“While philosophy corrects and refines some of the opinions and convictions held by common sense, philosophy is nevertheless continuous with common sense and elucidates its deepest convictions by providing their rational basis and elaboration.” Mortimer Adler
Good philosophy magnifies and illuminates our everyday common, ordinary experience. It enlarges our horizons, allows us to see with greater clarity and depth what we always see as we go about with the actual work of living. Good philosophy, to borrow a term from Nassim Taleb, has skin in the game.
Nassim tells the Greek mythical story of a semi-giant, Antaeus, who found pleasure in wrestling passersby and crushing them to the ground. Antaeus derived his power from making contact with the his mother earth, the ground. Hercules defeats him by lifting him off the ground and crushing him. The first principle illustrated by this story as Nassim says is, “You cannot separate knowledge from contact with the ground” and that contact with the ground is made via “skin in the game”.
He uses the term to explain how learning in any system occurs when there is skin in the game, exposure to the consequences of ones ideas and decisions. Decision makers who are not exposed to the consequences of their decisions do not bring meaningful change to the system- simply because they do not suffer the consequences of their decisions; they have no exposure to the effects of their ideas. I want to borrow the term in a slightly different yet analogous way to distinguish between good philosophy and bad philosophy. Good philosophy I maintain gives us true knowledge because its ideas make contact with the ground, they have skin in the game; they are consistent with our experience. It provides a scaffold from which we can extract some heuristics for navigating through the uncharted waters of daily life with. Its ideas have exposure to the world.
The antithesis, Bad philosophy, on the other hand undermines and subverts our experience. It makes no contact with the ground, has no skin in the game. It’s ideas are not concrete – they are more like academic and intellectual games. A good way to spot bad philosophy is that you have to leave it where you found it, you must forget about it when you go about your day to day because it has no relevance to your daily experience. In other words you can go put on your philosophy hat – ponder and think over your ideas and come to certain conclusions, however when you leave and return to everyday life; such as when talking with friends in the bar; listening to music; you have to forget about your conclusions. You must in fact pretend and live as if your philosophical ideas are not true. In other words your philosophy has, no skin in the game, because it cannot help you navigate actual life, it has no relevance to what you actually experience, it’s ideas have no exposure to real life – they fail to make contact with the ground.
The arrival of modern thought
David Hume was an empiricist who held that all knowledge comes from experience. His theory of knowledge hinges on two main tenets. Firstly, he divided knowledge into two kinds, famously known as Hume’s fork: knowledge either concerns relations of ideas or matters of facts. Relations of ideas involves things such as mathematical ideas, logical relations and concepts – they are necessarily true. Denying the truth of relational ideas would involve a logical contradiction. One cannot conceive of a triangle with 5 sides – it is simply impossible for something to have 5 sides and be a triangle.
Matters of fact are contingent, they are not necessarily true. Examples would be ice melting when exposed to heat, the sun rising everyday, bread nourishing our bodies when we eat it. We could easily think of the sun suddenly not rising, or ice not melting when exposed to heat. Matters of facts are related to cause effect relations. When we say that it is a fact that boiling water burns, we are saying that the boiling water can cause the effect of burning our skin. When we say it is a fact that bread nourishes the body – we are saying that bread causes the effect of nourishing in our bodies. There is this idea of causation which underlies our experience, where objects are able to cause effects.
His second tenet was that the content of our minds contained impressions and ideas. Impressions were the direct sensations we have of colours, sounds, tastes and touch. These impressions are then stored in the mind and become ideas. Ideas are derived from impressions. We have simple ideas which are derived from a simple impression, and complex ideas which arise when we combine simple ideas according to association of ideas. For example the idea of the colour green would be a simple idea; the idea of a tree however would be a complex idea made up of various simple ideas which are combined according to what he termed the laws of the association of ideas. Simply put Hume held that what we have ideas of must ultimately be derived from impressions we experience, what is real to the senses is what is real.
