wrong in our lives proves their existence, but any attempt to examine them under a microscope would lead to nothing.

There is no doubt that right and wrong are concepts, but this leads us into a debate about the nature of concepts. For example, are concepts always linguistic in form or can we have concepts without a language? At this point I want to take a detour to test run these two concepts with two paradoxes. OK, so hold tight we're going into booster overdrive with an after burner at full blast; we might even have to switch on the infinity improbability drive at some point!

Kurt Grelling and Leonard Nelson, in 1908, invented the autological and heterological paradox. Basically, adjectives are autological if they also describe themselves: English is autological because it can be applied to itself, i.e. it is an English word and it is in English. Spanish is heterological because it describes something that is not English although the word 'Spanish' is in English. 'Español' would be autological in the Spanish language. 'Long' is heterological because the word 'long' is a short word. Now, I think that right is autological, but what about wrong? Is wrong autological or heterological?

The second paradox test is even more entertaining. In 1914 the Norwegian mathematician, Axel Thue, invented the Thueing paradox (surprise, surprise!!). My homemade version of this paradox goes like this: take a word, in our case right or wrong, and replace it with a synonym. How long can we keep replacing synonyms before we end up with something completely different? Take the following example: Paul is the right man for Jane. We replace 'right' with: good, suitable, acceptable.…opportune……convenient! 'Paul is (the) a convenient man for Jane,' what happened to 'right' and what did Paul get up to in the meantime to deserve this?

Maybe we cannot agree if "Paul is the right man for Jane," but I am sure we can agree that 2+2=7.391 is wrong. And wrong here has nothing to do with how we feel about it and certainly no microscopes are involved. It is something that belongs to arithmetic. Or does it?

Have fun, see you Sunday.

Is there a struggle between the conscious and the unconscious?

Is there a struggle between the conscious and the unconscious?

This question is going to be difficult. And not just because it is not one of my front line topics in philosophy. I really felt at the beginning of my reading like an observer observing the observers observing the observed. And then I read somewhere that Freud thought that wit was the safe expression of evil. Hmm…!

I guess it all started when Descartes decided to give us the mind-body distinction. We have always been able to handle the body bit, so to speak, but then came along this idea of the mind and the mental world. And to cut a long story short Freud introduced us to the idea of the conscious, preconscious and the unconscious attributes of our mental state. The struggle is, therefore, supposed to take place between the untamed and chaotic unconscious and the ever-so-polite conscious part of the human being.

It would be safe to say that what makes this subject interesting is the idea of 'repression' of our basic instincts the prime contender of which being sexual impulse. Let us assume that 'repression' is the correct term to use, I would suggest that this is a very loaded term indeed. The first question to ask is, who is doing the repressing? Never mind the repression of what? Secondly, repression brings with it the idea of taking away of freedom and despotic control of the innocent. Who are all these players in this moral arena that is itself couched in rational language (moral) as opposed to physical language (brain)? However, with this language (moral) we're still in the realm of the mental world and yet the introduction of the unconscious et al was to bring everything up to date with the newly found determinism of the day; Freud's day.

Keeping with the moral theme we can also see the struggle as the difference between the free person and the determined person. As Spinoza argued, we can only be said to be 'free' if we learn self-consciously the influences of our baser passions over our natures. And since freedom implies moral responsibility, how can we be free if we are not aware of the motivating causes of our action? But isn't the unconscious repressed with only indirect access to it? Moreover, if we cannot have direct access to our own unconscious self, why should we believe others who claim to know all about these things? We seem to be generally believed when we say we are in pain, so why aren't we necessarily believed when we say we are passionately in love with Joan of Arc?

It is said that the unconscious leaks into our daily life through such things as parapraxes, such as slip of the tongue, wit and dreams. Freud called dreams, "the royal road to the unconscious." Another important issue is self-deception which, for me, is the more interesting issue of them all. Self deception seems to violate the principle of excluded middle or the law of contradiction;

p v –p. It seems, for example, that it cannot be the case that: Z knows that C does not love Z and Z believes that C loves Z. Couldn't we see this as a Fuzzy set problem, where x can be a member of a set S to any degree between 0 and 1? I told you it was going to be difficult.

Back to reality, the assumption is that we are more or less in control of our conscious self. But is it true that the conscious self is so well in charge of things?

Straight off the press, with hardly the digital ink dry, I read a press release from the University of Washington which seems to suggest that the conscious self might not be that well in charge of things. This is good news for learners of a second language, but not necessarily good news for the conscious self. Judith McLaughlin et al, in Nature Neuroscience, writing about learners of French, say , "…..our learner's brains could know more [about French words] than the learners themselves, but this is generally true when it comes to language." Could it be that we are repressing more than just sexual instinct? Or maybe the word 'repression' is bad translation and bad language? Or maybe what is thought to be repression is nothing more than an efficient way of controlling pain caused by certain experiences and memories in our life? No less efficient than paracetamol is with headaches as it were.

