Why are Singaporean students so silent in the classroom? And what can we do about it?

One of the amazing things about being both a teacher and a student for almost two years is that it has given me a privileged perspective to understand why students behave the way they do in class.

This became very apparent to me when I discuss issues with my teaching colleagues: when we’re so busy teaching or preparing for class, it’s so easy to forget how a student would perceive the things we do or say, or the reasons for certain behaviours.

One unique insight I gained from this privileged position of being simultaneously teacher-and-student, is the underlying cultural motivations for why students hold back from fully engaging in class. They do this by either remaining silent, not participating in any activity, or if they do, they would moderate and reduce the quality of their work/performance.

This presents a great challenge, at least here in Singapore, to efforts in engaging students in the classroom, or even in any attempts at successful student-teacher partnerships (a kind of pedagogical approach where students are not regarded merely as consumers of a lesson, but as co-creators who partake in the design and even teaching of the lesson itself).

Unlike the successful experiences reported by many teachers in the West, students here in Singapore appear to be quieter, and less participative. Many typically describe local students as passive or even conformist. But these do not get to the heart of why students behave this way.

Looking back at my own student experience, and from speaking personally to my students, I have come to realise that much of the lack of participation stem from issues surrounding the notion of “face” or pride/reputation. Singaporean students generally do not participate in class discussions or engage in teacher-student partnerships for the following reasons:

(1) Students are afraid that speaking up or volunteering might cause embarrassment to their peers, thereby making them “lose face.” Volunteering for something, or speaking out (especially if one speaks well) can make one appear outstanding. But at the same time, it creates a stark contrast with other students, thereby making them look bad by comparison. Those who volunteer or participate are usually labelled by their peers as “market spoilers” (i.e. those who raise the bar) or “extras.”

(2) Students are also afraid that speaking up or volunteering with the teacher may cause their peers to resent them, thereby leading to negative social consequences outside of class. It’s one thing to embarrass one’s peers by volunteering or participating in class. But it is another issue altogether if one does so repeatedly. Not only is the student repeatedly causing one’s peers to “lose face,” but the student is seen as someone who has raised the bar so much, that that student is showing off his/her abilities. This leads to a lot of resentment from one’s peers. Such students tend to receive harsh labels like “show off” or “smart aleck,” and be treated badly by their peers outside of class.

(3) Yet another motivation for silence or not volunteering is the fear that once one has done so, one has revealed one’s “true abilities” to one’s peers. It is worth noting that the phrase, “true abilities,” was mentioned multiple times by a few of my students when they explained reasons for disliking participation in class/online forum.

The fear of revealing one’s true abilities can come in two forms: (a) One is worse than one’s peers, in which case, revealing one’s ability causes one to immediately “lose face” and to embarrass one’s self in front of others. A more severe form being that one is afraid to discover that one is bad as a consequence of speaking out or volunteering, thereby “losing face” just by attempting.

(b) One is better than one’s peers, in which case, one now has to grapple with the stress of maintaining one’s reputation of having such a high ability, and not lose out to others (which would be highly embarrassing). This is driven largely by a desire for self-preservation. By not revealing one’s high ability, one does not draw attention from potential enemies, and can continue leisurely learning at one’s own pace without having to compete with someone else and risk losing.

These are the three key motivations for students remaining silent and not participating in class or for any extra activities organised by the teacher, including student-teacher partnerships.

Of course, a silent classroom is never tolerated, and there will always be moments where students are made to speak up or present. Here, the same motivations are manifested differently, and this is something we need to be aware of, especially when we involve students to present in front of class, or in any efforts at student-teacher partnerships.

As the lack of participation is motivated by issues of “face,” forced participation similarly compels students to reduce the quality of their work (or at least their outward performance) when they are required to present to the rest of the class. Again, this is to avoid embarrassing one’s peers, or to avoid being labeled as a show off and sanctioned by one’s peers, and also to avoid revealing one’s true abilities (especially if one has higher abilities). The way students do this is that they will use the first forced participant as the benchmark and mimic the quality of the materials and level of showmanship.

Of course, there will be students who are ignorant or do not abide by these rules at all. One good thing about this is that in doing so, hey help to reveal the dynamics of the benchmarking efforts that the others had been doing. Throughout my years as a student, whenever someone outperforms beyond the tacit benchmark, I often hear others complaining along the lines of: “If I knew he/she was going to present like this, I would have done more.” Such admissions of “would have done more,” are admissions of how one had scaled back in one’s work, indicative of a deliberate lowering of quality.

Clearly, for there to be any successful and unmoderated participation, especially with regards to student-teacher partnerships, more must be done in order to overcome such barriers. The teacher cannot just rely on the usual enthusiastic students who volunteer. There are students who are enthusiastic but have no regard for issues of “face,” and there are also enthusiastic students who are inhibited by their worries of “face.”

One thing I’ve learnt from my own discussions with students is that the teacher is an important facilitator in this regard, one who has the power to shape an environment: from a hostile and competitive environment to one that is friendly and relaxed.

The more friendly, uncompetitive, and relaxed the class environment is, the less worried students are about losing “face” or embarrassing themselves (and others) in class. Of course, the teacher does not have complete control over the classroom atmosphere. The presence of intimidating or highly competitive students can still cause other students to worry.

Since becoming aware of these motivations, I have made extra efforts in ensuring that the environment is as friendly and relaxed as possible, so that students are least worried about “face” and embarrassment in a classroom setting. One thing I’ve done and found much success with is introducing the element of role playing in class. When students are given roles to perform, they are given the opportunity to step out of who they are, to become someone else for a moment. That someone else (the assigned role) is then allowed to make embarrassing mistakes and even to embarrass others (involved in the role play), without consequence to one’s own personality and identity or social sanction. Role playing liberates students from concerns about “face” and allows them to engage each other in an uninhibited manner.

More importantly, role playing is a form of play, an uncompetitive play that by itself makes the environment less competitive and hostile, thereby creating a fun and relaxed environment in which students can engage, participate, and forge bonds with each other and with the teacher. This encourages students to take on an increased role in their involvement in class, and encourages them to take on an increased stake in their own learning in the classroom.

A Meaningful Reflection Paper

The best moments in my teaching career come from reading meaningful reflection papers. This semester one student’s paper resonated very strongly with me. I’m so heartened that she has gained so much from my classes.

Here’s what she wrote:

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“What did I learn?” is a phrase that I would often avoid asking or answering in my life. The fact that I might not really know or not knowing what I don’t know makes me feel uncomfortable and ashamed. However, knowing that we are the only species that ask questions, I am now changing my opinion and instead[, I now] ask questions every time I feel comfortable about a situation. The fear of feeling ashamed should not be the blocking stone to knowing more about myself and the world. The desire to be right could be the driving force in life, nonetheless, it is sometimes a double-edged sword that blocks us [from moving] forward in knowing more about the world. Asking good questions, identifying confirmation bias, disconfirmation, etc., mastering all these cocneptual tools require continuous training and practising. An active learning environment is important for questioning [in order for it] to become an active habit. Life changes when we step out from our comfort zone.

I think there’s something from this reflection that’s worth learning and remembering.

The Non-Theist Hiding in the Closet of Kierkegaard’s Philosophy

This paper, while flawed in a few ways, was a novel attempt in one of my Masters modules at proving that Kierkegaard hid a non-theistic conception behind his philosophical writings.

