We cannot control everything: the philosophical dimensions of life

April 9, 2020

Pär SegerdahlLife always surpasses us. We thought we were in control, but then something unexpected happens that seems to upset the order. A storm, a forest fire, a pandemic. Life appears as a drawing in sand, the contours of which suddenly dissolve.

Of course, it is not that definitive. Even a storm, a forest fire, a pandemic, will pass. The contours of life return, in somewhat new forms. However, the unexpected reminded us that life is greater than our ability to control it. My question in this post is how we balance the will to control life against the knowledge that life always surpasses us.

That life is greater than our ability to control it is evident not only in the form of storms, forest fires and pandemics. It is evident also in the form of nice varying weather, growing forests and good health. Certainly, medicine contributes to better health. Nevertheless, it is not thanks to any pills that blood circulates in our bodies and food becomes nourishment for our cells. We are rightly grateful to medicine, which helps the sick. However, maybe we could devote life itself a thought of gratitude sometimes. Is not the body fantastic, which develops immunity in contact with viruses? Are not the forests and the climate wonderful, providing oxygen, sun and rain? And consider nature, on which we are like outgrowths, almost as fruits on a tree.

Many people probably want to object that it is pointless to philosophize about things that we cannot change. Why waste time reflecting on the uncontrollable dimensions of life, when we can develop new medicines? Should we not focus all our efforts on improving the world?

I just point out that we then reason as the artist who thought himself capable of painting only the foreground, without background. As though the background was a distraction from the foreground. However, if you want to emphasize the foreground, you must also pay attention to the background. Then the foreground appears. The foreground needs to be embraced by the background. Small and large presuppose each other.

Our desire to control life works more wisely, I believe, if we acknowledge our inevitable dependence on a larger, embracing background. As I said, we cannot control everything, just as an artist cannot paint only the foreground. I want to suggest that we can view philosophy as an activity that reminds us of that. It helps us see the controllable in the light of the uncontrollable. It reminds us of the larger context: the background that the human intellect does not master, but must presuppose and interact with wisely.

It does not have to be dramatic. Even everyday life has philosophical dimensions that exceed our conscious control. Children learn to talk beyond their parents’ control, without either curricula or examinations. No language teacher in the world can teach a toddler to talk through lessons in a classroom. It can only happen spontaneously and boundlessly, in the midst of life. Only those who already speak can learn language through lessons in a classroom.

The ability to talk is thus the background to language teaching in the classroom. A language teacher can plan the lessons in detail. The youngest children’s language acquisition, on the other hand, is so inextricably linked to what it is to live as a human being that it exceeds the intellect’s ability to organize and govern. We can only remind ourselves of the difference between foreground and background in language. Here follows such a philosophical reminder. A parent of a schoolchild can say, “Now you’ve been studying French for two hours and need a break: go out and play.” However, a parent of a small child who is beginning to talk cannot say, “Now you’ve been talking for two hours and need a break: go out and play!” The child talks constantly. It learns in the midst of playing, in the midst of life, beyond control. Therefore, the child has no breaks.

Had Herb Terrace seen the difference between foreground and background in language, he would never have used the insane method of training sign language with the chimpanzee Nim in a special classroom, as if Nim were a schoolchild who could already speak. Sometimes we need a bit of philosophy (a bit of reason) for our projects to work. Foreground and background interact everywhere. Our welfare systems do not work unless we fundamentally live by our own power, or by life’s own power. Pandemics hardly subside without the virus moving through sufficiently many of our, thereafter, immune bodies – under controlled forms that protect groups at risk and provide the severely ill care. Everywhere, foreground and background, controllable and uncontrollable, interact.

The dream of complete intellectual control is therefore a pitfall when we philosophize. At least if we need philosophy to elucidate the living background of what lies within human control. Then we cannot strive to define life as a single intellectually controllable foreground. A bit of philosophy can help us see the interplay between foreground and background. It can help us live actively and act wisely in the zone between controllable and uncontrollable.

Pär Segerdahl

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Herb Terrace about the chimpanzee Nim – do you see the contradiction?

