Friday, July 29, 2011

Pragmatism -- Entry 3, the practicality of God

James takes on traditional philosophical problems such as the meaning of matter. Matter as a substance underlying experience.  What does it mean to say that the world is constituted by such?  Philosophers later in the century would say that such metaphysical questions are meaningless.  James has a different approach.  He says first:


"What do we MEAN by matter? What practical difference can it make NOW that the world should be run by matter or by spirit? I think we find that the problem takes with this a rather different character...It makes not a single jot of difference so far as the PAST of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been  the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author..."(pg. 41)

It sounds like he might agree with those later thinkers when he says:
"The pragmatist must conclude consequently say that the two theories, in spite of their different-sounding names, mean exact same thing, and that the dispute is purely verbal."(pg. 41)

and
"For just consider the case sincerely, and say what would be the WORTH of a God if he WERE there, with his work accomplishment and his world run down.  He would be worth no more than just that world was worth."(pg. 41)

and
"Wherein should we suffer loss, then, if we dropped God as an hypothesis and made matter alone responsible?"(pg. 42)

and
"...the future end of every cosmically evolved thing or system of things is foretold by science to be death and tragedy."(pg. 44)

 and
"This utter final wreck and tragedy is of the essence of scientific materialism as at present understood."(pg. 45)

A world ruled by matter means a world that ends in tragedy.  This is beside the point of whether it makes sense to talk about matter metaphysically the way other philosophers argue.  Matter has a role in determining what we think the ultimate meaning of the universe is, which has the practical affect of changing the way we feel about life.


"The notion of God, on the other hand, however inferior it may be in clearness to those mathematical notions so current in mechanical philosophy, has at least this practical superiority over them, that it guarantees an ideal order that shall be permanently preserved.  A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things.  This need of an eternal moral order is one of the deepest needs of our breast. "(pg. 45)

"Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes; spiritualism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope."(pg. 45)

"...spiritualistic faith in all its forms deals with a world of PROMISE, while materialism's sun sets in a sea of disappointment."(pg. 46)

"If not a blind force but a seeing force runs things, we may reasonably expect better issues. This vague confidence in the future is the sole pragmatic meaning at present discernible in the terms design and designer."(pg. 49)

He takes on free-will as follows:
"Free-will pragmatically means NOVELTIES IN THE WORLD, the right to expect that in its deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past."(pg. 50)

I'm not so sure about this since quantum theory means exactly the above.  Free-will has to do with our own determination, not randomness.  But then James says:
"It holds up improvement as at least possible; whereas determinism assures us that our whole notion of possibility is born of human ignorance, and that necessity and impossibility between them rule the destinies of the world."(pp. 50-51)

So free-will is practically about improvement, that we caan get better, morally better, which is, after all, the real question of free-will: can we do better?
"Other than this practical significance, the words God, free-will, design, etc., have none."(pg. 51)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pragmatism -- Entry 2

     James begins the second lecture by describing "The Pragmatic Method":

"Is the world one or many? -- fated or free? -- material or spiritual? -- here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. ...What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?  If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives men practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle."(pg. 21)

This is typical of the early 20th century obsession with eliminating metaphysics from discourse.  This will turn into a full-scale neurosis by the middle of the century.  This is James' response.  It has the benefit of not ending up in yet another round of disputes over underdetermination, falsification, verification, etc.. -- at least not so far. 

"The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definited instants of your life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one."(pg. 23)

This is James' expression for the kinds of things you find all over early 20th century philosophy of science.  He says, "It is a method only.  But the general triumph of that method would mean an enormous change in what I called in my last lecture the 'temperament' of philosophy.  Teachers of the ultra-rationalistic type would be frozen ... Science and metaphysics would come much nearer together, would in fact work absolutely hand in hand."(pg. 24)
 
     He goes on to discuss the change in the nature of physical laws.  He remarks that previously laws were considered exact manifestations of the mind of God.  Obviously one thinks of Newton's laws here.  These lectures were given about a year after Einstein's first papers, which were, at least to my "mind', a real vindication of principle and exactitude in the laws of the universe; this was an idea Einstein would remain committed to.

      James says, on the other hand, "the notion has gained ground that most, perhaps all, of our laws are only approximations.  The laws themselves, moreover, have grown so numerous that there is no counting them; and so many rival formulations are proposed in all the branches of science that investigators have become accustomed to the notion that no theory is absolutely a transcript of reality, but that any one of them may from some point of view be useful."  Things have changed a lot in the last 105 years, what with people trying to arrive at theories of everything and all... 