 

Søren Kierkegaard is widely regarded as a Christian philosopher. Many leading scholars tend to interpret his works through the lens of Christianity.[i] While some scholars have questioned whether Kierkegaard should be read as a Christian thinker, few have ventured further to question whether Kierkegaard even subscribed to a theistic conception of God at all. Yet this is the implicit assumption many scholars have taken by virtue of Kierkegaard’s apparent Christianity. Scholars such as C. Stephen Evans,[ii] and Zachary R. Manis,[iii] ground their ideas of a Divine Command Theory on the very assumption of a theistic conception underlying his philosophy. But Evans and Manis are not the only ones. Peter J. Mehl, too, assumes a theistic conception in Kierkegaard’s philosophy without justification:

“I am claiming … that Kierkegaard’s ideal of humanness is infiltrated by Christian theism even before he makes his case for the reality of God. The ideal of personhood as fully engaged autonomy, of complete rational responsible self-determination, is linked to Christian theism.”[iv]

And yet, it is this very assumption of theism that led Mehl to puzzle over Kierkegaard’s inability to see the connection between said personhood and theism. This is but one of many other examples of works presuming a theistic interpretation behind Kierkegaard’s Christianity, sometimes resulting in rather puzzling, and sometimes paradoxical consequences. However, the bigger problem, in my opinion, is that by assuming a theistic conception underlying Kierkergaard’s writings, many fail to appreciate or notice the non-theistic, non-Christian elements present in his philosophy.

In this paper, I argue that Kierkegaard does not subscribe to a theistic conception of God, but rather, to a non-theistic conception. By theism, I refer to the classical notion:

“God is the perfect being, which means or entails that God is, among other things, necessarily existent, eternal, changeless, almighty, all-knowing, supremely good, distinct from creation, and the creator of everything distinct from himself. God is also said to be absolutely simple, which means that the above-listed attributes are identical to God’s being and, more generally, that there is no ontological complexity in God.”[v]

I will begin this paper first, by casting doubts on a theistic interpretation, and then proceed to show evidence of a non-theistic conception in Kierkegaard’s writings. I will then proceed to outline two non-theistic notions that Kierkegaard might have possibly subscribed to: (1) atheism, and (2) panentheism. Due to the limits and scope of this paper, I will not be able to determine which of the two positions Kierkegaard might have held in his works. Nonetheless, I will discuss how atheism and panentheism might have possibly been related to each other. Along the way, I will anticipate possible objections and address them.

 

I. Theistic Silence

It is rather odd that Kierkegaard who writes in a Christian-like manner, makes absolutely no explicit mention about theism.[vi] This fact alone should give us pause. While it is indeed true that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence (which is not the point I am making here), the point I wish to highlight here is that one cannot simply assume theism in Kierkegaard’s works on the basis of his many references to Christianity.

Why is there no explicit mention of theism? Kierkegaard argues that God is beyond the limits of human reason, and it would be too presumptuous to assume that human reason is capable of discerning God’s nature, or that there is a necessary bond between God and Man that would allow us to discern by inspection, nor indirectly by means of analogy, of a theory of opposition and negation. Any form of speculation might seem to describe God, but it would instead describe “ourselves and our rational limitations.”[vii] Hence, we have no choice but to accept a God that would appear paradoxical and absurd to us. Since human reason cannot discern God’s nature in any way, we may postulate whatever qualities we like about God, such as the qualities of omnipotence or omniscience, or even the traditional Christian attributes. We could also postulate unconventional qualities to God, such as malicious hatred, and there would be no way we can use our reason to affirm or deny it.

Another reason for the silence is due to Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the subjective inwardness, which focuses on one’s own existence, on how the self “relates itself to itself.”[viii] Inwardness is concerned with the relations to objects, and not with the objects themselves. God is important to Kierkegaard’s philosophy. Without God, the individual would be in despair.[ix] However, it would be more accurate to say that it is not God per se that is of concern, but the God-relationship: “God is a subject to be related to, not an object to be studied or mediated on.”[x] It is not the absence of God in the individual’s life that would lead to his despair, but the failure of the individual to align himself with God, i.e. to relate himself to God, or to relate himself with God’s plan for the self: “The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself, whose task is to become itself, which can be done only through the relationship to God.”[xi] Moreover, what gives the God-relationship its importance is not the objective existence of a God, but the possibility, the risk, of God’s non-existence (which, if true, despair is certain).[xii]

Given the strong emphasis on the importance of the God-relation, rather than on God, Kierkegaard’s philosophy would still hold up even if God does not objectively exist. It may seem strange to have a relationship with an objectively non-existent being, but as Kierkegaard explains, a relationship must have passion: “it is impossible in existing to think about existence without becoming passionate.”[xiii] For example, a hunter may falsely believe that there is a vicious beast behind the bushes. Objectively, there is no beast behind the bushes. But within the hunter’s subjectivity, the hunter has formed a relation with the beast, with a passionate fear of being attacked if he is not careful. And hence, the hunter lives and behaves as though there is a beast, for it is better for the hunter to assume a beast and act accordingly for his own safety. In the same way, the subjective belief of a God suffices to establish a God-relationship, for the self to relate itself to, for its own existential benefit.

Scholars presuming a theistic position in Kierkegaard would object to what I have said above, and usually argue that Kierkegaard does not dismiss the importance of the objective existence of God. Rather, he makes a distinction between the subjective truth that is “essentially related to existence” and the objective truth, and that he did not intend for the subjective truth to substitute or contend with objective truths.[xiv] This objection, however, misses the point. As I have mentioned earlier, God is beyond reason. We cannot rationally prove any quality of God’s nature, not even the existence of God![xv] And even if we accept that there can be objective truths about God, none of those truths of God would have any bearing on how the self relates to the God-relationship.

 

II. The Pantheism Problem

Interesting, despite the silence on theism, Kierkegaard has much to say about pantheism. His most significant passage on the issue involves a criticism he made on Schleiermacher:

“That pantheism constitutes a surmounted factor in religion, is the foundation for it, seems now to be acknowledged, and hereby also the error in Schleiermacher’s definition of religion as remaining in pantheism, in that he makes the extra-temporal fusion factor of the universal and the finite—into religion.”[xvi]

Here, it would seem that Kierkegaard is saying that pantheism is in fact “the foundation of religion,” but before we can conclude that Kierkegaard is indeed a pantheist, he adds the point that pantheism needs to be surmounted. To understand what this means, it would be useful to briefly outline what Kierkegaard was responding to when he criticised Schleiermacher in the passage above.

Schleiermacher was a strong supporter of Spinoza, a pantheist who argued that God is in all things, in the sense that God’s substance is in all that exists in nature. Schleiermacher took the argument further, defining religion in naturalistic terms. Since God’s substance is present in all things, “religion consists not primarily in knowledge of the divine or in actions that spring from duty, but in and through gefühl (feeling), the domain of pre-reflective, immediate experience.”[xvii] Religion, therefore, is “to know and have life in immediate feeling.”[xviii] In defining religion as such, Schleiermacher had transformed the understanding of religion from the ethical mode to the aesthetic mode.[xix]

Kierkegaard agreed with Schleiermacher that “immediate religious experience is the lifeblood of the various religions,”[xx] but he disagreed that faith belongs to the first immediacy: “that which Schleiermacher calls ‘religion’ … is at heart nothing other than the first immediate, the condition for everything—the vitale fluidum—the atmosphere that we, in spiritual sense, breathe in—and which, therefore, cannot be properly be indicated me with these words.”[xxi] The first immediacy is the basis of all experience. To equate faith or religious experience with it would be to pantheistically absorb everything into one.