March 23, 2020

Pär SegerdahlHave you seen small children make repeated attempts to squeeze a square object through a round hole (plastic toy for the little ones)? You get puzzled: Do they not see that it is impossible? The object and the hole have different shapes!

Sometimes adults are just as puzzling. Our intellect does not always fit reality. Yet, we force our thoughts onto reality, even when they have different shapes. Maybe we are extra stubborn precisely when it is not possible. This post is about such a case.

Herb Terrace is known as the psychologist who proved that apes cannot learn language. He himself tried to teach sign language to the chimpanzee Nim, but failed according to his own judgement. When Terrace took a closer look at the videotapes, where Nim interacted with his human sign-language teachers, he saw how Nim merely imitated the teachers’ signs, to get his reward.

I recently read a blog post by Terrace where he not only repeats the claim that his research demonstrates that apes cannot learn language. The strange thing is that he also criticizes his own research severely. He writes that he used the wrong method with Nim, namely, that of giving him rewards when the teacher judged that he made the right signs. The reasoning becomes even more puzzling when Terrace writes that not even a human child could learn language with such a method.

To me, this is as puzzling as a child’s insistence on squeezing a square object through a round hole. If Terrace used the wrong method, which would not work even on a human child, then how can he conclude that Project Nim demonstrates that apes cannot learn language? Nevertheless, he insists on reasoning that way, without feeling that he contradicts himself. Nor does anyone who read him seem to experience any contradiction. Why?

Perhaps because most of us think that humans cannot teach animals anything at all, unless we train them with rewards. Therefore, since Nim did not learn language with this training method, apes cannot learn language. Better methods do not work on animals, we think. If Terrace failed, then everyone must fail, we think.

However, one researcher actually did try a better method in ape language research. She used an approach to young apes that works with human children. She stopped training the apes via a system of rewards. She lived with the apes, as a parent with her children. And it succeeded!

Terrace almost never mentions the name of the successful ape language researcher. After all, she used a method that is impossible with animals: she did not train them. Therefore, she cannot have succeeded, we think.

I can tell you that the name of the successful researcher is Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. To see a round reality beyond a square thinking, we need to rethink our thought pattern. If you want to read a book that tries to do such rethinking about apes, humans and language, I recommend a philosophical self-critique that I wrote with Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleague William Fields.

To philosophize is to learn to stop imposing our insane thoughts on reality. Then we finally see reality as it is.

Pär Segerdahl

Segerdahl, P., Fields, W. & Savage-Rumbaugh, S. 2005. Kanzi’s Primal Language. The Cultural Initiation of Primates into Language. Palgrave Macmillan.

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Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


Who belongs to us?

October 2, 2019

Pär SegerdahlBioethics has a problem with human beings, the philosopher Roland Kipke writes. It must ask who belongs to our moral community. Who has rights? Who has human dignity? Who has the moral status usually attributed to healthy adult humans? Who has the right to life?

The question is: Who belongs to us? Are human embryos included in the community? Newborns? Those with advanced dementia? Intelligent animals?

A common response to the question is to propose a philosophical criterion. Two positions dominate in bioethics. One includes all biological human beings, thereby embryos, newborns and those with advanced dementia. Everyone who belongs to the species Homo sapiens belongs to the moral community.

The second position holds that species membership is irrelevant. Instead, the focus is on mental capacities that one holds characterize a “person.” For example, rationality and self-awareness. This excludes embryos, newborns and those with advanced dementia from the community. However, a rational chimpanzee may enter. All persons belong to the moral community, regardless of species affiliation.

Kipke shows how both criteria compel us to answer the question “Who belongs to us?” in ways that contradict most people’s moral intuitions. We might accept this if the positions could be justified by strong arguments, he says. However, such arguments are missing.

What should a poor philosophical gatekeeper do then? Who should be admitted into the community? Who should be kept out?

The solution to the gatekeeper’s dilemma, Kipke suggests, is our ordinary concept of the human. When we talk about “humans,” we usually do not use the scientific concept of a biological species. Our everyday concept of a human already has moral dimensions, he points out. We cannot see a human being without seeing a living person belonging to our community. According to this third position, all humans belong to the moral community.

