The philosopher John Messerly (author of the highly recommended book The Meaning of Life) recently asked if he could re-post and review the long essay I wrote that summed up What I Learned from 100 Philosophy Thought Experiments. I was delighted, of course, to hear his opinion on everything I wrote and was grateful for the extra attention I received from his own regular readers too. John (wisely) broke the review down into seven separate posts, and I thought I'd share his brief reflections on each one of them, as well as some of the back and forth we had in the comment section of his blog. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
What is a Worldview? Overall Gibney’s careful and conscientious effort to summarize, categorize, and comment on all these thought experiments and place them in the larger context is a superb intellectual achievement.
[In a private note about this] I really admire your effort to systemize a worldview. After all the classes taken and taught, and all the books read in an almost 50-year philosophy career, I have never really done that (with the exception of summarizing my meaning of life views). I also really like the idea of using thought experiments as a way to think about worldviews. Hopefully I'll spend some time over the next year looking at Baggini's book along with your commentary and come to my own conclusions, although I'll bet they'll be very similar to your own.
1. Epistemology I agree with Gibney’s epistemological fallibilism/skepticism modified by the view of the provisional nature of all truth. I would only emphasize that this does not imply relativism, as the provisional truths of science are often supported by mountains of empirical evidence. The best a rational person can do, as Locke and Hume taught us, is proportion their assent to the evidence.
2. Logic There is a lot here but I agree that as long as there is time, as long as there is a tomorrow, we cannot claim to know something definitively. Still, I’d argue that if we can enhance our intelligence, merge with AIs, create a global brain, become transhuman, etc., then there is a possibility of adjudicating our disputes with reason alone.
3. Metaphysics Again so much substantive material here. As for personal identity, I think that Hume’s bundle theory and/or Buddhism’s idea of no-self is about right. Clearly, we just don’t have identity the way most of us imagine; if indeed we have any real self at all. And there almost certainly is no kernel that is us.
As for free will, I’m not sure what Mr. Gibney means by ”practically infinite free will” but I’m skeptical. I’m not a hard determinist, but I think that to say we are genomes in environments is a nearly exhaustive explanation of what we are. Still, we are not rocks, and free choice (which needs to be defined carefully but which is very, very limited) is something that emerged along with consciousness. That is, unlike rocks which are completely determined (let’s forget quantum theory for the moment), we have some deliberative faculties because we are conscious.
As for strong AI, I see no reason whatsoever why consciousness can’t exist on substrates other than our biological brains. In fact, in an infinite universe, consciousness may exist in almost limitless forms. Finally, I completely agree with Mr. Gibney on the interrelationship between reasons and emotions and that it is a moral imperative to improve our thinking. Quoting from Pascal: “Let us endeavour then to think well; this is the principle of morality.”
[In the comments on this post] Me: Yeah, I’m not entirely sure what I meant by “practically infinite” either. : )
I find that the wording I use for the free will debate is still changing a bit for me. Lately, I’ve begun to think that it’s an unfalsifiable question since it would seemingly require two universes with beings in exactly the same positions making different choices to definitively prove something about determinism vs. free will. Without supernatural influences, souls, or dualistic minds not made of matter (things Dennett calls “skyhooks”), it’s difficult to refute the logic of determinism in a physicalist universe. However, the sheer amount of things determining those outcomes makes it nigh impossible to calculate them. That’s really what I mean by “practically infinite.” If we can’t calculate the determined outcome, it seems better to focus on the myriad of choices we do have and keep working to find the best influences from among them. There’s even some empirical evidence that this works better.
Ultimately though, I entirely agree with you that we are genomes in environments. I think that explains both the simplicity and the complexity of our existence.
John M: Yes, just such a difficult question. I act as if I have free will even though I might not.
4. Ethics Traditional religious beliefs are mostly nonsense. Moreover, the divine command theory is ridiculous as Plato demonstrated in the Euthyphro, the problem of evil devastating for classical theism, there is no invisible gardener, etc.
I’ve never found much to recommend Kantian deontology, although I think a modified utilitarianism has a lot to offer. Like Mr. Gibney I think that evolutionary ethics explains the origins of ethics and can also function well as a normative ethical theory. I would modify Mr. Gibney’s “good is that which enables the long-term survival of life” by adding “and flourishing of life.” Survival isn’t sufficient by itself for goodness. (Note that Mr. Gibney seems to recognize this later on in the essay.)
