Robert asked:

Dear Geoffrey,

What is your answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

No, I don’t know what’s happened to the other panel members either, your guess is as good as mine. (Except for Gideon, of course, who is related to me by Leibniz’s Law.)

Well, it’s summer. Maybe they’re enjoying a well-earned holiday at some fancy continental resort. Except — damn! — one minute you’re out there having a wonderful time getting suntanned and sampling the local cuisine, and the next minute you’re spreadeagled on the promenade with your skull smashed to bits.

It makes no sense.

I’m not going to answer your question because, logically, it cannot have an answer.

Suppose life has a meaning. Let’s call the meaning ‘X’.

X is the meaning of your life, X is the meaning of my life, X is the meaning of everybody’s life. Why is X the meaning? Who said? Maybe you got it from some Holy Book. It doesn’t matter. Suppose I don’t want the meaning to be X. I want it to be Y. That’s my bad luck, because the fact is that the meaning is X and not Y, and that is that.

If there is some person or entity that set the meaning of life to be X, I want to kill that person or destroy that entity. I refuse to have the meaning of life prescribed to me. Is that not a perfectly reasonable position to take? An eminently philosophical view, I would have thought — insofar as your philosophy allows for killing or destruction in a worthy cause.

The very fact that life has a meaning would render life meaningless. Human beings are reduced to actors on a stage, all our thoughts and actions scripted for a purpose that we didn’t choose.

If life has a meaning, then it has no meaning.
If life has no meaning, then it has no meaning.
Ergo, life has no meaning.

If life has no meaning, then why bother to get up in the morning? Generally, when I wake up, I need to pee. There is only so long I can hold it in before I simply have to get up. That’s basically the answer the Stoics gave: you follow nature. You do what you want or need to do. Or, as Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

If there is nothing you want from life, then that is very sad and the best thing you can do is kill yourself. But make sure first that you really know what you want, or rather don’t want. (It’s much more likely that there are lots of things you want, but they are all deemed impossible. That’s never stopped me.)

I woke up today and realized that I was 65 (and have been for a few months). Only a short while ago, I was 21 and setting out on a course of philosophical study that has extended for 44 years and still counting. It’s a choice I made, and continue to make, every day of my life — for no reason except that the questions of philosophy interest me, and I have not yet answered them all.

Least of all this one. I have just given you my view — take it or leave it.


Nate asked:

Given the current situation of increased shark activity and unprovoked attacks in Australian waters, is it possible to argue the culling of sharks, with ethical theory, in order to protect human lives? How would a utilitarian, Kantian approach this?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I sympathize with those who are arguing for a shark cull. In the UK, we have a problem with badgers. There’s overwhelming evidence that badgers carry tuberculosis and pass this to cattle, presenting a very serious threat to human health. Herds are regularly tested for the tuberculin bacillus and if the test is positive then it can be a disaster for farmer to see their cows and bulls slaughtered and burned.

You can imagine writing a children’s story about friendly, cuddly badgers. It would be more difficult to do this with sharks, so perhaps there is less opposition to culling sharks in Oz than there is to badger culls? On the other hand, sharks have feelings too, if any non-human animals have feelings. And, of course, there is also the conservation issue.

It occurred to me, however, that a small change in the wording of your question produces something rather more controversial. (This is relevant to Mill and Kant, as we shall see in a moment.)

“Given the current situation of increased religious extremist activity and unprovoked attack on the European continent, is it possible to argue the culling of religious extremists, with ethical theory, in order to protect (innocent) human lives? How would, etc. etc.”

What would Kant say? Kant has no objection to the death penalty, as deserved punishment for a crime such as murder. However, to preemptively kill a person or group of people on the grounds that they are likely to murder other people would be ethically wrong, because it would transgressing a person’s fundamental rights as a ‘lawmaking member of the kingdom of ends’. They have to do the murders first, then you can go after them.

On a Kantian view, non-human animals do not have ethical rights, so any moral obligations that we have towards them would be consequent on the value they have for human beings. Sharks have a value, on this reckoning (e.g. we wouldn’t like to see any species of shark made extinct) but it is a value to be weighed against other values.

Mill’s case for the ethical theory he calls ‘utilitarianism’ is based on the maximization of happiness/ pleasure and minimization of pain, with the rider that some states of pleasure are ‘higher’ than others. The characteristically human pleasure of studying philosophy or listening to classical music would be preferable to more ‘animal’ pleasures such as dancing in a mosh pit.

However, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer has controversially argued for a version of utilitarianism according to which there should be no distinction between human and non-human animals when we calculate the total amount of pleasure or pain. Under certain circumstances, it would be right to allow a human infant to die in order to save the life of a mature gorilla. The quality of states of consciousness is all that counts, regardless of what creature is enjoying them.

