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Wittgenblogging: The Sixth Proposition, Part 2
November 30, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein 2
Image by Christiaan Tonnis via Flickr

(Part 1 is here.)

Okay. So. In the last few pages of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein finally gets around to tying up some of the nagging loose ends. Stuff like ethics, aesthetics, God, life, and death. As far as the first three go, whether or not you think Wittgenstein believes they exist sort of depends on what you think “exists” means. Are they a part of the world? No. Do they interact directly with the world? No. (“God does not reveal himself in the world.”) However, they seem to interact in some with the will. (Which, itself, doesn’t really interact with the world except to the extent that it influences your body’s behavior. “[T]here is no logical connexion between the will and the world,” says Wittgenstein.)

That doesn’t mean that these matters are irrelevant. After all, the will — the self — is the “limit of the world,” as we discovered the last time around. What changes the limit of the world, Wittgenstein writes, makes it “an altogether different world. […] The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” This fits in with his earlier expressed affinity for solipsism, compounded when he says that, “at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end.”

So what are ethics and aesthetics, exactly? To Wittgenstein, they’re transcendental properties that are “higher” than logical propositions. That’s why neither ethics nor aesthetics can actually be put into words or logical propositions. It’s also worth noting Wittgenstein’s construction of how good is good and bad is bad: “There must indeed be some kind of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but they must reside in the action itself.” Skepticism of the existence of God or ethical laws is “nonsensical,” because “it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked.” Asking a question requires being able to formulate a proposition.

For Wittgenstein, that’s pretty much it. There is no discussion to be had about the nature of God, or beauty, or right and wrong. And that’s where I hesitate to jump aboard. It seems to me that these things aren’t so much transcendental properties that act upon the self as properties of the self. We build them as much as they build us, and as such it is within our power to change them. Therein lies the value of asking questions about these things and formulating propositions: we can refine those questions and propositions. We can make them more internally consistent and we can make them better for us. The questions may not strictly have what Wittgenstein would call sense, but they do have some utility.


Can you be more sure of a separate entity's non-existence than you can be of your own existence?
November 29, 2010

Hmmm. I don’t think so. Descartes didn’t get much right, but he pretty much nailed it when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” You can approach pretty much everything with total skepticism regarding its existence. But you can’t perceive these things and think about them without acknowledging that there is some entity — called “you” — that is capable of thought and perception.

November 25, 2010

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. NYC. hdr
Image via Wikipedia

Posting will be light-to-nonexistent until Sunday or Monday, as I’m taking some time off in New York City, visiting friends and doing my best to avoid large parades. If you’re in the city and you want to grab a drink, hit me up.

What I’m thankful for isn’t the subject for just one short blog post, but I will say that I’m thankful for your continued indulgence as I return again and again to writing about the topics that mystify me the most. And I’m especially grateful for those of you whose insightful comments have made me slightly less mystified.

And lastly, I’m grateful for The Onion’s Turkey Day-themed humor. Thanks to Dara for pointing out a copy of Obama’s flowchart on the topic. I’m half-seriously thinking about critically analyzing it in a blog post.

Wittgenblogging: The Sixth Proposition, Part 1
November 24, 2010

I went into the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus expecting more or less what we’ve got over the last five propositions: a lengthy meditation on epistemology, philosophy of language, logic, and metaphysics (mostly how it doesn’t make any sense). What I didn’t expect: grand, zen-like pronouncements over the riddles of life and death. But in the latter half of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein goes there. Who woulda thunk that a proposition that starts with “The general form of a truth-function is [p, E, N(E)],”* would end with “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.”?

But we’ll get to that in the next post. The first portion of the sixth proposition is all about the role of logic and its relationship with mathematics and empirical science. Logic, Wittgenstein writes, is what gives everything else structure. There is nothing in the world that is outside logic because it is “the scaffolding of the world.” Elsewhere: “Logic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world. Logic is transcendental.”

As a result, there’s no need to demonstrate logic as a proposition. In fact, trying to do so doesn’t make any sense. “The propositions of logic are tautologies.” Remember when I brought up the Cartesian Circle? Turns out Descartes’ first mistake was trying to construct a proof demonstrating the validity of the only tool one can use to construct sensible proofs. “Clearly the laws of logic cannot in their turn be subject to laws of logic.” Logic is true but unprovable.

