How the Dualism of Descartes Ruined our Mental Health

goya-lunatics

Yard with Lunatics 1794, (detail) by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. Courtesy Wikimedia/Meadows Museum, Dallas

James Barnes | Aeon Ideas

Toward the end of the Renaissance period, a radical epistemological and metaphysical shift overcame the Western psyche. The advances of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon posed a serious problem for Christian dogma and its dominion over the natural world. Following Bacon’s arguments, the natural world was now to be understood solely in terms of efficient causes (ie, external effects). Any inherent meaning or purpose to the natural world (ie, its ‘formal’ or ‘final’ causes) was deemed surplus to requirements. Insofar as it could be predicted and controlled in terms of efficient causes, not only was any notion of nature beyond this conception redundant, but God too could be effectively dispensed with.

In the 17th century, René Descartes’s dualism of matter and mind was an ingenious solution to the problem this created. ‘The ideas’ that had hitherto been understood as inhering in nature as ‘God’s thoughts’ were rescued from the advancing army of empirical science and withdrawn into the safety of a separate domain, ‘the mind’. On the one hand, this maintained a dimension proper to God, and on the other, served to ‘make the intellectual world safe for Copernicus and Galileo’, as the American philosopher Richard Rorty put it in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). In one fell swoop, God’s substance-divinity was protected, while empirical science was given reign over nature-as-mechanism – something ungodly and therefore free game.

Nature was thereby drained of her inner life, rendered a deaf and blind apparatus of indifferent and value-free law, and humankind was faced with a world of inanimate, meaningless matter, upon which it projected its psyche – its aliveness, meaning and purpose – only in fantasy. It was this disenchanted vision of the world, at the dawn of the industrial revolution that followed, that the Romantics found so revolting, and feverishly revolted against.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault in The Order of Things (1966) termed it a shift in ‘episteme’ (roughly, a system of knowledge). The Western psyche, Foucault argued, had once been typified by ‘resemblance and similitude’. In this episteme, knowledge of the world was derived from participation and analogy (the ‘prose of the world’, as he called it), and the psyche was essentially extroverted and world-involved. But after the bifurcation of mind and nature, an episteme structured around ‘identity and difference’ came to possess the Western psyche. The episteme that now prevailed was, in Rorty’s terms, solely concerned with ‘truth as correspondence’ and ‘knowledge as accuracy of representations’. Psyche, as such, became essentially introverted and untangled from the world.

Foucault argued, however, that this move was not a supersession per se, but rather constituted an ‘othering’ of the prior experiential mode. As a result, its experiential and epistemological dimensions were not only denied validity as an experience, but became the ‘occasion of error’. Irrational experience (ie, experience inaccurately corresponding to the ‘objective’ world) then became a meaningless mistake – and disorder the perpetuation of that mistake. This is where Foucault located the beginning of the modern conception of ‘madness’.

Although Descartes’s dualism did not win the philosophical day, we in the West are still very much the children of the disenchanted bifurcation it ushered in. Our experience remains characterised by the separation of ‘mind’ and ‘nature’ instantiated by Descartes. Its present incarnation  – what we might call the empiricist-materialist position  –  not only predominates in academia, but in our everyday assumptions about ourselves and the world. This is particularly clear in the case of mental disorder.

Common notions of mental disorder remain only elaborations of ‘error’, conceived of in the language of ‘internal dysfunction’ relative to a mechanistic world devoid of any meaning and influence. These dysfunctions are either to be cured by psychopharmacology, or remedied by therapy meant to lead the patient to rediscover ‘objective truth’ of the world. To conceive of it in this way is not only simplistic, but highly biased.

While it is true that there is value in ‘normalising’ irrational experiences like this, it comes at a great cost. These interventions work (to the extent that they do) by emptying our irrational experiences of their intrinsic value or meaning. In doing so, not only are these experiences cut off from any world-meaning they might harbour, but so too from any agency and responsibility we or those around us have – they are only errors to be corrected.

In the previous episteme, before the bifurcation of mind and nature, irrational experiences were not just ‘error’ – they were speaking a language as meaningful as rational experiences, perhaps even more so. Imbued with the meaning and rhyme of nature herself, they were themselves pregnant with the amelioration of the suffering they brought. Within the world experienced this way, we had a ground, guide and container for our ‘irrationality’, but these crucial psychic presences vanished along with the withdrawal of nature’s inner life and the move to ‘identity and difference’.

In the face of an indifferent and unresponsive world that neglects to render our experience meaningful outside of our own minds  –  for nature-as-mechanism is powerless to do this  –  our minds have been left fixated on empty representations of a world that was once its source and being. All we have, if we are lucky to have them, are therapists and parents who try to take on what is, in reality, and given the magnitude of the loss, an impossible task.

But I’m not going to argue that we just need to ‘go back’ somehow. On the contrary, the bifurcation of mind and nature was at the root of immeasurable secular progress –  medical and technological advance, the rise of individual rights and social justice, to name just a few. It also protected us all from being bound up in the inherent uncertainty and flux of nature. It gave us a certain omnipotence – just as it gave science empirical control over nature – and most of us readily accept, and willingly spend, the inheritance bequeathed by it, and rightly so.

It cannot be emphasised enough, however, that this history is much less a ‘linear progress’ and much more a dialectic. Just as unified psyche-nature stunted material progress, material progress has now degenerated psyche. Perhaps, then, we might argue for a new swing in this pendulum. Given the dramatic increase in substance-use issues and recent reports of a teenage ‘mental health crisis’ and teen suicide rates rising in the US, the UK and elsewhere to name only the most conspicuous, perhaps the time is in fact overripe.

However, one might ask, by what means? There has been a resurgence of ‘pan-experiential’ and idealist-leaning theories in several disciplines, largely concerned with undoing the very knot of bifurcation and the excommunication of a living nature, and creating in its wake something afresh. This is because attempts at explaining subjective experience in empiricist-materialist terms have all but failed (principally due to what the Australian philosopher David Chalmers in 1995 termed the ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness). The notion that metaphysics is ‘dead’ would in fact be met with very significant qualification in certain quarters – indeed, the Canadian philosopher Evan Thompson et al argued along the same lines in a recent essay in Aeon.

