30 October 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we born lucky?

Dear friends,

Hope you will have a scary Halloween this evening. As for Sunday we are discussing “Are we born lucky?”

Apologies for not preparing an essay this time, but we discussed luck not so long ago. Maybe we can come up with some new and fresh ideas for Sunday.

Take care and see you Sunday.



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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we born lucky?

24 October 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we responsible for the legacies we leave behind?

News: Mike and Ceit still looking for accommodation: Mike, my tel is 691 871 267 / casamaja2001@yahoo.ie

Ceit (Kate): Wanted: 1 room, 350 euros or less, in the city of Madrid, as close to metro Quevedo or public transport as possible, w/ internet access! Thanks

Dear friends,

I managed to write a very short essay for this Sunday’s topic: Are we responsible for the legacies we leave behind? However, I did not have enough time to check it over again. Hence apologies for any typos etc. If I find any big blunders I’ll make the necessary corrections to the copy on the blog.

Take care and see you Sunday,



+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
-Yahoo group >> philomadridgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk <
-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
-Group photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147

Are we responsible for the legacies we leave behind?

A few years ago it was quite fashionable for some heads of states especially in Africa to demand an apology from their ex colonisers for the occupation of their land and for any slave trade that took place. Usually such requests had a financial demand attached to them. There was even a feverish rush by all sorts of organisations and institutions to get on the public relations act. Even the Vatican had occasion to apologise for events that took place over the last few centuries. The details are of course not important for our purposes.

I never felt comfortable with these public relations events. Not because atonement and apologies were not deserved, but because the real intentions of those involved were not, shall we say, clear not to mention suspicion. I mean why now? Especially when events in question took place decades if not centuries ago?

Another reason why I was never too keen on this “Apology Game” is because these leaders never seemed to be too concerned with the suffering and exploitations of others. For example, as far as I know, they never demanded the set up of an authority powerful enough to stop any inhumane and exploitative acts by today’s powers. Today, in 2008, we still have slavery, child labour, exploitations of resources and minerals of poor countries and so on.

The theme of our social, political and economic legacies has a number of important of ethical and philosophical issues. The first of which is, who are the “we” in the question? Is there a difference between the collective we and the individual “we”?

Do we have a duty to future generations or people? We certainly have a duty to our neighbour, but it is not philosophically clear whether we also have a duty to future generations. It is not that certain vested interests do not try to exploit this theme, it is just that it is not clear who is the object of future duties are. Even the ten commandments are silent on this theme.

And by the same logic, are we today responsible for the acts of past generations? This question, however, is a more complex question. If, and in many cases, since, we benefit from the exploits of our ancestors, there seems to be a prima facie case of a moral link between us and our ancestors. But this very reasoning also implies that there is at least a prima facie case of ethical link with the ancestors of those who were exploited. The issues that this raises is what is the nature of this moral link? And what are our obligations?

These two aspects of our question, future generations and decedents of past victims, seem to introduce a rather awkward paradox. Other things being equal, if we learn from “our” past experiences (i.e. moral values) how can we today be held responsible for acts that happened when in the past “we” didn’t have such moral knowledge and experience? However, our moral knowledge today makes it obvious to us that “we” did something morally unacceptable in the past.

The “we” in the question needs further examination anyway. We can just about cope with our identity over our life time, but how do we accommodate the identity of a state over centuries. Of course, for practical purposes we do assume that there is a link between us and our past ancestors. But how does moral responsibility work here? How does moral responsibility work over time?

But let’s look at the “we” factor first. Personal responsibility certainly transcends over time. And in many cases even after death. For example, prisoners can be pardoned for crimes that they did not commit but were found guilt in a court of law. Some contracts can continue after death by transferring rights and duties to the next of kin: for example in England and Wales some freehold properties might involve duties towards others such as right of way. Hence someone who inherits this property also inherits the duty to maintain the right of way open to the public.

At face value countries do apply more or less the same criteria over time and generation. But can we also transfer moral responsibility over time and generations: if we cannot then surely we cannot use the ethical model for the individual as a model for the collective group (nation, state, group). In other words, what we cannot apply to individuals the chances are that we cannot apply to groups. Groups are after all made up of individuals.

One of the key elements of moral responsibility is intention. So how can someone intend something when they were not even born yet? Maybe it is reasonable for a child to inherit some of the responsibility of their parents especially if the child also enjoys some real benefit. But how can we stretch this principle to generations in the past or the future? After all we are born into a world as we find it and not as we would like it to be, if that is, we can have any opinion about the world after nine months of existence.

And when we do consider the future this can easily lead to some absurd conclusions as well. For example, let us assume that a nation today is guilty of some immoral deed. We have no problem with today holding this nation (and individuals as well) responsible for this act. Some might even want to seek retribution or compensation, or reparations if it is a war. But what would be the necessary and sufficient conditions for future generation not to inherit the guilt of the bad nation today?

