Questions, questions, questions

For me, one of the many losses of the last year is that of the free monthly magazine The Bridport Times. I say this in a very selfish way because its demise deprives me of the opportunity to write up and publish my reflections on the monthly meetings of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group that I organise. I know that I often refer to this group in my weekly posts, but I’ve decided that from now on I will devote the post immediately following these meetings to this task. Sorry, but there you go. It’s my blog, and if you don’t like philosophical reflection I can only respond by saying that you should!

How we operate, both virtually (at the moment) and actually (when we can all meet again in a pub), is that a member of the group proposes a topic that interests them and prepares a short introduction to provoke discussion. We then discuss. Simples. The topic for our meeting last Wednesday was: What is the link between language and thought? Having read and considered what the person introducing this topic had prepared, three questions came immediately to mind: 1. Do we need language in order to think? 2. What is thinking anyway? Having acquired a language(s), can we think outside of it/them?

In asking the first question I mean language in the widest sense of the term and want to include sign language, music and art in addition to the spoken (and written) word. Which, for me, immediately raises the further question: What do we mean by language in the first place? For present purposes let’s assume that a language is any system of expression and communication where there is some link between a signifier (a word, symbol or note) and that signified (something that can be experienced by our senses). Is a baby crying for milk using language? Is it using its cry (signifier) in order to ask for its mother’s milk (signified)? Or is it simply responding to a sensation of hunger in an automatic way that requires no thought? Is thinking present right from the start of a baby’s life, before it has developed any language? Or is it something that develops as a consequence of interactions with its parents / family / community?

Which brings me to the second question: What actually is thinking? I think it highly likely that all animals have, to some degree and in a variety of different ways, some type of cognitive map that allows them to navigate and interact with their environment. But does having such a map constitute thinking? For me, thinking involves the both ability to ask questions of this map and to imagine alternative maps – maps of an environment that ‘the thinker’ is not actually in at the present. John Dewey, the American pragmatist philosopher, considered “thinking as a means to the end of dispelling doubt, doubt being a mental state that creates visceral pain that people will do anything to eliminate.” Could it therefore be the case that for humans, and other animals to some degree, experience has proved these maps to not always be reliable, and that in order to survive we have had to acquire the ability to question them and to develop means for raising their degrees of certainty?

And finally, can we step outside of language in order to examine it more objectively? Or are we condemned to being trapped within language and being forced to examine it from the inside? And perhaps more fundamentally, if our thinking is always trapped within language will we ever be able to fully understand language? Can we understand what thinking is by thinking about it? Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his later work, saw language as a game. Language games, he argued, were rule governed, but these rules were not fixed and differed from language to language and over time. But more importantly, he argued that there was no ‘meta-game’, no game of games, no point of view outside of our language games from where we could stand back and appraise the relationship between language and reality.

Personally I warm to Wittgenstein’s notion of language games, but am forced to admit that I can answer none of the questions I asked above with anything approaching certainty. In fact I would probably go further and say that none of the questions raised within our Philosophy in Pubs group can be answered with certainty. However, that by no means devalues their asking. I think more can be gained by the asking of questions than can be by the supplying of answers. If you think like this, if you value a well-formed question more than a clever answer perhaps you could consider either joining our group, or one of the many others scattered across the country. If you would like more details, contact me.

Beware the ides of March

My initial plan for this week’s blog was to raise the question of political leadership. What makes a good political leader? This question has been lurking around in my thinking for some time but was brought out of the shadows by The Guardian reporting that Boris Johnson’s “personal approval rating has surpassed that of Keir Starmer for the first time since last May”. I have no idea how accurately this poll reflects actual public opinion, but I think it very obvious, and deeply frustrating, that Starmer is failing to expose, and bring to the public’s attention, the not insignificant shortcomings of both the incumbent Prime Minister and his government. Surely this cannot be too difficult a task for someone with Starmer’s skills, a barrister with experience of clinically exposing the flaws in other people’s arguments?

That was my plan. But on reading this morning’s news a number of other items have emerged which I find even more disturbing. One is the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ that started its passage through Parliament yesterday. This bill is obviously aimed at groups like Extinction Rebellion. Under its many powers, if passed, police will be able to stop a protest if the noise of this protest will “result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” or “on persons in the vicinity”. Really? Can you think of any major protest, a protest that has helped bring about major changes to civil rights or equal opportunities legislation for example, that has not had these results? What exactly is the point of a protest that does not? This is a potentially very serious erosion of a citizens’ right to protest in a democratic state, and must be opposed.

Another was the Metropolitan Police’s reaction to vigils that took place to highlight the violence so frequently perpetrated on women by men, vigils that were a reaction to the sad death of Sarah Everard. Had the officers in charge of policing these events no sensitivity? A serving police officer has been arrested and charged with the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, and they respond by forcefully breaking up these totally peaceful events? They allowed a photograph of a police officer pinning a protester to the ground by the neck onto the front pages of the morning papers? Have they no concept of how their response simply appears to endorse male-on-female violence?

