Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Summary and Comments on the
Philosophers' Cafe Meeting of September 12, 2012

A good way to begin each new season is to reflect at least briefly on the nature and spirit of philosophical thinking.  Although not all of our topics are strictly philosophical, we try to aim in our discussions for the deeper issues that lie beneath the surface.  Two years ago we tackled directly the question of what philosophy is.  That’s not an easy question, and even the experts do not always agree.  Here is a quick review.  There is nearly unanimous agreement at least on the following: 

Philosophy in our culture is not a body of knowledge or opinion, but the project of inquiring into the Big Questions of life using natural reason.  Its aims are truth and wisdom.  It operates in complete independence of religious or political authority.  Reason in philosophy performs two functions:

· Critical function:  philosophers use logic and conceptual analysis to challenge theories, assumptions, traditions, authorities, clich√©s, and dogmas of all kinds.

· Speculative function:  the attempt to organize facts and ideas into a coherent Big Picture or worldview that makes sense ourselves and the universe in which we live.  

· Answers in philosophy are not easy to come by, but to assist us in the search we have dialogue among friends and experts and a rich legacy of deep thought bequeathed to us by the great thinkers of ancient and recent times.

· People can and do get through life without much serious philosophizing, but no one can get along without philosophical beliefs.  We can take the easy path of non-thinking or we can make time to use the gift of reason to inquire about our given beliefs and thereby fulfill the aspiration of Socrates who urged us to live the examined life, because the alternative is not worth the effort.

Last night we took a more down-to-earth approach:  how might the events of everyday life give rise to philosophical questions?  My source was Breakfast With Socrates by Robert Rowland Smith, one of many contemporary thinkers who believe philosophy should be rescued from the ivory tower and made more accessible to the educated public at large.  The book takes us through the events of a typical day in the life of a citizen in a modern society, beginning with waking up, getting ready for the day, and proceeding through work, leisure activities, and ending with making love, falling asleep, and dreaming.  We spent most of our first hour with a discussion of Chapter 1:

“Waking Up”

If you were to sit down to breakfast with Socrates, he might ask if you realize what an astounding event has just occurred - you woke up!  Yes, it is the most ordinary, predictable, apparently unremarkable thing we do, but if we take even a minute to think about it, waking up must strike us as an surprising and mysterious event.  It is surprising, Smith says, because we never see it coming.  Prior to the wake-up, we were unconscious, perhaps dreaming, perhaps not - certainly not in any condition to plan for waking.  And if not at the switch, then who or where was I when I wasn’t around and how did I wake up?  I don’t know how I did that, and there is no guarantee that it will keep on happening when I want it to.  Who is this person that is now awake and active, now asleep and dreaming, and now seemingly nowhere at all?

Waking up challenges us to wonder about our very identity and the basis for our existence.   Last night I dreamt and now I am awake.  But am I really?  Is it possible, as Chuang Tzu mused, that I am not a person that dreamt he was a butterfly but rather a butterfly who is now dreaming he is a person?

The 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes wondered about this.  In an effort to discover a firm foundation for all knowledge, he tried to find a way to be absolutely certain that he was not dreaming or otherwise deceived during his waking, thinking hours.  Aha!  Thinking - there’s the key.  As long as I am thinking, he wrote, I can be certain of my existence.  Cogito, ergo sum.  So now we have breakfast with Socrates and Descartes, but the fun is just beginning.

Our author, Robert Rowland Smith, goes on in his first chapter to bring in Jesus Christ, the artist Stanley Spencer, Shakespeare, Hegel, and others to probe the web of relationships among sleep, waking, consciousness, life, death, resurrection, and truth.  Among the insights offered was a reference to the many metaphors in our language that use the notion of waking up. We speak of “waking to the truth,” we urge others to “wake up and smell the roses,” we talk about how something finally “dawned on us.”  9/11 was a “wake-up call.”  Spiritual sages teach us how to awaken from our primal delusions.  Could it be that the great cultural transformations of human history have been a process of struggling to wake up from our “dogmatic slumbers” (Immanuel Kant)? 