I would also modify Mr. Gibney’s “1. Life is. 2. Life wants to survive. 3. Life ought to act to survive.” While I think you can get is from ought I don’t think you can get it quite that easily. (Perhaps Mr. Gibney is just summarizing here.) For example, Schopenhauer would argue that life wanting to survive is just a will to live that perpetuates suffering. So again we must enter the picture and choose to try to survive well, live well, or flourish.
[In the comments on this post] Me: I thought I’d respond briefly to three things.
–> I would modify Mr. Gibney’s “good is that which enables the long-term survival of life” by adding “and flourishing of life.” Survival isn’t sufficient by itself for goodness. (Note that Mr. Gibney seems to recognize this later on in the essay.)
Yes, but I don’t modify this because I actually define flourishing and well-being as things that help to enhance the survival of life. If they didn’t do this, they wouldn’t be good and we could never encourage them since they would lead life towards extinction. To add “and flourishing” risks making it sound as if it's a separate thing. I’m getting better at saying this more explicitly in my latest presentations and papers. Life isn’t some on/off switch. To think so would be going back to visions of elan vital. So, just as life emerges and evolves slowly over evolutionary time, so does an ability to survive—from mere existence to lives with well-being and flourishing.
–> I would also modify Mr. Gibney’s “1. Life is. 2. Life wants to survive. 3. Life ought to act to survive.” While I think you can get is from ought I don’t think you can get it quite that easily. (Perhaps Mr. Gibney is just summarizing here.)
Well, we get from is to ought just this easily all the time with any conditional proposition. (In my paper, I note that *if* you want to get to Poughkeepsie, you *ought* to take the train there.) The difficult part is finding the conditional proposition that drives a universal and objective moral ought. That’s why I call this survival of life “the want that must.” And I do go into more detail on that in my other writings. But I still like the aphorism sometimes to get people talking.
–> For example, Schopenhauer would argue that life wanting to survive is just a will to live that perpetuates suffering. So again we must enter the picture and choose to try to survive well, live well, or flourish.
My answer to Schopenhauer is that perpetual suffering is exactly the evolutionary clue that you aren’t doing it right. By defining flourishing as living, I am saying much the same things as you, but I am placing the end consequence explicitly in the wording. By focusing simply on “flourishing”, utilitarians have left open the questions of whose, how much, and towards what end?
John M.: Ed – I like the way you consider flourishing as enhancing survival. That strikes me at first glance as plausible. We certainly do go from is to ought assuming we have some desire as in “if you want to become a lawyer, then you ought to go to law school.” Or “if you don’t want to get wet, then you ought to take your umbrella.” But of course, while Kant thinks there is a categorical imperative independent of our desires in addition to these hypothetical imperatives, Hume doesn’t think there are any categorical imperatives. So, as you note, that is the difficult part. To find exactly how to bridge the is/ought gap in ethics. The natural law theorists beginning with Aristotle do this by considering human nature, so perhaps you can and do get there but I’d have to read your other writings to see. Still, off the top of my head, life wants to survive so it ought to survive just doesn’t seem to follow in the same way that our other hypothetical imperatives seemed to.
5. Aesthetics I probably know less about aesthetics than any other branch of philosophy. Let me just say that there is something about beauty that is intrinsically worthwhile. Truth, beauty, and goodness are the 3 great ideas by which we judge things. Here I’ll quote from Bertrand Russell’s last manuscript: “There is an artist imprisoned in each one of us. Let him loose to spread joy everywhere.”
[In the comments on this post] Me: In my recent talk to North East Humanists about my philosophy, I added the following passage about aesthetics too:
——————— [Aesthetics] is something that many philosophers have shied away from, preferring to stick with rigorous, analytical topics rather than squishy emotional ones. But recently the philosopher Denis Dutton gave a TED talk titled “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty” that had a quote in it that I really like because it goes a long way towards explaining my position here. He said:
“The experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing or sustaining interest in order to encourage us towards making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction.”
A lot more could be said about this quote, but I just want to make one point about it. And that is that, although “the experience of beauty” may indeed be subjective and in the eye of the beholder, we now all know a lot more about “making the most adaptive decisions for survival.” And so, I think our understanding of what is beautiful ought to change accordingly. ———————
Sylvia Wojcik queried me about this long essay (of what I learned during my writing about 100 thought experiments), and wondered where my thoughts were about “the meaning of life.” I didn’t have anything specific in here because Baggini didn’t have any thought experiments about this elusive topic, and I’m not sure whether it fits naturally into this framework I’m using (of the 6 branches of philosophy), or if it rises above it as a sort of metaphilosophy. I have come to think of aesthetics, though, as that which motivates and inspires us to find and fulfil the meaning in our lives. As an expert on TMOL, I wonder what you think of this relationship between aesthetics and TMOL.
