Miscellany: freedom, community, conscience, consciousness, moral relativism, and other subjects

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The first time and the last time:

An oft-repeated Zen maxim is to approach life with the beginner’s mind. Jesus teaches a similar way when he admonishes that “lest ye become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” A great deal could be said about this principle but here I only wish to establish it as a thesis through citing these testimonies. Interesting, and by way of a sort of antithesis which mysteriously serves to fortify the thesis rather than to challenge it: I recall reading an interview with an accomplished cellist who, when asked how he so consistently managed to bring such depth of passion and expression to his performance offered the very simple reply, “every time I perform a piece, I imagine it will be the last.” It intrigues me that these instructions—to live as if it is the first time and to live as if it is the last—can at once appear as contradictions but at the same time, serve to kindle a similar state of presence in us. Perhaps they serve as approaches to the two “gateways” of existence and our egos must humble themselves and submit before what is greater than they. 


On desire, restraint, and freedom:

In reading your thoughts on the subject of freedom and desire, it occurred to me that there is a sort of “asymmetry” in respect to the question of restraint, since to exercise restraint always takes a specific quality of effort while to realize a desire also takes a certain kind of effort but the quality is different. I think the difference consists in (1) the origin of the effort since in the first case it originates in conscience and in the second case it does not and (2) the degree of consciousness that is necessary to sustain the effort since we will always tend to default to carrying out our desires in any instant during which our attention flags. Think about the kind of effort it takes for an alcoholic to get a drink compared to the kind that it takes him to refrain from getting it.


On the essence of community:

I think it is just right to say that a community is a group of people but it is more than a mere group. The group must also possess “togetherness.” “Togetherness” is often a quality that follows from a scenario in which members of a group share in a common principle. In fact, in more philosophical times before physical science become the standard of knowledge, a “principality” (Greek ἀρχὴ arche) was understood as a sort of angelic regent that lent unity to a mere aggregate and transformed “units” into “members.”


On moral relativism:

I also thought your analysis of moral relativism was excellent. I want to make an explicit connection that you hinted at but did not establish outright. You wrote that “if someone who is a relativist says it is bad to be intolerant of other people’s world views, that would be a moral truth. That would mean the person that has intolerance is morally wrong making them not a relativist.” It is also self-refuting for a moral relativist to claim that “it is bad to be intolerant of other people’s views” because (1) moral relativism entails that the only thing that could make a person’s views bad is if she did not hold them, which doesn’t make sense and (2) by undermining the basis of objective morality, it also undermines any basis for its own moral claims. 

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I think that your description of cultural relativism is very insightful. You wrote:

Cultural relativism is when two cultures believe in a same value as respect but show it differently. One believes no eye contact is a sign of respect when another one believes eye contact is a sign of respect.  

It suggests that moral relativism (in contrast with cultural relativism) would be distinguished by the recognition of the principle of respect itself and not only its expression. For instance, in the example you gave, both cultures regard respect as an important value but they show this in a different way. If a third and fourth culture both maintained eye contact and also did not, respectively, but neither of these gestures had any connection to respect, and the cultures did not regard respect as an important value, and I thought that they were just as correct about this judgement as any culture that did regard respect as an important value, then I would be a moral relativist and you should hate me. Just kidding. But can you see what I am getting at here?

***

I agree with you that ethical precepts must transcend their cultural instantiations. Moral relativism is arguably a euphemism for “nihilism” because the claim that “no moral statement is any better than any other moral statement” is either a descriptive claim or a normative one. If it is a descriptive claim, the correct term would be cultural relativism and not moral relativism so the question is moot. If it is a normative claim, then it is relying on the very hierarchy of values that it professes to reject. “Better” is an evaluative term and you cannot do away with the basis for a statement without discarding the force of that statement as well any more than it is possible to remain seated on a branch that one has sawed off.


On achieving an adequate concept of “freedom”:

 I think that what you said about freedom is spot on. In fact, the conventional definition of freedom in contemporary Liberal society (i.e. philosophical Liberalism stemming from Enlightenment, mostly British, thinkers) as “freedom from external constraint on my actions” has the surreptitious effect of diverting our attention from the interior freedom that is our only defense against systematic manipulation of our subconscious beliefs and desires by means of marketing and propaganda. No more is a smoker “free” to have a cigarette when the craving comes upon him than a contemporary human being is free to seek to acquire the latest consumer good or political opinion. Plato’s doctrine that a human being is least free when she does what she pleases and the only salvation is through wisdom or “self-knowledge” has never been more pertinent than today, in my estimation. 

