PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, June 26, 2015

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Race as a social concept + IMPORTANT news about the meetings

IMPORTANT NEWS: about the summer meetings

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Race as a social concept.

Race is more likely to be an issue where there are mixed cultures and
ethnic groups. In practically mono cultures race is not a real issue and
any "ethnic intruders" would quickly be excluded from the community. In
my essay I come to the conclusion that any discussion to establish
racial backgrounds would be a discussion to create mischief.

In the meantime Ruel has sent us the link to his essay and Ceit has sent
us some background articles on the topic:

Hello Lawrence,
Here's the link to what I wrote on Sunday's topic:
See you on Sunday.
All the best,

And from Ceit:
Some links about what gave me the idea:

IMPORTANT NEWS: about the summer meetings
During the month of July we will be meeting on Saturdays and NOT Sunday
because the Centro Segoviano will be closed on Sundays. This will be our
last meeting this month on Sunday. Thanks

Race as a social concept

Today we know that there are no biological differences between the
different races. And any external characteristics are natural as a
consequence of the environment or genetic history. Having dark skin is
not different from having blue eyes. Thus any differences we try to
establish amongst races are artificial, political and social.

A detailed discussion by Michael James on Race from a philosophical
perspective can be found at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy*.
Although I won't be discussing this entry I am grateful for some ideas
in the text.

A key philosophical debate about race centres on whether there are
natural/biological differences in humans that establish different races.
The argument for different races rests on arbitrary differences
between people. As I said in the introduction, the argument that some
people have different for example skin colour, physiological make up
especially head shape and so on suggests that there are different races.
If skin colour was a determining factor then surly anaemic people should
be classified as a different race. And blued eyed people should also be
classified as a different race. Common sense today tells us that these
are arbitrary divisions and do not establish different races.

But why would philosophers and scientists argue that there are different
races? The neutral answer would be that past and historical philosophers
and scientists did not have the level of knowledge about biological
sciences as we have today. Hence, they had no option but to look at what
was accessible to them, and their science was based on face value
characteristics. They just did not realise that they were looking at the
wrong set of characteristics.

Another version of this argument is that this is the consequence of
applying the empirical method to establish scientific knowledge. Given
the limited knowledge available to these thinkers in the past they had
no option but to start studying and categorising humans by arbitrary
criteria; but the scientific method is more robust today compared to the
past. The very nature of the scientific method implies that the early
applications of the method might result in erroneous conclusions. A
lesson worth learning by those who advocate self learning AI machines.

An extreme answer to my question would be that those who try to
establish the existence of different races, especially today, are simply
trying to create mischief especially for political reasons. And,
therefore, hiding behind science to spread their political message.

I am not convinced that trying to establish the existence of race or
races is even valid let alone an interesting philosophical or scientific
argument. It just does not make sense to speak of nature having or
creating a race or races. Let alone a race based on arbitrary criteria.
Nature also adapts to local conditions but adaptation is not the same as
exclusion or independent. Hence to speak of race is to betray our bias
to classify things into categories. It was very nice of Aristotle to
identify our ability to categorise things, however just because we can
categorise things it does not mean that they naturally belong with each

But there is another argument why establishing race on arbitrary
physiological criteria is not acceptable. By looking at arbitrary
criteria we cannot universalise any knowledge about the race let alone
humans as a whole. The reason is very simple; by focusing on just on
specific characteristics we might miss something out from the whole
picture. Especially, the relationship of one specific arbitrary
different characteristic with the rest of the body; blue eyes or black
skin are not just events that exclusively happen in the skin or the
eyes. . Except that what might look like an anomaly for an unskilled
person for a skilled person it would be part of the norm. And we have
the Black swan argument to support this position. Moreover, the black
swan argument prevents us from establishing universal principles; at
least when our thinking is erroneous.

We therefore have to stop talking about race or races and start talking
about something more universal that is more useful for science, politics
and society and most especially for ethical and moral systems. Thus the
starting point for philosophy and science is not race, but human beings.
As a concept the term human being makes us consider similarities rather
than arbitrary differences. When we study human beings we first need to
find human beings and compare similarities. It would, therefore, be more
useful to study the skin as an organ rather than just the pigmentation
of the skin which is but a characteristic of a particular aspect of the

However, race has been used as a social and political tool to establish
power and economic advantage. Indeed James says that the Spanish
inquisition in Spain was the first to try and establish purity of
lineage of Christians living in Spain to distinguish "real" Christians
from Jewish or Muslim converts. Slavery was also a trade in indigenous
African people who by circumstances of their environment had dark skin.
Hitler and the Nazis turned race discrimination into an industry. And
today many governments in the European Union use the phony argument of
illegal immigration to exclude people from medical health care,
xenophobic political discourse to gain votes, or simply to exploit
people for economic profit. For example, illegal immigrants from so
called different races are more like to accept work under very bad
conditions and wages since they are less likely to complain about it.
And many cases have been taken court in Britain of Chinese criminal
gangs exploiting other Chinese people for illegal business activates;
e.g. collecting cockles during dangerous tide conditions. Racial
discrimination is not the exclusive domain of other races.

