Monday, May 13, 2013


by Joel Marks
Published in Philosophy Now, Issue No. 70, November/December 2008, p. 39.

"JOOOOOOOOELLLLLLLLLL?!" The shrill call of my name made me jerk the phone from my ear. In that instant I thought, "Mom." I was flabbergasted: My mother had been dead for five years.
As the person on the wire continued to speak I had time to question myself. Could the death of my mother, even the sense that so many years had passed by, be only something I had dreamt the night before? Was it just that I had had no occasion to doubt it since waking up this morning, until this telephone call had jarred me back to my senses that my mother is still alive?
 I know there was a time in my life when I believed I could fly, for I remembered having done so. The image was of my body parallel with the ground, close to it but not touching it. My arms were crossed like a Cossack dancer's, and I was moving forward steadily, following the path of a sidewalk near my home. In my daily life I felt I had this power, although it wasn’t exactly clear to my child’s mind when I could exercise it. Then one day I realized it must have been something I had dreamt; so it was not a memory – or it was a memory, but of a recurring dream, not something that had actually happened. This was the kind of realization one experiences when, in the light of increasing knowledge, the belief in Santa Claus evaporates like dew at daybreak.
A few more words from the person on the telephone dispelled my current confusion. It was Svetlana, a new acquaintance. The way she had spoken my name had been her enthusiastic greeting, probably also prompted a bit by nervousness because of the novelty for her of speaking English without seeing the person she was speaking to. Now that I thought about it, her age was not far from my mother's when I was in college and would receive calls from her. That was how they would begin: "JOOOOOOOOELLLLLLLLLL?!"
The experience of Svetlana's call served as a reminder to me of the fragility of belief. For one second I had believed my mother was still alive. The belief was patently false, but I was taken in by it all the same. It is not an uncommon experience, is it? I’m sure you can empathize. Here is another example: How many times have I found myself gripping the chair when (for no particular reason) I have fallen into a momentary reverie of being in a plummeting airplane. I am feeling real fear. I believe I do believe at those moments that I am in an airplane. I am not asleep and dreaming; nor are my eyes even closed. It is just that there has been a shift of belief brought on by an image in my mind.
Yet, at other times, belief is recalcitrant. If somebody were to hold a gun to your head and demand that you believe in Santa Claus or he would shoot, could you do it? I doubt it. But that’s not because there is no Santa Claus; it’s because you don’t believe there is. If you were a Creationist, you would be just as much at a loss to conjure up a belief in evolution under the gun.
The startling revelation is that the entire world one inhabits is in some significant sense not the world that exists but the world one believes to exist. Everything that we know is first of all something that we believe, and in the end is that as well. In other words, what we know is, for all we know, something we only think we know. Our belief may be more or less justified, but even our deepest conviction is still a belief. And the hallmark of a belief, unlike a fact, is that it could be mistaken. That is the problem of skepticism: if beliefs are only buttressed by other beliefs, how can we know we have anything “right”? It is humbling, then, to realize that one's mind has a mind of its own.
But skepticism is, in the end, just a bugbear, for reasons that Wittgenstein explained in philosophy and sociobiologists have explained in science: We must be getting it all basically right or we couldn’t function -- we wouldn’t even be here. Indeed, for all the pleasure there is to be had from pondering the occasional lapse from perfection, such as mistaking Svetlana for Mom, the educated mind takes an even greater delight in understanding the inevitability of our exquisitely fine-tuned cognitive faculties. As others have pointed out: The question was never, “How could I have made such a mistake?” but, “How do we get it right so much of the time?” And now, amazingly, we know the answer: natural selection. What is more, the answer, now that we know it, seems totally obvious.
            Descartes’ intuitions were sound when he “forgave” the occasional illusions to which we are liable by pointing out that we also have the ability to disabuse ourselves of them (although he misattributed the source of that ability to the goodness of God rather than to the even more astonishing, because self-explanatory, mechanism of evolution). The late perception psychologist J.J. Gibson further developed this idea when he argued that illusions typically occur only under very limited or artificial circumstances, such as in the psychology laboratory, and are quickly remedied. Hence my swiftly figuring out that the person on the telephone was not my mother but Svetlana. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Desire – Thirty Years Later

Published in Philosophy NowIssue No. 93, November/December 2012, p. 44.

