Thursday 5 March 2015

Quantum Mechanics and New Perspectives on the Nature of Life (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 1, 2015

Perspectives and Speculations

Lipid bilayer of the cell membrane
(Image derived from a computer model created by Wellcome images)


By Celso de Araujo Duarte

Life is a characteristic of certain things in the world around us that distinguishes them from the rest by certain features. Things such as reproduction, mobility, metabolism, growth, ability to respond to external stimulus and adaptability to the environment are often mentioned. From the earliest times, people have attributed life to animals and plants, in recognition that these have key characteristics which are absent on inert matter.

Materialist currents of thought state that life is essentially an indirect, apparent result of a complex arrangement of matter. Empedocles believed that anything in the universe is composed by a combination of the four fundamental elements - water, air, fire, earth – and living matter was composed of a specific mixture of these elements, yet Democritus thought that the essence of life resides in the soul, the psyche. During the Middle Ages, within the Western tradition, under the aegis of the Christianity, a metaphysical ingredient, the soul, became the essential condition for life.

The materialist viewpoint reemerged with Descartes, who believed the man and the animals as machines. This conception was somewhat supported by the discovery of the cell, the basic unit of life that suggested a mechanistic viewpoint.

Daniel Koshland, a biochemist based at the University of California, Berkeley, speculates about the definition of life on an essay, based on a scientific debate (in a paper entititled 'The Seven Pillars of Life. Essays on Science and Society', published in the Journal Science 295: 2215-2216). The first questions were: 'Is an enzyme alive? Is a virus alive? Is a cell alive?' Koshland concluded that, 'although everyone knows what life is there is no simple definition of life', and started a sketch of a definition: 'a living organism is an organized unit, which can carry out metabolic reactions, defend itself against injury, respond to stimuli, and has the capacity to be at least a partner in reproduction'. Still unsatisfied, he has established the pillars of life in seven words:
However, Neil Greenspan, pathologist at Case Western University, Cleveland, addressing the issue of whether or not viruses are alive, doubts if anyone knows what life is: the problem is an unsolved issue.

Our experience of nature directs us to draw out the meaning of things in subjective ways. This is not enough and instead we are attracted by the possibility of making definitions. However, these may lead us to arrive only at circular concepts, since a definition relates concepts that are already known by us, and ultimately these concepts remain essentially subjective. A failure of most definitions of life is that they define life by the characteristics of living beings. They fail to define exactly what life is.

The Emergence of Phylogeny

Walking gently through the history, we arrive to the discovery of microscopic life, and the birth of microbiology. Evidence from microbiology suggests that all organisms on Earth are genetically related, and the genealogical relationships of living things can be represented by a vast evolutionary tree: the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life then represents the phylogeny of organisms - the history of organisms as they change through time.

Specifically, with microbiology, we have the discovery of new forms of living bodies - viruses, which differ from all other living beings by the absence of cells. In addition, viruses have an uncertain phylogeny: they are an emergent class of life that starts from a common denominator, which also generated other forms of life. At the same time, viruses are themselves the precursors of other forms of life.

Controversy about the classification of viruses as living or not would not arise were it not for the discovery that they are mere aggregates of a few molecules. Yet the finding that some isolated molecules are able to replicate is certainly a decisive argument in favor of their inclusion. At the same time, it is generally accepted that a simple molecule is not alive, and a virus is scarcely any more evolved than this.

During the Twentieth century it was discovered that some diseases were caused by this kind of particles - the viruses - with a behavior like that of bacteria, albeit much smaller. Being clearly biological and with their ability to spread among victims causing biological effects, it was supposed that viruses would be the simplest form of life. However, the first crystallisation of tobacco mosaic viruses, by Wendell Stanley and fellow collaborators, led them to believe that these entities were better understood as a biochemical complex. Viruses were relegated to the class of mere inert chemical compounds. The bottom line was that viruses do not have systems for metabolic functions - the biochemical activity of life. (See perhaps, for example, the paper Are viruses alive? by L. P. Villarreal, in Scientific American.)

We arrive to the central point of the present work: to dare some considerations about the question about what is alive, in the spirit of the search for a truly generalized conception. Let us consider first what we may say about viruses being or not living, taking the law of evolution to provide a broad viewpoint? Let us appeal to the law of evolution, and work backwards from animals to the most primitive living things. And where do we arrive? Firstly, to unicellular beings; after, even simpler, as the viruses. Would we have then arrived at the last stage of life, the smallest unit of life?

The brute, inorganic matter, also shows a gradation of complexity; from complex macroscopic aggregates of molecules to small aggregates, a few atoms, and finally (or is it?) the elementary particles. We are inclined to guess that life, linked to the matter, exists on everything at different degrees of complexity, even on single molecules, atoms, elementary particles.

