Sunday, April 21, 2013

Stop Think

by Joel Marks
Published in Philosophy Now magazine, issue no. 55, May/June 2006, page 38 

My stepson once gave me a book entitled Jewish as a Second Language (by Molly Katz). He need not have bothered because I was already fluent. Take the chapter on worrying: It explains that "Natural-born Jews leave the womb equipped with a worry reservoir that is filled early and replenished constantly. We worry about everything. ... It is our duty, our birthright, and our most profound satisfaction." I understand this implicitly. For those who are not thus genetically constituted, Katz offers the following practical advice: 

[S]imply make an enormous big deal out of some existing minor problem, such as: An ingrown toenail (it could get bad enough so you'd have to wear special shoes. But those wouldn't go with your business clothes, and you'd be fired for having a poor image. Then you'd lose your medical insurance, get blood poisoning, and die).

  I can add a suggestion: Become a philosopher. This is perfect training for worrying, except that we call it "reflecting." And, indeed, anything and everything is our oyster, er, ingrown toenail. The regular reader of this magazine, and of “Moral Moments” in particular has perhaps already picked up on that. It's no joke, as I indicated in a previous column; when one worries as a matter of both personality and profession, it can become quite painful.

  Fortunately, there is an alternative method of philosophizing which is almost the exact opposite of worrying. It is so different, in fact, that many so-called WESTERN philosophers do not consider it to be philosophy at all. I am not one of those. For me philosophy is defined as much by its goals (understanding the nature of reality, learning how to live properly) as by its recommended methods of attaining them, so I can be catholic about the latter and consider even apparently antithetical approaches to be kosher.

  The alternative method to which I allude is variously named meditation, yoga, mysticism, or even prayer. The variety I happen to employ is MANTRA meditation. Although I first learned it from the TM organization, i.e., Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's "transcendental meditation," I have not retained any ties to that or any other organization or sect. Instead, I went on to study meditation as a component of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism during my otherwise-analytical philosophical education in graduate school and beyond. Meditation has been for me, then, a kind of oriental philosophic cure for an occidental philosophic disease.

  The method is simplicity itself. You say a word (the MANTRA) -- for example, "Om" or "One" -- over and over in your mind. THAT'S IT. Well, of course that's not all there is to "it." It is infinitely subtle. But if you could really just do that, that WOULD be it. It is amazing how difficult it can be to do something so simple -- that is what you learn straight off. (Although when I say "difficult," I don't mean to imply onerous; MANTRA meditation can be surprisingly relaxing and pleasant, and is surely not boring.) You discover, for example, that your mind is full of junk -- mental chatter, mental clutter -- and it's all competing for your attention with that MANTRA. When that happens, here's the key to the whole thing: You bring your mind back to the MANTRA. But you don't yank it; you just withdraw attention from the distraction and return it to the MANTRA, "gently."

  I have done that in "formal" sessions of twenty minutes at least once a day for thirty years. What do I have to show for it? Until recently, I could not say for sure. But in the last few years, I have certainly experienced a boon: I am able to "detach" from thinking about things in the obsessive manner of my New York Jewish upbringing and Western philosophic training. By withdrawing my attention from the thoughts -- precisely analogously to the method of MANTRA meditation, or perhaps even instantiating it -- I can enervate them so that they cease to press on me.

  What takes the place of the MANTRA in this real-life application? Simply whatever there is to attend to. I take my cue here from the philosophy (or practice) of Zen, a distinctive derivation of Buddhism and Taoism. The essence of wisdom is that there is only the here and now; therefore this is what one should attend to. The present moment and place contain all that is necessary for life; be alert to them and you will know what to do and how to live. In this way the ever-thinking, ever-preoccupied mind is side-stepped, so that there ceases to be an intermediary between the self and the object perceived. It is like the difference between walking as we normally do, which is Zen, and trying to walk by thinking to oneself, “Well, first I should extend this leg, then put down this foot, etc.” This is why Zen is sometimes called the philosophy of “No Mind.” But it is also mindfulness, as when you “Mind the gap” in the London underground.

  How do I know that my temperamental achievement has resulted from meditation? And why now, after thirty years? Maybe I'm just getting older and wiser. But as I have related, this new mental ability seems to mimic the skill I rehearse in my meditative sessions. That it would take as long to "undo" a personality trait as to have acquired it should perhaps come as no surprise about human psychology. Probably, then, there has been a confluence of the two influences (practice and maturity).