But even if today we seek and get compensation for any evil deeds then surely future generation won’t have to feel guilty, responsible or tender apologies for the actions of their ancestors today. Once compensation is paid in full then surely we have no right to apportion guilt for something that has been already atoned. But if future generations are also to be guilty of some deed their ancestors committed then what are the options? One absurd alternative is to make sure that these future generations won’t be born at all; if today the nation is guilty and future generations are to be guilty, then surely the alternative is not to have any future generations. But this idea is so stupid and absurd that it is not even worth contemplating.

But there is still a downside to paying compensation. The victims of any evil deed would still feel the consequences even after compensation. And moreover, future generations might still suffer the consequences whether compensation has been paid or not. for example, what if a nation uses chemical weapons in a conflict that poison all the waterways and forests in their enemy’s countryside? Maybe compensation is paid but the victims of this unreasonable attack would still be without a countryside.

We usually accept moral responsibility if what we do was intended and done with a free will. We also consider something to be bad, wrong or evil if it does some harm to others. But nit just any old harm, but surely harm that could have been foreseen and certainly out of proportion. In the example I gave about chemical weapons, maybe if we had alternative options this would have been unjustified. But we cannot really say what is justified or not without knowing the context; in the same way that we do not know what vocabulary we should use when we’re talking without knowing the context. However, what we are really concerned with is this: when is a legacy bad enough that future generations have to be responsible for it?

The problem with legacies is that we do not always know what the effects of what we do today will be like in the future. I wonder whether the Romans realised that they were building death traps for today’s car driving youths with their straight roads. Those who have driven in Italy would know what I mean.

Just as it is difficult for us to ascribe responsibility over time, it is also difficult for us to access future consequences of what we do today. (see for example Unintended Consequences By Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, in the New York Times, Published: January 20, 2008)

Which brings me back to the paradox. It is difficult for us to ascribe responsibility over generations because many key factors that establish moral responsibility are not clear or established beyond doubt. And yet we are repulsed that certain wrongs are not made right.

I have already hinted at a possible way out of this paradox. As far as the past is concerned, I think we have to make sure that we learn from it and that we remember any lessons. Therefore, at the very least, today’s generation ought to learn the lessons of the past. but as far as the past is concerned it does not make sense for today’s generation to play the “apology game.”• Of course, I do not propose this option to make it easy for shady heads of states to score cheap public relations coups.

Maybe we can adopt the same attitude scientists adopt when they learn from past mistakes. Today not scientist is allowed to expose themselves to x-ray radiation without full protection. It therefore makes no sense today to condemn the French scientific community just because Marie Curie did not use any protection when she was experimenting (and discovering) this very dangerous energy source. However, it makes full sense, and imposes a duty, for scientists not to allow anyone to expose themselves to x-ray radiation without the necessary protection.

In other words, if today there is someone somewhere who is exposed to x-ray radiation and is not fully protected then we have a duty to stop this immediately. However, I am sure that today there are many people who operate x-ray machines and are not fully protected. In the same way that today there are many slaves and no one is demanding their liberty, or people who are exploited for their labour but we still buy the cheap goods they are forced to make, or oppressed by governments, or victimised by religions or shunned by communities and so forth.

The issue is not whether we are responsible for our legacies, but whether we have a duty for to learn from the legacies we inherit. I certainly think I have established a duty to learn from the legacies we inherit, which in my opinion would serve us well when come to leave legacies for future generations.

Take care


Unintended Consequences By Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, in the New York Times, Published: January 20, 2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/magazine/20wwln-freak-t.html

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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we responsible for the legacies we leave behind?

16 October 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Life is too serious to be taken seriously.

Message from Ceit (Kate): Wanted: 1 room, 350 euros or less, in the city
of Madrid, as close to metro Quevedo or public transport as possible, w/
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Dear friends,

This week we are discussing: Life is too serious to be taken seriously.

Much as I tried to persuade my students to have a break from English so that I could write an essay they were not convinced with my arguments. Hence, I do apologise for not writing an essay. However, I hope I will have time to think about the subject before Sunday, but I have a feeling that it is not life that is serious but human beings. let’s think about all this.

See you Sunday

Take care



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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Life is too serious to be taken seriously.

09 October 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Do we have to wear masks in our world? + News

2 essays Richard + Lawrence

Message from Ceit (Kate): Wanted: 1 room, 350 euros or less, in the city of Madrid, as close to metro Quevedo or public transport as possible, w/ internet access! Thanks

Dear friends,

This week we have two essays one by Richard, who also proposed the subject for Sunday’s meeting, and the other short essay by me. The subject is: Do we have to wear masks in our world? I did not read Richard’s essay before I finished mine to make sure I won’t be influenced by his essay. Although I was slightly influenced by something Richard told me earlier in the week.

Richard also uses a number of words with different accents in his essay. This might be a problem since I send the emails in text format. If you have a problem I can send you a Word document.

I hope you will enjoy both essays.

