An interview with Armando Massarenti

This post is also available in: Spanish

In the chapter dealing with good and bad euthanasia you raise two interesting questions. First: what is life? Second: does it have a meaning?

In order to answer seriously but also lightly, which I try to make my philosophical style, I will start with a great joke from Woody Allen: “At a time throughout the movie of my life I passed by the eyes. And I was not in the cast!” Therefore, a meaningful life, a life worth living is a life in which one is in the cast. In the cast of one’s own life, at least! Because Woody Allen is right: it’s something you can’t take for granted. Being in the cast means living a “thought life”, a life full of searching, as Socrates said through Plato. In essence, a philosophical life. And this is the idea I’m trying to put forward in Il lancio del nano e altri esercizi di filosofia minima. In this book, as well as in the Dizionario delle idee non comuni and in the portraits of philosophers I’ve drawn in the Il filosofo tascabile. They are exercises which, little by little, remind us somewhat of the “spiritual exercises” Pierre Hadot refers to in order to define the essential characteristics of ancient Philosophy. It was, more than anything, a life choice, opting for a particular lifestyle. Choosing to live according to a particular philosophical school, be it stoicism, epicureism, skepticism or neoplatonism. An option which is now available to everyone because all of us, whether we like it or not, are reflexive people. We are forced to be free, as Sartre would put it.

Life, however, may seem absurd and meaningless to the most reflexive people, the most aware of the human condition. We could mention, for example Giacomo Leopardi (poet and also philosopher: it’s no coincidence I included him amongst the great thinkers in Il filosofo tascabile). Or Albert Camus, who has managed like nobody else for us to reach what he called the experience of the Absurd. According to the North-American philosopher Thomas Nagel, who has reinterpreted Camus’s idea, life seems absurd when we look at it from afar. There is an essential tension between an objective and impersonal point of view and a subjective and personal one. We live happily focused on our little dreams and big daily routines, and suddenly we think about “taking a step back” and looking at ourselves “from outside”, a little bit like Woody Allen in the joke we started with, or how we could take a look at a mouse’s life. And then, what from a personal, internal perspective seemed important, fundamental, absolute, ends up losing all meaning. Seen from outside, our life looks absurd. Not only because, in comparison to eternity and the immensity of the world, it appears to us in all its pettiness and finitude, an exercise the ancient philosophers used to love. No, the point is not the limitations in our lives. If life was infinite, we still wouldn’t have solved the problem: we would just have an absurd infinity. What could make us think our life has a worth and a meaning different to a mouse’s? The point is in the “step back” which we, who have self-consciousness and reflexive capacity, are able to take. Life may seem absurd, but that shouldn’t lead us to despair. On the contrary. Even after this “step back”, life goes on. Try the following exercise: think about all the times you took a step back while watching a good movie or reading a good novel. And in how many times you have given it in philosophy. Or with a very philosophical movie, even though also quite bizarre, like the meaning of life from the Monty Python.

In any case, after the step back and even if it seems absurd to us, life goes on. But something has changed, something important. And for the better. Before, our tendency to take ourselves too seriously prevailed. Now, enriched inside, we have gained a new dimension: we are lighter, more refined, ironic, civil, tolerant. We enter the cast in a wiser way, in a movie that’s not dull or absurd or violent, but fun and full of surprises.

Mister Chicken (a fictitious character who appears in one of your books) could ask himself about the validity of knowledge or, if you prefer, what can we know?

In order to answer this question Woody Allen may also be of some help. “Is knowledge knowable? And if it’s not, how can we know?” The ways of knowing do not have an ultimate, unmovable foundation. Science, to put it like Karl Popper, stands on frail pillars. In my book, the adventures of Mister Chicken are a way of illustrating, in a humorous way, what the paradoxes that emerge when we try to justify our knowledge are. Hume already asked himself whether it is justified to expect the sun to rise tomorrow, just because until now we’ve observed it’s always been like that. The first adventure of Mister Chicken, the smartest chicken in the coop, related to the inductivist turkey of Russell and Popper, illustrates this point. Everyday Mister Chicken identifies the sequence which brings it his nourishment (farmer + bag at a given time x) and is always the first to get there. Until, in Christmas’ eve, that same sequence leads him straight to the oven. However, poor Mister Chicken was very smart and had no motives to expect evil just for being an inductivist. It’s just that this principle, like any other which tries to “give foundations” to our knowledge or our scientific method, is not absolute. It is, at best, reasonable. Should we be sorry? Should we despair? No. Let’s assume the fact lucidly. Because knowledge increases thanks to the principles of rationality, of intellectual honesty, of active cooperation between the human minds which have characterized scientific activity in these last centuries. And also moral activity, the universe of values, as I try to prove in my paper “Fatti e valori a prova di imbecille”.

You finish one of your pieces saying “welcome to the real world”. But is there a real world?

Welcome to the real world is a joke from The Matrix. But what issue does this -sometimes too much- explicitly philosophical movie raise? It does not suggest a point, but a mental experiment in which the viewer is immersed. What if life was but a dream? How could we distinguish dream from wakefulness? What if we lived in the Platonic cave and we didn’t see the reality of things but only their shadows? What if there was an evil genie who made us believe the world is real, but in fact it was him who provided the impulses that make us perceive it as such? What if we were “brains in a tank” that receive impulses from a mad scientist? Or if, like in The Matrix, the world that appears real to us was the result of a computer program?

Mental experiments of this kind are a fundamental ingredient in Philosophy. They help us to think with greater depth about something which may seem obvious. Like, precisely, the existence of an external world. Do we have conclusive evidence of its existence? In order to tackle this it is useful to think about all the hallucinatory and illogical consequences the contrary hypothesis implies. Also in this way our world and our experience shall be enriched. Maybe we will better appreciate the difference between a real cappuccino and a drink that “tastes like” cappuccino.

In several occasions you raise the issue of whether there is free will and what it may be.

I could answer with a question: does it make sense to go on living if I think that every one of my decisions is determined, or was simply already known by the mind of some higher entity, or if the world is dominated by total determinism? The answers from philosophy and religion have been different and varied. In order to reach the core of the matter, some American psychologists have done an interesting experiment. They have asked a series of individuals if, given a totally deterministic world, they still thought there was free will. However, while to some that world was described as fictitious, to others it was described as the real world, that which they inhabit everyday when they make their everyday decisions, small and big. Well, in the first case the subjects mostly stated a world like that denies free will; in the second group, the tendency was the opposite. What does that mean? That human beings have a tendency to consider themselves free and responsible for their own acts. And it may be thanks to that feeling of freedom and responsibility that it seems to us we are able to say -returning to the first question- that life has a meaning for us.

See this author’s biography.

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