Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Temporal Immortality

I just finished writing a chapter for a volume of commentaries on the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's masterwork "The World as Will and Representation". My job was to cover the paragraphs 53 to 59, which deal with the nature of ethics (which can only ever be descriptive and never prescriptive), the immutability of character, the ubiquity and unavoidability of suffering, and finally death, or more precisely the unreality of death. I’ve always been fascinated by this latter part of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and I find myself very much inclined to believe that what Schopenhauer argues here must be true: that we don’t die, that death is not real, that it’s just an illusion.

For Schopenhauer this conclusion follows logically from his metaphysical premises, according to which the world we know and we live in is merely an appearance. What we perceive is not the world as it is, but rather what our cognitive apparatus makes of it. It is a representation. Of what? Of the will, which is the true nature of all things, ourselves included. The world is the way the will appears to itself. If we imagine the will to be looking into a mirror, then the image reflected would be the world. And we are that will, just as everything else is. By distinguishing the will, which is the only really real thing, from its representation, which is a mere shadow, Schopenhauer, drawing very much on Kant’s transcendental philosophy, manages to separate reality from its forms of appearance, which include causality, space, and most importantly, time. So in other words, time is an illusion. But if time is an illusion, then change must also be one. And if change is an illusion, then death is too. We don’t die. It just looks (to others) as if we did.

Now if we had to accept Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and its corollary, that time is not real, to appreciate his argument for what he calls “temporal immortality”, then it would perhaps be of little interest to anyone. It is just too difficult to believe that time does not exist. I doubt that it even makes sense to claim that. However, it seems to me that Schopenhauer’s argument for temporal immortality does not require us to believe in the non-existence of time. It is in fact very complex and draws on many different sources and reflections. Much of it is based on peculiarities of the way we experience life and death. For one thing, although we don’t really, on a theoretical level, doubt that we, too, will one day have to die, we are also, deep down, convinced of our own personal immortality. It is just impossible to imagine that one day we could have ceased to exist, that the world will continue to be, but we will no longer be in it. How can there be a world if we are not there to perceive it? From our perspective it will be as if the world had never existed. It will end when we end. So if the world continues to exist (as we suppose), then we will too.

The main point, though, is this: our individual existence is linked to our consciousness. This particular consciousness can cease to exist, but that is only part of what we are, and perhaps a very superficial part. What makes us alive in the first place is not consciousness, but something deeper and less fleeting: a material urge, a force that pervades physical nature, an élan vital (as the French philosopher Henri Bergson called it) or will to live (as Schopenhauer calls it). This force of nature, this will, will continue to exist when “we” die, and in fact it does already exist in many other forms and ways. This force is active in me, as it is active in you and every other living creature. And to the extent that each of us ultimately is this force, this will to live, we always exist not only in this particular form, which we call our individual self, but also in everything else. When you look into the world with your eyes, perceive it with your senses, live in it with your body and your mind, then I look and perceive and live with you, because you are only another version of myself, just as I am only another version of yourself. Accordingly, when I die I will live on in you, and when you die, you will live on in me. In any case, the presence cannot be lost.

“Since will is the thing in itself, the inner substance of the world, that which is essential to it, while life, the visible world, the phenomenon, is only the mirror of the will, the latter will accompany will as inseparably as its shadow accompanies a body; and if will exists, so too life, the world will exist. To the will for life, life is thus certain, and so long as we are filled with the will for life, we cannot be concerned for our existence, not even at the sight of our death.”

“Above all, we must distinctly recognize that the form pertaining to will’s phenomenon, thus the form of life or reality, is only the present, not future nor past: these exist only in concepts, exist only in the context of cognizance so far as it follows the Principle of Sufficient Ground. No human being has lived in the past, and none will ever live in the future; rather the present alone is the form pertaining to all life, but it is also its sure possession, which can never be torn from it. The present always exists, together with its content; both stand firm, without wavering, like the rainbow on the waterfall. For life is sure and certain for will, and the present for life.”

