Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Power of Flexibility

All doctrines which rely upon ancient authority are doomed to obsolescence.

As an example, one of the most important advantages that a scientific outlook has over a religion-based one is its ability to admit it was wrong; that is, science has the ability to self-correct over time.* A venerable, successful religious tradition may have the weight of centuries behind it to speak in its favor; but that weight simultaneously forever hinders it, keeping it chained or rooted, as it were, in one spot. New scientific discoveries, however, can upset essentially any scientific knowledge that had preceded them, as long as the new theories and frameworks are compelling enough. It's hardly an overnight process--see the 20th century's resistance to quantum mechanics as an example--but science can "afford" to throw out anything as long as it has a suitable, stronger replacement. (It tends to be a further requirement that new discoveries explain old observations and show why old theoretical laws worked, of course.) Christianity, by contrast, cannot afford to throw out the belief that Jesus Christ was God's son, that he spoke God's words, that God's words are trustworthy, that our present texts are accurate reproductions of the originals, and all that. If one removes Christ from Christianity, the belief system reverts to Judaism. (Probably, that is; I'm sure this oversimplifies matters, but I think that's okay for my purposes. On the other hand, if they're fine leaving a large chunk of things unexplained, Christians could probably throw out most of the Old Testament without a problem; I personally suspect they'd be better off if they did so, but that's a discussion for another time.)

However, religious views don't have to be static, in a sense. Thanks to the exquisitely ambiguous nature of language and humanity's marvelous propensity for inventing alternative explanations, a faith's interpretations may change, while their holy sources remain unchanged. As science continues to undermine religious claims, this will more and more become the refuge of believers--that is, unless the public at large continues to ignore scientific knowledge whenever and wherever it pleases. As evolution attains greater and greater acceptance, Judeo-Christians turn toward interpreting Genesis in some kind of metaphoric or allegorical sense. (The future may yet hold some revision for the specifics of evolution, maybe even a somewhat drastic reconceptualization of it; but at the least, I'm very confident that there is no way a literal reading of the story of Creation can be true. Even if evolution is somehow radically undermined, it will be replaced by a theory very similar to it, and regardless, this theory will never accord with Genesis in a literal way.)

This illustrates the necessity of fluidity and open-mindedness in a world-view, even where non-scientific projects are concerned.** Science, philosophy, and flexible religious interpretations have the advantage over immutable fundamentalist faith because, well, all human knowledge is pretty fragile and subject to revision.‡ The times they are a-changin', and blind, continual adherence to any systems or traditions means being left in the dust.

This post isn't about religion, really; it's about one's ability and willingness to adapt to that which is new and unfamiliar. Faith's resistance to scientific (and social/moral, for that matter) developments is only a conspicuous example of failing to do so that's been strung out through history. In this post, I don't think I've covered very well just why adapting to new changes is desirable, but I hope that's intuitively obvious/self-evident to the reader.

The lesson to take away from this is a reminder not to get stuck in your ways, especially as the rate of social and technological change accelerates in today's world. This comic, though humorous, points out what could be a genuinely serious issue, as medical science extends the human lifespan.

Zach Weiner's "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal", #2184. Transcript:
NARRATOR: Good thing: someday, longevity will be discovered.
MAN: I'm gonna live forever!
NARRATOR: Bad thing: imagine having to deal with an ancestor from the 13th century.
13TH CENTURY MAN, TO IRRITATED MODERN WOMAN: We need to put a sticker in every astronomy text! The Copernican view is just a theory!
NARRATOR: Good thing: if it's discovered in your lifetime, you get to be the crazy ancestor.
FUTURISTIC MAN W/ WIFE: Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Grandpa! Stop using your ultraglasses to stare at my wife's boobs!
OLD MAN W/ FUTURISTIC GLASSES: That's how we did in the 21st century and I'm too old to change!

