Philosophy and practice

I have always placed politics, a term that subsumes everything that has to do with society and human relations, above everything else when it comes to philosophy. This was true when I wasn’t aware of the complexities inherent in philosophy, and its true today. Meaning, whatever comes out of philosophical contemplation should add something good to our knowledge of society, and should tell us how society should be structured. That’s what investigations into metaphysics, epistemology and ethics should aim at. If men lived alone without ever meeting each other or making use of each other’s ideas and labor, we could simply stop at ethics. But that is not what mankind is all about.

Because of this bias of mine, my interest in metaphysics and epistemology (I will comment on ethics some other time) is limited to their use in combating irrationalism and absurdism. That is their only practical use. And its here that much of what is done in these fields disappoints. Philosophers debate on things that don’t seem to have any connection with reality. Some believe that consciousness creates reality, some believe that the universe and consciousness are one and the same, some believe only consciousness exists, some deny that there is any such thing as cause and effect, some take pride in saying that we are all irrational and so on. You could try to keep all this aside declaring them to be the ravings and rantings of mad men, but that isn’t likely. All these ideas soon find their way into ethics, politics and even science. Einstein was influenced by Hume, the philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell contributed to the anti-metaphysics philosophy of logical positivism, and you will find similar influences everywhere. Its up to the individual to see if his ideas correspond to reality or are plain flights of fancy. Lots of obviously bright people don’t bother. So, instead of providing a foundation for a sane ethics and politics, philosophy actually undermines the whole enterprise. King writes-

Many scientists who are exposed to philosophy come away with the realization that if their work were to be attempted within the muddy, vague, and contradictory intellectual frame-of-reference of the philosophers, they would never achieve anything useful. So they simply abandon all philosophical considerations and confine their lives to the realm of clear, precise and meaningful scientific investigation. Thus it is that during the past 300 years the human race has gained an immense store of practical knowledge about the natural world while the philosophers are still struggling to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Steven Weinberg: “I know of no one who has participated actively in the advance of physics in the post-war period whose research has been significantly helped by the work of philosophers.”

Physicist Max Tegmark: “To tell you the truth, I think most of my colleagues are terrified of talking to philosophers – like being caught coming out of a pornographic cinema.”

The philosophers talk vague nonsense. At times their terms are so loosely defined that what they say cannot help but be partly true. Unfortunately, the sort of language that is admired by many philosophers does not, in fact, mean anything at all. All too often, they use language not as a means of communication but as a way to establish and defend an academic reputation. But there is nothing surprising here. In the mind of a professional philosopher rhetoric is always more important than reality. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in his mind rhetoric is reality.

On many occasions I have linked to material where philosophy is used as a cover for nonsense. Newspapers, and even science journals seem to enjoy defying common sense. But all this does have an effect. It breeds irrationality; even seemingly rational people who don’t have an expertise in either a specific field of philosophy or one of the sciences can be baffled by some pronouncements. The public reaction to the financial crisis is proof of the dangers of bad ideas. They don’t understand cause and effect. They conflate the “capacity to be rational” with the “necessarily rational” or worse, omniscience and infallibility. Kooks fanned the flames, and people went berserk blaming the wrong “cause.” The public always gets what it wants, or it can be made to follow kooky ideas. Nazism, Communism and Fascism are proof enough.

There are a few reasons behind my writing all this. Among them is an anti-Rand article* written by Michael Shermer. The article is only significant because of another article by its author. As I said, I have written quite a few posts on metaphysics and how some people use relativity and quantum mechanics to spin theories which suit their view of the universe. These theories together, or at least their various “interpretations,” have in some way, shaken metaphysics and epistemology. In one post, I called it quantum mysticism. Though I know what it is I was describing, I didn’t know that there is a wikipedia article on that term. And the Shermer article I refer to labels such mystical interpretations as “quantum quackery”

[What the #$*! is going on here?]’s avatars are New Age scientists whose jargon-laden sound bites amount to little more than what California Institute of Technology physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann once described as “quantum flapdoodle.” University of Oregon quantum physicist Amit Goswami, for example, says in the film: “The material world around us is nothing but possible movements of consciousness. I am choosing moment by moment my experience. Heisenberg said atoms are not things, only tendencies.” Okay, Amit, I challenge you to leap out of a 20-story building and consciously choose the experience of passing safely through the ground’s tendencies.

