25 October 2013

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: Can we make ourselves? + NEWS

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Can we make ourselves?
We can safely say that this is one of the most important questions our society had to deal with the latter part of the 20th century and certainly for the rest of the 21st. But like many philosophical question including this one, there is a huge difference between the popular interpretation of the question and the real down to earth philosophy. 

In the meantime please have a look at the news from friends.

-----Essay from Ruel
Hello Lawrence,
Below is the link to the essay I wrote for Sunday´s PhiloMadrid topic.

See you on Sunday.
(my short essay is at the end)

---from Encarna 
All are welcome and you can find a scan of the programme at the end of the link below.
San Frutos Bendito Commemoration Programme at the Centro Segoviano 25 October - 27 October 2013

---From Alicia
Hi Lawrence,
Next Friday (25th) there will be a jazz free concert in Casa de la Cultura de Hortaleza. 
Arturo Soria station is close to this place. The concert will start at 7.00 pm-
See you.
Thanks Alicia.

---From Miguel
Estimado tertuliano,
Te invitamos a asistir a la próxima conferencia 29-10-2013: Dios, números y cosmos (https://sites.google.com/site/tertuliadematematicas/29-10-2013)
Como comprobarás en el anuncio, el lugar, día de la semana y hora habituales han cambiado.
Saludos cordiales,
Tertulia de Matemáticas
Martes 29 de Octubre de 2013 a las 19h
Centro Segoviano - c/ Alburquerque nº 14, 28010 Madrid

---From Mary 
Dear Laurence
I was wondering if you could print this out and stick it up anywhere you think people might be interested in these books please?? or email it on....
Thanks very much
Mary xxx (The Freud Fan :)
A 10 euros 
Preparacion al Diploma de español Nivel Superior C2
Preparacion al Diploma de español  C1
Preparacion al Diploma de español B2
Preparacion al Diploma de español B1
El Cronometro Nivel C2
El Cronometro Nivel C1
El Cronometro Nivel B2
Las Claves del Nuevo Dele C1
Preparacion Diploma Superior Dele (Edelsa)
A 8 euros
A Fondo Curso superior de Español para extranjeros
Planeta 3 : Libro de Referencia Gramatical
Curso de Conversacion y Redaccion 
Todos los Verbos Castellanos
Spanish all the Way (Beginners)
Libro sobres los Dichos en español
Todos los libros vienen con los cds, libros de repuestas y estan en muy muy bien estado
Si te interesa, llama o mandar un whatsup a Mary : (keeping the bots away!!)

All the best and see you Sunday


tel: 606081813
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Thursday's Open Tertulia in English
Important Notice: From December 1st, the Tertulia will take place at O'Donnells (ex-Moore's) Irish
Pub, c/ Barceló 1 (metro Tribunal)

--Short essay from me

Can we make ourselves?

A rather ambiguous question even for a philosophy question.

There are three issues that determine who we are and what we are: our genetic makeup, our environment and our behaviour.  It is very easy to focus on the behaviour part since this is the one we are most familiar with and the one we can immediately perceive in others. We generally have no idea about the genetic makeup of other people and as for the environment factor we have limited to general ideas since in our daily life we cannot account for every effect the environment has on us. 

The behaviour part is also important for us because this is the one that helps us interact with others and more important others use our behaviour to judge us and pass value judgements about us: he is a good person, she is a nice person, he is a cad, she is duplicitous and so on.

Of course, by behaviour I do not only mean our instinctive behaviour which we associate with automata machines, but also actions based on what we think is acting from our free will, and acting in ways based on our volitions. Thus, behaviour is not only based on one single factor such as free will, determinism, fatalism and so forth. The chances are that all these factors come to play when we act and behave in certain ways: it's not either or but rather degrees of each factor.

So presumably, the conventional meaning of our topic is that of the self made person or rather being responsible for our lives. This is very important in our culture since we use this interpretation to judge others especially when things go wrong for them: a failed marriage, you shouldn't have married below your station; being made redundant you should have studied engineering rather than philosophy; cash flow issues you shouldn't have bought that sports car. How many people can you name who are totally successful in life (even use your own definition of success) who you can 100% attribute their success purely on their self determination? Remember what I have just said about our knowledge regard the environment; do you really know everything about this person to be 100% confident about their trajectory in like? And a good test to start with is to answer the question: who paid the rent?

So what might have been regarded for a long time as a question regarding determinism, self determination, free will and even maybe what we might consider as taking control of our lives, I would contend that the issue is one of perception and epistemology. 

