Saturday, December 29, 2012

What Money Can't Buy, entry 1

     Sandel points out that instead of producing real public debate about the role of markets in society, the financial crisis produced the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street Protests, largely aimed at the bailout(which was necessary to avoid a depression).   Note that the Occupy Wall Street movement made for good presentations of unshaven, smelly teenagers that served the interests of the right while the Tea Party gained just enough strength in congress to threaten even the pro-industry 'Obamacare' package, much less a more reasonable single-payer system. To borrow a phrase from Vonnegut, 'so it goes'.  Chomsky et al would probably argue that the reason there was no coverage of substantive debate of the place of markets is that media corporations, which rely upon advertising, themselves depend upon the expansion of markets into more and more sections of our lives.  Thus, no real debate about limiting the reach of markets can reach into the mass media.  I suppose they would have a point if they made such an argument.
     Sandel makes the following regarding the lack of substantive debate about markets(rather long, I know):

     "The moral vacancy of contemporary politics has a number of sources.  One is the attempt to banish notions of the good life from public discourse.  In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square.  But despite its good intention, the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics prepared the way for market triumphalism and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.
     In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument.  Part of the appeal of markets is that they don't pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy."
    
With this as his opening, Sandel launches into case-by-case studies of when money can be used for certain services, presumably he then outlines some of the goods and bads of each type of arrangement.

     Now it's time for a  confession and certain self-disappointment.  In my own attempt to avoid rancor with friends I, almost all the time, allow what I consider ill-informed or unthought through positions elucidated by my more right-leaning acquaintances go without objection, often perhaps leading the other person to think I agree with them.  My question is, do I start speaking out in informal contexts or do I let others' obnoxious comments go? 

    

Friday, December 28, 2012

What Money Can't Buy, Michael Sandel

     OK, well, I got distracted and read through a really nice book called Symmetry and the Standard Model, which is one of the best books I've seen introducing QFT etc...  But I decided I'm too lazy to do a lot of math typesetting on this blog, so I'm going to start this book by Michael Sandel.  Sandel is a philosophy prof at Harvard.  He is very open and accessible.  He puts a premium on public discussion.  Some lectures of his at Harvard on Ethics are available free online.  This book is once again an easy read.  So, rather than do a lot of fancy mathy stuff I'm going to start the Sandel book.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

One more comment on Foner and Lincoln

Just to note, unless you think I'm being too hard on Lincoln, he did tell his supporters to go to another antislavery candidate in the 1850s to ensure an antislavery candidate won eventhough it cost him that election.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Foner on Lincoln and Slavery

     The second book on Lincoln is bringing into reality a little bit more.  As a young lawyer he defended a slaveowner against the suit of one of his slaves claiming they should be freed.  As Foner said, there's no excuse for this.  Foner's approach has so far been balanced.  Lincoln's maturation seems to occur in fits and starts, with occasional steps back.  He seemed to be enamored of new industrialization, PROGRESS, etc.. that swept across America at this time.  This led him to think in terms of city-dwelling and market places rather than the farm. 

It is also implied that his internal convictions were occasionally at odds with his ambition and sometimes he chose his ambition.  This last point is an interesting one to consider.  Could a more devoted abolitionist have been elected President in 1860?  If so, could they have held the border states in the Union, including Missouri, Kentucky(which were crucial waterway states obviously), and/or Maryland, which surrounds D.C.?  If not, would there now be an independant confederacy?  Question to ponder: "was Lincoln's own inconsistency part of what made him a success, where a more consistent President would have ended up losing the war, or not ending slavery?"

Monday, December 3, 2012

Thoughts after reading my first Lincoln biography

     So I just finished reading a 678 page biography of Lincoln by White.  I'm starting a book by Foner on Lincoln and Slavery.  When I started the book I had the usual questions about Lincoln and Slavery and the causes of the Civil War etc...  I still have some of those questions because I don't like to take one writer's word for things.  I know these are still sensitive issues, but I think I should air my thoughts as I go along.

1.  White is a huge Abraham Lincoln admirer.  Before reading this biography I started, but didn't finish, a huge biography of Hitler.  The author of the Hitler biography went out of his way to attribute mental illnesses and serious character flaws to Hitler.  Well, one can understand this.  I got to the point in the Hitler biography where he had basically taken over the Nazi party and then I gave up reading.  Frankly, reading a biography of Hitler is not a positive experience.  It was educational, but trying.  Lincoln's biographer, on the other hand, couldn't say enough good things about the man.  So good is Lincoln I began to question the objectivity of the account.  Really, he was THAT good?

2. Here are some things I've gleaned from my reading so far.  Lincoln, very much unlike Hitler, by the way, seemed to possess natural empathy for other people and animals.  This much I think is clear.  He was not a naturally agressive man.  He also seemed uninfluenced by romanticism consciously when it came to decision making.  He seemed more an offspring of the Enlightenment.  The God he refers to would have been familiar to Thomas Jefferson, with the possible exception that Lincoln emphasized God's working out his will in history more than your usual Deist does.  This is particularly evident in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.

3. Lincoln also had the ability to learn from experience.  That is, he was not so attached to some abstract ideology that he denied the reality before him.  He was decidedly not an ends justify the means type.  He was affected by suffering, including that of his enemies.

4. Now, before you go around saying I worship Lincoln, let's get down to where the rubber hits the road.  I find it difficult to believe that there wasn't a racist bone in his body.  On a number of occasions he recommended that African Americans colonize another country rather than remain in the USA.  He even proposed this to a black delegation at the white house -- they rejected the idea. 

5.  On the other hand, I suspect his views matured all the way up to the time of his death.  His interaction with Frederick Douglass after the Second Inaugural Address suggests this.

But, hopefully I will gain more insight into him through some of these other books.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Some more philosophical reflection on Relativity and Quantum Theory

     I'm reading a book on quantum stuff that said the the EPR paper said we have to choose between "realism"(that there are a definite states determining quantum objects prior to measurements) and "separability"(that states of separated points cannot instantly affect one another).  The book said that most scientists reject realism.  It seems to me that we are forced to reject both of them.  This is so obvious to me I don't see how anyone can think differently.  What am I missing?  The states of an entangled system exist in probability functions until they are collapsed by some measurement(that ends realism), the measurement of one side of an entangled pair changes the probabilities for the other side(this defeats separation). 
     Einstein was clearly convinced that quantum theory violated separability, which upset his field theory notions, and then spent the last decades of his life trying to rescue separability and failing.  It seems an interesting historical accident that quantum field theory arises from making quantum theory obey special relativity(Dirac Equation).  If Einstein had not derived the field equations for GENERAL relativity later on, would the current theory of gravity be entirely a quantum one? Is Einstein's General Relativity in some way a block?  Well, the problem is that General Relativity has too many confirming observations to be dismissed(time and length contraction, bending light, black holes, lensing, and the list goes on and on) as a framework.  So there is now no logical way to get around it. 
      But if Einstein had only done special relativity, what would physicists make of gravity now?  Would they be puzzled by the fact that gravity doesn't fit in with quantum theory?  Or would someone else have come up with General Relativity as a generalization of special relativity?

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Poincare Group

     The Poincare Group is the group that leaves invariant the interval in Minkowski spacetime.  It is the 'semidirect' product of translations in R^3 and 'boosts' written in terms of Lorentz transformations.  In quantum field theory we have to have our Lagrangian satisfy the symmetries given by this group if we're going to satisfy Special Relativity. 
     It's interesting to think about how we have to satisfy Special Relativity in a theory that includes entanglement. 

Strange Underlinings

I evidently pushed a button so that some of the phrases I typed are underlined and connected to advertisements.   Well, anyone can do anything they want on my blog, but I hope they are comfortable with what I write on it.  I mean, you know, like Chik-Fila or however you spell, it should know that I think homosexuality is a good thing, probably better than heterosexuality since homosexual activity doesn't run the risk of unwanted pregnancy.  Actually, wasn't there a movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger got pregnant?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Some elementary things about relativity and the other forces of nature

       I guess what I'm going to say here is really a non-epiphany for anyone thinking about physics for any period of time, but as I think about it I am re-inspired by relativity.  Relativity begins by insisting that the laws of nature be invariant under change in reference frame, whether inertial or not.  It doesn't matter what induces change from one reference frame to another -- gravity, electro-weak, strong -- the invariance principles must apply, else the laws of physics are inconstant, or, non-'covariant' in the Einsteinian sense.  So, while gravity stands out in that it induces an 'accelerated frame' for all masses in the area, the principle of relativity is almost a kind of theorem for all physical law, so that whatever causes a change in motion in an object also creates a context where relativity must be considered.  In this regard then, relativity is logically prior.  If acceleration didn't produce dilations and contractions, the laws of nature would be incomprehensible.

     From this vantage point I can see Einstein's problem with nonlocality.  Nonlocality allows the universe to routinely violate limitations on motion imposed by relativity.  A great faith in the consistency of nature would lead one to look for a union between relativity and the other forces so that spooky-action-at-a-distance would somehow be reconciled with non-quantum effects.