Take care and see you Sunday



+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
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===================Essay by Richard=======================
==== There are some words in Richard’s essay that have accents. If you have problems reading these words let me know and I’ll send you a Word Document.

Why do we wear masks?

A human being is a gregarious animal. This fact has been rammed down our throats for quite a long time. But is he really? There is no doubt that some people love being with others but most of us living in the so-called highly developed societies have become weary and are not so keen on being gregarious for long. A good example is Stockholm, whose almost 50% of inhabitants live on their own. The Swedes even say: Bra karl reder sig själv (A good fellow deals with everything by himself) or Ensam är stark (Be on one’s own means being strong).

Are we really so happy with staying with others? Especially in the West we have become extremely selfish and extremely individualistic. Obviously it does not mean that from time to time we would love to spend some time with our friends and relations.

On daily basis a lot of voices are heard especially from those in their 40s and older that it is nice to get away from it all whenever it is possible. Who can stand crowded streets and traffic jams? You have to for the simple reason that you participate in this modern rat race. No wonder, those who have an opportunity to escape for a weekend from the hurly-burly of big cities do so, especially during the summer. The Spanish and the Portuguese build their “bridges” to extend their days off.

But we must not forget that we have another face (perhaps because of that we are gregarious): homo homini lupus est (wolves are also gregarious) : I am sorry to bring up this not very pleasant feature in this short essay with this optimistic statement, which is nothing else but an old Latin saying. And it is still holding and holding very fast.

Although we may have a feeling that this attitude is a product of modern society, the result of a cut-throat competition in practically all walks of life, in point of fact this human behaviour is as old as hills. The sentence was coined by the Roman playwright Plautus living at the turn of 3rd-2nd century BC, although it was popularized by Thomas Hobbes a 17th century British philosopher (in Leviathan)

But this is only an excuse to wear masks. Why do we have to construct this world based on the lack of confidence because by wearing masks we make people understand that we are weary and do not trust others.

Those who try not to wear masks make themselves ridiculous. They are like a bunch of ingenuous individuals who are not mature enough.

What would happen if we just out of the blue pull down our masks?

All this boils down to the simple fact that we are rarely authentic. We are like actors and their audience at the same time. We act in front of ourselves. It is a real masquerade, because we all know that we act. Why do we do that? We hide our emotions, we also don’t want to show our skeleton in the cupboard that we keep under lock and key. We are afraid of showing our weak points in this competitive world. And what is sad enough: this state of affairs has already been transmitted from our professional lives into our private lives. And it has a lot of bearing on the life within the couple.

What is strange that we don’t even call it hypocrisy or schizophrenia. We accept it as normal. Is this normality?

And it seems that we are on this slippery slope and nobody is able to find a solution which could prevent the human race from a disaster.

Only with love and confidence towards other human beings can we do this about-face or a U-turn that could save us.

It is not only because of Homo homini… Carl Jung coined and explained the term persona meaning mask. It is not part and parcel of a human authentic personality, but something that covers it. It is a kind of self-regulator in different social, professional or private situations. So persona is an intermediary between our ego and the external world. As we interact in many different situations, we adopt different masks. If your authentic personality feels affinity with the persona, you are “more aware” of your role you must play and not your true feelings and in today’s world appearance is more important than essence, contrary to the proverb:

UK Don't judge by appearances.
PT As aparências iludem. "The appearances elude"
ES Las apariencias engañan "The appearances deceive"
DE Der Schein trügt. "The shine deceives"
SE Skenet bedrar "Shine-the deceives"
PL Pozory mylą "Appearances elude"
RU Vneshnost' obmantchiva "Appearance [is] illusory"

But life in spite of everything makes us

UK keep up appearances
PT salvar as aparências "save the appearances"
ES salvar / guardar las apariencias. "save / keep the appearances"
DE Schein wahren "shine (noun) defend"
SE bevara skenet "preserve appearance"
hålla färgen "hold colour-the"
PL zachować pozory "keep appearances"
RU ne pokazat' vida "not show aspect”
sobljusti prilitchja "keep decency"


UK The coat makes the man / Clothes make the man / Fine feathers make fine birds
PT O hábito faz o monge "The habit makes the monk"
ES El hábito hace al monje. ."The habit makes the monk"
Hombre bien vestido en todas partes bien recibido
"Man well dressed in all parts (=everywhere) well received"
DE Kleider machen Leute. "Clothes make people"
Das Kleid macht den Mann "The clothes make the man"
Das Kleid ziert den Mann, wer es hat, der zieh' es an
"The clothes decorate the man, who them has that-one puts them on"
SE Kläderna gör mannen "The clothes make man-the"
PL Jak cię widzą, tak cię piszą. "As you (Acc) they see, thus you (Acc) they describe"
RU Bez xvosta i vrona ne krasna "Without tail even crow not beautiful"


UK All that glitters is not gold. / It is not all gold that glitters.
PT Nem tudo que luz é ouro. "Not all that glitters is gold"
ES No es oro todo lo que reluce. "Not is gold all it that glitters"
DE Es ist nicht alles Gold, was glänzt. "It is not all gold that glitters"
SE Allt som glittrar är inte guld "All that glitters is not gold"
Allt är inte guld som glimmar "All is not gold that glitters"
PL Nie wszystko złoto, co się świeci z góry.
"Not all gold that itself (Refl.) glitters from above"
RU Ne vsjo to zoloto shto blesít. "Not all this gold that glitters"

As we see, everything we are talking about refers not only to Spanish or British reality but has a wider scope. How wide? I would like to know whether the so-called primitive societies are affected by something similar.

