CAN I BE OF ASSISTANCE?
Shut it!

Thursday, July 22

World

Eeek?

Update:
Iraq's Interior Ministry dismissed as "stupid" a report in a local newspaper on Wednesday that said three nuclear missiles had been found near the town of Tikrit.

A senior U.S. military official told reporters he had no information on the report in the newspaper al-Sabah. He said officials were checking the report.

Asked by Reuters about the report, a spokesman at the Interior Ministry said: "It's stupid."


I doubt this story is true, but if it is, I have two responses:

1. Eeeeek!

2. We have at most twenty-four hours of grace before being told by the Left that WMDs were never the issue.

Iraqi security reportedly discovered three missiles carrying nuclear heads concealed in a concrete trench northwest of Baghdad, official sources said Wednesday.

The official daily al-Sabah quoted the sources as saying the missiles were discovered in trenches near the city of Tikrit, the hometown of ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"The three missiles were discovered by chance when the Iraqi security forces captured former Baath party official Khoder al-Douri who revealed during interrogation the location of the missiles saying they carried nuclear heads," the sources said.

I suspect that they may have found missiles, but with conventional or possibly chemical warheads. Or likely the whole think is bunk. But...

If it does pan out, where the hell did he get nuclear warheads from? We know he never got close to making them himself. The only country in the Middle East with nukes is Israel, and I somehow doubt that is the source. North Korea might have one or two, but would they sell their ace-in-the-hole? India and Pakistan are more worried about each other than about bringing in a few bucks. The US and UK we can rule out. One would certainly hope we can rule out France, and China hasn't been acting that stupid lately. So, did the Russians lose track of some of theirs? If so, we have a hell of a problem.

Probably jumping at shadows. Probably.

(California Yankee via Evil Glenn)

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Wednesday, July 21

World

Sockgate

The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce:
Law enforcement sources said archive staff told FBI agents they saw Berger placing items in his jacket and pants, and one archive staffer told agents that Berger also placed something in his socks.

That allegation drew sharp responses from two of Berger's associates. President Clinton's former spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said Berger "categorically denies that he ever took documents and stuffed them in his socks.

"That is absurd," said Lockhart, who is now advising Berger. "And anyone who says that is interested in something other than the truth."

Former Clinton aide Lanny Davis challenged any unnamed official who accuses Berger of stuffing documents into his socks to come forward and level that charge publicly.

"I suggest that person is lying," he said. "And if that person has the guts, let's see who it is who made the comment that Sandy Berger stuffed something into his socks."

So a former National Security Advisor stuffing classified documents into his jacket and pants, taking them home, and losing them, is okay, but to put them in his socks is beyond the pale?

Thank you, CNN.

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World

M N O Goldfish

Geeze, it's only July and already the Democrats are circling the drain.

I was hoping for more entertainment than that.

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Friday, July 16

World

Upside The Head

Y'know, blogging - and indeed the internet as a whole - is pretty much a case of Think locally, act globally.

Don't know that this is particularly profound, but it's all I've got right now.

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Monday, July 12

World

Exempli Gratia

This is a sad story but such a perfect example of the thesis I'm working towards in Thought that I have to comment on it. Via LGF:
The images from the explosion kept running through Sammi Masrawa’s mind as he lay in his hospital bed — a young female soldier with the back of her head missing, a heavily pregnant woman lying on the sidewalk, legs mangled ... screaming “my baby, my baby.”

Sunday’s blast at a Tel Aviv bus stop had changed his world view.

The 29-year-old Arab Israeli from Tel Aviv was the head of a local committee calling for coexistence between Israelis and the Palestinians.

Now he wants them kept apart.

“A month ago I went to protest the fence,“ he said, referring to the barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. ”Now I believe it can only strengthen us.”

Sammi has joined the real world. Unfortunately, there are some who will not wake up even if you literally set off a bomb next to them.

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Sunday, July 11

World

Headstart Philosophy Program

When I was little, I had a series of books from the Headstart Science Program: If I Were An Atom, If I Were A Molecule, If I Were An Electron, If I Were Energy... There was another one too. Heh. Amazon says it was If I Met A Molecule and the final volume was If I Were Radioactive. Cool!

They didn't, unfortunately, offer If I Were A Platonic Ideal or If I Were Mind Under A System Of Cartesian Dualism, mainly because those ideas are, to put in mildly, bunk. So for my forthcoming post, Thought, I'll have to bring my readers up to speed without the advantage of colourful illustrations. Here's a draft version of the introduction to Thought, which rapidly covers the basics of the some of the more important ideas in Philosophy. Feedback is welcome; trolls will, as usual, be reduced to charcoal.

Thought

Introduction

When any conservative, or libertarian, or sensible liberal takes a look at the political far left of today, their first thought (after Don't these people ever wash their hair?) is often How can anyone think like that?

In this article, I hope to answer the question of how people can think like that. And possibly shine some light on the hair question as well. To do so, I'm going to go back to the beginnings of human history and the very foundations of philosophy. So if you're not sitting comfortably, with a nice cold (or hot, as appropriate) drink and some tasty snacks close to hand, you mind want to arrange things so first, because this might take a while. I'll wait while you get ready.

Okay, comfy now? Good.

On the Shores of the Sea of Thought

If there is any common thread in human history, it is an attempt to explain our existence. (Note that I say explain and not understand. This will become important later on.)

From the dawn of time, from the very earliest records we have, from what we can deduce from cave paintings and carvings and funerary gifts left behind from before the invention of writing, humans have always been struggling to explain the world we find ourselves in. There are good and sufficient logical reasons to do this, but it seems to be something built in to humanity. Anyone who has spent much time with a young child will attest to this: Why is the sky blue? Why is it dark at night and light during the day? Why?

Why?

Unfortunately, there are only two things that we can know for certain, without any possibility of question.

First, we know that we exist. That is, I know that I exist. I don't know for certain that you exist, but you know that you exist. If you are able to ask whether you exist, then you do. This is what Descartes was saying with his Cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am.

The second thing we know is that we are receiving information. We seem to perceive a world around us. We don't know for sure what this means: It could be a dream, or a trick; an illusion, or a hallucination. It could be coming from inside us. We don't know. We don't know where it is coming from, or what it is, but we know it is there.

Those are our two axioms of existence, the two things that we know that are self-evident and cannot be questioned. Because in the very act of questioning you admit their truth: To be able to ask a question, you must exist; and in the very act of questioning you are acting on information receieved.

But this hasn't got us very far. We exist, and there may or may not be a world. Not very helpful. Unfortunately, we can't proceed any further with these two points and logic alone. So we find ourselves on the shores of the Sea of Philosophy, about to embark on a voyage.

There are a number of ships waiting here, ready to take us to exotic destinations. Some of the names of these ships will look familiar to you, but they are in fact very specific nautical - or rather, philosophical - terms, so you will need to unlearn a few things before you can even begin your journey.

The nearest ship is a round, black vessel, with no windows or portholes, sitting low in the water. Its stern - as much as it can be said to have such a thing - bears the name Solipsism.

