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Horseback philosophy

When I was a little kid, I felt that something is not right. I learned that human technology is destroying nature - and if nature gets destroyed, we all die. I saw a life-threatening contradiction there, a fundamental problem calling for rapid solutions. I figured out that since we can't live without nature, but we can survive without factories, then the factories have to go. I tried to talk about this with my mother, but she didn't quite understand my idea, and didn't have time for a discussion. I was shocked - we are heading towards global self-destruction, and my parents just don't care. I realized that I can't rely on anything they know, do, say or teach to me - I have to question everything, and to keep my ponderings to myself.

Another unclear thing was religion. My parents were mainstream Christians, and I went to a Sunday school. The adults teached that when we die our soul is not destroyed, but goes either to Heaven or to Hell, depending on how The God judges. And those who believe in Jesus are saved and go to Heaven, so there is no need to worry about death. So, if this is what the adults believe in, then why are they crying in a funeral? If we believe that a dead relative goes to Heaven, we should be happy and not crying. So, either it was that crying relatives are bit uncertain if the dead person goes to Hell instead of Heaven - or then all of these religious teachings were just words, and the adults didn't really believe in it to such an extent that it would offer them real comfort when they have to face death. But my final thought was that adults crying in a funeral weren't crying because of the dead person - they were just selfishly thinking about themselves, being sad that now they can't see and talk and spend time with that person. At that point I had already learned that I can't ask these questions, as they are considered offensive. I kept my doubt to myself, and just felt more and more confused watching the adults do what they do.

We constantly had arguments with my older brother, about all kind of little things. And as my brother was bigger and stronger, he regularly used physical violence to force me do the way he wants. And our mother was angry at us, telling us that we shouldn't fight, as conflicts should be settled by means of conversation. I never quite understood what does that really mean. When I grew a bit older, I realized that my parents are constantly fighting about all kind of little things, and their fighting was about as childish as ours - yelling, tossing stuff, slamming doors, blaming, accusing, and nagging all night through. And for sure it didn't lead to any resolution. So, this was just another example of the adults teaching something what they don't understand themselves. I never saw an example of a good conversation. And later on, at the school in the 1980's I learned that the superpowers USA and USSR have enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other over. So, the most advanced science of mankind was used to develop devices of mass destruction. Didn't I already think that there might be something wrong with the adults?

All of these ponderings were centered on one central theme. Our parents gave us a set of rules, like "Say thank you when you have eaten. Don't fight." And when we failed to obey these rules we were punished. Over and over again - maybe that was supposed to teach us to follow the rules? Maybe the idea was that everything is right if people just follow the given rules? And I saw this same basic idea on different levels; in the society we have laws, and if you break a law you go to jail. And The God has given us a set of rules, and if you break the rules you go The Hell. And since there is nothing wrong with the rules, it is just matter of having enough will power to keep oneself from breaking the rules. Still, my own parents failed to obey their own rules. And I didn't quite understand how world leaders with nukes is different from a street punk threatening others with an axe - I mean, if the rules is the key to a good life, then who makes sure that the superpowers are following the rules? Why is it so hard for adults to follow these good and clear rules? Later on I learned than in our local breed of Christianity they actually believe that because of Original Sin we will always be sinners, we are weak and tempted to break a rule every now and then - there is nothing left to do than to wait for godly mercy... I was not satisfied with that. Maybe there is something wrong with the whole idea of "Here is a set of rules, follow them and all is good. And if you don't, you get punished." - There has to be an another solution.

At the age of twelve I began to read about zen-buddhism. Just because I had a vague impression that in the old philosophies of The East they might have different ideas. We lived in a small village in the Finnish countryside, so the local library didn't have that many books about zen. And I was always worried that the library staff will tell my mother, and she will get mad at me for reading about wrong religions. At home I did my best to hide the books so that my mother won't realize that I have thoughts of my own. Well, but even those few books were highly inspiring and promising. The basic idea was clear; meditation can lead to peace of mind, and from peace of mind wisdom follows. Instead of just trying to control ones own behavior, it is possible to find a inner tranquility and clarity - which leads to being less interested in ones selfish needs and more oriented towards maintaining peace and harmony with the whole universe. I so wanted to tell about this to my mother. As she was so often saying: "Everything is fine with us - then why are we fighting?" - and I felt that here is the solution. We are fighting because our minds are still locked in false conceptions of selfish needs and egoistic pride. And as long as we stay with those, there is little point in trying to make the fighting go away with just a set or rules and increasinly painful punishments. If fighting stems from unpeaceful mind, then the solution is simple; let's seek for a peace of mind. But I never dared to talk about this to my own parents.

