Fatalism, Determination and Free Will:

This module’s concept was hard for me to wrap my head around. I’m torn on the idea of free will, and what amount of free choice we actually have, regardless of how we perceive it.  I’ve always wondered if we really do have choice at all, or if we are solely a product of our environment, our experiences and our genetics combined, culminating in a set of circumstances that we are unable to deviate from – all the while convincing ourselves that we exerted the choices that led us to that particular place at that particular time.  If we do not have free will and it is nothing more than an illusion, then how could we possibly be held accountable for our actions?  How does this factor into other aspects of our lives like our decision to be religious or to not be religious?  In the scheme of Christianity, if certain people are predestined for salvation while others are not, how is it divine justice that those not chosen are then punished for something for all of eternity in hell when they had no ability to do otherwise?  If there is an all-knowing, all powerful deity who is outside of space and time and knows everything we are going to do before we do it, is our choice really a choice at all?

 

My decision to enroll in college, particularly at SNHU after a nearly 20 year hiatus was a complex one. It could easily be seen as a cause and effect ultimate result, rather than a choice on my part.  A lot of factors had to come together at the exact right time and the exact right place in order for me to find myself here, in this class at this time.  I could have easily chosen to never go back to school.  I had been out of school for almost 20 years.  I had a successful job, and while my future options were slightly limited, my lack in formal education was made up for in practical, hands-on experience, even if it was in a field that I wasn’t super passionate about.  There is cultural and societal pressure to graduate from college at least with a Bachelor’s degree, and there is mounting pressure to continue on to grad school in many fields.  In some fields, especially if you desire to enter academia, the pressure to go on and earn a Doctorate degree is even greater.  I need to say, however, that while a lot of things all fell into place at the right time for me to apply and get accepted at SNHU in the program I wanted, I definitely feel like I made a conscious decision to accept the admission, register for classes, attend them and do all of the school work required that led me here.

There were a lot of options when I started considering going back to school, and I examined many other environments before deciding on SNHU. The financial aid, the program specifics, and a lot of reviews ultimately tipped the scales towards SNHU rather than another school – and all of those factors are more of an influencer rather than a cause that allowed me to wind up here.

 

Ultimately, I would have to label myself a compatibilist when it comes to the debate of free will. I have to say that although the influences we take in from our genetics, our environment and our culture are incredibly formative in our decisions and our actions, we still are able to make decisions and take action – and this I think can be demonstrated by people who act against their own interests in highly emotional situations to do what they think is right – even if it comes at an incredible cost.  We see examples all over the world of people who do bad things, but we also see examples of incredible sacrifice – we see medical professionals willingly entering into areas affected by diseases without any known cures in order to help people, even though it means putting themselves at incredible risk.   We see people lying to save others, at the potential cost of their livelihoods or even their lives.  If we had no free will and everything was predetermined, it would seem that our actions would be based on environmental pressures to survive at all costs, as seen many times in the animal kingdom.  But we don’t – we act against our survival instincts all the time in big and small ways in order to maintain a species.  While we may not have a say in a lot of things that happen throughout the course of our lives, I have to think that there is some level of choice still there, and we are responsible ultimately for the choices and actions we make.

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Zombies and Personal Identity

The question of what makes me “me” is one that I’ve been wrestling with personally for years, long before I recognized it as a philosophical question. I’ve had many conversations and debates about it, and I’m no closer to a definitive answer now than I was when the question first crossed my mind.  The readings this week prompted a lot of thoughts and posited some interesting ideas, but I’m not sure any of the ideas presented there are definitive either.  What makes something human, however, is a bit different than what makes us “us”.  The prompt brought up the thought experiment about zombies, and although the answer may seem simple, I find it to be more complex than it seems on the surface.  A human being is a known genetic composition, which utilizes DNA.  It’s uncertain whether the DNA of a zombie has significant differences from that of a living human being, but then again a human being is more than just a specific sequence of DNA strung together in a particular way.  That being said, I don’t think that self-awareness defines what it means to be human either.  A person who is in a coma or who is on life support does not have known self-awareness, but they’re still classified as a human being – they don’t genetically become a different kind of life form just because they are unconscious.  While they may be referred to as in a “vegetative state” being supported solely by machines, they do not actually become vegetables.  In addition, human beings are not the only creatures that have or display self-awareness, including great apes (which include human beings, but also gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos), a few individual examples of elephants, dolphins, orcas and one magpie have all shown to exhibit self-awareness via the Mirror test.[1]