Two other issues that next Sunday's question must deal with are the little matters of genetics and evolution. Can we still talk about mental states, for example, when today we know about DNA and evolution? If, however, we go down this route one of the consequences would be that we have no choice but to put the self, or the person or the human being, call it what you will, in the rightful place within the universe. And the universe is a big place. To give you an idea of what I am thinking about and with the help of metaphor, can we say anything useful about a fish if we take it out of water?

See you Sunday, Lawrence

Is sexism natural?

Is sexism natural?

Sooner or later it was bound to happen. There is so much an oppressed person will take, then there comes a time when enough is enough. We seem to have became aware of sexism in our society when a forceful group of people had enough. Change was in their sights.

An so one day feminism was born, equal rights were discovered and radical changes were made to our language. Not only was the rest history, as they say, but everyone was supposed to live happily ever after. I mean we even have ministries for women headed by women of course. I'm sure it's only a question of time before equal opportunities kick in and some men will head these ministries.

Sexism is associated with discrimination based on gender. It is also a term used to identify sentiments of discrimination in our language. Strictly speaking, the word 'woman' is sexist language because it has the word 'man' in it. Chairman, manhole are other examples; managing director is more questionable.

What are the issues then? We can pass over questions about sexism as a language issue.

The issue at hand is very clear: if sexism is a natural behaviour then what are the implications? And if sexism is not a natural phenomena, what is it? But let's get one thing clear, sexism is not only about women, it is also about men.

What would an argument proving that sexism is natural look like? In the context of nature we would need to look at the two central themes of nature: survival and reproduction.

Having the ability to put someone else at a disadvantage in the food chain must certainly help one's survival chances. And it seems to me that nature's game is to survive; period. And if men discriminate against women maybe it is because it is easier to do so. Do men, therefore, not discriminate against men? I think one word should give us a clue: war.

Let's take a twisted argument that might follow from this. If a man puts an other man's (call him the enemy ) female partner at a disadvantage then that must surely have an effect on the enemy's genes surviving into the next generation. Surely it makes sense, from nature's point of view, to protect one's female partner and discriminate ad lib against all other females?

What if sexism was not natural but a rational activity by men; I use rational here for want of a better word; one that does not imply nature in human activity. A concept I find difficult to grasp.

Surely this is like saying what if a Spanish omelette wasn't made with potatoes? Never having made a Spanish omelette I cannot judge this culinary question; but I don't think I will risk my life asking for a tortilla sin patatas.

Could it possibly be that sexism is a rational phenomenon? In that case, why would a rational agent want to discriminate against anyone when cooperation is the best policy? Why adopt a zero sum game when a win-win strategy is better in the long term?

Sexism, must surely be counter productive for men as rational agents. Oppressing those people we want and even need to cooperate with us makes even less sense. Why would a free agent (woman) want to cooperate with someone (man) who is trying to oppress them? I can only think of one instance were this would be the case i.e. when might is right.

Isn't this the same as saying physical force wins? Why is nature, in the form of force, butting its head in rationality? But now we're back to square one; the non-naturalists are going to have some explaining to do. And they can certainly start, for example, by justifying the whole notion of ethics. Mind you, if they get it wrong we'll all have some head scratching to do; sorry, head butting!

Take Care


Is love necessary for life?

Is love necessary for life?

Common sense and reason seem to tell us that if something is really necessary for life we would spend a lot of time, money and effort on it. To test this idea I did a very unscientific experiment and consulted Google™. Somehow I was not surprised that for 'life' I got 184,000,000 hits and for 'love' I got 118,000,000. I also did a control check and looked up 'pencil' and got 4,110,000 hits. I'm not a statistician, but these figures insist that they want to tell me something.

What can philosophy tell us about life and love? The Greeks gave us one idea of love as Eros: passionate, intense desire for something which in the modern sense is referred to as sexual desire. Phila represents fondness and appreciation not just of friendship but also loyalties to family and political community (polis). Agape refers to the paternal love of God for human kind and human kind's love for God and also sibling love for all humanity. These are all ideas which today we include in our language and culture as basic concepts.

However, love in the context of life means that we have to focus our ideas not only on meaning but also on scope. For example, how do we know that we are in love and how do we know that others are in love? How do we 'know' that someone is in love with us? Can our perceptions about pain tell us something, by analogy or psychologically, about love? Is love a private perception with a public manifestation? An analysis of the nature of love, in the physical, emotional, spiritual, ethical and political context might help us decide if love is necessary for life and also pinpoint the nature of that necessity.

If we believe that love is necessary for life than we would expect to find love experienced by the majority of people, maybe in the same way that the majority of people experience hunger and pain. But if love is similarly important for life why don't governments, for example, institutionalise the 'fulfilment' of love in the same way they provide a health service, an educational service and basic staple food? And must love always be reciprocated? I mean, what's the point of having something necessary, for example for life, and then not have it fulfilled or reciprocated? It is like saying that hunger is necessary for life, but then God or nature did not provide us with food.