So we have stopped being ourselves, because we have had to alienate ourselves from our true selves becoming only our own imitation. It seems we have more respect for all kinds of norms than for our own dignity. Our behaviour is not cricket, because it reflects rather the etiquette than our true selves. Where are we heading for?

The subject cannot be finished without mentioning an extraordinary film, a masterpiece by … please, make a guess. The plot is relatively simple but it is full of powerful psychological scenes, which is typical of the film director.

An actress starring in Electra suddenly becomes mute. She is sent by her hospital psychiatrist to have some rest at the seaside. She goes there accompanied by a hospital nurse who admires her as an actress. A close rapport develops. The nurse after a while feels deep friendship towards the mute actress telling her about her intimate secrets of her private life: about her successful abortion (the parallel was the actress’ unsuccessful attempt to abort and the result was giving birth to her son whom she hated).The actress reacts only by nodding or shaking her head. This unilateral friendship abruptly ends when the nurse discovers a letter written by the actress to the hospital in which she reveals her own intentional clinical study of the nurse who feels betrayed and being used. We are a bit confused who an actual patient is: the actress or the nurse, because in any psychoanalytic session the person who talks is the patient. Besides, the actress’ husband visits her and talks to the nurse as if he talked to his wife and the nurse responds the way the mute actress has been doing so far. The nurse finally asks her patient to say a word “nothing”. And she hears the word in reply. In a beautiful scene the two women’s faces merge.

Are we really condemned to wear masks?
Stay healthy,

============Essay by Lawrence======================

Do we have to wear masks in our world?

In the context of our question I would compare wearing masks to our desire to fly. Flight has been an objective of the human race since time immemorial and then some more. Fight gives us the ability and the liberty of mobility and transit between two locations at a relatively short time. Of course, aeroplanes are quite an inadequate alternative to growing winds and fly to one’s desire. However, I do not think we are going to start growing wings very soon, so aeroplanes have to do.

Another more mundane but probably more important objective humans have had is to be invisible. There are enormous advantages in being invisible. Sabre tooth tigers won’t be able to see us and chase us for lunch. Our enemies won’t be able to see us and maybe strike us with that fatal blow. Likewise we can creep upon some unsuspecting deer in the forest and have it for lunch. Or it would be us who creep upon our enemy and strike the fatal blow. Surely, this is quite a desirable objective even if it would probably make life more complicated than it actually is. Unfortunately, I don’t think we are going to be able to turn invisible very soon now. But then consider the work done by Jason Valentine et al from the University of California, Berkeley, on the invention of an invisible material that promises to make objects invisible to the eye(1).

Masks are a weak and rudimentary alternative to being invisible. I won’t be discussing masks which are used in rituals, drama or even carnival. I will therefore consider masks to be metaphorical here and mean two things. First, facial expressions that are behaviours very much integrated in our non-verbal communication. And second, general physical or personality posturing.

We are familiar with facial expressions: anger, fear, delight, sadness, puzzlement, and so on. These expressions may be described as conspicuous expressions of our inner emotions. By posturing I mean adopting mannerisms or behaviours to express a public image or persona we want to convey. For example, adopting postures of aggression, reserved, aloofness and so on.

A very important difference between real masks and facial/physical expressions is that masks are put on for the occasion and then removed to get on with our lives. Once the ritual or the carnival is over we put away the masks until the next ritual or carnival. Facial and physical expressions or postures are our lives. We don’t put away our facial expressions once the ritual has finished.

A further difference is that when someone wears a physical mask we know that this is part of a role-play even though the occasion might be a very serious ritual. In other words, we distinguish, because there is a real distinction, between the role the mask plays and the person who is wearing the mask.

However, with facial expressions or physical posturing we do not retreat away from what or who we are expressing. Nor do we have the distinction between what the mask represents and the person themselves. A sad mask in a Greek tragedy is just a representation of sadness in the character. However, someone who is sad is not representing anything, we say that the person is sad. Thus, an expression of fear is an unconscious act in a real situation we judge to be threatening. Of course, one can always adopt a certain facial expression to give the impression that one is expressing a certain emotion when in reality they are trying to deceive others. But this issue is not that relevant to my discussion because what matters is the expression itself, whether genuine or not.

