Winning essays gold (3)

  • Paarthvi Raj Singh, Delhi Public School, Noida, India
  • Christoffer Døhlen, Lillestrøm vgs, Norway
  • Déri Barnabás, Czuczor Gergely Bencés Gimnázium és Kollégium, Hungary

 

PAARTHVI RAJ SINGH, DELHI PUBLIC SCHOOL, NOIDA, INDIA

“Not only is there no guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say of its eternal survival after death; but, in any case, this assumption completely fails to accomplish the purpose for which it has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life?”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4312

 

In the above mentioned quotation from Wittgenstein’s first and arguably most notable work, the Austrian philosopher questions the relevance and rationality behind the theological and philosophical belief in the immortality of the soul. He not only highlights the noticeable lack of empirical evidence and scientific investigation behind the concept of immortality but also challenges the claim that this belief is pertinent to answering any philosophical questions at all. Through my essay I hope to establish whether believing in immortality helps us rationalise any philosophical argument and if believing in immortality has any bearing on our perception of the meaning of life.

Recognising the nebulous scope of the topic at hand, it is imperative that I establish a framework within which I shall be exploring the belief of immortality. There are two main arguments I hope to examine through my essay, the first being whether we have been able to rationally prove that immortality is integral to the study of different tenets of philosophy, and the second is whether believing in immortality furthers the cause of philosophical inquiry into the meaning of life. Thus, while I believe that the debate on the existence of the soul, whether it is in fact immortal or not, and what this immortality means are wholly relevant to the field of philosophy, they do not merit discussion in this essay. For the purpose of this discourse I will be presupposing that the soul is an immortal entity that is a personal, spiritual continuation of one’s physical existence.

1. RATIONALITY BEHIND IMMORTALITY

Theology merely points to faith as being the reason why one should believe that the human soul is immortal, and does not believe that this needs to be further rationalised. However, in philosophy, some pragmatic arguments have been presented in order to warrant the belief of immortality ,that is to say the assumption of an immortal soul is relevant to the philosophy upon which these theories have been based. I will be presenting three such arguments and based on the relevance of immortality to these arguments, adjudging whether the belief has succeeded to find grounds in philosophy.

1. It was at first argued that if one could establish a rational belief in the existence of God, then this could simply be extended to immortality of the soul. Pascal’s wager, one of the most notable philosophical arguments for believing in immortality of the soul, was formed around this proposition. It simply states that it is easier to believe in the existence of God and immortality than to not as if they are true one will be rewarded for believing, and if they aren’t it will have no bearing on one’s life. 

This theory has been refuted on multiple grounds, mainly because it has no scope for plurality of God or religion. It is thus not convenient or correct to resign ourselves to the idea of immortality just as an extension of a belief in God.

2. Another reason stated for believing in immortality is that it incentivizes people to act morally or do the right thing because they believe that they will be rewarded for it by an all knowing entity after their soul leaves their physical body. Hence, the purpose of immortality here is to act as a guiding motive for moral conduct. 

While undoubtedly appealing, it also raises the question that can a moral act carried out with the inherent expectation of certain recompensation be considered truly altruistic? This is also contradicted by the theory of secular ethics, which states that logic and humanity must be the driving forces behind morality as opposed to supernatural forces. 

3. The last possible explanation that might be provided in order to rationalise a belief in immortality of our souls is that it is an effective coping mechanism against the fear of death. This was exemplified by Socrates in Phaedo as even during his last few moments on earth, as documented by Plato, Socrates was calm and unphased because he did not equate death with the end of his existence. Thus, the belief is viewed as a source of psychological comfort.

Not only have all Platonic conceptions of immortality since been refuted, this line of argument is probably the flimsiest as it encourages denial of logic and reasoning, and trades them in for ease and ignorance. A much more rational way of confronting the fear of death would be to either accept its inevitability or to think along the lines of Epicurus’s idea that as long as you are; death is not, and when you are not; death is.

From the three theories and their respective refutations, it can be conclusively derived that believing human souls are immortal is not justifiable on the grounds of religion, morality, or psychology. This belief has failed to align itself with and lend countenance to any of these three philosophies. Thus, it is safe to say that Wittgenstein is correct in maintaining that the belief of immortality has failed to provide a lucid basis for any philosophical argument and has hence failed to achieve the fundamental purpose for which it was introduced to philosophy.