Solipsism is a belief that the only thing we know for certain is that we exist. Taken to an extreme, solipsism can say that only I exist (there's no "we" in this form of solipsism). The problem with this is that it is not an attempt at understanding, but an admission of disinterest. And of course we already know this anyway. We don't need to bother with solipsism, because everything it can tell us is already wrapped up neatly in our two axioms.

Solipsism is subjectivism and relativism taken to the extreme: the solipsist is so consistent about his doctrine that he claims that he cannot know if physical reality or other human beings even exist. The solipsist believes knowledge is so subjective that 'all I can really know is myself'.

From The Ism Book by Peter Saint-Andre

We notice that the good ship Solipsism not only has no portholes or windows, but also no sails or rudder either. It looks like it has been tied up at the dock for a very long time. Let's give it a miss and walk a little further.

Shortly we come to two ships docked side by side. They are very much alike: Hulls freshly painted white, gleaming teak decking, towering masts, portholes and windows everywhere. In the crows-nest of each, atop the mainmast, you can see young men with telescopes eagerly peering in every direction. On the deck of each ship are officers with sextants and other stranger instruments, and crewmen running to and fro with books and ledgers. The only difference between the two is that the nearer one is slightly larger.

These are the good ships Materialism and Naturalism. Now, in the everyday world, a materialist is someone who values material goods (often too much), and a naturalist is someone who values nature. But today we are not seeking what is valuable; we are seeking what exists.

Materialism is the belief that the material Universe is what exists. That is, the information we are receiving is a representation of something that exists of its own right; not only that, but that we exist as part of it. Materialism calls the stuff that makes up the Universe matter. Everything that exists in the Universe is made up, entirely, out of matter.

Materialism is the idea that the only thing that really exists in the world is matter in its various states and movements (commonly atoms or other physical particles). Thus materialism is the opposite of idealism. Materialism considers any talk of, say, the soul to be complete nonsense and a throwback to the bad old days of spiritualism and vitalism (i.e., idealism) in philosophy. Note that because matter can be completely known by means of physical laws and mathematical description (see reductionism), materialism tends to be used to lend heavy support to determinism.

The Ism Book

Naturalism says something slightly different. It does not say that the Universe actually exists of itself; rather, it says that everything has a natural cause. That is, everything that happens in the Universe is caused by something in the Universe.
In metaphysics, the idea that nature operates according to natural laws, without spiritual intervention (opposed to theism and spiritualism, but compatible with deism).

Naturalism usually refers to an ethical view which holds that at least some human values (though not necessarily all) are determined by the nature of the human organism and by our situation on earth -- values like food, water, shelter, safety, psychological closeness, actualization of human talent and potential, the attainment of knowledge, and so on. By way of illustration, existentialism could be considered a humanistic form of individualism, but it differs from many other forms of humanism in denying ethical naturalism.

In aesthetics, naturalism is the theory that art (and especially literature) should present human experience 'as is', without evaluating reality or projecting ethical ideals (historically, naturalism in literature developed in reaction to romanticism).

The Ism Book

Is the Universe what really exists, the real Reality? Materialists say yes; Naturalists say they don't know. Materialists can point out that Naturalism arises quite simply from Materialism: If you assume that the Universe is everything that exists, then of course anything that happens is caused by something in the Universe. Naturalists point out that Materialists have no certainty of the existence of the Universe; Materialists counter that they know that, that this is the working assumption of Materialism, and that likewise Naturalists have no certain knowledge that all events have a natural cause.

So, the underlying assumption, the postulate, of Materialism is that The material Universe is what exists. And the postulate of Naturalism is that All events have a natural cause.

These differences are minor in the great game of Understanding, and the Materialists and the Naturalists on the whole get on very well, with the occasional bit of good-natured teasing when they've had a little too much to drink.

As an aside for those of my readers who are religious, I'll note that while neither Materialism nor Naturalism assumes the existence of a God, neither one excludes it. Certain ideas of God; a God, for example, who creates the Universe and all its Laws and leaves it free to run, are perfectly compatible with both Materialism and Naturalism.

While occasionally looking back at the two sister-ships, our eyes are now drawn to an amazing spectacle a little further along the shore. This great ship seems to be made entirely of ivory and gold. Its masts reach so high they are lost in the clouds. A hundred silken sails are carefully furled; a thousand flags and pennants flutter gaily from rigging.

Up on the shining deck, inlaid with jewels and precious metals, hundreds of people are arguing and waving their arms. Each is dressed in the uniform of an Admiral of a navy of a different country or a different time; no two are exactly alike. The effect is startling and oddly beautiful.

This is the great and famous Idealism. Idealism is a slightly odd ship compared to those we've seen before; it is more easily defined by what it is not than by what it is.

What Idealism is not, and every Admiral aboard will gladly tell you this, what it is most certainly not is Materialism. Some Idealists will slip over to the Naturalism now and then for a drink and a chat, but the Materialism is quite out of bounds.

Idealism is the belief that the material Universe does not exist of itself, that what really exists are ideas or ideals, and what we perceive as the material Universe is really created from these. What the hundreds of Admirals are arguing about is what they actually mean when they say this.

In metaphysics, idealism is a term used to describe the sort of theory which claims that something 'ideal' or non-physical is the primary reality. In this sense, Plato and Leibniz and Hegel are probably the most significant of the idealists (Leibniz is perhaps the most consistent, since he said that all physical things are actually made up of little bundles of consciousness he called 'monads', an idea that is a kind of panpsychism). Obviously, spiritualism is similar to idealism, but spiritualism tends to be used to refer more to religious, supernatural conceptions of reality, rather than to philosophical theories like those of Plato or Hegel. Plato can be considered the 'Founding Father' of idealism in Western philosophy, since he claimed that what is fundamentally real are ideas, of which physical objects are pale imitations. The opposite of idealism is materialism. Just as materialism in metaphysics is often linked with subjectivism in epistemology, idealism is often linked with intrinsicism in epistemology (though epistemological intrinsicism is sometimes also called, confusingly, idealism, since intrinsicism holds that we literally perceive universals or ideas). In popular usage, 'idealism' is more of an ethical term, characterizing people who have a strong code of values or a great deal of integrity, though sometimes to an excessive degree (often contrasted with those who are merely or healthily 'pragmatic').

The Ism Book

Plato was, if not the first Idealist, then the one who gave Idealism structure as a philosophy. Plato thought that everything that exists in this world is merely an imperfect representation of an ideal version that exists elsewhere. So there was, for example, an ideal chair somewhere, that was a perfect example of chairness, more chairlike than any real chair could be, and every chair that we can actually sit on (or in my case, pile books on) is really just a shadow of that ideal chair. And the same applies to, for example, cows: Somewhere beyond the reality that we know exists a perfect, flawless cow, unsurpassed in its cowness, its moo more purely moolike, and its milk more milky, than any moo or milk in our mundane world.
The word Platonism refers both to the doctrines of Plato (427-347 BCE) and to the manner or tradition of philosophizing that he founded. While it can be difficult to pin down what Plato actually believed (he often tried things out as hypotheses and changed or criticized many of his earlier views late in life), the term refers centrally to Platonic idealism and dualism -- though it also refers to the more debatable portions of his thought, such as his collectivism or totalitarianism (as revealed in his dialogue The Republic), his rationalism or intellectualism, his distrust of art, and so on. Often, in philosophy, 'Platonism' is virtually equivalent to idealism or intrinsicism, since Plato was the first Western philosopher to claim that reality is fundamentally something ideal or abstract and that knowledge largely consists of insight into or perception of the ideal. In common usage, the adjective 'Platonic' refers to Platonic love, the idea that the best form of love is non-sexual or non-physical (originally put forth in Plato's dialogue The Symposium).
The Ism Book
If we take Plato's concept of ideals at face value, we see that it quickly falls apart, because it takes classes of things and treats them as, well, things. When I speak of a chair, you know what I mean. But try to define it:
A chair is a piece of furniture designed for a person to sit on, posessing four legs, a seat, and a back.

