Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’
I’ve just seen that my last post before this one was dated 23 July 2011. Over 16 months ago! What have I been doing?
To cut a long story short I have been applying to do a PhD in Philosophy, and then actually starting it. At the University of Cape Town, just down the road from where I live. I’m doing it part-time (I still work full time); and I’m finding it hugely challenging, but thoroughly worth while. I almost can’t believe I’m doing it, considering it’s now 33 years after I had to give up my PhD at Birkbeck College, London before I’d really started.
Back then my thesis was on Mimesis, in Aesthetics. This time round it’s on the Ethics of Belief. (There’s a surprise.)
Below is the final version of the PhD research proposal I sent off to the UK’s last weekend. Thanks for all the feedback on the previous version – as a result of which I opened it up a bit beyond the historic debate between William Clifford and William James.
In the end I decided to go with this rather than Ethics as a product of evolution purely because I thought the ‘belief’ topic might be more focused and manageable through the application process. I left ‘evolution’ as my second choice, and I’d be more than happy to do either.
[The post below is my draft research proposal for a philosophy PhD at a UK university. Any feedback would be more than welcome!]
The question I want to examine is one which is formally hypothetical, but has more than hypothetical significance.
I am not assuming that human moral sense and behaviour are products of evolution. But I am assuming it is at least possible that they are. If that assumption is unsound, I want to understand why.
Assuming the assumption is sound, I then want to consider what its impact might be on the branch of philosophy we know as ethics, if it actually turned out to be true.
I used to like CS Lewis’s Narnia books. The only one I remember reading when I was a child myself was Prince Caspian. But we read and re-read all the Narnia books to our son when he was of an age. They are lovely books to read aloud. (At least the first few are. They seemed to start running out of steam somewhere around The Silver Chair.)
I knew about CS Lewis’s Christianity, but hadn’t got round to any of his ‘non-fiction’ until quite recently. (I’ll explain the quote marks later.) Then various comments to this blog have recommended both Miracles and Mere Christianity. I have just put Mere Christianity down.
In my previous post I said There is a god1 was ‘quite an odd book’. I didn’t realise quite how odd until I did more research. I even thought of changing the title of the series to One Flew over the hornets’ nest, because there seems to be some controversy2 as to how much of the book is actually Antony Flew‘s own work.
Follows Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1 in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.
I did certainly find it odd that a British analytical philosopher would produce a book of 200+ pages with no index. Or that a British analytical philosopher in his eighties would illustrate a thought experiment (in Chapter 6: DID THE UNIVERSE KNOW WE WERE COMING?) with references to ‘Your favourite cookies and candy’ and ‘personal care and grooming products’ – or describe Macbeth as ‘one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays’. Then there were the intriguing lapses of modesty about winning the Oxford ‘university prize in philosophy in an exceptionally strong year’ and quoting John Passmore‘s commendation that ‘Any subsequent discussion of Hume‘s secularism will have to begin with Flew.’ I turned back to re-read chapters as if they had been converted from third to first person at the last minute.
Ultimately though, my responses to the book stand or fall regardless of who actually wrote what part of it.
The presumption of atheism
For most of his life, and in particular for most of his philosophical life, Antony Flew was an atheist. In The presumption of atheism (1984) he argued that ‘the onus of proof must lie upon the theist’. In line with the discussion in my previous post, atheism is to be understood:
…not positively but negatively. I want the originally Greek prefix ‘a’ to be read in the same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as ‘amoral’, ‘atypical’, and ‘asymmetrical’. In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us … introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter.3
Flew explains why this ‘negative atheism’ is not the same as agnosticism:
[An] agnostic is one who, having entertained the proposition that God exists, now claims not to know either that it is or that it is not true. To be … an agnostic you have already to have conceded that there is, and that you have, a legitimate concept of God; such that, whether or not this concept does in fact have application, it theoretically could. But the [negative] atheist has not as yet and as such conceded even this.
…What the protagonist of my presumption of [negative] atheism wants to show is that the debate about the existence of God ought to be conducted in a particular way, and that the issue should be seen in a certain perspective. His thesis about the onus of proof involves that it is up to the theist: first, to introduce and to defend his proposed concept of God; and, second, to provide sufficient reason for believing that this concept of his does in fact have an application.