I kept on reading, also about taoism, and Native American culture. Then I realized that before Christianity came to Finland we also were pagan tribes living simple life in forests of Finland. I also tried to do some meditation practices on my own - and felt them working. All the violence had built a load of desperate pain and hatred inside myself, but beneath them I found a deeper peace which was stronger than any of the manmade pain. Without consuming anything stronger than green tea I felt my soul blending into The Universe. There was a sense of being in direct contact with the absolute truth, there was peace of mind and there was love and compassion towards everything. For me it was no more about believing in what they said in the books; it was first hand experience of a little enligthement. Of course I had to realize that it is not as simple as switching on the lights - one such an experience doesn't solve all of my problems for good. But it gave me a new sense of the meaning of the life.

I went to The University to learn more about Western philosophy. My idea was to learn ethics and metaphysics, so that I can better communicate my ideas. And, indeed I learned that for so many centuries ethics has been about justifying a certain set of rules. As if that was the solution, and then the only problem is to make people to follow the rules. Well, but I thought that human tendency for "bad behavior" is rooted in selfish needs, which are supported by a metaphysical view about individuals being separate entities. But if we think about ourselves being an inseparable part of the whole cosmos, if we feel inner peace, love and compassion inside us, then we will feel motivated to maintain peace and harmony, even without a set of rules with accompanying control and punishments. But the question remaining was; can I just go and state that the western ethics has been wrong, and I have the ultimate truth?

I spent couple of years reading and thinking about the notion of ultimate truth. To simplify; if we believe that it is not possible for humans to gain positive, undoubtable, absolute and universal truth, then does that lead to a swamp of relativism? If we can't judge what is right and wrong, then everybody is free to believe in whatever they please; and if they happen to believe that killing and stealing is a good way to gain personal wealth, then there is nothing we can do about it, because we can't say that our views are somehow superiour... So, to keep the anarchy away we have to find a foundation for truth and knowledge - it is just that all the philosophical attempts to do so have turned out to be problematical. I began to suspect that maybe we'd better seek another solutions, like maintaining ethics even without notion of ultimate truth. Actually, I felt that there is something unethical in the traditional attitude of "now folks, kneel down and listen as I speach - remember everything what I say, because I have The Truth, and there is no place of doubt here!"

Studying in a smallish University in Finland, I was happy to meet a wolrd class thinker in person, namely an eco-feministh philosopher Val Plumwood. She was on tour giving lectures, and since she had some spare time in Finland she wanted to see the taiga; the northern belt of coniferous forest. I was her guide as we visited some natural parks. And discussions with her helped me to see that if we abandon moral based on set of rules, we can also abandon the notion of ultimate truth - as we can just build on love, compassion, mutual respect and conversation.

Actually, our professor at The University of Tampere was interested in meta-philosophy; the question of the nature of philosophical knowledge. What is philosophy? Can we claim that some philosophical beliefs are wrong while others are right? Is there progress in philosophy? If empirical science is based on empirical observations, then what is philosophy based on? Philosophers themselves used a notion of "Armchair philosophy" to illustrate that instead of doing scientific observations the philosopher sits in the comfort of an armchair and ponders. Then, at least in Finland, we have a term "korpifilosofi", "a backwoods philosopher", which refers to a non-academic, self-learned thinker usually living in the countryside. So, nowadays I describe myselfs as a "horseback philosopher" - I have a basic formal training in philosophy, yet I'm not working in the academic context. And instead of sitting in an armchair I'm on a horseback; physically involved in the world, communicating and co-operating with horses (who don't use propositional language, yet they show great understading of moral and ethics). It is more than ten years since I graduated from the University, and now I slowly begin to feel like writing again - thank to the horses, to my friends, and to you reading this.

Picture by Sanni Airaksinen:

A horseback philosopher
A horseback philosopher
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Thanks for this great piece of writing. I like the way you mix personal narrative and philosophical reflection. I'll make a short comment about rules, because there we might have somewhat different perspectives.

