Wittgenstein's Bastard

Waxing - and Waning - Philosophic

An investigation into the utility (or futility) of seeking meaning in a quasi-post-modern world.

In his famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein sought to design a philosophical system encompassing everything logic could show. He concluded, "That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence." Even though the phrase is a tautology, it is still wrong. Our aim is to speak of that which Wittgenstein could not: the illogical majesty of the universe, the nature of its creator and the meaning of man's being all wrapped up in it.



Pearls Before Swine

More reading

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: German-English Text


Wednesday, April 27, 2005

On Tragedy

from Vermischte Bemerkungen (tr. as Culture and Value):
Every tragedy could really start with the words: "Nothing would have happened, had it not been that..."

(Had he not got caught in the machine by the tip of his clothing?)

But surely that is a one-sided view of tragedy, to think of it merely as showing that an encounter can dedide one's whole life.
Wittgenstein's point addresses the matter nicely as far as our everyday understanding of life and tragedy goes. But in literature, we stumble into something a little different. It is said that every great bit of theatre ends with a wedding or a funeral. The first of these is comedy, the second tragedy. But what makes for most tragedies? Let's rephrase Wittgenstein:
Every tragedy could really start with the words: "Nothing would have happened, had he not insisted..."
The great literary tragedies do not owe their pathos to some deus ex machina upsetting an applecart that had been going breezingly along. Rather, they involve man smashing into his most fearsome enemy - himself. Tragedy comes when two parties are at odds, something has to give, and nothing does.

In contrast to tragedy is comedy. Though it's not in the etymology, it's useful to think of comedy as the place where things come together. Whether it's the happy ending of the traditional comedy (as in Molière & co.'s), the convergence of plot lines at the end of a good episode of Seinfeld or the emergence of a punchline from a meandering shaggy dog story, what comedy offers is an appropriate resolution.

The French have a lovely word, justesse, which implies that everything is just-so - in balance, appropriate, harmonious, etc. It's what you're looking for when making sure there's neither too little nor too much icing on the cake, so to speak. Comedy, at its best, is possessed of this justesse. Witness the ending of the comedy, The Marriage of Figaro. The Count is revealed as a fool and a lout. Everyone's somewhere between angry and upset with him. And then it all resolves. He is not stripped of his seigneurial rights - because he didn't really have them. Figaro is not cuckolded, nor his bride seduced, nor the Countess betrayed.

The Marriage of Figaro gave the King of France the willies, and rightly so, for he was not prepared to abide by its lesson. In some ideal world, a world where things worked just so, the King might have managed to relax his power sufficiently that it wasn't worth it to overthrow him. Instead, the King, then Robespierre, insisted upon their way of doing business. They both lost their heads.

Wittgenstein is right to observe that in everyday life, tragedy is lurking just 'round the corner. So is happiness, actually. In some cases, that's just the way it is. But in other cases - the feud with the boss, the argument with a loved one, the conviction that you saw that parking spot first - the real gift life offers is the opportunity to give way if an insistence that you win is really an assurance that everyone will lose. Life's too short for such nonsense. And if you push things far enough, life will be even shorter. Better, then, to move one step beyond Wittgenstein. Life is in many ways happenstance, buffeting us about in a world where much is beyond our control. But the worst of life's tragedies come when we ourselves are the engines of our own destruction.

The snippet above draws on my fussing about with Corneille's Le Cid. Below I link two pieces, the first a spoof, the second a serious essay, that lay the background for what I've said above.

The Cid Goes to the Grocery Store

The Cid - or the Conquest of the Count

posted by gbarto at 3:55 PM

Sunday, April 24, 2005

More German Practice

from On Certainty or Über Gewissheit

In the last year and a half of his life, Wittgenstein took a great interest in G.E. Moore's ideas about knowledge and how we know things. Unlike the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which Wittgenstein sought to explain all that could be explained, this work deals with the question of whether we can know anything at all.

Empiricism rested on the assumption that all we knew was the information from our sensory experiences. Hume suggested this wasn't much. Kant challenged this, arguing that the way we represent, process and understand our experiences reflects the existence of a priori cognition, knowledge about how to use our perceptions. And then comes the question, "What if our perceptions are wrong or inaccurate or incomplete?"

Eventually, some of our finer, though often lesser-known, philosophers started to wonder if the world existed at all, or if it was just a figment of their imagination. They had a point, though figments such as grocers and landlords still insisted on their regular payments, and those philosophers most resolute in their beliefs discovered that angry grocers and landlords provoked sensations, real or imagined, of hunger and homelessness.

Finally, the philosopher who had once explained it all sat down to hash out whether we could know what was real, and whether it really mattered if we couldn't stop ourselves from feeling reality's effects, however irreal it might be. Below are excerpts from Wittgenstein's notebooks, most of them drawing on the question of what it means to know. These provide an opportunity to investigate knowledge and practice a little German. Enjoy.

Text and numbering from On Certainty, by Anscombe and Wright. Translations are my own.