The work of Japanese researcher Masaru Emoto, author of The Hidden Messages in Water, is featured to show how thoughts change the structure of ice crystals–beautiful crystals form in a glass of water with the word “love” taped to it, whereas playing Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” causes other crystals to split in two. Would his “Burnin’ Love” boil water?

The film’s nadir is an interview with “Ramtha,” a 35,000-year-old spirit channeled by a woman named JZ Knight. I wondered where humans spoke English with an Indian accent 35,000 years ago. Many of the films’ participants are members of Ramtha’s “School of Enlightenment,” where New Age pabulum is dispensed in costly weekend retreats.

The attempt to link the weirdness of the quantum world to mysteries of the macro world (such as consciousness) is not new. The best candidate to connect the two comes from University of Oxford physicist Roger Penrose and physician Stuart Hameroff of the Arizona Health Sciences Center, whose theory of quantum consciousness has generated much heat but little light.

Another article with the same name, this one by physicist Victor Stenger, is available here.

(As if to prove that there are various opinions when it comes to the interpretations of verifiable facts, a professor of psychology, Hameroff, above, critiques Shermer’s article.)

Alan Sokal, a physicist and mathematician, actually managed to get a bucketful of quantum c**p published in an academic journal – the Sokal affair. People have no clue, and they are ready to sacrifice reason at the first sight of some unknown quantity, or worse at the sight of it supporting their viewpoint. Now I know why people believed eclipses were caused by demons and dragons. Sometimes, it pays to be a skeptic. There are some philosophical positions that deny that we are bound by real laws external to us. Sokal, just like Shermer above, has something to say on it-

Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)

I could link to a few more articles similar to those above, but it would be the same ideas expressed differently. Just one more though. This one, by a usual suspect, too is responsible for the post-

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg famously said: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

The first question that springs to mind is, if the universe is pointless — as in being a random or one-off event — then why should it seem comprehensible? Because anything comprehensible has to have a point to it.

He’s playing word games. Comprehension relates to knowledge, pointlessness to judgment. I could understand how a particular machine works, but I could still think that the machine serves no purpose.

Mises was one person whom Rand quoted quite approvingly in her political works. But given her position on ethics (ethical objectivism), and epistemology (all knowledge is derived from experience; there exists no a priori knowledge), I doubt if she approved of his ethics (utilitarianism) or his epistemological position on economics (praxeological knowledge is a priori in nature). The debate on a priori vs. a posteriori knowledge is a very interesting one. Because I simply don’t get how it is relevant. The only danger I can see of conceding that some knowledge can be a priori in nature is – such knowledge would not have been “filtered” through reason and anyone could come in and declare anything as a priori. One fellow did do it. Immanuel Kant. In his “Critique of Pure Reason,” he said that space, time, causality etc are known a priori. Not only that, they exist only in your mind. The world we experience is not the real world. We cannot know the “real” real world. Even his ethics is a priori in nature. I guess you could refute all his claims. But does the possibility that someone like Kant could come around and kill philosophy mean that one should not grant the possibility that some knowledge can be a priori in nature? Keep the door open rather than slamming it shut? This is an epistemological debate, one among many. I am writing about this because I recollect the chapter on “epistemological studies” in Mises’ “Memoirs.” It’s worth reading in its entirety, but I will quote the most important part. Mises writes-

The principles of logic are said to be arbitrarily chosen conventions that have proven themselves practical or useful. Viewed in this way, one is only postponing the problem without bringing it any closer to resolution. One may claim that man has tried various arbitrarily chosen rules and, in the end, has held fast to those that have proven themselves effective. But in terms of what purpose did these rules appear effective? If this is the question posed, then one has arrived again at the problem of intellectual mastery of worldly things, and at the problems of explication and truth. For this reason it is also futile to attempt to solve the problems of truth through an appeal to usefulness.

Since these principles of logic were arrived at arbitrarily, could one just as easily have chosen other principles, if their effectiveness were the same in terms of purpose? No, certainly not. The basic relations used by logic to link statements are necessary to and inseparable from human thought; irreconcilable relations are unimaginable. The category of negation is not arbitrarily chosen; it is necessary to thought. No thought can dispense with it. Even if we wanted to assume that the distinction between yes and no were a product won by experience, or that once arbitrarily established proved itself through experience, one has not yet refuted the contention that, logically, the ability to comprehend yes and no must precede all thought.

