torsdag 27. desember 2012

God Jul.

I et innlegg julen 2010 ramset jeg opp en rekke filosofiske podkaster og videoer som finnes på nettet. Flere av anbefalingene står ved lag.

Philosophy Bites er stadig like bra.  In Our Time står ikke like høyt i kurs, men BBC tilbyr nå muligheten for å abonnere kun på filosofiske temaprogrammer, og de er svært ofte svært gode. Elucidations oppdaget jeg i sin tid fordi Martin Gustafsson var med i episode nummer elleve, men de fleste programmene er interessante. Rationally Speaking er blitt fast inventar på ipoden min siden sist (bloggen er også god), det samme er Philosophy Talk. Entitled Opinions oppdaget jeg i høst.

Closer To Truth tilbyr interessante videoer, blant annet om vitenskap og religion: særlig har jeg likt intervjuene med Bede RundleMåndagsfilosoferna fra YLE, den finske rikskringkastingen, er også verdt en titt. Uhøytidelige diskusjonene med et umiskjennelig preg av morgen-tv. (Programposten er avsluttet, så vidt jeg kan se.) Her figurerer mange (for meg) kjente navn fra det Wittgenstein-inspirerte miljøet ved filosofisk insitutt i Åbo.

Vel bekomme!

fredag 21. desember 2012

Apocalypse Not.

Ja, ja, så står verden trolig til jul allikevel. Det hadde nå vært underlig om vår skjebne virkelig ble styrt av en eldgammel indiansk kalender, men her i huset har vi ventet med juleforberedelsene i det lengste. Nå virker den husvasken helt uunngåelig. Men på sett og vis er jeg glad, tross alt.

torsdag 20. desember 2012

Awful yes, but, in the long run, worth it.

I should perhaps apologise. This turned out to be a terribly long post. I guess I could learn something from other writers telling me to kill my darlings. But I am convinced that one should never kill anyone, not even when that means a less-than-perfect result. So, there you are.


Great people are often lousy persons. The makers of history reach the top by climbing all over lesser and more polite individuals. Or as the Norwegian humorist Odd Børretzen once put it: While the rest of us quietly await our turn, the Napoleons of history trample in, with muddy boots on, knocking over chairs and tables and demand being served coffee and cake. But even though they cut in line and leave nothing but crumbles for us, we admire their accomplishments.

Moody, rude, paranoid, self-righteous and vindictive, Isaac Newton could have gone down in history as a minor villain. Instead this nasty piece of work is held in high esteem. His scientific genius and important discoveries obviously distinguish him from your common thug. But should he therefore be held to a different standard? Do people who accomplish things deserve to be given some moral slack?

Thomas Hurka thinks so. Driven individuals might treat other people less than gently; but if their single-minded preoccupation yields good results, then we can surely forgive a little rudeness. Who would argue that Newton’s law of gravity, in the long run, was not worth some sore toes? What he lacked in politeness, he made up for with greatness.

Hurka argues as if history will excuse any questionable means by which great goals are reached. In hindsight, it might look as if this is what history does. Today, no-one resent Caravaggio (as many did in the 17th century) for his petty behaviour. Today, most art loving people simply admire him (as few did back then) for his paintings. But have we really excused the former because of the latter? For reasons I will return to, I think not. (If history somehow had decided that the paintings in the long run are more important than the not-so-good things that made them possible, then history must, somehow, have compared the two things, and, somehow, have found that the good consequences outweigh the not-so-good means. But how on earth could such a comparison ever be made? What has happened, I think, is rather that the means simply have vanished from our field of vision. History has rather forgotten than forgiven, I believe.) But let me first point out some of the more obvious problems with Hurka's reasoning.

Hurka is careful not to allow geniuses to do anything just because they are geniuses. They cannot get away with trampling on people for no good reason. Trampling on others is justified only if it somehow contributes to their artistic or scientific excellence, or if their unsociable behaviour is a necessary side effect of the dedication they need to give their art or science in order to achieve such excellence.

Perhaps, Hurka suggests, the dedication needed just isn’t compatible with being too concerned with other people (therefore, in order for great things to keep happening, we might need to give these people some slack). Perhaps, indeed. This is an empirical hypothesis. But however are we to test its truth-value? There might be some connection between dedication and unsociable behaviour -- and there might be none. Or perhaps there is such a connection in some cases, but not in others. And how do we distinguish the faux pas that somehow did contribute to Caravaggio's and Newton’s accomplishments from their inexcusable misdemeanours? How do we decide which were necessary and which were not? This distinction is crucial to Hurka’s argument, but I see no practical application of it.

Another problem is this: An artist might behave like a jerk, but if this somehow contributes to, say, his revolutionising the history of modern art, then his nastiness is, as it were, compensated for. But if he does not accomplish anything great, then his nastiness is not compensated for, and he simply is a jerk. So what should we do? Just wait for the end result (or the historical verdict) before making up our minds about the actions of ambitious people? If so, we might have to sit back for a loooong time: Rembrandt was regarded as a merely skilled painter until some hundred years after his death.

And what are we to say to aspiring artists? Should we encourage talented people to behave like jerks, in the hope that this will eventually enable them to do great work? Wouldn’t that inevitably entail encouraging a lot of people to behave like jerks who never will accomplish much of anything, because it simply is impossible to tell in advance who will produce something invaluable

Apart from these (we might say) practical objections, there are philosophical ones too. This one, for instance: Can history ever forgive anything? (This is not the trivial point that History is not a real agent; I am suggesting that it never is up to the whims of history to decide what is forgivable or not.)

During the interview, a listener raised a pertinent question. She mentioned a long series of artists who have benefited artistically from terrible afflictions. She wanted to know whether their works somehow justify the suffering they experienced? Here is Hurka's response:
Let's say someone like Mickey Rourke has to go through periods of suffering in order to become a better actor. I would say that that suffering was redeemed, if you want to use that word, by the fact that it led to something more valuable later.
How can he say something like that? It is not inconceivable that Rourke himself could end up viewing his own suffering as redeemed in this fashion, in which case Hurka's statement would be less problematic; but I see no way in which Hurka can decide that the suffering is so redeemed. Hurka seems to take for granted that Rourke’s periods of suffering would be redeemed if they led to something more valuable later. But is this really granted? What if Rourke himself thought otherwise? What if Rourke claimed that nothing could redeem his sufferings? Imagine that he, precisely because of the sufferings that eventually made him the greatest actor in the world, continued to curse the day he was born for the rest of his life? Is there any objective point of view from which we can say who’s right and who’s wrong on this matter? I don’t think there is a question of being right and wrong here at all. Mickey Rourke simply is the only person entitled to say what, if anything, could possibly redeem his painful experiences. Try, if you may, to imagine Hurka telling Rourke on his deathbed that, never mind Rourke’s own opinion, his periods of deep misery had in fact been redeemed by his periods of great acting. How would that be received -- as a comfort?

But, say that Rourke was happy to say that his misery was redeemed by his later career. His wife, let us imagine, is less forgiving. She keeps complaining about the anguish he caused her when he was being a bad guy making himself that great actor. What could Rourke say in his defense to get morally excused by her
If he really was the greatest, then it would still be a violation of her rights, but it can be justified in the long run by what it made possible….
Again the objections are obvious. Is really Hurka in a position to forgive a husband his violation of his wife’s rights? Or is his point rather that the wife should forgive her husband on these grounds? If so, how is Hurka in a position to make that judgement? "Only those who suffer the wrongdoings of others are entitled to forgive," Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov. That is what forgiveness means. There is no non-afflicted or objective point of view from which we can assess whether an action is forgivable or not. Only the victims are entitled to judge whether damage done by a some artist should be forgiven because of the beautiful art the wrongdoings made possible.

Consider the infamous case of Paul Gauguin abandoning wife and children in order to go to Tahiti to paint. Upon hearing about this some might say “What a terrible ting to do,” and think it would have been better had he stayed at home, even though his negligence proved to be decisive for the history of modern art. I understand, to some extent, why some would think so; but in the end I do not share their sentiment. What I say is closer to: “What a terrible thing to do, but thank God! Had he not gone, he never would have made those wonderful paintings!”

It is not necessarily insensitive to say that, I think. (Is it not rather parallel to being happy for the knowledge we have of certain medicines, but at the same time being horrified by the way that knowledge was obtained? “How could anyone do such a thing,” we say when hearing about certain medical experiments from the past, “those people should have been prosecuted”; but still we have few scruples taking advantage of the knowledge when we do have it.)

