Sunday, February 10, 2013

First Post: A Response to Awet on Philosophy and Character

I hastily tried to post this entry as a casual comment and realized the formatting had been sterilized & changed past acceptable limits. So, I decided to make my own blog and start a dialogue/monologue about the problem of evil, atheism, and better consciousness, with a focus on the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Here is the original post from an excellent and thoughtful writer, Awet, who shares many of my philosophical interests and motivated me to take my contemplation online: Heterodoxia - Philosophy Can [Not] Change You

The italicized remarks are Awet's and some are from 1 or 2 other blog posts from his site. The basic thrust of my post is to (1) push Awet on whether he represented Schopenhauer's theory of agency correctly, as well as Schopenhauer's character, since he sprinkled in a little ad hominem; (2) argue for the impotence of philosophy/ethics to change character as esse (and invite a dialogue on whether concepts like esse even hold water, since Awet believes metaphysics is totally illusory); (3) loosely assert some pessimistic conclusions about human nature and speculate about quantum agency, again, for the sake of future edifying dialogue. 

If free choice or an act of will is taken as an event, and all events take place in time, then the idea of an intelligible choice, or the act of choice that takes place in the timeless domain of the Kantian thing in itself is completely incoherent. Whatsoever is incoherent cannot sustain as a solution. 

Awet does not accept the intelligible/empirical solution to the free will / determinism problem and his understanding of Kant and Schopenhauer is = or > mine. However, Awet also seems to say that Schopenhauer believes philosophy cannot change our character because it cannot motivate us. This seems to misrepresent Schopenhauer's thought and Awet's own understanding of Schopenhauer:

"Motives, however, can influence character through knowledge, and that is how a person’s manner can change while his character remains the same. Motives can influence the will, alter its direction, but not change the will. Therefore, pace Seneca, willing cannot be taught, and always remains inscrutable. Motives themselves are concepts, abstract representations of reason, and through the conflict of several motives, the strongest emerges and determines the will with necessity."
Character + Motive = Action, is my understanding of Schopenhauer's teaching, i.e. motives do not change character, but the influence they bring changes our behavior; Awet seems to say that no influence is possible since our character does not change, in the linked blog post. I do believe that philosophy cannot teach morality/virtue in the sense that concepts do not change our being/essence (esse). So, in modern speech, people are guided by motives that they value more than others; the operari is affected by motives, which reveals the transcendentally free esse appearing fixed in time/phenomenal experience. The phenomenal conscious motives "direct" our transcendental choice through the ephemeral world of representation. I think Awet should treat this linkage in greater depth. Awet says:

Schopenhauer argues that there is no bridge between the heart and the mind because all theoretical knowledge acquired from books or instruction cannot motivate — their concepts are dead.
It seems to me that Schopenhauer is trying to hoist his own petard here, by prescribing how philosophy should be done. No?

But Schopenhauer is arguing that prescriptive philosophy/ethics has no effect on the character of particular persons, which I take to be an incredibly insightful and true description of human nature. Schopenhauer is admitting that no person will become better or worse, morally, for reading his work, which is quite the opposite of hoisting his own petard. When Schopenhauer writes about why he writes (why the genius writes according to Schopenhauer), he does not give a very clear reason at all (an instinct of a unique sort):

"The motive which moves genius to productivity is, on the other hand, less easy to determine (compared to the motive which moves talent, i.e. money and fame). It isn't money, for genius seldom gets any. It isn't fame: fame is too uncertain and, more closely considered, of too little worth. Nor is it strictly for its own pleasure, for the great exertion involved almost outweighs the pleasure. It is rather an instinct of a unique sort by virtue of which the individual possessed of genius is impelled to express what he has seen and felt in enduring works without being conscious of any further motivation. It takes place, by and large, with the same sort of necessity that a tree brings forth fruit, and demands of the world no more than a soil on which the individual can flourish. More closely considered, it is as if in such an individual the will to live, as the spirit of the human species, had become conscious of having, by a rare accident, attained for a brief span of time to a greater clarity of intellect, and now endeavors to acquire the products of this clear thought and vision for the whole species, which indeed is the intrinsic being of the individual, so that their light may continue to illumine the darkness and stupor of the ordinary human consciousness. It is from this that there arises that instinct which impels genius to labor in solitude to complete its work without regard for reward, applause or sympathy, but neglectful rather even of its own well-being. To make its work, as a sacred trust and the true fruit of its existence, the property of mankind, laying it down for a posterity better able to appreciate it: this becomes for genius a goal more important than any other, a goal for which it wears the crown of thorns that shall one day blossom into a laurel wreath. Its striving to complete and safeguard its work is just as resolute as that of the insect to safeguard its eggs and provide for the brood it will never live to see: it deposits its eggs where it knows they will find life and nourishment, and dies contented". --Vol. 2 "On Philosophy and the Intellect" as translated in Essays and Aphorisms (1970), as translated by R. J. Hollingdale.
If Schopenhauer was hoisting his own petard, wouldn't he try to demonstrate a rational + prescriptive ethics of compassion, i.e. that we ought (can) to be good/virtuous by doing x, y, z? Schopenhauer believed the ultimate significance of life was moral, and he knowingly failed his own standard, by a vast breadth. Thinkers as great as Kierkegaard gleefully claimed "Schopenhauer is not who he thinks he is" (paraphrase) in an attempt to prove that Schopenhauer's metaphysics was wrong because Schopenhauer didn't become an ascetic/saint. Nietzsche did the same from the other way round, e.g. Schopenhauer negates God, and the world, but preserves morality; is this a pessimist? (paraphrase again, sorry). Critics love to talk about Schopenhauer's arrogance/pride, but I believe he humbly recognized his own moral imperfection, his distance from his own conception of salvation, his unbecoming attachment to life & lack of philosophical equanimity. His expression that the great sculptor need not be beautiful, nor the philosopher be a saint, seems to capture his sense of self-condemnation. Almost every philosopher attempts to portray himself as living up to the requirements of his own ethical knowledge, Schopenhauer wasn't even in the ballpark for his own standards.
With regard to humanity, what should we make of the fact that almost nobody philosophizes; that the very idea of a person being in dead earnest about philosophy occurs to no one? (Schopenhauer paraphrase again, sorry) Rational arguments do not change what we believe about the meaning of life (they are all tautologies anyway, right?); everyone searches their feelings in light of arguments/experience to determine their ultimate disposition. Schopenhauer thinks that direct/intuitive understanding is the source of innate moral disposition which we graft rational dogma upon. This explains why asceticism is practiced very similarly (in terms of self-denial) in many (all?) world religions despite disparate dogmatic commitments. I think Schopenhauer is right that no philosophy/religion changes our character and, much more radically, that we are fundamentally evil (or life is meaningless). The insoluble problem of evil seems to be the only real problem of existence; for Schopenhauer, the original astonishment that anything exists followed by horror at the ubiquity of suffering and death, ground his fixation on the riddle of existence. But almost nobody gives a damn about the suffering and death inherent to life and its implications. Instead, the majority justifies egoism, and two minorities pursue (1) the well-being of all and (2) the woe of all, with an infinite spectrum in between.