The problem Hume said is that we actually have no idea of causation that is derived from some impression. When we see boiling water, we cannot logically deduce that it will burn the skin. There is no necessary connection between being hot water and burning the skin. What we see is actually the event of boiling water followed by the event of burning the skin, however what we do not perceive and have an impression of is causation, the necessary connection between the events. Hume concludes that causation does not objectively exist in reality. Rather it is our minds which impose this idea of causation on the world we experience. However the sober truth is that causation is an illusion, a psychological projection that we have no rational basis for believing. And just like that Hume subverts our experience. Rather than magnify he empties and disenchants the world, leaves us with an impotent reality. What is being without action, without power, without responsibility? Do we not fear and respect the lion because of its great power and strength? Are we not cautious of snakes because they have the potential and capacity to poison us?How can there be honour, sacrifice without being that has causal power?
I can only imagine what life would have been like growing up in a household where my parents were Humeans. I recall as a child, my friends and I used to play football in the garden at home. My mom would repeatedly scold us, because it always left the grass scorched, brown and barren. If only I had been a Humean I would have told my mom that our constant playing on the grass cannot be the cause of her grass being scorched, lifeless and barren. There really is no such thing as causation, it’s simply an illusion we project onto the world. She was seeing the event of us playing soccer, followed by the event of the grass being barren – however our playing was not responsible for causing that, rather her mind was projecting our playing soccer as the cause. Hume’s philosophy subverts our fundamental experiences and engagement with the world, it has zero skin in the game, and yet Hume is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Even if Hume is correct we cannot live as if his ideas are true, and in fact neither did he.
Going mental with matter
A unique and peculiar attribute of our experience and particularly our mental life is what philosophers call intentionality. We have thoughts that have content and are about other things; they are directed towards other objects; they have an “aboutness” to them that we understand but cannot really explain. We think “about” food, yesterday, movies, people, mathematical equations; our thoughts always have content and meaning. Intentionality is considered one of the essential marks of the mental.
Philosophers also distinguish between derived or extrinsic intentionality and intrinsic intentionality. For example the actual word “water” which is a specific arrangement of symbols has derived intentionality or meaning because people have imposed that meaning on those symbols. The symbols themselves have no intentionality or meaning until a human chooses to use them to convey a thought, concept or proposition. What does “ghdsvx” mean? – nothing because we have not used that specific arrangement of symbols to convey any concept. Secondly different arrangements of symbols can convey the exact same thought or concept. The words “water”, “metsi”, “amanzi” are different arrangements of symbols which all convey the same concept and meaning using different languages. A third illustration of derived intentionality would be that the same thought or proposition can be expressed using different arrangements of sounds, or textures and touch (braille). Notice however that extrinsic intentionality presupposes a source that has intrinsic intentionality such as the human intellect that is able to impose meaning on the various mediums it chooses to use. Intrinsic intentionality is not imposed or derived from some object but is essential to the object itself. Thoughts, ideas and concepts have intrinsic intentionality because it is their very essence to have content; to be about something, to have some determinate meaning. Traditionally it has always been taken for granted that only minds have the capacity for intentionality.
It is this capacity of human beings that raises the problem of intentionality for a materialistic view of nature. Materialism holds that only what is physical exists; all of the various and diverse phenomena are ultimately at bottom determined by brute physical objects. Materialism entails a commitment to 2 tenets. (1) Physical causal closure – all causes are physical and have physical effects. (2) Constitution is identity – all higher level or macro phenomena is determined by and reducible to lower level micro physical laws. Explanations and causal powers are bottom up rather than top down.
Materialism with its two tenets necessarily leads to a dilemma. Recall that a physical object like a red light has no intrinsic intentionally or meaning but has derived meaning/intentionality from human agents who impose the meaning of “stop” on the red light. If our minds are brains then they are as physical as the red light robot and therefore have no intrinsic intentionality. If materialism is true there can be no intentionality. What results in the consistent adherence to materialism is the complete absence and elimination of “skin in the game” necessarily because there is no one with skin to begin with. Intentionality which encompasses our beliefs, thoughts and desires turns out to be an illusion. Just as we were wrong about the earth being at the centre of the universe; it turns out we were wrong about ourselves – there really is no mind with intrinsic intentionality at all says the materialist. Materialist philosopher Alex Rosenberg puts it this way,
“Physics has ruled out the existence of clumps of matter of the required sort. There are just fermions and bosons and combinations of them. None of that stuff is just, all by itself, about any other stuff. There is nothing in the whole universe — including, of course, all the neurons in your brain — that just by its nature or composition can do this job of being about some other clump of matter.”