Yet another was this morning’s report on the BBC website about how a Post-Brexit UK plans to reshape its foreign policy so that it’s aligned with “the UK’s interests and values”. What are the UK’s interests and values? More to the point, whose interests and values are they? I doubt very much that they are my interests or values, nor any of those of the 48% who voted against our leaving the EU. Or, on a more philosophical point, how can a collective such as the UK have a definitive set of interests and values? Sorry, this is an issue that always sparks a reaction in me. In philosophical jargon it’s termed the problem of collective intentionality. Put very simply, the issue is that because only individual people have things like values it’s very problematic to talk about a collective having them. At best we can talk about the majority view or opinion. At worst it becomes shorthand for the value of those in power who somehow have come to the opinion that they represent the whole population.

This same report went on to suggest that there will be a foreign policy shift of focus towards the Indo-Pacific countries. Please, can someone explain the logic of this? We have been historically and culturally part of Europe for about two thousand years. We have a major market for goods and services right on our door step, one (in terms of international trade) that involves the absolute minimum of travel (and hence the minimum of carbon emissions and financial cost). So instead of aligning ourselves to the EU, an alliance that also provides major security benefits, we choose to shun them and focus on trade with countries on the other side of the globe – countries that we have few cultural or historic links with, countries that alliances with will do little (if anything) to improve our security, and countries that the trade of goods with will involve the maximum amount of carbon emissions! So, someone, anyone, please explain the thinking behind this.

The final nail in the coffin of my morning mood was the line that this review of foreign policy “also paves the way for an increase in nuclear warheads”. What the fuck? So just in case we haven’t got enough to worry about by shunning our close allies and opening up alliances on the other side of the world, and in the process maximising our carbon emissions just so that we can ensure that the rise in global temperatures will make many areas of the Earth uninhabitable (producing massive food shortages and flows of migrants who will be unwelcome in the UK), we also initiate a nuclear arms race so that we can protect our shores from those global citizens who may want some of our food or a place to live! And (nearly finished, honestly) the prime minister leading this government is still more popular than the leader of the opposition? What hope do we have? Yesterday was the Ides of March. Draw your own conclusions.

Duty?

My views on the royal family are very straight forward. As an institution they should be abolished, and the United Kingdom should become a republic. But other than to argue, when asked, that I am totally opposed to any form of inherited power or privilege, however symbolic, I tend to keep quiet about them for the simple reason that I have better things to think, write and talk about. However, my guilty pleasure whilst lying in bed of a morning with a cup of tea is to check-out the front pages of the main newspapers, often to be amused by the reactions of the right-wing press. This morning this particular section of the press were all focussing on ‘duty’ – and I just can’t resist some comment.

In response to the fall out between ‘the family’ and Harry and Meghan, and especially to the latter’s televised interview with Oprah Winfrey, several newspapers focussed their attention on the Queen’s comments contained in an address to the Commonwealth (and please don’t get me started on this post-colonial institution). The Daily Mail’s headline, for example, was “Queen tells Commonwealth what real service is. Duty means everything”. The Daily Express led with “Duty and family unite us”, whilst the front page of The Times included the headline “Queen highlights duty as Meghan speaks out.” This word ‘duty’ may only be a small word, but it’s word crammed full of meaning. It’s a word whose meaning needs unpicking a bit.

The origin of the word can be traced back to Latin and Old French where it referred to a debt, to something which was owed and which we had an obligation to repay. Cicero, the early Roman philosopher, writing ‘On Duty’, claimed that there are four sources of this debt. The first, he argued, arose as a result of our being human. Now whilst this may make some sense to someone of a religious nature (to someone who believes that we have been given the gift of life and therefore forever have a debt, a duty to the supernatural being who gave us life) it makes no sense to me. In an evolutionary sense, all life, and particularly human life, came about by chance. Whilst I can see a case for arguing that once we understand our evolutionary place in the web of life we have an obligation to future generations to behave in ways that will preserve, or even enhance their chances of survival, this cannot be a debt. A debt has to get its meaning from the past, not the future.

The second source of debt for Cicero comes as a result of one’s particular place in life – for example from one’s family, country or job. I suspect that this is where the Queen’s comments come from, and it’s a source that has some merit, but probably not in the sense meant by the Queen. We are who we are, we develop our view and understanding of the world, and secure our survival within the world through our relations and interactions with others. In this sense we have a constant debt to others. To take just one example, many jobs, and not just those in the care sector, involve a ‘duty of care’, a moral or legal obligation to ensure the safety or well-being of others. If you enter into a contract with a bus company to drive a bus in return for an amount of money, not only do you have a duty to keep to your side of the contract and your employer to theirs, you have a duty of care to keep your passengers safe.

