Partnership TheYoungSocrates and the Institute of Arts and Ideas: ‘Everything We Know Is Wrong’

I recently discovered the Institute of Arts and Ideas (IAI), a non-profit organization that attempts to make philosophical thinking more accessible to the general public. They publish podcasts and articles about all sorts of philosophical subjects, such as free will versus determinism, egoism versus altruism and philosophy of science.

I will regularly post their podcasts, starting with ‘Everything We Know Is Wrong’, about (the limits of) the scientific method).

It turns out that many scientific experiments are irreproducible, meaning: if you follow the same methods as a researcher who obtained certain results, it is not at all certain that you will get the same results. This raises questions about the scientific method, and whether it a proper way to obtain the truth, or facts at least.

It is fair to say that a difference should be made between social sciences and psychology on the one hand, and natural sciences on the other. Experiments in the later are, in turns out, reproducible in general, while experiments in the first are not that often. This raises doubts among certain philosophers and scientists about the scientific status of such fields. But don’t they just apply the same methods as physics does? Hence, shouldn’t the results obtained from the social sciences be treated with equal regard as results from the natural sciences?

These are interesting questions, many of which are at the core of Episode 15 from the series ‘Philosophy For Our Times’ of the IAI:

 

Why Discrimination Is Reasonable, According to Karl Popper

A while ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine: we were talking about how people from different cultures interacted with each other. My friend claimed – and he was quite serious about it – that ‘All Moroccans are aggressive’. ‘How do you know?’ I asked him, ‘Have you met all Moroccans?’. ‘No’, he said, ‘but the ones I’ve met, were all aggressive’. Well that seems discriminating, doesn’t it? But while he said this, an idea popped into my mind: Karl Popper’s falsification theory. And I came to a rather unexpected conclusion…

You might have heard of Karl Popper. He is a big name in (the history of) philosophy of science. Popper was a proponent of a tenet called ‘critical rationalism‘, and he is best known for the notion of ‘falsifiability‘ he came up with, in which falsifiability refers to ‘the inherent testability of a scientific hypothesis’. Popper used the notion of falsifiability as a criterium to distinguish science from what he called ‘pseudo-science’, in which a pseudo-science would be any possible ‘science’ that makes unfalsifiable claims – claims that cannot be refuted. An example of an unfalsifiable claim would be: God exists. It is impossible, by means of empirical investigation, to falsify this claim. Therefore, according to Popper, religion – or at least this religious claim – is not scientific.

Given that there are unfalsifiable claims, there must also be falsifiable claims. An example of the latter would be: All swans are white. You can see why this claim is falsifiable: if you would come to see one swan that is not white, this claim has shown to be false. And even though you are unable to prove that the claim ‘All swans are white’ is true, you can prove that it’s not true – thus falsify it. The assumption underlying the notion of falsifiability is that, as long as a falsifiable claim is not falsified, it should for the time being be accepted. There is after all no reason to say it is false.

Now, let’s go back to my friend and his seemingly discriminatory beliefs. Because if you take a closer look, it appears that discrimination and falsifiability are two sides of the same coin. Why is that? Well, let’s assume that we would state the claim ‘All Moroccans are aggressive’ – like my friend did. This claim is clearly falsifiable: one not aggressive Moroccan is sufficient to prove the claim to be false. Now, let’s assume my friend and I go to a bar and meet a few Moroccans. And, as my friend expected, they are indeed aggressive. Thus far, Popper couldn’t blame my friend for holding on to the claim ‘All Moroccans are aggressive’. After all, the claim hasn’t been falsified yet.

The point being: doesn’t my friend apply the same method as is used in the sciences? Making bold conjectures and, based on data, either refute them or not? We don’t seem to have a problem with claiming that ‘All Swans are white’, until it has been proven to be false. So why would a claim applying the same ‘scientific’ methods, when applied to members of our own species, suddenly be discriminating? Isn’t it utterly reasonable to hold on to your claims until they’ve proven to be false? Or in the case of my friend: to hold on to his unfalsified ‘discriminatory’ belief?

Note that I am not claiming that discrimination is reasonable in itself. What I am claiming however is that we cannot accuse people of holding unreasonable beliefs if they (these people) haven’t been proven wrong in holding this belief. For example: although we might have had good experiences with Moroccans, they – my friend, for example – might not. And, given Popper’s theory, this makes their beliefs no less reasonable to hold than ours.

What do you think?