As you can see, a simple predictable occurrence of everyday life can trigger for us a host of intriguing associations of ideas about life, death, identity, consciousness, and truth.  And that’s not all.  We haven’t said anything about the challenge of waking up, the values dimension.  Ok, I’m awake, but what now?  Am I glad I woke up?  Should I get out of bed?  Is the day that awaits me likely to be worthwhile?  Maybe I should stay put.  Do I really have a choice or will I be forced to get up by internal and external forces?

Of course, it would be absurd for us to turn every act of waking up into a philosophical workout, especially before breakfast,  but would our lives not be made richer by giving ourselves the time later to reflect on these everyday matters in order to attain a deeper understanding of this existence of ours?  Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch.  There are plenty of good thinkers around to help us make philosophy a part of our everyday lives.  You can make a great beginning with Rowland Smith’s delightful little volume.  Breakfast With Socrates - what a way to start the day!

Why do usually moral people find it so easy to commit immoral acts?

This was the first question raised in our second hour.  Rick Rogers wonders why people who are not habitual criminals or psychopaths or moral morons so often do things that are clearly wrong.   People will cheat on exams, drop litter on parking lots, avoid taxes, fail to return a wallet, say nothing if a clerk gives them too much change at the check-out, and so on.  Why is that so easy for usually well-behaved, honest citizens? 

Answers ranged from “People don’t think they will be caught” to “They don’t agree with the rule or law” to “The breakdown of cultural norms in modern mass societies has a lot to do with it.”  People are good at rationalizing their actions so that they become blind to their wrongness.  At bottom is our inherent tendency to be self-centered.  Moral laws and norms are invented by societies, not hardwired in the brain by genetic coding.  When no one is looking, self-interest may easily side with the imp in its argument with our good angel. 
The deepest question that arose out of the discussion is whether it is rational to be moral at all.   Socrates was confronted with this challenge by the Myth of the Ring of Gyges.  Isn’t it foolish to pass up an opportunity to do wrong, even great wrong, when we stand to benefit and the odds of getting caught are low or nil?  The standard answer is that to act morally in most cases is sensible from the standpoint of enlightened self-interest and the general good, which most people care about.  But most of us think the demands of morality go beyond this rather flaky position.  We think to be a moral person requires integrity, consistency, obedience to our standards even when no one is looking, with allowance made for exigent (rare) circumstances.
Why should we live a moral life thus conceived?  A moral answer to the question “We should always do the right thing because it is the right thing to do,” would be circular and therefore useless.  So the challenge would be to provide a non-moral reason for acting morally.  Can that be done?  That’s a question best left for another meeting.
 Can we talk about aesthetics?
This was the third question of the night, brought forward by Herb Spencer in cahoots with artist Bob Michener.  The two of them had discussed the issue earlier and reached agreement that we cannot.  Hang on.  We need to carve this up a little bit.  Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that constructs and evaluates theories about the nature of art and beauty, and the basis for judgments of taste.  Thinking and debating about the arts have been carried on at least since Plato in the West, so obviously it is possible to talk about aesthetics in some important sense. 
Turns out our aesthetes were willing to admit that we can talk about certain aspects of art - visual form, say, characteristics such as proportion, perspective, technical skill, artistic use of line, shadow, musical harmony and structure, perhaps others.  To these I would add interpretation.  Although art lends itself to considerable latitude for interpretation - think of the many critical takes on Hamlet - some interpretations are clearly wrong (Hamlet is not a romantic comedy), and therefore some are right or at least more plausible than others, and so we can talk about them.
The problems flagged by our question lie in the direction of judgments about the quality of an artwork and the subjective response of the art “consumer.”  One claim is that the sole arbiter of a work’s value is the market.  True, but value is not the same as quality.  Can we talk objectively about the quality of a painting or musical composition?  Isn’t beauty or appreciation in the eye of the beholder?  Can we talk in any meaningful way about the ineffable feeling of the sublime that a refined sensibility may experience - not without considerable investment of time, effort, and attention - in the studied presence of a great painting or when enraptured by the famous aria in Aida?  Perhaps not with any great success, but at least we know - from the testimony of the starry-eyed few who have been there - that transcendent aesthetic experiences are possible.  And that is good to know.
Thanks to everyone who contributed to a very lively discussion and to everybody for thinking.

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