Having fun with Žižek

Let us ruminate over the following little speech by Slavoj Žižek:

You know, happiness is for me a very rebellious category. It enters the frame immediately. You have a serious ideological deviation at the very beginning of a famous proclamation of independence -- you know, happiness is overrated. If there is a point in psychoanalysis, it is that people do really want or desire happiness, and I think it’s not necessarily bad that it is like that.

For example, let’s be serious: when you are in a creative endeavor, in that wonderful fever --- “My God, I’m onto something!” and so on --- you're mimicking happiness. You are ready to relish the real thing. Sometimes scientists --- I read history of quantum physics or earlier of radiation --- were even ready to stomach the whole package, including the possibility that they will die because of some radiation and so on. Happiness is, for me, an amoral category.

And also, we may actually want to get what we think we don't want. The classical story that I like, the traditional monogamous scenario: I am married to a wife, relations with her are great, and I think I don't want a mistress, and all the time I dream, “Oh my God, how terrible if I had a mistress . . . ,” I’m not a saint, but let us say, “A new life is terrifying and a mistress would open up a new life for me.” You know what every psychoanalyst will tell you quite often happens? That then, for some reason, you have a mistress, you realize you have wanted a new life all along.

You thought, this is not what I want. When you had it there, you found out that it was a much less complex situation, where what you want is not really to love another woman but to keep her as an object of desire and nothing more. And this is not an excessive situation. I claim that this is how things function. We really want what we think we don't desire.

Pretty profound, right? Only that it is not really a speech by Žižek. The real speech is here, the content of which is almost the opposite of the above ‘speech’:

I would like to suggest a criterion for fake profundity: Any seemingly profound words have fake profundity if they still look profound after being ‘oppositized’.


Knowing the truth versus avoiding error

Normally, we want to know the truth and we want to avoid error. There is no reason why we can't achieve both. William James argues, however, that these are "two ways of looking at our duty in the matter of opinion"; not just two ways, but "ways entirely different". As he explains:

[T]hey are not two ways of stating an identical commandment, they are two separable laws. Although it may indeed happen that when we believe the truth A, we escape as an incidental consequence from believing the falsehood B, it hardly ever happens that by merely disbelieving B we necessarily believe A. We may in escaping B fall into believing other falsehoods, C or D, just as bad as B; or we may escape B by not believing anything at all, not even A. (James, 'The Will to Believe')

Avoiding error indeed does not guarantee knowing the truth, but the relation between these "two separable laws" is much closer than suggested by James's explanation. In most cases when a person acquires the true belief that p, she thereby avoids the error of believing that ~p. The avoidance of error in these cases is not just "an incidental consequence", for it has to do with the logical relation between p and ~p. Certainly we all have inconsistent beliefs, but if a person is aware of believing that p, she cannot at the same time believe that ~p (unless the belief is unconscious). This is especially so when the belief acquired is a result of rational inquiry.

James's target here is William K. Clifford, who advocates the principle that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence" (Clifford, 'The Ethics of Belief'). Call this Clifford's Principle. As James understands it, Clifford's Principle "treat[s] the avoidance of error as more imperative [than the chase for truth], and let[s] truth take its chance"; for James, Clifford's Principle is in effect "Better go without belief forever than believe a lie". If this was how Clifford's Principle should be understood, then we could follow the principle simply by refraining, insofar as we can do so, from acquiring new beliefs. No new beliefs, no new false beliefs.

But this understanding can't be correct, for Clifford's Principle is a principle of rational inquiry. Rational inquiry is a pursuit of truth (some would argue it is a pursuit of knowledge, but knowledge entails truth), and a principle that can be followed simply by not acquiring new beliefs is not a principle of rational inquiry. No new beliefs, no new true beliefs either.