Religion and The Absurd

There are times at which I envy religious people. Their sense of determination, of knowing where all of this is about and what to do with it, can seem very alluring at times. Like it can really put your mind at ease. And why wouldn’t it? After all, religious people always know that, no matter what they are faced with in life, they will always be able to come up with an explanation that is 100 percent bulletproof. An explanation that always points to the one single source of everything. Down to God himself. That truly must be a peaceful mindset, right?

Wrong. Reality contradicts this assumption. For it seems fair to say that religions, or differences in religion, are an important – if not the most important – cause of war in this world of ours. And since war is – by definition – not peaceful, it is fair to say that not all theists experience peaceful consequences through adhering to their religion.

But this article is not an attempt to criticize religion. This article zooms in at the different positions regarding religion, and the reasonableness – or unreasonableness – of each.

Teapot
First of all atheism. I have established that I am not an atheist. For to be an atheist, one must reject to believe in the existence of deities. And I most certainly do not reject believing in deities. At least: not as long as it is someone else who does the believing; not me, for I don’t believe in any deity.

Neither do I consider myself to be an agnostic. An agnostic claims that one will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of deities. Therefore one should postpone judgement (possibly indefinitely) about the existence of any deity. Agnosticism as thus defined doesn’t seem to be unreasonable. However, it leaves one with an unwanted consequence, being: one can reflect only on those entities that definitely do or definitely do not exist.

Let me clarify this. Suppose I say that – somewhere in space – there is a teapot floating around. The existence of this teapot can neither be proved nor disproved. Should we hence be agnostic about its existence? This seems unreasonable, for we might have reasons to suppose that the existence of such a teapot is extremely improbable. But notions such as probability do not make any sense from an agnostic point of view. For how can something be more or less probable, given the fundamental assumption that one cannot make any reasonable judgement about the existence of entities that cannot be proved or disproved? If the latter would be true, one cannot talk about probability; for probability – or at least everything between 0 and 100 percent – is not absolute like a proof or disproof. If one cannot accept this consequence, one should not be an agnostic.

But then the unavoidable question pops up: what then am I? Is there a group of like-minded people I belong to? Is there a religion or a philosophy that suits my particular ideas and intuitions? Or am I forever doomed to wander around lonely on this earth of ours, searching for my very own, not yet formulated, views on life?

Baby Jesus
The answer is no. Because recently something special happened: my very own baby Jesus was born. My lord and saviour. While surfing on the internet, I stumbled upon the philosophical position called ‘absurdism’, and I was hooked right away. What is absurdism? The best way to explain it, is to zoom in at its fundamental notion: the Absurd. The ‘Absurd’ refers to ‘the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any’. Note that absurdism does not consider it to be ‘logically impossible’ to find meaning in life; it just considers it ‘humanly impossible’ to do so. That is a subtle but very important distinction. It is this distinction that implies that, even though there might be an absolute meaning of life floating around somewhere in this universe of ours, we – simple human beings of flesh and blood – will never be able to find it.

And that’s it, right? We simply cannot come to know how things ‘truly’ are, including the ‘true meaning’ of life. We are doomed to live within the boundaries of our own little worlds. We are unable to trade our points of view for any other humanly conceivable point of view. The latter implies that we can never come to an absolute grasp of ‘the truth’; supposing that such a thing would exist. Surely: if everyone would develop the same beliefs about what is true and what is not, about what is right and what is not, seemingly universal ideas tend to emerge. But the question we must then ask ourselves is: were these ideas universal before people considered them to be so? Or did they become universal because everyone believed them?

Meaning
A note of caution is in place. For an absurdist does not always lead a happy life. There is always one major danger hiding in the corner. Absurdism implies the absolute freedom of humanity, the non-existence of any shackles besides the ones we have created ourselves. But sometimes this destined freedom of ours conflicts with what is the human longing for certainty. A longing to know how things truly are; a need to know who or what is behind all this craziness we call life. Absurdism claims that we cannot come to know these certainties. And when this observation strikes, it strikes hard: a feeling of powerlessness tends to take control over our minds and bodies. That’s an inevitable consequence of appreciating the Absurd.

But then, a little later, when you get yourself together, and taste again of the juices of total meaninglessness, of total freedom, you realize that you have found true love after all. You will realize that it is the only path leading to something that at times comes close to meaning. For even though the absurdist knows that he will not find any absolute meaning of life, it is in the very act of trying to find it, that he finds fulfilment. The fulfilment he is longing for. The fulfilment he proudly calls life.

Have you ever thought about what your most fundamental beliefs are? Upon what beliefs you have built your life? And have you ever asked yourself why those are the beliefs that have the authority to determine the remainder of your framework of beliefs?

But what do you think?

What to Do if Absolute Truth Doesn’t Exist?

