Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What is the Only Thing You Can Know For Certain?

Descartes:  Second Meditation

     Lets very briefly recap the 1st meditation.  Descartes says that if we really think about it, pretty much everything we know can be called into doubt.  Knowledge is typically viewed as what we learn from experience but everything we experience when we (think we) are awake is exactly the same as what we experience when we are dreaming.  So how can we be sure we are not dreaming?  Also, how do we know that all the images we have in our mind aren't being magically placed in us by some uber powerful evil demon or machine whose sole purpose is to deceive us.  We can never get out of our own minds the verify the source of what comes in.  Thus we should conclude that there is nothing we can truly know...Or is is there?  Oh snap! Bring it Descartes!

Argument for Existence and Kind
      Suppose, unbeknownst to me, a thought is implanted in my mind with a mico-chip with nano-sharks with lasers on their heads, what could I know from this?  If unbeknownst to me I'm dreaming about eating all-u-can-eat sushi on cheat day, what could I know from this?  Suppose unbeknownst to me there was the most cunning of deceiver in the wooooooooooooorld implanting all matter of hogwash in my mind, what could I know from this?  Suppose unknownst to me sweet baby Jesus himself  personally implants thoughts in my head, what could I know from this?  From these exact examples, Descartes comes to his famous conclusion that there are only two things that he can know beyond any doubt: First, he exists ("I am").  If he didn't exist he couldn't have any thoughts running through his pointy head--deceptive or otherwise.  Second, he is a thing that thinks ("I am a thinking thing"), i.e., that has thoughts.
      But what is a thing that thinks?  It is a thing that "doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perception".  The last two qualities are of interest because they come up later. 
       From this point the rest of the project of The Meditations is to logically derive the world as we know it from these foundational pieces of knowledge...sort of.  Lets continue...

The World Famous Wax Argument: Hinting at "Substance" and Further Evidence of Existence
    In the world famous wax argument Descartes hints at an argument for a metaphysics has has only 2 types of substances "mind" and body"; and he uses "clear and distinct" perception as a further argument for his own existence.  The arguments are intertwined and they go a little something like this...
     Imagine before you there is a piece of wax, better yet, imagine yourself going to the beehive in your garden to get some.  I say "imagine" a piece of wax because Descartes still isn't in a position to say there are physical things.  He only knows what is in his mind.  
     Notice the qualities the wax has, such as a scent, colour, shape, size.  Is the aggregate of set of these properties what it is for something to be wax?  Possibly.  But wait!  As I bring a flame close to the wax its scent changes; its state changes from solid to liquid; the shape changes, and so on.  Is this no longer wax before me?  Alas I am confused!  I was certain the initial properties which that wax possessed when I first lovingly rolled it between my palms were the set of properties that identified the wax as wax.  Now, my world is shaken, my life in disarray...for is this not still the same wax that I began with?
     Maybe the wax is not defined by the set of those properties which I perceived.  Maybe the wax is something more basic. Here Descartes begins to argue for the notion of "substance".  All things are constituted of a basic substance, in which the properties (i.e. "modes") of an individual thing inhere.  These properties cannot exist apart from this basic form of existence called "substance".  He will elaborate on this later but for now it is sufficient to say that for Descartes to are only 2 kinds of substance, Mind and Body, and the idea that humans magically combine these two substances is the foundation of (Cartesian) Dualism.  
     As a historical note, this also marked a change in the Christian understanding of the notion of "soul".  Prior to Descartes the soul arose out of "body" in humans, that is to say the soul was a consequence of the "humanness" of our physical form.  Consequentially, prior to Descartes, in Christianity the soul could not exist without a body (but now it can! Magic!)
     Lets return to the argument--which at this point shifts its focus back to further demonstrating the certainty Descartes existence as a Mind...So, if we strip away those initial qualities (scent, shape, size, weight, colour, etc...), what are we left with?  Something that is extended, flexible, and changeable.  Flexible and changeable means that it is capable of assuming and changing into more shapes that my imagination can fathom, thus it cannot be the faculty of my imagination that gives me the comprehension of the wax. What does it mean the the wax is extended?  When the wax is warmed from freezing to room temperature it expands.   When it is warmed from room temperature to its melting point, it expands further, and so on.  Once again, my imagination cannot fathom all the wax's degrees of contraction and expansion--i.e., the degree to which it is extended, therefore it cannot be my faculty of imagination but something else that accounts for my comprehension of the wax.
     So what faculty is it that allows us to understand what it is that truly constitutes wax?  It is the mind.  It is the mind that perceives the wax. (Who needs eyeballs when you have a mind?).  The mind allows us to understand that the wax is not simply the sum of its color, immediate shape, smell, texture, and so on.  The mind gives us insight into the qualities that are permanent to the wax regardless of conditions.  From this Descartes concludes that when we try to understand something with our mind we are using a faculty beyond the senses and imagination; that is to say we only truly perceive bodies though understanding them, which only comes through the intellect (i.e. mind).  
     Also, by concentrating his intellect on the wax (whether it was real or not) gives Descartes further evidence that he exists and that he is a thinking thing, because when he perceives the wax in his mind, only something that exists could have this experience, and the fact that he's thinking about the wax is evidence that he thinks...duh! ...or he thinks he thinks...
     A problem that Descartes runs into is that if thoughts are being fed to him maybe all that he can really say is that he is a thing that is aware of thoughts.  There is no real way for him to know if they are his own.  He can counter two ways: 1) He can say hat he can sometime control what he thinks about like if he decides to think about monkeys--he can.  But what if the evil genius knows what Descartes wants to think and feeds him those thoughts.  Now Descartes thinks the thoughts are his but in fact the evil genius created them, and Descartes is only aware of them.  2)  He can say that regardless of the origin of his thoughts it is his mind that is having them.  It wouldn't make sense to say, "I had a thought but it wasn't mine".  I think that we can partially concede 2 but Descartes is might have to compromise too.  I think Descartes will have to relegate his assertion about thoughts to a more passive "I am a thing that has thought" vs. the active "I am a thing that thinks".  It seems to me that implicit in the latter assertion is the notion of the thoughts originating in the mind of the perceiver--but that's just me!
     This idea of Descartes' that we don't simply perceive objects through the senses and/or imagination but also directly through the intellect is kind of wacky, but I think the argument could be made that there are modern day followers of this idea in the direct realist camp.

