Philosophy in Movies

Posted by Anti Citizen One on April 14th, 2015

Interesting article: I watch therefore I am: seven movies that teach us key philosophy lessons

Spiders Created The Universe?

Posted by Anti Citizen One on February 22nd, 2012

The BRAHMINS assert, that the world arose from an infinite spider, who spun this whole complicated mass from his bowels, and annihilates afterwards the whole or any part of it, by absorbing it again, and resolving it into his own essence. Here is a species of cosmogony, which appears to us ridiculous; because a spider is a little contemptible animal, whose operations we are never likely to take for a model of the whole universe. But still here is a new species of analogy, even in our globe. And were there a planet wholly inhabited by spiders, (which is very possible,) this inference would there appear as natural and irrefragable as that which in our planet ascribes the origin of all things to design and intelligence, as explained by CLEANTHES. Why an orderly system may not be spun from the belly as well as from the brain, it will be difficult for him to give a satisfactory reason. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume

God is Finite

Posted by Anti Citizen One on December 4th, 2011

Imagine I had a length of string that was infinitely long. What evidence or argument could I present that would convince you that it was infinitely long? Of course, I could show you vast warehouses in which some of it was stored, but we cannot inspect an infinite length in a finite time. On the other hand, if it were of finite length, it is usually easy to demonstrate that.

An easier demonstration of infinite properties might be an object traveling at infinite speed. However we might only interpret this as something being in two spatially separated locations at the same time. We still have the difficulty, given the imprecision of measurements, to be able to distinguish between a very fast particle and an infinitely fast object. If the object has finite speed, it is certainly feasible to determine its speed as finite.

Properties that may be infinite cannot be practically distinguished from similar, very large but finite possibilities. I came to this conclusion when I was asked what evidence it would take for me personally to believe in God. The traditional conception of God includes various infinite qualities. I think it is conceivable that I could be persuaded that were was a powerful, creating entity. But can we distinguish between a powerful finite God and an infinitely powerful God? By analogy, we can argue that God is not infinitely powerful, since in our experience of reality there are only finite things (finite size, finite knowledge, finite precision, finite mass, finite duration). The only other defensible position seems to be a skeptical one, in which we claim God may be finite or infinite but we could not come to a determination either way.

Anti Citizen One

(PS Of course, I don’t fully accept the last paragraph because it has the same limitations as the design argument.)

The Logic of Theism/Atheism

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 6th, 2011

On question that I find very interesting in debating the existence/non-existence of God is the question of falsifiability of both the theist and atheist positions. Falsifiability is one of the characteristic features of natural science, but it can be useful outside that domain. It is important on a practical level, because if a proposition can never be disproved by evidence, even on principle, it becomes hard to demonstrate the proposition with evidence (and is no longer a-posteriori knowledge). For instance 2+2=4 is not falsifiable, because it is a-priori logic and evidence does not come into consideration. Another example, the Earth orbits the Sun requires observations to find out the truth value of the proposition and cannot be deduced from pure logic. Any proposition that is contingent and also unfalsifiable is usually met with extreme scepticism from critical thinkers. See also: Russell’s teapot.

Atheists usually consider God as a contingent proposition. Briefly, atheism is someone who believes the logical truth value for theism is undecided/undecidable or false (or, alternately and more correctly, someone who doesn’t hold the truth value to be true). This makes logical consideration complicated by these compounded questions: “is there a god?” and “can we determine if there is a god?”. I have been asked “what evidence would make you believe in God?”. I actually had a hard time answering this to my satisfaction. This was frustrating, because I hold that falsifiability is necessary for a-posteriori knowledge. I need to consider if my belief that theism is undecided/undecidable is falsifiable.

These issues are complicated by theism doesn’t have a unified definition of God (or Gods). For every conception of God, it would be another opportunity of atheism to be falsified. For instance, Spinoza says (to paraphrase) God is nature. Well I accept nature exists, so am I a theist? Well I guess not, since Spinoza and I have different conceptions of “nature”. But a more simple fictional example might be “my tea mug is god”. My mug exists, as far as I can tell. Therefore atheism is false? However theism typically implies God has agency. Let us consider a fictional theistic system “my pet cat is god”. Now, my cat exists and has agency. Therefore atheism is false? Because this trivial example, although logically interesting and meets the narrow definition of theism, it doesn’t relate the current debate because the concept “theism” usually implies other attributes, not just agency and existence. Atheism, to be consistent with falsifiability, only applies to theistic systems that the atheist has encountered and considered. If theistic claims are limited to fairly mundane and testable attributes for God, atheism is very falsifiable.

