Want answers? Learn to ask the right questions

My latest article on MercatorNet explains how to use some key philosophical skills to solve problems in your own life:

“How can I lose weight?” might be the burning question that comes to mind, but that doesn’t mean it is the right question to ask or answer. Most of us “know” how to lose weight, after all. We just have to consume less energy than we expend.

Yet that answer would not satisfy most people. So at this point a philosopher might suspect you are asking the wrong question.

How do we find the right question? How do we, as Bacon put it, question prudently?

Reading the works of past philosophers shows that they spend a lot of time describing situations and problems prior to asking their questions. In other words, they provide context to their questions.

Rushing out and asking “what is the meaning of life?” presumes too much. It presumes we all know what the question means by “meaning” and “life”.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/want-answers-learn-to-ask-the-right-questions

 

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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

Promoting The Weight-Loss Paradox

If you have an idea you believe in, all you can do is trust that others will believe in it too, find it beneficial, and then it will succeed.

“Success” is just short-hand for your plans coming to fruition. My plan was to write a short book that describes how I used my skills in philosophy to lose weight.

It won’t help everyone, but I believe enough people will find it worthwhile, insightful, and refreshingly honest.

All I can do beyond that point is try to make people aware of it. I’ve never been big on marketing or social media, so bear with me.

My first step has been to create a Facebook page for the book, which you can find here:

I’ll keep it updated with key ideas and concepts from the book, and other thoughts that helped me arrive at the answers to the weight-loss problem.

My first non-fiction ebook!

When I tell people I’ve been writing a diet book they’re typically speechless.

I choose to interpret their reaction as one of awestruck silence.

Awestruck is incidentally how I felt when I came across the photograph that now adorns the cover of my new ebook, The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet.

I’m also pretty proud of the book itself. It’s not a long book at only 14,000 words, but it’s the culmination of several years of thinking about body weight and the psychology and ethics of eating.

But more than anything it reflects my own success in using my insights and reasoning as a philosopher to help me lose weight without trying. That is, I lost 20kg without feeling like I was trying to lose weight, and I did it in the firm conviction that if I truly understood the whole dynamic of eating and body weight it would change my mind, my relationship with food, and my whole life.

A quick shout-out to my former PhD supervisor Dr John Quilter: this probably isn’t the continuation of my work on free will, intellectualism and voluntarism you were expecting, but on the other hand I bet it’s the only diet book in existence that explicitly asserts “To know the good is to do the good!”

Like anything in life, this book won’t be for everyone. But if you or someone you know is thoroughly sick of the confusion and mixed-messages surrounding dieting and weight loss, or despondent and demotivated at the very thought of losing weight, my book may be exactly what you need.

I’ve been overweight for more than half my life, all my adult life until now. At my worst I was over 100kgs, right at the cusp of obesity according to my BMI (Body Mass Index). I’m now well into the normal range, and my weight stays consistently at or under 85kg.

In hindsight, I used to be someone who valued the enjoyment of eating so highly that I would never turn down good food unless I was physically incapable of eating it. I never understood people who could say no to a second helping of something delicious, or who could refuse a treat. I never even imagined I could be one of those people.

I finally found an approach to eating that makes sense, and I gradually changed my eating habits. I still enjoy food, and I still occasionally overeat. But most of the time my eating habits reflect my body’s actual needs in that moment. Isn’t that the ideal?

But for me the best part is that it’s not about weight anymore. In fact my weight loss really took off when I stopped thinking about it, and focused instead on the deeper motivations and dynamic that was driving my dysfunctional attitude to food.

In the end, being overweight was a symptom of that dysfunctional relationship with food. Weight loss is such a struggle because we expend most of our energy fighting a symptom instead of looking at the root cause.

The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet is available exclusively on amazon kindle. If you don’t have a kindle, you can download a free kindle app that lets you read kindle ebooks on your PC or Mac, android or iOS devices. So you can buy the book at Amazon and then download it to the app on your preferred device.

The zone of silence: rediscovering non-fiction

I’ve been working on a short book about dieting, weight loss, and the ideal relationship with food.

