One of the most amazing things that every human does (in fact every animal with eyes (probably)) is figure out how to see.
Now I can’t remember the time before I learned to see – or rather before I learnt to make any sense out of what I saw – but I’m reasonably certain that we’re not born with the idea of 3-dimensional space. The effect the game of peek-a-boo has on babies is evidence of this. If the child had a sense of 3-d space as developed as that of an adult it would not be fooled into thinking that an object had disappeared because it was covered by another object. This indicates a progressive creation of the concept of space.
Think about what it actually is that you see. You don’t see 3 dimensional objects. What you see are a load of 2 dimensional shapes. As you move these shapes undergo geometric transformations such as reflection, stretching, increase/decrease in size and change of shape. We make sense of all these transformations through the concept of 3 dimensional space. In effect what we see (the 2-dimensional image) is a representation of reality (which may or may not be 3-d) and what we experience is a 3 dimensional represention of a 2 dimensional representation of reality (or something).
Imagine yourself in the position of the baby before it has even created this concept. What evidence/information does it have to go on? We wouldn’t be able to conceive of such things as are represented by the sentence “When I move my neck the shapes undergo so and so transformation.” Rather we would be limited to saying things like “When I have a certain sensation then the shapes I see undergo so and so transformation”. This is because the concept “moving my neck” presupposes the concept of 3-d space.
The amazing thing is that out of this famine of information babies create the concept 3-dimensional space that makes sense of so many disparate elements. Not only visual elements but it brings into one cohesive whole touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. I mean think about; it’s awesome! It makes what Einstein did seem paltry.
A similar puzzle is how does a baby learn language?
“The mental process of choosing is the function that we call “free will”.”
“The belief that free will is only an illusion leads to bad moral results.”
The two quotes above are from my friend who i’ve been debating on this issue of free-will.
Let me deal with the first quote in light of what I said in my previous blog.
So this guy wants to say that the act of choosing is the content of the term “Free-will”. All well and good but what about the question of why we choose what we choose? Does calling choice free-will make answering that question any easier? Also why make up another term when we already have a perfectly good one (choice)?
Of course many people sloppily equate choice with free-will. In fact this has been the means by which many people have dishonestly convinced people that they have free-will in the traditional sense of the term.
Let’s flesh out the traditional definition of free-will.
Free-will is a theory of choice. That is to say it is attempting to explain why we make the choices we make and what is happening during choice making.
Free-will states that choice is autonomous. This means that choice is something independent of the causal framework within which everything else operates. A good example to elucidate this further is to imagine two worlds exactly alike. If free-will were true then a person could make a different choice in one world to the other without changing anything else apart from the choice. This means that if you were to ask him why he made the choice he would give the same answer in both worlds despite making two different choices.
Free-will states that the choice is under the control of the individual who makes the choice. The definition above is what seperates free-will from determinism and this principle is what seperates free-will from chaos/randomness.
By calling free-will choice what do we call the possibility above? It seems to me that by doing this we make ourselves blind to part of the conceptual land-scape that surrounds the issue of choice.
Why would someone want to do this? The answer is given in the second quote. It is a technique of social engineering. In the past people were controlled by the idea that they were responsible (another term the compatabilist has tried to manipulate away from its original and common meaning) for their actions. This responsibility rested upon a belief in free-will. The compatabilist is trying to take the authority and social benefits that seemed to result from belief in free-will and keep them whilst maintaining determinism. To do this he’s trying to change the content of the term in academic circles in the hopes that the masses – who don’t really look into things – will say amongst themselves “Did you hear the universities say free-will and determinism are not contradictory?”.
This of course will make the normal man think he is stupid because the idea of free-will he has in his head is imcompatible with determinism yet authorative people in suits with degrees are saying otherwise.
This process should be familiar to anyone who has read George Orwell’s “1984” it is the process of double-speak.
How are we to define a word?
Words are like tools, very flexible tools. The definition of a word changes dependent upon the use we put it to.
For example take the term “free-will”.
I have had a few exchanges with a fellow blogger about what free-will is. It’s funny because we both agree that determinism is true, that it is the explanation for choice. That is to say we both believe that choices are pre-determined. But we differ on the issue of free-will. I say we do not have free-will and he says we do have free-will.