We are not a contemporaries of Gauguin, and I think that is an important difference. We are talking about incidents from a distant past. We never will meet his family, and are unlikely to offend anyone by concentrating on the man's art. In fact, I guess, we are more likely to anger his contemporary descendants by doing anything else. But, of course, it could have been distasteful if we, back then, had encouraged Gauguin to abandon his family for his career (Gauguin was a nasty piece of work, so for all I know his family could have been happy to see the back of him). And I believe that Mme. Gauguin would have been justifiably offended, if her heartache had been ignored just like that. Imagine that Mme. Gauguin confided to me, pouring her heart out in despair, and I couldn't stop praising her husband's talents...! Or if I, paraphrasing Hurka, had replied something like this:
"Yes, he was a lousy husband; yes, he trampled all over you and your children; yes, he violated your rights and your marriage -- but we must take care not to end up as moralistic monomaniacs. There are other kinds of value too, you know. Look at your husband's whole life -- not just his meanness, but also the vast number of great works he went on to produce. When you realise that your suffering was necessary to make that contribution to the History of Mankind possible, we can both agree that we shouldn't make such a big deal outta that, don't you think?"

tirsdag 4. desember 2012

Playing With Dolls.

On his blog, Mark Rowlands linked to this article about his book Can animals be moral?, so I had hopes that it would make things clearer to me. It didn't. But in the process, I stumbled on this older article, purporting to explain Why Six-Year-Old Girls Want to Be Sexy:
Most girls as young as 6 are already beginning to think of themselves as sex objects, according to a new study of elementary school-age kids in the Midwest.
The study was conducted by psychologists at Knox College in Illinois, using paper dolls. Sixty girls, aged 6 to 9, were shown two dolls, one dressed in tight and "sexy" clothes and the other wearing a trendy but covered-up, loose outfit. Here they are:

Using a different set of dolls for each question, the researchers then asked each girl to choose the doll that looked like herself; that looked how she wanted to look; that would be the more popular girl in school; that she would prefer to play with. Across-the-board, girls chose the "sexy" doll most often. In two of the categories, the differences were significant: 68 percent of the girls said the "sexy" doll looked how she wanted to look, and 72 percent said she was more popular than the non-sexy doll:

"It's very possible that girls wanted to look like the sexy doll because they believe sexiness leads to popularity, which comes with many social advantages," explained lead researcher Christy Starr, who was particularly surprised at how many 6- to 7-year-old girls chose the sexualized doll as their ideal self.

I am surprised too. Do most six-year-olds really believe anything about a possible connection between "sexiness" and "social advantages"? Do they even know what these words mean? And when they choose the "sexy" doll, claiming that this is how they would like to look, does that suggest that these girls are beginning to think of themselves as sex objects? Do six-year-old girls even know what a sex object is? Not knowing much about girls from the Midwest, I find this a little hard to believe.

Asking my four year old the same set of questions (substituting school with kindergarten), she also chose the doll in miniskirt, because she was more beautiful. When asked to explain, she pointed to the loose and baggy trousers of the other doll. Skirt is prettier. Bluntly, I then asked her to pick the sexy doll, but drew a blank, her empty gaze signalling that she was clueless what I was talking about. I can see at least one possible flaw with this study: Had there been a third option, say, a doll wearing a pink princess dress, like this one, my daughter (for what it is worth) would have preferred her to any other doll on virtually any question. 
Any six-year-old will have seen women in revealing and "sexy" miniskirts on TV, and many girls, I guess, want to dress just like them. Luckily, this isn't true for my daughters -- not yet, at least; but perhaps it is true for the majority of (the slightly elder) girls in the Midwest. Does this mean that these girls want to be sexy too? If so, they should at least be able to see things under that description. And, frankly, I doubt that they are: if a six-year-old were to describe these women as sexy, I (for one) wouldn't take it for granted that she knew what "being sexy" really entails. What this study reveals, perhaps, is not so much the self-understanding of young wannabe sex objects, as the researchers seem to believe, but, rather, how young girls wanting to dress in miniskirts are likely to be understood by grown-ups (including researchers).

That is less startling, perhaps, but not less problematic. The fact that young girls do dress like that, and, consequently, are being viewed like that, is disturbing. (I am not thinking of the researcher here.) The researchers have some good advice as to how this trend might be fought. Not surprisingly, much of the responsibility lies with the parents.

tirsdag 27. november 2012

Look to Norway.

Most foreigners probably didn't know this, but in an episode of Entitled Opinions, aired November 22, 2005, Richard Rorty expressed opinions most Norwegians have known to be true for a long time, namely that the Norwegian liberal bourgeois society is (or should be) the endpoint of History. Quote: "We [I am not entirely sure who this refers to] are reformers in the sense that we think that liberal philosophy is as good as it is ever going to get. All we need is for the United States to get a lot more like Norway, and for the rest of the World to become a lot more like the United States." (About 30:00 into the interview. I couldn't make the web link work, but you should be able to access the interview in iTunes.)

Should someone find this grotesque, claiming that this cannot possibly be the whole story, that all would be well if the entire World ended up like Norway, Rorty answers them with a challange: "Well, then tell an alternative story!"

I believe telling that story is doable, but as these sweet endearing comments made my day, I am not at all tempted to try to.

lørdag 24. november 2012

Mer enn snakk.

Foreldre som velger ikke å sende ungene i barnehage, men holde dem hjemme har alltid forundret meg. Jeg snakker ikke om den første tiden. Våre jenter begynte ikke i barnehage før de var nærmere to år gamle. I løpet av disse årene var det stort sett jeg som var hjemme med dem. Pappapermisjon var stor stas, svært lenge -- men etterhvert, vokser det vel frem et behov hos de fleste foreldre for å treffe andre voksne i blant, og hos de fleste barn for å treffe andre barn? Om ikke annet, et behov for en pause og et sceneskifte? Jeg spør fordi jeg akkurat har sett Vi må snakke om Kevin.

Dette er trolig blant internetts mest banale kommentarer til filmen; men kunne ikke mange av problemene, i alle fall mye av slitasjen på mor-sønn-forholdet, vært unngått om guttungen hadde gått i barnehage?

torsdag 22. november 2012


Here's a list of some things I've been up to lately, when I, in all honesty, ought to have done other things.

1) I have been engaged in a short exchange of opinions about the usefulness of philosophical biographies, or rather biographies of philosophers, mainly concerning Ludwig Wittgenstein, with Duncan Richter.

2) By way of this interview with Ken Taylor and John Perry (hosts of PhilosophyTalk) on "The Uses of Philosophy", I discovered Entitled Opinions a couple of weeks ago -- a podcast of which I have grown fond. It is hosted by Robert Harrison, a professor in Italian literature at Stanford University. Over the years, the programs have covered a wide range of topics "about Life and Literature". The archive now contains more than 140 shows. Evidently, I haven't listened to all of them, but have had a few great moments. One of my favourite episodes so far, is this interview with Joshua Landy about Marcel Proust, which provoked me to philosophise about voluntary and involuntary memories -- a topic I may (or not) blog about in the near future. And I have seldom, if ever, heard a deeper and more thoroughgoing discussion (much of which went over my head) of any literary topic on public radio than this discussion of Moby Dick. Yesterday I began reading one of Harrison's books too. Now, I am half way through his book on Gardens, which, among other things, has a beautiful chapter on the similarity between gardening and tutoring, Plato's academy, and the importance of discussion in education. I also look forward to his earlier book on Forests. So far I have only leafed through it, but it looks like mandatory reading for anyone, like me, who struggles to grasp our conception of human-nature relationships.

