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Posts Tagged ‘critical thinking’

Aug 8 2010

Have we killed him?

“…at the end of the day, we are only human. I mean to say we are quite primitive when you think about it. We are still animals. Look at all the wars and the suffering we cause each other. Not even animals take pleasure in seeing others suffer. Only humans.  We are nasty, ferocious even. Maybe we deserve to die like the virus we are?”

Often towards the end of a discussion some people express these kinds of opinions. The dialogue does not tend to start that way, only after reviewing some thorny issue like patriotism, greed, poverty, corruption, exploitation, ecological crisis, threatened animal species and so on, does it end up there…followed by a sigh that signals a despondent end of the talk.

It´s because people are good they can be coerced to behave badly.

I don´t think this view has found the crux of the biscuit. My view of the so called human nature is that most people are good and decent, and that it is this trait that can be effectively exploited by the few rotten apples. When people draw pessimistic conclusions about human nature looking at the number of wars and genocides etc. they fail to analyse the dynamics properly. It is not because people are evil and cruel wars happen. It is because they are too good, too eager to please, and too controlled by their emotions of loyalty to their group, fear of doing something wrong. Their emotionality makes them weak, and people who lack empathy can thus easily pit one group against another. If people did not care so much about what others thought about them, they could stand up against injustices, speak out when something seemed wrong, fight fire with fire, but instead it only takes one criminal to terrify an entire neighbourhood.

I have proof supporting my view. Recently social scientists (BBC 2009) reproduced Stanley Milgram´s experiments on Obedience, originally performed in 1960, where ordinary decent people were willing to fulfil what they thought was expected of them to the point of administrating lethal electrical shocks to a stranger. The video clip above shows a cute 19 year old girl giving 405 volt shocks to someone, and smilingly asking the instructor if “they” have killed him. Is she the kind of evil animal you have in mind when thinking of Nazi prison guards?

To say we are “only” human is in itself bizarre. Especially when it means to say we are really animals. What else is there? Are we being compared with angels? We are the most sophisticated being that we know of in the universe, like super amazing fantastic…and still, they say, we are only human. What more do they expect?! It´s all we have to work with.

Jul 30 2010

Wheat fields near Châteauroux

Surrounded by yellow wheat fields I feel a rush of exhilaration, I find myself singing and laughing inside the helmet. I am filled with a bubbly joy as I have spent the day driving at random, wherever I felt, following tiny country roads, through forests and past lakes, more or less heading north. It’s always good not to loose your sense of north. A guide book told me Montrésor, une des plus belles villages de France, should be somewhere around here, and I was lucky to come across it. It is a stunning village with a castle belonging to the late Polish comte Xavier Branicki, in which his descendants are still living. From a fountain in the garden of Xavier Bendickis castle I would like to have a bash at convincing you why philosophy is good, not only the individual but for society at large.

With inner freedom you can be free in a jail.

So what is philosophy? For me it is not primarily about a quest for truth, or love for truth. It is about freedom. Freedom of mind. Without inner freedom there is no freedom, and with inner freedom you can be free in a jail. What is a free mind? It is a mind that does not depend on crutches of certainty. A mind willing to follow through to the logical conclusion and prepared change opinion in light of new insights. A mind that can look at things from different angles, and never assumes that there is only one right answer. A mind that knows there are good arguments for and against everything. A mind that does not mistake familiarity for understanding. Philosophy is one of many  roads that can lead you there.

New thoughts appear in cracks.

Philosophy is not about intelligence. Many very intelligent people have been unphilosophical and done some horrible things based on their certainties. Obviously it helps to have a natural ability to see things in perspective, but even the brightest minds need inspiration. Impressions are the food for thought. A society where people mostly consume the same impressions will have like-minded people. It is very hard to have a free mind there. New thoughts appear in cracks, when bits don’t fit together, where the story doesn’t make sense. If everything is the same there are few cracks. If there is no contrast it is very hard to think as you have nothing to compare with. This may seem trivial but it is actually what makes it all possible. In a society where most people share the same beliefs and values it is very hard to think. It is no coincidence that multiplicity and innovation coincide.