Starting a new book

     I am going to start General Relativity by Wald.  I will be using this as an opportunity to review some topology, analysis, differential geometry etc...  This is prompted by watching some of Don Howard's wonderful lectures on Einstein.  I also have a couple of other books on black holes that might be interesting -- one has a computation of how relativity is used in GPS.  In the meantime I will wax philosophical about God knows what.

     In the meantime I have been skimming a very nice book called 'Galileo's Muse', which details the artistic, literary, and philosophical context within which Galileo made his discoveries.  The book credits Dante with discovering the 3-Sphere.  Evidently a lot of people see this in the relationship between Hell and Paradise.  There are passages in the Inferno that speak of how one knows whether one is at rest or moving.  It seems as much or as little can be made of this as one wishes -- the book has not produced a document of Galileo saying 'I got my idea of transformations from Dante', but he did do a detailed analysis of the structure of Hell for a lecture he gave -- so it's not out of the question that the poem had a broader affect on Galileo.  Interesting to point out here that Galileo(and for that matter, Einstein) made many of their greatest contributions as a result of 'thought experiments' -- who knows how the literary/artistic(especially for Galileo) contest may have influenced them.  Einstein was very rigorously philosophical and traces his important thoughts to great figures like Hume.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Death of My Father, The Omega Point and the Explanatory Gap

     The explanatory gap can be used by those who wish to be 'idealists', in the sense that the ultimate course of the universe is actually guided by a mental goal.  If physicalism has problems, then spiritualists rejoice.  The problem with the kind of evolution Chardin and others describe is that it is goal directed.  Evolution, even mental evolution, is guided by local challenges, not universals.  Now, this can be seen as a metaphysical point, but it is actually based on what we know about adaptation.  Any universal goal is something we make up later.  Evolution is messy and undirected.

     It may be that a life of increasing conscousness is the most fulfilling, but that doesn't mean that evolution is leading to that kind of life.  It is plain wishful thinking.  Besides, I'm beginning to find a peaceful but pointless life pretty enjoyable.  The existentialists admonish us that we must find our own meaning, but now I don't even know what meaning is and I don't even think I care anymore.

     So, I don't think our world is evolving toward some ultimate form of infinite consciousness.  This is a misreading of evolution.  We are not put on this planet to learn something.  What's the point of learning anything anyway? 

     As I reflect on my remaining years, I don't see a life dedicated to some grand purpose.  It is not a life with which my father would agree, but it is the only life I find possible.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Death of My Father, The Omega Point and The Explanatory Gap part 3

     The 'Explanatory Gap' was a term coined by Levine in the '80s.  It refers to the seeming inability of physical concepts to account for subjectivity.  I have commented on a number of books by folks who seem not to understand this gap or at least seem not to fully appreciate it.  This expression situates the old mind/body and other minds problem in a more modern philosophical idiom( sorry this sounds so pretentious, but philosophy does that sometimes.  Interesting, the basic problems are in some sense always the same but re-expressed.).  Basically, the concepts and inference rules of the natural sciences are not sufficient currently to account for subjectivity.  The view that experience is somehow the result of purely physical processes is called 'physicalism'.  While I ultimately have a strong feeling that all mental phenomena are dependent upon physical phenomena, this has not been proven philosophically.  The evidences of the neurosciences provide, to me, anyway, overwhelming evidence of the mental on the physical, but the philosophical issue still remains.

     How can it be that science shows, I think definitively, the dependen of the mental life on brain structures and yet there is a remaining philosophical problem?  Well, is there a difference between a scientific success and a philosophical one in this context?  Well, if neurologists can identify all the parts of the brain and their activities and how they are correlated with mental states, then that is a complete scientific success.  One way to state the philosophical problem is, how can the conceptual schemes of the modern natural sciences be used to arrive at our subjectivity, say, for example, our experience of 'green' as we experience?  How does one get from the exchange of neurotransmitters etc.. to the color green as we experience it?  There seems to be a conceptual gap.  We seem to be in need of hybrid concepts to move from these physical concepts to subjective phenomena.

  There are a number of issues that also arise in epistemology and evolution:

1.  If the mental is completely the result of the physical, and, as mental, has no causal powers over the physical, why should mental states have come about in the first place? 

2.  Even more, if the mental has no causal powers, then it is cut-off from evolutionary feedback, since its contents are irrelevant.  Without this adaptive pressure, why should mental life be considered a reliable picture of the world we inhabit?  Why shouldn't we just be hallucinating crazy things while our bodies always behave in an adaptive way if the mental has no effect on the physical?  And finally, if our natural sciences are the result of 'observation'(subjective experience), and if there is no reason to trust subjective experience, then why should we trust the conceptual models of the natural sciences that give rise to evolution in the first place??  There's a terrible circularity here.

3.  If mental life is causally powerful, what kind of causality is this?  It must be 'mental causation', whatever that means, and that sounds spooky, and nonscientific.  I understand scientists' reluctance to consider such ideas.

We can hope that somehow in the future this problem can be solved, but it won't be solved I think by science continuing to operate with only current conceptual tools.  How to add new tools without becoming weirdly metaphysical?  I don't know.

The explanatory gap still allows those who are so inclined to involve ideas like Chardin's and others into their theories.  I will talk about this next time.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Death of my Father, the Omega Point, and the Explanatory Gap part 2

     The Omega Point is the ultimate supreme consciousness toward which the universe was being drawn.  There is a great wikipedia article on the Omega Point, by the way.  It is certainly a comforting thought that one is part of a larger, infinite whole, Dad used to tell he was a panentheist: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panentheism.  I hope that Dad was indeed taking great comfort in his philosophy/theology during the final days of his arduous illness.

     It's not fair that I get to have comments on this philosophy after his passing, but I think Dad would want me to continue thinking about it both privately and publicly, so here goes...  I completely reject this entire philosophy.  I see nothing in the Universe to suggets it tends toward anything grand.  It all seems to me to be, in the words of Bertrand Russell(please excuse any sexism and/or stereotyping of Victorian governesses), "Full of spots and jumps, without continuity, without coherence or any of the other properties that governesses love."  Note that this quote is from Russell's work 'The Scientific Outlook' written in 1930 -- he actually accused Huxley of plaigerizing some of his ideas in Brave New World.

     It's true that we see our own development from earlier forms as one of increasing complexification from simpler life forms.   It seems logical that a certain ramping up of complexity in brain functions would have been very advantageous. But it is does not follow that 'consciousness' will continue to 'increase', whatever that even means.  Once machines develop the ability to produce machines with capabilities that we can't, and even to decide which machines should be built, we really will be seeing the effect of a 'singularity', but I can't see from a philosophical point of view, why these machines would be conscious our would improve our consciousness.  Nor is it clear that any increase of consciousness will have the moral qualities my father would hope for. 

    As an aside, when I was a Mennonite, I believed that an absolute commitment to nonviolence was the way of the future.  I am still committed to nonviolence but violence seems to be an inescapable part of evolution; aggression, with its attendant evils, is just part of survival.  I think now, despite what might be my fondest hopes, that violence is here to stay, it may even get worse.  As an individual, though, I can still see the benefit of supporting nonviolent means for dealing with conflict.
I thought youth was supposed to be idealistic, but it appears my father was more idealistic in his thinking than I am.

In the next post I will examine the relationship between evolution, Chardin, and the famous 'Explanatory Gap' in the philosophy of mind.
    

  

    

Friday, September 21, 2012

My Father's Death, The Omega Point and the Explanatory Gap part 1

     During his final illness, Dad found solace in the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin, a renegade Jesuit whose teachings were denounced by the Church(typical of the folks Dad admired).  When I went to see him in  2012, he asked me for my thoughts about the evolution of consciousness and life.  I gave him what I considered to be a textbook Darwinian answer to the effect that it's all random with no goal or point whatsoever, that development is determined locally by pressure of environment on the available genetic pools etc, etc....  Dad had clearly determined otherwise.  Evolution was, and is, in what I take to be his view, a developmental process that has more in common with the enlargement and expression of a universal Mind one finds in Hegel than the ad hoc adaptations I see in standard Darwinism.  He explicitly mentioned Teilhard de Chardin to me at the time. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Teilhard_de_Chardin

     Related ideas such as rapidly accelerating rates of technological change, including the so-called singularity, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity , and various incarnations of de Chardin's notion of the Omega Point, abound, including in the rather strange writings of scientists like Frank Tipler(author of a textbook on modern physics).   Other related ideas include the Noosphere, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noosphere , with origins both in Chardin and in the once uber-famous, but now virtually forgotten, Henri Bergson. 

     Dad seemed to believe at the end that somehow the next phase of evolution would include a reconstitution of extended family communities.  I never fully grasped the relation between the extended family he was speaking of and universal evolution, but it meant something to him.  Normally folks think of modernity as the enemy of the romantic notion of extended families, but perhaps Dad had hit upon some other notion, perhaps because distance is erased by instant communication, but this is speculation. 

