Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Hard questions

It's been a week since my last post, so I feel as though I ought to write something. I also feel that some time in my life I ought to have a go at answering some really big or hard or interesting problem. So here's a small first step in that direction. I'm not leaping into lion-taming directly but more moving towards it via a move from accountancy to banking. Still, here goes.

Four of the most amazing things are that there is something rather than nothing, that some of what there is is alive, that some of what is alive is conscious, and that some of what is conscious is also rational, i.e. capable of making sense. The first and third of these facts correspond with well known metaphysical puzzles or research projects. The second (that some things are alive) does not appear to be regarded as much of a mystery, at least in comparison with the other questions, and is generally treated as a scientific question. Michael Thompson has shown that the related question of what life is, at least, is philosophically interesting. And the fourth amazing fact has to do with meaning or language. To answer why there is meaning we would seem to have to figure out what meaning is, and that gets us into the philosophy of language. So the amazing facts closely relate to a set of questions, and these questions are fundamental in ontology, philosophy of biology (actually I know nothing about the philosophy of biology, but it seems as though 'What is life?' ought to be the fundamental question there), philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language.

But the questions also seem to be closely related. Wittgenstein links the first and last of them when he says that:  "I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself." With some reluctance and/or self-mockery Michael Thompson writes that:
a life form is like a language that physical matter can speak. It is in the light of judgments about the life form that I assign meaning and significance and point and position to the parts and operations of individual organisms that present themselves to me.  
This links the second fact with the fourth, if only by analogy. And the third (about consciousness) is surely related both to questions, or matters, of life and questions or matters of meaning or sense.

So, first point: the most amazing facts about the world are not just facts but important philosophical mysteries, the mystery being in each case why this fact is the case. And second point: the mysteries appear to be interrelated in some way (albeit I have not come close to proving that the apparent inter-relatedness is real or at all important). My third point is that the questions seem to be similar in nature. "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is, or appears to be, unanswerable. So does "What is consciousness?" So does "What is life?" if I'm remembering this correctly. And I don't think that "What is meaning?" has much of an answer either.

Are these questions all somehow the same question? Or are they not the very same thing but all equally nonsensical? Or are the similarities I am seeing all merely superficial?

I have no intention of working on any of these questions any time soon, or ever really. But having written this out I may as well post it. (My desire not to post rubbish is in danger of killing the blog completely, so I'm going to try to resist it. And at the very least I have linked to work by Thompson that is not rubbish at all.)


  1. Personally I've always wondered why people sometimes think that "why is there something rather than nothing?" is a question that can even be sensibly asked. It seems to reflect a feeling some of us sometimes get when we look at the world around us and, if only for an instant, see strangeness in it, a quality which seems that because we are at a loss to articulate any kind of satisfying answer. Why should we expect it to do that though?

    One might give an answer that God decided to make it so and did. But can that really answer this question? What can it mean to ascribe this to God? Trying to answer it in this theological way seems to point to further unanswerable questions about God and then we think the initial question (why something and not nothing) is answerable if we could know enough about God, even while acknowledging that we, in our human limitations, are not equipped to answer it.

    If asking questions is about seeking information about something (what else could it be?), what possible information could there be about why there is something and not nothing to be discovered once one asks the question in the broad way that inspires the sense of awe that sometimes attends its asking?

    As for those others, why is it a wonder (i.e., question-inspiring) for there to be life or consciousness or reason* in the universe? Why is it any stranger to have such things than not? On one view, at least, there just are these things in the world. In combination they represent at least some of the conditions of our world.

    It's surely useful to seek to better explicate what life and awareness and the capacity to reason about things amounts to but seeking better ways of explaining what each of these three amounts to cannot be the same as wondering why there is anything at all, why there is something, not nothing. And yet it seems that it is just this latter question, the one that stems from the awe we feel in the face of the world in all its aspects, that is invoked whenever we stand in awe of any of these aspects in particular -- including the occurrence of life in the midst of non-life, consciousness in some life forms, and rationality** in some instances of consciousness. To the extent that the latter three questions seem to us to be "amazing," isn't it just that we feel this way because we see the latter three items (life, awareness and rationality) in terms of the first (i.e., as being as occurrent phenomenon)? But finding ourselves in awe of being itself does not imply a sensible question, I think, because it can admit of no possible answer. To ask why there is something and not nothing can be no more than to wonder, not only why there is this world and not some other but why this world at all.

    I guess what I'd say here is that there seems to be no place for philosophy here though there is a point to treating the last three, at least, scientifically. The first, on the other hand, once we get beyond the kinds of cosmological explanations theoretical physics can offer (which are beside the point philosophically) no longer seems to support a real question at all.

    * Brandom differentiates reasoning from awareness by using "sapience" to name the capacity to use and give reasons and "sentience" for the condition of being aware.

    ** Brandom explains reasoning as having the capacity to see inferential relations between certain kinds of linguistic and non-linguistic activities, i.e., that some things we or others say "authorize" us to act in certain ways and other things we say "authorize" others.

    1. To the extent that the latter three questions seem to us to be "amazing," isn't it just that we feel this way because we see the latter three items (life, awareness and rationality) in terms of the first

      Could be. I suppose I think about these things roughly in the sense that finding something alive on, say, Mars would be very cool, finding something sentient there even cooler, and finding something rational there cooler still. And I don't usually think about Mars but just about the things around me. Even the inanimate ones are pretty cool. Here I am not providing any useful information, though, just sort of smiling in words. What I find interesting is: the relation between wonder/amazement and curiosity (which seems more scientific); hence the relation between philosophy and science; and the fact that my four questions all seem to me to be obviously big questions that belong together and yet, as far as I know, they are not usually thought of this way. It wouldn't surprise me at all to find that some great (I don't mean correct) metaphysical system had been built of answers to just these questions, but as far as I know this is not the case. That surprises me a little.