Maybe we need to put love in the context of reproduction and evolutionary biology. Falling in love in none other than simply being sexually attracted to the opposite members of the species. This also makes sense when we extend love to the family and community, i.e. country, nation. The same emotional force first brings us together to reproduce and then brings us together to sustain life. Two for the price of one! Admittedly, a somewhat functional and randomised phenomenon, but, nevertheless, it seems to work most of the time. It's just bad luck for those left on the shelf and for Shakespeare's context for Romeo and Juliet.

Love could also be seen as the rational side of life. Romantic love appeals to us because we understand that there is more to life than just reproduction and survival. And the idea or perception of love helps meet both the physical and the rational states of a human being's sense of fulfilment. The chivalry demonstrated by knights in shinning armour for damsels, especially in distress, came from respect for the lady and from a sense of justice against evil. And we can even take this idea a step further and extend love to nations of the world. Going to the defence of an ally is not different from going to rescue the lady from the dragon; love is what makes it all possible. Love guarantees life for the lady and love guarantees peace for nation states. I'm sure that few people would disagree with this. Maybe we will find out exactly how many disagree during our next meeting.

Incidentally, I also got 7,430,000 hits for 'oxygen'.

See you Sunday, Lawrence

Is it love or is it sex?

Is it love or is it sex?

Love and sex keep coming back as subjects for discussion like the proverbial bad penny. So let's get to the point: Love pertains to the rational and what is civilized in us and sex pertains to the beast in us.

When we think of love we think of such things as duty, loyalty, promise to love, affection, selflessness and even sacrifice. And in the person we love we attribute such qualities as kindness, interesting, intelligent, caring, anyway you know what I mean!

Sex is probably more straight forward. We are basically looking, both metaphorically and literally at height, proportions, ratios, sizes, body mass, aesthetics, facial features and the rest of the body put together. And of course a bottle of Champagne thrown in wouldn't go amiss.

The first question we must address ourselves to is this, why do we, as individuals and as a society, generally insist on forming love type relationships and not sex type relationships? I mean, when was the last time your morality mentor told you 'sex fulfils our lives' as opposed to 'love fulfils our life?' You get the idea?

Nevertheless, sex is very easy to measure even in a quasi scientific manner, something we cannot always do with love. We can always draw a bell curve on the type of person we are sexually attracted to. Moreover, we have all sorts of manuals and 'DIY' type of books written on the subject. Another aspect about sex is that we can have verifiable objective confirmation that sexual behaviour is taking place. What criteria do we use to objectively verify love type behaviour/event? What would a forensic science/methodology for love be like?

Most of us can easily decide whether someone is sexually attractive and, more importantly, whether we are sexually attracted to them. A task I'm sure we can do in a few seconds. This might not be that hard to believe, after all scientists are able to give a fairly accurate description of the universe, and its future state, three minutes after the big bang; i.e. the Lepton epoch. Surely, three minutes worth of information about us mortals is enough to make a reasonable judgement about our sexual attraction (or not) towards someone? After all, we have been doing this for much longer than dating the universe.

Although this three minutes idea sounds ridiculous, the consequences ought to be serious. Let's look at it from the other side of the fence.

As I was thinking about this issue on the train I counted at least six very pretty women; QED. Admittedly, I'm not the best of guinea pigs, but I'll have to do. No matter how pretty these women on the train may have been, I certainly didn't feel like doing anything about it. However, the time when I was bitten by the love bug, I did feel I ought to do something about it, and I did. And if behaviour is anything to go by, hundreds of thousands of couples are doing something about it as you read this piece.

The consequences of all this are: Firstly, we are very quick to judge and have an opinion about matters of sex and at face value much quicker than matters of love. Secondly, in matters of love we feel obliged to always act and do something about it, which is not the case with matters of sex. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but I'm not going into all that.

On the other hand, epistemologically, we are more convinced about matters of love than sex, given that we feel we ought to do something about it. And the emphasis here is on the ought more than anything else. In other words, love is based on conviction whereas sex is based on instinct.

This also suggests that action based on love takes its authority on something more than just the physical. For example, the act of promising is a moral act. The same goes for the idea of duty. Once again we also encounter in love the idea of altruism. Love seems to find its justification in some sort of moral system which sex does not need at its foundation.

At this point we have reached the situation where matters of love are: based on conviction rather than instinct, supported by some form of moral foundation, pertain to conscious epistemology and to voluntary action. Of course we can go back to the slippery slope argument of reductionism and into chemicals firing in the brain or the metaphysical entity of Devine fate. But I'm not doing that because the average passenger on the Clapham omnibus is not into this sort of thing in a big way.

However, there is something the average and not-so-average passenger on the Clapham omnibus does care about: rejection. We can and are rejected for both sexual advances and declarations of love.

We can accept that sex is pure instinct and a numbers game; for example, we just do not fit in someone's sexual attraction bell curve. But how can we be rejected when we are in love? What's more certain than love? And why are we rejected when justice and reason seem to be on our side? After all, love matters seem to be on a higher plane than sex matters; i.e. the plane of moral and rational order.

Basically, what is going on when we are rejected by someone we love? Exactly with whom are we in love with when we are rejected? And what are the consequences of rejection? I call this the Lover's Dilemma in an article* I wrote on this issue.

