I’m going to split time between this blog, and the (rather similarly named) http://blog.dutempstrouve.com.  I might get rid of this one entirely, or merge the two.  I might put more personal and controversial stuff here, and stuff that I’m more willing to give to a broader audience there.  But anyhow, the other blog is up now, and I have some entries already planned out for next week.  (So the 30 Day blog challenge is going to transmute somewhat into a 5-day a week regular blog on different topics.)

But today, Hölderlin (full text here: http://300daysinberlin.wordpress.com/2013/05/26/lebenslaufthe-course-of-life-holderlin/; see Lebenslauf II toward the bottom of the page):

More you also desired, but every one of us
Love draws earthward, and grief bends with still greater power;
Yet our arc not for nothing
Brings us back to our starting place.

Whether upward or down – does not in holy night
Where mute Nature thinks out days that are still to come,
Though in crookedest Orcus,
Yet a straightness, a law prevail?

This I learned. For not once, as mortal masters do,
Did you heavenly ones, wise preservers of all,
To my knowledge, with foresight
Lead me on by a level path.

All a man shall try out, thus say the heavenly,
So that strongly sustained he shall give thanks for all,
Learn to grasp his own freedom
To be gone where he’s moved to go

I’m thinking about getting a line from this poem as my next tattoo, curving both randomly yet gracefully up my upper right arm.  It describes my life pretty well – I keep having plans, things I intend to do, and they almost never seem to work out.  Things change, in one way or another, sometimes in ways I like, sometimes in ways I dislike.  But somehow, through the twists and turns, something seems to come out of it all, year after year.  Beyond that, I’ll just let the poem speak for itself.


Life Changes

I’ve mainly been writing philosophical nuggets, etc. on here as of late.  Which is something that I want to do more of.

And now I might have that chance, beyond the 30 day challenge (which, admittedly, I’ve become poor at keeping up with)!

Background: I was in a doctoral program for philosophy.  I love education.  I love thinking.  I don’t love academics or the emphasis on institutional learning.  So I want to promote self-education and lifelong questioning simply for the heck of it.  We have libraries and the internet; learning is readily available, and now we just need to form communities to engage in it.

The problem is lack of time.  Most jobs require long hours.  Which works fine if you really want to buy stuff.  But I don’t care about stuff.  I’ve wanted time to play mandolin, to learn quantum mechanics, to question and get others to question, and to cook tasty food.  Most of this can be done for cheap to free; I just needed a job to give me breathing space. 

The goal?  Become a professional tutor, set my own hours making decent money doing something I actually like.  Then in my free time I could study what I want and write what I want without worrying about either tenure and grants or mindless office dronemanship.

Well, last week I got a message about a tutoring gig at a local high school who wanted someone to come in and supplement their math and science classes.  It was just enough to let me quit my old job taking telephone calls, to let me focus on building up my tutoring business.

The long-term goal is to use this position, where I set my hours and engage in educational activities already, to write more, to talk more, to gather people together more to understand this crazy world of ours – without worrying about taking out loans to do so, without undue focus on mere job skills which leave the rest of life untouched.

So let’s see how this next phase goes!

I’m going to start posting blog posts on my new blog which I’m setting up for these purposes; I’ll put info out when I feel like it’s in workable condition.

Not So Common (Sense)

You interview a bunch of successful businessmen.  They all tell you that you need to take big risks in order to succeed.  And it worked for them – so this is a sure-fire strategy for success, right?

You look at fighter jets which survived the war.  They all have bullet holes down the centre of their fuselage.  In order to protect the next batch and increase survivors, you should put extra plating on those places you see the holes, right?

You had a dream.  A friend boarded a train, which then derailed.  The next morning, said friend was late for a trip on said train – which then derailed.  Premonition, right?

Actually, the human mind is really, really poor at tracing causes.  You never hear the stories of the businessmen who failed – and there have to be some, if the risks are actually risky.  If there were 100 failures to every success, especially bankruptcy-causing failures which leave families in ruin, would you still follow the “risk-taking” advice?  Those fighter jets were the ones which survived – the last place you should place plating is where they were struck, since evidently they can handle it just fine.  And if you dream several dreams every night, the probability that at least once you’ll have a scary accurate premonition is rather high – even more so since you knew your friend was travelling, and so were more likely to dream about them doing so.

