Sunday, December 28, 2008

Another Note Regarding Content

I've realized I still want to keep this blog alive, or at least in a feeble state of existence that approximates life. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I don't have the interest or motivation to write out posts with the thought and research I'd originally planned. In fact, at this time (judging from my last post), I can't even assemble together posts that reach a definitive point backed by argument, or that are structured in a coherent manner.

But hey, then, why not just go with that? Basically, I am now relaxing the standards for my posts (wait, what? I had standards before?). Until further notice, Doubt Rests shall be a repository for half-formed thoughts, quotes, or whatever vaguely interesting factoids I come across. Don't expect explanation or justification for everything I write (although if you ask nicely I might elaborate), and certainly don't expect fully developed ideas. The contents will likely be of a more personal nature than previously. All will be fragmentary, but fragments put forth in the hope that failed attempts to progress are better than none at all.

And maybe someone, somewhere, some time might find a fragment here which fits well into his/her own thoughts.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Quantum mechanics tells us that the universe operates in very, very unusual ways. It is natural to want to dismiss some of the interpretations of QM (such as that natural laws are inherently probabilistic) as problems with our understanding, not as genuine features of reality. This is essentially a knee-jerk reaction to the oddness of QM and how it does not "mesh" with our everyday understanding of the world. However, science also informs us that we are the products of many years of evolution--and this evolution process equipped us to deal with one thing, and one thing only: survival. Our senses and reasoning faculties were not "designed" to help us humans apprehend truths about the world; rather, they were selected to enable humans qua systems to manipulate information in such a way that the systems preserve and replicate themselves. Luckily, knowing the truth--or approximating it--proved beneficial to the survival of these systems (these information processing patterns).

In simpler terms, more proto-humans who were able to correctly judge that there really is a savage tiger hiding in the grass over there successfully passed on their genes than those who hallucinated constantly. Or than those who had no knowledge whatsoever, who were not able to act on their knowledge, who had faulty reasoning processes, whatever.

Thus evolution tells us.

Unfortunately, to say "there really is a tiger over there" and leave it at that drastically oversimplifies the state of human existence. Because really, we don't know that there is or is not a tiger over there. All we know is that some collection of sights, sounds, scents, or inferences has caused us to believe that something over there can cause damage to us if we do not act accordingly. (Assume it's a hungry tiger and that we are defenseless in a savanna.) We may think to ourselves "There is a tiger," and we may believe "There is a tiger," and there is probably even a sense in which it is true that there is a tiger. But what we call a tiger is a convenient abstraction--a shorthand tag which bundles together a collection of concepts, memories, and/or feelings. So too, presumably, with our notion of existence--we have a certain understanding of what it means for something "to be" and "to be there." and we predicate this notion upon the abstraction "tiger."

[Edit as of 04-05-2009: I should mention that yes, Kant (and other philosophers) claim that existence is not a predicate. I do recognize that it's a contested notion and I disagree with the mainstream opinion; but I shan't defend it now.]

"Well, what of it?" I hear you say. "You're not telling us anything that the pioneering philosophers of the 17th-18th century didn't when they first speculated about our psychological workings; and you're barely even consistent with today's psychological theories."

Fair enough. But, if we can suppose that the tenets of natural selection are true, then we should firmly keep in mind that our knowledge...


This post is dissolving into incoherency. And as usual I don't have the patience to fix it. I shouldn't even post it. But whatever.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


[Please forgive this amateur flight of fanciful, mystical indulgence. This comes from a diary entry I wrote over the summer. I decided I needed to post it somewhere. I can't say I believe these sentiments, but I have sometimes taken comfort in them.]

Maybe I am starting to feel... that somewhere, somehow, in a realm outside of conceivability, our essences intermingle. And our essences love each other, they love each other so much that it almost tears them apart, yet simultaneously unites them all the more gloriously for it. Our essences love and understand why all this tragedy is necessary, why the struggle is necessary for growth, why all is truly joy and not sorrow. Our beings love each other because they created each other, because they dreamed themselves into being, and they chose each other out of all the other possible existences because this way was right. We love each other eternally, devoutly, devotedly, passionately, irrepressibly.

We love each other and are each other. We love each other because we are each other--because of that sympathetic resonance from one core to another--a unification in rhythm that reveals our inherent, underlying unity. Our oneness.

... You and I are one, just as everything else is one. Yet somehow you are special, and I am special, and our love is special.

So we play this game--because it is the unmasking, the revealing, the unraveling, the development, the exploration, the uncertainty, the discovery--these things give us more meaning than jumping straight toward the answer.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Because It's So True

A quote from

In the Twentieth Century, philosophy was like a confused and clumsy person who repeatedly tries to commit suicide, but keeps failing, though with the addition of debilitating damage at each attempt.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Yeah, so this blog is suffering from a definite lack of attention.

I don't have any particularly meaningful, worked-out content to post now, so I'll just mention some of the things I've been thinking about lately.

I recently started learning about Alonzo Church's lambda calculus (via Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind), and I'm very impressed. It's so cool that logicians were able to construct systems like this (and like Turing's work) before the advent of computers – indeed, these logical systems led directly to and facilitated the advent of computers. They start from such simplicity, but possess incredible power.

The lambda calculus reminds me of the programming language LISP (unsurprisingly, of course, since LISP was based on this very calculus), and reading about it makes me want to get back into programming again. I dabbled with Haskell a bit at the start of this summer, and I found it oddly fascinating. There is something quite elegant about these functional* languages that more practical languages (C/C++, Python, Perl) don't quite capture.

* Apparently only certain variants of LISP (like Scheme) are fully functional, but anyway.

Still, it is difficult for me to remain interested in these things for their own sake. I think I would need some kind of projects to work toward if I were to take up programming again seriously. Ah, motivation, that state which so often eludes me...

There are so many things I would love to learn, but somehow actually sitting down and doing the work required bores me terribly. Sometimes it doesn't; sometimes I go through brief periods where I feel a great deal of enthusiasm toward some subject (say, Wittgenstein's Tractatus, or some aspect of symbolic logic), but then I end up dropping it again, feeling utterly bored with it for months.

I would like to have a very extensive knowledge of mathematics, physics, philosophy, logic, computer science, linguistics, music, and (select aspects of) history. It would be swell to know Greek, Latin, German, and French. It is so difficult to care about, though; sometimes my mind just seems to shut off, and whatever I'm currently trying to study becomes excruciatingly dull; sudde
nly I can't remember why I wanted to learn about it in the first place. I value knowledge generally, but to actually feel something for it, to care – somehow that is different from merely saying "I value it"?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Impossibility of Halting Philosophical Inquiry

[This post was largely inspired by a hypothetical scenario and ensuing discussion at Philosophy, et cetera.]

Suppose that we have a magic device--a little black box with a screen and keyboard--which supplies us with true answers to every philosophical question we can possibly pose to it.

We can ask, e.g., "What is the true nature of the mind-body relation?" And the box might tell us, "Functionalism," (or whatever the "correct" answer is). Hurrah! In one fell swoop, we have settled a major dispute in the philosophy of mind. So, we proceed through the various fields: "Which understanding of ethics is correct?"; "What is the nature of ultimate reality?"; "What is the nature of knowledge?"; "Does God exist?". Ping! Ping! Ping! Perfectly formulated and accurate answers to each question spew out from the box. Academics everywhere can both rejoice that their long, bloody dialectical battles are over, but also mourn that now they're out of a job. Their passion--speculating about and debating abstruse philosophical topics--has lost its point, since there remains nothing further to be said.

Or does there?

The sagacious box in of itself would generate a slew of new philosophical questions to replace the old ones. In fact, it might not be adequate to answer even those traditional questions at all! Witness the following.

If there really existed such an oracular apparatus, before we even begin to think about taking it seriously, I would want to know one thing (and I think this is a very reasonable request): how can we trust the veracity of its answers in the first place? Now, this being a philosophical question, we could pose said question to the little black box itself in the hopes of receiving a satisfactory answer. But this presents a circularity problem, for no matter how the box answers, we would have no a priori reason to trust the accuracy of its answers (here a priori means less the traditional "knowable independent of experience," and more "given prior to the examination/subject at hand"). The box obviously cannot tell us, "My answers are true by virtue of their being outputted by a box that always outputs true answers." For indeed, now we are inclined to respond, "But how do we know you are one of those boxes? My dear black box, that is begging the question, plain and simple. You'll have to do better than that." In short, to answer this epistemological question, the box cannot appeal to its own authority as an infallible agent, for to do so would be circular.