3) Speaking of which... Yesterday, while going through some old notes of mine on nature, this unrelated passage on pains and phantom pains appeared. It seems worth sharing. I am commenting on the following proposition by the materialist philosopher D.M. Armstrong:
We say that we have a pain in the hand. The SENSATION of pain can hardly be in the hand, for sensations are in minds and hands is not par of the mind. 
I am quoting from Consciousness and Causality here. According to my notes the passage should be on page 105, but when I tried to look it up, I was unable to retrieve it. Anyway, my reaction was as follows:
Imagine that I went to the doctor with pains in one hand, and the doctor replied that it was all in my head. I would be surprised, if not offended. Normally we distinguish between real and imagined pains, pains that are, as we say, in the hand and pains that are only in our heads. To say that the pain I feel in my hand really is located in my head, would in most circumstances suggest illusion or hypochondria.
What about phantom pains? Phantom pains are often brought up in this discussion. People can apparently experience pains in limbs they no longer have. Doesn't that suggest that sensations take place in the mind rather than in our limbs? The experienced pain certainly cannot be located in the hand because that location simply doesn't exist! The argument supposedly strengthen the view that all sensations, even experiences of pain in existing limbs, take place in the mind. But I doubt that arguing from phantom sensations can demonstrate that.
But think of the experience, the sensation of pain -- wouldn't the sensation be the same whether the hand exists or not? And if so, wouldn't that sensation have to be located the same place too? I am not convinced by that, because I am not convinced that the experiences will be identical in the first place. But this needs a little investigation. Examples might help. Imagine a person wanting her right arm experiences pain in her non-existent index finger. Wouldn't that experience be identical to the pain experiences in her left finger? Not necessarily. Say, if she lost that arm three years ago, and she has learned to live with only one arm and so on. Phantom pains certainly can be painful, but won't she experience them as phantom pains? I mean, how would she describe her experience? Would she say "My right index finger pains me", or would she rather say something like "oh no, not this again"? But let us modify the situation a little, so we can put these reservations out of play. Imagine a woman waking up from coma in a hospital. She has survived a terrible car accident. She experiences excruciating pains in both her arms. However, while she was unconscious, the doctors have amputated one of the arms. Could we confidently deny that the sensations would be identical in this case? Perhaps not. I, for one, doubt that the injured woman could, just by introspection, could tell that one of the pains were, in a sense, less real. Let us put more pressure on our commonsensical view. Let us imagine that this woman was, when the accident happened, on her way to the hospital with a badly injured arm -- incidentally the one now amputated -- and when she wakes up in the hospital, wouldn't she cry out something like "The pain is still there!"? 
However likely that is, does that in any way suggest that the pains were not in her hand even before the amputation?
Consider this case: A woman is about to have her arm amputated because of the excruciating pains it gives her. She watches as the knife removes the arm, but to her horror, the tormenting pains continue. What should we say about that? I am not sure. Saying that the pains somehow migrated from her arm to her mind (or whatever) at the moment of separation, or that the pains instantly jumped from reality to illusion, or that real pains with a stroke of magic were replaced by phantom ones, certainly looks unhelpful. Should something like this ever happen, I think we might find it reasonable to believe that phantom pains may somehow occur in existing limbs too, though such a concept would hardly be much in use, as amputating the limbs in question would be the only way to tell whether the pains were physical or mental. But to conclude that all bodily sensations are mental, as Armstrong seemingly does, wouldn't be helpful at all. First of all, the case we are now considering would be just one incident, and a rather extreme one at that. A deeper problem is that this conclusion is suicidal because it undermines the distinction between real and illusionary experiences altogether -- the very distinction that makes all talk of phantom pains possible in the first place -- the distinction which all arguments from phantom experiences rest on.
At this point my train of thoughts sort of wandered off, but I think these paragraphs contains some points worth pondering.

(Finally. While surfing on the internet -- as a way of not working on this post -- I just now came across this piece about philosophy and parenthood. The text seems like a possible topic for a future post. While I never would say that "one cannot fully realize one's potential as a philosopher unless one is a parent", I think being a parent might help you philosophise about, say, parenting and parenthood....)

torsdag 15. november 2012

Apropos Simone Weil.

Jeg ser ingen sammenheng mellom formiddagens (fruktesløse) leteaksjon etter et spesifikt Weil-sitat og det faktum at dagens episode av In Our Time også handler om denne franske filosofen -- men jeg konstaterer at Simone Weil er i dytten i dag. Jeg har ikke hørt programmet ennå, men planlegger å ta det med på kveldens joggetur.

Eternal Question.

Today I wanted to look up a quote from Simone Weil, but I seem to have misplaced my book. Her topic is Time versus Eternity. I know, roughly, the content of the quote (approximately, that Time helps us imagine Eternity, but that Time is still just a weak Ersatz for the real thing), but I wanted it in her exact words. It vexes my so much when this happens. What a waste of time! Instead of doing what I meant to do, I am searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack!  What is worse, I see no final solution to this problem. Of course, this particular missing book will turn up, eventually (I know it is around here somewhere), but alas! it will only be a matter of time before a new book goes missing, or a paper, or a computer file, as the case may be. To me, this looks like one of the so called Eternal Questions. Where is the damned book!? Throughout history, every philosopher must have asked this question hundreds of times, and they surely will continue to do so, if not eternally, to the end of time.

onsdag 14. november 2012

Philosophising Away from Home.

In the Wikipedia article about Oswald Hanfling we read:
It was impossible to tell, either from his conversation or from his writings, that Hanfling was not a native English speaker. He once commented to Elizabeth Anscombe that he found it strange that Wittgenstein had continued to write in German throughout his life. Anscombe; who must have assumed that Hanfling was English, replied that only someone who wasn’t able to read Wittgenstein in German could have made that remark.
Oswald Hanfling was a native German, so Wittgenstein's original texts were not incomprehensible to him. His incredulity had other sources. Hanfling lived most of his life in England, and always wrote the language. Maybe he found it hard to understand why others with similar stories were unable (or unwilling) to do the same? Wittgenstein also lived in England for many years, and was a competent English speaker -- not just the everyday language; he was apparently an eminent philosopher in English too. He would dominate philosophical discussions with English colleagues. His lectures were all in English too. So, I think I see where Hanfling's question comes from -- I am not sure I share his sense of strangeness, though.

Now, I do not know why Wittgenstein kept writing in German even when he must have done quite a lot of his actual thinking in English. (When discussing in English, you need to think in English too, don't you?) Some think that certain languages are better at certain tasks than others. German, some have claimed (was it Nietzsche?), is a more philosophical language than English. I cannot see why this should be so, and find it harder still to believe that Wittgenstein should have harboured such ideas.

Still, there might be something to this line of thinking, if we strip it of the metaphysics. Jon Hellesnes, for instance, has suggested that Hans Skjervheim was helped to philosophical excellence because he was a pioneering Nynorsk (one form of written Norwegian) philosopher:
His thinking was probably helped a little by writing in Nynorsk. Because there exists relatively little philosophical literature in this language, there are no standardised ways of saying things. There are few patterns, few clichés. Anyone who philosophises in Nynorsk, has to be a creative user of the language. The linguistic situation, therefore, is in it self an aid in avoiding certain bad habits.
Neither German nor English lack philosophical tradition. Still, much original philosophy continues to be written in those languages, and Wittgenstein himself was hardly a man of a thousand clichés. Philosophising in a small language may help you to avoid (bad) habits, but a philosophically innocent language is not a necessity. Hard critical thinking is more important. But philosophy contains more than critical thinking. Creativity is also important. Both critical and -- perhaps especially -- creative thinking might be harder on linguistically foreign turfs.

Lately I have been thinking about philosophising away from home. As readers of this blog will have noticed, during the past few months I have written quite extensively in English. This marks a change in attitude with me. I am, as it were, moving away from Anscombe's position towards Hanfling's understanding of things. I used to be sceptical about philosophising in English. Today I am less so. Not that I have forsaken my objections entirely.

One objection is that philosophising is working with language. Philosophical problems arise and needs to be fought in the sphere of meanings, where, as Cora Diamond has put it, language is being used at full stretch. And one's native language is usually far more elastic than any other. Mastery of the language is no guarantee for good philosophy, of course; but philosophical bewilderment often feels like being out on slippery ice -- good footwear is a prerequisite for getting somewhere.

Another objection is that philosophy often is a personal quest. Philosophical problems are problems I have with my own thinking. The problems are mine in the sense that others cannot solve them for me. This is an important difference between philosophical confusion and practical problems. If there is a leakage in my bathroom, a plumber may well fix it for me. But if I am confused, say, by the mind-body relationship, I cannot simply let an academic philosopher do the thinking for me. This is not denying that we can learn much from other philosophers struggling with the same issues. It is just that for my problem to go away, I am the one who must stop being bothered by these questions. Sometimes I read another's thoughts in total agreement, but for this to solve my philosophical difficulties, I have to see it as a solution to my difficulties, and that is something only I can do. This is connected with seeing some thoughts as one's own -- and that again, may be connected with language. To me at least, my own thoughts sometimes seem alien, or dressed up, when expressed in a language that is, as it were, not my own.

That, I suspect, was the source of my earlier scruples about blogging in English.

