Onion: “Meaninglessness Of Preseason Game Plunges Jeremy Shockey Into Existential Crisis”

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 28th, 2007

I don’t normally post sports news but:

“NEW YORK—Struggling to find purpose in life after his realization that the Giants’ 13-12 victory over the Ravens Sunday night would have no bearing on the team’s standings, tight end Jeremy Shockey has been questioning whether preseason games have any purpose, meaning, or even reality in and of themselves.” Full Story at The Onion

Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 26th, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Being examines the lives of four Czech intellectuals around the time of 1968 and the soviet invasion. It explores existential themes of absurdity, lack of meaning or significance in life (what the book terms as “lightness“), misunderstandings of other people, kitsch in life and politics, abstraction and alienation. The book mainly deal in metaphor of plot or character but has occasional chapters discussing philosophy and unexpected transitions into dreams – this can be jarring when the character wakes up. If anyone likes the films of David Lynch, they probably will enjoy this book!

The theme of lightness – which is caused by lack of an afterlife and lack of an Eternal Return – caught my imagination the most. Considering that all life will probably die or be forgotten eventually, we can be assured our actions will have no huge impact in the big scheme of things (since there is no “big scheme”). And the realization that although things now stand as they are, “things might as well have been otherwise” – in other words, there is no fate.

In opposition to lightness is “weight”, for example the weight of Eternal Return:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?” The Gay Science, Nietzsche

The book also quotes a motif from Beethoven as an example of weight: “Must it be so? Yes, it must be so, it must be so!”. The characters are often weighing up their actions in terms of their various interpretations and their particular lightness or weight.

Another recurring idea I enjoyed is of the character Sabina’s first adult painting. I can’t be bothered to look for quotes to this is for memory. Sorry! The painting was started when she accidentally dropped paint on a blank canvas and it evolved into an abstract artwork. The painting could easily have been different because of its accidental origin. The meaning of the painting is completely subjective – an “incomprehensible truth”. At the time, the political dogma was only realism in painting was acceptable so the work was lost under a realistic painting of a construction site. The technique she used emulated the result of photography and hid the brush strokes. The painting’s meaning, being a construction and imitation of the truth, is a comprehensible lie. I hardly need add that the painting is a metaphor for life – a comprehensible lie hiding an incomprehensible truth.

Anti Citizen One

PS “Art is the lie that helps us understand the truth.” -Pablo Picasso

Feyerabend and Science vs. Anti-Realism

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 26th, 2007

I was initially annoyed at Feyerabend but then I do agree with him in some limited areas. The length of this post is perhaps due to my personal interest in science. My thought experiment was to highlight the main area of disagreement and also to discover your views.

My value statement of science – we ought to value accurate predictions of the physical world over inaccurate predictions – is explicitly denied by Wittgenstein, Feyerabend and post-modernism, as I understand them. “My German engineer [Wittgenstein], I think, is a fool. He thinks nothing empirical is knowable – I asked him to admit that there was not a rhinoceros in the room, but he wouldn’t.” (Betrand Russell). I provisionally accept there is not a rhinoceros in the room. Of course, I might discover that rhinoceros can shape shift but so far I have not observed that. In fact, the feeling that there is not a rhinoceros in the room is more real to me than any tricks of language or vague philosophical notions (“here is a hand“, etc). Nietzsche said to deny the physical/actual world, you would also be throwing out any basis for truth or knowledge. ‘[T]he “true world” has been constructed out of contradiction to the actual world: … insofar as it is merely a moral-optical illusion’. (Twilight of the Idols)

I tend to think that, although the physical world seems to exist, we can’t find a basis to attach values to non-physical belief systems. But this is hardly original – it’s just existentialism. I regard your interpretation of LW and F as more post-modern than my point of view. At least we can say “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” (Einstein)

“I think the main area of thought is the principle of induction, which is widely supported in empiricism, and which Feyerabend attempts to dismiss.”

I am not sure induction is used in an unquestioning manner in science. If I said “All observed crows are black there fore all crows are black” in philosophy, it would be a potentially incorrect generalization. If in science, I say “All observed crows are black and I will formulate a theory of the blackness of crows”, that is not a generalization because at any moment we might discover a green crow.

We may say “the scientific law of X can never be broken”, which implies we have used inductive reasoning but it is really a lazy simplification of saying “the theory of X has never been disproved and I don’t expect you can too”. Basically, the provisional nature of scientific theories avoids the generalization of inductive reasoning.

“I’d further develop this by saying that a method that makes no predictions of situational outcomes is of less calue than any method (accurate or inaccurate) that does.”

Very deliberately, I made no mention of metaphysics in my thought experiment (or rather I separate it and then made no comment on it – like early Wittgenstein). I am actually surprised you do accept what is essentially the falsification principle at all! What I was trying to say was the value of predictive theories should only be compared to other predictive theories. I am trying to avoid putting a value on non-predictive theories (which you, F and LW would instantly reject).