Well, what if it has three legs, or five?

In that case, it is still a chair, but further from the ideal. The ideal chair has four legs.

But a chair with four legs can rock, whereas one with only three legs can't. Surely three legs is more ideal?

No, the ideal chair has four legs.

Well, if you say so. But how wide should it be?

Wide enough for someone to sit on, clearly.

And what if it is wide enough for two people to sit on? Or if it is only wide enough for a child? Is it still a chair?

To which the answer is along the lines of Go away boy, you're bothering me.

A chair is not a definition but a classification. It's a subset of the class we call furniture, and overlaps with such other subsets as sofa and settee. And furthermore, the class we call furniture overlaps with the class we call art. What we call a chair is like a country with all its borders in dispute, that belongs to an empire with all its borders in dispute. There are perhaps some small villages that are indisputably part of Chairland, but even then, they could well be in dispute between Artia and Furnituria.

This sort of thing even happens in Science. In the electromagnetic spectrum, for example, there's a section near the boundary between Ultraviolet and X-Rays. Whether this is termed "Extreme Ultraviolet" or "Soft X-Rays" depends on whether you're talking to a lithography expert or a radiologist. The wavelengths in question are the same, regardless. The difference is that Science recognises this as mere terminology and has an easy way of resolving the question: Simply ask What band of wavelengths are you referrring to? and you will get an answer in numbers rather than words. Platonic Idealism has no such recourse.

This sort of flaw in definitions is common in Idealism but not fundamental. We can easily come up with forms of Idealism that don't suffer from this, and I'll give two examples, what I will call Simulational Idealism and Computational Idealism.

Simulational Idealism says, as Idealism must, that Materialism is false, that what we perceive as the Universe does not exist of itself. Instead, it claims that the Universe is really a simulation being run on some unimaginably vast computer in another Reality entirely. What we perceive as matter, what we conclude to be the Laws of Physics, are really just the data and the rules of the simulation.

Computational Idealism says that it's not matter that exists: There's another layer below that. The fundamental nature of reality is an infinite grid of cellular automata, much along the lines of John Conway's famous Game of Life. It is the operation of these cellular automata that gives rise to the Laws of Quantum Mechanics.

These are my own terms, but both ideas have been taken at least partly seriously. Informational Idealism in particular is potentially a useful element in future theories of Physics - though as it stands, it is just speculation.1

The curious thing about both of these philosophies is that - although they disagree with Materialism about the underlying nature of Reality - they do, like Naturalism, agree with the results of Materialism. As long as you don't look below a certain layer of the definition of Reality, all of the results you get are compatible. (Albeit, Simulational Idealism leaves us with the possibility that the Great Computer may get switched off at some point.) Naturalism can sit comfortably on top of Materialism, which in turn can rest on Computational Idealism. The same is certainly not true for all forms of Idealism, as we shall see.

Berkeley's Demon2

Another of the Grand Admirals strolling about the deck of the SS Idealism is Bishop George Berkeley. (If this name strikes you as familiar, it is with good reason. Yes, that Berkeley was named after this Berkeley.) Berkeley was of the opinion that what really exists is not the Universe we seem to sense, but Mind. What seem to us to be material objects are merely ideas, or bundles of ideas, and it is only the act of perception that gives these ideas reality. In other words, Berkeley tells us that thought came first, and the Universe arose from that. Our own minds also arise somehow from Mind. This is one of the weaknesses of this form of Idealism. Where Materialism assumes that the Universe exists, leaving Science to explain how our minds can arise from matter, Berkeley's Idealism assumes that Mind exists, leaving the Universe to be explained - and also leaving unanswered the question of why we experience individual consciousness rather than a group mind.

Furthermore, since (according to Berkeley) things are only given reality through perception, and perception is necessarily through the senses, and the different senses necessarily give us differing perceptions, this means that you cannot touch what you can see, or smell what you taste. The food you taste is not the food you smell, the chair you see is not the chair you then feel supporting your backside. It was necessary for Berkeley to postulate Mind as an entity rather than individual minds, because with the latter, he would merely have given us Solispsim again.

As poet William Cowper put it:

Substances and modes of every kind
Are mere impressions in the passive mind;
And he that splits his cranium, splits at most
A fancied head against a fancied post.
Now, Berkeley didn't claim that the Universe didn't exist; he was quite comfortable with the fact that what we perceive is real. It's just the explanation he chose for Reality was a little different to Materialism or Naturalism. That in itself is not a problem. I've already mentioned two forms of Idealism that are entirely congruous with Materialism or Naturalism, as long as we don't look at too low a level of the explanation; and even Berkeley's ideas could perhaps, with work, be thus aligned also.

No, the problem lay elsewhere. It's twofold, but the two factors are related, and I'll refer to them together as Berkeley's Demon.

The first problem is that Berkeley felt that his philosophy was the most logical, reasonable, common-sense explanation for our perception of the world. Since everybody, on first introduction to Berkeley, considers it curious at best, this seems to be a claim with little merit, and yet Berkeley insisted that this was indeed the case.

The second, and worse, problem was that Berkeley thought that not only had he come up with a satisfying theory of existence, he thought that he had proved that it was correct. Or at the very least, that he has disproved Materialism. Since we know that Idealism can be most easily defined as Immaterialism - the denial of the precept of Materialism - he naturally took this as support for his own theory.

Of course, he did no such thing. What he set out to do was to show that Materialism was logically inconsistent, and therefore could not possibly be true. This is known in mathematics as Proof from Contradiction; in philosophy, which places great store in the obscure and the sesquipedalian, it is known as Argumentum ad Absurdum. In any case, the way it works is that you assume that something is true, and show logically that this leads to some contradiction. A good mathematical example is the proof that the square root of 2 is irrational. By assuming that the square root of two is rational, we quickly find ourselves mired in contradiction, which means that our assumption was wrong.

When Berkeley tried this method to disprove Materialism, though, he made the error of not holding consistently to his assumption. Remember, you have to assume the thing is true, and proceed logically from there. Berkeley, used to thinking in Idealist terms, imported assumptions from Idealism that made no sense in Materialism. As soon as he did that, the logic of his proof fell apart - the contradiction he thought he had found was really one he had put there himself. (From personal experience, this seems to be a universal failing in attempts by Idealists to disprove Materialism.)