  However it came about, what it boils down to is self-control. I now have the hang of holding the upper hand with my own mind. A life-transforming technique, which heretofore I could only endorse as an abstract proposition, is now something I can wield (albeit still imperfectly, to be sure). Thus, while I have been emphasizing NOT thinking about things -- an odd-seeming desire for a philosopher, who is supposed to value the "examined life" -- a personality different from mine might benefit from more thinking rather than less. For me it has been the refraining from thinking so much, or in a particular way, that is appealing, as an antidote to despair, which must be an occupational hazard of those who dwell on the human condition, including their own personal prospects for happiness. But the general point is that one ought to be able to direct one's mind to think or not to think about something, independently of one's tendencies: to become autonomous rather than automatic.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Dancing Philosopher

by Joel Marks
Published in Philosophy Now, Issue No. 95, March/April 2013, p. 52

Every afternoon at the end of my work day I head out for a walk. The locals can set their clocks by this latter day Immanuel Kant. Only when rain and cold and wind are absolutely wretched will this philosopher be kept from his appointed rounds. But on those occasions I make a substitute for my daily constitutional by dancing in my living room to the sounds of music on Pandora. I’ve got a station selected for songs with a fast, heavy beat.

            Thus was I engaged one day when I realized something: I was a marionette. When I’m strutting and shaking and jumping and twisting in the throes of these sounds, it is not by any act of will. “Somebody else” is pulling the strings. Whether it’s Pat Benatar singing “Heartbreaker” or  Billy Idol singing “White Wedding” or Steppenwolf playing “Magic Carpet Ride” or The Trammps playing “Disco Inferno,” my motions just happen in response. I would have to exert my will to stop them ... if I could. Similarly when I’m at a club. If the band begins to play rhythm and blues, or my stepson revs up his rock band, I simply cannot remain seated. Partner or no partner, I’m up on the dance floor; and you’d have to drag me off if the band was still playing.

So much for the idea that free will is something we feel. The only way I could accurately describe my feelings and consequent behaviors in these situations is that they are compelled by an outside force. Yet surely my dancing is an expression of me in the purest form. If this is not me acting feely, then what is? Would only my resistance count as truly free? Or my forcing myself to dance if I did not feel like it? My fellow walker (but presumably not dancer!) Kant might have thought so. He wrote, “suppose that, even though no inclination moves him any longer, he nevertheless tears himself from this deadly insensibility and performs the action without any inclination at all, but solely from duty – then for the first time his action has genuine moral worth” (from the First Section of his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals). Moral worth, for Kant, derives from acting freely (in accordance with the categorical imperative), but presumably my dancing would count only as acting from “inclination.”

This is not the first time I have noted my own roboticness in this column. In issue no. 77 I reported on my discovery at the kitchen sink. In that case my behavior was the result of thought processes; I was washing the breakfast dishes because I realized that they would just get in the way if I left them unwashed in the sink and furthermore become more difficult to clean as the dirt encrusted and they piled up, and I didn’t want any of that to happen. It required self-awareness and inference to figure out that what I was doing was therefore not something I had initiated de novo but rather the result of an ultimately billions-of-years-long chain of causes and effects.

In the present case, quite differently, the realization of roboticness was direct: It just felt that way. And that is because I did not have to become aware of what I was thinking in order to link my circumstances to my behavior. The “circumstances” were simply the music, which caused my dancing. Or even more graphically, the cause was a certain pattern of airwaves hitting my inner ear, and the effect was my body jerking around. The whole event was as physical as a hammer hitting a nail, or as if there really were strings attached to my body being pulled by a very strong puppeteer in the rafters. How could I miss that?

            Meanwhile it is child’s play – or more literally I should say oldster’s amusement, for experience helps – to pick out the automatic behavior of others. At my ripening age it has become downright tedious to observe the completely predictable behavior of people I know, people I read about in the news, as well as of political parties, nation-states, and other groupings of human beings. We are all marching to the beat of some drummer or other, and often the same one. This also makes us liable to manipulation by those who figure out the best beats and strike their drum accordingly. In the literal case of the dance music I like, it’s great to be manipulated in this way. But I, like all of us, have also been the victim countless times of drummers and string-pullers who used their implicit or explicit knowledge of my inner workings to gain some advantage over me. (Although they may not have understood at all what was making them do that.)      