This is my current view: empiricism has a very restricted (i.e. physical) scope but it is more valuable within that scope than other views. (Remember when I was at a loss over thinking of a disproof of naturalism? lol)

“Feyerabend proposes that to follow one method to the exclusion of others is
a) not very progressive thinking, and
b) contrary to the ‘experience’ of science history …”

I avoided directly talking about methods in my thought experiment but you could say to produce hypotheses, you need one or more methods. I disagree that within science (or more precisely empiricism), has ever changed it’s view on my “ought statement”. It has always valued a more accurate predictive theory over the less accurate. I would agree with Feyerabend that many methods should be employed to produce theories, but the value assessment is constant in my humble opinion.

“Feyerabend is concerned with the smug attitude of some science.”
Feyerabend is correct if he is referring to some popular perceptions of science or particular scientists but the core principle of science does not necessarily imply smugness. Unless all scientists are smug. Are you accusing me of being smug? 🙂

‘An attitude that could be characterised as saying “we are the only ones that know the answers, and we will share them with you, if you accept our ways.”‘
That is the way science is sometimes perceived but this is of course NOT what science should be about. In fact, science should be the opposite! I can’t find the exact Nietzsche quote, but he talked about the need to reject past theories as insufficient (what he called a “holy nay”) as requirement to write new theories. If science is really dogma, it would be impossible to progress science because we could not question anything.

So, if Feyerabend is criticizing the institutional nature of science we all might be in agreement. Criticising the core value (of accurate predictions are better) of science is laughable – but the anti-realist viewpoint does specifically deny this! (boo hiss to post-modernism when there is an overlap)

“Has a rational method, that functions to guarantee the objectivity of its results.”
Of course, science is more a method for eliminating error rather than guaranteeing correctness.

“And that it, exclusively, produces useful results.”
Exclusively in the physical domain, I believe it does. To disagree with that is anti-realist (which is a valid point of view I guess).

“Feyerabend says that we can see clearly enough that Newtonian mechanics, though ridden with anomalies, took a very long time to get rid of them.” (And allegedly shows science prefers inaccurate theories.)
This is straw man argument in my opinion. All scientific theories to date have what I call “scope”. The scope of a theory is usually stated in the theory itself. For example, Newtonian mechanics does not explain nuclear fusion. It is obvious that no scientific theory has been able to explain everything. (Although this is a goal of some scientists, but that is another story.)

A thought experiment on how scope works:
Scientist A: I have a theory X which explains A, B and C.
Scientist B: Actually, I have some new data which shows that theory X does not explain C in particular circumstances Z.
Scientist A: Um, ok I have to restrict the scope of my theory. It explains A, B and C when C is not in Z.
*a few days later*
Scientist A: I have revised my theory again. It is now called X’ and it explains A, B and C in both “Z” and “not Z”.
Scientist C: Nice. But X’ is more complicated in X. In fact if you assume “not Z”, theory X’ reduces into X. Since I only an interest in “not Z” conditions, I am going to stay using X on the understanding it only applies to “not Z”.
Scientist A: Ok.
Science teacher: Ok with me too. Also since it is easier students to understand X before learning X”, I will teach X first.
An example: X is Newtonian gravity.
A is the fall of objects on Earth
B is nothing in this example
C is the orbit of the planets
Z is orbits close to the Sun (to be exact the perihelion precession of Mercury)
X’ is Einstein’s general relativity.
Conclusion: The persistence of Newtonian mechanics is good enough for most applications and easier to understand than relativity. It is not unscientific to use a theory as long as it is within the scope that it agrees with the physical world.

[the rationalist reconstruction of science argues] “[t]he state should teach science uncritically because it is the one true way.”
I have tried to outline how the direct alternative to science is anti-realism. I imagine most science teachers could not do a lesson on anti-realism without being sarcastic! (But I don’t mean to imply that is what you recommend.) My preference would be to teach what science should be about (keeping an open mind and an empirical basis) and what it should not be about (pseudo-science or dogmatic thinking).

Interesting discussion though. I have some thoughts on tacit acceptance and rejection of science, and the implication of overlap in world views with empiricism, about which I am currently brooding.

Anti Citizen One

Feyerabend: science, the state, the self

Posted by on August 22nd, 2007

Paul Feyerabend was a philosopher of science who advocated epistemological anarchism, the rejection of a single method when many methods would do. He also believed that science was a cultural construction similar to religion and other forms of life, consequently he thought that the state should play no part in funding science, science like the church should be disestablished.

In his key work Against Method he argued that no line of thought should be discriminated against if it ultimately gets real results and science should not be subjected to a single programmed routine. Science is a human endeavour, theories are human artifacts and therefore not lofty ephemeral ideas.