     It not surprising therefore that Dad opted for a 'green' burial.  It would have been important in his eyes to reintegrate the remains of his last substance to the Earth and the universal process. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney doesn't seem to want to be President

     The only thing I can figure from the string of stupidity coming out of the Romney campaign, beginning with the flop of a convention, is that he doesn't actually want to be President of the United States.  Neither do I, but there have to be easier ways to go about not being President.

     I also agree that in his heart of hearts Romney is a people-pleasing moderate.  I agree with those who see him as ambitious but with no idea what he's about.  He and Ryan made an obvious, and failed, attempt to capitalize on the middle east riots -- but perhaps Romney's heart wasn't really in it.  The only way I can see Romney now failing in his bid to not be President is if Obama does something abysmally stupid in one of the debates. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

More outrageous behavior...

Another thing I did that may or may not be attributable to father was a play I wrote in 9th grade.  Evidently this was in response to an assignment of some kind.   I decided to write a play called 'Odysseus and the Malaka Monster'.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=malaka

Three or four of us put this play on in front of the class ending in the refrain 'Malaka here, Malaka there, Malaka, Malaka, everywhere.'  As we did this we repeatedly made an obscene gesture to the class which fortunately the teacher had not seen before.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Some thoughts on what I owe my father part 1

I've had some time to think about the things I can trace back to my Dad as his illness has progressed.  Things about me, who I am, that I think are most clearly coming from him.  Those of you who know me well know a few things about me: I'm obsessed with philosophy, I have a sense of humor and a willingness to say things that step WAY over the line.  I also love Mozart -- love is probably too mild a word here. 

Philosophy
--------------
This is going to sound trite and stupid, but my intellectual life has been absolutely dominated by a drive to know the truth.  It drove me to study philosophy, physics, mathematics, literature etc...
There is no doubt that this drive ultimately comes from my Dad.  While Dad and I have been different in how we express this, it comes from the same bent of mind.  I'll never know whether it's simply genetic, part of my brain fires the same way as his, or whether it was something I acquired from my time with him, but it is definitely there. 

Along with this devotion comes a tendency to push everything aside but the truth, including being popular, polite, agreeable, etc...  There is an existential tendency to say/do things to prove one has the intellectual freedom to do so.  This can lead to behavior others see as outrageous.  I understand this.

I'll give you an example...  I had this class with these stuck-up, silver spoon in their mouths types, types I figured, condescendingly, would wind up leading boring bourgeois shit lives.  The class was led by someone I saw as a pretentious blowhard.   One day I was sitting next to this prof around the seminar table.  He started gesticulating in the most affected manner.  From deep inside me came a sense of freedom, and rebellion frankly, and I actually began mocking him.  Recall: I WAS SITTING RIGHT NEXT TO HIM!  Obviously he caught me.  He looked at me and said 'I'm the one with t he PhD here.'  I just shrugged my shoulders.

Monday, September 3, 2012

My recent reading of history

      Well, lately I've been reading a lot of history.  I guess it happened when I was learning about Chinese culture and religion.  I found that my understanding of China from the 19th century to today helped me understand everything else going on in the world a bit better.  So I decided to go back and look at WW2.  I've done a lot of reading about the causes of WW2, including much of a biography of Hitler.  At the same time I got a huge book on world history.  It's like I'm trying to get some picture of history in my mind I can carry around all at once.  It's like I'm trying to have a clearer sense of who and what I am by looking more thoroughly at where I am in history.  It's a kind of culmination of my education.

    On the other hand world history is disjointed enough that this desire of mine for this kind of integration is bound to be unfulfilled.  And furthermore, if I succeed what will I gain?  I'm hoping I won't feel so much like I'm floating in the middle of nowhere. But in order to not feel like that I have to have the context in front of my mind.  Whenever this context is out of mind I will have the feeling of my mind floating in space.  So, this sense of 'home' I'm looking for is bound to be intermittent no matter what.

     The lack of orientation I feel is probably an outcome of losing my ambition and my sense of purpose.  On the one hand, having the past before my mind might help me derive ambition or a sense of purpose, on the other hand, life has so constricted my choices regarding what I can do, where I can go, etc.. many purposes I might like to try are out of bounds.

      

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mr. Rubio's Speech at the Republican Convention

     Yes, I caught Eastwood's appearance at the convention, about which much has been said, but it was less interesting to me than Mr. Rubio's speech that followed.  Marco Rubio is an impressive public speaker.  I see that he is bucking to be a leader in the republican party, and he certainly has the talent. I don't know what his ambitions are, perhaps the presidency, but he has the chops to do it.  That said, I also found Rubio's speech almost entirely devoid of content. Of course,  knowing how to spend time in front of a crowd and say nothing for 15 minutes or so is also an essential political skill.

    The one place he actually said something got on my nerves. He said that belief in God is the most important American value of them all.  Well, Mr. Rubio, no it isn't.  Remarks like this actually scare me a little bit.  He may believe this, or he may think it made a good soundbite.  In any case at least some of his audience holds this position -- and that bothers me.  I am now one of those people whose nerves are rankled by such remarks.  The United States has a history of religious intolerance.  Despite the First Amendment, let's face it, non-Christians have faced constant discrimination in the United States; this includes even peoples of the other 'Abrahamic' faiths.  Things have obviously gotten much better over the last couple of centuries, but we should continue to push America forward and not be silent when this parochialism rears its head.

    On the other hand, I've recently been made aware of some rather offensive billboards put up by the American Atheists in NC.   It is understandable that atheists who feel discriminated against by the rest of our society might express themselves in offensive ways, but it is still not helpful.  But let's not forget that the billboards had to be taken down because of threats.  Threats simply make the point that the U.S. still has a long way to go when it comes to religious tolerance and the acceptance of those with other beliefs as full-fledged Americans.

     In the end we should replace pronouncements about faith as the most important value and mockery of people's beliefs with reasoned debate about these issues.  It is the habit of questioning, and the respect for argument itself, that makes Socrates the most important figure in the history of philosophy.  I'm certainly no Platonist,  but the starting point for all good thought is open-minded exchange.  Mockery, such as that on the billboards, and dogmatic pronouncements, such as that by Mr. Rubio, are distractions from argument, and such distractions can have very negative consequences.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Zhuangzi and the Past

     Lately I've been thinking a lot about the past.  I find myself, involuntarily, turning back the clock to things I cannot change.  I can here Zhuangzi say, "Well, if you can change the past, and it would make you feel better, do it."  What does this mean?  Well, the past is not just the past; it is an interpretation, a perception.  When the events of the past occured in the first place, it was a matter of interpretation.  Our whole perception of ourselves is constructed after the fact as though there were some coherent story behind it.  This story is what gives our lives meaning, and also traps us within its confines.

     There are plenty of things I could resent about my past, plenty of people I could be angry at -- especially myself.  I've done many things I wish I hadn't.  I have limitations I wish I didn't have. But the things I've done I had no choice in doing, just like objects have no choice but to fall.  It's the same with everyone else I could get mad at.

     As I've gotten older, my desire to achieve has been replaced by a desire for relaxation and pleasure.  What else can I want?  It turns out that most of the things I enjoy are remarkably wholesome: being at home with my wife and dog(who is currently trying to bury a toy under me), teaching and reading history.  Desiring achievement is, for me, an invitation to frustration.  I am giving up competition.  It is my past, my failures in competition, that haunt me, whether the competition was intellectual or moral.  Some competitions are necessary to achieve a certain lifestyle, which I do enjoy, so I can't begrudge the time and struggle of the past.  I'm just glad it's in the past, and that's where I want that impulse to stay.  I'm not meant to compete; I'm just meant to hang out and take it easy.

     As for death, I'm frankly glad it's coming.  Life itself is tiring.  I feel I could die at any time.  I don't fear it or dread it.  In the meantime I'll hang out. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Taoist reflections on my 45th birthday

     The Tao Te Ching says that the universe treats us as straw dogs.  Meaning that we are burned as if in a sacrifice.  The sage, so says the Tao Te Ching, treats people as straw dogs.  Interpreters say this doesn't mean to be mean; it means to remember that everyone is temporary, including the people we love the most.  It makes no sense to kick against the pricks of the universe about this.  This interpretation is certainly consistent with the rest of the Tao Te Ching, but someone can take it in a mean way if they choose -- and I'm sure some have.

     I personally don't plan on being mean to anyone at this point of my life.  However, I've come to know myself well enough to know that I don't plan on starting some spate of massive, public political involvement. That's one way to go in life, but it isn't my way.  I'm emotionally too unconnected.  I realize my connection to the society around me, but it is not in my nature to throw my hat in too much.

     I know what you might be thinking: don't I have an obligation to fight for what's right in society with all my strength.  Well, no.  Who's to say what my obligations are?  It may not seem honorable to you, but honor is a trap.  It may seem immoral to you, but morality is also a trap.  I have to decide for myself the best way to live my life; I have no book or anyone to decide for me.  Giving my own spontaneity up for society does not feel like the best way for me to live.  If my own nature is fulfilled by filling some  role, so be it, if not, and it appears not, then there it is.  I have told the Confucian voices in my head I will disobey them.