In order to escape this trap, the box could try to appeal to an external, time-honored authority: reasoned arguments. Perhaps it could supply us with an airtight, incontrovertible argument to the effect that its answers are always correct. Indeed, perhaps all its answers might take this form of undeniably true premises leading irrefutably to a conclusion that no rational being could reject.

However, two things. First, is it really possible for there to be such irrefutable arguments? It seems that we can always doubt even the most basic of things, including the apparently incontestable. As Lewis Caroll pointed out in "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles," (Mind 4, No. 14 (April 1895): 278-280. Also freely available a number of places online, such as here, here, and here), nothing will force an interlocutor to accept a logical inference as valid. And we all know this, don't we? All reasoning must begin with axioms, and axioms by definition are unsupported or unjustified. So when we call something an irrefutable argument, it can only be irrefutable to some one person, or irrefutuable as considered from some one perspective (which means, starting from from a particular set of axioms and/or rules of inference). Is there such a thing as an "undeniably true premise"? Or can we reject an axiom that consists of something like, "For all A, A = A"? From what I understand, efforts have been made in the realm of dialetheism to investigate what happens if we reject such an obvious rule as the principle of non-contradiction and/or principle of excluded middle. Perhaps it is the case that there just is no such thing as an uncontroversial premise? (I realize that I am conflating premises and rules of inference a little bit in the above discussion, but the gist should be clear. I am too lazy at the moment to go back and fix things.)

Second, there might still be disagreement about understanding the logic employed by the black box. What if it spewed out proofs millions of lines long, with such convoluted chains of logic that it takes teams of experts just to have the barest idea of what is supposed to be going on, much less whether the steps are all valid or not?

To sum up, if we were unable to accept the black box's arguments at face value (and there is good reason to think that we would not be able to), we would have to resort to philosophical investigation in order to provide justification for why we should trust it in the first place. Hence, philosophical inquiry would continue, even with a magical device which, for all intents and purposes, should have ended it.

Curiously, we find ourselves in the same situation even when we replace the black box with the idea of a God.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Maybe I'll Actually Finish Reading This One

Axioms is an online book (a draft of a book, rather) by Robert G. Brown about human knowledge and the human condition. Brown is a physicist, not a philosopher, and he writes here for the lay-audience, so his manner of discussing philosophical concepts may not be as sophisticated as one might hope: e.g., he marks a distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge without using the terms a priori or a posteriori, and moreover does not write about them as one well-acquainted with the philosophical literature. Nonetheless, so far I am finding the content very relevant to my life and current thoughts, and I thought I should mention it here. He writes humorously and engagingly, making it easier to stay interested than so many other dry texts I've encountered.

Maybe, then, I'll actually get through more of this book instead of just recommending it and then losing interest, as I did with Motion Mountain in an earlier post.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Immutability of Vicissitudes, part 1

Life contains many unpleasant, disagreeable, and painful things.

The human question is, how do we deal with this constant unpleasantness in our lives?


The first solution we might conceive is almost trivial: when something is unpleasant or painful, you move away from it. This is a tried and true survival mechanism inherited from our primeval ancestors, a mechanism which we possess simply because organisms who historically responded to a certain class of sensations – viz., sensations which appeared threatening to the organisms' integrity – tended to survive more often than those who did not. (Or so the evolutionary story goes). Biologically speaking, this manifests as the "flight" half of the fight-or-flight response.

Being the complex, intelligent, reflective creatures that we are, we humans can recognize a general pattern behind the individual instances of pain and suffering that we encounter from moment to moment. That is, we start to conceive of suffering as a class of things, not just as a collection of unrelated particulars – just as with any abstraction from particulars to a universal. Further experience, observation, and cogitation yields the conclusion that suffering, considered as a whole, cannot be escaped by any of our standard evolutionarily-supplied abilities: you cannot outrun it, you cannot outmaneuver it, you cannot hide from it, you cannot climb into a tree where it cannot follow, you cannot take refuge in your family/herd/pack/tribe. In short, there is simply no place in the physical universe to which you can flee to escape The Suffering. While we can escape individual instances of suffering, we cannot run from Suffering in its entirety. We are cornered with our backs against the wall.

...Or Fight.

Well, since we cannot escape such a nebulous nemesis, what of our other most primitive response? Perhaps we can posture aggressively, puff out our chests, howl ferociously, and appear larger than The Suffering – perhaps we can scare it off, thus avoiding a potentially costly physical confrontation. But no, this foe cannot be frightened, and in fact we cannot even locate it tangibly in a concrete form! We cannot see it, we cannot touch it, we do not know of any way we could conceivably harm it. This means that our next best aggressive strategy – pummeling the enemy with a rock or fist until it submits, flees, or dies itself – is equally useless.


So much, then, for our basal instincts. Yet, being human, we have keener minds than most other animals; as such, we have also developed keener methods for dealing with problems beyond hitting or running from them. Notably, we are able to 1) communicate/negotiate, and 2) manipulate our environment in subtle ways to effect desired outcomes. As it turns out, the second method encompasses the first, since, from a cynical point of view, communication is nothing but manipulating one specific environment – namely, the social environment. After all, intelligent communication primarily developed in order to nonviolently resolve tensions between tribe members and to facilitate group efforts. Or so one must suppose.

So far as this relates to suffering, notice how I anthropomorphized it above, calling it "The Suffering" and treating it like an animal foe (even as I claimed to deny it corporality). In doing so, I behaved much like primitive peoples that personified natural forces in the form of deities and spirits in order to understand and exert some measure of control over them. This strategy is actually quite forgivable: to a species that had developed such massively complex social abilities, attempting to appease hostile forces through social means comes naturally. What do you do if you are a scrawny weakling when faced with a furious, ferocious, muscled, invincible fellow human? You try to defuse the situation any way you can while preserving your own health; often this takes the form of trying to imagine something your antagonist wants so that you might offer it to him/her as a distraction or appeasement.


We thrive in social hierarchies. Paying respect to our betters is a way of life for us, so much that we do it unthinkingly: think of the biggest wolf in the pack getting first dibs on a kill; think of a tribal chieftain accumulating wealth; think of royalty and aristocrats receiving taxes and deferential treatment; consider how celebrities today are revered by the masses; consider how the American President is addressed so formally and with such respect. Reflect on how (some) individuals behave around a venerated religious leader, or the way that you must defer to your boss at work. Even at a more personal level, think of how children are taught to obey their parents ("honor your father and mother"...), and think of your own social networks – isn't there always a subtle awareness about who the "top dog" or leader-figure is? He or she may lead because of any number of reasons, be it physical aptitude, intelligence, beauty or social dexterity; but this "leading" factor is nearly always present and noticeable, should you take the time to see it.

At some point in our history, we must have looked at ourselves – and our place in the world – and seen that there are no visible rulers or leaders above humanity. Nonetheless, mysterious and powerful forces directly impacted our lives, often incomprehensibly. Sometimes there were droughts or long winters. Sometimes there was illness and death. Sometimes there were wildfires, earthquakes, and other traumatic natural disasters – floods apparently left a particular mark on our species, judging by the many and varied ancient diluvian myths.

How did ancient humankind cope with all this confusing horror? By giving the mysterious and powerful forces human faces (figuratively, if not literally). Imagining natural forces under the control of sentient beings with thoughts, desires, and motivations like their own allowed primitive humankind to "understand" misfortunes ("The gods are punishing us because they are angry!") and, more importantly, to "bargain with" them ("Let us give the gods a gift to appease them.").

(Should we think it a chance that Prometheus is said to have stolen fire from the gods? No – for fire was at one point the sole property and providence of deities, just as, presumably, all other non-human forces must have been: lightning controlled by Zeus, harvest and fertility controlled by Demeter, etc., etc.)