The existence of some elementary particles is defined by a mean lifetime, after which they decay into another. Would not it be similar to a cellular mitosis or meiosis? Elementary particles may also generate or absorb other, as an example the photon. The absorption and emission of photons may be considered like the phagocytosis and the exocytosis – energy (food) intake and excretion - despite without a metabolism. From this viewpoint, life is a very broad phenomenon. It is associated with matter and suffers a process of evolution, conditioned to cross along successive stages with increased complexity. If the life of an elementary particle is simple, it becomes more complex as part of the aggregation that forms the atom, and, in sequence, within the molecule, within the group of molecules; before then, we arrive at plants, animals and the human being.

From this viewpoint, life is a very broad phenomenon. It is associated to matter and suffers a process of evolution, conditioned to cross along successive stages, with increased complexity . . .

Now quantum mechanics states that elementary particles have a dualistic nature: that they can take on either the characteristics of particles or of waves. How could we conceive life on a class of beings whose constitution is not well defined, ambiguous, dual? Firstly, only our paradigmatic conceptions would prohibit us to accept life under such conditions - at least as a hypothesis. Secondly, this dual nature is yet present on all the living beings at the quantum level of their subatomic constituents. Finally, quantum mechanics gives us a model for the reality, not the real panorama of reality. Following Bohr, another creator of quantum mechanics:
There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature..., Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.

(Niels Bohr, as quoted in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Vol. 19, No. 7, September 1963).
Of course, we could argue that the result of the decay of an elementary particle is not a similar particle, and this does not occur with living beings: the decay of a neutron into a proton, an electron and a neutrino should have equivalents as an elephant giving birth to a giraffe, a duck and a sparrow. However, this concern reveals our attachment to the paradigm that living organisms can only generate similar ones. By the way, in termites, ants and bees, there is a differentiation among workers, soldiers, etc. A physicist would argue: however, the new generations consist of the beings of the same species. Making the parallel, protons and neutrons are baryons, electrons and neutrinos are leptons. The parallel is flawed. Again, this thinking reveals an attachment to paradigms (note that both classifications of living species and elementary particles are human inventions - albeit very founded and consistent in many aspects).

Now consider the probabilistic (quantum) character of the physical magnitudes associated to the elementary particles. This probabilism reflects a statistical law that previews tendencies. The behavior of a given single particle follows one of the previewed possibilities. The present status of quantum mechanics does not go beyond this limit. Would not be this an open door to interpret that each particle follows its own trajectory on a dynamical space of phases - and so that this could be interpreted as free will that sign individuality of the particle? This would break the deterministic principle in nature in the essence of matter (yet also broken by the quantum mechanics itself), and if we prefer, this indeterminacy can be seen as a characteristic of life at the subatomic scale.

Clinamen is the Latin name given by Lucretius to the unpredictable deviation of atoms, in the atomistic doctrine of Epicurus. According to Lucretius, this deviation occurs at no time or place fixed:
When atoms move straight down through the void by their own weight, they deflect a bit in space at a quite uncertain time and in uncertain places, just enough that you could say that their motion has changed. But if they were not in the habit of swerving, they would all fall straight down through the depths of the void, like drops of rain, and no collision would occur, nor would any blow be produced among the atoms. In that case, nature would never have produced anything.

('The Atomic Swerve' from De Rerum Natura by Lucretius)
It is this indeterminacy that, according to him, provides the free will that living things have throughout the world. Summarising then, the elementary particles:
• exchange energy with the environment;
• follow a law of minimization of energy causing an increase of entropy on the surrounding medium;
• have a characteristic average lifetime, defined by spontaneous decay (or by annihilation with another particle);
• generate other particles.
Yet are not these properties similar to that of living beings? Why should we think that the life scale finishes at (or before) viruses? We could speculate about what we would find continuing backwards on the scale of life, in size and complexity. Would we reach to a limit? Moreover, what would we find along the opposite direction of increasing complexity?

Finally, in this last paragraph I employed the word complexity. Yet perhaps, this word is not quite adequate to describe the real panorama. A bacterium seems to be nothing compared to the complexity of a horse; however, an endless compendium could be written about a single bacterium. And then, the simplicity of a bacterium is apparent. The true picture is that we have different levels or planes of complexity, whose mutual comparison enables us to set up a criterion of hierarchy of complexity (maybe this hierarchy is an illusion, a mere invention of the man - made to meet a better comprehension): each level has its own inherent complexity.

From this perspective, we would see a holographic scale of complexity in life. The complexity of the horse, made of cells; that of the cells made of organelles - specialised subunit within a cell that have specific functions; and on then to molecules, atoms, et cetera. It is in exactly the same way that the bacterium is complex since it too is made of organelles, and these by molecules, and all their ever-diminishing elements. And thus, eventually we arrive at an infinite scale of planes of complexity within each and every living being.