Flew then explains that the presumption of atheism is procedural and methodological, not an indefeasible and substantive assumption. If it was indefeasible and substantive, then no argument proceeding from it could conclude with its opposite. Flew’s presumption of atheism is like the presumption of innocence in English Common Law. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proved guilty. Analogously the position of (negative) atheism is presumed unless and until a theist case overturns it:
The presumption of innocence indicates where the court should start and how it must proceed. Yet the prosecution is still able… to bring forward what is in the end accepted as sufficient reason to warrant the verdict ‘Guilty’; which appropriate sufficient reason is properly characterised as a proof of guilt. … Were the indefeasible innocence of all accused persons an assumption of any legal system, then there could not be within that system any provision for any verdict other than ‘Not Guilty’….
The presumption of atheism is similarly defeasible. It lays it down that thorough and systematic inquiry must start from a position of negative atheism, and that the burden of proof lies on the theist proposition. Yet this is not at all the same thing as demanding that the debate should proceed on either a positive or a negative atheist assumption, which must preclude a theist conclusion. Counsel for theism no more betrays his client by accepting the framework determined by this presumption than counsel for the prosecution betrays the state by conceding the legal presumption of innocence.
One of Flew’s principal arguments in favour of the presumption of (negative) atheism concerns the demand for grounds. These would be equivalent to the grounds someone would need to have in order to justify saying ‘I know that x‘ rather than ‘I believe that x‘, even where x happens to be true:
It is by reference to this inescapable demand for grounds that the presumption of atheism is justified. If it is to be established that there is a God, then we have to have good grounds for believing that this is indeed so. Until and unless some such grounds are produced we have literally no reason at all for believing; and in that situation the only reasonable posture must be that of either the negative atheist or the agnostic. So the onus of proof has to rest on the proposition. It must be up to [those proposing the existence of God]: first, to give whatever sense they choose to the word ‘God’, meeting any objection that so defined it would relate only to an incoherent pseudo-concept; and, second, to bring forward sufficient reasons to warrant their claim that, in their present sense of the word ‘God’, there is a God.
That was 1984. In There is a god, Flew now considers the ‘headiest challenge’ to his presumption of (negative) atheism to have come from logician Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga apparently argued:
…that theism is a properly basic belief[,] …that belief in God is similar to belief in other basic truths, such as belief in other minds or perception… or memory… In all these instances, you trust your cognitive faculties, although you cannot prove the truth of the belief in question. Similarly, people take certain propositions (e.g., the existence of the world) as basic and others as derivative from these basic propositions. Believers, it is argued, take the existence of God as a basic proposition.4
Interesting use of the word ‘heady’ – assuming this is an accurate summary of Plantinga’s argument.
If there are people who are adamant that their belief in the existence of a god is equivalent to their belief in the existence of other minds, or in the veracity of perception or memory, then reasoned argument may fail to make inroad – into their certainty.
Yes there are some basic beliefs which are preconditions of social communication or human being generally. A Kantian might possibly classify them as synthetic a priori propositions. They are not analytically true, but neither does there seem to be any evidence that could count for or against their truth. A present-day evolutionary psychologist might speculate whether they were either innate beliefs themselves, or beliefs implicit in innate categories (‘person’, ‘animal’, ‘thing’) or innate folk psychology or folk physics.5
They are beliefs which an extreme sceptic could deny, as long as he or she accepts the philosophical consequences of that scepticism. It could be argued for example that extreme scepticism so undermines reason and/or meaning that the case for extreme scepticism itself cannot be coherently stated.
The question here though is not so much whether or not ‘basic beliefs’ like these can be justified, but whether belief in a god truly belongs in that same category.
It is hard to see why it should. To deny the existence of other minds or the reality of the external world is to commit oneself to the consequences of solipsism, including challenges as to whether that solipsism can be coherently stated, or stated in language which does not presuppose the existence of other minds and/or the external world for its very meaning. To deny the existence of a god has no such consequences. It is difficult to know in what direction to go to try to argue that there is something incoherent about the statement that there no god.
