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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Was: Email Is: Existentialism is a Blog Post

Yeah it's interesting because a novel like The Stranger, like so much of existentialism, is actually a commentary about the loss of God (or Christianity).  But everyone is so secular these days that we find it hard to see the problem (and so we sort of misread the points Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard et al were making).

All this started with Nietzsche, who was among the first of the "great" thinkers of the 19th century to see that the consolations of Catholicism--Christendom--were sweeped away, gone.  The entire foundation of the Western world was religion, and then in a short span of a hundred years or so, it wasn't.  It was replaced of course with science, but again, Nietzsche saw that "science" was not really a meaningful replacement for religion.  When he said "God is dead" he was being prophetic--he was saying "you people do not even understand the sea changes that are about to sweep through the Western world."  

Existentialism was the philosophical response to nihilism; Kierkegaard was a Christian but thought it was absurd to be a "believer" and required a subjective, transformative experience that filled one with anxiety and dread (the "leap of faith",through darkness, into light, as it were).  Sartre was an atheist and coined the phrase "existence precedes essence."  This is, again, is a profoundly religious-inspired statement: we once got our "essences" from the religious world--the notion of a soul, a benevolent Creator, and a universe that had meaning for us personally.  Suddenly there are no essences, as there is no longer "God" to give them to us. So in a void where nothing can mean anything, isn't existence (that is, without essences) terrifying and pointless?  Who shall we be?  And how?  Sartre's answer is that we "create" our essences (his dictum means:  we exist first, then we choose our essence).  This all sounds warm and fuzzy today, but I think most of us don't really think through what he's saying.  The freedom we gain once severed from our religious essences is, according to Sartre, a "radical" freedom.  It's a gut-wrenching realization that every choice you make creates you (whereas you once had a "blueprint" to work with, so to speak).  He would not understand (or certainly not agree with) our blue-sky attitudes about our existence.  I think it's funny to reflect on existentialism's message in our modern techno-science world.  It's sort of like:  who has the time for all this fear and trembling?  Huh?  Like Huxley warned us in his Brave New World (an almost perfect commentary on scientific distopia), we can alienate ourselves from ourselves with distractions-- iPhones, money, Facebook, on and on.  The big questions don't go away so much as they never can quite come up, busy as we are (and doing, really, what?).  Existentialists would say we're guilty of a false consciousness (or in Sartre's words, a "bad faith").  I get it, but you know, existential angst has it's limits. :)

Anyway Camus makes this point well in The Stranger, and to my point above, note that it is the priest in prison that brings forth the main character's rage.  Not accidental.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Descarte's Cake (having it and eating it)

I'm reading Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.  Before this I was reading something else, then something else, then...

I'm generally a fan of Rorty but here's my take on the whole POC debate and why it never seems to go anywhere.  All the analysis that philosophers of mind have done in the last few decades is basically accurate. Yes, it's suspicious to talk about mental states as non-extended in the Cartesian sense, or to talk about them with nouns rather than adjectives, or even to be dualist about them.  (Sure.  Yep.  Yeah.  Got it.)

I buy the analysis Rorty gives in Mirror, that Descartes lumped reasoning-about-universals together with sensation (today: qualia) to make a distinction between extended stuff (for Newtonian mechanics, with primary qualities that are mathematically describable) and non-extended stuff, for all the personhood notions we want to protect.  I accept that Descartes thus gave us the modern mind-body problem, and that this problem didn't really exist to the classical mind.  For example, Aristotle would have a hard time understanding Descartes' notion of "mind", as he thought that sensation was part of the body and he had a participatory rather than representational view of knowing.  (And hence, modern philosophy with it's representational framework is obsessed with epistemology after Descartes, and this is in a real sense an historic accident due to his idiosyncratic treatment of mind-body issues, a treatment that was entirely novel and foreign to philosophers of the time.)

The problem is that the Cartesian mind-body idea (extended versus non-extended) gives us, also, the modern view of a material universe: just that "stuff" which is not-mind and has only those properties that are describable by mechanics (mathematics).  This idea is idiosyncratic and fully a product of Descartes' error as well; you can't have it both ways.  Just as mind is almost certainly not the "ghost in the machine" idea that we inherited from Descartes, so too "matter" is almost certainly not only the just-so "stuff" that we can explain and predict using our differential equations and geometry.  (I like Newton too, but this is really quite a tip of the hat, to cede to him all of reality.)  So the real mind-body problem is the problem of having one's cake and eating it too.  This is the situation the analytic philosophers found themselves in post-scientific revolution, and while accepting the Cartesian division where it suited them (as defenders of a "new" and "scientific" materialism), they've rejected the mind where it doesn't.  I give you:  our current age.  (Or:  our patchwork of almost certainly wrong ideas.)

So this is silly.  I'm always amazed at how smart people get things wrong.  I think there's some kind of smart-person bug or disease, a kind of moral courage that they lack sometimes (Was:  cozy up to religion.  Now:  cozy up to "science"--in scare quotes because we still picture empirical science as exploring the parts of a machine, though this idea is clearly wrong today.  Another puzzle.).  With all those smart analytic philosopher-scientists-wanna-be's, we're certain to get things all wrong-o.

So, modern reader, I'm with you.  I'd be happy to throw out Descartes.  The way I see things I can't figure out which is this French genius's sillier idea:  that all of nature should correspond just-so to our differential equations (though it, of course, turned out otherwise), or that all of mind should correspond just-so to what's left over (so to speak).