If we follow Clifford's Principle, we won't have unjustified beliefs. Since unjustified beliefs are more likely to be false than true, we can avoid error by following Clifford's Principle. But avoiding error this way is for the sake of knowing the truth; it is a means rather than an end. What Clifford's Principle explicitly tells us is that it is wrong to have unjustified beliefs, but the implicit message is that we should have justified beliefs. And the purpose of having justified beliefs is not avoiding error, but knowing the truth.

James finds it "impossible to go with Clifford" and is "ready to be duped many times [...] rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true". He believes that "worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world". He is right, and one of those things is being duped and thinking it is a way of knowing the truth.


"What if you're wrong?"

Richard Dawkins's answer to the question "What if you're wrong?" (asked by a Liberty University student at Randolph College in 2006) received so much attention that the short video of his rapid-fire little speech got over three and a half million hits on YouTube. Someone has made an animated collage which nicely illustrates Dawkins's points:

Although Dawkins used a lot of examples, he made his main point clearly when he said "there's no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian god, in which by the sheerest accident you happen to have been brought up". His point is not:

(1)  Since you have acquired your religious beliefs in such and such a way, these beliefs are questionable (or false).

It is:

(2)  You would have acquired utterly different religious beliefs if you had been brought up in a different religious tradition, and these different sets of religious beliefs are equally unjustified. So you have no more reason to accept one of them rather than the other.

(1) is an instance of the genetic fallacy, while (2) merely points out the lack of justifying reason for preferring one religion over another. That (2) is Dawkins's main point is also supported by his last remark: "What if you're wrong about the great Juju at the bottom of the sea?"

Dawkins's main point is clear enough (which explains why it is so forceful), but it doesn't stop someone like William Lane Craig from insisting that Dawkins committed the genetic fallacy:

Craig the great strawman maker... (Sigh). Alvin Plantinga, who is a more sophisticated thinker than Craig, fails to offer a more reasonable response to Dawkins's main point. Actually, he's responding to Philip Kitcher, but Kitcher's point is the same as Dawkins's:

For all their doctrinal disagreements, Muslims, Jews, and Christians agree on many things. If, however, you had been acculturated within one of the aboriginal traditions of Australia, or within a society in central Africa, or among the Inuit, you would accept, on the basis of cultural authority, radically different ideas. You would believe in the literal truth of stories about the spirits of ancestors and about their presence in sacred places, and you would believe these things as firmly as Christians believe in the resurrection, or Jews in God's covenant, or Muslims in the revelations to the Prophet. (Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, p.141)

Plantinga's response sounds a bit deeper than Craig's, but is no less missing the point:

Kitcher points out, as others before him have, that most believers accept the religion in which they have been brought up. And that can be worrying: if I had been brought up in medieval China, for example, I would almost certainly not have been a Christian. Fair enough; and this can induce a certain cosmic vertigo. But doesn't the same go for Kitcher? Suppose he had been born in medieval China, or for that matter medieval Europe: in all likelihood, he would not have been skeptical of the supernatural. As I say; this can induce vertigo; but isn't it just part of the human condition? (Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, p.62)

Again, Kitcher's (and Dawkins's) point is not that religious beliefs are questionable because believers have been brought up to accept those beliefs, but that believers have no more reason to accept the religious beliefs they have rather than some other religious beliefs. Kitcher makes the point straightforwardly this way:

The trouble with supernaturalism is that it comes in so many incompatible forms, all of which are grounded in just the same way. (p.142)

Since these incompatible forms of supernaturalism are grounded in just the same way, we have no reason to prefer one form over another. Most believers stick to their religious belief simply because they have been brought up to accept them blindly.

It is indeed part of the human condition that we have all been brought up to accept certain beliefs, but it is not part of the human condition that we should not question these beliefs. Plantinga is right that Kitcher would not have been skeptical of the supernatural if he had been born in medieval Europe, but that doesn't mean Kitcher's skepticism about the supernatural is no more justified than medieval religious beliefs --- they are not incompatible forms of the same kind of belief system that are grounded in just the same way.