The study of race or races has been more an activity, as I said, to
create hardship and exploitation rather than further our knowledge of
human beings. So whilst race is an attempt to identify a priori
differences in nature, ethnicity is clearly differences in culture and

If we cannot establish universal truths from the misguided notion of
race, we certainly cannot establish anything about human beings from
ethnicity. Ethnicity is something originating from culture, beliefs,
religion and geographical and environmental circumstance. Whilst
everyone qualifies as a human being, and racial categorisation is
useless, ethnicity is just a system of localised beliefs and behaviours.

I suspect that many of today's race relations issues are really ethnic
issues. The expelling of the Muslims and Jews from Spain and the
wholesale murder of the Jews (and other groups) in Germany was none
other than a political move to establish the supremacy of the Catholic
Church in Spain and greedy thugs in Germany. However, the outlawing of
female genital mutilation (FGM), or issues with culturally imposed dress
code on women or child marriages is a clash of ethnic beliefs.

I would argue that these beliefs can be challenged on the
universalisable principle: can we universalise that every female child
should undergo FGM? Of course, not, there is no evidence that this is of
any benefit to the child, unlike say vaccination for certain diseases,
and the logic of this practice is based on the subjugation and
oppression of women. Or another example, can we universalise the
principle that only people with health insurance or enough money should
be given medical treatment. Of course, not this is a warped logic based
on greed and not the universal principle that it is a characteristic of
human beings to need medical care and that they become sick. Thus the
universal principles we can establish from the very nature of human
beings means that health care has to be made available to all who need
it and free at the point of need. Health care is not a luxury but a
universal necessity.

Thus, my conclusion is that it is the concept of human beings that can
lead us to universalisable principles, arguments from race are usually
argument to create mischief, and ethnic differences can be challenged by
the doctrine of universalisable principles.

Best Lawrence
*James, Michael, "Race", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall
2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =

tel: 606081813 <>
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every
Thursdays at Triskel in c/San Vicente Ferrer 3.
Time: from 19:30 to 21h

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Race as a social
concept + IMPORTANT news about the meetings

Friday, June 19, 2015

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Ownership

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Ownership.

A challenging topic for an era of austerity and economic instability.
But as I try to argue in my short essay, our sense of ownership has been
with us much longer than we can imagine. Thus austerity won't dull our
sense of ownership and the only danger to ownership is ownership itself.

Unfortunately, Ruel couldn't write an essay on the topic.


One of the biggest problems in Western society is obesity. Access to
junk food, but not wholesome food, lack of exercise and high stress
levels has resulted in a natural mechanism that evolved to accumulate
energy but now uses resources to accumulate the wrong type fats. But
this biological accumulation mechanism is wide spread in nature. Bears
gorge up on food before they go into hibernation and whales accumulate
fat resources. Indeed mammals need to accumulate fat for milk production
to feed their young. Squirrels hoard nuts, bees produce honey and some
ants even cultivate and harvest fungi.

The idea of ownership, the act of possessing something, is first and
foremost a biological instinct, at least for certain higher order
biological systems. This means that there is an instinct to acquire
resources for later use and consumption. And this instinct can become
even more complex and acute when a biological system, such as bees and
human beings, have to go through a process of accumulation through
nurturing and developing food over time. Other creatures, such as lions
and primates create geographical territorial boundaries and claim
possession of that land to hunt for prey or food in that area.

What is clear is that ownership rights and property rights seem to exist
in some crude form in nature which other members of the species and
breeds understand and adjust their behaviour accordingly. The
philosophical problem for us is not whether ownership rights exist, they
seem to exist even at the biological level, but: how does a biological
instinct become a moral imperative to protect and to practice? How does
human property and ownership rights transcend from a right to possess to
a right to have one's property protected? And most important can there
be limits to property ownership and is there a balance between property
ownership and property ownership at a cost to others?

