thenapkinnotes

@TheNapkinNotes

Howdy! I'm currently studying math and philosophy at Tufts University, and I hope to make others appreciate philosophy as much as I have come to.

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What can we be certain of? (feat. René Descartes)

Probably a lot less than you think. Today, we'll look at the thoughts of René Descartes', a French philosopher who lived in the early 1600s and went to extreme lengths to answer this question. He was interested in finding out what beliefs are truly undoubtable because philosophical reasoning, just like mathematics, is built on foundational beliefs. These beliefs are those that are self-evidently true, so they are the only sure points of thought that we can construct the rest of our beliefs on. For example, if it's self-evidently true needless suffering is bad, then that belief could function as a starting point to construct the rest of our beliefs around, and if there were other self-evident truths, then we could construct even more beliefs around those as well. The idea is that if you use rigorous logical reasoning in constructing your other beliefs from the most fundamental truths, then all of your conclusions are definitely true. And because your conclusions are true, then you can find out even more true things from those conclusions. If you repeat this over and over, you can come to discover many truths about reality. This method is called deductive reasoning. Descartes agreed that this is how we determine what is true or false, but he felt that philosophers of previous generations held beliefs in things that wouldn't hold up under intense scrutiny, and if their most fundamental beliefs weren't true, then how could he trust that their conclusions were true? Troubled by this, he wrote a book called "Meditations on First Philosophy," where he inquired about everything he couldn't be absolutely certain of.

By everything, I mean absolutely everything.

We might think we are justified in believing that there are rocks and trees outside, but then again, our senses are open to deception at any time. How can you be absolutely sure that you weren't drugged earlier on in the day? Even things like sounds, colors, and shapes are things that we couldn't be absolutely certain of while under the influence. Descartes decided that he couldn't be certain in believing that anything in the external world exists, not even the people he talks to, because there is always the possibility that he is dreaming. We've all probably had a dream so vivid that it felt real, only to wake up in a shock because we thought we didn't experience anything that was actually real. In our dream, we thought we were living in the real world, that the objects and even people we talked to were real, but as it turned out, we were walking on a ground that didn't exist and talking to people that didn't exist either. If your dream world seemed like the real world, how could you be sure that you find yourself in the real world right now? Ultimately, Descartes believed that we have absolutely no way to be certain that the external world exists at all.
...But he wasn't quite satisfied with that. He felt that we could doubt even more things besides the external world: mathematical truths. He thought that, even in a dream, mathematical propositions (statements about whether something is true or false) are self-evidently true. That is, there is no way to reason that 1+1 equals anything besides 2 when we are dreaming because that's a proposition nearly fundamental to mathematical thinking--how could 1+1 equal anything else? Descartes wondered if there were any way that we could be wrong about what mathematical truths exist, and as a result created one of philosophy's most iconic thought experiments: Descartes' evil demon. I've reproduced a translation of parts of it below:

"...I shall then suppose... some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me; I shall consider that the heavens, the earth, colours, figures, sound, and all other external things are naught but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity; I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to possess all these things..."

This is the pinnacle of Descartes' skepticism. Through his evil Demon, Descartes found that we cannot be certain of not only the external world, but also mathematical truths. How? Descartes reasons that the evil demon can actively inhibit his mind's ability to perform truly rational thought. So, whenever we prove something in mathematics, there is actually a mistake in our line of thought because the evil demon is messing with us, rendering all of our results false. 1+1 could very well equal 5 or 10 or even pi. There's no way to be absolutely sure.
At this point, Descartes had doubted everything except one thing: his own existence. He realized that doubting his own existence was self-defeating because the act of doubting requires someone to do the doubting. Even if he were locked in an eternal struggle with an evil demon, he could never doubt that he himself is able to doubt, so he must exist. At the end of his ruthless skepticism, Descartes had finally found one belief that was surely undoubtable and truly foundational. This is where we get the famous quote "I think, therefore I am," which more accurately should be "I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am". Through this thought experiment, Descartes had begun to lay the foundation for epistemology, one of philosophy's most important fields. Over the next couple centuries, many philosophers debated over the question of what is the nature of truth and how we can come to discover those truths, and in science, epistemology helped formulate and define the limits of the scientific method.
That's going to wrap it up for this week. If you haven't already, make sure to read last week's post about if it's reasonable to fear your own death. Next week's might have something to do with applied ethics.