Feyerabend is concerned with the smug attitude of some science. An attitude that could be characterised as saying “we are the only ones that know the answers, and we will share them with you, if you accept our ways.” This attitude contains three assumptions:

1) It assumes that science has exclusive access to ‘the answers’ or ‘the Truth’.

2) Therefore, the state (whose goal is defined as finding and following the truth) should indoctrinate its citizens in science.

3) And, those that disagree (the worse off, the crazy, the backwards, the wrong) should be ignored/ridiculed.

Feyerabend challanges all three assumptions. Science, or more importantly the rationalist reconstruction and interpretation of science (Popper, et al) assume that science has exclusive access to the truth about the world because unlike other epistemological systems it:

a) Has a rational method, that functions to guarantee the objectivity of its results.

b) And that it, exclusively, produces useful results.

Proposition “a” assumes that there is in fact a method that underlies all history of science and that it is rational. But, Feyerabend thinks, for every method proposed, we are able to find key (and numerous) counter examples that cannot fit into it.

For example against naive inductionism (which states that science functions by collecting facts and then inducing irrefutable theories from them) he uses the ‘arguments’ of Galileo. Galileo (who is often presented as an excellent example of inductive reasoning) is shown to have used irrational, rhetorical arguments, which could not simply be induced from the facts at hand.

The rhetoric that Galileo used is discussed in chapters 6 & 7, it is irrational rhetoric but convincing nonetheless. Feyerabend suggests that Galileo was more like a scientifically minded con artist than the idealized model of the rational scientist.

He also argues against Popper and falsificationism (which states that theories change only after they have been falsified by anomalies). Feyerabend says that we can see clearly enough that Newtonian mechanics, though ridden with anomalies, took a very long time to get rid of them. And even when it could not get rid of the anomalies, it took a long time to die off. And, really it is still around except in special cases (at speeds approaching the speed of light and on very small scales). If a theory actually was immediately discarded when an anomaly popped up, Newtonian mechanics would have died a youthful death.

Methodologists may point to the importance of falsifications – but they blithely use falsified theories; they may sermonize how imporant it is to consider all the relevant evidence, and never mention those big and drastic facts which show that the theories they admire and accept may be as badly off as the older theories which they reject. In practise they slavishly repeat the most recent pronouncements of the top dogs in physics, though in doing so must violate some very basic rules of their trade.

Feyerabend presents to us the Copernican theory as a key example of this. If an anomalous theory (which does not fit with present facts) is automatically rejected, then how could Copernicus ever get anywhere with his theory? A theory which not only did not fit with some facts, but contradicted almost every accepted theory of the day, including common sense! Popper, Feyerabend assures us, simply cannot explain away cases such as these.

Feyerabend investigates many other examples applying to different aspects of the ‘rationalist project.’ He takes the stance that no’rule’ (or rational method) can apply to all historical cases. Hence, the idea that some sort of coherent scientific method can justify the supremacy of science over all other epistemological systems is without basis. There is no scientific method.

Feyerabend also objects to proposition (b) that only science produces useful results. The problem with this idea is that it assumes that only the things that science calls ‘results’ are true results. Under this view, saving ‘souls’ (which are non-scientific objects) would not count as a result. Thus, science’s lack of ability to save souls, and certain relgions’ ability to, does not indicate that science is lacking results which religion can provide. The absurd begging of the question is pretty obvious here. It is obvious that there are certain things that science can do that other systems can’t, but it is equally obvious that there are things (lots of them) that science can’t do that other systems can. Here he brings up a variety of examples, acupuncture, magic, etc.

So to recap: the rationalist reconstruction of science argues

1. Science is legitimate in its supremacy over other systems because it:

(a) Has a unique, unified method which guarantess objectivity and ‘truth’

(b) It exclusively provides tangible, and useful results.

From 1 it follows that

2. The state should teach science uncritically because it is the one true way. and

3. People who reject science should be ridiculed/ignored (and their opinions seen as invalid or unable to critically engage science. See Creationism/Intelligent Design vs Darwinian Evolution).

So, if 1 is shown to be false (as both a and b have been by Feyerabend) then it follows that we should critically reevaluate 2 and 3.

The State

The Feyerabendian state is very similar to that enviosaged by John Stuart Mill. Let us consider two kinds of exchange between people: the ‘guided exchange’ and the ‘open exchange’.

A guided exchange presupposes that its participants are from the same background: i.e. all scientists, or all druids, etc. They have the same ‘tradition’ and have generally been educated in the same way. In this type of debate, one cannot meaningfully participate unless one has been indoctrinated into the particular tradition. It is like a Shriner’s convention, if you aren’t a Shriner, and don’t know what Shriner’s are about, then you can’t participate. This is how Feyerabend sees the current practise of governments and educational institutions in the Western world. And the ‘tradition’ we need to take part in, in order to participate meaningfully, is that of scientific rationality.

