Why are we here? Not just the big question. The little question. Why are we gathered here today? What is the relationship between these questions? What is the difference in perspective between the big and little “why are we here?”? Is it unfair to say that it is only a matter of perspective? I ask that you take this moment to take three deep breaths with me. It occurred to me to jokingly ask how many breaths I could get out of this audience, or how many collective breaths there are until the bloc of 20 minutes is up and whether or not that might provide a larger benefit to the audience than the rest of this paper.[i] And I think this is a good paper. We need to take more care in our understanding of broader conceptions, especially those with pretensions because of the increasing complexity involved as scale increases, and I will try to tie together why we are here as philosophers with why we are here at all.
Let us start small. You presumably chose to be here, to listen/read. Hopefully you had some good reasons. If the conceptual objects being sustained in your thought stream now are intensely personal, striking to the core of how your identity is defined, good for you. Philosophy is as philosophy does. What is a philosopher other than one who philosophizes. It certainly is not the paycheck or the pedigree that makes the philosopher lest we omit greats like Socrates, arguably the father of western philosophy. But really this is just a rationalization, confabulatory even. We do not really know why we are here. We do not really know what compels us to write and listen. No you say, I had good reason to be here. It was this, that, and the other thing. But who or what determined the value you fundamentally place on the smallest units of your decision making process? It could not be the conscious you. Whence has your rubric come? From what source do you derive your orienting values?
Surely we will want to be as accurate as possible. We will want our assessments to be meaningfully true, to represent fairly what we might call objective reality. I am going to assume that I am not a figment in your imagination and that you are not a figment in mine, and that therefore a reality exists independently of your or my awareness of it. Given then that we seem to be little tiny bits of reality, it should be rather uncontroversial to say that reality or existence is vastly greater than any one of us at the moment.
If we want to be confident that something is true then it is easier if what we are trying to test or verify is first, verifiable even in principle, and furthermore more limited in scope than not. It can be safely said that the more limited the scope of the question the more likely we are to agree on the veracity of any particular answer. Without resorting to doing violence to the common meanings of the words we use, the vast majority of us would be compelled to agree to and even attest to the truth of a rather large number statements, many of which would be rather trivially so, like this piece of paper is white.
The class of true statements that most of us find interesting are those that are not trivially true. They often say something about larger chunks of reality or how we would like to think these relate to each other, or how they might be organized into some structural whole. The only problem is that the more a statement or argument purports to say, i.e. the larger the scope of the claim, the more likely that our cognitive and perceptual tools will have a relatively diminished ability to verify such a claim. So the biggest and most important assertions that we make consciously, and even more importantly subconsciously; the stories, doctrines and patterns that we are most likely to use to guide our behavior because they are the context into which we place our entire lives, these concepts are precisely those most likely to be untrue.
What does this mean? How does this repercuss, so to speak? There is a clear difference between certitude and certainty. Let us try not to confuse the former for the latter. Let us practice withholding final judgments and be humble and tentative in our metaphysical speculations. How does such a stance take shape? If most of what we think we know, is exactly that, what we think we know, not what we actually know; if much of what we “know” is wrong or unfounded, what do we know or what can we know? We know for example that we cannot trust revelation[ii], and that belief in supernatural agency is more explicable than supernatural agency itself. Just like the childhood belief in the boogeyman is more explicable than the existence of an actual boogeyman. All supernatural belief is speculative. As such, it is entirely inappropriate to take seriously any of the various claims to a monopoly on Truth (with a capital “T”). We certainly know that eliminationist rhetoric, promoting the conclusion of a debate by physically eliminating the opposition is wrong. In fact, it seems we need the exact opposite. Exactly because we are so limited, so prone to error, and so talented in “knowing” we are the ones that are right, that caring about the actual truth requires us to place the utmost value on evidence, dissent and disagreement to give us a chance to be less wrong collectively. As Richard Feynman said, “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Fortunately, as a species, we have jury-rigged some workaround systems in seeking arenas of accountability, the most successful of which appear to be science, democracy, courts, and markets. Unfortunately it is increasingly clear that as markets became distorted by the oligarchical power of increasingly consolidated multinational corporations an era of high corruption was soon to follow with consequences in the operation and perception of each of the four accountability arenas. I have written and spoken elsewhere on the known uncertainties and certainties addressing our species collectively and our duty as American and global citizens to become more politically aware and engaged as our political class gets away with torture and mass murder[iii], the gap between scientific and public opinion on key issues like global warming continue to grow[iv], and the American Dream circles the toilet drain.[v] So we will assume temporarily that our serious problems as a nation and species will go away on their own, perhaps abetted by the exponential acceleration of technological development and ignore the call to actively stand with our brothers and sisters in Egypt standing up to authoritarian power there as Americans probably should here.