To bring all these ideas together, reason tells us that we ought to look at rational motivation (for want of a better expression) instead of just the physical in matters of love. This is not to say that sex and love are incompatible. There are two issues here: how important are the love component and the sex component in a relationship? And even more important, which comes first, love or sex?

It's not unreasonable to assume that we can decide on sex matters within the first three minutes of meeting someone. If, however, it takes us longer to fall in love how do we then know that love is not the manipulation of the long arm of determinism? That is, sexual determinism.

Now here is a funny idea, can we fall in love in less than three minutes? Can we, in other words, fall in love before the long arm of determinism gets hold of us? Could it be that there is more to the expression, love at first sight, than meets the eye?

Take care



Is it better to be young or to be experienced?

Is it better to be young or to be experienced?

Have you noticed how the question puts 'young' first and 'experience' second? This should be, at the very least, indicative of what the answer ought to be.

However, as all baby boomers know, youth and experience are not necessarily incompatible. In fact, we don't know how it could have been otherwise, but maybe that's prejudice talking.

Let's look at youth. No doubt this is the best time to learn and acquire knowledge. A time when one is carefree and audacious. It is a pity that some of us don't always realise this at the time especially when we're having fun doing other things.

In a way youth is a transition time both metaphorically and biologically. In the latter sense, the young person is coming into full biological function. The bits and pieces do not have any signs of wear and tear on them, they have low mileage and everything is practically solid and shiny.

This makes the young man or woman ideal for hard slog studying, excel in physical sports, have children, have endless hours of fun, enjoy the challenge of dare and do, go into apprenticeship, be ordered into battle, binge drinking and drug abuse. Maybe the fast lane is not always the best lane to be; but it could be fun anyway.

Metaphorically, youth is a transition period between the coming into existence and the state of metaphysical being. The metaphysical being of experience, knowledge, self awareness, social being and one of the movers and shakers in town. An equilibrium point on a demand and supply graph where 'existence' is going down and 'being' is going up. A transition point from: growing up from nothing (infancy and early teens); the discovery of what the mind and body can do, but not necessarily in coordination (youth); the ability to coordinating mind and body, but who cares anyway (baby boomers); who cares any way (probably, members of a gentlemen's club; the women are busy watching the Full Monty!)

There are certainly two things that make youth attractive: ignorance is bliss and can do, will do attitude. This means that the young will go where even baby boomers fear to tread. We are of course reminded by Machiavelli, that young men are less cautious, more aggressive and audacious. I wonder what he would have said if he knew that even women can equally be a good sport. If you ask me, he was keeping it a secret!

Maybe this is the glitter version of youth, but as we know: all that glitters is not gold. For some, youth means hardship or even death because of wars. A period in some people's lives, that is used and abused by the unscrupulous in hard labour or even slavery. Youth is also a formative time where one mistake can have a devastating effect for the rest of one's life. Youth is not without its dangers; it is not without its drawbacks. And for some youth means being foisted with responsibilities which others will never have to shoulder in their life.

Experience gives us a perspective in life and on life. Having a yardstick, or a benchmark, to use modern business speak, gives us a reference point. We know where we've been and certainly know where we want to go. This sounds good on paper, or digitally if you must, but reality is not always that simple.

Take Hume's problem about induction, although many people wrote about this. There is no reason to assume that the future will be like the past. In other words, we cannot derive an ought from an is. Yesterday's solution is not necessarily today's panacea. Yesterday's mesmerising chat up line is not necessarily today's heart throb song.

Experience can easily be misinterpreted to mean being positive. This can in many ways lead to a form of gambler's paradox. We find many examples in business where companies stick to old policies and practices in the face of changing markets and consumer sophistication. The paradox kicks in because these people believe that if they put a little bit more elbow grease they'll hit the jackpot. But reality thinks differently; the market has moved on. The fact that we did not win yesterday does not mean we stand a good chance our number will come up today. And if we did win yesterday there is no logical reason why we should also win today.

Having experience can also mean having gone through some form of baptism of fire. By definition this ought to be laudable and praiseworthy, and in many cases this is what we have to conclude. But in many others there is something seriously missing. The absence of humility and candour can easily lead to smugness.

But experience does cut through the thicket of white noise and irrelevance in life. How comforting it is to know what to do in a situation once you've done it before. Take the daunting task of air travel. Once you've had a few experiences of the harrowing task of looking for that lost luggage you'll know what to do. No, I don't mean panic, but kicking up a stink and making an unbearable fuss. Here experience does come into it's own. Of course, your luggage will still be found twenty four hours later, or maybe not, but you feel better for it.

The assumptions we make are that experience comes with age and that the young are devoid of useful experience. A third assumption is that all experience is useful experience.

Does quantity imply quality? And what do we mean by quality experience anyway? Experience in what, doing what, having done what? It is obvious that even the young can have quality type experiences and in some cases they are also ahead of us in quantity.