This feeling of alienation used to seem deep and important to me, because, I believe, my instincts were that this feeling of alienation (when seeing my own thoughts expressed in English) reviled some deep and important truths about the connection between thought and tongue and personal identity. I never actually tried to spell out my instincts, so I am not sure exactly how this connection was imagined. Perhaps something like this: One can only reach one's full potential in one's own tongue; one cannot get to the bottom in one's thinking in other languages; in foreign languages one's thinking will inevitably be foreign too, so in order to think authentically one relies one's native language. But this looks like bad metaphysics. Some people claim that you feel most at home on your childhood's playground. There is a kernel of truth to that perhaps, but it is not a very deep truth nor is it of a metaphysical kind. We simply tend to be at ease with what we are accustomed to.

Nevertheless, I do, for these very reasons, think that good philosophy written in a foreign language is admirable, and not simply because good philosophy is admirable (bad philosophy, of course, isn't admirable in any language). Great writings are always impressive, but isn't it additionally impressive that Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) wrote most of her wonderfully crafted and many-layered stories in English or French; that the Polish Joseph Conrad ended up as one of English literature's great stylists even though English was only his third language; or that Samuel Beckett is recognised not only as an important playwright but also as a giant in modern French literature?

Talent is evidently important to reach such mastery of foreign languages. But you can get quite far by way of practise too. I don't know how gifted Oswald Hanfling was, nor for that matter Hans Skjervheim, who also wrote extensively in both English and German. (Internationally Skjervheim is best known for his thesis, Objectivism and the Study of Man (1957), that actually preceded Peter Winch's influential The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (1958) on some important points, and has had some influence, particularly in Germany, where both Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel reckon Skjervheim as an inspiration.) Come to think of it, philosophising in your second language is, historically speaking, the rule rather than the exception. For nearly two thousand years, from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and well into Modernity, Latin was after all the language of international philosophy.

Wittgenstein was a genius, a philosophically troubled soul, and a genuinely deep thinker. Perhaps things are different for his kind. Or perhaps he just felt that he needed the sharpest tools available to him to rid himself of his troubles, and that those tools happened to be German. Perhaps he did not see the point in (or have time to) sharpening up his English to do something he already could do in German. I am not in any sense comparing myself to Wittgenstein, but lately I have come to see things differently. Blogging in English does not just provide a needed brush up on my language skills. It also attracts more readers to my blog, which I like. Lately I have been writing at a slower pace, and yet the traffic has been steadily increasing. This I ascribe to my English posts. Last, but not least, there is a kind of philosophical reason for writing in English too. Philosophy is largely a struggle with one's own perplexities, but keeping things too close sometimes make it hard to see clearly. Taking a step back or pushing things away might actually improve one's vision. Sometimes, when I am stuck on a problem, or my foothold is constantly slipping, it is helpful for me to put on my English hiking boots.

fredag 9. november 2012

Fakkeltog mot pels.

I morgen går det årvisse fakkeltoget mot pels av stabelen. Demonstrasjonen arrangeres av NOAH, og finner sted i landets fire største byer samt Bodø og Ålesund. (Informasjon om tid og sted finnes her.)

I den forbindelse har jeg noen tanker om de forferdelige bildene som nok en gang vises i media. I sommer brøt dyrevernere seg inn på 24 norske pelsdyrfarmer over hele landet, og dokumenterte noen av de verste forholdene de noen sinne har sett:
Vi har funnet skadde dyr, lidende dyr, dyr som har tvangsatferd. Vi har funnet mink med avspiste bakbein, hvor de har halt seg rundt etter forbeina, vi har funnet dyr med store sår fra hodet og nedover mot ryggen, avspiste ører og haler.
Ingen forsvarer slikt. Selv senterpartisten Harald Buttedahl, som også er statssekretær i Landbruksdepartementet, finner tilstandene uakseptable. "Vi må få bort utskudd og kjeltringer som ikke vil følge regelverket," medgir han, før han legger til at "slike enkelttilfeller forekommer i alle næringer." -- Det er her min bekymring ligger.

Naturligvis er det viktig at regelbrudd avdekkes. Den unisone enigheten om at slik dyremishandling er uakseptabel, er også gledelig. Problemet er imidlertid at fokuset på disse rystende tilfellene kan gi en uønsket legitimitet til pelsnæringens innøvde svar, som ved hjelp av det magiske ordet "enkelttilfelle" forsøker å trylle bort enhver kobling mellom pelsdyrnæringen som sådan og dyreplageri. Folk skal tro at dyr i bur stort sett har det fint. Sannheten er snarere at det dyreplageriet disse utskuddene og regelbryterne står for kun er ekstremvarianten av det dyreplageriet som er sanksjonert av regelverket.

I manges ører -- mine også -- låter det desperat når representanter for næringen gang på gang bedyrer at dette kun dreier seg om enkelttilfeller. Hvordan i alle dager kan man snakke om enkelttilfeller når avsløringene kommer så tett og regelmessig!? Men Mattilsynets statistikk synes faktisk å gi en viss støtte til den oppfatningen. Bloggen "Pels -- en del av norsk husdyrhold" er helt ukjent for meg, men jeg har hørt disse tallene nevnt i andre sammenhenger også, så jeg siterer:
I norsk pelsdyrhold ønsker vi Mattilsynets kontrollører alltid velkommen. I tillegg har vi en  selvpålagt ordning med flere årlige veterinærbesøk. Veterinæren gjennomfører en grundig inspeksjon av dyrene. Besøkene utføres av uavhengige privatpraktiserende veterinærer. Det er over 100 veterinærer knyttet til denne ordningen. I fjor konkluderte 95% av veterinærene med at dyrevelferden i norske pelsdyrgårder er meget god, og de resterende sier at den er god. Kan så mange fagarbeidere ta feil?
Kanskje ikke, men -- og nå nærmer jeg meg poenget mitt -- hovedkritikken til NOAH og andre dyrevernere har jo aldri vært at norske pelsdyroppdrettere er forbrytere. Man henger riktig nok ut alle utskudd og kjeltringer som ikke følger regelverket også, men hovedkritikken har alltid rettet seg mot regelverket: Det regelverket som flertallet av oppdretterne følger til punkt og prikke er fullstendig uakseptabelt! Og denne oppfatningen deler faktisk veterinærene med dyrevernerne. I 2009 gikk en samlet Veterinærforening inn for å avvikle pelsnæringen i Norge nettopp av hensyn til dyrevelferden. Dette betyr ikke at norske veterinærer snakker med to tunger. Det viser bare at man kan vurdere pelsdyroppdrett etter ulike kritierier i ulike sammenhenger. Inspektørenes mandat er ikke å vurdere forsvarligheten av pelsdyravl, men å vurdere hvorvidt de norske reglene for pelsdyravl etterleves. Inspektørene rapporterer få slike regelbrudd. Veterinærforeningen vurderer derimot om dette er ensbetydende med god dyrevelferd. Dyrevelferdsloven stiller nemlig slike krav til enhver form for dyrehold. I dette innlegget diskuterte jeg blant annet den uhyre tynne forståelsen av dyrevelferd som ligger til grunn for reglene for pelsdyravl. Vurdert med en mer substansiell (og, vil jeg legge til, forstandig) forståelse av dyrevelferd, er pelsdyrhold uakseptabelt. Kort sagt: Inspektøren kan sertifisere en gård som tilfredsstiller visse minstekrav, og samtidig finne disse kravene dypt utilfredsstillende.

Det faktum at pelsfarmere flest etterlever forskriftene, er derfor på ingen måte noe svar på den grunnleggende kritikken om at forskrifter som tillater å holde dyr i bur -- uavhengig av om det resulterer i avgnagde bein eller ei -- er uforenlig med god dyrevelferd. Det er dette -- den mer prinsipielle og grunnleggende kritikken -- jeg frykter kan komme i skyggen av spektakulære "enkelt"-avsløringer.

tirsdag 6. november 2012

Nordic Wittgenstein Review.

Første nummer av Nordic Wittgenstein Review er nå fritt tilgjengelig. Endelig! Jeg så denne notisen for over et år siden, og har ventet på denne datoen. NWR er et open access tidsskrift. Bladene utgis på papir og frigis online etter tre måneder. Første utgave inneholder flere meget lovende artikler. Selv ser jeg særlig frem til å lese Mikel Burleys "Contemplating Evil" og Stephen Mulhalls "Realism, Modernism and the Realistic Spirit: Diamond's Inheritance of Wittgenstein, Early and Late", som Lars Hertzberg har diskutert her.

onsdag 31. oktober 2012

Animal Kindness.