It must be remembered that mental disorder as ‘error’ rises and falls with the empiricist-materialist metaphysics and the episteme it is a product of. Therefore, we might also think it justified to begin to reconceptualise the notion of mental disorder in the same terms as these theories. There has been a decisive shift in psychotherapeutic theory and practice away from the changing of parts or structures of the individual, and towards the idea that it is the very process of the therapeutic encounter itself that is ameliorative. Here, correct or incorrect judgments about ‘objective reality’ start to lose meaning, and psyche as open and organic starts to come back into focus, but the metaphysics remains. We ultimately need to be thinking about mental disorder on a metaphysical level, and not just within the confines of the status quo.Aeon counter – do not remove

James Barnes

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

How do we Pry Apart the True and Compelling from the False and Toxic?

cpu-stack

Stack of CPU’s. Shawn Stutzman, Pexels

David V Johnson | Aeon Ideas

When false and malicious speech roils the body politic, when racism and violence surge, the right and role of freedom of speech in society comes into crisis. People rightly begin to wonder what are the limits, what should be the rules. It is a complicated issue, and resolving it requires care about the exact problems targeted and solutions proposed. Otherwise the risk to free speech is real.

Propaganda from Russian-funded troll farms (boosted by Facebook data breaches) might have contributed to the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union and aided the United States’ election of Donald Trump as president. Conspiracy theories spread by alternative news outlets or over social media sometimes lead to outbreaks of violence. Politicians exploit the mainstream news media’s commitment to balance, to covering newsworthy public statements and their need for viewers or readers by making baseless, sensational claims.

In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill offers the most compelling defence of freedom of speech, conscience and autonomy ever written. Mill argues that the only reason to restrict speech is to prevent harm to others, such as with hate speech and incitement to violence. Otherwise, all speech must be protected. Even if we know a view is false, Mill says, it is wrong to suppress it. We avoid prejudice and dogmatism, and achieve understanding, through freely discussing and defending what we believe against contrary claims.

Today, a growing number of people see these views as naive. Mill’s arguments are better suited to those who still believe in the open marketplace of ideas, where free and rational debate is the best way to settle all disputes about truth and falsity. Who could possibly believe we live in such a world anymore? Instead, what we have is a Wild West of partisanship and manipulation, where social media gurus exploit research in behavioural psychology to compel users to affirm and echo absurd claims. We have a world where people live in cognitive bubbles of the like-minded and share one another’s biases and prejudices. According to this savvy view, our brave new world is too prone to propaganda and conspiracy-mongering to rely on Mill’s optimism about free speech. To do so is to risk abetting the rise of fascist and absolutist tendencies.

In his book How Fascism Works (2018), the American philosopher Jason Stanley cites the Russian television network RT, which presents all sorts of misleading and slanted views. If Mill is right, claims Stanley, then RT and such propaganda outfits ‘should be the paradigm of knowledge production’ because they force us to scrutinise their claims. But this is a reductio ad absurdum of Mill’s argument. Similarly, Alexis Papazoglou in The New Republic questions whether Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister turned Facebook’s new vice president of global affairs and communication, will be led astray by his appreciation of Mill’s On Liberty. ‘Mill seemed to believe that an open, free debate meant the truth would usually prevail, whereas under censorship, truth could end up being accidentally suppressed, along with falsehood,’ writes Papazoglou. ‘It’s a view that seems a bit archaic in the age of an online marketplace of memes and clickbait, where false stories tend to spread faster and wider than their true counterpoints.’

When important and false beliefs and theories gain traction in public conversation, Mill’s protection of speech can be frustrating. But there is nothing new about ‘fake news’, whether in Mill’s age of sensationalist newspapers or in our age of digital media. Nonetheless to seek a solution in restricting speech is foolish and counterproductive – it lends credibility to the illiberal forces you, paradoxically, seek to silence. It also betrays an elitism about engaging with those of different opinions and a cynicism about affording your fellow citizens the freedom to muddle through the morass on their own. If we want to live in a liberal democratic society, rational engagement is the only solution on offer. Rather than restricting speech, we should look to supplement Mill’s view with effective tools for dealing with bad actors and with beliefs that, although false, seem compelling to some.

Fake news and propaganda are certainly problems, as they were in Mill’s day, but the problems they raise are more serious than the falsity of their claims. After all, they are not unique in saying false things, as the latest newspaper corrections will tell you. More importantly, they involve bad actors: people and organisations who intentionally pass off false views as the truth, and hide their nature and motives. (Think Russian troll farms.) Anyone who knows that they are dealing with bad actors – people trying to mislead – ignores them, and justifiably so. It’s not worth your time to consider the claim of someone you know is trying to deceive you.

There is nothing in Mill that demands that we engage any and all false views. After all, there are too many out there and so people have to be selective. Transparency is key, helping people know with whom, or what, they are dealing. Transparency helps filter out noise and fosters accountability, so that bad actors – those who hide their identity for the purpose of misleading others – are eliminated.

Mill’s critics fail to see the truth that is mixed in with the false views that they wish to restrict, and that makes those views compelling. RT, for instance, has covered many issues, such as the US financial crisis, economic inequality and imperialism more accurately than mainstream news channels. RT also includes informed sources who are ignored by other outlets. The channel might be biased toward demeaning the US and fomenting division, but it often pursues this agenda by speaking truths that are not covered in mainstream US media. Informed news-watchers know to view RT and all news sources with skepticism, and there is no reason not to extend the same respect to the entire viewing public, unless you presume you are a better judge of what to believe than your fellow citizens.

Mill rightly thought that the typical case wasn’t one of views that are false, but views that have a mixture of true and false. It would be far more effective to try to engage with the truth in views we despise than to try to ban them for their alleged falsity. The Canadian psychologist and YouTube sensation Jordan Peterson, for example, says things that are false, misogynistic and illiberal, but one possible reason for his following is that he recognises and speaks to a deficit of meaning and values in many young men’s lives. Here, the right approach is to pry apart the true and compelling from the false and toxic, through reasoned consideration. This way, following Mill’s path, presents a better chance of winning over those who are lost to views we despise. It also helps us improve our own understanding, as Mill wisely suggests.Aeon counter – do not remove

David V Johnson

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

The Amity Affliction

The Amity Affliction – Pittsburgh

I’ve been searching for an exit, but I’m lost inside my head,
Where I spend every waking moment, wishing I was dead.
For a few minutes, get me away from here,
For a few minutes, wipe away my tears.

For I am lost right now, as the ocean deep,
I am low my friend and how my heart does sink,
Yeah I am lost right now, as the ocean deep,
I am low my friend and how my heart does sink.

It’s like there’s cancer in my blood,
It’s like there’s water in my lungs,
And I can’t take another step,
Please tell me I am not undone.

It’s like there’s fire in my skin,
And I’m drowning from within,
I can’t take another breath,
Please tell me I am not undone.

