Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, etc. by Galen Strawson

This is a book of nine essays by the English philosopher Galen Strawson. The essays aren’t technical. Two were originally published in the London Review of Books; two were published in the Times Literary Supplement.  One is a shortened version of a lecture given at Oxford University.

I don’t think death, freedom or the self actually bother Strawson. What bothers him are certain ideas people have expressed on those topics and a few others. The idea that bothers him the most has to do with consciousness.

What is the silliest claim that has ever been made? The competition is fierce, but I think the answer is easy. Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-is-it-like” of experience. Next to this denial — I’ll call it “the Denial” — every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green [130].

As far as I know, no philosophers have ever denied that people are conscious of things like feelings. What some of them are saying is that consciousness isn’t what we think it is, and therefore, in some sense, it is an illusion or doesn’t exist. Strawson argues that no serious person has ever said anything as silly.

Strawson also argues that we don’t have free will in the most important, meaningful sense; and that, as a result, we are never ultimately responsible for our actions.

Why does the dear old agent-self decide as it does? … The general answer is clear. Whatever it decides, it decides as it does because of the overall way it is. And this necessary truth returns us to where we started: somehow the agent-self is going to have to get to be responsible for being the way it is, in order for its decisions to be a source of ultimate responsibility. But this is impossible: nothing can be causa sui in the required way [i. e. “the cause of itself”]. Whatever the nature of the agent-self, it’s ultimately a matter of luck [105].

Another philosophical position Strawson argues for is that, as far as we know, all of reality may be mental in some sense. That’s because the most compelling evidence we have for what the universe is made of is what we are most aware of, and that is our consciousness. So he thinks rocks and other inert objects might be somewhat conscious too.

I should mention that some of the essays are more personal. Strawson rejects the idea that stories or narratives about ourselves are necessary to live a full life. He doesn’t view his own life as a story at all. He also thinks that the prospect of a painless death, even within the next few minutes, shouldn’t bother us, except for the effect it might have on other people. It’s not as if we lose anything by dying, since we never had a future something to lose (after all, we weren’t guaranteed that we’d live so many years or have certain future experiences). He ends the book explaining what it was like to be a teenager and a young man in the 60s and 70s when he attended Rugby School (the famous one founded 450 years ago) and Oxford. He traveled a lot and loved rock music and sometimes got into trouble. It was apparently good training for his future career as a philosopher.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

If you want to understand American politics, read this book. Professor MacLean is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Democracy In Chains was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award and was named by The Nation as the most valuable book of the year.

The book is “deep history” because MacLean delves into the relatively obscure career of an American economist named James Buchanan. She shows how Buchanan’s teachings, beginning in the 1950s, were adopted by right-wing ideologues and eventually came to dominate the thinking of wealthy, powerful and well-connected Republicans all over America.

She uses the phrase “radical right” because today’s Republican Party is radically different from the Republican Party of the 1950s. The party’s leaders used to be conservative. Now they’re bound to an ideology that elevates property rights over almost all other considerations.The party’s guiding principal is that any infringement on a person’s right to accumulate wealth is inherently unfair. Human freedom consists in making money and holding on to it. Nothing is more important when it comes to political policy. In fact, taxation is only justified for national defense and otherwise maintaining order. This is not a conservative position. It’s a so-called “libertarian” position that translates into extreme policies unacceptable to most Americans.

There is indeed a “stealth plan”. MacLean shows how this plan was developed,  and how it was paid for by people like the billionaire Charles Koch. Its goal is to make the United States a very different country. She explains how various academics, lawyers and political operatives, often working for right-wing publications, business groups or think tanks, have been working together for decades to move America to the right, while being secretive about their ultimate goal.

Their many public goals are well-known by now. These goals include lower taxes for the wealthy, minimal regulation of business activity, less funding for social programs (the ones that can’t be eliminated entirely), greater influence of money on our politics, and the privatization of as many government services as possible, including schools, prisons and the military. They also support ever-increasing spending on the military budget and fewer restrictions on the police, so that everyone, here and abroad, is kept in line.

Their overarching goal is much less publicized. It’s to interfere with majority rule. The economist James Buchanan argued strongly that the majority cannot be trusted. Most people want the government to do things that benefit the nation as a whole. They like well-funded public schools, well-maintained public roads, government assistance for the poor, decent medical care for the sick, and clean air and water for everyone.