1. Wenn du weißt, daß hier eine Hand ist, so geben wir dir alles übrige zu.1. If you know, that here a Hand is, so give we give you all remaining (to).1. If you know that here is a hand, then we'll give you all the rest.
2. Das es mir - oder Allen - so scheint, daraus folgt nicht, daß er so ist.2. That it to me - or to All - so seems, out of it follows not, that it so is.2. That it seems so to me - or to everyone - does not mean that it is so.
7. Mein Leben zeigt, daß ich weiß, oder sicher bin, daß dort ein Sessel steht, eine Tür ist u.s.f. - Ich sage meinem Freunde z.B. "Nimm den Sessel dort," "Mach die Tür zu," etc. etc.7. My Life shows, that I know, or sure am, that there a Chair stands, a Door is, and so forth - I say to my Friend, e.g. "Take the chair there," "Make the door closed," etc. etc.7. My life shows that I know, or am sure, that over there there is a chair or a door, and so on - I say to my friend, "Take that chair," "Shut the door," etc. etc.
42. Man kann sagen "Er glaubt es, aber es ist nicht so," nicht aber "Er weiß es, aber es ist nicht so."42. One can say "He believes it, but it is not so," not however "He knows it, but it is not so."42. One can say, "He believes it but it isn't so," but not "He knows it but it isn't so."
90. "Ich weiß" hat eine primitive Bedeitung ähnlich und verwandt der von "Ich sehe" ("wissen," "videre"). Und "Ich wußte, daß er im Zimmer war, aber er war nicth im Zimmer" ist ähnlich wie "Ich sahe ihn im Zimmer, aber er war nicht da."90. "I know" has a primitive Meaning similar and related to that of "I see" (Ger. "wissen" - to know, Lat. "videre" - to see). And "I knew that he in the Room was, but he was not in the Room" is similar to "I saw him in the Room, but he was not there."90. "I know" has a primitive meaning similar and related to "I see" (Ger. "wissen", Lat. "videre"). And "I knew that he was in the room, but he wasn't in the room" is similar to "I saw him in the room, but he wasn't there."

posted by gbarto at 5:12 PM

Sunday, April 17, 2005

German Practice

(from multilingua.info)

A Very Short Wittgenstein Reader

Parts of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus are astonishingly complicated. But at its best, Wittgenstein's style is elegant in its clarity and directness. It is with little more than a handful of propositions that he lays the groundwork for his first all-encompassing philosophical system. Far from being esoteric mishmash, these statements are simple, precise and mindblowingly general. Indeed, one need have hardly any German at all in order to follow section one of the Tractatus. It's easier than "The House that Jack Built"!

Below is the original German, with literal and idiomatic translation and a short glossary. In ten minutes, you'll be able to casually remark upon having a go at Wittgenstein in the original. Won't your friends be impressed!

A note on the glossary: Parentheses () and slashes / indicate different forms of the same word that occur in the reading. Words only given in the first line in which they are used. Notice how much the vocabulary repeats.

1 Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.

1 The World is all, what the Case is.
1 The world is all that is the case.

1 die, der the, of the ... Welt world ... ist/sind is/are ... alle(s) all ... was what ... Fall fall, case, what befalls or comes about

1.1 Die Welt ist die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen, nicht der Dinge.

1.1 The World is the Totality of the Facts, not of the Things.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not things.

1.1 Gesamtheit totality (gesamt = entire) ... Tatsache fact (Tat = deed, Sache = matter, fact) ... nicht not ... Dinge thing

1.1 1 Die Welt ist durch die Tatsachen bestimmt und dadurch dass es alle Tatsachen sind.

1.1 1 The World is through the Facts determined and therethrough that it all Facts are.
1.1 1 The world is determined by the facts and by it being all the facts.

1.1 1 durch through, by ... bestimmt determine(d) ... dadurch therethrough, thereby ... dass that (dadurch dass = by) ... es it

1.1 2 Denn, die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen bestimmt, was der Fall ist und auch, was alles nicht der Fall ist.

1.1 2 Then, the Totality of the Facts determines, what the Case is and also, what all not the Case is.
1.1 2 So the totality of the facts determines what is the case and also everything that is not the case.

1.1 2 denn then ... und and ... auch also

1.1 3 Die Tatsachen im logischen Raum sind die Welt.

1.1 3 The Facts in logical Space are the World.
1.1 3 The facts in logical space are the world.

1.1 3 logisch(en) logical (Logik = logic) ... Raum room, space

1.2 Die Welt zerfällt in Tatsachen.

1.2 The World falls apart into Facts.
1.2 The world is divided into facts.>

1.2 zerfallen/zerfällt to fall apart, break down into (zer- = apart, fallen = fall, befall)

1.2 1 Eines kann der Fall sein oder nicht der Fall sein und alles übrige gleich bleiben.

1.2 1 A thing can the Case be or not the Case be and all left over alike remains.
1.2 1 A thing can be the case or not be the case and everything left remain the same.

1.2 1 ein(es) one, a (thing) ... kann can ... sein (to) be ... oder or ... übrige left over, overage ... glech alike, the same ... bleiben (to) stay or remain

posted by gbarto at 1:41 PM

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Vagueness in Language and Philosophy

In his preface to Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Bertrand Russell asserts:
The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts.

In the same context, he discusses the vagueness of language and the exactitude of mathematics, geometry and the ideal language before passing to the notion of atomic facts and one of Wittgenstein's core points, that we could know everything once we had the totality of the basic facts from which to construct the emanating complex facts.

As I sit and write, I am only capable of having one thought at a time, more or less. I can think about this essay, or the color of the desk at which I'm typing or the sunshine mocking me as I sit inside. But I'm limited in how much I can take in.

If I'm alert or take full stock, I might notice myself taking in a bit more than I let on. In talking, for example, I process my interlocutor's gestures and expressions, the tone of his voice, his stance and more, even as I process my own reactions and decide on my responses.

Both the complexity of my thought, versus pure symbolism, and its simpleness versus the complexity of the world, throw monkey wrenches into the effort to connect language and reality. But there's an even bigger problem lurking, and that is the falseness of the first statement from Russel that I cite.

