The Mattering Instinct

The Mattering Instinct

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein [3.16.16]

We can’t pursue our lives without thinking that our lives matter—though one has to be careful here to distinguish the relevant sense of “matter." Simply to take actions on the basis of desires is to act as if your life matters. It’s inconceivable to pursue a human life without these kinds of presumptions—that your own life matters to some extent. Clinical depression is when you are convinced that you don’t and will never matter. That’s a pathological attitude, and it highlights, by its pathology, the way in which the mattering instinct normally functions. To be a fully functioning, non-depressed person is to live and to act, to take it for granted that you can act on your own behalf, pursue your goals and projects. And that we have a right to be treated in accord with our own commitment to our lives mattering. We quite naturally flare up into outrage and indignation when others act in violation of the presumption grounding the pursuance of our lives. So this is what I mean by the mattering instinct, that commitment to one’s own life that is inseparable from pursuing a coherent human life.

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN, awarded the 2014 National Humanities Medal by President Obama, is a philosopher, novelist, and professor of English and Philosophy at NYU. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's Edge Bio Page


A lot of moral questions can be answered in terms of mattering. My intuition is that the concept of mattering bridges the is-ought gap. To determine that certain things matter is also to say that we ought to pursue them, so it’s a bridge concept.

The is/ought gap was first pointed out by David Hume. You’re reading along, says Hume, it’s some philosopher and he’s talking about “this is the case,” “that is the case,” and suddenly, there’s this move to “this ought to be the case,” “that ought to be the case.” In a very famous paragraph in A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume said, “How can you derive 'ought' statements from 'is' statements?” There’s a logical gap.

It’s been taken to be axiomatic ever since Hume—among a whole class of philosophers—that there is this is/ought gap. There are "is” statements, describing states of affairs, and there are “ought” statements, which aren’t simply descriptive of states of affairs but rather assessing them in terms of their value, even asserting that what is the case ought not to be the case. And what has been taken to be axiomatic is that you can’t derive "ought" from "is" and anybody who claims otherwise is committing some sort of fallacy. They’re illicitly hiding the "ought" statements among the "is" statements. To a certain extent that’s true. If your premises contain no soupcon of an “ought,” then your conclusions can’t either. You can’t get something from nothing.

But here’s the thing. There are certain statements that we make about ourselves that are already "ought" statements and that are impossible to live without, and certain consequences follow from that. My claim is that yes, there are “ought” statements among our premises, but those are “ought” statements that make living coherently possible, and so we’re as entitled to assume them as we are, say, the Law of Non-Contradiction, which also can’t be independently justified. Any attempt at justification is going to end in circularity. If a coherent life requires certain presumptions that are so constitutive of coherence that they can’t be justified then that’s justification enough. Skepticism about them is a kind of hollow pose.

The kind of “ought” statements I have in mind concern the commitment to our own lives mattering. We can’t pursue our lives without thinking that our lives matter—though one has to be careful here to distinguish the relevant sense of “matter." Simply to take actions on the basis of desires is to act as if your life matters. It’s inconceivable to pursue a human life without these kinds of presumptions—that your own life matters to some extent. Clinical depression is when you are convinced that you don’t and will never matter. That’s a pathological attitude, and it highlights, by its pathology, the way in which the mattering instinct normally functions. To be a fully functioning, non-depressed person is to live and to act, to take it for granted that you can act on your own behalf, pursue your goals and projects. And that we have a right to be treated in accord with our own commitment to our lives mattering. We quite naturally flare up into outrage and indignation when others act in violation of the presumption grounding the pursuance of our lives. So this is what I mean by the mattering instinct—that commitment to one’s own life that is inseparable from pursuing a coherent human life.

But I want to distinguish more precisely the relevant sense of “mattering." The commitment to your own mattering is, first of all, not to presume that you cosmically matter—that you matter to the universe. My very firm opinion is that we don’t matter to the universe. The universe is lacking in all attitudes, including any attitude toward us. Of course, the religious point of view is that we do cosmically matter. The universe, as represented by God, takes an attitude toward us. That is not what I’m saying is presumed in the mattering instinct. To presume that one matters isn’t to presume that you matter to the universe, nor is it to presume that you matter more than others. There have been philosophers who asserted that some—for example, people of genius—absolutely matter more than others. Nietzsche asserted this. He said, for example, that all the chaos and misery of the French Revolution was justified because it brought forth the genius of Napoleon. The only justification for a culture, according to Nietzsche, is that it fosters a person who bears all the startling originality of a great work of art. All the non-originals—which are, of course, the great bulk of us—don’t matter. Nietzsche often refers to them as “the botched and the bungled.” According to Nietzsche there is an inequitable distribution of mattering.  But I neither mean to be asserting anything religious nor anything Nietzsche-like in talking about our mattering instinct. I reject the one as firmly as the other. In fact, I would argue that the core of the moral point of view is that there is an equitable distribution of mattering among humans. To the extent that any of us matters—and just try living your life without presuming that you do—we all equally matter.