Is It Reasonable to Fear Your Own Death?

As our ultimate end, the question of whether we should fear our own death is a question that should be of the utmost importance to us. Everything that lives will die, and everything that has died once lived. Yet, it seems like a question that most people devote relatively low amounts of thought to--whenever I ask someone about their opinion on this, I usually get one of two answers to the effect of: "yes, obviously" or "no, obviously." I often wonder how intelligent people considering the same issue can reach opposite conclusions with such conviction, so I want to set this debate on rigorous grounds. To me, the question of whether we should fear our own death seems like a perfect primer into the nature of philosophical discussions, and in general, one of the most important questions we could ask ourselves.

To frame this discussion, there are a couple definitions to lay down first.
1) By 'death,' we take this to mean the period of time that one is actually dead, not the actual process of dying.
2) 'death' is the permanent lack of sense experience (so we're assuming no afterlife here). Even if you do believe in an afterlife, you should still read ahead. The discussion ahead of us is insightful, interesting, and best of all, it will only take about 5 minutes to read. What's not good about that?

The beginning of our journey takes us around 2300 years into the past, to the time of the Ancient Greeks, and to a man named Epicurus in particular, who famously said that he would be content with only "water, bread, weak wine, and a pot of cheese." Epicurus believed it was irrational to fear death. His reasoning was that we can only experience things while we are living, and because death can only happen when we are not living, we cannot experience it. How could something we can't experience be bad in any way for us? To jog our mind, we should think up examples of things that are clearly bad for us and see if experiencing "badness" (which we'll call harm) is a necessary part of the harm. Imagine something like touching a hot skillet and getting burned. Is it bad for us? Clearly, but why is it bad for us? Clearly as before, it's because touching the skilled will cause us pain. Let's consider another example. Now, imagine an event where someone finds out that their partner is cheating on them. This clearly seems bad for the one getting cheated on because the cheating is emotionally damaging. If we can't think of any situations where someone is harmed but doesn't experience it, perhaps it's true that something can only be bad for us if we can experience it. Then, because being dead is, by definition, something that we can't experience, we shouldn't fear it. Epicurus sums up his point nicely when he says: "So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist."

There are probably some of you reading this that aren't quite convinced by the idea that you must experience something for it to be bad for you. What if someone never found out that their partner cheated on them? It seems as if that is bad for the one being cheated on, but if they never find out about it, in what way are they experiencing this harm? To complicate matters even more, it seems that under the Epicurean view of "being harmed" as something that must be experienced, you aren't actually harmed by someone cheating on you until you actually find out. So, it seems that you should never tell a friend that they're being cheated on, because only in the moment of you telling them about it are they being harmed. In fact, it may even be the case under this view that you are the one harming them, not their partner, because you caused them to have knowledge of their partner's infidelity, something that would have never brought about emotional pain if you never told them in the first place. As another example, imagine that you buy a winning lottery ticket, but you never find out that the ticket you bought was a winner. You aren't aware of what you've missed out on, yet you clearly seem harmed in some way. To say otherwise would be to imply that you are just as well off receiving the lottery winnings vs. not even knowing that you won. This, along with the cheating example, seems like quite an absurd implication of Epicurus' view, and we're definitely not alone in thinking along these lines. In his essay "Death," (which, by the way, is a fantastic name for an article in an academic journal) Thomas Nagel, a philosophy professor at NYU, argued basically the same point as this. His other argument can be summed up as: if life is generally a good thing, and death causes us to lose that good thing, then isn't death bad for us? I'll leave you to consider that argument. If it sounds obviously right, then think about why it's genuinely the case that I don't find it convincing. A key part of philosophizing is examining our own beliefs, and we stand a much better chance at getting to the truth of any matter if we question not only others' views, but also our own. When you think about this, try honestly to attack your own arguments and see if they hold up. As a hint into why I don't find Nagel's argument convincing, try thinking about how we drew the distinction between death, being dead, and dying, and how each event affects us and our well-being.