Shoot! I forgot to put my laundry in the dryer!  Goodnight!

Monday, August 29, 2011

If You Were Purely Rational, How Would You Behave?

Chapter 2
How Can We Discover A Moral Law?
     One of the overarching goals of Kant's Metaphysic of Morals is that there is a moral law that all rational beings ought to follow--even when they are tempted to do otherwise.  The problem is, how do we discover such a law, if one even exists?  One possible way is to observe behaviour: we put on our lab coats, get out our beakers and Bunsen burners and start making observations.  But this method will not get us far because observing what people actually do doesn't tell us what they ought to do.  As Hume famously wrote (prior to Kant), "you can't derive an ought from an is".  

What Makes an Action Moral?
     Even if the subjects in our experiments are acting according to the moral law, there is no way for us to know if it is purely by chance or if their motives are selfish or pure, and thus if their actions are moral.  Let me elaborate.  For Kant an action is only moral if it is done out of duty.  If we act because of self-interest or "inclination" (emotional impulse like sympathy or character) this is not a moral act even if it happens to be in accordance with the moral law.  An act is only moral so long as it is done out of duty.  Also, recall back in Chapter 1 Kant begins by asserting that the only unconditional good is the intention to do good.  I'm not quite sure exactly how this ties into this but it seems related.  
     So back to our moral observations...When observing people in action there is no way for us to know if they are acting out of self-interest or inclination or duty--i.e., their intent.  It just might be that the course of action dictated by the hypothetical moral law is also in the best interest of a subject.  
     For example, I'm driving down the road and I see Warren Buffet pulled over at the side with a flat tire.  I pull over and help him.  Maybe I helped him because I sought a reward, and having recognized Warren for who he is I pulled over to help--anticipating a nice reward.  On the other hand, maybe it's in my character to feel sympathy for those who appear to be suffering misfortune--perhaps it was this feeling that compelled me to pull over.  On the third hand, maybe I am aware of a moral law that dictates I help those in need.  It is a huge inconvenience for me to pull over but I am compelled out of duty to do so.   For Kant, it is only moral in the third case, when (as a rational agent) I act out of duty.
    How could an observer possibly untangle the many possible of motives?  So it seems that even if an individual is following a moral law we cannot discern from their actions if their actions are in fact moral.
     A further problem for us, as moral empirical scientists, is that it is impossible for us to extrapolate what moral law is being followed.  In the flat tire example, maybe I'm acting out of duty to follow a maxim that is "always help old men with flat tires".  Or maybe I'm acting on, "Always help old men with flat tires but not young men".  Or maybe I'm acting on, "Always help heterosexual old men in red cars".  The problem--amongst those previously mentioned--is we cannot derive a general rule from a particular instance.  So in short, we will never be able to discover any general moral laws based on observing what people do.

     So, if we can't observe the moral law, perhaps we are on a fools errand.  How do we even know there is one to begin with?  Lets recap what we have so far, including the previous posts (cuz my heads starting to swim):
1.  Nature is purposive.  Applied to us that is to say, all organs and faculties function for a specific purpose. 
2.  Nature has endowed us with the faculty of reason, and by (1.) our reason has a purpose.
3.  The purpose of our reason could not be to seek pleasure/happiness because instinct is much better suited to that purpose.
4.   Thus by (3.) the purpose of our reason must be to pursue to moral good; that is to act morally, by discovering and acting on the moral law (as our duty).
5.  It is possible that a moral law exists because it exists in us as an Idea, i.e. we all have a concept of moral law.
6.  This moral law is not discoverable to us though empirical observation.
7.  Therefore, if it exists, it is a priori (i.e., basically means "hardwired into us") and we can only discover it through application of reason.

Phew!  So much going on at once!  It's hard to keep everything straight!
...moving on...