In 1982 I had my first “major” philosophical publication, a journal article entitled “A Theory of Emotion” (Philosophical Studies vol. 42, no. 2., pp. 227-42). My thesis was that the new cognitivist revolution in the study of emotion, associated at the time with the philosopher Robert C. Solomon, needed a supplement, namely, desire. (O. H. Green had reached the same conclusion independently.) Solomon, and even more explicitly, my target in the article, William Lyons, held that emotions are essentially a type of belief. This was a welcome change from the previously prevailing view of emotions as “brute feelings.” But I argued that this was not enough, for one could believe, say, that one was about to be mauled by a rabid dog, and yet not be in an emotional state unless one also possessed a desire not to be so mauled.

This insight had no doubt been prompted by my dabblings in Buddhism, for the Buddha preached that all suffering comes from desire. The Buddha’s recommendation was that we therefore cease to desire. I defended this thesis in an article on “Dispassion and the Ethical Life” in a volume I co-edited with Roger T. Ames on Emotions in Asian Thought (Albany: SUNY press, 1995). But to deflect the obvious objection that eliminating desire would be throwing out the baby with the bath water – since what would be the point of living at all if we desired nothing? – I analyzed the Buddha’s notion of desire as emotion, and emotion in turn as involving strong desiring.

Subsequently I saw an opening to the study of motivation, for it seemed natural to extend the belief/desire analysis to what moves us to action. And it is not only emotions that do this but, more generally, what might be called attitudes. I analyzed these as belief/desire sets, but now without the “strong desire” qualifier, since one need not feel deeply about something in order for it to produce behavior (or, for that matter, to be a “mental feeling”).

But now I came up against a distinction, first brought to my attention by Wayne Davis in an essay he wrote for my edited volume on The Ways of Desire (Chicago: Precedent, 1986). For it seems that “desire” is ambiguous between two quite distinct psychic phenomena. On the one hand desire is simply synonymous with motivation, so to say that one was moved by desire is just to say that one was motivated. On the other hand desire is a specific type of mental state, on a par with belief, such that a particular belief and a particular desire could jointly constitute a motivation (or a feeling). The mental-state desire would be desire proper or genuine desire, since the other type of desire is only another name for motivation.

An example of desire (proper) is wanting to go for a walk for its own sake. An example of motivational desire is wanting to go for a walk because you believe it will help you lose weight and you want (desire) to lose weight. But here again the latter desire (to lose weight) is ambiguous, since you might simply wish to lose weight or you might be motivated to lose weight by some further belief/desire set, such as that you desire to date someone and you believe s/he will only date you if you lose weight. And so on. The thesis I defended in another essay in that same volume – “The Difference between Motivation and Desire” -- was that, even though motivation as such is not the same as genuine desire, a genuine desire is always involved in motivation, simply because the regress must stop if there is to be any action at all.

I am no longer so sure about that last thesis. Bill Lycan, on behalf of his graduate seminar a few years ago, planted a seed of doubt in my mind. But even if we could be sure that “genuine desire” is an essential component of all of our motivation, we would still want an account of what it is. More specifically, it has always been a teaser to tease apart desire from belief. The best accounts I’ve seen, quite different from each other, are by Dennis Stampe (in my desire volume) and, more recently, Timothy Schroeder (in Three Faces of Desire from Oxford).

Despite my uncertainty about what I am even talking about, however, I remain a fan of desire. In fact, my interest in it has returned with a vengeance after a long hiatus. This time I am taken with desire’s role in values. In fact, I have quite given up on objective value as anything but a figment, and see all value as subjective – specifically, as a function of our desires.

I do still find room for more than one legitimate category of value, but, instead of objective and subjective values, there are intrinsic and extrinsic (or instrumental) values. The latter pair corresponds to intrinsic and extrinsic desires. So for example, to want to go for a walk for its own sake is to value walking intrinsically, while to want to do so for one’s health is to value walking instrumentally. What I no longer accept is that in addition to these there is such a thing as objective or inherent value, such that, for example, going for a walk might be “good in itself.” In a word, I no longer recognize the reality of value that is independent of desire.

Therefore I now consider desire to be the key to ethics, and so it becomes incumbent on me to try once again to figure out what the hell desire is. For starters I think I will pick up a fading offprint of an article from 1982 entitled, “A Theory of Emotion”!

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. He continues the tale of desire in his trilogy: Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality (Routledge, 2013), It's Just a Feeling: The Philosophy of Desirism (CreateSpace, 2013), and Bad Faith: A Philosophical Memoir (CreateSpace, 2013).