This was Berkeley's Demon: He thought that not only was his theory the common understanding of reality, he thought that is case was proven and unassailable. It has been noted that Berkeley's theory is difficult to refute2 but it is not necessary to do so. For Berkeley may well have constructed a logical and self-consistent argument within the Theory itself, but his attack on the opposing Theory - that is, Materialism - had failed. And without this, he had only his claim - clearly very wide of the mark - that his theory was obvious and common-sensical. So, without needing to refute Berkeley's Theory in detail, we are still left with no particular reason to believe in it.

Which is fine, to a point. To the Solipsists and Materialists and Naturalists, and the Platonic and Informational Idealists and Dualists and others, Berkeley merely had another assumption, another, different, postulate in trying to explain existence. This is allowed, this is how the game is played. But Berkeley thought that he had proved his case. Everyone else had not merely made a different starting assumption: Everyone else was wrong. And since, once you assumed Berkeley's case to be true, the proof appeared to be self-evident, it was not just error but outright foolishness not to accept his views.

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."

James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson

What I feel Johnson was getting at with his "I refute it thus" was not that he had in fact shown Berkeley's ideas to be false; merely that Berkeley's claims for their self-evident nature to be absurd. For the most obvious case to anyone is that when we see a rock, and kick the rock, and feel the pain in our toes, that the rock is real. Berkeley might in fact be right, but he needed to show this somehow, and not simply claim that it was common sense.

There are two other philosphies I'd like to discuss before moving on the the main body of this evening's symposium. The first of these is one I've mentioned before, Dualism, and involves a man I mentioned at the very beginning, René Descartes.

Passing on from the grand spectacle that is the Idealism, we come to a very curious sight indeed: A great catamaran, painted in purple and gold, its twin hulls rising and falling together with the waves. The curious thing is, though this is clearly a catamaran, and the motion of the two hulls shows that they are fixed together, you can see no sign of any such connection at all. This is the MV Dualism.

Dualism is a doctrine in metaphysics which posits that there are only two fundamental things or substances or constituents of things in the world at large or in the human soul. The first influential dualist theory in the West was Platonism, which claimed that there are actually two different worlds: the physical world of appearances and the higher world of intelligible Forms or Ideas or Essences (thus note the common connection of dualism to transcendentalism and idealism), with a similar separation in the human person between mind and body. These ideas were picked up by Stoicism and, later, by Christianity. Thus the idea of dualism was current throughout the Christian era -- but it received a renewed impetus from Descartes, who held that reality is made up exclusively of Spirit and Matter, and that these two substances can never meet or interact -- except in the human soul (which gives rise to the infamous mind-body dichotomy). Aristotelianism, by contrast, holds that mind and body are not two distinct substances but two aspects of the same thing, of the same complete human person (cf. holism). Even though dualism is a kind of pluralism and is opposed by monism, practically speaking dualists often put their emphasis on the 'higher', more spiritual reality that their theoretical separations construct, so that they are often construed as adherents of idealism or transcendentalism, even though this is not strictly the case.

The Ism Book

Dualism is called that because it assumes two things, two separate and non-interacting worlds, those of matter and spirit. This in itself makes Dualism a weaker theory than the ones we have previously discussed. We noted that we need to make an assumption to move beyond Solipsism and so make an attempt at understanding our existence, so we have no grounds for arguing against Materialism or Naturalism or Idealism simply on the grounds that they make an unfounded assumption. An unfounded assumption is required.

Dualism, though, chooses to make two unfounded assumptions, that the material Universe exists (the same as Materialism), and that an Immaterial or Spirit Universe also exists - and that they don't interact at all. After all, if the Spirit interacted with the Material, we could detect and influence and control it... In which case it would simply be an unusual variety of matter, and not spirit at all.

The problem with this is that Dualists give Spirit as their explanation for the human mind. And we know that the human mind interacts with the material world - it receives information from the senses and controls the actions of the body. So the Spirit and the Material never interact at all - except in the Mind, which is in some mystical way different from everything else in the Universe.

In other words, Dualists are really Troilists; their three assumptions are the separate existence of Spirit and Matter and Mind as a bridge between the two. You can't prove this sort of thing to be wrong, because it's assumptions all the way down. We can see, however, that it's not particularly useful. If, rather than explaining how something came to be in terms of something you already know, you simply wave your arms and cry That's the way it is! then you haven't really contributed anything to human understanding.3

René Descartes is often regarded as the father of modern philosphy, the first thinker to really take apart the legacy of the Greek and Roman philosophers before him and try to reconstruct the world anew. He was no fool either: A brilliant mathematician and a physiologist as well. The entries at Mathworld bear out the value of his thinking - Cartesian Coordinates, Cartesian Curve, Cartesian Equation, Cartesian Geometry, Cartesian Ovals, Cartesian Pattern, Cartesian Plane, Cartesian Trident, Cartesian
Space
. (There's the Cartesian Diver too, but the connection with Descartes himself is tenuous at best.)

Descartes' view of the world was that the Material Universe consisted merely of matter in motion, and that our peceptions of this Universe are merely the actions of matter against our senses - that all sensation is by contact. This is remarkably close to our modern Scientific understanding - that taste and smell involve specific chemical molecules binding against receptors, that sight involves to impact of photons against the retina, that hearing is the result of pressure waves in air acting against receptors in the ear.

Descartes did, however, postulate the separate existence of Mind (making him a Dualist). Though he did not claim that Mind and Matter could not interact, he made the same third, hidden postulate I mentioned before, of a special other that was the one place where the two Universes could interact. In fact, he placed this in the Pineal Gland, a small and otherwise unremarkable organ buried deep inside the brain.

The first philosophers who are usually called rationalists were Descartes (1596-1650), Leibniz (1646-1716), and Spinoza (1632-1677). While they claimed to be defending science against scholasticism, their arguments often showed little improvement over those of their opposition. For example, Descartes' defense of science consisted of a dualism from which philosophy is still recovering, and his arguments for dualism were models of rationalism: technical, deductive, and extremely abstract.

The Ism Book

Not far from the oddity of the MV Dualism lies a battered tramp steamer, and near it you can see the masts of the sunken wreck of a great battleship. Beside these, endeavoring to look innocent, is a fishing boat. These are, respectively, the Socialism, the Communism, and the Dialectical Materialism.

Dialectical Materialism is best known as the underlying philosphy of Marxism, but it is instructive to examine what it actually says. For example, Karl Marx in his Capital notes that:

The ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.
This is a statement of straightforward Materialism, and a repudiation of philosophical Idealism. So the Materialism part of Dialectical Materialism means exactly the same as the definition we encountered before.

What then is Dialectics? Dialectics is an attempt to define the most fundamental laws of development. Some of the laws proposed by Dialectics are:

1) The universe is not an accidental mix of things isolated from each other, but an integral whole, wherein things are mutually interdependent.

2) Nature is in a state of constant motion:

3) Development is a process whereby insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes lead to fundamental, qualitative changes. The latter occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, in the form of a leap from one state to another.

4) All things contain within themselves internal contradictions, which are the primary cause of motion, change, development in the world.

