Why is losing weight so difficult?

I’m in the middle of changing my blog layout to facilitate ebook sales. People need a landing-page for incoming links to my books, and sadly my beloved dog-lion-whatever was a bit too much to scroll through.

While you’re waiting for the inevitable upgrades, my latest article on MercatorNet looks at…you guessed it: my new book on weight loss!

The Socratic principle that “to know the good is to do the good” means that the primary cause of our struggles and suffering in life is intellectual. In other words, the surest antidote to a problem like excessive body weight is to better understand the problem itself.

The corollary is that confusion and ignorance surrounding a problem like weight loss is central to the problem.

That’s why “willpower” is such a distraction in the weight-loss debate. From an intellectualist point of view the main problem is not the strength of our will, but the clarity of the intellect that informs it. It’s not that we aren’t trying hard enough to lose weight, it’s that we don’t really understand how or why or what we are actually trying to accomplish.

We think we want to lose weight. We think we understand why it is harmful to us. But if we really understood, then we wouldn’t have to struggle and suffer in confusion.

If we really understood we would just go ahead and do it. That’s why I call my approach an enlightened one. Instead of fumbling around in the dark, relying on diet fads and fashions and incomplete information, I decided once and for all to understand the problem, knowing that if I understood it I could at last resolve it as efficiently as possible.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/19846

Is morality rational?

Bonus question: is reason moral?

Matthew asked the following question in response to our discussion of the is-ought problem:

if “there is no rational way to convince me that I ‘ought’ to do anything” then the result is that either I am not compelled to do that thing (adhering strictly to rationality as the basis for action) or I still do that thing independently of what reasons/rationality compels me to do (perhaps out of desire or inclination or external influence). This points to the question of “what is the role of reason?” when it comes to our actions or judgments.

So I wonder in what sense are reasons (or rational justification) relevant to natural law. I haven’t given this much thought but perhaps there might be something to be said about whether or not natural law fits into the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy which is typically to provide reasons or rational justifications for our judgments about what we ought to do (i.e. moral precepts), from which the is/ought problem arises.

If it is not necessary to provide a rational justification for why we ought to for example, “fulfill our essential nature”, or if somehow this whole enterprise or rational justification is based on a misconception about morality, then it would seem that reason/rationality is not essential to moral knowledge (or moral understanding) according to natural law theory and therefore natural law theory fits outside of the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy.

Do you think this distinction between natural law theory and “orthodox” moral philosophy exists?

I think the key question is “what is the role of reason?” with regard to actions and judgements.

During my ill-fated PhD studies I took a closer look at the intellectualist perspective of the will, which informs the Natural Law perspective. Aquinas is pretty much the poster-boy of intellectualism, and in his view the will is defined as the appetite for the good as perceived by the intellect. In this sense, we are hard-wired to do whatever the intellect (reason) tells us is good.

What the intellect identifies as good is an open question. A skeptic can become paralysed by moral doubt, genuinely unable to decide what is truly good. An ordinary person might think twice about eating meat after seeing some horrific mistreatment of livestock. A tasty piece of food might suddenly become unappetising when you realise your three year old son dropped it in his potty by accident.

All our choices are underpinned by reasons. But the motive force – what moves us to make choices – comes not from intellect/reason but from will.

The purpose of Natural Law is to straighten out the operation of the intellect so that the goods it presents to the will are genuine goods. In other words, it seeks to ensure that our reasons are rational ones.

But how does the intellect know what is good? Doesn’t that just bring us back to the problem of how the intellect (reason) can determine what is good and what isn’t? Won’t we just get mired in meta-ethical debates at this point?

This is a genuine problem, by which I mean a practical one in addition to a theoretical one. If good means “that which the will desires” but the will desires based on what the intellect tells us, then good must be whatever the intellect determines it to be.

But as we’ve already explained, the intellect cannot reach those kinds of determinations without a given premise. Pure reason gets us nowhere. A pure moral skeptic cannot recognise any criteria for ‘good’, and thus doubt can stymie the will, the appetite for (unknowable) good.

Nonetheless, there is a way out of this cul-de-sac. There isn’t space to turn around, but we can hit reverse and find our way back to the open road.

While it may be true that, starting from scratch, we cannot determine what is good on purely rational grounds, it is also true that we cannot justify “starting from scratch”, nor the demand for purely rational grounds.