Masks, however, are all about pretence and make believe. Posturing might be a good example of wearing a mask in a metaphorical sense. We want to give an impression or pretend to have a certain conspicuous personality. But it is not clear whether this impression is something different from what we really are or whether it is an impression because we cannot be what we want to be.

If someone adopts a posture of a high flyer executive, do they do this because in their private life they are very insecure, if not timid, or do they adopt such a posture because they will never be a genuine high flyer? Notice the difference between pretending or behaving like a high flyer and being a high flier. Presumably, being a higher flyer does not entail pretending to be a high flyer and therefore no mask is needed. We might say they are being natural.

If we have to wear masks, then why do we need to participate in this behaviour of pretence or make believe? Why should we want to pretend to be someone we are not? Wouldn’t this just be deception with all the implications it entails?

I have already suggested that masks are part of our non-verbal communication. And in my opinion through non-verbal communication we transmit information about us that is more universal than a natural language. Facial expressions, for example of fear or joy, transcend the capabilities of ordinary language. We can recognise a sad face on a person whatever the culture or native language of that person. Maybe Chomsky missed his mark with his idea of universal grammar, but that is another story. By definition (and according to R Dawkins see e.g. The Selfish Gene) communication involves other people (me) and we want to influence them or “manipulate” them with our communication (Dawkins).

Furthermore, facial expressions and posturing might suggest two important implications. Firstly, that first impressions play an import role in our relationships with others. If this was not the case we would not pay so much attention to appearances and hence masks/posturing. Secondly, the fact that we have evolved such a complex non-verbal facial communication system suggest that our face plays a very pivotal role in our communications and relationships with others.

But what confirms Dawkins’s idea of manipulation is that we have these non-verbal communications so that people can immediately react to our circumstance; for example, a sad face elicits sympathy, an angry face should elicit fear in others etc. Sometimes we even pretend to have these emotion just to attract other people’s attention.

Posturing, which I am considering as a form of non-verbal communication, has the same function as communicating with others to convey things about us that can be universally understood. If we adopt an aggressive posture of an extremist militant we are saying to others, I belong to a certain radical group and I want you to fear me and cower when you see me. On the other hand, if we wear a blue suit, bearing an exclusive label, and maybe matching brown shoes, we are communicating to others that we belong to an exclusive group of business people and, here is the punch line (Dawkins’s manipulation), that we expect others to revere us and grovel should they ever need anything from us.

Posturing and masks are also gadgets by which we convey information about our identity, apart from seeking to influence others in the way they think of us. In other words, masks/postures give us that unique feature of belonging to a group; even if sometimes that group is made up of only one person, us. Thus masks help to belong.

Of course, our idea of freedom also plays a part in our discussion. There is a difference between non-verbal expressions, such as fear because we judge a situation to be threatening, and adopting a posture such as extremist militant. With posturing we quite rightly assume that an element of intention is involved even though there are many factors that can determine our behaviour.

Intention is a central issue to our discussion. By questioning whether we have to put on masks (Do we have to...) we are asking whether we want to pretend we are someone or something we are not. In other words, should we be free to decide what posture we want to adopt, if any, or do we have to adopt a particular posture simply to conform to a group?

For example, does it matter what we wear at the office as long as we do our work correctly? Maybe or maybe not. What is important for our discussion is why do we have to introduce these postures in our life? We mustn’t forget Dawkins’s idea that communication is to manipulate others. Thus, dress codes are themselves a form of manipulation: that is, if you want to work for me, you have to wear what I tell you to wear! (Plus many other conditions, of course.) Most probably, those who tell us what posture to adopt, were themselves told what to do.

The advantage of adopting the posture or mask of the group we want to belong to or actually belong to, is that we become conformists. And nothing blends better than a conformist within a group. Ironically, for practical purposes, conformity is as good as being invisible. In English we have such expressions as, “don’t rock the boat,” or “to stand out like a sore thumb” to describe various aspects of this very situation.

But the price for not wearing a mask, or the price of freedom, is that we are no longer as invisible as we would like to be. And some people may take umbrage to our lack of conformity or our sense of freedom or both.

However, if we want to creep upon someone and take advantage of the situation, the best option, it seems to me, is to wear the mask they are wearing. On the other hand, if we want to protect ourselves against false pretenders, then surely the best option is for us not to wear any masks at all. Our sense of freedom, I submit, ought to give us a better advantage by being able to judge others objectively and without prejudice. In other words we are being natural whilst they are being uncomfortable.

Of course, whether we wear or not wear masks, it would still be prudent to also develop a good pair of legs just in case we need to run away quickly from a sticky situation. After all, even sabre tooth tigers can wear innocently looking masks.

Take care


(1) http://www.livescience.com/technology/080810-cloaking-device.html
New Material Could Make Objects Invisible
By Robert Roy Britt, LiveScience Managing Editor
posted: 10 August 2008 02:19 pm ET


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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Do we have to wear masks in our world? + News

02 October 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The Paradox of Freedom + NEWS

News: Isabel, Manuel, DemocratsAbroad.org, and Ceit might still be looking for a flat.