Contact details: Dr. Celso de Araujo Duarte is Professor of the Dept. of Physics, Federal University of ParanĂ¡, Brazil


Wednesday 4 March 2015

C. E. M. Joad: Philosophical Treasure – or Third-Class Socrates? (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 1, 2015

Perspectives and Speculations

Caricature of  Joad, by Griff  (Courier Magazine in 1945)


By Richard Symonds

It is not difficult to make a list - from Ayer to Popper to Russell and Moore - of academic philosophers who have shaped 20th century British philosophy. However, one name that is unlikely to be on many people’s lists is that of C. E. M. Joad (1891-1953).

Yet in his time, Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad was the best-known philosopher in Britain, renowned for his habit of carefully deconstructing questions on the BBC’s wartime radio program, the Brains Trust. His Socratic habit of prefacing responses with the words: ‘It all depends what you mean by ....’ became a catch-phrase. As a later UK populariser of philosophy, Bryan Magee later acknowledged, this was likely ‘the first time most of the population had heard such routine clarification carried out in a businesslike and unpedantic way’.

Clarifying concepts is what philosophy has always been about, and certainly what 20th century British philosophy was preoccupied with. Yet, in its obituary for Joad,  on April 10 1953,  The Times described him as a ‘civil servant, university teacher, controversialist and entertainer’ - but not a philosopher. An entertainer! To underline the point, The Times continued: ‘A star performer as a popular educator...’ but a man who ‘had no original contribution to make as a philosopher’.

In this article, I hope to make the case for this once-famous, but now almost-forgotten philosopher, to be given his due place in English philosophy and culture. He needs to be remembered as a thinker who shaped public discussion of critical issues, and opened up philosophy to a wider audience. As Geoffrey Thomas said in his short biography of Joad, this was a man ‘who believed that philosophy should not be a mere academic speciality, but a power in everyday life’.

I have no doubt that the author of that Times obituary was mistaken. The account conjures up an image of an  ill-remembered man - if remembered at all – who nonetheless ‘quickened the sluggish mind of the nation’ as the Evening Standard put it more generously the same year. Sixty or so years on, let history speak. C. E.. M.  Joad, ‘the Professor' of the BBC's Brains Trust, popularised philosophy for millions, encouraged people think more clearly, and contributed to public morale during the darkest years of the Second World War. I hope to capture something of Joad’s vitality, fallibility, wit and crystal-clear thinking. These are qualities that are needed more than ever for humanity’s survival in the 21st century.

Joad wrote over 100 books and a similar number of academic papers, as well as countless newspaper and magazine articles. He was Head of the Philosophy Department (originally Philosophy and Psychology) at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, for 23 years from its inception in 1930 until his death at his Hampstead home, aged just 61. He was never made a Professor, a point his detractors made much of, but was still the first to put the Birkbeck 'on the map' as a philosophy department.

Joad says that the philosopher: ‘... looks for a clue to guide him through the labyrinth, for a system wherewith to classify, or a purpose in terms of which to make meaningful. Has the universe, for example, any design, or is it merely a fortuitous concourse of atoms? Is mind a fundamental feature of the universe, in terms of which we are ultimately to interpret the rest, or is it a mere accident, an eddy in the primeval slime, doomed one day to finish its pointless journey with as little noise and significance as it began it? Are good and evil real and ultimate principles existing independently of men, or are they merely the names we give to the things of which we happen to approve and to disapprove?’

Joad was gifted, but fallible – and thus vulnerable. His private life, especially with women, I would tactfully describe as ‘varied, colourful and not without complication'. His public life, especially with his celebrity 'Brains Trust' status, brought a high level of personal hubris, and accompanying nemesis, in 1948. This was his 'annus horribilis', the year in which his fame plummeted after an all-too-public 'scandal' regarding train ticket non-payments.

But let’s first look at Joad’s work and ideas. The early Joad is a political philosopher and pacifist. The background is World War I. In 1919, we find Joad - a staunch, young, Oxford-educated pacifist - editing The Diary of a Dead Officer (Pelican Press), a book about his friend, and war poet, Arthur Graeme West who had been killed by a sniper's bullet in April 1917.

Joad, like George Bernard Shaw, was fully involved in the Fabian Society, and seems to have tried to model himself on the great writer. By 1933, still as a socialist philosopher and pacifist, he becomes President of the Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals, the group based on the visionary ideas of H. G. Wells - which later 'morphed' into the Socialist League. This was the year of the famous (and infamous) Oxford Union Debate on the motion:
‘That under no circumstances will we fight for King and Country’.
Joad took part in it, and won. When graduate members, led by Winston Churchill's son Randolph, tried to expunge the 275 to 153 vote from the official record, they were defeated 750 to 138.

