The Contingency of Truth and Man’s Search for Meaning

An unexamined life is not worth living.

Socrates proposes a somewhat cynical claim, but let us be honest—haven’t we all, at one point or another, thought about the meaning of life and such existential questions? Frequently we endeavor to avoid these questions, and sometimes we even convince ourselves that such efforts have been successful. The end result, however, is always failure. These inquiries live just beyond the horizon of our mind, lie outside the periphery of our intellectual vantage point, ever-present but also ever-impossible, it seems, to treat with any modicum of success.

In attempting to answer these questions, it is easy to become lost in thought. Such attempts lend themselves to a panoply of further inquiries, such as: Do the activities I undertake truly bring me value? Am I making the right choices? Upon making investigations of this nature, one often concludes, with a hint of not-so-trivial dismay, that all of one’s decision making is predicated on an individual, experiential foundation. One often concludes, furthermore, that the lens of purported objectivity with which one views the world may not be so objective after all. The effect of such conclusions is chilling at best, and veritably paralyzing at worst. Forced to stop and think, to contemplate the next step, one finds oneself in a state of momentary paralysis.

Consider, however, the possibility that this quest for Truth may not be a quest at all. Asking such questions and searching earnestly for Truth presupposes that answers to such questions even exist in the first place. The search for Truth implies that there is Truth to be found, a conclusion in support of which little convincing evidence exists. In pursuit of this quest, which has begun to seem rather vain in appearance, one may find oneself consumed, controlled, indeed entirely enslaved to a fanciful and ill-contrived goal. That Truth exists, that such a quest is in one’s best interest is founded upon man’s desire, as a rational creature, for certainty. But the existence of this certainty is far from obvious.

Assume, then, that Truth is illusory. Assume that it is contingent upon a time, a place, a culture, a history. This notion breeds empowerment; if there is no Truth to be found, then one has the capacity to define his own Truth. Instead of attempting to find meaning, one simply ought instead to try to create meaning for himself. Rather than conceding to the world’s ideals, one may impose his own on the world. By such a construal, as opposed to being paralyzed, one is instead empowered, empowered to realize one’s desires, one’s will, and one’s individual meaning in life. To be certain, however, accomplishing this task requires one to have a firm grasp of his goals. As such, one ought to be aware of those instances in which one’s actions are not necessarily in line with one’s goals: be aware of time spent idling, of decisions influenced by others, and of uncertain, half-hearted actions.

These thoughts are well-expressed in a small but telling quote by none other than Friedrich Nietzsche:

I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.

The hour when you say, ‘What matters my happiness? It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment. But my happiness ought to justify existence itself.’
The hour when you say, ‘What matters my reason? Does it crave knowledge as the lion his food? It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.’
The hour when you say, ‘What matters my virtue? As yet it has not made me rage. How weary I am of my good and my evil! All that is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.’

Ultimately, the quest for Truth is bound to result in inevitable failure. Paralyzed by his attempts to secure an elusive certainty, man can move forward only by affirming a Truth that is of entirely his own design. We all too frequently look to the external world to find meaning, but that meaning can be more easily, and indeed more fruitfully found by looking, instead, to the world that is internal and individual to each of us.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Portable Nietzsche translated by Walter Kaufmann.” (1954): 115-343.

Epiphenomenalism and the Illusion of Conscious Will

The notion that free will exists has great historical appeal among human beings. After all, as a subjective experience, its plausibility is undeniable. However, although this experience of conscious will is very convincing, certain empirical observations lend themselves to the notion that our intuitive understanding of free will is inaccurate. In light of these empirical observations, Daniel Wegner offers an alternative view according to which the actual causes of our actions are unconscious mental processes, in support of which he cites an experiment by Benjamin Libet. Ultimately, Wegner maintains, our actions are caused by unconscious mental processes, the brain routinely decides what one will do before one becomes conscious of any sort of decision, and the experience of conscious will is nothing more than an illusion, an epiphenomenal event with no causal efficacy.