Awet claims that if free choice or an act of will is taken as an event, and all events take place in time, then the idea of an intelligible choice, or the act of choice that takes place in the timeless domain of the Kantian thing in itself is completely incoherent. Whatsoever is incoherent cannot sustain as a solution.

Yet Awet praises Schopenhauer for recognition of the primacy of the incoherent: Contra the dogma of philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer realized that reason is not the basic essence of man.
Greatest insight (separate post where Awet states this remark) 

Moreover, the incoherent is simply a fact of all attempts at complete explanation. Schopehauer does not believe he has proven that the intelligible character / empirical character theory is true, he simply speculates that metaphysically we are free transcendentally (or life has no moral significance) because empirically we appear determined by the principle of sufficient reason / causality. None of Schopenhauer's transcendental claims are put forth as certain truths; Schopenhauer is explicit that the "Will" is only a best guess and not exhaustive of ultimate reality; in fact, if salvation exists from apart from Will then Will cannot constitute the whole of ultimate reality. All transcendental language is necessarily incoherent; however, and I do not agree that because a proposition is incoherent that it cannot sustain a metaphysical solution. One suggestion Awet offered for the riddle of existence is to "establish your lucidity in the middle of what negates it", which hardly seems coherent, but I found it deeply meaningful. (Awet's remark was from a personal email, not his blog)

Awet also claims that although causation was taken as universal and absolutely necessary during the heyday of Newtonian science, in our post-modern times, quantum indeterminacy provides an escape hatch [to the strict Kantian determinism used for the solution to free-will problem in transcendental idealism].

I do not believe that quantum indeterminacy necessarily provides an "escape hatch" for allowing empirical freedom from causation because physicists are focused on how to describe results rather explain why one result happened over another. In other words, the physical ontology isn't the focus of quantum physics because we are still struggling to develop resources to accurately say what is happening.  Perhaps quantum physics affirms an epistemic/material determinism trapped within ontological freedom/uncertainty. Tim Maudlin's Distilling Metaphysics from Quantum Physics from the Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics has a section on determinism that may be illuminating:

"Historically, the most widely remarked metaphysical innovation of quantum theory over classical physics is the rejection of determinism in favor of chance. Events such as the decay of a radioactive atom are typically held to be fundamentally random: there is no reason at all that the decay takes place at one time rather than another. Atoms that are physically identical in every respect may nonetheless behave differently. Einstein was resistant to the idea that God plays dice, and his insistence on determinism is taken to be a mark of a reactionary inability to accept the quantum theory.

Things are not quite so simple. Does either the pragmatic formalism or empirical result of any experiment require us to abandom determinism? No. The pragmatic formalism requires an interpretation, and some interpretations posit deterministic laws while other employ fundamentally stochastic dynamics. Further, little can be said in the way of generalization."

Maudlin goes on to note that the Schrödinger equation itself is deterministic, so any interpretation not employing wave collapse at a fundamental level must find its indeterminism apart from his theory, if at all. The main problem to be solved in quantum theory is not "an explanation of why one result happened rather than another (restoring determinism), but rather to have the theoretical resources to describe the experiment as having had one result rather than another. That problem is answered in the first place simply by having more than the wavefunction in the physical ontology, irrespective of the dynamics."

Maudlin concludes the section by explaining that "the question of determinism is only tangential to the motives of the enterprise ... So we can't say that quantum theory forces indeterminism on us. Furthermore, the whole issue looks like a case of spoils to the victor than a fundamental point of contention: if some consideration militates in favour of a specific interpretation, the question of determinism will simply follow suit, and it seems very unlikely that determinism itself will be a decisive consideration."

With the frontier of physics so foggy, we simply aren't in a position to talk about physical ontology yet. I would love to explore the possibility of reworking Schopenhauer's epistemology in light of quantum physics, and I am not convinced yet that his theory is obsolete/irrelevant. It is curious that both Schrödinger and Einstein were both avid readers and enthusiasts of Schopenhauer; perhaps his fundamental insights can survive emerging discoveries.