From the Wikipedia entry for Dialectical Materialism

We are now well beyond the scope of the previous theories, which merely tried to provide a basis for explaining existence. But given the dramatic effects Dialectical Materialism had on the 20th Century, it is worth exploring this a little closer.
Dialectical materialism is the doctrine or theory of history espoused by Marxism. Literally (i.e., in ancient Greek), 'dialectic' means dialogue or conversation, but the Hegelian understanding of dialectic posits the progression of history in determined stages. The materialist aspect of Marxism replaced Hegel's collective consciousness (see Hegelianism) with the concept of economic classes. Thus dialectical materialism is the doctrine that history progresses in stages that are based solely on the supremacy of different economic classes: i.e., feudalism replaced aristocracy, capitalism replaced feudalism, and socialism or communism will replace capitalism -- all according to inexorable, immutable laws (see historical determinism).

The Ism Book

The idea that a large enough quantitative change makes for a qualitative change is a familiar one to most people today. Take computers, for example: The way you use a 3GHz desktop computer of 2004 is completely different to that way you used a 1MHz computer back in 1984. The dramatic advances in speed and memory and storage (and graphics and sound and networking too) make for a qualitatively differnt experience. Marx again:
Merely quantitative differences beyond a certain point pass into qualitative changes.
He was right - but he was also wrong. There is rarely (if ever) a magical point where quantitative change suddenly becomes qualitative change.

Consider being able to watch video on your computer. Even my 2.6GHz Pentium IV has trouble decoding HDTV to my high resolution monitor. You don't have to go back too far to find a time where desktop computers couldn't have handled video at all.

Except that they did. They couldn't handle real-time MPEG-4 decoding, so they didn't use MPEG-4. They used, for example, M-JPEG (motion JPEG), which is much less processor-intensive (but also uses larger files). Before computers were fast enough to handle M-JPEG, they might have used pricey add-on cards and external disk arrays to handle uncompressed video - or just delivered the video in a tiny window.

The point is that assigning qualitative change to quantitative change is essentially arbitrary. You pick a point where computers below a certain price point are able to handle video of a certain quality, and proclaim There, you see! Qualitiative change! And it is, but you could have drawn your line at any of a thousand other points and said the same thing with the same justification.

Now, the reason this got Marx's followers into trouble is that Marx applied these ideas to economic theory. Identifying the qualitative change as the world moved from Feudalism to Capitalism, Marx proposed the next stage, Socialism, an economic system where the workers would own the means of production. This would, Marx theorised, result in a much more equitable distribution of wealth and far less of the explotation of the working class that he saw in his day.

This is fine as far as it goes, and as we shall see, Marx was at least partly correct. Unfortunately, some of his followers were unwilling to wait for the inexorable processes of history to take effect and decided to give Socialism a little helping hand. The results can be found in any book on 20th Century history.

1 If you are interested in this concept, it is explored in some depth in Greg Egan's novel Schild's Ladder.
2 For more details on Berkeley's philosophy, you might want to read the on-line essay Berkeley's Theory of Reality by Stephen Thornton.
3 To see where this sort of thing can lead, one Kevin Everett FitzMaurice has a web site proclaiming the existence of no less than seven realities: Physical, Mental, Consciousness, Vessel Mental, Vessel Spiritual, Life, and Spiritual; and all this while railing against both Materialists and Idealists for the absurdity of their respective beliefs. This is why the one thing that Materialists and Idealists agree on is that Dualists are crazy.

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Saturday, July 10

World

Anger Management

No, not him. Don hasn't posted just recently.

This week's New Scientist contains two editorials. The first congratulates NASA on the success of the Cassini mission to Saturn, and suggests that Faster, Better, Cheaper might be a case of Pick two.

The second editorial castigates China for its ongoing attempts to cover up the SARS epidemic; they are now reduced to "re-educating" Jiang Yanyong, the doctor who broke the original official silence.

What am I supposed to do for my Friday rant, dammit?

Well, there is a guest editorial by Mohamed ElBaradei, who drones on as usual about how he is somehow relevant to addressing the problem of nuclear proliferation, and how if crazed terrorist-sponsoring theocracies aren't allowed to have nukes, then America can't have them either. But the man is so utterly pathetic that I can't seem to find it in me to argue with him.

ElBaradei? You suck, man. Get a real job and stop bothering people.

There are a lot of good articles, which are the reason I buy New Scientist. For example, one on desalination which notes that the costs of producing drinkable water have decreased by 80% since 1980, to just 50 cents a ton. Something to think about when you live in Australia.

Apart from that, there are short items on terahertz scanners, orange bananas, the immune system of the lamprey (which is apparently unlike that of any other animal), how grandparents created civilisation (I keep telling Trixie this, but does she listen?), how myopia is more nurture than nature, how to discover dark matter in your kitchen (just put a frequency multiplier in the microwave), the evolution of leaves, the coming locust plague, and how peat bogs will destroy us all.

Major articles include a reminder that we really are what we eat, and a surf report from Titan. This is the 21st century, after all.

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Wednesday, July 07

World

Thought, Part 1

How the Left Dynamited its own Epistemological Moorings and Found Itself Adrift in a Sea of Bidirectional Causality.

Introduction

When any conservative, or libertarian, or sensible liberal takes a look at the political far left of today, their first thought (after Don't these people ever wash their hair?) is often How can anyone think like that?

In this article, I hope to answer the question of how people can think like that. And possibly shine some light on the hair question as well. To do so, I'm going to go back to the beginnings of human history and the very foundations of philosophy. So if you're not sitting comfortably, with a nice cold (or hot, as appropriate) drink and some tasty snacks close to hand, you mind want to arrange things so first, because this might take a while. I'll wait while you get ready.

Okay, comfy now? Good.

On the Shores of the Sea of Thought

If there is any common thread in human history, it is an attempt to explain our existence. (Note that I say explain and not understand. This will become important later on.)

From the dawn of time, from the very earliest records we have, from what we can deduce from cave paintings and carvings and funerary gifts left behind from before the invention of writing, humans have always been struggling to explain the world we find ourselves in. There are good and sufficient logical reasons to do this, but it seems to be something built in to humanity. Anyone who has spent much time with a young child will attest to this: Why is the sky blue? Why is it dark at night and light during the day? Why?

Why?

Unfortunately, there are only two things that we can know for certain, without any possibility of question.

First, we know that we exist. That is, I know that I exist. I don't know for certain that you exist, but you know that you exist. If you are able to ask whether you exist, then you do. This is what Descartes was saying with his Cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am.

The second thing we know is that we are receiving information. We seem to perceive a world around us. We don't know for sure what this means: It could be a dream, or a trick; an illusion, or a hallucination. It could be coming from inside us. We don't know. We don't know where it is coming from, or what it is, but we know it is there.

Those are our two axioms of existence, the two things that we know that are self-evident and cannot be questioned. Because in the very act of questioning you admit their truth: To be able to ask a question, you must exist; and in the very act of questioning you are acting on information receieved.

But this hasn't got us very far. We exist, and there may or may not be a world. Not very helpful. Unfortunately, we can't proceed any further with these two points and logic alone. So we find ourselves on the shores of the Sea of Philosophy, about to embark on a voyage.

There are a number of ships waiting here, ready to take us to exotic destinations. Some of the names of these ships will look familiar to you, but they are in fact very specific nautical - or rather, philosophical - terms, so you will need to unlearn a few things before you can even begin your journey.