As I’ve written about many times on this blog, we cannot step outside of our own perspective to look at “the naked world as it really is”. That is, we are fundamentally subjective in any judgments we make, moral other otherwise. We simply have no possibility for holding on to anything “absolute” in the world, in which absolute should be interpreted as “something” the existence of which cannot be doubted, is unalterable or permanent. And although we can agree upon something being a “permanent” fact – and thereby making it a permanent fact, if we keep on holding on to it for long enough – a fact remains a subjective construct, having no absolute connection, or at least not one detectable by us, with the world outside of us (given that such a world would exist). While this might sound radical, it might be true from a philosophical point of view – or at least: from my philosophical point of view.

From a scientific point of view, the notion of “absolute” truth can be discarded in an other way: by saying that there can merely be evidence for or against the existence of a phenomenon – but no definite (read: absolute) conclusions. And it is therefore – one could say – that we cannot claim to be certain regarding the (absolute) truth of any of our scientific theories.

Philosophy, however, can go one step further by claiming that the notion of “truth” is in itself no empirical issue at all. Because, one could say, empirical data are about the outside world and the phenomena this world imprints upon the subject, while having no clue whether the connection between this world and the subject is absolutely (read: 100%) as we believe it to be. We assume it is, we assume there to be such a connection, but we don’t know. And we’ll likely never know. That’s a fundamental consequence of being human.

Does this imply that we cannot know anything for certain about the world around us? Does this mean that solipsism (the philosophical position that the only claims we can be sure about are claims about our minds and what exists in it) is the only “truly true” position? Yes, maybe it does. But it’s important to see the difference between the notion of certainty and the notion of truth. While certainty refers to us having a “certain” degree of faith in having an accurate set of beliefs about the world around us, truth – as being the “absolute” value striven for in all of our knowledge – implies 100% certainty regarding the accuracy of our beliefs/claims. And while the former can be reasonably applied to the external world – and our claims about it – the latter should be reserved only for those claims we cannot deny without stumbling into philosophical paradoxes. And although it might be counter-intuitive to deny the existence of the outside world, it isn’t impossible. On the other hand, as Descartes showed, denying the existence of the mind is much harder – even impossible.

I shortly touched upon the notion of “certainty” as representing the degree of certainty in the accuracy of a claim (60%, 45%, etc.). But, given that we’ve seen that there is no “absolute” link (at least no one we can be sure of) between the external world and our inner world (mind, gut feelings etc.), how then can we come to judge the certainty of a claim. How’s that possible if certainty is interpreted as being the degree of belief in the truth of a claim? We don’t know the (absolute) truth of a claim, so how can we come to certainty regarding the truth of our claims?

I believe we can only do so by dropping the notion of certainty as something that stands in some sort of relation to the “truth”, as being an absolute entity only attainable through Cartesian Skepticism. When we drop the notion of truth, while engaged in our scientific efforts and daily lives, we can come to a construct of “certainty” that is based upon intersubjectivity, the degree in which claims are accepted by members of society. And intersubjectivity is founded on many subjectivities, which are ultimately founded on – if not the external world – intuitions about the way the world works. And it is in these intuitions that we find the “absolute truths” that we believe we come closer to by means of science. When a new scientific theory is accepted that changes the way we think about the world around us, it’s not because the new theory corresponds better to reality – the world outside of us, the world which “true colors” never shine through – but because the new theory corresponds better to our intuition. And since all human beings share the same sense of “primal” intuition (evolutionary developed or otherwise), we can come to intersubjectively “certain” (read: useful, “natural”) beliefs.

But what do you think?

Flipping the Hierarchy of the Sciences

There are different sciences, and each one is ‘appreciated’ for its own unique contribution to our collective knowledge pool. But some sciences are appreciated just a little more than others. Whether it be the social sciences that are regarded as the most complex and developed sciences, as Auguste Comte believed, or the natural sciences as being the ones coming closest to the ‘objective truth’, as people in our society – implicitly or explicitly – seem to presume: there’s always a certain hierarchy in our perception of the sciences.

It’s understandable why – at least in our society – the natural sciences are regarded to be ‘better’ or ‘more scientific’ than those ‘subjective’ social sciences. The natural sciences – physics, chemistry etc. – are related to Western industrialism and the inventions (steam engine, electricity, televisions etc.) it brought forth. And since natural sciences –> inventions –> money, and since money is good, the natural sciences are good too. At least better than the social sciences, for the latter won’t make us millionaires. But even though such hierarchies are understandable, they might have some negative implications for the manner in which the ‘lower’ sciences are being looked upon. They might, for example, lose their ‘scientific status’, and hence the respect that comes with this status. But there’s a remarkably easy way to solve this problem.