2. IMMORTALITY AND THE MEANING OF LIFE

In his quote, Wittgenstein states that despite the scientific improbability of an immortal soul, the concept would have still been germane to philosophy if it aided the process of our investigation into the true meaning of life. It may be hypothesised that an immortal soul is powerful enough to negate the theory of nihilism which states that our existence is essentially devoid of any meaning in the grand scheme of things. This implies that our existence in our physical form i.e. all our thoughts, actions, and feelings is not pointless as it informs the journey of our soul even after the death of the body. However, this theory is self-contradictory as eternal existence even in a spiritual form cannot avoid becoming tedious, boring, and eventually pointless. Thus, if the reason one chooses to believe in immortality is that it provides meaning to our physical existence, then we also must acknowledge the fact that eventually even spiritual existence is nothing but pointless in the grand scheme of things. In fact, temporally unlimited existence may also have the converse effect of actually making life less valuable by removing its finity and urgency, and in doing so it not only fails to provide our existence with a purpose, but actually takes away any personal meaning we might associate with being. Thus, we come to the conclusion that Wittgenstein’s proposition that the ambiguously defined concept of eternal life does not help in our pursuit of a concrete definition of the meaning of life and that eternal spirituality would be as, if not more, enigmatic than ephemeral physicality.

During the course of this essay I have expounded my own skepticism and disbelief in the possibility of an immortal soul, which echo Wittgenstein’s position, by refuting the claims that the belief has any logical or philosophical basis. However, while my rationality is satisfied in disproving this belief, I still find that my humanity empathizes with it as it is nothing but a manifestation of the apprehensiveness of the human condition to come to terms with the futility and consequent absurdity of existence. Hence, while I maintain that there is no truly pragmatic explanation behind the belief, I understand why one might resign themselves to it in the face of existential uncertainty. 

 The irony of it all is that decades have gone by since Wittgenstein passed away, yet I find my present physical existence to be all consumed in proving his thoughts that are decidedly not connected to any physical entity anymore. Wittgenstein is long gone, but his thoughts persist, does that Ntraverse temporal and physical limitations in its own right? Thus, I find that in my attempt to prove the improbability of life beyond the end of our physical existence I have come the closest I possibly could have to observing “Immortality”.

 

CHRISTOFFER DØHLEN, LILLESTRØM VGS, NORWAY

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth of system of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 1

 

John Rawls, one of the most influential moral philosophers in modern times, insisted on the fundamental importance of justice when discussing societal issues. This is, however, not a very new idea. The Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato were extremely concerned with justice as the basis for political thought. After all, what is Plato’s Republic, the first work on political philosophy in Western history, but a book on justice and a just society? In the modern world, however, it might be argued that pragmatism and the emphasis of practical solutions to social problems are relevant. Instead of pursuing some abstract form of justice, politicians and activists in the Western world are usually occupied with economic and fiscal matters, placing the “practical” over the “moral”. Recently the Norwegian fiscal minister published the suggested State budget, and in her speech, she argued why the budget was economically feasible rather than “virtuous” or “just”. Similar attitudes are present all over the world. Rawls tells us that this way of thinking is wrong, and that justice is a greater value than economic efficiency. Is he right? How should we think about justice compared to other ends and values?

First, we must identify and analyze justice itself. In this quote, Rawls states that justice is the first virtue of social institutions, comparing it to the role of truth in intellectual exercise and thought. A virtue, as Aristotle put it, is a habit which is considered good. A virtuous person is thus not someone who engages in a good action at a certain moment but doing good regularly. If you assist an old lady in crossing a road once, you are performing a deed, but if you do these seven hundred times, you are performing virtue. In societal terms, this means that members of society in general, either collectively or individually, do moral or good habits. It should be noted that being virtuous is not doing what you believe is good but doing what is good. Hence, it could be argued that virtue, and consequently justice, presupposes an objective moral standard to determine which actions are good or bad. Now, if justice is a virtue, as Rawls insisted, then a person is considered just if he regularly engages in certain actions that are inherently good, i.e. just actions. A just society is thus a society embodying habits which together forms justice.

As Rawls clearly implies, justice is inherently good. When a person tells you that “I was treated unjustly by that bureaucrat.” we intuitively understand that to be something wrong. If something is just, it is necessarily moral and good, and if the thing is unjust, it is consequently wrong and unethical. Hence, regardless of the specific content of justice, it would be reasonable to suggest that justice is, by nature, inherently good and moral. However, this understanding, it may be argued, does not exclude the possibility of it coming into conflict with other valued ends. Some actions or events might be considered materially pleasurable or practical, but simultaneously unjust. So, what should a person or society do when there is a conflict between justice and say, economic progress? Rawls says that the answer is clear, justice should always be the top priority. If certain laws and institutions are unjust, they must be eliminated, regardless of how essential they may be to fulfill some practical or economic end.

On the other side, one could answer that justice, while certainly desirable, should sometimes be compromised. In other words, there are simply some cases in which the practical and pragmatic is more important than the just. Even Plato, famous for his works on justice, states that while his description of a just society is desirable in theory, it is reasonable the reject it in our non-theoretical, practical world. That is, while an idea might work in theory, it does not properly function in our own societies. In our world, practical solutions are important. Justice belongs to the intellectual world. Today, many right-wing politicians use this reasoning when opposing socialists and communists, that these left-wing ideals might be theoretically just, but they are unrealistic and impractical, and should therefore be dismissed.