And I also ought to mention that I think the mattering instinct is a natural consequence of natural selection. The basic unit of survival in natural selection is the gene, which survives by being replicated in future generations—the gist of Richard Dawkins’ useful, if misunderstood phrase, “the selfish gene.” A gene’s default scheme is to give the organism traits that help it (the organism) to survive, and to endow that organism with an unthinking ceaseless instinct to survive: to seek sustenance, flee the predator, be devoted 24/7 to seeing another dawn. Self-preservation is a prerequisite to an entity persisting rather than entropically falling apart, and a gene’s best strategy is to keep an organism intact for as long as the genes need it in order to get themselves replicated. Of course, individual organisms eventually wear out their usefulness to the genes, which is why senescence is built into living cells, leading to inevitable decline and death. From the vantage point of the gene, individuals are always expendable, which is something that individuals—certainly us!—find profoundly regrettable. If an organism—any organism—were to have the capacity to articulate its deepest motivation, the motivation that’s a prerequisite for all its other motivations that drive it on in its ceaseless tasks and activities—its scurrying, hiding, roaming, raiding, mating—it would say that its own existence in this world, its persistence and its flourishing, matters. Its own life deserves the assiduous attention and dedicated activity that every creature unthinkingly gives it. This is a presumption that lies beyond the sphere of justification. To be within that sphere is to be subject to the possibility of doubt, to require grounding. Natural selection wasn’t going to leave it to such an uncertain process as that!

So it is no wonder that an articulating reason-giving animal—namely us—is driven by its sense that its own existence and flourishing matters.  We can’t help but act as if we matter, but still, as reflective creatures we eventually get around to asking for a justification of this most basic of mattering presumptions. I think that’s where all the mistakes begin, whether they’re mistakes of religion—thinking that without God human life is meaningless—or mistakes like Nietzsche’s get started. To ask for a justification of this mattering instinct is comparable to, say, asking for the justification for the belief in the uniformity of nature, which David Hume demonstrated can’t be justified but must be presumed in order for us to rationally investigate nature. If living coherently demands certain commitments, if our skeptical objections raised in the seminar room can’t gain any purchase outside of the seminar room, then that’s justification enough.

So I’ve already spoken a bit about the religious attempt to justify the mattering instinct—we matter to God and so therefore we matter—and the Nietzschean attempt at justification—only the extraordinary specimens of humanity matter. I want to talk about some other perhaps less grand ways in which people assume that they’re justifying their own mattering, and these ways—as fallacious as the religious and Nietzschean attempts—derive from a phenomenon that I’d dubbed “the mattering map.”

It’s a fact about our individually diverse species that we all have these ways of carving out our own individual mattering. You just mentioned somebody who thinks that they don’t matter as a thinker because they’re not the greatest thinker in their department—there’s somebody better than they are. The way I understand these kinds of reactions is in the context of the mattering map. The mattering instinct is a universal, but the way it plays out in our lives is subject to individual variability. What matters to us individually, what we would like to achieve in our lives, the kind of characteristics that we want to augment and be recognized for, that we value ourselves and also others who then constitute our relevant comparison group: all of this varies from person to person. Where you’re situated on the mattering map depends on what the traits and goals that most matter to you are, and there’s tremendous variability here.  

I’m a philosopher and a writer. It matters to me that I think well and that I write well. I could feel like I don’t matter—to the point of genuine depression—because other people think so much better than I or write so much better than I. It’s good to gain perspective on these sorts of things. Such perspective is part of what it is to attain wisdom. And it helps sometimes to realize that there’s no absolute value to the region of the mattering map you happen to occupy, by reason of your own individual traits and talents and history. I might want to put a gun to my head because I’m not the most brilliant philosopher of my generation, but to the guy situated in the next mattering region over, philosophy doesn’t matter in the least—the whole subject is a waste of time. He’s got the gun to this head because he’s not the greatest physicist of his generation, or not the greatest speed skater of his generation, or actor of his generation, or is losing his fabulous looks.

I’m particularly interested in the ways in which the mattering instinct can go terribly wrong—not only psychologically but ethically. The mattering instinct is so strong in us, and our tendency to want to justify our own mattering is so persistent that it leads us to universalize what individually matters to us into dicta about what ought to matter to everybody. This is a tendency that ought to be resisted.