Probability is one area where we fail spectacularly.  But not the only one.  The idea that sickness is caused by little tiny critters, and something like hand-washing could drastically increase survival in a hospital ward?  That took some convincing, and the reason why you or I find it obvious is because we have been brought up hearing it our entire lives.  That the earth rotates around the sun, and that the stars “above” move rather than staying fixed?  Species can slowly evolve into completely new species?  Time and length are relative to frames of reference, and light has a defined speed?  The stuff that makes everything up gets *really wonky* the more you look at its pieces?  Some aspects of our mind are completely unconscious?  There are physical clumps of neurons for any thought we might have?  Spacetime is curved?  All these things and more are counter-intuitive; if not for us now, then at least for most of humanity throughout time. 

Our brains process reality in a way to keep us alive more or less, not to find truth.  We catch it playing tricks on us regularly.  Common sense is a great way of working with the people around us; we’re all human, so at least our human brains are playing the same tricks on all of us.  If I share a weird premonition with you, you’ll feel the force of it and ask with me, “What are the odds?” But when we sit down and actually calculate the odds, it turns out I’m not so special after all.

So yes, our minds do shape the world and structure our experience.  But they don’t always do so in a rational way.  Just because something “feels true,” just because I “can’t see it any other way,” does not mean that I have any evidence whatsoever as to how reality is constructed.

Transcendental, My Dear Watson

Last time, I arguing that it’s all in our heads.  There’s nothing behind or beyond our experiences, and in particular, our sensations.

But something’s not quite right about that.  If I count five minutes on a boring phone call, than other seven minutes on another call, but a look at the clock tells me that only ten minutes in total have passed, then I don’t simply say that all experiences involved were valid.  The truth that 5+7=12 trumps the straightforward reading of this experience.  Either a clock is slow, or I misjudged how long a call was, or some measurement in some fashion was wrong.  But there is a reality which is separate from those experiences.

Look at this optical illusion.  Is the one red circle bigger than the other?  It looks like it is – and if looks are all there are, then it must be so.  But measure them, and you’ll see that the two are the same shape.  If I match each one up with the same couple marks on a piece of paper, then I reason that two things which are equal to a third thing are themselves equal.  Reason trumps the senses.

Where do these rational principles come from, though?  Kant would say that they are they way in which our minds process the senses.  We have to think in these categories, we have to think that 5+7=12 and that two things equal to a third are themselves equal, because that’s how our minds makes experience possible.  Without that order imposed by these concepts and judgements, there would be nothing to hold experience together; it would all be a bloomin’ buzz and confusion. 

But we do experience things as somewhat unified.  Even if everything doesn’t make sense, the feel of my fingers on the keyboard, the slight pain in my fingertip from playing mandolin too much, the sound of the air conditioning, the appearing of words on my screen, these all constitute a world for me right now.  And once they all are forced onto the same playground to play, not all experiences will be treated as equal.

So, transcendental idealism in a nutshell – the way we experience the world as a world is because our minds are making it up, putting order into the chaos of sensation.

But careful with those minds!  Next, I’ll talk about the pitfalls of believing things just because they make sense.

Empirically Ideal

Picture this.  Or that.  Or anything really.  Let’s take that tree over there, or that cute person you’ve been surreptitiously eyeing (so you think), or this doge (so meme. such prop-for-understanding-Berkeleyan-Idealism).  What do you see?

The content is less important than that you see something.  What you see is something mental.  It is a quality of experience, and it is necessarily something experienced in a first-person perspective.  It would make no sense for this quality of “seeing” to not take place primarily in a mind.

The problem is this: Neurons firing are not first-person experiences. Photons are not first-person experiences. Doge as a separately existing image file is not a first-person experience.  But the act of seeing, the things seen, and by their very nature first-person experiences.  It makes no sense to talk about the mental state of photons, where photons are some purely objective, third-person account of the world.

