Friday, 21 October 2016

Is Democracy Obsolete?
"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others."                                            - Winston Churchill
Is democracy obsolete?  The short answer is Yes, because the wicked problems humanity is facing today are global, not national, and all democracies are national.  There is no global democracy through which the peoples of the world could pool their wisdom, vote on the solutions to the wicked problems we so desperately need, and put them into action for the benefit of all.
What wicked problems?  Global warming, air pollution, worldwide degradation of oceans, waterways, and land environments, predatory multinational banks and other corporations 'too big to fail or jail,' declining biodiversity, worldwide habitat destruction, food and water insecurity, human trafficking, massive refugee crises, ethnic and religious conflicts, endless warfare, international terrorism, etc. (1)  
While these problems are often the subject of public opinion surveys, media conversation, and internet petitions, there is no political mechanism for a global democratic approach to their solution.  The UN was supposed to be that instrument, but it was never intended to be a true democracy, and it has failed even to deliver on its main mission of ending warfare among nations and maintaining peace.  Global problems cannot be solved locally, and all democracies today are local.  As instruments for solving wicked global problems, democracy is obsolete.
obsolete: something no longer in use or no longer useful                 
Am I suggesting a global democracy is needed?  Yes, but before outlining what that might look like, let's take a closer look at how democracy fails even at the national level to deliver on its promises.
Everyone who follows the news senses that something is wrong with their own democracy. and perhaps with democracy in general as we know it. The political wisdom of the crowd was on display recently at the October White Rock Philosophers meeting.  After deciding on a working definition of democracy, the members came up with a lengthy list of ills that today's democracies suffer from. 
One person thinks that a true democracy has never existed.  Others acknowledge democracy's existence but claim that it is in serious disrepair.  Complaints included the following and probably others which I have forgotten:
· democracy is a fiction; it has never existed.
· domination of elections by big money
· powerful lobbies have undue influence
· apathy, ignorance, and irrationality among voters
· ill-informed elected representatives
· corruption of various kinds
· party and districting systems exclude some voters from meaningful participation.
· lack of sense of responsibility among citizens, voter apathy
· corporate control of media
To this depressing list we can add massive lying, exaggerations, and fear-mongering by politicians, xenophobia against immigrants, racist policing, corporate crimes, predatory banks and other corporations, lack of accountability for people at the top, domination of elections by big money, enormous and increasing inequality, illegal surveillance of citizens, persecution of whistleblowers and protesters, government secrecy, revolving door between government and corporations.  Are citizens ever allowed to vote on these issues?
Theoretically, all those problems can be fixed, we might think.  However, the fundamental problem may be even worse.  Writer George Monbiot takes seriously the claim of some philosophers that democracy cannot work as it is meant to; human nature does not allow it. He asks:
"What if democracy doesn’t work? What if it never has and never will? What if government of the people, by the people, for the people is a fairytale? What if it functions as a justifying myth for liars and charlatans?" (2)
How is democracy supposed to work?  The word 'democracy' means 'rule by the people.'  Literally, the people, the whole people, are the sovereign, the supreme power.  This astonishing concept, first invented and practiced by ancient Greek city-states, has today become the aspiration of virtually all the world's peoples.  The ideal was immortally expressed by Abraham Lincoln: "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." 
These three components can be fulfilled in direct democracy, a government in which all decisions are made by the entire body of eligible citizens, outcomes to be determined by a majority of votes.  No nations today are governed by direct democracy, because populations are too large.  Instead, we have indirect democracy: citizens vote for representatives to a national assembly of some kind where laws are passed and handed on to an elected executive.  An independent judiciary is charged with ensuring the laws are fairly administered. 
So what we have is not 'government of the people': the governing bodies are made up of elected officials, not the whole people.  Many other officials are appointed, not elected.  We do not have 'government by the people' because only the elected representatives are allowed to vote on legislation.  We do not have 'government for the people' except insofar as laws benefiting the people also work to keep the representatives and their parties in power.  Self-interest is almost always the first motivation of politicians, not public service. 
Thus, representative government, as we know it today, falls far short in most cases of fulfilling the ideal of democratic rule.  As soon as an election is finished, the people's ability to control the functions of government is ended.  Representatives are supposed to carry out the will of the people, but very often they do not for reasons mentioned earlier.  Yes, a robust system of binding referenda, as in Switzerland, can help to maximize citizen power, but even the Swiss can't control everything their politicians do, e.g. prevent their giant banks from carrying on criminal activities without fear of legal interference.  Moreover, as I have pointed out, even the best democracies are helpless to solve global problems. 
It appears, then, that the 'folk theory of democracy' - our belief that a people in the right circumstances can elect representatives who will then carry out their will is a myth.
Here are some additional reasons for this rather discouraging view:
1. Democracy is not majority rule: a party can take power with less than 50% of the vote.
2. Public opinion has almost no influence on major political decisions. (3)
3. Wealth rules: supreme power is held by corporations and other vested interests.
4. Democracy fosters superficial and inadequate focus on the issues.
5. Party systems foster divisiveness; zero-sum-game dynamics. 
6. Democracy is not a meritocracy: politicians are often ill-qualified for office.
7. Politicians don't have an independent voice either - their vote is 'whipped.'
8. The system facilitates self-interest and scandal.
"Enough already," you might say.  "True, there is no democracy that doesn't have serious flaws.  Nothing is perfect in this world.  But look at all that democracy has accomplished over the centuries:  gradual broadening of voting rights to women and minorities - now everyone has the right to vote.  Protected rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have hugely increased the wealth of the masses and brought them all manner of life-enhancing social services like education and medical systems.  Freedom of thought has unleashed the creative brilliance of scientists, inventors, and engineers, as well as that of culture critics who work to keep the power of democratic rulers from morphing into tyranny.  Don't be such a nabob of negativity; think on the blessings of democracy.  Besides, despite its flaws, representative democracy is the best system available; direct democracy is simply not possible."
We can and we should keep the 'blessings' of democracy in mind, even as we take note of its shortcomings.  It is also true that the huge size of national populations has forced us to accept representation as the only method of expressing the will of the people - that is, until now.  The invention of the internet changes everything.
The internet confronts us with the stark fact that our constitutions, political parties, and election apparatuses are all obsolete.  For hundreds of years, voters have been forced to vote only for representatives from their state, province, or territory.  (In presidential systems, people are also allowed to vote for the national leader.)  They have been required to travel to some polling place where they enter a booth, put an x on a piece of paper, or press a button on an electronic machine.  In this age of the internet, is there any good reason why everyone could not vote online from their home?  The answer is no, of course, and a few countries are experimenting with just such a system (Estonia, the Netherlands).  We can expect more and more countries to adopt online voting systems in the future.
Will online voting solve the crises of democracy?  It will help to increase voter participation, but as long as the elective representative system remains in place, the deeper structural problems will continue to undermine the popular will.  Why?  Because all representative systems separate the people from the levers of power in actual governing. 
However, the possibility of elections being conducted entirely online has led to an even more dramatic proposal: online direct democracy - the replacement of congresses and parliaments with legislative power exercised directly by the people themselves via the world wide web.   
This radical proposal, currently being investigated only by a relative few social researchers, has already acquired a (rather awkward) name:  crowdocracy. (4)  Literally, the crowd rules.  Whereas traditional political philosophers have always distrusted the people as a whole ("the Beast") in favor of rule by experts, crowdocracy is based on a new but well-supported hypothesis:  the crowd is actually smart.  The theory is called 'the wisdom of crowds.'
Look for more on crowdocracy and the wisdom of crowds in Part 2 of this series.
1  In a recent survey, millennials voiced their concern about 10 outstanding problems their generation is facing.  All are arguably global problems, only partially solvable, if at all, at the national level.
 2  George Monbiot's essay can be found here.
3   Research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page is cited in Crowdocracy.  For a useful summary and commentary, see this piece in The New Yorker.
 4  See Alan Watkins and Iman Stratenus, Crowdocracy: the End of Politics, 2016.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Is it Rational to Fear Death?
"Most of us would admit that, at least in some way, we fear death.  But what if we're making a mistake - a reasoning error?  What if our fear of death is based on a misconception about death that, if corrected, would eliminate our fear?" 
 - Mark Berkson, Death, Dying, and the Afterlife