But it’s been a while since I did any real intellectual work – long enough for me to forget all the lessons I learned years ago working in bioethics, where I had the privilege to dive headlong into all-consuming questions day after day.

That’s why it took 18 attempts before I remembered how to write non-fiction again.

The French Dominican philosopher Sertillanges wrote:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

That zone of silence is essential. To create it means rejecting every other thought, idea, desire, or preoccupation.

You cannot think “I want to write a book”. You cannot have your audience in mind. You cannot harbour any thoughts of how people may react, or how well your prose matches the conventions.

Create that zone of silence, and into that space a pure, authentic, unadulterated idea will come forth.

Proposition by proposition the text will grow, until there is enough substance to continue.

Without this detachment, this freedom from desire and self-will, the work cannot be fresh or original. It will shrink and curl, and take the shape of cliched and familiar expressions.

I’ve written a lot about fiction recently, but I’m thrilled to rediscover these deeper levels of non-fiction I had neglected for so long. I’ll keep you posted on this new book, but in the meantime I’d be remiss not to mention my recent fantasy novel.

To Create a World is a unique tale of magic and meaning, our longing for adventure and our deepest fears and desires. Click on the image below to find out more.

Fake news, junk knowledge, and learning to reason again

My reason hurts. I’ve been neglecting it for too long and it’s now profoundly out of shape. But there is a way back to good rational fitness: you just have to start scrutinising every piece of information that comes your way to a pedantic degree.

My latest article on MercatorNet sets you on the path to avoiding junk knowledge, and learning to reason again:

Every piece of information you take in, and how you treat it, is your choice. The manufacturers of junk knowledge don’t have your best interests at heart. Either intentionally or through ignorance they are out to get you hooked on their product. And while good quality sources of knowledge do exist, it’s up to you to distinguish them from the junk.

It’s up to you because in reality you are a lone, isolated individual mind, with the ability to take in, scrutinise, and reject all the information and propositions that come your way. You don’t have to believe everything you read.

You can instead cultivate a healthy suspicion of every proposition that comes your way, first by learning to recognise that it is a proposition in the first place.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/sick-of-fake-news-how-about-a-junk-knowledge-diet

Fat, non-fiction and the philosophy of losing weight

I’m working on a diet book at the moment, and it’s taking a bit of time to get back into the process of writing non-fiction.

The book is essentially a common-sense philosophical approach to the problem of diet, weight-loss, and overeating. And if “common-sense philosophical approach” sounds like an oxymoron to you, well that just means you’ve been philosophising wrongly.

If you can’t use philosophy to ask “why am I fat?” then what good is it?

The book is based on my own experiences over the last couple of years, wherein I analysed the hell out of my eating habits, motivations, and life itself, and then lost 20kg with relative ease.

How easy was it? Well on the one hand, it involved facing some unpleasant truths about my life that were painful and confronting to admit. On the other hand, I didn’t do any additional exercise and stopped even thinking about losing weight. When I finally thought to weigh myself it was a surprise to see how many kilos I had lost. It felt like I wasn’t even trying to lose weight.

I discovered this approach because I’m too lazy to do huge amounts of exercise, too gluttonous to just set arbitrary limits on my food intake, and too frustrated at the conflicting messages and “solutions” offered by existing diets.

Here’s a great example: today the news is full of new evidence that gluten-free diets might increase the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.

Meanwhile we’re in the midst of either a revolution or just-another-fad that says refined sugar is the devil in nutritional form. Should we place bets on how long it is before some other new discovery bursts the no-sugar bubble?

I’m not doubting the scientific evidence, just doubting my ability and motivation to sift through all the conflicting messages to work out the whole complex picture formed out of the various strands of research.

I’d much rather see what I can work out for myself, using principles and facts that are unassailable. And if it turns out that I still lack the necessary information to find a solution, then at least I’ll know for sure that this is the case.

Asking “why am I fat?” is actually a great philosophical question. It led me to some very profound answers that have almost entirely changed my eating habits, and the way I relate to food. That’s why I’m writing a book about it. I’m sure some people will find it too radical and confronting, but for others it will provide the kind of certainty and insight they’ve been craving.

While you’re waiting for me to finish writing it, why not check out my new novel To Create a World? Unlike in Harry Potter the evil characters aren’t overweight!