It is almost tragically amusing: we offered things that we considered precious, valuable, or attractive (bright, shiny rocks; young virgins; cooked meats) to these celestial divinities. In a typically human fashion, we assumed that all other beings would have similar values as ourselves; or, perhaps, we treated subjective values as though they were objective properties of objects, leading us to conclude that all intelligent beings would agree with our tastes. Of course Yahweh would find the scent of burning animal-flesh sweet (Gen 8:20-21), just as humans do! Of course the "sons of God" would find the "daughters of men" attractive, and want to mate with them (Gen 6:1-4)! Human men find human women attractive, so why should not God's other creations find them attractive as well? (In a yet-more-typically-human fashion, we still do this today: see Mind Projection Fallacy and 2-Place and 1-Place Words). Above all, of course we would be created in God's own image, since it only makes sense that God would be like us, would think like us, feel like us (remember His fits of temper and jealousy in the Old Testament), etc.


Now, after that digressive historical exegesis, let us resume our inquiry into Suffering. I think by this point in the human saga, it is pretty obvious that attempting to negotiate with Suffering as though it were a sentient being is not going to fare any better than attempting to run from it or attempting to bash it. After all, prayer has a long, long history of being fantastically unreliable. Simply put, we have had much better success in changing the world when we learn to do so on its own terms (in accordance with its natural laws) rather than pleading with anthropomorphized forces. In spite of many claims by the religious, there remains no way to reliably effect change through divine aid. To put it succinctly, technology works a lot lot better than prayer under all verifiable circumstances, and it has done so ever since we first began bringing water to planted seeds rather than crossing our fingers and wishing for rain.

Let us abandon, then, all hope of attempting to reason with or appease Suffering as though it were a conscious entity.


Is technology our final hope? If it has been so wonderfully efficacious in the past, maybe we can dare to believe that Suffering as a whole could be outsmarted through a particularly clever manipulation of materials and energies, as enabled through the proper understanding of natural laws.

Transhumanists (Nick Bostrum, Ray Kurzweil, FM-2030 and the like) may believe something like this. They dream, after all, of conquering death, illness, and starvation. Yet surely these are not our only problems. Let us pretend that it is possible to thoroughly eliminate our physical woes. (Something like a heaven as promised by the Abrahamic religions, yet without God, and in our current world.) Yet, it seems that there would still be hordes upon hordes of other problems still in existence.

For would there not be jealousy and rivalry? Betrayal? Boredom? Ennui? Existential angst? Hatred? Wars? Cruelty? Rebellion? It seems fundamentally misguided to me to suppose that these problems would simply vanish if the playing field were leveled through technology. I do not think, then, that the transhumanist dream suits what I'm looking for here.

In the preceding discussion, I have attempted to cover the general methods through which we might deal with the problem of suffering externally. In the forthcoming follow up to this post, I shall consider what we have done (and what we can do) to deal with the problem internally, or psychologically.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different

... After that ridiculously long post on Buddhism, here's something both hilarious and depressing! Sarah Haskins (not to be confused with the Olympics competitor by the same name) is a comedian who has appeared on a few brief segments of the show infoMania, pointing out how specific types of television advertising is geared specifically toward women. Her segment is called "Target Women," appropriately enough.

I consolidated the few clips I could find here in this post, because of course you'll want to see them all! I like her a lot, and I hope to see more of her in the future. With luck she'll rally some more fans - She's already receiving a lot of positive comments from the feminist blog-o-sphere in general (e.g., Salon, Feministing.) .

***EDITED as of 08-30-08 to remove links to videos, since the server changed their content. ***

My Problems With Buddhism

[Disclaimer: I have not studied Buddhism as much as I would have liked. It may be that I am falsely representing certain Buddhist doctrines (and yes, I realize that they vary from sect to sect), but this is all to the best of my knowledge, and I believe it corresponds to the common grounds of the different sects.]

Problem One: Unwarranted Claims

My first complaint about Buddhism is that it makes unsubstantiated claims about the nature of the universe: karma as a force exists and influences us (e.g., what form our next life will take is dictated by our karma); there is an endless cycle of birth and rebirth for an individual soul; there are six states of existence (Gods, demigods/Asura, humans, animals, ghosts, beings in hell), and then three higher realms of existence (the Realm of Desire, the Realm of Pure Form, the Realm of Formlessness); in some sense, the soul persists throughout its rebirths, even while the individual dies; and so on and so forth.

There is a wealth of these metaphysical assertions. Yet for all that, the Buddha never provides us with evidence or any good reason to support the above claims! What do we have instead? Mystic revelation. The Buddha, as he sat and meditated under the bodhi tree, apparently tapped into a deeper source of knowledge - a source inaccessible to the rest of us - at which point he discovered The Truth. Presumably, then, we must trust the Buddha's word that things really are as he claimed. We cannot experience The Truth As Revealed To The Buddha ourselves until we achieve a similar state of enlightenment (if we ever manage to), and there is no way to either vindicate or falsify his "Truth" otherwise.

If you are like me, that alone will not feel particularly satisfying. When they are of such an extraordinary nature, I find it difficult to take anyone's claims on faith alone. I imagine most Buddhists would adopt an "If you don't believe it, try it yourself" attitude, saying that I too would eventually experience The Truth if I got to that point myself. But, attaining nirvana is supposed to be incredibly difficult; and, there is no way to know that one is doing the right thing until one actually reaches the end (nirvana). We are told that one can spend one's entire lifetime (and more! So many more lifetimes) seeking enlightenment unsuccessfully. If we could conceivably waste the rest of our lives pursuing nirvana without success, should we not want a little more assurance than "You will see it once you reach enlightenment ourself"? Since we cannot prove that the soul exists or that reincarnation works as advertised, then for all we know we only have one life to live. Would it not be more worthwhile to spend this one life in other pursuits, striving for things we are reasonably likely to achieve in one lifetime?

Many or all religions suffer from this problem of unverifiability. So this is not anything particularly special by itself. At any rate, the Buddha himself discouraged speculation and arguments about metaphysical issues beyond what he laid out himself. So let me move on to reveal the more grievous problem with Buddhistic doctrines.

Problem Two: Self-Undermining Beliefs

The four noble truths of Buddhism are as follows:
1. Existence is suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by desire/attachment.
3. It is possible to escape desire (and hence suffering).
4. The way to escape desire is through the Eightfold Path.

The the first truth - to exist is to suffer constantly - is pretty uncontroversial (isn't it?), but the second - suffering is caused by desire and/or attachment - might be less obvious. Is it really the case that all suffering results from desire? Well, when we look at examples of suffering, they are invariably accompanied by a desire to relieve that suffering in some way or another. Moreover, the ostensible "cause" of suffering (as understood by the sufferer) always stems from desire or attachment itself. For example, I may feel upset that a friend snubs me - this is because I wanted her to treat me otherwise than she did. I may feel hurt that my son dies, and this hurt derived from my feelings of love and care - my attachment - that I experienced toward him.

So, to cut to the chase, Buddha's strategy is pretty simple. We just found out what causes suffering: desire and attachment. So, let us rid ourselves of those things. The fourth noble truth points us toward the Eightfold Path, and we are told that practicing the Eightfold Path will lead to a gradual lessening of our fixation on transient things. The eventual aim of Buddhism is to realize that we are all nothing (or "no thing" - nothing we can comprehend); Buddha advocated the belief of anatman - that there is no self. Furthermore, everything changes and fluctuates, and so it is folly to become attached to anything and treat it as permanent. Permanence, for the Buddha, is an illusion.

What is so wrong with all of the above?

If there is no self (since my "I" changes from moment to moment), how can I really do anything, much less seek enlightenment? If there is no self, what precisely is being deluded and subject to suffering?

If all desires lead to suffering, what is the worth of compassion? Buddhism emphasizes compassion frequently, and Buddha himself remained in our plane in order to spread his words and alleviate our suffering. But how could he have been motivated to do so? At the point of enlightenment, he would have seen that all desires are pointless or harmful, including the desire to help others. In essence, I deny that Bodhisattvas (those who attain freedom from desire/attachment yet remain in the world anyway to help others) are possible.