What one can say, tentatively, is that Mill’s case for culling sharks, if valid (under appropriate circumstances) is also a valid case for culling religious extremists. There is an issue about the negative utility of perceived ‘injustice’ — as Mill argues in his book Utilitarianism — but one could argue that the point about injustice, although valid, would be overwhelmingly negated by public sentiment in the wake of terrorist killings.

You can take this either as a reductio ad absurdum of utilitarianism, or not, depending on whether you are more sympathetic to Kant or Mill.


Trisha asked:

What is the question?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

My first impulse was to take a swipe at this, which on the face of it doesn’t look a lot different from, ‘Is this a question?’ which we get asked with boring regularity. (‘If this is an answer,’ is one response.)

There is something which is the question. For whom? What is the question for me? for you? No. For everybody — even if they don’t know this. There is ultimately only one question, and that question is…

Let’s consider some candidates for ‘the’ question:

— How can I find love?

— How can I attain eternal salvation?

— How can the human race end suffering and achieve world peace?

(OK, those are two questions but they usually go together.)

— What is the answer to the question of the Universe, Life and Everything?

(Douglas Adams humorously makes the point in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that we can’t know what an answer to that question means until we know what that question actually is.)

I am bored of eager proselytizers trying to convince you that their question is ‘the’ question. It’s a disease. An epidemic. It’s one of the aspects of human frailty that we manage to con ourselves into thinking that there is just one thing which is in question. As if, if only we know the answer, all problems would be solved, everything would be wonderful, etc. etc.

If you want to know what drives you, get psychoanalyzed. Then you will learn that what you really want is to kill your father and make love to your mother, or own a penis, or some such nonsense.

Human nature is complex. The things that move us, the things we find puzzling, or gripping, or exciting can be many and various.

As a heuristic, it can be useful to ask, when you are faced with a complex problem, ‘What is the question?’ It’s a way of focusing your inquiry and being methodical. You attack the weakest point, tease out the piece of loose string or cotton that allows the rest to unravel. Then you will likely discover that the first question you asked wasn’t the question you were really after.

One question leads to another.

‘The’ question does not exist.

Trinity asked:

Can we consider Joseph Campbell to be a philosopher? I’ve read on your website that you have to study philosophy to be a philosopher, but does the fact that he taught philosophy make him a philosopher even if he didn’t formally study the topic. He did spend 5 years in the woods reading.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I don’t know a lot about Joseph Campbell but I’m going to attempt an answer to your question anyway. That’s one of the things philosophers do. We’re not interested in investigating facts (the historical origins of myths, for example) but rather what can be reasoned out and proved without appeal to empirical data.

Philosophy is the ‘art of reason’ (according to Jonathan Barnes, author of The Presocratic Philosophers Routledge 1982). This is a nice definition because it combines two ideas that one doesn’t normally put together: art and reason.

Consider the art of drawing. To be master of this art, it is not enough to be able to draw a good likeness. You need to have mastered the different techniques and media (charcoal, pencil, conte, graphite stick etc.), know how to create different effects (e.g. shading or cross hatching), understand the laws of perspective, and have a good knowledge of human anatomy. To master the art of reason, it is not enough to be able to argue logically. Most persons can do that. Reason is much more than logic. The Presocratic philosophers invented new principles of reasoning that no-one had even considered before. The pushed forward our understanding of the nature of reason and the reasoning process.

Take the two (arguably) most fundamental problems of philosophy: the nature of Being and the nature of Consciousness. These questions can be found in Eastern and Western Philosophy. These are questions that move me, even though — despite all that i have learned — I doubt that I will ever solve them. However, it’s what you do in response to questions like these that defines the kind of thinker that you are. What I’ve tried to do, over the years, is reason these questions out. Maybe they are simply immune to reasoning, recalcitrant. insoluble.

Joseph Campbell had a different approach, as I understand it. Recognizing the limits of reason, he looked to the experience of the transcendent or numinous — the way of mysticism. Does that mean he is not a philosopher?

Let’s consider other great thinkers: Is Richard Feynmann a philosopher? Is Samuel Beckett a philosopher? is Mahatma Gandhi a philosopher? Put any of these men in a room with a philosophy professor and odds on the professor will look intellectually puny by comparison. All three produced ideas that changed the way we look at the world. The philosophical implications of their work are immense. No doubt there are many who would say the same about Joseph Campbell.

Speaking personally, philosophy has taken me to the point where I wonder whether, in fact, I am a philosopher. I am too keenly aware of the limits of reason (although it could just be my limits that are in question, not reason as such). So now I’ve taken to calling myself a philosophizer. It’s just a word. You can be a philosophizer — someone who takes a keen interest in the questions of philosophy — without undertaking the stringent commitment to rely on the art of reason alone.

In these terms, Campbell was undoubtedly a philosophizer. The case I’ve sought to make here is that it is not really interesting or relevant to ask whether, in addition, he was a ‘philosopher’.


