Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Why don’t dogs do philosophy?

June 30, 2021

Philosophy is a product of idle minds.

First and foremost, minds are concerned with survival and the basic necessities of staying alive. Breathing, escaping predators, food and shelter – in that order. Having experienced severe asthma attacks many years ago, I put breathing unequivocally first. When struggling for breath there is no other thing, no pain, no emotion, no other higher-order need which can, or does, occupy the mind. The entire focus of the brain and the body is solely on getting the next gulp of air. It is only after the basic physiological need are satisfactorily met that the mind has the time over to be idle. It is only then, and providing that the body is not so exhausted or under physical stress such that the mind does not embrace sleep, that the mind feels free to wander down non-essential – but interesting – paths. And that leads to philosophy.

The word philosophy originates from the Greek meaning for love of wisdom. In practice, it is the formulation of fundamental, unnecessary, unanswerable questions about life, existence, reality and everything. Having formulated the unanswerable question, philosophy then spends hours of thought, circular arguments, a mountain of verbiage, a flood of circumlocution and reams of paper in proposing unsatisfactory answers. The greater the number of paradoxes that can be introduced into an argument, the deeper and more profound is the philosophy. (Metaphysics is merely a particularly obscure – but not necessarily more obtuse – part of philosophy). There is no philosophical question which can not be put off till another time; which cannot be interrupted for more important survival tasks; which cannot be abandoned for a glass of wine. However, a glass or two can aid the production of even deeper, more incomprehensible answers to the unanswerable questions. There is no answer which needs an action to be taken. There is no philosophy which cannot be replaced by another. Philosophical questions may be about the fundamental nature of life but they are not questions which need answers for day-to-day living. There is no urgency or deadline for finding answers. A professional philosopher has no deliverables – or at least none which need to make sense. Philosophy is an occupation for minds which are free from the burden of resolving the basic physiological needs of the bodies they inhabit. Philosophy is an occupation for idle minds.

But this raises another philosophical question. (Unanswerable of course).

Domesticated dogs have found a sustainable solution for their basic physiological needs. They are protected from predatory threats, have food provided at regular intervals and are well sheltered from the elements. They are not used by their human master-slaves as food (except in Korea). They are generally well respected by their master-slaves in sickeness and in health. The solution does not come free. They have to accept the curtailment of many freedoms. Their human master-slaves control their movement, their diet, their friends and their breeding partners. Nevertheless, their minds are entirely and wonderfully free from the burdens of meeting their fundamental physiological needs. Their idle minds have all the time they could possibly need for unnecessary, unanswerable questions.

So why don’t dogs do philosophy?

How do I know I know what I know?

June 28, 2021

Most of what I say I know is actually what I only believe I know. It is only what I know by my own experience or reasoning or argument or calculation that has a higher status  – in my mind – than a belief. When I say I know the Earth is an oblate spheroid, it is not from my own experience but from that of others who I believe. In reality I believe I know that the Earth is an oblate spheroid. All that I know that is within my own experience is – at least in my own mind – a higher level of knowing than all that I believe I know from the experience of others.

It has always been a little, irritating niggle at the back of my brain that I can never know that what I interpret and experience as red in my mind may be what somebody else experiences in the same way as I experience brown. What I can communicate with another person are the labels red or brown. My brain has no other means of communicating what I experience as red except by the labels that language allows. What exactly does knowing mean? 

When a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody to hear, there is no sound.

A sound is an interpretation by a brain of electrical signals generated by an organ for the detection of pressure fluctuations (vibrations) in air. When the tree falls it generates air pressure fluctuations. If there is no ear to detect the signals, there is no sound. If a deaf person is in the forest there are vibrations but there is no sound. If the vibrations are detected, but there is no brain to interpret the signals, there is no sound. A recording device detects air vibrations and converts them into something else which can be stored. The stored signals can later be used to reproduce those air vibrations through another device, which can then be interpreted as sound by a brain which has an ear to hear. But the recording device does not detect or record sound. A tape recording replayed on the moon’s surface has no atmosphere to vibrate and would create no sound, even if an intrepid astronaut with both an ear and a brain was standing next to it. Sound is in the brain and is both enabled and constrained by the physical capabilities of the hearing organ connected to that brain. The same pressure fluctuations may generate different interpretations of sound in different human brains. Cacophony to me is what is called modern music by others. The connection between the human ear and the human brain are similar to, but not the same as, the connection between a canine ear and a canine brain. My inability to fully appreciate a wolf’s howl is the same type of inability as of a wolf listening to Beethoven. Who knows what the other hears?