Fifteen years later, in Volume 1 of his History of World War Two ('The Gathering Storm'), Winston Churchill cited this as one reason why Hitler believed this country would never go to war : ‘It was easy to laugh off such an episode in England, but in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent and degenerate Britain took deep root, and swayed many calculations’. Whether this view is fair to history – or Joad – or mere sour grapes, the reader must judge.

The ‘Middle Joad’ years see the emergence of the Brains Trust philosopher and celebrity. In 1941 (January 1), Joad became one of three panelists in an experimental BBC idea to boost morale for the blitz-ridden and war-weary. The Brains Trust exceeded all expectations. As it 'took off' it also made Joad the most recognised and renowned philosopher during the war, it seems much to Bertrand Russell's chagrin, who mocked Joad publicly and professionally at every opportunity. Nonetheless, the public were amused and beguiled by Joad and his down-to-earth style revealed in comments such as:
There is no reason, at least I know of none, why the universe should necessarily be intelligible to the mind of a Twentieth-century human being, and I...remind him how late a comer he is upon the cosmic scene, and how recently he has begun to think...
And that:
If we put the past of life at one hundred years, then the past human life works out at about a month, and of human civilisation (giving the most generous interpretation to the term ‘civilisation’) at about one-and-three-quarter hours. On the same time-scale, the future of ‘civilisation’ - that is to say, the, future during which it may be supposed that man will continue to think - is about one hundred thousand years.
In fact, Joad frequently struck a Socratic posture, writing at one point:
In philosophy, then, as in daily life, cocksureness is a function of ignorance, and dunces step in where sages fear to tread. The wise man is he who realises his limitations.
However, although a media success, Joad’s moral philosophy no longer chimed with the times - nor did his socialist politics, particularly his enthusiastic advocacy of the Soviet Union after a visit there.
There were no rich and in the towns no poor; all citizens were living on incomes ranging from about, £100 to £200 a year. What is more, the Bolsheviks had succeeded in establishing a society in which the possession of money had been abolished as a criterion of social value. The effects were far-reaching, and, so far as I could see, entirely beneficial. The snobbery of wealth, which is so important a factor in the social life of Anglo-Saxon communities, was absent. There was no ostentation and no display, and the contemporary fat man, complete with fur coat, white waistcoat, champagne and cigars, was missing. It was only when one returned to England that one realized by contrast the vulgarity of wealth... The Russians, admittedly, are poor and live badly, but the sting is removed from poverty if it is not outraged by the continual spectacle of others' wealth. I cannot believe that complete equality of income would not produce similar effects here, and, if snobbery and vulgarity were eliminated from English society, the gain would be incalculable.

To an age governed by the stomach-and-pocket view of life and accustomed to demand of every activity proffered for its approval that it shall deliver the goods, understanding seems no doubt an inadequate object of pursuit. Yet something is, it is obvious, grievously wrong with our civilization, and it is high time we set about the business of trying to understand what it is. Science has won for us powers fit for the gods, yet we bring to their use the mentality of schoolboys or savages.

The Plight of Civilization (1941)
He fought against the prevailing orthodoxies of secular materialism and moral relativism - with little visible success.  When Joad draws on the ‘facts’ of Jesus Christ’s divinity and the existence of miracles to support some of his arguments, he did so in a way that had not been acceptable to philosophy for many centuries.

Joad's moral intuitionism is perhaps his real legacy. Could this have been a prescient philosophy on his part, rather than old-fashioned? Did he understand that humanity was coming unhinged?  Did he understand that he needed to rescue the 'common man'?  Did he pass the baton too soon?  If he is to be rehabilitated, one should understand what for, in our own day.

This aspect of  his work centred on a values-based philosophy, almost a new metaphysics. As a moral realist, Joad believed that the ultimate values of truth, beauty and goodness were objective, absolute and independent of the mind (we discover them). This belief was diametrically opposed to the moral relativists, who believed such values were subjective, relative and dependent on the mind (we create them).

He also believed these three values were not only immanent within the mind, but also transcendent of it - and this primary idea later developed into what I would dub a theory about the 'Transcendence-Immanence Theory of the Soul’
This is the view that values are objective not subjective, and can reduce themselves to just three: Truth, Goodness and Beauty (Joad’s capitalisation.).

Joad writes:
These three values are 'objective' in the sense that they are found by the human mind - found as 'given' in things - and not projected into things or contributed to them by our own minds, and 'ultimate', in the sense that whatever we value can be shown to be valued because of the relation of the thing valued to some one or other of the three values. Thus, while other things are valued as means to one or other of these three, they are valued as ends in themselves.
Moreover, these values are not just arbitrary, pieces of cosmic furniture lying about, as it were, in the universe without explanation, coherence or connection, but are revelations of a unity that underlies them; are, in fact, the ways in which God reveals Himself to man. Hence, those human activities which consist in, or which arise out of, the pursuit of Truth, the cultivation of moral goodness, or the creation and enjoyment of Beauty, are such that we cannot help but value and revere them.

