Category Archives: Philosophy

The Path by Michael Puett, and the fallacy of the True Self

Harvard professor Michael Puett, who runs a course in classical Chinese philosophy, has recently co-authored a best-selling book, The Path, along with author and journalist Christine Gross-Loh

The Path presents ancient Chinese philosophy as a guide (or path) to how to lead a fulfilling life in the modern world,

It sounds like a standard pseudo-spiritual self-help book, but Puett insists that if anything it’s the opposite: it’s an anti-self-help book (although its very title, The Path, and its subtitle, What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, makes me have my doubts). It does however stand against the current self-help trends for promoting atomised individuality and self-centred solipsism. The book is also critical of navel-gazing ‘mindfulness’, the authors pointing out that in Buddhism, mindfulness was originally intended to break down the self, but that in the western version of Buddhism it’s often been distorted as a way of looking inwards and embracing the self.

One of the concepts that is pursued in the book is the fallacy of the authentic self.  I’m a big fan of this concept (the belief that the authentic self is a fallacy, that is – not the concept that there is such a thing as the authentic self), so here are a few of my thoughts on it.

The concept of the authentic self postulates that everyone has a core being or self that is somehow their true self – a self that is invariably superior to the version of themselves that functions in the everyday world (The everyday functional self is, after all, inevitably corrupted by the messiness of the real world, while the true self is in a state of pristine and pure isolation).

This is a nice conceit, with its attractive inference that everyone is at heart nicer than they seem. However, the very fact that this concept implies that we’re all quite pleasant people underneath should ring a few alarm bells in the self-delusion department.

The truth is, I think, that people are the sum of their interactions with the world: without the world we are nothing but a mass of cells and bio-electrical circuitry. Our ‘selves’ are an accretion of reactions to phenomena outside ourselves, such as our environments and our relationships with other people. It’s true that our reactions to these phenomena are laid down onto individual brains that are all structured differently to each other due to genetic variation, meaning that each individual will have a propensity to react differently to the world and to the experiences that it throws at them. I like to think of this genetically determined structure within the brain as a sort of ‘mind skeleton’ that is used to support the mind or self as it is constructed over the years as the result of experience, in a similar way to how the physical ‘body skeleton’ supports the body as it develops over the years (for better of worse). So I’m afraid that underneath the functioning self with which we interact with the world we don’t have a core ‘true self’ at all, just a rather fancy arrangement of scaffolding.


Here’s a cartoon that I drew in 1994 on the subject of finding your ‘True Self’ (I’ve held opinions on this topic for quite a few years). It was published as a greetings card by Paperlink.


Here’s another cartoon on the subject:


There’s a bit more on this subject in my book, Where Are We, Why Are We, What Are We? (And Why do we Want to Know?) , as detailed here.


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What are the odds that you exist? The fallacy of your specialness.

What are the chances that you exist? That is, you personally.
I’ve heard this question posited many times.
I think Richard Dawkins mentioned it in one of his books, or maybe in an interview, and I’ve recently seen it on the back cover of the new book by Dr Alice Roberts titled “The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being“, (the book that gets my prize for the wittiest book title of the year, being based, in case you don’t know, on the book title “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera).

The question is usually asked in something along the lines of: what are the chances that your mother and father would meet? Maybe your mother turned left instead of right at a street corner and bumped into the man who was later to become your father. What are the chances of that?
And what are the chances that your grandparents met, and that their parents met, and that their parents met before them?
The chances are surely vanishingly minute.
Yes they are.
Your existence is statistically almost infinitely unlikely.
(Hence the title of Alice Robert’s book, The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being.)

However, as incredibly unlikely statistically your own personal existence is, it isn’t actually incredible in the sense of being beyond credibility.

As far as I can work out, the statistic concerning the likelihood of one’s own existence is a trivial or mundane statistic – in that it may be true but it has little significance.

Here’s an analogy to show what I mean.

I’m going to type a list of thirty random numbers.


There it is.
Now, what are the chances of that row of numbers being those particular digits in that particular order?

The chances are one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

(A simpler example of the same principal is that the chances of writing any specific list of digits that’s only two digits long is one in a hundred – the combinations being from 00 to 99, or in other words a hundred possible combinations.)

You probably don’t think that it’s incredible that I’ve just written down a list of numbers that has only a one in a million million million (etc) chance of existing. I had to write down a list of thirty digits after all, and every list of thirty digits has the same incredibly low chance of being written. But one of them is inevitably going to be written.

