Category Archives: Philosophy

Warning: Deep thoughts ahead.

Quote

What is at the center now? At the moment, neither art nor science but mankind determining, in confusion and obscurity, whether it will endure or go under. The whole species – everybody – has gotten into the act. At such a time it is essential to lighten ourselves, to dump encumbrances, including the encumbrances of education and all organized platitudes, to make judgments of our own, to perform acts of our own.

– Saul Bellow, from his 1976 Nobel lecture.

Truth and meaning

Here’s a thought:

Truth is something you find. Meaning is something you create.

Because a truth you’ve just created, can hardly be said to be a truth. Truth is something you find outside of yourself.

And because meaning that comes to you from outside of you does not mesure up to meaning you create yourself for yourself from what happens around you.

And it just struck me, that if the meaning you create for yourself is not based on truth it must be a flimsy and vulnerable thing indeed.

Or what do you think?

Should Your Next CEO Be a Philosopher?

Technology is still important to a company’s competitive edge, but it seems that most organizations today have the technology down. It’s still important, but it’s more and more becoming a given – which makes it harder to use it to differentiate yourself in the eyes of the customer. So if you can’t use technology to give you an edge, what can you use?

…according to a Wharton professor and an Israeli venture capitalist, a company?s ability to understand its customers? philosophical outlook may be as vital to its success as R&D and other efforts.

…although it?s a given that technological assets can determine the progress of an individual, a company or even a nation, the decision to embrace or to reject technology is itself deeply affected by abstract ideas that are embedded in an individual?s (or a nation?s) general life philosophy.

You can read the entire article here. I agree whole-heartedly. Let’s bring back philosophy as a day-to-day activity, not as an academic discipline. Let’s make room for contemplation of life’s big issues in the work place. It’ll be fun, it’ll be good and it’ll make us better at whatever we do.

Constructivism

Constructivism is the theory that reality is not only an isolated fact outside of us, but something we actively create together. This flies in the face of the more traditional idea that there is an objective reality “out there” which we experience subjectively.

There are many flavours of constructivism, and while researching this on the net, I stumbled on this site in which Martin Dougiamas gives an introduction to the different aspects of constructivism/constructionism, intermingled with travel stories from Bangkok. I’m not quite sure why, but I like the juxtaposition of these two unrelated themes a lot.

Constructivism is interesting for many reasons, and especialy because it forms part of the theoretical basis for Appreciative Inquiry.

Epicurus

While I’m recovering from an intense but seemingly short-lived cold, I got out the TV and this morning I stumbled on a british documentary about the greek philosopher Epicurus. He lived from 341-270 BCE on the island of Samos, and did a lot of thinking on the subject of personal happiness, ie. what do we really need to be happy? His thinking is amazingly relevant here 2000 years later.

One thing he came up with was:

…the so-called ‘four-part cure’, the Epicurean remedy for the epidemic sickness of human anxiety; as a later Epicurean puts it, “Don’t fear god, don’t worry about death; what’s good is easy to get, and what’s terrible is easy to endure.”

I like these four principles – following them will keep you safely grounded in the life you’re living right now, and strengthen your ability to believe that “everything will work out just fine”. While this belief may be right or wrong, it does tend to instill people with a confidence and serenity, that better allows them to make things turn out right.

Epicurus emphasized pleasure – in moderation. Fine foods, sure, but no more than you need. He believed, that we don’t need much to be happy – mostly friends and contemplation (philosophy). There’s an excellent and comprehensive Epicurus reference at epicurus.info.

Free will?

Edge magazine have posted their annual roundup of answers to the question:

“WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?”

Great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have either the evidence or arguments for it (Diderot called it having the “esprit de divination”).

One of the topics in review is the matter of free will; do we or don’t we have free will? Clifford Pickover holds a view that is similar to mine: That we do have free will, even though our brains are essentially tinkertoys:

If we believe that consciousness is the result of patterns of neurons in the brain, our thoughts, emotions, and memories could be replicated in moving assemblies of Tinkertoys. The Tinkertoy minds would have to be very big to represent the complexity of our minds, but it nevertheless could be done, in the same way people have made computers out of 10,000 Tinkertoys. In principle, our minds could be hypostatized in patterns of twigs, in the movements of leaves, or in the flocking of birds. The philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz liked to imagine a machine capable of conscious experiences and perceptions. He said that even if this machine were as big as a mill and we could explore inside, we would find “nothing but pieces which push one against the other and never anything to account for a perception.”

If our thoughts and consciousness do not depend on the actual substances in our brains but rather on the structures, patterns, and relationships between parts, then Tinkertoy minds could think. If you could make a copy of your brain with the same structure but using different materials, the copy would think it was you. This seemingly materialistic approach to mind does not diminish the hope of an afterlife, of transcendence, of communion with entities from parallel universes, or even of God. Even Tinkertoy minds can dream, seek salvation and bliss and pray.

Susan Blacmore has a totally opposing view, and is even trying to rid herself of her sense of making decisions and even of having a conscious self alltogether:

It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will. As Samuel Johnson said “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience is for it.” With recent developments in neuroscience and theories of consciousness, theory is even more against it than it was in his time, more than 200 years ago. So I long ago set about systematically changing the experience. I now have no feeling of acting with free will, although the feeling took many years to ebb away.

But what happens? People say I’m lying! They say it’s impossible and so I must be deluding myself to preserve my theory. And what can I do or say to challenge them? I have no idea – other than to suggest that other people try the exercise, demanding as it is.

When the feeling is gone, decisions just happen with no sense of anyone making them, but then a new question arises: will the decisions be morally acceptable? Here I have made a great leap of faith (or the memes and genes and world have done so). It seems that when people throw out the illusion of an inner self who acts, as many mystics and Buddhist practitioners have done, they generally do behave in ways that we think of as moral or good. So perhaps giving up free will is not as dangerous as it sounds but this too I cannot prove.

As for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether this is very much harder. I just keep on seeming to exist. But though I cannot prove it I think it is true that I don’t.

Book review: Rethinking life & death

This book had, and still has, me thinking hard. What is life? What is death? Are some lives worth more than others? When is it ethically correct to take innocent human life? I found myself having to reconsider all my previous answers to these questions, and while I still can’t get my mind around the radical new ethic that Singer proposes in the last part of the book (also the most provocative part), I can definitely see that the man and the book has a point. The book WILL make you rethink life & death, it’s very well written, very clearly thought out, very well presented and (astonishingly for a philosophical work) highly readable.

It used to be obvious when a person was alive or dead, but as so often happens, new technology forces us to reevaluate existing ethics. TO mention just a few examples, respirators (invented right here in Copenhagen) allow us to keep people alive who would otherwise have died; we can now freeze eggs, sperm cells and even embryos and revive them later; and the increasing succes rate of organ transplants create an impetus to take organs from a still living body – thus killing the donor.

In Rethinking Life & Death, The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, philosopher Peter Singer offers a wildly fascinating look at current medical practices in western society, and demonstrates how they already violate our traditional, judeo-christian based ethic of “the sanctity of life”, which states that human life is sacred, and that consequently it is always wrong to kill innocent human beings. At its most extreme, this ethic holds that abortion is murder, euthanasia is murder (even with the patient’s consent), and we can never allow a human to die even in the case of brain death or people in persistent vegetatice states (where the cortex, the seat of consiousness, has been destroyed).

Singer offers countless reasons why the belief that human life is sacrosanct leads to absurd choices, and succesfully demonstrates that even those who promote that view don’t follow it.
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