John M: Haven’t really thought much about beauty and TMOL although lives which seek truth, create beauty, and involve (moral) goodness seem to paradigms of the meaningful life. As I said, my background in aesthetics is non-existent but it does seem that beauty and meaning are very closely associated terms. The philosopher who has written extensively about this connection of truth, beauty, and goodness to the meaning of life is Thaddeus Metz. But a life creating beauty is almost certainly a meaningful one.
The question then arises as to how to deter egoistic behavior and encourage cooperative behavior. I advocate disablement strategies, that is making the selfish move impossible. Today this would involve enhancing human cognitive and moral functioning. We must re-engineer human beings or we will not survive. Radical as this may seem, I see no other option that is likely to be successful.
I also agree with Mr. Gibney about 1) limits to free speech, especially given the speed at which lies now spread quickly around the world; 2) the moral value of voluntary euthanasia; and 3) the need to include animals and AIs into the moral sphere.
[In the comments on this post] Me: Thanks once again, John. I found this idea of yours really interesting:
–> “The question then arises as to how to deter egoistic behavior and encourage cooperative behavior. I advocate disablement strategies, that is making the selfish move impossible. Today this would involve enhancing human cognitive and moral functioning. We must re-engineer human beings or we will not survive. Radical as this may seem, I see no other option that is likely to be successful.”
I have a hard time disagreeing that we seem doomed as is, but I also wrote this: “we are neither inherently good nor inherently evil—we are capable of both, a flexibility we must have in order to have the power to choose between alternate paths that are right some of the time and wrong some of the time.”
I can’t quite conceive of how to disable humans without getting rid of some of the flexibility we need. For example, in this disabled world, who would stand up to the government if it was headed down the wrong path? I think you’d need some level of selfish belief to do that. Also, I just have no idea how to practically disable the love of small circles of concern while keeping larger circles still loved.
I heard Yuval Harari talk on a podcast recently that he was actually encouraged by the recent rise of nationalism in the long history of humans. We have learned to love and defend very large circles of concern that didn’t really exist a few hundred years ago (depending on your location). I try to be hopeful that this trend will continue as information about the entire Earth spreads. I also wrote my second novel (shopping for a publisher again now that the one I found has dropped out of the publishing biz…rrrgghh) about a near future where humans discover how to live without ageing, because I think that kind of leap in lifespan (being) would have to lead to a similar leap in morality (being well, aka well-being). Maybe you can expand on your disabling theory though?
John M: Ed – I haven’t really thought through how disablement would work except to say generally that it would include things like implanting moral chips, messing with the genome, etc. And if we could extend our area of moral concern to the entire planet that would, of course, be ideal. Also, I really agree with the claim that increased lifespans would aid morality. For example, people wouldn’t be so quick to trash the ecosystem if they knew that would be alive to see the consequences of their actions.
On Thursday, March 21st, 2019, I presented a talk about my evolutionary philosophy at the Annual General Meeting of the North East Humanists. It was a real honour to be invited, and the 40-minute presentation I gave was one that I slaved over for months and months (including many sleepless, nervous nights). The result summarises my work in what I think is one of the best formats I've come up with yet, so I thought I'd share it here for anyone who couldn't make it to the event, as well as for those who did go but wanted to review the material again. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it here and, as always, I welcome any thoughts and questions below.
So, the title of my talk tonight is, “What can evolution teach us about humanism?”
To answer that question, I’m going to go over three things tonight.
What is a humanist worldview?
What is an evolutionary worldview?
And more fundamentally, what is a worldview? How can we actually compare these sorts of things?
For the humanist worldview, I’ll try to describe that using the information I found in the online course from Humanist UK (HUK) that I took in January. For the evolutionary worldview, I’ll try to describe that by summarising the philosophy I’ve been working on for the last several years. Hopefully, once these two worldviews have been laid out side by side, we’ll be able to see how they might be able to learn something from one another. But before we can get to that general comparison, we have to define what it is that we are specifically going to compare.
