The big questions and the professionalization of philosophy

Most people are unaware that philosophy has become highly professionalized. Professionalization leads to specialization and technicalization, and most philosophers nowadays work on very specific problems in a particular area of philosophy and write in technical terms, both of which ¾ the problems and the language ¾ require abundant academic training to understand.

It may not be true that philosophers are no longer interested in big questions like ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, ‘Where did the universe come from?’, ‘What is our place in the world?’, and ‘What makes a life meaningful?’, but even if some of them are still tackling these problems, they are likely to be doing so in such a way that it is not easy for lay people to see that it is these big questions that they are trying to answer.

For one thing, it is likely that these philosophers have analyzed the big questions into manageable smaller problems and are working on these smaller problems without making clear how they are related to the big questions (probably because they themselves are not yet clear about how the relation between these problems should be understood). For another, they are so used to writing for the readership of fellow philosophers (assuming background knowledge, using jargon, etc.) that the way they write may not be accessible to lay people.

Professionalization is good for philosophers at least to the extent that it allows them to have extensive intellectual interactions and, relatedly, intellectual division of labor.* If not being accessible to lay people is the price for enjoying these benefits of professionalization, philosophers may be willing to pay it. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to ask what philosophers have to offer to those lay people who care to think about, or are even troubled by, the big questions, for philosophers are in the best position to tackle these problems. After all, they have got the training and, thanks to the professionalization of philosophy, the time needed to tackle these problems.

For people who want to have answers to the big questions, many of these questions are ultimately about how we should live our lives. It would be expecting too much if we expect philosophers to be wise people in the sense that they are able to see through all the vanities, illusions, and foolishness that are common among human beings, and live accordingly. In other words, it would be expecting too much if we expect philosophers to set examples of how we should live our lives. It is reasonable, however, to expect philosophers to be able to analyze problems clearly, avoid confusions and mistakes in thinking, and draw conceptual connections when necessary, so as to obtain whatever knowledge and understanding that can be obtained by human beings concerning some important general aspects of the world and human life ¾ to give good answers to some of the big questions. And people may find these answers helpful in determining how they should live their lives.

So, the question is: How many professional philosophers would feel obliged to meet such a reasonable expectation?

* Of course, the professionalization of philosophy has its dark side. As Barry Stroud points out, the professionalization of philosophy was made possible by the connection between philosophy and the university; and since “what universities, even the best universities, now demand from individual professors, on the whole, is quantity of publications, frequency of citation in the professional literature, widely certified distinction in the profession, and other quantifiable measures of an impressive resume”, this “ has rendered much more of philosophy sterile, empty, and boring” (Stroud, “What is Philosophy?”).


Probability in the eye of the beholder?

In his debate with Daniel Dennett on whether science and religion are compatible, Alvin Plantinga asks the following question:

Let D be the proposition that the variety of the living world has come to be by Darwinian processes, E the relevant biological evidence, G the proposition that evolution is guided, and U the proposition that it is unguided. Then our question is which is greater: P(D/E&G) or P(D/E&U)? (Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?, p.12)

"P(D/E&G)" means "the probability of D, given E and G" and "P(D/E&U)" means "the probability of D, given E and U". Plantinga claims that P(D/E&G) > P(D/E&U). His grounds for this claim are:

1. "Clearly God could have created living things by way of natural selection, causing the right mutations to arise at the right time, preserving the relevant populations from disaster, and the like."
2. "The eye, the mammalian brain, and other organs remain difficult problems for unguided evolution."
3. "[T]he stupefying complexity of the living cell, both prokaryotic and eukaryotic."

1 is his reason for thinking that "P(D/E&G) is perhaps not terribly low", while 2 and 3 are his reasons for thinking that "P(D/E&U) is exceedingly low". "Not terribly low" and "exceedingly low" are both vague expressions, but no doubt everyone would agree that "exceedingly low" is lower than "not terribly low". Indeed, Plantinga thinks it is "orders of magnitude lower" .

It is clear that 2 is just the old argument from complexity and 3 is the new(ish) argument from irreducible complexity. Let us put aside the fact that both 2 and 3 have been adequately addressed by evolutionary biologists, and focus on 1 and the claim that "P(D/E&G) is perhaps not terribly low".

If we looked only at the complexity of some aspects or features of life on earth, we might agree with Plantinga's estimation of P(D/E&G). But complexity is not all there is to D. What about the messiness of evolution and all the evolutionary dead ends? If we look at the latter as well, and if we, like Plantinga, understand the "guided" in G to mean "guided by God", where God is supposed to be omnipotent and omniscient, shouldn't we estimate P(D/E&G) to be lower, perhaps way lower, than Plantinga's "not terribly low"? More simply put, what is the chance of God's having done such a lousy job?