In fact it might be more plausible to argue that, for some people at least, belief in a god arises by extrapolating from (or trying to find an explanation for) basic beliefs like those of the existence of other minds or the external world, or of the reality of causation, or of why moral obligation is binding. So for example our discovery that we do believe in the existence of other minds (without quite understanding why we believe this) could lead to the concept of a soul – which then could perhaps survive the death of the body. Or our discovery that we do recognise moral absolutes, or at least the categorical obligation to identify and carry out what is ‘best’, could lead us to postulate a transcendent source of goodness. Or, perhaps more straightforwardly, our basic belief in the reality and universality of causation could lead us towards the idea of a first cause.
This is not to justify these transitions of thought or, conversely, to attack them. My objective is the more modest one of trying to understand why Plantinga could have possibly thought that belief in god was a ‘basic belief’ like these others. And a possible reason could be the assumption that to hypothesise something as the explanation for one or more basic beliefs is to qualify that something as a basic belief itself.
But if so, the assumption seems unsound. If a belief is so ‘basic’ that it is a precondition of thought or of meaningful discourse or of social life, then it does not necessarily stand in need of any separate justification or explanation. Not only that, but even if a god hypothesis is a possible explanation, there could be other hypotheses, which could even be mutually exclusive.
Interim conclusion: I cannot make head nor tail of Plantinga’s argument. So I’ll stop there for now. By chance I did come across this brief interview entitled Theism as a Properly Basic Belief6 in Roy Varghese‘s Truth Journal, but it didn’t seem to make things any clearer.
So I’ll hunt out some of Plantinga’s books so as to get it from the horse’s mouth, and meanwhile carry on with Antony Flew (or maybe ‘Antony Flew’?).
1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.
3 Antony Flew, The presumption of atheism, 1984.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.
Can anyone out there help me with this?
I responded to another blog which made the assertion ‘Every event must have a cause…’. You can follow the conversation here: http://christianscribbler.wordpress.com/2008/11/01/apologetics-the-cosmological-argument-for-god/. Unfortunately the conversation closed down.
The writer claimed that the proposition ‘every event has a cause’ is analytically true, and that’s what I cannot understand. I can understand the different claim that ‘every effect has a cause’ is analytically true, and I would probably agree. I also understand (just about) Kant’s claim that ‘every event has a cause’ is a synthetic a priori, and as such a precondition for objective knowledge. But I cannot understand what grounds someone might have for claiming it is analytically true.
I am not saying the claim is nonsense, just that I cannot understand it. Can anyone shed light on it?
© Chris Lawrence 2008
The final part of the argument, following:
Turning back to the ‘Aristotelian’ production, I now want to consider the change that may have come over the spectator between the dimming of the houselights and, say, the middle of the last act: a change which will go some way towards determining her response to the end of the play. Her mode of apprehension would not be explained merely by her seeing it as (part of) a play, since this would be the case had she walked in just at that moment. How she sees the end of the play (what she sees it as) will be determined by her experience and knowledge of the earlier part, and her involvement in it. For example she would be seeing the portrayed events as the conclusions to preceding sequences of events. To the extent to which she has identified with any of the characters she will see and feel their suffering or relief or happiness as her own. The more involved she gets in the play as the plot unravels the more reluctant she will be to give up those aspect perceptions which the dramatic effect depends on. Enjoyment and interest will continually reinforce those aspect perceptions.
For Brecht of course it is the identification between audience and portrayed character that is the crucial factor. Even in a ‘totally’ naturalistic production we do not see the events and characters portrayed exactly as we would if they were real. A play, like any work of art, is an ordered object of experience. It aims to focus attention on itself as a discrete particular. It has a ‘frame’ round itself. The ‘frame’ of a stage play is not unconnected with the stage floor, the proscenium arch, the duration and number of acts, the cast list and so on. Even if the play is unknown to us there are things we will know about it. We will know it is predetermined; that it has, if not a middle, then certainly a beginning and an end. Had we taken the trouble we could have got hold of a script or at least a synopsis. It is unlikely that we would be totally ignorant of what the play was about.