And perception and epistemology because when we investigate these questions we are dealing, first and foremost, with limited and biased information about others, never mind ourselves. And epistemology because it is an issue of whether we can really know all the information about other people that will give us a reasonable picture of the causal chain that led to someone being successful or not as the case maybe. This is relevant because it determines whether the question can even be answered at all.

Of course, we can have a general picture about the trajectory of a person's life, but I will contend that this is not enough for anyone to duplicate the success. Empirically, we cannot have access to all the details to complete the whole picture and from a logical point of view it is unlike that we will ever have a useful picture the principle of identity. It is logically impossible for two people to follow the same trajectory in life and both ending up successful. Which is why there is only one Warren Buffett or one Bill Gates. 

On the other hand this does not mean that we cannot be responsible for personal success. It does indeed mean that we are only responsible, to a very high degree of responsibility, for our personal success. We can make ourselves but only in our image and not in some image of a person that society identifies as successful. It is not that we cannot make ourselves but much, much more is involved in who we and we have no control over all these factors.

Thus we can make ourselves but only in a limited way and definitely within the context of our lives.  

Best Lawrence


Essay by Laurence which was not included with the email

Can we create ourselves?

We instinctively believe that the answer to this question is yes, we can create ourselves, or at least to some degree. We accept that we cannot create ourselves completely; we do not choose our bodies or our early formative experiences, two things which play a crucial role in determining the people that we become. However, we tend to believe that beyond these limiting factors we have a self which does have the power to create itself.

Where does this conviction come from? Every single day of our lives we experience a sort of radical freedom. We are faced with choices and the inescapable feeling that we are radically free to do whatever we want. Right now you’re reading a philosophy essay but you’re free to go and make yourself a cup of tea, put your feet up and watch TV instead. In any given dilemma you are not free to not choose. You may choose to do nothing but this is still a choice. Sartre went as far as to say that we are “condemned to be free”. The sense that we have a free will and that we can be held responsible for our actions stems from the fact that we are faced with this phenomenon every single second of our waking lives. In a situation when we are faced with two possible courses of action—a ‘to be or not to be’—we are fully conscious of the situation, and we know we can choose one of two paths. This gives us the impression that we are responsible for the course of our lives, that we are creating ourselves.

But if we look a little closer, it appears we are not so responsible after all. To be responsible for the way you are, you must have somehow intentionally brought it about that you are the way you are. Now, supposing that you did bring about a certain mental nature, Z, it must be the case that you brought about this new mental state from an earlier one, Y. In order for you to be responsible for mental state Z, which was brought about by Y, it is necessary for you to be responsible for mental state Y. Again there must be a prior mental state, which we’ll call X, which was responsible for bringing about Y. This is the start of an infinite regress. What we’re looking for -- an act of ultimate self-origination-- is impossible to find.

Schopenhauer put it best when he wrote that “man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”. For man to will what he wills he would have to be the cause of himself, ‘causa sui’. Nietzsche called the causa sui the “the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far” and a “rape and perversion of logic” and went on to write that “the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui” and amounted this to pulling “oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness”.

The argument can be elucidated if we consider a person’s life trajectory. Initially we are the way we are due to heredity and early experience. It would be ludicrous to suppose that a baby can be held responsible for the way he is. As the child gets older he begins to change but, as Galen Strawson wrote, “both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one’s success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and experience”. Here we get a clear picture of the “brazen wall of fate” which, according to Nietzsche, we are confronted with in our lives. In our day to day lives there are indications that we understand the impossibility of being causa sui. We understand that children cannot be held responsible for the way they are but there seems to be an indelible belief that once we reach adulthood we become responsible. As Strawson notes, “E.H. Carr held that ‘normal adult human beings are morally responsible for their own personality”. How can we pinpoint this act of self-determination? It is impossible to do this because of the argument stated above.

Pick up a newspaper and you are likely to find an article about, let’s say, ‘antisocial teenagers’ and often the comment will read: ‘blame the parents’. Here is a sure fire indication that we recognise the impossibility of being causa sui but we recognise the impossibility in a limited sense—we do not go far enough. If we take the impossibility to its logical conclusion it is clear that no one can be blamed at all. We see children as determined by heredity and their environment but see adults as wholly responsible for the way they are. Even if we were able to isolate a point in time when we go through an act of self-determination, we would not be responsible for this act because it would have occurred due to the way we were before it. The causa sui argument is a truly insurmountable hurdle for anyone wishing to prove that we are in any way responsible for the way we are.