Finally, let us suppose for an instant that the Buddha is wrong, that reincarnation is false, and in fact, there is no afterlife whatsoever. If so, should not death be the easiest way to achieve this sort of state - where one has no more desires or attachments, where one is free from suffering? Why do Buddhists not kill themselves, but for the threat of incurring bad karma?

And, on that note, is it even possible for a sentient, conscious being to still exist without desire? I would think such a being must want to remain free from desires and attachments in order to continually effect that state. The want to remain aloof from desires is still a want.

That is the true problem here: Buddhism entices us to accept its tenants in order to be free of suffering. Yet, that desire to be free from suffering was itself an attachment, an attachment to our own egos. At the least, some desires seem to lead us away from suffering - such as the desire to know The Truth. If so, it is not actually true that all desires or attachments cause suffering. Hence, Buddhist beliefs undermine themselves.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What's WITH minds anyway?

Last night I dreamt a musical--well, at least one song from it, anyhow. It was rather amusing: in the manner typical of musicals, after some key event had occurred, abruptly music came from nowhere and everyone present engaged in singing or dancing. In the manner typical of dreams, of course this made perfect sense, and I participated just as willingly as everyone else. (I did think it was marvelous that everyone present somehow either knew the words and melody, or they were adroit enough at following by ear.)

Now, the peculiar thing to note is that this was music (complete with orchestration and lyrics) I'd never hard before--it was the product of my unconscious mind. I can't guarantee that the music would win any awards, but it made harmonic sense, had convincing melodic content, and it flowed pleasingly. The lyrics were probably pretty nonsensical but I can't remember a thing about them.

(Also notable was the fact that I myself sung along, I was very deft at picking out various ways to harmonize with the other singers, something I've sometimes had trouble doing by ear. But this was easy--so very easy--and it felt natural.)

So my question: why is it so much easier to create music while I'm asleep? Why does it flow out so effortlessly, without thought or conscious guidance? I'm not saying that conscious guidance is necessarily a bad thing, but it's kind of frustrating that I can't simply choose to let this same thing happen to me while I'm awake. Again, I don't have any guarantees that the music produced would be any good, but I'd at least like to experiment and see what comes out.

I know that this ability is in my head somewhere: the ability to simply let musical works flow out, as Mozart was allegedly able to do. But I remain frustratingly unable to tap it--just as, for a highly relevant analogy, I know that the other events from that dream are in my head somewhere, but I can't remember them. Just as with any other memory one has difficulty recalling. The knowledge is there somewhere, encoded in an obscure part of one's neural circuitry. But how does one access it?

This leads me to ponder again the difference between the waking state and the dreaming state. I feel as though inhibition must be a large part of it. In dreams, while I do retain a modicum of reasoning ability, I am often so much more willing to simply embrace the absurd, the inconsistent, and the unusual without pausing to think, "Hey wait--this doesn't make sense."

Would I be better able to let music flow forth from within me if I stopped being so critical of it, then?

But if I am not critical, how can I trust that it will be any good?

Perhaps a strategy like the following is needed: relax the constraints of one's mind ("Free your mind," as Morpheus advised Neo), and let whatever wants to come forth, come forth. Do not seek to consciously guide it, do not judge it, do not think about impact this will have on others, about what it means--try not to think at all, really. After you have let this outflowing run its course, then--and only then!--do you reactivate your critical faculties in order to evaluate the products of your creativity. Only then ought to occur assessment, judgement, and revision.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Neo-Mystical Idealism: the Interrelationship Between Belief, Truth, and Action

This post is concerned with what I will call Neo-Mystical Idealism (NMI) of the sort often hinted at - or even explicitly endorsed - in pop-spirituality/self-help books (e.g. The Way of the Peaceful Warrior), movies (ranging from fiction like The Matrix and The Waking Life to allegedly "factual" films like The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know), fantasy and sci-fi books (Philip K. Dick), video games, various other popular sources (the Planescape expansion for the game Dungeons & Dragons), new age spirituality, ancient mystical traditions, certain idiosyncratic philosophers (Anaxagoras, perhaps), literary figures (Jorge Luis Borges, on some interpretations?), and a few fringe theories of modern physics.

What I call NMI, broadly construed, is the belief that our thoughts, desires, beliefs, and/or intentions exert a direct, significant, formative influence on reality (and our ability to interact with it). Depending on the variant of NMI, this may be as subtle as influencing a random number generator toward a particular bias simply by willing it so, or it may be as drastic as the belief that reality simply is a dream constructed wholly by our own minds. I say "neo-mystical" due to its overwhelmingly mystical nature and its current prevalence in pop-culture, and I say "idealism" in reference to philosophical idealism where the world consists of mind-objects rather than "real" objects.

+ "Idealism" may be a bit of a misnomer, since it is not necessary to believe that nothing exists beyond what the mind perceives in order to accept NMI; but, it's the most relevant term I can think of.
+ Accepting the efficacy of prayer or magic rituals could be seen as embracing NMI, since they both consist in effecting results through extra-physical means. But I would prefer to exclude them from NMI-hood since both prayer and magic rituals seem to be an appeal toward an external power, whereas proponents of NMI seem to focus very much on the personal mind's power.

In The Matrix, those who have been awakened - that is, those who have been taken from out of the computer simulation and shown the real world - realize a fundamental truth about what they thought was reality. Reality does not actually work the way they had learned and placidly accepted all their live. Rather, there is an underlying substratum - in this case, a digital reality designed and maintained by artificial intelligences - which governs phenomenal appearances. This means that what were thought to be unbreakable rules of reality are actually subordinate to the rules of the simulation. If one is in the know, one can "hack" the system to do things which aren't supposed to be allowed: as Morpheus puts it, "Some rules can be bent. Others can be broken."

This all pertains to Neo-Mystical Idealism in that belief is inextricably intertwined with overcoming the rules of the fake reality. Time and time again, The Matrix stresses the power of the mind and the power of belief. One of the most memorable scenes occurs during a training program where Neo, the recently-awakened hero, receives his first genuine test: he must leap a vast distance from the roof of one building to another, in defiance of his firmly entrenched beliefs about the laws of gravity. Notably, Morpheus tells Neo the following just before he jumps across the gap himself: "You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind. " Morpheus sails across the humongous distance practically without effort, but when Neo jumps, he plummets like a rock; he did not successfully follow Morpheus' advice, but clung to his old beliefs and preconceptions about the functioning of the world. Hence, he failed.

From this and many other instances that emphasize belief, The Matrix conveys a pretty clear message: your beliefs are intensely related to your abilities (at least when one is in a computer simulation, at any rate). This message is, indeed, essentially the same as that handed down from so many other sources. Transcend the world of illusion (realize The Truth), and you will be able to do the previously unimaginable. This is one of the key components of NMI - it always requires a sort of "awakening" or "enlightenment" process.

There is a grain of truth in the lesson taught by NMI: false beliefs can easily inhibit our full potential. Certainly history abounds with examples where the "impossible" later turned out to be quite possible, and there resulted a dramatic shift in outlook to accommodate that change. In quite a few cases, it seems as though a belief (or lack of belief) hindered progress, as when it was thought (prior to 1954) that humans could not run a mile in less than four minutes. Yet, after an initial pioneering spirit showed that it was possible, suddenly many others followed suit, and improved upon his time.

So that seems pretty uncontroversial. However, there is a very big difference between being limited by a false belief and a belief creating or affecting reality. Beliefs do not and cannot create reality They can only accord or disaccord with it. Hence, while we should take from The Matrix the lesson that we should not grow complacent in our beliefs, this does not mean that NMI generally is true. If NMI were true, we ought to be able to find confirmation of it beyond the shaky pseudoscientific studies published in disreputable journals.

On the other hand, perhaps my belief that "Beliefs do not and cannot create reality" is itself a false belief? And perhaps I am limiting myself when I latch onto it so ferociously? And perhaps others do the same?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Three Cheers for Angst

When I ask, "Is life worth living," what does that really mean?

The very notion entails that there is a "worth" to be evaluated here. Normally, when we ask something like, "Is X worth doing," it suggests that we ought to examine whatever activity "X" represents, then determine whether its expected return will compensate for the expected investment.

So, is life worth living?