If you don’t find this whole idea total bollocks, I recommend that you have a look at the original argument, which can be found in both § 54 of the first volume of “The World as Will and Representation” (published in 1819), from which the above quotes were taken, and in chapter 41 of the second volume (published 25 years later, in 1844). My advice would actually be to start with that later exposition because it is more comprehensive and has more the character of an independent essay rather than that of a chapter in a book with an ongoing argument. Also of interest might be a more recent version of the argument developed by Arnold Zuboff in his article “One Self: the Logic of Experience” (Inquiry 33 (1990): 39-68). Zuboff argues, without recourse to Schopenhauer, that your self and my self are in fact the same self, that, based on the logic of experience, there is in fact only one self.  

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Morality and Religion

Can one be moral without believing in God or at least in something, some unknown power that gives permanent significance to what we do? It sure seems one can be a good person without any such belief, somebody who is a good neighbour who doesn't lie to you or try to hurt you and who behaves decently. Someone who, by and large, does the right thing. Yet can one actually believe that actions are good or bad in themselves or that it really matters what we do and what we don't do without some kind of faith? If there is no God, just an unfeeling universe, if there's nothing and nobody that cares what we do, so that in the long run it doesn't make any difference what we do or don't do because it will all go to hell anyway (humanity will go extinct, or the sun will explode, or something else will happen that will destroy all traces of our existence), then it seems pointless to try to do the right thing. Because there is no right thing, and because no matter what we do, the result will always be the same: we are dead, and everyone else is too. All in vain. In order to be moral, deliberately moral, and not just accidentally so, we need to believe that it matters what we do, that it makes a difference, not just now and in relation to our present, transient interests and concerns, but absolutely. That there are more important things than our own existence and well-being. But what could there be more important than that if there are no permanent achievements, nothing that might actually change the course of the world?

I'm an atheist, but I share some of the intuitions that seem to inform the faith of religious people. I don't believe in God, but I do believe that things matter, and I'm trying to understand how that is possible and what it means. That is the reason why I'm currently organising, in collaboration with the theologian Nigel Biggar, a conference in Oxford on the question whether morality needs religion. The conference will take place at the MCDONALD CENTRE FOR THEOLOGY, ETHICS & PUBLIC LIFE and will run from 10.30am on 16 May to 1.00pm on 17 May. The cost is £50 (£30 for students),  including lunch. There will be an optional dinner in the Great Hall on Thursday evening. Limited space available. If you want to attend the conference or simply find out more about it, here's a link to the respective website: www.mcdonaldcentre.org.uk

Saturday, 9 March 2013

What Would Your Super Power Be?

The Saturday edition of the British newspaper The Guardian comes with a magazine, the Guardian Weekend, which always contains a standardised interview with some public figure. It is called Questions & Answers. The questions are always the same, except that not all of them are asked each time. Among them are “What is your greatest fear?”, “Who would play you in the film of your life?” and “What is the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” The answers are often quite telling and can reveal a lot about the person who gives them. But my favourite question is this one: “What would your super power be?” I’m always disappointed when it is not asked.

Here’s a small selection of the answers that people have given to that question. At the top of the list is “immortality”, just one word, without further explanation. The answer betrays a firm belief in one’s own significance. Death is seen as a personal affront. Interestingly, immortality is the superpower of choice for the singer Tom Jones, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the founder of Playboy magazine Hugh Hefner. Who would have thought that those three had so much in common!
Then there are the do-gooders like the German tennis champion Boris Becker: “To make the world a better place.” That’s very good of him, of course, especially since that is something that money can’t buy, even if you’ve got lots and lots of it. Or is it? Even more absurd is the former British prime minister Gordon Browne’s answer: “Magic medicine. I’d love to be able to fix things for the sick and injured. The NHS is the closest thing to it – that’s why I’m such a passionate advocate of our system and its doctors and nurses.” I guess he can’t help himself.

