BPB on Ideas

BPB — Can/should ideas ever be considered objectively?

I read Tom Stoppard’s ‘The Hard Problem’ last week. The play premiered at the National Theatre in London in January of this year, unfortunately I did not manage to see it. I really wish I had. The play is about the mind-body problem and/or the general problem of phenomenal consciousness. Simply, why is it that I can have beliefs, feelings and know what it’s like to hear the sound of a trumpet but a toaster can’t? What is the magic something that means I have these experiences but an object cannot? Aren’t we all made of the same physical stuff? Is there some wispy mind — a ghost in the machine — that has these experiences? And if so, how is this wispy mind connected to my physical body?

The play doesn’t answer any of these questions, but it certainly provides food for thought for both sides of the argument — (1. there is some unexplained ‘thing’ that means we have consciousness vs. 2. consciousness is just a product of our physical brains & nothing more.) Whatever it may be — you probably have a belief about this. You probably think something, one way or the other. I certainly started thinking about these kind of problems long before I started to formally study philosophy.

The characters in the play each had their own motives and beliefs in relation to this ‘hard problem’ and the play cleverly reveals something of their personal experience that may have led each character to their own conclusion.

I would argue that Plato does something similar in his philosophical dialogues, except for one crucial difference: for Plato, the characters are there to serve the dialogue (the ideas) whereas for Stoppard, who arguably wants to entertain his audience to some extent, the dialogue serves the characters. It’s a fine line though.

The question I’d like to ask this week is whether the ideas can be served by the ‘characters’ without the ‘characters’ muddying the ideas themselves? Does the fact that our ideas belong to us in some crucial sense mean that they themselves are biased?

In last week’s post (which you can read here) I explored how your ideas might outlive you. But does that mean that your ideas somehow detach and exist independently of you? You were/are the one who held/holds your ideas — it doesn’t make sense that those ideas could be separated from their context, ie. YOU. Surely during our lives we come to the ideas we hold because of our experiences (unless you’re inclined to class any of your ideas as ‘innate’ — ie. you’re born with them). Your experiences bring your ideas to light and shape them — so are the origin stories of your ideas important? Or, when critically evaluating ideas, should you remove them from all context and consider them objectively?

We all know the ‘ad hominem’ fallacy — whereby you attack the character of the person putting forward the argument rather than the argument itself. For example: A: “Abortion is wrong because of X, Y and Z reasons.” B: “Of course you’d say that. You’re a religious nut-freak.” A: “But what about X, Y and Z?!” Surely this isn’t a good way for us to debate with each other. But to what extent does ‘B’ have a point? If our ideas come about from our experiences, is it ever right to remove them from their context? Should you reject an idea based on who forwarded it?

I was at a seminar a few weeks ago considering the psychological states of philosophers. Books have been written looking at whether central figures in philosophy were/are inclined to certain mental illnesses, like autism or OCD. It turns out that quite a few of the historical greats exhibited signs of these types of disorders — unfortunately, there isn’t a control group, so we can’t say anything very meaningful about these results yet. It’s interesting though — could a philosopher who liked always to be alone invent a compelling social political theory? Could a philosopher who never spent time with children say anything substantial about education? Could a Nazi say anything meaningful about morality?

I think it’s a tough one to call. However, certain ideas — like the idea that it is wrong to torture an innocent person — are held by probably mostly everyone. So, how did the majority of the human race, with their great collective well of experiences, all come to the same idea? Is there something objective about that idea that means that mostly all of us can hold it without question? Maybe there is. Furthermore, it seems very possible that ‘good ideas’ could come out of bad people — Martin Heidegger contributed a great deal to Western philosophy although he himself was affiliated with the Nazi regime. I’m not convinced that it’s fair to render all of his ideas false based on his own personal life.

The conclusion at my seminar was that we ought to be careful not to mix our ‘philosophy hats’ with our ‘psychology hats’. That is, we ought to try and keep the person’s mental state/beliefs separate from their ideas. It is the only way we might reach some truth.

In Stoppard’s play, it is hard to see the ideas expressed as independent entities away from the characters, but perhaps that’s because it’s a fiction — Stoppard’s own construction. Do things work differently in real life?

Originally published at bedpostblonde.tumblr.com. (11/12/2015)