Proving a negative

A. C. Grayling remarks in his short essay 'Proving a Negative' (in Thinking of Answers, pp.32-34) that "[t]he claim that negatives cannot be proved is beloved of theists who resist the assaults of sceptics by asserting that the non-existence of God cannot be proved." (p.32) It is indeed not uncommon for a theist to challenge an atheist with the question 'Can you prove that God doesn't exist?', where the rationale for posing the question is that it is impossible to prove a negative. It is, however, a little strange that Grayling does not mention also the fact that some atheists (and agnostics) like to invoke this very same principle of folk logic when they argue against theism: they would insist that the burden of proof lies with the theist because it is impossible to prove a negative but possible, and sometimes easy, to prove a positive.

In any case, it is puzzling why there are so many people who accept the principle that it is impossible to prove a negative, for the principle seems obviously false. If 'a negative' means simply 'a negative proposition', then anyone who accepts the law of non-contradiction (i.e. '~(p & ~p)') has to accept that there is at least one negative that can be proved: the law of non-contradiction is a negative proposition and it can be proved in classical logic. Relatedly, propositions of the form "'p' is not false" are negatives in this sense. Assuming bivalence, proving that 'p' is not false is equivalent to proving that 'p' is true --- unless propositions of the form "'p' is true" cannot be proved, it is possible to prove a negative.

Perhaps for those who accept the principle in question 'a negative' here means 'a negative existential proposition' (i.e. a proposition of the form 'There is no x' or 'x does not exist'). Grayling does not tackle the question why people accept the principle in question, but he does give a simple counterexample: "consider how you prove the absence of pennies in a piggy-bank. You break it open and look inside: it is empty." (p.34) I think most people would agree that doing so proves the negative 'There are no pennies in the piggy-bank'. So, even when 'a negative' means 'a negative existential proposition', it is still clear that a negative can be proved.

Perhaps the universe of discourse is supposed to be unrestricted when the principle in question is applied. It is easy to prove that there are no pennies in the piggy-bank, but, it may be claimed, it is impossible to prove that there are no unicorns, period (though it can be proved rather easily that there are no unicorns in your closet). There are two problems here. First, if the difficulty of proving that there are no unicorns anywhere in the universe is due to our technological limitations, then those who accept the principle in question have to clarify what they mean by 'impossible' when they claim that it is impossible to prove a negative. It is at least not a metaphysical or logical impossibility. Second, it is not clear that the universe of discourse matters here. It may be easy to prove that there are no unicorns in your closet, but it is difficult to prove that there are no invisible unicorns in your closet. And it seems impossible to prove that there are no unicorns of the following kind in your closet: unicorns that are undetectable unless they allow you to sense their presence.

If it is impossible to prove that God does not exist, it may be because God is undetectable unless God allows us to sense her presence, rather than because 'God does not exist' is an unrestricted negative existential proposition. It remains a puzzle to me why there are so many people who accept that it is impossible to prove a negative.


The normativity of life's meaningfulness

The question about the meaningfulness of one’s life is a normative question, and an answer to it is a normative judgment. If I understand that a meaningful life is better than a life that is not meaningful, and judge that my life is meaningful, I will see that the judgment has normative implications for what I should think, what I should do, what I should be, and what I can reasonably expect of others as far as their evaluative attitudes toward my life are concerned. If others agree with my judgment that my life is meaningful, they will see the same implications.

As Christine Korsgaard points out, “[c]oncepts like knowledge, beauty, and meaning, as well as virtue and justice, all have a normative dimension, for they tell us what to think, what to like, what to say, what to do, and what to be” (The Sources of Normativity, p.9; italics added). When we apply these concepts to make judgments, we make normative judgments. This is the case when the concept of meaning (or meaningfulness) is applied to a human life. Suppose I ask the question about my life’s meaningfulness and answer it positively, that is, I make the judgment that my life is meaningful. Such a judgment has implications for me with respect to my thought and action: it is not just that the judgment implies some possible things that I can think or do; it is that it makes claims on me and I admit that it has authority over me. In other words, I feel the normative force of the judgment that my life is meaningful.