Sound is a cognitive thing. It is of the brain and necessarily subjective. 

And so it is with knowing. To know is a cognitive thing. It is of the brain and necessarily subjective.

My best, considered definition of knowledge goes like this: Knowledge is anything and everything, but only those things, that a brain can comprehend to be knowledge

This is a somewhat circular definition and is a little unsatisfactory because it does not say very much more than that knowledge is what knowledge is. But it is still the best that all our 10,000 years of philosophy and metaphysics has been able to come up with. Knowledge and knowing are not quite the same thing. As a noun knowledge is difficult enough but as a verb, to know is even more elusive. Knowing in philosophy is generally classified into three kinds of knowing:

  1. Knowing that – some proposition is true,
  2. Knowing how – to do something, and
  3. Knowing by acquaintance – by personal experience

I note that I cannot share my knowing. I can share a piece of knowledge (and that encompasses whatever my brain tells me I know) but another brain has to judge for itself whether it knows that piece of knowledge. How does my brain know that it knows? How do I know if what I know is true? Ultimately it seems to come down to what my brain believes that it knows and what it believes to be true.

The whole branch of epistemology is concerned mainly with the first kind of knowing where a brain knows that some proposition is true.  Knowing cannot, in itself, be conflated with being true. Many people once knew that the earth was flat. A brain may know what it knows but that knowing does not confer truth. Any such knowing is, no doubt, a piece of knowledge for that brain. Even if a certain knowing (say that the earth was flat) is shared by multitudes of people, that multiplicity of knowing is no less subjective and carries no greater truth value. Any brain may know many things which are, in fact, false. Many brains, because they are so similar, may know the same false things. The fact of knowing does not carry a truth-value, but it does carry a belief of truth for that particular brain. And that leads me to conclude that no truth can exist except as a subjective belief in a brain.

Knowing and truth are both subjective. They are both beliefs.

I had forgotten that I had written this about belief a few years ago:

Primordial Belief:

Most of what we therefore consider to be “our” knowledge is actually somebody else’s knowledge and not “known” to ourselves. However our belief in these persons leads to us claiming that knowledge as our own as being part of the body of knowledge available to humanity. The longer some statement has been within the body of knowledge, the stronger is our belief in that statement. Most of our actions are based then, not on our own personal knowledge, but on the belief that whatever lies within the body of knowledge of humanity is true.

But it strikes me that there is an assumption, a belief, which underlies every thought, every perception. This “primordial belief” is in fact implicit in every living thing. In fact it is so intrinsically intertwined with life that it may well be a part of the definition of what life is. This “primordial belief” is that the flow of time is unhindered and that a future exists. I breathe because there is future to breathe for. I cannot know when I take a breath that there will not be another one. Every living thing – a cell, a microbe, a virus, a tree or a human –  does what it does because there is a future (explicitly or implicitly) it believes it can live in. Even the very last breath I take will be taken in the belief that there will be another one to come. A belief in my future is existential.

A belief in a future is inherent in life. There can be a future without life (and there probably will be), but there is no form of life which does not have an implicit belief in its own future.

So every conscious mind (and that includes atheists, agnostics, religious fanatics, scientists and even economists) has this primordial, fundamental belief that a future exists. That, that future exists, can not be within the space of knowledge. All religions exist in the space of ignorance. But long before any of the “beliefs” they adopt comes the primordial belief that every living thing has  – that it has a future.

“To die will be an awfully big adventure” – or will it?

June 8, 2021

“To die will be an awfully big adventure.”  –  J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

I have never been quite sure if the quote from Barrie’s Peter Pan is terribly profound or utterly banal.

