Method is a Year Old

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 2nd, 2008

Well this website has survived for a whole year! That is longer than I expected. I almost gave up last autumn over the whole dialectics quagmire. I am glad I didn’t. I still have not finished that Babylon 5 series… Any comments El Sordo?

To give you an idea of our readership, in the last 3 days we have had about 47 human readers (discounting the authors!) from Ukraine, Poland, Turkey, Sweden, United States, UK, China, Latvia, Germany, Russia, Jamaica, Japan, Slovakia, Colombia, Vietnam and Finland. That is pretty diverse!

To invert Spider-Mans motto: “With great power comes no responsibility!”

har har har AC1 🙂

Where Does Maths Come From?

Posted by Anti Citizen One on April 27th, 2008

Think too hard about it, and mathematics starts to seem like a mighty queer business. For example, are new mathematical truths discovered or invented? Seems like a simple enough question, but for millennia, it has provided fodder for arguments among mathematicians and philosophers. Science News

The Field of Language Games

Posted by on April 17th, 2008

It would be a vast understatement to say that I have a strong interest in the philosophy of language, and that this influences the way in which I approach other aspects of philosophy. But despite my many posts on language games I havent always clarified my views on the field itself. So this short post is to fill that void.

In my opinion a philosophy of language is broadly semiotic, i.e. a study of the systems of signs that we use in communication. And a comprehensive philosophy of language encompasses all the many different means of communication we have and ideally should also tackle non-human languages.

Crucially though a philosophy of language is not (or rather should not be) exclusively logocentric, i.e. focused solely on the spoken or written word, but should incorporate other systems of signification and signifiers.

Generally though most of the famous theories in the philosophy of language have focused predominantly on words, mostly for the sake of convenience. Wittgenstein and Lyotard mostly focused on these language games, though Wittgenstein was interested in proposing a broader semiotic theory. On the contrary Derrida focused almost exclusively on texts.

Historically the philosophy of language has studied natural languages i.e. linguistics, and semiotics has studied other language forms. But it is important to remember that the distinction is one of traditions rather than subject (one arising out of philosophy, the other out of science).

An example of how the two overlap struck me this afternoon. I was attending a funeral, conducted according to Christian rites. After much contemplation, discussion and protest I wore a black tie, black trousers, and “smart” black shoes. I protested because I find the neck-tie to be a non-functional and reduntant item of clothing and not a little restrictive around my neck. Similarly I dislike the “smart” black shoes as they are somewhat less comfortable than my usual footwear. And above all I resent the fact that in attending a funeral I should dress in anyway different from that which I would have done when visiting the person alive – particularly when that person had little time for such petty conventionalism either.

In my discussions two particular themes arose, firstly it was a sign of respect (both to the deceased and their immediate family), secondly it is the done thing to be respectful at funerals.

Part of me felt uncomfortable at this demand for conformity, after all most people (Christians included) believe that after death the body is an empty husk or shell. Whether you believe in a soul or not most people accept that the body of the deceased is lacking something. It is no longer the person we all knew and loved. And yet we still have traditions of showing respect to this empty vessel, perhaps partly this is a residue of much older belief systems, or perhaps again it is simply an expression of a more general respect towards both the deceased and the bereaved.

Ultimately I bowed to pressure and conformed, but it struck me as a pertinent example of Wittgensteins fundamental principle of language games. Language, and by this I mean any broad system of signification, gets its meaning from its use. Thus the emphasis on wearing black, a visual symbol if ever there was one, was based not on some sort of positivistic essence where black always means death, mourning, grief and so on. But rather the wearing of black has gained this meaning through consensus. It signifies mourning, or respect because society decided it did at some point in time.

Crucially though and again contrary to positivistic assumptions this is only one of many different significative meanings for the colour black. It can have many other different meanings and as a consequence many other associated values. For example in the US, Black Cats are symbols of bad luck, whereas in the UK they symbolise good luck. In Japan the colour black represents age, wisdom and experience, hence the highest grade that a martial artist can attain is usually signified by a black belt.