So, what is a worldview exactly? I’m not sure how many of you saw this, but a report came out in 2018 from CORE—a Commission on Religious Education—and it was literally called “Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward—A National Plan for RE.” I know Ron shared this with the management committee in December, and it might have gone out on Facebook and twitter, but I don’t think it was sent directly to the general members. Anyway, right near the front of the report they had this inset block of text that gave their definition of a worldview. They say it is simply: “…a person’s way of understanding, experiencing, and responding to the world. … And they use the term ‘institutional worldview’ to describe organized worldviews shared among particular groups…[such as] religions as well as non-religious worldviews such as humanism, secularism, or atheism.”
So, here are some examples of institutional worldviews from religions as well as from humanist groups. For Christianity, there’s the Nicene Creed. Buddhism has its four noble truths and eightfold noble path. Islam has its five pillars that come from the Quran. The IHEU (now called Humanists International) has published two versions of a manifesto called “The Amsterdam Declaration.” The American Humanist Association has a brief but exacting statement that defines humanism and is published on the inside cover of every issue of their magazine. And we North East Humanists have a list of seven items on our website under a page called “What We Believe.” I find these all really interesting, but they are hard to compare with one another. Without a more exact definition of a worldview, it’s hard to analyse how they all overlap or contradict.
Well, a few years ago, I hunted around for a more exact definition of a worldview and ended up pulling these nineteen different elements from four good books and articles on the subject. Among these elements, we see that worldviews are supposed to do things like:
Tell us how to act
Tell us how to organize politically
Give us meaning and purpose
Tell us what is good, what is truth, and what is beauty
And many other things as well
These are ideas that we all have, either consciously or subconsciously. The elements are often interwoven and reinforce one another, but sometimes our beliefs might contradict each other too. It’s hard to dig in and examine this, though, unless you have a good checklist for everything that’s supposed to be in a worldview.
Well, to make a long story short, this is the best checklist, or framework, that I’ve found for how to look at worldviews. Quite simply, these are just the six main branches of philosophy as they are currently broken down. This makes sense when you look at the history of philosophy. Long before there was science, philosophy was the field where people went to study unknown things in the world. Aristotle wrote tons about biological classifications. Before that, the pre-Socratics wrote about atoms and the five basic elements of the universe—these were essentially their versions of physics and chemistry. Even Isaac Newton’s landmark book was called Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.
But once the scientific method was defined during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, basically any time a subject became understood well enough to be tested empirically, these pursuits were then split off into their own discipline. This is why some people have characterised the history of philosophy as one that spawns science. And so now, philosophers are left with only the most difficult things that we can’t quite wrap our arms around to measure and be certain about. That’s where radical choices can still made about what to believe in or not to believe in. In other words, this is where we can still find the greatest differences in our worldviews.
If we get rid of the jargon and just look at the six basic questions that these branches are trying to answer, then it becomes easier to see how this framework covers all of the nineteen elements of a worldview that we saw earlier. Epistemology studies what I can know. Metaphysics looks at what exists. Ethics tries to describe what is good, what is moral. Politics tries to answer how we can all live together. Logic looks for rules on how to reason and debate these things. And aesthetics searches for what beauty is, and how that might motivate us and give us meaning in life.
To make this all a bit clearer, I thought it would help to go through a quick example. So, let’s look at a simplified worldview of an extreme religious fundamentalist and see how that would look in my framework. They would say that what they know comes completely from the Bible or the Quran—from the one book that has revealed truth to them. As far as what exists, they may recognize that this world does, but only as a staging ground before their souls go on to heaven or hell. And since that afterlife is infinitely long it’s much more important than anything that happens here. As far as what good is, that also comes completely from whatever they’ve read in their holy books. And so, politically, they will work to see sharia law or “a Christian nation” implemented widely and based upon these earlier principles. When arguing about these things, they may try to be as logical as possible, but ultimately, they will always have to fall back on whatever it is that God or Allah said. And finally, when thinking about what beauty is, they tend to focus on religious works of art, or they look at natural things as simply part of “God’s wonderful creation” since he’s the only thing that can give meaning to life.
So, again, this is just a simplified example. Most people, even religious fundamentalists, are more complicated and nuanced than this. But I hope it shows that if you go through the details of these six items for a person or an institution, then you should begin to have a very good idea of what they are like.
Okay. So how would we describe a humanist worldview then? These are some highlights from the nearly fifty pages of notes I took during the six-week online course called “Introducing Humanism.” The words and phrases in bold were the ones that I thought best represented what HUK thought humanism is or could be.