By considering the purpose and the practice of language, we can start getting at man's thought. This will give us another key to seeing the value of vague knowledge and the utility of relative truth in a world whose complexity exceeds the limits of our full comprehension. By the time I am done, I hope to have made clear that the most difficult problem with Wittgenstein's seventh proposition -

That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence -

is not how much it excludes from our investigation, but that it ultimately excludes everything. We will see, in fact, that the only languages capable of meeting the criteria for an ideal language - one whose propositions are all logical - is one that is entirely self-referential, while Wittgenstein's distinction between propositions that state and language which shows is irrelevant, since the only language worth using is that which shows. Finally, we will make an effort to connect all these dots in order to show how the common vagueness of our language and senses and the faculties we've developed to account for them actually put us in a better position to discover meaningful truth than if our language could attain the precision of the logician's symbology.

1. Language does not exist for stating, but for communicating. It is a form of communion, of causing things to be held in common. Language does not exist unless there is an interlocutor, someone prepared to engage it. Even if this is only the author of the thought, that author will have ever so slightly changed by virtue of having written or spoken, such that the thought is given a new hearing.

As I type, I strike many keys. The code-breaker might guess at which key I strike the most by consulting a letter frequency table. Or he might count. But I'm willing to bet that only a psychologist could guess which key I've struck the most as I've typed today: the delete key. We do this in speech, too, with our umms, our ers, our restatements.

Even now, I'm communicating with myself, first about what I think, second about what I wish to say to you, the reader (even if that you, right now, is me!). If I were a logician, I could write a series of logical propositions with precise symbols. There would in this way be no need for me to go back and say, "Do I really want to say it that way?" But there would also be no point in saying it. If you knew the symbols and the ways of juxtaposing them, I'd only be telling you what you already know. If you didn't, you wouldn't get anything from it.

Socrates said we can only be taught what we already know (see the Meno), but this is not strictly true. Rather, we can only be taught what can coexist with and build upon our prior knowledge, including our a priori knowledge. That is, we learn by combining what we've already learned and what we sense. Were we so constituted as to be able to sense everything, identifying Wittgenstein's every "simple," there'd be too much to take in. We'd never learn anything because too many things would be contingent upon too many other things at too many and too complex levels.

What holds true for our thinking holds true for our speaking. Neither language nor thought can be all-encompassing. It is already thought that a single human brain is more complex and unpredictable than the working of the sun at the center of our solar system. In spite of this, there is at least one complexity it cannot handle: itself. We do not judge parking spaces to the nearest quarter inch but leave margin for error. The same is true of our thinking, which works to locate not perfection but an acceptable margin of error.

We know that the way we are wired works for parking cars - most of the time, anyway. It gets us through tasks like catching baseballs, cutting out recognizable circles and lots of other things too. Is it good enough for philosophy though?

Philosophy, of course, is the love of wisdom. Let's toss out a proposition: Moderation is good while excess is wasteful. Surely this proposition also applies to knowledge, sensation and wisdom. If we need not slice our bread to the nearest millimeter, neither need we split hairs to the nth degree. It is unwise, then, to go to extremes in our formulations of and researches into philosophy. This does not mean that we limit our inquiry, but it does require that we acknowledge our limitations. Our language was not created to decode the world for its own sake, but so that we could share our experiences within it.

Later in his career, Wittgenstein disavowed most of the Tractatus and began looking at the problems inherent in language. His work on "The Privacy of the Senses" sheds a lot of light on the difficulties two human beings will have communicating something such that the speaker and listener are left with exactly the same impression. But our language doesn't exist, as I've said, to assert the true or deny the false. It exists to help us commune, to share our experiences in ways that will be meaningful among interlocutors. Because different things have different meanings for different people, conveying exact facts or even sensations would be useless; they would still fail to match up because they came to be only within the contexts of different existences. But the privacy of the senses bring us something wonderful: an ability to create our own conception of what a person is trying to share. This is better than symbology. Instead of transmitting or replicating meaning, it goads the creation of new meaning founded on the old.

If human beings actually stumbled upon a symbolic language that perfectly replicated ideas among individuals, we would stagnate. Imagine if Aristotle had been able to convey things in such a way that Descartes knew exactly what he was saying. We never would have got "Cogito ergo sum," because Descartes would never have suffered unease at something in Aristotle not quite resonating. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, pace Liebniz, but we live in a pretty good one and one that is growing better. Ours is a world where we're even smart enough thanks to developments in quantum physics to realize we're back to square one, knowing more than ever about what we know about but less than ever about things we realize we need to learn about.

Human progress follows a process that is not thesis, antithesis, synthesis but more like peeling Zeno's onion. Over time, the universe lets us peel off a leaf and we see something wild, new and fresh beneath. Then we use the dialectic to talk about what we've seen. But the next serious bit of progress comes when we pull of the next leaf. The thing is - and this is why I call it Zeno's onion - beneath each leaf is another half the size of the previous one but with twice as many veins. Ad infinitum. The more we refine, the stranger and curiouser are the things we find to explore. This will let us grow forever - or at least till the last trump sounds or the sun goes out - whereas a supposedly ideal language would ultimately strand us in a world that truly conformed to Wittgenstein's seventh proposition in the Tractatus: There would truly be nothing left that we could talk about.

posted by gbarto at 10:47 PM

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Universal Truth vs. Nominalism?

In his new book, The Cube and the Cathedral, George Weigel draws contrasts Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. He tells us that Aquinas saw freedom as the opportunity for self-perfection, living within law being the equivalent for the soul of making good music by building on what is already known of the art.