Why does the judgment that my life is meaningful have normative authority over me? First of all, such a judgment is not subjective --- it is not, as some may put it, just a matter of one’s opinion. The judgment that my life is meaningful is intersubjective or interpersonal. And second, the judgment has to be justified, rational, or supported by good reasons. I am rationally compelled by the judgment to think or act in certain ways rather than others. Putting these two aspects together, the judgment ‘My life is meaningful’ is, as Allan Gibbard puts it in his discussion of normative authority, “interpersonally valid” (Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, p.155).

When I judge that my life is meaningful, not only do I have a positive evaluation of my life, a positive answer to the question of who I am, and a good reason for my existence, I also have a clear answer to the question of how I should live my life --- what I should think, what I should like, what I should say, what I should do, and what I should be. It is difficult to see how the judgment can have normative implications for me and for others, and can significantly constrain or direct my life, if I understand the meaningfulness of my life to be something purely subjective, something depends solely on what I happen to believe, feel, desire, or value. In order to have normative authority over me, such a judgment has to be, like other normative judgments, at least in some respect intersubjective if not objective too. The normative force of such an evaluative judgment has to come, at least partly, from something beyond my subjective perspective in the sense that the correctness of the judgment is not simply up to me.

This is why there is a significant difference between ‘My life is meaningful’ and ‘My life is meaningful to me’. I would not be altogether satisfied if the latter was all I could truly say as an answer to the question about my life’s meaningfulness. There would be something wrong with my understanding of meaningfulness if I believed that my life is meaningful simply because it is meaning to me. In this respect judgments about meaningfulness are like judgments about beauty: if I want to know whether I am beautiful, the answer ‘I am beautiful to me’ is not going to be good enough to me. Even if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there has to be at least one beholder other than oneself.


Death and meaningfulness (II)

Why do some of us think death implies meaninglessness? One plausible explanation is that when we are deeply unnerved by the unavoidability of our death, we may confuse the end of our lives with the end of everything. Of course we all know that the world continues to exist after we die, but it is easy to go from the thought that we will no longer see the world after we die to the thought that for us the world does not exist after we die. Surely ‘for us the world does not exist’ is still different from ‘the world does not exist’, but it is just a small step to go from there to the thought that for us there is no difference between the two. If for us the world does not exist after we die, and if we see meaningfulness as part of the world, then for us meaningfulness does not exist after we die. Again, ‘for us meaningfulness does not exist’ is different from ‘meaningfulness does not exist’, but it is also just a small step to arrive at the depressing thought that for us there is no difference between the two.

The problem with this series of thoughts is that there is no ‘for us’ after we die. ‘For us the word does not exist’ is nothing but a confused way of thinking about our death: ‘For us the world does not exist after we die’ does not say anything more than the trivial truth ‘We are dead after we die’.  For those who believe that we continue to exist consciously in some form after we die (i.e., after our earthly lives end), it does make sense to speak of ‘for us’ after we die. But if we believe that we live on after death, we should not believe also that for us the world does not exist after we die, though we do not live in the earthly world any more. In either case, there is no reason for us to think that death implies that our lives are meaningless.

Another plausible explanation of why we may conclude that life is meaningless when we think about death is that we may confuse the end of our lives with the end of everything about our lives. Tolstoy seemed to be having such a confusion when he wrote that death “obliterates everything: myself, my works and the memory of both” (A Confession and Other Religious Writings, p.33). Of course Tolstoy knew that his death would not obliterate everything; what he meant was presumably that his death would obliterate everything about his life. But even that, as I have already pointed out, is not true: his works were not obliterated by his death and we still read them today. Let us, however, imagine that Tolstoy’s works (and everything that belonged to him or was created by him) were obliterated at the very moment of his death and that no one remembered him or his works after he died. Tolstoy seemed to think that his life would be meaningless if that happened, but he did not explain why he thought so. Perhaps it was because for him the thought was obviously true; after all he did say that “once sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere trick, and a stupid trick” (p.31, italics added).  But in fact it is far from obvious.