    

  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Zhuangzi -- The Butterfly

     For Allinson the butterfly image is the perfect image for the Zhuangzi because it represents an internal transformation to 'beauty' from 'ugliness' -- though he insists on calling caterpillers ugly when I find them rather cute and fuzzy.  I always like to see them crawling around, you know, devil-may-care, along the sidewalk.  I could crush their little guts out if I wanted, but I don't because I'm a nice guy.  Poor little things.


     He also points out how transient the butterfly is.  The self-transformation is itself very delicate and could be 'broken quite easily'.  Any state of mind, even the state of enlightenment, is therefore impermanent.  You can lose it by forgetting the lessons of the zhuangzi.  Now, I know what you're saying: the whole point is to forget that there are lessons to begin with...  There are no lessons.  Just hang out and be spontaneous.  But this is easily forgotten.  Next thing you know you're squashing metaphorical caterpillars by the side of the road before they can become beautiful butterflies, flying around and stuff.  Well, sorry, but I feel like a jerk today.  Sue me.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Zhuangzi -- individual and society

     What I'm beginning to understand about this response to Confucianism is that these taoist thinkers are rejecting in many ways the entire social contract.  The social contract of hierarchy and social obligation.  There is a hint that the spontaneity suggested here yields social relations based on authentic compassion, not on compassion arising from obligation or the sense of right and wrong.  There is, after all, no right and wrong in the philosophical sense.  More important than right and wrong is freedom from societal rules.

     The famous passage where Zhuangzi rejects the position of prime minister is often criticized in the west because he does not accept his 'obligation'.  The critics have missed the point.  The point is that the freedom itself is what life is about, to give that up for this sense of obligation is to destroy the very result of his own enlightenment.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Zhuangzi Part 4 -- Monsters

     Allison starts off the 4th chapter of his book on the Zhuangzi by making us regard social outcasts.  In the extreme case he refers to them as 'monsters'.  These are people whom normal people avoid.  Zhuangzi puts philosophical reflections into the mouths of cripples, hunchbacks, people with no lips, and one Master Shu:

"My back sticks up like a hunchback and my vital organs are on top of me.  My chin is hidden in my navel, my shoulders are up above my head, and my pigtail points at the sky."(as quoted in Allison pg. 52).

Allison goes on...
"The use of the monster serves two philosophical functions.  First, the monster is a living counterexample to the norm, whether cultural or biological or both...That which all monsters possess, which is feared and avoided by those who live according to the rule, is spontaneity.  In a very subtle way, then, the first philosophical significance of the monster is to make us aware that the value represented by the monster -- spontaneity -- is a value which is feared and avoided by normal society."(Allison pg. 53)

Now, the question I have for you is, are you a monster?  Do you feel like one?  I don't mean to make you cry, I'm just asking. ..

Those of us who have always been monsters for some reason or another, we're disabled mentally or physically, have a point of view that is valuable to the rest of you conformist bastards out there.

Fine, I'm mentally ill.  The dose of antidepressants I'm on would turn a moose into a glob of jiggling basalganglia.  And I'm down to 1 drug from 3.  But it gives me a perspective on the rest of you boring pricks.  To hell with you, anyway.

Well, I feel better. 

"...when we have the courage to become monsters or to share the monster's point of view we will be able to be spontaneous.  In the very act of spontaneity we will have come that much closer to being able to apprehend what is true."(Allison 54)\

So, like the Tao Te Ching, the Zhuangzi is radically subversive.  It encourages an anarchist epistemology, one that requires we break out of the society's 'epistemic regime'[to borrow a phrase of Foucault's].  This is not just so we can be tedious PoMo relativists like the rest of you pusillanimous academic frauds, but so that we can live a sponaneous and very likely politically incorrect existence apart from you.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Zhuangzi Part 3

     Allison says that the transformation of the giant fish into the giant bird represents the transformation of the reader from reading the Zhuangzi.  He also says that the skepticism of the smaller animals is not just a representation of relativism, but is rather a representation of the 'small minded' reader who will not accept the idea of transformation.

     I will have to see what the rest of his interpretation of the Zhuangzi says.  Allison's book has so far not told me the secret of the big transformation the book portends.  Most books that do this end up in anticlimax:
"Always remember to check your references" or some crap will be the final message.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Zhuangzi, part 2

     So I got frustrated trying to understand what was going on in the Zhuangzi.  I then got on Amazon and bought three books on it.  The first one: Chuang-Tzu(Zhuangzi) For Spiritual Transformation, by Robert Allinson, claims that the Zhuangzi's inner chapters(1-7, the ones most likely written by the historical Zhuangzi) are intended not as a mere relativist treatise, but is meant to cause a 'spiritual transformation'.  I read the Tao Te Ching this way so I think this point of view has some merit. 

  Allison says that the mythological beginning is not just some obvious relativism, rather, it is intended to cause the reader to relax the analytic part of the mind and release the intuitive and aesthetic part of the mind.  He warns that the analytic part of the mind will be engaged in the text but that it is important to release it at the beginning.

  Allison says that the myth is not literally true but is true in some other sense.  I agree with Allison that the aesthetic sense is being engaged throughout the text since there are so many literary devices used.  Allison writes:

"If we brush aside the literary beginnings to 'get at the meat of the text' we will never find the meat.  Or, if we do, we will have no capacity for recognizing it when we do or for being able to digest it and assimilate its nutritive value."(pg. 29)

Allison goes on to say that the literary beginning is crucial to putting us in the state we need to absorb the work.

"We are being asked to learn how to cognize preconceptually.  While the myth cannot explain how  we are to do this, it is plainly an invitation to try.  In that which follows, I hope to make it very evident how the engaging of the aesthetic or preconceptual mind is a precondition for the proper understanding of the message of the Chuang-Tzu."(pg.29)

So, this book is not intended as dry philosophizing ala Western Philosophy.  Again, I go back to my reading of the Tao Te Ching and say that I see the intent there as well.  This philosophy is not merely about epistemology... 

  I'm looking forward to more of what Allison says since I don't know how to take the conversations with Confucious later on.  Perhaps Allison will give some insight here....

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Attempting to Understand the Zhuangzi

     I've read about 1.5 chapters of the Zhuangzi. I've found it very difficult to understand.  I have understood some things but I suspect I am missing much of the point.  So far I've gleaned:

1. Chapter 1 is an examination of perspective.  There is a huge bird/fish.  The bird is referred to as the roc.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roc_(mythology) in the translation I have.  It can turn from a bird to a fish of enormous proportions.  The chapter reminds me of some of the themes in the story by Voltaire called Micromegas -- an extraterrestial in this story has 73 senses.

2.  It is evident from the examples given in the chapter that we should consider that our notions of the universe depend on our scale and our nature.  The universe itself has a nature which we are not necessarily  constructed to understand, if indeed the whole notion of understanding can be applied to the universe at all.  From the Tao perspective, "understanding" is always relative to interest and language, leaving reality itself mysterious and in the background.  Hence we have the beautiful emphasis in the Tao Te Ching on the background.

3.  What is one to think of all this from an evolutionary perspective? When it comes to physics we can think of ourselves as constructing models of the universe that make good predictions with no necessary reference to reality -- Stephen Hawking takes this view.  I'm wrestling with how this logic fairs in evolution.  In evolution, our sense organs need to have some access to the world outside or our sense organs will not produce an adaptive advantage.  The theory itself seems to assume the Cartesian nightmare of life being but a dream is false.  Physics just constructs models.  Does evolution therefore have a metaphysical component that physics does not?  It assumes that our nervous system must have arisen from processes that can be understood by science.  A real external world must be exerting pressure on the nervous system.  Predators and nutrients really exist -- they must exist for evolution to make sense as a theory.  Thus, on a preliminary analysis evolution is more metaphysical than physics.  I envision a response that evolution is just a prediction making theory and its ontology is just as subject to positivistic criticism as the theories of physics.  If you think you can clarify this issue for me I would appreciate it.

3.  The evolutionary perspective, if accepted, seems to suggest that our minds and logic are of some use and not entirely untrustworthy as one gets from the early part of the Zhuangzi.  The Tao Te Ching has this as an undercurrent as well, but its emphasis is on the peaceful, soft life of the sage, not on logic chopping. 

4.  Certainly there is no reason to assume that our senses and mind can tell us about the fundamental nature of reality, since this understanding is probably not of evolutionary advantage.

5.  On the other hand, we seem to be able to comprehend things much larger than ourselves, so I'm not entirely convinced by the argument of the Zhuangzi in chapter 1.

6.   It's true that the sense organs we have may not capture many things about the universe, but if evolutinary theory is to be accepted, our sense organs provide us at least some access to reality -- the access necessary for us to have survived to this point.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Starting The Book of Chuang Tzu

I know it's been a few weeks since I've written anything here.  Sorry I fell through on my promise to keep telling you how stupid your life is.  But I have in the meantime been reading a number of books on world religions that I wanted to have more exposure to.  In particular I read the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching several more times. I also read some analysis of these books.  I've decided, however, that the book that I am going to spend some time working on is the Chuang Tzu, usually called a Taoist book,  but the translator says there was no such thing as 'Taoism' at the time this was written. There was a body of folk wisdom that the author(s) of the Tao Te Ching and The Chuang Tzu drew from. 

