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.

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Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: German-English Text





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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Education = Choice?

Scott Adams notes that
[E]xtra-smart religious people almost always admit (privately) that their religion is more of a choice than a perception.
But does this say more about religion or education? I commented:

Through most of college, I was sort of a Christian out of habit. Then while I was living in France I attended an Easter Mass as much for culture as anything and something clicked part way through the service that left me thinking, "Well, either I'm insane or there's something to this." It's ironic - I was "born again" in a Catholic church.

Knowing how I came to faith, I try not to be too judgmental of others' beliefs. At the same time, I think different people approach things from different angles. At one level, people want to know where we came from. At another level, the focus is on why we're here at all. At that point, you have to make a judgment as to whether it's more credible to believe this happened by chance or to believe in an intelligence taking the trouble to shape and make it.

I choose - as Scott said - to believe in the shaping intelligence bit because, as I noted, things that hadn't made sense before suddenly did one day when I was admittedly a bit suggestible. But since then, I have to confess, I haven't run across anything sufficient to change my mind. It's my brain and I'll think what I want with it.

I think many atheists cannot be quite this open-minded about their ignorance or their susceptibility to confusing what feels right with what they know. They're like fundamentalists in that regard. Religion may be easier to choose if you're ignorant, but if you're rational about most of life the illogical or unknowable can be equally scary. Easier to believe there's nothing there to know.

The educated ease away from religion because they're used to questioning but acclimated enough to knowing the answers that they're suspicious about things when they don't. They don't like the blind spot and are wary of being taken advantage of over it. Especially by such as the delusions that prompted people to send money to Jim and Tammy Faye.

Educated people who are religious, I think, are aware of this blind spot and the limitations it places on finding The Truth but like that it allows them room to find their own truth. And others room to find theirs. Knowing they've chosen the delusion of faith over the delusion of meaninglessness, though, the educated can be freer about the choices others make than either dogmatic believers or dogmatic atheists.

Scott notes that the educated religious choose to believe, rather than being compelled. I suspect the educated atheist has better reasons to disbelieve than the unionist who got into communist propaganda too. In fact, the educated make choices all the time that are lacking for the uneducated. Educated Scott writes affirmations to stay on track while uneducated scribbles wish their strips would get picked up, to take an example at random. What Scott has revealed is interesting, then, not for the questions it raises about religion but about what can be done with life depending on whether one's eyes are open or shut to the world's possibilities. Education opens eyes, hence choices. Including choosing which unknowable to "know".

posted by gbarto at 8:04 PM

Monday, April 10, 2006

Scott Adams says:
How many of you believe in evolution because you accept the scientific consensus, yet also believe you have free will despite the scientific consensus against it? If so, explain your reasons.

According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, those who believe in both evolution and free will experience dissonance and will therefore offer arguments that appear humorously nonsensical to observers. Let’s see if that is true.
We begin our nonsense with two quotes:

1.1 1 The world is determined by the facts and by it being all the facts. - Wittgenstein (my translation)

The unexamined life is not worth living. - Socrates

If the world is determined by the facts, so is everything within it. Including you and me. This is the view taken by Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Much of the Tractatus seems to be an embodiment of the positivist notion that if we only gather all the facts, we will know the truth. This is a road that believers in science still tread, ever groping about for the next bit of information to further shrink the world of mystery and expand the world of knowledge. It is a route, however, that Wittgenstein obliquely rejected in wrapping up his ostensibly all-encompassing philosophical system.

Wittgenstein's biggest philosophical breakthrough in the Tractatus was the final line: That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence. It is a startling conclusion, indicating, in essence, that while the preceeding pages have laid out an internally coherent structure for understanding thought and meaning, any questions you might have probably don't have answers.

Free will is one of those questions lacking answers. Whether it exists or not is in the mind of the beholder. It is plausible enough to assert that in a cause and effect universe, everything has its reason. It is plausible even to add that this reason may not, ought not, be ours, but that of the workings of the universe. It is plausible, further, to argue that the randomness of the quantum universe, while murkying the waters of the world of cause and effect don't indicate that we're taking the decisions, just that there is something beyond the Newtonian that impels our taking of them. And yet, something doesn't feel quite right. There's a why in there somewhere that knocks things about. Here's the why:

Why are we talking about this?

It could, of course, be part of some master plan. We could be fragments of God's consciousness, exploring ourselves individually so He can contemplate Himself by assembling the manifold impressions. Though we're dubious about this working since the world just may be more than everything that is the case, or all the facts. As He would know. It seems less likely that chance would impel us to wonder if we're a product of chance. And then, there's a second problem, which is that this debate makes the cause-effect thing bewilderingly complex if not impossible. Time for Socrates.

Socrates said "The unexamined life is not worth living." He could have added that it is lived differently. Free will or not, those who are circumspect about their existences seem to make different, even if predetermined, choices than those who don't. It is possible that our destinies are fixed, but it's usually not the straight-A, college-bound debate team captains who are tragically killed in car-surfing accidents, to take an example, er, at random. When we examine our lives, the type of choices we make change. And here's the kicker: It works the same way with everything!

Quantum physics teaches us that the act of observation affects the thing being measured when you reach a small enough scale. In my case, this is when the paper slips as I attempt to line up the ruler. But even scientists with electron microscopes can't look at a quark without screwing everything up in the quark's afternoon plans, and possibly the quark's entire neighborhood, in the process. We know about some subatomic particles in space because of traces they leave on our instruments, but this cosmic doo-doo, too, comes from somewhere, and our act of measuring thus has its effect.

Is there free will? It's a difficult question. Especially because our attempts to answer it change, over time, everything. Observation alters. Even a predetermined "choice" to observe impacts. If you believe in a clockwork universe, it may be possible to see one thing leading to another to the point where the Rube Goldbergian space-time contraption produces organic beings that think they're thinking when really they're not and whose subtle alterations of whole galaxies by the process are of no more consequence than cows dispensing dung where we might step without looking - a great and cosmic sh-- happens. But Occam's spinning in his grave as I write.

Is there evolution? Sure. Is there free will? Likewise. But neither exist in fact in the way they manifest to us. Our senses are better suited to avoiding (imperfectly) the cow dung than tapping into the rolling probabilities of the quantum world where our free will either exists or is engulfed in a subtle, unfathomable determinism whose randomness makes it all the more splendid and undetectable within the realm of our daily experience.

The whole thing is so perplexing that some people choose to believe that some primordial intelligence - call it God - slammed this whole thing together as an expression of His will and that just perhaps, He willed the unfolding of the world in a way that looks like evolution because that was His design, even as they think themselves to have free will because in infusing them with His spirit they picked up their own dash of that power to exist and to create. And when these things were done, He looked and saw that it was good. If utterly baffling.

posted by gbarto at 1:00 PM