The common conception of free-will is opposed to determinism. In fact one of the oldest debates in philosophy is the debate between free-will and determinism. So how can my friend maintain that free-will is true and determinism is true? With a certain amount of dishonesty. Or maybe not… maybe we are playing different games.
The game I am playing is one in which I am attempting to create a represention of the conceptual space. That is to say I am trying to understand, or rather enumerate in language what it is possible to conceive. I’m not so concerned with the truth or not of a proposition/concept whilst playing this game; rather I’m concerned with its intelligibility, with whether or not it does work as a concept.
What do I mean by work here? Well using the word free-will I will show what I mean by work. The work “Free-will” does is to express an area within the conceptual space called choice. The question: Why do we choose what we choose? Has three possible categories of answer. One is determinism: we choose what we choose because we are acting within a framework of causality and what has gone before determines what actions we will take. Another is free-will: our actions are based on our choices which aren’t based on anything – or rather the way they work is incomprehensible because we think only in terms of causality and something that isn’t causal isn’t capable of being represented with causal terms. The third way is chaos: our choices are undetermined and random. So here the work free-will does is to provide a space for a 3rd category of answer to the question: why do we choose what we choose?
To Be Continued….
I’ve noticed similarities between the individual act/session of meditation (micro) and the way in which mindfulness – combined with meditation – effects me in my day to day life (macro).
So during a session of meditation I’ve found it goes through phases. When I first sit down, close my eyes and start paying attention to my anchor there’s a tug of war between activity and non-activity. There will be a sensation of boredom which manifests itself as a restlessness and inability to maintain contact with the anchor for extended periods of time. During this phase I have to have faith that the process – the method – will cause this to subside.
A similar thing occurs when one first begins to practice mindfulness. It seems a bit silly. The mind is so used to nattering on all the time, to trying to solve your problems. You’re so used to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure and a deep almost subconscious part of you believes that the mental activity you have engaged in in pursuit of contentment is the only way to that end. So you need to have faith in the method of mindfulness at first. You have to give it a go so to speak.
After an indefinite period of time in meditation you find that your mind calms down. A thought will pop up, you’ll be “hooked” by it into diverting your gaze and after a period you will realize you’ve been hooked and just pay attention to your anchor again. The time you spend paying attention to your anchor will increase the calmer you get. The longer you stay in this place the calmer you become. But I noticed that this period would last for a time and then the mind would start getting busier again. And it goes round in cycles.
The same with mindfulness. In my life there are periods of time – sometimes weeks sometimes days – where i’m in a constant state of peace. It’s almost as if i’m not doing anything; it’s all happening by itself. But then I’ll get interested in stuff again and as a result I become slower at realizing I’m not being mindful which makes me less peaceful.
What do we mean when we say we understand something?
I don’t believe that understanding is a lingual thing. It may be true that we can come to an understanding by looking at a load of sentences about something but the understanding itself is not any particular sentence or even group of sentences.
For example take the concept osmosis. When I was attempting to understand this process there was a time when I knew the sentence “Osmosis is the movement of water from a high concentration to a low concentration via a semi-permeable membrane” and didn’t understand osmosis and a time when I knew the sentence and did understand osmosis. What was different in those two cases?
It could be that there is an empirical world which the sentences are about. In fact I believe most sentences are about the empirical world (“The sun is bright”, “I heard that Ethan loves daisy” etc). So it may be that one understands a sentence when one is able to correctly identify the empirical reality it is about. The problem here is that this is not really understanding; but a test to find out if someone understands. So what is the test measuring? Of course we can just be operational about it and say “It’s measuring nothing but the capacity to answer such questions correctly”. But this fails because it’s just produced another unknown – capacity – in the place of understanding. They’re both the same thing so all this does is complicate things.
In the case of osmosis this may be an internal image that shows the movement of water from a high concentration to a low concentration via a semi-permeable membrane. But there is a problem. When I was attempting to learn this concept I remember seeing videos that showed this and again there was a time when I had seen this video and not understood the concept.
In a way this makes sense because what’s the difference between a sentence and an image? Are they not both a kind of language? Do they not both carry information? Could they not both be seen as symbolic?
Currently I think that understanding is nothing other than an internal conviction. It is a feeling the content of which is “I get this” that then gives us confidence (maybe license is more apposite) to manipulate symbols and information. In fact you may have this conviction without really understanding what you think you understand.