To be continued… Update: continued here.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 6th, 2011

I recently finished On Liberty and I was pleasantly surprised, after his book on utilitarianism. Mill’s basic thesis is that the state should not impose laws on people unless it is to prevent harm on other people. He then sets about examining the arguments for and against his principle. He begins by arguing for the necessity of free thought and speech, based on fallibilism. Since it is absurd to claim we are without error, we should allow what is “true” to be argued in the public space – otherwise we cannot except to arrive at knowing what truth is. Also, without properly knowing the full arguments for and against this “truth”, the knowledge of truth becomes an atrophied belief (like, he claims, Christianity has become in the western world). He then extends this principle of free thought to human action – given that the best mode of life might still be discovered in a diverse society. This seems fairly reasonable except his assumption that moral propositions could be “true” or “false”, so fallibilism would not apply in this case.

The most interesting chapter, particularly from a Nietzschian perspective, is “On Individuality”. I few choice quotes:

Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be?

But these few [innovators] are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already existed.

Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.

In sober truth, whatever homage may be professed, or even paid, to real or supposed mental superiority, the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.

So he claims that development of individuals and of humans generally is only achieved though diversity and experimentally trying different ways of thinking and living. Due to social pressure and psychology, only a minority can innovate in this way, but the entire history of mankind depends on these types of people. Nietzsche poetically described this as “the song of the necessary ones, the single and irreplaceable melody.” But even Nietzsche would admit that the majority of non-innovators are “necessary” and cannot be done away with (“Are poisoned fountains necessary, and stinking fires, and filthy dreams, and maggots in the bread of life?”). To perhaps summarise the difference these two writers, Mill proposes a safely net for individualism of preventing people harming others – but there is no such safety net in Nietzsche’s concept of the superman. However either system of innovation encompasses morality and this is, according to Mill, incompatible with objective morality. Mill specifically states that Calvinism would be opposed to his principles, because that view considers diversity and expression of human will as something to be avoided – and to some extent this applies to all Christian morality. I touched on a few of this issues in a previous post.

Mill does state a principle of state power and it is a fine summary of my own view:

[T]he greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralisation of information, and diffusion of it from the centre.

Power should be localised, information should be shared. Good stuff!

Anti Citizen One

On Liberty (Librivox free audio book)

Plato’s Cave vs. Inception

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 8th, 2011

I was blown away by Nolan’s Inception. I thought the themes in the movie took Plato’s cave and extended the idea, but at the same time also subverted the original meaning so as to be critical of Plato’s position. If you have not seen the film, my discussion is likely to be totally meaningless or possibly contains spoilers – so I suggest you stop here.

From the point of view of upper and sub realities, the two most interesting characters are Mal and Saito. Of course the protagonist, Dom Cobb, is also philosophically interesting, but this is beyond the scope of what I want to discuss. At the time of her apparent death, Mal’s views on waking reality are reminiscent of the cave prisoner who is aware of the nature of the Cave and wants to return to the upper world. The difference between Plato and Nolan is that the cave prisoner’s view is justified, but Mal’s view is likely to be mistaken. In both cases, bystanders try to dissuade them of their beliefs. The bystanders, of course, do not have experience of an upper would and, empirically speaking, this is enough to question the existence of an upper world but not enough to rule out it’s existence.

Inception also considers nested realities: a “dream within a dream”. I am not aware of much previous philosophical work on this matter, but it is interesting and extends the Allegory of the Cave. I am also interested in the phenomena of lucid dreaming – the awareness of being in a dream. As in Inception, this tends to be an unstable state which often ends in waking or a false awakening. A false awakening is the experience of waking from a dream but still actually being in a dream. Lucid dreaming also tends to be accompanied by having complete control over the dream world – this is usually… entertaining. I have personal experience of all this, as well as a “dream within a dream”, which I experienced as (incorrectly, inside a dream) believing I was awake, then experiencing falling asleep and dreaming but being aware that it was a dream (I could still remember the pre-lucid dream), then false awakening back into a normal dream (while remembering the both previous stages).

This possibility of layered reality throws a question to Plato’s cave: what if the upper world is in some sense another cave, that could be transcended? And what if there were an infinite chain of upper worlds? An extreme possibility, not discussed in any media I can think of, is the possibility of more than one branch of upper worlds? These might exist completely independently and be mutually inaccessible, except through a dream? With no definite way to address these possibilities, the message of Plato’s Cave is nullified. So what if there is an “upper world”? Without knowing it is the final objective reality, it could be said to be just as self-deceiving as the cave dwellers view of reality.