What we call the Values - and it is under this term that [Plato's] Forms may, I think, be most appropriately referred to in respect of their most outstanding manifestations, as Truth, Goodness and Beauty - are the modes of God's revelation of His Nature to man.
If the early Joad was very much an atheist, and the middle Joad avoided the subject, in his ‘Late’ period he changed to a “religious values-based philosophy”.  This Joad takes Plato's Forms and re-formulates them as Values - or Divine Attributes, which he says are transcendent realities underlying, yet manifesting themselves, in the familiar, natural world.

Joad writes  that the universe is to be conceived of as two orders of reality:
... the natural order, consisting of people and things moving about in space and enduring in time, and a supernatural order neither in space nor in time, which consists of a Creative Person or Trinity of Persons from which the natural order derives its meaning, and in terms of which it receives its explanation.
This supernatural order, he continues, is fully real ‘in some sense in which the natural order is less than real; it is also perfect in a sense in which the natural order is morally imperfect’. The eternal reality which is the supernatural order is related to the natural order. ‘The nature of the relationship depends at least in part upon the living human souls which are denizens of the natural order. It is of great importance - at least to them - to ensure that the relation is a right one.’

The supernatural order  cannot be investigated using the same methods as those that are effective in the natural sphere. Knowledge  instead must be vouchsafed by divine revelation, or sought by submission to special discipline, or achieved by obedience to a revealed law. Joad thinks that the supernatural order may, from time to time, manifest itself in natural phenomena, but these manifestations are not predictable far less controllable.
Divine revelation, that is, such information as is vouchsafed to us in regard to the supernatural order, is consistent with reason and may, indeed, find support from the use of reason, but the knowledge which it conveys cannot be attained by the operations of reason alone.
This part of Joad’s thesis is reminiscent of Kierkegaard, who also speaks of the need for a ‘leap of faith’ to bridge the gap left by reason. Joad again:
Thus, the believer in Christianity holds that he is possessed, or can be possessed of, a source of knowledge other than and distinct from that attainable by scientific explanation. He maintains, therefore, that there are limits beyond which scientific knowledge can never hope to pass...
These ideas were never taken seriously by his professional peers. In reviewing Joad's book, Matter, Life and Value (1929) in the late 1960s, John Passmore wrote:
Within a seam-bursting eclecticism, Russell, Bergson and Plato had somehow all to make room for themselves as the representatives - respectively - of Matter, Life and Value. The result was a conglomeration of considerable popular appeal, but little philosophical consequence.
And Bryan Magee's assessment of  Cyril Joad could scarcely be harsher:
He was an engaging but essentially fraudulent character. His popular books on philosophy thick-skinnedly recycled Russell’s work without acknowledgement; asked once to write a recommendation of a book by Joad, Russell replied : ‘Modesty forbids’.

Confessions of a Philosopher, by Bryan Magee - 1997
However, at the time,  J.B. Coates had said enthusiastically of Joad in his book, Ten Modern Prophets (1944) that:
He possesses...a capacity for seeing modern issues from the standpoint of the universal. It is no mean purpose to seek to make the average citizen think out his problems in terms of Truth, Beauty and Goodness; but that is the purpose which Joad has sought to achieve with no little success, and in so doing, has made the British listener familiar with the thoughts of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. It is a misfortune that the BBC, with characteristic timidity in the intellectual field, has restricted the play of Joad's relatively unimportant issues.
‘The 1945 Revolution’ saw Joad attempting to be taken seriously as a Labour politician. It was not to be. Joad was rejected by North Aberdeen Labour Party but then adopted as prospective candidate by South Aberdeen, but turned it down as he was hoping - according to Hugh Gaitskell - to secure Romford. Was this a foretaste of the perils of hubris?

In 1947, Harold Nicolson, husband of Vita Sackville-West (and friend of Cyril), wrote in his Diary - May 9th:
‘Viti has had Cyril Joad to luncheon. He poured out to her his unhappiness and disappointments. He has lost his faith in agnosticism, and has not found a compensating faith in God. He has lost his faith in Socialism, and not found any faith to supplement it. Underneath, I suppose, he must feel that he is in a false position. He has acquired notoriety instead of fame. He knows he is a popular, and as such a slightly comic, figure. He wishes he had acquired either the cloistered dignity of a scholar and philosopher, or the arena victories of the politician. He has no domestic background. He has quarreled with his son; his daughters have married; his wife has left him. He is famous and alone.’
And so we arrive at 1948 - the annus horribilis .- in which Joad was convicted of travelling on a Waterloo to Exeter train - a considerable distance occasioning a considerable fare - without a valid ticket. His fall from grace was extremely rapid. He was dismissed by the BBC. His readers deserted him. His professional colleagues shunned him. The dream of a Birkbeck Professorship evaporated. Adverse comments by respected figures like Winston Churchill and Bertrand Russell mocked him again :
Joad has lost his ticket and found God.
He became ill. As his good friend, John Guest, sadly summed up those days, for BBC's 'Radio Lives' in 1993: ‘Poor Joad’.

