Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Entry 17, The Case of the Cube

     In sections 139-142 are some of the most interesting so far. Here he uses the example of the cube to investigate the relations between the picture we get of a word and how we may use it. That is, how does the picture we get of a cube really limit the way we may use it.
     One may think that the picture we have of a cube will completely determine how we use the word. But, we will be surprised when we can think of a triangular projection of a cube and still have to call it a 'cube'.
     It is too easy to just say, as everyone does these days, that the USE of a word is what we mean by it. Wittgenstein, pun intended, turns it around in his mind and shows how the notion of 'use' reveals potentials in a word beyond what we immediately think when a picture occurs in our mind. We may think we mean the picture by the word, and that has to be an important part of it, but it is not the full expression of the word. It is the place the word in all our language games that reveal its potential.
    We do not immediately think of all possible uses of a word when we hear it, in that regard the picture is a central part feature of the 'meaning' of a word. Perhaps the 'meaning' of the word is not something that happens in a single instant when we hear it, and we should think of the meaning of a word as something extended in time, that mutates, expands and contracts. Now, this does not mean we mean NOTHING by the word, only that the meaning of a word is a complex of things 'before the Mind' and uses we make of it. The picture that comes to mind might always be the same, so doesn't change with time, but we use the word in time in new ways and contexts that the image in our mind alone does not immediately suggest. Wittgenstein emphasizes that the 'meaning' of a word is tied to how it is used in practice, which in turn depends on how we are trained to participate in language-games.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Joel weighs in on Ferguson

Alright, I'm going to say a few things about Ferguson. Here goes:

1. The prosecutor did not want to prosecute the case, that's obvious. I think a special prosecutor would have avoided the appearance of a conflict of interest. The presentation he gave the night of the announcement sounded more like a defence attorney. Furthermore, while it may seem fair to present both sides to a grand jury, my gut tells me other defendants do not get the same consideration. This appears to be a double standard.

2.  Wilson said he didn't carry a taser because it was 'bulky'. I understand that a police officer has to be agile, but we should consider the possibility that a bulky encumbrance is a small price to pay if it means not killing an unarmed person. Also, I've certainly heard of and even seen on TV police using tasers, I would need to know how they were able to carry them if they were so bad, but I'm not an expert on this and would be interested to hear other opinions.

3.  I knew a number of small-time thugs when I was growing up who did worse things than what Brown did at the convenient store(they were all white). Several of them were arrested etc.. but NONE of them were killed by police. I realize this is anecdotal, but I wonder if I would be able to report the same result if they were not white. By the way, I hope these kids have grown up to be law-abiding adults and I wish them well.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Spirituality: Sam Harris versus Thomas Merton, Duelling Banjos of the Self

     So, I had a sudden inspiration to read Thomas Merton's book The Inner Experience , which talks a lot about the "I", and play that off against Harris' book, which will talk about how the "I" is an illusion, and see whether anything interesting comes from it. Maybe, maybe not.

Spirituality: The Case of Sam Harris, Entry 3, Taking on OMMM Mechanics

     Here Harris is right on. There is no reason to conclude from QM that the universe is fundamentally Mind. QM is indeed mysterious and counter-intuitive in many ways, but Idealism is not the necessary consequence of this. As Harris points out, 'measurement' does not invoke Mind per say, it only invokes measurement.
     Now, there are strange things in QM, mainly non-separability, which is genuinely strange, but that doesn't mean we have to smoke doobies and try to use The Force.
     Additionally, Harris points out that the Mind is still dependant upon the physical processes within the body, and, as much as I find Penrose an interesting read, it is not obvious that QM gets us anywhere when it comes to solving the PHILOSOPHICAL problem of Mind.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Spirituality: The Case of Sam Harris, entry 2

     Here I'm going to digress onto some of his comments about Christianity and its relationship to mysticism. I'll open by quoting the opening of Dante's Paradiso:

"The glory of the One who moves all things
permeates the universe and glows
in one part more and in another less."