Lastly, I want to talk about Stephen Luper's essay "Annihilation," (also excellently named) which I think is an incredibly interesting argument against Epicurus.
Luper believes that for someone to ascribe fully to the Epicurean view of death, then they must become someone that we should not aspire to be. Specifically, for us to be indifferent to death and to believe, as Epicurus said, that "death is nothing to us," we must not have any fulfilling desires, nor any desires that could be thwarted by death. If Epicureans think that only the experience of bad things can be bad for you, they must believe that their own death is bad because when they imagine it, they are also imagining the end of their desires. Desires such as the desire to visit interesting places, the desire to talk with our friends, and even the desire to hear Logic put out a decent album again. Contemplating death should make us feel depressed because we are contemplating the event that will, with certainty, crush our desires. So, our own death must be bad for us because it thwarts our desires. This brings about quite a dilemma: to truly be indifferent to death, your desires must either be incredibly shallow and unfulfilling, or they are only conditional on you being alive. The first option sounds like a terrible way to experience life because you would deprived of anything good, and the second option doesn't sound appealing either because it demands that we live heartless lives. For example, imagine the Epicurean Mother, someone who’s support for her children is conditional on her being alive. When she is alive, she desires to be there for her children and help them, but at the same time, that is the limit of her desire because if she wished to always support her children, then her death will eventually thwart that desire. For her truly to feel indifferent towards death, she must only desire to support her children while she is alive. This surely isn't the type of person we would want to be, so we ought to fear our own death. There's much more to say here, but rather than hand you my thoughts, I want you to try and think about Luper's argument yourself and see if it's a good counterargument to Epicurus.

I hope you come away from this discussion on Epicurus', Nagel's, and Luper's arguments with a more informed understanding of what it means to fear one's own death, and whether it's something reasonable to do. If you want to think about this more and see how Luper's and Nagel's arguments fit into this debate, here is a rigorous formulation of Epicurus' argument put forth by philosopher Stephen Rosenbaum when he defended Epicurus in his "How to Be Dead and Not Care" (also excellently named).

Epicurus' Argument, Formalized:
A) A state of affairs is bad for a person P only if P can experience it at some time
Therefore,
B) Being dead is bad for P only if P can experience it at some time
C) P can experience things only before they die
D) P's being dead is not a state of affairs that begins before P dies
Therefore,
E) P's being dead is not bad for P

Framework of the Debate:
1) Life is, on the whole, good
2) One ceases to exist during death
3) -Dying is a process that leads to Death
-Death is the point in time that a person becomes dead
-Being Dead is the state of affairs after death

Do you agree with Epicurus? With Nagel? With Luper? Let me know by clicking "Guestbook" near the top left of the page and leaving a comment. Do you have some entirely different argument altogether? Go ahead and leave a comment--I'd love to hear it.
By the way, I'm still debating over what to choose for next week's topic. It could be "what is the nature of friendship? Of love?" or "Is abortion morally permissible? In what contexts?" or "Are morals really relative?" or "What does metaethics even mean? It doesn't sound like a real thing." If you have any suggestions at all for a topic, even if it's different from the ones I've just listed, let me know!

If you want to read more, here are my sources. They can get quite technical and long, so I recommend reading summaries of them:
Epicurus, "Letters to Menoeceus"
Thomas Nagel, "Death"
Steven Luper, "Annihilation"
Stephen Rosenbaum, "How to Be Dead and Not Care"

If you want to read more about this topic, try looking up summaries of:
George Pitcher, "The Misfortunes of the Dead" (a good introduction to some metaphysical ideas)
Bernard Williams, "The Makropulous Case: reflections on the tedium of immortality" (another excellent title)

What is Philosophy?

I was speaking with a relative of mine back in August about what I'm studying at college when the conversation took an unexpected turn: he had never heard of the word "philosophy." I probably shouldn't have been all that surprised because he has about a 5th grade education, and only learned English through his time in the armed forces when he was much younger. Despite this, I was still completely surprised and caught without a satisfying answer because it seems like everyone I've ever met has at least a preconceived intuitive idea of what philosophy is. My relative represented the first time in my life that I could explain one of my passions in a way that does it justice, to someone that doesn't have any "corrupting" pre-existing notions of what philosophy is. My mouth came up with some ramblings about how philosophy is the study of how different people think about the world, which isn't entirely inaccurate, but doesn't capture the complexity and rigor of the subject.
For a more formal idea of what philosophy is, we need to identify its core areas. They can often seem completely unrelated to each other, but loosely explained, the core areas of philosophy are:

Aesthetics--the study of the nature of art and beauty
Logic--the study of rigorous reasoning
Ethics--the study of what is good and bad
Metaphysics--the study of being, existence, what is possible, and the nature of reality
Epistemology--the study of the limitations and nature of knowledge

To motivate a more intuitive feeling for these areas, I've listed below a few philosophical questions and then included the relevant fields in parentheses. There are more specialized fields, such as political philosophy, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of science, or (my personal favorite piece of terminology) metametaphysics, and they can seem quite far removed from our 5 core areas, but they are ultimately combinations of our original core areas.

What obligations do we have to future generations? (Ethics, Metaphysics)
Does the external world exist? (Epistemology)
What is the right thing to do in X situation? (Ethics)
How should we judge art? (Aesthetics)
What does it mean to have free will, and do we have it? (Metaphysics)
What is the nature of mathematical objects? (Metaphysics, Epistemology)
What should be the purpose of art? (Ethics, Aesthetics)
Why is science as a method successful, and what are its limitations? (Epistemology, Metaphysics)
What makes something beautiful? (Aesthetics)
Is it reasonable to fear one's own death? (Metaphysics)

Hopefully you now understand the essence of these areas of philosophy and why the definition I gave my relative isn't quite right. I'm still not sure how I would capture philosophy in a simple definition, but that's one of the reasons I started this blog--to better acquaint myself (and others) with the nature of philosophy.

Still, we need to answer an important question: why should we spend our time studying this? Isn't it just some vague ramblings and opinions, none of which can ever be proven, and are entirely dependent on one's definitions? Even if there are "correct" answers, how can we arrive at those conclusions? What practical effect does philosophy have in the real world? I obviously can't answer all of these questions now, but in an effort to satisfy some of these issues, I have something to say. Philosophy is an incredibly rigorous subject (my class on metaethics uses the same symbolic logic to reach conclusions that my rigorous proof-based math classes do), and an important one as well. Western democracy was literally born from the thought experiments of philosophers. Science? Philosophers established the scientific method and understood its limits. Do you believe that we need to preserve the Earth for future generations? As it turns out, it's quite hard to have a logical foundation for this claim without believing that you can affect people that don't yet exist. Even answering seemingly simple questions like "what makes someone a friend?" is intrinsically tied to living a good life and can lead us to some quite insightful ideas if our views are challenged with the right questions. My hope is that we'll all stop having conversations like these:

*I'm in my dentist's office and lay my book, "Ethics in the Real World" on the table as I take a seat. My dentist comes over and starts chatting with me.
Dentist: "Oh! Ethics? Are you a business major?"
Me: "Oh, no--I'm actually studying philosophy and--"
Dentist: "Philosophy? So you're studying one of those 'recreational subjects.'"

Brutal stuff.

*Walking out of a taco shop with my pal, "A"
Me: "I feel like philosophy doesn't get much respect as an academic subject, at least not as much as, say, physics or math."
A: "Well, I think it's not that people don't respect philosophy as a whole. Those people that don't respect it are probably talking about ethics."

Absolutely heartbreaking.

I've had these types of conversations throughout this whole year, and both challenging the underlying thought that at least some parts of philosophy aren't rigorous or academic, and that philosophy is central to our lives
is one of my chief objectives. I plan to do this through a weekly (fingers crossed) blog post about some philosophical topic that I think will capture your interest and I can explain deeply and in an engaging way. This means that for the first few long posts, I'll write about something I covered in one of the philosophy classes I've taken, so expect a lot of applied ethics to start off with (it always brings out some passionate opinions). In between these longer posts will be shorter ramblings about either something I think is important or links to something I think is interesting and worth sharing.

That about wraps it up for this post. Philosophy is a necessary part of the human experience. I would say, then, that it's worth doing correctly for us to truly understand ourselves and the world we find ourselves in. I hope that you'll stick around for next week's post, where I'll be tackling over 2000 years of perspectives surrounding a question that we've probably thought about at least once: is it reasonable to fear your own death?