Let’s try to boil that all down into my framework and see what that looks like. Before I jump in, I should say that the course was filled with disclaimers about the fact that no one can speak for all humanists, and there were a few examples given of differing viewpoints too. That’s why I have the question mark at the top of the slide. But let’s just take this as one humanist worldview, and then we can use that for further discussions.
So, taking that into account, a humanist might say that what we know comes from empirical observations only. Since there are no revelations from gods available to us, that leaves us with the scientific method, very broadly defined, as the only way to gain knowledge. And that knowledge is only ever provisional, because new observations might come along at any time that contradict what we currently believe, and we have to remain open to that.
As far as what exists then, we’ve never detected any supernatural interventions in the universe, so we’re left with natural descriptions, or what is known as physicalism in philosophy. Without any reason to believe in a heaven or hell, humanists focus on this one life, and we try to make it a good one.
So, what is good? Well, humanists think we get a sense of that from being social creatures who have evolved reasons to feel empathy and take care of one another, or indeed of any living thing that can feel pain and suffering. The course also mentioned repeatedly that because there aren’t any gods coming to save us, it’s up to us to take responsibility for the Earth and everything that we do to it.
Politically, humanists have had a long tradition of campaigning for secular, just, free, and educated societies, in particular focusing on issues of human rights. In liberal democracies, this is built on something called the harm principle, which I’ll talk a bit more about later, but basically it means that we should be free to do what we want as long as we don’t harm others with our actions.
The online course didn’t mention anything specific about the field of logic, but it did point out that we need to use reason and rationality to make our way through the world, so I’ve assumed there was an acceptance of what is called classical logic here.
Finally, the course did end by noting that we humanists, contrary to what some might think, can also experience awe, beauty, and purpose, by simply enjoying nature, leading meaningful lives, or helping other humans flourish.
So, altogether, this is the summary that I’ve put together of what the humanist worldview is, and it’s something I definitely want to hear your opinions on during the Q&A. But before we get to that, I want to go through some of my own philosophy and see how that might support or challenge some of these ideas.
So, this is the banner that I have at the top of each page on my website as I write philosophy that tries to keep the principles of evolution foremost in mind. This is something that the majority of philosophers in history obviously couldn’t do because they lived and wrote before Darwin. But even for the ones who came after him, the science around evolution has grown so quickly that later philosophers have often struggled, in my opinion, to keep up with latest developments and what they mean. Especially if they have remained focused on other pre-Darwin philosophers.
One philosopher who hasn’t missed this, though, is Dan Dennett who described evolution as a universal acid capable of eating through everything. In his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, he said evolution “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognisable, but transformed in fundamental ways.” I agree with that completely and have found that evolution eats through every single element of my framework for worldviews too. So, I’d like to go through them all one by one now and try to show you what I mean by that.
The first part is evolutionary epistemology, or what we can know. The humanist course mentioned that we may not be able to know truth, but they didn’t say why, and I think that’s important enough to go into for a bit. Well, the story starts about 2400 years ago when Plato defined knowledge as Justified, True, Belief. That definition held up in the West until about the 1960’s when a short thought experiment known as the Gettier problem cast doubt on whether anyjustifications could ever be good enough to prove something could be true.
From an evolutionary perspective, though, this seems obvious. For something to be True with a capital T—eternally and always True—you’d need to find an eternally stable and known thing in the universe. But as Darwin and others showed us, the universe moves and changes, and perhaps more importantly, we cannot know what the future may bring. And so, philosophically speaking, we can’t be 100% sure that anything we claim to know will ever stand the test of time as being True.
That leads us to define knowledge as Justified, Beliefs, that are Surviving. And when I say surviving, I don’t just mean these beliefs are existing in someone’s head somewhere; I mean that they’re capable of surviving our best rational tests. Justified beliefs shouldn’t be discarded just because we can’t be sure that they are True. They should only be replaced when we find even better justified beliefs. And since it seems like this is something that will always continue to happen, we should say that our knowledge will continue to evolve too.
Next up, is the branch of metaphysics, or what exists. Basically, the evolutionary position here is just to drop the meta since all we’ve ever witnessed in our evolutionary history are physical processes. This is also similar to what the humanist course said, but it does lead to positions on a whole range of philosophical issues that weren’t discussed in the course. Issues such as identity, the mind-body problem, consciousness, and free will. I’ll be happy to discuss any of those in the Q&A if you want, but for now I think it’s fine to just move on in broad agreement about this view of the universe as natural, i.e. non-supernatural.