It’s the same with people.
The chances of you existing may be almost vanishingly unlikely, but if it wasn’t you who existed it’d be someone else, in the same way that if it wasn’t that list of thirty digits it’d be a different one. (Your mother may have turned right at the street corner instead of left and bumped into a different man who would father a child who wasn’t you, while your father (who now wasn’t bumped into) continued on his journey to a work appointment at which he would meet his future wife).
We’ve got to end up with someone rather than no-one. It just doesn’t have to be you.
Or if it doesn’t have to be someone it has to be something. Maybe a descendant of the dinosaurs (because the asteroid missed), or more likely something that we can’t even envisage because there are just so many possibilities – just as there are so many possibilities when it comes to writing random thirty digit lists of numbers.
We haven’t even considered random million digit lists of numbers yet. Let’s not bother – just because something’s vanishingly unlikely doesn’t make it special.

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Would you be eternally grateful if you lived for ever?

I’ve just read a review of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I’ve also read a short extract from the book in a newspaper and I’ve listened to a few articles about the book on the radio. I haven’t got time to read the actual book itself though, as life is short and I’m a slow reader (This is relevant to the point of this post, so keep reading).
According to the review of the book (in the Guardian, by Galen Strawson), Harari claims that ‘the leading project of the scientific revolution’ is the Gilgamesh Project: ‘to give humankind eternal life’ or ‘amortality’. I’ve never heard of the Gilgamesh Project myself, however I do know that Gilgamesh was a heroic character from a Mesopotamian epic poem who sought to destroy death (although an internet search for Gilgamesh would have you believe that the name is chiefly associated with a fancy restaurant in Camden, London).
Amortality, if you were wondering, is a sort of immortality-lite. Its definition is that you keep living until you die as the result of extreme violence, catastrophic accident or such-like. This is unlike full-blown immortality with which you get to live for ever no matter what.
Harari apparently isn’t certain of the merits of amortality, and doubts that it would bring much satisfaction to people were they to achieve it.

I think he’s probably correct.
Amortality has a certain superficial appeal – for instance it would give me enough time to actually read Harari’s book rather than simply dipping into reviews and articles about it – however here are a few points that need to be considered before judging it to be desirable.

I won’t spend any time here going into the potentially dire problems associated with actual immortality itself. Suffice to say that if you were burdened with eternal life you wouldn’t be eternally grateful for it. (For more on the down-side of eternal life click here.)

With amortality it’s possible to live more or less for ever as long as you avoid anything that’s going to kill you. This sounds great, as it implies that you could live for several hundreds of years or even thousands of years and then choose to die once you’d become bored with existence. The trouble is that I don’t think it would work quite like that in practice.
It’s hard to tell, because we’re not in the state of amortality ourselves, and if we were I’m sure that our outlooks on the subject would shift somewhat, but I think that in an amortal state, in which death is not necessarily inevitable, the status of death would change radically.
Look at it this way – we mere mortals know of the inevitability of death, so for us it’s mostly a matter of when it comes rather than if it comes. We have to confront the subject of death with a degree of grudging acceptance. If however we were amortal and could in theory avoid death simply by being extremely careful, then death would possibly become a totally different problem – it may even become a worse spectre than it is to we mortals. Death for amortals would cut off their access to immortality. True, people probably wouldn’t opt for true immortality if they really thought about it, but once you’ve got the option it’s probably a hard thing to throw away despite its manifold drawbacks. If you were an amortal, death could be a problem because you’d have so much to lose – all those years stretching into the infinite future. On top of this, the fact that death wouldn’t be inevitable would mean that people may not develop a sense of acceptance about it, so it would be a real threat in a different way than it is for us for whom it’s the natural end point of a finite span.

I’m assuming that if people managed to become amortal it would be due to a mixture of medical and technological innovations. Disease would be conquered and injury and wear-and-tear would be remedied by the use of replacement parts or by some form of bio-technical intervention.
If amortality didn’t include the fixing of injuries (other than truly fatal ones of course, such as those caused by falling into a mincing machine) life would eventually become unbearable due to accumulated handicaps, either large or small. Imagine if you lost an arm in an accident one day, then a hundred years later you lost an eye, then some time after that a leg. Then the other eye, the other arm, the other leg. Everyone would be queueing up next to the mincing machine. In such a case the state of amortality would only exist in theory rather than in practice – lifespan would be self-limiting due to assisted suicide.
It’s easy to imagine that people who lived in such a state would be so pathologically risk averse that there lives would be unbearable.

A world in which all injuries are repairable would be preferable, but that inevitably brings its own problems unfortunately, although perhaps less onerous ones. One of these is the downgrading of non-fatal risk. If all risk of injury (other than fatal injury) becomes nonexistent due to the ease of neutralising the consequences then people’s feelings about risk and aggression would possibly change. There’d be no thrill in minor acts of risk such as driving a car too fast or skiing. Obviously. in our world skiing and driving too fast bring with them the possibility of death, however in the world of the amortals I suspect that great efforts would be made to protect the individual from this fate while conducting those activities, such as by the introduction of bizarre headgear that is guaranteed to protect the brain from terminal crushing.
Any high risk activity in which there was the slightest chance of death despite any interventions or safeguards (such as bizarre headgear) would not be indulged in at all.