When you figure out what matters to you and what makes you feel like you’re living a meaningful life, you universalize this. Say I’m a scientist and all my feelings about my own mattering are crystalized around my life as a scientist. It’s quite natural to slide from that into thinking that the life of science is the life that matters. Why doesn’t everybody get their sense of meaning from science? That false universalizing takes place quite naturally, imperceptibly, being unconsciously affected by the forces of the mattering map. In different people the need to justify their own sense of mattering slides into the religious point of view and they end up concluding that, without a God to justify human mattering, life is meaningless: Why doesn’t everybody see that the life that matters is the life of religion? That’s false reasoning about mattering as well. These are the things I’m thinking about: What’s justified by the mattering instinct, which itself cannot and need not be justified, and what isn’t justified by it.

Yes, I want to explain the mattering instinct in terms of evolutionary psychology because I think everything about us, everything about human nature, demands an evolutionary explanation. And I do think that the outlines of such an explanation are quite apparent. That I matter, that my life demands the ceaseless attention I give it, is exactly what those genes would have any organism believing, if that organism was evolved enough for belief. The will to survive evolves, in a higher creature like us, into the will to matter.

And this leads me to the question of the relationship between science and philosophy and why I think it’s incumbent on me, in laying out my mattering theory, which is ultimately a normative position, to reconcile it with evolutionary biology. It's incumbent on all philosophers to keep abreast of science, especially as it impinges on the questions that they’re thinking about. The picture of philosophers as scientifically ignorant, or even scientifically hostile, is one that’s foreign to philosophy as I know it. It’s foreign, at least, to analytic philosophy. In fact, if I had to define analytic philosophy—which is the dominant approach in both England and the United States—I’d say that at least part of its definition lies in the close relationship it sees between science and philosophy. A great many of the questions it takes up are conceptual quandaries thrown up by scientific progress, and sometimes, in turn, its own conceptual analyses help further scientific progress. Given this orientation, and as I say it’s the dominant one in Anglo-American philosophy, it’s incumbent on philosophers to be scientifically literate.

In fact, most of the philosophers I respect keep abreast of science. Many, for example, of the leading philosophers of physics—Tim Maudlin and Dave Albert—have doctorates in physics and they publish in physics as well as in philosophy.

Science is science and philosophy is philosophy, and it takes a philosopher to do the demarcation. How does science differ from philosophy? That’s not a scientific question. In fact, what science is is not itself a scientific question; what science is is the basic question in the philosophy of science, or at least the most general one.

Here’s what I think science is: Science is this ingenuous motley collection of techniques and cognitive abilities that we use in order to try to figure out what is, the questions of what is: What exists? What kind of universe are we living in? How is our universe ontologically furnished? People talk about the scientific method. There’s no method. That makes it sound like it’s a recipe: one, two, three, do this and you’re doing science. Instead, science is a grab bag of different techniques and cognitive abilities: observation, collecting of data, experimental testing, a priori mathematics, theorizing, model simulations; different scientific activities call for different talents, different cognitive abilities. 

The abilities and techniques that a geologist who’s collecting samples of soil and rocks to figure out thermal resistance is using, compared to a cognitive scientist who’s figuring out a computer simulation of long-term memory, compared to Albert Einstein performing a thought experiment—what it’s like to ride a lightwave—compared to a string theorist working out the mathematical implications of 11 dimensions of M-theory, compared to a computational biologist sifting through big data in order to spot genomic phenotypes, are all so very different. These are very different cognitive abilities and talents, and they’re all brought together in order to figure out what kind of universe we’re living in, what its constituents are and what the laws of nature governing the constituents are.

Here’s the wonderful trick about science: Given all of these motley attributes, talents, techniques, activities, in order for it to be science, you have to bring reality itself into the picture as a collaborator. Science is a way to prod reality to answer us back when we’re getting it wrong. It’s an amazing thing that we’ve figured out how to do it and it’s a good thing too because our intuitions are askew. Why shouldn’t they be? We’re just evolved apes, as we know through science. Our views about space and time, causality, individuation are all off. If we hadn’t developed an enterprise whose whole point is to prod reality to answer us back when we’re getting it wrong, we’d never know how out of joint our basic intuitions are. 

Science has been able to correct this because no matter how theoretical it is, you have to be able to get your predictions. You have to be able to get reality to say, “So you think simultaneity is absolute, do you? no matter which frame of reference you’re measuring it in? Well, we’re just going to see about that.” And you perform the tests and, sure enough, our intuitions are wrong. That’s what science is. If philosophers think that they can compete with that, they're off their rockers.

That’s the mistake that a lot of scientists make. I call them philosophy jeerers—the ones who just dismiss philosophy, that have nothing to add because they think that philosophers are trying to compete with this amazing grab bag that we’ve worked out and that gets reality itself to be a collaborator. But there’s more to be done, to be figured out, than just what kind of world we live in, the job description of science. In fact, everything I’ve just been saying, in defending science as our best means of figuring out the nature of our universe, hasn’t been science at all but rather philosophy, a kind of rewording of what Karl Popper had said.

