What’s It Like To Live Without Illusions? Tough, And It Sucks


About 6 months ago, I decided to do a bit a self-experimentation. I tried to identify as many of my illusions as I could, and then see if I could lose them one by one. Readers of this blog – those who are still around – may have noticed one of the first: that this is an interesting blog. I stopped writing after decades of what often seemed like talking to a wall. After all, if few other people like what I do, then why should I? Wisdom of the crowds, and such. But that’s hardly the most important illusion I tried to get rid of. (“Tried”, since here I am, writing again…)

Over the last years, I read a lot about free will, blame and moral responsibility. My writing on human rights made me conscious of the harm we inflict on each other while trying to hold “wrongdoers” to account: capital punishment, mass incarceration, police brutality and so on are well-documented human rights violations, but the interesting thing about them is that they imply beliefs – in the minds of the perpetrators – about victim accountability and responsibility. The belief that people should be held accountable for their misdeeds – and should suffer for them – wraps around another belief: that people possess some form of free will.

The growing consensus in the fields of psychology and neurology (including evolutionary psychology, brain imaging and the study of systematic biases) is that free will is an illusion. “Illusion” is probably too strong a word in this case, but the literature has certainly convinced me to be more generous to “wrongdoers”. Not only should we avoid harsh punishment for consequentialist reasons – we do more harm while punishing people than the good that may come from often imaginary deterrent and protection effects – but also because punishment has become little more than an overly theatrical way of blaming people who seem decreasingly blameworthy.


So let’s say that in general I’ve tried to rid myself of the illusion of judgment. Negative judgment at least. I try to no longer blame people for their shortcomings. (Sorry for the split infinitive here, but let’s face it: grammatical rules are often used as a theatrical means of blaming people and of signalling our own superiority relative to the blameworthy. Communication is about understanding, and if rules can assist in understanding then they are good. If not, lose your illusion.)

Avoiding blame may seem dangerous: if we no longer blame people for their mistakes and misdeeds, then how will they learn and become better people? Is mutual improvement also an illusion that should be abandoned? I don’t think so. But there’s a large space between blame and indifference. You can tell people about their mistakes without judgment. It’s tricky, but doable.

What about positive judgments? Do I no longer appreciate beauty, music and art? To the extent that beauty is an illusion, that’s probably the hardest one to shed. A sensation of beauty just comes over you, unexpectedly. You can’t fight it or reason yourself away from it, as you can with free will. You can try to tell yourself that a beautiful body is just a bag of bones, meat and human waste made to look appealing because bodily attraction has helped humanity to survive during our difficult early evolution. However, you often can’t keep fooling yourself into believing this, at least not in the sense of immediate, intuitive belief.

What about music? As an adolescent I became enchanted by Wagner and I started to read a lot about him, including a lot of critical stuff arguing against his method: how silly it is to use leitmotivs, as if we can’t see that Wotan comes on stage and need to hear his tune as well; how Wagner did not respect “classical” rules of composition; how repetitive he was; how loud, bombastic and Teutonic; how the German language was unfit for opera, especially when littered with alliteration. And so on. All of this made me doubt, and I almost gave up being a Wagnerian because of it. But I couldn’t. The music is just magic, and it blows you away no matter how much you rationalise against it, at least if you’re open to being blown away. The beauty of it may be an illusion. In the narrow sense that you get tricked by a cunning and scamming composer. Or in the broader sense: beauty is no more than brain stimulations that have developed over the course of human evolution because individuals who are receptive to these kinds of stimulation are happier and therefore more likely to survive.

wagner quote

So far so good, you may say. Get rid of the noxious illusions, if you can, and keep the pleasant and harmless ones. Good work Spagnoli! But then why do you tell us that it sucks? Because illusions are like faces in things. Once you train yourself to see faces in things, you start to see them everywhere. Same for illusions. Friendship starts to look like an illusion. You try to ignore your friends to see whether they really care about you. Do they show you that they care by asking you why you ignore them? Nah. They just ignore you back because you’re being such a dick.

And then there’s LOVE: there’s a long history of love bashing. Do we really love the people we love? Why do we love that particular person and not another one? Seems a bit arbitrary to us all, at some points in our lives. Just admit it. It could just as well have been someone else. What is love really? Perhaps not a lot more than just another evolutionary adaptation inherited from early humans who were frail and needed to stick together in small family type groups that cared for each other and their offspring in a hostile prehistoric environment. Maybe. But if so, then love is no longer relevant since that kind of frailty has been largely overcome. Love is reduced to companionship and sex, both of which I’ve argued may be just as illusory (albeit in a pleasant way as long as you manage to avoid thinking below skin level.)