The above debt is to our fellow members of society, to all those people we depend upon to maintain our wellbeing. If you have been born into a privileged family, a family like the royal family, you most certainly have a debt to repay – but the debt is largely to those countless previous generations from whom your family has extracted wealth and land, including previous generations from foreign countries that were robbed of their resources, labour and lives in the process of creating an empire. This debt cannot be repaid by maintaining some concept of duty if by duty you mean visiting those countries on formal visits, becoming patrons of charities, having an honorary rank in the armed forces, or attending state occasions – however ‘hard’ you consider this work to be. No, the only way to repay this debt, and therefore do your duty, would be to return the vast majority of your wealth to the citizens of this country and the countries of the Commonwealth and earn a living like the rest of us have had to do. At the very least doing your duty would entail rejecting the privileges of that family.

The third and fourth sources of duty for Cicero come about as a result of one’s character and as a result of one’s expectations for oneself. For the sake of completeness, I will briefly mention both of these together. Whilst one’s character is primarily the result of the complex interaction of genetics and childhood experiences, it can be consciously developed by the individual to varying degrees through (as Aristotle argued) the formation of ‘right’ habits. So whilst it makes little sense to have a debt to your genetic makeup (in the sense of a debt that can be repaid), and it makes some sense to have a debt to your parents or to those adults who raised you (though this could be a debt in a positive or negative sense), for me it makes most sense to have a duty to oneself (and to wider society) to develop your character in the service of others and future generations. If one were a member of the royal family this would entail the rejection of privilege, the development of those skills needed by society, and a commitment to earn a living through hard work.

Thinking about thinking

A recent telephone conversation with a colleague gave me the opportunity to hear first hand what having Covid was like. To say that it did not sound pleasant is a bit of an understatement. Apart from the obvious symptoms like breathlessness I was given a description of what he called a brain fog, the inability to think coherently, with associated panic attacks. I find the wide range of differing symptoms described by people who have contracted this virus disturbing. With most viruses, even the flu, you know what to expect. But this uncertainty, not knowing whether (if you caught it) you would be asymptomatic, have mild symptoms, severe breathing problems, and /or some other unexpected symptom, adds a whole new dimension. But even more disturbing than this is the prevalence of people who claim that the Covid pandemic is a hoax. I really do fail to understand how or why someone would deny the reality of this illness. They must obviously buy into some conspiracy theory. If you know of anyone who does believe Covid is a hoax I can only suggest that they speak to my colleague and try explaining his symptoms to him.

Is it my imagination, or are there more conspiracy theories about now than ever? Apart from those related to Covid (that it’s a Chinese plot, a plan by Bill Gates that allows him inject a vaccine into people that tracks their movement, that it’s a hoax that allows the government to get away with restricting our movements) there are those related to the rollout of 5G technology (which again for some reason is related to the Chinese government). There are actual fake news stories doing the rounds on social media, and there are politicians who dismiss any news they find inconvenient or don’t like as fake. This situation, together with the sheer number and variety of news and information sources, makes deciding on the truth of any situation very challenging. So how do we navigate this information maze? My suggestion is that we all start learning critical thinking skills. This is a topic that you will hear a lot more about from me in the coming weeks. I’m fast arriving at the conclusion that we all, even those of us who are convinced that their thinking skills are spot on, perhaps especially this last group, could do with giving some thought to our thinking.

The research that I’ve just started into critical thinking has thrown up an essay that explains where I’m coming from rather well. Written in 1877 by the American philosopher and father of pragmatism Charles Sanders Peirce, ‘The Fixation of Belief’ describes four ways in which we tend to come to the beliefs we hold about the world. One way is to simply believe whatever makes us feel most comfortable. Another way is to believe what our favoured authority (our priest, parent, tradition, Donald Trump) tells us to believe. A third option is to tenaciously hold onto which ever belief first entered our thinking because we just can’t entertain the notion that we may have been wrong. None of these methods, however, are recommended methods for establishing the truth of the matter. If this is what we seek, Peirce recommends a fourth method, the scientific method. This method, contrary to the beliefs of many, regards all beliefs as conditional. Having arrived at a theory that we consider may explain whatever situation we seek an explanation for, we set about testing or challenging that theory, and in the process slowly move closer to the truth. In other words, we become critical of any fixed belief, even our own.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that in terms of social, political or economic phenomena no absolute or definitive truths can or do exist. To fully explain this assertion would involve a long digression into systems thinking, and in particular an understanding of how dynamic systems work. The short (and probably inadequate) explanation is that all phenomena of this type are just too complex to be condensed into any single theory. This is the main reason why, in politics, I argue we need some form of proportional representation. As it is impossible for any single person or political party to have a complete and infallible understanding of any situation we first need many different perspectives to come together. And having come together it then becomes necessary for each person to at least attempt to understand the other perspectives before agreeing to a provisional solution – a solution that will be modified in light of further evidence. This requires politicians to become continuously critical of whatever beliefs or theories they hold, and be prepared to admit they were wrong when the evidence suggests so. Am I being too idealistic here? Maybe. But I’m more than happy to debate the matter.