Blueprints to the Universe
February 13, 2012

In which Slate pulls an old classic out of the archives of the now-defunct Lingua Franca magazine. The topic: an enigmatic millionaire and amateur philosopher who, under the pseudonym “A.M. Monius,” wrote an audacious metaphysical treatise called “Coming to Understanding.” From the article:

“Coming to Understanding” is a remarkable document. As Ermanno Bencivenga observes in his review, in its sheer temerity the work resembles such philosophical landmarks as René Descartes’s Meditations, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. (Bencivenga describes it as “a self-standing piece of reflection which asks to be judged on its own merit.”) With few citations and nary a footnote, the manuscript seeks to provide “a large-scale account of reality, its origin, purpose, and how it hangs together.” The questions it engages are grand: Does reality have a purpose? Why are things intelligible at all?

As a work of metaphysics, “Coming to Understanding” picks up where science leaves off. The purview of science is the world of “contingent beings”—things that might not have existed, or might have been otherwise, such as you, me, electrons, mountains, and the law of gravity. Science strives to explain the nature, properties, and causes of these contingent beings, which as a whole make up our physical reality.
But science does not and cannot explain why there are contingent beings in the first place. That is a question for metaphysics: Why do contingent beings exist? Or, put plainly, why is there something rather than nothing?

In answering that question, A.M. Monius laid out a new vision of the underlying architecture of reality:

“Coming to Understanding” proposes replacing the theists’ God with reality as a whole, or Being. It also advocates replacing God’s personal intention (that contingent beings come to love God) with an impersonal, fundamental good (that contingent beings come to understand the form of Being). Having made these substitutions, A.M. Monius reaches the following conclusion: “Contingent being exists for the sake of the coming to understanding of the form of Being Itself by contingent being.” In other words, “the central theme of the whole drama of reality” is that beings like you and me and A.M. Monius come to understand the purpose and structure of reality.

And as it happens, the purpose and structure of reality are precisely what A.M. Monius has on offer. In sophisticated detail, the last two-thirds of “Coming to Understanding” are devoted to a discussion of categories similar to Aristotle’s, such as the Universal, the Particular, the Spatio-temporal, and the Cognizable. A.M. Monius believes that these categories demarcate the fundamental types of Being and—in light of their interrelations—suggest the purpose of contingent being.

Silly? Maybe a little bit. But what makes A.M. Monius such an intriguing figure — both to myself and, I think, his critics in academia — is his ambition and fearlessness; his willingness to look silly for the sake of answering really big questions. If there are many contemporary analytic philosophers out there who share Monius’ temerity, I haven’t encountered them.* (That said, if you do know of any, please leave their names in the comments.) Maybe it took a precocious amateur to do what no sane, reputation-conscious academic would ever attempt.

I often miss these grand projects, unrepentant skeptic that I may be. Regardless of whether you think they describe anything true about the universe — regardless, in fact, of whether you believe there’s any such thing as a metaphysical fact — they at least give you a different lens through which to view the world. Think of it as accidental phenomenology.

*Some philosophy nerds would probably point to On What Matters, but Parfit’s subject matter there is limited to ethics.

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In academia is Pirsig's M.O.Q ignored, respected, or a joke?
November 7, 2010

Largely ignored, I think. I’ve certainly never heard it brought up by any academic philosophers, and from what little I know of it, I sincerely doubt it would be able to withstand the sort of rigorous scrutiny that academic philosophy demands.

UPDATE:

Over Twitter, Julian Sanchez adds:

@resnikoff sub-joke. Ppl mock Kenny G, not the tone-deaf kid in HS jazz band; why bother?

Wittgenblogging: The Third Proposition
October 17, 2010

Please read Peter’s thoughts on the second proposition. What he writes about the gestalt of knowledge is quite true, and I’ve found myself doing it a bit too. As Wittgenstein delves more into the philosophy of language—a subject I unwisely elected not to take in college, going for philosophy of mind instead—he loses me in a thicket of expressions, symbols, propositions, variable, propositional variables, and so on. But his thoughts on what can be understood and articulated—and therefore, for our purposes, exist—has been extremely helpful. I’m starting to embrace Wittgenstein’s view that what we call “metaphysics” is more a sort of confusion over what language is capable of expressing.