The nearest ship is a round, black vessel, with no windows or portholes, sitting low in the water. Its stern - as much as it can be said to have such a thing - bears the name Solipsism.

Solipsism is a belief that the only thing we know for certain is that we exist. Taken to an extreme, solipsism can say that only I exist (there's no "we" in this form of solipsism). The problem with this is that it is not an attempt at understanding, but an admission of disinterest. And of course we already know this anyway. We don't need to bother with solipsism, because everything it can tell us is already wrapped up neatly in our two axioms.

Solipsism is subjectivism and relativism taken to the extreme: the solipsist is so consistent about his doctrine that he claims that he cannot know if physical reality or other human beings even exist. The solipsist believes knowledge is so subjective that 'all I can really know is myself'.

From The Ism Book by Peter Saint-Andre

We notice that the good ship Solipsism not only has no portholes or windows, but also no sails or rudder either. It looks like it has been tied up at the dock for a very long time. Let's give it a miss and walk a little further.

Shortly we come to two ships docked side by side. They are very much alike: Hulls freshly painted white, gleaming teak decking, towering masts, portholes and windows everywhere. In the crows-nest of each, atop the mainmast, you can see young men with telescopes eagerly peering in every direction. On the deck of each ship are officers with sextants and other stranger instruments, and crewmen running to and fro with books and ledgers. The only difference between the two is that the nearer one is slightly larger.

These are the good ships Materialism and Naturalism. Now, in the everyday world, a materialist is someone who values material goods (often too much), and a naturalist is someone who values nature. But today we are not seeking what is valuable; we are seeking what exists.

Materialism is the belief that the material Universe is what exists. That is, the information we are receiving is a representation of something that exists of its own right; not only that, but that we exist as part of it. Materialism calls the stuff that makes up the Universe matter. Everything that exists in the Universe is made up, entirely, out of matter.

Materialism is the idea that the only thing that really exists in the world is matter in its various states and movements (commonly atoms or other physical particles). Thus materialism is the opposite of idealism. Materialism considers any talk of, say, the soul to be complete nonsense and a throwback to the bad old days of spiritualism and vitalism (i.e., idealism) in philosophy. Note that because matter can be completely known by means of physical laws and mathematical description (see reductionism), materialism tends to be used to lend heavy support to determinism.

The Ism Book

Naturalism says something slightly different. It does not say that the Universe actually exists of itself; rather, it says that everything has a natural cause. That is, everything that happens in the Universe is caused by something in the Universe.
In metaphysics, the idea that nature operates according to natural laws, without spiritual intervention (opposed to theism and spiritualism, but compatible with deism).

Naturalism usually refers to an ethical view which holds that at least some human values (though not necessarily all) are determined by the nature of the human organism and by our situation on earth -- values like food, water, shelter, safety, psychological closeness, actualization of human talent and potential, the attainment of knowledge, and so on. By way of illustration, existentialism could be considered a humanistic form of individualism, but it differs from many other forms of humanism in denying ethical naturalism.

In aesthetics, naturalism is the theory that art (and especially literature) should present human experience 'as is', without evaluating reality or projecting ethical ideals (historically, naturalism in literature developed in reaction to romanticism).

The Ism Book

Is the Universe what really exists, the real Reality? Materialists say yes; Naturalists say they don't know. Materialists can point out that Naturalism arises quite simply from Materialism: If you assume that the Universe is everything that exists, then of course anything that happens is caused by something in the Universe. Naturalists point out that Materialists have no certainty of the existence of the Universe; Materialists counter that they know that, that this is the working assumption of Materialism, and that likewise Naturalists have no certain knowledge that all events have a natural cause.

So, the underlying assumption, the postulate, of Materialism is that The material Universe is what exists. And the postulate of Naturalism is that All events have a natural cause.

These differences are minor in the great game of Understanding, and the Materialists and the Naturalists on the whole get on very well, with the occasional bit of good-natured teasing when they've had a little too much to drink.

As an aside for those of my readers who are religious, I'll note that while neither Materialism nor Naturalism assumes the existence of a God, neither one excludes it. Certain ideas of God; a God, for example, who creates the Universe and all its Laws and leaves it free to run, are perfectly compatible with both Materialism and Naturalism.

While occasionally looking back at the two sister-ships, our eyes are now drawn to an amazing spectacle a little further along the shore. This great ship seems to be made entirely of ivory and gold. Its masts reach so high they are lost in the clouds. A hundred silken sails are carefully furled; a thousand flags and pennants flutter gaily from rigging.

Up on the shining deck, inlaid with jewels and precious metals, hundreds of people are arguing and waving their arms. Each is dressed in the uniform of an Admiral of a navy of a different country or a different time; no two are exactly alike. The effect is startling and oddly beautiful.

This is the great and famous Idealism. Idealism is a slightly odd ship compared to those we've seen before; it is more easily defined by what it is not than by what it is.

What Idealism is not, and every Admiral aboard will gladly tell you this, what it is most certainly not is Materialism. Some Idealists will slip over to the Naturalism now and then for a drink and a chat, but the Materialism is quite out of bounds.

Idealism is the belief that the material Universe does not exist of itself, that what really exists are ideas or ideals, and what we perceive as the material Universe is really created from these. What the hundreds of Admirals are arguing about is what they actually mean when they say this.

In metaphysics, idealism is a term used to describe the sort of theory which claims that something 'ideal' or non-physical is the primary reality. In this sense, Plato and Leibniz and Hegel are probably the most significant of the idealists (Leibniz is perhaps the most consistent, since he said that all physical things are actually made up of little bundles of consciousness he called 'monads', an idea that is a kind of panpsychism). Obviously, spiritualism is similar to idealism, but spiritualism tends to be used to refer more to religious, supernatural conceptions of reality, rather than to philosophical theories like those of Plato or Hegel. Plato can be considered the 'Founding Father' of idealism in Western philosophy, since he claimed that what is fundamentally real are ideas, of which physical objects are pale imitations. The opposite of idealism is materialism. Just as materialism in metaphysics is often linked with subjectivism in epistemology, idealism is often linked with intrinsicism in epistemology (though epistemological intrinsicism is sometimes also called, confusingly, idealism, since intrinsicism holds that we literally perceive universals or ideas). In popular usage, 'idealism' is more of an ethical term, characterizing people who have a strong code of values or a great deal of integrity, though sometimes to an excessive degree (often contrasted with those who are merely or healthily 'pragmatic').