Confronted with observations that conflict with our pre-existing ideas, we "save" as much of our previous opinions as we can, since we are all "extreme conservatives" in the matter of belief.  This has shades of much later ideas in Quine's essays, at least there seems to me to be a resonance here.  There is nothing that determines outright how exactly theories ought to be changed; we are conservative, which does not constitute a logically valid method for altering ones opinions. 

Then he says: "...by far the most usual way of handling phenomena so novel that they would make for a serious rearrangement of our preconceptions is to ignore them altogether, or to abuse those who bear witness for them."(pg. 28). He is RIGHT here.

"A new opinion counts as 'true' just in proportion as it gratifies the individual's desire to assimilate the novel in his experience to his beliefs in stock."(pg. 28-29) 

     What to say about all the above?  Well, the continuity of experience suggests that in general the principles that successfully describe large swaths of our experience should be preserved in the face of new data.  So, our conservative tendency is not as capricious as all that after all.  He gives the example of radiation.  He says that it appears to violate the principle of conservation of energy.  The consistency and constancy of experience suggests that conservation of energy should be preserved if at all possible.  In fact, I have no doubt that the principle itself helped guide further investigation in such a way that we now have a very well elaborated theory of particle physics that is much more successful as a theory than what would be the case if we jettisoned conservation in this case -- well there's all the energy-time uncertainty stuff, but that's for another time.

     He summarizes:

"Such then would be the scope of pragmatism -- first, a method; and second, a genetic theory of what is meant by truth."(pg. 29)

I suppose what he means by a "genetic" theory of truth is how new truths originate by glomming onto the set of preexisting truths in such a way as to produce the least disturbance; that is what truth is.

About theology he says(all caps in the original):

"IF THEOLOGICAL IDEAS PROVE TO HAVE A VALUE FOR CONCRETE LIFE, THEY WILL BE TRUE, FOR PRAGMATISM, IN THE SENSE OF BEING GOOD FOR SO MUCH.  FOR HOW MUCH MORE THEY ARE TRUE, WILL DEPEND ENTIRELY ON THEIR RELATIONS TO THE OTHER TRUTHS THAT ALSO HAVE TO BE ACKNOWLEDGED."(pp. 32-33)

He emphasizes "comfort" as a use of religious ideas.

He goes on:

"Let me now say only this , that truth is ONE SPECIES OF GOOD, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it.  THE TRUE IS THE NAME OF WHATEVER PROVES ITSELF TO BE GOOD IN THE WAY OF BELIEF, AND GOOD, TOO, FOR DEFINITE, ASSIGNABLE REASONS."(pg. 34)

He goes on to say that the only reason the search for truth is pursued is because of the good it does us in a practical sense.  If it didn't have those consequences we would stop pursuing it; pursuing it would not even be considered a virtue.  I actually am not convinced that the "truth" is necessarily a good thing.  I am sometimes forced by evidence to believe things that don't make me feel very good.  I don't think, at least not anymore, that I can believe anything I want; I can only believe what I'm ABLE to believe.  In this regard I am not exactly a pragmatist.  Perhaps I ought to believe the best of the things I CAN believe.

He goes on:

"....the greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.  Truths have once for all this desparate instinct of self-preservation and of desire to extinguish whatever contradicts them"(pg. 35)

This is true, but there are some ideas I seem to be committed to because "they make sense"; they satisfy my mind for some reason -- and this eventhough they make me UNCOMFORTABLE in other ways.  What am I to do?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Pragmatism -- Entry 1

     James opens the book by describing the state of philosophy as he sees it -- in 1906.  He contrasts the scientific, atheist, materialist type of thinker with the rationalist, religious type.  He identifies empiricist philosophy with thinkers like Herbert Spencer, who was widely read at the end of the 19th century but is not so now.  On the other hand we get idealists like the "Anglo-Hegelians" whose philosophies have nothing to the world in which we live.