And now for the most dangerous illusion of all: are you actually alive? You’re losing your friends and loved ones. You’re counting the times that you were ignored during meetings at work; that the girls on the bus didn’t look back at you; that you had to repeat yourself; that your email went unanswered. You remember the accident you were in as a child, and start to wonder whether you’re Bruce Willis. At best you come under the impression of slowly fading away, quite literally. Needless to say that this is dangerously self-destructive. From a medical perspective, it looks like an illusion or delusion. But it may just as well be the product of fanatical and self-reinforcing opposition to illusion.

How to get out of this trap? I’m not sure you can, but an old analytic philosophy trick seems to help: define your terms, analyse the meaning of words. If you feel overwhelmed by the loss of illusions, start to define “illusion”. You’ll probably notice that the term is vague and overly inclusive. Which would account for the tendency to see illusions everywhere. A precise definition of the word can help you get out of the anti-illusory maelstrom. Perhaps.

QTWTAIN: Does the Problem of the Self Undermine Human Rights?

The view that there is no such thing as a personal identity or a self has become commonplace among philosophers. This view is of course counterintuitive, but may very well be correct. Why is it counterintuitive? Well, despite all the changes we go through over the course of our lives – changes that are sometimes “life changing” – we still have a sense of persistence and sameness of our selves over time. (At least, most of us do. There are some mental illnesses that disturb this sense of continuity). It’s “I” who changes, and although I change there is an unchanging entity – me – that goes through the changing process. I or my own self remains the same at a deeper level underneath the changes of some parts of me. I keep my distinct personal identity over time. I don’t have it at birth, but I develop it throughout my early life and keep it until my last second. (Again, conditional upon my mental health, in particular during old age).

At least that’s how I feel. I don’t feel like I’m a different person – at least not literally – compared to the one I was yesterday, even if important parts or aspects of me may have changed today, perhaps as a result of a life-changing experience. I may feel like I’m a different man – figuratively speaking – but it’s “I” who feels like a different man. The same “I” that felt different things yesterday. I’m still Filip, even if I’ve changed somehow, and the people who know me know that I am.

Of course, my sense of continuity does not only resist life changing experiences. Even without such experiences I continually oppose a barrage of more mundane changes throughout my life. Although apparently I look just like I did yesterday, my body is in fact changing every second. I gain and lose matter; my body cells are continually replaced. Over the span of several years, my body matter will be almost completely renewed. (A bit like the parts of the ship of Theseus which somehow remains the ship of Theseus even though every part is replaced one after the other). However, my brain cells typically last a lifetime, so this could be a refuge for the idea of personal continuity. Were it not for the fact that although brain cells don’t die we do make new ones and the combinations and interactions between them change all the time. We learn new things and forget other things. We have new experiences, memories and opinions and lose others. Compared to cellular replacement or life changing experiences, neurological changes such as these should be equally devastating to the notion of persistence of identity over time, a notion which is, apparently at least, a sine qua non for any theory of the self.

So, if it’s true that we can’t assume the same person to exist and persist over time, then what does that imply for that person’s human rights? Human rights typically attach to a human person. If the human person is a myth, then does it still make sense to talk about human rights? The obvious answer would be “no”. Something that doesn’t exist can’t have anything: no attributes, no character and certainly not any enforceable rights.

However, you may have noted the sleight of hand here. It’s not because a person can’t be said to exist over time that he or she does not exist at all. “Synchronic identity” is much more difficult to dispute than “diachronic identity” (although it’s not impossible). We are all persons during that infinitely small period of time that is now. (Even those of us who have multiple personalities or other personality disorders). And that synchronic identity is a sufficient basis of rights, because we need our rights now (we can be harmed, hurt, oppressed and killed now). It follows that if we have rights now, then we always have rights because there will always be a now. The fact that we may be different persons from one now to the next – if that is indeed a fact – is neither here nor there and doesn’t imply anything regarding the need for or justification of our rights. Just as it doesn’t imply anything regarding the need for our physical bodies, at least as long as mind uploading isn’t feasible. The day it becomes feasible we’ll return to the question: is there anything to upload?

What Happens to Human Rights in the Experience Machine?

Stephen Moss sits inside an ‘orgone accumulator’ or ‘orgasmatron’, an orgasm producing machine. Photograph: David Levene

Stephen Moss sits inside an ‘orgone accumulator’ or ‘orgasmatron’, an orgasm producing machine. Photograph: David Levene


Nozick’s “experience machine” is a widely used thought experiment, intended to corroborate many different and often counterintuitive conclusions. But as far as I know, it hasn’t been used to try and understand what such a machine would do to our human rights.