The Ism Book

Plato was, if not the first Idealist, then the one who gave Idealism structure as a philosophy. Plato thought that everything that exists in this world is merely an imperfect representation of an ideal version that exists elsewhere. So there was, for example, an ideal chair somewhere, that was a perfect example of chairness, more chairlike than any real chair could be, and every chair that we can actually sit on (or in my case, pile books on) is really just a shadow of that ideal chair. And the same applies to, for example, cows: Somewhere beyond the reality that we know exists a perfect, flawless cow, unsurpassed in its cowness, its moo more purely moolike, and its milk more milky, than any moo or milk in our mundane world.
The word Platonism refers both to the doctrines of Plato (427-347 BCE) and to the manner or tradition of philosophizing that he founded. While it can be difficult to pin down what Plato actually believed (he often tried things out as hypotheses and changed or criticized many of his earlier views late in life), the term refers centrally to Platonic idealism and dualism -- though it also refers to the more debatable portions of his thought, such as his collectivism or totalitarianism (as revealed in his dialogue The Republic), his rationalism or intellectualism, his distrust of art, and so on. Often, in philosophy, 'Platonism' is virtually equivalent to idealism or intrinsicism, since Plato was the first Western philosopher to claim that reality is fundamentally something ideal or abstract and that knowledge largely consists of insight into or perception of the ideal. In common usage, the adjective 'Platonic' refers to Platonic love, the idea that the best form of love is non-sexual or non-physical (originally put forth in Plato's dialogue The Symposium).
The Ism Book
If we take Plato's concept of ideals at face value, we see that it quickly falls apart, because it takes classes of things and treats them as, well, things. When I speak of a chair, you know what I mean. But try to define it:
A chair is a piece of furniture designed for a person to sit on, posessing four legs, a seat, and a back.

Well, what if it has three legs, or five?

In that case, it is still a chair, but further from the ideal. The ideal chair has four legs.

But a chair with four legs can rock, whereas one with only three legs can't. Surely three legs is more ideal?

No, the ideal chair has four legs.

Well, if you say so. But how wide should it be?

Wide enough for someone to sit on, clearly.

And what if it is wide enough for two people to sit on? Or if it is only wide enough for a child? Is it still a chair?

To which the answer is along the lines of Go away boy, you're bothering me.

A chair is not a definition but a classification. It's a subset of the class we call furniture, and overlaps with such other subsets as sofa and settee. And furthermore, the class we call furniture overlaps with the class we call art. What we call a chair is like a country with all its borders in dispute, that belongs to an empire with all its borders in dispute. There are perhaps some small villages that are indisputably part of Chairland, but even then, they could well be in dispute between Artia and Furnituria.

This sort of thing even happens in Science. In the electromagnetic spectrum, for example, there's a section near the boundary between Ultraviolet and X-Rays. Whether this is termed "Extreme Ultraviolet" or "Soft X-Rays" depends on whether you're talking to a lithography expert or a radiologist. The wavelengths in question are the same, regardless. The difference is that Science recognises this as mere terminology and has an easy way of resolving the question: Simply ask What band of wavelengths are you referrring to? and you will get an answer in numbers rather than words. Platonic Idealism has no such recourse.

This sort of flaw in definitions is common in Idealism but not fundamental. We can easily come up with forms of Idealism that don't suffer from this, and I'll give two examples, what I will call Simulational Idealism and Computational Idealism.

Simulational Idealism says, as Idealism must, that Materialism is false, that what we perceive as the Universe does not exist of itself. Instead, it claims that the Universe is really a simulation being run on some unimaginably vast computer in another Reality entirely. What we perceive as matter, what we conclude to be the Laws of Physics, are really just the data and the rules of the simulation.

Computational Idealism says that it's not matter that exists: There's another layer below that. The fundamental nature of reality is an infinite grid of cellular automata, much along the lines of John Conway's famous Game of Life. It is the operation of these cellular automata that gives rise to the Laws of Quantum Mechanics.

These are my own terms, but both ideas have been taken at least partly seriously. Informational Idealism in particular is potentially a useful element in future theories of Physics - though as it stands, it is just speculation.1

The curious thing about both of these philosophies is that - although they disagree with Materialism about the underlying nature of Reality - they do, like Naturalism, agree with the results of Materialism. As long as you don't look below a certain layer of the definition of Reality, all of the results you get are compatible. (Albeit, Simulational Idealism leaves us with the possibility that the Great Computer may get switched off at some point.) Naturalism can sit comfortably on top of Materialism, which in turn can rest on Computational Idealism. The same is certainly not true for all forms of Idealism, as we shall see.

Berkeley's Demon2

Another of the Grand Admirals strolling about the deck of the SS Idealism is Bishop George Berkeley. (If this name strikes you as familiar, it is with good reason. Yes, that Berkeley was named after this Berkeley.) Berkeley was of the opinion that what really exists is not the Universe we seem to sense, but Mind. What seem to us to be material objects are merely ideas, or bundles of ideas, and it is only the act of perception that gives these ideas reality. In other words, Berkeley tells us that thought came first, and the Universe arose from that. Our own minds also arise somehow from Mind. This is one of the weaknesses of this form of Idealism. Where Materialism assumes that the Universe exists, leaving Science to explain how our minds can arise from matter, Berkeley's Idealism assumes that Mind exists, leaving the Universe to be explained - and also leaving unanswered the question of why we experience individual consciousness rather than a group mind.

Furthermore, since (according to Berkeley) things are only given reality through perception, and perception is necessarily through the senses, and the different senses necessarily give us differing perceptions, this means that you cannot touch what you can see, or smell what you taste. The food you taste is not the food you smell, the chair you see is not the chair you then feel supporting your backside. It was necessary for Berkeley to postulate Mind as an entity rather than individual minds, because with the latter, he would merely have given us Solispsim again.

As poet William Cowper put it:

Substances and modes of every kind
Are mere impressions in the passive mind;
And he that splits his cranium, splits at most
A fancied head against a fancied post.
Now, Berkeley didn't claim that the Universe didn't exist; he was quite comfortable with the fact that what we perceive is real. It's just the explanation he chose for Reality was a little different to Materialism or Naturalism. That in itself is not a problem. I've already mentioned two forms of Idealism that are entirely congruous with Materialism or Naturalism, as long as we don't look at too low a level of the explanation; and even Berkeley's ideas could perhaps, with work, be thus aligned also.

No, the problem lay elsewhere. It's twofold, but the two factors are related, and I'll refer to them together as Berkeley's Demon.

The first problem is that Berkeley felt that his philosophy was the most logical, reasonable, common-sense explanation for our perception of the world. Since everybody, on first introduction to Berkeley, considers it curious at best, this seems to be a claim with little merit, and yet Berkeley insisted that this was indeed the case.

The second, and worse, problem was that Berkeley thought that not only had he come up with a satisfying theory of existence, he thought that he had proved that it was correct. Or at the very least, that he has disproved Materialism. Since we know that Idealism can be most easily defined as Immaterialism - the denial of the precept of Materialism - he naturally took this as support for his own theory.

Of course, he did no such thing. What he set out to do was to show that Materialism was logically inconsistent, and therefore could not possibly be true. This is known in mathematics as Proof from Contradiction; in philosophy, which places great store in the obscure and the sesquipedalian, it is known as Argumentum ad Absurdum. In any case, the way it works is that you assume that something is true, and show logically that this leads to some contradiction. A good mathematical example is the proof that the square root of 2 is irrational. By assuming that the square root of two is rational, we quickly find ourselves mired in contradiction, which means that our assumption was wrong.

When Berkeley tried this method to disprove Materialism, though, he made the error of not holding consistently to his assumption. Remember, you have to assume the thing is true, and proceed logically from there. Berkeley, used to thinking in Idealist terms, imported assumptions from Idealism that made no sense in Materialism. As soon as he did that, the logic of his proof fell apart - the contradiction he thought he had found was really one he had put there himself. (From personal experience, this seems to be a universal failing in attempts by Idealists to disprove Materialism.)