Ockham, we are told, goes in a different direction. Arguing that absolutes exist only in our minds, he consequently undermined the notions of human nature and the natural philosophical laws derived therefrom.

Weigel notes that Kant tried to overcome Ockham's "Nominalism" with the categorical imperative. He suggests Kant failed.

Certainly, given the relativism we know today, Kant did fail to bring the world around to his viewpoint. It's harder to say, though, where to go from there. However, I think that Kant does show the way.

The problem that we run into is that neither Ockham nor Aquinas fully square with reality. The absolutes don't exist, as I've elsewhere argued, at least not in a way that is knowable to human. But just because an absolute, a Platonic essence, doesn't exist, doesn't mean that species of it don't. There is no such thing as the quintessential cat, yet this morning I saw two of them. One of them was, sadly, dead; it had been struck by a car. Another was sitting in the neighbor's window. No speaker of the English language could have failed to identify either specimen as a cat. Had I pointed to either and said, "dog," a child of three years would have corrected me.

Where philosophers go astray is in focusing on absolutes. This is silly, for even exacting scientists know better.

A chemist cannot say exactly how much an atom weighs, except relative to other atoms. When you perform an experiment, the last thing you do is calculate the margin of error and note the perceived reliability of your results. If you're doing something big and new, you note the parameters in which the experiment works.

At the far end of margins for error, the physicist with an electron microscope or a supercollider must confide that once he registers something, it's not there. That's the nature of the beast at that level. Observation alters at the quantum level, so at that level we can only stab at what was, not know what is.

Why, if science has limitations, shouldn't philosophy? I submit that it does. The quantum physicist cannot pinpoint where that quark shot out, but he can reliably tell you that it wasn't in Jersey when he detected it. Likewise, philosophy may not be able to locate absolute truth, but it can detect relative truth, giving a rough idea where it is to be found.

Like science, philosophy cannot refine truth down to the incontestable, absolute and absolutely precise. But it can help us locate the truth within a certain orbit. What's on the outer edges may be in dispute, but what's in the middle need not be, according to this model.

I don't believe there are absolute essences. I'm surer still that humans wouldn't know them if they saw them. But if Platonic essences exist, or even if there exist definitions for the essential or ideal of things, there is only one way of knowing them, perhaps. The way to do this is tricky. You must be God. This is a challenge that most of us cannot meet. Only one man fits that bill as far as the Christians are concerned. As for Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others, I don't think they perceive the existence of even one man who is God. So what do we do with that?

It's time to get back to Kant and look at his categorical imperative. Kant created his system in an effort to disprove Hume's absolute empiricism by showing that our experience is refracted though a priori cognition, that we have not only sense organs but internal systems for decoding the information they provide. In understanding the setup, we find a way of hunting for and finding truth, felt Kant (in the unlikely event I both fully and correctly understand him). In his efforts, he was quite correct: we are incapable of decoding the whole of the electron soup we inhabit but we are not reliant upon sense systems to decode so much as to decide what to leave out.

If we see the Kantian categorical imperative as the key to finding absolute knowlege, we are out of luck; however, the major part of the categorical imperative is to decide how to filter out things we don't need to know, subtleties we don't need to perceive. So if we take it as a tool for situating things in the proper categories, then we find in it not the key to finding The Truth, but a means for working toward an understanding of truth that, like our definition of cat, is neither absolute nor necessarily of complete universality, but which gives human civilization in the main something to go on. That is, while the categorical imperative doesn't help us achieve the impossible - knowing everything with certainty - it implies that we are meant or shaped to find order and make sense of things. This implies that by design of God, evolution or both, Ockham's Nominalism may be a reality we must face, but Aquinas' quest for freedom in excellence is what drives us onward.

Looking at the knowledge resulting from the categorical imperative, we can reconcile Thomas and Ockham, seeing that Nominalism, though true, is only useful if not totally accepted, while Thomas' postulation of universals, while not technically true, conforms to our experience of a working civilization. And thus we come upon a new precept to confound both the absolutists and the relativists: The relative truth of individuals is not completely relative, but hints at the unknowable but absolute truth that lies at the foundation of our world.

posted by gbarto at 11:23 PM

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Tractatus Illogico-Philosophicus

A Short Consideration of Human Existence

1 Possible relationships of humans to the body

1.1 If we are our bodies,
when our bodies die, we die.

1.2 If we are contained in our bodies, when our bodies die,
we must go elsewhere or cease.

1.3 If
1) we are not our bodies
2) we are not contained in our bodies
the dying of our bodies does not matter.

1.4 If our bodies are expressions of our consciousness,
when we die, our consciousness can no longer use them for expression.

2 Life as chance or a miracle

2.1 Our existence is either a bizarre set of coincidences or a miracle.

2.1.1 If our existence is a bizarre set of coincidences,
a sense that there is a deeper meaning to life may also result.

2.1.2 If our existence is a mirace,
a sense that there is a deeper meaning to life is correct.

2.2 It is impossible to know which is the case.

2.2.1 A miraculous universe could furnish to the senses evidence of a random universe.

2.2.2 A probabilistic but meaningless universe could furnish to the senses evidence of meaning.

3 Life as waveform

3.1 Human existence may transcend the body in either a miraculous or a probabilistic universe.

3.1.1 In a probabilistic universe, human actions change the shape of the cosmos and the unfolding of history at least minutely.