If we were to acquire an amortal lifestyle the chances are that we’d need our brains to be rewired somewhat in order for us to cope with the consequences of having a potentially very long lifespan – but then with a rewired brain we probably wouldn’t appreciate the fact that we’d acquired such a lengthy existence. So there’d possibly be little point in the whole exercise in the first place.
We only want an extended lifespan because of the brains that we’ve got now, not because of the brains that we’d have then.

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Is thinking in words a good thing?

Thinking often manifests itself in the form of a voice in your head.
Why would this be? Why not just think in pure thought, whatever that means?
An article in New Scientist of 1st June 2013 deals with the topic, with particular reference to the work of Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky.
My own amateur theorising on the subject makes me speculate that people don’t actually think in words – the words come along afterwards to wrap the thoughts up in manageable packages that can be marshalled into some sort of order (possibly for the purpose of communication to others).
The fact that people often can’t put their thoughts into words seems to point to this.
We’re all aware of thoughts that we can’e express, which is possibly evidence that ‘verbal’ thoughts are secondary manifestations of thoughts rather than being primarily and pure thoughts in their own right.

philosophy of language cartoon

(Please do not copy this cartoon without permission. Get it here)


The process of inner verbalisation of thoughts definitely has its advantages though. It helps you to distill concepts down to easily manageable phrases.
Here’s an example.
I remember in my youth watching a controversial politician making an inflammatory speech on the television. He was predicting riots in the streets. (The politician involved was actually Enoch Powell, but I’m pretty sure the speech in question wasn’t his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech). It occurred to me that the very fact that he had made this speech might provoke people to start rioting in the first place – in effect his speech might be the very thing that brings about the event that he predicted. I mentioned this insight of mine to a friend: it took me quite a long time to explain it, as the concept was still quite a nebulous and ill-defined thing in my head. After I’d delivered my ponderings my friend said “You mean it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” I’d never heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy at the time, but I knew instantly that that was what I meant. From that day on the whole convoluted process by which the very act of stating the possibility of an event can bring about the event itself  was condensed in my head to the shorthand term “self-fulfilling prophecy”. A very useful phrase indeed.
There is a downside to such handy condensation of concepts into easily graspable phrases though: concept ossification.

Once a useful verbalisation that encapsulates an idea is coined, the idea can become rigid and fossilised due to a lack of critical rethinking.
(Ossification is perhaps a very appropriate term here, because the phrases that encapsulate concepts should be thought of as the bare bones that give the concepts structure:  bones that form nothing but the skeleton and that need fleshing out in order to be given life and meaning.)

Ideally ideas needs revisiting and reassessing periodically in order to check that they’re still valid.
This downside of encapsulation is probably far outweighed by its upside though, which is that you don’t have to spend all of your time thinking things through from first principles.

A metaphor for this upside may be that of the car. The downside of a car (or at least the downside that’s relevant to this metaphor) is that you hurtle past the countryside without seeing it in detail (did you notice that rare spider in the grass on the verge just then?), but the upside is that you can travel a hell of a lot further than by foot.

As the article in New Scientist mentions, Vygotsky proposed that words in inner speech may function as a tool that transforms the task that is being considered, in a similar way that an Allen key transforms the task of assembling flat pack furniture. Putting thoughts into words gives the thoughts a concrete form that makes them easier to handle. (My note: not too ‘concrete’ I hope, as  concrete has some of those rigid qualities of ossification  that I mentioned earlier.)
Putting thoughts into words may also give the thoughts access to parts of the brain that they would otherwise be denied access to, such as those areas that deal solely in processing language.

New Scientist

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Survival of the Misfits – Robert Newman

Comedian Robert Newman is very interested in evolution. So much so that he’s devised a stage show on the subject, Robert Newman’s New Theory of Evolution.

In an interview on the BBC’s Saturday Live programme to promote the show, Newman mentioned that he thinks that the famous phrase about evolution. “Survival of the fittest” should perhaps be replaced by a new phrase – “Survival of the misfit”.

That sounds about right to me.

I personally think that the reason that the human race is so successful as a species is possibly because from the moment we left the trees in Africa (probably, in my opinion,  by being forced out of them by the ancestors of the chimpanzees that still live there) we, as a species,  were misfits in our new environment. We had to take action in order to survive.

We certainly did take action, and the results are all around us to see. We no longer have to struggle for survival: indeed in some parts of the world such as where I live in England it’s relatively easy to sit back and do very little in order to guarantee continued personal existence. Complacency is now an option in a way that it never has been before. We now control and manipulate the world to such an extent that we can now walk down the street staring at our smart phones without having to even give a thought to the idea that we should maybe be keeping half an eye open for a sabre toothed tiger crouching behind a hedge. That’s complacency.