However, one could make the case that such an objection is self-refuting.   If you insist that “this course of action, although just, ought to be rejected on pragmatic grounds.” you have, in that sentence, a moral judgement. By stating that justice or goodness should sometimes be discarded, you are implying that it is sometimes good to reject the just. Hence, ironically, you are claiming that it is just to reject justice! By attempting to criticize justice itself, you are making your own values the content of what you supposedly reject. As I explained earlier, justice is necessarily something which is good and moral. Thus, to state that sometimes you ought not to do the just, you are implying that it is sometimes moral to do the immoral, and the contradiction is revealed.

Let me demonstrate with an example. Jens Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian prime minister, is currently the General Secretary of the military alliance NATO. In Stoltenberg’s earlier years, he was opposed to Norwegian membership to this organization, possibly on moral grounds. By working as its secretary, his position has obviously changed. Now, let’s say that you debate Stoltenberg on whether Norway ought to be a member of NATO or not. You take the negative stand, and Stoltenberg the affirmative. Stoltenberg might argue: “Although I agree with you that soldiers have acted unjustly in many wars throughout the decades in the name of NATO, and I can therefore agree that NATO is morally unjust, Norway ought still to become a member because this secures peace and harmony for the Norwegian people. True, I reject justice on this matter, but sometimes we ought to do that for the wellbeing of our people.” You, eager to respond, can thus point out that Stoltenberg has committed a contradiction in his very words. You may ask him: “If the just is inherently good, and we ought sometimes to reject justice for the wellbeing of our country, are you not arguing that it is good, and therefore just, to prioritize the wellbeing of our country? That it is sometimes just to discard justice?” If Stoltenberg argues that we ought to become a member of NATO, he is necessarily implying that it is good and just to enter that membership. He thinks that “securing peace and harmony of the Norwegian people” is itself a good. True, he might still argue that NATO commits regularly unjust actions, but he is simply making a compromise between what is less just and what is more just. What Stoltenberg is actually arguing is that it is more just for Norway to be a member compared to not be a member of NATO. In other words, it is, according to Stoltenberg, deeply unjust to put the Norwegian peace and harmony at risk, more so than the unjust actions of certain NATO soldiers. True, you both would disagree on which course of action is just, i.e. the specific content of justice, but you do agree that justice itself should be valued. 

The conclusion is that John Rawls’ statement could be rationally defended in the face of pragmatistic objections. The just must always be prioritized over other goals and arguing the opposite leads one into self-refutation and contradiction. Thus, we might respond to the pragmatists that they do value justice above other goals, it is simply the case that they consider the pragmatic and the practical itself to be just. Defending a course of action implies a normative proposition, something that you ought to do, which itself implies that such action is just or good. Justice is, by definition, something that ought to be valued.

 

DÉRI BARNABÁS, CZUCZOR GERGELY BENCÉS GIMNÁZIUM ÉS KOLLÉGIUM, HUNGARY

“The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie—the truth lies outside, in what we do”

Slavoj Žižek, Violence: six sideways, 2008, p. 47

 

The quote above is an answer to a question that has been asked ever since humans exist: how is it that people often do things that are, besides from not bringing them any benefit, harmful to others? In the big picture, how can such monstrous atrocities such as the Holocaust be explained, granted they actually leave any chance of faith in the existence of rational political subjects? Ultimately, how can people pass by each other in complete alienation, not noticing the suffering they cause to each other? The answer to this question lies in Slavoj Žižek’s quote. 

According to him, the ethical sphere can be divided in two parts, which are the inside and the outside. The inside is the subjective narrative and reasoning of our actions, which is separately given in every person. Meanwhile, the outside is the plane of the actual actions being done, the very object of the narrative of the inside. To put it in real terms, a person’s view of themselves as a good friend is the internal narrative, while their lack of any care towards their associates is the outside action 

From this division, Žižek comes to the conclusion that the mentioned irrationality of people stem from an over-reliance on their internal narrative and their lack of attention to their actual outside action; to word it simply, it all comes from a sort of stubbornness about our own preconceived ideas without seeing their actual effect. A recent psychological study from a British university has confirmed this idea: according to the researchers, people lacking metacognition (the skill which is responsible for the recognition of our wrong ideas) tended to hold more extreme political views. A parallel with the division above could easily be drawn between a lack of metacognition and an over-reliance on internal narrative; in fact, there’s also a parallel between the stubbornness mentioned above and extremism: it might even be the case that extremist people are merely stubborn about their principles, as extremism is not something tied to a certain extreme position on the left-right spectrum (there are people whom we could legitimately call extremist centrists), but rather to a lack of open perspective to any kind of other experience than their own, narrated by themselves through their principles. 