I’m sure there are many other examples, but as I sat awaiting the service to begin, tugging at the knot of my neck-tie and wincing in discomfort from my shoes, I took solace in the fact that my compromise was shared by many others in the same room, I was participating in a language game.

It is one of the tasks of the philosophy of language, particularly the post-positivistic traditions, to emphasise the cultural and cognitive relativism of language games. That the meanings we attach to signs are not fixed but are fluid and sometimes quite arbitrary.

With this in mind maybe next time I shall not wear black, or simply do without the neck-tie. Or maybe I will, who knows?

History: Science or Propaganda?

Posted by on March 2nd, 2008

It is as if the capricious gods of rhetoric and irony smiled upon me this morning when I opened the paper and read an article by the never boring (but only occasionally sensible) Peter Hitchens concerning education and the teaching of history. Entitled “So what was your child taught today, sympathy for Mr Hitler?“Hitchens laments the “slow-motion national suicide” that is taking place in the history classes of our childrens schools.

His ire is directed at a worksheet intended for 13 year olds being taught about the Spanish Armada, who are asked to mentally role-play being a Spanish sailor about to set sail, to explore the motivations for the would be invasion of England and to elucidate upon these said motives by drawing up an “anti-english” poster. Further to his already ludicrous outrage, apparently the poor children also had to draw a spider chart illustrating at least four reasons why Spain was angry enough with England that they invasion could have been considered.

What is wrong with this? What indeed is Hitchens question, which he then boldly expounds to us; it is because if we swap the words Spanish with German, the event Armada for the Blitz and then finally Spanish sailor for Luftwaffe pilot we shouldcatch his drift.

Leaving aside the fallacies of the average argumentum ad hitlerum not to mention the barely comparable circumstances of the these two historical threats to England, what else is wrong with Hitchen’s rant. Unable to better himself in presenting the absurdity of his own argument I shall simply leave you to read his words and insightful analysis.

Now, I have actually checked to see how Spanish children are taught the same subject, and I have established beyond doubt that they are not asked to draw an anti-Spanish poster.

Not so long ago, they were taught that Francis Drake, that hero of my youth, was a wicked pirate.

Good for the Spanish.

They at least understand that national history, taught to the young in schools, is the lore of the tribe, the basis of our identity and pride.

It is not a matter of seeing all sides of the argument or working out why other people might have wanted to occupy, plunder and enslave us, as if that wasn’t pretty obvious.

I am in awe at the breathtaking arrogance of the man (ad hominem aside) that history is the “lore of the tribe”, lest anyone need that to be translated for them, I believe he is saying that history is propaganda. That the “basis of our identity and pride” is the myth of our national history, and not actually an account (albeit subjective) of a series of events and motivations.

Pupils are exposed to conflicting scraps of information, grandly called “sources”, and asked to make up their own minds – which means they are robbed of pride in their nation, and left confused and vulnerable to the BBC’s anti-British propaganda and the Leftist monopoly that runs the universities.

Oh I see, so there is something wrong in allowing pupils to “make up their own minds” or in other words to think for themselves?

I’m afraid as Peter Hitchens is well aware (hence the vicious nature of this diatribe) the only propaganda that is taking place here is the notion that recieved historical accounts are fixed, accurate, unbiased, precise and in no need of deconstructive analysis. I guess the nature of his arguing is so vicious purely because the very myths that he extols are the ones used constantly to justify and uphold the status quo of this rotten country that he so admires.

In my previous post Renaissance musings I declare that the postmodern slant on history is one of its great gifts to modern scholarship although by no means does it deserve all the credit for the Scientific method also provides the noble tools of falsification and verification. Tools that when applied sensibly (and as a postmodernist may request sceptically too), allow for us to present history as a reasoned account of events, motives, and causal connections and not simply the self-justifying myths that the establishment wants us to hear and know and think to be true.

A Feyerabend outline.