On that note, I found the first few passages in the third proposition a lot more engaging than the rest, which mostly concerned itself with the heavy-duty philosophy of language that is both beyond my ken and not directly relevant to my own philosophical project.

In the early going, Wittgenstein attempts to explain why, when discussing and describing things, we’re limited to discussing and describing them logically. That’s the sort of suggestion that’s bound to make a lot of people bristle; more than once I’ve heard proponents of mystical views about the universe defend these views by insisting that you can’t critique them logically, because they exist outside of logic. To which Wittgenstein says:

3. A logical picture of facts is a thought.

[…]

3.031 It used to be said that God could create anything except what would be contrary to the laws of logic. The truth is that we could not say what an ‘illogical’ world would look like.

3.032 It is as impossible to represent in language anything that ‘contradicts logic’ as it is in geometry to represent by its coordinations a figure that contradicts the laws of space, or to give the coordinates of a point that does not exist.

One obvious objection one might raise: People say illogical things all the time! It’s not very hard. For example, if I say, “Boris Yeltsin is the pineapple of my green space” (surely the first time that has ever been said), that seems, on the face of it, like an illogical proposition. But it also doesn’t really express anything, which is why you can’t form a mental picture of it. Now apply that same reasoning to a sentence like, “We are all one, because spirit is everything.” It sure sounds like that means something. Does it?

I’m curious to hear what Peter thinks about Wittgenstein’s definition of a “thought.” Surely his discipline—cognitive neuroscience—has a thing or two to say on the topic.

Wittgenblogging: The First Proposition
October 6, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein 2
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Just started last night on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which, as I mentioned before, Peter and I will be working through together in its entirety. So why should you non-philosophy majors care? Because Tractatus is one of the classics of the philosophy of language, seeking to, in the words of Wittgenstein (pictured), “Tractatus is intended to define the outer parameters of human inquiry, and expose why seemingly intractable philosophical problems are based on simple misunderstandings in “the logic of our language.”

He does this by building seven propositions on top of one another. In this post, we’ll look at the first one, which is, in its entirety:

1. The world is all that is the case.

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.

1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.

1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

1.2 The world divides into facts.

1.21 Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.

Seems relatively straightforward so far. The only assertion in this proposition that didn’t seem immediately obvious to me was 1.1—that the world is the totality of facts, not things. After a little work, though, I decided that Wittgenstein was correct.

I worked it out using the language of first-order logic (philosophy majors, it’s been almost a year since I’ve had to work in FOL, and it was my worst subject in the department, so feel free to check my work here). Basically, I conceived of a universe that is a 2 x 2 two-dimensional grid, on which there exist two three-dimensional objects: A and B. Both A and B are cubes of the same size. It looks a bit like this:

x         x

A         B

Where the x’s mean unoccupied squares on the grid.

So if we’re to think of this world as the totality of things, then you have basically described all there is to say about this world just by saying “A and B” (or, if you prefer, A ^ B). But that’s clearly not true. You can also say:

Cube(A)

Cube(B)

Adjoins(A, B)

SameRow(A, B)

LeftOf(A, B)

RightOf(B, A)

SameSize(A, B)

SameShape(A, B)

Only now have we exhausted all the facts about this world. Or maybe we haven’t—maybe we’ve just exhausted my limited FOL vocabulary. But even then, you get the point, which is that there are apparently a finite number of factual claims we can make about this world. Put all these claims together, and you have a complete picture of the world—far more complete than if you just listed the objets within it.

One more thing: 1.21 might seem incorrect based on the list of facts I’ve provided, but that’s only because there’s some overlap between a lot of these facts—many of them are different ways of expressing the same propositions, so of course making one of them not the case would render its cousin also not the case. If we were to make a list of facts that don’t overlap, then 1.21 is certainly correct.