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing The Paradox of Freedom.

We have already discussed this topic twice, the first was:
Freedom and Privacy

And last year we discussed: Is freedom an illusion? I am including the essay for this subject although of course things might have changed and Sunday’s topic is quite specific.


--------Isabel has sent me this email with some activities for this Saturday and Saturday the 11th: ---------------

Would you like to organize something with the philo group? I though it would be nice if we go to see a movie:

- Che, El Argentino (v.o. en castellano e inglés con subtítulos en castellano - Plaza de los Cubos), we could meet all there at 20 hrs on Saturday 11 October and then get tickets, get a Coca-Cola and pop corn before the movie

Anyway next Saturday 4 Oct there is something going on at Pza Mayor, in the bars there they will offer cava and snacks

Take care, isi

I think everyone interested on the play about the Spanish boxer Urtain was aware of the meeting. Anyway you may want to e-mail it to the group. It is on Valle Inclán theatre in Lavapies plaza, I think we could meet Wednesday the 8th because it matches with spectators’ day so tickets are cheaper (up to 8 euros). It is played by a great theatre group named Animalario. It could even be a interesting play to discuss in any of our sessions because I think it is full of meanings.


For those who are following the Presidential election in the USA you might be interested in the following activities:
Vice Presidential Debate
October 6, at 7.30pm at the International Institute, c/ Miguel Angels 8 (metro Ruben Dario)

Third Presidential Debate
October 16 at 8pm at the Casa de America, Plz Cibeles

More details from the www.DemocratsAbroad.org website.

See you Sunday, take care



+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
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-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147

Is freedom an illusion?

In everyday life we speak of freedom in many contexts. One very strong
impression we have of freedom is a sort of metaphysical freedom.

For example, we look at a tree and see that it is attached to the
ground, immobile and fixed. We look at out pet gerbil and realize how
limited and limiting its life must be. We consider our opportunities to
go shopping and buy what we want practically when we want it. Choose
from a menu our favourite dish, go on holiday to our favourite
destination, and if push comes to shove we also feel free to change jobs
if things become uncomfortable. And then there is the collective
impression that we dominate and control the world and its contents;
excluding us of course.

Needless to say that this state of affairs can give a sense of
confidence that can lead to such claims as we are free to choose or
conduct our life as we want.

This sense of freedom is different from what I shall call a sense of
psychological freedoms. That is, attitudes or mental dispositions that
are not constrained or restrained by inhibitions, emotional
restrictions, negative character traits or disruptive personality to
mention a few possibilities. Thus, suffering from a phobia might hinder
what we are able to do or having a difficult personality might limit our
social, if not professional, prospects.

In politics and social interaction we have such ideas as freedom of
speech and freedom of movement, free elections, free and independent
judiciary, freedom of association, and so on. The idea here is that
authority and those in power have no right over us other than what has
been enacted by a freely elected government following some sort of
constitutional constraints. This is probably one of the most important
freedoms we enjoy, but maybe do not appreciate as much as we ought to.
Not only do we seem to take these freedoms for granted, but we are very
reluctant to help others to obtain such freedoms.

One freedom worth mentioning and which is certainly a freedom we give a
high priority is economic freedom. by economic freedom I do not only
mean freedom to start or conduct a business, but freedom to earn a
living pursuing a career of our choice and of course freedom to spend
our money how and on what we wish. We usually associate this freedom
with the fact that our income is limited to our needs and that certain
goods and services are priced beyond our means.

I would say that one of our strongest justifications for economic
freedom is the fact that we can do some things we want. If I have the
money and want to buy a certain cereal from the shops I might feel
myself justified in thinking that I am economically free to buy that
particular brand of cereal which I want. If we can do something we want
then, surely, we are free?

To answer this question I would argue that a lot depends on what we mean
by freedom for what we want. And what we mean by illusion, about what we
can do, instead of what we perceive we can potentially do.

If we measure freedom by what we want, then surely each individual would
want different things, thus what I want might not be what you want. If
we all get what we want, does that make us collectively free? I mean,
can we extrapolate objectivity, we are free, from subjective criteria, I
am free? We usually do, but are we justified?

We might of course judge what a person wants by asking them what they
want and see what they get. Thus we could use this as evidence for the
proposition; getting what you want is evidence for freedom.
Unfortunately, there is a "but." With some people what they say they
want, and get, does not necessarily reflect what their first choice is,
but maybe what they are getting is a compromise or worse. For example,
some might want a snack or some nuts without salt, additives or fancy
flavor, but all they could find is something without the fancy flavor.
So, if they decide to buy a packet of crisps with an advertised low fat
content can we say that they got what they wanted?

And what about those who do not really know what they want but they go
ahead and buy things just because they have the money. Does this count
as evidence for freedom? Does economic freedom amount to much in a
debate on freedom?