Tolstoy’s works still exist and are read by many people; would his pessimistic view that death implies meaninglessness have been changed had he known that his works and the memory of him would not be obliterated by his death? The answer seems to be ‘No’, for he had every reason to believe, and did believe, that his works and the memory of him would last for a long time, but he still held that pessimistic view. What really bothered him was the fact that eventually his works and the memory of him will be obliterated. Now we should see that according to Tolstoy what is necessary for meaningfulness is immortality --- even if his works would not last forever, if he lasted forever, his life could still be meaningful.

Again, Tolstoy did not explain why he thought immortality is necessary for meaningfulness. Some of us would agree with Tolstoy on this or even think Tolstoy was obviously right, but we have to keep in mind that without offering any justification for believing that immortality is necessary for meaningfulness, the belief may simply be a rationalization of our desire to continue to live. At the very least we cannot simply take the belief to be obviously true.  Indeed, some philosophers argue for the opposite. Bernard Williams, for example, argues in his brilliant essay ‘The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality’ that “[i]mmortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless, … in a sense, death gives the meaning to life” (Williams, Problems of the Self, p.82). If we find it hard to accept that immortality is undesirable, that, as Williams also puts it, “an eternal life would be unliveable” (p.100), it is at least reasonable to think that a life can be meaningful without being immortal. In any case, instead of arguing directly for this reasonable view of the relation between meaningfulness and immortality, I am going to present a dilemma to those who think that immortality is necessary for meaningfulness.

The dilemma is this: either we understand immortality in terms of human life as we live it, in which case we have no reason to believe that the meaningfulness of life of this kind requires that the life be endless; or we understand immortality in other terms, such as in terms of disembodied existence, in which case it is not clear that we have any idea of what it is for that kind of life to be meaningful. If an earthly human life cannot be meaningful, why would lengthening it (endlessly) make any difference as far as meaningfulness is concerned? In fact, it seems more reasonable to think that if human life as we live it is meaningless, then living such a life endlessly is equally meaningless, if not more so. The other horn of the dilemma is even more intractable. For we can at least understand the idea of an immortal human life in which we continue to do the kinds of things human being are in fact doing or capable of doing, but if an immortal life is supposed to be utterly different from human life as we live it (and it is undeniable that a disembodied life is utterly different from an earthly human life), then we simply do not understand what it is like to live such a life, and hence do not understand what would make such a life meaningful.

It should be noted that none of what I have said suggests that death is not a bad thing. There are cases in which we can reasonably say that death is not necessarily a bad thing to happen to the person involved, but this certainly does not imply that death is always not a bad thing to happen to a person. In fact, it usually is a bad thing. But even if it is bad for a person to die now given the person she is and given the life she is living, it does not follow that it is bad that she will die later. And even if it is necessarily a bad thing for her to die, no matter when, it does not follow that her life before she dies is meaningless.


Death and meaningfulness (I)

It is clear why thinking about death naturally leads to reflection on life: death is the termination of life. It is not, however, as easy to understand why thinking about death may lead to the conclusion that (one’s) life is meaningless or that (one’s) life is not meaningful enough because of death. No one has expressed more directly than Tolstoy did the thought that death threatens meaningfulness:

Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (and they had already arrived) to those dear to me, and to myself, and nothing will remain other than the stench and the worms. Sooner or later my deeds, whatever they may have been, will be forgotten and will no longer exist. What is all the fuss about then? How can a person carry on living and fail to perceive this? That is what is so astonishing! It is only possible to go on living while you are intoxicated with life; once sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere trick, and a stupid trick! That is exactly what it is: there is nothing either witty or amusing, it is only cruel and stupid. (Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings, translated by J. Kentish (London: Penguin Books, 1987), p.31)

And he asked, rhetorically, “[I]s there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me?” (p.35)  Since the inevitability of death awaits not only Tolstoy but all of us, what he said was supposed to apply to all human beings: death will annihilate any meaning in our lives. The implicit idea here is that if life really has meaning, it must consist in something that can defeat the threat of death to meaningfulness. In other words, life is meaningless unless we can find some kind of long-lasting and grand meaningfulness.