So far the situation seems to be that youth is not without its drawbacks nor is it a promise of things to come. However, being young does not mean not having quality or quantity experience. Surely, how we feel tells us more about how young we are than simply age? I was wondering whether that 'how' should be a 'what.'

Experience, by and of itself does not necessarily get us anywhere. So where is the goldilocks effect? Where is, the balance between too much and too little experience and/or youth?

It is safe to say that there is a one-to-one relationship between age and quantity of experience. However, how do we move from quality and quantity experience to experience being useful?

Although technically this is an interesting question what matters is that some experiences are just worth having for their own sake. From this point of view, at least, it is by far much better to have experience. And if that wasn't enough, age does not come into it. We can have good experiences irrespective of our age. (I'm thinking of this great restaurant up north in Spain as I write this.)

All of a sudden it's beginning to look good for baby boomers; it gets even better!

Here clearly is a case where experience seems to win hands down. Maximising our good experiences must certainly be a good policy. Riding the crest of the good-experience wave must be much better than having the potential of riding such a crest. This is clearly a case were the journey is an interference with quality time.

Therefore, it seems to me that being young or being experienced is not necessarily a good measure of anything. But then again, we've always known that size is not everything.

Take Care


Is art necessary and/or liberating?

Is art necessary and/or liberating?

In an attempt to escape from the tyrannical cliché, 'art for art's sake,' I want to identify two fundamental conditions for art: creation and beauty.

But first a caveat. Although I will be using painting as an example of art, I do not intend to exclude other forms of art such as literature, sculpture, music and some would even say gastronomy. I personally think that the basics are the same for all forms of art.

I will start by asking those awkward questions philosophers revel in: For example, what is art? what is the purpose of art? Are artists born or made? And maybe, who is an artist?

Applying the LIFO principle, i.e. last in first out, we start with the question: who is an artist? This reminds me of an exchange I had with a business client some years ago. At the time I was experimenting with oil painting so I offered him to do a small landscape. To which he replied, ''of course, when you give me the painting I'll have to kill you.'' Usually, famous painters are dead, die poor, but certainly make the owners of their art rich!

So must an artist be someone famous, dead, whose art commands a handsome price and maybe exhibited in a museum? Never mind logic, common sense tells us that this is not the case. It's nice to have all these attributes, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions. One thing is certain though, if someone's handy work gives us pleasure and enjoyment then that person is an artist. Some might argue that there is more to art than just pleasure and enjoyment, but I beg to disagree.

Are artists born or made? Let's consider this question this way. Some can paint and some cannot. Some can draw and others do not know how to even start. Of course some people learn at art school others become apprentices to a master whilst others just pick up a brush at young age and produce master pieces. It seems that this very insignificant question has all sorts of possible answers.

Let's, therefore, try and pin it down a bit. How many of you keep those crayon drawings children love to make stuck to a fridge or the side of a computer? Or maybe admire an intrepid four year old doing an al fresco on the walls of the sitting room? I'm sure we all agree that these artists are born. But is it art? For sure, most of these 'works' give some form of pleasure or enjoyment to the intended audience. Ok! Maybe the al fresco in the sitting room needs some mulling over!

It is clear that the intention of the four year old is not to create a master piece, but maybe to show affection to a parent. Of course, adult artists have other motives for creating art. Paying the rent comes quite high up the list.

Talent is another reason for some people to become artists. But whatever the reasons for taking up art there is one thing which all artists have in common. Be it your four year old kid with a crayon in hand sliding over the wall, or the master mixing their paint ready to be brushed onto that virgin white canvas. The urge, if not the need, is to create something. To create something from nothing so to speak.

Let's be clear about this, the paint is in the tube and most people can hold a brush in their hand. In other words it is not a question of access or material, but character. I will argue that finally we have reached something that makes art different from other activities. Maybe the worn out phrase, ''art for art's sake'', should be changed to ''art for creation's sake.''

We can take it as given that when an artist is creating a work of art he or she are liberating themselves to be imaginative. Let's not get bogged down in an argument whether a portrait of a king, with a pose as stiff as a ram rod, is art or not.

Maybe the mistake we make about art is that because we don't have a painting hanging in some museum then we cannot possibly be artists. I want to argue that we can all be artists, admittedly of a certain kind. I will show you later what I mean. So, once we can see ourselves as potential artists then we are talking as equals. We will in fact see that we are born to be artists, art is necessary, it is liberating and in many cases master pieces do happen.

What is the artist creating? In my opinion the artist is trying to create beauty. Look at it this way. The worst thing that can happen to an artist is for people to be indifferent to his or her work. A rejection is a rejection; there is always the next one. Bad reviews are bad reviews; there is always the next one.

Now, what if the artist's work is accepted? What if the work of the artist is admired? What if the artist manages to create something with a high 'wow!' factor? Doesn't all this result into an emotional and pleasurable experience? Doesn't a good painting mersmerise us or evoke our passions and emotions?

And doesn't beauty have the same effect on us? Isn't beauty about feeling good, feeling emotional, feeling pleasure, feeling, well, great?