Many people, when asked, say they are not afraid of death - afraid of dying perhaps but not of death itself.  I tend to disbelieve them.  The religious mythologies and rituals, literature, and philosophies of all cultures from earliest times attest to the universal terror of death among our kind.  In our own time, over a hundred years of deep psychology have confirmed that fear of death lies deep within the unconscious mind, hidden from day-to-day consciousness by various strategies of denial.  Most of us don't want to talk or think about our own death at all.  The deaths of others usually takes place at a remove from us, and we don't have any role in preparing a corpse for its funeral or burial.
It's easy to say now, safe in our home and absent any reason to think the end is near, that we are not afraid of death.  But consider the following:  imagine you are captured by some evil people and imprisoned in a small, sealed cell from which escape is impossible.  After a while a note is slipped under the door saying that in one hour the cell will begin to fill with helium, killing you in matter of seconds.  Do you seriously believe you would not experience fear during that final hour?  Can you imagine that situation vividly enough to experience some fear right now?
Currently a group of White Rock philosophers is studying a video lecture course on death, dying, and the afterlife.  The topic of a recent session was "Is it rational to fear death?"  In a basic sense, the answer is 'no.' It is not rational to experience fear of death, since fear is an emotion, and no emotions are rational. They are passions - literally, things that happen to us.  Emotions just come upon us whether we want them or not.  The Greek philosopher Epicurus probes more deeply.  Knowing that everyone feels afraid of death now and  then, he asks:  assuming death is the final and complete end of a person's life, can you give a good reason for fearing death?  The question means:  after careful philosophical reflection, is it rational to fear death?  His argument goes something like this:
Death is nothing to us.  
1) Let's assume what seems to be true about death from all that we can observe, viz. that death is the complete end of a person's life - no more sensation or any other experience.
2) Now the only thing that is bad for us is pain or suffering.
3) But when we are dead, there is no pain or suffering.
4) Therefore, death is not bad for us and hence is nothing to be feared.
Epicurus argues that it is not rational to fear death, and it is difficult to refute his reasoning.  Accepting the argument, however, doesn't mean that you won't continue to be afraid of death.  It is unrealistic to imagine that a single act of reasoning can dispel an instinct as deeply rooted in us as fear of death.  Epicurus understood this and so advised his disciple in his famous Letter to Menoeceus to "Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to  us."  We know that Epicurus, like most of the Greek philosophers of his time, regarded philosophy as practical wisdom as well as the pursuit of intellectual understanding.   So he probably advised his students to reflect deeply and often on his argument that death is nothing to be feared.  A daily practice of repeating and contemplating the Epicurean argument amounts to using philosophy as therapy.  In our own time cognitive behavioral therapy takes a similar approach.
Lucretius, a later devotee of Epicureanism, offered a variation on the argument by pointing out that the infinite span of time that passed before our birth instils no regret in us, and therefore, the similarly endless time that will elapse after we die should be of equal unconcern.  This is known as the symmetry argument.
Against these thinkers, contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel proposes the deprivation argument: death is bad because we lose (the memory of) every good thing that happened in our lives and all possibility of enjoying similar experiences in the future.  He offers several thought experiments to support the argument.  He asks us to imagine (1) a husband's betrayal by his wife that he never finds out about, (2) an author that writes a book that, after her death, is destroyed by a fire, and so nobody reads it; (3) an intelligent adult who suffers a brain injury that "reduces him to the mental condition of a contented infant."  In each case, Nagel insists, the event is bad for the individual, even though he/she never experiences any negative feelings as a result of the event.  In each case, a period of time in the person's life must be taken into consideration, not merely a moment of experience, as Epicurus thought.
Against Lucretius, Nagel argues that the pre-birth and post-death periods are not symmetrical, because the first is devoid of all value, whereas a person's life before death includes many good experiences as well as the expectation of additional goods in future years.  Both of these are highly valued by everyone, and they are lost when a person dies.  Therefore, to fear losing them - to fear death - is rational.   
In the 20th century, some existentialist philosophers have sided with Epicurus with a slightly different take on the issue.  They argue that when it comes to death, 'fear' is the wrong term.  Fear in usual cases is fear of some object or event or situation - something specific like a charging rhinoceros.  Remove the object and the fear is gone.  Death is not like that.  Soren Kierkegaard's word dread or Heidegger's angst is more appropriate, since death has no identifiable, specific features at all.  Fear of death is really dread of the unknown, of our non-existence, which we cannot even imagine.  There is no way to remove death understood in this way and so no way to free ourselves from dread.  These philosophers agree with Epicurus that fear of death is irrational but disagree with his optimistic belief that rational contemplation can relieve us of that fear.
· Can one's belief that they are not afraid of death be trusted?
· Do you think both Epicurus and Nagel could be right or are their views mutually exclusive?
· If the existentialists are right, then isn't the modern trend of death-denial a rational response after all?  Why not a comforting delusion rather than a depressing truth?