Château de Montrésor

People are not expected too think.

In the way the world is organised today people are not expected too think to much. They are not meant to feel responsible for what happens in or with the world. Even in the most democratic societies the extent of ordinary citizens’ participation in the decision making process is a nod left or right every fourth year.

Comte Xavier Branicki's weapons

The alternative ways of looking at things have been limited to a manageable two. People are expected to work and consume and leave the big decisions to those in charge. Seen that way it is amazing we have made it this far since we have been riding on the brain power of a few privileged families. (Maybe the lack of human control over nature has been our saving grace?) In so far as history has been orchestrated by humans it has been possible because the world has been, for most of its history, fairly predictable. I am not talking about famine and the black plague, but people’s positions and possibilities in society. If you were born into a potter’s family you would end up a potter. The rich could make deals between themselves and make sure the wealth stayed within the right famililies.

...sumptuous feasts with Napoléon

Take this Château de Montrésor. During the 17th and 18th centuries, leading families such as the Bourdeilles and the Beauvilliers lived in the castle. “In 1849, Xavier Branicki, a rich Polish count and friend of emperor Napoleon III, arrived to give new life to Montrésor…the house was the setting for sumptuous feasts with Napoléon.” I somehow doubt I would have been invited to those feasts.

In a predictable world it has been possible for a few to control much of what has happened (although I would not underestimate the skill, knowledge and courage it would take to do so). Now however, the world is too complex for anyone to fully grasp.

The world is fundamentally out of control.

Even if old models have worked to reduce suffering and increase the standard of living for the world, we no longer know where things are going. The world economy is not run by a small elite. It is run by millions of people moving their money at a whim, and in a blind stampede capital can move from one side of the globe to the other in a matter of seconds. Consumerism will not slow down, and hence neither will global warming. People refuse to become more rational, and in a century the population this planet needs to support will have quadrupled. Do you think we are headed for less wars? Do you think religion will help diplomatic negotiations? Would you leave the future of this planet in the hands of a few leading men?

Enter the castle

If our world was hanging in a rope over an abyss it would all depend on the strength of that one rope.

If the world was hanging in a gazillion threads it would not matter much if one snapped.

The only successful way of dealing with the unpredictable is to be prepared for anything. The wealth of a society could be defined by its multiplicity. A society rich in multiplicity is likely to find solutions among some of its members. A healthy, future-proof society is  one with a great many free thinking people exploring many different ways of living. For the first time in history collective thinking is possible. For the first time ever, truly innovative ideas can flourish and spread without any financial obstacles. In essence philosophy is good for a changing world because it inspires free thinking.

If the world was hanging in a gazillion threads it would not matter much if one snapped.

What's in it for me?

-”I catch your drift, but apart from saving the world, what’s in it for me?” I am surprised to hear a voice in the garden, and even more so one that replies to my thoughts. I turn my head and stare at the fountain sculpture of a little boy.

-”Philosophy makes my head hurt. Why should I bother?” he continues. It takes me a moment to regroup.

-”Well, for starters you would never feel lonely again. Or bored for that matter.”

-”How is that?”, he asks.

-”You would be entertained by your own company as you would always have something interesting to think about.”

-”What is interesting about what old men thought about questions without answers? Where are the special effects dude? If I am bored I choose Mad Men over Nietzsche anytime.”

-”Interesting choice of entertainment”, I reply, “because that is exactly where the creative intellectual elite has ended up – in the info- or entertainment industry. They work as speech writers for politicians or copy writers for soap adverts or some such. Whatever the profession they are likely to be engaged in selling you some stuff. It is safe to say they do not have your best interests at heart. You are surrounded by the best poets, orators, artists and musicians, and, adhering to the rules of our liberal consumerist society, they excel at seducing and persuading you. They are not evil. They just don’t care about you. They are paid to make you care about what they want you to care about. And they are good at it. They are better than you. They are the best. Those that don’t succeed are fired. Thus, the most obvious reason why a critical mind is good is to look after your own well-being.”