People are used to thinking in terms of higher and lower, at which ‘higher’ is associated with ‘better’ and ‘lower’ with ‘worse’. This vertical manner of thinking might be a relic from the past, in which religion was very prominent and in which higher meant closer to heaven, and in which heaven was good. But whatever metaphor was responsible for the pyramid-structured hierarchies we tend to visualize in our heads, it’s a fact that it’s omnipresent in our conceptual frameworks.

But let me ask you something: what would happen if we would turn this vertical hierarchy on its side? If we would obtain a horizontal ‘hierarchy’? Would we then still have a hierarchy? Probably not, for the distinction between higher and lower ranks would have disappeared. It’s just left and right, with left – for example – being the social sciences and right the natural sciences – in case you order the sciences based on a criteria such as ‘nature dominance’. Or you could put the natural sciences on the left hand side and the social sciences on the right – in case the variable of choice would be something like ‘people dominance’. Whatever criteria you use for ordering the sciences, the hierarchy will have disappeared, and hence the negative consequences for a science appearing at the bottom of the ranking.

It’s a very easy change in ordering the sciences, but one who doesn’t entail the negative consequences of a vertical hierarchy.

But what do you think?

What is Science without “Truth”?

According to a survey of professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views 44.9% of the respondents accept or lean towards correspondence theories of truth. Whereby a correspondence theory of truth states that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) that world. As I’ve tried to explain in Does The Truth Exist?, the idea of something – a sentence or a belief – being true can only hold within a set of presumptions supporting this sentence or belief. Also, as I’ve explained in What You See versus What Other People See, we’re always forced to see the world from our own point of view; there is no “God’s eye point of view” from which we can tell which of our beliefs correspond to reality and which don’t. Therefore I was flabbergasted to read that so many philosophers – 44.9% (!) – truly believed that our notion of “truth” must be founded in this – for us unobservable – correspondence relation.

Because think about it: how would we be able to falsify a correspondence relation between a sentence and “reality”, if it’s impossible for us to judge the accuracy of this relation? It is like attaching one part of a wire to the word “tree” and throwing the other part into the dark and asking, “Is it really connected to a tree?”, even though it’s so dark that we are unable to judge whether or not this is the case. And if there’s no way for us to judge this, how then can we base our notion of “truth” on it? Isn’t that ridiculous?

It seems like we’re indoctrinated with ideas about absolute entities “floating around” somewhere in space, waiting for us to find them. Notions like “Truth”, “Right” and “God”. While the latter is losing value in our science-based society, the former two have occupied the empty space left by its departure from our Western “intellectual” belief-system. But isn’t it true that the notions of “Truth” and “Right” are just as unattainable as the notion of “God”? That, although the statement “God does exist” cannot be falsified or confirmed, so can’t statements like “the Truth exists” and “the Right exists”? Isn’t it just a shift in paradigm? A shift in authority between religion and science? A shift that doesn’t bring us any closer towards those absolute – and therefore unreachable – concepts like “Truth” and “God”?

If so, then we have to radically alter our notion of science and what its practice should be. We usually think of science as progressively, by means of getting rid of the “wrong” beliefs, getting closer to the Truth. Of accumulating “facts” and “laws” in an everlasting effort to get to know the world as it really is. But what if the Truth is unattainable, or even more disturbing: what if it doesn’t even exist.  Should science then still be involved in the accumulation of “true” ideas? Without knowing whether its ideas are true or not? That seems stupid, right?

The only manner in which the idea of “getting to know the Truth” might be tenable, is by radically redefining our notion of “Truth”. Each annotation of truth as something that “accurately describes the world out there” should be discarded. Scientists should be seen as what they truly are: builders of useful concepts. A revival of instrumentalism should be fought for. This is the only way in which we will be able to take science’s efforts seriously. And it is in this way that science can – like we believe it does – make progress. Ideas can become more and more useful; our knowledge of subatomic particles can provide us with new insights regarding energy supply. Why would we need the notion of “Truth” for that?

But what do you think?

Ethics and Mathematics: The Love for Absolute Rules

Ethics is not mathematics. For, unlike mathematics, ethics cannot function solely based on a set of axioms, or ‘absolutely true staring points for reasoning,’ like a + b = b + a. Based on axioms, we can build an entire world  (‘mathematics’) in which we can be sure that, only by following these rules of inference, we will always end up with the truth, the truth and nothing but the truth. Hence it’s understandable that philosophers have thought to themselves: ‘Damn, how cool would it be if we could apply the same trick to ethics; that we, confronted with any action, could decide whether the action would be right or wrong?’ Surely: society has tried to build its very own rule-based system, the system of law. But is this a truly axiomatic system? Are there truly fundamental rights from which the rules of justice can be inferred? Let’s take a look at that.