This is from the Allen Mandelbaum translation. Other Christian mystics, many of whom are quoted in The Perennial Philosophy, which Harris takes to task for being an inaccurate representation of Christianity, make similar points to the above.  I see the mysticism in Christianity as not merely the result of a few outliers, but as part of the mainstream integration of Greek thought into Christianity. The opening Gospel of John is as mystical as anything you are likely to read:

"In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God, and
the Word was God ...
All things were made and came into
existence through Him; and without Him
was not even one thing made that has
come into being. In Him was Life, and the
Life was the Light of men.
And the Light shines on in the darkness, for
the darkness has never overpowered it"

     This shows an obvious neo-Platonic influence, whereas the Dante bit has a strong dose Aristotle as well. There is thus a tendency toward union with God that runs throughout Christianity that Harris downplays in remarks such as

"In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the human soul is conceived as genuinely separate from the divine reality of God. The appropriate attitude for a creature that finds itself in this circumstance is some combination of terror, shame, and awe. In the best case, notions of God's love and grace provide some relief -- but the central message of these faiths is that each of us is separate from, and in relationship to, a divine authority who will punish anyone who harbors the slightest doubt about His supremacy."(Harris, pg. 21)

His description here does NOT represent my own experience of being a Christian, nor do I think it adequately represents the relationship to God most of the Christians I know have, or think they have. God represents that which is the most real in the self, yet transcends the self. A relationship with God is with an entity that invades the soul, remakes the soul, unites with the soul. Harris' characterization, while good fodder for his atheist readers(including myself) is, in my opinion, a misrepresentation of a wide swath of Christian experience.

Lest you think this type of mysticism is only a Medieval Church thing, protestant thinkers like Paul Tillich(Martin Luther King wrote his dissertation on him) emphasized 'The Ground of Being' etc.. as central to his thought. This kind of talk can be hard to parse, and there is not the same emphasis in Christian thought as there is in Eastern religion that the self IS God, more that God is the activating principle behind all things, including the soul.  This element is different from Eastern thought, but is not given its due by Harris. Aspects of this tendency are in the usual 'come to Jesus' invitations to allow "Jesus into your heart".

     Finally, I'm not arguing that the Inquisition didn't come out against many mystics, of course it did, but I am saying that the experience of Christianity has had an element of UNION with God that is undeniable and Harris just misses the boat here.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Spirituality: The Case of Sam Harris, entry 1

     So, I got Sam Harris' new book, Waking Up . I am not going to venture into his recent controversy with Ben Affleck and Bill Maher. I am only going to respond to the topic of this book  -- sorry, folks.

    Harris recounts a life-changing experience on Ecstasy. I used to hear this kind of stuff when I was in college; I didn't buy it then and I don't buy it now. When I started college I read a lot of Aldous Huxley, including The Doors of Perception and The Perennial Philosophy(which Harris quotes and then criticizes -- I'll have more to say about this later). I once wrote a paper in a philosophy class about Huxley -- it was assigned as our final paper. I wrote that if a drug can create the same experience as meditation then logic won't allow me to distinguish one from the other. The professor didn't like my answer: he claimed that the drug would have to make you virtuous etc..., in keeping with traditional Christian mysticism. I still disagree with him. Look, I have a lot of experiences, some when I'm tired or my blood sugar is high or low, some when I've had a lot of caffeine, and so on, but there is no reason to think an experience is telling me anything profoundly metaphysical, including about the nature of the 'self'. And it's certainly not obvious that virtue, faith etc.. are a gateway to mystical insight. So, in my paper I was rejecting the entire mystical program, which I am doing again.

     I don't need to have a drug-induced, or meditation induced, experience, to reject traditional notions of the self; ordinary experience and logic suffice. It is interesting that Harris, who in other contexts tows the line of scientific atheism, would be prone to such hippy-dippy thought processes when it comes to Buddhism and the 'self'. This does not mean I think meditation is bad: it can be very relaxing and can allow you to pause and passively perceive what is occupying your mind in a way that you don't when you are too involved in your life.

   In my next entry I will examine Harris' comments about the separateness of God in Western religion and the unity with God in Eastern religion. Not that what he says is necessarily wrong, but I'm going to talk about the influence of neo-Platonic and Aristotelian thought on medieval Christianity, which added some Eastern sounding elements -- which may not be surprising as Plato was influenced through Pythagoras, who is reputed to have travelled to the East.



Saturday, September 6, 2014

Ender's Game: why it bothers me and does that make it a good book?