Not because Peter Pan is not a brilliant and captivating reflection on losing innocence and on timelessness and that Neverland – in one way or another – is not something that has been imagined, in some form, at some time, in everybody’s mind. But because I am not sure if death can actually be considered a state at all. Certainly it is not a state that can be observed by the subject. Equally, before birth is not a state that is observable by the subject in question.

The philosophical difficulty I have is in trying to equate negations; to equate different kinds of zeros. Can the not being before birth be equated to the not being after death. In fact, can not being be considered a state at all? The state of the world in 1900 will be some thing other than the state of the world in 2100. Neither of these two states of being will include me. However, in the second case an identity that once was me would be present in records or in memory. That suggests that my not being after my death is somewhat different to my not being before I was born. But they both need an observer – who is not me.

Why does the universe go from a (presumed) simple ground state to a much more complex condition? Not to be – it seems – must always be simpler (in energy and complexity) than to be. Non-existence must be more parsimonious in the scheme of things than existence. Is it time which is the great disruptor? Why existence rather than non-existence remains the greatest mystery of all. “I think therefore I am” may be an indicator of consciousness but it is silent about being. We get tangled between language and philosophy, between philosophy and metaphysics. Nothing or no thing causes problems of language and of metaphysics. A thing must first be defined for a state of no thing to be discerned. Not any thing is quite different – in language – to no thing. It is much wider and encompasses all things. But even not any thing is restricted by human cognition to just those things that can be imagined. What is beyond human comprehension cannot even be addressed. A thing presupposes existence. The state – if it is a state – of not being is equally dependent upon first having in place the concept of being. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was questioning living rather than not living, and the meaning of life. But his “To be or not to be? That is the question ..” is probably more profound than Shakespeare ever intended and is the most fundamental question of philosophy and metaphysics. Why existence at all? What could be the question that existence is the answer to?

The living are irrelevant to a person not yet born. They are equally irrelevant to the dead. But note the inherent contradictions in the use of language. A person not yet born, or a person who is dead, is not a person at all – a non-person. We cannot, logically, speak about relevance to a person who is a non-person. As we age, it is not the state of being dead that causes much concern. The state of others as a consequence may be of concern. The process of dying and the accompanying pain and indignities give concern to many. But being dead is both linguistic and metaphysical nonsense. Being dead translates logically to the self-contradictory being a not-being. Just as an after-life translates to a logically nonsensical life after the end of life. Just as before the beginning is not logically sustainable. A person being dead causes ripples and even large waves in the surrounding world and among other people, but is never of any concern to persons who do not exist.

To be born is indeed an adventure.

I am not sure that to die is any kind of anything.

A learned judge is a biased judge

June 6, 2021

O learned judge!

An upright judge. A learned judge.

What you know you know is what you take to be true.

You do not know how you know what you know.

You cannot know that what you know you know is true. 

‘(All truths are subjective).

The more you learn the more you think you know.

(All learning does not necessarily lead to more knowledge).

The more you know the more learned you are.

The more learned you are the more you don’t know how you know what you know.

A bias is a predilection in favour of what you know or against denial of what you know.

An empty mind is free of any predilections.

The more you know, the more biased you are towards what you know.

To judge is to form conclusions based on what you know.

The more learned you are, the more biased you are.

A learned judge is a biased judge.

Bias is always a consequence of little learning.

All learning is little learning

Having more learning is always having more of little learning.

What’s so bad about bias?

A learned judge is a biased judge. An unbiased music critic with no prior opinions is a useless critic. A food critic without taste preferences would be unbiased but would also be worthless as a critic. Unbiased parents would show no preference for their own children. Without bias, “good” and “bad” start with equal value. I am incurably biased against what I consider “bad” and against people I don’t like. Bias is merely the current state of a functioning brain.

Dimensions: where and when we are

May 10, 2021

“In physics and mathematics, the dimension of a mathematical space (or object) is informally defined as the minimum number of coordinates needed to specify any point within it”. – Wikipedia

In the concept of spacetime one might think that (x,y,z,t) are the four dimensional coordinates which are necessary and sufficient to specify the location of any object at any time within our universe. But that would be an oversimplification. It is true only for a relative location and not for any absolute location. In reality we have no idea – in absolute terms – of where we are or when we are.