The next branch in my framework is ethics. This is where we see the most difference between an evolutionary philosophy and the humanist worldview, so I’ll need to spend a bit more time on this. So, we see here on this slide that ethical positions are traditionally divided into three camps.
The first is consequentialism, which, just as the name implies, tries to determine if our actions will have good or bad consequences. Utilitarianism is the most famous example of this, and it’s one that the online course said is often appealing to humanists.
The second traditional camp is deontology, or rule-based ethics. People in this camp look for hard and fast rules to govern our actions. Rules such as the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, or Kant’s categorical imperative.
Finally, the last camp of virtue ethics traces back to Aristotle who tried to find character traits that are always virtuous in and of themselves.
Now, all three of these camps have problems with them, however. We can’t always know, for example, the full consequences of our actions, and we don’t have accepted definitions of good or bad outcomes either. And for the last two camps, philosophers have always managed to find exceptions where rules or virtues just don’t work the way we want them to. That’s why surveys of professional philosophers show that they are all over the map in terms of which camp they think is the best one. For me, though, I think an evolutionary perspective can help to modify each of these, and then combine them into a new and stronger position. So, let me go through each of those.
To start, if we want to talk about consequentialism, it helps to think about evolutionary consequences. This simple picture shows the fundamental way that all evolutionary processes work. There is variation in a population, some selection mechanism, and then the retention of just a portion of the original population. Do this over and over, and you have evolution. We usually say this is done blindly in nature, so it’s often characterised as BVSR (blind variation selection and retention), but after Darwin, there’s no reason we have to be blind about it anymore.
So, there may be a few different selection processes—natural selection, sexual selection, multilevel group selection, and even rational selections of cultural memes—but after any one of them, there are only two possible outcomes in any evolutionary process. Retention……or extinction. Unless you believe in afterlives, that’s all there is. And most of us know which side of that equation we’d like to end up on.
But how do we choose whose evolutionary interests get met? The humanist course cited Peter Singer’s work on this question quite a lot, and in particular this book called The Expanding Circle. In there, Singer said it would be a logical error to look at our evolutionary history and make the case that any one person, social group, or even species are deserving of special interests as God’s chosen things. And so therefore, Singer thought we ought to give equal consideration to all of these groups. He said that we could use our reason and empathy to expand our circle of moral concern to include all sentient creatures.
Now I think this is a step in the right direction, but by giving everyone equal consideration, Singer gave us no way to judge between competing interests. Which is more important, for example? My economic livelihood, or the life of a fish? Singer may have brought more beings into our moral conversation, but he still left us squabbling between various circles of insiders and outsiders.
But if you look at our evolutionary history, of course, we’re all inside the same circle. All of life is related and interrelated. This is something that the evolutionary scientist E.O. Wilson talked about extensively in his book Consilience, subtitled The Unity of Knowledge. This book was his attempt to unite all of the different fields of biology, which he felt were becoming too siloed and separate from one another. And the way that he proposed to do this was by organizing them into larger and larger circles based on the magnitude of time and space.
As Wilson said, biology, the study of life, starts with biochemistry at the smallest levels, which under certain conditions forms molecular biology, and cellular biology, before the creation of individuals who can be studied in various forms of organismic biology. Those individuals can then be examined in their different social groups, that live in different ecosystems, and adapt slowly over evolutionary timeframes.
So, this picture now contains all of the major fields of biology, and therefore it can act as a guide for how to study or care about all of the life that has ever existed or ever will. And that brings me to what I think is the ultimate evolutionary consequence that we have to consider. No matter what squabbles we have, in or between any of these individual circles, the most important overriding goal that rises above everything, is that, we want all of this continue. We want the entire project of life to keep going. To fail at that goal would mean universal death. And once we agree that that consequence ought to be avoided, then these sciences can start to give us a list of what life needs in order to continue its journey. So, what are some of those needs?
Many of you will have heard of the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. His list is often shown as a pyramid, which makes sense..
Hello! I was asked to speak at an event at the end of September to give my thoughts on a book called Doing Philosophy, which was written by Timothy Williamson who is the Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. I was one of four such speakers at the event, where Professor Williamson gave opening remarks, and rebuttals to us as well. This was all set up to be featured in the latest edition of The Philosopher (the official journal of the Philosophical Society of England, and the UK's longest-running public philosophy journal, having started in 1923) and it has now finally been published. Due to changes in the time (and space) constraints at the event (and in the journal), my full original 10-minute talk wasn't able to be given (or published), but I can happily share the complete text here. I hope you enjoy it!