3.1.2 In a miraculous universe, human actions may be of cosmological significance.

3.2 Death and transcending of death

3.2.1 If we define life as the inhabiting of a body,
we all will probably die.

3.2.2 If we define life as the quality of impacting the lives of others,
we all live forever.

3.3 Death and sentimentality

3.3.1 When we remember someone and allow those memories to affect us,
we are extending that person's life.

3.3.2 When we adhere to an old practice whose logic is no longer fully known,
we extend the life of the practice's originator.

3.3.3 When we consciously break from an old practice whose logic is no longer fully known,
we also extend the life of the practice's originator.

3.3.4 Every life is consequential.

4 Manner of living and relationship to the universe

4.1 When we live our lives as though we are only bodies,
it affects those around us,their lives, and ultimately the course of history.

4.2 When we live our lives as though we are contained in our bodies,
it affects those around us, their lives, and ultimately the course of history.

4.3 When we live our lives as though are bodies are irrelevant to our existence,
it affects those around us, their lives, and ultimately the course of history.

4.4 When we live our lives as though are bodies are expressions of our consciousness,
it affects those around us, their lives, and ultimately the course of history.

4.5 Our existences resonate forever through the cosmos,
whether we want them to or not.

5 Human existence as body and spirit

5.1 Our bodies are subject to death.

5.2 The consequences of our actions are not.

6 Spirit

6.1 Whether we feel our lives have meaning or not, we are part of an all-encompassing, unknowable but plainly present system that animates our universe.

6.1.1 The system as God Some identify the source of this system, or the system itself, as God. Others don't.

6.1.2 The stakes The cosmological consequences of being wrong could be dire. Or not.

6.1.3 The ultimate answers One day we will find out. Unless we don't.

6.2 Defining God and system

6.2.1 Must
1) the system of the universe meet the definition of God
2) God meet the definition of the system of the universe
for us to decide if there is a God?

6.2.2 Is it possible for the universe to have spirit without having God in our traditional sense?

6.2.3 Do these questions matter if we don't encounter God in the traditional sense?

6.3 Integrating God and system

6.3.1 To pass over in silence that of which we cannot speak is foolishness: Doing so would require ignoring rainbows before the discovery of optics,
but without interest in rainbows, optics would never have been discovered. To not ponder the meaning of human existence if it seemingly cannot be known,
assures that we will never discover if there is a meaning to life or what it is. To not speak of God and spirit until we understand or know them
would likewise assure that we never discover the nature of God or spirit.

7 Where there is meaning in human existence,
it will be found in talking about that of which we cannot speak.

posted by gbarto at 10:00 PM

Sunday, April 10, 2005

I am a skeptic...

You are a Sceptic.
You are a Sceptic.
Philosophical skepticism originated in ancient
Greek philosophy. One of its first proponents
was Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-275 B.C.), who
travelled and studied as far as India, and
propounded the adoption of 'practical'
skepticism. Subsequently, in the 'New Academy'
Arcesilaos (c. 315-241 B.C.) and Carneades (c.
213-129 B.C.) developed more theoretical
perspectives, whereby conceptions of absolute
truth and falsity were refuted. Carneades
criticised the views of the Dogmatists,
especially supporters of Stoicism, asserting
that absolute certainty of knowledge is
impossible. Sextus Empiricus (c. A.D. 200), the
main authority for Greek skepticism, developed
the position further, incorporating aspects of
empiricism into the basis for asserting

Greek skeptics criticised the Stoics, accusing them
of dogmatism. For the skeptics, the logical
mode of argument was untenable, as it relied on
propositions which could not be said to be
either true or false without relying on further
propositions. This was the argument of infinite
regress, whereby every proposition must rely on
other propositions in order to maintain its
validity. In addition, the skeptics argued that
two propositions could not rely on each other,
as this would create a circular argument (as p
implies q and q implies p). For the skeptics
logic was thus an inadequate measure of truth
which could create as many problems as it
claimed to have solved. Truth was not, however,
necessarily unobtainable, but rather an idea
which did not yet exist in a pure form.
Although skepticism was accused of denying the
possibility of truth, in actual fact it appears
to have mainly been a critical school which
merely claimed that logicians had not
discovered truth.

Which Hellenistic School of Philosophy Would You Belong To?
brought to you by Quizilla
(via Cicero)

posted by gbarto at 11:51 PM

Friday, April 08, 2005

Why Philosophize?

I have already laid out a case for the impossibility of total knowledge, either in practice or in theory. This is no great thing, for any normal person could tell you that we'll never know everything. It is only those in the loftier perches - social scientists planning government programs and physicists exploring the Grand Unified Theory - who believe in such nonsense as the idea they could actually know all there was to know, even in a single domain. But the impossibility of total knowledge is still a thing that needs to be explored. If we don't, we risk losing our appreciation both for what we can know and for the implications of the limits on our knowledge.

There has long been a divison between the elite and the general population. Elites are characterized as know-it-alls who somehow still know nothing about real life. Ordinary people are characterized as know-nothings who have no appreciation for the value of refinement or the possibilities of progress. Both characterizations reach that highest degree of unfairness that comes in being correct. Ordinary people are too quick to denounce the counterintuitive if it stirs unpleasant thoughts. And the hyperintelligent are too caught up in the elegance of their theories to notice when they aren't working.

The real purpose of this essay is to ask the question, Why philosophize? And how? My approach to these questions is practical, rather than theoretical. This is appropriate, for theory is in any case only of value if it imposes a useful framework on what practice reveals, while theory that fails to derive from practice is exact only to the degree that it is useless.