This was Berkeley's Demon: He thought that not only was his theory the common understanding of reality, he thought that is case was proven and unassailable. It has been noted that Berkeley's theory is difficult to refute2 but it is not necessary to do so. For Berkeley may well have constructed a logical and self-consistent argument within the Theory itself, but his attack on the opposing Theory - that is, Materialism - had failed. And without this, he had only his claim - clearly very wide of the mark - that his theory was obvious and common-sensical. So, without needing to refute Berkeley's Theory in detail, we are still left with no particular reason to believe in it.

Which is fine, to a point. To the Solipsists and Materialists and Naturalists, and the Platonic and Informational Idealists and Dualists and others, Berkeley merely had another assumption, another, different, postulate in trying to explain existence. This is allowed, this is how the game is played. But Berkeley thought that he had proved his case. Everyone else had not merely made a different starting assumption: Everyone else was wrong. And since, once you assumed Berkeley's case to be true, the proof appeared to be self-evident, it was not just error but outright foolishness not to accept his views.

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together
of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of
matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed,
that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to
refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered,
striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he
rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."

James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson

What I feel Johnson was getting at with his "I refute it thus" was not that he had in fact shown Berkeley's ideas to be false; merely that Berkeley's claims for their self-evident nature to be absurd. For the most obvious case to anyone is that when we see a rock, and kick the rock, and feel the pain in our toes, that the rock is real. Berkeley might in fact be right, but he needed to show this somehow, and not simply claim that it was common sense.

There are two other philosphies I'd like to discuss before moving on the the main body of this evening's symposium. The first of these is one I've mentioned before, Dualism, and involves a man I mentioned at the very beginning, René Descartes.

Passing on from the grand spectacle that is the Idealism, we come to a very curious sight indeed: A great catamaran, painted in purple and gold, its twin hulls rising and falling together with the waves. The curious thing is, though this is clearly a catamaran, and the motion of the two hulls shows that they are fixed together, you can see no sign of any such connection at all. This is the MV Dualism.

Dualism is a doctrine in metaphysics which posits that there are only two fundamental things or substances or constituents of things in the world at large or in the human soul. The first influential dualist theory in the West was Platonism, which claimed that there are actually two different worlds: the physical world of appearances and the higher world of intelligible Forms or Ideas or Essences (thus note the common connection of dualism to transcendentalism and idealism), with a similar separation in the human person between mind and body. These ideas were picked up by Stoicism and, later, by Christianity. Thus the idea of dualism was current throughout the Christian era -- but it received a renewed impetus from Descartes, who held that reality is made up exclusively of Spirit and Matter, and that these two substances can never meet or interact -- except in the human soul (which gives rise to the infamous mind-body dichotomy). Aristotelianism, by contrast, holds that mind and body are not two distinct substances but two aspects of the same thing, of the same complete human person (cf. holism). Even though dualism is a kind of pluralism and is opposed by monism, practically speaking dualists often put their emphasis on the 'higher', more spiritual reality that their theoretical separations construct, so that they are often construed as adherents of idealism or transcendentalism, even though this is not strictly the case.

The Ism Book

Dualism is called that because it assumes two things, two separate and non-interacting worlds, those of matter and spirit. This in itself makes Dualism a weaker theory than the ones we have previously discussed. We noted that we need to make an assumption to move beyond Solipsism and so make an attempt at understanding our existence, so we have no grounds for arguing against Materialism or Naturalism or Idealism simply on the grounds that they make an unfounded assumption. An unfounded assumption is required.

Dualism, though, chooses to make two unfounded assumptions, that the material Universe exists (the same as Materialism), and that an Immaterial or Spirit Universe also exists - and that they don't interact at all. After all, if the Spirit interacted with the Material, we could detect and influence and control it... In which case it would simply be an unusual variety of matter, and not spirit at all.

The problem with this is that Dualists give Spirit as their explanation for the human mind. And we know that the human mind interacts with the material world - it receives information from the senses and controls the actions of the body. So the Spirit and the Material never interact at all - except in the Mind, which is in some mystical way different from everything else in the Universe.

In other words, Dualists are really Troilists; their three assumptions are the separate existence of Spirit and Matter and Mind as a bridge between the two. You can't prove this sort of thing to be wrong, because it's assumptions all the way down. We can see, however, that it's not particularly useful. If, rather than explaining how something came to be in terms of something you already know, you simply wave your arms and cry That's the way it is! then you haven't really contributed anything to human understanding.3

René Descartes is often regarded as the father of modern philosphy, the first thinker to really take apart the legacy of the Greek and Roman philosophers before him and try to reconstruct the world anew. He was no fool either: A brilliant mathematician and a physiologist as well. The entries at Mathworld bear out the value of his thinking - Cartesian Coordinates, Cartesian Curve, Cartesian Equation, Cartesian Geometry, Cartesian Ovals, Cartesian Pattern, Cartesian Plane, Cartesian Trident, Cartesian
Space
. (There's the Cartesian Diver too, but the connection with Descartes himself is tenuous at best.)

Descartes' view of the world was that the Material Universe consisted merely of matter in motion, and that our peceptions of this Universe are merely the actions of matter against our senses - that all sensation is by contact. This is remarkably close to our modern Scientific understanding - that taste and smell involve specific chemical molecules binding against receptors, that sight involves to impact of photons against the retina, that hearing is the result of pressure waves in air acting against receptors in the ear.

Descartes did, however, postulate the separate existence of Mind (making him a Dualist). Though he did not claim that Mind and Matter could not interact, he made the same third, hidden postulate I mentioned before, of a special other that was the one place where the two Universes could interact. In fact, he placed this in the Pineal Gland, a small and otherwise unremarkable organ buried deep inside the brain.

The first philosophers who are usually called rationalists were Descartes (1596-1650), Leibniz (1646-1716), and Spinoza (1632-1677). While they claimed to be defending science against scholasticism, their arguments often showed little improvement over those of their opposition. For example, Descartes' defense of science consisted of a dualism from which philosophy is still recovering, and his arguments for dualism were models of rationalism: technical, deductive, and extremely abstract.

The Ism Book

1 If you are interested in this concept, it is explored in some depth in Greg Egan's novel Schild's Ladder.
2 For more details on Berkeley's philosophy, you might want to read the on-line essay Berkeley's Theory of Reality by Stephen Thornton.
3 To see where this sort of thing can lead, one Kevin Everett FitzMaurice has a web site proclaiming the existence of no less than seven realities: Physical, Mental, Consciousness, Vessel Mental, Vessel Spiritual, Life, and Spiritual; and all this while railing against both Materialists and Idealists for the absurdity of their respective beliefs. This is why the one thing that Materialists and Idealists agree on is that Dualists are crazy.

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Tuesday, July 06

World

Message Received

From: Product Development

To: Marketing

As per your request, the person responsible for inventing Abalone-flavoured Macadamias has been feed to the corporate llamas.

Now will you please call off any further air strikes you had planned?

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Sunday, July 04

World

Fourth of July

From the best country in the world to the other best country in the world: Happy birthday America!

Glad to be your friends, proud to be your allies.

Best wishes,

Australia

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