I’ve been searching for an exit, but I’m lost inside my head,
Where I spend every waking moment, wishing this would end.
I can’t take another step, I cannot live inside my mind,
I can’t face another day, I am so fucking tired.

For I am lost right now, as the ocean deep,
I am low my friend and how my heart does sink,
Yeah I am lost right now, as the ocean deep,
I am low my friend and how my heart does sink.

It’s like there’s cancer in my blood,
it’s like there’s water in my lungs,
And I can’t take another step,
Please tell me I am not undone.

It’s like there’s fire in my skin,
And I’m drowning from within,
I can’t take another breath,
Please tell me I am not undone.

I’ve been searching for an exit, but I’m lost inside my head,
Where I spend every waking moment, wishing I was dead.

I’ll take another step for you,
I’ll shed my tears until I drown, or until I am underground.

I’ll take another breath for you,
Will you still be there when I’m home, out from the great unknown?

It’s like there’s cancer in my blood,
It’s like there’s water in my lungs,
And I can’t take another step,
Please tell me I am not undone.

It’s like there’s fire in my skin,
And I’m drowning from within,
I can’t take another breath,
Please tell me I am not undone.


Songwriters: Ahren Stringer / Michael Baskette / Troy Brady / Ryan Burt / Joel Birch
Pittsburgh lyrics © Words & Music A Div Of Big Deal Music LLC

Philosophical Writing Should Read like a Letter Written to Oneself

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Søren Kierkegaard at his high desk (1920) by Luplau Janssen. Courtesy Wikipedia

John Lysaker | Aeon Ideas

In memory of Stanley Cavell (1926-2018)

I came to philosophy bursting with things to say. Somewhere along the way, that changed. Not that I stopped talking, or, as time went on, writing. But the mood of it, the key in which it was pitched, moved. I came to feel answerable. And not just to myself or those I knew but to some broader public, some open, indefinite ‘you’. ‘Answer for yourself’ wove into ‘know thyself’.

How though does one register a key change in prose? If philosophy is bound, in part, to the feeling of being answerable, shouldn’t it have more of an epistolary feel? ‘Dear you, here is where I stand, for the time being… Yours, me.’ One ventures thoughts, accounts for them and awaits a reply, only to begin again: ‘Dear you, thank you for your response. So much (or very little) has changed since I received your letter…’

A move toward the epistolary seems right to me, at least for philosophy. Still a gadfly perhaps, but also working through having been stung, and with the vulnerability of doing so before, even for others. But how much philosophy has the feel of a letter? And when we philosophise, are we cognisant of our addressees and the varied situations in which they find us? The view from nowhere has been more or less exiled from epistemology. We know that we know in concrete, situated locales. But has philosophical writing kept pace and developed a feel for what to consider when pondering: how should I write?

Survey philosophy’s history, and the plot thickens. Philosophical writing is a varied affair. Some texts prioritise demonstration, arguing, for example, that ‘truth’ names a working touch between belief and the world. Others favour provocation, as when a dialogue concerning the nature of friendship concludes before a working definition is reached. If we want a definition, we need to generate our own, or ponder what a lack of one implies. Still other texts offer exemplification, as when Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949) proves herself to be the agent-intellect that patriarchy insists she’s not. By confronting her historical fate, she shows us how wrong, how unjust that historical fate has been. And she shows us what patriarchy has kept us from.

Genre considerations intensify the question of what should organise philosophical writing: dialogue, treatise, aphorism, essay, professional article and monograph, fragment, autobiography. And if one’s sensibility is more inclusive, letters, manifestos and interviews also become possibilities. No genre is fully scripted, however, hence the need to also consider logical-rhetorical operations: modus ponens, irony, transcendental arguments, allegory, images, analogies, examples, quotations, translation, even voice, a distinctive way of being there and for the reader. So much seems to count when we answer for how we write.

Questions concerning writing sometimes arise when philosophers worry about accessibility and a broader readership. But the possibilities I have enumerated bear directly on thought itself. Writing generates discovery, and genre impacts rather than simply transfers ideas; so too logical-rhetorical operations. Francis Bacon was drawn to the aphorism because it freed observation from scholastic habits, whereas the professional article defers to its lingua franca. The treatise exhausts whatever might be said about a topic – call this the view from everywhere – whereas the essay accepts its partiality and tests its reach relative to topics such as friendship, feminine sexuality, even a fierce love for film. When writing becomes the question, more than outreach calls for consideration.

Here’s a start. How will my thought unfold through this genre and these logical-rhetorical operations? Where will the aphorism, essay or professional article take me, or an exchange of letters? And so too examples, open disagreements, quotation, the labour of translation, or irony for that matter? It is a celebrated trope of surprise and displacement. But a good deal of irony, at least when one turns to the ironist, facilitates self-preservation. It is the reader who is surprised by an encounter with some covert meaning while the author’s overt and covert meanings are fairly settled. (I thus wonder: what does irony keep safe?)

Questions regarding which possibilities to enact cannot be answered through critique, which, following Immanuel Kant, interrogates the character of our judgments and operative concepts, seeking rules that might govern their use. The discoveries that writing occasions are evidence that philosophy belongs too intimately to language to play charioteer to its steeds. Writing is a gamble and, when it’s honest, one faces unexpected results.

Facing a blank page, one might also ask: what relations will this establish with addressees? The polemic seeks converts rather than interlocutors, and at the expense of discovery. And even when an outright polemic is avoided, some schematise opponents rather than read them publicly and carefully, thereby preaching to the converted, which seems a misstep.

Unwilling to proceed dogmatically, one might favour provocation at the expense of doctrine, as some take Plato to do. But any provocation has its own commitments, beginning with the end toward which it provokes its readers. Socrates is one kind of interlocutor, Gaius Laelius quite another, and that is because Plato and Cicero approach education, the soul and their respective states differently. Strict distinctions between provocation and doctrine (or form and content, for that matter) are thus untenable.

Other operations also engage one’s addressees. Examples allow readers to review what’s on offer, something also made possible when meaningful disagreements are staged. (When authors never pause to imagine a disagreement, I feel claustrophobic and throw open a window.) And if one begins to acknowledge how varied one’s addressees could be, other habits become salient. Looking back at my citations, I know that I’ve written texts that suggest ‘whites only’ or ‘women need not apply’.