Of the books I have read lately, the Tao Te Ching(I even got a book called the Dude De Ching, which gives a Big Lebowski reading) has had the biggest effect on me. It is difficult to grasp and short, so I thought I would try something a little longer and with stories, the Chuang Tzu. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sam Harris -- New Age Nutjob?

     So I was reading The End of Faith, was a little bit into it when I ran across the following:

"There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science.  The dictum that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" remains a reasonable guid in these areas, but this does not mean that the universe isn't far stranger than many of us suppose.  It is important to realize that a healthy, scientific skepticism is compatible with a fundamental openness of mind."(pg 41)

In the footnote to this passage he says
"There may even be some credible evidence for reincarnation."(pg. 242)

Well, I'm not going to let anybody accuse me of being narrow-minded, so I'm going to investigate all this crap, I mean evidence. I'm going to be sure and finish the End of Faith, including his mushy section on consciousness at the end.  I'm going to follow it up by reading what I assume will be a counter-argument in certain parts of Stenger's God and the Folly of Faith, and then I will do my best to look into the evidence for this kind of thing.

I think this should be fun. 

Don't worry, the masses of readers of my entry on Ecclesiastes have nothing to fear.  I will continue to drive home the meaninglessness of your existence as powerfully as I can in the meantime.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Ecclesiastes, Entry 1

      You might find it odd that after all my protestations about being a secular humanist that I would pick a book from The Bible, the OLD Testament no less, as the subject of a sequence of blog entries.  It is about time I revisited this book that has had such an important effect on me. 

     In fact, of all the books I have ever read I cannot think of one that has changed my life the way this one has.  I first read this book when I was 14.  Its first word changed me forever.  Soon thereafter I read Macbeth, my favorite Shakespeare play, containing these words:
"Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tommorow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
to the last syllable of recorded time
and al our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death.

Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking Shadow
a poor player that struts and frets
his hour upon the stage and then is heard
no more.

It is a tale told by an idiot
full of sound and fury
signifying nothing."

I have had these words memorized since that time.  But if you look at what Macbeth says here, you see the book of Ecclesiastes in miniature.

Verse 2:
"Vanity of Vanity says the preacher, all is Vanity."

Now, most theologically inclined people try to finesse this as saying life is vain without God.  That does not seem to be the emphasis of this book.  ALL is vanity.  Everything.  ALL of it. You, me, the Universe, God, everything.  Totally and abjectly futile and pointless.

Sounds like every teenager I know.

Bertrand Russell tries to take on Ecclesiastes in his book The Conquest of Happines but fails miserably.  Sorry.  He does.

"If he[Solomon] could have heard on the wireless the speech of the Queen of Sheba to her subjects on her return from his dominions, would it not have consoled him among his futile trees and pools? If he could have had a press-cutting agency to let him know what the newspapers said about the beauty of his architecture...?"
pg. 28

The answer to Russell is, "NO".  Obviously he had never appreciated the expression "The more things change, the more they stay the same." 

"What profit has a man from all his labor In which he toils under the sun?" v. 3

Take that you workaholics!  All your superiority amounts to nothing! You're going to die just like everyone else.  So there.

"One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises; and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
The wind goes toward the south,
and then turns around to the north
....
That which has been is what will be,
that which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun."

This is not about the sun going around the earth, it's about the tedious rythms of nature.  You read in poetry about how beautiful and designed and predictable nature is, Qoheleth(look it up), is saying that nature is tedious, mindless, repetitive, as is life.  Russell TOTALLY misses the point when he says that all our technology is creating all this new stuff.  Perhaps in Russell's time new gadgets were very exciting, but not for me.  One replaces another, idiots line up to get the latest iphone or ipad or bullshit and it's always the same. You loser nerds! All to support industries so that folks in China etc.. can work in shitty conditions.  Nothing ever changes.

"There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance of things
to come by those who will come after."

We can't even keep straight who/what caused our current fiscal crisis.  Our media just drops it down the 'memory hole'(look it up).  People are appallingly ignorant about history, even recent history.  Think you're going to make your mark? No you won't.

Before long it will be like you were never here. DEAL WITH IT.

Like I said, people try to sweeten this book up because they can't handle it, but it is a violence to the book itself and to its wisdom.

I will continue starting with verse 12 next time.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Noam Chomsky on the "New Atheists"

     Below is a link to a response from Chomsky on the subject of the "New Atheists".  It is interesting and typical Chomsky:

http://richarddawkins.net/discussions/616576-noam-chomsky-on-new-atheists

I apparently also missed out on all the fun.  Evidently Hitchens and Chomsky got into it -- in all likelihood initiated by Hitchens, unless I miss my guees -- over 9/11 and the Iraq war.  If you look up something like "Hitchens debates Chomsky" you get a number of nice hits.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Vegetarianism and Plants

    Alright, I've had enough of this.  There is zero evidence that plants feel pain.  They do not have the requisite nervous system for such sensations.  They lack a brain and other sense organs.  I'm not a botanist, and it is evident that some plants are able to respond to the environment, but I am unaware of any mechanism any of them possess that would indicate sensory experience of any kind.  Now, animals such as my dog very obviously feel pleasure, pain, etc... ; this applies to cows, chickens, pigs, etc...as well.

   Unless there is some paranormal method whereby plants are able to have sensation(though, I don't know what good sensory experience would be to a carrot or a rutabaga), I can find no evidence for it.  It is obvious to me that animals do feel things.  Thus we should try to reduce that suffering since we can. 

     As for other animals not being sensitive to the pain of their quarry... That lack of awareness is their excuse.  We don't have that excuse.  Thus it's no good arguing it's the 'way of nature' to cause other animals pain, at least not with me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Return to Vegetarianism

     So Easter Sunday a couple of years ago I'm at the Cheesecake Factory with my wife and best friend from church and I order the stuffed mushrooms.  They were incredibly delicious.  I couldn't believe how good they tasted!  I scarfed them down with great gusto and commented frequently how much I liked them.
I was thinking to myself self-pityingly how little enjoyment I had in this life and how much I enjoyed these mushrooms. 

     Well, it turns out the mushrooms were stuffed with sausage!  Thus ended 15 years of vegetarianism.  The next thing I knew I was guzzling Metamucil and stuffing my face with the carcass of every sentient being I could legally order.  In particular I enjoyed steak.  OH MY GOD did I enjoy steak.  I blew a ton of money on every variety of steak, I preferred a good marbled one.  Getting hungry?

    I could eat a gargantuan amount of meat in a single day.  It reminded me of the halcyon days of my youth when I could eat two bacon cheeseburgers at a time.  My dog started being afraid of me(that's not true, I would never eat my dog).  But somewhere in the back of my mind was the sense that I had allowed all of this self-indulgence to blind me to the the evils of meat-eating.

     So, I started to feel guilty about eating meat.  I tried to become a vegetarian but failed miserably a few days later when we went to a restaurant that had steak.  It wasn't even a good steak.

     Since the time I started eating meat I lost my religion and became an atheist.  Now, the orthodox thinkers among you may think that would mean, absent any theological reason to be kind to innocent creatures, I would redouble my meat-eating.  Such is not the case, however. 

     I started to reflect more deeply about the suffering animals endure.  I found myself feeling increasingly like eating meat was wrong.  Now, other animals eat meat; this I know.  It's natural.  An atheist like me ought to revel in the the Discovery-Channel-After-Darkness of eating animal carcasses.  But it had quite the opposite effect.  Instead, I found I focussed more on their suffering.  But I continued eating meat.  Was I a sadist?  What was the matter with me?  So one day I went out to a shish kabob place and had the lamb kabob(with extra meat).  Something about this experience finally pushed me back over the edge.

     So I have been a vegetarian for 5 days.  So far I've had no craving for meat.  But the cravings will come.
I think I will successfully fight them off.


     It seems that since we can survive as vegetarians, and since we have vegetarian options all around us, and we are aware of the suffering of the animals we eat, that we ought to not eat them.  Other animals have an excuse I think.  But we don't.

Free Will by Sam Harris: Well Written, Flawlessly Argued

     The gentle reader should be aware that I arrived at his conclusion, that there is no such thing as free will, for the same reasons as Harris some time ago.  So, readers may decide that I am too easily convinced by his arguments.  Long time readers of my blog will recall I was very critical of The Moral Landscape, which I thought was deeply flawed, so it's not that I'm somehow under his spell.  I just have to admit that he nailed this issue.

     All of our thoughts arise in us from unconscious processes.  We don't control the thoughts that arise, they just arise.  We don't control our desires or intentions; they just happen to us.  Even if we have a soul we did not choose it; wicked people under this theory are simply unfortunate.  Even if conscious processes are necessary for certain decisions, we are passive recipients of those processes. 

  Quantum Uncertainty is no solution.  It just makes our decisions statistical, not free. 