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Pons Asinorum

Copyright © 2002 by Joel Marks
Originally published in Philosophy Now magazine, no. 35, March/April 2002, page 48

Three travelers seek lodging for the night. They come upon a pension that charges 10 euros per person. It turns out that there is only one room available, but they don't mind sharing; so they pay the clerk 30 euros. When the proprietor returns, however, she decides that the guests should be given a discount for having to bunch up, so she summons the bellhop and hands him 5 euros to refund to them. Not being a completely honest fellow, the bellhop pockets two euros; this conveniently leaves one euro to be returned to each guest. Therefore each guest has now paid nine euros, for a total of 27 euros. But 27 plus the two in the bellhop's pocket = 29. What happened to the thirtieth euro?

When I first heard this puzzle, I was bedazzled. It seemed so simple; yet no matter how I turned it over in my mind, I could not come up with a solution. I even entertained the hypothesis that I must be dreaming, or under the influence of Descartes' evil daemon, "who has directed his entire effort to misleading me, [for] how do I know that I am not deceived every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square or perform an even simpler operation, if such can be imagined?" (Meditation One).

Soon, however, I came up with this surprising conclusion: There is no thirtieth euro! The travelers ended up paying 27 euros. The proprietor had 25, and the bellhop kept two. That's it. And yet ... I still could not shake from my head the notion that there was a missing euro. So it occurred to me that the puzzle could be conceived as a kind of illusion -- a calculative illusion, we might call it. An analogy can be drawn to a visual illusion, like the bent-stick-in-water, which is not really bent, but, even when one is fully knowledgeable of its straight shape, continues to appear bent at the waterline (due to the refraction of light). Just so, I now knew there was no thirtieth euro, but I couldn't dispel the mental impression that there was.

Finally I was able to dispel even the illusion. This came about precisely because of its refractoriness. I could not rid my mind of that thirtieth euro; there had to be a way to account for it. And so there is: For at the end, the proprietor has 25 euros, the bellhop two, and the guests three. Voila: 30 euros! So NOW the puzzle became: Why had there seemed to be a puzzle in the first place? Indeed, for some of my more logically adept friends and colleagues, there had been no puzzle about the 30th euro, and they were only puzzled about what was puzzling me. I can still experience a kind of Gestalt switching (as when viewing the picture of a vase and two facial profiles) between my puzzlement and my lack thereof. What makes for the difference?

The answer I have come up with is that this "puzzle" arises from a simple "mental mishearing": Where the situation at the end is that the guests have paid 27 euros, one might inattentively "hear" this as their now possessing 27 euros. Then indeed there would be a mystery (for the bellhop only possesses two, so where's the thirtieth?). But in fact at the end the guests only retain three euros of the original 30.

I have therefore passed through three stages: (1) puzzlement (indeed, astonishment), (2) knowledge, but with remaining unease or residual illusion, and (3) "total enlightenment" or "wisdom," with no puzzle or illusion extant (and even understanding why there had been puzzlement in the first place). The progression is instructive: From time to time life throws us for a loop, and, indeed, philosophy is in the very business of questioning fundamental assumptions. But sometimes, as with the three lodgers puzzle, we eventually discover a way to buttress our original conception of things; Wittgenstein considered philosophy itself to be one big faux-puzzle maker, which it was his calling to foil. However, the history of thought -- not to mention, the narratives of our individual lives -- is surely rife with cases of a new conception's replacing the old after some initial shock, such as the discoveries of pi, the stellar nature of the Milky Way, the absence of an ethereal medium, radioactivity, the expansion of the universe, the incompleteness of arithmetic, and so many others. So the truly philosophical task may be to discern which are the real and which the ersatz puzzles.

Which, for example, is the Anthropic Cosmological Principle? It seems that the various physical constants of our universe are exquisitely fine-tuned for the coming into being of ... us! The odds of this having come about by chance are said to be infinitesimal; ergo, we have empirical evidence of some (vast) intelligence and purposiveness (God?) pre-existing the universe. Is this a genuine problem for the secular mind?

Apparently not. Here is a homely analogy. Suppose you hit a golf ball into the air and it comes down in a dark forest. Well, no mystery there: Where it came down is where it came down. If we want to explain why it landed where it did, we would naturally look to physical laws and conditions. Now change the point of view: Pick a particular point hidden in the deep woods and challenge somebody to strike that precise location with the ball. We would expect only a Tiger Woods to attempt the feat, but even he would probably find it impossible.

Just so, the "fine-tuning" of nature that resulted in us may seem unlikely to the point of impossibility (sans an act of intentional design or creation), but the refutation of this "mystery" is that we are just "looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope": We pose the "problem" from the vantage of the end point, whereas causality works from the beginning, and then, whatever happens, happens. Thus, the "problem" needs no solution because it is not really a problem.