This, according to Kierkegaard, is the error and the inevitable result of all – and not just Schleiermacher – who conceive of God purely in terms of eternity. In committing such an error, one would be under the “optical illusion” of pantheism,[xxii] dozing in “an oriental revery in the infinite, in which everything appears to be fiction – and one is reconciled as in a grand poem: the being of the whole world, the being of God, and my own being are poetry in which all the multiplicity, the wretch disparities of life, indigestible for human thought, are reconciled in a mistry, dreaming existence.”[xxiii] The other problem with dwelling in pantheism, was that by remaining within the view of eternity, pantheists like Spinoza, had evaded the difficulty of relating an eternal God outside of time, with a God that functions in time.[xxiv]

This is not to say that pantheism is wrong per se. Rather, when God is thought of in terms of eternity, God is regarded as the absolute standpoint, which happens to be the standpoint of pantheism.[xxv] But, this is not the error. Seeing God as the absolute standpoint is itself a crucial moment for understanding God: “The concept of Substance is the concept of the absolute Actuality, which contains all essence, all reality; if there were something outside God, different from God, God would indeed be limited. Therefore Ἓν καὶ Πᾶν (hen kai pan) [One and All]; only God is. Whatever in the world is reality, is only God.”[xxvi]

To remain here at this level, however, would be to dwell in pantheism – and that is the error committed by Schleiermacher and the other pantheists. It is thus essential to surmount pantheism. Not to reject pantheism completely, but to build on top of this conception and go beyond. What Schleiermacher got right, and what appealed strongly to Kierkegaard, was his approach to nature in wonder.[xxvii] If God is in all things, then one should be in wonder at being immersed in God’s presence, but not in the pantheistic sense of regarding religious experience within the realm of the first immediacy. Kierkegaard surmounts pantheism while preserving Schleiermacher’s wonder of God through nature, by arguing that it is in inwardness that one encounters God in all things. Writing under the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard argues that faith is not the “first immediacy but a later one… [f]aith is not the esthetic or else faith has never existed because it has always existed.”[xxviii] The experience of God is not to be found in direct experience with the world, nor grasped through human understanding. It is through the inwardness of the subjectivity, that one is able to perceive God’s action in all things. Kierkegaard says:

“I observe nature in order to find God, and indeed I also see omnipotence and wisdom, but I see much else too that troubles and disturbs. The summa summarum of this is the objective uncertainty, but the inwardness becomes so great just because it embraces the objective uncertainty with all the passion of the infinite.”[xxix]

Schleiermacher had the passion, which Kierkegaard admired, but he lacked the inwardness to perceive both the light and the dark side of God in nature, the quintessential paradox required for exhausting reason in order to arrive at the higher immediacy of faith. “When reflection is totally exhausted, faith begins.”[xxx]

In brief, the aspects of pantheism which Kierkegaard agreed with are: (1) When one conceives of God from the viewpoint of eternity, one sees a God that exists in all things in a pantheistic manner. Consequently, (2) Kierkegaard grants that one can experience God in all things through immediate experience, but it would be incorrect to conclude with pantheists, like Schleiermacher, that God can be directly experienced in the first immediacy. God can only be encountered through the higher immediacy of faith, within the subjective inwardness.

 

III. God the Middle Term

In this section, I will discuss Kierkegaard’s conception of God as a “middle term,” a notion which explicitly demonstrates a non-theistic conception of God. This is highly significant especially since the idea is found in Works of Love, a work which Kierkegaard claims direct authorship, unlike his pseudonymous works where he could distance himself from the ideas expounded in those texts. And unlike the pseudonymous works where Kierkegaard felt a need for indirect communication, works with direct authorship were a means for him to communicate in a direct manner to “those who profess Christianity and know what it is but need to be encouraged or reassured.”[xxxi]

In Works of Love, Kierkegaard ascribes God the function of the middle term:

“Worldly wisdom is of the opinion that love is a relationship between person; Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between a person, God, a person, that is, that God is the middle term.”[xxxii]

There are two common ways of reading this passage. (1) The first way is to conceive of God as a third party in a love relationship. That means, in the case of A loves B, this relationship is parsed as:  A loves God, and God, in turn, loves B. But Kierkegaard shows that this is not the case:

“The merely human view of love can never go beyond mutuality: the lover is the beloved, and the beloved is the lover. Christianity teaches that such a love has not yet found its true object—God. The love relationship requires threeness: the lover, the beloved, the love—but the love is God. Therefore, to love another person is to help that person to love God, and to be loved is to be helped.”[xxxiii]

God is not a third party in the relationship, but love itself. (2) The second way is to conceive a love relationship in a relational manner. That means, in the case of A loves B, this relationship is parsed as: A relates to B, via God as the intermediary, i.e. A relates to God, and God relates to A. This, however, is problematic. For if we were to ask how A relates to God, we will have to answer the question by means of a fourth term, that A relates to God via M, i.e. A relates to M, and M relates to God. We can repeat the cycle ad nauseam, leading to an infinite regress.

What then, do we mean when we say that God is love? Kierkegaard seems to be suggesting a hermeneutical account,[xxxiv] where God/love as the middle term is to be understood as a logical metaphor. In logic, the middle term is the term occurring in both premises of a syllogistic argument, linking the two premises in order to arrive at a conclusion. But the middle term does not appear in the conclusion itself. The use of God as the middle term, provides a hermeneutical change of perspective, transforming a selfish love into a selfless love. In a selfish love, when I say, “I love you,” the “you” is conceived in my mind as a not-I, as another-I. So, when I say, “I love you,” I am essentially saying, “I love another-I,” that is, “I love I.” It is an I-I relationship. It is selfish for it leads me to express my love according to my understanding of myself. Whereas, by introducing God as the middle term of the relationship, I am, from God’s subjectivity, God’s you. So too is the person I am loving, for that person is also, in God’s subjectivity, God’s you. For the sake of illustration, if I were to parse it as a syllogistic argument, it might look something like this:

Premise 1: A loves God                       ->        You love God
Premise 2: God loves B                       ->        God loves you
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Conclusion: Therefore, A loves B       ->        You love you

Parsed in this manner, the relationship is transformed into a selfless relationship, because it is now seen as a youyou relationship. But at the same time, with God as the reference point, it is not just a youyou relationship, but a (God’s-neighbour)-(God’s-neighbour) relationship. When I relate to my love relationship in this way, I subjectively perceive myself and the beloved as God’s neighbour, and thus express my love according to the understanding of myself (and the other) as God’s neighbour. As the middle term, God does not appear in the conclusion, yet, how one relates the self has been altered as a result of this mode of thinking.

However, when we begin to think of love in terms of actuality and possibility, we run into some interesting problems about the concept of God. Love is a possibility that can be actualised in this world. And all possibilities are grounded in some actuality, e.g. it is possible for A to love B, only if A and B are actualised in existence. Yet, all actual beings, and all possibilities can ultimately be traced back to the ultimate Actuality, God: “God is the actuality of the possible, and God’s actuality is the actuality of true love, the possibility of actual love is grounded in the actuality of true love.”[xxxv] So far, there are no problems when we conceive of God purely in terms of actuality outside of time. The problem begins when we try to conceive of the eternal God acting in time. In Works of Love, Kierkegaard goes on to elaborate that love hopes all things, and “to relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good is to hope… As soon, however, as the choice is made, the possible is changed, because the possibility of the good is the eternal.”[xxxvi] Yet, “when the eternal is in the temporal, it is in the future… or in possibility. The past is the actual, the future is the possible; eternally, the eternal is the eternal; in time, the eternal is the possible, the future.”[xxxvii] Here, we have “a modal and ontological gap between the necessary on the one hand, and the possible and actual on the other.”[xxxviii] God can never be actual, temporal, or existent! God can only be “that without whom nothing could or would be actual, temporal or existent.”[xxxix]

When Kierkegaard talked about God as a middle term, he was not just referring to the context of God as love. The implication of it has far reaching consequences. “God is neither a fact to be explained nor an explanation of facts.”[xl] For “nothing we can experience is God, but neither can we experience anything apart from God: there wouldn’t be anything to experience, or anyone to have an experience, without God.”[xli] This is reflected most clearly in Kierkegaard’s prayer at the beginning of Works of Love: “O Eternal Love, you who are everywhere present and never without witness where you are called upon.”[xlii]

God is therefore, in Kierkegaard’s conception, not a being, nor the first cause and explainer of facts, “but the infinite power of possibility,” the “eternal actuality of creative and transforming love,” and “the fundamental dynamic reality of love, without which nothing else could and would exist.”[xliii] As I had mentioned earlier, the problem with pantheism, was that by remaining within the viewpoint of eternity, it was unable to address the issue of an eternal God outside time, functioning within the temporal realm. God, as the middle term, could be seen as Kierkegaard’s solution to that problem, as a way in which an eternal God could operate in time. The consequence of such a solution, however, is that God ceases to be a being.

Yet, as a middle term, God is still the hermeneutical point of reference. In the context of love, we are to see ourselves and others as God’s neighbours, and relate ourselves as God’s neighbour to other neighbours of God. Similarly, all of creation, including ourselves, are not just mere facts of the world, but they too participate in God’s creative action, and thus we are to relate ourselves as a participant in God’s creative action, interacting with other participants of God’s creative action.