Let me qualify this question immediately. Wanting to buy a loaf of bread
or a colour TV and they are not in the shops because of some government
policy /or monopoly policy/ is of course a restriction of freedom. But
does having the money to buy something sufficient condition to have
economic freedom?

Some people would answer yes, and on purely economic ground, surely the
answer must be yes. But having money is not necessarily enough to
qualify for freedom. For some people having money might imply a life
style very similar to their peers. Thus, implying a certain peer
pressure to adopt a certain life style. For example, being a member of a
golf club, going to "exotic" holidays and so on. Barry Schwartz writing
for New York Times Magazine, points out that middle class Americans do
not like it when neighbours buy the same thing they do. This takes away
the uniqueness of their purchase. But working class people approve when
a neighbour buys the same thing because they see this as a sign that
they made the right choice. On the other hand, what Schwartz has to
consider is that big ticket items, for example top tier sports cars
worth three quarters of a million Euros, can only be afforded by a
selected few. By implication they belong to an exclusive peer group.

Does wanting something because of peer pressure qualify as evidence of
freedom? Of course peer pressure need not only be for goods and service
but could be for anything. There is always the example of someone who
buys a sports car because their colleagues at work bought a sports car.
But what about academic peer pressure to support one theory or writer
and not another. Or a political party because others are supporting the

The relevance of peer pressure cannot be dismissed that easily. Two
informal fallacies given in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy
(1999) are the argument from the consensus of the nations and appeal to
popular sentiment. I am of course assuming that these two fallacies can
be interpreted as valid for peer pressure. The consensus of nations
argument appeals to mankind as a justification for an argument. If we
all think that we are free then surely we are free. In real life,
surveys are only done amongst a few dozen people. Even Schwartz accepts
that he only has real access to white Americans when carrying out his
research (New York Magazine). Appeal to popular sentiment has also been
described as 'mob appeal.' In a way nations are peers as much as mob
members are peers amongst themselves. Of course, I am not suggesting
that mobs and nations are the same.

But peer influence also seems to be included in a list of cognitive
biases /Wikipedia; list of cognitive biases/. This list identifies an
ingroup bias which is a bias to give preferential treatment to others
who are perceived to be members of one's own group. I interpret this to
mean that if our group thinks that we are free then we must be free.

I want to use peer pressure as an important factor in this discussion on
freedom mainly to move away from the traditional argument of determinism
and randomness. And also to introduce the idea that we are as
determining causes as any other agent. Thus to further show how
important peer pressure can be consider this quotation by Max Plank, "a
new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and
making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually
die, and new generation grows up that is familiar with it." (Max Plank,
Scientific Autobiography and other papers, 1949: see Thomas Kuhn below).
In other words, it is difficult to change the mind set of an ingroup.

I would say that peer pressure, as another limiting factor for freedom
can be applied to any social grouping. Of course the influence and
effect of peer pressure does not affect everyone the same. As I have
tried to show, this is an anomaly between the individual sense of
freedom and extrapolating group freedom from that. Intuitively we can
see this deterministic link, but maybe it will be hard to measure it.

We also have to consider freedom from the epistemological point of view;
illusion refers to our state of knowledge. Of course, the
epistemological factor might even be more important than the metaphysics
of freedom.

The ingroup bias might have as its basis the belief that members of my
group are much better than outsiders. We can read as much in Plank's
quote. Of course, why our group should be better than others need not be
based on objective criteria or facts but simply bias. For example, we
might have invested a lot of time and effort in the group and would hate
to discover it was all a waste of time.

So why should freedom be an illusion and how do we arrive at thinking
freedom is just what we commonly think it is? We must first distinguish
between our belief in freedom as a working hypothesis and our belief in
freedom as a matter of fact.

Our belief in freedom as a working hypothesis is of course more
interesting. When you consider this strategy it is quite an ingenious
thing to do. There are many times in our life when we assume that
something might be the case so that we can take a certain course of
action. One example that comes immediately to mind is approaching a
prospective partner. Some people have to assume that their prospective
future partner would be interested in them before introducing
themselves. And most probably behaved as if they were interested in
them. An independent confirmation of interest before the first meeting
might never be received.

Christopher Columbus assumed that the world was round which was very
much contrary to received wisdom at the time. And Achilles assumed that
he could reach the other side of the stadium despite Zeno's convincing
argument to the contrary. Maybe we adopt this strategy more often than
we care to admit or we're intentionally aware of?

In fact isn't this what we do when we talk about the future? When we fix
a day trip to the countryside during the weekend, we do this on the
assumption that we're still going to be alive, that the weather would be
fine, that the trains will work and so on. Of course, in reality there
is no future.

Illusion and our future have this in common; both are epistemological
states which do not represent reality. In the one case there is no
reality and in the other, our perception is very much different from the
facts on the ground.

There are many ways we can arrive to the false belief that we are free.
Freedom as an illusion can be the result of many different processes.