Mark Rowlands has recently published a book in which he defends the concept of animal morality. I haven't read it yet, but am curious about it, because Rowlands has also written an essay on the subject which seems problematic. The author acknowledges that most philosophers and most scientists, both past and present, would disagree with him, but he thinks their scepticism is ill-founded. To some extent I may agree with him on that view, but I am still a sceptic -- for slightly different reasons.
The scepticism of philosophers towards the idea that animals can behave morally is subtly different from that of scientists. Scientists question whether there is enough evidence to support the claim that animals can be motivated by emotions such as kindness or compassion, or by negative counterparts such as malice or cruelty. Philosophers argue that, even if animals were to be motivated by these sorts of states, this is still not moral motivation. When they occur in animals, these states are not moral ones. For example, compassion, when it occurs in an animal, is not the same sort of thing as compassion when it occurs in a human. When it occurs in an animal, compassion has no moral status, and so even if the animal acts through compassion, it is still not acting morally. 
Rowlands lists a number of anecdotes and stories about animal behaviour to strengthen his case, including the famous incident in Brookfield Zoo where a toddler climbed the fence and fell five meter onto the concrete floor of the gorilla enclosure. Horror-struck, spectators could only watch as a full-grown gorilla approached the injured boy. Then the unexpected happened. “Binti Jua lifted the unconscious boy, gently cradled him in her arms, and growled warnings at other gorillas that tried to get close. Then, while her own infant clung to her back, she carried the boy to the zoo staff waiting at an access gate.” Some commentators were less than impressed by Binti Jua’s good deed, claiming that it wasn't a good deed at all, she had simply mistaken the unconscious boy for one of her stuffed toys. I agree with Rowlands that that sounds ludicrous. Moved by the gentle compassion and concern Binti Jua showed for the little boy, Rowlands sees no reason for doubting that her rescue act was motivated by genuine empathy. Neither do I. Still, it seems philosophically problematic to describe her behaviour in moral terms.

Philosophers, according to Rowlands, are often guilty of overemphasising the role of rationality in morality, sometimes making it a sine qua non, as when Immanuel Kant denied that actions motivated by sentiments or feelings instead of duties and principles could ever be described in moral terms. Because morality, traditionally speaking, has been so tied up with the notion of responsibility, most philosophers have been united in their reasons for thinking that animal behaviour cannot be judged by moral measures. To be morally responsible for one's actions requires an ability that animals lack, namely the ability to scrutinise one's motivations critically. It is not simply that a dog or a gorilla, as it happens, never engage in this sort of self-scrutiny. “What is crucial is that it cannot do this -- it does not have the ability to scrutinise its motivations.” That is why, according to the philosophical tradition, humans, and humans alone, are capable of acting morally.

But, Rowlands asks, isn't it “possible to do things that we ‘ought’ to do, even in the absence of critical scrutiny or rationalisation about alternative courses of action”? Plainly, the answer is yes. Likewise, he argues, animals can be motivated by some desire to do good (or bad) things. “A dog,” writes Rowlands, “can be motivated by the desire to rescue his companion, and rescuing his companion is a good thing.” All of this seems all right to me. However, I am not sure this “opens up a new way of thinking about the moral capacities of animals” -- or, to put it another way: Whether we should describe animal behaviour in moral terms or not, isn’t simply a question about their capabilities. Of course, it is related to the question of which feelings, emotions and motivations animals are capable of having -- but the question whether we should regard animal behaviour in moral terms is related to a number of other questions too -- questions having to do with our attitude and relation to these animals: for example what feelings, emotions, motivations and actions we are entitled to expect or demand from animals; how we should understand, judge and react to their behaviour, say, if they fail to live up to expectations, and so on.

The philosophical problem, as I see it, can perhaps be concentrated in this question: Can our moral language, with all its fine-grained and critical distinctions, be used at full stretch when talking about animal kindness?
[In 1964] Stanley Wechkin and colleagues at the Northwestern University in Chicago demonstrated that hungry rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered them food if doing so gave a painful shock to another monkey. One monkey persisted in this refusal for 12 days.
Now, I am moved by such accounts. I think I can, to some extent, understand this monkey. I can, I think, understand what motivated its behaviour. I do not hesitate to describe its self-sacrifice as a compassionate response to the painful cries of its fellow monkey. I may even call this an instance of proto-morality, as people sometimes do. "Proto-morality, apart from suggesting a story of where our own so-called moral sentiments evolved from, would simply underline the fact that I find the monkey's persistent refusal of food admirable. If I thought the monkey's failure to pull on the food chain might be explained not in terms of concern for its fellow monkey but, say, as an aversion to the noise made by a rhesus monkey when it receives an electric shock, then my attitude would be quite different. I would take a stance resembling that of those who tried to explain away Binti Jua's kindness as a simple mistake. But I don't see any reason for taking that stance. Instead, with phrases like "self-sacrifice" and "proto-morality" I am placing the monkey's behaviour in the vicinity of a human hunger strike. "Proto-morality" would suggest that the monkey was indeed motivated by compassion, concern or empathy, that it was an exercise of great will-power to keep it up for twelve days -- and also, "proto-morality" would suggest that this monkey's behaviour, as with similar human behaviour, is something we can regard with genuine admiration.

If this is the attitude Rowlands wants convey by calling the such behaviour morality proper, then, as I say, I see no deep problem here. However, Rowlands seems to suggest something more -- and then all the awkward questions (not just about responsibility) that he tries so hard not to invite when talking about animal morality come marching in.

In what sense can I morally admire the rhesus monkey's behaviour? I am sure rhesus monkeys are creatures capable of feeling pity and empathy, and I am equally sure that this particular monkey stayed off food, despite of its growing hunger, because of feelings like these -- but I am not at all sure what it could possibly mean to say that the monkey did the (morally) right thing, or that empathy was the only appropriate emotion in its situation. Calling something right seems to imply that the opposite must be wrong. Does Rowlands think it would have been wrong for the monkey to pull on the chain to get the food? If so, in what sense? In the sense that condemnation would have been called for? A dog may, as Rowlands writes, be "motivated by the desire to rescue his companion, and rescuing his companion is a good thing," but would Rowlands also say that a dog ought to desire to do good?  Could his companion justifiably expect help; and if help didn't come, should the other dog regard him as a lousy friend? A dog who runs away with the tail between its legs may be deemed a coward. Such a dog may be a disappointment to its owner. It may be unfit for the tasks he had hoped. A coward will, for instance, make a bad police dog. But in the morally pertinent use of "coward" there is a sense of condemnation. Does Rowlands think condemnation would be appropriate in such a case? Rowlands is justifiably moved by the story of Binti Jua. Calling her action good, seems alright to me, but morally good seems to imply that the other gorillas, who, seemingly, didn't lift one finger for the injured boy, were morally on the wrong side. If a human being simply had ignored an injured child, bystanders would certainly have reacted with anger. But would it have enraged us if Binti Jua had simply turned away? Or what if she had turned violent on the boy instead -- that would, undoubtedly, have horrified us, but would it have been a moral horror?

Asking these questions is partly what I mean by using moral language at full stretch.

I am, as I have said, genuinely moved and amazed by all the stories of exceptional animal kindness that Rowlands recounts. That, I think, is, partly at least, the effect Rowlands wants to have on his reader. He wants us to see animal behaviour in a new light, not simply "nature red in tooth and claw" but as a place where the most wondrous acts of goodness can take place too. However, calling them acts of animal morality, is more likely to cause the reader to see problems with his interpretation (as I have just done) rather than contemplate the kindness he makes us see.

What alternatives are there? We sometimes call exceptionally good deeds beautiful. By exceptional, I mean actions that supersede moral expectations. Saintly deeds are typically beautiful in this sense. Perhaps we could frame Binti Jua's gentle concern for the poor boy this way? Not modelling it on a conception of morality, but on somethings that supersedes moral demands? Describing animal kindness as beautiful rather than moral would do justice to the kindness we see, without disregarding our surprise at such kindness. -- This surprise, I believe, do tell us something about the possibility of animal morality. At the outset of this post, I wrote that "something unexpected" happened when Binti Jua took care of the boy the way she did. Had she been a human being, we wouldn't have thought much of it. That would have been the only appropriate thing to do, after all. But when a gorilla does it...! Binti Jua's gentleness took people by surprise. Doesn't this difference in expectations tell us something about humans and animals?

tirsdag 23. oktober 2012

Plast og syntetisk mat.