The point I have just made is fairly simple; the interesting question is why Plantinga doesn't see it.


Being clever isn't enough

Bernard Williams gave his last interview at Oxford in December 2002, not long before he died. The interview was published in The Harvard Review of Philosophy (Volume XII, Spring 2004), and the editor noted that Williams "did not have the opportunity to correct the transcript of the interview". In any case, it is, though short, a fascinating interview. Anyone who admires Williams would enjoy reading it; anyone who is not familiar with Williams's work but wants to know why he is so admired would too.

I was particularly intrigued by Williams's remarks on being clever and doing philosophy. Williams himself is an exceptionally clever philosopher, but he says:

Another person who had one kind of influence on me --- though I'm glad to say I think she didn't influence me in other ways! --- was Elizabeth Anscombe. One thing that she did, which she got from Wittgenstein, was that she impressed upon one that being clever wasn't enough. Oxford philosophy, and this is still true to a certain extent, had a great tendency to be clever. It was very eristic: there was a lot of competitive dialectical exchange and showing that other people were wrong. I was quite good at all that. But Elizabeth conveyed a strong sense of the seriousness of the subject, and how the subject was difficult in ways that simply being clever wasn't going to get around.

"I was quite good at all that" --- there was presumably a time when he was not aware that being clever wasn't enough, and it took a philosopher he did not otherwise admire to make him see that.

Williams's response to the interviewer's follow-up question "What is required in addition to being clever?" is also edifying:

A good appreciation of what is not there in the argument or on the page, and also some imagination. Many philosophers pursue a line of argument in a very linear fashion, in which one proof caps another proof, or a refutation refutes some other supposed proof, instead of thinking laterally about what it all might mean. There is a tendency to forget the main issue, which is what the distinction that was made was supposed to be doing in the first place. An obvious example is that people used to go on about what the difference is between a moral and a non-moral 'this-that-and-the-other'. What is a moral consideration as opposed to a non-moral consideration? What is a moral judgment as opposed to a non-moral judgment? They belabored these questions without ever asking why the distinction was supposed to be so important in the first place.


Love and reality

Simone Weil writes:

Love needs reality. What is more terrible than the discovery that through a bodily appearance we have been loving an imaginary being? It is much more terrible than death, for death does not prevent the beloved from having lived. That is the punishment for having fed love on imagination. (Gravity and Grace, p.57)

These remarks sound deep, but they oversimplify the relation between love and reality. The reality love needs is not all or nothing --- in most cases, the person we love is partly real, partly imaginary. It is rare, if possible at all, for us to know and understand our beloved so well that we see her completely as she really is, without any distortions or fantasies. It is also rare for our beloved to be nothing but the product of our imagination, an imaginary being that we are attaching to the body of a person who we don't really know or understand.

Besides, it is not clear that imagination in love is all bad. A little imagination can be like light makeup: it makes our beloved look better without making her unreal. In love, sometimes fantasies can even breed reality.

Weil is still right that it is terrible to discover that we have been loving an imaginary (or mostly imaginary) being. What is terrifying, however, is not just the realization that the person we love has never existed, but also the realization that we have been so delusional. We may, because of the latter realization, lose our self-trust. If we need self-trust to trust another person (we need to trust ourselves in order to trust our trust in another person), and if we need to trust a person to love her, we may thereby lose our capacity for love. That's truly terrifying.


Readers' perception of an author

In an interview published in 1980 ("The Masked Philosopher"), Foucault was interviewed anonymously. When asked why in this interview he chose not to reveal his identity, he said:

Why did I suggest that we use anonymity? Out of nostalgia for a time when, being quite unknown, what I said had some chance of being heard. With the potential reader, the surface of contact was unrippled. The effects of the book might land in unexpected places and form shapes that I had never thought of. A name makes reading too easy.

And then he made an interesting proposal, obviously not seriously:

I shall propose a game: that of the "year without a name." For a year, books would be published without their authors' names. The critics would have to cope with a mass of entirely anonymous books. But, now that I come to think of it, it's possible they would have nothing to do: all the authors would wait until the following year before publishing their books ...

Of course, what Foucault was talking about was not just names, but fame --- names that are well-known or at least recognized. An author's name will not have the kind of effect on readers that Foucault lamented if it is a name nobody knows. After all, none of Foucault's earliest work was published anonymously; as he himself understood it, what he said back then "had some chance of being heard" because his name was still "quite unknown", not because he did not use any name.