Even so, in 1950, Joad was taking part in, and winning again – by 224 to 179 votes - another provocative Oxford Union Debate, this time on the motion: ‘That this House regrets the influence exercised by the US, as the dominant power among the democratic nations’.

The debate saw former pacifist Joad and Randolph Churchill square-off again: ‘Money is the sole American standard of value’, said Cyril. ‘The nations are heading for hell, and it is America which is leading us there...[American influence] corrupts, infects and pollutes whatever it touches’. And: ‘What a genius the Americans have for coming into a war late, on the winning side’. Angry shouts of 'Shame' greeted Joad's remark.

Other shouts, however, drowned out Randolph - husband of American heiress Pamela Harriman - when he proclaimed in mocking tones: ‘Back the 'Professor' comes after seventeen years with his rotten advice, trying to lure yet another generation along the wrong path’. The President of the Students Union, Robin Day, (himself later to become famous on BBC's Question Time, very much the successor to the Brains Trust), rang the bell for silence, but Winston's son again stood up and bellowed:
It may be just a joke for the 'Professor', this Third-Class Socrates, but he is corrupting, infecting and polluting the good relations between Britain and the US.
Here indeed was a cruel jibe by Churchill - designed to hurt, because ‘Third-Class’ alluded to the 1948 train ticket incident. However, by using the name ‘Socrates’ he unintentionally paid Joad the highest of all compliments for a philosopher.

In 1952, Joad wrote what would be his 'swansong' - The Recovery of Belief - A Restatement of Christian Philosophy. In this, he developed extensively, and with some originality, a religious values-based philosophy and a Theory of the Soul. The year also saw him produce a short book for his philosophy students, which offers in conclusion:
Plato's Theory of Ideas... constitutes the nearest approach that philosophers, by the unaided light of their own reason, have made to the Christian conception of what the world is like which, to my mind, is the true one.
And, early in 1953, when Joad knew he was dying from cancer, he wrote Folly Farm - posthumously published in 1954. It is a bitter and even cantankerous account. The celebrated poet laureate, John Betjeman, wrote the Foreword, but if the intention was good, the effect is depressing.

This book was written during the final stages of Cyril Joad's painful illness. He planned it after he knew that he had only a few months to live, and that the increasing pain from which he was suffering could not be alleviated. He wrote it to keep his mind active and to drive off self-pity - the second a needless precaution, for he was never prone to it. It concerns things about which he felt very strongly - the preservation of the country, the depredation of it by service departments, his own farming in Sussex, good cooking and good wine, as well as many other general topics which he liked to discuss.

In the book, the autobiographical hero, ‘Mr. Longpast’ has:
...permitted himself the growth and indulgence of prejudices to such an extent that, having spent most of his life as an orthodox left-wing Socialist, he was now bidding fair to qualify for the traditional role of the rustic British eccentric.

... Among his prejudices was a hatred of machines of all sorts, especially cars and planes; a fear of America and all things American; a dislike of women (he was too old, he said, to need these for functional purposes, and he failed to see on what other ground a reasonable man could wish to cultivate their company); an abounding contempt for British food and those who provided it; a total incomprehension of contemporary music and art; and a general dislike of any development in the sphere of politics, literature or the British way of life that had occurred since the early 'twenties.

... Though - thanks to his early Socialist training, he had the grace not to say that the world was going to the dogs - that indubitably was his opinion.
‘Folly Farm’ was, in fact, an amalgam of the two Sussex farms he loved - South Stoke Farm, in a beautiful hamlet nestled deep in the South Downs near Arundel Castle, and Meadow Hills, Stedham - also in the South Downs in the Rother Valley. In this local area, Joad is not forgotten. His 50th Anniversary in 2003 was celebrated at South Stoke, while his 60th Anniversary in 2013 was celebrated at Stedham. Indeed, plans are underway for C. E.. M.  Joad's 70th Anniversary in 2023.


The question of whether soul’s are individual and reflect individual personalities has been much debated over the centuries. Aristotle's view was that the soul is not immortal at all, but only the intellect – which he called nous – is. This view caused theological problems for the later Christian philosophers. Exploring the issue, the Islamic philosopher, Averroes warns that the intellect is not the property of individuals but rather transcends them. This view, of course, undercut both the Islamic and the Christian teachings about individual responsibility and chances of redemption and was considered deeply heretical. Joad says:
... suppose that to think of the personality as resulting from the concurrence of a number of parts was misleading from the first. Suppose that the personality is logically prior, and that the parts derive from it, in the sense that it is in the parts that it expresses itself and finds its embodiment...