What is important for the ownership instinct above is that in some
instances the biological creature carries the "property" with them, for
example fat accumulation by bears, whilst the other model is to have
access to the property, for example the territory of a lion where it
(the hunting is done by lionesses really) can hunt for food. The
drawback of carrying fat is that the animal sacrifices mobility and the
drawback of having separate property is that the property might stolen
or lost to competitors. We have evolved to have our property separate
from us but also to accumulate property. Obesity is the result of the
system that accumulates a necessary amount of fat gone haywire.

There are important reasons for starting my argument based on biological
premises. The most important of these reasons is that despite the
variety and seemingly high level application of natural ownership, it is
nevertheless a universal necessary condition. The lion cannot survive
without food, the whale cannot survive without krill and we cannot
survive without food and water or resources that can be exchanged to
food and water. Today we one step removed from the actual useful
"property" by storing value in something more practical such as money.
Or something more stable such as land or real estate.

So by virtue of ownership being universal and biological it means that
it cannot be denied or taken away. Ownership in the biological sense is
not some metaphysical entity that is granted by some external force to
individuals, but ownership is a product or effect of the very biological
make up of the creature. No one gave me the right or privilege to
accumulate five kilos of extra weight, but rather a function of the
combination of how the human body functions and my circumstances; I
grant you having five kilos of unwanted weight is not something one
wants protect and exercise any rights! So the right of the lion to hunt
on a patch of land is not something granted to it but something the lion
fought for to be able to eat.

Thus those dogmatic ideologies such as Communism, certain forms of
socialism and Nation Socialism who reject the doctrine of the individual
are just basically wrong¸ divisive and oppressive. By rejecting the
individual and the right to property ownership they are going against a
natural set up. Despite the sophisticated look of these dogmas they are
none other than the old game that has been played out on the savannah
for millennia.

Another important advantage of biological ownership is that it is
amoral. If the bear has evolved to accumulate fat for the winter, there
is nothing morally right or wrong about it. And sure, some creatures do
have a sense of right or wrong, for example primates. But having a sense
of right or wrong does not necessarily mean that this sense is a moral
right or wrong. Value judgments can be based on utility but moral
judgments need not have any utility for example prima facie altruism; or
if they have it would be neigh impossible to distinguish the moral
component and its causal role. One can just help the poor by providing
them with food and water, or one can help the poor because of some moral
impulse. But the poor are helped with or without the moral impulse.

Whilst in nature we just have a sense of ownership by virtue of our
biological make up, in our human society we feel a sense of moral right
that something I owe I should not be deprived of it. I have a moral
right to enjoy my property irrespective of anything else. This also
means that we also have a right to obtain property; if we have ownership
rights this means that we can also obtain property. Accumulating five
kilos of extra weight is more than just biology; a large factor is also
good sophisticated eating.

Hence, one sure way a biological instinct of ownership becomes a moral
imperative is when others respect our right to ownership. And in modern
society when someone tries to deprive us of that ownership we back it up
with legal rights. No doubt property and ownership developed with the
evolution of humankind culminating into today's moral and legal systems.

This moral imperative of ownership might not necessarily stem from lofty
ethical principles but from pragmatic utilitarian principles to protect
our own rights. Thus by everyone promising to protect everyone else's
rights we are implicitly protecting our own property rights. The only
problem with this scenario is that this agreement will work if everyone
to the agreement had more or less the same amount of property to
protect. But people with very little or no property at all will be
entering into an agreement that would only put a burden on them rather
than establish a balanced burden-benefit agreement. It is not
surprising that collective political ideologies such as communism and
National Socialism appeal to people with very little property to talk
of. But as I said there is nothing unique about these ideologies just a
different disguise; the dictator is still the alpha male usually.

Many societies have progressed towards individualism where more emphasis
is based on the individual and the individual's property rights than
collective ownership. The implied and sometimes expressed promise,
especially during election times, is that everyone has the same rights
and the same opportunities to accumulate property. If only everyone did
the right thing and subscribed to the programme then even they will
become property owners which we usually describe as being "rich."

And we all know that a promise of becoming rich has the same pulling
power, if not more, than a matter of fact. The consequence of this
promise of individualism is that many people are always prepared to
succumb to the gambler's paradox than to the logic of discounted
utility. Many people are prepared to risk today's certain level of
guaranteed gains for future possible higher riches.

By a strange coincidence those who promote some sort of liberalism, i.e.
respect for the individual, also happen to belong to an elite class in
society. In the United States senators, congress people and presidential
candidates must be able to procure millions of dollars just to be seen
on TV let alone be influential with the movers and shakers on Capitol
Hill. In Britain, attending an elite public school and at an Oxbridge
university will certainly open doors to the front row of the political
arena and maybe into power. Being sponsored by one of the unions or
union barons also got people to the front row of the arena in Britain
even though this route is now not very safe for hopeful candidates who
believe, in some form of collectivism.