Philosophy good stuffed

-”Oooooooooooooohhh dear! Poor me! Are you suggesting philosophy is good for my own well-being? If I am not mistaken Herr Nietzsche turned quite a mad man himself. The list of intellectuals who have been killed, committed suicide, gone mad or spent time in prison is quite off the charts. Socrates, Jesus, Galilei, Rousseau, Lorca, Russell, Cantor, Boltzmann, Gödel, TuringKoestler, Nash…”

-”These were all highly sensitive people, so they got more affected by what they saw and realized. They lived in times where dissent was punished by death, imprisonment or excommunication. But is philosophy to blame for that? Is it not the fact that the society surrounding these people was not philosophical enough that caused their misfortunes? After the aristocracy had eliminated them they turned them into martyrs and named streets after them. I am sure there are thousands of other great thinkers whose ideas were eliminated in time.  Today it is not like that. Because of the achievements of dissenters there is a free world where you can think for yourself and express your opinions without risking punishment. ”

-”Exactly! I am living in the free world. I am not manipulated. Things have changed. We are living the dream.”

-”Yes, you are living a dream, like Carlin says, because you got to be asleep to believe you are free.”

Jul 16 2010

Rocamadour, France

I should have covered more distance today, France is a big country and there is still a long way to Paris from Granada. Going on the motorbike is different than going in a car. You get close to nature, you feel the smells, the wind, the bugs and the vibrations of the engine. You can take it all in. It is a complete feeling of freedom. But it is also a lot more physical and you need to keep alert. That is why I should not have left 500 km for tomorrow. But when I came to Rocamadour I realized I had to stay the night. Villages up on mountain tops have that effect on me.

Cabecou Rocamadour

My plan for this little trip vertically across France is to learn about some of the 400 types of cheese. Wine tours are done to death. Around the hillsides of Rocamadour there are mostly goats, so the local specialty cheese is not surprisingly goat cheese. I picked up some Cabecou Rocamadour in an amazing cheese shop in Toulouse and it served me as road food. It is a quite soft cheese with a perfect salt balance and it melted in my mouth..and my bag.


On the road you have time to think. And my companion today has been Plato and his conception of what philosophy is, what a philosopher does, and how it relates to society as depicted in his magnum opus The Republic. (Get it in EPUB format for the iPad). Why Plato? Partly because in many ways the modern world begins with him and The Republic may be the most influential book in history, but more so because it deals with a subject I care about a lot, namely is philosophy for everyone? Specifically, would society benefit from more philosophers or would it disintegrate? Because The Republic was the first of its kind, while it is esoteric it is also naive in a refreshing way. Later in history, it is hard to find people defending both sides of this issue with equal honesty. It is the nature of the beast that those who do not believe in an open and transparent society keep it to themselves. Thus, those that Plato inspired became sly, self-conscious and secretive in a way he appears not to be. He is full of contradictions though. For Plato, a philosopher is a lover of truth, but the more I think about him the more I come to doubt he was a philosopher according to his own definition.

“And will the love of a lie be any part of a philosopher’s nature? Will he not utterly hate a lie?

He will.

And when truth is the captain, we cannot suspect any evil of the band which he leads?


Justice and health of mind will be of the company, and temperance will follow after?

True, he replied.”

This all sounds like you would expect from the proverbial philosopher by definition right? Is this why The Republic is so influential? No I would think its influence does not come from it being widely read by common people. It comes from one singular idea which is contained within it, and which has served the basis for all modern societies, and is still shaping the world today. The idea is this:

For a society to be functional and coherent its citizens need to be made to believe in common myths with which they can identify, and in the name of which they are made willing to subordinate themselves.