Texts and readers do not meet in a vacuum, however. I thus wonder: how does one also address prevailing contextual forces, from ethno-nationalisms to white supremacy to the commodification of higher education? It is tempting to imagine a text without footnotes, as if they were ornaments. But in a period so averse to the rigours of knowledge, and so ahistorical in its feel for the truths we have, why not underscore the contested history of a thought, if only to insist: thought is work, the results fragile, and there will be disagreements. Clarity poses another question, and a particular challenge for philosophy, which is not underwritten by experiments. Instead, its ‘results’ are won (or lost) in the presentation. Moreover, philosophical conclusions do not remain philosophical if freed from the path that led to them. ‘God exists’ says one thing in prayer and something else at the close of a proof. Experts often are asked to share their results without showing their work. But showing one’s work is very much the work of philosophy. Can one do so and reach beyond the academy?

Every reader of Plato knows that Socrates, by way of exemplification, is an image of philosophy, from his modes of interrogation to who is interrogated to his reminders that philosophy demands courage. And so too the dialogue itself – it models philosophy. But every text announces: here too is philosophy. The overall bearing of one’s writing thus merits scrutiny. Is it generous or hasty? Has it earned its ‘therefores’ or, after ripping opponents for nuanced failings, does it invoke the intuitively plausible? Does it acknowledge the full range of possible addressees or cloister itself within the narrow folds of the like-minded? Does it challenge its starting points or hide cut corners with jargon and massive generalisations?

Taking my cue from Ludwig Wittgenstein, I would say: philosophy no longer knows its way around writing. And what it does know – the professional article and monograph – is underwritten by conformity rather than philosophical reflection and commitment. Not for all. And many have led elsewhere by example. But on the whole, and thinking of the present moment, the writer’s life remains unexamined in the aspirational context of philosophy.

Looking into a garden of genres and logical-rhetorical operations, I have proposed four orienting questions. How will my thought unfold along these lines? What relationships will they establish with my varied addressees? Will my address be able to navigate the currents of our varied lives and be ‘equal to the moment’, as Walter Benjamin would ask? And finally, what, in the name of philosophy, does my text exemplify? Have I offered a compelling image? ‘Dear you, here is where I stand, for the time being… Yours, me.’Aeon counter – do not remove

John Lysaker

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

To Boost your Self-esteem, Write about Chapters of your Life

1980s-car

New car, 1980s. Photo by Don Pugh/Flickr

Christian Jarrett | Aeon Ideas

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity. Writing in the 1950s, the psychologist Erik Erikson put it this way:

To be adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and in prospect … to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it.

Alongside your chosen values and goals in life, and your personality traits – how sociable you are, how much of a worrier and so on – your life story as you tell it makes up the final part of what in 2015 the personality psychologist Dan P McAdams at Northwestern University in Illinois called the ‘personological trinity’.

Of course, some of us tell these stories more explicitly than others – one person’s narrative identity might be a barely formed story at the edge of their consciousness, whereas another person might literally write out their past and future in a diary or memoir.

Intriguingly, there’s some evidence that prompting people to reflect on and tell their life stories – a process called ‘life review therapy’ – could be psychologically beneficial. However, most of this work has been on older adults and people with pre-existing problems such as depression or chronic physical illnesses. It remains to be established through careful experimentation whether prompting otherwise healthy people to reflect on their lives will have any immediate benefits.

A relevant factor in this regard is the tone, complexity and mood of the stories that people tell themselves. For instance, it’s been shown that people who tell more positive stories, including referring to more instances of personal redemption, tend to enjoy higher self-esteem and greater ‘self-concept clarity’ (the confidence and lucidity in how you see yourself). Perhaps engaging in writing or talking about one’s past will have immediate benefits only for people whose stories are more positive.

In a recent paper in the Journal of Personality, Kristina L Steiner at Denison University in Ohio and her colleagues looked into these questions and reported that writing about chapters in your life does indeed lead to a modest, temporary self-esteem boost, and that in fact this benefit arises regardless of how positive your stories are. However, there were no effects on self-concept clarity, and many questions on this topic remain for future study.

Steiner’s team tested three groups of healthy American participants across three studies. The first two groups – involving more than 300 people between them – were young undergraduates, most of them female. The final group, a balanced mix of 101 men and women, was recruited from the community, and they were older, with an average age of 62.

The format was essentially the same for each study. The participants were asked to complete various questionnaires measuring their mood, self-esteem and self-concept clarity, among other things. Then half of them were allocated to write about four chapters in their lives, spending 10 minutes on each. They were instructed to be as specific and detailed as possible, and to reflect on main themes, how each chapter related to their lives as a whole, and to think about any causes and effects of the chapter on them and their lives. The other half of the participants, who acted as a control group, spent the same time writing about four famous Americans of their choosing (to make this task more intellectually comparable, they were also instructed to reflect on the links between the individuals they chose, how they became famous, and other similar questions). After the writing tasks, all the participants retook the same psychological measures they’d completed at the start.

The participants who wrote about chapters in their lives displayed small, but statistically significant, increases to their self-esteem, whereas the control-group participants did not. This self-esteem boost wasn’t explained by any changes to their mood, and – to the researchers’ surprise – it didn’t matter whether the participants rated their chapters as mostly positive or negative, nor did it depend on whether they featured themes of agency (that is, being in control) and communion (pertaining to meaningful relationships). Disappointingly, there was no effect of the life-chapter task on self-concept clarity, nor on meaning and identity.

How long do the self-esteem benefits of the life-chapter task last, and might they accumulate by repeating the exercise? Clues come from the second of the studies, which involved two life chapter-writing tasks (and two tasks writing about famous Americans for the control group), with the second task coming 48 hours after the first. The researchers wanted to see if the self-esteem boost arising from the first life-chapter task would still be apparent at the start of the second task two days later – but it wasn’t. They also wanted to see if the self-esteem benefits might accumulate over the two tasks – they didn’t (the second life-chapter task had its own self-esteem benefit, but it wasn’t cumulative with the benefits of the first).

It remains unclear exactly why the life-chapter task had the self-esteem benefits that it did. It’s possible that the task led participants to consider how they had changed in positive ways. They might also have benefited from expressing and confronting their emotional reactions to these periods of their lives – this would certainly be consistent with the well-documented benefits of expressive writing and ‘affect labelling’ (the calming effect of putting our emotions into words). Future research will need to compare different life chapter-writing instructions to tease apart these different potential beneficial mechanisms. It would also be helpful to test more diverse groups of participants and different ‘dosages’ of the writing task to see if it is at all possible for the benefits to accrue over time.