Individual liberalism, has opened the way not only to protect our
ownership rights, but also gave us the right to acquire and accumulate
property. Incidentally, this individual liberalism is not to be confused
with present day term of "modern liberalism" in the USA that is
associated with Democratic Party and advocates of some form of social
justice. By individual liberalism I mean respect for the individual to
acquire property and have ownership rights, as opposed to some form of

Maybe the crux of the problem for us is the question of how much
property should we be free to accumulate and should we agree to allow
people to acquire property at a negative cost to others? This is the
debate between the sentiments and impulse of the collective movements
who argue for limits to how much we should be allowed to accumulate and
at cost to others. And on the other side, what are the moral limits when
someone's acquisition of property puts an unreasonable or unfair burden
on others? Of course, the limits are placed on the population but not
necessarily the leadership.

The so called capitalist system of today, both as an economic system and
a political movement, is based on the principle of consumer production.
Indeed in today's global economy the production of consumer goods is
carried out in certain countries with cheap labour whilst the so called
consumers in first word countries are to earn their income through high
value services. By cheap labour I do not only mean low wages but more
importantly appalling labour conditions.

By definition since we carry out consumer production in countries whose
authorities allow labour exploitation suggests that we are prepared to
allow a high level of negative or unfair costs to others so that we can
acquire more goods which we pretend to be property acquisition. The real
capital today is owned by a few people, but unlike what Marx believed,
today's capitalists own financial institutions and not factories
producing pots and pans. In a free style open economy there seems to be
a dynamic where the bulk of property, such as land and money, tending to
accumulate in the hands of a few. But once again even under the
Capitalist system the game is no different than in the Savannah.

The drawback of the open economy that promotes consumption is the
assumption that everyone can accumulating property either as consumer
goods or more importantly land that can be developed into real estate.
Today we know that no matter how advanced our technology is there is
always someone along the production chain who is being exploited. We
also know that the doctrine of increasing quarterly revenues is
unsustainable and that an economy based on credit will eventually lead
to the destruction of the value of property.

Hence, to answer the question should there be limits to the amount of
property we acquire the answer is twofold. We can either plan for a
stable economy where economic cycles are limited or kept to manageable
levels of property value depreciation, and at the same time reined in
money supply at levels that damage the economy. Or we can wait for
bubbles, super inflation and wars to restrict unnatural levels of
consumption and property accumulation.

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813 <>
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every
Thursdays at Triskel in c/San Vicente Ferrer 3.
Time: from 19:30 to 21h

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Ownership

Friday, June 12, 2015

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: How useful is history?

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing; How useful is history?

It is quite ironic that 100 years ago Europe was passing through some
very serious turmoil that changed the course of the world. Since then,
European leaders have learnt that it's more fun getting rich together
rather than fight each other. And although we don't expect another world
war we do have a lot of economic war causalities. In my essay I ask how
feasible is it for us to learn from history? But in the meantime here is
the link for Ruel's essay:

Hello Lawrence,
Here's the link to the essay I wrote on the next PhiloMadrid topic:
Thanks and see you on Sunday.

----from Lawrence
How useful is history?

If history is to be useful it must have a purpose and if human history
has a purpose we, as biological creatures, must have a purpose. It is,
however, very unlike that we have a purpose beyond survival and
reproduction. But for the purpose of this essay I will assume that
"useful" means we can learn from history.

In English, history means past events of human beings (let's limit
ourselves to humans beings) and the study of these events. But where
does the past stop being the past and becomes history? There is no doubt
that the First World War is today history, but what about the Second
World War; is that history or still the past? I grant you that WW2 is
fast becoming part of history. This distinction seems to have a very
practical effect. We can still try and fix or make amends with errors
from the past, but history seems to be set in the metaphorical stone of
time. As I will try to show for our philosophical discussion it really
does not matter because we are concerned with human beings and not
events. And human events are the product of human actions and decisions.
In this respect human history is not about events but human actions or
omissions and therefore always relevant. Relevant certainly, but how useful?

Our subject is also undecided amongst commentators on whether history is
useful. For example, on the one hand Hume thinks that history is our
experience from whence we can acquire knowledge. But then he proposes
the "induction problem" suggesting that there is no necessary connection
between how things were in the past and how they ought to be in the
future. Aldus Huxley argued: "That men do not learn very much from the
lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history
has to teach." Aldous Huxley, Collected Essays.