…guided by a pragmatic philosophy. The tradition adopted by the parties is unspecified in the beginning and develops as the exchange goes along. The participants get immersed into each others’ way of thinking, feeling, percieving to such an extent that their ideas, perceptions, world views may be entirely changed – they become different people participating in a new and different tradition. An open exchange respects the partner whether he is an individual, or an entire culture while a rational exchange promises respect only within the framework of a rational debate. An open exchange has non organon though it may invent one, there is no logic, though forms of logic may emerge in its course.

Feyerabend is promoting the idea of a pragmatic education system, based not on systematized logic, but on the attmept to achieve consensus through pressure free discussion. Consider John Stuart Mills essay On Liberty here, no one person, no group (of which the scientific-state is one) has any sort of ‘right’ to silence anyone, or make a value judgement on any opinion (or system) no matter how absurd it may seem from their perspective. All opinions, irrespective of majority or minority should be heard equally.

The Self

Feyerabend defined his personal philosophy, much like his political one, epistemological anarchism, his individual stance is one of anti-systematic relatvism. Like the Feyerabendian state, the Feyerabendian individual can, and should, examine (and even hold) contradictory, and various different views of the world. The individual should reject identifying hismelf with one programme because, as he shows in his examination of science, no one programme can ‘truly’ describe the world. All forms of life and systems have certain things to offer, the goal of the individual is to explore the interesting possibilities peculiar to each of them. Thus, while science may hold the attention of some epistemological anarchists (as it does for Feyerabend) it may be irrelevant to the project of another. It is even possible that the epistemological anarchist may reject all worldviews and try to create instead one that is relevant (existentially) to the self using whatever systems they see fit.

(Thanks to cabin fever from everything2.com from whose presentation on Feyerabend much of this work is quoted and paraphrased).

Wittgensteins later theory of meaning

Posted by on August 21st, 2007

The meaning of a word is given by its use in a language-game. A language game is a rule-guided social activity in which the use of language plays an essential part.

I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the “language game”(sec7)… Here the term “language-game” is meant to bring to prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity or a form of life (sec23).

Wittgenstein illustrates this concept with the boss and worker on a building site. The boss shouts ‘slab’ and the worker has to fetch a slab. This constitutes the very basics for a language game. So what does the word mean? In this case the meaning of the word ‘slab’ is given by its use in the activity being carried out between boss and worker.

A brief note on terminology. Wittgenstein used the term language-games and in other analogies talked about the family resemblances between different types of games. However some have criticised the term for not being sufficiently serious or accurate, thus language-activity is often used as an appropriate substitute.

The early Wittgenstein pre-empts the meaning=use hypothesis in the Tractatus.

6.211 (In philosophy the question, ‘what do we actually use this word or this proposition for?’ repeatedly leads to valuable insights.)

Does the meaning=use theory give a meaningful status to metaphysical and religious language? In short it would appear to do so, although Wittgenstein still insisted metaphysics was nonsense (to philosophy and empirical language games).

Here is an example of its supposed meaningfulness. Consider a group of Catholic theologians who meet on wednesday afternoons to discuss metaphysical questions. These people use a number of curious words and expressions such as ‘essence’, ‘ground of being’, ‘grace’, ‘dialectic’, and so on. Yet the discourse in progress clearly is not arbitrary, but rule-guided. A beginner who uses an expression incorrectly is reprimanded, and may even be ostracized if he or she does not conform. Within the group it is well known who are the experts whose pronouncements are listened to with most respect, and so on. Here we could propose is a language-game, it is a rule-guided activity and probably (being religious) is a form of life. Within this language game, words and expressions have a use which is circumscribed by rules and conventions. On Wittgensteins later theory of meaning, therefore, we must surely say taht these words and expressions have meaning, and that the metaphysical discourse is (to its game-players at least) meaningful.

If only it were so easy though, some (ideologically predisposed according to Feyerabend) just cannot accept the language games concept. Or more importantly cannot accept that all lanagauge games are somehow critically independent from each other. There are three specific responses to this problem.

The first one concerns the paradox that language-games (where meaning=use) still rely on a language that has a picture idea quality to it. But Wittgenstein points out that this is simply how language is constructed, it is a series of picture ideas, but its meaning is derived from its use. Stop looking at the words look for the context and use. A good example is to consider paintings in art. For example abstract art or even religious art.