So logic is self-demonstrating and self-affirming. “It is the peculiar mark of logical propositions that one can recognize that they are true from the symbol alone,” Wittgenstein writes, “and this fact contains in itself the whole philosophy of logic.”

So what is math? Or physics? Wittgenstein writes that mathematics is “a method of logic.” Physics — mathematics and inductive reasoning applied to the physical world — “imposes a unified form on the description of the world.” Wittgenstein compares Newtonian mechanics to an attempt to measure the size of black blotches on a white surface by placing a grid-patterned mesh over the surface “and then saying of every square whether it is black or white. […] The form is optional, since I could have achieved the same result by using a net with a triangular or hexagonal mesh.”

As for causality and induction themselves, Wittgenstein seems to recognize their necessity while also expressing some skepticism. In Proposition 5, he wrote that there is no causal nexis — no metaphysical property that connects a cause to its effect. Here, he says that there is no “law of causality” (it is “the form of a law,” not a law itself), but that if there were, “it might be put the following way: There are laws of nature. But of course, that cannot be said: it makes itself manifest.” In this sense, it is like logical expressions and mathematical equations. “[W]hat the law of causality is meant to exclude cannot even be described.”

“The procedure of induction,” Wittgenstein writes, “consists in accepting as true the simplest law that can be reconciled with our experiences. […] This procedure, however, has no logical justification, but only a psychological one.” As an example, he adds: “It is an hypothesis that the sun will rise tomorrow: and this means that we do not know whether it will rise.”

Then he takes it a step further: “The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.” He compares this to the belief of prior generations about God and Fate. However, there is no necessity that makes these laws as “something inviolable”: “The only necessity that exists is logical necessity.” The laws of nature are the mesh, our rough approximation of what the world is. That we can use it with some reliability to extrapolate what the world will be does not mean that we have stumbled upon eternally unyielding principles.

I’m going to stop here, before Wittgenstein gets into ethics, aesthetics, mysticism, and the other seemingly transcendental vagaries of the human condition. That’s a whole other epistemological clusterfuck, and I will do my best to tackle it soon. Probably after Thanksgiving weekend.

*And no, I don’t really know what that means either. Did I mention that I just barely passed my First-Order Logic class?

Dealing with the DPRK
November 23, 2010

Topographic map of South Korea. Created with G...

Given that I’m very far from an expert on East Asian politcs — and that North Korea is the most opaque nation on the planet — I recognize a certain need to tread very carefully when it comes to commenting on the state’s recent behavior. But just arguing for the opposite of whatever John Bolton says has never failed me before, and his recommendation that America attempt to reunify the Korean peninsula seems particularly ill-advised, even for him.

If the World Bank’s estimates are to be believed, the North Korea’s population is roughly half that of South Korea’s. Despite that, the Democratic People’s Republic is unable to properly feed its citizens, to the point where roughly a third of the population is malnourished (including half of the country’s children).

No denying that this is an outrage. But toppling the North Korean regime and trying to create one unified Korea would only pass the humanitarian crisis to South Korea — a government that I doubt has the economic capacity to absorb millions of starving people. All any attempt at forced reunification would do is make an already unstable situation even more so.

Seems to me that the Obama administration is already taking the better approach here: leaning on China to encourage North Korean stability. Beijing is the predominant regional power, and the Council on Foreign Relations describes it as both “North Korea’s most important ally” and its “biggest trading partner.” Not only do they have more leverage over the DPRK, but they also have more to fear from regional instability.

(By the way: as far as last night’s especially erratic behavior from the DPRK goes, The Economist has the most plausible take I’ve seen. But who the hell knows for sure? As Donald Rumsfeld would say, this is a known unknown.)

Crossposted at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

Decision Points
November 22, 2010

DALLAS - NOVEMBER 09:  Former U.S. President G...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

In his review of Decision Points, George Packer writes that former President Bush “has no toleration for ambiguity”

he can’t revere his father and, on occasion, want to defy him, or lose charge of his White House for a minute, or allow himself to wonder if Iraq might ultimately fail. The structure of “Decision Points,” with each chapter centered on a key issue—stem-cell research, interrogation and wiretapping, the invasion of Iraq, the fight against AIDS in Africa, the surge, the “freedom agenda,” the financial crisis—reveals the essential qualities of the Decider. There are hardly any decision points at all. The path to each decision is so short and irresistible, more like an electric pulse than like a weighing of options, that the reader is hard-pressed to explain what happened. Suddenly, it’s over, and there’s no looking back.