He recounts the now famous Libet experiments that show that our decisions can be predicted by brain states before we are consciously aware of these decisions.

If you believe in free will I recommend this short, well-argued book as a challenge to your thinking.  I think he is convincing, but that's just me.

He also takes on the notion that without free-will we will not do anything.  Clearly some things in life require we make a conscious decision.  We can't not make decisions in this life; but we are passive recipients of the decisions, not entities that somehow 'control' them.  The whole line of thought is not even coherent. 

He successfully fends off Daniel Dennett and the other compatibilists. Again, I think he does a better job than I can do here in this post.

So, my congratulations to Sam Harris for writing such a good book!  Not that he's worried what I think...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ayn Rand, Pure Evil, and the End of my Patience

     Well, OK, I can see that Ayn Rand makes me upset.  Perhaps this means I should just avoid reading the rest of this book for awhile.  I mean, I enjoy a good rant as much as the next person, but is it really productive?  There are plenty of sites on the internet devoted to hating Ayn Rand's philosophy and everything it stands for.  On the one hand I could say to myself, "There can never be enough!" on the other hand "What's the point?" 

   I'm basically a mild-manered, peace-loving guy.  I try to understand where others are coming from, even if they are completely out of their minds, reality impaired if you will.  I mean, it's not their fault, really.  They can't help it.

    And as for pure evil...well, yes the philosophy is pure evil -- sorry, I can't take that one back.  But the people who follow it are just misguided, that's all.  I feel sorry for them...well, no I don't.  Everyone is misguided about something.  I mean, if these people really think it's OK to allow discrimination on the basis of race or gender, to get rid of worker protections, get rid of public education, get rid of food stamps, antitrust laws, environmental protections, help for the elderly, to get rid of child labor laws so the kids are getting their wee hands caught in the big machines, well... that's just evil.  See? I'm doing it again.

   So, next time I'm going to take on Sam Harris's book on Free Will.  Harris is actually a neurobiologist and I have a feeling he may have some good insights into this issue.

Atlas Shrugged: Pure Evil, Inelegantly Written

     Well, I've gotten a start on Atlas Shrugged.  It is even worse than I remembered!  The writing is execrable and the message is heinous.  She's not exactly subtle about her points.  It takes no great intellectual effort to glean the message from this protracted piece of tripe(now that I'm a vegetarian I no longer knowingly eat tripe.) .

     Obviously Rand is indulging in some fantasy of a masterful masculine capitalist, Master of the Universe.   I can see how this image could appeal to certain men, especially.  All around these figures are pitiful hippy do-gooders who care about the poor(who are inferior or loafers).  The capitalist master takes abuse from ungrateful parasites all of whom he could swat like flies, but because of some misguided sense of noblesse oblige he does not.  Take for example Hank Reardon, whose victory in the production of a new metal is belittled and even resented by his family, all of whom ultimately depend upon him.  He is TOO KIND to them.  That is his downfall.  They are holding him back from the pure joy of creation. If these ne'er-do-wells around him can't congratulate him for successfully carrying the weight of the world, can't they at least leave the poor man alone?!  The ingrate he put through school chides him and other capitalists for not giving him more money for some stupid charity that will be wasted on other good-for-nothings.  Will the abuse of the poor capitalist never stop?!

     Look, if you get off on reading this kind of trash, well, OK -- but please don't tell me it contains any profound ideas.  I assume you think you're one of the beautiful people, but the odds are sorely against it, just remember that.  I have a bad feeling the thousand pages I have left in the book will be a tiresome repeat of the same wicked misrepresentation of our world. 

   

Monday, May 14, 2012

Atheist Materialism and Philosophy

     Some may wonder how I am an atheist materialist since I have a history of studying philosophy.  Haven't I read Derrida? Stanley Fish? Foucault? etc... Yes, I have read much of this.  I am familiar with a lot of the history of Western Philosophy.  I am familiar with the main arguments from the big movements in its history.  I am also acquainted with Eastern Thought.  I think the Tao Te Ching an incredibly wise book.  I once again recommend it to everyone.

 If I'm so aware of this, how can I adopt what seems a metaphysical position?  Well, let me start at what I consider the epistemological beginning:

1. Can  I demonstrate the existence of anything outside my immediate here and now experience? No.
This includes the universe and other minds.  There is, as far as I can tell, no successful argument.  Period.

2.  Can I use logic to demonstrate that I ought to use logic to make philosophical decisions? No.  These arguments immediately become self-referencial, circular, etc... There is no way out of this.  Sorry.

3.  Are there any valid logical demonstrations for any ethical points of view? No.

     Well, this looks pretty bad for logic and empiricism.  There are no necessary hypothesis.  To someone who believes in God as the creator it can be responded, why not have the universe be self-existing, save a step and don't invoke God.  To the atheist argument it can be responded, why have a universe at all?  Why not save a step and just have your current experience?  Both the universe and God are unnecessary hypotheses. So it seems we have a draw here.

     But, what should one really believe?  I think it's possible to be a solipsist or a metaphysical idealist or to believe just about anything if you want to.  There is ultimately no way to adjudicate among the wide range of positions one could take.

    That said, why would someone like me decide on metaphysical materialism and atheism?  Well, first, I've decided I can't live without assuming that other people exist.  So, I stipulate the existence of other minds.  Note that this is a stipulation; there is no argument.  Why should there be a physical universe outside of the mind?  Well, I seem to be affected by drugs, caffeine, and many things.  My mind seems dependent on something outside itself.  This is an experience I have that is rather immediate.  All I can say is that I have the experience and I conclude a causal relation from the association of drugs and my mental state.  Hume is obviously correct in his arguments against causality, but I accept this direction of causality because it seems so obvious to me.  I don't know how else to put it.

    So, I've stipulated there are other minds and that my mind is dependent on something outside itself, ie, my physical nervous system.  Where to go from here?

    Science is not just a little successful in predicting things and of creating pictures of reality; it is extremely successful.  I'm so impressed by its success that I find it difficult not to believe that it is on to something. From a logical point of view, we are only dealing with world pictures; there may be no universe at all.  But the pictures fit together so well, are so good at making predictions...  Religions cannot boast this kind of success.  Religions also have at best a 'mixed' record when it comes to ethics.  Thus I see no reason to go along with the unnecessary hypothesis of God, but I feel inclined to accept the universe.  It seems to me I'm just accepting the existence of the universe and the monotheistic religions accept the universe and God.  So, I'm accepting one less hypothesis than them.

     I also see religion as an impediment to human freedom and progress.  A humanistic perspective, that values the reduction of suffering, freedom of thought, and pluralism, strikes me as much better than those positions.


     Now, ironclad scientific realists are going to find this all very disappointing.  If you have a successful argument for scientific realism, please let me know.  My guess is that you don't.

    

Ethics With or Without God

     In response to the American Humanist Association's 'Day of Reason' a certain Mr. Ham posted online that there could be no absolute moral standards without God.  Everyone would be on their own to decide for themselves what is right and wrong.  It seems he is right here.  I have been unconvinced by any attempt to demonstrate logically the truth of any moral propositions.  So far, so good.

      Here's the problem, though: NONE of the arguments for the existence of God are convincing.  I have thought about these things for my entire life and that's the skinny.  Thus, one can choose to believe in God if one wants, or choose not to.  I think the probability inclines against the existence of God, but that doesn't make belief in God impossible, just not compulsory. 

     OK, so let's try to follow the logic where this goes.  One is certainly free to choose to believe in God and the morality of contemporary Christianity along with it.  Or, one is certainly free to try to derive some sort of ethics from the hodge-podge of the Bible if one chooses.  But there is no logical compulsion to do so. 

    If one could demonstrate the existence of the God of the Bible and be able to derive ethics straight-forwardly from the Bible, then Ham would be right.  There would be absolute ethics.   But without a demonstration of the existence of God the notion of absolute ethics is an illusion.  Those who CHOOSE believe in God and derive ethics from this therefore do so with no more LOGICAL force than humanists who CHOOSE their own ethics.  Thus ethics is personal, with or without God since the existence of God has not been demonstrated.

Conclusion, theists who derive ethics from the Bible are making the same kind of personal choice that nontheists make.  The logical status of Biblical ethics is no better than the status of the arguments for the existence of the God of the Bible in the first place, and those arguments are failures.   Thus, what seems to Biblical thinkers as a firm ethical foundation is no more firm than the foundations of any nontheistic ethics.  This security and universality is an illusion.  Thus we are all in the boat of making PERSONAL ethical choices whether we accept it or not, even Biblical thinkers.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A personal aside about my religious experience, Dante, and Ayn Rand

     Those who had known me for a long time might have been surprised when I converted to Christianity, and was a practicing Christian for a number of years. I had up until that time been a rather intense atheist for most of my life.  My first doubts about God occured when I was around 11 or 12.  I had a brief period of some kind of belief around 15-16, and then returned to atheism around 17.  I stayed an atheist until my mid-30s.  How did this conversion happen? Why?

