Special Topics In Crazy Metaphysics
January 20, 2012

Forgive the long blockquote, but I think this puzzle from philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel (who blogs at The Splintered mind) earns it:

In Anglophone philosophy since the 1960s, the dominant approach to the mind has been materialism: the view that human beings are naturally evolved beings, wholly made out of material stuff like elementary particles, with no immaterial soul of any sort. On materialistic views of consciousness, the reason that we have a stream of conscious experience is that we have brains that represent the world, can guide us in goal-directed action, and that are massively informationally connected in complex self-regulating loops. It is that fact about the complexity of our organizational structure that is responsible for our having a stream of conscious experience so that there’s “something it’s like”, phenomenologically, to be us, or to be a mouse, while there’s nothing it’s like (we ordinarily think) to be a toy robot.

But the United States appears to have all those same features! The citizens of the United States are massively informationally connected, in complex self-regulating loops – not in the same way neurons are connected, but just as richly. The United States engages in environmentally responsive coordinated action, for example in invading Iraq or in taxing imports. The United States represents and self-represents, for example via the census and in declaring positions in foreign policy. As far as I can tell, all the kinds of things that materialists tend to regard as special about brains in virtue of which brains give rise to consciousness are also possessed by the United States.

The United States is a large, spatially distributed entity. But why should that matter? Isn’t it just morphological prejudice to insist that consciousness be confined to spatially compact entities? The United States is composed of people who are themselves individually conscious. But why should that matter? We can imagine, it seems, conscious aliens whose cognition is implemented not by neurons but by intricate networks of interacting internal insects confined within their bodies, where each insect has a minor animal-like consciousness while the organism as a whole has human-like consciousness and intelligence. (Maybe such aliens are much-evolved descendants of bee colonies.) In the vast universe, it seems likely that intelligent environmental responsiveness, and consciousness, could emerge in myriad weird ways. It seems chauvinistic provincialism to insist that our way of being conscious is the only possible way. So why not regard group organisms as possibly conscious? And if so, why not the very group organisms in which we already participate, given that they seem to meet standard materialist criteria for consciousness?

This notion strikes me as being somewhat similar to Heidegger’s notion of Dasein — though I could be wrong about that, since I still have only the fuzziest notion of what Dasein is supposed to be. (Nor, if the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Martin Heidegger is to be believed, can real philosophers agree on a single account. Which should surprise no one.) Still, the fact that the Dasein label has been applied to both individual human beings and entire nations suggests a certain level of conceptual overlap.

There is a key difference, though: Dasein is a category of being within phenomenology, the field of philosophy which examines structures of experience while bracketing the question of whether the objects of those experiences are real. In other words, a phenomenologist might say that we sometimes have the experience of being part of a larger conscious body called a nation, though that conscious body may or may not exist outside of our experiences. Schwitzgebel, on the other hand, is not bracketing: he is suggesting that, in a very real sense, the United States is conscious.

With that in mind, some questions:

1.) Am I horribly misreading Heidegger? Wouldn’t be the first time.

2.) For the materialists who follow this blog (and who I occasionally successfully bait into replying to posts like this): Is Schwitzgebel’s theory correct? Why or why not?

3.) How big or small can a composite conscious entity be? What’s the criteria for determining when one exists and one does not? For example, can a family be collectively consciousness? What about all of humanity?

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A Panopoly of Wonder
September 7, 2010

This post from All Things Shining ends on a fascinating note:

The book is predicated in part on the idea that the death of God is the death of this sense of the unity of all wonders.  Not that certain individuals can’t feel it, but that it is no longer a background assumption of the culture.  As Heidegger says in “The Question Concerning Technology,” this is the most extreme danger.  For it initiates the possibility that we will no longer experience ourselves as receptive beings at all.  (Long story about why.)  But if we get in the right relation to this danger, experience it as a danger, then it becomes a saving possibility as well.  For it reveals a genuine plurality of wonders that is even better than the plurality Homer’s Greeks experienced; a “new beginning” that is not the same as their “first beginning”.  For the Greeks the plurality of wonders came with a felt temptation to unity, a temptation they were eventually unable to resist.  But that temptation is now closed off with the death of God, so our saving possibility, if we take it up, will put us in a genuinely different place than the Greeks.  Anyhow, that’s the idea.  But the worry is that it’s based on a distinction that is too clever by half.  That’s as far as I’ve gotten so far…

I haven’t read “The Question Concerning Technology,” but I believe Dylan Matthews has. He can probably evaluated what’s going on in this passage better than I can.

In the meantime, I’m intrigued by Professor Kelly’s use of the “death of God” concept here. The contours of my argument were different, but I have previously argued that modern society has a very real “God is dead” problem.

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Despair
July 5, 2010

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been meaning to write about Kierkegaard on this blog for awhile, both because he’s a direct predecessor to a lot of the people I’ve mentioned here—Sartre, Beauvoir, Heidegger and Camus, to name a few—and because I find the structure of his existentialist philosophy really prescient, if not necessarily all of the content (more on that later).

