Random thoughts on random topics

Den Oever

On unconditional commitment

Dreyfus, Kierkegaard, ‘unconditional commitment’. Remarkable thing about the case of Abraham is that we do not consider the issue from Isaac’s point of view. What would he have said? “I’d rather have a despairing Buddhist as a father than this unconditionally committed Christian …”? He might have, and that’s enough. The unconditional commitment of Abraham to his God might go against whatever views Isaac has concerning the way he wants to lead his life, and that really should be reason enough for us to reject, not just this particular unconditional commitment of Abraham’s, but the very concept itself. Given the fact that we lead our lives with others, and that hence, whether we like it or not, our actions directly or indirectly influence the lives of those others, an unconditional commitment, precisely because it is unconditional, i.e., also not conditioned by concerns about others, is intrinsically morally wrong. This is independent of the moral status of actual effects of some particular unconditional commitment, it is an objection to the concept as such.

My guess is that the concept is appealing for reasons quite similar to those that make people susceptible to the idea of living in ‘historical times’, witnessing ‘turning points in history’, and so on (Heidegger). We want our lives to be dramatic, exciting, important. Whereas in reality they are ordinary, humdrum, inconsequential, even if they turn out to make a difference. That sounds contradictory, but it is not. The point is: what is a decisive moment is decided by history (i.e., by reality in its temporal dimension and complexity), not by us, and it is hardly ever possible for us to discern while we are witnessing it.  Too often an event is labelled ‘historical’, something that ‘changes the world as we know it’ by contemporaries, and most of those events turn out to be completely unimportant. At best some of them may become regarded as symbolic for a much more complex and extended sequence of events. History is complex, much too complex for us who are witnessing it to grasp, and often also too complex for those who have the benefit of hindsight to fathom completely. There is no communis opinio among historians about the majority of the events that make up our history, not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of their sheer complexity combined with the unavoidable multiplicity of perspectives. So even if a certain event or action does make a significant difference, the claim of those participating in it that it does, in most cases will be completely unfounded.

The idea of an unconditional commitment is based on a similar misunderstanding of our lives: appearance to the contrary notwithstanding, it places us, as an individual, in the centre of things. The unconditional commitment is ours, even where (or should we say, precisely because?) it involves a complete surrender to God. As such it displays a complete disregard of the fundamental given that our life is always related to that of others, even if we live alone, in the remotest place on earth. Given that, whatever commitment we make to live our life in accordance with, it needs take into account others and therefore  can never be unconditional. The alternative is a fundamental dismissal of others as worthy of moral, ethical concern, something that unavoidably leads to nihilism. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 21/05/2003

Random thoughts on random topics


On the relation between experience and theoretical explanation

The ultimate justification of a theoretical explanation resides in the fact that it changes our experience. It allows us, not only to see things differently, but better: for our understanding of things is in the way we experience them. In that sense theories are a means, not an end in themselves.

A good example seems to be provided by certain mathematical theories, in particular geometrical ones, that, when really understood, change our ways of perceiving objects and their relationships. Or rather, allow us to perceive them differently. It is this added freedom of perception that deepens our understanding: things are not just like this, they are much more.

Similarly, mythologies, mystical explanations, good philosophy. (Is there something of this in Wittgenstein’s  remarks on Frazer?)

But, of course, this will work only if we realise that a new way of looking at things, a new way of experiencing them, is just that: one among many possible ways. The crux of the matter is that we should not exchange one view for another, but ‘collect’ them, exploit them, amplify them.  Of course, we can’t hold onto all of them at the same time (in  much the same way that we can’t entertain two different sets of certainties).  Which means that we should engage in flexibility,  change, train ourselves to switch back and forth, enjoying the distance in between.

To come to grips with the relation between experience and theory (in a wide sense) seems a crucial issue: experience alone will not do (pace the claims of sensualism) because experience never comes only by itself. It is always accompanied by feelings, thoughts, emotions that transcend it. (Even when we are not aware of this. This shows itself in how we act upon our experiences.) It is in this sense that we are not a database of experiential input and some calculating device. We need theory, not to knit the experiences together, but to understand that what holds it together in the first place: our own selves. But understanding ourselves in that way is not enough: the understanding remains sterile if it is not tested again in new experiences, or rather, in new ways of experiencing.

Another aspect: certain types of theories, say particle physics, or neurophysiology, are hard to fasten unto everyday experience. We may know that what looks as a solid material object is nothing but a swarm of particles, but we can not experience it in that way. Similarly, we may know that certain feelings arise from certain stimulation patterns in the brain, made possible by the production of certain neurotransmitters, but that is not an account of what we experience. This, too, points towards a distinction between the experiential aspect, or content, of an experience, and the accompaniments thereof. Experience is that total, not one of its components. And such theories as indicated above mainly pertain to the ‘data aspect’ of experiences. 

Martin Stokhof
[from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22-08-1998]

Random thoughts on random topics


Monotonicity and intensional adjectives

Suppose we have a sequence of properties N1Nn such that: N1 ⊆ … ⊆ Nn. If A is the property expressed by an extensional, i.e., subsective or intersective, adjective, it holds that (AN1) ⊆ … ⊆ (ANn). Contrariwise, for some intensional adjectives this breaks down in an interesting way: we can have A(N1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Ni) while we do not have: A(Ni+1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Nn). Example: a one-guilder piece is a coin, is a piece of currency, is a material object. A blackened one-guilder piece is a blackened coin, is a blackened piece of currency, is a blackened material object. But although a false one-guilder piece is a false coin and a false piece of currency, it is not a false material object. This shows that somewhere along the line of N1 to Nn there is a break, between different kinds of properties, say characteristic and non-characteristic ones, and that intensional qualifications such as false are a means to determine where the break occurs. 

Martin Stokhof
[from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 30/06/1998]