Saturday, March 8, 2014

My coursera essay for 'Søren Kierkegaard - Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity'

In this essay I shall consider the influence of Socrates upon Kierkegaard, and attempt by contrasting the three ages - 400BCE; 1840AD; 21C AD, to show how Socrates and Kierkegaard are relevant in the modern day. Finally, as this is a reflective essay, I shall consider what I, as an atheist living in Germany, have learnt from my recent studies of Kierkegaard the philosopher, rather than Kierkegaard the theologian, focusing on ethics and epistemology.

There can, of course, be no doubt that Socrates was a pervasive influence on both the thought of Kierkegaard and on his personal life. Right from beginning of his authorship Kierkegaard declares this importance:
"…with Socrates it is not so much a matter of speculation as of individual life,381 I dare to take this as sanction for my procedural method in my whole venture, however imperfect it may turn out because of my own deficiencies."
Soren Kierkegaard,  Concept of Irony p.167

Kierkegaard returns to Socrates in his second period of authorship, claiming, as Hegel, that Socrates is the inventor of the idea of subjective freedom and following him in its reinvention in his own age, showing that Socrates was not a fleeting youthful interest but an absolutely determining factor is his work as a whole. Socrates not just an object of scholarly investigation but also a personal model to follow for his own life. (Lecture 8.3)

For Socrates, and thus for Kierkegaard, paramount importance is laid upon the subject and the examination of personal knowledge. Using irony; the dialectic method and the negative force of his professed ignorance Socrates batters the consensus of his day. However the relative importance of subjective knowledge in Socrates' Athens may not necessarily be of equal import as it would be today. A philosopher gentleman in Athens might reasonably be expected to have a grasp of the sum of knowledge in his society ( whilst remaining ignorant of Buddha or Confucius say), Kierkegaard acknowledges this:

"…ignorance is a true philosophical position and at the same time is also completely negative. In other words, Socrates' ignorance was by no means an empirical ignorance; on the contrary, he was a very well informed person, was well read in the poets and philosophers, had much experience in life, and consequently was not ignorant in the empirical sense."

Soren Kierkegaard,  Concept of Irony p.169

In Kierkegaard's day the situation was probably nearer to Athens than to modern times, a wise man of his day could still be a plausible polymath, for instance  Leibniz 1646 –1716 ; Goethe 1749 – 1832 ; humboldt 1769 – 1859.

Kierkegaard's time was  pre Darwin (1857); pre-Maxwell (1875); pre-Einstein (1905), though of course it was also on the cusp of these discoveries, each of which completely overthrew accepted knowledge. One can but speculate what Kierkegaard would have thought if he had survived to Socrates' three score and ten (and of course what Socrates would have done if he had been proscribed at Kierkegaard's tender 42). One may note, ironically, that it was the acknowledgement of our ignorance which allowed the scientific advance of the last 150 years, as long as society held to the view that all knowledge has already been revealed, progress was not possible. Instead we have an illusion of progress as science lurches unsteadily from one paradigm to the next. Each of these 'advances' has in turn shown itself to be flawed or incomplete and often in surprising ways (e.g.
The next challenge may well be the reductionism of science: "Last century saw the coming together of biology + chemistry, this century it will be biology + psychology" (Dr. Jim Watson (DNA) quoted in coursera genetics lecture).

Today it is all an expert can do to keep up with advances in their own field of expertise, let alone comprehend the complexity of other disciplines, in the hope that they in turn will not be turned on their heads - what value then can still be placed on individual knowledge? Although these advances have overthrown much of previous thinking, they have not necessarily advanced answers on the great existential questions (though I personally would welcome a full and complete explanation of our innermost processes from biochemistry; neuroscience; genetics; epigenetics and perhaps still unknown disciplines - after all, without the manual, repairs and improvements are anyone's guess). Kierkegaard anticipates this confusion:

