27 January 2009

Imagining the Self (1)

In his book The Kingdom of Infinite Space, Raymond Tallis disparagingly refers to the (scientifically supported) idea that we are our brains as ‘neuromythology’. While I agree with Tallis’s argument that though the brain is a necessary condition for consciousness, it is not a sufficient condition in itself, I think he underestimates the importance of the brain as the seat of consciousness. He is (partially) correct to assert that
Selves require bodies as well as brains, material environments as well as bodies, and societies as well as material environments.

However, this presumes a conventional, organic kind of Self, one shaped by a human body and by a human-centric material environment and society. As a thought experiment, say we hook up a living human brain to a sophisticated piece of machinery, effectively creating a cyborg. One could argue that the cyborg would thus be conscious and so have a Self, but a Self that would be very different to the Self that Tallis argued depended on non-brain factors. The brain remains the prime ingredient, without which we wouldn’t be able to even speak of Selves.

08 January 2009

The folly of 'future value'

In Issue 6 (November 08) of Standpoint magazine, the 'Dialogue' section featured a discussion between Samuel Brittan and Edward Hadas on the topic 'Is capitalism morally bankrupt?' Regarding the financial system's questionable viability, Brittan remarked that it was 'when people are acquiring objects... for their resale value that the system gets rather wonky', creating 'asset bubbles'. This tendency for people to buy things for their future value rather than for their present 'use value' manifests itself in actions like purchasing investment homes, not to live in, but in the hope of the building's value appreciating over time for a profitable resale. All sorts of financial speculation is essentially future-oriented rather than focused on the present pleasures to be had from products and assets.

Investments, speculation, financial forecasts; these spheres of economic activity emphasize the gaining of greater wealth over the actual enjoyment of products or experiences. The dominant mentality is that of a gambler, rather than an aesthete. No need to recommend the ascetic life as the moral ideal. There's nothing reprehensible in wanting and appreciating things. And it is in acquiring things that money shows its utility. But to chase more of it at the expense of delighting in the very stuff that it has delivered is a sad and vulgar exercise.

Brittan has placed a finger on one contributor to the global financial crisis. The complex economics that underpins his observations escapes me, but I agree with Richard Todd, who in his book The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity, declared that 'We need to be better materialists.' I interpret Todd's opinion as a call for us to reassess our material priorities, for we all have material priorities, even the most austere world-renouncers amongst us (it's only a matter of degree). Better that we love and respect things for their 'use value' now, and not merely for their economic value later.


03 January 2009

Remember, it's 'philo-sophia', not 'niko-philia'

Given its etymology, the study and practice of 'philo-sophia' should produce a sophiaphile - a lover of wisdom - rather than a philosopher, a term that suggests a mainly academic approach to philosophy. If we are to be true to the spirit of philosophy, one exemplified by luminaries like Socrates, the Buddha, Seneca, Montaigne and Thoreau, its study should shape us into a wiser, braver, more compassionate, more temperate, more equanimous person. Yet much academic philosophy seems to focus on acquiring - and subsequently sharpening - a set of tools (weapons?) with which to win arguments, subjugate opponents, intimidate laymen and browbeat critics.

This isn't to say that there is no place for healthy debate, civil argument and informed polemics in philosophy. Such things are crucibles from which knowledge and truth are produced. But we are creatures with delicate egos, and too many philosophical engagements take the form of heated duels fought over personal honour rather than co-operative discussions with the goal of discovering answers to questions, solutions to problems.

It would be good to complement the proper pursuit of knowledge and truth with an equal dedication to cultivating personal virtue. It would be good for each of us to be both an intellectual philosopher and a virtuous sophiaphile.