(A low-quality video of my talk can be seen here, but I don't recommend it for anyone other than my mom.)
Doing Philosophy: Thought Experiments and the Truth About Truth
Timothy Williamson’s book Doing Philosophy, is being reviewed as part of an event called “The Art of Reason.” This is a catchy phrase, written as if it were a single idea, but usually art and reason are two subjects that are viewed quite separately. C.P. Snow famously put them into two distinct cultures that cannot even talk to one another. Williamson, however, makes a strong case in his book that these two cultures can be reconciled, and that philosophical thought experiments provide an excellent example of how to do so.
In preparation for this event, I read through a book on how to give TED talks by Chris Anderson (he’s the owner of TED), and I was stunned to see him bring up the topic of the power of philosophical thought experiments. This seemed like an amazing coincidence to me, but the reason is because Anderson wants his readers to give memorable talks. He quoted the philosopher Dan Dennett who noted that it was thought experiments that have provided the most remarkable passages in the history of philosophy — not formal proofs. Only a very few people can recall the premises and conclusion of some important logical syllogism. But many, many more people will have heard of Plato’s allegory of the cave, or the innocent bystander on the tracks near a runaway trolley, or maybe even the child called Mary who was locked away in her black and white room while she learned “everything there is to know about the colour red.”
Why do we remember these thought experiments? Because they are art. They are stories that evoke strong emotional responses. They have memorable characters who are tied up in some conflict, and we’re not sure how, or even if, they’ll be able to get out of it. But if they are art, why do we get to use them in philosophy? Why do they count for arguments of reason too? As Williamson memorably asks, “How come philosophers get away with just sitting in their armchairs and imagining it all?”
The reason is that our imagination is an incredible tool that has been honed to a fine edge over billions of years of evolution. Evolution is usually characterised as a series of trials and errors, but ones that are done blindly by Mother Nature. And until very recently, that’s how all life on Earth adapted and survived — blindly. But now that we know about this, we humans can conduct those trials and errors with a bit of wise foresight and consciousness. Scientists carefully plan their trials and errors all the time, but there are some places where it’s impossible for scientists to go. As Williamson says:
“Imagination is especially useful when trial and error is too risky. … Imagining is [also] our most basic way of learning about hypothetical possibilities. … Only the dumbest animals would not think about [these possibilities]. … Thought experimentation is just a slightly more elaborate, careful, and reflective version of that process, in the service of some theoretical investigation. Without it, human thought would be severely impoverished.”
Williamson is right. Over thousands of years, some of the best thinkers in history have churned out mountains of these trials and errors of the imagination, and they have the power to fundamentally change the way we navigate the world. They’ve certainly changed the way I do.
You see, I’m a writer, and I try to write fiction and philosophy. Like all writers, though, I’ve heard the advice that you have to “write what you know.” But Socrates said, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” And then there was Ernest Hemingway, who once described his own process by saying, “All you have to do is write one true sentence.” But it has become common now to hear that we live in a “post-truth” world. So how do we reconcile these bits of philosophy with the conventional advice to a writer? The answer I found came from philosophical thought experiments, which shows just how powerful and useful they can be.
A few years ago, I came across Julian Baggini’s book The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten and 99 other Thought Experiments. Since I’m always looking to test out my ideas, I decided to go through them all, one-by-one, for the next two years or so on my website. Many of the thought experiments taught me many different and valuable lessons, but there were three in particular that helped me arrive at an answer to the simple question of how to write “true” sentences. First, there’s Zeno’s paradox. In the version of this that I like, a race is set up between Achilles and a tortoise. The tortoise is given a generous head start, but since Achilles is much faster, he should have plenty of time to catch him. The problem, however, is that Zeno says there is no way he can ever catch the tortoise. At least not according to logic. Zeno explains this by showing how Achilles will first have to run to the place that the tortoise started from. But by that time, the tortoise will have moved further down the track. So now, Achilles will have to run to that spot. But once again, the tortoise will have moved on. And since this will happen over, and over, and over, there’s just no way that Achilles can ever catch the tortoise. Of course, in real life, we know that faster runners overtake slower ones all the time. So how do we solve this paradox?
The short answer to me is that as Achilles approaches the tortoise, Zeno is asking us to divide time into smaller and smaller increments, slowing time down, until we basically have to stop, and wait, while the philosopher continues to calculate smaller and smaller distances, possibly even beyond the smallest increments in the fabric of space-time. But of course, that’s impossible. As the saying goes, time waits for no man. The universe always keeps moving. And so, Achilles can, and does, pass his tortoise.