We will forego then what might be considered the most pragmatic approach (let’s do something right now). Zooming out, we are confronted by a situation in which philosophy in general has become increasingly viewed as largely irrelevant to both the concerns of everyday persons and the needs of the scientific community. If we care about truth, we care about the state of the world and the relationship the human species has to it. We must not forego combating untruths and misinformation wherever we find them, least of all here, but we should not spend all of our time in our ivory tower bogged down in abstract and esoteric debates that ignore the very real suffering of real persons. As members of an interconnected species we are all in this together.
A tremendous opportunity exists. Science has become the clear leader in building the broadest possible consensus of rational thought, mapping and explaining the world around us with the fewest possible assumptions. But it is humble and abashed. Good scientists abound and constantly fret about overstating their case or making specific policy prescriptions for fear of tarnishing their reputations as scientists and being no longer seen as the pursuers of truth no matter which way it leads, as they so strive to be. We need to take science and scientists seriously. And apparently they need our help. We need to forcefully make the normative claims that many opine science is incapable of making, as if, the truth, i.e. what has been consistently and reliably shown to be the case, were not relevant in deciding what we should do and how we should behave as individuals and as a species. I have said elsewhere:
“William James argues that rather than believe nothing he would rather be duped repeatedly in the hope each time that he’s been blessed with knowledge. I would argue that each time William James or anyone else really believes an incorrect belief, in doing so they make it less likely that they will be able to recognize a different hypothesis or theory that better aligns itself with the evidence. To make a computer analogy, religious belief is outdated software.a The inconsistency with the external world is combated by mechanisms specifically evolved to banish conflicting facts or alternative views because in some cases they are considered “of the devil”. In fact, contrary to the James’s implication that beliefs often cycle, the opposite tendency is so strong that there is a saying in science that it progresses one death at a time. As the rate of technological development increases, wisdom becomes more salient and the ability to change our society to fit the world more important. To reiterate then one of the primary benefits of Clifford at James’ expense, it is not solely the content of belief that matters, but the rigidity with which it is held.
Dogma cannot provide a non-arbitrary foundation for ethics, but where does uncertainty get us? Uncertainty gets us all sorts of goodies, especially if we consider the question of values in general to be an empirical question of the proper way to treat each other according to the growing scientific knowledge about emotional health and wellbeing as Sam Harris would argue. But even without immediately running to the data, accepted and acceptable uncertainty is breathing room. It is the space we need for an open and ongoing discussion about ethics, survival, and the human species. It is freedom from the shackles of our long history of various claims of absolute truth, spiritual and otherwise. Uncertainty is tentativity. If the best understanding of the world by our greatest minds is in constant revision shouldn’t our own understanding of the world be in constant revision? How often do you update your software?”[vi]
We need to find where we as individuals fit in an ecological understanding of philosophy and where philosophy fits in the ecology of knowledge, society and human survival. Way back when, Nietzsche foretold the death of God, when society would no longer be able to ground itself in absolutes. The time is long overdue to take non-tautological/non-mathematical absolutes for what they are, remnants of God. With advances in our understanding like evolution and fractal geometry we can see quite clearly how complexity (even infinite complexity) can arise from iterations of relatively simple algorithms and that this makes resorting to a divine creator in our descriptive understanding of the universe intellectually superfluous at best.