Let’s consider Michaelangelo’s painting of God creating Adam. The logicial positivist, stuck in the picture idea language game may attempt a variety of interpretations of the picture. He can say ‘it is a snapshot’ this is what God looked like, that is what Adam looked like. This the logical positivist can then reject because ‘who has seen God/Adam?’ Furthermore the logicial positivist can look at the picture and consider it as nothing more than a botched metaphor, an attempt to express something non-empirical rendering it incoherent. An emotivist logical positivist could also look at the picture and say that it has little meaning other than ‘wow! God!’ an equally meaningless expression. Wittgenstein rejects these interpretations wholeheartedly. The first two have made a massive mistake in their conception of language. Language has more than one purpose, more than just being a tool with which to make empirical claims. Just because the picture looks like a snapshot (this is God that is Adam) does not mean the picture is asserting such a proposition.

the picture has to be used in an entirely different way [than for example, a picture of an actual historical event] if we are to call the man in that queer blanket ‘God’ and so on.

In the words of Peter Winch:

what makes the picture a religious picture is not its pictorial relationship to some [actual] event.

If we were to accept the logical positivists limited rules of language use then religious language must be wholly nonsense. But (as an example of the variety of language games) God is relevant to a theist (who is engaged in the act of believing before the language game) just as pain is relevant to someone who is not under heavy anesthesia.

A picture does not have to designate per se, but rather it can show the role that religion has in someone’s life.

The Second response challenges the assumption of usefulness often proposed by logical positivists. Science and the scientific language game is useful, it produces results. Metaphysical discussions although perhaps meaningful to the metaphycisist who is conversent in its rules and practises, is of little practical use in the real world. Religion might be fine for those who believe, but it has little tangible worth beyond being a placebo.

The proposition that meaning=use but usefulness enhances the quality of the meaning can be shown to be untenable using the follwing counter-example concerning physics.

Let us suppose that a piece of pure mathematics is developed by a group of pure mathematicians. It is then taken up by a group of theoretical physicists, and used in the creation of a new physical theory. Finally this theory is used in a practical application – perhaps even in house building. Suppose, further, that we adopt the view that a term is meaningful only if it used in a practical, everyday social activity and not when it is used purely in a theoretical discourse. It then follows that the terms of the mathematical theory are meaningless while the theory is being developed by the pure mathematicians, that they remain meaningless when the mathematics is used to create the new physical theory, but then suddenly become meaningful for the first time when that theory is applied to house building. Such a consequence seems to me quite unacceptable. – Donald Gillies

This example is close to actual events in the history of science. For example tensor analysis was developed as a piece of pure mathematics by two Italians, Ricci and Levi-Civita in a groundbreaking paper in 1901. It was then used by Einstein in his general theory of relativity in 1915. Now the theory of general relativity find itself being applied to practical situations concerned for example with satellites. So then, at what point did the key terms of the tensor calculus become meaningful? It would appear to be the case that they were meaningful throughout the process.

Therefore the second rebuttal concerning the measuring of the value of meaning=use goes like this.

We cannot use the demarcation between practical discourse and purely theoretical discourse to distinguish sense from nonsense.

The Third rebuttal develops ideas from the first and second. The limited rule of language use that logical positivists attempt to use frustrates Feyerabend and epistemological anarchists in the extreme. In particular this rebuttal is critical of the idea that only science produces useful and true results.

This view (which could be termed scientism) assumes or even declares that the only things which science calls ‘results’ are TRUE results. Under this view, saving ‘souls’ (which are non-scientific objects) would not count as a result. Science’s inability to save souls, and religions ability to do so, does not indicate that science is lacking results which religion can provide. But as Feyerabend says this is absurd. It is obvious that there are certain things that science can do that other systems can’t, but it is equally obvious that there are things that science can’t do but that other systems can. Including the ‘irrational’ arts such as homeopathic medicine, magic, astrology and so on. The proposition that one system, one language game is superior to another is simply tyranny.

The liberation from this tyrannical tendency is described as epistemological anarchism. Feyerabend describes it thus:

While the political anarchist wants to remove a certain form of life, the epistemological anarchist may want to defend it, for he has no everlasting loyalty to any institution and any ideology. Like the Dadaist (whom he resembles in many respects) he not only has no programme, he is against all programmes. – For and Against Method.

The only method (anything goes) that Feyerabend and the extreme exponents of the language games paradigm propose is that of the open exchange of ideas. This entails the necessary equality of all language games and the forms of life they entail and the types of knowledge they claim to have.

An open exchange respects the partner whether he is an individual, or an entire culture while a rational exchange promises respect only within the framework of a rational debate. An open exchange has no organon though it may invent one, there is no logic, though forms of logic may emerge in its course. –science in a free society.

Thus we can see through these three rebuttals that certain forms of language, such as metaphysics or religious language, have (a) a meaning relevant to its game-players, (b) that has meaning regardless of its practical usefulness and (c) is capable of producing meaningful results (as in a tribe that has a non-scientific and mythological theory of the elements, a theory that it uses in its raindances and in other agricultural practises).