However, readers' perception of an author is not just a matter of how famous the author is. At the beginning of the interview and before he made the remarks quoted above, Foucault mentioned a story:

You know the story of the psychologists who went to make a little film test in a village in darkest Africa. They then asked the spectators to tell the story in their own words. Well, only one thing interested them in this story involving three characters: the movement of the light and shadow through the trees.

These African villagers were not interested in the characters of the film; perhaps they were not interested in characters generally. By contrast, as Foucault pointed out:

In our societies, characters dominate our perceptions. Our attention tends to be arrested by the activities of faces that come and go, emerge and disappear.

Readers' perception of an author is not just a matter of how famous the author is; it is also a matter of seeing the author as a character. If the author was seen only as the creator of some text, where attention was paid exclusively to the text, that would not be much of a perception of the author. If we are interested in the text enough to be interested in its creator, and if the text does not tell us much about the author, we will somehow create a character to be the author, sometimes by researching the life of the author, sometimes by reading more of the author's work, and sometimes by imagination alone.

But why are we so fascinated with characters? Because, I think, we see individual human lives as different stories, and stories require characters. If the African villagers were really not interested in characters at all, that was probably because they did not see their lives as stories, or, their lives were too simple to be seen as stories.

Now that we know "the masked philosopher" was Foucault, we won't be able to read the interview the way it was read in 1980 --- we won't be able to read it without seeing the character Foucault in it.


Arguing with the less sophisticated

I always find it difficult to argue with the less sophisticated. Since I see things in a more complex way than they do and my understanding may be beyond their comprehension, they rarely argue in my terms for the simple reason that they are not capable of doing so. In order to go on with the argument, I have to argue in their terms. However, expressing my points in their terms is not easy, if possible at all. And on top of this disadvantage, I may have to, when the less sophisticated have lost the debate, show them how they have lost it.


Thinking and feeling

Nietzsche says, "We have to learn to think differently --- in order at last, perhaps very late on, to attain even more: to feel differently." (Daybreak) He is right that difference in thinking, at least in some cases and given sufficient time, will lead to difference in feeling. However, we all know that it is hard to think differently, particularly when the way of thinking involved is imbued with feelings. We can say that in such cases thinking is anchored to feeling. In such cases, thinking is unlikely to change unless feeling changes first.

Although a change in thinking may lead to a change in feeling, feeling does not have to change through a change in thinking. Sometimes feeling changes for other reasons (if we don't know what causes our feeling to change, we may say it just changes). And when feeling changes, thinking is likely to change too.

Here is a personal example: I did not like to travel and usually felt bored (because what I saw did not interest me) and anxious (because I was in a place that I was unfamiliar with) when I was traveling. I traveled simply because my wife enjoyed traveling and I had to accompany her. However, such feelings have changed lately --- I enjoyed my trip to the Silk Road thoroughly and did not feel bored or anxious at all, and I look forward to my next trip (probably South Korea). Why? I don't know. It was not because of the Silk Road, for I had been to places that were no less interesting. In any case, I now think what one can learn about a place by visiting there is essentially different from what one can learn about it by reading books and looking at pictures, while I used to think they were basically the same. This was a change in thinking, but the change in feeling came first.


The worship of reason?

Being the kind of philosopher I am, I am sometimes accused of worshiping reason (or Reason?). I don't worship anything, which entails that I don't worship reason. I do rely on reason as the best guide for belief and action, but that does not make me a worshiper of reason. I rely on my five senses too, but I don't worship them either.

Why do I rely on reason as the best guide for belief and action? Because it works --- because I want my beliefs to be true and my actions right, and relying on reason helps me achieve that aim. Indeed, there is no way of achieving that aim that is more effective.

Those who accuse me of worshiping reason may point out that it is just my belief that relying on reason is the most effective way of acquiring true beliefs and making right decisions (and acting accordingly). How should I respond? Well, what else can I say other than that I have good reason for believing that. Does that mean there is no escaping the charge of worshiping reason? No. It means only that there is no escaping the need for justifying or giving reason for one's belief.


Charming jokes

Schopenhauer called the ontological argument for the existence of God a "charming joke". What a charming way of putting it!

Some may think being a charming joke is not that bad for a philosophical argument; at least it is not as bad as just being a joke. However, when a philosopher gets carried away by his cleverness and produces a philosophical argument that is nothing but a charming joke, he may never be able to see that it is nonetheless still a joke simply because it is charming and because the charm is a result of his cleverness. For this reason, a charming joke is worse.