It is a sad fact that change happens most quickly and easily when an older generation dies out, and a newer generations's views become dominant. I think we want to avoid the "old racist/sexist/homophobe syndrome" at all costs; so it will be imperative that, if we do ever extend the human lifespan to much longer lengths, we do so with a society (a species, really) that is willing to be flexible and to adapt. (A global, or even nation-wide, shift in human thought is far too optimistic to hope for in reality, unfortunately, but we should strive toward that ideal nonetheless.)

Finally, let me supply a quote from Charles S. Peirce (I forget from where, exactly: it's in one of the Collected Papers):
When doubt ceases, mental action on [a] subject comes to an end; and, if it did go on, it would be without purpose.

* Forgive me for encouraging unnecessary dichotomies by pitting a "scientific" mindset against a "religious" one as though they were mutually exclusive, but I'm talking specifically about religious views that look to ancient texts and doctrines as sources of unchanging truth, in defiance of modern scientific discoveries.
** It amuses me that I follow dogmatic tendentious assertions about the falsity of Genesis with urgings toward "fluid" and "open minded" beliefs. There's some tension here: I will admit, yeah, it's possible something new could shake that ardent disbelief of mine. I just believe that possibility so unlikely as to be not worth discussing or considering as a serious option.
‡ Mathematical and logical truths may be an exception, but we must keep in mind that we can still be wrong about those truths due to misunderstanding them. At least, the more complicated ones. Furthermore, I'm sort of a formalist/constructivist hybrid, and I think that logical and mathematical necessity is necessary simply because we define it that way, except perhaps at the barest level. (Is it possible for a thing to not be itself? No, that's merely playing a game with semantics. I don't think all philosophical problems can be explained as nonsense-disguised-as-something-intelligible a la early Wittgenstein and the positivists; but for the most fundamental of logical questions, I do.)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Punishment and Justice

What should we do with those who commit heinous crimes? What about those who commit minor crimes?

Punishment as a deterrent--like any overt deterrent, I suppose--functions as a threat. If you misbehave, you will be hurt or slain, or something will be taken from you. Yet that isn't where punishment ends, psychologically: people feel a rage towards particularly vile criminals, a rage that is more of a bloodlust or "righteous" fury than anything else. In these moments, the thinking is not, "We must make a warning to keep others from doing this", but rather, "That bastard must pay!"

Someone who hurts others deserves to be hurt themselves. When paired with the view that those who do good deserve good themselves, this sentence is a very near relative to the Golden Rule. We see the sentiment naturally manifested in the Judeo-Christian punishment of sinners and reward of believers, and indeed, in Jesus's famous explicit formulation of the Golden Rule. Hinduism's principle of karma is another example; even if it's not seen as a "punishment" per se by the Hindus, clearly it stems from the same sort of thinking. More recently, the neo-Pagan/Wiccan Rule of Three tells us that our decisions, beneficent or maleficent, will be visited upon us again, with threefold consequences.

Nietzsche described the general punishment urge in depressingly incisive terms:
... to what extent can suffering be a compensation for “debts”? To the extent that making someone suffer provides the highest degree of pleasure, to the extent that the person hurt by the debt, in exchange for the injury as well as for the distress caused by the injury, got an extraordinary offsetting pleasure: creating suffering—a real celebration, something that, as I’ve said, was valued all the more, the greater it contradicted the rank and social position of the creditor. [1]
I would quibble with him here about harming others being "the highest degree of pleasure" for most people, but I think the general gist of this passage is right. Causing others to suffer, in certain contexts, brings pleasure which is supposed to "make up" for wrongs perpetrated against oneself. (If "pleasure" is too strong a word, then "satisfaction" may be substituted, though mayhap that sugarcoats the situation too much.)

Considered less aesthetically and more economically, as it were, one gets the impression that there exists some metaphysical balance or scale, upon which doing wrong tilts the scale; and this tilting must be accounted for. "Harm" or "hurt" is the currency being weighed here, and so a person (or, more usually, a government) does what would normally be "wrong" to a criminal, and thus the upset scale is righted.