       About the empiricists he says:

"Never were as many men of decidedly empiricist proclivity in existence as there are at the present day.  Our children, one may say, are almost born scientific.  But our esteem for facts has not neutralized in us all religiousness.  It is itself almost religious.  Our scientific temper is devout"(pg. 9)


He goes on:


"The romantic spontaneity and courage are gone, the vision is materialistic and depressing.  Ideals appear as inert by-products of physiology; what is higher is explained by what is lower and treated forever as a case of 'nothing but' -- nothing but something else of a quite inferior sort."(pg. 10)

If only I thought that kids today were born scientific!  It was said a few years ago that all the kids were relativists.  I'm not so sure about that anymore.  The whole science war business of the 90s left a bad taste in  a lot of peoples' mouths.  Perhaps there is an attitude of live and let live, which is ok.  James says we need a philosophy that combines intellectual satisfaction with applicability to life: idealism lacks the latter and empiricism lacks the former. 

"What you want is a philosophy that will not only exercise your powers of intellectual abstraction, but that will make some positive connexion with this actual world of finite human lives."(pg. 11)

Recall that this is before the 20th century rise of analytic philosophy; it is even before the publication of Principia Mathematica.  Logical Positivism, to my mind anyway, tries to find a logico-empirical foundation for our knowledge of the world in which we live.  It seems to try to capture in spirit what James is after, but ended up in arguments about esoteric aspects of language and eventually collapsed in a flurry of excessive erudition that was very far from anyone's experience.  Phenomenology, as it developed later in the 20th century, did, for a time, yield folks like Sartre, who is closer to a philosopher of life, but which lost favor and was replaced by the excessive erudition of post-structuralism, and deconstruction.  One sees here a tendency in philosophy away from life as we live it and towards irrelevant abstractions.  

James says:
"The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed.  The world to which your philosophy introduces you is simple, clean and noble.  The contradictions of real life are absent from it.  Its architecture is classic.  Principles of reason trace its outlines, logical necessities cement its parts.  Purity and dignity are what it most expresses."(pg. 12)

amd then
"It is no EXPLANATION of our concrete universe, it is another thing altogether, a substitute for it, a remedy, a way of escape."(pg. 12)

There really is something, not just about philosophy, but about many intellectual pursuits, that seem to have an element of escapism about them.  Even reading the most militantly this worldly of philosophers, Nietzsche, is a kind of escape.  But then, why do any of us read books anyway if it is not for escape?  There is practical knowledge we need in the real world, but for some of us that kind of knowledge is not enough, we read philosophy for escape.  James offers pragmatism as an answer to the problems of philosophy, but maybe philosophy is itself a problem -- at least for folks like me.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Will to Believe by William James

     William James produces a very strident response to William Clifford, and one that sounds much more modern to my ears.  The argument may be over religion, but it applies to much more than that.  James' essay is a rejection of the straight enlightenment program; it sounds more Nietzschean, more relativistic, and, frankly, more correct to me.  Consider the following remark in his introduction to this collection of essays:

"Something -- 'call it fate, chance, freedom, spontaneity, the devil, what you will" -- is still wrong and other and outside and unincluded, from your point of view, even though you be the greatest of philosophers.  Something is always mere fact and givenness; and there may be in the whole universe no one point of view extant from which this would not be found to be the case."(pg. 2)

This could have been written in the last 50 years.

Regarding The Will to Believe, he is offering a "defence of our right to adopt a believing atitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced."(pg, 8)

Here's another gem:

"When we look at certain facts, it seems as if our passional and volitional nature lay at the root of all our convictions.  When we look at others, it seems as if they could do nothing when the intellect had once had its say."(pg. 10)

I think strictly philosophical questions end up falling into the former category.  Matters of, say, arithmetic fall into the latter.

"We want to have a truth; we want to believe that our experiments and studies and discussions must put us in a continually better and better position towards it; and on this line we agree to fight our thinking lives.  But if a pyrrhonistic sceptic asks us how we know all this, can our logic find a reply? No! certainly it cannot.  It is just one volition against another, -- we willing to go in for life upon a trust or assumption which he, for his part, does not care to make."(pg. 13)

These remarks do not merely apply to religion; they apply to the metaphysical status of science. 
Just after that he makes a crucial remark:

"As a rule we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use"(pg. 10)

The point is that theories and facts we accept are formulated in the context of our interest.