Immanuel Kant made the distinction between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. These are two ‘kinds of rules’, with the first ‘being applicable to someone dependent upon him having certain ends‘; for example, if I wish to acquire knowledge, I must learn. Thus we’ve got: desired end (‘knowledge’) + action (‘learning’) = rule. Categorical imperatives, on the other hand, denote ‘an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself.’ We can see that there is no desired end present in this kind of rule; only the ‘action = rule‘-part.

But how could a categorical imperative be applied in practice? A belief leading up to a categorical imperative could for example be: Gay marriage is okay. Period. That would imply that, you believe that, irrespective of the conditions present in a particular environment – thus no matter whether there is a republic or democratic regime, whether the economy is going great or not – gay marriage is okay. However, as it stands, it is not yet a categorical imperative, since this claim doesn’t urge you (not) to do something (such as ‘You shall not kill’, which is a categorical imperative). The rightful categorical imperative would be something like (G): ‘You should accept gay marriage.’ This is an unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself

Now: let’s assume that you’re talking to someone who doesn’t agree with (G). Because now it gets interesting, for now you have to make a decision: you either stick to (G) or you reformulate (G) into a hypothetical imperative. The first option is clear: you just say ‘I believe that gay marriage should be allowed always and everywhere. Period.’ Seems fair, right? But what if the person you’re talking to would respond by saying, ‘Okay…so even when citizens would democratically decide that gay marriage is unacceptable?’

Now you have got a problem, for this might be situation in which two of your categorical imperatives are contradictory, such as (G) and (D): ‘Decisions coming about through a democratic process should be accepted.’ Both (G) and (D) are unconditional rules: they should be acted on irrespective of the situation you’re in. But this is clearly impossible, for (G) forces you to accept gay marriage, while (D) forces you to do the opposite.

You could of course say that (G) is merely your belief (you believe that gay marriage should be accepted, not that this particular democratic society should find this too), but then you seem to fall into a form of moral relativism. Given that you don’t want that to happen, you have to decide which one is the true categorical imperative: (G) or (D)? And which one can be turned into ‘merely’ a hypothetical imperative?

You could of course decide to turn (D) into (D.a): ‘Only if you believe that a decision has come about through a democratic process and is a good decision, you should accept the decision.’ Or you could turn (G) into (G.a): ‘Only if the decision has come about through a democratic process, gay marriage should be accepted.’ But is this really how we form our moral judgements? Is (D.a) truly a rule you believe to be ‘fair’? And (G.a): do you truly believe that gay marriage is okay only if it is accepted by society? That is: do you make the moral value of gay marriage dependent upon the norms prevalent within a society? I doubt it.

So we are stuck; stuck into a paradox, a situation in which two absolute rules are contradictory, and the only way out is through turning at least one of them into an unintuitive and seemingly inadequate hypothetical imperative. So what to conclude? We’ve seen that categorical imperatives look powerful; as if they can truly guide our lives for once and for all; no more need to search for conditions that might be relevant to our judgements. But we’ve also seen that when two categorical imperatives are contradictory – that is, when two rules cannot be followed at the same time – changes have to be made: at least one of them has to be turned into a hypothetical imperative. In order to do so, a certain ‘value hierarchy’ is required, based upon which these categorization decisions can be made. Hence it seems that even Kant’s absolute ethics – with its absolute categorical imperatives – seems to be relative: relative to (the value of) other imperatives, that is. Therefore mathematical ethics, as presented above, seems to be impossible.

But what do you think?

Culture and People being Good or Bad

Are people intrinsically good or bad? If there wouldn’t be any laws or social conventions, would we start killing each other and stealing each other’s property – the state of war as Thomas Hobbes described it? Or would we “still” be loving and caring towards each other? Would we “still” be willing to share our well-earned income with others, even if we weren’t “forced” to do so by means of legislation; would we “still” be altruistic like our Christian brothers seem to hope for? Or aren’t there particularly “social” and particularly “anti-social” actions? Can’t actions be “absolutely” evil or “absolutely” good? Do the “demons” committing the “evil” actions believe they are fighting the good fight, that they are the angels, promoting the values they find to be worthwhile dying for? What, for example, about Al-Qaeda? We can assume that the terrorists flying into the World Trade Center at 9/11 did so because they believed that this was the right thing to do, right? Because their God, and their norms and values, promote this sort of behavior, right?