Thus far, I have shown that Kierkegaard subscribes, not to a theistic conception, but to a non-theistic conception of God, the question remains: what sort of non-theistic conception might Kierkegaard hold? I will discuss two possibilities: (1) atheism, and (2) panentheism. However, as it would be outside the scope of this paper to engage in extensive biographical research, I will not be able to determine whether Kierkegaard was indeed an atheist or panentheist.

 

IV. Kierkegaard the Atheist?

As I had mentioned earlier in Section I, since the God-relation is so essential to the existence of an individual, in the way one relates one’s self, to the point that God’s objective existence is inconsequential, it would be possible to interpret an atheistic conception in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, and consequently, a Kierkegaard’s atheistic approach to Christianity.

In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard writes, under the pseudonymous author of Johannes Climacus, that God is “a postulate, but not in the otiose manner in which this word is commonly understood… The postulate is so far from being arbitrary that it is precisely a life-necessity. It is then not so much that God is a postulate, as that the existing individual’s postulation of God is a necessity.”[xliv] God, then can be regarded as an ethical fiction, which “seeks to enhance man’s sense of responsibility and ultimately deepens the moral [and/or existential] dimension of his experience.[xlv] One can have a God-relation with which the self can relate to, just by simply postulating the existence of a God.

Christianity too can be regarded as an ethical fiction as well, serving the instrumental purpose of the individual’s desire for eternal happiness, or in other words, the subjectivity. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard professes subjectivity for its own sake, as the final end. Subjectivity is the absolute: it is not justified by anything, but instead justifies everything. “There are many arguments in the Postscript to demonstrate that only by being in total subjectivity is he not deceiving himself in his life affirmation. The rest of the Postscript is concerned with ways of attaining a fuller subjectivity.”[xlvi] Christianity is seen as instrumental to the service of the subjectivity as the paradox of Christianity “thrusts the understanding away in the interest of inwardness in existing”;[xlvii] it “proposes to intensify subjectivity to the utmost.”[xlviii]

Elsewhere in the Postscript, Kierkegaard writes:

“I, Johannes Climacus… assume that for me… there awaits a highest good called an eternal happiness. I have heard that Christianity contracts to provide one with that good. And now I ask how do I enter the relation with this doctrine?”[xlix]

Just as how it is essential for the self to develop a God-relation, Climacus talks about the need to “establish a proper relationship” to Christianity. Like the God-relation, the Christian-relation is essential to the subjective inwardness. The objective truth of Christianity, on the other hand, is just as inconsequential as the objective existence of God.

Yet a puzzling question remains. If one takes an atheistic position and does not believe in the objective existence of God nor in the objective truth of Christianity, how can one be a Christian, or even profess belief in it? Evans rightly pointed out that ethical fictions only have their power over people unaware of its fictional nature, and for those aware of its fictional nature, “if the individual does not care whether his belief is objectively correct, then the objective uncertainty will hardly generate much passion.”[l] This is most poignant for Kierkegaard, who would have been quite well-aware of the ethical fictions if he did indeed conceive of God and Christianity as ethical fictions. It would not be possible for him at all to generate the infinite passion in his pursuit of Christianity.

One solution would be to argue that Kierkegaard was indeed an atheist who meant everything religious in an ironic manner. Was Kierkegaard such an atheist? While it is certainly not impossible to imagine, it is, however, quite implausible. Kierkegaard wrote with religious fervour, not just in his published works, but also in his private journals. It is hard to imagine why one would be so consistently ironic, even in the privacy of one’s own journals.

I propose an alternative view, and one that there certainly more philosophically interesting, in which Kierkegaard the possible atheist might have embraced Christianity in a way that would address Evan’s insights. As I mentioned earlier, Climacus’ pursuit of Christianity, was done primarily for the sake of his own subjectivity, for his eternal happiness, and not because of the truths of Christianity or any objective proof of the existence of God. Yet, in pursuing Christianity in this way, he contradicts his insistence on the need for an infinite distance between man and God: “Precisely because there is an absolute difference between God and man, man will express his own nature most adequately when he expresses this difference absolutely.”[li] To use God as an instrument is to treat God with familiarity. In which case, God cannot be the Absolute Other.[lii] Climacus would thus relate to God not as Absolute Other, a relation essential to his inwardness, but as a familiar. Therefore, in pursuing Christianity and God in this manner, Climacus cannot come close to attaining eternal happiness. Moreover, as Evans pointed out, viewing Christianity purely as an instrumental aid to eternal happiness does not suffice to produce the infinite passion that Climacus desired.

The only way to resolve the two problems above, would be to deny the primacy of the subjectivity and paradoxically embrace Christianity not instrumentally, but as an end-in-itself. This way, God could be preserved as the Absolute Other, a necessary relation for the subjectivity, and more importantly, would generate the necessary passions required. Climacus’ failure was that he could not do precisely that, and it was what prevented him from understanding and making the final movement of faith. It might have been possible that Kierkegaard succeeded where Climacus had failed. For Kierkegaard himself acknowledged that the Postscript was “the turning-point in [his] whole work as an author.”[liii] Soon after the completion of the Postscript, Kierkegaard abandoned the pseudonym, abandoned the “primacy of subjectivity and moved to total Christianity.”[liv] This would have required Kierkegaard to exhaust reason on his part, put aside his atheism, and make that leap into the higher immediacy of faith. This might explain the religious fervour in his writings, and it does take Kierkegaard’s insistence that “subjectivity is truth” to the highest level, that despite the underlying atheism, Kierkegaard is still able to live as if he were a true believer of Christianity.

 

V. Kierkegaard the Panentheist?

As I have discussed earlier in Section II, Kierkegaard did not reject pantheism, but saw that religion had to surmount it. Pantheists like Spinoza, evaded the difficulty of relating an eternal God outside of time, with a God operating in time,[lv] by remaining in the viewpoint of eternity. Kierkegaard was concerned with reconciling the power of human freedom that exists in time, with the power of a God outside time, in a way that would allow the divine to empower a person in his freedom.

The other option that Kierkegaard might have held, is panentheism, which “takes a middle position between a naturalistic pantheism and a supernatural theism,” it is the view that “God is so immanent within the world that this divine interpenetration means that all things are within God, while, on the other hand, affirming with traditional theism, that God transcends the realm of finite realities. God so penetrated the universe that everything is in God; but God stands in a free relation to the universe.”[lvi] If pantheism had to be surmounted without a complete rejection of its tenets, panentheism therefore, is a likely position that Kierkegaard might have subscribed to. In discussing the relation of omnipotence and love, Kierkegaard seemed to have expressed a panentheistic stance:

“The whole question of the relation of God’s omnipotence and goodness to evil … is solved quite simply in the following way. The highest thing after all that can be done for a being, higher than anything else one could do for it, is to make it free. The ability for doing precisely this belongs to omnipotence. This seems strange, since precisely omnipotence is supposed to make dependent. But if one is willing to think about omnipotence, one will see that precisely in this must lie in addition the determination to be able to take oneself back again in the expression of omnipotence in such a way that precisely therefore that which has come into existence by omnipotence can be independent. That is why one human being cannot make another human being completely free, because the one who has the power is actually imprisoned in having it, and therefore always still has a wrong relation to the one this human wants to liberate. Furthermore, in all finite power (talent, etc.) there is a finite self-love. Only omnipotence can take itself back while it gives away, and this relation is indeed precisely the independence of the recipient. God’s omnipotence is therefore God’s goodness. For goodness is to give away completely, but in such a way that by omnipotently taking itself back one makes the recipient independent. … This is the incomprehensible, that omnipotence … is able to bring forth the most frail of all things: an independent being who is directly over against omnipotence.”[lvii]

A truly omnipotent God creates beings independent from himself, “precisely as the expression of divine power.”[lviii] At the same time, this freedom is itself an expression of God’s love. God’s power is God’s love. In that gift of freedom to human beings, “God enables the divine power of the eternal, present within the innermost chamber of the self, to be understood as loving and thereby as relevant to the struggles of existing as a free creature within temporality.”[lix] Here, pantheism is surmounted, as the pantheistic power of divine Substance is united with the power of human freedom in time.