So, then, why philosophize? Because we need answers. But what if they're the wrong ones? That's a trickier proposition. It depends, in part, on what you mean by "wrong." I have already asserted that good theory imposes a useful framework on what practice has shown. In this regard, right and wrong answers lose their existential status as value judgments and become tools for assessing the "seaworthiness" of an idea. If you float it and it does not sink, you use it, however ungainly it appears. If it sinks, you discard it, however well it seemed to be designed.

In a pure intellectual system, the struggle between good ideas and bad ideas would be dispassionate but absolute. When a new good idea seemed to work better than the old one, the old one would be gone and that would be that. In this way, by the weighing of good ideas and bad ideas, we could ultimately determine the best ideas. One way of doing this would be with the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. But neither this nor any other mechanism will actually arise that successfully weeds out all the bad ideas and promotes all the good ideas.

The problem with the systems of Hegel, Kant and even those seeking the Grand Unified Theory is that their projects are fundamentally unsound. Ideas do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in people. Knowledge as an independent entity is a Platonic essence, wonderful to conceive of but wholly non-existent. We dream of knowledge, but in fact there is only knowing.

Whereas knowledge is a thing, freestanding but non-existent, knowing is a process, variable but ubiquitous. We all know something. Because of our natures, however, we know it not absolutely, but within a context, specifically the context of our experiences. When we know something, this does not mean that we know "a thing." It means that we experience impressions in relation to other impressions.

Etymologically, a "fact" is a thing which has been done. This "fact" captures the true essence of our knowledge perfectly, reminding that the world is not composed of free-standing ideas, but of processes that begin and end while time grinds on. A fact in our brain, likewise, does not exist as a freestanding idea, but as an ineffable process of summoning from within sense impressions first known from without. It is a replay if not of the fact then of our process of learning of it.

The points that I am making about knowledge may seem like much hairsplitting, but there is an important message in here. We cannot find absolute truths because the world doesn't exist in absolutes. We do not in fact know what things are, only how we experience them. This not only defeats the notion of absolute knowledge, but it magnificently reveals the value of our inexact knowledge and brings us back to my earlier question about pure truths and right and wrong.

I've already argued that we can't know everything because this would require that we know ourselves yet without being altered by that knowledge, a thing which is impossible for human beings. But can we know enough? And what is enough?

The validity of a theory rests on whether or not it conforms to existence evidence and succesfully predicts what happens in the future. A proper theory includes a warning about how accurate it is. Our lives are lived according to theories. If we smile, we can make people smile back - a lot of the time. If we hit a wall, it hurts - always. If we go to work on time, we get paid - usually. These things seem obvious, but they are learned either by observation or by personal experience. People in different countries will have differing theories about these matters, but they will have arrived at what they "know" about the world the same way a scientist knows that salt dissolves in water.

If we take theory to be a highfalutin thing for haughty intellectuals, we won't think much of it. And the haughty intellectuals, likewise, won't think much of us. But in truth the doctor who uses a chemotherapy drug effective 35% of the time and the person who runs to the bus stop even though he's late because the bus might be late too are in the same boat. They're using experiential knowledge - I should say "knowing" - in accordance with a framework that is imperfect but better than nothing.

If even doctors dealing with matters of life and death can rely on experiential knowledge with limited utility, this raises the question of just what it takes for knowledge to be useful.

Two thousand years ago, the Jews didn't consume pork because of warnings against eating animals with cloven hooves. The cloven hoof was associated with the devil. So, is pork Satanic? We know now that the cloven hoof is more susceptible to burrowing by the trichina worm. In a time and place with limited cooking technology, eating pork was potentially deadly, right or wrong in "moral" terms. So, what of now? Should Jews eat pork since we know now what made it deadly and how to make it not deadly?

In a pure intellectual system, the eating of pork would be okay now that we know how to do so safely. But we do not exist in a pure intellectual system. We exist as people in society. And our ideas exist not only in the context of where and how we learned of them, but also in context to one another. The not eating of pork exists in the context of a belief system rooted in an all-powerful and sometimes unpleasant deity who cast man out of paradise for the failure to follow His commands. In this context, we move from thesis - good, antithesis - bad to synthesis - indeterminate.

If a disease were ravaging mankind and the eating of pork cured it, Jews and Muslims would have to decide whether the greater value lay in dying for their faith or discarding the prohibition in order to live. With heaven and hell possibly at stake, it would be a rough call. But right now, the prohibition is not so restrictive that it would be "wrong" to abstain from eating pork, just because others have found a way to do so safely. To the contrary, if faith brought the benefits of self-confidence, attention to the greater good of mankind and devotion to hearth and home, it would still be right to abstain from eating pork if the believer felt it necessary to maintaining the complex of ideas that brought about the other goods.

Why philosophize, then, particularly with all our sticky and uncerain answers? Because we need to some way to decide how to live before we have all the answers. Philosophy, for all its imperfections, supplies us with a means to organize our impressions of the world into the sort of understanding that helps us with this process.

posted by gbarto at 10:07 PM

Dialectic of Life

or the
Impossibility of Knowing it All

Hegel was, to all accounts, impossibly brilliant, impossibly incomprehensible and just a little bit of a pain in the you know where. But he had a very good idea with his dialectic. If only he had fully understood its implications.

The dialectic supposes a logical movement from a thesis to its antithesis to a synthesis of the two. Consider the following chain: A says the government should control everything. B says the government should control nothing. C, sitting in the middle, suggests that maybe the government should do some things. That's phase one. Then the sequence starts again. A says the government should run the economy. B says it shouldn't. C says it should intervene sometimes. A says it should intervene to help the unemployed. B says it shouldn't. C decides it should only help the unemployed who really can't get jobs. This continues until finally an unemployment policy emerges.