Watch it; we have got to prudent here. We’ve got to watch out for “a dangerous territory” we’re about to enter: the territory of cultural relativism, the view that “our ideas and convictions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” If cultural relativism would indeed be true, we would have no right whatsoever for claiming that our “Western” set of beliefs is superior to the “Islamic (extremist)” set of beliefs; they would be equally true or equally false; what people find good or bad simply depends on what they’ve been taught at school. And that’s it.

Although cultural relativism might appear to be counter-intuitive – after all, many of us seem to believe that murder is “just” wrong, irrespective of the culture one is raised in – what if it would be right? What if there indeed are no absolute values we could turn to in order to decide – for once and for all – what’s wrong and what’s not; what if each culture has its own set of “absolute” values to turn to; are we then still legitimized in saying that “those other cultures are just crazy”?

Maybe cultural relativism is more than “merely” a philosophic concept used to explore the absoluteness of our ethics and knowledge; maybe it’s the reality we live in. After all, what evidence do we have for there being absolute norms and values? The Bible? The Quran? These prove to be already two conflicting value systems,  so no absoluteness can be attained by following the religious path. What about science; what about empirical data? Isn’t it true that many societies consider things like “rape” and “murder” to be wrong? Isn’t that an indication of the absoluteness of value? Maybe, but what about war? Is murder – or even rape – still wrong in case of war? And If so, why are so many people still violating these rules while in war? These people don’t seem to find it wrong, do they?

Maybe we have to face the truth people, no matter how hard it might be. Maybe we have to accept that we aren’t always – or fully – right in our beliefs. That, even when “the enemy” does things we find absolutely disgusting, they do these things because they think they should do so. And why “do they think they should do so”? Because that’s what they consider to be the right way to act; that’s what you do in war; that’s what you do for defending your system of beliefs. So although we might differ in what actions we find good and bad, our intention is – no matter how twisted it might seem – always good. No matter whether others agree with this notion of “good”. And that’s a weird but true conclusion we have to live with.

Thus the answer to the question this article started with is “Good”.

But what do you think?

A Game of Tetris: That’s All the World of Chemistry Is

“Let’s see; where can we put this fine little atom? Is there still some space left, there, next to the Oxygen element? No hmm…okay; that means we’re done for now! We’ve made ourselves a water molecule.”

That’s the way the world of chemistry works; it’s nothing more than a big game of Tetris, played either by nature or by members of our own kind. Measuring and thinking; pushing and retracting; we build ourselves the little worlds we want to. Of course, we have to comply with the rules nature set for us. We can’t make a water molecule by adding only one Hydrogen element, but that’s merely a side-note, right? A little side-effect of the Tetris kind of game Nintendo’s part of Mother Nature has build for us. And who knows: maybe, when we enter the next level, a can of new possibilities will open.

Incredible, right? The way in which nature works? As if it is made for us to understand. It almost makes you presume the existence of a creator; the Nintendo God of chemistry; the one who determined the compositions and configurations in which we are allowed to put the elements together. But maybe something different is going on; maybe we have created this game of Tetris for ourselves in our own little minds; just to make sure that “we understand” the world. After all, isn’t it suspicious that electrons are “too small to see”? That they “just can’t seem to be reflected by light”? And that we have to come up will all kinds of mind-boggling constructions, like light being both “waves and particles”, in order to keep up this facade of knowledge?

Don’t be silly. Of course atoms and subatomic particles exist. Why else would they be so useful to us? Why else does nuclear energy provide us with the power it does? Are you saying that, only because we cannot “see” everything we’re talking about, these “undetectable” things don’t exist?

Well, we can’t see God can we? And still we can attribute many effects to this “cause”: it is God who has made us; it is God who determines our fate; and it is God who makes sure that you go to heaven and I go tell. That’s an elaborate and simple explanation, right? It would surely pass Occam’s razor because of the absolutely minimal number of assumptions it makes: only God has to exist and all of our sorrows can be explained. But does this make God real? Or is it merely a “useful” construct?

But let’s not take this route; let’s keep it “scientific”. Science is, after all, true; and religion isn’t, right? Right?! And let’s be honest; the predictability of the “it’s God’s will” argument isn’t that high, right? Our subatomic particle theory can at least, although it is by means of probabilities, give us a clue about what might happen when we start messing around in “our” world.

So, what’s the conclusion of this article? The conclusion is that we will keep on playing Tetris; no matter who set the rules of the game: whether is Mother Nature or ourselves.

But what do you think?

Why Would You Ever Study Philosophy?