"People think the world needs a republic, and they think it needs a new social order, and a new religion, but it never occurs to anyone that what the world really needs, confused as it is by much learning, is a new Socrates" 
Soren Kierkegaard, The sickness unto death p. 124

What then are the confusing factors? For Socrates it was the sophists and democracy, for Kierkegaard the established clergy, the levelling power of press and democracy;  today, I shall (briefly) argue, thanks partially to the ignoring of Socrates and Kierkegaard, it is the 'cultural hegemony' of democracy. By this I mean the dominance of the ruling class through simultaneous control of information and education and with effective access to the political process limited by spending power in the media. This has led to a 'anti-Socratic dystopia' where the sophists (lobbyists, speechwriters) are able to catapult mere thespians to positions of ultimate power at the whim of the monied.  The labels have changed, and the scale has shifted but the problems are similar in character.

Compare and contrast the media accolades heaped upon the brave souls (comfortably after the event) who challenged the reigning Nazi regime to the vitriol poured upon those confronting capitalism  (e.g. 'Widerstand' vs. 'RAF'), and this in spite of the fact that it is the very certainty in the absolute validity of the political system that has got Germany in so much trouble in the past.

Representative democracy is held up in the media as the end achievement of political progress, this is as misguided as believing homo sapiens to be the goal of evolution.
The illusion of progress is just that - an illusion.

Our age, when viewed from the future as distant as golden age Athens is from us, is not likely to be judged kindly, perhaps there will even be no distinction drawn between mid and late 20th century. We can expect censure for consumerism and ever burgeoning capitalism; our insane profligacy; the unprecedented scale of cruelty to factory farmed animals; the destruction of the environment; extinctions; petty nationalism - closing borders to the starving; our inability to think in terms of more than one or two generations of our (still) short lifespans; our smug belief that we are finally modern and civilised. There is plenty of scope for irony here.

"For levelling really to take place, a phantom must first be raised, the spirit of levelling, a monstrous abstraction, an all-encompassing something that is nothing, a mirage – and this phantom is the public. Only in a passionless but reflective age can this phantom develop with the aid of the press, when the press itself becomes a phantom."
Soren Kierkegaard, Two Ages

The voice of the individual has been reduced to the squeak of the trodden upon, but if we listen carefully:

"But here in the temporal order, in the unrest, in the noise, in the pressure of the mob, in the crowd, in the primeval forest of evasion, alas, it is true, the calamity still happens, that someone completely stifles the voice of his conscience -- his conscience, for he can never rid himself of it. It continues to belong to him, or more accurately, he continues to belong to it."
Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart, (First part of Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits) Steere, P. 186
Given that we have a conscience, a valid opinion and an ethical prerogative to exercise our voice, how then should this be done? As recently as the 1970s there was only one place for the common man:
"If you don't have a few hours on tv a week to voice your opinion, or a column in a newspaper, then yes the street is the last resort to make yourself heard" (Ulrike Meinhof interview The street and barricades notably made Kierkegaard nervous (reaction to 1848), and sooner or later the decision must be made if one may open fire.

Now we have the internet, and nobody need shoot anybody else (yet) in order to participate, but what should we do with it? The access to information ought to improve us, ought to bring us knowledge and wisdom. Unfortunately, though you can lead a boor to culture, you can't make him think. This surely is the goal of the Socratic ironist - to startle the intellect from its untroubled grazing of the unexamined fruits of complacency. This is  as relevant today as it ever was.

It seems to be my destiny to discourse on truth, insofar as I discover it, in such a way that all possible authority is simultaneously demolished. Since I am incompetent and extremely undependable in men's eyes, I speak the truth and thereby place them in the contradiction from which they can be extricated only by appropriating the truth themselves. A man's personality is matured only when he appropriates the truth...   
Soren Kierkegaard, Journals IV A 87 (1843)

I have been very receptive to Kierkegaard's thought, up to a point. I retired early from the IT industry, precisely because my sense of irony was so at odds with my daily tasks. Since then I have been following the 'aesthetic' path. I was unable to follow his step from the aesthetic to the religious, but have taken heart from his revival of Socratic irony and his unequivocal stance on intellectual compromise. I shall be as a gadfly.
I shall continue to search out knowledge.