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I think “freedom” is among the most deceptively simple terms in our language. It has become a sort of refrain in our discussions about critical thinking that believing oneself to know something is mutually exclusive with learning that thing. To my mind, “freedom” presents a case in point. Partly as an inheritance from Liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Mill, Locke, Rousseau, and Smith, modern Americans usually think of freedom as something like “lack of external impediment to my will.” This is even enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as an “inalienable right” under the rubric of “the pursuit of happiness.” This is obviously influenced by Hobbes, who had written that “Felicity is a continual progress of desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter” (Leviathan, 1651). The conception of freedom as “being able to live out my desires” has the unfortunate effect of instilling in us the pretense of comprehension while at the same time, diverting our attention away from deeper insight into what is at stake. As long as we are monitoring our environment for adversaries who seek to deprive us of the freedom to act on our desires, we will be blind to the fact that we have already forfeit this freedom by indenturing our wills to these desires, which we did not freely chose but which rather sprang upon us from unconscious origins. These may include physiological processes, suggestions or subliminal messages from our environment and from other people—like marketing campaigns or political propaganda, for instance—or “spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12). It doesn’t do any good to close the barn door if the horse has already bolted and neither is libertarian freedom of any value if I am a slave to my capricious whims or extrinsic thoughts implanted in me without my awareness. It could even be said that a person has as many masters as he has desires. Suppose you want to sit in the sun but you are in Alaska and so you are compelled to drive for 7 days straight to get to California. Can you see the way in which the principle contained in this example can easily transform our lives into a condition of bondage and servility to our desires? I think it adds dimension to the question that is orthogonal to the one we are wont to consider.


On the perception of “similarity”, Socrates as “midwife to the soul”, and “the simulation hypothesis:

This is a deceptively simple issue that penetrates to the heart of our most fundamental processes of perception and truth. Suppose you see a red apple and a red flower. This means you have one object, which you see, and another object, which you see, but also a similarity, which you do not see but which nevertheless is there. You can paint the apple on a canvas. You can paint the rose on a canvas. You can paint both “the apple” and “the rose” on the same canvas. But you can’t paint the “both” nor the “sameness” or “similarity.” What does this suggest to you about perception and, more specifically, what our physical senses on the one hand and our intelligence on the other contribute to perception?

A midwife is someone who assists a mother in giving birth. Socrates is establishing an analogy between the manner in which a midwife assists a mother in giving birth to a child and the manner in which he assists the soul of his interlocutors in giving birth to wisdom—midwife:mother:infant::Socrates:soul:wisdom.

I agree that the question is intriguing. It has recently experienced a surge in popularity in the Zeitgeist following movies like The Matrix (1999) and the simulation hypothesis propounded by some theoretical physicists and advocated by Elon Musk. One thing to consider is that the relation is asymmetrical: “dream” or “illusion” is defined against “wakefulness” or “reality” and not the other way around. In the same way, “error” is measured against “truth.” It would be impossible to measure error against error or truth against error because error does not provide a standard except by ceasing to be error. It’s not clear that it is a sensible proposition to affirm that “reality is an illusion” or that “waking is sleeping” except by an appeal to some external standard against which experience could be evaluated. I think a good place to start is to consider what kind of thing this external standard could be. In the past, people thought of God as the guarantor of absolute reality against which all of our subjective fancies could be judged. But it is distinctly unfashionable to believe in God today, or at least to appeal to God in addressing philosophical or scientific questions. I hope this can serve to inspire you to further thoughts on the subject.


On conscience and consciousness:

I think you were correct to observe that, despite that it is possible to distinguish consciousness from conscience, they are not altogether different. You said they are “similar” but perhaps it is more accurate to say they are related. More specifically, perhaps it could be said that consciousness is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for conscience. The latter, as you indicated, entails besides mere wakefulness (1) an element of moral intelligence, by which I mean the ability to evaluate things according to their goodness, and (2) a recollective capacity, by which I mean the ability to render past experiences present to oneself in the face of any critical decision or moment. Conscience then, could be understood as consciousness that is both possessed of moral intelligence and continuous or sustained and therefore ready at hand for recollection. What do you think? I say this because this seems to be the argument that the remainder of your reflection presents. 