I am curious to know how many of the people reading this article studies – or has studied – philosophy. I guess the percentage is rather low. And that’s a pity. It truly is. Because although philosophy doesn’t necessarily make you a multimillionaire, it can give you a great sense of satisfaction. Getting down the most fundamental of fundamentals of your thinking, and slowly starting to see things make more and more sense, is pretty much like an orgasm to the mind; or, to put it less sex-oriented, like candy to the mind. Personally I believe that philosophy should be the number one course taught to children. Starting on high school, since primary school is for chasing girls…

I am not saying that philosophy is the ‘one and only discipline seeking for the truest of truths’. No, there are many more disciplines sharing this ambition. What I am saying, however, is that philosophy is an ‘activity – not a topic – that can be very helpful in thinking within the conceptual frameworks of any discipline around. You can compare it to riding a bike; riding a bike is useful in a wide variety of environments: the city, the forest, at a farm…You get it. That’s how it is with philosophy as well: no matter where you are situated, no matter whether you are a mathematician or a physicist: you will benefit from philosophy.

When people ask me, ‘What exactly is philosophy?’ I tell them – like a true philosopher – that there isn’t ‘some thing’ that can be called philosophy. Philosophy is not a subject: it’s a manner of thinking. A manner of thinking that can be applied irrespective of the particular subject at issue. That’s why well-known philosophers have been – or are – involved in so many different disciplines: one philosopher can ‘easily’ be involved with such apparently different subjects as the mind-body problem (psychology and neuroscience), rationality (economics) and scientific realism (physics, chemistry and more). That is because philosophy is a ‘system of thinking’ one can apply to the world; it’s an angle from which you look at the world.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I am telling you this because philosophy has truly changed my life. It has made me – I believe – a more respectful person: more understanding towards opposing points of view. It has forced me to think about why I believe what I do, which made me appreciate my beliefs much more. And I am convinced that – besides the intellectual merits – philosophy has a therapeutic value. By that I mean that philosophy can ease your mind when you feel lost; when you need a shoulder to cry on. Pretty much like music, but then aimed straight at the mind.

Use philosophy like a hammer for the mind; to hit the mind it in the right shape. The ‘right shape’? What does that mean? To be honest: I don’t know. But it sounds philosophical, doesn’t it?

But what do you think?

Social Value: Friendship or Fame?

“I am not really supposed to say this, since I promised John I wouldn’t tell anyone, but do you know what he told me? I will tell you if you promise – absolutely promise – that you won’t tell anyone, okay?”

Secrets and insecurity mix like candy and children: those who have got it, think they have got something valuable, something that others might want to have. Something that makes them being appreciated by others. After all, who doesn’t want to hear a big fat rumor about that chick on college that “allegedly” has some kind of affair with the crippled teacher? That’s awesome to know, right? Because, now you know it, you have increased your value, you have increased the number of likes on your Facebook-page, you have got a check that you can cash at any time you want. And why would it even matter that you promised someone that you wouldn’t tell anyone about his or her little secret? I mean: the people you tell the secret to aren’t going to spread it, right? Of course not. Not if they just shut their mouths and stick to their promises. Just like you almost managed to do.

Choices, choices. Considerations, considerations. Friendship or popularity, comfort or fame. Considerations, considerations. What would you do? Would you hear the confession and leave it with that? Or would you use this precious little inside information for increasing your very own social value? Difficult, difficult. A stock broker would cash his inside information, right? Exploit it to the fullest. And so should you, right?

Friendship without trust is like shitting on a broken toilet: it just gets messy. And after a while, you decide to take your shit elsewhere, away from the leaky toilet. Betraying your friends’ confidence is like the buying of derivatives in reverse: instead of you distributing the risk among the many happy buyers, thereby decreasing your own risk, the more happy buyers that buy your pretty little rumors, the bigger the risk you carry will get. And although high risks go hand in hand with high pay-offs, you should have balls of steel in order to cope with it. Because if someone snitches, the pyramid of conspiracy collapses, and it will all come back to the source: the leaky insecure source that is you. The source whose longing for social value was higher than the loyalty to his friends. And now, as the crisis has taken off, you have lost all of your value. You are bankrupt. You not only lost the respect of the periphery of your social circle, whose hypocrisy resides in the fact that they like to spread tasty rumors on the one hand, just to increase their own social value, but – when they get caught – scream that loyalty is the biggest virtue of mankind. No, you lost something far more valuable. You lost the core, the fire that was there to warm your hands and absorb your confessions. Your friend, your trust, your dignity. It’s gone. It’s all gone.

So what do you do? Love your friends or enjoy the fame? Get a steady pay-off or go for the highest of profits? It’s up to you.