That was a bit tedious, and wasn't an exact picture of how the dialectic works. But it should give you an idea if you haven't run across this.

Hegel believed that through the continuous refinement of this dialectic, we'd eventually get down to the real answers. The example I chose of how this works has a flaw: Governments have been designing unemployment compensation systems for quite some time. They show no signs of stopping. And now you have to ask yourself the question, do you think the left and right will ever agree that they've got it right, declare there's nothing more for the politicians to do and go home?

Hegel believed his dialectic would eventually lead to the truth. In practice, it leads to ever finer refinements of evermore tedious minutiae. In the 1990s, many complained about the tediousness of American politics. Somehow, the less important the issue, the more fractious the debate about it. In fact, what we were witnessing was the winding down of the Reagan era. The dialectic was being refined at what might be called a "micropolitical" level, that is, a level of insufficient consequence for the making of political hay.

Had Hegel been right, the Bush presidency would have been a snooze. The volume levels would have been high, but just to compensate for the lack of things being said. However, 9/11 came along and threw all the old assumptions about security out the window. As a consequence, we've started working on a whole new series of dialectics - security vs. liberty, safety vs. cost, foreign vs. domestic policy as the key priority of government.

Here's the funny thing. If you've followed so far, you've noticed that the Hegelian thing was coming along nicely, and you might be wondering if we couldn't eventually have reached a full consensus on how government was supposed to work if 9/11 hadn't come along. The answer is that something like 9/11 had to come along. Maybe it would have been something different that happened. Maybe a number of small things would have upset the applecart. But regardless of how it comes about, something always prevents the dialectic from reaching its conclusion.

When Hegel was in his prime, he was convinced that all the answers would soon be found. Physics was getting smarter and smarter, explaining more and more. Philosophers were putting together more and more about how we think through the world. Medicine was decoding the body as mechanism. That all went to hell, too, with the arrival of quantum physics.

The wit may joke at the ultra-religious who are always convinced that the world is now at last so bad that the Messiah is sure to return in their lifetime. The same joke may be made about the scientist who, knowing so much more than the greatest scientists of the century before, believes himself at the pinnacle of science. In both cases, there's a theoretical possibility they're right, but a greater likelihood that they're hysterical. Here's why: The earth is an organism.

The environmentalists, of course, have been telling us for years that the earth is an organism. Maybe the pagan references to Mother Earth represent the first intuition of this. But they haven't understood the full implication of this. If the earth is an organism, it is subject to death. But in the meantime, it is subject to entropy, to instability, to flux.

If you attempt to take a degree in chemistry, you may one day stumble into a course in biochemistry. Should you do so, you will discover something strange: in all the equations, the arrows go both ways. Inorganic and organic chemistry are both rife with equations that end with a final product to be extracted and used elsewhere. But in biochemistry, the goal is not to create a product, but to keep the equations going. The only real goal is the generation of heat, this indicating that energy is being consumed. In this chemical process, the final products are the waste and the still unstable solutions are the end. Once all the equations balance in biochemistry, you're dead.

If the earth is an organism, the same thing applies. Environmentalists sometimes posit an earthly paradise where we all exist in harmony with the earth and where, finally, nature is allowed to blossom to its fullest. The picture is pretty, but it is an eschaton. And like the Marxian "end of history," it isn't going to happen.

For the world we know to exist, inasmuch as it functions as an organism, it must remain unstable. Species must die. New ones must arise or evolve. As part of the mix, humans must continue to be human. This is not a political imperative for which governmental initiative is required. It's simply the way things are. If you're a Christian, you see man as fallen. If not, you probably don't think he was ever that high to begin with. And so people, individually and collectively, will continue to wreak havoc. So will the stronger species vis-à-vis the weak, the rivers vis-à-vis the rocks and so on.

The necessary instability of the earth raises an interesting philosophical problem: If everything still in play is unstable, how can we ever know everything? This is the aim of the Hegelian project after all. But it's an impossible aim.

I've already talked about the problem of getting politicians to agree that a problem is solved. What about scientists? I said that if 9/11 hadn't shaken the American project, something else would have knocked it out of its slumbers enough to start new debates. Is it also necessary that scientists will get a surprise every time they think they've got almost all the answers? Of course.

Every time that science has a really good run, one of two things happen. Either the new discoveries are so astonishing that we spend a couple centuries stagnating for our unwillingness to challenge the no longer new and fresh. Or punk scientiests make new discoveries that throw the old ones into doubt. Aristotle explained the whole world for centuries. Newton and Descartes messed the whole thing up by showing that a) Aristotle was wrong and b) his basis for knowledge was unsound. Then Newton and Descartes explained the whole thing for a few centuries till Einstein and the quantum physicists showed that a) Newton was wrong and b) Descartes basis for knowledge was unsound. The quantum physicists pulled a really neat trick, showing that even Hume was relatively uninquisitive about the dubiousness of reality existing as we thjnk we perceive it. Since then, we've suddenly stumbled upon the string theorists who think they've got a workable Grand Unified Theory. Don't count on it.

Every time we know something, there is a curious but predictable result: We act on that knowledge. The problem is that when this is so, the dynamic that created that knowledge is altered. Today's twenty year-old in therapy knows enough about Freudian psychology that Freud himself would be at odds in getting around the already self-diagnosed and otherly-repressed feelings that underlay the patient's neuroses.

The expert stock picker from twenty years ago will get clobbered by traders who have learned his techniques and how to sucker those using them. And so on. No one is giving their bank account numbers to "Nigerian refugees" anymore.