Karl Popper, a philosopher, coined the term “falsifiability,” to try to highlight the importance of this all-important ability of science to prod reality into being our collaborator. Popper is the one philosopher that scientists will cite. They like him. He has a very heroic view of scientists. They’re just out to falsify their theories. "A theory that we accept," he says, “just hasn’t been falsified yet.” It’s a very heroic view of scientists. They’re never egotistically attached to their theories. A very idealized view of science and scientists. No wonder scientists eat Popper up.

One of the things that Popper had said, and this relates very much to this whole idea of beauty in our scientific theories, is that we have to be able to test our theories in order for them to be scientific. Our whole way of framing our theories and the questions that we want to solve and the data that we’re interested in looking at—particularly in theory formation, there are certain metaphysical presumptions that we bring with us in order to do science at all—they can’t be validated by science, but they’re implicit in the very carrying on of science. That there are metaphysical presumptions that go into theory formation is an aspect of Popper’s description of science that most scientists forget that Popper ever said.

One of these is that nature is law-like. If we find some anomaly, some contradiction to an existing law, we don’t say, “Oh, well, maybe nature just isn’t law-like. Maybe this was a miracle.” No. We say that we got the laws wrong and go back to the drawing board. Newtonian physics gets corrected, shown to be only a limiting case under the more general relativistic physics. We’re always presuming that nature is law-like in order to do science at all. We also bring with us our intuitions about beauty and, all things being equal, if we have two theories that are adequate to all the empirical evidence we have, we go with the one that’s more elegant, more beautiful. Usually that means more mathematically beautiful. That can be a very strong metaphysical ingredient in the formation of our theories.

It was particularly dramatic in Einstein that he had these very strong views of the beauty and harmony of the laws of nature, and that was utilized in general relativity. General relativity was published in 1915. It had to wait until 1919, when Eddington went to Africa and took pictures of the solar eclipse, for some empirical validation to be established. Sure enough, light waves were bent because of the mass of the sun; gravity distorted the geometry of space-time.

This was the first empirical verification that came for general relativity; there was nothing before then. Einstein jokingly had said to somebody that if the empirical evidence had not validated his theory, he would’ve felt sorry for the dear Lord. He said to Hans Reichenbach, a philosopher of science and a physicist, that he knew before the empirical validation arrived in 1919 that the theory had to be true because it was too beautiful and elegant not to be true. That’s a very strong intuition, a metaphysical intuition that informed his formulation of the theory, which is exactly the kind of thing that Popper was talking about.

The laws of nature are elegant, which usually means mathematically elegant. We’re moved by this. You can’t learn the relativity theory and not be moved by the beauty of it.

Look, there are people who say the string theory is not science until you can somehow get reality to answer us back. It’s not science; it’s metaphysics—this is an argument.

The notion of the multiverse: It certainly seems that it’s hard to get any empirical evidence for parallel universes, but yet it’s a very elegant way of answering a lot of questions, like the so-called fine tuning of the physical constants. These are places in which science might be slipping over into philosophy. What we have to just keep doing is working away at it and perhaps we’ll be able to figure out an ingenious way for reality to answer us back.

~ ~ ~

I have this interest in Spinoza. Well, I have a fixation on Einstein that goes all the way back to the days when I started as a physics student. Einstein was my hero, and general relativity was the most beautiful theory. And then I learned that Einstein took Spinoza very seriously. He was constantly quoting Spinoza whenever he was asked to propound philosophical views. That got me interested in Spinoza, so I started to read him. He’s a very odd philosopher, and his magnum opus is a very odd book, written in imitation of the Euclidean model. He made every claim for a priori reason that can possibly be made. Not only can a priori reason deduce the nature of the world, according to him, but it can deduce the nature of ethics, how we ought to live. He’s a rationalist on steroids.

And yet, despite his rather loony methodology, he was prescient about many things, and this is intriguing. It seems to indicate that, despite his methodology, he had some pretty sound intuitions. As you well know, Antonio Damasio is also a great fan of Spinoza. He’s a very different kind of scientist from Einstein, a neuroscientist, and he, like Einstein, finds Spinoza’s intuitions way back in the seventeenth century, startling. Damasio has a book, Looking for Spinoza, in which he explains his own fascination with this thinker, from the point of view of his own scientific interests. He’s also in awe of the intuitions that Spinoza had.