No wonder, then, that Fox News continues to function as his in-house PR firm. The whole right-wing noise machine is oriented towards one thing: the promise of a wholly unambiguous world, with the evil elites on one side and the salt-of-the-earth forces of good on the other. Why, in a world like that, would historic decisions ever be difficult?

Torture Without Torturers
November 21, 2010

Via Andrew Price’s Twitter feed, an article on the psychology of the great American torture debate:

2009 study by Carlsmith and Sood delves into the motivations behind support for harsh interrogation techniques. They discovered that support levels for harsh interrogation techniques did not really correlate with conceptions of the efficacy of the techniques themselves.

“Those who support harsh interrogation make an a priori assumption that a detainee is guilty of some heinous act (e.g., killing U.S. troops), and is therefore deserving of harsh treatment,” Carlsmith explains, but “those who oppose harsh interrogation, by contrast, entertain the possibility of detainee innocence, and thus reject the notion that the detainee deserves harsh treatment.” Carlsmith emphasizes that “both groups seek the same outcome — namely, that the detainee receive his just desserts; the main difference is in the “assumptions they make about the initial moral status of the detainee.”

Carlsmith’s research helps in understanding the division between Americans on the topic of torture, where a majority of Americans support harsh interrogation even while a sizeable minority opposes it. “I’m trying to understand how reasonable people can reach diametrically opposed position on seemingly fundamental moral issues,” he says. “In the case of torture-interrogation, both sides are seeking to be moral. The difference is that those who support torture focus on the detainee’s past (immoral) behavior, while those who oppose it don’t.”

It strikes me that there’s another dimension to this as well, though. I don’t have the research to back this up — though hopefully Carlsmith and Sood, or others, might do some further studying — but the people I’ve encountered who defend America’s torture regime either deny the amount of pain inflicted or categorically refuse to classify it as “torture,” or both. There’s also a distinct separation and depersonalization at work here, not just with regard to the detainees, but also to the torturers themselves. For all the talk about “giving the military the authority to do what they have to do,” and so on, we lose the main point about whose responsibility this is: ours. This is still a republic, and if we sanction members of our government to torture others without legal consequences, then the onus falls on us.

I think this changes the context of the debate significantly. Defenders of torture are willing to stand alongside authority figures who, presumably in the interests of their safety, commit unspeakable acts. But are these defenders willing to assume responsibility for the acts themselves? The less we allow them to hide behind abstraction, the better.

IR School
November 19, 2010

So as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been taking a deeper interest in international relations lately. It’s something I’ve always tried to keep an eye on, and I’d say I have a rudimentary grasp of it, but I’m looking to dig deeper. Basically, having missed out on IR in college, I’m trying to do a post-collegiate extra-curricular IR major.

That’s going to involve a lot of reading. I’m already reading Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and a bunch of blogs committed to the subject, so what I need now are book recommendations. Sergio, we can check off the list. Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy is another one I intend to read.* What else?

*OBVIOUS BUT NONETHELESS WORTH REPEATING DISCLAIMER: Reading and trying to learn from the words of a war criminal does not equal an endorsement of his actions or world view.

A “Total Miscarriage of Justice”
November 18, 2010

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani
Image via Wikipedia

That’s how incoming House homeland security chair Pete King described the Ghailani trial. Ghailani (pictured) was, of course, found guilty on only one of the 285 charges brought against him, and consequentially got off with a light slap on the wrist: twenty years to life imprisonment.

So why did the prosecution wind up with such a poor batting average? In part, because the evidence was contaminated by the Bush administration’s illegal torture policy:

Ghailani was waterboarded, i.e. tortured, into revealing his relationship with Hussein Abebe, who in turn provided the most damaging testimony against Ghailani.

As FDL perceptively wrote, it is possible that Abebe’s own testimony against Ghailani was itself coerced.

On Oct. 5, Judge Lewis Kaplan [pdf] excluded Abebe’s testimony, on the grounds that it was a a fruit of a poisonous tree, i.e. was only available to the prosecution because Bush had had Ghailani tortured (and maybe had had Abebe tortured, as well!)