The place where I was born on the surface of the Earth has – during my lifetime – drifted some 2.3 m North East across the earth’s surface. The Sun (along with the Earth) has moved 6.9 billion km around the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy. Using referents outside the Milky Way Galaxy, it has, during the same time, moved some 55 billion km in space. So, I was born some 60 billion km away from wherever in space we actually are now. In the context of the Universe this is still local space, and I do not need to account for the very expansion of space. The looming collision of the Andromeda Galaxy speeding towards us is still 4.5 billion years away and irrelevant in the scale of my lifetime. Taking my present location as (0,0,0,0) and the X-axis as the straight line from where we were then to now, the coordinates of my birth location become (-60, 0, 0, -73 years) where x, y and z are measured in billions of km.

Everything is relative to here and now.

Considering time to be a dimension is no more than a convention or, at best, an analogy. It does not help that either

  • we have no clear definition of what a dimension is, or
  • a dimension is anything that can be counted.

We can measure the oscillation of apparent motions and assume that such motion is regular and then infer the passage of time. But what time is other than a magical, necessary backdrop for everything is beyond our comprehension. We cannot be certain that a second now is the same, or longer, or shorter, than a second at some other time. (A second now must be longer than a second was then).

The world is what our perception tells us it is. But our perception is limited, and it limits the boundaries of our reality. We perceive space and everything around us as having 3 dimensions, yet we cannot truly conceive of any real thing having other than three spatial dimensions. In our 3-dimensional world we can define one- and two-dimensional things only as concepts (lines and surfaces) but we cannot identify any real-world objects which have only one or two dimensions. Moreover, real things having more than 3 dimensions are beyond our comprehension. How a fourth spatial dimension could be manifested lies outside of human reason. We have the language to describe – but only conceptually – any number of dimensions. Scientists and mathematicians speculate about 3 or 7 or 9 or infinite dimensions and claim either that 3 is the most probable or theorise that the others are hidden in the strings that make up the world, but the human brain can only perceive 3. (I note in passing that invoking the infinite is itself an admission of incomprehensibility). It is a fruitless and inevitably circular discussion to question whether it is our perception which is limited to 3 dimensions or whether the universe has only three to be perceived. Our universe is enabled, and strictly constrained, by what our cognition allows us to perceive. Every real thing in our universe has three spatial dimensions; no less, no more. Our universe has 3 spatial dimensions because that is all, and only what, we can perceive.

I probably read “Flatland” as a teenager where a sphere in Flatland can only be perceived as a circle.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is a satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott, first published in 1884 by Seeley & Co. of London. Written pseudonymously by “A Square”, the book used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to comment on the hierarchy of Victorian culture, but the novella’s more enduring contribution is its examination of dimensions. – Wikipedia

No matter how many dimensions the universe may have, three dimensions is all human cognition can ever perceive. It is that reality which constrains all our thought. It becomes a fundamental assumption for science which the scientific method cannot penetrate. If other dimensions exist, then what we perceive in three are projections. As a shadow is perceived to be two-dimensional. But to have a projection or a shadow in our 3-dimensional world we would need some kind of cognitive light from the other, higher dimensions to create what we perceive.

But human cognition is limited. We cannot perceive what we cannot perceive. And we have no clue as to where and when we are.

Science needs its Gods and religion is just politics

April 11, 2021

This essay has grown from the notes of an after-dinner talk I gave last year. As I recall it was just a 20 minute talk but making sense of my old notes led to this somewhat expanded essay. The theme, however, is true to the talk. The surrounding world is one of magic and mystery. And no amount of Science can deny the magic.

Anybody’s true belief or non-belief is a personal peculiarity, an exercise of mind and unobjectionable. I do not believe that true beliefs can be imposed from without. Imposition requires some level of coercion and what is produced can never be true belief. My disbelief can never disprove somebody else’s belief.

Disbelieving a belief brings us to zero – a null state. Disbelieving a belief (which by definition is the acceptance of a proposition which cannot be proved or disproved) brings us back to the null state of having no belief. It does not prove the negation of a belief.