To begin with, it is helpful to be clear on free will as it is popularly understood. According to Wegner, humans tend to feel that they are consciously willing their actions, to experience themselves as consciously willing things. We each “have a profound sense that we consciously will much of what we do, and we experience ourselves willing our actions many times a day” (Wegner, 2). We feel, in other words, that much of the time we cause ourselves to behave the way we do. This experience of consciously willing an action can be defined as “a kind of internal ‘oomph’ that somehow certifies authentically that one has done the action” (Wegner, 4). In short, because of its frequency and apparent authenticity, the experience of “conscious will [is something that] we experience…very acutely” (Wegner, 2). Further, human beings have the tendency to equate “the experience of consciously willing an action and the causation of that action by the…conscious mind” (Wegner, 3). We often believe that a causal connection exists between our experience of consciously willing an action and the action itself.

In order to ascertain whether or not this causal link does, in fact, exist, Wegner screens a large body of relevant studies. One such study, conducted by Brasil-Neto and colleagues, involved exposing participants to transcranial magnetic stimulation of the motor area of the brain, because high levels of magnetic stimulation have been shown to influence brain function. In the experiment, a stimulation magnet was placed above participants’ heads and aimed in random alternation at the motor area on either side of the brain. Participants were asked to choose freely whether to move their right or left index finger on each trial. Interestingly, “the stimulation led participants to have a marked preference to move the finger contralateral to the site stimulated” (Wegner, 48) by the magnet. Even more interestingly, participants “perceived that they were voluntarily choosing which finger to move…[and] showed no inkling that something other than their will was creating their choice” (Wegner, 48). Participants had the feeling, then, that their conscious will determined which finger they held up when it was actually determined—to some extent, at least—by the magnet. The Brasil-Neto experiment shows that “the experience of conscious will can arise independently of actual causal forces influencing behavior” (Wegner, 49), problematizing the notion that “the experience of consciously willing an action and the causation of the action by the conscious mind are the same thing” (Wegner, 3). Thus, Wegner concludes, the experience of consciously willing an action is not a direct indication that conscious thought has caused the action. Insofar as this is true, then, the experience of conscious will is nothing more than an illusion.

Having shown that the experience of conscious will is an illusion, Wegner proceeds to explain what he believes is the actual cause of action. As opposed to the experience of conscious will causing action, both, rather, are caused by something else entirely: unconscious mental processes. These “unconscious mental processes give rise to conscious thought about the action, and…[also] give rise to the action” (Wegner, 67) itself. Further, it is the “perception of an apparent causal path from conscious thought to action…[that] gives rise to the experience of [conscious] will” (Wegner, 67-8). In sum, unconscious mechanisms create both conscious thought about action and the action itself, and also produce the sense of will we experience by perceiving the thought as cause of the action.

In support of this claim, Wegner cites an experiment conducted by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. In the experiment, each participant was instructed to voluntarily move a finger, to “let the urge to act appear on its own any time without any preplanning or concentration on when to act” (Wegner, 52). Seated before an oscilloscope, on which a spot of light revolved in a clock-like fashion, each participant was further instructed “to report for each finger movement where the dot was on the [oscilloscope] when [they] experienced conscious awareness of wanting to perform a given self-initiated movement” (Wegner, 52). In addition, the brain activity of each participant was also measured in each trial. To summarize, the experiment sought to timestamp the occurrence of three discrete variables: finger movement, conscious awareness of willing said finger movement, and corresponding activity in the brain.

After conducting the experiment, which contained a large number of participants each subjected to upwards of 40 trials, Libet and colleagues were able to construct a timeline cataloguing brain activity, the conscious awareness of willing finger movement, and actual finger movement. Not surprisingly, according to the timeline, actual finger movement was preceded by both brain activity and the conscious awareness of willing said finger movement. Interestingly, however, brain activity preceded actual movement by 535 milliseconds, whereas the conscious willing of finger movement preceded actual movement by only 204 milliseconds (Wegner, 53). Thus, “the conscious willing of finger movement occurred at a significant interval after the onset of [brain activity]” (Wegner, 53). Put more simply, “the brain started first, followed by the experience of conscious will, and finally followed by action” (Wegner, 55). Ultimately, Wegner holds, the upshot of the Libet experiment seems to be that “the experience of conscious will kicks in at some point after the brain has already started preparing for the action” (Wegner, 54).