Necessary Conditions For a Moral Law
      Suppose that we know that there is a moral law.  What would it look like?  Kant says that if a purely rational creature followed the moral law, the resulting application of the rule would never lead to a world with contradictions.  Kant uses the example of someone who contemplates lying..and decides to do it.  By applying the categorical imperative we universalize the action into a law.  Remember that we should only act in such a way as though we wished our action should become a universal moral law.  So now we live in a world were everybody ought to lie.  In such a world there is no way to determine truth.  After a while there would be no compelling reason to suspect anyone was telling the truth so if someone was telling the truth you'd assume it was a lie.   If true statements are treated as false statements, there is a contradiction; so, we must reject lying, because universalizing this behaviour as a law with lead to a contradictory state of affairs.
     The standard objection to this is we can narrow the scope of the universal law.  For example I can say "you should never lie unless you are in the situation x".  Kant might reply that this might still eventually lead to a contradictory state of affairs.  Hmmm, I'll have to think about it more.

Hypothetical vs Unconditional Imperatives
     Kant distinguishes between 3 types of imperatives: skill/useful, prudent, and unconditional.  The first 2 are hypothetical.  That is to say they take the form "if x then y".  They are imperatives that are directed at an end.  An example of the first type might be "if I want to have money, I ought to open many philosophy shops".  The second hypothetical, "prudent", is a hypothetical that is aimed at what any rational agent would want by his nature, i.e., happiness.  For example, "if I want happiness I ought to get a job teaching philosophy".  Finally, the third imperative is unconditional.  For example, "don't kill."  The imperative directs us toward an action that is good in itself and not conditional upon an outcome.  Kant says only imperatives of the 3rd kind are binding.

Work for Kant
      Central to all of Kant's philosophy are the notions of analytic and synthetic.  There are several meanings to these words depending on context but for this context Kant tells us that analytic means the predicate is contained in the subject.  In English that means "what we know about the subject is contained the subject", or "true by definition".  To use a war worn example, "All bachelors are unmarried man".  Contained in the subject "bachelors" is the predicate "are unmarried men".  A synthetic statement is one where the predicate is not contained in the subject, e.g., "all bachelors like ice cream".  Nowhere in the concept of the subject "bachelors" is the concept of "like ice cream".  
     So what does all this technical stuff have to do with the categorical imperative and the moral law?  He wants to say of the first 2 types of imperatives (of hypothetical variety) that it is analytic that any rational person who desires an end also desires the means to that end.  Basically, you can't rationally want something and not want the means to achieving it.   I'm not sure I agree with this.  I want to be King of the Wooooooooooooooooooooooooorld, but I don't want to kill all the heads of state (i.e. the means) to accomplish it.  Blood make me woozy.  Maybe I'm misunderstanding him here because this seems like an obvious problem.  But, his categorical imperative doesn't rely on any of this so maybe it doesn't matter.
     So what does matter?  Well he goes on to say that the 3rd type of imperatives, those of the unconditionally variety are synthetic.  That is to say, it is not by definition that all rational agents would necessarily act in a certain way.  This is an important and interesting concession by Kant.  Obviously, he has plans for later to prove that all perfectly rational agent would in fact act according to the same moral laws but for the moment he admits this will take some work.  
     I think it could be convincingly argued that a perfectly rational being would act in his self-interest.  But Kant's done something clever to block this line of argument (if we accept all his premises as true).   Remember that he said a perfectly rational being would never act in such a way that if his/her behaviour were universalized that it would lead to a world with contradiction.  That clever bastard!  I think I just figured out why he put that in there!
Problem For Kant?
     I'm not sure but I think there is a weakness with Kant's notion that we should ground all morals in the framework of the categorical imperative.  It think in some cases it provides a good guide to action but I think it's scope is more narrow that Kant anticipates.   
     Here's a counter example I came up with:  Suppose one wants to know how to best raise their children and can't decide whether spanking should be employed as a means of discipline.   According to Kant all moral maxims won't lead to contradictory states of affairs.  A parent can choose either position but no logical contradiction will result so, by Kant's framework he has nothing to say on the matter.  Nevertheless, I think some people might put forward the argument that spanking children is a moral issue.  I suppose Kant can reply that his theory isn't designed to handle every moral issue.  But it seems that I could come up with more examples of moral issues than not for which Kant cannot provide guidance.  As I think about it, the area that falls outside of the purview of Kant's theory has to do with moral decisions that involve value judgments.   

Ok, that only took 2 hours longer than I thought...
It's 5am and I can't even see straight anymore...I'll proof read this later...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Problems With The Golden Rule and Scantily Clad Women