Nietzsche Blogging: Twilight of the Idols
September 25, 2010

Gotzen-dammerung - The first edition cover of ...
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With the beginning of Twilight of the Idols, we move into late-era Nietzsche. Soon he’ll be swallowed up by insanity, and I think here is where the first warning signs appear. He’s still the Friedrich we know and love (or hate, or feel deeply ambivalent about), but something’s different. The wit and mockery on display here is a little more acidic. And Nietzsche is ripping into his fellow philosophers like we have never seen before.

I’m not that deep into Twilight of the Idols, but so far almost all of it seems given over to harsh criticism of different philosophical traditions. Platonic forms and Kantian idealism each get savaged as different incarnations of the same error, and Utilitarianism gets dismissed in a single snide comment. Not even Socrates escapes unscathed.

Here’s a passage from the essay, “The Problem of Socrates,” which I think gets at Nietzsche’s larger project in this work:

It is a self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists if they believe that they are extricating themselves from decadence when they merely wage war against it. Extrication lies beyond their strength: what they choose as a means, as salvation, is itself but another expression of decadence; they change its expression, but they do not get rid of decadence itself.

He is referring here to the Socratic method, and reasoning itself. It’s a jarring argument coming from the man who once held up reason as the only true path to the truth.

But I don’t think this is a contradiction so much as it is a summary of his whole project. Nietzsche is deeply passionate about reason as he sees it, not the idealism of prior philosophers. But perhaps more importantly, he’s an enemy of intellectual complacency and the self-assuredness he identifies as a symptom. Attacking the assumptions of even his own heroes is a way of fighting that good fight.

Why is Susan Blackmore Writing for The Stone?
August 22, 2010

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I guess we can blame Simon Critchley’s discerning taste again. But this is just silly. Where once we had philosophers writing about things that had nothing to do with philosophy, we have now devolved to work by non-philosophers about non-philosophy.

To be fair, I do think there is some food for thought in Blackmore’s work about the relation between memetic development and human evolution. And certainly the idea of memes being living, replicating, evolving organism carries a certain amount of metaphorical appeal. But to take this stuff seriously and worry about memes as some sort of predatory, parasitic threat is waaaay off the deep end. Certainly, it has no place on a blog ostensibly dedicated to philosophy.

For those who detect the faint but unmistakable reek of pseudoscience in Blackmore’s essay, it should come as no surprise that before she started in with all of this vaguely mystical sounding stuff about memes, the bulk of her scholarship was on the overtly mystical: i.e., psychic powers, near death experiences, so on. She’s since seen the, um, light on ESP and NDEs, but all this talk about “temes” is only one or two degrees removed.

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Different Direction?
June 6, 2010

I’ve been really pleased with the little following this blog has been gathering, and especially with the consistent quality of the comments and discussion threads. But it occurs to me that there are some long-term challenges built into the project I’m trying to work on here: I don’t want to spend all my time just re-articulating the positions of different academic philosophers, because that is

  • Kind of boring.
  • Something someone with an actual PhD in Philosophy is infinitely more qualified to do.
  • A project that has definite limits, in that I’m mostly working off what I learned in class and won’t necessarily have the time and academic support to consistently locate new material to explore in a meaningful way. And I don’t want to write stuff based on what I learned on Hegel’s Wikipedia page.

Besides, I want to demonstrate—as many times over as I can—why philosophical arguments aren’t just abstract meta-arguments. I want to show why this stuff (and by stuff I mean not just the content, but the fundamental method of philosophy) is alive, vital, and directly relevant to our engagement with the modern world.

So how would you guys feel if I pivoted to talking more about politics and culture from a philosophical perspective, and with frequent reference to what different prominent philosophers might have to say about it? Is that something you guys would want to read? Or should I just keep doing what I’ve been doing?