Understanding doesn’t really have any real content as such because it is a judgement concerning content. It is a something that occurs between a subject and an object. It may correspond to a certain neurological state – say a certain part of the brain may light up once something is understood – but nevertheless be a purely structural phenomenon.
Just as there are no convincing arguments for the existence of a thing outside of experience that causes experience there are no convincing arguments for there not being a thing outside of experience causing experience. It’s quite ironic that one of the most basic of claims (that there is a reality external to and independent of us) turns out to be metaphysical! That is metaphysical in the sense that the logical positivists and empiricists meant the term: something that is outside of experience and therefore unknowable.
I believe it is because of things like this that a lot of the popular scientists (such as Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson) denigrate philosophy. They don’t want to be caught with their pants down so to speak and the questions philosophy asks put them in this embarrasing predicament. Questions such as “What distinguishes between a scientific theory and a non-scientific theory (aka the problem of demarcation)?”, “If all propositions are verified via experience what can we do to proove there is a reality independent of experience that causes experience?” and “Why do you have experience and consistency as criteria for verification?” all show us that the scientist is just a man!
To talk about something significantly different…
There is the argument for the existence of an external reality that goes along the lines of “Well everyone believes this to be so! If we didn’t we’d murder people and all sorts!”. First I don’t believe this is the default opinion. It may appear to be the default opinion in the west but there are many eastern traditions in which people from very young ages will express the belief that appearance is an illusion that hides nothing. The so called “Default position” is really just an expression of social conditioning! It’s the same with common-sense; common-sense is different in different cultures because it is nothing but the sub-conscious opinions people pass on to one another. It is common sense in England not to poo in your water source; in some lesser-developed countries there are huge campaigns to get people to stop shitting in their drinking water! For example!
As to the idea that people would behave immorally if they didn’t believe that what they experienced was caused by something indepentant of them that’s clearly falsified by the hundreds of thousands of prison inmates most of whom would declare their belief in an external reality and scorn the very idea of questioning such a thing.
Is there a reality that causes our experience? If so how can we come to know it?
There have been numerous naïve responses to these questions in the past. Most of these responses I believe come from an almost religious zeal on the part of certain academic practitioners who wish to present themselves to the laity as an authority. This in turn was probably encouraged by political powers who wished to supplant the legitimacy religious institutions gave them in the eyes of the laity with a new legitimacy based upon a certain formulation of reason.
One of these responses was the famous response by Samuel Johnson (the dude who wrote the dictionary!). I think he was talking about Hume when he kicked a stone and said “I refute him thus!” Now I don’t believe for a second that Johnson was an idiot but I must believe this if I am to believe he meant that statement seriously.
Basically the question: Do the feelings which comprise my experience come from “outside”?
A troglodyte could see that you cannot give as evidence for the claim “Yes they do!” feelings you have or have had. This is because the question concerns the origin of those feelings.
There is another stupid response to this question. That is “I know my experience is caused by something beyond it because other people confirm what I experience. I say I see an apple and you say you see an apple therefore there is an apple independent of us that causes our individual sensations!” This is stupid because firstly how do you know there is another individual beside you? I mean this is a problem even if we suppose there is a reality independent of us! How are any of us to know that someone else is conscious like us? What test can we do? There are none!!!! So to use as evidence something that requires more support than the thing we are using it to prove is inane.
The most intellectually honest affirmative answer to this question is: “There must be a cause for experience beyond experience because of the nature of nothing. Experience cannot come from nothing.” But even this is extending a law beyond its legitimate boundary. We discover that nothing comes from nothing through experience. That is to say that the law “nihilo ex nihil” is a proposition about experience. So the answer to the question “Do laws that hold in experience hold outside of experience?” becomes the foundation for the claim “Experience is caused by that which is not experience because nihilo ex nihil” I mean we have enough difficulty answering the question “Is there a reality outside of our experience?” let alone discovering the characteristics of this possible reality!
What is truth?
One idea for a definition of truth I have come across is that of a decision procedure for establishing truth. Well that instantly bifurcates truth but let us forget that for a bit.