Posted by on January 17th, 2008

What follows is a short outline of the main thrust of Feyerabends analytical account of the origins of science, his rejection of Karl Poppers thesis and his espousal of epistemological anarchism. This is extracted as a whole from Straw Dogs by John Gray and is one of the better, simpler accounts of Feyerabends thought.

Science’s Irrational Origins

As portrayed by its fundamentalists, science is the supreme expression of reason. They tell us that if it rules our lives today, it is only after a long struggle in which it was ceaselessly opposed by the Church, the state and every kind of irrational belief. Having arisen in the struggle against superstition, science – they say – has become the embodiment of rational inquiry.

This fairy tale conceals a more interesting history. The origins of science are not in rational inquiry but in faith, magic and trickery. Modern science triumphed over its adversaries not through its superior rationality but because its late-medieval and early-modern founders were more skilful than them in the use of rhetoric and the arts of politics.

Galileo did not win in his campaign for Copernican astronomy because he conformed to any precept of ‘scientific method’. As Feyerabend argued, he prevailed because of his persuasive skill – and because he wrote in Italian. By writing in Italian rather than Latin, Galileo was able to identify resistance to Copernican astronomy with the bankrupt scholasticism of his time, and so gain support from people opposed to older traditions of learning:

Copernicus now stands for progress in other areas as well, he is a symbol for the ideals of a new class that looks back to the classical times of Plato and Cicero and forward to a free and pluralistic society.

Galileo won out not because he had the best arguments but because he was able to represent the new astronomy as part of a coming trend in society. His success illustrates a crucial truth. To limit the practise of science by rules of method would slow the growth of knowledge, or even halt it:

The difference between science and methodology which is such an obvious fact of history… indicates a weakness in the latter, and perhaps of the ‘laws of reason’ as well… Without ‘chaos’, no knowledge. Without a frequent dismissal of reason, no progress. Ideas which today form the very basis of science exist because there were such things as prejudice, conceit, passion; because these things opposed reason; and because they were permitted to have their way.

According to the most influential twentieth-century philosopher of science, Karl Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it has been falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. When they were first advanced, each of them was at odds with some available evidence; only later did evidence become available that gave them crucial support. Applying Popper’s account of scientific method would have killed these theories at birth.

The greatest scientists have never been bound by what are now regarded as the rules of scientific method. Nor did the philosophies of the founders of modern science – magical and metaphysical, mystical and occult – have much in common with what is today taken to be the scientific worldview. Galileo saw himself as a defender of theology, not as an enemy of the Church. Newton’s theories became the basis for a mechanistic philosophy, but in his own mind his theories were inseperable from a religious conception of the world as a divinely created order. Newton explained apparently anomolous occurrences as traces left by God. Tycho Brahe viewed them as miracles. Johannes Kepler described anomalies in astronomy as reactions of ‘the telluric soul’. As Feyerabend observes, beliefs that are today regarded as belonging to religion, myth or magic were central in the worldviews of the people who originated modern science.

As pictured by philosophers, science is a supremely rational activity. Yet the history of science shows scientists flouting the rules of scientific method. Not only the origins but the progress of science comes from acting against reason.

J.Gray, Straw Dogs -thoughts on humans and other animals, p21-23.

Analyzing AC-1 and El Sordo

Posted by on July 13th, 2007

Occasionally to the outside reader it may seem that AC-1 and myself are living on completely different planets. Well I can safely put that theory to rest. Generally there are many issues we discuss where 3 steps occur. Firstly we both start at the same point, a question about something. Secondly we apply our methodologies to resolving or understanding or narrating the question we have posited. Finally we reach a conclusion. What has suprised AC-1 and myself is how often we agree with the first and the last, the question and the answer, but we disagree or at least differ with our approach to reaching those answers. And of course occasionally as you will have noticed we find ourselves fundamentally in disagreement with perhaps all three steps.

Why do we sometimes seem to disagree so bitterly when at othertimes we have few problems reaching consensus?