The only problem is that the gatekeeper needs a criterion to distinguish the human members of the community. It is true that we have everyday uses of the word “human.” It is also true that we normally have no difficulties in distinguishing a human being. However, do these uses really contain a criterion suitable for more philosophical gatekeeper tasks? They do, according to Kipke. He holds that there is a characteristic “living human gestalt or the form of the body,” especially the face, which easily allows recognition of a human being, even when she is seriously injured and deformed.

The “living human form” would thus be the criterion. This form makes us equals in the moral community.

Kipke’s article is philosophically exciting and his criticism of the two dominant positions is revealing. Personally, I nevertheless find the still dominant preoccupation with the question “Who belongs to us?” somewhat terrifying, and perhaps even inhuman. Bioethics treats human concerns about, for example, genetics and stem cell research. Admittedly, people often express their concerns in the form of boundary issues. People who worry about the destruction of embryos in stem cell research, for example, can talk about the embryo as a human individual or as a potential person. However, addressing their worries by suggesting that our common language contains a criterion that has the authority to separate the members of the moral community will probably not still the minds of such worried and perhaps even angry humans. They need a lot more attention. Perhaps it turns out that the intellectual boundary issue concealed the living source of their concerns and made it impossible to treat the problem at its source.

I believe we need a bioethics that responds to moral concerns more humanly and communicatively than only as philosophical boundary issues. Could we not use our ordinary language to think together about the issues that worry us? To refer to an ordinary concept of the human as an arbiter that supposedly dictates the answers to bioethical boundary issues seems characteristic of a smaller community: one that is professionally preoccupied with philosophical boundary issues.

Is that not placing bioethics before life? Is it not putting the cart before the horse?

Pär Segerdahl

Kipke R. Being human: Why and in what sense it is morally relevant. Bioethics. 2019;00:1–11. https://doi.org/10.1111/bioe.12656

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Are you a person or an animal?

August 30, 2017

Pär SegerdahlThe question in the title may sound like an insult. That is, not as a question, but as something one might say in anger to reprimand someone who misbehaves.

In philosophy, the question is asked seriously, without intention of insulting. A philosopher who misbehaves at a party and is reprimanded by another guest – “Are you a person or an animal?” – could answer, shamelessly: Eh, I really don’t know, philosophers have contemplated that question for hundreds of years.

What then is the philosophical question? It is usually described as the problem of personal identity. What are we, essentially? What constitutes “me”? What holds the self together? When does it arise and when does it disappear?

According to proponents of a psychological view, we (human beings) are persons with certain psychological capacities, such as self-awareness. That psychology holds the self together. If an unusual disease made my body deteriorate, but doctors managed to transplant my mental contents (self-awareness, memories, etc.) into another body, then I would survive in the other body. According to proponents of the rival, animalist view, however, we are animals with a certain biology. An animalist would probably deny that I could survive in a foreign body.

The difference between the two views can be illustrated by their consequences for a bioethical question: Is it permissible to harvest organs from brain-dead bodies to use as transplants? If we are essentially persons with self-awareness, then we cease to exist when the brain dies. Then it should be permissible to harvest organs; it would not violate personal autonomy. If we are animals with a certain biology, however, harvesting organs may appear as using citizens as mere means in healthcare.

In an article in Ethics, Medicine and Public Health, Elisabeth Furberg at CRB questions these views on identity. She argues that both views are anthropocentric. This is easy to see when it comes to the view that we are essentially persons. The psychological view exaggerates the importance of certain supposedly unique human psychological capacities (such as the capacity for a first-person perspective), and underestimates the psychological capacities of non-human animals. According to Furberg, however, even the animalist view is anthropocentric. How!?

How can an outlook where we are essentially animals be anthropocentric? Well, because the very concept “animal” is anthropocentric, Furberg argues. It originated as a contrast to the concept “human.” It distinguishes us (morally advanced beings) from them (less worthy creatures of nature). The animalist view is unaware of its own anthropocentric bias, which comes with the concept “animal.”