In the first instance, this means that Aquinas and his ilk set out not to create a rationalist or skeptical ethical framework from scratch, but to determine through observation how it is that we already make choices, how we already do ethics, and whether we can improve on what we already do.

This is where the analogy to psychology is quite reasonable. Psychologists don’t really know what mental health means as some absolute or refined category. They define it in the context of people’s ordinary lives, where the line between mental health and illness is drawn fairly broadly in terms of whether or not you can get on with living.

It would be a strange and (ironically) an unreasonable step for Aquinas to decide arbitrarily that from today he would start determining good and evil from a purely skeptical premise. He’d have to – to put it crudely – be a real believer in skepticism.

Instead, he took the much more reasonable approach of looking at how people – including himself – already identified things as good or evil, and sought to find clarity in that dynamic. That doesn’t mean he abandoned reason at all, rather, he identified the reason implicit in people’s ethical choices and judgements, and found that it was coherent even if it wasn’t absolute.

That is, there’s a reason why people prefer truth over falsehood, just as they prefer eating bread over eating dirt.

In this sense, the good in its varied forms is something Aquinas discovered through observation and analysis of human behaviour (and reading Aristotle). These goods are rational, which is to say, there is an order and a proportion and an appropriate relationship between the many things consistently and coherently identified as goods.

And the reason behind them can be compelling. But compelling in the hypothetical sense that presumes we all already have this practical ‘natural’ inclination toward certain things as good for us, not compelling in the sense that these reasons can move a skeptic. But then, a skeptic is someone who has chosen to take an immovable position.So I would agree that Natural Law is outside “orthodox” modern moral philosophy, but I think the is-ought problem and the question of rational justification are just symptoms of a deeper problem.The is-ought problem in its historical context was not a response to Natural Law, but to Moral Rationalists. Ironically, the group Hume sided with sound much more like Natural Law theorists:

The moral sense theorists (Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) and Butler see all requirements to pursue goodness and avoid evil as consequent upon human nature, which is so structured that a particular feature of our consciousness (whether moral sense or conscience) evaluates the rest. Hume sides with the moral sense theorists on this question: it is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.

The ‘deeper problem’ I mention is simply that the approach to ethics changed. I’m not sure if it changed with Descartes, and the more general philosophical revolution, but change it did. As a result, subsequent theories of ethics seem to want to reproduce not Natural Law but Divine Law outside of a religious context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intuition: a logical interlude

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I’m still working on the continuation of my MBTI & Temperament-themed posts, but in the meantime an article on Mercatornet caught my eye:

Whenever someone makes a claim to you about politics or morals — anything from “Morals are all relative anyway” (which you might hear at the corner convenience store) to “No one should be required to surrender his autonomy” (which you might hear at a political theory conference) — ask these three questions.  (1) What do you mean by that?  (2) How do you know it’s true?  (3) What difference does it make?

When you ask the second question — “How do you know it’s true?” — the person to whom you are speaking should reply by giving a reason for his claim.  The reasons are the premises; the claim they are supposed to support is the conclusion.  Taken together, the premises and the conclusion make up an argument.  Here are three tests for arguments.  (1) Do the terms used in the premises have clear meanings?  (2) Is the reasoning free of fallacies?  and (3) Are the premises true?  If it passes all three tests, you can be sure that the conclusion is true.  But if it fails even one of the three tests, you know no more about whether the conclusion is true than you knew before.  Arguments that pass tests 1 and 2 are sometimes called valid whether or not they pass test 3.  Bear in mind, however, that a valid argument with false premises may still have a false conclusion.

I’ve been asked, “What if I just know the conclusion of an argument is false, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t find anything wrong with the terms, the premises, or the reasoning?”  The answer is, “Then you change your mind.”

The author is a natural law theorist, and I’ve enjoyed his work in the past. In fact he’s quite an interesting guy with the slightly intimidating name of J. Budziszewski, a Professor of Philosophy in Texas.  In the article he runs through a set of common fallacies. But what caught my attention was the last line quoted above.

Since I started looking at the Four Temperaments, I’ve wondered whether there might be temperamental differences or nuances in how people present theories, or which theories they subscribe to.

For example, my late PhD project involved looking at the Intellectualist and Voluntarist controversy throughout the history of the free will debate. The heart of the debate is whether the will is subordinate to the intellect or vice-versa.