The second memorable thought experiment for this topic of truth is the one about Descartes’ evil demon. This isn’t so much a story, as it is just the creation of a really gripping character. You see, Descartes, like a lot of philosophers, really wanted to be right. He desperately wanted to prove that there was some foundation upon which all knowledge could be built. But in order to do that, he knew that he had to defeat the most powerful and pesky demon imaginable, one that just might be out there waiting to trick us and our senses. In Baggini’s treatment of this experiment, he notes that many of us may have seen shows where a hypnotist gets an audience member to swear that 2 + 2 = 5. Now if this idea is even plausible, how do we know that we aren’t all being tricked? What would happen if we all just snapped out of it some day and saw things totally differently? Now this sounds crazy. And we certainly don’t live in the world as if it were like this. But the point is that this kind of hyperbolic doubt exists, because, as we saw in Zeno’s paradox, the universe is always moving and changing. We cannot stop it, and more importantly, we cannot see into the future. And this, therefore, makes us doubt all knowledge. At least just a little bit. That’s an ancient position in philosophy called scepticism, which Professor Williamson mentions in his book, but he dismisses it rather quickly. He simply says, “Sceptics will be only too pleased to exploit [their] power to drag you into the sceptical pit with them. You had best be careful whom you talk to.”
But that brings us to the third thought experiment, the Gettier problem, which I think helps us see how we can talk to these sceptics, and deal with them just fine. The Gettier problem looks at the concept of knowledge, which, ever since Plato, has been defined in the West as justified, true, belief. But Edmund Gettier managed to overturn that dominant definition with just a short two-page paper published in 1963. Honestly, Gettier’s examples are really boring — they aren’t good art — which is possibly why this hasn’t reached a wider audience. But the version that Baggini used to illustrate it is much better, so I’ll use that one to introduce it.
Baggini tells us about a woman called Naomi who was at a coffee shop when she noticed a really unusual man behind her drop a really unusual keychain. She didn’t talk to him, but he was just one of those people that makes a deep impression. The very next day, Naomi was walking down the street when she witnessed a tragic accident — a car killed a pedestrian, and it turned out to be the very same man! The police interviewed Naomi to get some help identifying the body, and she told them about the coffee shop and the odd keychain, both of which turned out to be true. A week later, however, Naomi was back in the coffee shop again when she turned around and screamed. She saw the very same man fumbling with the very same keychain. He quickly calmed her down though and said that this had been happening a lot lately, ever since his twin brother had been killed last week.
This might sound innocent enough, but Naomi is an example of someone who had good justifications, for her beliefs, and those beliefs turned out to be true. But this was only because she was lucky. She might just as easily have seen the twin brother during one of her first two encounters, and then her knowledge would have been wrong. The problem for philosophers is that we never seem to have enough facts to justify our knowledge as being true. The so-called JTB Theory of Knowledge collapses, not because our justifications aren’t robust and durable, but because Zeno’s Paradox and Descartes’ Evil Demon showed us that these justifications cannot get us to the truth. At least, not in any way that we can know it. (Note: this is an epistemological claim about what we can know, not an ontological claim about whether truth can exist.)
This might sound like a really scary admission. But all good scientists demonstrate this when they tell us that their discoveries are only ever provisional, that they could be overturned with any new observations. These scientists are using an evolutionary epistemology. To them, knowledge can only ever be justified, beliefs, that are currently surviving our best tests. This is what I call my JBS Theory of Knowledge. No number of scientific observations will prove that theory, but with the help of a few carefully constructed and creatively designed thought experiments, I think we can confidently arrive at its conclusion.
So, there may not be “truth,” and as an author I may not be able to write “true sentences.” But we can all tinker around and experiment with trial and error to try to think and write things that survive. And sometimes they will. Possibly even for a long time. That’s the best we can do with all of our thought experiments — the artistic ones, and the ones of reason. I think this is great news because it means authors and philosophers will never run out of work. This is also why Williamson’s book isn’t called How Philosophy is Done. Philosophy is not, and seemingly never could be, a finished product — it’s an ongoing verb. And that’s why I highly recommend picking up one of the many collections of thought experiments that are out there. They’re a great way to sit back and enjoy a bit of fiction, and as Williamson advocates, an even better way to keep doing philosophy.
------------ Ed Gibney is a writer and evolutionary philosopher who blogs about his beliefs and the fiction it inspires at evphil.com