The obvious historical example is the case of Adolf Eichmann. Having been the main perpetrator of the Holocaust, directly responsible for millions of deaths, he showed no remorse or guilt when faced with his acts on his trial, claiming that he was only doing his duty. In fact, he believed he was following the Kantian categorical imperative by sticking to his obligations. Hannah Arendt, a philosopher and a Jew having fled Germany herself, was a close spectator of the trial, describing Eichmann’s emotional distance from the genocide carried out by him as the banality of evil. Of course, it is not the act of evil that Arendt claims to be banal; rather, it is the perpetrator of that evil who is banal. Eichmann didn’t consider the suffering of the Jewish people a single time in his life, even though he was the principal cause of it. Instead, he kept himself to his duty, signing papers and sending millions to extermination camps without making a single ethical judgement about his acts, except for the one that he was obeying the orders given to him. In the Žižekian terms described above, the internal narrative here is Eichmann’s ‘tunnel vision’ of doing his own duty, while on the outside lies the horror of the Holocaust. 

Here, a puzzling dilemma arises: if Eichmann honestly believed he was not guilty after being responsible for the largest genocide in history, who are we to say that our own acts are morally right? If Eichmann couldn’t see the enormous list of atrocities linked to him, why could we notice the comparably little bad we commit in our everyday lives? To Žižek, this is an irresolvable contradiction. He disposes of the internal narrative, claiming it “is fundamentally a lie” and that “the truth lies outside”, that is, in our acts. What is this “truth” exactly? It can’t be, according to the traditional definition, a collection of statements corresponding to the actual state of the objects they are describing: it was exactly these statements that should correspond to the reality of objects that we’ve disposed of by putting the internal narrative away. Probably, truth in this case refers to the Maoist (not surprising considering the enormous influence of Alan Badiou, a Maoist, on Žižek’s thought) conception of truth arising from social praxis, verified by its social applicability; thus, concentrating only on the world of action, that is, the outside. Žižek’s solution to this problem is, although ingenious, fraught with negative consequences. First, is the very criteria of social applicability not something we seek in our internal narrative? Of course, some acts are undeniable, however their interpretation varies considerably which means that their social applicability depends on the side we take in a struggle. In this way, this view of truth has to concede to a sort of perspectivism, with a separate truth for each side of a struggle from which it is socially ‘extracted’. Thus, Eichmann wasn’t sentenced to death for his crimes under the name of an everlasting truth of justice, as his acts were right from a Nazi perspective; rather, he was sentenced to death by the enemies of Nazism doing their duty, just as he did, based on their own sense of justice. 

Furthermore, the more important problem with this theory is that it rejects ethics and focuses completely on politics. Without the internal narrative, intention doesn’t have a role; thus, the crime of a person murdering somebody unwillingly out of a mental disability is the same as somebody murdering a person deliberately. It is evident that the very idea of intention and consequently responsibility that Žižek disposes plays a central role in ethics; without them, ethics is impossible. To paraphrase Adorno, according to Žižek, “There can’t be ethics after Auschwitz” as the stains left by the Holocaust on our faith in the ability of our internal narrative to make ethical judgements are too large for us to believe that we can ever rationally ground ethics.  

For many, this rejection of ethics would be an overly generous concession to make, especially because it can be avoided. The main concern about the viability of ethics here is the excessive interference of our internal narrative in our ethical judgements. What if, however, we defined the basic principle of ethics as openness towards the Other, that is, to see through our internal narratives and try to bring them into accord with those of the other person, so can have an intersubjective understanding of our actions? Assuredly, we can’t let go completely of our self-centredness, as it is necessary to a degree for survival; but how does an infinite goal make striving worthless?  This is the question somebody rejecting ethics has to ask themselves. In fact, it’s a false assumption to believe that ethics is capable of presenting a perfect goal and a clear guide to reach it: in our history, there hasn’t been a faultless ethical system, and probably there will never be; as for the perfect person to completely uphold its regulations, the question gets even easier. 

To conclude, I’ve analysed Žižek’s claim on the primacy of the outside and on the inside being “fundamentally a lie”, pinpointing the exact historical problematic it’s trying to answer. Furthermore, I’ve shown the consequences of this theory, namely a sort of political perspectivism and a complete rejection of ethics for political struggle. I’ve ended the essay by proposing an ethics of openness towards the Other and the harmonization of our internal 

narratives with those of the other person, constating the infinity of its project while maintaining that ethical systems are in no way meant to give a clear-cut guide to life. Ultimately, I argue that finding rationality in history, politics and their subjects is a possible and worthwhile endeavour without having to dispose of ethics and resort to a partisan notion of truth lying in our actions, as per Žižek.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s