Complacency doesn’t get you very far though, so the future of the human race is determined by those amongst us who aren’t complacent: those who are a bit on the edge of things and who don’t feel quite right where they find themselves. The misfits.

When we first left the trees we were all misfits, chiefly because we were physically unfit for the situation we’d climbed down the trees into. But we’ve now changed the physical world around us to suit our own needs, so now most of us fit in just fine, physically at least. Nowadays being a misfit is usually the consequence of psychological characteristics rather than of physical ones.

Having misfits  as the instigators of future human progress is a mixed blessing of course. In some arenas of activity misfits are valuable contributors to the sum of human experience – artists of various kinds spring readily to mind here, as does the geeky variety of misfit who sees beauty in endless lists of numbers and who as a result uncovers hidden secrets of the universe: however in other areas of activity things look less clear cut – having psychological misfits at the tiller of power politics and big business leaves me with misgivings about where our future lies. With misfits in positions of power no wonder the world’s in the mess it is – we desperately need a sensible and sane driver steering our planet forward, but who but a misfit would consider embarking on such an onerous task?

There’s more about the misfit factor of human evolution here.

One last thing.

In the interview with Robert Newman that inspired this post he was asked what a comedian was doing pontificating about a subject such as evolution – a subject that should perhaps more properly be addressed by experts in the field. Newman’s response was to mention a quote attributed to Peter Ustinov “There are experts in little things but there are no experts in big things.” The point being, I think, that it’s only possible to be an expert within a very tightly defined area of study (such as, say, the structure of the antennae of diurnal moths), but that for subjects that are wider than that everybody has to contend with their own innate tunnel vision that’s inconveniently obscuring the complete view.

Robert Newman, being a comedian, is, I assume, a bit of a misfit. This qualifies him well for having interesting opinions and insights on subjects. Of course I inevitably think this, being a cartoonist myself and thus definitely somewhere on the misfit spectrum.

Find some of my own thoughts about evolution here.

Robert Newman’s web site

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Definition of an optimism and definition of a pessimist

A quote about optimism and pessimism:

quotation about optimism and pessimism

‘An optimist thinks that we’re moving towards the best of all possible worlds. A pessimist thinks that we’ve already arrived.’

This quotation about optimism and pessimism came to me in June 2013  while I was thinking of ideas around the subjects of optimism and pessimism in general.

The quotation is all my own work, however a quick check of quotes on the internet about optimists and pessimists inevitably revealed that a similar expression already existed. Here it is:

“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.”
This quote is by James Branch Cabell from his book The Silver Stallion.

Both quotations include the phrase ‘the best of all possible worlds’. I think that in both cases this phrase is absolutely central, and without it the quotation can’t exist. In fact, in my case at least, it was the act of thinking about this phrase as it applies to optimists that made me think of the way the phrase might apply to pessimists.

The main difference between my version of the expression and James Branch Cabell’s version is that my version looks to the future while Cabell’s looks to the present. My quote looks to the future because it’s my opinion that optimism and pessimism are qualities that are directed towards the future.

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03/01/2014 · 18:29

Peter Atkins: On Being

Peter Atkins’ “On Being” is a wonderfully short book, coming in at just over a hundred pages. It’s a book about the nature of existence (of both the universe and of us).
It’s very much a pro-science book (Atkins was a professor of chemistry at Oxford University) and an anti-religion book (he’s a committed atheist). The main thrust is that given time science will be able to answer just about all of our questions concerning the fundamental nature of the universe, such as how it all started and what it actually is.
I like his description of the way that science is exploring the moments following the beginning of the universe (the Big Bang, as I wish it wasn’t called), slowly probing the edge of knowledge and cautiously pushing back the frontiers of knowledge until we hopefully understand the nature of the beginning of the universe itself – and his contrasting this cautious and slow approach with the religious approach of devising an appealing creation myth and leaving it at that.

Atkins is accused of being a dismal nihilist by his critics (mainly because they themselves find nihilism dismal), but I for one find myself thoroughly enjoying the possibly nihilistic stance of his work. Nihilism is a tricky thing to define anyway, as it has a certain amount of latitude in its definition. For instance it could be argued that although there may be no ultimate purpose to life, that doesn’t imply that it has no meaning to it. Meaning in this way may be defined as an emergent property.

I was pleased to find that a fair few pages of the first section of the book – which deals with the beginning of the universe – covers the concept that although the universe seems indubiously substantial to us (i.e. made of very solid stuff – at least in the regions such as stars and planets that punctuate the vast tracts of empty space), it is in fact made of Nothing!
This concept is very much along the lines that I describe in my own book on almost the same subject as Atkins’ book. It’s actually similar to the extent that he endows the profound nothing that lacks space and time the name Nothing with a capital N. Just as I do in my book. Click the image below to read the relevant chapter of my book.


Peter Atkins: On Being

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