The religious amongst us most of all seem to be entirely ignorant of the history of religious belief and how it has changed through time. First the gods were everywhere and as humans explored, gods retreated to the mountaintops, and then to the sky, and finally by the time we realized that our planet is a lonely speck in a vast cosmos God retreated into an abstract transcendent realm. Regardless of the fact that God has always been an “of the gaps” variety, this is quite fine by me, I do not see much of a difference between pantheism and atheism in how the universe they describe would look, but there is possibly a related but non-dependent psychological difference between being alone and being alone together. It might be easier as a practical matter to implement and sustain a healthy reverence for life and existence from a pantheist or Spinozan perspective.
However, I see less and less import from a pragmatic point of view in quibbling about the existence of God. God is a sentiment. A sentiment like any other lens or ideology progressively less amenable to change through reason as we age.[vii] I am entirely comfortable siding with some of the great mystics and spiritual teachers against the tribal fundamentalists of all religions. We can reach people we otherwise would not be able to if we can talk to them in a language of a God that we can show them they do not understand; speaking of God in the Einsteinian sense and indistinguishable from reality or the entirety of existence.[viii] God is the sum total of everything, and the sum total of everything is by definition a mystery to any limited creature. [ix]
Since at least James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience it must have been quite clear to many that religious dogma makes rather many more claims than the religious feeling upon which it is founded. That people have experiences that make them feel like the existence of God is undeniably true seems undeniably true. That any of these experiences should be interpreted to support the biblical notion that a woman who is not a virgin on her wedding night should be stoned to death is patently ridiculous.[x] In fact it should be as transparently ridiculous that any of these experiences should be taken to support the truth of any one particular religion, however psychologically understandable it might be that people would take their anecdotal evidence of divinity as support for whatever unprovable mutually exclusive doctrine they were inculcated with as children.[xi] The tragicomic end to many debates with the religious of North America is the evocation, when reason has failed them, of “God works in mysterious ways.” This seems to be a rather crucial juncture to arrive at, because if it is in fact the case that God works in mysterious ways then the faithful should be forced to openly confess that they do not in fact know that any of their religious claims are true. If magic is real then all bets are off. We are as unable to distinguish between competing religious images of God when positing her existence as when we more parsimoniously view existence without the need to assume divine intervention. As William James once said,
“the logical reason of man operates in this field of divinity exactly as it has always operated in love, or in patriotism, or in politics, or in any other of the wider affairs of life, in which our passions or our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand. It finds arguments for our conviction, for indeed it HAS to find them. It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it and lends it words and plausibility. It hardly ever engenders it; it cannot now secure it.”[xii]
Religion likely serves an entirely different purpose than one of explanation. We should try to be generous and always try to address the content of the claims of those who oppose us in argument and likewise submit our own propositions to at least an internal cross-examination for its possible psychological drives.[xiii] Regardless, the upshot of the logical indistinguishability of unverifiable, mutually exclusive claims to absolute truth given the existence of God on one hand or its absence on the other behooves us to treat each other how someone like Carl Sagan would; with recognition that indeed now more than ever we are all in this together as a species, with all our eggs in one basket. We are one bad asteroid strike from having all the intelligent life we have found in the universe wiped out.[xiv] And as individuals we are without any non-arbitrary foundation for treating other persons differently than we would have others treat us.
Wherever we are, whatever we think we believe we should be able to recognize that the certainty of our beliefs is more psychological than real. It is absurd to think that what we think could have the certainty that a mathematical proof has. The pragmatic tradition argues that humans as a species think in order to believe, i.e. belief properly understood is thought at rest, such that it can provide rules for action. I am trying to cultivate a practice acceptance of uncertainty, of tentativity when a proposition seems more likely than not.