According to this idea truth is a value that statements have. There is a reality out there so to speak. In fact that doesn’t have to assumed at all. All that has to be in order for this model of truth to work are two modes of presentation. In our case those modes are language and experience. So truth is – on the one hand – a set of criteria which we can use to decide whether or not a statement is true of what it is a statement about. We can generalize this and say that truth is a set of criteria which enables us to say of one instance of a mode of presentation that it is representing something in another mode of presentation.
To distinguish between these two “truths”. One is basically a short-hand for the proposition “This statement in this mode of presentation accurately represents something in this mode of presentation”. The other would be a set of propositions which enable to know whether or not you can make the afore-mentioned claim.
So here truth is merely a comparison between two modes of presentation.
The need for esteem – aka “Please like me” – is another of the big devices with which we are controlled. In fact I would lump it in the same group as guilt and shame. They may be different words but the physiological symptoms they point to – or if I want to be fancy (and I do) the phenomenological description they symbolize – is the same. They all represent for us the views and judgments with which others view us.
Now this opinion we have that determines what causes us to feel guilt, shame or that we are being disliked determines are actions. It makes us act in ways we may not want to act and it constrains us from behaving in ways we may want to behave.
The content of these feelings is something like this: “I best not do this because these people will not like me.” or “I should do this to make this person happy”. Where do we gain this information concerning people’s preferences? I don’t believe we get it from the people themselves. Though we may get part of this information from those people that we know I would argue that we get the majority of these opinions from social institutions such as the media, the educational systems, and the family we were unfortunate enough to be born into. That is to say: though you believe that your reticence to behave in a certain manner is born from the others opinion of you it really isn’t; it is born of your opinion of their opinion of you which is in its turn born of the social conditioning you have unwittingly received.
The media is probably the biggest culprit in this. It subtly and implicitly broadcasts a kind of social norm. It broadcasts the message “This is what is appropriate, this is what is cool, this is what every body likes” and the reason this message is so powerful is that it is never explicitly stated. Rather it’s implicit in the attitudes which the behavior of characters in shows portrays.
It is implicit in the statements celebrities make. In fact the very choice, the demarcation between who is a celebrity, who is a “popular” celebrity and who is not a “popular” celebrity is probably one of the most powerful tools of social engineering invented yet. This is because the media has you booing before you even consider what it is you are booing and this then slips so easily into the opinions expressed in your internal monologue which you don’t question! Which you think is you but is really just an amalgamation of all the influences you have suffered. Which is the voice that you think is you judging yourself according to your opinions but is really the internal representative you have constructed for yourself of the judgment of the outside world
“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” Isaiah 5:20
The common sense ideas of morality are committing the error stated above. A lot of them seem on the surface to be beautiful and good but in practice and once one has got under their surface they appear as they truly are: inimical to well-being and tools of coercion whereby the social structure is maintained.
A lot of the best classical literature concerns this theme. It takes what was seen as at the time common sense morality and shows through dramatic invention the imbecility and evil of that morality.
“The hunch-back of Notre-dame” by Victor Hugo shows this on so many levels. The main antagonists of the novel are a priest and a Knight both of which are obvious images of not only the eminent powers of the time but also of the eminent moral systems. The priest being a picture of religious piety and devotion and the knight being an image of that idea of morality called chivalry (the idea that one should hold the door open for the woman, and other such commandments that on the surface seem good and proper but once one digs one sees that they are nothing but a mechanism whereby the role of woman in society is secured).
I think it says something that Hugo has both these characters displaying intentions to use the gypsy princess – who here is an image of beauty, even pre-civilized and untamed beauty. That he has them acting maliciously towards her. Driven towards this behavior by a lust which masquerades as love. That the priest is driven furiously by this lust is especially telling! Hugo is showing how the moral structure that is Christianity causes the very actions and desires which it castigates. That in a sense this is necessary because in order for it to exist – as a means of redemption – it must create in its adherents guilt!
I think it says even more that Hugo has Quasimodo (the king of Fools!) as the hero of the story. Who despite being hated and ostracized by everyone never-the-less manages to retain a love that causes him to sacrifice himself to the dead gypsy princess. That he has what society as a whole has chucked away, has called worthless and evil, that he has this off-scouring of humanity play the most beautiful role in his story, and do the most commendable actions whilst having those that society applauds and reveres commit the most selfish and destructive acts is showing in a visceral way the way in which our common-sense notions of good and bad just don’t work!