I have tried to express the different stages of Mal’s awareness of realities in the same form as my previous posting on Plato’s cave.

Time
Unspecified Upper world
“Waking”
Dreams
Dreams within Dreams
Unstructured
Early life 0
Dream Experiments 0 1 2
Lost in unstructured dreaming 0
After first inception 0?
At time of “Death” 0? 1

Key

Early life – before personally using dream sharing technology
Dream experiments – Dom said he and Mal were “exploring the concept of a dream within a dream”
Lost in limbo – Dom and Mal grow old together in the dream. Mal forgets they are dreaming, possibly as a coping mechanism. Presumably they are sedated in the upper world and can’t escape until the drug wears off – a duration which they perceive as about 50 years.
After Inception – Mal begins to question her own perception of what is “real” and what is a dream.
At time of here death – Mal is convinced that Dom’s waking world is also a dream.

Waking – including the Boeing 747/Anniversary Hotel
Dreams – Kidnapping/City streets/Van chase,Saito’s Flat
Dreams with Dreams – Hotel with “Mr. Charles”,Young Saito’s fortress
Limbo – Old Saito’s fortress, Dom and Mal’s city

According to Plato, the biggest problem we face is the lack of awareness of the true world: “idealism” while falsely taking the apparently world as reality. In Nietzsche’s philosophy, one of the greatest contemporary issues we face is the destructive belief that there is a metaphysical world and that it is more significant than the apparent waking world. Mal’s tragic death is caused by both of this issues. Firstly, she willingly forgets that limbo is not real. This is symbolically shown when she puts her spinning top in a safe in her dolls’ house. Dom “rectifies” this with his first inception. Secondly, she succumbs to the idea that waking reality is a dream – resulting in her suicide by jumping from a window.

In the film, extraction and inception only seem possible when the target is not aware of being in a dream. When Mal alerts Saito of being in a dream, he can quickly block their plan. When “Mr. Charles” informs Fischer of being in a dream, the hostile projections are more alert. Arthur had previously warned them of this, based on a previous failed attempt to use the “Mr. Charles” gambit. Conclusion: in the reality of the film, loosing grip of what is “real” opens the mind to be manipulated. Perhaps the director intended that this message might be applied outside the film.

With a story as subjective as this, it is hard to make any firm arguments or draw certain conclusions. From my experience, belief in metaphysical realities is “waiting for a train”. Semiotically, this is the will to devalue our apparent reality and to want to escape to an upper metaphysically world. Given there is no “upper world”, waiting for a train is nihilistic. Morality and religion is “waiting for a train”.

Anti Citizen One

PS I hardly need mention Yusuf’s customers, for who the dream has become their reality…

Thoughts on Plato’s Cave

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 13th, 2011

I want to share some thoughts about Plato’s cave. Being a very influential idea, it is worth some consideration.

I probably should skip the obvious points: that it argues for the existence of other “upper world” realities and the prisoner who experiences the upper world then fails to persuade the cave-dwellers of his experiences is Plato himself. He also claims that one who has experienced the upper world would not be happy with life in the cave. Many of these general ideas were imported into Christianity as the distinction between the material and spiritual world, with again heaven traditionally being thought of as “upward”.

Some Speculations

In Plato’s allegory, there seems to be very little interaction between the two worlds, beyond the casting of shadows into the cave. Can either world, of the cave or the upper one, exist without the other? If the upper world did not exist, there would be no shadows in the cave and nothing for the cave dwellers to discuss. That seems to be all a cave dweller can do and apparently necessary to their existence. However, if the cave did not exist, there would be little impact, except for the lack of released cave prisoners. It is likely to be a rare event, given Plato’s criteria of what constitutes philosophic knowledge. Presumably, the upper world can exist without that and if the cave exists, the upper world must necessarily exist too. The cave seems to be a contingent world.

Applying these allegorical speculations to us, Plato must maintain that objects cannot exist without its corresponding ideal object. However ideal objects presumably exist regardless of all the imperfect versions of it were destroyed. For example, we could burn all imperfect tables, but the ideal table will still exist. The ideal world is necessary. The apparent world is contingent. Also, the cave is a small part of the world “entire”, by which I mean in the allegory both worlds physically exist and are mutually accessible in some circumstances. The upper world probably is “bigger” than the cave, although this is not exactly specified – but quite likely since Plato prefers the upper world to the cave.