This brings us back to an earlier point made in Section III, about God as the middle term. Kierkegaard conceived of God as the middle term, as a solution to explain how an eternal God outside of time, could operate within time. This is consistent with the discussion above on panentheism. God the eternal divine power, brings actuality into possibility, through the free human action occurring in temporality. As the middle term, God cannot be discerned through first immediacy, nor understood as a fact nor an explanation of facts. “Nothing we can experience is God.”[lx] Yet, God, as middle term, as the hermeneutical point of reference, allows the subjective inwardness to experience of God through faith in the higher immediacy. And “neither can we experience anything apart from God: there wouldn’t be anything to experience, or anyone to have an experience, without God.”[lxi]

 

VI. Conclusion

In Sections I and II, I pointed out three reasons for doubting a theistic conception underlying Kierkegaard’s philosophy: (1) from his silence on theism since finite human reason is unable to discern any quality of God; (2) to the great significance he gives to inwardness that only the God-relationship matters, while the objective existence of God is inconsequential to his philosophy; and lastly (3) to his conception of God’s relation to the world and humans, while not pantheistic per se, is strongly rooted in a pantheistic outlook. These three points, I believe, should cast some doubt on the possibility of Kierkegaard subscribing to a theistic conception. But even if they do not succeed in casting doubt, points (1) and (2) should have at least demonstrated just how insignificant a theistic conception is to Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

In Section III, I demonstrated how Kierkegaard, by regarded God as a middle term, does not hold a theistic conception of God. God is not a being but “the infinite power of possibility,” the “eternal actuality of creative and transforming love,” and “the fundamental dynamic reality of love, without which nothing else could and would exist.”[lxii] God is neither a fact to be explained nor an explanation of facts, hidden from plain sight only to be recognised in the subjective inwardness. And perhaps, this might have been Kierkegaard’s solution to addressing the problem of an eternal God outside of time, operating within time.

In Sections IV and V, I discussed two possible non-theistic position that Kierkegaard might hold: atheism and panentheism. I showed how each position is related and coherent with the points raised in Section I to III. However, as it would be beyond the scope of this paper to engage in extensive biographical research, I am unable to determine whether Kierkegaard was an atheist, panentheist, or both. Nonetheless, I wish to conclude this paper with a brief discussion about the relation of atheism and panentheism. Instead of assuming, in a binary manner, that Kierkegaard held either one of these positions throughout his life, atheism and panentheism are, in fact, not mutually exclusive. And there are three possible ways in which we could explain the relationship between these two non-theistic positions in Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

(1) Firstly, the atheism we observe underlying Kierkegaard’s early works might not reflect the position Kierkegaard took. Instead, the atheist perspective which we find, was largely expressed by the pseudonymous author, Johannes Climacus. Climacus, did declare that he was not a Christian.[lxiii] And it is important to bear in mind that Kierkegaard made use of the pseudonymous authors so that he could keep their views distinct from his. Thus, it might be possible that Kierkegaard did not hold an atheistic position at all, but instead subscribed to the panentheistic perspective all along.

(2) A second possibility is that it might be entirely possible that Kierkegaard may have transitioned from an atheistic position to a panentheistic perspective. In my earlier discussion in Section IV on Kierkegaard’s atheism, Kierkegaard might have started out an atheist, but arrived at the conclusion, through Johannes Climacus, that the only way to fully achieve eternal happiness in the subjectivity is – paradoxically – to negate the primacy of the subjectivity, and to pursue Christianity not as a means but as an end-in-itself. To re-iterate, Kierkegaard did mention that the Postscript was, for him a sort of turning point.[lxiv] This might have led Kierkegaard to adopt a modified position, i.e. panentheism, not too far from his original atheistic position. After all, as discussed in Section II, we know that Kierkegaard agreed with certain tenets within pantheism. Panentheism would not be too big a leap for him.

(3) The third and final possibility is that given how the objective existence of God is inconsequential to his philosophy, and how we can never be able to use reason to affirm or deny the properties of God, it might thus be possible for Kierkegaard to have subsumed the panentheistic conception under his own atheistic view. That panentheism, just like God and Christianity, are no more than ethical fiction, postulated more as a means to aid one’s subjective inwardness.

Of course, given how it is, for Kierkegaard, that the objective existence of God is inconsequential, and that we can never truly know the nature of God, the panentheistic conception could be subsumed under the atheistic conception. That is to say, panentheism might have been postulated more as a means for the individual (or for Kierkegaard, at the very least) to be able to best relate himself to God, within the ethical fiction of Christianity.

While I am unable to conclusively determine which of these possibilities might be true for Kierkegaard, we can be certain that Kierkegaard never expressed himself as a theist. This alone should suffice for us to rethink our interpretation and understanding of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. The atheistic and panentheistic positions, which I have outlined above, provide a starting point for new reinterpretations of Kierkegaard in a non-theistic perspective.

 

Bibliography

Dalferth, Ingolf U. 2013. “Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love.” Kierkegaard Studies 2013 (1): 159–79.

Dalferth, Ingolf U. 2015. “The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism.” Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook 20 (1): 14–15.

Evans, C. Stephen. 1976. “Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth: Is God an Ethical Fiction?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 7 (1): 288–99.

Garelick, Herbert M. 1965. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1939. The Point of View. Trans. Lowrie, Walter. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1941. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1968-70. Papirer. Ed. Niels Thulst. København: Gyldendal.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1980. The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1995. Journals and Papers. Trans. Hong, Howard V. & Hong, Edna H. Virginia: Indiania University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1999. Works of Love. Ed. Perkins, Robert L. Macon: Mercer University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 2002. Provocations. Farmington: Bruderhof Foundation, Inc.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 2006. Fear and Trembling. Trans. Walsh, Sylvia. Ed. Evans, C. Stephen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 2009. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Ed. Hannay, Alastair. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, Chandler D. 2016. “Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and the Problem of First Immediacy.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 80 (3). Springer Netherlands: 259–78.

Runehov, Anne L. C., and Lluis Oviedo. 2013. Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Dordrecht: Springer 2013.

Teo, Wesley K. H. 1973. “Self-Responsibility in Existentialism and Buddhism.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4 (2): 80–91.

Thompson, Curtis L. 2002. “From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies.” The Journal of Religion 82 (2): 225–51.

 

Notes

[i] Barrett lists scholars such as C. Stephen Evans, Hugh Pyper, Bradley Dewey, Andrew Burgess, Robert C. Roberts, Timothy Polk, David Cain, Abraham Khan, David Gouwens, and himself as scholars who interpret Kierkegaard through a Christian lens. See Barrett, C. Lee. 2013. “Kierkegaard as Theologian: A History of Countervailing Interpretations” in The Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard. Eds. Lippitt, John & Pattison, George. New York: Oxford University Press.

[ii] See Evans, C. Stephen. 2004. Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Commands & Moral Obligations. New York: Oxford University Press.

[iii] See Manis, Zachary R. 2009. “Kierkegaard and Divine-Command Theory: Replies to Quinn and Evans.” Religious Studies 45 (3): 289-307.

[iv] Mehl, Peter J. 1992. “Despair’s Demand: An Appraisal of Kierkegaard’s Argument for God.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 32 (3): 167–82. p. 179.

[v] Anders, Kraal. 2013. “Theism, Classical.” In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Eds. Runehov, Anne L. C., & Lluis Oviedo. Dordrecht: Springer. p. 2239.

[vi] This was researched by searching for the terms, “theism” and “theist” in all of Kierkegaard’s works on my computer.

[vii] Cf. Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 47.

[viii] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. p. 13.

[ix] Ibid., p.16

[x] Kierkegaard, Søren. Provocations. p. 60.

[xi] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. pp. 29-30.

[xii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Hannay p. 171.

[xiii] Ibid. p. 293.

[xiv] Evans, C. Stephen. Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth: Is God an Ethical Fiction? p. 292.