Unfinished Business (Sounds like a bad 80s action movie...)
    Before I continue with Kant I realised I forgot to make an important point in the previous post.  It has to do with Kant's formulation of the "golden rule" (the categorical imperative--in philoso-speak) versus other past formulations, such as "do unto others as you'd have done unto you".   The obvious question that arises is, why is Kant so great if he's just repeating what has been around for thousands of years? 
      There are two main reasons:  First, Kant doesn't just put the idea forward as a naked assertion, he spends a whole book demonstrating, rationally, how he gets to this conclusion.  In philosophy, an argument doesn't stand just because it sounds like a good idea, thereby causing us to stoke our beards in agreement.  The truth of any assertion must be demonstrated through arguments--preferably rational and logical.   The second reason for which the Kantian formulation is an improvement is that is solves the problems inherent in the more common formulations.
     Lets take a look at the typical formulation to uncover the problem.  "Do unto others as you would have done unto you".  The problem is there is an implicit assumption that we all want to be treated the same way.  For example, suppose I like to be flocked by scantily clad women (just a hypothetical example) so in the spirit of the golden rule I send over a group of scantily clad women to my happily married friend's house during a family dinner.  Chances are he isn't going to be too pleased with me.  Lets try another example, this one real.  When I was a competitive wrestler I liked my coach to be really hard on me and demand excellence.  Later when I coached wrestling I found not everyone liked being treated that way.  When I ran my practice the way I liked to be coached some kids left my class crying and didn't come back (crybabys!--jk!...lol!).  So we can see that the problems with the common formulation of the golden rule are that it implies that everyone likes to be treated the same as us and we should formulate our rules based on what we want.
     Now lets look at Kant's formulation and see how it deals with this problem.  "I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law".  What Kant's formulation does is remove the emphasis on what the agent would want in a single act to what would be a good universal law for all.  This change forces the agent to think about if his specific action (or principle by which he acts) would be a good universal law for everyone to follow. 
     Lets look at the wrestling example to see Kant in action.  Under the old formulation when I was deliberating on how I wanted to run my class my line of reasoning went something like this, "I like it when my coach is hard on me, so I'm going to apply that method to everyone else".  Conversely, when I apply the Kantian model to the same situation my reasoning goes like this, "What would be a good universal rule governing how I coach, applicable to everyone, knowing that not everyone is the same as me".  I might not be able to come up with something as specific as in the first case but I would probably come up with something like, "the way I coach will be governed by the principle that I will find and use the approach that best produces excellence from each student".  So maybe I don't end up with a simple obvious rule but who says it should be?  The important thing is now whenever I have a coaching methodology decision to make, for guidance I can refer back to my universalized maxim.    
     So, going back to why Kant is considered so important in the history of ethics we can see that one of the reasons is that he came up with a founding moral principle, or maxim which we can refer back to in all ethical quandaries.  Related to this we see that from his formulation we shift the frame of reference from individual desires to universal good; and we can derive other moral principles to govern more specific situations (eg. how to coach a kids' wrestling class).  Finally, he doesn't just pull this over arching principle from his ass, he spends a book providing arguments for it...which I will address in later posts (when I read them!).

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Kant, Libertarians, and The Bible, Oh, My!

     There are several philosophers that are notoriously difficult to interpret--one of the guys that falls squarely in that category is Immauel Kant.  His name strikes fear into philosophy students around the woooooorld.   Being the glutton for punishment that I am I decided to take the Kant seminar that is being offered at U of H.  Truth be told, I don't think anyone can call themselves a philosopher without having engaged in a few wrestling matches with Kant...so lets make wrestle!  
     Kant is best known for his ground breaking work in ethics and epistemology.  Within the realm of epistemology his "Critique of Pure Reason" attempted to reconcile rationalism with empiricism.  In "The Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals" he most famously revealed the "categorical imperative" (more on that later).  Anyhow, the seminar I'm taking is focused on Kantian ethics and so I'm going to try to break it down to y'all in an attempt to understand it myself...

Overview of Ethics

     Ethics is essentially the study of the rules or principles (or both) by which we should govern our actions.  We can roughly divide these rules or principles into those concerning actions that only affect myself and actions that will affect others.  Another way to state it would be to ask, what are my responsibilities/duties to myself? and (as a member of a group/community/city/country) what are my responsibilities/duties to others?  Of course if you are a Libertarian the answer to the second question is simple--"none".
     Continuing with our categorization we generally contrast Kant's ethics with what is called consequentialist ethics.  Not surprisingly, consequentialist ethics is the position that the moral goodness of an action is determined by its...consequences.  The most famous brand of consequentialist ethics is Utililitarianism, which is the idea that given a choice between different courses of action we should choose the one that leads to the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.   Sounds reasonable enough, right? Kant disagrees.  He argues that the moral good of an action is not measured by its consequences but by the intention of the actor. 
     Lets pause for a second and look at some examples to see these principles at work.  It's pretty simple to construct examples that support both cases so lets consider some examples where the answer is not so clear.  Here's an example that questions utilitarianism:  suppose you're really angry at your friend and while he's sleeping you fill a pillowcase full of bars of soap then beat the crap out of him (bad intention).  At the hospital he meets the love of his life with whom he collaborates in a research project and cures cancer.  If you hadn't beat the crap out of your friend none of these good things would have ever happened.  Can we still say that just because the consequences of your action your action was morally good?  Most people would have a problem agreeing with this position; most would say that the ill intent is a relevant factor in evaluating the morality of the action. 
     Lets look at a counter example of Kant's ethics:  Suppose you, by pure luck, happen to be part of the one. true. religion (add reverb).  In order to save the rest of the world from eternal damnation you travel to the far corners of the earth (the earth is a 6000-year-old square).  Unbeknownst to you, you carry an airborn infectious disease to which these other people have no immunity...and they all die horrible, painful deaths (they die the death).  Sadly, they died the death before you could learn their language well enough to teach them the one true religion (you only managed to learn their word for rabbit: gavagai and you're not even sure if that's what it means).  Can we say your action was good even though you just wiped out entire peoples?  Should we not factor in the consequences of your actions? To your credit your good intentions did help pave a certain road...(Full disclosure: I stole that line from Mark Crislip).
     I know that there are probably better examples out there to illustrate the point, but hopefully I've made it apparent that if you dogmatically cling to one position or the other you will quickly find yourself in a difficult position.