The researchers said: ‘Our findings suggest that the experience of systematically reviewing one’s life and identifying, describing and conceptually linking life chapters may serve to enhance the self, even in the absence of increased self-concept clarity and meaning.’ If you are currently lacking much confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, it could be worth giving the life-chapter task a go. It’s true that the self-esteem benefits of the exercise were small, but as Steiner’s team noted, ‘the costs are low’ too.Aeon counter – do not remove

Christian Jarrett

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Atheism has been Part of Many Asian Traditions for Millennia

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Atheism is not a modern concept.
Zoe Margolis, CC BY-NC-ND

Signe Cohen, University of Missouri-Columbia

A group of atheists and secularists recently gathered in Southern California to talk about social and political issues. This was the first of three summits planned by the Secular Coalition for America, an advocacy group based in Washington D.C.

To many, atheism – the lack of belief in a personal god or gods – may appear an entirely modern concept. After all, it would seem that it is religious traditions that have dominated the world since the beginning of recorded history.

As a scholar of Asian religions, however, I’m often struck by the prevalence of atheism and agnosticism – the view that it is impossible to know whether a god exists – in ancient Asian texts. Atheistic traditions have played a significant part in Asian cultures for millennia.

Atheism in Buddhism, Jainism

Buddhists do not believe in a creator God.
Keith Cuddeback, CC BY-NC-ND

While Buddhism is a tradition focused on spiritual liberation, it is not a theistic religion.

The Buddha himself rejected the idea of a creator god, and Buddhist philosophers have even argued that belief in an eternal god is nothing but a distraction for humans seeking enlightenment.

While Buddhism does not argue that gods don’t exist, gods are seen as completely irrelevant to those who strive for enlightenment.

Jains do not believe in a divine creator.
Gandalf’s Gallery, CC BY-NC-SA

A similar form of functional atheism can also be found in the ancient Asian religion of Jainism, a tradition that emphasizes non-violence toward all living beings, non-attachment to worldly possessions and ascetic practice. While Jains believe in an eternal soul or jiva, that can be reborn, they do not believe in a divine creator.

According to Jainism, the universe is eternal, and while gods may exist, they too must be reborn, just like humans are. The gods play no role in spiritual liberation and enlightenment; humans must find their own path to enlightenment with the help of wise human teachers.

Other Atheistic Philosophies

Around the same time when Buddhism and Jainism arose in the sixth century B.C., there was also an explicitly atheist school of thought in India called the Carvaka school. Although none of their original texts have survived, Buddhist and Hindu authors describe the Carvakas as firm atheists who believed that nothing existed beyond the material world.

To the Carvakas, there was no life after death, no soul apart from the body, no gods and no world other than this one.

Another school of thought, Ajivika, which flourished around the same time, similarly argued that gods didn’t exist, although its followers did believe in a soul and in rebirth.

The Ajivikas claimed that the fate of the soul was determined by fate alone, and not by a god, or even by free will. The Ajivikas taught that everything was made up of atoms, but that these atoms were moving and combining with each other in predestined ways.

Like the Carvaka school, the Ajivika school is today only known from texts composed by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It is therefore difficult to determine exactly what the Ajivikas themselves thought.

According to Buddhist texts, the Ajivikas argued that there was no distinction between good and evil and there was no such thing as sin. The school may have existed around the same time as early Buddhism, in the fifth century B.C.

Atheism in Hinduism

There are many gods in Hinduism, but there are also atheistic beliefs.
Religious Studies Unisa, CC BY-SA

While the Hindu tradition of India embraces the belief in many gods and goddesses – 330 million of them, according to some sources – there are also atheistic strands of thought found within Hinduism.

The Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy is one such example. It believes that humans can achieve liberation for themselves by freeing their own spirit from the realm of matter.

Another example is the Mimamsa school. This school also rejects the idea of a creator God. The Mimamsa philosopher Kumarila said that if a god had created the world by himself in the beginning, how could anyone else possibly confirm it? Kumarila further argued that if a merciful god had created the world, it could not have been as full of suffering as it is.

According to the 2011 census, there were approximately 2.9 million atheists in India. Atheism is still a significant cultural force in India, as well as in other Asian countries influenced by Indian religions.The Conversation

Signe Cohen, Associate Professor and Department Chair, University of Missouri-Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is Consciousness a Battle between your Beliefs and Perceptions?

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Now you see it… Magician Harry Houdini moments before ‘disappearing’ Jennie the 10,000lb elephant at the Hippodrome, New York, in 1918. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Hakwan Lau | Aeon Ideas

Imagine you’re at a magic show, in which the performer suddenly vanishes. Of course, you ultimately know that the person is probably just hiding somewhere. Yet it continues to look as if the person has disappeared. We can’t reason away that appearance, no matter what logic dictates. Why are our conscious experiences so stubborn?

The fact that our perception of the world appears to be so intransigent, however much we might reflect on it, tells us something unique about how our brains are wired. Compare the magician scenario with how we usually process information. Say you have five friends who tell you it’s raining outside, and one weather website indicating that it isn’t. You’d probably just consider the website to be wrong and write it off. But when it comes to conscious perception, there seems to be something strangely persistent about what we see, hear and feel. Even when a perceptual experience is clearly ‘wrong’, we can’t just mute it.

Why is that so? Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) shed new light on this puzzle. In computer science, we know that neural networks for pattern-recognition – so-called deep learning models – can benefit from a process known as predictive coding. Instead of just taking in information passively, from the bottom up, networks can make top-down hypotheses about the world, to be tested against observations. They generally work better this way. When a neural network identifies a cat, for example, it first develops a model that allows it to predict or imagine what a cat looks like. It can then examine any incoming data that arrives to see whether or not it fits that expectation.

The trouble is, while these generative models can be super efficient once they’re up and running, they usually demand huge amounts of time and information to train. One solution is to use generative adversarial networks (GANs) – hailed as the ‘coolest idea in deep learning in the last 20 years’ by Facebook’s head of AI research Yann LeCun. In GANs, we might train one network (the generator) to create pictures of cats, mimicking real cats as closely as it can. And we train another network (the discriminator) to distinguish between the manufactured cat images and the real ones. We can then pit the two networks against each other, such that the discriminator is rewarded for catching fakes, while the generator is rewarded for getting away with them. When they are set up to compete, the networks grow together in prowess, not unlike an arch art-forger trying to outwit an art expert. This makes learning very efficient for each of them.

As well as a handy engineering trick, GANs are a potentially useful analogy for understanding the human brain. In mammalian brains, the neurons responsible for encoding perceptual information serve multiple purposes. For example, the neurons that fire when you see a cat also fire when you imagine or remember a cat; they can also activate more or less at random. So whenever there’s activity in our neural circuitry, the brain needs to be able to figure out the cause of the signals, whether internal or external.