[xv] Kierkegaard argues, in Section III of Philosophical Fragments, that it is impossible to demonstrate the existence of God, if God does not exist, but on the other hand, it would be foolish to want to demonstrate the existence of God if God does exist. For a full treatment of the subject, see Stern, Kenneth. 1990. “Kierkegaard on Theistic Proof.” Religious Studies 26 (2): 219–26.

[xvi] Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 4. II A 91 n.d., 1837. #3849. p. 13.

[xvii] Rogers, Chandler D. Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and the Problem of First Immediacy. p. 262.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid. pp. 264-265.

[xxi] Ibid. p. 260. Translation modified from Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. I A 273 n.d., 1836. #1096. p. 3.

[xxii] Kierkegaard, Søren. 1995. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. VIII A 482 n.d., 1847. #2004. p. 402.

[xxiii] Ibid. Vol. 1. II A 125 n.d., 1837. #1019. p. 448.

[xxiv] Thompson, Curtis L. From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies p. 239.

[xxv] Kierkegaard, Søren. Papirer. XIII, II C 26-28. 5, n.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Rogers, Chandler D. Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and the Problem of First Immediacy. p. 275.

[xxviii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. pp. 71-72.

[xxix] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Hannay. p. 171.

[xxx] Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 1. V A 28 n.d., 1844. #49. p. 20.

[xxxi] Dalferth, Ingolf U. Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love. p. 162.

[xxxii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. pp. 106-107.

[xxxiii] Ibid. p. 121.

[xxxiv] Dalferth, Ingolf U. Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love. p. 173.

[xxxv] Ibid. p. 176.

[xxxvi] Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. p. 249.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Dalferth, Ingolf U. Selfless Passion: Kierkegaard on True Love. p. 178.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Dalferth, Ingolf U. The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism. p. 86.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. p. 4.

[xliii] Dalferth, Ingolf U. The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism. pp. 88-89.

[xliv] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. p. 179, footnote.

[xlv] Teo, Wesley K. H. Self-Responsibility in Existentialism and Buddhism. p. 90.

[xlvi] Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 62.

[xlvii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. p. 195.

[xlviii] Ibid. p. 55.

[xlix] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Hannay, Alastair. pp. 16-17.

[l] Evans, C. Stephen. Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth: Is God an Ethical Fiction? p. 294.

[li] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Swenson, D. F. & Lowrie, W. p. 369.

[lii] Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 65.

[liii] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Point of View. p. 41.

[liv] Garelick, Herbert M. The Anti-Christianity of Kierkegaard. p. 66.

[lv] Thompson, Curtis L. From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies. p. 239.

[lvi] Ibid. p. 234.

[lvii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. VII A 181 n.d., 1846. #1251. pp. 62-63.

[lviii] Thompson, Curtis L. From Presupposing Pantheism’s Power to Potentiating Panentheism’s Personality: Seeking Parallels between Kierkegaard’s and Martensen’s Theological Anthropologies. p. 240.

[lix] Ibid.

[lx] Dalferth, Ingolf U. The Middle Term: Kierkegaard and the Contemporary Debate about Explanatory Theism. p. 86.

[lxi] Ibid.

[lxii] Ibid. pp. 88-89.

[lxiii] Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. pp. 16-17.

[lxiv] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Point of View. p. 41.

Philosophy in the Real World

This is the transcript of a talk I gave to Secondary 4 students at Raffles’ Institution on 30 Sep 2016.

 

Hi, my name is Jonathan Sim. I am a philosopher and I work at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Let’s discuss this question today: how is philosophy relevant in the real world?

You’ve taken classes in philosophy. And you might probably be wondering: what’s the point?

Some of you may say: “Sure, ethics might be useful, as it can help me decide what is right or wrong.” Or some of you may say: “Some aspects of logic might be useful: it helps me develop good reasoning skills.” Some of you may say: “Philosophy is really interesting but it won’t be able to feed me, or help me make money.” And some of you may even say: “I think it’s rubbish, I don’t need this.”

So, what practical use is philosophy in the real world?

What’s the point of asking whether or not I live inside a simulation, or whether human nature is good or bad? What’s the point of asking whether what I know is true, or whether the table in front of me exists?

How are all these relevant to the real world?

Sure, the philosophers in the past several centuries were able to contribute a lot to the world, but that’s because back then, the only subject taught in school was philosophy! But what about now? We have the sciences, and engineering, we have practical disciplines that train you to make a difference in the world. So why philosophy?

So let me share with you my experience working as a philosopher in NTU over the past three years. Allow me to share with you the many interesting ways that I’ve seen philosophy and philosophers in action in the real world.

My main project involves creating online videos on Chinese philosophy. Aside from that, I work very closely with a research centre, known as Para Limes (which means Beyond Boundaries). It was a special project initiated by the President of the University, the Nobel laureate, Prof. Bertil Anderson. The centre is driven very strongly by the conviction (which Prof. Anderson and many other Nobel laureates share) that the next world-changing breakthrough is to be found at the interface of disciplines, of academia, government and industries.

In other words, the next major breakthrough is to be found where various academic disciplines, government and industries meet and interact. This is a serious conviction, and the university makes it a point to bring in the top scientists, mathematicians, doctors, policy-makers, civil servants, ambassadors, Nobel laureates, and, philosophers. In fact, some of these people are on Time Magazine’s List of the 100 Most Influential People of the World.

I have had the honour to sit at table with them, to discuss many of these important issues. And it has been very insightful.

It’s very interesting how the latest scientific discoveries have opened up so many philosophical questions. Let me give you one example.

Recent medical research has found that our gut bacteria have an incredible influence on our neuro circuitry, on our thoughts, desires, and consequently, out actions. What we eat not only changes our gut bacteria for better or for worse, but it also changes who we are. Literally, we are what we eat! More interestingly, research has even found that you can cure a person with severe autism by transplanting bacteria through faeces. That’s right, human poop, from a healthy individual to one with autism, and voila, autism cured. That’s how much the bacteria inside us influences us as a person!

This has led many scientists to begin asking very philosophical questions as a result of their findings. Are we our gut bacteria? (Or how much of the gut bacteria counts as us?) Can we affect who we are by changing our diets? If so, then shouldn’t the issue of what we eat also count as a moral problem? This is where philosophers enter into many of these scientific research, helping them to make sense of the questions that arise from this.

Beyond the research, science can only tell us what is, it can only tell us facts about ourselves and of the world. But facts alone cannot directly translate into action. Science lacks the tools to prescribe what we should do in most situations.

In the example of gut bacteria, it forces us to really think hard about who we are and what we are. If diets change the way we behave and act, should we punish people who don’t eat properly as a way to prevent crime? Is it fair that wealthy people can afford to properly nourish their children? Should we create a class of super humans through a diet that will best enrich their gut bacteria? Should there be government policies to control what we eat?

This is where policy-makers turn to philosophers to answer the philosophical questions that arise from such scientific research. Do we have this going on here in Singapore? Yes. We have philosophers in the Centre for Biomedical Ethics, where philosophers and other specialists help to answer questions like this. Ok, they’re not working on that now, but they do deal with philosophical problems that arise in the course of research. The same is true elsewhere in the world.

Ethics aside, there are other important questions. What does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be me? How do I understand myself?

How we understand ourselves will affect a lot of how we live and interact with other human beings. To put it simply, there will be drastic changes to our lifestyles depending on how we answer these questions. Who’s interested in these answers? It’s not just the government, but businesses who want to sell the next big thing when the next cultural wave takes over. And they are seeking insights from philosophers to help them make the next business decision.

But perhaps, one of the more interesting revelations I had was to see many of these brilliant minds come to the agreement that the sciences and social sciences have hit their limits, that these disciplines have hit a brick wall. And that the problems they are dealing with require philosophical inputs to aid in their search for solutions. They echo: Science can only explain and describe, but it cannot prescribe action.

Scarily, in some areas of science, scientists are finding that their models have great powers of predictability, yet no one understands these computer models or why it works – it just does. There are many top academics and policy-makers who are very worried about that. How can we use what we don’t understand?

