Sunday, March 8, 2015


Gidday Mates:

In discussing the nature of consciousness some years ago, David Chalmers defined what he called the “hard" problem.  It put him on the map as a philosopher and seemed to lead to a sort of guru status. He said you can describe the color red by wavelengths of light, impact on the retina, synapses firing and neurochemical reactions but these cannot tell you what it feels like to see red.  Science might be able to tell you all it knows about seeing red but it cannot describe the experience of seeing red.  Such are the nature of qualia.  See Chalmers’ essay posted some time ago by Fergi or, if you prefer, you can watch the video. Chalmers’ statement sounds convincing on first hearing but I have always felt somewhat skeptical about it.  The so-called “hard problem” seemed to me to be some combination of clever metaphysical phraseology and a lack of thorough knowledge of how the brain really works (arising from reduction). I have always wanted to learn more from a good discussion of consciousness in the Kitchen.

More recently, I came across a video of a lecture delivered in Australia by a British neuroscientist, Baroness Susan Greenfield, who says she has a scientifically testable hypothesis for the nature of consciousness!  Take a look and see what you think. The video contains too much heavy neuroscience (sorry about that) so fast-forward when you get bogged down to get to her interesting comments towards the end, on the nature of subjectivity. The assignment will require about 3 hours of your attention.  

See you Wednesday March 25th. Originally scheduled at my house, I seek an alternative venue because Pat and I are putting our house on the market that week(!) I would love it if an alternative host would volunteer. Don't worry, Pat and I are not leaving Laguna Beach.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Plato's Kitchen 2015

The Philosophy of Psychology and the Psychology of Philosophy
February  26: Joe –  Language and Verbal Behavior 
March 25: Chris – Consciousness and Psychological Meaning
April 29: Mike – The Architecture of Happiness
May 27:  Chris – Guest Philosopher
June 24: Terry – Economics of Belief
July 28: Charles – The Repeal of Reticence 
August  26: Chris – The Meaning of Life
September 30: Paul – Philosophy or Belief
October 28: Roger – Psychology of Culture 
December 3: Jason – The Whole Thing

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Philosophy Is Dead - Postmortem