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Misunderstanding Trump
I have read two major books by George Lakoff and several of his articles.  He is a sharp analyst of political discourse when he sticks to linguistics.  When he goes big in metaphysics (Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999) and in the recent Alternet piece, "Understanding Trump," not so great.  His "family metaphor" for America's political culture is mostly useless.
If Trump's supporters were all 8 or 9 years old, Lakoff would be spot on.  Almost no one past that age thinks of their culture in terms of "strict father" or "nurturant parent."  But Lakoff thinks all Americans do.
  "We tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms …."
"We" apparently means "all of us," that is, all adult Americans of voting age.  All of us (Canadians, too, probably), consciously or unconsciously think of the nation as a kind of large family.  That's nonsense.  As they develop from infancy to adulthood, individuals become members of other social collectives - peer groups, sports teams, military units, college fraternities/sororities, corporations, charitable organizations, etc. - which no one thinks of as extended family groupings.  This fact calls for different sorts of cultural categories.  Tribe, kingdom, empire, and nation are available.  Just as 'organism' is not a good metaphor for society in general, 'family' is a bad metaphor for culture in general.
"The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The nurturant parent family (progressive) and the strict father family (conservative)."
"Most readily understood," sure, because pitched at the mentality of a 10-year old.  Far too simplistic for a political theory.  Do family systems fall neatly into two simple categories, nurturant parent and strict father?  What about strict mother? Indifferent parent? Abusive parent?  Permissive parent?  Same sex parent?  Atheist parent?  Multiple agnostic parents? All right, give Lakoff a pass on that.  More to the point is his classification of voters: conservatives and progressives.  Are they all coming from the Family System perspective?
There are many different kinds conservatives and progressives.  Take conservatives:  this website lists 7.  Throw in Libertarianism for an 8th.  It's ridiculous to think that all those varieties can be lumped together into a single moral worldview governed by the family metaphor.  There is one group that does seem to fit the description.  Lakoff again:
 "Evangelical Christianity is centered around family life. Hence, there are organizations like Focus on the Family and constant reference to “family values,” which are taken to be evangelical strict father values. In strict father morality, it is the father who controls sexuality and reproduction. Where the church has political control, there are laws that require parental and spousal notification in the case of proposed abortions."
Ok, give him the white Evangelicals, even though Trump himself is not particularly religious.  However, Lakoff seems to realize that his metaphoric vessel cannot contain all the wine in the cellar of contemporary conservatism:

"There is a certain amount of wiggle room in the strict father worldview and there are important variations. A major split is among 1) white evangelical Christians; 2) laissez-fair free-market conservatives; and 3) pragmatic conservatives who are not bound by evangelical beliefs."
Indeed.  So much wiggle room, in fact, that only the first of his three "variations" is a plausible exemplar of the Family System Theory, as we have seen.  The other two whom he labels "pragmatic conservatives" and "laissez-faire free marketeers" don't fit the mold at all.  Those are not insignificant groups of conservatives.  They number in the millions, and none of them are operating from the pre-rational metaphors of God the Father, family system, or family values.  They are rationalists through and through.  Think Michael Bloomberg and the Koch Brothers.  Carly Fiorina and Condoleeza Rice.  Their donation dollars support candidates whose values are power and money and whose loyalties lie with the 1%, not with 'the people' or, rather, 'the children' in the Family System metaphor. 
So two of Lakoff's 'wiggler' groups do not operate from the strict father worldview.  There is a fourth group he might have mentioned:  the now fabled Angry White Male class.  These include traditional rednecks, second amendment fanatics, Reagan democrats, and hordes of newly unemployed mine and factory workers who feel betrayed by Republican and Democratic leaders alike.  Strict Father is not what these guys have in mind for their vote.  They are clamoring for something like a Warrior Hero or Avenging Chieftain on the order of Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan.  Trump is their fantasy Achilles at the walls of Troy gearing up to smite their enemies.
In light of so many 'wigglers,' just how useful is the Family System Theory as a descriptor of the worldview conservatives are supposed to share?  Nor are conservative outliers the only groups that won't march obediently under Lakoff's Family System umbrella.  Next up - progressives. 
Wait, what about liberals?  Lakoff doesn't bother to distinguish between these.  Liberals might protest, but since neither liberals nor progressives are using the Family System map, we can cooperate with Lakoff for the sake of this discussion.  
Progressives will justly ask, "What do you mean by 'nurturant parent family'?"  Lakoff doesn't say much about this here, but he does describe the nurturant parent model as the opposite of the strict-father family - basically, not governed by a fearsome boss-dad.  The nurturant parent family, in Lakoff's view, is not a dominator hierarchy, but it is a hierarchy nonetheless, a benign one headed up by a loving parent instead of a boss parent. 
Whatever that means in the details, progressives would reject the entire premise.  A progressive democracy, for them, does not consist of nurturing governors and childlike citizens.  Citizens of voting age, with important exceptions, are considered by progressives to be competent adults equal in dignity and rights to their elected representatives and capable of working out their own morality by means of rational thought and dialogue, not by taking direction from any kind of parent-figure, whether strict (the boss) or nurturant (the nanny). 
I have argued that Lakoff's Family System Theory is too narrow to encompass the large spectrum of political orientations in America's political landscape.  People who march behind Trump's banner arrive there with a variety of metaphorical perspectives and perceive in Trump several different kinds of person:  Strict Father for some, yes, but also Warrior Chief, Pragmatic CEO, Outsider Change Agent, Messiah for American Exceptionalism, etc.  What does Lakoff think?
"Trump is a pragmatic conservative, par excellence. And he knows that there are a lot of Republican voters who are like him in their pragmatism."
Lakoff argues for this characterization by citing several broad policy statements that Trump has consistently repeated in his otherwise chaotic speeches:  support for Social Security, standing up to Chinese trade practices, cutting taxes, reforming immigration policy, law and order, etc.  Is he right?  Perhaps, but the ugly campaign Trump is running looks anything but pragmatic.  In any case, Trump, whether seen as pragmatic conservative or proto-fascist or loose cannon, is nobody's Family System man, and when his pragmatic pronouncements are arrayed against his bizarre and inconsistent ravings about everything and everybody he doesn't like, it is doubtful that any label can stick to him for long.
"Understanding Trump?"  Good luck. 