According to the study, again, brain activity preceded actual movement by 535 milliseconds, while the conscious willing of finger movement preceded actual movement by only 204 milliseconds. On Wegner’s view, this initial brain activity represents the “unconscious mental processes” he has in mind. The conscious willing of finger movement corresponds to what he calls “conscious thoughts about the action”. Finally, the actual movement is the same as what he refers to as “action”. The chronological timeline of Libet’s findings neatly coincides with the sequence leading to action that Wegner propounds. Thus, there seems to be some empirical backing for Wegner’s alternative view of what causes our actions.

In short, Wegner attempts to show that free will, as traditionally conceived, does not, in fact, exist. Further, he presents his own view of what processes lead to action, a view in support of which he cites the Libet experiment. Assuming he is correct, a number of intuitively disagreeable truths seem to follow: first, the actual causes of our actions are unconscious mental processes; second, the brain routinely decides what one will do before one becomes conscious of any sort of decision; and third, the experience of conscious will—often so salient and utterly convincing—is ultimately an illusion, playing no causal role in our actions. Furthermore, if true, these findings have a number of grave implications for ethics, personal responsibility, and the law.

Wegner, Daniel M. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002. Print

Virtue Ethics and Our Lack of Character

Regarded as one of the fathers of the western philosophical tradition, the Greek philosopher Aristotle is a man with whom nearly everyone is familiar, even today in the 21st century. He wrote extensively and covered many subjects, including physics, ethics, and even music. More impressive than the breadth of the topics that he covered, perhaps, is the fact that many of his ideas still remain persuasive among contemporary philosophers. His Nicomachean Ethics, a seminal work in moral philosophy, contains ideas with which contemporary moral philosophers have been quite engaged in the preceding years, particularly those who propound an ethics of virtue. Interestingly, however, as a function of recent developments in moral psychology, many have become less wedded to the primacy of virtue ethics, less amenable to Aristotle’s moral philosophy. As such, the pedestal on which Aristotle and his ideas about virtue have previously stood has begun to look rather precarious.

In order to understand why recent empirical findings in moral psychology have any bearing on virtue ethics, it would be helpful, first, to quickly touch on a few important points from the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle frames much of his discussion in the Ethics in terms of virtues. Virtues, he maintains, are positive traits or dispositions that are considered to be good, which fall somewhere in between two extremes. Virtue, then, is a kind of proper mean, and as such it is often difficult to hit upon. As a function of this difficulty, the agent must engage in a kind of deliberation or practical reasoning. It is proper to virtue, Aristotle says, to act or respond “to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way” (Book II, 9). Practical reasoning, then, helps the virtuous agent determine how to respond appropriately in any situation in which the relevant virtue is called for. Although the response of a virtuous person will necessarily vary across different relevant situations, he or she will always respond in a situation to which the corresponding virtue is somehow germane. If a person possesses the trait of compassion, for example, he or she will reliably exhibit compassionate behavior across many different situations, so long as the situations in question all call for compassion in one way or another. In short, according to Aristotle, virtues, as intelligent dispositions, issue in behavior that is consistent not only over time but also across a wide range of relevant situations.

Aristotle’s conception of virtue holds that there are stable character traits or dispositions that issue in cross-situationally consistent behavior. Recent empirical findings in moral psychology, however, tell a different story. One such study, by Isen and Levin, involved a phone booth, a dime, and a small opportunity for compassion. In the first set of trials, a dime was placed in the coin return slot of the phone booth. In the second set, a dime was not placed in the coin return slot. In both sets of trials, a confederate dropped a folder full of papers directly in front of the callers as they exited the phone booth. Of the subjects who found the dime in the phone booth, 88% helped the woman pick up her papers. Of the subjects who did not find the dime in the phone booth, only 4% helped the woman pick up her papers. Remarkably, then, unobtrusive stimuli can be strongly determinative of behavior. Recall that, according to Aristotle, virtues are intelligent dispositions to behave a certain way. Further, they involve practical reasoning, involve picking up on the ethically significant features of a situation and responding appropriately. Again, for Aristotle, unobtrusive, ethically insignificant features of a situation, such as finding or not finding a dime, play no role in the determination of how to respond in a given situation. However, as the experiment by Isen and Levin shows, this does not seem to be the case. Rather, it seems that small situational factors do play a role in shaping human behavior. To the extent that this is true, virtue ethics is empirically inadequate.