The main problem, according to Plato, is the lack of awareness of upper worlds and the acceptance that apparent reality is real.

I am now going to try to tabulate peoples beliefs in existences of “upper” and “lower” worlds. A zero denotes what someone thinks of as reality. Positive numbers indicate layers of contingent realities or contingent worlds. A blank space denotes lack of awareness of a world.

Worlds
Upper World The Cave
Cave Dwellers 0
People on Walkway 0 1?
Prisoner before release 0
after release 0 1

I plan to do a follow up post about the counter view. I’ll give you a clue on what I plan. If someone standing at a precipice asked Plato:

If I jumped, would I survive?

… the answer according to Plato is yes (at least in some form). I base that on the words he put into Socrates’s mouth as his last words.

Anti Citizen One

Henry Thoreau

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 11th, 2010

I’ve been reading various Thoreau writings. He was a major figure in American Transcendentalism, along with Emerson. The movement was anti-dogma and attempted to find “truth” and “goodness” by personal reflection and intuition. For Thoreau, this meant rejecting contemporary culture and to attempt is own spiritual way in solitude and in nature. Thoreau would not really have called it solitude – he seemed perfectly happy with plants and birds as friends. His conclusion is we invent too much superfluous baggage in life which is without value. He attempts to avoid the distraction of this baggage and to focus on what he finds more important.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is a short account of a week spend on a river canoeing trip with his brother. There is no dialogue but, in typical style of Thoreau, it is very descriptive; the rivers, plants and animals are covered in great detail. This can be slightly heavy reading at times. He occasionally mixes proses with verse, which facilitates expressing his message, which is not rationalist, but also partly artistic. There are several digressions, mainly on the philosophy with respect to friendship.

Civil Disobedience recounts the authors experience of being imprisoned for a night for failure to pay taxes. He also includes an analysis of the relationship between the individual and the state. He observes the state cannot fully satisfy everyone, even in a democracy, given there is some differences in opinion. If the state will not be swayed by discussion, the individual is left with little recourse. Thoreau claims that a state that doesn’t represent an individual’s interests can be ignored. In his case, he objected to slavery and the Mexican–American War (he was writing in 1849). Since he refused to support these institutions, he refused to pay tax and was therefore imprisoned. His attitude is a world away from Rousseau with his “social contract“. This call for passive resistance was a forerunner to civil rights leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Walden describes the authors two year “experiment” in simple living in woods by Walden Pond, near Concord (which is near Boston). He provides almost endless descriptions of the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of nature. This can get a little … slow. But the point is tries to convey is that his life was far from boring to live (in contrast to read about). His curiosity keeps him active, not to mention spending hours hoeing his beans. His simple house was built with is own hands using little money. He also provides critique of civilization, in contrast to his life. He questions the need for progress for its own sake, such as rail roads, the telegraph, newspapers, the post office, etc. because he never has learned anything spiritually important from such things. Many of the themes were echoed in Enough by John Naish. Both say we can find happiness, or whatever we are seeking, by scaling back on consumption and avoiding distractions from what we want. I did detect a note in Thoreau of wanting to fight human instincts, but this seemed to be a passing thought. (To attempt such a thing is warned against by Nietzsche.)

I’ll write up A Life Without Principle separately, after re-reading it.

Anti Citizen One

The Münchhausen Trilemma

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 15th, 2010

An interesting problem that arises from logic is the Münchhausen Trilemma. This applies in most situations when we are arguing to support a particular proposition (justificationism). A problem arises when we ask where do the axioms of a logical argument come from? This is expressed in the three “horns” of the Münchhausen Trilemma:

  • The circular argument, in which theory and proof support each other. A because B. B because A. e.g. “The Bible is true because the Bible says so.” Since anything can be justified by a circular argument, it is considered absurd to use this as a valid logical argument. It is also can involve tautology.
  • The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof. A because of B, B because C, C because D, to infinity. If every proposition is supported by other propositions, there is no “foundational axiom”. Since there is no foundational axiom, we cannot even try to assess if our basic assumptions are true. Therefore we cannot know if our conclusion is true or false. This is classically seen in some versions of the cosmological argument.
  • The axiomatic argument, which rests on accepted precepts. This is problematic for the philosopher, as how can we know our axioms are true? Hume, among others, have pointed out the impossibility of a priori knowledge of a posteriori experience. We also can use the argument from obviousness, but this can be countered by claiming “nothing is obvious”, Descartes evil dæmon, Plato’s cave, etc. Also, if there is a disagreement on the truth value of an axiom, there is no way to verify it – this allows possibly any axiom to be claimed as “obvious” and we are back to absurdity. Mathematics rests on axiomatic assumptions but this is acceptable for an abstract field of knowledge. But outside a-priori knowledge, certainty of axioms seems impossible.