But those things have to be paid for. That means the government has to collect taxes. Taxes, however, are unfair, since they involve taking property (i.e. money) from people who would rather keep it. Therefore, Buchanan and his ilk concluded, the wrong people should not be allowed to vote. And if the majority does vote for “non-libertarian” policies, the courts should rule those policies unconstitutional. Thus, we see voter suppression and gerrymandering, and undemocratic actions like changing the rules so that newly-elected Democrats will have less power when they take office.

At times, the story MacLean tells is hard to believe. But the story is true. I’ll conclude with an example and a summary from Professor MacClean:

Again and again, at every opportunity he had, [Buchanan] told his allies that no “mere changing of the political guard will suffice”, that “the problems of our times require attention to the rules rather than the rulers. And that meant that real change would come “only by Constitutional law”. The project [i.e. the stealth plan] must aim toward the practical “removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule”... [184].

“Who will care for America’s children and the elderly”, [historian Ruth Rosen] asks, now that … “market fundamentalism — the irrational belief that markets solve all problems — has succeeded in dismantling so many federal regulations, services and protections?” But the cause [i.e. the plan] would argue that it has answered that question over and over again: You will. And if you can’t, you should have thought of that before you had kids or before you grew old without adequate savings. The solution to every problem … is for each individual to think, from the time they are sentient, about their possible future needs and prepare for them with their own earnings, or pay the consequences [221].

That is the kind of thinking we, the majority, are up against.

The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures by Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist with a philosophical bent. His earlier books were: 

  • Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
  • The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
  • Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain
  • Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.

In The Strange Order of Things, he emphasizes the role of homeostasis in making life possible. Here’s one definition:

[Homeostasis is] a property of cells, tissues, and organisms that allows the maintenance and regulation of the stability and constancy needed to function properly. Homeostasis is a healthy state that is maintained by the constant adjustment of biochemical and physiological pathways. An example of homeostasis is the maintenance of a constant blood pressure in the human body through a series of fine adjustments in the normal range of function of the hormonal, neuromuscular and cardiovascular systems.

Damasio explains how, billions of years ago, the simplest cells began to maintain homeostasis, and thereby survive and even flourish, using methods, including primitive forms of social behavior, that are similar to methods used by complex organisms like us. He also emphasizes the role of feelings in maintaining homeostasis. He doesn’t suppose that bacteria are conscious, but points out that they do react to their surroundings and changes in their inner states. He argues that organisms only developed conscious feelings of their surroundings and inner states as nervous systems evolved. He thinks it is highly implausible that a human mind could function inside a computer, since computers lack feelings and feelings are a necessary part of human life. Furthermore, Damasio concludes that culture has developed in response to human feelings. Culture is a complex way of maintaining homeostasis.

I’ll finish with something from the publisher’s website written by the British philosopher John Gray:

In The Strange Order of Things, Antonio Damasio presents a new vision of what it means to be human. For too long we have thought of ourselves as rational minds inhabiting insentient mechanical bodies. Breaking with this philosophy, Damasio shows how our minds are rooted in feeling, a creation of our nervous system with an evolutionary history going back to ancient unicellular life that enables us to shape distinctively human cultures. Working out what this implies for the arts, the sciences and the human  future, Damasio has given us that rarest of things, a book that can transform how we think—and feel—about ourselves. 

I can’t say the book changed how I think about myself. That’s because for some years I’ve thought about myself as a community of cells. It’s estimated that an average human body is composed of some 37 trillion cells and contains another 100 trillion microorganisms necessary for survival. Once you start thinking of yourself as a community of cells, adding homeostasis to the mix doesn’t make much difference.

For more on The Strange Order of Things, see this review for The Guardian and this article John Gray wrote for Literary Review.

I Lost It at the Movies by Pauline Kael

Before she became a famous film critic for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote about movies out in San Francisco. She also offered her opinions on radio station KPFA. I Lost It at the Movies includes selections from her criticism between 1955 and 1964.

The single word that best describes her writing is “provocative”. She slams a number of movies generally considered classics (West Side Story, Hiroshima Mon Amour, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, This Sporting Life). She also strongly criticizes other film critics, especially Bosley Crowther of The New York Times and the group of critics who subscribed to the auteur theory (film is all about the director). Her favorite films from this period include Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Godard’s Breathless, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (“perfect”). She loves Antonioni’s L’Avventura but hates his La Notte.

Kael appreciates many popular American classics but thinks the films of the 50s and 60s that have mass appeal tend to be formulaic. She loves a number of movies that appealed to “art house” audiences but makes fun of art house patrons who take obscurity and complexity to be artistic or “deep”. Here she is on her chosen profession:

The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others [308].