Knowing the limits of one's expertise

People who are experts in an area may be tempted to think and act as if their expertise is not limited to that area. A philosopher may expect others to take his view on arts as seriously as they take his philosophical view; a folklore expert may comment on politics in an authoritative tone even though he did not have any training in political theory or political analysis; a scientist may criticize a philosopher's argument because he does not understand how different are philosophical investigation and scientific investigation. Richard Feynman, for example, said this about Spinoza:

My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza --- and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these Attributes, and Substances, all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now, how could we do that? Here's this great Dutch philosopher, and we're laughing at him. It's because there was no excuse for it! In that same period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the circulation of blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza's propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world --- and you can't tell which is right. (The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, p.195)

Of course you can't tell which of Spinoza's propositions is true by looking at the world; you are not supposed to! Spinoza was not doing bad science; he was doing metaphysics.

However, Feynman was not unaware of the limits of his expertise. In another place he said this:

I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy --- and when he talks about a nonscientific matter, he will sound as naive as anyone untrained in the matter. (Ibid., p.142)

Here he was referring particularly to social problems, and he certainly knew that social problems are utterly different from scientific ones. He laughed at Spinoza presumably because he thought that both he and Spinoza were investigating the world, or , reality, and that Spinoza did it in a laughable way.

Feynman might not think he went beyond science when he criticized Spinoza's philosophy. If that was the case, he was not as arrogant as those experts who knowingly exceed the limits of their expertise. But some philosophers would insist that a scientist looking at philosophical problems is just as dumb as the next guy and will sound as naive as anyone untrained in the matter.



A simple proof that the correct answer to "What would Jesus do?" is "I don’t know":

1. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

2. When X works in mysterious ways, the correct answer to "What would X do?" is "I don't know".

3. Jesus is the Lord.

From 1 & 3, it follows that

4. Jesus works in mysterious ways.

From 2 & 4, it follows that

5. The correct answer to "What would Jesus do?" is "I don't know".


Christian techniques of the self

According to Foucault, in all societies there is a kind of technique that he calls "techniques of the self" (or "technologies of the self"); these are "techniques that permit individuals to effect, by their own means, a certain number of operations on their own bodies, their own souls, their own thoughts, their own conduct, and this in a manner so as to transform themselves, modify themselves, and to attain state of perfection, happiness, purity, supernatural power" (from his short essay "Sexuality and Solitude"; he elaborates the notion in a much longer essay entitled "Technologies of the Self". Both essays are collected in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth).

The notion of techniques of the self is interesting enough, but what I find even more interesting is Foucault's application of the notion to Christianity. He first points out that each technique of the self implies some truth obligations such as telling the truth, discovering the truth, and being enlightened by the truth. These obligations are either instrumental to or constitutive of the transformation of the self. He then describes the truth obligations implied by Christian techniques of the self:

Everyone in Christianity has the duty to explore who he is, what is happening within himself, the faults he may have committed, the temptations to which he is exposed. Moreover, everyone is obliged to tell these things to other people, and thus to bear witness against himself... First, there is the task of clearing up all the illusions, temptations, and seductions that can occur in the mind, and of discovering the reality of what is going on within ourselves.

I think most Christians would not disagree with this description. But this is not the interesting part yet. As Foucault goes on:

Second, one must get free from attachment to the self, not because the self is an illusion but because the self is much too real. The more we discover the truth about ourselves, the more we must renounce ourselves; and the more we want to renounce ourselves, the more we need to bring to light the reality of ourselves. This is what we would call the spiral of truth formulation and reality renouncement which is at the heart of Christian techniques of the self.

It is not clear that most Christians would accept these words. They may not see themselves as renouncing their selves, for they, like most human beings, do care about their selves.

What Foucault's characterization of Christian techniques of the self captures is precisely Christians' ambivalence towards their selves --- they both care about and renounce their selves. There is such ambivalence because Christianity is both a salvation religion and a confession religion: one has to care about one's self enough to see the need of salvation, but one also has to renounce one's self as a result of confession. In most cases the psychological condition is just ambivalence, but in some cases it may become so severe that it would not be much of an exaggeration to call it a form of schizophrenia.


Self-ignorance and self-misunderstanding

The lack of self-knowledge may just be self-ignorance, but it can also be self-misunderstanding. If, for example, you are a stingy person but are not aware that you are --- you don't know that you are stingy, nor do you believe that you are not stingy, then you are just self-ignorant. But if you have the false belief that you are a generous person, then you have self-misunderstanding. This is an important distinction because which form your lack of self-knowledge takes makes some difference to how difficult it will be for you to gain the relevant self-knowledge.

It may appear that self-misunderstanding is a greater hurdle for self-knowledge, for you have to get rid of the false belief as well as acquiring the true one. The false belief stands in the way, and it seems to take more effort to acquire the true belief than in the case of mere self-ignorance.