But no matter which way the determinism reveals itself, it is a fact. And it is a fact which fascinates me. Really, what could be more amazing than realizing that one is an automaton? It has a definite science-fiction aura to it, like realizing you are a replicant in Blade Runner, or an alien pod in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But this is reality, backed up by both science and philosophic reflection. I have long marveled at the implications. And more recently, with these mundane recognitions of my own determinism, I have taken delight in cultivating and compiling a phenomenology of determinism. What is it like to be an android? This is a question anyone can answer on one’s own: Just know thyself.

The Sleeper Wakes

by Joel Marks
Published in Philosophy Now, Issue No. 89, March/April 2012, p. 52

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Derek Parfit’s discussion of personal identity in his 1984 book Reasons and Persons is a timeless challenge to our deepest intuitions about who and what we are or even whether we are, that is, exist. Although his treatment of it was novel, the thesis is hardly new. Parfit himself realized its relation to Buddhism, drawing parallels in his last appendix; and in another famous appendix (of his Treatise) Hume dabbled with a similar notion. I have also written about the problem in this column (Issue no. 74) as well as in a science-fiction (or philosophy-fiction) story called “Teleporter on Trial” published in SciFiDimensions.

            My own intuition has been quite clear to me but also perplexing, and in both senses of the latter. Thus, suppose you enter a presumed teleporter and are beamed to Mars. In what seems to me the most likely scenario, only the information about you will be transmitted, since sending an electromagnetic signal is far more efficient and swift that transporting your entire body. So on Mars a brand new body, and in particular brain, will be shaped according to the blueprint of that information; and out of the transmission receiver will walk a person who is in every respect identical to the one who walked into the transmitter on Earth, including in his own mind. The person will believe he or she is you, no doubt about it.

            My feeling, however, is that he or she is not you at all but only an exact replica. I won’t repeat all of the arguments but only say why this is perplexing in two ways. First, it is puzzling: This is because we are left to wonder what you (or the I or self) could be, such that your existence depends on the existence of your body or brain and not on its blueprint. After all, even the existence of your body and brain is problematic; that is to say, in what sense is your body the same body over time, given that all of its component cells are replaced every number of years? (It is not clear to what degree this is true of the brain, but even here it seems plausible to imagine that we could replace your entire brain, cell by cell, if the technology were available to do so, while leaving it essentially the same brain.) Second, it is worrisome: This is because the implication is that instead of your having been teleported from Earth to Mars, if we simply disposed of your remaining body on Earth we would in fact be killing you (while bringing a new person into being on Mars).

            I am writing about these things again because all of a sudden I am possessed of a new intuition. It is common to take waking up from deep sleep as the archetype of continuing to exist as oneself. Even though it can seem puzzling that one is still oneself despite an apparent hiatus in consciousness, who would seriously doubt it? Or put it this way: if one did doubt it, then one would be close to doubting the very notion of a continuing self, which is pretty much the same as doubting the existence of the self altogether. For it hardly conforms to our conception of being so-and-so that we exist only for a single day (unless one is a mayfly).

Indeed, if one doubts that one is the same person upon awakening as the person who went to bed the night before, one could begin to doubt that one is the same person now as the person who began to read this article, and so on to the duration of a mere moment. For what do you really know about your own continuity? Right now you recollect that you have continued in existence since reading “Right now you recollect ….” But would this not also be the case if there were a sequence of selves or “you”s, each of which duplicated the mental content of the one immediately preceding it?

I won’t push that particular line of argument because, Parfit-like, I am more interested in implications for what matters than about the ultimate metaphysics. So return to the sleeping/waking case: There is this gap in consciousness of a clear sense of yourself existing through time, yet upon arising you (in a few moments if not at once) “collect yourself” back (?) into being. Is this really the same you? Up until now I have considered this not only obvious but the most important  fact in the world. One very real application would be as I related in my phi-fi story about teleporters: Any time a person entered one of these contraptions, he would be about to die.

But now for the first time I question that, or anyway that it matters. Instead of entering the teleporter, just put your head down on your pillow tonight. Tomorrow morning someone will awaken on that pillow, believing he or she is you. No one else will have a clue that there might be anything different either. I now ponder and wonder and marvel: What else could matter? Whatever the metaphysics of the situation, if these empirical facts are the case, then could anyone, including the person who went to bed the night before, complain of some loss? Suddenly I am at a loss … to see what has been lost.

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. He would like to thank Chris Bateman of International Hobo for re-sparking his interest in Parfit, and acknowledge the aid of Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel (Basic Books, 2009) in further cutting the cord to himself.