On the other hand Machiavelli and Marx were more convinced that we can
learn from history and therefore, making history useful. Machiavelli is
more pragmatic about the lessons from history; observing history and
learning from history could be quite useful especially in a chaotic
environment such as Italy at the time where survival is not always
guaranteed. Marx seems to view history as some ongoing process with
cycles each time ratcheting the demise of oppression whilst getting
closer to that historical event of communism.

A lot depends on whether we view history as some deterministic process
with the belief that history is not only the effect of causes but that
maybe history is determined that it will repeat itself. Or whether
history is a process of acts of free will by people who had a choice to
decide otherwise. Priest* in his lecture at Oxford University describes
this as the "libertarian" view of history.

Indeed, we are inclined to believe that people act from a free will,
thus not only do we ascribe causality to the main characters of the
historical event but also hold those people morally accountable for
their actions. Indeed we do hold people accountable and morally
responsible for their actions (sometimes), for example the Nuremberg
trials of the leadership of the Nazi dictatorship, after the Second
World War. And Napoleon's exile to Elba is another example holding to
account an historical actor believed to be responsible for turmoil in

However, there is a serious drawback for our purposes of the topic in
focusing on accountable and moral responsibly of actors in history
because of our belief in free will. The danger is not that we might
erroneously hold the wrong person accountable, or not hold all those
responsible accountable, but that in seeking moral accountability we
might miss the real lessons from history. Once we have moral
accountability covered we might be inclined to stop investigating
further as to the real causes; the very same mistake we make with
criminal law.

An example from the Second World War will illustrate my point. Today we
know that Hitler had a clear chance of winning the war in Europe at the
beginning of the conflict by defeating the British; a blockade is an
island's strategic weak point. And later towards the end of the war to
reach a stalemate or conditional surrender. The first was Hitler's
belief that capital battleship (I wrote about this in previous essays)
could win the sea war, whereas if he channelled these resources to
building U-boats the British wouldn't have lasted more than a few months
on their own. Again the decision to use the Me262 the first military jet
as a bomber rather than a fighter enabled the allies to bomb Germany
into destruction.

My point here is that the defeat of an enemy (or an outcome of a
historical event) might be interpreted as a success of the victor's
strategies rather than failures in the enemy's strategy (at least
partially). To put this in more abstract terms, acts of omission can
have as much a causal effect in history as acts of commission. The
implication is of course that if we are to learn anything from history
we need to take into account what people did and what they did not do.
This is very difficult because 1) by instinct we look for acts of
commission and 2) how do we scientifically model acts of omission?
Assuming, in the first place, we can establish what acts of omission we
should take into account; Hitler did not act on many things but none or
(maybe) none that we know off had such a deterministic effect on the
outcome of the Second World War.

I should also make it clear here, that this is not a sort of "what if
analysis"; what if Hitler had built 10,000 U-boats? We know what
happened here since it was always an option for him to build a very
large number of U-boats. The "What if question" would probably be
something like: what if he built 20 capital ships like the Bismarck?
This was never an option since the treaty of Versailles prohibited the
Germans from building Bismarck class ship before the war. Thus learning
from acts of omission is not the same as theorising about "what if"

I am therefore not convinced that it's an either-or sort of debate about
the process of history: deterministic (causal process) or libertarian
(free will). I am more inclined to argue that very few people have the
luxury of acting purely from free will, but causality is not as
tyrannical as determinists want us to believe. The problem for me is
that by looking at history as a series of events we fail to give these
events a context. Indeed I would go so far as to argue that history
without context is as useless as language without context. Hence, the
starting point for us is that for history to be useful we must
understand it beyond the belief that history is a series of events. We
must first look at these events in context before we can decide if they
are useful. And by useful I mean, as I said, we can learn from them to
the extent that we can shape our social and political structure by
taking these lessons into account.

Even if we can agree that there are some things we can learn from
history and that we can overcome the philosophical stumbling blocks I
mentioned above, there is also the question of whether it is "feasible"
to learn from history. How easy is it for us to learn from history and,
more importantly, can we draw the right lessons for our present age and
circumstance? As Alfonso Vallejo reminds us, Kant, Marx, Plato and the
like did not have an iPhone (or Smart Phone) with access to the
internet. Hence their importance today is subject to certain limitation.
Presumably Roosevelt, Churchill but hopefully not Hitler could have made
the best use of having access to an iPhone but they didn't. The Vallejo
effect can be interpreted in 1) a strong form, that past philosophers
have very little to contribute today given they did not have access to
the information we have now, or 2) the soft interpretation, we should be
cautious when attributing lessons from past philosophers for us to apply
today. What is clear is that the Vallejo effect is a modern reminder
that before history (or philosophy) can be useful we must first be able
to extract the relevant lessons for the time and circumstance of their
application and not the time of the events.