Finally, I very much appreciated your observation that to transform a state of momentary consciousness into a trait of character demands some kind of initiative on our part. This initiative appears to be necessary in order to counteract what seems to be an innate disposition to torpor that we all possess. Being alive risks becoming a habit when instead we could be living in freedom and in presence. Have I understood your view correctly? I would be very curious to hear more about practices you may have to combat the waking sleep that you described, or to “turn the soul about, passing from a day which is little better than night to the true day of being,” as Plato says. 

***

Conscience is an internal sense-organ; the eye perceives light and conscience is the moral sense. Consciousness is the substrate for all perception.


On knowledge as “unforgetting”:

You observed that “If I misunderstand a question, and answer in kind, with a similar, but only somewhat fulfilling response that does not entirely satisfy the inquiry and meet the criteria it proposes, I risk deceiving myself, that I understand a greater entirety of something.” I wonder if you have in mind the way that any belief that I have understood something obviates any attempt I might otherwise have ventured to grasp that thing. In this way, believing I know something actively prevents me from acquiring knowledge of it.

I would also like to add to your reflections around the fruitfulness of the question by pointing out that it seems to serve as a source of interior illumination to reveal knowledge that we did not know we possessed. “Interior” here is a spatial metaphor to refer to something non-spatial. If we consider posing a question, usually we are able to reject incorrect answers and recognize correct ones. How is this possible given that the knowledge that could provide for this kind of discrimination is just what we are ostensibly seeking with our question? In some way, we seem already to possess the knowledge that we seek and must only discover a means of “unforgetting” it. Hence Plato’s doctrine of knowledge as anamnesis, which is sometimes also translated as “recollection”


On the ethics of abortion:

I think you did a good job exploring the issue of abortion but I think there is a very crucial element to the question that you did not really address and it has led you to argue for a position that is perhaps more radical than you really believe. It is generally held that an individual possesses physical autonomy over her person and therefore, like you argued, she is justified in making decisions that affect her body. But this right is not without qualifications. Indeed the present pandemic scenario has stirred up a substantial amount of conflict over the limits to this autonomy when it risks infringing on the autonomy and welfare of others. I imagine you see where I am going with this. For your defense of the right to abortion to be convincing, you would have to establish that a fetus is not a human being. Otherwise you would be effectively arguing for a mother’s right to revoke the life of any of her children on the mere basis that it threatened her autonomy. Most opponents of abortion do not argue that a woman should be deprived of her bodily autonomy in any categorical sense. Instead, on the basis of a recognition that rights exist in a complex hierarchy and inter-relation, opponents of abortion argue that a woman’s right to autonomy, like anyone else’s, is ultimately subordinate to the right to life of another human being. 

It is not easy to “draw a line,” as you observed, since we also know that an infant cannot survive without constant care from its mother, and this remains the case for a number of years at the very least. Despite that it is not a simple case of stumbling upon “the answer” to a question like this, I do firmly believe that there is virtue in thinking critically about it if nothing else than to demonstrate good will towards those who do not share one’s viewpoint.


On forming the proper relationship to technology:

You wrote about how the internet provides us with a superabundance of answers. I think I understand what you mean, though it makes me wonder whether having an “answer” to something is the same as having knowledge of that thing. Does it make sense to think of possessing “knowledge” that one does not understand? I could grant that having access to something that was intelligible but not yet understood is a kind of potential knowledge or virtual knowledge, but it is hard for me to see how it could be actual knowledge without its being apprehended by a subject (i.e. a person like you or me). In this way, Google does indeed magnify the scope of our potential knowledge to an almost inconceivable degree by providing access to “matter” for our understanding to work upon and seek to transform it into actual knowledge. But again, access to potential knowledge alone is not the same thing as the possession of actual knowledge any more than the fact of grapes growing in a vineyard is the same as having wine. In fact, the world also presents us with potential knowledge in the form of nature arrayed before our senses, but we recognize this for what it is and do not suppose to possess actual knowledge of it until we have understood our perceptions by working on them with our intelligence. By degrees, we gain in wisdom through this process of observation and comprehension. I think that the kind of potential knowledge that Google provides access to actually risks vitiating the development of wisdom because it encourages us to conflate information or potential knowledge with understanding or actual knowledge. In this way, we are comparable to the prisoners in Plato’s cave, who flatter themselves to be free and so remain in captivity by their own conceit. Do you see what I am getting at here? What do you think of this?

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