The basic assumptions of logic have been called the rules of the game. But what must be added is that this game is our life: we are born into this game and must play as long as we live; for man there is no second game with a different set of rules.

Praxeology’s special calling is to reveal the fallacies of conventionalism, as it does not adhere to the cult of the word “purpose.” The purpose of action is to attain success in the world that is our environment. Adjusting to the conditions of this world and its order is therefore expedient in any case. If the human mind can give birth to rules of the game that are useful in this adjustment, then only two explanations remain open: either there is something in our minds that belongs to the environment and permits us to understand it—an a priori; or the environment plies our minds with rules that enable us to deal with it. In no case is there room for arbitrariness and convention. Logic is either active within us or effected within us. It affects the world through us, or the world affects us through it. Logic is the stuff of the world, of reality, and of life.

It is not at all obvious what is to be achieved by doggedly contesting the a priori. Even if we were to assume that experience leads us to comprehension of the category of means and ends, the question remains open: what is in us that allows for experience at all, and indeed, such experience wherein a different outcome appears plainly absurd? What sense does it make to claim to have gained this knowledge through experience when we cannot boast of other outcomes to which other experiences could have led? When I say that experience has shown A to be red, it is meaningful in that our minds could have also recognized another outcome. But if it were said that experience had led us to the category of negation or that of means and ends? This is senseless; what, then, could other experiences have taught us?

The same is true of conventionalism. What other rules of the game could take the place of logical principles or the praxeological concept of action? One could play a game that differs from a standard game of chess in that one of its rules is replaced by another arbitrarily chosen one. But can one “play” with thinking that does not distinguish between yes and no? If this question is answered in the negative, then it is plain to see that the nature of this difference is one that deviates from the rules of the game. Here, again, we encounter the inescapable a priori.

There are a lot of things which you may not be able to classify as right or wrong unless you understand the “rules of the game,” the subject matter. You can, once you do. When I think about it, I realize that a lot of it starts with imitation. One then slowly “understands” what one is doing. That is the role experience plays in knowledge. But does everything come from experience? I don’t think I can answer that conclusively, not yet.

K.M. makes the distinction between the faculty of reason, and the product of reason, between logic, and knowledge. He writes-

I believe that the mind is built with the capacity to use logic, but not with the knowledge of the laws of logic. This is a subtle point. What I am saying is that the mind has an inbuilt ability to determine whether something makes sense. But active effort is required to use this ability. And further effort is required to identify why it makes sense. Men obviously have been using logic for millenia. But it took Aristotle to identify the laws of logic. The operation of the laws of logic is part of the nature of the mind but the knowledge of the laws of logic is not. It takes active effort to grasp the laws of logic – to realize that when something “makes sense”, it is because that something is consistent with the laws of logic. The faculty that is capable of doing this grasping is reason. Man is born with the faculty of reason. But it is the use of reason that results in knowledge.

I won’t say I disagree with this point of view. But then, as Mises says, the thoughts “2 * 2 = 4” and “2 * 2 = 5” are different; one of them is obviously right and the other is obviously wrong. Unlike Kant, I don’t claim that mathematical knowledge is a priori in nature. But surely the “making sense” exists within our brain. And thus, we hit a brick wall, the unknown quantity – the mind. Consciousness.

Brand Blanshard, another philosopher who Rand is supposed to have respected, a rationalist and epistemological idealist fought against a string of anti-reason philosophies through his works. On the argument, its a Schopenhauer-like one, that man’s reason is subservient to his instincts etc, he writes

[T]hought, we are told, is under constraint from within. It reflects, not the outward pattern of things, but our hidden loves and hates, desires and fears. In The Future of an Illusion Freud explained religious belief as due to the persistence of the infantile need for a father. According to Westermarck, what is expressed by our moral judgments is no character in the act, but our emotional attractions and repulsions. In a recent book a distinguished psychologist, Professor Holt, has written: “The entire history of philosophy is little else than a tiresome and futile series of pictures in which each philosopher has imagined what he most yearned to have in his own ‘best of all possible worlds’. This,” he adds, “is levity.” Such skepticism about reason, though anything but new, has perhaps never been more popular and more formidably supported than in recent years. What are we to say of it?

The first thing that we must say of it is a commonplace. It is that if the argument is pushed through and made general, nothing further is called for; like so many other attacks on reason, it disposes of itself. If it is true that we are always governed by non-rational pulls; then of course our conclusion that we are so governed is also produced by non-rational pulls. But if it is, why should it have more respect than any of the other illusions produced by such pulls? Surely the attempt to prove by rational processes that rational processes are irrational is the last irrationality.