Okay, so intrigued myself. I volunteered to teach Spinoza, and the first time it was like, “What is this stuff?” He starts with axioms, and definitions, and these seemingly bogus proofs, ending with QED. But about the third time I was teaching Spinoza, it started to make a lot of sense. I realized the basic intuition that he was presuming—the same intuition that Einstein had— which is that reality is rational through and through. There is always a reason why anything happens. Another way of putting this is that there exists a final theory of everything capable of explaining everything, including not only what at the ultimate laws of nature but also why they have to be the ultimate laws of nature. In other words, the final theory of everything, in explaining everything, will also explain itself. It will be self-explanatory. And this means that if we were to have a complete understanding of nature, it would entirely answer for itself. It wouldn’t need anything outside of itself, outside of nature itself, in order to supply a complete explanation. It’s this final theory of everything that Spinoza calls deus sive natura, the thing that can be conceived alternatively as either God or nature. This is what he means by saying that God is immanent in nature rather than transcendent. You can regard this God language, as I do, a vestige of the age in which Spinoza lived. His antiquated terminology hides a surprisingly prescient set of intuitions struggling for expression, and that’s what won the startled admiration of Einstein. Seeing your way past the weird methodology and awful terminology pays off at the end. I’m grateful that my own admiration of Einstein motivated me, because it’s really an interesting kind of intellectual adventure to try to make sense of that odd book, see what are the intuitions underlying it, and to be startled by the scientific relevance.

Spinoza’s is one possible answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It was the answer that Spinoza gave and that Einstein also had faith in: That the laws of nature, were we to understand them in their final form, would explain themselves. We would see why they had to be. Maybe we’ll never see that. Spinoza says we never will because we’re finite and the final theory of everything would be infinite.

Stephen Hawking, at the end of A Brief History of Time, is talking about what Einstein said. At the end of the book, he writes something along the lines that—I’m of course paraphrasing— “Einstein once asked if we understood the laws of nature, would we understand why they have to be the laws of nature? After all, the laws are just equations. What puts the fire into these equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” He’s quoting Einstein here, and whether he knows it or not, he’s summoning the spirit of Spinoza in quoting Einstein here.

Einstein is putting into modern language questions that Spinoza had confronted, and Einstein buys into Spinoza’s fundamental intuition—and it really is the fundamental intuition running throughout the Ethics, the intuition that puts the ontos into the logos—that the universe ultimately explains itself. When Hawking says at the end of A Brief History of Time, in that last paragraph, something along the lines of “Were we to see this, then we would know the mind of God,” he’s channeling Spinoza. You know how scientists are always talking about the mind of God as a way of talking about the best theory? That’s a Spinozistic tic that we could really do without, because it misleads people into thinking these scientists are actually theists.

When scientists talk about the mind of God, or the viewpoint of God, or what God would do, what they’re talking about is the objective view and whether or not we can know it—the form that the laws of nature ought to take. It’s a metaphorical use of the word God and the mind of God. It’s very misleading to people.

I was at a Passover Seder and we started talking about whether God exists. And people said, “Well, Stephen Hawking says God exists. He talks about the mind of God in the last paragraph.” Stephen Hawking was parodying Einstein. This is Spinoza-type talk—the way one talks about nature: if you think that nature itself can supply the final explanation for itself.

I had done this chapter for the Oxford handbook on Spinoza, on Spinoza’s influence on literature, which turns out to be immense. One hundred years before the Enlightenment, Spinoza seeds the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment really comes from the ideas of Spinoza. Spinoza argued that religion, as it had been practiced up until his day, is not advancing the species, but reason is the way to advance the species. We can reason things out. His magnum opus was called Ethics. He tries to deduce ethics itself from reason, from human nature, and he does quite a good job.

In his day, everybody attacked him because he was pulling the rug out from religion, demonstrating that we don’t need God in order to explain why there’s something rather than nothing. We don’t need the notion of a transcendent God to explain nature. Nature itself could, were we only to understand it thoroughly, explain itself. Nor, he argued, do we need God in order to lay down morality. Human nature, if we understand human nature and what will most make us flourish, which is what we want to do, will give us the grounding for morality. We don’t need God for the two major reasons that religion brings in God: to say why there’s something rather than nothing and to ground morality.

Spinoza was attacked by his own Jewish community of Amsterdam, which put him into herem, the Jewish version of excommunication. He didn’t publish the Ethics during his lifetime; his friends published it afterwards. It was considered too dangerous to publish during his lifetime. At twenty-four he was put into herem, and he separated from his own Jewish community, and then it fell on greater Christian Europe to universally condemn him. He was the most castigated man in all of Europe. Even Leibniz, who was profoundly influenced by him, sharing in Spinoza’s intuition that there is always a reason for everything and that the universe is thoroughly intelligible, saw fit to condemn Spinoza for his lack of respect for religion.

