motto lotto

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

from America to America


To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States,
        Resist much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth, ever
        afterward resumes its liberty.


All you are doing and saying is to America dangled mirages,
you have not learn'd of Nature--of the politics of Nature you
        have not learned the great amplitude, recti-
        tude, impartiality,
You have not seen that only such as they are for these States,
And that what is less than they must sooner or later lift off
        from these States.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Monday, April 28, 2008

what is enlightenment?

Hidden beneath a lot of the junk I write is a question.

What is enlightenment? How do we characterize it and hope to achieve it, help others to achieve it?

And no, it’s not Christ, plenty have claimed Christ and led horrendous lives. (don’t mistake this argument for an argument against real Christianity, maybe they’re not claiming the real Christ, who wants to delve into that confusion?)

And no, it’s not humanism, many have died in the name of progress. (don’t mistake this argument for an argument against real humanism, maybe they’re not following the true path, who wants to delve into that confusion?)

Better than focusing on the Platonic form of a thing is to focus on the numerous contradictory forms of that thing which actually exist. That’s the koan to consume.

However, I must say many of those delving into the confusion, seeking the real paths make up a laundry list of humanitarians. So depth of thought/life demonstrates its value?

I'm a humanist mostly because I don't know what use it might be to reject that term, could I cease then to be a human? Some see Christianity in equally broad terms. The older traditions have already used man to give their memes variety of treatment. We can only see our system as potentially more 'bug free' as it shows itself as a broader, more ancient, more variedly and thoroughly tested system.

Where the older traditions show their genuine value, we embrace that value.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

a Nietzschean pluralism

Being philosophically minded. -- We usually endeavour to acquire a single deportment of feeling, a single attitude of mind towards all the events and situations of life - that above all is what is called being philosophically minded. But for the enrichment of knowledge it may be of more value not to reduce oneself to uniformity in this way, but to listen instead to the gentle voice of each of life's different situations; these will suggest the attitude of mind appropriate to them. Through thus ceasing to treat oneself as a single rigid and unchanging individuum one takes an intelligent interest in the life and being of many others. (HAH, I, 618)

the correct answer

For those who don't watch SouthPark (I can't blame you but this is classic). I met a theology professor at Oxford who loved the full episode on Mormonism All About Mormons.

Friday, April 25, 2008

programmers and philosphers

Do all programmers eventually become philosophers?

I came across that post recently. I think a knack for systems leads people in many directions. Interesting to read another programmer's perspective.

Monday, April 21, 2008

the mathematical universe

For those still interested in proving the existence of external reality, a programmer recently pointed me to this paper on the mathematical universe hypothesis (MUH). The programmer's very strong (unnecessarily harsh I think) recommendation...
Note that the MUH is not a theory or a position. It is the only formally definable option. Every other option is meaningless gibberish. Therefore, it is FACT.

And by no coincidence, I arrived at this exact conclusion (if a bit fuzzier then) almost a decade ago. My current thinking is much more sophisticated.

I can bootstrap myself starting from solipsism, I make no distinction between models and what they represent, and no distinction between models that all fit the same theory.
It gets to where physical reality is defined as whatever minimal theor(ies) will logically explain your subjective experience.

This lets you almost immediately step out from solipsisim by concluding that physical reality is independent from your will. And it resolves paradoxes left, right, front and center.

Like why the universe responds to a mathematical description: because it's made of mathematics. Or why the external reality responds to your will to command it into existence: you never command it!

It also realigns physical reality with major theorems in mathematics. Like the one that says you can't even in theory pick between two dual representations. Or the one where any infinitely expressible language can't be resolved by any finite axiomatic system.

It drives a stake right through the heart of filthy (neo-)Platonism. And it affirms the connection between physics, the study of one reality, and mathematics, the study of all realities.
From Max Tegmark's essay--
The idea that our universe is in some sense mathematical goes back at least to the Pythagoreans, and has been extensively discussed in the literature. Galileo Galilei stated that the Universe is a grand book written in the language of mathematics, and Wigner reflected on the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences”. In this essay, I will push this idea to its extreme and argue that our universe is mathematics in a well-defined sense.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

why bother changing the way we live?

For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do. Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking — passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists — that helped get us into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to believe that the same sort of thinking could now get us out of it.
You begin to see that growing even a little of your own food is, as Wendell Berry pointed out 30 years ago, one of those solutions that, instead of begetting a new set of problems — the way “solutions” like ethanol or nuclear power inevitably do — actually beget other solutions, and not only of the kind that save carbon. Still more valuable are the habits of mind that growing a little of your own food can yield. You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself — that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support. If the experts are right, if both oil and time are running out, these are skills and habits of mind we’re all very soon going to need. We may also need the food. Could gardens provide it? Well, during World War II, victory gardens supplied as much as 40 percent of the produce Americans ate.
From this short article by Michael Pollan.