Christianity regards the whole, which I have been calling the personality, as an immortal soul which will survive the break-up of the body, even if it did not precede its formation....

If this is true, there is a sense in which the personality is more than its expressions both in the body and in the psyche, so that besides being immanent, it is also transcendent..., mind, spirit and value cannot be adequately conceived in material terms as off-shoots of, or emanations from, matter; secondly, that they are non-spatial; thirdly, that on both counts, science is disabled from giving an adequate account of them...

There is... an element, or factor, in the mind - or, as I should in this connection prefer to call it, the soul - which is timeless...

Now, I do not wish to suggest that it is easy to see how a timeless mind (or soul) can be aware of events which have not yet occurred; I content myself with pointing out that such a possibility is no harder to envisage than its awareness of, and apparent participation in, events which are occurring in what is called the present.

E-mail: Richard Symonds

Richard Symonds is a Founder Member of the Joad Society and is co-writing a book with Geoffrey Thomas on Joad called The People's Philosopher. Please contact him for details on the planned local events celebrating Joad's anniversary.

Related:  Robert Hill on Joad's place in the Philosophical Society's history
Joad's 1931 paper for the Journal on Modern Science and Religion  

Tuesday 3 March 2015

A Closer Look at Nozick's Experience Machine (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 1, 2015

Perspectives and Speculations

Clockwork Eyes, by Michael Ryan


By Brian Jortner

In his classic 1974 book, entitled Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the Twentieth century American philosopher, Robert Nozick, offers a thought experiment to disprove the claim that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the only factors that contribute to a person's well-being.

In his thought experiment, Nozick imagines that there exists an 'experience machine' that feeds sensations and impressions into people's brains. When people are plugged into the machine, they can experience anything they want, and are blissfully unaware that the experiences are not genuine. Such a machine could flawlessly simulate the experience of eating a delicious meal, writing a great novel, and falling in love. It could perfectly simulate every possible human experience, and the person plugged into the machine would believe their experiences to be genuine. However, in reality, the person's body would be floating in a tank with electrodes attached to their brain.

For the purposes of the thought experiment, Nozick asks us to assume that the participant would constantly be experiencing an immense amount of pleasure while plugged into the experience machine.

At the same time, he concedes that someone’s decision to plug themselves into the machine for the rest of their life could very well cause them a certain degree of anxiety between the time that they makes this decision and the time that they are plugged into the machine.

The knowledge that the rest of your life would not be 'genuine' could certainly be unsettling. However, it seems obvious, at least  to Nozick, that the immense pleasure the person would feel for the rest of their life in the experience machine would be far greater than the amount of 'pain' that they would feel during this brief interval of anxiousness. And yet, Nozick is certain that a large portion of people, given this opportunity, would decline the opportunity to be plugged into the experience machine. He maintains that this intuition demonstrates that there must be something other than the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain that contributes to our notion of well-being - and of simple-minded hedonism.

The notion of hedonism in general and what is sometimes called welfare hedonism, in particular, is based on the assumption that the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain are the only factors that contribute to a person's level of well-being. Furthermore, the hypothetical experience machine that Nozick imagines does, in fact, yield far more pleasure for an individual, and far less pain, than that which results from a typical life lived in the real world. Yet, intuitively, it seems plausible that many people would, in fact, choose not to plug into the experience machine. It seems like it could be a difficult decision to decide whether or not to abandon the real world for a life of deceptive bliss.  Nozick is demonstrating that many people would choose not to plug into the machine because they have the desire that their experiences actually be real. And this is, in fact, a desire that is completely independent from the notions of pleasure and pain.

However, I would argue that neither the likelihood that many people would choose not to plug into the experience machine, nor the fact that there exists at least one common human desire apart from seeking pleasure, necessarily implies that the view that there is nothing other than the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain that contributes to well-being is wrong, Or, to put it in more formal language, in order for Nozick's argument to be deductively valid, it must contain an additional premise, which is  that people necessarily desire the state of affairs that contributes most to their well-being.

The truth of this auxiliary premise relies, at least in part, upon the belief that what makes a state of affairs good for a person is that they desire the state of affairs. So, the premise that would be needed in order to make Nozick's argument formally valid also makes it circular in nature, and thus can scarcely count any longer as a successful argument against the philosophy of hedonism.

Consider another example of my own: a scenario in which the realisation of a person's desired state of affairs intuitively seems not to maximize a person's level of well-being. Consider the case of a drug addict's desire to get high. A large number of people who are addicted to potent narcotics, such as cocaine and heroin, report that they live a miserable existence and some even commit suicide in order to escape the torment of their addiction. Addicts often report that beginning to experiment with drugs was the worst decision that they made in their entire lives. Nevertheless, each time an addict snorts cocaine or injects his or her veins with heroin, they are realising their desire to get high. Every single time the drug user takes a hit, they are realising a desired state of affairs. Nonetheless, it would seem very strange to say that the fulfillment of the addict's desired state of affairs maximises their well-being. .