When generalized and made normative, we call this meting out of harm for harm "justice". For Western culture, Lady Justice (Justitia) symbolizes the concept quite plainly: she carries a scale of judgment and a sword, the first for determining where and how much harm to dole out, and the second for applying it. In "civilized" societies, now that we feel a conflict between wanting wrongdoers to suffer and squeemishness about the dirty work that that entails, we do not directly apply punishments ourselves; instead, we license a certain body of people--viz., the government and its police force--to enact the tenets of justice, which is to say, the tenets of reciprocity. Not literal reciprocity in the sense of an eye for an eye, of course; we are sufficiently advanced that we can invent substitutes and equivalents such as fines and imprisonment. Or, in some dire cases, the punishment probably exceeds the crime quite excessively.

Actually, the vast majority of crimes don't incite much ire (bloodlust) in the average citizen, because the vast majority of crimes are misdemeanors that do not directly harm individuals.[2] Jay walking; smoking cigarettes in a non-smoking area; smoking marijuana; downloading and sharing copyrighted material illegally on the internet; most other forms of copyright infringement; violating the terms of agreement in a competition or an online game by cheating; minor speeding or another small traffic offence; violating a zoning ordinance, that sort of thing. While opponents of drug use agree abstractly that smoking marijuana deserves punishment, I do not think they actively feel rage when they see or hear of such use, as long as it is not, say, "contributing to their children's delinquency". Players of an online game may feel that cheaters should be banned from the game--and in a fit of passion, perhaps more than that--but they typically do not believe that cheaters should be fined or locked up. (Indeed, perhaps these aren't even "misdemeanors" or "infractions", although most of the time legal agreements have clearly been broken.)

Along the continuum of wrongdoing, two things influence a bloodthirsty emotional reaction: personal impact, which is to say, how much an individual is personally affected by it, and severity or depravity of the crime. The former is more of a selfish thing, perhaps, insofar as we tend to care less about vandalism when it is not our very own property or part of a public space we care about. The latter is more universal or normative insofar as we can be riled up by hearing about child molesters, serial killers, or any perpetrator who inspires serious revulsion in us in spite of our own lack of personal investment in the matter.

[1] The Genealogy of Morals, more specifically the online edition here, because I'm lazy. Second essay, §6.
[2] "Misdemeanor" may not be the appropriate legal term here. "Infraction" or "regulatory offence" might be better. I should also add that whether another person is directly harmed or not can be argued in each of the following examples, but hopefully you can put that aside or mentally substitute your preferred examples as necessary.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

That Initial Impulse

A common focus among my posts on this blog is that of the need for a ground (or substrate), broadly construed, upon which other concepts or items may be "built". Indeed, the name of this blog itself indicates as much; part of its meaning comes from a statement of Wittgenstein's in On Certainty: "Doubt rests upon that which is beyond doubt."

In epistemology, we want a fundamental, solid basis for knowledge: the indubitable, or the undoubtable. Analogously, in metaphysics, we have the need for something that sit in the spot of "prime mover": an uncaused cause (causa sui), the First Cause, God. In ethics, we need to know what can possibly justify objective moral imperatives when every value judgment is, apparently, subjective. (To refer to this notion of a "first thing" in general, I will use the general term "ultimate ground".)

In a digression, I note that these problems are not what typically occupy philosophers as professionals. I don't mean that the whole of each field in philosophy drives only toward finding an ultimate ground. Rather, while a philosopher's personal sense of ultimate grounds or justifications may be upset when she first begins studying skepticism and/or thinking critically about her own experience, usually this problem is eventually settled or ignored in favor of "higher level" concerns later on. There may be good reason for that: once you cover the basics, is there a lot else to say? And there is certainly no shortage of richer philosophical veins to mine elsewhere, once you accept something as given, like, "We do have knowledge of some sort, even if it is not and cannot be 'perfect'", or "Ethical systems can be evaluated in some kind of objective way", etc. Yes, maybe the skeptics are right that nothing meets their impeccably high standards, but that doesn't suddenly render thought, learning, and acting useless.