Although the concept of a soul in various forms has been posited for several thousand years, it cannot be demonstrated to exist.  No one can point to an area on the body and say that it is the soul.  It cannot be tested or examined.  Ultimately the concept of the soul seems to be the concept most typically brought up when we try to explain the part of ourselves that makes us unique, thinking individuals – something that sets us apart from everyone else – something that makes us “us” or our individualism.  I think it can be sufficiently be ascribed to a function of our brains.  While it is comforting to some to think that some part of ourselves lives on after the rest of us is gone, I find no sufficient reason to believe that it is actually true.  If I, as an individual, am nothing more than a combination of my brain and my body, I also have to be prepared to accept some difficult truths.  We know from the field of medicine that I could get into an accident and suffer from brain damage – and that brain damage could cause me to become a completely different person after the accident than I was before.  I still have the same physical body (perhaps with some injuries) but I could lose my memory, or wake up with a completely different personality or sense of humor than I had before the accident occurred.  I would still be “me” physically, but everything I recognize as “myself” could change, like the example of the Prince and the Cobbler from the text.[2]  It’s difficult to recognize, but it is something that I would have to adapt to, and so would everyone who is a part of my life.  I could even die and become a zombie, but there is insufficient information available to determine whether or not my zombie self would still be a human being, or if I would be something else entirely.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test

[2] Rachels and Rachels, Problems from Philosophy, Third Edition pg 59.

Belief, Knowledge and Surviving Death

As we delve into the concepts of the soul, of death and the potential of an afterlife, I am reminded of how magnificent a thing the human brain/mind is, and how – although science has made huge strides in understanding the brain – we still have so much further to go to obtain a working understanding of its deeper complexities.

This week we are asked whether or not there is proof of life after death.  While certain things such as Near Death Experiences (Rachels and Rachels 41) can seem to provide convincing anecdotes about the human potential of surviving death, I have to say that they do not constitute proof – at least not in the empirical sense.  Some doctors have attempted to test Near Death Experiences to determine their veracity, and to try to come to some conclusion as to what happens after we die.  Nevertheless, all of these studies up to this point.  I think humanity’s best bet at finding out what happens during a claimed NDE lies not with the mystical or supernatural realms, but with the sciences.

One of the problems with NDEs is that they are as varied as the people who claim to have them.  They are not universal, and everyone who claims to have a NDE describes their experience in a varied and unique way.  People claim to see visions of religious figures but this in itself is suspect for a very simple reason.  Those who identify with Christian ideologies and cultures see Jesus, or similar figures.  Muslims see Mohammed, or similar figures from Islamic theology.  Hindus see one of the various gods from Hindu culture.  In other words, a Christian who has a Near Death Experience has never reported seeing Krisna or Mohammed.  Likewise, a Muslim or Hindu relating an experience does not see Jesus or Buddha.  These simple realities seem to point to the fact that Near Death Experiences are products of our minds, our biases and our cultures – not a genuine out of body experience that happens near death – or even when we feel that we are near death, whether or not we are (Choi).

Furthermore, several cases of famous near death experiences, such as the story behind The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven have come out later and admitted to making the whole thing up, prompted by the urging of a parent or family member (Hallowell).  Additionally, there is a reward set up by the James Randi foundation, offering a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrably prove a supernatural power or experience.   Needless to say, no one has been able to successfully claim that prize (Denman).

But one only has to consider the nature of Near Death Experiences to find problems lingering in their credibility.  Almost all people dream throughout their lives.  Remembering those dreams, and accurately relating them to others after they are over, however, becomes problematic.  Remembering them accurately without embellishment is impossible to determine, and with no possible academic method for verification or testing these stories are nothing more than personal anecdotes and cannot, therefore, be considered proof in any sense of the word.  They are stories – stories that may in fact have a great impact on the person relating them and those around them, but stories nonetheless.