As I said earlier, one of the issues we have to deal with is modelling
these historical events and even history itself. When we model a
situation we are trying to understand this situation by being able to
predict future events. Of course, when we apply the scientific modelling
method to history we are not necessarily trying to predict our future,
but rather to predict future events within the timeline of history; for
example economic cycles, civil wars etc. Only then can we seriously
claim that we understand the causal and human actions of an event and
thence look for lessons.

When we study history at school we are usually thought about kings and
queens, prime ministers, presidents, wars and disagreements between
neighbours, and if we're lucky we might get to find out about the Great
Depression in the 1930's. Except that it's not only kings and queens who
influence history, ordinary people do as well.

Despite the uncertainty of the "history" process we can still see the
historical process taking place underneath the top glamorous tier of
history. I am thinking here of the changes we see throughout history
that are "caused" by people who happen to be at the centre of their
circumstance. For example, the invention (at least credited) of the tin
can by the Frenchman, Philippe de Girard, who in the space of a few
years had been developed into a commercially viable product to preserve
food. The Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis who changed the lives of
humanity by recognizing the importance of hand hygiene; not to mention
Florence Nightingale who pioneered nursing and health care on the
battlefield and beyond. Moreover, the development of the motor car and
our understanding of the principles of flight have all served as game
changers in modern history. And of course in today's context, Steve Jobs
with the iPone and the revolution of the mobile phone into a smart(ish)
phone. There is more to history than kings and queens and dates!

But if science and technology are responsible for some of the
progressive changes in history, economics is also sometimes the cause of
misery and some would say wars. And whilst we understand what Huxley
said about history teaches us that history cannot teach us anything, we
can safely say that whenever we find economic greed in history we also
find strife and turmoil. For example the French and Russian revolutions
are two cases in point. And the reparations and economic squeeze Germany
had to face after the defeat in the WW1 led directly to the Second World

In more recent years we have become the victims of yet another property
bubble that directly led to the unacceptable austerity programmes of
many governments. But bubbles go back at least to the mid 17th Century
(1637) of the Dutch tulip mania. But these economic shocks are well
understood within modern and classical economics. Thus economic events,
at least, are regular enough to question the Huxley belief.

Indeed the biggest mistake Marx made was to assume that the proletariat
will always want to strive for equality. It never occurred to Marx that
the working class would one day dream and strive to be capitalists and
creators of their own wealth simply because modern technology makes
production so easy and efficient. Between the indoctrination of the
"American Dream" and the exercise of the magical powers of the credit
card, workers today are more like to want to be rich rather than communist.

In all these shenanigans Machiavelli and Hume win the day: the
pragmatics of Machiavelli has led to the European Union when for once
European leaders have realised that it's more profitable getting rich
together, at least for the chosen few, than being petty and cheat each
other like alley tom cats in the dead of night. And finally, the
cautious approach advocated by Hume has today, as I write, made
Scotland a key force in British politics rather than the traditional
role of being the "charwoman" of the Union. Humean scepticism means that
those who striven to be communists in past are today probably trying to
be rich and hence the Marxist cycle of history broken.

If Huxley's statement about history has its limits, Churchill's supposed
claim that "history is written by the victors" (alternative quote:
"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.") has today been
demonstrated not to be universal. I am of course referring to the events
of 11th September 2001 and the supposed terrorist attacks in New York
and other cities. With the power of the internet today, independent
access to scientific tools and a sense of freedom and right to
information we can question the official historical events of that
fateful day in September. There are now enough independent studies to
doubt the official version of events: and although I don't think that
this independent evidence establishes the official version to be false
"beyond reasonable doubt" (criminal standard) it is certainly false on
the "balance of probability" (civil standard). The victors might write
history but today this can be refuted within twenty-four hours on the

Once we exclude history as a source of intellectual stimulus, as Hume
suggested, and exclude history as a fertile source for the entertainment
industry, what else is left? There is certainly a heavy burden to
formulate a model of factual historical events that is maybe close to
impossible to achieve. However, it is not that difficult to understand
certain phenomena in history, for example the effects of economic
collapse or economic cycles, understand the effects of new technologies
and the role played by second and third level historical actors, such as
scientists or visionaries. History, as I said, is not just about kings
and queens and this is what makes history difficult to establish,
understand and learn from; history is also about people like us.