My main point--which may end up taking less time to say than the above digression--is that there is an analogous apparent absence within our psyches with respect to personal agency. At least, within my psyche: perhaps the rest of you are different. Anyhow, when I introspect, I notice a distinction between mental activity that feels constitutive of me as an individual person, and that which seems more incidental (or "accidental", if you like). For example, the thoughts I hold now, the ones inspiring these very words, fit the former category. The sensations from external (and some internal) stimuli that I experience at every moment fit the latter category, e.g., my experience of a glowing screen upon which words appear.

Now, the thing that strikes me as highly peculiar is the palpable lack of an ultimate ground in all of this. For incidental experiences, that makes sense: most or all of them originate from outside of me, so I can safely presume that any such ground lies "out there" as well. But when it comes to constitutive (we might also say integral) mental activity, I have a very strong sense of personal agency and thus responsibility; that is to say, I subjectively feel like "I" am the origin of such things. When I make a decision, any kind of conscious decision, I feel like I am a mini prime mover (c.f. Chisholm on free will and unmoved movers). But, in fact, under scrutiny, I can find no ultimate ground within me for decision nor motivation. Even though I feel in control of myself, even though I feel that I am the "first" in a chain of causality or what-have-you, closer inspection reveals no such basis within me.

And that strikes me as unusual.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Hunting Contradictions

In the context of time (temporality), change may be characterized by a fact or state of affairs holding at some time t which does not hold at some other time t'. That is to say, at t=0, proposition P is true; but at t+1, P is not true. From this, we may say time "allows" a contradiction (P&~P) to exist by spreading it out: the conflicting natures of P and ~P may coexist as long as they are "side by side" and not in the "same place", temporally.

With the above scare-quotes, I meant to emphasize the use of spatial metaphor in characterizing time; and this leads directly to the other pathway toward contradiction. A proposition and its contrary may exist simultaneously if they are separated from one another spatially; and this is such a natural part of existence that we hardly ever think of it. Expressed more intuitively, this simply means that things are different, when you look around yourself. The universe is not 100% homogeneous. Expressed a bit more formally, we say that (P&~P) can obtain at one and the same time t, if P and ~P occur respectively in different spatial regions.

In short, I am saying that contradictions are apparently possible when they are separated by space or time; that is, when they do not share identical space-time coordinates.

A counter question, however, is whether these are really "contradictions" if specified precisely enough. Suppose one says, "The space-time point (x,y,z,t) is [tense-lessly] filled (by some entity)".* If one pose against it the statement, "The space-time point (x,y,z,t) is empty", there is nowhere left "to go" in order to escape contradiction. To allow contradictions, according to my foregoing claims, one proposition must vary in time or space from another; but since we have exactly specified identical space-time coordinates, the contradiction is impossible. (This follows, at least in spirit, Quine's comments on temporal logic.)

* I seem to recall that some philosopher or other popularized the use of several tense-less terms and syntaxes, but I have no idea who it was or what the details of it are, now. I would be much obliged if anyone could point me in the right direction.

So, in response to the above question, I actually must agree: if we prevent them from "colliding", contradictions aren't really contradictions after all. This is trivially true, and hardly new information, but I like to think I have presented a slightly different framework for thinking about the matter.

A more interesting question might be, "Does this apply to all propositions?" I think the answer must be an assured "No", because not all propositions have to do with space-time per se, and thus this avenue of approach is not available. For example, "1=1" seems to be a general claim, without reference to any particulars, and it is hard to see how we could situate such a claim in the above schemes.

I think we can fairly safely conclude that a "robust" or fully specified contradiction is impossible, simply by definition; but we may be led to wonder whether there aren't other "channels" beyond the four of space-time which one might slide along to allow apparent contradictions. It strikes me that, should we ever somehow encounter a "real life contradiction" or paradox (whatever that would be like), we could, and likely would, posit a new channel of metaphorical space in which the contradictory elements could be separated. (We may speak of these as "dimensions", but I am cautious of using that word thanks to its abuse by overly enthusiastic New Age sorts and science fiction writers.)