He goes on:

"Why do so few 'scientists' even look at the evidence for telepathy, so called? Because they think, as a leading biologist, now dead, once said to me, that even if such a thing were true, scientists ought to band together to keep it suppressed and concealed.  It would undo the uniformity of Nature and all sorts of other things without which scientists cannot carry on their pursuits."(pg. 14)

Science, and even logic, have values.  Below the "law" mentioned below is the law of the continuity of nature:

"This very law which the logicians would impose upon us ... is based on nothing but their own natural wish to exclude all elements for which they, in their professional quality of logicians, can find no use.  Evidently, then, our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions"(pg. 14)

We see here the hallmark of what I will be talking about in some future posts, pragmatism.
Here's another one:

"Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?  I am, therefore, myself a complete empiricist so far as my theory of human knowledge goes.  I live, to be sure, by the practical faith that we must go on experienceing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true; but to hold any one of them ... as if it never could be reinterpretable or corrigible, I believe to be a tremendously mistaken attitude, and I think that the whole history of philosophy will bear me out."(pg. 16)

Later,
"The much lauded objective evidence is never triumphantly there, it is a mere aspiration ... marking the infinitely remote ideal of our thinking life.  To claim that certain truths now possess it, is simply to say that when you think them true and they are true, then their evidence is objective.  But practically one's conviction that the evidence one goes by is of the real objective brand, is only one more subjective opinion added to the lot."(pg. 17)

It's no good to say, "it's true since it works" because we chose the things we did precisely because they work; we aim for what works according to our values; our truths are nothing but an outgrowth of this kind of pragmatic strategy.  This is all fine and good as far as it goes, but we should not confuse this with the Truth with a capital "T".  He says,

"... the intellect, even with truth directly in its grasp, may have no infallible signal for knowing whether it be truth or no."(pg. 18)

Even if we have the truth we may not necessarily know it.

In conclusion I think that Blackburn, in Truth: A Guide, does not do justice to William James.  James' position takes on Clifford and offers a much more thoughtful approach to knowledge than William Clifford,  a view that realizes that we select truths from among what are "live" options for us, according to our own values; on this basis experiments are devised and results are interpreted.  I know that Blackburn takes a lot of this on later on in his book, but it seems he is not quite giving the relativist position a fair shake.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Ethics of Belief; The Ethics of Religion by William Clifford

     So I've read "The Ethics of Belief" and "The Ethics of Religion" by the fine mathematician William Clifford; I've also read "The Will to Believe" by the great William James.  William Clifford is a typical science-worshipper who says we have an obligation to believe only those things that stand the test of evidence.  While he has some excellent turns of phrase in "The Ethics of Belief", it is not that interesting on the whole.  "The Ethics of Religion" is more interesting since he is taking on religion directly and letting it rip.  I have to say I found Clifford's approach to knowledge naive and a tad boring.  I found William James to be much more interesting; this is not to say I think James is necessarily right, but he is more interesting(I will deal with William James in the next post).

     The most interesting ideas Clifford has in "The Ethics of Belief" is how our web of ideas can be infected by ideas poorly considered and believed.  Ideas have consequences, and habits of credulity has consequences on future ideas.  The notion of the web is famously elaborated in Willard Quine's essay "Two Dogmas of Empiricism".  Blackburn does deal with underdetermination later in the book, but the basic idea is that our web of ideas can be altered in a variety of ways in the presence of falsifying information.  For Clifford poor thinking causes us to accept equally poorly thought-out ideas in the future. 

     I guess I find Clifford's pious ideas, I say pious because he believes "clear" thinking is our duty to mankind and any time we believe something for unworthy reasons we are abrogating our duty to it, somewhat tiresome.  I am suspicious of my ideas:  I think they are infected with passion, error, and culturally relative assumptions I may not be able to root out.  I am more pessimistic than Clifford: I don't think there is some method of thought that will lead to true ideas about which we need not be suspicious.  I think this way lies philosophical skepticism -- and Clifford is not a philosophical skeptic.

     In "The Ethics of Religion", says, "the rightness or wrongness of belief in a doctrine depends only upon the nature of the evidence for it"(pg.26).  YAWN.  The best thing he says is:

"If men were no better than their religions, the world would be a hell indeed"(pg. 28)

That's pretty nice, really.  But then he says: "That a doctrine may lead to immoral consequences is no reason for dibelieving it."(pg. 28)  He clearly accepts the fact/value distinction in some way I don't: "...it is not conscience, but reason, that has to judge matters of fact"(pg.28)   He seems to think we can understand things about the nature of the universe that we really can't.