Flere kvelder på rad har jeg lest Loraxen for Sigrid. Hun er svært begeistret for andre bøker av Dr. Seuss, så det forbauser meg ikke at hun liker også denne. Forleden dag bestemte vi oss for å se filmen.

Lorax -- Skogens Vokter er ingen storfilm, men ok -- ikke minst har den gode intensjoner og tar opp viktige temaer. Filmen er kun løselig basert på boken. Historien om hvordan gründeren Selv-nok trosset Loraxens advarsler og raserte naturen for pengenes skyld, utgjør nå bare en del av bakteppet. Handlingen har så å si flyttet ut i rammehistorien. Jeg er ambivalent til dette grepet. På den ene siden forsvinner Dr. Seuss’ nådeløse raljering med kapitalistisk griskhet, industriell sløseri og det meningsløse jaget etter mer, mer, mer. På den andre siden hadde neppe en trofast adapsjon av boken blitt en såpass god film. Filmmakerne har forsøkt å ta med seg alvoret fra boken, men mangler mye på elegansen. Den nye intrigen er ikke særlig oppfinnsom. Historien om tolvåringen Ted som forsøker å imponere drømmejenta ved å engasjere seg i hennes hjertesak (i dette tilfellet miljøsaken) og havner i trøbbel har vi sett utallige ganger før. På den andre siden er det kanskje et pluss at filmen til forskjell fra boken har mennesker vi kan identifisere oss med i hovedrollene? Skjønt menneske og menneske, fru Blom…. Én ting slo meg da jeg så filmen. Lorax -- Skogens Vokter maner til de grader frem en skrekkvisjon om en artifisiell verden der allting er juggel og laget av plast og elektronikk. Samtidig er filmen helt og holdent dataanimert. Er ikke det ironisk?

Jeg innser at min anbefaling virker nokså tilbakeholden. Alt er "på den ene og på den andre siden". Jeg greier ikke å gjøre meg opp en klar mening. Filmen var slett ikke dårlig, men heller ikke toppers. Jeg har forsøkt å trille terning, men den lander aldri på et tall jeg kan underskrive på. Kanskje dere burde lytte til fireåringen min i stedet? Sigrids dom var krystallklar. Hun syntes filmen var "kjempe bra".

torsdag 4. oktober 2012

Talking (about) robots.

Trying to imagine a talking robot, the question “why listen?” always seems to pop up. Not because I doubt that lending a robot my ear may provide useful information in some cases. Nor because listening to a robot with nothing but factual information to offer soon will become boring, for I can easily imagine a robot passing the Turing test, which, essentially, is a way to test the robot’s conversation skills. If a robot can fool a human interlocutor into believing that he is talking to another human being, then this robot is said to possess artificial intelligence. Listening to a well-spoken robot like this certainly could be entertaining for a while, I am not denying that either, but entertainment isn’t always what we look for in a conversation. What I question, as I have said before (here and here), is whether an automaton, no matter how sophisticated, could ever tell us anything. In what sense can a robot ever be said to "know" something? Can a robot ever carry a burden or a secret it just needs to get off its chest, or wouldn't reveal even if life depended on it? Can a robot ever be said to express anything? A sentiment, an opinion -- anything -- that could move us or provoke us to react, with anger or pity, say? Could an automaton ever be called wise, or deep, or profound, or perhaps shallow, boring, childish, stubborn or pig-headed?

These are some of the questions underlying my broader “why listen?”-question. Perhaps I could rephrase my concerns with much AI philosophy and the Turing test thus: Would a positive result on a Turing test prove that robots are becoming more human-like? The answer, obviously, depends on what we mean by “human-like”. Such a result would certainly prove that robots could be epistemologically hard to distinguish from human beings in certain respects and in certain contexts. But that conclusion is rather trivial, philosophically speaking. My impression is that most AI engineers are philosophically more ambitious on behalf of their field. The driving force behind much of the research, it seems to me, is the dream of creating robots so sophisticated that we will feel forced to relate to them in a human-like fashion too.

As computer and robot technology evolves, automatons are getting better and better at mimicking human behaviour, and some day this may result in an entirely new situation: Some day we may be quite unable to tell the difference any more. What then? This question underlies much AI philosophy.

It may be true that technology is pushing in that direction. Some day robots may be so sophisticated that even the hardest Turing test wouldn’t unveil them. I am not questioning this (though I do find some of the wilder scenarios...well...wild, and don't think this is likely to become a reality any day soon). My objection, rather, is that even if it should become impossible for us to tell the difference between a human-to-human and a human-to-robot intercourse, it is far from evident that we also should stop seeing a difference here. That’s obscure; so let me put it like this: Empirically speaking we may be unable to tell whether we are talking to an automaton or another human being, but that doesn’t mean we would altogether stop distinguishing between, say, artificial and genuine conversations. That may happen -- it is a possible scenario -- but it doesn’t automatically follow. The distinction between the false and the real, the artificial and the genuine would undoubtedly play a very different role in peoples lives under such circumstances, but it isn’t self-evident that it would play no role at all.

That is the impression I sometimes get from reading arguments about the Turing test. The test is supposed to settle how we should view human-computer interaction. As long as we can see the difference, there really is an important difference here; but should the differences become invisible to us, then many of the distinctions we make between man and machine simply would evaporate. If a computer can fool us into treating it as an intelligent creature because we think it is an intelligent creature, then this truly proves computer intelligence, and we should perhaps stop talking about having been fooled altogether, and instead accept the computer as an intelligent interlocutor and regard our conversation with it as a genuine exchange of ideas. But this seems confused to me. This question cannot be determined by the Turing or any other empirical test. Whether computers are becoming more human-like in this sense, isn't an empirical question at all. How we relate to automatons is largely a normative question, not simply a question about computer sophistication. If this were true, a positive result on a Turing test would oblige us to engage with this computer in similar manners next time too, even though we now know that it is (only) a computer. That sounds like an odd obligation to me.

Let us imagine a Turing test situation turning into an argument. Say I present Ingmar Bergman as my all time favourite movie director, whereas my interlocutor prefers Woody Allen. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t hesitate to call this a disagreement. But if my interlocutor were a computer I would find that description...awkward, if nothing else. I am not saying that I would have a feeling of awkwardness while arguing (this computer is too sophisticated to give itself away like this). What I am saying, though, is that the idea of disagreeing or arguing with a computer sounds strange to me, the complexity of the computer notwithstanding. (If you prefer Allen to Bergman, I may disagree with you. Perhaps it would be hard for me to let go; I may brood on our quarrel days on end; think about arguments I used or failed to use; I may bring the issue up again next time we meet, and so on; but could I disagree with a computer in any way resembling this?) Imagine that you were looking over my shoulder knowing everything about my interlocutor. Perhaps you would describe my behaviour as “disagreeing or arguing with a computer,” but wouldn’t you also describe my anger and frustration as somewhat amusing and misplaced? I think I would if I were in your shoes -- or perhaps I would feel a little sorry for this person struggling to talk sense to a computer. And when the truth finally was revealed to me, wouldn’t I feel a little foolish? I would perhaps congratulate the manufacturers of the computer on their great accomplishment, but the feeling of having been fooled would hardly go away. In one sense I think it shouldn't go away, either. What sense is that? In the sense that I would be making a fool of myself were I to continue the argument knowing my interlocutor to be a computer.

mandag 24. september 2012

"For å bli berømt."

Dette innlegget er for en twitter-melding å regne -- a tweet, om jeg ikke tar helt feil av terminologien.

Jeg ønsker kun å si at denne kronikken er verdt å lese.

Hvorvidt kategorien "herostratisk forbrytelse" noen sinne vil finne veien inn i jussen, aner jeg ikke. Jeg tviler; men jeg tviler ikke på at fenomenet eksisterer -- jeg tror faktisk Stephen Cave kan ha rett i at:
Dersom Behring Breivik ble dømt som herostratos, kunne dét overbevist både ofre og potensielle etterapere ikke bare om at han ville bli holdt fengslet i lange tider -- men at han for all fremtid kun ville bli sett på som en forvirret, forfengelig bølle.
Ja, jeg er sågar tilbøyelig til å mene at dette burde bli historiens dom i denne konkrete saken.

onsdag 19. september 2012

”Også mennesker er dyr.”