It is also entirely possible for someone to have a certain desire, but for the realisation of that desire to not have any impact upon anyone's level of well-being. For example, a mother could have the desire that a certain family memento, such as an antique Russian doll, be kept in the family after her death. In this example, we can imagine that this person's children are rather unemotional and unsentimental beings, and do not feel any sort of attachment toward the doll. The presence or absence of the Russian doll has no impact upon their well-being. Despite this fact, it is still plausible that the mother could well have a strong desire for the doll be kept in the family after her death. Whether or not her wish is fulfilled does not have any impact upon anyone's level of well-being. The person who has this desire will not be alive to know whether or not it was fulfilled, and the well-being of her children will not be affected in any way.

Taken together, these two scenarios illustrate that it is possible for the realisation of a person's desired state of affairs to lead to misery and torment, and the fact that the realisation of a person's desired state of affairs may not have any impact - positive or negative - upon anyone's level of well-being, all of which seems to suggest once again that people do not necessarily desire the state of affairs that contributes most to their well-being.

To return to the experience machine thought experiment: it presents a situation that is very different from any situation that we might encounter during our lives. Nozick's critique would have been more effective if, all else being equal, the behavior of the moral agent in the thought experiment had ramifications upon other people, not just upon their own life. We commonly think of moral philosophy largely as a prescription about how one should act toward others. For this reason, a thought experiment in which a moral agent’s behavior impacts the lives of others would seem to give us better insight into the merits and shortcomings of welfare hedonism.

Let me conclude with a thought experiment that might be offered by a supporter of Nozick in an effort to rebut such criticisms of his thought experiment.. This thought experiment is, I think, more realistic than the original experience machine scenario. Furthermore, in this thought experiment, the agent's chosen course of action has important ramifications upon the well-being of others.

Let us imagine a situation in which two high school lovers, let us call them Mariah and Henry, part ways after graduation, and go on to attend elite educational institutions at opposite ends of the country. Mariah ends up attending Stanford, while Henry attends Yale.  Before departing for their respective educational institutions, they realise that they are deeply in love, and decide that they will stay together during their college years, despite the long distance. The two vow to one another that they will never be unfaithful.

Within a few weeks, despite their promises, Henry begins to sleep with numerous females on campus on a consistent basis. He is not able to abstain from his urges. On the other hand, all the while, Mariah remains completely faithful to Henry. Not wanting to end his relationship with Mariah, Henry decides not to tell Mariah about his numerous affairs. The two continue to talk to one another on the phone for hours every single night, while Mariah is deceived into believing that she is in a loving and monogamous relationship with Henry. It does not bother Henry in the least that he is deceiving Mariah, and Mariah is blissfully unaware of her deception. In this way, both Henry and Mariah draw a great deal of pleasure from their continuing 'relationship'.

But suppose that Mariah's older brother, Thomas, has been suspicious of Henry's sincerity for some time. Suppose he has a friend, Chris, who also attends Yale University, and Thomas asks him to investigate Henry's behavior. Chris duly reports that Henry has been sleeping with many women at Yale. Thomas will then be faced with the decision of whether to tell Mariah about Henry's numerous affairs, or to allow her to continue to believe that she is in a loving and monogamous relationship with Henry. (For the purposes of this thought experiment, we can imagine that Thomas is 100% sure that Mariah would never find out about Henry's unfaithfulness if he does not tell her.)

As a result of his belief in the desire-satisfaction account of well-being, Thomas may be able to relieve a great deal of his own anguish over the situation by telling Mariah that she is being deceived by Henry. If, after some sort of hedonic calculus, he was to conclude that the decrease in anguish that he would benefit from by telling Mariah the truth outweighed the resulting decrease in pleasure attributed to Mariah and Henry, then Thomas, like a true utilitarian, may feel that the morally correct course of action must be for him to tell Mariah the truth.

Of course, this does not mean that calculations designed to maximise well-being will never yield unintuitive conclusions in realistic situations, and situations in which the behavior of the moral agent has ramifications upon other people.

In any case, demonstrating that a moral philosophy may yield unintuitive conclusions is not the same as disproving a moral philosophy. If we were obliged to rely solely upon our intuitions, then there would be little purpose in discussing the merits and weaknesses of various moral philosophies. .

In this article, my primary concern has been with the representation of Nozick's thought experiment as an 'irrefutable argument', rather than as an 'intuitive insight'. My impression is that Nozick intended his scenario to provide both. And I agree with Nozick that, intuitively, it does seem like many people would choose not to plug into the experience machine. However, I beg to disagree that this demonstrates the falsity of hedonism, far less provide an irrefutable argument.

E-mail: Brian Jortner