Friday, June 17, 2011

Some Notes on Spinoza

Taken from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The world must, in some sense, be a part of "god," although god is not conceived in a traditional, monotheistic way (old man with beard): "“those who feign a God, like man, consisting of a body and a mind, and subject to passions. But how far they wander from the true knowledge of God, is sufficiently established by what has already been demonstrated.”

"This proof that God—an infinite, necessary and uncaused, indivisible being—is the only substance of the universe proceeds in three simple steps. First, establish that no two substances can share an attribute or essence (Ip5). Then, prove that there is a substance with infinite attributes (i.e., God) (Ip11). It follows, in conclusion, that the existence of that infinite substance precludes the existence of any other substance. For if there were to be a second substance, it would have to have some attribute or essence. But since God has all possible attributes, then the attribute to be possessed by this second substance would be one of the attributes already possessed by God. But it has already been established that no two substances can have the same attribute. Therefore, there can be, besides God, no such second substance."

We see "things" in nature as serving ends, often our ends. But Spinoza says this is an anthropomorphizing fiction:

"Spinoza's fundamental insight in Book One is that Nature is an indivisible, uncaused, substantial whole—in fact, it is the only substantial whole. Outside of Nature, there is nothing, and everything that exists is a part of Nature and is brought into being by Nature with a deterministic necessity. This unified, unique, productive, necessary being just is what is meant by ‘God’. Because of the necessity inherent in Nature, there is no teleology in the universe. Nature does not act for any ends, and things do not exist for any set purposes. There are no “final causes” (to use the common Aristotelian phrase). God does not “do” things for the sake of anything else. The order of things just follows from God's essences with an inviolable determinism. All talk of God's purposes, intentions, goals, preferences or aims is just an anthropomorphizing fiction."

Spinoza does not worship nature, but rather promotes rational knowledge as a way to gain an intellectual acceptance of things, and all things being necessary, it is the task of man to learn to tame the passions.

"We do not have an absolute power to adapt things outside us to our use. Nevertheless, we shall bear calmly those things that happen to us contrary to what the principle of our advantage demands, if we are conscious that we have done our duty, that the power we have could not have extended itself to the point where we could have avoided those things, and that we are a part of the whole of nature, whose order we follow. If we understand this clearly and distinctly, that part of us which is defined by understanding, i.e., the better part of us, will be entirely satisfied with this, and will strive to persevere in that satisfaction. For insofar as we understand, we can want nothing except what is necessary, nor absolutely be satisfied with anything except what is true."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Some notes on Parmenides

Haraclitus and Parmenides are often seen as opposites, Heraclitus proposing everything is constantly changing, and Parmenides saying that change is impossible.

Heraclitus - all is in flux.

"You cannot step twice into the same river, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you."
"To god all things are fair and good and right, but men hold some things wrong and some right." "Nothing ever is, everything is becoming."

Parmenides - nothing changes.

"Though canst not know what is not - that is impossible - nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be."
"How, then, can what is be going to be in the future? Or how could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not; nor is it if it is going to be in the future. Thus is becoming extinguished and passing away not to be heard of."
"The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered."

Obviously, things seem to change. Therefore, P. seems to be saying that the world of our senses must be an illusion and not what is actually real. P. is credited as being the first to use logic to make an argument for how the world must be.

"[Parmenides] argues with devastating precision that once one has said that something is, one is debarred from saying that it was or will be, of attributing to it an origin or a dissolution in time, or any alteration or motion whatsoever. But this was just what the Milesians had done. They supposed that the world had not always existed in its present cosmic state. They derived it from one substance, which they asserted to have changed or moved in various ways—becoming hotter or colder, drier or wetter, rarer or denser—in order to produce the present world-order."(from Guthrie 1965, 15-16)

Before Parmenides, the idea existed that there was some sort of thing out of which the universe as we know it evolved out of. Anaximander called this "the Boundless," a thing within which opposites existed in a latent form before being unleashed into, our out of, the universe. It becomes complicated to know what is meant by this - is it a physical thing, is it a conceptual thing, etc. Parmenides, nonetheless, denies that such a thing could have existed out of which varying opposites came to be, for what is is, and there was never a time in which it could not have existed or been different.