A further obvious but important feature of the ‘Aristotelian’ play is the privileged position of the audience. The action is taking place on account of the spectator as spectator, but the spectator’s individuality is ignored as irrelevant. Nothing is addressed to the individual, but everything is addressed to the composite audience. This is deliberately different from ‘real life’. The anonymity of the audience is further emphasised by the darkness of the auditorium. One is subjected not exactly to sensory deprivation but certainly to extreme sensory constraint.
We said that aspect perception is subject to persuasion, compulsion, suggestion, chance etc. The forces operating in a vivid stage performance, even if only of persuasion and suggestion, are powerful indeed. But the seeing-as is not limited to seeing the performance as a representation or seeing an actor as Richard III. Something perhaps more profound is also taking place. The ordering of the spectator’s experience is deliberately designed to remove her awareness of her individuality. It cannot do this without her cooperation, nor can it succeed absolutely. But it can make it difficult for her to dwell on her own private concerns.
She is in a dark room mostly full of strangers, and effectively prevented from moving by the pressure of inconvenience. But she is presented with an alternative concern, one which is both vivid and known by her to have been programmed in advance to be interesting and/or entertaining and/or engaging. She is a privileged observer, and it is ‘hers’ anyway, in the sense that she as spectator is its raison d’ être.
But she is a human being, not an observing machine. She makes the events on stage her concern. The emotions she sees expressed become her concern. An emotion expressed on stage is rarely a real emotion. If it was – or if she thought it was – she could not watch it as a spectator. She would have to become an individual, herself, again: she would be embarrassed, sympathetic, horrified etc. So seeing-as has a subjective correlate, which could be rendered by exploiting the ambiguity of ‘seeing as’ but which for the sake of clarity I shall call ‘watching as’ or ‘looking-at as’.
At the ‘duck-rabbit’ end of the aspect perception phenomenon [see: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations, translated by GEM Ascombe, Blackwell, Oxford (1978), p 194ff] this subjective correlate might be a relatively straightforward thing. An observer would have to look at the picture as one who knows what a rabbit, a duck, a picture, and an ambiguous picture all are; and as one prepared to appreciate the ambiguity.
In the context of the stage play however it gets a bit more significant. The spectator is watching the play as a member of an audience, and I have begun to indicate what that involves. But there could be more to it than this. The ‘sensory constraint’ elements on the ‘watching as’ side can of course be considered separately from the conventional (etc) signs and indications which effect, by suggestion or persuasion, a move to any particular aspect perception. In the phenomenon of identification, however, ‘seeing as’ and ‘watching as’ get linked together. The spectator sees the stage events as her concern because she watches them as one prepared in some way to ‘set aside’ her individuality. Getting into any particular state of ‘seeing as and watching as’ is, to an extent at least, under voluntary control. Getting out of that state is perhaps even more so. It is also a matter of degree: to the extent that I ‘set aside’ my individuality I can see the stage events as my own concern.
But most importantly of all the connection between the subjective side and the objective side seems to be somehow necessary. It does not appear to be possible to do the one without the other. Part of what it means to see and feel a stage character’s relief, say, as one’s own, is that one is experiencing as one who has ‘alienated one’s individuality’. It could be the same process looked at from two different viewpoints.
Concept of self
Seeing a drawing as a duck involves seeing the drawing under the concept ‘duck’. If one didn’t know what a duck was one couldn’t see a drawing as a duck. But there is no obvious parallel in the case of seeing an emotion as one’s own. Does one see (expressed) relief under the concept of oneself, or of ‘belonging to oneself’? Knowing what one is, as a person who has emotions and gets into situations, is not the same as knowing what a duck is. Not knowing what one is is not like not knowing what a duck is. Seeing portrayed events and expressed emotions under the kind of concept of self which is relevant here is not merely a matter of seeing them as things which have to be someone’s (but not necessarily one’s own). The relevant kind of concept of self is rather the one we use when we say that eg adult human beings have concepts of themselves whereas animals and babies do not, and that children somehow and at some time learn or develop or acquire the concept.