Even if we start to figure out everything else in the world, there are two fundamental sources of instability in the world (one if you're an atheist). This first of these is a Creator whose fullest plans and intentions are not fully known and whose ability to turn things completely upside down is presumably unlimited. One hates to take Kant and Wittgenstein's dodge, but for the purposes of this discussion, we may pass over God in silence as there's nothing we can do about him. But there's a second monkey wring in the gears, and that is us. For us to predict how we're going to act and react requires that we simultaneously know our psychology so well as to even see where we will act both against our own purposes and the greater good and yet know it so little that we soldier on anyway. Human beings with self-knowledge self-correct. Not well, not wisely and not always consistently. But there is enough adjustment based on knowledge that knowing would create adjustment that led to not knowing. This, then, creates a final bit of instability in any logical system, including science. We can't know everything, because we would act in ways that kept us from knowing everything if we did.

The place I posit is, of course, the place where thesis, antithesis, synthesis really leads. The endless refinements that help us know more and more always ultimately bring us to a place where our epistemology is blown to hell by the self-contradictory nature of the oracle's injunction, "Know thyself." If we could, we wouldn't be who we are; if we did, we wouldn't be who we are. Whether this instability owes to quantum interactions in the brain, souls floating about in unmapped dimensions or something else entirely we'll never know. But this much can be known: For the whole of the world to be fully understood, we must be understood. And the only way for us to be fully understood is for the life-force that animates us to have been stilled.

Whether the world ends with a bang, a collapse or the blowing of the final trump is unclear. But until our species' instinction, the dialectic of life requires, as we have shown, that no all-encompassing philosophical system, including science, shall ever succeed in the aim of explaining it all.

posted by gbarto at 10:04 PM

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

On the meaning of pain

Oscar Wilde once observed on some writing, "The good were rewarded and the wicked were punished. That's how you know it's fiction."

The statement may be cynical, but it speaks to the injustice we all perceive in the world.

It is sometimes suggested that pain and suffering are God or nature's way of telling us something is wrong. In this vein, moral suffering - agony of spirit - would be divine law's way of steering us to righteousness.

But too often the goodhearted are long suffering while the indifferent are equally unscarred.

If we conceive of pain as divine judgment, this seems very miscalibrated, for it leads the righteous to question their most noble deeds while the iniquitous mock the good for what they see as useless piety.

But if we treat pain as a teacher, things become clearer. The wise teacher instructs all who will listen but concentrates on those who can learn the most.

Could it be that the wicked among us who escape pain do so because nature and God recognize they can't be taught?

Could it be that the righteous unconsciously attract pain by their desire to know and understand the whole of God's creation, with pain being its most mystifying element?

The gurus tell us to focus our attention on what we want in our lives. If we focus on the good that comes into our lives, that will be what we most notice, even if it isn't what is most present. If we focus on the evil in the world, that will be what we most notice, even if it isn't what is most present.

The wickedly indifferent, then, surpass the heartily righteous in their collection of life's bounty.

Does this mean we too should be wickedly indifferent?

No. It means we should cultivate detachment from both the evil and the unpleasant, concentrating on the good and just. Only in this way will the greatest number of souls know fully the splendor of God's creation.

posted by gbarto at 1:25 PM



Woody Allen said that 90% of life is showing up. He didn't add that the other 10% was knowing where. For most of us, that's the hard part.

The best gurus would tell us that the "where" is wherever our hearts are freest to give what we most want to share. They're probably right. But to act on this intuition is to reveal to others who we most fundamentally want to be. Few of us want to reveal this to others. Even fewer to themselves.

That's why it's so hard.

* * *

Light generates heat.

Heat rises.

So does light.

When we turn on the lights, we illuminate the ceiling while heat drifts out the attic.

In the winter, at least, why not put our lamps on the floor?

Is it because the sun is "up there"?

posted by gbarto at 1:21 PM

Monday, April 04, 2005

Introduction to the Site

A long time ago, a man named Aristotle tried to figure out how the world worked. He said many foolish things (don't we all?) and one of them ran something like this: There was some sort of universal force linking all the objects in the universe. Until Newton came along, a lot of people believed this hooey. Then, thank goodness, Newton discovered gravity and things made a lot more sense.

Eventually, a goofball named Einstein showed up on the scene. He wasn't a philosopher. He did physics, not metaphysics. His works led to other silly chaps suspecting the existence of a whole other layer of reality below what we perceive. A reality governed by four fundamental forces that may boil down to wiggly, squiggly things all over the place called strings that are connected to each other in ways we just don't get.

Was Aristotle right? Or Newton? Maybe they were both right. Einstein tells us that just about everything depends on the position of the observer. From their respective positions in history, Aristotle and Newton both offered cogent observations that brought greater meaning and understanding to those around them.

Lately, the scientists keep discovering lots of neat things. Some of them are so ridiculous that they believe the logical conclusion of this will be that they discover everything.

The only group that's more ridiculous is the philosophers. Even though they often don't understand the scientists, they worship them. Unless they're deconstructing them. At any rate, since they've largely forfeited the world, today's philosophers spend a lot of time talking about how they like to talk about the world and coming up with reasons why their inability to find any meaning at all marks an even greater cleverness than that of those who once sought to explain everything.

I frankly prefer those philosophers who sought to figure out everything. Not that I'll necessarily undertake that task. But I do aim to try to make sense of what's up with the world, based on what I see and read and think. And here's where I'll be doing it, either by responding to writers and philosophers before or by my reaction to what strike me as significant events.

posted by gbarto at 7:25 PM