Friday, 24 June 2016

AI and the (non-)Mystery of Consciousness
On Wednesday night at the Philosophers’ Cafe meeting, Patrick Conroy gave us an excellent overview of the hot and very contentious issues regarding the present status and future prospects for artificial intelligence (AI).  The complexities of the topic include definitional questions - ‘artificial,’ ’intelligence’ ’singularity’ - the present capabilities of today’s supercomputers, the startlingly ambitious predictions about AI’s future, whether a machine can become conscious, what kind of intelligence is being discussed, concerns about losing control of ‘rogue’ or ‘malevolent’ machines, and many others.
Radical opposition to the strong or true AI project from critics like me turns on the fact that vast resources - billions of dollars - are being spent on research that is decades away, if not longer, from producing the promised super-smart machines at a time when the institutions for helping people become smarter are being systematically defunded by a neoliberal business class that regards workers as disposable people.  On purely philosophical grounds, the project looks idiotic when, as many critics have pointed out, we don’t even understand human biologically based consciousness very well, much less what consciousness would be like as an “emergent property” of electronic complexity or as an upload from a brain to a central processing unit.  Are the dreams of superconscious computers at all realistic?  I think not.
The so-called Hard Problem of Consciousness is thought by many to hold the key to understanding the prospects for AI.  “How can a physical brain produce non-physical consciousness of mental events?”  So says the classic problem, with no definitive answer anywhere in sight, leading to general agreement by optimists and pessimists alike that consciousness is mysterious.  With at least one exception:  Galen Strawson, analytic philosopher and literary critic who currently holds a chair in philosophy at the University of Texas.  In a recent piece for the New York Times, Strawson makes the startling claim that consciousness “is utterly unmysterious” and that the Hard Problem has migrated somewhere else.  Let’s take a look.
Our source is:  Galen Strawson, “Consciousness Isn’t a Mystery,” New York Times, May 16, 2016.

GS says consciousness the only thing in the world we can claim to know.  “It is utterly unmysterious.”  Referencing Bertrand Russell a century or so ago, he appears to be invoking Russell’s distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description.    He is right, of course, in the sense that my immediate experience of anything is right there for me in the field of my awareness, effortlessly apprehended, requiring no reasoning or interpretation.  I look across the street and see a blue object and instantly recognize it as a car, but even prior to the act of recognition I am immediately aware of (acquainted with) a blue patch in my visual field.  I see it naked and exposed just as it is.  That I am seeing a blue something or other is, as Strawson says, utterly unmysterious, completely present and clear.  Similarly, if I am thinking of 5 + 3 = 8, I am  immediately aware of thinking “5 + 3 = 8.”  There is nothing mysterious about my direct experience of my own thinking.  There it is, just 5+3 = 8, pure and simple, all by itself.  I have no need of proof that I am thinking that thought, and no one can disprove it.  The same is true for any other experience:  feeling a pain in my toe or hearing a police siren, etc..  As GS says, I know these experiences immediately, because “having an experience is knowing the experience.” 

Frankly, I find the phenomenon of ‘having an experience’ pretty mysterious.  For example, who or what is this ’I’ that is having the experience? However, let’s go along with GS for a while, granting that immediate experience is unproblematic. But now he executes an astonishing right angle turn: as if by automatic transmission, he shifts the Hard Problem away from consciousness and parks it in the physics lab. By contrast with consciousness, he says, what is “deeply mysterious” is the “nature of physical stuff.” He cites Richard Feynman’s assertion that no one understands quantum theory. Hence, no one understands matter. Then GS quotes Russell for an exception: “The nature of physical stuff is mysterious “except insofar as consciousness is itself a form of physical stuff.”  A “startling statement” indeed, but what exactly does it mean?  

It seems to mean (on materialistic premises) that, whereas the objective study of matter - particles and forces in physics - continues to reveal more and more mysteries, there is a subset of physical objects not studied by physics, namely experiences, that we do know perfectly well - no mysteries, as noted above.  So when we “have conscious experiences we learn something about the intrinsic nature of (some) physical stuff, because “conscious experience is itself a form of physical stuff.”
Here is the argument:
1.  Conscious experience is a form of physical stuff.

2. When we have conscious experiences, we have direct knowledge of the intrinsic nature of those experiences.

3. Therefore, when we have conscious experiences, we have direct knowledge of the intrinsic nature of (some) physical stuff.
That's a strange argument - logically valid, yes, but we can’t help but sense that there is something seriously wrong with it.  First of all, it seems odd for GS to say that in our everyday lives, as we move about our world seeing, hearing, tasting, and doing things, we know in each and every one of those experiences exactly what matter is; we experience the ‘intrinsic nature’ of matter directly.  But if we enter a laboratory to do some physics, we are immediately confronted by a deep mystery; we do not know the intrinsic nature of matter, even though that’s what physics is supposed to tell us.  This is not a fatal objection to Strawson’s argument.  It just seems odd.
More serious is Strawson’s failure to provide any supporting argument for his first premise.  Like nearly all of his materialistic brethren, he simply asserts that consciousness is physical, because in fact it cannot be proven.  Employing the old principle that what is easily asserted is easily denied, we can comfortably reply, “Sorry, consciousness is not physical.” We could go for coffee at this point, but wait … GS says we have made a “Very Large Mistake.”
The Mistake, he says, is to think we have only two choices when confronted by the Hard Problem:  dualism or eliminativism (consciousness is unreal). In search of a third alternative, GS tries the  old ‘you can’t prove the opposite’ ploy.  He writes:
…. Many make the same mistake today — the Very Large Mistake (as Winnie-the-Pooh might put it) of thinking that we know enough about the nature of physical stuff to know that conscious experience can’t be physical. We don’t. We don’t know the intrinsic nature of physical stuff, except — Russell again — insofar as we know it simply through having a conscious experience. …. we don’t know the intrinsic nature of physical stuff in spite of all that physics tells us. In particular, we don’t know anything about the physical that gives us good reason to think that consciousness can’t be wholly physical.