Yet there are others who see a deeper riddle posed by the constants of nature, and who consequently disparage the formulation above as the "Weak Anthropic Principle," or "WAP." Is there a Strong Anthropic Principle constituting a real puzzle? (Or would one just be a SAP to think so?) You will have to consider that for yourself outside the confines of this column.

Car Seats and the Absurd

Copyright © 2002 by Joel Marks
Originally published in Philosophy Now magazine, no. 38, October/November 2002, page 51

The extra minute you take to secure your child into her car seat could be just what it takes to bring your whole family into the path of a Mack truck half an hour down the road.

But that is obvious. It is the cruel, rueful, and ironic face of the contingency of existence. And of course it can work the other way around: Had you not taken the extra minute to secure your child into her car seat, you might have driven right into the path of a Mack truck. What does this tell us? Only, one might suppose, that we do not know the future. It doesn't change the fact that the only rational way to conduct one's affairs is to consider the odds: Children in automobile accidents are more likely to survive if they are strapped into a car seat. Therefore it is rational, not to mention morally obligatory, to do this for your child, even though it is within the realm of possibility that there will be a freak coincidence of circumstances, which converts your caring action into a contributing cause of the very catastrophe you were attempting to avert.

Only ... further reflection leads me to make a more bizarre inference. Put aside for the moment our epistemological situation and consider the metaphysics. Do you grant the following? Most accidents where there is a child passenger and an adult who has been responsible enough to purchase a car seat and secure the child into it, will not be due to some such aggravating factor as the driver drunkenly weaving in and out of traffic or drag racing or the like. Rather, the scenario will more likely be one of encountering some other car which has such a driver, or of the first driver's doing something foolishly spontaneous, like miscalculating when the light was going to change, OR of his being momentarily distracted, as by the family dog wagging his tail in the driver's face at a bend in the road, etc. In sum, I assume that the typical accident involving a child in a car seat occurs because the car was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Accidents are the thing of a moment, and moments are conditioned as delicately as a house of cards.

But if that is so, then do we not arrive at a rather startling conclusion, namely, that it is not the freak coincidence, but in fact the norm that accidents involving a child secured into a car seat would not have happened at all if the child had not been secured into the car seat? The logic of my argument is that everything else would have remained the same ... ceteris paribus, to use a logician's term. And I think that is a reasonable assumption in most cases. For instance, your not taking an extra minute with the car seat (because you were rushed, say) would not in any way affect whether the driver of the Mack truck takes another drink, or runs the stop light, etc. So that truck would still be at the very spot it would otherwise have been had you taken the extra minute. Except that because you didn't, there would be no accident: Your car and the Mack truck would pass through the same space but at different times.

In other words, although your alternative behavior would indeed affect the whole universe given enough time, the vast majority of the universe would remain the same in the short term. It is like the ripples in a pond after you plunk the pebble in: They will eventually reach the far shore and make the frog croak, but at first a nearby fish will not even notice anything has happened. Just so, the fate of the Mack truck and its driver, and of all who would be affected by them in turn into the indefinitely far future, would not begin to alter until later, after the moment at which the accident would have occurred. Up until then, all else with the truck and driver would be identical, so the accident won't occur provided you are careless about the car seat.

Singing the praises of car seats because your child's life has just been saved by one seems, therefore, as odd as extolling the virtues of kidnappers because your child has just been released by one. It is understandable, of course; there is a certain psycho-logic to it since your relief makes you feel grateful. But in strictly logical terms ... it ain't, is it?

Nonetheless, it is still true that it is rational (and, again, surely also ethical, even morally obligatory) to strap the child in. That is because the epistemology of the human condition leaves us with no rational option for deciding what to do other than relying on known, general probabilities. And in this case they presumably tell us that in otherwise matched populations, the one employing car seats will suffer fewer casualties. You simply cannot outwit Mother Nature on this one.

I conclude that ... life is absurd. (Although it is perhaps also absurd to employ logical argument to arrive at such a conclusion. But then ... life is absurd!) For the summation of the above is that it is rational to use a car seat for the safety of your child, even though on any actual occasion when the car seat shows its effectiveness for that purpose, it has likely also occasioned the risk to which your child has been exposed. In short, the car seat (in any given case but not in general) brings about the need for itself. It sounds like a marketer's dream ... or a metaphysical wizard's "perpetual justification engine" ... or the answer to a theologian's prayers for a Necessary Being ... but it is really a kind of joke, akin to: "Why am I hitting myself on the head with a hammer? Because it feels so good when I stop!" Also, this realization seems to have no practical import, and yet it changes everything, like a Gestalt shift (as from the contour of a vase to two facial profiles).