First though a word about the experiment. It’s often intended to show that pleasure or happiness can’t be the ultimate moral good, and therefore to claim that philosophies such as utilitarianism can’t be correct – or at least can’t be complete. Imagine a machine that can simulate pleasure. You go into the machine and it gives you whatever pleasurable experiences that you desire, except of course everything is simulated. The pleasure is the same as that which would come from the actual experiences, but you’re not having the experiences. Think also of Reich’s orgasm machine or “orgasmatron”.

Most people would prefer to have the actual experiences rather than merely the pleasure part of them. So there must be something other than pleasure that is important to us, such as actually doing something or being someone.

Now, if instead of a pleasure machine we could have a machine that eliminates the unpleasurable sensations produced by slavery, silencing, censorship, discrimination and even torture (although what then would be the point of torture?). Would we still need human rights? After all, the things that are bad about slavery, torture etc. are the bad experiences suffered by the victims of these rights violations. However, it doesn’t seem OK to make it this easy on the perpetrators. They continue to reap benefits from their actions, and it’s highly likely that they will be encouraged by the absence of bad consequences of their actions. So there will be more and more extreme rights violations. Again, the experience machine doesn’t seem to make things better and I for one am not sure that I would prefer life in such a machine to actually experiencing my rights being violated.

Also, while the experience machine may be able to neutralise the bad experiences I may have when my rights are violated, it will never be able to produce the more positive experiences that come with respect for rights. And I don’t mean pleasure, because that’s not what rights are about. I mean communicating, learning, improving my thinking, participating in culture and in democratic government etc. Rights aren’t only about avoiding the bad, but also about producing the good.

One may reply that an upgraded experience machine may provide these kinds of experiences on top of pleasurable ones. There are, after all, already machines that provide cultural experiences. Why not the other experiences made possible by human rights? However, the implicit assumption is that such a machine would make rights redundant, since machines are supposedly more reliable than rights.

Here we have to distinguish between simulation and reality. If the experience machine would merely simulate the experience of learning, most of us would prefer an actual learning experience, even if we wouldn’t know that we are being mislead when inside the machine. Same thing for the experience of political participation, of culture etc. Even if the simulation were so good that we couldn’t know that it was a simulation, then we should still prefer the non-simulated reality.

However, if the machine would actually help us to learn, to engage in culture and to participate in democracy, then I think it would be a net positive. Fortunately, non-simulative experience machines are much more common than the simulative one imagined by Nozick.

Moral Philosophy: We Have a Winner

Whether you like it or not, moral philosophy has long been dominated by the struggle between two “schools”: utilitarianism (or consequentialism more generally) versus deontology, with figures such as Singer, Bentham and Mill on one side, and Kant, Nagel, Scanlon, Kamm and others on the other side. Virtue ethicists (such as Aristotle, Foot and MacIntyre) are vocal but marginal.

A quick look at the use of words in the New York Times reveals that utilitarianism is and always has been the most popular school:

utilitarianism vs deontology

(The number for “deontology” are so low that the line isn’t even visible). If we add “virtue” – which is misleading because this word, contrary to the two others, is also used in non-philosophical talk – then we see that it’s becoming steadily less popular:

utilitarianism vs deontology vs virtue ethics

Not a good sign for the prospects of virtue ethics. Almost exactly the same trends are visible in Google’s Ngrams:

utilitarianism vs deontology vs virtue ethics

utilitarianism vs deontology vs virtue ethics

The preponderance of utilitarianism is also evident from studies on trolley problems in which most test subjects prefer to sacrifice one in order to save many others (only small minorities prefer an absolute interpretation of the “don’t kill” rule). My guess is that the prominence of economists in public debate has something to do with the good fortune of utilitarianism.

Now, maybe the imbalance between utilitarianism and deontology is less pronounced among “professional” philosophers rather than the general public. I’ve tried to look for studies about the relative popularity of either school among philosophers but couldn’t find anything. Help?

A final, more normative than descriptive question: which type of ethics should people who care about human rights prefer? Not an easy one. I tried some answers here, here, here and here.

Human Rights and Negative Utilitarianism

nuclear explosion

nuclear explosion


Lots of people define human rights – mistakenly as I argue below – in a strictly negative sense: you can’t torture me, you can’t silence me etc. The duty bearers in such a system of human rights have exclusively negative duties: abstain from doing what harms my rights, and omit actions that go against my interests or diminish my dignity. The only positive thing that duty bearers are obliged to do is to protect us against others who fail to abstain or forbear in ways that are required by my rights.

In this view, rights serve to avoid the terrible rather than achieve the best. They put limits on what people can do, rather than allowing them to do things.