Friday, April 18, 2008

random priest takes on fox news

I know Jeremiah Wright. I don't think you do. I don't think Bill O'Reilly does. I know him. He is a good man. He is a loyal American and he is a prophetic teacher of the gospel. And I'm not going to allow people to call him a racist, anti-American or a bigot.
Also a good reminder to remember Martin Luther King, Jr correctly. Beyond Vietnam (pdf).

Some Consequences of Four Incapacities

I read C.S. Peirce's "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities" sometime when I was first studying epistemology as an undergrad. I remember thinking, finally, someone I can actually get on board with. What was most telling was that as I moved forward in time the people I was reading became more and more agreeable. I came across it again today, thought it was worth another read. Some of my favorite quotes...
Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.
Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premisses which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibers may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.
Compare that with Montaigne...
Variety of treatment is as good as consistency. Better in fact: it means being more copious and more useful.
Some agreement over variety of treatment, less over consistency and the nature of man.
Thus my language is the sum total of myself; for the man is the thought.

It is hard for man to understand this, because he persists in identifying himself with his will, his power over the animal organism, with brute force. Now the organism is only an instrument of thought. But the identity of a man consists in the consistency of what he does and thinks, and consistency is the intellectual character of a thing; that is, is its expressing something.

A poke from Emerson's Self Reliance...
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
Peirce finishes off with reiterating the need for the community of philosophers and the extent to which reality depends upon agreement.
Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community.

The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation.
While I can agree that to an extent reality depends upon agreement I disagree strongly with his last statement and would say instead: The individual man's uniqueness, that which sets him apart from his fellows, is his primary addition. To fail to explore that uniqueness is nihilism.

Monday, April 7, 2008

the pressing concerns

Charlie starts to identify the contemporary situation in his comment on that last post --
I've been encountering in several places recently reflections on current affairs that make me think the human situation now is truly radically different -- politically, technologically, ecologically, and epistemically (and with all that, probably morally too). It seems to me that somebody should be thinking through these changes and trying to counsel people in handling them in their lives, since clearly evolution cannot keep pace with these changes: we're monkeys playing with the internet and cruise missiles. I don't care what these latter-day counselors are called ("Philosophers"?), but I think there is a crying need for someone to get to work!
We're the sorts of animals that have these crazy concerns we need to deal with. We're pushing forward so fast we can't keep up with ourselves. We're in a "radically different" environment which is why what is required could be called a new ecological awareness.

The questions becomes,
what are the core concerns of our time?

Certainly we need to survey ordinary ecology, atmospheric science, the food situation, the oil situation. Boston pointed me to the costs and lack of benefits associated with bottled water the other day. That's enlightening.

The political situation is insane, I heard James Yee speak for a Hinckley Institute of Politics forum Thursday before last. I also heard Col. Morris Davis speak last friday at an event put on by the law school. I read the news related to these gitmo related catastrophes every day but it impacts you differently when you hear it from the people who were there. Charlie keeps up with Thomas Barnett's blog. I like Glenn Greenwald, among many others. I also peruse National Review (when I can bring myself to do it) and read George Will, I think it's important to also get an outside voice (even when it's stupid or evil, if a large number of people believe it, it's worth listening to for that reason alone). I rely on an investigative reporter friend for my local politics (he hates George Will, something about checking some of his sources). I often get depressed with politics and just shut it all off.

The internet is a subculture of its own and I'm just barely getting some grasp on what that means. I work with people all over the country as well as in Canada and Singapore. If I have an area of expertise, I guess this would be it. I've been working with the Internet since 1995. (I started with a 80386 with a 1200 baud modem and Kermit at home. "trumpet winsock" and then the Windows for Workgroups 3.11 tcp/ip stack at work. I was also maintaining a mail server running DEC Ultrix. For those of you who care.)

Charlie noted recently where we're at with artificial intelligence.

I say all that to peruse what immediately comes to mind. I think this situation is what led me to previously ask these two questions.

To those five or six people who read this blog --my very very limited audience-- what else is there to add here, to give this more meat, what am I missing?

Update: Charlie's engaging this topic at Huenemanniac.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

street intelligence


toward a new ecological awareness

At some point a certain sort of presence and attitude, knowledge of the relationship between plants and animals (we are also animals) to one another and their environment, was necessary to exist and be successful in the world. We need to adopt a similar sort of awareness within our contemporary context. That's not to say we need to live how we once lived but that we need to become aware again of what's going on around us with the old sentiment of necessity and urgency.