I still think that history is useful, but very difficult to establish
what is useful for us; and usefulness seems to have a built in
sell-by-date. But that's not to say it is not important or interesting.
In the meantime let those two political giants of the 19th and 20th
centuries have the last say about the value of history: Otto von
Bismarck, "The main thing is to make history, not to write it." And
Winston Churchill, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write
it." The lesson from these two historical figures is that if you make
history don't subcontract your autobiography.

*Philosophy of History Lecture Stephen Priest Oxford University

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813 <>
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every
Thursdays at Triskel in c/San Vicente Ferrer 3.
Time: from 19:30 to 21h

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: How useful is history?

Thursday, June 04, 2015

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Things I don’t know about myself + News

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Things I don't know about myself.

Despite the first person singular setting of the topic this should not
preclude us from generalising about human beings even if it is at a
probabilistic level. I mean, given that it is things I don't know about
myself this limited interpretation might reduces the topic to some kind
of isolated entity. I'm so unique, like everyone else, that we cannot
say anything that applies to everyone or most people. But language
enables us to interpret this "I" into "we" and into the realms of
possible trends and patterns of human philosophical problems and issues.
In my short essay I explore the subjective nature of the issue at the
collective level.

Ruel has also sent us the link to his essay, but first news from Norma
who will be signing her children's book this Saturday at the Feria del
Libro at the Retiro.

-----News from Norma
Dear Lawrence:

El sábado 13 de junio de 19: 00 a 21:00 Norma Sturniolo firmará en la
caseta de la editorial Anaya n º 213 "El León que quería tener amigos".
Es un libro donde bajo el ropaje de un cuento de humor para niños
encontramos ideas como las siguientes: la queja y la autocompasión nos
desgasta y no nos sirven de nada, los prejuicios nos perjudican,a veces,
no conseguimos algo que queremos porque realizamos la conducta opuesta a
la necesaria, un cambio de actitud puede favorecernos y otras ideas más
que encontrará el que compre el libro que contiene las tres B: Bueno,
Bonito yBarato ( solo costará alrededor de 7 euros)
Best wishes,

------from Ruel
Hello Lawrence,
Here's the link to the short essay I wrote on the topic:
Thanks. See you on Sunday.


Things I don't know about myself

There are many things we don't know about ourselves, and even more we
cannot be expected to know about ourselves.

For example, our medical condition is far beyond us unless we're
medically trained or have a particular interest in a condition we might
be suffering from. A class of things we usually don't have access to is
the "real" opinion of friends and relatives. Very few people are honest
with us to tell us what they really think of us. And yet these two
classes of information could really help us become a healthier person
and better person.

Of course, having access to a sophisticated health care system will help
us keep good health and remain in good form. But this is a far cry from
being able to fix one's self on the go and in real time. Likewise, not
seeing someone over a few months might be a telling situation about
one's friendship with that person. Sure friends and acquaintances drift
for no reason or maybe due to a radical change in circumstances. But if
it is just a matter of person incompatibility surely it would be better
to fix disagreements than lose a friend.

So what could it be that we don't know about ourselves and that is of
philosophical interest? So far the observations I've made are part of
normal life and things that are really out of the control and reach of
our epistemological state. Even if we knew in advance about our health
or relationships and try and do something about it, it does not follow
that we can actually fix things to the better.

Maybe what we don't know about ourselves, might hurt us less than what
we think we know about ourselves. But even this aspect of what we know
about ourselves has a "real life" scenario that serves us well. The
first that comes to mind are food intolerances and allergies. Once again
medicine can help, but usually there are limits to what we can be done.
Hence, knowing we're intolerant or allergic to some things means having
to be on guard and alert to what we eat. This could even be a life saver.

Our aesthetic values are certainly things we tend to know very well even
if we cannot say why we like some things and not others. But sometimes
we take this ability to be clear about aesthetic values too far and can
lead us to believe that what we want is also good for us. This attitude
in some people can very easily stem from an overconfidence effect (see
Wikipedia). "The overconfidence effect is a well-established bias in
which a person's subjective confidence in his or her judgments is
reliably greater than the objective accuracy of those judgments,
especially when confidence is relatively high." By Pallier et al "The
Role of Individual Differences in the Accuracy of Confidence Judgments".
The Journal of General Psychology. (Wikipedia link "overconfidence effect").

This belief may be due to over confidence in one's sense of moral
superiority or judgement or one's superior position over others; a sort
of Appeal to authority fallacy and the person in question is the
authority. We observe this effect with very successful and popular
people, people who achieved greatness and power. For example, elected
politicians who equate what they want to what is good for them (and
others); many judgements on austerity tend to be tainted this way.