We’ve lost the memory of how central he was by the end of the 17th century and into the 18th. By 1710 there was a Catelogus scriptorium Anti-Spinozanorum in Leipzig. Basically, to move up the academic or ecclesiastical ranks, you had to have your denunciations of Spinoza in place. But that meant that everybody was reading him in order to attack him. And 100 years later, more or less, the Enlightenment happens. He’s the pivotal thinker in the Enlightenment. Jonathan Israel’s magnificent three-part series on the Radical Enlightenment places Spinoza at the very center of the Enlightenment.

He’s also pivotal in literary history. Many literary thinkers, from Goethe, to Borges, to Herman Melville, to George Eliot, who was the first English translator of Spinoza, were influenced by Spinoza or they were reacting against Spinoza. The ones who are influenced by him tend to think—they’re kind of hopeful, optimistic people—“We can advance our species by being reasonable. Let us reason together.” And that’s what the Enlightenment is all about. So you have people like Steven Pinker, publishing The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Matt Ridley, publishing The Rational Optimist. Spinoza started a way of thinking about the possibility of progress and how to rationally go about it.

There’s also an anti-Enlightenment movement and that also influenced literature, and the pivotal thinker there is Schopenhauer. I'm teaching a course that is studying both Spinoza and Schopenhauer and then tracing their literary influence up until the 21st century literature—the optimist and the pessimist, the pro-Enlightenment people and anti-Enlightenment people, those who think the intellect is a force for societal improvement and those who cherish their despair and think that the intellect is just another way of deluding ourselves.

You ask me for an example of a philosopher who actually made a contribution to something outside of philosophy. In some sense, in talking about Spinoza’s influence on Einstein, as well as his influence on literature—Schopenhauer’s too—I've been proliferating examples. I guess what you want is something more specific, and you want it to be a specific contribution in science or mathematics, in other words, something that really matters, at least according to a certain region of the mattering map occupied by most readers of Edge.

The first person who comes to mind is Kurt Gödel, and his proof of the incompleteness theorems, which some people consider among the most important results in mathematics of the last hundred years. Interestingly, Gödel thought of himself as a philosopher. He was trying to mathematically prove a philosophical viewpoint to which he was committed: mathematical Platonism, the view that mathematics is descriptive, that mathematicians are in the business of discovering truths, not inventing them. It’s not like chess. It’s not making up these rules and seeing the implications of these rules, nor is mathematics the study of psychology; its truths aren’t grounded in the structure of the human mind. Mathematics is describing something that’s objectively true. That’s the Platonic view of mathematical truth, and there’s some evidence that Gödel became committed to mathematical Platonism as an undergraduate at the University of Vienna.

He took a history of philosophy course taught by one Theodor Gomperz, who was a specialist in ancient Greek philosophy, and this course had a profound effect on Gödel. When he was an old man, somebody wrote him asking, “Who were the philosophers who most influenced you?” He listed Plato and, of course, Leibniz. He was very interested in Leibniz, almost obsessed with him and—here’s the surprise—Theodor Gomperz, hardly a philosopher up there with Plato and Leibniz. This is some indication of the effect that that course had on him, and the philosophical questions that were the focus of his mathematical work. After taking Gomperz’s course he switched his concentration from physics to mathematics.  My guess—and it’s only a guess—is that Gödel formed the audacious ambition of trying to find a mathematical proof for the meta-mathematical—the philosophical—position of Platonism. And the result was the incompleteness theorems. 

If I’m right about Gödel, then here’s a philosophical problem that precipitated one of the most important results in mathematics.

He thought that he had demonstrated Platonism. But whether he did or didn’t—and there’s controversy about this—he did succeed in getting incredible mathematics as a result, which led to further results, including Turing’s work on the halting problem, to recursion theory and model theory. You could make a case that the work these men did, motivated by philosophical issues, and which demanded their making the notion of a formal system absolutely rigorous, led to computer science. There’s a very concrete example of somebody, as a philosopher, thinking philosophically, going after a philosophical problem that led to contributions outside of philosophy, in the kinds of field that even those whose mattering region discounts anything but math and science can regard as significant.

But I wouldn’t want to argue that philosophy has to justify itself by proliferating such examples. One only makes such a demand from a certain region of the mattering map, one which judges all human thought by way of its contribution to math and science. It has happened in the history of science, in the history of philosophy, that philosophers have contributed to scientific questions, often to the creation of entire domains. The philosophers were asking a question not yet amenable to any kind of empirical methodology, but then the empirical methodology caught up, sometimes due to the attention that the philosophers were giving it. The question became an empirical one, so it got taken out of the domain of philosophy and into the domain of science. 

That happened with physics, which used to be called natural philosophy. It happened with physics, with cosmology, with biology. Aristotle was a kind of proto-biologist. Armand Leroi has a book, Aristotles Lagoon, that tries to argue that biology is still playing catch-up with Aristotle. It happened with psychology, it happened with linguistics, it happened with logic, it happened with computer science and cognitive science and AI. As they develop into mature sciences, they’re no longer philosophical. But the philosophers in some sense prompted the development of these fields by asking the questions prematurely and trying out intuitions, some of which turn out to be formative to these scientific fields.