On top of that, the top economists, central bankers, and even government officials I’ve met are saying: all the economic theories that are taught at university are wrong, and we’re making too many false assumptions, we’re making too many bad policies!

In some of these discussions, they would turn to me, and half-jokingly ask: What does the philosopher have to say? They know that I’m quite new and wouldn’t have much to contribute, but they are indeed serious that philosophy is required to rise out of the difficulties they face.

So, what are philosophers doing elsewhere in the world?

I met the former director (now retired) of the Rathanal Institute, in the Netherlands, a political research think-tank. He was very proud to boast of his team of philosophers whom he employed to solve a variety of problems in the Netherlands, such as migration, unemployment, etc.

He recounted how his team of philosophers came to the aid in a legal trial against a man with mental illness who had been charged with murder. The philosophers argued in court about just how much responsibility he had for the crime. It was their philosophical input that helped the court decide just how culpable the man is.

I also had the opportunity to interact with people from the UN. They were interested in learning more about Chinese philosophy, so one of them spoke to me about it. Turns out, to my surprise, they publish and circulate official papers on philosophy to stimulate new ideas for policy and governance within the organisation. Yes, philosophy still plays a big role in influencing the ideas of policy-makers even today.

And I think we live in very interesting times. Our own civil service is starting to recognise this, and they are embracing philosophy and philosophers in their decisions now.

I met a philosopher from Germany who has been coming in and out of Singapore because the top ranks of our civil service have been consulting him. He is by far the most interesting person I have ever met. He has been using his research on space and time, and his other philosophical works to consult and advice world leaders. In fact, he was personally involved in carrying out the negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union, and facilitated the very process of nuclear disarmament between the two sides. He was also the personal advisor to Nelson Mandela after Mandela was freed from prison.

Here is a philosopher who means business and is actually using his research and philosophy to change the world and Singapore too.

Now, I’ve also met some civil servants here – with some background on philosophy exploring the different conceptions of time and space, on the metaphysics of the relations of economic entities, and more. All these with the purpose of rethinking and crafting better policies.

 

It is through these experiences that I’ve had with so many interesting people in my years at NTU that has left me a deep impression of just how important a role philosophy still has to play in society.

How will all these technologies change the way we think and perceive the world? How will all these advancementschange the way we behave towards one another? Will we change the way we think about ourselves? How will our society change? Is this a good change or a bad change?

Business people want inputs to these philosophical questions, not just because they’re unsure whether a technology is good or bad for society, but also to help them better understand the conceptual changes that will impact them and the work they do.

One example. Insurance has, from the very beginning, dealt with physical objects. From houses, to cars, to cargo, to horses and cows. If it means a lot to you and your business, you can insure it. But the insurance industry has a new problem, a philosophical problem. How do you insure digital content? If I copy a file from a computer to a hard disk, the file is still in the computer. There is no loss of data, maybe just a loss of earnings (and even that is debatable). It’s not like the traditional form of insurance where there’s an actual loss of something physical. So how do you conceive of non-physical goods in a way that is sensible to insure? Till now, the insurance industry has problems figuring out how best to insure digital content because they simply haven’t solved the philosophical problem of the ontological status of digital goods.

Let me give you another example. I met a director of an IT company. He says that he often encounters problems with making certain decisions. How do you choose if you none of the options are the best, and for that matter, they’re all just as bad?

Iney, menee, miney, moe? Or do you just flip a coin?

These issues may not require philosophical content, but they do require a certain amount of philosophical training to help you come to a sound conclusion. And this is the kind of skills that employers are looking for to help solve the tough problems they face. The director of the IT company? He told me: I wished I had philosophers in my team. We deal with these kinds of problems almost every day.

He’s not the only one who wants philosophers. Consulting firms like Cognizant, recognise the value of philosophical training to solve difficult problems. They specifically ask for philosophy graduates.

Now, to be clear, I’m not here to tell you to go study philosophy and pursue a philosophical career. I’m just telling you about the role of philosophers and philosophy in action out there in the real world, in government and politics.

It’s fine if you tell me: “Mr. Sim, I think philosophy is too abstract. I don’t like it.”

I’m cool with that. You are free to choose. It’s your life, not mine.

But don’t throw philosophy away, or dismiss it as something silly and useless just because it is too abstract for you, or if the things you learn seem to have no application to the world. Many of the things we study in school seem to have no application, but that’s only because we lack the creativity and imagination to see how they are relevant.

Many of us may not have the opportunity to see philosophy in action, but we shouldn’t mistake that to mean that it’s nont making a real impact on the world today. Philosophy is in action, often behind the scenes.

Let me end the discussion with something very real. So far we’ve talked about philosophy in governance and the private sector. What about one’s personal life?

As it is now, I am 29 years old and married. And I can tell you that as we get older, we carry more responsibilities. And sometimes this leads us to difficult situations, where we have to choose between options that are not ideal at all. These options may affect only you, or it may affect other people in your life, e.g. your parents, your partner, your children.

Soon, you will have to ask yourself difficult questions: what should I study after I graduate from Raffles Institution? What should I do with my life?

When you go out to work, you will have to deal with the same question: what should I do with my life? Maybe you have to ask questions like, should I leave this high paying job that’s making me miserable for a low paying job that might make me happier? Soon you’ll be confronted with questions like: what do I do with my time and my money?

These are real questions and they can be very painful and difficult to answer. Sometimes we don’t even know the answers, and that can be incredibly frustrating.

The philosophers themselves have tried and are still trying to answer these kinds of questions. I can tell you that their answers don’t always work for me. Nonetheless, the value lies in nlearning about their thoughts. These thinkers have given me a broader perspective to problems, and they have certainly helped me make better decisions. Moreover, my philosophical training has helped me to make painfully difficult yet sound decisions from time to time.

I have friends who appreciate the fact that I can think through these problems clearly for them, and they come to me to help clarify their thoughts and problems.

It’s fine if you don’t intend to do great things to change the world. It’s fine if you are passionate about other things in life and you’d rather focus your energy on them.

But the point I want to make is this: be sure to have a good dose of philosophy in your life. Whether it’s a big dose or a small dose, take it seriously. It will help you in your personal life and in your work.

And if you hope to do great things in the future, good for you. Philosophy will provide you with the skills and content to help you achieve it.

Insights on the Dynamic Digital Revolution: Hashtags and Personal Identity

This is the first of several scripts I have prepared for my upcoming panel discussion for the Asia Business Summit organised by the Institute of Asian Consumer Insight and Channel News Asia.

Question: The dynamic landscape of digital revolution is set to change a very large aspect of consumer lives, especially in Asia where consumers love technology and are quick to adapt to new gadgets. What are some trends and issue you can foresee happening in 5 years’ time?

One online trend that I’ve observed over the past few years is that a rapidly increasing number of us have started to hashtag our lives: our feelings, our experiences, our personal thoughts. But as we do this, one emerging phenomenon is that we too are beginning to describe ourselves with hashtags. We are beginning to hashtag our own identity, and we are thinking about ourselves in those terms and acting on such an understanding.

In the past, people described themselves with a certain richness. “I am so-and-so, I like to do this and that, my favourite colour, blah blah blah…”

Today, if you check out the many social media profiles on Instagram for example, people describe themselves with hashtags: Writer, blogger, traveller, foodie, photographer, etc. They don’t even bother starting the sentence with “I am a…” No, they go right straight into it.

There is a problem when hashtag ourselves.

Let me start by illustrating the problem with a question: When I say the sky is cloudy, what colour is the sky? Grey? I think most of you will say that. But can the sky be white or blue? Yes!

That’s the problem with language: it says too little and too much at the same time.

As we move into a hashtag mode of self-understanding, of self-identification, we lose track of the richness of understanding and defining who we really are. On its own, this hashtag identification is a minor issue. However, when we begin to measure our worth and success on social media, as defined by those hashtags, based on the number of likes and followers, we fall prey to the terrors of performativity.