It seems that human behavior may be governed more so by situational features than dispositional ones. Perhaps there is reason to be skeptical about the existence of character traits, of intelligent dispositions to behave a certain way. Perhaps the whole idea of virtue may be merely fanciful thinking. And this, some contemporary moral philosophers contend, is why virtue ethics no longer seems as viable as it once did.

Aristotle, and Martin Ostwald. Nicomachean Ethics. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962. Print.

Doris, John M. Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Levin, Paula F. “Further Studies on the Effect of Feeling Good on Helping.” Sociometry 38.1 (1975): 141-47. JSTOR. Web. 24 June 2014.

Epistemic Humility

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates makes a visit to the oracle at Delphi. As the story goes, the oracle maintains that Socrates is the wisest of all people. Baffled by such a statement, Socrates, who has always felt his wisdom to be lacking, begins to investigate how such a claim might in fact be true. In order to ascertain the truthfulness of the oracle’s claim, he sets out in search of purportedly wise men—poets, politicians, artisans—to determine how knowledgeable they are and, moreover, how knowledgeable he is by comparison. What he finds, unfortunately, is that these “wise” men, who speak with an admirable albeit unfounded confidence in themselves, really do not know any of the things they claim to. Neither Socrates nor any of the men with whom he speaks, then, has much knowledge. However, Socrates is distinct among them because, while the others claim to have knowledge they do not possess, Socrates claims to know only one thing: that he knows nothing. Wisdom, then, as construed at least by the oracle at Delphi, is something like humility, an acute consciousness of the limits of one’s own knowledge.

Time and again history has shown us that we occasionally, if not quite frequently, suffer from bouts of human error. Each and every one of us is prone to making mistakes, to believing in and taking pertinacious hold of ideas which, in the end, may prove incorrect. Indeed, one need not look far to find incidences in which such intractable, peremptory thinking has made itself manifest: Galileo was condemned in 1615 for promoting heliocentrism, a theory which later replaced the incorrect but dearly held view that the earth was the center of the universe; Charles Darwin was mocked, among other things, for his 1859 publication On the Origin of Species, a text which has since come to inform much of contemporary sociological and evolutionary thought; finally, Alfred Wegener, who proposed the idea of continental drift in 1912, was largely ignored by his fellow geophysicists until the latter half of the 20th century, during which his insightful ideas finally began to take hold. All too frequently, it seems, human beings today make the same mistake as the poets, the politicians, and the artisans in the Apology: they claim to have knowledge that they do not in fact possess.

Both the Apology and recent history have shown us that if there is one thing we know, it is that we do not know anything. While we cannot be certain of our knowledge, we can be certain, at the very least, that we are uncertain of what we propose to know. Being certain of this uncertainty, furthermore, seems to be of some instrumental value: when one is uncertain of one’s knowledge, one is necessarily more aware that the premises, the foundations on which one’s beliefs and knowledge rest are far from sturdy, are susceptible at all times to momentary collapse. By recognizing the contingent and precarious nature of one’s knowledge, one can avoid wrongful dogmatism, complacency, and misguided hubris. In addition, one becomes compelled to search—and to search with a genuine ardor and fervency of spirit—for information, information with which one may then modify one’s views as necessary, thereby coming closer to attaining what might be said to be veridical, concrete knowledge. In sum, a bit of skepticism about what one actually knows can be useful for motivating further inquiry. Those among us really are wise who concede the limitations of their knowledge. A bit of epistemic humility, however small, is likely something from which each of us stands to benefit.