So this would seem to lead to the conclusion that everything is either a mental state, something seen, heard, smelt, thought, etc.; or a mind experiencing said mental states.  This was George Berkeley’s argument for idealism.  Everything else is merely a construct to explain and organize the mental states, but atoms, photons, and such don’t really exist.  Maybe trees don’t exist on their own, or maybe they themselves possess some form of consciousness; who knows?

What does this mean practically? On the one hand, perhaps not a lot. Whether you think that the world is all mental or all physical, you then have to begin the process of working out how said world is organised, and idealist science shouldn’t look any different from physicalist science.  Both are concerned with experience first and foremost, and the fact that they tell a different story about the nature of that experience doesn’t mean that they catalogue different experiences.

On the other hand, it would mean that isn’t some “other world” out there under experiences.  Our understanding is trying to organise our experiences, but those experiences are themselves what are real.  There’s no “something” underneath the experiences to be found; only ways to help us unify those experiences and work with them better.  Let’s take the Matrix, for example: even if you were in a computer simulation, those simulations would be perfectly real.  They aren’t fake, they aren’t a second-class reality.  But the non-simulated world also isn’t fake. If you’re Neo, crossing in between the worlds, you’re just crossing in between the worlds.  You aren’t leaving and entering reality.

The Time of Butter

A Tibetan Buddhist tradition is to make butter sculptures.   These magnificent creations can take a month to create, under harsh working conditions … and then will melt soon after display.

These sculptures display the transitory nature of existence.  Everything changes, everything passes – but we dig deep anyhow.

There’s no stable future to be working toward, no magic set of actions that will someone be “worth it.” It’s not quite about living in the present, either.  Those monks could just be enjoying themselves, doing anything other than sticking their hands into ice cold water to handle dyed butter.  It’s rather a search for the aesthetic, for letting things have intrinsic value.

This lets those monks live in a sort of timelessness – creating and building on the past without being beholden to it, for a future which they know will disappear, lost in the present while nevertheless transcending present whims.

So don’t live in the present.  Just live, and dive in.

Ethics 101

Continuing on with basic philosophical topics.  Today I hit up ethics.

In short, ethics is “Why should we do anything?” And there are three or four main approaches to ethics:

1) Consequentialism.  Something is right because it has the right consequences.  If you could save a million people by killing one person, then the consequentialist would kill the one person.  No action is right or wrong in itself, but only in relation to how it affects others.  After all, how can something be good if it leads to bad results for everyone, or bad if it leads to good results?

2) Deontology.  Something is right because it is intrinsically right.  If you could save a million people by killing one person, you still don’t kill that person, because murder is inherently wrong.  One ignores consequences and focuses on the willing itself.  At the end of the day, the deontologist would say, we are more than merely animals scrounging for food, and our capacity to will something which is not at all in our best interests is the best example of this.

3) Virtue Ethics.  Actions are right because they help us live badass lives.  Virtue comes from the Latin for “power”, and translates the Greek word “arete” which means excellence.  The idea is that ethics is not about some external force telling us what is right or wrong, but rather that we do what is right because it helps us live more fulfilling lives.  Glutting ourselves on food makes us less health and less able to appreciate food, so we should practise moderation in order to (overall) better enjoy ourselves.

Maybe 4) Divine Command Theory.  Something is right because God wills it.  However, here we have a problem: is something merely right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right?  If the former, then it is arbitrary; moreover, it would seem to be a form of consequentialism (do what God says, or be smitten, which would generally be a bad result).  If the latter, than we would seem to also have one of the other theories (God is telling us to do what is good in itself [deontology], good habits for a fulfilling life [virtue ethics], or what will lead to an objective good for all [consequentialism]).

A lot of times, these theories are presented as if they were competing.  Deontology says never murder. Consequentialism says to murder if it will save more lives. Virtue ethics says murder in general will make one a worse person, but then again, so might ignoring a million deaths, and one’s context will also make a difference (a soldier vs. a political leader vs. an average citizen may have different virtues).  

But it seems best to say that there are multiple ways that an action could be right.  We can analyse an action with respect to its results, to the quality of the decision itself, or to the person it makes someone to be.  These analyses might come to different results, but that doesn’t mean that there is one ethical theory to rule them all; maybe life just has legitimate, unresolvable dilemmas.