This looks suspiciously like the fallacy of reasoning from ignorance.  But even if it’s not, it’s absurd to claim that, although we don’t know the intrinsic nature of matter (as opposed to its surface appearances), there is nothing in what we do know (from physics) about matter that gives us any reason to think that consciousness can’t be physical.  That’s like saying that although we don’t know the intrinsic nature of justice, what we do know gives us no grounds for judging rape to be unjust.
Of course physics gives us no reason for thinking consciousness can’t be physical.  Physics is about the physical.  It has nothing whatsoever to say about what may or may not be non-physical.  That’s a question for philosophers, not physicists, and as a philosopher GS is simply wrong:  we have plenty of reasons for thinking consciousness is not physical, but those come from philosophy of science, not physics.  All we need is some basic understanding of consciousness and of the structure of scientific method, both of which we have in plentiful supply, as GS himself  knows.
Having written about this at length in earlier posts  (October 9 and 20, 2015), I will content myself here with just two arguments.  First, consciousness is subjective, physics is objective.  Studies of physical matter and studies of consciousness are carried out from two entirely different perspectives, one that looks outward toward objects that are publicly observable; the other looks inward to a domain that is entirely private, unavailable to direct access by anyone else - the world of my sensations, thoughts, imaginings, and feelings.
The subjective cannot be reduced to the objective, if only for the simple fact that in order to carry out the reduction, the philosopher has to use his own “I think…” which is his consciousness and which cannot be made both subject and object at the same time.  He could claim coherently, if absurdly, that other people’s consciousness is nothing but brain events, but he cannot make the same claim about his own without committing a performative contradiction.  The act of saying, “I am just a sequence of brain events” exposes its own absurdity instantly.
Second, the “rules and equations” of physics are useless when aimed at my experience of tasting garlic or the twinge of jealousy I feel when my girl friend spends too much time talking with another guy.  Those are real experiences, not abstractions.
Nor are the biological concepts of neuroscience any help.  Biological concepts refer to entities like cells, which have mass, and energy transfers between brain cells that can be measured by instruments.  The taste of garlic on my tongue or my thought of the square root of 2 have neither mass nor energy nor any other physical characteristic that can be observed or measured.  What has no physical characteristics cannot be physical.  Therefore, consciousness is not physical.
With his current line of thinking, GS thinks he has laid the Hard Problem of Consciousness to rest.  I sympathize with his wish to do so, but the path he has chosen leads nowhere.  His argument that we do not know the intrinsic nature of physical stuff except when we are having conscious experiences, if not entirely nonsensical, looks like a sophistical trick to recast the Hard Problem of Consciousness as something other than it is.  The reasoning seems to work only because it begs the question by assuming what the argument is supposed to prove.
Speaking of the Hard Problem of Consciousness, let’s take a quick look at what it is and why it causes such headaches among philosophers.  It is usually stated:  “How does the brain produce consciousness?  How does a physical, biological organ give rise to non-physical conscious experiences?”  When a philosophical problem resists solution for a very long time, one begins to suspect there might be something wrong with the question.  As I have argued in earlier posts (October 9 and 20, 2015), there is indeed something very wrong with the Hard Problem, namely its underlying assumption that the brain produces or gives rise to consciousness.  Far from being self-evident, that belief is really an article of faith, an a priori assumption that just has to be true, because materialistic philosophers really, really want it to be true.  But what if it’s not true?  After all, no one has ever seen a brain produce a thought, and no one ever will for the aforementioned reasons.
What if ‘produce’ is a flawed metaphor for the relationship between the brain and the mind?  If that is the case, then not even a million years of philosophizing will reveal how brain-producing-mind takes place.  So where does that leave us?  We have the honest confession from from physicists themselves that physical matter is intrinsically mysterious.  We also know that the Hard Problem has survived Prof. Strawson’s deconstruction effort.  
Looks like Mystery is Us - still.                                                                                                                                             

Tuesday, 17 May 2016


In the absence of any reason for disbelieving, we should believe that the experiencer is telling the truth.”   -  Philosopher Charles Swinburne

This was the topic of the Philosophers’ CafĂ© in May.  I began the meeting by asking, “How many of you have had what you consider to be a spiritual experience?”  At least two thirds of the group, including myself, answered in the affirmative.  I was not surprised.  Spiritual experiences (SEs) are quite common, and there is a huge literature of stories about them dating back thousands of years.  I cited just one example - the famous account by Richard M. Bucke of his experience of “Cosmic Consciousness” in his book of the same title.  (, pp. 9-11The story is too long to reproduce here, but if you take the time to read it, you will find that Bucke’s description of his extraordinary experience and his subsequent interpretation of it contain nearly all of the features common to SEs discussed in the literature and in this essay. 
Stories of SEs have been part of human experience since the earliest days of homo sapiens.  We have numerous records of shamanic spirit possessions, sacred visions and voices, ecstasies, mystical experiences, trances, psychic phenomena, altered states induced by drugs, music, poetry, and art - all have been thought of as spiritual by one person or another.  But what does that mean?  Obviously, these are not all the same. Are they all spiritual?  If so, what makes them spiritual?  This is one of the first questions we must ask in seeking a philosophical understanding of these extraordinary phenomena.