In other words, there isn't really any such thing as "matter" in the Cartesian sense (stripped of everything we can't measure).  Why should there be?  Once you see this side of things (or this horn of the dilemma), you don't waste so much time writing diatribes about Cartesian mind (those dualists, the idiots!), because you realize it throws the same net over the materialistic notions you want to preserve.  Stuff-open-to-empirical-investigation has all sorts of properties that would have flummoxed Newton (and Descartes).  "Nature" (rather than Cartesian "matter") has all sorts of interesting properties.  One of them seems to be some aspects of mind.  Spontaneity.  And quite obviously, sensation.  Right?  To put things another way, what sort of a universe do we really live in?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

On Scaggling and Jaggling

On the issue of language, I might say to a friend down in California where some of my books are stored, "send me up some non-fiction books", to which my friend will ask "which ones" to which me not knowing specific titles will request a list.  I might say something seemingly absurd, like:

"Look, you scaggle up a list, and I'll jaggle out the ones I'm thinking about."

What does this mean?  Not to go all Wittgenstein on it, but it seems like a silly language game, and it's hard to see what the shared context is, so it seems like a risky imprecision, or in other words a bad language game.  Not only are there no real referents for the actions of "scaggling" and "jaggling", but only a excitable poet or someone seemingly insensitive to a host of issues in the use of language would express things this way.

Wrong-o.  For, a scaggling is a compact and precise wording for my friend.  It tells him to get a list together, but not to worry about it too much (in a philosophically imprecise but practically effective way), and this because on the other side of things, he knows I'm only jaggling.  To put things slightly differently, the intended meaning of scaggling is at least partially given by the meaning of jaggling.  One is tempted to say, "if I be only jaggling, you dear Sir, be only scaggling."  In this sense then we've got a classic Wittgensteinian language game, or to eschew the name dropping, we've got a couple of verbs that are bi-relational in the sense that both intension and extension or appropriately defined, seemingly ex nihilo.  This all, from two verbs which as near as I can tell, don't mean anything at all, in the context of producing a list of book titles for purposes of selecting a subset of them.  There aren't any necessary and sufficient conditions, and a fortiori,  it doesn't serve to explain, but seemingly makes even more mysterious and obscure, that one meaningless verb is related to another in such a way that the pair is somehow mutually explicated.

What are we to make of this?  On the charge of imprecision, the rejoinder (as I've just outlined) is that however mysterious the success, nonetheless there it is.  And hence from the grossest of imprecision, we get virtual precision--just that which I wished to say, I in fact have said, and no better proof is that I'll get the list, then the titles from the list, then the books, all with no one performing unnecessary work in the intended context.

So language is curious.  I'm tempted to add here that, if language is this powerful, and in such a way that seems perverse to formal language analysis, then we should be hopeful that something like the analytic tradition in philosophy can be turned on its head, and made to succeed by not getting rid of a bunch of artificial problems in language, but rather by getting rid of itself, using its own methods (so to speak).  

Now I'll turn to another issue, which is the issue of scientific statements.  If I start scaggling and jaggling about, say, a chaotic system, I'll get myself into trouble.  A chaotic system is just that system which has properties like dense periodic orbits, and something about properties of a topology (here I forget), and sensitive dependence on initial conditions.  Every word means exactly what it has to mean in order that a set of mathematical statements can be produced to describe it.  A nondeterministic partial differential equation like the Navier-Stokes equation will need to be summoned up out of a bag of differential equation techniques describing dynamic systems, for instance, in order to get somewhere with chaos description.  You can point to a turbulent system, sure, but to describe and partial-predict a chaos system you need to get reference right, which means you need "dense" not to mean "stupid" but rather a specific propagation through a phase-space with periodic orbits.

Hence, one is tempted to say in respect to language about physical systems, that there is no corresponding statement to the effect that "If you be a scagglin', then I be a jagglin'."  One can't, for instance, simply say "If we be scagglin' a Navier-Stokes equation to a problem in fluid dynamics, then we be a jagglin' some chaos", or rather, one could do this, but unlike in the book scenario no additional theoretical or practical work is performed by my linguistic act.  (Potentially, I'm not taken seriously by my colleagues as well.  One could imagine getting escorted out of a building, too.)  

I'll make one final point here, which is that the notions of "precision" and "non-vagueness" are themselves seemingly imprecise and vague, or at least contextual in the Wittgenstein sense.  (I'm tempted to add here, too, that this is a very big deal.)  On my first example, with apparently vague locutions ("scaggling", "jaggling") we get exactly the intended result, and this too with a conservation of language (how simple and elegant that two verbs should be bi-definitional, while neither really has a definition in the context (which would, alas, simply be more words), and that each is adequately defined by the other by simple assertion).  In contrast, from the most specific language we can formulate (namely, that of modern mathematics), the vaguest and most impossibly non-predictive results seem to flow, as in with the description of a chaotic system, where most of the "meaning" of the system is given precisely by its inability to be so rendered comprehensible or predictable or precise.  It should be obvious then that there's no necessary connection between precise language and precise results; or, that the goal of making our language "more precise" by making it more mathematical or specific does not entail much about its referents (if by "entail" we mean that the precision from the expression transfers to the referent somehow, "cleaning it up."  This is a simple and very silly notion).

What I'm saying is that, to nature, the chaotic system may simply be scaggling and jaggling along.