Monthly Archives: September 2016

My Shredded Tyre: Conscious and Unconscious Decisions

thAbout a year ago I shredded a tyre. The pressure must have been quite low and I didn’t see the tyre deflating over time. So heading down the freeway at 100km/h, I shredded a tyre. Three weeks ago, I was taking some friends to the airport and one of them remarked that a rear tyre looked a bit flat (yes, the same position as the one I shredded… in my defence, that part of the car is in my ‘blind spot’ in my garage, so it is ‘very hard to see’ if the tyre is deflating). I hadn’t noticed it previously and when I checked the pressure at the garage, it was down from 29 psi to 11. I topped up the pressure but didn’t take the tyre to the garage to have it checked for a leak. Two nights ago, I had a dream where I was driving along the freeway and the same rear tyre shredded. Yesterday I was driving along in my car when a memory of my dream came back to me (what did I see that prompted that memory?) and I remembered I hadn’t re-checked the tyre pressure. I drove straight to a garage and checked the tyre pressure: it was down to 19 psi. Today I will book the car into a garage and get the slow leak repaired.

How ‘conscious’ was my decision to have the tyre repaired?

Freewill and Determinism: mental illness, mental health, and the gestalt of freedom

Over the past few weeks, I have presented the main positions in the classic philosophical conundrum of freewill and determinism. On the one hand, there are determinists (also called ‘hard determinist’) who, believing in a universe explicable in terms of scientifically determined causal laws, assert that there is no such thing as ‘free will’: our belief in this idea is a mere delusion. On the other hand, there are those libertarians (also called ‘voluntarism’) who, believing in moral and legal responsibility, assert the existence of free will and deny the universality of causal laws. The opposition between these two positions is known as incompatibilism. In an attempt to resolve this dilemma, there is the position known as compatibilism (also called ‘soft determinism’) where it is argued that the experience of freedom is compatible with the belief in universal causal laws. So, in the classic exposition of this problem, we have the three doctrines of libertarianism, soft determinism, and hard determinism.

The resolution of this conundrum turns on our experience of free choice. While we are quite happy to accept that many of our decisions are determined by various factors, many of us wish to retain the belief that some of our choices are, in some meaningful way, ‘free’. We don’t like to think that we are, as in the words of Sam Harris, a ‘bio-chemical puppet’. One idea I have used recently to explore this issue is that of vulnerability, my argument being that since being vulnerable is something significant that we choose to do, it is also something which leads to greater freedom in our personal lives. The more vulnerable we are, the more open we are to different scenarios and alternatives in our lives. Another way that we can explore the issue of determinism and free will is through the distinction between mental illness and mental health.

On the hard determinist position, since we have no free will, then mental health and mental illness have nothing at all to do with anything we allegedly ‘choose’ to do. So the meaning of mental health cannot lie in our capacity to choose and the meaning of mental illness cannot lie in our belief that we are compelled to act in certain ways. Mental health and illness, on this analysis, are simply constructions imposed by mental ‘health’ professionals. This analysis would also imply that there can be no meaningful sense of responsibility in moral or legal matters: the actions of a sociopathic murderer are just as determined as the actions of the judge who sentences him.

On the libertarian position, everyone, in principle, has free will and therefore we all have the capacity to choose to be mentally healthy or mentally ill. This is the position of the existential psychiatry of Thomas Szasz: the client who comes into therapy chooses whether to embrace mental health or remain in illness. On this analysis, the individual is morally and legally responsible for their action and hence deserving of any punishment or reward that might come to them.

On the soft determinist or compatibilist position, there is the recognition of ‘shades of grey’ between being determined in one’s actions and exercising autonomous choice. At one extreme, the murderous sociopath has little or no control of his impulses; at the other extreme, the sentencing judge deliberates on the verdict of the jury and rationally ‘chooses’ an appropriate punishment.

One common assumption in all of these positions is the view that freedom is a psychological entity within the individual. However it may be the case that freedom is social – that it is a characteristic of social interaction, rather than an individual will. One way of expressing this position is to argue that freedom is the result of a gestalt. ‘Gestalt’ is the German word for whole or form and gives its name to the distinct philosophical view that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. What does this mean? Consider two people who each separately consider six different options to act in response to a certain common problem – some responses may be shared, some may be unique. However when they come together to discuss and exchange views, they might in fact come up with a number of new possibilities which neither had considered before. In this sense, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and this suggests the way in which freedom, and perhaps also creativity, might possibly work.