We can call this exercise perceptual reality monitoring. John Locke, the 17th-century British philosopher, believed that we had some sort of inner organ that performed the job of sensory self-monitoring. But critics of Locke wondered why Mother Nature would take the trouble to grow a whole separate organ, on top of a system that’s already set up to detect the world via the senses. You have to be able to smell something before you can go about deciding whether or not the perception is real or fake; so why not just build in a check to the detecting mechanism itself?

In light of what we now know about GANs, though, Locke’s idea makes a certain amount of sense. Because our perceptual system takes up neural resources, parts of it get recycled for different uses. So imagining a cat draws on the same neuronal patterns as actually seeing one. But this overlap muddies the water regarding the meaning of the signals. Therefore, for the recycling scheme to work well, we need a discriminator to decide when we are seeing something versus when we’re merely thinking about it. This GAN-like inner sense organ – or something like it – needs to be there to act as an adversarial rival, to stimulate the growth of a well-honed predictive coding mechanism.

If this account is right, it’s fair to say that conscious experience is probably akin to a kind of logical inference. That is, if the perceptual signal from the generator says there is a cat, and the discriminator decides that this signal truthfully reflects the state of the world right now, we naturally see a cat. The same goes for raw feelings: pain can feel sharp, even when we know full well that nothing is poking at us, and patients can report feeling pain in limbs that have already been amputated. To the extent that the discriminator gets things right most of the time, we tend to trust it. No wonder that when there’s a conflict between subjective impressions and rational beliefs, it seems to make sense to believe what we consciously experience.

This perceptual stubbornness is not just a feature of humans. Some primates have it too, as shown by their capacity to be amazed and amused by magic tricks. That is, they seem to understand that there’s a tension between what they’re seeing and what they know to be true. Given what we understand about their brains – specifically, that their perceptual neurons are also ‘recyclable’ for top-down functioning – the GAN theory suggests that these nonhuman animals probably have conscious experiences not dissimilar to ours.

The future of AI is more challenging. If we built a robot with a very complex GAN-style architecture, would it be conscious? On the basis of our theory, it would probably be capable of predictive coding, exercising the same machinery for perception as it deploys for top-down prediction or imagination. Perhaps like some current generative networks, it could ‘dream’. Like us, it probably couldn’t reason away its pain – and it might even be able to appreciate stage magic.

Theorising about consciousness is notoriously hard, and we don’t yet know what it really consists in. So we wouldn’t be in a position to establish if our robot was truly conscious. Then again, we can’t do this with any certainty with respect to other animals either. At least by fleshing out some conjectures about the machinery of consciousness, we can begin
to test them against our intuitions – and, more importantly, in experiments. What we do know is that a model of the mind involving an inner mechanism of doubt – a nit-picking system that’s constantly on the lookout for fakes and forgeries in perception – is one of the most promising ideas we’ve come up with so far.

Hakwan Lau

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Was the Real Socrates more Worldly and Amorous than We Knew?

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Detail from Socrates Dragging Alcibiades from the Embrace of Aspasia (1785) by Jean-Baptiste Regnault. Louvre, Paris. Courtesy Wikipedia

Armand D’Angour | Aeon Ideas

Socrates is widely considered to be the founding figure of Western philosophy – a thinker whose ideas, transmitted by the extensive writings of his devoted follower Plato, have shaped thinking for more than 2,000 years. ‘For better or worse,’ wrote the Classical scholar Diskin Clay in Platonic Questions (2000), ‘Plato’s Socrates is our Socrates.’ The enduring image of Socrates that comes from Plato is of a man of humble background, little education, few means and unappealing looks, who became a brilliant and disputatious philosopher married to an argumentative woman called Xanthippe. Both Plato and Xenophon, Socrates’ other principal biographer, were born c424 BCE, so they knew Socrates (born c469 BCE) only as an old man. Keen to defend his reputation from the charges of ‘introducing new kinds of gods’ and ‘corrupting young men’ on which he was eventually brought to trial and executed, they painted a picture of Socrates in late middle age as a pious teacher and unremitting ethical thinker, a man committed to shunning bodily pleasures for higher educational purposes.

Yet this clearly idealised picture of Socrates is not the whole story, and it gives us no indication of the genesis of his ideas. Plato’s pupil Aristotle and other Ancient writers provide us with correctives to the Platonic Socrates. For instance, Aristotle’s followers Aristoxenus and Clearchus of Soli preserve biographical snippets that they might have known from their teacher. From them we learn that Socrates in his teens was intimate with a distinguished older philosopher, Archelaus; that he married more than once, the first time to an aristocratic woman called Myrto, with whom he had two sons; and that he had an affair with Aspasia of Miletus, the clever and influential woman who was later to become the partner of Pericles, a leading citizen of Athens.

If these statements are to be believed, a different Socrates emerges: that of a highly placed young Athenian, whose personal experiences within an elevated milieu inspired him to embark on a new style of philosophy that was to change the way people thought ever afterwards. But can we trust these later authors? How could writers two or more generations removed from Socrates’ own time have felt entitled to contradict Plato? One answer is that Aristotle might have derived some information from Plato in person, rather than from his writings, and passed this on to his pupils; another is that, as a member of Plato’s Academy for 20 years, Aristotle might have known that Plato had elided certain facts to defend Socrates’ reputation; a third is that the later authors had access to further sources (oral and written) other than Plato, which they considered to be reliable.

Plato’s Socrates is an eccentric. Socrates claimed to have heard voices in his head from youth, and is described as standing still in public places for long stretches of time, deep in thought. Plato notes these phenomena without comment, accepting Socrates’ own description of the voices as his ‘divine sign’, and reporting on his awe-inspiring ability to meditate for hours on end. Aristotle, the son of a doctor, took a more medical approach: he suggested that Socrates (along with other thinkers) suffered from a medical condition he calls ‘melancholy’. Recent medical investigators have agreed, speculating that Socrates’ behaviour was consistent with a medical condition known as catalepsy. Such a condition might well have made Socrates feel estranged from his peers in early life, encouraging him to embark on a different kind of lifestyle.