At the end of the article, Furberg proposes a less anthropocentric view on identity, a hybrid view that combines the psychological and animalistic answers to the question in the title. The hybrid view is open to the possibility that even animals other than humans can have psychological identity, such as chimpanzees. If I understand Furberg correctly, she would say that many animals are just animals. A snail is identical to the snail. It has no psychological identity that could survive in another snail body. Nevertheless, a number of animals (not just humans) have an identity that goes beyond their animality. Chimpanzees and humans, and probably some other species, are such animals.

I cannot resist mentioning that I have written an article about similar issues: Being human when we are animals. There, I do not purify a metaphysical question from an insult, but investigate the insult, the reprimand.

Pär Segerdahl

Furberg, E. 2017. “Are we persons or animals? Exposing an anthropocentric bias and suggesting a hybrid view.” Ethics, Medicine and Public Health (3): 279-287

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Being humans when we are animals

March 25, 2015

Pär SegerdahlMost people know that humans are animals, a primate species. Still, it is difficult to apply that knowledge directly to oneself: “I’m an animal”; “My parents are apes.”

– Can you say it without feeling embarrassed and slightly dizzy?

In a recent paper I explore this difficulty of “bringing home” an easily cited scientific fact:

Why does the scientific “fact” crumble when we apply it directly to ourselves?

I approach this difficulty philosophically. We cannot run ahead of ourselves, but I believe that’s what we attempt if we approach the difficulty theoretically. Say, by theorizing the contrast between humans and animals as an absolute presupposition of human language that science cannot displace.

Such a theory would be as easy to cite as the “fact” and wouldn’t touch our difficulty, the dizziness we feel.

Instead, I explore a personal experience. When I visited a laboratory for ape language research, an ape named Panbanisha told me to be QUIET and later called me a MONSTER. Being reprimanded by an ape made me dizzy about my humanness and about her animality.

How did the dizziness arise? After spending some time with the apes, the vertigo disappeared. How did it disappear?

That’s investigated in the paper by asking further questions, and by recollecting aspects of the meeting with Panbanisha to which those questions drew my attention. The paper offers a philosophical alternative to theory.

Trust your uncertainty and follow your questions!

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


An ape genius, or just an ordinary talking ape?

June 12, 2013

In 2001 I travelled to Atlanta, where Sue Savage-Rumbaugh then worked with the language-competent bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha. A question I travelled with concerned the linguistic tests that I had seen in a TV-documentary, Kanzi, an ape of genius.

In these tests, the ape responds to requests in spoken English, uttered by an experimenter who – to avoid cueing Kanzi through extra-linguistic assists like gestures and gazes – stands behind his back, or sits in an adjacent room speaking through a microphone, or covers her face with a welder’s mask. The aim of this experimental design is to distill Kanzi’s comprehension of vocabulary and syntax, the essence of language.

What I wondered was this: how did the experimenters get the ape into the test situation?

In the documentary, Kanzi appears miraculously as if he were nothing but a brilliant subject of scientific experimentation, an ape genius. Sitting on a chair wearing headphones, he picks up photos of grapes, keys, potatoes, people… He responds perfectly reliably, hearing the verbal requests, “Kanzi, give Sue the picture of grapes,” and so on.

How did Kanzi become that brilliant research subject? What happened before the camera was turned on? Does Kanzi spend his days on a chair wearing headphones, just waiting for an experimenter? Probably not, but then what is the relation between his ordinary life and the test situation? Is it irrelevant, since the conditioning anyhow took place in the same kind of scientific situation?

My first question to William M. Fields, who invited me to Atlanta, was: How do you get Kanzi into the experiment? The simplicity of his answer stunned me:

  • “We ask Kanzi if he wants to work.”

In contrast to his half-sister, Panbanisha, who typically refused to play the research subject role, Kanzi usually is willing to work. Then follows negotiations about the food he will have access to during work and which activities and meetings he’ll be granted later because he admits to work.