Another way this want-equals-good fallacy can happen when people try to
follow a trend or a fashion, this is also known as the bandwagon
cognitive bias. I have personally observed this phenomenon in fashion
and personal styles, when it is clear that some people follow a trend
because they are convinced that in doing so they will look attractive.
From a more professional observation some people are clear that the way
(method or content) they want to learn a second language is what is good
for them. In some cases some of these students are right and a welcome
surprise for teachers. But in most cases these students commit the basic
gambler's fallacy; they haven't learnt the language till now so all they
need to do is take the same teaching programme and do the same exercises
as they did in the past. In most cases it also follows that what a
student wants also happens to be what the relevant authorities
prescribe; but the prescribed methods transcends into a personal "want"
thus becoming independent from the origins of the method.

One cannot blame these students, who in a way reflect a common bias in
society, because the relevant authorities also practice a form of
gambler's paradox with education and most other policies. Usually
governments demand more exams, better exams, more homework, more
supervision, more testing, more teachers, or more money. But never more
freedom for children to express their creativity, more adaptability of a
system to children's needs, more scientific based learning system and
certainly never an education integrated with the working lives and needs
of the parents of the children.

I wouldn't necessarily describe this disposition to convert and
transcend what the authorities prescribe into a genuinely held personal
want as a case of succumbing to a form of appeal to authority fallacy,
nor to some form of Stockholm syndrome, for those who believe that we
live in an oppressive state. But I do believe that it is rational to
play it safe, even though we might be wrong, especially on matter that
we are not familiar with or are not curious journalists or inquiring
philosophers. Thus as teachers we have to be more tolerant when a
student tells us they want more grammar, or as philosophers when a
friends consults a fortune teller about their prospects of finding a
perfect partner.

Hence, it's quite possible that there some direct causal transition from
"I know what I like," or "I know what I want," to "what I want is good
for me" or "will do me good". Indeed this want-equals-good fallacy is so
widespread that we can see it everywhere if only we paid attention. For
example, not liking a type of food or unable to eat a type of food, we
sometimes get the reaction from others with, "but it's good for you," or
"it's just in your mind that you don't like it," or "once you try it you
will like it!"

Our topic also suggests another big issue in philosophy: the
subjectivism-objectivism debate. It is not my intention to discuss these
issues at length, but we are familiar with the issues: the
epistemological issues usually take the form "how can we have any
knowledge if we only have subjective experience?" And the
metaphysical/objective issue (ontological issues) is usually described
as "what is real?" or "what is reality independent of our subjective

What is of particular interest for our topic here is precisely: how can
there be things about us we don't know given that knowledge is
subjective knowledge? How can we be excluded from knowledge about
ourselves when all knowledge is based on subjective experience? And how
can others have objective knowledge about us when all their knowledge is
based on subjective experience? Is objective reality possible and
knowable given there are only subjective beings?

Indeed, how many times have we been to the doctor and we quietly reacted
to any advice with "How does she/he know what is good for me?" or "the
doctor just doesn't understand my problem!" This language, I suggest,
betrays our bias towards subjectivism over objectivism especially when
we disagree about things that concern us personally. We might compromise
and change our opinion whether a new jet fighter needs radar system X or
radar system Y, but when it comes to having the flu, many of us are in
no doubt about whether we need antibiotics or seven days in bed drinking
chicken soup. This subjectivism-over-objectivism come-what-may position
is many times wrong, but this does not mean that we are always wrong
when we stick to our subjective guns.

Although today no one will go so far as to argue there is only
subjective truth, it does not follow that our knowledge about the
ontological existence of objects in reality is always true. Sometimes we
are right based on our subjective instinct when the perceived objective
judgement of others is totally wrong. In any case what is true
objectively and what is wrong subjective is not a yes-no type of
problem. Our ontological knowledge of reality depends on our methodology
of measuring things, human errors in our application and collection of
data, and of course our state of knowledge at the time. And sometimes we
might be wrong simply because others made a mistake and hence our
expected outcome did not happen.

But those who take the subjective position in our topic question fail to
realise that our body is also someone else's objective reality. Thus
there is objective knowledge about us that we don't necessarily know
about. What is more interesting however is whether the things we don't
know about ourselves are also important for us. In other words, can we
live without the things we don't know about us?

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813 <>
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every
Thursdays at Triskel in c/San Vicente Ferrer 3.
Time: from 19:30 to 21h

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Things I don't know
about myself + News


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