Living, under all meanings of the word, requires quite a bit of an investment--it involves suffering, tedium, labor, constant maintenance of and vigilance toward a physical shell. In fact, simply by choosing to continue to live, we open ourselves up to the possibility of undergoing every torment that could possibly be experienced by a human in a similar situation.

On the other hand, living also yields the possibility of every greatest joy that we could conceive. On the more mundane level, it is normal to experience pleasures, happiness at friends and family, food, bits of luck, enjoyment of love and sex, etc.

So, to evaluate whether "life is worth living" for a particular individual, she should determine whether her expected benefits will outweigh her expected detriments. Often, when someone reaches the point of suicide, it is because life no longer seems worth living: to the severely depressed individual, the expected suffering far outweighs the expected pleasure--and, perhaps, at some point it seems impossible for there ever to be any future pleasure again.

When I consider this post--I think, implicitly, is it worth it to try and keep working and rewriting until I come up with something more coherent? Something that others will be able to appreciate, that I will be able to look back at with pride (or something resembling pride)? Apparently the answer is no--or at least, it's not worth the extensive reworking that calls out to me--the post almost has a life of its own, in how it shouts to me, "There are parts of me that are wrong! Fix them!"--but sometimes--as now--it does not seem worth the revision and editing process. The striving. I mean, don't get me wrong--I'm doing some minimal reworking as I go, of course--but I keep needing to sort of grit my teeth and continue on past the glaring errors in order to make progress at a ll--because I lack the perseverance, dedication, and motivation required to bring it up to the standards it should be. For example, as I write, I am conscious that this paragraph (nor the post as a whole) does not flow particularly well; it skips from one subject to another without preamble or continuity, and it contains long, ill-formed sentences--often broken with m-dashes, because that's easier than figuring out how to make it into something elegant.

(I wonder how much my need to be free of errors stems from a fear that others will mock me or think less of me for them?)

But yes. That calling-- that anthropomorphization of error. Maybe it's not so much an anthropomorphization as--I don't know. But it's nearly tangible sometimes--the wrongness of a given object (compared to its ideal standards). I feel thus when I compose music, when I write a paper, when I long to be perfect in any way. In fact, too often the world as a whole seems this way to me.

And when I don't have the energy or ability to make it right--or at least to put forth a good solid effort, if nothing else--it doesn't seem worth continuing with.

Hence, perhaps, why I have no motivation?

I don't know. Is the problem that I lack motivation or that I lack competence?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Lack of Content

Well, as was probably inevitable, I seem to have run out of steam with this blog. That tends to happen. I guess I just haven't been quite as enthused about writing out my own thoughts on various issues, or something. This blog should probably be considered "dying."

It's not as though I really blog about anything that's genuinely philosophical, in the academic sense. I seem to excel at pseudo-philosophy more than anything else. Mreh. Writing papers for class is quite a drudgery too. For whatever reason, genuine philosophical issues seem to have soured for me.

I can't seem to make myself care about what various commentators think Kant really meant in the Transcendental Dialectic, or how his principles can be applied to field X for fascinating result Y. Do I care about the Ship of Theseus, the nature of time, or the fundamental nature of the reality? Not really, no. Not at the moment. If ever, to some degree.

What am I interested in?

I'm interested in how we as a species apply logic to the world. I'm interested in whether there's something wrong with how we conceptualize the world, generally. Could it be possible that our fundamental assumptions and frameworks are holding us back? What if there's a better way?

And yet, I don't want to do any studying that would aid me to find that out.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Well-known philosophers who did not start out with philosophy

A while ago I noticed that quite a number of recent-ish philosophers did not actually receive B.A.s in philosophy--or whatever their equivalent undergraduate study was. So, I scoured Wikipedia (and the related internet) to compile a list of all the eminent philosophers who fit this criteria. The number is surprisingly high--or, perhaps I should say, the number of very influential philosophers on this list is quite high. I am certain that there are many, many more philosophers in general who did take philosophy as their first college degree, but if we only count only those philosophers with a very dramatic influence, I think we would find comparable numbers between those who began with philosophy and those who began with something else.

This list is unfortunately quite biased in favor of analytic philosophy, since that is the area I am most familiar with, although I did try to include some philosophers from other fields. I looked for philosophers from the end of the 19th century on--Nietzsche may be stretching it a little, but oh well. I also included a few notes about later/higher education, when it deviated from philosophy.

All sources are from Wikipedia unless noted otherwise. The list is in no particular order, although I did clump some names together based loosely on association or contemporaneity.

What was their focus as an undergrad?

Friedrich Nietzsche: philology (he later received a doctorate in this same subject)
Gottlob Frege: mathematics and physics
Bertrand Russell: mathematics (although he did study philosophy as an undergrad too)
Alfred North Whitehead: mathematics (also taught as a professor of mathematics for some time, before eventually becoming a professor in philosophy)
Ludwig Wittgenstein: mechanical engineering (until he came across Frege and Russell)
Karl Jaspers: medicine (received an M.D. and studied psychology. Did not study philosophy until he was 40)
Edmund Husserl: mathematics (followed by a PhD in the same subject)
Karl Popper: medicine? (I can't find anything that talks about his undergrad education, but he he received a PhD in Psychology, and this was early enough that he probably went to med school)
William James: another M.D. (Also did not study philosophy until he was older)
Thomas Kuhn: physics
Rudolph Carnap: physics (although he also studied logic and Kant's Critique). He originally intended to write a physics thesis--but both the philosophy and physics departments reputedly rejected his it as being too much like the other subject. He eventually wrote a more philosophically oriented thesis, so he ended up with a degree in philosophy.
Charles Sanders Peirce: chemistry (followed by an M.A. in chemistry too; source: SEP). In all fairness, it seems he also studied philosophy on his own time, and the reason he continued with chemistry was largely to support himself while he pursued logic.
Keith Donnellan: math education (source: biography on his site)
Max Black: mathematics. (I think, anyway. The only source I could find is a little unclear about it--and it does say that he talked much with many other budding philosophers of mathematics; source)
Saul Kripke: mathematics
David Chalmers: mathematics and computer science (afterwards studied for his PhD under Douglas Hofstadter (who is something of a computer scientist or cognitive psychologist--not a philosopher per se, but he is a very philosophically-minded polymath))
Otto Neurath: mathematics
Nancy Cartwright: B.Sc. in mathematics (source: cv from her site)
R.M. Hare: Classics (source)
Martha Nussbaum: theater and Classics
Jean Baudrillard: German (and later received a doctoral degree in sociology)
Arthur Danto: art and history
Hartry Field: mathematics (source)

Very interesting, is it not? What I find particularly fascinating is that there seem to be many more "crossovers" from non-philosophical fields among those philosophers who wrote on metaphysics or the philosophies of science, mind, logic, or math--rather than, say, philosophers who are known principally for their work in ethics. And that's not all. Observe the following list of double (and more) undergrad majors:

W.V.O. Quine: mathematics and philosophy
Frank Jackson: mathematics and philosophy
Hilary Putnam: mathematics and philosophy
Jaegwon Kim: French, mathematics, and philosophy
Ernst Mach: philosophy, mathematics, and physics (followed by a doctorate in physics).
Imre Lakatos: philosophy, mathematics, and physics
Carl Hempel: philosophy, mathematics, physics (source: IEP)
Paul Churchland: philosophy, mathematics, and physics (Source: c.v. from his website)
Philip Kitcher: mathematics and history & philosophy of science (source: c.v. from his website)
Nick Bostrom: philosophy, mathematics, mathematical logic, and artificial intelligence (source: cv from website)

Timothy Williamson: Philosophy and mathematics.

Notice any, ah, glaringly obvious trends there? So, if you're an analytic philosopher interested in something beyond ethics--why aren't you brushing up your math skills right now? Some physics surely couldn't hurt either.