So...What did Kant Say and Why? And What this Categorical Imperative All About?

The Groundwork of a Metaphysic of Morals Ch. 1

Arg. 1:  Argument for the Unconditionality of a Good Will.   
      Kant begins with the reasonable assertion that the only thing that is unconditionally good is a good intention.  (Can you have a bad good intention? Me thinks not).  There can be other goods like some consequences but consequences are conditional, that is to say depending upon circumstances, the same consequence can be good or bad.  A good intention can never be bad even if something goes awry.  Even if, despite someone's good intentions, we all go to hell in a handbasket, we can still refer back to the intention and say, "but he meant well!"  The essential point is that the goodness of an intention is preserved regardless of how things play out.

Arg. 2:  The Function of Reason in Action
     1a.  Every organ has a function.  1b.  Every organ is well suited to its function 2.  The function of the mind (Reason) is to govern action.  3.  A well adapted mind (Reason) functions to create a will that is good in itself.  
     Assessment: An obvious objection to this is that we could argue the mind is best adapted for survival not for moral good.  Kant might reply that this is the role of instinct.  What separates us from animals in the faculty of Reason (he capitalizes it) and it should be employed to elevate our behaviour over that base animals otherwise, what's the point of possessing it?

Arg 3:  A Morally Praiseworthy Act is on Done out of Duty
     Basically we can act out of 3 basic impulses, self interest, inclination, and duty.  An act out of self interest isn't morally praiseworthy...well, this one's obvious--again, unless you're a Libertarian.  Acts that fall under this category include "doing the right thing" because of threat of punishment, it will advance your interest in some way, or because it'll make you look good.  The second category is "inclination".  Acts that fall under this category include acts out of sympathy or generosity.  You are acting because you have an emotional inclination toward an action.  It requires little effort and to act in such a way is part of your character.  This does not imply your action is not praiseworthy, it simply isn't morallymorally praiseworthy because it is above self interest and inclination.  It is done simply because it is the morally correct thing to do--regardless of consequences to you or how you feel about it.  To rephrase the issue, we should not act in order to achieve some consequence but we should act because it is simply the right thing to do. praiseworthy.  Finally, an act out of duty is considered
     It think there's something to what Kant is saying here, especially if we assume that the measure of morality is contained in the intention of an act.  Of course if we consider consequences it gets more complicated as my earlier examples suggested.  There is also the matter of agreeing on what one's duties are.  Consider fundamentalist Christians.  They think it's their duty to "save" homosexicles.  Kant could argue that some do it to derive a result, thus it is not duty.  But I think a case could be make that at least some just think it's the right thing to do, that is to say, their duty.  
     Kant's also going to have some problems if we don't agree on how we weigh obligations to ourselves versus obligations to others (not to mention competing mutually exclusive obligations to others).  If "duty" compels me to act in a way that will ruin my life the hypothetical action my not be advisable.  What if a duty is to "always save a drowning child".  As luck would have it I see a child drowning in the river.  I realize that I can save the child but I will be washed over a waterfall and dashed upon the laser-firing rocks below.  I also know I'll survive but will be a paraplegic after the fall.  Does my duty to myself outweigh the duty to the drowning child?  How about if I knew that I'd only be paralyzed from the waist down?  And is it even moral to knowingly mess up our own lives even if it's in an attempt to act out of duty? Kant doesn't say that we should never consider our own happiness, only that our obligation to duty should take precedence.  In fact, he says, we have an indirect moral duty to seek our own happiness.
     In defense of Kant, his project in "Groundwork" isn't to provide a comprehensive guide to applied ethics, rather to provide a...groundwork to how we should judge/measure the morality of an act. 
Arg. 3:  The Categorical Imperative, and Why Kant is Jesus
     The Categorical Imperative is the first formulation of the ethical law for which Kant is famous. This is basically the negative formulation of "the golden rule".  Here it is.  Brace yourself.  "I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law".  The basic idea is that whenever you are faced with an ethical dilemma you should ask yourself the following, "would I want it to be a universal rule that everyone who encounters my similar circumstances should act the same?"  
     Here's an example:  Suppose you're late for an appointment and if you don't call with some excuse you'll have to wait another week to reschedule...so you make up a little white lie and you get slotted in when you arrive.  Here's the problem, you wrote on facebook that whatever you do should be a universal maxim.  Word gets out that you have decreed this behaviour ok, and you get over 10 000 "likes" and many encouraging comments.  But now every customer of yours (who are on your facebook page) is coming late to appointments and telling white lies to not get rescheduled.  And your brother's customers are doing it to him.  Apoo's co-worker at Qwiki mart is doing the same.  Now that everyone knows it's ok to tell a white lie if you're late, everyone's doing it and it's reeking havoc on everyone's schedule.
     Anyway, I kind of like the categorical imperative at a guiding principle.  There can be some problems with it if the rule gets too specific, for example, "Nobody should rob banks unless they were born in Scotland, raised in Vancouver, live in Houston, and study philosophy." 