Our topic is:  Are spiritual experiences real or illusory?  Clearly we need some degree of agreement on what a spiritual experience is.  To arrive at that was my aim in the first hour of the meeting.  Then in the second hour we tackled the question of whether or not SEs are real.

What is a spiritual experience?
Rather than lead off with a formal talk, I asked the assembled philosophers to share with us their ideas about what a spiritual experience is.  What ensued was one of the best PC discussions in recent memory.  Several people shared their own SEs with the group.  The quality of the answers suggests that many people take spiritual experience seriously and know a lot about it.  Answers to the question included the following:

Spiritual experiences are:
· Universal:  all human experiences are spiritual; we are spiritual beings.
   · Extraordinary:  different from ordinary religious experiences - prayer, ritual participation, etc.
   · Transformative:  SEs often cause a radical change in a person’s life.
   · Physical:  SEs are just an unusual type of brain activity.
   · Profound:  they often reveal deeper connections between self and world.      
   · Culturally interpreted, usually in a religious, but sometimes secular, framework.

Except for the claim that SEs are nothing but brain events, all the ideas listed above seem right to me.  To that list I would add a few additional characteristics that would probably elicit general agreement:
Spiritual experiences are:
   · direct experiences, not the result of reasoning; hence non-rational;
   · brief in duration;
   · ineffable to some degree;
   · ecstatic:  SEs often induce states of extreme joyousness or bliss;
   · noetic:  the individual believes they have learned something significant about reality and self.

Specialists in the study of spirituality or mysticism find it useful to classify the different types of spiritual experience and to rank them according to some criterion.  For our purposes, it may be enough to distinguish two broad categories: dualistic and non-dualistic.  In the dualistic type, the individual has an extraordinary experience of being directly in contact with a divine being or a transcendent reality which is felt to be separate or distinct from oneself.  Supernatural visions of Jesus or Krishna or other holy person would be of this type.  Such experiences are emotionally powerful and even physically shocking, as in the case of St. Paul who, we are told, fell from his horse upon hearing the  voice of Jesus from the heavens.  A striking contemporary account was posted by ‘Steve’ on a spiritual website: 

I had an intense vision of a shining cross that felt almost physical..a feeling as if I had been struck.  l had been reading a book on Billy Graham as I was searching for a belief system at the time.this was 40 years ago, yet I am still searching. I have no doubt that God is everywhere,but I feel that I received a message...yet failed to I don't know why it happened.”
Nature mysticism might also fall into this category.  In an ecstatic experience while walking in a forest, for example, a person may experience herself as a small part of the vast Web of Life but intimately connected with all other natural beings.

Non-dual mysticism is an experience, spontaneous or induced, of the dissolution or transcendence of ego, in which the individual intuits himself as identical with the Ground of Being or the Supreme Identity.  Hindu ‘moksha’ and Zen ‘satori’ are enlightenment experiences of this type.

It is to these two broad types of SE that I will direct the question “Are spiritual experiences real or illusory?” in what follows.
Are spiritual experiences real?

Is any experience real?  This may seem a startling question, but serious doubts about this come from two quarters.  The first is from the wisdom traditions themselves which claim that our ordinary experience is unreal or illusory in the sense that it hides the Truth about our real nature from us.  The second is from the materialist camp of academic philosophers and scientists.  Enamored of high-tech neuroscience, they assert that conscious experience is not what most people think it is.  Consciousness, they argue, is nothing but the buzzing of brain waves in response to external stimuli.  Subjective experience, therefore, is an illusion that neuroscience will one day dispel completely.

Standing aloof from this controversy for the moment, I want to distinguish two meanings of the word ‘real.’  When we ask if a spiritual experience is real, we can mean “Did it actually occur?”  To doubt this is to believe the experiencer may be lying.  Assuming we are not in the grip of an extreme cynicism, we can take Swinburne’s maxim as a reliable guide in most situations, especially when so many people claim to have had similar spiritual experiences.

When asking whether SEs are real, philosophers usually have the second meaning of ’real’ in mind, namely interpretive validity.  For humans, interpreting our experiences is unavoidable.  We cannot help but try to give some cognitive meaning to them, especially extraordinary ones of the kind we are discussing.  For example, philosophers are right to be skeptical of what we might call deity mysticism: claims made by people about their visions, voices, and other alleged supernatural phenomena.  Someone may interpret a vision of a being of awesome power and radiant light as an encounter with Jesus Christ - not just an imaginary Jesus, but the real Jesus appearing in the person’s visual field like any other person.  The usual objective validity tests are appropriate here:  Did anyone else witness the event?  Can the experience be replicated?  Could it be accounted for by some unusual conditions in the environment or some abnormal physical state of the experiencer?  Cultural relativity is another problem.  How is it that Christians in western countries always see Jesus or the angel Gabriel or some Christian saint but never the Hindu god Krishna or the fearsome Kali with her garland of skulls and skirt of severed arms?