It occurred to me that the temperaments might play a role in how people respond to this issue, albeit probably not to the objective answer. That is, I don’t think temperament means some people’s intellects are subordinate to their will, while in others the will is subordinate to the intellect. Rather, I think that some people might seem to subordinate their intellect to their will, or others might appear to be wholly subordinate to their intellect.

Let’s say voluntarism is true, but philosophy has historically attracted a great many very rigorous thinkers, people who are inclined to adhere very closely to their own reasoning, valuing coherence between beliefs and actions, and so on. These people might provide exceptions to the voluntarist rule, apparent counter-examples of individuals who seemingly can’t help but will according to their intellect.

Well, it’s possible anyway.

But what caught my eye in Professor B’s post was that final line:

I’ve been asked, “What if I just know the conclusion of an argument is false, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t find anything wrong with the terms, the premises, or the reasoning?”  The answer is, “Then you change your mind.”

A good philosopher should indeed be ready to go where evidence and reason lead. But in my experience, “just knowing” is more significant than it appears. To be fair, some people “just know” because they are too stubborn or too afraid to consider the possibility that they are wrong. For them, “I just know” really means “I want to believe”.

But for others, “I just know” means an intuited gap in the logic. It points to a flaw that the discursive intellect may be yet to identify or clarify. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t verify the intuition, or that it will necessarily end in vindication of our original position. Sometimes it points to a hidden assumption that is tripping us up, or an expectation that may be holding us back.

Yet there are also occasions when intuition points to the broader errors in the other side: the flawed motives that might underlie a perfect strategy; or the difference in worldview that renders fine-grained debates redundant.

This is something I’ve learned from examining my own processes. I’m quite familiar with my own ways of thinking, learning, and solving problems, enough to know that the standard-issue approaches are rarely a perfect fit.

So I wouldn’t encourage everyone to stick to their “just knows”. It’s the kind of thing you earn after learning how to change your mind to suit the evidence, after all the hard work of self-examination.
But maybe it’s also an N thing? In MBTI terms, if intuition is unevenly distributed within the population then we can’t presume that everyone should follow the same approach. Some people just won’t get it, others need to learn to trust it.

This is certainly the general message of the Four Temperaments: as a Melancholic you can waste a lot of time and energy trying to be like everyone else, and still fail at it miserably. Ironically, that waste and struggle and (hopefully) realisation are also part of what it means to be a Melancholic.

The paradox of “you create your own reality”

Years ago I spent some time reading “law of attraction” material.

I ended up quite skeptical about it for two reasons: firstly because I tried it and it didn’t work (more on this in a moment); secondly because the primary advocates of the law of attraction were making money by selling the law of attraction, and using their success in this enterprise as evidence in favour of the law of attraction. This implied not so much that the law of attraction can bring you success, but that selling people on the law of attraction can bring you success.

At the same time it’s impossible to really argue that the law of attraction “didn’t work”, because according to the theory (depending on which version you come across) the law of attraction is always working.  Your beliefs are always and continuously shaping your reality, and it’s a moot point whether you take that to mean literally altering the external world or merely filtering your perception of life’s possibilities and horizons.

Either way, what really struck me about the law of attraction is the paradox of investigating and attempting to exploit a law that is theoretically already operative in every single aspect of your internal and external world – including your attempts to exploit this law.

Which means we have to view “law of attraction”-related behaviours (buying and reading books on the topic, thinking about the law of attraction a lot, trying to “manifest” good things into your life) not as evidence of people really understanding and using the law of attraction for their own benefit, but of people wanting to feel that they are understanding and using it, while being ultimately disappointed.

It’s like the lottery. You could say that people who play the lottery want to be winners. But to be more precise we should say that such people want the experience of a faint glimmer of excitement every week, followed by routine disappointment. They want the remote possibility of being winners, without much risk of actually winning and upsetting their whole lives.

If the law of attraction is true, then many of us are somehow deeply satisfied by the experience of repeatedly failing to win the lottery.

The continued popularity of the law of attraction can therefore be understood as an expression of the same wish to flirt with success without actually experiencing it.  Trying to “manifest” a new car by really really wanting it is no different from ticking off your “lucky numbers” each week in hopes of hitting the jackpot.

Trying to use the law of attraction to improve your life reminds me of that scene in Life of Brian where the crowd obediently chants in unison: “Yes, we are all individuals!” It’s a kind of self-refuting idea like “this statement is false” because seeking to utilise the law of attraction to improve your life implies that you really do wish to improve your life. But if you really did wish to improve your life, then according to the law of attraction your life would already be improved.