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Rights
May 25, 2010

Penguin English Library 0 14 043.195 0
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Reader lulwa asks:

Where does freedom of speach starts and where does it ends ?

Like with every question in philosophy, there’s no single question to this. A lot of philosophers would even reject the premise—when we talk about freedom of speech, we’re talking about a right, and there’s by no means anything approaching universal agreement that rights even exist.

The very notion of rights is actually a fairly recent innovation, one that has its roots in Enlightenment-era thought. I think the first mention of rights as a concept was made in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (first published in 1651), in which Hobbes suggests that we have natural rights which we forfeit to a supreme leader in exchange for protection and various other benefits.

Personally, I’m a fan of the concept of rights, largely because I don’t think you can have a functional democracy without them. But the argument for natural rights is pretty dubious. Very few proponents of rights would dispute the existence of a universal right to a fair trial, but I don’t think it’s coherent to argue that this is a right that exists outside of human law and society, or somehow prior to the existence of courts that can provide for a fair trial.

So my own view on rights is a form of constructivism, which is the metaethical view that certain ethical claims can be true or false, but that they’re true or false on terms constructed by human society. Rights exist because there is a framework for them to exist in, and they expand along with society’s capacity to accommodate for them.

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Philoblog
May 21, 2010

So I’m trying a new experiment: writing a blog aimed specifically at discussing hardcore academic philosophy in terms that won’t alienate non-academic philosophers. Or, as I put it at the end of the first post: “You are already a philosopher, and the reason why I started this blog is because I want to prove it to you.”

Go ahead and check it out. If you’re on Tumblr, give it a follow. Because I only have so much time that I’m willing to spend blogging indoors when there are things to be done that are either mandatory or outside among people, I’m putting this blog on hiatus for a little to focus on the other one.

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A Little Bit About the Who, What, and Why of this Blog
May 21, 2010

My name’s Ned. In a few weeks, I’m going to be graduating from NYU with a B.A. in Philosophy, and while I haven’t decided whether or not I’ll be pursuing a graduate degree in the field, I do know that my independent philosophical studies aren’t over.

I’m writing this blog partially as a forum for chewing over and discussing the discoveries I make. But more than that, it’s an attempt to present hardcore philosophy in a way that makes sense to smart people who lack a background in academic philosophy.

In the past I’ve looked for other blogs that do just that, but I haven’t been able to find any. Sadly, it seems that the vast majority of blogs out there about philosophy are for academic philosophers alone. It’s emblematic of what I think is a broader problem with the field: the failure of good philosophers to reach out and try to teach what they know.

Because, make no mistake, philosophy is good for you. Like a lot of things that are good for you, it can be aggravating in the short run—I could have saved myself a lot of headaches and prolonged fits of existential angst if I had gone with a History major—but the rewards are profound.

A solid education in philosophy breaks down some of your most fundamental beliefs. It’s not just that you know less than you thought you did; it’s that whether or not you can be said to even know anything is up for debate. Philosophy throws a thousand deeply important questions at you and then, when it comes time to give up the answers, shrugs and says, Well, we don’t really know yet. Here are a few possibilities.

That’s when the frustration and existential angst sets in. But while having so many of your most basic assumptions about the way the world works get knocked down can be devastating, it’s also freeing. Now that you know how little your beliefs rest on, you can discard them for better ones. You can build your own world of ideas to replace the one that was built for you.

Doing that is the project of becoming yourself. It’s a project without end, but it’s also one of the most important projects you can undertake. Philosophers and philosophy students spend their time studying the tools you can use to do this, but we’re needlessly stingy when it comes to sharing them. Too much of what’s come to be called “popular philosophy” is little more than self-help seminars dressed up in philosophical trappings. Or worse, it’s like Simon Critchley’s most recent piece for the Times, a smug, winking evasion that doesn’t bother challenging its readers with actual philosophy because—so goes the implicit assumption—they’re not smart enough for it.

I think that’s dead wrong. You are already a philosopher, and the reason why I started this blog is because I want to prove it to you.

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