Of course, it is up to you to decide whether my argument leads to my conclusion that art is about the creation of beauty. And moreover, whether art is necessary and liberating; we don't need that 'or' here.

Earlier I promised you that not only are we all potentially artists, but that we are born to be so. I'm not promising that your handy work will one day be exhibited in a museum, but that everyone has the potential to create beauty; within the limits of my arguments of course.

I won't be giving you any instructions, but only a hint, the rest I will appeal to the creator and artist in you, but you'll have to think carefully about it . The hint is this: two people in love with each other in the privacy of their own company.

Take care


How does language affect reality and perceptions?

How does language affect reality and perceptions?

The preoccupation of Anglo-American philosophers (i.e. Analytical philosophy) with language these past 104 or so years, bewildered and puzzled most European philosophers (i.e. Continental philosophy). However, it must be pointed out that one can philosophise against the importance of language and one can philosophise in favour of the importance of language. But one cannot philosophise about anything without language.

By language philosophers usually mean natural languages: Italian, German, Spanish, English are all natural languages together with the rest of the languages that exist around the world. Does this mean that other forms of communications should be excluded, such as body language or gesticulating? And what about such formal languages as logic and mathematics, should they also be excluded? And are painting and drawing other forms of languages? All the above certainly have one thing in common and that is they all transmit information.

We can safely say that the title question assumes that language does affect reality and perceptions. What, then, is the nature of this causal relationship between language, reality and perceptions? One interpretation is that: I have an idea, say a desire, formulate it into a linguistic act, transmit the linguistic act to a hearer and then the hearer interprets this linguistic event and acts accordingly. If the hearer's interpretation of the linguistic event and the subsequent acts coincide with my original idea then my reality and the hearers reality have been changed. In other words, the universe has been changed. I go to an ice cream shop, ask for a strawberry ice cream, the assistant gives me a strawberry ice cream. The universe has been changed.

I'm walking down the street and I see a shop with the following sign in big letters, "FRESH STRAWBERY ICE CREAM". I look at it, read it, and believe me understand it, cross the road and buy a strawberry ice cream. Language has affected my perceptions, I long for a strawberry ice cream, and in this case my reality.

However, what is reality and what are perceptions? Take reality. Common sense tells us that reality is what is out there, independent of us and we can say true or false statements about it. Even my wishes, pains and states of mind are taken to be as someone else's objective reality. However there has been a whole series of philosophers, for example Hume and Kant, who told us that we cannot really know anything about the outside world. Then early last century scientists started telling us that there comes a point, at least at the quantum level, that when we try to find out about what reality is we change the very thing we want to know about. At the same time others were telling that the reality we can know about is limited to what information has reached us. But information cannot reach us faster than the speed of light. The up shot of this is that, if information about an event has not reached us, not only we cannot know about the even, but also that the event cannot form part of our reality. This scepticism about reality seems to take us in the opposite direction of what we take for granted.

The problem about reality also stems from the nature of our perceptions. Our perceptions have a habit of sometimes letting us down in real life. And if that was not enough, perceptions seem to be at best "information go-betweens"; i.e. things that tell the 'I' about what is going on in the world out there. The question is: how efficient is that information? In a language context a lot depends on conventions, ambiguity, content, and what Information Theorists call redundancy, statistical undercurrents of language and randomness. In other words a lot goes on with languages (and information) than what common sense seems to tell us.

On the applied issues I would like to introduce three areas where language, perceptions and reality all come charging head on at us. If ever there was a need to assess the efficiency of linguistic information it is in the language of politics. It seems to me that the language of politics tries to affect reality without actually touching it!. Advertising and marketing communications try to affect our perceptions especially of reality. Selling a car because it gives us "a smooth ride," is just not the same as a car being an "efficient means of joining traffic jams!" And finally, the law seems to bring together language and perceptions as part of the process of justice by requiring reasoned judgements and that "justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done."

See you Sunday, Lawrence

Freedom and Privacy

Freedom and Privacy

We must have all read, sometime in the past, the small print telling us that our personal details won't be given away to others. And in the age of electronic mail shots we have all opted in or opted out of mailing list.

The business of privacy is big business for governments and corporations. Governments are busy enacting freedom of information acts, human rights acts and of course introducing more sophisticated id cards and other identification schemes. And corporations are busy analysing and comparing all the data they can get about us. We are, however, always being assured that all this is all for our own good.

So what could philosophy tell us about privacy? Especially, when it seems that the legal system has more or less got this little issue sorted out. I mean, even the rich and famous are responsible for a very lucrative legal cottage industry keeping their privacy intact. Even if it seems ironic when we consider that for one to be famous one has to have a certain degree of public exposure.

One area which still concerns philosophy is the idea of the individual. Privacy makes sense because it relies on the idea of the individual. In societies where there is no respect for the individual there is usually no respect for privacy.

Privacy itself depends on two very basic concepts: a unique identity of the individual self and ownership. Ownership here is of a very particular and basic nature, because it is ownership not of something made, but ownership of one's identity.