      You're probably right, though, that what we have here is a set of pseudo-questions and (merely) scientific questions.

  2. Duncan,

    I would strongly encourage you to have a go at writing something substantive dealing with big philosophical issues. In fact, I'd say that, for various reasons, it was important to do so. We need voices like yours to be heard as they are very much in the minority and swimming against a tide of what I regard as pernicious nonsense. Countering this tide has to be a good thing even if it's a rather lonely, thankless task.

    Sorry if this all sounds a bit melodramatic, but I do believe it to be true.

    1. Thanks (and shucks). I do mean to try. Knowing where to begin (as well as finding the time) is not easy though.

  3. Isn't the issue really about different senses of "why"? Why is there life, or consciousness or rationality can all be answered in a scientific way so why should we expect something else? There's life because the conditions are such in certain parts of the universe that various constituent physical entities combine in a particular way, etc., etc.

    But why do they combine this way and not some other, or why do conditions occur in some places in ways that conduce to the formation of life? There are scientific ways of answering these "why" questions, too. But the scientific way seems, at times and to some of us, not to satisfy. There are accounts of atomic and sub-atomic level particle attractions and forces and so forth and of how these lead to the formation of more complex atomic level structures with various tendencies to affect one another in different ways and so forth.

    We want the big "why" answered though, the one that points back to why there is anything at all. But THAT contains an implicit assumption that there are reasons for things at that level of analysis in the same way there are reasons we do some things and not others. It's a teleological why.

    But why should we think that the "why" involved in explaining agential reasons for acting should apply to questions about what is? Doesn't that illicitly assume an agential source for being although all we know today, thanks to science, tells us that agency is a function of certain physical phenomena interacting in certain ways in the universe?

    1. Yes. I suspect that what we, or I, need is really something like science plus Derrida. Knowing more science ought to help (perhaps more than we realize in advance), and scientists seem to be pretty good at retaining, or even increasing, their sense of wonder. And I refer to Derrida as shorthand for a Wittgensteinian kind of wordless wonder when we see that we have reached a kind of limit to our understanding. In short, we should understand as much as we can and see that this is by no means everything. I.e., know all the facts and appreciate how limited even such understanding is. (Talk of limits here is highly problematic of course: I'm trying (not) to say that we should know everything and realize that it isn't everything.) Facts in an aspic of Tao, or simply science without scientism. But "without scientism" sounds like subtraction, whereas I have in mind a huge addition, the addition of humility. (I'm getting punchy late in the semester. Sorry if this makes no sense or seems overblown.)

  4. I'm sorry to but in but isn't "Being and Time" precisely such an attempt at tying there four questions together, i.e the attempt to build the metaphysical system you seem to be after? And from a logical point of view, doesn't the "Tractatus" also fit? Is the quote you give from the LE

    "I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself."

    not a fairly good description of this? It seems that to "answer" the question of being, life, consciousness, language, (the world) would have to be asked "before" being, life, consciousness, language (the world). Can we even ask whether that is possible? Is there such a question?

    I once objected to talk of isomorphism between logic and the structure of the world by pointing out that it is not "possible" to stand outside both systems and display this isomorphism. It does not work as a possible hypothesis, and I'm not sure Wittgenstein even intended to suggest such an isomorphism.

    It seems that the Tractatus's answer to the question of meaning isn't even an attempt to answer why there is meaning. And that seems right to me. It seems to express the right sort of humility that you also ask for.

    One way of looking at both works mentioned is to take them as exemplary "failures", but not is the sense that they failed in something that can be done. (I think this is Wittgenstein's view.) One might say, by analogy, that e.g. Bach's entire opus is like to such failures.

    Of course, it may be that I haven't understood anything of this post.

    1. Thanks!

      Good for Heidegger, in that case. I obviously don't remember Being and Time well at all. The Tractatus does fit, too, but without providing a final, successful answer. That is, the questions remain to be returned to. Although the best way to deal with them might be to go through Wittgenstein and Heidegger again. This is one reason not to try to tackle big questions--it's all been done before. (But that's no reason to stop thinking.)


    3. You're welcome. And of course I agree that there is no reason to stop thinking, but that does not necessarily mean to seek out answers. The difference between clarification and discovery/invention. There's a passage from CV that comes to mind:

      --Socrates, who always reduces the Sophist to silence--does he reduce him to silence rightfully?--It's true, the Sophist does not know what he thinks he knows; but that is no triumph for Socrates. It can neither be a case of "You see! You don't
      know it!"--nor, triumphantly, "So none of us knows anything!"

      Because I don't want to think just to convict myself, or even someone else, of unclarity. I am not trying to understand something, simply in order to see that I still do not understand it. MS 133 188: 27.2.1947*

      Which again ties to teaching philosophy, as we've been discussing, it seems to me. The triumphalist victory over one's oppenent is not worth much to anyone. Shaming a student for what one thinks of as stupidity isn't really helpful. Even more so if one is serious about philosophy as a sort of therapy, then, quite rightly, the Hippocratic oath does apply.

    4. That's right, and nicely put. Thinking does not necessarily mean to seek out answers. It's still a good thing.