P. recognizes the apparent contradictions between logic and sense experience, and sides with logic, saying the senses must be in error. Reality should be judged by reason. This is “all that can be said about what truly exists,” and reality is thus revealed as “something utterly different from the world in which each one of us supposes himself to live,” a world which is nothing but a “deceitful show” (Guthrie 1965, 51). However, P. still laid out an extensive cosmogeny, which begs the question, if the world of physical appearances isn't real, why bother?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Notes on Hegel: A VeryShort Introduction

The following are notes I took while reading Hegel: A Very Short Introduction.

Kant - we know the world through a framework of space and time which does not exist outside of ourselves. We never know the “thing-in-itself.” Hegel does not believe there is a thing-in-itself. Anything that is can be known by the mind. In fact, mind, or spirit, is all that truly exists.

For Hegel, history is not a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing - history means something and is the development of the consciousness of freedom.

“In the face of the demands of the state for outward conformity, freedom can only be found by retreating into oneself, by taking refuge in a philosophy such as Stoicism or Skepticism. The details of these philosophies is not important; what is important is their common tendency to pooh-pooh everything that the real world has to offer - riches, political power, worldly glory - and to substitute an ideal of living which makes the adherent absolutely indifferent to anything the outside world can do.”

Isaiah Berlin - negative freedom - the ability to do what one please. Hegel questions where we get these desires, this will to do things. We may be free in that we can act on our desires, but if we do not control our desires, are we free?

Liberal Economists - an economic system is good to the extent that it allows people to satisfy their preferences

Radical Economists - must analyze people's preferences to understand how they got them and try to develop preferences that truly benefit man and his potential

Hegel - “The need for greater comfort does not exactly arise within you directly; it is suggested to you by those who hope to make a profit from its creation.”

History is the development of the mind, and what happens happens necessarily.

Modern western idea of mind - Descartes - I think therefore I exist - I can doubt everything about the external world, but I can’t doubt there is an I that doubts - created distinction between mind and world.

Hegel’s phenomenology of mind/spirit - study of how the mind appears to itself, for when we seek to study the mind, we are still studying appearances. “The aim of philosophy is the actual knowledge of what truly is.” If knowledge is an instrument through which we connect with the world, does the instrument alter the object or how we can experience or use it? Knowledge appears to be a medium through which we observe “reality.” One possible way out of this problem is to discover the distortion effect of the instrument (knowledge) and subtract the difference, for instance, looking at a stick through water, knowing the law of refraction; however this cannot be done with knowing the world. Kant said that we must know the instrument before knowing the world, but Hegel says this is like trying to learn to swim while standing in dry land before going into the ocean.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Family vs. Universe, the Good Old Days, etc.

This afternoon I saw Midnight in Paris, a delightful new film by Woody Allen. This man, Woody Allen, is no stranger to pondering the meaning of life. Midnight in Paris does exhibit some rumination on death and what all of this means, but it's specific aim is rather specific: it analyzes the very common notion that things were better in a prior age, that society is in decline, and the good-old days are over. As noted in Midnight in Paris, there are people in every generation who feel this way, so if we were to go back to any historical era that we suppose was better, there would be people complaining that their age is vacuous and it was really another bygone era that was better. The basic message of the movie is that this type of thinking is a defense mechanism for people who can't or do not want to cope with the present. Fair enough.

Before the movie, there was a trailer for Tree of Life, a film which I am quite excited about. I do not know the particulars of the movie; however, a very clear idea of the theme of the movie is expressed in the trailer, one which I often ponder: what is the relationship between our mundane, personal lives and the universe at large? What is the relationship between having your heart broken, feeling joy at the birth of a child, etc., and a star billions of light away years exploding, or the universe continuing to contract for all eternity, and energy being distributed throughout such a large space so as to make impossible biological life?

Here is a pertinent quote by Richard Dawkins, the famous biologist and atheist:

"Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life's hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don't; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions" (Unweaving the Rainbow).

Well, first off, shit, perhaps I'm insane, because I do often feel our lives must have some connection to the ultimate fate of the cosmos, or else our lives have no ultimate importance. Sure, we can enjoy our lives, and we can even feel people are important, but if all of this will someday be gone without any connection with what will happen billions of years from now, then in a very real sense our lives don't mean shit.

The human project, as it has been called, has been an attempt to cover up, deny, avoid, this problem of meaninglessness in a vast, cold, analytic universe. There is quite a lot of writing in psychology about how humans deny not only more personal problems like fear of intimacy, feelings of inadequacy, anger, etc., but how humans deny the larger problem of existential emptiness. Sanity has often been seen as a culturally mediated way of avoiding what's really going on.

