Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Schopenhauer 2: an old conundrum

Shortly after the previously discussed passage, Schopenhauer goes on to consider the human condition in comparison to that of the animal, concluding amongst other things, that the ability to reflect and awareness of the self is what distinguishes human from purely animal and gives us our unique capacity for suffering. This capacity stems partly from our awareness of death, but paradoxically, also confers intensities of pleasure and happiness denied to "brute" animals.

Of course, peace of mind is the price that these intensities exact upon us, and is this a price worth paying? Schopenhauer thinks so (taking us back to the old paradox of the happy pig/unhappy Socrates conundrum and its varients) but as he ruefully concludes: 'The animal lacks both anxiety and hope because its consciousness is restricted to what is clearly evident and thus to the present moment: the animal is the present incarnate. But precisely because this is so it appears in one respect truely sagacious compared with us, namely in its peaceful, untroubled enjoyment of the present: its obvious composure often puts to shame our own frequently restless and disorientated condition'.
Does our capacity for reflection deny to us the ability to enjoy the present moment (another age-old, yet curiously perennial philosophical question?) And is it a misdirection to believe that contentment should even be sought there, as the Stoics so vehemently asserted?

Schopenhauer 1: Boredom is the true threat to happiness?

In On the Suffering of the World , Schopenhauer argues that suffering is intrinsic and, even more than this, crucial to human existence. Without what he terms "Work, worry, toil and trouble", human life would have no purpose since we are designed to constantly struggle. Without this, we would either collapse through boredom or else create new and ever more harmful distractions.
In a particularly memorable passage concerning the nature of Utopia, he writes:

'Imagine this race transported to Utopia where everything grows of its own accord and turkeys fly around ready-roasted, where lovers find one another without delay and keep one another without any difficulty; in such a place some men would die of boredom or hang themselves, some would fight and kill one another, and thus they would create for themselves more suffering than nature inflicts on them as it is. Thus for a race such as this no stage, no form of existence is suitable other than the one it already possesses'.

At first glance, this may appear counter-intuitive, but does Schopenhaur have a point here? Does work, which for him is at the opposite pole of human existence from boredom, save us from self-destruction? Have we evolved to the point where the lives that we lead ideally suit our disposition to suffering, despite the fact that we believe this not to be the case?
Something to think about as we continue to seek distractions from what many have argued to be the disease of our age: boredom...

Knowledge and the Public Good

Some key questions for us to reflect on over the summer

What matters most philosophically, knowledge or the way that is attained? For example, should we use the results of Nazi experiments on humans at massively sub zero temperatures even though these results may be perfectly valid and possess and social/commercial utlity? The current consensus is that we shouldn't and the research should proceed ethically. But what does it mean for scientific research to proceed ethically?

More generally, what is the value of scientific knowledge if it causes harm?

If we see the telescope as the basis for the intercontinental ballistic missile, do we need to revisit the myth of 'Galileo the hero' in this context?

Neil Turnbull