That these historical examples can be seen as, “Isn’t philosophy helpful to science?” or it can be seen as “Philosophy is ultimately futile.” Philosophers just send up a signal saying, “Science needed here. Please catch up. We’re blathering on and on and we need some science so we can get some real answers here.” But whichever attitude you take toward these examples, they don’t provide the justification for the field. Philosophy has made progress on its own, independent of its contributions to science. But it has happened that philosophy has contributed in that way but that’s not the role of philosophy. It’s not to be scientists. We have science to give us science. We don’t judge philosophy by how much it contributes to science.

I would say what philosophy is basically trying to do is make us coherent. We’re very compartmentalized creatures, we hold many inconsistent beliefs. Even the scientists who are saying that we can get along without any philosophy and then put forth a view of the philosophy of science in order to justify their dismissal of philosophy don’t realize that they’re being inconsistent because they’re engaging in philosophy even while they’re saying, “We can get along without it.”

We happily cohabit with many inconsistencies, including moral inconsistencies. The job of philosophy is and has always been—ever since Socrates wandered around the agora of Athens making such a bloody nuisance of himself until his exasperated fellow citizens finally shut him up with a cup of hemlock—is to expose our inconsistencies, make our cohabitation with them a little less happy.

That is how we’ve made moral progress, by philosophical arguments pointing out that there’s an inconsistency here between principles to which we’ve already committed and certain behavior that we’re engaging in. This is progress that philosophy has made—quite apart from its contributions to science. For example, the first arguments against slavery took this form, pointing out the inconsistency between the rights of liberty we presume for ourselves but denying for others, and demanding a justification for drawing this distinction, which attempts at justification proved, on examination, to be defeasible. And then those same arguments that were used for arguing against slavery were adapted to argue for the rights of women. This is all part of the work of philosophical reasoning and its ultimate aim of trying to expose our inconsistences and maximize our overall coherence.

Sometimes what this maximization of coherence involves is showing that certain intuitions we have are inconsistent with what science is demonstrating. We might have to give up certain views about ourselves because of evolutionary psychology, for example, or neuroscience, or we’re going to have to give up certain views about causality or individuation because of what physicists are demonstrating on the quantum level. Trying to bring us to maximize our coherence often means taking the results of science into account.

What philosophy tries to do, or at least one aspect of philosophy in its quest for maximum coherence, is look at the best picture we have at the moment of the way the world is, which best picture is delivered to us by science, and then to try to reconcile that picture with other intuitions that we have. So, for example, is what we know right now about the neuroscience of the human mind compatible with our intuitions about free will? Is what we know about evolutionary psychology compatible with there being any objective truth to our moral intuitions?

Morality seems somewhat mysterious. There are the laws of nature that explain matter, and motion, and energy, and space, time, the geometry of them. These are all statements about what is. Even if we had a complete description of what is the case, how could we derive from that what ought to be the case? Yet, we all have very strong intuitions about morality, certainly when it applies to us. We have no hesitation in feeling moral outrage when our own rights are violated.

I’ve never even met a three-year old who didn’t have a strong intuition about fairness, at least when it applies to them. When you give their sister a bigger portion, they’re immediately squawking that that’s not fair. These moral intuitions come very naturally to us, but are they objective descriptions of moral facts or is it just part of our psychology, explained away by evolutionary psychology? Is it just all thrown up out of the workings of our genes? Where do these intuitions come from, and is their source of a kind to ground objective moral discoveries or invalidate them?

Returning to some themes we took up toward the beginning of our conversation, that far from invalidating our moral intuitions evolutionary psychology can be put to work to help ground them. I bring it back to the concept of mattering. We can’t live lives that are recognizably human without presuming an attitude toward our own mattering. If we’re going to presume that we matter and that others have to treat us as if we matter, either we think that we’re somehow ontologically special and the universe revolves around us—which is to be certifiably nuts—or we’re going to have to extend this modicum of mattering to other creatures like us. How far do we take it? What are the justifiable borders of demarcation between our own obvious mattering and others to whom we attribute a lesser portion of mattering or even no mattering at all?

My view about morality is that it’s rooted in human nature but in such a way as to objectively ground moral conclusions we draw. There are certain things that we have to take for granted about our own life. We can’t live a coherently human life without taking for granted that we have the right to live and to flourish, and that’s what we all try to do. You can begin to explain what it is to pursue a life without seeing how this commitment to our own mattering operates. This means that in simply pursuing a recognizably human life, we’re already occupying moral ground, and then you have to see what follows from that. We don’t have to make the impossible leap between is and ought. We’re already firmly implanted in the land of oughts.