Whilst thinking about this I was reminded of the typological analysis of theology provided by Hans Frei. When trying to write a narrative history of theology Frei realised that the common analytic terms for theology, i.e. orthodox, conservative, liberal, radical and so on, were insufficient. For many theologians or theologies differed in spite of their similarities. For example liberation theology (politically radical) involved a conservative literal and analogous reading of scripture. So he proposed a new model to describe different theological methods, and he called this the Five types – Two extremes. And he used the analogy of a straight line with two ends (the extremes) and three intermediate points which represented general Academic Theology.

1————-2————–3—————4————–5

1= External Extreme 2-4= Academic Theology 5= Internal Extreme

These five types represent the different methodological and ideological approaches to theology. But this system oculd perhaps also be used to cover any philosophical question.

The Five Types

Type 1 The External Extreme

In this type total priority is given to an external and contemporary worldview, philosophy, or practical agenda. For example atheist materialism, or feminist ethics. Take atheist materialism as an example, in this world view the physical world is all there is to know, it is brute fact, therefore the claims of Christian theology are viewed with extreme suspicion. Any approach to theology made in this type is made solely with reference to the external extreme, so theology is viewed and described or explained through the medium of that external extreme. Thus religion is explained in terms of history, genetics, psychology, economics, sociology, philosophy etc. The external extreme approach is to assess theology in terms of whether they fit the external framework.

Type 2 Synthetic approaches to external frameworks.

This type takes external frameworks seriously in their own right, but attempts to apply them to an understanding of religion and to develop a unique theology from out of this. An example is various forms of Christian Existentialism, Christian Socialism, Political Islam, Liberation Theology. This approach sometimes has a tendency to lean towards type 1, where the external philosophy colours the theology so for example Liberation Theology is sometimes criticized for its unabridged reference to marxist theory.

Type 3 Correlation.

This approach does not allow an external framework, such as existentialism to influence the theology. But similarly it does not adocate a theological primacy either. It chooses to establish dialog, and embraces all sorts of philosophies and world views. It is typically the attempt to synthesize culture and faith. Critics of this type though describe it as a tightrope act and that any form of theology using this type inevitable becomes faith taking-over culture, or culture taking-over faith, for example.

Type 4 Can be described as orthodoxy. It is similar to the internal extreme of type 5 in that it insists that no other framework may dictate how to understand theology/faith, but it differs in that it acknowledges that in order to justify type 4 it must be continously tested against other frameworks and it must be able to provide a coherent description of itself in relation to other positions. Type 4 unlike the previous types acknowledges that a theology is not just an intellectual position but is also a way of life shared by others. It is best exemplified by the Anselm quote “faith seeking understanding.”

Type 5 The Internal Extreme

This type is the mirror opposite of Type 1. It allows of no other framework other than its own. In this case though the referenced framework is internal, examples range from biblical literalism to papal infallibility, to the primacy of internal experience. It encompasses often uncomfortable extremes (that seem unrelated) from christian fundamentalism to the primacy of the Wittgensteinian language game.

The Language game approach would state that the task of theology is to make clear what sort of ‘game’ say Christianity is, and then to draw the rules and describe what the consequences for living within this language game are. The ultimate rule in the language games theory is to say that it is pointless to try to justify Christian faith in alien terms (i.e. scientific materialism) for that would entail switching games and/or breaking the rules for one or the other.

The Extremes, AC-1 and El Sordo

This model (I think) provides a neat example of how sometimes AC-1 and myself operate in relation to each other. For example our approach to the question ‘Does God Exist’ results in almost irreconciliable differences at every step of the way. It is becuase AC-1 probably falls into type 1 on this question, approaching it from the perspective of an atheist materialist, and because me (El Sordo) approaches it from type 5 as a wittgenstein language games practitioner. The problem with the two types is that it sometimes precludes diaolog between the two on those issues where they belong to diametrically opposed frameworks.

I hope this goes someway to explaining and rationalising our occasional spats and it does help me sometimes to remember this typological model when our dialog fails.