(I should note that a few other relatively frequent double majors showed up--such as law, economics, political science, and the Classics--but these were largely dwarfed by the majors in mathematics. This may be due to my afore-mentioned analytical philosophy bias, but I find it very noteworthy nonetheless.)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Motion Mountain

Motion Mountain - The Free Physics Textbook (by Christopher Schiller) is positively amazing. It is a freely available online physics textbook aimed at attracting a wide variety of personality and thinking types (image/verbally oriented; male/female; composer/competitor; experimentally/theoretically inclined; scientific/humanity minded). I am not very far into it yet, but it has succeeded very well with me. I am really enjoying that it approaches physics from a very philosophically-minded standpoint--for example, Schiller describes time as that which allows contradictions to inhere within the same entity--provided that said contradictions occur at different times, of course. He talks about the notions of measurement, observation, and distinguishing objects from their environment (and how this relates to permanence versus variability).

Furthermore, it contains challenges at the end of each chapter to get you thinking more in-depth about the subject, and many of them are very conceptual rather than mathematical. Not that it's a bad thing at all to develop mathematical facility, but the mathematical detail happens to be (unfortunately) the area of physics I enjoy least. Throughout the chapters, Schiller asks us to ponder such questions as, do events exist? Do clocks even exist, really? What are the necessary conditions for velocity to be a part of the world? He also includes pleasant little historical details and social contexts. And he quotes from Wittgenstein's Tractatus often at the beginnings of sections, which is kinda fun =P.

I think he's done an admirable job making the book appealing to those from the humanities (such as myself--although I do have a bit of a computer science background in my distant past, and I'm very fond of logic). I can tell that I am going to enjoy the rest of this book immensely. It is astounding to me that someone took the effort to put this incredible resource together for free. Thank you so much, Christopher Schiller: I deeply appreciate your work.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Conflicting Sensations

In my last post, I wondered what a world which allowed simultaneous contradictions would look like.

Earlier this morning I had a very fascinating experience – shortly before I woke up, I became aware that I was simultaneously dreaming and yet in my bed at the same time. That is to say, I received two mutually exclusive sets of sensations, one informing me that I was lying on my back underneath sheets and covers with my eyes closed, the other that I was walking through some dreamscape with my eyes open.

I can hardly remember the details of the dream now, but still, the memory of that dual experience is striking. It makes me wonder – perhaps the brain is better equipped to deal with simultaneous contradictions than I'd thought, since I was apparently making sense of feeling that I was in two places at once. Both sensations felt as though they were centered on me, my brain, my consciousness/awareness/etc. It was as though I temporarily had two perspectives on "life" (even though, of course, only one of these was a veridical perspective), and I was able to feel both simultaneously.

So perhaps experiencing a contradiction would be a little like that, somehow.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Making Sense

Why should the world "make sense?"
Why should we expect that logic ought to apply to the real world?
It does not seem possible for it to be otherwise—but I wonder.

Perhaps logic is not applicable to the world. If that were so, we would abandon it, right? But, if we have to investigate the world to determine whether logic is useful or not, surely that revokes its a priori status.

Or, perhaps, the internal consistency of logic may retain apriority, while the applicability-to-the-real-world is what requires a posteriori verification. That is, suppose it is a necessary truth that is true within a given system, but perhaps we need to then go out and examine the world to tell whether the world agrees with that statement. Here is another way to think of it is: necessarily, logic is consistent within itself; contingently, the universe is such that logic may be fruitfully applied to it.

Could there be a world where the Law of Excluded Middle (LEM) does not hold? What would that be like? I cannot even imagine how something can be at once true and false.

(1) It is true that at this moment, at that location, there is an apple.
(2) It is false that at this moment, at that location, there is an apple.

Presumably these statements mean something like, "There is (is not) a spatiotemporal region constituted in such a way that it accords with an instantiation of our concept 'apple'." Could there be a world where a spatial region could be arranged in two substantially different ways simultaneously? If we try to imagine such a region, do we automatically start thinking of two separate spatial regions, and thus defeat ourselves by splitting into two an entity that ought to have stayed as one?

(3) The square is exhaustively red.
(4) The square is exhaustively blue.

If we accept (3), have we not already denied any possibility of it being otherwise? How could there be a world in which a square is both red all over and blue all over?

There is the occasional speculation that perhaps quantum mechanics has shown that contradictions inhere in reality—that particles really can occupy two places at once, or whatever. But this needs to be looked in to more before I say more on the subject.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Unique Movie: Rocket Science

As I started watching Rocket Science, I began to feel irritated—it appeared exactly as though it was going to be one of those formulaic, feel-good, competitive, "the unlikely underdog triumphs over adversary" films that are so popular for sports and dance movies. This style can and often is adapted for intellectual pursuits too, as was the case with Rocket Science, which takes high school debate as its premise.

However, as the movie wore on, and the unlikely hero tries increasingly more and more desperate schemes to overcome his disability (he has a speech impediment which makes debate basically impossible for him) without any progress, I began to wonder: could it be that he won't finally have one of those euphoric epiphanies/breakthroughs that will eventually lead to his success? That maybe, just maybe, justice won't be served, and he won't get the girl in the end? (WARNING: If you haven't seen the movie yet and you're concerned about spoilers, now might be a good time to stop reading.)

I wasn't disappointed. Enlisting the help of a more experienced debater (who dropped out from high school earlier on in the movie), together they sign on as a "homeschooled" team. Our hero does manage some modicum of success through half-singing a debate presentation—but a minute into his speech, he and his partner are interrupted by school officials, who promptly and pitilessly disqualify them from competing (since neither of them really does homeschool). No special pleas accepted, no special exception granted, no brilliant plans or loopholes to get around the system. They're just simply kicked out. The hero has one more dramatic tiff with his love interest (who betrayed him) before leaving.

In the final scene, he's talking with his dad in a car, and he asks, "When does it all [life] start to make sense?" And his dad answers something to the effect of, "It doesn't. After a while, you just stop trying to make sense of it, and live your life."
Protagonist: "So, what, everyone just grows out of it? Is there ever anyone who that never happens to?"
Dad: "Tell you what, if you turn out to be one of those people, you let me know."
The car backs out from where it's parked and starts driving away. Music plays, credits.

No success, no girl. No final resolution, no heroic overcoming, no deus ex machina, no convenient wrapping up of loose ends. This makes it possibly one of the most realistic movies I've ever seen, in some ways. The protagonist tried, he suffered, he failed, he had to move on. Things don't just suddenly "snap into place." It did have a somewhat positive message, I guess—don't keep struggling to speak with someone else's voice, learn to speak with your own voice. And it presumably offers us the consolation that everyone has to deal with these questions at some point in their life (usually around college age, I believe, which is what makes this such a perfect movie for that demographic).

I can't quite help thinking that I may be doomed to be one of those people that never gets over the fact that life doesn't make sense, even if they're not supposed to exist.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Spiffy LaTeX script for Blogger!

I love the internet these days! A quick Google search can provide you with all sorts of nifty (although probably in the long run not so useful) information and tools. In this particular case (that inspired this blog post), I suddenly developed a hankering for the ability to use LaTeX notation for mathematical and logical notation on Blogger--not that I'll probably ever use it, mind you, and not that I'm even that familiar with LaTeX--but I digress. Blogger doesn't support LaTeX natively, but one swift search later and I'd discovered this Greasemonkey script which, after a very painless installation, sticks a nice friendly button on to the Blogger post editor. This button converts LaTeX notation into images and automatically uploads them into your post for manipulation. (This is all providing that you use Firefox. But of course you use FireFox! Just like any other self-respecting net citizen these days.)

Multipurpose example (to prove that it's working; to see how it looks with my blog colors; to increase my familiarity with LaTeX... or should I say, ):

Or something. Loosely a formulation of Leibniz' Indiscernibility of Identicals. This isn't an ideal solution to notational problems (for example, if you want to make a change in a really lengthy expression, you'd better have copied the text version somewhere because it doesn't convert from images back to text. Also, perhaps not so useful when writing away from my home computer, at least not if I want to see how the results turn out). But man, it's still pretty awesome to have something this convenient. Trés cool!

As a thanks to the author, here's a link to his/her blog (linking there is what he/she recommends by way of thanks):

Thursday, March 20, 2008

So, what, it's just a fractal after all?

Click the above picture for a larger version with more details about what's actually being shown. Still, you should be able to make out the words labeling the left image "Brain cell" and the right image "The Universe," and you should be immediately struck by the startling similarity between the two. The brain cell is from a stained slide of a mouse brain, and the universe picture is from a computer simulation portraying how we think the universe developed (it must be a simulation, of course, since we can't very well photograph the universe from outside, nor travel back in time to witness its formation—or so we think).