It seems that our belief in free will is also bound up in our notions of the self. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” still has a strong influence on the way we think of ourselves, but it is full of problems, some of which play a part in maintaining the illusion of free will. The first mistake that Descartes made was to accept a convention of grammar which says that the word “thinks” requires a subject. Apart from being a convention of grammar, the use of a subject before a verb serves a practical purpose. However, in the present circumstances, when we are looking to determine the existence of a self it is far more appropriate to use a non-referring grammatical subject rather than the misleading term “I”. As such, instead of saying “I think”, Descartes should have said “it thinks”. This would avoid all the inaccuracies which would undoubtedly arise from using a term such as “I” which is bound up in meaning. George Christoph Lichtenberg suggested it would be far more appropriate to say “it thinks” in the same way as we say “it thunders”. Use of the word “thunders” requires a subject in the same way as “thinks” does. As such we say “it thunders” even though the grammatical subject “it” does not refer to anything. When we say “it thunders”, all that is denoted is “that there is thunder”. When we want to say “thinks”, the grammatical requirement for a subject could just as easily be fulfilled by employing the word “it” so we would say “it thinks”. Descartes’ famous dictum can be reduced to “it thinks, therefore there are thoughts”. What does this prove exactly?

The second mistake that Descartes made was to suppose that thinking is an activity brought about by a being that can be thought of as the cause of this thinking. This can again be seen as the symptom of a grammatical habit which supposes that for every activity there is an agent. Thinking is an activity so it is assumed that there must be an agent. Peter Poellner notes that “it is grammar which misleads us into thinking that, apart from the (changing) qualities, effects, or ‘powers’ of a ‘thing’, there is some permanent, unchanging and unknown, seat or bearer of these properties in which an object’s qualities inhere and from which its powers emanate”. Throughout the history of philosophy there are numerous conceptions of this ‘permanent bearer of properties’: Plato’s immortal soul, Descartes’ cogito and Kant’s transcendental subject. All of these sought to prove the existence of some ‘agent-self’ which exists over and above our fleeting mental states.

The concept of a self which is able to cause mental states is merely a projection. This can be elucidated by highlighting the parallels between this projection and that of cause and effect. Hume delivered the first revolutionary blow against traditional conceptions of cause and effect by asserting that the supposed necessity of cause and effect resides ‘in the mind, not in objects’. We only get an idea of cause and effect by regularly perceiving a certain cause being followed by a certain effect— through the contiguity and constant conjunction of objects in Humean terms. Nietzsche agreed but went further:

Hume was right; habit (but not only that of the individual!) makes us expect that a certain often-observed occurrence will follow another: nothing more! That which gives the extraordinary firmness to our belief in causality is not the great habit of seeing one occurrence following another but our inability to interpret events otherwise than as events caused by intentions.

Nietzsche would hold that this inability brings about the belief in a permanent agent-self which exists over and above our mental states. This leads us to Nietzsche’s proclamation that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything”.

Our belief in free will can also be put down to other deep seated convictions. Consider the concept of punishment. If we are not responsible for our actions, surely it’s not fair for us to be punished. 2000 years of Christianity have taught the western world that we have the freedom to choose to be good or bad and that we will be punished or rewarded accordingly. Imagine being condemned to spend eternity in hell just for being the way you are, something you are not responsible for. That wouldn’t be fair. Well, according to Nietzsche it was this train of thought that led to the ‘invention’ of free will. Nietzsche called the concept of free will “the foulest of all theologians’ artifices, aimed at making mankind ‘responsible’... [T]he doctrine of the will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, because one wanted to impute guilt”. Nietzsche sees that in order for man to be judged and punished it is necessary for him to be considered free—“so that they might become guilty”. Nietzsche identifies priests as the originators of this “old psychology”; it was conditioned by the priests’ desire to “create for themselves the right to punish”. Importantly, the consequence of this desire is that “every act had to be considered as willed, and the origin of every act had to be considered as lying within the consciousness”.

Perhaps the concept of free will was indeed ‘invented’. What are the consequences of rejecting it? Will this knowledge serve me in some way? Will it make me change the way I behave? Is it positive or negative? Nietzsche’s attitude was clear. Throughout his works there are references to ‘amor fati’ (love of fate).

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it... but love it.

Another answer, one that I am inclined to agrre with, comes not from a philosopher, but from a scientist, a certain Albert Einstein, who said:

I do not believe in freedom of will. Schopenhauer's words, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills,” have accompanied me throughout my life and console me in my dealings with others, even those which are truly painful to me. This recognition of the lack of freedom of will helps me avoid taking myself and my fellow men—both as actors and as individuals casting judgment—too seriously, just as it protects me from losing a sense of humor.


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