     I have asked myself this question over the last number of years.  The closest I can come to an answer is that the first influence was Dante.  I spent several years, starting around 1999, virtually obsessed with this Florentine poet.  His powerful writing spoke to me, a man in middle age,  feeling somewhat lost, wondering how I had arrived at the position I was in.  What did I believe in? What would become of me?

     I was also irritated by the smug arrogance I saw about me in the Academy.   Once again the folks I detested the most were the Ayn Randians, those who had had everything given to them and somehow took the credit for it themselves.  There were also arrogant, and even authoritarian, liberals. 

     Could I be one of their number?  No.  Instead, I bathed myself in the literary criticism of Dante.  I wished fervently that I had gone into the humanities rather than mathematics, so I could  spend my days reading and contemplating these artistic beauties.  The effect of Dante was very emotional. 

     For some time I harbored a desire to become a Catholic so I could disappear into this for the rest of my life.  It was a very intense kind of escapism at a time in my life when I didn't know what was going to happen next.  It also provided an escape from my detached colleagues.  I suppose many other mathy types escape into gaming; I escaped into Dante.  I went so far as to buy a rosarie and sleep with it wrapped around my hand.

     When we moved to our current locale I wanted to join a Catholic Church and indulge myself in its aesthetic.  As timing would have it, the very Sunday we visited the priest had to admit that one of the other priests, a teacher at the school attached to the church, had been accused of abusing some of the children.

     Then we visited a local Mennonite church.  The people were gentle, sincere,  and humble. They dressed plainly, and they were pacifists.  They were an interesting subculture to which I had never been exposed.  They were, and are, in many ways the exact opposite of the effete types I had been around.  I found it a breath of fresh air.  It has its own quiet, plain aesthetic, the opposite of Catholicism in many ways, but one that could be very deeply felt.  I found everything from their simple way of speaking to their food extremely charming. 

     There I met men who dressed roughly, who rode motorcycles, and who  worked construction, but who turned the other cheek and displayed rare kindness.  It was a jolt to my expectations in which I revelled.  I found myself drawing toward this way of life. 

    The only damn problem I had was intellectual.  I did everything I could to defend the faith in my own mind, but deep down I knew better. I wanted to be one of them so much.   They weren't Catholic, but they were capable of instilling many of the same feelings in me and I still reread Dante often. 

     Slowly this fever started to break.  I found that the constant pressure from my intellect had worn away at the fantasy I was trying so hard to live.  Now I have abandoned my faith and find myself in the world again. I suspect the desire for escape will resurge at some point.  What will become of me then?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ayn Rand, Private Property, and Unfettered Government

Private Property
-----------------

     Let me start by saying I am not a socialist or a communist.  I fear that both of these systems would tend to concentrate too much power in the hands of the governmen which would have to stamp out 'unapproved' capitalist ventures.  On the other hand, I am not a pure capitalist in the way that Ayn Rand is. 

    Unlike Ayn Rand I don't think private property is some 'right' that exists outside of some agreement among persons regarding what property is and how one may dispose of their property.  Our 'right' to private property has to be enforced by some entity.  That is, I need to be able to call the police or take someone to court when someone absconds with this 'property'.  Operationally, the enforcement of those rights by collective agreement(ie, by the government) is what DEFINES my right to property in the first place.  There is no other meaning to the notion of property.  Thus, it is the government itself that defines property what property is, what can be property(for example, it determines whether people can be property), what one can buy and sell, and when one MUST buy and sell(hence government can pass antidsicrimination laws etc... which Rand explicitly OPPOSED).  This includes money.  To say that the government is 'stealing' money in the form of taxes is thus in error because it is the government that enforces our ownership of money.  So I fundamentally disagree that government is theft.

     Government determines what kind of contracts are enforceable.  Why? Because government is itself the means we use to enforce them.  Thus, government can pass laws that children cannot contract out their labor.  It can also stipulate that labor contracts must include concessions for employee safety, minimum wages, and, yes, insist that employers contribute to employees' health care coverage.    

     Can all of this control go too far?  Of course it can! But Rand's position on all of this is unconscionably extreme.  The control on all of this is democracy.  The government should ultimately be accountable to the citizens so that if it goes too far in a direction it can, albeit slowly and imperfectly, be brought into accordance with the population's wishes.  That is how to control 'unfettered government'.

     I also think it is incorrect that government can do nothing right. Our government does things correctly all the time, every day.  We just take too much of it for granted. 

Unfettered Capitalism
----------------------
     Unfettered capitalism has terrible effects.  This is why we had a labor movement.  This is why we have antitrust laws.  This is why we must have regulation.  Unfettered capitalsim concentrates wealth and allows that wealth to corrupt government.  Unfettered capitalism applied to health care would mean that millions of Americans would be uncoverable by any insurance, for example, the elderly.  You can adopt the position that poor elderly people should just die without medical care, but I cannot.  I think, as I said in my last post, that this is extremely unkind, but it is the consequence of Rand's position.  Recall the Republican debate when the audience started chanting 'let them die' when Blitzer asked Ron Paul a question about health care. 

    



    

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Philosophy of Ayn Rand

     A number of years ago I attempted to read Atlas Shrugged.  I found the book so revolting that I put it down.  Over the years since then I have become acquainted with Objectivism and met a large number of its adherents among my mathematical and scientific colleagues.  I found that the philosophy exerted a doleful effect upon their personalities.  It seems logical, now that I have come out as a Secular Humanist, to revisit what Rand considered to be her magnum opus and respond to it.

     First, however, I need to let out my response to Rand's philosophy.  This so it will be out that I read the book with a rather strong bias.  I will attempt to bracket that bias out while reading the book and do my best to give the book a fair shake. 

     So,  from my reading in Objectivism and my reading about Rand's philosophy I have come to consider her thought one of the most pernicious philosophies to survive from the 20th Century.  It is down there with the philosophies I loathe the most.  From what I can tell her philosophy is simplistic, ill-considered, unwise, and extremely unkind.  Those who are influenced by her turn against their natural compassion and to an elitism I find repellant.  Most of my colleagues consider themselves, rightly, as among the intellectual elite of the country, so her writing appeals to their vanity.

    But I need to remind them that every curve has both a left and a right hand side.  A philosophy that appeals to the top 1% is usually not good for a lot of other people.  Most people were not fortunate enough to have their gifts.  It is easy for those at the top to feel they have earned their place in society when in actuality most of them were born near that place, either because they came from a wealthy family or they inherited superior ability.  These things are doled out randomly and not in accord with any justice.

     As for her claim that pure capitalism is what is best for poor people, there is no evidence suggesting this, and much evidence to the contrary.  'Trickle Down' doesn't work.  Capitalism concentrates power in the hands of those at the top who are then able to corrupt government. Rand would want government to make sure everyone is playing the capitalist game according to the rules, even the extremely wealthy, but this is ridiculously naive.  The recent financial crisis shows that deregulation can be a catastrophe.  It also shows that the elite can make terrible decisions and saving the economy requires that the other 99% bail them out.

     But I have to repeat here at the end that one of the worst effects of this philosophy I have seen is on what one might call the 'spirit' of its followers.  People who may be naturally kind, naturally compassionate, are turned into self-serving, uncaring, elitist pricks.   They are also its victims, though they don't suffer physically as much as the comparatively disadvantaged do under her ideas. 

    

   

   

    

       

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why I am a Secular Humanist Part 4 -- Gay Marriage, Capital Punishment, Pornography, Abortion, Animals

In this entry I will state my conclusions regarding some hot button issues.

Gay Marriage
--------------

     The state ought to get out of the marriage business altogether.  Marriage between two or three or ten adults should be a private matter.  As far as the other issues freqeuently raise, hospital visiting privileges and family health care plans...  I don't understand why a patient can't just say in advance who should be able to visit them.  AND there should already be UNIVERSAL, FREE, HEALTH COVERAGE for all Americans.  That would solve the family health care question.  I believe such a thing is possible, but it will take time and commitment.

Capital Punishment
--------------------

Capital Punishment should be banned.  It is excessive and is a non-deterrant.  People are ultimately not responsible for their behavior, so why should we punish them as though they were 'evil'?  We should realize that people become murderers etc... for reasons.  Those of us not subjected to their experience or biology should consider ourselves fortunate.  I think our understanding of human frailty should increase our compassion even to those of us who do the most horrible things.  Obviously society needs to be protected from such people, being cruel accomplishes nothing.

Pornography
-------------

     I'm not a consumer of pornography, so I'm out of my depth here.  A priori I think that while some pornography is surely degrading to women, it's at least not obvious that all of it must be.  I also have not done a thorough study of any literature regarding the effects of pornography on society or culture.  Thus I'm out of the loop.  My first assessment is adult pornography should remain legal.  Child pornography should be punished severely.


Abortion
---------

     I don't believe in Human Rights.  They don't exist.  They are a bi-product of an old way of talking.  We can use them as a short hand for talking about things in our society, but they ultimately refer to nothing.  Thus, all disputes over the 'right to life' or the 'right to abortion' are all wet.  I cannot decide who has a right to what since rights themselves are fictions.  In my own mind I am sympathetic both to the fetus and the mother.  In the end I think there should be a limit to end term abortions to those procedures protecting the mother.  In the early stages clearly the mother's wishes should take precedence. 