This paradox is covered by some of the law of attraction materials, where they claim that people often fail to distinguish between a wish or desire and an affirmation of scarcity or lack. That is to say: a person might think “I want to be rich”, but the law of attraction hears “I hate being poor”, and it’s the latter “vibration” that has creative power.

People read such commentary and conclude that they should therefore not only focus intently on the things they desire so that the universe can dutifully “manifest” them into existence, but that to do so successfully they must control how they feel about these desired objects. I want more money, but whenever I think about it I feel desperate and scared of not having enough. So instead I must try to think about it in a positive way, feeling hopeful and joyful and optimistic about wealth.

Trying to force a change in your feelings implies a kind of violence against yourself, and I wouldn’t recommend it. But more importantly, here again is the paradox of control.  You think you can control what you want and how you feel, with the implication that you want to want something other than what you currently want. It’s a “free will” complication, and more profound than people realise.

Let’s reiterate: if the law of attraction is true, then you already have what you want, and this includes your apparent desire to want differently, your dissatisfaction with what you currently have.

It would make more sense to use the law of attraction as a kind of diagnostic tool for examining your own deeply held beliefs and desires, examining the struggles and major themes of your life. If you struggle with money, then the law of attraction implies that you want to experience struggle; the proof is in how your life unfolds.

This paradox is not confined to the law of attraction movement:

“Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

This famous line from the Gospel is the nexus point of New Thought positive thinking, its quasi-Christian prosperity-Gospel equivalent, and the lived tradition of the Christian church.

It raises the same ambiguity: are we supposed to try harder to believe that we have received the things we pray for? Or is our belief or non-belief supposed to indicate whether the thing we pray for will come to pass? This conundrum leaves us with the horrible spectacle of sick people wondering whether God wants them to be ill despite their prayers, or if they are supposed to somehow make themselves believe, have more of the necessary faith to effect a miraculous healing.

In the orthodox Christian tradition, faith – belief – is viewed as a gift. Your belief in the tenets of Christianity is something caused in you by God. But even this claim goes to the heart of an intellectualist-voluntarist debate within Christianity and Western Philosophy more broadly, a debate I only learned about through the early stages of my now defunct PhD project.

At the heart of the debate is the question of which is prior: the intellect or the will? From my reading of the problem, it seems that intellectualists are inclined to see human beings as something close to an intelligent automaton, like a robot from science fiction, that follows its programming with great sensitivity and complexity yet is programmed nonetheless. We act according to reasons. There is no point at which we simply will without the guidance of reasons provided by our understanding, our beliefs.

Voluntarists object to the view of will as dependent on the movement of the intellect, arguing that it diminishes the freedom of the will and amounts to a form of determinism. Voluntarists maintain that we can will independently of the advice provided by our intellect, going against our own better judgment, or acting without consideration at all.

So even in the supposedly “new age” movement, this old debate remains relevant. If the law of attraction follows our thoughts and desires, what do our thoughts and desires follow? Can I simply will to have different thoughts and desires? Or must a change in my thinking and willing come about through a change in my understanding?

Without even attempting to settle the old debate here, I wonder if the problems presented by the law of attraction theory would make more sense when viewed from an intellectualist rather than a voluntarist view?

What we have is a situation where reality allegedly responds to one’s thoughts and desires, yet where our thoughts and desires are not necessarily transparent or trustworthy to us.

Not only are they not transparent or trustworthy, but they prove much harder to alter and influence than many law of attraction believers have hoped.

From an intellectualist perspective, this makes a great deal of sense. You have not arrived at your present thoughts and desires by accident. It has taken years of experience and compelling reasons to form your deepest beliefs and desires. Nor can you simply change those experiences or those reasons simply by having a superficial desire for change.

More to the point, as implied in an earlier paragraph, it is entirely appropriate and reasonable that certain people would be drawn to the law of attraction theory, and reiterate superficial desires for a better life. There are reasons why some people find the theory believable, and others do not.

There is perhaps more to be gained by people interested in the law of attraction theory if they were to reflect on why they are interested in it in the first place. Why are you receptive to it? Even on its own terms, the law of attraction theory promises that the answer to this question will be quite revealing.

Beyond that, the desire to change your beliefs and desires is nonetheless still a desire. And the belief that you can change your beliefs is still a belief. What if the crux of the problem is not how successfully you can change them, but what to make of the inner conflict they imply?