    “I shall begin with observing, that there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. […] I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it.” Cleanthes in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

Given the objections and doubts of all possible logical justification, we are forced to conclude that no certainty in a-posteriori knowledge is possible! This leads us to fallibilism, the belief that all knowledge could, in principle, be mistaken. I do not go as far as claiming knowledge is impossible (for one thing, that statement might be considered “knowledge”).

Another way of analysing justification of logical argument is Fries’s trilemma. This ignores circular arguments (since they are worthless) and splits Münchhausen’s “axiomatic argument” into two futher divisions.

  • Dogmatism – we can just assume the truth value of axioms. This is usually unacceptable to philosophers. It also opens the door to possibly false statements.
  • Infinite regress – again, a problem.
  • Psychologism – defined by Popper as “the doctrine that statements can be justified not only by other statements but also by perceptional experience.” Remember that this too abandons certainty in knowledge, due to the variability in interpretation of perceptions. This highlights the need for philosophy to be aware of psychology.

Given the apparently inescapably of fallibilism, anyone who claims to be certain of something is “a question mark concerning his wisdom”. We need modesty in what we know. But I don’t think most people would be comfortable with the idea that everything they know could be false…

Anti Citizen One

PS Simpsons Quote: Moe: “It’s po-mo! [blank stares from all] Post-modern! [more staring] Yeah, all right — weird for the sake of weird.”

PPS Looks like the UK government was in on the US’s torture and rendition antics the whole time.

The Social Contract

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 13th, 2010

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Rousseau

I am on a roll with political philosophy books: I recently finished The Open Society, The Communist Manifesto, The Republic and The Social Contract. I have started on the collected works of Thoreau. Rousseau’s The Social Contract reminds me of Thomas Paine’s writing style. Arguments are put forward using rather large metaphysical assumptions and emotional appeals – although I sometimes agree with their conclusions. For example, the quote above sounds really cool but I am not sure it has any concise meaning. This is in contrast to Popper’s dry and logical approach to a similar goal. Rousseau is more abstract than other political philosophers, at times I was just reading “blah blah blah” as the meaning – I am metaphysically skeptical.

The way I (badly) understand Rousseau’s foundational argument, people collectively choose to participate in a state. So far, so existential. Rousseau calls the generalisation of their state’s interest as “the general will”, which is what people would want, if they had the interests of “all” at heart. This approach has some difficulties. We cannot objectively say what the general will is unless everyone is in agreement. Rousseau claims the general will is distinct and unified, as it is the will as if people had no private interests. Unfortunately, we cannot reconcile the possibility if people really have distinct interests, even distinct at the “state level”. Rousseau evades this difficulty by claiming there are sometimes two states in one geographical area. This makes his system unworkable and pretty tautological. This is similar to his definition of “laws”: they are the expression of the general will (and if they are not in agreement, they are merely “decrees”). Since we cannot easily say what is the general will in most realistic cases, we cannot know if a rule is a “law” or a “decree”. All this idealism tends to result in a ruling body, who “knows” what the general will is and can rule over the unenlightened masses. This is Poppers fear as expressed in The Open Society.

Rousseau’s criteria for a successful state are rather worrying. As I remember, he says history will be the judge (which can justify any arbitrary action), that stability and unanimity is good (we can bring in thought crime laws now) and population growth is a good sign. Obviously he was not aware of the dangers of unrestrained population growth! Basically he has some bizarre ideas.

He did have a few interesting points on how governments should be formed, with the executive (“the prince”) and the legislator being separated. This can reduce the arbitrary use of power by the executive. This idea was the basis of the US government system (among others? Greek? Roman?). I find this concept attractive.

He ends with an analysis of the instability that would arise in a completely Christian state. Since Christians tend to tolerate mistreatment (turn the other cheek), they are unable to stop a minority usurping power. He also notes that Christians have been persecuted, along with all non-state religions, for undermining the common code of right and wrong within a state. Having two masters, the state and religion can undermine the “general will”. He contrasts Christianity (and offshoots) with pagan religions where the entire state was forced to worship a common set of gods that represented the ideals of the state. This all seems rather illiberal but, of course, that does not make Rousseau factually wrong.

Anti Citizen One