My wife told me that when I went to bed the night after the last Kitchen, she could hear my brain whirring.  Indeed.  
I am somehow averse to pre-posting on the Kitchen blog.   Sorry, Joe.   I think it stems from having certain standards in my academic career, where I always tried to make presentations about something new, something the audience had not heard before.  I suspect, however, that in the Kitchen this policy has more often resulted in my not expressing myself clearly enough.  And, of course, Kitchen discussions always lead to a furthering of the arguments and beg their refinement.  So, for all of us, and particularly for Dan and Mike who couldn’t make it, here goes with a postmortem. 
I think there was general agreement that philosophy, particularly academic philosophy, is dead -- in the sense that (a) there is little in the way of really new ideas coming out of the discipline (b) it is unlikely that a new methodology will dramatically advance philosophy, despite periods of optimism for methods such as semantics, phenomenology, formality, scientism, feminism, cross culturalism, experimentalism, empiricism, etc., and (c) there has ceased to be significant progress on the big unanswered questions of philosophy -- listed by Chalmers as the mind/body problem, consciousness, having/not having free will, the principles of morality, the nature of reality and the external world.  There is no large, collective agreement on the answers to these questions, unlike in science where there is large collective agreement about its questions, resulting in inviolate laws and widely believed theories.  There is the danger that we speak from ignorance about the true state of the discipline of philosophy but I doubt that.  The indictment is coming not only from Stephen Hawking but from philosophers themselves.  In the words of one I know, “All the problems that can be solved have been solved, and all those that haven’t been solved can’t be solved”.   Or, to quote William James, “There is only one thing a philosopher can be relied upon to do, that is to contradict other philosophers”.
There was also general agreement that philosophy is not dead in the following ways. 
(a) Even though Bertrand Russell said “Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know” philosophy nevertheless underpins science.  If science loses sight of that, it does so at its own peril.  As Norris put it “Philosophy of science without scientific input is empty; science without philosophical guidance is blind”.  Hence the potential legitimacy of Norris’s criticism of Stephen Hawking whose science frequently presents experimentally unverifiable hypotheses (Big bang theory, M theory, the multiverse, 11 dimensions, etc.).  The more familiar philosophy of science involves putting up a hypothesis and then doing experiments to confirm or refute.  This cannot easily be done for the big hypotheses about the universe, and Hawking’s math is not accessible to most.  This can lead to a potentially dangerous hubris, particularly in theoretical physics.  To me, the magazine Scientific American is so enamored of the theories of physics that it mistakenly treats them as facts.
(b) The second reason that philosophy (literally, the love of wisdom) is not dead, is that gaining wisdom is a vital and necessary human need.  The practice of philosophy is how we gain wisdom, work out our values, our morality, our code to live by.  The striving is as important as the wisdom.  Peter Suber writes (I paraphrase) “Philosophy is a reflective response to the human condition.  It does not require objectivity and cannot die in thinking beings.”  As Terry frequently reminds us, “An unexamined life is an empty life” (Socrates).  Andrew says, “Let’s use philosophy to better learn how to live.”  Plato said, “To philosophize is to prepare for death.” As Paul says, “There is intrinsic good in deeply discussing non-physical things.” There may not be much that hasn’t been said before, but the process is important and necessary.  It keeps philosophy alive. 
So, philosophy is dead, but the process of philosophy, i.e., philosophizing, is alive and well.  As Joe said, it’s a matter of noun versus verb.
But philosophizing tends to be less analytical than philosophy, more subjective.  It can lose the rigor of syllogism and become more a matter of personal choices.  It becomes increasingly psychology. Actually, I have often felt that many of the famous philosophers were simply masters of enunciating a philosophy that matched their particular psychology.  With proper zeitgeist, they can become famous authors and gain a following.  For example, Camus was a popular philosopher who promoted an heroic approach to the problem of the “meaningless” of life -- Monod’s Chance and Necessity.  This resonated well in the War World II period of the French underground.  Nowadays, heroism isn’t as popular.  Today, striving for success and living a worthwhile life is at the fore.  Joe got into the right business: psychology rather than philosophy.  And he frequently reminds us that perceived intrinsic values are simply personal illusions concocted by our particular DNA and life exposures. 
Admitting that philosophy is dead seems to be a conversation stopper.  To get the dialogue going again, expressions of optimism are called upon.  Chalmers switched from “glass half empty” to “glass half full” mode and put his faith in the thesis that man will get smarter and eventually work out the answers to philosophy’s big unanswered questions.  I doubt it.   Peter Suber wrote that “Classical philosophy has much to do, for example, determining whether relativism is self-contradictory.  Philosophy is not thwarted by difficulties, it feeds on them.”  Hmmmm.   In our Kitchen, the lull in conversation when philosophy-is-dead seemed to gain meaning, provoked a series of diversions -- the sublime waterfall problem, Laguna City politics, and rock musicians.  Paul wondered whether science might also be considered dead.  After all, much of science is “done”, is mature, and it is quite hard these days to find anything fundamentally new in physics.  Indeed, physics might be considered dead, in that everything may ultimately be known, i.e., physics is finite.  It’s different from philosophy, however.  Unlike the unanswered questions of philosophy, the unanswered questions of physics do have answers.  Further, there is an endless number of different ways of linking atoms together so chemistry is not a finite science.  It’s the same with biology.  There are an endless number of ways of linking the 21 amino acid building blocks of life together so an endless complexity of life is possible.  The chance-and necessity process of evolution is continually trying out new life chemistries, more rapidly than most people realize.  The possibilities of engineering are also endless, and are a great outlet for man’s creativity.
So how does Plato’s Kitchen survive in the philosophy-is-dead world?  Are there any really new philosophical ideas out there? Is there anything left to get philosophical about?  Are we just spinning our wheels?  If philosophy is becoming psychology, what happens to syllogistic rigor?  If we are reduced to discussing what is personal and subjective, don’t we lose truth and universality?  Don’t we end up boring people with our personal take on life?  Not everyone loves opera.  Reduction is frequently a conversation stopper.  It is hard to grasp the enormous complexity of science and retain the mystical wonder that philosophizing delivers.
So here is the answer.  Instead of beating up on philosophy, we must acknowledge the intrinsic value of philosophy’s canon and its essential role in the philosophical journey that every human undertakes.  There is, perhaps, an analogy to history where it is easy to say “Historical facts are facts; history is dead.” and forget that we can only understand today’s events by knowing what went before, and realizing that historical “facts” are continually being re-interpreted in the light of current events.  There’s a new book out by Rebecca Goldstein called Plato at the Googleplex; Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away that Dan and I are both reading.   I hope it will contain a dozen good arguments why philosophizing is not dead, why it would be great to have Plato around still.

I suspect there are subtopics of philosophy, defined areas in the large fractal space of philosophy as Chalmers would put it, where incremental progress can be made with rigorous philosophizing via valid syllogisms.  Charles has been having us examining aesthetics this past year in order to try and find some.  

Academic philosophers can keep their jobs.  They play a vital role in exposing students to the philosophical canon, teaching them how to debate the issues, understanding how much philosophy is embedded in their lives and helping them construct the philosophy of their own lives.   They also have a vital role in reminding scientists and others of the important ways philosophy can keep other disciplines on the straight and narrow, always challenging the logic of its predicates.   But they should give up trying to convince the rest of the world that their research and scholarship is as alive as that of science.  Maybe that is what Stephen Hawking was really going on about.