In comparison the current British leaders David Cameron and his side-kick Nick Clegg appear refreshingly honest and surprisingly unanimous when it comes to their secret dreams. Cameron: “Teleporting – it would save a lot of travel time.” Clegg: “Easy. Teleporting.” Did they actually agree on saying that? What an interesting mixture of boyish romanticism (Beam me up, Scotty), pragmatism, and professionalism, which expresses perfectly both their character and the role they’ve chosen to play.
More sinister dreams are voiced by Danny DeVito (“To have people do things the way I want.”) and Lisa Marie Presley (“I’d be a witch.”), and more realistic and modest ones by an ageing Roger Moore (“Being able to get out of a chair without clicking knees or an aching back.”) and the British actor and political activist Tony Robinson who, in days of yore, brilliantly portrayed Rowan Atkinson’s servant Baldrick in Blackadder (“Having to wee only once a day.”)

Then there are the cultured ones like the conductor Daniel Barenboim (“To travel in time – in order to spend a day with Mozart.”) and those who are – how shall I put it? - more at home in the flesh like the late singer Amy Winehouse (“Super sexuality.”)
Very popular is also yet another form of easy locomotion. Bruce Willis: “Flying.” Cuba Gooding Jr.: “I dream about flying.” And, last but not least, my absolute favourite, with an unbeatable dry irony, Margaret Atwood: “The flying around thing. With a cape.”

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Guilty of Being Human

Are we responsible for the crimes that our ancestors committed? Are Germans who were born after World War II responsible for the holocaust, the British living today for the atrocities of British colonialism, and young white Americans for pre-civil war African-American slavery? We are probably inclined to deny any responsibility in these cases. Why, after all, should we think ourselves responsible for what our ancestors did? It is not us who did those things. It is them. We did not participate, and in fact we strongly object to what they did. But what if we benefited from those crimes? Would that change anything? If yes, why exactly? Or what if the actual perpetrator of the crime in question were not some long-dead fellow countrymen, but one’s own father or grandfather? Would we in that case feel, and be, more responsible? What if the actions that we consider shameful or evil did not occur in our country’s past, but in the present? When Israeli troops kill Palestinian children, are all Israelis responsible, only those who support and approve of those actions, or only those who actively participate in the decision or the act? (Or none, because it’s all completely justified.)
Say someone is accused of a crime that they committed when they were younger. They admit to the crime, but deny that it was them who committed it, on the grounds that they are “a different person now” and that you cannot hold them responsible for what their younger self did. I can distance myself from my own past just as I can distance myself from my country’s past (or present). Perhaps it’s not quite as easy, but it’s possible. It is not in any way irrational or absurd not to acknowledge my own past, to refuse to own it. It is simply a question of how we want to define ourselves, with whom and with what we identify. But for that very same reason I can also say, yes, that was me, and yes, those people were my people. I can define (or find) myself as one of them and them as a part of me. Germans did this. I am German. Therefore I did this. In itself the logic may be fallacious, but it is not fallacious in the moral context. Responsibility must always be owned before it exists and there are no natural or logical limits to what we can own.

I was recently struck by a remark that Primo Levi makes in his book The Periodic Table. It is a passage in which he tells us how he felt after being rescued from the concentration camp: “But I had returned from captivity three months before and was living badly. The things I had seen and suffered were burning inside of me; I felt closer to the dead than to the living, and felt guilty at being a man, because men had built Auschwitz, and Auschwitz had gulped down millions of human beings, and many of my friends, and a woman who was dear to my heart.”

I find this remarkable because it is the victim who here identifies with the perpetrator. Levi is ashamed for being a human in a world in which humans do such terrible things to people like him. This is the greatest possible extension of responsibility, the most generous owning of responsibility. Humans did this. I am human. I did this. Looking at things that way certainly requires an unusual ethical commitment, but it is not absurd. The underlying logic may even be said to have its roots in a metaphysical insight: that the appearance of individual existence, of an existential separation between things, and, perhaps more importantly, between people, is merely an illusion, that the true nature of things is in a fact captured in the Tat twam asi of the Upanishads, in the realisation that “this is you”.