These two pics were apparently put together by a David Constantine for a New York Times article (or something? that's where the image is hosted, at any rate), although I cannot find the article itself. The "universe" screenshot is from the Millennium Simulation, an international project meant to visually model the universe's development at an unprecedented level of detail and realism. The aforementioned site includes download links for the simulation video, but here's a YouTube link for those who want it.

What do we make of this striking resemblance betwixt neuron and universe? Well, part of me wants to immediately go off on an excited rant about how this confirms all these things I keep noticing about looping/circularity/recursion/self-reference/things-building-upon-themselves, and perhaps there's some sort of mystic significance to be drawn from it all.

But my more cautious side—which, generally speaking, holds more sway for me in these matters—has a few things to say. First and foremost, this is just a simulation; we have no genuine fact of the matter about what the universe, taken as a whole, looked like then or looks like now. Second, this was a simulation designed by humans, creatures who thrive on centralized, hierarchical methods of understanding nature. Seeking out (and, for that matter, imposing) structured hierarchies in nature is one of our most revered conceptual tools, sometimes to the hindrance of our own knowledge—for example, we spent the longest time trying to identify "pacemaker" or leading/guiding cells to account for the slime-mold's self-organizational abilities before Evelyn Fox Keller and Lee Segal showed how they (slime-molds) group together without centralized direction (see Steven Johnson's Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software for a very readable description of this and many related topics). I find it very likely that, assuming the universe simulation is not perfectly accurate, the simulator designers will tend to incorporate their own biological biases into their work, meaning that human simulation designers will favor simulations that mimic centralization and hierarchies.

Now, for all that, I still grant that the universe demonstrates this kind of arrangement in a number of different non-biological places as well: atoms have nuclei around which electrons orbit, planets and stars form from molecules accumulating around one point, planets orbit about stars, stars orbit about black holes—or whatever-the-hell is in the center of our galaxy. (Note that it pays to be cautious with these analogies: thinking of an atom in terms of planets revolving around a sun can lead to a number of unfortunate misconceptions).

Yes, systematized and centralized thinking is often very helpful.

The problem is, much like the search for theoretical unification and the willful employment of Occam's razor, perhaps it causes us to overlook other things, and see hierarchies where they may not necessarily exist.

(As a final point, there are quite a few images from the universe simulation one can select; given that there are probably thousands of neuron images out there too and given the, ahem, nebulous nature of the astronomical simulations, it can't be that hard to find a few that coincide fairly well.)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Discouraging Thoughts

I recently began reading Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind. It's a very fascinating book that covers (directly, tangentially, or in passing) many of the topics that I'm interested in these days: artificial intelligence, Turing Machines, Gödel's theorem, formalism in mathematics, quantum mechanics, fractals, complexity, predictability, etc., etc. In fact, it's a lot like another excellent book that I'm trying to get through at the moment, Douglas Hoftstader's Gödel, Escher, Bach, both in terms of related topics and in how the author draws from many different sources to drive toward an eventual point about the mind (the impossibility of strong AI and/or the irreducibility of the mental to the physical in the case of Penrose, and the self-referential nature of consciousness in the case of Hofstadter. Or so I believe, since I haven't gotten too terribly far in either of them yet, and I'm only dimly aware of what their conclusions will be).

Anyway, the problem: I was skimming through the latter parts of The Emperor's New Mind to see what lies ahead, and for a pop-science book, it contains a bewildering number of frightening equations (aghh! Look at all the ψ's, ω's, and other intimidating esoterica!) . Now, I'm not as put off by this as the average reader might be, but still, I'm worried about my ability to adequately grasp this kind of thing, particularly given my currently less-than-pleasing math knowledge. And, moreover, I'd genuinely like to be able to understand these sorts of things. But do I have the patience? Do I even care enough? How can I learn these things outside of a classroom environment?

I'm also slightly concerned that the math-heavy sections of the book will be like roadblocks for my reading: that is, I will procrastinate getting through them since I'll keep thinking, "I want to understand this, so I'll just come back to it when I'm not feeling so tired, when I'm more in the mood to concentrate, etc., etc." And then, six months later, I still won't have made any progress in the book. Just some things for me to watch out for.

Etymological fact of the day: the word 'rapt'—to be engrossed or enraptured—derived from the past participle of 'rape,' which originally denoted 'seizing' or 'carrying off' without necessarily denoting non-consensual sex acts. Indeed, 'rapt' was occasionally used to indicate being carried from Earth to Heaven (as, perhaps, a prophet or mystic might be taken by God; or as one might be struck rapt in the midst of a vision). 'Rapture,' unsurprisingly, shares a very similar derivation, and this, I presume, is why the modern Christian doctrine of The Rapture has the name it does. The word 'ravish' also derives from the same distant root (Latin rapere); it has a near-identical meaning—to carry off forcibly, particularly in the case of a woman. But, 'ravish' has also been used in the sense of transport from Earth to Heaven, much the way 'rapt' has been, and so 'ravishing' is a complimentary term because it means something like 'enchanting' or 'entrancing.'

The frightening thing is that 'ravish' is still a synonym for our modern sense of 'rape' today. And so, telling a woman that she looking 'ravishing' seems to indicate that she looks rape-able. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does not list anything like this in its usage history of the word, and I generally consider the OED the final authority on all things language related, but still... kinda makes you think.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Another note about content

Even my more in-depth posts do not spend a lot of time directly addressing specific scientific or philosophical issues. General trends are great fun to write about, but I would like to write at least a few essays that focus on some particular problem, or that respond directly to some contemporary writer. Also, my posts still wander all over the place--this is good in that I see connections between disparate subjects, but it must be frustrating for the reader to follow.

I find it vastly amusing that I am currently thoroughly uninterested and unmotivated in my classes, yet I have such an interest in writing my own academic-quality work. Or something.

I'll see what I can do.

The Aftermath of Absurdity: H?

The title of this post ("The Aftermath of Absurdity: H?") contains an oblique reference to the futurist philosophy known as transhumanism. Transhumanism, as the Wiki link shows at the time of this writing, is occasionally represented/symbolized by the characters >H or H+ to indicate progressing beyond humanity in its current form (which is presumably symbolized by H). I will use H?, then, to indicate a curiosity or uncertainty about what exactly a human is in the first place, before we go about augmenting it.

What does it mean to be human?

It means to be a finite being {limited to subjectivity; prey to irrational impulses; hampered by the physical world} with aspirations toward divinity {sub species aeternitatis; pure rationality; transcending physicality}. Even those of an atheistic persuasion frequently seek this divinity in one way or another--and, in fact, the atheist strives to see through God's eyes much more often than the theist, since the theist normally considers the very thought blasphemous {Lucifer went astray when he desired God's position; humanity was punished when it built a tower meaning to ascend to the heavens; and, of course, original sin is the very product of seeing through God's eyes--the serpent tells Eve that knowledge of Good and Evil will make her godlike, and this is indeed what condemns humanity}. When the scientist desires to understand the operations of the universe beyond our immediate ability to perceive {knowledge of particles; the constituents of stars; DNA; functioning of the body}, when she desires a simple system of laws from which everything else may be derived {Grand Unified Theory}, she is desiring to transcend her senses (and all that which is given immediately and simply) to discover the true nature of reality--something which, presumably, only a god would have direct access to. What was the pre-human world like? How was it formed? What "makes" a plant grow? Does the universe exhibit counterfactual definiteness? If not, is Laplace's demon an impossibility? Would a god be subject to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, or to the observer effect?

The aspiration to know this, coupled with the apparent impossibility of truly knowing, is one of the things that makes the human absurd. So many humans for so long have wanted to know what goes on "behind the scenes," and wanted to transcend this paltry, unreliable chunk of biological flesh and bones. Science/technology is presumably our best bet to facilitate this transcendence: it allows us to cleverly sneak around the limitations placed upon us by Nature, augmenting our vision through microscopy and telescopy, detecting and analyzing electromagnetic waves beyond our senses' ability to register, measuring quantities which we could never observe unaided. And, with the deepening of our knowledge, the greater becomes our ability to construct devices which manipulate nature for our own ends. This is the transhumanist goal, and, to a lesser extreme, the intention of nearly every technological endeavor since the dawn of time: harness natural forces so that we may prolong our life, ease our suffering, enable our own enjoyment.