Naturvitere betoner ofte biologiens betydning for menneskelig atferd. Det finnes både forsiktige og svært sterke varianter av denne holdningen. Få vil benekte at mye av det vi gjør har en rot i biologien, at det til dels består av dyriske drifter. Evolusjonsmessig er også vi animalske. Men noen går lenger. Humanzoologer nærmest fnyser av det modererende ”til dels”. Det er mulig, som Duncan Richter foreslår, at Lawrence Krauss ikke forsøkte å være radikal, men av og til er det som om det å sjokkere publikum er et mål i seg selv. "Jeg er zoolog," skiver Desmond Morris i Den nakne ape, hans notoriske klassiker fra 1967, ”og den nakne ape er et dyr. Den er derfor et lovlig bytte for min penn.” (Den nakne ape, s. 5) Og publikum lar seg sjokkere, noe som høster lite annet enn spott. Typisk oppkomlingers forfengelighet, heter det: "Fordi vi er så stormektige og fremgangsrike, har vi lett for å ta anstøt av å bli minnet om vår beskjedne opprinnelse," hevder Morris. "Vår klatring til topps har skjedd eventyrlig fort, og som alle oppkomlinger er vi litt ømskinnet når det gjelder vår bakgrunn. Det er ikke fritt for at vi fornekter den." (s. 228) Folks motforestillinger må altså skyldes manglende innsikt eller rett og slett vrangvilje. Men, forsikrer humanzoologene, omsider vil fornektelse og uvitenhet dø ut og fornuften vinne frem. Selv Darwin måtte jo kjempe før han brøt gjennom....

Mange så (og noen ser stadig) darwinismen som et angrep på Menneskets verdighet. Om dette skal en frustrert Charles Darwin ha skrevet: "Mennesket tenker i sin arroganse at det er en skapning som kvalifiserer til å være halvgud. Det er mer ydmykt, og mye sannere tror jeg, å betrakte mennesket som en etterkommer av dyrene." Ordene kan minne om Morris’ ord. Likevel er det viktige forskjeller på Darwins og Morris’ lære. Der Darwin brøt med oppfatningen av Mennesket som skapt i Guds bilde, der bryter Morris (for å være en anelse polemisk) med oppfatningen av Mennesket som menneske. Darwin omskrev naturhistorien; Morris leverer på sett og vis en ny antropologi. Som undertittelen på boken så treffende forteller, gjennomfører han ”En zoologisk studie av mennesket som dyreart”. Han studerer menneskelig atferd som funksjoner av evolusjonen. Mens Darwin beskrev Mennesket (homo sapiens) som en naturhistorisk dyreart, beskriver Morris menneskene (deg og meg) som avanserte dyr. Det er på den måten deres (altså din og min)atferd må forstås (Valget av grammatisk tredjeperson flertall er forøvrig ikke tilfeldig; slike påstander fremsettes helst i den formen.)

Ingen betviler at vi tilhører pattedyrarten homo sapiens, og at vi således er produkter av evolusjonen. Men hva sier dette om hvem vi er? I hvilken utstrekning kan evolusjonsbiologien hjelpe meg til å forstå meg selv for eksempel? Er evolusjonen et egnet tolkningsredskap for vår atferd? Kan den fortelle oss hva vi gjør og hvorfor? Morris svarer rungende ja, mens Darwin, tror jeg, nikker svært betinget. Darwins tilbakeholdenhet skyldes neppe at han ikke aksepterer "vår beskjedne opprinnelse."

Morris spør: "Hvordan hjelper vår seksuelle atferd oss til å overleve? Hvorfor oppfører vi oss som vi gjør, og ikke på en annen måte?" forsetter han. "Disse spørsmål kan vi kanskje lettere besvare hvis vi først stiller et annet: Hvordan er vår seksuelle atferd sammenlignet med andre nålevende primaters?" (s. 58) På denne måten ønsker han å kaste lys over, blant andre ting, selve seksualakten og det utbredte monogamiet.

Kropper i bevegelse og fysiologiske forandringer inngår i enhver seksuell aktivitet. Og ettersom våre kropper i mangt ligner de andre primatenes, så vil utvilsomt sammenlignende studier avdekke mange likheter (men også forskjeller). Her kan nok evolusjonsbiologien si oss en hel del. Alt dette er greit. Men er det ikke helt essensielt at vår seksualitet, til forskjell fra andre primaters, har betydning? Jeg mener ikke at seksualiteten bare i det ene tilfellet er av betydning for artens overlevelse. Jeg bruker ordet "betydning" i en mer hverdagslig forstand, som når vi spør hva et eller annet ord betyr, eller hva den og den gesten skal bety. Akkurat som med gester, er ikke seksualakten bare fysiske bevegelser. Mange forhold er med på å bestemme hva disse bevegelsene betyr. Sjimpanser parrer seg. Hvor parringsakten foregår, at den skjer i full offentlighet, i en dyrepark, for eksempel, spiller ingen rolle for hvordan vi vil beskrive atferden. Hos mennesker er det annerledes. Sex i friluft er én ting. Noe helt annet er det å gjøre det midt på lyse dagen i en offentlig park med barn til stede. Hvor vi befinner oss, hvem "vi" er og forholdet oss i mellom (om vi er ektefeller eller gift hver på vår kant, er nære slektninger, om har vi møtt hverandre i mørket uten å ane hvem den andre er), bare for å nevne noe, er medbestemmende for hva vi faktisk driver med. Mens aper parrer seg, så elsker mennesker. Eller sagt på en annen og mer presis måte: Mennesker hengir seg i heftig elskov, "gjør sin ekteskaplige plikt", "har seg med hverandre", "letter på trykket", har "one night stands", voldtar og mye annet. All den tid vi mennesker i Morris’ terminologi parrer oss, gjør vi i virkeligheten de forskjelligste ting. Parring forekommer -- men heller ikke da gjør vi det samme som apene. Når mennesker parrer seg, er det stort sett med ordet "bare" foran. ("Så lenge og hardt prøvde vi å lage et barn at det helt tok gleden fra oss. Vi elsket ikke lenger, vi parret oss!")

Det er innenfor små men avgjørende nyanser som dette menneskelivet utfolder seg. Ønsker man å portrettere den menneskelige eksistensen kreves det en viss sensitivitet for normative betydningsnyanser. Som sagt, jeg benekter ikke at mye av det vi gjør har en rot i biologien og til dels består av dyriske drifter. Jeg betviler heller ikke at evolusjons- og komparativ biologi kan vise oss disse likhetene. Det jeg påstår er at når Desmond Morris fnyser av det mordererende "til dels" resulterer det i et bilde man knapt kjenner seg igjen i. Enøyde studier av seksualitetens fysiske, kjemiske og evolusjonsbiologiske sider går med nødvendighet glipp av helt avgjørende dimensjoner ved menneskelig samkvem.

Monogami forekommer i fugleriket. Blant primatene er det er sjeldent. Dyr holder seg altså enten med én eller flere seksualpartnere, men er de noensinne trofaste eller utro? Kan vi si at fugler generelt er trofaste mens aper av natur er upålitelige og promiskuøse skapninger? Dersom en sjimpanse nøyde seg med én partner -- eller en keiserpingvin hold seg med flere -- ville dette forundre oss. "Artsutypisk atferd" hadde vi kalt det. Men hadde vi også sagt at den utypiske atferden avslørte noe om dybden i forholdet sjimpansene imellom? At disse sjimpansene (til forskjell fra sjimpanser flest) virkelig har forstått hva "samliv" betyr? Jeg tror de aller fleste kan enes om at dét vil være et mistak. Omtrent samme feil, bare med motsatt fortegn, gjør Desmond Morris seg skyldig i når han gjennomfører sin zoologiske studie av monogamiets plass hos menneskedyret.

"Å dømme etter vår arts atferd i dag," skriver Desmond Morris, "er det tydelig at tendensen [til sterk par-binding] bare delvis slo igjennom og at våre tidligere primat-tilbøyeligheter forsatt dukker opp i diverse former." (s. 35) Monogamiet er, som Morris observerer, den vanligste ordningen blant menneskene. På den andre siden er heller ikke sidesprang uvanlige. Altså (konkluderer han) er det tydelig at vår polygame primatnatur bare delvis er forsvunnet. Men, spør den fortvilte leseren, er det ikke utroskap du skriver om her Morris!? Gir det overhodet mening å kalle utroskap typisk eller utypisk for vår art? På én måte kanskje. På den måten at kun mennesker kan være trofast og utro. På den måten at dette er begreper vi forbeholder og trenger for å beskrive menneskelig samliv. Men hva utroskap, troskap og de fleste andre mellommenneskelige fenomener er og betyr, lar seg ikke forstå naturvitenskapelig. Hva det vil si for et menneske å gi etter for sin polygame primatnatur, kan ikke evolusjonsbiologien hjelpe oss med. Sett at Desmond Morris bedro sin kone og serverte henne denne leksen til forklaring -- det ville trolig gjøre vondt verre: "Hør på deg selv! Vil du jeg skal da dette på alvor!? Du har ikke forstått noen ting, du!" Forståelse krever nettopp alle de normative og nyanserte uttrykkene Morris ikke unner seg, uttrykk som har med tings betydninger å gjøre.