[ (+G) – (+G) = 0, not (~G) ]

Of course Pooh puts it much better.

Science needs its Gods and religion is just politics

Our actions are based more on faith than on knowledge

January 18, 2021

Surfing through my computer in these corona times, I came across this talk I gave 4 years ago. I might even have posted something about it but I can’t remember.

“My thesis tonight is that all our actions are much more dependent on faith, and less dependent on knowledge, than one superficially believes.

Of all that I claim is my knowledge, only a very small part is what I have observed or developed or proved myself. Most of my knowledge is actually the knowledge of others or part of humanity’s collective knowledge, along with my belief that it’s true.

I “know”, for example, that the earth is a flattened spheroid, not because I have personally observed this, but because I “believe” in all the people who have made such observations and have brought this truth into the knowledge of mankind. Most of our actions are then based, not on our own personal knowledge, but on the belief that everything that lies within the knowledge of the whole of humanity is true.

I would argue that faith goes even deeper. “To believe” is a necessary and integral part of “to live”. The future can never be in the field of knowledge. “Living” requires a basic belief that the future exists. Even when I take my last breath, I will do so in the belief that there will be another breath to take. This belief is deeper than thinking and comes far before knowledge. I claim that it is the deepest faith that exists. Believing in a future is existential.

Without this belief in a future, life does not exist. Every time I breathe, I do it in the belief that I have a future. And that day, when I take my last breath, that belief becomes false”.


Charlie Brown has faith

Numbers emerge from the concept of identity

December 18, 2020

Numbers are abstract. They do not have any physical existence. That much, at least, is fairly obvious and uncontroversial.

Are numbers even real? The concept of numbers is real but reason flounders when considering the reality of any particular number. All “rational” numbers (positive or negative) are considered “real numbers”. But in this usage, “real” is a label not an adjective. “Rational” and “irrational” are also labels when attached to the word number and are not adjectives describing the abstractions involved. The phrase “imaginary numbers” is not a comment about reality. “Imaginary” is again a label for a particular class of the concept that is numbers. Linguistically we use the words for numbers both as nouns and as adjectives. When used as a noun, meaning is imparted to the word only because of an attached context – implied or explicit. “A ten” has no meaning unless the context tells us it is a “ten of something” or as a “count of some things” or as a “measurement in some units” or a “position on some scale”. As nouns, numbers are not very pliable nouns; they cannot be modified by adjectives. There is a mathematical abstraction for “three” but there is no conceptual, mathematical difference between a “fat three” and a “hungry three”. They are not very good as adjectives either. “Three apples” says nothing about the apple. “60” minutes or “3,600” seconds do not describe the minutes or the seconds.

The number of apples on a tree or the number of atoms in the universe are not dependent upon the observer. But number is dependent upon a brain in which the concept of number has some meaning. All of number theory, and therefore all of mathematics, builds on the concept and the definition of one.  And one depends, existentially, on the concept of identity.

From Croutons in the soup of existence

The properties of one are prescribed by the assumptions (the “grammar”) of the language. One (1,unity), by this “grammar” of mathematics is the first non-zero natural number. It is the integer which follows zero. It precedes the number two by the same “mathematical distance” by which it follows zero. It is the “purest” number. Any number multiplied by one or divided by one remains that number. It is its own factorial. It is its own square or square root; cube or cube root; ad infinitum. One is enabled by existence and identity but thereafter its properties are defined, not discovered. 

The question of identity is a philosophical and a metaphysical quicksand. Identity is the relation everything has to itself and nothing else. But what does that mean? Identity confers uniqueness. (Identical implies sameness but identity requires uniqueness). The concept of one of anything requires that the concept of identity already be in place and emerges from it. It is the uniqueness of identity which enables the concept of a one.