Our only effective response to this uncertainty is collective, super-organismic really. A single neuron is structurally incapable of picking out the salient features of the environment to protect the life of a complex multi-cellular organism. It can only do so through organization with other neurons such that there is a constant bi-directional feedback loop in the system.[xv] Similarly the human species having stepped outside of non-internal predatory constraints like a colony of bacteria in a flask will grow until the resources to sustain human life are consumed and the species will collapse unless we become collectively organized to behave intelligently in the environment that the species finds itself (to say nothing of the cannibalization of the many by the few). No lone prophet or thinker will be able to show us the way. And if our collective process begins to have a homological and not merely analogical relationship with multi-cellular organisms there are certain things that we might predict about its development. If consciousness is itself a certain special kind of sensory apparatus of complex processing for which it acts as a global workspace for various parts of the mind to communicate with each other,[xvi] the most noble goal that philosophy can aspire to is to work toward becoming this global workspace for our species. Philosophy can and should be the place through which the species comes to know itself. To take this project seriously is to take the sensory apparatus of the species seriously. The only sensory apparatus of the species worth its salt is scientific because it is the only reliable and transmissible form of relatively accurate information about the universe including us. It is not difficult to speculate on the various organs of a nascent superorganism. Humans have organized into progressively higher order units. There does not seem to be any good reason to assume that to be a trend that does not continue.[xvii]
However, depending on how one defines purpose, function may or may not be a helpful aspect in how one contemplates one’s existence, but it can describe how we got here and where we might be going. This paper is attempting to do something recursive rather than lineal. No story has a happy ending because all your achievements are going to dissolve and you are going to die; no matter how many millions you have in the bank it becomes meaningless.[xviii] We are not here for the story we tell ourselves about who we are. Our life has no externally dictated meaning. We breathe meaning into our lives on a moment by moment basis. Likewise just like a fractal we can see self-similarity of this pattern on a larger scale, zooming out arbitrarily far, certainly past and including the level of any superorganism. Life itself has no externally dictated meaning. Meaning is breathed into life on a moment by moment basis by the fields of awareness that inhabit it. But at the end of the day, we don’t really know. Our individual conceptions of the universal will always fail us. Like infants we may be able to hold a certain field of view, but incapable of containing the context that makes sense of everything.
The biggest favor you can pay me is to show me I am wrong, but of course I cannot take your word for it. I hope you are still fully here.
a “That religious belief may have been evolutionarily successful in a tribal world, does not mean it does not have very real and damaging consequences in a modern world that desperately needs to work together to solve problems, but is plagued by a social world unnecessarily splintered by the tribal mind.”
[vii] The weight of reinterpreting all of one’s past experiences in a new light becomes too great.
[viii] In this context mathematics is the language of God. It is the language in which the physical universe speaks to us. Physicists are quite clear that words are a rather poor translation of the direct type of understanding that an equation like a quantum wave function imparts.
[ix] This can be rather fun actually. It makes it entirely conceptually consistent to say that every human is equally God. Who are we when we stop defining ourselves by our mental content?
[x] “But if … evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones…” (Deuteronomy 22:20,21)
[xi] This is also an opportunity to ask where they think their morality comes from if they undeniably pick and choose biblical prescriptions.
[xii] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985. Print.
[xiii] When debating insist on principle that your opponent declare publicly that she recognizes that it is at the very least a logical possibility that she is wrong. Otherwise you might realize you are not having a debate at all.
[xiv] If it is a large enough asteroid to destroy human life, it is likely to destroy bottle-nosed dolphin life as well (the second most intelligent species on the planet). Leake, Jonathan. “Scientists Say Dolphins Should Be Treated as ‘non-human Persons’ – Times Online.” The Times | UK News, World News and Opinion. 3 Jan. 2010. Web. 01 Feb. 2011. <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/article6973994.ece>.
[xvii] I have skirted the issue on our merger with technology and the question of black swans entirely.