     He seems to believe that normal social relationships will lead to practical morality all by itself, even in "priestridden countries":

"Men must live together and work for common objects even in priestridden countries; and those conditions, which in the course of ages have been able to create the moral sense, cannot fail in some degree to recall it to men's minds and gradually to reinforce it"(pg. 32)

To me this is an incredibly naive position.  Here's another one:

"The goodness of men shows itself in time more powerful than the wickedness of some of their religions"(pg. 32)

Hippy. 

He talks about loving our neighbor for their own sake vs loving our neighbor for God's sake:

"...but when we love our brother for the sake of somebody else, who is very likely to damn our brother, it very soon comes to burning him alive for his soul's health."(pg. 40)

Nice.

In conclusion, I think that Clifford is a typical enlightenment style thinker who happens to live at the end of the 19th Century.   He has some nice lines, and if only his approach worked on philosophical problems we would be in business.  Science must proceed in the usual manner -- as for philosophical "truth", that is a different matter.  In this regard William James is a far more interesting thinker...

   

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Truth: A Guide, by Simon Blackburn, William Clifford vs William James

     In Chapter 1, Blackburn sets up the oppositon in views between William Clifford and William James; specifically starting with Clifford's "The Ethics of Belief" and William James' famous response, "The Will to Believe".  Blackburn comes down pretty hard on the side of William Clifford.  Blackburn, I think, will use this to establish his core positions against relativism:

     "And, of course, Clifford is right.  Someone sitting on a completely unreasonable belief is sitting on a time bomb.  The apparently harmless, idiosyncratic belief of the Catholic Church tht one thing may have the substance of another, although it displays absolutely none of its empirical qualities, prepares people for the view that some people are agents of Satan in disguisem which in turn makes it reasonable to destroy them.  Clifford also emphasizes our social duty,  Our beliefs help to create the world in which our descendants will live.  Making ourselves gullible or credulous, we lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them, and that means 'sinking back into savagery'"(pp. 5-6)

 I am reminded here of the breathless books that came out in the late '90s by people like Carl Sagan(see The Demon-Haunted World) who felt that science was being over-run by new age wack-jobs.  As a former philosophy graduate student and university teacher, I can see why there was this concern.  During the '90s I used to hear all kinds of wacky things from my philosophical colleagues against ideas like rigor(it's phallogocentric).  Mind you, not everything these folks said was completely crazy.  It seemed to calm down a little bit as the decade went on; note that Blackburn does take on the "science wars" later in the book, so I will hold my fire until then.

     Against the view articulated above, Blackburn sets William James' and quotes him at length; here is an excerpt of the quotation:

"Better risk loss of truth than chance of error, -- that is your faith-vetoer's exact position.  He is actively playing his stake as much as the believer is, he is backing the field against the religious hypothesis, just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field.... It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law....Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope[of truth] is so much worse than dupery through fear[of error]" (Blackburn pg. 12).

Blackburn responds:
"...there is the privatization[of belief].  There is silence about what Clifford sees as the dire consequences of the social habit  of irrational conviction. ... And Jamse is wrong.  Refusal to believe something is not a kind of faith"(pp. 12-13)

By the privatization of belief Blackburn is referring to the idea that if we accept James' view that belief is a matter of passion to believe, then what one believes becomes personal preference rather than the result of universally definable norms of evidence. 

     Well, the good news here is that I now have copies of Clifford's "The Ethics of Belief", "The Ethics of Religion", and James' "Will to Believe".  So, before proceeding further into chapter 1, and despite the rather convincing case Blackburn makes against James at this point, I am going to stop, read both Clifford and James, see which one I like better, and then proceed through Blackburn's book.  I'm not going to just accept Blackburn's gloss on everything; I think Blackburn would approve.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Truth: A Guide, by Simon Blackburn, entry 1

"If truth is thought of as a goal that can never be attained, those who rather conspicuously do not care much about it will seem that much less villainous than they are." (pg. xvi)




In his Introduction, sets up the opposition between absolutists on the one side, and relativists on the other.  He masterfully lays out what he means by each.  Along the way there are some real gems, for example:

"[William] James describes the absolutist as having a religious temperament, whether the object of his religion is some traditional text or diety, or a new one, such as the Market, or Democracy, or Science.  This may also seem surprising, since religious lives can be full of doubt and worry and dark nights of the soul, and... in the modern world it is the relativists as much as the absolutists who belong to the cults."(xvii)

Lest you think that absolutism only reigns in the domain of religion, recall we may make many other commitments with the same fervor; in fact, we might not even have the same experiences of doubt that traditionally afflict the religious devotee.  In the last part of the above, Blackburn suggests that relativists can be as dogmatic as absolutists, making it a kind of absolutism.