Anyhow, you will perhaps remember that in my last post I began discussing Schodinger's Cat. This thought experiment is used as a way to show that thinking about everyday objects and events like a cat locked up in a box, is different than thinking about particles at the subatomic level. In quantum mechanics, particles can exist and not exist at the same time. However, in our normal experience of the world, a cat is either alive or dead - not both. Granted, newer ideas have developed, such as the theory of multiple universes, in which there is a linked version of reality in which a cat locked up in a box can be dead, and in our universe alive. Clearly, though, we are not aware of any other universes. Or is that true? Perhaps meditation or drugs or dream states are windows into other universes. But let us not consider these possibilities now. The point is, it's silly to think of a cat being dead and alive at the same time - quantum mechanics might be useful for looking at a certain type of problem or situation but not another. Likewise, it might be silly to look at the meanings of our lives as being connected to the larger playing out of the cosmos. We should simply focus on what seems to make us happy and that which seems meaningful, and let physicists determine how long the universe will last, and leave the two as separate issues. Admittedly, at least to me, this doesn't seem satisfying: I want my life to have a connection with the universe. I recently read a book review, which discusses a book that claims that wanting life to matter provides an evolutionary benefit. Still, these types of explanations never feel satisfying, because everyone always just boils down to biological survival. But why do genes want to persist? Why?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Schrödinger's Cat

Quantum mechanics is, by all accounts, weird. I don't know much about it, other than various popular summaries. I do not know the math, which is really what quantum mechanics is. I just know the cute stories and "ideas" that the math points to. Something interesting to think about is what "reality" is made up of. Atoms? Protons and electrons? Quarks? Math is used to describe the relationships between these "things," although one philosophical and physical possibility is that there are no "things," but rather processes.

Schrödinger's Cat is a useful thought experiment because it points out the difference between looking at the world in a quantum mechanic/math way and looking at it in a common sense, "normal" way. According to quantum mechanics, particles are highly odd and can exist and not exist at the same time, or go in separate directions at the same time, depending on various things, such as whether they are being observed. (Note, quantum mechanics brings to the fore the issue of observance and how the act of someone observing something changes what is being observed. This of course raises issues related to the "thing in itself" and if we ever experience things as they are, or rather in a mediated way. This in turn raises issues of perception vs. reality, authenticity and identity).

Not be continued...or not to be continued...or both at the same time

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

To What End?

A recent article in the Boston Globe looks at scientists whose field of study is the future and how biology, ecology and cosmic events might play out and how this will impact humans beings. To get right into it, consider this excerpt:

“Our sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it’s got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out,” Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, told the audience seated among the busts and weathered books of the institution’s second-story library. “It won’t be humans who witness the sun’s demise: It will be entities as different from us as we are from a bug."

The article explains how an incredibly large percentage of every species that has ever existed on the planet is now extinct. Humans, in terms of time on this planet, have not really been around that long. Given the immense epochs in which species rose to prominence and then eventually faded from the earth, it stands to reason that humans might also suffer this fate.

Many people might retort that human intelligence will allow us to stand the test of time. But are we smart enough to last 6 billion years? When it comes down to it, as much as we have mastered nature, we are still, in most ways, powerless against it.

However, for the sake of argument, let's say humans can last 6 billion years. 6 billion years! It is impossible for a person to truly understand what such a large amount of time means. Will anyone remember you in 100 years? 200 years? 1,000 years? 6 billion?

However, for the sake of argument, let's say even though no one will remember you, in some way you contributed to human development. We can then ask, are we developing in some specific direction, and what is the point of this development? What purpose does it fill? Also, given the size of the universe, how can human development relate to what's happening billions of light years away? Does our development relate to the development of some alien species across the universe? Or, does the entire universe exist merely as a nest for human beings, and all that matters is what happens on Earth, and there are no beings elsewhere? If that's the case, then, as mentioned, it seems doubtful that humans will exist into perpetuity. Which then begs the question, what has any of this mattered?

Friday, March 18, 2011

You Are Your Brain

This is a lovely video concerning the subject in the previous post, i.e. the relationship between the brain and the mind. This video does a good job of bringing up the issue of the category error. For instance, if you visit Penn State University and walk around and see the library, the residence halls, the academic buildings, the athletic facilities, etc., but then ask "But where is Penn State University?" then you are making a category error. There is no Penn State University apart from all of these things which comprise it.

Thanks to Magnus for passing on this clip. Cheerio.