A framework employed by materialists is to make a distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image (it should be noted that it is not science per se that leads to such conclusions, but a particular paradigm that interprets the science a specific way to yield this particular picture). The manifest image is our common sense, every day experience. For example, I recall a few days ago sitting in a small cafe, waiting for my fish and chips order as well my wife to arrive. I was hungry and the smell of fried fish was enticing and appetizing. In enters a family of four; the father has some disability. His one hand is bent and it looks as if he is unable to use it; the other hand continuously shakes and seems to have uncontrollable muscle spasms that also occur in parts of his face. I am flooded by empathy as I imagine myself in his shoes, the struggle of simple tasks like being able to hold a glass of water in the hand. I reflected on my own life and felt gratitude for the simple things I take for granted. That ordinary story illustrates the inescapable manifest image we possess. A rich and enchanting world filled with a plethora of things like empathy, gratitude, suffering, smell, taste, struggle, love, family, thoughts, beliefs. Then there is the “scientific image” which is nothing like the manifest image. The “scientific image” is filled with quarks, electrons, atoms, the quantitative rather than the qualitative and it supposedly presents us with the true picture of reality as it is in itself while our manifest image is false; a useful illusion and fiction foistered upon by chance and evolution . As philosopher Wilfred Sellars who coined the idea of the manifest image said, “The framework of common sense [the manifest image] is radically false”. Other like minded materialists have insisted as well that it is a logical conclusion of materialism followed through to its bitter and bizarre end. As Daniel Dennet enlightens us, “The self? Simply a “center of narrative gravity,” a convenient fiction that allows us to integrate various neuronal data streams…The elusive subjective conscious experience — the redness of red, the painfulness of pain — that philosophers call qualia? Sheer illusion.”
There is no intrinsic intentionality, no mind with real beliefs, desires and meaning – because matter is necessarily devoid of these things and all there is – is matter. Our subjectivity, unified conscious experience is an illusion because matter acting according to physic laws cannot produce such phenomena. Typically this would be a classic case of reductio ad absurdum (showing an argument to be false because it leads to an obviously absurd conclusion). How can one coherently deny the existence of minds with intentionality, meanings, beliefs, consciousness? Orwell was clearly spot on when he said, “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Recall my argument is simply that good philosophy magnifies and illuminates our manifest image, our lived experience, our common sense and daily encounters with life. Bad philosophy subverts, undermines and therefore has nothing to say to our common experience precisely because it denies it. It has no skin in the game because no one can live and apply its insights to daily life – not even the materialists themselves. It makes no contact with the ground. Dennet makes this point precisely, “My goal is subversive. I am out to overthrow an idea that, in one form or another, is “obvious” to most people–to scientists, philosophers, lay people.” Bad philosophy, materialism and skepticism being cases in point, subvert and undermine our experience.
Darwinism in its current guise is committed to the tenets of materialism. As the narrative goes – life began somehow in a primordial soup with the tinkering of chemicals. Thereafter mutations enter the scene as the source of variation driving the tinkering that has produced all the diversity of life with all its unique peculiarities – including the rational, cognitive, moral, psychological, logical, perceptive, linguistic faculties of human beings. All produced through nothing but matter being tinkered with and natural selection preserving the traits conferring a survival advantage. If Darwinism is true then all biological phenomena must be reducible to physics precisely because all of life emerged from it. Clearly one cannot be a consistent Darwinist without being committed to the tenets of materialism; Darwin’s theory is a paradigm case of a bottom-up causal explanation, as Churchland says:
“The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process. … If this is the correct account of our origins, then there seems neither need, nor room, to fit any nonphysical substances or properties into our theoretical account of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact”.