That’s what the history of moral philosophy has tried to show us. You have to extend the mattering you claim for yourself to enslaved people, to colonized people, even to women. They have as much right to matter as men, to pursue their lives and find their own diverse ways of working out their mattering, even if their doing so sometimes has bad effects on male egos, making them feel like they matter less because of this striving to matter of women. How are they going to impress women if those women are achieving so much?

This is the kind of progress that’s been made: Considering what we already take for granted and then seeing the consequences of it and pointing out our incoherencies, and trying, ever so laboriously, to get us to change some of our deepest attitudes and intuitions. If science’s multi-faceted tactics all have the ultimate aim of prodding reality to answer us back when we’re getting it wrong, I’d say that philosophy’s multifaceted tactics have the ultimate aim of exposing our internal inconsistencies.

It's part of the nature of every organism that they try to survive and to flourish. That is what it is to be an organism. And, of course, the genes are propelling this. This is all behavior that is propelled by the genes wanting to propagate copies of themselves into the future. We, being humans, try to give reasons for this.

We don’t say it’s just the machinations of the selfish gene; we occupy a terrain of reasons. We try to give reasons for our beliefs, we try to give reasons for our actions. And in doing this we’re already occupying normative ground, both epistemological and moral. We’re bringing certain standards of judgment to bear on our beliefs and actions; we’re holding ourselves accountable for our beliefs and actions. Standing on normative ground is unavoidable in living a human life, and then certain consequences follow objectively.  

~ ~ ~   

Who can explain their own life? You can make up a story to try to give a narrative arc to your life, but really I don’t have much faith in any narrative arc I construct about my own life. But okay, here it goes. I’ll construct my story around the fact that I was born into a quite religious household, in which people seem to know all sorts of things about the nature of the universe and what this meant about our own lives, about how we should live and what matters. That there was a god and he had a very special relationship with the Jews—the tribe that I just happened to have been born into—and that he wanted us to live a certain way and he had all these very intrusive rules for every aspect of our lives. But it wasn’t the annoying intrusiveness of these rules that I objected to, but rather all the presumptions that underlay them.

My question was always, how do you know this. I was just always asking the grownups around me, “How do we know that this is true?” And I remember always being mystified by the answers I got. I wasn’t educated enough to know that what was so mystifying about the answers was that they tended to be circular, presuming the very thing I wanted to be shown.

My mystification had the effect of making me very interested in the question of how we know—questions of epistemology. Then I decided when I was pretty young that the best way we can know about the world is science, so I decided I wanted to study science, and that I wanted to study physics. That’s what I intended to do until I took a course on quantum mechanics and I found what the professor was saying to be just like my religious household.

I would ask certain questions and he would say, “You’re not allowed to ask that question. Shut up and calculate.” That reminded me a lot of those rabbi-teachers I’d had back in the ultra-Orthodox all-girls high school I’d gone to, the ones who had so infuriated me that at a certain point I just stopped going to school and played hooky. "You’re not allowed to ask that question." Is there any more frustrating, less gratifying response to a question that’s burning inside of you?

Then people told me I should go speak to a philosopher. So I went to speak to Sidney Morgenbesser. I was at Columbia, well, I was at Barnard, but I was taking my physics courses at Columbia. I went to speak to Sidney Morgenbesser and we had long conversations, and they were wonderful.

He was the best talker in the world. He was among the best talkers on philosophy since Socrates. He had the same publishing record as Socrates, too: nothing. The null set, or close to it. Then he told me I was a philosopher, that the questions I was interested in were mostly philosophical. I ended up going to graduate school in philosophy at Princeton. 

I don’t know how I started writing novels. I just got the idea for a novel and I sat down and wrote it during my summer vacation, when I was an assistant professor of philosophy. It seemed to me an interesting experiment to write about philosophy in a novelistic form. I loved science fiction as a kid, and I had the idea that I wanted to do the same for philosophy, write philosophy fiction. It was an experiment. So I wrote a novel, it got published, attracted some attention,  and a lot of my philosophical colleagues said, “So you’re really not a philosopher if you’re writing novels. The two occupations simply aren’t compatible.” I thought they were compatible, that my being able to write a novel didn’t necessarily detract from my being able to do philosophy, but a lot of my colleagues thought otherwise. My philosophical career took a very hard hit, so I started writing more novels, more or less abandoning my career as a philosopher, since the consensus of opinion seemed to be you couldn’t possibly be both a novelist and a philosopher, particularly an analytic philosopher, which is the philosophical orientation with which I’ve always identified. Looking back, I gave up too easily. It’s always been in philosophy that I’m most interested, whether in the beginning when I was studying science or later in my life when I was writing novels.