Privacy is also linked to private property. In one sense having private property not only means that we have a right to enjoy it but also the right to exclude others from our property. If we so wish, that is. Presumably, this also involves the option to tell others about it. The question then arises; is one's identity a kind of property? And an equally interesting question is whether one's identity is a private property? In the normal everyday use of property.

It will be convenient if one's identity was some kind of private property. This would make it easier to protect, because it would be identifiable and what's more it could probably be easily incorporated into an existing legal system that respected property rights. Could we use as an analogy, and model, intellectual property and intellectual property rights to understand personal identity and hence privacy? But how far can we take the analogy? Property rights, however, can be sold, hired or even licensed for a fee.

I earlier linked privacy with uniqueness of identity. We accept that our identity is unique because we accept that individuals are unique. I don't think that this should lead to a lot of problems, but it doesn't mean that this is devoid of interesting issues.

In fact there is a very complex issue related to form and substance. If we take the physical form of the individual, i.e. the body, we have an entity that has the same structure as other bodies. A body that has the same organs and anatomy as everyone else; of course there are two version of the human body, but let's not get into that. Yet all these bodies are unique, because the genetic make up is unique and other aspects are also unique. The form seems to be the same, but not necessarily the substance.

So by just looking at individuals as bodies we have a sort of duality paradox. And this duality impinges directly on our privacy. Through medical, social and statistical research companies can make predictions about us with a high degree of confidence. The irony is that they can know quite a lot about us, without asking us and without us needing to know it in the first place. But this does address the issue of the self and the identity of the self; i.e. the I. Who and what are we? Just a physical entity or something more?

This situation came to a head when it was suggested that we should all be genetically tested when we're born to identify any possible diseases we might be susceptible to. The idea being that we can be treated for any diseases we might have before it is too late. But like many good intentions, this is not without its pitfalls. For example, will we be obliged to tell employers about our problems and are insurance companies obliged to give us health cover? And should we be treated in the first place if we really have a nasty fatal disease?

Another issue which is more philosophical in nature, is connected with knowledge and epistemology. If I tell you that I'm short sighted, you will know a real fact about me. On the other hand if through research we discover that people with a lifestyle X are more likely to suffer from disease Y, and our neighbour has an X type of lifestyle, what do we know about our neighbour? Some companies and governments think they know enough to target us with their policies or in their public health education. Has any privacy been breached? What kind of knowledge is this and is this relevant to a debate about privacy?

In English we have a saying, one's home is one's castle; meaning what we do in our home is our own business. It is also a common law principle of a right to privacy. But how solid should this right be? For example, what if children are abused in someone's home? This problem can also spill over, and it usually does, into the cultural and religious domains. For example, does privacy extend to discriminate between male and female off springs because one's culture allows that?

Of course, cultural and religious issues need not be the result of some barbaric practice. For example, some cultures are very successful because they value the principle of helping members of one's family. This is very common in the business world with some very spectacular successes. However, usually one of the consequences is a reduction in privacy between family members. Incidentally, when things go wrong the consequences are equally spectacular.

We can accept privacy at home is sacrosanct, but what is the scope of privacy in a public setting? For example, what kind of privacy are we entitled to have in the work place? Or what kind of privacy are we entitled to have when we go shopping? It is quite telling to note that the rich and famous tend to have problems about their privacy because of their work or lifestyle. A pop singer or a head of a multinational just have a higher curiosity value than the rest of us. And in some case fame depends on people knowing a lot about that person. The question is not whether they should be afforded privacy like the rest of us, but rather at what price can their privacy be traded at? But this is beginning to sound like property rights being licensed out for a fee.

The market price for privacy depends, really, whether the rich and famous are negotiating as free agents. In fact, do we operate as free agents? Are we free to really do what we want as opposed to doing what we can? Are we really free to share our privacy with whoever we want? Are we free not to tell prospective employers that we suffer from that nasty disease? Are we free to have that disease in the first place, anyway? And then again, what is freedom?

Could it be that privacy is another case of freedom revisited?

take care Lawrence



Whether it is for the better, or for worse or just plain indifferent we are all members of one of the rather exclusive of clubs; the family. So far so good. As for the kind of relationship we have with our family or the state of affairs of our family we need not concern ourselves here.

We cannot be too far wrong by looking at the family from the point of view of relationships between individuals and the collective. In other words we can look at the family from the metaphysical and ethical point of view. We know that there is a metaphysical relationship because we know that there is a causal relationship between the members of the family. We also know that at least at the biological level mothers are practically exposed to a zero sum strategy. Which in turn introduces the ethical factor. Let me explain.

Irrespective of medical technology, childbearing and childbirth always involve an element of danger; things can go tragically wrong. And sometimes they do. This is where the zero sum strategy becomes relevant. There is always the chance of a woman losing her life at childbirth since a zero sum strategy does not allow for half measures. And although the male is not in this unenviable position, the emotional stress must surely count for something. Hence the ethical issue, why risk so much when the outcome is far from guaranteed?