Andrew reminded us that there is value in not programming Plato’s Kitchen too explicitly, and suggested that Love would be a great topic for us to discuss.   I agree.  The 20th century seems impoverished on this subject compared to the ancient Greeks.  Charles reminded us that if we don’t program our activities, we can lose our focus and follow amorphous threads.  We do want to retain rigor in our discourse. 

I welcome a further enunciation of our raison d’etre.


Language and Verbal Behavior

In olden times the nature of human thought, emotion and behavior was entirely obscure, so attempts to explain it were necessarily mystical, fuzzy and largely wrong. At the dawn of the neuroscientific age, around 1951, it suddenly became clear that it was a mechanical ghost that was to be found in the human machine, and that it could be understood mechanically. The original attempt to capitalize on this insight was behaviorism; infamously founded by Ivan Pavlov and his salivating dogs, brought to the commercial advertising marketplace by John Watson, and cast as a scientistic ideology by B.F. Skinner. Skinner’s enthusiasm for the potential of reinforcement and operant conditioning led him to claim, in his 1957 book, Verbal Behavior, that human language was elicited in each individual by the social reinforcement of the random sounds (babbling) that are spontaneously emitted by infants and young children. In a landmark rebuttal to this claim, Noam Chomsky pointed out that this was silly and demonstrated that a sophisticated potential for grammar and language is encoded in the human genome. Chomsky’s landmark paper opened the door for a general recognition of the complex cognitive capabilities that are inherent in the human mechanism and ushered in the age of cognitive behaviorism. What Skinner and his colleagues had attempted to label “covert behavior” could once again be called what it is, thinking. Indeed, human thought, emotion and behavior are mechanical, but it is an exceedingly complex and subtle mechanism that we have here!

The Psychology of Philosophy and The Philosophy of Psycholgy

The 2015 edition of the Plato's Kitchen Retreat included these reflections on the Kitchen and its consequences from Paul, Terry, Charles, Chris and Jason; and this perspective on psychology from Fergi.

Monday, November 3, 2014

La Petite Mort - A Philosophy of Orgasm?

Our assigned topic to close the 2014 PK year is "Thanatos." We are reducing the topic down to "La Petite Mort," the little death that is orgasm. Consider in what ways sex and physical pleasure lurk beneath the surface of intellectual inquiry. We are less likely to ponder the implications of physical pleasure than to seek it out. Intellectual inquiry being as far removed from the flesh as it is, how unsurprising that we are subject to an alienation between the sexual and the intellectual.

But our most basic pleasures, derived from emphatically private bodily functions of sex and excretion, are a central and critical part of our life experience. The pleasurable sensation of emptying our bowel and bladder invites rumination beyond the evolutionary functionality. Sexual pleasure culminating in orgasm can be convincingly transcendent of our own consciousness. Perhaps orgasm is as worthy a philosophical issue as any we have discussed.

At our December 3 Kitchen, we will briefly consider the evolutionary biology of orgasm, both because it is quite interesting in itself and because it will allow us to move efficiently past the deconstruction phase of our discussion. And this gives us one more opportunity to ponder “what it’s like...” Orgasm fully lived vs. the neuropysiological mechanics of orgasm. "What it's like to experience orgasm" seems clarifying compared to“what it’s like to experience the color red.”

Alain De Botton’s recent book, “How to Think More about Sex” is an inviting pathway toward what we hope will be a serious intellectual consideration of orgasm. We will read Chapter II, sections 1-2 and Chapter III, sections 5-6, now posted to PK DropBox. The complete book is available on Amazon. We will post a few additional materials to the DropBox over the next few weeks, and look forward to seeing you at Joe’s home the evening of December 3.

Terry and Charles

Monday, October 6, 2014

Philosophy is Dead

Gidday Mates:

Thanks to Andrew for a most stimulating Camus Kitchen on Thursday!  Few can articulate their philosophy of living, of being fully human, the way Andrew can -- grabbing life with passion, demanding its full experience, and referencing it so respectfully to the inspiring writers and philosophers who have come before him.   He teaches us how to live.
And thanks to Joe, our generous "base camp" host, who throws parties for us all the time without seeming to think about it, and never shrinks from a good argument.  Joe, do thank Mary for her always delicious salad, the settings, the ambiance, etc.  
The next Kitchen will take place at my house (2495 Temple Hills Dr. -- about ten houses up from Joe's) at 6:30 pm on Wednesday October 29th.  Please email me a reply if you cannot make it.
The topic is, provocatively, "Philosophy is dead".  See here for an introduction and the readings/listening.  
Cheers to all.