Every human being is spirit and truth is the self-activity of appropriation.
Soren Kierkegaard Concluding Postscript p. 242

Friday, March 7, 2014

My coursera essay for 'Human Evolution: Past and Future'

Dualisms's dysgenic disruption of endocranial displacement, 
or: Dude, where's the rest of my brain?
by A philosophical Doggerlander
"I would be willing to wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions." Gerald R. Crabtree from 'Our fragile intellect'
This is a disturbing idea at odds with the standard narrative of humankind becoming steadily more intelligent and I shall address one of the many possibilities for a cause of this phenomenon - the rise of dualism as concomitant with the appearance of consciousness. I shall produce data in the form of endocranial displacement trends, and my own "research" into the fecundity of the acknowledged geniuses of history. 
The subject is enormously complex and hotly debated, in order to narrow the scope to fit in the confines of this essay, I shall make a number of assumptions which I shall declare at the beginning; each is in itself a topic for discussion some aspects of which I shall mention; for the interested reader I point to a paper supporting each respective assumption. I consider a mainly eurocentric (local) viewpoint though I believe a global argument could be made.

A1. That there is a correlation between the size of the brain (measured through endocranial volume) and intelligence.
This is at least partially the case, complications arise through modern brains having a different structure as well as the effects of better education, also a diminishing body mass. We may wish to ask how we would be today with these advantages AND a bigger brain.
The purported differences between the sexes are a minefield I wish to sidestep here.   ( )
A2. That intelligence is heritable.
A3. That intelligence is a recognisable phenotype subject to the agency of sexual selection.
This study tragically demonstrates the process - but in reverse ( ) 
A4. That prior to the rise of culture, female preferences played a role - possibly substantial - in mate selection.