That was why Ghailani could not be convicted of murder, as he from all accounts ought to have been. Had his connection to Abebe been discovered by ordinary questioning or by good police work, then the latter could have freely taken the witness stand. In fact, it seems to me very likely that Abebe would in fact have been discovered in other ways– from the record, e.g., of Ghailani’s cell phone calls, or even just from his own account of his activities.

So the court excluded evidence that was maintained illegally, but still condemned a guilty man to a very long stay in prison. Actually, it sounds like the criminal justice system acquitted itself fairly well in this case, no? If anything, the injustice here is that the people who ordered Ghailani’s torture — which, remember, made him harder to prosecute — won’t be brought up on charges themselves.

But that’s not how King sees it. The same Guardian article I linked to above says:

Congress must approve any transfer of Guantánamo Bay prisoners to US soil, something King said would never happen now his party held sway in the legislature after the midterm elections: “They couldn’t come close to getting that done when the Democrats were in charge. There’s no way they’re going to get it now that Republicans are in charge.”

This can’t be repeated often enough: King’s grievance isn’t regarding the legitimacy of the trial, but that a legitimate trial reached an outcome he doesn’t like. To him, torture is a lesser injustice than the inadmissibility of “evidence” that was extracted by torture.

And his solution is to compound injustice on top of injustice, and move to block any attempt to transfer detainees from Guantanamo to U.S. soil. That means that the Obama administration is left to either prosecute them through military tribunals (see here for why that’s a really bad idea) or let them molder in a cell without charges indefinitely, as they plan to do to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Sadly, I doubt they’ll even put up a fight.

Crossposted at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

Wittgenblogging: The Fifth Proposition
November 17, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein 2
Image by Christiaan Tonnis via Flickr

Way back in my post on the second proposition (which, wow, was over a month ago — I didn’t realize Peter and I had been Wittgenblogging for that long), I asked whether or not Wittgenstein believed that a priori reasoning was possible. In the proposition 5.133, we finally get an answer: “All deductions are made a priori.”

But that’s hardly Wittgenstein’s most interesting assertion as we near the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Now that he’s thoroughly laid the groundwork for his conception of logic, he’s starting to go further out on a limb regarding its implications. For example, I don’t really know what to make of this section:

5.541 At first sight it looks as if it were also possible for one proposition to occur in another in a different way. Particularly with certain forms of proposition in psychology, such as ‘A believes that p is the case’ and ‘A has the thought p’, etc. For if these are considered superficially, it looks as if the proposition p stood in some kind of relation to an object A. (And in modern theory of knowledge (Russell, Moore, etc.) these propositions have actually be construed in this way.)

5.542 It is clear, however, that ‘A believes that p’, ‘A has the thought p’, and ‘A says p’ are of the form ‘“p” says p’: and this does not involve a correlation of a fact with an object, but rather the correlation of facts by means of the correlation of their objects.

5.5421 This shows too that there is no such thing as the soul — the subject, etc. — as it is conceived in the superficial psychology of the present day. Indeed a composite soul would no longer be a soul.

I’ve puzzled over this as much as anything else in the Tractatus, and I still can’t quite figure it out. I think he’s arguing that the subject I is the sum of my beliefs and thoughts, and not a different entity that produces and possesses those thoughts. Since the soul is supposed to be one unified entity, distinguishable and discrete from those beliefs and thoughts, it’s a linguistically incoherent concept. This reading is born out in 5.631, in which Wittgenstein says: “There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas.”

So what is the self? Wittgenstein calls it “the limit of the world.” It is the one thing that we cannot speak of, and since “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” that means it is not a part of that world. Wittgenstein again: “You will say that this is exactly like the case of the eye and the visual field. But really you do not see the eye. And nothing in the visual field allows you to infer that it is seen by an eye.” Similarly, nothing in our thoughts allow us to infer that they are being thought by a self.

Unless I’m grievously misreading here, Wittgenstein’s interpretation of the mind-body problem actually lends some credence to Sartre’s conception of a division between being-for-itself and being-in-itself (which I’ve previously argued for as the criteria by which to separate persons from non-persons). I think Sartre sees this as actual metaphysical categories, which is a bridge too far for me, but I think Wittgenstein might join me in comfortably describing the difference between -for-itself and -in-itself as a meaningful phenomenological distinction.

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