In conclusion it is worth noting that there are a variety of uses for the language-games concept. For Wittgenstein is dissolves the arguments between theists and atheists for example. It proposes that different forms of life are not in competition with each other. For Feyerabend it becomes the rallying cry for a revolutionary deconstruction of what he calls the propaganda of rationalism and reason. The individual should not let himself become absolutely dedicated to a particular programme, as no one programme can ‘truly’ or ‘fully’ describe the word. For Feyerabend one should explore all possibilities no matter how peculiar or seemingly contradictory, for in disbanding rationalism there is no peculiar and no negative implications in contradiction. Finally for pragmatic philosophers like Richard Rorty it becomes an exercise in Nietzschean re-creation to realize that our own worldviews (what he calls ‘final vocabularies’) are contingent. Once we have recognised this, then we can embark on a project of self-creation rather than attempting to provide explanations for the world around us and make them absolute (as has been done from Plato to Popper) one should create ones own descriptions of the world as we see it, pulling in elements from diverse systems to aid in our own project.

Religion in B5 Part 8 – Brakiri Day of the Dead

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 20th, 2007

Continuing my series of depection of reigion in the TV show Babylon 5:

The alien race Brakiri celebrate the Day of the Dead once every 200 years. The day is timed to coincide with the position of a particular comet that, to Brakir, symbolizes death – comets have historically been seen as a portent (usually of something bad). This is somewhat like the real annual holiday of The Day of the Dead, which has roots in Aztec and Mesoamerican civilization, and is typically celebrated on 1st Nov (All Saints’ Day) or 2nd Nov (All Souls’ Day).

The Brakiri only celebrate their Day of the Dead in their own territory – this is interpreted as one of their species must own the ground where the ceremony takes place. It is probable that the writer, Neil Gaiman, referenced the Jewish concept of an eruv. For observant Jews, this is a way of allowing certain activities that would normally be forbidden (cheating if you ask me!)- usually by establishing an “enclosed” area to allow certain objects to be carried on the Sabbath. Of course in the story, this normally forbidden activity is talking to the dead!

For this one night, the people in Brakiri territory experience a visitation from someone deceased they have known in their past. If the experience is real or only a trick is left deliberately ambiguous. We can’t infer the existence of soul from this incident but the existence of the soul is an established fact to the audience from other episodes.

G’Kars Objection

G’Kar, being previously aware of this religious ritual, tries to warn others that allowing the ceremony could be dangerous.

Lockley: Religious toleration is foolish?
G’Kar: This is not a matter of toleration. You do not know what you are doing.
Lockley: The declaration of principles of the Alliance… [slight sarcasm] you are familiar with it, I trust?
G’Kar: I wrote it!
Lockley: It states that religious belief shall be sacrosanct.

G’Kar does come to regret his attitude and wonders what he would have experienced if he had participated. Of course Lockley is responsible for the station and when a part of it disappears, people start questioning her decision to allow the ceremony.

Sheridan: [rebukingly] OK captain, let me get this straight: you sold Babylon 5 to an alien race for the night, who some how transported a square mile of this station to their home world while apparently filling it with people temporarily returned from the dead?
Lockley: Yes sir
Sheridan: Well, do you have an explanation why you did this?
Lockley: Yes sir, I thought it was a metaphor. I’ll try to be more literal minded from now on, sir.

If we assume all religious beliefs are part of their own isolated language games, can’t this be an unwarranted assumption? This raises the interesting dilemma of freedom of belief vs. safety of others. If there is the possibility that a religion is physically real, can we truly separate them from the physical world (and the moral sphere) as you seem to suggest? I thought I would argue from an agnostic perspective for a change. 🙂

Anti Citizen One

Review: What We Believe But Cannot Prove

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 19th, 2007

Here is a very quick review of What We Believe But Cannot Prove, edited John Brockman. The book has about 80 scientists and thinkers describing what they believe but cannot prove. Of course, scientists are not normally valued for what they cannot prove because their method is to use an evidence based approach. To be more exact, scientists cannot actually prove anything – they propose and test hypothesises. But to propose a hypothesis in the first place, they require some intuitive insight into the world. This insight can often be incorrect but occasionally they can make a new discovery from a good guess.

The book addresses some of the big questions of philosophy and science. This bridge is allowed since they are guessing future science might be able to provide some insight (and one day may be in the same language game?). For example, the nature of consciousness is one topic that is a border between these two subjects. They also speculate on alien life, the soul, global warming, the creative power of boredom, language, black holes, many universes, moral progress, and many more topics.

One area you might find interesting is Daniel C Dennett speculating that language is a requirement for consciousness while Alun Anderson and Joseph LeDoux guessing that other animals are just as conscious as humans. The last four contributors state a modernist view that humans are getting better (moral, altruistically) or are at least intrinsically good. This is a breath of fresh air from the fog of post-modernism I think exists in current studies of humanities. (I am aware of the difficulty of defining what constitutes improvement.)