(Summary of discussion of Tuesday evening group 20th September)

Empathy and Art

Empathy is a key constituent of any meaningful human relationship. The author of the article on empathy for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Lou Agosta, writes:

“Individuals [in contemporary culture] strive to bandage over the pervasive feelings of inner emptiness and feelings of being a fake in spite of the external trappings of material success. The resulting image is a Nietzschian one – everywhere fragments of persons and no-where a complete, whole human being, capable of engaging life with integrity (wholeness). The antidote is empathy. Empathy functions as an on-going process of distinguishing, sustaining, and strengthening the structure of the self. Empathy heals the self, and a well-integrated self is one able to sustain the commitments required to keep one’s word, avoid cheating and self-medication with alcohol and recreational drugs, productively engage in satisfying activities and relatedness to others, and contribute to the community. Empathy is a form of receptivity to the other; it is also a form of understanding. In the latter case, one puts oneself in the place of the other conceptually. In the former, one is open experientially to the affects, sensations, emotions that the other experiences.”


While the writer no doubt over-states the case for the role of empathy in healing the many ills of modern culture, he is no doubt correct in recognizing that the capacity to see into the emotional life of another is both a means of improving social relations between people, and, is also a means for healing the ruptures and wounds of our own individual self.


The origin of the word ‘empathy’ is that of a conjunction of the Greek em (‘in’) + pathos (‘feeling’). The history of the word pathos in western culture is curious. On the one hand, it figures significantly in discussions of sickness as in the suffix –pathology. On the other hand, it is also the root of our common word for emotion, passion. The one word then seems to signify both sickness and emotion. The reason for this unusual situation is that the ancient Greeks thought that to be governed purely by ones emotions was indeed to be mentally ill. The philosophic tradition since the time of Plato has that of emphasising the important of reason in governing the emotions.

Empathy also plays an important role in the appreciation of art. If empathy is defined as the seeing into another person’s emotional life, then aesthetic empathy is seeing into the emotional life of a work of art. This might take many forms – music, drama, literature, painting, etc – but the fundamental point would be the same: we appreciate art when we enter into the emotional life of the work of art.

However this should not be confused with subjectivism in aesthetics – the view that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder. If that view were true, then there would be no beauty independent of the subjective perceiver which would imply that beauty really doesn’t exist at all.

Such a world would be a very dull one.

(Discussion summary of Tuesday morning group at Burleigh Heads 20th Sept 2016.)

The Inconsistent Tetrad of Theism

An ‘inconsistent tetrad’ is the presentation of four statements of which the truth of any three entails the falsity of the fourth. It is a method of demonstrating that the holding of four apparently consistent propositions is in fact inconsistent.


For example, Christians typically believe the following four propositions:


  1. Any act that God commits, causes, commands, or condones is morally permissible.
The Bible reveals to us many of the acts that God commits, causes, commands, and condones.
  3. It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit, cause, command, or condone, acts that violate our moral principles.
  4. The Bible tells us that God does in fact commit, cause, command, or condone, acts that violate our moral principles.


If 1,2,3 are true then 4 is false

If 1,2,4 are true then 3 is false

If 1,3,4 are true then 2 is false

If 2,3,4 are true then 1 is false


Therefore, Christians cannot consistently believe all of the above four propositions.


The Cosmological Proofs for the Existence of God

The Cosmological Proof for the Existence of God – 1 (Classic version of Thomas Aquinas)


Any thing that exists, exists as part of a larger group.


The largest possible group is the universe (the ‘universe’ is defined as the totality of all things)


Since, by definition, nothing can exist outside the universe, whatever created the universe cannot be a physical thing from within the universe


Therefore whatever created the universe is non-physical and must be a spiritual entity


This spiritual entity can only be God


The Cosmological Proof for the Existence of God – 2 (Modern version implied by quantum theory)


At the moment of the ‘big bang’, physical Space-Time was created


Physical Space-Time is the existence of material things and objects


Therefore, all material objects were created after the big bang


However to speak of the ‘moment’ of the big bang, implies that there was a moment which preceded that moment.


Therefore, whatever existed prior to the big bang, must be non-material. That is, there must be spiritual (non-material) existence prior to the big bang.


This spiritual existence can only be God


The Cosmological Proof for the Existence of God will be discussed Wednesday 21st September 10.30-Noon at Edgewater, Isle of Capri. $5

Freedom through vulnerability


In this culture, the thing we fear the most is being vulnerable. If others know our secrets, our ‘weak spots’, then we will be conquered and overcome. So we must construct a ‘mask’ that, we believe, will conceal our vulnerabilities and hence insulate ourselves from pain. But our mask becomes a rigid face which we are increasingly unable to change – we become determined by the mask we have constructed and we lose our freedom.

How, then, do we regain our capacity for freedom? Simple. We become vulnerable.