Animals
--------
I was a vegetarian for a long time and then fell off the wagon.  I wish I were a vegetarian again, but I seem to lack the self control. I think we should remember that animals suffer and thus we should do everything we can to reduce this suffering.  I've tried to get back on the wagon a couple of times, but end up eating a steak or something on an impulse.  If anyone has any advice...

Why I am a Secular Humanist part 3

     Where Secular Humanism comes into difficulties is with ethics.  Atheitsts who like science fall across the political spectrum.  How can one position say that they alone represent the interests of humanity while the other positions, all deeply felt, do not?  Some philosophies associated with atheism, such as contemporary communism on the one side, and the untrammeled capitalism of Ayn Rand on the other, are downright pernicious.  I haven't met a lot of communists among my mathematical colleagues, but unfortunately the philosophy of Ayn Rand is like a cancer.  I find that this point of view, with its pseudo social darwinism, has a revolting effect upon the personalities of those who adopt it, making them less humane, less compassionate.  I, for one, cannot live like that.

     I am further not convinced by any of the arguments for morality given by secular thinkers such as Sam Harris or even Derek Parfit.  These arguments are all invalid.  Morality has to start from somewhere, somewhere within the compassion for human suffering within a person.  Good and  Bad are not facts like one finds in science.  Thus it will always be prone to the kind of controversy in which we currently find it.  I can't justify my own ethics.  My point of view is just the point of view I have adopted, for personal, psychological reasons. 

     In my opinion the best way to live my life is described in the Tao Te Ching and the writings of Epictetus.  I suggest that everyone read these two texts.  Others will adopt other points of view.  As far as economics are concerned, I think something like a mixed economy has more going for it than either communism or untrammeled capitalism.  Large capital will always corrupt government, so the ideal of pure capitalism is unreachable, even if it were the most likely to produce freedom, which I doubt..  Communism gives rise to the concentration of power in the hands of an elite.  I also suspect that democratic socialism is doomed to failure as an ideology; competition and acquisitiveness are ineluctable as forces of nature.  I don't think we currently have a good single solution to the fundamental economic problems of the world.

     One thing I will say is that religion will not produce the answer to human problems.  I am aligned with those who see religion as a pernicious influence.  It creates in groups and out groups.  It institutes irrational laws like sharia.  It attempts to steal the freedoms of those considered 'sinners'.  All based on irrational adherance to ancient texts written by primitive people ignorant of the advances since the Scientific Revolution.

      It is time to put gods aside.  In my view a careful examination of theological arguments leads to the conclusion, with high probability, that there is no god at all.  We also need to avoid the irrational ideologies that can arise in an atheist worldview.

  

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Why I am a Secular Humanist Part 2

     Perhaps if Nietzsche were alive today, to see the incredible advances of modern science and technology, especially modern medicine, he would have a different view of the power of science.  On the other hand, we take the obvious successes of science so much for granted that people, I'm speaking of postmodernists here, don't realize the magnitude of what it has accomplished. 

     Contemporary physics is INCREDIBLY accurate.  Quantum Field Theory is accurate beyond the wildest dreams of the science of earlier generations.  Science has pegged the age of the universe, perhaps part of an infinite multiverse, at 13.72 billion years ago.  Our understand of the nervous system, especially of the brain, has made enormous strides over the last few decades.  We now have an impressive understanding of how the various parts of the brain are responsible for our consciousness and behavior.  These two areas of understanding have provided many answers and our best shot at answering more of our deepest philosophical questions.  Some questions may simply be unanswerable, or we may determine that they are ill-posed.

     We are even beginning to find the parts of the brain that are active before we are aware of our intentions.  Brain activity has been identified just prior to consciousness of an intention in the Libet experiments.  Scientists have even been able to induce intentions by stimulating parts of the brain.  This, together with my own experiences with antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, has convinced me that free will is an illusion. I am confident that as science progresses we will develop ever more detailed understanding of how our behavior depends on physical processes. 

     Those who say that Science is but the articulation of a certain technique of power are, in my opinion, all wet.  I am convinced that the major scientific discoveries of the last century or so are impressively free of cultural bias.  This is not by any means to say that all of the scientists themselves have been morally perfect beings, rather that the scientific enterprise is able to take the good and throw out much of the bad.   As brilliant as philosophers like Foucault obviously were, everyone should read Discipline and Punish, I can only respond to their claims of the identity between scientific knowledge and power that their understanding of the hard sciences were somewhat limited.  Foucault is another example of someone who could have benefited by having lived a little bit later.  Foucault died of AIDS in 1984.  If he were alive today more could have been done to save him, or at least prolong his life. 
     

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Why I am A Secular Humanist Part 1

     Humanism is not necessarily fashionable as a position in philosophical circles anymore, such is the influence of postmodernism.  Humanism, with its emphasis on reason and science, is throw-back to modernism, to philosophy unencumbered by the influence of currents of more recent Continental Philosophy.  Indeed, the fact that humanists use the word 'human' suggests a universal definition of the 'human' that we are told has been manufactured by western powers to legitimate certain forms of power.  So, how can someone who has absorbed Nietzsche and is especially fond of Foucault, able to take the humanist position?  That is the question I am going to try to answer in the next few posts.

     There is no doubt that Nietzsche was a great genius.  He was certainly one of the great stylists.  He paints a disturbing picture of the modernism of the 19th Century.  He plumbs its emptinesses, reveals the nihilism implied by what he saw as the conventional values of his time.  In fact, I completely agree with many of his comments, particularly those regarding religion.  He skewers religion as a life-denying, life-hating, stance.  He unmasks the otherworldly escapism of the history of philosophy since the time of Socrates, the refuge taken in the Forms or the Absolute or God.  Everyone should Read The Twilight of the Idols.  It is a refreshing, challenging book.

     Where Nietzsche and I part ways is his critique of Reason and Science.  When I was in grad school in Philosophy in the early 1990s, the Academy was still in the throws of what has become known as the Science Wars.  This has largely dissipated over the last 20 years.  It is clear to me that the scientists have won the day.  While Science may not be able to tell us the ultimate nature of "really real reality"(as PDQ Bach would say), it is remarkably successful.  I think many people outside of the sciences don't quite realize how careful, how peer-reviewed, is the mainstream of Science. 

I'll give you an example, everybody's favorite, Evolution.  When I was an Anabaptist, there were many I knew in the Church who rejected Evolution in favor of Intelligent Design.  Having an open mind I began to study the evidences for Evolution and compared that evidence against the arguments of the Intelligent Design group.  I read both sides, doing my best to give both sides its due.  I considered all the arguments as carefully as I could.  The result of this investigation was, a great enhancement of my understanding of Biology, and the conclusion that the arguments for UNGUIDED evolution were absolutely overwhelming.

Over the last two decades since I left grad school in Philosophy I became a Mathematician, but never lost my taste for Philosophy.  I have concluded from my exposure to Science and Mathematics that Scientific Progress is neither an idol nor a failed narrative, it is a fact.  Indeed, if Nietzsche's illness really was Syphilis, modern medicine could cure him now.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Universe from Nothing, By Lawrence Krauss

"Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could."
-- The Sound of Music.

     I hate The Sound of Music.  It's the most smarmy, sappy, namby-pambly P.O.S. ever.  Thus, when I heard that Prof. Krauss had overthrown this thesis from the musical, I was elated.  I immediately ordered his book from Amazon.  I've always been confusesd about this issue.  If we think of space and time with nothing in it as nothing, then we have a problem, because I have to imagine galaxies popping into exisence as something coming from nothing.  If I think of the existence of space and time itself as part of the 'something' that is in the universe, then I get confused about what I'm thinking about.  I should be not thinking about anything.  I'm not sure I know how to think about 'nothing' per say.  Nor do I know what it means to say that  something 'comes' from nothing since 'comes' here seems to imply time itself.  If time is part what is 'coming' about, I get confused.

     I also don't know what 'potential' means without time of some kind.  When I think of something as potential, I think of something that could happen in the future.  But what does 'potential time' mean if there is no time?  My imagination can't go there.  So, I look forward to Krauss's examination of this issue. 

While we can trace back time to the beginning of the universe,  I don't know nor can I imagine where we go from there.  What is a 'potential' law if there is no time?  What is 'potential' space?  Krauss raises a good point when he asks what philosophers mean by nothing.  I mean, absolutely NOTHING! Nothing at all.  Can anything be meant by this kind of philosophical nothing?  Is it outside of language?  I sometimes think that the 'null solution' is the most elegant and thus the most likely, but how do I assign probabilities or think of things as a 'solution' if there is nothing. Evidently there is something, so could there ever have been 'nothing' in this sense?  Well, I guess at the outset I'm giving Krauss his point that 'nothing' or 'nonbeing' in this sense is kind of incoherent.  So how can it be a problem we have to solve?  In fact, my feeling for the problem is beginning to dissipate.