What reason did Tolstoy give for thinking that death implies meaninglessness? It seems to be simply this: whatever one has achieved “will be forgotten and will no longer exist”. Literally this is not true, at least not true of Tolstoy, for his writings still exist and we still read and appreciate them today. What Tolstoy had in mind might well be this: sooner or later, if not in ten thousand years, then in a million years, we will all be dead and nothing we have achieved will still exist. In a million years, there will not be any human beings; there probably will not be any intelligent beings on this planet to appreciate and value what some human beings have achieved or created; there will not be any traces of War and Peace or Anna Karenina. Tolstoy’s conclusion seems to be that because of this none of the things anyone of us has achieved matters at all.

Let us grant that none of the things anyone of us has achieved will matter in a million years, but this is different from saying that none of the things anyone of us has achieved matters. ‘X does not matter’ does not follow from ‘X does not matter in a million years’. Besides, as Thomas Nagel argues:

It is often remarked that nothing we do now will matter in a million years. But if that is true, then by the same token, nothing that will be the case in a million years matters now. In particular, it does not matter now that in a million years nothing we do now will matter. Moreover, even if what we did now were going to matter in a million years, how could that keep our present concerns from being absurd? If their mattering now is not enough to accomplish that, how would it help if they mattered a million years from now? (Nagel, ‘The Absurd’, in Mortal Questions, p.12)

In terms of meaningfulness rather than mattering, we can say that the fact that in a million years there will not be anyone to consider one’s life meaningful does not imply that one’s life should not be considered meaningful. If one’s life is meaningful now, it is still a meaningful life even if no one in the further future will remember one’s life.

It seems that most of us would agree that a meaningful life will not cease to be meaningful simply because something happens in the future after the person whose life it is dies. Indeed, most of us would agree that a life does not even have to be long to be meaningful. Obvious examples are Mozart and Anne Frank.  But then why do some of us think death implies meaninglessness? Why is it so natural for some of us to conclude that life is meaningless (or not meaningful enough) when thinking about death? It is as if before we think about death, we see our lives as meaningful, but the meaningfulness suddenly disappears once we think about death. Why?


Clashing vanities

Nietzsche has the following observations about people with vanity:

Clashing vanities. Two people with equally great vanity retain a bad impression of one another after they meet, because each one was so busy with the impression he wanted to elicit in the other that the other made no impression on him; finally both notice that their efforts have failed and blame the other for it. (Human, All Too Human, section six, 338)

These observations seem right, but only roughly. A person who is trying hard to impress others will probably not be able to pay attention to things other than whether he succeeds in his attempt, and hence not be able to be impressed by others. But this is true of everyone, not just vain people. Nietzsche seems to be suggesting that people with vanity are more likely to try hard to impress others than people without vanity (are there such people?), for otherwise the phrase "with equally great vanity" could be deleted and he would still be making the same point.

Let's say Nietzsche is right, that is, that a vain person likes to impress others. However, it is reasonable to think that a vain person would not try to impress just anyone. Being vain, he would try to impress people who have impressed him in the first place, for it is impressing such people that would satisfy his vanity as far as impressing people is concerned.

Now suppose that two people with equally great vanity met, and that they tried to impress each other because each of them had been impressed by the other in some way. If they both failed in their attempt to (further) impress the other for the reason mentioned above, it is not clear they would blame the other for the failure. Indeed, the more they had been impressed by the other, the less likely they would blame the other for the failure. The psychology is fairly simple: the more they had been impressed by the other, the more they would understand why they failed to impress the other --- a person so impressive would not be easy to impress. In that case, their failure to impress does not hurt. And for people with vanity, if it doesn't hurt, it doesn't matter.