Try this. Write down five things, whether they are desires or hopes, fears or shames, that we would not easily share with another person. And when you have written them down, say them out loud to yourself. Now ask yourself, what prevents me sharing these secrets with other people?

We tell stories and construct narratives around key events in our lives. We might say that an something happened to us that changed our life and often these events are part of our secret narrative. Less often, we will say that we chose an action that changed our life. Less often do we say that these are my vulnerabilities and that I can change the story I tell about these secrets. In my new narrative, I can be the actor and not the victim. In my new narrative, I can become free through sharing my vulnerabilities.

‘Freedom through Vulnerability’ is the subject of our next talk at Philosophy in the Pub on Tuesday 20th September 5.30-7.00pm at the Back Deck, Robina Tavern. $5

What is empathy?

th-1What is empathy? Empathy is ‘feeling with’ another person: it is entering into the emotional life of that person. How do you feel empathy for another person? Empathy is achieved by being self-aware of the ways you experience another person, as a person. Once you have achieved this self-awareness, then you are free to enter into the emotional life of that person. To do this, you need to be curious: you need to listen, to ask questions, and to be sensitive to that person’s emotional state.

Empathy is achieved when you can accurately reflect back to the person the nature of their emotional life. The practice of empathy is central to our experience of intimacy with other people. Without the capacity to empathise with the experiences of others, we can fall into feelings of narcissism, emptiness, and fragile self-esteem, which, in turn, can lead to egocentric and addictive behaviours.

Empathy is most commonly confused with sympathy. When we sympathise with another person, we typically want to do something to ease their suffering or pain, while when we empathise we simply want to understand the nature of their emotional state without any commitment to acting. Empathy should also be distinguished from pity which is a feeling of superiority about another’s suffering. The practice of empathy can both sustain the emotional structure of our self and lead to genuine and authentic relations with others.

Empathy will be the subject for discussion at the next ‘Philosophy on the Beach’ on Tuesday 20th September 10.30-Noon at Burleigh Beach. Meet outside Burrough Barista. $5

Death Café


How do you imagine your own death? What music would you like played at your funeral? Who would you like to attend? How would you like your body to be disposed of? What would you like your epitaph to be? These are some of the questions that a Death Café considers.


The subject of death is often seen as one of the last great taboos. We feel easy today talking about past taboos such as religion, politics, and sex, but death is not something we typically discuss in polite conversations. It is still seen as a macabre and morbid subject. A Death Café changes all that.


Based on the Swiss ‘Café Mortel’ experiment, the Death Café movement became established in England in 2011 and has since spread around the world. The practice of the Death Café is remarkably simple. It gathers people together in a friendly atmosphere and asks them to reflect and share what they might value in their own death experience. There is no judgement and no agenda. Participants are simply asked to listen and accept in a respectful manner and to share their own beliefs and values openly.


The results are quite remarkable. Death Café conversations are typically animated and humorous. There is often surprise at the variety of opinions expressed and the ways people imagine their own ‘exits’ might occur. Naturally enough, conversations might turn to contentious subjects such as assisted suicide, but this only occurs when individuals raise them as part of their own belief and value system. These views are noted and respected and the conversation then moves on to the next person.


A Death Café is a new way we can talk about death and learn from other people about the great diversity of opinion on death and dying.


The next Death Cafe will be held at the Gold Coast Arts Centre Cafe Monday 19th September 5.30-7.00pm $10 Bookings essential through Philosophy in Paradise on meetup, Facebook, or through this site


The wounded healer


There is an ancient Greek myth that tells the story of the centaur, Chiron, who accidentally becomes infected by the blood of the poisonous creature, the Hydra. Being immortal, Chiron cannot die, although the wound from his infection does not heal and so he sets out on a quest to find a cure for his ailment. He travels far and wide and consults many wise healers and while none can provide a cure, he himself becomes a revered healer and cures many of their pain and sickness.

This myth of the ‘wounded healer’ has become a metaphor for the journey that any psychological healer must undertake – ‘physician, heal thyself’. The famous psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, believed that every therapist or counsellor must undertake the process of healing their own wounds before they can effectively heal others.

Jung expressed himself clearly on this when he wrote: “We could say, without too much exaggeration, that a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor’s examining himself, for only what he can put right in himself can he hope to put right in the patient. This, and nothing else, is the meaning of the Greek myth of the wounded physician.”

Jung’s point is that we all have wounds from our childhood and that many therapists undertake their healing work precisely because of the presence of these wounds. But do we even need the healer? Are we not responsible for our own cure? Do we not need to share the vulnerability of our wound so that we can become whole again? Do we not need to heal ourselves?