Perhaps what Thoreau was looking for when he decided to go into the woods was a method towards gaining this new ability through experiencing the more ancient one.

When I walked out of the theater after watching Into the Wild, I overheard a number of people saying "what a waste of a life". They may be masking quality of life with quantity of life. Chris McCandless died young but not before learning to live at least once. His life serves as a warning, he wasn't adequately prepared. More importantly though, his life and his responses can show us things about ourselves and our societies that need to be reformed. We all take risks every day. The waste is when we lose our lives in car accidents and early heart attacks -- deaths that are merely a product of the ordinary overindulgences. He chose a different form of expression, the wisdom of youth.

Many find neither the wisdom of youth nor the wisdom of age.


on the uses and abuses of the word "philosopher"

The contemporary usage of the word "philosopher" has pulled it into disrepute.

On the one side we have philosophy as a profession which is really only practiced in universities so implies the forms of scholar, teacher and perhaps schoolmaster. The analytic tradition especially focuses on clarity (which usually also implies complexity) of thought. Philosophy as a discipline may or may not be making progress but it is as valuable a profession as any other. Some of these philosophers focus on contemporary translations, elucidating complex thought and bringing past thoughts to bear on the present. Others are focused on the limitations of language and science. Philosophers like Will Durant attempt to survey the sciences and bring the most important results to the attention of the public in as clear a form as possible. In the best cases, the philosopher-scholar gives us a full serving of intellectual honesty and the associated honesty to oneself -- this is no small task.

On the other side we have everyday people who, when confronted with the phrase "I'm a philosopher" express bafflement or worse, conjure an image of a high brow sedentary lifestyle. The main thing to note here is not what people see in the term but what they don't see. Namely, the life form of the sage. No one goes to the "philosopher" for wisdom.

Why is this the case?

I doubt Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi could be considered good philosophers in the narrow academic sense. They were still the ones best willing and able to do what was necessary for their time.

At first I considered resuscitation of the term but how could that make me a better person? It's like Sarah says, "people go back to other people for advice when the advice works."

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Michel de Montaigne (the other Frechman)

[C] Yet there is not one single school of philosophy which is not forced to allow its Sage (if he wishes to live) to accept a great many things which he cannot understand, perceive or give his assent to. Say he boards a ship. He carries out his design, not knowing whether it will serve his purpose; he assumes the vessel to be seaworthy, the pilot to be experienced and the weather to be favorable. Such attendant details are, of course, merely probable: he is obliged to let himself be guided by appearances, unless they are expressly contradicted. He has a body. He has a soul. He feels the impulsions of his senses and the promptings of his spirit. He cannot find within himself any sign specifically suggesting that it be appropriate for him to make an act of judgment: he realizes he must not bind his consent to anything, since something false may have every appearance of particular truth. Despite all this, he never fails to do his duty in his life, fully and fittingly.

How many disciplines are there which actually confess to be based on conjecture rather than on knowledge, and which, being unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, merely follow what seems likely? Pyrrhonians say that truth and falsehood exist: within us we have the means of looking for them, but not of making any lasting judgment: we have no touchstone.

We would be better off if we dropped our enquiries and let ourselves be moulded by the natural order of the world. A soul safe from prejudice has made a wondrous advance towards peace of mind. People who judge their judges and keep accounts of what they do fail to show due submissiveness. Among people who are amenable to the legitimate teachings of religion and politics, there are more simple and uninquisitive minds than minds which keep a schoolmasterly eye on causes human and divine.