     Just saw the movie "Ender's Game". Good production values, good special effects. I never managed to finish reading the book. I took the book with me when I was going to get a sleep apnea test. I read about 30 pages and found the book rather repellent. I was unable to finish it.
    When I have a strong reaction like this I question myself as to whether I'm justified. So I kept trying to give the story, and Orson Scott Card, a chance. Then I read about Card and didn't like some of the things he had said which it made it more difficult for me to be fair to the book.

    Now, there seem to be some people who think of this book as some profound statement about the nature of reality. Why should that be?

And if a book can create such a response in me, does that mean the book really is great?


      The real question is, why do the people who like the book like it so much? I can think of two opposite reasons why people would like the book:

1. They like the heartless, militaristic, picture of the world and discipline. Ender never intentionally commits genocide, so he's innocent. See the following, and I think insightful, essay:

2. They like the end and interpret it to mean that the heartless, militaristic, picture of the world is terrible and leads to genocide, which is a bad thing.

Unfortunately, and maybe this is says something about ME, I think most people like the book because of 1. and not 2. -- and this is why I don't like them. Now, you could also like the book because it raises these issues, but that's squishy and academic, so I'll put it aside.

The wikipedia page on the book says that it has been used in military training, which suggests interpretation 1., that you suck unless you think mercilessly about life. Life is about tactics, about being cool under pressure, like Hemingway without the attempt at grandeur, and not about genuineness. Genuineness is for wimps.

    Then there's the issue of the analysis given in the above essay: that the book centers around Ender's purported innocence because a. he didn't know it was a simulation, b. he had no choice.  This is the more interesting take on the book. I also appreciate what Kessel says about 7th Grade morality. Really, you should follow the link above. It is a popular point of view that a person's intentions are all that matter when evaluating someone's actions from a moral point of view and Card does seem to push this question to an extreme, which makes the book itself interesting. But then, the ends justify the means stuff is what underlies most of the book, and despite the ending of this part of the trilogy(or however many books there are!) that I haven't read, it seems so far that this is the emphasis, and what leads me to think most people who like it, like it because of 1. -- and that's why I think I dislike the book.

    Then there's the other question, should we act in video games as we do in real life on the off-chance that it's real? That sounds like a profound, 'The Matrix' kind of question, but I don't think so. There has to be a realm of human action where we don't have to act like morally perfect beings. 


Thursday, July 24, 2014

An aside about Brave New World Revisited

So, please let me interrupt the break-neck pace of posts about Wittgenstein to say a few words about Brave New World Revisited. For a trip down memory lane I took it to breakfast this morning to see what I think about it now. I did have a couple of thoughts:

1. Huxley's concerns about concentration of media are very timely, and put issues like net neutrality in relief. The internet provides a sources of information that might have made Huxley a little more optimistic. Sources such as

and others that provide an alternative to 'corporate' media. If I want to know something about what's going on in the news I wouldn't rely entirely on newspapers, cable news etc... when there's an infinite variety of opinions on any subject. The danger is if/when the current decentralized internet becomes just another space for what Morton Downey called 'pabulum'.

2. Technology. The pace is way too fast and I can't keep up. I try to sort of keep up but I frankly don't see the point most of the time.  When I was young I wished I could live long enough to see all the new gizmos coming along, but frankly I find it a bit boring; that's right, I said BORING. Alas, if I were to prognosticate, I would say it will be a very, very long time before we zip around the galaxy. In the meantime it will be one more random collection of apps on whatever electronic what-have-you as we crowd onto our planet(yawn).

3. Huxley and many others I think did not appreciate the staying power of traditional religion to throw a wrench in their visions of future utopias/dystopias. They figured such things would be long gone. But there's no reason we won't see traditional religious fundamentalists far into the future; so there, humanists, your bright godless future is a fantasy, you'll just have to deal with the loss of your little pipe dream -- or maybe not, religionists don't. And lest you think religion will keep these dystopias from occurring, recall that the Nazi's appropriated the cross:

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Entry 16, More on Kripke's Sceptical Interpretation and a Innate Ideas Proposal

"Kripke detects an entirely novel form of sceptical argument that allegedly establishes that there is no fact, either in my mind or in my external behaviour, that constitutes my meaning something by the words I utter, or that fixes what will count as a correct application of a rule that I grasp. The conclusion of his sceptical argument -- that no one can ever mean anything by their words, or be following a rule that fixes what counts as a correct or an incorrect application of it -- is clearly deeply paradoxical, and it is impossible that anyone should rest content with it."(Marie McGinn, Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations, p. 75)