What does it mean to say, with Val Plumwood, that we should abandon morality based on rules, and just go with moral feelings and conversation?

I'm basically in agreement with the "sentimentalist" tradition in ethics, which starts with the thought that we are a social, cultural species with an evolved psychology. This psychology consists of emotional dispositions, some of them pro-social, some retributive.

We constantly face new situations, so we are not just content to feel what we feel. We need to discuss things through. What do we do with that dialogue? Presumably we are going to formulate more general policies that are binding for all who are involved. What are these more general policies if not rules?

Explicit statement of a rule articulates a lot of regularity that we want to see in social practice. Our emotional psychology, and our common practices come first, and we can't make all of it explicit. But it's quite important to be explicit when we need to reason about our own policies, communicate them with others and so forth. So we will end up with a morality of rules after all. I don't see why one should be allergic to rules.

Rules obviously should come with commentary attached. What I have in mind is that we don't just want to hammer a set of rules to our children's heads. We also need to explain the rationale behind them. Traditional cultures did this with myths and stories.

Let me also say something about moral truth, since part of your narrative consists in the liberation from "ultimate truth". My own views on this topic are constantly shifting, but here's my current take on it.

Suppose that moral discussion proceeds much as we've pictured it in our recent exchanges. Participants to the discussion come in with their personal concerns, interests, prejudices, loves and hates. But instead of fighting it out, they sit down and try to reconcile their differences.

Ideally they would like to end up with a common viewpoint, a position that would enable them to evaluate actions and feelings as appropriate or not. Even if that's not to be had, they can at least accept some general policies of conduct.

So the conversation has a point, located in more or less idealized social practice. Participants in such a practice make a distinction - a practical distinction - between getting it right and getting it wrong (or, getting it more or less right). This seems to me to commit the discussants to the idea of moral truth.

I don't actually want to insists on the word "true". My point is that moral discourse has much the same formal structure as any factual discourse.

Some claims will be accepted (P), some conditionally accepted (If P then Q), and consequences drawn (Q). Also claims will be treated as incompatible: Not both(P and Q), in case Q entails Not-P. One just uses the truth predicate to generalize on such inferential patterns, patterns that are already there in moral discourse and practice.

In sum, truth comes for free, and not as an extra metaphysical commitment, because truth just piggy-backs on logical structure of discourse.

To simplify: In our western culture we had this traditional story about morals. First there is a god who knows everything. Then the god gives the ten commandments to a prophet. And the prophet tells them to the people. The people want to obey that set of rules (because otherwise the god would get angry at them and cast down all kinds of punishments for the people). It was thought that man has a tendency to do sin, but he should use his willpower to control his behavior, obeying the given rules.

Then the moral philosophy was discussion about a) what is the set of universal rules and b) if we don't believe that the rules are given by a god, then how do we justify that set of rules? The basic assumption still was that a human being should use willpower to control his/her irrational and destructive drives. And there was this fear that if we fail to find the absolute justification for the moral rules, we are doomed into the swamp of cultural relativism where it is not possible to tell right from wrong.

Okay, now I feel that of course we do need some rules, and there is a lot of point in having a discussion to establish a common set of rules for everybody. But I just want to point out that this might not be the whole story of ethics and morals.

We can still ask "Why do we have a tendency to do bad things? Is the (self)control all we can do about it, or can we also find other ways of promoting inner benevolence, compassion, love and respect?" As I feel that this is what moral could be based on. And on this basis, of course, we still can have a set of rules. And a good, respectful discussion aiming at finding the general views which could be agreed by most of the people. There is nothing wrong with labelling such generally accepted moral judgements as "true".

But I feel that there is a small but meaningful difference in tone when we shift from the notion of absolute truth to just truth. Let's call them position A: "belief P is the absolute truth, and if you disagree you are stupid!" and position B: "we reached a common agreement about P, and we feel that P is true. If you disagree, please give your arguments so that we can all discuss them in an open and honest way." - Generally speaking, I feel that B is more ethical attitude than A, because B is open to differing views, pays respect to them and is willing to consider them.

Now I think Matti gives us a pretty good description of the situation B, where no-one claims to have the final truth, and everybody just sits down to discuss, trying to find what they can agree on.


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