This makes life after death an impossible question to answer, as no one that we know of has survived death to relate what happens.  They are, after all, dead.  Belief in the afterlife, then, becomes a matter of personal opinion.  It can be combined with a strongly and deeply held religious belief, as is the case with Christianity or Islam.  These beliefs can be engrained within the cultural milieu of the people that hold them, but beliefs – regardless of how deeply they are held – are still just beliefs.  Appealing to the number of people that hold them then becomes little more than the appeal to popularity – a logical fallacy.  Billions of people can believe something but those beliefs have absolutely no bearing on whether or not it is actually true – and with no way to test, verify or study the reality of the afterlife, this question has no possible answer.  This is not to say that answers may never be found as our understanding of our world, our place in it and our potential continues to evolve.  But for now, the belief in the afterlife is simply a belief.  It’s a belief held by many, but it is still a belief, and has no proof with which to increase or expand its basis in overall truth.  Nevertheless, it gives millions of people hope.  The idea of death is scary, and the belief that it is not the end of existence is a pleasant one.   For many it is absolutely essential.  Therefore, I think a belief in the afterlife is a personal one, whether or not any proof is possible.  The hope, in and of itself, is enough for those who hold a belief in a life after this one, regardless of what form that life may take.

 

References:

Choi, Charles Q.  “Peace of Mind: Near Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations” Scientific American.  September 12, 2011.  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/peace-of-mind-near-death/

Denman, Chip and Rick Adams.  “JREF Status” James Randi Educational Foundation.  September 1, 2015.  http://web.randi.org/home/jref-status

Hallowell, Billy.  “Boy Whose ‘Heaven is for Real’ Story Captivated the World Speaks Out After a Different Kid Recanted His Story About Meeting Jesus and Seeing Heaven.”  The Blaze. January 17, 2015. http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2015/01/17/boy-whose-heaven-is-for-real-story-captivated-the-world-speaks-out-after-a-different-kid-recanted-his-story-about-meeting-jesus-and-seeing-heaven/

Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels.  Problems from Philosophy 3rd Edition.  McGraw Hill, 2012.

What is Philosophy?

Throughout history, the word Philosophy has had many different meanings to very different people.  Academics have used philosophy and philosophical principles to address every serious and important questions.  Laypeople have used the term philosophy to describe their own attitudes and biases on a variety of subjects.   Philosophy is used within a variety of fields and is used to think about a wide range of topics.  In every day discussions, the word philosophy is often tossed around from philosophies about life, politics, religion, business, exercise and more.  So what does it mean to be a philosopher?  At the root of it all, what does the word philosophy mean, and what is implied when someone claims to either have a philosophy or to be a philosopher?  While the word philosophy literally means the love of wisdom in the ancient Greek language from which it originated, that love of wisdom has come in many forms, both in the ancient world and on through the present in both the vernacular usage of the word as well as in academic pursuits.  To understand what philosophy means or does, however, does not indicate that the word or the field has a singular usage, method or application.  Overall, philosophy is dynamic, not static, and can be applied in many ways throughout many fields, and its usage in lay-language can be just as valid as its usage throughout academia (Sinclair 12).  Whether academic or vernacular, “philosophy is the perennial activity by which we constantly examine ourselves and our role in the universe” and “the history of philosophy shows that periods of the greatest human achievement coincide with periods of widespread philosophical activity” such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (Sinclair 13).

When a layperson uses the term philosophy to describe their particular views about a subject, an argument or a position, what they are really doing is describing a personally held moral code which is based on personal biases or beliefs about how they see the world.  In the world of academia, conversely, a philosopher is someone who examines arguments, and seeks to walk the balance line between dogmatism in certainty and skepticism (Sinclair 13).  The academic methods and approaches towards philosophy encompass many approaches, and have changed throughout history.  The historical approach to philosophy is concerned with studying the past and studying historical figures who have made significant contributions to philosophy within their own times (Emporia State University 1).  Another approach to the study of philosophy is to posit it as the study of language, which utilizes a scientific approach to philosophical questions (Emporia State University 2).  Thirdly, an approach to philosophy can be described as a program of change, as advocated by Karl Marx (Emporia State University 2).  A philosophical approach can also be a series of questions and answers, although in the field of philosophy, many questions cannot be answered definitively or scientifically (Emporia State University 3).  A philosophical approach can also be seen as a criticism or a worldview (Emporia State University 4).  All of these approaches to the field of academic philosophy have all found a place throughout history, and have been posited by many who have been called “great” philosophers.  But each of these approaches also contains limitations that cannot seek to describe the field of philosophy as a whole (Joll 5).