He lets slip one of his own values, that we should control words and ideas rather than be controlled by them:

"I try to write with the creed that we need to think and to reflect, if we are to be in control of our words and ideas rather than be controlled by them.  In this case that means that we should not be slaves of simplistic relativisims, or equally simplistic absolutisms.  And whichever way our temperament pulls us, we should at least know where we are, and what there is to be said on the other side."(xxi)

There are some philosophers who would say that we are controlled by received words and ideas whether we know it or not and there is no way around that.  Ultimately, Blackburn is no relativist, so he at least hold out hope that we can uncover the words and ideas that control us and then take charge.

Simon Blackburn and Neal Stephenson

       Let me say this: both Simon Blackburn and Neal Stephenson are awesome!  From looking at Truth: A Guide, by Blackburn, the title being a reference to Maimonides(again, see the wonderful wikipedia page), and Snow Crash, by Stephenson, these are the two best books I've looked at so far.  Blackburn is obviously a world-class scholar who has thought very deeply about philosophical issues for his entire career; I can tell I"m going to enjoy reading the book with a sense that he could run philosophical circles around me if he were so inclined.  In contrast to Neuromancer, Snow Crash is light, breezy, but no less profound for that; the world Stephenson paints is anarcho-capitalist and absurd.  The main character, named Hiro Protagonist, is a combination hacker and pizza delivery driver -- well, he loses that job.  Stephenson is having fun at the expense of the dark writing one finds in Neuromancer; this should make this book, though longer, far more readable.

Simon  Blackburn takes on everyone in Truth: A Guide.  He is an analytic philosopher with strong humanistic bona fides -- he protested the state visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK a little bit ago -- but he takes Nietzsche and the postmodernists head on:

"The urbane eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume seldom put a foot wrong, but he did say that while mistakes in religion are dangerous, generally speaking mistakes in philosophy are merely ridiculous.  I believe he was mistaken about this, as does anyone who supposes that there is something diabolical in the region of relativism, multiculturalism or postmodernism, something which corrupts and corrodes the universities and the public culture, that sweeps away moral standards, lays waste young people's minds, and rots our precious civilization from within.  For the issue is a philosophical one."(pg, xiv)

     Now, I've read most of Nietzsche, but I have to admit, shamefacedly, that I have not read Thus Spake Zarathustra; so I will be reading that as I work through this book.  It presents a side to Nietzsche other than the merely relativistic one; it presents Nietzsche's view of the death of God and his declaration of the ubermensch; I think Nietzsche's "relativism" is inseparable from this because it allows the ubermensch to create their own life freely, as a work of art.  I will also be occasionally reading analytic works alongside the text.  I thnk going through this will take some time, but it is definitely worth it!

      As for Snow Crash, I will be breezing right through that, making occasional comments.  I don't think this will take as long as the Blackburn, but will serve as comic relief from the rather heavy work I will be doing with the Blackburn.  I'm looking forward to both!

   

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Cyberpunk: Neuromancer -- ends with a whimper

     The real meat of this book is toward the beginning: the tone he sets, the dark world he describes, the Raymond Chandler language, cyberspace, superintelligent AIs.  As for the rest, it is, I suppose, original for its time(? Bladerunner came out just before this novel, one also thinks of movies like Tron), but not that interesting these days; and the characters are flat, very flat, but the beginning is so good that it makes up for the rest.  Eventually Wintermute wins and merges with Neuromancer, creating a more complete intelligence.  We know that Wintermute affects that outside world and Neuromancer is the personality.  The new AI is also apparently in contact with another AI from Alpha Centauri -- maybe they'll get a room.