Intuition: a logical interlude

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.

Philosopher rejects Orthodoxy, Christianity, all religion

Modern philosopher rejects Orthodoxy -> Christianity -> all religion as incompatible with philosophy:

“For these reasons I have come to regard religious commitment as incompatible with philosophy. The lover of wisdom, the philos-sophos, is one who never ceases searching and questioning, even if they become – like Socrates, the “gadfly of Athens” – irritating and infuriating, and are ostracised or condemned by their society. The life of the mind as practiced by Socrates is not well suited to church membership, or any religious affiliation for that matter other than perhaps liberal groups like Ikon. Institutional forms of religion, at least, will sooner or later put a stop to questions and demand answers, since it is the answers that define the boundary and identity of the group. For the philosopher, however, answers are always fluid and provisional; the only constants are the questions, and therefore the path to wisdom must be a solitary one.”

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/12/07/4367489.htm

Lengthy, but worth a quick read. I can sympathise with some of it, but the ultimate objections seem strangely facile.  The author, Nick Trakakis, is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at Australian Catholic University where I was temporarily a PhD student.  I never met him, but had some brief interaction in an administrative context.

The comments are well worth reading. A sound reply comes in one of the early comments:

“(1) Weren’t all the “logical” problems with Christianity evident from the start? What makes them become at some point a sufficient reason for rejecting Christianity? What suddenly gives the principle of non-contradiction (so narrowly understood!) priority over the source of being and the apophatic way? What is the source and grounding of this logic and what are its scope and limitations? (2) Isn’t this rejection of Orthodoxy and Christianity and “commitment” for questioning inevitably a kind of exclusivism of its own? And doesn’t this exclusivism arise from a too logical-intellectual understanding of the very complicated ways our belonging to any religion or tradition is made up of practical commitments and systematic doubt and communitarian loyalties and more?”

More pithily:

“I understand your position, but do you? I am unsure as to how one reconciles the argument outlined in your paper, with your position as “Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University”.”

Okay, the comments are quite enjoyable:

“As for His Eminence or Blessedness or whatever-title-he-goes-by, Thich Nhat Hanh (whose picture has started appearing in Theology and Religious Studies Department almost by magic!): He is no LESS exclusivist than Timothy Ware in his outlook . . . which is why he’s a Zen Buddhist monk and not a monk of the Rule of St. Basil the Great. Please, read the work of inter-religious and ecumenical scholar Gavin D’Costa, who has already carefully demolished the myth that somehow pluralist views of religious truth are in some way not exclusivistic. They are — except, they’re couched in “pluralistic”-sounding jargon.

As for the conception of what Dialogue ought to be. Well, what a very EXCLUSIVIST definition. People come at dialogue from many different angles and with different motives . . . or, shouldn’t they? Not every person and group would accept that Dialogue is some kind of search for truths that each one’s religion doesn’t have. Why? Because some religions are based on the claim of an ultimate revelation (Christianity, Islam) or a special choice (Judaism) or of just having been around forever and from the beginning (Hinduism). Trakakis might know a lot about Orthodoxy; apparently, he doesn’t know so much about other religious belief systems . . . or, at least, he wants to collapse and crush them down into his pluralistic, open-ended view of Dialogue.”

Awesome:

“To sum: A philosopher on the payroll of a Catholic Institution publicly repudiates the Christian religion in particular for being intolerant towards the “true” (read – materialist) search for truth. He then, unsurprisingly, calls for a V2 ‘renewal’ within the Orthodox Church – all the while forgetting it is the traditional churches that are indeed regaining numbers (e.g. Latin mass communities). The author then styles himself as a lover of wisdom and compares himself to Russell and Socrates (an awkward cliche). All the while pushing a left-learning social philosophy. It’s just all so… typical.”

There are two very good replies on the site arguing that philosophy is not at all incompatible with religion, or rather, that Trakakis’ depiction of the interplay between religion and philosophy is by no means definitive:
http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/12/15/4372933.htm
http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/12/09/4368935.htm

I guess the moral of the story is that you can’t use “philosophy” as an excuse for ceasing to be religious. But perhaps there is something in philosophy that attracts people who are ambivalent about religion?