Since philosophy’s base meaning, a lover of wisdom, does not contain many descriptors, going off of its literal meaning does nothing to define what it means to practice philosophy or to be a philosophy, and more descriptive definitions of philosophy itself is therefore required. (Emporia State University 1).  Without a more descriptive meaning of the word or the field, the implication becomes that “anyone who thinks seriously about any subject is a philosopher” which would negate the field of the philosophy entirely (Emporia State University 1).  If everyone who practices critical thought can be labeled as a philosopher and can be applied to anyone at any time for any subject, then the word philosophy becomes meaningless and empty (Emporia State University 1).  It becomes necessary, then, to posit a more descriptive definition, which is difficult when approaching philosophy from a field like science where universal definitions are expected and adhered to.  Descriptively, however, “philosophy seeks to describe its functions, goals, and reasons for existence” (Emporia State University 1).

While it can be said that everyone that applies critical thinking to a subject or to their lives is utilizing philosophical practices, it cannot be said that everyone that does so is a philosopher, per se – at least not in the academic sense.  Being a philosopher requires an adherence to the discipline of argumentation, and applying that discipline to areas in life that need to be considered.  While these considerations may not lead to objectively, fundamentally true definitive answers on some of life’s biggest questions, they can provide insight into problems that face humanity as a whole and serve to assist the human race in finding our place within the world by allowing us to examine it critically.

Works Cited

Joll, Nicholas.  “Contemporary Metaphilosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/con-meta/

Sinclair, Alistair.  What is Philosophy?: An Introduction, Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press Limited, 2008. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost).  Web. 31 Aug. 2016.

“What is philosophy?”  Emporia State University, 31 Aug. 2016, https://www.empira.edu/socsci/research-and-teaching-links/philosophy-book/chp1.html

What Can We Know? Knowledge vs. Belief vs. Reality

Questions like the nature of reality, perception and whether or not we can ever know what is real are many of the reasons why I often say that philosophy makes my head hurt. When I think about questions like these for an extended period of time, I not only have a headache, but I also have an existential crisis.  How do we know what we think we know?  Can we ever know what is real?  Perhaps not.  But we can “know” that what we perceive that we experience feels real and seems real and if our senses and experiences are all that we have available to define reality for ourselves, that reality is real enough to us in order to inform our decisions and our actions as a result of it.

The reading this week posited several alternative views on reality from a matrix or inception-like theme to the ever-popular concept of us being nothing more than a brain in a vat.  It is not possible to prove with certainty that I am not a brain in a vat, but that lack of certainty does not mean that I am a brain in a vat.  Without empirical evidence either way, the argument (although interesting) seems ultimately meaningless, although familiar to anyone who has ever encountered a presuppositional apologist such as Sye Ten Bruggencate.

The way that the brain perceives and process information is fascinating, and I can’t even pretend to understand how it works.  It receives information from our eyes, ears, nose and mouth and then uses that information to inform us about our world, defining our reality.  But is our reality real?  Does our reality comport to actual reality or the reality of others around us?  It is impossible to know.  As children, we were taught various colors.  We were told, for example, that grass is green and that the sky is blue (unless you live in Florida during storm season when the sky alternates between blue and black and back again in a matter of moments).  But how do we know what those colors really are?  Maybe when I look at grass, I see the color purple but since I was taught that grass is green, I call that color green despite how my brain perceives it.  Similarly, when my wife looks at the sky, she may see the color orange, but was told that it was blue, so she describes it as blue.  The question of whether or not different people perceive things the same way or not has fascinated me for a long time.  Unfortunately, there is no way for us to see the world through another person’s eyes temporarily to find out.

Definitions come into play here, and this week’s reading seems to go along with the idea of solipsism.  If solipsism is the idea that you can’t have certainty about anything other than your own mind with hard solipsism being that no other minds exist while soft solipsism says you can’t be certain whether or not other minds exist, absolute knowledge about anything – as the prompt suggests – seems unlikely.  It seems true, however, that we as human beings with limited knowledge are only able to assess reality as we experience it, not ultimate reality.  So what I define as true can only be things that align with reality as I experience it.  If the notion of solipsism is true, especially hard solipsism, the single mind that exists would seem incredibly arrogant to assert that it came up with every book, every invention, every song and every person that it perceives itself interacting with along the way.

So while I don’t think it’s likely that I can assert absolute knowledge or certainty about anything, I can express confidence in things.  It is possible that the sun will not rise in the morning someday, but I have relative confidence that, based on my experience that it has risen every morning that I have been alive to perceive it that it will most likely rise tomorrow as well.  Whether or not I’ll be able to see it in the midst of a tropical storm, however, is an entirely different question.