I disagreed with a number of her opinions (in some cases, she seems to think a movie misfires because she would have preferred it to be about someone else), but she certainly communicated her enthusiasm to me. So far, I’ve watched a relatively obscure Japanese film she recommended, Kagi or Odd Obsession, about a husband who tries to regain his sexual powers by getting his wife to have sex with their prospective son-in-law, and I’m planning to watch another one, Fires on the PlainThe latter is about Japanese soldiers undergoing pain and privation and doing horrible things in the Philippines at the end of World War 2. She called it a “masterpiece”, writing that “it has the disturbing power of great art: it doesn’t leave you quite the same”. 

After watching Odd Obsession, I read her review again. She did indeed see more in the movie than I did (not a surprise). If I make it through Fires on the Plain, I’ll see if she saw more in that one too.

Note:  Someone identified as “Not Pauline Kael” has posted what certainly seem to be Kael’s reviews from I Lost It at the Movies, including the ones for Odd Obsession and Fires on the Plain. They are worth reading.

The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka

I read The Metamorphosis in high school fifty years ago. I remember not liking it, although I don’t remember why. I have a much higher opinion now. When Gregor Samsa wakes up and discovers he’s been turned into a giant insect-like creature, or “some kind of monstrous vermin” as this translation says, we don’t know what to expect. Will it be a simple horror story, a tragedy, a comedy? I didn’t expect Gregor to still be preoccupied with his normal affairs, like how his transformation will affect his job and his plan to send his sister to a music conservatory. Nor did I expect his family to immediately assume that the creature in Gregor’s bedroom was Gregor. The Metamorphosis is a horror story, a tragedy and a comedy too.

Another story in the collection is In the Penal Colony. It’s less well-known than The Metamorphosis, but equally disturbing. It concerns the use of a brutal machine designed to torture and kill anyone in the penal colony accused of misbehavior. The machine is horrible. So is the officer who vigorously defends the use of the machine even though he knows all the arguments against it. It is a portrait of a true believer, the kind of person who would continue to support a president who shot and killed someone in the middle of 5th Avenue.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

There is no trial in The Trial. At least, there’s no trial in the sense of a judicial proceeding in which witnesses testify, evidence is presented and a decision is rendered. What there is instead is an ordeal with judicial aspects.

Joseph K. is informed one morning that he’s under arrest. But he isn’t told why or even who is arresting him. He’s allowed to go about his business before being summoned to a gathering in the attic of a tenement building that’s presided over by a supposed  “Examining Magistrate”. Joseph K. makes a speech critical of the proceedings but doesn’t demand to know why he’s been arrested.

That is the last official event related to his arrest that he attends. Months go by filled with lengthy discussions of the Court (whatever that is) and his case (whatever that is). He speaks to various officials, other people who have been similarly “arrested”, a lawyer, a priest, his uncle and a painter who is said to have connections with senior judges. It’s surprising that such a mysterious, nonsensical situation can give rise to such subtle, detailed discussions.

The novel ends with a brief chapter in which something happens but nothing is revealed.

Before reading The Trial, my impression was that it was a story about an unfortunate citizen dealing with a mysterious government bureaucracy. That is true, but I kept thinking that it’s also about the human condition. Life is a trial. We are subject to powerful forces we don’t really understand and we don’t know when or exactly how the proceedings will conclude. We consult experts, some of whom aren’t expert at all, and consider our options. Then our story ends. (The book, like life, is also funny at times.)

The Plague by Albert Camus

I read The Myth of Sisyphus in college and didn’t understand it at all. I read The Stranger a few years ago and didn’t really enjoy it. So it was good to start reading The Plague and find it both understandable and enjoyable (or as enjoyable as the subject matter would allow).

The plague in question is the bubonic plague. It strikes a city in Algeria in modern times, killing thousands of people. For months, nobody is allowed to enter or leave the city. The novel has relatively few descriptions of the physical effects of the disease. There is more said about its psychological effects. We follow the activities of Dr. Rieux, who does whatever he can to help his patients, and a small number of his acquaintances, some of whom become his friends as the months go by.

The Plague is sometimes described as an “existentialist” novel, although Camus apparently disliked that term. It certainly does concern human existence, and human existence under great stress. I haven’t checked to see whether the plague is supposed to symbolize something. What I took away from the novel is that most people will rise to the occasion, as we see whenever a disaster occurs. It also occurred to me that all of us are quarantined on this planet, with no possibility of escape, and that we are all going to succumb to something sooner or later. The difference is that some of the characters in the novel get out alive.