There is, however, reason to think that self-misunderstanding is, at least in some cases, less of a hurdle for self-knowledge. If you have a false belief about yourself (such as the belief that are a generous person, when in fact you are stingy), it may sooner or later come into conflict with what happens around you (such as your repeatedly refusing to help your friends even when you can easily help them). The conflict, or rather your experience of it, can prompt you to consider the possibility that your belief is false and to see what happens around you as evidence for the opposite belief, that is, the true one.

By contrast, if you are merely self-ignorant, then even if what happens around you is evidence for a certain belief about yourself, you may not even pay attention to it. When this is the case, it is not that you dismiss the evidence; you simply don't see the import of what happens around you --- you don't see it as evidence for or against anything.


Proust's insight

In his famous article "Personal Identity", Derek Parfit quotes Proust:

We are incapable, while we are in love, of acting as fit predecessors of the next persons who, when we are in love no longer, we shall presently have become . . . . (Parfit's translation)

Parfit is interested in the notion of successive selves, which he thinks Proust employs, at least implicitly ("the next persons"), in this sentence. I am more interested in the insight about love that Proust expresses in it. In fact, Proust's insight does not have to be put in terms of the notion of a person or the self. What he seems to mean is that when we are in love, we are incapable of acting in such a way that we are prepared not to be in love any more. It is not just that we do not act that way; we are simply incapable of doing so, for the incapability is part of what it is to be in love.


Derrida and bullshit

John Searle famously remarked that Derrida's work is the kind of stuff that gives bullshit a bad name. I have never read a single word by Derrida, and I would generally refrain from commenting on any philosopher whose work I have not read. Besides, there are philosophers I take seriously (such as Stanley Cavell) who take Derrida seriously, so I have never joined in when some of my friends trashed Derrida.

Today, however, I came across a book that may be evidence that Derrida was quite capable of bullshitting. The book includes an interview with Derrida a few weeks after the 9/11 attack, and here is the first five hundred words or so of Derrida's response to the question "Do you consider what we now tend to call 'September 11' an unprecedented event, one that radically alters the way we see ourselves?":

Le 11 septembre, as you say, or, since we have agreed to speak two languages, "September 11." We will have to return later to this question of language. As well as to this act of naming: a date and nothing more. When you say "September 11" you are already citing, are you not? You are inviting me to speak here by recalling, as if in quotation marks, a date or a dating that has taken over our public space and our private lives for five weeks now. Something fait date, I would say in a French idiom, something marks a date, a date in history; that is always what's most striking, the very impact of what is at least felt, in an apparently immediate way, to be an event that truly marks, that truly makes its mark, a singular and, as they say here, "unprecedented" event. I say "apparently immediate" because this "feeling" is actually less spontaneous than it appears: it is to a large extent conditioned, constituted, if not actually constructed, circulated at any rate through the media by means of a prodigious techno-socio-political machine. "To mark a date in history" presupposes, in any case, that "something" comes or happens for the first and last time, "something" that we do not yet really know how to identify, determine, recognize, or analyze but that should remain from here on in unforgettable: an ineffaceable event in the shared archive of a universal calendar, that is, a supposedly universal calendar, for these are—and I want to insist on this at the outset—only suppositions and presuppositions. Unrefined and dogmatic, or else carefully considered, organized, calculated, strategic—or all of these at once. For the index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. Namely, the fact that we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to us to name in any other way this "thing" that has just happened, this supposed "event." An act of "international terrorism," for example, and we will return to this, is anything but a rigorous concept that would help us grasp the singularity of what we will be trying to discuss. "Something" took place, we have the feeling of not having seen it coming, and certain consequences undeniably follow upon the "thing." But this very thing, the place and meaning of this "event," remains ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it's talking about. We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in this way: September 11, le 11 septembre, September 11. The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not only from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram of this metonymy—a name, a number—points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about.

I would have no better response to this than: Was talking about the 9/11 attack that complicated? Give me a break!


Can you love the whole world?

Alva Noƫ has written a short piece on love for NPR, which ends with the question "Can you love the whole world?". What is interesting is not the question itself, but what he compares the question to:

Can you love the whole world? I suppose this is like the question, Is there a God?

My answer to both questions is "No" (if "the whole world" refers to every human being in the world and if "God" refers to a personal God who listens to and answers prayers). There are, however, many people who would answer "No" to the first question but "Yes" to the second. But even for these people, the two questions are alike in the respect that both require us to look beyond ourselves and our immediate concerns. Both are in this sense demanding questions and should not be answered lightly.