Ever since we first realized that we could more regularly and readily find food if we planted seeds in the right kind of earth, that we can use sticks and rocks and other things to help us hunt and defend ourselves, that we can warm ourselves with animal skins and leaves, we have been on this path. The path which will make us God, perhaps? The path toward perfection?

Perhaps not. Perhaps I again assume too much about the rest of humanity, and I ascribe lofty, grandiose ambitions where they may not be entertained. Perhaps most people want simple, material/social comforts; they are not concerned with knowledge, or even with "transcending" the physical body through virtual reality and cybernetic augmentation. But I think they must be, otherwise why would the promise of heaven be so enticing? Why else would television and computer/console games enjoy the intense, sometimes addicting popularity that they have?

But then, perhaps it is only philosophers who dream this way.

What does it mean to be a philosopher ("What does 'P?' mean")?

Among other things, the philosopher examines presuppositions which underly our most fundamental beliefs. She makes the implicit explicit. She wanders the borders of human thought, heroically grappling with those speculative concepts which are on the outer limits of our ability to reason about, attempting to "make sense" of it all. ("Make sense" is an appropriate way to describe the process: humans often rely on metaphors derived from our senses when attempting to apprehend an abstract concept. See Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being by George Lakoff and Raphael E. Núñez for some fascinating examples of how humans tend to map abstract mathematical concepts onto familiar experiential concepts.)

Now, the curious thing about philosophizing is its notorious "arm-chair" method of inquiry. In contrast with the empirical sciences, philosophy presumes to discover knowledge in a peculiar manner: reasoning built off of common intuitions, supplemented and refined by 1) the arguments of other philosophers, both those from the past and those contemporaneous; and 2) the discoveries handed down from the sciences. Rather than going out into the world and poking about, setting up controlled environments and acquiring measurements to discover regularities, the philosopher sits atop a mountain of academia, arguing vociferously about the ultimate truths of possibility and necessity. Truths applicable, presumably, to all modes of knowledge and all realms of inquiry--that is to say, truths applicable universally.

Early science - natural philosophy

This has not always been the case: during the Modern Era, "natural philosophy" gained prominence with its new-fangled focus on experimentation. A number of noteworthy philosophers either contributed directly to what we now call science or influenced it strongly with their theories, such as Descartes, Kant, Sir Francis Bacon, and Leibniz. Isaac Newton's legendary tome that lay the groundwork for classical physics was titled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or "mathematical principles of natural philosophy." Newton and the other members of the Royal Society certainly considered their work to be "natural philosophy," and the continued use of "Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society" as a name for the longest running science journal in existence is a testament to that attitude. This was by no means exclusive to the Modern period: Aristotle may have been one of the world's first biologists, for all that his conclusions were rife with what we now know are accuracies. Copernicus and Galileo no doubt considered themselves philosophers, etc. etc.

However, with the rise of natural philosophy and its subsequent successes came a devaluation of regular philosophy. By the 19th century (or perhaps the early 20th at the latest), "natural philosophy" had separated even farther from traditional philosophy; it was hereafter known as "science." Strong borders began to appear between the two, spurred on by the anti-metaphysical, pro-empirical agenda of the logical positivists. Since then, science, along with every other field in academia, has undergone a radical process of specialization: we have the natural sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology, then the social sciences of psychology and sociology (and perhaps economics and political science, depending on where ones draws the line). Finally, we have mathematics and computer science, which are hardly empirical, yet they are of such a systematic nature and of such relevance to science proper that they often fall under the general category "science." This segregation of subject matter seems to have arisen as a method of shared labor, or divide-and-conquer strategy: as scientific knowledge accumulates, it becomes inefficient--perhaps impossible--for one person to stay abreast of the current research, and impossible furthermore to devote one's own time to experimentation and theorizing toward the many facets of science at once. Specialization in academia, not surprisingly, mirrored the socio-economic specialization that sprung forth during the Industrial Revolution in the form of division of labor, mechanization, and streamlined factory assembly. Not that it was a new concept: Plato's Republic, Hume's Treatise, and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (and no doubt other sources) advocated specialization as the key to efficiency; and, indeed, natural selection itself preceded every thinker through the specialization of cells within an organism and the specialization of individuals within a pack or colony. However, the exponential, near-simultaneous growth of technology, population, science, and the humanities in the last two hundred years exquisitely highlights the role specialization has played, and it is doubtful we would have made the progress we have without it.

Specialization, in conjunction with cooperation, is a wonderful thing which enables synergy--a mysterious emergent property resulting from the pooling and interaction of individual components. Unfortunately, specialization has its drawbacks too: namely, the walls which develop between the expert and the non-expert. Mathematics is a perfect example; from what I hear, mathematics is perhaps the most inaccessible field even to expert mathematicians: at the highest levels of specialization, there might be some ten or fifteen people in the world capable of fully understanding what a given paper tries to prove. A mathematician who studies one niche branch of mathematics may be completely lost when faced with another.

So what does this have to do with philosophy? Well, philosophy was the mother of all inquiry--rational speculation began here, but academic subjects splintered off into child fields that have since then gained their own prominence. In the case of the sciences, that prominence now dwarfs philosophy such that philosophy is the "handmaiden of science," at best, and useless dialectical gobbledygook at worst. And, the inaccessibility that is a byproduct of specialization exacerbates the divide by making it difficult for science to communicate with non-scientific disciplines (see C.P. Snow's Two Cultures for a notorious take on the gulf between the science culture and non-science culture).

So, I suppose I am interested in what relevance philosophy has to non-moral matters. Is there any point to philosophers talking about science and mathematics when many scientists and mathematicians pretty much ignore us? If we have ascertained that philosophy does not give results the way that science has, what role does it play for us? I am interested in science and mathematics, but I do not have the training nor time required to get a full grasp on what the experts are doing. Should this concern me? Is there anything that can be done about it?

Is there a way to be a better/improved/augmented philosopher ('P+'), and what is the relationship between 'P?' and 'H?'?

Friday, March 14, 2008

New Site Banner

For some reason I thought it would be a grand idea to make a new banner for this blog, even though I've got all the design ability (and sensibility) of an orangutan. Or maybe less. Maybe orangutans would actually make fabulous web designers, who knows? Anyway, I'll probably keep tweaking it a bit (and the site's background colors) since they're a bit less than perfect at the moment. It looks kinda amateur right now, but at least it's more original than a default Blogger template, right?

I always marvel at this peculiarity: when I evaluate something for aesthetic cohesion, I'm quite adept at making judgments about (what are for my tastes) good or bad color choices, good or bad fonts, relative spacing, clarity, composition, etc. However, when I'm actually making a new piece of design (or visual art), I find it so difficult to get things to cohere properly. I can't quite find that right set of colors which will make everything gorgeous, I can't quite find the right shapes, etc., etc. Same problem as any artistic endeavor, I suppose--lacking the necessary experience, I'm simply bad at it until I get a chance to develop more.

Anyway, the painting on the left side is from the talented Stella Im Hultberg, used without permission... because I'm too lazy to email and ask, and I don't know that it matters that much on a blog that no one visits.

Also, about the site in general: I'm concerned at the growing number of "frivolous" posts I'm making here. I really intend for this blog to stay on topic (whatever that topic happens to be), so I promise I'll get out some new posts soon that make serious efforts to be worthwhile.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Completely Irrelevant Obsevation

From the on-campus coffee/convenience store, I just bought a bottle of Guayaki Yerba Mate mint flavored tea, a pint of Ben & Jerry's oh-so-maddeningly-delicious Mint Chocolate Cookie, and a few bags of Moroccan mint tea.

Apparently, I'm experiencing some kind of intense need for mint lately, and I hadn't even realized it. Mostly I was amused that these were the only items I bought, and I didn't even notice their prominent theme until a few hours later.

I also keep buying these little honey sticks with added mint flavor that the store sells.