So, Chomsky argued that the number of possible languages a child would have to choose from is simply too large for there not to be a constraint on the possible syntactic structure the child actually selects from(otherwise the child would not be able to acquire language at all, especially as quickly as children do.)  This seems to me to be his most powerful argument. As to what those structures are etc..., well that can be argued over forever. Wittgenstein's sceptical arguments about meaning and so on, have the feel of this kind of problem. If I'm reading all of this right,  our uses of words do not sufficiently constrain their possible meaning and our definitions of rules are insufficiently 'fixing' of future use. A solution to this problem would be that there are certain structures underlying the use of language that render these problems solved, otherwise we couldn't communicate.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Philosophical Investigation, Entry 15, Language idling

"The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing work."(Section 132)

      He then launches into a discussion of propositions and the predicates 'true' and 'false'. I found this paragraph difficult and may not have got this right, but that's why this is a blog and not an article submitted for publication. He considers 'this is the way things are' as the basis for the types of sentences that may be true or false. Then he criticizes this and asks how does a proposition 'engage' truth?

      To insist only propositions have truth-value is the same as insisting only a King may be checked. Does this mean that games where pawns are checkable are bad?  Wittgenstein is once again criticizing the point of view that privileges a certain language game, that of propositions, and acts as though it were not a game among others and which could be formulated differently.

     Then he moves on to ask about questions like 'who, what' etc.. and whether only certain answers fit. In so doing he circles back to the question of whether truth-value fits a proposition by asking a child whether a given sentence "is the kind of sentence where you can add 'is true' to the end of."

     So, what do I make of all of this? He seems to be going over and over the same ground. In this case, deconstructing the notion of a 'natural' truth-valued language game. There is part of me saying he is wrong. Boolean type logic and propositions that can be true or false do seem to occupy an important place in language. Philosophical problems are not the result of needing therapy, they are the inescapable limits of that type of language -- there is no therapy for it. Or, maybe I'm just sick in the head.

     In Section 138 Wittgenstein talks about the distinction between use and meaning. He says we may 'grasp' the meaning of a word in an instant and then 'use' it according to what we have grasped. In Section 139 he mentions the traditional view of having a 'picture' in our mind.

What to make of all of this? Well, Marie McGinn in her book Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations mentions Kripke's sceptical interpretation. The difference between meaning and use is unpacked in this section of her book using the word 'intention'. She gives the example, I'm not sure if it comes from Kripke, of 68+57. In what sounds like a reference to Nelson Goodman and the Grue/Bleen business, she says perhaps we mean by '+' not the usual summation but an operator that equals '+' until one of the numbers is at least 57 and and if one of the numbers is 57 or greater the answer is 5.

She writes:
"If the skeptic is right, then there is no fact about my past intention, or about my past performance, that establishes, or constitutes, my meaning one function rather  than another by '+'. "(McGinn, 75-76)

So, we are left with skepticism about language, whether words mean anything other than their use. Obviously this is the empirical situation, and the internal state of a person, whether they 'intend' this or that, or 'intention' means anything etc.. is not something that is empirical, possibly not even to the person using the word.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Entry 14, taking off your glasses

"The ideal, as we think of it, is unshakable. You can never get outside it; you must always turn back. There is no outside; outside you cannot breathe -- Where does this idea come from? It is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off(Section 103)

"We predicate of the thing what lies in the method of representing it. Impressed by the possibility of comparison, we think we are perceiving a state of affairs of the highest generality"(section 104)

"When we believe that we must find that order, must find the ideal, in our actual language, we become dissatisfied with what are ordinarily called 'propositions', 'words', 'signs'.
the proposition and the word that logic deals with are supposed to be something pure and clear-cut. And we rack our brains over the nature of the REAL sign...(Section 105)"

I see in these passages Wittgenstein rejecting the program of finding a logically ideal language, the assumption of the existence of which is so ingrained that they are like glasses we never think to take off. To assert there IS NO such language is like taking these glasses off. How does taking the glasses off in Wittgenstein contrast with leaving Plato's Cave? Discuss.

1. Is taking the glasses off the reverse of leaving the Cave?
2. Is taking the glasses off the same as leaving the Cave?
3. Are 1. and 2. stupid questions?