When you impose performance measures on people, what happens? We change our behaviours and our perceptions. Performance measures were designed precisely to engineer specific behavioural outcomes, or performance outcomes. Yet, one of the unintended effects is that it can and does change the way we behave in ways beyond the performance goals. James G. March, the sociologist and founder of organisational theory, notes that such performance indicators can produce a culture of distrust and competition rather than cooperation. People, at the mercy of such performance indicators, can live entire lives just working to achieve those goals annd neglect every other aspect that’s as important (but not defined in those performance measures).

The more obsess we are by those metrics, the more we think of ourselves solely in those terms. This makes us behave no differently from a machine.

As we think increasingly of ourselves as hashtags, we come to a reduced, and impoverished understanding of who we are. And this is further reinforced by the very fact that social media platforms are the means by which we present ourselves to the digital world. The likes and follows we receive are a measure of how the world responds to us. It’s our performance measure. And many young people (and not so young ones too) are falling prey to the terrors of such online performance measures.

If I define and present myself online as a foodie, for example, the online reactions I receive are a measure of how good a foodie I am. This traps us in the awful terror of performativity that forces us to work harder at whatever hashtag we used in our identification.

And it doesn’t help that social media services, in their bit to recommend related posts, will aid in reinforcing those hashtags, those perceptions of what we like, and who we are.

But am I more than a foodie, or a photographer, or writer, etc.? Yes.

I am a human being with a myriad passions and interests, likes and dislikes, and more. But it’s easy for us to forget all that when we’ve reduced our identities into a few hashtags.

Training my Left Hand to Write

I seem to have injured my right hand – once again – from writing too much.

I can’t tell if it’s a muscular problem or if there’s some issue with the nerves. I experience pain, numbness, and weakness in my right hand all at the same time. It’s a strange feeling to have. I don’t know how to explain the sensation (or lack of it).

It got so bad that I couldn’t hold a pair of chopsticks last week. I could still hold a pen, but it was difficult trying to control the movement.

Last week, I decided to see a doctor about it. The doctor thinks that it has something to do with the nerves in my neck. That’s scary. I did an x-ray but the report hasn’t come back yet. I’ll know the answer soon.

I figured I should learn to write with my left-hander just in case my right hand doesn’t recover, or if treatment to fix my right hand is beyond what I can afford. It’s probably a useful skill to be ambidextrous anyway.

One of the first things I did last week was to train myself to use chopsticks with my left hand. That has worked out quite well. It’s still not perfect. I mean, I can’t pick up noodles as easily as before, but it works sufficiently well for me to finish a bowl of noodles.

But the success of chopstick-use has inspired me to try using my left-hand for other things.

I’m now training my left-hand to use the mouse. This hasn’t been going as well as I hoped. It really takes a lot of patience. The problem is that my left hand isn’t as agile and flexible as my right hand. I move the mouse pointer slower than my right hand, and even so, I still end up clicking the wrong things every now and then.

One thing I realised from this experience is that my mouse is not ergonomic at all. Just a short period of use and my left hand would cramp. Perhaps that is why my right hand is now in this sad situation. Ironically, the mouse I bought had an ergonomic design. I’m trying to find an ergonomic solution, but so far the ones I’ve seen are really ugly. Do you have a mouse to recommend?

I have also tried learning to write with my left hand. Capital letters are fine. They look like the writing of a 3 year old, but it’ll do for now, I guess. I still have a lot of difficulty writing out small letters. I think the problem lies in the fact that there are more curved lines in small letters.

As they say, practice makes perfect.

Oh well, wish me luck!

Delicious and Creamy Yoghurt that’s Made in Singapore!

The Wife and I are great fans of yoghurt.

Whether it’s yoghurt in a tub, or fro-yo in a cup, we simply can’t resist.

We’re trying to eat yoghurt regularly for health reasons at the moment.

But here’s a problem: we realised a lot of the big yoghurt brands sold in supermarkets are full of sugar – lots and lots of unnecessary sugar. That’s not healthy at all!

The only sugar-free yoghurt we found in supermarkets was Greek yoghurt (not to be confused with Greek-styled yoghurt). But Greek yoghurt is quite an acquired taste. Both The Wife and I find it difficult to consume it on its own. It’s incredibly sour, and the only way is to add other ingredients such as honey, muesli, etc.

Imagine just how pleasantly surprised I was to learn that <strong>someone’s making creamy, sugar-free yoghurt in Singapore!</strong>

The folks from Alvas Dairy Pte. Ltd., contacted me last week after reading my blog. They have been producing natural set yoghurt for almost 10 years.

It’s called: Alvas Yoghurt.

I was intrigued. I’ve not heard or seen this Alvas Yoghurt before. How is it that I’ve not seen it in supermarkets?

They went on to explain that their product is made “without preservatives, flavorings, sugar and we produce it everyday,” right here in Singapore!

Upon seeing that, I lit up with great excitement. I didn’t know we had a company freshly making yoghurt here in Singapore.

Best of all, this is a sugar-free yoghurt! A healthier option, for sure. But would it taste better than Greek yoghurt?

I accepted the free sample, a 500ml tub. (Disclaimer: I only received one 500ml tub, and nothing else – there is no commission or monetary compensation for this review.)

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Alvas Yoghurt (500ml tub)

At first sight, I must say that the packaging isn’t very attractive nor is it very appealing (it even has grammatical errors on it at the back).

If I saw this on supermarket shelves, I wouldn’t give it a second look. Perhaps this is why I never noticed the Alvas brand in supermarkets at all.

Looks aside, the more important question is: how does it taste?

First, it is incredibly thick and creamy. It’s thicker and creamier than Greek yoghurt and several other brands of yoghurt I’ve tried.

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Look how thick and creamy it is!

Secondly, as a natural yoghurt, it was a little tart and sour, but thankfully not as sour as Greek yoghurt. After the first bite, the sourness faded away and I was able to taste the yoghurt’s natural sweetness.

The more I ate, the more my eyes opened with amazement: This is incredible yoghurt!

Creamy, thick, and tasty! These are the qualities that made me love it.

Knowing that it’s sugar-free, and that it has no preservatives or flavourings, simply blows my mind.

How is it possible that I get to enjoy something so guilty yet healthy? Wow… For once I get to eat my cake (or in this case, yoghurt) and have it too.

Some reviewers online mentioned that the secret to such guilty, yet healthy pleasures, has to do with the use of milk solids in the yoghurt. Sure, there is fat in the milk solids, but there’s much less fat (and sugar) compared to what many other brands of yoghurt are using.

It was such a joy eating this. I loved it so much, I finished the 500ml tub in 3 days!

I must admit that I had initially pre-judged the yoghurt based on its unappealing packaging. I didn’t have high hopes or expectations for it. (If there’s one thing that needs to be improved, it certainly is the packaging design.) But my negative perception of it disappeared upon tasting it.

The Wife loved it too. Her view counts a lot here because she has a sweet tooth, an inclination for sweetened yoghurts, and a disdain for sour yoghurts. This means that people seeking healthier yoghurt options would not have a hard time switching over to a sugar-free yoghurt like this.

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If you have a sweet tooth, a healthier alternative is to add real honey to Alvas Yoghurt. This way, you can take advantage of the health benefits of honey and yoghurt at the same time. Look how incredibly delicious this looks!

I learnt that Alvas Yoghurt is currently only sold at all Sheng Siong supermarkets and at many small provision shops.

The 200ml cups can be found at all Sheng Siong supermarkets at the amazingly low price of SGD$1.20!

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Don’t let the boring packaging fool you. Inside each cup is incredibly creamy and delicious yoghurt made fresh here in Singapore!

At this time of writing, the 500ml tubs cost SGD$2.80, while the 1L tubs cost SGD$5.40. This is still much cheaper than the other major brands which costs at least SGD$7 for 1kg of yoghurt (still less than 1L). But not all Sheng Siong supermarkets keep stock of these tubs.

The experience with Alvas Yoghurt has been so great, and it is so healthy and affordable, that The Wife and I decided that we will switch to Alvas Yoghurt for our daily yoghurt consumption.

Here’s a photo of my fridge:

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I bought two new tubs yesterday!

I mentioned before that I love to support local businesses. Here is one local business whose products bring me so much joy, that it is my pleasure to support them with my wallet and my stomach!