Archive for the philosophy Category

Thoughts about the cogito.

Posted in philosophy on September 21, 2008 by Philonous

In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes coined his most famous phrase

Cogito, ergo sum.

(or ‘I think therefore I am’). I was wandering through a bookshop the other day and noticed a book called The Last Word by Thomas Nagel, an American philosopher based at NYU.

It seems (from the introduction – I’m not so good at the ol’ reading lark yet…) that the idea of this book is essentially an apology for rationalism, the belief that human knowledge can be derived by careful consideration from an armchair. I could well be misinterpreting this, but as far as I can tell, Nagel thinks that subjectivism (that truth and knowledge are subjective notions which may vary from person to person) is a very pernicious influence in society.

The implications are widespread. Take for example issues presented by cosmopolitanism of modern societies. Cultures vary from country to country and although it can be said that many moral issues are agreed upon universally, there are clearly some divergences. In a democratic multicultural society with disparate moral codes, how should one resolve disputes? My own position is one of bewilderment. It seems that taking the subjectivist view and saying, ‘Well, what is morally right for one side may not be the same as what is morally right for the other…’, leads only to shoulder shrugging and a lack of resolution. In my mind therefore that although subjectivism is a convenient position to take logically, it is more than toothless when applied to real life. On the other hand, taking a more authoritarian and moral absolutist view is not satisfactory either – presenting people with moral rules – ‘Drinking soda is wrong!’ – which are to be agreed on universally is impractical.

Nagel’s book then claims to have some ideas about how to justify rationalism and therefore be able to conjure absolute certainty, indubitable truth, from thin air (or at least our minds). So far, he has talked about Descartes cogito with much affection. The cogito is supposed to be a demonstration of our existence. As soon as one tries to doubt one’s existence, one affirms it by thinking. Indeed, Descartes asks proposes ‘So who am I? A thinking thing.’ There are various objections to this, indeed some say that Descartes has rather a circular argument, presupposing the existence of this ‘I’ and endowing it with personal attributes which cannot be justified on purely logical grounds. Nagel’s view is that there is some worth to the cogito, and I agree. Nagel gives this nice example:

After all, if someone responded to every challenge to tea-leaf reading as a method of deciding factual or practical questions by appealing to further consultation of the tea leaves, it would be thought absurd. Why is reasoning about challenges to reason different?

The answer is that the appeal to reason is implicitly authorized by the challenge itself, so this is really a way of showing that the challenge is unintelligible. The charge of begging the question imples that there is an alternative – namely, to examine the reasons for and against the claim being challenged while suspending judgement about it. For the case of reasoning itself, however, no such alternative is available, since any considerations agains the objective validity of a type of reasoning are inevitably attempts to offer reasons against it, and these must be rationally asessed. … In contrast, a challenge to the authority of tea leaves does not itself lead us back to the tea leaves.

This argument makes a lot of sense. It somehow tells us that we cannot doubt our own reasoning since this would involve something self-referential. Nagel goes on to say that reason is something which we just have to take on trust as being sound. That is not to say that one may not make mistakes reasoning, simply that these could be pointed out and corrected. I think he plans to argue from a sort of foundationalist standpoint having established the indubitability of reasoning.

There is some part of me that feels slightly uneasy about this though. It seems that the ‘reason’ Nagel is talking about is the ‘synthetic analytic’ that Kant proposed in the Critique of Pure Reason. Reason, in my view, is part of the apparatus of perception. Thinking long and hard may lead to greater understanding of the apparatus itself, but there is still a fundamental disconnect between what we can derive from sheer brute force logical computation in our heads and the real world outside. Nagel refers to this and claims that his reason is something quite different, but I’m not so sure.

Check out the Google books preview of The Last Word (and tell me what it’s all about). Please also feel free to rant in the comments about how badly I’ve interpreted all of this.

Avicenna’s Argument

Posted in history, philosophy with tags , on April 2, 2008 by Philonous

Avicenna was apparently one of the most important polymaths in the so called “Golden Age of Islam”. He lived in Persia from 980 to 1037 and was renowned in many fields of knowledge, even to the extent that one of his textbooks on medicine was still used as the core text in Montpellier and Louvain in the mid 17th century.

One of the great ideas of Avicenna was his argument for the existence of God which, to me at least, smacks very much of mathematical proof (and is therefore understandably quite appealing to one such as myself…). So, what’s it all about?

Avicenna uses heavily the concept of contingency. A state of affairs is contingent if it could have been otherwise. So for instance, my mother at some point had a child: me. It was by no means a logical necessity that she do this – I might not have been born. Therefore my existence is contingent upon the fact my parents decided to have a child. Similarly their existence is contingent upon their parents having had children, and so on… Avicenna’s argument tries to construct a necessary object and then calls that God.