It might be thought that we could make some headway on the back of the concept of property. Seeing an object as one’s own is a bit like seeing an emotion or a predicament as one’s own. But it is only the ‘external’ aspect of the notion of property which is in any way transparent. We behave towards our property in certain ways; we hold and express certain beliefs about it; we behave in specific ways to others who do (and in different ways to others who do not) respect our property rights; and so on. Otherwise the notion of ‘property’ in its ‘internal’ aspect seems inextricably bound up with the concept of self, so does not seem to be of any immediate help. Hegelian arguments obviously prevent wholesale dismissal of this approach, but unfortunately this is not the place to pursue them further – other than mentioning an interesting similarity which may be more than an analogy. This is that to see something as one’s property one needs a concept of oneself and a concept of property and also (what may or may not be a consequence of the first two) a concept of oneself as one who could possess.
Here we do seem to have a parallel with identification. For theoretically it seems possible to have a concept of oneself without having a concept of oneself as a possible proprietor. To put it another way, it is theoretically possible not to see oneself as a proprietor, but in order to be able to see an object as one’s property one must be able to see oneself as a proprietor, and hence ‘look at’ the object as a proprietor. This is not a perfect parallel to ‘watching as’ or ‘looking at as’ in a theatrical context however, since possessing is not something one attends to like watching a stage play. It is not an experiential mode: one can possess something one isn’t thinking about.
But there is a kind of identification which though not identical with the one under discussion is not irrelevant to our case. It could be characterised as eg ‘considering what it would be like to be in situation S’. This is not a mode of experience but a process or body of thought, and as such is not fixed to any particular spatio-temporal reference. One might hear an account of someone’s good or bad luck from a third party, and ‘think oneself in his place’. This might entail anything from expressions of sympathy or envy to asking questions, imagining situations, sending a get-well card, or bursting out laughing. Identification of this sort may well (and evidently does) happen in the auditorium. But it is not the kind we are examining, nor is it productive of ‘Aristotelian’ empathy. What is interesting is that one cannot identify in this sense without having both a concept of oneself and a ‘subjunctive’ concept of oneself as one who could be doing things or could have done things one is not in fact doing or did not do. It is not at all easy to answer the question whether it is possible in principle to have a concept of oneself but not also this ‘subjunctive’ concept of oneself.
The difference between the above ‘detached’ type of identification and the ‘Aristotelian’ type we are trying to describe is similar to the difference between seeing that the drawing is of, or resembles, a rabbit, and seeing it as a rabbit. One can see that the duck-rabbit looks like a duck at the same time as seeing that it looks like a rabbit. One can see it as a duck while seeing it looks like a rabbit, and vice versa. What one cannot do is see it as a duck and see it as a rabbit at the same time. [Wittgenstein, op. cit., IIxi, p195ff]
By analogy one can see a stage situation as one’s own while knowing it isn’t, but one cannot see it as one’s own at the same time as seeing it as an artifice or a sham. This appears to contradict one of our earliest principles. We said the phenomenon of pictorial representation relied on seeing a thing as a picture and as the thing represented. Similarly, with a dramatic representation, we said it was necessary that the stage event should be seen as a play. Thus it was necessary that there existed people who knew a play when they saw one. But to see something as a play is not to see it merely as an artifice, but as an artifice in the light of the intention behind it, ie that it should be seen not as a mere artifice but as, eg, one’s own concern.
The position is formally analogous to that of a toy. In order for a toy hammer to function as a toy hammer, it must be seen as a hammer and not merely as a toy (an artificial hammer). So there is no contradiction, only the inherent ambiguity of ‘what it is to see something as a play’ which lies at the heart of dramatic art.
And this ambiguity is matched by an ambiguity within the identification process itself. We have spoken of an objective aspect and a subjective aspect to ‘seeing as’. In the context of identification we have described the objective aspect simply as ‘seeing the emotions and predicament as one’s own’. The subjective aspect is rather ‘looking at the predicament as if one were the character’. While we can separate in thought ‘seeing X’s predicament as one’s own’ from ‘looking at the predicament as if one were X’, in the context of identification one cannot do the one without the other.