This brings us to the main philosophical issue about the family: Altruism. 'What's in it for me?' type of questions do not arise when two people start a family. Yes, some parents abandon their families or children, but that's not to say that all families are like the. At face value the opposite is true. Yes, accidents do happen, but not every child is an accident. Yes, there is always the social and religious pressure, but that does not minimize the risk nor increase the returns. And then there is that little matter of the genes banging at the door of reproduction. Of course, those genes are quite persistent, but as rational beings we know that it is that wicked hand of determinism that is doing the banging. So why does altruism persist?

Altruism, don't forget, goes against the grain of utilitarianism. What's the point of doing something if there is no pay off for me? What's the point of risking one's life or giving up one's earnings just to bring children up? You can see where the argument is heading.

Before having children nature plays the utilitarian game. The maximum pleasure or the maximum return sort of strategy: what's best for me? Then post childbirth nature switches over to an altruistic game: what's good for the group as opposed to what's good for the individual. It can always be argued that if the group is doing well then I will benefit from that. And if I maximize my returns then the group will benefit from that. Let's put it this way, which group and which individual stand to benefit more: the person who starts a family with a drunken down and out or the person who starts a family with a chief executive officer of a multi national company? I think the answer is obvious and pigs are not going to fly tomorrow.

How solid the family is or how happy the family is must surely have some consequences. But am I about to fall into the is/ought trap here? What if it was the case that the individuals who start the family are happy, then the collective family will be happy? And if the family is happy, then the collective of families ought to be happy. And isn't the collective of families what we also call a society? And if all societies are happy, wouldn't the whole world be happy? And isn't a society the twin sibling of politics? Now there is a twist!

Let's stop for a reality audit here. So, if all ma's and all pa's are happy then by a stretch of the imagination we can end up with the whole world being happy. Is the world happy? Is society happy? Is the family happy? Are ma and pa happy? And how did it all start anyway?

Could it have started as the song* says: It started with a kiss. Or ought it have started with something more substantial as the aria** says: ……d'amore e di speranza!

Take care


* Paul Maurice Kelly, It Started With A Kiss

** Georges Bizet, Nessun Dorma



The title of this week's meeting should have made reference to old age. It is natural to think of old age and euthanasia at the same mental event. And if the push came to shove, we would include assisted suicide in the context.

It is unfortunate that, for a change in philosophy, we should be clear about the meaning of such emotional and distressing concepts as euthanasia and assisted suicide. The difference centres on who performs the last act that causes death. Administering the lethal injection to yourself is assisted suicide if the injection was handed to you by someone else. Someone else administering the lethal injection is euthanasia. That part is simple, how we get there is a whole legal, political, philosophical, religious and everything-else-you-care-to-think-of mine field.

The conflict we have at hand rests on two very basic philosophical concepts: death and pain. As I write this I am hearing a programme on the radio (BBC Radio 4*) where one of the speaker described life as negative entropy: instead of a system progressing into minimum energy, life is a system that turns into a higher energy system. If we accept this analogy, death seems to be the opposite of what we are all about. It is, but no one seems to have told entropy about it. The second issue we are dealing with is pain. However, pain seems to have the bad habit (sic) of getting out of hand. It seems that in some cases instead of serving as a warning sign, pain becomes as a cue for self distract. And if this was not bad enough, when we add family and professionalism we have a serious moral dilemma to deal with.

What are the arguments? Public policy interests prevent governments from sanctioning euthanasia and assisted suicide on the grounds that no one should have a licence to kill. Furthermore, some would argue that the medical profession should not be placed in a position of having to decide who lives and who dies. The pragmatists would argue that this already happens, so what the big deal? Again, people should be protected from coercion or pressure at their weakest moments. Indeed, it is a fine line to distinguish between a legitimate case of euthanasia and a manipulated case. So here is a practical moral question: should the dishonesty of some jeopardise the rights and dignity of the majority? And should we be pragmatists in this matter?

Let us move away from the traditional debate and look at the issues from different angles. It is generally assumed that euthanasia affects the elderly. True enough, but what is old? And even if we take the statistics at face value, women tend to live longer than men, so does this mean that euthanasia and assisted suicide are more of a problem for the female population?

It is true that the criteria for euthanasia and assisted suicide are pain, terminal illness and unacceptable deterioration quality of life. But should euthanasia and assisted suicide be also available to someone who is for sure going to suffer from a condition that will entail intolerable pain? In other words, is it acceptable to have euthanasia to prevent pain? A hypothetical question, I must admit, but nevertheless an interesting one.

However, euthanasia and assisted suicide should tax the minds and brains of professionals and politicians not just on the issue of killing. I will argue that euthanasia and assisted suicide raise more serious issues that focus on matters of life rather than death. In particular, should governments curtail or even prevent research that might have the answers to some causes of pain or the degeneration of quality of life?, For example, stem cell research, cloning research or foetal research. Mind you, I am not talking about the elixir of life here; I'm thinking of preventing diseases, a solution to transplant organs, pain control drugs, better therapy drugs and so on. Is there already a laboratory with some of the answers near you?

Take care


*Melvyn Bragg: In Our Time


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