Ok. So the world contains a great many contingent things (like me for instance). The existence of each one of these things must therefore have been caused by something else which is itself contingent and so on and so forth… Such and such a table was made by a carpenter whose existence was caused by his father and mother etc. So we get a big long causal chain of events which are all contingent. The usual (cosmological) argument for the existence of God says at this point that this chain must stop somewhere so we get an ‘uncaused causer’, which is taken to be God.

Avicenna comes up with a slightly subtler approach. He basically defines ‘the world’ as the set of all contingent things and all the causes between them. He then states a principle of composition which, applied here, says that the set of all contingent things is also contingent. Since the world is therefore contingent, it must be caused by some object X outside the world. Suppose X is contingent. Then it must be part of the world, which is impossible. Therefore X was in fact not contingent, i.e. necessary. He defines this X to be God.

Of course, as with any argument for the existence of God, there are quite a few problems with this:

  1. What justification do we have that anything is contingent in the first place?
  2. How do we know that this X is the God of (in Avicenna’s case) Islam as opposed to just some abstract object? That is, how do we arrive at any of the traditional attributes of God such as omnipotence etc.?
  3. What’s all this principle of composition about? Admittedly, if I have a car, all of whose components are blue, then my car will be blue. But if I have a car, all of whose components are well made, then it’s certainly not true that the car itself must be well made.

Despite all of these, I think it’s a pretty cool argument and echos Russell’s paradox which came much later.
Here’s a nice Rube Goldberg example of a set of contingent events:

Flame from lamp (A) catches on curtain (B) and fire department sends stream of water (C) through window. Dwarf (D) thinks it is raining and reaches for umbrella (E), pulling string (F) and lifting end of platform (G). Iron ball (H) falls and pulls string (I), causing hammer (J) to hit plate of glass (K). Crash of glass wakes up pup (L) and mother dog (M) rocks him to sleep in cradle (N), causing attached wooden hand (O) to move up and down along your back.

Early morning ethics

Posted in philosophy with tags on March 22, 2008 by Philonous

Philonous says (05:06):
are you still awake?

Archie says (05:06):

Philonous says (05:07):
just updated the blog

Archie says (05:07):
awesome man

Philonous says (05:08):
see if you recognise the pictures…

Archie says (05:11):
i cant say i do!

Philonous says (05:11):
oh, well the guy on the left is Baudrillard
and the guy on the right is Grothendieck.

Archie says (05:12):
i see! ive only ever seen the guardian obituary picture of baudrillard

Philonous says (05:12):
yeah, I don’t think it looks a whole lot like the other photos I’ve seen, but hey…
so whadya think?

Philonous says (05:13):
sweet as pie?

Archie says (05:14):
about the pictures? i like them!
i just need something interesting to write

Philonous says (05:14):
that hasn’t stopped me
I’ve asked Le Fox to write something when she gets the chance
she was going to write something on ‘The Sartorialist’

Philonous says (05:15):
hey, do you know much about ethics?

Archie says (05:16):
well i only know the fundamental positions of certain philosophers
and, of course, my own position

Philonous says (05:16):
I was just reading about consequentialism

Philonous says (05:17):
as opposed to deontological ethics

Archie says (05:17):
ultimately they all rest on a ridiculous idea

Philonous says (05:17):
say what??

Archie says (05:17):
namely that you can measure an “outcome”

Philonous says (05:17):
no not really

Archie says (05:17):
even an idea like “positive”

Philonous says (05:17):
deontological arguments are to do with duty and obligation

Philonous says (05:18):
well ok
but the point is, they’re a personal framework

Archie says (05:18):
of course

Philonous says (05:18):
so all you have to do is to be able to make personal judgements on these sorts of things

Archie says (05:18):
i have my own completely arbitrary ethical code

Philonous says (05:18):
there’s another position again
are you a moral relativist?

Archie says (05:19):
i get called that a lot in debates

Philonous says (05:19):
It is sort of an ivory tower of a position

Archie says (05:19):
but, so what?
is there anything wrong with that?