Things exist. A class of similar things can be called apples. Every apple though is unique and has its own identity within that class of things. Now, and only now, can you count the apples. First comes existence, then comes identity along with uniqueness and from that emerges the concept of one. Only then can the concept of numbers appear; where a two is the distance of one away from one, and a three is a distance of one away from two. It is also only then that a negative can be defined as distance away in the other direction. Zero cannot exist without one being first defined. It only appears as a movement of one away from one in the opposite direction to that needed to reach two. Negative numbers were once thought to be unreal. But the concept of negative numbers is just as real as the concept for numbers themselves. The negative sign is merely a commentary about relative direction. Borrowing (+) and lending (-) are just a commentary about direction. 

But identity comes first and numbers are a concept which emerges from identity.

What the brain cannot undo

December 6, 2020

2020 comes close to being annus horribilis.

There is much I wish I had not seen or heard or smelled or learnt. But to unsee or unhear or unlearn or unremember or unknow are not permitted, by reality or by language.

  • There is much more unseen than seen.
  • But what has been seen cannot be unseen.
  • To unsee is not an action permitted by reality or by language.
  • What has been seen may not be remembered.
  • What is remembered is only a decaying image of what was seen.
  • What is remembered may be forgotten but cannot be erased selectively or voluntarily
  • To unremember is not an action in reality or in language.
  • What is known is a tiny part of what is knowable. 
  • The size of the unknowable is unknowable.
  • To learn is to convert some of what is unknown (but knowable) to be known.
  • To convert knowledge to ignorance by unknowing is unreal.
  • Forgetting is real and ignorance is common, but how to unknow is unknown.
  • To unlearn is not an action permitted by reality or language.
  • To not hear many things is normal and to forget what has been heard is common.
  • But to unhear what has been heard is not permitted.

Doing is a temporal activity. Undoing in time is fundamentally impossible.

What the brain receives as sensory input cannot be undone.

To forget is human but to undo is divine.

Croutons in the soup of existence

November 25, 2020
Babylonian 1

The philosophy of one.

There is only one of me. Half of me or even 0.1 of me is no longer me. There cannot be two of me because then the one of me can no longer be. There cannot be many of me but there can be many like me. But me, together with one more like me, could only be one of something else, which would still not be me. Identity and existence go hand-in-hand. The essence of identity lies in oneness. There can only be one of any thing once that thing has identity. Once a thing is a thing there is only one of it. Half that thing is no longer that thing. There can be many of such things but every other such thing is still something else.

Numbers are abstract and do not exist in the physical world. They are objects (“words”) within the invented language of mathematics to help us describe the physical world. They enable counting and measuring. The logical one or the philosophical one or the mathematical one all emerge from existence and identity. Neither logic nor philosophy nor mathematics can explain what one is, except that it is. Every explanation or definition attempted ends up being circular. It is what it is. Mathematics presupposes that one exists but can only assume what it is. 

The properties of one are prescribed by the assumptions (the “grammar”) of the language. One (1,unity), by this “grammar” of mathematics is the first non-zero natural number. It is the integer which follows zero. It precedes the number two by the same “mathematical distance” by which it follows zero. It is the “purest” number. Any number multiplied by one or divided by one remains that number. It is its own factorial. It is its own square or square root; cube or cube root; ad infinitum. One is enabled by existence and identity but thereafter its properties are defined, not discovered. 

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Numerical identity requires absolute, or total, qualitative identity, and can only hold between a thing and itself. ……. Numerical identity can be characterised, as just done, as the relation everything has to itself and to nothing else. But this is circular, since “nothing else” just means “no numerically non-identical thing”. It can be defined, equally circularly (because quantifying over all equivalence relations including itself), as the smallest equivalence relation (an equivalence relation being one which is reflexive, symmetric and transitive, for example, having the same shape).

What existence is the answer to is anybody’s guess. From existence emerges the identity of our universe as a smooth, homogeneous soup of energies and matter, spiced by waves and particles and flavoured both light and dark. Interspersed in this nebulous, existential soup are croutons of hard, firm, observable things. From identity emerges oneness. Every atom of the 1080 atoms thought to be in our universe is separate and distinct in its existence from every other atom at any given instant; and there is only one of each. And if we could assign identity to each of the particles making up these atoms, then each of those particles would be separate and distinct at any given instant, with only one of each such particle.

Each a crouton in the soup of existence.

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