If the received picture of Socrates’ life and personality merits reconsid­eration, what about his thought? Aristotle makes clear in his Metaphysics that Plato misrepresented Socrates regarding the so-called Theory of Forms:

Socrates concerned himself with ethics, neglecting the natural world but seeking the universal in ethical matters, and he was the first to insist on definitions. Plato took over this doctrine, but argued that what was universal applied not to objects of sense but to entities of another kind. He thought a single description could not define things that are perceived, since such things are always changing. Unchanging entities he called ‘Forms’…

Aristotle himself had little sympathy for such otherwordly views. As a biologist and scientist, he was mainly concerned with the empirical investigation of the world. In his own writings he dismissed the Forms, replacing them with a logical account of universals and their particular instantiations. For him, Socrates was also a more down-to-earth thinker than Plato sought to depict.

Sources from late antiquity, such as the 5th-century CE Christian writers Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Cyril of Alexandria, state that Socrates was, at least as a younger man, a lover of both sexes. They corroborate occasional glimpses of an earthy Socrates in Plato’s own writings, such as in the dialogue Charmides where Socrates claims to be intensely aroused by the sight of a young man’s bare chest. However, the only partner of Socrates’ whom Plato names is Xanthippe; but since she was carrying a baby in her arms when Socrates was aged 70, it is unlikely they met more than a decade or so earlier, when Socrates was already in his 50s. Plato’s failure to mention the earlier aristocratic wife Myrto might be an attempt to minimise any perception that Socrates came from a relatively wealthy background with connections to high-ranking members of his community; it was largely because Socrates was believed to be associated with the antidemocratic aristocrats who took power in Athens that he was put on trial and executed in 399 BCE.

Aristotle’s testimony, therefore, is a valuable reminder that the picture of Socrates bequeathed by Plato should not be accepted uncritically. Above all, if Socrates at some point in his early manhood became the companion of Aspasia – a woman famous as an instructor of eloquence and relationship counsellor – it potentially changes our understanding not only of Socrates’ early life, but of the formation of his philosophical ideas. He is famous for saying: ‘All I know is that I know nothing.’ But the one thing he claims, in Plato’s Symposium, that he does know about, is love, which he learned about from a clever woman. Might that woman have been Aspasia, once his beloved companion? The real Socrates must remain elusive but, in the statements of Aristotle, Aristoxenus and Clearchus of Soli, we get intriguing glimpses of a different Socrates from the one portrayed so eloquently in Plato’s writings.

For more from Armand D’Angour and his extraordinary research bringing the music of Ancient Greece to life, see this Video and read this Idea.Aeon counter – do not remove

Armand D’Angour

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Muhammad: an Anticlerical Hero of the European Enlightenment

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Thomas Jefferson’s copy of George Sale’s 1734 translation of the Quran is used in the swearing in ceremony of US Representative Keith Ellison at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC, on 4 January 2007. Photo by Getty

John Tolan | Aeon Ideas

Publishing the Quran and making it available in translation was a dangerous enterprise in the 16th century, apt to confuse or seduce the faithful Christian. This, at least, was the opinion of the Protestant city councillors of Basel in 1542, when they briefly jailed a local printer for planning to publish a Latin translation of the Muslim holy book. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther intervened to salvage the project: there was no better way to combat the Turk, he wrote, than to expose the ‘lies of Muhammad’ for all to see.

The resulting publication in 1543 made the Quran available to European intellectuals, most of whom studied it in order to better understand and combat Islam. There were others, however, who used their reading of the Quran to question Christian doctrine. The Catalonian polymath and theologian Michael Servetus found numerous Quranic arguments to employ in his anti-Trinitarian tract, Christianismi Restitutio (1553), in which he called Muhammad a true reformer who preached a return to the pure monotheism that Christian theologians had corrupted by inventing the perverse and irrational doctrine of the Trinity. After publishing these heretical ideas, Servetus was condemned by the Catholic Inquisition in Vienne, and finally burned with his own books in Calvin’s Geneva.

During the European Enlightenment, a number of authors presented Muhammad in a similar vein, as an anticlerical hero; some saw Islam as a pure form of monotheism close to philosophic Deism and the Quran as a rational paean to the Creator. In 1734, George Sale published a new English translation. In his introduction, he traced the early history of Islam and idealised the Prophet as an iconoclastic, anticlerical reformer who had banished the ‘superstitious’ beliefs and practices of early Christians – the cult of the saints, holy relics – and quashed the power of a corrupt and avaricious clergy.

Sale’s translation of the Quran was widely read and appreciated in England: for many of his readers, Muhammad had become a symbol of anticlerical republicanism. It was influential outside England too. The US founding father Thomas Jefferson bought a copy from a bookseller in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1765, which helped him conceive of a philosophical deism that surpassed confessional boundaries. (Jefferson’s copy, now in the Library of Congress, has been used for the swearing in of Muslim representatives to Congress, starting with Keith Ellison in 2007.) And in Germany, the Romantic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe read a translation of Sale’s version, which helped to colour his evolving notion of Muhammad as an inspired poet and archetypal prophet.

In France, Voltaire also cited Sale’s translation with admiration: in his world history Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (1756), he portrayed Muhammad as an inspired reformer who abolished superstitious practices and eradicated the power of corrupt clergy. By the end of the century, the English Whig Edward Gibbon (an avid reader of both Sale and Voltaire) presented the Prophet in glowing terms in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89):

The creed of Mahomet is free from suspicion or ambiguity; and the Koran is a glorious testimony to the unity of God. The prophet of Mecca rejected the worship of idols and men, of stars and planets, on the rational principle that whatever rises must set, that whatever is born must die, that whatever is corruptible must decay and perish. In the author of the universe, his rational enthusiasm confessed and adored an infinite and eternal being, without form or place, without issue or similitude, present to our most secret thoughts, existing by the necessity of his own nature, and deriving from himself all moral and intellectual perfection … A philosophic theist might subscribe the popular creed of the Mahometans: a creed too sublime, perhaps, for our present faculties.

But it was Napoleon Bonaparte who took the Prophet most keenly to heart, styling himself a ‘new Muhammad’ after reading the French translation of the Quran that Claude-Étienne Savary produced in 1783. Savary wrote his translation in Egypt: there, surrounded by the music of the Arabic language, he sought to render into French the beauty of the Arabic text. Like Sale, Savary wrote a long introduction presenting Muhammad as a ‘great’ and ‘extraordinary’ man, a ‘genius’ on the battlefield, a man who knew how to inspire loyalty among his followers. Napoleon read this translation on the ship that took him to Egypt in 1798. Inspired by Savary’s portrait of the Prophet as a brilliant general and sage lawgiver, Napoleon sought to become a new Muhammad, and hoped that Cairo’s ulama (scholars) would accept him and his French soldiers as friends of Islam, come to liberate Egyptians from Ottoman tyranny. He even claimed that his own arrival in Egypt had been announced in the Quran.