Supernatural interpretations of dualistic mysticism, whether Christian or Hindu or other, come from the individual’s religious culture, usually a mythic frame of reference.  As such they are non-rational and therefore provide no evidence for rational assent.  Pre-rational’ is a better characterization for reasons which we will see in a moment.

In a different category are the non-dual types of profound insight experience usually called ‘mystical.’  Mystics of this type do not describe their experiences in terms of visions, voices, or revelations from beyond.  They do not attribute their occurrence to any external source.  Many of them do not describe their experiences at all, reflecting the verse of the Tao Te Ching which cautions:  “Those who know do not speak.”  Deep mystical insight is a matter of absolute subjectivity, and those who do decide to describe their mystical experiences for teaching purposes always insist that their explanations are inadequate and paradoxical, beyond the reach of language and of reason itself.  They are properly termed trans-rational.  Study of texts and philosophy are useless.  Students are told that they must experience spiritual awakening directly for themselves by means of a deep interior investigation of their own minds.  Although enlightenment experiences can happen spontaneously, people usually need guidance by a master who will instruct them in specific spiritual practices and validate their experiences when they occur.

So what has philosophy to say about mystical experience?  Not much, because those who “know” are quite happy to admit that their interpretations are non-rational and therefore beyond the grasp of rational philosophies.  Buddhist masters, for example, willingly embrace the prevailing scientific theories about the cosmos, life, and the evolution of humans.  They are unfazed by the charge that their “philosophies” are replete with irresolvable paradoxes.  Zen masters challenge their students with ‘koans,’ paradoxical stories or sayings intended to defeat the rational mind.  Adepts and masters of all the traditions draw attention to the limitations of reason, its relativity and incompleteness, and its total inability to grasp the nature of Ultimate Reality.

As trans-rational direct apprehension of Original Mind, mystical insight transcends the domain of reason which is limited to the relatively superficial features of the sensory world and of rational thought.  Suddenly it’s not so clear who is the victim of illusion.

Direct experience is not accessible to the eye of reason.  The rational point of view is objective, the investigation of phenomena from the outside; whereas the vantage point of mystical insight is radical subjectivity, the view from within.  Meister Eckhart wrote, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which He sees me.”  There is no scientific procedure that will yield that kind of result.

When asked why anyone should believe such claims, the mystics say, “Do not believe them!  See for yourself.  Try these practices.  In time, with dedication and patience, you will realize Enlightenment.  You will see eye to eye with the Buddha, who is none other than your True Self.”

For the skeptic to set intellectual argument aside and actually walk the walk of spiritual practice herself is to practice what Ken Wilber calls ‘good science,’ in this case good spiritual science.  The approach, he says, is exactly analogous to the standard experimental method of physics, chemistry and the rest.  The seeker is offered a hypothesis:  If you want a glimpse of Ultimate Reality, you must take up this meditation practice.  Check it out for yourself; perform the experiment.  Then seek out confirmation of your experience with one or more members of the community of enlightened beings.

So, are spiritual experiences real or illusory?  As we have seen, countless people have told their stories of extraordinary experiences, and, for the most part, we have no reason to think they are lying.  Many of those accounts fail the validity tests available to science and philosophy and are therefore justly called illusions.  Others, however, those I have called mystical are beyond the reach of objective truth-tests.  To validate them requires direct experience of Ultimate Reality which, we are told, is available to anyone who has the courage and the dedication to undertake the recommended practices.  When confronted by such claims, mere philosophy must honestly admit, “I don’t get it.”
 * * * *

I concluded the meeting with the following remarks:
It is difficult to imagine the evolutionary history of human culture without spiritual experiences.  The founders of the great religious traditions were all inspired by profound experiences of the Sacred.  However, until recently such experiences were thought to be available only to special persons:  medicine men, saints, and mystic sages.  Everyone else was expected to be only religious, not spiritual.

Nowadays the situation is vastly different.  Because we have access to all the world’s spiritual traditions as well as the great contributions of western psychology and philosophy, we know that SEs are part of the birthright of all human beings.  We also know that while a spiritual experience is only a brief opening to Spirit, techniques such as meditation and yoga, are widely available to help us transform our entire lives in the direction of ever-increasing truth, freedom, beauty, and goodness.

Mystical experiences in particular and the spiritual philosophies that flow from them reveal the higher potentials of human existence.  At the very highest level, mystical experiences awaken us to the constricting smallness of our ordinary selves with their egocentric desires and habits.  They point us toward what the sages have always told us is what we really desire - union with the Infinite.

This ennobling yet mysterious ideal is captured nicely in a poem by the 20th century Tibetan lama and Buddhist master, Kalu Rinpoche:

You live in illusions
                     and the appearance of things.
                    There is a Reality;
                    you are that Reality.
                    When you recognize this,
                    you will realize that you are no thing
                    and being no thing, you are Everything.