You should be surprised by this. Maybe you thought Plato was a humanist inspiring critical thinking  in the youth and rebellion by reason? After all that is why they killed Socrates. But no, Plato does not find it neither a realistic nor a desirable aim too make of the citizens free thinkers. Free thinkers are not willing to lay themselves down to die for the State. Instead, to maintain stability and constancy, common people are supposed to be made to believe in lies, and he realizes the process must begin with children.

“You know, I said, that we begin by telling children stories which, though not wholly destitute of truth, are in the main fictitious…”

He knew, like most societies know, that the mind of the young is mouldable, and once given a certain shape tends to remain that way. Even if adults consciously reject childhood stories, an emotional attachment remains that is virtually impossible to break. (Perhaps it is unbreakable because to break it would be to reject the happiest years of our lives? Who wants to admit to having lived a lie?) So why would Plato, a self-proclaimed lover of Truth, want to spread lies to children knowing full well they would, on the whole, never abandon them as adults? He thinks the stories are for moral education and he lets Socrates discuss with Glaucon about what material was apt for a developing young mind. (He is for instance prescribing that the parts of Homer that depict the gods as overcome by laughter be censored as it is not becoming of a god to behave thusly. He also considers the mixolydian musical scale unsuitable for the youth. So much for the Laughing Buddha and Sweet Home Alabama.) No big deal, you might think, all parents lie to their children, and mostly it is for their own good. But Plato takes this further and in his ideal society the philosopher king is the father of all the children in his society. The leader alone has the right to tell fairy tales.

“Again, truth should be highly valued; if, as we were saying, a lie is useless to the gods, and useful only as a medicine to men, then the use of such medicines should be restricted to physicians; private individuals have no business with them.

Then if any one at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good. But nobody else should meddle with anything of the kind; and although the rulers have this privilege, for a private man to lie to them in return is to be deemed a more heinous fault than for the patient or the pupil of a gymnasium not to speak the truth about his own bodily illnesses to the physician…”

Thus, the ruler, in spite of being a lover of truth has got the exclusive right to lie, for the good of the State. This is when Plato introduces the concept of the noble lie, and by doing so has planted the seed for what is yet to come. Propaganda, manifactured consent, organised religion, censorship, marketing and PR agencies. Lies in the name of…

“How then may we devise one of those needful falsehoods of which we lately spoke—just one royal lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city?

What sort of lie? he said.

Nothing new, I replied; only an old Phoenician tale of what has often occurred before now in other places, (as the poets say, and have made the world believe,) though not in our time, and I do not know whether such an event could ever happen again, or could now even be made probable, if it did.”

Here he is showing that he has realized that all beliefs have a history and have been invented. Since he is so clearly aware of how religious myths are invented, and gives himself complete freedom to censor and edit Homer´s religious tales, I cannot for a second believe he believed in the Greek gods. We seem to have here an atheist who is embarrassed because the lies seem so idiotic to him they cannot possibly fly. Ironically, some 350 years B.C. he doubts rulers and common people alike could be made to believe these kind of stories again. He continues:

“…I propose to communicate gradually, first to the rulers, then to the soldiers, and lastly to the people. They are to be told that their youth was a dream, and the education and training which they received from us, an appearance only; in reality during all that time they were being formed and fed in the womb of the earth, where they themselves and their arms and appurtenances were manufactured; when they were completed, the earth, their mother, sent them up; and so, their country being their mother and also their nurse, they are bound to advise for her good, and to defend her against attacks, and her citizens they are to regard as children of the earth and their own brothers.

You had good reason, he said, to be ashamed of the lie which you were going to tell.

True, I replied, but there is more coming; I have only told you half. Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honour; others he has made of silver, to be auxillaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children. But as all are of the same original stock, a golden parent will sometimes have a silver son, or a silver parent a golden son….

Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it?

Not in the present generation, he replied; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons’ sons, and posterity after them.”

Why does a lover of truth want to spread lies? Is it because individuals cannot handle philosophical truths? Is it to spare people’s feelings, the same reason parents do not want to talk to their children about where granny really has (not) gone? No, that does not seem to be Plato´s concern.