Kierkegaard believed that to be a conscious person is to be in despair. This despair comes from the inability to reconcile two opposing forces in your consciousness; he would say, in The Sickness Unto Death, that there exists an irreconcilable tension between necessity and finitude on one side, and possibility and infinitude on the other. Or, to put it another way: you are torn between your inescapable corporeal, biological nature, and your desperate hunger to ascend to a higher spiritual plane and unite with God.

Long-time readers can probably anticipate where I would take issue with some of the theological elements of that philosophy. But the concept of a dialectical struggle within each and every one of us appeals to me, and it’s an obvious antecedent to some more palatable (i.e. secular) existentialist concepts like Heidegger’s anxiety and Sartre’s views on facticity and nothingness.

But what interests me most about Kierkegaard’s despair is how he suggests with deal with it: through direct confrontation. By scrutinizing, confronting, and coming to understand our despair, he says, we ascend through higher levels of it. These heightened states of despair may be more painful, but they are also a higher level of existence, as someone in the upper echelons of despair is that much closer to achieving some kind of synthesis between the opposing forces with him him, and (according to Kierkegaard, anyway) establishing a personal relationship with God.

What interests me here is the idea that we must directly confront the things about ourselves and the questions about the universe that trouble us the most, even if doing so might be excruciating. Kierkegaard’s observations on how to try to avoid doing just that are even more astute—I’ll get to those soon.

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Only God Can Save Us, But Who Wants to Be Saved?
May 18, 2010

Simone de Beauvoir
Image via Wikipedia

In the comments for my Heidegger post, Dylan writes:

I’m operating on a semester-old reading of B&T here, but even authentic Dasein are indebted to Das Man inasmuch as their authenticity is a result of untethering oneself from Das Man. Viewed collectively, this is pretty unsatisfying. Wouldn’t one be thrown into possibilities even if all those already in the world are authentic? They’d just be different possibilities. This seems like a case where, at a more radical level, only a God can save us. This is me and not Heidegger talking, of course, but I do think there are serious religious possibilities in his account of being-toward-death.

Which is to say this is another edition of “Kierkegaard and Tillich got it right”.

I’m not so sure about that, although that could in part be because I’m misreading Dylan’s objection. But it seems to me that he’s saying he objects to the lack of a natural endpoint in Heidegger’s philosophy. Kierkegaard thinks that we are in despair until we achieve a relation between the opposing forces within ourself; Heidegger, like most of the later existentialists, seems to think that we will always have some sort of struggle, and nothing can save us from it. We will always have anxiety, and we will always feel despair.

Personally, I don’t find that as unsatisfying as Dylan seems to. In fact, if “saved” means what I think it means in this case, I’m not so sure I want to be saved. Noted frumpy philosopher Simone de Beauvoir does, I think, the best job of explaining why.

Beauvoir thinks humans are fundamentally free, that freedom consisting of the ability to assign meaning to things within the world. We exercise this freedom through the goals we project ourselves towards. That means that if one does reach a natural endpoint and accomplishes all of his goals, he needs to find some others or else he is no longer willing his own freedom into existence. If you don’t have a goal to project towards, then you are not assigning anything meaning; and if you are not bringing meaning into the world, then your life itself has no real meaning.

You can bet I’ll be expanding on this idea, and its implications, in the future. Especially because I’m currently reading The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir’s great work of existentialist ethics, which so far is the most personally resonant and convincing metaethical work I’ve read. Since Freddie is the clubhouse’s resident Beauvoir expert, maybe we can persuade him to offer some insights.

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Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan, Martin Heidegger
May 16, 2010

Heidegger Action Figure
Image by Mads Boedker via Flickr

Lo and behold, just as I’m jumping back into the blogosphere I see that two prominent political bloggers are debating one of my favorite philosophical hobbyhorses.

Sullivan:

To be human is to be aware of our own finitude, and to wonder at that. Montaigne argued that to philosophize is to learn how to die. Camus put it differently: men die and they are not happy. For me, this last thing is our first thing as humans. It is our defining characteristic, even though some animals may experience this in a different way.

Drum:

“Facing it is our life’s task”? I can’t even conceive of that. I think about death sometimes, just like everyone, and sometimes these thoughts bother me more than other times. But thinking about it all the time? Casting it as uniquely central to the human condition? That’s almost incomprehensible to me. Wondering about our own finitude is one thing — I imagine we all do that from time to time — but why should this be elevated above the human ability to create art, science, mathematics, love, war, poetry, trade, government, or ethics — or the ability to wonder in the first place? Why is learning how to deal with our eventual death the defining characteristic of being human?

Drum says, “this attitude toward death surely sums up a vast chasm between the religious [Sullivan] and the nonreligious [Drum].” But as a fairly strident atheist, my own position is actually much closer to Sullivan’s, with one major caveat: I wouldn’t call awareness of death’s inevitability the defining characteristic of what it means to be human. It’s just a byproduct of the defining characteristic.
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