The filmed tests have a context, but the context isn’t more science. It is Kanzi’s life with other bonobos and with the speaking humans who co-reared young bonobos together with their bonobo mothers. Kanzi is an adult, but a point can be made by comparing him with children who participate in controlled psychological experiments. These children are not raised in a lab. They have a home. Only occasionally are they taken into the lab to participate in science. This often requires quite a bit of negotiation and instruction.

Child participation in psychological experimentation exhibits home/lab duality. The child’s language develops at home and is only tested in the lab. The science that charts the child’s linguistic development doesn’t reflect the more significant context outside of the lab, where the child becomes the speaking being that is being tested.

The child’s life at home is primal. Science plays the second fiddle and doesn’t recreate the vitality that made what is scientifically tested possible.

Animal science rarely exhibits home/lab duality. The animals are conditioned in the same type of controlled situations as those in which they are tested. If an animal picks up laminated photos of keys, it is because it was trained to pick up laminated photos of keys. It doesn’t have a life with doors, cabinets and keys, independently of its scientific disciplining. But Kanzi does.

Like a child whose parents decided to contribute to psychological science, Kanzi is not disciplined as a pure research subject. He became a speaking being at home, in ordinary ape-human ways of life (in an ape-human culture). Only occasionally is he talked and instructed into the lab, to participate in activities that don’t reflect the vibrant home situations in which he became who he is.

Kanzi is no aberrant ape genius. He is just an ordinary talking ape. Home/lab duality enabled him to become one.

(Want to read more? Here are some books.)

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


Fruitful uncertainty

February 27, 2013

We tend to imagine the minds of great thinkers and scientists as fountains of knowledge, intelligence and certainty. That is what their brilliant works make us believe. The products are perfect; therefore, the minds that produced them must have been perfect.

Well, the opposite may also be true. Brilliant works can stem from an ability to endure ignorance, lack of clear-sightedness, and uncertainty – because such shortcomings motivate serious counter-attacks and hard work. Striving to overcome uncertainty and shortcomings can result in the most brilliant works.

These so-called “great minds” may have been people who loved their uncertainty because it alerted them to what requires more attention: “Here is a difficulty I must take more seriously!” But that is a moral quality rather than an intellectual one!  I just read some fascinating quotations from Linnaeus in Giorgio Agamben’s book, The Open, making me sense that moral quality in Linnaeus.

It must have been confusing for Linnaeus that he couldn’t find a given characteristic that clearly separates humans from apes. Still, he seemed to enjoy this uncertainty about our humanness and even teased those who couldn’t accept it by suggesting that the only difference he could find was a ridiculous dental detail without systematic significance:

  • “… just as the shoemaker sticks to his last, I must remain in my workshop and consider man and his body as a naturalist, who hardly knows a single distinguishing mark which separates man from the apes, save for the fact that the latter have an empty space between their canines and their other teeth.”

Linnaeus’ ability to stay with this uncertainty is further reflected in the name he gave our species: he didn’t add a given identifying characteristic to the generic name Homo.

I always believed that sapiens was meant as a given characteristic, just as Aristotle saw rationality as the distinguishing mark of the human. Agamben points out, however, that Linnaeus used the philosophical imperative nosce te ipsum, know yourself. The name Homo sapiens doesn’t appear until in the tenth edition of Systema naturae, and probably retains the sense of an imperative rather than a given characteristic.

In the absence of a given distinguishing mark, being human was for Linnaeus a task, Agamben suggests. The breathtaking name that Linnaeus originally gave our species, then, was:

  • Homo-know-yourself!

Only someone who is at home in uncertainty and is able to think in it would dare to “classify” our species as an imperative.

Although I’m sure that Descartes had the same moral character and derived nourishment from his own doubts, he was confident about what separates him as a human from the animals. He had mind, reason, while the animals were automata.

Linnaeus couldn’t share Descartes’ confidence and teasingly wrote:

  • “Surely, Descartes never saw an ape” (Cartesius certe non vidit simios.)

Don’t be ashamed of your uncertainty but value it as an asset!

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking


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