A Couple of Interesting Facts About the Golden Rule.
      Ok, lets just get this part out of the way first:  JESUS DID NOT INVENT IT!!!  Ok, moving on.  It is hypothesized that the first person to call it "The Golden Rule" (positive formulation) was Confucius who also wrote what he called "The Silver Rule"(negative formulation).  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, before SBJ said it, it was in the Torah in Leviticus 19:18 "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk.  Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD." (That God! He can't just leave it at "Love your neighbour...." you gotta throw in the "I am your LORD"...Is someone feeling neglected?)  
     So obviously, the Golden Rule originated in the Hebrew bible because nobody else in that area came up with that idea...oh wait...in Egypt, in the story of "The Eloquent Peasant" from 2040 BCE-1650 BCE there's this, ""Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you."  But the Jews were never in Egypt...oh..wait.  Ok, but not back then....oh...wait...From a papyrus found in Egypt dated 664 BCE- 323 BCE, "That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another."  Ancient Greece anyone?  "Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him." Pittacus 640 BCE- 568 BCE.  As for Buddhism, the list is too long.
     Anyway, seems like I'm straying off topic.  Oh my lord! It's 4 in the AM! No wonder my mind is wandering...good night! 


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Descartes and the Origins of "The Matrix" and "Inception"

Hey y'all, I thought I'd do my best to lure in the non-philosophy types in an attempt to help you get your Descartes on.  I'm doing a course on 17th Century philosophy and the first guy we're studying is Descartes.  A couple little facts on the fah-zhah of modern philosophy:  1.  He was primarily interested in the limits of scientific knowledge (he was a scientist) and 2.  while lying sick in bed he devised the xy axis/quadrant system.  Apparently he came up with the idea because he wanted to mathematically locate a fly that was on the ceiling--he was bored (Descartes, that is!).  Third, although there are several conspiracy theories about his death, the most accepted account is that he died of pneumonia because the queen of Sweden made him get up super early every morning to tutor her (he was accustomed to working in bed until noon--I'm following in his footsteps!).  Lastly, but unbeknownst to many, his famous "Meditations" were the origin of "The Matrix" and "Inception".

    The structure of Descartes meditations is to begin with the most skeptical position possible and try rebuild our (scientific) knowledge from only what we can know for certain.  In doing my rereading I found it interesting that Descartes makes it clear that his project is specific to scientific knowledge (I don't think I noticed this when I read it in undergrad).  A couple of philoso-facts/philoso-terms.  Descartes was a rationalist which is to say that he thought that we can only acquire "true" knowledge of the external world through internal reflection (to discover fundamental truths) and application of the rules of logic.  In essence, since our senses are untrustworthy, we should instead rely on introspection and reason.  Second, Descartes was a foundationalist--in other words he believed that the structure of all we know is built up from foundational premises or truths.  All knowledge beyond the foundational is derived through rules of logic.

     Meditation 1
The main theme of the first meditation is to employ skepticism to all we know to demonstrate how little we can actually be sure of.  The arguments go a little something like this:
Arg 1 and Method:  As an adult he realized that some of the things that he had believed to be true as a child were in fact false and the edifice of knowledge that had been built upon these believes was subsequently weakened or destroyed.  How can we be sure that there still aren't more undiscovered false beliefs upon which we rely?  Descartes decides it's time to reevaluate everything he knows.  Of course it would be impossible and tiresome to go through piecemeal each belief we hold; instead he decides to examine the foundational beliefs upon which they are all supported.