What do you think?

Does The Truth Exist?

What is it that we humans beings truly know? About what are we absolutely certain? And will it ever be possible to know everything? And, if so, how could we know that have come to know everything? These are fascinating but difficult questions and trying to answer them all at once is very likely to lead to little result and a firm headache. Therefore we will just pick one of them, and that is: does the truth exist?

We always see the world through our own eyes. Even when we are trying – like I am doing right now – to develop a meta-perspective upon how we as a species should think about ourselves, we will never be able to become fully detached from our own inherently limited points of view within which all of our beliefs reside. And it is because of this inability of ours to transcend ourselves that coming to know how things “truly” are seems to be an impossible task. That is: impossible for us human beings. If we would be Gods, it might have been a different story.

But what now? What if we cannot ever touch upon “the truth as it truly is”? Well, we could of course fall back upon Cartesian skepticism with its beautiful credo of: “I can doubt everything but the fact that it is me who is doubting.” It is in this one little sentence that Descartes describes what it to be human. It is also in this one little sentence that Descartes has lain down the fundamentals of what might be the single most admirable human trait: the trait of humbleness. A trait that is rooted in our fundamental and inescapable ignorance. A trait that fosters respect for each other’s (different) ideas about the way the world works. We are all the same in our ignorance; so don’t take your own ideas too seriously. But given that there is nothing we cannot doubt – expect the fact that it is us who are doubting – what are the implications of this observation with regard to our quest for the “truth”?

Let’s see. The human quest for knowledge – or the “truth” – is the most praiseworthy and impossible journey we have ever embarked on. But even though the residence of “truth” might be impossible to find, we still have no reason to stop our efforts for obtaining this holy grail of knowledge. I even dare to say that it is a great good that we simple human beings will never come to touch upon “the truth as it really is”. Since, it is for as long as there is no single “truth” pressing down upon our human souls that we will be able to create our own truths. But that seems kind of vague, right? What does it mean to “create our own truths”? And isn’t that idea contradictory to the core meaning of the notion of “truth”?

It seems fair to assume that each and every person on this planet of ours has got a certain set of beliefs about the way the world works and the way the world should work. And although none of us will ever come to know whether our beliefs are true in the absolute sense of the word, we still consider ourselves to have reasons for believing our beliefs to be true. And it is just because of these reasons that we consider our beliefs to be true. The reasons act as the foundation on top of which our beliefs hold true. And it is throughout the course of our lives that you and I are likely to have developed different sets of beliefs about the world we are living in. You might believe that people are essentially good, while I might believe that they are essentially bad. In other words: both of us have – throughout our lives – developed a grounding consisting of reasons because of which we have come to believe what we consider to be true. This explains why someone always has to come up with “reasons” in order to convince another person of the truthfulness of ideas. Since it is only because of these reasons that beliefs come to be true. Without these reasons the other person would literally have no reason to believe your idea to be true.

This observation shows that “truthfulness” is a dynamic property. One year you might consider a certain idea to be true, while the following year you might consider this same idea to be false (think about you believing in Santa Claus while you were a kid). That is to say that, by experiencing changes in your reasons for believing something, you simply cannot help but changing your ideas as well.

Therefore the relevant question becomes: how do we come to believe what we believe? I personally think that there is a huge amount of arbitrariness playing a role in this. I mean: we haven’t decided to be born in the country in which we actually have been born, did we? But – assuming that you live in the Western World – how do you think that your view on the world would have been if you would have been born in – let’s say – Africa? How would your view on the world have been if you would not have been educated in the manner that you are? How would your view on the world have been if you as a child had to work 80 hours per week in order for your family to be able to survive?

I want to ask you the following question, and it is a very important one: given that you would indeed have been born in Africa and given that you would have developed a set of beliefs that is different from the one you are having today, would this make the beliefs you would have had if you would have been born in Africa any less true than the ones you are having today? I do not think so. And that is where the arbitrariness of our notions of the “truth” comes in.

What I have tried to show in this article is that our beliefs are not true simply because we believe them to be true. It would indeed have been very satisfying to know that our beliefs about the the way the world works are the ones that are true and that the beliefs of others are just plain nonsense. But the truth of the matter is that in the end, everything comes down to faith. Whether it is – as can be read in a latter article of mine – within the realm of science or religion, it does not matter. The last step – the step of faith – always has to be taken by yourself, and it is that step that makes your beliefs come to be true.

Don’t you believe this is fascinating? The idea that everything – all the things we consider to be true and all the things that we consider to be false – is just a matter of believing? And that this is all we will ever know? I most certainly do. Believe me.