I can sympathise with this as someone who is and has been attracted to philosophy, or something in or about philosophy, and yet experiences great ambivalence about religion. I’d hate to end up a cliche of pluralism, and I’m yet to see depictions of possible pluralist principles that don’t make me cringe on some level. I hope it is not in vain to swear that I will never ever describe myself as “spiritual but not religious”.

Philosophy has given me a way of entering into religion, but it is not the common way. Indeed the “common way” is a stumbling block, and many of us attracted to philosophy are already quite uncommon by definition.  In some religions the peculiarities of a philosopher would find a welcome home. Variegation of spiritual practice and depth of understanding would be assumed from the outset. But in other religions, including Christianity, the merit of the philosopher’s approach is held in check by the assurance that God’s grace will flow not even to the humble and the poor, but primarily to them.

Christianity depreciates elitism. It specifically eschews great depth of understanding in favour of simplicity, because the work of salvation is not accomplished through human merits. In other words, the philosopher’s temptation to look down on the common folk with their obviously flawed ways of worship and prayer and theology is already marked out and condemned in the Christian tradition.

Which is not to say that there is no room for philosophy and theology and intellectual work in Christianity, just that it is as much an “extra-curricular” activity as sport, engineering, music, and mathematics.  “Philosophers are deeply holy people” said no one, ever.

There’s a famous letter written by a Zen master to a Samurai, in which the Zen master describes the deeper significance of the Bodhisattva Kannon – a kind of Buddhist “Goddess of Mercy” – who is sometimes represented as having a thousand arms and a thousand eyes:

The ordinary man simply believes that it is blessed because of its thousand arms and its thousand eyes. The man of half baked wisdom, wondering how anybody could have a thousand eyes, calls it a lie and gives in to slander. But if now one understands a little better, he will have a respectful belief based on principle and will not need the simple faith of the ordinary man or the slander of the other, and he will understand that Buddhism, with this one thing, manifests its principle well.

All religions are like this. I have seen that Shinto especially is like this.

The ordinary man thinks only on the surface. The man who attacks Buddhism is even worse.

Philosophers are not “ordinary men”, but I think it is a mistake to take “extraordinary” to mean superior, and, à la Trakakis’ non-exclusivist yearnings, it is a mistake to think that the philosophically-minded among us are implicitly further along some unnamed path than the hoi polloi who just live their lives all unexamined.

We cannot generalise about the inner lives of religious believers. While not philosophically, at least psychologically: what is “true” for me is not “true” for others. If liturgy or doctrine or devotion means nothing to you, isn’t it more befitting a philosopher to wonder why this is the case, how it could be different, to reconcile or at least comprehend the conflict between one’s own beliefs, desires, and sensibilities and those of others, rather than assert one’s own ambivalence, conflict, and doubt under the guise of some noble search for truth?

At risk of disappearing down a relativist rabbit-hole, I’ll extend this principle to Trakakis’ confession: I don’t know what’s going on with him, but personally I would feel it a cop-out to tell myself that I’m giving up on religion because the noble, questioning spirit of philosophy cannot bear the limitations of “creeds” and “faith” and the “exclusivism” implicit in believing something rather than doubting everything.

Maybe there is a place for people who for whatever reason cannot reconcile themselves with “organised religion”? But finding a place does not presuppose or require asserting one’s personal difficulties as objective reality. Being interested in philosophy does not demonstrate that one is closer to objective reality; it could mean one is simply more rigorously, more self-assuredly deluded.

Being a philosopher is not a sign of psychological health or good judgement. Feeling that one’s personal and professional interest is intellectually laudable can be a cover for an imbalanced and dysfunctional inner life, something that our religious traditions warn against.

My failures as a philosopher have at least the good fortune of keeping open the idea that my interest in philosophy, my thinking style, and my inexhaustible search for certain truths, are rooted more in negative personality traits than in “love of wisdom”.

But even this tentative position may be temperamentally determined. How typical for a melancholic philosopher to worry that their whole identity might be a feel-good facade to distract from profound personal failings. A choleric philosopher might have an easier time believing that their own peculiarities indict the rest of the world.