Kant wasn’t the only one who used a priori to attack reason; the logical positivists did it too, they rode in along with Kant. But then I am digressing. (BTW, how much of all that i have written till now has any direct relation to real problems, to “practice”?) I bring Blanshard in because of his writing on the nature of the mind.

Mental activity is the sort of activity everywhere whose reach exceeds its grasp. So far as is now known, human beings top the scale; but when a man makes a choice––say of one action rather than another as the right one––can he give any adequate account of why he chooses it? Quite possibly he could take a step or two ahead; he wanted to better his business or home or income. But if pressed as to why he wanted this, and why he wanted the further end that this in turn subserved, he would soon falter. This does not imply that his choice is unwise, or even that it is not firmly guided; the saint who has the surest sort of practical judgment may cut a very poor figure when he philosophizes on ultimate good. But we may go much further than this. Even in our clearest cases of purposive action, there is a large element of this mysterious kind of end-seeking. When a philosopher philosophizes, he is trying to solve a problem, and he is anyone should know what he is about. Does he? The Greeks had a dilemma for it: If the man who seeks after truth knows what he wants, there is no use seeking, for he has it already; and if doesn’t know what he wants, he won’t recognize it when he finds it. Their answer to this puzzle, of course, was that he may know in general what he wants without knowing in detail, and that this general end is enough to guide his search and check it. The answer is sound so far as it goes. But need even this general end be explicit? And whether it is or not, how can so vague and end exert a control so firm and precise over the course of its realization?

I won’t quote the rest, I will only say that according to him, the functioning of the mind is a teleological process, a purposive one. And he thinks that in the end, all cognition is conation (volition, the COED defines it).

If the world has to make any sense, if ethics and politics have to be possible, if life has to be possible, metaphysics and epistemology have to come to a conclusion in which rational people inhabit an intelligible world. For if one concludes that people are irrational, its obvious that neither morality nor politics is possible. If one concludes that there are some things beyond reason, one gives every kook the license to spout any theory and claim that we can’t understand it, we have to “believe” it. If one concludes that the world doesn’t operate according to a particular knowable set of rules, its workings cannot be modeled, howsoever crudely, into a theory or a law, why bother with anything? But all these problems don’t seem to disturb philosophers. They surely would not live their lives according to their theories. I am sure someone who says that consciousness creates reality does not believe that he created his wife. And I am sure that someone who says cause and effect do not exist will duck when I hurl a rock at his head. As King writes-

I am reminded of the story of the Logical Positivist who gave a lecture on why the word “God” is meaningless, then asked for directions to the nearest synagogue so he could say his prayers. “What has philosophy got to do with living?” he asked indignantly.

That’s why after thousands of years of civilization, while man has improved his knowledge of the world, and his standard of living many times over, philosophy is still stagnating in the jungles of Africa. For someone who is interested in politics, and to a lesser extent ethics, nonsensical metaphysics and epistemology is a huge hurdle. They do not offer any practical help in determining hows and whys, but they have the ability to destroy all sense of reason.

* This one. His position is quite similar to the one taken by Huemer, I think – both are what you can refer to as pro-free market, rational libertarians, and both have problems with some aspects of her philosophy. Read it if you haven’t. I came across this one through a site that had a post on “deprogramming” where a comment accused Rand and Mises of bastardizing libertarianism. I guess if people don’t believe that there are some inviolable rights that humans possess, those who do believe that become some kind of “zealots.” The only thing I can tell such folks is – believe what you want to believe, but don’t force it on me.

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  • K. M.  On July 2, 2009 at 2:14 am

    Your posts are an easy way for me to get some understanding of many philosophers’ views, that I would never bother to read myself. Thanks. I am amazed that you get the time to read so much and also write about it.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On July 2, 2009 at 3:35 am

      A lot of it is because of Copleston. His multi-volume History of Philosophy is a great secondary source on the ideas of various philosophers, and quotations. It helps you budget your time, decide which philosopher is worth pursuing a little bit more. I have been at it for about six years now, in bits and pieces. Also not to forget the two online encyclopedias on philosophy – SEP and IEP.

      There are very few philosophers who I have read first hand – a lot of Rand, a bit of Aristotle, Kant and Schopenhauer, and more recently Blanshard. I hope to improve my score within the next few years.

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