Hence the temptation to link human rights to so-called negative utilitarianism. Instead of maximizing overall happiness, pleasure or preference satisfaction as in traditional utilitarianism, negative utilitarianism seeks to minimize pain, harm, suffering and preference negation for all. However, we should avoid linking human rights with negative utilitarianism. While this type of utilitarianism avoids some of the problems of other, more “positive” incarnations of utilitarianism – for example, the problem of accepting the pain of some or inflicting pain on some if that produces a larger quantity of happiness for others – it runs into problems of its own making: e.g. the total destruction of humanity, even if very painful, would no doubt reduce human suffering when this suffering is aggregated over a sufficiently long period of time (very long periods of time when the aggregate suffering is very small). And in any case, negative utilitarianism doesn’t solve other problems inherent in all types of utilitarianism, such as preference adaptation (minimize your suffering or maximize your happiness by being modest and ascetic), objectification and instrumentalization of human beings (kill people that cause some annoyance to others in order to advance the happiness of others or reduce their “suffering”) etc.

Of course, human rights are indeed negative rules of the kind described above. But they’re more than that. They’re not just limits to the depths of evil and inhumanity; they also provide capabilities necessary to reach higher forms of humanity. Free speech rights, for example, counteract censorship and silencing of all kinds, but they also promote the good that comes from liberated discourse and argumentation. (One good being better thinking).

Also from a purely procedural point of view is it wrong to focus only on the negative character of human rights. All rights, even the most “classical” “freedom rights” such as speech, freedom from slavery and torture etc. require both abstention and active assistance. The state not only has to refrain from practicing censorship; it also has to protect its citizens against censorship by other parts of the state or by third parties. And it has to create conditions in which the risk of censorship and of other impediments to speech is minimized. For instance, an educated citizenry is more likely to enjoy its speech rights than one which hasn’t had the benefit of state sponsored education. You need to have things to say in the first place.

This should clear up another misconception in human rights theory, this time about economic human rights. If all rights require both action and forbearance, the supposed distinction between freedom rights and economic rights becomes are lot less clear. More about this here and here.

Is Morality Becoming Harder?

In order to get this post off the ground, let’s assume the following: on the level of general principles, what it is to be moral hasn’t changed a lot over the ages. Help the poor, care for your children, avoid doing harm etc. Being a moral person, however, may have become a lot harder, especially during the last few decades. Harder not necessarily in the sense of the dictates of morality having grown more numerous or more demanding – although they may have (new technologies for example may create new moral rules, but let’s leave that aside for the moment) – but in a negative sense: has it become harder to ignore the dictates of morality?

I think it has. It’s now easier than ever to help the poor: there are websites that tell you which charity is most trustworthy and effective; you can wire money with your phone in less than a minute; information propagation technologies tell us where people suffer the most harm at this very moment, and who’s there to help; evildoers are named and ranked; and so on. This means that the usual excuses for inaction in the face of suffering and harm have lost a lot of their pertinence. How do I know that I’ll be doing something effective rather than wasteful? There are so many evils in the world – how do I select the ones that deserve my moral action? Why do people closer by and more able to help not step up first? Even the dodge that sufferers of harm somehow must have deserved what is coming to them is being undercut by neuroscience and social psychology. For example, it has been shown that adversity at a very young age can have an impact on the brain causing self-destructive behavior in adulthood.

So, the combination of science and technology seems to force us towards morality – to the extent of course that we can agree on what it is to be moral, but I assume here that in general we can. However, if people are being forced towards morality, then shouldn’t we fear a backlash? We don’t like to be forced. If it’s harder to ignore morality, morality may become harder. Harder on us, I mean. Maybe we won’t like to live without our usual dodges.

The Ethics of Human Rights (95): Rights Between “Is” And “Ought”

Human rights inhabit the space between humanity as it is and the kind of humanity we can and should be. First in people’s minds when thinking about rights is of course what an awful lot we are. We’re evil, frail, vulnerable and insignificant, and human rights try to do something about that: they counter our frailty when it’s overwhelmed by our tendency to cause harm. (Although they also protect us against the forces of nature, an often neglected or misunderstood aspect of human rights. It’s not just other people who can violate our rights).

Human rights serve to avoid the terrible, but they also aim to achieve the best. They take humanity as it is and try to reduce the pain and oppression we inflict on each other, but they also promise a better humanity, and not just better in the sense of less harmful. They promise to improve our thinking, to allow us to govern ourselves more justly and efficiently etc.

It’s important to stress this middle position of all thinking about human rights. Too much focus on one side of the is-ought divide inevitably results in distortions. Only considering human beings as they are will  lead you to underestimate the power of rights. You’ll see evil as a permanent feature of history and you’ll tend to underestimate the power of moral uplift. Why do we need rights when people are as they are, and as they’ve always been? An exaggerated focus on people as they can and should be will likewise lead to a deflation of the power of rights, because you’ll tend to overestimate people’s ability to better themselves without the need for rights, and you’ll tend to envision a future in which rights will no longer be necessary. I doubt that there will ever be such a future.

More here.