The situation is formally similar to the impossibility of seeing the duck-rabbit as a duck without at the same time not seeing it as a rabbit. It may not however seem so immediately obvious, and it is important to consider why this might be so. A lot depends on the strength of what I have called ‘predicament’ or ‘emotions and predicament’. Hamlet’s predicament, for example, is not something that an observer can take in at a glance. To know Hamlet’s predicament requires a detailed knowledge of his psychology and history, since his predicament is determined at least in part by the kind of person he is. To an extent therefore ‘seeing X’s predicament as one’s own’ will involve ‘seeing oneself as X’. And obviously a spectator would be far better at doing this in the middle of the last act, having seen and heard everything leading up to this point, than if she had just walked in a minute ago. To the extent that she does ‘see herself as X’ then if she is watching an event on stage she will look at it as if she is X. So to the extent to which the event or events are identifiable as ‘X’s predicament, she will be looking at the predicament as if she was the character X.
Identification and representation
It is now time to reintroduce the distinction between representation type (iii) and representation type (iv). As before I will repeat here these two formulations from the earlier section Brecht and mimesis #2:
(iii) X dramatically (or theatrically) represents (a) Y if and only if X is a dramatic representation (eg a film or a play or part of one) and is intentionally so designed that a normal spectator in normal conditions would be disposed to perceive X as a dramatic representation and as (a) Y on account of an irreducible analogy between experiences of perceiving X and experiences of perceiving Y(s).
(iv) X dramatically (or theatrically) represents (a) Y if and only if X is a dramatic representation (eg a film or a play or part of one) and is intentionally so designed that a normal spectator in normal conditions would be disposed to perceive X as (a) Y on account of his recognition of the intention behind X that it should be seen as a (a) Y as if there were an irreducible analogy between experiences of perceiving X and experiences of perceiving Y(s).
It should be clear that the kind of identification we are talking about only relates to type (iv), which is in fact the major ‘Aristotelian’ type of representation. To mime walking is to represent (iii) walking. It is not to represent anything else which may or may not be similar or identical to walking. To act ‘Richard III’ in Shakespeare’s play however is (by and large) type (iv), even though Richard III actually existed – since the question can always be asked how close Shakespeare’s Richard III is to the historic Richard III. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a fictional character. Representation types (iii) and (iv) may overlap of course. A person on stage wearing a three-cornered hat and a patch over one eye may represent (iii) Nelson. To the extent that a character is portrayed however the representation will be type (iv).
We are now at last in a position to relate representation type (iv) to identification. Type (iv) representation demonstrates but leaves empty the category of ‘thing represented’, to be filled by the spectator’s imagination. The phenomenological content of the experience is such as to persuade and/or suggest to the spectator that her imagination should fill that category with a synthesis of herself and the actor’s performance. This is only possible if the performance is known to be and is therefore primarily seen as a performance (in the context of a play known to be, and seen as, a play), since it is this that the demonstration of the empty category depends on.
In the ideal Brechtian theatre however there is no ‘room’ for this empty category. Performances are either deliberately type (iii) representations or deliberately ‘auto-destructive’ type (iv) representations. An example of the former could be a representation of ‘economic reality’, which could be accurate or inaccurate. But if inaccurate, it is not an accurate type (iv) representation of a fictional something else which could be compared with ‘economic reality’.
Brecht’s celebrated Verfremdungseffekt (or ‘alienation effect’) relies on a battery of signs, indications and other devices designed to suggest to or persuade the spectator to see the performance only as a performance. In this sense then, a successful Brechtian performance is not a representation at all.
What Brecht sees as his gain is the preservation of the critical faculty which is suppressed by identification. The point is simply that, to the extent that a spectator identifies with character X, then she will not be watching the events as herself but as X, and therefore it is only if X has a critical faculty that the spectator will vicariously exercise it. Hence Brecht’s reference to the role of Raisonneur in realism and the Chorus in Attic tragedy [op. cit., pp 25-26]. And the whole point of preserving the critical faculty is that Brecht wants the theatre to perform a function, which at bottom is one of imparting knowledge, or at least providing a context for learning:
The main reason why the actor has to be clearly detached from his character is this: if the audience is to be shown how to handle the character, or if people who resemble it or are in similar situations are to be shown the secret of their problems, then he must adopt a standpoint which is not only outside the character’s radius but also at a more advanced stage of evolution.
© Chris Lawrence 2008