My next mini-review will probably be “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera. (But any book that mentions Nietzsche in the first line can’t be all bad!)


Early Wittgenstein pre-empts the Later Wittgenstein

Posted by on August 16th, 2007

There is a theory that the early Wittgenstein had provided a sophisticated and subtle defence of religion. Particularly individual and private religious experience.

6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

The mystical is beyond words, quite probably ineffable. Wittgensteins theory of the mystical in the Tractatus is that the limits of what can be meaningfully said do not coincide with the limits of what can be thought. On the contrary there are things which ought not be said, or perhaps cannot be meaningfully said but which can nonetheless be shown or thought of, manifesting themselves in a non-linguistic manner.

Thus Wittgensteins view of religious experience, or personal (non-institutional) religion is very similar to the pragmatic approach of William James that concerns its analysis with “fruits not roots”.

The Tractatus explicitly rejects metaphysics as being meaningless. Wittgenstein consistently held this view, yet whilst defending the mystical which he insisted should remain unspoken of. The view of the Tractatus towards religion is that the more one attempts to elucidate religious/mystical experiences into words, the deeper one is entering into making metaphysical propositions, thus the more nonsense one is uttering.

The Logical Positivists, who were broadly speaking fans of the Tractatus, interpreted the anti-metaphysical nature of his work as the basis of an attack on religion. If religious doctrines are explained with reference to metaphysics, then non-empirical religious doctrines can be attacked as being meaningless and nonsensical. But Wittgensteins demarcation between the mystical (that can be known/shown but must remain unsaid) and the logical atomist approach that he championed (that what is said can be analytically de-constructed and atomic facts known) was actually an attempt to disengage from (for example) arguments concerning the existence/non-existence of God. Instead of attempting to solve the question he simply sidestepped it. The question is unresolved and dissolved. Because the experience of God is something that is mystical, something that cannot be spoken of, any attempt to prove or disprove God’s existence was equally meaningless and nonsense.

Wittgensteins theory on religion would appear to be very closely related to his personal experience. Religion is meaningful only in an existential way not in an intellectual way. Thus he attempts to shield it from the pitfalls of metaphysics (encouraging silence instead) and from the attacks of logical positivism.

The later Wittgenstein, as emerging from Philosophical Investigations maintains many of his earlier themes. Religion as an existential and private enterprise remains important to him, and likewise Metaphysics remains nonsense and should be discarded by Philosophy.

But the later Wittgenstein adds a technical distinction to the term nonsense, and seems to apply it towards metaphysics. Instead of nonsense, as in gobbledook or unintelligible rubbish, he begins to talk of non-sense as in not-sense. Here he begins to expound his language-games theory. Metaphysics instead of being meaningless nonsense, i.e. something that means nothing, becomes instead meaningful non-sense, i.e. something that means something outside of the sense language game.

Metaphysics is nonsense when judged by the criteria of the critico-rationalist language game. But it remains perfectly meaningful within the context of the metaphysics language game. The immunity from rational criticism that he once offered to mysticism now applies to other forms of language. The later Wittgenstein sought to analyse the content of these language games and no longer to judge their value. The key to this volte face is his rejection of the picture idea theory of words and his development of the ‘meaning=use’ theory. (More of which in the next post).

How We Operate

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 11th, 2007

We started discussed each others biases and argument methods. Just to recap, I said:

“My concern, which I don’t think you directly addressed, is you seem to compulsively deny any negative connotations of religion.” and “Pick any religious idea, I can probably find criticism for it.”

And part of your response caught my attention:

“it would be impossible for me to take such a challenge seriously when in your challenge you immediately declare that you can find a criticism of it. In other words how do I know that if I presented religious idea ‘a’ you would analyse it from a neutral and fair perspective and not start from the premise that idea ‘a’ is false, dangerous, inherently bad?” and “you havent clarified your methods”.

This got me thinking about how exactly I evaluate a new argument and how one should evaluate a new argument. The obstacles to a proper evaluation of an argument are many and varied. Although I think I objectively follow logical arguments, I also know that this is probably a delusion or at least partially a delusion. The mind is prone to bias and using confabulation to justify that bias. An argument in the conscious mind is often just an ad-hoc justification for our instincts. Confirmational bias and self serving bias are often the driving force here.

Also we have to consider that axioms and assumptions made in the argument – if we don’t accept the arguments premise we are bound to be more critical. Perhaps the most significant axiom (or what I consider to be an axiom) is the existence or non-existence of God. As soon as one of us starts from an axiom we disagree with, we start looking for opportunities to shoot down the argument – even though we have only temporarily accepted the axiom. (By we, I mainly mean me and perhaps people generally.)

A third area of difficulty is: what is the valid criteria for evaluation an argument? Should we just follow rules of logic (Tractatus style) or allow aesthetics or instincts to guide us? Or a mixture?