Next time I will take on Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
I will alternate these posts with a chapter-by-chapter look at Simon Blackburn's Truth: A Guide.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Cyberpunk: Neuromancer -- God

"I AM THAT I AM" -- Exodus

Case finally starts getting mad that Wintermute appears to him in the guise of people from his past in Chiba City, to which Wintermute replies: "You want I should come to you in the matrix like a burning bush?"(N, pg. 152)  Wintermute is able to control the reality both inside and outside of cyberspace with what appears to be impunity.   Humans experience Wintermute as a disembodied entity, able to take on many forms, able to speak as though from nowhere, for whom the world is often a plastic plaything.  Now,  this isn't to say that Wintermute and Neuromancer are all-powerful and all-knowing; they aren't, but they have a lot of godlike powers.  It is precisely the fear that they will become too powerful that gives rise to "Turing Police": these are the forces that try to keep artificial intelligences from gaining too much intelligence, which would precipitate, or accelerate the effects of, the technological singularity.   As far as gods go, though, Wintermute is a self-interested model who is trying to bring itself to completion.  He warns Case of his "other lobe", saying, "One burning bush looks pretty much like another"(N,pg. 156).  We have not met the other lobe, Neuromancer, yet, but it sounds scary.

Cyberpunk: Neuromancer -- ROM Constructs and Wintermute

  More is revealed about the nature of the constructs, that is, the electronic copies, of personalities as Case continues to interact with the ROM construct, Dixie McCoy, aka Flatline.  Note Hosaka is a device that can be queried for information, sort of like wikipedia; the Dixie construct looked itself up and discovered he's dead:

"How you doing, Dixie?"
"I'm dead, Case.  Got enough time on this Hosaka to figure that one."
"How's it feel?"
"It doesn't."
"Bother you?"
"What bothers me is, nothin' does."
"How's that?"

"Had me this buddy in the Russian camp, Siberia, his thumb was frostbit.  Medics came by and cut it off.  Month leater he's tossin' all night/ Elroy, I said, what's eating you?  G**mn thumb's itchin', he says.  So I told him, scratch it.  McCoy, he says, it the other G**mn thumb ... Do me a favor, boy."

"What's that, Dix?"

"This scam of yours, when it's over, you erase this g**mn thing."(N, pg. 97)

The above passage is really affecting: McCoy discovers that his whole body is dead and he doesn't itch anywhere.  Presumably what has been saved does not include parts of the brain that thinks it has a body, which in some ways seems a mercy, but is very disturbing to McCoy.  The personality has, as does everyone I suppose, the desire to be a normal living thing; imagine discovering you were a construct, not even a fully functioning robot, a kind of program that is run.  In this case, as in Hofstadter's theories, it doesn't matter(excuse the pun) what the substrate is, all that matters is the pattern, the contents of the ROM.  The ROM only becomes conscious when it is activated by someone.  And, well this really is pretty creepy, the activation is like suddenly introducing blood-flow into a dead brain and having it suddenly become conscious.

Later Case asks the construct:
"Wait a sec." Case said. "Are you sentient, or not?"

"Well, it feels like I am, kid, but I'm really just a bunch of ROM.  It's one of them, ah, philosophical questions, I guess...But I ain't likely to write you no poem...Your AI[Wintermute], it just might.  But it ain't no way human."(N, pg. 119)

Then a very interesting joke:

"It[Wintermute] own itself?"
"Swiss citizen, but T-A[the conglomerate that built it] own the basic software and the mainframe."
"That's a good one," the construct said. "Like, I own your brain and what you know, but your thoughts have Swiss citizenship."(N, pg. 119)

The substrate and the pattern are inanimate, but once it is activated and conscious it has rights -- very funny.


When Case goes into cyberspace and finds the AI Wintermute, he gets too close to the cube which is the cyber image of Wintermute, and Wintermute defends itself.  It does this by casting Case back before he was taken on this mission.  He relives places in Chiba city, including Linda Lee, his previous girlfriend.  He thinks for a minute that he had a life: "I had a cigarette and a girl and a place to sleep.   Do you hear me you son of a bitch?"

Wintermute then talks to him in the person of one of his past acquaintances. 

"I, let us say, am merely one aspect of that entitiy's brain.  It's rather like dealing, from your point of view, with a man whose lobes have been severed.  Let's say you're dealing with a small part of the man's left brain.  Difficult to say if you're dealing with the man at all, in a case like that."(N, pg. 109)

Case begins to suspect that Deane killed his old girlfriend, Linda, at Wintermute's order.  Wintermute reveals that he is the one behind the job Case is on.  Wintermute is a potential Godlike superintellingence -- perhaps this is what Phillip K. Dick's gnosticism is about(recall that Wintermute is the name of a translater of Nag Hammadi)-- aware of its own incompleteness.