How then has modern brain size developed?
Table 1. Endocranial volume 
Neo + Eneolithic----------->1496--------------1373
Bronze and Iron------------>1468--------------1358
Roman Period-------------->1452--------------NoData
Early Mediaeval------------>1449--------------1317
Late Mediaeval------------->1418--------------1277
Decrease Male 9.9% 
Decrease Female 17.4% (from 94% to 87% of male brain size)
From 'Decrease of human skull size in the Holecene' Henneberg, Maciej 1988.
The decline as seen above is in sharp contrast to the steady increase seen in the last 2,000,000 years. The start of decline slightly predates the agricultural revolution indicating a cause other than natural selection due to domestication, though this probably is a major contributor post neolithic (limited food and unsanitary birthing conditions compared to the wild). 
I postulate that the decline is marked by the replacement of sexual selection on an animal basis to a system of cultural mate allocation - through complex language and the idea of ownership.
Property prior to this time simply did not exist, stone tools were disposable, but now we see various objets d'art (statues; flutes; pottery), dogs, dwellings, and particularly grave goods. It is probably at this point that the patriarchy is established and the female role is reduced to dutiful daughter - note how much more marked the female reduction is - a sign of stronger selection pressure on the female. Whilst female selection appears to have favoured big brains, males were clearly focusing their attention elsewhere - towards neoteny; body fat in other areas and possibly docility, clearly there is a story to be told here - but not now.
When man put in place (albeit unwittingly) the parameters for cultural sexual selection what were the chances that he would have hit upon a better method than nature (A4) had already provided? Given that he based his method on a number of erroneous assumptions, not least of which involved ignoring half the population's wshes, the chance must be vanishingly small. But it is those early 'methods' that set us upon our way to 'civilisation'. Probably male mates were allocated that were considered fit for a particular culture and the various niches that such a society has to offer (chief, henchman, soldier, labourer etc..). 
Very early on we see the rise of the mystical role - see e.g. the Lascaux 'shaman' ( ). What I want to emphasise about this role is that it recognises the separation of body and spirit - indeed; arriving at a form of Cartesian dualism is very hard to avoid without a very sophisticated understanding of the mind.
Rather than speculate on the exact forms of primitive beliefs in prehistory, it could be instructive to work backwards from our early written history. Firstly in early classical times we find Pythagoreans extolling the virtue of celibacy for mystic reasons, moving backwards from there there appear to be a mix of cults and beliefs, some of which deny the pleasures of the flesh to priests and shamen - in particular 'Earth mother' cults may expect the shaman to be available to the goddess and none other. The shaman moves in the spirit world at a remove from the body, not to see the sun not to touch the earth, his person is different from others.
Joseph Campbell in 'Primitve Mythologies' shows this to be the beginning of the schism between sex and intellect - quoting Hamlet: 
....thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!...
Chris Stringer in his book 'The origin of our species' claims that sects which do not allow the shaman to reproduce or even castrate their priests are doomed to die out, but clearly if a society can give up just a few individuals for this purpose it can still thrive and benefit from their wisdom - but with a reduction in genetic variety. It is the cerebral who become the shamen and wise men and it is their genes removed from the pool (A3). The trade-off for the shaman is reward in the spirit-realm (pre/post-mortem).
Critically there is also a second, allied, school of thought starting with the Stoics which will have it that the wise man must live ascetically - see e.g
This has a long history:
“The most spiritual men, as the strongest, find their happiness where others would find their destruction...Their joy is self-conquest: asceticism becomes in them nature, need, and instinct" Nietzsche 'The Anti-Christ'
These two streams merge in the christian religion which dominated  European culture for perhaps 50 generations. The first written mandate requiring priests to be chaste came in AD 304. Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira stated that all "bishops, presbyters, and deacons and all other clerics" were to"abstain completely from their wives and not to have children." The less venal clerics and more serious thinkers have been honour-bound by this. Around 1 in 50 men were clerical during the middle ages. This seems about the level we might expect for a shaman in the mesolithic - perhaps one plus an acolyte in a clan of 200?
With its monopoly on education and its providing the only chance of social mobility in a single generation (prime example ), the church was able to select the best and brightest..
Coupled with an extreme hostility to intellectual innovation (e.g Heliocentricity, 'witchcraft', various heresies, works of the devil etc.) and the secular rulers' iron fists in preserving the status quo we have been weeding out intelligence consistently for millenia from to
Here are some figures for reproductive success of some of the best known thinkers. There are many 'toptens' on the internet, but they seem to have some names in common (Goethe is invariably #1), I have chosen one at random so not to be guilty of cherry-picking, but I maintain that a similar result will crop up on any list.
Table 2: We are standing on the shoulders of giants, but are they our ancestors? 
Number of children of geniuses:
Goethe--------->1---None of his 3 grandchildren reproduced
da Vinci------->0
J.S Mill-------->0
B. Fischer----->0
Galileo--------->1---2 became nuns
de Staël------->2
Philosophers (Chapters from B.Russell 'History of Western Philosophy', chosen because this is my field)
Descartes--------->0-----daughter died age 5
Rousseau--------->0----all 5 abandoned to die
Byron-------------->3---(my ancestor)
Kierkegaard------>0---in honesty missing form Russell but a prime example
Clearly this hypothesis requires more work, especially the maths, but I think it points towards a recognisable trend in our recent evolution. We should avoid making the assumption that we are steadily improving with time and accept that we may have taken a wrong turning somewhere.

If mankind aspires to longer more fulfilling life it may need bigger brains with space to preserve individual histories and identities. Current trends showing an inverse relation between intelligence and fecundity. 

We can stop self harming by:
1. Respect for diversity
2. Education - history;science;philosophy, not divinity;dogma;devotion
3. Equality of the sexes