Philonous says (05:19):
well yeah

Archie says (05:19):

Philonous says (05:20):
I think that moral philosophy should be about trying to fit some axiomatic system to the every day process of making moral judgements so that when you find that your intuition fails you, you try and derive something concrete from your framework to help you out…

Archie says (05:20):
of course you think that – youre a mathematician
whereas i think it should be based on an arbitrary set of values
which is how it DOES function

Philonous says (05:20):
well yeah sure

Philonous says (05:21):
but those arbitrary values are exactly these axioms (if you’re a relativist)

Archie says (05:21):
which was my point earlier
if you are going to have “consequentialism”, you might as well have “Archiecentricism” too

Philonous says (05:21):
well no, not really
but if you’re some sort of moral relativist then it’s hardly conducive to the solution of conflicts

Archie says (05:22):
who said i wanted to solve conflicts?

Philonous says (05:22):
oh yeah, I forgot – you’re a nihilist

Archie says (05:22):
not really

Philonous says (05:22):
(and moral relativist)

Archie says (05:22):
i just find definitions of the virtue of these things of ideas a bit shakey
at the very least, worth questioning

Philonous says (05:23):
ok, so if you’re going to get relativist on my ass, then you can climb back up into your ivory tower of theory

Archie says (05:24):
well hey, im not saying that i dont have a functioning ethical world view which values certain actions as “good” and others as “bad”
that doesnt mean that im ready to reduce the patterns into fundamental axioms and call the whole thing a success

Philonous says (05:24):
ok, so your world view is essentially that there is no coherent axiomatic world view

Philonous says (05:24):
it’s a ‘take it as it comes’ kinda thing

Archie says (05:25):
well theres obviously a philosophical sentiment and a seperate practical one

Philonous says (05:25):

Archie says (05:25):
which is where you might think im an idiot

Philonous says (05:26):
see I don’t get it. I figure philosophy ought to be a little bit practical:
I should be able to live by some world view which philosophy can provide (and if philosophy can’t provide it, then by definition, my ‘philosophy’ is my world view)

Archie says (05:26):
im pretty sure you can – the only real question is why you dont…

Philonous says (05:27):
well I think it’s either because language isn’t complicated enough to capture what goes on in our heads (Wittgenstein can go suck an egg) or because we’re not eloquent enough to be able to phrase it.

Archie says (05:28):
sure why not

Philonous says (05:28):
It sorta leads to the question –
Is moral philosophy doomed?

Philonous says (05:29):
it seems like any personal moral philosophy has to be derived from someone’s personal ‘common sense’. But then maybe that’s all there is to moral philosophy.

Archie says (05:29):
well thats my conclusion!

Philonous says (05:29):

Philonous says (05:30):
I don’t like it

Archie says (05:30):
yeah its not a nice thought…

Philonous says (05:31):
I hear there’s a black guy running for president…

Ghost Dog, Said and induction

Posted in culture, movie, philosophy with tags , on November 24, 2006 by Philonous

I suppose this might turn into a bit of a rant blog about films that perhaps I’m not qualified to judge. Then again, maybe having seen them and having fingers and a keyboard is all the criteria requred by that sublime medium, the mother of procrastination, free speech and the banal. In any case. I watched Ghost Dog last night. Most interesting movie. In case you are a philistine, having neither heard of nor seen Ghost Dog (I counted myself among that unhappy gathering but a day ago), I ought to explain. The story is that of a hired gun used by the mafia for hits. He sees himself as bound to his master, the mafioso who calls the hits, by an honour code which he derives from that of the samurai. Various things begin to go wrong and essentially, the whole thing turns into a thriller. The interesting part of it is that every one of the characters in the film has a different background. Ghost Dog himself is black and American, the mafiosi are obviously Italian American, the ice-cream guy is Haitian. I think the point is to highlight to some extent how little it really matters what you look like rather emphasising the importance of what goes on inside. Ghost Dog himself is a Samurai in the present day and in the hood.

In the last day, this seems to be a recurring theme in much that I have seen. I was listening to one of those heavenly podcasts, this time about Edward Said. He and Chomsky were apparently proponents of what I thought was a rather lovely sentiment. They asserted that the concept of nationality or perhaps cultural heritage should be seen, rather than as some label or definition with which people are to be branded, as an invitation for the possibility of entering into that culture. Living in Manchester certainly fills many people with a feeling of a Manchesterness inside them (or perhaps it’s just me). Ghost Dog follows a similar line. He is not really a black guy who lives in the hood. He really is a samurai. These distinctions of race, physical attributes and even something so fundamental as language are really independent of the essence of the human being. It seems to me that this is somewhat similar to Locke’s criticism of the principle of induction justified by his ideas of architypes. What I’m trying to say is really nothing more profound than “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

I apologise to anyone who actually reads this – many of the things written herein are simply the half-baked mental meanderings of someone who is exposed to a cacophony of culture on a daily basis, and distinguishes a few ideas from the din without necessarily understanding anything.