Arg 2A, The (World) Famous "Dream Argument" (can you find the seed of the blockbuster movies?):  Most of what we believe is knowledge that is derived from the senses.  The senses are known to deceive, so perhaps I should question all beliefs that are acquired through experience.  Of course one would be to maaaaad! maaaaad! I tell you! to actually question that the hands and arms I see with mine own two eyes are not mine own hands and arms...or would they?  Isn't the experience of having hands and arms as we type away on facebook exactly the same as if we were dreaming of typing witty retorts and profile updates?  We have all experienced dreams that while they were happening were indistinguishable from reality.  And yet, I did not make those witty facebook retorts, and I did not make those witty profile updates.  Perhaps I have no hands and arms at all, but in their stead I have long purple tentacles with suction cups....muahahahah!  Or for another totally random example, (just making this up off the top of my head) perhaps it's my job to enter peoples dreams and plant ideas in their minds so they think it's their idea.  Then one day I start dreaming inside dreams...like 4 deep!  And my wife gets confused and thinks she's in a dream but she's not.  Then I don't know if I'm in a dream that's in another dream or in reality either.  Then I spin some top thing and it starts to wobble...
     Ok, settle down.  Perhaps we don't know whether I have hands or tentacles but we can still reason that there are certain simple universal qualities that exist.  Representations of reality are all based on reality, no matter how distorted they are.  Nothing is imagined/dreamed that doesn't exist in some sense.  So, regardless of whether my purple tentacles and round suction cups are from a dream or for realz we can all agree that the color purple exists, and things of corporeal nature have the universal qualities of extension and shape.  So too with quantity and size, duration of existence, and the existence of the space that a body occupies.  Perhaps knowledge that deals with universals is a stable foundation upon which to build.  For example, whether I am dreaming or not, 2+3=5, and a square has 4 sides.
    Note for the following section:  Descartes was a strong Catholic and owning to this and the time in history at which he lived, the notion of no creator god (regardless of temperament) was inconceivable.
     He argues, how do I know that god, who created me, maybe didn't actually create a world, space, time, shape, yet made all these things appear to me as in a dream?  Maybe these universal qualities of things don't actually exist in a physical sense, maybe they are all ideas with which god fills my silly little head.   Another problem with ascertaining the certainty of knowledge he notes is that sometimes people make mistakes.  Sometimes people make arithmatic errors and say the 2+3=6.  How do I know that I am not making mistakes too?  Maybe there's a short circuit in my brain that makes me think squares have 5 sides.
    Some might reply that god is supremely good and so would not deceive us; but the fact that he created us in a way such that we are sometimes deceived indicates that we should not hold this belief to be self evident (I think at this point in history Descartes was taking a big risk even postulating this hypothetical argument.  Then he comes back to rescue himself for the stake).  "Perhaps there may be some who would prefer to deny the existence of so powerful a god [...] let us grant that everything said about god is a fiction.  According to their supposition, then, I have arrived at my present state by fate or chance or a continuous chain of events [...] the less likely they make my original cause, the more likely it is I am so imperfect as to be deceived all the time."  
     Basically, the less power and goodness we ascribe to a creator god, the greater will be our imperfections and the stronger will be Descartes argument for the unreliability of sensory information.  Of course Descartes didn't realize that indeed we did "arrive at [our] present state by a continuous chain of event" but, as I'm learning, neither do a lot of Americans...God not withstanding, I think we can acknowledge Descartes point that sensory information is unreliable.

Arg 2B:  The (World) Famous "Evil Demon Argument" (Fun Activity! Find the seed of the blockbuster movies! Yay!)  Lets pretend that everything you perceive is false.  That a "malicious demon of the utmost cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive [you]".   Er'thing you see, the sky, the compooter, my purple tentacles, and my herculean muscles, and chiseled features are all "delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare [your] judgment".   
     If this were the case, how could you distinguish the demon's manipulation of what you perceive from reality?  In the dream argument your "only" problem is to distinguish between a dream and reality.  Now, Descartes kicks it up a notch.  Pow! Not only are you not in control of what you perceive but the entity putting the perceptions in the "theatre of your mind" is deliberately trying to fool you into believing that what you see is reality.  Maybe the demon makes what you perceive so pleasurable that you don't even want to contemplate whether it's real and then he uses you as a battery to power his world.  But then some people figure it out and give you the choice of a blue or red pill (that's on page 17).  Sound like a few movies you might have watched?  Hmmm?  Hmmmmmmmmmm?  Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm? 

Ok, so it's 3am so I promised myself some sleep.  I'll do the 2nd Meditations next, that of the famous "I think, therefore I am".

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ramblings From "Texas, Yeah Texas" to Carnap

     Texas.  When this state is mentioned few people have neutral impressions.  For people that were born here I'm sure they imagine positive things like friendly people, bbq's, wholesome farm living, and sweet, sweet baby Jesus.  For those of us that grew up far from this mystical land we generally imagine negative things such as rednecks, over-consumption (of both food and petroleum products), religious fundamentalism, chewing tobacco, racism, and bigotry.   In my short time here (4 days) since Friday I have already experienced most items from both lists.  This isn't particularly surprising because like most places, Texas has both the good, the bad, and the ugly.
     Rather than focus on the negative I'd like to share a positive experience I had at a mega-walmart--everything IS bigger in Texas--from which I gained the insight that maybe I can be somewhat of a bigot too (gasp!)
     After an exasperating encounter with the student housing office of U of H which made Japanese bureaucracy seem intelligible, I resigned myself to the fact that I will not be able to move into my residence until Wednesday.  Of course the apt. was empty but don't get me started!  My plan was to go camping in Sam Houston National Forest until Wednesday.  The forest is only about 1.5 hours outside of Houston and I could spend some quality time alone in the wilderness before the madness of studying and TAing started.
    I had my camping gear with me as I had camped on the drive from Vegas to Houston but I needed to pick up some food and more propane and propane accessories.  I also thought that since I'd be camping near a lake I might buy an inflatable kayak if I could find one for a reasonable price.  When driving from Houston to the campground there is a town called Conroe through which you must pass.  I figured I'd stop at the Walmart there, since it was just off the freeway (I'd seen it on the way in) to pick up food and see if Walmart had a boat.
The parking lot is ONLY for Walmart