“…fostering of such a belief will make them care more for the city and for one another.”

Essentially, Plato is talking about indoctrinating soldiers to defend the State. He talks about education and philosophy being a part of it, but he knows clearly that no philosophically inclined student would be prepared to lay down his life for the country he has out of happenstance been born into. He knows that any philosopher would question the validity of country borders, and hail what friends and enemies have in common rather than what separates them. The State that Plato hails, only really exists to subjugate the many for the benefit of the few.

Also, Plato is not concerned with progress. His State is something that needs to be preserved as is. It is the seed of a totalitarian, fascist, conservative ideology, and unlike natural seeds, ideas that make it into the soil of history always have some fruits. Ideas once introduced do not tend to go away. Who are the most influential modern interpreters of Plato? Two Jews escaping Nazi Germany took radically different approaches to his view on philosophy versus society: Karl Popper and Leo Strauss. The former is most famous for his philosophy of science, but in this context most relevant for his defence of liberal democracy and critical thinking. The latter is less known, but his students should ring a bell: Irving Kristol (the god father of American neo-conservatism), Paul Wolfowitz (Bush´s Secretary of Defense, and the unofficial author of the Bush doctrine on pre-emptive strike).


Essentially Strauss understanding of Plato is that it was right to kill Socrates. Philosophy is a threat to society. By questioning the gods and the ethos of the city, philosophy undermines the citizens’ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Philosophy unveils what Nietzsche called “deadly truths” and ordinary people need to be protected. He did not think Plato believed in God. He thought Plato was an atheist and committed “pious fraud”. Both Popper and Strauss agree that Plato was not honest, that he kept secrets, but they disagree about whether it was a good idea. According to his fiercest contemporary critic Shadia Drury, Strauss clearly thinks open debate and liberal democracy is unrealistic ideals at best, and genuine dangers at worst.(I cannot speak with any authority about Strauss since I find his writing style almost incomprehensible, as opposed to Popper who is extremely lucid and accessible. I think this is symptomatic of their attitudes though.)

So the question is: Will a society full of free thinking creative minds disintegrate into chaos? Why would it? Does thinking deeply about something always lead to the same end? Does philosophy lead to nihilism? If it did, would nihilism be bad for society? Philosophy inevitably leads to intellectual changes. You grow out of some beliefs and pick up new ones, and in doing so your “faith” in each becomes less absolute. Change of mind gives the wisdom of not taking anything too personally. If fanaticism is evil then nihilism is definitely on the side of the good or at least the harmless.  But if nihilism means not to care about anything then philosophy is not the train to take you there. You can be passionate about something and at the same time keep a healthy perspective. Philosophy is not a threat to the healthy society, on the contrary, it is what can save it from degeneration.

I think philosophy is about having a free mind not burdened by certainties. As opposed to Plato I think a healthy future proof society needs a great many free minds, not just a powerful elite.

What I am driving at is that it is not in the interest of the little ordinary citizen not to philosophize. It is in the interest of the elite that the masses do not question their authority. Thinking people are harder to control and subjugate, and they would be harder to send as cannon fodder to protect oilfields. Philosophical people are harder to control because they are harder to fool. Trying to keep people from thinking for themselves is an issue about maintaining power, not caring for people’s moral education. The most efficient way of keeping people united in a state of non-thinking is to invent enemies and engage in perpetual war.

For myself, I think philosophy is about having a free mind not burdened by certainties. As opposed to Plato I think a healthy future proof society needs a great many free minds, not just a powerful elite.  My reasons for this are not those of justice or natural rights, nor that it may be a realistic hope, simply that a million critical minds stand a better chance to solve the novel problems ahead than a self-serving conservative elite. When someone says “one shouldn’t think too much” what I hear is another one biting the dust.

You should think too much!

It is good for you.

It is good for the world.

What do you think?

I’m off for some more goat cheese.

À bientôt.