Å kalle en pingvin utro -- hvis vi legger noe dypere i valget av ord (og hva er det vel å legge noe dypere i dette ordet, om ikke nettopp å mene at sidespranget avslører noe viktig om samlivet til de to fuglene?) -- er å begå en klar antropomorfisme. Morris, hevder jeg, begår en lignende feil -- med motsatt fortegn. Selv om monogamiets fremvekst blant menneskene skulle kunne følges gjennom naturhistorien, så kan ikke evolusjonen si noe om hvorfor vi holder sammen og er trofaste, eventuelt begår ekteskapsbrudd og går fra hverandre, eller hvorfor det (fremdeles) finnes kulturer der polygami er vel ansett. Typisk nok, skriver Desmond Morris kun om "forelskelsens [biokjemiske] bindingsfunksjon", men ingenting om kjærlighet, og heller ingenting om fellesskap, tillit og forpliktelse. Kanskje kan vi si at Morris begår en zoomorfisme?

mandag 17. september 2012

Against Empiricism.

From time to time hard-nosed scientists claim that philosophical questions are either pseudo-questions or in the final analysis scientific questions. Presently philosophy is having a hard time justifying its existence, certainly among the sciences, so it is not surprising that ideas (or attacks) like these are being launched. Stephen Hawking'sThe Grand Design and The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris are just two recent book titles from the top of my head. Lawrence Krauss' book, A Universe from Nothing (which I haven't read yet), seems to be another one, judging by what the author says in this discussion with the philosopher Julian Baggini. Discussions like these are inevitable philosophical discussions, certainly not scientific discussions, and much of what is being said, frankly, is not very impressive.

"I do think factual discoveries can resolve even moral questions," answers Krauss when Baggini protests that this is never possible:
Take homosexuality, for example. Iron age scriptures might argue that homosexuality is "wrong", but scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately "wrong".
If science has discovered that homosexuality is biologically based, has it also discovered that there can be nothing innately "wrong" about it? Krauss seems to think so. But this only follows if nothing biologically based can ever be wrong. I take that to be obviously false; at least it cannot be taken for granted that everything science deems "natural" is morally O.K. -- that remains to be investigated. And science cannot help us in this investigation. Which questions science can answer for us, after all, isn't itself a scientific question. Whether factual discoveries about biology ever can settle a question of right or wrong, cannot itself be settled by a factual discovery. Questions like this must be approached with moral sensibility, "seriousness of mind" (to borrow Baggini's phrase), and, of course, we need some examples to think about. As I said, if we bother to do investigation, I take it, it would become quite obvious that Krauss' argumentation is muddled. Take murder, for example. According to one Iron age scripture "Thou shalt not kill." But looking at the frequency of violent behaviour in a variety of species suggest that violence is completely natural. Murder looks biologically based in some sense. Does it therefore look like there can be nothing innately "wrong" about it?

I am not arguing that homosexuality is wrong. Far from it. I completely agree that it isn't; for me this isn't even a question. What I am saying, though, is that I don't agree for scientific reasons. Think about it: If science were to stumble on counter-evidence, suggesting that homosexuality isn't as "natural" as we now assume, would you automatically fall back on condemning it? Facts of nature simply doesn't determine our moral thinking in this way. It is rather the other way round. Our moral outlook determines which parts of nature we deem good and which bad. -- I am not denying that facts of nature and scientific discoveries may help shaping our normative thinking in certain ways (morality, after all, isn't isolated from the rest of our thinking), but not in the straightforward fashion Lawrence Krauss imagines.

But Krauss says more startling things than this. For example this:
We have an intellect and can therefore override various other biological tendencies in the name of social harmony. However, I think that science can either modify or determine our moral convictions. The fact that infidelity, for example, is a fact of biology must, for any thinking person, modify any "absolute" condemnation of it.
Krauss seems to regard it as thoughtless to condemn your spouse if catching him/her cheating on you. Your instant reaction would certainly be angry, but calm down and give it a little reflection and you will realise that condemnation would be inappropriate. The argument isn't that every unfaithful spouse has good reasons to be unfaithful. Reasons like that can be imagined. If a woman had been forced to leave her lover and into a marriage with a man she despised, I think it could be both insensitive and not very understanding to condemn her adultery. But such contexts have nothing to do with it, on Krauss' account. Infidelity is, as he puts it, a fact of biology, therefore it would be thoughtless to condemn any transgression in absolute terms.

Calling infidelity a fact of biology sounds confused to me. Part of the problem is that "infidelity" so evidently is a moral term. If infidelity were a fact of biology, we should expect to find it all over nature. But can we even imagine science discovering infidelity among cats, chimpanzees or penguins? That's not only unlikely, it would be a misuse of language to say something like that. Calling chimpanzees unfaithful you are either moralising the behaviour of wild animals or you are using words from the moral language without their familiar contents. Calling polygamy a fact of nature, sounds less wrong. But then Krauss' moral conclusion reveals itself as a non-sequitur. From polygamy being a fact of biology it simply doesn't follow that "any thinking person must modify any absolute condemnation of infidelity". Krauss' argument, it seems to me, consists, at least in part, of nothing more than mixing up moral and scientific terms.

When Krauss argues that being a biological tendency is a reason for modifying any absolute condemnations of infidelity, I guess the underlying thought is that we can only hold someone entirely responsible if their actions are absolutely free. Since we often act according to hard-wired neurobiological tendencies, "[a] retreat to moral judgement too often assumes some sort of illusionary belief in free will," says Krauss. I will not deny that this may be true in certain cases, but can this really be the default position? Let me put it like this: Is it true that whenever we hold someone responsible for whatever they do, we do so only because we tend to overlook the undercurrent of biological and psychological urges that splashes around underneath everyone's conscious and rational minds? If I caught you cheating on me, would your explaining yourself in terms of "biological tendencies" make me less prone to condemn you? Not likely, as that would be my first guess -- if you didn't want to sleep with this man, why on earth do it? Had you not desired to sleep with him, but, say, been forced to bed, that would have provoked a different reaction. If true, that explanation would (I certainly think it should) replace my anger with something like pity. But explaining that you simply desired to sleep with him, wouldn't have anything like that effect. If this is what Krauss argues, then his moral intuitions simply are alien to me. To me this looks like sheer nonsense. What angers me, after all, is that you gave in to your desires.

"If I don't know what my actions will produce, then I cannot make a sensible decision about whether they are moral or not." And as we never can be absolutely certain what our actions will produce, the implication of what Krauss says, is that we never can make sensible decisions about whether our actions are moral or not. Or, that isn't entirely true, actually. Having seen the consequences we can always look back. What we cannot do, according to Krauss, is assessing the moral value of any actions beforehand. Applied, again, to the infidelity case, this suggests that whether cheating is wrong or not depends entirely on the spouse's reaction. If my wife is furious, then my adultery was wrong; if she is understanding and smiling, I have done nothing worth mentioning. This is ridiculous. Consequences are often important in morality. But Krauss has taken this truth and gone wild with it. It doesn't fit reality, nor does it sit well with other things Krauss says himself. Just a moment ago he said that my wife, as far as she is a thinking person, couldn't condemn my infidelity because this is a biological fact. Now he seems to suggest that if she do condemn my action, that reaction of hers would make my adultery morally wrong, and thereby prove that condemnation would be the appropriate reaction after all....

What is morally good simply cannot be a question of results alone, certainly not a question of what produces "social harmony" (whatever Krauss takes that to be). In that case we would have reasons for condemning infidelity, rape, violence, xenophobia, racism -- or any other of the so called natural human traits -- only if they disturbed social harmony. If they served some idea of social harmony, rather than disrupted it, however, we would be without reasons for complaints. This surely is turning everything up-side down. Morality isn't a servant of social harmony. What serves social harmony doesn't determine what is morally good. Au contraire! Morality, I argue, is the judge by which we decide what sort of social harmony is worth pursuing.