Walmart in Conroe, TX
Walmart had the paddles but had sold out of the boat.  As I was contemplating what I might do instead I noticed the fishing poles one row over.   I have a vague recollection of having fished when I was ten or something but I am by no means a seasoned fisherman.  "Hmmm..." I thought, "well, I'll be there for 5 days, if I can catch my own dinner it'll save me from having to make food runs and what's better that fresh fish? How hard can fishing be?"
     The guy working the sports and outdoors section was a big ol' Texas country boy.  I told him I was going camping for a few days and wanted to fish, could he advise me on what gear I should buy.  Well, let me tell you, if you think fishing is a simple matter of attaching a hook to a line on a pole you are wrong!  Depending where you are fishing and what you are fishing for you need to select the correct weights, lures, bait, floats, line, pole, cleaning kit, and net.
    Stop for a moment.  I am about to have my moment of insight.  I realize now that I was feeling pretty smug about myself ever since I got accepted into several schools with scholarship.  I don't think that smugness ever reached the point of arrogance but it was smugness nonetheless.  It wouldn't surprise me if most college grads feel a slight superiority over those who never finished, just as I'm sure many who finished high school might feel the same toward those who never finished.  Perhaps it's a normal feeling--those with a higher level of formal education feel, to varying degrees, superior to those below them.  Or maybe I'm just an asshole.
     Anyway, I asked this Texas country boy to help me "gear up" for fishing.  I explained to him that I was a total beginner and didn't have any idea what I was doing.  He was so excited to show me and explain to me all the intricacies of fishing.  He asked me my budget, what type of fish I wanted to catch, gave me technical advice, demonstrated how to tie the knots.  It was plainly obvious that if there were a graduate degree in fishing, this guy would have one.  But he did not take his position of superior knowledge to talk over my head, to condescend, or to show off his encyclopedic knowledge of fishing.  He answered my questions with kindness and with enthusiasm.  He never made me feel small for not knowing what is practically innate to him.  Particularly endearing was after completing every explanation he'd interject, "I love fishing....I really love fishing".
     I drew two main lessons from this exchange.  The first is obvious, that it is much more pleasant to learn from someone who doesn't speak down to you.  The second is that I should be more humble.  Perhaps I have more formal education than some but it does not mean I have more knowledge.  Perhaps the guy at Walmart's depth and breadth of knowledge of fishing far outstrips mine in philosophy--actually, I'm quite sure it does.  The knowledge I pursue just happens to be disseminated primarily in formal institutions.  His--not so much.  It is doubtful that where knowledge is obtained is relevant in ascribing value to it,  provided we are defining knowledge as "true justified belief".
     This brings up a philosophical issue:  Can we ascribe different values to different types of knowledge? Is my knowledge of philosophy more valuable than his knowledge of fishing, or vice versa?  Is an MBA more valuable than an MA? That is to say, is practical knowledge more valuable that theoretical knowledge?
     I'm not sure what the answer is but I think it might have something to do with the type of life one wants to lead and the degree to which that knowledge helps you pursue that life.  He enjoys a life of fishing and knowledge of fishing helps him successfully pursue this life.  I'm trying to pursue a life of a philosophy instructor, obviously studying philosophy helps me achieve success in this aim.
    But are there areas of knowledge that are universally beneficial, and if so, should we not ascribe more value to knowledge that has universal benefit?  I'd like to think that studying some philosophy can enrich everyone's life.  It is not domain specific.  Learning to think critically is an asset no matter what our specific field of interest.  On the other hand, I'm not sure everyone's life will be enriched if they learn the fundamentals of fishing.
    So where does this leave us?  It seems that there certainly are knowledge domains that universally improve our life quality, some practical, some theoretical.  For example, the practical knowledge of how to manage one's money will universally improve the quality of anyone's life.  Turning to theoretical knowledge, understanding something about ethics and concepts of justice, for example, can also universally improve people's lives.  Finally, there is the more specific type of knowledge, such as that which applies to fishing.  It is doubtful that this knowledge will universally enrich people's lives and so in a sense, is not equal to the aforementioned types of knowledge.
    Doh!  This is the problem with philosophy is no matter what I say, there is usually a counter-arguent.  So if I may play devil's advocate to my incoherent ramblings...: "So, what you're saying is we should ascribe value to types of knowledge based on the degree to which they have universal utility.  Can you provide an argument for this naked assumption?  What's wrong with knowledge for knowledge sake? Why does it have to be useful? Why not measure instead how much pleasure the knowledge brings?"
      My reply:  "Don't make me go all Carnap on your ass, cuz you know I will...Let us ascribe value to knowledge based on its fruitfulness in achieving the purpose for which it is intended; that is to say, if a particular area of knowledge is meant to bring about universal pleasure, we should value it to the degree to which it does so.  Conversely, if a branch of knowledge is meant to have utility, e.g. how to maintain basic hygiene, then let us measure it on those terms."
Carnap, I love you!

      Ok, I'm rambling too much.  Time for bed.  Thanks for reading guys and lemmi know what you think about how we should ascribe value to different types of knowledge.