Canton asked:

How does Socrates force Callicles to admit that there are ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Thank you for this question, Canton. I was getting a bit tired of seeing ‘EU Referendum’ stuck at the top of the page.

This is a typical philosophy instructor’s question. You’ve been given Plato’s dialogue Gorgias to read. I did this as a first-year undergraduate and it blew my mind. This is the dialogue to read if you are looking for inspiration to choose philosophy as a career!

Ah well, I’m guessing that you feel less than inspired. In fact, I would go further and say that there’s a good chance that you haven’t even opened the book? Right? (I do hope that your instructor made you read the original text and not some watered-down summary.)

You wouldn’t be asking this question if you had, because you would know. Unless, having read the dialogue, you still don’t get Socrates’ case against Callicles. That would be sad. I’m not going to make things easy for you, why should I? We’re not here to pamper and please. (Does that statement sound familiar? who said it?)

This is philosophy. Take a view X. Look at the consequences of X and decide whether they hold up, logically or conceptually or in some other way. If they do not then X must be false. That’s one of the most basic argument forms in philosophy: reductio ad absurdum.

With me so far, Canton?

Callicles has a view about pleasure. What is it? If you don’t know what it is, stop right there because there is no point in going any further.

All right, I’ll give a hint. Callicles (along with a lot of other people, and a lot of them unfortunately are reading this) thinks that pleasure is a good thing. The best. The ultimate. You can’t have too much of a good thing. If you eat too much candy you will be sick and then you will feel sorry. So there’s a limit to how much candy you can eat. The pleasure turns to pain. But if something is pleasurable, and doesn’t turn to pain, if it just carries on being pleasure, then there’s no limit.

And it doesn’t matter what gives you the pleasure. That’s the other thing Callicles believes. Pleasure is pleasure. All  that matters is the intensity — how pleasing it is. If you enjoy squashing beetles (remembering an early episode of Game of Thrones when Tyrion gives some insight into his early family life) then the more beetles you squash, the more pleasure you will get. In fact, you would be perfectly happy — nothing could improve your state of happiness/ pleasure — if you just spent your whole life squashing beetles, while you were fed intravenously and had various other bodily functions taken care of.

This is basically Socrates’ argumentative strategy against Callicles, although he doesn’t give the example of beetles (and Game of Thrones didn’t exist then, or maybe it did?).

What Socrates is asking you to do is look at the life that has been described and form an attitude about it. This attitude isn’t intrinsically moralistic, but rather based on your ability to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ different kinds of life. You wouldn’t want to be that person, would you?

In that case… what?

You fill in the dots (and give the relevant examples from the text). I’m not writing your essay for you!


Ruth asked:

Is it fair to draw a parallel between the British policy of Appeasement prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, and the Remain campaign in the UK European Union Referendum?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There are parallels — the question is whether these are instructive or not. You decide:

When the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1939 with a letter from Adolf Hitler promising that Germany’s territorial ambitions did not extend any further than the foreign lands that Germany had already occupied, many in Britain breathed a sigh of relief. Memories of the carnage of the First World War which had ended just a couple of decades earlier were still vivid in people’s minds.

Then, as now, there was vigorous debate between the Appeasers and those who were sceptical of Hitler’s promises. Yet behind the scenes, preparations were already underway for War and Britain made the best use of the breathing space.

Today, ‘Appeasement’ is a word loaded with egregious overtones. Chamberlain was duped, the historians say. And yet the Appeasers were proved right: if there was to be a war, they warned, millions would die. Many more millions died than anyone could have foreseen in their worst nightmares.

The consensus of opinion is that the Remainers are right that there will be adverse economic consequences (maybe worse than the most pessimistic forecast) in the wake of the EU vote. And yet the Leavers are adamant that this break had to happen — before it was too late.

There was outrage in the press and media when Leave campaigner Boris Johnson compared the EU’s ambitions for an European superstate with Hitler. We all know, don’t we, that the EU’s motives are benevolent,  not malevolent. There will be no death camps. Social ills of  every kind will be overcome through the tireless work of EU mandarins striving to make Europe better for all its citizens.

The response from Leavers is that we want to make these decisions for ourselves. Let other countries decide what is in their best interests, including the creation of an European Army and merging together to form a United States of Europe.

The EU is extremely unhappy about the outcome of the Referendum. (I overheard the funny remark that EU politicians are ‘behaving like a psycho ex-girlfriend’. Some are pleading, ‘You can’t leave us!’ while others warn, ‘We’ll get you for this!’) The war, when it comes, will not be waged with armies and airplanes, guns and tanks. It will be an economic war undertaken to protect the EU from further breakup. Everyone knows this, both the Remainers and the Leavers. The time has come to stop endlessly debating the outcome of the vote and prepare ourselves for the coming storm.



July 2016
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