[A] No system discovered by Man has greater usefulness nor a greater appearance of truth [than Pyrrhonism] which shows us man naked, empty, aware of his natural weaknesses, fit to accept outside help from on high: Man, stripped of all human learning and so all the more able to lodge the divine within him, annihilating his intellect to make room for faith;
[A] And so two out of the three generic schools of Philosophy make an express profession of doubt and ignorance; it is easy to discover that most who belonged to the third school, the Dogmatists, put on an assured face merely because it looks better. They did not really think they had established any certainties , but wanted to show us how far they had advanced in their hunt for Truth, [C] 'quam docti fingunt, magis quam norunt' [which the learned feign rather than know]. When Timaeus had to reveal to Socrates what he knew about the Gods, the world and mankind, he determined to speak of such things as one man to another: it would be enough if the reasons he gave had as much probablility as anyone else's, since precise reasons were neither in his grasp nor in the grasp of any mortal man.
I will unravel things as best I may. What I shall say is neither fixed nor certain: I am no Pythian Apollo; I am a little man seeking the probable through conjecture.
[A] Aristotle is the Prince of the Dogmatists; and yet it is from him we learn that greater knowledge leads to further doubt. You can often find him hiding behind a deliberate obscurity, so deep and impenetrable that you cannot make out what he meant. In practice it is Pyrrhonism cloaked in affirmation.
[C] Just listen to this assertion of Cicero ... Those who want to know what my personal opinions are on each of these subjects are more inquisitive than they ought to be. Up to now it has been a principle of philosophy to argue against anything but to decide nothing. This principle was established by Socrates; Arcesilus repeated it; Carneades strengthened it further. I am one of those who hold that there is, in all truths, an admixture of falsehood so like Truth that there is no way of deciding or determining anything whatever with complete certainty.
[B] Not only Aristotle but most philosophers aim at being hard to understand; why? -- if not to emphasize the vanity of their subject-matter and to give our minds something to do! Philosophy is a hollow bone with no flesh on it: are they providing us with a place to feed in, where we can chew on it?
Plato seems to me to have quite knowingly chosen to treat philosophy in the form of dialogues: he was better able to expound the diversity and variety of his concepts by putting them appropriately into the mouths of diverse speakers. Variety of treatment is as good as consistency. Better in fact: it means being more copious and more useful.
When philosophers find fault with each other, their widest field of action lies in the internal contradictions which entangle them all - either deliberately (so as to show the vacillations of the human mind over any subject whatever) or else quite unintentionally because all matters are shifting and elusive.
[A] We ought not to find it strange that people who despair of the kill should not renounce the pleasure of the hunt: study is, in itself, a delightful occupation, so delightful that, among the forbidden pleasures which need to be held on a tight reign, the Stoics include pleasure arising from exercising the mind. [C] They find intemperance in knowing too much.
[A] One of the Ancients was reproved for not judging philosophy to be of much account yet continuing to profess it; 'that is what being a philosopher means,' he replied.
Michel de Montaigne "An Apology for Raymond Sebond"
[ISBN 0-14-044493-9 p. 73-80]

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Socrates' Mask

"Socrates rears his ugly head"
The figure of Socrates is ambiguous, troubling, and strangely disconcerting. The first surprise in store for us is his physical ugliness, which is well attested by the testimony of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. "It is significant," wrote Nietzsche, "that Socrates was the first great Hellene to be ugly. Everything in him is exaggerated, buffo, a caricature." Nietzsche goes on to evoke his "crab-like eyes, puffed-up lips, and hanging belly," and he takes pleasure in telling the story of how the physiognomist Zopyrus once told Socrates he was a monster, keeping hidden within himself the worst vices and appetites. Socrates, says Nietzsche, simply replied: "How well you know me!" If Socrates really did resemble a Silenus, as he is depicted in Plato's Symposium, such suspicions were quite understandable. In popular imagination, Sileni and satyrs were hybrid demons, half-animal, half-men, who made up the escort of Dionysos. These impudent, ribald buffoons also constituted the chorus of satyr-plays, a literary genre of which Euripides' Cyclops is one of the few remaining examples.

The Silini were purely natural beings. They stood for the negation of culture and civilization, for grotesque buffoonery, and for the license of the instincts.

To use Kierkegaard's expression, Socrates was a cobold. To be sure, Plato gives us to understand that Socrates' resemblance to Silenus was only an appearance, beneath which something else was hidden. Alcibiades, in his famous speech in praise of Socrates at the end of the Symposium, compares Socrates to the little statues of Sileni that could be found in sculptors' shops, which concealed little figurines of the gods inside themselves. Similarly, Socrates' exterior appearance -- ugly, buffoon-like, impudent, almost monstrous -- was only a mask and a facade.

Here we are led to another paradox: Socrates was not only ugly, but a dissimulator as well. Nietzsche writes: "Everything in him is concealed, ulterior, subterranean." Socrates masks himself, and at the same time is used as a mask by others.

Socrates masks himself: here we encounter that famous Socratic irony, the meaning of which we shall have to clarify later on. Socrates pretends to be ignorant and impudent. "He spends his whole life," says Alcibiades, "playing the part of a simpleton and a child." "The nouns and verbs which form the outer envelope of his words are like the hide of an impudent satyr." His ignorant appearance and amorous attentions "are what he has wrapped around himself, like a carved Silenus."

Socrates pulled off his enterprise of dissimulation so well that he succeeded in definitively masking himself from history. He wrote nothing, engaging only in dialogue. All the testimonies we possess about him hide him from us more than they reveal him, precisely because Socrates has always been used as a mask by those who have spoken about him.
Pierre Hadot's "Philosophy as a Way of Life" p. 148