Sense perception in particular and perception in general have always
been a source of philosophical problems. consider what Russell has to
say,'' ....Here we have already the beginning of one of the distinctions
that cause most trouble in philosophy--the distinction between
'appearance' and 'reality', between what things seem to be and what they
are. '' /the problems of philosophy; Guttenberg project/

One of the simplest forms of illusion, is what I will call, for a better
expression, being caught day dreaming. This is a sort of state were we
lack any sense of self-awareness and what is happening around us. It's
like receiving sense perception without analyzing what we are
perceiving. At the very best we might be victims, for example, of "the
availability heuristic bias." a tendency to predict something by
focusing on the salient or emotionally charged outcome. Or, at the very
worst scenario, we behave like a billiard ball which preoccupied
philosophers for many centuries. In the one case we react to emotions
and on the other we allow ourselves to be pushed around.

We call follow this by referring to sense perceptions or perceptions but
maybe we are unable to convert this data into meaningful information.
For example, we might have a pain in a part of our body associated with
certain symptoms but we cannot convert this data into a medical
diagnoses. We might even go a long to way to convert this data into
meaningful information but draw the wrong conclusion. Instead of
visiting our GP we consult our astrologer.

The availability heuristic bias can be interpreted, up to a point, as
taking things at face value. Either reacting to emotions or taking into
consideration what is obvious can mean that we might exclude factors
that are relevant to our debate but not immediately obvious. Earlier I
pointed out the discrepancy between the individual having a sense of
freedom and collectively being free. Taking things at face value can
have a bearing on this issue.

If we feel free because we can afford something there is the chance of
failing to consider factors that might give us a different opinion. For
example, never mind slave labour, but how many people had to endure a
nasty boss or horrible working conditions who were involved in the
process of bring us what we bought? Or maybe, had to work unsocial hours
or take pay restraints or damage the eco system and so forth. The point
is that the product we purchase is only the front end of a very long and
complex process. Some where along that process some people might have
had to give up their freedom more than they ought to have done or just

Barry Schwartz is the authority on choice. His paradox of choice can
help us explain my earlier question whether having money to buy
something equated to freedom? Plus many more things about freedom and
illusion in general.

Schwartz's idea is simple."Although some choice is undoubtedly better
than none, more is not always better than less.'' (in Scientific
American see below) The belief is that the more choice we have the freer
we are. The paradox of choice challenges and rejects this myth.

So, having one hundred different cereal options at the supermarket does
not mean that we have more freedom. But the problem is more serious than
that. There is the epistemological aspect as well.

Schwartz introduces the two types of freedoms which Roosevelt and Berlin
made; freedom to and freedom from. In a nut shell /you have to read the
papers to understand the scientific reasoning behind this/ the
conclusion is that middle and upper class people /in America/ equate
freedom with more choice; i.e. freedom to do. While the lower classes
equate freedom from fear and instability. And as Schwartz points out the
upper and middle classes in America can easily be equated with people
who have a college background /university degree/. Of course, I am not
going to discus class issues or university culture in America. For
example, I remember reading reports that having a fist degree in America
today is not enough to guarantee an average income. But that is not of
interest for us here. Nor am I interested in the fact that the upper
classes are depressed and unhappy.

I am only interested in one aspect of Schwartz's study; the link between
knowledge, university degree, and perception of freedom. Those who have
more knowledge /information/ equate their freedom to do things. Buy more
goods, buy better goods, buy goads with features they want and so on.
Doesn't this remind us of the model put forward by biological systems
theorists who suggest that we are an open system which requires
information to function? I have repeated myself many times in these
essays that as an open system we have to interact with our environment
to survive. (try Google; biological open systems).

In the end Schwartz does not see great advantage in having more choices
than what is necessary even for those with above average knowledge. In
fact, when you read Schwartz one idea that keeps coming to mind is
'information overload' except that I have not seen this word used in the
articles. Thus, we might go for freedom, because it is an easy option,
but overlook many other complex issues.

Schwartz mainly applies his theory to consumer goods. But I am sure that
some of his ideas can apply to other aspects of society. Maybe in
politics when politicians and parties overburden themselves and us with
all sorts of policies; from fighting terrorism to making jam sandwiches.
Maybe the choice of partner.

I have tried to show that it is very possible that freedom is an
illusion. But since illusion is part of our epistemological capacity the
question we now have to ask ourselves are; can this illusion be used to
take advantage of us? Who is taking advantage of this illusion? And how
are they doing it?

Take care


Bernard Russell
The Problems of Philosophy

Thomss Kuhn
The Structure of Scientific Revolution
3rd Edition
(Plank's quote on page 151)

Is freedom just another word for many things to buy?
New York Times Magazine, February 26, 2006.
(Barry Schwartz With Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner Snibbe).

The tyranny of choice.
Scientific American, April, 2004, 71-75.
Barry Schwartz

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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The Paradox of Freedom + NEWS