How I Operate

First off, confirmational bias – if I have already a view on a topic (death penalty for example), and argument for pro-death penalty would get a harsh examination unless it undermined one of my axioms. (My very brief argument is the justice system is for protection of the public and rehabilitation of offenders and NOT for punishment and not for deterrence – therefore the dealth penalty is unnecessary.)

If an argument convinced me that the primary purpose of the justice system was punishment of offenders, I would be forced to reconsider my view on the death penalty. Of course confirmational bias would make that difficult to achieve also.

If I have not made up my mind on an issue, this step is skipped – so there is some hope.

Second principle – my naturalistic/Occam’s razor world view. This is indeed an axiom of mine but I am not sure what proof could ever be presented that would change my mind. Although I acknowledge that Descartes attempted a rationalism approach (and I admire his starting point), I don’t think that he can get very far – he quickly makes further unjustified assumptions to progress his argument. Perhaps one extreme piece of evidence would be the disproof of causality and the proof that all phenomena of the world are totally random. That is probably unlikely 🙂 but not impossible. The other direction of disproof might be an a priori argument against naturalism. But can a priori disprove an a posteriori statement?

Another possibility is meeting God and some tricks to show off his power – but I might be then asking if this was not an impostor with some advanced technology… although this would not strictly disprove naturalism – existence of life after death might be a better proof of metaphysics. But then again “physical proof of X” would only agree with naturalism! Can I ever accept any other type of proof? (I think I just confused myself!)

Third: Rules of logic. Although logic should be more fundamental than the above, the fact is I only consider it consciously after processing by biases for and against an argument. Logic arguments can take more effort since I need to truly understand the argument before I can make comment. (In other words, I try to get into their language game so I can see if they are playing by their own rules).

That’s all I can think of at the moment. I might get on to overcoming biases but that will require more thinking!

Anti Citizen One

The basis of ethics: Part 6 Are the Theistic and Darwinian accounts of the basis of the moral sense compatible?

Posted by on August 1st, 2007

Darwin considered the implications of his theory for human development in his works The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions (1872). Following the observations made from a lifetimes work he suggested that human mental ability and social behaviour could be shown to have the same sort of historical development as the human body. The term that has been given to this expression of his theories is ‘Social Darwinism.’

In the same way that Laplace considered the philosophical implications of the Newtonian model of the universe, so Herbert Spencer developed social theories based upon Darwinism. It was Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the application of the theory of natural selection to ethical and social questions. His theories were extremely controversial, and they went beyond anything that Darwin himself would have suggested. He was opposed by many and in particular by T. H.Huxley, one of Darwin’s most vocal supporters.

Spencer believed that the implication of natural selection was that human society should follow the struggle for survival in nature. For example, those who were not strong enough to live should be allowed to die. Whatever makes the totality of life greater is good, but whatever diminishes life is inherently bad. He believed that the Poor Laws, which made provision for the destitute, and state education, were bad, as they benefited only those who were incapable of taking care and bettering themselves.

The survival of the fittest morality have arguably been one of the most destructive ideological forces of the modern age. But, in defence of Darwin and the theories of natural selection, we must remember that it is totally concerned with offering an account of the process of evolution (what it is supposed did in fact happen), and not a social commentary (what it is supposed ought to happen).

In fact Spencer’s whole ethical viewpoint is guilty of the naturalistic fallacy, as G.E.Moore points out; Spencer attempts to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.


Likewise Professor Steve Jones comments, “Evolution is to the social sciences as statues are to birds; a convenient platform upon which to deposit badly-digested ideas…There might be inborn drives for rape or for greed, but Homo sapiens, uniquely, need not defer to them.”

 It would appear then that Darwin’s evolutionary view of the origin of the moral sense, in fact, holds no quarrel with a theistic viewpoint. There is something about human behaviour and ethical actions, which seem to suggest either a unique quality, or a heightened one, at the least. Social Darwinism in truth has little or nothing to do with Darwinian evolutionary theory, as it was originally intended. One is a scientific commentary upon the evolution of the species, whereas the other is a social commentary that has little basis in science.

Finally could it be said that Darwin’s theory of the origin of the moral sense, essentially moral subjectivism, is irreconcilable to the objectivity of a theistic account of morality? I would suggest not; we identify the moral value of an act by virtue of some form of natural property. The moral subjectivist, like Darwin, would identify these natural properties as being reflective of personal feelings of approval or revulsion. We can know that certain acts with certain ‘natural properties’ are wrong because of the feelings that they cause within us.

For the atheist and those who posit that God is not the basis of ethics, this argument removes the role that the theists claim God plays in the moral life. But the theist can respond to this by attributing our moral psychology, those feelings of revulsion or acceptance, as being part of a natural make up intended (dare I say designed) by God. Although this is not a conclusive position, it does suggest that theism and moral subjectivism are not irreversibly contradictory positions.