The point by Churchland is that all of the resources required to explain the origins and uniqueness of humans is purely physical – from the physical and by the physical comes the physical. Materialists must then either eliminate common sense mental notions like intentionality which encompass things like belief, desires, thoughts as actually being empty or show somehow that such mental features are reducible to matter. But reduction (whether good or greedy) of mental phenomena like intentionality to matter is impossible precisely because matter is inherently devoid of intrinsic intentionality therefore the only logical option left to remain a consistent materialist is to eliminate intentionality, precisely what Dennet insists on:
“Something has to give. Either you must abandon meaning rationalism–the idea that you are unlike the fledgling cuckoo not only having access, but in having privileged access to your meanings–or you must abandon the naturalism that insists that you are, after all, just a product of natural selection, whose intentionality is thus derivative and hence potentially indeterminate.”
Meaning rationalism to put it crudely is the idea that the not only do we display intentionality when thinking, whereby our thoughts refer to other things and have content; but the content itself is determinate in its meaning; the words have a specific meaning they refer to. When we think of the concept of addition (and perform the actual mathematical act of addition) – our thinking is determinate in that it refers solely to addition and cannot be compatible with some other concept like water, subtraction or history. Contrast this with symbols which always have derived intentionality and indeterminate meaning (We as humans impose meaning on symbols). The symbols or letters “ADDITION” can be compatible with a wide range of meanings such as: the mathematical act; or simply increasing some object to what is already there. The meaning is derived and indeterminate because it is logically compatible with a wide range of meanings. If materialism is true then Dennet rightly says all intentionality is not intrinsic and meaning is indeterminate. If materialism is true our pure thinking itself would not pick out a specific reference and have determinate meaning. We could think we are adding but could be subtracting or thinking of the concept of persons or water – there is no definite reference or meaning to any of our thoughts. Leaving aside the problems of incoherence (what do you mean that we never mean anything when thinking?); even if it is true, I cannot help but live as if my thinking is determinate. If I’m adding I am really thinking of that and not today’s lunch or the sports news, I cannot help but live like that, I cannot help but live as if I have privileged access to the meanings of what I am thinking of. Dennet rightly points out we have a choice to make if Darwin’s theory and its materialistic tenets are correct then we must embrace its logical conclusions and reject the existence of intentionality; the positions are mutually exclusive.
Recall the principle is you cannot separate knowledge from contact with the ground. Ideas which even if true, we cannot help but live as if they are not true – make no contact with our lived experience and can never then be a source of knowledge. I’m reminded of a principle Jesus taught his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds”. Only when an idea is exposed to the ground, and is tested by the vicissitudes of human struggle and risks its death can it be bear the fruits of knowledge.
Thomas Nagel eloquently captures why then I reject evolution with its materialistic presuppositions:
“The incredulity is not simply a matter of scientific ignorance, as the materialists would have it. It arises from something more fundamental and intimate. The neo-Darwinian materialist account offers a picture of the world that is unrecognizable to us—a world without color or sound, and also a world without free will or consciousness or good and evil or selves or, when it comes to that, selflessness. “It flies in the face of common sense,”…Materialism is an explanation for a world we don’t live in.”
My point has been a simple one, a crude heuristics of sorts to help sift the philosophical wheat from the chaff. Philosophy means the love of wisdom and thus its pursuit is at once an ethical and teleological stance for the good and for knowledge. It assumes that the existence of love and truth and beauty are categorical, never hypothetical and cast into doubt; but always open to greater insight and clarity; and that they provide the necessary scaffold upon which we must build a life worth living. No philosophy worthy of the name can discard these presuppositions. Like Plato we want to be freed from the cave of mere appearances, shadows and prejudices and bask in the light as we see things as they are. We want to delight in the goodness of the cosmic dance of being as we come with humility to discover truly how our small subjectivity fits in objectively with the grand scheme of things. We want our minds to reach out and grasp the rich and elegant structure of reality for what it is; rather than shape it according to our shallow and vain imagination. Good philosophy illuminates and magnifies and elucidates, while simultaneously deepening the mystery and wonder of reality. It has exposure as Hamlet says, “to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”.