Napoleon had an idealised, bookish, Enlightenment vision of Islam as pure monotheism: indeed, the failure of his Egyptian expedition owed partly to his idea of Islam being quite different from the religion of Cairo’s ulama. Yet Napoleon was not alone in seeing himself as a new Muhammad: Goethe enthusiastically proclaimed that the emperor was the ‘Mahomet der Welt’ (Muhammad of the world), and the French author Victor Hugo portrayed him as a ‘Mahomet d’occident’ (Muhammad of the West). Napoleon himself, at the end of his life, exiled on Saint Helena and ruminating on his defeat, wrote about Muhammad and defended his legacy as a ‘great man who changed the course of history’. Napoleon’s Muhammad, conqueror and lawgiver, persuasive and charismatic, resembles Napoleon himself – but a Napoleon who was more successful, and certainly never exiled to a cold windswept island in the South Atlantic.

The idea of Muhammad as one of the world’s great legislators persisted into the 20th century. Adolph A Weinman, a German-born American sculptor, depicted Muhammad in his 1935 frieze in the main chamber of the US Supreme Court, where the Prophet takes his place among 18 lawgivers. Various European Christians called on their churches to recognise Muhammad’s special role as prophet of the Muslims. For Catholics scholars of Islam such as Louis Massignon or Hans Küng, or for the Scottish Protestant scholar of Islam William Montgomery Watt, such recognition was the best way to promote peaceful, constructive dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

This kind of dialogue continues today, but it has been largely drowned out by the din of conflict, as extreme-Right politicians in Europe and elsewhere diabolise Muhammad to justify anti-Muslim policies. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders calls him a terrorist, paedophile and psychopath. The negative image of the Prophet is paradoxically promoted by fundamentalist Muslims who adulate him and reject all historical contextualisation of his life and teachings; meanwhile, violent extremists claim to defend Islam and its prophet from ‘insults’ through murder and terror. All the more reason, then, to step back and examine the diverse and often surprising Western portraits of the myriad faces of Muhammad.


Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today by John Tolan is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

John Tolan

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

The Matrix 20 Years On: How a Sci-fi Film Tackled Big Philosophical Questions

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The Matrix was a box office hit, but it also explored some of western philosophy’s most interesting themes.
HD Wallpapers Desktop/Warner Bros

Richard Colledge, Australian Catholic University

Incredible as it may seem, the end of March marks 20 years since the release of the first film in the Matrix franchise directed by The Wachowski siblings. This “cyberpunk” sci-fi movie was a box office hit with its dystopian futuristic vision, distinctive fashion sense, and slick, innovative action sequences. But it was also a catalyst for popular discussion around some very big philosophical themes.

The film centres on a computer hacker, “Neo” (played by Keanu Reeves), who learns that his whole life has been lived within an elaborate, simulated reality. This computer-generated dream world was designed by an artificial intelligence of human creation, which industrially farms human bodies for energy while distracting them via a relatively pleasant parallel reality called the “matrix”.

‘Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real?’

This scenario recalls one of western philosophy’s most enduring thought experiments. In a famous passage from Plato’s Republic (ca 380 BCE), Plato has us imagine the human condition as being like a group of prisoners who have lived their lives underground and shackled, so that their experience of reality is limited to shadows projected onto their cave wall.


Read more:
The great movie scenes: The Matrix and bullet-time


A freed prisoner, Plato suggests, would be startled to discover the truth about reality, and blinded by the brilliance of the sun. Should he return below, his companions would have no means to understand what he has experienced and surely think him mad. Leaving the captivity of ignorance is difficult.

In The Matrix, Neo is freed by rebel leader Morpheus (ironically, the name of the Greek God of sleep) by being awoken to real life for the first time. But unlike Plato’s prisoner, who discovers the “higher” reality beyond his cave, the world that awaits Neo is both desolate and horrifying.

Our Fallible Senses

The Matrix also trades on more recent philosophical questions famously posed by the 17th century Frenchman René Descartes, concerning our inability to be certain about the evidence of our senses, and our capacity to know anything definite about the world as it really is.

Descartes even noted the difficulty of being certain that human experience is not the result of either a dream or a malevolent systematic deception.

The latter scenario was updated in philosopher Hilary Putnam’s 1981 “brain in a vat” thought experiment, which imagines a scientist electrically manipulating a brain to induce sensations of normal life.


Read more:
How do you know you’re not living in a computer simulation?


So ultimately, then, what is reality? The late 20th century French thinker Jean Baudrillard, whose book appears briefly (with an ironic touch) early in the film, wrote extensively on the ways in which contemporary mass society generates sophisticated imitations of reality that become so realistic they are mistaken for reality itself (like mistaking the map for the landscape, or the portrait for the person).

Of course, there is no need for a matrix-like AI conspiracy to achieve this. We see it now, perhaps even more intensely than 20 years ago, in the dominance of “reality TV” and curated identities of social media.

In some respects, the film appears to be reaching for a view close to that of the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who insisted that our senses do not simply copy the world; rather, reality conforms to the terms of our perception. We only ever experience the world as it is available through the partial spectrum of our senses.

The Ethics of Freedom

Ultimately, the Matrix trilogy proclaims that free individuals can change the future. But how should that freedom be exercised?

This dilemma is unfolded in the first film’s increasingly notorious red/blue pill scene, which raises the ethics of belief. Neo’s choice is to embrace either the “really real” (as exemplified by the red pill he is offered by Morpheus) or to return to his more normal “reality” (via the blue one).

This quandary was captured in a 1974 thought experiment by American philosopher, Robert Nozick. Given an “experience machine” capable of providing whatever experiences we desire, in a way indistinguishable from “real” ones, should we stubbornly prefer the truth of reality? Or can we feel free to reside within comfortable illusion?


Read more:
Why virtual reality cannot match the real thing


In The Matrix we see the rebels resolutely rejecting the comforts of the matrix, preferring grim reality. But we also see the rebel traitor Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) desperately seeking reinsertion into pleasant simulated reality. “Ignorance is bliss,” he affirms.

The film’s chief villain, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), darkly notes that unlike other mammals, (western) humanity insatiably consumes natural resources. The matrix, he suggests, is a “cure” for this human “contagion”.

We have heard much about the potential perils of AI, but perhaps there is something in Agent Smith’s accusation. In raising this tension, The Matrix still strikes a nerve – especially after 20 further years of insatiable consumption.The Conversation

Richard Colledge, Senior Lecturer & Head of School of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.